Jan 29, 2007
What’s the ultimate destiny of our civilization? Are we destined to become “living batteries” a la the Matrix, nomads in a radioactive desert landscape, or peons of a totalitarian surveillance state? Or, can we look forward to a luxurious but boring utopia, with robot servants and automated factories to meet our every whim, but nothing to do?
I often debunk such scenarios as the organizer of a philosophy discussion group. I’ve found my predictions to be uncommonly positive, especially in light of the daily torrent of gloomy forecasts in the media. I used to share this doomsday mentality, but despite my concerns about real dangers, I think that all bets are off for humanity’s future. Deadly possibilities still loom ahead, but so do amazing opportunities. Here are some predictions that I consider more or less likely to occur:
This particular doomsday has loomed over civilization since 1798, when Malthus predicted in his Essay on the Principle of Population that the exponential growth in the population would outstrip the growth of the food supply, leading to mass starvation. The failure of such a shortage to materialize despite a tenfold growth in population does not deter his successors today. Today’s environmentalists are continually discovering new resources to run out of, whether fossil fuels, metals, land, or even water. “When will this wild party of mega-malls and SUVs end?”
The basic problem with Malthusian scenarios is that they assume that the resource base available to meet human needs is fixed — that each additional human being requires X amount of land, steel, and oil to live. But human values are ever-shifting, and so are the means to meet those needs. Each baby born not only creates new demand for the products of civilization, but also provides new resources and insight for meeting those needs.
Human beings have proven amazingly innovative in improving the yield of resources to achieve their values. In agriculture, energy, construction, engineering, and information systems, production is not only growing, but accelerating. Our civilization is not only improving the technology for producing the goods we consume, but expanding the range of resources available for exploitation. Whale oil, rubber trees, and native forests for paper and fuel have been replaced by petroleum, plastics, tree farms, and coal. Entrepreneurs have long worked on replacements to fossil fuels independent of any government programs, and will no doubt market them when they become profitable.
The Inevitable Robot Uprising
Incidentally, the same reasoning can be applied to make a robot rebellion unlikely. Malevolent robots in fiction are usually motivated by a desire to grab a larger share of a dwindling resource base. But unless they are after old people’s medicines, this premise doesn’t wash. Even if we become hopeless dimwits relative to our automatons, the law of comparative advantage suggests that we will still be more valuable as trading partners than food stuffs.
The companion to the fear of resource depletion is the fear of a global ecological catastrophe. The threats are numerous — mass species extinction (1960s), global cooling (’70s), ozone holes (’80s), acid rain and global warming (’90s), or climate change (2000s) — which conveniently includes warming and cooling. It is impossible to refute every new scare, but an examination of history provides a dose of healthy skepticism.
The distinguishing factor of human beings over other living things has been our ability to change our environment to improve our situation. Most of the increase in life expectancy from 18–33 years during all of prehistory to 70+ today has not been due to better treatment of illness, but due to the manipulation of nature to create healthier environments: agriculture, cities, sewers, running water, heating and cooling. Human industry comes with unavoidable byproducts like pollution, but the costs have been minute relative to the benefits. Only when the focus of industry has been subverted to destructive purposes — such as war or meaningless production quotas, as in the Soviet Union — has the destructive side of industry outweighed the benefits.
Today, our ability to manipulate the environment is more powerful than ever, as is our awareness of the byproducts of industry. There is no evidence that these skills are declining — as evidenced by the continuing growth of life expectancy in both developing and developed nations. Is there any reason to believe that we should suddenly prove incompetent to deal with nature?
The current phase of global wealth expansion is due both to the increasing productivity of industry made possible by the global division of labor, and the increasing efficiency of resource utilization due to improvements in technology. Any attempt to control or scale back technology only shifts production into less-efficient outcomes. For example, by liming and taxing the carbon output of developed nations, the Kyoto protocol shifts industrial production to exempt developing nations, which not only requires more resources to produce an equivalent volume of goods and services, but creates far more harmful byproducts.
Even if some environmental dangers are real, we would be much better equipped to deal with them by embracing unhindered technological progress rather than surrendering to the indisputable peril of nature to those who give up their primary means of controlling it. In the words of Ayn Rand, “City smog and filthy rivers are not good for men (though they are not the kind of danger that the ecological panic-mongers proclaim them to be). This is a scientific, technological problem—not a political one—and it can be solved only by technology. Even if smog were a risk to human life, we must remember that life in nature, without technology, is whole-sale death.”
Nuclear Winter, Killer Viruses, and Grey Goo
Besides unintentional ecological apocalypse, we face the specter of a technological doomsday. Potential villains abound – secret bio-warfare labs, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, or the traditional bogeyman of nuclear war. As unlikely as some of these possibilities are, their sheer destructive potential deserves consideration.
Technology is often the target of these scenarios. Some Luddites want to abandon it entirely and revert humanity a more primitive state. But such a conception of a technology-free life is a fantasy – human beings have evolved over millions of years to survive by applying their minds to nature. Instead of claws, fangs, or the heightened senses of animals, we have our minds and our hands. Shackling them would only lead to our extinction. Even a limited return to a primitive state would have a proportionate effect. For example, the genetic and biochemical tools which made the Green Revolution possible feed billions of people today. Farming machinery feeds billions more. Undoing the industrial revolution would eliminate the vast majority of productivity improvements in agricultural production and distribution. Nuclear war is tame by comparison to the death by starvation of 90-98% of humanity. Applying so-called “organic” practices (with higher costs and lower productivity) on a global scale would have similarly catastrophic effects.
However, it is impossible to halt the advance of technology in the long term. Even as governments do their best to hamper innovation through safety and environmental regulations, redistribution programs, and obsolete intellectual property practices, the tremendous advantage it gives to innovators drives technology forward. Banning particularly powerful technologies only transfers power to renegade organizations which are willing to flaunt those bans.
If we are really concerned about nanotech or killer viruses, then we should allow private individuals to develop commercial applications alongside the proper safeguards, rather than leave it to the initiative of military programs. Whereas markets are motivated to create practical, safe, and long-term applications on an industry-wide basis, militaries are motivated to create exclusive technology that maximizes destructive potential without concern for long-term safety or practical applications. Imagine if fears of genetic engineering had led us to ban bio-tech companies like Genetech in the 1970’s. We would not only have lost the lifesaving medicines they have created, but would lack the means to respond new natural and man-made threats like AIDS and engineered smallpox variants.
Morlocks and Eloi
The idea of class struggle predates Marx and Rousseau, as do dystopian futures with stratified social classes. Though communism and socialism have been thoroughly discredited by theory and history, visions of the future are often dominated by the entrenchment of various sorts of social divide. Every new potential world-changing innovation is met by some dissenters eager to describe how it will be used by the rich at the expense of the poor. Is there any evidence in support of such fears?
The problem with dwelling on the relative wealth disparities in society is the loss of historical context. Compare the living standard of a medieval baron versus a middle-class American. What luxuries are available to one, but not the other? Aside from some precious metals and the like, there is an enormous wealth of goods and services available today that our ancestors would have envied. Global transportation, life-extending medicines, the global community and the immense library of the Internet are all recent inventions.
Compared to the difference between our ancestors 1,000, 500, 100, or even 50 years ago, the difference between the richest and the average Americans is not that great. Many of the products we use — soft drinks, fast food, laptops, DVDs, websites, jeans, and even cars are essentially the same, especially when compared with their last-generation equivalents. Furthermore, the factors that determine the speed at which new innovations propagate through society favor an exponentially accelerating rate of innovation. The future is likely to be one in which the luxuries of the rich become commodities in ever-shorter cycles.
Obsolescence of Humanity
The Luddites were one of the first groups to protest innovation on the grounds that it threatened their livelihood. The Industrial and Information Revolutions have probably made superfluous most of the jobs that existed in 1811, and no doubt this process will continue. Yet outside of wage and price controls and other forms of interventionism, long-term unemployment has never threatened more than a small percentage of our society.
Technology not only eliminates dreary, labor-intensive jobs, but frees us to pursue more productive activities. Yet futurists continue to predict a society in which the vast majority of people live on the dole, living meaningless, boring, hedonistic or otherwise unproductive lives. The issue is more than just earning a livelihood — the question is what will we do, once technology assumes all the jobs we once had?
One answer can be found in the institution of the housewife or homemaker. Running a household used to be a full-time job, with a multitude of things to be done while the husband went to work in the field or factory. However, with growing automation of the home and shrinking families, stay-at-home moms and dads have more free time than ever. Do they cry with despair at their increasing idleness?
Certainly many have had trouble adjusting to the change. But many others found new avenues for productive activity. Whether volunteering, writing, or running an eBay business, homemakers have found new ways to remain productive. Our industrial society not only creates a standard of living that allows spouses to stay at home, but opportunities to allow them to discover and pursue new passions. The tremendous improvements in productivity that came with the Industrial and Information Revolutions gave us more free time, and created entire institutions, such as Little League teams, church charities, and online multiplayer clans that have evolved as free time has grown.
The Surveillance Society
While entrepreneurs have used new technologies to provide an ever-increasing array of goods and services, governments have used technology to increase their control over society. Numerous sci-fi writers have seized on fears of a surveillance society, in which a citizen’s every move is tracked by the state. Giant television screens, ubiquitous cameras, spy satellites, and airborne SWAT teams dominate such visions.
Hold the tinfoil please.
There are a number of limitations of the power of the state. Foremost is that the same technologies that make ubiquitous surveillance possible also allow ubiquitous secrecy. Remember the little lock you see when you conduct a transaction online? It indicates an encrypted connection between your computer and the website that is made possible by a complex global authentication and trust system. You don’t need to know how it works, but you can be confident that (as long as neither side is compromised) snooping that transaction is practically impossible. Similar technology allows any two parties to communicate in secrecy. Governments attempts at limiting the spread of encryption and introducing loopholes into encryption programs failed miserably because information is nearly impossible to contain in our connected world.
There’s no guarantee that life will remain private in the future. We can only be certain that the potential to communicate securely will grow along with the potential to monitor unsecured communications. If we value privacy, the tools will be there.
Now that I’ve dispensed with the negative, here are some positive trends likely to shape our future society:
Global Marketplace, Local Intelligence
In the preindustrial age, almost all goods and services were local. Raw materials were locally grown, chopped, or quarried, then produced by local craftsmen, and consumed by local villagers. The Industrial Revolution and the creation of the assembly line changed all that. Consumer goods could be mass produced in factories and distributed worldwide. Cities grew rapidly to facilitate easier interaction between all the complex elements of the capital base necessary to sustain an industrial society. Skyscrapers became necessary because of the need for large numbers of individuals to collaborate on complex projects. A global civilization tied together by trade began to arise, and despite the best attempts of governments, is closer than ever today.
The coming of the information age expands the possibilities for the production of goods and services. Because ideas can be communicated worldwide in an instant, design teams can be separated from manufacturing facilities as well as each other.
The first stage of this process was the formation of international corporations that outsource production to where it is cheapest, such as jeans that are designed in the United States and stitched together in Mexico. The second stage was the formation of true multinational corporations that distribute design teams across the globe to wherever talent is.
The third stage, which we are now entering, is the specialization of design and manufacture. For example, “fabless” computer chip designers are contracting manufacture to chip fabs. This dramatically lowers the cost of entry for chip designers like Transmeta and Motorola, and frees foundries from dependence on a single brand. Likewise, the manufacturers of numerous consumer products such as radios, televisions, and electric toothbrushes are buying the core technologies from specialized manufacturers and adding their packaging to it.
The fourth stage will be to separate the manufacture of production tools from the creating of the goods they produce. Rapid prototyping already allows a three-dimensional object to be emailed and printed on an inkjet-based printer. As 3D printing becomes cheaper, consumers will be able to print out new shoes, cellphones, organs, and even houses directly from raw materials.
One of the integrating tools connecting people worldwide are web services – a set of protocols for representing and communicating data across the net. By standardizing the structure of the information stored in documents that describe a particular object – such as a news article or machine part, the meaning of those documents can be understood by computers.
Web services were initially used to simplify services provided within and between organizations. As the number of services grew, directories developed to allow businesses to find each other. Today, a motorcycle parts dealer can look up suppliers in an online “yellow book” oriented around a particular standard and buy from them without caring what software they use. Free software can automatically retrieve the news and the weather from the the source of your choosing and show it on your desktop. Tomorrow, your refrigerator might find the best deal and resupply itself before you even know that you’re short on milk.
Power to the Mind
The evolution of technology has been a progression from reliance on physical effort to a growing role for the mind. The first tools, such as chisels and hammers, augmented raw muscle power. The creation of powered machines eliminated the reliance on muscle and allowed much more powerful mechanisms to be built than with human or animal power alone. The introduction of the automaton in the twentieth century embedded human knowledge in machinery. The trend continues as human beings improve their ability to exploit nature to meet their values through the use of automation until (theoretically, at least) man is able to achieve all the material values technologically possible and desirable by mental effort.
The growing importance of intellectual activity implies that intellectual property will become increasingly more important relative to material labor and physical goods. The current system of patent laws and copyrights will change dramatically as intellectual transactions evolve to meet the requirements of a civilization with rapid innovation being conducted on a global scale. Intellectual markets will take the form of universities, patent-trading companies, or private exchanges of trade secrets.
For most of recorded history, people expected the future to be much like the present. It was common to view the past as a lost utopia, whether in Eden, Atlantis, Shambhala, Elysium, or Classical antiquity. The concept of history as an account of the past only arose during the Renaissance. The glacial but steady improvement in technology during the Middle Ages combined with the liberalization of thought and a new worldly focus accelerated the discovery and spread of knowledge, and prepared the world for a new phase of history.
The Enlightenment introduced the new idea that humanity could progress towards mastery of the natural world. To many enlightenment thinkers, it seemed like nothing was off-limits to human achievement. That initial optimism was later challenged by the church, the deterministic ideology of Marxism, the fatalism of existentialism and postmodernism, and the anti-human rhetoric of environmentalism. However, while the philosophical foundations of the modern world have floundered, they made possible the Industrial Revolution and the rapid technological progress the world has seen since.
The rising importance of information technology during the latter half of the twentieth century has given rise to a new paradigm – history as accelerating change. The rapid growth in the processing power of information technology products has made the general public aware of the speed of innovation, but some futurists take a much broader and long term perspective. The most radical advocates of this theory view the history of the universe as a series of stages in the exponential growth of information complexity. This engine behind this process is the self-organizing nature of causal interaction. Each stage lays the groundwork for the next.
The process begins with the formation of the atomic elements, chemical compounds, and macro-scale structures such as stars and galaxies. The next stage is life, fueled by the ever-present pressure of evolution. The complexity of life improves until the evolution of human-level intelligence. Human intelligence marginalizes evolution and creates civilizations by inventing technology to help us master the natural world. When technology progressed to the level of automatons, people began to offload some of their mental processes to machines (calculators, computers, industrial robots, etc). As machines are leveraged to build ever faster machines (tools like computer-aided drafting), technological progress will continue at an exponential rate, with new paradigms being introduced and widely adopted in ever shorter cycles, until biological intelligence is largely replaced by engineered intelligence. (This intelligence need not be in the form of sentient machines or inorganic technology – we are also learning to augment our own minds and manipulate our genetic codes.) Ultimately, our ability to master nature reaches deeper and wider levels until the entire universe is at our disposal. How to use that power will be an important question for our super-intelligent successors.
A New Conception of Self
A number of researchers are working on video cameras integrated into clothing or eye-ware that can record a 24/7 video stream from the wearer’s perspective. They predict that an entire lifetime of such recordings will be able to fit into a small device within 10 years. When this technology is merged with GPS and computer vision software and cross-referenced with our contact lists and email, a complete digital record of our life will exist to supplement our memories. Imagine being able to search for and review anything experienced during your digitally-enhanced life.
The building blocks are already in place — my Google accounts make every email, chat, and web search of the last three years instantly searchable and available. My Flickr account serves as a geographically tagged diary of my life. A tiny device records all my bike rides and sends a map tagged with my performance statistics to my computer.
The sum of all these innovations will gradually change the way we define ourselves. Our consciousness becomes the central processing unit of a complex system, with external storage and sensor facilities spread across the world and to other people. As human-computer interfaces improve, our sense of self will evolve to include our digital memories as well as those of others. Initially, people had to talk to each other to share information. Then they could look it up in a book. Now you can search for it in Wikipedia. Imagine when you will be able to instantly look it up as an extension of a thought process using some successor to web services.
Thanks to globalization, such tools for sharing knowledge and experience will be available worldwide. It will not be a “hive-mind” (another common sci-fi scenario) because our own sense of self will be enhanced in parallel with our connections to others.
My ultimate prediction is this:
By directing human creativity towards productive ends, voluntary interaction has created an industrial civilization capable of generating unprecedented wealth and giving individuals more freedom than ever to choose the way they wish to define themselves and their relation to others.
The ultimate result of this freedom, to quote Ludwig von Mises, is to put “the individual in a position to choose the way in which he wants to integrate himself into the totality of society.”
History has made us aware of the enormous transformative power of technology – whether used for good or evil, and future inventions will just as momentous. Despite its real and imagined dangers, we cannot delay technology — we can only ensure that it is used to the achievement of human values, not their destruction.
Rather than delay the inevitable and allow it to be monopolized by tyrants, I propose that we face the future with the optimistic outlook of the Renaissance – as an entire universe waiting to be explored and exploited by man.
 World population has grown about tenfold since 1700, while the percentage of population developed countries working on farms has shrunk from 98% to 2%. Farm productivity continues to show dramatic growth – see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agriculture#Crop_improvement
For more, see The Law of Accelerating Returns by Ray Kurzweil