19 February 2020
Our FRONTIERS white paper asks what will it take to survive on Earth? If we have to prepare to leave, how exactly will we adapt? And if we do leave, what precisely are we going to find?
We are part of a remarkable generation. While man has dreamt of living in the stars for thousands of years, we are the first of our kind for whom this will be a very real possibility. And while up until now nature has been busy shaping us for the last few million years, it appears that for the first time it is now we who are shaping it.
It seems a curious stroke of fate of course that at the exact time we appear to be on a path to be making our own planet increasingly challenging to live on, that we are simultaneously developing the technologies that will finally allow us to inhabit new worlds. It also seems like a remarkable coincidence that at the very moment we may need to physiologically adapt once again to the world as it changes around us, that we are now at a point where we are able to influence our own evolution for the first time – to actively take part in a process that until now has been shaped by forces too powerful for us to control.
Both of these new realities provide extraordinarily complex problems and incredible opportunities.
It’s not the first time that we have faced a tipping point in the world we inhabit. As Africa dried out in the last ice age around 50,000 years ago, and with the habitat for humans shrinking, our solution was so striking it became known as ‘the great migrations’. We headed north and east out of the Rift Valley, expanding along the African coasts, migrating up into the Middle East through the savannahs and into the freezing ice fields of Europe. This time of course it’s a crisis of our own making, and we have less room to manoeuvre.
In the face of this last existential crisis we proved capable of truly profound leaps. We came up with tools, language, clothing, and society. The question now is what’s next in the story of human evolution? How are we going to innovate our way out of trouble this time around?
In The evolution of the human extremophile, Dr Nathan Smith argues that humans are in fact extremophiles – organisms able to survive and thrive in the harshest conditions. And if we are to adapt again, we must turn to look at the lives of adventurers, explorers, and those already living at the edges of life. We need to study their habits and abilities as closely as we would study microbes in a petri dish if we are to unlock the ultimate potential of human performance and survive in the new world we have created.
In Towards a polymorphic species, Ted Shelton explores the notion that while our evolution has shaped us up until this point, now, for the first time ever, we are on the brink of playing God. Today we are already able to alter our genetic makeup, upgrade parts of our body and mind, create artificial life and artificial intelligence. So as flesh blends with machine, and the boundaries between brains and computers blur, what exactly might a polymorphic species look like? He argues that not since the Cambrian age will we have seen such a proliferation of lifeforms that could emerge from these new technologies.
Of course there is always the question of ‘why?’ What is our quest? To live forever? To ensure the survival of our species? Or to simply enhance our time while we are alive? In The next great exploration is our own biology, Chris Hinojosa of Emulate Inc argues that the next great human exploration is an inward journey to understand our own biology. Where opposable thumbs, language and predatory eyesight once combined to give humanity the upper hand in evolution, we’re now ready to become masters of our destiny, as we begin to consciously engineer our biology and upgrade ourselves in the battle for survival on and off the Earth.
And what if we do decide to leave the only home we’ve ever had? While every generation will have wondered what it would be like to live in the stars, we are at an extraordinary moment in human history as exploring and even living in environments utterly alien to Earth become a very real possibility. In The search for alien life, Dr Louisa Preston, who is part of the ExoMars 2020 mission, explores the life we might meet on our journeys into space, what form it might take, and what it might mean for us.
In The future of interstellar communication, Daniel Oberhaus looks forward on a potentially vast timescale, taking us from who our neighbours might be, to how we might talk to them. As he outlines the future of interstellar communication – or the art of chatting to aliens – some fundamental questions emerge. Will we use music? Should we use mathematics? Or will we need something else entirely? These are the concepts we’ll need to wrestle with if we want to talk to them when we find them, or indeed when they find us.
Having explored how we might communicate with alien life away from Earth, we decided to see what it’s like to communicate with non-human intelligence at home. OpenAI was founded 5 years ago by Elon Musk, Sam Altman, Ilya Sutskever and Greg Brockman, and in February 2019 they released a language model called GPT-2. While it was only trained to predict the next word in a text, it began to learn how to answer questions. So having already asked a small group of humans for their thoughts on the frontiers humanity needs to explore over the next 100 years, our next step was to have A conversation with Artificial Intelligence about the future.
In Perceptual pre-training for alien environments, Kathryn Nave explores the mental gymnastics we will need to apply when we encounter these alien environments or alien intelligences in order to fully understand them. Because if we are to leave the familiarity of Earth behind, it won’t only be our physiological systems that need to adapt. Our perceptual systems will have to readapt too. With our minds geared around predictive modelling, what happens when you are confronted with something that bears no resemblance to the reality you know?
Our final writer is Dr Beth Healey. Having spent a year living in the Antarctic at the Concordia Research Station, she shows us how life in the most extreme places on Earth might hold the key to successful psychological adaptation. In Using Antarctica as a spaceflight simulator, she looks at the effects of isolation, what happens when you stop seeing the sun, and why slugs might one day bring joy to the inhabitants of Mars.
And in the final chapter we reveal the results of our 2019 survey exploring attitudes to risk, adventure, human adaptation and exploration. Read the research findings to find out how many people would take the first manned flight to Mars with no guarantee of their safe return, be the first to risk meeting alien life, take a pill that guaranteed they lived for the next 100 years, or genetically enhance themselves given the chance.
Both the answers to the survey, and the collective thoughts of the writers featured in the white paper, reveal what it means to be a frontier species, constantly driven by the idea of what’s next.