By BoLOBOOLNE payday loans

Stephen Hawking is half right

My old pal Stephen Hawking has been in the news a lot today for going on a vomet-comet ride.  (Okay, we’re not really old pals, but we’ve chatted a couple of times, notably at my grandpa’s memorial service where he gave a really touching eulogy.)  At a press conference before his flight, Stephen said:

    "Life on Earth is at an ever-increasing risk of being wiped
    out
    by a disaster such as sudden global warming, nuclear war, a
    genetically engineered virus or other dangers."

On this point I completely agree with him.  This idea was a key point I made in my recent Ignite talk on Transhuman Morality.  We’re going to wipe ourselves out.  But as far as what we should do about it, Stephen and I disagree.  He sees space travel as the route to salvation.  This planet is getting burned up, so we’d better find a new one, so the logic goes.  I think this line of reasoning is unrealistic and even reckless.  The idea that we can stop worrying about saving this planet is the reckless part.  Having an out like this encourages people to act irresponsibly.

The reason why it’s unrealistic is more subtle.  I said at Ignite that we won’t be flying around in space ships visiting other planets like in Star Trek, and people hassled me about it.  I know this is a little heretical for a futurist to say, but I believe it.  I should clarify a bit: I think it’s likely we’ll visit the other planets in our solar system — there’s plenty of useful matter here that we can mine and put to good use.  But a physical conscious entity leaving this solar system is tantamount to suicide as far as any relationship that entity could hope to maintain with the culture here is concerned.  The recent discovery of an earth-like planet only 20 years away puts this idea into perspective.  Even if we could make a trip at an average speed of half light speed, (a reasonably aggressive goal considering the need to accelerate and decelerate) a round-trip would take 80 years.  80 years ago the world saw the first telephone trans-atlantic telephone call.  In another 80 years, many believe we will have hit the information singularity meaning who knows what will be here.  Return would be nearly impossible, and almost certainly pointless since the world one would return to would be completely alien.  Leaving to colonize?  Possible I suppose, but good luck.  And at that point I really don’t think there would be any motivation.

My main point is that by the time we have sufficient technology for interstellar travel, we won’t have physical bodies any more.  The robot revolution will be complete.  As a society we will be much more concerned with creating faster computers in which to store our consciousnesses than with whatever we think we’d achieve by leaving the solar system.  Colonization might take the form of transmitting executable programs that represent our personalities into deep space with the hopes that some society will pick them up and try to execute them on whatever hardware they have.  Or perhaps sending out a nano-seed that knows how to build a receiver to pick up such a signal.  But it’s hard to imagine sending a physical copy of the data that represent our personalities in a format that’s compressed enough that it could be executable, while including the plans for making a more powerful computer to run on.  If we were at this stage, the only reason to do so would be because we had converted all the physical matter in our solar system to become information processing machinery and we needed more raw material with which to represent our thoughts.  That day may come, but it will not be soon.

So I agree we should continue to pursue space exploration, because it helps advance technology.  But it is not a way out of our pressing environmental concerns.  The world needs geeks to transcend beyond biological bodies.  But geeks need hippies to keep the world around for long enough to get there.

[Vomet comet picture courtesy of Kevin Boydston.]

Comments are closed.