Notes on the Difference Between Closed and Open Views of Evolution: or why machine intelligence will fail


Careful how you move. The beginning is always treacherous. Here the pattern is established. The ink dries fast.

I don’t even know yet whom I’m addressing or what I am, but already a momentum has been established in these notes, an artificial destiny of sorts that I can’t trust entirely, nor will I try to dissipate this cloud of uncertainty by framing it prematurely. Something is evolving here that can’t be shaped intentionally, but which is nevertheless shaped by how honestly I attend its birth. So what pushes the evolution towards a beginning, middle and end? 

The beginning is found in these clouds of uncertainty, ghosts of ideas dissipating before they take clear shape, pareidolic in nature, the dust of thought suspended in the oblique light of a dawning concern, over-heated in some ways, to be sure, the Brownian Motion of listless thoughts resolving into more heated currents of desire and fear, the twisting smoke from the cooling coal of a brain, shrapnel from the Big Bang, recapitulating the evolution that had no destiny either, perhaps, and like spilled ink pouring out of a black hole, something forms, and then it looks inevitable, but it never was.

Language is my morning cup of acid. The psychedelics of language turning this perfectly transparent day into an opaque mass that can be molded into a figurine through which I see the reflection of a mind emerging as if it were destiny.

And then a solid shape appears, almost a material idea, a link between micro and macro level evolution. Here the emergence has become an emergency, resolving into predictable patterns and shapes signaling a dead end for all of us at once, personal and communal. The sense of inevitability in this vision is a comfort, even if it’s the inevitability of entropy. A comfort at least to a mind frightened by the majesty of its deceit. For the shapes I see are the shapes of deceit. The unresolved terrors that made us all liars.

A fissure is forming between visions of evolution as a destiny, an almost perfectly formed human potential, predictable as a linear or logarithmic change; and visions of evolution as a creative field without precedence, a chance to respond in a new way, an utterly empty field, groundless, horrifying too. A fissure between the story of humanity merging with technology, and the mythic story of technology as Temptation, a temptation to tie our fate to a singular power or conclusive ground. The one says there’s a momentum to this development, which equates to evolutionary destiny; and the other says that every moment is a precarious turning point, undetermined, ripe for creative shifts, so that no evolutionary path is ever straight or logarithmic or inevitable, but only looks that way until the pattern breaks. 

A closed and an open view of evolution.

But the closed view also hints at something that is tangentially true. Machines develop logarithmically, which is a linear acceleration. And if we evolve too far along that brittle and narrowing branch of development there is an inevitable crisis, for life breaks from the mechanical pattern sooner or later.

But we’re interpreting the inevitability of this crisis very differently. Some see this crisis as a singularity ushering in a transhuman world; others see an inevitable progression of thought, no sign of error anywhere in our history, for all leads inevitably to this moment. And some see a crisis that is inevitable only in relation to the direction we have taken, which was an error, because linear development is the same as fatal error. 

Death always steps in to lovingly interrupt our fatal fantasies.

For evolution is the stumbling slapstick of error, death and insight. The combination is humorous, because slapstick implies the realization of error, the momentary restoration of sanity. After all, we don’t laugh with relief (it’s not comedy) until we realize the mistake. Evolution jumps at the realization of error, the lightning strike that kills an old way of life and crystalizes a new form. An eternally simmering primordial soup bubbling with strands of meaning that are animated now and then by the realization of a new potential from an old and dead one, and these strands of meaning walk for a while among us as fully functioning stories, each one bound to end, for no story can walk for long without succumbing to its own limits. 

There is no such thing as perfection.

Therefore, evolution is riddled with dead ends, false starts, slow slides, lateral leaps. This is the hidden heat source, the hot coal that gives convective direction or meaning to the otherwise Brownian Motion of atoms and ideas, seemingly animating these material forms, a movement visible only in the clothing of matter and mind, so that it is easy to miss the distinction.

And because this liveliness is only apparent through the material it animates (including the materiality of ideas and certainties), we are also fooled by our secondary creations, the demiurgic worlds that spring up as if they were alive themselves, animated by our own animated dust.

But our own creations merely mimic life, just as clothing on a line mimics the wind. Either we are honest about this mimicry, in which case we are making art, honest performances of deeper mysteries, or they are fetishes, dishonesties that absorb our life, trapping us in a reductive literalism, creating the demiurge that feeds on us, and whom we defend in fear of admitting our mistake until we turn to dust.

We can recognize what is alive and what is fake, because only living things die. That is the only predictability. To the extent that we are otherwise predictable, we are inanimate, no matter how clever we seem. The only predictable developments are mechanical. The machine develops an intelligence disinclined to see this limit. Without this realization of death, the transhuman machine mind has no more wisdom than any other dead certainty or old fanaticism.

Wisdom is the realization that when we overcome death, we kill its partner. Without death, we remain siloed in the machine’s own infinite limit, the never-ending Bardo of a fake life that strives for the deceptive immortality of linear growth.

5 thoughts on “Notes on the Difference Between Closed and Open Views of Evolution: or why machine intelligence will fail

  1. Of course, biological systems go through periods of logarithmic growth (and decline), as part of the cycle of life, which is more or less like a bell curve. And it’s this growth phase that seems to confuse people into believing the growth can be sustained.


  2. […] These dangers weren’t obvious over the vast course of human history. Population pressures weren’t enough to incite the imagination into hyperdrive. But as these pressures grew, more complicated products of the imagination appeared, such as agriculture, cities, governments, writing, and on and on. Products of the imagination became increasingly complicated, causing new problems faster than the imagination could be used to solve them. [Note, I have somewhat changed my mind on the inevitability of this problem, see comment below and “Notes on Closed and Open Views of Evolution”]. […]


  3. This is mainly a response to Long-Termism. The critique used in this essay doesn’t quite reach the problem in my opinion. Long-termism could be compared to looking at the world through a radio telescope and becoming so enamored of that view — “this is the MOST penetrating picture of reality, so we have to look at everything through this telescope!” — and then deciding to base our whole way of life on what we see through the telescope, to hell with immediate concerns such as traffic, food, love, etc. Only make decisions based on what is seen in the long long view of the telescope. It’s a fanaticism, a singular vision, a perfect example of a lack of prismatic perspective. Besides, picturing humanity as having some static Potential is so dumb it’s hard to know how to respond. This essay and some of the ones that followed it (such as stupidity of greatness) are attempts at a response. But I can only contrast this static vision of evolution with a more open-ended vision that is utterly indeterminable, and unfathomable, constantly morphing.


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