My brother has challenged me to write a posting about what I think the future will be like in ten thousand years time. This is delving into the realm of futurology. Well, I have an O level in biology and an A level in sociology, but nothing except my imagination in futurology, which, I guess is about the most anyone has.
Of course, anybody with half a brain cell will know that trying to foretell anything so far off is actually totally impossible. Given the amount of change in human society and particularly technology over the past one hundred years, it is hard enough to try and guess what things will be like in another hundred years, let alone ten thousand. I read somewhere some time ago that society transforms itself every fifty years. Well, writing as one who can remember the year 1959, I reckon this is near the mark as life today is totally different to what it was then. Of course, we share a lot of the same basic technology as then, but it is so much more sophisticated and refined than fifty years ago, that much of it has changed and advanced almost beyond recognition. We had computers in 1959 – which filled a building and a fraction of the computing power of the laptop which I am using to type this posting. Moving forward into the future, I believe it will be advances in computing which will be the main driver of technological advance, as well as quantum physics, molecular biology, the development of nanotechnology and the development of non-carbon based energy sources. The question is, where will these advances lead us to in the distant future - after a further two hundred transformations?
In trying to answer the question, I could say just about anything, as it is as unlikely that I could predict that far into the future as it is as likely that a thoughtful cave dweller could have predicted the internet. And, of course, no one who reads this today will know if I am right or not as we will all be dead in a small fraction of the time from now to ten thousand years hence. Even so, in posting this on the internet as I am doing, it may be that these words will still be floating around the info sphere in some ten thousand years and some person or entity will uncover and absorb it into their consciousness.
Impossible though the challenge might be, I am going, nonetheless, to give it my best shot, so here goes!
There are so many variables which will affect our future survival. Will we be hit by another comet like the one which wiped out the dinosaurs? Will our environment be all but destroyed by out of control global warming? Will we turn away from rationality and sink into another dark age fuelled by ignorance, superstition and oppressive religion? Will we destroy ourselves through a nuclear holocaust or through the use of some other as yet unimagined weapon of mass destruction? In short, will we survive long enough to have a future?
I think most of us in the west think of the future mostly in terms of technological and scientific advance. This is but one side of the coin. The other side is human relationships. Mankind is essentially a social animal, and tragically war-like. If we are to survive, then relationships are the most critical factor because if we can't get on with each other as a species, then we will, without a doubt destroy ourselves. But we will for the purpose of this posting, suppose that we manage to subdue the worst aspects of our nature and continue to develop our science and technology into the far distant future.
It goes without saying that the conquest of space will be one of the biggest aspects of our future. However, I am going to assume that we will not be able to travel faster than light because it takes an infinite amount of energy to propel a single atom to that speed. However, as we learn more about the laws of physics, and learn to exploit new energy sources, the problem of faster than light travel might be side stepped by the ability to bend, expand and contract space itself for our own purposes. Given enough energy (though for faster than light travel no amount is enough), you could imagine a kind of “warp” travel whereby a spaceship creates a force field where the space to the front of it is shrunk and the space behind is expanded thus propelling it at seemingly faster than light speeds throughout the cosmos. This would not so much be a kind of movement through space but more a disappearance at one point in space and a reappearance at another. The popular physicist Michio Kaku envisages a future ability to bend space back upon itself, create a “wormhole” and travel through it to reappear perhaps thousands or even millions of light years from the start point – or even in another universe in a parallel dimension.
This is all fine and dandy, but from whence comes the truly astronomical quantities of energy to allow such possibilities? Well, one answer might be in harnessing the energy of space-time itself, and this energy is called “zero-point” energy. We now know that there really is no such thing as empty space. Einstein showed that both space and time are intertwined and are inseparable from each other. At the quantum level, space is made up of a kind of bubbling soup with strange particles popping into existence and then destructing in a constant boiling broth. This space-time matrix is an energy source so powerful that if we could harvest it then all our energy needs would be banished for ever giving us a virtually unlimited energy supply for whatever kind or size of project we care to embark upon. However, how to release this zero point energy is the holy grail. Ten thousand years is probably enough time to overcome these problems and develop the technologies if what we believe we know today turns out to hold water in the future. However, I do have a kind of feeling that if we do manage to access this esoteric energy, then the exploitation of black holes will probably have something to do with it.
Given that we are talking about such a vast distance into the future, then I believe that the most fundamental change will come about as we learn to engineer our own physiology. The impetus for this comes from two directions. One is the desire to live longer – preferably indefinitely. The other is to overcome disease and suffering, and have perfect bodies. I believe that we will gradually replace our bodies with artificial bodies which will give us virtual indestructibility and an indefinite life span. In many ways, we can see the beginnings of this process today. I have a hearing aid to overcome my high tone deafness. When I wear it, my hearing is better than it was before I had the problem. I have some reading glasses. I also have prescription sun glasses for when I am driving. Moving up a level or two, we have people with ear implants. We have people with retina implants. We have people with artificial hearts. We have people with artificial arms and legs. I have even seen a spot on some science programme about the development of artificial blood.
I think it is clear where I am going with this. Given that all these technologies will continue to advance, there must come a point, probably not that far into the future where these artificial organs will be better, more durable and efficient than the real thing. Imagine having artificial legs which enable you to run at 60 miles per hour. Imagine having an ear implant which gives you the ability to hear at much higher and lower frequencies than normal ears. Imagine having artificial eyes which enable you to see into the infra-red and the ultra-violet, as well as being able to zoom in and see the sort of details you would normally need a powerful telescope to see, not to mention the ability to see the microscopic world normally only visible through a microscope. I believe all these things are perfectly within the realms of possibility. Further, it will not just be disabled or injured people who will benefit from these technologies, but anyone who wants to, and can afford to. It will become a lifestyle choice.
However, this is only the beginning. Eventually whole body replacements will be available, where the only part of the biological you which will be present will be the brain. Once we reach this stage, and if we can find ways to regenerate dying and dead brain cells, then life spans of hundreds or even thousands of years may well be possible. Of course, there is no reason why our re-engineered bodies should take on the familiar morphology of our natural bodies. Don't forget, we will be a deep-space faring civilization, and so it makes sense that our bodies are adapted to the different environments of the worlds on which we find ourselves. We will develop bodies which can survive and thrive in all kinds of environments, from the vacuum of the Moon, the frozen methane wastelands of Titan, the tenuous and frozen landscapes, mountains and valleys of Mars – all without the need for a space suit. We talk today about teraforming other planets to make them habitable for ourselves, but turning that upon its head, I would suggest we will adapt ourselves to inhabit these worlds just as they are.
Eventually, the ultimate step of replacing the brain itself might be taken. Given that the most mysterious aspect of human life is consciousness, unless we can understand exactly from whence it comes, and how it springs into being, then the ability to replace the brain while at the same time retaining our human nature will not be possible. However, if we take into account the development of nanotechnology where many scientists confidently predict that we will be able to inject nano-robots into the blood stream to track down and destroy harmful bacteria, viruses, cancerous cells, etc., then it is only a short leap to imagine nano-machines which can build new artificial cells and graft them into the living matrix as the original cells age and die. In this way, the brain itself could be gradually transformed into an artificial organ while retaining the consciousness which makes us human.
Once we have reached this stage, and probably a long way before it, we will no longer be reliant upon traditional meat and vegetable based food as we are today. It has to be remembered, that while we might love all our culinary delights, the reason we eat food at all is primarily to replace dead and dying tissue, and to provide an energy source to power the muscles of the body. Of course, as we make the transition to non-biological life forms we will start to utilise a whole range of energy sources and new technologies to do the same job. The days of the farm and the abattoir are numbered.
So here we are, ten thousand years hence, and changed beyond recognition from what we are today. We are virtually indestructible, with super senses, memories and reasoning abilities. Our abode will be out there in the depths of space, exploring other worlds around distant suns. It may well be, that we shall be so sophisticated that life forms on other worlds will never know of our presence. We will be able to blend in and remain invisible to the frustrated alien astronomers with their own SETI projects reaching out in the vain hope of finding they are not alone.
Of course, we must remember that we are human, and our abilities, intelligence and longevity are only a small part of our nature. We are social creatures craving love, sensitivity and companionship, not to mention our love of art, music, and all those things which stimulate the senses and make life worth living. I believe the answer to these cravings will be internalised in that we will be able to experience pretty much whatever we like just by willing it. Within each of us will be a kind if inner holo-deck within which we can inhabit at will. This will come about with the additional abilities engendered into our brains as we develop, and redevelop them. The scenarios we imagine will seem so real that they will be indistinguishable from the real thing. We may find ourselves inhabiting a kind of “Matrix” type virtual world which we will switch in and out of at will. This does not mean that all our relationships will be purely imaginary. We will still fall in love and form close bondings with other individuals as well as share information and work in close harmony with others.
New people will be created artificially in artificial wombs in baby making factories, though the babies themselves will be brains which will be implanted directly into their android bodies where they will grow, mature, and be replaced with artificial neural networks cell by cell. There is also no reason why individuals should not be able to change their bodies. It might be more appropriate to be able to fly, so a bird like body might be just the job. It might, on the other hand be needful to be able to live under water, so fish like bodies might be the order of the day.
Clearly, if only a fraction of what I am suggesting comes to be, it is clear that our future is totally alien compared to anything we experience today.
In the far distant future, we may well come across other worlds and find other life forms not realising that they are divergent forms of ourselves, which in the dim past had branched off from ourselves and gone their own way. We will find the long sought after aliens in our own progeny.
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