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Can you see ahead 90 years?
Mike Treder   Jul 22, 2009   Ethical Technology  

Give us your best guess about the state of the world in the year 2099.

We’ve posted a new IEET poll, asking our readers to look ahead nine decades and try to make an informed guess about what the world will look like at the end of this century.

Here are the options from which you can choose (multiple answers are accepted, and you can also “write in” your own statement):

  • Utopia! A post-scarcity society basking in freedom and prosperity.
  • Posthumans will dominate, with unenhanced humans a tiny minority.
  • Considerable off-Earth expansion, enabled by nanotech and biotech.
  • Ups and downs along the way, but overall about the same.
  • Much worse than today due to climate chaos and environmental collapse.
  • Near or total destruction of civilization from all-out warfare.
  • Humanity enslaved by a totalitarian global government.
  • Superintelligent AI will usher in a Singularity and all bets are off.
  • Other.

So, what do you think we can expect?

Mike Treder is a former Managing Director of the IEET.


OTHER: Ups and downs along the way, but with an overall positive trend. Some enhanced posthumans and uploads, but unenhanced humans are still a large majority. There are smarter than human sentient AI, but no Singularity yet.

If the current trend towards mega-nanny-statalization continues, I see this totalitarian global government on the horizon. I hope this trend will be replaced by a trend toward fragmentation and distribution of power.

If you go back in time 90 years ago or even 180 years ago, you see that things are still pretty much the same, so I don’t anticipate that 90 years from now things will be all that different, barring some catastrophe that we can’t anticipate.

And just in case you’re laughing at the notion that there has been essential continuity over the past 90 or 180 years, here are some of the elements that have remained essentially stable:

—the family is still the major unit of socialization
—the nation-state is still the major political unit
—it is still expected that people will work to support themselves; all the machinery in the world has not eliminated this expectation
—humans are still dependent on the food that they can raise or grow using natural elements
—the lifespan is still bounded by disease
—there is still great inequality within societies between the wealthy and the poor
—there is still great inequality in life-chances based on irrational factors, including race and gender and sexuality
—problems between and among nations are still resolved through recourse to war
—most people still profess to believe in a deity
—people continue to relax by reading, listening to music, watching performances, and playing sports, although the media through which they are able to do these things may have changed
I could go on and on, but my general thesis is here that changes like the introduction of technologies like the computer, the cellphone, and even our rudimentary stabs at genetic engineering have not changed anything of substance about the overall basis of our civilization. And the more you zoom out to look at the whole world, not just the tiny most developed and affluent bit, the more this is true.

Re: Jamie’s post.

Fortunately we have Edge essays for some perspective on long-term trends. Both violence and religiosity show secular declines.

by Steven Pinker

by Gregory Paul & Phil Zuckerman

Regarding the second essay, the number of nonreligious people alive today (approximately 1 billion) probably exceeds the number of the entire, nearly 100 percent religious population alive at any given time before the Industrial Revolution. Where did all these people come from if we have “god genes” and the like?

To Jamie:

In the last hundred years, technological developments have been, if anything, more far-reaching in their social implications than those of the previous hundred years. At the beginning of the 20th century there were no motor cars or lorries and no road system which could have supported today’s mass of high-speed traffic. There were no aeroplanes or helicopters. There were no farm tractors, combine harvesters, milking machines or tuberculosis-free cattle. There was little domestic gas and virtually no domestic electricity so that there were no household machines such as vacuum cleaners, refrigerators, washing machines, or food mixers. Electronic engineering, with its wide range of applications from radio and television to computers, microwave ovens and automatic control systems, had not yet begun. There was no automation, no laser and fibre optics, no space engineering, no biological engineering, no atomic engineering, no man-made fibres or plastics, no stainless steel or even aluminium. It was a society of horse drawn vehicles, domestic servants, heavy manual work, cast iron and steam power.

“the family is still the major unit of socialization”

The nature of the family has changed.  Single parenthood is becoming more common.  Most women no longer stay home to take care of children.  Social institutions like schools are more and more doing the parenting.  More people are engaging in homosexual and bisexual relationships.  More people are having less or no children.

“the nation-state is still the major political unit”

Globalisation is resulting in the increasing integration of all national economies with the development of global governance structures.

“it is still expected that people will work to support themselves; all the machinery in the world has not eliminated this expectation”

Capitalism operates under the law of value, and human labour is the source of all value.  Hence, it only through the employment of human intellectual and physical skills can goods be made and sold.  If no one was employed there would be no market for goods and services produced by machines, unless everyone was provided with an income without having to work.  But this would no longer be capitalism.  Hence, it is the historical social formation called capitalism which maintains this structure.  The present economic and environmental crisis is leading to a change in this historic social formation which will usher in a new type of society.

“humans are still dependent on the food that they can raise or grow using natural elements”

Agriculture has become increasingly industrialized and mechanized. Genetic engineering is changing and has changed the nature of the plants and animals that we eat in terms of size, appearance and reproductive abilities and frequency.  Plans are being developed to grow meat in lab facilities.

“the lifespan is still bounded by disease”
Human lifespan has been increasing steadily since the 20th century.

“there is still great inequality within societies between the wealthy and the poor”
This inequality is maintained by an outdated social system which is increasingly coming under pressure to change through the developments in science and technology.

“there is still great inequality in life-chances based on irrational factors, including race and gender and sexuality”
Racial and gender equality have greatly improved (Obama is president) and will improve even further under a different type of social system.

“problems between and among nations are still resolved through recourse to war”
“There have been relatively few international wars since the second world war, and no wars between developed nations. Most conflicts now consist of guerilla wars, insurgencies and terrorism - or what the political scientist John Mueller of Ohio State University in Columbus calls the “remnants of war”. He notes that democracies rarely, if ever, vote to wage war against each other, and attributes the decline of warfare over the past 50 years, at least in part, to a surge in the number of democracies around the world - from 20 to almost 100. “A continuing decline in war seems to be an entirely reasonable prospect,” he says.”

“most people still profess to believe in a deity”
Humans might be genetically predisposed to believing in a deity through evolution, as this might have been necessary for survival in the early stages of the formation of human intelligence.  However, science and rationality are influencing the thinking of people more now than ever.  However, current social insititutions keep the status quo in place to serve the needs of vested interests.  The institutions are coming under increasing pressure to change.

“people continue to relax by reading, listening to music, watching performances, and playing sports, although the media through which they are able to do these things may have changed”
Humans will always have the same basic needs of pleasure.  The important trend is the media which you pointed out.

In concluding, society has changed immensely over the last hundred years than in all the preceding years of human existence in terms of the nature of the modern family, national sovereignty, the nature of work and the economy, agriculture, human lifespan, the potential for eliminating inequalities, war, and the growth of rationality.

The current social order is a fetter on the further development of these positive trends.  However, the technological developments which are now occuring and that will take place in the near future, in tandem with political action, will accelerate these trends leading to a technological and social singularity.

Just found this collection of predictions from scientists from a few decades ago:

“65 million Americans” will die of starvation between 1980 and 1989, and by 1999 the U.S. population would have declined to “22.6 million”. Paul Ehrlich, 1968

“The battle to feed humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines . . . [AND] hundreds of millions of people [including Americans] are going to starve to death.” Paul Ehrlich (John Holdren’s co-author and mentor) 1968

“Smog disasters” in 1973 might kill 200,000 people in New York and Los Angeles. Paul Ehrlich 1969

“I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000.” Paul Ehrlich 1969

“Before 1985, mankind will enter a genuine age of scarcity . . . in which the accessible supplies of many key minerals will be facing depletion.” Paul Ehrlich 1976

“The threat of a new ice age must now stand alongside nuclear war as a likely source of wholesale death and misery for mankind.” Environmentalist Nigel Calder at the first Earth Day celebration.

“The cooling since 1940 has been large enough and consistent enough that it will not soon be reversed.” Eco-scientist C.C. Wallen of the World Meteorological Organization, 1969

“...civilization will end within 15 or 30 years unless immediate action is taken against problems facing mankind,” biologist George Wald, Harvard University, April 19, 1970.

“By 1995…somewhere between 75 and 85 percent of all the species of living animals will be extinct.” Sen. Gaylord Nelson, quoting Dr. S. Dillon Ripley, Look magazine, April 1970.

“Because of increased dust, cloud cover and water vapor…the planet will cool, the water vapor will fall and freeze, and a new Ice Age will be born,” Newsweek magazine, January 26, 1970.

“We are in an environmental crisis which threatens the survival of this nation, and of the world as a suitable place of human habitation,” biologist Barry Commoner, University of Washington, writing in the journal Environment, April 1970.

“By 1985, air pollution will have reduced the amount of sunlight reaching earth by one half…” Life magazine, January 1970.

“Population will inevitably and completely outstrip whatever small increases in food supplies we make,” Paul Ehrlich, interview in Mademoiselle magazine, April 1970.

“200,000 Americans will die from air pollution, and by 1980 the life expectancy of Americans will be 42 years.” Paul Ehrlich, 1973

“It is already too late to avoid mass starvation,” Earth Day organizer Denis Hayes, The Living Wilderness, Spring 1970.

The world will be “...eleven degrees colder in the year 2000. This is about twice what it would take to put us into an ice age,” Eco-scientist Kenneth Watt, speaking at Swarthmore University, April 19, 1970.

“A billion people could die from global warming by 2020,” John Holdren 1986, reiterated in Senate testimony, 2009.

Eh, there should be an asterisk next to that last Holdren comment. See:

Arthur C. Clarke weighs in, in this short video:

At any rate, the negative situation in the Mideast is not a fantasy a la Paul Ehrlich, it is a genuine, chronic, exacerbated, man-made existential threat. Peace treaties in the region are to buy time until more sophisticated tech becomes available—not just weaponry but also communication devices, etc. Can’t fight a war or two without good signals corps, can you?

No I can’t see 90 years. But I can see 9:

Operating systems are extremely reliable, persistent, and user interfaces are minimalistic and invisible. Problems in VR will be seriously convincingly advanced and user interfaces take advantage of depth and gestures.
Very good narrow AI capabilities.
Display quality equals print.

“Someone has said that it requires less mental effort to condemn than to think.—Emma Goldman”. Here is where we differ, because it can take less effort to make predictions that are not only merely feel-good, but also to push it off away into the future: if a futurist predicts “lasting Mideast peace by 2025”, that’s 15 years from now (almost an age) to weasel out of it, and if the futurist dies before 2025, no one will accuse him of being a false prophet; dead men can’t be ‘condemned’—or at least they can be condemned only in absentia.

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