Humans have had it rough for the past few centuries! Emotionally, I mean. It used to be so clear that we were privileged and important, the favorite child of creation. How could it not be so? Our planet was the fulcrum around which every heavenly body in the universe orbited. We were the dominant form of life on Earth, and we were fairly certain that ourselves and our world were the creation of a loving but tempermental and sometimes murdery god.

The second chapter of The Varieties of Scientific Experience by Carl Sagan documents the following recently discovered demerits:

  • We're not in a central position in the universe. Our Earth orbits around the sun. Our solar system is not at the center of our galaxy.

  • Our Sun is a typical star, with no special features to distinguish it from the 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 other stars universe.

  • Not only that, stars are made of the same stuff we find right here on our Earth. That's not so majestic!

  • Our earth is approximately 4,500,000,000 years old, but humans developed recently, 1,000,000 years ago or so.

  • Humans are made of the same stuff and share a common lineage with all other life on Earth.

  • The way we experience time is not from a privileged frame of reference. There is nothing special about our position in the universe or our motion through it.

Carl then suggests that one idea of human privilege is still with us.

Well, if we don't have a distinctive position or velocity or acceleration, or a separate origin from the other plants and animals, then at least, maybe, we are the smartest beings in the entire universe.

Carl goes on to say that discovering extraterrestrial intelligence could silence this latest in a long line of human conceits. Whatever other outcomes an indisputable alien encounter would have, I'm quite sure Carl is right about this one. However, there is another aspirant approaching, and it's almost ready to snatch the Smartest Kids in the Universe trophy from humanity's collective hands.

The next great blow to our egos will be the discovery that intelligence can arise from ordinary matter, that is, melted sand. Artificial intelligence is complex and controversial, but I'm quite certain the intelligence of our computer systems will continue to increase, and the vastness of the universe suggests to me that we will probably create intelligence long before we discover it on another planet.

It's difficult to imagine how AI with greater-than-human intelligence would change our existence. People will probably say, "it's just programmed to act that way", or "it's not human, it's not thinking". Many, maybe even most, people won't accept AI as truly intelligent. In many ways, it would be even more alien than a biological extra-terrestrial species.

Carl again:

A grinding of heels can be heard screeching across the last five centuries as scientists have revealed the non-centrality of our position and as many others have fought to resist that insight to the bitter end.

My take is that our undistinguished position in the universe is freeing. Humans have a lot of traits, some admirable and some less so, but we get to choose which to value. In any case, we should probably stop looking to the universe for our sense of self-worth.