The Universe is all of space and time and their contents, including planets, stars, galaxies, and all other forms of matter and energy.
The Universe is immense, estimates suggest at least two trillion galaxies. It comprises all of energy in its various forms, including electromagnetic radiation and matter, and therefore planets, moons, stars, galaxies, and the contents of intergalactic space. The universe also includes the physical laws that influence energy and matter, such as conservation laws, classical mechanics, and relativity. Most galaxies are between 10 billion and 13.6 billion years old. Our universe is about 13.8 billion years old, so most galaxies formed when the universe was quite young. Our galaxy, the Milky Way, holds 100 to 400 billion stars. One of those stars, our sun, has eight planets orbiting it. By dating the rocks in Earth’s ever-changing crust, as well as the rocks in Earth’s neighbors, such as the moon and visiting meteorites, it has been calculated that Earth is 4.54 billion years old, with an error range of 50 million years. Earth has a biosphere, a complex web of life, at its surface. The thickness of this layer is about twenty kilometers (twelve miles). This layer, our biosphere, is the only place where we know life exists. We humans emerged and evolved within the biosphere. Our economies, societies, and cultures are part of it. It is our home.
Life is an astonishingly emergent property of matter, full-blown in its complexity today, some billions of years after it started out in presumably some very simple form. Although we have many physical ways to describe a living organism, quantifying its state of aliveness using the laws of physics seems a hopeless task. So, all our tools and ideas would seem to fail at the most basic level of describing what life is.
It is possible that in spite of the seemingly hopeless complexity of biology, there are certain emergent properties that arise in ways that we can understand quantitatively. Biology has other incredible emergent behaviors; is the biological physics of the emergent properties of life simply a matter of impossible complexity?
The amazing array of knowledge contains little inkling of the complex, varied phenomena of life. An emergent property is an unexpected collective phenomenon that arises from a system consisting of interacting parts. The phenomenon of life itself is an emergent property. What triggered the transition from complex molecules to entities that can metabolize and reproduce?
The history of life itself is encoded in DNA, RNA, in the epigenetics of cell walls, and how cells and organs interconnect and balance each other out in the body. When we get to the level of cultures, institutions, organizations, and societies, we see codes and rules and ultimately principles emerging, which help guide us to maintain the balance in our human systems. We go from biochemistry, the genotype, to biology, the phenotype, to culture and social behavior. Now we’re taking that to the next step with digital evolution.
The astonishing emergent behavior is the evolution of living organisms to ever-higher complexity over billions of years. It is strange enough that life developed at all out of inanimate matter, in apparent conflict with the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The original ur-cell, improbable as it is, proceeded to evolve to ever-greater levels of complexity, ultimately arriving at Homo sapiens.
The remarkable unity of life (common genetic code, common basic proteins, and common basic biological pathways) would indicate that, at its core, the phenomenon of life has been locked in to a basic set of physical modes and has not deviated from this basic set. At that core, lies a very long linear polymer, deoxyribonucleic acid (or DNA), which encodes the basic self-assembly information and control information. A related molecule, ribonucleic acid (RNA), has a different chemical group at one particular position, and that profoundly changes the three-dimensional structure that RNA takes in space and its chemical behavior.
Although evolution has played with the information content of DNA, its basic core content, in terms of how its constituent molecules form a string of pairs, has not obviously changed. And while there is a general relationship between the complexity of an organism and the length of its DNA that encodes the complexity, some decidedly simpler organisms than Homo sapiens have considerably longer genomes.
Complex biological molecules are the building blocks of life, but it is far from obvious to put these building blocks together into a coherent whole. Biological molecules, as well as cells and complete organisms, are organized in complex networks. A network is defined as a system in which information flows into nodes, is processed, and then flows back out. The network’s output is a function of both the inputs and a series of edges that are the bidirectional paths of information flow between the nodes. The theory and practice of networks is a vast subject, and with one ultimate goal of understanding that greatest of mysteries, the human brain. Biological networks necessary to bind a collection of inanimate objects into a living system emerge. At the highest level lies the greatest mystery of biological physics: the emergence of the mind from a collection of communicating cells.
Homo Sapiens has evolved by outfoxing 60 freezes and 18 periods of global warming. That’s our genius! As a species, in a continual search for new opportunities, for new ideas, and their social networks serve as a major, and perhaps the greatest, resource for finding opportunities. Since the Neolithic era economic progress and social welfare have gone hand in hand with technological advances, and there is no reason why the present occasion should be an exception.
The Industrial Revolution was based on machines capable of surpassing the physical limitations of humans and animals. Today’s revolution employs digital and biotechnologies that surpass not only our physical but also our intellectual limitations, and even the natural limitations of our lifespans. Sooner, rather than later, all of this will impose a radical rethinking of our economy, society, and culture, as well as of our ethical principles and even the fundamental philosophical bases of our existence as individuals and as a species. It is certainly impossible to foresee the nature and depth of the changes that will result from the monumental and rapid technological revolution that has only just begun.
We continue to evolve and innovate. Evolution is ever-present, at all levels in conscious living systems. Human beings have always co-evolved with our constructs, our cultures, our systems, and our technologies. Biological, psychological, sociological, and technological- all intertwined as biopsychosociotechno evolution, in simultaneously interweaving threads. Natural selection continues to function, but we have altered selective pressures. Evolution selects and retains characteristics and capabilities through networks. It selects networks of genes and cells in organisms. It selects networks of neurons in our nervous system. And those neurons, in turn, engage in the selection process of networks, organisms, and ecosystems. And networks of relationships that we have in cultural and social systems. Processes in socio-technical systems and platforms.
Most innovations have positive externalities, particularly where they result in cooperative dynamic competition. The rise of genetic editing techniques and the availability of information and the ability to draw inferences from it has brought machine learning, also known as artificial intelligence (AI), to the fore. Data can be analyzed, and decisions made autonomously in a rudimentary form in the emergent machine sense. Artificial intelligence coupled to robotics—the physical use of this information—is also slowly moving from factories to human-centric applications, in which sensing, inferencing, controlling, and operating all come together. Nanotechnology has now nearly eliminated the gulf between the physical and the biological domain. The last decades of the twentieth century and those that followed brought about numerous nanotechnology tools that made a more fundamental understanding of complex biological processes possible. Quantum computation is another area that has made tremendous progress. Quantum computing employs entangled superposition of information accessible at the quantum scale, which becomes possible at the nanoscale, in order to proceed with the computation.
This evolution in artificial intelligence, robotics, autonomy, the merging of emergent and evolutionary machinery is raising profound questions and society is struggling to grasp even a rudimentary understanding of them so that it can rationally tackle from both a philosophical and a scientific perspective many of the problems that will most certainly arise, just as they did with earlier moments of technology-seeded inflection. But his existential technological revolution and the changes and disruption it is likely to cause are of a kind and at such a scale that the traditional long delay of society exercising control— just not work.
Our evolutionary path resulting in resource overexploitation and environmental manipulation has no doubt caused the destroying of our biosphere: the crash in the amount of biodiversity over the past century would have taken up to 10,000 years to occur naturally. Creating a unique mass extinction event in a geological epoch, the Anthropocene, named after our species’ influence. True, hominins have been altering the environment to a degree unrivalled by other species for over half a million years, from mass tool manufacturing to Pleistocene megafaunal extinctions, but never before has a species single-handedly threatened so many others with extinction.
At the same time the technology partnerships to reboot nature are endless in combination with a fundamental shift in mindset and understanding of the role that nature and biodiversity plays in our lives and businesses.
The main issue is the fact that being human provides an intrinsically biased view of the world. The cognitive capabilities to ponder philosophical questions, combined with the fact that we entered this world belonging to the species Homo Sapiens, has predisposed us to think that our species is somehow special compared to all others. Each human being is unique, in terms of our bodies harboring a distinct collection of genes and an estimated 60 de novo genetic mutations, but, as can be concluded from the aforementioned, humans are not special. The artificial environment humans have created ever since the development of agriculture about 12,000 years ago has promoted an increasingly exemptionalist mind-set. We have excluded ourselves psychologically, physically, and emotionally from nature.
Society’s institutions and us individually are slow in responding toward accentuating the positive and suppressing the negatives through the restraints—community-based and personal—that bring a healthy balance. Much care, foresight, and judgment is needed, otherwise we will witness consequences far worse than the loss of species that we are currently witnessing due to the unbridled expansion of humanity and the need for resources for his expansion.
Society must therefore engage in a mature and consensual debate about where we want to go, that debate must also consider our own evolutionary history, including our species’ peculiarities and the keys to our success. As humanity goes forward, it would do well to examine why it has arrived at this civilizational crossroads, and what lessons can be learned.
The main lesson to be learned might be that everything in the biosphere—including any individual human, and certainly the human species—is not separate, but connected to everything else. This logically leads to a golden rule for sustainable civilization: treat the earth and its beings as if they were yourself —because they are you.
In this turbulent times, where political, economic, and social patterns that seemed sturdy and practically permanent are being radically questioned, we have to start a broad dialogue to establish new philosophical and ethical bases for an economy, society, culture, and regulations adapted to our new scientific and technological surroundings, which will maximize their positive effects on growth and well-being, promote better distribution, and favor the development of shared initiatives to deal with global warming, environmental deterioration, and biodiversity loss. This will be a long and difficult task, but the sooner and more decisively we begin, the more likely we are to succeed. The alternative—failure—is unthinkable, because it opens the door to dystopias that some are already auguring and many already fear.
We live between the past and the future. The present is constantly slipping between our fingers like a fading shadow. The past offers us memories and acquired knowledge, tested or yet to be tested, a priceless treasure that paves our way forward. We do not really know where it will lead us, what new characteristics will appear, or if it will be an easy voyage or not. What is certain is that the future will be different and very interesting. Today, more than ever, humanity holds the key to its own destiny.