Does Cosmological Evolution Select for Technology?
July 17th, 2020

I recently wrote a paper about the role of technology in cosmological evolution. Here's a bit of the personal backstory.

I'm a device physicist primarily focused on hardware for artificial intelligence, but this work is at the intersection of applied physics and cosmology. The paper presents the hypothesis that the universe is the result of an evolutionary process that has led to the coexistence of stars, life and technology because these systems function together to produce many offspring universes. This idea is an extension of Lee Smolin’s theory of cosmological natural selection, in which he first introduced the idea that the universe is a result of an evolutionary process.

To explain where this work came from, we have to go back 20 years. Just before I moved away to college, I was at a bookstore with my mom. I picked out three books. One was Lee Smolin’s Life of the Cosmos, which presents his theory. The second was Nature's Destiny, by biologist Michael Denton. That book regards the anthropic principle and describes all the astonishing properties of the universe that enable life, and specifically humans, to exist. The third was about the physics of the brain.

The essence of Smolin's theory is as follows: When a star in our universe collapses into a black hole, it emerges as a new universe in what would look like a Big Bang to an inhabitant of the offspring universe. Smolin argues, from quantum gravitational principles, that the daughter universe would inherit laws of physics nearly identical to its parent, but with slight mutations due to the probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics. Natural selection would then occur on a cosmological scale. Universes with laws of physics conducive to star production (and therefore black hole production) will be most numerous. In this picture, our universe is but one in a vast multiverse, and the physical parameters have been optimized based on the properties of stars.

By contrast, Michael Denton looks at myriad aspects of human anatomy, biology and other properties of our planet that make it conducive to life. He presents compelling arguments that every detail is perfectly crafted to give rise to complex life, in particular, life that looks and operates very similarly to us.

With these books in my bag, I got in my van and drove from my home in New Mexico to my new college town in California, where I had the opportunity to see everything from a fresh perspective. I studied these ideas, along with my course work, and it seemed they were in conflict. One is arguing the laws of physics take their properties so the universe can produce many stars. The other argues the laws of physics are designed to give rise to us — humans. I settled on the resolution that Smolin was right: Cosmological natural selection generated a universe well-tuned to create stars, and life found a way to emerge from the complexity. The fact that the physical parameters of the universe are so well-matched to our construction could just be evidence that Darwinian evolution has done an excellent job of finding fitness in this particular context. The laws are for the stars, and we are just flowers growing from the soils of the supernovae.

This perspective rested in the back of my mind for 15 years while I studied physics in more practical contexts, eventually building a career around systems using superconductors and light for computation. NIST Boulder is a great place to do this work due to the amazing people, infrastructure and broad institutional expertise. It is also convenient to be able to walk out in the foothills beyond the parking lot after a long day in the lab to see the stars at twilight. They always remind me of Smolin’s theory, and as I've deeply explored the physics of technology, the sky seemed to highlight a contrast. Stars will keep burning for billions of years, but here on our planet, technology is exploding much faster—in a few hundred years we might make black holes ourselves.

We know it's possible to artificially make black holes. The idea was proposed in the 1980s. But what if we figured out a way to make very large numbers of them by converting matter into singularities? We'd be playing with the statistics of cosmological reproduction. We might be even more effective than stars themselves. In this paper, I include a simple calculation that shows this is a real possibility.

It occurred to me that if intelligent life eventually evolves to produce black holes, it would resolve the apparent conflict between the ideas of Smolin and Denton. In this paper I present the hypothesis that the laws of physics were originally optimized to create black holes via stars, but then evolved further to create black holes via sentient tinkerers and the technologies they devise. If this concept is correct, it would mean the parameters of the universe are not selected through cosmological evolution for the sole purpose of producing stars, nor are they optimized specifically for life. Rather they have arisen through cosmological natural selection as a compromise between the competing demands of stars, life and technology, as these systems working in conjunction can lead to far more offspring than stars alone.

Consideration of the role of technology provides the puzzle piece that allows us to assess whether this form of cosmological evolution has occurred. Through calculations of the properties of stars, water and technological materials like silicon, we can assess how surprised we should be that these entities all coexist within the universe. While straightforward, these calculations will require a collaboration between several specialists across scientific disciplines to test the hypothesis.

I hope to form these collaborations and test the idea in the next couple of years. If the hypothesis is correct, there are important ramifications. It would mean we should expect to keep developing in technological complexity and eventually gain the ability to harness force and matter to efficiently create black holes. It may also provide a conceptual context for the work we do at NIST. It is our mission to measure the parameters of nature to support the development of technology and society. Yet we usually don’t think about the origin of these parameters. If this idea is supported, it will provide an explanation of the mechanism by which our universe obtained its physical parameters, and it will point to an exciting evolutionary future in which intelligent beings play an integral role.

I haven’t said much about that third book regarding physics and the brain, but that subject has also been an important thread in my thinking all these years. My primary project at NIST explores the physical limits of artificial intelligence. I’ve got a hypothesis under test in that domain as well: by leveraging the properties of superconductors for computation alongside light for communication, we may be able to construct thinking machines with intelligence far beyond our own. Find out more at our project page.

As a note to young people, my advice is to make plenty of time to read and walk. Keep in mind that it may take 20 years for your ideas to come together. Even incorrect ideas can lead to scientific progress. Keep going.

You can access the paper with this link. The paper is summarized in this video abstract.