Today is my 61st birthday. In view of the traditional blessing: “May you live to be 120th years old”, I have crossed the midpoint of this optimism and am starting to count backwards the number of years I have left.
This tradition ignores future advances in our understanding of how to extend longevity. It implies, for example, that humanity’s technological future will not last much longer than its technological past. Both forecasts might be wrong.
In analogy with cars or computers, it might be possible to repair damage inflicted to the human body by old age and upgrade or rejuvenate our biological infrastructure so that we would live for as long as we wish. The question is whether this will occur in my lifetime. If not, I am content with disappearing and have one additional wish. In the remaining years, I will be glad to train a sentient artificial intelligence (AI) chatbot — namely an advanced version of ChatGPT, so that it will digitally replicate my mind and continue to care for my family and friends when I am gone.
As of now, our physical bodies are doomed to disintegrate like empty sea shells that used to contain life within them but ultimately break up into grains of sand. I have no illusion that my life will be remembered, but I do want the overarching theme that inspired me to promote humanity to a better future.
Since waking up at 4AM for my morning jog at sunrise, I have been flooded with uplifting messages from people I dearly care about.
First was an email containing the proofs for my forthcoming book titled “Interstellar”, to be published in August 2023, where I describe the blueprint of a better future for humanity.
Another message came from the brilliant Professor Smadar Naoz at UCLA who wrote: “For your birthday, I wish you to continue driving and pushing for new understanding and frontiers … May you continue to challenge the existing paradigms and free people’s minds. Thank you for being such a caring and supporting mentor!” A similar message arrived from my exceptionally gifted collaborator on the other side of the globe, Dr. Hamsa Padmanabhan.
The attachment to another email included an inspiring “Happy Birthday!” video from Numa and Avi Dobelli, the twins of the accomplished author and entrepreneur, Dr. Rolf Dobelli, founder of WORLD. MINDS. By a miraculous coincidence, they also had their birthday at the same time. I replied with my own video, expressing my wish that the generation of Numa and Avi will carry on the mission of bringing humanity to a better place. Here’s hoping that a younger `Avi’ or Numa will do better than I in carrying the torch of innovation and paradigm shifts.
But there was also a small number of less-uplifting messages in my inbox. They reminded me how we resemble marine mollusks inside shells drifting in ocean waves. Some waves carry us up and others bring us down. The key is to smile at the challenges of doom and promote a prosperous future. If we let destruction win the day, our life would not be worth living.
After Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden, humans had the choice of doing good and evil. One would have hoped that natural selection would favor those who choose good because they are less likely to be weakened by disputes. Unfortunately, this naïve expectation ignores the possibility that evil masquerades as good and sneaks in, to keep us at bay with mediocracy.
For humanity, the upcoming century is crucial. Philosophers and psychologists must help society cope with the ethical perils and toxicity implicit in social media and AI chatbots, or else these downward waves would destroy the minds of future generations. This urgent need is no different than the need for regulating the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes after its discovery ninety years ago, when the physicist Enrico Fermi first reported in 1934 that neutrons can break atomic nuclei.
In the intellectual realm, society must resist the prevailing tendency of some groups of people to dominate the narrative of dialogues so that it will conform with their set of beliefs. The current atmosphere in academic halls echoes the spirit of McCarthyism in the 1950s, when everyone was expected to repeat the same mantras even though society was split on political issues. This current intellectual pressure towards conformity inspired the presidents of Chicago University and MIT to establish faculty committees that reiterated the importance of freedom of expression for the vitality of academic life. If presidents of two leading universities feel the urge to make public statements on this issue, something must be going wrong in the academic reality we experience.
But we must also be aware of the existential risks to our physical survival. Currently, all of our eggs are in one basket, Earth. A single-point catastrophe can break these eggs and make an omelette that will perish quickly.
How could we avoid physical extinction? By venturing into the third dimension of outer space. This realization motivated me to engage with the Breakthrough Starshot initiative and the Copernicus Space Corporation, both aiming to travel into interstellar space. It also led to the Galileo Project, in search for technological relics of extraterrestrial technological civilizations that reached a similar conclusion on their home exoplanet. Here’s hoping that finding such relics will inspire us to collaborate on the long-term survival of humanity, and redirect the two trillion dollars that we spend every year on military budgets to space exploration.
For the remainder of my time on Earth, I wish that all humans would recognize that we share the same lifeboat. Let us promote an infinite-sum future in which everyone benefits rather than insist on maintaining a tumultuous tradition of zero-sum struggles. Life is often a self-fulfilling prophecy and survival is granted to those who imagine a better future.
Altogether, I am optimistic that good will prevail in our future. We will seal the holes that some passengers drill in our lifeboat, and allow the young generation of Numa and Avi Dobelli to build the resilience that will carry them back to the Garden of Eden for billions of years to come.
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. His new book, titled “Interstellar”, is scheduled for publication in August 2023.