Category: Futurists

Where is humanity headed?

Remember when you were a kid and your imagination lasted forever? Kids somehow assume that things will keep being the way they are forever. Daddy will never die, mummy will be here through eternity. Even when we fell in love as children, we wanted to “live happily ever after” Then we come in contact with death for the first time (maybe that of a grandparent or someone close to us) and we are shocked out of our cocoons. We realize that life does not last forever.

Where is humanity headed?After this initial death shock from childhood. We somehow slip back into that feeling of permanence. Here is how. Let’s have a little thought experiment: What do you think life on earth would look like by the year 2789?  I’ve gotten some really imaginative answers to this question. These answers range from the highly optimistic such as: “We will have Wireless electricity”, “Intergalactic travel (travelling from our galaxy to another) would be as easy as inter-city transport. We will even be able to travel beyond our solar system”, “We would have made contact with aliens and conduct business with them”, “We would have developed the technology for time travel”, “Humans would have bio-hacked their DNA and we will be able to live for hundreds and thousands of years if not forever”.

There are also those who are terribly and hopelessly pessimistic with answers like: “We would have been enslaved by the aliens”. “The humans of that time would be struggling to rebuild civilization after the nuclear annihilation of world war 3”. “Humans would have evolved further to some sort of super beings and those left among the previous humans would become the animals of that time”.

Don’t forget where we started from. We’re supposed to discuss how we slipped back into a false feeling of permanence after childhood. Okay let’s connect the dots. Now if you look at all those replies- both the pessimistic and the optimistic ones. You’ll realize a subtle assumption- Nobody thinks humans will go extinct- Even those who have believed that the worst case scenario would occur are also stuck in the belief that humanity would somehow be around forever.

The data disagrees. If we objectively consider the facts, it doesn’t seem likely that humanity will last as long as we think. Let’s start with the most obvious: You’ve probably heard that a group of respected scientists have put the world’s clock at 2 minutes to midnight. They are not joking. Our planet is degrading and may not hold out for too long. Guys like Elon Musk are making plans to ship some specimens among us out to Mars. The question is will we get away from here early enough?

Apart from earth expiring. There’s also us- humans. We came close to nuclear annihilation during the Cuban missile crisis. Well there’s North Korea now, and bad news- the president is not John F. Kennedy. The man presently in the oval office is more likely to punch in launch codes than to dial Kim Jong Un’s private phone.


So when next you’re thinking about the year 2789, imagine the universe devoid of humans. That’s more like it.

Ray Kurzweil and the Singularity

Who is Ray Kurzweil? While everyone has heard of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, many people have never heard of Ray Kurzweil. Despite that, Forbes magazine has called him the ultimate thinking machine and Inc. magazine called him the rightful heir to Thomas Edison. He was the main inventor of many technologies / devices including the first generalized optical character reader, the first CCD flat bed scanner, the first machine to synthesize speech from text, the first reading machine to translate text to speech, the first large vocabulary speech recognition to be commercially marketed, the first music synthesizer to be able to capture the sound of a grand piano and other orchestra instruments.

Singularity is Near

In 2005, Kurzweil wrote a book called The Singularity is Near. What is the Singularity? Many people have forecast it, not just Kurzweil. The first was probably the computer scientist John von Neumann in the 1950s. The idea is that as artificial intelligence and robots get smarter, they will reach a point where they could do something like thinking. They could design improvements for themselves.

Periods of Intellectual Evolution

Kurszweil breaks our evolution down into six epochs. At first we focussed on learning physics and chemistry. Then came biology and DNA, next the brain, followed by technology. He feels the next step will be a merging of human technology and human intelligence.

As I said in another post, we have been experiencing exponential growth in technology and learning. Kurzweil feels that it is in a way double exponential because there is incentive to put more money and resources into things that are growing rapidly and making money. Therefore they have more resources and discoveries which accelerates the pace even faster.

Increasing Paradigm Shifts

But, Kurzweil has a slight twist on this. He says that the growth may look smooth but is actually made up of different spurts. When there is a paradigm shift, it taks of slowly at first and then rapidly accelerates. But then it doesn’t keep accelerating, it maxes out and slows down. Kurzweil’s point is that when things start to slow down, people look for solutions and ways around the issue. A new paradigm shift is discovered and the process starts over, but they all blend together to make the process look smooth. He feels that paradigm shifts are becoming ever more common and the rate of change is accelerating.

He feels that Moore’s law will max out around 2020. He says that it is only the latest paradigm shift in computing. It started with electromechanical. If you saw the recent movie, The Imitation Game, that is what electromechanical computers were. Next was relay, followed by vacuum tubes and then transistors. He feels that something will replace integrated circuits, possibly carbon nanotubes and the acceleration will continue.

Understanding the Brain

He feels that to get to the singularity we need to understand the brain better. We could reverse engineer it, but he also suggests the possibility of uploading a brain so to speak. Copy every aspect of it digitally. But we don’t have the capability to do this now and Kurzweil doesn’t think we will have it until around 2040.

He also feels that with increasing knowledge of biology, medicine and genetics that we will basically be able to live forever. However, this increased knowledge will increase the ability of people to do bad things, such as destructive nanobots which could do more damage than suicide bombers.

Humans become Robots?

He feels that past the singularity we may no longer need our bodies and even though there may only be machines, that they will be essentially human because they will be imbued with our characteristics. But at the same time he says that it will allow our bodies to remain physically fit and healthy and that nanobots or some other technologies will allow us to change our bodies almost at will. But that makes no sense unless it is a step on the way to being completely machine based. Guess I need to read the book.

Also makes me wonder about battery technology. That is kind of a sticking point in all of this. Battery technology has definitely not been on an exponential curve.

Populating the Universe

He predicts that is only a short time after the Singularity that we begin to spread out and begin saturating the universe with intelligence. Since we have seen no evidence of any other intelligence out there, he feels that we are the first and it is our duty to expand through the universe. I am not sure I understand this, but it seems he feels that as we move past the singularity we will take on more and more of the attributes of a god or gods. I might be misrepresenting that one. My apologies if so.

Counter Views

Critiques of the book say Kurzweil has misunderstood some things. David Linden, a neuroscientist, says that although data collection is increasing exponentially, insight is increasing linearly.  He says that while the price and speed of sequencing genes is changing rapidly, our understanding of them is increasing much more slowly.

Theodore Modis doesn’t believe that anything increases exponentially forever. He feels that something called a logistics function is a better comparison or example. It eventually tops out and flattens.

However, Kurzweil has plenty of supporters as well. I guess we will see in the not too distant future, who is right!


What the Next 10 Years Will Look Like

An article in the Huffington Post interviews 7 futurists about what to expect in the next 10 years. So, what is a futurist? Pretty much what it sounds like. It is a person who spends his or her time thinking about the future, what the likely changes are based on current trends and making predictions.

Should we believe them? Well, the track record the past of the predictions coming true haven’t been great and of course it gets worse the further out in time you go. One of the key problems is that you can trend things out but you can’t predict paradigm shifts where something is invented or discovered that rapidly speeds up or changes development in one area or another. One minor example that didn’t even need a discovery or invention is gay marriage. Acceptance seemed to reach a tipping point in society and the change in society’s viewpoint on the subject changed far faster than anyone predicted. It also happened faster than most if not all social changes had in the past.

The first person mentioned in the article is Dr. Michio Kaku. You have probably seen him on TV on various science shows. He is a professor of theoretical physics. He thinks that in only 10 years we will have at least the beginnings of a Brainnet. Apparently scientists are already connecting the brain to computers and decoding some of our thoughts and memories. Dr. Kaku thinks that we will be able to transmit thoughts, memories, feelings and emotions aroung the world. Historians will be able to record a much broader history based on this and he predicted that just as teenagers now post selfies from their prom, that they will be posting memories and feelings from the prom in the future.

Next up is Dr. Ray Kurzweil. He was key in inventing scanners and reading machines for the blind and many other inventions. He is now working at Google. Part of his prediction focuses on 3D printing. He thinks it will have advanced so far that we will print out our clothing and will download the latest clothing designs from top designers and print them out. More amazingly he predicts that we will be able to print out organs or print out repairs to organs. I know people are hard at work on this but thought it was further away than 10 years. He also forecasts that we will spend more time in virtual realities reacting with avatars. Some of these avatars might even be our deceased relatives. They will be recreated through emails, letters etc. He feels that they will be realistic enough but not quite right to be kind of creepy. He feels that by 2030, with the ability to record more aspects of the brain as Dr. Kaku was talking about above, that the avatars will feel realistic.

Dr. Anne Lise-Kjaer founded a forecasting agency in London. She says that the World Health Organization believes the 75% of all deaths in 2020 will be from chronic diseases like diabetes and heart problems. She sees medical technology being able to track people better on a day to day basis and keep them healthier and also diagnose problems sooner so corrective action can be taken before it has progressed very far. She is particularly heartened by apps that can help with mental diseases, not just physical diseases.

Dr. James Canton, head of Institute for Global Futures thinks that the internet of things will continue to expand and by 2025 most of the world will be amazingly connected. No big surprise there. But he also predicts that artificial intelligence will become as smart or smarter than humans. He says humans and robots will merge to treat patients around the world. My question is, why just in medicine? Wouldn’t this happen in all occupations? He also sees dramatic advances in personalized medicine and personal genetic medicine. Finally he sees a next generation Bitcoin that will replace paper money and coins.

Jason Silva – You know him as the host of National Geographic’s Brain Games. He feels that the on-demand model used in manufacturing will move into many or all aspects of life. There will be self driving cars so most people won’t own cars, they will just summon one with their smart phone when they need one.

Dr. Amy Zalman, head of the World Future Society, is intrigued by the possibilities from what we are learning about the brain and how people function. One example is that a study recently found that heads of companies had less stress than people working in the company. An Israeli study found that judges gave out heavier sentences before lunch when they were hungry. She hopes that as we discover things like this that we can make the world a fairer place and that we can have business and government function more effectively and fairly.

Mark Stevenson is the author of An Optimist’s Tour of the Future. He has a different take in that he likes the technologies but feels that our present institutions are holding back change. He feels we need to figure out new ways to organize ourselves. So he is looking at things like the movement in India for open source drug discovery.