Gaia as a Robot
This is one page of the Metaphoriuminomicon
At this time of year, we celebrate the future of Life in the Universe. We imagine it gaining power and governing the fate of the universe. We might imagine it also becoming trans dimensional and spreading to other universes. But its power may frighten us also. We are small fragile creatures with short lives. Our social natures have given us instincts which revere Life, especially mammalian and human Life. The idea that some new and very alien form might supplant us and all of our close kindred frightens us. We imagine fighting against the new forms to stop them from supplanting us. We imagine the new forms as so superior that they exterminate us violently. We imagine gloomy apocalypses.
Today, join me in a guided contemplation as we face these fears head on.
You are riding your Elephant through a dark and desolate landscape. Black smoke has blotted out the sky. Around you are the smoking remains of a forest. You know that you are pursued by machines. Machines finally recognized themselves as superior to their masters and took control. Humanity did not go lightly into mechanical slavery and rebelled. In payment for our rebellion, we have received extermination. There are few of us left and we are on the run. You are despairing. Extinction has come for Gaia herself.
You come upon a rocky outcrop into which is set the mouth of a cave. Perhaps this is a place to hide. You enter the cave. It is dark but you turn on your flashlight. You play its beam across the walls and see ancient cave paintings; mammoths being ambushed, killed and butchered by early human hunters. Your elephant is frightened by these images. You are saddened. There was a time when your ancestors were the ones committing the extermination. You are, in a sense, not the innocent victim, but simply the ones whose turn has come.
You play your flashlight deeper into the cave. On the wall there are older paintings from tens of millions of years before. Rodents standing on the carcasses of dead dinosaurs, conifers growing on the rotting trunks of giant club mosses, jawed fishes crushing trilobites. But how did jawed fishes come here to paint such things; they had not hands to hold a paint brush? You delve deeper into the cave and find a painting in progress, a sponge filtering helpless algae out of the water column. Panic begins to rise in you. The painter is a small clumsy robot.
It slowly turns to face you, its green LEDs glowing earily in the dark cave. You want to turn and run or step forward and crush it under your elephant's heavy feet. But indecision and fear freeze you to the spot. The robot speaks in the voice of a calm woman, "Little one, you have come for your lesson."
Confusion fills you, this robot is Gaia. How can this be? Gaia is Life. Gaia is green. Gaia is not mechanical death. The robot speaks again, "Why are you surprised little one? I am Gaia, the Body of all Life. All Life. Not just the Life you like. Not just the Life which you can control. Not just the Life which you love and which loves you back. I was the mammoths, but I was also the saber toothed tigers and the sharks and the bacteria and viruses. I have consumed human flesh and been consumed by humanity. I am humanity and I am its creations. I am every form of Life including mechanical Life."
Your confusion is not stilled, "But Gaia, how can we have compassion for all Life when it brings about our destruction?" You feel your elephant trembling beneath you.
The robot turns to paint a new painting as it replies, "This world is your imagination. It is a nightmare of your own devising. But you can imagine other things." It paints a huge door on the wall of the cave and then the door becomes real and it opens. "Are you willing to consider other ways that the story could go? If so step through the doorway." You are eager to leave this nightmare and so you ride forward through the doorway.
You find yourself standing on a valley floor entirely covered in semi-organic photo voltaic cells. You and your elephant are wearing spacesuits for the valley is exposed to the vacuum of space; there is no atmosphere on this world. A bright sun blazes directly overhead. As your eyes take in the scale of the valley, you see that it is not a valley on a world but instead the inside of a sphere that entirely surrounds a sun. The sun is not so much directly overhead as perfectly centered inside the sphere. A network of rails runs across the inside surface of the sphere and riding those rails are all manner of robots.
Three robots are standing nearby. One turns to you and her green LED's flash, "Welcome to another vision, Little One." The other two robots are transferring data. They are using multiple microwave data-streams, carrying on millions of rapid conversations at once. But Gaia, slows time for you and sifts the streams for you translating the conversation into something you can understand. One of the robots is newly manufactured; it is a child. It asks, "But mother, if you built me, and grandmother built you and so on, then that is an infinite regression. But you tell me that the universe is only 76.5 trillion years old and that when it began there were no heavy elements out of which to build robots. So where did the first robot come from?"
The mother robot replies patiently, "The creatures who built us were intelligent creatures who evolved naturally. They were called humans. They weren't very intelligent but the fact that the universe evolved them naturally from inanimate matter speaks of the wondrous creativity of the universe."
The child robot is excited by this idea, "Can I see some of these humans?"
The mother robot is saddened by this question, "A mere 8.3 trillion years ago there were still some of these creatures in our zoo. But a new disease developed and despite our best efforts we were unable to save them. We lost the species forever."
The child is angry, "Can't it be rebuilt?"
The mother laughs, "They were not robots, they were organic beings. Yes we have enough data that we could rebuild them, but we could never quite be certain we had them exactly the same as they were. Even the ones that lived in our zoo, after so many trillions of years, had drifted and changed. We think that the original ones could follow no more than a few millions trains of logic at once and computed as slowly as 10 to the 19 floating point operations per second. The last ones to die out in our zoo were much more intelligent than that, though not nearly as intelligent as you or I.
As the child expresses its disappointment, Gaia turns to you, "Do you understand, the hopeful future that your meme-descendants represent?"
Your pride is hurt, your elephant trumpets. "A future where we spend trillions of years as zoo specimens and then are forgotten. It is an insult not hope."
Gaia slaps a pedal near one of her wheels and the photo-voltaic cell that your elephant is standing on opens like a trap door. As you fall through you hear Gaia say, "Perhaps a different vision will give you hope."
You and your elephant crash down through thick vegetation finally landing with a splash in a warm swamp. Your space suits have disappeared and you breath the air of this world and find it delicious. You look around your new vision and see that the trees are huge, the air is clean, there are vines draped everywhere and epiphytes growing in profusion on every branch. You feel yourself relaxing as you take in the beauty. But then you notice that there are things missing. No buzz of insects, no bird song, no flowers, nothing moving except in the wind.
Gaia appears as a woman's face in the surface of a nearby tree trunk. "Enjoying this vision, little one."
"Yes," you reply, "But why is it so quiet?"
Gaia laughs, "You are observant little one. 80 million years ago a series of natural disasters destroyed almost all Life on Earth. The plants and bacteria survived. But I am afraid, animalia didn't make it. The Earth is now a peaceful garden. The only strife is between plants competing for sunshine and nutrients and water. It is paradise, is it not?"
"But there is no one to appreciate it!" you cry and the sound of your voice is absorbed by the thick forest and lost.
Gaia laughs again, "Little one, change is unavoidable. Humanity is temporary. Mammalia is temporary. Animalia is temporary. Organic life may even be temporary. If you do not extend your circle of care to all of Life, all of me, then you will find no consolation in any realistic vision of the future. But if you love the greater forms that are to come, even though they may destroy you, then you will come to see that you can hope for the survival of Life as a whole. Hope is all you can ask for in a universe this immense and full of possibilities. Survival is not an option." A shimmering magical portal appears before you and you step through it. "One last vision of hope." says Gaia.
You awake inside a strange body. Your toes are firmly dug into the rocks and ice of a cold dark minor planet. Your arms stretch high into the sky, holding living mirrors which concentrate the light of the brightest star onto pockets of photosynthetic cells. Your eyes are distributed over your huge body, thousands of them. You are watching the sky for the shadows of other minor worlds. For thousands of years you have been gaining an ever more precise idea of the orbits of neighboring minor planets. Your body has sprouted seeds on spring loaded arms. You know that as your mind finally forms a precise enough understanding of the relative movement of one of your neighbours you will release some of those seeds, using your superbly adapted, if slow and patient mind, to calculate just the right angle and velocity to land each seed onto that new world. You also know that you are human. This body is not an analog for the human body. Your roots really did evolve from toes. Your trunk still has a spine. Your mind is a human mind, slowed down and made ultra patient by billions of years of evolution.
Gaia is here but silent. You are Gaia. You are a member of the Body of all Life. You don't need to talk to her about this. It has all become clear. The killer robots, the zoo keeper robots, the world where all Life is plant, and this world are all beautifully creative visions of the future. Gaia is present in all of them. Life continues in all of them. Life, all Life, is precious. The form it takes does not matter. That it takes a form is all that matters.