I often talk about advanced alien civilizations and speculate about what they might be like. But the fact is, if you think about it from the perspective of the rest of the universe, we ourselves are an advanced alien civilization. And, with technological advancement, whether alien or here on earth, will come options for our society where we all may want to pause and think before we take the plunge.Some of these scenarios are more immediate, and if they come to pass as they appear right now, will be realities in just a few years. Others lie further ahead in the future, but if all of this is managed carefully then they all offer our species great advantages. If mismanaged though, they could be catastrophic, so here are ten unsettling potential future technologies.
10. The Genetic Engineering of Humanity
As the old saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. In this case, that means that technologies initially intended to improve life, can step past certain boundaries and go into unsettling territory. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the science of genetics.
Humans have practised genetic modification for thousands of years through selective breeding. We’ve built our system of agriculture on it, producing corn from what was originally a type of grass, or cows selectively bred from the aurochs, which are currently extinct, though there are efforts to change that. But with the advent of modern genetics, we gain an increasing amount of power over just what we can do by directly modifying the genetics of plants and animals.
But, this also applies to us. Genetic research and modification are already revolutionizing how we treat and prevent disease. This is a good thing. But it also offers other possibilities, such as the creation of designer babies, that can have whatever traits their parents might want; an activity that gets a bit close to eugenics. But, if unchecked can go much, much further. In addition to creating designer humans, ideal soldiers could be created by unscrupulous governments, or even entirely new, synthetic species of animal or even humans with abilities that natural evolution did not provide. Think superhumans. In short, at some point, we will need to ask ourselves if we truly want to be the lords of our own evolution, or if such things are best left to nature.
9. Shrinking Technology
There was a time, not long ago, when to get the computing power of a modern cell phone, you needed a computer the size of a building. This is no longer the case and as our electronics become increasingly more advanced, they are likely to continue the trend of miniaturization, including increasingly tiny microphones and cameras. Quite tiny cameras and microphones are already commercially available, see your cell phone, and work to miniaturize them further goes on. Ridiculously tiny cameras are of particular use in medicine, for example, to see inside the human body at levels unheard of to us now, but obviously, such things would also be useful for espionage. Micro-Cameras and tiny microphones used for spying are of course nothing new, but as electronics have grown cheaper, more easily available, and tinier, it’s now possible for regular people to spy on each other on a level that actual spies during the cold war could only dream about. Where will all of this end, will someday potentially all of us be under the view of imperceptibly tiny surveillance devices by anyone, government or otherwise, with access to such miniaturized equipment?
8. The Democratization of Advanced Technology
It used to be that technology, particularly biotechnology, was solely the realm of the very few that had access to enormous amounts of funding. And, even during those days, there were mishaps, unintentional though they were. Regarding nuclear technology, during the Castle Bravo nuclear test in 1954, the weapon yielded 2.5 times it’s predicted energy due to a mistake by the scientists. While it may never be viable to create a nuclear weapon in one’s own garage, it’s certainly now possible for rogue governments to do so. This is also true for chemical or biological weaponry, and eventually, someone might create, intentionally or not, a pathogen so deadly that it could cause the extinction or near-extinction of the human species. As the technology to do this becomes ever more accessible, it’s anyone’s guess what someone in their garage might do.
7. The Loss of Mental Privacy
In an age where privacy certainly isn’t as easy to come by as it used to be, especially on the internet, the one place that still seems absolutely inviolable may someday not be. This is the human mind itself, and as scanning techniques, understanding of the brain, and technology improves it may become possible, at least in principle, to completely decode a person’s thoughts.
Termed thought identification, this currently rudimentary area of neuroscience is at a level where things like recognition of objects can be discerned through brain scans. One the one hand it may not be of much use to know when a person is recognizing a mundane object like a tomato, but how about a criminal recognizing a crime scene? And, there is also the question of reading someone’s immediate intentions. Neuroscientists can see, through scanning techniques, what a person’s choice will be in an immediate situation, at least to a degree, before the person physically acts. It may be cheating to know what someone will do while playing a board game a split second before they make a move, but what about a car anticipating the driver’s actions before they can physically act? That might save lives, or improve the lives of people who cannot speak on their own.
But, this is a technology that we will need to weigh the ethics of heavily, since every aspect of it seems to carry both immense pluses, in the right situations, but also horrors if misused. Do we want a world where scanned thoughts are admissible in court? How about the decoded thoughts of one individual being sent to another person’s head? Can there ever be secrets in such a world? If this comes to pass, we’re in for a strange world indeed, should advanced thought identification ever become a reality.
6. The Indistinguishable Being
Whenever I wrote touching on the dangers of artificial intelligence, I always get a string of comments of two types. Those that fear it and view it as the chief existential threat to the human species, and those that don’t think it can ever become a reality. In other words, the jury is still out. Yet the technology marches onward nonetheless. Regardless of whether superintelligent A.I. will ever be a reality or a threat, one thing we can be more certain of is that our computers are becoming, at least outwardly, increasingly human-like. At some point, it may become virtually impossible to tell if you’re having a conversation, say by phone, with a human or a machine.
We’ve known for a while that we were eventually going to reach this point. In 1950 Alan Turing devised a test that distinguishes a machine’s ability to, well, act human. In recent years, there have been claims of computers that have passed the Turing test, though this is, of course, debated. But one thing seems certain, there will come a day, probably sooner rather than later, where machines will at least seem like they are human and thinking, even though they are not.
5. The Von Neumann Trap
The danger here is machine reproduction. Can a machine make another machine? Well, yes, we can to a large degree automate factories to make cars for example, though this is still something heavily dependent on human programmers and maintenance. But it’s not hard to envision a day where that may no longer be the case, and the programming and maintenance of machines are largely done by other machines, and they may ultimately do a better job at that than humans leading to a fully automated means of production. What this means for the employment of the human race remains to be seen, but the idea that machines can make other machines may continue from where it’s unfolding now to a much more efficient and advanced state where machines can make copies of themselves quite autonomously. This is an almost natural outcome if you think about it, it’s what life does. We are self-replicating organic machines in a sense, and this all would simply be applying nature to technology. The ultimate use for self-replicating machines is, of course, colonizing the galaxy. One could create a handful of such machines and send them out into the universe to go from star system to star system to collect materials and make more copies of themselves, and within a relatively short time, at least on geologic scales, we could have such a machine in every star system in the galaxy. Eventually though, such machines if left unchecked might consume entire galaxies, and one hopes that if there are alien civilizations out there, they have not made this mistake lest earth end up victim to someone else’s self-replicating probes or home-grown nanotechnological counterparts that could consume our planet if control of them is lost, though that may not be the doomsday scenario that is sometimes predicted, but instead a much slower process that could potentially be mitigated.
But what of another possibility? What of another kind of machine reproduction, that of machines propagating out into the universe to create not just other machines, but biological beings? What if a machine that can create humans, rather than humans travelling to distant systems themselves? Perhaps humans genetically tailored by their creator von Neumann machines for the environments of other exoplanets?
4. Nano Weaponry and the Invincible Soldier
While it’s unclear what the ultimate end is for nanotechnology and what level of threat it might present to the human race — there may be far easier ways to devastate this world if one really wanted to, imagine a colony of humans in space that decided they want to cause the extinction of humans on earth by redirecting an asteroid towards us if we didn’t give them 1 million space dollars, but nanotech itself may provide a more targeted threat. If this technology pans out, it may allow for clandestine or battlefield uses, such as clouds of airborne nanotech that can configure themselves to identify a target, cloud around them and ignite as a sort of fuel-air weapon. This would allow nations to create an invisible, perhaps invincible soldier. How would one fight such a thing?
One thing regarding space exploration that we’re just now beginning to talk about is the idea that we hypothetically could take a dead planet such as Mars and terraform it to become habitable for earth life. While it’s not yet entirely clear how feasible terraforming will turn out to be, Mars, for example, was recently determined not to have enough carbon dioxide for the standard method behind that task, it won’t have been the first planet humans have terraformed. That title goes to Earth, we’ve been changing this world large scale for quite some time now, and we gain an increased ability to change it even further the more we advance. Eventually, there may come a time where it’s necessary to change it, whether to mitigate climate change or even improve the conditions of this world and make the planet better. At what point will this world no longer be a natural planet, but one with only remnants of nature? Is it that already?
2. Brain Hacking
If you can read a human brain’s thoughts, might you also be able to change and manipulate them? While this might have profound effects on things like treating mental illness, or even crime prevention, at what point do things go too far and leave the realm of what we would consider normal as humans? Is it dangerous to delve into this subject in a world where politicians function on the concept of changing enough minds to get elected? What of dictatorships? What if an artificial superintelligence controlling the collective minds of humanity? When do we become the Borg?
1. Eternal Digital Damnation
Virtual reality technology is continually marching forward hallmarked by increasing realism. It seems the mind and technology may begin to merge and virtual reality might become a matter of not tricking the brain externally through the senses, but tricking the brain through a direct interface with technology. While it’s not yet clear how realistic that could be, those technologies are early in their development, one could speculate that there could come a time where seamless science fiction-like virtual reality could, well, become a reality.
This is usually depicted in science fiction sometimes as a utopia, a place where existence is perfect, or a dystopia even if most people inside don’t realize it one, such as The Matrix. But there is a dark side to all of this, if technology can be pushed to this level, one could also just as easily create a virtual hell. This could be done for punitive reasons as a sort of prison, or just for fun by some sadistic entity in which to imprison and torture other entities.
And there you have it, ten scenarios where coming or hypothesized future technologies might go horribly wrong. But it can also be said that the development of these technologies can be guided to only good ends by a vigilant human species. We may well only develop these technologies for positive use, that is still possible.