Thursday, August 27, 2015

From our crappy present to our sunny future (what happens between now and then)

Last month I had a lot of fun finally putting to paper my idea of how a future society (the first truly global, and hopefully truly humane) may look like (you can find it here: Sunny future and here Politics of sunny future and here Economy of sunny future and finally here -it was quite long even for my verbosity standards, but describing a whole viable social arrangement is no small potatoes: loose ends of sunny future ). It was a pretty old project I’ve been engaged on and off with for the last five years, which I intended to use for a “popular” book of mild Sci Fi. Something in the line of the “new age utopia” supposedly penned by one of the main characters of Martin Amis The Information (that I may still some day develop, the main plot and the ending are already written, all that was missing was a credible background that now I consider fully fleshed out, or at least with consistent enough guidelines to allow for the fleshing out). For those following this blog regularly, I may come back to this every now and then, as I play with some feature that requires an explanation, or want to expand on some critique of our current society by describing a potential alternative, as this is what the exercise was about from the beginning: accepting that every society is improvable, how would my version of a “better” society look like was for me important to spell out, as I was (and still am) a bit tired of so many interwebz warriors talking crap about capitalism and accusing everybody who doesn’t share their radical agenda of being a sellout without being able to define what they would like to see in its place. What I describe in those posts is what I would like to see.

Of course, the fact that I would like to see it is not by itself a great indicator of its plausibility. We humans have an abysmal record estimating probabilities (as this wonderful post in the Slate Star Codex reminds us of: On overconfidence ), and even worse when we let our desires weigh in the issue. So I do not pretend to believe that such future is very probable, although I do consider it both viable and more likely than not. Now, what are the big unknowns that may render this little exercise in prediction entirely off the mark?, I can think of the following events, each of them with a very low probability but with a potentially huge impact in the final outcome:

·        Total nuclear war (not causing the annihilation of the human race, I always believed that fear was irrational and overblown, but it may still cause severe societal breakdown in the northern hemisphere all the same, and back to the inter state race for survival that puts a premium on reproduction rates sky high above replacement, and all the intra societal competition maladies that come with it)
·        Limited nuclear war (detonation of nuclear device in a major Western city most likely by a stateless actor with likely retaliation towards the most likely sponsor of such action) and reinforcement of totalitarian tendencies in current “open” societies… leading to completely “administered” lives in giant macro-states, where the level of population and economic activity are dictated by centralized bureaucrats
·        Scientific breakthrough that enables space travel, colonization of Mars, the Moon and beyond (and new demographic push to populate new peripheries and new frontiers, with societies cranking up again the demographic and economic arms race to colonize the new lands in what would amount to a new imperialist expansion)
·        Scientific breakthrough that enables immersive, two directional virtual reality (VR) with simulated tactile feedback, and massive retreat of humanity into virtual worlds, once the tiny problem of feeding the bodies we left behind in this one is solved (which doesn’t seem all that difficult, synthetic food is already cheap to produce, and not having to worry about taste and texture would make it even more so)
·        Inability of society to adapt to massive climate disruption caused by continued pumping of Green House Gasses in the atmosphere (worst case scenario) and either extinction of human species after famines, riots and total war or retreat into fortified states that survive the turmoil in the remaining habitable zones, probably heavily armed and oriented towards hegemony at any price (thus nationalistic-jingoistic and in my humble opinion not very conductive to the flourishing of their unlucky subjects)
You may notice I have not included the singularity, the advent of post-humanity (by our merging with machines to enhance our capabilities until we end up becoming a different species) or the wiping out of humanity by an evil (or simply not that fond of us) AI. I just don’t believe any of those fancy things are going to happen. Technological progress is going to quietly come to a halt, without much fuss, without fanfare, without anybody much noticing it. Two or three hundred years from now somebody will look back and say “wow, for three or four generations we have been living exactly as our parents, Isn’t that weird?” but it won’t be (in fact, it will be the culmination of the reversal to the historical average). Not that there won’t be lots of innovation: people will create wonderful stories, great art (I don’t know through which means of expression), daring theories of why we are here and how nature works… it will just not have that much influence in how we live (what we dress, how we build our houses, what we eat, how we cure ourselves when ill). But that is an interesting topic for a separate post (why I think Artificial Intelligence is just not going to happen), although I’ll leave my readers with a hint: the interesting question is not if there will be artificial intelligence fifty years from now (or if there is extraterrestrial intelligence anywhere in the Universe outside of Earth right now, or if there ever was), the interesting question is if there is intelligence (natural or otherwise) here and now. And the fact that we can meaningfully pose such a question, and be uncertain about its answer tells us a lot about why it is premature to think of “building” something we understand so imperfectly (if at all).

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