Top Five Cautions for Futurists

When I think about the future, often it’s not about specific technologies or their obvious benefits and dangers. Instead I ponder how past technological breakthroughs have interacted in unexpected ways with human institutions, politics, and human nature itself, and how similar things might happen again. Here are five things to keep in mind.

Technology Alone Won’t Solve Everything
What do dynamite, the telegraph, the airplane, the motion picture, and television have in common? All were touted, by some proponents and even their inventors, as tools that would bring an end to war.

Haha, those people of the past were so naive! We’re so much wiser than that now. And by the way, says the optimistic transhumanist, have you heard that once we have nano-assemblers and true AI, we’ll have world peace and an end to scarcity?


Beware Unintended Consequences

We’ve heard about terrorist bioweapons, rogue AIs, and gray goo, but the most consequential side effects are often the ones people failed to imagine.

Eli Whitney’s cotton gins could process more raw cotton in an hour than a man could in days, changing cotton cloth from a luxury into affordable clothing for the masses. Unfortunately, the growth of cotton plantations made slaves much more valuable, and so vastly expanded the then-moribund institution of slavery. Whitney’s invention strengthened the South and arguably helped bring on the Civil War, but ironically, his invention of the “American system” of mass-produced, interchangeable parts also helped give the North the technological means to win.

Henry Ford’s Model T gave us some predicted effects, such as unprecedented individual mobility and cleaner streets (no horse manure or carcasses), but also unexpected ones: dirtier air, suburban sprawl, and (at least according to Robert Heinlein) the sexual revolution.

Speaking of sex, how could there be a downside of a cure for impotence? It turns out Viagra has led to a rise in divorce and STDs among the elderly. It also may be bankrupting the Brazilian pension system by leading older men to more often marry young women, which means more young widows who collect survivor benefits for longer than anticipated.

Brazil provides another instance of unforeseen consequences: their province-by-province introduction of TV showed how it curbs birthrates. Might not something similar happen with, say, brain-computer interfaces? The birthrate in much of the developed world has already dropped to about the replacement level, and in some countries it’s far below that. If the trend continues and the population begins to decline, who’s going to be around to pay those Social Security and other pension benefits, especially if there’s a life extension breakthrough and your retirement lasts 50 or 100 years… or forever? If that whole post-scarcity thing doesn’t pan out, could transhumanist tech lead the human race to both a population crash and an economic one?

The Singularity Won’t Be Singular
The term implies a unity and compactness that the actual event just can’t have. However and whenever it happens, it won’t effect everyone equally and simultaneously, which means the social, political, economic, and psychological stresses will be earth-shaking. If you think today’s activists are upset about wealth disparities in the U.S. or between the developed and developing countries, just wait until some people have computer-assisted intelligence, cancer cures, and even immortality that most people can’t afford.

Beware of All Politicians
Lots of transhumanists are on the political left, and consider conservatives to be “anti-science,” but as usual in politics, things aren’t that simple. Some might argue that in its preference for “organic” food and concern over cellphone radiation and GMOs, the left has some of its own “anti-science” positions to answer for.

But partisan battles aren’t my point: it’s that history shows it can be foolish to pick a political party based on their positions now and count on them in the future. Political movements can evolve and change in unexpected ways.

In the 1920s, Republicans promoted tariffs and other trade barriers to shield American companies from competition, while Democrats argued for free trade to make goods cheaper for consumers. Now the parties have largely switched positions. That period also marked the high point of eugenics, a policy of sterilizing people against their will that was considered “progressive” and “scientific.”

These days, Democrats are often more friendly to (e.g.) embryonic stem cell research than Republicans, and in that instance things seem unlikely to change. But let’s say an expensive life extension treatment was developed: would they want to restrict it or even ban it on the grounds of safety or “health inequality”? In a recent article in the London Spectator, Melanie McDonagh stated that “DNA tests are an anti-feminist appliance of science” that have “removed from women a powerful instrument of choice” to name the father she prefers. Right now, the FDA is threatening to “protect” us from the supposed dangers of personal genomics.

And what if we get single-payer health care? How interested will federal bureaucrats be in funding transhumanist biotech? Won’t there always be some more pressing need, some more deserving group to fund, one that (purely coincidentally) sounds better in campaign commercials?

To transhumanists who want more government control over healthcare, I say: be careful what you wish for.

What’s Already Here?
Often solutions to technological problems exist in pieces long before someone manages to see them and put them together. The can was invented decades before the can opener. (You opened them with a hammer and chisel, or a hatchet or ax). For many years electricians were needed to install any light or electrical device, before someone invented the electrical plug and socket system.

The Romans had signet rings for making impressions in wax, and helical screw presses they used as clothes wringers, but nobody thought to combine them and invent the printing press. If they had beaten Gutenberg by 2,000 years, we’d be post-Singularity right now.

In perhaps the most startling example, Jamie O’Shea of Substitute Materials recently proved that a telegraph could have been built tens or even hundreds of thousands of years ago.

No doubt transhumanist technology and the Singularity depend on future technological breakthroughs, but keep your eyes open: parts of them may be right in front of us, unrecognized, waiting for someone to put the pieces together and wonder why nobody had thought of it before.

Jay Cornell does freelance web work in San Francisco and is the former Managing Editor of H+.

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