Could this be humanity's last century?

January 18, 2016 by Seth Shostak, SETI Institute

OK, quick: Name a few important things that happened in the 11th century.

If you're not tenured in medieval studies, that may be tough, although several modestly notable events took place in those hundred years - for example, the Battle of Hastings and the launch of the Crusades. When we look back a millennium, even the highest parapets of history become hard to discern. Nonetheless, those long-ago happenings dramatically altered the future.

But what about the 21st century? What will your kids and grandkids do that will still be important a thousand years from now?

Let me suggest that they may trump every previous generation. They may go beyond simply changing society, and possibly usher in the last act for Homo sapiens.

That may strike you as a less-than-sunny prospect, but only because you're missing the big picture. I'm not talking about the various self-destructive threats of the moment - the ones that fill the papers and spark pontification on the nightly news. Yes, both terrorism and climate change are serious matters, but the former is manageable and frankly, so is the latter. Alleviating environmental catastrophe requires modifications of behavior. Hard, sure, but we're not talking about violating physics.

No, the three big things that I believe will take place in the 21st century are more profound, and not necessarily bad.

To begin with, we're finally going to understand biology at a molecular level. DNA's double helix was discovered a mere six decades ago, and now - for hardly more than a kilobuck - you can sequence the genome of your yorkie or yourself.

The relentless interplay of science and technology ensures that genomic knowledge will spawn a growing number of applications. Curing disease is one of these, and it's obviously desirable. But our efforts won't be limited to merely fixing ourselves; we'll also opt for improvement. You may hesitate to endorse designer babies, but hot-rodding our children is as much on the horizon as the morning sun.

Number two on my list of major developments is expanding into nearby space. We need more resources - both acreage and raw materials - unless we're happy to condemn our descendants to a limited lifestyle and unlimited war. You may worry about running out of oil, but that's not the resource that should really make you antsy. We're going to eat through the easily recoverable reserves of stuff like copper, zinc, and the platinum group metals in a matter of decades.

We can find more of these elements in asteroids, and already several companies are planning to do so. But nearby space could also provide unlimited real estate for siting the condos of the future. Everyone expects our progeny to establish colonies on the moon or Mars, but the better deal is to build huge, orbiting habitats in which you can live without a spacesuit. Think of scaling up the International Space Station a few thousand times. We can put unlimited numbers of people in such engineered environments, and sometime in this century we'll start doing that. The days of being confined to the bassinette of our birth are coming to an end.

The third thing you can expect before the year 2100 is the development of generalized artificial intelligence (GAI). In other words, machines that don't just play games like chess or Jeopardy, but can do the thinking required for any white-collar job, including all the ones at the top. And such machines won't necessarily be large. A synapse in your brain is a few thousand nanometers in size. A transistor on a chip is hundreds of times smaller. The hardware necessary for human-level smarts - even today - could fit in an iPad.

These are developments that - over the long term - will dwarf such quotidian concerns as politics, war, or economics.

But they will also change us.

Putting large numbers of people in off-Earth colonies will inevitably lead to a kind of speciation. After all, their physical environment is somewhat different than Earth, and history suggests that their social environment will also be special. A thousand years from now, the inhabitants of a martian colony may not be so similar to those still living on Earth.

Re-engineering our children will transform our species even faster. We can eventually produce offspring that are as different from us as dogs are from gray wolves. The haphazard, bottom-up alterations to our species occasioned by Darwinian evolution will yield to the directed improvements of future engineers.

But the development of GAI will surely be the most dramatic driver of change, because it is less a matter of improving our descendants than replacing them with our engineered successors. Perhaps we can promulgate our culture and ourselves by putting chips in our brains or simply uploading our brains to the machines. But you can be sure that the result will not be Homo sapiens as we've known him for 50 thousand years.

These are changes that don't just shape our future. They knead it into something inconceivably different. And sure, you may quibble about whether everything I've described is going to take place this century, but do you really think it won't happen in the coming thousand years?

The people of the might be disconcerted by today's technology, but they would have no trouble recognizing us. However, it's unlikely we would recognize humans a millennium hence.

We live in times that are more than merely interesting.

Explore further: Should we go to Mars or back to the moon?

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11 comments

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gkam
2.5 / 5 (8) Jan 18, 2016
The rich and powerful will keep this to themselves, and use it against us.
howhot2
3 / 5 (2) Jan 19, 2016
The article makes a lot of claims. pretty much all logical claims, but the one I love is this;
Putting large numbers of people in off-Earth colonies will inevitably lead to a kind of speciation.
I never really thought about it, but that makes so much sense. Star Trek kind-of hinted at speciation with the Vulcan and Klingon characterizations. It's fascinating to think about. Lets hope we survive long enough for inner-galactic space travel to happen.
NiteSkyGerl
not rated yet Jan 19, 2016
Unlikely. Vermin seldom just go away. Nice thought though.
jeffensley
not rated yet Jan 19, 2016
A Brave New World...but the poor will be the ones who survive when the stakes are high. Those who can afford artificial customization of life will experience serious unintended consequences for their tampering. I'll put faith in the natural process of selection over our short-cuts.
TheGhostofOtto1923
4 / 5 (4) Jan 19, 2016
"...but the better deal is to build huge, orbiting habitats in which you can live without a spacesuit"

-I think the better deal is below the surface of planets and moons where we can create huge voids re 'operation plowshare', and vast tunnel networks using nuclear powered borers.

Planets offer cheap and readily-available resources, protection from radiation, and the potential for gradual terraforming.

Colonies there can be self-sustainable unlike orbital habitats which must somehow make a profit to buy resources.
TheGhostofOtto1923
4 / 5 (4) Jan 19, 2016
The rich and powerful will keep this to themselves, and use it against us
Gkam the psychopath it letting his lifelong infatuation with jody foster show again.
gkam
1 / 5 (3) Jan 19, 2016
Interesting comment, jeff.
Protoplasmix
3.7 / 5 (3) Jan 19, 2016
Colonies there can be self-sustainable unlike orbital habitats which must somehow make a profit to buy resources.
C'mon, Ghost, you see the likeliest future (tech-wise) better than most. The 'bots will find, secure, process, and deliver whatever you need (read "as much gold as you can eat"), including producing piles of green pieces of paperlike cloth with intricate engravings of dead presidents for you to roll around naked in if that's what floats your boat. I sincerely hope we all profit from this experience.
TheGhostofOtto1923
4 / 5 (4) Jan 21, 2016
It will cost more money and energy to transport all that stuff to space habitats than it would on a planet or moon. How will habitats earn a living?

Look at what we do now. We mine raw materials, process it and use it to fabricate goods. You want to take a further step and transport it up a very deep gravity well, to a very fragile and exposed hollow tube or ring which itself must be fabricated at great expense.

We can use robots to create unlimited space under the martian or lunar surface while mining and processing what they excavate.

Unlimited water and air. Unlimited construction materials. Unlimited nuclear energy most likely.

And pops can quickly grow to the point where a totally independent economy can be created.

This would be akin to people colonizing the western hemisphere rather than staying on the ships which took them there.
FESTtheory
1 / 5 (1) Jan 24, 2016
BECOMING HUMAN / INTELLIGENCE : FINALLY SOLVED. NEW COMPREHENSIVE THEORY STARTS FROM THE END by establishing the working theory of functioning of the human brain, and assuming that the transfer of collective knowledge - from mother to incapable baby - is what created us, i.e. our (collective C+IQ) intelligence. This constant upgrading of knowledge was achieved through multiple self-projection – MSP. MSP may be the most easily understood as a feeling similar to that of the apparent movement which we have when we are in a train that stands while we are looking through the window at another train that is moving. https://evolutionofhumanintelligence.wordpress.com/
FritzVonDago
not rated yet Jan 24, 2016
Life has always been terminal for every soul on the planet and no one gets out of it ALIVE! Stop worrying about death and live the life you have left, or kill yourself. Jezzzz!

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