What Might Our Future Look Like?


Image obtained via Wikimedia Commons.

When I was 3 or 4 years old, I was determined to be an engineer. I was interested in the architecture of large structures like bridges and skyscrapers, and I even read a few books about bridges; I also constantly browsed the internet, learning about the largest, freakiest, and weirdest bridges – and even their blueprints. When I matriculated to 4K, my career path changed; I now felt determined to be an astronomer, not an engineer. Not only did I soon read books on the subject, but I also wrote two “books” on the solar system and the stars, respectively, which I remember selling for 25 cents each (I did actually sell two – to my neighbors). As with bridges, I found myself constantly surfing the web to find out, for example, why Pluto is no longer a planet, or why stars “go boom.” When I was 7, I decided that I was, instead, determined to be a meteorologist. In third grade, I decided again that I was determined to be an astronomer. In fourth grade, I was determined that I would make the NBA and be the next Kevin Durant (the season in my fourth grade year followed the year in which Kevin Durant won the NBA’s most valuable player award). In fifth grade, I was even determined to be, of all things, a MLB pitcher; once I realized that an animal walking on all fours would have been a better pitcher than me, I decided again that I was destined to be an astronomer. This remained there until the third month of my freshman year, in which I decided that I was destined to go into politics (my presidential slogan was #billy2044). About a year passed on before I decided, once again, that I was destined to be an astronomer. Even now, approaching my ultimate year of high school, I still find myself conflicted – I am even planning to major in both astrophysics and political science to leave “all the doors open” (the doors being either research or politics).* On the global scale, the uncertainty surrounding our future is far more profound. We know little of what could happen in the rest of 2020, and we especially do not know what will happen this century. Thankfully (or not thankfully), we know what our general, distant futures look like, quite well. Welcome to the future of the human species.

The future of humanity is far more uncertain than that of earth. Earth, being an inanimate object, can be predicted quite easily with the laws of nature. Conscious and volatile beings like humans, however, are much less predictable, even unpredictable. Though, of course, as a curious species, we love to attempt to predict that future. Here are a few general possibilities as to the future of humanity:

Our future is almost exclusively based on the events attributed to our technology. One of these futures could result in our extinction. Cambridge University’s Cambridge Project projects a 19% chance of human extinction in the 21st century, with a 30% chance in the next five centuries. The main catastrophes attributing to the risk are molecular nanotechnology weapons (5%), superintelligent AI (5%), any wars (4%), engineered pandemic (2%), nuclear war (1%), nanotechnology accidents (.5%), natural pandemic (.05%), and nuclear terrorism (.03%). Based on the categories, you can see that anthropogenic catastrophe appears to be the most probable cause for our extinction. This high risk of extinction in this century is significantly higher than past centuries, entirely because of the presence (and threat) of technology capable of omnicide. Thankfully, this is only one possible future.

Another future of ours, however, is quite optimistic. The advancement of technology, though it could lead to human extinction, could also lead to the defeat of death, disease, cancer, biology, distance, everything. Every day, nanotechnology is becoming a greater reality in our world, and this technology could have adverse implications on the future of our species, both good and bad. We already discussed the bad side, though, so now it is time for the good side! 

First, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence will enable molecular modification of the human body. Using nanotechnology, we could cure previously incurable diseases, modify genes to reduce risks of disease, cure genetic conditions, or even enhance positive (and negative) human traits; we could even go as far as editing the entire human body to become not only a cyborg, but a full, conscious computer. Technology could replace biology, and humans could evolve themselves into human robots. Of course, further developments are needed to transform humans into cyborgs, but the technology is still achievable, even in the near future. The Moscow-based 2045 Initiative, founded by Russian Billionaire Dmitry Itskov in February 2011, focuses on enabling full human emergence with AI and on total immortality. Billionaires like Oracle’s Larry Ellison, venture capitalist and investor Paul Glenn, PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, Google’s Sergey Brin, and of course, Elon Musk also have committed their wealth to the issue. With the presence of influential billionaires working to end mortality, immortality in the twenty-first century becomes all the more possible.

Both of these predictions seem radical, as they are, but they are within the realm of possibility. That being said, we should probably convey another possible future of humanity, this one being more likely than the other two. Many events will likely play out like this:

  • Climate change: as fossil fuel usage continues to increase, and as many developing countries continue to industrialize, climate change and global warming will become even more pronounced. We have seen significant impacts of anthropogenic climate change with the wildfires of western North America and the Amazon Rainforest, the record ten hurricanes or tropical storms to make landfall in the United States in 2020, and the consistent record-breaking temperatures and heat waves in Florida, California, and beyond. In the future, we should expect sea levels to rise, temperatures to grow hotter, and extreme weather events to become more extreme. We may eventually curb our carbon emissions to the point where we are carbon neutral, but considering the CO2 still remains in our atmosphere, we will need to be carbon negative; eventually, in a bid to reverse the damage already done to earth’s climate, governments and businesses may respond to reduce the prevalence of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This is seen as an attempt to undo damages already done, and would likely fail – changing the climate back may be (my speculation – by no means an educated or empirical judgment) perhaps as bad of an idea as changing it in the first place. At the moment, the predicted global temperature rise from the early 1800s to 2100 will be anywhere from 2.4 degrees celsius to 4.8 degrees Celsius.

  • Improvements in healthcare should continue to increase pace, with a predicted rate of advancement that is one thousand times faster than in the last five years of the 20th century. Artificial intelligence will provide physicians with vast amounts of information, allowing for accurate testing and extremely precise treatments. Ultra-accurate robo-physicians could begin performing life-saving surgeries, and nanotechnology could fight diseases at the molecular level. This, alongside advances in universal vaccine development and cancer cures, could result in a doubling of the life expectancy (if we do not beat death). It is reasonable to believe that human life expectancy could easily increase by 6 months every year in the 21st century; the current life expectancy is 73 years – with vast improvements in technology, life expectancy could perhaps increase to 120, but 150 to 200 year life expectancies are also possible..

  • Artificial intelligence, which is associated many of the ideas discussed in this entry, will play a significant role in human social and technological development during the 21st century. Not only will AI continue to advance, but it may soon also reach the Singularity. The Singularity is when artificial intelligence becomes so advanced that it completely overtakes the ability of the human brain – it is the moment a robot thus achieves biological consciousness and superhuman intelligence. The Singularity, which is believed to occur by 2045 (general predictions in the AI community say that it will be before 2030 – as in around 2027), will result in massive, unprecedented, and incredible technological changes in civilization in the years following. The Singularity will likely be the most significant and perhaps even the very last achievement of biological humanity. Once we reach the singularity, humans around the globe will merge with technology – and not by looking down at their phones, but by becoming superintelligent AI themselves. Of course, even after the Singularity, we will need to advance our technology enough to be able to merge AI with human life. As we build the first humanoids, we will need to have the technology to create nanotechnological mirrors of the human body – we will need to replace every cell in that person’s body with nanotechnology that will retain the person’s conscience, consciousness, memories, emotions, etc.. Such can be possible if we are able to replace every neural connection in the brain with nanobotic neural connections that match the full composition of the biological brain, thereby allowing for a transfer of consciousness. Mind uploading, a much simpler process than complete human-to-humanoid transformation, could simply copy a brain to a computer and then upload it into a virtual world – or to a robotic or biological body. Although the Singularity is near, the technology to mind upload and transfer consciousness is still distant. It is certainly possible that we could achieve mind uploading and the transferring of consciousness by 2045, but it is also possible that we will not. Nevertheless, AI will play a significant role in the human experience this century.

Yes, I understand; the AI part did branch into defeating death again, but it must be understood that defeating death will probably be the greatest feat of this century, and unquestionably the greatest achievement in human history. We will and already technically have the technological capabilities to perform such actions, so it is fully conceivable that we could achieve immortality within the next few generations. 

These are, nevertheless, only 3 of the certainly infinite possibilities in the 21st century. It is obvious, as we can see, that we will most likely be the owners of our fate; it is important that we act correctly now, especially with regards to climate change and artificial intelligence, because it is we who decide which future – which road – we will travel down.

* The sentence preceding the asterisk, which I modified as I edited the piece (almost two years after it was originally written), further elaborates the natural uncertainty of our futures. The original text, with grammatical errors and the like, is here: “I know that I will be an astronomer, simply because it is the topic I am most interested in/passionate [sic] about. While now I am sure of my very, very general future, even these extremely general things had been almost completely unknown and extremely volatile for a vast majority of my life.”

If you have any questions, comments, or corrections, please comment on this post or email learningbywilliam@gmail.com with your concerns. Thank you.


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