Let Me Be Your Oracle: 9 Predictions That Will Absolutely* Come True

Posted: August 30, 2016 in fiction, science, science fiction, space
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Scientific American’s Special September issue arrived at my door recently with an interesting cover: “9 Key Questions about Our Future: We are remaking our world and ourselves. What’s next?” The article in question is titled: “The Human Experiment” and goes on to say: “Our species is transforming itself and the world. We asked, and tried to answer, nine big questions about what these changes mean for our future.”sciam article

Scientific American (SCIAM) has done a great job making well-reasoned, informative predictions based on current science. However, science fiction lover that I am, I wished they had been a little more expansive in their predictions. I thought, I would take this farther. Heck, I have taken this farther. Then it occurred to me it might be fun to do that in a blog post, and here we are. SCIAM’s predictions, paraphrased in italics, and my own predictions follow.

  1. What mark will we leave on the planet?

SCIAM: Yes, through our trash, construction, pollution and nuclear weapons testing, we will have left a geologically-permanent mark on the planet that will persist long into the future. We’ll also affect the fossil record with the unusually high number of extinctions we’re bringing about.

DPS: I agree with SCIAM here. I don’t see how we won’t leave a mark on the planet, chemically and geologically speaking. That being said, I do think there will come a time when we set automata (aka, robots) to the task of cleaning up some of our mess. These would be portable excavators and collectors with the capability of rendering our artificial trash (metals, plastics, concrete, etc.) into either forms that can degrade naturally (crushing concrete, digesting plastics into biodegradable components) or into consolidated, harvestable forms (valuable metals come to mind). Some attempts along these lines are already taking place. I even used this scenario as the setting for my story, Suicide Flight. For me, a more profound question, though, is what will we take away, rather than what will we leave behind? We continue to cause an accelerating mass extinction while homogenizing the remaining species by transporting them around the world either on purpose or by accident. The result will almost certainly be a world biologically much poorer than the one we inherited.

  1. How will climate change affect us?

SCIAM: low-lying areas around the world (much of Florida’s coastline, for example) will be submerged under rising seas. Wildfire and drought frequency will continue to rise. Fisheries may shift geographically. Some areas will become so hot as to be nearly uninhabitable (120 degrees F or more).

DPS: We already strive to create more efficient technologies to use less energy, water, etc. Geo-engineering techniques may help solve the global warning problem, but issues of scale seem daunting. Ultimately, I disagree with the techno-utopians who predict we will invent our way out of global warming. Pollution is largely a social problem, not a technological one. Two or three hundred years ago, everyone’s food was organic, fish and game were abundant (in North America at least), and other than some urban hotspots, pollution hadn’t been invented (yes, there was human waste, but no pesticides, herbicides, industrial solvents, etc.). I predict population control will assume its rightful place on our path towards a more sustainable planet. There is no reason we need to have several billion people on the planet. A genetically and culturally viable human population could be much lower. I suspect this will come about through the education and, ironically, development of the currently underdeveloped world, especially through pursuit of equal rights for women. As the rest of the world becomes developed, despite the resource burden this will create, population growth rates will decrease. With wise stewardship, we can have a healthy, happy human population with a much smaller global footprint.

  1. Who will prosper, and who will fall behind?

SCIAM: global population continues to rise, albeit more slowly. Populations of rich nations will become smaller and older. The other nations’ populations will do the opposite. Feeding the larger human global population will be possible by reducing individuals’ consumption and pursuing sustainable agriculture. A “sixth extinction” event can be avoided if we set aside half the planet as a reserve (this last prediction is by Edward O. Wilson).

DPS: I predict global governance will become increasingly imperative. How can we manage an interconnected planet without managing it on a global scale? The world cannot, IMO, be effectively managed by a set of independent actors. Only by acting as one, will we successfully equalize the economic playing field so the environmental “race to the bottom” will cease (no more manufacturing goods cheaply in countries where environmental pollution and workers’ rights can be ignored). Eliminate counter-productive state aggression and bring everyone up to a sustainable standard of living. If global warming continues to worsen, a global authority will gain power to coordinate and force collective action by all states.

  1. Will Civil Society Endure?

SCIAM: Rising inequality between the rich and poor (or perhaps, the rich and everyone else) will continue to rise and be difficult to counter-act.

DPS: If global governance comes to pass, we may transition towards a post-scarcity economy. As AI and automata/robots take over more and more labor currently provided by humans, new energy sources come on line (dramatically more efficient solar, new renewables such as tidal, and possibly fusion), and population goes down, the divide between rich and poor will diminish. This may be my inner optimist, but I predict such as state may become reality. In that new world, what will be valued? Will wealth no longer exist? How will power be distributed? I’m not an economist, but I am dabbling with some of these ideas in the new novel series I’m working on.

  1. Will we control our genetic destinies?

SCIAM: germ-line modifications (genetic editing that would be passed on to later generations) will soon occur first as a treatment for male infertility. Sex will continue but less often as a way to procreate as embryos begin to be developed by deriving eggs and sperm from stem cells rather than the old-fashioned way. Tissue replacement will become prevalent as a means of replacing aging body parts (this last according to David H. Koch).

DPS: Yes, yes, and yes, but that’s just the beginning. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if germ-line editing has already begun in some secret laboratory somewhere. The technology to do it has advanced by leaps and bounds (take CRISPR, for example) in the mere 63 years since the decoding of DNA by Watson and Crick.

On an individual basis, I predict we’ll acquire some level of control over traits that are now genetically fixed. Hair color and texture, skin color. These may become mutable. Race may diminish or disappear.

For wealthy, powerful families in the future seeking to consolidate power, marrying a family member (cousin, sibling) could again become the norm, as it was for monarchies of old. The latter lacked remedies for genetic diseases caused by in-breeding, but the former will not. Taken to another extreme, cloning will likely become accepted in certain circumstances: colonies needing rapid population growth, standing up armies (wait—those will be drones, not humans), or individuals wishing to procreate without a partner.2128618333_ce728437dc_b

Governments, religious groups, ethnic groups, and corporations will seek out and use hereditable genetic improvements in intelligence, memory, strength, speed, endurance. Genetic outliers for all of these have already been discovered and will provide a basis for genetic tinkering. Not everything will work, but enough will to set off an arms race among the various groups. A quick look at competitive sports shows this race began long ago and will simply enter a new era. As parents, families, and groups seek to take advantage of genetic enhancements, so too will incentives to discourage anyone from “sharing” them increase. A group that has invested in improving its genetics won’t want to spread those benefits outside its in-group by having members mate with non-members (the out-group). At first, social prohibitions will arise to be followed by genetic barriers installed specifically to prevent out-group mating. Having children with someone outside your group will become increasingly difficult. What does this mean? It means human speciation. It means groups of humans self-evolving, diverging from us, their common ancestor, over a period of a century or two or three until the “human race” is no longer a single species. What are the politics of that? I don’t know, but it probably won’t be pretty.

  1. Will we defeat aging?

SCIAM: This part of the article described various promising, potential anti-aging treatments but stopped short of predicting whether aging will be defeated or not.

DPS: As a biologist by training, I have no problem answering this question. The answer, unfortunately, is “Yes.” Given the trajectory of our biological knowledge, it is (in my opinion) just a matter of time before we discover the genetic, molecular, and cellular mechanisms behind aging and various aspects of tissue regeneration (including fully-functional replacement organs and limbs). Even Alzheimer’s will be conquered, I suspect, in the not too distant future. An immortal society has been imagined frequently in science fiction, but I’ve never attempted it. In part, because it’s been done but also because it seems so unappealing and downright scary. In one short story published by Asimov’s Science Fiction, humans have achieved immortality, and to curb overpopulation, having children is made a crime. Once immortal will we still be human? Without natural death will life be as meaningful? I’m not sure, but I suspect not. The ultra-aged in science fiction tend to be villains, enamored of their immortality and ruthlessly maintaining it. But I’m not convinced those living past 100 will be so enthusiastic. The value of death may evolve with individuals eventually timing the end of their lives deliberately. As Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in A Wizard of Earthsea, “Only in silence the word, only in dark the light, only in dying life: bright the hawk’s flight on the empty sky.”

  1. If we could, would we want to live forever?

SCIAM: A discussion ensues about the possibility of uploading our minds into the cloud/computers/virtual reality and the pros and cons of doing so. Various pro-uploading futurists are quoted (Ray Kurzweil, of course, David Chalmers, and others). The discussion ends without any real predictions about living forever.

Two inset discussions do offer predictions about topics unrelated to aging: will we ever colonize space and will we discover a twin Earth. Catharine Conley of NASA states: “…if the idea is to construct a self-sustaining environment where humans can persist indefinitely with only modest help from Earth—the working definition of a ‘colony’…then I’d say this is very far in the future, if it’s possible at all.” She cites a wide variety of unsolved technical problems including building robust  closed/contained eco-systems and air handling.

Aki Roberge, also of NASA, predicts will we find a twin Earth.

DPS: First, I’ll tackle the living forever question. I’m one of those people who’s not convinced this will ever be possible. Our brains, and our bodies, are vastly more complicated than most people realize. Even as someone with a biology background, I’m amazed at how complex life is. People like to think computers are approaching human-level intelligence, but they’re not even close IMO. Not even to a toddler. They only exceed our capabilities in narrow, artificially-confined tasks. But when put into the rugged, complicated reality of everyday life? No, they can’t even begin to do what we do. Even assuming uploading a human mind becomes possible, I suspect many people would balk. How would you know that software, that program of 0’s and 1’s, would really be you? It wouldn’t of course. Other people would leap at the opportunity. I would argue they’re not really living forever, not really living at all. Some downgraded replica, a digital mimic, of their personality will persist, but given how well our technology lasts (not very well currently), for how long? Much more likely is that humans will merge their brains with computers to become cyborgs with augmented memory and faster speed of thought. In many of my stories, no one has a phone or a TV or a modem—all these functions are handled by one or more microscopic devices built inside a human embryo’s developing skull linked to the optic and auditory nerves or directly into the brain’s sensory centers.Embryo,_8_cells

Second, I’d like to address the two questions about space: 1) Will we ever colonize space and 2) will we discover a twin Earth? The latter is easy. We find more planets all the time, and our technology for finding and describing them will only continue to improve. Statistically, it’s inevitable we’ll find an Earth analogue. Where will it be located and will we ever visit it are probably the more relevant questions.

On the former question about colonization of space, I’m more optimistic about this than Ms. Conley. For one, there hasn’t been much incentive to research self-contained eco-systems until recently. Now that there is a resurgence in the evolution of space flight technology through public- and private-sector ventures, I suspect it’s just a matter of time before humans are spending ever more time in space in new stations, on the moon, on asteroids, and on Mars. Each new facility containing humans reliant on that facility’s functioning for their very survival will contribute to a growing knowledge of what works and what doesn’t. Humans will live in space. It’s just a matter of time. And here is another area where genetic modifications will be relevant—humans with genetic mechanisms to repair the ill effects of radiation exposure, bone degeneration, etc. One of the new human species may be a space-faring one.

  1. How long will we last?

SCIAM: David Gordon of the Planetary Science Institute describes the most likely threats to humanity’s continued existence: global warming, overpopulation, asteroids and comets, food shortages, and ice ages. Gordon seems optimistic that we can survive. Carlton Caves (University of Mexico) echoes this optimism, suggesting we will likely survive the next 500 years. Frank Von Hippel (Princeton University) is somewhat more cautious—citing the continuing threat of nuclear war.

DPS: I’m equally optimistic as Gordon and Caves. I believe we humans will pull through whatever environmental disasters loom ahead. A better question would be how long will all the other species of plants and animals last? For many, the answer is not long. With our current environmental consumption and population growth, many species will be pushed into extinction due to habitat loss or degradation (ocean acidification comes to mind). As I said above, our descendants will inherit a biologically poorer world. It becomes more about the quality of the future—do we want our children to grow up in a world without coral reefs, rainforests, tigers, pandas, and all the other species many of us love? What would I give to see an endless herd of buffalo, passenger pigeons blotting out the sky, or a living thylacine? A lot. Will my children have the same sense of loss as I do? I predict they will, probably moreso.

  1. Can we trust our own predictions?

SCIAM: According to Ian Banks, the simple answer is ‘no’, but guessing can be a useful exercise as long as we don’t assign our predictions an accuracy they don’t really have.

DPS: Some predictions are naturally more reliable than others. Where the question is “will humans do X?”, I suggest the answer is almost certainly “Yes” within limitations. Anyway, I’ve made my predictions here, fallible* as they may turn out to be. What do you predict?

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