Magazine article The Futurist

Doomsday Scenarios How the World May Go on without Us

Magazine article The Futurist

Doomsday Scenarios How the World May Go on without Us

Article excerpt

Homo sapiens may receive its evolutionary pink slip by 2050, according to authors tracking "spikes" in technology and population.

Apocalyptic futures may be in store by the mid-twenty-first century. A combination of technological change and population growth could obliterate humankind--or replace it with a superior species.

At an international futures conference in Perth, Australia, in 2000, science writer Damien Broderick described a view of the future drawn from his book, The Spike. He predicted that by 2030 to 2050 developments in computers, genetics, and nanotechnology will produce a period of high-speed change on a scale that humans have never experienced.

The "spike" could result in human obsolescence, transformation, or transcendence. It could mean, as computing power continues to obey Moore's Law and doubles approximately every 18 months, the rapid emergence of superintelligent, conscious machines that leave humanity in their evolutionary wake. Or it could result in bionically and genetically enhanced superbeings who are effectively immortal.

Broderick has an optimistic view of the spike, arguing that things are likely to turn out for the best because there will be neither a reason nor the means to harness the new technologies to exploit and oppress. But he admits it is not clear that "there's any path at all for us mere humans on the far side of the Spike's looming wall."

One Is Not Enough

A second spike is looming within the same time frame--a spike in the population of a plague species, Homo sapiens. Our numbers, having grown exponentially, collapse when humans overwhelm the capacity of the earth's habitat to support us. In his book, The Spirit in the Gene, Reg Morrison argues that the population spike will erase humanity. He says evolution ensures this outcome for any species that becomes too dominant and reduces the earth's biological diversity.

With another 30 to 50 years of population growth (despite the declining birthrate), and the accelerating rate of energy and resource consumption, we seem to be headed for "an environmental coup de grace" in the second half of the twenty-first century, according to Morrison. "We are facing precisely the same conclusion that all mammal plagues eventually face--a hormonally orchestrated autodecline followed by an environmental backlash that cleans up most of the stragglers," he writes. Populations of rodents, including mice, voles, and lemmings, sometimes show this boom-and-bust pattern.

Both spikes have intriguing theological dimensions. Broderick's spike of "technological singularity" could result in worship of the event itself: "While I continue to insist that religion, regarded literally, is the wrong interpretive filter to place over the Singularity, the iconographies of a millennium of richly embroidered sacred art do yield a suitable set of metaphors for the strictly unimaginable," he writes. The religious dimension might take an alternative form of stellar intelligences and cosmic-scale engineering--of other powers in the cosmos, even now, "who have passed through the veil of the Spike," their physics being "to ours as ours is to Aristotle's, or an ant's."

Morrison's population spike has theology at its core. He argues that our genes have bequeathed us a self-destruct mechanism: our spirituality. The tendency to spiritualize our existence has been crucial to our success as a species, but will be lethal in the long run, he argues. "Only our obsessive yearning for significance, spirituality, and the supernatural could have blinded us to the dangers of overpopulation and environmental degradation and prevented us from taking sufficient precautions to avoid it," writes Morrison. He notes that he is in the curious position where, for his thesis to be true, it must be generally disbelieved.

The two spikes share a symmetry: Both are the result of exponential growth--one in technological power, the other in human numbers--and both are forecast to occur at about the same point in the future. …

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