Book Review: Humanity 2.0 What it Means to be Human, Past, Present and Future. by Steve Fuller

Paperback: 280 pages

Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan (6 Oct 2011)

Language English

ISBN-10: 0230233430

ISBN-13: 978-0230233430

Product Dimensions: 21.2 x 13.8 x 2.2 cm

 

Imagine a future world where technology lets us control our own destiny, enhance our physical and mental performance, extend our lives – perhaps indefinately. How will we come to see ourselves as human beings?  What will it mean to  be human? And how can we manage it all for the common good.

This is the world of Humanity 2.0, and the subject of a new book from Warwick University Professor of Sociology Steve Fuller.

I have to say up front this is the first of Fuller’s books I’ve read through cover to cover, and frankly it was quite a challenge.  Whether it’s the sociologist’s writing style or the somewhat discordant mix of practical and theological content, extracting what Fuller is really trying to say, his thesis if you like, was an uphill job.  To his credit, Fuller has made a series of six short videos summarising his content, and which I’ve added to the end of this post.  They came too late for me, but you’re advised to watch them before reading the book.

That said, I want here to give an overview of the content and critique a few areas particularly where I have issues.

Fuller wants to create egalitarian policy for the development and implementation of transhumanist technologies, and justify sociology’s seat at the multi-disciplinary table that will deliver it.  It’s the laudable focus of his Chapter 3.

But his broader agenda is to dethrone what he sees as a prevailing hegemony of Neo-Darwinism (essentially what Darwin knew plus our knowledge of molecular genetics) and get an alternative variant of intelligent design (I.D.) taught in school science classes; p180:

…the most controversial aspect of my position, namely, that the active promotion of a certain broadly Abrahamic theological perspective is necessary to motivate students to undertake lives in science and to support those who decide to do so.

He’s accordingly raised his game by developing a brand of I.D. better suited to the task as he sees it; p177:

As a true social constructivist, I see myself as one of the constructors of intelligent design theory.  I am not simply remarking from the sidelines about what others have done or are doing, as a historian or journalist might.  Rather I am making a front-line contribution to defining the theory’s identity.

although it’s not clear how much of this is driven from  heart-felt conviction.  Variously describing himself as a Secular Humanist, Humanist, and now Transhumanist, in this Guardian interview  from 2006 he appeared not to favour I.D., but felt it deserved a “fair run for its money”; apparently backing any horse, however lame, that will run against Neo-Darwinism.

Fuller’s appeal to I.D. in Humanity 2.0 is itself ambiguous: he uses the term variously in contexts related to a recognisable deity, p187:

I have been quite open about identifying the ‘intelligence’ of intelligent design with the mind of a version of the Abrahamic God into which the scientist aspires to enter by virtue of having been created in imago dei.

then more in relation to nature, as in his discussion around civic religion, p182:

But what remains specifically ‘religious’ about ‘civic religion’? Two aspects: (1) Science’s findings are framed in terms of the larger significance of things, nature’s ‘intelligent design’, if you will. (2) Science’s pursuit requires a particular species of faith – namely, perseverence in the face of adversity – given science’s rather contestable balance sheet in registering goods and harms….

The former quote is consistent with Fuller’s broader counter to Neo-Darwinism, my reading of which can be summed up as (i.e. my words):

Those committed to a Neo-Darwinist world view are aligned with a historical tradition that decrees we can never know a god who is different from us in kind.  Such people are uninterested in science or technology beyond that required for a continued existence with their fellow animals in a sustainably snug microcosm.  They likewise have no interest in the science and technology of a transhumanist agenda.

It’s never quite clear whether Fuller is projecting God’s image onto man, or man onto God – a model more in line with his version of secular humanism as described in the aforementioned Guardian interview: “human beings at the centre of reality, creating God in their image and likeness” and “taking control of evolution”.   With I.D. tied up with hardcore Creationism in the US, however inappropriately from Fuller’s perspective (he doesn’t support Creationism), some clarification would be helpful.

Coming to structure and content.  The first two chapters major on the idea of human ‘distinctiveness’, or that which makes us uniquely human, discussed in the frame of race and  religion aligned with various biological and theological perspectives from the past, present, and future.  Chapter two specifically defines world views broadly corresponding to ‘naturalistic’ Neo-Darwinism, and a divinely-inspired alternative.

Where naturalistics see themselves “embedded” at one with nature, animals like any others emerging from a process of evolution with natural selection, the divinely-inspired are special: fundamentally separate and above animals, they recognise God because he is an intelligently-designing technician as they are, intent on preserving the essence of their specialness – their humanity.  Traditionally they’d look to do that in soul form, but now have an eye to the alternatives future transhumanist technologies might offer.  All a bit sci-fi for now, but think of uploading thoughts, memories, consciousness to a microchip, robot, clone, hive-mind, or whatever.

Chapter three’s more grounded ‘Policy Blueprint’ centres around the so-called Converging Technologies Agenda (CTA) for the delivery, management, and regulation of technologies for human enhancement, or transhumanism; so: Nanotechnology, Information Technology, Biotechnology and Cognitive Sciences working together under Fuller’s favoured policy regime of ‘anticipatory governance’.

Although more a check-list than a roadmap – I’m still uncertain of the next steps, there’s interesting discussion here on topics like the substantive PR task of selling transhumanist ideas to a CT-sceptical public (think nanotech), use of IT-style early-end-user-involvement to progress it, and the role for media and science communication.

We can expect issues around personal risk and willingness to participate in enhancement technology trials.  Fuller points to the danger of CT perceived as hollow rebranding (again, echos of Nanotech’s relation to chemistry), and questions around standards and norms for developments and applications: e.g. would we take a nanotech or medical lead in a medical situation using that technology?   There are also emerging and diverse management philosophies to accommodate or rationalise; so the USA taking a more ROI-focused, proactionary, human performance emphasis, hands off approach; while Europe favours a precautionary, state-controlling, human welfare emphasis.

For Fuller, sociology’s egalitarian pedigree, manifest in the Welfare State, qualifies its latent contribution.  And with funding for CT industries biased to the private sector, it looks like the common man is going to need a champion.  No centrally driven, government funded, benevolent upgrade for the species this.  The portents are rather for increasing societal inequality and differentiation: a position Fuller contrasts with the public-focused ‘common good’ research environment of the Cold War.  Cynically, and outside any higher moral ambition, CTA could simply serve as a ‘techno-fix’ for over-population or other pressures on the Welfare State, forcing us to work harder and longer for our deferred pensions – no thanks, or getting us off the hook of our ecological responsibilities.

It’s all scary stuff. When we’re popping cogno-enhancers over the cornflakes, and little Jimmy’s off to college by the grace of his cerebral implant, and your investment-banker neighbours have signed up for the latest ‘life-doubler’ programme; one wonders what will qualify us to live, never mind defining our humanity.  That’s me fantasising,  but drug-based cogno-enhancement is here, and Fuller’s born “always already disabled” scenario could happen, hitting hardest the under-priviledged and those who don’t want, or can’t afford, the latest upgrades.

Chapters four and five are a return to theology and full-on Neo-Darwinist bashing, which is a shame given I suspect there is so much more to say in the vein of Chapter three.

Various off-shoots and mini-theses sprout off the core agenda, like discussion on the debt owed to religion by Science and both the Secularist and Enlightenment movements for their existence, albeit with a concession the influence has waned:

..even if it is true that all supernaturally motivated scientific insights are eventually absorbed into the naturalistic worldview, it does not follow either that the supernaturalism was unnecessary or that naturalism is the final word.

Newton appears as the quintessential religiously motivated scientist, which is fair enough provided we remember back then he had only religion to explain anything.  It’s interesting to ask what sort of science a modern-day Newton might pursue.  Would he be one of Fuller’s Neo-Darwinists for whom ‘God differs in kind’, causing him to eschew all impractical science like cosmology, particle physics and String Theory?

I do struggle with this idea that scientists can’t, won’t, or won’t want to do fancy science unless they turn all ‘intelligent design’.  It’s saying we have to be designed in order to aspire to knowledge or value truth.  Or that because Neo-Darwinists wouldn’t recognise God if they found him curled up in the 10th dimension, they wouldn’t bother with String Theory.

Yet scientists, many of whom are Neo-Darwinists, do that kind of science – big time!  So what is it – force of habit?   Well why not?  Maybe we enjoy all that Brian Cox ‘wonders’ stuff because of an evolutionary misfire: a historic brain artifact associated with some evolved inquisitive tendency for practical survival.  We do fancy science, we make a discovery, we revel in our dopamine spike, we do more fancy science.  Simples. That’s why scientists are such fun folk to have around.

Fuller might see that as a reductionist, even nihilistic, worldview.   He’s said that when Darwin killed God he also killed man, or the only part of man that matters – his humanity.  And this is why despite presenting his arguments in a frame of reasoned academic detachment, I’m coming round to thinking Fuller’s propositions are at end religious plain and simple – even if the religion is his own science-flavoured brand.  He ‘feels’ there is no humanity without god, so we must have god.

Conclusion

If you’re not used to reading sociology texts, which I’m not, Humanity 2.0 is hard going.

It should be clear by now that Humanity 2.0’s high-tech cover art conceals a heavy theological edge with pervasive references to intelligent design in the context of an anti-Neo-Darwinism agenda.  And that’s a shame because it distracts from the more diverse, and frankly more interesting, material also there in plenty for those with open minds.

There’s nothing wrong with theological arguments per se, but mixing rational policy debate with what many will see as off-the-wall, politically charged, I.D. rhetoric is a mistake that’s likely to destructively provoke the very individuals and organisations Fuller should be onboarding to secure sociology’s role in the transhumanist agenda.

Videos

Quote you can talk outside your area of expertise

Humanity 2.0 – Introduction (What is Humanity 2.0?) from Virtual Futures on Vimeo.

Humanity 2.0 – Chapter 01 (Humanity Poised Between Biology and Ideology) from Virtual Futures on Vimeo.

Humanity 2.0 – Chapter 02 (Defining the Human: The Always Ready – Or Never To Be – Object of the Social Sciences?) from Virtual Futures on Vimeo.

Humanity 2.0 – Chapter 03 (A Policy Blueprint for Humanity 2.0: The Converging Technologies Agenda) from Virtual Futures on Vimeo.

Humanity 2.0 – Chapter 04 (A Theology 2.0 for Humanity 2.0: Thinking Outside the Neo-Darwinian Box) from Virtual Futures on Vimeo.

Humanity 2.0 – Chapter 05 (Conclusion: In Search of Humanity 2.0’s Moral Horizon – Or, How to Suffer Smart in the 21st Century from Virtual Futures on Vimeo.

 

Other reviews of Humanity 2.o

Angela Saini, New Humanist

Julian Baggini at the FT

BioCentre 31/10/11

Steven Poole, Guardian 18/11/11

THE  Kristrún Gunnarsdóttir  1/3/12

Book Review: The Rough Guide to the Future, by Jon Turney

rough guide to the future

  • Paperback: 376 pages
  • Publisher: Rough Guides (1 Nov 2010)
  • Language English
  • ISBN-10: 1858287812
  • ISBN-13: 978-1858287812

 

On the technology website Ars Technica last week, Jonah Lehrer argued that taking a sneaky peep at the end of a novel to see how the plot works out needn’t necessarily spoil a good read.

For myself, I quite like surprises, in fiction at least, so for the foreseeable future I’ll be taking my revelations, denouements, and tricks-of-the-tale in the order the author intended.

Real life’s different though, and I do for the most part like to see what’s coming.  And, for sure, there are any number of would-be oracles, specialists, think-tanks, and other miscellaneous pundits ready to enlighten me.

But therein lies a problem.  When the brain gets too much information from too many sources it doesn’t cope so well.  And given that this is all important stuff we need to have an opinion on: over-population, global warming, peak oil, mass epidemics, starvation, save the panda – asteroid strikes; what’s needed is someone to critically scan, boil down, and filter the myriad forecasts and predictions into a digestible round-up.

Enter Jon Turney’s latest book, The Rough Guide to The Future

(The Rough Guide to The Future (Rough Guide Reference))

‘Rough’ is a curious term to describe a guide that in style, by my reckoning, is both scholarly and popular; but, as Turney says, it’s really more of a recognition that no study about everything can ever be complete.

All the same, Rough Guide to the Future is as comprehensive an analysis of forecast data and topical opinion that you’re likely to find, and one I heartily recommend.

I should also say that I read the Guide, in a fitting juxtaposition of futurity with the primal, on my smartphone whilst halfway up a mountain in a tent.  And while I’m sure there’s virtue in that, I’m missing the pencil scrawl and Post-its I’d ordinarily now be pawing over for a review. Kindle highlights and notes just don’t do it for me.

Here goes anyhow.

Jon Turney at the Royal Society (Photo: Tim Jones)
Jon Turney (Photo:Tim Jones)

In terms of the certainty of its themes and predictions, the Guide follows a sort of three part soft-hard-soft progression. Kicking off with a more philosophical discussion around types of futurity and the methods of futurology, there follows a middle section on relatively near-reach developments on issues we really need to sort this century – so a focus on the 50-100 year time scale.  With more speculative and far-reaching ideas boxed off in the later chapters, it’s an effective mix that majors on practical concerns but with plenty of material to keep budding futurists, sci-fi enthusiasts, and philosophy types on board.

Chapters combine quotations, literature survey, case studies, a Prediction File, and a Further Exploration section (references to futurist texts, various government, NGO and think-tank reports, plus a good dose of science fiction).  The Guide is packed with helpful hyperlinks.

The Predictions Files capture the diverse views of fifty invited commentators asked for their highest hope, greatest fear, and best bet for the future.  Turney’s own replies give something of the flavour:

Highest Hope: “We navigate through the eye of the needle of the middle decades of the century well enough to allow the bottom billion a real chance of a humane life.”

Worst Fear: “The environmental calamity so many informed scientists predict gathers pace faster than our efforts to forestall it.”

Best Bet: “Crises, muddling through and continuing vast inequalities are the order of the day.  In spite of that, it remains, technologically and culturally, the most fascinating of times to be alive.”

Scanning the whole set is a roller-coaster ride between optimism and pessimism. From Anne Skare Nielsen’s High Hope along the lines of the world being what we make it:

“That the majority of the world’s inhabitants will come to the sensible conclusion that if we keep on asking others to change, nothing grand will ever happen.  That we – as Buddhists say – have to be the change we want to see in other people.  We should stop instructing and start constructing.  I hope that we can let go of our need to control, learn to “listen louder” and co-create better solutions that will bring out the best in people”

to the sombre hopelessness of Sohail Inayatullah’s Greatest Fear:

“Endless fear, endless poverty, endless loss of spirit, continued nationalism, crisis after crisis with the inability to see the links, deeper causes, or pattern of crises.”

I touched on ideas from the first part of the book, related to time perception and the nature of past and future in my last blog post, so won’t expand further here.

The ‘hard’ ground at the core of the Guide comprises discrete chapters on what Turney calls Global Basics: energy, climate, water, food, health, biodiversity, war, and disasters.  These are preceded and supported by generic discussions on science futures and population, and followed by material covering softer issues (but not as speculative as those in later chapters) around life, societal values, economic models and sustainability, and global cooperation – the logic being these topics overlay or integrate with the Global Basics.  In the chapter Life, Society and Values, I particularly liked the description of Futurelabs’ 3-Worlds exercise, that considers how the world might look were we to adopt or migrate to different sets of dominant social values.

I’m not about to trot through each and every Global Basic here, but it’s impossible to write, or write-up, a guide to the future without mentioning energy and climate change.

Unfortunately, the problems associated with climate change come in two flavours neither of which, as a species, we’ve met before on any scale or have a record of resolving: (a) their impact is global and therefore shared, and (b) they operate over multi-generational timescales.  The challenge is well summed up in former Shell chairman Ron Oxburgh’s Worst Fear:

“That each country acts in its own perceived short term interests in the belief that this will maintain or raise its economic competitiveness; that emissions will continue to rise, and wealthy nations will use their wealth and technology to achieve a degree of short-term adaptation to a rapidly deteriorating climate, allowing the developing world to take its chances.”

If  there’s one common message from the whole guide, but particularly the Global Basics discussion, for me it’s the need not to see our scientific, technical, societal, and political futures in isolation.  It’s easy to retreat to a technical focus, but some thought leaders are striving for the bigger picture – as challenging a task as that might be.  This quote from Tim Jackson of the UK’s Sustainable Development Commission stuck with me:

“the reason why nobody asks the difficult questions that we are asking here is because nobody really has any answers to them”

A somewhat depressing prospect given that the difficult questions are also the important ones.  For me, the apparent absence of any roadmap to transition from what we appear to be in – a treadmill of unsustainable, consumer-driven growth, is deeply worrying.  Few believe this is the century mankind will ramp up to some Utopian ideal, but it will be a poor show if we can’t make substantive corrections to the inequalities in health, wealth and opportunity that characterise today’s (in)humanity.

Incidentally, another message I gleaned from the Guide is that forecasts are, or should be, constantly revised – and some, like the impact of birth rate on future population, are sensitive to small changes.  Likewise the need to question received truths and revisit sources.

Moving to more speculative territory in the last third of the Guide, I should mention how through his many references Turney pays tribute to science fiction.  Since the 19th century, science fiction writers have painted imaginative alternative futures built around surreal technologies, alien life, and revolutionary social orders; and the fiction of the past has often become the fact of the future.

I’ve never been a science fiction nut, but remember as a teenager lapping up futurist works like Arthur C Clarke’s Profiles of the Future and Report on Planet 3, then in the 90’s Francis Kinsman’s Millenium 2000, and most recently Damien Broderick’s Year Million collection.  Now, thanks to the Guide, I’ve rediscovered the works of H.G.Wells and W.Olaf Stapledonwho both convince me how few ideas are truly new.

There’s discussion around life extension, cryogenic preservation, and transhumanism – including the increasingly ubiquitous concept of The Singularity, a condition some think will arise, even within the next 50 years, whereby technology and artificial intelligence will run exponentially away from us, designing and building ever superior versions of itself – even attaining its own form of consciousness.  My take from the Guide on this?  The jury is still well and truly out.

The good news is that through improved nutrition and medicine many more people will be living very much longer (but not necessarily at their leisure).  And through genetic upgrades, we’ll be enhancing our physical performance, visual range, and cognitive abilities.  A brave new world made real.

Then there’s the prospect for life on other worlds, the concept of deep time, and the ultimate fate of life, the universe, and everything;   which, cheerfully, boils down to the heat death of the universe in some tens of trillions of years: a concept clarified not as some giant toasting (although the Earth does get one of those along the way), but the end of heat, energy, and everything from the potato chip to the proton.

So sitting in my tent having completed the Guide, from the seemingly overwhelming challenges of Global Basics to the end of the universe, I ask myself the obvious question: “Does it really, cosmically speaking, matter if I don’t get up and go to work?….”.

At which point I remind myself I’ve two more weeks of holiday to go, and keep on smiling.

After all, there’s still time to put things right.  And the end of the future is a long way off.

Other Information

Jon Turney’s blog at Unreliable Futures

Other reviews of Rough Guide to the Future

James Kingsland, Guardian 11/11/2011  The Rough Guide to the Future – Review

Blast Through Your Past – with Google Street View

“in Sensation we believe external Things exist, in Memory we believe they were, in Imagination we neither do the one nor the other” (Erasmus Darwin quoting poet Richard Gifford back to himself in a letter of 1768.)

Here’s something to try if you haven’t already done it: make a Google Street View tour of all the old homes you’ve ever lived in.

Of course, if you’ve yet to leave the parental home it’s going to be a dull exercise, but if you’ve been around a while and lived in lots of different places, there’s the joy of reminiscing and spotting that the new owners have gotten around to replacing that leaky porch you ignored all those rainy winters.

Street View hasn't caught up with the Belgians - or vica versa

It took me half an hour to track down the twelve places I’ve lived in, bought, or rented over the years (some in the pic above); although the flat I lived in for four years in Brussels came out as, well, flat.  Belgium seems to have been overlooked by Google Street View)

Apart from the idle interest, dredging the past evokes ideas around the concept of time and how we store information and remember things; although if that’s just me, it’s because I’m presently transitioning between two books that touch on the topic: The Information by James Gleick and Jon Turney’s Winton Prize-longlisted The Rough Guide to the Future.

We capture so much nowadays – Gleick: “The information produced and consumed by humankind used to vanish  – that was the norm, the default.  The sight, the sounds, the songs, the spoken word just melted away.”

Then came the first marks on paper, drawings, writing; then photographs. Gleick again:

Now expectations have inverted.  Everything may be recorded and preserved, at least potentially: every musical performance; every crime in a shop, elevator, or street; every volcano or tsunami on the remotest shore; every card played or piece moved in an online game; every rugby scrum and cricket match.

Whether it’s Street View, Flickr, or Friends Reunited, there’s a bunch of stuff pushing in on us, persuading us to reconstruct our pasts in a way that was alien even five years ago.

What does it mean?  Is it good?

For sure, any ideas we might have had about ‘clean breaks’ and ‘moving on’ get a good muddying.  Old friends: material and personal, reappear unbidden – sometimes welcome, othertimes unsettling away from their original context.

In his chapter About Time, Turney says our memories impact our ability to think about the future; afterall, past experience is pretty much all we have to draw on.

The way we build memories, he says, may have adapted specifically to enable the efficient anticipation of new situations, and there is even evidence of a physical link in how we think about past and future events – neurological scans revealing common areas of brain activity.

Our memories “seem to work by storing individual pieces of past experience separately, as part of a complicated, interconnected web …. Our brains then assemble recollections of past episodes by adding together bits of information that seem to be related.

As it happens, by Turney’s reckoning, I’m probably at the optimum age for projecting  possible futures.  Meaning, I’m old enough to have collected some experiences, but not so old I’ve forgotten them all.  (I love some of the terminology people use for age brackets, particularly the ‘old old’ – meaning over 80.  At 49, I’m holding out for ‘young middle-age’.)

I want to wind up the post by sharing some great life-changing revelations resulting from this technology-induced disturbance in my mental time-space continuum and reassessment of ‘self’. But as the most emotionally charged evocations seem to relate to the unfeasible number of lawnmowers I’ve owned over the years, I’ll skip on that and instead leave you with a bit of topical DNA:

“Time is an illusion.  Lunchtime doubly so.”

Douglas Adams.  Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy

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Book review: The Eerie Silence – Are we Alone in the Universe

eerie silence jacket image

Book review: The Eerie Silence: Are We Alone in the Universe?

Author: Paul Davies

Hardcover: 260 pages
Publisher: Allen Lane (4 Mar 2010)
ISBN-10: 1846141427
ISBN-13: 978-1846141423

The search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, or SETI, is in a rut.  That is Paul Davies’s message in ‘The Eerie Silence – Are we alone in the Universe’ – a thorough taking stock of the programme started by Frank Drake in 1959 to search for alien radio messages from outer space.

Davies wants a rethink from scratch, where we shake off the blinkers of anthropocentric thinking and question exactly what we should be looking for.  Listening out for a direct radio message is fine, but lets extend the search to include more subtle evidence of alien legacy and the very origin of life.

ET has indeed been strangely quiet, and for Davies two rather extreme explanations for that are providing signposts to a ‘New SETI’.

Under the first option, we have to accept that life on Earth was born of a series of events so incredibly flukey they will never be repeated.  Under the second, we face the chilling prospect that intelligent life pops up quite frequently, only to develop a propensity for technology fueled self-destruction.

Holding out hope for a middle way, and putting speculation over self-destructing aliens aside, Davies argues there is a raft of solid science we could be getting on with to better understand the scarcity of life.  Those up for the task (and skilled enough to secure funding) will enter a field of polarised opinions and a paucity of hard evidence.  The prize? – possibly the final word on the question of whether life is ubiquitous in the universe – a ‘cosmic imperative’ –  or that you and I here on Earth are a one-off, somewhat lonesome, rarity.

We should still listen for radio messages, says Davies, enthusing over SETI’s groundbreaking Allen Telescope Array (ATA) of radio telescopes; but the emphasis  should be on searching for new types of evidence of intelligence, both in space and closer to home – on Earth in fact.

If we can show life on Earth started independently more than once – a second genesis if you like –  the fluke theory is destroyed and the prospect of life existing on the billion or so Earth-like planets in our galaxy increases immensely.  Once life has started, there is pretty much universal agreement among scientists that Darwinian style evolution will, environmental factors willing, take over to produce complex life forms and probably intelligence and consciousness.  Second (and third and fourth..) genesis life forms could be living alongside us today, unrecognised as a microbial  ‘shadow biosphere’ – the holy grail for researchers now culturing candidate samples from Mono Lake in California.  Or we might find tell-tale markers of an extinct second genesis in geological records that we have seen but incorrectly interpreted.  With so many work areas highlighted as candidates for inclusion in New SETI, a problem for potential researchers could be deciding where to focus their application.  Presumably Davies is taking calls.

Moving from Petri dish to telescope dish, Davies believes our pre-conceptions of ET in space are causing us to define too narrow a target there also.  Any intelligent biological life, he says, will quickly transition to an intellectually superior machine form having nothing in common with Homo sapiens and little to gain from interstellar chit-chat.

Or the aliens may have launched beacons that ping data packets only once a year.  Or they may have sent probes – monolith fashion – to lurk around our solar system, programmed to spring to life when we learn to think up to their level.  The point is we will only detect this kind of activity if we specifically look for it.

In his most futuristic speculation, Davies envisions life evolving into a quantum computer – an extended network of energy floating through space, amusing itself solving complex mathematical doodles.  The implication of course, if such ‘beings’ exist, is that we are headed in the exact same direction.  How do you fancy being a node in a pan-galactic thought matrix?

Among other thought-provoking revelations, we learn the Earth has for billions of years been happily swapping rocks, possibly with primitive life aboard, with other planets in the solar system – including Mars. That makes the potential discovery of life on that planet important, but not necessarily a game-changer for SETI, as Martian and Earth life could share the same unique origin.

Davies puts SETI into historical context on a quirkier note, recounting how the mathematician Karl Gauss, as early as the turn of the 19th century, planned to signal the Martians using huge shapes cut out of trees in the Siberian forest.

There is an implicit appeal in The Eerie Silence for scientists from different disciplines to work together on SETI and astrobiology – maybe a guiding principle for New SETI?  Astronomers, biologists, geologists, engineers, astro-physicists and cosmologists all have a role in the search – as do non-scientists.

That also holds true for the post-detection task-group Davies leads, set up to advise an appropriate response in the event ET finally calls.  In a chapter devoted to the implications of ‘first contact’, he asks how various groups: from the media, through politicians, the military, and religious believers might react.   If we receive a targeted message, we should certainly think carefully about the reply.   But that we already send the occasional burst of blindly targeted radio messages into space is a positive in Davies’s book; at least it makes people think about science, humanity, and what in our culture we value.   Religion, and particularly Christianity, Davies believes, will struggle to reconcile dogma with the existence of intelligent aliens.

In his wind-up, Davies keeps all options open as to the chances of a positive outcome for SETI. But on balance, hardcore enthusiasts of radio SETI in particular may well find the The Eerie Silence a bit of a downer.  Likewise, those looking for evidence to support more philosophical ideas around nature favouring life, or the existence of a life principle buried in the physics and chemistry of the universe – themes Davies has arguably been more sympathetic to in previous works – will be disappointed as he rejects each in turn.

To its credit, The Eerie Silence is as much about human motivations and psychology as it is about research and radio antennae.  A chatty narrative with frequent episodes of self-examination strikes chords with thoughts and feelings most of us will have had: like the need for a sense of self, and a yearning for meaning.   The search for ET is very much the search for what we are, what we may become, and what ‘it’ all means.  A cliched theme maybe, but well supported here with relevant facts and reasoned speculation.  Davies’s talent for projecting  rock-solid scientific rationalism while not (entirely) closing the door on other perspectives has produced an absorbing read.

Other posts related to astrobiology and SETI on Zoonmian

How would you break the eerie silence – competition winners

Royal Society’s meeting on astrobiology and the search for extra-terrestrial life (SETI)

Rapping ET-style

Interview with an astrobiologist (Lewis Dartnell) and Life, Talk to me about Life

Nanotechnology – Managing the Opportunity

Nanotechnology lets us manipulate materials at the finest scale. ‘Nanotech’ products have become mainstream without us even noticing, and the future promise for the technology is forcing nothing less than a paradigm change in mindset and expectation.

 

Dr Andrew Maynard discusses nanotechnology (Photos: Fotolia, A.Maynard)
Dr Andrew Maynard discusses nanotechnology (Photos: Fotolia, A.Maynard)

In this interview for radio, I ask Dr Andrew Maynard, Chief Science Advisor on the Project for Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson Center, for his views on current applications, far reach potential, and the risk management challenges associated with nanotechnology.

(this is a slightly longer version of the interview first broadcast on ICRadio on 16th June 2009)

Andrew Maynard blogs at 2020Science

When Science Fiction Meets Second Life

The registered user population of the virtual world Second Life has, according to owners Linden Lab, grown in the last five years to over 15 million, about 70,000 of whom are ‘in the world’ at any one time. I’ve been a virtual citizen for about six months and, while I’ve denied myself the latest cyber fashions, angel wings, and other personal embellishments, can drive a car and I do know how to fly.

Me at Imperial College in Second Life

If you haven’t visited, its worth checking out. Entry-level access costs nothing; you just download the free software, give yourself a name, and jump into the training area.

It’s pleasant enough just to tour the virtual landscape, take a lecture, watch a play, or visit a library in Second Life. But I got to thinking on my last visit – always dangerous – of the similarities between this world and another virtual world competing for my time – the Morlock sphere in Stephen Baxter‘s book ‘The Time Ships’.

Stephen Baxter's Timeships

Writing in the style of H.G.Wells, Baxter recounts a trip through time to an earth of the far future. The time traveller is the same one we met in H.G.’s original ‘The Time Machine‘; you know – Rod Taylor played him in the movie.

On arrival, our hero finds a race of evolved humans, the Morlocks, who inhabit not the Earth any longer, but the inner surface of a huge spherical shell built at the orbit of venus. The sphere entirely encompasses the sun, collecting all the energy and matter its inhabitants could ever conceivably need. All our familiar resource problems have vamoosed. There is no want.

It’s the same in Second Life, with its boundless expanses of developable landmass and an effectively bottomless – if virtual – resource of materials and energy. The cherry on the cake in both worlds is the way buildings and other useful objects either appear out of nowhere (Second Life) or pop up ready synthesised from the floor material (Morlock sphere).

It is this possibility of zero constraint, albeit delivered in different ways in the two worlds, that I find intriguing, challenging us to engage with (or reject) revolutionary models of how we might one day define ourselves and our lives.

While there is some real-world negative sentiment towards Second Life, of the “get a first life” variety, experience of virtual worlds can alert us to how limited, cumbersome, and parochial some aspects of our real world lives can be. Baxter’s conception frees us from these aspects, blurring the lines between what we now see as real and virtual, and melding the two into a possible future reality. In a world without limit or want, what would become of our values, drives, motivations and pleasures?

Baxter’s world all sounds like science fiction – which it is. But whether his vision, or something totally different, comes to pass is next to the fact that many people have as much difficulty conceiving of the far, far, future as they do of the distant, distant past. It’s one reason some people never get to grips with evolution; they can’t conceive of the time it’s taken for all those small changes to occur. Material spheres the size of planetary orbits sound ridiculous, but if we don’t kill ourselves off first – granted a very real possibility – who is to say what we might do.

Anyhow, if any of that rambling has whetted your appetite to engage in some really far, far, incredibly far, reach speculation of alternative futures, the sort that make the Morlock sphere look like a walk in the park, I can recommend Damien Broderick’s ‘Year Million – Science at the Far Edge of Knowledge’. There is a comprehensive review of it here by Jon Turney.

Or if you’d rather just go for a lie down, that’s good too.

 

Also of interest ?

Are we Surrounded by Dyson Spheres? Io9.com May 2011