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, and the air around him was warm, stale and oxygen-deprived… Where was he! 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 heart beat slowed… He pressed the backlight button on his watch. 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 am. 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 to the closet.
After a minute or so he felt ready to stand—or, more accurately, stoop, holding on 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. Then, 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.
After some stretching exercises he felt ready to leave the closet. He checked his watch again. It was almost 7:00 am. 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, in his pants pocket. At precisely 7:01 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 701 was just around the corner. There were no guards in sight. He entered the room. A man, with only a little white hair sprouting on an otherwise shiny bald head, was sitting up in the hospital bed.
“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?” Jake 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,” Jake Epstein said. “I was just doing some pushups. This rejuvenation process is really working. Worth every penny… and I’ll tell you, Kareem, it was a lot of pennies…” Jake Epstein gave Sohail an exaggerated wink.
“Dr. Peterson thinks your lung function can be improved. There’s no extra charge… Open your mouth now…” Sohail smiled again.
Jake 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.
Jake Epstein frowned. “What kind of name is Kareem?” he asked. “Is it Indian?”
“No, Mr. Epstein. It’s an Arab name.”
Jake 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. Goodbye Mr. Epstein.”
Jake Epstein frowned again. Something wasn’t right…
Sohail left the room and walked briskly down the corridor towards 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 towards him and pulled up. As soon as he jumped in, the van accelerated down the street. When Sohail looked back he saw three men charging through the same door that he’d used, 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 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 at a sedate pace east 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…
(the first of a series of articles on this subject)
From the time man 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 70 sextillion (7 followed by 22 zeroes!), and the current estimate of earth-like planets per star is about 20%. The probability of there NOT being intelligent life out there seems to be near zero. But where are they?
Efforts to detect the existence of alien intelligence have been focussed on radio transmissions. Our planet has been broadcasting radio signals (radio, TV, communications) for the last 100 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. So far they have reached suns and planets within 100 light years of the solar system. A tiny portion of our galaxy, and an infinitesimally small micro dot 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?
Many scientists say we just haven’t listened for long enough. “Listening” requires a focussed, extremely high gain, radio telescope. Until recently, only a tiny portion of the sky could be monitored per “listening day”. That is changing, however, and now relatively large sections of the sky are under scrutiny. If the silence continues for another decade, it will be reasonable for observers to conclude that there is, indeed, a strange shortage of detectable intelligent life.
Scientists and science writers have already begun speculating as to what could explain the shortage. The consensus is that it is to do with “intelligence windows”. Our window of opportunity is the time that we have been capable of detecting extraterrestrial life—which is only about 100 years. This is a tiny sliver of the time in relation to the 8 billion years that intelligent life could have existed. So any alien detecting our existence would have to be very lucky over the next few billion years to detect us… Realistically a future intelligent alien species would have to listen continuously for a very long time to stand a chance of learning of our existence. What are the chances that an intelligent species will endure for millions, if not billions of years?
Real intelligence gives a species the ability to survive catastrophes (asteroid impacts, supernovae, etc.) that would eliminate less intelligent life. For example the dinosaurs, whose reign of dominance exceeded 200 million years, were snuffed out by an asteroid impact. If intelligence produces a species capable of inter-stellar travel, theoretically it could live forever. But now we have to put intelligence under the microscope.
What kind of intelligence are we talking about? Is it the ability to invent and manufacture IPhones? Is it the ability to create a global economy that is dependent on an insatiable appetite for energy and other finite resources? Is it the ability to create lethal weapons capable of destroying all life on our planet? Is it the ability to create a runaway greenhouse effect that could produce a second Venus in our solar system?
No. We are going to have to achieve an altogether different—and better—version of intelligence if we are to have any chance of surviving to hear or be heard by any other intelligent life forms. In fact the difference between the truly intelligent, better version of us is so great that it amounts to a successor species—“future man”.
Now this is where we get a choice. We can either dismissively say to ourselves “that just isn’t going to happen”—and, by so doing, make it an inevitability (a self-fulfilling prophecy). Or, we can explore the possibility that it could happen—and actively work to make it happen.
If it is to happen it has to happen soon. The direction we are heading is going to see the end of us within a century or two. Again the sceptics might say “that is what evolution is all about, survival of the fittest”—and, “if we don’t have what it takes we should just accept nature’s verdict and make way for a more deserving species”…
But I am an optimist. I believe that we have, within us, the capacity to transform ourselves into what we must become if we are to have a future of consequence. In a word it is spirituality. And we discovered it in our very earliest days as Homo Sapiens.
The earliest evidence of Homo Sapiens existence in communities (over 50,000 years ago) show signs of a belief in a “higher power”. Just as fundamental, there is evidence that early man was “spiritual” in a more general respect, loving art and music etc. No other creature has discovered a spiritual dimension to its existence…
I believe that this is our one and only hope.
Now when I say spiritual, I don’t mean “religious”. Spirituality and religion are not the same thing. Religion, in fact, could literally be the death of us (think of religious extremism and the very real threat that it represents to our future)
Spirituality is so much more than religion. Spirituality means compassion. Spirituality means empathy with all of humanity (in fact all of life). Spirituality means believing that the existence of our universe has purpose—and that our existence has purpose (a purpose that will be realized by a concerted self-improvement effort). Spirituality means acceptance of a responsibility for the future…
That is the BIG intelligence test… Can we rediscover “pure” spirituality and have it unite us as a truly intelligent species. Only if we pass this test, will we have any chance of becoming a member of the universe’s community of truly intelligent species…
What do you think? Submit your comments…
Each of the species of life on our planet has been given a special advantage that has helped it survive. The chameleon has its camouflage, the turtle its shell, the bird its wings, the rose its thorns.
The lion has a whole array of advantages—speed, strength, teeth and claws, that place it near the top of life’s food chain.
But no creature comes even close to the dominance of the species that now rules, and abuses, earth’s ecosystem—man. Our advantage is our intelligence.
In the earliest days of man’s existence it seemed such a puny thing. A few thousand years ago the lion looked at us and licked its chops. A tasty treat he thought… Little did he know that he was looking at what would become the most dangerous animal on Earth.
It was our intelligence that made a weapon out of a hefty bone. Our intelligence led to pits dug in the ground, covered by leaves. Troops of our ancestors herded their prey into the trap. Later our intelligence produced the spear, then the arrow, then the gun and then…
In the beginning we used our intelligence to survive in evolution’s survival of the fittest contest. But soon it was no contest. Then we began to have choices about how we use our intelligence.
At first, the imperatives of survival, food and water drove all the choices. In the earliest days you were a hunter or a gatherer. Then the first human communities, small groups of cooperating people, created the opportunity to specialize. Choices grew. Soon man’s success in his competition with other species left only one serious threat—man. And the career choice of warrior was born.
Enough ceased to be enough. Greed was born. And envy. And fear—and distrust. And alpha behaviour such as power hunger, hoarding, extravagant displays of possessions…
Man did not invent these bad traits. They have always been there in nature. All life forms are inherently selfish. But our intelligence has given us the ability to carry self indulgence to obscene excess. Why? Because we can… and our role models, multi-million dollar earning entertainers and athletes smile at us.
And then there is our “defence” spending. At the same time as millions of “have nots” are dying from poverty, the “haves” are spending trillions of dollars on defence. Fear drives the spending, of course (but also the greed of those who profit by the spending). Fear of what? Are we afraid of an alien invasion? No. We spend trillions because we are afraid of ourselves. Does this make sense?
We all know that we cannot continue as we are. Our numbers are growing and our consumption of resources is growing even faster. Our “defence” weaponry is becoming increasingly lethal. Is enough to kill everybody on Earth not enough? Apparently not. Let us count the ways… There is fission, there is fusion, there are neutron bombs, there is chemical, there is biological, there is (coming soon) nanobots…
Or we could pollute ourselves to death. Or fry ourselves with global warming. There is no end to our ingenuity… We are such an intelligent species…
There is a word that sums it up. Eckhart Tolle (A New Earth and Power of Now) was not afraid to use it. Nor is Tom Shadyac, director of the documentary I am, now showing in movie theatres (but better known for producing comedic hits such as Bruce Almighty). The word is INSANITY.
The “civilization” that we enjoy (?) today will end. It’s just a matter of time. The big question is will there be any survivors? We are a hardy species, so I suspect that some of us will survive. Let’s suppose that some do.
There are two possible scenarios. The first is the good one. We magically use our intelligence to pull ourselves out of our death spiral and become future man, a truly mature version of humanity.
The second is the bad one. Our civilization collapses. The population is perforce decimated, because we just cannot feed today’s billions without all the “power tools” (such as fertilizers, insecticides, global economy, etc.). In all probability, poverty and starvation will ignite wars where the “haves” try desperately to hang on to their wealth, while the “have nots” with nothing to lose, fight for their lives.
Inevitably, the survivors will look back at our civilization. In the “good” scenario they will call our era “The Age of Insanity” or “The Chaos Era”. They will have learnt from it. They will go forward.
The survivors of the bad scenario will dig up the artefacts of our civilization—still shiny iPhones, the remains of jet aircraft, the carcasses of bridges and skyscrapers—and they will wonder. These people were Gods they will say in awe. And they will, eventually, repeat the same mistakes—and create a new insanity, and that civilization will come crashing down. And then…
Good or bad? Which will it be? Should we care?
Yes, we should care—because we are, above all, the custodians of the future of our species. We know this when we bring up our children.
And there is good in humanity too… There is hope, compassion, love…
And our intelligence is really not a curse. It’s a gift…
‘Tis the season… for stupidity. In one corner we have the legions of believers who hold their beliefs to be sacred (Xmas trees battling Menorahs, etc.). In the other corner we have the atheists that solicit donations to fund the “cause” of debunking the idea that there is a God.
It is difficult for a thinking person to decide which of these two camps is the more laughable. Is it the believers, each standing on his/her little patch of sacred soil, proclaiming that only their particular belief system is valid – and all others are false? Or is it the atheists who want people to take pride in paying for bumper stickers and bus ads that boldly state “There’s probably no God, now stop worrying and enjoy your life,” or “Millions of Americans are Good Without God.”
Meanwhile the cash register keeps playing its merry tune despite the hard financial times – even though so many of the dollars being spent will buy things that will not be valued, while millions of the really needy go hungry or without medical care.
I have a Xmas message to give. It is “Grow up people!”
I suggest that we use this season to take stock of our species future prospects.
How long do you think we can go on living our lives as we do today? We get up (too early), go to work (resenting all the other people that seem to think that their particular commute is more important than anybody else’s), spend most of our day carrying out tasks we are paid to perform (but hate), then come home (repeating the commute ordeal) – and finally get to spend some ‘quality time’ watching reality shows or sports on TV… Then it is bed (too late) to sleep to prepare for the next cycle…
That is the day of the “lucky people” – the ones with jobs. Then there are the unfortunates who are out of work, worrying where the next meal will come from.
Is that living?
For most adults today, the only really meaningful time expenditure is devoted to our children. We continue to believe that raising our children is the most important task that we will ever have. At least we‘ve got that right…
But what are we giving to our children? A future that has tribalistic groups of human beings (a.k.a. nations) competing for diminishing resources – and other tribalistic groups (a.k.a. religions) competing for our hearts, minds and wallets?
Imagine you are an extraterrestrial observer monitoring our planet and its bizarre “intelligent life”. What do you see? You see vast expenditures of resources (not the least of which is time) being spent to secure a quality of life that, for the vast majority of the people concerned, is pitiable.
Twenty thousand years ago we were hunter-gatherers. We used Stone Age tools – and yet the average “work day”, according to anthropologists was less than five hours. This was enough to provide all that was needed for the necessities of life. The rest of the day was available for life enrichment. Today we use productivity tools that make it possible for one person to achieve the production of hundreds of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. And yet our work day, including commute time, averages over ten hours a day.
If we were to focus only on providing the entire world’s human population with the necessities for a healthy well-rounded life that could give our species a noble future, we would all have work days that take up less than four hours! Instead, we choose to dance to the fiddle of consumerism, spending enormous amounts of time and critical natural resources producing things that will (deservedly) be demoted to the status of unwanted garbage by the time next Xmas comes.
Meanwhile there are people in third world countries such as the Congo, Sudan and Zimbabwe whose expected life spans are less than half of ours – because they are dying in poverty of hunger and untreated disease.
I repeat – it is time to grow up.
There is a God.
Not the “God of the tribes”. Not the God of the priesthoods that put a higher value on power and profit than sensible policies of birth control or casting out pedophiles from its ranks. Not the God that places half of the world’s population (women) in an inferior position. Not the God that shakes the silver plate for us to put money in – money that will be spent to build cathedrals that are monuments to the egos of the “faithful”. No, the God I refer to is the author of the Big Bang.
This God should really be called “x” because we have no idea what it is. This God created our universe – a universe governed by laws that made the formation of stars and planets inevitable – a universe that supplied all the ingredients for the onset of life. This God has a plan.
We, as the dominant intelligent life on our planet, are a potentially important part of God’s plan – but only if we make the effort.
Let’s use our fledgling intelligence to get to the next level – to become “future man”. It won’t be easy. We have so many bad habits to shed. But we owe it to our children to try.
Wishing you a thoughtful Xmas…
Imagine you are seventy years old and showing (and feeling) your age. The year is 2017.
You have money and/or friends in high places, so you get an appointment at the Return-to-Youth Clinic. After a brief stay in the waiting room, you are taken to the preparation room to lie on a hospital bed. An anaesthetist attaches an IV drip that delivers a mild sedative. You are told that you will remain conscious throughout the operation.
Fifteen minutes later you are wheeled into the OR. A nurse attaches an impressive number of electrodes to various parts of your body. Displays on the left wall show monitor readings that mean nothing to you. The nano-surgeon enters and greets you cheerfully. “It won’t be long now!” he says. Then he shows you a hypodermic. It doesn’t look special but he tells you that it contains trillions of nanobots, sub-microscopic robots that are going to be very busy once they enter your bloodstream.
You feel the prick as the needle penetrates your skin. The nano-surgeon says you should not feel anything as the nanobots are distributed by normal blood flow throughout your body. While travelling the bloodstream they will remove any unwanted material that is impeding blood flows. The process will take half an hour.
At the end of the half-hour the nano-surgeon returns to the OR, checks the displays and tells you that he is going to start the next phase with your heart. He takes an electronic device, holds it over the location of your heart and clicks a button. You feel nothing, but the nano-surgeon tells you that the nanobots in that area have been activated and are repairing damaged cells and removing the accumulated debris of age. The nano-surgeon checks the display monitoring your heart function and seems pleased. You feel nothing.
The nano-surgeon then activates the nanobots to work on each of the other internal organs, one at a time. Your head, including your brain, is the last. You are noticing that some of your aches and pains have disappeared.
An hour after injecting the nanobots the surgeon tells you he is all done. You now have the body of a twenty year old! The only bad news is that it will take a few days for your skin to reflect your restored youth. When you get off the hospital bed you feel lighter, stronger and more energetic. You had forgotten what youth feels like.
All of this is possible—even probable. The only real uncertainty is the timeframe. It could be 2027 before the technology is available.
Sounds good? Well, let’s think about it…
You might worry that this miracle will be only available to the wealthy. Well, that will certainly be true in the first few years of its availability, especially because the major corporations that hold the patents will want to maximize their profits. The irony is that, once the first legions of return-to-youth nanobots are produced, it will be quite inexpensive to manufacture them in sufficient quantities to treat the entire world’s human population—but that will never happen. Imagine a world where nobody dies! Do we stop having children?
The fact is that this miracle technology will only be made available to an elite few—and those few will live in fear that their immortality will become known, and attract the envious fury of those who will be ready to kill them. So they will try to keep it secret. They may even wear makeup and walk stiffly in public to disguise their new-found youth. Is that living?
But there are more serious issues with nanobots.
History tells us that when man develops new technology, the first drooling customers will be those who are interested in killing. Whether their interest is labelled ‘defence’, ‘war’ or ‘terrorism’ they will want to be the first to have the technology packaged as a weapon—and they have deep pockets.
We worried when gunpowder was invented—then dynamite. We shuddered when the atom was split and atomic weapons materialized. We were horrified when we learnt that nations had inventories of bio-weapons for ‘defence’. Now we should really start worrying…
The reality is that, technologically speaking, our species is too clever for its own good. Since our ancestor, Homo erectus, first evolved on this planet, we have shown a flair for discovery and invention that is quite remarkable. It was our means of survival when we used it to recognize bones and rocks as weapons. It became our means of domination on our planet when we used it to create tools and weapons of ever-growing sophistication.
But our technological cleverness has outpaced our development as a mature, truly-intelligent species, capable of using our powers wisely. We are, metaphorically speaking, monkeys holding sticks of dynamite in one hand and lighted matches in the other.
There is a tiny spark of hope. Tools, weapons and medical miracles are not our only discoveries. Over fifty thousand years ago we discovered spirituality. Our ancestors theorized that there was more to our world than the simple physical. They formed the concept that there was purpose to our existence. Using their fledgling intelligence they postulated an omnipotent higher being—and they called it God.
The first concepts of God, formulated in a laboratory of ignorance, were crude—but they gave the believers a reason for better behaviour, and eased the pain of seeing their elders die. Animist religions can still be found among aboriginals in various parts of the world and, although they are viewed as primitive by the ‘developed world’, they continue to do more good than harm. Sadly, the same cannot be said for most of the organized religions that have evolved in the modern world.
In recent times the image of organized religion has fallen into such disrepute that “new atheist” authors such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris are selling large numbers of books telling us God belongs with Santa Claus as a feel-good fantasy that we must consign to the past where it belongs. Those authors, if they succeed in their mission, will destroy our last chance of avoiding extinction as a species.
Let’s undo our mistakes. Let’s rediscover an all-encompassing reason for our existence—and a reason to self-improve. There is a God. Not the tribal God of the organized religions that compete with one another as the ‘true faith’. Not the institutionalized God that gives its priesthood wealth and power. What I am talking about is the God that our intelligence tells us is the force behind our existence.
What we have to rediscover is the creator God that we cannot possibly put a face on—or dare to understand—but the God that we know has a plan; a plan that we can see outlined in the evolution of our universe to date, favouring life and, eventually, intelligent life. We are that, embryonic, intelligent life form on this planet. We have a duty to God to use the intelligence that he has given us to act like an intelligent species—before the bad actors among us use our technological marvels to kill us. If we cast out God we cast out hope.
Humanity has survived, and generally prospered, through various “ages” and “revolutions” over the last 10,000 years. They include the Agricultural Revolution, the Industrial Revolution and, most recently, the Information Age. We are now seeing the beginning of the GNR Revolution, standing for Genetics, Nanotechnology and Robotics.
The engine that is driving the GNR Revolution is the exponential growth in the power of our computers. Since 1958, Moore’s Law has successfully predicted that our computers will double in power (per square cm. and per dollar of cost) about every two years. In the 1990s it was thought that Moore’s Law would fail in the first decade of the new century. Scientists predicted that it would become impossible to fit more components onto a chip because of thermal noise. Human ingenuity has bypassed that obstacle, and now the “final” limit is a long way in the future – more than a decade away. Well before Moore’s Law “hits the wall”, our species will no longer be the highest intelligence on Earth. Our computers will have surpassed us. That fact alone gives us a lot to think about.
One, important, reason for the sustained success of the Moore’s Law prediction is that our computers have become the means of building better computers. In effect, our computers are self-improving. Not just faster – smaller.
Nanotechnology has become a reality. Using our ever-growing technical toolkit, and borrowing from Nature’s, we are on the threshold of creating the first “nanobots” ‒ tiny machines that are smaller than one micron (1,000 nanometers) in size. They could be smaller than a single living cell. The smallest could be smaller than the wavelength of light ‒ and therefore too small to be visible with the best optical microscopes.
Man has great hopes for nanobots. Enthusiasts like Ray Kurzweil, author of “The Singularity is Near”, foresee nanobots being injected into our bodies to target and destroy cancer cells. Further into the future nanobots could repair cell damage, including age-related damage. The road to immortality, even eternal youth, beckons.
But, as with all man’s inventions, there is a dark side. Over history, those concerned with killing have always been in the forefront when scientific breakthroughs have opened up new possibilities. Killer nanobots are a terrifyingly real possibility.
The biggest challenge in nanotechnology is mastering the techniques of production. It takes vast numbers of nanobots for them to have any consequence as a force for either good or evil. The experts agree that the only practical approach is to have nanobots make nanobots.
Self-replicating nanobots are coming…
The above text is from the introduction to my new book “The Nanobot Attack”. The book is a work of fiction, but its premise is very real. The setting is 2017, just seven years from the time of writing. Seven years has become a very long time when it comes to projecting technological change. Self-replicating nanobots may be here much sooner…
The storyline of the book has a lab in the Middle East, with connections to an Islamic extremist group, develop the ultimate WMD ‒ killer nanobots. On September 11, 2017 they launch an attack on multiple cities in the U.S.
That nanotechnology could produce sophisticated nanobots should not surprise anybody that has been following recent developments in that field ‒ and few would be surprised if such technology fell into the hands of Islamic extremists. Sadly, nobody would be surprised if the extremists were to rationalize that their God wanted them to use the weapon against the accursed infidels…
So “The Nanobot Attack “is not just a believable science fiction story, it is a commentary on the bizarre world that we live in, where the human population is divided into alienated religious “tribes” that, in extreme cases, can rationalize mass murder as something that will be approved by their God.
To dramatize the insanity of a world that makes such things possible, the book has the hero of the story, Luke Walker, escape the nanobot attack. His plane crashes off the shores of a remote Pacific island called Milao. On that island the hero discovers “another world”.
Luke Walker meets a beautiful islander (Gina) and falls in love. He says to Gina “I had no idea such a place could exist. If anybody had told me I wouldn’t have believed them. A place without cars, television, telephones or the internet – and yet a place that is, in the most important ways, a much better place to live. All those things that I was conditioned to think were necessities are revealed as not needed in your world.”
The island of Milao was colonized by a party of deists, fleeing religious persecution in Europe. The colonists assimilate with the Polynesian natives to form a community that flourishes without any of the material things that drive our world. Imagine a world without money!
But “reality” returns for Luke. The commander of a US nuclear submarine learns of his survival and Luke returns to the U.S. to fight the terrorist’s nanobots.
The rest of the story will be my secret for a while…. The book is due to be published early November, but interested readers can obtain a free copy (pdf file) of Part I of The Nanobot Attack by request (using the Comments feature at the foot of this article).