THE FUTURE: stages in future evolution

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This is a sketch of possible stages in the future career of our species and its successors. For the moment, I've characterized several stages by terms taken from science fiction. An earlier draft identified seven stages by number (Stage 1, etc); some residual references remain in the present incomplete version.

"Kn" refers to "Kardaschev type n civilization". Comments labelled "A.S." are by Anders Sandberg.

Compare the eight-step program proposed by The First Millennial Foundation.

Other pages


The key to the future lies more in invention than in extrapolation. [As someone else (Alan Kay) put it, "The best way to predict the future is to invent it".]

On futurology

Stanislaw Lem, "Metafuturology". Reprinted in Science-Fiction Studies, Volume 13 (1986), p261.
"Within futurology, "internal" specialization has already begun with regard to the range of prognoses: short-range, medium-range, and long-range predictions. (The "long range" means investigations no further than the first quarter of the next century.) But outside this institutional futurology, a "second futurology" is already emerging, particularly among astrophysicists studying the question of cosmic civilizations."

The near future

Barry B. Hughes, World futures: a critical analysis of alternatives. Johns Hopkins, 1985. A review of various schools of thought in futurology and of important variables such as population, economics, energy, food and agriculture, technology, the environment, values and political structures.
5) Do you feel that your work has helped create the same world that you "denounced" in your novels?

Maybe a little bit. A lot less than one might think when one was flattering oneself. When I try to think hard about the future and the possible nature of future society, I think about topics like demographics, resource depletion, Islamic jihad, new materials, rates of economic development, computer communications, epidemics, global warming, mass extinction, hot topics in corporate research and development, that sort of thing. I don't think: "And what about science fiction writers? Aren't they a major factor?"

9) What are the technologies you see emerging over the next few years?

Well, the future is already here, it's just not well distributed yet. Bigger, faster chips, more portable telephony and computation, some niche stuff for ceramic superconductors, market uses for buckminsterfullerene and the other new forms of carbon, lots of market activity in bifocal glasses, wheelchairs, diapers for adults, baldness cures, exercise equipment and other prosthetic items for a severely aging populace, some new dope to take up the slack in the declining crack market, lots more sophisticated private-security gizmos to turn the homes and playgrounds of the rich into electronic fortresses against the swarms of the poorly fed and poorly housed. I could go on. I will, but it will require several novels.

-From an interview with Bruce Sterling

Present day to near future. Information explosion underway. Laws of nature and history of universe in outline are formulated. Early forms of most "transhuman technologies" developed.

The Present Day

We're approaching 2000 AD, with its millennial associations for Westerners.

We may also soon have a genuine "theory of everything" - indeed we may already have it, in the form of E8xE8 heterotic string theory. It will take centuries to unravel the implications, and in that process the theory will probably be reformulated a number of times. Nonetheless, if string theory or one of its successors really does predict everything - particle masses and interaction amplitudes - it will provide a new context for thinking about reality. Every philosophy will have to either accommodate it or oppose it.

On the experimental side, the activation of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in 1997 may lead to the observation of the Higgs boson and/or supersymmetry.


People will die attempting immortalization, selfaugmentation, and other forms of physical transformation. I have read of a pope (Innocent II?) who died from a blood transfusion meant to bring him immortality. See Bruce Sterling's comments in Whole Earth Review (1991?) on hacking with the body. Nonetheless, such experimentation will surely succeed eventually.

"This is essentially pre-singularity Earth, the move towards transhumanity. A Kardaschev 0 type civilization becoming type I." [A.S.]

A.S. suggests that this period might be characterized by certain "early transhuman technologies/arts"; he suggests "information management, bionics, AI, life extension, biological remodeling and nanotechnology. "

There will probably be many conflicts between the "autoevolutionists" and the "biological fundamentalists" over the desirability/ethics of autoevolution. [A.S.]

Typical Technologies for Stage 1: Neural interface

Books (A.S.):

Lots of cyberpunk and cyberfiction.

The Singularity

K. Eric Drexler. Engines of Creation and Nanosystems. Hans Moravec. Mind Children and The Age of Mind.

Spread into the solar system, formation of first posthuman clades. "Schismatrix without aliens." Nanotech Singularity, if any such sharply-defined event does indeed occur, happens in this period, which might last ~50yrs, before Stage 3 (interstellar migration) begins.

A [Kardaschev] Type I civilization moving towards type II. I think it is here mankind first begins to diversify into various sub-species and later into entirely different beings. [A.S.]

Technological Singularity

We might be said to have passed through the Singularity when the "limits of the possible" are reached in a variety of technological areas. Drexler forecasts a period in which engineering capacity improves very rapidly in a wide variety of fundamental areas (EoC, p156).

"These brute properties of matter - strength and heat resistance - cannot be greatly improved through complex, clever arrangements of atoms. The best arrangements seem likely to be fairly simple and regular. Other fairly simple goals include transmitting heat, insulating against heat, transmitting electricity, insulating against electricity, transmitting light, reflecting light, and absorbing light."

So one might suppose that the limits for all those goals will be reached fairly quickly.

How long can exponential growth be maintained? When it comes to physical space, the volume of the technosphere can only increase cubically with time, so once the maximum density of information storage is reached (the practical maximum will presumably be somewhat lower than the Bekenstein Bound), the number of bits stored by a civilization can only increase cubically with time. (On the other hand, here I have made no attempt to project increases in the efficiency of coding - only increases in physical capacity.)


"Transhuman" implies "more than human". One might say that a transhuman can live longer than any human being, is more intelligent than any human being, or has superior physical powers to any human being.

"Human-level" is a moving target, as has been "intelligence" in AI, although for different reasons - the capacities of humans have increased with time, largely owing to technology. So drawing the boundary between human and transhuman will be difficult, and will probably lead to much debate.

"Transhuman" is something quite different from "nonhuman" (which might be applied to an alien, or an AI) or "posthuman" (which just means something which comes after the human - see Cosma Shalizi's comment). "Transhuman", as I read it, is something like "superhuman": more than human in some faculty or accomplishment.

FM-2030 offers a little quiz at the end of Are You a Transhuman? that will tell you whether you are, indeed, transhuman.

Bio-design, psycho-design, socio-design

You will have a menu of options from which you can choose a biological form and psychological dispositions and aptitudes for yourself and your progeny. Presumably in its early days such a menu will only contain forms which are recognisably variations on the human form, rather than radically different ones. (But think of Greg Bear's "homorphs" and "neomorphs", in Eon.)

Biosculpting possibilities


Bruce Sterling, in Schismatrix, refers to humanity's successors as "clades", a term from biology for "daughter species". The posthuman clades differ in their cultures and social organization, but especially in their technologies of choice. The initial division is between Mechanists (who use robotics and AI) and Shapers (who use bio- and psycho-technology), but eventually there are posthuman beings who represent new modes of existence (Kitsune's final form; Europa's Angels; "star-peering wireheads").

Neal Stephenson, in The Diamond Age, refers to "phyles", a term which has a biological ring, but which is associated mostly with cultural variation in the cases the reader can see. (The "three great phyles" are listed as New Atlantis (a neo-Victorian society), Nippon (Japan), and Han (China). p290) Reference is made, however, to the "synthetic phyles", which are presumably those which are marked by modifications of the basic human organism. One can imagine some of Stephenson's phyles evolving into the Mechanist-Shaper rivals and ultimately into clades.

A clade would not be an eternally separate entity, however. Just as humans will become transhumans and posthumans, so one might transform oneself and pass from Mechanist to Shaper. In Sterling's future clades form distinct societies, but in a "trans-cladistic" future, such differences of form might represent no more than local adaptations made by members of a common culture. (When on Jupiter, live as the Jovians do.)

Hans Moravec describes the future, especially the future beyond Earth, in terms of robot "mind children". Rudy Rucker's Software and Wetware might be seen as descriptions of the early days of a robot clade.

Speed-Up: fast minds

Drexler writes in EoC that it ought to be possible to have human-equivalent computers (HECs) running at a million or more times human speed. How quickly might this be achieved? [John Clark's arguments.]

With nanotech, it shouldn't take long before we had neuron-detailed functional brain models. At which point we would probably have the capacity to implement human-equivalent AI, on one of these fast platforms.

Typical Technologies for Stage 2: O'Neill colony


The 21st Voyage of Ijon Tichy, in Lem's The Star Diaries. Written whimsically, but touches on just about every possible transformation of body and mind, and social attitudes towards these. Lem also describes the story as a "kind of farsighted futurology of religious faith", in an era when anything is possible.


The Swarming

David Zindell. Neverness and The Broken God. Marshall T. Savage. The Millennial Project. vN machines.

a.k.a "Birth of a Technosphere" (A.S.)

"The Swarming" is David Zindell's term. I use it to refer to the onset of near-lightspeed expansion of the technosphere which originated on Earth.

Topics to be covered: von Neumann machines. Argument presented in Tipler & Barrow (1986) that they will be constructed. Moravec's (1989) description of expanding technospheres. Wormhole empires?

von Neumann explorers moving at .75c, .9c; beaming back information, building waystations and some building net.nodes. ISOs made in our vicinity begin a centripetal migration

Using Tipler's assumptions (POI, p55), vNs should take:

See also his p56-57 list of "events in future history".

The Swarming is the expansion of the technosphere beyond Earth - to interplanetary space and other environments within this solar system, and eventually into interstellar space and other stellar systems.

We can expect this process of spreading to eventually resemble a growing sphere, with "Swarming" still happening only at its surface. In its interior, space will have long been occupied. (Cf Tipler and Barrow, ACP, final chapter: there would eventually be a retreat from the old core of the technosphere, as resources were used up.) However, later "Swarmings" might occur if there were secondary migrations within the technosphere; certainly one would expect new influences to spread in a similar manner.

Some motives for rushing out in all directions as quickly as possible:

Some reasons for staying put: Jarts as a possible future (Eternity, Greg Bear).

One scenario

Flotillas of vN explorers race outward from solar space, they and their descendants traversing the galaxy within 60,000 yrs. Behind them come vN colonizers, and even more slowly generation ships and cometary riders spilling out of solar space behind them.

In ours and a thousand other solar systems (and later, a million others), the evolutionary process (the exporation of possibility) continues. At first, the toposophic ascent is steepest in the old stellar heartland (ie the vicinity of Sol), since that is where it has been underway for longest, but eventually intelligence throughout the galaxy would begin a centripetal migration, towards the galactic core, since the core contains the greatest density of matter with which to attempt megascale and space-time engineering.

They might seek to explode the galactic core and create a wormhole empire, or to open a passage to an existing transuniversal wormhole network, or simply to create a new universe not prone to vacuum decay and in which the size of brains can exceed the Sandberg Limits.

It may be that the capacities to create wormholes, time machines and designer universes may all be attained in a relatively short space of time, since they require similar expenditures of energy for their manufacture. If so, there may well be a "Second Singularity" in the evolution of a technological civilization; perhaps a million years in our future, perhaps much sooner.

But first project the future in the absence of such a Second Singularity: ie without spacetime engineering. In this case, the upper bounds of technology would just be "megascale engineering": stellar husbandry, nebular husbandry, largescale movements of mass (Barrow and Tipler, 1976).

Vinge (in Marooned in Real Time) suggests that solar husbandry could be used for antimatter manufacture - how?

A.S.: Beside the toposophical ascent, there will probably develop a toposophical anisotropy as more dynamic, expansive or "younger" groups and societies spread faster than less expansive groups. There could develop concentric layers of various stages, where communications lags would make the different volumes evolve in divergent directions. This is mentioned in later stages, but will begin to appear here. [A.S.]

[M.P.:] The only differentiation I have any confidence in so far is that the leading edge of an expanding technosphere should be occupied by entities specialized for rapid long-distance travel. This implies to me that the "most evolved" intelligences will be found in the interior rather than on the edge.

An animation I'd like to see: the history of a cubical volume of space, several hundred million light-years on a side, showing the nucleation of technospheres and their growth. It should also show worlds where life has appeared, as glowing dots, and worlds where intelligent life has appeared as (say) red dots. Technospheres would then show up as expanding red spheres, growing at light-speed. The idea is that we would see the distribution of worlds where life has appeared, and the way that technospheres generally only encounter other intelligent life when it too is in an expanding phase. Perhaps some frames from such an animation could be put on the web.

Another way would be to draw some Minkowski diagrams, showing why it is so likely that spacefaring intelligences will encounter either planetbound life or another expanding technosphere, rather than life which is still developing technologies, as we are.

The crucial quantity is the frequency of (nondestructive) technological singularities per unit space-time volume... or equivalently, the frequency with which expanding technospheres are created. Knowing this would allow one to estimate the likelihood of our apparent situation, which is that no such technosphere was created anywhere in the past light-cone of Earth.

Typical Technologies for Stage 3: starship


"Angel Station" by Walter John Williams (very suitable, deals with both modified humans, alien contact and the economic problems of unlimited expansion).

The Vastening

Stanislaw Lem. "Golem XIV". In Imaginary Magnitude. Olaf Stapledon. Last and First Men and Star Maker. J-brains, ISOs, toposophy. The galaxy in this era is a great and diverse ecosystem of various kinds of intelligences in different niches. Possibly the laws of ecology as applied to biological beings could be applied to this system. [A.S.]

The leading edges of a technosphere's expansion will presumably be entities specialized for travel and replication. But even as they move on out of the galaxy, the galactic "civilization" or "cultural ecology" left behind will evolve through a succession of states. What are they? (Presumably the "stay-at-homes" will still be influenced by some things happening on the frontier of expansion.)

I find Zindell's picture (see suggested reading, below) suggestive of the early stages of such an evolution. Zindell's galaxy is populated with many clades, all part of a galactic culture, and a few gods of planetary and nebular size.

Anders Sandberg's page on Tipler's timeline has a capsule description of some of these stages in the birth and expansion of a technosphere. Also see A.S.'s upcoming essay on Jupiter-brains.

The process of transformation will in all likelihood proceed at an accelerating rate all the way until we are Jupiter-brains. There's no reason and no way for it to slow down. But there will be no gnostic transcendence of the universe in the process (Singularity a la Schismatrix and Marooned in Real Time). The universe will simply be changed, forever.

Schismatrix suggests that Singularity culminates in transcendence. But it is perhaps more reasonable to suppose that we simply become "gods" (ISOs). Although even Lem - speaking as G14 - intimates a form of transcendence, it seems to me that the only way to transcend reality is to cease to be.

How long does it take to build, or to become, a Jupiter-brain?

Moravec points out somewhere that superintelligent machines may want to live in interstellar space.


What makes [Zindell's] world interesting is the non-trivial topology of space travel. Note that the Order never really understood where the Vild was in general.

Note that we can get a differentiation of the technosphere here (similar to what happens when you allows a 1D cellular automaton evolve from a small initial state into empty space): the leading edge is specialized towards travel/replication, and becomes better and better at it. Behind it are colonized systems and beings which re-colonize them (parasites, posthumans wanting to get away from the rat-race, whatever). After a while they evolve into further states, maybe developing into superobjects (as stage 5), which would form an expanding core. Since different edges have no way to communicate, one could expect them to diverge culturally and technologically.

Typical Technologies for Stage 4: Dyson sphere Books:

Stage 5: GOLEM XIV

An epoch dominated by "gods", intelligent superobjects.

Topics to be covered: Bekenstein Bound. Consciousness vs intelligence, C-mind vs Q-mind and other problems of philosophy of mind. If Q-mind is correct, the size of an ISO (or rather, CSO) may be limited by the distances across which quantum coherence can occur.

(Penrose, Hameroff and others seem to think that the "unity of consciousness" is somehow associated with (or even explained by) quantum coherence (which is ultimately a form of "entanglement" or correlation). If there is a limit to the size of a correlated quantum system, that would therefore be a limit on the size of a conscious entity - if that form of Q-mind theory holds true. )

Quotable Quotes: From David Zindell's Neverness:

"I was given to understand that She manipulated whole sciences and thought systems as I might string words into a sentence. But her 'sentences' were huge and profound as the utterances of the universe itself"

"When Man took to his bed the Computer, there was great rejoicing, and great fear too, for their children were almost like gods. The mainbrains bestrode the galaxy at will, and changed its very face. The Silicon God, the Solid State Entity, Al Squared, Enth Generation - their names are many. And there were the Carked and the Symbionts, whose daughters were the Neurosingers, Warrior-Poets, the Neurologicians, and the Pilots of the Order of Mystic Mathematicians."

From David Zindell's The Broken God:
"There is war in heaven... The gods throughout this galaxy, and in every galaxy, the gods are at war... They're killing each other. They've been killing each other for a million years. This is the ecology I've seen: survival of the fiercest and the vastest... You say human beings can evolve into gods, but that's not enough. It's never been sufficient. There are three requisites for growth without bound, and only three: the will to remake oneself; the genius to survive; and the strength to suffer." (Chapter 19, p574)

[The corpse of the dead god] was as big as a moon and had a glittering diamond skin ten miles thick; its brain was composed of neurologics of a kind the eschatologists had never seen before. As Hanuman had predicted, it orbited a red giant star... (Chapter 21, p627)

Michio Kaku, Hyperspace, p286 (footnote):
In our search for intelligent life in the heavens, we should keep in mind that the aliens we meet will probably also have evolved from predators.
Typical Technologies for Stage 5: Jupiter Brain, Betelgeuse Brain, Andromeda Brain


"The limits of minds", essay by Anders Sandberg

"GOLEM XIV" by Stanislaw Lem (in Imaginary Magnitude). Presents Lem's theory of "toposophy".

David Zindell, again - who seems to be the first to refer to intelligent superobjects as "gods".

Stage 6: Stapledon

A period in which the course of events is dictated by cultural evolution, such as the latter parts of Star Maker. (It may be the case, incidentally, that biogenesis in the universe is rare enough to occur at separations of millions, or even hundreds of millions of LYrs, which would be far enough to explain the Fermi Paradox. In that case, when two technospheres meet, one could expect them both to be millions of years old already, both already knowing all there is to know of natural law and basic technologies, in which case their interaction would be governed by cultural factors probably already at work within each. --In other words, as a hypothesis: "Any phenomenon which has arisen within one technosphere is likely to have arisen within the other, by the time they meet.")

As I recall, Hans Moravec suggests in Mind Children (1989) that an encounter of technospheres would be followed by a "negotiated merger".

A further note: this is why I have placed Stage 6, which includes possible encounters between technospheres, after Stage 5: because I imagine that Stage 5 would be reached rather quickly after Stage 1, in cosmic time. [M.P.]

How great diversity can exist between the technospheres? Are there a finite space of possible cultural patterns, or are there an infinite number of evolutionary paths which diverge? If the first is the case, then the hypothesis is probably true, while in the second case each technosphere might contain many surprises to the other. [A.S.]


This is related to the singularity theory; there is an upper limit to technology/science, and evolution is roughly a sigmoid (with the singularity as the inflexion point). At this stage most of the technosphere (if not all) is at the highest possible state. I wonder if this is the only possibility, could it be that the universe has infinite complexity, or that science could develop into mutually exclusive directions? See, a story where the aliens have a technology based on metaphysics!

A galactic civilization may fear that someone will trigger vacuum decay via a xevatron, a super-high-energy particle collider. For that matter, they might fear a spontaneous vacuum decay, which could be likely on timescales of 10^30 years [reference]. Further vacuum decay is not possible according to the standard model, on the other hand.

Typical Technologies for Stage 6: Technosphere

The far future

The "far future" is the subject of Lem's "second futurology".

Percolation of technospheres. The Fermi paradox. Nucleation rate.

Physical Eschatology

Frank Tipler. The Physics of Immortality. Freeman Dyson. "Time without end: physics and biology in an open universe." Reviews of Modern Physics, Vol. 51, No. 3, July 1979.

Stage 7: Tipler or Dyson scenario eventuates (K4).

Typical Technologies for Stage 7: Big Crunch

One might call this the "Exponential Era", since one charts it best using logarithmic timescales. (On the other hand, the present era might be classed as "exponential" owing to the rate of change of a number of variables.)

A paper by Barrow and Tipler ("Eternity is Unstable", Nature, 30 Nov 1978) says that with time an open universe becomes more and more inhomogeneous. Whether it can become so inhomogeneous as for sections to "close off" I don't know.

Islam p108: Penrose process for extracting energy from super BH ergospheres

Topics: What might be the end state (or rather, asymptotic state) of evolution in a universe where life survives forever? Some sort of universal experimenter and theorem-prover? Alephs, and Rucker's hyperfunctions ("b.e.p. ordering").

Maybe we should add a description here of what an Aleph state is. On this scale the possibilities of cosmic evolution a la Linde becomes interesting. [A.S.]

Notes A36: Mary Midgeley's critique of Dyson, Tipler, et al

Tipler's theory

A final quote

We may like or dislike limits to growth, but their reality is independent of our wishes...

But on frontiers where standards keep changing, this idea of limits becomes irrelevant. In art or mathematics the value of work depends on complex standards, subject to dispute and change. One of those standards is novelty, and this can never be exhausted. Where goals change and complexity rules, limits need not bind us. To the creation of symphony and song, paintings and worlds, software, theorems, films, and delights yet unimagined, there seems no end. New technologies will nurture new arts, and new arts will bring new standards.

The world of brute matter offers room for great but limited growth. The world of mind and pattern, though, holds room for endless evolution and change. The possible seems room enough.

- K. Eric Drexler, Engines of Creation
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