You are blessed. You live in the most promising time ever. You even have a chance at immortality.

You are cursed. You live in the most dangerous time ever. Your species may even become extinct.

Sometime in the late fifties, early sixties, the human race acquired the capacity to commit suicide. Sputnik showed the way out. As long as we are confined to the surface of a single planet, we are supremely vulnerable.

I call it the bottleneck: the period of time between the acquisition of the ability to destroy life on Earth and the point where the species no longer depends on any single planet. The longer all our eggs are in a single basket, vulnerable to nuclear exchanges, climate change, natural and artificial pandemics, the environmental precipice, etc., the lower our chances are to survive as a species.

I think we are only going to get one chance at this.
Let me repeat. The bottleneck, the riskiest time in human history, began with the Trinity test at Alamogordo and will end on the day an off-planet outpost can sustain itself and grow on its own. My estimate is that this will take about a hundred years, except for…

… the singularity.

This is the notion that technological change and especially cybernetic progress plots a “j” shaped graph that resembles the gravity gradient near a black hole. As you fall towards a black hole you keep going faster and faster until you are dividing by zero. What happens next is literally unknowable and virtually unimaginable.

On present trends, an average desktop PC in 2020 will have the complexity of  a human brain. By 2030 it will have the complexity of all human brains. By 2050…

Nanotech. Biotech. IT, the internet and the grid. Automation and von Neuman machines. Nuclear fusion. The future is so bright because it is an accretion  disk surrounding a black hole. Gotta wear the armored shades. In a stable society these would be severe challenges. In ours…

Unfortunately for the human race, the bottleneck and the singularity coincide. Perhaps it is always thus. Perhaps no race survives this stage and that is the answer to “where is everybody?”

You live in the most interesting of times. (What did you do to those Chinese people, anyway?) The fundies may even be right: These might be the “end days” but not for the reasons they think.

I have tried to distill these thoughts. Is the brew too strong?

Update [2005-3-25 17:58:1 by Athenian]:

Some additional points:

In the early sixties the nuclear throw-weight of the two superpowers was at its highest as both relied on huge bombs to balance out their inaccurate missiles. If the Cuban missile crisis had resulted in nuclear war thousands of 50 megaton bombs would have devastated the world. Such a war in the 80s would have been much less destructive.


Challenged by the Soviet sputnik the United States panicked and rushed its way into space to the lasting detriment of a serious effort. Imagine if the Apollo billions had been sunk into the X-15 (space plane) effort. The footprints on the moon would have come later but we would be making them even now. A blaze of glory was followed by the giant mess they made of the shuttle program.

The shuttle program started off with fatal flaws caused by penny pinching which were later compounded by a lack of imagination. The fuel tanks don’t have to be ditched. They could tag along to orbit where their residual oxygen and hydrogen and pressurized space would be a god-send to any orbiting outpost.

We are woefully behind where we should be in space. However, there is a remedy. It is the space elevator, which could be constructed in about two decades at the price of the Apollo program (or Shrub’s silly Mars program).

Any species confined to a single world is vulnerable to extinction from various threats including solar flares, asteroids, orbital instability, nearby super novae, climate change, ecological collapse etc. What is unique since 1945 is our ability to destroy our world.

The environmental precipice is the idea that as climate change, pollution and population pressures mount a point of no return is reached, beyond which the ability of society to respond begins to decline rapidly. As growth slows and instability grows our ability to fix the mess diminishes and the disasters multiply.

We have already used up the Earth’s supplies of readily available fossil fuels and minerals, so any society trying to reemerge from barbarism following a collapse of civilization may well face insurmountable obstacles trying to reestablish a technological civilization.

The consequences of true artificial intelligence, potentially far surpassing our own, boggle the mind on their own. When coupled with tiny intercommunicating devices, designer organisms and DNA as well as self-replicating machines and inexhaustible power and labor (robots, etc), it paints a future in just a few decades that is more different from our present than we are from the distant caveman past.

According to the Drake equation (number of stars times the fraction that have planets times the fraction that can sustain life times the fraction where life actually evolves times the fraction that evolves intelligence times the fraction that communicates times the fraction of time that civilization exists), with conservative assumptions, there should be hundreds if not thousands of civilizations chattering all around us. Instead, we get silence. But if you drop the time that a civilization lasts to a century, you get 10. It is easy to lose ten civilizations in a galaxy. If no one can get through the bottleneck the galaxy will be a lonely place.

Von Neuman space probes able to replicate themselves once they reached a target stellar system would be able to blanket the galaxy in a mere million years. So it is a good bet that nobody in the galaxy has actually released such machines, at least within the last million years. When you consider that the universe is nearly fourteen billion years old, a million years does not seem like a very long time.

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