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Summa Technologiae (Electronic Mediations) by Stanisław Lem (1966; en: 2013) (read in 2019)

Published by marco on

Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.

This is a non-fiction work translated from the original Polish. It is not a light work: it encompasses Lem’s complex and intricate musings and theories on technology, nature, genetics, cosmology, philosophy, biology, information theory, ecology, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, cybernetics, robots, programming, identity (cloning), human nature and how these all relate to mankind’s possible future or lack thereof. He discusses the likely shape of galactic civilizations as well as the possible composition or origins of its components, where their intelligence comes from, where it would likely develop, where it wouldn’t, why science fiction is lazy and, above all, he keeps the discussion rigorously supported by data, even when he seems to be engaging in the most whimsical flights of fancy.

It’s hard to summarize this book any less vaguely than that. It’s just chock-full of relatively advanced thinking—especially for the time, over 50 years ago—of an extremely intelligent and, by all accounts, intellectually rigorous man. I’ll use some of his own citations to illustrate what I found so exciting in such a weighty and densely written tome (it took me quite a while to make my way through it).

Much of what he has to say has been said in other places, but perhaps less eloquently, and not all in one place, connected into a coherent strand of pearls that actually give a framework to thoughts about the future of not only humanity, but any form of intelligence, regardless of where or how it arises.

On the pace of development outpacing humanity’s societal structures (i.e. the wisdom of elders):

“When the entire life of a future generation ceases to be a repetition of their parents’ lives, what kinds of lessons and instructions can the old, experienced as they are, offer to the young?”

On the necessary narrowing of intellectual pursuit, with each decision to take a certain branch leaving less energy and intellectual capacity and effort to pursue other, possibly more societally lucrative, paths.

“Briefly put, technoevolution brings more evil than good, with man turning out to be a prisoner of what he himself has created. The growth of his knowledge is accompanied by the narrowing down of possibilities when it comes to deciding about his own fate.”

There is no avoiding this: there is only improving the odds that the chosen path is fruitful. In this vein, any civilization—humanity definitely included—only has so much energy and intellectual capacity for missteps. The more advanced, the more likely that an effort will be able to appropriate a large amount of the available resources. In this, Lem presages our coming battle with climate change: we don’t have unlimited “lives” to start over (as in a video game). Instead, we must marshal our resources carefully.

The profit motive is an unreliable siren here; in the past, we have expended considerable wasted effort “optimizing” for the best solution, throwing incredible resources at a problem, only to end up with a good solution, but with very high cost. In this way, we are emulating Evolution’s inefficient process, copying the only creator we know. But our effort to extract ourselves from the narrowing chasm of climate change will require a more precise investment of resources.

We are unlikely to do so and will die out. Lem wonders whether that is the nearly unavoidable fate of many civilizations: why would humanity, with all of its faults, and its massively redundant but ultimately unreliable biological machinery, be different?

“Are we really supposed to believe that, when looking at the sky above us, we are seeing an abyss filled with worlds that have already been turned to ashes by the power of their suicidal intelligence or that are headed directly toward such an end?”

How would the main driver of change, Evolution, be able to help us avoid such a fate? Humanity’s intellect allows it to destroy itself much more quickly than Evolution could possibly react.

Because we’re smarter than that? Not really. Lem offers a definition of intelligence that is humbling—all the more so because it is frighteningly accurate and utterly devoid of artifice that romanticizes mankind as “special”.

“By Intelligence we understand a second-level homeostatic regulator that is capable of coping with disturbances to its environment thanks to the activities in which it engages on the basis of the historically acquired knowledge.”

He is similarly calculating and sober about the purpose of societies. It is hard to find fault with his description, at least at the high level where it truly matters.

“What to an observer from a different culture may look like a most irrational type of social ties, obligations, imperatives, and prohibitions has practically always aimed at the same goal: reducing the individual spontaneity of action and its diversity—which is a potential source of disturbance to the state of equilibrium.”

In his discussion of artificial—or “machine” (designed)—intelligence, he offers up an interesting and understandable analogy to describe the “gap” in intelligence between different levels of beings (instead of trying to pretend that knowledge and wisdom make no difference).

“In undertaking a reduction, a machine will thus be doing what a physicist is doing when explaining gravitational wave theory to a wide audience by taking recourse to a modest arsenal of school-level math.”

As for how these machines might work, he looks to the most complex machines heretofore designed: us. Evolution may have expended a shamefully wasteful amount of energy and time designing and refining us, but there is no arguing that she came up with a relatively robust machine. That is not to say that there isn’t a tremendous amount of room for improvement with a more focused design process, but that the human machine is still more advanced and impressive than anything that man has managed to design and build.

The key is autonomous systems, to focus the intellect on higher-order functions.

“The more complex a system is, the more overall regulation is needed, and the smaller the extent to which local oscillations of parameters can be allowed. Does our brain have regulatory control over our body? Undoubtedly it does. Is every one of us in control of our own body? Only within a narrow range of parameters; the rest is “given” to us by Nature, in all its wisdom.”

He marvels at the machine that Nature has built, but thinks that we can eventually do better. He doesn’t disparage Nature, but also does not consider it to be magically unsurpassable.

“[…] “coded”in the language of chemical molecules, which could develop from this sperm after it has been combined with an egg. This plan apparently consists of “production rules”and “directions for action.”In that microscopic space, there is information about what has to be done, information about how it has to be done, and last but not least, a mechanism that will enact all this.”

He even considers what identity is and how the ability to clone or store or copy or transmit an individual would affect it. It is interesting to see this treatise by someone who doesn’t confine himself to just one field, be it philosophy, biology or ethics. Instead, Lem approaches from the coldly rational realm of a cyberneticist with experience and wisdom in all of these fields, arriving at a more acceptable and logical conclusion than any individual familiar with only one of these fields could.

“A twin is indeed a perfect molecular copy of the “original.”Yet the similarity between two states of the same person—when he is eight and eighty years old, respectively—is no doubt even smaller than the mutual similarity between the twins. Despite this, anyone would admit that the child and the old man are the same person—something we cannot say about the two brothers. It is therefore not the amount of analogous genetic information that determines the continuation of existence but rather the fact of being genetically identical, even if the dynamic structure of the brain undergoes significant changes during one’s lifetime.”

Finally, Lem reassures us that future developments—especially cybernetic or robotic ones—are inevitable if we are to survive. Our past as frail biological shells has served us well to get to where we are, but we will never develop to a galactic and nigh-eternal civilization if we cling to these crude origins. Instead, we should see the intelligence that we have as enough of a lever to bootstrap ourselves into the next level.

Even if our biological shells can’t go along, our progeny will. We will either have to adapt or die. That includes modifying our genotype to “improve” it—which entails making moral judgments about what it means to improve something (i.e. value judgments about which humans are worth promoting). So has it always been and so will it always be. Avoiding these decisions because of a temporary luxury to do so will be fatal. We can obstinately refuse and instead elect to die out.

“We have to admit that the extent to which control will remain in human hands partly depends on a point of view. The fact that man is able to swim by himself does not mean that he is capable of crossing an ocean without a ship—not to mention jets and space rockets in this context! A similar evolution is starting, in a kind of parallel way, in the information universe. Man is capable of directing a gnostic machine toward a problem that he could perhaps solve by himself (either he himself or his great grandchildren), but in the process, the machine may open his eyes to a problem whose existence he did not even suspect. Who actually has the lead in the latter example?”

To this end, we will need to accept that certain passengers will not be able to make the trip. That all people are equal is something that we proudly wave about as if Nature cares at all.

This current period, with its anti-evolutionary attitude, near love, of the evolutionarily disadvantaged, will be seen as a backwards religious curiosity in the future. At best. At worst, they will perceive us as criminally pushing for the end of humanity.

A hundred years from now (or less), when nature is drastically outpacing evolution’s ability to adapt, man will no longer have the luxury of hewing to a moral code that forbids genetic engineering of humans.

The blind, the deaf, the unmotivated, the stupid, the weak, the retarded, the severely autistic—anyone who needs the intricate modern support system to survive[1]—they will sink when their survival depends on them swimming. Being saddled with them because of an outdated morality will be a luxury no-one will be able to afford.

It will be seen as far more efficient to tweak genetics to keep members of society within a physical bandwidth that if not of actual use in one way or another, at least imposes a minimum of effort.

We will no longer have the luxury of keeping useless people alive. This is not eugenics; this is a much harsher world than we know. The future will contain a desperation unknown for centuries to the first-world person. Third-world people—¾ of the world—are already intimately familiar with this harsh, cruel algebra.

In Lem’s words:

“If we are to behave like intellectual cowards, we can, of course, remain silent on the topic of any probable future developments. But in that case, we should at least make it clear that we are behaving like cowards. Man cannot change the world without changing himself. We can take the first steps on a given path while pretending we do not know where it leads. Yet this is not the best strategy.”

Lem is capable of describing procreation in the most clinical possible way:

“Fertilization is an act of “taking a molecular decision” in a confrontation between two partly alternative “hypotheses” about a future state of the organism, whereby the gametes of both sexes are “carriers” of those hypotheses.”

He tries again and again to describe just how limited we are relative to our future selves.

“For someone who can count to a hundred, there is actually no practical difference between a quintillion and infinity. Man as a researcher of the Universe is more like someone who has just learned arithmetic than like a mathematician who is freely juggling infinities.”

He also wonders what we’re going to do with ourselves if we do make it past the coming inflection point that will determine whether we have a future.

“[…] when basic needs are being fully satisfied, the problem “what to do next,” i.e., whether we should create some new needs and, if so, what kind, comes to the fore.”

Finally, just to show that Lem’s sometimes too optimistic, we need only turn to his hope for how we will manage information overload.

“We can even think that presenting banal works will at last be declared a menace and thus will be seen as a violation of scientists’ professional ethics because such works create nothing but “noise” that prevents us from receiving valuable information.”

Oh dear, thank goodness Lem is no longer around to see just how badly we’ve disappointed him.

It is not an easy read, but it is legitimately a work of staggering genius. You don’t have to agree with him on everything, but you can’t argue with his method, with his intellectual rigor and devotion to the scientific method to reduce the ineffability of who we are and where we’re headed.


[1] This might be all of us, at this point, to be honest.

Citations

“We are going to speak of the future. Yet isn’t discoursing about future events a rather inappropriate occupation for those who are lost in the transience of the here and now? Indeed, to seek out our great-great-grandsons’ problems when we cannot really cope with the overload generated by our own looks like a scholasticism of the most ridiculous kind.”
373-375
“is therefore somewhat out of necessity that technologies are of interest to me, since a given civilization embraces everything society has desired, but also everything else that has not been part of anyone’s plan.”
395-396
“When the entire life of a future generation ceases to be a repetition of their parents’ lives, what kinds of lessons and instructions can the old, experienced as they are, offer to the young?”
432-433
“In the way one used to ascribe the motivations and psychological traits of contemporary monarchs to the pharaohs, one represents today the corsairs and pirates of the thirtieth century. We can surely amuse ourselves like this, provided we remember we are only playing.”
469-471
“Who will gain the upper hand, a strategic space for civilization’s maneuvers: humanity, which is freely choosing from the widely available arsenal of technological means, or maybe technology, which, through automation, will successfully conclude the process of removing humans from its territory?”
531-533
“it is usually impossible to detect to what extent a given shape has been determined by the designer’s supply and to what extent by the buyer’s demand. We are faced here with circular processes in which causes become effects and effects causes and in which numerous instances of positive and negative feedback are at work: living organisms in biology or subsequent industrial products in the technical civilization are only tiny elements of these higher processes.”
651-654
“This is why we should not overestimate the “wisdom”of biological evolution, since it often led whole species down a developmental blind alley. It tended to repeat not just beneficial solutions but, equally often, erroneous ones that would lead to a decline. Evolution’s knowledge is empirical and short term. Its apparent perfection is a consequence of the long stretches of space and time it has traversed.”
831-834
“The last problem we have to deal with concerns the moral aspects of technoevolution. Its productivity has already attracted severe criticism since it is widening the gap between the two main spheres of our activity: the regulation of Nature and the regulation of Humanity. From this point of view, atomic energy found itself in human hands prematurely. Man’s first step into space was also premature, especially since already in the early days of astronautics, it demanded great resources, thus depleting the already unfair distribution of the Earth’s global income.”
839-842
“Briefly put, technoevolution brings more evil than good, with man turning out to be a prisoner of what he himself has created. The growth of his knowledge is accompanied by the narrowing down of possibilities when it comes to deciding about his own fate.”
849-851
“Today the whole world is adopting the developmental model of the West. Technology is being imported by nations that can be proud of having more ancient and more complex cultures than those that gave rise to this technology. This raises a fascinating question: what would have happened if the West had not undertaken a technological revolution, if it had not mobilized its Galileos, Newtons, and Stephensons toward the Industrial Revolution?”
903-906
“This model is beautiful thanks to its methodological simplicity. It explains why singular discoveries, even if they are significant, can become suspended in a vacuum when it comes to their technogenerative social effects—as was the case with the powder metallurgy of the Indians or the gunpowder of the Chinese. Subsequent links that were needed to start a chain reaction were not there.”
951-953
“The anthropologist, fascinated as he is with myriads of those inner dependencies among various civilizations, needs to be replaced by the sociologist–cyberneticist. Consciously ignoring the inner cultural and semantic meanings of all such practices, the latter will examine their structures as if they constituted a feedback system that aims at an ultrastable equilibrium, and whose dynamic task lies in regulation aimed at ensuring the perpetuation of this equilibrium.”
980-983
“Yet cannot a civilization gain the freedom of choice with regard to its future path the way an individual can? But what conditions would need to be fulfilled for this freedom to take place? Society must become independent from the technologies of elementary problems. Basic issues that each civilization has to deal with—food, clothing, transportation, but also the initiation of life, the distribution of goods, the protection of health and property—have to disappear. They have to become invisible, like air—the abundance of which has so far been the only excess in human history.”
1010-1014
“Are people supposed to say at some point, “Enough! We will not be automatizing such and such areas of work anymore, even though we can; we shall stop Technology to save man’s labor so that he does not feel redundant? This would be a peculiar kind of freedom and a peculiar way of using it, after centuries of fighting for it.”
1034-1036
“We shall not gain the first type of freedom because what seemed like freedom yesterday is not the same anymore today. The state of having been liberated from the compulsion to undertake actions that have to satisfy elementary needs will allow us to select a further option, but this will not be a unique historical event. The situation of choice will be repeated at the higher levels we subsequently reach.”
1038-1041
“The answer we would get, based on our observation of outer space, would make the majority of our current speculative analyses entirely futile. A Robinson who would be able to communicate with other intelligent beings, or at least observe their activity from afar, would not have to suffer the uncertainty of complicated guesswork anymore. Naturally, there is something dangerous about such a situation. Any too explicit and too definite answers would show us that we are slaves to developmental determinism rather than creatures exposed to ever greater freedom—which stands for an unlimited freedom of choice.”
1090-1094
“Are we really supposed to believe that, when looking at the sky above us, we are seeing an abyss filled with worlds that have already been turned to ashes by the power of their suicidal intelligence or that are headed directly toward such an end?”
1230-1231
“The scientist, searching for signs of astroengineering activity in the Universe, may have actually been seeing it for a while, yet he is banned from classifying it as a separate phenomenon, that is, from isolating it from the natural world and ascribing its genesis to the Intellect, by the very science to which he is in service. Is there no way out of this dilemma? Can we not imagine some “clear-cut miracles”that cannot be explained in a nontechnological way?”
1344-1347
“It makes one wonder how evolution, which is so “economical”in every area of information transfer, produced the human brain—a device with such a high degree of “excess.”This brain—which, even today, in the twentieth century, copes very well with the problems of a large civilization—is anatomically and biologically identical with the brain of our primitive, “barbarian”ancestor from a hundred thousand years ago. In what way did this massive “potential of intelligence,”this excessiveness which, from the early days, seemed geared to build a civilization, emerge in the course of the probabilistic evolutionary game between two vectors: mutation pressure and selection pressure? Evolutionism lacks a firm answer to this question.”
1470-1475
“By Intelligence we understand a second-level homeostatic regulator that is capable of coping with disturbances to its environment thanks to the activities in which it engages on the basis of the historically acquired knowledge.”
1607-1608
“Human intelligence has led us to the Technological Era because the terrestrial environment has a number of unique characteristics. Would the Industrial Revolution have been possible if it had not been for the Carboniferous, a geological period during which the reserves of solar energy had been stored in the sunk forests that were undergoing carbonization? Would it have been possible if not for the oil reserves, which emerged in the course of some other transformations?”
1608-1612
“The issue here is that the more precisely the transmitted message uses the capacity of the information channel (i.e., the higher the reduction of the excess of this transmission), the more it starts to resemble noise. In this situation, the receiver—who does not know the coding system—would actually have tremendous difficulties not just with deciphering the information he receives but also with recognizing it precisely as information, as opposed to cosmic background noise. We cannot thus exclude the possibility that already today, we are receiving, as noise, via our radio telescopes, fragments of “interstellar conversations”conducted by “supercivilizations.”
1705-1709
“The explosion phase is therefore only a stage in the history of civilization. Is it the only one? What will a “post-explosion”civilization look like? Will the omnidirectional nature of Intelligence—something we have considered its permanent trait—have to give way to a bunch of selective activities? We shall look for an answer to this question too, yet what we have discussed so far already throws some interesting light onto the problem of stellar psychozoics. Exponential growth can serve as a dynamic law of a civilization over thousands of years—but not over millions of years.”
1822-1826
“If coal and oil deposits had run out, say, at the end of the nineteenth century, we would have been highly unlikely to have produced atom technology in the middle of the twentieth century because enormous powers were needed to make it happen. Those powers were initially installed in laboratories, after which they became available on an industrial scale. And yet humanity is still not ready to switch to an exclusive use of “heavy”atomic energy (i.e., energy derived from the decomposition of heavy nuclei). Given the current increase in power use, this would result in “burning up”all the deposits of uranium and its cognate elements within a few centuries. The exploitation of energy from nuclear synthesis (of hydrogen into helium) has not been accomplished yet. The difficulties have turned out to be more substantial than expected. All this means that, first, a civilization should have considerable reserves of energy at its disposal to have enough time to obtain the information that will provide access to some new energy sources, and second, that a civilization must consider the primacy of this model of information acquisition over any other.”
1848-1856
“Producing such “encystment”will involve having to construct “a world within a world,”an autonomous reality that is not directly connected with the material reality of Nature. The emergent “cybernetic–sociotechnical”shell will enclose the civilization under discussion within itself. The latter will continue to exist and grow, but in a way that is not visible to an external observer anymore (especially one in outer space).”
1937-1940

Like Egan’s digital/virtual archologies.

“Does our civilization not show excessive hyperspecialization, even though it has not yet reached the “information barrier” Does its military potential not resemble the enormous jaws and carapaces of Mesozoic reptiles, whose abilities in many other areas were so limited that they eventually determined their fate?”
1958-1960
“Perhaps we will eventually gain a kind of longevity that will practically amount to immortality, but to do this, we will have to give up on the bodily form that nature gave us. Perhaps, thanks to hibernation, we will be able to travel freely across millions of years, but those who wake up after their glacial dream will find themselves in an unfamiliar world, since the world and the culture that have shaped them will have disappeared during their reversible death. Thus, when fulfilling our dreams, the material world requires us to undertake actions the realization of which can equally resemble a victory and a defeat.”
2017-2021
““We’ve seen a model of a device consisting of eight trillion elements,”we tell an engineer. “This device has its own energy center, locomotive systems, a hierarchy of regulators, and a timing belt that consists of fifteen billion parts. It can perform so many functions that we wouldn’t even be able to list them all during our lifetime. Yet the formula that not only enabled the construction of this device but actually constructed it was fully contained within the cubic capacity of 8/1000 of a millimeter.”The engineer replies that this is impossible. He is wrong, because we were talking about the head of the human spermatozoon, which, as we know, contains all the information that is needed to produce a specimen of the Homo sapiens.”
2029-2035
“Yet, at the same time, our jumper, who of course “carries in his head” all the mathematics connected with the jump, will not be able to write down its theoreticomathematical counterpart, that is, the appropriate scientific formulas and transformations. The reason for this is that, if it is to be conveyed in a way that is traditionally taught in schools and colleges, this kind of “biomathematics”—which is practiced by all living organisms, including ciliates—requires a repeated translation of the system-forming impulses from one language to another: from a word-free and “automatic”language of biochemical processes and of the transfer of neuron stimulations to a symbolic language.”
2102-2107
“By way of a rather useful introduction to the problem of the “black box,”we can recall the story of a centipede who was asked how it was able to remember which leg to raise after it had lifted the eighty-ninth one.5 The centipede, as we know, pondered the question, and not being able to find an answer, died of hunger since it could not move anymore.”
2128-2131
“It is often said that there exist transhistorical moral pointers. From this point of view, “Tarpeian morality, even in its most benign form (manifested, e.g., in postulating euthanasia for people experiencing agony as a result of incurable diseases), is immoral, criminal, and evil. What happens here is that we evaluate one moral system from the standpoint of another system. It goes without saying that we opt for this other, “non-Tarpeian” system, but if we agree that it emerged over the course of man’s social evolution rather than via an act of revelation, we must take into account the fact that different moral systems are at work in different historical periods.”
2185-2190
“In the first case, the self-regulation principle of the homeostatic producer will be violated. In the second, homeostats will start to influence human lives in a way that has not been fully envisaged by their creators—which can then lead to an economic collapse in the country as a whole just because one of the homeostats will be performing its set task too well, by bankrupting all its competitors . . .”
2225-2228

Adorable that the paperclip optimizers think that they invented the idea.

“[…] might seem that dangers of this kind will be nipped in the bud by constructing a “black box”of a higher type, as a kind of “ruling machine”—one that would not rule over people but rather over the “black boxes”of individual producers that would be subordinate to it. The discussion of the consequences of this step will prove extremely interesting.”
2241-2243

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

“Perhaps it will announce that there is a contradiction between the axioms that are being introduced by means of the Operating Program (e.g., one cannot conduct an economically viable program of the automation of production and simultaneously aim to reduce unemployment unless one does many other things at the same time, e.g., introduce a state- or capital-supported reskilling program for those who are being made redundant as a result of the automation, etc.). What then?”
2255-2258
“the price that had to be paid for increasing the standard of living and decreasing unemployment is a short tail grown by every sixth child or the general lowering of intelligence in society (since more intelligent people cause more problems for the regulatory activity of the machine, which is why it will aim to reduce their number).”
2310-2312

We took path B.

“In the capitalist system, cooperativeness can blossom, yet this does not stop it from being capitalist. Only the simultaneous change to a series of significant parameters can change not just the economic model but also the systemic model that is superior to it because this is when the totality of social relations will undergo a transformation. However, a distinction needs to be made once again between a regulator of a given system and a regulator that can transform a given system into a different one (should it decide such a change is required).”
2350-2354
“The homeostasis of a civilization is a product of man’s social evolution. Since times immemorial, all societies through history have practiced regulatory activity aimed at maintaining systemic equilibrium. Of course, people were not aware of the nature of their collective actions, just as they did not realize that their economic and manufacturing activities gave shape and form to political systems. Societies that had the same level of material development and analogous types of economics saw different structures emerge within this domain of postproductive life that we call superstructure.”
2362-2366
“What to an observer from a different culture may look like a most irrational type of social ties, obligations, imperatives, and prohibitions has practically always aimed at the same goal: reducing the individual spontaneity of action and its diversity—which is a potential source of disturbance to the state of equilibrium.”
2371-2373
“Belief is thus a transient state—until it gets verified empirically. If it becomes too independent from such verification, it is transformed into a metaphysical construct. The peculiarity of such belief stems from the fact that realistic actions are being undertaken to achieve unrealistic goals, that is, goals that either cannot be realized at all or that can be realized but not via the action that is being performed.”
2415-2417
“Belief thus leads to an excessive use of the inductive method because the conclusions drawn by means of induction are either directed toward “the next world”(i.e., an empirical “nowhere”) or supposed to establish connections within Nature that do not exist in it (every evening when I start to make scrambled eggs, stars appear in the sky; yet the conclusion that there exists a connection between my preparation of an evening meal and the appearance of stars is a case of false induction, which can become the subject of belief).”
2424-2428
“The only thing that matters to us is that the previously mentioned states are accompanied by the sensation of experiencing some ultimate truth, which is so intense and overwhelming that, having experienced it, one then looks with contempt or pity at the empiricists, miserably bustling around some trivial worldly matters. Two things thus need to be said. First, the divergence between “experiential truth”and “scientific truth”would perhaps be irrelevant if the first one did not claim some kind of superiority for itself. And if this is the case, then we should point out that the person undergoing the experience would not exist at all if it had not been for such lowly empiricism, which was initiated a long time ago by the Australopithecus and cavemen.”
2452-2457

This describes our current society, though not limited to religion.

“To return to the problem of belief and information, we can now summarize our conclusions. The influence of the information entered into the homeostat depends not so much on whether this information is objectively false or true but rather, on one hand, on how predisposed the homeostat is to consider it true and, on the other, on whether the regulatory characteristics of the homeostat allow it to react in response to the information entered. To make it work, both postulates need to be fulfilled. Belief can heal me, yet it will not make me fly. It is because the first activity lies within the regulatory realm of my organism (although not always within the realm of my conscious will), the second one outside it.”
2503-2509
“The conviction that Western civilization, with its standards set by mass culture and the ongoing mechanical facilitation of life, annihilates these potential spiritual riches—the cultivation of which should be at the core of our existence—regularly leads various people, among them even Western scientists at times, to turn to ancient Asia, especially India, in the hope that Buddhism will offer a panacea for the spiritual dry rot of technocracy. This is an extremely mistaken view. Individuals may become “saved”in this way, while those who are looking for consolation can apparently find it in Buddhist monasteries, yet this is pure escapism, an act of running away or even of intellectual desertion. No religion can do anything for humanity because it is not an empirical knowledge. It does reduce the “existential pain”of individuals, but at the same time, it increases the sum total of the calamities affecting whole populations precisely owing to its helplessness and idleness in the face of social problems. It cannot thus be defended as a useful tool even from a pragmatic point of view because it is a wrong kind of tool, one that remains helpless in the face of the fundamental problems of the world.”
2614-2622
“We are faced here with an interesting problem: when exactly did consciousness arise in the machine? Let us say the designer was not adjusting those machines but rather took each one to a museum and then built a new model from scratch. There are ten thousand machines in the museum as this is how many subsequent models had been made. It is in fact a fluid transition from a “soulless machine”such as a jukebox to a “thinking machine.”Should we consider machine no. 7852 as conscious, or only machine no. 9973? The difference between them is that the first one was unable to explain why it was laughing at the joke it had just heard but could only say that it was funny, whereas the second one was able to provide such an explanation. Yet some people laugh at jokes even though they are unable to explain what is funny about them, because, as we know, a theory of humor is a hard nut to crack. Does this mean that those people also lack consciousness? Not at all; they are probably not very bright, not that intelligent, their brain is not trained in thinking analytically about problems, yet we are not asking whether a machine is bright or somewhat stupid, only whether it has consciousness.”
2785-2794
“We should add that there is terminological confusion, or conceptual lack of clarity, in the literature on the subject because some refer to a “heuristic behavior”as “nonalgorithmic,”yet such a conclusion depends on whether we consider an algorithm to be an ultimately determined instruction that does not change in the course of its realization or an instruction that, thanks to the feedback that is restructuring it, in the course of its action “itself”becomes transformed into a form different from its original one.”
3008-3012
“In undertaking a reduction, a machine will thus be doing what a physicist is doing when explaining gravitational wave theory to a wide audience by taking recourse to a modest arsenal of school-level math.”
3075-3077
“The situation is as follows: either electronic coordinators are incapable of considering a higher number of variables than man is, which means that there is no point in building them, or they are capable of doing it, which means that man himself cannot “find his way”among all the results; that is, he cannot make a decision independently from a machine by only relying on “his own opinion about the situation.”
3125-3128
“To understand how a complex machine functions, we should consider that the reason we move, walk, talk, and are generally alive is because, during every millisecond, masses of blood cells are running in file, in billions of our body parts at the same time, carrying tiny amounts of oxygen that control the continuous Brownian motion of particles heading toward an anarchic thermostatic chaos. The number of such processes that have to be constantly kept within a very narrow range of parameters is enormous—if that were not the case, then the system’s dynamics would start to fall apart immediately. The more complex a system is, the more overall regulation is needed, and the smaller the extent to which local oscillations of parameters can be allowed. Does our brain have regulatory control over our body? Undoubtedly it does. Is every one of us in control of our own body? Only within a narrow range of parameters; the rest is “given”to us by Nature, in all its wisdom.”
3141-3148
“A medieval city only needed water and food: a modern one turns into a nightmare when it runs out of electricity—the way it happened in Manhattan a few years ago, when the elevators in buildings and subway trains came to a halt. It is because homeostasis has two sides: it is an increase in insensitivity to an external perturbation, that is, one caused by a “natural”disturbance, and it is also an increase in sensitivity to an inner perturbation, that is, one caused by a disturbance within the system (organism) itself. The higher the artificiality of its environment, the more we are condemned to technology, to its working—and to its failure, if it should fail.”
3153-3157
“We are not thus faced with an “electronic God”or a godlike ruler but only with systems that, initially called on solely to watch selected processes, as well as processes of exceptional significance or complication, are slowly, in the course of their own evolution, taking control of practically the whole of social dynamics. Those systems will not be trying to “dominate over humanity”in any anthropomorphic sense because, not being human, they will not manifest any signs of egoism or a desire for power—which obviously can only be meaningfully ascribed to “persons.”
3191-3194
“Mathematicians know very well that they do not know what they are doing. A very competent person, Bertrand Russell himself, said that “mathematics may be defined as the subject in which we never know what we are talking about, nor whether what we are saying is true.”
Location 3539
“Since the sixteenth century, physicists have been searching through the warehouses of “empty clothes”created by mathematics. Matrix calculus was an “empty structure”until Heisenberg found a “piece of the world”that matched that empty structure. Physics is full of such examples.”
Location 3560
“The question as to where length “can be found”within an atom’s nucleus is similar to the question as to where the mountain “can be found”when the image is being looked at through a microscope. The image is true as a whole, just as a theory (e.g., quantum theory) that will allow us to predict better the emergence of baryons and leptons, and that will tell us which particles are possible and which are not, will be true as a whole.”
Location 3598
“A painter paints pictures, yet, even though he has a mouth and we can talk to him, we are not going to find out how he does it. He does not know himself what is going on in his brain when he is painting. The information is contained in his head, but it is inaccessible. In modeling, one has to simplify: a machine that is capable of painting a very poor picture will tell us more about the material, that is, cerebral, foundations of painting than the “perfect model”of the artist—his twin brother—would. Modeling practice involves selecting certain variables and ignoring others.”
Location 3669
“If we thus wanted to model any phenomenon by taking into account all of its variables (assuming for a moment that this would be possible), we would have to construct a system that would be more extensive than the original one, as it would be equipped with additional variables that are characteristic of the modeling system itself but that the original one lacks.”
Location 3694
“Yet maybe it is only today that we need theories and models of phenomena? Maybe, on being asked such a question, a wise man from another planet would silently hand out a piece of an old shoe sole picked up from the ground to us, communicating in this way that the whole truth of the Universe can be read from this piece of matter?”
Location 3732
“Does Matter by any chance not have all of its potential transformations “inscribed”in it (i.e., the possibility of constructing stars, quantoplanes, sewing machines, roses, silkworms, and comets)? Then, taking the basic building block of Nature, the hydrogen atom, we could “deduce”all those possibilities from it (modestly starting from the possibility of synthesizing a hundred elements all the way through to the possibility of constructing systems that are a trillion times more spiritual than man). We could also deduce all that is unrealizable from it (sweet kitchen salt NaCl, stars whose diameter equals a quadrillion of miles, etc.). From this perspective, matter already entails as its foundational assumptions all those possibilities as well as impossibilities (or prohibitions); we are just unable to crack its “code.”
Location 3738
“And now for a rather less crude example. The Penicillium notatum mold creates penicillin. Instead of growing mold and extracting the necessary bodies from it, we can take some simple substances and synthesize penicillin from them.”
Location 3757
“Finally, let us now consider an example that is absolutely unrealizable at the moment. In a section of a sperm’s head—in the volume of three thousandths of a millimeter—we can find a design plan for a human brain, “coded”in the language of chemical molecules, which could develop from this sperm after it has been combined with an egg. This plan apparently consists of “production rules”and “directions for action.”In that microscopic space, there is information about what has to be done, information about how it has to be done, and last but not least, a mechanism that will enact all this.”
Location 3764
“Yet the principle remains the same: we have a person connected to the environment, imitated by the phantomatic machine via two information channels, an afferent and efferent one. In this case, the machine can do everything except one thing: it does not directly command the brain processes of the receiver; it only commands the facts that enter the brain,”
Location 3997
“We shall thus determine as much: the statement that person × finds himself in the real world rather than in a phantomatic one can always be only probable, sometimes highly probable, but never absolutely certain. Playing against a machine is like playing chess: a contemporary electronic machine will lose to an excellent player, but it will beat a mediocre one; in the future, it will beat every human being.”
Location 4077
“Of course, it is possible to envisage some kind of omniplanetary “Superphantomat,”to which the inhabitants of a given planet have been connected “for ever,”that is, for as long as they have been alive, while their bodies’ vegetative processes are being supported by automatic devices (e.g., those introducing supplements into their blood). Naturally, a civilization of this kind looks like a nightmare. Yet similar criteria cannot determine its probability: something else determines it. This civilization would only exist for the duration of one generation—the one that remains connected to the “Superphantomat.”This would thus be a peculiar form of euthanasia, a kind of pleasant suicide of a civilization. For this reason, we consider its implementation to be impossible.”
Location 4091
“In other words, cannot phantomatics absorb the dark forces lurking in man, without doing any harm to anyone?”
Location 4175
“Thus the inauthenticity of phantomatic experiences would take away their “buffer”value; they would instead become a school or a training ground for socially banned activities rather than their “absorber.”
Location 4179
“Illegal phantomats can also, of course, be set up. Yet this is more a policing problem than a cybernetic one. Cyberneticists might be expected to build a kind of “censorship”into the device (akin to the Freudian “dream censor”), which would stop the vision as soon as the phantomatized person starts showing some aggressive or sadistic tendencies.”
Location 4186

This is kind of a simplistic take on the subject of virtual reality. I’m surprised he so quickly concludes that it can just be regulated. Still, I have the benefit of five extra decades of thinking about this topic; he was one of the first to even consider it.

“When the transformation of personality can be actualized, individual identity stops being a phenomenon to be investigated and becomes a phenomenon to be defined.”
Location 4444
“What will happen if we send an “atomic description”not once but twice? Two identical persons will come out of the receiving device. And if we do not just wire this information in one direction but emit it as a radio wave, while the receivers will be located in thousands of places all over the globe and on the surface of numerous planets and moons, the “transmitted”person will appear in all these places. Even though we have transmitted Mr. Smith’s description only once, he is now emerging from the cabins of the receiving devices a million times over—on Earth and in the sky, in cities, on mountaintops, in jungles and moon craters. This only seems strange until we ask where exactly Mr. Smith finds himself at this point. Where has the telegraphic journey taken him?”
Location 4466
“The murderous aspect of this act seems self-evident, since, if we want to telegraph a person, it is clearly not enough to transmit his atomic description, as this person also has to be killed.”
Location 4539

This presages the main plot of the film The Prestige

“Which one of the two Mr. Smiths is thus a true continuation of the frozen one: the first or the second? Each carries approximately a half of the “original”atoms—which is actually not that relevant, since atoms lack individuality and get exchanged by an organism in metabolic processes.”
Location 4601

Ship of Theseus

“A twin is indeed a perfect molecular copy of the “original.”Yet the similarity between two states of the same person—when he is eight and eighty years old, respectively—is no doubt even smaller than the mutual similarity between the twins. Despite this, anyone would admit that the child and the old man are the same person—something we cannot say about the two brothers. It is therefore not the amount of analogous genetic information that determines the continuation of existence but rather the fact of being genetically identical, even if the dynamic structure of the brain undergoes significant changes during one’s lifetime.”
Location 4683
“The world today has other concerns. It is divided; it does not satisfy the needs of millions—but what if those needs are eventually satisfied? What if the automatic production of goods takes off? Will the West survive this? This is a grotesque vision: of humanless factories producing billions of objects, machines, nutritional elements, through the energy of a star to which our civilization is “connected.”Will some kind of General Apocalyptics become the owner of that star? Never mind property rights. If I say that one era is coming to an end, I am not even thinking about the demise of the old systems. Satisfying the basic needs of humanity is a necessary task, a preparation for a final exam; it is the beginning of a mature age rather than its end.”
Location 4704
“Indeed, if Nature had had to consider on a regulatory level the momentum, spin, and moment of every separate electron, it would have never constructed any living organisms.”
Location 4748
“Theories are possible because the number of variables in a single phenomenon is incomparably higher than the number of variables this phenomenon shares with a whole lot of other phenomena, whereby it is fine to ignore the former on scientific grounds. This is why it is possible to ignore the history of individual molecules, the fact that Mr. Smith met his aunt the day before, or a million other variables.”
Location 4782
“This problem belongs to so-called Gestalt psychology. I am not able to describe a friend of mine so that you can immediately recognize him on the basis of my description. Yet I am myself able to recognize him right away. From the perspective of the psychology of sensory perceptions, his face thus represents a certain “Gestalt form.”
Location 4858
“A melody retains its “form”no matter if it has been whistled through one’s fingers, played by a brass band, or tapped out with one finger on the piano’s keyboard. Everyone can experience such ways of recognizing the “form”of shapes, sounds, and so on. If he is any good, a theoretical scientist well versed in the abstract formalism and symbolism of the theories among which he spends his life starts to perceive those theories as certain “forms.”Naturally, such forms are devoid of any faces, features, or sounds; they are just abstract constructs in his mind. Yet he can manage to discover a similarity between the “forms”of two thus far disconnected theories, or, by aligning them together, he can grasp that they are special cases of a yet nonexistent generalization that needs to be constructed.”
Location 4863
“All theories use a small number of variables. Theories that are more universal do not contain a great number of variables: they are just applicable in a large number of cases. Relativity theory is a good example of this.”
Location 4962
“During its course of development, genotypic information is transformed into phenotypic information. A phenotype is the final shape of a system (i.e., its morphological traits, together with physiological ones, and thus its functions) that emerges as a result of the activity of hereditary (genotypic) factors and the influences of an external environment.”
Location 5020
“we could also understand a mutation as both a decrease in the amount of (structural) information and an increase in the amount of (selective) information. The way a mutation is “perceived”is determined by the biogeocenotic environment. Under normal conditions, it will stand for a decrease in the amount of structural information pertaining to the actual world; consequently, the organism will become extinct as a result of being less adapted, even though the amount of selective information has increased.”
Location 5114
“Mathematicians are thus a generator of diversity, whereas empiricists are the selector postulated by Ashby. Naturally, mathematics is not a noise generator. It is a generator of order, of various “internal orders.”It creates orders that correspond, in a more or less fragmentary manner, to the real world. This fragmentary correspondence facilitates the development of science and technology—and thus of civilization.”
Location 5203
“The question then arises as to how “fields”—linguistic and gravitational ones—actually exist. This is quite a difficult question, concerning as it does the “ontological status”of examined phenomena. Bodies’ motions and linguistic articulations no doubt exist—but do they exist in exactly the same way that gravitation and language do? In”
Location 5339
“The reception of a text as a program that requires filling in within the range of acceptable interpretative oscillations is only one element in the hierarchically complex set of proceedings because we do not read to practice a relating or an ordering strategy but rather to learn something. An increase in the amount of information is the correct outcome of a reception that matters to us. As a general rule, transmission activates interpretive decisions and all the other control activities of a syntactic and semantic nature subliminally; that is, “the mental filling in of the fragmentary program”occurs in a way that is inaccessible to introspection.”
Location 5365
“When transmission efficacy turns out to be quite good, that is, the text’s constants are being transmitted even though the text as a program of “informational reconstruction”is full of gaps, this can be explained by the fact that the sender’s and the receiver’s brains are homomorphic systems characterized by a high degree of functional parallelism, especially if they were subject to analogous preprogramming from within the same culture.”
Location 5375
“The formalization of a linguistic utterance aims at a maximum reduction of interpretive freedom. A formal language does not allow for alternative interpretations—at least, this is how it should be within an ideal limit. In reality, it turns out that this limit does not equal zero, which is why some expressions that are unambiguous for a mathematician turn out to be not so unambiguous for a digital machine.”
Location 5378
“[…] is not that the causal language of the genes is a tool that is not general enough, whose examination will not be of much use to the designer, because every “utterance”made in this “language”is “just”a self-actualizing production recipe for a particular copy of a given species—and nothing else. The language of heredity turns out to be surprisingly “excessive”in its universality. This language is a tool for constructing systems that can manage tasks that their very designer (i.e., this language) is not able to cope with because it lacks, for example, an appropriate semantic and syntactic apparatus.”
Location 5435
“We have to admit that the extent to which control will remain in human hands partly depends on a point of view. The fact that man is able to swim by himself does not mean that he is capable of crossing an ocean without a ship—not to mention jets and space rockets in this context! A similar evolution is starting, in a kind of parallel way, in the information universe. Man is capable of directing a gnostic machine toward a problem that he could perhaps solve by himself (either he himself or his great grandchildren), but in the process, the machine may open his eyes to a problem whose existence he did not even suspect. Who actually has the lead in the latter example?”
Location 5524
“[…] no one else needs to be obeyed and served. Unless something changes, our numerous Western intellectuals say, man is going to drown in the hedonism of consumption. If only it was accompanied by some deep pleasure! Yet there is none: submerged into this slavish comfort, man is more and more bored and empty. Through inertia, the obsession with the accumulation of money and shiny objects is still with us, yet even those wonders of civilization turn out to be of no use. Nothing shows him what to do, what to aim for, what to dream about, what hope to have. What is man left with then? The fear of old age and illness and the pills that restore mental balance—which he is losing, in being irrevocably separated from transcendence.”
Location 5622

Goal acheived

“Yet who created your “real”world? If it did indeed have a creator, does this not mean it is a similar kind of “deception”? No? Where is the difference then? We both created a civilization; does this mean it is also a deception? Finally, as biological organisms, we are a product of the natural process, which shaped us through millions of games of chance. Why is it a bad thing that we want to take this process into our own hands?”
Location 5673
“His main difficulty lies in ensuring that the creatures for whom the Universe will serve as a habitat do not find out about its “artificiality.”One is right to be concerned that the very suspicion that there may be something else beyond “everything”would immediately encourage them to seek exit from this “everything.”Considering themselves prisoners of the latter, they would storm their surroundings, looking for a way out—out of pure curiosity, if nothing else. Just preventing them from finding the exit would amount to offering them knowledge about their imprisonment, while simultaneously taking away the keys. We must not therefore cover up or barricade the exit. We must make its existence impossible to guess. Otherwise, the inhabitants will start feeling like prisoners, even if that “prison”was actually to be the size of the whole Galaxy.”
Location 5777
“[…] by the global receiver, that is, consciousness.“>It is only then that they would be able to see that our world is one level of Reality short when compared with theirs (since they are made of electrical impulses and it is only those impulses that are made of the same material that our world is). Figuratively speaking, a created world is perhaps like a very stable, very long, and internally coherent dream that no one is dreaming but that rather “is dreaming itself”—inside a “digital machine.”
Location 5802
“[…] was probably then that primitive man acquired considerable longevity when compared with the anthropoids. Indeed, individuals from groups that had the most experience, that is, the oldest and the longest living, won the struggle for survival. It was the first time during evolution that a species that was capable of longevity had been selected because, for the first time, that particular trait turned out to be biologically valuable as a treasury of information.”
Location 5881
“The history of civilization, with its anthropoid prologue and the possible extensions we have outlined here, is a process of expanding the range of homeostasis, that is, of man changing his environment, over the period of between a thousand and three thousand years. This ability, which penetrates the micro and macro universe with its technical tools, all the way to its furthest visible “pantocreatic”limit, does not touch the human organism itself. Man remains the last relic of Nature, the last “authentic product of Nature”inside the world he himself is creating. This state of events cannot last for an indefinite period of time. The invasion of technology created by man into his body is inevitable.”
Location 5919
“which will involve replacing Nature’s evolutionary gradients with man’s purposeful regulatory activity. Such regulation can in turn have various goals. It may focus on eliminating all those harmful consequences caused by the absence of natural selection, which destroys the inadequately adapted, from the artificial environment of that civilization.”
Location 5931

This current period, with its anti-evolutionary attitude, near love, of the evolutionarily disadvantaged, will be seen as a backwards religious curiosity in the future. At best. At worst, they will perceive us as criminally pushing for the end of humanity.

A hundred years from now, when nature is drastically outpacing evolution’s ability to adapt, man will no longer have the luxury of hewing to a moral code that forbids genetic engineering of humans.

The blind, the deaf, the retarded, the autistic, the unmotivated, the stupid, the weak…they will sink when their survival depends on them swimming. Being saddled with them because of an outdated morality will be a luxury no-one will be able to afford.

It will be seen as far more efficient to tweak genetics to keep members of society within a physical bandwidth that if not of actual use in one way or another, at least imposes a minimum of effort.

We will no longer have the luxury of keeping useless people alive. This is not eugenics; this is a much harsher world than we know. The future will contain a desperation unknown for centuries to the first-world person. Third-world people-¾ of the world-are already intimately familiar with this harsh, cruel algebra.

“When, in planning human reconstruction, we limit ourselves to the means whose development will facilitate the information transfer of the human genotype, we simultaneously give up, completely unnecessarily, on supplying the body with some enhanced systems and some new functions that would be very useful and valuable for it.”
Location 5977
“It would be an act of extreme madness if man really was to undergo a transformation owing to the technologies that he himself has created and if he was to consider a robot with a perfect crystalline brain his successor. It would actually amount to a collective suicide of the human race, even though such a suicide would be covered up by the apparent continuation of humanity in thinking machines—which are part of the technology created by man. In this way, man would ultimately allow the technology he himself has brought about to push him out of his place of existence, of his ecological niche. Having removed a less adapted species from the stage of history, technology would thus become a new synthetic species.”
Location 5984
“The organism should avoid the final products of excretion: this is important from a biological point of view. Yet at the same time, it should aim at sexual conjunction, which is needed for evolutionary purposes. The concentration of two such diametrically opposite yet important imperatives must have contributed to the wide emergence of myths about the original sin and about the natural impurity of sex life and its manifestations. Torn between genetically programmed repulsion and attraction, the mind would produce either civilizations based on the idea of sin and guilt or civilizations based around shame and ritualized debauchery.”
Location 5997
“Today we believe that it is possible to create a symphony, sculpture, or painting via a conscious mental effort. At the same time, the thought of “composing”a successor for ourselves, with any kind of orchestration of his spiritual and physical traits we want, seems like a terrible heresy. Yet the desire to fly or to study the human body, machine building, or examining the origins of life on Earth also used to be seen as heresies in the past.”
Location 6025
“If we are to behave like intellectual cowards, we can, of course, remain silent on the topic of any probable future developments. But in that case, we should at least make it clear that we are behaving like cowards. Man cannot change the world without changing himself. We can take the first steps on a given path while pretending we do not know where it leads. Yet this is not the best strategy.”
Location 6029
“[…] eternal human problems would not exist. A biotechnological revolution does not just therefore mean annihilating the Homo sapiens but also its spiritual legacy. Unless we treat it as a figment of our imagination, this position seems rather scornful: instead of solving his problems and finding answers to the questions that have preoccupied him for centuries, man is to hide away from them in some kind of materialist perfection.”
Location 6038
“When, in the not-too-distant future, electricity will be produced directly, for example, in a microfusion cell, thus overcoming the troublesome circularity of the present transformations (of coal’s chemical energy into thermal energy, then of thermal into kinetic energy, and only then of kinetic energy into electrical energy), only a historian of technology will remember the design principle of the earlier generators.”
Location 6060
“[…] we also accept the possibility of the emergence, within liquid phases, of some other types of self-organization than the protein-based one, and maybe even the colloid-based one—whereby those other variants may be both “worse”and “better”than the “terrestrial”option. But what does this “worse”or “better”actually mean? Are we not trying to sneak in some kind of Platonism with those terms, some kind of entirely arbitrary valorization? Progress, or rather the possibility of progress, is our criterion.”
Location 6182

Long discussion of cells and how they work and how they evolved.

“[…] is too early to think about constructing a “universal homeostat”such as the cell. We are taking the opposite trajectory to the one evolution took, because paradoxically, it is easier for us to construct narrowly specialized homeostats.”
Location 6238
“This clearly shows that man can beat Nature: the latter is only capable of constructing some of the possible homeostats; we, in turn, on gaining the necessary knowledge, will be able to build all of them. Such optimism when it comes to space design has to be coupled with some reservations, full of ifs and buts. We do not know whether humanity is going to gain all the information that is necessary for carrying out the previously described “construction tasks.”There may exist “an information acquisition threshold,”just as there exists a limit to the speed of light, yet we do not know anything about it. Besides, we should remind ourselves of the actual proportions involved in this “man against Nature”task. In the face of such a problem, we are like ants who are promising themselves to carry the Himalayas on their backs to another location. Perhaps I am exaggerating in favor of the ants. Perhaps their task would actually be easier. This is when we compare all of contemporary technologies to the tools at ants’ disposal, that is, their own jaws and backs. There is only one difference—the fact that ants can only develop their tools in the course of biological evolution, while we can start an information evolution, as already discussed. This difference may decide in favor of man’s victory one day.”
Location 6283
“[…] evolution never showed any “ambition” to solve the problem of homeostatic regulation over any period of time. Its efforts were entirely focused on another issue, which it approached up front: species longevity, the supraindividual immortality of life as a sum of homeostatic transformations on the scale of the planet.”
Location 6337-6339
“Evolution was unable, for example, to produce mechanical devices such as the wheel because the wheel must be itself from its very beginning, that is, it must possess an axis of rotation, a hub, a disk, and so on. It would thus have needed to have developed in a staggered fashion because even the smallest wheel is already a finished wheel—and not some kind of “transition” stage.”
Location 6633-6635
“[…] biologists have correctly observed a number of times, Evolution is a diligent constructor only in working out absolutely vital solutions, as long as they serve the organism during the phase of its full vitality (for sexual reproduction purposes). But everything else that does not have such critical significance is more or less abandoned, left to the devices of accidental metamorphoses and completely blind strokes of luck.”
Location 6662-6665

Of note here is that his literary description makes it seem as if evolution has agency. I don’t think that is the intent.

“The final stage of each evolutionary branch, that is, the currently living “model” that has been put into “mass production,” reflects, on one hand, the current conditions that it is expected to cope with, and on the other, the billion-year-long road of blind trials and searches that all its ancestors had traveled. Present-day solutions, which are inevitably compromised, are also tarnished with the inertia of all the previous designs—which also involved compromises.”
Location 6688-6691
“The curse of every perfect specialization lies in the fact that it represents only an adaptation to the current conditions; the better the specialization, the easier it is for a change to those conditions to lead to extinction.”
Location 6695-6696
“Today man is the most unreliable element in the machinery he has created—he is also the weakest link, mechanically, in the processes at work.”
Location 6764-6765
“Aging is a similar distribution of processes that involves their gradual escape from central control. Death arrives when the distribution of those processes has achieved a critical value and when the reserves of all the compensatory apparatuses have become exhausted.”
Location 6793-6795
“In reality we are thus not lampooning this nonhuman creator for real. We are rather interested in something completely different. We just want to become more perfect designers than evolution ever was—and we must be careful not to repeat its “mistakes.””
Location 6801-6803
“When synthetic chemistry, information theory, and general systems theory develop much further, the human body will turn out to be the least perfect element in such a world. Human knowledge will exceed the biological knowledge accumulated in living systems. At that point, plans that, for the time being, are seen as aspersions cast against the perfection of evolutionary solutions will actually become realized.”
Location 6882-6885
“A book’s conclusion is to some extent its summary. It may thus be worth pondering once again the eagerness with which I have shifted responsibility for the future Gnosis of our species onto the dead shoulders of nonexistent machines. Someone could ask whether this was not caused by some kind of frustration of which the author himself was not fully aware, a frustration resulting from the fact that—owing to historical and his own limitations—he was unable to penetrate science and its prospects. Consequently, he seems to have invented, or rather slightly modernized, a version of the famous Ars Magna,1 which clever Lullus presented quite a long time ago, that is, in the year 1300, and which was rightly mocked by Swift in Gulliver’s Travels.”
Location 7027-7033
“Fertilization is an act of “taking a molecular decision” in a confrontation between two partly alternative “hypotheses” about a future state of the organism, whereby the gametes of both sexes are “carriers” of those hypotheses.”
Location 7045-7047
“The chromosomal language is also unreliable; it is an extravagant dispenser of synthetic pronouncements about the properties of the world because it understands the world’s statistical nature and acts according to it. It does not pay any attention to singular statements. What matters to it is the totality of expression over billions of years. It truly makes sense to learn such a language—because it constructs philosophers, while ours constructs only philosophies.”
Location 7062-7065
“As Lem himself puts it in the essay titled “Small Robots,” “we cannot exclude the possibility that machines equipped with sovereign will may at some point begin to resist us. I am not thinking, of course, of a robot rebellion against humankind, so beloved by all primitive purveyors of cognitive magic. My only point is that, with the rise in the degree of behavioral freedom, one can no longer preserve the ‘good and only the good,’ because this very freedom can also give rise to a touch of ‘evil.’ We can see this in natural evolution only too well, and this reflection may perhaps temper our intention to endow robots with free will.””
Location 7084-7089
“All these issues are both promising and debatable. They illustrate how unpredictable the development of knowledge is and how it would be wrong to assume that we already know with great certainty many fundamental laws that determine the nature of the Universe and also that any further discoveries would only fill in with detail this already more or less complete picture.”
Location 7173-7176
“The preceding consequence of scientific progress is only apparently a paradox because ignorance can mean two different things. First, it refers to all this we do not know, while we also have no idea about our lack of knowledge (the Neanderthal man did not know anything about the nature of electrons, nor did he have any inkling about the possibility of their existence). This is, so to speak, “total” ignorance. Second, ignorance can also mean the awareness of the existence of a problem, coupled with the lack of knowledge with regard to its solution.”
Location 7181-7185
“For someone who can count to a hundred, there is actually no practical difference between a quintillion and infinity. Man as a researcher of the Universe is more like someone who has just learned arithmetic than like a mathematician who is freely juggling infinities.”
Location 7194-7195
“A creature from Mars, observing the circulation of the “vehicle liquid,” with its “motorcar-bodies” on terrestrial motorways, could easily consider this to be a purely statistical phenomenon. This creature would then consider the fact that Mr. Smith—who goes to work by car every day—suddenly turns back while halfway there, an “indeterministic” phenomenon. But he is turning back because he has left his briefcase at home. This was a “hidden parameter” of the phenomenon. Another person does not reach his destination because he has remembered that he has an important meeting or because he has noticed that the engine is overheating. Thus various purely deterministic factors can offer a total picture of a certain median behavior of a large mass of elementary phenomena—a mass that is only apparently homogeneous.”
Location 7239-7245
“A civilization does not stand for an increase in all possible kinds of freedom. Culinary freedom for cannibals, freedom to self-harm, and lots of other freedoms have already been crossed out from the magna charta liberatum of a society that is undergoing technological development. It is actually hard to understand why reproductive freedom would have to remain intact even if it was to lead to a total immobilization of individuals, to smashing the cultural tradition, to giving up, literally, on the Earth’s and sky’s beauty.”
Location 7381-7385
“properties of elements are relative because they can only convey the relation of one element to others. Thus, e.g., flammability is a relative term: we consider hydrogen to be flammable because it burns in oxygen’s atmosphere. If the Earth’s atmosphere consisted of methane the way the atmospheres of large planets do, then we would consider hydrogen to be an inflammable gas and oxygen a flammable one. It is a similar case with acids and alkalis: if we swap water for another solvent, the substances that appear in the environment as acids will become alkalis, weak acids will become strong, etc.”
Location 7413-7418
“[…] a scientist cannot work on the assumption that he is only creating a certain transient and impermanent link in the cognitive process, even if he was to hold such a philosophical position. A theory is “valid for a certain period of time”the whole of the history of science demonstrates this. Then it gives way to another theory. It is entirely possible that there exists a threshold of theoretical constructions that the human mind cannot cross by itself—but that it will be able to cross with the help of, say, an “intelligence amplifier.” A road toward future progress thus opens up before us, yet we still do not know whether some objective laws that cannot be overcome (such as, e.g., the speed of light) will not impede the construction process of such “amplifiers.””
Location 7489-7495
“The criteria that currently determine practical ways of proceeding can go out of date (e.g., the criterion of economic profitability or energy saving does not apply anymore when a material process that is practically inexhaustible is the source of energy). Besides, when basic needs are being fully satisfied, the problem “what to do next,” i.e., whether we should create some new needs and, if so, what kind, comes to the fore.”
Location 7547-7550
“In any case, another reason why this phenomenon of “becoming detached,” “leaping into the future,” and experiencing “information eruption” would be a disaster rather than an actual developmental leap is that, as soon as the “information farm” has progressed too far ahead of the current state of knowledge about that civilization, the criteria for eliminating irrelevant information would disappear. In this way, the “farm” itself would be immediately transformed into a “bomb”—if not a megabyte then at least a gigabyte one; it would become a giant, with oceans of information produced by it leading to a most unusual deluge.”
Location 7564-7569
“today’s technologies of recording, protecting, and addressing information are not radically streamlined within the next fifty years, we shall be threatened with a vision that will be both grotesque and frightening: that of a world covered up with piles of books and of a humanity turned into busy librarians.”
Location 7611-7613
“On this “library front,” methodology understood as a set of directions for finding knowledge in the world should give way to “ariadnology”—which would stand for a guide to the labyrinth of the already assembled knowledge.”
Location 7614-7615
“It seems that the crisis of information distribution will lead to the strengthening of publication criteria in the future so that their original selection prevents the flooding of the professional market with insignificant works, works that are only produced to obtain an academic degree or to satisfy someone’s ambition. We can even think that presenting banal works will at last be declared a menace and thus will be seen as a violation of scientists’ professional ethics because such works create nothing but “noise” that prevents us from receiving valuable information—which is vital if knowledge is to grow further.”
Location 7621-7626

Oh dear, I’m afraid we’ve disappointed Lem’s hopes terribly.

“An opponent of “bioconstructionism” cannot limit himself to opposing any “plans for man’s redesign” but should rather give up on all of civilization’s achievements, such as medicine and technology, and retreat to the forest on all four. All the solutions and methods he does not criticize or oppose (e.g., the method of medical intervention) actually used to be opposed from standpoints similar to the one he has adopted. It is only the passage of time, and thus the acceptance of their effectiveness, that led to them being included in our civilization’s treasure chest, which is why they do not evoke opposition from anyone anymore.”
Location 7679-7683
“An opponent of bioconstructionism may reply that unique singular existence is priceless, which is why we should not, in our ignorance, manipulate genotypes by trying to free them from traits we consider harmful and by introducing others.”
Location 7687-7689
“the Earth’s atmosphere has been poisoned over decades by radioactive waste. The majority of respected geneticists and biologists would insist that this would lead to the emergence of numerous mutations in subsequent generations and that every nuclear test explosion meant a certain number of deformations, illnesses, and premature deaths caused by cancer, leukemia, etc. Also, those explosions were not to serve anything except increasing the nuclear potential of the interested parties. This kind of politics, continued up to this day by some states that deem themselves civilized, has produced at least thousands (or, more probably, tens of thousands) of victims. This is the world in which we live—and this is the world in which we are discussing the problems of bioconstructionism.”
Location 7690-7696
“The aura of moral responsibility must envelop the field of bioconstructionism—which is an area of great risk (but also perhaps of equally great hope). Yet, given that man caused himself so much pain and suffering in previous centuries (and not only then) as a result of his uncontrolled activity on the scale of society and civilization, it is high time he took such a conscious and responsible risk as soon as the state of his knowledge allows for it, even if this knowledge remains incomplete.”
Location 7704-7708