Space

Aliens used to keep our fear of extinction at bay—then we realized how alone we are

How a silent cosmos got us thinking about the future

They are laughing about a recent cartoon in the New Yorker offering an unlikely explanation for a slew of missing public trash cans across New York City. The cartoon had depicted “little green men” (complete with antenna and guileless smiles) having stolen the bins, assiduously unloading them from their flying saucer.

By the time the party of nuclear scientists sits down to lunch, within the mess hall of a grand log cabin, one of their number turns the conversation to matters more serious. “Where, then, is everybody?” he asks. They all know that he is talking—sincerely—about extraterrestrials.

The question, which was posed by Enrico Fermi and is now known as Fermi’s Paradox, has chilling implications.

Bin-stealing UFOs notwithstanding, humanity still hasn’t found any evidence of intelligent activity among the stars. Not a single feat of “astro-engineering,” no visible superstructures, not one space-faring empire, not even a radio transmission. It has been argued that the eerie silence from the sky above may well tell us something ominous about the future course of our own civilization.

Such fears are ramping up. Last year, the astrophysicist Adam Frank implored an audience at Google that we see climate change—and the newly baptized geological age of the Anthropocene—against this cosmological backdrop. The Anthropocene refers to the effects of humanity’s energy-intensive activities upon Earth. Could it be that we do not see evidence of space-faring galactic civilizations because, due to resource exhaustion and subsequent climate collapse, none of them ever get that far? If so, why should we be any different?

A few months after Frank’s talk, in October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s update on global warming caused a stir. It predicted a somber future if we do not decarbonize. And in May, amid Extinction Rebellion’s protests, a new climate report upped the ante, warning: “Human life on earth may be on the way to extinction.”

Meanwhile, NASA has been publishing press releases about an asteroid set to hit New York within a month. This is, of course, a dress rehearsal: part of a “stress test” designed to simulate responses to such a catastrophe. NASA is obviously fairly worried by the prospect of such a disaster event—such simulations are costly.

Space tech Elon Musk has also been relaying his fears about artificial intelligence to YouTube audiences of tens of millions. He and others worry that the ability for AI systems to rewrite and self-improve themselves may trigger a sudden runaway process, or “intelligence explosion,” that will leave us far behind—an artificial superintelligence need not even be intentionally malicious in order to accidentally wipe us out.

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