There's a lot of talk about robots and AIs taking away human jobs. And with good reason. It's pretty much a certainty that in the future machines will be able to do any job a human can do only better. But the world of the future is going to be a very, very different place than it is today. Who knows what technological marvels our future holds? And that's the problem I want to address. "Things" are about to begin changing so quickly that the people who are most certain to need a change of career . . . are futurists.
Prediction? Or old news? Give it a few days.
Just a few days ago, I was pondering the idea of writing an article suggesting that 2010 will be the year that we discover exoplanets by the thousands including earth-like worlds that might sustain life. I could still write an article about hunting exoplanets, but any predictions would be mute points.You see, today's news that the Kepler telescope is finding thousands of exoplanets, some in the "habitable zone," has made speculation about the existence of earth-like exoplanets old news. They are now assumed likely to be commonplace. If I write the article now, I'd want to write it from a theoretical astrobiology perspective, pondering what life might be like on other worlds, rather than a futurist talking about telescope technology.
The importance of yesterdays announcement, is that there are now really only two possible situations for the existence of extraterrestrial life, and one just become extremely unlikely.
One possibility is that we're a freak of nature, the only planet with life in the entire universe. Given the literally unimaginable size and scope of the place, this possibility is... How shall I put it? To say, "To say that it's unlikely is an understatement," would itself be an understatement.
To be fair, it's not entirely impossible that we could be the first intelligent life in the universe. Someplace has to be the first hot spot on the block, right? The problem with that hypothesis is that the universe has been around for 13.5 billion years, and the earth has been inhabitable for only about 4 billion years, and life started on earth less than half a billion years after the conditions were right, making it far less probable that we're the first intelligent life than if our planet were, say, 8 or 9 or 10 billion years old. Hundreds of billions of older planets have had a head start over Earth. If it's true, that we are the only planet in a universe with life, given a hundred hundred billion billion stars, I think it's fair to say that puts our existence within the realm of truly miraculous.
A much more likely situation is that the universe is literally teeming with life. And if there are really one hundred billion trillion planets out there capable of supporting life, then there are probably innumerable planets in our galaxy alone that have harbored, do currently harbor, or will someday harbor intelligent life. Some number of those alien races may even look and think a lot like we do.
We are not alone. It's a truly amazing possibility, the story of the millennium, and it now seems almost certain.
Which brings me back to the point of this story.
Yesterday this piece was going to be a futurist writing about the promise of telescope technology. Today it's more of an astrobiology side plot about a universe strewn with billions of Goldilocks planets where intelligent life might be possible.
I think you'll agree that a universe full of intelligent life is a much more interesting and provocative discussion than talking about telescope technology, but it's got little to do with anyone's future here on Earth, and I don't blog on astrobiology.
The Futurist's Event Horizon
In case you haven't heard (if you have, you can skip this section), let me inform you that technology is accelerating exponentially. Today's technology builds on yesterdays technology. Today we use computers to design more powerful computers. And some day, those more powerful computers will by themselves be able to design even more powerful computers. This creates a progress curve that gets steeper and steeper as "things" change faster and faster. The culmination of this process is a world where "things" will be going on that no human being fully understands.
Black holes have so much mass that even light that gets too close gets caught in their gravity. At the center of the black hole is a "singularity" - a place where immense amounts of matter are crushed down into a single point. The distance beyond which no light can escape once it has neared a black hole is called the "event horizon."
In the same way, there's an event horizon to the Technological Singularity - a point past which the future is literally unforeseeable. As we approach that point, technology will be evolving faster and faster until eventually human minds can't keep up with it. Some of the top futurists put the Singularity at somewhere near the middle of this century. What happens beyond what I prefer to call the "Technological Event Horizon" is really anyone's guess.
Some futurists go so far as to predict that some mind numbingly complex machine will develop artificial consciousness. They say that within half a century humans will likely seem as intelligent to super smart machines as rats seem to humans. Or another popular scenario is that humanity taps into one giant, intelligent, cybernetic network creating a shared global consciousness. Another possibility is that biological and cybernetic intelligence will merge, splintering the mostly homogeneous race we are familiar with, creating an endless variety of consciousnesses.
No matter how you slice it, if we could see into it, the future of the human race looks nothing like the past.
How long have we got?
Now, to tie all this into my point, as we approach the singularity, it's going to get harder and harder for futurists to predict the future. I think most reasonable technologies that any futurist can dream up (and not be called a crackpot) are currently coming to life in a lab somewhere (making them not so hard to predict).
Want to get rid of farm animals? We have manufactured meat in the works. Want squanderable clean energy? In the works. Want to set your aging parents up with a humanoid robot home companion? In the works. Want to communicate telepathically? In the works. Wireless electricity? Artificial blood? Efficient government? In the works. Cure for aging? In the works!
So as far as the future of futurists goes, if the singularity happens on schedule, I'm afraid we've only got a few more decades before the public will no longer buy our snake oil and our profession becomes extinct. Our foresight will begin to fog over as we approach the singularity. Anything we have to say will become more and more speculative and in fact meaningless - aside from maybe being entertainment.
Who's going to want to know about future technology when we're being eaten by super-intelligent, self-aware robots on a dying planet? Exactly no one. Or for us optimists, who's going to care about the what futurists have to say if we're in a technological utopia where the whole world just works like magic and machines take care of everything including our health and we can all go outside and play and explore our universe - or any virtual universe we can imagine, for that matter? Certainly not me.
I'm shooting for the latter scenario. Otherwise I wouldn't give a hoot about being a futurist and working towards a brighter tomorrow; I'd live for today like normal people.