The End is Nigh?

My surfing of the Net recently has revealed a startling number of apparently sane people suggesting that humans will have departed this tiny planet within a century.

Exhibit 1: Bill Joy (cofounder of Sun Microsystems)”In a completely free marketplace, superior robots would surely affect humans as North American placentals affected South American marsupials (and as humans have affected countless species). Robotic industries would compete vigorously among
themselves for matter, energy, and space, incidentally driving their price beyond human reach. Unable to afford the necessities of life, biological humans would be squeezed out of existence”.

Exhibit 2: Sir Martin Rees (British Astronomer Royal)”He warns that civilization has only an even chance of making it to the end of this century. The 62-year-old University of Cambridge astrophysicist and cosmologist feels so strongly about his grim prognostication that last year he published a popular book about it called Our Final Hour”.

Exhibit 3: David Pimentel (Cornell University) “World population is expected to hit 6 billion in October 1999 and that number is predicted to double in less than 50 years. That means “12 billion miserable humans will suffer a difficult life on Earth by the year 2100,” according to a report from Cornell University – that is, unless population reduction practices are determined and sound resource management policies are implemented. Report entitled, “Will Limits of the Earth’s Resources Control Human Numbers?”

Exhibit 4: Vernor Vinge’s classic 1993 article The Coming Technological Singularity “Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended”.

Exhibit 5: Isaac Asimov on the lifespan of civilizations “Our own civilization has a dubious future, and if we can express the reason in brief it is that we find it difficult (perhaps impossible) to cooperate in solving our problems. We are too contentious a species and apparently find our local quarrels to be more important than our overall survival”.

Exhibit 6: John Smart, chairman of the Institute for the Study of Accelerating Change “The singularity is not likely to be precipitated by today’s evolutionary computing but by tomorrow’s massively parallel, cyclical, evolutionary developmental processes, which are going to require a paradigm shift in computing to attain. Metal oxide semiconductor dedicated ASIC systems are likely to be our dominant paradigm until at least 2020. A Symbiotic Era of complex, LUI-equipped interfaces, built on top of an increasingly parallel architecture is going to take a lot of money, practice, and time to develop high level intelligence and autonomy. I’m presently assuming 30 years, from 2020-2050. That would move the Autonomy Era to 2050, and my estimated time of generalized human surpassing AI to 2060, the upper end of this range.”

Now the European Space Agency’s top scientist is proposing that we build a Noah’s Ark, full of all the DNA diversity on Earth, including some human carriers and carers, on the Moon – just in case.

Doesn’t it seem strange that there is so little debate about these issues in the run up to the US election? A human future of less than a century should be a clarion call to action, but like the proverbial boiling frog, we are mired in our day to day concerns – “it is the economy, stupid”.

Jared Diamond (Pullitzer prize winning author of Guns, Germs and Steel)in a charming article entitled “Why do some societies make disastrous decisions” concluded “Such failures frequently arise because of what economists term “rational behavior” arising from clashes of interest between people. Some people may reason correctly that they can advance their own interests by behavior that is harmful for other people. Economists term such behavior “rational,” even while acknowledging that morally it may be naughty. The perpetrators are often motivated and likely to get away with their rational bad behavior, because the winners from the bad status quo are typically concentrated (few in number) and highly motivated because they receive big, certain, immediate profits, while the losers are diffuse (the losses are spread over large numbers of individuals) and are unmotivated because they receive only small, uncertain, distant profits from undoing the rational bad behavior of the minority”.

So is it grey goo, technological singularity, or population overshoot – it seems that every field of science has its doomsday scenario cast in language that only members of that “class” can truly understand. How can an intellectually challenged politician understand let alone deal with these issues, that certainly extend beyond a term in office (or even two terms)? Do we need a scientific equivalent of the United Nations to debate these issues and convey the concerns to the general public?


The material in this press release comes from the originating research organization. Content may be edited for style and length. Have a question? Let us know.

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