If you’re anything like me, you’re hoping that your political preferences will help bring about long-term success for the human race. But what specifically is the future we’re hoping for? Personally, I see three potential good outcomes for humans to strive for:
1. Steady, Gradual Improvement
Everyone knows that the world is going to hell in a hand-basket. The planet is being ruined by skyrocketing rates or crime, death, suffering, disease, famine, war, genocide, and bigotry. Not to mention that youngsters today are the worst generation in history. Right? This worldview is true, as long as you completely ignore virtually every statistic about what the world is actually like. If you prefer to have your worldview grounded in reality, you’ll be happy to hear that life on Earth has been steadily improving for the last few hundred years. Peace, health, prosperity and education have all made massive gains, along with almost every other important metric of human well-being. In some cases, we’ve made truly shocking amounts of progress. From 1990 to 2010, a mere twenty years, the proportion of people living in extreme poverty was cut in half. Similar progress has been made in the realms of literacy, child mortality, warfare, freedom, democracy, violence, etc. The list goes on and on. Steven Pinker makes a great case for these claims in his book, Enlightenment Now, and in this excellent TED talk.
Many people think the question of whether progress has taken place is a matter of being a pessimist or an optimist, of seeing the glass as half-empty or half-full. And they think that the cause of any progress is a mysterious force that carries the world upward toward Utopia.
In fact, the question of whether progress has occurred is matter not of “optimism” but of what Hans Rosling calls “factfulness”: calibrating our understanding of the world to empirical reality. If measures of well-being, such as health, prosperity, knowledge, and safety, have increased over time, that would be progress. In fact, they have. As Rosling and others have shown, most people deny progress not out of pessimism but out of ignorance.
For these reasons, I list gradual progress as one possible good outcome for the human race. We can continue making gradual progress, one hard-fought victory at a time. How far might this progress take us? How long can these positive trends continue? I have no idea. But my hope is that they can bring us to a world where every nation has become a wealthy developed nation on par with the United States. My hope is that a world full of prosperous, wealthy, nations would find a way to live together in peace. My hope is that there would be some positive feedback loops as the world adapts to a new age of peace and prosperity that would push our civilization to even greater heights. I’d love to see a world where war and poverty are concepts for the history books. I’m sure that, to many, this idea sounds impossible and naive. But if we really do calibrate our beliefs to empirical reality, then I think our chances start to look a lot better. If we look at a hundred trends and they’re all going in a positive direction, then is it really such a radical idea to suggest that those trends might continue?
2. Transhumanism! Smarter Humans!
I like humans a lot, but I think we can become even better. In the year 3000, I hope to find that humans are healthier and smarter than we are today. I think that even a tiny upgrade to our health and collective brainpower could work wonders at making us better able to handle the myriad of challenges and conflicts we face. I think humans are capable of greatness, but sometimes I feel like we’re balanced right on a precipice, in danger of sliding back towards our less-admirable tendencies. Every time I browse the Internet, I see something like this and I worry about us as a species:
Whoever wrote this is so many levels below any actual relevant discussion about immigration that it’s hard to imagine how this could even happen. What kind of a mind is so hopelessly incompetent and yet also so astonishingly self-assured that it feels comfortable weighing in on topics like this? This is like attempting to write a review of the latest Star Wars movie and instead writing down the recipe to make a ham sandwich, and then also getting the ingredients wrong somehow. This poor soul never had a chance. And yet people like this, or close to it, make up a good chunk of our civilization.
I’m not suggesting that humans need to become geniuses in the future. I think that the slightest nudge towards improvement might help us climb out of the darkness, and achieve our place as an exceptional futuristic society. With fewer health afflictions dragging us down, along with maybe an extra five IQ points on average, I think we just might shift ourselves away from the precipice, permanently. I don’t know the specifics of how this might play out in the future, but I hope our society is someday wise enough and competent enough to reap the rewards and avoid the pitfalls.
3. Artificial Intelligence
This would be the most dramatic conclusion to humanity’s struggles. The creation of a friendly super-intelligent AI would be the ultimate victory for humankind. Sometimes called “the singularity”, this is the point when an AI achieves a runaway chain reaction of recursive self-improvement resulting in a super-intelligent entity far beyond anything we’ve ever seen. It sounds like pure science fiction at first, but I’m not so sure that it’s as implausible as the world expects. There’s been some remarkable progress towards making AI more general-purpose and more versatile. Instead of being designed for a specific game like chess, for example, Deepmind’s AlphaZero has surpassed the rest of the world at three games, chess, Go, and shogi, after learning them entirely from scratch with no human input. Other versions of the software have mastered dozens of different arcade games and even complex strategy games like Starcraft. They’re working to make their AI capable of navigating more and more complex environments. Will it ever advance to the point of being able to compete at the game we call life? Whether it be in 20 years or 200 years? I’ll leave speculation about that for another time. For now, I’ll just note that the invention of a friendly superintelligence would be the end of the world as we know it, and the beginning of something entirely new. The world’s most pressing problems would become nothing more than a memory. All of the work to keep us safe and fed and housed could be performed by AI, freeing humans to pursue our passions and dreams. We would perhaps find fulfillment in life paths that as of yet haven’t even been conceived of. It could be the beginning of an age of human flourishing that lasts for eons.
Even if we fail to create a super-intelligence, the creation of human-level AI could still usher in a post-scarcity society. (Though, I think that creating exactly human-level AI is very unlikely) This would still be a dramatic victory that could free us from so much drudgery and menial labor and catapult us forward in our efforts to improve life on Earth. Therefore, I list AI as the third possible “end-goal” for humanity. For a fun look at one way this might play out in the early days, read Max Tegmark’s story, The Last Invention of Man.
I believe that we’re at a critical time in Earth’s history. I think that 200 years from now, the battle for humanity’s fate will already have been decided. By then we’ll either be well on our way towards building something wonderful, or we’ll have missed our window of opportunity and set ourselves on a path that leads towards decline. It’s difficult to know which policies will hasten or hinder the arrival of the future I want, but I find it helpful to at least know what I’m aiming for.