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Transhumanism and the Human Expansion into Space: a Conflict with Physics

Orbital Space Settlements

There are deep memetic roots between expansion into space and transhumanism, largely through Eric Drexler, creator of the modern concepts of nanotechnology and an early activist in the post-Apollo flowering of the space movement. I was deeply involved in the post-Apollo space movement (L5 Society) and moderately involved in early transhumanism, having been a reviewer of Engines of Creation when it was being written and a participant on the early Extropian mailing list where such concepts as Jupiter brains, M brains, and computronium were first discussed. No less an authority than RU Sirius has referred to me as “sort of an ur-transhumanist”.

I have long had misgivings about large aggregations of computing nodes forming a mind because of speed-of-light delays. That will reduce “thinking speed,” since a mind cannot “be of one mind” if much it is not aware of the current situation due to speed-of-light delays.

There is an analogous problem within a culture. We have a world culture today headed toward a monoculture because electronic communications on fiber optics has cut the delay to getting information from one side of the world to the other to sub-seconds. It hasn’t always been this way.

Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition of 1519–1522 became the first to circumnavigate the Earth, a project in its day not unlike the moon landing. My point in mentioning this is not the privations they suffered (extreme) or the low survival rate (232 of 270 died before they got back, including Ferdinand) but the sheer length of time (three years) they were out of touch.

How much communication delay can a society tolerate before it breaks up into smaller units? There are historical examples; the Roman Empire broke up partly because their communications failed, but I am not sure how they apply in a post-singularity world.

At the speed of light, it takes 2/15 of a second to go all around the planet. (40,000 km/300,000km/s) What’s to cause communication delay?

The problem is uploaded humans speeding up. Human brains are asynchronous, but, given reaction times, we can impute an equivalent clock rate of ~200 Hz. Which means a human brain (or brain equivalent) running in moderately fast hardware could run a million times faster. (200 MHz is not fast hardware.)

You might ask, “Why would humans do such a silly thing?” Because intelligence is a large factor in sexual attraction. This was probably established in the Stone Age. Of course, intelligence is valuable outside of sexual attraction, being correlated with many other personality and life-history traits and is especially valued by transhumanists. One aspect of being smart is thinking fast, or at least thinking faster than the person you are trying to impress. That leads at once to a runaway “Red Queen” situation where, when we can run our thinking faster, we would rapidly push the computational speed to the limit, whatever it is.

Speeding up will mandate uploading into faster hardware. Humans could think a little faster in existing bodies, but not a lot. The problem is that the faster you run your brain, the more the world around you seems to slow down. With only a modest speedup, movement would seem like wading through molasses. If you desire serious speedup, it probably has to be in a simulation of the environment to match your faster perception.

Speeding up rapidly leads to a situation where distance causes severe communication delays. We hardly notice telephone communication delays unless they are going through satellites. Speed us up a million-fold and the communication round-trip delay gets to be serious. A million-to-one speed up would impose a subjective round-trip delay of three days from one side of the earth to the other. Subjective round trip delay to the moon would be two months. The delay from hearing back from a computronium node on the far side of earth’s orbit would be 2,169 years, a long time even by Ferdinand ‘s standards. The subjective delay talking to an interstellar spacecraft 10 light-years out would be 20 million years. I don’t know what the maximum is, but two thousand years seems a long response time for a single polity. Twenty million subjective years to get an answer back is just ridiculous.

The speed-up limit may be 100 times as high.

Due to this line of thinking, I no longer think it’s practical to surround a star with computronium. Instead, I suspect population centers will shrink to sizes in the few hundred-meter range and sunk in the deep oceans for cooling.

Taking two subjective seconds as the upper limit round-trip delay for telephone-like communication, the distance could be up to 300,000 km or 300 million meters.

For a million-to-one speedup, that means that all the communicating nodes can be no more than 300 meters apart, i.e., configured as a sphere 300 meters in diameter with a hole to pump water in or out (for cooling). The area of the sphere is ~283,000 square meters.

We now need a number for how big a human-class computer might be. Eric Drexler gave considerable thought to this problem and came up with the volume of a coffee cup. For simple calculations let us take that as a 10-cm cube, or 100 minds to the square meter arranged one layer deep.

Taking the area times Eric’s number, the population of fast uploaded humans per communicating fast culture could be as high as 28 million. If each drew 20 kW (1,000 times the 20 W our biological brains use), the total power draw would be 540 GW. The other factor of a thousand in the million-to-one speed-up comes from the hardware being more efficient than biological brains.

With a fair amount of pressure difference and many fine passages, a water flow of one liter per second through each person (10 square cm) would carry off 20 kW with a temperature rise of about 5° C. The deep ocean is definitely the place for this community.

If you wanted to talk to someone without a delay of up to a second, one of you could move close to the physical location of the other party via a “core swap.” The community might have ten percent or so of empty brains to facilitate moving around.

With each order of magnitude speed up, the maximum community size falls by a factor of 100. That is, a community running at only 100,000 to one could have 2.8 billion residents and one running at 10 million to one would only hold 280,000. The hundred- million-to-one speedup habitat would only hold 2,800. Talk about a physics-enforced oligarchy!

Would you want to move from a slum where there was only a 100,000-to-one speed up to one of these “elite” places with a million-to-one speed up? Do you yearn for the 100-million-to-one existence?

This might sound like total nonsense, except we can already see the beginnings of serious economic concerns with the speed of light. The avatars that run programmed trading must be close physically to the computers that run the stock exchanges.

“In the U.S., high-frequency firms represent only 2 percent of the 20,000 or so trading firms operating today. But they now account for nearly three-quarters of all trades.

“And the average time a stock investment is held these days is 22 seconds. If time is money, microseconds are now millions. In a recent so-called TED talk on cutting-edge technology, tech whiz Kevin Slavin wowed the audience by describing buildings now being hollowed out in Lower Manhattan. Why? So that high-frequency trading firms can move in and get as close as possible to New York’s point of entry for the Internet at a so-called carrier hotel in Tribeca.

“. . . . this is really where the wires come right up into the city. And the further away you are from that, you’re a few microseconds behind every time. These guys down on Wall Street, they’re eight microseconds behind all these guys going into the empty buildings being hollowed out up around the carrier hotel.
“Just to give you a sense of what microseconds are, it takes you 500,000 microseconds just to click a mouse. But if you’re a Wall Street algorithm and you’re fivemicroseconds behind, you’re a loser.”

— from Kevin Slavin on algorithms

One consequence that Eric Drexler discussed in Engines of Creation (end of Chapter 5) was a million years of science and engineering being done in one year. He didn’t discuss the subjective effect of a whole society uploading and subjectively experiencing a million years per calendar year.

If uploads happen by mid century, then by the end of the century human culture could experience 50 million subjective years (or more).

As a conclusion, if humanity takes the speed-up route, then I don’t see a future for M brains, S brains or even Luna-sized brains, and the maximum size of a communicating civilization becomes a good deal smaller than the Earth.

Unless, of course, we can find a way around the speed of light.

As a proto-transhumanist, Keith’s life is scattered over electronics, space engineering, memetics, cryonics, nanotechnology, evolutionary psychology and free speech to name just a few. He has run his own businesses and acted as a consultant since a 1972 dismissal for refusing to certify an electronic module for nuclear power plant use that failed to meet the required MTBF (Mean-Time-Between-Failure) specification. He was once described as a person of integrity by a Deputy DA who prosecuted him for picketing a cult over its lethal practices.

While hiding out from the Scientology cult, Keith started writing a post-singularity novel in which one chapter required so much research it became the base for a presentation at a European Space Agency Conference in February 2007 (A 2,000 tonne per day Space Elevator).

For further information regarding Keith Henson, please visit:


  1. The route around the speed of light involves quantum entanglement which probably involves more dimensions than we can currently test.

    If particles can communicate their positions to each other millions of miles apart instantly – speed of light issues gone.

  2. Perhaps however i would like to think that if we have body’s that do not age we would be inclined to play the long game on a great many things. also it could be possible to have several interdependent puppets of yourself that sync ever so often.

  3. Something which confuses me ( i am not really a scientific community member ) is why we see the human brain as so limited.

    Why are we looking at the virtual mimicing of the human brain rather than the direct improvement of our current wetware?

  4. There are likely endless alternative conclusions that could be drawn from this articles axiom, which is stated as ‘The problem is that the faster you run your brain, the more the world around you seems to slow down.’
    That is describing a subjective effect, which you infer would then cause an actual, objective fact. There is no direct way to prove a subjective experience will cause an objective effect IE. community of minds limited to small distance due to the finite speed of light. Any one of a large number of outcomes could result as an effect of subjective time slowing down as brain computation speeds up. There were quite a few good examples given already. The main argument fails because subjective experience (cause) does not equal a particular objective fact (effect).
    That being said, your article is well written and certainly thought provoking. My best guess on this – which at this point is all anyone can do – is that multitasking will rise in proportion to the speed of thought. If my brain works 1000 times faster, then with the suitable body or conscious medium, I can now perform perform tasks 1000 times faster. That’ll keep me from getting bored while still obeying the laws of physics. And that does not even take into account the fact that patience could be increased in a consciousness to compensate for any subjective time delay.

  5. There are two interlinked reasons why computronium floating around in space is a poor substrate for fast thinking and only one of them is the distance. The other is the heat sinking problem you get into when thinking fast in a small volume.

    Out in space you don’t have all that water that circulates up to the poles and gets really cold.

  6. It seems there will be a bit more diversity in speed, depending on whether you are (=you want to control) a high-speed trading algorithm or some future equivalent of meditation practice. It is also largely unknown how subjective time perception would change after equivalent of million years. With today’s time scales there is some illusion of acceleration of time. Perhaps we’ll grow to some state when almost everyone will be familiar with living a second for a hundred years and vice versa and all rates in between. Actually it is a matter of balance between action and perception. When you run in a deep sea hi-freq zone, you give more, you get less. When you are slowed down, you see subjective speed of light increased, you can get richer experience for the price of losing time. So in a long term, this doesn’t look like a red queen race in just one way, it’s time to work, and time to play.

  7. While I agree with Keith that the largest possible size of an organized community of sped-up uploaded humans might be small, I do not think organization is a prerequisite for growth. If any organized community is able to produce more than one offshoot community that is similarly inclined to produce offshoots, we end up with a universe filled with computronium. Too bad it will be a bunch of squabbling fiefdoms.

  8. While I do agree with your point about how mind uploading means that humans run into the light speed barrier, I disagree with the idea that it will lead to smaller communities in general. Surely new synthetic intelligence could be designed with that barrier in mind and could overcome it more readily. Even human style minds could likely be trained to deal with the boredom of a trip that lasts several thousand human lifetimes. I do however agree with you that polities as we know them now will likely disappear very quickly.

  9. Keith, your points are interesting, but I would like a little more thought around this:

    “With only a modest speedup, movement would seem like wading through molasses. If you desire serious speedup, it probably has to be in a simulation of the environment to match your faster perception.”

    Just as Magellan’s backers wouldn’t have sat around waiting for three years before the ship returned, so we would have another option to the physical world appearing to run a thousand times more slowly: we could manage a thousand times as many projects simultaneously.

    This might undercut some (not all) of the apparent necessity of your subsequent argument.

  10. As intelligent as you seem to be there is a glaring anomaly in you analysis; quantum entanglement.

    Quantum Entanglement allows mankind to bypass all of these limits you describe due to the light speed barrier.

    What have you to say about this?

    • no information is actually transfered when you collapse a pair of entangled particles. quantum entanglement doesn’t give us ftl communication (at least not that we have found so far).

    • Since when has quantum entanglement ever let one bypass lightspeed barriers?

    • It is well established and fairly easy to prove that one cannot communicate by using entangled particles and measuring one of them, since the measurement statistics of the other particle do not change. It doesn’t matter whether they are separated by a nanometer or a light-year.

      For example, consider the simple case of a pair of entangled particles in the |00> + |11> state. Suppose you and a partner each take one of the particles. If you do nothing, and he measures in the |0>|1> basis, there is a 50% chance of him getting a 0 and a 50% chance of a 1. (If you then measure, you will get the same answer.) If you measure first, he still has a 50-50 chance. If you measure at some other angle, he still has a 50-50 chance. Nothing changes for him, at all.

    • You took the words right out of my mouth!

  11. Very interesting. Speeding up brains, will speed up scientific and technologic developments, though at a lesser speed then the brains: you still have to cope with slow reality to do experiments and construct things.