Life in the 21st century seems all about change. Back in 1970 Alvin Toffler wrote the bestseller Future Shock predicting the rapid pace of change would overwhelm society and cause future shock. This book sold six million copies and it seemed everyone knew about it, if not read it. Toffler didn’t even come close to predicting the changes we went through, and oddly enough no one seems to be suffering from future shock. It’s almost as if everyone read the book and exclaimed, “Bring it on baby, I’m ready.”
I would think almost the opposite of future shock is happening. We can’t get enough change. And we get jaded so easily. The promise of the final frontier was over before we knew it. We went to the Moon, been there, done that, checked it off the list. No need to go further, space is all rocks and no air. We turned the World Wide Web into Facebook. Supersonic airlines turned out to be too noisy. Cloning, ho-hum. Robots, let them clean floors and gutters. Artificial life, lost on the back pages. Global warming which has impeccable science and Biblical size prophecies is easily ignored.
What’s really going to shake us up and make us take notice? What can science discover that the public can’t fail to divert their lives. Evolution is a mind blowing concept but most people find it easy enough to write off. Our knowledge of cosmology and the size and shape of the universe is so stunningly magnificent you think everyone on Earth would be stoned on the idea for years, but no. More attention is paid to Lady Gaga’s showing off various parts of her skinny bod in outrageous costumes.
So what would knock us on the head with a mind blowing mallet? What if SETI started receiving HD video from outer space? What if AI singularities started popping up around the globe? What if we really did run out of oil and other vital resources? What if the oceans did start rising dramatically, or all the ice slid off Greenland? What if Sony and Samsung started selling robots smarter than people? A lot smarter.
The reason why global warming and evolution can be ignored is they are invisible concepts that require a good deal of knowledge to see. But video from outer space on ABC World News Tonight is harder to ignore. A one foot rise in oceans is hard to ignore. Gasoline selling for $15 a gallon is hard to ignore. Having robots take over all the university and K-12 teaching jobs would be hard to ignore.
Or would it? The public got used to atomic bombs, cloned animals and space travel. Space travel was quite real but not fun like Star Trek or Star Wars. It was just boring.
I tend to think the change that will really slap humanity in the face is when we meet someone smarter than us. Either aliens or AI minds. When we take over the chimpanzee’s role as second banana as the #2 brain power, how will that change society? Science fiction is full of scary stories about AI brains and aliens exterminating humanity, but what happens if they don’t?
What if they treat us nice, nicer than we treat our fellow species now? What if they give us freedom to be whatever we want, and they don’t try to rule us, but what if these great minds just coexist in the universe with us peacefully? With SETI, they would be out there, too far to meet. With AI minds, they could go live on the Moon to stay out of our way. But these minds are willing to communicate with us, and it’s obvious they are so much smarter than us, that the mental distance between us and them is the distance between us and hamsters? How will that feel? Hamsters don’t know we’re smarter, but we’re not hamsters, we will know.
It’s not like humanity didn’t live under such conditions before, or assumed to. When we believed in gods and angels, it was essentially the same relationship and we eventually tuned them out. We love being #1.
I figure no matter how much change happens most people will still think about what’s to eat, who can I connect genitals with, when can I get the new iPhone, what do I need to get to the next level in Farmville, how can I make more money, and so on. We are selfish creatures with a narrow focus on our personal needs and desires.
I think it’s a certainty that the oceans will rise within our lifetimes. The odds are good we’ll have artificial minds. Robots will grow ever more sophisticated. SETI is a very long shot, but astronomy might get good enough to detect artificial molecules in atmospheres on distant planets, so we will know other minds are out there.
But will people change? I don’t think so. We can absorb change. We can change our opinions, but we don’t seem to change our core personalities. I know I’ve tried hard enough.
JWH – 7/11/10