In the next few decades the nature of human civilisation is going to change drastically, and in almost every conceivable field. Technology businessman Gordon Moore observed in 1965 that the processing power of our computers and to an extent our overall technological capabilities roughly doubles every 12-24 months, and this has held true up until the present and is expected to hold true for at least another decade. If this exponential growth were to continue for another 40 years, then we will be operating in an entirely different paradigm to the one we currently work within. Developments in Artificial Intelligence (AI) are now occurring at a staggering pace, and driverless cars look as though they will be the new norm in not too long. Furthermore, there will be upwards of nine and a half billion people on the earth, a 30% increase from today which will put massive pressures on the environment, on food and water sources, and on energy production.
In other words, the world is changing at an alarming pace and very little is being done, especially by nation states, to foresee and tackle problems that we may face in the coming decades. This mantle has instead been taken up by individuals such as Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla, SpaceX and a number of other technology companies. At a series of technology summits in the autumn of 2016, Musk further outlined his vision for human colonisation of Mars. This vision is largely driven by Musk’s foreseeing of a cataclysmic event damaging, or even ending, human existence on earth; “I really think there are two fundamental paths: one path is we stay on Earth forever, and some eventual extinction event wipes us out.” It is true that extinction events have been a fundamental part of the earth’s natural cycle, and given the excess strain that we are putting on the planet it is not unthinkable that such an event could occur again, whether it be linked to resource shortages, environmental disasters or mutually assured destruction through a future world war, with dire results for humanity. Fulfilling Musk’s dream will require the solving of a myriad of problems, from how best to transport large numbers of people safely and comfortably from Earth to Mars a journey that will take 3 months to creating an infrastructure on Mars which sill sustainably support a potentially earth-scale human population in the future. However, these are problems which SpaceX Interplanetary Transport System is already busy finding solutions to. The company has successfully tested and launched a number of Falcon 9 rockets including its ‘retropropulsion’ landing system, which will be crucial to the success of any Mars missions. However, SpaceX is not rich enough by itself to make humanity an interplanetary species, which is why governments and nation states must act to support individuals like Musk, both financially and with their infrastructure, to help create a better future for our species.
AI is another example of our rapidly developing technology, but another example which we must treat with caution, given the unpredictability of what will actually happen if true AI is achieved. For many years now, technology companies have been ploughing huge sums of money into the development of AI, and yet very little time or money has been spent on considering the possible pitfalls of this endeavour. However, some individuals, including philosopher Sam Harris, scientist Stuart Russell and indeed Elon Musk himself, have talked openly and at length about the dangers of creating artificial intelligence, which will be smarter than we are, faster at making decisions than we are and less open to emotional bias than we are, without first considering the ethical safeguards that should be built in. Just last week technology entrepreneurs Pierre Omidyar and Reid Hoffman donated a combined $20 million to the Ethics and Governance of Artificial Intelligence Fund. However, what is really needed is intervention from the governments of nation states to properly investigate potential issues surrounding AI and our interaction with such technology, before it becomes a reality which we are unable to change.
Individuals like Musk, Harris and Russell are attempting to solve the problems of the future, rather than simply focusing on the problems which seem more serious due to their immediacy in time. However, as our technology advances and our impact on the world grows, the problems which we will face could be directly related to the continuation of the human species, and such problems must be looked at now so that we have time to find solutions before we come to any harm.