Life’s Future in the Cosmos

August 3, 2010

Speaking at a Long Now Foundation seminar Monday night, Royal Society President and Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees said that because of our unique position in the history of the lightcone as the first (or one of the first) intelligent species, we tend to get a distorted view of history as a long, boring past during which nothing much happened, and then a very short period of rapidly accelerating change leading up to the present. In reality, however, the future of the Hubble volume is a lot longer than its past — the Sun isn’t yet even halfway through its life cycle, he pointed out.

Despite that, people who predict things “a million years from now” are considered to be talking about the unimaginably distant future, but a million years is only a few dozen clock ticks of cosmological time. We as humanity are responsible for the future of not just the next few thousand years (the timescale on which civilization has so far existed) but for “spans of time six or more orders of magnitude greater than that” — and since, in space, time and distance are equivalent, volumes of space six orders of magnitude greater than that containing the stars we see at night, he said.

Rees also pointed out:

  • Over the truly long term, our posthuman descendants will become — not just second-generation intelligences — but thousand-generation or million-generation intelligences. He quoted Darwin on how no species can pass its likeness into the distant future unaltered; in a billion years of biological evolution, we’ve gone from bugs to humans, and technological evolution is a lot faster than biological. Our distant descendants will be not just strange, but completely alien to us.
  • We can tell from the small ripples in our visible universe that the whole universe is a lot larger than the volume that we can see. If the whole universe has not just different regions with different configurations of matter, but different regions with different laws of physics, then we have a ready explanation for how the universe seems fine-tuned to support the complex chemistry necessary for life: there are lots of uninhabitable regions of space, and we only observe the habitable ones.
  • This, however, is dependent on two different conditions: that there be multiple universes well outside our own, and that these universes have different laws of physics in addition to different configurations of matter. If either one fails, then we must come up with an alternative explanation: either the apparent fine-tuning is just us showing us as unimaginative (as he claims the “rare Earth” argument is), or something even more strange is going on.
  • During this century, we not only have unprecedented opportunity, but unprecedented responsibility. If the new technologies we build have a high chance of causing civilization-wide catastrophe (and Rees thinks they do) for the first time in history, then we are, all of us, are responsible for actively preventing that from happening, not just trying to predict it or understand it. The key thing here is the commitment to taking action to alter the future instead of just trying to predict it.
  • KurzweilAI research consultant Thomas McCabe prepared this news report  – Ed.