Life and information processing

The discussion in this chapter has focused on physical processes that can take place in the far future. But what about life? How far into the future can living organisms survive? Although this question is of fundamental importance and holds enormous interest, our current understanding of biology is not sufficiently well developed to provide a clear answer. To further complicate matters, protons must eventually decay, as outlined above, so that carbon-based life will come to a definitive end. Nonetheless, some basic principles can be discussed if we are willing to take a generalized view of life, where we consider life to be essentially a matter of information processing. This point of view has been pioneered by Freeman Dyson (1979), who argued that the rate of metabolism or information processing in a generalized life form should be proportional to its operating temperature.

If our universe is accelerating, as current observations indicate, then the amount of matter and hence energy accessible to a given universe will be finite. If the operating temperature of life remains constant, then this finite ree energy would eventually be used up and life would come to an end. The only chance for continued survival is to make the operating temperature of life decrease. More specifically, the temperature must decrease fast enough to allow for an infinite amount of information processing with a finite amount of free energy.

According to the Dyson scaling hypothesis, as the temperature decreases the rate of information processing decreases, and the quality of life decreases accordingly. Various strategies to deal with this problem have been discussed including the issue of digital versus analogous life, maintaining long-terrn survival by long dormant periods (hibernation), and the question of classical versus quantum mechanical information processing (e.g., Dyson, 1979; Krauss and Starkman, 2000). Although a definitive conclusion has not been reached the prospects are rather bleak for the continued (infinite) survival of life. The largest hurdle seems to be continued cosmic acceleration, which acts to limit the supply of free energy. If the current acceleration comes to an end, so that the future universe expands more slowly, then life will have a better chance for long-term survival. .

Continue reading here: Conclusion

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