QWA-category-30years

From machine intelligence to post-subsistence economies, Google’s Blaise Agüera y Arcas lays out 6 (okay, 7) ways everything is set to change.

How will our minds be blown in the next 30 years? Well, that’s quite a long time, given the acceleration in history. Still, I’ll be brave and make six hypotheses.

1. Machine Intelligence

I think that just as the Internet has been such a great driver of change across so many spheres over the past 20 years, we will see machine intelligence in the same role over the coming decades.

Today, we are as an intelligent species essentially singular. There are of course some other brainy species, like chimpanzees, dolphins, crows and octopuses, but if anything they only emphasize our unique position on Earth — as animals richly gifted with self-awareness, language, abstract thought, art, mathematical capability, science, technology and so on. Many of us have staked our entire self-concept on the idea that to be human is to have a mind, and that minds are the unique province of humans. For those of us who are not religious, this could be interpreted as the last bastion of dualism. Our economic, legal and ethical systems are also implicitly built around this idea.

Now, we’re well along the road to really understanding the fundamental principles of how a mind can be built, and Moore’s Law will put brain-scale computing within reach this decade. (We need to put some asterisks next to Moore’s Law, since we are already running up against certain limits in computational scale using our present-day approaches, but I’ll stand behind the broader statement.) When we reach this point, we will find ourselves no longer alone. It’s difficult to overstate the importance that moment will have in our future history.

It may well result in further nonlinearity in the “rate” of history too, since minds and what we’ve dreamt up with them have been the engine behind history and its acceleration.

2. Gender Selection

For many thousands of years we’ve lived in a male-dominated society. I don’t think that we’re shifting toward “female dominance” so much as I think that the whole idea of dominance is a male paradigm, and that it is this paradigm that is being selected against — by increasing population density in the urban cores, increasing education, larger working groups, increasing collaboration, rising technological leverage, global trade and so on. It may be difficult to imagine this now, when the vast majority of the world’s capital is still in the hands of men and many of the STEM fields (which are also among the highest-paid) are still overwhelmingly male, but I think that men — and especially “manly men” exhibiting many of the classical correlates of high testosterone — will be at a distinct disadvantage in 30 years time. This represents a profound upset of the patriarchal system that has defined virtually all of recorded history, so … it’ll be a big deal.

3. Post-subsistence Economics

As machine intelligence, robotics, and technological leverage in general increasingly decouple productivity from labor, we will continue to see unemployment rise even in otherwise healthy economies. The end state is one in which most forms of human labor are simply not required. In 30 years, if not sooner, we will be facing this unprecedented situation — and whether it’s heaven or hell depends on whether we’re able to let go of capitalism, economic Darwinism and the Calvinist ethics that implicitly underlie these systems. Without a change, of course, we will see mass unemployment drive a radical acceleration of the already dramatic imbalance between the very wealthy few and everyone else, leading to ugly conditions in the cities and ultimately violent uprising.

On the other hand, if we are able to set aside our Calvinism, we will realize that given the technological efficiencies we have achieved, everyone can live well, with or without a job. Capitalism, entrepreneurship and other systems of differential wealth creation could still function on top of this horizontal base; but everyone must be fed and housed decently, have access to free health care and education, and be able to live a good life. I assume the nation-state will still be a relevant legal and economic construct in 30 years (though I’m not sure, as corporations or possibly other structures will complicate the picture); my guess is that we will see both paths taken in different parts of the world, leading to misery and war in some, where either the benefits of accelerating technology are slow to penetrate or Darwinian economics are left unchecked.

4. Self-modification

We’re rapidly figuring out not only how the brain is engineered, but also the body. Of course this implies greater mastery over mechanisms of disease, but more broadly, as biology becomes first understood and then engineered, Nature becomes open to profound and rapid modification. I don’t doubt that we will be able to alter aging mechanisms, “fix” various bugs in human “design”, make novel organisms and ultimately modify our own natures. As we reach the end of the 30 year period it’s hard for me to imagine that people won’t begin to explore these capabilities, which seems likely to lead to accelerated speciation. Machine intelligence and bioengineering will both demand that we rethink our legal and ethical foundations in a variety of ways.

5. Space

The world’s space programs have been essentially dormant for decades, as we’ve focused inward on developments like computers and the Internet, biology and neuroscience. But as our fundamental technical capabilities improve, barriers to space exploration do begin to come down; what was once a heroic effort requiring the full brunt of the resources of the richest countries on Earth will come within reach of companies and (initially, rich) individuals. We’ve seen only the first stirrings of this with undertakings like SpaceX and Moon Express.

At some point our grasp of materials science and nanofabrication will become sufficient to build a space elevator, at which point our world will expand a great deal as the energetic cost of escaping Earth’s gravity well goes to near zero, as many science fiction writers of the 20th century imagined. While I’m unsure of whether the space elevator will happen within the 30 year period, I’m confident we’ll see this within our lifetimes.

6. Sexual and lifestyle freedom

In 30 years, I think that not only will the more progressive places in the world have finished reconciling themselves to the wide spectrum of sexual orientation and expression, but also to a wide variety of life configurations beyond the nuclear family built around a single lifelong pair-bond. There are many forces contributing to this shift, and I suspect that an empirical case can be made for this in much the same way as for the gender ideas above. This is the least developed of my six ideas, but one that I think will have profound implications.

Bonus: Energy
One thing I’m leaving off the list above is the potential availability of very cheap, very abundant energy at some point in the future.  Many aspects of our outlook are conditioned on the premise that energy is limited and expensive. As a thought experiment, one can ask, “what if energy in virtually any amount were free?” This could imply an end to drought anywhere via desalination of seawater; it could allow us to enact climate controlling interventions on a massive scale, engineer materials that are currently cost-prohibitive, or let us get into space easily even if we continue to do it the hard way.

(Although freely available energy could let us save great ecosystems currently under dire threat, without great care it could also lead to disaster through chemical, thermal, biological and noise pollution on an unprecedented scale.)

We know that in principle vast amounts of energy are available to us through nuclear processes, so in principle an innovation could come along at any time that lets us tap safely into this energy. That would change everything. However, there is no trend or indication that suggests a timeline for such a development — it could happen next week, or still be a pipe dream a century from now.

Blaise Agüera y Arcas works on machine learning at Google. Previously a distinguished engineer at Microsoft, he has worked on augmented reality, mapping, wearable computing and natural user interfaces. He was also the co-creator of Photosynth, software that assembles photos into 3D environments.

Join the conversation! 7 Comments

  1. Having just returned from the Second International Conference on the Future of Monogamy and Non-Monogamy, I think you are quite correct to include Hypothesis 6. Monogamy is no better suited to human happiness than stilts are to transcontinental travel. Ethical alternatives to monogamy, including swinging, polyamory, and sex work, are gaining supporters and more academic work is being done on them. These sex/love/relationship technologies have the potential to allow people to actualize two desires that seem to be universal. One is the desire to have one or more long term mates and the other is the desire to have many sexual partners. In our monogamous society, but certainly not in many other societies, having one sexually exclusive relationship is mandated. So the strong desire to have multiple sexual partners is repressed. This leads to a lot of dysfunctional behavior like divorce, adultery, and abuse which has huge emotional and financial costs. Once ethical non-monogamy becomes accepted, there will be much less dysfunctional behavior.

  2. Another great post. I think energy and self modification will be the biggest changes in the world. Those two alone already have a huge impact on society, people, and the things around us. Eager to see how the future will change.
    - iwe magazine

  3. **bonus. Fusion? Clean and the real mad rush for helium4 driving space mining companies

  4. Hello,
    A nice information about future, this will change our lifestyle, special the Machine Intelligence.
    Thanks

  5. heres an idea for #3
    http://www.metagovernment.org/wiki/User:Paquetp

    opinions?

  6. Gender selection and machine intelligence will change the world big time. The internet is already growing, will be even larger in the near future. The same theory goes for gender selection. This could be scary to think about to. The greater things become, the more security we will need.
    Thanks for sharing

  7. Many of the above suggested aspects for the future are technical in the “machinery” sense. They are able to make our lives easier after it is assumed that we will be here to enjoy them. But current society is not basically aiming in this direction. For all the large sums being invested in these wonderful improvements there are many many people who already cannot make ends meet and (more to the point) this gap between the rich and the poor is growing.
    The middle class are being eliminated, consequently as the big firms continue to develop these wonderful improvements they will find that very few people can afford to buy them and to use them.

    My point is that along with wondeful technical changes there is coming a most wonderful lack of opportunity for their use, due to the growth of the povert gap. Unless this basic problem is tackled first there will be no future for the new advanced technology except for a very few whose super-lives allow them to afford it.

    So we should first be concentrating on the poverty gap and the ability to provide poor people with better opportunities to earn and to live in a good area and to spend (and eventually to save).
    This problem won’t go away unless a proper understanding of how our social system works. The science of macroeconomics is in its infancy due the power of the cooporation to supress some of the knowledge which otherwise would be obtainable from the universities. Many claim that it is impossible to turn it into a formal science and to understand properly how it actually works. On this I differ. My model of the whole system is scientific and logical after making the kinds of simple assumptions that current non-scientific macro-experts seem to be incapable of appreciating.
    So before we can enjoy the wonders of new technology we need some better understanding and practical improvements about our own social organization. Socialism doesn’t work before it looses efficiency. Capitalism is unsucessful too because it allows monopolies to dominate the middle class. What we need is a modification to give everyone equal opportunity to earn.

    The greatest control on this is by access to a place to worl, namely the land. Only when access to land is not restricted will there be a way for everyone to use his/her skills to work amd to be satisfied with the produce. By taxing land values instead of other kinds of production (such as earnings, purchases, capital gains, inports, etc) can the government provide us with access to fair and just opportunities.

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About Blaise Aguera y Arcas

Blaise Agüera y Arcas works on machine learning at Google. Previously a distinguished engineer at Microsoft, he has worked on augmented reality, mapping, wearable computing and natural user interfaces. He was also the co-creator of Photosynth, software that assembles photos into 3D environments.

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