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The end of science

From the LabLit short story series

Nik Papageorgiou 14 December 2008

Despite our most romantic hopes, human curiosity, ingenuity and creativity are limited – and so is the physical world

Editor's note: Although does not normally deal with science fiction, we make a special exception when the SF story in question focuses centrally on the scientific profession. We hope you enjoy this speculative story from Nik Papageorgiou as much as we did.

I remember a time when work like this would be hard.

Well, "remember" is too strong a word. I am aware of a time, in the faraway past, when an experiment of this calibre would take days to design, months to prepare and years to execute. It would demand enormous energy resources, computational power, man hours, and every mincing step would be scrutinised under the hawkish gaze of an army of scientists, all clamouring to get their piece of the pie when the data started to pour out the other side.

But that was then; a time when scientific endeavour thrived, and Science was going to lead mankind to pastures new.

A time when it had something to offer.

I wonder sometimes, as I've sat in the lab watching the experiment run, how we got from there to here. There isn't much information to go on, of course, since the diminishing of scientific research was preceded by a diminishing in historical research. In short, when no one bothered to do research anymore, no-one bothered to research how research died.

Not that it's hard to figure out: The development of cheap AI robotic systems, which replaced human lab workers disgracefully fast. What self-respecting lab-head wants the hassle of running a human research team when he or she can get twenty, forty, a hundred times the data in less time, and written up for publication before morning? No salaries, no vacations, no sick leave, no inter- and intra- group bickering and, most importantly, no author-list arguments.

And when the first lab run entirely by AI's was funded, things really got going. AI's didn't need degrees. They didn't need training. They didn't need anything, except their solar cells replaced every twenty years, and even that changed when an all-AI physics team from Stanford developed a quantum-based energy source that could keep them going for centuries at a time.

Isolationism and data-hoarding became the norm for human scientists, who saw their species grow rapidly extinct and fought to keep their names on the journals. Conferences were cancelled due to low attendance. Science degrees grew increasingly theoretical and even philosophical, while the PhD institution was abolished.

They called it The Science Vending Machine: We fed the AI's our "QuestionsLibrary" database, installed the "ExpDesign" algorithm, hit the "ON" button and checked in once a week through satellite while we sipped piña coladas at the beach and debated if AI's should be thought of as "living". Research breakthroughs were a footnote; sound-bite fine print running fast across the bottom of the screen and largely ignored: "HIV mutations defeated"; "Compound destroys tumours of all types"; "Global ecosystem re-balanced"; "Mars fully explored".

I think there was a celebration when the last disease, male-pattern baldness, was cured. And there was a little noise when the AI's changed the entire theory of evolution. But who really cared? World famine, the energy crisis, overpopulation, those were things of the past, memories of Man's Reign, and now occasionally mentioned in video games.

The machines were on it. And if Science became another mass-produced commodity, well, there weren't many scientists left to mourn it.

And of course, time. Five thousand years of data churned out at exponential speeds, of shorter and shorter distance from hypothesis to testing to theory, of smaller and smaller human error, of faster and faster publications, of better and better equipment, of higher and higher cost-effectiveness – well, eventually, we got there.

That's today.

It would be unthinkable once, but I can't say that is surprises me now. Despite our most romantic hopes, human curiosity, ingenuity and creativity are limited – and so is the physical world. There are only so many hypotheses to form, and there is only so much data to uncover. And we've been digging fast enough, deep enough, and long enough.

I don't really have to be here. But as the world's remaining scientist, over 400 years old (it was carrot juice after all), I thought I'd hover here and pay my respects at the world's last scientific discovery, the last experiment we'd ever need, the final piece of the puzzle.

Once, the world's eyes would be focused here, and I'd be famous. But the world doesn't care anymore; most people aren't even aware of this historic moment. In the grand scheme of things, this is an insignificant experiment – merely an ancient human's curiosity. A little control test. With all the questions answered, I had enormous energy resources, computational power and AI hours all at my disposal. And even though mine was a simple question, I needed all that to explore it:

"Are there any other questions to answer?"

Of course, the machines are on it. If you pushed me, I could probably explain a third of the methodology and the equipment. But still, someone had to represent the humans – even if they are too busy enjoying the fruits of science to care about its roots.

After six days of work, the screen finally lights up. A Results page appears and I read it dutifully. I expected most of it, and halfway through I'm already thinking about buying some champagne on my way home to celebrate this tremendous, unseen moment when Science comes to an end, when all we can ask of it has been answered, when we have reached the pinnacle of our intellectual endeavour and can truly establish ourselves as masters of –

– huh.

That can't be right.