There isn’t enough in the world.
Not enough wealth to go around, not enough space in cities, not enough medicine, not enough intelligence or wisdom. Not enough genuine fun or excitement. Not enough knowledge. Not enough solutions to global problems.
What we need is more. And we need it soon. The world population is doubling every 34 years. Instead of turning back the clock, we must move towards the future.
There is a bare minimum that we should demand out of the future. Without this bare minimum, we’re just running in place. Here is what I think that minimum is:
1) More space
2) More health
3) More water
4) More time
5) More intelligence
There is actually a lot of space on this earth. About 90 million square kilometers of land isn’t covered in snow or mountains. That’s about 5,000 times larger than the New York City metro area. Less than 1% of this land has any appreciable population density. Everywhere outside of Europe, there are vast districts the size of Texas with no more than a few thousand people. The world is “crowded” because of logistics, not space.
The main constraints on space are transportation and infrastructure rather than lack of actual land. Most population centers are around the coast and its natural harbors. Is this because the rest of the land is uninhabitable? No. It’s because being on the coast drives the local economy. What if you can drive the economy without the coast?
With better technologies, we can decentralize infrastructure and spread out more. The most important factors are energy and water. If you can secure these and cheap transportation, many areas can be made habitable.
For energy, the only way to get around centralized solutions is to make your own. Looking forward 10-20 years, this means solar panels. Only solar panels have the versatility needed to work anywhere. Full-spectrum solar panels can generate energy even if the sky is grey. Right now, the main barrier is cost, but the cost of solar panels has been dropping by 7% annually for the last 30 years. If this trend continues, by 2030 solar electricity will cost half that of coal electricity.
The other limitation is transportation. Physical distance creates expense and stress. Yet, better technologies over the last hundred years have revolutionized transportation and completely changed the face of cities. The vast majority of adults either drive or use efficient mass transit systems. A hundred years ago, we used horses. In twenty years, we will use self-driving cars. In forty years, better navigational AI and nanotech will allow aircars. Flying cars will definitely be developed — they will just need to be piloted by software programs smart enough to do all the work.
To spread out without destroying the environment, our manufacturing processes will have to be made clean. There are two ideal ways to go about this: growing products with synthetic biology and molecular manufacturing. In the event that both of these methods prove intractable, advanced robotics alone will allow for highly automated and precise manufacturing processes without waste.
The planet is not crowded! Our technology just sucks. More efficient technology is also better for the environment. This is not a choice. We either develop the technology we need to live anywhere, or suffer in increasingly cramped cities.
Human health, however, is sorely lacking. Those in developing countries suffer from terrible diseases, while many in developed countries are overweight and cannot exert themselves. Only the wealthiest 1% in the world can afford healthy, diverse, flavorful foods. 150,000 die per day from age-related disease. 20,000 from heart disease, 17,000 from stroke, 3,450 from traffic accidents, 3,400 die from malaria.
What can cure these maladies? Science and medicine.
The key to medicine is making people that don’t get sick to begin with. Many of the plagues on human health can be viewed as special cases of the general problem that the cells of the body are not reprogrammable or replaceable. The body naturally reprograms and replaces cells, but is eventually overcome. We must amplify the natural ability of the body to deal with disease and the ravages of aging. There are two ways in which this may be thoroughly accomplished: artificial cells or microscale robots.
Tiny machines called MEMS have already been implanted into the human body thousands of times, and have a wide range of desirable properties for medicine. To augment the immune system, these machines will have to be much more sophisticated. Robert Freitas has designed a wide variety of microscale machines for improving human health, including artificial red and white blood cells. To fabricate these machines will require nanoscale manufacturing.
An artificial cell with a non-standard design might be made impervious to pathogens, which rely on certain biological universals which could be modified in artificial cells. Cells artificially produced using the patient’s genetic code would be at home in the body and provide superior disease immunity and longevity. Artificial stem cells could be introduced to tissue to produce these new cells indefinitely. Yet, artificial cells do not currently exist. PACE, programmable artificial cell evolution, a project funded by the EU in 2004-2008, did some interesting work, but a true programmable artificial cell is still a ways off. Given the tremendous demand there would be for such cells, their eventual development seems highly likely. Cells are already being genetically reprogrammed for a variety of purposes in plants and animals. Artificial cells are the next step. If we can reprogram our own cells quickly, disease can be averted, possibly completely.
The most crucial necessity of life is water. Millions suffer and die without it. Vast tracts of good land are empty and dead because of its absence. In areas, good water can be expensive. Some geopolitical experts foresee wars based on water.
Though you might think that developed countries like the United States have the issue of water squared away, we certainly don’t. Here’s an example: this spring, it looked like the US corn crop was going to be a record-breaker. By late July, a combination of drought and heat caused the US corn crop to shrivel and experience a 10-year low. US corn is the foundation on which much of the world’s food supply is based. Cheaper and more plentiful water could have saved the corn from drought. Furthermore, water demand is expected to exceed in supply in more than 10 US cities by 2050.
Civilization is closely tied to the plentiful availability of fresh water. Modern societies cannot exist without it. Because water is such a foundational aspect of human existence, technologies that increase its availability can improve quality of life greatly. Making water more available would also allow us to colonize more remote places, addressing the issue of open space.
A few examples of currently existing water technologies that could be game-changing include nano-filters, machines that extract water from the air, and waterproof sand. And once you have water, you can usually grow food.
Perhaps the most exciting water technology are machines that extract water from air, called atmospheric water generators. Darpa put millions towards getting these developed, and after years of no progress, there was finally a breakthrough. These devices were only invented in 2006. A $50,000 machine can extract 10,000 liters of water from the air a day! In arid regions such as the deserts of Iraq, a similar machine can extract 2,200 gallons a day. A machine that costs a mere $1,300 can extract 20 liters a day — enough for plenty of applications. A machine that extracts 5,000 liters a day costs $170,000, and a version that runs entirely on solar power — no power input needed! — is $250,000. This is brand new stuff, and very exciting. It’s enough to make an oasis in the middle of a desert. The Sahara Forest Project is doing exactly that.
Eventually death is inevitable, but it staving it off for as long as possible seems like a good plan. In ancient Rome, the average lifespan was 28. In 1900 in the US, the average lifespan was only 47. By 2010, it was 78. This means that the average lifespan during the 20th century increased more than a quarter of a year per year!
This didn’t happen by magic — it happened through science. Vaccines, antibiotics, modern agriculture, and many hundreds of thousands of facets of modern medicine were all developed throughout the 20th century. And the process isn’t slowing down. The longer we live, the longer we continue to live. Someone born in 1980 may expect to live 70 years, to 2050, but if lifespans continue lengthening at the historic rate, that person’s expected lifespan would actually be 100, allowing them to live all the way to 2080!
Life is a beautiful thing. The human body is just a complex machine. If it can be repaired faster than it breaks down, we could live very long lives — perhaps hundreds of years, maybe even thousands. There are no fundamental principles of nature preventing this from happening. We are just taught a lot of comforting lies about the metaphysical meaning of death to make it easier to swallow. The zeitgeist gives our current lifespans a level of inherent mystique and meaning they don’t actually have.
Our bodies break down and age for seven clearly definable reasons: cancer, mutations in mitochondria, junk inside cells, junk outside cells, cell loss, cells losing the ability to divide, and extracellular crosslinks. The last of these was discovered in the 1970s, and not a single additional source of age-related damage has been identified in all of medicine since then, so it seems likely that this list is comprehensive. If we can “just” solve these problems, then we may find ourselves in a society where people only die from diseases, war, or accidents. If that could be achieved, the average lifespan could be 800-900 or more, depending on the frequency of war and disease.
“Immortality” is actually not all that rare in nature. A feature on turtles in the June 2002 issue of Discover magazine asked, “Can Turtles Live Forever?”, explored the possibility that turtles do not age conventionally, but simply die due to accidents and disease that affect turtles at all ages equally. An influential monograph published in 2008 developed the theory behind this in detail. Caleb Finch, a professor in the neurobiology of aging at USC, has proposed rockfish, turtles, and bristlecone pine as candidate species that do not age.
It could be that we are not far from beginning to develop cures for the major causes of aging. Within a few years, the genomes for all the candidate species exhibiting very long lifespans will be sequenced, and we will gain insight into what gives these species such long lives. There may be certain proteins or metabolic tricks that they utilize to stave off age-related decline. If these are identified, they could lead to drugs or other therapies that radically extend human lifespans. Not all age-related damage needs to be repaired for organisms to live indefinitely — damage must simply be repaired at a faster rate than it accumulates. Thus, people living in a society where average lifespan is extended by more than one year per year would enjoy indefinite lifespans, even though no “elixir of immortality” or any such thing had been developed. Some of us alive today might live to enjoy such a society.
For more scientific detail on this, see an article I wrote in 2009.
If we had all the space, health, water, and lifespan in the world, what would we be missing? Intelligence. Not just intelligence as in book smarts, but intelligence in the more sublime sense of understanding each other and the world around us on a visceral level. “Compassion” is a sub-category of the kind of intelligence I am talking about.
We tend to think of “intelligence” as running on a scale from village idiot to Einstein, but in reality, all of humanity is just a little dot on a huge scale of intelligence ranging from worms to posthuman superintelligences. The fact that our species found itself at this particular level of intelligence is just a cosmic accident. If our planet were a more dangerous place, humans would have been forced to evolve higher levels of intelligence just to cope with the perils of leaving the forest. Why can we store only 4-9 items in working memory and not 27-30? The answer is that we live on an arbitrary planet and an arbitrary level of intelligence was reached by humanity which enabled us to build a civilization.
Why can’t we reprogram our own brains? Why didn’t we launch the Industrial Revolution 100,000 years ago instead of 350 years ago? Why don’t we immediately “get” complex concepts? We contrive mystical-sounding reasons for explaining away our characteristic level of intelligence as a species, and rarely even think about it because everyone in the species has the same limitations.
These limitations need not last forever. Imagine being able to perceive 50-dimensional objects, or colors in the infrared and ultraviolet ranges. Imagine being able to appreciate the subtle connections between millions of different domains of art or science rather than a few dozen. In principle, all of this could be possible. We’d have to augment our brains somehow, possibly with brain-computer interfaces, or maybe through more organic approaches. This is a line of research that is already in progress, and interesting results are being achieved every year.
Although the concept of brain-computer interfaces makes some of us squirm, the brain-computer interfaces of the future would have to be non-invasive and safe to be practical at all. To interface with millions of micron-sized neurons, a system would have to be delicate and sophisticated. It may be possible to coax the natural gene expression networks in the brain to produce more neurons or configure them in better arrangements. What nature gave us is not necessarily the most ideal brain or mind — just what was practical for it at the time. We should regard the intellect of Homo sapiens as a good first draft — but improvements on that draft are inevitable.
People alive today are different than the generations that come before us — we have greater expectations of the world and reality itself. Instead of merely surviving, we strive towards a higher cosmic purpose rooted in science and logic instead of superstition and dogma. Science and technology are giving us the tools to create a paradise on Earth. We can use them for that, or use them to blow each other to smithereens. The choice is ours.