Last and First Men
"I was trying to depict a superhuman intelligence," Arthur C. Clarke once explained, discussing a sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey, "and because I'm not superhuman myself, how could I describe what the activities of such an intelligence would be?" The thought crossed my mind more than once that the fourteen essay contributors to Year Million: Science at the Far Edge of Knowledge, a non-fiction anthology edited by Damien Broderick that deals with the Vastly Impossibly Distant Far Far Far Farther Future of the Year Million, must have wrestled with questions at least as difficult. The contributors include scientists, mathematicians, professors, engineers and SF writers (Gregory Benford, Rudy Rucker, Catherine Asaro, Damien Broderick, Pamela Sargent, George Zebrowski) whose names will be familiar to most readers. In the inspired introduction, Broderick preemptively airs concerns about any such speculations possibly being destined to failure, and places the visionary attempts of the book in their historical context, describing a similar exercise in future-imagining once undertaken by H. G. Wells, to whom the book is co-dedicated (along with humankind). Several pieces contain allusions to Olaf Stapledon and many postulate the transformation of humans into beings—computronium-based shape-shifters, for instance, or telepathically linked consciousnesses capable of reprogramming matter itself—that would be utterly unrecognizable to our present selves. If even a few of the speculations in these thematically-organized flights of scientifically-informed fancy turn out to be true, we may be closer to being the Last Men than we could have dreamed a mere one or two generations ago. And of course we shouldn't forget how much fun this type of guided dreaming is; in a sense, it's a form of world-building, one of many reasons why this book, the title of which evokes Frederik Pohl's classic story "Day Million," should appeal to SF readers.
A Million Isn't What It Used To Be
In "The Laughter of Copernicus" Jim Holt argues that mathematics and laughter may be the only two phenomena from our day that survive into Year Million. Holt tethers this speculation to the Copernican principle, which, broadly, states that we do not occupy a privileged or special frame of reference. It would have been nice to see some detail regarding its valid range of applicability and an acknowledgement of its potential conflict with the anthropic principle. I'm also not sure why understanding prime numbers might cause us to lose our Platonic belief in higher mathematics (it's not hard to imagine altogether new number types or more sophisticated constructs that would fuel it on), but on the whole Holt's contribution is admirably engaging and original.
Steven B. Harris dazzles the imagination as he covers "A Million Years of Evolution." Sexual selection is discussed as a means of artificial selection and digitized human culture, subject to Moore's law, may end up becoming a form of AI, but Harris quickly leaps to even more ambitious territory: mechanical telepathy and directed cultural evolution in which we dispense with "old-style organic brains" altogether and wind up utilizing computronium, or programmable matter, which maximizes computational processing. (One early appearance of this concept in SF, though not by this name, occurs in the conclusion of Isaac Asimov's famous "The Last Question.") In our new shiny computronium bodies we'll be on the lookout for energy, and deuterium will come in handy. Eventually, as our computing abilities increase by the yottaflop (that's the fastest power for operations per second for which we currently have a word) we may end up ravenously dismantling entire chunks and bodies of our Solar System, including Jupiter—as happens in Charles Stross' Accelerando—in the pursuit of deuterium. Harris' pacing is effective, his prose concise and evocative, and the sheer drama and scope of his prophesying ensure intellectual thrills.
But just because nanotechnology gives us the ability to build brains from scratch, will that really allow the duplication of human beings? Can intelligence and sapience (wisdom and its implied capacity for judgment) genuinely "exist without self-awareness" (p. 80)? If so, is this truly sapience? And if future body designs, computronium-centered or not, are to be "based on the physics of the universe plus input from imagination and art" (p. 76), would we really abandon art, as Harris later ventures, and thus our ability to improve these designs?
What about superluminal travel and Einstein's inviolable theory of special relativity? Well, Catherine Asaro reveals one sneaky avenue around the light-speed constraint by applying complex variable theory to Einstein's equations in her lively disquisition on "A Luminous Future." According to the reinterpretation principle, by which particles with negative energy traveling back in time can be reinterpreted as their own anti-particles with positive energy traveling forward in time, a faster-than-c or tachyon solution to special relativity will result in imaginary mass, energy, length and time, creating a kind of luxon mirror that separates ordinary sub-c existence from its super-c counterpart. Asaro's view is somewhat narrow, by dint of her chosen subject, but her writing is uniformly excellent. She is unequivocally enthusiastic and adept at the clear presentation of subtle ideas (with equations). Asaro also injects a humanist perspective, challenging the view of futurists who speculate about a "world where emotions take a backseat to logic" (p. 124), and arguing instead that to contemplate our desire for happiness we should not lose track of how "emotional intelligence is as critical to our species as analytical intelligence" (p. 125). Whether our present notions of "happiness" have any meaning in this future is doubtful.
Wil McCarthy's "Citizens of the Galaxy" is informally written and exuberant in its speculation about humanity's constant search for increasingly powerful energy sources; rambunctious, dense fun. Welcome to programmable matter, which relies on moving electrons in materials so that their properties will be dynamically altered. And though modern cosmology predicts a final cold bleakness for the cosmos, McCarthy suggests that in this future, perhaps following suit of current observations on superconductors and supersolids, "the laws of physics themselves have condensed out as a superfluid rain" (p. 142) and quantum information storage may allow us immortality and a God-like assimilation of all knowledge and possibilities.
Where do we go from here?
The Rediscovery of Man
Robert Bradbury brings on the MBrains in his ambitious and energetic "Under Construction: Redesigning the Solar System." Looking back from the future and describing the colossal transitions our civilization will undergo in the past tense is a clever, effective way of dispelling skepticism. If we accept that matter may be viewed as software (as Harris has argued earlier), then our eventual fate could be to reconfigure the matter inside the Solar System into a computer of equivalent size, inside which may live our descendants. Why stop there? True technological civilizations may end up manufacturing helium stars, and even starlifting, removing matter directly from other stars. These engineering feats may enable Matrioshka Brains or MBrains, comprised of swarm-like, concentric, orbiting computronium shells that use solar sail-type materials to funnel and reflect the largest possible quantity of stellar energy. MBrains interact with one another and eventually reconfigure entire galaxies. Bradbury calls out the computational difference between an MBrain and a present-day human: "ten million billion times greater than the difference between a human and a tiny nematode worm (which is a mere billionfold difference)!" (p.164). Einstein, eat your heart out.
Brabury's essay is a busy one, worth multiple reads. Is it realistic to assume that propagation delays between MBrains of a KT-III civilization (that is, a civilization which according to the Kardashev scale which measures technological ability, is able to harness the entire power of one galaxy) would be confined to the speed of light? Contemporary physics already suggests wormholes and other uses for the quantum foam of spacetime that would render this type of limitation moot, as pointed out in other essays.
Pamela Sargent and Anne Corwin ask "Do You Want to Live Forever?" and tackle trends in longevity. The writing is transparent and comprehensive, and they anticipate reader's ethical and pragmatic objections and offer compelling, well-reasoned counterarguments. The authors' idea that "paradoxically, as our species matures we might have time to become childlike in the best sense of that word—open, curious, and receptive to whatever new delights the universe has to offer" (p. 210) is a substantial one, and other contributors, waxing eloquent in their descriptions of cyborgs ravishing planets for energy to expand their computational abilities, might have benefited from remembering it.
The Third Law
What means will we have of "Communicating with the Universe"? We just might get started, according to Amara D. Angelica, with the creation of an Interplanetary Internet (IPI), which NASA is currently planning, and which will mutate into a Universenet. Angelica makes a plausible case for faster-than-light signals through quantum entanglement and wormholes, and describes the usefulness of data spores, molecular switches that can store data on single atoms. For those of you who, like myself, have ever mused that it would be a real pain in civilization's posterior to lose all our accumulated knowledge and wisdom, fear not, for in what appears to be a genuine endeavor of preservation, the ARC (Alliance to Rescue Civilization) has been set up to create a backup drive on the Moon (presumably to coincide with NASA's return there in the 2020s). Once we have a Universenet, it may be connected via the exchange not of genes (units of inheritance) or memes (inheritable and transmittable ideas or behaviors subject to natural selection), but bemes, that is, units of being. And, even more radically, we may harness black holes as computational devices when we become increasingly savvy at using computronium. Though Angelica's essay reiterates familiar ideas, there is enough of a fresh slant to recommend it. Whether an interpretation of our bemes by remote machines would really recreate a person, rather than a noise-imperfect approximation of the original, is a reasonable question.
Rudy Rucker's zany "The Great Awakening" unleashes orphids, pervasive nanobots that will rely on quantum computing and be linked in an Orphidnet, an evolving network with its own spam filters and telepathy. Rucker's novel Postsingular and the forthcoming sequel Hylozoic make use of these concepts in fictional form. This type of AI will enable the merging of minds and effective IQs of 1,000. Rucker, in a welcome change of stance, argues against computronium, stating that it is a "spurious concept" (p. 237). If nothing is to be lost, as many claim, by a computronium-based VR existence, then it's also true that nothing will be gained. "After all, any object at all can be viewed as a quantum computation! The blade of grass already is an assemblage of nanomachines emulating a blade of grass" (p. 239). This is not a trivial criticism, and I would love to see a more elaborate version in the language of information theory. As an alternative, Rucker proposes the deliberately metaphysically-sounding Great Awakening. We may end up with "uplifted, awakened" natural minds, or silps. And if we're willing to concede tightly coiled extra dimensions in the very fabric of spacetime, as string theory posits, and we allow silps to tap into them, we could achieve telekinesis, teleportation and the transformation of thoughts into objects. Rucker's argument for teleportation seems vague, and a reach even by the standards of the preceding: human beings, unlike animals, are able to contemplate might-have-beens, and somehow this implies that we "spread out our wave functions in ways that other beings can't" (p. 249). It's hard to tell how much of this is meant seriously and how much as tongue-in-cheek, but perhaps it doesn't matter: Rucker provides elastic, daring ideas, and the ride is as entertaining as the destination. There are myriad prospects here of technology indistinguishable from magic, and magic indistinguishable from even more advanced magic!
Sean M. Carroll's "The Rise and Fall of Time" is a well-presented, competent summary of current theoretical physics; it highlights most of what we know, and most of what we don't. Unfortunately, it doesn't contain much far-ranging speculation, and is therefore at odds with other essays. To readers of lay science already familiar with the basics of complexity and entropy, the arrow of time, the problem of the hierarchies of scale of the forces/particles, and the accelerating expansion of the universe, it may prove somewhat disillusioning. The last few pages are the gem. Carroll hypothesizes that if our universe is part of a much broader multiverse (and he cautions us that this "idea has a long way to go before it becomes a respectable scientific theory" [p. 270], which almost feels like encouragement, given the context) perhaps it may be possible to artificially induce the birth of another baby universe. Could we one day thread new designer pockets of creation? What would the impact be to entropy? And what about the pesky energy and computation requirements which many essays so fondly emphasize?
Gregory Benford, who edited the anthology Far Futures (1995), a collection of SF glimpses into futures sometimes well beyond a million years, makes interesting connections between science and human emotion as he contemplates "The Final Dark." He identifies the theological impact that the idea of impermanence has had on notable thinkers—if nothing lasts, why believe in God?—like Bertrand Russell, and considers in some detail the implications of accelerating expansion: shrinking horizons, and the intrinsic limits to the size of any possible artifact or network that might be constructed. He also describes a long-standing debate between physicists that might be simplified as the analog/digital question. Benford's writing is captivating, peppered with funny quotes and irresistible tidbits, and one of his final thoughts, that time itself may be a "hominid illusion" (p. 284), raises fascinating questions.
Other pieces, which focus more on current understanding, are Dougal Dixon's reference-less "A Changing Earth" about a mostly unchanging Earth, Lisa Kaltenegger's study of "Life Among the Stars," about our search for extrasolar Earth-like planets, and Robin Hanson's "The Rapacious Hardscapple Frontier," an oddly dry application of evolutionary game-theory analysis to possible success strategies for far future colony seeds.
George Zebrowski's depiction of events "After the Stars Are Gone" is a curious one. According to the notes, it appears to be a condensed version of an unpublished novel, and the first section is written in dramatized exposition which I found largely impenetrable. Latter sections, drawing inspiration from sources as diverse as Kurt Godel's work and the mathematical process of renormalization in quantum field theory, jump from idea to idea. I found it unfortunate that this was the last piece, presenting at best a muted climax.
Something Wondrous This Way Comes
Year Million is occasionally undermined by its tendency to sidestep relevant philosophical questions through appeals to hyper-technological innovation. Nevertheless, it is a success in its primary visionary function. The writer's scenarios help to deconstruct the fundamentally uncritical canvas of the future painted by many popular entertainments in our culture, such as Star Trek, Star Wars and Battlestar Galatica. The references are valuable, but an index would have been even more helpful.
Year Million is not meant as a roadmap, but as a ripple in the phase space of all possible roadmaps: it contemplates doom and extinction as well as evolution into transcendence and the creation of new universes with the same unflinching, inquisitive eye. John Horgan, writing for the Wall Street Journal, describes Year Million as "fascinating but oddly dispiriting." I think that being depressed about the heat death of the universe may be missing the point, conforming to one's limitations rather than trying to truly gaze through wider lens. Greg Bear, in the June issue of Locus, writes that the book's extreme intellectual sport is "chilly, mind-expanding, and strangely exalting" and reminds us that "progress in imagination, after all, precedes all other forms." Bear gets it right.
These wondrous vistas challenge us to stretch our understanding of the real—and, beyond that, the possible, blurring all distinctions between the two. As it should be, in the Year Million.
Alvaro Zinos-Amaro grew up in Europe, mostly, and despite the advice of his betters he was crazy enough to earn a BS in Theoretical Physics and study creative writing. His fiction has appeared in Atomjack Magazine, Labyrinth Inhabitant Magazine and will appear in a forthcoming issue of Farrago's Wainscot. Alvaro's reviews of speculative fiction and poetry appear regularly at The Fix , and critical reviews and essays have also appeared in Fruitless Recursion and the Internet Review of Science Fiction. Visit him at his blog, Waiting for My Aineko.