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Mar 6, 2012

Singular Technological Advances

In my previous blog post I mentioned the idea that there might only ever be one technological civilization that invents faster-than-light (FTL) space travel.

Frankly, I know of no reason to think that faster-than-light travel is possible. I'm willing to read and write science fiction stories that include faster-than-light travel because such stories are fun. Faster-than-light space travel can be a useful plot device just to speed along a story. However, even if we assume that at some future time humans learn how to move at faster-than-light speeds, what if it takes us a million years before we figure out how to do it?

It has become popular in science fiction to explore singularianism, but I suspect that most enthusiasm for the idea that we are quickly approaching a technological singularity comes from physical scientists who mistakenly assume that Moore's Law ensures that "superintelligent" artificial life forms are inevitable, and will soon be among us. For those who have been sucked into believing that a technological singularity is near, it must be a shock to see the suggestion that some technological advances might take millions of years to accomplish.

In "Why It Took So Long to Invent the Wheel", Natalie Wolchover discusses evidence that is consistent with the idea that wheeled vehicles were only invented once.
Several serious challenges probably had to be solved by one talented ancient engineer including: 1) limiting friction at the axel-wheel interface and 2) having strong materials for wheels and axels and 3) having a way to efficiently power a wheeled vehicle. As soon as one genious produced a useful wheeled vehicle, the needed technological tricks probably spread so rapidly that nobody else ever had the chance to achieve a second independent invention of a wheeled vehicle.

Similarly, it might be the case that there was one technologically advanced civiliztion that long ago develped on a distant Earth-like planet and that civilization might have discovered how to travel through outer space at faster-than-light speeds. That civilization might now be spreading from star to star (and galaxy to galaxy) and spreading its cultural influence to other less technologically advanced species.

If faster-than-light travel is possible, what might cause development of FTL travel to be such a difficult technological advance? Isaac Asimov had some fun with this topic in his fiction. In his time travel novel, The End of Eternity, Asimov imagined that human cicilization developed time travel and the mere existence of time travel technology made it impossible to invent faster-than-light travel. The basic idea was that humans used time travel to prevent technological risks such as use of nuclear power. In the absence of risky technologies like nuclear power, faster-than-light travel was never invented.

In his robot stories, Asimov played around with the idea that humans might first need to create artificial life forms, then the A.L. might be smart enough to invent faster-than-light space travel. Might the human mind be "cognitively closed" to certain types of technological advances?

In The Start of Eternity, I play around with the idea that time travel technology depends on development of "positronics" as an alternative to electronics.

I also have played around with the idea that the Huaoshy had to alter the physical laws of the universe in order to make it possible to have faster-than-light space travel. In the figure above, the diagram illustrates how the dimensional structure of the universe can be engineered so as to make FTL space travel possible. I imagined that faster-than-light space travel requires a non-natural type of matter, sedrons. By altering the physical laws of the universe, the Huaoshy are able to obtain a supply of sedrons. They can then change the physical laws of the universe one more time so as to prevent any other civilization from obtaining sedrons. Thus, the Huaoshy have a monopoly on sedrons and faster-than-light space travel.

The first science fiction story I ever read about the discovery of faster-than-light travel was The Skylark of Space. Ed Smith was a chemist who, like many physical scientists, had no trouble imagining the existence of "superintelligent" beings. While I've suggested the possibility that it might take a million years of effort for humans to discover how to travel at faster-than-light speeds, Smith imagined that, with a little luck, one chemist could crack the problem in an afternoon and soon be off cruising through the galaxies as easily as we now cruise through the oceans of Earth.

In his Lensman series, Smith imagined a 2,000,000,000 year-long process by which superintelligent beings would craft a new form of life that would have even greater super abilties than themselves. Happiliy for us, humans are these super-super beings. I've long been baffled by Smith's fictional universe in which faster-than-light space travel can be invented by a single chemist in an afternoon but superintelligent beings (Arisians) require a 2,000,000,000 year-long breeding program to evolve a form of life that can improve upon their inferior grade of superintelligence, defeat the evil Eddorians and save the universe for GOOD (hurray!).

In the Lensman series, it is deceptively easy for Earthlings to "invent" faster-than-light space travel because the ancient Arisians (secretly) give the needed technology to humanity. Besides the 2,000,000,000 year-long breeding program, the other key "ingredient" needed to transform humans into super-super beings is the "Lens". The "Lens" is a kind of "telepathy amplifier" that gives those who wear it almost magical communications abilities. The only woman to ever recieve a "Lens" from the Arisians (she is the end product of the 2,000,000,000 year-long breeding program) gives birth to children who spontaneously have telepathic ability, without needing a "Lens". These "children of the lens" defeat the evil Eddorians and take over from the Arisians the task of protecting all that is GOOD in the universe (Ta-Da!).

Smith wrote down the plot for his Lensman saga in 1936. In 1936, people like Alan Turing were just starting towards the development of what would become electronic digital computers. By 1941 Isaac Asimov was writing stories about telepathic robots and it had become possible for science fiction authors to imagine how a artificial life forms might be created and (quickly) lead to a "technological sigularity" when artificial brains attained "superintelligence". Rather than having to wait patiently through a 2,000,000,000 year-long breeding program, "artificial intelligence" provides a plot device that can rapidly yield superintelligence. Before the end of the 20th century, the idea of a "technological sigularity" lept from the pages of science fiction stories into works of purported non-fiction that predicted that the "technological sigularity" will be here really soon, now.

Science Fiction has been dominated by people with a background in physical science. I don't ever want fussy science facts to get in the way of a good science fiction story, but I think we can make better science fiction stories by paying more attention to the facts of biology. If most science fiction fans beleive that by the middle of this century we will be uploading our minds into computers as easily as we now upload blog posts to Google's servers, who am I to argue with such beliefs? However, I will take pleasure in those all-too-rare science fiction stories that pull the science fiction genre in new directions by incorporating realistic views of living organisms and, particularly, the nature of human minds.

Ever since 1818 the science fiction genre has been trapped under the spell that was cast by Mary Shelley. When I started writing my Exodemic stories I made the life and work of Mary Wollstonecraft an important element of the first story. The name "Exodemic" came from the idea that effective Smallpox vaccination only became possible because of a happy biological accident involving a visiting Observer from the Moon. A lucky genetic recombination event sets in motion a chain of events that significantly alters the development of human civilization.....leading to an alternative history of Earth with profound implications for how our species experiences First Contact and becomes integrated into the vast interstellar civilization of the Huaoshy.

Because of the "exodemic", Mary Wollstonecraft lives a long and productive life and the influence of Mary Shelley is greatly reduced. In the alternative history of Earth, there is a profound shift of power from physical science towards biological science and we humans manage to better control the technological excesses arising from physical science. I'll say more about Exodemic in my next blog post.

Images. Top: from NASA. Egyptian chariot art. Lensman book cover. The end is near! Below: Cover of Exodemic.

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