During a family holiday (a California road trip) we have been enjoying the stunning beauty of starry nights above the Grand Canyon and elsewhere. (Not my photo, I hasten to admit.) This wonderful sight was available to everyone since the dawn of human history up until very recently.
In the late eighteenth century, the industrial revolution began to place an umbrella of smog above the minority of humans who lived in cities. Then, between the world wars, the great blessing of electric light brought light pollution, and now hides the stars from most of us. It is an extraordinary irony – but no coincidence – that this happened at the same time as we began to understand what the stars really are, how they came into being and how they evolve.
Technology often brings unexpected negative side effects, which we have no option but to tolerate until we find a way to keep the benefits while avoiding the downsides. A ban on burning coal and wood eradicated the notorious smog that made London such a hazardous place during and after the industrial revolution. In the coming decades, electric (and self-driving) cars may do the same for Los Angeles.
Artificial intelligence sometimes threatens to throw up barriers between us and nature. It will provide us with augmented reality, and the ability to store some of our memories and then some of our mental faculties in the cloud. The benefits conferred by these technologies will far outweigh the danger that we are becoming ever-more dependent on our AI, and the fact that we will increasingly perceive and interact with the world through our AI.
If we are lucky, we will pass through this phase too. If we are lucky, we will merge with our machines, and we will once again see the stars directly, but with a far deeper understanding than ever before.
If we are not lucky, the eyes which behold the skies when light pollution has been conquered will not be human eyes.