Have you been watching the news? It's horrible out there! In fact, it's tempting to conclude that we, as a species, have entered into our final death spiral of savagery, unending recession and flesh-eating bacteria.
Despite all the impending dangers you've heard so much about, we remain the most privileged people in human history. This isn't some new age kumbaya-ing, it's a simple statement of fact. And all the proof you need is in Egypt. Ancient, pyramid-y Egypt, that is. During his short reign, King Tutankhamun (who you may know better by his street name, "Tut") was arguably the most powerful human being on the planet. However, this most powerful member of our species who was worshiped as a deity and had access to all the best that ancient Egyptian society had to offer turned out to be little match for a broken leg. Today, one-in-five Americans suffers a broken bone at some point in their life and nearly always lives to tell the tale.
And we modern folk aren't just really good at surviving broken bones; people from all socioeconomic strata indulge in the miraculous. Regularly. We can make rooms cold in the middle of summer with the click of a switch, order any of the world's cuisines to be directly delivered to our homes for the price of a $2 tip, or watch every episode of Battlestar Galactica on a device that fits inside our pockets.
We are all magical Egyptian gods.
Of course, we know our everyday superpowers have nothing to do with magic. We have technology to thank for this planet full of kings and gods. And the good news is, this progression shows no signs of slowing. In fact, it appears to be accelerating. It's not unthinkable that all these dire problems that the TV people swear are coming to get us may one day be little more than vestigial outliers, like dying from a broken leg.
So, what's next? Many serious researchers have put out some BIG predictions about what technology has in store for our species. And despite the many dire warnings from politicians and newsfolk, the human condition only stands to improve. Here we present a list of some of the most hopeful and life-affirming predictions coming from today's top future watchers.
So, turn off the news and smile. The best is still to come.
1. Renewable Energy Will Inevitably Be Cheaper than Fossil Fuels
Despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, there are still corners of society that not only deny the reasons behind climate change, they reject its very existence. While these deniers (who are in the clear and shrinking minority) have successfully impeded greenhouse gas regulations, there is reason to believe we will still end up winding down our carbon-based economy and replacing it with clean, sustainable energy. It may even happen sooner than you think.
Famed futurist Ray Kurzweil (who we'll be hearing about later in this piece; and who — in the service of skepticism — we should note isn't always right) has gone so far to say that solar energy will meet all the planet's energy needs within 15 years.
According to a July report put out by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, right now, solar accounts for less than 1% of the world's power. Despite tremendous investments from both private and public sectors, solar energy is still more expensive than burning melted dinosaur goop.
Still, solar technology continues to evolve, but according to Kurzweil this evolution isn't linear, but exponential: solar tech is getting better, faster. In fact, he has found that solar efficiency doubles every two years, and it has for decades. According to his calculations, solar energy will naturally surpass fossil fuels as our preferred power source by sheer force of economics. Even the most fervent climate change denier won't deny a lower price tag on their electric lives.
As Kurzweil told Big Think in an interview last year, "after we double eight more times and we're meeting all of the world's energy needs through solar, we'll be using one part in 10,000 of the sunlight that falls on the earth. And we could put efficient solar farms on a few percent of the unused deserts of the world and meet all of our energy needs."
In fact, in parts of the world that don't already have a fossil-based infrastructure in place, solar energy is currently the cheaper energy source.
Combine solar energy with other developing forms of renewable energy such as wind, tides, and geothermal (with advanced batteries to store it all), it is safe to say that economic rather than altruistic forces will save the planet.
2. The World Keeps Getting Less Dangerous
It could happen. Some distraught person can snap and commit a savage act against you or someone you love for no good reason. This is, sadly, a part of the modern world. But despite our fears of finding ourselves on the wrong end of a violent altercation, the cold hard facts paint a different story: we are living in the safest period in the history of history.
We've often noted Harvard Professor, Stephen Pinker's findings that right now (with some bumps aside) the world is the safest it's ever been. Not only are crime rates at historically low levels in much of the world, so are your chances of dying by acts of war, terrorism or even accidents.
This is, of course, not what you would take away from the news.
In the United States, the crime rate has plummeted over the past 20 years. And despite a cavernous recession, this decline has only accelerated (flying in the face of our concepts of the cause of crime). According to FBI figures, the drop in violent crime has increased each of the past four years: 3.5% (from 2007 to 2008); 4.4% (2008-09); 6.2% (2009-10); and 6.4% (2010-11). The current levels also mark a voluminous drop from the heights of the late 1980s and early 1990s, to their lowest levels since the 1960s.
And as good as things have gotten stateside, our crime rates are still higher than across the Atlantic. For example, in 2007, the entire nation of Norway only suffered 32 homicides; this was less than the homicides than the city of Buffalo, New York that same year. But of course, western Europe wasn't always this way. According to Cambridge University professor Manuel Eisner, homicide rates in western Europe in the 1200s were 32-per-100,000 people as compared to today's paltry 1.4-per-100,000. Modern society seems intimately linked to a safe society.
When it comes to armed conflicts, the past century's double serving of world wars is often cited as proof of the violent progression of our species. And, those doomsayers have a point: the first half of the 20th century was a bloody mess. But the thing with centuries is they're 100 years long, and the second 50 years of the last century were relatively docile.
Professors Pinker and Joshua Goldstein elaborated on this point in a New York Times editorial:
"'Interstate wars' are those fought between national armies and have historically been the deadliest.
These prototypical wars have become increasingly rare, and the world hasn't seen one since the three-week invasion of Iraq in 2003. The lopsided five-day clash between Russia and Georgia in 2008 misses the [yardstick of having at least 100,000 battle deaths], as do sporadic clashes between North and South Korea or Thailand and Cambodia…
What about other kinds of armed conflict, like civil wars … Remarkably, they too have been in decline. Civil wars are fewer, smaller and more localized. Terrible flare-ups occur, and for those caught in the middle the results are devastating — but far fewer people are caught in the middle."
Pinker and Goldstein attribute the drop in bellicosity to two things: 1) increasingly educated publics who harbor "a growing repugnance toward institutionalized violence" and 2) globalization. Today, empires are built by economic development through trade and commerce, not through missiles and tanks — war may bolster industry, but destruction hurts the bottom line.
When it comes to the drop in crime, there is no consensus among criminologists as to the exact cause. People have tried to pin the crime drop on everything from the legalization of abortion, to increased jail capacity, to even to the popularity of video game consoles keeping teenaged boys and young men (those most likely to commit crimes) glued to their couches. Some have even theorized this decline is the result of an increasing abundance of resources, which leads us to our next point.
3. In The Future, Everything Will Be Abundant
X Prize founder and eternal optimist Peter Diamandis argues that technology will make all things abundant. For everyone. (See his fascinating TED talk on the subject, embedded below.) This may sound counterintuitive in a world of finite resources with an ever-expanding population, but there is reason to believe that we can really have it all, and for cheap.
To make his case, Diamandis points to the past century of progress, which saw the average human lifespan double and the average income triple. And within this more populous, more prosperous world, the cost of food has still managed to drop by a factor of ten; electricity, by a factor of 20; transportation, by a factor of 100; and communications, by a factor of 1,000. In the past 130 years, global literacy has risen from 25% to 80%, and literate people tend to be more prosperous and as cited above, less bellicose. Also, consider that the average person living below the poverty line in America has access to comforts such as electric lights, hot showers, and cellphones: everyday pleasantries that the most powerful tycoons of the 19th century couldn't imagine.
Going forward, Diamandis sees technologies like nanotechnology, robotics and artificial intelligence following similar paths to ubiquity via an accelerating rate of better, faster and cheaper. These advanced technologies will, in time, become just another part of our everyday lives.
The prevalence of cheap, renewable energy detailed above presents a number of exciting possibilities beyond running all our digital dizzle dazzles for next to nothing. For example, an unlimited energy supply would lead to an unlimited water supply. There's plenty of water on Earth. Unfortunately, much of it is locked in ice or too salty to drink. All we need is energy to separate those tasty H2O molecules from all the stuff we don't want. Unlimited energy sources and little tweaks in technology will make that possible.
And looking even further into the future, another Diamandis venture, Planetary Resources, aims to be the first company to mine near-Earth asteroids for water and minerals. Up until now, we've only mined our resources from the Earth, and we haven't come close to tapping it all. Once we master mining space through automated robots that can build/repair themselves, the very notion of "supply and demand" may become antiquated.
4. You May Not Have to Die
The concept of the Singularity has been widely popularized thanks to our old friend Ray Kurzweil, who we talked about in prediction number one above. While prognosticating the future, Kurzweil has meticulously detailed the way in which technology increases exponentially (a concept you may have seen peppered throughout this piece). For example, our increasingly "smart" computers are used to build the next generation of smarter computers and so on, until inevitably they eclipse human intelligence and attain powers far beyond anything we can imagine. Kurzweil refers to this point as "The Singularity," which is a bridge he predicts we will cross in the middle of this century (specifically, the year 2045). At that point, no problem will need go unsolved for long and no goal will be unachievable. But that's not even the weirdest part. Any of us living long enough to see the Singularity come to pass may never have to die.
(Once again, in service of skepticism, I'll re-state this here: Ray Kurzweil has gotten a lot right, but he has also gotten plenty wrong. Yet who doesn't want him to be right here?)
As technology rapidly evolves around us, our fallible hairless monkey bodies remain virtually unchanged from those of our ancient ancestors. Fortunately, technology will probably be able to help us with that. As Kurzweil told PBS earlier this year, electronics will become small enough that:
we will put computerized devices that are the size of blood cells inside our body to keep us healthy. A new biological virus comes out, these little nanobots could download their software to combat that new pathogen."
Not only will our bodies be restored and rebuilt at the smallest levels, but our minds will meld with the evermore powerful virtual world. And eventually the lines between human and technology start to fuzz out. Kurzweil, once again:
"Information defines your personality, your memories, your skills. And it really is information. And we ultimately will be able to capture that and actually recreate it. So then we will back ourselves up. People a hundred years from now will think it pretty amazing. People actually went through the day without backing up their mind file?"
And as electronic data can theoretically live forever in various different encasements, so in theory will we humans, emailing ourselves around the universe living at the horizon between the virtual and the actual. Forever.
Just crazy pants.
This big crazy future of abundance and immortality is of course, all theoretical. We might look back at this post in the year 2045 and have a nice big chuckle at the silly things we were talking about back then. For now, here in the present, we still have big problems to face. And the key to overcoming them may may not lie in the future, but in our past: Mankind has always had problems, but time and time again, we always seem to find solutions. And if you don't find hope for humanity in that, then you won't find it anywhere.