Future Humans

Image Credit / Nickolay Lamm

Image Credit / Nickolay Lamm

Humans evolved. We have been aware of this reality for 150 years, yet the implications are not apparent to most. What we have discovered about evolution is that it is A) not goal oriented and B) not hierarchical (i.e., there is no end state). This means that humans, as we currently exist, will not always exist.

Let me be clear before proceeding. This does not mean extinction is inevitable. But it does mean that our current form cannot persist indefinitely. We will change.

As a result of this knowledge, geneticist Dr. Alan Kwan and graphic designer Nickolay Lamm attempted to understand what we might look like in 20,000-100,000 years. Unfortunately for both individuals involved, their work is not science and should only be considered misleading science fiction.

Most biologists have a fantastic understanding of evolution (obviously). Biologists have revealed how the entire biosphere evolved. The theory of evolution by natural selection can explain in fantastic detail how a colony of the first replicating cells could diversify over time to produce endless forms most beautiful, including highly intelligent species like our own.

Despite the theory of evolution’s beautiful simplicity, clearly many people do not understand how it works at all. Evolution is a theory that can explain the history of organisms. Evolution can explain how things change. However, the theory is very rarely useful in predicting specific changes. From our knowledge of the history of biosphere, we can say some things about how a biosphere evolves, and therefore predict a few things about what we should suspect of the biosphere millions of years in the future. Evolutionary Biologist Richard Dawkins expounded on this quite well recently:

Evolution is very seldom in the business of predicting what is going to happen in a million years time. What I would say is that if you asked me what life is going to look like in say, ten million years or twenty million years, […] what there will be is a whole lot of different species doing pretty much the same thing as the present species are, but they’ll all be different. […] What you can predict is that there will be a similar range of species, doing a similar range of things, and that’s a fascinating thought.

Of course I agree with Dawkins main point, which is that we now understand how a biosphere is likely to change, even if we can’t say anything specifically about any one organism. We understand how a biosphere changes given the existence of certain traits like vision, hearing, echolocation, etc.

However, where I would perhaps disagree with Dawkins is that his analysis does not account for intelligence. Intelligence is here now. The Earth has a nervous system. Presently, that is our species: Homo sapiens. Intelligence is a game changer for evolution and it is a game changer for the biosphere. In the history of life on Earth, no intelligent species has ever created technology that itself evolves. As a result, we have no idea what the biosphere will look like over millions of years, given the presence of high intelligence. Anyone who tells you differently is lying.

This is fundamentally why the research done by Alan Kwan and Nickolay Lamm is wrong. But they are wrong for two other important reasons as well:

1) Conventional evolutionary mechanisms for change do not effect our species. For example, all species are subject to the law of natural selection. In all species that have ever existed most individuals did not survive long enough to reproduce. Differential non-random survival produced change over long spans of time. However humans are lifting themselves from natural selection because most people live long enough to reproduce. The mechanisms for change that will take natural selections place will be self-imposed through genetic engineering. This means that we will still be changing, but that change will literally be intelligent. Ironically, we will be intelligently designing ourselves. Although it is possible for me to posit this will occur, it is literally impossible for me to say what humans 500 or 1,000 years hence choose to change about their genetic makeup.

2) Technological evolution is speeding up, which is going to make biological evolution near irrelevant. All other species are subject to biological evolutionary processes that take tens of thousands of years (at least) to make considerable genomic changes. However, technological evolution (which is driven by culture) changes on yearly timescales. And that process is only getting faster. In the next 100 years we will likely witness more technological evolution than perhaps all of previous human history combined. How humans in only the next 100 years decide to fundamentally alter their form is debatable and realistically speaking, approaches unknowability. Many theories posit that the human form in 100 years will be primarily cyborg or robotic. It seems probable to me. But not 100% knowable.

Are we starting to see why predicting what we will look like in 100,000 years is ridiculous?

In the end, there is an important lesson to learn from the work of Dr. Kwan and Nickolay Lamm. First, it is important to acknowledge that the human form has not always appeared as it currently does. Second, that form will continue to change, and although we can gauge some type of directionality to that change, it is impossible to say what change will occur on the scales of deep time. Finally, we need to acknowledge that the human species is different than any life that has come before in the history of Earth. As I stated above, biologists have a good understanding of how life has evolved over the past 4 billion years. But we have no idea how life evolves given high intelligence. Therefore, we cannot predict what the biosphere will look like on the scales of deep time if we include the variable of intelligence. And we definitely can’t predict specific anatomical, physical, or genetic changes that may occur within our species.

Understanding human evolution is a science. We must make sure that when we discuss human evolution, both in the past and in contemporary times, that we focus on what is knowable. Attempting to understand what is probable in the next 100 years is in the realm of science. It is a maturing predictive science, but it is still science. In contrast, attempting to understand what will happen in the next 100,000 is impossible. It is science fiction.

What do you think about the future of human evolution?  Let Cadell know on Twitter!

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Infinite Boltzmann Brains

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I have finally encountered an idea that is too mind boggling for me to really comprehend. Unsurprisingly, it is from the world of theoretical physics. In a recent paper published in Physics Review D string theorists Claire Zukowski and Raphael Bousso explore the idea of Boltzmann brains.

Boltzmann brains are hypothesized self-aware (conscious) entities that are produced from random fluctuations in the fabric of spacetime. That just means that stochastic fluctuations in the level of entropy (disorder) in the universe could theoretically produce something complex (i.e., a self-aware entity) if given enough time. Apparently brains can theoretically blink into existence.

Physicist Ludwig Boltzmann first demonstrated that this was mathematically probable in the 19th century.

Fortunately for Boltzmann, dominant cosmological models today allow enough time for his brains. Current models suggest that our universe will produce Boltzmann brains post Black Hole Era, before the universe decays out of existence.

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Image Credit / Wikipedia

Boltzmann brains are a serious paradox for physicists to explain away. If there is enough time remaining in the life of the universe for essentially infinite number of Boltzmann brains to come into existence, our subjective experience of the universe will be highly unusual. We perceive the universe to have a directionality, or an “arrow of time” and all of our understanding of the physical laws derive from this observation. But if the experience of Boltzmann brains is the usual experience then we must question the universality of our physical theories. This is because in a post “Black Hole Era” universe there will be no distinguishable past and future; there will be no arrow of time.

Zukowski and Bousso are working to resolve this insane paradox. Zukowski stated:

It has to be more likely to be an ordinary observer than a Boltzmann brain

They believe that we have to rely on string theory to resolve the paradox. String theorists believe that our universe is just one of an infinite number of universes within a larger multiverse. In this multiverse, universes are constantly budding off of parent universes and inflating over time. Zukowski and Bousso contend that in this framework there are more universes with a discernible arrow of time than universes without (i.e., more universes decay before the appearance of Boltzmann brains than the opposite situation). This would mean experience like our own, with a discernible arrow of time, should be the dominant experience in the multiverse.

Obviously, this is all theoretical. The multiverse itself has not been empirically demonstrated, and is but one of several competing theories to describe the conditions that caused the big bang.

I suppose it is reassuring to know that if the multiverse does exist, it may not be overrun wit Boltzmann brains that have no concept of entropy?

As bizarre as this is to think about, it is too much for me to comprehend for evolutionary reasons. First, I have no idea how the trillions of atoms that create our conscious experience could possibly assemble randomly, even if given infinite time. Second, how strange would it be to have no concept of the arrow of time? To not have a temporal lineage with which to trace your own existence? You just exist, seemingly out of nowhere. You would have no baring on any direction at all. No possible way to understand your origin. A consciousness produced from nothing.

I’ll clarify that I am not saying the math is wrong. I am not qualified to say. Clearly if it is being taken seriously by physicists the math is something to be concerned about. And incredulity is not a good enough reason to doubt the possibility of such entities. If it is theoretically possible, so be it. I’m just saying it is an idea too bizarre for me to really grasp. I don’t think I’ve encountered a stranger idea.

Thanks physics.

What do you think of Boltzmann brains?  Let Cadell know on Twitter.

Redefining The Singularity

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The technological singularity has quickly become one of the most controversial concepts. It represents a theoretical future period in time when superintelligence emerges through technological means. During a recent conference on the future of artificial intelligence (A.I.) futurist Anders Sandberg proposed that this concept has three major commonalities:

  • accelerating change
  • prediciton horizon
  • intelligence explosion

The term was popularized by computer scientist Vernor Vinge in 1993. He recently expounded on the creation of the concept and the reasoning behind it:

the spectacular feature of A.I. was not making something as smart as a human, but creating minds that were more intelligent than humans. That would be a different type of technological advance. That would change the thing that is the top creative element in technological progress, and since it would be beyond human intelligence, there is a certain unknowability about what would happen beyond that point. Therefore, I came up with the metaphor with the singularity as it is used with blackholes in general relativity reflecting this fact that there is not much information you can imagine beyond the point in time when super-human intelligence comes into place.

Several theorists have hypothesized about how the singularity will happen, when it will happen, and how it will change human nature. In 2007, artificial intelligence expert Ben Goertzel published a paper in Artificial Intelligence outlining the main scenarios proposed by futurists thus far. They included everything from a Sysop scenario where a highly powerful benevolent A.I. effectively becomes a “system operator” to a Skynet scenario where A.I. is created, improves itself, and malevolently enslaves or annihilates humanity. I am definitely most closely aligned with the Kurzweilian scenario. I believe that humanity will create advanced A.I. that can create better, more advanced A.I. However, I also believe that we will intimately merge with technology. By the end of this process humanity will essentially be post-biological in nature. I suspect that it will not be an abrupt or particularly chaotic transition. It will happen gradually over the span of decades (in some ways it has already started happening).

Either way, I am writing this post because I would like to start an important discussion on the term “singularity.” Although I have referred to myself as a “singultarian” and count myself as a Kurzweilian-defender, I find the term singularity problematic. As Vinge stated the term singularity is used to suggest unknowability beyond a certain technological event horizon. However, I posit that this “technological event horizon” is not an actual future reality. I believe that there will come a time when humans are no longer the “top creative element of technological progress” but a “singularity” will not happen. What I mean is that if we keep using the term “singularity” it may start to metaphorically resemble the carrot and stick idiom:

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If humans start artificially enhancing their own intelligence in the 2030s and developing relationships with advanced A.I., the approaching decades (e.g., 2040s-2050s) currently predicted to play host to the singularity will start to become clearer to us than they currently are (i.e. they will not be a technological singularity).

Vernor Vinge has admitted this much stating that:

If you became one of the supersmart creatures, things would not be any more unintelligible to you than the current world is to un-enhanced humans.

Furthermore, we cannot remain intellectually comfortable with the term singularity if we are starting to make predictions of a post-singularity world. Several futurists, including Ray Kurzweil, have already started proposing probable post-singularity developments. But making these predictions completely contradicts the metaphorical validity of the term. If the singularity metaphor proved useful we should find ourselves facing a literal information blackhole. But I don’t think that is what we find ourselves facing.

As a futurist, I feel like we need a new term to better describe what we mean when we say technological singularity. I do not yet know what term would fit best. The term “infinitely self-generating technology” has a nice ring to it. However, I can already think of a host of reasons why that term is problematic.

What do you think?  Let Cadell know on Twitter!

3D Printing Is Here

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Last week my friend and I had an interesting discussion on the nature of “revolutions”. We both agree that when historians look back at our era (1990-2010) they will say that we were living through the “internet revolution.” However, did it feel like we lived through a revolution? Well, even though the internet fundamentally changed everything we do, the transition to a world built around the internet didn’t feel like a revolution to me. It just sort of felt normal. Of course, part of that has to do with my age (I’m 26 so I grew up with the revolution). However, this brings up an interesting aspect of revolution: we seem to impose revolution on the past. We construct the narrative of revolution.

Take for example the two most famous historical revolutions: the agricultural and the industrial. For someone living through either revolution, they would not have known they were actually living through what we now see as a significant turning point in the narrative of human existence. In fact, both of those revolutions happened at imperceptibly slow paces compared to the internet revolution. The agricultural revolution diffused so slowly that it developed in five different geographic regions independently. The industrial revolution only had one diffusion center, however its global spread took centuries. The internet revolution arguably took about 10-20 years (even though some would argue it won’t be complete until the end of this decade when almost every human will be online and connected).

But I digress.

Last week I wrote a post explaining that we should anticipate a robot revolution in the 2020s-2030s that will change the world more than the internet did between 1990-2010. However, before I get ahead of myself, I think we should also realize that we are the cusp of an equally revolutionary moment in history right now: the 3D printing revolution.

Before you accuse me of using the word revolution too liberally, let me first list the developments in the world of 3D printing this year:

These are all things that have happened this year and it is only April! Is it safe to say that 2013 is going to be remembered as the year of the 3D printer? Actually, maybe it will be remembered for the introduction to 4D printing

In 1999, Ray Kurzweil explained that dynamic systems evolve exponentially. He called this type of evolution the Law of Accelerating Returns (you can read more about this law here). The Law of Accelerating Returns has profound implications for the future of technological evolution, especially when applied to something like 3D printing. However, I don’t think you have to be a technological evolution expert to understand that the human future will be fundamentally transformed by 3D printing.

From my perspective all the developments in 3D printing this year indicate that we are on the cusp of a revolution. What does our world look like when manufacturing becomes decentralized? Many experts predict that affordable, easy-to-use 3D printers will be in peoples homes in 10-20 years. These printers could be used for replacing spare parts, making food/meals, creating clothing, furniture, cars … organs?

Many 3D printing enthusiasts propose that you will only be constrained by your own imagination. Check out the 3Doodler as an example of the type of creative products that will emerge over the next few decades.

This decentralization of manufacturing will almost certainly change the global economy in ways that are hard to predict. Will there be jobs for anyone in the manufacturing sector? What type of value will physical objects have when production is inexpensive? How will 3D printing (and advanced Watson-like A.I.) transform hospitals? Will individual people be able to create established companies that required hundreds of people to build in the past (e.g., automobile, clothing companies, etc.).

We also need to contemplate more sinister sides to this revolution. How will we protect biological information? Will someone be able to manufacture and print a deadly virus or bacterium? What about the possibility of an individual 3D printing weapons of mass destruction?

I think the developments in 3D printing this year force us all to contemplate questions like this (both positive and negative). In terms of the future of manufacturing, we may get a glimpse of what this revolution will look like if we analyze what is happening in media today. I feel as though the internet revolution decentralized media mediums, enabling individuals to build their own empires. Bora Zivkovic brilliantly explored the dynamics of this transition well in a recent Scientific American article on science writing:

[In the 20th century] very few people could afford to own printing presses, radio and TV studios, etc. Running all that complicated equipment required technical expertise and professional training. Thus media became locked up in silos, hierarchical, broadcast-only with little-to-none (and then again centrally controlled) means for feedback. There was a wealthy, vocal minority that determined what was news, and how to frame it, and the vast majority was consuming the news in silence. Today, all one needs is some source of electricity (e.g., a small battery in your smartphone) and some means of accessing the Internet. The act of publishing is reduced to clicking on the “Publish” button. Yes, this still leaves some people out of the media, especially in the developing countries, but compared to just twenty years ago, vastly larger numbers of people now have access to the means of production of news. The obstacles to access – money, technical skills for running the machinery – are now much, much lower, almost free. This turns everything on its head! Silos are breaking down, economics of media are severely disrupted, former gatekeepers are squealing in distress, old hierarchies are broken down (and replaced by new hierarchies), and now everyone has to learn new “media hygiene” practices: who to trust, how to filter the information, how to organize it for one’s self. The new ecosystem now contains both the traditional outlets and the individuals, “people formerly known as the audience“, as equal players.

There are several examples of dominant media outlets today that would not have been possible before the internet revolution. I feel as though we will be able to say the same about automobile, clothing, computer, robotics, biotech companies, etc. in the 2030s. So if you are in business (or want to get into business), understanding how the Law of Accelerating Returns applies to the 3D printing industry could be very helpful.

I’ll end by adding that my roommate (who is in business) always tells me that the worlds of science and business don’t communicate enough. I agree, but when I study chimpanzee behaviour or the future of exoplanet detection there may not be any relevance to the business world. However, people who study technological evolution can definitely help inform those in business (and vice versa). So if you are interested in learning more about what some leading theorists think about how next few decades of technological change will transform business (and our planet), check out this panel discussion hosted by Big Think.

How do you think 3D printing will change our world?  Let Cadell know on Twitter

Also posted via Svtble:

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Intelligent Life in the Milky Way

Over the past few years astronomers have been making considerable progress on estimating the number of Earth-like planets we should expect within our own galaxy. The most recent study by a team of astronomers at the University of Auckland claim that there are approximately 100 billion. This estimate increases the likely number of Earth-like planets by 82 billion. A study published by astronomers from Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in January posited that there were approximately 17 billion Earth-like planets. In my opinion, I think the 100 billion estimate is probably more reliable. The study produced by the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics collected data from measuring dimming of planets orbital periods, whereas the study produced from the University of Auckland collected data from gravitational microlensing. Gravitational microlensing is a more effective method for finding smaller planets with Earth-like orbital periods.

However, whether there are approximately 17 or 100 billion Earth-like planets in the Milky Way (or more) the important point is that astronomers now have reason to believe that there are a ton of Earth-like planets. This definitely puts a previously contentious issue to rest in the world of astronomy. In the 1990s and 2000s we had very little to no idea how common Earth-like planets would be. Obviously, these data have tremendous implications for our search of extraterrestrial intelligent life. As a result, these data raise some of the biggest questions we can ask as a species. And in this post, I would like to analyze them.

In short: if we now know that there are several billions of Earth-like planets in our galaxy alone, why is it so quiet out there?

Possibility 1. We are the first

Our universe is 13.82 billion years old. That is a long time. However, our universe has not been habitable for this period of time. The universe has gone through stages of development that astronomers and cosmologists understand fairly well. Throughout the early stages of this development life could not have existed. Furthermore, the first galaxies and star systems were composed of stars that were much larger, less stable, and had shorter lifespans than second and third generation galaxies and star systems. This has important implications for the search for intelligent life because although we have only one case example of how life evolves (that would be us!) I still feel that it is a reliable indicator that biological evolutionary processes require billions of years to produce highly complex life forms. If that is a valid assumption of the time scales required for biological evolution to produce complex life forms then the first galaxies and star systems would not have been ideal candidates for the development of intelligent life. Many of the early stars lasted for 10-100 million years. Complex life requires stable star systems that last for billions of years.

Our Milky Way galaxy is approximately 8 billion years old. If life requires at least 2-4 billion years to produce highly complex life it is still plausible that many planets in our galaxy possess complex life forms and healthy biospheres. However, we also know from our one known case example of life that intelligent life is very rare. Trillions of multi-cellular species have inhabited our planet. Only 1 has evolved meta-awareness and the ability to understand the processes that allowed for its existence. Again, if this is characteristic of biological evolution we should expect most Earth-like planets (that remain stable for more than 1 billion years) to produce a biosphere with no self-aware intelligent species. If this is the case, it is definitely plausible that we are the first (at least in the Milky Way).

How plausible do I think this situation is? I actually think it is highly plausible. Selection for high intelligence is rare in nature. Brains are the most expensive organs. The Milky Way may have billions of biospheres, but only 1 biosphere with an intelligent civilization.

Possibility 2. Intelligent Civilizations have a short life span

Our civilization is very young on the scale of deep time. To accurately conceptualize how young we must turn to the Cosmic Calendar. If the entire history of the universe were conceptualized within one calendar year, modern, sedentary, agricultural human civilization would arrive 13 seconds before New Year’s Eve on December 31st. In this astonishingly short period of time we have completely transformed our planet, landed on another celestial object, and started to explore our solar system with robots. This pace of change is accelerating. If the cultural and technological evolutionary processes that have enabled us to do this are characteristic of intelligent species, we should suspect intelligent civilizations to develop very quickly on galactic scales. We should also suspect them to be very loud. Already, within barely a century of using global communications technology our radio waves have reached hundreds of other star systems (check out a this brilliant atlas depicting the extent of our radio emissions).

I am trying to emphasize an important point here. If intelligent civilizations are common and develop on many Earth-like planets, they must have short life spans because we have not heard them yet. As Ross Anderson of Aeon Magazine has pointed out: “no impressive feats of macro-engineering shine out from our galaxy’s depths.” But if intelligent civilizations develop often and have long life spans (on scales of deep time) we should expect to see such feats of macro-engineering. Could it be that intelligent civilizations have very short life spans?

Robin Hanson of The Future of Humanity Institute believes that there must be a “great filter” between the development of life and a galactic-sized civilization. He suspects that if microbial life is very common in the universe (which it probably is), then the great filter must be between a civilization like ours and a larger-scale multiple star-system civilization.

How plausible do I think this situation is? Actually, I don’t think this is the most plausible situation. I think that once a civilization like ours exists it would take an extreme catastrophe to eradicate it entirely. Almost all potential natural disasters that could erase a civilization like our own would not cause complete extinction. And complete extinction is what would be necessary to prevent further development of our species on the scale of deep time. Perhaps I am being naive regarding this assertion. There may be some great filter and maybe it is the development of nuclear arms. Maybe it is the development of advanced nanotechnology and A.I. Maybe it is something that will exist in a century or two. However, at the moment I think it is more plausible to suspect that intelligent civilizations are rare with long life spans, as opposed to common with short life spans.

Possibility 3. Space Expansion Hypothesis incorrect; Transcension Hypothesis correct

For a long-time many astronomers, cosmologists, and futurists assumed that the natural trajectory for an intelligent civilization was expansion into space. In my opinion this is a foolish assumption. Of course it is possible (in fact plausible) that expansion is the natural tendency for intelligent civilizations like our own. However, we cannot discount the possibility that intelligent civilizations do not expand; they transcend. This hypothesis posits that the reason we do not see any “impressive feats of macro-engineering” in space is because intelligent civilizations turn inwards. Intelligent civilizations may start to compress space, time, energy, and matter (STEM compression) to the point that virtual minds inhabit nano-scales (as opposed to minds inhabiting the macro-scale). Eventually this compression should lead to the ability to exploit the extra-dimensions of space, and perhaps allow intelligent civilizations to escape this universe into a different (or neighbouring) one. If you would like to read an article by the futurist who proposed transcension: read this. If you would like a quick video explaining the idea: watch this.

At the moment the Transcension Hypothesis is quite controversial and untested. To many the ideas seems ludicrous. But many ideas seem radical when they are first proposed. John Smart, who proposed the hypothesis, believes that if Transcension is the fate of intelligent civilizations, we should suspect mini black holes in the habitable rings of spiral galaxies. These mini black holes would be the remnants of “transcended civilizations.” If true, this would certainly explain Fermi’s Paradox and account for the eerie silence.

How plausible do I think this scenario is? To me, this is the most difficult one to make a firm conclusion on. At the moment, I am still convinced that the Space Expansion Hypothesis is correct. But I do not want to assume that it is correct. In the future we may find out more about how intelligent civilizations evolve. If the technological singularity is a “thing” (which I’m pretty sure it is) then we have no clue what our civilization will look like in 100, 200, or 500 years. We may explode into space, or we may explode into the nanoscale. Either way, at the moment I’m going to say that we should suspect robotic expansion to be the expected trajectory of intelligent civilizations. So this would make both possibilities 1 and 2 more plausible.

Possibility 4. Intelligent Life Ignores Us

Arthur C. Clarke famously stated that: “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Certainly that is true. It would literally be unimaginable for someone 200 years ago to conceive of a smart phone (for example). If there are intelligent civilizations out there (perhaps Type II or III or even IV level civilizations), then they would certainly possess technologies and produce patterns that were impossible for us to imagine. This raises two possibilities:

A) If they wished to remain invisible to us then they could certainly achieve that goal.

B) They could produce patterns that we are unable to detect or recognize.

In situation A) they could know we exist and not care. Or they could know we exist and wish to just observe us from a distance and see what we do. Whatever a civilization (Types II-IV) like this wanted to do they could.

In situation B) organizations like SETI are just unable to detect the types of signals or recognize the types of patterns produced by advanced civilizations. This is an intriguing possibility to me. Consider the fact that we do not know what most of the universe is composed of (e.g., dark matter and energy). If we can’t even understand all natural patterns and phenomena in the universe, why should we suspect to be able to detect patterns and phenomena of advanced galactic civilizations?

How likely do I think these scenarios are? I think that any opinion on these scenarios can only be made by a gut reaction or perhaps a marginally educated guess. I personally think both situations are unlikely. I will say that I think situation A) is more unlikely than situation B). I think it is more likely that advanced civilizations are doing things that we can’t detect. I don’t think there is some advanced Milky Way federation of civilizations that are observing us from a distance. Finally, I will add that I think possibilities 1, 2, and 3 are more likely than these possibilities.

Possibility 5. Faster-than-light travel is impossible

The final possibility is that the universe has a speed limit and there is no way to get around this speed limit. If this is the case then expansion into space makes very little sense and intelligent civilizations would give up on this idea. Instead they simply continue to inhabit their home planet until global catastrophe eradicates them (whether that be self-inflicted or natural).

Of course, light travels very quickly. In fact, light travels so quickly that it can circle our planet 7 times in 1 second. However, even if an intelligent civilization developed a space craft that could travel this quickly, it would still take 4 years to travel to the nearest star system. Developing a civilization connected over these distances would not be feasible, especially when you consider that our galaxy is 100,000 light years across. However, I suppose it would be possible under this scenario for civilizations to expand and disperse. There could be rings of civilizations that diffuse outwards to new planets and then remain disconnected from one another (or very loosely connected — perhaps tweeting back and forth every couple hundred years).

How plausible do I think this situation is? I actually think this is the least likely of all the scenarios. We are not even a Type I civilization and we have already proposed several theoretical models that explore the possibility of faster-than-light speed travel. A few of these ideas include wormholes and the Alcubierre drive. Wikipedia has great articles on both if you want to learn more about them. My point is simply that just because we currently have a poor (or limited) understanding of how to circumvent the speed-of-light we should not expect a more advanced civilization to find this problem insurmountable. I would not be so foolish as to claim it impossible that speed-of-light really is an impossible speed limit to pass. However, I think it is unlikely to be. I think it is a problem that an intelligent civilization could solve if given enough time.

Implications of 100 Billion

The implications of 100 billion Earth-like planets in our galaxy is profound (it may have even more profound implications for the universe as a whole). The knowledge that Earth-like planets are abundant forces us to confront big questions about extraterrestrial life. The point of this article was to explore these questions with some level of depth. I believe that everyone’s opinion on what the implications are will be slightly different. In my opinion, current evidence presents us with five potential scenarios for advanced intelligent life. In this article I have tried to rank them from 1-5 (with 1 being the most probable and 5 being the least probable).

  1. We are the first (at least in our galaxy)
  2. Intelligent civilizations have a short span
  3. Space Expansion Hypothesis incorrect; Transcension Hypothesis correct
  4. Intelligent life ignores us
  5. Faster-than-light travel is impossible

What do you think?

Did you like this article?  Let Cadell know on Twitter!

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No Population Bomb

I frequently meet people who think that overpopulation will lead to some future disaster (i.e., a “population bomb”).  This is frustrating mostly because fear mongering about overpopulation has been a favourite past-time of many academics for more than two centuries now.  The two most famous examples of overpopulation fear mongering came from Thomas Malthus in the 19th century and Paul Ehrlich in the 20th century.  Both academics predicted global catastrophes at dates that have come and gone without humans surpassing carrying capacity.

These scholars were not necessarily bad scientists or not properly employing the scientific method.  The human population has been growing exponentially since 1650 – the longest period of exponential population growth for any organism… ever.  As ecologists and biologists know, strongly r-selected species that experience exponential population growth for even a few years reach their carrying capacity and then experience a population collapse.  Malthus and Ehrlich reasoned that this was bound to happen to us as well.

The mistake of both Malthus and Ehrlich was that they didn’t realize that humans are a strongly K-selected species and the cause of our exponential growth was a-typical (i.e., human ingenuity enabled us to continually raise the carrying capacity by improving medicine, health, and agricultural practices).  But if Malthus and Ehrlich are wrong, does anyone have a better understanding of the future of our population?  Can our population keep exploding exponentially?

First off, several population models have been constructed over the past two decades, and they provide us with interesting data.  But perhaps the most insightful study was recently published by a team of Spanish mathematicians at the Autonomous University of Madrid.  They modelled human population trends from 1900 to 2010.  This enabled them to extrapolate these trends and make predictions for the future.  They concluded that the world population would stop growing by mid-century (2050) at around ~8-9 billion individuals.  This prediction is in line with the majority of the United Nations low-estimate projections for future population growth.

These researchers were able to make such firm predictions because of important trends in population growth that many people may be unaware of.  For example, although the human population reached 7 billion recently, the growth rate peaked in 1963 (2.2% growth) and has been slowing ever since (in 2011 it was 1.1%).  Also, the total annual birth rate peaked in the 1980s and has been declining ever since.  And finally countries in the developed world are already at (or below) replacement level fertility levels (2.33 children per woman).  In fact, the global population itself is quickly reaching replacement level fertility levels (which explains why growth rates and total annual birth rates are declining) (figure below).

What is causing population growth to slow?

Our species is not slowing down population growth because we are reaching carrying capacity.  We are slowing down population growth because of education, gender equality, the rural-to-urban transition, and birth control.

Human growth rate is directly correlated with affluence.  The richer a country becomes the slower their population grows.  This is because affluent countries provide better education for both men and women.  When women are educated they are freed to participate in society and build careers (as opposed to being career mothers).  Women in developed affluent countries tend to have 2-3 children (or 0-1 children) as opposed to 5-10 children.  In fact, even in developed countries, the trend for women to have fewer and fewer children may be continuing.  As a result, it would not surprise me if fertility levels were well below 2 and approaching 1 in many developed countries by the 2030s.  And as countries throughout the world modernize and develop, equal access to education for females should continue to spread.

Another major cause of the slower population growth is the rural-to-urban transition.  In 1900 every country had a predominantly rural population.  In rural areas farming is the dominant (if not only) way to make a living.  This mode of production provides children with an important function: they can work the farm.  As a result, there is an economic incentive to have children.  However, children are very expensive in urban settings, and they are never an economic benefit because they are in school until they can provide for themselves.  This always leads to family size decreasing in urban settings. And urbanization as a global process is not going to be stopped.  Even conservative estimates suspect that 60% of the world’s population will be living in cities by 2030.  The U.N. projects that it will be around 70% by 2050 (again, that is a conservative estimate).   Considering that countries in the developed world have already urbanized, the majority of these rural-to-urban migrations will be in the developing world (figure below).

Finally, the invention of (and cheap and easy access to) birth control is something that changed the Western world forever.  Once women were able to gain more control over their own reproduction family size started to decrease.  There were fewer unwanted/unplanned children.  That is why providing cheap and easy access to birth control world wide is so important.  Combined with female education and rapid urbanization, these forces will allow all countries to join the developed countries with a fertility level of 2.3 (or lower).

Of course, all of this (equal access to education for females and continued rapid urbanization leading to decreased global fertility) is all dependent on current rates of economic development in the developed world.  Without raising the standard of living for the global population, the population trends observed today will reverse.  And in order to ensure that the developing world’s economic growth continues, we must ensure that we transition to a new energy economy and avoid major nation-state wars.

Statistician Hans Rosling has calculated that all of these scenarios are probable.  I agree.  If current economic development trends continue we should expect the average person’s income in India and China (for example) to reach the same levels of the U.K., U.S.A., and Japan by 2048.  Check out Rosling’s TED talk on this: Asia’s rise – how and when.  Also, as Peter Diamandis and Elon Musk have pointed out, a transition to a new energy economy is highly probable and will likely happen over the next 20 years.  This transition (from fossil fuels to predominantly solar) will not only provide us with clean and renewable energy, but also more abundant and cheaper energy.  Finally, as Steven Pinker explained in his recent book The Better Angels of Our Nature, we are living in the most peaceful time in human history.  There have been no developed world nation state wars since 1945.  I believe this trend should continue.

All of this makes it highly probable that between now (2013) and 2050 global population will plateau.  Equal access to education for females and rapid urbanization will lead the way.  The trends are clear: the more educated women are and the more urbanized populations are, the smaller their family size.  So long as current economic development trends continue, a transition to new energy is fulfilled, and developed world state-conflict remains non-existent, those social trends driving reduced fertility will also continue.

Due to all of the factors involved in this population transition, it may seem like an unlikely situation.  But the key is that all of these trends are very strong and well under way. It would take an extreme reversal of current trends for population not to stabilize.  That is why the global population researchers from the Autonomous University of Madrid were able to make such a strong conclusion from their mathematical models about our future population decline.

All this means that on the scale of hundreds of years our population growth may actually look like a very steep sigmoidal curve.  But of course, in 2050 our planet and species will look very different than it currently is.  There is a limit to what our models can predict about the future population.  It could be that the human population plateaus and stabilizes.  However, in a world with more energy, more geopolitical stability, advanced A.I., and a larger extraterrestrial presence, our species demographics may begin to change in unexpected ways.  For now, we may simply be relieved that Malthus and Ehrlich were wrong.  We will not encounter a population bomb.

What are your thoughts on overpopulation?  Share them with Cadell on Twitter!

Also posted via Svbtle:

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Our Past (and Future) With Supervolcanoes

Thoughts on the Future (pt. 1)

Our Past (and Future) With Supervolcanoes

As I have stated before, fewer potential civilization-ending natural disasters exist today when compared to our evolutionary past.  For example, before we emerged from sub-Saharan Africa 100,000 years ago, an earthquake, tsunami, volcano, famine, or even animal competition could have ended the human experiment.  Today, those risks may be locally disruptive, but they do not threaten collective human existence.

But we must remember that there are rare natural events that should still be considered major threats: asteroids and supervolcanoes.  Our species has never had to deal with a major encounter with an asteroid, but surprisingly, we have some experience with supervolcanoes.  Consequently, by studying how supervolcanoes have affected our species in the past, we may be able to gain a better understanding of their likely impact in the future.

Lake Ilopango Eruption

Recently, I interviewed University of Texas paleoecologist Dr. Robert Dull to discuss supervolcanoes.  Dr. Dull studies climate change on millennial scales of time and has recently discovered evidence that a major volcanic eruption occurred around 536 C.E. at Lake Ilopango in modern day El Salvador.  According to Dull, the Lake Ilopango eruption significantly affected Mayan civilization during the Classic Period and represents the likely culprit of extreme global weather events in 536-537 C.E.

From Dull’s initial research, the 6th century volcanic eruption in El Salvador approached VEI 7 status.  The pyroclastic flow from a blast of this magnitude would have destroyed an area 2,000 square km in size.  Dull conservatively estimates from the population density of this area during the 6th century that this eruption would have directly killed 40,000-80,000 individuals.

But the effects of the Lake Ilopango eruption go far beyond the initial blast.  Although more research is necessary, Dull reveals that a lot changed after 536 C.E.:

“Some people lost out and some benefitted. Some cities flourish after this event. All cities were covered in ash, but some had only about 1 cm of ash. I believe that there must have been refugee movement to largely unaffected cities in the north.”

It will be interesting to see what future research reveals about how Maya society changed after 536.  However, Dull believes this eruption affected more than just local Mesoamerican stability. It may have also caused nearly two years of extreme weather throughout the Northern Hemisphere.

The extreme weather events of 536-537 C.E. is one of the largest historical and paleoecological mysteries.  Throughout Eurasia several written records chronicle the events:

“The sun became dark and its darkness lasted for one and a half years… Each day it shone for about four hours and still this light was only a feeble shadow…the fruits did not ripen and the wine tasted like sour grapes.”

— Michael the Syrian

“For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during this whole year, and it seemed exceedingly like the sun in eclipse, for the beams it shed were not clear nor such as it is accustomed to shed.”

— Procopius

“…the sun began to be darkened by day and the moon by night, while ocean was tumultuous with spray, from the 24th of March in this year till the 24th of June in the following year… and the following winter in Mesopotamia was so bad from the large and unwonted quantity of snow the birds perished.”

— Unknown Syrian

“So we have had a winter without storms, spring without mildness, summer without heat.”

— Cassiodorus

“If the sun becomes dim because the air is dense from rising moisture—as happened in [536/537] for nearly a whole year…so that produce was destroyed because of the bad time—it predicts heavy trouble in Europe.”

— John Lydos

Dendrochronological records from Eurasia and South America also show slow growth during these years, which indicates poor growing seasons.

Dull believes that the 18 months of Northern Hemisphere darkness was caused by a global dust vale ejected from Lake Ilopango.  If true, this would be the second time in the last 2,000 years that a volcanic eruption prevented summer.  Dull notes that:

“The Indonesian Tambora eruption in 1815 is the best analogue to Ilopango. They were eruptions that shook the world and produced similar effects. In the case of Tambora it caused a year without summer. In the case of Ilopango it caused the years without summer.”

Can this tell us anything about the future?

Perhaps the most frightening aspect of supervolcanic eruptions are their inevitability.  If our species plans on sticking it out long-term on planet Earth, we will encounter a supervolcanic eruption.  Both Ilopango and Tambora were technically VEI-7 eruptions (or close to VEI-7 eruptions).  In the short-term, their impact was locally devastating and globally disruptive.  However, neither significantly threatened the existence of our species.  Would a VEI-8 eruption be that much worse?

Category 7 eruptions eject about 100 cubic kilometers of volcanic ash.  Category 8 eruptions eject 1000+ cubic kilometers of volcanic ash.  This difference is significant.  Whereas category 7 eruptions have devastating short-term impacts on local and global climate, category 8 eruptions pose serious long-term challenges.

Lake Toba Eruption

Surprisingly, modern humans have encountered a VEI-8 eruption before.  Approximately 74,000 years ago Lake Toba in Indonesia erupted and ejected 2,800 cubic kilometers of volcanic ash.  This eruption blanketed South-east Asia, South Asia, and the Arabian Peninsula in ash.  Recent studies indicate that it also led to prolonged cooling and deforestation throughout Asia.

Consequently, many evolutionary theorists have posited that the Lake Toba eruption could have had profound effects on our emergence as a species.  Genetic evidence suggests that our species suffered a severe genetic bottleneck sometime before 60,000 years ago.  Our population may have dropped to as low as 1,000 breeding pairs.  Although more research needs to confirm the hypothesis, the Lake Toba supereruption was the likely cause of the bottleneck.  At the very least this eruption slowed our expansion into East Asia and Australia.

By a fluke of geography, we evaded extinction.  Had the eruption occurred in East Africa, we may not have been so lucky.  What if it happened today?

Supervolcanoes Today

From my perspective I am not sure whether a VEI-8 would threaten our species with extinction, but I am sure that it would seriously destabilize our global infrastructure.

As we have learned from Dull’s research at Lake Ilopango, “some people lost out and some benefitted” in Mesoamerica after 536 C.E.  Would we expect the same if a VEI-8 volcano erupted at say, Yellowstone National Park?  Certainly all of North America would be negatively impacted if the Yellowstone Caldera erupted with comparable intensity to previous eruptions.  As a result would we see North American refugees heading to whatever European, South American, African, or Asian country would have them?

There are too many hypothetical situations to know for sure. However, it is conceivable that what occurred locally in Mesoamerica in 536 C.E. could repeat itself globally if we encountered a VEI-8 in the near future.

During our interview, Dull acknowledged that a VEI-8 eruption would be “horrific.” He added that:

“We can’t predict [supervolcanic eruptions]. There are known supervolcanoes that have repeatedly erupted. Yellowstone 3 times in the last 2 million years. That is something to be concerned about. We know it has erupted in geologic history in a devastating way.”

We may not be able to predict supervolcanic eruptions, but a recent study published in the journal Nature indicates that there are characteristic processes that occur decades (perhaps even a century) before a major eruption.  If volcanologists can gain a better understanding of these pre-eruption processes, we may be able to detect the next supereruption decades before the event.  This would at least give us time to prepare (possibly avert?) disaster.

Currently NASA leads a program to categorize all “potentially hazardous objects” (PHO) (e.g., asteroids and comets).  Of course, this program is extremely important for the future stability of our civilization and planet.  But why are we not preparing in the same way for supervolcanic eruptions?  We already know that eruptions on the scale of Lake Toba 74,000 years ago happen with much higher frequency than asteroid impacts.  Yet we have no plan to deal with VEI-8 eruptions.  Even the Long Now Foundation, an organization focused on promoting a 10,000 year framework to build our global civilization has no official stance or plan for dealing with a VEI-8 eruption.

So what should we do?  I would argue that our current knowledge of past supervolcanic eruption events indicate that they pose a significant risk to global stability.  I also feel that it would be enormously irresponsible if our species did not develop a program analogous to the NASA PHO effort.  So here is what I propose we must do:

  1. We must gain as much data and knowledge of past supervolcanic eruptions as possible.
  2. We must attempt to understand whether supervolcanic eruptions occur in any recognizable pattern on geologic time scales so that we can roughly estimate when we should expect the next major eruption.
  3. We must fund volcanology research into better understanding the processes that occur decades (and even centuries) before a major eruption.
  4. And we must start to hypothesize about technology and/or methods that could be used to prevent supervolcanic eruptions.

As Dr. Dull’s research shows us, eruptions at or near the scale of VEI-7 have the ability to destabilize civilizations and create years without summer.  Research by other paleoecologists have shown us that supervolcanic eruptions happen with surprising regularity on scales of thousands of years.  Therefore it would be prudent to prepare for such events.

Finally, I would like to add that I am not trying to be an alarmist.  I am sometimes accused of being overly optimistic about our future as a species.  But I believe all evidence indicates that our species has tremendous potential and the possibility for a very bright future.  However, if we would like to create a healthy and stable global civilization, we must properly prepare ourselves for natural events that occur on larger time scales than we are accustomed to thinking about.

If we invest in more research, take the necessary precautions, and develop the right technology, we can knock another natural disaster off of the list of events that threaten the human experiment.


You can find out more about Dr. Robert Dull and the Lake Illopango eruption in the upcoming documentary on The History Channel: Perfect Storms (April 15th / 9 pm EST).

Have an opinion on supervolcanoes and our future?  Share your thoughts with Cadell on Twitter.

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