30 years of TED

TED2014Through­out 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.

A num­ber of us were asked to play futur­ist for the TED blog and write down our pre­dic­tions about the biggest and most sur­pris­ing changes head­ing our way over the next 30 years.  Mine are:

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.

4. Self-modification

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.

5. Space

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.

Bonus: Energy

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.

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6 Responses to 30 years of TED

  1. Pingback: TDC14: Forget skynet, female-kind for the shift | Cubicgarden.com...

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