This is a version of the talk I delivered at the recent TransVision 2010 conference in Milan, Italy.
It’s 1980, and what an exciting time to be alive!
Listen to what these leading thinkers are saying about what the future has in store for us:
“Machines will be capable, within twenty years, of doing any work a man can do.” - Nobel Prize Winner Herbert Simon, 1965
By the 1990s, the human lifespan will be “400 years or more.” - Dr. Paul Segall, UC-Berkeley, 1978
“The first space colony, Island One, could be in place before 1990. This is possible, I must emphasize, within the limits of present-day conventional materials and technology.” - Professor Gerard O’Neill, 1975
“If the scientific and medical resources of the United States alone were mobilized, aging would be conquered within a decade.” - Gerontologist Alex Comfort, 1978
“Within a generation…the problem of creating ‘artificial intelligence’ will substantially be solved.” - Marvin Minsky, 1967
Wow, that’s amazing. Can you just imagine what life will be like thirty years from now, in 2010?
Okay, now let’s pretend that we have a time machine, and that we can move ourselves ahead from 1980 all the way to the year 2010. We’ll project our vision forward into that radically different future and see what life is like for those who live in that time.
What a change! Look at how people in big cities used to travel in 1980, and how they travel now…
Hmm, that’s odd. It doesn’t seem very different at all.
Let’s take a closer look at what, in reality, have been the biggest changes during the last thirty years, from 1980 to 2010.
Collapse of the Soviet Union
End of the Cold War, Birth of a Multipolar World
Growth of China’s Economy
Creation of the World Wide Web
Explosion of the Internet
Approach of onlineallthetime
Expansion of Income Inequality
But, wait a minute. What about all those other things? What didn’t happen?
Where are the L5 space colonies with ten thousand residents?
Why haven’t we seen the end of aging?
Is there no human cloning?
And no molecular nanotechnology yet?
Are we really still waiting for strong AI?
No, I’m sorry to say that none of those things have arrived yet. In many ways, 2010 still looks a lot like 1980.
Certainly there have been some remarkable changes, including those we discussed before, and more. But the most exciting predictions of experts from thirty or forty years ago didn’t come true.
Making predictions is hard, especially about the future
What went wrong? Were all those people stupid?
No, they weren’t stupid. They were all actually very smart. It’s just that it turns out to be incredibly difficult to make good guesses about the future.
The truth is that we don’t know enough—perhaps we can’t know enough—to make consistently reliable and specific predictions about the real development and impact of emerging technologies.
But now let’s try another exercise. Let’s project ourselves forward thirty more years into the future, to the year 2040, and to a conference being held then.
I’d like to think that this is funny, and that by then, the topics listed above will not be on the agenda because they already will have been achieved.
But considering where some very smart people thought we’d be by 2010, if not sooner, it’s not hard for me to imagine a conference being held thirty years from now with speakers making those presentations.
So, let’s flip the page back to 2010 now and try to put things into perspective. Perhaps we should state it this way:
We might someday have designer babies…
We might someday have nanofactories…
We might someday have “friendly AI”...
We might someday have uploading…
We might someday have all of those things.
But meanwhile, children are dying
During the last ten minutes, while you’ve been reading this, a thousand people have died. In the next ten minutes, a thousand more human beings will draw their last breaths and will be gone forever.
And of those thousand people, almost two hundred of them will be children under the age of five. Little girls and boys and tiny babies who will never get the chance to live as you have.
Innocent children are losing their lives at this very moment.
And the saddest part of all is that most of them will die of preventable illnesses, of things that we know how to cure or how to prevent, but because of poverty and politics and greed those children’s lives will be gone. They will never get to live.
This is the existential reality in which we live:
At this moment, more than a billion of our brothers and sisters are struggling in dire poverty; far too many suffer and die from preventable diseases; huge numbers are oppressed and exploited by both governments and corporations…
...while the rich keep getting richer by making and selling weapons of war.
We’re polluting the atmosphere and the oceans in a way that will irreversibly alter the biosphere and harm human civilization; we’re wiping out species 100 to 1,000 times faster than natural rates found in the fossil record…
...and the rich just keep getting richer by drilling for oil and building coal-fired power plants.
When I posted the above paragraphs to my Facebook page a while ago, a commenter whom I won’t name gave this response:
“We will overcome these seemingly insurmountable challenges with powerful new exponentially growing technologies in the coming two decades.”
But wait, that’s what you said before!
Don’t you remember all those promises of decades past, that our awesome technologies soon would enable us to eliminate illness, to banish poverty, end aging, and control the weather? That everyone then would enjoy a world of abundance and opportunity? Don’t you realize that for people who are paying attention, this is déjà vu all over again?
No, it doesn’t work that way. It never has and it never will. Reality intrudes.
So let’s not continue to make the mistakes of the past. Let’s try to be a little smarter this time.
Instead of promoting exciting visions of a utopian future, we could shift our focus to discussions of how to better prepare for uncertain change, how to create sustainable and resilient human societies, how to live in better harmony with each other and with the rest of the natural world around us.
Finding the zone of policy influence
It’s vital that we make this shift, that we learn how to make our ideas and our goals more realistic and more attainable. It is important because if we are to achieve the dreams that technoprogressives have cherished for decades, we will have to be much smarter about how we present ourselves to those who can help us turn our hopes into reality.
I’m not saying that we should give up on our loftiest ideals or that we should ever surrender our dreams. Definitely not. But we have to take a more intelligent approach.
If we want to push forward, if we want to accelerate the process through which powerful emerging technologies are brought to fruition, and if we want to ensure that those new technologies are safe, effective, and widely available, then we have to be smart. We need to have a good strategy for getting where we want to go.
This is how it looks to me.
Today we have a public idea space in which most transhumanist proposals and predictions are regarded as extreme, as “out there” on the fringe.
Not that this necessarily reflects reality, as there is in fact a broad range of thought in the >H community, but it is crucial for us to understand where we are at the beginning—to know our place on the map—if we are to reach our destination. In the present day, the general perception of transhumanist thought is that it is far from the mainstream and thus is not given much credence in serious policy discussions.
To overcome this current lack of influence, to make sure that thirty years from now we are not still as far away from the things we want as we are today, it is necessary for us to take action on two fronts.
We must (1) exert steady pressure on the mainstream, to gradually extend their understanding of what emerging technologies actually might be able to achieve if given the proper focus.
At the same time, we must (2) moderate the public perception of >H, to let people see that it’s not all about freezing Ted Williams’ head, but that we are in truth serious people who think carefully about the future and who have something important to say.
If we are diligent about pursuing the two aims described above, then we should succeed in closing the gap and creating an overlap, what I call the Zone of Policy Influence.
None of this will be easy, however, and it won’t happen overnight. We should think of it as perhaps a 10-year plan. And even then, of course, it won’t mean that everything we want will come to pass. Much more work will still be ahead of us. But it is this kind of deep strategic approach that is required to make our visions a reality.
At the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, this is the work that we are doing. We welcome your support, your involvement, and your input. Thank you.