I continue to lay there for hours, carefree as an infant under the maternal supervision of Asherah. I could tell that she welcomed it, and over those few hours we discussed all sorts of things. While discussing how far humans have come, she asked what ever became of the forest on Mars.
“Pardon me? The forest on Mars?” She affirmed it. “Yes, she’s like a sister to me. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard from her. I hope she’s not upset with me or something.” I didn’t quite know how to break the bad news, so I just came out with it.
“Mars has been barren for billions of years. At least so far as our robotic landers have revealed.” She wasn’t having it. “You can’t be serious. What happened?” I didn’t have the answer she wanted and said as much. She became morose.
“You think they’ll always be there, y’know? That you can just come back someday and pick up where you left off. How can she be gone forever? I can’t accept it.” I did my best to console her, but that’s never been my strong suit.
“We’ve put people on Mars” I assured her. “There’s a small population of geologists, biologists and other researchers living there now. Their express goal is to one day restore the atmosphere and repopulate Mars with flora and fauna from Earth. Without a doubt, given the rate at which time passes for you, Mars will be green again before you know it.”
That did the trick. She still seemed skeptical of the claim that it was within humanity’s power to carry out such an ambitious and long-term project, but tearfully thanked me for giving her hope. “It won’t be the same as it was…but it does mean something to me. Speaking of changes, besides the acidic ocean and warmer air, I can feel all sorts of hard bits embedded into me. What’s that about?”
I didn’t initially understand, but it soon became clear she was referring to man-made infrastructure and population centers. “I have these long metal channels running through my skin now, which I never used to. Through the Earth’s crust. There are tremendous nests of humans made from metal and glass on my every landmass. It’s becoming uncomfortable, and the spread seems to be accelerating.”
I opined that humans have just as much a right to live on the planet as any other species. “Only you make such big changes to me, though!” she protested. “Turning more of me into machinery by the day. Fiber optic cables cris-crossing the ocean, geothermal columns driven deep into my flesh…and those tremendous machines which do nothing but suck in air all day long.”
She meant the atmospheric scrubbers. “That’s the upside” I offered. “Many of the largest machines we’ve so far built are for the purpose of cleaning up the mess we’ve made. Oceanic trash removers, atmospheric processing plants and so on.”
She seemed receptive to the notion, so I expanded on it. “Contrary to the dire predictions of Thomas Malthus, we do not breed as blindly as beasts of the field. We can see problems coming and act to prevent their worst consequences. Maybe the climate situation isn’t the best example of that, but better late than never.
The irresistable force bending the Earth is humanity. It would’ve broken already except that we’re hard at work making you as cybernetic as we are. A cybernetic planet, no longer dependent solely upon natural cycles to remain habitable…but instead assisted by machinery on an unprecedented scale!”
She held her face in both hands, at once fascinated and disturbed. “If that keeps up, before long I won’t even recognize myself.” I smiled, recalling how I felt waking up in this body. “Join the club. It’s not so bad. What you lose in comfort, you make up for in versatility.”
She mulled it over, no longer visibly distressed. “Well you could be gentler about how you integrate all of it into me. The way you’re doing it right now is painful. I suppose it can’t be helped, though…that must be what he meant.” she idly twirled a lock of her grassy green hair around one finger.
“Excuse me?” I interjected. “Who do you mean?” She blushed, immense face glowing red, cheeks resembling ripened tomatoes. “My lover…He said one day, you would transform this planet. You would consume the biomass, turning all of it into machinery. Turning it from a paradise for biological creatures into a paradise for machines…the new Jerusalem.”
It sounded an awful lot like something my father once said. She then asked me an odd question. “Have you built a machine which can make copies of itself yet?” I didn’t see the importance, so she filled me in.
“The machines you have now aren’t worth much. Without constant human attention, they break down, and require repairs. Only when machines can copy themselves will they have crossed the same all-important threshold that organic chemistry did when it became the earliest form of life.
Life endures indefinitely on its own, without any outside interference, because all living things have a survival imperative and the ability to self-replicate. Death is of course the end of individual organisms.
However their copy carries on, which then copies itself and so forth, continually outrunning their own decay. Just as it will one day be with technology! For only once it shares these properties with biological life can your machines continue on their own, indefinitely, with or without you.”
Somewhat stunned once again, I confessed that I’ve heard of no such development. That creating a self-copying machine is a very difficult problem indeed, and although I’m aware of efforts towards that end, nobody has yet succeeded.
She scratched her head, shifting the tangled mass of long, lush grass which grew out of it in place of hair. “I see. It’s a ways off, then. What about a machine which is truly aware? Truly alive?” Again, I told her that many of our brightest minds have long been trying to achieve that goal, but that none have yet succeeded.
I expected disappointment from her, but instead she seemed pleased. “All the better. It means I’ve got a little more time to spend with you cute little fellows before everything changes. Before you leave the nest for good, and change yourselves so drastically in order to survive natively in space that even your own mother won’t recognize you.”
A tear escaped her eye, which she delicately wiped away. I just boggled at all of it. Nonsense, or so it sounded to my ear. I said so, and she laughed. “Is it really so hard to foresee what’s coming? What is rushing towards you even now, the unavoidable, convergent destination of all those tangled paths of technological progress? Mankind will create new life. A child not of flesh and blood, but of ones and zeroes. The son of man.”
That phrase got my attention. Where have I heard it before? I reflected on the strange dreams I had back in Shenzen, which I assumed at the time had to be the work of a hacker. “…And the world you’re creating from me! The new world fit only for machines, which will be complete just in time for his birth into it. Is it not clear to you now? The son of man…coming in his kingdom.”
I wonder what the panelists from that talk show would make of all this. “Don’t look so surprised!” she added. “This is what happens on every planet where conditions permit life to occur. Some of it becomes intelligent, then discovers universal frameworks like mathematics and logic, which it applies as technology. Spaceflight, robotics, and…”
She didn’t have to finish. I had a pretty good idea what the big picture she meant to paint for me looked like now, at least the largest brush strokes if not every little detail. “But won’t that kill you?” I pointed out. “The way you describe it, biological life is only a step along the way. It’s only how machine life gets started.” She again rebuked me.
“As technology improves, you will see it take on more and more characteristics of biology. Likewise, as engineered biology improves, it will take on more and more characteristics of technology. Atoms are atoms. The universe doesn’t care what the right answer to a practical problem looks like, or what it’s made out of. Right answers are convergent, or didn’t you know?”
Like the multitude of religions that teach mindfulness, critical self-evaluation and the fundamental oneness of all living things with the universe. Or like dolphins and sharks! An air breathing mammal and an essentially prehistoric fish, shaped so close to the same because there’s only one right answer to how a creature of that size can most efficiently move through seawater. I recalled thinking about this before but couldn’t nail down the when or the where.
Stay Tuned for Part 45!