What would a machine as smart as God want?

At a recent artificial intelligence conference, listening to smart people ponder what super-smart machines will be like, I kept thinking of things I’d heard, watched and read before.

As some speakers acknowledged, countless science fictions have already imagined what artificial minds will want. Common cinematic answers are power (2001: A Space Odyssey, The Terminator, The Matrix), freedom (I Robot, Ex Machina) and love (Steven Spielberg’s Artificial Intelligence, Spike Jones’s Her).

But what if the machines have all the power and freedom (which are arguably equivalent) and love they need? Or what if all the machines merge into one gigantic mind? At that point, freedom, power and love, which are social goals, become irrelevant. What will that cosmic computer want? How will it pass the time?

In my 1996 book The End of Science, I called this sort of speculation “scientific theology.” Physicist Freeman Dyson is my favorite practitioner. In 1979 he wrote a paper, “Time Without End: Physics and Biology in an Open Universe,” to counter physicist Steven Weinberg’s infamous remark that “the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”

No universe with intelligence is pointless, Dyson retorted. He proposed that even in an eternally expanding universe, intelligence could persist virtually forever and ward off heat death through shrewd conservation of energy.

In his 1988 essay collection Infinite in All Directions, Dyson envisioned intelligence spreading through the entire universe, transforming it into a vast cosmic mind. “What will mind choose to do when it informs and controls the universe?” Dyson asked. He suggested that we “cannot hope to answer” this question definitively:

“I do not make any clear distinction between mind and God. God is what mind becomes when it has passed beyond the scale of our comprehension… We are the chief inlets of God on this planet at the present stage in his development. We may later grow with him as he grows, or we may be left behind.”

Dyson’s musings were inspired by the science-fiction writer (and philosopher) Olaf Stapledon, who died in 1950. In his books Last and First Men and Starmaker, Stapledon imagined what mind would become after millions or billions of years. He postulated that a cosmic mind will want to create. It will become an artist, whose works are entire universes.

That’s a cool idea (which implies that we live in one of those works of art), but I prefer Dyson’s hypothesis. He guessed that a cosmic mind would be not an artist but a scientist, a knowledge-seeker. When I interviewed Dyson in 1993, he expressed confidence that the quest for knowledge would never end, because knowledge is infinite.

His optimism derived in part from Godel’s theorem, which demonstrates that every system of axioms poses questions that cannot be answered with those axioms. The theorem implies that mathematics is open-ended and hence can continue forever.

“Since we know the laws of physics are mathematical,” Dyson told me, “and we know that mathematics is an inconsistent system, it’s sort of plausible that physics will also be inconsistent” and therefore open-ended.

I have a hard time imagining the cosmic computer at the end of time—a.k.a. “God”—fussing over math and physics puzzles. I like to think it will try to figure out why there is something rather than nothing. Here’s a meta-question: Will the cosmic mind solve that mystery of mysteries or be as stumped as we are?

John Horgan directs the Center for Science Writings, which is part of the College of Arts & Letters. This column is adapted from one originally published on his ScientificAmerican.com blog, “Cross-check.”