The future looks bright, except when it doesn’t. Here are 10 exceptionally regrettable developments we can expect in the coming decades.
Listed in no particular order.
Earlier this year, Oxford’s Global Priorities Project compiled a list of catastrophes that could kill off 10 percent or more of the human population. High on the list was a deliberately engineered pandemic, and the authors warned that it could happen in as few as five years.
Many of the technologies for this prospect are starting to appear, including the CRISPR/cas9 gene-editing system and 3D-bioprinters. What’s more, the blueprints for this kind of destruction are being made available. A decade ago, futurist Ray Kurzweil and technologist Bill Joy scolded the US Department of Health for publishing the full genome of the 1918 influenza virus, calling it “extremely foolish.” More recently, a number of scientists spoke out when Nature decided to publish a so-called “gain of function” study explaining how the bird flu could be mutated into something even deadlier.
The fear is that a rogue state, terrorist group, or a malign individual might create their own virus and unleash it. Natural selection is good at creating nasty and highly prolific viruses, but imagine what intentional design could concoct.
One of the more radical visions of the future is a world in which biological humans have traded-in their corporeal bodies in favor of a purely digital existence. This would require a person to literally upload their mind to a supercomputer, but this hypothetical process might actually result in the permanent destruction of the original person. It would be a form of unintentional suicide.
This is what’s known as the “continuity of consciousness” problem. Sure, we may eventually be able to cut, copy, and paste the essence of a person’s personality and memories to a digital substrate, but transferring the seat of consciousness itself may be an untenable proposition. Neuroscientists know that memories are parked in the brain as physical constructs; there’s something physically there to copy. But consciousness still eludes our understanding, and we’re not certain how it arises in the brain, let alone how we can transfer it from point A to point B. It’s also quite possible that subjective awareness cannot be replicated in the digital realm, and that it’s dependent on the presence and orientation of specific physical structures.
Mind uploading will likely require destructive atomic-scale scanning of the brain. It would be similar to the way teleportation is done in Star Trek. Indeed, one of the dirty little secrets of this sci-fi show is that the person being teleported is actually killed each time it happens, replaced by an exact duplicate who’s none the wiser. Mind transfers could be similar, where the original brain is destroyed, replaced by a digital being who’s convinced they’re still the original—but it would be a delusion.
As threats to national security increase, and as these threats expand in severity, governments will find it necessary to enact draconian measures. Over time, many of the freedoms and civil liberties we currently take for granted, such as the freedom of assembly, the right to privacy (more on this next—it’s worse than you think), or the right to travel both within and beyond the borders of our home country, could be drastically diminished.
At the same time, a fearful population will be more tempted and willing to elect a hardline government that promises to throw the hammer down on perceived threats—even overtly undemocratic regimes.
The threats to national security will have to be severe to instigate these changes, but history has precedents. Following the September 11 attacks and the subsequent mailings of anthrax spores, the US government enacted the Homeland Security Act. This legislation was criticized for being too severe and reactionary, but it’s a perfect example of what happens when a nation feels under threat. Now imagine what would happen if another 9/11-type event happened, but one involving hundreds of thousands of deaths, or even millions.
Such an act of terrorism could be unleashed through miniaturized nuclear weapons, or the deliberate release of bioweapons. And the fact that small groups, and even single individuals, will have the power to attain and use these weapons will only make governments and citizens more willing to accept the loss of freedoms.
We are rapidly approaching the era of ubiquitous surveillance, a time when virtually every aspect of our lives will be monitored. Privacy as we know it will cease to exist, supplanted by Big Brother’s eyes and ears.
Governments, ever fearful of internal and external threats, will increasingly turn to low-cost, high-tech surveillance technologies. Corporations, eager to track the tendencies and behaviors of its users, will find it impossible to resist. Citizens of the surveillance society will have no choice but to accept that every last detail of their lives will be recorded.
Already today, surveillance cameras litter our environment, while our computers, smartphones, and tablet devices follow our daily affairs, whether it be our purchasing proclivities or the types of porn we watch.
Looking ahead, government agencies and police could deploy more sophisticated tracking devices, including the much-anticipated smart dust—tiny sensors that would monitor practically anything, from light and temperature to chemicals and vibrations. These particles could be sprinkled around Earth, functioning as the eyes and ears of the planet. In conjunction with powerful data mining algorithms, virtually everything we do would be monitored. To ensure accountability, we could watch the watchers—but will they allow it?
Long before artificial intelligences become truly conscious or self-aware, they’ll be programmed by humans and corporations to seem that way. We’ll be tricked into thinking they have minds of their own, leaving us vulnerable to all manner of manipulation and persuasion. Such is the near future envisaged by futurist and sci-fi novelist David Brin. He refers to these insidious machine minds as HIERS, or Human-Interaction Empathetic Robots.
“Human empathy is both one of our paramount gifts and among our biggest weaknesses,” Brin told Gizmodo. “For at least a million years, we’ve developed skills at lie-detection...[but] no liars ever had the training that these new HIERS will get, learning via feedback from hundreds, then thousands, then millions of human exchanges around the world, adjusting their simulated voices and facial expressions and specific wordings, till the only folks able to resist will be sociopaths—and they have plenty of chinks in their armor, as well.”
Brin figures that some experts will be able to tell when they’re being manipulated by one of these bots, but “that will matter about as much as it does today, as millions of voters cast their ballots based on emotional cues, defying their own clear self-interest or reason.” Eventually, robots may guide and protect their gullible human partners, advising them when “to ignore the guilt-tripping scowl, the pitiable smile, the endearingly winsome gaze, the sob story or eager sales pitch—and, inevitably, the claims of sapient pain at being persecuted or oppressed for being a robot.”
Late last year, world leaders forged an agreement to limit human-caused global warming to two degrees Celsius. It’s a laudable goal, but we may have already passed a critical tipping point. The effects of climate change are going to be felt for hundreds, and possibly thousands, of years to come. And as we enter into the planet’s Sixth Mass Extinction, we run the risk of damaging critical ecosystems and radically diminishing the diversity of life on Earth.
Climate models show that even if carbon dioxide levels came to a sudden halt, the levels of this greenhouse gas in Earth’s atmosphere will continue to warm our planet for hundreds of years. Our oceans will slowly release the CO2 it has been steadily absorbing, and our atmosphere may not return to pre-industrial levels for many centuries. As a recent assessment from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated, “A large fraction of climate change is largely irreversible on human time scales.”
In The Bulletin, science writer Dawn Stover lists the ramifications:
The melting of snow and ice will expose darker patches of water and land that absorb more of the sun’s radiation, accelerating global warming and the retreat of ice sheets and glaciers. Scientists agree that the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet has already gone into an unstoppable decline. Currents that transport heat within the oceans will be disrupted. Ocean acidification will continue to rise, with unknown effects on marine life. Thawing permafrost and sea beds will release methane, a greenhouse gas. Droughts predicted to be the worst in 1,000 years will trigger vegetation changes and wildfires, releasing carbon. Species unable to adapt quickly to a changing climate will go extinct. Coastal communities will be submerged, creating a humanitarian crisis.
An increasing number of diseases are becoming resistant to antibiotics. Eventually, we could make the unhappy transition to a “post-antibiotic era,” a time when even the most routine infections could threaten our lives.
The era of antimicrobial resistant bacteria will change medicine as we know it. Transplant surgery will become difficult, if not impossible. Simple operations, such as a burst appendix, will be perilous once again. Pneumonia would ravage the elderly, as would many other diseases of old age, including cancer.
How bad could it get? A recent report by the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries in Britain predicted that the new era of antimicrobial resistance will kill upwards of 10 million people each year by 2050. No wonder they’re calling it the “antibiotic apocalypse.”
Thankfully, we’re not completely out of options. Scientists are currently on the hunt for undiscovered antibacterial compounds. They’re also working to develop bacteria-fighting viruses and vaccines. Failing that, we could alway design artificial microorganisms that can hunt down and destroy problematic bacteria.
It’s The Terminator scenario come to life—the unleashing of fully automated weapons systems that dispassionately hunt down and kill human combatants.
These systems, known as LAWS (Lethal Autonomous Weapons), are under development, and it’ll only be a matter of time before they’re tacked onto pre-existing weapons, including powerful munitions and nuclear warheads. These robotic weapons are supposed to reduce human casualties and make war more humane, but experts fear these futuristic killing machines could be prone to accidents and even escape human control.
LAWS will be imbued with safety mechanisms and “moral” programming, but as Wendell Wallach from Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics told to Gizmodo, they’ll be difficult to test, will still have software bugs, and will act unpredictably at times, even displaying unanticipated behavior.
“The speed-up of warfare and cost factors will make LAWS essential for advanced nations and attractive to non-state actors,” Wallach said. “While countries like the US promise that there will be meaningful human control and strong communication links to LAWS, they are particularly interested in LAWS for undersea weapons because they are difficult to communicate with.” As an example, Wallach worries about an unmanned submarine that mistakenly launches powerful munitions or even a nuclear warhead.
“We could have a nuclear conflagration before anyone even recognized what happened,” he said. “This is only one of hundreds of scenarios where semi-intelligent weaponry poses existential risks for humanity, long before the better recognized superintelligence might ever be realized. The long-term consequences of failing to ban LAWS far-outweigh any short-term benefits.”
Few people today are aware of the risks posed by the partial or total loss of our satellite fleet, a catastrophe that could be instigated by a Kessler Syndrome (as portrayed in the film Gravity), a massive geomagnetic solar storm, or through a space war.
Without satellites, our ability to communicate would diminish dramatically. GPS would be completely wiped out, along with those systems dependent upon it. Space-based synchronization would grind to a halt, affecting everything from the financial sector to the electrical grid.
We need to take this risk more seriously and act accordingly. For starters, we should improve the robustness and resilience of our infrastructure; our dependence on satellites has put us in a precarious position. We also need to develop an appreciation of the orbital ecology. As time passes, both Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and Geosynchronous Orbit (GEO) are getting increasingly cluttered with satellites and space junk. Unless we start to clean it up, we could lose these precious areas of space for decades, if not longer.
We take it for granted that eventually—whether it be next week or sometime during the next millennia—we’ll make contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence. Trouble is, it’ll likely never happen. That’s because there’s no one out there transmitting signals for us to intercept, and no one’s travelling between stars in search of new places to conquer.
The ongoing Great Silence isn’t just a trivial observation. Our galaxy is ancient, so we should have made contact with aliens by now. Signs of ET, from radio signal leakage through to megascale engineering projects, should be virtually everywhere. Yet we see nothing.
The fact that we haven’t had an alien meet-and-greet could be read as a dire warning for our future. Perhaps there’s a technological barrier that can’t be surmounted, such as artificial superintelligence or weaponized nanotechnology. Alternately, aliens might be paranoid and xenophobic, playing it safe in case the neighbors are hostile. Alternately, intelligent life may choose to explore the infinite realms of cyberspace instead of the cold, dead cosmos. Either way, zipping around the galaxy in spaceships doesn’t appear to be an option.