The thermodynamic New Year

From: Eliezer S. Yudkowsky (
Date: Tue Dec 31 2002 - 22:37:32 MST

One hundred and fifty million kilometers away, a stable thing lights the
darkness. It is an accident, this stable thing; a chance coalescence of a
cloud of interstellar dust. It is an accident billions of years old,
persisting to this day. Even in an accidental universe, some accidental
forms survive long enough, or happen frequently enough, to be seen:
burning stars, falling raindrops.

One hundred and fifty million kilometers away, a self-sustaining fusion
reaction burns. Hydrogen becomes helium; two nuclei become one nucleus,
as the star's heat and pressure imparts the two nuclei with enough energy
to pass over the lip of a potential energy surface and fall into the
central well. Like two planets accelerating toward each other under the
influence of gravity, and colliding, converting gravitational potential
energy into kinetic energy, and eventually heat; so the two nuclei, once
over the lip, are attracted to each other by the strong nuclear force.
Potential energy becomes kinetic energy, and then heat. And eventually,
as the heat works its way outward from the star's core, electrons rise and
fall in their orbitals and photons are emitted from the star's surface,
into space.

Photons cross one hundred and fifty million kilometers of distance, to
warm one side of the Earth; on the other side, heat radiates away into the
background cold of the cosmos. One hundred quadrillion seconds ago, these
photons fell on a chance mixture of chemicals, a primordial soup where
molecules randomly wandered in and out of stable attractors. It was the
sun, ultimately, that powered this wandering. A solar photon carries
energy that originates in protons and neutrons crossing the potential
energy surface of the nuclear strong force. In the day, solar photons
raised the temperature of the primordial soup, and provided chemicals
within it the energy needed to cross the weaker electromagnetic barriers
that separate one molecular configuration from another. In the night,
heat radiated into the cold, preventing the primordial soup from growing
steadily hotter until no molecular bonds could form.

One hundred quadrillion seconds ago, the process of evolution began, with
the accidental rise of a complex molecule that could construct copies of
itself from the other stable molecules in its vicinity. But evolution
requires, not just replication, but mutation. When the second
self-replicating molecule came into existence, and the third, and the
fourth, it was the continuing breakup of molecules by the Sun that ensured
the presence of raw materials for these fitter molecules to construct new
copies of themselves. It was the light of day that broke up the molecules
of the past generation and ensured that new replicators did not run out of
raw material to replicate themselves. It was the work done by the Sun
that allowed evolution to produce order from chaos within the
thermodynamic system that is Earth.

As, later, it would be the sunlight of day that allowed plants to break
down the dead bodies of evolution's debris into the simpler molecules that
would be turned into the phenotypes of the next generation. As, later, it
would be the cool of night that allowed the entropy produced by
evolution's computations to radiate into space.

Today our planet completes another orbit around its original source of
order, according to an arbitrary social boundary, rounded to the nearest
planetary rotation. A year is a useful time period for humans to reflect
on; not too short, not too long. The boundary must fall somewhere. It
falls today.

On that boundary day, in addition to the tradition of reviewing the past
year, we created the symmetrical tradition of reviewing the year to come;
looking forward to the future to state predictions or goals.

The Earth rotates on its planetary axis, and the succession of heat and
cold, light and dark, slowly drives the ratchet of evolution. Each
succeeding generation is a little more interesting than the last.

Like a wheel, the Earth is going somewhere as it rotates on its axis; like
a wheel, the cycle of life and birth moves forward as it repeats.

Nature's morality is not our own. "Survival of the fittest" is a
misleading name for a war in which even the winners die. Evolution is a
poor design method, an incremental accumulation of fortunate accidents.
If evolution moves in the direction of greater complexity, then that is
only direction, and not purpose. As the price of our existence, evolution
has charged a toll measured in the death of billions of sentients and
countless quadrillions of nonsentients. The cycle that repeats with each
birth and death is a cycle of war.

But evolution's endless war is a cycle that moves forward as it turns.
Not a traveling vehicle steered by an operator, only a log rolling down a
fitness landscape. Direction, but not purpose; a destination, but not a
target; nonetheless, the cycle is heading somewhere as it turns.

It's heading for the end of the war.

One way or the other, it's heading for the end of the war.

The orbit of the Earth around the Sun, its source of order, also
determines a cycle, the cycle of the seasons. From the perspective of
biology, the seasons are the cycle that turns to drive the evolution of
the shorter-lived forms of plant life.

But from our perspective, a year is the cycle that turns to drive an
individual human lifespan.

Here is the place where we mark the end of one cycle and the beginning of
another. It's an arbitrary placemark, but it's a communal placemark. A
time set aside by tradition to ask each other, and more importantly,
ourselves: "The wheel has turned; did it move forward?" One day, within
the year, set aside as a reminder of the cycle; like one second, within a
day, set aside for your alarm clock to ring in the morning.

Evolution has direction, but no purpose. Purpose is the privilege of
intelligence alone. Are you taking advantage of it?

What was the direction of last year's cycle?
What purpose do you have in store for this one?

What will you do with the gift of 2003?

Eliezer S. Yudkowsky                
Research Fellow, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence

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