In 1000 AD, human civilization was led by the Golden Age of Islam (with extensive trade routes, massive cities, and polymath philosopher-scientists like Alhazen) and the 100-million strong Song Dynasty of China (with such inventions as gunpowder, paper money, the movable type printing). Vikings raided feudal Europe, Mississippian culture thrived in North America, and the Aztecs had just moved to what is now Mexico. Drought and environmental collapse had recently led to the downfall of the Mayans. Just like today, the world had its bright spots and disaster areas, and plenty of areas where people just muddled along as usual.
Unlike today, the world’s 300-million inhabitants did not enjoy the quality of life many of us experience via sanitation, mass production, the combustible engine, electricity, the internet, modern chemistry, materials science, telecommunications and photography satellites, advanced optics, literature, recorded music, etc. Even the brightest oracles of 1000AD could not have predicted half the miracles we experience as part of daily life. Looking forward to the year 3010, there are no doubt hundreds of technologies and planetary events (and disasters) beyond what we have imagined. Still, nothing is stopping us from considering what we, as human beings, should try to do within the next 1000 years. This is the third and final post in this thought experiment; if you like you can also read the 10-year and 100-year lists. As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t consider myself a futurist or an expert in any way — I just like to make lists and consider the big picture.
GLOBAL TO-DO LIST, TOP FIVE PRIORITY ITEMS FOR NEXT 1000 YEARS
1. Raise the level of awareness/consciousness to a self-actualized level, for the vast majority of adult humans.
It’s tricky to talk about objective measurements of human consciousness; we can only observe the external behavior of other people. Still, most would agree there is a spectrum of human development, and some people are more developed, in certain areas, than others. According to Maslow, a self-actualized person embraces reality and facts, is interested in solving problems, and is accepting of themselves and others. Raising human consciousness is at the top of this list because the “peace dividends” would be so great. Imagine a world with far fewer idiots, bigots, and saboteurs, and more people interested in creating a better human experience.
Is this a utopic pipe dream? It sure sounds like one. But it’s possible that the path to mass human enlightenment is straightforward, mundane, and not that difficult to achieve. In fact, it may be well under way. Mass literacy (and access to books) is the main ingredient. Literacy unlocks philosophy, literature, history, psychology, science, mathematics, religious and spiritual practices; in short everything that is required to create a self-actualized human being.
So if it’s that easy, why is this a 1000-year goal (and not a ten-year goal)? The problem is that our current economic system requires the majority of adults (and millions of children) to work in slave-like conditions to support the luxurious lifestyles of the elite. The hard-labor class doesn’t have time to read, even if they are literate. Maybe a billion of us don’t even have access to clean drinking water, good nutrition, and basic education. We have a long way to go.
2. Create and implement an effective asteroid defense system.
It’s only a matter of time before a big rock is going to come straight at us. Giant meteorite impacts are suspected in several of Earth’s mass extinction events, which occur every 100 million years or so. The Yucatan Chicxulub crater is the most impressive evidence of such an impact event.
Defending against Earth-bound asteroids definitely requires long-term thinking. Statistically, any politician or administration can “roll the dice” and usually win; a major impact event will likely not happen on their watch (of course if it does, we’ll likely all be dead, and that politician’s career will be over anyway). So we have a real problem; how are we going to raise the money for such a defense program when funding short-term concerns will invariably have a bigger political payoff?
Maybe autocratic China will solve this problem. Or maybe a private sector visionary will decide to stake their life savings on an experimental program in an attempt to be written up as humanity’s savior in the history books.
How would such a defense system work technically? Maybe a swarm of low cost “thruster-bots” could be kept in perpetual orbit (put into orbit by the space elevator), ready to redirect towards an oncoming asteroid immediately following detection. The bots could intercept and attach to the asteroid, fire its thrusters, and change the course of the planet killer so that it misses us.
3. Engineer human beings to be multi-substrate entities.
Human bodies have a tendency to wear out and die. Some of us would like to have the option to extend our run, and live for a few hundred years, or perhaps indefinitely. There are good arguments for mortality — the thought of death provides a certain intensity and urgency to life (immortal beings, always having the option to put things off until tomorrow, might turn out to be the biggest procrastinators of all time). There are equally good arguments for having at least some non-agers among us. The 10,000-year-old club might be the ones who finally implement our asteroid defense system, or take on other super-long-term projects.
Preventing aging, à la Aubrey de Grey, doesn’t solve the mortality problem; in a 1000+ year lifespan the cumulative risk of a fatal accident gets pretty high, especially if you live non-cautiously (doing fun things like driving, or swimming in the ocean). For real longevity you need some kind of backup system. This brings up existential questions — if you die in a fatal accident and your backup construct “comes online,” is it the same you?
In any case, to have even a chance at creating extremely long-lived humans, we’ll need to expand our conception of what a human being is. Reverse engineering the human brain will be a start, but we’ll also have to solve the mystery of how other parts of our physiology figure into our personalities. The human heart, for example, is densely packed with neural tissue that is linked to our brain. Emotions, which make up a big part of what we consider to be “personality,” are greatly influenced by hormones; many parts of the body are involved. I suspect that to artificially construct anything resembling (and behaving like, and feeling like) a human being, we’ll need to simulate or engineer, in full resolution, the entire human body. This might occur as a computer simulation, or as a biological/robot hybrid-cyborg, or “cybrid” (an idea introduced by Dan Simmons in his brilliant novel Hyperion). It might even be possible for such multi-substrate post-humans to move freely among realities (simulated/virtual, and real/physical).
This is similar to the artificial consciousness item I mentioned in my 100-year to-do list, but more difficult. To create a subjectively seamless transition from a biologically born human being to a multi-substrate artificial entity is a tremendous engineering problem, and might take several centuries of painstaking research and experimentation to solve.
4. Create truly generative, evolving artificial universes.
Massively parallel quantum computing, or some other as-yet-to-be-imagined system of mega-powerful computation may enable us to create self-generative worlds; artificial universes that actually evolve. In addition to exponential leaps in computing power, we’ll also need to discover that algorithm(s) that lead to evolutionary level jumps. With these tools we can create simulated universes that start with a virtual Big Bang and macro-evolve, on their own, a complex multi-level chain of being (from stars and planets, to geological formations, to biological entities, to culture, to reality-programming [thus starting a new loop — a Matrix within the Matrix!]).
Why would we want to create these artificial self-generative universes? One reason is so that we could explore them (you wouldn’t need to explore a designed universe — you’d already know what was there). Our own real universe is quite difficult to explore, other potentially inhabited planets are extremely far away and traveling to them would require unfathomable amounts of energy and time. In a self-generative artificial universe, you could solve the FTL travel problem with a programming backdoor. InstantTeleport(object, coordinates), or something like that. The creators could bend all sorts of rules related to time, mortality, and consciousness; indeed we would be god-like with all the pleasures and perils that implies.
In fact, it may be that self-generative artificial universes are the reason for the Fermi Paradox. Perhaps the reason we haven’t yet observed evidence of galactic colonization is because all the advanced civs have created their own universes are exploring those instead (with god-like powers, unburdened by the constraining, unbendable physical laws of our real universe) .
5. Terraform and colonize Mars, and launch the first wave of interstellar colony ships.
It’s important for human beings to solve the “all the eggs in one basket” problem by getting off the planet. At the moment, we’re too vulnerable to a wide variety of mass extinction possibilities, including meteorite impact, engineered bioweapons, nuclear war, environmental catastrophe, and supervolcano. Artificial/simulated worlds won’t save us — that layer of reality, were it to exist, would be dependent upon human beings and physical infrastructure. As Stephen Baxter aptly illustrates in his novel Flood, the virtual layer would be the first to go.
Protecting the human race isn’t the only reason we should spread out. Cultural diversification is equally important. At the moment, we’re in the midst of a disturbing cultural merge — all the world’s cultures are slowly blending into one monolithic uber-culture dominated by the same pop icons, corporate brands, sports leagues, and entertainment events. Cultural diversification is important for the same reasons biological diversification is important; a single phenotype is insufficient to deal with every difficulty and catastrophe life willingly provides. For example, our current global culture is predominantly a “good times” culture; its key values are growth, prosperity, and productivity. Will these same values serve us if we go through a period of depopulation, or rapid climate change, or we’re invaded by a race of interstellar alien marauders? We’ll see — eventually one of these things will occur. Hopefully enough cultural diversification will exist on our planet that at least one group will weather the storm. Otherwise, bye-bye human race.
If we get off to the planet, either to Mars, or to interstellar colony ships, we’ll not only “get out of the basket,” we’ll also create an isolation event that will be highly significant in terms of our biological and cultural evolution. Even if there is communication between Earth and Mars, there will be an eight minute delay (no phone calls). Mars colonists would have radically different lifestyles, different networks and information systems, their own unique culture, and ultimately, different value systems.
Is terraforming Mars even possible? Certainly it would be a massive engineering event. Kim Stanley Robinson has already created what is more or less a manual for how to do it in his exhaustive Mars trilogy. 1000 years might actually be an overly optimistic timeline, considering the technical and political difficulties involved.
That’s my top five — I’d love to see your own lists in the comments (and my apologies for accidentally disabling comments in my last post — they’re back on now).