If you could travel back in time seventy thousand years, the activities of human beings would be scarcely noticeable. Evidence of a genetic bottleneck in our ancestry suggests the human population may have been reduced to a few thousand individuals worldwide, scratching out a desperate existence against the forces of nature. Today, we have transformed the planet. In almost every field of endeavor, with the possible exception of religion, the history of the past few centuries has been one of breakneck and accelerating progress. Advances in science, technology, agriculture, medicine and economics have supported a huge increase in population, a doubling of life expectancy, a surge in the standard of living and some spectacular accomplishments such as the moon landings and the sequencing of the human genome. Many people find it hard to accommodate the rapid changes taking place around them and recoil in what Alvin Toffler famously called “future shock.” How many times have you heard someone say, “Where will it all end?”
Futurologists divide into optimists and pessimists. The optimists embrace accelerating change with alacrity; no future shock for them. The future can’t come fast enough, with its promise of dazzling new opportunities and products, from robotics to virtual reality, from space colonization to immortality. Ray Kurzweil has coined the term “the singularity” for the time, which he predicts lies but a few decades in the future, when the pace of change accelerates almost without limit, reaching a point where human society is completely transformed into something totally new and at present hardly imaginable. By contrast, the pessimists think that mankind will destroy itself or wreck the planet before long. The President of Britain’s Royal Society, Lord Martin Rees, fears that this may be our final century.
this schism is a split between those who see accelerating change as inevitable,
akin to a law of nature, and those who believe that the past five hundred years
have been an exceptional episode in human history. The disagreement is well
exemplified by what is known as
Jack Bacon is definitely on the side of the optimists. His work as a systems engineer has taught him the importance of creative synergy. When human command and control merges favorably with customized hardware and software, the result is much more effective than individual components operating separately. Bacon foresees the virtuous and mutually reinforcing confluence of several rapidly improving factors: faster information processing, a better educated and more inclusive workforce, longer life expectancy and enhanced mental performance techniques, the growth of the web, and the burgeoning development of intelligent systems. The resulting “combinatoric explosion” will, he believes, open up extraordinary possibilities not only for technological marvels beyond our wildest dreams, but for understanding the world about us, including the origin of life, the structure of the universe, and the principles governing complex systems.
Viewed on evolutionary or geological timescales, the human drama is virtually instantaneous. Within the twinkling of a cosmic eye, a single species has figured out the rules on which the universe runs, and developed technology so sophisticated that in many realms it is challenging nature for supremacy. Who can say what our destiny will be? Will the coming centuries see mankind spread into the solar system and beyond, or will our fragile biological intelligence give way to a more robust form of machine intelligence? Are we at the threshold of a momentous elevation in our collective fortune, or are we homo sapiens engineering our own demise? Whatever your conclusions may be, this book will leave you exhilarated, fascinated – and perhaps a little scared. The future is closer than you think.
Dr. Paul Davies is a cosmologist, physicist, Professor of Natural Philosophy at the