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Imagine, no matter how unlikely, that we receive a message from space. One that we’re able to translate, or maybe one that is—possibly more concerning—already translated for us. The message simply reads;
“We will arrive in fifty years. Be ready.”
Yeah, it’s an unlikely scenario, but it’s a great thought experiment; what would we do?
A cross-nation dialogue would be needed as we gather experts to attempt to extrapolate the meaning behind the message. Decisions would have to be made about the possible ramifications of both complying with and ignoring the message’s directive. Global cooperation would be needed on the issue… but what exactly is the issue?
Extrapolating the meaning behind the message is, of course, priority one. We’re given very little information, and absolutely no context. What is it we’re readying ourselves for? Are they simply passing by? Is there going to be an influx of interstellar immigrants? Are we about to be harvested as a galactic food source? Are we about to become this mysterious message-senders new slave workforce? Is the Purge going to happen? Are we about to be gifted some kick-ass technological leaps from a hyper-intelligent and benevolent race of philanthropic pacifists? Whatever the intent of the message-senders, it’s clear we would need to think long and hard about what to do, and coming together as one civilisation regardless of our differences is absolutely necessary in order to do that. As H.P Lovecraft said, "the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown." In times such as these banding together could be our only chance of survival; fear does strange things to people, and If we are faced with a hostile race we will need to work together if we have any hope of victory. If we’ve been contacted by a peaceful people then it is only right that we welcome them as one world and share in their benevolence; we should present them with a united human front, not a glorified display of squabbling tribalism who have the potential to blow each other up at the drop of a hat.
Right now that sounds very much like the premise of a sci-fi movie, and not something we need to put too much thought into in the real world. Is it even possible that we could stand against a force that is almost certainly smarter, faster, and clearly more advanced than us if it had hostile intent? Would our best option there to be to submit to such a force before a single shot is fired, in the hopes of self-preservation? If we look at real-world examples of people coming into contact with less technologically advanced societies, it’s difficult to find instances in which the less technologically advanced party comes out on top. So is it science fiction? Yes, of course. That is, until the concept of an alien race is replaced with AI.
It’s practically undeniable that the advent of Artificial Intelligence is coming, and it is coming soon. It may be fifty years away, it could be here in five, but in the grand scheme of things that is a paltry amount of time to prepare for such a world-changing event. The chances are this will happen in your lifetime.
AI may be the best thing humanity ever makes. It may be something that changes us so much for the better that we look back on the time before it with a mixture of pity and something akin to horror. On the other hand, it may be the end of us, able to outsmart us at every turn, anticipate our every action so well that any prospective countermeasure or attack we plan would be completely forlorn. AI could turn out to be an enemy that we have absolutely no chance against as if we were ants attempting to fight the combined militaries of the entire human race.
So, if we received a message from deep space instructing us to be ready for their arrival in fifty years, I have no doubt that we would waste no time in beginning to plan for it. We know that AI is coming, and it is likely to be within a similar, if not shorter time frame, and yet we don’t think too much about it. We make few to no plans for when it is here, despite knowing that every day there are people working on making this eventuality happen.
The dinosaurs are no longer here because they lacked the capability to have a space programme, never developed the ability to detect an asteroid coming at their homeworld, let alone even attempt to deflect it. Humanity may be consigned to history in much the same way as those great beasts that once roamed the earth, except we have the intelligence to prevent that from happening. Imagine knowing that you have the power to save an entire species—your own species—but just deciding not to, for no good reason.
Artificial Intelligence may well be fantastic for human civilisation, but equally, it could be the end of it. Regardless, one thing is certain; AI is the future of humanity, and the future will be here before we know it.