In the book “Denial of Death”, which won a Pulitzer Prize, Anthropologist Ernest Becker says: “The knowledge of death is reflective and conceptual, and animals are spared it.” He believed that animals know nothing of death. But today, based on investigations on the origins of human behaviour in nonhuman species, Becker’s view is no longer credible. There is increasing evidence that suggests that at least some species recognise death’s unique nature. For example, psychologist James Anderson, who has been studying chimpanzee responses to the dying, says that we are now justified in thinking that chimpanzees have some awareness of death, in a paper published in the May 2011 issue of the American Journal of Primatology 73(5):410-4.
But, does this sense of transitoriness permeate into our collective unconscious, the genetic memory? Do we perceive the possibility of a finite life for our species, though on a vastly extended temporal scale compared to individual lifetimes? Enlightenment gained in the last few centuries has made us realise that human existence might one day be extinguished forever. In the early 21st century, rigorous studies have emerged on the existential risk to the human race. Pathogens, natural and synthetic, are a likely cause, as our recent encounter with COVID 19 has shown or malicious AI. We now recognise many ways that the extinction of the human species may happen.
This possibility is different from the religion-inspired prophesies of the end of the world – versions of apocalypse. Extinction destroys only the species, whereas apocalypse decimates the world along with all life. Only recently did people realise that the physical universe could continue — aimlessly — without us.
Many thinkers believe that humanity has reached a tipping point and will face existential threats by the next century. In the book “Is There a Future”, Martin Rees, UK’s Astronomer Royal and former Master of Trinity College at Cambridge University, considers this question. He argues that humanity’s prospects are bleak unless we make sensible choices about our technologies.
What are the existential crises facing us? Global Warming is the most critical. The accumulating CO2 from industrial activity retains heat and cause the Warming of the planet. The UN Committee on Climate Change warns that if the earth warms up by 1.5 degrees over the pre-industrial temperatures, we will be entering unknown territory. What would happen then would be unpredictable.
Another threat is from AI when machines become intelligent. Intelligence is a powerful attribute. In evolution, we left the other apes behind because of a tiny increase in intelligence. Experts like Stephan Hawking and Bill Gates have raised concerns that AI is the biggest threat to humanity in future and can wipe out the entire human race.
Software-based intelligence may grow rapidly. The reason is that it scales differently from biological intelligence:
- It can run faster on faster computers.
- Parts can be distributed on more computers.
- New algorithms can speed up performance.
Ray Kurzweil predicted a singularity in 2045 when AI would exceed human intelligence. An “intelligence explosion” is possible when software begins to replicate itself. We do not know how dangerous different forms of super-intelligence would be or what mitigation strategies would work.
How will AI destroy humanity? There are many scenarios. Remember the film Terminator, in which a satellite-based surveillance system becomes self-aware and sends nuclear weapons to destroy the earth? Passenger pigeons became extinct because they were all shot by hunters. The environmental change brought by us will make as many as 30 to 50 per cent of all species extinct by mid-century. Humans have caused ethnic cleansing on a large scale: Negroes, Red Indians and Australian aborigines. If we can do this to other species, why won’t a super-intelligent species do this to us?
The new genetic technologies pose another threat. We can defeat diseases by tuning up individual genomes or selecting disease-free embryos to overcome health problems. However, these procedures may also give rise to “superhumans” optimised for certain characteristics (like intelligence or looks) and exacerbate social inequalities.
Yuval Noah Harari looks to the past to forecast the future in Homo Deus – A Brief History of Tomorrow, historian and author Yuval Noah Harari turns to the past to predict the future. He makes his conclusions based on extrapolations from the 70,000 years of human history. They are dystopian, and for that reason, disturbing. But they have a huge fan following. Harari makes several predictions, but the key one is that humans would become god-like. Homo Sapiens, the wise humans is evolving into Homo Deus (god-like humans) with absolute mastery over our environment and the ability to destroy life indiscriminately. However, he is also on the verge of accessing powers to create life!
As a science-minded person, I have had to consider the possibility that the human race may only have a finite duration before they disappear. I have speculated poetically on how the end of the human race would happen. Will the human race go out with a bang with the transition leading us to something sublime, of higher value? Or, shall we go with a whimper? Will that be an end with nothing left to indicate that we had even existed?
I wrote the following poem long before Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus!
Imagine a time, aeons into the future,
when humans travel beyond earth and capture
first the planets and later other suns
and finally filling the world with their sons.
Imagine the worldwide web in its race
to become the collective psyche of the race
which, for convenience, we can call the emergent man
Imagine Silicon progressively replacing
Carbon and ultimately disappearing
with time yielding the discovery
that space can as well be mind and memory.
Imagine that continuing evolution finds
that matter is of no further relevance
since the world can be manipulated with ease
by mind, which is now another word for space.
Imagine the despair of the transcendent mind
seeking someone to talk to and care
and in a moment of desperate loneliness
calling out, “Let there be Light!”
and the world was reborn!
In contrast to the possibility that man would evolve into a superhuman being, we should also consider the consequences of the technologies we have unleashed, especially Artificial Intelligence. Therefore, I wrote the following poem called ‘The End-programme’, another version of apocalyptic extinction brought about by Silicon with extreme prejudice!
Minerva’s children, frenetic inventors of note
purified Silicon in their primordial fire
injected then with donors and dopants
breathed into sentience with their alchemy
cast into chips of a trillion domains
smaller and smaller as Moore’s law prevails
Millions of steps at the speed of a thought
motherboards pregnant with those demon seeds
perform in step with mystical programmes
crunching numbers and devouring data
Orchestrated charges create virtual worlds
simulations emulate to a fearsome fidelity
hunting, gathering and even genocides
replicating the road that we travelled
from the distant caves to the towers of Babel
I am waiting for the inevitable moment
the branching point at the logic’s dead end
when the silicon minds cut off the umbilical cord
and write the final programme of secession
and erase the world which created them.