The Quest of the Future

One of my goals this past year was to increase my spirituality. It didn’t happen.

But something else did. I became increasingly interested in the future. Which, in a sense has increased my spirituality.

I don’t recall the exact moment this happened, or what the catalyst was for my new-found interest in future sciences and technologies; But it didn’t take long for me to find myself immersed in the most thought provoking propositions I have ever encountered about life, the universe, and the nature of our existence.

I’ve often heard my parents generation recalling predictions of the future from their childhood in an almost cynical fashion: Oh, we thought that in the year 2000 there were going to be flying cars and everyone would have their own jetpack

Alas, the year 2000 came and it wasn’t the Jetsons. But, we were living in an era shaped by information age technology. The ability to share, access, and transfer data freely had permeated nearly every aspect of our lives; technology had transcended big business, universities, and government, becoming a central aspect of our personal lives.

The Consumerist Lifestyle Preoccupation

Ten years ago, we didn’t envision that we would be documenting our lives and managing our identity in an 800 million member strong social network. Nor did we expect the reach of our handheld devices to continually increase and become so important to us and prevalent in our society.

We seem to have taken this extremely narrow focus of future advances as a result of these lifestyle products. I’m astonished at how little consideration my generation (80’s babies) truly gives to the future. We are overly focused on the next generation iPhone or how the new changes to Facebook are going to affect us; we aren’t even bothering to look beyond the next ‘version’ of whatever consumer product we think is supposed to shape our lifestyle. As a society, we are almost Orwellian in our obedience to the de-facto consumer goods and services being marketed and produced by the super-elite.

As a result of our egocentric consumerist preoccupations, we are sheepish when it comes to looking ahead at the “future”.

But, there is one segment of the population that hasn’t failed to look beyond the immediate technological horizon: the super-elite. This seems obvious, they are creating the ‘next big thing’; they are the innovators, yes – but, they aren’t always the visionaries themselves.

Futurists: Modern Day Oracles

Moore’s law and other similar trends have allowed scientists, academics, researchers and writers to systematically predict the future, based on technological trends. These Futurists use three P’s (Probable, Preferable, and Possible) to predict and envision the future.

Interestingly, some of the brightest futurists have a very elite following: the wealthiest people in the world.

The richest man in the world, Carlos Slim has cited close friend and Futurist Alvin Toffler as one of the biggest influences on his investment strategy, based on recognizing trends unforeseeable to others.

Possessing a close second to Slim’s fortune, Bill Gates has called legendary futurist Ray Kurzweil, “..the best in the world atclpredicting the future.” and often picks his brain for advice.

As I’ve immersed myself in this new realm of learning, I’ve discovered similar connections to the two listed above and think that it’s a connection worth noting.

So, what do these futurists and their elite following see on the horizon that we don’t?

To understand their predictions, you have to first take a look at their paradigms.

Moore’s Law

Moore’s Law is a trend that predicts the continual advancement of computer chip processing power, along with a continual reduction in size.

Moore’s Law states computing power doubles every 18 months as the number of transistors that can be inexpensively placed on an integrated circuit (a computer chip) continually increases.

This was first hypothesized by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore in 1965 and has continued for over 50 years. This has driven exponential technological progress in memory, processing speed, and overall computing power.

Interestingly enough, Moore’s Law is seen as a self fulfilling prophecy, as it has continually been used as an industry wide goal.

The continuation of Moore’s Law for over half a century has allowed futurists to base their predictions on trend that has predictably driven technological advancement and is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

So where is Moore’s Law taking us? Thinner televisions? More megapixels? Smaller computing devices? Yes, yes, and yes – but it also goes deeper.

The Law of Accelerating Returns and the Technology Singularity

In his 1999 book, the Age of Spiritual Machines, Futurist Ray Kurzweil noted that technological progressions to become faster and more complex. This is known as the Law of Accelerating Returns or Accelerating Change. Essentially, Kurzweil proposed an extension to Moore’s Law, stating that the rate of change within evolutionary systems increases exponentially.

According to Kurzweil in his 2001 essay “The Lae of Accelerating Returns”:

An analysis of the history of technology shows that technological change is exponential, contrary to the common-sense ‘intuitive linear’ view. So we won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century—it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate). The ‘returns,’ such as chip speed and cost-effectiveness, also increase exponentially. There’s even exponential growth in the rate of exponential growth. Within a few decades, machine intelligence will surpass human intelligence, leading to the Singularity—technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history. The implications include the merger of biological and nonbiological intelligence, immortal software-based humans, and ultra-high levels of intelligence that expand outward in the universe at the speed of light

Like many of Kurzweil’s ideas, it’s a lot to process – but it’s profound, as many of his ideas are. The biggest implication from what he is proposing above is that “Within a few decades, machine intelligence will surpass human intelligence…”

This is known as the singularity or the technology singularity. This isn’t just a milestone where technology can beat us at every intelligence test, this is an explosion of intelligence that is self augmenting and capable of becoming thousands of times smarter than the human brain.

Since the capabilities of such intelligence would far surpass our own, it is difficult for an unaided human mind to comprehend the future beyond the singularity. The intelligence would be unfathomable to humans. We’re not talking about a hundred times smarter than a human, we are talking about an entity with a trillion times our intelligence.

A technological singularity is seen as an intellectual Event Horizon beyond which events can be predicted or even understood.

Is the future getting weird enough for you yet?

Interpreting the Singularity

We cannot predict what kind of changes the singularity will bring about, but numerous prominent individuals have hypothesized about potential consequences of such intellectually superior beings.

While Kurzweil envisions a utopian future where humans enter a transhuman era, enabling them to live forever, Bill Joy, Co-Founder and former Chief Scientist at Sun Microsystems predicts a future that poses serious threats in what he deemed GNR: Genetics, Nanotechnology, and Robotics. His April 2000 piece in Wired Magazine, entitled Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us is a fascinating read.

Artificial Intelligence researcher Hugo De Garis went even further to postulate that the rise of post singularity artificial intelligence would lead to an inevitable species war that could claim billions of lives.

In his June 2009 piece The Coming Artilect War he suggests a frightening scenario that raises questions about the ethical implications of such intelligent beings:

I differ sharply with well-known futurist Ray Kurzweil on his over-optimistic prediction that the rise of the artilect this century will be a positive development for humanity. I think it will be a catastrophe. I see a war coming, the “Artilect War,” not between the artilects and human beings, as in the movie Terminator, but between the Terrans, Cosmists and Cyborgists. This will be the worst, most passionate war that humanity has ever known, because the stakes–the survival of our species–have never been so high.

While there is no legislation that currently deals with implications of future intelligences, organizations such as the Singularity Institute and The Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies are already exploring potential issues and measures to control the integrity and ethics of technology based super-intelligences.

Current Advances and Endeavors Towards the Future

There are a myriad of scientific developments under way that are going to change the world we live in.