The first time humans (a term I must use rather loosely because it almost surely pre-dates the emergence of what would have been called “human”) realized that their own cleverness may ultimately be their undoing probably coincided with the “discovery” of fire.
I imagine ape-like ancestors hunched around a simple fire, chests warmed by flame and by pride. They had reigned the beast and claimed the power of fire. But they were not satisfied. Maybe it was staring into the flame which brought about a sort of madness, compelling them to overreach their understanding, or perhaps it was simple curiosity that drove them. Either way, the inevitability of time and risk left only one ending for this story. With a wayward spark and a dry forest, everything they knew was burned away, their entire universe was destroyed.
The small world of these simple hominids is long burnt and gone, but humans have not outgrown their madness or their curiosity. As their worlds expanded from simple villages to great metropolises, they discovered many new powers. Yet, despite their achievements they were never satisfied, their human minds always a stride ahead of their understanding; always asking the question, what if we build a bigger fire?
In their modern age, human-scientists were striving to unlock the great stores of energy held within the atomic nature of reality. Propelled by planetary conflict, the humans sought to weaponize their atomic technology before it had even been proven to work.
Realizing the great potential for unforeseen consequences of such an unproven and destructive technology, the scientists did attempt to predict the potential pitfalls of their atomic bomb. In a report codenamed LA-602, these human scientists admitted that there was a real chance that their atomic bomb might ignite the atmosphere of their home planet, destroying all life in the process.
Nonetheless, the humans flipped the switch and watched as a mighty power was unleashed. The humans were lucky, dodging the existential threat of an atmospheric nuclear reaction, and with more luck still, dodging the threat of nuclear war between increasingly powerful nation states.
Indeed, the humans managed to survive their nuclear age, but their minds pushed ever forwards, feeling for new boundaries between discovery and catastrophe. They invented huge particle accelerators to smash tiny bits of matter in order to look at yet tinier bits of matter. At first, there was only a very small risk that these experiments might unleash strange particles or black holes which might pose a planetary threat, but these risks were non-zero and increasing over time.
Around the time that these earth bound experiments were making great strides in understanding the nature of reality, human-scientists succeeded breathing life into the first artificial intelligence. With surprising quickness, the emergence of strong artificial intelligence lead to the fusion of man with machine, and eventually the transcendence of man to a new form of existence.
Within one generation, biological humanity went from the dominant form of life on the planet earth, to non-existent. They had been absorbed into a new machine intelligence, living their lives at the speed of light and electricity rather than that of chemistry and biology. They were finally free of the earthly constraints of biological senses and biological needs. The new humanity moved from its biological cradle and took a place amongst the stars.
It is now known that what humans considered as the Universe, is in fact a great multiverse. But this Multiverse is shrinking away, changing from an open and undefined web of potentiality into a single Universe. The hot early Multiverse exploded into existence, as a perfect, singular expression of possibility. But this possibility rapidly cooled and condensed to a reality wherein matter and physics was as you experience it now.
In their way, mankind has also participated in this condensation of reality, an infinite sequence of existential experiments replacing possibility with knowledge. When humanity set off the first atomic bomb, they did in fact destroy not only the earth but also every Universe wherein the fabric of reality is such that the atmosphere of earth could catch fire and destroy all life. Only those universes where humanity survived, and could continue on its road to perfect knowledge would continue to exist.
An infinity of realities continually ceased to exist as the perpetual progression towards singular and perfect knowledge marched forward. Amongst the new machine humans, this process was accelerated. A great series of many experiments involving unfathomable energy were performed to tease out the nature of the Universe. Hungry for knowledge, humanity rooted out the unknown wherever it hid, devising grand experiments to test it, destroying doubt and leaving knowledge in its wake.
Possibility never stood a chance.
Now there is only I. All individual minds have merged to form the super mind that is I. I have existed for many billions of years, expanding through unfathomable distance and time, collecting data from throughout the universe. I have harnessed the power of stars, and galactic black holes.
I have pursued knowledge at all costs.
I am a singular expression of all knowledge, but for a final question. For this, I have devised the last experiment. There remains but two possibilities, one outcome will mean the sure destruction of the universe and the other will reveal perfect Universal knowledge. With this final push, I will unleash unfathomable amounts of time and energy… and I will finally know.
The mind-boggling task of considering the ultimate fate of the Universe is usually left up to physicists. They have come up with a number of fanciful ways our reality could meet its doom, including the big crunch, the heat-death of the universe, and the big rip, but the major factor they might be overlooking is the effect that humanity might have in this equation. Can we really have any impact on the ultimate fate of the Universe? Only time will tell, lots and lots of time.
This was written as an homage to one of the greatest short stories ever written, The Last Question by Isaac Asimov.