The future may not look outrageously inspiring. It may be even a bit scary to think about what might happen. To name a few possibilities, terrorists could spread deadly diseases, governments and corporations may soon know more about us than we do ourselves (they may already), machines may become smarter than people (they may be already), and climate change could make large parts of the planet uninhabitable. In the meantime futurologists have been busy figuring out what the future might look like. If things don’t go wrong then a few scenarios seem feasible.
First, machines and algorithms take over many of our tasks so that humans will become obsolete as workers. That already happened in many fields but until now new jobs have been created that replaced the old ones, mostly in the service sector and the bureaucracy. Soon much of human decision-making can be replaced by algorithms. An algorithm is a rule or a set of rules like “if this happens then do that.” A very simple example is “if the temperature falls below a certain threshold then turn on the heating.” This particular algorithm relieves us from the tedious task of turning the heating on and off. More complex algorithms executed by computers will soon make better decisions than humans in many situations.
In a decade or so we will not be driving our own cars any more. We will just tell them where to go. Cars will plot a route, drive us there, and keep us safe. It may be forbidden to drive a car yourself as human drivers cause more accidents than computers. A few decades ago, when Knight Rider was a popular television series, this seemed a distant possibility, but today the technology is already there. Algorithms are going to make many decisions. We may still decide what we want, for example where we want to go to, or what kind of book we like to read, but algorithms will decide the specifics. You may accept this because the algorithms are better at doing these jobs than you are.
Second, humans will enhance themselves using bio-technology, cyborg engineering and information technology, and evolve into beings that differ from humans existing today. These beings will still be like us in many ways. That is because we think of ourselves as special so we are not willing to alter our precious essence. The ‘improved’ humans are called post-humans because they were created from humans. They live very long, and because algorithms do most of the decision-making for them, they have a lot of time on their hands. Boredom will be their biggest challenge. This brings us to the third option. These post-humans may create virtual realities with simulations of humans to entertain themselves. And they may live in tubes like brains in vats.
The future is likely to be a combination of the three options. Machines and algorithms will take over our jobs so that we will become obsolete as workers. We will be enhanced with new technologies and live very long. And we will create virtual realities with simulations of humans to entertain ourselves. If that is going to happen, and the technology to create these virtual reality universes becomes cheap, there will be billions of virtual universes for every real universe. If that is true then we almost certainly live in a virtual reality ourselves.1 And it is a lot cheaper in terms of processing power if the actors in the virtual reality don’t think for themselves and just follow a predetermined script.
Why is that so? If there are billions of virtual universes for every real one then what are the odds of our universe being real? The answer is one in a few billion. Another way of putting it is to say that every year has an equal probability of this technology being invented, until it is invented, and that we are going to create this technology in the next 100 years or 1,000 years maybe. Hence, it will not happen later than that, because by then we will be able to do it. But what are the odds of it happening in the next 100 or 1,000 years compared to the billions of years that already have passed?
The owner or owners of a virtual reality may be indifferent towards the fate of simulated humans inside, just like we are indifferent to characters in a computer game. That is not surprising. Animals are more real than simulated humans, but most people don’t care much about animals either, except for their pets. Many people are indifferent to the fate of their fellow humans when they don’t share their beliefs or ethnicity. Yet, the owner or the owners of this universe may play roles in this virtual reality using avatars, just like we can use avatars in computer games. And perhaps, if being an avatar becomes the daily reality of the owner or the owners, she, he or they might still care for us
The verdict is already out. The licence plate number of Franz Ferdinand’s car testifies it. This gives new meaning to the first chapter of the Bible where God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness.” And so the old texts drawn up by a few Jewish priests in the fifth century BC seem to strike back with a vengeance. The religions of the God of Abraham didn’t come out on top by accident. But the Jews made up their deity Yahweh. And then this deity created us? Yeah right. How to make sense of that?
Featured image: Dead Sea Scroll – part of Isaiah Scroll (Isa 57:17 – 59:9). Public Domain.
1. Are You Living In a Computer Simulation? Nick Bostrom (2003). Philosophical Quarterly (2003) Vol. 53, No. 211, pp. 243-255. [link]