Martin Rees – Our Posthuman Future

I’ve just come across a fasinating article by Lord Martin Rees. Just in case you don’t know who he is, here is a link to his Wikipedia page. Our specific interest here is that he is not only an English cosmologist and astrophysicist, but has also been Astronomer Royal since 1995, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge since 2004, and President of the Royal Society since 2005. In other words, he is a smart well-respected chap in the scientific community, so its usually worth paying attention to anything he says.

As an aside, he is the author of more than 500 research papers, and he has made important contributions to the origin of cosmic microwave background radiation, as well as to galaxy clustering and formation. His studies of the distribution of quasars led to final disproof of Steady State theory. He was also one of the first to propose that enormous black holes power quasars, and that superluminal astronomical observations can be explained as an optical illusion caused by an object moving partly in the direction of the observer

In this instance, he addressed the Long Now Foundation. Thats a group set up in 01996 [Note the extra zero in the date :-) ] to creatively foster long-term thinking and responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years.

OK, so what did he say to them? Well, with a hat tip to Thomas Mccabe for the actual words … here are the details …

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.

  • OK, I’m a science geek, I love this stuff … but then thats me.  I don’t just embrace the idea of being rooted in reality and poo-pooing silly beliefs, I also relish the idea of expanding the horizon of our understanding, and speculating about the future.

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