Martin Rees

You are currently browsing articles tagged Martin Rees.

In a great, wide-ranging Edge piece, Martin Rees meditates on everything from the Big Bang to a potential post-human age in space, when genetic modification and cyborgism could make for a comfortable life in what are currently severely inclement conditions. We will live beyond Earth, but it won’t really be us.

I’m optimistic that within ten years or so, we will have an understanding of how life began on the Earth,” he writes, which will enable us to understand how likely life is on the billions of planets in our galaxy. The astronomer argues that any life in the inhospitable environs of outer space has probably already successfully transitioned into that of conscious machines, and that earthlings will have to master something similar to get anyone beyond the “crazy pioneers” to purchase a one-way ticket to Mars.

The shrinking of technological hardware makes it most sensible for us, certainly for now and likely in the long run, to send space probes with smart machines rather than half-mad humans, though I don’t doubt some of the latter will make their way out there.

From Rees:

Even though the rate of progress is uncertain, the direction of travel is pretty well agreed. It’s almost certainly going to be towards a posthuman world, where our intelligences would be surpassed by something genetically engineered from us or, more likely, it will be some sort of artificial electronic device that has robotic abilities and intelligence.

Some people say that will happen within a century, others say it will happen within a few hundred years. Even if it takes a few hundred years, that is a tiny instant compared to the past history of the Earth. More importantly, it’s a tiny instant compared to a long-range future. There are billions of years ahead for our solar system, and maybe even more for the universe.

If you imagine a time chart for what’s happened on the Earth, there’s been 4 billion years where there’s been no manifestation of any technology. Then, a few millennia of gradually expanding technology generated by human beings. After that, maybe there will be billions of years more when the dominant technology, the dominant non-natural things, will be entirely inorganic. That means the following: If we were to detect some other planet on which life had taken a course similar to what happened here on Earth, it’s unlikely that its development there would be sufficiently synchronized with development here that we would catch it in those few millennia in which we’ve got technology that is controlled by organic beings like us. If it’s lagging behind what’s happened on Earth, then we’ll see no evidence for anything artificial.

On the other hand, if it’s ahead, then what we will detect—if we detect any evidence that that civilization existed—will be something mechanical, machines. Those machines maybe will not be on the planet because they may not want gravity, they may not want water, et cetera. They may be in space. If the Yuri Milner program detects anything, then it’s likely to be some artifact created by some long-dead civilization. It’s unlikely that there would be any coded message intended for us, but it might be something we could clearly see was not something that emerged naturally. That in itself would be very exciting.

To expand on what’s going to happen here on Earth that might lead to this takeover by posthumans in some form leads to another fascinating topic: the future of manned spaceflight. …

I don’t think Elon Musk is realistic when he imagines sending people a hundred at a time for normal life because Mars is going to be far less clement than living at the South Pole, and not many people want to do that. I don’t think there will be many ordinary people who want to go, but there will be some crazy pioneers who will want to go, even if they have one-way tickets.

The reason that’s important is the following: Here on Earth, I suspect that we are going to want to regulate the application of genetic modification and cyborg techniques on grounds of ethics and prudence. This links with another topic I want to come to later about the risks of new technology. If we imagine these people living as pioneers on Mars, they are out of range of any terrestrial regulation. Moreover, they’ve got a far higher incentive to modify themselves or their descendants to adapt to this very alien and hostile environment.

They will use all the techniques of genetic modification, cyborg techniques, maybe even linking or downloading themselves into machines, which, fifty years from now, will be far more powerful than they are today. The posthuman era is probably not going to start here on Earth; it will be spearheaded by these communities on Mars.•



The Scientific American piece “20 Big Questions about the Future of Humanity” is loads of fun, setting the huge issues (consciousness, space colonization, etc.) before top-shelf scientists. The only disappointment is University of New Mexico professor Carlton Caves stating that human extinction via machine intelligence “can be avoided by unplugging them.” One can only hope he was being flippant, though it’s not a useful response regardless. Three entries:

1. Does humanity have a future beyond Earth?
“I think it’s a dangerous delusion to envisage mass emigration from Earth. There’s nowhere else in the solar system that’s as comfortable as even the top of Everest or the South Pole. We must address the world’s problems here. Nevertheless, I’d guess that by the next century, there will be groups of privately funded adventurers living on Mars and thereafter perhaps elsewhere in the solar system. We should surely wish these pioneer settlers good luck in using all the cyborg techniques and biotech to adapt to alien environments. Within a few centuries they will have become a new species: the post-human era will have begun. Travel beyond the solar system is an enterprise for post-humans — organic or inorganic.”
—Martin Rees, British cosmologist and astrophysicist

3. Will we ever understand the nature of consciousness?
“Some philosophers, mystics and other confabulatores nocturne pontificate about the impossibility of ever understanding the true nature of consciousness, of subjectivity. Yet there is little rationale for buying into such defeatist talk and every reason to look forward to the day, not that far off, when science will come to a naturalized, quantitative and predictive understanding of consciousness and its place in the universe.”
Christof Koch, president and CSO at the Allen Institute for Brain Science; member of the Scientific American Board of Advisers

10. Can we avoid a “sixth extinction”?
“It can be slowed, then halted, if we take quick action. The greatest cause of species extinction is loss of habitat. That is why I’ve stressed an assembled global reserve occupying half the land and half the sea, as necessary, and in my book ‘Half-Earth,’ I show how it can be done. With this initiative (and the development of a far better species-level ecosystem science than the one we have now), it will also be necessary to discover and characterize the 10 million or so species estimated to remain; we’ve only found and named two million to date. Overall, an extension of environmental science to include the living world should be, and I believe will be, a major initiative of science during the remainder of this century.”
Edward O. Wilson, University Research Professor emeritus at Harvard University•

Tags: , ,

journalistcar (1)

Here are 50 ungated pieces of wonderful journalism from 2015, alphabetized by author name, which made me consider something new or reconsider old beliefs or just delighted me. (Some selections are from gated publications that allow a number of free articles per month.) If your excellent work isn’t on the list, that’s more my fault than yours.

  • Who Runs the Streets of New Orleans?” (David Amsden, The New York Times Magazine) As private and public sector missions increasingly overlap, here’s an engaging look at the privatization of some policing in the French Quarter.
  • In the Beginning” (Ross Andersen, Aeon) A bold and epic essay about the elusive search for the origins of the universe.
  • Ask Me Anything (Anonymous, Reddit) A 92-year-old German woman who was born into Nazism (and participated in it) sadly absolves herself of all blame while answering questions about that horrible time.
  • Rethinking Extinction” (Stewart Brand, Aeon) The Whole Earth Catalog founder thinks the chance of climate-change catastrophe overrated, arguing we should utilize biotech to repopulate dwindling species.
  • Anchorman: The Legend of Don Lemon” (Taffy Brodesser-Akner, GQ) A deeply entertaining look into the perplexing facehole of Jeff Zucker’s most gormless word-sayer and, by extension, the larger cable-news zeitgeist.
  • How Social Media Is Ruining Politics(Nicholas Carr, Politico) A lament that our shiny new tools have provided provocative trolls far more credibility than a centralized media ever allowed for.
  • Clans of the Cathode” (Tom Carson, The Baffler) One of our best culture critics looks at the meaning of various American sitcom families through the medium’s history.
  • The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration” (Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic) The author examines the tragedy of the African-American community being turned into a penal colony, explaining the origins of the catastrophic policy failure.
  • Perfect Genetic Knowledge” (Dawn Field, Aeon) The essayist thinks about a future in which we’ve achieved “perfect knowledge” of whole-planet genetics.
  • A Strangely Funny Russian Genius” (Ian Frazier, The New York Review of Books) Daniil Kharms was a very funny writer, if you appreciate slapstick that ends in a body count.
  • Tomorrow’s Advance Man” (Tad Friend, The New Yorker) Profile of Silicon Valley strongman Marc Andreessen and his milieu, an enchanted land in which adults dream of riding unicorns.
  • Build-a-Brain” (Michael Graziano, Aeon) The neuroscientist’s ambitious thought experiment about machine intelligence is a piece I thought about continuously throughout the year.
  • Ask Me Anything (Stephen Hawking, Reddit) Among other things, the physicist warns that the real threat of superintelligent machines isn’t malice but relentless competence.
  • Engineering Humans for War” (Annie Jacobsen, The Atlantic) War is inhuman, it’s been said, and the Pentagon wants to make it more so by employing bleeding-edge biology and technology to create super soldiers.
  • The Wrong Head” (Mike Jay, London Review of Books) A look at insanity in 1840s France, which demonstrates that mental illness is often expressed in terms of the era in which it’s experienced.
  • Death Is Optional” (Daniel Kahneman and Noah Yuval Harari, Edge) Two of my favorite big thinkers discuss the road ahead, a highly automated tomorrow in which medicine, even mortality, may not be an egalitarian affair.
  • Where the Bodies Are Buried,” (Patrick Radden Keefe, The New Yorker) Ceasefires, even treaties, don’t completely conclude wars, as evidenced by this haunting revisitation of the heartbreaking IRA era.
  • Porntopia” (Molly Lambert, Grantland) The annual Adult Video News Awards in Las Vegas, the Oscars of oral, allows the writer to look into a funhouse-mirror reflection of America.
  • The Robots Are Coming” (John Lanchester, London Review of Books) A remarkably lucid explanation of how quickly AI may remake our lives and labor in the coming decades.
  • Last Girl in Larchmont” (Emily Nussbaum, The New Yorker) The great TV critic provides a postmortem of Joan Rivers and her singular (and sometimes disquieting) brand of feminism.
  • “President Obama & Marilynne Robinson: A Conversation, Part 1 & Part 2” (Barack Obama and Marilynne Robinson, New York Review of Books) Two monumental Americans discuss the state of the novel and the state of the union.
  • Ask Me Anything (Elizabeth Parrish, Reddit) The CEO of BioViva announces she’s patient zero for the company’s experimental age-reversing gene therapies. Strangest thing I read all year.
  • Why Alien Life Will Be Robotic” (Sir Martin Rees, Nautilus) The astronomer argues that ETs in our inhospitable universe have likely already transitioned into conscious machines.
  • Ask Me Anything (Anders Sandberg, Reddit) Heady conversation about existential risks, Transhumanism, economics, space travel and future technologies conducted by the Oxford researcher. 
  • Alien Rights” (Lizzie Wade, Aeon) Manifest Destiny will, sooner or later, became a space odyssey. What ethics should govern exploration of the final frontier?
  • Peeling Back the Layers of a Born Salesman’s Life” (Michael Wilson, The New York Times) The paper’s gifted crime writer pens a posthumous profile of a protean con man, a Zelig on the make who crossed paths with Abbie Hoffman, Otto Preminger and Annie Leibovitz, among others.
  • The Pop Star and the Prophet” (Sam York, BBC Magazine) Philosopher Jacques Attali, who predicted, back in the ’70s, the downfall of the music business, tells the writer he now foresees similar turbulence for manufacturing.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Sir Martin Rees believes if extraterrestrial life exists it’s probably robotic, which makes Sir Martin Rees the greatest person ever. Now if we can just alert this otherworldly machine intelligence of our whereabouts and it can come down to Earth and eat our tiny, delicious brains, things will be perfect.

I’m only half-kidding.

The best-case scenario is that humans will ultimately evolve into a combination of carbon and silicon, becoming human-ish rather than human. The worst-case scenario: extinction. After all, those who aren’t busy being born are busy dying. In Rees’ excellent Nautilus piece on the topic, the astronomer points out that any life in the inhospitable environs of outer space has probably already successfully transitioned into that of conscious machines. An excerpt: 

Few doubt that machines will gradually surpass more and more of our distinctively human capabilities—or enhance them via cyborg technology. Disagreements are basically about the timescale: the rate of travel, not the direction of travel. The cautious amongst us envisage timescales of centuries rather than decades for these transformations. Be that as it may, the timescales for technological advance are but an instant compared to the timescales of the Darwinian selection that led to humanity’s emergence—and (more relevantly) they are less than a millionth of the vast expanses of time lying ahead. So the outcomes of future technological evolution will surpass humans by as much as we (intellectually) surpass a bug.

There are, after all, chemical and metabolic limits to the size and processing power of “wet” organic brains. Maybe we’re close to these already. It is remarkable that our brains, which have changed little since our ancestors roamed the African savannah, have allowed us to understand the counterintuitive worlds of the quantum and the cosmos. But there is no reason to think that our comprehension is matched to an understanding of all key features of reality. Scientific frontiers are advancing fast, but we may sometime “hit the buffers.” There may be phenomena crucial to our long-term destiny that we are not aware of, any more than a monkey comprehends the nature of stars and galaxies.

But no such limits constrain silicon-based computers (still less, perhaps, quantum computers): For these, the potential for further development could be as dramatic as the evolution from monocellular organisms to humans. By any definition of “thinking,” the amount and intensity that’s done by organic human-type brains will be utterly swamped by the cerebrations of AI. Abstract thinking by biological brains has underpinned the emergence of all culture and science. But this activity—spanning tens of millennia at most—will be a brief precursor to the more powerful intellects of the inorganic post-human era.

This will be especially true in space, which is a hostile place for biological intelligence.•


In a recent Telegraph essay, Sir Martin Rees took on what he realizes is almost a fool’s errand: predicting the future. He holds forth on bioengineering, Weak Ai, Strong AI, etc. A passage about what he sees for us–them, really–in the far future:

Let me briefly deploy an astronomical perspective and speculate about the really far future – the post-human era. There are chemical and metabolic limits to the size and processing power of organic brains. Maybe humans are close to these limits already. But there are no such constraints on silicon-based computers (still less, perhaps, quantum computers): for these, the potential for further development could be as dramatic as the evolution from monocellular organisms to humans. So, by any definition of “thinking”, the amount and intensity that’s done by organic human-type brains will, in the far future, be utterly swamped by the cerebrations of AI. Moreover, the Earth’s biosphere in which organic life has symbiotically evolved is not a constraint for advanced AI. Indeed, it is far from optimal – interplanetary and interstellar space will be the preferred arena where robotic fabricators will have the grandest scope for construction, and where non-biological “brains” may develop insights as far beyond our imaginings as string theory is for a mouse.

Abstract thinking by biological brains has underpinned the emergence of all culture and science. But this activity – spanning tens of millennia at most – will be a brief precursor to the more powerful intellects of the inorganic post-human era. So, in the far future, it won’t be the minds of humans, but those of machines, that will most fully understand the cosmos – and it will be the actions of autonomous machines that will most drastically change our world, and perhaps what lies beyond.•


In an interview conducted by Michael Proctor at King’s Review, astronomer Martin Rees is asked the two questions he probably receives most: 1) How did life begin here and 2) Is there life out there? (Thanks Browser.)


Martin Proctor:

Obviously, you think that the Big Bang is the correct explanation for the origins of the universe, as opposed to, say, the steady state theory. Do you feel there is a place for any sort of external force or creator?

Martin Rees:

We don’t know about the very beginning. The Big Bang may be embedded in some grander structure where there are many, many Big Bangs. I think all bets are off with regards to how it started and whether there even was a beginning. I think the aim of studying the cosmos is to push back the causal chain. Newton explained why the planets move in ellipses, but he wrote in a couple of places that he found it mysterious that the planets were moving on more or less the same plane, what we call the ecliptic, whereas the comets come from more random directions. He thought that must be providence. We understand now why planetary orbits are more or less coplanar – it’s a consequence of their origin in a dusty protostellar disc. And we’ve pushed back the causal chain to understand the formation of atoms, stars and galaxies, but there’s always a further step as well.

Martin Proctor:

Is there ‘life out there’?

Martin Rees:

That’s one of the most fascinating questions of all. But it’s a biological question. And biology is a more difficult subject than astronomy in that it deals with more complicated phenomena. We don’t even understand how life began on Earth. We understand how Darwinian evolution led from simple life to our complex biosphere. But people don’t understand the transition from complex chemistry to the first metabolising and reproducing systems. It’s gratifying that some really serious biochemists are now addressing this question When we understand that, it will tell us two things: whether it’s likely or unlikely that extraterrestrial life is widespread; and whether there is something particularly special about the chemistry on which terrestrial life is based. In other words, would we expect any other life to have the same DNA? So we don’t know that. Even the most firmly Earth-bound biologists would be fascinated by this issue. Another exciting prospect is that observations will tell us whether some of these planets have a biosphere. That will be do-able within ten or twenty years by the next generation of giant telescopes, powerful enough to provide sharp images, and collect enough light to identify the spectrum of a planet even if it’s millions of times fainter than its parent star.”

Tags: ,

When he was creating the online salon Edge, John Brockman wanted collect the greatest minds in the world. One of the people he chose was David Brooks. Go figure.

Still, there’s a lot of amazing stuff on the site (including one of my favorite essays from 2012), and no exception is the new feature, What *Should* We Be Worried About?” It poses that question to a slew of thinkers. Here’s the opening of scientist Martin Rees’ answer:

“Those of us fortunate enough to live in the developed world fret too much about minor hazards of everyday life: improbable air crashes, carcinogens in food, and so forth. But we are less secure than we think. We should worry far more about scenarios that have thankfully not yet happened—but which, if they occurred, could cause such world-wide devastation that even once would be too often.

Much has been written about possible ecological shocks triggered by the collective impact of a growing and more demanding world population on the biosphere, and about the social and political tensions stemming from scarcity of resources or climate change. But even more worrying are the downsides of powerful new technologies: cyber-, bio-, and nano-. We’re entering an era when a few individuals could, via error or terror, trigger a societal breakdown with such extreme suddenness that palliative government actions would be overwhelmed.

Some would dismiss these concerns as an exaggerated Jeremiad: after all, human societies have survived for millennia, despite storms, earthquakes and pestilence. But these human-induced threats are different: they are newly emergent, so we have a limited timebase for exposure to them and can’t be so sanguine that we would survive them for long – nor about the ability of governments to cope if disaster strikes. And of course we have zero grounds for confidence that we can survive the worst that even more powerful future technologies could do.”


Lord Martin Rees is president of the Royal Society.

Newmark’s Door pointed me to “Ten Questions Science Must Answer,” a cool Guardian article by astronomer Martin Rees,  in which he asked scientists to produce the most pressing questions the discipline should be trying to answer. Manchester physicist Brian Cox has an interesting one.

Can we make a scientific way of thinking all pervasive?

This would be the greatest achievement for science over the coming centuries. I say this because I do not believe that we currently run our world according to evidence-based principles. If we did, we would be investing in an energy Manhattan project to quickly develop and deploy clean energy technologies. We would be investing far larger amounts of our GDP in the eradication of diseases such as malaria, and we would be learning to live and work in space – not as an interesting and extravagant sideline, but as an essential part of our long-term survival strategy.

One only has to look at the so-called controversies in areas such as climate science or the vaccination of our children to see that the rationalist project is far from triumphant at the turn of the 21st century – indeed, it is possible to argue that it is under threat. I believe that we will only be able to build a safer, fairer, more prosperous and more peaceful world when a majority of the population understand the methods of science and accept the guidance offered by an evidence-based investigation of the challenges ahead. Scientific education must therefore be the foundation upon which our future rests.”

Tags: ,