The future may be something to look forward to. The living standard of most people increased in recent decades. New technologies may bring new possibilities and a more agreeable life. There are also reasons to be scared. 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 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 likely.
First, machines and algorithms may take over 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 may 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 may soon make better decisions than humans in many situations.
In a decade or so we may not be driving our own cars any more. We may just tell them where to go. Cars may 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 can 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 may decide the specifics. You may accept this because the algorithms are better at doing these jobs than you are.
Some people fear that computers or robots will one day take over the world and either control or destroy us. That is not likely to happen as it would require a desire from computers and robots to do this. Computers and robots don’t have a will of their own. They act the way they have been programmed. Something may go wrong or humans may intentionally make them so, but it is unlikely that computers and robots will do this out of their own. Having a will requires having desires and emotions that have biological origin. Animals and humans have desires and emotions but computers and robots do not.
Second, humans may enhance themselves using bio-technology, cyborg engineering and information technology, and evolve into beings that differ from humans existing today. These beings may still be like us in many ways. That is because we think of ourselves as special so we may not be willing to alter our ‘precious’ essence. The ‘improved’ humans can be called post-humans because they have been created from humans. They may live very long, and because algorithms may do most of the decision-making for them, they may have a lot of time on their hands. Boredom may 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. They may live in tubes like brains in vats because living inside their virtual reality has become their existence.
The future could 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 may be a lot cheaper in terms of computer resources if the actors in the virtual reality don’t think for themselves and just follow a predetermined script.
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. We can’t know at what point in time we live, before or after the invention of virtual reality universes, but we have to assume that it is after. That can be explained as follows. Assume that every year has an equal probability of this technology being invented and that we are going to create this technology in the next 100 years or 1,000 years. It will not happen later than that because by then we have done 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 perhaps. Many people are indifferent to the fate of their fellow humans when they don’t share their beliefs or ethnicity. 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, we can hope that she, he or they care for us.
The verdict may already be out. The licence plate number of Franz Ferdinand’s car suggests that this universe is a virtual reality created by an advanced civilisation. 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 Jewish priests in the fifth century BC may strike back with a vengeance. The religions of the God of Abraham may not have come out on top by accident. But the Jews made up their deity Yahweh. And then this deity created us? 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]