Friday, June 15, 2007

With a Nod to Hari Seldon

Do a little thought experiment with me. Imagine that far into the future, say a few hundred years, mankind finally develops time travel. The technology to do it isn't advanced enough to send a whole person back, but sufficiently powerful to transmit messages, information, that sort of thing. There would be, of course, a great deal of hesitation about using it. If "Back to the Future" taught us anything, it's that time travel is dangerous. Even if you opened a portal to Ford's Theater and shouted "Excuse me Mr. Lincoln, is that your penny on the floor?" so that Abe bent down at just the right moment, as good as your intentions might be, you could still cause some horrible chain reaction that would prevent the creation of anti-gravity skateboards.

But what if there was a crisis? What if time travel was going to be the last great achievement of the human race before complete destruction? Then those future-people would HAVE to use it in hopes of saving the world. The cost of NOT using it would simply be too great.

This situation would pose a difficult question: how does one use the past to save the present?

For the sake of this thought experiment, let's say that the crisis is something unavoidable, so you couldn't just send back a note that says "Hey, Steve, that thing you were gonna do in the lab today? Yeah, not such a good idea after all. Here are some stock tips, take them in payment for NOT creating Super-Jaundice."

And yet, this crisis would be solvable if only there were more time to work on it. Then, the real debate would be: How do we give ourselves more time?

"Wait a minute!" someone would say, "What would the world be like if we'd discovered the smallpox vaccine ten years earlier? Or if we'd had the atomic bomb at the start of World War II? Couldn't we take plans for our greatest inventions of today and send them a few hundred years into the past? That would let the great thinkers of those times move on to other problems. By the time history wound it's way to this place again, we'd have already solved this crisis!"

And the debate would begin again. What to send? Who to send it to? And after much discussion, another voice would speak up.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, this is getting us nowhere. The last few hundred years have brought us many great inventions, particle beams that can shoot down nuclear attacks, the green foam we used to repair the moon hole, the hybrid horse-aroos most of you rode to this meeting, but the fact remains that no single invention would have enough of an impact. Even if we had time to send all the data needed to create those things, it still wouldn't benefit EVERY great mind of the time. We need a simpler design."

"Learning, my friends, is about information. And not just the information itself, but the way we organize and access information. The people who design communication satellites, build computer databases, and train monkey messenger-bots have as much to do with scientific discovery as anyone in this room. Information. That is where our focus should be. The way to help ourselves is to help the past help itself. The best thing we can teach our ancestors is how to organize the world's information, make it accessible and useful to everyone. Only by doing that will the past arrive here with the answer."

And so the great project would be founded, the great plans laid out. The message would instruct it's recipients to form a company, use their futuristic technical knowledge to amass a fortune, use that fortune to implement their knowledge. It would tell them to begin by simply organizing data, but then spread into managing and archiving the communication between people, then create powerful tools and make them free to anyone who wants them.*

And in the last paragraph of this message, this call of desperate hope, the authors would write "We have given you all you need. Undoubtedly you will achieve great wealth and success, and don't feel bad for enjoying any of it. Just keep in mind that your first job is to further humanity and help us overcome our great challenge. We hope that you will do well, as we hope that we are right in contacting you. Please use what we have given you wisely, and don't be evil. Your friends, the future-people."

So see, I'm not crazy. Google COULD have come from the future.

*This post was written in Google Documents.

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