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Is intelligent life unique?

16 July 2012, 13:45

I believe that intelligent life may be unique to our Earth but has the potential to spread Throughout the galaxy and beyond it.- Indeed the emergence of complexity could be near its beginning.  If the searches conducted by SETI (THE SEARCH FOR EXTRA TERRESTIAL INTELLIGENCE)  Continue to come up with nothing, that could render life a cosmic sideshow: indeed it would be a boost to out self esteem. Terrestrial life and its fate would be seen as a matter cosmic significance.

Even if intelligence is now unique to earth, there is enough time ahead of itto permeate at least this galaxy and evolve into a teeming complexity far beyond what we can conceive.    

There is an unthinking tendency to imagine that humans will be around in 6 billion years to watch the sun flare up and die.    

But the forms of life and intelligence that have by then emerged will surely be as different from us as we are from bacterium. That conclusion would follow even if future evolution proceeded at the rate at which new species have emerged over the past 3.5 or 4 billion years. But post human evolution (whether of organic species or artefacts  will proceed far faster than the charges that led to human emergence, because it will be intelligently directed rather than the gradual outcome of Darwinian natural selection.  Changes will drastically accelerate  in the present century - through intentional genetic modifications, targeted drugs, perhaps even silicon implants in the brain.   

Humanity may not persist as a single species for longer than a few more centuries, especially if communities have by then become established away from earth.   

But a few centuries is still a millionth of the sun’s future lifetime - and the universe probably has a much longer future. The remote future is squarely in the realm of science fiction. Advanced intelligences billions of years hence might even create universes. Perhaps they’ll be able to choose what physical laws prevail in their creations. Perhaps these beings could achieve the computational ability to simulate a universe as complex as the one we perceive ourselves to be in.    

My belief may remain improvable for billions of years. It could be falsified sooner - for instance, we or our immediate post human descendants may develop  theories that reveal inherent limits to complexity. But it’s a substitute for religious belief and I hope it’s true

Acknowledgements: MARTIN  REES;  professor of cosmology and AstrophysicsMaster of Trinity College at the university of Cambridge, Holds title of Astronomer Royal.
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