Will There Be A Post Human Species On Earth? | Unveiled

VOICE OVER: Noah Baum WRITTEN BY: Caitlin Johnson
Humans have been around for hundreds of thousands of years, but we won't be here forever... In this video, Unveiled discovers what will come AFTER human beings. The Earth has another 4.5 billion years left until the sun expands and consumes it... so between now and then A LOT can happen!

Will There Be a Post-Human Species on Earth?

Modern humans may have been around for 200,000 years or so, but we won’t be here forever. For one reason or another, we have a limited amount of time left on Earth. But, when we’re gone, will this planet then become a memorial to humanity… or will a new, intelligent species rise from the ashes?

This is Unveiled, and today we’re answering the extraordinary question; will there be a post-human species on Earth?

One of the biggest threats facing humans at the moment is climate change. And, according to increasing numbers of studies, we have only a few years left to reduce emissions before we start reaching climatological “tipping points”; various points of no return with the potential to render huge parts of the planet uninhabitable. But while it’s difficult to look beyond climate change, there are plenty of other things that could kill us, too. Other natural disasters outside of human control include another giant impact from space, like the one believed to have killed the dinosaurs, or a supervolcanic eruption that could block out the sun and freeze the planet. And, even if none of those things happen, then mammal species in general only have an average lifespan of a million years. It’s thought the best that humans can hope for is around ten million years, before we just plain die off. That does give us plenty of time to work with, but seeing as the Earth still has about five billion years to go before the expansion of the sun destroys it… in the far, far future there’s a long, long time for life on Earth to continue without humans. When it’s all said and done, we - the whole of humankind - could have been around for just a tiny fraction of the Earth’s total lifespan… not to make you feel small, or anything!

It’s clear then that there most likely will be a post-human species, but what will it look like? And how will it work? One of the leading contenders to follow on from us is AI. The “technological singularity” is the hypothetical point at which our own technology surpasses us, potentially with disastrous consequences. A hyper-intelligent AI that learns how to upgrade itself quickly and indefinitely, for example, could also decide that humanity is surplus to requirements, and take over the planet. Or, so the theory (and many a sci-fi movie) goes.

In one version, it’s one centralized AI taking over the world through our own infrastructure… in another, it’s us developing synthetic lifeforms, or androids, which ultimately rebel against their creator and wipe us out. In general, the worry is that advanced mechanical life won’t empathize with humans; that it will one day coldly and ruthlessly view itself as superior. But, it’s not all doom and gloom where AI is concerned. There’s still the possibility that the first true AI will be compassionate and won’t resent humans for creating it. AI and robots are also good news for space exploration, and so will be crucial if humans are to ever leave Earth of their own accord. After all, we already predominantly send robots into space to carry out important missions because, since they don’t need to eat, drink, or breathe, they’re the ideal candidates to visit other worlds. From another perspective, though, it’s another reason why robots could well outlast humans even here… when this world grows inhospitable to us, we will disappear, but the hardiest machines could live on.

Some believe that the artificial life that comes after the singularity is actually the next natural step in evolution, but the proposed rise of intelligent robots wouldn’t automatically mean that all biological evolution would stop. As such, in another version of the future, it’s an organic species which follows in humanity’s footsteps… but who’s to say that this next race of intelligent creatures would be primates, like us? Sure, as they include some of Earth’s smartest animals, primates are a likely candidate, but there are other creatures which by some criteria are also incredibly clever - like octopuses, dolphins, dogs or elephants. If the future of evolution takes a different path, then, might we see Earth play host to advanced variants of these animals?

That said, let’s not forget that we humans are also still evolving right now… so perhaps we will physically adapt to survive the high temperatures of climate change, for example, or the disastrous repercussions of an asteroid strike, to continue on Earth without breaking our evolutionary line. It wouldn’t technically count as a post-human species, but the changes between now and those future humans could mean that neither group would be recognisable to the other. In reality, though, it’s impossible to predict precisely where evolution will go next, when it produces so many bizarre creatures even today. Take the ocean sunfish as an example; it’s an enormous, bony fish with very few predators, it subsists mostly on fish larvae, but it also lays 300 million eggs at once. Could the oceans one day be taken over by them? And, if sunfish already exist then, to some degree, why not higher-intelligence octopuses and dolphins, too? On the one hand, it’s strange and improbable; on the other, life on Earth has already proven how significantly it can change and develop - just look at the vast differences between the animals alive today and the dinosaurs of the past.

Organic or artificial, however, what will any of these future societies make of those who came before? Will they even know that we existed? Well, much depends on what kinds of records we leave behind. In the relative short term, evidence of our cities and buildings would likely remain in some form. Today, the stone temples of Malta are considered some of the oldest human-built structures in the world, dating back at least 5,000 years… while our oldest written texts date back a few thousand years, too. So, we’ve seen that material things can survive, and we know that certain modern materials could take thousands of years to disintegrate… but, for millions of years in the future, it’s unlikely that anything we build or make will still exist or be recognisable.

Of course, fossils and bones can survive for millions of years, so a post-human society could feasibly learn about us through them. For more, though, we have to imagine something we might’ve achieved, by when our time on Earth ends; digital preservation and mind uploading. There’s some potential here for humans - or at least proof of humans - to last forever, although not necessarily. Digital files offer an infinite space to “save” the human race onto, but they can also degrade just like pieces of paper do, and the information they contain can become disordered or illegible. And, then, even vast digital archives wouldn’t survive if all the servers and drives they live on were physically ruined by the passage of time. It’s one of the main arguments against the theoretical idea of digitally storing human brains - like computerised cryonic freezing - because what if what they’re stored onto breaks, is lost, or is just switched off?

Ironically enough, though, many of today’s ancient, traditional texts have stood the test of time despite people not caring to preserve them at all. The Oxyrhynchus Papyri are manuscripts found in an ancient dump in Egypt, for example. They include fragments of Sappho’s poetry, passages from Homer’s “Iliad”, previously unknown Sophocles plays, and some writings of Aristotle. They’re significant cultural artefacts now, but they were unceremoniously thrown out about 2,000 years ago! So, while we really have no way of knowing what will actually survive into the future, it’s a good bet that at least some digital files will be readable. And, if it is the case that some kind of technological AI outlives humanity, then the chances are that those files will be understood, as well.

There’s no doubt that the history of humankind so far has already had an impact on the Earth itself. The post-human planet looks set for a period of recovery and recuperation, particularly from human-led climate change. But the good news is that it almost certainly will survive, just as it has despite incredibly destructive disasters like super-eruptions and ice ages in the past. With potentially billions of years left in its lifetime, then, it is difficult to imagine that there could ever be zero evidence that we were on this planet. And yet, it’s taken 4.5 billion years for life to evolve into us; if it takes a similar period of time for something else to develop, then perhaps we will have been long forgotten by then… or perhaps nothing else will develop in time to beat the sun expanding and consuming this world. That’s why, when it comes to longevity, many can’t see anything other than AIs in the future. And, if artificial life takes over, maybe it could then fan out into the solar system and travel to exoplanets beyond, carrying Earth’s cumulative knowledge with it even after the planet is gone, ensuring that some evidence of humanity survives.

Whether it’s biological, digital or non-existent, a post-human species is an incredible thing to imagine.