The Future is Null

For as long as any of us have been alive, the default assumption is that humans are not the only self-aware beings in the universe. Everyone just knows that out in space, there are intelligent life forms that have evolved on some planet somewhere. Libraries of books and countless movies and TV shows have been created around the belief in life beyond earth. Not just bugs and plants either. Intelligent life along with all the stuff that comes with it.

Alien life is almost always imagined to be more intelligent than earthlings. Everyone just knows that the aliens are our intellectual superiors. Most assume that means they have evolved to be our moral superiors. That lets our scolds project onto the aliens features and attributes they wish we possessed. Others go the other way and the aliens are an out-sized version of our worst features. That means the aliens roam the universe consuming natural resources like locusts or enslaving minorities.

I’m not sure where I saw this, but it fits the pattern.

If and when we finally encounter aliens, they probably won’t look like little green men, or spiny insectoids. It’s likely they won’t be biological creatures at all, but rather, advanced robots that outstrip our intelligence in every conceivable way. While scores of philosophers, scientists and futurists have prophesied the rise of artificial intelligence and the impending singularity, most have restricted their predictions to Earth. Fewer thinkers—outside the realm of science fiction, that is—have considered the notion that artificial intelligence is already out there, and has been for eons.

Susan Schneider, a professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut, is one who has. She joins a handful of astronomers, including Seth Shostak, director of NASA’s Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, or SETI, program, NASA Astrobiologist Paul Davies, and Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology Stephen Dick in espousing the view that the dominant intelligence in the cosmos is probably artificial. In her paper “Alien Minds,” written for a forthcoming NASA publication, Schneider describes why alien life forms are likely to be synthetic, and how such creatures might think.

The fact that all of this was thought up by science fiction writers a long time ago is lost on all of these folks. I guess when you have letters after your name, dreaming up crazy nonsense is grant worthy, even when it is someone else’s crazy nonsense. Regardless, the Borg was thought up when they rebooted the Star Trek series for TV. That was ripped off from the first Star Trek movie when Voyager returns after having acquired all knowledge in the universe.

People who take a new spin on this bit are always heralded as futurists, people with grand imaginations that think up out-of-the-box scenarios. The reality is it takes little to no imagination or intelligence. What’s tough is imagining a world where we are are the dominant life form. That’s what pushes the envelope of imagination. It’s what made Asimov’s Foundation series so great. Asimov had an uncanny grip on religion and science, without have strong emotions for or against either of them.

It’s why I find the singularity stuff so dull and stupid. It is just a blend of mysticism and science fiction, without a lot creativity. Instead of reaching a higher consciousness, we end up on a hard drive somewhere on a core Internet server. Great. Living out eternity as CPU cycles would cause a truly intelligent being to unplug one’s self from the grid.

That’s the error in the singularity argument. Life is not driven by survival. It is driven by reproduction. Reproduction, even amongst the lower species, is driven by hope. When times are good and the future is bright, we get lots of reproduction. When the opposite is true, we get the opposite. Put another way, if there’s no tomorrow, there’s no need to reproduce. If there’s no need to reproduce, there’s no need to live. The singularity, therefore, is the nullification of life.

9 thoughts on “The Future is Null

  1. Yes, Dan Kurt, I know. That particular Twilight Zone episode I referenced was based on Knight’s short story.

  2. I’ll go with the ancients on this one. Potentiality is the prime mover. Whatever is potential in this rock, hand full of dust, will under the right circumstances emerge. So, liberty, beauty, truth, etc, are latencies of primordial matter as much as BMW motorcycles, human life, and missions of inter galactic discovery.

    Highly advanced beings likely take on the form of biological life just as a way to break up the boredom of virtual immortality.

    And,five minutes of Schneider’s talk and I fail to see how she can be considered a Philosopher.

  3. …that the dominant intelligence in the cosmos is probably artificial.

    (Based on an exceedingly limited number of facts tied together by bunch of flimsy assumptions, resting on a mountain of speculation.)

    Every time I read futurist schlock like that I’m reminded of how “Arthur C. Clarke invented the communications satellite.” Clarke, of course, gave us the brilliant idea of a geosynchronous satellite that could relay messages worldwide.

    What he didn’t foresee was the development of semiconductors. His satellite was a manned space station where technicians would stay busy changing burned out vacuum tubes and relays, and never mind what all that space radiation was doing to their bone marrow.

    Siri, Watson and “Eugene” have breathed new life into the Strong AI camp. Science is as affected by fads and trends as anything else, so obviously the universe is populated by synthetic intelligence. Papers will be written about its nature, grants will be awarded, tenure granted and in a decade or two technological advance and social change will make the whole thing look quaint and ridiculous.

    I predict that alien intelligence will look exactly like the alien intelligence we find if and when we find it. (And as you observe, that’s a harder row to hoe, intellectually, that making up nonsense about silicon-based artificial life forms that don’t share our values.)

  4. Reproduction is an instinct, albeit an extremely vital one, and yes, life is driven by that, but not just that. The search for Meaning is what separates us from the non -sentient. Any old mouth breather can reproduce, and the genius among us can choose not to reproduce of their own accord. As for the extra-terrestrials? Who the hell really knows until they present themselves to us. Maybe they’re going to harvest us ala “To Serve Man” from The Twilight Zone? Maybe they’ll be benign scientists like E.T.? Or giant mechanical creatures like the latest crop of Alien movies to come out of Hollywood? I totally don’t know and I’m not going to pretend I have any insight in this area. I think it’s much more likely we’ll destroy ourselves before any aliens get the chance.

  5. Regardless, the Borg was thought up when they rebooted the Star Trek series for TV. That was ripped off from the first Star Trek movie when Voyager returns after having acquired all knowledge in the universe

    It’s worse than that. The movie plot borrowed heavily from an episode of the original series. Critics panning the movie pointed this out.

  6. hmmm…But with 7 billion people and growing, we don’t necessarily need more reproduction for the sake of reproduction. Many hopeful people voluntarily choose to forgo reproduction because of the opportunity costs associated with reproduction. Humans are the only species capable of suppressing primitive biological urges such. If singularism can extend consciousness of the world’s greatest minds indefinitely, the applications and benefits would be immense.

  7. It is hard to imagine a group of people more ruthlessly conformist than those who have risen to the top of the Academy.

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