The Future of Life in the Universe
Episode #10 of the course The evolution of life in the universe by Silvano P. Colombano Ph.D.
Having speculated on whether the “future” of life has already manifested itself in the existence of possibly far more advanced civilization, we can return to where we are and where continuing evolution may take us, regardless of whether this staggering phenomenon has already shown its potential elsewhere in the universe.
We have seen how evolution proceeds from a systems perspective. Some stable phenomenon creates a “substrate” of objects that can be combined in different ways until some particular combinations are found that are themselves stable and capable of forming a new substrate. This was true about the path from molecules to cells to multicellular organisms, and about the paths of evolving technologies. What is the current “substrate”?
What Is the Next Stage of Evolution?
We have acquired the following abilities: moving objects with their own power, building systems able to make decisions (AI), intervening in our own biological processes to cure disease and extend our abilities, storing large amounts of information, communicating wirelessly. What combination or combinations of these abilities will form new entities that will constitute a new stage of evolution?
It might take centuries or longer before we might be able to say “this is what homo sapiens has become” and the thought is a challenging one, because we are understandably reluctant to accept any possible changes from what we now consider to be the essence of our humanity, both physically and mentally, but my belief is that life’s phenomenon is a force that follows its own rules of systems’ evolution, and it’s very unlikely that we would have the ability or the will to stop it in order to remain exactly the species we are now.
There are several possible directions. It’s easy to see a direction where all our vital organs will be replaceable with synthetic ones, and thus greatly extend our life span. But what about the brain? We will surely gain a deep understanding of how the brain works and what parts will retain the essence of our personality, but even now we are already able to put cochlear implants for the deaf and soon retinal implants for the blind. How soon will we be able to enhance our memory with chips? Connect straight to the internet? Think of the equivalent of a cell phone implanted in our brain… This is the direction where our bodies create a symbiotic relationship with technologies. This possibility is referred to as Transhumanism. The term “cyborgs” is also often used in science fiction for these “transhumans” and the possibility, over spans of centuries, I think is real.
Another direction is that of machine evolution following its own path. One can make the argument that machine intelligence can become self-conscious and able to self-direct, search and create independently of human instructions. This possibility is perhaps frightening from the point of view of our species. Could machines even surpass us in general intelligence? As a human I would like to argue that they could not… but I’m afraid that over a span of centuries or millennia that possibility is strong. Essentially our species will have given “birth” to a new species, just like it happened before in evolution. Different species can coexist, just like present-day species do, but there can be conflicts for resources. One can imagine that homo sapiens will branch off into cyborgs and autonomous machines, just like the primate line branched off into hominids and chimpanzees.
The machine intelligence line has some important advantages… Whereas our basic “hardware”, brain, and skull size are “fixed” would require millions of years to change even slightly (unless we manage to accelerate and direct our own evolution), machines have no such limitations. The space of possibilities they could explore, in terms of sizes, complexity, and features is limited only by the laws of physics!
Machines could build copies of themselves. It would be a form of self-reproduction, thus it is easy to envision what could essentially be the evolution of robotic species. At NASA I proposed the idea of “robotic ecologies” that could be self-sustaining just like biological ecologies. In my proposal, such ecologies were meant to be “at the service” of human crews or colonies on extraterrestrial planetary surfaces, but the concept is ultimately independent of a human presence.
These concepts tie into our previous lesson on extraterrestrial intelligence. It is an uncomfortable notion, but we cannot discount the possibility that the position of humanity within the evolution of life was to give rise to “machine life” as a new stage, just like unicellular organisms eventually gave rise to multicellular organisms and our own species. Would humanity be “wiped out” in such a development? Perhaps, but just like monocellular organisms still exist, we could remain a leaf in the tree of life while a new leaf or branch of machine life emerges, to give rise to what might become “Artificial Superintelligence”. The implications of this type of future are simply too hard to fathom.
Are We the Apex or a New Beginning?
As has often happened in the history of humanity, we have always had the tendency to assume that we were “special”. First, we thought that we were at the center of the universe, only to realize that we are on a tiny planet around a star just like trillions of other stars also surrounded by planets like ours, where life could have emerged. Then we thought of ourselves as being the “final” and best product of what life could become. Most of us still think that, and it’s a difficult notion to give up, but the phenomenon of life is much larger than we are.
I have been trying to keep all my observations about life’s evolution separate from any considerations about religious belief. I leave that entirely to the reader, but my position, as a scientist, is that evolution can be understood without the need of divine intervention. Indeed, allowing for such intervention, at any point, stops the “inquiry”, and if I did that I would not be doing “my job”. But that doesn/t preclude a sense of awe for the extraordinary beauty and complexity of this phenomenon, and, especially, for our ability to grasp the immensity and complexity of the universe itself. It is a simple but extraordinary fact that “matter” has evolved to become (through us) conscious of its own existence. This fact alone would seem to justify our “special place” in the universe.
The final question I have tried to address is “are we the apex or a new beginning”? There have been several “new beginnings” in the course of evolution, but this point in history is indeed “special”, because, as I just stated, we are “matter aware of itself” and evolution can now continue outside the bounds of organisms and biological species. The phenomenon of life has the potential to become expressed in other realms of matter we cannot even imagine. I used to think that life was a peculiar phenomenon that happened on planetary surfaces all over the universe. Now I wonder if it might be a much larger phenomenon, ultimately a cosmological force capable of shaping the universe itself. Of course, this is wild speculation, but it is the thought I would like to leave you with. Thank you for accompanying me on this journey.
More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement by Ramez Naam
Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies by Nick Bostrom
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