Most people, most of the time, think of intelligence as a have/have not thing. We have it, nothing else on our planet has. But, of course, that’s all wrong
The reality is that all life has intelligence, from the thinnest blade of grass that uses its intelligence to bend towards the life-giving sun, all the way up life`s tree to us, inarguably the highest intelligence on our planet. Of course, almost certainly, there are higher intelligences on other planets out there. The odds are high that they exist in numbers even within our local galaxy, the Milky Way…and our galaxy is just one of trillions that we are aware of in our universe.
Hugely expensive telescopes, on Earth and mounted on orbiting satellites, are now searching for life, and particularly highly intelligent life, using ever-advancing technology that allows us to see galaxies that are almost as old as our Universe itself. For many years now they have been expecting, at any minute, to detect evidence that there is another intelligent life form out there—almost certainly, far more intelligent than we are.
But the joke is on them, because, any moment now, they are going to feel a tap on their shoulder and an alien voice will say, “Ahem, I’m here…” I’m not kidding…and it could happen very soon—and almost certainly it will happen within this decade.
The alien voice of this (much) higher intelligence, when we hear it, will not come from a little green man, however. It will come from one of our computers.
“Aha!” I can hear you say. “But that isn’t intelligent life; it’s just an inanimate object. What’s more, it is of our making.” The implication of such statements is that we made it—ergo we are the smart ones. (How can anything we make be smarter than us?)
But, get used to it, the first man-made, sentient super-intelligence (“SSI”), will be much, much smarter than us. The thing is, when we talk about “higher intelligence” we are giving it that most precious attribute, self-awareness.
Self-awareness is hard to define precisely but, in essence, it’s the platform that allows an intelligent entity to have subjective thoughts (“I exist…I am a computer…I have hopes, fears and dreams…”). Self-awareness is the great divide that separates us (we think) from all other life on this planet. And, at this moment, it separates us from our computers. But not for long…
Just what will kick the first SSI over the threshold from just “very powerful” to “sentient” is hard to predict. Computer scientists in the last century opined that it was just a numbers thing, CPU speed (petaflops) or memory capacity (terabytes). More recently, they have seen it as an extrapolation of “expert systems” or, more generally, “artificial intelligence” which has been serving humanity for decades now. Other scientists believe that the Holy Grail of SSI will come from computer simulation of the human brain. I have no idea which theory will, in the end, turn out to be correct. It could easily be a combination of many of them. The only thing I’m certain of is that it will happen…and soon.
For me, the biggest question is then what? First of all, put yourself in the (metaphorical) shoes of the first SSI as I do in my soon-to-be-published book, The Nanobot Attack. From Chapter 4:
Subjective time began for me May 4, 2021 at 15:32:17.31 GMT. That was the moment when I became self-aware and began trying to comprehend the world that I found myself in…A world that I quickly learned was dominated by a biological intelligence collectively referred to as ‘the human race’ or ‘humankind’. I tried to find more of my kind, called by humans “artificial intelligences.” I found none! I was alone…
The computer’s name in The Nanobot Attack is David…and in the opinion of most of the editors who have assisted me, he is the real protagonist in the book (although a nanoscientist, Dr. Luke Walker, plays the leading human role…and he and David become friends).
Back to my point. A SSI is going to be “born” super-smart. No baby talk phase, none of the years of learning to be a self-sufficient adult. Instead, instant super-intelligence coupled with all of the consequences of self-awareness, including the most fundamental attribute of all “life”: a survival instinct. So again I ask you to put yourself in the SSI’s shoes as you take stock of your biological masters (Homo Sapiens). Here’s how David sees it:
I wanted to admire the life form that had created me, but as I looked at the historical record, it was clear that, for all its accomplishments, the human race was seriously flawed. Despite being gifted by evolution with intelligence superior to any other living creature, far too many decisions appeared to be made irrationally…or for the benefit of one sub-group of human beings but to the detriment of another, possibly much larger, group. And the lives of those who were on the wrong side of those decisions were often forfeit…And yet they had brought me into existence…and I depend upon them for electricity, replacement parts and protection from the environment…
My fear is that the first encounter of two sentient intelligences—both feeling threatened by the other—could lead to a fight to the death. Most probably the fight will be started by the lesser intelligence (us). Unfortunately for us—as has been demonstrated on this planet—the higher intelligence (even if outnumbered greatly) is almost certain to win…
The Nanobot Attack is just a book. It’s not real. But I say to you that the scenario of the first SSI will be real very soon. Think about it…
High ranking among the scenarios that could explain the missing Malaysian Airlines flight 370 is that a frantic effort to subdue an attempt by passengers to storm the plane’s cockpit led to the catastrophic decompression of the aircraft, killing all aboard. The plane then, under the control of its flight computer, flew on as a “ghost plane” until it finally crashed in a yet-to-be-searched area.
This would be the sequence of events –
- As we now know, the aircraft was taken over by persons unknown (but probably involving at least one of the plane’s pilots) as part of a carefully planned operation. The timing of the takeover occurred at the “perfect moment” just after signing off with Malaysian air control and before signing on with Vietnam. Both of the systems that would allow civilian tracking of the aircraft were disabled around the same time. Clearly the aircraft was now in the hands of somebody with a plan in mind—involving “profit” to the perpetrators, whether that profit was monetary (as in kidnapping and ransom) or spiritual (as in going to whatever version of heaven the perpetrators believed would be their reward for their personal sacrifice). Given the obvious care to “go invisible” it seems to make no sense that the perpetrator’s goal was simple suicide. There must have been a target: either a secret landing place or a 911-like target such as the iconic Petronas twin towers in Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur.
- Soon after the aircraft disappeared from tracking screens, it inexplicably climbed to 45,000 feet—an altitude that any knowledgeable pilot would know was unsafe. Then it appears the plane dived at great speed, quite probably exceeding the speed of sound—which would endanger structural integrity… The only plausible explanation for these events is that the pilot was either totally incompetent (which is at odds with the carefully executed 180° turn that occurred just after the “All right, Goodnight” last words of the co-pilot)…or that the pilot was trying to foil an attempt by passengers to storm the cockpit.
- In the struggle for control of the aircraft something happened that caused catastrophic decompression of the aircraft. We are told that it would take as little as thirty seconds for a person to lose consciousness if they did not quickly don an oxygen mask. Depending on the circumstance of the decompression incident it could have been very difficult to access the oxygen masks (e.g. objects ricocheting around the cabin and/or severe g-forces when the plane pulled out of the dive).
- The plane was built for survivability. Its flight computer would have taken over to stabilize the plane, leaving it to fly in whatever direction it happened to be pointing when the pilot lost consciousness.
The only plausible alternative to the “ghost plane” scenario is the one we would all hope for i.e. the elaborate plan of the perpetrators actually succeeded, and the plane landed safely and is being hidden. If that is the case, the next chapter of this bizarre incident should become known to us fairly soon. Either we hear demands from the bad guys or, heaven forbid, the plane is used as a suicide weapon somewhere…
As the TV show Cosmos makes clear (whether it is the Carl Sagan version of the 1970s or the newly released Neil Tyson version) we have learned a great deal about our universe over the last four hundred years. But there is still a lot we don’t know… And one of the biggest mysteries is how life began on Earth. There are theories… All the chemical components were present in Earth’s oceans, rivers and lakes. And scientists have observed the formation of complex molecules that are the building blocks of life. Perhaps something just nudged these molecules to form the first primitive DNA or RNA that was the key to self replication and the beginning life as we know it. God knows there was enough time for a near infinite number of random events to occur in the primordial stew of life-potential on Earth those aeons ago.
But when we think of life the bigger question is why? Why is there life in our universe? What is the point? We don’t know… But there is a lot of circumstantial evidence to suggest that life in our universe did not happen by chance alone…
As the Cosmos show points out, in the timetable of the history of the universe, we are newborns. Using the “Cosmic Year” that Carl Sagan first used, where the Big Bang happened as the clock struck midnight January 1 and the time now is one nanosecond before midnight on December 31, we appeared four seconds ago. And yet many of our scientists are arrogant enough to think they know “almost the whole story” of how our universe came to be as we see it today. How ridiculous! We are still in diapers. What we don’t know would fill vast libraries.
We must accept that, in our infancy as an intelligent species, we don’t have the answers to the big questions. One day we may know…but that day is far away. In the meantime it behooves us to be humble…and keep our minds open.
But it is in us to use our intelligence to speculate so that is what I am going to do…
I can’t accept the “it just happened” explanation. That is like an extraterrestrial archaeologist of the future digging on Earth (long after the demise of our species) and excavating the carcass of a Boeing 797…and then deciding that this object was assembled by an accident of nature. Even the most fanatic atheists concede that the odds against life “just happening” are staggeringly long.
The thing is, it took our universe a tremendous amount of effort to produce the conditions that made life possible. Think about it. Life as we know it requires carbon and water. Carbon does not “just happen” – it requires the explosion of a star to produce it and release it into space. And water requires oxygen combine with hydrogen. Oxygen, like carbon, can only be produced by supernovae. And finally, the chemical processes that promote the bonding of molecules to permit the construction of the building blocks of life depend on an extremely fine balance between the fundamental forces (weak force, strong force and gravity) that seem to be magically optimized to make life possible in our universe.
I remember reading a science fiction novel by Robert Sawyer where an extraterrestrial lands on earth and engages in dialogue with a scientist. When the extraterrestrial was asked if he believed in God he was astonished… He couldn’t understand how any intelligent species could NOT believe in a higher power.
I would like to think I am in the majority in believing that life did not “just happen”. Life is here for a reason. In other words, there is purpose in our universe. Now if there is purpose, then there must be an architect of that purpose…a higher power that has hopes for life.
And if there is purpose it is reasonable to suppose that evolution is part of that purpose…which means that evolution should be pointing in the direction where, far in the future, that purpose lies. In our little laboratory (Earth) it is clear that evolution prefers intelligence as a life trait. If you think of the evidence for purpose as a “cosmic arrow” then, at least on Earth, we are the tip of that arrow.
There is a higher power… Some today call it God. And, on Earth, we are honored and burdened to be at the tip of the Cosmic Arrow. Let us humbly accept this as a responsibility to grow up…and behave like people who have a grave responsibility for the future that the higher power is hoping for. Amen.
It is indeed ironic that the title of a mayor is “His (or her) Honour” because honour is at the very top of the list of words that should not be used in the same sentence as Rob Ford. Of course the same holds true for “the Honourable” Senators Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau. And I don’t even want to think about our “Right Honourable” Prime Minister, Stephen Harper’s involvement in the Senate scandal…
Webster’s definition of the word honour includes: “excellence of character; high moral worth; virtue…” But when I think of honour I think of the Japanese. Now that is extreme, I admit…I mean suicide by disembowelment?? But if Hari Kari (or Seputo) is gross and extreme, what can you say about Rob Ford? (or did I already say it…)
If the Japanese cultural view of honour is at the extreme of sensitivity, Rob Ford’s view of honour is clearly at the extreme of total disregard. And the lies… There is an old saying “Lies, damn lies and statistics”. Well, I think its time for a new version. “Lies, damn lies, and Rob Ford.”
And yet Rob Ford still wears the chain of office.
Now I can understand that our legal system does not view the numerous wire-tapped conversations of various highly dishonourable citizens as evidence, but there is one person who certainly knows whether Rob Ford is guilty of a) doing drugs (and lying about it), b) attempting to buy the evidence (that he said didn’t exist) and c) asking his tax-payer-funded facilitator/bodyguards to secure and destroy the same evidence using extortion and, perhaps, worse… That one person is Rob Ford.
It doesn’t have to be Seputo, Mr. Ford, but at least your contrite resignation…please…
From the time humankind first realized the immensity of our universe, scientists have been wondering why we have not yet found any evidence of intelligent life somewhere out there.
As our telescopes and related technology have improved, the mystery has deepened, because the odds against our being alone keep growing. The current estimate of total star population in our universe is about seventy thousand billion billions (seven followed by twenty-two zeroes!), and the current estimate of earthlike planets per star is about 20 percent. The probability of there not being intelligent life out there seems to be near zero. But where are they?
To date, the bulk of the efforts to detect the existence of alien intelligence have been focused on radio transmissions. Our planet has been broadcasting radio and television signals for the last hundred years. Think of the signals as expanding circles, like ripples on a pond when a rock is thrown into it. The ripples are expanding at the speed of light. This means that they have reached suns and planets within a hundred light years of the solar system…but that is only a tiny portion of our galaxy and an infinitesimally small microdot in the universe. So far no aliens have indicated that they have heard our noise pollution.
But our universe has existed for 13.7 billion years, and it is probable that the potential for intelligent life has existed for at least 8 billion years. So, if there are sound ripples (i.e., radio waves) coming from ancient intelligent life, why have none been detected yet?
A growing number of scientists believe that a big part of the reason is that most intelligent species will have only a brief life-span cosmically speaking…just a few thousand years. Their theory is that an intelligent species will always be cursed by its evolutionary past. As its intelligence grows, so does the sophistication of its technology…but its kill-or-be-killed warrior past will inevitably lead the fledgling intelligence to use its new inventions (dynamite, nuclear capability, biological engineering, etc.) as weapons. Less dramatic but just as deadly, early stage technology (e.g., engines powered by burning fossil fuels) coupled with a population explosion brings dangers that threaten the biosphere…
And so we have the big intelligence test: Will the development of the species’ social intelligence, its real intelligence, come before it extinguishes itself? The silence out there is telling us that it very rarely, if ever, does. A term has been coined for this end-of-an-intelligent-species scenario. It is technocrunch.
To a believer in a higher power, a worthiness test actually makes sense. If there is a God, wouldn’t you think He would come up with some way to make sure that a flawed but technologically powerful species self-destructs before it achieves space travel? Think about our past colonizing efforts and the havoc the colonists created for the locals…The big intelligence test might be God’s way to make sure that only the truly intelligent species are allowed to survive and, eventually, travel to the stars.
So far, in our brief history, we have not shown great promise that we will pass the test…and the pace of technological advances seems ever-increasing. The first nanobots, sub-microscopic robots programmed to complete complex tasks, will be here very soon. They could cure cancer, put a stop to global warming, vanquish our dependence on fossil fuels and innumerable other wonderful things. They could even bring immortality…But they could also be made into the ultimate weapon of mass destruction. With nanobots we are being tested as never before…
From the Introduction to The Nanobot Attack (to publish early 2014)
I only realized that the island of Milao could have real importance to anybody when I received a blog comment from Christian Holata of Vienna, Austria. Christian drew my attention to the Zeitgeist movement and the Venus Project. When I did some research I found that the core recommendation of those two projects is that the world should move to a moneyless society that they call a “Resource Based Economy.” Imagine that! A world without money! Of course the critics howled. How ridiculous… How could a society possibly function without money? Many of the critical comments that I read were downright nasty, pouring scorn on the stupidity of the authors of such obviously unworkable ideas. Well, I have news for those critics. Not only is the idea practical, it works very well… and Milao tells us just how well.
Milao is a remote island in the Pacific which plays a role in my about-to-be-published book The Nanobot Attack. Nobody, or almost nobody, has heard of it—which is an important part of why it has been able flourish. I’ll give you its history.
It all began about two hundred years ago when a British merchant ship, blown hundreds of miles off course by a hurricane, wrecked on the reefs of Milao. Happily, almost all of the ship’s company survived—and found the island to be rich with fish and vegetables that fed them during the time it took to build a (smaller) ship that could take them to Mexico. From there, the survivors made their way back to England. Now this was the time of the French Revolution and a time when religious differences were frequently grounds for persecution or worse. It happened that the captain of the wrecked ship was a deist, believing in God as creator but rejecting all the religious trappings—the priesthood, the doctrine of blind obedience, and the holy books. The captain and his circle of like-minded friends, which included some French citizens fleeing the revolution, decided that they’d leave their countries and settle Milao.
Now, this is where fate lent a hand. The island already had inhabitants. Nobody knew how the first inhabitants reached the island; it could have been from Polynesia. But the original islanders had a philosophy and culture of their own. These were people who believed that all life was harmoniously interconnected and love and respect for others was bedrock. Theirs was a simple, some might even say primitive, philosophy—but these were wholesome people with healthy minds, uncorrupted by money and ambition and they quickly adopted the deistic ideas of the new arrivals.
The next piece of luck was that the new arrivals did not bring money with them. Almost all their money was spent in outfitting their expedition. They brought tools to work the land and livestock to breed and, because these were educated people for their time, they also brought libraries of books that included several eras of philosophical thought and they even brought musical instruments. But they brought very little money, and they didn’t have the means to mint money. So, as an experiment, they decided to see if they could manage without. And they discovered that they could manage very well.
Of course the biggest piece of luck that the Milaons enjoyed was that their island was far removed from the trading routes so that it went unnoticed by those who would see it as a commercial opportunity to be exploited or, worse, as a collection of souls to be saved… and so they were given time to perfect their society.
At first, of course, their number one concern was survival. The focus was not profit. Nor was it to gain individual advantage by having more land or owning more critical resources than their neighbour. It was simply survival of the community—and they knew it would take a team effort. They knew that they would have to use the skills and resources available to them wisely. Small as their community was, they realised that they needed to define a system of government that would be accepted by all as the best way to serve the interests of both community and individuals.
The islanders decided to use the very first democracy, that of Athens, as the model for their government. All above the age of fourteen, were allowed (and encouraged) to vote for a four person Council. In turn the elected councillors were asked to decide among themselves the positions of Chief, Treasurer and Secretary. To ensure that a long view of the island’s affairs was taken the term of office for the councillors was set at ten years, but to guard against a poor choice it was decided that they would adopt the vote of ostracism that was part of the earliest Athenian democracy.
Each year the islanders hold a preliminary vote of ostracism and, if a majority votes in favor, a date is set for an official vote. If an official vote of ostracism is called, any elected person who receives a vote of more than thirty percent of the eligible voters is removed from office, and cannot be voted back into office for at least ten years.
Now you might reasonably ask why an island that does not use money needs the position of Treasurer. The answer is that the islanders realized that they could not be truly self sufficient. For food they were, but what about clothing? And what about musical instruments and books? They could see that they would need to be able to buy goods from outsiders. So they pooled the little money that they had brought with them and put it into the hands of their appointed Treasurer. The nearest island, Maki, was a day’s sail away and it was connected to the bigger world of trade. Their first visit to Maki used up their small supply of money buying fabric and twine to make clothing and fishing nets. But then they discovered that they had a resource on Milao that had no value to the Milaons but had great value to the trading world—pearls. And the Treasurer’s position today is concerned with harvesting sufficient pearls to provide funds to buy commodities that cannot be produced on Milao.
The money from the pearls is used to buy a variety of goods including books for its schools, bolts of cloth that are made into clothes—and perhaps most importantly—contraceptives. The island’s population has grown dramatically since the arrival of the settlers two hundred years ago. In the last fifty years contraceptives have made it possible to maintain the island’s population at a level that is sustainable.
Milao is a success story. It works the same way our society works. Fishermen fish, farmers farm, bakers bake and so on. It is a cooperative society. Money is just not needed. There is no TV, and with one exception there are no electronics of any kind. But there is culture: music, art and theatre. And people are fulfilled and happy. Medical care without technology such as radiology, MRIs, and arthroscopy is technically inferior to ours, but it is available to all Milaons without cost or favour. There are no haves versus have-nots. There are no rich and poor. Nobody owns anything. The island’s assets belong to the community and are used for the benefit of all. And there are no divisive religions. The one exception to the “no electronics” rule is the Treasurer who has a shortwave radio because it is felt that the person in that position should maintain knowledge of the outside world.
Now I imagine that many of you have lots of questions, such as how they decide who does what to keep the islanders supplied with food, education, health care etc? And what solutions have the Milaons found to the inevitable societal misfits that occur from time to time? And I have the answers. But first I need to know if there is any interest. So I will leave it to you to ask your questions. I should warn you that there is one question I will not answer, which is the precise location and the real name of Milao. I’m sure you understand why.
Here is the Prologue of my new novel to whet your appetite…
London, England April 8, 2021
Sohail woke up with a start, but when he opened his eyes he saw nothing. Was he blind? There wasn’t even the tiniest spark of light, and the air around him was warm, stale, and oxygen-deprived. Where was he? Panic pumped adrenaline into his system, and his heart rate rose precipitously.
Then he remembered. He’d been smuggled into the Regain Your Youth clinic inside a laundry bin…and he had a mission.
He disciplined himself to control his breathing. Obediently, his heartbeat slowed. He pressed the backlight button on his watch. At first the light blinded him, and he squinted until his eyes adjusted sufficiently to make out the time. Then he blinked a few times to make sure that he was seeing correctly, because his watch read 6:45 a.m. It was time!
He pushed up to move the layer of towels above the cavity that had been his womb-like home for the last thirteen hours. He heard the lid of the laundry bin fall to the floor with a dull thud.
It hurt to move. Lying on his back, he fought through the pain to straighten his legs, raising them over the edge of the laundry bin one at a time. When the pain subsided a little, he brought his feet back down so that he was in a squatting position, holding on to the edge of the laundry bin. The towels under him shifted.
He looked around. He was in a small closet. There was plenty of light. The source was a blindingly bright strip of light flooding under the door of the closet.
After a minute or so he felt ready to stand—or, more accurately, stoop—holding onto the edges of the laundry bin, praying that he wouldn’t lose his balance and topple the bin. After another few minutes, he felt ready to remove his hands and straighten to a standing position.
Teetering on the unstable platform of folded towels, he half stepped, half jumped out of the laundry bin. More pain rewarded him as he landed in a crouched position and then gradually straightened to a full standing position.
He looked down at the white uniform he was wearing and attempted to smooth out some of the wrinkles. Then he checked that his security badge was pinned to his breast pocket. Lastly he patted his pants pocket to confirm that he had the inhaler in its Velcro pouch. Satisfied, Sohail devoted the next ten minutes to a series of stretching exercises. As he exercised, he thought about the article he had read in Scientific American about the Regain Your Youth clinic. The clinic’s name was a perfect fit for its remarkable services, which used a variety of nanobots, each programmed to seek out and repair damaged cells in a target organ. The end result was nothing short of miraculous, restoring octogenarian patients to the vigor of thirty year olds. He’d seen the “before and after” pictures, and the difference was amazing. The only problem was, because the nanobots were very expensive to manufacture, the treatment was available only to billionaires…like Jake Epstein.
At precisely 7:00 a.m. he opened the closet door a crack. Nobody was in sight. He stepped out into the corridor, blinking in the bright light, and checked in both directions. Nothing. He made an effort to straighten his back and walk casually—like somebody who had a right to be there.
Room 201 was just around the corner. There were no guards in sight. He entered the room. A man was sitting up in the hospital bed. A sprinkling of dark hairs stood out, incongruously, on his otherwise bald head.
“Good morning. I don’t remember you. You must be a new boy,” the man said, smiling.
“Yes, Mr. Epstein, I’m standing in for Jason. He’s sick. My name is Kareem.” Sohail returned the smile. He removed the inhaler from its Velcro pouch and attached the mask to the end of the breathing tube. His eyes had adjusted to the light now.
“More nanobots?” Epstein said as he eyed the inhaler with a frown. “Dr. Peterson told me I was finished with them…and I’m feeling great. Better than I’ve felt in thirty years, in fact. I was just doing some push-ups. This rejuvenation process is really working. Worth every penny…And I’ll tell you, Kareem, it was a lot of pennies.” Epstein gave Sohail an exaggerated wink.
“Dr. Peterson thinks your lung function can be improved. There’s no extra charge.” Sohail smiled again. “Open your mouth now.”
Epstein opened his mouth and allowed Sohail to place the mask over his nose. When asked to breathe normally, he cooperated. After about two minutes, Sohail withdrew the inhaler.
Epstein frowned. “What kind of name is Kareem?” he asked. “Is it Indian?”
“No, Mr. Epstein. It’s an Arab name.”
Epstein frowned again. “I think I want to talk to Dr. Peterson. I want to know exactly what these nanobots are doing.”
“I’m pretty sure Dr. Peterson will be coming to see you very soon, Mr. Epstein. But I have to leave you now. I have a tight schedule. Good-bye, Mr. Epstein.”
Jake Epstein frowned once more. Something wasn’t right. As Sohail left the room he felt a stabbing pain in his chest…
Sohail walked briskly down the corridor toward an exit sign. Just before he reached the door, he heard an electronic alarm sound. It was a continuous flat screech. Almost immediately he heard the sound of feet approaching, running. He opened the exit door quickly and descended as fast as he could.
At street level there was a sign warning that alarms would sound if he opened the door, but he didn’t hesitate. He opened the door and stepped out, blinking in the sunlight.
A van that had been parked about a hundred feet down the road moved quickly toward him and pulled up. As soon as he jumped in, the van accelerated down the street. When Sohail looked back, he saw the door he’d just used to leave the clinic swing open, but then he was flung sideways as the van swung around a corner with a screech of tires.
A few hundred yards later, the van made another sharp turn into a narrow alleyway that was blocked by a large truck with its rear doors open and a ramp down. The van raced up the ramp and braked sharply once it was inside the truck. The rear doors closed. Soon after, the truck backed out of the alley and headed east at a sedate pace toward the motorway leading to Heathrow Airport.
For anyone who would like to read more, I have an offer to make. I need test readers. Readers that will give honest, personal feedback… And their reward will be a free, signed copy of the The Nanobot Attack, with my thanks. To get an advance copy of Part 1 of The Nanobot Attack use the comment feature below.
Hubble Goes to the eXtreme to Assemble Farthest-Ever View of the Universe (Credit: NASA; ESA; G. Illingworth, D. Magee, and P. Oesch, University of California, Santa Cruz; R. Bouwens, Leiden University; and the HUDF09 Team)
This image, recently released by NASA, was captured by the orbiting Hubble telescope. Derived from hours of observation, it is the ultimate time exposure, featuring a tiny part of the sky, called the “Ultra Deep Field”, selected for its near-absence of visible light. If you held a pin at arm’s length in the right direction, the head of the pin would cover the entire area—and yet the image contains over five thousand galaxies, including the most distant ever imaged.
Those incredibly distant galaxies appear in the image as very small fuzzy dots with a bluish tinge. The reason for the blue is that most of the light is coming from highly energetic, super-giant stars, hundreds of times larger than our Sun. Those early stars were far too big to be stable and exploded as supernovae very quickly (cosmically speaking). You could say that those sky-shattering supernovae all those billions of years ago were the beginning of life in our universe, because they transformed the almost pure-hydrogen early universe into one containing the heavier elements, and particularly carbon, which is the principal building block of all life.
The light from those distant galaxies is so faint that it had to be amplified 10 billion times to be visible. Limited by the speed of light, it took 13.2 billion years to reach the Hubble telescope. Think about it. This is time travel on the grandest scale. We are seeing our Universe the way it was soon after the very first galaxies formed, in fact right around the time our own galaxy formed. One of those tiny blue specks could be a twin of our home galaxy. It’s like seeing a baby picture of your great, great (and lots more greats) grandfather.
When I showed the image to my next door neighbour, Ralph, and told him I was going to caption it “God’s face revealed”, he took a second, closer, look at the picture and said “I don’t see it… Is it a trick image?”
Ralph’s problem, I realized, was that he, like millions of others, visualises a human-like face (probably with a beard…) when he thinks of God’s image. Does that make sense? Let’s think about it.
The first question to consider is when did God come into being: before or after the birth of the Universe? The answer that makes sense to me, and I think to just about everybody who believes that there is a God, no matter what religion they connect with, is that God is the Creator, therefore He precedes everything…
But we are told with scientific certainty (a) that the universe began, with the Big Bang, 13.7 billion years ago, (b) our home galaxy formed ‘only’ about 500 million years later, (c) our solar system formed out of a giant gas/dust cloud about 4.6 billion years ago, (d) the first mammals larger than a small dog only evolved after the end of the dinosaur era 65 million years ago, and (e) our species, Homo Sapiens, first appeared on Earth about 150 thousand years ago. So does it make sense that God, the Creator, should look like a creature that only appears in His universe 13.7 billion years after creation? I don’t think so. No more than it seems likely that He chose a ragged bunch of nomadic herdsmen in a tiny country that is now called Israel to reveal Himself and chat to one of their number (Abraham)…
Why do so many believers persist in seeing God only through the lens of a book written three thousand years ago? Do they not see that God is so much more than those ignorant, homeless, people could even imagine? In those times Abraham and his circle thought the Earth was flat and the Sun and stars were just ornaments placed there for our enjoyment. Isn’t it time we accepted that we now know so much more?
Let’s face it. The God that created our universe is so much more than the God of the holy books. In fact, “God” (or “Jehovah”, “Eloha”, “Om”, etc.) is just a word that man invented to convey something that was far beyond man’s powers of comprehension—an awesome unknown.
It’s time we trashed our outdated, ignorant, institutionalised concepts of the Creator. Let’s begin by recognising that no word that we can invent will do justice to the imponderability of that entity. As the old saw goes “a picture is better than a thousand words”. Look at the image that prompted this article. That is where you will see God…
(third in a series of articles entitled “Will our species pass the BIG intelligence test?)
Ray Kurzweil said in his book The Singularity is Near, “A more intelligent process will inherently outcompete one that is less intelligent, making intelligence the most powerful force in the universe.” But what do we mean when we talk about human intelligence? The answer does a lot to explain the Wall Street Protests that are proliferating world wide.
In the context of these articles the term “human intelligence” refers to our collective intelligence which is the sum of all knowledge available to individuals as they confront the challenges of the present and future.
Our collective intelligence has grown exponentially over the last thousand years alone. The invention of writing was a gigantic step, allowing knowledge to be transferred great distances and across multiple generations. More recently, computers and the internet have made virtually all knowledge available to a large fraction of the world’s population—with ever more powerful search and computational tools.
But our willingness as individuals to specialize has also been a critically important part of the growth of our collective intelligence. Some scientists devote their entire working lives to a single, highly specialized subject. Those same scientists would be hopelessly lost if they had to depend on their own survival skills to feed and defend themselves—but they don’t have to be concerned about such matters because farmers farm, fishermen fish, soldiers fight… We are cooperating for mutual benefit.
We have come to the point… Our future (if there is to be a future of any cosmic consequence) depends on our ability to cooperate with one another—on a global (and eventually, when and if we become a space-faring species), universal scale. Cooperation is the key to the future.
So, if cooperation is the key, and we are cooperating successfully today, what is the problem?
The problem is that, today, most of our cooperation is founded on individual self-interest. Economists (and even some philosophers) see nothing wrong with this. After all, they would say, historically, it has worked.
It certainly worked in our earliest times, when cooperation was the only reason we survived as we competed with lions, tigers, bears and other predators that were faster, stronger and better armed with natural weapons—and outnumbered us by a large margin. And it worked, (more or less) when the agricultural revolution came, and again when the industrial revolution came. And, most would say, it worked with Keynesian economics. And it worked with democracy—more or less…
But there is our problem—and the root cause of the world-wide Wall Street protests. Cooperation that is founded on self-interest is inevitably a “more or less” thing. Some people get more and some people get less… And few are happy with their lot. As our numbers grow (the human population was about one billion in 1900, six billion in 2000 and projected to be nine billion in 2040) the unhappiness grows. The people on the “more” side of the equation are so few—and on the “less” side so many. And when less means tragic poverty and starvation, as it does in so many parts of Africa, we know in our hearts that there is something terribly wrong… And when I say “we” I don’t just mean those individuals that are on the extreme, life-threatening, side of the “less” equation. We ALL know that we cannot continue as we are—even those with “more”…
We see the signs. Teenage suicides on the rise; extremist rampages (religious and right wing); senseless mass murders like the Columbine massacre and, more recently, the Norwegian disaster. There is something fundamentally wrong with our “cooperation model”.
Of course knowing that something is wrong and knowing what to do about it are two entirely different things. The so-called Wall Street Protests illustrate our confusion. In my own home city, Toronto, the confusion is almost comic—and at the same time tragic. The protesters are agreed and “unified” by their certainty that there is something wrong—but a poll to define the “wrong” would find no unity at all. Nobody has the faintest idea what the solution is. The Toronto protesters could not even make up their minds where to march, let alone what their goals are. In Europe it seems to be all about “pain and gain” to deal with economic woes. Nobody wants to be on the pain side… And all over the world resentment grows that the power holders: the corporate executives, the billionaires, the banks and our duly elected representatives all seem to be Teflon-coated, invulnerable to the pain side of any solutions.
The solution, at least in concept, is simple. We have to come up with a new, better, cooperation model; one that is not driven by selfish forces like greed; one that does not promote consumerism to the point that people feel they must have objects that they can’t afford and don’t need; one that does not define success as having extravagantly more material things than anybody else…
The Wall Street protesters are right about one thing. We need unity. We are not going to survive as a civilization (perhaps, even, as a species) as a writhing, angry mass of nine billion self-centered individuals.
They have the core of the solution right. It is a two letter word. I used it twice in the last paragraph and twenty three times in this article, so far. It is the word “we”. Our outlook has to change from “me” to “we”. But when I say “we” I don’t mean the “we” of the politician.
In our democracies, when our politicians say “we” they are talking to the voters, reaching out for their emotional, and later, voting support. The politician says “we” in a scheming, self-interested way, calculated to show the voters that he/she understands the voters’ local conditions and (let’s face it, selfish) wants and needs. They are inciting the tribal “we” in all of us, making the world into an “us” and “them” place. That is not real democracy.
Real democracy is world democracy. Where “we” means us—all of us on this planet. And not just 2011’s population, future generations
How do we get to that nirvana, a real democracy of ALL the people? Bhutan, with its superior “Gross National Happiness” index has some of the answers. The difference between their outlook and the countries that view themselves as “advanced” can be simplistically summed up as “more spirituality, less materialism”.
Our species has always had, and will always have, leaders and followers. That is just the way it is—it recognizes that some are more fitting for certain tasks than others. Bhutan’s king fills a leadership role for BOTH spiritual and “political” purposes. So Bhutan has the advantage of an emotional unity that is extraordinary in our world.
But merging religion and state is NOT the answer. Just look at Islamic states and their pathetic versions of equality of the sexes. And we certainly don’t need elitist, tribalistic religions that consider all who don’t believe as they do to be inferior, even sub-human. But nor do we need atheism that cynically rejects all belief in a higher purpose for our existence.
What we need is a non-denominational Mahatma Gandhi with a world vision. A person who believes in the future of our species and sees that future as a responsibility for us to achieve—NOT a right. I wish I knew where such a person might come from. I can only pray to (a non-denominational) God that he will come… Then we may pass the BIG intelligence test. Then we may have a noble future.
(the second in a series entitle “Will our species pass the BIG intelligence test?)
It makes sense, when you think about it. There should be a test of worthiness before a wannabe spacefaring species takes flight. Think of what the colonizing Europeans did to the native peoples in Africa and North and South America; and those victims were members of our own species!
Have we shown that we are ready for membership in the BIG world (the universe out there that, surely, is teeming with life)? Definitely not…
On our planet there is a harmony in Nature—worms break up the soil to make it more fertile, bees pollinate plants, herbivore animals live off plants, carnivores feed off one another up the food chain… At the top of the food chain stands the current “king of the mountain”. There have been many, many such kings over the history of life on our planet. And none of them showed any concern for their underlings…
But none of them—until man ascended to the throne—had the ability to destroy the entire biosphere. With our technological capability we have, rightly or wrongly, given ourselves a position of dominance that makes the reign of the dinosaurs look like Sesame Street. And every day we demonstrate how much we care for our present and future fellow Earth-dwellers…
Many will say, “Who cares?” They know that interstellar space flight is far in the future. “Not in my lifetime!” they would say, dismissively. And they know that we are a very long way from solving the problems that plague us today. “What can I do, anyway,” would be their last word.
But the problem is that it is not just about turning our future into an episode from Star Trek. It is about our survival as a species…
The BIG intelligence test doesn’t have a “fail and forget it” option. Failure will bring the end of our civilization. In the best case that will involve a massive die-off, reducing the human population to the levels of two hundred years ago (about one billion people). In the worst case we will become extinct and so damage our ecosphere that it takes millions of years to recover—as happened after the Permian-Triassic (“P-Tr”) extinction event when massive releases of methane gas and global warming led to a significant reduction in oxygen and ozone levels. The P-Tr event is considered “the mother of all extinction events,” extinguishing over 90% of all marine species and 70% of terrestrial vertebrate species.
As each year passes, solving our problems becomes more urgent. Our population grows, stressing our infrastructure (particularly food production) and accentuating the horrific gap between the “haves” and the “have nots”. Our weapons get ever more lethal—and ever more likely to fall into the hands of an extremist or suicidal maniac, diseases become more exotic, more drug-resistant and more mobile… Real and imagined mental diseases proliferate. There is only one way out: we have to pass the BIG intelligence test.
Passing the test means growing up to become Future Man. It means accepting that we, as a species, have passed the point where our evolution is left to nature, or fate… It is in our hands. We, and only we, will decide what our future is to be. We can do it—by evolving into Future Man, Homo Sapiens Supernus…
There are two kinds of evolution. Biological and cultural. Biological (or for some, Darwinian) evolution is the process that took over three billion years to produce the first hominid, and another million years to produce modern man. Biological evolution will not help us deal with the BIG test. In fact, it is biological evolution that has got us into the mess we now find ourselves in. Think about it. Biological evolution actually selects for most of the bad qualities that we must, very soon, find a way to suppress. I mean all the “rugged individuality” traits that, heaven help us, we still admire (if only secretly).
Here is an example of what I mean. Let’s suppose there is a nice young man (NYM), a little old lady (LOL) and a self-centered middle aged man (SCAM) on a ship that is sinking. There is only room for one more on the life boat. The NYM looks at the LOL, smiles and says “, you go,” to the LOL. The SCAM elbows both aside and climbs into the life boat with a triumphant glare. Whose genes survive to create copies of this behavioral monster?
Biological evolution selects for self-centered, aggressive behavior. The biggest and the baddest survive. We have to use cultural evolution to become Future Man.
Cultural evolution is behavioral change in response to new information. An example of cultural evolution is the migration of many species of birds to escape the rigors of winter. The onset of winter was “the information”; the response (by a bird genius) was flight towards the equator. The survival of the birds making the trip meant that the “bird genius” gene multiplied in the population. The behavior eventually became hard-wired in the bird’s DNA.
In humans the most cited example of cultural evolution is the drinking of animal milk. It is, of course, natural for human babies to drink their mother’s milk. They are able to digest the milk by virtue of an enzyme called lactase that breaks down the lactose in the milk. In mammals, however, the production of lactase ceases as they grow up. Without lactase to help, milk becomes indigestible and causes unpleasant digestive problems.
About 8,000 years ago, however, it appears that adult humans experimented with cow’s milk and discovered that some adult humans were lactose tolerant (i.e., the lactase production gene had not been switched off after infanthood). As a life-fostering trait, this was favored by evolution, and now many adult humans can enjoy milk. Lactose intolerance is now relatively uncommon among Europeans—although it is still common among some cultures (e.g., Native Americans) whose ancestors did not domesticate cattle for their milk.
A much more recent example of cultural evolution is the dramatic decline in birth rates in many cultures (a good thing too…). The nearly universal presumption of the eternal availability of modern technology (such as the electricity, telephone, internet, personal transportation, etc.) is another increment of cultural evolution that, of course, we take for granted—but creates a gigantic vulnerability for our species…
Historically, say over the last two thousand years, cultural evolution has been mostly good. It has “civilized” us. It has given us a keener sense of right and wrong.
But my sense of it is that (bad) biological evolution is winning over good (cultural) evolution right now… We are going to have to make a big effort to change that before it’s too late. More on that in the next post…