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Tragically, Kirsch had not stopped there. He had followed up this first desecration with a second, far more dangerous one–proposing a profoundly disturbing answer to the question Where are we going?
Kirsch’s prediction for the future was calamitous … so disturbing that Valdespino and his colleagues had urged Kirsch not to release it. Even if the futurist’s data were accurate, sharing it with the world would cause irreversible damage.
Not just for the faithful, Valdespino knew, but for every human being on earth.
NO GOD REQUIRED, Langdon thought, replaying what Edmond had said. Life arose spontaneously from the laws of physics.
The notion of spontaneous generation had long been debated–theoretically–by some of science’s greatest minds, and yet tonight Edmond Kirsch had presented a starkly persuasive argument that spontaneous generation had actually happened.
Nobody has ever come close to demonstrating it … or even explaining how it might have occurred.
On-screen, Edmond’s simulation of the primordial soup was now teeming with tiny virtual life-forms.
“Observing my budding model,” Edmond narrated, “I wondered what would happen if I let it run? Would it eventually explode out of its flask and produce the entire animal kingdom, including the human species? And what if I let it run beyond that? If I waited long enough, would it produce the next step in human evolution and tell us where we are going?”
Edmond appeared again beside E-Wave. “Sadly, not even this computer can handle a model of that magnitude, so I had to find a way to narrow the simulation. And I ended up borrowing a technique from an unlikely source … none other than Walt Disney.”
The screen now cut to a primitive, two-dimensional, black-and-white cartoon. Langdon recognized it as the 1928 Disney classic Steamboat Willie.
“The art form of ‘cartooning’ has advanced rapidly over the past ninety years–from rudimentary Mickey Mouse flip-books to the richly animated films of today.”
Beside the old cartoon appeared a vibrant, hyperrealistic scene from a recent animated feature.
“This leap in quality is akin to the three-thousand-year evolution from cave drawings to Michelangelo’s masterpieces. As a futurist, I am fascinated by any skill that makes rapid advances,” Edmond continued. “The technique that makes this leap possible, I learned, is called ‘tweening.’ It’s a computer animation shortcut in which an artist asks a computer to generate the intermediate frames between two key images, morphing the first image smoothly into the second image, essentially filling in the gaps. Rather than having to draw every single frame by hand–which can be likened here to modeling every tiny step in the evolutionary process–artists nowadays can draw a few of the key frames … and then ask the computer to take its best guess at the intermediary steps and fill in the rest of the evolution.
“That’s tweening,” Edmond declared. “It’s an obvious application of computing power, but when I heard about it, I had a revelation and I realized it was the key to unlocking our future.”
Ambra turned to Langdon with a questioning look. “Where is this going?”
Before Langdon could consider it, a new image had appeared on-screen.
“Human evolution,” Edmond said. “This image is a ‘flip movie’ of sorts. Thanks to science, we have constructed several key frames–chimpanzees, Australopithecus, Homo habilis, Homo erectus, Neanderthal man–and yet the transitions between these species remain murky.”
Precisely as Langdon had anticipated, Edmond outlined an idea to use computer “tweening” to fill in the gaps in human evolution. He described how various international genome projects–human, Paleo-Eskimo, Neanderthal, chimpanzee–had used bone fragments to map the complete genetic structure of nearly a dozen intermediary steps between chimpanzee and Homo sapiens.
“I knew if I used these existing primitive genomes as key frames,” Edmond said, “I could program E-Wave to build an evolutionary model that linked all of them together–a kind of evolutionary connect-the-dots. And so I began with a simple trait–brain size–a very accurate general indicator of intellectual evolution.”
A graphic materialized on-screen.
“In addition to mapping general structural parameters like brain size, E-Wave mapped thousands of subtler genetic markers that influence cognitive abilities–markers like spatial recognition, range of vocabulary, long-term memory, and processing speed.”
The display now flashed a rapid succession of similar graphs, all showing the same exponential increase.
“Then E-Wave assembled an unprecedented simulation of intellectual evolution over time.” Edmond’s face reappeared. “‘So what?’ you ask. ‘Why do we care about identifying the process by which humans became intellectually dominant?’ We care because if we can establish a pattern, a computer can tell us where that pattern will lead in the future.” He smiled. “If I say two, four, six, eight … you reply ten. I have essentially asked E-Wave to predict what ‘ten’ will look like. Once E-Wave has simulated intellectual evolution, I can ask the obvious question: What comes next? What will human intellect look like five hundred years from now? In other words: Where are we going?”
Langdon found himself spellbound by the prospect, and while he didn’t know enough about genetics or computer modeling to assess the accuracy of Edmond’s predictions, the concept was ingenious.
“The evolution of a species,” Edmond said, “is always linked to that organism’s environment, and so I asked E-Wave to overlay a second model–an environmental simulation of today’s world–easy to do when all of our news about culture, politics, science, weather, and technology is broadcast online. I asked the computer to pay special attention to those factors that would most affect the future development of the human brain–emergent drugs, new health technologies, pollution, cultural factors, and so on.” Edmond paused. “And then,” he declared, “I ran the program.”
The futurist’s entire face now filled the screen. He stared directly into the camera. “When I ran the model … something very unexpected happened.” He glanced away, almost perceptibly, and then back to the camera. “Something deeply upsetting.”
Langdon heard Ambra draw a startled breath.
“So I ran it again,” Edmond said, frowning. “Unfortunately, the same thing happened.”
Langdon sensed true fear in Edmond’s eyes.
“So I reworked the parameters,” he said. “I retooled the program, altering every variable, and I ran it again and again. But I kept getting the same result.”
Langdon wondered if maybe Edmond had discovered that human intellect, after aeons of progress, was now on the decline. There were certainly alarming indicators to suggest this might be true.
“I was distressed by the data,” Edmond said, “and couldn’t make sense of it. So I asked the computer for an analysis. E-Wave conveyed its evaluation in the clearest way it knew how. It drew me a picture.”
The screen refreshed to show a graphic timeline of animal evolution beginning some one hundred million years ago. It was a complex and colorful tapestry of horizontal bubbles that expanded and contracted over time, depicting how species appeared and disappeared. The left side of the graph was dominated by the dinosaurs–already at the height of their development at that point in history–who were represented by the thickest of all the bubbles, which grew thicker through time before abruptly collapsing some sixty-five million years ago with the mass dinosaur extinction.
“This is a timeline of dominant life-forms on earth,” Edmond said, “presented in terms of species population, food-chain position, interspecific supremacy, and overall influence on the planet. Essentially, it is a visual representation of who’s running the show on earth at any given time.”
Langdon’s eye traced along the diagram as different bubbles expanded and contracted, indicating how various large populations of species had appeared, proliferated, and disappeared from existence.
“The dawn of Homo sapiens,” Edmond said, “occurs at 200,000 BC, but we were not influential enough to appear in this graph until about sixty-five thousand years ago, when we invented the bow and arrow and became more efficient predators.”
Langdon scanned ahead to the 65,000 BC mark, where a thin blue bubble appeared, marking Homo sapiens. The bubble expanded very slowly, almost imperceptibly, until around 1000 BC, when it quickly got thicker, and then seemed to expand exponentially.
By the time his eye reached the far right of the diagram, the blue bubble had swollen to occupy nearly the entire width of the screen.
Modern-day humans, Langdon thought. By far, the most dominant and influential species on earth.
“Not surprisingly,” Edmond said, “in the year 2000, when this graph ends, humans are depicted as the prevailing species on the planet. Nothing even comes close to us.” He paused. “However, you can see traces of a new bubble appearing … here.”
The graphic zoomed in to show a tiny black shape starting to form above the swollen blue bubble of humanity.
“A new species has already entered the picture,” Edmond said. Langdon saw the black blob, but it looked insignificant in comparison to the blue bubble–a tiny remora on the back of a blue whale.
“I realize,” Edmond said, “that this newcomer looks trivial, but if we move forward in time from 2000 to the present day, you will see that our newcomer is here already, and it has been quietly growing.”
The diagram expanded until it reached the current date, and Langdon felt his chest tighten. The black bubble had expanded enormously over the past two decades. Now it claimed more than a quarter of the screen, jostling with Homo sapiens for influence and dominance.
“What is that?!” Ambra exclaimed in a worried half whisper. Langdon answered, “I have no idea … some kind of dormant virus?” His mind ran through a list of aggressive viruses that had savaged various regions of the world, but Langdon could not imagine a species growing this fast on earth without being noticed. A bacterium from space?
“This new species is insidious,” Edmond said. “It propagates exponentially. It expands its territory continuously. And most importantly, it evolves … much faster than humans do.” Edmond stared into the camera again, his expression deadly serious. “Unfortunately, if I let this simulation roll ahead to show us the future, even just a few decades from now, this is what it reveals.”
The diagram expanded again, now displaying the timeline up until 2050.
Langdon jumped to his feet, staring in disbelief.
“My God,” Ambra whispered, covering her mouth in horror.
The diagram clearly showed the menacing black bubble expanding at a staggering rate, and then, by the year 2050, entirely swallowing up the light blue bubble of humanity.
“I’m sorry to have to show you this,” Edmond said, “but in every model I ran, the same thing happened. The human species evolved to our current point in history, and then, very abruptly, a new species materialized, and erased us from the earth.”
Langdon stood before the horrific graphic, trying to remind himself that it was just a computer model. Images like this, he knew, had the power to affect humans on a visceral level that raw data could not, and Edmond’s diagram had an air of finality to it–as if human extinction were already a fait accompli.
“My friends,” Edmond said, his tone somber enough to be warning of an imminent asteroid collision. “Our species is on the brink of extinction. I have spent my life making predictions, and in this case, I’ve analyzed the data at every level. I can tell you with a very high degree of certainty that the human race as we know it will not be here fifty years from now.”
Langdon’s initial shock now gave way to disbelief–and anger–at his friend. What are you doing, Edmond?! This is irresponsible! You built a computer model–a thousand things could be wrong with your data. People respect and believe you … you’re going to create mass hysteria.
“And one more thing,” Edmond said, his mood darkening even further. “If you look carefully at the simulation, you will see that this new species does not entirely erase us. More accurately … it absorbs us.”
THE SPECIES ABSORBS us?
In stunned silence, Langdon tried to imagine what Edmond meant by these words; the phrase conjured terrifying images of the Alien science-fiction movies, in which humans were used as living incubators for a dominant species.
On his feet now, Langdon glanced back at Ambra, who was huddled on the couch, clutching her knees, her keen eyes analyzing the illustration on the screen. Langdon strained to imagine any other interpretation of the data; the conclusion seemed inevitable.
According to Edmond’s simulation, the human race would be swallowed up by a new species over the course of the next few decades. And even more frightening, this new species was already living on earth, quietly growing.
“Obviously,” Edmond said, “I could not go public with this information until I could identify this new species. So I delved into the data. After countless simulations, I was able to pinpoint the mysterious newcomer.”
The screen refreshed with a simple diagram that Langdon recognized from grade school–the taxonomic hierarchy of living things–segmented into the “Six Kingdoms of Life”–Animalia, Plantae, Protista, Eubacteria, Archaebacteria, Fungi.
“Once I identified this flourishing new organism,” Edmond continued, “I realized that it had far too many diverse forms to be called a species. Taxonomically speaking, it was too broad to be called an order. Nor even a phylum.” Edmond stared into the camera. “I realized that our planet was now being inhabited by something far bigger. What could only be labeled an entirely new kingdom.”
In a flash, Langdon realized what Edmond was describing.
The Seventh Kingdom.
Awestruck, Langdon watched as Edmond delivered the news to the world, describing an emergent kingdom that Langdon had recently heard about in a TED Talk by digital-culture writer Kevin Kelly. Prophesied by some of the earliest science-fiction writers, this new kingdom of life came with a twist.
It was a kingdom of nonliving species.
These lifeless species evolved almost exactly as if they were living–becoming gradually more complex, adapting to and propagating in new environments, testing new variations, some surviving, others going extinct. A perfect mirror of Darwinian adaptive change, these new organisms had developed at a blinding rate and now made up an entirely new kingdom–the Seventh Kingdom–which took its place beside Animalia and the others.
It was called: Technium.
Edmond now launched into a dazzling description of the planet’s newest kingdom–which included all of technology. He described how new machines thrived or died by the rules of Darwin’s “survival of the fittest”–constantly adapting to their environments, developing new features for survival, and, if successful, replicating as fast as they could in order to monopolize the available resources.
“The fax machine has gone the way of the dodo bird,” Edmond explained. “And the iPhone will survive only if it keeps outperforming its competition. Typewriters and steam engines died in changing environments, but the Encyclopaedia Britannica evolved, its cumbersome thirty-two-volume set sprouting digital feet and, like the lungfish, expanding into uncharted territory, where it now thrives.”
Langdon flashed on his childhood Kodak camera–once the T. rex of personal photography–obliterated overnight by the meteoric arrival of digital imaging.
“Half a billion years ago,” Edmond continued, “our planet experienced a sudden eruption of life–the Cambrian Explosion–in which most of the planet’s species came into existence virtually overnight. Today, we are witnessing the Cambrian Explosion of the Technium. New species of technology are being born daily, evolving at a blinding rate, and each new technology becomes a tool to create other new technologies. The invention of the computer has helped us build astonishing new tools, from smartphones to spaceships to robotic surgeons. We are witnessing a burst of innovation that is happening faster than our minds can comprehend. And we are the creators of this new kingdom–the Technium.”
The screen now returned to the disturbing image of the expanding black bubble that was consuming the blue one. Technology kills off humanity? Langdon found the idea terrifying, and yet his gut told him it was highly improbable. To him, the notion of a dystopian Terminator-like future where machines hunted people to extinction seemed counter-Darwinian. Humans control technology; humans have survival instincts; humans will never permit technology to overrun us.
Even as this sequence of logical thoughts passed through his mind, Langdon knew he was being naive. Having interacted with Edmond’s AI creation Winston, Langdon had been given a rare glimpse at the state of the art in artificial intelligence. And while Winston clearly served Edmond’s wishes, Langdon wondered how long it would be until machines like Winston started making decisions that satisfied their own wishes.
“Obviously, many people before me have predicted the kingdom of technology,” Edmond said, “but I have succeeded in modeling it … and being able to show what it will do to us.” He motioned to the darker bubble, which, by the year 2050, spanned the entire screen and indicated a total dominance of the planet. “I must admit, at first glance, this simulation paints a pretty grim picture …”
Edmond paused, and a familiar twinkle returned to his eye.
“But we really must look a bit closer,” he said.
The display now zoomed in on the dark bubble, magnifying it until Langdon could see that the massive sphere was no longer jet black, but a deep purple.
“As you can see, the black bubble of technology, as it consumes the human bubble, assumes a different hue–a shade of purple–as if the two colors have blended together evenly.”
Langdon wondered if this was good news or bad news.
“What you are seeing here is a rare evolutionary process known as obligate endosymbiosis,” Edmond said. “Normally, evolution is a bifurcating process–a species splits into two new species–but sometimes, in rare instances, if two species cannot survive without each other, the process occurs in reverse … and instead of one species bifurcating, two species fuse into one.”
The fusion reminded Langdon of syncretism–the process by which two different religions blended to form an entirely new faith.
“If you don’t believe that humans and technology will fuse,” Edmond said, “take a look around you.”