Over the past several years a good number of “futurists” and all-out naysayers have systematically worked to undermine and dismiss the potential for radical change to occur in the not-too-distant future. A number of commentators—including some of my colleagues at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies—have openly rejected the potential for paradigmatic changes to occur. While I’ve always been more a fan of concepts than time-lines, there is little doubt in my mind that a number of disruptive technologies that have been predicted over the past few decades will eventually come to fruition.
But it’s suddenly become very fashionable to pooh-pooh or sweep-aside the pending impacts of such things as the looming robotics and manufacturing revolutions, the rise of super AI, radical life extension, or the migration of humans to postbiological form. My best guesses as to why include the arrogance of the now (i.e. “we currently live at the most special of times and things will never change too significantly”), distraction (i.e. “there are other more important issues that require our attention”), fear of looking silly or losing credibility, denial, weak imaginations, and just plain ignorance.
As David Deutsch notes in his latest book, The Beginning of Infinity, humans are a remarkable species in that they serve as universal constructors. So long as the laws of physics are honoured and the requisite amounts of resources are provided, the space of all possible inventions remains massively large and profound. As for the denialism that has suddenly crept into futurist circles, the burden of proof is shifting increasingly to them; the naysayers need to explain exactly how it is that we’ll never come to develop these technologies—and how their presence won’t change the fabric of life and the human condition itself.
A number of scientists, engineers and futurists have dedicated their careers to predicting technological possibilities and their resultant social ramifications. With names like Eric Drexler, Robert Freitas, Aubrey de Grey, Gregory Stock, Ray Kurzweil, and Nick Bostrom, these predictions are coming from heavy-hitting thinkers; this ain’t your father’s Popular Science “flying car” style futurism. And in many cases, the further we progress into the future, the more credible these claims are appearing to be.
Here’s a quick overview of what’s been predicted—developments that will forever alter what we currently think of as normalcy and the human condition:
- Artificial superintelligence: Recursively self-improving expert systems endowed with significantly greater-than-human intelligence, capacity, and reach; the end of human primacy on the planet; an extinction risk and potential existential paradigm changer.
- Molecular nanotechnology: Manufacturing and materials construction at the molecular scale; the complete re-thinking of engineering and manufacturing; the rise of molecular assemblers (i.e. “replicators” or “fabricators”) and the end of scarcity; the advent of molecular-scale robotics; the threat and promise of self-replication; and a serious existential risk.
- Robotics revolution: Hyper-automation and massive unemployment; the grim potential for robotic warfare/terrorism and the rise of machine ethics; the unpredictable impacts of the convergence of robotics with artificial intelligence; robots that can self-replicate, swarm, assemble, create emergent effects, self-organize, and repair; a potential existential risk.
- The ongoing biotechnological revolution: Enhanced and modified humans (i.e. cyborgs, genetically altered humans, postbiological beings), indefinite lifespans; regenerative medicine; advanced psychopharmaceuticals; the ongoing diminishment of corporeal importance (including possible mind transfers) and extended personhood; transgenics and animal enhancement.
- The ongoing communications revolution: Noosphere/global brain (where human minds are interlinked with our communications technology and the internet).
- The political and sociological impacts of these disruptive technologies: The demise of privacy and the rise of the surveillance state; the further diminishment of civil liberties and the onset of neo-authoritarianism.
- Megascale engineering: Assuming humanity will survive this far: The graduation of humanity to Kardashev I and Kardashev II civilizations through the advent of such things as the Dyson Sphere, Jupiter Brain and Matrioshka Brain; the onset of technogainism, remedial ecology and the reworking of Earth’s entire ecosystem (including weather control); the permanent retiring of Darwinian processes on the planet.