Spring break can get you thinking. Thinking about your future. Not just the near future, but the more distant future. And not just your own. But that of everyone. So, here are three fascinating ideas about the future, which might not come true, but, if they do, will in fact be monumentally important, more important than almost anything else I can think of. They involve nothing less than the future of humanity, theology and the economy.
Let’s start with the future of the human species. No one makes credibly bolder predictions about human civilization than Ray Kurzweil. Who is he? Kurzweil won first place in the international science fair in 1965 at age 17, graduated from MIT with degrees in computer science and literature, created a machine that helps the blind read, holds 24 patents, has been recognized as inventor of the year by MIT, successfully predicted the fall of communism and has won the National Medal of Technology and Innovation — the highest honor given to private citizens for technological achievements, awarded by the President himself, to people like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Steve Wozniak and entire companies like IBM, Xerox and eBay.
In other words, he’s not a kook. Well, maybe he is.
Apart from his inventions, he is a renowned futurologist. Kurzweil has quite a successful track record and Gates regards him as the “best in the world at predicting the future.”
So, what does Kurzweil say the future holds? By the year 2045, he says we will reach a technological “singularity.” This is a time wherein “technological change will be so rapid and its impact so profound that every aspect of human life will be irreversibly transformed.” In just a little more than thirty years, there “won’t be a clear distinction between humans and machine” because our brains will be “largely non-biological,” allowing us to, among other things, “stop aging” and “live indefinitely” (see: mind uploading).
Peter Diamandis, a leader in the personal spaceflight industry, says this means “we will become god-like, in terms of omniscience … omnipoten[ce] … [and] omnipresen[ce].”
What then will become of our other God (or Gods)? Well, therein lies the second prediction; about the future of religion.
British philosopher A.C Grayling claims that religion is now seeing its final “death throes.” Pew’s U.S. religious landscape survey has revealed that Americans “unaffiliated with any particular religion have seen the greatest growth in numbers as a result of changes in affiliation in America.” In fact, just this weekend, there was a rally attracting thousands and thousands of attendees to the National Mall in Washington DC, the Reason Rally, which was a national gathering of atheists and other secularists. Speaking at the rally, Richard Dawkins — an evolutionary biologist and previously the Professor for Public Understanding of Science at Oxford — argued that atheists, secularists and agnostics are “approaching a tipping point” or “critical mass where the number of people who have come out has become so great, that suddenly everybody will realize, ‘I can come out, too.’” That moment, he says is “not far away now.”
The trends are even starker in Europe. According to a Eurobarometer poll in 2005, fewer than 50 percent of men answer yes when asked if they believe there is a God. And less than half of people say they believe there is a God in, for example, the following countries: Germany (47 percent), Hungary (44 percent), the United Kingdom (38 percent), France (34 percent) and Sweden (23 percent). Physicists at Northwestern and the University of Arizona have actually created a mathematical model that predicts that religion will be “driven toward extinction” in nine countries including our northerly neighbors Canada as well as Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Finland, Switzerland, Austria and the Czech Republic.
Coming back down to Earth and dialing back the sci-fi, what about the future of our country and our economy? In the world of work, the period of relying largely on extrinsic motivators to get results — such as regimented time based pay — may be soon ending or, at least, drastically changing. Daniel Pink is a harsh critic of our current methods of motivating performance. He believes a system of motivation “built around external rewards and punishments” may have “worked fine for routine twentieth century tasks.” But in the coming century such a system is “incompatible” with how we organize, think about and actually do work.
Much better would be a system that relies more heavily on intrinsic motivation. For him, the “building blocks of an entirely new operating system for our businesses” nurture intrinsic motivation by promoting autonomy, mastery and purpose.
Will we ever come to see such a system be? Well here’s some evidence that it’s creeping up.
The prime example is Wikipedia. Not a single economist, he says, would have predicted the “Wikipedia model,” with people working for free because they feel driven to, would produce a better encyclopedia than Microsoft’s Encarta, staffed with paid employees and managers. And yet it has. In a similar vein, both Google News and Gmail were created in a work period at Google known as 20 percent time, where employees can use 20 percent of their time to work on any project they can dream up, independent of their regular work. And the multitude of columns in this paper demanding us to abandon jobs in the financial sector for lower paying ostensibly more meaningful ones elsewhere are a testament that this is our expectation for the future of work.
So are we bound to become godless, god-creating cyborgs working for things we feel internally compelled to do? I’m excited to see.
Sebastian Deri is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thought Crimes appears alternate Mondays this semester.