Future Existence of Mankind on Earth

This is by far the darkest essay I have ever written. It considers, from an analytical point of view, logical future courses of society and technology. Several scenarios are considered, and each seems to have very nasty results.

Nuclear Annihilation

So many people have written about that in the past that I have no interest in repeating previous ideas, so I suggest going to any bookstore or library for hundreds of different scenarios related to this.

I have a single perspective to add. We have all known for ten years that Iraq has been trying to develop nuclear weapons, as well as other weapons of mass destruction. Now, since we keep such an eagle eye on their activities, it seems virtually impossible that they could ever develop long range missiles, so the USA and Europe are probably safe in that regard. But they certainly seem to know how to load up trucks with explosives. There have been dozens of examples where a truck loaded with explosives has driven right up to some building filled with people (often Americans) and done massive damage.

It seems clear that they would intend to do the same whenever they actually accomplish building (or buying) a nuclear weapon. The two obvious targets would then be: Israel and the USA. It seems too chancy for them to try to smuggle such a weapon into the USA, because it might accidentally get found. So, Israel seems a far more likely target, particularly since it is so conveniently close. So this suggests that they might drive such a truck into Haifa or Tel Aviv and detonate it.

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Israel is such a physically small country, that the resultant radiation would likely keep a good percentage of the country uninhabitable for at least five years. As it happens, a ground-based detonation (as from a truck) has a larger lingering radiation area than an aerial detonation (as dropped from an airplane) which immediately kills more people. Since Iraq wants to rid the Mid-East of Israel, a truck nuclear bomb actually has greater long-term effect, of keeping Israel from rebuilding for a long time.

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The REAL problem would be in how Israel responds to having a substantial part of their country and people vanish. Israel is thought to have as many as 200 nuclear weapons, and they have very sophisticated airplanes and rockets. It seems certain that they would react instantly, for fear of a delay permitting the destruction of the rest of their country. It is difficult to determine the source of a truck bomb immediately, so how would they respond. A realistic possibility would be that they lash out in all directions. They probably would send some planes to Baghdad, to drop a number of nuclear weapons on it, but they would probably also send nuclear missiles or airplanes to Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, and even Libya.

Now, as far as we know, none of those countries have the nuclear capability to retaliate to Israel, but if all this would happen, the world would certainly forever be a very different place.

It is my impression that the memories of the horrible destruction of Nagasaki and Hiroshima have faded too much from the memories of modern leaders. There seems like a real interest in launching nuclear weapons on a first strike situation. In the current world, with Israel surrounded by mortal enemies, it seems likely that Iraq (or others) would seriously consider using nuclear weapons if they had them.

Japan, Europe, and the USA, who each depend tremendously on oil exports from the region, would be seriously affected.


The only other current likely flash point is between Pakistan and India. Both sides there seem very intent on launching nuclear weapons on the other, but each is trying not to look like the aggressor. But, sooner or later, one or the other will see some action (or words) on the other side, which they will interpret as imminent, and will launch, allegedly in a defensive or response mode. Both sides will claim innocence afterwards.

Fortunately, both sides there seem to have a limited number of nuclear weapons, and both countries are physically very large. Even better, a nuclear exchange there would not likely draw the USA and Russia into an extended way. Finally, no great world reliance on petroleum reserves is based on that region.

Environmental Catastrophes

This is another area where thousands of books have been written. Many have extremely valid points, and we might just cause the entire earth to become uninhabitable by humans (or anything else) through global warming, the Ozone hole, destroying the rain forests, pollution or many other ways. Again, other authors have thoroughly covered the many subjects.

About the only additional though I have in this area is that we are probably unaware of a multitude of disasters that we may cause or have even already caused. Say, for example, that we have somehow, intentionally or unintentionally, introduced into the oceans, some virus that makes the tiny plankton plants in the ocean die when they each catch this "disease". Since plankton represents a primary food source for many ocean creatures, if the very beginning of the ocean food chain dies, a very large number of other, larger creatures would soon die, too. However, plankton internal processes take carbon dioxide in the water and release oxygen as a by-product. It is generally thought that HALF of the oxygen in the atmosphere is created directly by plankton. (Yes, the rain forests also create a large portion, too, but less than plankton.) So, if all the plankton die, as humans and animals continue to breathe in that oxygen, and as oxygen is consumed by burning processes and oxidation, the oxygen level in the atmosphere would drastically drop. If it drops to half of the current value, to around 9% of the atmosphere, it is not clear if humans or many other animals could survive. An additional consequence of that would be that carbon dioxide would greatly accumulate in the atmosphere, tremendously increasing the greenhouse effect, which would raise the surface temperature of the earth by a LOT! It could be that the only possible place for human habitation would be near the south pole, assuming there was enough oxygen to breathe.

Biological - Genetic Catastrophes

This is the first of the two subjects I see as globally very likely but virtually undiscussed. There are several technologies which are each rapidly advancing, and which, once joined, could very likely quickly end all of mankind.

Personal Computers

Everyone knows how rapidly the speeds and capabilities of PCs are advancing. They will clearly have even faster and better capabilities in the future, and no future regulation or control will stop that advance.

Genetic Research

Even scientists are astounded at how rapidly this field is advancing. Already, scientists find it relatively simple to clone sheep and other creatures. Also, Gene-splicing and Gene-mapping are well-established fields. Again, advances in these areas will clearly continue and probably even accelerate in the future. Even if some government will someday outlaw some aspects of this research, the researchers will just move to some other country to continue, as is already happening today.

Nanobot Technology

This technology may not even be necessary in the dark scenario I am presenting here, but it would certainly make it easier and faster. Nanobots are effectively microscopic robots. Such things do not exist today. But the technologies of micro-miniaturizing of computer circuits and the technologies of gene-splicing have developed many new capabilities of working with incredibly small objects.

In the same way that current crude gene-splicing can cut apart and re-connect strands of DNA, advances in such technologies seem certain to be able to soon remove and replace individual molecules for desired enhancements in the resultant creature. It is not too much of an extra step to see the researchers building genes "from scratch" by assembling molecules in a specific sequence to make a "designer gene" for a particular purpose.

Combining the Three

The first two of these technologies are well advanced. The third is in its infancy. The third will probably be reasonably developed in around 20 or 30 years. There are a number of very respected computer executives who are already expressing the same concerns I have about what will happen when these three are joined.

It is EXTREMELY realistic to think that, thirty years from now, a peripheral could be bought for a home PC to build "designer nanobots". In other words, any kid would have access to all the necessary technology, right on his desk.

If we want to look at the good side of this, we can see that many astounding new advances will rapidly occur. Already, companies are penciling in plans to build such microscopic nanobots (they're too small to see) to decompose sewage or each specific type of pollution. Each nanobot will be such a primitive device that it will only have a single function, so a special nanobot would have to be designed and built to break down acid rain (H2SO3), for example.

The simple cloning techniques would also be present in that peripheral to the computer, so large quantities of the necessary nanobot could be quickly created.

But there's a very dark side, too. Let's say that a very bright ten-year-old is humiliated by a schoolmate. With "freedom of information" access to enormous amounts of research data, he would certainly be able to find the chemical structure of any of many military nerve gases, or even a tuberculosis virus or the AIDS virus or the Ebola killer virus. What would keep this angry kid from making a bunch of Ebola nanobots to infect the other kid with? A ten-year-old kid probably wouldn't realize that that malady is so rapidly contagious that he and the whole neighborhood would certainly soon die too.

It gets worse when we consider adults. Can you think of ANY terrorist group with such a standard home PC? Their effects would not be limited to a community. They could try to distribute some fatal (or mutational) malady across a whole country. What if they developed a nanobot that didn't have any outwardly obvious symptoms but rather just caused all future children to be stillborn? Years might go by before anyone even figures out what is wrong, and then they would have to try to figure out why. A terrorist group could, in the meantime, have contaminated (intentionally or not) the entire earth. Maybe they would believe they had some antidote, so their 20 members would wind up as the only remaining population of the earth. They would probably be wrong, and they would die, too.

Wow! Scary stuff!

So, what could be done to avoid such a possibility? Sadly, virtually nothing! As long as we all believe in personal freedoms (and, hopefully, we always will), there is nothing that could or will be done to restrict the development of any of the three necessary technologies. Separately, the three technologies are wonderful advancements of mankind's knowledge and capabilities. It is only when they would be combined that the enormous danger arises.

And, at that future date, when marketers are faced with three developed technologies, many people will see a very profitable new market for nanobot peripherals for computers. Even then, there wouldn't seem to be any regulatory way of keeping that from happening. It would only be after many such peripherals are already sold, that the very dark consequences would become known and obvious. But, then, it will be too late, and mankind's fate might already be sealed.

I'm all for technology, and I'm all for personal freedoms. I just see such a coming scenario, probably around the year 2030, where this seems destined to happen. The frustrating part is that I cannot think of any possible way of keeping it from happening, in a free society.

Herd of Cattle

My final dark perspective is another technology-related scenario. It is equally based on some aspects of human nature.

This scenario again involves a combination of three separate technologies. In this case, only one of the technologies is currently in existence and it is still very primitive. I could see how this scenario might not be possible until the year 2050 or later.

Virtual Reality

This technology is advancing rapidly. It has already gotten common and inexpensive enough that VR headsets are beginning to be used for fairly realistic three-dimensional computer games. But the images are still very clunky and crude and are clearly not life-like. But, with advancing computer-processing speeds, this is rapidly improving, and it is certain that in just a handful of years, a VR view will not generally be distinguishable from reality.

Direct Computer Interface with the Human Nervous System

Only the very crudest of messages can now be transferred from a human brain/nervous system to a computer or the other way. But this technology, too, is rapidly advancing. I have even presented a separate essay on Medical Anesthesia Can be Much Safer that presents a non-invasive interface for such interactions.

Currently, many people are talking about and working on glove sensors and body-suit sensors to transmit body movements to a computer, and a number of advanced systems already exist. But I'm claiming that a later arrangement will not require such physical, mechanical interfaces, but will rather respond to the actual nerve impulses passing through the human nervous system.

Actually, one spin-off of that future technology will certainly be direct intelligent interaction with a multitude of creatures. We will certainly be able to directly communicate with dolphins, whales, porpoises, dogs, cats, apes and many other creatures, by having a non-intrusive computer interface sense (and translate) nerve impulse sequences.

In the case at hand, I am considering just a human/computer interface. The interface would be established in both directions. So, if a computer program wanted to create a sensation of warmth of a left hand, it would do so, not by physically warming the hand, but by supplying the appropriate nerve pulse patterns to the brain to convince it that the hand was warm.

I'm sure you can see how this direct, broad interface could allow a computer to sense every movement and even feeling and emotion of the person, while also returning every possible physical and emotional sensation to the person. If a computer program was programmed to inspire fear or love or passion, or any other sensation, it could. I suspect that this technology will be reasonably along by about the year 2020.

Nutrition

Have you ever thought about the enormous amount of food you consume, most of which is later excreted from your body, just to get the few ounces of necessary nutrients? I wrote a separate essay on World Hunger - A Unique New Solution that considers these matters. Briefly, the conclusion is that a person probably doesn't have to consume large quantities of food materials, if a fairly compact IV device would introduce metered amounts of the necessary minerals and vitamins directly into the bloodstream. Many people already lead pretty normal lives with such devices, which introduce necessary medicines into their bloodstream, so, again, here is a technology that is somewhat developed. Determining the slurry of necessary material would take some research, to make sure that all necessary nutrients are provided.

Combining the Three

These three separate technologies are great! Each represents a wonderful advancement over previous human capabilities.

However, consider one logical way that the three might be joined. A person could be placed in a silent, dark room, with moderate temperature. A direct non-intrusive computer/nervous system interface would be provided. The computer would be running an advanced VR program.

The person could then experience any sounds, images, and sensations that the computer program wanted to create. The person could experience absolutely anything! Think about this!

Imagine a nerdy person, who knows he/she is not very attractive to the opposite sex. In this environment, this person would NEVER have to experience rejection, and could go through complete sequences of experiences of romance, love and passion, with the most beautiful/handsome partner imaginable. Where the real world would have harsh rejections, this VR world would only have happy and perfect experiences. Is there any better definition of an addictive situation?

Why would a person ever want to leave such an environment? And the person would never be bored, either. By just verbally expressing, or even thinking, of a man wanting to play basketball, he actually would have ALL the experiences of a Michael Jordan. A man who is really 5'5" tall could feel the sensations of slam-dunking over Patrick Ewing. He would feel the wind as he flew through the air and he would hear the crowd cheering for him. All this, and he is actually lying in a dark, silent room. If he wanted to be Baryshnikov, or Gustav Mahler, or Edmund Hillary, or Albert Einstein, or Al Unser, or Pele, or Stalin, or most anyone else, he could feel all the appropriate sensations. He could be Neil Armstrong walking on the Moon, or a high-wire aerialist going across Niagara Falls, or a climber going up El Capitan or Mount Everest. And no danger and no massive expense would ever be involved.

Game manufacturers are already working on such concepts. Their results so far are extremely crude. But, by fifty years from now, this scenario seems very realistic.

So, why is this a bad thing? It seems wonderfully fun and exciting!

Yes, it would be. So much so, that it would certainly be incredibly addictive to a large portion of society. Rather than having to deal with the uncertainties and disappointments and rejections of real life, this would be a world where everything was always perfect. Doesn't it seem that a large number of people would soon keep themselves in that environment as continuously as possible? And, without having to leave for food or virtually any other bodily function, I can imagine huge rooms full of inert people, everywhere.

They would certainly each be extremely happy, but society would virtually stop! Unless someone had to leave that environment to go earn money somewhere to pay for more time, it is hard to imagine many people ever voluntarily leaving. This has a multitude of implications for society, nearly all of which are bad. For example, where would a next generation of people come from? Actual people would seldom meet, and even if they did, the experiences of dating and love and passion couldn't match the standard of the perfection of the VR experiences. And why would anyone get married anyway? Each would probably much prefer to be in the VR world than with a mate. And how many women would want to give up months of VR pleasure while going through the physical unpleasantries of pregnancy and childbirth?

Many more equally bad consequences would result. Muscles, bodies and appearances would have such reduced importance that atrophy would certainly occur. We might eventually wind up like the silly science fiction movies and novels where people are just minds without functional bodies. Imagine what would happen if a group of "primitive" people decided invade a country of such physically-reduced people. No one would be able to defend! I'm sure you can see many other problems.

As with the previous scenario, I don't see any way to avoid this sort of situation eventually happening. Each of the separate technologies are very good things, and are very beneficial to mankind. But, given the fact that marketers will certainly join them, to make loads of money, and that human nature would certainly cause massive addiction to such a VR world, it seems certain to happen. And, as before, it will be considered to be a good thing well into the broad marketing of it. Only much later will people start to realize that very little was getting done in society. It could well be that OTHER marketers start being hurt because so few customers existed for THEIR products and services, before anyone starts being concerned.


This presentation was first put on the Internet in October 1999.

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C Johnson, Theoretical Physicist, Physics Degree from Univ of Chicago