Throughout most of last week I was wearing a giant badge with a metal tag on it announcing that this was my 10th TED. The conference itself was in retrospective mode, celebrating its 30th birthday. Nostalgia aside though, in many ways this was my favorite TED yet– lots of strong talks, including a remarkable interview with Edward Snowden (and response from NSA Deputy Director Richard Ledgett). My life has been greatly enriched by the ten weeks I’ve spent in Monterey, Long Beach, and now (thankfully) Vancouver. Of course not all of the talks are good, but many of the most surprising and delightful things I’ve seen and heard in the past decade, and many of the most interesting people I’ve met, I’ve seen, heard and met there.
1. Machine Intelligence
I think that just as the Internet has been such a great driver of change across so many spheres over the past 20 years, we will see machine intelligence in the same role over the coming decades.
Today, we are as an intelligent species essentially singular. There are of course some other brainy species, like chimpanzees, dolphins, crows and octopuses, but if anything they only emphasize our unique position on Earth— as animals richly gifted with self-awareness, language, abstract thought, art, mathematical capability, science, technology and so on. Many of us have staked our entire self-concept on the idea that to be human is to have a mind, and that minds are the unique province of humans. For those of us who are not religious, this could be interpreted as the last bastion of dualism. Our economic, legal and ethical systems are also implicitly built around this idea.
Now, we’re well along the road to really understanding the fundamental principles of how a mind can be built, and Moore’s Law will put brain-scale computing within reach this decade. (We need to put some asterisks next to Moore’s Law, since we are already running up against certain limits in computational scale using our present-day approaches, but I’ll stand behind the broader statement.) When we reach this point, we will find ourselves no longer alone. It’s difficult to overstate the importance that moment will have in our future history.
It may well result in further nonlinearity in the “rate” of history too, since minds and what we’ve dreamt up with them have been the engine behind history and its acceleration.
2. Gender Selection
For many thousands of years we’ve lived in a male-dominated society. I don’t think that we’re shifting toward “female dominance” so much as I think that the whole idea of dominance is a male paradigm, and that it is this paradigm that is being selected against— by increasing population density in the urban cores, increasing education, larger working groups, increasing collaboration, rising technological leverage, global trade and so on. It may be difficult to imagine this now, when the vast majority of the world’s capital is still in the hands of men and many of the STEM fields (which are also among the highest-paid) are still overwhelmingly male, but I think that men— and especially “manly men” exhibiting many of the classical correlates of high testosterone— will be at a distinct disadvantage in 30 years time. This represents a profound upset of the patriarchal system that has defined virtually all of recorded history, so … it’ll be a big deal.
3. Post-subsistence Economics
As machine intelligence, robotics, and technological leverage in general increasingly decouple productivity from labor, we will continue to see unemployment rise even in otherwise healthy economies. The end state is one in which most forms of human labor are simply not required. In 30 years, if not sooner, we will be facing this unprecedented situation— and whether it’s heaven or hell depends on whether we’re able to let go of capitalism, economic Darwinism and the Calvinist ethics that implicitly underlie these systems. Without a change of course, we will see mass unemployment drive a radical acceleration of the already dramatic imbalance between the very wealthy few and everyone else, leading to ugly conditions in the cities and ultimately violent uprising.
On the other hand, if we are able to set aside our Calvinism, we will realize that given the technological efficiencies we have achieved, everyone can live well, with or without a job. Capitalism, entrepreneurship and other systems of differential wealth creation could still function on top of this horizontal base; but everyone must be fed and housed decently, have access to free health care and education, and be able to live a good life. I assume the nation-state will still be a relevant legal and economic construct in 30 years (though I’m not sure, as corporations or possibly other structures will complicate the picture); my guess is that we will see both paths taken in different parts of the world, leading to misery and war in some, where either the benefits of accelerating technology are slow to penetrate or Darwinian economics are left unchecked.
We’re rapidly figuring out not only how the brain is engineered, but also the body. Of course this implies greater mastery over mechanisms of disease, but more broadly, as biology becomes first understood and then engineered, Nature becomes open to profound and rapid modification. I don’t doubt that we will be able to alter aging mechanisms, “fix” various bugs in human “design”, make novel organisms and ultimately modify our own natures. As we reach the end of the 30 year period it’s hard for me to imagine that people won’t begin to explore these capabilities, which seems likely to lead to accelerated speciation. Machine intelligence and bioengineering will both demand that we rethink our legal and ethical foundations in a variety of ways.
The world’s space programs have been essentially dormant for decades, as we’ve focused inward on developments like computers and the Internet, biology and neuroscience. But as our fundamental technical capabilities improve, barriers to space exploration do begin to come down; what was once a heroic effort requiring the full brunt of the resources of the richest countries on Earth will come within reach of companies and (initially, rich) individuals. We’ve seen only the first stirrings of this with undertakings like SpaceX and Moon Express.
At some point our grasp of materials science and nanofabrication will become sufficient to build a space elevator, at which point our world will expand a great deal as the energetic cost of escaping Earth’s gravity well goes to near zero, as many science fiction writers of the 20th century imagined. While I’m unsure of whether the space elevator will happen within the 30 year period, I’m confident we’ll see this within our lifetimes.
6. Sexual and lifestyle freedom
In 30 years, I think that not only will the more progressive places in the world have finished reconciling themselves to the wide spectrum of sexual orientation and expression, but also to a wide variety of life configurations beyond the nuclear family built around a single lifelong pair-bond. There are many forces contributing to this shift, and I suspect that an empirical case can be made for this in much the same way as for the gender ideas above. This is the least developed of my six ideas, but one that I think will have profound implications.
One thing I’m leaving off the list above is the potential availability of very cheap, very abundant energy at some point in the future. Many aspects of our outlook are conditioned on the premise that energy is limited and expensive. As a thought experiment, one can ask, “what if energy in virtually any amount were free?” This could imply an end to drought anywhere via desalination of seawater; it could allow us to enact climate controlling interventions on a massive scale, engineer materials that are currently cost-prohibitive, or let us get into space easily even if we continue to do it the hard way.
(Although freely available energy could let us save great ecosystems currently under dire threat, without great care it could also lead to disaster through chemical, thermal, biological and noise pollution on an unprecedented scale.)
We know that in principle vast amounts of energy are available to us through nuclear processes, so in principle an innovation could come along at any time that lets us tap safely into this energy. That would change everything. However, there is no trend or indication that suggests a timeline for such a development— it could happen next week, or still be a pipe dream a century from now.
* * *
As a postscript, one of my colleagues asked me why climate change didn’t make it onto my list. I suppose it was because the brief was to write about “things that will blow our minds in the next 30 years”, and our climate (and more broadly, environmental) problem seems likely to be just as bad as everyone intelligent has been saying it’s going to be. I don’t think a single one of my 10 TEDs so far has failed to include a tightly-argued climate Cassandra– accelerating desertification, molten tundra, drowned cities, a billion displaced people. So our minds should not be blown when we find out that our models were right. There are all-too-plausible “mind-blowing” futures in which the problems we’re creating for ourselves are so severe that none of my other predictions come to pass, and we instead experience global climate-mediated civilizational collapse in the Jared Diamond sense. Even in the best scenario, there will be devastating losses. Let’s hope that we can pull it together enough to muddle our way through to the amazing futures on the far side of this bottleneck. I’m cautiously hopeful.