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Former President, The Royal Society; Emeritus Professor of Cosmology & Astrophysics, University of Cambridge; Master, Trinity College; Author, From Here to Infinity
Cosmologist, Cambridge University; UK Astronomer Royal; Author, Our Final Hour

I believe that intelligent life may presently be unique to our Earth, but that, even so, it has the potential to spread through the galaxy and beyond—indeed, the emergence of complexity could still be near its beginning. If SETI searches fail, that would not render life a cosmic sideshow Indeed, it would be a boost to our cosmic self-esteem: terrestrial life, and its fate, would become a matter of cosmic significance. Even if intelligence is now unique to Earth, there's enough time lying ahead for it to spread through the entire Galaxy, evolving into a teeming complexity far beyond what we can even conceive.

There's an unthinking tendency to imagine that humans will be around in 6 billion years, watching the Sun flare up and die. But the forms of life and intelligence that have by then emerged would surely be as different from us as we are from a bacterium. That conclusion would follow even if future evolution proceeded at the rate at which new species have emerged over the 3 or 4 billion years of the geological past. But post-human evolution (whether of organic species or of artefacts) will proceed far faster than the changes that led to emergence, because it will be intelligently directed rather than being—like pre-human evolution—the gradual outcome of Darwinian natural selection. Changes will drastically accelerate in the present century—through intentional genetic modifications, targeted drugs, perhaps even silicon implants in to the brain. Humanity may not persist as a single species for more than a few centuries—especially if communities have by then become established away from the earth.

But a few centuries is still just a millionth of the Sun's future lifetime—and the entire universe probably has a longer future still. The remote future is squarely in the realm of science fiction. Advanced intelligences billions of years hence might even create new universes. Perhaps they'll be able to choose what physical laws prevail in their creations. Perhaps these beings could achieve the computational capability to simulate a universe as complex as the one we perceive ourselves to be in.

My belief may remain unprovable for billions of years. It could be falsified sooner—for instance, we (or our immediate post-human descendents) may develop theories that reveal inherent limits to complexity. But it's a substitute for religious belief, and I hope it's true.