As the dawn of 2013 marks the beginning of another revolution of our planet around the sun, let us draw our attention beyond the sphere of everyday life – beyond individual concerns, national issues, and even global concerns – towards the cosmic scale of affairs. Take this moment to consider the place of humanity in the grand scheme of the universe.
The entire span of life on Earth is but a flicker of light in a sea of eternal darkness whose beginning or end we can barely begin to conceive. We are children of Sol, the main-sequence star which burns at the center of our solar system; having formed from collapsing clouds of interstellar dust more than ten billion years ago. Almost all life on Earth, including ours, is directly or indirectly fueled by the energy our sun has continuously radiated for the past four and a half billion years. Since the emergence of the first organic life forms on Earth nearly four billion years ago, life has relentlessly grown in complexity at an exponential pace – slowly at first, getting faster and faster over time – populating every corner of the Earth with a vast array of diverse species from which humanity has emerged to dominate the planet.
And just as the evolution of life on Earth, human technology has followed a pattern of exponential growth over time. The more technology we develop, the greater capacity we have to produce even more powerful technology, creating a cycle of steadily increasing innovation which will continue to feed back into the technosphere indefinitely. The relentless wave of innovation which is radically transforming life in these times is proof enough that human technology is now driving change much faster than any other force on Earth. This process of exponential technological growth is best modeled by the theory of technological singularity, a term coined by mathematician John von Neumann and popularized by science fiction writer Vernor Vinge.
This theory borrows from the concept of a singularity in physics which describes the theoretical region in space-time beyond the event horizon at the epicenter of a black hole, where the Standard Model of physics appears to break down completely. Similarly, the technological singularity represents a point in our near future when the emergence of smarter-than-human beings will trigger an explosion of intelligence that will render useless our ability to predict any further advances in technology.
The undeniable truth of our times is that the accelerating pace of technological progress is rapidly driving us towards the threshold of the next stage of human evolution. If the singularity model is correct, which is the position of a growing number of futurist thinkers, most notably Ray Kurzweil, we are almost certainly on the verge of crossing the theoretical event horizon into a technological singularity. Over the coming decades, we will witness the seamless integration of human and machine intelligence into something completely different; superior to either in almost every way possible – in ways we cannot even begin to imagine.
By the end of this century, humanity will have been transformed far in excess of the sum total of changes we have accumulated from the dawn of civilization until now. Over the next few centuries, our descendants will increasingly build on our technological foundation and enhance their biology until they become completely unrecognizable to us – vastly superior in form and intellect.
The fact that they evolved from us may someday seem as incredible to them as our own evolution from apes now seems to many of us. A thousand years from now, human civilization will have achieved heights utterly unimaginable to anyone living today. Ten thousand years from now, Earth will most likely be the epicenter of a Type II civilization whose borders extend well beyond the boundaries of this solar system. A hundred thousand years from now, our descendants will be voyaging across the stars into distant galaxies, extending the influence of the human empire into the farthest reaches of outer space.
An interesting thing to note is that beginning from this generation the personal histories of unprecedented numbers of people will be permanently recorded into the pages of history. Data storage technology increasingly allows us to capture and store incredibly vast quantities of information, including the minutiae of our everyday lives; essentially allowing us to build an extensive record of our lives in these times.
Our photos, videos, emails, private messages, Facebook posts, and tweets may ultimately end up being archived and preserved by future generations of humans for as long as our civilization continues to persist, which may well be several thousands, millions, or even billions of years to come. Life before the digital age by comparison will seem like a black hole in history. We will forever be remembered as the first generation of humans to step into the light of history.
Each and every one of us alive today carries an enormous responsibility to shape the ultimate destiny of humanity. Every choice we make generates ripples of causality that will impact future generations for eons in time and light-years space. Now is the time for us to lay the foundations from which may rise the greatest empire in the history of the universe. The next time you look up at the stars in the night sky, take a few moments to consider that children of Sol may someday look back down at this planet from the orbit of a distant star.
They will tell stories about the planet of their origin; stories of the first homo sapiens to dominate the plains of Africa; of ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome; the Inquisitions, Renaissance, and Enlightenment; the slave trade and world wars; the golden age of London, Paris, and New York. But most of all, they will remember us -- the ones who took the first steps into the light -- and they will carry our memories to the ends of the universe. Keep this in mind as you take your place in history.