If aliens had been watching our planet for the last billions of years, “what might they see if they watch for another hundred years?” asked Lord Martin Rees, the astronomer royal of the United Kingdom, when he gave the inaugural Carl Sagan lecture Monday night.
Looking ahead toward the potential and probable technological advances expected in this century both on Earth and in space, Rees spoke to the benefits and risks they pose as humans push forward in this defining century.
A board member of the Carl Sagan Institute and Emmy and Peabody award-winning producer Ann Druyan introduced Rees’ presentation by drawing a parallel between Sagan — a renowned professor of astronomy at Cornell — and Rees as “citizen-scientists.”
“[Sagan] was also a citizen-scientist who was so conscientious he mounted an independent campaign without any help from anyone to fight for the future of this planet,” Druyan said.
Rees began his lecture on this point, stressing the lessons he has taken from Sagan and their relevance in today’s world.
“We need [Sagan’s] optimistic vision of life’s destiny in this world and perhaps far beyond this world,” he said. “We need to think globally. We need to think rationally. We need to think long-term.”
Rees emphasized the importance of human agency in this mission of global thinking. Rees said that humans can — and should — protect the biosphere, reduce the rate of the population increase and responsibly create new technologies.
New technologies, though they can work to this goal, also can pose threats.
“We could universally degrade our biosphere,” Rees said. “And advanced technology, if misdirected, could cause a devastating setback to our civilization.”
Rees cited the example of Google’s DeepMind robot, which recently beat the human world champion at the Chinese strategy game Go, to elaborate on these potential setbacks.
“Advances are patchy. Robots can do all these things, but they’re still clumsier than a child, moving pieces on a real chessboard,” Rees said. “Will this new machine age be like earlier destructive technologies, the car for instance, and create as many jobs as it destroys?”
Responding to this question, Rees said “some blue-collar jobs, like plumbing and gardening, will be among the hardest to alter.”
“To preserve a healthy society will require massive redistribution to ensure that everyone has at least a living wage,” he added.
However, space offers solutions to some of these challenges, where Rees said “it’s in deep space robots will surely be transformed.”
“I hope people will follow the robots, though it will be as risk-seeking adventurers, rather than any practical goers,” he said. “These exploits should be promoted as adventures or extreme sports. The phrase ‘space tourism’ should be avoided because that lulls people into unrealistic confidence.”
Though space presents opportunities for exploration, Rees reminded the audience that people’s attention should remain on Earth.
“Don’t ever expect mass emigration from Earth,” Rees said. “No way in our solar system offers an environment even as clement as the Antarctic or the top of Everest. It’s a dangerous delusion to think that space offers an escape from the Earth’s problems. There’s no Planet B.”
Without an escape, Rees said that the next 100 years may determine our fate.
“Even in the concertinaed time scale that astronomers have envisioned, extending billions of years into the future, as well as into the past, this century may be a defining era,” he said.
Rees also said that we can have hope for the next century, keeping Sagan’s mission in mind.
“Though we live under the shadow of these threats, and may be political pessimists, we must remain techo-optimism,” he said. “Advances in AI, biotech, nanotech and space could booster the developing, as well as the developed, world. If we don’t responsibly progress in these new technologies, we won’t achieve the kind of vision that Carl and all the rest of us would like to see.”