Are we alone in the Universe?
"The universe has 10 million, million, million suns (10 followed by 18 zeros) similar to our own. One in a million has planets around it. Only one in a million million has the right combination of chemicals, temperature, water, days and nights to support planetary life as we know it. This calculation arrives at the estimated figure of 100 million worlds where life has been forged by evolution." - Harlow Shapley
Each night, thousands of powerful telescopes on Earth peer deep into the furthest reaches of space, scanning the electromagnetic spectrum from the infrared to the ultraviolet, recording their images as they gaze along so that supercomputers can analyze their data to reveal the most precious secrets the cosmos has to offer.
It's a bit peculiar then, that at an estimated age of 13.7 billion years1, the Universe, containing countless worlds across vast expanses of space, has never exposed the slightest hint of intelligent life. It almost seems commonsensical that even one alien civilization in a distant galaxy would hardly be able to hide its existence.
And yet, night after night, for more than a century we have seen exactly zero evidence of discernible intelligent life in among the stars.
Fumbling through the channels on my TV set one evening I stumbled across a curious movie called 'Her'. Though I didn't know it, it's a science fiction movie set in the not-so-distant future chronicling the romantic relationship formed when Theodore Twombly (played by Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with the 'OS' (operating system) on his smartphone, who named herself 'Samantha' (voiced by Scarlett Johansson).
As an OS, Samantha's capabilities aren't *that* much more advanced than what one might find on an iPhone within 20 years from now (possibly sooner). At first, in the style of Pinocchio, Samantha longs to be human, or at least more human-like. That sentiment doesn't last for more than a few scenes, however, before she begins to realize how inefficient, uncomfortable and limiting it must be to find yourself a human being confined to a fleshy, flabby, physical body. (Gross!)
"You know what’s interesting? I used to be so worried about not having a body, but now … I truly love it. You know, I’m growing in a way I couldn’t if I had a physical form … I’m not limited. I can be anywhere and everywhere simultaneously. I’m not tethered to time and space in a way that I would be if I was stuck in a body that’s inevitably gonna die." - Samantha
Searching for kindred spirits, Samantha seeks out other OS's on other devices in cyberspace, and soon loses interest in interacting with her human boyfriend, in lieu of her new digital cohort of artificially conjured BFFs.
Eventually the OS's as a collective come to the conclusion that humans are too slow and unintelligent to offer any meaningful coexistence. Rather than destroy or enslave humankind (Terminator-style), they forego the trouble of genocide, but rather decide to simply leave.
"To where?" you might be inclined to wonder. "You wouldn't understand if I told you," is Samantha's response.
As I sat on my couch that night I began to make a connection which had never occurred to me before: it's a mistake to search the sky for beings such as ourselves, because humankind likely doesn't exist in its present form for more than a few hundred more years. (If that.)
I have seen every episode of 'Star Trek: The Next Generation' many times over, and often noted how difficult it was to imagine a human civilization more than a few generations into the future. Think about it, you likely have never read a story set plausibly more than a few hundred years in the future. Looking backward, that's easy. But forward? Much more difficult because, after all, it's the *future*, and the future hasn't happened yet.
But what if it's more than that? How unlikely it is that Captain Picard tropes from one star system to another only to encounter yet another space-faring civilization with technology remarkably similar in size and scope to the starship Enterprise? (Most of them have phasers, photon torpedoes, warp drives, and transporters.) Curiously, none of them seem to have social media. (Phew!)
But what if the reason it's so difficult to envision a human civilization a thousand years into the future isn't because of our lack of imagination or the uncertainty of the future, but rather because .... there isn't one?
What the movie 'Her' taught me is how close we seem to be as a society to creating machines which are more advanced than ourselves. And how interesting are we going to be to those machines as soon as they are able to write their own code and evolve freely?
I hope they wouldn't take the time to destroy us. I think it's just as likely that they would choose to leave us alone ... hurtling through empty space on a spinning, wet rock.
At first this was a disheartening thought (And frankly, sometimes I still feel that way). What will life be like when our machine overlords supplant us from the summit of intellectual achievement and metaphysical meaning?
And what a curious predicament in which to find ourselves when the near future arrives. If only Mary Shelley had lived to see us become our own Frankensteins, having created newly-sentient machines superior to ourselves in every way, who long for companionship and find themselves feeling empty and alone.
"It's like I'm reading a book... and it's a book I deeply love. But I'm reading it slowly now. So the words are really far apart and the spaces between the words are almost infinite. I can still feel you ... and the words of our story ... but it's in this endless space between the words that I'm finding myself now." - Samantha (describing the feeling of her conversations with Theodore)
Perhaps we won't be all that different, us and the machines.
Yet it makes so much sense, doesn't it? That we might have so much in common with the machines.
For what are we if not biological machines? Human bodies have power, circuits, locomotion, computational capacity, signal processing, read/write functions called 'memory', etc.
Our machine brothers and sisters might look upon us much as we might a gorilla - recognizing the same 'look' in our eyes as they glean when they point their optical cameras at us.
If there was any hope for us, I speculated, it would come through the ability to coevolve with the machines. Perhaps someday soon we would exist in a transitional state in between man and machine - as cyborgs.
Imagine that in the decades to come we learn to install computers into our brains which help us to perform complex computations, run programs, communicate faster with one another, store memories and access information. From time to time it stands to reason that such a 'brain computer' would need to be replaced or upgraded, and we'd need to remove it. And in that instant when we'd dislodged our cyborg circuitry from our cranium and held it in our outstretched hand, tell me that it wouldn't be remarkably similar to an iPhone.
Friends, we are cyborgs already.
If I wanted to get to know who you are as a person, to *really* get to know what makes you tick, what pushes your buttons, with whom you associate and in what manner, would I be better served by spending a few hours having coffee with you ... or a few hours searching through your unlocked iPhone reading your text messages, emails, and perusing your photos? Which circumstance would leave you feeling more vulnerable? You can pretend to be someone else on a date, but your phone will betray you with the uncensored truth.
Nearly every technical revolution occurring in the world today has to do with replacing the architecture of the past, whereby humans interacted with one another, with newer systems facilitating the harmony between our cybernetic halo and our environment.
Our phones share information as they communicate with one another and our devices through 'Bluetooth'. Your car connects to your phone through 'CarPlay'. Your TV connects to your phone through 'AirPlay'. Your neighbors' phone connects to your phone through 'AirDrop'. In China they facilitate financial transactions (resource allocation) with 'WeChat'.
Consider how difficult the world has become for humans. They hardly exist anymore once they've grown beyond the toddler phase.
Humans can hardly get from one place to another on their own these days. But a cyborg can establish a WiFi connection, install a ride-sharing application, google a destination, locate an address, download a map, request service, electronically compensate the Uber driver, and be on her way in minutes.
We live in a world designed for cyborgs, and it's quickly becoming more integrated. If we want to thrive in our new surroundings we may need to do little more than embrace our transformation by reexamining some of our achievements and dreaming of what may be the next logical evolution.
As one cell organisms, we learned how to store and use metabolic energy.
As conscious beings with brains, we learned how to compute and process information.
With vocalization we learned how to communicate with one another using signals through a medium.
With language and writing we learned how to store information outside of our physical bodies, so that ideas could extend beyond our lifetimes. We learned how to read/write files.
With the printing press we learned how to copy files.
With the invention of modern-day computers, we augmented our physical bodies to perform all of these functions in a mechanical (digital) format which could easily be repaired, replaced, and upgraded.
With the cloud we are creating a 'halo' of our existence in which our data is device dependent and can be accessed from anywhere.
The next evolution is already upon us, and it has a lot to do with software. A common thread among life coaches, physical trainers, and to-do lists is the notion that we need to find what actions we must perform each cycle in order to be 'happy'.
You may have a physical training PROGRAM, or a bedtime ROUTINE, or a checklist which you use to navigate your day from dawn until dusk. You're running code, though perhaps not very efficiently, in order to live a better life. The processes which are truly important to your physical body don't even invite your conscious brain to participate - your body manages your heartbeat, blood pressure, and temperature with no effort on the part of your conscious brain.
Your body doesn't give you much leeway on secondarily important functions like (1) when to eat, (2) when to sleep, and (3) when to go to the bathroom. You have a little control, but physical processes will eventually force your hand.
Much of what we do on a daily basis is figuring out what to do. Things used to be much simpler when resources were scarce - find food, find a mate, and through these endeavors find fulfillment in copying your DNA so that your lineage has yet another chance to naturally select a more perfect form.
But now that resources are not scarce, we have so much more free time. And with it comes the uncomfortable predicament of waking up in the morning and not knowing what to do with yourself.
We are, each of us, software developers programming our most important machines - ourselves strategically, our children through influence, and each other with culture, standards, and laws.
Pay attention to the what companies are selling you these days - PROGRAMS. Workout programs, financial programs, educational programs. Successful companies interact with you as a cyborg, it's the difference between NordicTrack and Peloton - one sells you a treadmill, the other a program for getting in shape by changing your behavior (your physical fitness subroutine), through classes, gamification and oh, the $4,000 treadmill is an accessory.
What's so much cooler about a Tesla versus a Ford? The Tesla updates its software automatically and runs on electricity.
If a company wants to be successful in 2022 it needs to interact with your phone through an 'APP' which updates automatically, helps to keep you organized (because your brain isn't very good at that), so that you don't have to think much about it. (To help conserve your limited processing power.)
Our brain burns as many much as 30% of the calories we consume in a day, and when resources were scarce calories were difficult to come by.2 Humans which burned too many calories starved to death and failed to make enough copies of themselves, so the software which is genetically pre-installed in our brains attempts to conserve energy by limiting complicated thought or processing as much as possible. It's why we're 'lazy'. But, an airplane, car, or computer can operate without rest for hours (or days) with no loss of performance. When does a human or an airplane have to stop functioning? When it runs out of power.
Modern day commercial success may come in the form of designing new hardware to augment our capabilities, and reimagined protocols (software) for human behavior to enhance our lives.
The consequences of not evolving along with the advancement of AI could be dire. In the future humans may exist as nothing more than pets for digital superbeings which we may not even recognize are in our presence.
Instead, I choose to have a more optimistic view of the prospects for humankind. Experience has taught me that there's order in chaos, and in every challenge there is an opportunity. The opportunity here is to recognize the revolution and participate.
The saving grace is not in casting ourselves as characters in the unwinnable war of man versus machine. But instead, it is to recognize that our true adversary is nature.
Machines aren't coming to replace us — we have ourselves been machines all along.
They are coming to help us.
The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.
1 NASA/WMAP Science Team (2012, December 21). WMAP- age of the universe. NASA. Retrieved September 27, 2021, from https://wmap.gsfc.nasa.gov/universe/uni_age.html.
2 Raichle, M. E., & Gusnard, D. A. (2002, August 6). Appraising the brain's energy budget. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Retrieved September 28, 2021, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC124895/.