What will the future be like?
If you’ve spent any time reading this blog, you’ll know a few details: massive cities, robot drivers, and computers that connect directly to your brain. But what about the big picture? What’s the whole world going to be like in 1,000 years? As the saying goes, ask 10 different futurists, and you’ll get 100 different answers. And while I don’t have the space here to explain every theory ever thought up, I thought it’d be fun to look at some of the biggest, most important, or just plain weirdest ideas out there.
For the record, I’m not pinning a probability on any of these. I’ve written before about how hard it is to get the future right, thanks to the insane complexity of the system in question (also known as “the entire universe”). That means all of these predictions could be wildly wrong… but it also means any of them could come true, no matter how implausible you think it is. Maybe even several of them.
Keep that in mind as we tackle the list!
Determinism is more of a philosophy than a concrete picture of the future, and it amounts to the idea that the past and future are completely determined. Every event is necessary, and couldn’t happen any other way. The interesting thing about this conclusion is that there are different ways to reach it. Many people think of the future this way thanks to their belief in a higher power who knows and controls everything. But certain scientific perspectives can lead you down this path too. Notably, when Isaac Newton first elaborated his rules of motion, many scientists at the time concluded that the world operated purely on cause-and-effect. For them, the universe was a giant, eternal clockwork just ticking out destinies that were set in motion long ago.
One of the cool things about human technology is that it feeds itself. Every major advance, from agriculture to the printing press, allowed a whole new way of making even further advances. The computer is just the latest example of a tool that’s really good at creating better tools. So naturally, one of the most common takes on the future is that our technological power will keep accelerating until it’s exceeded our wildest imaginations. This is a pretty compelling idea. Think of the future shock a medieval knight would experience in 1800s England, or that an 1890 Londoner would experience in the year 2013. It’s not out of the question that we’d experience the same shock upon jumping into the future just 50 years.
3. Technological Singularity
This is a specific instance of the acceleration theory. Proposed by Vernor Vinge and popularized by Ray Kurzweil, the singularity concept suggests that if we keep making smarter and smarter computers, we’ll eventually create something that is even smarter than we are. Now, you’ve seen with your own eyes the amazing things humans can create when we put our minds to it. So just try to imagine what a super-smart artificial intelligence would be able to accomplish, given the right resources. And if we really can make an AI that’s smarter than us, then presumably the AI could create something even smarter than it… and suddenly the sky is the limit.
This is another possible variation on the acceleration theory, but this one focuses on the human race itself. We’ve already got interfaces that allow our brains to interact with computers, and artificial limbs that outperform normal ones. What happens once our minds can connect to each other in a giant network? Or when we can modify ourselves to be faster, smarter, stronger? How about programming our unborn children with whatever genes we want? Not only will our civilization change beyond all recognition, under this umbrella prediction, but so will the very nature of humanity itself. I should note here that transhumanism is not just a theory, but also a movement. Transhumanists, in general, advocate for embracing our most extreme potential, so long as it’s accompanied by careful consideration and a sense of moral responsibility.
Human civilization is such a part of the fabric of our lives, it’s hard to imagine that anything could happen to it. But the whole thing really amounts to a kind of 10,000 year long experiment, and the truth is we can’t really know if we’re flying, or just free-falling, until we hit the ground (or don’t). Maybe we’ll overcrowd the planet, and its strained resources will finally give out on us. Or perhaps our weapons development will outstrip our moral growth, and we’ll annihilate ourselves over some minor cultural difference. Whatever the case, we’d do well to remember that the future is at least partly in our own hands.
This is what happens if we see #5 coming and make like a human, i.e. patch together the best fixes we can and cross our fingers that it all holds together. There’s no guarantee it will work, and we may not even fully understand what we’re doing, but our can-do attitude has done wonders for us already, so it may do well enough. I wrote about this at length in “Hacking Civilization“, so click over there if you’re interested.
7 and beyond…
And… wow, I’m not even halfway through the list yet. I guess that means a sequel article is in the works! Be sure to subscribe at the right (for free!) so you don’t miss the next set of crazy theories that just might happen.
In the meantime, what’s your take? Do any of these sound likely, or do you have your own personal theory? Tell us about it in the comment box below!