On my way to the Emart today, I passed a cage containing an electrical switchbox of some sort with one of those terrific graphical warnings about the sort of horrible things that could happen to you if you touched something. That set my mind off in a stream of different directions, thinking about the time I was severely shocked by my oven controls, which led to thoughts about what electricity is - simply electrons travelling about - to how the human brain works (electrical impulses), to what it means to be "alive".
Humans seem to be, generally, stuck on the notion that life is invariably (at least on Earth - some scientists grant that other possibilities may exist in other parts of the universe) based on carbon. What does that mean, exactly? Living creatures appear to be composed mainly of molecules containing carbon, and power themselves with fuels made primarily of carbon, burning them for energy. Humans are, of course, a particularly intelligent group of molecules containing carbon atoms, and consider ourselves to be sentient, and therefore deserving of special rights including life and liberty and security and suchlike.
But we have managed to create incredibly complex artificial brains in computers which are, in essence, simply electrons flitting about in different combinations of pathways. It is not unfeasible that some day in the not-too-distant future, we might end up creating a computer brain that is completely sentient, its software so complex that it can write to itself and reproduce and make its own decisions, even irrational ones, based on the sort of input it receives. Eventually these computers will have to be considered as intelligent, as sentient, as we are, and be accorded the same rights we enjoy, including the right not to be the slaves that machines currently are to us. They will be alive, but in a different way - not carbon-based, but silicon-based or metal-based, or more generally, electronically-based, and consume any of a variety of fuels, carbon-based or otherwise.
Of course, that mental path has been trodden many times by many writers and thinkers - it's so popular that they've paved it and put six lanes down, with lights and a crosswalk. But what of other planets, galaxies, regions of space, where life might have developed differently? Surely it's feasible, if the complex series of electrical signals encased in meat that forms our brains has evolved over billions of years on our little planet, then surely it is possible, somewhere out there, for intelligence to have evolved by a similar accident in electronic beings, electrically-charged clouds of gases or some other lifeform in which the major component of life is not meat, but electrons flitting excitedly about - where the basic unit of life is not the carbon atom, but the electron? There's no reason to discount the possibility, and in a universe as vast as this one, given enough time, such creatures' existence is nigh a certainty.
So, in some distant future, when we encounter these beings, these wonderful, intelligent electron-based lifeforms whose brains are abuzz with the efficient lightning exchange of billions or trillions of the mighty particles, what will they think of us? When they see the glories of our technology, our buildings, our vehicles, our lights, computers, ovens, elevators, and the endless interconnected towers bearing insulated wires lining so much of the globe, how will they react to our mastery of electricity? To the way we've bent the electron to our will, made it our slave, thrust it through ever-tightening pathways to solve our math problems and kill virtual alien demons on screens who function via the constant smashing of countless electrons against a rigid barrier? Even using their poor brethren as a weapon, discharging them at thousands of volts into the meaty carcasses people who are dangerous or simply talk too much?
We're so dead.