Saturday, October 27, 2018

On the Future: Prospects for Humanity

I strongly recommend this short new book by Martin Rees, the British astronomer. There probably isn't a better one addressing the major challenges currently facing mankind. He identifies the problems and offers strategies for dealing with them, writing with clarity while remaining concise. It is difficult to dispute anything that he says.

The first chapter focuses on climate change and the need for clean energy. The second covers advances in biotechnology, cybertechnology, robotics and AI. The third discusses mankind in the context of the universe. The fourth examines science and its limits. The fifth, addressed particularly to scientists, recommends how they ought to respond to the challenges.

Most of the text is fairly serious, but Rees's take on some subjects can be amusing. For example, he doesn't think much of cryonics:

I was once interviewed by a group of 'cryonics' enthusiasts – based in California – called the 'society for the abolition of involuntary death'. I told them I'd rather end my days in an English churchyard than a California refrigerator. They derided me as a 'deathist' – really old fashioned.

More often, he is quite serious, as when he discusses space colonization:

...don't ever expect mass emigration from Earth. And here I disagree strongly with [Elon] Musk and with my late Cambridge colleague, Stephen Hawking, who enthuse about rapid build-up of large-scale Martian communities. It's a dangerous delusion to think that space offers an escape from Earth's problems. We've got to solve these problems here.

In the whole book he makes only one claim that seems questionable to me. Although he is doubtful about the limitless extension of our biological lives, he thinks that it may be possible for humans to become immortal as electronic entities. Some such transition may become possible in a technical sense, but in my view it would be no different from death, except in the sense that a facsimile of the original person would continue to exist.

Perhaps the most interesting section for me is the one describing the current state of our cosmological understanding, and how it may advance in the coming years. We are only able to observe a small section of the universe, which may or may not be infinite in extent. There could be a multiverse or there may have been an infinite number of Big Bangs. Like Sabine Hossenfelder, he suggests that we may be close to our cognitive limits, and that AI may play a significant role in such advances.

The main strength of the book, I think, is the final chapter, which realistically proposes how the problems discussed in the earlier chapters ought to be addressed. Because nation-states are ill-suited to leading global initiatives, the responsibility falls on international organizations and academics like himself. There is no mention of the U.S. or the Trump administration, which makes an excellent example of how national politics can easily lead to policies which increase risks for mankind. When you stand back from politics, it is easy to see that scientific solutions exist for all of the current threats. Thus, it is important that organizations such as the UN and the WHO take greater initiative in the future. In this vein, it is also important that public intellectuals follow the lead of academics such as Martin Rees and Edward O. Wilson in publicizing both the threats we collectively face and their potential solutions. This failing of public intellectuals is something that I've been writing about for some time now.

The intractable geopolitics and sociology – the gap between potentialities and what actually happens – engenders pessimism. The scenarios I've described – environmental degradation, unchecked climate change, and unintended consequences of advanced technology – could trigger serious, even catastrophic, setbacks to society. But they have to be tackled internationally. And there's an institutional failure to plan for the long term, and to plan globally. Politicians look to their own voters – and the next election. Stockholders expect a payoff in the short run. We downplay what's happening even now in faraway countries. And we discount too heavily the problems we'll leave for new generations. Without a broader perspective – without realizing that we're all on this crowded world together – governments won't properly prioritize projects that are long-term in political perspective, even if a mere instant in the history of the planet.

Much of this is obvious to educated readers, yet most of the public remains dangerously oblivious.

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