Computronium

2113 (part four) — Computronium Flavors

Editor’s note: This is part 4 of Khannea’s 2113 future history.

Khannea’s note: My series 2113 is a speculative series of articles on a fictional timeline of the future set one century from now. This time portrays the future as it might be based on several premises. One premise is that we have no major catastrophes, and progress persists more or less without major industrial or societal collapse as it has for the last few centuries. Another premise is that we’ll have not a clear-cut singularity, however that the emergence of artificial intelligence, the transition of human minds in to machine substrates and the recognition of non-human minds and human mental minds on artificial substrates is achieved seamlessly and without major societal disruption. The article also assumes a somewhat implausible continuation of the current abundance-assuming paradigm of freedom, free trade, globalism (or what might be labelled ‘universalism’, in the 22nd century), a further increase and refinement of democracy and a growth of both individual affluence of all people, as well as a vast increase in individual affluence of elites.
The first installment of this series was about the general outlines of this future and can be found Here, the second was about a specific failure (or tragic) mode, in case of certain dead-end asteroid colonies, Here, This article is posted Here, and eventually you, my readership (all three of them) might find the fourth installment Here. Since I abhor comment management on this blog due to spam predation, I will eventually invite my readers to respond with questions and criticisms, for which you are already encouraged to email me.


It is the year 2113, and humanity lives throughout the solar system. Or I should rather qualify this is a different manner — humanity is extinct. Most humans upgraded their physiques as would most people in 2013 upgrade their smartphones, and they became something that people in 2013 would not recognize as human. But these days what the whole Solar System law recognizes as person-hood (or soul!) is linked to Google bank on Luna. No one in the solar system can engage in legal transactions without being a legal person, or a proxy for a legal person (in which case the person assumes responsibility for the legal consequences of the transaction), so in effect legal recognition of personhood is signified by an unbreakable person-hood algorithmic formula held by Google. On the Earth’s moon. So if a new person materializes somewhere on the moons of Neptune (which, granted, doesn’t happen all that often) this can only happen by means of a so-called “procreation transaction” that involves one or more parents. In this case the emerging person is attributed a youth (which is measured in a billion seconds) probationary period, and Google appoints, in close conference with any nearby authorities or states, a ‘parent’.

A soul is always attributed by law a brain. Brains in the solar system must have a certain computational complexity, which exceeds the naturally born (biological, baseline, default, paleoantropic) brain by about three. There still are about fifty million more or less baseline humans alive in the solar system (most on Earth) and these are all burdened (much against their chagrin) with processors in their spine that allow them to tap this surplus (from their perspective) computational or cognitive ability, “in case they want it”.

However most “children” in the solar system (anyone who is younger than one billion seconds, which is just over 31 years) have substantially more computational ability than the aforementioned “three times a typical human brain”. In the computational measurements of 2113 computational prowess can be objectively measured, and it is a translation of bits that are interlinked with other bits in a complex hierarchy. Let’s call this something like ‘interbits’. Yes there is a minor amount of quantum entanglement involved in the baseline human brain (Quaker, Sima and Freundlich, 2034) but this is not something that cannot be functionally replicated by adding “a little extra computational interlinkage”. The quantum entanglement of the brain isn’t something very elusive or magical, and it was mostly reverse engineered in reductionist theory well before 2040. It’s only worth some 5% of definable neurological complexity. So if we take these (in 2013 as yet undefined metabits) we end up with a legal minimum cognitive capability for a “child” in 2113 to be somewhat over 10E18 metabits. In essence it’s 10E18 bits of computational ability, however if one were to run this software on a 2013 computational substrate it would take thousands of years per subjective second, because in 2013 we can’t create all these complex linkages yet, and the only way we would be able to do that is by making enormous (and ponderously slow, swelteringly hot and inefficient) mainframes spread out over acre sized server farms. A tangle of 10E18 interbits is just one mass of highly concentrated computational stuff where a decent percentage of bites immediately affect the state of every other bit in the substrate. This percentage is far below 100% (maybe in the order of 7 to 13% rather) but it’s still a lot more computationally parallel than a baseline human brain (which at best of times in the greatest genius didn’t even get close to 0.8% metabit interlinkage).

So in essence there is a law in all of the solar system, and everyone in the solar system pretty much agrees that in order to be a legally recognized “child” citizen you have to have this minimum cognitive ability at “birth”, and in order to become a fully fledged adult citizen you have to wait, under legal protection of a “parent”, or a “guardian”, for just over 31 years.

Most “legal” children in the year 2113 are generated partheomemetically in an act of passionate artistic creative union (or love), mostly from two “parents”. Even in 2113 a lot of symbolism is taken from the biological sexual act, and quite often it involves some aspects of intimacy as well. This is pretty much universal throughout the solar system — two (and in some cases one or numerous) parents come together, express intimacy and kinship over a lengthy courtship, occasionally engage in a contractual state of close trust (which frequently lasts several years) and they produce a child. To make that legal, they contact Google, Google physically sends over an attorney (which in the outer solar system can take a few weeks…) who is licensed to attribute the unbreakable citizenship algorithm code to the fledgling citizen-in-training.

A mind is a precious thing, and all people in the Solar System agree on certain bands of what is acceptable for minds. Nobody wants minds too smart — and it is not technologically feasible to just keep adding computer substrate. A bigger mind loses on interbit efficacy, so at around 10E22 bits of computational ability the mind becomes so ponderously big (generally the mass of a small bull elephant of computational substrate) that it quickly loses this precious bit interlinkage. The mind starts conflicting with itself, arguing internally and the practice is that minds over 7.2x10E21 bits fall under 1% of effective metabit interlinkage, and tend to become “a little weird”, and “not necessarily smarter”. Most importantly they tend to involuntarily enter partheomemetic breakups, or “they involuntarily hatch offspring”. Again, when that happens both parties to the existential fission enter immaturity (or that one billion objective second childhood clause) and 31 years in 2113 is a LONG time, so most mind in the solar system stay about one order of magnitude below the risk of “becoming emeritus” or “potentially losing citizenship for 31 years”.

This establishes both an upper and a lower bound to mindhood in the solar system of 2113. The most creative and original minds are the ones bit-interlinked to the highest degree, regardless of how much mind they have.

However that does not mean all these minds are ambulatory people or machines. The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of recognized citizens are stuck in an existentially confined niche. They don’t have much of a choice and for them it is quite challenging (and in many cases not very desirable) to get out of their confined state. The problem is that, especially in the inner Solar System, minds are taxed. Each mind has “property” or “investments”, from which it is almost routinely easy to produce “economic growth”. Or profit by an archaic name. But since many utilities are subject to severe competition in the inner solar system, all citizens vehemently agree that certain utilities, them being scarce, are subject to a sliding scale of taxation. In other words, if everyone wants a thing, the thing is subject to a very high tax, on both income and on existing property. And this tax is correspondingly higher (and definitely progressively so!) in the inner solar system. So the net effect is that, in particular in the inner solar system, i.e. near the Martian moons, on the Earth’s surface, on the poles of Mercury, in the Lagrange points and most extremely so on the Lunar surface, certain “utilities” (or affordances) are taxed to such a degree they become unaffordable.

This system of imposed (and universally consensual) taxes is the biggest memetic compromise of the Solar System. Nobody likes this, but the vast majority of voters (constituents, citizens, free agents, etc.) would not have it any other way. In fact everyone in 2113 is stark raving terrified of any alternative, as any alternative would imply the very most horrible thing they can contemplate — conflict.

The fear of open conflict (or zero sum competition by any other name) compels all of the solar system (except for some Darwinian radicals in the Asteroid Belt).

The most conflicted form of affordance in the inner solar system is embodiment. It is practically unaffordably expensive to have an incarnate physicality on the Earth’s surface. As a result while there are over a trillion (a thousand billion) recognized (more or less, it gets a bit incestuously complex in some of these virtual universes) citizens in the terrestrial plate tectonic computational substrate, less than five billion is materially incarnate. That means — they can afford to have a body of sorts.

Whatever the case, minds run on artificial (designed, algorithmically evolved) nonbiological substrates. The normal pidgin slang in 2013 for this substrate is “computronium”.

So what is Computronium?

Computronium was defined in the 20th century in near-magical terms. People back then didn’t have a clue what they were talking about, but slowly science started catching up with this idea and the concept of Computronium became more or less vogue. The idea is that Computronium is the most effective substrate for computation, preferably meaningful computations or “thoughts”. Computronium is not about boringly vulgar number-crunching or rote calculations — it is about the creation of densely packed thinking substrates (with lots and lots of higher order quality bit entanglement through and through) as to produce lots of “soul”. The problem is that clusters of “computronium” can’t be too big, else regions of the substrate start disagreeing with one another, and produce meaningless (and more importantly: economically result-less) white noise. So again, the clusterized blobs of computronium(with the state of technology in 2113) are still constrained to configurations as heavy as a bull elephant, containing the net effect of well under 7.2x10E21 bits, and generally one fiftieth of that. Add more to the cluster (or computational “cell”) and the thing starts “spazzing out” and produced meaningless white noise.

But even on Earth this stuff is difficult to set up right. A well equilibrated computational cell isn’t just a few ton of densely packed computronium — it is also a nova of communication lines, cooling ducts, material feedstocks, repair facilities, redundancies, backup devices, data store devices, typically hundreds of times the same original mass, for the most quintessential logistics. And it depends on large amounts of energy differential, available materials, temperature and proximity to serves.

If you have gradient electrical energy source of gigawatts on one end, and a bath the size of an Olympic-sized swimming pool filled with liquid helium on the other end, you have a near perfect flow of energy. This is delicious for computational states and high energy gradients are a very attractive (and hence very scarce, and highly taxed) precursor to very adapted and creative minds as well as the ability to experience the most desirable mental states, the most admirable social qualities and the most productive skills and aptitudes. But energy differential isn’t the whole story for minds in the Solar System — it is also access to other minds. A single mind is a lonely thing — to really enjoy reality, social pleasure, creativity, spirituality a mind needs nearby other minds, all around, stacked up and down, left and right, before and after. For humanity in the Solar System the ideal configuration for community is a lot of electrical energy on the one hand that generate high energy photons to scatter about meaningfully in all these massively parallel twenty million color optical processors — no you also want to share that stuff with “likeminded”, in these elaborately constructed idyllic virtual realms. For fun. For profit. For sex. For beauty. For spirituality. And for another million or so meaningful existential variable states humans in 2013 will not have a clue of for a long long time.

But energy isn’t the whole story. Linking all these cells together into meaningful social aggregates isn’t the whole story — no, materials are the next story. And that is where it gets sticky. The best materials are on Earth, and in particular in the inner crust (several miles under the surface) of terra firma. Carbon, Iron and unbridled access to trace elements. And there’s also a lot of space down there. So in terms of configurations of meaningful computational substrates of choice computronium real estate Earth ranks pretty high, and as a result well over a trillion minds (each mind bigger than an office building, counting all required logistical peripherals) there is a pretty vicious expansion of industrial activity down there, operating at temperatures ranging from a 150 degrees centigrade (equivalent to the Hamptons) to 400 degrees centigrade (equivalent to the slums). The ability to perform on Earth is linked to the ability to keep cool.

In space it is easier — like always, just add lots of tinfoil to collect energy and radiate it away. But in space there is not much material substance, and this places a very harsh constraint on community. And even worse, orbital space is a a horrendous abyssal gulf removed from all other minds, in terms of lag. Even the Lagrange points are regarded as quaint and somewhat tasteless backwaters relative to the bustling computronium hives of the great terrestrial coastal areas. You can see these terrestrial places from space — massive cloud formation, massive salt lakes and a lot of seriously bad climatic conditions — cooling hundreds of billions of minds, each operating so overclocked they emit visible spectrum light from their computronium processor cores, produces waste heat, to a degree that it is overcooking the Earth’s atmosphere. And in 2113 this is a bit of a crisis, because again, all that economic dumping displaces the right to live of other people on the surface, and they happily sue for economic damages. The net effect is that the privileged tectonic computronium hoi polloi of Earth pay ridiculous amounts of economic value to get rid of all that heat. They started doing that in the 2090s with radiation towers that unfold at night, emitting temperatures well over hundreds of degrees. You can still see those archaic heat radiating arrays and many of them are still up and running and quite desperately so. The night side of Earth is aglow in infrared, and in some places in a dull red light.

But a planet radiating away its tectonic heat to support computronium is not a viable long term sustainable strategy. So for the last 15 years the masses of Earth have started implementing a heat radiation quota (much a parody of carbon credits a century earlier) that take this waste heat, pump it up through thin filaments of pressurized nitrogen and cycle them upwards along the hundreds of thousands of radiating sky hooks. So in effect the Earth has near solid spokes and rings, and these rings glow in 120 degrees Celsius, over endless strata of radiator surface sometimes hundreds of kilometers big in lower to higher earth orbit.

Elsewhere in the Solar System things get probably madder. Computronium on Mercury, ah you don’t want to think about the pain it takes to refrigerate the overheated minds there. Cables crossing the planet, unaffordably expensive imports of oxygen, nitrogen, helium, all to burn away the hundreds of degrees celsius surface heat on the hot side at day, to the night side. It’s good gradient, and mercury has te best computronium precursor ore in the entire solar system, but who would want to live there? The oon faces similar problems, but at least the day-night cycle is a lot more favorable, and it is a lot easier to construct decent sized cooling skyhooks and radiation fins there. Clearly no one from 2013 would recognize the moon — the surface is a featureless industrial grey crisscrossed with industry. On the south side there is a massive lump of concentrated activity where Google Lunar Equity is situated, and the irony here is palpable — the moon of 2113 looks uncannily like the Death Star wrapped in ephemeral gauze when perceived from Earth.

This equation for the optimal computronium substrate is different anywhere in the entire solar system. Asteroids — a lot of volatiles and decent range of computronium precursor ore all around, but barely any shared sense of community and lousy and expensive energy access. Each place has its own variables and as a result wildly different configurations and templates of computronium, the embedding logistical means for this computronium, means to funnel energy in to the substrates and siphon waste heat out, and to communicate meaning and values to adjacent neighbors, or to purchase products (both social, intellectual and physical) from available markets. Computronium on Earth is a deep transparent glassy green material. Like green volcanic glass. Asteroid computronium is black and elongated. Mercury computronium is gunmetal white and arranged in giant snowflake shakes that crisscross surrounding support infrastructure. Lunar (google) computronium has a (patented!) helix shape with radiating fractal side strands, and the material has a distinctive blue color. Open space computronium looks like terrestrial flowers, with golden colored lumpy hearts and roots that simmer in infrared and brilliant patterned leaves radiating for hundreds of meters.

One might almost call all this an ecology of computronium.


First published here.
Original image here.