I’ve been recently reading and watching the works of futurists Ray Kurzweil and Jason Silva, and I am ecstatic about their optimistic predictions for the human race in the coming decades. I’ve also been coming across the claims of their detractors, and I want to highlight the most consistent statement made in response to the prediction that life will become indefinite as a result of advancements in biotechnology, nanotechnology, and information technology in the coming decades; that people’s finite lives give meaning to their existence, and thus, immortality would rob us of the urgency of purposeful living. An existential crisis, in reverse if you will…
I would like to throw water on this ill-purposed sentiment, which shows more the speakers fear than a genuine well grounded and thought out response. It demonstrates a flaw that most generations of humanity seemingly propagate. That is, assuming the future will be the same as the past, both from a technological, but far more often, a personal perspective. The reason why we do so is simple. It’s how we’ve been evolutionarily programmed to see the world. We are predisposed to correlate data, extrapolate trends and events, and find meaning among our conclusions; either in our jobs, communities, or relationships, even where none exists (one example relevant today; rationalizing your work predicament when you don’t like it). In essence, these default modes of thought, springs forth from our pattern-recognizing minds, as well as a want of certainty and comfort…It’s shortsighted in a few ways, which is (evolutionarily) normal as our bodies really only care about food, water, and sex, never thinking more than a few days ahead. Evolution didn’t prepare us for culture, cities, technology, and the sedentary modern lifestyle.
Lets start with the history of average lifespans: two-thousand years ago, the average life span was twenty-three years. Two-hundred years ago, the average life span was thirty-seven. One-hundred years ago, it was pushing fifty. Today, it is pushing (and in some places, exceeding), eighty.
The detractor hits his first roadblock here. A farmer living two-thousand years ago apparently has a more purposeful life than any of us today. Waking up at dawn, sleeping at dusk day after day, all the while performing backbreaking work in the interceding hours of sunshine. He more than likely loses a few of his children to disease, and maybe even his wife. His ignorance from a scientific, moral, agricultural, and technological perspective terrifies him, and he gets lost in make-believe stories of gods (or god) relinquishing his control over his life. [The infant mortality rate was anywhere between 50-300 deaths per 1000 births in peak of the then-civilized world, Rome]
Now, of course, an argument may be made that the current average is the sweet spot. Barely reaching thirty was one extreme, and living indefinitely is the other, equally invalid extreme. But that viewpoint suffers from paradigm of now. Of assuming we know better now than those in the past (and who’s to say people weren’t saying this 100 years ago?), and those yet to come in the future. I beg to differ. The difference between living to eighty and living to twenty is an educational mindset, which instills a sense of self-defined purpose, both of which informs and directs your outlook in life vis-a-vie knowledge, wisdom, relationships and happiness juxtaposed with the occasional suffering may-haps.
Imagine living to eighty in the squalid conditions of that poor farmer-chap. A life that would merely be a trebling of his trials and tribulations, with rarely a moment’s peace, nor comfort to speak of. If he stopped his backbreaking work, he starved to death. Now consider living to eighty in modern-day New York with its (relatively) carefree living, education, peace, and prosperity. If one is successful enough in this capitalist world, one can enjoy the fruits of their labour, pursue their passions, learn new things everyday, interact with like-minded people, watch TED, and pursue many other explorations of modern life that expands their geographic and mental boundaries. If one is unlucky enough to be on hard times, your fellow apartment-dwellers provide you a minimum bedrock of sustenance and shelter. So you can clearly see the vast gulf between the two lifestyles. In the former, life is lived day-to-day, with death and disease always lurking nearby. In the latter is relatively carefree, with Starbucks, the Internet, TV, cinema, books, and the time to make meaningful relationships rooted in emotional interconnectedness, rather than the survival-needs of centuries past. There is a clear difference between living a meagre existence and living prosperously (not just from a materialist perspective). It is clear that the farmer would have the same reservations about living to eighty, as many today, having to live to a thousand. The difference is not that life wouldn’t be desirable, but their mindset is not applicable, nor able to imagine, the ethical, moral, personal, and intellectual framework of the future.
But even today, our lives only seem carefree juxtaposed against the subsistence of our ancestors before (and during) the Industrial Revolution, where hitting forty-years was a veritable milestone. Today, we still have disease, uneven and wasteful distribution of resources, crime, death, poverty, and many other factors that impact and reduce societal health. A billion people go to sleep hungry every night (with 10.9 million children dying of hunger each year), three billion people living on less than a few dollars a day, while a couple of billion more on less than $10. In the developed world, we have obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease (among others) that retard life’s potential for millions, as well as killing millions every year. Many of us labour away at jobs we hate, many more scrape by, and only a few truly do that which they aspire too. This picture of the modern world is changing rapidly, for the better, and technology is the reason. Now let’s take our world-view into the future that Ray and Jason think we are moving into, and see why the detractors are short-sighted.
This future will have exponentially growing technology, both increasing in power, and decreasing in cost. We have seen this curve already, and we are in the midst of it, though few truly realize its potential. The clearest example is the iPhone in your pocket, which is a million times cheaper, a million times smaller, and a thousand times more powerful than a $60 million supercomputer that took up half-a-building in size forty-years ago, as Jason is fond of saying everywhere he goes. Twenty-five years from now, these computers will be a billion times more powerful than today according to Kurzweil, as well as a hundred-thousand times smaller, and who knows how much cheaper, with increasingly powerful software and AI’s running on them. This will herald a sea-change in global human relations, as seen in the huge changes that are bought about due to increasing internet connectivity, information technology, and mobile phone usage in our economies and well-being today.
The economist Jeffrey Sachs has said that the mobile phone is the single most powerful tool to lift people out of poverty after observing over many years, fourteen isolated and impoverished towns in Africa that were introduced to mobile phones. Each 10% penetration in mobile phone ownership heralded a 0.6% compounded growth in GDP. Mobile phone sales in Kenya in 2000, was 17,000, and by 2010, was 18,000,000, in the process transforming the country, creating new industries, new jobs, new information, and new ways of living. Another study by the UN further reinforced that point, saying that cell phones are the most effective advancements in technological history to lift people out of poverty.
Jumping over to the Internet. Today in 2012, we have two-billion people connected to the Internet. By 2020, that number will jump to five-billion. In the last fifteen-years, according to Mckinsey & Co, the Internet has contributed 15% to the GDP’s of the G8 with a few others, and an article in the JordanTimes notes that for every 10% penetration of Internet usage in Jordan, GDP grew between 1-2% compounded.
“Poverty is almost equated with isolation in many places of the world. Poverty results from the lack of access to markets, to emergency health services, access to education, the ability to take advantage of government services and so on,” Sachs said. “What the mobile phone — and more generally IT technology — is ending is that kind of isolation in all its different varieties.” Jeffrey Sachs
Running parallel to the relentless progression of these two-forces, is that of machinery and AI, which are both getting to the point where they will begin replacing service and factory jobs, which yes, in the short-term will disproportionately affect fiscal prosperity, but in the long-run will remove the need of the rat-race to begin with via deflationary economics, i.e., technology making resources cheaper while still expanding the pie [this is the story of technology since the Industrial Revolution]. If just access to information and communication can herald such momentous change in just a few short years, imagine the changes we can expect ten years from now. Every year, information technology becomes twice as powerful without an increase in price. Ten years from now, it will be between five-hundred and one-thousand times as powerful as today. Referencing modern IT history, between 1988-2003, computer scientist Martin Grotschel analysed the speed of standard optimization problems by computers, and documented a mind-boggling improvement over that short time span, which broke down into two factors. Processor speeds improved by a factor of one-thousand (just like we’ll get in the next ten-years), and software algorithms, which became forty-three-thousand times faster over the same period. Both factors combined made computing forty-three-millionfold faster. With parallel-computing and multiple-cores gaining more and more prominence in the coming years, it’s not out of the question to expect more, in point-of-fact, it may even accelerate.
One of the most disruptive technologies on our horizon are Google’s self-driving cars. These magic-machines will replace taxi drivers, chauffeurs, truck drivers, delivery businesses, and even negate the need of families to own second or third cars to ferry everyone around. Economic pain is the first thing that comes to the mind of most people, and the politicians and naysayers will be the first to jump on it to exploit it. But consider the other side of the coin: efficiency and safety. These cars will save untold amounts of oil and gas by vastly improving efficiency, travel times will be cut down, congestion and traffic jams will be no more, pollution and smog will decrease significantly as only a fraction of the cars will be on the road, and most importantly, accidents, injuries, and deaths will all but disappear. 1.3 million people die in car-accidents every year, and 90% of those accidents are human-based in studies conducted by the World Health Organisation (WHO). This number is projected to increase to 1.9 million people by 2020. Over a million-lives per-year could be saved, not to mention many more millions of injuries, and trillions of dollars in savings everywhere along the supply chain as a result, and even outside it in healthcare costs, foreign policy, traffic light maintenance, etc. Surely, that is worth some short-term economic pain, especially in light of deflationary economics making anything produced as a result of technological-progress cheaper, meaning your dollar goes further. [Remember the super-computer example, which was a billion-fold increase in price-to-performance in forty-years]
Increasingly intelligent software, coupled with increasingly agile machines will be able to perform complex tasks typically reserved for people, as shown in this quote in the NY Times article, More Jobs Predicted for Machines, Not People:
“Faster, cheaper computers and increasingly clever software, the authors say, are giving machines capabilities that were once thought to be distinctively human, like understanding speech, translating from one language to another and recognizing patterns. So automation is rapidly moving beyond factories to jobs in call centers, marketing and sales — parts of the services sector, which provides most jobs in the economy.” – Steve Lhor [Emphasis mine]
Farming will begin to move underground, into cities, and into people’s homes in hydroponics, aquaponics, and aeroponics. Each of which uses at least ninety-percent less water than in-ground farming (which uses 70% of sustainable water-use and is projected to increase by a further 90% by 2050 with current practices and technologies). It will be location-independent, and will be vastly cheaper in terms of labor, materials, distance-to-market (they will be inside cities), and supply chain. The price of food will get cheaper and healthier. This technology could be exported to every nation: a village in Africa could grow all their own foods without need of importing anything, as the environment will no longer dictate what, if any, crops can be grown. In-vitro meat production [artificially growing animal meat using stem-cells from animal muscle] will entirely replace the need of farm animals, factory farms, and the thousands of billions of kilograms of feedstock needed to feed and fatten them up (which will go to feeding people instead). Each 15 grams [1/2 oz.] of meat requires 100 grams [3 oz.] of vegetable protein. As a result of decoupling the price of meat from corn, soy, and grain, as well as transportation, and not to mention the plethora of externalized costs (i.e. costs not accounted for in the supermarket price) such as nitrogen runoff, pollution, and other factors that negatively affect the environment, will result in the price of meat plummeting. That is, the price of meat, and even fruits and veggies, both environmentally and fiscally (which are the same thing; we’ve separated them but nature hasn’t) will be significantly reduced, having 7–45% lower energy use, 78–96% lower greenhouse gas emissions, 99% lower land use, and 82–96% lower water use. The forty-percent of farmland in use around the world today can be returned to nature (which will have the added bonus of filtering out CO2, pollution, and increasing biodiversity which may put a damper on the sixth great extinction currently occurring).
There is a clear progression here. Technology is the only human endeavour where trends in the past reflect the future. So imagine life in the future where all our material concerns are practically non-existent, where our knowledge is infinitely larger than it is today. It’s said by 2050, ninety-percent of what we know will be discovered in the interceding years. And of course, the arbiter of free and open exchange; our humble Internet, full of knowledge, will ever expand everywhere and into everything. Since 1995, the Internet has more than doubled in size each year with seemingly, no end in sight. Soon, it will start to spill over into everyday life; Google Glasses being the most visible example, due to be released next year.
This clumsy existential crisis of purpose in response to futuristic explorations are no different from many of those in the past that seemingly led nowhere such as food production not increasing to feed everyone, and my personal favourite from Jason Silva, the moral panic in response to the invention of the telephone. Another great example by Jason: Socrates, in his day, worryingly thought that writing down one’s thoughts would lead to atrophy of the mind, since nobody would ever need to remember what they wrote down, and thus, everyone would become dumber by the act of putting feather and ink to papyrus. But with hindsight, we saw that people became smarter, knowledge travelled farther, events were recorded that survived the sands of time informing us in the present of the past. It helped others built upon the work of those they had no hope of ever meeting, due to distance or time. The collaborative process, both in trade and in knowledge, intersected, interbred, and co-evolved in such a way that we continually increased our knowledge base, which resulted in millions of inventions and insights, which solved many of their problems, eventually eradicating them. In the process creating more problems that forced new thinkers and specialists to repeat the process again and again until the present. Now we find ourselves solving new problems (climate-change, biosphere degradation, food-production, freshwater supplies etc), but with the continuation of the same technological and scientific processes, which are becoming exponential in nature, we will continue to meet the problems of terrestrial life. At this point, if we haven’t by then, we will (or some among us) leave the planet, and propagate into the Universe, spreading humanity far and wide.
The Universe is practically infinite. Our planet is just a speck of dust in a tiny solar system, orbiting an average sun, in a normal galaxy of 400-billion other stars, in a sea of a 100-billion galaxies that weave and web their way across the observable universe. In the future we find ourselves inevitably barreling towards, most of our material, physiological and ethical concerns that we preoccupy ourselves with today will be overcome. We will have ever more time to foster and expand our relationships. Our tools of learning will be designed to circumvent our mental barriers, allowing us to learn at exponential rates. Our foods will become healthier, and so will we, making it easier to fully use and expend our mental and physical energies. All of our biological limitations will be overcome thanks to bio-tech. As our technology increases, so do our boundaries, and consequently, the possibility of a purposeful and fulfilling life, contrary to the naysayers. The paradigm of now has never held more than a momentary grasp on time, what makes anyone think it will do so now? As Stewart Brand so eloquently puts it, “We are as gods, and might as well get good at it.” Life is coming, and it will be more beautiful than any of us can imagine.
It is no surprise that in the last four-hundred years, human culture has evolved more rapidly due to our technological advances. They are not separate events. Our moral, ethical, and personal intuitions have evolved because of technology, which allowed us to focus and talk about new and exciting issues and information bought into view with each technological upgrade. This is what technology gives us, the ability to see that which we couldn’t see before either due to the shortsighted preoccupations of work, disease, war, poverty, or any other issues. This will continue into the future, uplifting us into the rapturous awe of the universe, consequently alleviating us of today’s many problems.
To all the scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, and inventors, I salute you, and thank you for the life and opportunities I have…
This is one of my favourite videos by Jason. It beautifully encapsulates the varying paradigms of the human-race over the last few-thousand years (as well as the universe in the billions of years before), and shows how it may change in the future.