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Are we to become obsolete?

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  • Roger Anderton
    ARE WE TO BECOME OBSOLETE? article below from Daily Mail, Saturday, January 2004: Man is amazed by his technological genius. But here a brilliant scientist
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 2, 2004

      article below from Daily Mail, Saturday, January 2004:

      Man is amazed by his technological genius. But here a brilliant scientist argues that we've hardly started, that machines will end up making us obsolete ... and more terrifyingly, that we may not even exist at all, by Professor Sir Martin Rees, ASTRONOMER ROYAL

      SCIENCE can make fools of even the wisest man. Back in the Thirties, Lord Rutherford, the greatest nuclear expert of his time, dismissed as 'moonshine' the practical relevance of nuclear energy.

      IBM founder Thomas J. Watson said the U.S. would need only five computers - there are now more than a hundred million.

      Likewise, today's ubiquitous mobile phones and palm-top computers would amaze inventors from even 50 years ago - they exemplify Arthur C. Clarke's dictum that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

      At the dawn of a new year we can't, of course, guess what 21st-century inventions will seem 'magic' to us today. But even the science we already understand will dramatically alter the way we live our lives in the coming decade or so.

      And by the year 2100, our world, and the way we understand it, will have transformed far more even than it did during the last century, in which the pace of change and advancement moved more rapidly than at any other time in history.

      In the short term, these changes are already taking place. The internet is being refined to allow instant communication of words and pictures and immediate access to all recorded knowledge through online databases.

      Wristwatch-size computers will soon link us to this advanced worldwide web and to the satellite global positioning system. We need never be lost, or ignorant, again.

      We'll also know more about ourselves: a readout of our genetic code will tell us how (and perhaps when) we are most likely to die: microscopic sensors" implanted into our bodies will monitor our health continuously.

      These things are probably less than 20 years away - I'd be prepared to bet high odds on them because they are extensions of present trends.

      But the most dramatic changes - new ideas that could utterly transform the world and how we perceive it - cannot be foreseen.

      AND IF we look a whole century ahead, we should leave our minds open, or at least ajar, to concepts that now seem on the wilder shores of speculative thought.

      It is sometimes claimed that the 'big ideas' have all been discovered, and that it just remains for modern scientists to fill in the details. But nothing could be further from reality. As science advances, its frontiers get wider, and we encounter ever more new mysteries just beyond.

      Science is an unending quest. It is limited by the capacity of human brains, but one day even that limit may be transcended.

      Science may, for the first time, drastically transform human beings themselves. Our characteristics and physiques may alter more in the coming century than in the past 10,000 years.

      Genetic modification, targeted drugs, and perhaps even implants into our brains will change human capacity and character.

      Computers will vastly enhance our logical and mathematical skills, and perhaps even our creativity. We may be able to 'plug in' extra memory, or learn by direct input into the brain (could we see the injection of an 'instant PhD'?).

      More ominously, this could open up a chasm between the privileged and the underprivileged as the rich empower themselves through access to this technology, while the poor struggle for even a basic education.

      At the same time miniaturisation, though already amazing, is very far from its theoretical limits. Present-day silicon chips, at the heart of almost all our technological devices, are exceedingly large and 'coarse' compared to the smallest circuits that could, in theory, be developed.

      These would have dimensions of only a nanometre - a billionth of a metre, rather than the micron (millionth of a metre) scale on which present-day chips are etched.

      One long-term hope is to assemble such 'nanostructures' by sticking single atoms and molecules together.

      This is how nature's 'computers' - such as the human brain - are made. And the potential of even a basic biocomputer is formidable: an insect's brain has about the same raw processing power as a present-day computer.

      WHAT would be the consequences if computers, harnessing such technology, could match the human brain? In some mental tasks, of course, they can already surpass us.

      The cheapest calculator can do arithmetic far faster than I can: a big computer can beat the world champion at chess. Robots already have enough brainpower for basic everyday tasks.

      (The Japanese have recently marketed a robot that can 'babysit' an elderly relative - it can recognise when a person has collapsed and telephone for help.)

      But in many respects such machines are still primitive. They are worse than five-year-old children in recognising faces and they can't beat even a moderate player at table tennis.

      Within 50 years, however, robots may be able to relate to their surroundings (and to people) as adeptly as we do. Indeed, their far faster 'thoughts' and reactions could give them an advantage over us.

      Robots will be perceived as intelligent beings, to which (or to whom) we can relate, at least in some respects, as we do to other people. Moral issues then arise.

      We generally accept an obligation to treat other people (and indeed many animal species) humanely. Will we have the same duty to sophisticated robots, our own sentient creations?

      Should we feel guilty about exploiting them, or care if they are distressed? Should we nurture them in 'life', and dignify them in 'death' as many of us do with our household pets? Will we one day place flowers on robot graves?

      This may seem fanciful, but the boundaries between machines and living material will get increasingly narrow in the coming decades. If we can augment our brains using silicon-chip implants, the next step might be to download our thoughts into a machine. Humans could then transcend biology to merge with computers.

      Our most personal thoughts and experiences could be shared with others, just as internet pages are accessible by all. If present technical trends proceed unimpeded, then some people living today could attain immortality - in the sense that their consciousness could survive on a computer hard drive, long after their bodies have perished.

      Those who seek this kind of everlasting life will need to abandon their bodies and have their brains downloaded into silicon hardware - in old-style spiritualist parlance, they would 'go over to the other side'.

      And a super-intelligent robot could even be the last human invention.

      ONCE machines have surpassed human intelligence, they could design and build a new generation themselves, with even greater intelligence.

      And some of the 'staples' of speculative science which flummox physicists today - time travel, spacewarps, and the like - may be harnessed by these new machines, transforming the world.

      Such transformation may indeed be essential for our very survival. Our Earth could not support even its present population if all nations lived the lifestyle of present-day Americans. There are simply not enough natural resources to sustain such rates of consumption.

      Given that the world population will grow exponentially in the decades ahead, new technology could offer a real upside. Everyone could lead satisfying lives without despoiling our planet if technology can provide 'clean' energy, and reduce demands for raw materials.

      All new science offers benefits, but it poses new risks and ethical choices. We cannot accept the benefits without facing, and trying to minimise, the risks. These are the practical realities shaping our future. But there is another, theoretical, way in which science may shape our destiny.

      I am a cosmologist, so have a professional interest in trying to understand the universe around us - what it's made of and what laws govern it. I recognise that the most profound questions about space, time and the cosmos are still unanswered.

      A fish may be barely aware of the medium in which it lives and swims - certainly its brain cannot comprehend that water consists of interlinked atoms of hydrogen and oxygen.

      LIKEWISE, the bedrock nature of space, time and atoms could well be far too complex for unaided human brains to grasp.

      We aspire to understand our cosmic habitat, even though our limitations may be such that we stand little more chance than a fish of understanding the true workings of our environment.

      Super-intelligent computers of the future may well be able to solve these questions that are currently beyond us and perhaps explain the greatest mystery of all -that of life itself.

      There's an enormous variety of life on earth - from slime mould to monkeys, and of course humans as well.

      Life survives in the most inhospitable corners of our planet - in black caves where sunlight has been blocked for thousands of years, inside arid desert rocks, in the depths of the earth and in the highest reaches of the atmosphere. But how come it evolved here at all?

      0Some fundamental truths about nature could be too complex for us ever to comprehend. Perhaps we'll never understand the mystery of our brains - how atoms can assemble into 'grey matter' that can become aware of itself and ponder its origins.

      From primordial clouds of simple atoms to the fantastic complexities of Earth's biosphere, our universe seems compelled to create complex systems from simple ones.

      Life is the most sophisticated creation in the universe - even a simple butterfly is far more complex than a star. In that sense, the future need not be defined in terms of technology alone.

      Let's look aeons ahead, not merely a single century. Humans on Earth are the outcome of four billion years of Darwinian selection. Our solar system is barely middle aged: the Sun has been shining on the Earth for 4.5 billion years, but has enough fuel to continue for 6 billion more.

      Perhaps the unfolding complexity of life is just beginning - perhaps humans are still an early stage in this process, rather than, as we sometimes seem to believe, its culmination. Homo sapiens may just be a stepping stone on the path towards an even greater and more intelligent creation.

      There's an unthinking tendency to imagine that humans will be around in 6 billion years, watching the Sun flare up and die.

      BUT ANY life and intelligence that exists then could be as different from us as we are from a bacterium. We are still near the beginning of the evolutionary process.

      Moreover, some stars are billions of years older than our Sun - life on a planet orbiting such an ancient star might have had an immense 'head start' over life on Earth. What if super-advanced entities had became so powerful that they could control creation itself? Indeed they might create their own big bangs - running cosmic experiments to test the limits of physics.

      And there's another possibility, which takes us even further into the realm of science fiction and towards a dark and disconcerting thought.

      Perhaps advanced beings could use hypercomputers to simulate a 'universe' that's not merely theoretical, nor even like the best 'special effects' in movies or computer games. Suppose they could simulate a universe as complex as the one we perceive ourselves to be in.

      Suppose, in fact, that's all we humans really are - 'artificial life' in a computer simulation.

      We could just be pawns in a chess game created by beings from another cosmos, who peer down on us ignorant beings, just as we peer down on uncomprehending fish today. Suppose the universe that we astronomers study so intently is merely a cosmic stage-set.

      Here, the forefront of science is colliding with science fiction, for technology may one day confront us with a terrifying reality - we could be living in a real-life Matrix.

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