The Verge of Oblivion: How the 21st Century Will Define Our Species

Graphic showing Moore’s Law and the exponential growth of computing power since 1900, projected to 2045. Image by TIME.

We are currently at an extremely sensitive and crucial point in the history of our species, though many do not realize or even give it a thought in their day to day lives. The rise of biotechnology, gene editing, artificial intelligence and information technology are shadowed by a looming climate crisis and the seemingly inevitable collapse of most of the world’s ecosystems. This is not some far off speculation. It’s currently happening. The World Wildlife Fund recently released figures indicating a 60% decline over the past half-century of the worlds mammals, birds, fish, and reptiles. This, to many who study the stunning loss of wildlife today, is old news. For they have been saying for quite some time that we are experiencing a 6th mass extinction, following the previous five throughout Earth’s history. Yet this time it is not an asteroid or natural fluctuations in the earth’s climate and geology that will be the culprit. For the first time in the history of life on earth, one species is solely responsible for the massive loss of biodiversity that constitutes a mass extinction. Besides driving countless species to the edge of extinction, Homo Sapiens have already altered the planet enough to prompt scholars and scientists to designate an entirely new geological age to describe our present-day: the Anthropocene.

Over the past 20 years, growing up seeing the internet and technology evolve, I have also witnessed a troubling lack of concern or discourse regarding many issues we (and by we I mean my generation and our offspring) must face going into the 21st century. Only in the past decade or so have researchers and scholars started to raise serious concerns over the current predicament our species is in: that automation will most likely render billions economically useless, that Earth’s climate is projected to exceed the worst-case scenario temperature increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial revolution levels if we do not immediately halt carbon emissions, that we currently have stockpiles of thousands of nuclear weapons with the potential to wipe out all life on earth in a matter of hours, that human biology and society may undergo drastic and far-reaching changes due to the rise of biotechnology and AI, possibly paving the way for the upgrading of human cognition, decimation of disease and even doing away with the inevitability of death itself. I will discuss two of the main issues that face our species in the 21st century, according to Historian, Yuval Noah Harari: nuclear war, technological disruption, and climate change. I will spend more time on technological disruption because it is the most unfamiliar to the general public. I exclude climate change because it deserves a whole article to itself.

The Trinity Test, 0.016 seconds post-detonation on July 16, 1945. This was the first nuclear weapon detonation witnessed by mankind, ultimately ending WWII.

Nuclear War

Since the moment Robert A. Oppenheimer watched in horror as his creation released the immense amount of power and energy stored in atomic nuclei, we have seen how nuclear weapons, capable of leveling entire cities such as Hiroshima and Nagasaki, have affected global politics and pulled us too close to the edge of annihilation on more than one occasion. They are so powerful, that the mere possession and potential of such weapons is in itself a deterrent to use them, for it is in the interest of both nuclear-armed parties to not engage in a full-scale nuclear exchange. It would ensure that once all the intercontinental ballistic missiles have been launched, no one will be alive to see the heaps of ash that was once their great and powerful country. There are currently over 14 thousand nuclear weapons dispersed across the globe, most belonging to the superpowers of the U.S. and Russia, whose relationship has become more complicated since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. The leaders of North Korea and the U.S. have frequently played with the idea of a nuclear exchange to display their power and domination on the world’s stage. Such acts of playing with the possibility of nuclear war is appalling and frightening to watch as a person who appreciates the power of these supreme weapons of homicide. The nuclear weapons we possess today are far more powerful than ones used in war before and should not by any means be used to taunt other countries, especially those who are now just able to construct them, lacking hesitancy and nuclear diplomacy. Furthermore, there is no limit to a nuclear weapon’s potential blast yield, only constrained by engineering practicalities. There is no greater threat to our existence than the nuclear weapons we currently hold aimed at one another.

Technological Disruption

Jennifer Doudna, an American biochemist and discoverer of the CRISPR-Cas9 mechanism, holding a model of the Cas-9 enzyme responsible for the revolutionary new technique in gene-editing technology.

Only in the past 30 years or so have Homo Sapiens begun to tap into the realm of 1’s and 0’s and integrate the power of computers into their lives to control the vast amounts of information and data being produced and to make everyone’s life easier, simpler and more efficient. This is the age of information, a new and seemingly limitless paradigm we are now a part of. Technological disruption constitutes technologies that are now just emerging and have the potential to change everything from medicine, mind, body and even reality itself. It’s almost impossible not to hear a mention of AI or machine learning in many of the online ads or in the spheres of industry, tech, and business. Artificial Intelligence is not a new concept. Humans have dreamt of intelligent machines since the industrial revolution and created stories of malevolent robot uprisings or evil conscious computers for decades, catering to our imagination and fears. Only now is science fiction becoming reality.

First, we must define what I mean by intelligence. Intelligence is the ability to perform and complete complex tasks. It does not require consciousness, a phenomenon we are just now beginning to scratch the surface of and is unique to humans. By this definition, plants are intelligent, for they don’t have brains. Therefore, when I discuss AI or machine learning in the present day, we must acknowledge the fact we are talking about nothing more than mathematical models computing probabilities and pattern recognition capabilities. Therefore you can rest easy knowing there is no current AI technology that will go terminator and exterminate the human race. Current AI technologies are very good, often better than humans, at performing narrow tasks such as playing Go, recognizing faces and objects, and even generating music based on samples of Mozart or Beethoven. Only recently did the AI, AlphaGo, defeat the human world champion in the ancient Chinese game. Although there is nothing more than clever machine learning code and mathematical computations achieving this goal, it is essential to recognize where we are headed, not only with AI but with current breakthroughs in biotechnology, gene editing, neuroscience, and robotics. Furthermore, we must recognize how much we rely on technology every day and take it for granted.

One of the major aspects of technological disruption that will have the largest effect on the masses is automation. It is becoming more and more so that instead of humans overseeing and controlling our lives, algorithms are taking their place, and fast. Consider the world financial system. Big data algorithms trade and sell for their human counterparts thousands of times a second to keep the engine of the world’s economy moving. These transactions occur so fast that it’s nearly impossible to understand the economy at any given moment except by what the algorithms are telling us about the market and how well they are doing our job for us. Have you noticed ads that are eerily specific to items from online shopping sites you’ve visited? That’s because Amazon and Google have algorithms that are constantly learning from your online presence, your habits, cravings, urges, and tendencies to optimize their chances of you buying products and goods. Algorithms are on track to control nearly everything that requires minimal intelligence. If machines are getting smarter and more capable to do simple tasks, what about all the telemarketers, truck and taxi drivers, customer-service workers, healthcare assistants, or retail jobs that require little human connection and can be easily automated by AI? We are talking about billions of jobs. No one is talking about the algorithms poised to take over massive sectors of industry, yet many politicians are still arguing immigrants are to blame for taking jobs and wages. Algorithms don’t need a college education, lunch breaks, or wages, they work for free and don’t form unions. We are likely to enter a new age where not millions, but billions will lose their jobs to robots and AI. What does this mean for the masses of economically useless people? How will they make a living wage to support their families? What do humans do when robots can do everything better and for free? These are questions we must start discussing and answering, fast.

Technological advancements are moving at breakneck speeds in the fields of biotech and genetic engineering. Humans, for the first time in history, are now able to not only change the biology of other plants and animals but ourselves. The gene editing technology, CRISPR, has the ability to cut and paste genes in and out of our DNA. It is now not a matter of science fiction to create a genetically modified super baby with increased physical and mental abilities, free from unwanted genetic traits or diseases. What then? Should parents be obligated to have their genomes sequenced to see if their child is at risk of a genetic disease so their doctor can intervene? If you could choose your childs traits, would you? The more troubling question is: If you have the option of genetically modifying your child to be superior and free of disease, what will it cost and who will have access to this technology? It is not hard to imagine a world, a bit like our own today with the massive wealth inequality but now with real-world and tangible inequalities between the rich and poor. This is a truly horrifying and dystopian possibility.

Even more fantastical and sci-fi-esque is the merger between man and machine. You could already argue that you’re part cyborg since most people can’t go a day or even a couple hours without their smartphones, which enable us to communicate with each other instantaneously anywhere in the world. Its practically a part of us. Some startups and biotech companies such as Nueralink are researching how to implant electrodes into the brain to enable brain-computer interfaces, further blurring the line between man and machine. Computer scientists around the globe are working towards creating a machine capable of Artificial General Intelligence or AGI, a type of AI that has the intelligence and computational power of a normal human brain. Although we are currently years from such a technology, there is nothing in the laws of physics that says we cannot create an artificial brain. In fact, The Human Brain Project’s goal is just that: to reconstruct the human brain with a vast network of computers to simulate cognitive processes and maybe even consciousness. This raises some extremely interesting moral issues. If we make a sentient computer that has a subjective experience, would it be entitled to rights? If you decide to turn off the power, is that murder? We don’t know if or how the human brain can be simulated, but there isn’t anything in the laws of nature that says we can’t. If that’s the case, then it’s only a matter of time before we may have an AI that can not only speak to us, but experience emotion, have abstract thoughts, or write poems. Further, computers are not limited to the sluggish biological and chemical processes of the brain and may be able to have what computer scientists and philosophers call superintelligence, cognitive abilities exceeding that of a human. Many experts say superintelligence is just 20–30 years away while others say this is hundreds of years in the future. Yet one thing is certain. We will come to a point where these technologies can and will be created. The current revolution in technologies that could potentially alter human biology seems far-fetched. I argue they are not only within the realm of possibility but will inevitably happen. Humans are on track, if we do not annihilate ourselves, to become gods in every sense of the word, able to control their own biology and cognition to become masters of our environment and ourselves. If we choose to upgrade our own biology, which will almost certainly be the case at least with wealthier individuals, will the outcome still be ‘human’? Many say no. If we are able to upgrade ourselves indefinitely beyond our wildest dreams, Homo Sapiens will be no more.

We are at the cusp of a 21st century that will likely pose challenges to our species that we have never faced before. My concern lays with the fact that there seems to be a complete lack of foresight or discourse in the mainstream canon regarding these issues. Maybe they are too abstract, too complex, too far off for some to worry about. It may be that these issues are too discomforting to talk about and it’s better for some to just ignore it to maintain ourselves in the present moment. I reject this line of thinking. If we are to sustain our human values as individuals, as societies, as a species, we must begin to discuss these issues and recognize them not as possibilities that may happen, but when they will and how to start preparing our institutions, governments, and children of the tectonic changes to come.

Astroparticle physics PhD candidate at UC Irvine, Citizen Scientist, curious Homo Sapien. instagram: @human_wavefunction, twitter: @human_wavfnctn