2040’s America will be like 1840’s Britain, with robots?

Christopher Gibbs Steampunk

Looked at in a certain light, Adrian Hon’s History of the Future in 100 Objects can be seen as giving us a window into a fictionalized version of an intermediate technological stage we may be entering. It is the period when the gains in artificial intelligence are clearly happening, but they have yet to completely replace human intelligence. The question if it AI ever will actually replace us is not of interest to me here. It certainly won’t be tomorrow, and technological prediction beyond a certain limited horizon is a fool’s game.

Nevertheless, some features of the kind of hybrid stage we have entered are clearly apparent. Hon built an entire imagined world around them from with “amplified-teams” (AI working side by side with groups of humans) as one of the major elements of 21st century work, sports, and much else besides.

The economist Tyler Cowen perhaps did Hon one better, for he based his very similar version of the future not only on things that are happening right now, but provided insight on what we should do as job holders and bread-winners in light of the rise of ubiquitous, if less than human level, artificial intelligence. One only wishes that his vision had room for more politics, for if Cowen is right, and absent us taking collective responsibility for the type of future we want to live in, 2040’s America might look like the Britain found in Dickens, only we’ll be surrounded by robots.

Cowen may seem a strange duck to take up the techno-optimism mantle, but he did in with gusto in his recent book Average is Over. The book in essence is a sequel to Cowen’s earlier best seller The Great Stagnation in which he argued that developed economies, including the United States, had entered a period of secular stagnation beginning in the 1970’s. The reason for this stagnation was that advanced economies had essentially picked all the “low hanging fruit” of the industrial revolution.

Arguing that we are in a period of technological stagnation at first seems strange, but when I reflect a moment on the meaning of facts such as not flying all that much faster than would have been common for my grandparents in the 1960’s, the kitchen in my family photos from the Carter days looking surprisingly like the kitchen I have right now- minus the paneling, or saddest of all, from the point of view of someone brought up on Star Trek, Star Wars and Our Star Blazers with a comforter sporting Viking 2 and Pioneer, the fact that, not only have we failed to send human visitors to Mars or beyond, we haven’t even been back to the moon. Hell we don’t even have any human beings beyond low-earth orbit.

Of course, it would be silly to argue there has been no technological progress since Nixon. Information, communication and computer technology have progressed at an incredible speed, remaking much of the world in their wake, and have now seemingly been joined by revolutions in biotechnology and renewable energy.

And yet, despite how revolutionary these technologies have been, they have not been able to do the heavy lifting of prior forms of industrialization due to the simple fact that they haven’t been as qualitatively transformative as the industrial revolution. If I had a different job I could function just fine without the internet, and my life would be different only at the margins. Set the technological clock by which I live back to the days preceding industrialization, before electricity, and the internal combustion engine, and I’d be living the life of my dawn-to-dusk Amish neighbors- a different life entirely.

Average is Over is a followup to Cowen’s earlier book in that in it he argues that technological changes now taking place will have an impact that will shake us out of our stagnation, or at least how that stagnation is itself evolving into something quite different with some being able to escape its pull while others fall even further behind.

Like Hon, Cowen thinks intermediate level AI is what we should be paying attention to rather than Kurzweil or Bostrom- like hopes and fears regarding superintelligence. Also like Hon, Cowen thinks the most important aspect of artificial intelligence in the near future is human-AI teams. This is the lesson Cowen takes from, among other things, freestyle chess.

For those who haven’t been paying attention to the world of competitive chess, freestyle chess is what emerged once people were able to buy a chess playing program that could beat the best players in the world for a few dollars to play on one’s phone. One might of thought that would be the death knell for human chess, but something quite different has happened. Now, some of the most popular chess games are freestyle meaning human-machine vs human-machine.

The moral Cowen draws from freestyle chess is that the winners of these games, and he extrapolates, the economic “games” of the future, are those human beings who are most willing to defer to the decisions of the machine. I find this conclusion more than a little chilling given we’re talk about real people here rather than Knight or Pawns, but Cowen seems to think it’s just common sense.

In its simplest form Cowen’s argument boils down to the prediction that an increasing amount of human work in the future will come in the form of these AI-human teams. Some of this, he admits, will amount to no workers at all with the human part of the “team” reduced to an unpaid customer. I now almost always scan and bag my own goods at the grocery store, just as I can’t remember the last time I actually spoke to a bank teller who wasn’t my mom. Cowen also admits that the rise of AI might mean the world actually gets “dumber” our interactions with our environment simplified to foster smooth integration with machines and compressed to meet their limits.

In his vision intelligent machines will revolutionize everything from medicine to education to business management and negotiation to love. The human beings who will best thrive in this new environment will be those whose work best complements that of intelligent machines, and this will be the case all the way from the factory floor to the classroom. Intelligent machines should improve human judgement in areas such as medical diagnostics and would even replace judges in the courtroom if we are ever willing to take the constitutional plunge. Teachers will go from educators to “coaches” as intelligent machines allow individualized instruction , but education will still require a human touch when it comes to motivating students.

His message to those who don’t work well with intelligent machines is – good luck. He sees automation leading to an ever more competitive job market in which many will fail to develop the skills necessary to thrive. Those unfortunate ones will be left to fend for themselves in the face of an increasingly penny-pinching state. There is one area, however, where Cowen thinks you might find refuge if machines just aren’t your thing-marketing. Indeed, he sees marketing as one of the major growth areas in the new otherwise increasingly post-human economy.

The reason for this is simple. In the future there are going to be less ,not more, people with surplus cash to spend on all the goods built by a lot of robots and a handful of humans. One will have to find and persuade those with real incomes to part with some of their cash. Computers can do the finding, but it will take human actors to sell the dream represented by a product.

The world of work presented in Cowen’s Average is Over is almost exclusively that of the middle class and higher who find their way with ease around the Infosphere, or whatever we want to call this shell of information and knowledge we’ve built around ourselves. Either that or those who thrive economically will be those able to successfully pitch whatever it is they’re selling to wealthy or well off buyers, sometimes even with the help of AI that is able to read human emotions.

I wish Cowen had focused more on what it will be like to be poor in such a world. One thing is certain, it will not be fun. For one, he sees further contraction rather than expansion of the social safety net, and widespread conservatism, rather than any attempts at radically new ways of organizing our economy, society and politics. Himself a libertarian conservative, Cowen sees such conservatism baked into the demographic cake of our aging societies. The old do not lead revolutions and given enough of them they can prevent the young from forcing any deep structural changes to society.

Cowen also has a thing for so-called “moral enhancement” though he doesn’t call it that. Moral enhancement need not only come from conservative forces, as the extensive work on the subject by the progressive James Hughes shows, but in the hands of both Hon and Cowen, moral enhancement is a bulwark of conservative societies, where the world of middle class work and the social safety net no longer function, or even exist, in the ways they had in the 20th century.

Hon with his neuroscience background sees moral enhancement leveraging off of our increasing mastery over the brain, but manifesting itself in a revival of religious longings related to meaning, a meaning that was for a long time provided by work, callings and occupations that he projects will become less and less available as we roll through the 21st century with human workers replaced by increasingly intelligent machines. Cowen, on the other hand, sees moral enhancement as the only way the poor will survive in an increasingly competitive and stingy environment, though his enhancement is to take place by more traditional means, the return of strict schools that inculcate victorian era morals such as self-control and above all conscientiousness in the young. Cowen is far from alone in thinking that in an era when machines are capable of much of the physical and intellectual labor once done by human beings what will matter most to individual success is ancient virtues.

In Cowen’s world the rich with money to burn are chased down with a combination of AI, behavioral economics, targeted consumer surveillance, and old fashioned, fleshy persuasion to part with their cash, but what will such a system be like for those chronically out of work? Even should mass government surveillance disappear tomorrow, (fat chance) it seems the poor will still face a world where the forces behind their ever more complex society become increasingly opaque, responsible humans harder to find, and in which they are constantly “nudged” by people who claim to know better. For the poor, surveillance technologies will likely be used not to sell them stuff which they can’t afford, but are a tool of the repo-man, and debt collector, parole officer, and cop that will slowly chisel away whatever slim column continues to connect them the former middle class world of their parents. It is a world more akin to the 1940’s or even the 1840’s than it is to anything we have taken to be normal since the middle of the 20th century.

I do not know if such a world is sustainable over the long haul, and pray that it is not. The pessimist in me remembers that the classical and medieval world’s existed for long periods of time with extreme levels of inequality in both wealth and power, the optimist chimes in that these were ages when the common people did not know how to read. In any case, it is not a society that must by some macabre logic of economic determinism come about. The mechanism by which Cowen sees no sustained response to such a future coming into being is our own political paralysis and generational tribalism. He seems to want this world more than he is offering us a warning of it arrival. Let’s decide to prove him wrong for the technologies he puts so much hope in could be used in totally different ways and in the service of a juster form of society.

However critical I am of Cowen for accepting such a world as a fait accompli, the man still has some rather fascinating things to say. Take for instance his view of the future of science:

Once genius machines start coming up with new theories…. intelligibility will seem like a legacy from the very distant past. ( 220)

For Cowen much of science in the 21st century will be driven by coming up with theories and correlations from the massive amount of data we are collecting, a task more suited to a computer than a man (or woman) in a lab coat. Eventually machine derived theories will become so complex that no human being will be able to understand them. Progress in science will be given over to intelligent machines even as non-scientists find increasing opportunities to engage in “citizen science”.

Come to think of it, lack of intelligibility runs like a red thread throughout Average is Over, from “ugly” machine chess moves that human players scratch their heads at, to the fact that Cowen thinks those who will succeed in the next century will be those who place their “faith” in the decisions of machines, choices of action they themselves do not fully understand. Let’s hope he’s wrong on that score as well, for lack of intelligibility in human beings in politics, economics, and science, drives conspiracy theories, paranoia, and superstition, and political immobility.

Cowen believes the time when secular persons are able to cull from science a general, intelligible picture of the world is coming to a close. This would be a disaster in the sense that science gives us the only picture of the world that is capable of being universally shared which is also able to accurately guide our response to both nature and the technological world. At least for the moment, perhaps the best science writer we have suggests something very different. To her new book, next time….

The Future As History


It is a risky business trying to predict the future, and although it makes some sense to try to get a handle on what the world might be like in one’s lifetime, one might wonder what’s even the point of all this prophecy that stretches out beyond the decades one is expected to live? The answer I think is that no one who engages in futurism is really trying to predict the future so much as shape it, or at the very least, inspire Noah like preparations for disaster. Those who imagine a dark future are trying to scare the bejesus out of us so we do what is necessary not to end up in a world gone black swept away by the flood waters.  Problem is, extreme fear more often leads to paralysis rather than reform or ark building, something that God, had he been a behavioral psychologist, would have known.

Those with a Pollyannaish story about tomorrow, on the other hand, are usually trying to convince us to buy into some set of current trends, and for that reason, optimists often end up being the last thing they think they are, a support for conservative politics. Why change what’s going well or destined, in the long run, to end well? The problem here is that, as Keynes said “In the long run we’re all dead”, which should be an indication that if we see a problem out in front of us we should address it, rather than rest on faith and let some teleos of history or some such sort the whole thing out.

It’s hard to ride the thin line between optimism and pessimism regarding the future while still providing a view of it that is realistic, compelling and encourages us towards action in the present. Science-fiction, where it avoids the pull towards utopia or dystopia, and regardless of it flaws, does manage to present versions of the future that are gripping and a thousand times better than dry futurists “reports” on the future that go down like sawdust, but the genre suffers from having too many balls in the air.

There is not only a problem of the common complaint that, like with political novels, the human aspects of a story suffer from being tied too tightly to a social “purpose”- in this case to offer plausible predictions of the future, but that the idea of crafting a “plausible” future itself can serve as an anchor on the imagination. An author of fiction should be free to sail into any world that comes into his head- plausible destinations be damned.

Adrian Hon’s recent The History of the Future in 100 Objects overcomes this problem with using science-fiction to craft plausible versions of the future by jettisoning fictional narrative and presenting the future in the form of a work of history. Hon was inspired to take this approach in part by an actual recent work of history- Neil MacGregor’s History of the World in 100 Objects. In the same way objects from the human past can reveal deep insights not just into the particular culture that made them, but help us apprehend the trajectory that the whole of humankind has taken so far, 100 imagined “objects” from the century we have yet to see play out allows Hon to reveal the “culture” of the near future we can actually see quite well,  which when all is said and done amounts to interrogating the path we are currently on.     

Hon is perhaps uniquely positioned to give us a feel for where we are currently headed. Trained as a neuroscientist he is able to see what the ongoing revolutionary breakthroughs in neuroscience might mean for society. He also has his fingers on the pulse of the increasingly important world of online gaming as the CEO of the company Six-to-Start which develops interactive real world games such as Zombies, Run!

In what follows I’ll look at 9 of Hon’s objects of the future which I thought were the most intriguing. Here we go:

#8 Locked Simulation Interrogation – 2019

There’s a lot of discussion these days about the revival of virtual reality, especially with the quite revolutionary new VR headset of Oculus Rift. We’ve also seen a surge of brain scanning that purports to see inside the human mind revealing everything from when a person is lying to whether or not they are prone to mystical experiences. Hon imagines that just a few years out these technologies being combined to form a brand new and disturbing form of interrogation.

In 2019, after a series of terrorists attacks in Charlotte North Carolina the FBI starts using so-called “locked-sims” to interrogate terrorist suspects. A suspect is run through a simulation in which his neurological responses are closely monitored in the hope that they might do things such as help identify other suspects, or unravel future plots.

The technique of locked-sims appears to be so successful that it is soon becomes the rage in other areas of law enforcement involving much less existential public risks. Imagine murder suspects or even petty criminals run through a simulated version of the crime- their every internal and external reaction minutely monitored.

Whatever their promise locked-sims prove full of errors and abuses not the least of which is their tendency to leave the innocents often interrogated in them emotionally scarred. Ancient protections end up saving us from a nightmare technology. In 2033 the US Supreme Court deems locked-sims a form of “cruel and unusual punishment” and therefore constitutionally prohibited.

#20 Cross Ball- 2026

A good deal of A History of the Future deals with the way we might relate to advances in artificial intelligence, and one thing Hon tries to make clear is that, in this century at least, human beings won’t suddenly just exit the stage to make room for AI. For a good while the world will be hybrid.

“Cross Ball” is an imagined game that’s a little like the ancient Mesoamerican ball game of Nahuatl, only in Cross Ball human beings work in conjunction with bots. Hon sees a lot of AI combined with human teams in the future world of work, but in sports, the reason for the amalgam has more to do with human psychology:

Bots on their own were boring; humans on their own were old-fashioned. But bots and humans together? That was something new.

This would be new for real word games, but we do already have this in “Freestyle Chess” where old-fashioned humans can no longer beat machines and no one seems to want to watch matches between chess playing programs, so that the games with the most interest have been those which match human beings working with programs against other human beings working with programs. In the real world bot/human games of the future I hope they have good helmets.

# 23 Desir 2026

Another area where I thought Hon was really onto something was when it came to puppets. Seriously. AI is indeed getting better all the time even if Siri or customer service bots can be so frustrating, but it’s likely some time out before bots show anything like the full panoply of human interactions like imagined in the film Her. But there’s a mid-point here and that’s having human beings remotely control the bots- to be their puppeteers.

Hon imagines this in the realm of prostitution. A company called Desir essentially uses very sophisticated forms of sex dolls as puppets controlled by experienced prostitutes. The weaknesses of AI give human beings something to do. As he quotes Desir’s imaginary founder:

Our agent AI is pretty good as it is, but like I said, there’s nothing that beats the intimate connection that only a real human can make. Our members are experts and they know what to say, how to move and how to act better than our own AI agents, so I think that any members who choose to get involved in puppeting will supplement their income pretty nicely

# 26 Amplified Teams 2027

One thing I really liked about A History of the Future is that it put flesh on the bones of an idea that has been developed by the economist Tyler Cowen in his book Average is Over (review pending) that employment in the 21st century won’t eventually all be swallowed up by robots, but that the highest earners, or even just those able to economically sustain themselves, would be in the form of teams connected to the increasing capacity of AI. Such are Hon’s “amplified teams” which Hon states:

 ….usually have three to seven human members supported by highly customized software that allows them to communicate with one another-  and with AI support systems- at an accelerated rate.

I’m crossing my fingers that somebody invents a bot for introverts- or is that a contradiction?

#39 Micromort Detector – 2032

Hon foresees our aging population becoming increasingly consumed with mortality and almost obsessive compulsive with measurement as a means of combating our anxiety. Hence his idea of the “micromort detector”.

A micromort is a unit of risk representing a one-in-a-million chance of death.

Mutual Assurance is a company that tried to springboard off this anxiety with its product “Lifeline” a device for measuring the mortality risk of any behavior the hope being to both improve healthy living, and more important for the company to accurately assess insurance premiums. Drink a cup of coffee – get a score, eat a doughnut, score.

The problem with the Lifeline was that it wasn’t particularly accurate due to individual variation, and the idea that the road to everything was paved in the 1s and 0s of data became passe. The Lifeline did however sometimes cause people to pause and reflect on their own mortality:

And that’s perhaps the most useful thing that the Lifeline did. Those trying to guide their behavior were frequently stymied, but that very effort often prompted a fleeting understanding of mortality and caused more subtle, longer- lasting changes in outlook. It wasn’t a magical device that made people wiser- it was a memento mori.

#56 Shanghai Six 2036

As part of the gaming world Hon has some really fascinating speculations on the future of entertainment. With Shanghai Six he imagines a mashup of alternate reality games such as his own Zombies Run! and something like the massive role playing found in events such as historical reenactments combined with aspects of reality television and all rolled up into the drama of film. Shanghai Six is a 10,000 person global drama with actors drawn from the real world. I’d hate to be the film crew’s gofer.

#63 Javelin 2040

The History of the Future also has some rather interesting things to say about the future of human enhancement. The transition begins with the paralympians who by the 2020’s are able to outperform by a large measure typical human athletes.

The shift began in 2020, when the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) staged a technology demonstration….

The demonstration was a huge success. People had never before seen such a direct combination of technology and raw human will power outside of war, and the sponsors were delighted at the viewing figures. The interest, of course, lay in marketing their expensive medical and lifestyle devices to the all- important Gen-X and Millennial markets, who were beginning to worry about their mobility and independence as they grew older.

There is something of the Daytona 500 about this here, sports becoming as much about how good the technology is as it is about the excellence of the athlete. And all sports do indeed seem to be headed this way. The barrier now is that technological and pharmaceutical assists for the athlete are not seen as a way to take human performance to its limits, but as a form of cheating. Yet, once such technologies become commonplace Hon imagines it unlikely that such distinctions will prove sustainable:

By the 40s and 50s, public attitudes towards mimic scripts, lenses, augments and neural laces had relaxed, and the notion that using these things would somehow constitute ‘cheating’ seemed outrageous. Baseline non-augmented humans were becoming the minority; the Paralympians were more representative of the real world, a world in which everyone was becoming enhanced in some small or large way.

It was a far cry from the Olympics. But then again, the enhanced were a far cry from the original humans.

#70 The Fourth Great Awakening 2044

Hon has something like Nassim Taleb’s idea that one of the best ways we have of catching the shadow of the future isn’t to have a handle on what will be new, but rather a good idea of what will still likely be around. The best indication we have that something will exist in the future is how long it has existed in the past. Long life proves evolutionary robustness under a variety of circumstances. Families have been around since our beginnings and will therefore likely exist for a long time to come.

Things that exist for a long time aren’t unchanging but flexible in a way that allows them to find expression in new forms once the old ways of doing things cease working.

Hon sees our long lived desire for communal eating surviving in his  #25 The Halls (2027) where people gather and mix together in collectively shared kitchen/dining establishments.

Halls speak to our strong need for social interaction, and for the ages-old idea that people will always need to eat- and they’ll enjoy doing it together.

And the survival of the reading in a world even more media and distraction saturated in something like dedicated seclusionary Reading Rooms (2030) #34. He also sees the survival of one of the oldest of human institutions, religion, only religion will have become much more centered on worldliness and will leverage advances in neuroscience to foster, depending on your perspective, either virtue or brainwashing.  Thus we have Hon’s imagined Fourth Great Awakening and the Christian Consummation Movement.

If I use the eyedrops, take the pills, and enroll in their induction course of targeted viruses and magstim- which I can assure you I am not about to do- then over the next few months, my personality and desires would gradually be transformed. My aggressive tendencies would be lowered. I’d readily form strong, trusting friendships with the people I met during this imprinting period- Consummators, usually. I would become generally more empathetic, more generous and “less desiring of fleeting, individual and mundane pleasures” according to the CCM.

It is social conditions that Hon sees driving the creation of something like the CCM, namely mass unemployment caused by globalization and especially automation. The idea, again, is very similar to that of Tyler Cowen’s in Average is Over, but whereas Cowen sees in the rise of Neo-victorianism a lifeboat for a middle class savaged by automation, Hon sees the similar CCM as a way human beings might try to reestablish the meaning they can no longer derive from work.

Hon’s imagined CCM combines some very old and very new technologies:

The CCM understood how Christianity itself spread during the Apostolic Age through hundreds of small gatherings, and accelerated that process by multiple orders of magnitude with the help of network technologies.

And all of that combined with the most advanced neuroscience.

#72 The Downvoted 2045

Augmented reality devices such as Google Glass should let us see the world in new ways, but just important might be what it allows us not to have to see. From this Hon derives his idea of “downvoting” essentially the choice to redact from reality individuals the group has deemed worthless.

“They don’t see you, “ he used to say. “You are completely invisible.I don’t know if it was better or worse  before these awful glasses, when people just pretended you didn’t exist. Now I am told that there are people who literally put you out of their sight, so that I become this muddy black shadow drifting along the pavement. And you know what? People will still downvote a black shadow!”

I’ll leave you off at Hon’s world circa 2045, but he has a lot else to say about everything from democracy, to space colonies to the post-21century future of AI. Somehow Hon’s patchwork imagined artifacts of the future allowed him to sew together a quilt of the century before us in a very clear pattern. What is that pattern?

That out in front of us the implications of continued miniaturization, networking, algorithmization, AI, and advances in neuroscience and human enhancement will continue to play themselves out. This has bright sides and dark sides and one of the darker that the opportunities for gainful human employment will become more rare.

Trained as a neuroscientist, Hon sees both dangers and opportunities as advances in neuroscience make the human brain once firmly secured in the black box of the skull permeable. Here there will be opportunities for abuse by the state or groups with nefarious intents, but there will also be opportunities for enriched human cooperation and even art.

All fascinating stuff, but it was what he had to say about the future of entertainment and the arts that I found most intriguing.  As the CEO of the company Six-to-Start he has his finger on the pulse of the entertainment in a way I do not. In the near future, Hon sees a blurring of the lines between gaming, role playing, and film and television, and there will be extraordinary changes in the ways we watch and play sports.

As for the arts, here where I live in Pennsylvania we are constantly bombarded with messages that our children need to be training in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). This is often to the detriment of programs in “useless” liberal arts such as history and most of all art programs whose budgets have been consistently whittled away. Hon showed me a future in which artists and actors, or more clearly people who have had exposure through schooling to the arts, may be some of the few groups that can avoid, at least for a time, the onset of AI driven automation. Puppeteering of various sorts would seem to be a likely transitional phase between “dead” humanoid robots and true and fully human like AI. This isn’t just a matter of the lurid future of prostitution, but for remote nursing, health care, and psychotherapy. Engineers and scientists will bring us the tools of the future, but it’s those with humanistic “soft-skills” that will be needed to keep that future livable, humane, and interesting.

We see this with another of  The History of the Future’s underlying perspectives- that a lot of the struggle of the future will be about keeping it a place human beings are actually happy to live in and that much of doing this will rely on tools of the past or finding protective bubbles through which the things that we now treasure can survive in the new reality we are building. Hence Hon’s idea of dining halls and reading rooms, and even more generally his view that people will continue to search for meaning sometimes turning to one of our most ancient technologies- religion- to do so.

Yet perhaps what Hon has most given us in The History of the Future is less a prediction than a kind of game with which we too can play which helps us see the outlines of the future, after all, game design is his thing. Perhaps, I’ll try to play the game myself sometime soon…


Immortal Jellyfish and the Collapse of Civilization

Luca Giordano Cave of Eternity 1680s

The one rule that seems to hold for everything in our Universe is that all that exists, after a time, must pass away, which for life forms means they will die. From there, however, the bets are off and the definition of the word “time” in the phrase “after a time” comes into play. The Universe itself may exist for as long as 100s of trillions of years to at last disappear into the formless quantum field from whence it came. Galaxies, or more specifically, clusters of galaxies and super-galaxies, may survive for perhaps trillions of years to eventually be pulled in and destroyed by the black holes at their centers.

Stars last for a few billion years and our own sun some 5 or so billion years in the future will die after having expanded and then consumed the last of its nuclear fuel. The earth having lasted around 10 billion years by that point will be consumed in this  expansion of the Sun. Life on earth seems unlikely to make it all the way to the Sun’s envelopment of it and will likely be destroyed billions of years before the end of the Sun- as solar expansion boils away the atmosphere and oceans of our precious earth.

The lifespan of even the oldest lived individual among us is nothing compared to this kind of deep time. In contrast to deep time we are, all of us, little more than mayflies who live out their entire adult lives in little but a day. Yet, like the mayflies themselves who are one of the earth’s oldest existent species: by the very fact that we are the product of a long chain of life stretching backward we have contact with deep time.

Life on earth itself if not quite immortal does at least come within the range of the “lifespan” of other systems in our Universe, such as stars. If life that emerged from earth manages to survive and proves capable of moving beyond the life-cycle of its parent star, perhaps the chain in which we exist can continue in an unbroken line to reach the age of galaxies or even the Universe itself. Here then might lie something like immortality.

The most likely route by which this might happen is through our own species,  Homo Sapiens or our descendents. Species do not exist forever, and our is likely to share this fate of demise either through actual extinction or evolution into something else. In terms of the latter, one might ask if our survival is assumed, how far into the future we would need to go where our descendents are no longer recognizably, human? As long as something doesn’t kill us, or we don’t kill ourselves off first, I think that choice, for at least the foreseeable future will be up to us.

It is often assumed that species have to evolve or they will die. A common refrain I’ve heard among some transhumanists  is “evolve or die!”. In one sense, yes, we need to adapt to changing circumstances, in another, no, this is not really what evolution teaches us, or is not the only thing it teaches us. When one looks at the earth’s longest extant species what one often sees is that once natural selection comes us with a formula that works that model will be preserved essentially unchanged over very long stretches of time, even for what can be considered deep time. Cyanobacteria are nearly as old as life on earth itself, and the more complex Horseshoe Crab, is essentially the same as its relatives that walked the earth before the dinosaurs. The exact same type of small creatures that our children torture on beach vacations might have been snacks for a baby T-Rex!

That was the question of the longevity of species but what about the longevity of individuals? Anyone interested the should check out the amazing photo study of the subject by the artist Rachel Sussman. You can see Sussman’s work here at TED, and over at Long Now.  The specimen Sussman brings to light have individuals over 2,000 years old.  Almost all are bacteria or plants and clonal- that is they exist as a single organism composed of genetically identical individuals linked together by common root and other systems. Plants and especially trees are perhaps the most interesting because they are so familiar to us and though no plant can compete with the longevity of bacteria, a clonal colony of Quaking Aspen in Utah is an amazing 80,000 years old!

The only animals Sussman deals with are corals, an artistic decision that reflects the fact that animals do not survive for all that long- although one species of animal she does not cover might give the long-lifers in the other kingdoms a run for their money. The “immortal jellyfish” the turritopsis nutricula are thought to be effectively biologically immortal (though none are likely to have survived in the wild for anything even approaching the longevity of the longest lived plants). The way they achieve this feat is a wonder of biological evolution.The turritopsis nutricula, after mating upon sexual maturity, essentially reverses it own development process and reverts back to prior clonal state.

Perhaps we could say that the turritopsis nutricula survives indefinitely by moving between more and less complex types of structures all the while preserving the underlying genes of an individual specimen intact. Some hold out the hope that the turritopsis nutricula holds the keys to biological immortality for individuals, and let’s hope they’re right, but I, for one, think its lessons likely lie elsewhere.

A jellyfish is a jellyfish, after all, among more complex animals with well developed nervous systems longevity moves much closer to a humanly comprehensible lifespan with the oldest living animal a giant tortoise by the too cute name of “Jonathan” thought to be around 178 years old.  This is still a very long time frame in human terms, and perhaps puts the briefness of our own recent history in perspective: it would be another 26 years after Jonathan hatched from his egg till the first shots of the American Civil War were fired. A lot can happen over the life of a “turtle”.

Individual plants, however, put all individual animals to shame. The oldest non-clonal plant, The Great Basin Bristlecone Pine, has a specimen believed to be 5,062 years old. In some ways this oldest living non-clonal individual is perfectly illustrative of the (relatively) new way human beings have reoriented themselves to time, and even deep time.When this specimen of pine first emerged from a cone human beings had only just invented a whole set of tools that would make the transmission of cultural rather than genetic information across vast stretches of time possible. During the 31st century B.C.E. we invented monumental architecture such as Stonehenge and the pyramids of Egypt whose builders still “speak” to us, pose questions to us, from millennia ago. Above all, we invented writing which allowed someone with little more than a clay tablet and a carving utensil to say something to me living 5,000 years in his future.

Humans being the social animals that they are we might ask ourselves about the mortality or potential immortality of groups that survive across many generations, and even for thousands of years. Group that survive for such a long period of time seem to emerge most fully out of the technology of writing which allows both the ability to preserve historical memory and permits a common identity around a core set of ideas. The two major types of human groups based on writing are institutions, and societies which includes not just the state but also the economic, cultural, and intellectual features of a particular group.

Among the biggest mistakes I think those charged with responsibility for an institution or a society can make is to assume that it is naturally immortal, and that such a condition is independent of whatever decisions and actions those in charge of it take. This was part of the charge Augustine laid against the seemingly eternal Roman Empire in his The City of God. The Empire, Augustine pointed out, was a human institution that had grown and thrived from its virtues in the past just as surely as it was in his day dying from its vices. Augustine, however, saw the Church and its message as truly eternal. Empires would come and go but the people of God and their “city” would remain.

It is somewhat ironic, therefore, that the Catholic Church, which chooses a Pope this week, has been so beset by scandal that its very long-term survivability might be thought at stake. Even seemingly eternal institutions, such as the 2,000 year old Church, require from human beings an orientation that might be compared to the way theologians once viewed the relationship of God and nature. Once it was held that constant effort by God was required to keep the Universe from slipping back into the chaos from whence it came. That the action of God was necessary to open every flower. While this idea holds very little for us in terms of our understanding of nature, it is perhaps a good analog for human institutions, states and our own personal relationships which require our constant tending or they give way to mortality.

It is perhaps difficult for us to realize that our own societies are as mortal as the empires of old, and someday my own United States will be no more. America is a very odd country in respect to its’ views of time and history. A society seemingly obsessed with the new and the modern, contemporary debates almost always seek reference and legitimacy on the basis of men who lived and thought over 200 years ago. The Founding Fathers were obsessed with the mortality of states and deliberately crafted a form of government that they hoped might make the United States almost immortal.

Much of the structure of American constitutionalism where government is divided into “branches” which would “check and balance” one another was based on a particular reading of long-lived ancient systems of government which had something like this tripart structure, most notably Sparta and Rome. What “killed” a society, in the view of the Founders, was when one element- the democratic, oligarchic-aristocratic, or kingly rose to dominate all others. Constitutionally divided government was meant to keep this from happening and therefore would support the survival of the United States indefinitely.

Again, it is somewhat bitter irony that the very divided nature of American government that was supposed to help the United States survive into the far future seems to be making it impossible for the political class in the US to craft solutions to the country’s quite serious long-term problems and therefore might someday threaten the very survival of the country divided government was meant to secure.

Anyone interested in the question of the extended survival of their society, indeed of civilization itself, needs to take into account the work of Joseph A. Tainter and his The Collapse of Complex Societies (1988). Here, the archaeologist Tainter not only provides us with a “science” that explains the mortality of societies, his viewpoint, I think, provides us for ways to think about and gives us insight into seeming intractable social and economic and technological bottlenecks that now confront all developed economies: Japan, the EU/UK and the United States.

Tainter, in his Collapse wanted to move us away from vitalist ideas of the end of civilization seen in thinkers such as Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee. We needed, in his view, to put our finger on the material reality of a society to figure out what conditions most often lead them to dissipate i.e. to move from a more complex and integrated form, such as the Roman Empire, to a more simple and less integrated form, such as the isolated medieval fiefdoms that followed.

Grossly oversimplified, Tainter’s answer was a dry two word concept borrowed from economics- marginal utility. The idea is simple if you think about it for a moment. Any society is likely to take advantage of “low-hanging fruit” first. The best land will be the first to be cultivated, the easiest resources to gain access to exploited.

The “fruit”,  however, quickly becomes harder to pick- problems become harder for a society to solve which leads to a growth in complexity. Romans first tapped tillable land around the city, but by the end of the Empire the city needed a complex international network of trade and political control to pump grain from the distant Nile Valley into the city of Rome.

Yet, as a society deploys more and more complex solutions to problems it becomes institutionally “heavy” (the legacy of all the problems it has solved in the past) just as problems become more and more difficult to solve. The result is, at some point, the shear amount of resources that need to be thrown at a problem to solve it are no longer possible and the only lasting solution becomes to move down the chain of complexity to a simpler form. Roman prosperity and civilization drew in the migration of “barbarian” populations in the north whose pressures would lead to the splitting of the Empire in two and the eventual collapse of its Western half.            

It would seem that we have broken through Tainter’s problem of marginal utility with the industrial revolution, but we should perhaps not judge so fast. The industrial revolution and all of its derivatives up to our current digital and biological revolutions, replaced a system in which goods were largely produced at a local level and communities were largely self-sufficient, with a sprawling global network of interconnections and coordinated activities requiring vast amounts of specialized knowledge on the part of human beings who, by necessity, must participate in this system to provide for their most basic needs.

Clothes that were once produced in the home of the individual who would wear them, are now produced thousands of miles away by workers connected to a production and transportation system that requires the coordination of millions of persons many of whom are exercising specialized knowledge. Food that was once grown or raised by the family that consumed it now requires vast systems of transportation, processing, the production of fertilizers from fossil fuels and the work of genetic engineers to design both crops and domesticated animals.

This gives us an indication of just how far up the chain of complexity we have moved, and I think leads inevitably to the questions of whether such increasing complexity might at some point stall for us, or even be thrown into reverse?

The idea that, despite all the whiz-bang! of modern digital technology, we have somehow stalled out in terms of innovation is an idea that has recently gained traction. There was the argument made by the technologist and entrepreneur, Peter Thiel, at the 2009 Singularity Summit, that the developed world faced real dangers of the Singularity not happening quickly enough. Thiel’s point was that our entire society was built around the expectations of exponential technological growth that showed ominous signs of not happening. I only need to think back to my Social Studies textbooks in the 1980s and their projections of the early 2000s with their glittering orbital and underwater cities, both of which I dreamed of someday living in, to realize our futuristic expectations are far from having been met. More depressingly, Thiel points out how all of our technological wonders have not translated into huge gains in economic growth and especially have not resulted in any increase in median income which has been stagnant since the 1970s.

In addition to Theil, you had the economist, Tyler Cowen, who in his The Great Stagnation (2011)  argued compellingly that the real root of America’s economic malaise was that the kinds of huge qualitative innovations that were seen in the 19th and early 20th centuries- from indoor toilets, to refrigerators, to the automobile, had largely petered out after the low hanging fruit- the technologies easiest to reach using the new industrial methods- were picked. I may love my iPhone (if I had one), but it sure doesn’t beat being able to sanitarily go to the bathroom indoors, or keep my food from rotting, or travel many miles overland on a daily basis in mere minutes or hours rather than days.

One reason why technological change is perhaps not happening as fast as boosters such as singularitarians hope, or our society perhaps needs to be able to continue to function in the way we have organized it, can be seen in the comments of the technologists, social critic and novelist, Ramez Naam. In a recent interview for  The Singularity Weblog, Naam points out that one of the things believers in the Singularity or others who hold to ideas regarding the exponential pace of technological growth miss is that the complexity of the problems technology is trying to solve are also growing exponentially, that is problems are becoming exponentially harder to solve. It’s for this reason that Naam finds the singularitarians’ timeline widely optimistic. We are a long long way from understanding the human brain in such a way that it can be replicated in an AI.

The recent proposal of the Obama Administration to launch an Apollo type project to understand the human brain along with the more circumspect, EU funded, Human Brain Project /Blue Brain Project might be seen as attempts to solve the epistemological problems posed by increasing complexity, and are meant to be responses to two seemingly unrelated technological bottlenecks stemming from complexity and the problem of increasing marginal returns.

On the epistemological front the problem seems to be that we are quite literally drowning in data, but are sorely lacking in models by which we can put the information we are gathering together into working theories that anyone actually understands. As Henry Markham the founder of the Blue Brain Project stated:

So yes, there is no doubt that we are generating a massive amount of data and knowledge about the brain, but this raises a dilemma of what the individual understands. No neuroscientists can even read more than about 200 articles per year and no neuroscientists is even remotely capable of comprehending the current pool of data and knowledge. Neuroscientists will almost certainly drown in data the 21st century. So, actually, the fraction of the known knowledge about the brain that each person has is actually decreasing(!) and will decrease even further until neuroscientists are forced to become informaticians or robot operators.

This epistemological problem, which was brilliantly discussed by Noam Chomsky in an interview late last year is related to the very real bottleneck in Artificial Intelligence- the very technology Peter Thiel thinks is essentially if we are to achieve the rates of economic growth upon which our assumptions of technological and economic progress depend.

We have developed machines with incredible processing power, and the digital revolution is real, with amazing technologies just over the horizon. Still, these machines are nowhere near doing what we would call “thinking”. Or, to paraphrase the neuroscientist and novelist David Eagleman- the AI WATSON might have been able to beat the very best human being in the game Jeopardy! What it could not do was answer a question obvious to any two year old like “When Barack Obama enters a room, does his nose go with him?”

Understanding how human beings think, it is hoped, might allow us to overcome this AI bottleneck and produce machines that possess qualities such as our own or better- an obvious tool for solving society’s complex problems.

The other bottleneck a large scale research project on the brain is meant to solve is the halted development of psychotropic drugs– a product of the enormous and ever increasing costs for the creation of such products. Itself a product of the complexity of the problem pharmaceutical companies are trying to tackle, namely; how does the human brain work and how can we control its functions and manage its development?  This is especially troubling given the predictable rise in neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s.   It is my hope that these large scale projects will help to crack the problem of the human brain, and especially as it pertains to devastating neurological disorders, let us pray they succeed.

On the broader front, Tainter has a number of solutions that societies have come up with to the problem of marginal utility two of which are merely temporary and the other long-term. The first is for society to become more complex, integrated, bigger. The old school way to do this was through conquest, but in an age of nuclear weapons and sophisticated insurgencies the big powers seem unlikely to follow that route. Instead what we are seeing is proposals such as the EU-US free trade area and the Trans-Pacific partnership both of which appear to assume that the solution to the problems of globalization is more globalization. The second solution is for a society to find a new source of energy. Many might have hoped this would have come in the form of green-energy rather than in the form it appears to have taken- shale gas, and oil from the tar sands of Canada. In any case, Tainter sees both of these solutions as but temporary respites for the problem of marginal utility.

The only long lasting solution Tainter sees for  increasing marginal utility is for a society to become less complex that is less integrated more based on what can be provided locally than on sprawling networks and specialization. Tainter wanted to move us away from seeing the evolution of the Roman Empire into the feudal system as the “death” of a civilization. Rather, he sees the societies human beings have built to be extremely adaptable and resilient. When the problem of increasing complexity becomes impossible to solve societies move towards less complexity. It is a solution that strangely echoes that of the “immortal jellyfish” the turritopsis nutricula, the only path complex entities have discovered that allows them to survive into something that whispers eternity.

Image description: From the National Gallery in London. “The Cave Of Eternity” (1680s) by Luca Giordan.“The serpent biting its tail symbolises Eternity. The crowned figure of Janus holds the fleece from which the Three Fates draw out the thread of life. The hooded figure is Demagorgon who receives gifts from Nature, from whose breasts pours forth milk. Seated at the entrance to the cave is the winged figure of Chronos, who represents Time.”