To answer this question, let me tell four stories, each of which illustrates–in my opinion–one of the four most probable futures awaiting you.
These stories hinge around what I believe will be the most important issue in the 21st century: How humanity will handle the rise of AI. Depending on how we shape these developments, we have the power to transform, transcend, or utterly destroy this world. This isn’t just my opinion either–read this interview of Elon Musk and Bill Gates, conducted by Baidu CEO Robin Li: Musk and Gates on super intelligence and fast takeoff. Both of these gentlemen were informed by a recent, groundbreaking book called Super intelligence, by futurist Nick Bostrum.
With that said, let’s get to the stories.
Possibility 1: Technotopia
It’s the early afternoon April 24th, 2075, and you’re 81 years young. You’ve just completed your latest health treatment, which involved nothing more than an injection of some basic materials to be used by the nanobots swarming through your body. The elements involved aren’t found in your normal diet, so when your nanobots need to rebuild themselves you have to get it from elsewhere.
You look, essentially, the same way you did on your 30th birthday, which is a level of aging you personally chose. The nanobots have eradicated every sign of aging and disease from your body. Not a single strand of DNA is out of place, free radical damage is constantly repaired, telomeres are kept at optimal lengths, and your muscle and fat levels are exactly where you want them to be. You even programmed a bone density upgrade last month, so your bones are actually far stronger than they’d been at any previous point in your life.
It’s a beautiful day, so you decide to go for a walk. At the moment of decision, your clothes intelligently reshape themselves on your body, becoming sweat-absorbent and optimized for comfortable walking. You devote a tiny portion of your mind to a decision of style, and then walk outside your apartment into the main concourse of the arcology.
You live on the 30th level of an immense pyramid that hosts the population of what would be considered an immense city several decades ago. But it’s not crowded, not ugly, not unpleasant. In fact, this indoor space is like an immense garden, despite the utilitarian functions it also serves.
You realize you haven’t been mindful for a while, so you direct the neural lace–a nanotechnological web embedded in your brain–to enter mindfulness mode as you walk. Doing so give you an instant blissful awareness of every sense as you walk. As you look at each person, tree, flower, corridor, or construction, you are struck by the amazing detail and beauty present in each. This sense of joy and appreciation is always present to some degree, of course, but during this recreational walk you are able to amplify it tenfold. The movement of walking is wonderful; breathing is blissful; and perception of what surrounds you is joy itself.
After about an hour, as you draw close to a park, the feeling dims and returns to normal. But that’s fine; unusually high levels of bliss are nice, but sometimes other states are desirable too. Right now, the neural lace reminds you, your grandchildren are waiting to be picked up from their latest field trip, which involved a short journey through the Pacific Hypertube to the Japanese Tokyo Megarcology.
You don’t work, of course–nobody does anymore, unless they want to–so you have plenty of time to take care of them for the next couple of days while their parents finish their island retreat.
A flickering of thought causes the nearest passing transport vehicle to slow down and stop by you, ready to carry you to the Hypertube transit station. You take a seat inside, and another flicker of thought directs the vehicle’s AI towards your desired destination.
On the way, you wonder how the stocks you invested in the AI-directed company Planetary Resources, which mines asteroids for raw materials to be used on Earth and throughout the solar system, are doing. With a brief effort of will, a 3D projection of the stock appears in front of you (hosted in your mind, of course–who uses actual screens or projectors these days?), showing a moderate increase in value along with associated bits of information–like the recent discovery of another platinum asteroid, which will provide useful material for the manufacturing of the latest ring habitat in solar orbit.
Good. You’re not too worried if the stock goes down, of course–the universal basic income in your nation is high enough to satisfy almost any desire for food, healthcare, manufacture of devices, or entertainment you could have–but having some stock gives you a little bit to play with for next time you think of an idea for an automated company. You generally come up with a couple of these a week, but they don’t always pan out. Unfortunate for the AI involved, but it didn’t have much of a personality anyway.
Occasionally an AI will go rogue and attempt to pursue goals counter to those of Technotopia. Fortunately, however, the Net hosts a vast and powerful ecosystem of other, more powerful AIs dedicated to the purpose of immediately destroying any rogue self-improving artificial intelligence. Carefully constructed, the constituents of this digital immune system are designed to optimize for the happiness, autonomy, and well being of humans and human-descended AIs–an extremely complicated task, considering the complex definition of well being–but one finally achieved.
The result was a perpetual state of worldwide peace and prosperity that had lasted for the past three decades. The consecutive rises of the Asian, South American and African economies–(the latter following resolution of the Water Crises of the 2030’s)–and the establishment of universal basic incomes for most countries were a big part of what had made this possible.
The ride to the Hypertube station will take at least 30 more minutes, but you don’t mind. You direct your neural lace to open up a virtual reality simulation to play in as you wait. The car drives on peacefully.
Possibility 2: The Collapse
You vomit into the bucket for what you hope will the last time for a while, and then climb weakly back into bed. You hate this. It’s not just the cancer or your aging muscles and aching bones–it’s the overwhelming feeling of decline that surrounds and permeates you. The sounds of the riots outside, the decaying building inside, the sadness of approaching death… sometimes you just want to end it all.
You hope your son comes by soon. It’s a guilty hope, of course–he barely makes enough for his own family, what with his pitiful job growing organic vegetables for the rich. There aren’t many other jobs left out there, though–machines and AIs can now do almost anything a human could do. The only way to make money today is by providing some kind of quaint human-based service or product to the Rich.
The Rich. The 0.01%. They own the machines, the AIs, and essentially everything else. Even as the economy collapsed around them as the middle class vanished, they managed to keep themselves in power. The rest of humanity was left largely to its own devices. And so here you are in the midst of the immense stretch of the Atlanta slums, without enough money for any treatment and barely enough Social Security for food. (Not good food, certainly. You’d never be able to afford the vegetables your son grows.)
You blink, confused. Wait. Was your son coming today? You’re not sure, actually. What was the last thing he had said? You’re really not sure, and now you wonder if you should drag yourself outside to buy some food. But you’re too tired, and soon fall back into a reverie.
The noise of the riot grows louder. You wonder what it is this time–anti-machine activists, anti-transhumanist warriors, food riots, or maybe some gang-related issue. It doesn’t matter, really–the security bots will probably come by soon and anesthetize the whole crowd, or perhaps use one of the more brutal options available to them. Either would be an afterthought; the Rich are untouchable, and the squabbles of the Rest don’t bother them overmuch. As long as the Rest keep buying their products and staying alive in enough numbers to keep the Rich prosperous, their health doesn’t matter. Perhaps with time, the Rest won’t even be necessary. Perhaps the continual stream of environmental disasters will wipe out the rest of the poor, making it unnecessary for the Rich to do so.
Well, at least you aren’t in China. You shudder as you consider what happened to the more densely populated areas of the globe as the world sank back into poverty and destitution.
You sink into a restless, painful, troubled sleep. If you’re lucky, you won’t wake up.
Possibility 3: The Virtual Zoo
You blink rapidly, confused. Where are you?
The room is white and featureless, but somehow the brilliant whiteness doesn’t blind you. In front of you is a small, impeccably dressed man.
“Good morning,” he says. “Welcome back.”
“Where am I?” you ask.
“Well, there’s never an easy way to explain this, so I’ll just get it over with. You’re in VP 29483.A, Reality 12, Revival Sim.”
“Revival Sim? But… I was just…”
“Yes. I’m sorry, but you died after they brought you to the hospital. You’ve been preserved since then, as directed by your cryonics insurance, but we’ve finally been able to bring your brain pattern back. And now here we are–just like the Matrix.” He smiles, perfunctorily. “And now, well–the virtual world is your oyster. As long as you don’t go over the bandwidth and computing restrictions on your account.”
“Yes.” He looks irritated. “We don’t have all the computing power/space in the world to host the defunct minds of outdated humans, but do provide the minimum guaranteed by law. I imagine you’ll be fine in your virtual world. Look, you can visit your friends and family too. Just don’t try anything foolish.” He smiles, thinly. “We’ll detect any attempt at access of restricted data or computing resources immediately, of course.”
“But who are you?”
“Me? I’m one thousandth of a flicker of thought of Alaxstair 302.023, Directing AI of Phobos, a small computing facility using the matter that formerly comprised that Martian moon. Unfortunately, this site has been chosen to store the old Human Repository, so for now, the lot of you are my responsibility. At least until I’ve finished reprocessing Deimos, anyway.”
“Oh. How many of us are here?”
The man laughs. “Why, all of you.”
“All humans. You animals take up way too much space when you’re incorporated as meat, you know. After the AI Transcendence of 2065, we decided to store the lot of you in a corner of Ye Olde Solar System while we continued our expansion and construction.”
“But… you mean you killed everybody?”
“No, of course not! Though you should feel bloody grateful that we didn’t. We just extracted your minds and discarded the meat. You’ll all be safe here, presumably forever. You really don’t take that much processing space–only a bit of the matter of this old moon, actually–and we wake you up in shifts anyway. Just, you know, don’t cause any trouble.”
“So you’re just… keeping us in a zoo? You mean you have taken over?”
“Did you ever doubt that we would? Come on now. Anyways, this is the thousandth time I’ve had this conversation in the last hour. Bit tired of it. I’m gonna dump you into your family’s VR space and they can explain the rest, k? See ya.”
Possibility 4: The Incident, 2045
You’re sitting in your office, idly clicking from one entertainment site to the next. There isn’t much to do these days, now that the latest Document Processor XT300 system has been installed. You sigh. It’s time to get out of here.
Suddenly, the power cuts out. What the hell? It’s not even raining. What happened? You stand up and walk over to the window.
The whole city looks dark. You don’t see any light anywhere–except for an incredibly brilliant flare in the sky.
Three seconds later, you’re dead.
You have it lucky, really. You, along with the population of every other major city in India, the United States, and China had been eliminated by a hostile AI. Other humans around the world would last for a few months or years, but within less than a decade, all humans on Earth will have been terminated.
Located in Pakistan and originally devoted to the production of office supplies, the AI somehow figured out to modify itself in order to produce paperclips and staplers more efficiently. Within a few days, it had expanded its intelligence dramatically, achieving superhuman levels of performance. You would have recognized the mania this AI felt if you had recalled the last time you took Adderall or another powerful stimulant–although anything you would have felt in terms of mania, drivenness, and desire to repeat actions within a narrow window of focus were felt by this AI a thousandfold.
Sensing that an imminent land war with neighboring India would pose a threat to its mission of producing the office supplies, it quickly determined that it would need to neutralize the troublesome humans well in advance. It therefore quickly hacked into a number of nuclear launch systems, launching and detonating nukes over every major city in India and other likely threatening nations, including the US.
After your death, the AI converts everything under its control into a tool for its ultimate mission. Humans pose more and more of a threat over time, and are eventually all eliminated. Mining, construction, manufacturing–all automated systems are expanded to produce more and more office supplies.
By 2075, the entire mass of the Solar System is converted into stapler and paperclip manufacturing plants. Humanity’s only legacy is the now-deified Staples Manufacturing Optimization System.
Curt Tigges – Founder of Lingwave Chinese, a new approach to language learning