THE FUTURE POSSIBILITIES for our species, as well as the millions of other species we selfishly share the planet with, were significantly changed on Monday, July 16th 1945 at precisely 5:30 a.m.
At that moment, the landscape of New Mexico’s Jornada del Muerto desert was engulfed by a flash of beautiful light brighter than a dozen suns.
That beautiful light was caused by a very ugly explosion 10,000 times hotter than the surface of the sun.
So hot in fact that every living creature within a one-mile radius of ground-zero was annihilated and the very ground itself, the sand, was instantly transformed into jade-colored glass.
Rising above the destruction was a towering and ominous 40,000-foot mushroom cloud.
We — America — had successfully detonated the first atomic bomb and created a weapon of mass destruction.
Whatever future could have been imagined for the human race up until that moment now included destroying the entire world.
Not even Robert Oppenheimer, the head scientist of the Manhattan Project, which created the bomb, fully comprehended this until shortly after that first test blast when he reportedly uttered this line from the ancient Hindu text, the Bhagavad-Gita:
“I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
His test director, Ken Bainbridge, was a bit more blunt and simply had this to say:
“Now we’re all sons of bitches.”
Turns out, they were both right.
In light of the birth of the Atomic Age, I’d like to share with you three scenarios for the future of our species, beginning with the most obvious: Extinction.
In this scenario, we destroy ourselves and go extinct just like the billions of species that have gone extinct before us.
Extinction is actually quite common with 99 percent of all species that ever existed on Earth having gone extinct.
So congratulations: you are all currently one-percenters in the game of life.
I hope I’m wrong, but presently this extinction scenario appears to be the most likely.
We could do it the old-fashioned way and destroy ourselves with nuclear weapons or perhaps some other weapon of mass destruction that hasn’t been invented yet.
We could destroy our food supply through some botched bioengineering or create a synthetic nano-virus that quickly spreads and wipes out the human race.
We could create advanced artificially intelligent machines, a “superintelligence”, that at some point determines humans are a direct threat to its survival and destroys us.
And if our technology doesn’t kill us, then a giant asteroid probably will.
Like the one that wiped out the dinosaurs and 70 percent of all species 66 million years ago.
Asteroids of that magnitude collide with Earth about every 100 million years; so don’t worry — we still have some time to figure this one out.
The ways in which we might destroy ourselves or be destroyed seem endless, which is why this scenario appears to be the most likely.
Not to mention that Hollywood keeps churning out movies about these sorts of doomsday scenarios — usually starring Bruce Willis.
Okay, now that we’ve got that very cheery scenario out of the way, here’s scenario two: Utopia.
We get our act together.
We stop fighting and we start working together.
We solve problems rather than create them.
We use our technology for good, not evil.
We start saving the planet rather than destroying it and our species survives and thrives into the deep future.
And by “deep future” I mean millions of years.
In this scenario, our species could exist for so long that our descendants are still here when our sun finally runs out of the hydrogen it’s burning in its reactive core and swells to a red giant.
When that happens all of the oceans will boil causing a runaway greenhouse effect.
Earth’s surface temperature will rise to 750 degrees Fahrenheit and then quickly double as the planet becomes engulfed in a global forest fire that will burn until all of the oxygen in the atmosphere is gone.
I think it’s pretty easy to imagine how we might fare under these particular circumstances.
All life on Earth will perish in the crucible of the expanding sun.
We know this is the fate of our sun because we’ve observed other stars in our own galaxy dying in this exact same way.
In fact, one star dies every year in the Milky Way.
Now that may not sound like much but our galaxy is just one of an estimated 100 billion other galaxies in the Universe so 100 billion stars die every year; some 10,000 of which will die just in the time it takes me to finish this talk — hopefully they don’t die of boredom.
The larger stars explode in massive supernovas and the smaller ones, like our sun, expand into the deadly red giant then contract and compact down into what astronomers call a “white dwarf”.
This cycle of life and death of stars, this cosmic Game of Thrones if you will, has been going on for a very, very, very long time.
And thankfully so.
The essential elements for all organic life — carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen — these have all been forged in the death of stars.
You and I are, as cosmologist Carl Sagan famously put it: “made of star stuff”.
Scenario three: We continue to advance technology to the point that we’re able to leave Earth and head out to a cooler and more inhabitable corner of the galaxy where we can continue to live long and prosper.
When I say “we”, I don’t mean you and me or Vulcans.
When I say “we”, I don’t even mean our species.
Our descendants will need to be radically different from you and me in order to survive deep space travel and rapid adaptation to the harsh environment of the cosmos.
The only way that we might accomplish this is through the continued advancement of technology in fields such as genetic engineering, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and robotics; all of which could make it possible for our descendants to live much, much longer than you and I will. Perhaps forever.
How might we do this?
We’ll do it by editing our DNA to become impervious to disease and to rapidly adapt to new environments.
We’ll manufacture replacement organs and perhaps entire bodies.
We’ll connect our limited brains directly to powerful AI systems to augment our intelligence.
We’ll merge and modify our fragile organic bodies with hardier robotic parts.
This all sounds somewhat sci-fi’sh, but these things are already happening today to one degree or another and will continue to accelerate and improve exponentially; thus is the nature of technology.
Surviving into the deep future sounds a bit far-fetched too, especially when you consider that Homo sapiens have only been around for 200,000 years.
Life first appeared on Earth 3.8 billion years ago.
So we’ve only been here for .00001 percent of that time.
We’ve literally just arrived at the party. And yet, we have achieved so much in such a short time because of technology.
To demonstrate just how important technology is to humans, I’d like us to do a brief thought experiment together.
I want us all to close our eyes — I’ll go first.
Close your eyes and imagine a world without technology.
No computers or smartphones or Internet. (Sounds peaceful.)
No cars or airplanes.
The chair you’re sitting in disappears and you’re squatting.
The building we’re in vanishes and we’re outside.
And it’s a good thing our eyes are closed because without technology we’re all naked.
Okay, open your eyes and be thankful for all the wonderful technology we have.
Technology is what makes us human; it’s why we have survived and thrived as a species.
Without technology, we would have perished long ago.
And without further development of technology, our descendants will not have a chance to survive into the deep future.
We have the opportunity and capability to radically and rapidly change our destiny through the further creation and application of technology.
But, if mishandled or misguided those very same technologies will be what drive us to extinction.
It seems as though technology has been a sort of Faustian Bargain for our species: it giveth and it taketh away.
But unlike the fictional character of Faust in the story who makes a deal with the Devil, exchanging his soul for unlimited knowledge and power, we haven’t actually made a pact with the Devil — well most of us probably haven’t anyway.
The only pact we’ve made is with ourselves and we don’t have to sacrifice our morality in order to achieve unlimited knowledge, power, and immortality for our descendants.
In fact, further development of technology that is informed and structured by our morality may very well be the key to success.
Our humanity might be the most important technology we have ever created. We should use it more often.
Whenever I think about the future, I always eventually return to the present with the realization that whatever future scenario plays out for us, it’s being forged right here, right now, in the present.
To paraphrase a quote from Dickens: we live in the best of times and the worst of times.
It’s the best of times because of all the amazing technologies we’ve developed and benefit from, but it’s the worst of times because the stakes have become so high and the margin for error so low.
I hope we choose to make our present time an age of wisdom and not foolishness, an epoch of belief rather than incredulity; that we choose light over the darkness, and embrace hope rather than despair.
That we endeavor to use our technology wisely to create a world in which our descendants might inherit not only the Earth but the cosmos too — because they’re going to need it.
Text of the TED Talk I presented at TEDxAshland on May 20, 2019 at the Camelot Theatre: https://youtu.be/zZM2Gsnxtdk