The Nature of Alien Intelligence
“We’re going to launch lots of tiny spacecraft into interstellar space, have them discover alien intelligence, then bring back its technology to advance human technology by a million years”. I’ve heard some pretty wacky startup pitches over the years, but this might possibly be the all-time winner.
But as I thought about it, I realized that beyond the “absurdly extreme moonshot” character of this pitch, there’s some science that I’ve done that makes it clear that it’s also fundamentally philosophically confused. The nature of the confusion is interesting, however, and untangling it will give us an opportunity to illuminate some deep features of both intelligence and technology—and in the end suggest a way to think about the long-term trajectory of the very concept of technology and its relation to our universe.
Let’s start with a scenario. Let’s say one of the little spacecraft comes across a planet where it sees complicated swirling patterns:
The spacecraft sends out a probe to “make contact”. The swirling pattern “responds” by changing slightly. The spacecraft analyzes the change, and sends out another probe. And pretty soon there’s a whole “conversation” going on between the spacecraft and the planet. But, you might say, that’s nothing like an “intelligence” there; there’s just a “pure physical system” that operates through physical laws.
OK, but now let’s imagine the spacecraft has returned to Earth and is checking it out. It detects complicated patterns of radio signals. It sends out a radio signal of its own. Something on Earth responds. A “conversation” ensues. Maybe the spacecraft is “talking to” a cellphone tower, doing automated handshakes with it. Maybe it reached a ham radio operator, and is exchanging Morse code with them. Or maybe—in an ultimate version of code injection—there’s a computer that’s interpreting the spacecraft’s signals as a program, and is sending back the results of running the program.
It all seems quite sophisticated—and at some level worthy of the technological civilization we’ve built up here on Earth. But let’s zoom out a bit. There’s something coming from the spacecraft, that’s causing something to happen on Earth, that’s causing something to be returned to the spacecraft.
And ultimately whatever is happening on Earth must be a physical process of some kind—operating according to the laws of physics. So what’s the difference between this and those swirling “just physics” patterns that the spacecraft found on the other planet? Everything is ultimately “just physics” after all.
OK, you might say, that’s surely true. But on Earth, even though we might have started from physics, we’ve somehow now “ascended” through chemistry and biology and technology to get to something that’s fundamentally more sophisticated. But here we run into an important—if at first surprising—piece of basic science: my Principle of Computational Equivalence.
Let’s say we represent all those “physical processes” as computations (and our Physics Project implies that all of physics is indeed ultimately computational). Now we can compare the computations that correspond to the planet with the swirling patterns to the ones that correspond to our Earth with us humans in the loop.
And what the Principle of Computational Equivalence tells us is that they’re ultimately equivalent. The computations associated with the swirling patterns are ultimately just as sophisticated as the ones we achieve with our brains and our technology here on Earth. It’s far from obvious that this would be true. But it’s something one discovers when one explores the computational universe of possible programs.
One might think that simple programs would produce only simple behavior, and that somehow the behavior would get progressively more complex with more complicated programs. But that’s not what one finds. Instead, there’s increasing evidence that almost any program that doesn’t show obviously simple behavior can in fact show behavior that is as sophisticated as anything.
It’s been known for about a century that there exist computation universal systems capable of being “programmed” to do essentially any computation. But what the Principle of Computational Equivalence says is that sophisticated computation is not only possible—even for simple programs—but is something that happens generically and ubiquitously.
So what does this mean for our spacecraft? It means that what the spacecraft sees on Earth can be computationally no more sophisticated than what it sees on the planet with the swirling patterns. Yes, we consider there to be “intelligence” here on Earth. But what the Principle of Computational Equivalence tells us is that ultimately there’s nothing abstractly different going on from what’s going on in the swirling patterns.
So if we characterize what’s going on here on Earth as an example of “intelligence” we really should say that those swirling patterns are also “examples of intelligence”. And, yes, it doesn’t seem much like human intelligence. But at an abstract computational level it’s really operating like intelligence—but to us humans it’s “alien intelligence”.
There’s a common saying: “The weather has a mind of its own”. And what the Principle of Computational Equivalence tells us is that, yes, fluid dynamics in the atmosphere—and all the swirling patterns associated with it—are examples of computation that are just as sophisticated as those associated with human minds.
But, OK, so there’s a sense in which the weather “has a mind of its own”. But it’s definitely not a “human-like mind”. Yes, the weather does sophisticated computations. But there’s no obvious way to attribute to those computations the purposes and intentions and other typical features of how we describe what goes on in a human mind. So if indeed we’re going to talk about the weather as being an intelligence, for us humans we have to consider it an “alien intelligence”.
We started off talking about spacecraft going out into the cosmos to discover alien intelligence. But what the Principle Computational Equivalence is telling us is that actually there’s what we can think of as alien intelligence all around us. Yes, we humans have managed to get to the point where we do all sorts of sophisticated computations. But computations of just the same sophistication are being done in all sorts of systems that don’t have that whole human tower of biology and technology.
For a long time it’s been a mystery why we’ve never detected alien intelligence out there in the cosmos. But actually I think there’s no lack of “alien intelligence”; indeed it’s all around us. But the point is that it really is alien. At an abstract computational level it’s like our intelligence. But in its details it’s not aligned with our intelligence. Abstractly it’s intelligence, but it’s not human-like intelligence. It’s alien intelligence.
The Role of Science and Technology
OK, so we can think of lots of systems as being examples of “alien intelligence”. But how does that alien intelligence connect to our human intelligence? Sometimes it’s close enough that we humans can immediately “anthropomorphize” the system to “understand what it’s doing in human terms”. But often we need to put effort into “making a bridge”. And in fact we can view that as being what science and technology are ultimately trying to do.
Let’s say we’re looking at swirling patterns in a fluid. The fluid is doing what it does, in effect continually running a computation that generates its behavior. But how can we “align” that with what’s going on in our brains? That’s where science comes in. Because what science is trying to do is to extract some kind of “human-relatable narrative” from the actual behavior of a system out there in the world. Or in some sense it’s trying to provide a “channel” through which we can “communicate” with the “alien intelligence” that is embodied in what’s out there in the world.
So what about technology? Fundamentally technology is about trying to take what exists out there in the world, and apply it to achieve human purposes. We have a fluid. Now we use it to create hydraulic technology that achieves some practical human purpose. We can see the history of technology as being a progressive effort to identify things out there in the world (metal ore, photoelectricity, liquid crystals, …) that can be sampled and fashioned in such a way as to achieve certain purposes we want.
And insofar as we think of what’s out there in the world as being like alien intelligence, what technology is doing is finding ways to corral that intelligence into achieving human purposes. The truth is that in most of our technology today, we’re not letting that intelligence really do anything close to what it’s capable of. We’re keeping it tightly constrained to take only steps that we can readily understand and foresee. It’s a bit like having a horse with a harness that constrains it to just walk slowly in a straight line—even though without the harness the horse could gallop around and do all sorts of elaborate things, albeit things that we might not readily be able to understand or foresee.
So let’s come back to the spacecraft. It’s reached a planet. And it’s interacting with what’s there. Perhaps there’s some weird electrical storm going on. And, yes, we can think of that as an example of alien intelligence. But if the mission of the spacecraft is to discover technology then what it needs to do is to figure out whether there’s some way to interact with the electrical storm so as to achieve some human purpose.
The storm does what the storm does. But maybe by moving some piece of metal around in just the right way it’s possible to get the storm to charge a battery. Or, more elaborately, perhaps processes in the storm could be used like an analog computer, say to compute solutions to equations. And perhaps—having seen the storm on this planet—it’s even possible to “bottle it up” and replicate it, say in a piece of consumer electronics.
One way to describe what’s going on is just to say rather prosaically that we discovered a phenomenon on the planet, that we were able to use for technology. But more colorfully we could say that we encountered an alien intelligence, we found a way to communicate with it, and then we “brought back” technology from it.
The original startup pitch was about spacecraft getting technology by discovering alien intelligence out in the cosmos. But really the whole spacecraft thing is a distraction. Because actually—as we’ve discussed—there’s plenty we can describe as “alien intelligence” all around us, even right here on Earth. And the issue is in a sense just how to “communicate with it” and find ways to “harness it” for our technological purposes.
We’ve learned in the past century that we can use electrons in semiconductors as a way to build computers. But what about other physical processes? Maybe flowing fluids, for example. Can we use that “alien intelligence” to make a new kind of computer? In the end, the point is that any technology is about finding and harnessing “alien intelligence”. That’s basically just what technology is, and always has been.
The whole “alien intelligence” part of the story, though, is much more relevant when we’re thinking of technology that makes serious use of what we can identify as sophisticated computation. If we’re just using a system from nature for its physical mass, it doesn’t really feel as if we’re using its “intelligence”. But as soon as we try, for example, to base a general computer on it, it’s a quite different story.
In getting technology from the universe we’re basically picking out certain aspects of what exists and choosing to apply these for our purposes. In doing science it seems like we have “less choice” about what aspects of the universe we deal with. After all, we might imagine that science is trying to give us a way to understand anything that’s out there in the universe. But in reality it’s much more like technology. The “scientific narratives” that we understand—at least at a given time in history—are ones that we’re in a sense “primed for”. Yes, something like fluid turbulence might give us “in-your-face” exposure to something computationally sophisticated that’s far from what we normally talk about. But what science mostly concentrates on is creating narratives that are aligned with our existing scientific understanding and discussions—much as technology is set up to be about things that are aligned with our existing human purposes.
One might imagine that—wherever it ultimately comes from—technology must at least always in the end be based on the laws of physics. But what’s emerging from our Physics Project is that actually the story is considerably more complicated than that.
It all begins with the ruliad: the object that represents the entangled limit of all possible computations. The ruliad is a unique, formally necessary object, that in a sense embodies all conceivable existence. And inevitably we are embedded within the ruliad, sampling certain aspects of it to form our perception of reality.
In principle there are all sorts of kinds of observers of the ruliad, with all sorts of kinds of perceptions of reality. But the key point that has emerged as a foundation of our Physics Project is that “observers like us” have certain general characteristics—specifically that we assume that we are persistent through time, and also that we are computationally bounded—and from these characteristics alone, we can abstractly deduce from the structure of the ruliad that we must “experience” core standard laws of known physics.
The ruliad in a sense contains all possible physicses. But it’s our particular kind of sampling of the ruliad that leads us to the particular laws of physics that we currently know. An “alien intelligence” might sample the ruliad quite differently, and thus in effect “experience” quite different laws of physics.
Somewhere underneath everything we can think of there being a giant hypergraph of individual atoms of existence—but with the means of perception observers like us have, we inevitably “coarse grain” to the point where, for example, we experience this as continuous space. Another kind of observer, with different characteristics, might, for example, not do that coarse graining, might never experience continuous space, and might have a completely different perception of how the universe works.
In some sense, therefore, physics is much more like technology than we might expect. There isn’t an “absolute physics”. There’s just the physics that we as observers extract from the ruliad. Much like there’s particular technology that we choose to build from the “raw material” that exists. Put another way, both physics and technology are ultimately things we “extract” from the ruliad, in effect by making certain choices.
How we “extract” physics seems, however, much more constrained. For example, we as humans have only certain particular senses through which we are biologically set up to experience the world. Yet we have the feeling that in technology we can in effect “construct whatever we want”—although inevitably “what we want” is also still at least influenced by how we are biologically set up.
We’re very used to the idea that over time technology progresses—as we invent more, and work out new ways to use our “raw material” to achieve human purposes. But physics as a science progresses too. And in a sense what’s happening there is that we’re expanding our character as observers to be able to perceive and experience more of “what’s going on”—ultimately in the ruliad.
Part of that expansion is actually a matter of technology. We’re building telescopes and microscopes and amplifiers that allow us to extend our raw human senses to be sensitive to more things. But there’s also another part of the expansion that is in effect intellectual: we’re developing new conceptual frameworks that allow us to “corral” things we see happening in the world into forms that “fit narratives” we’ve constructed.
And the important point here is that neither our technology nor our physics is fixed. They’re in a sense co-evolving—gradually allowing more and more of the ruliad to be pulled into our narratives and our purposes. Or, put another way, what we observe is gradually expanding to encompass more and more of the ruliad, and to be able to make use of more and more of it.
Reaching Out across Rulial Space
How are “different intelligences” manifest in the ruliad? We can imagine organizing the ruliad to be laid out in some form of rulial space. And from each point in rulial space one in effect gets a “different perspective” on the ruliad. And that’s at least the beginning of the story of how “different intelligences” exist and experience the ruliad.
It’s similar to what happens with physical space: from different places in physical space one gets a different perspective on the universe. In physical space we have a concept of motion: that observers like us can move from one place in space to another while in effect maintaining our coherence and integrity.
How does this work in rulial space? We can think of different points in rulial space as corresponding to different computations, with different rules. So rulial motion in effect corresponds to making a translation between one computation and another. At the outset, it’s not obvious this would even in principle be possible. But the Principle of Computational Equivalence implies that it ultimately will be. The computations at different points in rulial space will (almost always) be equivalent in their sophistication—and as is typical with universal computation—it’ll therefore in principle be possible to have an “interpretation process” that translates between them.
But the big question is whether this can be achieved in practice. Just how far can a particular observer translate in rulial space while maintaining their coherence and integrity?
The ruliad is a complex and (if sampled across slices in time) continually changing thing. But a critical feature is that there can be structures that have a certain persistence within it. In physical space these are things like particles (as well as black holes) that behave like “stable lumps of space”—or like stable lumps in certain projections of the ruliad. In rulial space there can presumably also be structures with a certain persistence: “particles” of rulial space. And these “particles” somehow correspond to features that “survive across different computational perspectives”—or in effect represent “robust concepts”.
When we talk about “different intelligences” a very familiar example is different human minds. And in a sense we can think of different human minds as being laid out in rulial space—with each mind being at a different rulial position, and thus having a different computational rule by which it operates, and a different “experience of the ruliad”.
So how can these minds “communicate”? Ultimately it is through “rulial motion”. But potentially the most robust form of rulial motion is through rulial particles—which we’ve identified above with the abstract idea of “robust concepts”. Put in a practical way: different (human) minds operate internally in different ways. But they can still “communicate” by exchanging something that in effect “survives translation” between one mind and another: rulial particles corresponding to robust concepts (say expressed in a language).
But, OK, we can imagine rulial space with lots of human minds laid out at different places, with ones that communicate more easily closer together. So what about “alien intelligences”? Well, each one is somewhere in rulial space. But they may be far away from where our human minds are.
We can imagine our rulial particles—or “robust concepts”—being able to reach a certain distance in rulial space. The human idea of “excitement” might for example be able to reach the place in rulial space where we’d find the minds of dogs. But what about the weather, for example? Well, as an alien intelligence, it’s presumably much further away in rulial space—and, anthropomorphize it as we might—it’s not clear what its notion of “excitement” would be.
It’s an often-asked question why—with our spacecraft and radio telescopes and everything else—we haven’t ever run across what we consider to be “naturally occurring” alien intelligences. In the past we might have imagined that the answer is that there just isn’t anything like “intelligence” (outside of us humans) to be found in any part of the universe that we can probe. But the Principle of Computational Equivalence says that’s fundamentally not true, and that in fact “abstract intelligence” is thoroughly ubiquitous among systems with all but the most obviously simple behavior.
So to “find” alien intelligence it’s not that we need a more powerful radio telescope (or a better spacecraft) that can reach further in physical space. Rather, the issue is to be able to reach far enough in rulial space. Or, put another way, even if we view the weather as “having a mind of its own”, the rulial distance between “its mind” and our human minds may be too great for us to be able to “understand” and “communicate with it”.
So what will it take for us to “bridge this rulial gap”? At some level it’s just about building the right science and technology. We can think of science as being about defining a way to “translate” from the computational rules by which some particular system operates to the computational way our human minds operate. Or, in terms of rulial space, finding a way to “move” from the rulial position of the system to the rulial position of our minds—and translating from the way a system works to a “human narrative” that represents it.
Centuries ago we might have just said “the planets do what they do”; maybe their motion in space is driven by an “alien intelligence” that we don’t understand. But then along came mathematical science and we were able to “translate” from the intrinsic computation done by the planets to a mathematical description that we internalized enough to consider it a human narrative that we understand.
In some sense at any given time in intellectual history our minds “reach out a certain distance in rulial space”. We’ve developed conceptual frameworks that allow us to maintain a coherent understanding of a certain range of things—with that range growing as we invent new frameworks. At one time our “domain of understanding”—or the region of rulial space that we could reach—didn’t encompass the behavior of electricity. But our “intellectual expansion” in rulial space eventually reached this, and the result is that we can now use electricity as “raw material” from which to construct technology.
One way we “expand our reach in rulial space” is in effect conceptual: by expanding what we understand. But another way is by being able to “sense” or “measure” more. When we invent radio—or, for that matter, gravitational wave detection—there are immediately new kinds of processes that we manage to “connect to human experience”. Or, put another way, there are more distant parts of the ruliad that we’re able to reach.
More prosaically, we can say that if we want to be able to use something for technology, we’d better be able to detect that it’s there, and we’d better be able to understand it well enough that we can see how it could align with our human purposes. We can think of the ruliad as being full of alien intelligences—with plenty of capabilities to “mine”. But to be able to actually mine something for our technological purposes we have to be able to reach it across rulial space; we have to be able to connect it to us.
So what does this mean for the original startup pitch? Yes, it’s a good idea to “mine alien intelligences” for technology. In fact, that’s basically where technology always comes from. But there’s no need to send out spacecraft, “discover” alien intelligence, and so on. There are “alien intelligences” all around us; the issue is just to reach them across rulial space, and be able to “communicate” with them. But what we’ve argued is that the process of progressively reaching out in rulial space is just the general process of progressively advancing science (and the technology on which it depends).
So, yes, by all means explore more of what’s out there in the world, with more, different kinds of sensors and measurements. Then try to “understand” what you see enough to be able to tell how to align it with human purposes, and make technology out of it. But there’s no pressing need for interstellar spacecraft in this picture. It’s just a matter of doing more science to expand our domain in the ruliad, and mine more of rulial space.
The Evolution of Purpose and the Colonization of Rulial Space
We can think of technology as being about setting up things that exist in the world (or ultimately in the ruliad) to achieve human purposes. And we’ve talked about how the advance of science and technology allows us to progressively reach further in rulial space to get “raw material” for our technology. But we’ve said that technology is intended to “achieve human purposes”. So what might those purposes ultimately be?
Our purposes have certainly evolved over the course of human history. In today’s world, we might view it as purposeful to walk on a treadmill, or to trade cryptocurrencies. But it would be challenging to explain the purpose of such things to someone from even a few hundred years ago.
In a sense, purposes evolve as we build new conceptual frameworks, and as we set up technology that allows us to do new things. More abstractly, we might say that purposes are also something defined by places in rulial space. So when we talk about the evolution of purposes, what we’re really asking is where in rulial space our history and development has led us, and will lead us in the future.
And certainly in the vastness of the whole ruliad, our existing human purposes occupy just an infinitesimally tiny part. Think, for example, of the natural world even as we are currently aware of it. The vast majority of things in it do not seem in any way aligned with our purposes—and we have not been able to mine them for technology. Historically, however, there’s been progressive expansion in the domain of our purposes. There was a time when we knew about magnetic rocks, but had no purpose for magnetism. But over the course of time, from compasses to actuators to memories, more and more human purposes have emerged that connect to the phenomenon of magnetism.
And in a sense we can view the whole core trajectory of human progress as being about the expansion of the region of rulial space—and the ruliad—that represents our purposes. So how will this evolve?
As I’ve discussed extensively before, there seem to be two central features that we as entities in the ruliad have. First, that we are computationally bounded. And second, that we believe we are persistent in time. Computational boundedness is essentially the statement that the region of rulial space that we occupy is limited. In some sense our minds can coherently span a certain region of rulial space, but it’s a bounded region.
What about persistence in time? It means that even though we are always being reconstructed out of different atoms of existence (and different atoms of space), we conflate things to the point where we experience a single continuous thread of existence.
Taken together, these features suggest a picture of us being a kind of “blob” that gradually moves around in rulial space. Does it matter that there isn’t just a single human mind? Well, yes. Without some kind of “observer” there’s no real way to even define what it means to have a “blob”. And in the end it’s a story of consistency of observers observing observers. But the result is that we can think of our whole collective “flotilla” of human purposes as being something localized that moves around in rulial space, expanding the region of the ruliad that it reaches.
But just how far can this go? Imagine that at some time in the distant future we have successfully explored—and “colonized”—much of rulial space. To do this we’d certainly have to have broken out of the particular constraints of our biological construction, and made use of “additional raw material” in the ruliad.
But what would it mean to be spread across a large swath of rulial space? Our very notion of existence seems to depend on localization in rulial space. The thing that we view as “us” is something particular and coherent. To be “bigger” in rulial space is to deny that particularity and coherence, and to become something generic that does not represent any kind of “specific entity that exists”.
In a sense, it’s a pyrrhic view of the ultimate limit of our technological and other evolution. As we progress, we gradually “mine” more and more of the ruliad, pulling it into the domain of technology and of our “human” (or post-human) purposes. But in doing so, we eventually transcend the very characteristics that we identify with existence. In other words, if we go too far with our expansion in the ruliad, we simply cease to exist, at least in the sense that we currently define existence.
Put another way, if we “absorb” more and more “alien intelligence” there’s eventually no longer any coherent “us”. Of course, the very notion of coherence is something we’re basically defining from our current human view of things. And no doubt there are other definitions that could be given. But they’re certainly far away from our current place in rulial space, and it’s not even clear they can be reached without some kind of “discontinuity of motion” that would in effect fundamentally break their connection to us as we are now.
Face to Face with Alien Intelligence, Out in Rulial Space
At a fundamental level, the ruliad is a purely computational object, that we can think of as being made of pure, abstract atoms of existence (or “emes”). When observers like us sample the ruliad we can attribute to it the characteristics that correspond to our perception of physical reality. And a notable feature of that sampling is that it supports the idea of pure motion in physical space. In other words, it allows for the possibility that structures can “maintain their perceived physical integrity” while being “re-formed” out of different atoms of space, which themselves are interpretations of the pure atoms of existence in the ruliad.
But as soon as we start thinking about any kind of serious motion in rulial (rather than physical) space it no longer makes sense to talk about anything like “maintaining physical integrity”, not least because in different places in rulial space the very notion of physics changes. But wherever we are in the ruliad we can still think about what’s going on as computation. We might have some way of observing or sampling the ruliad that gives us some perception of reality—like physics, or mathematics. But if we “atomize” things down to the lowest level, we’ll always find raw computation.
As “physical observers like us” we only have limited capabilities to probe or manipulate the raw ruliad and affect what we perceive as physical reality. We can move physical objects around, maintaining what we observe of their structure. In principle we could imagine deconstructing objects into individual atoms of existence, then recreating them “transporter style” somewhere else in physical space. But as of now, we don’t know how to do this, and most likely it’s not possible for observers like us—because it would require “outcomputing” computationally irreducible features of the structure of space down at the level of individual atoms of space, which is far from what computationally bounded observers like us can expect to do.
But what about raw computation, of the kind that ultimately makes up the ruliad? There the story is different. Because we’re no longer constrained by our character as physical observers, so we’re free to in effect “make up any computation we want”. To explore the physical universe we need physical motion or something like it. And at least for observers like us the only way to achieve this seems to be to progressively move structures across physical space. But to find out what can happen in the computational universe we can effectively just write down any rule (i.e. any program) that appears “anywhere in the ruliad”, and run it.
Of course, when we run a rule on a practical computer, it’s just an emulation of what’s happening in the raw ruliad. But it’s just an abstract rule—so although it will run astronomically slower, its ultimate behavior in our emulation will inevitably be identical to what it is when implemented in terms of individual atoms of existence in the “raw ruliad”.
In principle we could take the same approach in emulating the elements that make up our physical reality. But observers like us are so big relative to the raw elements of the ruliad that we can’t expect our emulations to be at a scale where we can faithfully reproduce what we perceive. (Needless to say, in practice we can still get good approximations, and this is a particularly fertile application of our Physics Project.)
But when we’re dealing with “raw computation” down at the lowest level of the raw ruliad, we can expect to faithfully emulate it. And so it is that we can just pick a cellular automaton or a Turing machine or some other kind of computational system—that in effect comes from anywhere in the ruliad—and emulate it to find out what it does. There’s no “object we have to move” to be able to “look at that part of the ruliad”. We’re emulating things down at the level of individual atoms of existence, and seeing what happens.
We can think about our computational experiments as letting us “jump” to find out what it’s like anywhere in the ruliad. And as we “suddenly materialize” somewhere in the ruliad it’s as if we’re immediately “face to face” with whatever “alien intelligence” there is at that place in the ruliad.
But what can “observers like us” expect to make of that alien intelligence? Well, to be able “communicate” or even “relate” we somehow have to be able to “bridge the gap in rulial space”. And since we just “jumped to a place in rulial space” we don’t immediately have any “progressive path” that “incrementally” takes us from our familiar position in rulial space to wherever the alien intelligence is.
But what does that feel like in practice? The whole idea of ruliology is just to go anywhere we want in the computational universe or in the ruliad, and see what happens when we run the rules we find there. And it’s indeed routine to find that what they do seems quite “alien”. Still, they often have certain essential features that for example remind us of the natural world as we observe it. But our standard methods of science (and mathematics)—developed on the basis of being “observers like we are today”—don’t readily allow us to “understand” the behavior of these systems chosen in the course of doing ruliology. To us they usually just seem to be “showing computational irreducibility”, and behaving in ways that we can effectively get no handle on.
But still, we can in a sense view these programs “out there in the computational universe” (and in effect strewn around the ruliad) as showing us what’s possible. They’re like alien intelligences that we know exist, but that we don’t yet understand, and don’t yet know how to harness or relate to. We can see them as some kind of beacons of possible technology of the future—of things that “exist in the ruliad”, but that we haven’t yet been able to connect to human purposes.
But so how might we make this connection? Well, as it happens, I’ve devoted much of my life to what can be viewed as the construction of a systematic bridge between what’s “computationally possible” and what we humans think of as important. For that’s the story of what I call computational language—and indeed of the whole intellectual structure that is the Wolfram Language.
There’s infinite potential content in the ruliad. But one can view the goal of the Wolfram Language as being to represent—in a way that’s optimized for us humans to understand—those parts that we humans consider important. The language lets us use the concepts of computation not only to crystallize our existing thinking, but also to expand what we can think about, in effect letting us reach out further in rulial space. Computational language is the general way that we “tame the ruliad”—extend the frontier of “human colonization” in the ruliad, and in the end “mine” more and more of the ruliad for “useful technology”.
Just in terms of its practical place in the world today I’ve often said that the Wolfram Language is like an “artifact from the future”. But now we see a deep sense in which this is true. The raw ruliad is just “out there”, with “infinite potential”, but as something whose fundamental character has nothing to do with us humans. But what computational language is about is delivering what one can think of as the ultimate “meta-artifact”: something that progressively turns the raw ruliad into “human-recognizable technology”.
Much of this progress involves the specific, systematic design of the Wolfram Language. But there are also forays that in effect jump further out into rulial space. For example, we’ve often enumerated large collections of simple programs, identifying ones that satisfy a certain criterion. And sometimes that feels a lot like “leveraging alien intelligence” without “understanding” it. The rule 30 cellular automaton, for example, is a good pseudorandom generator, even though we don’t really “understand” even fairly basic things about it.
And, yes, computational language is what we need to concretely “state a criterion”, in effect expressing what we’re thinking about in computational terms—that we can use, for example, to let us explicitly search the ruliad for an “alien intelligence” that does what we want.
What does it look like out in the “raw ruliad”? It’s easy to start just looking at simple programs, say picked at random. And, yes, they have all sorts of elaborate behavior:
But what is this behavior “achieving”? Yes, it’s following the particular underlying rules that have been given. But we don’t have any immediate way to connect it to “human purposes”. And in general we can expect that to make that connection what’s needed is for those purposes themselves to “expand”.
Maybe at some moment we call what’s produced “art”, and assign it some “aesthetic purpose”. Maybe at some point we see that it satisfies some engineering purpose that we’ve just realized we should care about. But in general, computational language is the way we can make the connection between “raw computational processes” out there in the ruliad, and our patterns of thinking about things. It’s the ultimate way for us to “communicate with alien intelligence”.
The Launch of a Rulial Space Program
We began with the far-out startup pitch of sending spacecraft to discover alien intelligence and bring its technology back to Earth. But what we’ve realized is that actually no spacecraft—of the ordinary kind—are needed. There’s “alien intelligence” to be found everywhere; you don’t have to travel to interstellar space to find it. But the challenge is to connect the “alien intelligence” to human purposes, and extract from it what we consider “useful technology”. Or, put another way, the issue is not about traversing physical space, but rather about traversing rulial space.
With our spacecraft we humans have so far reached about a 20-trillionth of the way across the physical universe. But no doubt we’ve reached a far smaller fraction of the way across the ruliad. As our science, knowledge and technology increase, we gradually reach further into rulial space. But whether it’s our failure to communicate with cetaceans or our inability to make computers out of, say, fluids, it’s clear that by many measures the distance we’ve gone so far is not so large.
In a sense the startup idea of “harnessing alien intelligence” is the meta-idea of all technology—that in our terms we can state as being to connect what’s “computationally possible” in the ruliad with purposes we humans want to achieve. And I’ve argued that the ultimate meta-technology for doing this is not spacecraft but computational language. Because computational language is what we need to make a bridge between what we care about, and “raw computation” out in the ruliad.
It’s difficult to send physical spacecraft out into interstellar space. But it’s actually a lot easier to probe the much richer possibilities of the ruliad—because in a sense it’s straightforward to put a “rulial spacecraft” anywhere. We just have to pick a rule (or program), then see what the “world” it generates is. But the challenge is then in a sense one of interpretation. What is happening in that world? Can we relate it to things we care about?
At the outset, all we’re likely to see at some “random place” in the ruliad is rampant computational irreducibility. But it’s a fundamental fact that wherever there’s computational irreducibility, there must also be slices of computational reducibility to be found. In the ordinary physical universe that we experience, those are basically our perceived laws of physics. But even in a random sample of the ruliad we can expect there’ll be computational reducibility to be found. It’ll typically be “alien stuff”, though. It might have the character of science, but it won’t be like our existing science. And most likely it won’t align with anything we currently think we care about.
But that is the great challenge and promise of mounting a “rulial space program”. To be confronted not with what we might recognize as “new life and new civilizations”, but with things for which we have no description and no current way of thinking. Perhaps we might view it merely as humbling to encounter such things, and to realize how small a part of the ruliad we yet understand. But we can also view it as a beacon of where we could go. And we can view a whole “rulial space program” as a way of systematizing the ultimate project of exploring all formally possible processes. Or we could think about it not just as defining a single “startup opportunity”—but rather as defining the “meta-opportunity” of all possible technology startups….