Dreams of a rational world

A long-term look at the future of humanity

There is much to fear and much to be hopeful for. We must think globally and rationally to safeguard our future, argues futurist and Astronomer Royal Martin Rees.


We learn two things from COVID-19. First, our entire world is interconnected:  a catastrophe in any region can cascade globally. Second, international science can be our salvation – as in the development of vaccines.

Let’s hope that, when this crisis is passed, we can focus on the longer-term challenges the world faces: providing food, energy and healthcare for a rising population, with an ever heavier footprint on the planet, without irreversibly degrading the biosphere. Unlike COVID, these interlinked crises are slowly-emergent: they don’t lead to public pressure for urgent action. But our predicament parallels that of a frog in a warming pot who fails to respond until it’s too late to save itself.

But there is some good news: a sustainable and benign long-term future is possible, but only if science and technology are deployed and prioritized optimally.


Feeding the World


There are now 7.8 billion people on the Earth, many undernourished and in extreme poverty. By mid-century there will be about 9 billion. World food production needs to double to ensure that all those in India and Africa (where the main growth will be) are as well-nourished as we are in the Global North. And this must be done without unduly encroaching on nature and forests. We need ‘sustainably intensive’ agriculture that can produce crops efficiently in a changing climate. And we can’t all eat as much beef as present-day Americans.

A sustainable and benign long-term future is possible, but only if science and technology are deployed and prioritized optimally.

Some dietary innovations are feasible without 'frontier' science, for instance converting insects -highly nutritious and protein-rich into palatable food and making artificial meat from vegetable protein. 'Beef' burgers (made mainly of wheat, coconut, and potato) are now being marketed in the US by companies called Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods. It will be a while, though, before their “pseudo-burgers” will satisfy carnivorous gourmands for whom beetroot juice is a poor substitute for blood.

But biochemists have been making breakthroughs: they 'grow' meat by taking a few cells from an animal and then stimulating growth with appropriate nutrients. In 2020, Singapore's food regulatory agency approved the sale of 'cultured' meat developed by US start-up Eat Just. Acceptable meat substitutes are an ecological benefit --- and , for many of us, an ethical advance too; future generations will look back in horror at the 'factory farming' techniques that prevail today.


Clean Energy


The second big challenge is to meet the world’s energy needs. These will expand even faster than the demand for food: the poorest countries will aim to close the gap with consumption in Europe. This is a daunting challenge at a time when there’s an internationally agreed goal constraining climate change by eliminating the use of fossil fuels.

But there's a 'win-win' roadmap to a low-carbon future. All nations – especially those like the UK with high-tech capability -- should scale up research and development into all forms of low-carbon energy generation; and into other technologies where parallel progress is crucial - especially storage (batteries, compressed air, pumped storage, hydrogen , etc) and smart grids.

The faster these 'clean' technologies advance, the sooner will their prices fall so they become affordable to, for instance, India, where more generating capacity will be needed, where the health of the poor is jeopardized by smoky stoves burning wood or dung, and where there would otherwise be pressure to build coal-fired power stations. Just as such countries have adopted mobile phones and bypassed landlines, so they can leapfrog directly to clean energy.

It's hard to think of a more inspirational challenge for young engineers than developing clean and affordable energy for the entire world.

It's hard to think of a more inspirational challenge for young engineers than developing clean and affordable energy for the entire world.


Longer and Healthier Lives


And there's a third requirement, apart from food and energy: good health.The advances in medicine and surgery achieved in the last 100 years will surely be acclaimed as a net blessing. They lengthened the average lifespan and reduced infant mortality in the developing world. But it's important that future advances are similarly benign.

There's a real worry that tropical diseases are neglected compared to treatments that will benefit only a rich minority. Some advances will raise ethical issues - in particular, the dilemmas involved in treating those at the very beginning and the end of their lives. An extension of our healthy lifespan will be welcome. But there’s a growing gap between how long we will survive in healthy old age, and how much longer some kind of life can be preserved by extreme measures. Most of us would choose to request non-resuscitation, and solely palliative treatment, as soon as our life quality and future prospects dropped below a threshold. We dread clinging on for years in the grips of advanced dementia. . Similarly, one must question whether the efforts to preserve extremely premature or irreversibly damaged babies has gone too far.

Important advances in gene editing – so-called CRISPR-Cas 9 – were recently recognised by a Nobel Prize. This technique  offers better-targeted genetic modification of plant and animals – hugely important for agriculture. For humans, it allows individuals to avoid the risk of, for instance, Huntingdon's disease, cause by a single 'rogue' gene. But most of our human characteristics are determined by an aggregate of many genes. Major modification of the genome is a more remote (and of course more risky and dubious) prospect. Not until this can be done - and until DNA with the required prescription can be artificially sequenced – will 'designer babies' become conceivable (in both senses of that word!).

 [Interestingly, it's unclear how much parental desire there would be for offspring 'enhanced' in this fashion. In the 1980s a so-called 'Repository for Germinal Choice' was set up: a sperm bank with 'elite' donors, including William Shockley, co-inventor of the transistor and a Nobel prizewinner who achieved notoriety in later life for racist views. He was surprised - though most of us were probably gratified - that there was no great demand!]

Martin Rees, Laura Mersini-Houghton, Hilary Lawson and Kate Devlin question what the future really has in store for Artificial Intelligence.


Humans have long sought the elixir of youth. Any major breakthrough in extending human life would drastically alter population projections. The social effects, while obviously huge, would depend on whether the years of senility were prolonged, too; whether women's age at menopause would increase; and how families would be structured if many generations were alive at the same time. Expensive treatments to extend human lives could also have implications for inequality; as in many other areas of technology, only the wealthy may be able to afford such services.

Hardcore longevity enthusiasts hope for such rapid progress that life expectancy might increase by more than a year each year, offering the prospect of immortality But the older ones worry that this "escape velocity" may not be reached within their expected natural lifetime, and therefore want their bodies frozen from the moment they die until immortality is possible.  This service is offered by an Arizona-based company called Alcor, which replaces the blood of dead bodies with liquid nitrogen.

I find it hard to take this aspiration seriously, and I would rather end my days in an English churchyard than an American freezer. Moreover, I don't think it would be good if cryonics ever did succeed. Let's suppose Alcor stays in business and dutifully cares for its cryogenically frozen bodies for the requisite number of centuries. The corpses would then be revived in a world where they would be strangers - refugees from the past.

Perhaps they would be treated indulgently, as most people believe distressed asylum seekers or displaced Amazonian tribespeople should be treated today. The difference, however, is that the thawed-out corpses would be burdening future generations by choice, so it is not clear how much consideration they would deserve.

The prospect of human immortality has long been the stuff of science fiction. The world will be a better place if it remains so.


Robotics and AI


The developments I’ve outlined would take place against a backdrop of other innovations – for instance robots and artificial intelligence (AI).

Already AI can surpass humans in managing complex fast-changing networks --traffic flow, or electric grids. China could have an efficient planned economy that Marx or Stalin could only dream of. AI systems will become more intrusive and pervasive. Records of all our movements, our health, and our financial transactions, will be in the 'cloud', managed by a multinational quasi-monopoly.

If we're sentenced to a term in prison, recommended for surgery, or even given a poor credit rating, we would expect to be given reasons - and to have a chance to contest them. If such decisions were delegated to algorithms, we would be entitled to feel uneasy, even if presented with compelling evidence that, on average, the machines make better decisions than the humans they have usurped.

The 'arms race' between cybercriminals and those trying to defend against them will become still more expensive and vexatious. Many experts think that AI, like synthetic biotech, already needs guidelines for 'responsible innovation'.

There are impending transformations in the labour market. Routine manufacturing and clerical work can be automated. And the work of lawyers and doctors can be replaced – or at least enhanced – by AI. But it's not true that 'blue-collar' jobs are necessarily more vulnerable. Plumbing and gardening, for instance, are so non-routine that machines could be at best a supplement to human decision-making.

The prospect of human immortality has long been the stuff of science fiction. The world will be a better place if it remains so.

We should welcome the replacement of jobs like those in call centres and warehouses, provided those displaced can find more fulfilling employment. The international conglomerates that dominate these technologies should be properly taxed, and the proceeds used to create publicly funded jobs as (for instance) carers for young and old. In these jobs – currently too few and underpaid --   human empathy is crucial.

It's of course the speed of computers that allows them to learn on big training sets. But learning how we humans behave - acquiring 'common sense' - won't be so easy for them. It involves watching actual people in real homes or workplaces. A machine would be sensorily deprived by the slowness of real-life -- it's like watching trees grow is for us.

And robots are still clumsier than a child in moving pieces on a real chessboard. They can't jump from tree to tree like a squirrel. But sensor technology is advancing fast.

What if a machine developed a mind of its own? Would it stay docile, or 'go rogue'? Would AI gets out of its box, infiltrate the internet of things,and pursue goals misaligned with human interest - or even treat humans as encumbrances. Some AI pundits take this seriously and think the field already needs guidelines - just as biotech does. But others, like Rodney Brooks (inventor of the Baxter robot), regard these concerns as premature - and think it will be a long time before artificial intelligence will worry us more than real stupidity.

Be that as it may, it's likely that society will be transformed by autonomous robots, even though the jury's out on whether they'll be 'idiot savants' or display superhuman capabilities - and whether we should worry more about breakdowns and bugs, or about being outsmarted, But we don't know how fast. And this leads to a digression,


How Fast Will Technology Advance?


It's harder to forecast the speed of technological advances than their direction. Sometimes there's a spell of runaway progress – such as the spread of IT and smartphones in the last two decades - but it then levels off.

We need to think globally, we need to think rationally, we need to think long-term -- empowered by twenty-first-century technology but guided by values that science alone can't provide.

Think of aviation, for instance. From Alcock and Brown's first transatlantic flight in 1919 to the first jumbo jet was 50 years. But 50 years later we still have the jumbo jet. (And Concorde came and went). Experts are getting less optimistic about how quickly we'll have fully driverless cars among ordinary traffic. And iPhone 20 may not be too different from iPhone 12.


What About Space?


‘Space’ is another example where a surge was followed by relative stagnation. It was only 12 years from Sputnik 1, in 1957, to the moon landings, but 50 years later the Apollo programme is still the high point of human spaceflight. Once the US imperative to ‘beat the Russians' had been achieved, there was no pressure to sustain the huge expenditure Apollo entailed. No human since 1972 has travelled more than a few hundred miles from the Earth. To today's young people these exploits are ancient history.

But space technology has burgeoned -- for communication, environmental monitoring, satnav and so forth. We depend on it every day. It's benefited from the reduction in launch costs - spearheaded by Space X's development of reusable rockets, and by the miniaturisation familiar from smartphones.

There are plans to launch thousands of microsatellites into low orbit, to provide global broadband coverage, And a few dozen shoebox-size satellites -- launched by a single rocket - could provide a huge flow of environmental data. One system claims to observe every tree in the world, every day - and of course monitor land use in immense detail.

But what about human spaceflight? Advances in robotics and AI are eroding the practical need for astronauts. Nonetheless, I hope people will follow the robots, though it will be as adventurers rather than for practical goals.  Private-enterprise ventures like Elon Musk’s Space X bring a Silicon Valley culture into a domain long-dominated by NASA and a few aerospace conglomerates. They can cut costs, and can tolerate higher risks than a western government could impose on publicly-funded civilian astronauts. So it's these ventures - with private funds and sponsorship - that should 'front' manned missions.

Within this century courageous thrill-seekers may well establish 'bases' independent from the Earth. Elon Musk says he wants to die on Mars – but not on impact.


Will there be a better future?


Opinion polls show, unsurprisingly, that younger people who expect to survive most of the century, are more engaged and anxious about long-term and global issues - and their activism gives ground for hope. What should be our message to them?

It's surely the case that there's no scientific impediment to achieving a sustainable world, where all enjoy a lifestyle better than those in the 'west' do today. Most of the challenges are global: the threats of potential shortages of food, water, and natural resources -- and transitioning to low carbon energy --- can't be solved by each nation separately. Nor can the regulation of potentially threatening innovations - especially those spearheaded by globe-spanning commercial conglomerates. Indeed a key issue is whether, in a 'new world order', nations need to give up more sovereignty to new organizations along the lines of the IAEA, WHO, etc.

We need to think globally, we need to think rationally, we need to think long-term -- empowered by twenty-first-century technology but guided by values that science alone can't provide.


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