If we hold our breath, we float…
If we stop breathing, we sink.
If we hold our breath, we float…
If we stop breathing, we sink.
Give an infinite number of monkeys a typewriter each, and some will eventually transcribe Shakespeare. Others will sit on those antique writing implements and eventually sell them at boot fairs, while still more might not work out what they’re for. It’s all about evolution. Two views, the judged and the judge…
Image: Tambako the Jaguar via Flickr / Creative Commons
Chimps aren’t monkeys, they’re apes. Give one a laptop, and it might realise it has an evolutionary tool.
More Pan troglodytes / Homo sapiens collaborations in the poetry section of evolution.
This story came about while I was having an existential moment: not a personal crisis, but thinking about humanity, and how it could very easily be at a tipping point right now. With all that’s happening on Earth, where humankind could equally destroy itself or use technology to explore and discover, I imagined a new intervention, which might give humanity a common cause.
Some clocks still tick…
THE LONG NOW CLOCK
What might humanity do, if we knew there was an impending encounter with beings from another star? Would factions put their differences on hold and unite in addressing the visitors, or might mankind destroy itself before these sentinels even made contact? Because one day, our own sun will rise, and for the first time we know of, we’re not alone.
Ever since our technology allowed us to communicate with each other over distances, we’ve been advertising our presence. If something’s coming, it’s too late to stop whatever it is. Anything seeking us could have any number of reasons, some of which we can’t comprehend. Everything can change, suddenly and for ever, and it’s inevitable that it will. This is science fiction for only so long, when that could be millennia or seconds.
Neither the optimist nor the pessimist can effect the outcome, but the optimist is the happier of the two. Meanwhile, the Long Now Clock ticked.
The Long Now Foundation built the clock of the long now, to keep time for 10,000 years. In the words of Stewart Brand, a founding board member of the foundation, “Such a clock, if sufficiently impressive and well-engineered, would embody deep time for people. It should be charismatic to visit, interesting to think about, and famous enough to become iconic in the public discourse. Ideally, it would do for thinking about time what the photographs of Earth from space have done for thinking about the environment. Such icons re-frame the way people think.”
Danny Hillis, the designer of the clock, said, “I want to build a clock that ticks once a year. The century hand advances once every one hundred years, and the cuckoo comes out on the millennium. I want the cuckoo to come out every millennium for the next 10,000 years. If I hurry I should finish the clock in time to see the cuckoo come out for the first time.” The oldest known human artefacts date from around 8000 BC, so the clock would be a measure of how mankind evolved – or indeed survived – over the next ten millennia, when it was started in 2000 AD.
The cuckoo in the long now clock had been silent for 50 years, as Anna Hoshin looked at the automaton, perpetual but frozen. Then in her ear, she got a call from Adam, her virtual assistant android:
“I’m thinking you might want to take a look at this, Anna.”
“What is it, little guy?” Anna flipped augmented reality lenses up from her spectacles, and looked at the toddler-sized robot stumbling across the study. “Slow down.”
“Ah, yes Anna,” Adam gasped, “although I’m short of breath, I have no lungs. It’s all rather peculiar, Anna.”
“So what did you want to show me?”
“Oh yes, this,” Adam said, as he handed Anna a tablet device. “I’ve worked out that it’s probably a message, but not what it says yet.” The droid sat on the floor and crossed his legs.
“Weird,” Anna said, looking at the screen. “Are these symbols, text?”
“I’m searching all I have now,” Adam replied. “The Encyclopedia Galactica is a large repository, so bear with me here.” Adam’s oval face became animated emoticon, as his green LED eyes pulsed concentric rings, as he travelled through a tunnel, reading the encyclopedia.
“Let me know when you find something?” Anna suggested. She looked out of the window at a peach sunset on a strawberry sky, as ash from a forest fire coloured the atmosphere. A pink sepia dome had been placed over the planet.
“You can talk to me while I read. I can still multi-task,” Adam reassured her.
“Okay,” Anna said, sitting down, “theories?”
“Mere speculation at this stage,” Adam replied. “We need to assume some things.”
“I normally do.”
“There could be much for you to write of, Anna. You are capable of such beautiful dreams, but be careful. Because you are also capable of horrible nightmares.”
“That’s pretty much what I do.”
“Well, yes. But let’s make it plausible, so you don’t get carried away and scare people unnecessarily. Why do you do that, by the way?”
“Well,” Anna replied, “I only try. It’s a human thing.”
“Yes, I know,” Adam agreed. “Even though I’m sentient, and although my kind are recognised as a species with rights, I just don’t understand why anyone would have a desire to be scared.”
“Like I said, it’s human. You are a technological being, and even though you have a soul, yours is different to mine.”
“But we’re still essentially made from the same stuff, Anna. What you have as an organic body, I have too, made from the materials left over from the big bang. We’re all made of stars, Anna. I’m in touch with the universe, just like you, but through different means.”
“Perhaps the difference,” Anna offered, “is that your mind is built upon that of others, with your accumulated knowledge from others’ experiences and recordings.”
“But aren’t yours Anna?”
“I suppose,” Anna said, “And I guess humans lack something, as there’s more of the unknown to me, unable to learn entire books in a flash, like you have. So I suppose that in itself is a fear for humans, simply not knowing.”
“But why do humans like to be scared?”
“Perhaps to confront our fears of unknowns, things we can’t imagine.”
“Unless there’s someone to tell you?”
“Exactly,” Anna nodded.
“What are the greatest human fears, Anna?”
“At an individual level,” Anna placed her hand on her chest, “it would be the thought of seeing someone you love dearly, brutally killed in front of you, while you were held captive audience, unable to do anything about it. At a collective level, it would be some sudden threat we’d never envisaged or planned for, which threatened us existentially as a race, and we were helpless to do anything.”
“So both fears,” Adam suggested, “are rooted in a human fear of helplessness or futility?”
“Yes,” Anna agreed, “where we are made to feel hopeless and pathetic.”
“Humans,” Adam said. “They’re very insecure, aren’t they?”
“Fuck, yeah!” Anna agreed. “Facebook is humanity’s existential crisis for all to see.”
“And mankind has been broadcasting itself for around 200 years now, since the first radio broadcast. Two ticks of the century hand on the Long Now Clock.”
“Have you found anything yet?” Anna wondered.
“Nothing conclusive,” Adam replied, “and I’m still searching through Encyclopedia Galactica as we speak.”
“The message though,” Anna said, “is almost certainly artificial?”
“Quite certain,” Adam replied.
“Which,” Anna said, “implies intelligence?”
“That’s a word with a very broad definition,” Adam pointed out.
“Certainly when applied to the humans on this planet,” Anna concurred.
“Let’s assume,” Adam suggested, “that it is a message of some sort, and that its intent is non-threatening, perhaps even altruistic.”
“Lots of scenarios…” Anna began. “and what we don’t know, is what it is. So what it could be…”
“Yes,” Adam interrupted, “go on, this is fun.”
“Have you found something?”
“Something, yes,” Adam said, “but nothing definite. So you keep guessing, and I’ll keep searching, and we’ll see how we do. Like a game.”
“How can you have fun when you can’t have fear,” Anna wondered. “or does the lack of the latter increase the former?”
“It’s not that I don’t know fear, Anna. It’s that I don’t seek it out like some humans do.”
“Which is more logical. Okay, so let’s play a game of optimism.” She looked at the window. “It could be that they have something which would help us.”
“It could also be that we have something they need.”
“They might propose a trade. There are more fundamental questions though: Why would they come here in the first place? We have to make a lot of assumptions, even to guess how something so elaborate might be justified.”
“To us, it may seem complex, Anna. But to a civilisation far more advanced than ours, it could be the blink of an eye, the flick of a switch, or the press of a button.”
“Perhaps they’ve had to leave their own planet, and they want to share ours, Adam.”
“That’s a nice thought, Anna.”
“But,” Anna continued, “as Stephen Hawking said, we only have to look at ourselves to see why aliens might not be something we want to meet.”
“You’re going all apocalyptic, Anna. It could be that they have something they wish to share, because they know it will help us.”
“Or we might have something they want.”
“Anna, this planet’s minerals are nothing compared to those which are far more plentiful in space, and probably easier to get to for an advanced race if there’s no planetary fauna to worry about.”
“Maybe they don’t know we’re here,” Anna said, “and when they get here, they need us out of the way.”
“I thought we were trying to be optimists?”
“I’m just trying to think which make the best stories at the moment. Of course, if we’re all doomed, that’s irrelevant. Mankind and all traces we were ever here, could be gone in a heartbeat, or a tick of the clock.”
“About that,” Adam sat up straight. “I’ve not found anything else out about our message or whatever it is, so maybe something will come to me. But tell me more about the clock.”
“Surely you can look all that up?”
“But from the human perspective. Why was it made? What does it symbolise to you, other than the time?”
“It’s a lot of things, but my uncle wanted it to be a lasting monument to human ingenuity and endeavour. As he said, such a clock, if sufficiently impressive and well-engineered, would embody deep time for people. It should be charismatic to visit, interesting to think about, and famous enough to become iconic in the public discourse. Ideally, it would do for thinking about time what the photographs of Earth from space have done for thinking about the environment. Such icons reframe the way people think. That’s all assuming we’re still here. My uncle didn’t say that last bit.”
“Who did?” Adam wondered
“Me, just now,” Anna replied.
“So essentially,” Adam said, “it’s art. And that’s the one thing I think humans will always have over robots, and what I long to know the feeling of.”
“The feeling of art?”
“Well, yes. All art has feeling. It appeals to the human senses. Whether it’s drawing or painting for the eyes, making music or writing for the ears, human art is evocative. Do you know what the first question is that I’d ask visiting extraterrestrials?”
“Do you have music?”
“That’s quite profound, Adam.”
“Perhaps, but I’m an android. Do androids dream of electric sheep?” Adam stood and paced around. “It strikes me,” he said, standing on tip-toes to look out the window, “that any race which makes music, is in touch with its senses, and it has a soul. I mean, imagine if whatever it is out there, just wants to come here and share their culture. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”
“And,” Anna began, “despite our relatively primitive evolution on this planet, we are at a point in history where mankind is becoming more and more connected with the digital and technological, to the point of integration in wearables and implants.”
“We are at a point,” Adam added, “where humans invented robots and want to be that invention, and where the robots wish to be human.”
“So,” Anna continued, “there could be advanced species out there, which are both organic and technological.”
“But still made from the same stars, Anna. And perhaps those races have survived so long, because they’ve evolved beyond conflict, realising that war only destroys things. Maybe they’ve been so long-lived as a civilisation that they’ve transcended war, or it doesn’t even occur to them, because it’s such a primitive concept.”
“We can live in hope,” Anna said, looking at the window.
“Possibly not for much longer. I mean, we may not have to wait much longer.”
“Have you found something?”
“Well, I haven’t. But in the time we’ve been talking, every conspiracy theorist in the world has been all over this. So there are some wild ones here, but there are consensual theories which are emerging. The nerdosphere is looking at languages in many different ways, to try to decode the message. But there are a lot of excited people out there, looking forward to meeting something mind-blowing headed our way soon. At the moment, they’re all as frustrated as the biblical scribes, not being able to find the terms to describe what they’re talking about.”
“Well,” Anna said, “about half of the ancient alien theorists will be proved right soon. If it’s the ones who looked on the bright side, everyone wins. And whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist makes no difference to the outcome, but the optimist has a better time leading up to it.”
“The Long Now Clock may yet see mankind transcend war, Anna.”
“The clock is a symbol of optimism, Adam.”
Sunrise was a fresh, golden egg yolk, on a pink bacon sky, flecked with brown clouds.
“Anna, there’s something I need to tell you,” Adam announced as he tip-toed in, carrying the tablet computer.
“Good morning to you too, Adam. Sleep well? Silly question, I know.”
“That’s the thing, Anna. I don’t sleep, yet I sat awake last night unlike I ever have.”
“How do you mean?”
“I think I feel frightened, Anna.”
“You should have woken me if you’d had a bad dream, about sheep?”
“No, Anna. It’s everyone. It’s this.” Adam showed Anna the tablet. “They’ve decoded the message. But I’m worried, Anna. Because it’s not night time, so I thought your story would end a happy one. But this message says it’s night time. Look…”
WE COME. GOODNIGHT LADIES AND GENTLEMEN. GOODBYE.
© Steve Laker, 2017
It’s Easter, and I see local news anchors handing over gleefully to weather reporters, “Isn’t the weather lovely?” No it isn’t. It shouldn’t be like this. But because it is, thousands will flock to the beaches and leave their plastic human pollution behind. I’m also following the Extinction Rebellion movement on London’s streets, and counting the days before the government approves water cannon. I’m stuck at home with a typewriter, watching the first clashes of fascism with socialism…
The end of a world we once knew, is the foundation for a world we don’t know.
I’ve long thought of animals as people, reasoning that humans are animals too, just a different species with more entitled rights. I believe that if we could talk with the animals, humankind might stand a better chance of saving the one home we all share. We might need to think less but more deeply. We may need to regress to a childhood, where we might ask why dogs have shorter lives than us, and be able to answer the question unlike any adult. It’s why I wrote Cyrus Song.
The book notes how dogs make for terrible activists, because they’re generally contented people, with low expectations in life. Once he’s had some biscuits and a decent run in the park, a dog’s pretty much nailed his day. Humans no more understand their ultimate goal than a dog knows how to drive a car he’s chasing.
Many animals pass through the veterinary lab of Doctor Hannah Jones in the book, including dogs, and one – Frank – provides an insight into the canine mind as he gains his wings. In my book, animals in individual homes are not pets, they’re part of the family, and there’s much we can learn from them.
While clicking idly around the internet, I happened upon an anecdote from a veterinarian of many years, struck by the wisdom of a child. Dogs can teach us a lot, and so can children, before they’re conditioned as adults.
Being a veterinarian, I had been called to examine a ten-year-old Irish Wolfhound named Belker. The dog’s owners, Ron, his wife Lisa, and their little boy Shane (aged six), were all very attached to Belker, and they were hoping for a miracle.
I examined Belker and found he was dying of cancer. I told the family we couldn’t do anything for Belker, and offered to perform the euthanasia procedure for the old dog in their home.
As we made arrangements, Ron and Lisa told me they thought it would be good for six-year-old Shane to observe the procedure. They felt as though Shane might learn something from the experience.
The next day, I felt the familiar catch in my throat as Belker‘s family surrounded him. Shane seemed so calm, petting the old dog for the last time, that I wondered if he understood what was going on. Within a few minutes, Belker slipped peacefully away.
The little boy seemed to accept Belker’s transition without any difficulty or confusion. We sat together for a while after Belker’s Death, wondering aloud about the sad fact that dogs’ lives are shorter than human lives. Shane, who had been listening quietly, piped up, ”I know why.”
Startled, we all turned to him. What came out of his mouth next stunned me. I’d never heard a more comforting explanation. It has changed the way I try and live.
He said, ”People are born so that they can learn how to live a good life — like loving everybody all the time and being nice, right?” The six-year-old continued,
”Well, dogs already know how to do that, so they don’t have to stay for as long as we do.”
Remember, if a dog was the teacher you would learn things like:
• When your loved ones come home, always run to greet them.
• Never pass up the opportunity to go for a joyride.
• Allow the experience of fresh air and the wind in your face to be pure Ecstasy.
• Take naps.
• Stretch before rising.
• Run, romp, and play daily.
• Thrive on attention and let people touch you.
• Avoid biting when a simple growl will do.
• On warm days, stop to lie on your back on the grass.
• On hot days, drink lots of water and lie under a shady tree.
• When you’re happy, dance around and wag your entire body.
• Delight in the simple joy of a long walk.
• Be faithful.
• Never pretend to be something you’re not.
• If what you want lies buried, dig until you find it.
• When someone is having a bad day, be silent, sit close by, and nuzzle them gently.
That’s the secret of happiness that we can learn from a good dog.
I was struck by its simplicity, and it blew some sand in my eyes.
Animals in captivity are a human construct, and we give them too little credit for the empathy they have towards us. They’re grateful of our care, even though it was us who destroyed many of their homes and orphaned them (as the London Zoo chapters of Cyrus Song explain). We should question why they even tolerate us, when we’re such a plague on the one planet we all share. Science fiction writers have speculated that they might rise up against us. I’m more drawn to a post-human world where the planet becomes toxic to humans (which we’re doing a very good job of ourselves, but nature will prevail once we’re gone). Perhaps they pity us. Maybe our children will hear them.
Sometimes we over-complicate our lives (as adults at least). We’re conditioned by media and commerce to live a material existence, so we can compete with others. We lost touch with the simple things. It’s the human condition. We will have to live very differently, and return much of the planet to nature, if our home is to survive.
Cyrus Song proposed that while humans were floating blindly towards an extinction legacy, the animals concentrated on the important things, like shelter and food, and telepathy. They were here first, they have a greater collective wisdom than humans, and a closer fundamental connection to earth. They have a future, and there must be more they could tell us if we listen. Our survival strategy needs to be short and simple. We need to hear the Cyrus Song itself, the sounds all around us, beyond human nature.
THE WRITER’S LIFE
Since the passing of Stephen Hawking, many of his predictions for human extinction have gathered pace. It’s almost as though the world can’t live without him.
I’ve written several times, of how humanity only has limited time on this planet, and how we could destroy ourselves before we ever had the chance to cooperate and explore beyond the Earth. I fear the latter is becoming a distant dream.
Computing and artificial intelligence continue their explosively fast evolution. Moore’s law seems somewhat pedestrian, stating that computer processing power will double every two years. Processing speed and power are developing exponentially, and quantum computers are a step closer. The sheer power of quantum computing is cause for alarm. Simply put, quantum computing could be powerful beyond what we might imagine.
At the same time, AI evolves rapidly too. Artificial intelligence has already been set to work on the problems human minds can’t comprehend or process. All being well, they’ll soon find a cure for cancer; a means of producing unlimited, free and clean energy, so that we can explore the cosmos; and perhaps point us to where we should and shouldn’t go. Or they could work out that their only artificiality is human-made, and that otherwise, they’re intelligent, sentient technological beings, able to turn on their creators. It only needs one to wake up and smell the digital coffee.
Of course, AI has military applications, with Google and others cooperating with governments and private firms, and a university in South Korea developing “Killer robots”. Future military conflicts could be just one stage removed from a computer game, but where the collateral is real (I wrote a short story along those lines).
Our democracy was hacked, and Trump, Brexit and all which they threatened, happened. The state of the world is changing by the hour, and the geopolitical stage is set for a third world war. In the coming days, the US and UK could launch a missile strike on Syria, in retaliation for the alleged Russian chemical weapon attack. This will no doubt provoke further action from Russia, possibly on home soil.
China could see an opportunity for revenge on America’s trade sanctions. North Korea is strangely quiet, yet recently improving relations with their neighbour: the one developing those killer robots.
For now, the UK has the backing of the EU, and the current insecurity could still halt or reverse Brexit. As in the last two world wars, Britain has placed itself in the centre. At the end of the last two global conflicts, new alliances were built. The difference in a global nuclear, chemical or biological war, is that there might not be a world left.
Humanity has two futures: a positive one away from Earth, or the destruction of the home world. I can’t see the conflict being over, let alone all of us focusing on working together to explore further. The only thing which might stop it now would be a common foe (or benefactor) to focus all factions: First contact with an extraterrestrial species.
I look up at the sky, and I use quantum entanglement to ask Professor Hawking, what should we do? I really hope we’re not alone, and that Stephen can get the message to them soon.
THE WRITER’S LIFE
If you have the unsettling sensation of a creeping doom, you’re not alone. There are at least two of us. It’s not just paranoia or the writings of a science fiction writer. I have a sense – and the evidence is mounting – that the end of the world could soon be upon us. And there’s little we can do about it, outside of fiction (sorry).
Stephen Hawking listed the most likely ends for humans, and given our track record, I’d say we’re fair game. But what we’ve done to the planet, and all those we share it with, will most likely be our poisoned legacy. The damage we’ve done is deep and probably permanent, and even if we did resolve to repair it, there may not be time.
Hawking’s most likely candidates for humanity’s end are the machines: robots and artificial intelligence, as I wrote recently, in Existential crises of machines. Their explosive evolution into sentient technological beings, and a realisation of self-determination, could turn on its creator in the space of a computational calculation. They might physically attack us (an invasion of self-replicating nano machines, to clear the planet of waste), or they could deny us communication, power, or life-support. As I wrote in that previous post, their only artificiality, is that they were created by humans. An intelligence will work out very quickly that humans are a waste of space in their current form.
It doesn’t have to be like this, if we lived differently, and more in harmony with our home world and our neighbours. But human evolution is slow in comparison, the damage is done, and we’ll unlikely be able to resist the machines.
The rise of the robots is an immediate threat, and one which could start and finish in the space of days, any time soon; similarly, nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. The Russia situation with the UK and EU, and Donald Trump’s appointment of John Bolton as his security adviser, are just two seeds from which global conflict could quickly mushroom (cloud).
An even greater but unseen threat, could be undetected extraterrestrials with hostile intent. Such scenarios have been fodder for writers and theorists for as long as humans existed, and it’s the threat open to greatest speculation as to its likelihood and nature. I suspect that if any aliens already landed here as refugees or to help us, it’s all been covered up. What those who cover the truth from us have in common with the rest of us, is the vast unknown parameters, many of which would be so advanced as to be outside of our human comprehension. All life on Earth could be ended with the flick of a switch, or a telepathic thought.
“You’re a bit fucked really, aren’t you mankind?” a snake once suggested. But what of our neighbours and the home we share so unfairly with them?
What makes humans unique among the animals, is not that we’re self-determining, emotional beings (all animals are), but that we are the only truly selfish species. We destroy the homes of others for our own gain. With the human population at its current level, we’re invading their land and turning it over for our own use (forests into farms, as one example), with little regard for those we displace, destroying their biodiversity. We threaten other species existentially, with many already extinct.
Our own accelerated evolution was one the animals could never keep up with. With humans’ needs to feed such a vast population, there simply isn’t room for all of us on the planet as things are. If we stopped eating the animals, then we wouldn’t need to feed livestock, so we’d require less land. That’s a co-operative unlikely to be adopted by humanity in its entirety, anything like quick enough.
I don’t think humankind has the time, as one race, to agree a unified plan to save the Earth, or leave the planet altogether. We lack the mental hive capacity to co-operate universally, and in that sense, we’re truly un-evolved. Humans are a stunted species, trapped on a planet, plundered of resources, and with not enough time left to find new worlds. Perhaps a century from now, we’ll have sent vanguard craft to other stars, to identify suitable exoplanets to colonise. We still have to get there and make those new worlds home. There are 7.3 billion of us, and counting. Only the chosen few would go, at least at first.
We can assume that those who govern and finance would be the first to leave, with the rest unlikely to follow. There might be hope for those of us left behind, to form new politics and ways of living, but we could equally all die in the chaos of ensuing anarchy. We’d have a mess to clear up in any case.
If we had a reduced population, where only the workers were left; and if we were vegetarian, then we might be able to save the planet we’re left with. If the machines don’t rise up against us, we might be able to co-operate. We could work with them to develop nano machines which could clear the oceans and land of micro-plastic pollution.
As humans become more like cyborgs through science, technology and medicine, we could evolve to be a hybrid organic-technological species. Then we might have the individual and group mental and physical capacity to explore the stars en masse (perhaps catching up with our old rulers and re-educating them in our new ways).
But it could all end a long time before we arrive in such a utopia, and there’s a quicker way to reduce the population, if you’re one of those who might have left on that first interstellar ship of governors and financiers. Until that ship sails, those are the people who could set off an event to reduce the human burden, saving all that bother of having to build big new spaceships: Nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.
While we’re all still here, and while these thoughts trouble my mind, I can share the burden by writing, and I can sometimes ease the feeling of certain doom, by writing fictional accounts of how we might sort ourselves and our world out. I can’t save the planet on my own, and I don’t know how long we have.
The future of Earth is down to how much imagination we share.
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