27 July 2006

The Dead Past

I've just read a short story entitled The Dead Past, by Issac Asimov. According to Wikipedia, it was first published in 1956, but I found it in a relatively recent publication called The Complete Stories Volume One.

(WARNING: spoiler ahead until the end of the article!)

Set in the mid-twenty-first century, where scientific research requires so much funding that all scientific research is directed and funded by the government, and publication of one's research is allowed only if one has the approval of the government, there exists a professor of ancient history who goes by the name of Potterly. His research interest is in Carthage.

For a long time he has been applying to the government for the use of the chronoscope. A chronoscope is an apparatus that allows the user to view and listen to events of the past. However, the only chronoscope in the world is held by the government, and for an unknown reason, it keeps rejecting Potterly's applications. In fact, no one can find any information on chronoscopy anywhere - no books, no courses offered, no publications on it. No one researches into it because the government won't grant anyone the approval.

Potterly, suspecting that the government is suppressing the research on chronoscopy, obtained the help of a physics researcher, Foster. With the help of the latter's resourceful uncle, they managed to do some underground research on chronoscopy and managed to build a chronoscope which is smaller and cheaper than the government's (because the government's was based on a theory that was rather ancient; Foster combined his expertise with what he illegally read about chronoscopy to come up with a theoretical shortcut), so small and cheap that anyone can assemble a chronoscope in his room. However, they discovered that there is a limit to how far one can view into the past before the "noise" will drown the signal, thus meaning that all "verified ancient historical events" the government publishes using the chronoscope is clearly a fabrication.

Potterly abandoned his hopes of using the chronoscope to advance his opinions on Carthage but Foster, in the spirit of scientific advancement, attempts to publish his discovery, even if it means the end of his career. Potterly, feeling responsible for dragging Foster into this mess, attempts to stop him and eventually contacted the government before the situation spirals out of control.

Just before Foster could publish his research, he was stopped by an agent of the government. More than admitting that the government fabricates information about the chronoscope, the agent goes on to explain why the government suppresses chronoscopy research:

'Now you three [Potterly, Foster and his uncle] know a century or a little more is the limit, so what does the past mean to you? Your youth. Your first girl. Your dead mother. Twenty years ago. Thirty years ago. Fifty years ago. The deader the better... But when does the past really begin?


'Well, when did it begin? A year ago? Five minutes ago? One second ago? Isn't it obvious that the past begins an instant ago? The dead past is just another name for the living present. What if you focus the chronoscope in the past of one-hundredth of a second ago? Aren't you watching the present?'

However, with a dystopian twist, it turns out the government was just a little too late. Foster's uncle's resourcefulness was the guillotine of privacy, for he managed to get Foster's research out to a few scientists before he was informed of the dire consequences. Containment of the publication is no longer possible. The story ends there, but it became obvious that privacy, from then on, is a thing of the past. The dead past.

This forces me to think about the moral responsibility of scientists. I refer not only to applied sciences and engineering (since engineering in a way is applied science but with different focus) where a moral responsibility is obviously essential, but also to theoretical sciences.

My philosophy on the moral responsibility of theoretical sciences is drawn from Richard Feynman's idea that knowledge is power. How that power is used is another matter, but knowledge is power, and it is the responsibility of theoretical scientists to reveal these knowledge so that science, the human race and knowledge itself can progress. One quote he used rings very loudly whenever I ponder over these matters:

"To every man is given the key to the gates of heaven, the same key opens the gates of hell."

Knowledge is this key; theoretical sciences bring about this knowledge. However, this key has no instructions on how to use it. Uranium doesn't come with an atomic code saying that it should not be made into a bomb. There is no line in the DNA that says cloning should not be done on humans. Moral responsibility is not engraved on this key; it has to come from the people who uses the key - the applied scientists and engineers.

So in principle, a theoretical scientist has the responsibility of revealing the truth while an applied scientist has to exercise appropriate moral judgement when conducting his research.

But as seen in this short story, Foster held some theoretical knowledge on chronoscopy. However, this key of his has a consequence so accessible to the layman that almost anyone, everyone, can use it. Where does this fall into now? It may still be theoretical sciences, but Foster now has the same responsibility as an applied scientist.

While this is a situation never seen before in modern science, it is not an impossibility. Just because there hasn't been a theory that allows accessibly applications doesn't mean there won't be. And who knows, as we find out more and more about our current knowledge, there may be a shortcut to everything, that one day complicated devices can be made by the man in the street.

If a theoretical scientist has to carry the responsibility as an applied scientist, then what about his responsibility as a theoretical scientist? These two responsibilities, these two moral principles, become a dichotomy. Which one should he adhere to? Which one should guide what he does?

The applied scientist morals? Then what if, as raised in the story, this theoretical knowledge may have other potential applications that can benefit mankind? Don't forget: this key opens the gates of Heaven as well.

The theoretical scientist morals? Then who should pay for the drastic consequences that come along? Can society or even mankind sacrifice so much on grounds that knowledge is justification itself?

Another more extreme example: a fusion bomb. Right now, nuclear fusion is all but impossible. What if one day some theory appears that results in a hydrogen-fuelled Molotov cocktail? One bomb, same size, only difference: drop it, one city gone.

On the other hand, this also reminds me of my own belief that one day humans will destroy themselves. Firstly, in contrast to a century ago, it is now clearly possible for us to do that, and we have the potential to do so, considering the high-grade plutonium countries like US, Israel, North Korea, India and Pakistan are currently sitting on. We don't even need the warheads to kill every single intelligent life on Earth; just a couple of bombs and the nuclear winter that follows will likely clean up the stragglers.

And while today we have nuclear weapons as the main threat to mankind, another threat may be emerging: biological weapons, for example. Right now the technology is still at its infancy, but once someone manages its equivalent of the Manhatten Project, then we have two knives now pointing on mankind's throat.

We don't even have to stop there. Right now, efforts are placed heavily in computing and computer engineering to produce artificial intelligence. Although currently the research is nowhere groundbreaking, the destruction of the human civilisation by robots are well explored by sci-fi writers. A quote from The Second Renaissance (a film in Animatrix) perhaps well describes this scenario:

"Thus did Man become the architect of his own demise."

Another evidence for this comes from another direction. It is known as the Fermi paradox, which can be summarised as such: there are about a hundred billion stars in the visible Universe (we're not counting the Universe out of our visual reach), and a simple probabilistic calculation will show that amongst these there should be at least a significant number which has intelligent life. Why is it then that we seem so alone, that experimentally we have detected no signal of other intelligent life?

There are many explanations for this, but the one appearing most logical to me is that, it is inevitable that intelligent life will destroy itself. From an evolutionary perspective, for an intelligent species to rise up above all others, it has to be aggressive (arising from competition between its peers), destructive (so as to eliminate threats) and domineering (so as to subjugate other or even its own species). These traits of an intelligent species will eventually enable it to master destructive technologies, and ironically results in self-annihilation.

To detect intelligent life, the most common method is to search for abnormal electromagnetic radiation from outer space. That is due to the reasonable assumption that as an intelligent species rise up, it will gain knowledge of the electromagnetic force (one of the four fundamental forces), and resultingly use it as part of their survival. The use of electronic devices will result in the emission of electromagnetic radiation, and a sufficiently huge civilisation (like the human race) will produce lots of it.

Now, consider the human race: it has only been no more than two hundred years since we found control over electromagnetism. In contrast with how long human beings have been around and how long Earth has been around, this is nothing but a flicker in the cosmological timeline. Even if we last a few more hundred years before we go into self-destruction, the window of our "modern" existence is merely in the thousand-years scale. How likely is it then that in this very same window, there exists another intelligent species that are at a similar technological stage as us?

I don't know what all these seem to you, but to me, it seems to be evidence of an end for Man.


The Negative Man said...

I doubt that "it is inevitable that intelligent life will destroy itself." If it does, then arguably it is not intelligent enough.

Having said that, I think that intelligent people would not be the direct cause of the demise of humanity. Rather, the idiots that would be the first to pull the trigger (or the red button, or release the vial of disease etc).

Yes, the idiots will destroy us all. Which is extremely distressing, since Mr. Bush HAS access to some red buttons...

Pandemonium said...

But whoever triggered it, it is still the creation of Men that destroys him.

In any case, it is not necessary that an intelligent species won't destroy itself. In fact, I think it will, and thus become an irony in this title conferred upon it. Remember, intelligence is the characteristic of the one who can rise up the chain of evolution, and thus bear the attributes that will lead to his downfall.

The Negative Man said...

"From an evolutionary perspective, for an intelligent species to rise up above all others, it has to be aggressive (arising from competition between its peers), destructive (so as to eliminate threats) and domineering (so as to subjugate other or even its own species). "

An intelligent species might evolve differently such that it has not all of the three characteristics (or even none).

Pandemonium said...

Well, while it may be possible that an intelligent species may choose a different route, it is quite hard to think of an alternative possibility in which an intelligent species can rise up above others.

This is especially true if you consider that evolution is in a way like the seed of life. Evolution is like a tried-and-tested mean, like a probabilistic experiment of millions of samplings: it is very difficult to be drastically different in two random situations.

Anonymous said...

Fusion bomb had already been made for quite some time liao leh.

It is called Thermonuclear atomic bomb or something.

Pandemonium said...

Oops you're right! That's a terrible mistake on my part. What I intended to mean was the consequence of what happens when fusion bombs become readily available, since its ingredients are easy to obtain.

The only barrier to its widespread proliferation is the difficulty in achieving the critical temperature to sustain fusion. What will happen then if someone finds a theoretical shortcut to overcome this difficulty?