The convergence of man and machine
If there was disputation among the physicists, it was nothing compared with that among the biologists, when they discussed the hoary old problem: 'What would intelligent extraterrestrials look like?' They divided themselves into two opposing camps - one arguing that such creatures must be humanoid, the other equally convinced that 'they' would look nothing like men.
Settling for the first answer were those who believed that the design of two legs, two arms, and main sense organs at the highest point, was so basic and so sensible that it was hard to think of a better one. Of course, there would be minor differences like six fingers instead of five, oddly coloured skin or hair, and peculiar facial arrangements; but most intelligent extraterrestrials — usually abbreviated to E.T.s — would be so similar to Man that they might not be glanced at twice in poor lighting, or from a distance.
This anthropomorphic thinking was ridiculed by another group of biologists, true products of the Space Age who felt themselves free from the prejudices of the past. They pointed out that the human body was the result of millions of evolutionary choices, made by chance over aeons of time. At any one of these countless moments of decision, the genetic dice might have fallen differently, perhaps with better results. For the human body was a bizarre piece of improvisation, full of organs that had been diverted from one function to another, not always very successfully - and even containing discarded items, like the appendix, that were now worse than useless.
There were other thinkers, Bowman also found, who held even more exotic views. They did not believe that really advanced beings would possess organic bodies at all. Sooner or later, as their scientific knowledge progressed, they would get rid of the fragile, disease-and-accident-prone homes that Nature had given them, and which doomed them to inevitable death. They would replace their natural bodies as they wore out - or perhaps even before that - by constructions of metal and plastic, and would thus achieve immortality. The brain might linger for a little while as the last remnant of the organic body, directing its mechanical limbs and observing the universe through its electronic senses - senses far finer and subtler than those that blind evolution could ever develop.
Even on Earth, the first steps in this direction had been taken. There were millions of men, doomed in earlier ages, who now lived active and happy lives thanks to artificial limbs, kidneys, lungs and hearts. To this process there could be only one conclusion - however far off it might be.
And eventually; even the brain might go. As the seat of consciousness, it was not essential; the development of electronic intelligence had proved that. The conflict between mind and machine might be resolved at last in the eternal truce of complete symbiosis ...
But was even this the end? A few mystically inclined biologists went still further. They speculated, taking their cues from the beliefs of many religions, that mind would eventually free itself from matter. The robot body, like the flesh-and-blood one, would be no more than a stepping-stone to something which, long ago, men had called 'spirit'.
And if there was anything beyond that, its name could only be God.
We are still the masters of our fate. Rational thinking, even assisted by any conceivable electronic computors, cannot predict the future. All it can do is to map out the probability space as it appears at the present and which will be different tomorrow when one of the infinity of possible states will have materialized. Technological and social inventions are broadening this probability space all the time; it is now incomparably larger than it was before the industrial revolution—for good or for evil.
The future cannot be predicted, but futures can be invented.
It was man’s ability to invent which has made human society what it is. The mental processes of inventions are still mysterious. They are rational but not logical, that is to say, not deductive.
Chris Hadfield, reassuring a five-year-old who was worried about the Voyager satellite, a space probe launched by NASA in 1977, the most distant man-made object from Earth still operating after 42 years.
Voyager is so happy, because it’s the bravest satellite of all. It has gone the furthest. And it’s not lonely, because it’s talking to us. It phones home. And it tells us all about the wonderful things that it’s seeing. …There’s a whole universe to explore, and it’s just leaving our Solar System right now. It’s very brave and very lucky to be doing what it’s doing, so it’s not going to get lost. It’s traveled further than anything we’ve ever built has traveled before. It’s actually showing us the way. …
It might have been safer for it to just stay home, and stay inside a building, but then it would have been sad forever, because it never would have done its purpose. It never would have discovered things. It’s all a wonderful story of great discovery and success, and it couldn’t have happened if Voyager hadn’t been brave…
It’s not really the fact that everything always has a start and an end, it’s what happens in the middle that counts. What do you while you’re alive? What do you do while you’re laughing? And I think we’re doing exactly what makes Voyager joyful and as happy as it could be.
Think about the fact that you’re a little bit like Voyager. In that you’re going to go see the world, and you’re going to call your mom on the phone and tell her about the wonderful things that you see. … You wouldn’t want to spend your whole life hiding under your bed and never seeing anything in your whole life, you want to be able to do what makes you happy and joyful and learn about things to discover. You might be the person that discovers something really important for everybody else on the world, but you can never discover that if you just hide and only do things that are safe. So think about yourself a little bit like Voyager. What makes you laugh? It’s not just staying, hiding underneath your bed safely at home
Magic's just science that we don't understand yet.
Planetary exploration satisfies our inclination for great enterprises and wanderings and quests that has been with us since our days as hunters and gatherers on the East African savannahs a million years ago. By chance—it is possible, I say, to imagine many skeins of historical causality in which this would not have transpired—in our age we are able to begin again.
Exploring other worlds employs precisely the same qualities of daring, planning, cooperative enterprise, and valor that mark the finest in military tradition. Never mind the night launch of an Apollo spacecraft bound for another world. That makes the conclusion foregone. Witness mere F-14s taking off from adjacent flight decks, gracefully canting left and right, afterburners flaming, and there’s something that sweeps you away—or at least it does me. And no amount of knowledge of the potential abuses of carrier task forces can affect the depth of that feeling. It simply speaks to another part of me. It doesn’t want recriminations or politics. It just wants to fly.
Floyd sometimes wondered if the Newspad, and the fantastic technology behind it, was the last word in man’s quest for perfect communications. Here he was, far out in space, speeding away from Earth at thousands of miles an hour, yet in a few milliseconds he could see the headlines of any newspaper he pleased. (That very word “newspaper,” of course, was an anachronistic hangover into the age of electronics.) The text was updated automatically on every hour; even if one read only the English versions, one could spend an entire lifetime doing nothing but absorbing the everchanging flow of information from the news satellites. It was hard to imagine how the system could be improved or made more convenient. But sooner or later, Floyd guessed, it would pass away, to be replaced by something as unimaginable as the Newspad itself would have been to Caxton or Gutenberg.