Greetings, pioneers of the future!
It seems fairly fashionable to fantasize about the future. A regular appearance in the reality show of wild futuristic foretelling is Ray Kurzweil, whose predictions are said to come true with exciting, or, if you are a pessimist, frightening accuracy, give or take a few decennia.
The mysterious abyss between mind and body will, if we follow his optimism, be bridged by many body-mind integrating technological developments, perhaps even leading to eternal life, a metamorphosis into a digitized entity.
Technology will then also become smarter itself: “2029 is the consistent date I have predicted for when an AI will pass a valid Turing test and therefore achieve human levels of intelligence.”
Famous modern philosopher Sam Harris shares this idea that superhuman intelligence will emerge, but is perhaps a tad less hopeful in stating that “it’s the most worrisome future possible because we’re talking about the most powerful possible technology.” He fears that AI will improve itself, leading to a runaway effect.
Meanwhile, entrepreneurial and technological prodigy Elon Musk, on similar lines agreeing that there should be constraints on AI to prevent such a runaway effect, keeps building his brave new world of automated cars, affordable Lego brick houses, flying cars, Starlink global internet through satellites, increased solar power, Neuralink implants and SpaceX reusable rockets, with serious intentions of colonizing Mars.
What else, if we may believe the digital prophets of our time, are marvels of science just waiting around the corner?
VR and augmented realities that cannot be distinguished from the real thing?
Cheap 3d printers that can create just about anything?
Will we see a decline in simple jobs that can be automated and an increasing demand for “deep work”, as Cal Newport argues in his book of the same title, all in an age of increasing distractions?
May we embrace an era of peace, because “the decline of violence is a fractal phenomenon,” as Steven Pinker has argued?
“You can see it over millennia, over centuries, over decades and over years.”
Will man be able to take (epi)genetical manipulation to the next level, a salvation from illnesses and handicaps – or creating its own kind of threats?
Will robotics help advance our society, make us inferior and dependent, or will it, together with the parallel development of AI, lead to a Terminator Judgment Day style of apocalypse?
How will the sciences advance, will they help increase our understanding beyond what our fallible minds and senses allow us to currently experience, or will they become corrupted by market forces, or perhaps turn into instruments of death, as had been forseen during the creation of the atomic bomb?
Will we see the end of our planet, solar system, universe, or just our species?
Or will we finally unequivocally uncover the fabric of a final reality, beyond current scientific and spiritual reach, something that will unite us all and disprove the assumption of individual existence?
I am no futurist or storyteller. Nor do I have an outspoken opinion about the “good” or “evil” of future phenomena and inventions. New technology has always raised suspicion, and that must have been the case even in the Stone Age. And now we are comfortably reading this post on a digital screen, a technological feat made possible by the manipulation of electricity, a force of nature which frightened our dear ancestors so.
My concern is of a different nature: the search for meaning and our true humanity. Cal Newport warns of shallowness in work and focus, I warn of shallowness in existentialism, in spiritual experience, in morality, in wisdom, in philosophical inquiry, and in the critical thinking and intuition required to distinguish the truly beneficial from the irrevocably harmful. Whatever the conditions, whatever the substrate of reality we will inhabit, let us not abandon the path toward realization of our greater selves, and by that I am not referring to physical or technologically greater selves, but spiritually greater selves – however that expresses itself in your own unique experience!
© 2019 Marcel van Delft
Image: Kyoto Station, by Martin Falbisoner – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53618739