Life as we know it

12 October 2013

Although life as we know it gets a lot of flack, I worry that we don't appreciate it enough and are too complacent about losing it.

As our "Spaceship Earth" blazes though cold and barren space, it both sustains and protects us. It's stocked with major but limited supplies of water, food and fuel. Its atmosphere keeps us warm and shielded from the Sun's harmful ultraviolet rays, and its magnetic field shelters us from lethal cosmic rays. Surely any responsible spaceship captain would make it a top priority to safeguard its future existence by avoiding asteroid collisions, on-board explosions, overheating, ultraviolet shield destruction, and premature depletion of supplies? Yet our spaceship crew hasn't made any of these issues a top priority, devoting (by my estimate) less than a millionth of its resources to them. In fact, our spaceship doesn't even have a captain!

Many have blamed this dismal performance on life as we know it, arguing that since our environment is changing, we humans need to change with it: we need to be technologically enhanced, perhaps with smartphones, smart glasses, brain implants, and ultimately by merging with super-intelligent computers. Does the idea of life as we know it getting replaced by more advanced life sound appealing or appalling to you? That probably depends strongly on the circumstances, and in particular on whether you view the future beings as our descendants or our conquerors.

If parents have a child who's smarter than them, who learns from them, and then goes out and accomplishes what they could only dream of, they'll probably feel happy and proud even if they know they can't live to see it all. Parents of a highly intelligent mass murderer feel differently. We might feel that we have a similar parent-child relationship with future AIs, regarding them as the heirs of our values. It will therefore make a huge difference whether future advanced life retains our most cherished goals.

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