The Wall Street Journal

June 13, 2008

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The Shape of Things to Come

June 13, 2008; Page W3

Edited by Damien Broderick
(Atlas & Co., 330 pages, $16)

Struggling to make this messy world more manageable, physicists sometimes create cartoonishly simple, two-dimensional versions of it called "toy models." I have a toy model, called "Futureworld," in which humanity has overcome poverty, famine, disease, war and environmental degradation, and robots do all the chores.

[Year Million]
Viktor Koen

The point of Futureworld is to pose the question: What would we do if we could do anything? Because I've never come up with a satisfactory answer, I opened "Year Million," a collection of essays edited by Australian science writer Damien Broderick, with a feeling of pleasurable expectation. Fourteen writers with backgrounds in economics, physics, medicine, mathematics, computer science and science fiction imagine the world not just a century or millennium but a million years hence. Surely that's enough time for Futureworld to arrive!

The tone of the essays ranges from giddy to gloomy. Indeed, some spoilsports warn that our survival is by no means assured. We may be wiped out by an asteroid, the blast from a nearby supernova or our own creations: nukes, hyper-lethal viruses or "nanobots" that turn all matter into "grey goo." If humanity vanishes, science writer Dougal Dixon predicts, the world may be ruled by "rats, rabbits, moles, crows and seagulls -- animals we regard as pests." For those who prefer crows to people -- my wife is one of them -- there may be something comforting in this vision.

Most of the authors agree, however, that if we survive we will become very, very smart. The IQ gap between our descendants and us, one essayist estimates, will be greater than the gap between us and tiny worms called nematodes, which can't even balance a checkbook. In the near term, perhaps beginning in this century, we will soup up our bodies and minds with genetic engineering, nanotechnology and bionic implants. Not only will our cyborg descendants be immortal; they will also enjoy telepathic broadband communication with one another via wi-fi-equipped brain chips, resulting in a global mind-meld that physician Steven Harris describes as "the Internet on crank." Then again, mathematician Rudy Rucker frets that spam will be downloaded directly into our brains.

A million years -- it's a haunting number, quite terrifying if you put your imagination to work trying to grasp what it means, what it implies.

The computer scientist Robert Bradbury believes that inevitably we will leave our bodies entirely behind and evolve into radically different entities. Picture a vast shell-like form surrounding the sun and absorbing all its energy. This is called a Dyson sphere, after Freeman Dyson, the physicist who conceived of it. (Mr. Dyson did not contribute to "Year Million" but clearly inspired many of its ideas.) Now imagine a bunch of nested Dyson spheres that divert all that solar energy into information processing. Borrowing the term for Russian dolls, Mr. Bradbury calls this a "Matrioshka brain."

But once we get to this stage, other authors speculate, we'll be able to morph into virtually any form, like the evil, shape-shifting robot in "Terminator 2." So what will these protean brainiacs do? Make copies of themselves. In fact, environmentalists distressed by strip-mining here on Earth are going to hate the far future, when we will strip-mine entire solar systems. Some raw materials will be diverted into energy production, and the rest will be transformed into computronium, a kind of programmable matter that's perfect for making thinking machines.

The economist Robin Hanson predicts that some of our computronium-based progeny may colonize the cosmos in a peaceful, cooperative manner, like nice liberal Democrats. Others will be "rapacious," engaging in a vicious competition to seize and exploit new star systems first. This all still sounds like fun, in a retro, social Darwinian kind of way. Things get duller as we move to the very distant future, beyond even the year one million.


As the physicist Sean Carroll notes, astronomers have recently discovered that the universe is expanding at an ever-increasing rate, perhaps under the influence of a mysterious "dark energy." In an eon or two the universe will go dark as all the other galaxies in the cosmos vanish over the horizon. Eventually all the stars in the Milky Way will burn out, and we will face the prospect of heat death, which is like the most tedious party you ever went to, except much, much worse.

We might escape our increasingly bland cosmos, Mr. Carroll conjectures, by creating a "baby universe." Millions of fresh galaxies to strip-mine! If that doesn't work, we can still survive forever, the engineer Wil McCarthy insists, because the temperature of the universe will never quite arrive at absolute zero. In fact, Mr. McCarthy writes, by cleverly exploiting the bizarre quantum properties of extremely low-temperature matter, we may ascend to a level of intelligence "so vast and unknowable that we might as well call it God."

To rephrase my earlier question: How would beings with God-like intelligence while away eternity? The physicist Gregory Benford suggests that they can keep inventing and solving ever-more-complicated mathematical problems. But journalist Jim Holt dashes this wan hope, speculating that our descendants may view mathematics as a collection of vacuous tautologies. Mr. Holt recalls that Bertrand Russell, whose youthful love of mathematics helped him overcome a bout of suicidal despair, later came to believe that mathematics is fundamentally "trivial."

In the last essay, the sci-fi writer George Zebrowski serves up a couple of other options. Our supersmart offspring may amuse themselves reliving all the highlights of cosmic history, like Mets fans replaying the 1986 World Series. Or they could invent and frolic within virtual realities more thrilling than Disneyland or even Grand Theft Auto. But Mr. Zebrowski fears that sooner or later the mind at the end of time will succumb to "catastrophic boredom."

If nothing else, "Year Million," a fascinating but oddly dispiriting book, should make you glad that you're living in 2008. Futureworld can wait.

Mr. Horgan, the author of "The End of Science" and other books, directs the Center for Science Writings at Stevens Institute of Technology.

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