SETI Research Head Seth Shostak Says the 21st Century Might Be Humanity’s Last

And it's something we should look forward to. Here’s why.

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Seth Shostak, the director of communication at the SETI Institute, is pretty cheerful when he’s talking about looking for extraterrestrial life in the far reaches of the universe. And he’s pretty optimistic we might one day find it. His view of humanity, however, is a bit less optimistic.

Last Friday, the famed astronomer departed from his normally sunny disposition and wrote a post called, “Could This Be Humanity’s Last Century?” As you probably surmised, Shostak’s piece asks whether the next two generations that are set to ride out the rest of this century could “possibly usher in the last act for Homo sapiens.”

If that sounds like an utter kill-joy, just hang on a second. Shostak isn’t out to fill your next hour with portraits of impending gloom and doom. He makes clear he’s not actually taking about “the various self-destructive threats of the moment.” Most people argue that climate change will bring about apocalyptic catastrophe, but Shostak argues that it’s a manageable crisis that just requires modifications in behavior. “Hard, sure, but we’re not talking about violating physics,” he writes.

Instead, Shostak is asking the titular question of the post as it relates to how we currently define humanity. He goes on to expound on “the three big things that I believe will take place in the 21st century [that] are more profound, and not necessarily bad.”

The first is the advent of biotechnology and gene editing.

“The relentless interplay of science and technology ensures that genomic knowledge will spawn a growing number of applications. Curing disease is one of these, and it’s obviously desirable. But our efforts won’t be limited to merely fixing ourselves; we’ll also opt for improvement. You may hesitate to endorse designer babies, but hot-rodding our children is as much on the horizon as the morning sun.”

DNA, under green fluorescence.

Flickr user Spanish Flea

The second development on his list is human expansion into outer space. This isn’t simply for the sake of exploration and establishing permanent outposts on the moon and Mars for scientific study. No, Shostak is actually talking about the very real need for humans to find other places outside of Earth for resources.

Conceptual art for a Stanford Torus Interior

Don Davis/NASA Ames Research Center
“You may worry about running out of oil, but that’s not the resource that should really make you antsy. We’re going to eat through the easily recoverable reserves of stuff like copper, zinc, and the platinum group metals in a matter of decades.
“We can find more of these elements in asteroids, and already several companies are planning to do so. But nearby space could also provide unlimited real estate for siting the condos of the future. Everyone expects our progeny to establish colonies on the moon or Mars, but the better deal is to build huge, orbiting habitats in which you can live without a spacesuit…The days of being confined to the bassinette of our birth are coming to an end.

Lastly, Shostak wants us to start thinking about artificial intelligence — especially since we’re on the path to developing machines to think and operate almost as powerfully as humans do.

'Ex Machina'

Sure, it’s incredible stuff to think about. But how exactly do these three things bring about the “end of humanity?”

If you know anything about evolution, than you know that species are designed to adapt to changing conditions — and that two populations that find themselves living in different environments will eventually evolve into two distinct species. “A thousand years from now,” writes Shostak, “the inhabitants of a martian colony may not be so similar to those still living on Earth.” Genetic engineering will, of course, only serve to speed up that evolutionary process.

Shostak thinks A.I. will actually be the biggest driver of human transformation. “It is less a matter of improving our descendants than replacing them with our engineered successors,” he writes. “Perhaps we can promulgate our culture and ourselves by putting chips in our brains or simply uploading our brains to the machines. But you can be sure that the result will not be Homo sapiens as we’ve known him for 50 thousand years.”

There’s a lot of potential for these things to go awry, sure, but these trends are also the wildest, most ambitious projects humans have ever embarked on. 2099 might actually be the last hurrah for humanity as we know it, but if we tread wisely, we’re moving forward to a phase of our species filled with more possibility than ever. Let’s hope Shostak and the rest of the scientific and innovation community can keep us steered us in the right direction.

*Correction: Seth Shostak is the director of communication at the SETI Institute, not the director of the SETI Institute itself.*