Review of ‘Quanta: Thermodynamics of Life’

I recently stumbled upon an article on Quanta titled How Life (and Death) Spring from Disorder and fell in love with it. The evolution of life is but an inevitable consequence of ever-increasing entropy and life can be seen as a computational process to optimize energy extraction from surroundings. Similarly, evolution can be defined as the selection of agents that maximize thermodynamic efficiency, sometimes at the cost of precision.  All biological processes can be explained using physics, even the seemingly inexplicable parts like intention and subjective experience.

My interest in this essay is owed to 3 main concepts: ‘agents’ in the decision theoretic sense, the Bayesian nature of the second law of thermodynamics, and how a maximum entropy heat death of the universe makes a mockery of someone (such as me) seeking immortality.

John Baez once defined life as self-replicating information about how to self-replicate and this essay does justice, in part, to that definition. Considering these replicators to be agents, defined as systems extracting thermodynamic work from their environment, it also suggested that natural selection has selected for agents that minimize the thermodynamic cost of computation, an idea I first encountered while learning the glycolysis pathway and it never ceases to amaze me.

Can agents be defined as systems that extract thermodynamic work from their environments (which in turn gives them the ability to extract even more thermodynamic work)? An agent, then, would be a prediction machine that predicts the positions of particles around it in phase space and uses that information to extract work and maintain a state of order against the tides of increasing entropy.

I was extremely intrigued to see this definition of evolution in terms of both thermodynamics and decision theory and I believe this line of reasoning could help us unravel the mystery of how life first emerged on Earth, rebuking the vacuous ‘elan vital’ model yet again.

Above all,

I had often hoped to disprove the law of increasing entropy because the heat death of the universe and immortality are incompatible.  I sought hope in Maxwell’s Demon until Engines of Cognition ripped it apart piece by piece. Information must be stored physically, computation on information also increases entropy and the second law of thermodynamics is invincible. Sir Arthur Eddington spoke of wanderers and cranks like my former self: 

If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell’s equations — then so much the worse for Maxwell’s equations. If it is found to be contradicted by observation — well, these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation.

 

 

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The most urgent practical question

If you haven’t read Comfortably Numb yet, I recommend reading that post first.

If I ask myself how to judge that this question is more urgent than that, I reply that one judges by the actions it entails … I therefore conclude that the meaning of life is the most urgent of [philosophical] questions.

– Albert Camus

The most urgent philosophical question, Camus suggested, was the meaning of life. I will not try to speculate on that matter, for the phrase ‘meaning of life’ sounds vacuous and practically irrelevant. As Eliezer Yudkowsky put it, not knowing the laws of gravity wasn’t reason enough to jump off a cliff.

Acknowledging the more practically relevant question of mortality can have profound implications. Is it the most urgent practical question – staying alive?

A weight balance with life extension on one side of the fulcrum makes little deviation regardless of what the other side of the balance holds. Nothing seems more relevant, more important. What, if anything, should we refuse to sacrifice in order to launch a relentless and mad pursuit of immortality? Is it rational to invest in anything else over the means to realize immortality?

Having realized how much more desirable being Methuselah is, as opposed to these fleeting, ephemeral lives we’ve resigned to, there is little doubt that fighting death is of paramount importance. Is it instrumentally rational to spend a single waking hour on anything else? What, if any, rational models of time discounting would assign higher utility to our current lives versus even an extremely improbable chance of extreme longevity?

I’m aware the optimal action is not to dive into gerontological research for all of us, but to leverage our comparative advantage. Nate Soares, albeit with some rationalizations, explains what an efficient society would do to maximize productivity and slay the dragon.  I’m not an opposer of diverse professional specializations, I’m against the illusion of immortality, the delusion that procrastination is okay because ‘there’s always tomorrow’.  There is no better example of decisive irrationality amongst the informed and more rational people than their lethargy towards saving their own lives. My thick hypocrisy here doesn’t go unnoticed, I keep forgetting what the most important thing to do is. But let’s not privilege the hypothesis, we can’t stay alive forever if nuclear missiles scorch our tiny mote of dust, or if bacteria that evolve faster than we can fathom decimate and decay us. The war for survival is multifaceted and there are several indispensable wheels that must all be running, at all times, for this is the red queen’s territory. Resting isn’t stagnation, resting is being pushed back by the ferocious tides of evolving pathogens and increasing entropy.

If the most urgent cause is surviving, the most urgent required actions are to make progress in ending aging and preventing existential risks. Failure to do so out of bikeshedding would be tantamount to taking a nap over paying the damn ransom. Failure to do so out of irrational skepticism would be to fall from a cliff because holding on to something seemed unreasonable.

EDF scheduling to save the planet

Real time systems need to execute processes, often within a hard time limit to avoid catastrophic consequences. ‘Tasks’ or ‘jobs’ arrive at the task scheduler queue with a deadline and a worst case computation requirement and must be performed in an order which minimizes the number of missed deadlines. Put it this way, real time scheduling adheres to the ‘better never than late’ policy.

I was quite intrigued to notice the striking resemblance between real-time scheduling and existential risks. Both require foresight and offer no second chances, irreversibly overruling any chances of survival or redemption. Real time systems, fortunately, have a provably optimal algorithm to schedule tasks – it’s called the Earliest Deadline First scheduling algorithm. As the name suggests, it prioritizes tasks based solely on their deadlines and seeks to meet the earliest deadline at all times.

Building an armoury to defend against an alien attack is utterly futile if we’re more likely to be be obliterated by a large-scale nuclear war or a global pandemic before that. Likewise, focusing the spotlight entirely on avoiding global pandemics isn’t a great idea if the melting ice-caps will drown us first. We must adopt an earliest deadline first strategy rigorously and spend more than we do on cigarette ads to ensure that humanity survives this century. Of course, X-risks arrive with probabilistic deadlines and the worst case cost of avoiding them is also highly uncertain. I’m not aware of any probabilistic EDF schedulers but I plan to read about them soon and see how they can be incorporated in policy making more rigorously.

 

The Cell Themed Amusement Park

Life as a physical phenomenon often doesn’t seem as interesting as math. In truth, (IMHO) it is more interesting but less elegant. To the naive viewer like myself, the neatness in math is more elegant than the cluttered site of a cell. However, a cell should be just as elegant once divine vision is obtained. By divine vision, I mean nailing the axioms of Earth (or possibly universal) biology that perfectly and elegantly explain everything in a cell.

There’s more fun to be had in generating new life forms and chimeras, so much more fun and immediate relevance than finding out if some obscure computational complexity class overlaps another. Once we’ve understood the mechanisms and laid the axioms, we could build amusement parks of large floating balls that work exactly like cells. Filled with cellular fluid, we would float in them. Our bodies, wrapped in hydrophobic fluid would have to be navigated around the cytoskeleton somehow. All cellular processes unleashed before us, replication, transcription and translation would occur at blinding speeds. Torrential and tempestuous flurry of molecules would result in the birth of large snake-like proteins, winding around themselves spontaneously into super complex shapes, fulfilling their purpose. Everything around feels like calamitous weather, but a highly structured calamity. Fiercely productive proteins speed around, orchestrating assembly with military discipline. Fluorescence tagged enzymes, shapeshifting in cycles, zipping around amidst an economy of dead molecules.

It should have been dark inside but fluorescence tagged molecules offer a multitude of hues, teaming up to provide a spectral supernatural sight. Single, double and triple helices all around you. Cell division commences in trumpets and ends so, the grandest of chain reactions. This is Escher on steroids. You can’t wait to see the neurons and the virus infected cells!

And the only mechanical thing there is your cart on the cytoskeleton, carried around by bipedal motor proteins which seem to have ‘intentionality’, dodging all attacks – right out of science fiction. The rest of this had to be created artificially, yes. But it now functions spontaneously, increasing the entropy outside, exchanging signals. The trip to space was probably not as much fun as this.

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COMFORTABLY NUMB

We’re all victims to the illusion of immortality. Oblivion of our perishability may have been a valid coping mechanism in the 10th century, when death was inevitable. Some would argue it still is, yet others would call it diabolical to even conceive of changing the world that way. Death, they say, creates balance in the world. Death gives life meaning. The limitations of time induce urgency and aspiration, endless lives would beget lethargy and meaninglessness. To you, I ask, what is meaning? Would the pie stop being delicious if you could eat it as many times as you WANTED to? Would a highly engaging television series lose its charm if it never ran out of amazing episodes? Would you want to die if nobody you’ve ever known was going to?

The culprit, among others, is the naturalistic fallacy, the argument that ‘is’ implies ‘ought’, the argument that the natural status quo is also morally correct. If mortality is the default, it must also be correct. If malaria evolved naturally, ought it thrive?

The other culprit is the false dichotomy of having to choose between 75 years of life and an eternity. No superstate would enforce immortality by resurrecting the dead who willingly departed the world content, exhausted or bored. If chemotherapy doesn’t seem worth it, you may decline. When the pie stops being tasty, you needn’t eat it. (Advances in science will be followed by advances in culinary sciences too. We don’t eat what cavemen ate.)

Death is bad not just for the deceased but for those around them too. Death is deprivation in its most quintessential form. It’s a horror of life which we’ve embraced and rationalized. It inflicts pain and misery and we’ve taught ourselves to live with it, building romantic tales of how death more than compensates for all its horrors. Does it compensate you for your death?

You don’t die in the future, you die in the present. If you’re alive today and would rather not die tomorrow, inductively, you could say, you wouldn’t want to ever die. Today, if after rational self-deliberation you don’t wish to die tomorrow, you are most likely to make the same decision tomorrow and so on. And if you don’t, none shall intervene.

But I see raised eyebrows. Surely, if I kept aging and declining physically and mentally, the quality of every life-year would diminish towards zero. Beyond a point, life would become a sentence forced to carry out in the occupation of a battered, decaying remnant of a human body. Ending aging is a more comprehensive and all-encompassing goal. Ending death, ending suffering caused by aging, etc are the subgoals. The real goal, then, is to strike at the heart of the problem and end aging.

If you still resist the idea that death is a terrible tyrant, ask yourself: Imagine a world where aging and death are demons of misery untold, inflicting immeasurable pain, paralyzing your body, giving you cancer or damaging your mind and ultimately killing you. A world where gut-wrenching terrors at the hand of disease and death were so commonplace people learned to become numb to them. What would that world look like? Wouldn’t it look like our own?

What would you do in such a world? How much of your time would you spend trying to solve these problems? How much of your time would you spend on saving your own life?

REFERENCES:

  1. The reversal test by Nick Bostrom and Toby Ord
  2. Ending Aging videos by CGP Grey and Kurzgesagt
  3. Leave a line of retreat – Lesswrong
  4. Anyone I was fortunate to read but forgot to cite

Natalist Antinatalism

Disclaimer: I no longer agree with most of the content written below.

  • (1) If Earth Overshoot Day isn’t a publicity stunt after all, it might have dramatic consequences for effective altruists. Even if the date (which conspicuously is always an exact date instead of a range, given the uncertainty and seeming intractability of the problem) they claim every year is exaggerated, the possibility of wrecking our planet faster than it can heal warrants an intelligent inquiry, particularly because of the eventuality it entails.
  • (2) The creation of life is generally assigned positive value. I believe the creation of life has high positive value and death has high negative value, not necessarily exactly canceling out.

Is there a point beyond which we should consider collectively slowing down population growth or even decrease the population despite the ‘inherent’ value in creating life? A reasonable tipping point seems to be when the marginal value of creating one more life is exactly canceled out by the inconveniences caused to the rest of the world. One could envisage a starving planet, where every new birth engenders more starvation and suffering – an unlikely scenario where (classical ?) utilitarianism would advise against creating more lives.

  • (3) In a recent post, 80000 hours and Toby Ord discuss that ‘the welfare of future generations should be our number one moral concern’ as only a small fraction of all the people whose well-being we care about are alive today.
  • (4) In Altruism and Profit, Paul Christiano says:

If you complete a high-impact technology project which other technologists would have tackled in a year, the counterfactual doesn’t just involve that project finishing a year sooner—it also involves those technologists going off to do whatever else they would have done.

I argue the net benefit should also include the effects of cascading subsequent discoveries by -1 years. If the discovery improves the quality of everyone’s life by a factor of 1.000001, it doesn’t just ‘save’ 0.000001 * 7 billion QALYs, the counterfactual must also involve the preponement and acceleration of subsequent discoveries that might slightly improve the quality for an extremely large number of generations (In other words, it should have a high multiplier).

Any analysis of the benefit of an outcome must also take into account the impact it has on the (hopefully countless) future generations. The marginal value of giving birth to one more child must also include the impact on all future generations.

The marginal benefit of producing one more child must at least offset the cost of depriving future generations of the resources it consumes. Let it sink in, (if) we are consuming more than we can replenish, (then) with the birth of every new child Earth Overshoot Day is getting closer to January 1. Pause and ponder over the possibility of starving (or maybe just depriving) countless future generations, and the expected impact of averting it. The world needn’t be starving already for the expected value of creating human life to be negative, increasing the likelihood of starving future generations counts as well.

If Earth Overshoot Day is for real, natalism calls for antinatalism.