Here is a quick TED talk and a transcript of the opening to get you going.
"When I was a student here in Oxford in the 1970s, the future of the world was bleak. The population explosion was unstoppable. Global famine was inevitable. A cancer epidemic caused by chemicals in the environment was going to shorten our lives. The acid rain was falling on the forests. The desert was advancing by a mile or two a year. The oil was running out, and a nuclear winter would finish us off. None of those things happened, (Laughter) and astonishingly, if you look at what actually happened in my lifetime, the average per-capita income of the average person on the planet, in real terms, adjusted for inflation, has tripled. Lifespan is up by 30 percent in my lifetime. Child mortality is down by two-thirds. Per-capita food production is up by a third. And all this at a time when the population has doubled."
But I'll take my own fanciful stab.
I don't foresee either an energy or a climate crisis. There is a hard limit on how expensive energy gets because at some point you can turn totally renewable energy into a fuel of some sort, ideally taking CO2 out of the atmosphere to do it. It's not cost effective now because energy is so cheap. But like I said: there's a limit to how expensive it can get.
The bigger problem (IMHO) is going to be certain elements and metals that aren't so easily replaced. I agree with the author that getting certain elements from space is going to be economically tricky (rather than technologically tricky) compared to how cheap it is to pull stuff out of the ground.
You can recycle iron to a degree but a certain amount is lost through corrosion/rust. Rare earth elements are harder to replace.
I do foresee there being a lot less of us and that is probably going to be a traumatic change.
Sadly I don't foresee a huge presence in space. The energy costs, particularly when you look at even the most optimistic models of interstellar travel in particular, are just too extreme even with perfect mass-to-energy conversion.
Change like evolution is often perceived to be smooth but it's not. Our world like life itself is shaped by key, often small, events. Europe in 1914 was a powderkeg in 1914 but one man's death triggered a sequence of events that resulted in World War One, the armistice for which sowed the seeds for World War Two. One could argue that if the Archduke had lived something else would've triggered the war and you may well be right. Still how different might the world be if, say, JFK was killed by a chance bullet in World War Two?
As far as longevity goes, that's a tough one. I expect there'll be a certain class of people who live much better and longer than others but then again the history of the world thus far is those kinds of technological advancements always trickle down eventually. Living forever? I have my doubts.
Artificial intelligence as always is the sleeping giant of the future. I believe that to be inevitable and the effects could be profound to put it mildly.
I too believe the nation states of today mostly won't exist in 500 years.
I don't think this is a real issue. Expensive metals are recycled extremely efficiently even today. This is only going to get easier as we go on.
> You can recycle iron to a degree but a certain amount is lost through corrosion/rust. Rare earth elements are harder to replace.
Iron is the metal that least needs recycling. There are deposits for essentially unlimited amounts at prices not absurdly higher than the present market conditions. Also, should energy get cheaper, iron would be greatly substituted with aluminium in construction. (And the aluminium supplies of the surface of the earth are essentially infinite.)
The talk about REE is largely misguided. REE are not rare. There are exploitable deposits pretty much in every country that's larger than Luxembourg and has exposed rock. The world deposits are greatly larger than any reasonable use we have for them.
The reason REE is in the news is that extracting it is an extremely dirty process, and if you want to do it in a first-world country, you have to pay very much to clean up after you. China captured nearly all of the world production not because they have a large share of a limited resource, but because they allowed miners to dump their separation waste in rivers. This makes REE extraction cost a fraction what it would be if you had to rebury all those unwanted heavy metals, and so the Chinese mines so depressed the market price that all the non-subsidized mines elsewhere in the world shut down. As the Chinese started restricting exports (which is only shrewd of them, considering the massive societal cost they bear of the cheap production), the market price rose again and mines elsewhere started to open. The Mountain pass mine is now finally entering large-scale production, and will very soon make the US a net exporter of REE.
I used to agree with you until I read this terribly thought-provoking article. Now I'm not as sure. It was published by the Oil Drum, a blog I subscribe to for oil industry news, so the article doesn't have a hidden agenda.
The key insight I gleaned from it was the concept of the energy cost of energy sources.
I used to think that even if wind power wasn't as efficient as oil now, eventually oil prices would rise and wind would become a viable alternative.
However, what the article showed was that wind power itself uses oil in the manufacturing of the materials, shipping and construction of the wind mills, etc. You can think of the concept of the energy return on energy invested. And as the supply of oil dwindles and costs rise, that EROEI will change.
Oil at its start had an EROEI of 100:1, which means you could get a hundred barrels of oil for the cost of using one. Now it's at 20. Wind energy has an EROEI of about 20 over the lifetime of the equipment, but unfortunately costs a lot of energy up front, and only recoups that energy over time.
So the two issues the article raises is that as the cost of oil increases, it affects the EROEI of the renewable resources, and that because the majority of renewable resources all have upfront energy costs, they'll get hit extra hard. Politically, it will always make sense in the short term to cancel the renewable energy projects since you're using a great deal of the increasingly rare energy for payoffs in the future, when that energy could go to cost of living and make things better now.
I really think you'd enjoy the article if you read it, so I encourage you to do so. ("You", being cletus, wouldn't have posted this otherwise. You seem very smart and I've enjoyed your posts.)
Regarding material scarcity, I think space mining becomes a lot more economically viable once you have not only extraordinarily cheap energy, but also super light, super strong materials. Ralph Merkle talks about a diamondoid space shuttle (composed of perfectly arranged carbon atoms) weighing a few hundred pounds and getting to orbit with only a hundred dollars worth of fuel: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cdKyf8fsH6w
Also, people have been talking about space elevators forever, once we crack economically viable carbon nanotube production, reducing the cost to orbit by something like 99%.
Most importantly, when people talk about molecular manufacturing and molecular assemblers, they never seem to see the other side of the coin - molecular disassemblers - essentially "just in time" goods. When you can assemble and disassemble atoms at will, you essentially have programmable matter, and therefore you can do much more with less material.
As I mentioned below, you could also make the case that highly realistic VR systems would drastically reduce our demand for materials. After all, who needs to buy an actual Porsche when they can just close their eyes and have an experience much better than the real thing.
Regarding longevity, it seems to me that this is a cognitive bias because of the audacity of the idea, similar to the widespread skepticism towards human flight a hundred years ago. The idea is just so outlandish, and goes against thousands of years of philosophical and theological thought on accepting the inevitability of death, that people (myself included) instinctively recoil from it.
Assuming a 500 year time span - or even a 100 year one - and assuming that humans have developed the capability to manipulate matter at will, can scan and monitor the human body at extraordinarily high fidelity, model and simulate the body in great detail, and can experiment and iterate on those experiments at light speed with the aid of AI and neural interfaces - the death of death seems inevitable.
PS: Outside of Fission or Fusion nothing ever actually runs out. Worst case, start mining dumps and river beds etc.
Certainly in five hundred years time, and possibly just in a few decades, it will make about as much economic sense to import rare materials from orbit as it now does to import them from China.
Also, I'm making this argument primarily to counter concerns of material scarcity brought up by cletus. As I stated above, with this time span, I think we will likely have developed molecular assemblers and disassemblers, leading to essentially programmable matter and perfect recycling, which would lessen our need for materials.
You could also make the case that super realistic VR systems would drastically reduce our demand for materials. After all, who needs to buy an actual Porsche when they can just close their eyes and have an experience much better than the real thing.
For limits see some quick math, you can probably mine down about 20 miles without getting to fancy in 2512 esp relative to a space elevator. Texas is 20 miles * 268,800 sq miles = 10^16 cubic meters. Platinum has an average rarity ~5 millionth of a gram per kg. aka 5 parts per billion which works out to ~10,000,000 cubic meters in the top 20 miles of Texas granted your playing with density's etc but 10,000,000 tons is reasonable estimate compared to around ~100 tons mined each year. Now we might be better off mining asteroids than Texas, don't assuming we need to leave the planet any time soon.
PS: It may be a mainstay of sci-fi, but there is little actual evidence that asteroids are going to have particularly high levels of any of the really rare stuff. (other than H3)
Untrue. Iridium is the rarest element in the Earth's crust. The majority of the known deposites come from asteroids.
It's not just Iridium, either. Compare these two charts:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Elemental_abundances.svg and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:SolarSystemAbundances.png
Why are they so different? Basically all the heavy and iron-loving stuff sank.
(I'm not trying to be pedantic and start an argument, but just fill in some information in case anyone else wondered about this data.)
See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abundances_of_the_elements_(dat... and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abundance_of_elements_in_Earths...
Throughout my comments I've maintained that molecular assemblers/disassemblers (and possibly VR) should drastically lessen the amount of materials we consume. I'm simply saying that if we do run into scarcity issues, worst case, space mining should be many, many orders of magnitude cheaper within this time span.
Right now the US goes to the expense of floating rare earth elements on freighters from halfway across the globe, simply because we don't want to deal with the pollution, real property rights, safety issues, regulatory issues, and eyesores resulting from US mining operations. With the expected reductions in cost to achieve orbit, in 2112 the asteroid belt could very easily be the new China.
Now you could argue that the same breakthroughs that allow cheaper space mining would allow us to cleanly and efficiently extract resources in greater number from the earth - "molecular mining", if you will. That may be the case, but it's really impossible to predict to that degree of specificity at this point in time. We're probably arguing over what in the future would be the equivalent of going to the Walmart down the block or the Target across town to get a package of batteries. It probably doesn't matter.
Besides, the amount of materials we need really depends on how ambitious humanity wants to get:
That completely changes when you want to use those elements in space, rather than on earth. I think that could be the more normal thing to do; if we go to space, it will be to stay there. Why lift stuff out of earth's gravitation well that you can get from the arteries belt?
I'm not convinced that 'economically tricky' will mean anything in 500 years. Assuming that we have essentially unlimited free energy, and AI capable of autonomously handling things like building, manufacturing and farming (which doesn't necessarily require strong AI), the cost of everything will ultimately head towards zero, surely?
The attraction of fusion is "free energy" in that hydrogen is plentiful (even deuterium is plentiful, tritium less so). Helium is not unlimited at least here on Earth and we're busy pissing away our supply on party balloons thanks to a US government decision to sell its strategic reserve in the 90s.
But a fusion plant is expensive. It costs money for the raw materials and the labour to build and maintain it such that the energy it produces--if it ever becomes economically viable, which is far from certain--will not be "free".
Computing power might be cheap but it's not free. An AI/robot won't be "free" in the same sense either. They'll cost money to build. Those resources will cost money.
Also, not all energy is the same. Plants that power the electrical grid are one thing. The energy required to hurtle a large metal object into space is something else. Fusion might work quite well for infrastructure but will it be made to work where we currently use kerosene and oxygen? That vehicle too costs money.
The cost of mining raw materials goes to zero if we can build a machine that can build other machines that can autonomously space mine.
The cost of producing energy goes to zero if we can build machines that can build and maintain energy plants.
I would be surprised if much of this hadn't occurred within 200 years, let alone 500.
Add in strong AI, and you remove the need for information workers; we'd all be servants in the employ of a single CEO at the apex; or servants to other servants; or prostitutes, or some other power relation not reproducible from machines because of wanting the authenticity of a person. I don't see such a state as stable (certainly not in a democracy), and if it existed tomorrow, there would be a revolution. But of course the transition will be gradual, so there won't be a revolution; but something post-capitalist, post-scarcity, will need to emerge to stop blood flowing.
The cost of the raw material used to make fuel is absolutely trivial in all nuclear power plants. The market price of uranium would have to increase by more than three orders of magnitude to increase the cost of produced electricity by 10%. At that point, we have unlimited supplies in seawater.
The capital costs of power plants have trended up as safety and monitoring requirements have risen. Given sufficient automation, AI, and simpler and fundamentally more safe designs (which do not need as much active safety), these costs can probably be brought down.
"GM mangroves that can grow in salinated intertidal zones and synthesize gasoline, shipping it out via their root networks, is one option."
That one sentence overloaded my system with a visual day-dream about the potential for our future - the way it's written evokes that famous Bladerunner line:
"I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. . ."
A few dozen words in both quotes that evoke such richness. Beautiful work.
But, maybe in 500 years they'll have fixed this.
Wetland plants (like Mangroves) already transport substances from their leaves to their roots.
It is really really hard to predict past a point where the energy problem becomes 'solved.'
I also expect that all of our computing / electronics devices will be essentially 3D printed out of carbon in various forms (tubes, balls, graphene) providing the various roles of switch, conductor, gate, and substrate. Those will be connected by a mesh of networking that is a couple of gigabits wireless and perhaps a terabit when hard connected. The low marginal cost of bandwidth will make it pretty much non-blocking bandwidth everywhere.
I expect we'll be eating a manufactured food product that is tasty and nutritious and the domestication of livestock and the use of any other living organism (including plants) will be considered 'quaint'. No one will have to go hungry because the combination of low cost energy and the ability to assemble food will allow for free 'food' (although not designer, "high end" food).
I think the more interesting question though comes from biology, which is to say if we have completely decoded cellular biology then there won't be any excuse for being sick or not 'healthy' (and by that I mean optimal function of all organs including the brain). At some point during the development of that capability the aspects of ones genetics which determines sexual orientation will be completely mapped out and understood and there will be a big debate about what we do about that, do we 'cure' homosexuality, do we offer to make everyone 'omnisexual' etc. There will be huge and heated debates about what is and what isn't normal.
Hard takeoff scenarios seem to be unlikely (no self-improving AI going from human project to godlike status in a couple of hours while rolling its own molecular nanotechnology foundation). The reasons for this are the same reasons that make rapid global takeover of the internet by a viral monoculture unlikely today: results take effort, some results are opposed, some results are intrinsically hard, no breakthrough happens in a vacuum.
But: by 2040 it will be possible to emulate human brains the hard way. By all means tell me that every human culture will refrain from taking full advantage of all that can follow from that over the decades that follow. The economic benefits of human and built-from human intelligences instantiated to order are incredible. The possibilities spiraling out from that are so much greater than everything that has come before that it becomes very, very hard to say what comes next.
You could see a world in which there are trillions of entities of human and greater intelligence by 2100. With their own cultures, so much greater and broader and more varied than ours as to make us the first snowflake in the blizzard. They may or may not have access to molecular nanotechnology and as much of the solar system as they care to begin making over by then. What will they build? How can you say? Culture determines creation.
Equally, you might not see that world. But it looks most plausible to me that software life will erupt from our culture in much the same way as we erupted from Greek tribes thousands of years ago - but much more rapidly. If you can show me you can sensibly predict the details of today's world by an examination of the Mediterranean Bronze Age, then I might be more inclined to think it possible to talk about what lies on the other side of emulated human intelligence.
This blog post is simply a different approach to the topic. Basically, what would happen if the singularity never happens and it's just us humans trying to solve the problems on our planet.
One of the problems with making predictions like this is that technology begins to compound and affect itself in weird ways - a book I have discusses how once you have proper mind-machine interfaces and can copy a person at will, one of the most efficient ways to travel becomes transmitting yourself at light-speed and getting a new body once your persona has been downloaded at your destination, rather than traveling in a physical body. This is something I had never considered before encountering it in that book, as much as it is a logical step from cybernetic brains and being able to back yourself up.
Similarly, racism, sexism and language issues being to disappear as you approach a higher level of computer integration. Racism and sexism become quaint ideas when most people can change to a body of the opposite sex whenever they want, and skin color becomes a matter of aesthetic choice. You might end up with wholly different types of racism (or perhaps species-ism) due to deliberate genetic changes to adapt to different environments resulting in wildly different types of humans, or due to experiments to bring certain species to human levels of intelligence (apes, dolphins, octopi?)
I find it interesting that he would have geopolitical boundaries exist at all. The idea of nations may well be an outdated one a couple hundred years hence. As we continue to improve our abilities to manufacture and grow things on ever smaller and more controlled scales, there may come a point where we no longer need massive structures of human organization like nations, corporations, etc. On the flip side, these things could become more ingrained and efficient such that we approach hive-like efficiency/societal structure (group minds etc.)
I suppose I find most of these speculations rather tame. I think that things will change a lot faster, and in a lot bigger ways, than described here.
And in 500 years I would imagine "human" being almost beyond comprehension to us now. Like, consciousness woven into spacetime at the subatomic level, crazy.
Am I the only one who read this and went "Wait, 10 half-lives... that's 1/(2^10)... that would mean about 1 in 1,000 survive -- not 1 in 1,000,000."?
What is worrying is that those most likely to be affected by rising sea levels are in general those least able to cope with it. We must assume that there will be hundreds of millions of refugees, from Bangladesh, from the tiny Pacific Islands, or even from New Orleans and Venice. Will humanity let them die? If not then those of us living in higher elevations must start planning now for how we will accommodate them.
The Arctic League!
Fusion seems to be inevitable. I can't say I agree with people who say it'll never be competitive with other energy sources. All that has to be done is to solve the engineering hurdles required to make fusion scalable, and perhaps to add the capability to use fusion reactions that make use of a greater variety of elements. (And yes, those are huge challenges, but we're talking 500 years of advanced engineering operating on something that already works in a simple prototype system.) Once that has been achieved, fusion power can outperform >any< other terrestrial energy source (except perhaps fission), as a matter of physics. I imagine the economics of that will fall into place once that massive supply of energy is made potentially accessible, since there will undoubtedly be demand for titanic amounts of cheap and reliable energy.
For starters it wasn't Portuguese conquistadores who descended on South America 500 years ago but the Spanish. The Portuguese had more important operations in Asia at the time. It wasn't until the 17th that the Portuguese really started to exploit part of what today is known as Brazil, part because a chunk of Brazil used to be part of the Spanish Empire, not the Portuguese.
Of course we are not going back to hunter-gatherers, that's stupid on the face of it. Even after a massive collapse the first thing survivors will do is try to salvage whatever machinery they can find and start anew, first with crops and eventually industry. The "dark ages" weren't really dark, the north of the Roman Empire had always been underdeveloped which is why after the fall it continued to be a number of backwater kingdoms while Venice remained as a center of scientific and cultural development.
Also I don't get why OP comes with all these amazing sometimes insane technologies but rules out any attempts at geoengineering which rely on technology which we already have (but we don't deploy because the costs are still too high and the political motivation too low to support it).
And his understanding of the roots of racism is egregious, he completely ignores the vast political and economical reasons for recent and still enduring racism in many parts of the world. For example the Rwandan genocide background lies on which tribe had the upper hand during the colonial age and was thus wealthier and more powerful. It had next to nothing to do with religion or patriarchy.
For relative climate stability, by far the technically simplest and most straightforward way would be just to stop burning coal and stop projects like tar sands and oil shale.
500 years is simply a long, long, long time from now in terms of human progress. I think the energy description provided here might possibly fit a model of our energy mix 100 years from now. However, it's very unlikely to be the one we follow 500 years from now, simply because the basis for energy-related discoveries dictates that every few decades an entirely new form of energy is discovered and gets subsequently iterated upon until economically viable. It simply isn't factually reasonable to assume that we have already discovered all possible forms of energy production.
By the way, i did energy-related research which is why i wanted to point this out. Regardless of these flaws, I thoroughly enjoyed reading that essay.
tl;dr: energy-predictions 500 years out are not reasonable because of Vinod Khosla's theory of energy black swans.
Assumptions: I think a lot of what we "know" is going to be wrong. It's just a thing which seems likely to me. Not in a "things fall up now" sort of way, though a little of that, since the laws of physics have been revised quite a bit, and I don't see that trend stopping. But more in a "We were pretty much crazy to think these things" way. You know about alchemy's position politically today, and how some of the church's actions were perceived? Some things which we consider important today are going to be treated like that.
History: We'll be better at this. Assuming historians haven't mysteriously vanished as a profession, I think we're going to know more about history in the future, and knowing more about the present in the future. As a collective, I mean, not every individual.
Screwing the world up: Will happen a lot less. We gained raw power in the last 500 years, we're going to learn wisdom now. Or die. That's a possibility, its been discussed. But I'm assuming we survive.
Culture: Will have finally recovered from British expansionism. There will be lots of strong local cultures again.
Government: Will be competent. And not vitriolic. I'm predicting a break from history again.
Population: Will be ignored. Won't be a problem.
Tech: People will get what they want here. Even if what they want is something they've never heard about. And if they don't want it, that will stop it. We got the atom bomb because we wanted to kill people. That will happen less. No flying cars, but maybe hover-boards. Lots of the stuff that we usually relegate to philosophy, or say that is impossible to know, and won't affect anything even if we know it will be known and become part of science. And we'll be better, way way way better, at biology and ecology.
Intelligent Aliens: Will be found, will be relevant to some people's careers, but won't be all that important. Not the main driver of events.
Planet: Will be better, much better. Things will turn around here. People will care about it. The majority doesn't really care about it now, except in a kind of abstract way as it relates to government. But they will care about it later.
Intelligent Aliens: Will be found within a hundred years, won't be important until at least 200 years in.
Pretty much a given.
>Screwing the world up: Will happen a lot less. We gained raw power in the last 500 years, we're going to learn wisdom now. Or die. That's a possibility, its been discussed. But I'm assuming we survive.
Not entirely convinced. Keeping the world a place humans can live in, sure, but maybe people will just get more comfortable with accelerating change. My perception is it's the older generation that cares more about preserving the environment, both natural and artificial. When you can synthesize any kind of organism you like, who cares if a bunch of existing species go extinct?
>Culture: Will have finally recovered from British expansionism. There will be lots of strong local cultures again.
Unlikely in this age of instant communication. I think we might see lots of subcultures, but globally distributed, in a way that's already happening to some extent with the likes of, well, HN.
Europe changed when explorers "discovered" the new world. Saying you are only going to focus on "this planet" is like saying I am only going to focus on the "old world" when talking about earth 500 years ago.
In my mind the rest of the article is pointless because the author is using the old world way of thinking about this planet.
The fact is the exploration of space is very similar as what happened 520 years ago. What happens when the price of getting to orbit drops significantly because of reusable rockets? Already there are companies that are planning on mining astroids. Saying that this is not going to effect earth in a major way is not really looking at where earth will be in 2512.
Space exploration is going to define the next 500 years of humanity and of this planet just as exploration of the new world defined the last 500 years.
There's almost no way to try to predict what life will be like in 500 years (try the predictions people had 500 years ago!). When I think about this, the most interesting questions are philosophical. If ou didn't have to die and could simulate whatever pleasure you desire whenever you want to, what will the point of living be? What will the definition of a human, a life and consciousness be if you can simulate/augment it using computers?
The ease and volume of communication is bound to increase. Perhaps we communicate through technological telepathy, with anyone we want to. We share thoughts and senses with groups of people and solve problems by adding more brain power. The Mythical Man Month is no longer mythical. Learning and "news" become instant. Communication is probably faster than the speed of light.
Physical objects are only slightly constrained to their form and location. They can be transformed and moved almost as easily as energy can. Having something only requires thought and currency.
So in short C. Stross painted a rosy future where technology - like in the past - solves everything. But he overlooked game changers like the permafrost bomb, a burning Amazon rain-forest and all upcoming social implications.
I'll give an example: In 2010 the jet streams stucked over South Russia and Pakistan and brought heat over Russian fields and devastating floods in Pakistan. As a result food prizes exploded, Russia stopped exports leading to food riots in the Arabian world and finally sparked revolutions.
Sure, there is no proof of one event based on the other. Anyway, there is no science available to estimate social consequences of climate change, but does that mean it will have none? Just think of the secured gas transports in NYC after Sandy. How many days longer with limited supply and it would gone worse? Now, answer one question: Which technology stops gas riots?
Eventually the author is not wrong with his vision of 2512, but what scares me are the next 50 years with an unleashed economy going frenzy over excluded environmental costs.
This is a pessimistic, probabilistic, poorly thought-through vision of the future. The Elon Musks of the world will steer things in a different direction.
Over the past 20-30 years, computers have completely changed the way people interact with the world. Most highly-educated people's lives center around their iPhones, laptops, iPads, etc. As time goes on, automation will likely continue to advance. As computers surpass humans in efficiency for more and more jobs, what role will the uneducated play? Clearly, wealth will continue to concentrate in the hands of fewer and fewer highly educated individuals. Will the rich exploit the poor, or will the need for consumers cause the wealthy to redistribute wealth just so that people have money to buy their goods? Will ordinary people end up like the passengers of the spaceship in WALL-E? Let's go a step further: if the so-called singularity occurs, what is the need for people in general?
I don't speak about nanotechnology or even brain-uploading and synthetic sentience, I speak about rather more mundane trends that are almost certain to continue.
For example, manufacturing. Today manufacturing is still rather similar in nature to the way it was in the 17th century, we just have a whole crap-ton more of it and it's easier to ship manufactured goods around the globe. But I believe we are reaching an inflection point on manufacturing. We will soon reach a point where manufacturing becomes entirely automated for huge classes of devices. All you'll need to do is upload a set of files to a server somewhere and press a button and then a factory will produce whatever it is you've designed, on very short notice and in arbitrary volumes. This alone is a transformative technology, but let's take it a step further, toward fully automated creation of machine tools and to factories themselves. The idea of an assembly line as this huge, fixed entity is due to the nature of our manufacturing technology, but it's possible that manufacturing facilities will themselves become disposable (likely recyclable) and transient. Manufacturing won't be something that people consume, it will be something that people do. More so, the ability of a small amount of capital machinery to boot-strap into the manufacturing capabilities of a developed nation will rapidly eliminate almost all remaining undeveloped parts of the globe. Imagine what happens when you can ship a few containers of equipment to, say, antarctica and start building out factories, tractors, automobiles, houses, etc, etc. with only an input of crude raw materials.
How this will transform the world is beyond me, but it will certainly change our perception of wealth and scarcity and the people living in a world with this technology will be as unfamiliar to people of today as people of today would be to stone age tribes. And this technology is not a 500 year technology, it'll likely arrive in the next hundred years at most.
Let's talk about drugs and surgery and self. Modern medicine is at best a century old, and in some ways perhaps even less. There will come a time, certainly within the next 500 years, when medical technology in the realm of mood alteration, behavior alteration, and cosmetic surgery are at a level which we would describe from the perspective of today as nearly perfectly effective. Imagine what happens when people can change their personalities and their mental capabilities at whim? If you find you're depressed you can fix that, effectively and permanently. If you have a mental illness such as, say, schizophrenia or pedophilia then you can fix that too. And if you are dissatisfied with your mood or your personality you can change that too. Do you want to be an alpha personality? Do you want to be a thrill-seeker? Do you want to be bubbly and happy all the time? Easy peasy. Do you dislike the way your face or body looks or works? You can change that too. You can have a stunningly attractive and physically fit body with ease, and you can look like a movie star.
To say that this will change society is a gross understatement. In many ways I think this will be a bigger challenge to the world than any other technological or environmental challenge. To be honest I think it will be a larger challenge for our species than even trying to co-exist with thermonuclear weapons.
As for space, I think it will affect our future a great deal but perhaps not as much as these other things. One thing a lot of people get wrong about space is imagining that it's hard. It's not, we've just been doing it very, very badly. For the same exact amount of money the world has spent on space so far we could have easily built orbital cities and moon bases housing hundreds. Not with revolutionary technology, not with some alternate and hugely more cost effective programs, but merely with applying proven and existing systems and technologies in a sensible way instead of the haphazard way we have done so the last 4 decades or so. For example, for the same cost as the Shuttle program we could have continued launching Saturn Vs (at least 150 of them) which would have allowed us to easily put living quarters for hundreds of astronauts in Earth orbit and to build out moon bases (or Mars bases, frankly) quite easily. There are two other important factors people miss. First, once you have a substantial off-Earth industry then it's no longer reliant on the cost of launch from Earth's surface. You only have to launch the equipment for an automated space mining operation once, afterward you only need to keep it operational. The potential return in terms of mass launched from Earth vs. resources returned to Earth or to Earth orbit could be a great many orders of magnitude (millions or billions), much like it is for mining equipment here on Earth. Second, the world of the future will be unimaginably wealthier than we are. The parts of the world which are today developed will be even wealthier in the future, and much of the developing world will have developed within the next 100 and certainly 500 years. Even without factoring in technological and industrial advances which could make orbital launch cheaper (incidentally, things which are already running at a rampant pace of advancement even today) the simple factor of having a much, much larger total economy will mean that the amount of resources for space exploration will be larger than today by a factor of tens to hundreds. The idea that this doesn't translate into a substantial permanent off-Earth human population is, to me, patently ridiculous.
Overall, the idea of trying to predict the world of 500 to even the tiniest degree is probably a losing prospect, but it should be an interesting ride regardless.
"Sea levels will have risen by at least one, and possibly more than ten metres worldwide."
"Fission: will be in widespread safe use or completely taboo."
$25 million is less than 1/100,000 of what we spend on oil per year. If every American chipped in 8 cents, we could double the incentive.
Sounds like a kickstarted project I could get behind.
First off, a human settlement on Mars, while technologically challenging, would need a relatively small initial population to get started sustainably (say, 2000 people). All of the advancements in food and energy production mentioned in the article could be used to provide for a colony there.
The OP talks about genetically engineered animals for food production, but they could also be engineered to better work and thrive in space-based industries; collecting raw materials, zero-gravity manufacturing, energy collecting, etc. Sophisticated, autonomous machines could do all that as well, so that actual humans have very little need to spend much time out in space, other than traveling between planets and settlements. Or perhaps all travel is virtual, using telepresence to see the solar system.
Machines built in space don't have the costs to get up there in the first place, other than the initial factories and material harvesting equipment.
Great thought-exercise, though. I love thinking about this stuff, and I think our generation has to start anticipating these changes. Some other commenters pointed out this all may happen far sooner than 500 years, so we just might need to be ready.
How do people still believe in run away global warming? There's been absolutely ZERO warming for the lat 16 years, the Earth warmed for 15 years before that, then cooled for 40 years before that. Cloud formation, the major environment influencer of global climate, now seems to stem from cosmic rays.
I do believe space travel, specifically mining, will become much more prevalent. This will eliminate any resource problems. As for energy advances in solar technology and nuclear (fusion or fission) should drastically lower the cost of energy by an order of magnitude from today's prices.
Good trolling, you'll get lots of bites.
This prediction is a little too much. Theoretically it is possible to use a four-base codons, but I'm almost sure that it is extremely difficult to make all the changes in every part of the process. For example, to change the number of bases in a codon, you must change the number of bases in the reciprocal part of the tRNA. But the shape of the tRNA depends on the length, and it seems to be very difficult to change this without breaking the other functions.
It's much easier just to change the meaning of some codons (there are 64, and only 20 codified aminoacid + a termination mark), and even the mitochondrias and some estrange living organism have small changes in the genetic code.
It seems he bet everything on climate being out of control.
If your nation consists of 1/6th of the world's population, you bear 1/6th the burden of the global warming triggered by your fossil fuel use, but get 100% of the energy output from your fossil fuel use. Conversely, if you unilaterally decide to build a giant shade for the earth, you foot 100% of the bill yet only receive 1/6th of the overall benefits.
This was the very first (of several) objections that I had.
Stross is a pretty good writer (at least, he can be at times), but every time he turns his hand to futurism I think he fails miserably. He's got a worldview that I think he's invested in, and he's got a tone (deflating what he sees to be the overenthusiastic techno-nerds) that he likes, and both make him pretty bad at prediction. He sees Moore's law in his own life, but fails to apply it or similar principles to the world going forward. If he was practicing futurism in 1912 he'd be writing that cars are inherently a stunt because we can never build enough roads or find enough fuel for them, and in the year 2412 people will be living in mile high brick building surrounded by a wasteland of horse manure from the perpetually animal-clogged streets.
There are so many problems with the "ZOMG we're all going to be roasted by global warming". I'll leave aside the fact that there's been no increase in average temperatures in 15 years (to avoid the whole "climate change denier" fight that no one wants to have) and just accept as given for this discussion that, yes, average temperatures might rise 2 or 3 C. Given that space launch gets cheaper every year, given that robots get better every year, given that manufacturing gets cheaper every year, etc., it will be trivial in 50 years - let along 500 - to have robots build huge solar shields in orbit, or have robots build huge dikes around our coastal cities (we reclaimed thousand of acres of land from the oceans in the middle ages - we can't do that in the 21st century?), or have giant naval cannons fire explosive shells full of light block aerosols into the upper atmosphere, or, or, or ...
There are so many ideas that aren't 50 years out - let alone centuries out - that can solve these problems.
I think that it's a truism that different countries have different default outlooks. It can't be taken too far, but there are archetypes. Russians are darkly amused by the inevitability of defeat. Americans are gee-whiz let's change the world neophytes. Germans are prone to being a bit dour, etc.
Stross seems to be in the mainstream of British / Scottish cultural thought (at least as it's been revealed to be by fiction, both science fiction and mainstream). Stereotypical American apocalyptic fiction, I suggest, is about raging against the problem and striving to overcome it...and British apocalyptic fiction is more often than not about coming to terms with it.
tl;dr I find Stross' futurism uninteresting and wrong-headed because he seems to find reasons to justify his slightly depressive theres-nothing-we-can-do attitude.
1. AI will be invented sometime, and this will be a radical game-changer. In that everything after it will be hard/impossible to predict today.
2. We will eventually conquer death. Hopefully soon.
The second belief I find to be very, very strange for most people I talk to about this - people really can't imagine it, and most don't want to imagine it.
By the way, the other major prediction I have about the future - we will all be vegeterians, and future generations will look at us as barbarians for eating animals. I'm not a vegeterian, but I believe that this is inevitable, as soon as we have the technology to make animal-like foods without killing animals, both in terms of health and taste.
It's fine and well to speculate wildly about technological advances, but the future of the human race is ultimately about humans. If you're going to ignore the human aspect, do it completely. Don't trivialize millions of deaths in the race to talk about how cool nuclear fusion will be.
As far as contemporary Middle Eastern culture goes I don't see how a leftist would look positively on it even if everywhere was as secular as the most secular part thereof, Tunisia.
Adam Smith: division of labour (specialisation) creates wealth. It is limited by the extent of the market. Therefore, economic forces favour larger populations.
If you have separate classes of people, forming separate markets, they are smaller and therefore less well served. Hence, the elite are materially far better off by participating in larger markets. Consider: can a million dollars buy you a better smart phone?
Of course, people want to feel superior. The above reasoning can also be applied here:
Assuming we've mastered genetic engineering, adding the ability to live and breath underwater will be tempting. This would be the catalyst for significant speciation as an additional 70% of the earth's surface becomes habitable.
As a secondary consequence of this, Europa could become habitable. Vast amounts of water, radiation protection from its icy crust and warmth due to the extreme tidal stresses of Jupiter all combine to make it far more desirable than lifeless, atmosphere deficient rocks like Mars.
"In the future your major political affiliation will not be the nation state or even the corporation. It will be your IT infrastructure provider IE Apple, Google, Microsoft or their 2512 counterparts."
would be an absolutely /awesome/ sci-fi novel.
Of course, for it to be realistic, consumer needs would have to grow dramatically faster than moore's law. As it is now, it's too easy to start a new consumer IT provider business, the infrastructure is too cheap. I spend rather more compute resources per customer, dramatically more than google, and I've got two thousand customers, me being some nobody kid.
If current trends continue (e.g. consumer demand for compute power trails moore's law by quite a lot) the per-customer cost of providing IT infrastructure will be so low that those providers will not be able to demand much by way of payment, otherwise some kid like me will show up and do it cheaper. If you notice... most of the online consumer infrastructure providers, right now, are not in a position to charge their customers anything at all.
to take time out from writing his latest novel to post the interesting blog post shared here. Thanks too to the HN participants who shared the link and have commented already while I was coming back from work. I especially like about this post that Stross looked back at Earth 500 years ago to show readers what time scale he is talking about, and that he was boldly definite about technological and social changes.
I will be boldly definite in disagreeing in part with one of Stross's conclusions in this interesting post. Stross writes, "I'm going to assume that we are sufficiently short-sighted and stupid that we keep burning fossil fuels. We're going to add at least 1000 GT of fossil carbon to the atmosphere, and while I don't expect us to binge all the way through the remaining 4000 GT of accessible reserves, we may get through another 1000 GT." I fully agree with this premise. There are no effective incentives in place today, nor any likely in the next few decades, to prevent further consumption of fossil hydrocarbon fuels, and that will surely result in a substantial increase in atmospheric conentration in CO2.
Stross's next step in prediction is, "So the climate is going to be rather ... different." That's a safe prediction any time, because over 500 year time scales, we have often observed climate change in historic times. Over longer time scales, but since Homo sapiens populated much of the earth, rock art in the Sahara Desert shows that the Sahara was once much less arid than it is now, and cave art in Europe shows that the climate of Europe was once much more frigid than it is now.
Stross goes on to write, "Sea levels will have risen by at least one, and possibly more than ten metres worldwide."
An interesting series of online maps shows projections of flooded land based on various degrees of sea level rise for places of interest such as New York City,
the Netherlands and England,
and Chesapeake Bay.
In all cases, the maps default to showing seven meters of sea level rise and do not project any civil engineering projects to protect existing infrastructure.
Having read Matt Ridley's blog post "Go Dutch"
back when it was published, I wonder if the most dire predictions about the Netherlands are true, or if the Netherlands, the land of polders,
can continue to be "living proof to climate pessimists that dwelling below sea level is no problem if you are prosperous."
Stross writes, "Large chunks of sub-Saharan Africa, China, India, Brazil, and the US midwest and south are going to be uninhabitably hot."
I live in the United States Midwest, and my mother grew up in a hotter part of the United States Midwest during the Dust Bowl era. Most of her family is still near the family farm on the windswept Great Plains. I don't expect any part of the earth to become uninhabitably hot. We have, according to the best developed models of influences on world climate, a sure prospect of a generally warmer Earth, warming currently lethally cold areas into areas that will be habitable. My experience living in subtropical east Asia suggests that we will have more warming of cold areas than turning hot areas into unbearably hot areas from global warming.
Stross continues, "London, New York, Amsterdam, Tokyo, Mumbai — they're all going to be submerged, or protected by heroic water defenses" and my prediction is that New York, at least, will be fully protected by civil engineering projects. New York City is sufficiently prosperous to attract some of the world's brightest minds to live there (I know some young people who have moved there recently) and the current city administration actively encourages making New York City a technology hub. New York will thrive, whatever the climate.
Stross wraps up this prediction by mentioning, "Venice and New Orleans (both of which will be long-since lost)." Venice and New Orleans have been in long-term decline for quite a while, from bad governance, and will surely suffer further relative decline, regardless of sea levels. There will still be a great port at the mouth of the Mississippi-Missouri river system, and it will be a thriving and cosmopolitan city, but it may well be in a different place along the river delta from the current location of New Orleans. Venice may basically vanish.
There is much more interesting content in Stross's post, but allow me to explain why I think the high end of global warming predictions (and thus the high end of sea level rise predictions) is unlikely. We already have a known model for induced global cooling from the "natural experiment" of volcanos erupting and ejecting much dust high into the atmosphere. If the climate change we now experience produces more pain than gain (where I live, at 800 feet above sea level in a continental dry, cold winter climate zone, global warming has so far mostly produced gain), then there will be political and economic incentives to sequester greenhouse gases, or directly shade the Earth with high-altitude dust, or to do whatever else science discovers to slow and perhaps eventually reverse global warming. Over a 500-year time span, I would expect enough of an increase in understanding of climate models to bring about a world climate that is more moderate in more places than today's. Thanks for the chance to think about the far future.
I think it's an interesting topic, so I'm glad that it got posted, but let's not get TOO fawning - since when is it "kind" to submit a link to your own blog? Stross wants readership and book buyers - posting a link here makes as much sense for him as it does for any other entrepreneur with a product to sell.
If we choose to protect biodiversity today, if we choose to keep our climate optimal for naturally evolved life, then our future in 500 years can be a lot better than anything Stross has described.
For example, I think we will indeed have AI, but it will turn out that AI, like a human baby, has to be raised by parents. The process of "programming" an AI is just like the process of "programming" a person - it's messy, and it takes a lot of personal effort and fortitude.
I also think it is likely that the rules of our universe allow only one successful colonization attempt per home planet, or perhaps home system. This limits the spread of any Life to linear (rather than geometric), and it also means that the odds of life meeting each other on the same planet are extremely small. (It goes without saying that there is Life in a lot of places, but that it rarely succeeds in the singular effort of colonizing another system).
More and more of our productive efforts will be created and consumed in virtual environments. But that doesn't meant that the physical will be ignored. "Slow space" is important, and beautiful in it's own way, and we evolved with it. We're not going to leave it behind.
Social constructs will become self-aware, and driven by ever greater understanding of ourselves and our relationship to the world. We will truly choose our beliefs, and aggregate (virtually and physically) with others of the same belief. Indeed, I can imagine a world government who's primary purpose is not adjudicating national disputes, but rather protecting the rights of new adults to choose what they believe, and to live their lives wherever those beliefs are most closely held.
The US and all nations will evolve according to what they really are: explicit belief systems that exploit energy/food/material resources in order to protect/promote their belief system. We will probably see a spectrum of US-like nations, that differ only on second-order considerations. Basically, what we have today, only more explicit and with far more porous borders.
It seems very unlikely that the majority will actually modify their bodies with computer interface technology. The inherent risks are far too high when a device doesn't have a physical off switch. Consider the nightmare scenario where a hacker hacks into your visual cortex, and Rick rolls you. this is far worse than blindness - it could drive you insane (really).
Lots of deserts, lots of monasteries (in cool caves and huge underground 'Topeka' labyrinths).
The 10,000-year clock will be found and melted down to make weapons. As always (especially today) the educated will be suspicious and forced into hiding. Resurgence of manual encipherment. Tourism to the mysterious ruins of the past a major industry. All slowly being buried by dirt falling from the sky. -30-
For example, if innovation happened in flight and most people could fly at hypersonic speed within 10 years, the world becomes even smaller. Cure most cancers within 10 years instead of 50 and maybe the "next Steve Jobs" will get another 2-3 decades.
There are lots of big problems that would could solve decades sooner if we could find better ways to innovate now.