HILE practical interstellar travel for humans isn’t yet a reality, our present accomplishments in interplanetary travel (to the moon and in the not-too-distant future Mars) suggest that a sentient species can eventually acquire the capability to leave its home planet and expand to the farthest reaches of its galaxy, if not universe.
However there’s a catastrophe that could befall any single-planet-bound life form prior to the securing of complete self-sufficiency and containment for the first extra-terrestrial colony, and possibly even after attaining such a goal.
By catastrophe here we’re not talking about losing a contact lens. Rather, complete obliteration, down to every individual, the absolute end of higher— if not all— life on the planet. To discover what is capable of such a malevolence, we first rule out other horrific— albeit lesser— calamities:
(1) Environmental collapse— an eco-failure severe enough that an irreversible chain-reaction sets in, on a global scale.
Not any condition, no matter how potentially terminal, should be irreversible if acted upon in time. The greater the emergency, the greater the willingness and speed of those affected— thereby governing bodies— to take necessary steps. Improvements in computer modeling should increase lead times.
(2) Nuclear war— an all-out missile exchange, followed by a devastating condition known as nuclear winter.
While destroying life as we know it, even a total exchange would leave enough people and civilization— particularly in the southern hemisphere— to allow us to regain our level of cultural and technological attainment within a generation or so.
(3) Astrophysical disaster— one planet colliding with another, the world getting hit by a meteor or comet of sufficient size to render it completely (and for long duration) unfit for the sustenance of life, the sun overheating or exploding (super nova), or even a nearby hyper-nova.
A solar system such as ours that has been stable long enough for life to evolve— hundreds of millions of years— is apt to remain so for at least a few million more. Ditto for our galaxy.
(4) Technological disaster— highly advanced beings from other solar systems invading and eliminating us; or our own computers— perhaps in the form of robots, or self-reproducing automatons (as envisioned by von Neumann)— taking over and deciding to remove us, because we’re regarded by them as inferior beings.
The best arguments against these ever coming to pass is based on the not-uncontroversial principle that goodness, including empathy and kindness— albeit with notable as well as lesser exceptions— increases with intelligence.
While there is a kind of naive animal virtue, and Nazis (many of them, anyway) were far from stupid, the most brutish behavior is associated with primitive man and pre-civilization— cannibalism, human sacrifice, trial by ordeal, slavery, etc.
However, perhaps the most-impending comprehensive disaster, having a real chance of obliterating all human life down to the last person (perhaps all forms of animal and plant life) could be an extremely unfortunate consequence of research presently being done in two relatively new fields: AL (artificial life) and nanotechnology (microassembly).
The catalyst for such an apocalypse might be germinating right now in the misdirected minds and repressed generative impulses of certain hackers— particularly, those engaged in the creation and dissemination of our first built-from-scratch self-replicating instruments, computer viruses.
While these software bugs are capable of frightening damage— wreaking the vengeance of frustrated and usually isolated bundles of youthful hormones, for whom shutting down a global network may be an easier and more-fruitfully-orgiastic task than securing a date, they’re scarcely a taste of what might lie in our immediate future (the next century or so).
What we are seeing, as the computer revolution explodes, is a precipitous increase in the amount of power (i.e. intellectual, or raw computational machinery) available to lone individuals. To illustrate (let me get my art supplies):
I began writing this on an old PC-XT, having more power and memory than a multi-million dollar computer center in the sixties, yet an antique compared with the best we can now put on a desk.
What we may have to look forward to, in addition to continued exponential increases in computational power for the buck, is other new technology to go with it, such as a relatively compact or even portable machine capable of fabrication on the molecular level.
What we could then be faced with is the possibility that any artificial-life hacker of tomorrow (the perhaps not-very-distant future) could have at his fingertips the wherewithal to literally short-circuit evolution, and design and build a malevolent, self-replicating nanobot—
A microscopic robot or doombug, constructed one molecule at a time, that once loosed could devour all of humanity— perhaps all animal and/or plant life— in a matter of days.