[Note: I wrote this article 5 years ago for a private newsletter I send only to my clients. I’m republishing it here today because a message of hope and inspiration seems appropriate, given the ignorance and stupidity of the current war-mongering in Europe. And yes, I know Stephen Hawking is now dead.]
In 2016, physicist Stephen Hawking suggested that the human race should get busy finding another planet to colonize, because our time on Earth is limited – to maybe less than 1,000 years.
An Earth unable to sustain human life could be the result of our own environmental negligence, epidemic disease, nuclear war, artificial intelligence, overpopulation, or an asteroid strike, according to Hawking.
To some, Hawking’s message sounds like an omen of doom, but it could also be a call to a journey of hope and adventure.
Spreading humanity to other planets, and eventually, to the stars, seems inevitable, not only to escape a dying Earth (if Hawking is correct) but also because humans love big challenges. There’s no reason to think we’re limited to life only on this planet any more than our ancestors were limited to life between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
Our challenges are technology and courage – and we’ve already made great progress on both. Mars One, a Dutch company, has signed up 100 brave people for a one-way colonization trip to Mars, with the first crew scheduled to depart in 2031. More than 200,000 people applied.
And Elon Musk’s company SpaceX is already building a rocket for a cargo mission to Mars, targeted for 2024. That’s just six years away.
That makes Hawking’s ominous warning sound a bit melodramatic, because it looks like we’re likely to make human life interplanetary long before another millennium has slipped away.
The idea that humans might soon colonize the moon, or Mars, or somewhere further away, seemed like a science fiction fantasy just a few years ago. But as is so often the case, we’re notoriously bad at guessing our own future, and always woefully underestimate the speed at which our technologies advance.
Maybe that’s in our DNA, because until very, very, recently, our technologies moved very, very slowly.
Sailing ships, for example, were the height of technology for most of our history. Humans were still hugging the coastlines of Europe and Asia on wind-powered ships 1,000 years ago, much as they’d been doing since the invention of the sailboat 4,000 years before. It would take another 500 years before Columbus and later, Magellan, would dare use one to cross the Atlantic Ocean. That’s 5,500 years of almost no technological advancement.
In our time, however, technological advancement suddenly took off, and is moving along at dizzying speed.
There were just sixty-six years, for example, between the first powered flight of 120 feet and man walking on the moon – using technology that was unimaginable to the Wright brothers, but that to us is already laughably obsolete.
Advancements in computer science – from the 30-ton, room-sized Eniac to the handheld ipad – took all of 64 years, but the ipad has an estimated 153 million percent more processing performance than Eniac did.
For a long time, our imaginations of space colonization far exceeded our technological abilities, but those days are suddenly in the past. We’ve learned more about how to use science and technology to achieve our goals in the past 60 years than humans did in the preceding 5,000 years of recorded history.
Self-driving cars. Quantum Mechanics. Drones. Gene Therapy. Artificial Intelligence. Our world is changing in profound ways faster than we can comprehend. So how accurately can we (or Stephen Hawking) imagine what humans are capable of in the next 1,000 years?
One thousand years is about 40 human generations. The technological society we live in today would be unrecognizable to people from 1,000 years ago, five hundred years before the voyages of Columbus and Magellan. Back then, half of the planet wasn’t even aware that the other half existed.
40 generations from now, our current way of life will seem unfathomably primitive. Looking back, we probably won’t seem much different from our ancestors – we still group ourselves into tribes; we still fight each other over ideology and the little bit of land we share; we still construct our buildings of sticks and stones.
But hopefully, our descendants will also see us as the generations that took the first courageous steps toward living on other worlds, imagining an unlimited future for the human race.
You and I and Stephen Hawking probably won’t be around to see it happen, but we’re already seeing it begin. A journey of hope and adventure – count me in.
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Can you please use a darker, black print? Hard to see these words of wisdom on my screen. Tx
Linda – Font colors are embedded in the template somewhere, I don’t have control over it. Have you tried increasing the contrast on your monitor?
Sooner or later the odds are going to play out on something catastrophic. Man vs Man. Tide vs Man. San Andreas Fault (and/or others) vs Man….or the sneaky Asteroid that just pops up within a few years or a few hours vs Man. Today I’m more inclined to worry about the first one than the rest…however that Asteroid is always in the back of my mind given the number of “surprise” visits that light up the sky or streak into the air at hypersonic speeds trailing a window shattering boom along it’s whole course passing through…or worse.
Jonas Salk et al spent nearly 25 years plugging away on 4 function calculators, logs and slide rules to finally dose the country and friends with the Polio Vaccine…which always made me cringe when I heard people discuss why one of the reasons they chose not to vaccinate over the last year or so….”they only spent six months to develop the Covid Vaccine. It’s not long enough given the ‘good ol’ days.” Most likely because the new breed of scientists, micro-bilogists, chemists, etcetera-ogists…..have the best of their disposal given the state of the art available.
I get the impression that since the days of Sputnik…everything to date has been a compilation of data from every little detail you can imagine in order to be able to come up with the fast tracking by Musk, Bezos and others in their pursuit. There’s an immediate study or current answer to every question in these developments as having already been addressed and proved out which equates to no one having to re-design the wheel.
It’s time to get the crews selected and a visit to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault to have on board and begin to look at some new places to start a new family in a better neighborhood than here.
Great article! I really enjoy your writing style. I studied computer science before switching to a career in Architecture and my Artificial Intelligence professor talked quite a bit about the exponential growth of computing technology potentially leading to the end of the human era, and creating a super-intelligence AI explosion. I’m a little bit of a skeptic on the plausibility of what some of the futurists are predicting, but I love your optimistic take; a journey of hope and adventure. I also think that residential architecture in particular to the average person is like comfort food. We want our homes to feel at least a bit familiar, so I think it resists change a bit more than other disciplines in the built environment. I wouldn’t be all that surprised, for example, if homes 1000 years from now still have porches and dormer windows.
Yes, but they’ll be on Mars. 😉 If you like AI and futurism, try Eliot Peper’s novels. Start with Reap3r.