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Friday, March 6, 2009

The Far Future of Intelligence in the Universe

FROM PAUL DAVIES, THEORETICAL PHYSICIST, COSMOLOGIST, ASTROBIOLOGIST, AND DIRECTOR OF BEYOND: CENTER FOR FUNDAMENTAL CONCEPTS IN SCIENCE AT ARIZONA STATE UNIVERSITY: Humankind has walked this planet for what, in cosmological terms, is but the twinkling of an eye. Our planet Earth should remain habitable for at least another billion years, which gives plenty of time for our descendants, natural or artificial, flesh-and-blood or machine (or a blend of both), to decamp to another locale. It will be hundreds of billions of years before brightly-burning stars become a rarity. Even then, there will still be black holes—the dead remnants of stars—which store a colossal amount of potentially usable energy. There is no fundamental reason why life and mind could not endure for trillions of years into the future. We can certainly imagine, as have many science fiction writers, that life and mind will slowly spread out into the cosmos, perhaps from Earth alone, perhaps from many planets that have spawned life. A progressively larger fraction of the galaxy will be brought under some form of intelligent control, that is, “technologized.” If that is the case, then in the far, far future, the distinction between “natural” and “artificial” will evaporate. More and more matter will be used to serve the purposes of sentient beings, to process information and create a rich mental world, perhaps without limit.
Some scientists have speculated that, as the timeline stretches toward infinity, an emerging distributed super-intelligence will become more and more godlike, so that in the final stage the super-mind will merge with the universe: mind and cosmos will be one. However, the final state of the universe simply cannot be predicted because it could be determined by physical effects at present too subtle to discern. The dark energy that seems to dominate the expansion of the universe today may cause all the galaxies in the neighbourhood of the Milky Way to retreat across an event horizon, leaving a sort of island universe of dying stars surrounded by chasms of dark emptiness. But if the dark energy slowly grows or decays, other grisly fates may lie in store for the cosmos, such as a big rip or big crunch. The only solace is that there is plenty of time left to figure out what, if anything, it all means.

Paul Davies appears with Freeman Dyson, Saul Perlmutter, Lawrence Krauss, Ray Kurzweil, Frank Tipler, and Robin Collins in What’s the Far Future of Intelligence in the Universe? the 26th episode in the Closer to Truth: Cosmos, Consciousness, God TV series, hosted and created by Robert Lawrence Kuhn. The series airs Thursdays on the PBS HD network and many other PBS stations. Every Friday, participants will share their views on the previous day's episode.


V.V. Raman said...

Both religion and science speak of the remote past when the world began: whether by the will of a Creator God or by a slip in symmetry in the realm of the Higgs bosons. The religious version, picturesque and poetic, is also meaningful and reverential. The scientific view, complex and quantitative, may be confirmed to a degree through super-colliders and such. The religious vision is within grasp of the masses, and inspires psalms and places of worship. The scientific one is esoteric stuff accessible to a handful of initiates, provoking papers in the Physical Review and popular expositions by science-writers. One is the creation of the human spirit; the other is a formulation of the human mind.
Likewise, when it comes to the status of the universe in the very distant future, religion and science have their different convictions. Religion generally refers to states when we the people will be confronting the Creator. There are various versions of what will happen next. There are large numbers of sane and sensible citizens who look forward to a happy heaven and dread the horrible hell they read about in their sacred books.
Science, on the other hand, focuses more on what will happen to stars and galaxies eons from now. It says that all the skylights will eventually be extinguished plunging the world into dismal darkness (if ever there be human eyes to behold), for it is dark, dark everywhere already now and since the first big blast where there is no retina and optic nerve. Yes, even galaxies will become like ash and splinters of twig in a fireplace that is all burnt up. In the dreary picture of 19th century thermodynamics the world at large was going to fade away in a heat-death, transformed into mammoth of dispersed matter with no glow or glimmer.
But in recent decades some physicists have been injecting some hope into that dismal prognostication. Reversing the trend, they have been taking inspiration from science-fiction writers (usually the latter are inspired by findings in science). Serious scientists are now telling the public about the persistence of consciousness all over the cosmos, long after the earth and the sun are turned to mere rocks and revolving rubble. So they speak of the immortality of life and mind throbbing in cyberspace for trillions of years.
Ironically, all this high hope of indefinite survival is coming at a time when we are deeply troubled about a deteriorating economic quagmire, about terrorists who are out to destroy civilizations that don’t subscribe to their ways of treating infidels and women, threats of peak-oil problems, and ominous signs of a global warming that is lurking behind the curtain of industrial hyperactivity. When our immediate concern is with the longevity of the species for the next few decades, it almost sounds like a bad joke to read about continued consciousness in ethereal space a couple of trillion years from the March of 2009. Unlike the ancient formula for difficult times (this too shall pass), now we hear from the experts, “This too shall remain” as a new kind of consolation.

L. Venkata Subramaniam said...

I have always wondered, isnt the universe intelligent? Why is the speed of light fixed, why is the gravitational force fixed? When someone says the universe will be brought under intelligent control, it somehow supposes humans are more intelligent than anything that is out there. Is that really true?