“Nothing ages as fast as the future.”
Humankind rests on the eve of an uncertain tomorrow.
At this moment—regardless of whether the “present” is the time I’m writing this, or some future date when you are now reading it—our world is going through tremendous change.
Each day, people awaken to new innovations and challenges. For most of us, we are no longer required to leave our homes to learn of these new technological arrivals; many can enter our lives almost seamlessly through updates, downloads, and transfers occurring on the portable devices carried in every hand and pocket. From news and entertainment, to money, health, and the weather, nearly everything that is important to us and our lives can be condensed in some way and simulated on a smartphone screen.
While the steadiness of human progress always carries the promise of hope, there are concerns too, as far as what that new dawn might bring. What will tomorrow’s technological new arrivals be? What about this moment in our progression sets it apart from any other period of innovation in the history of humankind?
These questions form the foundation on which The Debrief has been built.
Many sites and publications report on timely things happening in our world. Our concern is with what this means for us going forward, and how intelligent reporting and analysis of science, technology, and defense issues can better arm us with the knowledge we will need once tomorrow arrives.
“If you go back a few hundred years, what we take for granted today would seem like magic–being able to talk to people over long distances, to transmit images, flying, accessing vast amounts of data like an oracle. These are all things that would have been considered magic a few hundred years ago.”
Throughout much of the time that anatomically modern humans have existed, we have been the most intelligent and technologically sophisticated species on Earth (by our own estimates, at very least). However, this hasn’t always been the case.
50,000 years ago, Homo sapiens were not the sole representatives of the subtribe known as Hominina. We shared our world with at least two similar, but anatomically different kinds of archaic humans: the Neanderthals and Denisovans. Archaeological evidence conveys to us that these now-extinct hominins were highly intelligent like us, and made frequent use of tools and other technologies that aided survival in the harsh climate of the Pleistocene.
The last of the Denisovans are believed to have vanished around this time; the Neanderthals lingered at least another 10,000 years thereafter. Both slowly receded into the mists of time, having been absorbed into the waves of modern humans leaving Africa during this period. To this day, our archaic neighbors live on as ghosts that can still be found in our modern DNA.
Since that time, humans have remained essentially unchallenged by nature, and there have been no other forms of intelligence that could match us, let alone exceed that of which humans have proven capable. But will this always remain true?
The idea that humans can, and truly will remain uncontested as the dominant technological force in our world should not be taken for granted. Ironically, our very prowess with technology will likely be what leads to events that finally shake this foundation.
The Rise of Intelligent Machines
Within the last few decades, incredible leaps have been made in the field of machine learning. No history or timeline of these innovations is required here to recognize the pace at which they have arrived; perhaps a more significant observation is that the rate innovation often moves far more quickly than initially expected by its innovators. Truly autonomous intelligent machines, or artificial intelligence (AI) as it has come to be known, does not yet exist. However, most projections indicate that it is likely that such an innovation—if AI is indeed possible, and human progress continues unhindered—will emerge within the next century.
Once this occurs, it will likely be the first time in tens of thousands of years that humans have been confronted by a form of intelligence that can perform as our equal. Not only that, but this artificial intelligence—effectively a superintelligence of our own making—will likely exceed human capabilities.
What will this mean for humans? Will sharing the world with a form of intelligence that outmatches us mean a new world of possibilities, or will it represent the single greatest existential threat that humanity has ever faced?
Concurrently, astronomers are presently scouring the universe for evidence of life on other worlds. Although the discovery of any life forms would be of significance, much of the focus in searching for alien life has been on detecting signs of intelligence, or possibly even evidence of similar search efforts by extraterrestrial civilizations.
“SETI doubles in speed roughly every two years because the speed is largely dependent on computers,” senior SETI Institute astronomer Seth Shostak told The Debrief in an interview prior to its official launch. As with the eventuality of artificial intelligence, advances in computer technology quicken the pace at which the discovery of other forms of life may become a reality. In Shostak’s view, he’s nearly certain that “we’ll find something by 2036.”
Yet what if unforeseen developments were to occur, capable of narrowing the distances between us and other worlds?
Mysteries in the Skies
In 2017, a New York Times article disclosed the existence of a Pentagon program which focused on identification and assessment of potential threats imposed by advanced aerospace technologies. A series of videos appearing online that accompanied the article conveyed visual and other instrumental data about unidentified aerial objects observed by the United States Navy. This was followed in the spring of 2020 by the Pentagon confirming the official public disclosure of these videos, clarifying that their earlier appearance online had resulted from an unauthorized release.
“After a thorough review, the department has determined that the authorized release of these unclassified videos does not reveal any sensitive capabilities or systems,” read an official statement appearing at the DoD’s website. The statement further noted that the release “does not impinge on any subsequent investigations of military air space incursions by unidentified aerial phenomena.”
“The aerial phenomena observed in the videos remain characterized as ‘unidentified’,” the statement added.
What, then, are the objects in the videos?
To-date, there has been no resolution to this question. Among the range of theories, the idea that such objects could represent a form of new, highly advanced aerospace technology developed secretly by the United States remains popular. More concerning is the alternative notion that a similar technological advancement could have been achieved by another world superpower. Still others contend that the objects in the videos are unlikely to originate from Earth at all, a possibility that might have seemed impossible—if not entirely outlandish—just a few years ago.
“Just as there are those who accept every UFO report at face value, there are also those who dismiss the idea of alien visitation out of hand and with great passion. It is, they say, unnecessary to examine the evidence, and ‘unscientific’ even to contemplate the issue…. a distinguished physicist, whose judgment in many other matters I respected, threatened to sic the Vice President of the United States on me if I persisted in this madness.”
-CARL SAGAN, The Demon-Haunted World.
The true source of the phenomena in these videos will likely remain in dispute for years to come, although its identification is not a requirement in terms of illustrating the broader point: if the objects are “ours,” then the rate of our technological advancement far exceeds what the majority of people are aware of. This alone raises significant questions about issues pertaining to transparency and government accountability.
However, if they are not ours, then humanity’s moment of reckoning with a new kind of technology—perhaps one created by a source of intelligence that far exceeds our own—may be far closer than any of our best projections have indicated.
Are either of these things—the eventual creation of an AI superintelligence, or the discovery of an intelligence that isn’t native to Earth—an absolute certainty? Of course not. They are merely possibilities for now; but as legitimate future potentials, each should be given serious consideration. If we are to maintain hope that the threat implications posed by either scenario can be mitigated, now is the time to prepare.
The Cycle of Scientific Paradigm Shifts
Despite the implications discussed here, many potential breakthrough discoveries in science and technology are overlooked for various reasons. Quite often, observations that might lead to such discoveries are intentionally ignored, on account of having the appearance of seeming improbable. Yet unlike our potential future involvement with machine superintelligence or extraterrestrial life, this phenomenon of willful ignorance in professional disciplines is well known, and equally well understood.
Philosopher Thomas Kuhn outlined “the tradition-shattering complements to the tradition-bound activity of normal science” in his groundbreaking work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn fundamentally argued that science is founded on paradigms, which involve “research firmly based upon one or more past scientific achievements,” which any scientist working within that discipline “acknowledges for a time as supplying the foundation for its further practice.” That is to say, the majority of scientific work involves incremental advancements in knowledge related to disciplines built around discoveries that are already recognized, and well established.
“If all our common-sense notions about the universe were correct, then science would have solved the secrets of the universe thousands of years ago. The purpose of science is to peel back the layer of the appearance of objects to reveal their underlying nature. In fact, if appearance and essence were the same thing, there would be no need for science.”
-MICHIO KAKU, Hyperspace.
However, at the heart of Kuhn’s concept of scientific revolutions is the anomaly. Unexpected discoveries (and sometimes unlikely ones) do occur, often through the process of scientific research. These challenge paradigms, and once they are assessed and understood, the result is that they require scientists “to see nature in a different way.” The current greater-than-exponential rate of advancement of our technology promises the appearance of such anomalies, as innovations continue to widen our field of view on nature and reality.
Of equal importance, many phenomena that are well-recognized already warrant greater attention than others, in terms of their potential impact on humanity. Among these are threats that include the potential for mass extinction events resulting from an asteroid impact or some similar catastrophe. Climate change is also a well-recognized concern among scientists; and as we learned in 2020, worries over the emergence of a novel virus strain resulting in a global pandemic can never again be ignored. Technological progress, when undertaken ethically and in the promotion of human values, as well as with respect and concern for all life on Earth and our environment, can hold the promise of mitigating such threats.
However, in addition to reporting on future technologies and potential threats to humankind, part of our mission at The Debrief is also to look at the role of disruptive technology in human advancement. This entails innovations that can have a tremendous—and often sudden—effect on existing industries and disciplines by surpassing current systems, giving rise to new innovations and standards in technology. The potential might also exist for such an innovation to change our very way of life at some point in the near future.
For media coverage of scientific developments to occur, discoveries and advancements must first take place, which generally are made possible through funding and grants. While this industrial aspect of scientific advancement is both warranted, and beneficial, it often results in the exclusion of areas of scientific inquiry that lack such funding mechanisms, or which produce results that are not necessarily in the furtherance of existing paradigms.
The Debrief focuses on such areas of scientific and technological innovation. We aspire to study discoveries that skirt the edge of the unknown, and developments which may, with luck and perseverance, help prepare us for the challenges the world of tomorrow will bring.
Your Debrief begins now.
— Micah Hanks, November 30, 2020.