Humanity, as it stands today, is very similar to a coin that has landed on its side — slowly rolling, wobbling, waiting to land either Heads or Tails
Many would agree our species, and even our civilization, is in trouble. Most will point out the pandemic, economic crisis, civil unrest, climate change, and the resurgence of authoritarianism. While all of these concerns are justified, they are also only smaller variables in a much larger picture. These problems pale in comparison to the beasts that lurk beneath the labyrinth, waiting to wake up. In many ways, we are insects building a cocoon for something much greater, something we don’t fully understand.
The threats and potential for our species can only be understood if seeing a bigger picture. We can’t just look at one threat in isolation. The many current developments all interconnect with each other. We already can see this at a smaller scale. We have seen how a pandemic has mixed with economic instability, societal and racial issues, and authoritarianism and hyper-polarization. Five years ago, very few would have predicted all of these things combining and creating the situation we are in right now. Many are in shock from it. Many are surprised even by a pandemic, even though pandemics are relatively normal and inevitable. But future problems, and potential, for humanity is going to be even more complicated, with new elements that will shock people far more than any natural pandemic ever could. Everything in this article is based on reason. It is based on research from the greatest minds in their respected fields, and very few have made valid arguments against the claims that will be made in this article. The only reason these developments are not everyone’s top priority seems to only be because they are new. They have never happened before, so it’s hard for us to actually believe they will happen. But remember that, a year ago, every expert in the field agreed that a global pandemic was inevitable. And remember that, for years, the top governments in the world, and the bulk of humanity itself, failed to give the warnings from these experts any attention — only because a pandemic had never happened in their own lifetime. We could have prepared better for this crisis. And many would not have died.
Humans didn’t do much of anything for a long time. To the best of our knowledge, we didn’t have permanent writing, settlements, or advanced tools. Then radical developments started to begin. Written language, cultivation of agriculture, and our species began to take off. Some civilizations succeeded, others failed and collapsed into ruin. It was a new experiment, and plenty of things were bound to go wrong. Disease, organized warfare, sieges, these were just to name a few. But there also came potential. New ideas, sophisticated tooling, a better understanding of the world, new developments that completely changed what it meant to even be human. Things have been changing again. But this time, we’re all in the same experiment.
Turn and face the Strange — Changes
Several critical factors have been changing very rapidly. Since the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, humanity has seen rapid changes in standards of living, technological progress, and economic prosperity. While all of this is new and exciting, it has come with several major hazards.
In the scope of over 300,000 years on Earth, humanity has only had the ability to instantly annihilate itself for 50 of them. The Cold War may have (sort of) ended, but nothing has truly changed. We are still at just as great a risk, if not greater, of self-destruction. There have already been almost a dozen close calls. You don’t have to be an expert in Probability to guess the math is not promising for our future. How many more years can we survive before our extinction from this alone becomes a probabilistic inevitability?
On top of this, we have new dangers. Bioengineering is progressing quickly, and is becoming more and more accessible to people. With this rate of progress, it seems inevitable that someone will achieve the means to create a genetically-engineered virus. We have seen what a natural pandemic can do to us. Imagine a virus with an even-longer incubation rate, higher rate of infection, and severely-high mortality rate.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. There is also tremendous hope. We have brought global hunger down to record levels. The average human lifespan has been getting longer and longer. And we are very close to ending extreme poverty completely. Other diseases that used to kill millions, such as Malaria, may soon be wiped out completely.
Beyond this, there are new developments. Bioengineering has a positive side, too. It means the diseases that kill our species, such as Heart Disease, Cancer, and Alzheimer’s, can also be wiped out. With enough time and progress, it is inevitable that we will eventually even hack aging itself. The potential from this means a total change in the human condition. We will not be limited by short lifespans. We will have the capacity to live thousands of years or more, and see the fruits of technology spring out in abundance that we’ve never seen before. We have the potential to be an interplanetary, transhuman species, expanding past our current limits, seeing and creating wonders only dreamt of in science fiction novels.
Our fate depends entirely on the productive elements of technological progress moving faster than our destructive ones. But this isn’t a widely-held concern in the public consciousness. We lack coordination. We lack understanding. We lack the capacity to control it. And we lack the discipline to adapt to these changes fast-enough. This is why Elon Musk is so obsessed with getting us to Mars. This is why so many experts are calling on the world governments to implement better policies for addressing these problems. But all of this may depend on yet another advancement. One that could save us from our own destruction, or wipe us out completely.
Many are familiar with the lore of Lovecraft. Entities that exist that are so far beyond human comprehension, our very existence is so dwarfed by their presence that it drives us insane.
Despite sounding extraordinary, or impossible to imagine, this will very likely soon be reality. The majority of experts in the field of Artificial Intelligence agree that creating a superintelligence — an intelligence that far exceeds human capacity — is a question of when, not if. And ‘when’ seems to be very soon. Breakthroughs many believed were decades away have already happened. We are progressing faster in creating intelligence than we are in understanding what intelligence is. We are ants collectively building the cocoon for a totally new entity. Something that has never existed before.
An intelligence of this magnitude could save us from ourselves. It could prevent our own extinction. It could find cures to our diseases. It could engineer spaceships and medicine to take humanity to levels beyond our imagination. But it could also destroy us.
“There is no doubting the force of [the] arguments … the problem is a research challenge worthy of the next generation’s best mathematical talent. Human civilisation is at stake.”
— Clive Cookson, Science Editor at the Financial Times
All of humanity’s dangerous technologies are the result of something: our intelligence. Our intelligence is how we have the power to exterminate any other species on Earth, should we choose to do it. Bears, whales, chimpanzees: their entire existence is at the mercy of our intelligence. But what if we create something that has far greater intelligence than our own? Suddenly our species is at the mercy of something completely new. Something that may not think like a human, or even like an animal. This is illustrated by the Unfinished Fable of the Sparrows. When dealing with intelligence of this scale, when we don’t even yet fully understand what intelligence is, one mistake could have catastrophic consequences. The AI would not have to be evil to destroy us, it could simply be bad programming.
This reminds me of two figures in Greek Mythology. Prometheus and Cassandra. Both possessed foresight. Prometheus saw the potential of humans, and gifted them with fire from the gods. Cassandra foresaw the fall of Troy. Her only curse was that no one listened to her. We must pay attention to the Cassandras of our time, who have warned us time, and time again, or else we will suffer the same fate as Troy.