I listened to the audio version of an awesome short story by Isaac Asimov the other day, called The Last Question. Asimov was one of the most prolific and creative science fiction authors of all time. He wrote over 300 books, including the famous Foundation and Robot series. I, Robot, the first of those novels, got made into a movie with Will Smith. I thought was excellent, but it’s extremely different from the book.
The Last Question was written in the 50s, which to me, makes Isaac Asimov’s expansive ideas all the more impressive. That’s because when the story was published, he had experienced significantly less technology and scientific progress than what exists today. It’s amazing that Asimov put so much profound thought into such a short story. It only takes about half an hour to listen to the audiobook version.
The plot takes place over trillions of years, and it’s mostly dialogue, including a monologue at the end. What happens is that people design a series of supercomputers, called Multivac, which advance along with humanity. They all seem to be hyper intelligent A. I.s, with abilities that greatly surpass our own. Like the oracles that Nick Bostrom talks about in his book called Superintelligence, they have enough knowledge to answer any question.
As humans colonize the universe, overpopulation becomes an issue. The reason for this is that we solve the problem of immortality. Since people can live forever, there are trillions and trillions of us, and we run out of space for everyone.
However, the most evolved humans, with their ability to think prodigiously, determine that there is a more important issue than how our species can find enough space. There is a long lost legend about where people originated. Most humans believe that we first came into existence on many worlds, rather than one. Seeing how the universe behaves in the long-term, the smartest people understand how much things change over billions of years. Suns and other interstellar bodies gradually form, and eventually are destroyed. Their guts and energy are spread throughout the universe, helping build new planets and stars in an endless cycle.
Humans realize that instead of overpopulation, the greatest threat to humanity is the second law of thermodynamics. This is the problem of entropy, or disorder. The law states that entropy increases over time, which means that no matter what anyone does, the universe gets more chaotic. So we could have more power than anyone can imagine. We might preserve our species for trillions of years, and become like gods. But that wouldn’t stop the universe from ending. Eventually, entropy will become so great that all of existence will destroy itself. That’s because all actions in the universe require heat, and there is a finite amount of it since the Big Bang. Therefore, even though there is a phenomenally high quantity of energy created from heat, it will eventually run out because it all came from the origin of existence. No new energy can be created, which will lead to the inevitable heat death of the universe. This is due to the fact that according to the first law of thermodynamics, energy cannot be created or destroyed. It can only change forms.
So the question that people ask the supercomputers is: How can we drastically reduce entropy? The answer to this can do a lot more to help preserve our species than anything else. If we can delay disorder, humans can use the greater energy to live longer. Multivac, and many of its descendants, do not have enough data to answer this question. Each time they are asked, they give some variation of this answer. It seems to be the only information that they never know, in spite of their abilities improving for trillions of years.
Eventually, the universe dies, with every celestial object disappearing, and every life form dying due to a lack of energy from heat. Humanity’s last descendant still exists as a god-like entity. This soul survivor is composed of the collective mental processes of the trillions of humans across the universe. The final version of Mutivac, called AC, only exists in hyperspace, beyond the laws and forces of existence.
Our species asks how entropy can be reduced one last time, before it merges with AC, and dies. The supercomputer still doesn’t know, even after time and space end. It continues thinking about the question for a long time, and finally figures it out. However, there is no one around to hear the answer, since humans, the universe, and all of space and time no longer exist.
So AC creates a demonstration to show the answer to the last question, since that will cause there to be someone who can hear it. The supercomputer creates a new universe to show whether entropy can be reduced, and how it can be done if this is so. The last line in the story is: “And AC said: “Let there be light!” And there was light…”,which is what God says when creating the world in the book of Genesis. This ending is one of the aspects I like most about the story. The meaning behind it is so profound! All of humanity, and the entire universe, ends without the smartest entity being able to figure out whether it can be saved. This happens even though it has trillions of years, and each generation of Multivac presumably becomes smarter. But when it figures out the answer, it seems like AC has so much power that it can create an entire new universe!
This leads to two possible conclusions. The first is that entropy can be reduced, and the beings that AC creates will learn how to accomplish this so that the new universe can be eternal. The second seems more likely, and I choose to believe it, because it’s more overwhelming to me: Entropy cannot be reduced. AC creates a new universe and species just to explain that it has brought them into a temporary existence. This is true, regardless of how much power anyone has. I love this ending because it’s so ambiguous. You can choose to believe that AC figured out how to solve the problem of entropy, or maybe you think that it’s an inevitable force. The story helps promote endless debate on this issue.
I also like this ending because it has meaningful real-world implications. The story is fiction of course, but it makes me think about questions that I and many others have considered for a long time: Did an artificial intelligence create the universe? Does existence just start and end in an eternal cycle, taking place over billions or even trillions of years? These questions are so fascinating to me because no one knows the answers. They might even be impossible to figure out. Why? As far as we know, no conscious being can exist at the start and/or end of one or more universes. We also may never know whether there was any agency involved with the Big Bang. Cosmologists apparently see no evidence of this, so it’s unreasonable to assume that this was the case. But we might never know if an A. I., or other form of intelligence, influenced the laws of nature in indiscernible ways. This ability to make us think about enormous questions is one of the great benefits of Asimov’s writing. He was skilled at making people think about scientific issues so engrossing and complex that no one knows the answers. We may never discover them, but thinking about them through expertly told stories is one of the things that made Isaac Asimov awesome. It’s why he’s one of the best science fiction authors of all time.