Imagining a brighter future

It’s a pretty common for futurists to lament that public perceptions of the future are generally dystopian. Hollywood often gets much of the blame for providing us with Terminator, The Matrix and many other nightmare visions of the future, but our evolutionary history is perhaps more responsible. Simply put, we are built to be pessimistic. The best way to stay safe on the African savannah was to be super sensitive to anything that might represent a threat, so our brains evolved to be good at predicting danger to the extent that we are drawn to bad news and scary movies. Maybe Hollywood is just giving us what we want…

Either way, it isn’t helpful to society for us all to have a negative perception of the future. The next generation of scientists and entrepreneurs need to be inspired by something, just as many of the current generation were inspired by Star Trek which, particularly in the Next Generation Series’, presents a very positive view of where we might be headed.

I’m writing about this today because Kevin Kelly has done something about this problem. For those who don’t know Kelly or his work I would describe him as ‘the futurist’s futurist’. He doesn’t have the public profile of a Ray Kurzweil or Chris Anderson, but he has done an amazing amount of great thinking and writing about technology and where we are headed, for which he is hugely respected, particularly by those with an interest in the field. And he was the founding editor of Wired Magazine.

The thing Kelly did was send out a request to the internets asking for “100 word descriptions of a plausible future 100 years from now that he would like to live in”. He said he would give $100 to the best one he received.

First off, notice the way he constructed the request – the key words are “plausible”, “100 years” and “would like to live in”. The answers needed to be realistic, looking an awfully long way out (take a second to picture the world as it was in 1914), and positive. As he notes, wrapping that into 100 words is tough.

He wrote up the results here. In summary, he received 23 replies which contained three broad themes:

  • we will have abundant clean energy from solar or fusion
  • the physical and digital will be further merged into a ‘holistic internet of everything’
  • artificial intelligence and robotics will have transformed our economy into one of plentitude and creative work/play

Kelly lists all the replies in the summary, but cited this one from John Hanacek as his favourite:

Physical and virtual realities are meshed together with no distinction. Ideas are given sovereignty with their creators rewarded fairly and directly. The world itself does the drudgery of assembling itself across all sectors that information science has been applied, which is limited only by the quantum information underpinnings of the universe. Humans have taken up their primary purpose of creativity and now work with other intelligences of any kind to ask questions and achieve answers, with an eye toward more questions. “Human” has taken on flourishing new meanings. Imagination has been unleashed upon the world in a literal sense.

And this was what Kelly came up with himself:

2121: Population 4 billion; 85% urban. Cities boom, empty suburbs struggle. Agriculture acreage reduced with GMOs. Nature monitored quantitatively; green lands expand with genetic engineering. Solar, fusion, mini nukes generate cheap power. Climate change adapted. Creative middle class the new majority, globally mobile. Computer pilots make travel common internationally. Eco and heritage tourism primary income for poorest. Robots takeover remaining blue-collar jobs in Asia and Africa. Internet of everything physical continued. Universal library, and universal lifelong education for free. All humans always on the net anywhere. Brain interface, wearables. Co-veillent tracking ubiquitous. Quantified self for personalized medicine. Techno-literacy (managing) skills mandatory.

These are both inspiring visions of the future. For me the best bit is that cheap energy coupled with artificial intelligence and robotics will have freed us to focus on creative work. Also important is that we have cracked the science behind food production sufficiently well to feed the world, which I expect to still have a much greater population than 4bn (we are at 7bn today).

There’s plenty there for young scientists and entrepreneurs to aim at.

  • disqus_AkbGt6F3Gs

    I am not sure I agree with the assumptions of this article. I do not think we are wired to think negatively. Peter thiel makes a great case in his book describing Europeans as pessimists and how this feeling pervades our culture and limits our chances of success (I am European). Marc Anderseen in a recent interview says that when he looks at a company he trains himself to think “what if this actually worked?”. Masybe we should all make an effort to think like this?

  • I should have been more precise. Bad news sells much better than good news. If you watch the news on TV or read a paper then bad news articles outnumber the good news articles by about 10-1, on average across major outlets (I’m told). I extrapolated from that to think maybe we are drawn to bad news movies in the same way, and that’s why Hollywood gives us Terminator rather than The Waltons.

    I wasn’t trying to argue that we are inherently pessimistic, just that we have ended up with negative models for the future, whereas good models might be more inspiring.

    That said, I think pessimism is often easier than optimism and the fact that Andreessen has to train himself to think positively might tell us something. One of the issues here is that we are dealing in huge generalisations, and that’s where I get a little uncomfortable with Peter Thiel’s arguments. To get the innovation he wants we should be looking to inspire a smallish number of amazing individuals not thinking about whether whole continents are pessimistic or optimistic.