I have now reached an age where my birthdays can be seen as a countdown to the inevitable end. We live our lives without knowing when that end will come. But recognizing its inevitability encourages us to build monuments of our achievements that will survive us. Of course, our DNA can give us that kind of longevity through our children. But we often wish to add meaning to the world we leave behind that goes beyond our genetic code.
Genesis 3:19 states: âWith the sweat of your brow you shall eat your food until you return to the earth, for it is from there that you were taken; for you are dust, and you will return to dust. The only person who has escaped this fate is Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto, some of whose ashes are emerging from the solar system aboard the New Horizons spacecraft. But these ashes are nothing but burnt DNA with no useful information content. It would have been much more scientific for NASA to send an electronic record of its genome, or better yet, frozen stem cells.
But for the rest of us, our physical remains from the rest of us remain on Earth, where we end up with the fundamental question of what to leave behind in order to be remembered. The cave dwellers have left traces on the walls of their caves. Emperors, kings, wealthy people and university officials left statues or portraits that preserve their physical appearance. Architects created buildings. But the best monuments are not physical; rather, they are spiritual in nature. Musicians have left behind their compositions, scientists their original equations, painters their pictures and writers their stories. These brains live in the space of abstract ideas, not in real space. An idea can last forever as long as there is a brain that knows about it.
Nonetheless, all earthly creations will vanish when the sun warms up in a billion years and causes all of Earth’s oceans to boil. Is there any hope of creating monuments that will survive this earthly end? The best approach might be to follow Tombaugh’s ashes into alien space.
Our oldest monuments could be technological relics that exhibit an active intelligence superior to the natural intelligence of humans; that is, they could be represented by equipment with artificial intelligence (AI). Imagine a compact CubeSat equipped with AI and 3D printing that carries the torch of our goals into the vast expanse of the Milky Way. Sending such systems into interstellar space, after training them through machine learning, would be like the experience of sending our children out into the world after educating them at home and at school. Each of us could form a unique AI system that reflects our own meaning and purpose in life. Instead of painting the wall of a cave that will collapse in a billion years, we can shape the contents of our personal AI system that will survive billions of years in space, as if it it was our own technological avatar.
These avatars could survive the sun, continuing their journey indefinitely while reproducing damaged parts or making additional copies of themselves with 3D printers. If we could imagine this as the blueprint for the future of humanity, could it also represent the past of one civilization around another that predated ours by a billion years?
To find out, we must seek with emphasized modesty the interstellar monuments of those who came before us in the cosmos. Until now, not all of the telescopes we have used to study the sky have been sensitive enough to detect sunlight reflected from a CubeSat. The next Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST) with the Vera C. Rubin Observatory could find such monuments. In addition, if such objects enter Earth’s atmosphere, they could be classified as Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP), of the type mentioned in the report submitted to the United States Congress on June 25, 2021.
The recently announced Galileo project could potentially uncover extraterrestrial monuments as they pass near Earth. Autonomous avatars might have been sent by other beings a long time ago, so by now those beings have perished. The discovery of advanced technological artifacts will provide the same feeling of awe as the discovery of prehistoric cave paintings dating back to 45,500 years ago. And finding an accompanying genetic record of on-board shippers, with more informative content than Tombaugh’s ashes, would be even more exciting.
This is an opinion and analysis article; the opinions expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of American scientist.