First posted on August 3, 1998
New column every Tuesday.

Computers of the distant future

The next time your PC throws a tantrum, try to be forgiving.

Control your temper when, as so often happens to all of us, the system freezes up. Or when the printer jams for no apparent reason. Or when the modem stubbornly refuses to connect you to the Internet. Or when the hard drive crashes and wipes out precious data.

Read more of this series
Part 2: A quantum leap
Part 3: Universal truths
Part 4: Web of thought

Don't curse that irascible silicon creature on your desktop. Instead, show a little kindness. What you see before you could someday be your salvation.

Literally.

Even if you're running the latest 400 MHz "screamer," you should remind yourself that it's still a relatively primitive device. It may be enormously more powerful than the clunky personal computer you first bought a decade ago, but it's less advanced than protozoa in the evolutionary scheme of things.

In the very distant future -- perhaps an instant before the end of what we know as time -- an infinitely more powerful computer might sift through the remnants of our space-time continuum and bring you back to life in the heaven described by some of the world's great religions.

That may sound fanciful to you, like the stuff of science fiction. As it did to many scientists in 1994 when a respected cosmologist, Tulane University mathematics professor Frank Tipler, published The Physics of Immortality, a book that put forth what it called the Omega Point Theory, a "testable physical theory" for explaining nothing short of the existence of a loving, omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent God

"I shall show exactly how physics will permit the resurrection to eternal life of everyone who has lived, is living, and will live," Tipler wrote. "If any reader has lost a loved one, or is afraid of death, modern physics says: 'Be comforted, you and they shall live again.' "

In brief, the cosmos according to Tipler is a place where life will survive forever. But that survival will depend on the creation of robots with human-level intelligence to colonize space. Fanning out in interstellar vehicles, with DNA code in their memory banks, they'll synthesize humans and other terrestrial life forms in untold star systems until the entire universe is engulfed.

By that time (some 10 billion billion years from now) the universe will begin to collapse into a kind of Big Crunch, the antithesis of the Big Bang that created everything an estimated 15 billion or so years ago. Our descendants will have to use all their resources to steer the direction of that collapse -- a process which, left to pursue its own course, would destroy all life forms, artificial or not, in a knot of infinite temperature and density.

Using the immense energy available from that controlled implosion, life will be able to power a universal computer capable of perfectly simulating the bodies and minds of any creature that ever lived or could have. An infinite amount of information processing equals eternal life within the Omega Point, which Tipler identifies with God.

It might seem amazing that such assertions should come from a scientist rather than a theologian. More amazing still, they came from a man who was an avowed atheist all his adult life.

It's worth revisiting those claims because of some notable developments since the book's release.

Over the past year, parts of the Omega Point Theory have drawn support from two influential figures in the scientific and theological communities.

Oxford University's David Deutsch, a pioneer in the exotic field of quantum computation, said in his book The Fabric of Reality that the science of the Omega Point Theory "deserves to become the prevailing theory of the future of spacetime until and unless it is experimentally (or otherwise) refuted."

The distinguished German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg, in a lecture on modern cosmology, said that Tipler "is justified in claiming that his statements on the properties of the Omega point correspond to Biblical assertions on God."

In addition, technological advances in various areas seem to fit in nicely with Tipler's predictions. Among them, the 1995 announcement by the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory of the discovery of one of the basic building blocks of matter, the "top quark."

Then earlier this year, a team of researchers from MIT, IBM and Oxford reported that they'd built the first working computers based on quantum-mechanical principles, perhaps signaling the advent of machines vastly surpassing the capabilities of today's supercomputers.

And especially important, at least from my point of view, there has been a phenomenal growth of the Internet.

Little more than a popular curiosity only a few years ago, it is clearly the fastest-growing communications medium and community the world has ever seen. Which seems to be the kind of thing that the Jesuit priest and paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin meant when he said the earth's biosphere would evolve a "thinking layer."

It was from Teilhard's work that Tipler derived the term "Omega Point." That is, the final point of evolution.

''I'm very encouraged by all these things. It's developing much more rapidly than I had expected,'' Tipler told me during recent telephone conversations. ''I'm far more confident now.''

How much more confident?

He's no longer an atheist.

Next week: How computers may save our souls.

By Sam Vincent Meddis, USA TODAY


On the Web is a weekly column on issues and topics that will help you become a better informed, more adept Web traveler. Review an archive of previous columns. Or check out Sam's background and how he arrived in cyberspace.

One of the great things about cyberspace is that it's interactive.
Reader reactions to this week's column, pro or con,
are encouraged and gladly received.


First posted on August 10, 1998
New column every Tuesday.

Computers of the distant future
Part 2

Making predictions is risky.

Even for a visionary novelist like Arthur C. Clarke, whose imagination conceived of a time when manned space flight would be so routine that passengers could nap along the way.

Read more of this series
Part 1: Machines evolve
Part 3: Universal truths
Part 4: Web of thought

It's a safe bet that when the year 2001 rolls around, that won't happen. Neither will there be lunar colonies.

On the other hand, we can foretell some vitally important things, even those in the distant future, with near certainty. We can peer into the dim tunnel of time and see the inevitable shape of our tomorrows through the light of scientific research.

There is, for example, little doubt about the destiny of our Sun. That is, we know that it will age like other stars of its size and type.

Astrophysical measurements tell us that as it grows older, its outer atmosphere will expand far beyond its present size. In several billion years, it will have spread far enough to envelope the Earth.

But life on our planet will be doomed long before it faces that fiery annihilation.

Between 900 million and 1.5 billion years from now, according to cosmologist Frank Tipler's reckoning, the Sun's increased luminosity will not only make the Earth's surface too hot to support life but it will also cause atmospheric carbon dioxide to fall below the critical level for photosynthesis.

The path to survival, Tipler says, is clear and unequivocal: We must colonize space.

''The Earth should be regarded as the womb of life -- but one cannot remain in the womb forever,'' he writes in The Physics of Immortality.

When his book was published four years ago, Tipler asserted that we already had the rocket technology to explore the galaxy. Indeed, space probes had already sailed beyond the limits of our solar system.

The problem, as he correctly observed, is that any vehicle would have to be completely self-sufficient because interstellar distances make it practically impossible to issue Earth-based commands on how to react to unforeseen emergencies.

Since a self-sufficient manned spacecraft would require an enormous payload, crucial on-the-spot decisions would have to be made by a robot probe with human-level intelligence.

"What we lack is not propulsion technology but computer technology," Tipler wrote.

Even accepting the notion that an intelligent machine could one day be built and that it could carry along the DNA code to replicate terrestrial life forms in other star systems, the computational difficulties of Tipler's scenario seemed quite extreme at the time.

Computers are often rated on the basis of how many mathematical operations they can perform per second. Because such an operation typically involves decimal-point tracking, the measure is called a floating point operation, or "flop."

For a computer to achieve the processing power of the human brain, it would probably have to perform at least 10 trillion flops, or 10 teraflops, Tipler estimates.

To be sure, the pace of computer progress has been nothing short of spectacular. Tipler notes that when he first started writing about human and machine intelligence in 1986, the fastest supercomputer was the Cray-2, which had a speed of one gigaflop, or one billion flops. By 1992, a 100-gigaflop machine had been built.

Last year, the unheard-of speed of one teraflop was reached by a supercomputer built by Intel and installed at Sandia National Laboratories. In February, the Department of Energy decided to floor it, announcing that it had asked IBM to build a blazingly fast 10 teraflop computer by the year 2000.

Yet in order to achieve realistic production costs and essential near-light flight speeds, the robot probes depicted by Tipler would have to have a wickedly small payload mass -- not the bulk of a room-sized supercomputer or even a slender laptop -- but only about 100 grams, or less than four ounces.

The question, of course, becomes how to cram the required massive computing power into such a tiny box. That's where the line between science fiction and fact seemed to blur the most.

Since Tipler's book was published, however, something that to many researchers back then sounded like fantasy became reality: the construction of the first working quantum computer. Though very primitive, it successfully employed the logic-defying interactions that occur on atomic levels.

Today's mainstream computers are built out of electronic circuits with no-nonsense states -- either on or off. Those two discrete states can be translated into the strings of zeros and ones that make up digital computer programs.

In a quantum computer, on the other hand, a bit of information can represent a zero or a one or potentially an infinite number of other states simultaneously. ''Quantum computation is a qualitatively new way of harnessing nature,'' David Deutsch of the University of Oxford writes in his book The Fabric of Reality.

To understand the advantage of a quantum computer, imagine the difference between producing a spark and splitting an atom. Suddenly it seems possible to conceive of someday squeezing a computer with human-level intelligence into a thimble, well within the frame of an interstellar robot probe described by Tipler.

Rescuing our intellectual descendants from the ravages of an overheated Sun won't be the greatest service that those space probes may perform.

Many billions of years from now, the universe will likely collapse into a kind of Big Crunch, obliterating all life everywhere unless life itself learns how to manipulate the final gravitational forces, according to Tipler's Omega Point Theory. In order to accomplish that magnificent feat, life will have had to engulf the entire universe -- and the only way for that to occur is through the DNA seeds planted by our super-smart machines.

Which brings us to another of Clarke's fortune-telling errors. Rather than being homicidal enemies like the HAL 9000, computers may be the best friends we ever had.

Next week: How likely is all this to happen?

By Sam Vincent Meddis, USA TODAY


On the Web is a weekly column on issues and topics that will help you become a better informed, more adept Web traveler. Review an archive of previous columns. Or check out Sam's background and how he arrived in cyberspace.

One of the great things about cyberspace is that it's interactive.
Reader reactions to this week's column, pro or con,
are encouraged and gladly received.


First posted on August 17, 1998
New column every Tuesday.

Computers of the distant future
Part 3

''Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind.''
-- Albert Einstein.

We have been taught to believe that science can not prove the existence of God.

That is, science and religion travel distinctly different routes to their separate truths, and a natural antagonism prevents them from ever agreeing on some common roadmap to an ultimate reality, the basis for our being here.

Read more of this series
Part 1: Machines evolve
Part 2: A quantum leap
Part 4: Web of thought

Over the past couple weeks, I've written about why Tulane University mathematician Frank Tipler thinks that he may have found that common roadmap subtly hidden in the formulas of general relativity and quantum mechanics.

Not only does Tipler's Omega Point Theory assert that the universe is the creation of a loving God. It also claims that Her/His omnipotent plan is for us all to be resurrected one day in the far distant future -- fully conscious, with all our memories -- but as computer emulations, perfect simulations of who and what we are in our present lives.

The kind of computer that Tipler describes -- built by highly evolved thinking machines -- is as much removed from present-day computers as, say, the human brain is from a snowflake. Operating in the final instant before the cosmos collapses into a submicroscopic point, this infinitely powerful computer system would amount to what the world's great religions call heaven.

It came as no surprise to me that Tipler's theory would be met with skepticism. One reader even went so far as to implore me not to write on this subject anymore.

''I want to urge you to stop this series,'' wrote Joe Brashier. ''They are a lie from a fool.'' He asked me to review the creationist writings at the Web site of the California-based Institute for Creation Research.

Skepticism is okay.

Science can deal with that.

Some reviewers of The Physics of Immortality, the 1994 book in which Tipler proposes his theory, have suggested that its conclusions were mathematically tailored to fit the author's wishful thinking. Attention is drawn to the fact that Tipler dedicates the book to his wife's grandparents, who were killed in the Holocaust, and that he later tells of a visit to a Nazi death camp where he decided that ''there is nothing uglier than extermination.''

In the interest of full disclosure, let me add that I happened to come across Tipler's book right after my sister died in March. Then last month, my brother died. Someone may infer that I, too, am swayed by some subjective error. As a journalist I've indeed committed my share of mistakes, although I think the record may show that I've been on target more often than not.

But as I said, skepticism is okay.

Since the Omega Point is a scientific theory, it must be testable.

Despite what critics say, Tipler actually had good reason to make reference to Nazi death camps.

It was the ''God is dead'' nihilism of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche that helped inspire Adolf Hitler's murderous Reich. And the 19th century Nietzsche, Tipler points out, had turned to the physics of his day to support his belief that we are trapped in an endless, futile cycle of existence. Like that of the mythic Sisyphus, who is condemned to push a stone up a mountain only to watch it drop to the bottom, an ordeal that is repeated again and again forever.

Unfortunately for Nietzsche, modern physics informs us through many lines of evidence that the laws governing the universe are not so absurd after all. Instead, purpose and progress seem to be hard-wired in somewhere.

For one thing, according to findings on both the atomic and astronomic levels, it appears that the universe has to be exquisitely fine-tuned in order to exist as we know it.

If its expansion rate after the Big Bang were slightly slower, for example, it would have collapsed before we ever arrived on the scene; too fast, and stuff around us would never have come together. If the scattering of matter had been too smooth, galaxies would never have coalesced; not smooth enough, everything would be tossed about in a cosmic hurricane.

In an interview with the magazine Wired, the renowned futurist Freeman Dyson noted that without precise fine-tuning of nuclear forces, hydrogen would either immediately burn into helium or be such that heavier elements could not have formed. So we'd be left with a universe made up entirely of helium or hydrogen -- either way, ''a boring place,'' in Dyson's words.

''I define an interesting universe as one that is friendly to life,'' he explained, and later added that it ''looks as though the universe was intended to be as interesting as possible.''

The universe is ''interesting'' on the human-level scale of things, too. Take English mathematician Alan Turing, whose work provided the foundation of modern computer science. During World War II, Turing played a major role in breaking the secret codes used in German military communications. And the Nazi defeat put a quick end to the death camps.

The universe's overall friendliness to life can be explained in what's called the eternal life postulate. Simply put, the idea is that the universe must be capable of sustaining life for an infinite amount time.

''It turns out,'' Tipler wrote, ''that the Postulate of Eternal Life imposes rather stringent requirements on the future. It also makes some predictions about the present, because the physics required to sustain life in the far future must be in place now, since the most fundamental laws of physics do not change with time.''

When I came across Tipler's book, the Omega Point Theory had already passed one significant test. In 1995, confirming one of the theory's predictions, the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory announced the discovery of the ''top quark,'' one of the basic building blocks of matter.

Another, more important test lies ahead. Tipler's theory predicts that an exotic elementary particle called the ''Higgs boson'' not only will be discovered but that it will have a very specific size. That particle, a ghostly key to the very existence of mass, may be found in the Large Hadron Collider, the huge accelerator that should be completed in Geneva, Switzerland, in the year 2005.

Recent astronomical observations suggest that the expansion of the universe is speeding up -- not slowing down, as had been expected -- something that would rule out the possibility that it will one day collapse into an Omega Point. But Tipler predicts that a systematic error will be found in the observations, because otherwise the laws of quantum mechanics and relativity would be violated.

''I'm far more confident that both of these laws hold than I am in a few experiments to the contrary,'' he wrote me in an e-mail message.

Whether the Omega Point Theory is true, partly true or ''a lie from a fool,'' only the future can tell. But I think that what we learn, perhaps only a few years from now, could be very interesting.

Next part: Need more proof? Look at the Web.

By Sam Vincent Meddis, USA TODAY


On the Web is a weekly column on issues and topics that will help you become a better informed, more adept Web traveler. Review an archive of previous columns. Or check out Sam's background and how he arrived in cyberspace.

One of the great things about cyberspace is that it's interactive.
Reader reactions to this week's column, pro or con,
are encouraged and gladly received.


First posted on August 31, 1998
New column every Tuesday.

Computers of the distant future
Part 4

In 1925, nearly seven decades before the invention of the World Wide Web, the French Jesuit priest and paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin had a prophetic vision about the next stage of planetary evolution.

He saw that the Earth -- which had long ago been engulfed by a layer of life, or a biosphere -- was in the process of producing "yet another membrane."

He called it the "noosphere."

Read more of this series
Part 1: Machines evolve
Part 2: A quantum leap
Part 3: Universal truths

"Much more coherent and just as extensive as any preceding layer, it is really a new layer, the 'thinking layer,'" he wrote in a remarkable philosophical work The Phenomenon of Man.

Interestingly enough, the noted British biologist Julian Huxley, in an introduction to the book, characterized this new layer as a "web of thought."

In addition, Père Teilhard's description of this "web of thought" seems to clearly outline the explosive growth of the Internet over the past several years. "The point of ignition grows larger," he wrote. "The fire spreads in ever widening circles till finally the whole planet is covered with incandescence."

Since evolution overall is an ascent toward consciousness, he reasoned, the activity of the noosphere will necessarily terminate in some sort of supreme consciousness: the Omega Point. There, he asserts, we come into contact with our Creator-God.

It was from Père Teilhard that Tulane University cosmologist Frank Tipler took the name for his controversial theory about what will happen at the final instant in the existence of the universe.

Tipler's Omega Point Theory, as expressed in the book The Physics of Immortality, claims to be a scientific proof for an "omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent God who will one day in the far future resurrect every single one of us to live forever in an abode which is in all essentials the Judeo-Christian Heaven."

When Tipler's book was published in 1994, it understandably stirred quite a bit of controversy. Though it achieved some editorial acclaim, it was rejected as pseudo-science and a mathematical flight of fancy by some critics.

I started this four-part series of columns early this month believing that several developments since the release of the book provided enough reason to revisit Tipler's theory.

My previous three columns explored those developments, including substantial new support for at least parts of the theory from the scientific and theological communities, important advances in computer technology and the discovery of a sub-atomic particle of the type that Tipler said his theory predicted.

While not a prediction of Tipler's per se, the development that drew my interest the most was the relatively recent phenomenon of the World Wide Web.

Although it had yet to emerge as a popular medium when The Physics of Immortality was written, the Web today seems very much like what Père Teilhard meant by a thinking layer. It is, thus, perhaps an archetype of the communication engine that Tipler says will eventually drive humanity to the Omega Point.

"At present the noosphere is only loosely organized, but its coherence will grow as human science and civilization develops, as 'planetization' -- Teilhard's word -- proceeds," Tipler wrote some five years ago.

That planetization appears to be proceeding faster than Tipler imagined.

The September issue of the magazine PC Computing estimates that the number of Internet users, currently believed to be about 100 million worldwide, could skyrocket to one billion by the year 2001.

Someday soon we may look up at the night sky with the aid of a telescope and actually see a physical manifestation of Père Teilhard's thinking layer. The Teledesic Network is working on a global, broadband "Internet-in-the-Sky" consisting of nearly 300 low-orbit satellites. Network speeds could be 2,000 times faster than today's modem connections; service is scheduled to begin in 2003.

The key force behind the formation of the noosphere is what Père Teilhard calls "radial energy."

The type of energy that he described -- one that increases with time -- had been viewed as a spiritual or psychic energy. But modern physics appears to cast a new light on that.

Radial energy, according to Tipler, is analogous to the concept of "information" as understood by communications engineers.

Thanks to the Web, we have immediate access to that energy.

Jumping from cyberspace to God is admittedly quite a leap. I was reminded this past week of how difficult it is for our present-day science to forecast even something as mundane as the course of a hurricane for the following day -- let alone the fate of the universe many billions of years from now.

Moreover, when much of the news around us is about political scandal, economic turmoil and terrorist operations, or when we face painful personal problems, it may be hard to be very hopeful about the future.

Traditionally, that's where faith comes in.

What I tried to show in these columns is that we can now also turn to science, which has come around to informing us that if we look deep and far enough, the universe is fundamentally a friendly place. And part of the proof seems to be literally at our fingertips.

By Sam Vincent Meddis, USA TODAY


On the Web is a weekly column on issues and topics that will help you become a better informed, more adept Web traveler. Review an archive of previous columns. Or check out Sam's background and how he arrived in cyberspace.

One of the great things about cyberspace is that it's interactive.
Reader reactions to this week's column, pro or con,
are encouraged and gladly received.


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