Given that the half-century-old technology embodied in Voyager 1 and 2 recently traversed the boundary between the solar wind and the interstellar medium, it is likely that within the next century our civilization will exit the solar system boundary, marked by the Oort cloud, a thousand times farther away. Venturing into interstellar space will signal our transition from a sun-based residence to the grander neighborhood of other stars in the Milky Way galaxy.
And there may be alien traffic out there.
There is no doubt that we will ultimately be forced to relocate as a result of a major catastrophe on Earth, such as the sun boiling off the oceans in less than a billion years, a giant asteroid impact within hundreds of millions of years, a technologically-inflicted climate change within thousands of years or a global nuclear war within tens or hundreds of years. The only uncertainty is the timescale over which such a migration will be forced upon us.
On October 19, 2017, we discovered the first interstellar object in the solar system, ‘Oumuamua. As I have argued in recent papers, ‘Oumuamua could possibly be a message in a bottle from another civilization, swept to our solar system shore. Over the next century, we will likely develop the ability to send our own technological bottles to the shores of other planetary systems.
Such spacecraft might include robots equipped with 3-D printers, allowing them to use the raw materials they scoop elsewhere to make artificial objects based on blueprints from carried with them from Earth. We could also populate these spacecraft with tiny astronauts in the form of microbes that can establish colonies of life elsewhere. Artificial seeding of life-as-we-know-it would constitute so-called “directed panspermia.”
But long before we accomplish these goals in space, our society on Earth will likely be transformed by the same technological advances that will enable these space missions.
Consider, for example, robots. The next major revolution in the structure of human societies on Earth will likely result from robots replacing human labor. Robots are already starting to dislodge humans on construction sites, and their share of the labor market (along with artificial intelligence, or AI) will grow rapidly, as their technology improves exponentially on a timescale of a few years. Given the increasing share of robots and AI in the labor market, humans will need to restructure society. With less work to do thanks to robots and computers, there will be less opportunity to earn money as a reward for labor. The workweek will have to shrink to less than five days out of seven. This will lead to more vacation time and less work for hire.
Governments may contemplate paying their citizens a minimum guaranteed income floor that is unrelated to work. Such an arrangement would constitute a new form of socialism. Karl Marx famously said, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” but the updated version might go “everyone gets more than the minimum they need and does whatever they want in their spare time.”
The seeds for this societal transformation are already apparent in Silicon Valley, where trillions of dollars of wealth were created over the past decade out of computer and internet technologies. This new money is very different from old money, which was generated over a longer period of time by older people who had traditional roots. Sergey Brin, Steve Jobs, Larry Page or Mark Zuckerberg have little in common with the old money of the Roosevelts, the Forbes, the DuPonts or the Rothschilds.
Rapidly growing technologies are already encountering some pushback through nostalgia for the old world order, embodied in populist political movements. But so far, our civilization has demonstrated a tendency to progress to a more advanced technological future. We could also be inspired to do so by detecting signals from a more advanced alien civilization and realizing that we are not the “smartest kid on the block.”
Here’s hoping that our future economy and societal structure will adjust successfully to the new technological advances. Our challenges in space build upon our successful management of the preceding societal challenges on Earth. If we can endure the technological revolution of computers and robots, we might conquer the Milky Way galaxy. If not, our unfortunate societal future on Earth will provide a sober explanation to Fermi’s century-old paradox: “Where is everybody?”