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The future of mankind: predictions of a new world

The future of mankind is one driven by the need to innovate. The pressures on our species are unique, which will in time give rise to unique solutions to the problems of our past, present and of our future…

The future of mankind is one driven by the need to innovate. The pressures on our species are unique, which will in time give rise to unique solutions to the problems of our past, present and of our future…

In this third extended installment, I’ll be exploring some of the directions the human race will take over the coming centuries, examining how new science & technology will impact man and society, and in turn be impacted by society itself.

In the previous installment, discussing the economics of future technology predictions, I made mention of the two prevailing schools of thought:

  1. The theory that the human race will become augmented in some way by certain devices that are beneficial to us.
  2. The theory that our growing understanding of genetics will lead us to various therapies and enhancements that will also deeply augment our species.

Innovation is driven by need. Technology is a key enabler of innovation. These theories aren’t exclusive of each other. In many ways, they’re complementary.

The social and technological evolution of the human race

Great upheaval is either rare or restricted to a confined system, region, or group of people. In evolutionary biology, any rapid change is sometimes referred to as punctuated equilibria.

Most stable systems, like societies, are able to absorb most sudden changes without experiencing huge disruption to the whole of the system. In politics, consider Fascism and Marxism at the beginning of the 20th century as two examples of sudden, punctuated change that for a time forced themselves onto societies on a global scale, but have since diminished. In the case of Fascism, another force came into play — resistance to change.

Society exhibits traits you’d expect to see in many other systems, such as financial institutions, or the immune system of an organism. Our immune system will tolerate the ingress of certain viri and bacteria. However, disruptive and harmful biological agents will typically invoke an aggressive immunological response — resistance to change.

With that as a background, from here, we can see now that it’s unlikely that any huge leap in technology or science is going to have an over-night profound impact on society, since society as a system will in some way either absorb or resist such sudden change.

Instead, great change requires time to permeate society.

Act I — averting the energy crisis

As the 21st century begins, our energy requirements escalate. While the press and politicians make the most of the doom & gloom predictions, single-minded individuals as well as teams of research scientists from around the world begin to make good of novel and highly efficient means of generating energy.

No longer are wave, wind, solar and geothermal energy fighting the crisis alone. In addition, great progress is being made with fusion power. One such power station alone could potentially provide energy for a large swathe of Europe, issuing forth copious amounts of cheap, clean energy.

Buildings are swathed in photovoltaic paints, capturing the energy of the sun, even when clouds billow and fill the skies. Roads underlate minutely to the motion of vehicular traffic, powering municipal utilities like street lighting. PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants) and other mobile devices are now so efficient, some are powered by the kinetic energy of their owners’ movements.

Those smaller, life-saving devices that are secreted in the human body are driven by the power of blood alone, or even the electrical charge of the human body itself.

Already there’s a sea change in attitudes towards conservation, renewable resources, recycling and energy efficiency. As society slowly but surely inches forward, effecting more and more positive change, legislators usher in new rules, enshrining these changed and positive attitudes in law.

Key advancements in nanotechnology touch upon mass production, resulting in cheaper products made from recycled materials, all of which can be recycled fully in much the same way that they’re created — disassembled on the molecular scale and reduced to liquid solutions for reuse.

Only recently, scientists announced that progress had been made with wireless energy. Given time, we will harness the power of the sun from space, projecting its raw energy down to the surface of the Earth.

As the energy crisis becomes a footnote in the story of the early 21st century, man becomes free to explore ever greater ideas.

Act II — of genetics and cybernetic engineering

Right now, people walk this Earth who owe their lives to such technological marvels as pace makers, spectacles, prosthetic limbs and brain implants to stymie brain-related diseases like Parkinson’s.

These people are fortunate and they are at the vanguard of a range of medical therapies that will in time gather pace, with a wide-ranging collection of illnesses as well as mental and physical conditions falling into view. Soon we begin to see how such implantations might have benefits beyond remedial health, but in enhancing certain abilities, such as our senses.

At the same time, scientists fight biological wars in Petri dishes around the world, toiling to overthrow aggressive bacteria that threaten to wreak havoc. Elsewhere, other scientists peer into the very machinations of life itself, hoping to disentangle one more piece of the vast genetic puzzle that is DNA. In understanding the power of DNA, we have realized the vast potential to create living machines, fashioned from the substance of life itself.

These two threads are destined to overlap and then coalesce, but not yet.

Consider the amount of effort required to implant a device into the human brain, and the risks involved. Such procedures will in time become unnecessary as advances in genetics will mean we’re able to grow machines and their various components under laboratory conditions, but on an industrial scale, each biomechanical device genetically unique to each individual they’re to live out their lives inside.

With the aid of legions of nanobots, these therapeutic devices will be injected into the blood stream and assembled in situ, totally removing the need for any kind of surgery.

I believe it’s more likely that we will see such things as replacement corneas, lost limbs and failing organs grown in laboratories before we see any entirely mechanical prosthetic device that is comparable to the original in size, shape, strength and dexterity.

In this scenario, TV characters such as the Borg from the Star Trek universe will be ironic because of their being an anachronism before their time.

I could make a good argument for all life being intricate biological machines. All our understanding of genetics will take those ideas a step further.

Act III — the computational power of the atom

Quantum Computing will change the very fabric of society. But this colossal change will be largely unseen at first. Within years of a practical, functional Quantum Computer, numbers of unfathomable size will be thrown around like grains of sand in the wind. Vast computations and simulations of colliding galaxies and their sinuous, shimmering spiral arms, teaming with stars and their innumerable planets will happen in near real time.

Our understanding of complexity will be as if we had emerged from a mountain range to now look upon an expansive level plane of a sweeping vista, flat and featureless, affording us a view that is apparently without end.

However, such behemoths of computational power will be as enormous in expense as they are in their ability to devour mathematical schemes. Ironically, their number will be few for a time. And time upon them will be rationed amongst governments and leading universities.

A slow yet inexorable stream of discoveries will emerge, findings and theorems confirmed across almost every scientific discipline. Gradually, new and strange materials, chemicals and genetic combinations will spring forth from laboratories across the globe.

Advancements across all fields will enrich our lives, hastening the pace of our rise towards greater efficiency in energy and resource management. New technologies that owe their very existence to the computational power of the Quantum Computer will appear around us in subtle yet tangible places.

As the years roll by, Quantum Computers become more accessible and affordable. Their computation power is seized upon by businesses keen to process their vast silos of customer data, while the entertainment industry envision interactive video games of unparalleled realism.

However real these realms might be, our sensory involvement is limited by the ways in which our brain is able to sense our place in such worlds. What if we could share our dreams, walking through these fantasy worlds with a true step, with the wind to our backs and the sun to our face?

Act IV — synthesizing the mind of man

Some years ago, scientists successfully read signals from the visual cortex of a cats brain, seeing in crude form what the cat was seeing. Right now, scientists are working to map the complex mesh of signals the human brain generates each & every time an image, a sound, a thought, smell or touch to the skin is registered.

Within the last two years, practical lie detectors have been built which can sense the truth and the lies that reside inside the head of people before they can even commit them to words or writing.

It is these advances that will form the foundations of an important scientific and technological leap — the ability to access the thoughts and the signals within the human brain directly.

In tandem, research will continue into practical AI (Artificial Intelligence), most of which is still greatly dependent on our understand of the seemingly irreducibly complex neurology of our brain.

Only when we understand the extent and the scale of our minds will we be able to fully and sensibly synthesize intelligence. Without such knowledge, AI is destined to remain a curio of consumer electronics; confined to novel heuristics designed to make video games more challenging, or vehicular breaking systems more responsive in inclement weather.

If we’re to enhance the mind of man, married then to our ability to access the brain directly, I foresee the role of Artificial Intelligence being diminished somewhat.

In this scenario, AI will not outstrip the sheer computative power of the human mind, nor come close to the creativity we so highly prize. After all, we are all born with the most sophisticated computational device we’re ever likely to find, so what is the point in attempting to replicate such a marvel? No, we will enhance our minds with those things we have discovered and invented.

Instead, AI will combine with Quantum Computing to perform those laborious and repetitive mental feats, while we humans concentrate on the speculative and surreal “What if?” thought experiments.

My feeling is, while loss of limb will pose no serious impediment to science in the next decade or so, being able to “download” our minds as some kind of back-up against death will not happen for a long, long time, if ever.

Consider the recipe for a cake, of things. The ingredients are finite and known. An innumerable number of cakes can be made from the same recipe. But however similar those cakes may appear, they are not identical. Those finite ingredients vary themselves in subtle but entirely measurable ways.

The same holds true of genetics and by extension reproduction — twins of any species may appear identical, but they are not.

Similarly, what defines us as an individual is most likely the byproduct of infinitesimally small conglomerations of neurons in our brains. Even minute variations in position, density and size would most probably change with every new iteration.

In that sense, creating an exact clone of a person, complete with memories and personality traits is highly unlikely.

We must either be content to die, extend our lives through genetics or defeat death in some other way.

Act V — the emergence of the new man

The first humans to have stood on Martian soil will now be quite old. Small colonies will adorn those reddened wind-swept deserts. From this furthest outpost of man, we look on with ever hungrier eyes. The child planets of distant parent stars now beckon.

Knowing that the gnawing urge to see with our eyes new worlds will only deepen, we begin to explore the complexities of creating new variants of the human species — synthetic speciation.

To set foot upon these hostile, dynamic and perhaps unknown worlds, a new breed of man is needed. One who is more adaptable and rugged than any of his antecedents. These genetically engineered soldiers of discovery will be but a brief glimpse of what we are to become.

These emergent explorers will carry with them all of the insight, guile and irrepressible inquiry that marks our species as distinctly separate of all others on Earth.

These giants of our ingenuity will represent the pinnacle of our abilities, adorned with the sum total of our knowledge, they will step fearlessly out into the vast void of space.

We begin to colonize new worlds in far off star systems. Our evolutionary development being artificially accelerated means those pioneers of these new worlds begin to speciate into new forms of man, ideally suited to their newfound homes.

Mother Nature smiles. What she has strived to instill into all her children is strength in diversity. We have learned well. Our genetic variation is the process by which we will not just survive but thrive in the cosmos.

There is no Utopia

Still the Earth is wracked with war, poverty, political conflict and disease. For all our endeavor, we merely achieve greater things for fewer people, as our forbearers did. Utopia is still as distant now as it was for those that dreamed of such places centuries before.

But man will still dream. And in the end, such dreams are the only heaven we will ever need…

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By Wayne Smallman

Wayne is the man behind the Blah, Blah! Technology website, and the creator of the Under Cloud, a digital research assistant for journalists and academics.

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