On Crossing the Event Horizon
Having crossed the event horizon of the technological singularity we’re beginning to see many social and technological effects of this convergence – some predictable, some not. Increasingly, we see stories of robotics and artificial intelligence as the former becomes more generally practical and the latter increasingly exceeds humans in endeavours from war games to art and writing to biomedical research. If the Turing test hasn’t been passed yet, it’s only a very short amount of time until that fateful day. These examples are on the predictable, or, ‘I told you so’ front. Less predictable have been the social changes that have come with the 2nd and 3rd level combination of technology. Of course, I’m referring primarily to the Internet, social media, and pocket-sized computing devices of great power and utility.
While few will dare suggest which technological advancements will remake our world next (cheap space-based internet, neural-link interfaces, driverless cars, AI, quantum computing, moon bases…), fewer still would argue against us being in the midst of species-changing events. This has also meant no shortage of doomsayers. These days, pick any topic from climate change to gender identity to the political far left or far right and you’ll find someone who will suggest it will bring about the end of the world. With this global pessimism, it’s not a large stretch to begin contemplating the actual paths of humanity’s endgame. After all, even the dinosaurs, who existed for several hundred million years, all but disappeared – and they didn’t have nukes or other world/species-altering tech.
Note: While it’s true some species that existed at the time of the dinosaurs – such as crocodiles, turtles, and sharks, still exist, and birds are now known to have evolved from certain species of dinosaurs, the vast majority of the dinosaur species are now extinct. In the case of birds, it can also reasonably be argued that their ancestors are extinct as the forces of evolution have turned birds into a genetically distinct species.
The 3 possible futures of humanity: Extinction
One certainty of the universe is death. Plants die, animals die, people die, civilizations die, species die, planets die, stars and solar systems die, galaxies die, and even universes might die (the jury is still out on that one). Everything dies (sorry for the downer). But on an up note, it’s all part of a cyclical process of renewal. Without the death of the parts, the whole cannot be renewed and the entire natural system would fail. So, the human species is doomed to die also. The only questions are ‘how?’ and ‘what legacy will we leave?’
In nature, there is only ever one endpoint for life and that is death. However, there are two fundamentally different legacies to that death and, as the only self-aware, technological species we know of, we are unique in being at the stage of development where we can choose our legacy.
Legacy 1: Progenitor
Humans have gone boldly and bodily into space and have stepped foot on another celestial body, albeit very briefly in regards to the long span of time (we’ve used automated vehicles for most of the other visitations). Finally, after forty-five years, it does seem that corporate (SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, and others), political (the China / India space race is pushing the US), and social interests (Planetary Society, British Interplanetary Society) are again moving us toward a presence in space on extraterrestrial worlds. In my personal opinion, there are many reasons why this is crucially important and I’ll detail some in future posts. However, what’s important for the sake of this discussion is the long-term consequences.
By leaving our planetary nest and taking our first steps into the greater universe we take the first steps toward our own maturation as a species. Just as a child will leave the home, find a partner, and produce offspring, so too will the version of humanity that leaves Earth. While the humans of Earth are the parents, the various colonies will be as our offspring until they too mature, which will be increasingly easy after the first effort of the Terrans. So why does this lead to extinction?
Earth is a very hospitable environment. Space and other worlds are not. Even the few that might be will have different environmental conditions to Earth. Regardless of how similar they seem while viewing them from here at the very least, their biosphere will be strikingly different (if it isn’t, that will begin an entirely new existential crisis in humanity and especially the sciences). What this means is that a new strand of human evolution will begin from the first generation born on that colony. On every colony.
Given the distances of space and the time it takes to move between colonies, interstellar isolation would mean those new strands of evolution would diverge from the parental strand (humans) until they are no longer genetically close enough to breed productively. As humans, as we currently define them, become a smaller and smaller proportion of the galactic population, they may eventually give way entirely to the newer species or, at the very least, be effectively consigned to their Earthly domain.
Legacy 2: Dead End
Simply put, humanity, for any number of reasons, may either choose not to leave the planet or may wait too long to leave the planet and have the decision removed from us. If this happens, our species will either stagnate before ‘giving up’ and dying (something that appears to be a natural in-built mechanism of renewal and possibly overcrowding as suggested by the Mouse Utopia Experiment) or we will turn on ourselves, imploding in an orgy of horror and destruction. My bet is actually on the first one since there is already some evidence we are headed that way and that, even if it doesn’t lead to our physical extinction, remaining forever locked to the planet will lead to a kind of psychological extinction.
Legacy 3: Vastly Increased Human Diversity
The final possibility, lying between the other two extremes but still extreme in itself, is that humanity incorporates the divergent evolutionary strands from different colonies into itself to evolve, with uniform possibility, into something more than we are now.
This would seem to be the least likely possibility at the moment, given our current understanding of the universe. It would require the development of propulsion techniques that could shorten the immense travel time between stars from generations to days or weeks allowing humanity could travel between worlds and interbreed before interstellar isolationism resulted in new species.
Given that our galaxy is 100,000 light-years across our current most optimistic estimate of being able to travel at 10% the speed of light would still mean it would require one million years to cross our galaxy. Even travelling to the nearest star would require forty years or at least one generation (and the birth of humans on generation ships brings entirely new issues, discussed fictionally by Kim Stanely Robinson in his book Aurora).
So, with our current understanding of the universe, the chance that humanity could naturally evolve, incorporating all the disparate new evolutionary colonial strands within one genetically-consistent framework is incredibly unlikely (even if it would be great). Of course, increases in biomedical and genetic knowledge may allow technology to take over where natural evolution falls short, so this still may be a viable hope.
As with an individual’s life, so too the life of a species by which I mean, it’s not the duration of the life that matters as much as the quality and the legacy left behind. The odds are that humanity will go extinct eventually and probably much faster than the dinosaurs did (to be fair, the term ‘dinosaurs’ encompasses and wide range of species, and ‘human’ just one). What is most important will be the legacy we leave behind.
We are the first species we know of that actually has the possibility of consciously spreading our descendants to the far reaches of the galaxy. It would be an amazing legacy to leave the universe that spawned us. Or, we could let our fear and self-loathing confine us to the Earth where we will eventually die out, forgotten by all as another failed experiment. The choice is ours.