To infinity and beyond



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Posted by: stak
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Posted on: 2010-08-13 16:25:41

So a few months ago, Stephen Hawking said that we shouldn't try to make contact with aliens because they'd likely just wipe us out and move on. His argument? "We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn't want to meet." While this is certainly a possibility, it reminded me of a realization I came to last year about human life on Earth. The following two paragraphs were extracted from an IM conversation I had wherein I described said realization (I just cleaned it up a bit, but didn't edit it much, so apologies if it seems a bit out-of-place in blog form).

The realization was that humans really suck at living on Earth, but that we will get better. I realized that people who are good at something usually do it in a highly efficient manner. In fact, it's very similar to somebody who doesn't do it at all. On the other hand, somebody who's bad at something will make this huge mess and end up with imperfect results. For example, really good programmers can do more with one line of well-crafted code than crappy programmers can do with a pageful. Ju-jitsu masters can throw people across a room while hardly moving, whereas beginners have to heave and grunt. But the thing is it's all part of the learning process. At the beginning you don't understand how it works clearly in your mind, so you flail about and do some stuff. Then, over time, it makes more and more sense and you can strip out all the flailing and just keep that one essential flail that does the job. And that's what the experts do.

So then I realized that what humans have done on the planet so far has been the equivalent of flailing. Before we were "intelligent" we lived in harmony with nature and stuff; once we become experts we will be able to again live in harmony with the environment and only have a minimal footprint. Already we're starting to do that a bit with more and more miniaturization of tech and more efficient power sources and things like that. But once we really get the hang of it it'll be not much different from the initial state.



My point is that I disagree with Stephen Hawking, to a certain extent. I think that the human race (and any alien civilizations) will eventually either self-destruct (possibly taking the universe with them), or reach the point where they can peacefully co-exist with the rest of the universe. The only question is: will we (or aliens) expand out into space before or after that decision is made? It seems to me that if, right now, we started expanding out to other planets, it would remove the pressure on us to reach the peaceful co-existence state. For instance, colonizing a planet with fossil fuels means we no longer have any need to seek out more efficient and renewable energy sources. Colonizing just about any other Earth-like planet means we don't need to worry about global warming. This means that we would treat any other planet the same way that we treat Earth now, which isn't all that great.

If, on the other hand, we were forced to stay here on Earth until we reached the peaceful co-existence state, and THEN we expanded to other planets, we would take that culture with us. We would inhabit new planets with a minimal footprint, co-existing with any life that we found there, and generally being good. In related news, Stephen Hawking also recently said that we should expand beyond Earth or face extinction. While I would like to see that happen, I also hope we don't do it too soon, and that we are forced to mend our ways first. Otherwise, we may well turn out to be the destructive, resource-hungry, aliens that Hawking is afraid we might run into. I'd much rather see the human race go extinct than see them destroy half the universe.

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