11 Nov 2012

As far as thought can reach

Posted by jofr

As far as thought can reach is a play in the book Back to Methuselah from the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950). It plays in the year 31,920 AD and imagines a world where short-lived people are a mere footnote in ancient history.

How will life in the future look like, when organisms are no longer short-lived? What is the burden of eternal life? Maybe eternal life would be boring, since “everything happens to everybody sooner or later if there is time enough”, as Shaw argues. Or maybe quite the contrary, life would be infinitely interesting: “If you should turn out to be a person of infinite capacity, you will no doubt find life infinitely interesting”.

Maybe such long-lived life-forms will try to seek perfection in art and science. They would scan all available webpages and books and absorb the contained knowledge. Maybe they will have a curious, playful attitude and play with artificial worlds and artificial life-forms just as our children are playing with dolls. Shaw argues “ever since men existed, children have played with dolls”. Wait – a playful entity that crawls all webpages and scans all books – we have got that already, do we?

In Shaw’s play, the characters finally create artificial men in a laboratory, who soon kill their creator. What do you think, if we create real artificial intelligence and synthetic life-forms one day, would it be like Skynet trying to kill us? Would it be bored like Marvin, the paranoid android from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? Or would it find life infinitely interesting?

H.G. Wells said in his article “The discovery of the future” (Nature 65, 326–331, 1902) that the question what comes after man would be “the most fascinating and the most insoluble question in the whole world”..

“This fact that man is not final is the great unmanageable, disturbing fact that arises upon us in the scientific discovery of the future, and to my mind, at any rate, the question what is to come after man is the most persistently fascinating and the most insoluble question in the whole world.”

..and he continues to say that the best is yet to come and humans as we know them are only the beginning of a beginning:

“It is possible to believe that all the past is but the beginning of a beginning, and that all that is and has been is but the twilight of the dawn. It is possible to believe that all that the human mind has ever accomplished is but the dream before the awakening. We cannot see, there is no need for us to see, what this world will be like when the day has fully come. We are creatures of the twilight. But it is out of our race and lineage that minds will spring, that will reach back to us in our littleness to know us better than we know ourselves, and that will reach forward fearlessly to comprehend this future that defeats our eyes.”

(Picture of the Stanford Torus is from Wikipedia)

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