Space-faring humans will become Cybermen, says top astronomer

A race of “Cybermen”, resembling Doctor Who’s famous foes, will exist for real in the future, according to Britain’s top astronomer. Lord Martin Rees predicts that the first settlers on Mars, and other planets, will reengineer their bodies to cope with hostile conditions found in deep space.

Peter Capaldi’s Doctor encounters the original Mondasian Cybermen in a publicity shot for the finale of Doctor Who. Image credit: BBC

Lord Rees, who is Astronomer Royal, says humans will eventually evolve into a new species of super-powerful beings combining genetic and cyber technology.

And if ET exists, he is also more likely to be detected in an advanced electronic form than in any organic phase of existence.

In the season finale of Doctor Who, which concludes on Saturday, the Doctor stumbles upon the genesis of the original Cybermen aboard a vast spaceship escaping a black hole.

Lord Rees, Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics at the University of Cambridge, told the Starmus festival at Trondheim, Norway, that life on Earth had evolved in the manner explained by Charles Darwin.

He added: “Most people think that we humans are the culmination of this process. But no astronomer could believe that because our Sun has got 6 billion years before the fuel runs out, and the expanding Universe will continue perhaps for ever. So we may not even be at the halfway stage of evolution.”

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Lord Rees said brave space adventurers will have a pivotal role in spearheading the post-human future in the centuries ahead.

“Why will pioneers on Mars be so important? Precisely because Mars is such a hostile environment for humans. These pioneers will have far more incentive than us on Earth to redesign themselves. They will harness the superpower form – genetic and cyber technology – that will be developed in the coming decades.

“These techniques will be heavily regulated here on Earth, but the Martians will be far beyond the clutches of the regulators.

“So it is these spacefarers – not those of us comfortably adapted to life on Earth – who will spearhead the post-human era, evolving within a few centuries into a new species.”

Lord Rees speaks at Starmus
Astronomer Royal Lord Rees speaking predicts the future of the human race at Starmus. Image credit: Paul Sutherland/Skymania

Speculating about the more distant future, Lord Rees added: “Organic humans like us need a planetary surface as their environment. But if post-humans make the transition to fully inorganic intelligences, they won’t need an atmosphere.

He predicted: “It is in deep space that non-biological brains may develop powers that humans can’t even imagine. So even if intelligence is now unique to the Earth, it needn’t remain a cosmic sideshow.

“Evolving in generations of self-improving machines, it could, during these future aeons, spread far beyond the Solar System. Interstellar voyages, even intergalactic voyages would hold no terrors for near-immortals.”

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He went on: “But what if ET is already out there? If (life) emerges intelligent on another world, and follows a similar evolutionary path to what has happened on Earth, then were we to detect ET, we would be most unlikely to catch it in the brief slivver of time – just a few centuries – when it was in an organic form and had advanced technology.

“It might have had a billion-year head start over us, and long ago left its home planet and transitioned to electronic intelligence. ET might be a single integrated intelligence, wandering in interstellar space.”

Lord Rees said that ET was less likely to be discovered via a decodable message, but rather due to some “super-complex interstellar technology which could trace its lineage back to alien organic beings which might still exist on the home planet or might long ago have died out.”

Clash of the academics

During his presentation, Lord Rees clashed publicly with Cambridge colleague Stephen Hawking over the future of mankind in space. The Astronomer Royal said he “strongly disagreed” with Professor Hawking’s call for humans to move to other planets such as Mars, calling the idea a “dangerous delusion”.

Hawking has warned that problems including overpopulation and climate change could wipe out the human race. He added: “I am convinced that humans need to leave Earth. The Earth is becoming too small for us, our physical resources are being drained at an alarming rate.”

But Lord Rees told the Starmus audience: “Don’t ever expect mass emigration from Earth. I disagree strongly with Stephen Hawking. I think he is spreading a dangerous delusion if he thinks space offers us an escape from Earth’s problems. We’ve got to solve them here.

“Dealing with climate change on Earth is surely a doddle compared to terraforming Mars. Nowhere in our solar system offers an environment even as clement as the Antarctic or the top of Everest.

“There is no Plan B for all the risk averse people.”

Mars One base
An artist’s impression of a colony on Mars set up by the nonprofit company Mars One. Image credit: Bryan Versteeg/Mars One

However, Lord Rees supported future human exploration, which he believed would be pioneered by private enterprise.

He said: “During this century the entire solar system will be explored by flotillas of miniaturised probes far more advanced than the robot that ESA landed on the comet with Rosetta, and also than NASA’s New Horizons probe which transmitted amazing pictures of Pluto from 20,000 times further away than the Moon.

“Later this century, I think giant robotic fabricators may be assembling huge lightweight structures in space. Gossamer-thin radio reflectors or solar energy collectors. They may be using raw materials mined from asteroids or from the Moon.

“But what about human spaceflight? Robotic and AI (artificial intelligence) advances are eroding the practical case for spaceflight. Nevertheless, I do hope humans do follow the robots, though it will be as adventurers and not for any practical goal.

“We should specially acclaim, I think, the private enterprise effort in space – SpaceX, Blue Origin and the rest. Because they can tolerate higher risks than a western government could impose on publicly funded, civilian astronauts. And thereby they can cut costs compared to NASA or ESA.

“So later this century, thrill-seekers in the mould of, say, Felix Baumgartner, who broke the sound barrier by falling from a high altitude balloon, may well establish bases independent of the Earth, on Mars or maybe an asteroid.”

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By Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland has been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. He writes regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy, plus he has authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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