Slow Motion Singularity: 1968

From 2001: A Space Odyssey, by Sir Arthur C. Clarke

The great dinosaurs had long since perished when the survey ship entered the Solar System after a voyage that had already lasted a thousand years...

They were patient , but they were not yet immortal. There was so much to do in this universe of a hundred billion suns, and other worlds were calling. So they set out once more into the abyss, knowing that they would never come this way again. Nor was there any need. The servants they had left behind would do the rest. On Earth, the glaciers came and went, while above them the changeless Moon still carried its secret.

With a yet slower rhythm than the polar ice, the tides of civilization ebbed and flowed across the galaxy. Strange and beautiful and terrible empires rose and fell, and passed on their knowledge to their successors. Earth was not forgotten, but another visit would serve little purpose. It was one of a million silent worlds, few of which would ever speak.

And now, out among the stars, evolution was driving toward new goals. The first explorers of Earth had long since come to the limits of flesh and blood; as soon as their machines were better than their bodies, it was time to move. First their brains, and then their thoughts alone, they transferred into shining new homes of metal and plastic.

In these, they roamed among the stars. They no longer built spaceships. They were spaceships.

But the age of the Machine-entities swiftly passed. In their ceaseless experimenting, they had learned to store knowledge in the structure of space itself, and to preserve their thoughts for eternity in frozen lattices of light. They could become creatures of radiation, free at last from the tyranny of matter.
Into pure energy, therefore, they presently transformed themselves; and on a thousand worlds, the empty shells they had discarded twitched for awhile in a mindless dance of death, then crumbled into rust.

Now they were lords of the galaxy, and beyond the reach of time. They could rove at will among the stars, and sink like a subtle mist through the very interstices of space. But despite their godlike powers, they had not wholly forgotten their origin, in the warm slime of a vanished sea.

And they still watched over the experiments their ancestors had started, so long ago.

If you'll allow that evolution really does happen, and that intelligent life can endure, intelligently, for millions of years, then the above doesn't seem at all farfetched. Indeed, the first few steps seem inevitable. As for the lattices of light and subtle mist stuff, who can say? Not me, that's for sure. We still don't know enough to say it's either possible or impossible with an acceptable degree of certainty. But we're getting there.

Where the Singularitarian Kids lose me is their insistence that they will live to see it. Frankly, I question the timing. What looks to be possible in three hundred years, probable in three thousand, a sure thing in three million, looks flatly impossible in a mere thirty. And yes, I do know about Moore's Law.

Concluding, let's just back up a bit textually, eh?

Those who had begun that experiment, so long ago, had not been men--or even remotely human. But they were flesh and blood, and when they looked out across the deeps of space, they had felt awe, and wonder, and loneliness. As soon as they possessed the power, they set forth for the stars. In their explorations, they encountered life in many forms, and watched the workings of evolution on a thousand worlds. And they saw how often the first faint sparks of intelligence flickered and died in the cosmic night.

And because, in all the galaxy, they had found nothing more precious than Mind, they encouraged its dawning everywhere. They became farmers in the fields of stars; they sowed, and sometimes they reaped.

And sometimes, dispassionately, they had to weed.

Ah. The good old stuff.

posted by Justin on 06.17.07 at 04:45 PM


Ah, but it doesn't all have to happen in thirty years in order for one to live to see it. All it takes is some progress in lifespan extension in the next thirty years, say enough to get an extra fifty years. Then in those fifty years, enough further extension to get another hundred.. Repeat ad infinitum.

Sure, there's a lot of luck involved, like not getting hit by a bus in the interim. But flatly impossible?

An appropriate quote from Arthur C. Clarke himself: "If an elderly but distinguished scientist says that something is possible, he is almost certainly right; but if he says that it is impossible, he is very probably wrong."


Pax   ·  June 21, 2007 6:05 PM

I've only seen the movie, but I still have no idea what the monolith is. Perhaps if I watched it while on drugs it would all make sense.

Darren   ·  June 21, 2007 7:37 PM

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