IT’S THE END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT (BUT THAT WILL BE FINE).
The end of the world was predicted to occur in 2012. Now that date is long past and the world has carried on as normal. I expect most people are not at all surprised that armageddon did not occur in 2012. After all, predictions of the world’s end are always being prophesied, and the consequence is always a Monday morning just like any other.
But, there is reason to believe that tomorrow will not always be the same as yesterday. And, no, I am not talking about some disaster scenario destroying civilisation. I am talking instead about civilisation transcending itself, evolving into something more glorious and beautiful than any society existing today.
It sounds like I am talking about Utopia, and we have been led to believe this can be nothing but fantasy. Give some credit to the doomsayers. After all, super-volcanoes may erupt or maybe we are being kept in the dark about an oncoming asteroid. But dismiss claims of a coming Utopia as flat out absurd.
But, while a perfect world may not be achievable, one which is qualitatively better than life as we know it may well be possible. After all, just look at what we have achieved already. An average person living in a developed nation has a lifestyle that would have been the envy of kings in years gone by, and this remarkable state of affairs has been achieved using only primitive technology.
It may seem strange to call modern technology ‘primitive’. After all, modern farming techniques produce enough food to satisfy billions of people, and requires only 1.9% of the population to work in agriculture to do so. We have put men on the moon and have robots exploring Mars. We have sequenced the human genome and developed tools which enable us to observe how living brains function.
But while this are all impressive feats, there is still much scope for improvement. We are heavily dependent on none-renewable energy sources and centralised systems which are vulnerable to accidents. Our manufacturing methods produce a lot of waste. In Britain alone, something like 100 million tons of rubbish is produced every year. This pollution, as well as the pollution from the fossil fuels we burn, mean some people definitely do not live like kings. Their life is as grim as any poor person’s ever was. We have sequenced the genome but we barely understand it, and so we have only limited success in fighting diseases and are totally powerless against ageing. And, as for the brain, well, our understanding of how it works is even poorer. One result of this is machines that are completely stupid. Our best robots have only the barest beginnings of intelligence, and most machines have no brains whatsoever.
All of these deficiencies are, I believe, temporary. Once they are solved, life as we know it cannot continue but must necessarily be replaced by a new kind of civilisation whose citizens live the kind of lives we can only dream of. Their world will be run on renewable energy sources and decentralised systems which are highly resilient to damage. They will be fluent in the language of genes and as adept at editing genomes as we are at programming computers. This- along with other advances like nanomedicine- will enable them to eliminate disease and turn off ageing. Growing older will no longer be correlated with growing frailer.
The world these extremely long-lived people inhabit will also be a great deal healthier, thanks to advances in engineering. Manufacturing methods will have been refined to the point where products are assembled with atomic precision, and this will result in vastly improved recycling methods and a drastic reduction in the amount of waste produced. Rubbish may well be all but eliminated.
Whereas for us the workings of the brain remains largely a mystery, in this future world how brains produce mind is thoroughly understood. This enables people to understand themselves more completely than is possible today, and to devise tailor-made educations which bring out the best in every individual. It also means the machines that exist in this time are smart. There will be a veritable Cambrian explosion of robots. The vast majority will be nothing like the humanoid robots beloved of science fiction. Although a lot smarter than contemporary robots, and therefore much more trusted to be left alone to get on with things, the vast majority of robots will still be pretty dumb. They will be set to work performing vital jobs necessary for the efficient running of society, but which are not the sort of work people would volunteer to do, given a choice. These robots will work tirelessly in dull or dangerous jobs, but will not have the capacity to understand they are slaves, much less care or dream of revolt.
At the other end of the scale there may be machines which are profoundly intelligent, so much so that it would seem inappropriate to call these hyper-smart beings ‘machines’ at all. Perhaps the term AI ‘brain builder’ Hugo de Garis coined will catch on, and these beings will be known as Artilects. Or maybe we will adopt the term coined by roboticist Hans Moravec and call these remarkable creations Exes. Whatever they are called, it is a safe bet that the existence of these lofty intelligences will have a profound impact on science and philosophy. Some people may aspire to become one of these profoundly intelligent beings, and will seek ways of transferring their consciousness to them.
Today, we look up at the night sky with no clue as to whether we are alone or not, and fearing there may be an asteroid or comet with our name on it. In this future world, people will look up and know for sure that life exists out there. This is because we or our robotic cousins will have progressed from explorers to colonists, and established settlements on other planets in the solar system. Robots and people modified to handle the extreme dangers of our neighbouring worlds will no doubt go first, but once terraforming has transformed planets like Mars into gardens of Eden, the rest will follow. And then all our eggs will no longer be in one basket, and the end of earthly civilisation due to an asteroid strike or supervolcanic eruption will be a tragedy- of course- but not an existential threat. The human race, or whatever it has evolved into, will endure.