Five Events I Probably Won’t Live to See

I recently celebrated a birthday which made me think about my own mortality and all of the wondrous things I probably won’t be around to witness. I’m still relatively young, so I hope to be around for a while; this isn’t intended as an exercise in morbidity. However, there are a few leaps that I’m reasonably confident humanity will make in the near future — perhaps a century or so from now — that I’ll unfortunately miss. In the sincere hope that I’m wrong, I present the following list in no particular order.

1. Humanity’s Conquest of Mortality. Obviously if I’m wrong about this one, I’m wrong about the rest of the list too. Indeed, the very premise of this post goes out the window. I do think that medical science will eventually increase our lifespans to the point of immortality for all intents and purposes. Stem cell research holds great promise with respect to increasing human lifespans. The continued unlocking of our genome suggests that genetic modification might also drastically increase our longevity. Also, the more we learn about our cellular makeup, the more it seems possible to reprogram cells to delay apoptosis indefinitely. We’re still a long way from this reality (which is why it will probably come too late to benefit me), but there are promising precursors to these predictions. Not to mention the application of the nanotech revolution to medical science, which brings us to the next point.

2. The Singularity. Ray Kurzweil, who coined the term, has predicted the advent of the Singularity in 2045. Hopefully I’ll still be alive in 2045, but I suspect that Kurzweil’s timeline may be overly optimistic. I do, however, take seriously the possibility that the Singularity will be realized by 2100. The Singularity, for those who don’t know, is a theoretical explosion of intelligence that will happen when humans create artificial intelligence. This artificial intelligence will in turn create more intelligence, and so on at an exponential rate. This change will be so radical, that it will be comparable to the beginning of the universe itself — hence, the Singularity. This event will propel humanity into a state of transhumanism, a radical evolutionary leap forward. We will be able to transcend the limits of our biology, integrate technology into our bodies, and even upload our minds into computer simulations or android bodies. Of course, this is the most optimistic scenario. I suspect that these science fictional elements, though not as far-fetched as they might sound, are still a long way off. I’d be happy to see the creation of some form of AI in my lifetime, although I’m only cautiously optimistic about that.

3. The Colonization of Space. I’m very pessimistic I’ll ever live to see this. The space program has languished in recent years. NASA’s best days seem to be behind it, and there doesn’t seem to be any other institution, state or private, that can take on the challenges of manned space travel, much less colonizing another planet. There has been talk of a manned mission to Mars for years, but nothing has come of it. This would seem to be a necessary first step, since Mars is the logical candidate in our solar system for terraforming and eventual colonization. Although it’s difficult, especially in tough economic times, to justify expending vast sums of money on such other-worldly endeavors, I’d warn against waiting until this issue becomes one of necessity.

4. The Discovery of Extraterrestrial Life. I’m not talking about first contact or a flying saucer landing on the White House lawn. I’m not even necessarily talking about a breakthrough by SETI, although that would be interesting to say the least. I’m speaking more modestly about the discovery of unicellular life of extraterrestrial origin. Since I’m not an astronomer, I don’t know how one might go about discovering such life. Life, or its remains, on the moon or Mars or elsewhere in our solar system is likely to be terrestrial contamination rather than extraterrestrial in origin. To the extent that there are earth-like planets elsewhere in the universe, given the distances involved, it would be almost impossible to say whether or not such planets were home to simple life forms.  Experts differ on whether or not the odds favor life elsewhere in the cosmos. I don’t know whether to be optimistic or pessimistic about the prospects of discovering extraterrestrial life at all, but I’m confident that if we do, I won’t be around to see it.

5. A Secular Utopia. This one is probably most germane to the type of post I usually write on this blog. For years, secularists have been predicting the demise of religion. It hasn’t happened yet. If anything, religion seems to have experienced a resurgence globally. I’m not really in a position to say exactly why the ‘secularization thesis’, as it’s often called, has not come to fruition. The factors are probably too numerous and complex for me to address in this context. However, it seems as though religion hasn’t simply retreated in the face of science, as many at the turn of the century predicted it would. Perhaps part of the reason for this is that religion was never primarily an explanatory enterprise. To be sure, religion was humanity’s first attempt at explaining the world, and as such, served as a place-holder in many ways for modern science. But now that science has co-opted the task of offering explanations for the way the world is — and this is true even for many religious people under the influence of modernity — religion continues to offer comfort, meaning, a moral framework, etc. Perhaps religion is destined to wither away as modern societies become more secular. Perhaps secularists and humanists will be able to articulate a competing vision to that of religion that will ease the transition from a culture based on theistic religion to one based on atheism and humanism. Perhaps the advance of science and technology will aid secularization by finally solving problems, like sickness and death, so that no recourse to the comforts of religion will be necessary. Perhaps. However, if this long-promised secular utopia ever comes, I probably won’t be there to enjoy it. C’est la vie.



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2 responses to “Five Events I Probably Won’t Live to See

  1. Singularity sounds like a terminator movie.

    But personally I think fhe only way for NASA or anyother space program to take the next, is for the country to unifomrly agree on science is more important than politics and science.

    Even in US the space program in the 50’s and 60’s was never about science. It was about politics. It was a political move.

  2. Yes, Kurzweil paints the most optimistic scenario. The doomsday scenario involves AI going Skynet and deciding it’s better off without us. That’s why there’s some incentive to make sure that AI is ‘friendly.’ There’s even a growing field called ‘machine ethics’ that is applicable here. The idea is that as machines become smarter and more autonomous in their functions, they will need to know right from wrong. The Economist recently did a cover story on this subject.

    I agree wholeheartedly with your point about politics getting in the way of science. You’re also right that the space race was largely political in motivation. In the post-Cold War period, we seem to lack that motivation. At the rate we’re outgrowing this planet, however, I suspect one day we won’t have the luxury of ignoring the issue.

    I also find it ironic that I’m more likely to be laughed at in our society than people who believe in the rapture, tribulation, and second coming. I think the eschatology of the Christian Right is a major disincentive to funding things like AI research or space exploration because these events don’t feature in alleged end-time prophesies. Perhaps the ‘secular utopia’ will have to come about before these other developments.

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