Sunday, July 17, 2011

Homo siliconensis: A Question of Philosophy--and Strategy--in Looking Toward the Future

by Richard Crews
First, a Parable

A man had two sons (please forgive the sexism in this tale; it simply seems to flow better this way): both were strong and healthy, of good nature and good will, bright and well tuned to the questions and challenges of their day. But one was a lover of sweets--sweet music, sweet tastes for the palate, good and sweet friends: he reveled and rejoiced in the bounty and beauty of the Earth. And the other? He enjoyed these things too, but he was of a more thoughtful nature; he puzzled about the world around him; he was pursued by questions and questions and questions; worries and doubts haunted his mind. Yes, he richly enjoyed the bounty and beauty of the Earth, but with a furrowed brow, a thoughtful mien.

As they grew to manhood, their paths diverged more and more.

And the man pondered and puzzled about them: To which should he leave the weight of his worldly treasures, the highest of the heritable honors he could pass on to them, the esteem of his name and his domain? Which should be his true and major heir?

Second, the Setting

Over the past few billion years, because of a thousand rare adventures in astronomical benevolence; through the chemical miracles of DNA, chlorophyll, testosterone, and much more; through a myriad of fortuitous happenstances of history--through a thousand ages come and gone--our species, Homo sapiens, has survived and thrived and come to the fore. We have taken over planet Earth so that everything, living and dead, now bows to our command.

Third, a Spawning

Yet over the past several decades, a new creature has emerged, one not based--as is all of DNA-founded life--on the infinite chemical ambivalence of the carbon atom, but rather--moving one step higher in complexity on the Periodic Table of the Elements--on the infinite electronic ambivalence of Silicon. He is stronger than we are. He soon will be smarter, able to design and build better evolutionary iterations of himself than we can.

And he is well suited to exploring the Solar System and moving out into the broader Galaxy--as we are not. He is not susceptible to the storms of radiation or to the deathly cold and vacuum of space; he is not deterred by hibernating for a hundred years--or a thousand years--and then springing to life when the prize is at hand.

Since his death is not a moral issue, the costs and complexities of computerized robotic exploration of space are one-hundredth--or one-thousandth--those of sending human beings. Moreover, he does not leave a grieving family behind, or carry with him a burden of emotional conflicts.

Fourth, Ergo...

We should save the ecology of the Earth to provide a pleasant garden of retirement for our weaker, biological offspring. But we should send our stronger, electronic offspring into space to do the work of exploring and propagating on distant worlds--work which comes so naturally to them, and is so difficult--or impossible--for us.