By Bill Flavell | 26 February 2018
I recently celebrated my 70th birthday but I would like to live for another 50 years. Compared with those who confidently expect to live forever, this is a modest ambition, and my reasons may surprise you.
I’m not greedy for a very long life. Happiness is more important than longevity and I already have as much happiness as I can imagine.
I know my days are numbered but I don’t know the number of my days. That is for the best too – it means today could see my last meal, my last joke, my last hug, my last walk in the garden and that makes every day very precious indeed.
No, I yearn for another 50 years because I am curious. Curiosity made me the person I am. It made me reject my mother’s superstitions when I was 10 years old, God when I was 13, ghosts when I was 14 and pseudoscience when I was 20. I wanted to learn real answers to the difficult questions humans have struggled with for millennia. And now, in the early years of the 21st century, we are poised to answer some of them…
Evolution has not been contentious among serious scientists for almost 100 years, but exactly how Homo sapiens evolved is still puzzling us. The picture seemed to be getting clearer until the early 2,000s when the ability to sequence ancient DNA and a clutch of fossil discoveries made us re-think everything. Species like Orrorin tugenensis, Ardipithecus ramidus, Sahelanthropus tchadensis, Kenyanthropus platyops, Australopithecus sediba, Homo floresiensis and Homo naleldi threw mud at the nice clean lineage we had arrived at, and even at the out-of-Africa idea that previously looked so solid.
Some of these species had very human-like features or habits but they were too small, too old or too far away from possible ancestor species. We thought the long-legged Homo erectus marched out of Africa into Asia 60,000 years ago but now it looks as though the migration began much earlier, and it looks as though some species more suited to climbing than walking made the trip.
My bet is human evolution will be reasonably well understood in 50 years time and it will turn out to be much more complex, and much more interesting than we imagined at the turn of this century.
For the avoidance of doubt, this is not an argument about whether humans evolved, it is about exactly HOW they evolved.
The Origin of Life
We know the Earth has not always harboured life but it does now and has done for over 3 billion years. We know biochemistry can rather easily produce lipids, proteins, and nucleic acids – the essential ingredients of life but we do not know how these can be assembled in nature to create self-reproducing organisms that can metabolize energy from their environment.
This field of study, known as abiogenesis, is currently very active and several promising hypotheses are being researched. My guess is this will be one of the first of my difficult questions to be answered. We may be able to prove abiogenesis is possible but there could be more than one way to achieve it, and we may never know which process actually gave us life on Earth.
Even when this is done and dusted, there are huge follow-up problems to solve, for example, how did the exquisitely complex molecular machinery that powers cells and reproduction evolve? To me, the answers to these follow-up questions look very far away indeed.
The first problem of consciousness is to understand what we mean by the term. Consciousness is the state of being aware of the world and knowing that you are experiencing it. It is being aware of the self, being aware that you exist. When self-driving, my Tesla car is aware of many things in the world, road signs, cars, trucks, pedestrians, lane-makings, its position on the road and in the world, but no one thinks it is conscious.
The hard question is, how do organised molecules in our brains produce consciousness? We are learning a huge amount about how the brain senses the world and processes information but these are the easy questions. Somehow consciousness emerges from these processes and we want to understand how it happens.
There are a couple of other questions that impinge on this. Firstly, we could ask what other creatures are conscious? We are pretty sure all apes are, but what about monkeys, or dogs or dolphins, or birds or rats? How do these creatures experience the world? Are there degrees of consciousness?
The second question is, can we build a robot that is conscious? How would we even know if we did?
Consciousness is a hot research topic now. I’ll bet we will have an excellent understanding of how the brain works in the next 50 years but I won’t bet we will understand consciousness. I hope so, but this really is a hard problem.
The Origin of the Universe
How the universe came to be must be the most fundamental question of all. It has puzzled us, probably for as long as there have been beings capable of asking the question. For the longest time, answers have been the product of our imaginations, but over the past 200 years or so, we have applied observation and science to the question.
Science has got us a long way. We know with some confidence, both the age of the universe and how it developed over almost 14 billion years. We can even go back almost to the beginning, to much less than a billionth of a second from the beginning. But we cannot go back to the beginning, and we cannot say what existed before the universe began to expand.
There are several hypotheses that could account for the universe but testing them is difficult and may ultimately be impossible. However, I see two tantalising possibilities for the next 50 years. The first is that we find a coherent theory for the origin that is consistent with all known physics and all possible observations yet cannot be shown to have occurred. This would leave us in a strange scientific limbo. We would not be able to claim we know how the universe came to exist, but it would effectively close the gap currently occupied by assorted gods.
The second possibility is entirely different. The problem may not be to understand the processes that created the universe but to understand the nature of reality. Quantum mechanics has introduced us to a world that is strangely counterintuitive but things could get stranger still. There are already hints that things we think are real could be illusory. One possibility is that once we figure out what reality is, how it came about might be blindingly obvious.
I have no idea how much progress we will make in 50 years, but I would love to be here to find out.
Humans evolved on planet Earth but we won’t survive here indefinitely – there are just too many existential threats. A mid-sized asteroid could finish us, as could a super-volcano or a new deadly virus for which we have no defence. And there are several possible self-inflicted paths to extinction to add to the risk.
The best chance for our species is to create settlements on other planets. Mars is an obvious choice for our first venture from mother Earth, and it is close enough for us to get started within the next 50 years.
Leaving home is different from my other big questions – it does not require a major scientific breakthrough. It is a matter of funding, technology, organisation and, ultimately, the human spirit. And this is why I expect humans to begin the migration from Earth within the next half a century.
I entered the world in 1948, the same year that saw the first general purpose, stored program computer. 1951 saw the world’s first commercial computer, the Ferranti Mark 1, built by the Ferranti company. But the first computer to go into routine commercial service was the Leo 1, built by J Lyons & Company, a chain of British tea shops!
Early electronic computers were built using thousands of vacuum tubes which were large, power-hungry and not very reliable. Replacing the vacuum tubes with transistors began in 1952, and with integrated circuits in the late 1950s. These innovations allowed computers to become more powerful, cheaper, smaller and more reliable.
By the 1990’s computers had become so cheap that millions of households had home computers and began to connect them to a new super-network, known as the Internet. By the turn of the 20th-century computers were everywhere; in cars, domestic appliances, TVs, children’s toys and in mobile ‘phones.
The next revolution, though, was not hardware – it was software. Software was becoming intelligent. It had become able to learn. Computers learned how to understand speech, then how to hold a basic conversation, how to trade equities, how to recognise human faces, how to understand mountains of data and, even, how to fly a plane and drive a car. We are now on the foothills of the age of artificial intelligence (AI).
To be clear, we do not program computers to undertake these tasks, we program them to learn and they then learn how to do these things on their own. We have reached the point where something inevitable will happen – computers will become exponentially smarter. Take for example, Google’s AI computer AlphaZero. It was originally designed to play the Go board game. But it taught itself how to play chess in 4 HOURS and then beat the world champion chess computer, Stockfish 8, in a 100-game tournament.
The significance of this is enormous – it is a first step from a narrow artificial intelligence, focused on a single class of problem, to a general-purpose intelligence. I suggest it is now only a matter of time before we see super-intelligent computers; computers with general intelligence that are FAR smarter than the smartest humans.
What will happen if we use these computers to help us design even smarter computers? What will happen if we apply these computers to the problems of human evolution, the origin of life, consciousness and the origin of the universe? Maybe we’ll get answers to our toughest questions sooner than we imagine.
What will happen if one, or several, of these super-intelligent computers conclude it would be better for all of us if they were in charge, and not us?
So this is why I would love another 50 years. Of course, I won’t get them but some people reading this will. Perhaps, half a lifetime from now, you will remember this short article and by then you will know answers I could only dream about.
I envy you.
Reprinted with permission from the author.
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