The Coming Consciousness Explosion
Reframing the Emerging Socio-psycho-econo-techno-cultural Transformation...
Is the Singularity near? Is the Singularity here? How sudden, how Singular, will this “Singularity” event actually be?
To put it more seriously: How should we be thinking about the exponential technological acceleration and associated transformational social and psychological change our species is now experiencing — and the very different phase of history it’s leading towards?
The reality of accelerating progress in key science and technology areas is beyond sensible debate, and I won’t re-litigate that point here (see my Cosmist Manifesto, Kurzweil’s Singularity is Near, Broderick’s The Spike, Barrat’s Our Final Invention, etc. etc.). Yes, there are limits to current technology and yes, progress as regards forks and socks and curing depression and numerous other aspects of life has not been so exciting — but progress in AI, nanotech, biotech, robotics, communications and computing and networking (among other domains) is clearly following an exponential or hyperexponential path … and ongoing accelerating growth in these technologies will almost surely be enough to propel humanity into some sort of posthuman age.
What I want to talk about here is not whether such a transition is going to happen — I’m going to assume at least for sake of discussion that it IS — but rather what’s the best way to conceptualize the coming massive change. This is an important thing for multiple reasons, one being that the way we conceptualize the change is likely to significantly affect what kind of change we get — this is after all a transformation that is happening in large part via our own agency.
I’m going to advocate for conceiving the coming transformation as a Technological and Consciousness Shift — aka “Consciousness Explosion” — that will elevate both individual humans, transhuman minds of various sorts and society as a whole and its subnetworks into states of consciousness that are more advanced not only cognitively but spiritually. The Singularity as conceived by Kurzweil and Vinge will be a phase transition in a series of consciousness-shifts occurring concurrently at different paces on different levels in an overall process of expansion and growth. And this whole process is mostly likely to go well if the process of shifting consciousness in coordination with expanding technology is already richly occurring before the transition from narrow AI to AGI that is the hallmark of the “Singularity” phase-transition.
Metaphorizing the Coming Transformation
The notion of the “Technological Singularity'' is one way to talk about this transformation, and it’s a metaphor I’ve embraced in a big way, to the point of naming my blockchain-AI metaplatform company “SingularityNET.” Introduced by Vernor Vinge and popularized by Ray Kurzweil, the idea here is that, at some not too distant point in the future, the rate of technological and scientific progress is going to become so rapid that from a human perspective it will feel essentially infinitely fast. Imagine new Nobel Prize worthy discoveries and new categories of technology being invented 50x per second — meaning there would be no possible way for a human-level mind to keep up. The pace at which a human being could embrace new technologies and ways of living would be limited almost entirely by the constrained rate of learning and adaptation of that human mind — never by any lack of utterly different and revolutionary new stuff to absorb.
The Singularity metaphor has gotten some pushback because, if our current understanding of the physical universe is correct in the relevant respects, the rate of progress can never really get infinite. Of course our fundamental theories of physics have changed radically every 100 years or so for quite some time, but the notion of the Technological Singularity is not meant to rely on this. But given that the use of the mathematical term “singularity” is intended as a metaphor here, this complaint seems overly pedantic.
Damien Broderick, in his 1997 book The Spike, made essentially the same core points that Kurzweil made in 2005 in The Singularity Is Near. “Spike” indicates a massive rapid increase but without connoting infinity. But infinity sells and “Singularity” caught on while “Spike” did not….
I.J. Good in 1965 wrote about the “Intelligence Explosion” — noting, as I’ve quoted many times, that “the first truly intelligent machine will be the last invention humanity needs to make”. Good wasn’t foreseeing the practical emergence of infinitely powerful intelligences like Hutter’s AIXI, but he was envisioning the rapid transition from AGIs twice as smart as people, to AGIs 4x as smart as people which the 2x AGIs invented, then to 8x AGIs, etc. And he was envisioning that these doublings of intelligence could occur quite rapidly, as the smarter each AGI in the series gets, the faster it will be able to think and build.
Max More, the OG of transhumanist philosophy, prefers to think about what’s coming as a Surge rather than a Singularity. He is not so sure about the rate of progress effectively going to infinity, but thinks about it more like an ocean wave getting bigger and bigger and lifting everything up. It doesn’t have to lift up infinitely fast or infinitely high to have profoundly transformative effects — including effects leading far beyond humanity as we know it.
I’m going to advocate here for a different, related metaphor, as a complement rather than substitute for “Singularity”: a Shift … in particular a Technological and Consciousness Shift … or more entertainingly a “Consciousness Explosion” ….
I think there will be a technological and scientific Spike, centered on an Intelligence Explosion and occurring within a broader Surge … and that correlated with this Spike will be a psychological and experiential Singularity. And I think that passing through this Singularity to the other side, will be effectively conceptualizable as a Shift to a new realm of experience and to new patterns of growth and stability.
Singularity, as a metaphor, is exciting but scary — it’s all about the moment of explosion and not about what happens on the other side. Kurzweil’s vision sometimes seems to be that after the Singularity, human life continues much like before but without disease, death, scarcity, mental illness and other such tedious issues as we contend with today. Vinge’s vision was a little more radical — he saw post-Singularity minds as engaged in modes of activity and experience wholly incomprehensible to mere humans. My hope and expectation is that both versions are right: Post-Singularity there will be humans living lives of ease and joy, supported by radically advanced technologies including AGIs; and there will also be superminds far beyond human ken, some interacting with post-Singularity humans and some inhabiting utterly different realities.
One thing I want to focus on are the experiences to be had by minds passing through the Singularity — after all these are going to be OUR minds, and/or the minds of our children or grandchildren — and the consciousness shifts that they will experience, driven by and coupled with corresponding technological shifts.
The Critical Importance of Consciousness Advances for Ethical AI
Mathematician Edward Frenkel, among others, has highlighted the importance of the state of consciousness of AI developers for the creation of ethical AI. AI developers with deep self-understanding, deep compassion and deep feelings of unity with the broader world, are more likely to develop AIs that profoundly embody ethical principles.
This point holds for narrow AI — we can see, in the recent kerfuffle regarding Google’s AI Ethics group, how when less evolved states of consciousness drive narrow-AI ethics initiatives, the kind of AI ethics that gets instantiated in software is going to be very limited. Yes, surely Google and similar companies can manage to reduce the degree to which their ML models reflect the most obvious stereotypes via automatically assuming black people are more likely to be violent or women are more likely to be overemotional, etc. But can a group of people engaged with squabbling and infighting really manifest the balance of mind and the wisdom needed to deal with subtler ethical issues like providing people with appropriately comprehensible and tractable transparency into, and control over, the AI models guiding their online activities?
To make software that balances giving people the inputs they feel they need at a certain moment, versus the inputs they feel they need for their long-term benefit — and to give people the kind of transparency needed to enable them to guide this sort of software balancing-act themselves — requires a delicate blending of human wisdom and technical understanding. I honestly cannot see the ethics groups in the Google, Facebooks and Microsofts in the world getting it right, regardless of genuine good intentions on the part of many of the people involved.
The difficulty here is not just the threat that ethics poses to the business models of these companies, but the states of consciousness that working for these companies tend to inspire in their employees. Which are around the same as the states of consciousness fostered by basically every other large corporation in their staff — ones characterized by large doses of ego, anxiety and status-based rivalry.
The situation with AGI is going to be even more acute, because the ethics issues regarding AGI are even more profoundly complex than those involved with narrow AI. Even when the core ethical principles — like compassion — are simple in essence, the intersection of these principles with the evolving realities of companies and their business models and communities will involve an intricate combination of subtle issues that need to be dealt with deftly as the path toward Singularity unfolds.
Consider for instance the ethical issues raised by technology that allows individuals to train digital twins of themselves — and use these twins to represent themselves in various situations, or to create custom knowledge-bases to share with their employers, etc. Who should get what kinds of rights to what sorts of knowledge contained in the mind of such a twin? What about knowledge that emerges from combining the knowledge bases inside multiple peoples’ digital twins?
This example illustrates the sort of ethical issue that will arise increasingly often as AI verges toward AGI, even before we get to full-on human-level AGI. These examples are going to be too deep and too entangled with diverse aspects of psychology, sociology and economics as well as business structures/dynamics to be effectively dealt with by groups that are centrally preoccupied with ego and status issues.
The same issues arising regarding AI ethics also exist, and will increase in intensity, regarding the ethics of biotech, nanotech and other advanced technology areas. These issues exemplify the tremendous value that would accrete to our species if we were able to effect a dramatic positive shift in human consciousness in the next years as we advance toward Singularity.
It seems unrealistic that the human species as a whole is going to experience a massively uplifted state of consciousness — away from fixations on ego and status and toward compassion and unity — during the next few years or decades. However, it seems quite feasible that a significant subset of the human species could experience this sort of transformation in relatively short order. If this subset includes individuals involved with creating massively influential narrow AI systems and then AGI systems, we may have a situation where Frankel’s concerns are allayed.
And of course there will be a feedback dynamic between human states of consciousness and developing technologies. Brain-computer interfacing (BCI) will provide profound new potentials for neurofeedback and general self-understanding, as well as for bringing people together in new states of unity. Compassionate AGIs, or compassionately designed narrow-AIs, interacting with people via a combination of BCI and traditional means, will provide even more powerful avenues. These have the feel of being methods that actually could uplift the vast majority of humans to more fulfilled and blissful and cooperative states of consciousness. However, rolling out these technologies in a beneficial way is more likely to happen if the individuals involved in their development are already evolved beyond e.g. excessive preoccupation with ego and status matters.
There is at least a real potential for a shift in consciousness, associated with the Singularity, to begin in the minds of some of the individuals working on AI and other advanced technologies.
A First-Approximation Ontology of Human Consciousness Modes
The modeling and analysis of different conscious states is a huge topic; for sake of rapid progress I will adopt here the basic model put forth by Jeffery Martin in his book The Finders, which is based on an in-depth analysis of data regarding a large group of people in various places experiencing diverse forms of advanced or “enlightened” consciousness. .
Each person as they goes through their days moves through a variety of different consciousness-states; but there is typically a certain catalogue of states that a given person will tend to aperiodically “cycle” through, driven by a combination of internal dynamics and extrinsic activities and situations. We might use the term “consciousness-mode” to refer to the family of consciousness-states involved in the “consciousness state strange attractor” that a person is involved in over a certain interval of time.
Martin clusters individual human consciousness-modes into a series of “Locations”, each conceived as a cluster of multiple consciousness-modes with their own diverse characteristics. To wit,
Location 0: Ordinary everyday human consciousness as commonly experienced in the modern world. Happy sometimes, sad or pissed off or worried sometimes, often preoccupied with matters of ego or status, heavily attached to certain experiences, beliefs or ideas or objects.
Location 1: A state of extraordinary well being, filled with a sense of radiant peace and a dramatic reduction of the sense of self. A general attitude of compassion toward and oneness with other sentient beings. But emotions and thoughts still have significant pull depending on the circumstance.
Location 2: A deepening of Location 1 experience, with a reduction in the ability of thoughts to draw one in, a more profound sense of well-being and an increased feeling that there is a correct path or decision in each situation which is directly intuitively presented. Negative emotions are infrequent
Location 3: A constant pervasive feeling of oneness with universal consciousness. This feeling is there in Locations 1 and 2 but is not so consistently extremely prominent. Very little of the self-referential self persists at this stage. There is a single dominant emotion of joy/love/compassion.
Location 4: Oneness with the universe becomes strong enough that all sense of self and agency are gone. The sense is that life is simply unfolding. “Memory issues” are common here, relative to conventional human societal standards.
Location 5 and above: A variety of more intense advanced consciousness states, some of which are more even diffuse and selfless than Location 4 (potentially bringing inability to function acceptably in society), some of which involve “bodhissatva” type emergence of a simulacrum of the ordinary reflective self designed to enable productive interaction in society concurrently with overpowering oceanic sensations
Putting Frenkel’s perspective on AI ethics together with Martin’s ontology of consciousness-modes, we arrive at the hypothesis that: the path to ethical AGI may go a lot better if a significant portion of AGI developers are at Location 1 or higher, with a mix of some at the higher reaches.
(As a personal aside — for what it’s worth, inasmuch as I can Location myself in this ontology sensibly, I’ve been bouncing back and forth between Locations 1 and 2 since a transformational experience in 2016, with occasional dips back to Location 0 driven by various transitory life-situations, and brief ventures into higher-up Locations…)
I hasten to add that I don’t currently attach any highly special meaning to Martin’s catalogue of Locations. They seem to make some sense, they connect in a clear way with empirical data and intuitive observations, and they give a concrete way to talk about what otherwise would be either a mess of specific cases or a confusing melange of terms from historical religions and wisdom traditions. None of my conclusions here depend sensitively on the particulars of Martin’s thinking…
Consciousness Advance in the Global Brain
As an individual human, I find it natural to think and write about consciousness as it exists and evolves on the individual human level. As a node in the emerging and evolving Global Brain, I find it natural to think and write about the consciousness of the overall global cognitive system comprised of the humans, animals, plants, computers, phones, routers, satellites and other interactive systems webbing our world together.
The Global Brain that exists on Earth today has an extremely high level of complexity, a rich variety of self-organizing patterns, and arguably a high degree of consciousness including reflexivity and the ability to self-model. It is quite differently architected than an individual human mind, due to not being evolved to control a specific mobile physical body needing to survive and reproduce in a challenging physical environment and needing to communicate with other similar minds occupying similar bodies in the same environment. But the Global Brain’s different cognitive architecture does not necessarily make it less acutely intelligent or vividly conscious than an individual human mind.
One can think about the Global Brain, relative to humanity, as somewhat like the intelligent ocean in Lem’s novel Solaris — clearly super-smart and super-subtle and vast in its intricate dynamic self-modifications, yet also clearly so alien to the human mind in many respects that we may never be able to come to grips with it (without transcending our humanity in some dramatic way). What is ironic of course is that Lem’s ocean was thoroughly alien to humans whereas the Global Brain is in large part composed of us and our tools. But the situation becomes clearer if one asks how thoroughly a neuron in one’s parietal cortex can understand the experience of making love, climbing a mountain or proving a theorem.
The question of what constitutes a healthy Global Brain with an advanced state of consciousness is a large and subtle one that I’m not going to fully dig into here. But to make a few simple points,
A more compassionate Global Brain would be one in which the various major pattern-complexes (e.g. cultures, traditions, religions) involved were not engaged in ongoing patterns of mutual stifling or destruction, but were rather either peacefully co-existing in parallel or synergizing for mutual benefit
A more joyful Global Brain would be one with more “surprising fulfillment of expectations” and less of a meta-pattern of tying up large portions of energy in persistent frustrations (e.g. oppression of one societal subgroup by another)
If we analogize the state of today’s Global Brain to Martin’s Locations of human consciousness, we’ll conclude that the GB is squarely in Location 0.
A Location 1 society, in which joy and compassion were the major themes, would be in a far better position to launch a benevolent Technological Singularity.
Or we could look to the Singularity to uplift the Global Brain from Location 0 and set it on its way along the advanced consciousness path. But the risk here is clear — will a human society wracked with torments and confusion actually be able to create a positive Singularity, or will it unleash something dystopian instead?
Converging Toward Finality versus Coming Through In Waves
Getting back now to the question of Singularity versus other metaphors for the coming transformation, I want to think about the general contrast between transcendence based models with immanence based models, e.g.:
Judgment Day and potential transcendence into Heaven
Realization of the interpenetration of the divine through all aspects of everyday life
Sex aimed at the goal of orgasm, followed by quiescence when the sex is done
Tantric sex, in which experience shifts and deepens through different sorts of waves of ecstasy, without reaching any finality or conclusion
A symphony that builds toward a Grand Finale in a carefully orchestrated way, so that the finale pulls all the thematic threads from the earlier movements together
An extended improvisatory jazz work, in which themes from the prior portions arise complexly in later portions, but combined in mercurial and shifting ways, giving a feeling of moving forward and deeper but not necessarily in any particular direction
A problem-solving process aimed at getting an answer (leading toward general intelligence as defined in algorithmic information terms)
A creative growth process aimed at evolving funky new forms, without much predisposition on what these forms will be or in what sense they’ll be funky (leading toward Weaver’s Open-Ended Intelligence)
What we’re talking about here is, in large part, the contrast between two archetypal patterns,
Convergence to a goal
Fostering an open-ended evolutionary growth process
Another instantiation of this contrast would be:
Exponential growth aimed at Singularity (which is then followed by a very unclear post-Singularity existence)
Escalating coupled consciousness/technology expansion, shifting through a series of gradual and sudden transitions toward a new phase involving ongoing waves of growth on multiple levels
It’s this contrast that I would summarize as
Technological and Consciousness Shift
From the external perspective of someone drawing Kurzweilian graphs of technological progress, a Shift of this sort may look like a Spike verging on Singularity.
From the perspective of minds going through the Singularity, it is likely to feel more like a process of shifting through a series of consciousness states and physical-environment regimes, each one following naturally from the previous and deepening the previous in various ways.
It has often been observed that, from the perspective of a mind actively living through the Singularity, things may not feel especially fast — because these minds may themselves be getting faster and faster at thinking and perceiving and acting. A legacy human who refused brain implants and AI helpers, in a society where almost everyone else had them, would experience things as changing faster and faster at an insane or incomprehensible pace. A human who kept up with state of the art brain implants and AI helpers might feel the pace of technological advance to be basically proportional to the pace of expansion of their cognitive processing.
Although if there were non-human AGIs progressing massively faster than these enhanced humans, there might be a sort of “Singularity within a Singularity” phenomenon. The enhanced humans would be progressing exponentially toward a Singularity appearing nearly infinitely fast to legacy humans, via their own inventions and via borrowing ideas and technologies from massively superintelligent AGIs. Meanwhile the massively superintelligent AGIs would be going through their own Singularity involving technologies and other processes of fantastically greater complexity, beyond the ability of the enhanced or legacy humans to understand.
But I want to make a different point here. The enhanced humans in this scenario would not just be experiencing “human life as usual, but faster and with VR porn”. Rather, if all goes well with the Singularity/Shift, they would be shifting to higher and higher levels along Martin’s Consciousness Path. The experience of going through the Singularity would not be one of “OMG everything is changing infinitely fast and I have no idea WTF is going on” nor one of “everything is going fast but I’m going fast too so actually it all feels about the same” but rather one of “things keep changing in a way that subverts all the habits and assumptions I had, but I’m getting more and more profoundly advanced in my blissful state of consciousness, so this doesn’t just feel OK, it feels tremendous!”
The waves of Singularity-within-Singularity / Surge-within-Surge being experienced by minds at different levels, will be connected in multiple ways, including by individuals who have created multiple copies of themselves and allowed them to advance their intelligence and expand their scope to differing degrees. A legacy human Ben, an enhanced human Ben, and a radically transhuman AGI whose evolution was seeded by Ben — will span the different levels of nested Singularity evolution wave via their common Benicity…
Additional strange-loopy beauty will be added by the likely ability of enhanced humans to better understand the emergent collective intelligence of the Global Brain of the society of legacy humans — and of superhuman AGIs to better understand the emergent collective intelligence of the Global Brain of the society of enhanced humans. We completely lack the theoretical framework needed to think carefully about the interactions/intersections between minds on different levels of collectivity and minds on different levels of processing-infrastructure effectiveness. But all this is likely unfolding anyway, regardless of the ability of our legacy-human minds to prospectively comprehend it.
And to the extent that AGI and other technologies are developed pre-Singularity via researchers and engineers who are themselves exploring multiple positions along the advanced consciousness path — this transition into a post-Singularity realm characterized by fractally nested waves of escalating consciousness will feel smooth and rhythmic rather than arriving with a sense of finality … though there will certainly be shocking and overwhelming transitions along the way, as happens with any process of unfolding ecstatic transformation.
There is not really any contradiction here with the Kurzweilian view of the Singularity — but there is a major difference of emphasis. Tongue well in cheek, I sometimes think of the Technological and Consciousness Shift view as a “Consciousness Explosion” but also a“Tantralarity” because it presents a view that’s a bit more copacetic with traditional mystical views of paths to and processes of transcendent ecstasy. If the Singularity is the “Rapture of the nerds” then the Tantralarity / Tech and Consciousness Shift / Consciousness Explosion is the “Endless tantric ecstasy of the nerds.” — But in this tech-transformed era, all of us are, of course, the nerds in our own special ways….
Some have said the Singularity is already here and we’re right in the thick of it and we just don’t realize this because we’re right in the thick of it. In a historical sense this is certainly true. And it’s true of the Consciousness Explosion as well.
But this must be leavened with William Gibson’s quip that “the future is here now, it’s just not evenly distributed.” Yes. The Tantralarity is here, and it’s coming through in waves within waves within waves, and incredible and awesome to be a part of … and it’s terribly unevenly distributed (as a tour through any sub-Saharan African nation will show you most vividly and disturbingly) — and evening out the distribution is an important, possibly critical, part of the path of keeping the ecstasy rising through the phase transition that’s coming as narrow AI gives rise to AGI and then superintelligence.
Decentralized AI as an Enabler of Technological and Consciousness Shift
And all this — as a fair percentage of readers have probably foreseen by this point — spirals us finally toward SingularityNET, and the theme of decentralized and democratic AGI generally. Democracy and decentralization don’t intrinsically solve everything, and certainly don’t guarantee that the Singularity we get is a joyous transformation that shifts individual and collective consciousness through nested waves of tantric techno-ecstasy. However, a decentralized and democratic foundation seems far more likely to verge in this sort of positive direction than a Technological Singularity led by, say, military or advertising organizations, or investment banks.
Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Tencent, Alibaba, Baidu, IBM, Sberbank, the US or Chinese or Russian militaries, the NSA etc. etc. — none of these appear to me the right sort of organization to foster advanced compassionate consciousness among the individuals developing AGI … nor to seed the spread of advanced consciousness through the breadth of society. Selling, killing, spying and gambling are all pursuits that — on the whole and with numerous exceptions and nuances — tend to reinforce ego and status obsession and ensnarement in mental knots thick with reptilian emotions, and to work against rather than toward advancement of compassionate consciousness.
Certainly the cryptocurrency speculation community that is currently aggregated around decentralized networks like SingularityNET is not the ideal nexus for consciousness advancement either. But decentralized frameworks and networks have potential to grow and self-organize and adapt in ways that centralized companies and government agencies fundamentally do not. And this is much of what motivates myself and my colleagues to work on SingularityNET as a democratic, decentralized foundation for deploying AGI algorithms like OpenCog Hyperon and for fostering the crystallization of AGI dynamics from diverse AI agents contributed by various parties from around the world — including, one hopes, an increasing community of contributors whose AI development is inspired by depths of transpersonal bliss and compassionate understanding.