Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Technology Singularity in the 21st Century

Predictions by Ray Kurzweil:


Supercomputers will have the same power as human brains. Computers will disappear as distinct physical objects, meaning many will have nontraditional shapes and/or will be embedded in clothing and everyday objects. Full-immersion virtual reality will exist.


Computers become smaller and increasingly integrated into everyday life. More and more computer devices will be used as miniature web servers, and more will have their resources pooled for computation.

High-quality broadband Internet access will become available almost everywhere.

Glasses that beam images onto the users' retinas to produce virtual reality will be developed. They will also come with speakers or headphone attachments that will complete the experience with sounds.

The VR glasses will also have built-in computers featuring "virtual assistant" programs that can help the user with various daily tasks.

Virtual assistants would be capable of multiple functions. One useful function would be real-time language translation in which words spoken in a foreign language would be translated into text that would appear as subtitles to a user wearing the glasses.

Cell phones will be built into clothing and will be able to project sounds directly into the ears of their users. Advertisements will utilize a new technology whereby two ultrasonic beams can be targeted to intersect at a specific point, delivering a localized sound message that only a single person can hear. This was demonstrated in the movie Minority Report.


Automatic house cleaning robots will have become common.


1013 bits of computer memory--roughly the equivalent of the memory space in a single human brain--will cost $1000.


Personal computers will have the same processing power as human brains.


Computers less than 100 nm big will be possible. As one of their first practical applications, nanomachines are used for medical purposes. Highly advanced medical nanobots will perform detailed brainscans on live patients. Accurate computer simulations of the entire human brain will exist due to these hyperaccurate brainscans, and the workings of the brain will be understood.

Nanobots capable of entering the bloodstream to "feed" cells and extract waste will exist (though not necessarily be in wide use) by the end of this decade. They will make the normal mode of human food consumption obsolete.

By the late 2020's, nanotech-based manufacturing will be in widespread use, radically altering the economy as all sorts of products can suddenly be produced for a fraction of their traditional-manufacture costs. The true cost of any product is now the amount it takes to download the design schematics. Also by the later part of this decade, virtual reality will be so high-quality that it will be indistinguishable from real reality.

The threat posed by genetically engineered pathogens permanently dissipates by the end of this decade as medical nanobots--infinitely more durable, intelligent and capable than any microorganism--become sufficiently advanced.

A computer passes the Turing Test by the last year of the decade (2029), meaning that it is a Strong A.I. and can think like a human (though the first A.I. is likely to be the equivalent of a very stupid human). This first A.I. is built around a computer simulation of a human brain, which was made possible by previous, nanotech-guided brainscanning.


The most likely year for the debut of advanced nanotechnology. Some military UAV's and land vehicles will be 100% computer-controlled.


Brain uploading becomes possible. Nanomachines could be directly inserted into the brain and could interact with brain cells to totally control incoming and outgoing signals. As a result, truly full-immersion virtual reality could be generated without the need for any external equipment.

Afferent nerve pathways could be blocked, totally canceling out the "real" world and leaving the user with only the desired virtual experience. Brain nanobots could also elicit emotional responses from users. Using brain nanobots, recorded or real-time brain transmissions of a person’s daily life known as "experience beamers" will be available for other people to remotely experience.

This is very similar to how the characters in Being John Malkovich were able to enter the mind of Malkovich and see the world through his eyes. Recreational uses aside, nanomachines in peoples' brains will allow them to greatly expand their cognitive, memory and sensory capabilities, to directly interface with computers, and to "telepathically" communicate with other, similarly augmented humans via wireless networks.

The same nanotechnology should also allow people to alter the neural connections within their brains, changing the underlying basis for the person's intelligence, memories and personality.


Human body 3.0 (as Kurzweil calls it) comes into existence. It lacks a fixed, corporeal form and can alter its shape and external appearance at will via foglet-like nanotechnology. Organs are also replaced by superior cybernetic implants. People spend most of their time in full-immersion virtual reality (Kurzweil has cited The Matrix as a good example of what the advanced virtual worlds will be like, without the dystopian twist). Foglets are in use.


The Singularity$1000 buys a computer a billion times more intelligent than every human combined. This means that average and even low-end computers are infinitely smarter than even highly intelligent, unenhanced humans.

The Singularity occurs as artificial intelligences surpass human beings as the smartest and most capable life forms on the Earth. Technological development is taken over by the machines, who can think, act and communicate so quickly that normal humans cannot even comprehend what is going on.

The machines enter into a "runaway reaction" of self-improvement cycles, with each new generation of A.I.'s appearing faster and faster. From this point onwards, technological advancement is explosive, under the control of the machines, and thus cannot be accurately predicted.

The Singularity is an extremely disruptive, world-altering event that forever changes the course of human history. The extermination of humanity by violent machines is unlikely (though not impossible) because sharp distinctions between man and machine will no longer exist thanks to the existence of cybernetically enhanced humans and uploaded humans.

Post-2045: "Waking up" the Universe

The physical bottom limit to how small computer transistors can be shrunk is reached. From this moment onwards, computers can only be made more powerful if they are made larger in size.

Because of this, A.I.'s convert more and more of the Earth's matter into engineered, computational substrate capable of supporting more A.I.'s. until the whole Earth is one, gigantic computer.

At this point, the only possible way to increase the intelligence of the machines any farther is to begin converting all of the matter in the universe into similar massive computers. A.I.'s radiate out into space in all directions from the Earth, breaking down whole planets, moons and meteoroids and reassembling them into giant computers.

This, in effect, "wakes up" the universe as all the inanimate "dumb" matter (rocks, dust, gases, etc.) is converted into structured matter capable of supporting life (albeit synthetic life). Kurzweil predicts that machines might have the ability to make planet-sized computers by 2099, which underscores how enormously technology will advance after the Singularity.

The process of "waking up" the universe could be complete as early as 2199, or might take billions of years depending on whether or not machines could figure out a way to circumvent the speed of light for the purposes of space travel.

With the entire universe made into a giant, highly efficient supercomputer, A.I./human hybrids (so integrated that, in truth it is a new category of "life") would have both supreme intelligence and physical control over the universe.

Kurzweil suggests that this would open up all sorts of new possibilities, including abrogation of the laws of Physics, interdimensional travel, and a possible infinite extension of existence (true immortality).

Introduction to Technological Singularity

The technological singularity is a hypothesized point in the future at which the rate of technological growth approaches infinity. Moore's Law is often cited to assist in the prediction of the date of the singularity. Theorists are increasingly of the opinion that the singularity will occur via the creation of artificial intelligence (AI) or brain-computer interfaces, of smarter-than-human entities who rapidly accelerate technological progress beyond the capability of human beings to participate meaningfully in said progress.

Intelligence Explosion

Good speculated on the consequences of machines smarter than humans:

"Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion,’ and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make."

Most proposed methods for creating smarter-than-human or transhuman minds fall into one of two categories: intelligence amplification of human brains and artificial intelligence. The means speculated to produce intelligence augmentation are numerous, and include bio- and genetic engineering, nootropic drugs, AI assistants, direct brain-computer interfaces, and mind transfer.

Potential Dangers

Some speculate superhuman intelligences may have goals inconsistent with human survival and prosperity. AI researcher Hugo de Garis suggests AIs may simply eliminate the human race, and humans would be powerless to stop them. Other oft-cited dangers include those commonly associated with molecular nanotechnology and genetic engineering. These threats are major issues for both singularity advocates and critics, and were the subject of Bill Joy's Wired magazine article "Why the future doesn't need us".

Bostrom discusses human extinction scenarios, and lists superintelligence as a possible cause:

“When we create the first superintelligent entity, we might make a mistake and give it goals that lead it to annihilate humankind, assuming its enormous intellectual advantage gives it the power to do so. For example, we could mistakenly elevate a subgoal to the status of a supergoal. We tell it to solve a mathematical problem, and it complies by turning all the matter in the solar system into a giant calculating device, in the process killing the person who asked the question.”

Moravec argues that although super-intelligence in the form of machines may make humans in some sense obsolete as the top intelligence, there will still be room in the ecology for humans.

Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics are one of the earliest examples of proposed safety measures for AI. The laws are intended to prevent artificially intelligent robots from harming humans.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Asteroid Threats to our Planet


Whether you call it the Big One, the Great Exterminator, Lucifer's Hammer, or Extinction Level Event -- there's much to be said about big chunks of space rock slamming into the earth. One thing's for sure, however. It happened so many times before, that it's only likely it will happen again...

It all comes about within moments. Suddenly, there's a big, fiery ball in the sky, just for a few seconds. And then: impact.

The atmosphere will be on fire. A huge column of fire and debris towers up miles into the sky. Hundreds of thousands die instantaneously. For thousands of miles around, everyone outdoors is incinerated. People nearby simply evaporate.

The impact sends out a shockwave around the globe, just like a stone thrown into a pool makes a circle of waves. But this wave rolls through the Earth's crust itself, causing death and destruction everywhere. There are massive earthquakes. Huge tsunamis. Volcanoes popping open. Millions die, cities are shaken into oblivion. On the opposite side of our planet, the waves of destruction slam into each other again, causing the earth's crust to tower up, forming a massive mountain-ridge within seconds.

And that's just the beginning. As the tremor and the seas calm down and the fires extinguish, there's more to deal with: the huge, black cloud of debris that's thrown up into the stratosphere from the impact site. The debris spreads through the stratosphere, covering the Earth with a thick blanket of burnt carbon, dust and debris. The Sun is blackened.For months or even years to come, the world is covered in darkness, the Sun being no more than a vague blot of light in the pitch-black sky. Temperatures drop about twenty to forty or even fifty degrees everywhere. The Earth's surface freezes. Plants cannot produce oxygen anymore by photosynthesis and die. Animals relying on the plants die too. And we -- relying on both the animals and the plants -- are in BIG trouble.

Oh, there are a few pockets of people still hanging on. They're hiding in bunkers, or in caves. They hold on for years, as long as their supply of tin cans lasts. But when they return to the surface after the endless winter night, they find their planet is turned into a barren, lifeless sheet of land, with only some deserted ruins reminding of what once was.

Sure: in the end, the Sun returns and temperatures start rising again. So there may be a new beginning for mankind after all? Think again. The odds run against such optimism. The only thing alive is bacteria and mosses and -- if we're lucky -- some insects, rodents and fish. With luck, civilization is `only' thrown back into the Stone Age. More likely however is that humanity becomes extinct.

A Brief History of Meteors Going Whammo

Oddly, until twenty years ago, no one took meteors quite serious. It was widely believed that those mean clumps of rock and ice that zoom across the galaxy are not a real threat to our planet. A comet entering our atmosphere would instantly burn up, and that would be it.
All that changed in 1978, when two paleobiologists, Louis and Walter Avarez, went to Italy to study the so-called K/T barrier: the transition between the Cretaceous period (the age of the dinosaurs) and the next prehistoric era, the Tertiary period. The K/T Barrier had always been a big mystery. Within only several thousands of years -- a twinkling of an eye, in geological terms -- all the dinosaurs suddenly vanished and nature switched from one geological period to the next.

Digging around in the Apennine Mountains, father and son Avarez suddenly realized something extraordinary must have happened. Everywhere on Earth, the K/T Barrier is marked by a tiny layer of iridium in the ground -- `iridium' being a rare chemical substance mostly found in meteorites. It began to dawn on Louis and Walter that the dinosaurs didn't just die out because of some evolutionary reason. The dinosaurs were simply squashed by a huge meteorite!

The killer meteorite must have slammed into our planet 65 million years ago. It must have been an event much like the one described above. There was a long, mean period of darkness, while it rained iridium all over the world. Life on our planet was almost completely wiped out. All plants and animals bigger than a blade of grass became extinct. Just picture that! No wonder the Avarezes coined the killer meteor `The Great Exterminator'.

For the decade to come, the Exterminator theory was highly controversial. If a meteor big enough to kill all the dinosaurs really went boom on our planet, surely you should notice an impact crater somewhere? Then, in 1991, Nasa sattelites indeed spotted the crater.

It was a huge scar known as the `Cenote Ring', underneath the Mexican peninsula of Yucatan, almost impossible to detect by the eye because of millions of years of erosion and tectonic movement. Judging by the size of the impact crater, scientists calculated the Great Exterminator must have had the size of a mountain.

It hammered the world of those poor dinosaurs with the impact force of about 100 million megaton of TNT. That's the equivalent of 5,000,000,000 atomic bombs! By now, some people really started to get itchy about meteors.

Next came the impact of the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 on Jupiter. For the first time in history, man could see what actually happens when a colossal comet starts to mess around with your planet. In July 1994, the meteor slammed into Jupiter's atmosphere, snapped into pieces, and bombarded the planet for days. Huge balls of fire and dust rose up from the planet's surface, and the debris darkened parts of Jupiter's atmosphere for weeks.

The biggest impact crater, carved out by the piece of meteor known as Hale-Bopp, had a size no smaller than the entire Earth! By now, everyone realized that the danger of a meteor suddenly ending your world is as real as can be. It could happen next year, or next month. And well, it could also happen tomorrow.

From those days on, attention for meteors grew and grew. Were the dinosaurs just unfortunate? The troublesome answer is a loud and clear `no'. As a matter of fact, the meteor that killed the dino's wasn't the first big piece of rock hitting our planet -- and not even the biggest, scientists began to realize.

For instance, just over 4,5 billion years ago, when our planet was still very young, an enormous body hit Earth with such unimaginable force our planet literally broke up. A huge piece of Earth was launched into space. You can still see that lump of earth when you look out of your window: the debris rolled up into a ball, and is what we today call the Moon.

The next massive space attack came a half billion years later: our planet was bombarded so heavily with asteroids that the entire crust actually melted. That would explain why the oldest rocks on Earth are only 3,9 billion years old, while the planet itself is five billion years old.

And then there was another apocalyptic event, some 590 million years ago. One day, a meteorite of incredible proportions slammed hard into what's now South Australia, digging a crater about four kilometers deep and some 40 kilometers wide (currently known as Lake Acraman). Within seconds the whole thing vaporized into a huge firestorm. The impact was so devastating, it must have created massive earthquakes and 100-meter high tsunamis even hundreds of kilometers away. Oh boy!

Actually, it literally rained Big One's on our little planet. As recently as January 2002, geologists discovered a huge impact crater out of the Australian coast: no less than 120 kilometers wide. The meteor that carved out the crater slammed into our planet 360 million years ago, wiping out 85 percent of all species.

And in 2001, Norwegian researchers suddenly realized that their coast had once been the scene of a similar event. A huge meteor went kaboom over Norway 150 million years ago - speaking in geological terms, right before the Great Exterminator. The explosion slammed a 40-kilometer wide bump in the seabed of the Barents Sea, the so-called `Mjoelnir Crater'. Researchers still wonder how it was possible that anything survived.

Oh, and even when humanity was around, the meteors kept hitting us. For example, according to some researchers, the legendary floods of Deucalion, the Sumerian Gilgamesh-epos and the biblical Deluge may very well have been caused by a big comet plunging into sea somewhere.

More recent, in the year 1490 A.D., the city of Ch'ing Yang in Central China was the scene of a weird disaster. The event was recorded in at least ten ancient textbooks, all claiming that the event killed many thousands of people as it `rained stones and fire'. Likely cause: an asteroid as big as a modest sky scraper, going kaboom high up in the Earth's atmosphere.

On June 30th of 1908, a loud explosion shook the village of Tunguska in Middle-Siberia. Local inhabitants saw a huge blast of fire in the sky. There was a sudden temperature rise, and a blazing forest fire, lighting up the horizon. No less than two thousand square miles of forest were devastated. As we know now, a twelve story building sized piece of rock hit the atmosphere over Siberia and exploded at a height of some eight kilometers. The energy set free at the event was equivalent to 15 megatons of TNT -- a thousand atomic bombs!

So, it's no pessimistic estimate that our planet can bounce into a freaky piece of space rock again. Cosmologists estimate an extinction type comet hits the earth once every 20 million years. The odds for a smaller, Tunguska-type impact are much higher. On average, this kind of thing happens once in every 300 years.

Of course, the effect of a meteor impact depends on the place where it hits the Earth. The meteor that killed the dinosaurs, for example, hit a soil loaded with sulfuric rock, which enormously boosted the comet's devastating effect. Had it hit the planet several hundreds of miles westwards, it would have plunged into the ocean -- and the dinosaurs probably would have survived.

On the other hand, if a Tunguska-type meteor happens to hit an inhabited area, it will definitely wipe it off the face of the Earth entirely. Considering that some 10 percent of our planet is inhabited, you could assume that once in every 3,000 years a meteorite will destroy an inhabited area.

Meanwhile, the people at Nasa try to reassure us, by claiming they keep an open eye to the sky. The message they propagate is that a meteor that wants to hit our planet surely will be spotted in time and destroyed -- whether it is by a nuclear bomb or by a team of Bruce Willis-like he-men going out in a space shuttle.

No offense -- but that's pure propaganda. The harsh fact is that such `protection' is far less reliable than Nasa wants us to believe. For example, in March 1998, a BIG comet nearly hit us. Remarkably, no one saw it coming. Because it came straight at us, the thing was only visible as a tiny speck in the sky, not as a distinct, moving object traversing the cosmos from left to right. Consequently, no one noticed it -- until it passed.

(Meteor Size) (Impact Force) (Destruction) (Chance)
(50m) (15 Megaton of TNT) (City sized) (1:300)
(200m) (100 Mt TNT) (Continent sized)
(1,000m) (100,000 Mt TNT) (Half of the world) (1:2,000,000)
(10,000m) (100,000,000 Mt TNT) (Extinction level event) (1:30,000,000)

The Norwegian meteor was 2 Kilometers across; the meteor that carved out Lake Acraman in Australia 4 Kilometers, and the comet that killed the dinosaurs 10 Kilometers. The impact force also depends on the velocity of the object, which ranges roughly from 50,000 to 100,000 Kilometers per hour.

Then there's the eerie problem of ice comets. Many comets are in fact `dirty snowballs' made of dust and ice. The problem is we cannot really detect these comets, because conventional equipment sees right through them. You can only spot an ice comet when it comes so close to the Sun that it begins to melt. We'll recognize it by its tail by then. But according to many critical astronomers, this will be much too late to take any action.

Besides, there are no reliable ways of getting rid of a comet racing at us. Pleas for a kind of `space shield' protecting us from big pieces of rock have not yet raised any political backing. And it is doubtful whether Bruce Willis is willing to go out to kill the Big One if it's coming.

Oh, and talking about Big One's: in 2039, another HUGE comet will pass us by `only' some millions of Kilometers. However, this estimate is not completely fireproof, for one thing because comets are very sensitive to variations in their trajectory.

Here's what to do. Put on your best helmet -- and keep your fingers crossed.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Proposed Resolutions to the Ship of Theseus Theory

Aristotle's causes

According to the philosophical system of Aristotle and his followers, there are four causes or reasons that describe a thing; these causes can be analyzed to get to a solution to the paradox. The formal cause or form is the design of a thing, while the material cause is the matter that the thing is made of. The "what-it-is" of a thing, according to Aristotle, is its formal cause; so the Ship of Theseus is the same ship, because the formal cause, or design, does not change, even though the matter used to construct it may vary with time. In the same manner, for Heraclitus's paradox, a river has the same formal cause, although the material cause (the particular water in it) changes with time, and likewise for the person who steps in the river.

Another of Aristotle's causes is the end or final cause, which is the intended purpose of a thing. The Ship of Theseus would have the same end, that is, transporting Theseus, even though its material cause would change with time. The efficient cause is how and by whom a thing is made, for example, how artisans fabricate and assemble something; in the case of the Ship of Theseus, the workers who built the ship in the first place could have used the same tools and techniques to replace the planks in the ship.

This probably won't do as a solution to the problem, though, since the material cause does change over time, and we have been shown no reason to privilege one of the causes over another in the determination of continuity of identity.

Definitions of "the same"

One common argument found in the philosophical literature is that in the case of Heraclitus's river we are tripped up by two different definitions of "the same". In one sense things can be qualitatively the same, by having the same properties. In another sense they might be numerically the same by being "one". As an example, consider two bowling balls that look identical. They would be qualitatively, but not numerically, the same. If one of the balls was then painted a different color, it would be numerically, but not qualitatively, the same as its previous self.

By this argument, Heraclitus's river is qualitatively, but not numerically, different by the time one attempts to make the second step into it. For Theseus's ship, the same is true.
The main problem with this proposed solution to problems of identity is that if we construe our definition of properties broadly enough, qualitative identity collapses into numerical identity. For example, if one of the qualities of a bowling ball is its spatial or temporal location, then no two bowling balls that exist in different places or points in time could ever be qualitatively identical.

Likewise, in the case of a river, since it has different properties at every point in time—such as variance in the peaks and troughs of the waves in particular spatial locations, changes in the amount of water in the river caused by evaporation—it can never be qualitatively identical at different points in time. Since nothing can be qualitatively different without also being numerically different, the river must be numerically different at different points in time.

Four dimensionalism

One solution to this paradox may come from the concept of four-dimensionalism. David Lewis and others have proposed that these problems can be solved by considering all things as 4-dimensional objects. An object is a spatially extended three-dimensional thing that also extends across the 4th dimension of time. This 4-dimensional object is made up of 3-dimensional time-slices. These are spatially extended things that exist only at individual points in time. An object is made up of a series of causally related time-slices. All time-slices are numerically identical to themselves. And the whole aggregate of time-slices, namely the 4-dimensional object, is also numerically identical with itself. But the individual time-slices can have qualities that differ from each other.

The problem with the river is solved by saying that at each point in time, the river has different properties. Thus the various 3-dimensional time-slices of the river have different properties from each other. But the entire aggregate of river time-slices, namely the whole river as it exists across time, is identical with itself. So you can never step into the same river time-slice twice, but you can step into the same (4-dimensional) river twice.

A seeming difficulty with this is that in special relativity there is not a unique "correct" way to make these slices -- it is not meaningful to speak of a "point in time" extended in space. However, this does not prove to be a problem: any way of slicing will do (including no 'slicing' at all), provided that the boundary of the object changes in a fashion which can be agreed upon by observers in all reference frames. Special relativity still ensures that "you can never step into the same river time-slice twice", because even with the ability to shift around which way spacetime is sliced, you are still moving in a timelike fashion, which will not multiply intersect a time-slice, which is spacelike.

Metaphysics of quality

Robert M. Pirsig's metaphysics of quality, presented in Lila: An Inquiry into Morals, defines a hierarchy of patterns and uses it to offer another solution to the paradox: the ship is simultaneously a set of lower-order patterns (the parts) which change, and a single higher-order pattern (the ship as a whole) which remains constant.

Cultural differences

This concept may differ among different cultures. As an anedocal evidence it seems that in the east this is not a paradox. Quoting Douglas Adams from the book Last Chance to See:
I remembered once, in Japan, having been to see the Gold Pavilion Temple in Kyoto and being mildly surprised at quite how well it had weathered the passage of time since it was first built in the fourteenth century. I was told it hadn't weathered well at all, and had in fact been burnt to the ground twice in this century.

"So it isn't the original building?" I had asked my Japanese guide.
"But yes, of course it is," he insisted, rather surprised at my question.
"But it's burnt down?"
"Many times."
"And rebuilt."
"Of course. It is an important and historic building."
"With completely new materials."
"But of course. It was burnt down."
"So how can it be the same building?"
"It is always the same building."

I had to admit to myself that this was in fact a perfectly rational point of view, it merely started from an unexpected premise. The idea of the building, the intention of it, its design, are all immutable and are the essence of the building. The intention of the original builders is what survives. The wood of which the design is constructed decays and is replaced when necessary. To be overly concerned with the original materials, which are merely sentimental souvenirs of the past, is to fail to see the living building itself.

Ship of Theseus and related Theories

The Ship of Theseus is a story used to illustrate how different systems for choosing which elements to use in defining the identity of a thing can disagree about whether or not that thing still exists under certain conditions. First it defines a thing's identity as the sum of its component parts (as a simple unstructured inventory), then shows how that contradicts with the usual intuition by gradually replacing those parts, showing that we actually tend to identify such things by higher patterns of their form and purpose.

Greek legend

According to Greek legend as reported by Plutarch,
“The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned [from Crete] had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.”

Plutarch thus questions whether the ship would remain the same if it were entirely replaced, piece by piece. As a corollary, one can question what happens if the replaced parts were used to build a second ship. Which, if either, is the original Ship of Theseus?

Heraclitus's river

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus is notable for his unusual view of identity. Arius Didymus quoted him as saying:
“Upon those who step into the same rivers, different and again different waters flow.”

Plutarch also informs us of Heraclitus' claim about stepping twice into the same river, citing that it cannot be done because "it scatters and again comes together, and approaches and recedes."

Locke's socks

John Locke proposed a scenario regarding a favorite sock that develops a hole. He pondered whether the sock would still be the same after a patch was applied to the hole. If yes, then, would it still be the same sock after a second patch was applied? Indeed, would it still be the same sock many years later, even after all of the material of the original sock has been replaced with patches?

Grandfather's old axe

"Grandfather's old axe" is a colloquial expression of unknown origin describing something of which little original remains: "it's had three new heads and four new handles but it's still the same old axe." The phrase has also been used in banter as in: "This is George Washington's original axe...", while holding up an apparently new axe. This example is used explicitly to explain significant points of the plot in The Fifth Elephant by Terry Pratchett. A similar example was also seen in Only Fools and Horses, where Trigger (a central character) won an award for using the same broom to sweep the streets for twenty years, even though he’d replaced the head 17 times and the handle 14 times. The meaning of the expression and its relationship to murder are questioned in the opening of the novel John Dies at the End by David Wong.

Other examples

One can think of many examples of objects which might fall prey to Theseus's paradox: buildings and automobiles for example can undergo complete replacement whilst still maintaining some aspect of their identity. Businesses, colleges and universities often change addresses and residences, thus completely "replacing" their old material structure for a new one, yet keeping the same purpose and often the same people that keep the organization functioning as it was. If two businesses merge, their identities merge (or one is consumed by the other). Similarly, the human body constantly creates new cells as old cells die. Average age of cells in an adult body may be less than 10 years.

If we relate identity to actions and phenomena, identity becomes even harder to grasp. Depending upon one's chosen perspective of what identifies or continues a hurricane, if a hurricane Evan collapses at a particular location and then one forms again at or near the same location, a person may be totally consistent to either choose to call the latter mentioned hurricane the same as the former (as in "Evan" was reinvigorated), or choose to call the latter a new hurricane "Frank" or "Georgia".

One could also see the bands Napalm Death, Zao and The Little River Band as contemporary examples of Theseus's paradox. Both band's current line-ups contain none of the founding members, yet they continue to use the same name.

A somewhat, more layman's example is in most Herbie films. In these films, when any part of the protagonist (a "living" car named Herbie) is replaced, no one thinks anything of it, however; if one were to replace all of Herbie's parts at once, which part would contain his "soul", and if a certain car part did contain his soul, would it be transferred if the part were attached to another car?

Monday, December 17, 2007

The Human Virus

Humans are viruses. It is that simple.

Viruses feed off the material of a host body, draining it, and using it to sustain itself for growth and development.

We are the same. Stripping our planet of its resources we grow as a civilisation, advancing our technology and evolving along with it.

Our cities and buildings are like the sores and wounds that erupt from the flesh when the host's body reacts to the parasite feeding off of it. Our structures are an eye-sore on a landscape torn by the work of our construction machines. The pus that spews from the host are like the fumes that our factories release into the air, polluting it.

When a virus attacks the body, it heats up, causing a fever, attempting to destroy the parasite. This is similar to the Global Warming that is affecting the Earth at the moment. Nature is attempting to destroy us. We, are the parasites now.

A virus survives by infecting other bodies when its first host dies from the work of the parasite. Likewise, for Humanity to survive after we have completely turned this planet into a barren wasteland, we would need to abandon it and search for new worlds to survive on.

We are contagious. We are the viruses, never-ceasing to devour whatever we come into contact with, ever-taking, rarely contributing.

We are the plague, the epidemic, which would inflict a thousand worlds in the future with our scum.

We, then, are no better than the diseases which we fight.

Hedonism & The Experience/Pleasure Machine

Hedonism is the philosophy that pleasure is the most important pursuit of mankind. The basic idea behind hedonistic thought is that pleasure is the only thing that is good for a person. This is often used as a justification for evaluating actions in terms of how much pleasure and how little pain (i.e. suffering) they produce. In very simple terms, a hedonist strives to maximize this total (pleasure minus pain).

The Experience Machine is a short section of Anarchy, State, and Utopia published by Harvard University philosopher Robert Nozick. The text is one of the best known attempts at a refutation of ethical hedonism.

If the primary thesis of hedonism is: "Pleasure is the good", then any component of life that is not pleasurable does nothing to increase one's well-being. This is a view held by many value theorists, but most famously by certain classical Utilitarians. Nozick seeks to attack hedonism by means of a thought experiment. If he can prove that there is something other than pleasure that has value to us and affects our well-being, then hedonism can be seen to be defeated.

The thought experiment

Nozick asks us to imagine an experience machine that could give us whatever desirable or pleasurable experiences that we could possibly want.

"Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life experiences? Of course, while in the tank you won't know that you're there; you'll think that it's all actually happening. Would you plug in?"

Initial concerns

Nozick attempts to quell our initial concerns by shrugging them off on the basis of the intelligence of the experience machine scientists. For instance, a primary worry would be something like: who would run the machines if everyone plugs in? Nozick asks us to ignore these concerns, as they do not adversely affect the thought experiment.

The experiment is actually open to multiple interpretations. For instance, Nozick himself claims that you could either map out the rest of your life in the machine before plugging in, or you could go in and then step out for ten minutes every two years or so to choose your programming for the next cycle. While these different takes on the experiment are interesting, they do not directly affect the argument.

The Argument

The argument runs somewhat along these lines:

P1: Hedonism means that the only thing that affects our well-being is pleasure

P2: If hedonism were correct, then we would plug into the machine because we would want pleasurable experiences

P3: We would not plug into the machine because we are concerned about the reality of our experiences

C: Therefore, there is something other than pleasure that affects our well-being and hedonism is therefore defeated.

Reasons to not plug in

Nozick provides us with three reasons not to plug into the machine:

We want to do certain things, and not just have the experience of doing them.
"It is only because we first want to do the actions that we want the experiences of doing them." (Nozick)

We want to be a certain sort of person.
"Someone floating in a tank is an indeterminate blob." (Nozick)

Plugging into an experience machine limits us to a man-made reality (it limits us to what we can make).
"There is no actual contact with any deeper reality, though the experience of it can be simulated." (Nozick)

Nozick's conclusion

Nozick firmly believes that there are components of our lives that matter to our well-being in addition to our experiences. We can learn this, he claims, simply by imagining the machine, and then deciding that we would not use it. If this is true, then, Nozick claims hedonism is defeated.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Human evolution is speeding up

Humans have moved into the evolutionary fast lane and are becoming increasingly different, a genetic study suggests.

In the past 5,000 years, genetic change has occurred at a rate roughly 100 times higher than any other period, say scientists in the US.

This is in contrast with the widely-held belief that recent human evolution has halted.
The research has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Professor Henry Harpending, an author of the study from the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, US, said: "The dogma has been these [differences] are cultural fluctuations, but almost any temperament trait you look at is under strong genetic influences.

"Genes are evolving fast in Europe, Asia and Africa, but almost all of these are unique to their continent of origin," he added. "We are getting less alike, not merging into a single, mixed humanity."

This is happening, he said, because "there has not been much flow" between different regions since modern humans left Africa to colonise the rest of the world. And there is no evidence that it is slowing down, he added.

"The technology can't detect anything beyond about 2,000 years ago, but we see no sign of [human evolution] slowing down. So I would suspect it is continuing," he told BBC News.

Researchers found evidence of recent selection in 7% of all human genes, including lighter skin and blue eyes in northern Europe and partial resistance to diseases, such as malaria, among some African populations.

"Five thousand years is such a small sliver of time," said co-author Professor John Hawks of the University of Wisconsin, Madison. "It's 100 or 200 generations ago. That's how long since some of these genes originated, and today they are [in] 30% or 40% of people because they've had such an advantage."

The researchers propose that there are two factors causing human evolution to speed up.

"One of them is there are a lot more people - the more people you have the more opportunities there are for an advantageous mutation to show up," said Professor Harpending.

A large population has more genetic variation and allows for more positive selection than a small one.

"The second is environmental change - our diets have changed, we are in radically new environments," he added. "With a large population size comes lots of new diseases."

However, geneticist Professor Steve Jones of University College London said suggesting a large population size could increase the speed of evolution was "a contentious issue".

"Once a population gets above a very small size it is not very clear if its ability to respond to natural selection depends on size," he told BBC News.

"The general picture that evolution has speeded up in the last 10,000 years as we change from, to put it bluntly, being animals to being humans is clearly true," he explained. "To suggest it is happening at this instant, I would suggest, is probably wrong."

He said natural selection needed difference - either in the ability to stay alive or in the number of offspring born.

"The fundamental observation is that this difference has gone," said Professor Jones.
"At the moment we are in an evolutionary interval. We are in between two storms. One storm has more or less blown itself out, the storm of farming.

"The question is whether we are going to stay in the calms or whether another great storm will start. And if there is one, I would say it is most certainly to do with epidemic disease."

The study looked specifically at genetic variations called "single nucleotide polymorphisms," or SNPs. These are single-point mutations, or changes, in the genetic sequence of DNA on chromosomes.

If the mutation is advantageous then it will spread rapidly in the population, along with DNA on either side of the mutation.

The authors argued that if the same chromosome from numerous people had a segment with an identical pattern of SNPs this would indicate that the segment of the chromosome had not been broken up (recombined) recently.

Therefore, a gene on that segment of chromosome must have evolved recently and fast, they believe. If it had evolved long ago, the chromosome would have broken up and recombined.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

The Social Superorganism and its Global Brain


Society can be viewed as a multicellular organism, with individuals in the role of the cells. The network of communication channels connecting individuals then plays the role of a nervous system for this superorganism, i.e. a "global brain".

It is an old idea, dating back at least to the ancient Greeks, that the whole of human society can be viewed as a single organism. Many thinkers have noticed the similarity between the roles played by different organizations in society and the functions of organs, systems and circuits in the body.

For example, industrial plants extract energy and building blocks from raw materials, just like the digestive system.

Roads, railways and waterways transport these products from one part of the system to another one, just like the arteries and veins.

Garbage dumps and sewage systems collect waste products, just like the colon and the bladder.

The army and police protect the society against invaders and rogue elements, just like the immune system.

Such initially vague analogies become more precise as the understanding of organisms increases. The concepts of systems theory provide a good framework for establishing a precise correspondence between organismic and societal functions.

The fact that complex organisms, like our own bodies, are built up from individual cells, led to the concept of superorganism. If cells aggregate to form a multicellular organism, then organisms might aggregate to form an organism of organisms: a superorganism.

Biologists agree that social insect colonies, such as ant nests or beehives, are best seen as such superorganisms. The activities of a single ant, bee or termite are meaningless unless they are understood in function of the survival of the colony.

Individual humans may seem similar to the cells of a social superorganism, but they are still much more independent than ants or cells. This is especially clear if we look at the remaining competition, conflicts and misunderstandings between individuals and groups. Thus human society is still an ambivalent system, balancing between individual selfishness and collective responsibility. In that sense it may be more similar to organisms like slime molds or sponges, whose cells can live individually as well as collectively, than to true multicellular organisms.

However, there seems to be a continuing trend towards global integration. As technological and social systems develop into a more closely knit tissue of interactions, transcending the old boundaries between countries and cultures, the social superorganism seems to turn from a metaphor into a reality. Although many people tend to see the super-organism philosophy as a totalitarian or collectivist ideology, the opposite is true: further integration will basically increase individual freedom and diversity.

Most recently, the technological revolution has produced a global communication network, which can be seen as a nervous system for this planetary being. As the computer network becomes more intelligent it starts to look more like a global brain or super-brain, with capabilities far surpassing those of individual people. This is part of an evolutionary transition to a higher level of complexity.

A remaining question is whether this transition will lead to the integration of the whole of humanity, producing a human "super-being", or merely enhance the capabilities of individuals, thus producing a multitude of "meta-beings".

Saturday, December 8, 2007

A World Without Men


It’s every man’s secret fantasy: a world, exclusively inhabited by women. Well guys, have we got news for you. One day, the dream could come true! But before you straighten your tie, there’s something you should know. In a world without men... Well, humanity dies out.

Chances are you haven’t noticed it, but there’s a war between the sexes going on. A foul, chemical war it is, a bitter battle to the death. Gladly, it’s a rather small-scale war. The parties doing the fighting are sex chromosomes: tiny, curled-up molecules of DNA, that lay hidden within each human cell.Still, the future of mankind is what’s at stake. You see, it’s a war between boys and girls -- literally. And here’s the latest news from the battlefield: the women are winning. At least, that's what it looks like. The girls are about to wipe the boys from the face of the earth.

As you may know, there are two kinds of sex chromosomes: X and Y. If you inherited two X’s at conception (one X from every parent), you’re a woman. When your father gave you a Y-chromosome, it adds up to XY -- which stands for man. All in all, the Y-chromosome is the thing that makes a man a man. Well, apart from that other thingy, that is.On Y, you’ll find all the stuff that a man needs. You’ll find genetic instructions for how to brew semen, and how to grow a trunk -- no, a little lower, if you please. If there exists a gene for watching football and telling lame sex jokes, you’ll definitely find it on the Y-chromosome.

But on Y, you’ll also find stuff that is harmful to women. For example: sperm contains chemicals that attack the woman’s body. Really! Semen comes with chemicals that shut down the woman’s immune system, so that it can make it into the womb alive.

That's why X, the female chromosome, hates Y. In response, X is constantly throwing all kinds of wicked chemicals at Y. X is killing Y.Take a look through the microscope, and you can immediately see Y is in trouble. Y is a tiny, crumpled chromosome -- not exactly a proud symbol of manliness. Ever since Y split off from the other chromosomes, some 300 million years ago, its number of genes went down from about 1,000 to 80. How did it ever get so tiny? You guessed it: that's because of the female chromosome's attacks.But even without a microscope, the signs are clear. The fact that some people are gay or transsexual could be a direct consequence of the battle between the X- and the Y-chromosome, some geneticists think.

And there are more grizzly clues. For example, every now and then, doctors coincidentally stumble upon a woman who has XY for chromosomes -- the ‘male’ combination. Somehow these ladies' X-chromosomes have found a way to disable the Y-chromosome.And in 1947, a French hospital admitted a female patient who gave birth to a baby girl. The woman wasn’t the least surprised. All births in her family were females, she told the doctors. Scientific investigation confirmed this. Somehow, the family’s genes had found a way to overcome the ‘man-problem’. Her family had learned how to kill Y. And now, the family's women no longer gave birth to any boys.

Perhaps the most spine-chilling clue comes from the men. As we speak, 1 to 2 percent of all men is infertile because of a malfunctioning Y-chromosome! That doesn't seem like much, but it is an astonishing number, because the defects cannot have been inherited (because they lead to infertility). So in other words: 1 to 2 percent of all men have their Y-chromosome disabled during their life! You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see where that could lead. A couple of thousands of years more, and Y could be history. Suddenly, you would see the number of men dropping sharply. According to an estimate of the British geneticist Brian Sykes, it could take only 5,000 generations before the world turned into a place almost exclusively inhabited by women.

No, you dirty little sod, that’s NOT a man’s paradise. Indeed; with the numbers of men falling, probably everyone around will be craving for your semen. But it will most likely not be quite like you picture it. Instead of endless erotic nights, think of handing your goody over to the nearest fertility clinic, where the female doctors will try to impregnate as many women as possible with your increasingly rare sperm cells.

They won’t encourage you to start a harem or so. Sex would be an intolerable waste of sperm cells. And besides, you can’t afford risking a heart attack while practicing the world oldest sport. Your semen has become the most valuable fluid on earth now! The women might even decide to keep the last men captive, like a priceless piece of kettle.And how’s this for your world-without-men. There will be no one to watch the games with. No one to talk about cars with. In fact, there will be no football anymore and no fight movies.

You will be heavily discriminated against by all these giggling, chit-chatting GIRLS you’ll see everywhere. It will be a lonely existence. If you’re a guy, that is.And the obvious downside: in the end, everyone will be dead. Without men, no babies. Without babies, no mankind. So we’d clone ourselves, you say? Well -- not too many people know of it, but the latest scientific insight is that this is very, very problematic. Clones are full of genetic errors, causing them to die early. And it’s still undecided if that’s a problem that can ever be solved.

Gladly, the theory with the Y-chromosome is still very controversial. Many researchers don't really believe men will run out of oomph. For one thing, only recently it was discovered that Y has an unexpected defense mechanism against X. The Y-chromosome has made a secret back-up of itself in reverse. It has its key genes tattooed backwards on its own body, so to say. Shoot a hole in Y, and it simply repairs itself by copy-pasting the back-up onto the wound. It seems that the Y-chromosome is less vulnerable than most people think.

On the other hand: the sex chromosome mishap isn't unique. We know of at least three animals where the women are winning. Take the eggfly butterfly (Hypolimnas bolina) of Australia. In the 1970s biologists discovered that most of the butterfly’s offspring is female -- almost half of all males mysteriously die before birth. Exactly the same sinister effect was found for the two-spot ladybird (Adalia bipunctata).

Even more eery is the case of another insect, the buterfly Acrea encedon. As we speak, there’s only 3 percent boy butterflies left, with the ladies taking on 97 percent of the population -- and rising!On the other hand, there's the case of a small rodent from Turkey called the mole vole (Ellobius lutescens). Millions of years ago, the X-chromosomes in this animal succeeded in eliminating the Y-chromosome. But the rodent did something remarkable. It evacuated all male genes to other genes. This quirk of nature still astounds biologists. But it also indicates that men in theory should be able to overcome the attack of the girls.

So in the end, what will happen?

Nobody knows, the jury is still out. On the one hand, some geneticists point out that X is in the majority. Since women have two X’s and men one X and one Y, X outnumbers the Y-chromosomes by three to one.But on the other hand, some researchers suspect foul play. Perhaps the doomsayers are only making fun of Y's small size. While having a smaller one doesn't necessarily mean that it won't function. (Yes, yes, I know...)

Still, like most of the scenarios outlined on Exit Mundi, the one with the chromosomes already happened once - almost. Somewhere in our prehistoric past, X seems to have launched a massive attack on Y. It must have been a very close call. But Y succeeded in repairing itself at last. We can tell this has happened because of certain scars that are still detectable on the male chromosome.

Is that comforting, proof that Y can deal with the attacks of the girls? Or has it weakened Y, and should we worry all the more about the next attack? Better keep an eye on those birth statistics, guys...

Friday, December 7, 2007

Global Warming & The Dark Apocalypse


You thought the Dark Ages are well behind us? Think again. As we speak, the world is getting darker. One day, we might even perish in a frozen, depressing shadow world. In fact, 'global dimming' may have killed hundreds of thousands of people already.

It’s some decades later. Things on Earth have gotten out of hand -- totally. Our planet has turned into a cold, terrible place. Outside, a dark gray ceiling of clouds permanently covers the sky. The Sun hasn’t shone for many, many years. It’s twilight out there, always. And it’s cold: a devastating ice age has come upon the planet.

Trust us: you don't want to live here. In the eternal night outside, people die by the millions. Those who survive, have turned into pale, sickly, depressed, lost souls who could do with a sunny vacation. In isolated bands, they stumble about through the darkness, cuddled together, clinging to life as good as they can. The stuff we call ‘culture’ has all but slipped away from them; the world's economy has long collapsed. Today, men live much like our ape-like ancestors did, always hungry, and always looking for food. They feed on a disgusting diet of slimy funguses, insects, rodents and mosses -- the only edible things that survive.

And frankly, without sunlight, mankind doesn’t stand a chance. Oxygen levels will drop, and food will get ever scarcer. In the end, we’ll die a horrible death, one man after the other, one community after the next. Probably, we will have forgotten what kind of a lush, sunny planet Earth once was.

Still, out there, above the clouds, the Sun is shining as bright as ever. It’s the thick clouds, that are causing all the trouble. They bounce back the sunlight into space, preventing it from reaching the Earth’s surface and its inhabitants. The result: darkness, and cold.
So, who put those clouds up there in the first place? Well, blame yourself: you did. You guessed it: it’s those humans and their pollution again. The Dark Apocalypse even has an official name: ‘global dimming’.

Already, the Earth is a bit darker and shadowyer than it should have been. Global Dimming was first discovered in the 1980s. In Israel, agricultural biologist Gerald Stanhill coincidentally discovered something weird: the sun shines about 22 percent less in Israel than it did in the 1950s. It is as if someone is slowly turning off the lights!

Then came 9-11. In the days following the terrorist attacks, air traffic was grounded. This led to a sudden, remarkable change in American weather. For three days, it was unusually sunny in the US. The nights were exceptionally bright. On average, it got one degree Celsius warmer in the US during those days. That doesn’t sound like much -- but it’s huge, in terms of climatology: the biggest jump in temperature ever witnessed.

After that, more evidence poured in that the world is really getting darker. Scientists discovered that water evaporates less readily than it did before. And the evidence came from all over the planet: the US is 10 percent darker now than it was in the 1950s, Western Europe 16 percent, and Russia almost 30 percent.

In fact, global dimming may have made its first victims already. In the 1980s, about a million Africans in the Sahel died during a massive drought. According to one theory, it was global dimming’s doing: the Sun simply didn’t shine hard enough to ‘power up’ the system that should have given the Sahel its rainy season. Poor Africans.

Freeze or fry?

But hey, wait a minute, wasn’t the world getting warmer, instead of colder? How about global warming? You’re absolutely right. There’s massive evidence that the world is indeed getting warmer. But it’s also getting darker. In fact, many scientists believe that global dimming puts the brakes on the warming of our planet. Without global dimming, global warming would be much, much worse!

And there’s no telling which will win in the end, heat or cold. Roughly speaking, global dimming is faster and heftier, while global warming is slower and more gradual. Somewhere down the line, there could be a threshold, a point where Dimming beats Warming. Suddenly, we’d see temperatures drop. We’d be preparing that rodent soup in the dark in no time -- say, within several generations.

On the other hand, maybe we will be fine. There’s an upshot: the particles in the sky that bounce back the sunlight, don’t live that long. They’ll rain down on Earth and get washed away, and that will be it. No ice age, no chewing on rats and bugs. (Well, unless the so-called ‘Hydroxyl Collapse’ kicks in)

What’s more, we’re killing global dimming already. In Europe and the US, more and more laws forbid the use of fuels and chemicals that puff noxious particles in the air. Off with you, you mean, sunlight-blocking clouds of dirt!

But hold it. There could be a horrible backlash. Didn’t we just say that global dimming very likely holds back global warming? There you go: if we stop polluting the skies and put that sunlight back on, the consequences could be truly apocalyptic. Global warming will fiercely kick in again. Suddenly, the Sun will shine abundantly, pushing temperatures up by several degrees. We’d have savage summers, and lukewarm winters.

According to several studies, this would sort of... well, kill us, really. By 2030, the poles, the glaciers and Greenland’s ice sheet would melt. Sea levels would jump up, flooding billions of homes. The Amazon rainforest would whither and turn into desert. The northern parts of Europe and the US would get an African climate. We might even have a runaway greenhouse effect, a spine-chilling climate mishap that would literally kill every living on Earth.

So, what do you prefer? To fry or to freeze? Would you like to get roasted, or would you rather die in the dark, chewing on bugs? Hmm... Perhaps it’s a better idea to cut down a little on both pollution and greenhouse gases, after all.

Human Extinction by Population Decline


You may not have noticed it, but at this very moment humanity is going a little… well, extinct, really. For the first time in history, our species is in decay. A handful of centuries more, and it could all be over.

This time, the doom saying doesn’t come from some wacko prophet. No, it’s high-ranking UN-officials and respected economists that ring the alarm bell. The extinction we’re dealing with is locked away in alarming government reports and ill-omened scientific statistics. Far too few people read them.

Here are the figures. By the year 2100, 83 percent of all Spaniards will be gone. There will be 86 percent less Italians, while in Germany, only 17 percent of the population will be left. And how about this one: three generations from now, there will only be half as many people than today.

The doing of some kind of virus or climate mishap? Far from it. This time, the extinction goes all by itself. `Demographic meltdown’, is what they call it. Or `birth collapse’. Or `baby bust’.
It goes like this. On average, a couple should have at least two children to ensure the continuation of the species – or more precise: 2,1, to compensate for children that die early. But all over the world, couples decide to have fewer children. From 2050 on, this will cause the world’s population to shrink. And shrink, until there may be no one left.

So why on earth would humanity want to do that? The reasons are manifold. And in fact, quite understandable. In the old days, you needed children to work on your farm, and to look after you when you grew old. You needed lots of them, because many children died young.

But with better health care and with social security, that’s all changed. You don't really need children anymore. What's more, when you live in a city, children cost you time and money. Besides, more and more women work. They’ll have children at a later age and bear fewer children – if they decide to have any children at all, that is. Anti-conception has nothing to do with it. A religious lifestyle doesn't stop the trend either. It’s just the course of history that’s doing us in.

Not impressed yet? Please let us throw some more figures at you. At this very moment moment, the populations of over sixty countries are falling. Fifty years ago, women throughout the world on average had five children. Today, the average has diminished to 2,7 kids. And all the experts agree on one thing: that’s just the beginning.

Obviously, this will change the world we live in completely. Expect a world where everybody’s ageing and youngsters and children are becoming rare. Expect empty streets, and empty stores. Expect the world economy to come to a grinding halt, as there are less and less people around to buy stuff. Expect governments urging their people to have children, for heaven’s sake, please do! Expect a world where every country is begging third world immigrants and refugees to come over.

But then again, no immigrant would come. The statistics show that the baby bust also strikes in the poorer half of the globe. In Asia and China, birth rates are falling alarmingly fast. In the Southern Americas – the same story. Africa is the only continent where the birth numbers are still high. But then again, the AIDS epidemic causes people to die at an early age – and this actually is slowing down population growth tremendously.

That’s neat, you say. So we’re about to join the Woolly Mammoth. Exactly the sort of thing you wanted to hear when you thought to relax a bit while surfing the web, right?

Well, here’s something to cheer you up a little. In fact, it’s very hard to say if the baby bust that’s hitting us today will actually bring about the end of the species. With six billion people around today, we don’t exactly have to wet our pants yet. And then there’s this: 70,000 years ago, when humanity was still wearing bear skins and saying ‘oomph, oomph’, humankind also survived near-extinction. Back then, a supervolcano erupted and cut humanity down to a slim total of 10,000. But we survived all of that.

On the other hand, there’s absolutely no indication the trend will change. With fewer and fewer people around, women will be under even greater pressure to find a job – and have even less children. We can be sure about one thing: women will never ever again voluntarily have themselves locked away in their role as child-attendee and kitchen maid.

And then there is this other nagging problem. As explained elsewhere on this blog, there is a possibility men are becoming less fertile. Just picture it: a world where women don’t want to have children, and men just can’t. Now wouldn't that be a pity?

Verneshot Phenomenon - Mass Extinctions?


If you think you’ve seen it all, just picture this: your entire country, launched into space. Sounds weird, right? Still, it could happen any day, scientists say. In fact: the country-launching thing may be responsible for the death of the dinosaurs, 65 million years ago.

Not too many people know about it. And perhaps it’s better that way. For if a new, bizarre theory has it right, the dinosaurs weren’t killed by a meteor impact after all -- but by a much scarier phenomenon, known as a ‘Verneshot’.And that’s not all. If Verneshots are for real, the dreaded phenomenon should happen again one day. Or, who knows, tomorrow.

That doomsday will begin like just any other. But then, suddenly, you’ll hear a big, rumbling noise -- that deep, roaring, earthquake kind of sound. And then, there’s a MASSIVE explosion. It will be a disaster unlike anything ever witnessed by mankind.The earth literally caves in underneath your feet. Next thing you know, you find yourself falling into this colossal, gaping hole, many kilometers deep and hundreds of kilometers wide. You, your house, yes: your entire country is sucked in. Deep down below, you might just be able to see the red hot flicker of the Earth’s restless bowels.

And if that spoils your day -- just wait. For deep down underneath you, the gaping hole starts to collapse. Starting from below, the crater squeezes tight, like some ridiculously large gullet contracting. Traveling at the speed of sound, the squeezing comes straight at you.

And then, it’s: POP! You’re blasted out of the hole, like a piece of wet soap, catapulted out of someone's hand. And you’re not the only one that is launched. In fact, your entire country pops out, along with tonnes and tonnes and tonnes of rock and soil. The debris -- and you -- fly off into the stratosphere.

Let’s face it: by now, you’re probably dead. But for arguments sake, let’s say you’re not. Next thing you know, you find yourself hovering over the Earth, like some oddball DIY astronaut, sitting on a chunk of debris. You fly and fly, and then, just when you’re beginning to appreciate the view -- oh boy, going doooooooown!

The Earth’s gravity pulls you back in again. You impact on the other side of the planet, together with your entire country. Ka-boom!

And that’s the end of it. Or not quite: the planet is a complete mess. Where your country once was, a huge lake of lava, a ‘flood basalt’, blobs out of the ground. The atmosphere is suffocated with soot and sulfur. The ozone layer is wiped away.

And on the other side of the planet, things aren’t any better. Where you and your meteor have impacted, a vast crater remains. A massive shockwave travels across the globe, setting the atmosphere on fire. And when the fires dim, the Earth’s climate is plunged into a numbing nuclear winter, because of smoke blocking the sun. Obviously, humanity never stood a chance against this double-whammy. Most likely, everything bigger than an insect dies.

But are Verneshots for real?

By now, you probably understand why the German geologists who described the disaster in 2004 named it ‘Verneshot’. Jules Verne was the writer who once dreamt up a cannon capable of shooting rockets to the moon. And a HUGE cannon, that’s exactly what the Verneshot is. Well, kind of.

But could it be true? Can we really end up on the other side of the planet? Surprise, surprise: that possibility is real. In fact, there’s tantalizing evidence that the Earth is struck by Verneshots at least four times before.

For starters, you should know that the prehistoric past of our planet shows a very weird pattern. Four times in a row, almost all life on Earth suddenly vanished. Just like that. And scientists just can’t seem to agree what did the killing. There’s evidence that four huge meteorites banged into our world. But there’s evidence that the soot from ‘supervolcanoes’ choked our world to death, too.

Take the extinction of the dinosaurs, 65 million years ago. Obviously, around that time a huge chunk of rock smashed into what’s now Mexico -- you can still see the impact crater. But equally obvious, there was a massive volcanic eruption in India around that time, too. Now ask yourself: how big are the odds that these two events occur simultaneously? According to the Germans, the odds that volcanism and meteors coincided four times in a row are 1 to 3500.

So bring in the Verneshot. Perhaps the volcanism caused the meteor impact! The German research shows that it could be possible.Basically, it all begins when deep under the ground, gas seeps up -- a fairly common thing, in geology. But this time, the gas gets trapped underneath what’s known as a ‘craton’: a solid, impenetrable, massive slab of ancient earth crust.

Next to the craton, a HUGE supervolcano may erupt. But the craton itself is in even bigger trouble. The gas has no place to go. More and more pressure builds up. Until one day, the entire craton goes pop - much like the cork blown off of a pressurized bottle of champagne. But this time your planet is the bottle. And you, you’ll be the cork!

After the initial bang, you'll have this huge, gaping, vacuum hole in the Earth. Like all vacuum holes, the hole slams shut. From the bottom up, it implodes. A huge ball of debris is squeezed out. The debris catapults into space. And slams back into the planet elsewhere -- just like a real meteorite.

The German scientists hope to find more evidence for their theory, by closely studying the soil underneath India and Siberia -- sites where Verneshots must have gone off in the past.

Worryingly, they have found some evidence to support their case. In Siberia, India and on the ocean floor near Sierra Leone, you can see these weird, circular structures in the ground. They look a bit like, well... the barrels of three huge, ancient cannons.

On the other hand, the Verneshot theory is still new, controversial stuff. For one thing, the theory doesn’t explain why there seems to be only one meteor impact crater near Mexico. A Verneshot would throw up more than one ‘comet’.

Perhaps it’s all the better we don’t know. For there's a little problem. At this very moment, pressure is slowly building up underneath the craton of Siberia once again. Could it be just some innocent display of nature? Or are those poor Russians about to get shot in the bum in a way that hasn’t been seen on Earth since the days of the dino’s?


‘Frasnian-Fammian’ extinction, 364 million years ago. 60 Percent of all marine life dies.
(Meteor Evidence:
The ‘space element’ iridium and stressed (‘shocked’) quartz is found in the ground. The Siljan impact crater in Sweden was formed around the same time.
Supervolcano Evidence:
In the Ukraine, a major outpoor of lava forms the Pripyat-Dniepr-Donets highlands.)

‘Perm-Triassic’ extinction, 251 million years ago. 96 Percent of all species vanish.
(Meteor Evidence:
Shocked quartz and rare carbon molecules called ‘fullerenes’ are found in China and Australia. Also, in the seabed near Australia there is a hole that looks like a meteor crater (the ‘Bedout’ high)
Supervolcano Evidence:
In Siberia, a major outflow of lava forms the Siberian Traps.)

‘Triassic-Jurassic’ extinction, 200 million years ago. 20 Percent of all species die.
(Meteor Evidence:
Iridium, shocked quartz and a likely impact crater: at Manicougan, Canada.
Supervolcano Evidence:
The Central Atlantic Magmatic Province, off the coast of Sierra Leone, is formed.)

‘Cretaceous-Tertiary’ extinction, 65 million years ago. 60 Percent of all species, including the dinosaurs, meet their maker.
(Meteor Evidence:
Well-defined iridium layer, shocked quartz and fullerenes, and a famous impact crater at Chicxulub, Mexico.
Supervolcano Evidence:
In India, massive volcanic activity creates the chain of mountains called the Deccan Traps.)

Human Extinction by Infertility


It would be a bit of an anticlimax. Instead of some huge catastrophe doing us in, humanity may simply go extinct all by itself. Actually, the Big Decay may have already begun. Human fertility seems to be declining frighteningly fast. A couple of generations more -- and the human race could be history.

You would hardly notice it at first. Gradually, street life is becoming calmer than it used to be. Less people, less traffic. It’s a relief at first: no more housing problems, no more traffic jams, no more queues for the movies.

But after a while, your cheerfulness subsides. Slowly it begins to dawn on you what’s happening. You’re witnessing the demise of a species -- your species, to be precise. Humankind is about to join the Dodo, the Woolly Mammoth and the Neanderthal Man. The human race is heading for extinction.

OK, so you decide you’ll have kids, in an attempt to turn the tide. But then the grimness of the situation really lashes out at you. No matter how hard you and your partner try – no pregnancy. You turn to one of the fertility clinics that are by now very common. But the doctors can’t help you out. You’re infertile, the two of you. If you’re a man, you’re the one to blame: your sperm is of no use. You can have sex all you like, but your semen just doesn’t do the trick.

It’s a generation or two later. The world has changed completely. The fertility clinics are all deserted now – well, there’s animals living in them, and weeds growing all over them. In what used to be crowded streets, trees now grow. Wild dogs and rats stroll the deserted cities. Erosion gnaws at what used to be buildings. And outside the city, roads and farms lay barren, like a fading memory of what once was.

Sure, if you look hard enough, you’ll find some small pockets of humans that still survive. Mankind is a bewildered species by now, largely outnumbered by the birds, the rats, the dogs, the wolves perhaps. And the human species is degenerating fast: there are so little people left, they inbreed all the time, giving birth to children that are ever more mentally retarded. If they give birth to any children at all, that is.

But in the end, there’s no survival. Human is simply no longer viable. There will be a last group of humans – and then, the very last human being. Eventually, the last human gets old and dies. And that will be it. There will be no more laughter, no more voices, no more thoughts. The only thing left is a couple of ruins, scattered over the face of the planet.

Feel sad already? You should. The slow extinction outlined here is definitely one of the most depressing Apocalypses you could think of. Well, the good news is we aren’t about to witness it any time soon: with five billion people living on the planet today, overpopulation is more of a problem than extinction.

But that could change. Actually, the first signs of the Big Demise are already here to be seen. Men are becoming less fertile, several studies indicate. In only fifty years time, the number of sperm cells per milliliter of semen has halved, from 113 million cells to 66 million. Sure, that’s still a lot of sperm cells. But it could also mean that in another fifty years, men will no longer be able to make any babies at all.

It’s a big mystery why male fertility is declining. Many researchers blame the pollution: there’s all kinds of chemicals everywhere, in the air and in our food, and we just don’t know exactly what all these substances do to the human body. Others blame the human habit of wearing clothes: men have their testicles outside their body because sperm can’t stand high temperatures, and pants and underwear undo this. Clothes warm up your balls, so to speak.

A more exotic – and frightening – theory has it that evolution itself is turning against us. In nature, the biologically `fittest' individuals survive, leading to an ever more `fit' offspring. But among humans, this works different. How many kids you get doesn't depend on biology, but rather on where you live and what culture you’re in. Western city-dwellers get less kids than inhabitants of traditional societies. It doesn't matter who has the best sperm; the Not-So-Fit survive as well. So basically, the biological quality of our species may be in decline -- and the sperm problem could be a result of it.

Oh, it is probably a combination of things, the demise of our fertility. The chemicals, plus the ball-warming pants, plus the evolutionary knock-back, plus who-knows-what. Whatever the reason, we should worry. If the present trend continues, we could be history well before the next Millennium.

And it doesn’t help that the decline of our species is sped up by demography. More and more people adopt the industrial, Western lifestyle: more women working rather than having kids, and with reliable contraceptives widely available, more and more couples choosing to have children at a later age -- and less children. Eventually, this trend will lead up to the point when the number of humans will no longer grow, and actually start to shrink. The turning point is supposed to be around the year 2150.

So bring out the clones, you say. If we’re running out of humans, just make some new ones in a laboratory somewhere. Oh, come on, be real! Cloning doesn’t work as well as the media and the scientists like us to believe. What they don’t tell you in the news papers is that most clone attempts simply fail.

For example: it took two hundred attempts before CC the cat, the world’s first cloned pet, came along. And then there’s the still insurmountable problem of old age. You see, old age is locked in your DNA. So your clone will look like a baby, but its DNA will be as old as you! So by the time you die of old age, so does your clone. It’s as simple as that.

So... We're doomed, right?

Well, not necessarily. Here’s the light at the end of the tunnel: the claim of science that men are becoming infertile may be dead wrong. The findings of the sperm counting studies are still controversial. One study says we’re doomed, the next study says that’s all rubbish. It will take some time before we know for sure what’s going on – if there’s anything going on at all, that is.

But don’t relax yet. Our species has a reputation for being not particularly good at reproduction.

One out of four couples have serious problems getting pregnant. And even if you have sex at the height of female fertility, there’s only 10-20 percent chance of pregnancy. That’s probably the reason why humans are the only mammals that have sex throughout the year, instead of only during spring. Now, given these problems, you just DON’T want our species to become less fertile as well.

And then there’s this. We already mentioned the possibility that chemicals render us infertile. But yet, we come up with ever more chemicals. And it doesn’t help that the atmosphere’s cleaning up system that rids us of pollution is on the verge of breaking down (in a so-called `hydroxyl collapse’).

Finally, there’s the eerie possibility our technology makes us infertile by mistake. As we write this, the US biotechnology firm Epicyte experiments with a new breed of contraceptives: corn that is designed to render the men that eat it infertile. There’s also a real possibility lab crops like these `escape’ into nature, turning more and more crops into contraceptives. It would be some choice. Either you starve, or you go infertile.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Eternal Universe?


What will eternity look like? Think of a place where everything has ceased to exist, where golden parkings pop out of nowhere, Napoleon Bonaparte comes back to life and the Twin Towers resurrect themselves. Still, this incredible place is exactly where we are heading, physicists expect.

Empty your mind. We’re about to take a BIG leap into the future. Not just a lousy few billions of years, but 10 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 years!

One ‘googol’ years, is the official word for that number. It’s the current age of the Universe, one billion billion billion billion billion billion billion billion billion billion times over. Squeeze the entire history of our Universe into the thickness of a dollar bill, and one googol years would give you a pile of money that reaches one hundred quadrillion quadrillion quadrillion quadrillion light years high. It wouldn’t even fit in our Universe.

One googol years. That’s truly staggering. Beyond anything a human can comprehend.
First, let’s fast-forward to the not-so-awfully-far future. For the coming billions of years, scientists predict quite a ride. The Sun will explode, the Milky Way will slam into another galaxy. The Cosmos might collapse, or get torn apart -- scientists can’t seem to decide yet which is more likely. And even if the Universe doesn’t do that, we’re destined to face a weird and horrible crisis, which involves us spending our lifetime as sleeping robots.

The problem is that the Universe gets bigger and cooler. Ever since the Big Bang, it expands, much like an expanding ball of fire after an explosion. Right now, the Universe is still young. It has these cute stars and twinkling galaxies. But in the long run, that will change. Slowly but inevitably, the Universe will empty itself.

First, the galaxies will fly out of sight, beyond the horizon of what we can possibly see. Next, the stars in our own galaxy will burn out, one after the other. The only thing that will remain, is a dull graveyard of cold planets, dead suns and black holes. In about one hundred trillion years, the Milky Way will go black, astronomers expect.

And eventually, even this graveyard decays. One after the other, the dead stars and planets are eaten by black holes, or kicked out of the Milky Way by collisions. Astronomers expect that in one hundred to one thousand billion billion years, our galaxy has dissolved completely.

Time goes on. After a while (more trillions of years) something else will kick in. You’ll notice that even the very stuff nature is made of, isn’t stable. A proton, the particle you’ll find in the core of atoms, has an average lifetime of 100 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 years. Wait long enough, and it will suddenly vanish. Poof, gone. The same goes for light particles, the so-called ‘photons’. They’re expected to last a few zero’s longer, but in the end, they too will kick the bucket, one after the other. Isn’t that just bizarre? The light will go out, literally.

The last thing that survives, are the black holes. But in the end, they too will vanish. They will evaporate in a puff of radiation.

So there we are, at our unimaginable one googol years. Finally, the Universe is totally and utterly empty. You won’t see any light or spot any planet -- in fact, you won’t even find the tiniest speck of dust. The Universe has sterilized itself. All there is left, is emptiness, and darkness. Total oblivion. And worst of all: there’s nothing we can do to stop it. We can build fancy machines or futuristic devices all we like -- but in the end, they’ll all get kicked out of existence, when the matter they are made of simply vanishes.
So there you have it: infinity. Booooring, we must add.

But don’t sob. There’s an upside.

As the quadrillions of years pass by, something very odd should happen. In eternity, even the rarest events get a chance to occur. Weird, bizarre phenomena that only happen once in a zillion years or so, become quite normal.

For example: the nothingness should yield a few surprises. Already, physicists know that in a vacuum, there are sometimes tiny little energy ‘blobs’. Little, random fluctuations of the so-called ‘quantum vacuum’. Out of nowhere, tiny particles pop in and out of existence. But theory predicts that on very, VERY rare occasions, the fluctuations should be a bit larger. Out of nowhere, an entire atom might appear! Or hey, the vacuum may even spit out a few of them!

Think of it like the static on TV. Wait long enough, and out of the random fuzz, a recognizable image might materialize. Wait REALLY long, and one day a complete episode of The Bold And The Beautiful should accidentally show up!

In the Universe, this should give some really surprising results. With eternity at hand, the vacuum should begin to yield all kinds of objects. Incoherent lumps of random garbage, most of the time. But on very, very rare occasions, you’ll see other objects popping into existence. The Eiffel tower. A purple camel. A golden parking garage filled with chocolate Cadillacs. Napoleon Bonaparte sitting next to Mike Tyson on top of a stack of comic books. As the googols of years pass by, it’s all there.

In the VERY, VERY, VERY long run, the vacuum will even belch up complete planets, and beautiful stars, burning and all. Theoretically the vacuum should even churn out a complete solar system one day, identical to ours, with a planet Earth inhabited by people. "In an infinite amount of time, one day, I will reappear", as physicist Katherine Freese of Michigan University once put it. "An crazy thought, but true."

One day the black nothingness should even produce a new Big Bang. Admittedly, we’ll have wait really long for it to happen. Researchers of the University of Chicago once tried to calculate it. And according to their best estimates, it should happen somewhere over the next 10^1056 years.

Finding Extraterrestrial Life?


First, there's some kind of freakish UFO hovering over the planet. Then it's pow, blast, boom. And then? Then we're all dead.

Yeah, right, dead. What happened? A little while ago, some alien civilization decided Earthlings are a major pain in the ass. And now, they shot the Earth to bits with some kind of doomsday weapon out of hell. The planet incinerated, or evaporated, or was turned into a self-annihilating chunk of anti-matter -- whatever you think of. One little push on a button by a green hand, and gone we were.

But wait. First, you'll need alien life smart enough to go out in a space-ship and gun our planet to custard powder. And of course, some kind of motive would be nice. A disagreement over something, to say the very least.

So, how about the existence of alien life? Without letting fantasy take over, most serious scientists agree by now that there should be some kind of life somewhere out there. And they don't say this because they have seen to many shows of the X-Files.

First, the Universe of course is, to put it mildly, rather big. And there's the cosmological principle: no matter what chunk of universe you take, it will always be roughly the same stuff, with galaxies and stars and planets around those stars. There's plenty of evidence for this.

Astronomers have spotted quite a lot of exoplanets: planets around distant stars. And if there's planets everywhere, surely planets that are inhabited can't be so unique, you may argue.

And then there's this. Life on our planet suggests that the existence of life is no big deal. Life is way older than we always thought: some 4 billion years. This means that life popped into existence almost immediately after the Earth stopped being plowed over by comets, volcanic eruptions and cosmic radiation. So life is something that very easily emerges.

But. Yes, there's a `but'.

When scientists say `life', they usually mean: unicellular life, bacteria. A wide-spread misconception about nature is that evolution is about going from single-celled bacteria to more complex beings. It is not!

The sole thing that makes evolution tick is diversity. More evolution means more diversity among those invisible, tiny bacteria that make up more than ninety percent of all life forms on Earth. In the first place, evolution means more species of bacteria. Ducks, bumblebees, fig trees and humans are more likely a side-effect, an odd waste product of natural selection.

Even more humbling, intelligence is a very rare phenomenon among animals. Out of fifty million species on Earth, only one knows what the Internet is. And to be sure, if that big comet didn't wipe out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, thinking apes calling themselves men wouldn't even have existed! In nature, intelligence is so fucking rare.

You're not amused? Well, here's some more. Intelligence isn't even really a good tool for playing Darwin's `survival of the fittest'. In fact, the human race almost got extinct right after learning how to walk on two legs, when our species was diminished by hunger and drought to a slim total of some ten thousands!

It's very obvious intelligence has a lot of evolutionary downsides. Because of our ridiculous large brains, we are super-vulnerable to cold, heat or wounding. Because of our huge heads, we are the species that has most trouble with being born.

And there's more. Try wrestling with a lion. Try catching a rabbit, using only your bare hands. Try surviving in a forest. Just peel away all `culture', and you'll see what humanity really is: a rather clumsy, weak and ill-equipped species with a ridiculously big head.

So, to wrap things up: ET is very likely out there. But it's very unlikely ET has a light sword, a space ship or an index finger that lights up in the dark. ET is more likely a bacteria -- or at its best, a multicellular organism with no particular intelligence at all.

Hey, and besides. Just suppose there is, in spite of all the problems, intelligent life out there somewhere? Would we be at risk of being killed by them?

Surely, they'd have to be able to travel around. That's not an easy one, although science-fiction freaks carelessly say that such a civilization undoubtedly will use `worm-holes' for inter-dimensional travels. Or warp-drive, or teleportation. The cold fact, however, is that such things may well appear to be just impossible by physical law. It is so very easy to say: `Well, they're ahead of us, so they must have come up with something.'

Even then, the aliens have to find us. That too is a tough one. The Universe is so big. And our planet is only a tiny speck of dust in the endless nothingness. Okay, we send out signals into space, from our satellites, radio's and TV-sets. But our transmissions have a tiny reach in the vastness of the cosmos.

And even within reach of Earth transmissions, an alien would have to listen extremely closely to pick up our faded-away signal. Let alone the problem of which frequency to choose. Or the problem that an alien might prefer a very different technique than `radio signals'.

Okay, okay. Against all odds, our hypothetical alien has overcome all these difficulties, and has finally found us. What's up next?

Nothing much, probably. The aliens may want to study us -- a civilization that builds spaceships and has found out how worm holes work definitely is in it for science. They would study us in much the same way we study the microbes we'll undoubtedly find on Mars or Europa.

Yeah, some Independence Day-fans might grumble. But they might also be here to colonize our planet, to steal our mineral goodies!

O yeah, sure. What nonsense. Do you really think a civilization that builds intergalactic spaceships and opens worm holes doesn't know how to solve problems like shortage of minerals in some technical way? They'd have to be a race of real dumb-ass aliens, if you ask me.

Evolution of Humanity into another species


It could take several decades, or perhaps many thousands of years. But we can be sure of one thing: sooner or later, the human race as we know it will no longer be here. Don't panic, it's just good old evolution that's doing us in. Humanity will go extinct -- but who would care?

Whatever inhabits the planet in several millions of years -- it won't be humans. The human race will have been replaced by... well, something else.

It's easy to see why. There's plenty of evidence we are still evolving. Europeans are getting taller. Northern Europeans are becoming more resistant to disease. And although it's controversial, there's some evidence we're getting smarter.

Still, we are also 'devolving' -- getting worse at certain things.

Our limbs have become feebler. Our bodies are getting stiffer, and less agile. Our senses, and especially our nose, have deteriorated big time. There's evidence our sperm is getting worse.

Our jaws and teeth have decayed over time (that's why we need constant dental care).
That's because evolution is not about improving living things -- but simply, about adapting to the circumstances. And we're adapted to walking, and thinking, and working with our hands.

The cost is that we have become lousy tree-swingers, and bad monkeys. Try eating a banana using only your feet, and you'll see what we mean.

Where will this take us in another million years? Nobody knows! It all depends on the circumstances.

Perhaps our brains will continue to grow, giving us ridiculous, enormous heads. Perhaps our planet will one day be inhabited by sentient brains sitting in a wheelchair, who knows?
But evolution could also demolish us. Say for some reason we are forced to live underground. This could, in theory, yield a humankind with no eyes! This is what happened to certain species of cave-dwelling fish.

Experts agree on one thing, though. Our kind could transform a lot quicker than you think. We're already tinkering with the evolution of our species, for example by healing the sick. And that's just the beginning. Roughly speaking, there are two trends here: technology and gene tinkering.

1. Technology

Already, we are stuffing up our bodies with all kinds of goodies: artificial limbs and organs, plastic heart valves, titanium joints, contact lenses, hearing aides -- you name it. And no doubt we will continue to replace body parts with high tech gadgets. Already, scientists are experimenting with brain implants that help or even replace part of your brain!

Futurologists expect we will one day upgrade our minds with chips that boost our brain power, or even upload our mind to a computer. Or we would replace our vulnerable organs at birth, just to be sure.

So, how's that for evolution. In a few decades, we may have got to the point where we are no longer humans -- but machines. As astronomer Seth Shostak likes to put it: "You can improve horses by putting four-cylinder engines in them. But eventually, you can do without the horse part."

2. Genes

Or we could upgrade our DNA.At this very moment, we're entering the age of genetic modification. Already, we're upgrading the DNA of certain plants and animals -- and we, humans, are next. We're about to improve our genetic code, just like you would upgrade an outdated piece of computer software.

At first, this will lead to new cures for certain diseases. We will teach our DNA to fight off hereditary conditions, and in the longer run, viral infections and cancer. But it should also be possible to actually improve our bodies. Sportsmen will instruct their DNA to make more muscles, a feat already accomplished in animals. Others will tweak their DNA in order to lengthen their lives, or to become smarter.

Ultimately, the sky is the limit. Want bigger brains? Healthier organs? Bigger penises, larger breasts? Just tell your DNA to make it so. And hey, think big! Why not grow yourself wings, enhance your vision or make your body solar powered, so you can do without food?

In principle, it's all possible. Just think of our bodies as computers, the DNA being its software. We're about to upload software from other species. Almost every trick nature has ever programmed into DNA software in other species, could be running on our bodies soon. It's Mother Nature's freeware!

So, where will it take our species? Our guess would be: to a point where humans are no longer human. Scholars expect 'Numans', 'Transhumans', 'Unihumans', 'Astrans' -- and lots of other shiny sci-fi words. It will be the end of mankind. But with some luck, it will at least be a happy end!