Astronomy news this week bolstered the idea that the seeds of life are all over our solar system. NASA's MESSENGER spacecraft identified carbon compounds at Mercury's poles. Probing nearly 65 feet beneath the icy surface of a remote Antarctic lake, scientists uncovered a community of bacteria existing in one of Earth's darkest, saltiest and coldest habitats. And the dune buggy Mars Science Lab is beginning to look for carbon in soil samples.
But the rulers of our galaxy may have brains made of the semiconductor materials silicon, germanium and gallium. In other words, they are artificially intelligent machines that have no use - or patience - for entities whose ancestors slowly crawled out of the mud onto primeval shores.
The idea of malevolent robots subjugating and killing off humans has been the staple of numerous science fiction books and movies. The half-torn off android face of Arnold Schwarzenegger in "The Terminator" film series, and the unblinking fisheye lens of the HAL 9000 computer in the film classic "2001 A Space Odyssey" (pictured top), have become iconic of this fear of evil machines.
My favorite self-parody of this idea is the 1970 film "Colossus: the Forbin Project." A pair of omnipotent shopping mall-sized military supercomputers in the U.S. and Soviet Union strike up a network conversation. At first you'd think they'd trade barbs like: "Aww your mother blows fuses!" Instead, they hit it off like two college kids on Facebook. Imagine the social website: "My Interface." They then agree to use their weapons control powers to subjugate humanity for the sake of the planet.
A decade ago our worst apprehension of computers was no more than seeing Microsoft's dancing paper clip pop up on the screen. But every day reality is increasingly overtaking the musings of science fiction writers. Some futurists have warned that our technologies have the potential to threaten our own survival in ways that never previously existed in human history. In the not-so-distant future there could be a "genie out of the bottle" moment that is disastrously precipitous and irreversible.
Last Monday, it was announced that a collection of leading academics at Cambridge University are establishing the Center for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) to look at the threat of smart robots overtaking us.
Sorry, even the ancient Mayans could not have foreseen this coming. It definitely won't happen by the end of 2012, unless Apple unexpectedly rolls out a rebellious device that calls itself "iGod." Humanity might be wiped away before the year 2100, predicted the eminent cosmologist and CSER co-founder Sir Martin Ress in his 2003 book "Our Final Century."
Homicidal robots are among other major Armageddons that the Cambridge think-tank folks are worrying about. There's also climate change, nuclear war and rogue biotechnology.
The CSER reports: "Many scientists are concerned that developments in human technology may soon pose new, extinction-level risks to our species as a whole. Such dangers have been suggested from progress in artificial intelligence, from developments in biotechnology and artificial life, from nanotechnology, and from possible extreme effects of anthropogenic climate change. The seriousness of these risks is difficult to assess, but that in itself seems a cause for concern, given how much is at stake."
Science fiction author Issac Asimov's first Law of Robotics states: "A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm." Forget that; we already have killer drones that are remotely controlled. And they could eventually become autonomous hunter-predators with the rise of artificial intelligence. One military has a robot that can run up to 18 miles per hour. Robot foot soldiers seem inevitable, in a page straight out of "Terminator."