We are all going to die. I mean, not just each of us individually, but we — collectively — as a species. And I’m pretty fine with that.
Activists are telling us “There is no Planet B”. Meanwhile, billionaires are trying to prove them wrong with their desire to set up (infinitely less comfortable) civilizations on Mars. As if Mars has never had — and rejected — life before. For us humans, there is indeed no viable alternate planet.
Stop worrying about our planet, though. Earth itself will be fine. With or without humans, it adjusts. It’s just our own existence on it that will be compromised.
There are four elements of our end, and I’ll be going into substantially more detail on each of these throughout this series.
First, a quick summary:
For over a century, this has been the OG of doom for many worried generation(s). Every week, there’s another dire warning. Every decade, another set of actions and inactions. There is no doubt, no question, and no avoiding anymore that Earth will crash through the 1.5℃ barrier — for the first time, likely by 2025. And yet, we are still here on Earth. We’ll still be here at 2℃ of warming and at 3. But it’ll get mightily uncomfortable.
With the breakdown of climate patterns as humans have known them for millennia, come a few irritating realities. We’ll hit peak population, face mass migration, entire cities will — literally — be wiped off the map, and sovereign nations will be permanently destabilized, and likely absorbed — a sort of “M&A” of geopolitics. Wars will ensue as poor nations lose any chance of sustaining livelihoods, wealthy nations will become poor, and a few lucky — mostly northern and less affected — countries will struggle with an influx of hundreds of millions of climate refugees.
But a few billion of us will figure out how — and where — to live, just as we have before. New cities will spring up in the Scandinavian countries, Greenland, Canada, Siberia, and on the seventh continent (buy your real-estate now). For a few more decades — centuries, if we are lucky — we’ll keep building the infrastructure that defines our species. That is, until one of the other elements brings upon the end of humans.
In terms of sheer computing power, AI will have humans beat by the middle of this century. Part of this will be because of increases in AI performance. Another part will be because of decreases in human performance.
There is no “Moore’s Law” on humans. Our brains are not evolving as quickly as AI is. What’s worse, we are also simply uninterested in staying “on top”. While we are globally discussing the impact an actress from “Suits” is having on the English monarchy, ChatGPT — at a few months old — could get an MBA from Wharton, would pass its medical exam and is able to answer questions from the Bar exam better than any real-life “Suits” attorney. Based on internet searches, we worry more about yesterday’s lunch, tomorrow’s headline, or next week’s TikTok star than our next generation’s wellbeing and survival.
We celebrate controlling computers with our brains, and long to upload (or is it download?) our brains into AI. We can’t even remember handwriting or phone numbers anymore — because we don’t need to, we don’t want to, and we aren’t able to. Once uploaded, why would sentient AI have any interest in preserving inferior humans?
The human brain has vast reserves of untapped potential, but it will remain so — for one, because we are not exercising it, and for another, because we are looking to AI to ourselves become transhuman.
We humans have been bucking natural selection for centuries. We’ve kept our infirm alive, we’ve created life where nature suggests otherwise, and — broadly speaking — turned ourselves into androids of sorts.
It starts with simple adjustments: the seeing and hearing aids we wear, the walking sticks we use, and the devices we use to remember things (see AI, above). It continues with exoskeletons (“to augment, amplify, or reinforce the performance of a worker’s existing body components”) and a long history of artificial body parts — which make us better, stronger, faster versions of ourselves. But why stop there?
Dozens of companies are exploring and engaging in genetic engineering, not just of plants and animals, but of humans. Their work is akin to authoritarian regimes’ aims to create a “better” race of humans (haven’t we learned?). Still, investors can’t get enough of the CRISPR stuff. In our effort to create superhumans, we are likely removing the “undesirable” traits of humanity that may well be the evolutionary traits humans require to survive for the next few centuries. Isn’t it “disorders” — what we today view as “harmful” or “diseased” traits — in species that allow them to evolve? Is eugenics euphoria perhaps accelerating the end of humans?
Fairly basic, fairly boring. It comes in many forms, big and small.
Indeed, the death-toll from wars has decreased, so we’ve become blazé about it. Even the daily blooodbath of gun violence, and a yearly death-toll in the hundreds of thousands doesn’t phase us anymore. And nuclear war?The doomsday clock has been approaching midnight for decades now, and we’re still here, so why worry?
What we are missing so far, however, is that new levels of warfare will be a result of the previous three, and the inevitability of global conflict rises with every day that the lessons of the last one are forgotten. Climate change leads to war; war leads to even higher emissions; these emissions accelerate the climate catastrophe — a vicious cycle. AI, which requires a lot more computing power and thus also generates more emissions, allows us to wage war at new levels, and with even less of a guilty conscience. Pressing a button in a distant war-room is much easier than looking someone in the eyes and pulling the trigger. And finally, countries will disagree, and ultimately go to war due to their differing views on genetic engineering. No matter why it happens, we know World War III will be the final one.
Yuval Harari gives humans another few hundred years, max. That sounds about right. We are changing and destroying the world around us faster than our DNA is naturally able to adapt. We are accelerating our collective demise. While individual and group efforts abound to slow this reality, they won’t stop the collective.
Faucalt believed that man is finite. So we are. Rather than lament about this, however, we should make the most of our remaining few decades, or centuries. There is amazing opportunity and happiness to be found, once we have freed ourselves of the shackles of attempted species immortality.
Lukas has been thinking about what’s next for us humans for over a decade. He is the author of four books as well as countless articles and white-papers, and lectures at the University of St. Gallen, TU Berlin, and New York University. Ironically, images in this series are created using Dall-E.