There are a thousand ways in which humanity might destroy itself. What I'd like to discuss are the half-dozen or so ways I see humanity progressing- beyond homo sapiens.
1. The 'Star Trek' future: many futurists imagine that humanity will travel to other planets, and become a multi-terrestrial species. That is a kind of progress, I'll admit: to move from one planet (where humanity's existence could be easily wiped out by a single disaster- meteorite, virus or other) to many, provides some security for the continuance of the species. But in that vision of the future, humans don't evolve in any way. If you look at the characters on any of the Star Trek shows, they are really no different, physically, emotionally or most important, mentally, than you or me. But I don't think that's realistic. As our knowledge of DNA grows, the temptation to tinker with it will become irresistable. Especially when we could make ourselves smarter, stronger and healthier.
2. Supermen (and Superwomen): as imagined in films such as X-men, or T.V. shows such as Heroes, the humans of the future may have super abilities. However, I don't think they will include stopping time, walking through walls, etc. But these abilities could include the ability to breathe underwater, using gills like amphibians, or fly using wings grafted onto the human frame. More importantly, future humans might be smarter, with better memories. Unlike in Heroes or X-men, however, these abilities won't simply appear- they will be developed by scientists.
3. Humans adapted to space: instead of travelling in spaceships to other planets, humans could alter their bodies to allow themselves to live in space, without spacesuits or oxygen. How would this be accomplished? First, the human body would have to have an exoskeleton, or tougher skin, to protect it from the vacuum of space. Secondly, the body would have to recycle carbon dioxide into oxygen and vice-versa, and use sunlight for energy and propulsion (it would probably have large wings that it would use as solar sails). Obviously, such a person would not look exactly human. He or she would be as much plant as animal (plants use sunlight for energy, and convert carbon dioxide into oxygen).
4. Collective humanity: we have machines now (E.K.G., etc.) which can read minds, in a very crude fashion. If machinese were developed that could both read a mind and transmit that information to another mind directly, then telepathy might be possible. But telepathy is not just a better form of communication. It is a way for two minds to be joined. It is a way for a hundred minds to be joined, as well. Or a billion. Individual man or woman may become extinct.
5. Seperation of mind and body: the body is prone to accidents. It seems reckless that we let our brains (which are irreplacable) be carted around by our bodies (which can be replaced). Not if we can store our brains in safety (the part with the higher functions) while we control our body via remote link. That way, if your body gets hit by a truck, or falls off a cliff- it's not the end of your life. Just grow a new body. The best part is, although your brain is miles away from your body, it doesn't seem that way- it feels as if you and your body are still one.
6. Man and machine: remember what Obi One said about Darth Vader? "He is more machine than man, now." It seems likely that we will internalize more and more technology, blurring the line between human and hardware (although I think this will be a temporary stage in human development, before genetic technology catches up). This would include artificial organs and limbs, telephone implants, etc.
The 2oth Century was the Age of Technology. The 21st Century will be the Age of Biology.
The federal debt, gross, is about $600 billion. So in Canada, with a population of about 33 million, that works out to $18,000. So my share, your share, your kid's share, is $18,000. What if the federal government let you pay off your share, right now? Then, for the rest of your life, you wouldn't have to pay the interest on your share of the federal debt. Let's say interest rates are 5%, so that's $900 less tax you would pay every year. In 20 years, your investment would pay for itself, and after that, it's gravy. Of course, unlike investing in RRSPs, you wouldn't get the principal back, but then again, you wouldn't pay tax on the interest saved, either. The federal government would be relieved of the headache of debt financing and repayment. Everyone wins.
To make this deal more attractive, I think parents should be allowed to pay off their children's debt. As long as their children are under 21, the tax rebate ($900) would go to the parents. But after that, the son or daughter could claim the amount on his or her own tax return.
I know, some people might object that only the rich could afford to do this. Not necessarily. If you think of it as an investment, $18,000 is less than the cost of a new car or the average down payment on a house. It could also be divided into more manageable amounts. For example, you could pay $9,000, and save $450/year, or $3,000, and save $270/year.
At the current rate of repayment ($3 billion/year) it will take 200 years to pay off our federal debt. This plan might let us pay it off a bit faster.
I've reorganized this table, and added the territories. The statistics for population, gross domestic product, net debt and gross debt (total liabilities) are from Statistics Canada. It would be nice if they had a summary table online for all the provinces' and territories' debt, but they don't. The debt/GDP ratio is from the respective province's 2007 budget statements or finance ministry's website. If it doesn't appear to exactly match the other columns, that may be because the statistics for GDP are from 2006, while the statistics for net and gross debt are mostly from 2004 or 2005. Some provinces calculate debt/GDP using net debt, while others (and the federal government) appear to calculate the ratio using gross debt.
While compiling this table, I was amazed at how many different ways there are to calculate debt, net or otherwise. I was also reminded of Mark Twain's famous statement about 'lies, damn lies, and statistics.' Dear reader, these are not my lies- I'm just quoting.
(All debt/GDP figures in millions of Canadian dollars. Population in 1,000s. Net and gross debt for Atlantic Provinces are for 2007; for N.W.T. and Yukon for 2004; all other provinces and Nunavut for 2005.)
I would like to make some predictions about what the world will be like in 100 years. Just for fun. There are no experts on the future: your guess is as good as mine. But this is my guess: time will tell if I am right. I'll be dead by then anyways, and so will you.
First, concerning globalization. Currently, there are 6,000+ languages in the world, but most of them are dying. I predict that by 2100, only 80 or so languages will survive as living languages, outside of Africa, and there, only two or three hundred will survive. (By 'living language', I mean spoken by the youngest generation- under-20s- in everyday conversation.) All the Aboriginal languages of North and South America (except Quechua, Guarani and perhaps Quiche) will disappear. So will the Aboriginal or minority languages of Australia, New Zealand, Russia, the Phillipines and China. India's hundreds of languages will be reduced to half a dozen, and Indonesia's to a tiny few.
English will become the 'lingua franca' of the world. But not English as we know it: it will be a simplified creole, with many regional variations.
The European Union will continue to expand, to include all of Europe- and North America. And possibly Russia. This might be called the 'Arctic Union'. Meanwhile, in the Middle East, a Muslim civil war (similar to the wars of the Christian Reformation in the 16th Century) will sweep the region, between Sunnis and Shiites. This has already begun in Iraq. In Africa, a 'green curtain' will be drawn between the Muslim north and the Christian south (as we have already seen in Sudan, Cote d'Ivoire, Nigeria, etc.). New federations will emerge north and south of this line. All of North Africa might be united- if only briefly- in an Islamic fundamentalist superstate.
Several plagues will sweep the world- caused by scientific experimentation and failed immunization programs, and spread by global transportation. (Mad cow, avian flu, sars, etc. are signs of the future, unfortunately. But scientists, politicians and businesspeople are so incredibly short-sighted that they will continue to make the same mistakes, with ever-worsening results.)
In developed countries, vaccines against addiction to illicit drugs will be developed, and become compulsory. This will lead to new illicit drugs being developed.
China and India- in fact, much of Asia- will become increasingly wealthy, with a few financial hiccups along the way. But many Asians will remain very poor. Both China and India face huge problems of energy and water supply, as well as pollution. This will lead to social and political problems, rebellions and possibly civil war. To survive, some autocratic regimes will create a more complete totalitarianism than is possible with our current technology. Every movement of individuals will be monitored, and all communication recorded.
Around mid-century, the worst will pass- as world population peaks and Asian countries catch up to Western countries in economic terms. Also, the religious wars (Sunni vs. Shiite, Christian vs. Muslim) of the next few decades will have fizzled out. The second half of the 21st Century will
be less eventful. If civilization survives the plagues and wars of the first half, that is.
However, in the latter half of the 21st century, the effects of global warming will begin to become apparent. Climate will change throughout the world, with some areas getting wetter (Mexico, Saharan Africa?) while some areas get drier (Western Europe, Eastern North America?). Sealevels will not rise as much as expected, however, as increased rainfall in the Arctic will actually increase the size of the polar ice cap.
What about technology?
The most important new technologies will be biological. All injuries or birth defects which are not fatal will be reversible, and no-one will be blind, deaf or confined to a wheelchair. Doctors will go beyond merely repairing the body, however, to create new and controversial 'improvements', such as eyes with eagle-like vision, hearing beyond the normal human range, gills for underwater breathing, even wings for flight. Instead of colouring her hair, a teenage girl of the 2080s will change the colour of her skin (perhaps green or purple). Instead of getting a tattoo, a young man might grow horns, or a prehensile tail.
Sometime in this century, doctors will discover something which will change humanity forever: how to increasing human memory and intelligence. As our species is termed 'homo sapiens' ('man who thinks'), so the human of the future will need a new name: perhaps 'homo ultra sapiens' ('man who thinks extremely well').
Another possible technology of the near future: telepathy. Imagine a machine that can read the thoughts of one person and transmit those thoughts directly to the brain of another person, whose thoughts are transmitted back to the first person. Just another form of communication? No, telepathy is much more than that. If it is efficient enough, it could become a way of merging minds. Two minds, or maybe many more. I imagine a world where the 'Bride' and the 'Beast' of the Book of Revelations are two massive, global collectives of billions of minds, dividing humanity between them.
Even more farfetched, what if scientists discover the secret of reanimation? Imagine if death was not a permanent state...
And space? Who knows? I would like to see humanity travel to the stars, but I don't see it happening in this century. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if space is all but forgotten for the next few decades, as other problems distract us.
None of this might happen. Or all of it. Perhaps our Lord will come again, before humanity has the chance to completely mess things up. I hope so.
No-one can know the future with certainty, unless he keeps that secret to himself. For in telling, he might change the future, or his own actions might inadvertently prevent the foreseen future from happening. This is why prophecies are always cryptic. Still. Since hardly anyone reads this blog anyway, allow me to hazard a few guesses.
It all began with spectacles. Which lead to contact lenses, then laser eye surgery. False teeth, made from ivory, which became teeth implants, and soon may be replaced by real teeth that the toothless grow themselves, with a gene implant. Wooden legs, which became titanium-alloy, jointed legs, to be replaced by...?
So far, our additions to the human body have been caused by medical necessity. We were trying to restore injured or imperfect bodies to their 'healthy' state. Yet our science is progressing to the point where we may be able to go beyond repairing damage, and 'improve' on nature. If you could see as clearly and as far as a hawk or eagle, hear what only bats and humpback whales can hear, and smell as well as a bloodhound, would you want to? Because in twenty or thirty years, you might have that choice. The ability to fly, or breathe underwater, or do a number of things that only "X-men" can do in fiction now, could be possible for everyone by the end of this century.
Yet all that is trivial.
The real breakthrough, which when it comes will make all the discoveries and inventions of the past century seem like nothing, will be when we find a way to make ourselves smarter. It is intelligence which sets us apart from all other animals, and it will be super-intelligence, not super-strength or extra senses, which will set homo sapiens futuris apart from [soon to be extinct] homo sapiens sapiens.
I don't believe the 'next step in evolution' will come by chance, or a mutant virus. I think it will be the result of deliberate scientific research. It will be available to all, and it's effect will be dynamic, leading to further advances and ever-escalating intelligence, as each generation of scientists will be smarter than the previous one.
Just imagine a world of Einsteins. Where getting a Ph.D. at fifteen is normal.
Health care is so expensive, largely because of the high salaries of doctors. Why? Because few people have the intelligence and perseverence to become doctors, and it takes years to train a doctor. But in the future, medical students will graduate in 6 months, knowing more than doctors today will learn in a lifetime of medical practice. Anyone could become an M.D., and some people will study medicine just as a hobby, the way some study flower-arranging or Tai Chi in night classes now.
So many problems today are caused by human stupidity. It's a well-known fact that most criminals are stupid: perhaps in a world of geniuses, there will be no criminals. Meanwhile, the average person in a developed country spends 13-14 years in school- and that's just until he or she graduates high school! Including college, that's almost a quarter of your life! As a teacher, myself, I've seen how much of teaching is simply repeating lessons until the students (finally!) remember them. If students remembered everything the first time, they could learn in a quarter of the time.
We can't fully envision what a society of hyper-intelligent people would be like. The problem, of course, would be that somebody would still have to wash the dishes, and pick up the trash. (Give that job to the bozo who has an I.Q. of only 160!) What could such a society acheive? Perhaps they would break the light-speed barrier, and explore and colonize space. Or perhaps their superior intelligence would cause new social problems, and lead to catastrophe.