Walking A Tightrope
December 1, 2002 By admin
by Richard M. Dolan
copyright ©2002 by Richard M. Dolan
all rights reserved.
The Immediate Problem
We walk as a civilization over a tightrope, high above a rocky ravine. Falling is a real possibility within the next twenty years. If not, a wild ride could await us on the other side.
This isn’t the first time humanity has flirted with the prospect of social collapse, mass death, or even extinction. Like the rest of the animal kingdom, we hominids have courted and faced disaster throughout our existence. Periodically we have increased our numbers, and periodically we have died off.
Our great civilizations have risen and fallen. No matter how high the level of achievement rose, tragic decline inevitably followed. Egypt fell. Sumer and Akkad fell. The glory of Greece and Rome became ruin and rubble. The Mayans collapsed, and so did the Mongols and Manchus, the Guptas, the Byzantines, and Ottomans.
Of course, the end of a civilization doesn’t mean that all the people die, or that another way of life doesn’t replace it. But it does mean that there is nothing inherent in the machinery of a civilization to keep it going, save the continual effort of those who comprise it. The philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset wrote “the simple process of preserving our present civilization is supremely complex, and demands incalculably subtle powers.” And those subtle powers need a functioning infrastructure to support them.
Nothing lasts forever. Despite dominant assumptions about our current civilization, ours too will soon be gone
Of course, in the last 250 years or so, the human infrastructure has had applied science and technology to sustain it.
Science has freed us from how we muddled along for countless millennia. We no longer survive by individual farming, but by specialized labor, centralization, transportation, and bureaucratization in a tightly-knit global economy. For many, this system has provided wealth and power beyond the dreams of our ancestors. It has enabled our species to overcome age-old barriers to population growth. Indeed, we have grown, unchecked, at an exponential rate.
As a result, most people simply assume that our scientifically-based civilization is, more or less, the natural order of things. It isn’t.
Science, alas, is the ultimate double-edged sword. We have conquered nature but endanger ourselves as never before. And science moves us along our path at an ever-quickening pace. Nearly a century ago, for instance, the First World War had marked the greatest devastation that humanity had yet inflicted upon itself. Twenty five years later, it was dwarfed by the carnage of the Second World War.
Then came the Cold War, which thankfully did not result in World War Three but instead a plethora of little wars everywhere, with the charming backdrop of nuclear holocaust in the event of, shall we say, a slight misunderstanding. The Cold War gave us that most apt of acronyms, MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction). Indeed, we nearly attained ultimate MADness during the missile crisis of October 1962, when this writer was just three months old.
Consider that the missile crisis was a mere half-century after the First World War, and reflect on (a) the pace of change in the world during that span, and (b) the amount of destruction levied by humans on themselves and the world.
And yet, that period of time appears nearly idyllic by today’s standards. That’s because we’re still collectively embarked on our pedal-to-the-metal joyride of unsustainable development.
Where once existed an unpolluted natural environment filled with game and diversity of life, we now have a built environment of paved roads, suburban housing developments, shopping malls, and the ever-present automobile.
Billions of people rely on the continued functioning of this infrastructure for their very lives. But the system is vulnerable for several reasons.
For one thing, there are too many of us. Yes, I know, not everyone agrees with this. They’re wrong. In a perfect world, which this is not, perhaps we would use our resources wisely. But we don’t, and there are just too many of us with unsustainable habits.
Even without the advent of a major war or act of terrorism, our course of development has us primed for a catastrophic shortage of several critical resources within the next twenty years or so. Heading my own list are arable land, water, and petroleum. Each of those essential resources are already stressed (land and water) or depleting faster than our replacement efforts (oil). In the case of oil, the numbers are so cooked that no one really knows how much is left. It is an open secret in the industry. But we do know that worldwide discoveries peaked in 1965 and have been declining ever since. Meanwhile the global thirst for petroleum, like the world’s population itself, grows exponentially. As the old song says, something’s gotta give.
In official government and media circles, the basic assumption is that we will find some substitute for petroleum before the day of reckoning arrives. The people who believe this tripe are probably the same people who respond to spam emails promising them free DVDs, mortgage refinancing, or larger certain parts of their anatomy. Let me say this as clearly as I can: there is no sign that we will make such a transition to a non-petroleum-based society within the next twenty years. And even most petroleum optimists agree that by then the global supply of oil could well be precarious. Many independent analysts predict the crunch time will occur in about ten years.
Oil has given us unmatched energy and has transformed our world. But the oil era will soon be over
There are some people in the UFO research community who talk about the availability of ‘free energy’, if only we could pry such secrets out of the military. It’s hard for me to speculate on something where so few hard facts exist. Could it be that Zero-Point Energy is our answer? Does the military have anti-gravity technology? Could it be that we, the great unwashed, might also receive this bounty? I will come back to this in a future article. For now, however, I will offer my feeling that it is possible that some kind of breakthrough has been made in the recent past, or that one may occur within the next ten or twenty years. Personally, I don’t yet see enough reliable evidence to take a definitive stand one way or the other. I imagine in time I’ll form a clearer assessment on this.
What no one seems to realize, however, is that for all intents and purposes, for the last century or so we have had free energy. It’s called oil.
Oil provides exceptionally high quality energy and is used for much more than generating power. It is also easier to transport than any other source of energy. Considering all it does, oil is about as cheap as it gets. Unless we cling to the unproven hope of the “other” kind of free energy, we have nothing to replace oil, and aren’t likely to when the well runs dry.
Even if, by some stroke of good fortune, we avoid the oil crunch, we face problems of a similar magnitude regarding arable land, clean water, and much more. This doesn’t even include the infrastructure problems we will face in the event of a major war or terrorist attack.
If you want an idea of what an infrastructure collapse might mean for you personally, think about how you would survive without the use of your car. And electricity. And clean tap water. And home heating. Then, after you’ve thought about all those problems, consider the effects of such a shortage happening at the societal level.
Humanity did not evolve in a concrete jungle. We evolved in a real jungle, which we’ve obliterated in the blink of a cosmic eye. For as long as we’ve been around, we’ve relied on the foundation of a natural order, and sit at the top. We have now undermined our foundations to such a degree that it’s only a matter of time before something beneath us collapses.
Regarding such a collapse, you can be assured that the fall will be very great; far greater than to 19th or 18th century levels. Since we’ve collectively lost nearly all of the traditional survival skills earlier people had, and since the natural environment is itself so emasculated, we would be lucky indeed to achieve the levels of our stone age ancestors. Some of us, no doubt, would find a way to keep going, and I suppose a few would manage for a time in bunkers created by our national security apparatus.
Hiroshima in 1945. As our science progresses, so do our destructive capabilities
If We Make It
Some people will dismiss this as needlessly alarmist. I wish that were so. There is, of course, always a chance that we will avoid the crisis, or at least the worst parts of it. This is possible. Let me discuss what might lie ahead for us if we can just hang on long enough.
Some time ago, I wrote about the possibility of the ET presence on Earth as being the product of an advanced machine intelligence. Not that the “Grays,” for instance, are machines per se, but that they are artificially created or enhanced organisms, connected to a controlling intelligence. That controlling intelligence, I suggested, could well be artificial. I still think this is probably the case.
I came to that position after considering developments in computing technology and the future of artificial intelligence. That is, human-created AI. For an eye-opening account of what our future could well be, I suggest Ray Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence.
It’s interesting to compare the field of UFO research with that of artificial intelligence. Those who think the UFO field is way out should read some good AI literature. Writers in that field describe a reality that is, frankly, so far beyond what we normally think of as reality, that the only way to describe it is … alien. Yet, the leading AI thinkers are generally in the mainstream of our society. Well, sort of. They do teach at places like MIT and get lots of funding to do their work. Not a bad gig, and certainly more than any UFO researcher can hope for.
Kurzweil predicts the state of technology at various points in our future. By 2019, for instance, he argues that computers will be largely invisible, embedded everywhere – in walls, tables, chairs, desks, clothing, jewelry, and bodies. There will be various means of experiencing virtual reality environments, people will communicate with computers the same way we would with human assistants, and the computational capacity of a leading edge consumer-brand computer will be generally equal to that of the human brain. By that time, great strides will have been made in nanotechnology – that is, microscopic machines that will control their own mobility and have significant computational ability. The human genome will be largely understood, and the expected human life span will be over one hundred years.
By 2029, things will become really surreal, in many ways like the old Star Trek shows except, well, more advanced. A typical computer will have the processing capacity of a thousand human brains, and indeed most of the human brain will have been “decoded” and duplicated in computers. Direct neural pathways will have been perfected for high-speed connection to the human brain, three dimensional holographic displays will be everywhere, and microscopic nanoengineered robots will have microbrains with the speed and capacity of a human brain. Implants will allow people with all kinds of disabilities to overcome their physical limitations. The human life span will be around 120 years. Computers will routinely be claiming to be “conscious,” and most people will believe them.
In the next generation or so, it will be harder to distinguish between human and machine. Say hello to Valerie, currently in the works at Android World in Denton, Texas.
That’s a mere taste of what Kurzweil predicts, and of course the future won’t stop in 2029, but you get the idea. His thoughts on the future of quantum computing alone are mind-bending. Ultimately (that is, within a century from now), he predicts a merger between human and machine intelligence, to the extent that the two will be indistinguishable.
As for politics and society, Kurzweil foresees almost no human employment in production, agriculture, or transportation. Basic life needs will be available for the vast majority of the human race. How? If you’re thinking Star Trek-type replicators, you’re on target: nanotechnology that will be able to create – instantly, one supposes – any food from beef sirloin (healthy version, of course) to “tea, Earl Grey, hot.” Or any kind of fun and games you can imagine. Enough said.
And through nanotechnology, the possibility exists that, incredible as this may sound, we (or, actually, super-intelligent computers) could program nanobots to repair or even recreate the natural biosphere. Or synthesize less destructive modes of energy generation and transportation.
There will be new dangers, of course, ranging from bioengineering technology, flying weapons the size of insects, or nanotechnology run amok. Just as current computer viruses plague the Internet, the future world will likely have its share of hackers and worse. Presumably, the price of safety in such a world will be eternal vigilance. And, I suppose, we’ll have the Matrix to protect us – right?
Not all AI thinkers are as optimistic as Kurzweil. Still, his case is plausible, and it’s perhaps as likely as not that the future will exceed his expectations. His vision of things to come is one possible scenario of what awaits us at the end of our current tightrope.
Can We Make It?
Can we make it past our current problems to the future? Can we hang on, as a civilization, for twenty or thirty more years, with the development of our science more or less intact?
On the face of it, such a question seems absurd. Whatever our stated beliefs on the matter, most of us go through our lives with assumption that today is like yesterday, and tomorrow will be like today.
But the ever-quickening pace of technological change has changed everything, and forces us to examine our traditional assumptions. Considering the pace of change in today’s world, twenty years is a very long time.
Another line of speculation, one to which readers of this magazine are more acclimated than most, is the ET connection. It’s easy to overlook this because the subject is essentially absent from the official culture of our society. But the UFO phenomenon is real, and a non-human intelligence is surely responsible for it. So how do we incorporate our understanding of UFO reality with our current precarious situation?
I do not claim to have a full answer. But, it does seem evident to me that very soon, our species (in conjunction with our artificially intelligent machines) will probably have the technological capability to deal with the ET presence, at least much better than we do today.
It’s possible, of course, that despite any advances we make in the next few generations, the others will still be far ahead us. But I suspect our impending changes aren’t mere changes of degree, but of kind. We are standing at the doorway to something totally different.
Presumably, an alien intelligence understands this. Whether they see us as brethren or rivals is another matter. They must know how precarious we are at this moment, how high the stakes are. They must realize that our existence – our entire past and future as a species – hinges on the present moment.
I am well aware that throughout our history, people have assumed that their particular time was the critical one. I have asked myself many times whether I am falling into the same trap, the same delusion. But I don’t think so. I think a detached and thorough review of the situation brings home the conclusion that everything – everything – comes down to now.
I can’t help but think that if we do make it to this Brave New World, we will still have certain basic problems. Blaise Pascal observed 350 years ago that it is only through mindless diversions that we can bear our existence. Solitude forces us to contemplate “the natural poverty of our feeble and mortal condition, so miserable that nothing can comfort us when we think of it closely.” We lived for diversions then, we live for them now. Will we be as shallow and single-minded in our collective pursuit of self-gratification in the future? Will future intelligences be just as willing to exploit those desires for personal gain? A safe answer would be “yes.”
Fifty-seven million channels and nothing on? Or will we truly evolve?