Should We Rage, Rage Against the Dying of the Mites?

23 September 2016

Astronomers and philosophers both like big pictures, but they often have different measures in mind. Astronomers “go big” in space and time — philosophers do so in levels of abstraction from the mundane matters of everyday life. But when it comes to the question of the future of humanity, these dimensions coincide to a considerable extent.

We humans tend to think of ourselves as special, the culmination of the evolutionary tree. But that hardly seems credible to an astronomer, aware that although our Sun formed 4.5 billion years ago, it is barely in middle age. Any creatures witnessing the Sun’s demise six billion years hence won’t be human — they’ll be as different from us as we are from insects. Post-human evolution — here on Earth and far beyond — could be as prolonged as the Darwinian evolution that’s led to us, and even more wonderful. And of course, this evolution is even faster now - it’s happening on a technological timescale, driven by advances in genetics and in artificial intelligence, and thus far faster than natural selection.

In particular, few who seriously consider the issue would doubt that machines will eventually surpass more and more of our distinctively human capabilities — or enhance them via cyborg technology. Disagreements are basically about the timescale — the rate of travel, not the direction of travel. The cautious among us envisage timescales of centuries rather than decades for these transformations. Be that as it may, the timescales for technological advance are tiny compared to the timescales of the Darwinian selection that led to humanity’s emergence — and they are less than a millionth of the vast expanses of time lying ahead. So the outcomes of future technological evolution may surpass humans, intellectually speaking, by as much as we surpass a bug.

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