Will Humanity Be Saved by Deus Ex Machina, Like Thelma & Louise in an Autonomous Vehicle?
The greatest societal challenge we face is to extend the longevity of humanity. At a lecture to Harvard alumni I was asked how long I expected our technological civilization to survive. My response was based on the fact that we commonly find ourselves around the middle part of our life. The chance of waking up on a random morning as an infant on its first day after birth is tens of thousand times smaller than the chance of waking up as an adult. It is equally unlikely to live a century after the beginning of our modern technological era if this phase is going to last millions of years into the future. In the more probable case that we are currently witnessing the adulthood phase of our technological lifespan, we are likely to survive a few centuries but not much longer. This is already hinted at by our ability to inflict calamities in the form of climate change, nuclear war or pandemics. After stating this statistical verdict publicly, I realized what a horrifying forecast it entails. But is our statistical destiny inevitable?
Statistical forecasts could be altered if an unexpected factor comes into play. For example, our self-inflicted technological wounds could be avoided if policy makers become aware of the risks and mitigate them. We can imagine Thelma & Louise in the final scene of their remarkable film, not driving the car towards a cliff and turning the steering wheel away from it at the last moment.
Another way to avoid a catastrophe is to imagine Thelma & Louise using a car protected by autonomous emergency braking, operated by an Artificial Intelligence (AI) system connected to sophisticated sensors. As the car approaches the cliff, the AI system would turn it around and avoid a tragedy.
The analog for humanity is to imagine that within a few centuries our destiny will be controlled by artificial rather than natural intelligence. This would explain why we have only a few centuries left as a civilization in control of its technological destiny. Survival of the fittest would clear the way for technological selection rather than natural selection. In this context, the limited horizon of our technological civilization implies a new future in which — instead of going extinct, our technological creations will take over and save us from ourselves.
This would constitute both literally and metaphorically “deus ex machina”, the Latin loan-translation from Greek which means “a god from the machine”. This phrase describes a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem in a story is suddenly resolved by an unexpected event. The term was coined from ancient Greek theater, where actors playing gods were brought onto stage using a machine like a crane.
The rapid rise of AI technology in recent years along with the comment made by the Google engineer Blake Lemoine that he saw a “ghost in the machine” by interacting with the artificially intelligent chatbot generator LaMDA, might be preliminary indicators of the “deus ex machina” future to come.
When we are troubled by practices of the past, the best path forward is to focus on creating a better future. Our future could be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Some of the worst practices of humans maintain their hold because we keep holding on to the broken glass as it wounds us again and again. The bleeding will stop as soon as we drop the broken glass and move on. This is the approach often taken by young people who break new paths by the virtue of not having scars from the past.
And there is no better path towards a “deus ex machina” future than the one guided by science and technology. I noticed it up-close a few days ago at a Galileo Project team meeting that took place in the backyard of my home. The half dozen undergraduate students engaged in the Project are all excited about the scientific prospects of analyzing images of objects in the sky using advanced AI algorithms. They do not carry any scars from past stigma on the subject.
By maintaining a stream of fresh water, rivers remain transparent and refreshing. Here’s hoping for a long-term future of humanity, led by young scientists, their AI creations, and any extraterrestrial visitors they find from interstellar space. Let us keep our inspiration from the stars.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Avi Loeb is the head of the Galileo Project, founding director of Harvard University’s — Black Hole Initiative, director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and the former chair of the astronomy department at Harvard University (2011–2020). He chairs the advisory board for the Breakthrough Starshot project, and is a former member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and a former chair of the Board on Physics and Astronomy of the National Academies. He is the bestselling author of “Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth” and a co-author of the textbook “Life in the Cosmos”, both published in 2021.