A Review & Commentary on Richard Yonck's Future Minds: The Rise of Intelligence from the Big Bang to the End of the Universe
Richard Yonck, the author of the new book Future Minds, is a futurist in the deepest sense. Not only does he think about and write extensively on the possibilities of the future, but at the beginning of this book he suggests (using the word “perhaps”) that the human capacity to mentally “travel through time,” using memory and anticipation, is our “greatest gift,” allowing us, most importantly, to build preferable futures. In bringing to center stage right at the start of his book our human ability to imagine, ponder, and create desirable futures he is in resonance with my view that “future consciousness” is our most distinctive and empowering human capacity (See my bookFuture Consciousness: The Path to Purposeful Evolution.) Indeed, as Yonck develops his general theory of intelligence early in his book, he goes way beyond considerations regarding the unique powers of the human mind and he argues that the most distinctive and universal feature of all intelligence in the cosmos is power over the future. As a means to maximize survival, intelligence is adaptability and flexibility regarding what the future may bring.
In attempting to develop a general, non-anthropomorphic theory of intelligence in the cosmos Yonck adopts what he refers to as a “Big History” perspective on intelligence, considering in succession the deep past, back to the “Big Bang” and the origins and evolution of intelligence in the universe; contemporary research on understanding, technologically simulating, and augmenting intelligence (inclusive of the entire twenty-first century); and far future possibilities of how intelligence could further evolve up to the “end of the universe,” going roughly 100 trillion years into the future in his speculations at the end of the book. In fact, it would be more correct to say that Yonck adopts a “Big Future” perspective on intelligence, since, although historically informed, the bulk of his book deals with the near and far future. As an enthusiastic and deeply enthralled “time traveler,” with an eye toward the potential wonders of the future, Yonck adopts a cosmically expansive temporal perspective on the universe and intelligence, journeying from the beginning to the end of time.
In this temporally expansive perspective on intelligence Yonck is a thoroughgoing evolutionist, describing and explaining the historical development of the cosmos, life, intelligence, culture, and technology in evolutionary terms. As Peter Watson, the historian stated and Yonck seems to agree, “Evolution is the story of us all.” For Yonck, intelligence is an evolutionary phenomenon to be explained in terms of evolutionary principles. In fact, one could argue that for Yonck the directionality of cosmic evolution is fundamentally a process of increasing intelligence. If we ask, “What is the point or pattern to evolution—what is it all about?” the answer would be increasing intelligence in the universe. This is a powerful and fascinating hypothesis. Increasing intelligence is integral to the process of evolution, and moreover, the rise of human intelligence is simply a reflection and amplification of this fundamental cosmic process stretching back to the beginning of time. Moreover, for Yonck, the emergence and ongoing evolution of intelligence seems inevitable. Based on a roughly fourteen billion year trend, as Yonck describes it, it is highly reasonable to expect intelligence to continue to evolve to greater and greater heights in the near and far future.
Future Minds is divided into three main sections, each section containing either six or seven chapters. Section one is “Deep Past;” section two is “Twenty-First Century;” and section three is “Deep Future.”
In “Deep Past,” Yonck traces the evolution of the universe from the Big Bang and the emergence of chemical complexity to the formation of galaxies, stars, life on earth, and the co-evolution of humanity and technology. In this impressively interdisciplinary historical review he attempts to articulate a general definition of intelligence, as it evolved across the great panorama of time, that is not human-centric. Of note, as a topic I return to later, he argues that consciousness is not necessary for intelligence, since we can identify many processes in nature, including unconscious capacities and skills even in humans, that do not seem to involve consciousness. Illustrated through his review and analysis of the evolution of nature, Yonck proposes that the capacity of a natural system to maximize its future freedom of action is the essential defining property of intelligence. Preparedness and competence in coping with possible futures, which subsumes the capacity to achieve goals for the future, is at the core of intelligence.
In his excellent chapter on entropy, he explains that following from the second law of thermodynamics the overall trend of the universe across time is increasing entropy (homogenization, equilibration, and the breaking down of differences). But many local regions in the universe, including on the earth, have moved in the opposite direction toward greater differentiations and complexity. This increasing localized complexity is evolution, but it is realized by speeding up the overall process of entropy in its surrounding sphere. The evolution of complexity requires the increasing usage of energy which generates increasing entropy. Drawing on the astrophysicist Eric Chaisson’s universal theory of the evolution of complexity—that evolution moves in the direction of increasing energy density rate of usage—Yonck argues that the more complex a system the more the system is capable of generating a “possibility space” for ways to increase entropy. (See Chaisson’s Epic of Evolution.) In essence, the localized evolution of complexity, which moves in the opposite direction to entropy, accelerates the overall rate of increasing entropy in the universe as a whole because increasing complexity requires increasing amounts of energy usage. In a great balancing act, increasing complexity generates increasing entropy.
Consistent with the second law of thermodynamics, intelligence emerges as a natural consequence of the evolution of complexity in the universe. Indeed, Yonck states that intelligence allows the universe to equilibrate more efficiently. Moreover, intelligence brings with it the capacity for increasing flexibility and preparedness in coping with the future; intelligence maximizes long-term survival and perpetuates itself, building on itself. Hence, intelligence is not some anomaly or inconsequential feature of the cosmos; it is integral to the evolution of the universe.
Yonck examines the evolution of biological intelligence on the earth and concludes that it is difficult to clearly define when intelligence first emerged. Single-cell non-nucleated living organisms seem to show intelligence. He does note though a recurrent pattern in biology, as well as other natural systems. Parts integrate into greater, more complex wholes generating “emergence,” in which the whole, in unpredictable ways, goes beyond the sum of the parts. One can appropriately say that the evolution of complexity and intelligence is creative emergence. All in all, the evolution of intelligence shows repeated instances of emergence, of the complexities of wholes transcending the complexities of the parts.
When Yonck examines the evolution of human intelligence, he introduces a central theme (or argument) of his book: Biological humans and technology have co-evolved generating a level of complexity and intelligence that greatly exceeds the capacities of biological intelligence alone. Moreover, since the creation of the first primitive tools roughly three million years ago, the ongoing evolution of technology has biologically transformed us. (Similarly, I have proposed that humans are evolving “cyborgs,” an increasingly intricate and interdependent synthesis of the biological and technological; see my book Future Consciousness.) With the introduction of language, abstract cognition (such as thinking), and complex societies layered on top of the human-techno integration, our collective intelligence has skyrocketed, energy usage has correspondingly accelerated, and humans, through technological advances and scientific insights, have begun creating ever-evolving forms of empowering artificial intelligence, further amplifying this evolutionary process. In essence, the co-evolution of humans and technology fits into the general overall pattern of increasing intelligence in the universe. Technology is not unnatural.
Turning to the “Twenty-First Century,” in this section Yonck examines in-depth the accomplishments and challenges, and promises and perils of artificial intelligence research now and into the near future. My impression is that this domain of study and inquiry (and related ones) is Yonck’s main area of expertise and he covers in great detail such topics as “chatbots;” the “Turing test;” “virtual personal assistants;” making computer interfaces more human-like and human friendly; defining and programing “common sense” into computers; life-long and “deep learning” in computers; “affective computing” (the issue of emotional communication); computers developing “theories of mind;” ethics and values in computer programs and Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics; technological simulations of the brain; intelligence augmentation and brain-computer interface; cyber-security and hacking human brains and minds; artificial general intelligence and artificial super-intelligence, the emergence of the latter posing a plausible existential risk to humanity; and the “Technological Singularity” and the transhumanist vision of “the rapture of the nerds.” This whole section is a very informative, up-to-date review of progress, problems, and promises within this broad domain of technological development, and for Yonck the research and thinking covered in this section represents a key cutting-edge dimension of the ongoing evolution of intelligence on the earth.
Yet, although Yonck includes discussions on human psychology, human intelligence, and the evolution, anatomy, and functioning of the brain (at times drawing enlightening comparisons between the biological and psychological and the construction, architecture, and powers of computers and A.I.), in this second section he emphasizes the “technology of intelligence,” much more so than the biology, psychology, and cultural-social dimensions of intelligence. He includes some discussion on the nature of the “mind” and a small amount on consciousness (or conscious intelligence.) But to get a more balanced view of our contemporary understanding of intelligence and the near-term possibilities of the evolution of intelligence, this section could have been significantly expanded to include more psychology, biology, and humanistic-cultural studies.
This emphasis on technology (primarily physically embodied technologies) is though consistent with his overall theoretical thrust, since he creates in section one a “physical” theory of the evolution of intelligence, a very impressive and thought-provoking “world-view,” but still without really saying much on how consciousness or minds fit into the big scheme of things. One could argue that in order to articulate a theory of intelligence that encompasses everything from atoms and stars to humans and aliens one has to anchor the theory to the physical—as a universal denominator—but cosmic mentalists or idealists might argue that consciousness or mind is an essential universal substratum as well.
Interestingly, in this section one way in which the psychological is highlighted—in line with Yonck’s basic hypothesis that humanity and technology have co-evolved—is Yonck’s in-depth and dramatic chronicle of how human thinking, problem solving, creativity, and strategizing have progressed in attempting to understand the nature of intelligence and create convincing and efficient technological simulations of this capacity. Yonck chronicles conscious, purposeful, and evolving human efforts to produce technological intelligence. In an act of ongoing self-reflection, human conscious intelligence is evolving, as a consequence of efforts to understand what intelligence is and how to create it. In essence, intelligence evolves through the act of trying to understand itself and create technological versions of itself.
Using Yonck’s own definition of intelligence, one could ask how each of the various intelligent technologies he describes, such as affective computing or brain-computer interfaces, amplifies our collective and individual capacities to be flexible, adaptive, and empowered relative to the possibilities of the future. (In my terminology it would be how do these technologies enhance our future consciousness?) At the very least one can argue that all this technological research and thinking has clearly empowered the human capacity to ponder, speculate, and plan in depth and detail on the future evolution of human-techno intelligence and its potential values and benefits. In what ways can we make our intelligence more powerful and capable with respect to the possibilities and challenges of the future? Again, in an act of self-reflection and purposeful evolution, human intelligence is thinking out how to enhance and technologically augment its powers in the foreseeable future.
Yonck begins the last section, “Deep Future,” with a science fiction, futurist scenario set tens of thousands of years in the future, in which he envisions a “virtual mind” creating a “virtual solar system” and then observing that system evolving in complexity and intelligence within “virtual time.” One day our descendants may exist as virtual conscious minds living in virtual reality and creating all manner of wondrous things through the coupled power of their minds and super-AI technological systems physically supporting their existence.
Indeed, in this final section, Yonck weaves together his thoughts on entropy and evolution (from section one) and artificial intelligence (the groundwork articulated in section two) with cosmology, space travel and colonization, and the future augmented evolution and transcendence of humanity. His discussions on all these themes and their various interconnections are the stuff that science fiction stories of the future are made of. For example, Yonck covers such futurist-science fiction topics as the science of the brain and the “rewiring of our brains;” gene editing and the biological engineering of life; “cognitive cloning” (making multiple virtual copies of our conscious selves); uploading our conscious minds into computers and realizing relative “digital immortality;” a coming second Cambrian explosion involving a great diversification of types of minds, including a multifarious branching off of “homo hybridus” (bio-techno syntheses); nanotechnological probes and the coming “Awakening of the Universe” (an emergent “intelliverse”) through the progressive infusion of higher forms of intelligence throughout the cosmos; the possibilities of planetary, solar, and galactic level civilizations and the monumentally increasing energy demands of accelerating complexity and intelligence (perhaps we will tap into quasars and black holes are energy sources in the far future); contact or lack of contact with alien intelligence and its implications in each case; Dyson spheres, computronium, and Matrioshka brains that encompass entire solar systems; and the possibility of intelligence grounded purely in energy. As one key general theme through this section, grounded in the idea that there is no one superior all-encompassing, all-purpose kind of intelligence, Yonck foresees a great proliferation and diversification of types of minds and forms of intelligence forming a vast interdependent network of cooperation and competition spreading across the universe, hence the title of his book Future Minds.
Acknowledging and discussing the ethical issues, controversies, and existential perils associated the purposeful evolution and augmentation of humanity, Yonck argues that in the not too distant future humans are going to dramatically enhance and transform their bodies and minds through various types of technologies (including computer, biological, and nanotechnological). Indeed, if for no other reason, we need to do this if we are to successfully integrate and deal with ever-advancing artificial super-intelligence, or else we will be left in the dust. In this case human intelligence is anticipating a significant challenge to its future survival. We could argue that the genie was long ago let out of the bottle and for many centuries we have been purposefully evolving and augmenting ourselves, often using various technologies in the process. Still, what Yonck presents in this final section is an array of rapidly advancing sciences and technologies that in the near and far future promise to empower us to radically enhance and transform ourselves, way beyond anything we have accomplished in the past. Although I would say that we have already begun doing this, Yonck proposes that (as far as we know) we are the first minds capable of improving our minds and we should pursue this goal, using science, technology, and sound ethical thinking to guide and empower us.
Now given Yonck’s argument first presented in section one that the evolution of intelligence seems inevitable in the universe, stating that we should pursue this end using science and technology seems beside the point. What choice do we have? But Yonck points out the future is uncertain. Perhaps humanity will be a dead end or an unsuccessful evolutionary branching in this overall cosmic process. There is no cosmic guarantee that humanity may not go extinct in the future. So it is better to thoughtfully embrace and self-consciously pursue this overall universal trajectory, maximizing our chances for being a fully realized expression of this universal evolutionary rise of intelligence. Based on an argument from the biologist Julian Huxley, I have stated that since we are guiding the process of evolution, whether we acknowledge it or like it, we should face this fundamental reality about our existence and make the best of it. It would be an existential tragedy to falter or fail given this great opportunity.
In the final chapter of the book, “Life at the End of the Universe,” Yonck envisions a scenario at a “bar” Beyondfar (again science fiction in its feel and ambience) 100 trillion years in the future. Only massive black holes remain in the cosmos, which provide advanced “energy intelligences” with colossal amounts of energy. The universe continues to expand, and even though this envisioned scene is trillions of years ahead in time, the universe is far from spent, for it will continue to expand for a google years into the future relative to our now. (A trillion is a one followed by twelve zeros; a google is a one followed by a hundred zeros.) Intelligences of this era create multiple virtual universes and observe and study in accelerated time the evolution of such universes. (There are suggestions of The Matrix in such imagined scenarios.) In the context of this envisioned far future Yonck proposes as a central moral imperative (which presumably advanced future beings follow) the ongoing creation of universes, forms of life, and types of intelligence. In the end, he asks what is humanity’s (and our descendant’s) special purpose and value in all of this evolution and universe creating, and he proposes we give meaning and value to the whole cosmic process, bearing witness to creation and the ongoing evolution of a multiverse filled with intelligence.
Even though this ending is inspiring, cosmic, and uplifting—I think of the super-intelligent Egyptian mind in Olaf Stapledon’s novel Odd John, who stated that his purpose in life was to experience and revel in the immensity and richness of all existence—it is also ironical. In order to witness existence, giving it meaning, it seems to me that one must possess consciousness, to be aware and experience. Yet, in Yonck’s excellent and highly informative book, the significance and role of consciousness in intelligence and the nature of mind is only marginally addressed. Even if intelligence does not require consciousness or minds, it is both clear and obvious that I (and all of us for that matter) experience intelligence (thinking, understanding, imagination, problem solving, and foresight) as a conscious phenomenon. For all humans, what we directly apprehend about ourselves is that we are conscious and (relatively) intelligent minds (or selves). (Yonck impresses me as a highly intelligent, visionary, and thoughtful conscious mind.) Any comprehensive theory of intelligence and how human minds fit into the grand evolutionary scheme of things must explain how consciousness fits into this scheme. (Does consciousness and, in particular, future consciousness just pop into existence at some point in the evolution of intelligence?) Indeed, all the great scientific discoveries of evolution, entropy, the Big Bang, the emergence of life on earth, and the functional workings of computers, robots, and all our diverse and intricate technologies have been realized through our conscious minds. As far as we know, a physical explanation of the universe has only been achieved within the mental framework of conscious human minds. This is not to deny the importance of a physical explanation of the universe, the rise of intelligence, and the evolution and future possibilities of humans and technologies, which Yonck does a very good and thought-provoking job of elucidating, but the physical is revealed (or witnessed) through consciousness, meaning is manifested in consciousness, and our intuitive sense of intelligence derives from our conscious experience of it. To journey from the beginning to the end of the universe we must dive into the mystery of consciousness.
In closing, in order to balance Yonck’s techno-optimism, I can ask whether technology always empowers us and makes us more intelligent. More to the point, does technology make us better persons? As numerous techno-critics have pointed out, “smart technologies” often seem to make us dumber, more dependent, more mentally fragmented, and more present-focused (See my book The Pursuit of Virtue). Perhaps our motives and goals, indeed the substance and drivers of our consciousness, that are behind the creation and use of such technologies are shallow, profit-driven, ego-centric, and sensationalistic. What should be our over-arching values, ethical standards, and purposes in guiding our future human-techno evolution? To a degree Yonck does address this issue, but I would suggest that this normative and deeply humanistic question needs to be brought to center stage, and the sooner the better. I have proposed that we should aspire toward evolving as “wise cyborgs” in a wise techno-empowered society that guides the evolutionary journey of ourselves and our technologies. Of course, we want increasing intelligence, but we should aspire toward wise intelligence (within ourselves, our machines, and our hybrid syntheses). If our machines are our evolutionary children—a distinct possibility—then we should bequeath to them a mindset emphasizing wisdom at the core of their advanced intelligence. And here again is where consciousness comes into the picture, for it is within our conscious minds that we need to determine the set of psychological qualities, emotional, ethical, personal, and cognitive, that constitute wisdom. If we are to be “god-like,” recreating ourselves and populating the cosmos with multiple universes and forms of life and mind, then we need to be, above all else, wise gods in doing this.
Evolution of Science Fiction Webinars :
Module 3 - Ancient History through the Middle Ages
Hello Friends and Colleagues,
You are invited to join me:
The Evolution of Science Fiction Webinar Series Module 3: Ancient History through the Middle Ages
October 24, 2020 (Saturday), 1pm EST.
Building upon the previous webinar, which examined the connections of ancient myth, fantasy, and science fiction, in this new webinar we will begin by discussing in depth the origins of science fiction in ancient Greek mythology, philosophy, and science. Of special importance are the archetypal stories of Odysseus and Prometheus and the “first” utopia, The Republic of Plato. We will look at the origins in ancient times of stories of space travel and space wars, aliens, and robots. Next, we will examine early theories and narratives of the future, progress, evolution, and the coming transformation of humanity, and the influential archetypal vision of Armageddon, all of which would impact the future development of science fiction. Covering the Middle Ages, we will highlight Dante’s extraordinary cosmic journey, the Divine Comedy; science, philosophy, technological invention and extrapolation, and science fiction in European and Islamic thought; and the blossoming of fantastical art in Hieronymus Bosch.
We will close this webinar by falling off the edge of the earth.
Duration: 90 minutes, using Zoom Meeting, there is a fee of $25. Click on the URL to purchase your ticket.
Once registered we will send you an access url to the Zoom meeting.
"It is unmistakably the best webinar presentation, consecutively viewed or singly viewed, that I have ever spent as a participant or a viewer. Ever!" Cedar Sarilo Leverett, MFA, Society of Consciousness Studies
Two New YouTube Videos on the Evolution of Science Fiction Webinar Series:
For those who missed the first two webinars on the Evolution of Science Fiction here are the videos (minus the discussions).