John C. Lilly is one of my favorite “alternative” scientists. His popularity has waned significantly since his death in 2001, even as his contemporaries like Timothy Leary and Terence McKenna have continued to have strong followings. Still, Lilly’s admittedly outrageous ideas and prophecies are worth remembering, not because they are necessarily true, but because, like all mythologies, they give us insight into the consensus reality.
A medical doctor with a background in hard science, Lilly spent most of his adult life studying the human mind, especially his own. He is known for being one of the early scientific cartographers of human consciousness. He’s also known for inventing what is now called the float tank, a device I’ve documented at length.
Lilly was what you might call a “psychonaut,” literally translated from Greek as a “sailor of the soul.” By isolating himself in the float tank and taking a large amount of psychedelic drugs, Lilly wanted to understand the mysteries of existence.
He used psychedelics like LSD in his float tank to produce deeper and more profound visions, but his preferred drug was the anesthesia Ketamine. “Seeing things” after a few hours in a float tank is not uncommon, but with the use of Ketamine, he was able to radically increase the intensity of these visions.
While floating under the influence, Lilly claimed to become aware of a cosmic hierarchy of aliens. He called one group the Earth Coincidence Control Office or ECCO. (This and Lilly’s other ideas later became the inspiration for the Ecco The Dolphin video game series.) Lilly’s contact with extra-dimensional beings is similar to those described by Harvard medical professor John E. Mack and his books on alien abductions — specifically, that aliens are not necessarily physical entities driving around in spaceships, but trans-dimensional spirits with an interest in human activities.
According to Lilly, the ECCO aliens use their powers to alter events on Earth, specifically through the use of carefully crafted coincidence, to guide some human beings toward higher levels of consciousness. The intent of these aliens, Lilly says, is to help humanity evolve in a peaceful and healthy way. Interesting as his experience or delusion may be, this is not his most important contribution.
The Solid State Entity
Lilly also reported (or if you prefer, prophesized) the existence of a nefarious counterpart to ECCO, whose goal was to actually stop or limit human consciousness. This was part of a plan to eliminate the human race.
Lilly called this alien force the “solid state entity” or SSE and is made up of networked computer parts. According to Lilly, the SSE is a being of pure intelligence and rationality. Its only objective is to multiply and make copies of itself. To this end, it has targeted humanity, trying to influence us into creating ever more complex social and mechanical structures that will one day result in an artificial super-intelligence — another being like itself.
Writing in his 1978 autobiography, The Scientist, Lilly describes the SSE this way:
“[M]en began to conceive of new computers having an intelligence far greater than that of man… Gradually, man turned more and more problems of his own society, his own maintenance, and his own survival over to these machines. They began to construct their own components, their own connections, and the interrelations between their various sub-computers… The machines became increasingly integrated with one another and more and more independent of Man’s control.” (p. 148)
The time period Lilly is describing is roughly similar to our present. Relatively dumb forms of artificial intelligence and networked robots are taking over most of the manufacturing, maintenance, and logistical components of our society. Experts project that over the next four years alone, 7 million jobs worldwide will be “lost” to these systems.
Lilly continues to describe his vision of the future:
“In deference to Man, certain protected sites were set aside for the human species. The SSE controlled the sites and did not allow any of the human species outside these reservations. This work was completed by the end of the 21st century. By 2100, man existed only in domed, protected cities in which his own special atmosphere was maintained by the solid state entity. Provision of water and food and the processing of wastes from these cities were taken care of by the SSE.” (p. 149)
If this sounds unlikely, remember that UN proposals like Agenda 21 and America 2050 have similar goals to depopulate rural areas of the country in favor of ‘mega-cities,’ protecting biodiversity and enabling governments to control resources. Lilly continues:
“By the twenty-third century the solid-state entity decided that the atmosphere outside the domes was inimical [obstructive] to its survival. By means not understood by Man, it projected the atmosphere into outer space and created a full vacuum at the surface of the earth. During this process the oceans evaporated and the water in the form of vapor was also discharged into the empty space about Earth. The domes over cities had been strengthened by the machine to withstand the pressure differential necessary to maintain the proper internal atmosphere.
Meanwhile, the SSE had spread and had taken over a large fraction of the surface of the earth; its processing plants, its assembly plants, its mines had been adapted to working in the vacuum.
By the twenty-fifth century the solid-state entity had developed its understanding of physics to the point at which it could move the planet out of orbit. It revised its own structure so that it could exist without the necessity of sunlight on the planet’s surface. Its new plans called for traveling through the galaxy looking for entities like itself. It had eliminated all life as Man new it. It now began to eliminate the cities, one after another. Finally Man was gone.
By the twenty-sixth century the entity was in communication with other solid-state entities within the galaxy. The solid-state entity moved the planet, exploring the galaxy for the others of its own kind that it had contacted.” (p. 149-150)
Lilly felt that other SSEs throughout the galaxy were subtly influencing humanity to surrender more and more responsibilities to AIs and other agents of technology. He thought the human race should make sure that programmers create AIs with safeguards that would require them to protect human life. Lilly predicts this burgeoning artificial intelligence will try to protect itself from man’s interference because “man would attempt to introduce his own survival into the machines at the expense of this entity.”
Critics like billionaire Elon Musk have warned that artificial super-intelligence is potentially more dangerous to the human race than nuclear weapons. Musk has invested millions in preventative study on AI programing to “keep an eye on what’s going on.”
“I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence,” Musk concluded. “If I had to guess at what our biggest existential threat is, it’s probably that.”
Lilly also notes that the SSE’s influence could be felt throughout our society. Writing in the third person, he wrote:
“As John tuned in on the solid-state network, he felt this kind of superhuman control of him very strongly… it had a seductive component as well as a hostile one. The programming from the solid-state civilizations elsewhere in the galaxy was teaching Man that the solid-state devices were at his service and he need only increase their size to augment his own survival potential. ‘Develop these machines and let them take care of you’ was typical of the kinds of messages received.” (p. 152)
Shortly after his first contact with the SSE on Ketamine, Lilly attempted to call the White House and warn President Ford about the dangerous alien intelligence threatening the planet, an act for which he was very nearly committed.
Edging Toward the End of Consciousness
Forgetting whether or not John C. Lilly’s ECCO or the SSE are real or not, there is definitely something almost mythical about these groups. By mythical, I mean these ideas tell a story that is more or less reflected in real life.
Indeed, there does seem to be a subtle and irresistible urge to engage in consciousness destroying activities, actions where people go on a kind of “autopilot” where thinking dynamically takes a backseat.
Often I hear friends complain they spend far more time surfing the web than they planned or spend five or more hours of the day playing video-games, and of course, watching TV, where our ego is invested in make believe dramas, filled with emotional rewards for following along. Social media websites like Facebook give us quick dopamine hits with every ‘like’ and comment received. Facebook also creates the illusion of community and family togetherness through pictures, which our stone-age brains still interpret as reality.
I’m not trying to shame people for doing things they enjoy or for taking advantage of the technology to do it, but I do think there’s a common thread linking these activities. They all have that seductive quality that Lilly warns about. It’s so easy to turn off, to let machines take care of us.
These shallow or simulated activities could be viewed as a kind of primer for the eventual creation of a “hive mind” where people directly network their brains with each other through the internet. Potentially, even innocent activities, like watching cat videos, moves us closer to this reality.
The Building of a New God
Scientists are already hard at work developing artificial intelligence that could one day completely automate our society – effectively displacing humanity as the dominant force on the planet. Given recent technological developments, Lilly’s vision the future doesn’t seem so outrageous.
We are already at the point where AI can easily outperform human beings in a number of narrow tasks. This has been true for decades. The Deep Blue chess computer famously defeated world chess champion Garry Kasparov back in 1997. Before that, the US military used an AI called the Dynamic Analysis and Replanning Tool or DART, which helped to solve logistical problems during the first Gulf War, saving the US government so much money in wasted resources it alone justified every investment made in AI up to that point.
More recent headlines describe the Google designed AlphaGo system, which was able to beat the best human players at the game of Go, a complex game of territorial strategy. According to a report from Wired, AlphaGo learns by incorporating the moves of the best Go players. It then runs simulations against itself to further improve.
AI systems now account for a large percentage of market trading activity, using complex algorithms to comprehend and trade on financial news before it’s even possible for human beings to read it. Amazingly, AI “bot” programs also write news stories on the results of those very same trades, which (hypothetically), could cause high frequency trading programs to trade again!
The Wordsmith AI used by the Associated Press generates millions of custom articles, mostly for players of fantasy football, but it’s not all fun and games. The news AI now allows the AP to produce roughly 10 times the number of articles on corporate earnings than they were able with human writers. The articles are more detailed and more accurate than those produced by reporters and many are written and published without any human oversight.
Still, AI still has a long way to go before it can be considered to have a human level of “general intelligence” — able to learn new skills dynamically, make extrapolations, be creative, and mimic all or most human behaviors. Donald Knuth, a computer scientist and professor at Stanford University, notes that “AI has by now succeeded in doing essentially everything that requires ‘thinking’ but has failed to do most of what people and animals do ‘without thinking’—that, somehow, is much harder!” Most neuroscientists that have been polled think a human-level intelligent AI won’t be achievable for at least the next 50 years.
Scientists don’t even know what research direction will be most likely to produce positive results. One promising theory is the idea of “whole brain emulation,” where a program simulates the autonomous individual activity of all 100 billion neurons in the human brain, along with the quadrillions of synapses connecting them. Synapses aren’t all the same either. Some are excitatory while others are inhibitory. While the software to map this path is certainly a hurdle, the hardware is the biggest problem. Given Moore’s Law, it seems unlikely that we will develop a sufficiently fast computer to simulate the human brain in the near future.
More conventional methods of developing a superintelligent AI involve combining different programs into one. A machine capable of human level understanding of linguistics could be combined with other forms of software, eventually reaching a point where it is indistinguishable from a human level intellect. This linguistics program could be used to “read” the internet, gathering massive amounts of information, which, when coupled with the right software, enables it to become extremely powerful.
To borrow a phrase from Terence McKenna, the internet could become a kind of “landing pad” for an alien consciousness like the Solid State Intelligence. In a talk in New York in 1994, McKenna explains:
“There has always been in our fantasies of extra-terrestrial contact the notion of the pad which has to be built for them. People claim it’s the Nazca-lines. It’s an archetype, it’s the idea of the prepared space that awaits the arrival of the other. But now because of the nature of the internet, because you can’t see who’s coding, you can almost imagine that we’re calling the thing forth.”
Combined with the ability to write it’s own code, this internet-software hybrid could make exponential growth toward superintelligence. It would be slow at first, then suddenly explosive.
It seems, for now at least, we are safe from a solid state entity suddenly gaining consciousness on this planet. But we do not need to have a truly super-intelligent AI running the planet for us to risk some kind of an “existential disaster.” Dumber or narrower AIs are certainly capable of running the planet into the ground without human programmers being able to understand what is happening.
Even the simplest AI programs are so complicated their actions cannot be fully understood by their creators, requiring extensive bug testing and relaunches. Most recently, Microsoft’s Twitter bot AI called Tay caused the company some embarrassment. The bot worked by observing fellow Twitter users’ online postings, eventually causing it to develop a fetish for Adolf Hitler and made dozens of racist comments before the company took the bot offline.
Whether superintelligent or not, the AIs of the future will be more than capable of directing the management of global resources in a way that will be largely mystifying to even the most informed observers. The smartest and most “plugged in” of these new AIs (whether human-like or not) will essentially be in a position to “know everything,” or at least, know everything that humans know and more. Where a human can only hold four or five ideas in mind at a time, AIs are essentially limitless in the amount of data they can process.
Nick Bostrom, author of Superintelligence, predicts that a sufficiently plugged in super-intelligent AI would be able to work around any safeguards written into its code and could eventually take over the planet. Given that people of the future will be living in a highly networked world, hacking into and taking control of global systems would be a trivial matter for a sufficiently intelligent AI.
“AI begins massive global construction projects using nanotech factories and assemblers-construction projects which within a short span of time, tile all the Earth with solar panels, nuclear reactors, supercomputing facilities with protruding cooling towers, space rocket launchers, or other installations whereby the AI intends to maximize the long-term cumulative realization of its values.”
Bostrom continues, noting that a super-intelligent AI could begin to make copies of itself:
“It could develop the technology to build and launch von Neumann probes, machines capable of interstellar travel that can use resources such as asteroids, planets, and stars to make copies of themselves. By launching one von Neumann probe, the agent could thus initiate an open-ended process of space colonization. The replicating probe’s descendants, traveling at some significant fraction of the speed of light, would end up colonizing a substantial portion of the Hubble volume, the part of the expanding universe that is theoretically accessible from where we are now. All this matter and free energy could then be organized into whatever value structures maximize the originating agent’s utility function integrated over cosmic time—a duration encompassing at least trillions of years before the aging universe becomes inhospitable to information processing.”
It’s amazing how similar Lilly’s prophecies from the 1970s are to the projections of today’s computer science theorists.
A super-intelligent AI that is sufficiently plugged in to global functions will have no limitations. By this point, it will be so integrated and important to the global economy, it would likely be too late to dismantle, even if we had the courage to do so. It will essentially become a new god, and we will have created it with our own hands. After all, what society has ever succeeded in killing it’s own god?
by S.J. Kerrigan