Ever wonder what will be happening four years from now? Ugh—high school! How about 40 years from now? Ugh—apocalypse, riots, and computers ruling humankind as if we were their toys! Vice just called up three of the world’s most eminent scientists and social theorists—people who spend their lives in tiny labs trying to predict the future—and asked them to spend a little bit of their precious time telling a group of kids what the world will be like when you’re all grown up. Guess what? It’s going to be very, very, very, very bad and weird. To be honest, the results are pretty worrisome, if not downright terrifying! But don’t let it get you down. After all, the future is yours! Good luck, guys!
Part One: The End of the World
John Leslie is a philosophy professor at the University of Guelph and the author of many books for grown-ups, including
The End of the World
(Routledge). He was educated at Oxford University, where he learned about English literature, but as he grew older he decided that he didn’t want to read books, he wanted to study the fundamental questions of the world: “What is the universe?” “Why does it exist?” Big, big stuff like that.
Guess what he found out? Humans are going extinct! Who would have thunk it?
Recently, Professor Leslie took some time away from the lab to talk to tween girls Rachel and Diana about a couple of the billions of ways that humans are likely to vanish from the face of the earth.
Professor John Leslie: The title of my book is The End of The World. Do you know what I mean when I say the end of the world?
When the planets go out?
No. I mean when every last human being in the world dies. In my book, I have proven that it is statistically likely that the human race is approaching extinction. Then, I have investigated some very realistic, scientific “disaster scenarios.” Those are possible ways that every human being in the world might die. One of the disaster scenarios involves germ warfare. Do either of you know what germ warfare is?
That’s when they put it in envelopes and mail it.
That’s one example. That happened with the germ anthrax five years ago. But due to advances in genetic engineering, the threat of germ warfare is growing. Do you know what I mean by genetic engineering? Either of you? Genetic engineering is when scientists interfere with dangerous germs in order to make them even more dangerous.
What, like so you don’t get healed up when you take medicine?
Sure, that’s one possibility. Also, dangerous germs can be made so that they are able to spread easily. They can be made so that they can kill more people when they do spread. For example, the AIDS virus is very, very difficult to catch. But what if you made it so it could spread just from people coughing?
That would be really, really bad.
Well somebody in some laboratory might be working on that right as we speak. He—or she—could be developing a germ that would lead to a desperately dangerous virus.
Like, something where you can’t move anymore.
It could be anything, any kind of dangerous and highly contagious virus. People also talk about genetic engineering leading to what’s called a Green Scum Disaster. That is where genetic engineering leads to a new form of plant—a plant that might take all competitors out of existence. It might take over the entire world.
Like a swarm.
People have also suggested that genetic engineering could be used to produce contraceptive bacteria. Do you know what a contraceptive is?
Rachel and Diana:
Well, some people have suggested that a contraceptive bacteria could be given to a woman who didn’t want to become pregnant. The bacteria could stop them from becoming pregnant for several months. Unfortunately, these bacteria could spread to other women. And the bacteria could even spread to every woman and make it impossible for absolutely anyone to have children. There would be the human race gone. Gone. Another disaster scenario which is quite interesting is the Grey Goo Disaster.
It sounds like a comic book.
Well, that’s true. It does a little. Anyway, there are recent advances in what is known as nanotechnology. Do you know what nanotechnology is?
Yeah, it’s like something about space.
Close. It is where you miniaturize things like computers. It could be possible in the quite near future to get a computer which is so small that you would be unable to see it. You could have a computer the size of a speck of dust. And this computer would have such power that it would be able to manufacture more copies of itself. Do you see what might happen?
They’d take over your body and control you. Like in
That’s not a bad thought. But what I had in mind is something else. Computers of this sort would be very useful in areas like manufacturing. They might also be very useful in areas like warfare. And if a Grey Goo Disaster happened, then they could spread throughout the parts of the earth which are inhabitable by living things. And if that happened, you could get within perhaps a month of the complete extermination of not only the human race but also of all other animals.
Right. Like in
Something else I should touch on is the possibility that computers might replace us. One of the interesting possibilities there is that computers would be replacing us with our blessings.
You see, human intelligence has a lot of limitations. It is kept back by all sorts of difficulties. It has an end put to it by old age. It is inhibited by such things as disease and neuroses. Machine intelligence, on the other hand, could be well balanced and enormously brilliant, and never suffer from any sort of mental disease of any sort. It would be happy all the time, you might say. Some people think the human race should be replaced by computers of that sort.
What would happen to us?
Well, computers would replace humans. Humans would be dead. But one of the most interesting scenarios which I’ve looked at is one that can be a little hard to understand. But let’s try… Imagine the fabric of the universe. Imagine, then, if you could produce something which is equivalent to a pinprick on a balloon. Imagine a pinprick in the fabric of the universe. You know what happens when you prick a hole in a balloon?
It flies all around until it’s out of hot air.
Well, you could produce in a laboratory experiment a tiny bubble, which proceeded to expand at the speed of light almost. It would destroy the galaxy. And then it would destroy all the neighboring galaxies. And then it would go on expanding forever, throughout the universe, destroying everything when it reached it.
Actually, this has been a scenario which has been looked at quite seriously in the physics journals.
Let me just talk about this last one quickly. We don’t notice all the energy in the space surrounding us, right? We think of it as just empty space. Just nothingness. But that’s wrong. It’s like fish in the deep sea. They’re under hundreds of tons of water pressure, but they don’t know it. In fact, the space in which we live is swarming with energy but we don’t notice it. Do you understand? It’s just like with the fish. Now, how could we upset the space in which we live?
Right. Possibly by an experiment of very high energies. And, I don’t know if you know this, but today’s scientists spend a lot of time in their laboratories producing collisions between particles. And it could be a very dangerous thing. A lot of physicists say, “Oh well, we don’t believe there is any danger. Let’s just go ahead and produce bigger and bigger disasters.”
But they won’t do that.
Well, if anybody were really keen on annihilating the human race, they’d find it quite easy in the near future. This is the sort of thing that makes me fairly pessimistic. The head of the Royal Society in Britain believes the chances are at least 50-50 that we will be extinct by the end of the century…
So the world is going to end?
Well, it’s obvious the world is going to end! I just can’t say when.
Part Two: The End of Oil
James Howard Kunstler is an author and social theorist. That means he spends his days thinking about the way people live and work as a group, and his nights figuring out where that group is headed. He is the author of 13 books of fiction and nonfiction and he’s frequently asked to lecture at colleges that you’ll never get into, like Yale, MIT, and Columbia. About a month ago, we saw some of the local cool kids hanging out on the main road in Saratoga Springs, NY, where Kunstler lives. We asked them to listen to Kunstler talk about his latest book, The
. It’s about when the world’s supply of oil runs out and we are living in a wasteland that makes
West Side Story
James Howard Kunstler: All right, I’m going to try to explain some very serious, grown-up stuff. You see, the way that we live in America has become very, very heavily dependent on a lot of oil, and the world is facing total world oil depletion.
What does that mean?
It means we are running out of oil, and we’re going to have to live very differently. We’re probably not going to be able to drive around in our cars like we do now. And we may have to go back to a kind of living in which people live closer to each other, and closer to the things they need, like stores. Now, shopping has been an important part of American life for the whole time you’ve been around, but that’s going to change drastically. Stores like Kmart, that depend on selling things that come from 12,000 miles away, will cease to exist. We’re going to have to do local business again.
Yeah, but we’ll just have local stores or something. We already have those anyway.
Actually it’s something that we haven’t done in this country for a long time. And it’s going to be very hard to learn how to do it again, because it doesn’t happen overnight. We’re going to have to learn how to farm again, we’re going to have to grow food close to home…
I have a garden.
Not just gardening. A lot of the empty fields that you see around a place like this town are going to have to grow things. We’re going to have to get serious about using that land to grow food, because we’re not going to be able to move stuff 3,000 miles. We can’t move a Caesar salad 3,000 miles from California to Saratoga every time you want a Caesar salad. We’re going to have to get more serious about farming our own food, and doing it on a smaller scale with more human labor, fewer machines, less oil, and less artificial fertilizers. We may have to use animals to do some of the work instead of using tractors.
What, like bull carts?
We may have to use oxen and bulls and horses again, in a way that we haven’t done within the memory of anyone who’s now alive.
We’ll be like going to class on bull carts?
I wouldn’t stick my neck that far out, but I think we’re going to have real big problems with cars. One of the things that you may not realize, or know much about, is we used to have a really good railroad system in this country, and we’re going to have to return to that. We’re going to have to build the railroads up again. And another thing, I think that we’re going to see a big change in education and school. I have a feeling that high school, as we know it, is probably not going to continue very long into the future. For one thing, we’re going to have a lot of trouble running the schools that depend on those fleets of yellow school busses.
There’s another very big part of this package, and that’s the global climate situation. The ice caps are melting, the glaciers are melting, and we’re having extraordinary heat waves and floods and hurricanes. These climate problems are going to create additional problems for our farms. They will add another layer of difficulty.
So we’ll just get stuff from the government. Like hurricane relief.
It is probably not going to be like that. There will be a lot of trouble between different countries and different regions and different people. They will probably all be competing for scarce energy and scarce oil and scarce resources.
Yes way. In fact, we’re already seeing it. Some of you may know that there’s a lot of trouble in the world right now. The American army is fighting in the Middle East and Iraq, and there’s a war now between Israel and the Hezbollah in Lebanon. There is a lot of friction between the nations that have a lot of oil and the nations that have a lot of money to buy oil. There is even friction with other nations who are sitting on the sidelines. We’re all having different kinds of trouble.
Well, what if they make cars that just run off electricity? Or air? Hot air, I mean.
You can make cars run on all kinds of things. You can make them run on biodiesel or alcohol or even french-fried potato oil. The question is: Can you make 200 million cars run on all those things, or 50 million. Or even 25. And the answer to that is: Probably not.
So what are we going to do?
You mean what kind of a world are you going to grow up in? I think it is going to be a very different one from the one of your childhood. It is going to be a more serious world. There will be a period of hardship because as we have access to less and less energy to run all of the stuff that we need to run, a lot of jobs are going to vanish.
What will we do for money?
Well, there may be some jobs that are real popular now that won’t be around in the future, like rock star or movie actor—or book author.
Where’d you get the name of your book?
I called my book The Long Emergency because I think that’s the kind of world that we’re going to be living in. The whole world is going to be in a kind of emergency that doesn’t quite end. It will keep on going and going and going.
What do you mean?
I mean it will be a world where there are a lot of problems all the time. You’ll have to be resourceful and resilient and able to meet those challenges.
Is there any hope?
Well, in this world you’ll have to generate hope yourself. And the way you’ll do it is by becoming a capable young woman. All of you will have to become capable young people who are confident about dealing with the problems that reality sends to you. That will require you to be serious people. Life is going to be harder for you than it has been for quite a few generations before you. And you may even have to be heroic in the way that you greet this new reality that we’re going to be living in. And I’ll be there with you for a while, and I’m going to write about it some more. So there you have it. I’ll see you guys around.
Part Three: The End of Humans
Dr. Nick Bostrom is the director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford in England. That means he is basically the archduke of future studies. He has advanced degrees with highest honors in philosophy and mathematics and mathematic logic and computational neuroscience and physics and artificial intelligence. What have you done, barely passed fifth grade?
In July, Dr. Bostrom presented a paper he published in Philosophical Quarterly before a panel of the world’s toughest judges: Kids just like you!
Dr. Nick Bostrum: Lots of serious scientists believe that, in the future, we will have very powerful computers. Now, let’s just say that the scientists are right. Let’s say that our descendants will have very powerful computers. One thing that they might want to do with their computers is look at humanity and learn more about us, both socially and medically. To do that, they might build computer programs, or simulations. And those programs, if they were detailed enough, might even believe that they were feeling things and seeing things. Even though they were just computer programs designed to be exactly like you, they might not know the difference.
I’m pretty weird you know. Imagine if I was three inches tall.
Well, that is interesting. That is exactly the sort of thinking I would like for you to do. Now imagine if you had pretend glasses and you could watch an imaginary, underground football field versus actually having a real underground football field. Would it matter if it were real or not if it looked the same and felt the same?
Steven Gerrard is dumb. He missed that penalty and Lampard took a rubbish penalty.
OK, but we aren’t really here to talk about football.
Do you think there would be a difference between just having the experiences of something versus it happening for real? Philosophers have this thought experiment called “the experience machine.” The idea here is that you have this imaginary machine and you can go into it and have any experience you want. You can experience being a king or a queen or winning a war or kissing someone you fancy—any feeling you want to have. You can feel happiness or pressure. Would you or would you not go into the experience machine? Nothing that happens there is real. Think about it. Now, what do you think of the idea that we could almost certainly be living in a computer simulation in the future? You play computer games and every year they get more and more realistic with more details, right?
It’s not possible for us to live in a huge computer. We would have to be electric people. If we’re living in a huge computer, you’d have to find a massive plug to put in the universe and the computer would be massive as well.
OK, but in the future it may be possible to create people using computers. How about if each of you try to imagine what kind of people you would create. If you could make any kind of person in the world, who would you make.
I’d make a nice lady, about 30 years old, who’s a doctor. She’s got loads of boyfriends, loads of money, a nice car, and a nice house. She’d be called Jane.
I’d have a boy in his teens—about 18 years old. He’s going to college. He’s doing well and he’s nice. I’d call him Chubbs.
If I could make a person out of a computer I’d make him friendly, happy, and safe. He’d be 11 years old. I would call him President Bush because I know President Bush. He’d have a big bush around his head. I’d give him flying powers and punching powers.
Mine would be happy, kind, and helpful. He would have night vision.
Good. Very interesting. And you see, what I argued in my paper is that it is possible that someone in the future decided to make a bookstore, and put me onto a stool and surround me by a boy in a shirt just like that one and a girl who had her thumb in her mouth until just now. And a gentleman with a camera, and…
Imagine if the world was made out of poo. We’d need gas masks like Adolf Hitler had.
Do you know what an academic is?
Is it a banana?
I believe I have come to the end of my lecture. Thank you.