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The Four Futures
Many people have varying views on how the future will unfold, and according to the philosopher Nick Bostrom and the technology giant Peter Thiel these views fall into four distinct patterns.
If we use the past as our case study, it is easy to imagine a future of recurrent collapse. The Roman Empire, the Greek Empire, and the Mongolian Empire all rose to great heights before falling to irrelevancy and bringing with them long periods of deterioration. Maybe we are taking the world’s current economic stability for granted.
In the second scenario, conventional wisdom tells us that globalization will rule the future. As the newest technology is spread and adopted around the world, the whole world will converge on the quality of life of the richest country. Therefore the future will look very similar to the present.
In the third scenario, humanity comes to an end. With a single misstep in A.I. or even nuclear weapons, a collapse could be so devastating that we will not survive.
The last possibility is the hardest to envision and describe; where humanity takes off to a much brighter future.
It is difficult for me to see a future of recurrent collapse due to the fact that the knowledge of the world is too widespread for humanity to fall again into an era of Dark Ages. A future of mostly globalization is also very difficult to maintain because of the scarcity of earth’s resources. As poorer countries slowly catch up to their richer counterparts, the tension between each country will increase to a point of destructive warfare, which will realistically bring us in line with the third scenario. The future of humanity will likely take the form of total annihilation or advancements in technology that we cannot currently comprehend. So how do we make sure that we avoid the potential deadly potholes in our path that might lead us to annihilation?
Extinction of Humans
Spoiler alert: Our generation will witness the extinction of the human race if we do not take the necessary actions to prevent it.
Just look at the world right now. Humans are making computers stronger, faster, and more powerful every day. At this rate, singularity will occur in 20 years. In 10-50 years, a single nuclear weapon could wipe out the whole population on earth. We are also currently facing the 6th mass extinction in history, the extinction of large animals. Without the population of large predators, the number of diseased rodents will roam the earth and the number diseases will increase exponentially. Without large animals, the already scarce food supply on earth will decrease. No food = no humans. In 100 years, global warming will cause a decrease in landmass, while overpopulation will push humans to compete for scarce resources. We could even go extinct tomorrow with the accidental release of a lab disease into the population.
These are some very difficult scenarios for humanity to avoid. Many of these tough problems need to be solved with a deadline in mind. And the deadline is closer than anyone imagined.
We humans pride ourselves with being the most intelligent organisms on earth. But do we really have enough intelligence to solve these problems in the future? If yes, then can we solve it before the deadline? I believe that intelligence is our most important asset but also the bottleneck preventing us from finding a solution to most of these problems in a timely manner. Thinking is the highest paid job in the world but we are not fully utilizing technology to augment our own ability to think. We need as much assistance to our brain as possible to solve the important problems in the future.
The man-computer symbiosis is an important theory proposed in 1960 by J.C.R. Licklider. We can see the direct application of this symbiosis with the use of computers in our daily lives. Computers are known for their advantage in direct information gathering, hardware processing power, hardware memory storage, information retrieval, information breadth. But humans have an advantage in experimental learning, decision making, information retrieval relevance, creation of correlations, and the consistent system of super goals. The combination of computer’s pure processing power and storage capabilities with human’s decision making and learning has proved to be more intelligent than each entity on their own. In fact, the strongest chess player in the world is not a computer or a human, but rather a human-computer duo. The computer processes millions of calculations a minute and provides options while the human makes the ultimate decision.
We are making headway into the beginning of man-computer symbiosis. This symbiosis between humans and computers is mediated through our fingers on a keyboard/mouse. The outputs from a computer are then displayed to our retina. This is an extremely inefficient process. Our thoughts operate at a much faster speed than our fingers; therefore this speed gap prevents us from aligning with computers at the highest possible magnitude. Closing this speed gap is important for human intelligence evolution, because the tighter the integration between humans and computers the more we are able to utilize the computer’s processing power and storage, thereby increasing our ability to solve problems. In a perfect man-computer symbiosis our brain signals are the direct inputs to a computer and the computer transfers the outputs through the direct simulation of neurons. Unfortunately our brains have not been fully reverse engineered for the simulation of neurons to be possible. But we are at the point where in the next 2-5 years brain signals can be fully decoded via machine learning to serve as reliable inputs.
I believe that consumer brain-computer interface (BCI) will be a huge industry in the near future and will exponentially increase our ability to tackle tough problems. With the technological advances in cloud storage, quantum computing, and artificial intelligence, computers will be able to accurately decode brain signals through a period of learning and then storing the information in an infinitely large database. Supercomputers will also become smaller and more consumer-friendly. Other technologies including contact lens displays will allow the consumer BCI to be extremely discreet and mobile. There are of course some moral disputes around the integration with computers that will not be discussed in this blog post.
Building Our Future
No matter what we believe about the future, it won’t happen on its own. Many people have differing beliefs on what the future holds and how technology will evolve humanity. But we ultimately face two stark choices between the most likely scenarios for the future: nothing or something. It is up to us to create the future because we cannot take for granted that the future will be better. Peter Thiel says in Zero to One:
Our task today is to find singular ways to create the new things that will make the future not just different, but better. The essential first step is to think for yourself. Only by seeing our world anew, as fresh and strange as it was to the ancients who saw it first, can we both re-create it and preserve it for the future.
This quote invigorates me because I believe that with brain-computer interfaces we can shape our own destiny.