And that is also my concern about the empathy crisis during the next three years. I don’t think this is going to be a sapient being, and it’s disturbing that people will respond to it that way. If people can see through it, all they’ll do is take the surveys of the people who saw through it and apply that as data.
So, back to your observation about Moore’s Law. In a literal sense, doubling the density of transistors is one thing, but that’s not really how Moore’s Law is viewed today. Moore’s Law is viewed as an abstraction that says the power of computers doubles. And you’ve got people like Kurzweil who say it’s been going on for a hundred years, even as computers passed being mechanical, being relays, then being tubes—that the power of them continues to double. So are you asserting that the power of computers will continue to double, and if so, how do you account for things like quantum computers, which actually show every sign of increasing the speed of…
First off, quantum computers—you have to parse your questions in a very limited number of ways. The quantum computers we have right now are extremely good at answering just half a dozen basic classes of questions. Now, it’s true that you can parse more general questions down to these smaller, more quantum-accessible bits or pieces or cubits. But first off, we need to recognize that. Secondly, I never said that computers would stop getting better. I said that there is a flip going on, and that an awful lot of the action in rapidly accelerating and continuing the acceleration of the power of computers is shifting over to software. But you see, this is precedented, this has happened before. The example is the only known example of intelligence, and we have to keep returning to that, and that is us.
Human beings became intelligent by a very weird process. We did the hardware first. Think of what we needed 100,000 years ago, 200,000, 300,000 years ago. We needed desperately to become the masters of our surroundings, and we would accomplish that with a 100-word vocabulary, simple stone tools, and fire. Once we had those three things and some teamwork, then we were capable of saying, “Ogruk, chase goat. With fire. Me stab.” And then nobody could stand up to us; we were the masters of the world. And we proved that because we were able then to protect goat herds from carnivores, and everywhere we had goat herds, a desert spread because there was no longer a balance—the goats ate all the foliage and it became a desert. So, destroying the Earth started long before we had writing. The thing is that we could have done, “Ogruk, chase goat, with fire. Me stab,” with a combination in parallel of processing power and software. But it appears likely that we did it the hard way.
We created a magnificent brain, a processing system that was able to brute force this 100-word vocabulary, fire, and primitive tools on very, very poor software—COBOL, you might say. Then about 40,000 years ago—and I describe this is my novel Existence, just in passing—but about 40,000 years ago we experienced the first of at least a dozen major software revisions, Renaissances you might call them. And within a few hundred years suddenly our toolkit of stone tools, bone tools and all of that increased in sophistication by an order of magnitude, by a factor of 10. Within a few hundred years we were suddenly dabbing paint on cave walls, burying our dead with funeral goods. And similar Renaissances happened about 15,000 years ago, about 12,000 years ago, certainly about 5,000 years ago with the invention of writing, and so on. And I think we’re in one right now.
So, we became a species that’s capable of flexibly reprogramming itself with software upgrades. And this is not necessarily going to be the case out there in the universe with other intelligent life forms. Our formula was to develop a brain that could brute force what we needed on very poor software, and then we could suddenly change the software. In fact, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, I’ve been engaged in that for 35 years, and the Fermi Paradox is the question of why we don’t see any sign of extraterrestrial alien life.
Which you also cover in Existenceas well, right?
Yes. And I go back to that question again and again in many of my stories and novels, posing this hypothesis or that hypothesis. And in my opinion of the hundred or so possible theories for the Fermi Paradox, I believe the leading one is that we are anomalously smart, that we are very, very weirdly smart. Which is an odd thing for an American to say right at this point in our history, but I think that if we pull this out—we’re currently in Phase 8 of the American Civil War—if we pull it out as well as our ancestors pulled out the other ones, then I think that there are some real signs that we might go out into the galaxy and help all the others.
Sagan postulated that there’s this 100-year window between when a civilization develops, essentially the ability to communicate beyond its planet and the ability to destroy itself, that it has a hundred years to master – that it either destroys itself or it goes on to have some billion-year timeframe. Is that a variant of what you are maintaining? Are you saying intelligence like ours doesn’t come along often, or it comes along and then destroys itself?
These are all tenable hypotheses. I don’t think we come along very often at all. Think about what I said earlier about goats. If we had matured into intelligence very slowly and took 100,000, 200,000 years to go from hunter-gatherer to a scientific civilization, all along that way no one would’ve recognized that we were gradually destroying our environment—the way the Easter Islanders chopped down every tree, the way the Icelanders chopped down every tree in Iceland, the way that goat herds spread deserts, and so did primitive irrigation. We started doing all those things and just 10,000 years later we had ecological science. While the Earth is still pretty nice, we have a real chance to save it. Now that’s a very, very rapid change. So, one of the possibilities is that other sapient life forms out there, just take their time more getting from the one to the other. And by the time they become sapient and fully capable of science, it’s too late. Their goat herds and their primitive irrigation and chopping down the trees made it an untenable place from which they could leap to the stars.
So that’s one possibility. I’m not claiming that it’s real, but it’s different that Sagan’s. Because Sagan’s has 100 years between the invention of nuclear power and the invention of starships. I think that this transition has been going on for 10,000 years, and we need to be the people who are fully engaged in this software reprogramming that we’re engaged in right now, which is to become a fully scientific people. And of course, there are forces in our society who are propagandizing to try to see that some members – our neighbors and our uncles – hate science. Hate science and every other fact-using profession. And we can’t afford that; that is death.
I think the Fermi question is the third most interesting question there is, and it sounds like you mull on it a lot. And I hear you keep qualifying that you’re just putting forth ideas. Is your thesis though that run-of-the mill bacteria life – we’re going to find that to be quite common, and it’s just us that’s rare?
One of the worst things about SETI and all of this is that people leap to conclusions based upon their gut. Now my gut instinct is that life is probably pretty common because every half decade we find some stage in the autogeneration of life that turns out to be natural and easy. But we haven’t completed the path, so there may be some point along the way that required a fluke—a real rare accident. I’m not saying that there is no such obstacle, no such filter. It just doesn’t seem likely. Life occurred on Earth almost the instant the rocks cooled after the Late Heavy Bombardment. But intelligence, especially scientific intelligence only occurred…
Yeah, 2.5 billion years after we got an oxygen atmosphere, 3.5 billion years after life started, and 100 million years—just 100 million years—before the Sun starts baking our world. If people would like to see a video that’s way entertaining, put in my name, David Brin, and “Lift the Earth,” and you’ll see my idea for how we could move the Earth over the course of the next 50 million years to keep away from the inner edge of the Goldilocks Zone as it expands outward. Because otherwise, even if we solve the climate change thing and stop polluting our atmosphere, in just 100 million years, we won’t be able to keep the atmosphere transparent enough to lose the heat fast enough.
One more question about that, and then I have a million other questions to ask you. It’s funny because in the ’90s when I lived in Mountain View, I officed next door to the SETI people, and I always would look out my window every morning to see if they were painting landing strips in the parking lot. If they weren’t, I figured there was no big announcement yet. But do you think it’s meaningful that all life on Earth… Matt Ridley said, “All life is one.” You and I are related to the banana; we had the same exact thing… Does that indicate to you it only happened in stock one time on this planet, which Gaia, seems so predisposed to life that that would indicate its rarity?
That’s what we were talking about before. The fact is that there are no more non-bird dinosaurs because velociraptors didn’t have a Space program. That’s really what it comes down to. If they had a B612 Foundation or Asteroidal Resources or Planetary Resources, these startups that are out there – and I urge people to join them – B612, Planetary Resources – these are all groups that are trying to get us out there so that we can mine asteroids and get rich. B612 concentrates more on finding the asteroids and learning how to divert them if we ever find one heading toward us. But it’s all the same thing. And I’m engaged in all this not only on the Board of Advisors for those groups, but also I’m on the Council of Advisors to NIAC, which is NASA’s Innovative and Advanced Concepts program. It’s the group within NASA that gives little seed grants to far out ideas that are just this side of plausible, a lot of them really fun. And some of them turn into wonderful things. So, I get to be engaged in a lot of wonderful activities, and the problem with this is it distracts me so much that I’ve really slowed down in my writing science fiction.
So, about that for a minute—when I think of your body of work, I don’t know how to separate what you write from David Brin, the man, so you’ll have to help me with that. But in Kiln People, you have a world in which humans are frequently uploading their consciousness in temporary shells of themselves and the copies are sometimes imperfect. So, does David Brin, the scientist, think that that is possible? And do you have a theory as to how it is, by what mechanism are we conscious?
Those are two different questions. When I’m writing science fiction, it falls into a variety of categories. There is hard SF, in which I’m trying very hard to extrapolate a path from where we are into an interesting future. And one of the best examples in my most recent short story collection, which is called Insistence of Vision, is the story “Insistence of Vision,” in which in the fairly near future we realize that we can get rid of almost all of our prisons. All we have to do is give felons virtual reality goggles that only let them see what we want them to see, and then you temporarily blind them so they can’t take off the goggles – they’ll be blinded and harmless. But if they put the goggles on, they can wander our streets, have jobs, but they can’t hurt anybody because all that’s passing by them is blurry objects and they can only see those doors that they’re allowed to see. That’s chilling. It seems Orwellian until you realize that it’s also preferable to the horrors of prison.
Another near-term extrapolation in the same collection is called “Chrysalis.” And I’ve had people write to me after reading the collection Insistence of Vision, and they’ve said that that story’s explanation—its theory for what cancer is—one guy said, “This is what you’ll be known for a hundred years from now, Brin.” I don’t know about that, but I have a theory for what cancer is, and I think it fits the facts better than anything else I’ve seen. But then you go to the opposite extreme and you can write pure fantasy just for the fun of it, like my story “The Loom of Thessaly.”
Others are stories that do thought experiments, for instance about the Fermi Paradox. And then you have tales like Kiln People, where I hypothesize a machine that lets you imprint your soul, your memories, your desires into a cheap clay copy, and you can make two, three, four, five of them any given day. And at the end of the day they come back and you can download their memories, and during that day you’ve been five of you and you’ve gotten everything that you wanted done and experienced all sorts of things. So you’re living more life in parallel, rather than more life serially, which is what the immortality cooks want. So what you get is a wish fantasy: “I am so busy, I wish I could make copies of myself every day.” So I wrote a novel about it. I inspired by the Terracotta soldiers of Xi’an and the story of the Golem of Prague and God making Adam out of clay, all those examples of clay people. So you have the title of the book is Kiln People—they’re baked in the kiln in your home every day, and you imprint your soul in it. And the notion is that like everything having to do with religion, we decided to go ahead and technologize the soul. It’s a fun extrapolation. Then from that extrapolation, I go on and I try to be as hardcore as I can about be dealing with what would happen, if? So it’s a thought experiment, but people have said that Kiln Peopleis my most fun book, and that’s lovely, that’s a nice compliment.
On to the question though of consciousness itself, do you have a theory on how it comes about, how you can experience the world as supposed to just measure it?