Better Feet and the Conquest of the Galaxy

There’s an ad going around right now, for a car of all things, that features a woman who does not have the feet she was born with. It’s a cool ad, non-sequitur notwithstanding, but there’s a message there that maybe the car company didn’t intend.

The message is this: for certain well-defined purposes, we can build better feet than the ones we were born with.

We haven’t come close to matching the versatility of the human foot, and in my lifetime we probably won’t reproduce the feel of my toes wrestling with those of my sweetie, but if you want to sprint 100 meters there’s nothing like having springs for feet. People without human-born feet aren’t allowed in our races anymore.

So while the car company is trying to tie us to their brand through the undeniable awesomeness of this woman, there is another message, possibly more germane to their product: We can build some amazing shit these days. Technology that transforms lives.

It’s only a matter of time before folks start asking to have their weaker flesh-feet replaced with a socket that can accommodate a wide variety of specialized appendages. Once we develop muscle replacements that can be controlled by our nervous systems, things get crazier. And more powerful. There’s no reason to think that won’t happen in the moderately-near future.

Which leads, if you’re willing to follow me, to the Fermi Paradox. Fermi asked, “if there are so many stars, and presumably so many planets, where are all the civilizations?” The assumption is that any technological civilization will eventually send ships out to the stars, and even if it takes 10,000 years to get to the next place, that over a couple million years you can fill up a galaxy. It’s that exponential thing. And with millions of starters, one at least ought to succeed.

The ability to create a person who is powered by a nuclear reactor or solar cells, who can endure the hardships of empty space, makes that conundrum all the more perplexing. Better feet, better lungs, better heart. They’re all just machines serving our brains. We can give them galactic lifespans.

So the brains have to be the weak link, right? A car is just a way to get your brain to another location. Rocket feet are the same thing, but way cooler.

There’s an event that the Science Fiction crowd calls ‘The Singularity’. It’s the point at which we silly humans build something that surpasses us. It might be through genetic engineering, it might be though cybernetics, or whatever. Usually it’s presented as a scary thing; hell, nobody wants to become obsolete. But maybe better really is better.

But if it could happen here, doesn’t it stand to reason that it has happened a million times before? So where are those guys?

I have theories, but none I’m terribly convinced by. Either we are really unusual to reach the point of making custom feet, or there’s something ahead we’re really not going to like. Statistics favors the latter, but there’s a lot we don’t know. Meanwhile, let’s just keep on making things better.