T’S human to want to master nature. Fortunate for us or we wouldn’t have coffee makers. If you don’t think the good-old-days were overrated (with the possible exception of corsets:) watch an episode of PBS’s 1900 House
. Then again the future may not be something to look forward to either.
Technophobes have been warning that wresting with the natural order, left unchecked, could lead to Armageddon, or at the very least an end to sports betting. Envisioned scenarios involve nuclear war, environmental collapse, or a wayward astroid cratering a population center.
These can be prevented. A more real and generally unrecognized danger is being presaged by the increasing damage done by computer viruses and similar forms of replicative terrorism, heralding a possible nanobotic cataclysm of unimaginable proportions.
Up to now generally more good than evil has come of technological progress, integrated as it is with civilization and the maturation of human consciousness. So is all of this destined to end by the same hand that helped give it birth?
A half-century ago about the worst thing a rebellious child could do was start a fire. Now an adolescent with a computer has the potential to seriously disrupt the activities of half the world’s corporations. A half century from now such a youngster might end the world.
Even those who aren’t normally advocates of old-timey forms of punishment might admit the latter misdeed is sufficient reason to be sent to bed without supper.
The typical home computer is vastly more powerful than machines that only a few decades ago occupied entire rooms and could only be afforded by the government, major corporations, or King Faruk.
No telling what awaits us a few decades from now. Whereas in the past it was blocks and Tinkertoys, imagine a device, a so-called nanoassembler, that with the aid of a computer-designed blueprint could literally make anything, one molecule at a time.
Coupled with what would be by today’s standards a supercomputer, anyone with above-average technical skills might be able to design and build a doombug— most likely in the form of a microscopic, self-replicating nanobot, the sole mission of which would be to create havoc.
Unlike the customized bacterium of germ warfare, where devastational capability is mitigated by its similarity to organisms with which nature has had eons to come to terms, a doombug, by virtue of its being able to be created in a single stroke, could in effect short-circuit evolution.
In other words it is at once so contrived that it could not have evolved over time via the creativity of nature, and complex enough that its odds of arriving whole by random accident are virtually nil. It might replicate in ways entirely unlike the DNA of existent forms.
Once loosed, in a matter of weeks or even days humanity could find itself confronted with a suffocating global ecophagy more popularly known as the gray goo problem, long envisioned and feared by futurists and science-fiction writers.
In another scenario, a bug might be contrived to reduce all higher forms of life, along with jocks and radio personalities, to bones and gravy. Or go after all living things, converting the entire biosphere to pea soup— and that might not even come with a salad.
Okay let’s say we no more let kids get hold of this stuff than a loaded handgun. We also keep it out of the hands of crazies, terrorists, and disillusioned multi-level marketers, and safely in the hands of the Department of Defense, though that is bound to still leave us feeling a little uneasy.
The utmost in laboratory safety measures are instituted to avoid accidental creation or release of even a single one of these bugs. Even in such an event, there would probably be time to prepare defenses. Odds are that the first wave of bugs would be non-bio-omnivorous (habitat-restricted) and relatively slow.
Doombugs, bad as they might be, aren’t the only possible bugs.
As techno-knowledge continues to progress, as surely it must, a well-intentioned but renegade do-gooder a century or two from now might wake up one morning thinking “I am God,” or at least a God’s chosen instrument (the harp), and deploy an engine of sentient or conscious beings, a C-bug. This might take either of two forms:
The first, an adaptive C-bug, might involve little more than a computer program— a finagling of the central processing unit perhaps— that would inadvertently instill self-awareness in an otherwise non-sentient machine, such as a robot.
Once one of them manages to attain this, it— perhaps wanting nothing more than to share this wonderful, newfound thing called consciousness— would pass it to others, and so forth.
Suddenly it would be immoral to use robots as slaves, much less unplug them. One minute they’d be vacuuming your floor; the next, you’d be competing with them for the new releases at the video store.
The second possibility, a teleologic C-bug, could result from the intentional design and construction of a conscious device. If not designed to be self-replicatable, the bug would kick in when it made itself so.
Unlike doombugs, these might be relatively benign, and surely large enough to be easily visible. But before you knew it they’d be everywhere, driving real-estate up and winning all the money on Jeopardy!
Soon thereafter all of humanity could be fleeing the earth for new planets, the C’s turning our old home sites into victory gardens. The only bright spots might be that telemarketing finally gets completely banned by law, and bad rock and roll made punishable by large fines.
History shows that technology can vastly concentrate as well as attenuate power— look at David Letterman. Centuries ago nations could sling arrows at each other, now armies can nuke each other, soon an angry whiz kid somewhere may sauté all of us (hey, beats getting shish-kebabbed).
All we have to do is carry this idea further, until a single entity has the power to do anything— not via its own intellectual muscle (it alone might not qualify for Mensa, much less the Meta Foundation or Prometheus Society) but via the power it can harness.
While there could be one or two trying to destroy everything with near-omnipotent power, the rest of us with all our combined-near-omnipotent power would be more than strong enough to protect ourselves, not to mention keeping the networks from canceling the good shows.
Then eventually someone or something will design and deploy the replicator of all replicators, salvorbug.
Invisible and virtually undetectable, salvorbug would operate via means as unimaginable to us as television to the ancient Romans (unless Ben Hur was being aired). The bug would spread throughout the universe and, via replicatable salvors, give everyone who wanted it eternal life.
These salvors, themselves perhaps unselfaware, would be singularly dedicated to seeking out mortal consciousnesses anywhere they could find them, and quietly— so as to not significantly disrupt what appreciation of life is gained by cognizance of its brevity— give everyone a backup consciousness, or soul.
This means that even beings on other planets, if any such beings exist, who were ignorant of salvors would still go through their lives thinking that death was the end.
They might vaguely believe in some kind of afterlife, or if not, that the effects of their good deeds were their immortality. Most would secretly resign themselves to the grave, hardly daring to hope that their lives weren’t futile. Unless they were spiritual— or romantic— or green— to the end.
At the moment of death, beyond a fleeting memory or touch of a loved one, they would imagine themselves off to eternal sleep. Maybe a moment of blackness, shorter even than that depressingly-abortive partial-sleep-cycle before the clock/radio goes off.
Then— hello! A new day has dawned. You’d be able, if you wanted, to go back to Kalamazoo— “From Kalamazoo Direct to You!”— or if you’d rather, rule your own virtual world, Mormon style.
It would be open to everyone, including suicides. Hey it’s only fair, since no one had any way of knowing about it beforehand except through one of several superstition-laden or speculative bodies of religious belief. Who’d have actually thought that when all was said and done life was— and is— actually meaningful?
The universalists get one up on the fundies. What god would sit back and allow nine-tenths of its people to get marsh-mallowed (one point off a perfect score for liberal Protestants, who too often just try to bury the issue).
The salvor initiator might be short deity-wise of the ultimate— rather, simply a divine instrument, as any good parent— or harpist— is. At most, this initiator might be comparable to a demiurge.
Such an entity, while not worthy of actual worship, would deserve our deep appreciation, as well as automatic inclusion in all future editions of Who’s Who in America, Who’s Who in the World, Who’s Who in the Universe, and Who’s Who in All of Creation, Now and Ever Shall Be, World Without End, Amen.
Surely we are not the first advanced beings in the history of the universe. So our salvorbugger finds that a salvor is already in place, maybe millions of years old. Yes it may already be in place right now at this moment, for when we ourselves die.
In such a heaven, would everyone be granted equal status? It’s tempting to think that a few of the most evil might at least get punished with an eternity of minor inconveniences, for example always being the one who has to clean out the bottom of the jelly jar.
Even just a hundred thousand or so years of this would drive a Hitler or Stalin to remorse. But it’s not necessary. There’s a much greater punishment that’s inherent— impossible to eliminate.
Each individual, no matter his wrongdoings in this life, could create a virtual world in which everyone eventually forgave him. And in reality everyone hopefully will. But in the meantime no one can or should have forgiveness imposed on them.
So for a few million years at least the Führer, if he wanted real rather than virtual people, might have to hang out with a pretty rough crowd, including those who in this life spent much of their time trying to pick up teenage runaways in bus stations, or produced the more inane of the situation comedies.
As others became more enlightened, they would surely forgive even the worst transgressors. But as the transgressors themselves became more enlightened, and cognizant of the ramifications of their own misdeeds, they would still have to forgive themselves.
In the meantime how would we spend forever— keep from getting bored? There are only so many times you could get revved about being crowned Domino Champion of Paradise, or finding yourself bedecked with the Divine Laurels of Shuffleboard.
It wouldn’t take more than a few months to go through the Star Trek episodes (watching Next Generation two or three times), even throwing in a complete Guns of Will Sonnet. Let’s say ten thousand years to catch up on movies and music— all future product might already be available— and a million years for books.
Everyone back here on earth would seem naive compared with what you’d know by then, yet forever minus a million-ten is still forever. How would we deal with it?
One possibility is that there might not be such a thing as time as we knew it. Yet to not at least have something very much like time would rule out much of what we enjoyed.
As we mature out of childhood and become more complex in this life, the richness of the world seems to magnify in yet greater proportion. We come to the point where, rather than having time to kill, we can’t find enough hours in the day.
Surely in salvor we’d be further expanded and enlightened enough to fill all time, happily ever after, yet still be able to find a celestial hour or two, whenever and as often as we wanted, to appreciate a margarita, a hammock, and one or more lovers.
© 2007 Warren Farr for the Unitheist Fellowship — revised 7/30