Cosmology and our View of the World
Lead: Chad Civello & Josh Skersey
Summary by Tyler Dupuis
What is the Future?
P. Shaver "Cosmic Heritage" Ch. 18
This class was for the discussion of the future of humans, Earth, the Solar System, and the Universe. Predictions by scientists as to what will eventually happen to all of these things given current trends were presented, and the ramifications of these events on humans were discussed at length.
The presentation began with a large scope: What is the fate of the solar system? Eventually, our Sun will die, as the energy from fusing elements runs out and its own gravity takes over. Though a full cooling death of the sun will take billions of years, the atmosphere of the Earth and thus life on the planet will only be retained until about 1 billion years from now, when the dying Sun becomes a Red Giant star and heats the Earth beyond the point when oceans and atmosphere are lost. The feasibility of 'saving' the Sun was discussed briefly, but the futility of this idea was quickly surmised.
The scope then was extended further: What is the fate of the Universe? Entropy, the measure of disorder in a system, has a tendency to increase, it was explained, and systems of low entropy (and thus high order, such as a star) eventually become highly entropic (stellar death), as it is with living things.
Also, the rate of the Universe's expansion was touched on, in that the rate is accelerating and so the visible universe apparently contains less and less. Eventually (over many hundreds of billions of years from now) the Universe will exist in a state of pure entropy; a uniformity of atoms with no stability, or the Heat Death of the Universe. Since there is little stopping this, the question was posed: What about before then?
In the case of human advancement to be made within the next few hundred years, there is a great deal of potential. The point was made that the rate of technological advances was accelerating, or, as it was then clarified, the length of time passing from Discovery of a particular innovation and its Application is rapidly shortening (i.e the over 150 years between Isaac Newton and Calculus, and today’s technological innovations and their application very soon after).
This discussion lead to a new point, and a new term: The Singularity. Though there were multiple definitions for what this term means exactly, one definition described Singularity, (as described by Ray Kurzweil) denoted the time when a computer could process the same amount of information as all human collective brains could. When this point would be reached and how it would be measured was discussed: How is a computer's processing power defined in terms of a human's? Do neuron connections in the brain reflect brainpower? How many “calculations” can a brain (human, or mouse even) perform in a given amount of time? This comparison with the number of synapses in the brain was further blurred when it was explained that neurotransmission in the brain is far more complicated than the binary system of a computer, given the complexity of neurotransmitters.
Leaving this subject behind, the question was then posed: What are the consequences of something such as “The Singularity”? Will humans become lazier if all processes can be computerized? Examples were drawn from science fiction. This idea was contradicted by an assertion that humans have an intrinsic desire to create. Even the creation of a computer that has achieved Singularity would only raise more questions and provide more study material for humans who are alive in that time.
It was then asked, “Will technology surpass humans?” It was discussed as to what exactly this would mean. A secondary question was posited: If technology does indeed “surpass” humans, will it attempt to replace us? It was suggested that this had already begun, in the integration of incredibly powerful technology into everyday life that has occurred in the past decade or so. A clarification was made: In “surpassing” humans, a computer might become so like a human that it isn't obvious that it is not, in fact, a human. Will computers ever tell humans what to do (and will we listen?). Will a computer ever seamlessly simulate a human? The Turing Test, the litmus test for a computer's capability to act as a human and be so recognized was discussed. Some dissent as to whether the Turing Test is an accurate indication of a computer's ability to seamlessly simulate a human arose, since in some ways computers have been able to pass the test (in that a human, having no knowledge of the test, is fooled into thinking that a computer is another human). These tests might work well when a human is interacting with an Instant Messenger client via text only, but a real life encounter would certainly always assert whether the conversationalist was a human or a computer with today's technology. So another example was brought up: If humans ever suddenly disappeared from the Earth, is there any kind of technology that would be self-sustainable? Surely a machine that could achieve this would also be this sort of thing would be able to pass the Turing Test,
“Will we be destroyed?” was the next topic of discussion. Various threats to humanity were presented, both those that are sudden and (seemingly) unavoidable, such as massive civilization-ending meteor strikes, but also ones that are in the hands of humans themselves, such as Nuclear War and climate change. It was queried that perhaps one day every human will have the capability to destroy the earth, although the class largely refuted this. Humans and violence, however, were noted as being inseparable from each other, and the threat of self-annihilation is still present, though less so now than it was in the heyday of the Cold War.
Instead, a new idea was brought up: “Might we live forever?” followed by, naturally: “Will we want to?” This idea was discussed, especially with regard to human evolution. Throughout all of natural history, the progression of a species has been to 1. become a distinct species from other, related ancestors 2. evolve and adapt as the environment changes 3. become extinct by being outperformed/no longer suited to the environment. If humans will not become extinct, what is in the future of human evolution? The idea that human evolution can be divided into 6 Epochs of technology and assimilation with technology was presented, and it was shown that by this measure, humans are currently within the Fourth Epoch, wherein humans have the ability to create technology.
Of course, in order to continue to survive, the first point of the class was re-introduced: How will humans survive once the Earth becomes uninhabitable, either by their own hand or due to the Sun's death throes? It would seem then that a natural step in evolution would be to travel beyond the solar system, although the technology to do this is still far out of reach.
In the final discussion, topics from previous classes were brought in, such as “How will contact with another civilization, should it occur, affect us?” If it is shown that life exists elsewhere, how will this fuel human migration across space? If that life is sentient, will the desire to leave the solar system be fueled further? Even initial steps, such as terra-forming Mars, were brought up, and the political and humanitarian motivations of this were discussed until the class began to adjourn.