Matthew Southey half-baked half-thoughts    About    Archive    Feed

Speculation: The End is Nigh (or very far away)

The future is right about to happen – it has already been predicted. Ray Kurzweil says that we are in the nook of the j-curve, we are about to leave the world as we know it behind. Simultaneously, negative eschatologies abound – we are going to destroy the environment: the air is unbreathable, the climate is changing, species are dying out, we are destroying our homes; we will get smashed: by nuclear weapons, by authoritarian despots, by restrictions on freedom and science. These two ideas, that we are about to be saved or about to be destroyed are two distinct ways the future is being envisioned. Either humanity moves out beyond the stars and achieves a near-infinite state of progress, or we will quickly destroy ourselves – the end is nigh, or it might never happen. There are those who think we will not recognize our forecasted visions. We will not establish extraterrestrial life before humanity expires, we will not explore space, we will not even fully understand our brains and minds. Many people are concerned about this and are trying to avert disaster, while continuing to work on the technology and ideas that will power humanity’s escape from our apocalypse.

Elon Musk has stated that his primary objective in his Space X venture is to make humanity multi-planetary. This would serve as a second home, so that all the proverbial eggs are not in one basket. One of the possibilities that Musk is hedging against is the ride of AI. There are billions of dollars being poured into AI research from all over the world. AI is the perfect example of this double-edged sword, our creation might serve to destroy or liberate us. There are other bulwarks against more mundane armageddons such as the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. The seed vault is located on a Norwegian island deep in the arctic and attempts to preserve seeds from the world’s plant life. In fact, the Svalbard seed vault, is really secondary insurance for other seed vaults in case their caches are destroyed from large-scale catastrophes. Virtual Reality and genetic engineering, are entering mainstream consumer markets in the guise of video games and food production.

Why are so many people striving toward such abstract and futuristic ends? There are immediate problems that need to be solved, there are human rights violations happening every day! There are people dying on the streets of America and yet people are worried about the seeds from a rare fruit tree in Brazil. For many of these futurists, a bright future has been foretold in their culture and religion and it is their duty to bring that future about.

This world has been predicted. It has been predicted in the works of science fiction, and is being prophesized by scientists. Science fiction authors like Neal Stephenson argue that the world needs more massively innovative projects, like the space race in the 1960’s. Ray Kurzweil, David Deutsch, and Elon Musk, are just a few scientists who see humanities potential as not only endless but downright utopian. In Kurzweil’s 1999 book The Age of Spiritual Machines, Kurzweil paints a vision of the future where humanity has become fully integrated and indistinguishable from the machines we created. All of these authors see ourselves at a critically important moment in our history, never before have we been so imperiled (by ourselves none the less) and never before have we been so close to transcendence. If we manage to stay alive for a few more centuries, Kurzweil and company feels that there is hope that we will become a permanent feature of our galaxy.

The work these people do is not just about stopping the bad, but bringing the good. Elon Musk says, that he is working on these projects because it is something great and transformative to look forward to, if he was not he would question why he was alive. For Musk, it is not simply about avoiding the hell below us, but striving for heaven (or space) above.

The eschatology that motivates these scientists is one in which humanity goes beyond itself towards happiness and fulfillment. They are not trying to bring all of humanity up to the current level, they are trying to push the outer limits of humanity and thereby increase everyone’s standard of living. The only thing stopping such boundless expansion is an extinction event. Therefore, many of the projects that are being worked on are 1) future-oriented and aimed at increasing humanity’s capabilities and 2) sustainably trying to stop an extinction event. For instance, Space X combines the insurance of being multiplanetary with the important technology of interplanetary space travel.

The visions that furnish our imagination and daydreams have not been classically religious for a long time. In the words of Immortal Technique, we have entered the world of “microchips and titanium, the dark side of the moon and contact with aliens”. The people who spur science, technology, and our ideas of the future are unusual mystics, but they do bear at least one similarity with the mystics of antiquity: a taste for the extraordinary and the pursuit of extraordinary experiences.