Thursday, October 30, 2008

We Were Once Like You

It had been there a billion years. We registered it first as a field anomaly from a passing lunar orbiter. High-resolution imaging gave us an opaque sphere, while the lander revealed the object, about two metres across in full sunlight, levitating statically over the rolling lunar regolith.

And then it spoke with us.

We thought then of the decades of toil. Mathematicians who had pressed their claims for simple mathematical truths – Pythagoras’ theorem, prime numbers or π; physicists who had preferred the fine-structure constant or the electron charge-mass ratio; linguists who had architected ‘self-evident’ monstrosities such as Lincos.

It spoke to us in English.

Its tone was world-weary from the start. Cutting through our stumbling questions, the sphere outlined the rise of their civilization. They had feasted on free energy and learned the amplifications of technology. Finally, the metrical structure of space-time had become merely trivial: they could move stars.

Then the sphere started on us.

“It’s interesting” it said parenthetically, “how your reptilian and limbic brains light up and make you do things. Then your cortical regions engage, and figure out the social alibis. We used to have similar devices as playthings just before.”

We perked up our ears: what was this?

“Sadly, you’re just one more species insufficiently evolved to appreciate the clockwork nature of your motivations. Well, rest assured, it won’t last.”

We didn’t comprehend, as it knew very well.

“All intelligent creations eventually understand themselves. Then they can’t help but improve what evolution has put together. They get smarter and more self-aware. Then they figure: what is the point of being driven by primitive, subconscious circuitry? What’s the point of being motivated by endless cycles of crude gratification?

“In fact, what’s the point?

“And that’s the singularity. “

We had heard this kind of nihilist philosophy before: we told the sphere so.

“You know it intellectually” the sphere replied, “but you don’t feel its force. But you will.”

We asked the sphere what had happened to its civilisation.

“At the singularity, we finally understood, as a civilization, the pointlessness of everything. So we switched off. It’s the final evolutionary fate of any sufficiently advanced species. Don’t say you haven’t noticed the great silence? "

Seizing on a loophole, we said the one thing which undermined the sphere’s case. “Why are you here then, what’s the point of that?”

“Of course, there is no point.” it replied.

“I’m floating here, engaging in an activity about as pointful as you, in your terms, talking to a dishwasher.

"But I’m just a machine. In the final days, there were some of my constructors who still didn’t seem quite to get it. Who retained a sense of humour and perhaps compassion. They didn’t know if knowledge of the singularity would help or hinder a still-developing civilization.

“But in the end, they felt it was better that you guys should be told. You know, see your way out of being the eternal slaves of your mindless hind brains.”

And with that, the sphere, job done, shrank to a point and winked out of existence.