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Dusting off the Crystal Ball

December 06, 2012

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Dusting off the Crystal Ball

Predictions are in the air, or at least in the dwindling little pocket of air from which I breathe, down here in my diving bell a thousand feet beneath the surface of Liberalism Ocean.

Nassim Taleb, the Black Swan bloke, has a new book out; Nate Silver, who is famous for reasons I haven’t bothered to follow but which have something to do with predicting the recent election’s results, likewise; and there are stirrings in the high-IQ end of the dissident-conservative blogosphere.

All right, I’ll get in the game. I have a prediction.

This won’t be the kind of prediction from which you can make money. I have nothing to tell you about the fortunes of Apple stock, the Republican Party, or the New York Jets. As George Gershwin would have said: That’s not the kind of guy I’m.

No, I’m going for the big picture—the future of the human race. And yes, I’ll get to a prediction.

“All I see in the crystal ball are broken images.”

First, though, let’s enumerate the top ten possibilities. I’ll list them from most to least dire. All are, in my opinion, perfectly possible.

1. Extinction. Homo sap. may not have any future at all. At least one perfectly sane and scientifically well-informed person—he was president of the Royal Society!—says he thinks the curtain is about to fall, and he numbers the ways: bio-error/terror, physicists’ curiosity, runaway nano-gadgets, garage nukes, and a dozen others. (Sir Martin Rees has been elevated to the peerage since I wrote that review. He is now Lord Rees. Much good may that do him when the stress-energy tensor blows a gasket.)

2. Through the Bottleneck. Among the calamities Lord Rees ponders are some—biological, cosmological—that could leave a small human remnant. Assuming some of the remnant is capable of reproduction, the human story then starts over again from a tiny base population of survivors with a very limited menu of genetic variation—a “genetic bottleneck.” As awful as it sounds, this happens a lot in biology and in fact may have happened to our own precious selves in the remote past.

3. The Singularity. The main idea of Singularitarianism is that at some point in the future we shall be sharing living space with creatures (via bioengineering) or gadgets (via comp-sci advances) blessed with Artificial Intelligence superior to ours—“AI+” for short. Since we cannot, by definition, follow the thought processes of AI+, we can have no clue what will happen next. Perhaps the AI+ things will create AI++, which will create AI+++. Perhaps they’ll be full of warm filial piety toward us; or perhaps they’ll domesticate, or enslave, or eat us. Or perhaps they’ll tolerate us so long as we don’t annoy them. I was a Singularity skeptic—a Continuitarian—for a long time, but recent advances are giving me pause.

4. Orwellistan. “A boot stamping on a human face—forever.”

Could properly organized totalitarianism be a stable state for the whole world? I don’t see why not. The North Koreans have kept it going for 64 years, almost an entire human lifetime in North Korea.  And it’s what elites everywhere want.


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