A Vision
Date: Sat, 12 Jul 2003 13:42:47 +0200
From: Anders Sandberg
Subject: A vision
(originally posted on the ExI list)

(Just something I wrote in the early northern morning, inspired by the fierce growth of the surrounding vegetation and some discussions about the need for values to meet green conservatism.)

A Vision

I have a vision of the future.

Within a fairly short time we will have the technological tools to manipulate matter at the molecular scale, making both manufacturing and recycling nearly perfect. Advances in artificial intelligence will enable more or less smart devices to act on their own, allowing teams of robots to build vast structures as desired or process enormous amounts of information in order to design solutions to many problems. We will have the tools to redesign ourselves and our environment according to our visions.

Soon the solar system will change beyond recognition. Surrounding the Earth space habitats with their own artificial ecospheres will orbit in vast bands. Within each there is room for millions of people to shape their own culture. Similar, but even vaster habitats are being wrought by the material of the asteroid belt and the cometary nuclei. Slowly a sphere is being formed by millions of habitats, solar power collectors and other devices around the sun drinking its life-giving energy and radiating communications of all kinds. In the end most of the solar output will be used by life rather than dissipate into the cold of space.

On Mars eagles soar above the Valles Marineris and dolphins explore the new Borealis Sea as ecopoiesis and terraforming makes it inhabitable. What started out as a apocalypse of comets guided to crash into the planet and self-replicating nanomachines producing greenhouse gases, breaking down carbonate rocks and freeing water first made the planet warm and wet enough for life . mostly genetically modified algae and lichens . to survive on their own. Gradually the life transformed the environment into something more and more terrestrial species could inhabit. Mars will never become a copy of Earth; the lower gravity, the red rocks, the uneven seasons, colder and dryer climate and the two moons will make sure of that. Over the eons life will adapt more fully to Mars until what started out as transplanted species will have become entirely new species that are truly native.

On Mercury an ecosystem of machines is thriving. Self-replicating machines mine the rocky surface, extracting metals and semiconductors they use to build solar collectors. Deliberately designed to evolve they are inventing an ecology of glittering artificial life in shapes unimaginable to human planning. Some solutions are as creative and unexpected as wood . a wonderful material with many desirable properties, but nothing that any engineer could deliberately think up . and serve as inspiration for the rest of the solar system.

In the seas of Europa adapted deep-sea lifeforms are slowly colonising the volcanic vents on the bottom of the sea. Most of them are variants of the ecologies around terrestrial volcanic vents, but strange new algae designed to make use of the weak light and heat now live beneath the thick ice. On Earth they have survived in their nearly unchanging ecological niche for hundreds of millions of years; on Europa their niche will likely persist for billions of years.

In the tar-like seas of ethane on Titan new forms of life designed from scratch are evolving. Instead of water they use hydrocarbons, and instead of photosynthesis they gather nutrients raining down from the clouds and the forces of the vast tidal flows.

And around the gas planets vast projects are underway to build ships that will bring the seeds of the solar system outwards to other stars. Fuelled by energy from the enormous solar collectors and mass from the gas atmospheres, they hold the collected information of the life of the solar system . genomes, human culture, the blueprints for new habitats. Are they crewed? Some might be filled with humans or human descendants, others by our artificial descendants or simple replication systems. Once they reach another system they will settle on a suitable asteroid and use it to build a larger base with room for greater minds, who in turn will use their stored knowledge and equipment to built yet larger and more versatile homes. Just as a tiny seed can unfold a few small leaves and roots that gives it the energy and nutrients needed to grow more leaves, more roots and strive towards the sun, the solar system seeds will bootstrap themselves into ever greater and diverse forms once they reach their destination and finally become adult civilisations.

Lets zoom outwards in time and space. From the perspective of the galaxy the yellow dwarf star on the outskirts of the Orion arm has never been unusual. But first it sends out a burst of strangely ordered radio signals. Soon afterwards it begins to change as if the solar system around it was turning into a globe more carefully using its energy for something. Nearly instantly . a few scant millennia . other stars in the vicinity begins to change in a variety of ways. A wavefront is expanding outwards turning empty solar systems and raw matter into something new and complex: habitats for life. In some cases this might be the terraforming of planets or the construction of habitats in space. In other cases entire planets are dismantled to build enormous concentric shells of energy collection, computing nodes and cooling systems that enable vast computer networks to house information ecologies far more complex than the biological one that once grew on the first planet. Here and there entire stars are disassembled to provide for longer lasting sources of warmth than they would naturally be. As the wavefront passes the galaxy changes, becomes a home to life and thought and not just to mass and energy.

And after it has transformed the milky way the wave continues outwards . to the Magellanic clouds, to Andromeda and the other galaxies in the local cluster, taking the vast jump to the Virgo cluster, embracing the local supercluster and beyond. This is my vision of the future: a future where life embraces and fills the universe.

One might argue that what I have described is not the triumph of life but the triumph of human culture and technology. But what is human culture and technology but an expression of life? The human species is just another species doing what it can to survive. In our case we stumbled on the unusual ecological niche of making tools to help us and eventually build our own ecological niches, something which was aided by (or perhaps caused by, causing or co-evolving with) our vast communications and thinking abilities. There are many species that use simple tools to survive better, or construct environments that please them . insect larvae assembling gravel coatings, birds picking caterpillars with sticks, corals constructing reefs. Are they in any respect different from our clothing, hammers and cities? A city is not just an artefact but also an ecosystem: countless other species have moved in and survive there thanks to the actions of the keystone species Homo sapiens. Given enough time natural evolution would likely produce adaptations to city life among the plants and animals just as bizarre and beautiful as the one seen on coral reefs and in tropical jungles. It is only because our cities are so young and not intended to be ecosystems (and because we do not pay attention) they appear impoverished and sterile.

It is true that humans will play a key role in this vision. But it is not primarily a story about the hegemony of humanity over the natural world. It is true that this vision has room for all varieties of human futures and ambitions, from quiet contemplation to vastening into godlike posthuman states. While the humans might consider themselves the rulers, they are unwittingly serving life by expanding its niches to new places, places where life would never have been able to go naturally. Evolution can never reach a local optimum separated from current species by a sufficiently broad desert of non-viable species; no matter what it cannot evolve the molecular machinery to build diamond skeletons, spaceflight or survival on Mercury. This is something that requires what is currently uniquely human, foresight and technology. Intelligence is necessary for the long-term survival and expansion of life. By expanding outwards (for whatever reasons) humanity brings with itself other species. Some as food and companions, some as freeriders and parasites and likely, when crossing great gulfs, many .just in case. to make sure no diversity is lost. Some might be visionaries wanting to save or expand life for its own sake, but the beauty is that not all humans need to be. A vision that required all humans to act as one would remain just a beautiful vision; a vision merely requiring that humans continue to do what it always has done is far more likely.

Pessimists among us might complain that in the past we humans have often destroyed the environment of life, and that this is also something that is likely to continue. But most of this destruction has been due to ignorance and limited resources: when you are half starving you do not care that your next meal is an endangered keystone species. It is thanks to the affluence and efficiency of modern technology we can reduce our ecological footprints and undo some of the damage. If one believes that mankind is always the destroyer, then my vision is not possible. But given that assumption no other positive vision of the future is possible, not even sustainability on the Earth. On the other hand, if one assumes humanity can take care of its biosphere (however imperfectly), then there is no hindrance to spreading that biosphere outwards and hoping for the best.

As I see it the word life should not be interpreted narrowly and parochially as our particular kind of water-protein organisation but as complex self-replicating and evolving systems as a whole. The machine ecology of Mercury, the methane ecology of Titan and the software living within the vast computing networks are all examples of generalised life. We will not just expand the niches of traditional life but also create new kinds of life . as experiments, as art, as adaptations. And these forms of life are equally worth our reverence and appreciation as the traditional wet kind. There is no fundamental difference between created and born life, except possibly that the former has a morally responsible .parent..

Some readers no doubt find my vision distasteful just because it replaces the natural with the artificial. There are those who argue that terraforming a planet is a crime against its natural environment. But when plants begin to colonise a newly formed volcanic island, is that a crime? Hardly, and it is seen as natural. Would it be a crime to deliberately scatter seeds on the island? It might have less of the appeal of surprise a natural scattering would have engendered in a human observer, but from the perspective of the plants and rocks there is no difference. Scattering seeds across the universe is the same thing on a vast scale. Perhaps most important, life remakes itself. A typical tool when left to itself will not change (except for some decay). Life reproduces and evolves, exploring new possibilities almost by definition. Even a strictly manufactured living environment will become something else given enough time. It will become born rather than made, but it could not exist without the initial manufacture. Humanity is both steward of life and a player in its emergence.

One might argue that this is just a .quantity is quality. vision, that the number of living things do not matter. Why convert teratonnes or matter into plants, animals and humans when only a few would be necessary? But the same argument suggests that we would be just as well off with a single patch of vegetation in an otherwise empty gravel desert as an entire meadow. One reason the meadow is better than the patch is that it can sustain more species and more complexity than the patch; it can be a part of the interplay between biomes. It is also more stable to damage and is needed to sustain large animals like horses. But it is also necessary to allow more uniqueness. As I see it life has an inherent worth compared to the matter and energy of the universe. It has the potential of growth, change and awareness disorganised rock and plasma lack. Due to its evolutionary and individual past each organism is contingent . it was shaped due to its genes and surroundings in an unique way that will never occur again. Each of us, each blade of grass or bacteria, is a kind of one-of-a-kind snowflake. I hope the universe will be filled with a snowstorm of these.

What about other life in the universe? In this ecological vision there is not just room for it, it is something to be sought out, cherished and spread just as we will spread our own kind. Life is life.

What about the alternative to my vision? Imagine the following .sustainable. vision: mankind contents itself to the Earth, remaining static either deliberately or by quietly dying out. Life continues on Earth, while the bodies of the solar system revolve as nothing has happened. Species come and go on Earth, while the sun slowly but inexorably increases in luminosity. In a few hundred million years the increasing heat overcomes the homeostasis of the biosphere and it largely dies out, leaving a Venus-like world of heavy smog and gravel. In a few billion years the sun grows into a red giant and engulfs the inner system. What is eventually left is either a frozen husk of slag orbiting a white dwarf or just a hint of extra lithium in the spectrum of the planetary nebula around it.

Is this vision desirable? It is the .natural. chain of events that will result if humanity does not change things. There is room within it for billions of species and thousands of grand civilisations. But it ends ignominiously and it is fundamentally limited.

On a larger scale there might be biospheres emerging all the time around distant stars: small stalks of grass growing in the dark soil of the Milky Way. But without intelligence supporting them they all shrivel and die before any chance of seeding. Each biosphere, filled with uniqueness and potential, will vanish without a trace, without even one conscious observer.

The desire to protect the natural is a desire to protect the contingent and valuable from the ravages of entropy . or just conservatism devaluing human ambition and creativity. Unfortunately the two are often confused. This vision is all about protecting and nurturing nature at its largest by means of vast human ambition. The triumph of the denigration of the artificial and deliberate would be not just the abandonment of humanity but also the eventual betrayal of the only chance life has to continue growing.

It has been said that growth is the ideology of the cancer cell. This is true, but it is also the ideology of the orchid. Without constant attempts to sprout seeds everywhere the orchid would die out. Even if it did survive at a guaranteed constant number it would not have any incentive to evolve. It is the constant struggle to produce more orchids that have made orchids evolve their bulbs and air-roots, their amazing flowers to entice insects and vast variety of ecological niches. It is thanks to growth and evolution that we achieve beauty.

I propose that we will turn the universe into a garden.