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Tuesday 22 May 2012

Colin McInnes

Bringing new life to dead matter


Human beings have the potential to transform the universe, so let’s not lose sleep about turning it into ‘grey goo’.

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As thinking humans, we are all the unlikely products of dead matter. Some time ago, and for reasons still poorly understood, the dead matter of which we are made got lucky. After exploring innumerable dead ends, long-chain molecules eventually emerged that could manufacture near exact copies of themselves. This was no mean feat for dead matter since the act of replication could both store and transmit information, accelerating the process of self-organisation.

Later, the dead Earth itself achieved consciousness - not as the mythical Gaia suggested by greens, but as thinking, self-aware humans. Dead atoms of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen, which were once in the ground and air, self-organised to such a degree that they began to walk the Earth. But what was truly impressive was that the humans themselves got organised.

Through mimicking, then language and eventually the imprint of writing, ideas could be stored and transmitted to others. Each new generation of replicating humans could avoid the dead ends of the past and learn from their predecessors, while adding their own thoughts to the accumulation of ideas.

But these ideas were no mere idle philosophy. Soon, the ideas began to transform the Earth itself. First came the reorganisation of nature more to our liking through agriculture; and then later, the real awakening from millennia of Malthusian stagnation came through the industrial revolution. Whether due to the far-reaching ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment or the innovations of James Watt, it was realised that the future could be radically different from the past. A potent mix of new, energy-dense fuels and radical ideas allowed humanity’s organisation of matter to soar in both quantity and complexity.

In this new phase of self-organisation, it is humans themselves who are manipulating dead matter through ideas and energy. Using concentrated energy, like coal, gas, oil and nuclear fuels, we can manipulate matter to our liking, both at ever-smaller scales - like microprocessors and genes - and at ever-grander scales, like the enormous Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai. Our ideas create complex, low-entropy (that is, ordered) structures of matter leaving high-entropy (disordered) waste heat. Until the recent past, the unthinking Earth could manipulate mostly atoms such as carbon and hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen through organic biology. But through the emergence of thinking humans, flows of inorganic materials such metals and minerals are now organised in a spiral of growing complexity.

And it is through our ideas and innovation that humans continue to re-shape the world. That is not in order to devastate it, but to give it context and meaning and often to improve on nature’s often poor productivity, whether it is by fissioning atoms or splicing genes. Of course, the misanthropic forms of contemporary green thinking see human life as turning nature into dead matter. But in reality, humanity is turning dead matter into conscious life, now all seven billion of us.

As it happens, nature is also organising dead matter into new life. For example, organising systems such as rainforests continuously manufacture complex structures from dead matter by using sunlight to photosynthesise, while radiating waste heat to cold space through their leaf canopies. Dead matter is turned into organised, low-entropy biological structures. The difference is that humanity is carrying out that reorganisation of matter in a conscious manner.

But in this accelerating complexity, some argue that humans are only a transient phase of self-organisation. While this may ultimately prove true, we shouldn’t hold our breath waiting for the technological singularity which techno-prophets believe will herald machine consciousness and either liberate us from the slavery of labour or enslave us. We certainly shouldn’t lose sleep over the coming of self-replicating smart matter, the grey goo feared by Prince Charles. It’s us. We should recognise that humans themselves are simply exquisite self-replicating smart matter, copying ourselves and our evolving ideas into the far future.

The phase change of complexity that arrived with thinking humans, and then accelerated through the industrial revolution, has transformed the world for the better, into a place more accommodating to humans and our needs. But the early innovations that began to re-shape the world have, of course, been clumsy. For example, the pulse of carbon currently working its way from the ground to the atmosphere – through the burning of fossil fuels - is a transient and unintended sign of the spectacular growth in low-entropy energy consumption which began with the phase change of the industrial revolution. As we transition towards energy flows which are more energy dense and efficient, the carbon will return to the Earth, locked up once more in biomass and ultimately put back into deep geological storage.

As a measure of the potency of modern humans and our ideas, the current era is often termed the Anthropocene, an era in which humanity itself is directing flows of energy and materials on a planetary scale. For mainstream green thinking, this is a worrying development which needs to be quickly contained. For others, such as a new wave of enlightened eco-pragmatists led by Stewart Brand and others, the Anthropocene is to be welcomed. For them, this era represents a decoupling of humanity from the vagaries of nature, and the real possibility of humanity actively shaping and protecting the Earth.

In the past, unthinking nature stumbled from one catastrophe to another, whether through ice age or asteroid impact. But the advent of thinking humans offers the prospect of a future of bold innovations on a global scale. For example, geoengineering is emerging as a tool to offset the regressive impacts of future climate change, human driven or otherwise. And even now, human innovation can tweak the orbits of small asteroids, either to avoid potential impacts, or perhaps to capture them for future resource use. In a small way at least, our ideas can begin to re-arrange the solar system more to our liking, a feat of prowess unimaginable to even our most recent ancestors. This is not human conceit or naive optimism, but a pragmatic recognition of where the human enterprise can lead us.

This human enterprise should not be confused with trying to reach some ‘balance’ with nature. The creation of low-entropy order leads to structures which are far from equilibrium, whether that process occurs through unthinking biology or human innovation. So let’s be clear, there is no delicate balance of nature. There is no equilibrium. The moon is in equilibrium and it is dead. The Earth is in a highly non-equilibrium state with colossal flows of energy and materials, such as the closed-loop manufacturing of biology or heat transfer in the atmosphere. And thinking humans are now beginning to manipulate these flows on larger and larger scales.

One of the key characteristics of such non-equilibrium systems is their unpredictability, their adaptability and their sheer richness. This is what makes the enterprise of life on Earth in all its forms, from the natural world to the economy, so colourful and compelling. If the natural world was in equilibrium, it would be dead. If society was in equilibrium, it would be unbearably dull and if the economy was in perpetual equilibrium, innovation would simply cease.

The alternative to the growing complexity brought about by human ideas and innovation is the contemporary idea of sustainability, a dangerous idea at the philosophical level never mind its socially regressive practical implementation. In comparison to the growing complexity and self-organisation of the human enterprise, sustainability offers a push towards a steady-state society. It also represents a dead end, socially, culturally and economically.

Nuclear fuels alone offer sufficient low-entropy energy to sustain a multi-billion population of thinking humans into the distant future. On larger scales, there is likely enough water orbiting the Sun as comets for a population of many trillion humans in an imagined future solar civilisation. It is only recently that the dead matter of the Earth, which long ago self-organised into thinking humans, could reach out with machines and scratch the surface of distant moons and planets. If the potent self-organising enterprise that is humanity eventually escapes from the Earth, then we have the resources and opportunity to fill a dead and apparently empty cosmos.

Or, we could simply stay put, cocooned and culturally ossifying in a sustainable society, waiting to be scoured from the Earth when the next big rock slams into us. Save the planet and bring self-organising life to the cosmos? Yes, it’s a big ask, so let’s not screw it up through lack of ambition.

Colin McInnes is professor of engineering science at the University of Strathclyde. Other articles can be found at Perpetual Motion.

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