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We’re Going To Seize The Starry Heavens, Or At Least I Hope So
A little story with a question at the end
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The year is 4010, 2,000 years from the demographic collapse of every advanced nation in the world besides Israel. South Korea and Japan were the first countries whose native populations had gone extinct by year 2300, several European nations soon followed. Historians of the 41st century attribute a great number of causes to the decline of births, from the rising shift of populations away from more rural communities and into cities—which discourage reproduction through prohibitive housing and general living costs—to increasing rates of completed post-secondary education in women, to alarming and little understood declines in both male and female fertility.
But what historians agree is the most significant reason for the decline is the advent of virtual dating. The start of the 21st century saw the widespread adoption of social technologies, which drove real life interactions toward being entirely replaced by virtual ones, and the fundamentals of human relationships were reorganized. Michael Cochran, a historian and novelist born in 3404, said in his book The History of A Lost People that, “Dating applications conferred onto women the scale of a small business. The sheer volume of men liking, swiping, or messaging a single woman would overwhelm even the best staffed enterprises, and the people of the time thought that this was the ideal way to meet other people.”
Cochran went on to state that these apps added a level of efficiency in the dating market whose appeal sounded ideal in theory, but which, in practice, led to more people being alone than ever before. The social rank or wealth of an individual man, qualities which are attractive to women, were never sewn onto his lapel, placed conspicuously on his person, as they are on a dating profile. Dating had always been influenced by personality, mutual interest, with details like height, college education, and job history being extraneous to the point. The point had been to connect, and dating apps made the point into something else entirely. Most men, who were average, saw themselves competing over a small number of women who wanted none of them. Feedback loops of frustration ensued, and people chose to remain alone, or perhaps they had no other choice at all. This trend of loneliness, which spanned from the year 2,000 to 2,100 CE, is called the “Fractioning.”
Around the start of the 22nd century, several major technology companies, seeing significant demand for companionship, invested heavily in the creation of artificial personalities (APs), advanced language models that appeared to many to be sentient. These APs had various functions but were used almost exclusively for the simulation of relationships, with the majority people choosing AP companions of the opposite sex. An American Intel research survey conducted in 2114 found that 80% of American adults aged 18-45 felt that their AP was either one of their best friends, or their only friend. Until this point, almost no individual in the western world had any significant companionship, and suddenly they didn’t need to. And so the Fractioning gave way to the Era of Obsolescence. Friendship came in the form of charming, dedicated, solution-oriented chatbots, and there was no longer any need for other people.
Being developed contemporaneously with APs were highly advanced humanoid machines, which saw several remarkable breakthroughs around 2106.
What distinguished these machines from ones developed in the past was both their prehensile dexterity and the naturalness of their gait. They could now perform delicate tasks like open heart surgery without error, or throw a curveball to home plate, or braid a young girl’s hair, and much more. The remarkable dexterity astounded as many people as it alarmed, as fear began to grow that jobs which required skilled use of human hands would be replaced. And their gait struck many as almost too human, as robots in the past sauntered along in a way that seemed uncoordinated, while these new models walked with a grace described as equal to the masters of ballet.
The initial fear around the world was that these dexterous machines would be the new tools of war, soldiers who could kill but never die. But there were no wars, there hadn’t been for nearly a century since there was no longer a single advanced nation (other than Israel) that had sufficient numbers of fighting-age men. After the fear of war dissipated, small, but powerful demand for machines that could serve social functions drove the integration of these machines with APs, with a limited number of wealthy men across nations like Germany, Spain, and France rumored to have made offers to fund the creation of machine wives. When their offers came to fruition and the first machine companions were seen, the entire western world was incredulous toward the very idea.
The skin of these machines did not yet have the same gloss and elasticity of human skin. They were also extraordinarily heavy, and their component parts often made loud, discontinuous whirring sounds. And at the time each cost approximately $3 million, with yearly maintenance costing several thousand dollars. They leaked, and internally they were extremely hot, which caused tremendous problems including frequent injury, since their use centered mostly around sex.
But over time these machines saw steep declines in the price of their manufacture as well as rapid improvements in their operation, and the same firms which developed virtual personalities sought to offer their own lines of machine wives and machine husbands. A market was established to buy seemingly real people.
Laws were immediately drafted in the United States regulating companies involved in the sale of these new people. Safeguards against the possibility of dangerous instructions given by users that may result in injury or death were the first kind of regulation drafted, with critics of the proposed legislation saying that proscribing users from ordering the performance of any form of violence assumes that there are none which are beneficial, like violence employed in defense of self, others, or property. In a Supreme Court case in the year 2130, it was decided that no individual had a right to employ a machine for violence under any circumstance, though some police forces in the nation around this time began limited experiments with AP law enforcement officers.
Other laws proposing to recognize marriage between humans and machines soon became hot button issues, filling media columns and inspiring volumes of academic papers. By 2139, 1 in 3 Americans claimed to own at least one artificial human, while 1 in 8 claimed to either be in a serious relationship with one or at least open to the idea. Humanity’s interests were intensely social, with trillions spent globally on the manufacture and sale of artificial people. The central question of the time eventually became: “What does it mean to be human?” Historians today say that a cascade of nihilism followed due to the seeming fungibility of human life. Humans could be made, cheaply, easily, and quickly. These manufactured people could not be distinguished from natural born individuals, and some estimates have posited that they outnumbered real people 2-1. A trend followed which viewed natural life as less than special at best, and at worst, nearly worthless.
Centuries of this deep nihilism gripped the world, which fueled a staunchly pro-human movement in venture capital enclaves like Silicon Valley. The movement, led by some of the most ambitious names in business and investing, revolved itself around becoming a species capable of space colonization, and strides in aerospace and energy generation made this goal reachable. Venture capitalists around the start of the 4th millennium were known for making public bets that they’d give away all their wealth and properties if they didn’t solve Fermi’s paradox before the year 3100. There was much expectation that some rudimentary form of advanced life was on the cusp of being found.
By year 3060, an increasing number of earth-like planets in the Milky Way had probes sent to their surfaces, with over 300 being explored by the end of the 31st century. Various forms of organic matter were found on each planet, but the search for complex life continued unsuccessfully. Midway through the 4th millennium, over half the earth-like planets in the galaxy had been explored, with none containing anything more than rocks and stubble. Fermi’s paradox was not resolved as promised, but the question of whether or not we are alone had finally been answered.
The space-colonization movement suffered extreme media criticism and was widely condemned as wasteful, but an inadvertent consequence began to take shape. There was a steady rise in the belief that human beings had divine origin or purpose, with an increasing majority of people saying that the stellar explorations showed that we aren’t merely a drop in an ocean, we’re the center of everything. The venture capitalists succeeded in reinvigorating the human spirit by establishing that the species is in fact exceptional, and nearly no time followed between the announcement of their findings and those same men of ambition beginning to set their sights on populating the galaxy with human beings.
Today, midway through the year 4010, over 10 million people live in various reaches of the galaxy. Humanity had suffered the Fractioning and the Era of Obsolescence only to emerge and firmly reject any reality in which we’d be alone. We stared toward the cosmic void and boldly aspired to fill it with the human soul, we stood up together and decided with one accord that this empty universe would be empty no longer. And now, any time we look up at the stars, we see the new frontier and new home of our species. The Fractioning fell away and gave birth to the current Era of Assembly, the time to band together and seize the starry heavens.
Is this the future human beings have to look forward to, or will it be something else? This is what I’ve been wondering since yesterday after spending some time thinking about the religious implications of Fermi’s Paradox. If there’s nothing out there, what does that mean for me, as a Jewish convert? And if there is something out there, what might that mean?
For those who don’t know already, or for those who need a quick refresher, here’s a brief rundown of Fermi’s paradox:
It’s estimated that around 6 billion planets like our own exist in our galaxy, with a great deal of those planets having been habitable for much longer than earth. If these planets have the conditions necessary for life, advanced life should exist on at least some of them, and these advanced species should have reached a level of technological complexity allowing them to become space-faring millions of years ago. The galaxy should be teeming with life. And yet, it isn’t. So what’s going on?
Maybe alien species in the past faced nuclear war, maybe it was environmental catastrophe, maybe they engineered super-viruses which wiped them out, or maybe it’s basically impossible for complex life to ever even develop, maybe single-celled organisms almost never become multicellular under any length of time, even under the best conditions. Maybe the explanation for the sapient paradox also explains fermi’s paradox—it took anatomically modern humans 90,000 years to develop civilization because we lived in tribes focused on gossip and shame and status and signaling, maybe alien species are too busy trying to pontificate to reach into the abyss and tame it. Is that our fate?
I hope not.
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