From the perspective of the planet Earth, humans have existed for about three seconds. In those three seconds, we've made such astounding technological leaps that, at present, we actually have articles written in light, by electricity and broadcast instantaneously all over the globe, complaining about the fact that we don't have flying skateboards yet.
Compared to the technological progress of, say, the dinosaurs during their tens of millions of years on Earth, we’re the equivalent of a guy who shows up at a party already hammered, shoots a liter of heroin and asks if they have any medical-grade adrenaline kicking around in the back. Clearly, we’re a little impatient when it comes to getting our next hit of sweet, sweet progress.
The problem is, our toys don’t always come with instructions, or even those “recommended for species aged 1-100 million years” stickers. And on occasion we end up with shit that, quite frankly, maybe we shouldn’t have access to. The atomic bomb, high fructose corn syrup, Star Wars III, what have you.
And according to a growing number of science fiction authors and, more importantly, a few actual scientists, that bad habit may catch up with us, and soon. That moment--when technology renders humans obsolete--even has a name.
It’s called the Technological Singularity, and it’s basically the point at which our toys start to consider us toys, and life as we know it starts losing its shit. Here are a few of the ways it could feasibly shake out.
This is your most basic version of the Technological Singularity, the one popularized by countless movies and feared ever since Pinocchio became self-aware and murdered his father (I didn’t watch much Disney as a kid).
The basic idea goes like this: One day in the future, a team of scientists working at a robot factory (let’s say Japanese scientists, because, hey, who are we kidding?) finally invent a robot that’s smarter than a human being, if only by an infinitesimal amount. It’ll still probably be a robot dog, but that’s fine; the point is, it’s the robot we’ve all been imagining all these years.
Then let’s say--since Japanese scientists are so notoriously lazy--they take the rest of the day off and have the newborn Mr. Roboto design more robots instead of doing it themselves. Makes sense after all: why do a job the hard way when there’s a tool that can do it faster and better than you? It’s kind of the basis of all human civilization, and, some would argue, our current unemployment rate, but shut the fuck up because robots are cool.
So while Mrs. Yakahara and the Morimoto twins are guzzling sake at the commissary, Mr. Roboto dutifully uses his superhuman brain to design the best robot he can, a robot that, as you’d expect--because he’s smarter than the people who designed him--is even smarter than he is. This continues for a couple hours, at which point Mr. Roboto’s great-great-grand-robo-children are so smart, they decide the best way to deal with “the human problem” is to send an android back in time to murder Sarah Connor.
Voila! Humans are obsolete.
Why It’s Plausible:
The big question here is whether you believe it’s theoretically possible for humans to create a robot as sophisticated as a human. If you’re a person of faith, you’ve got the whole immaterial soul thing to throw a monkey wrench into the works, at least until we manage to replicate the human soul using a powerful lens, some magnets and the tears of an orphan.
Even if you’re not religious, creating a robot that functions on the same level as a human being seems like a tall order, but think about it this way: the guy who built Deep Blue could probably shit a diamond more easily than beat it at a game of chess. And I’m guessing the guy who invented the hydraulic press couldn’t crush a car, either. And just try to recreate two midgets having sex with a horse more realistically than your computer monitor. Not gonna happen.
The fact is, we’ve made plenty of technologies that are more capable and efficient than we are at particular tasks. And the rate at which our technology has improved is only increasing. Is it too much to believe that at some point in the future we will build a machine that can problem solve and predict better than we can? That can actually think?
And is it too much to believe that that machine will then immediately wage war on us with laser cannons? I submit that it is not.Upside:
OK, so there’s no particular reason our robot superiors should instantly want to kill or enslave us, other than that it makes for a much more entertaining movie than Bicentennial Man.
Assuming we could retain control of our robots as they got ever smarter and more powerful--say, with some Asimov-style laws hard-wired in--there’s a chance we’d actually come out of this with a willing race of slaves who know everything and can do anything. Not the worst deal ever.
Of course, that’s quite an assumption. As machines design smarter and smarter versions of themselves, there will come a point when your robot butler is smarter and more sophisticated than your puny human mind can even comprehend.
And with all that brainpower, there seems to be a pretty decent chance he’ll figure out a way to circumvent the feeble “safety seals” the manufacturer slapped on at the factory. Then you’ve got omnipotent rogue robots on your hands, and ones so smart they probably view humans the way we view ants. Namely, good for observational study and fun to set on fire.
But the real negative here is how inevitable it all seems. If you grant that it's even theoretically possible to make an android of greater than human intelligence, then it seems pretty damn likely that it's going to happen at some point. And that's scary.
Yes, you could pass laws against developing intelligent machines, but has the law ever prevented humanity from diddling with a dangerous new technology? Maybe for a little while, but if you don’t think anyone's ever going to try to clone a human, you clearly haven't met my friend "Michael Swaim Backup Alpha."
And what if China develops a super-intelligent robot before we do? National security DEMANDS an American robo-man!
Human nature being what it is (greedy and paranoid), it seems pretty clear that if it's possible for us to make a robot as smart as a human, we’ll do it, if only to marvel at our own ingenuity before our windpipes are crushed beneath the treaded boots of our metal masters.
That means the guy across from you at the bus depot grunting in frustration as he rips up today's Junior Jumble is as smart as, say, 58 supercomputers. And with some of the new barriers microchip developers have been running up against, it could be quite a while before we can house that much smart in a single box. And even if we could, we’d probably just use it to play Halo 19 or something.
That’s why some futurists--fancy word for guys who get stoned and write books using math to predict ridiculous things like those on this list--think a much more probable road to the Technological Singularity runs straight through Cracked.com. Or the Internet as a whole. Whatever.
The Internet, if reckoned as one big fatty computer, is the most powerful thinking machine on the planet. Think of it like a network of neurons firing across an Earth-sized cerebrum. The problem is, it’s the cerebrum of a kid with ADHD who spends most of his time thinking about pornography or celebrity gossip and routinely shuts down sections of his mind for “maintenance.”
But imagine all that processing power working towards the same goals, or conducted as a single entity. Although, assuming people won’t stop masturbating long enough for that, you should actually imagine a LAN party of 150 supercomputers designed to work in perfect tandem.
That’s still a long way from a robot named “Terry” who will tell you stories and cure AIDS, but the raw materials, the tools, will finally exist. Then it just takes time, dedication and a willingness to work on AI algorithms between bouts of running the coolest Crysis physics demos ever.
Why It’s Plausible:
Well, the Internet existing is a pretty good indicator. And the "Internet gains self-awareness" scenario just seems to grow more smoothly out of our present conditions than a walkin’ talkin’ robot. Although perhaps the theory would seem more ludicrous if it had been featured in movies more often. Basically you’ve just got War Games and that 70s movie, The Colossus.
And while I’m not saying I necessarily endorse this theory, I do have to admit it feels a lot more plausible ever since Google came into existence. Every time I load up Firefox, part of me expects my homepage to be a white screen with multicolored letters reading “OBEY_OR…”
An animate Internet, being essentially a bunch of boxes of electronics, wouldn’t necessarily be able to pull off any of the more physically threatening maneuvers inherent to an evil robot. Like, say “moving” or “seeing.” So in that sense, it might be a safer bet for humanity.
However, it would be able to pull off more abstract maneuvers like “zeroing the world's bank accounts” or “firing the rockets.” And as a conscious entity that lives entirely in a black void of pure thought, it’s even less likely than a robot to have any sense of kinship with the “strange, slimy creatures that scream when I bomb them.”
OK, let’s tighten the plausibility belt another notch. Let’s say that, for whatever reason, we just don’t believe in The Matrix or Demolition Man or anything cool like that; they’re just too badass to actually happen.
That’s not going to stop technology from rapidly and drastically changing the way we live over the next century. Don’t believe me? Imagine explaining Twitter, your GPS, pregnant fathers, text messaging and the iPhone to someone from the 1950s. Their Leave it to Beaver-watching head would explode. And yet, legend has it there are some people from the 50s who are STILL ALIVE.
The point being, technology moves fast, and as long as it continues to enchant us or make our lives somehow more enjoyable, we’re going to go along for the ride. I’ve got Wikipedia, the Library of Congress page and the World Library page open in different tabs right now; it’s like I’m Blaster and my computer is Master.
And as technology continues to improve--even if it CAN’T replicate consciousness or self-awareness--there will come a point when you and your various technological enhancements are synonymous. When you can get Internet access literally everywhere, your virtual identity becomes just as important as your real one.
More important in fact, because your virtual identity combines your consciousness with the stored knowledge of every computer on Earth.
Suddenly, being offline almost feels like being “dumb.” You’re cut off from a part of your brain that you’ve utilized from birth. Better still, a part of the brain where your name gets to be Kairhein_Von_Terrible26.
Soon enough you and your computer are basically one guy, and that guy has all the capabilities of a being of superhuman intelligence.
Mathematically speaking, You + Your Computer = An Android.
Why It’s Plausible:
Because it presupposes nothing other than the steady, gradual advancement of technology that we’ve observed since that one ape killed the other ape with the bone that turned into a space station.
There’s no question that people now spend a larger part of their days interacting with a computer, or with one another via a computer, than they did 10 years ago. Or two years ago. If we keep inventing new social networking platforms at this rate, we could be android-equivalent virtual beings sometime later this month.
So far, this is the first scenario that doesn’t involve us either becoming extinct or slaves. But wait, it gets even better.
If it turns out computers are literally incapable of developing human-like consciousness (or at least, WE’RE not capable of building one that has it), then in some sense we’re off the hook. We remain our own masters, and keep on reaping those technological benefits.
And even further in the future, as user interfaces get more and more complex, the world could start looking an awful lot like Johnny Mnemonic, except, you know… way better. Still though, laser whips FTW.
Sadly, the world is not so simple that “not having robots murder us all” is our only long-term concern. A full-on cyberpunk culture has huge potential for drastically altering life as we know it, even if we do stay in the driver's seat.
For example, as video game technology improves--or even reaches the level of virtual reality--we must ask ourselves: what are the long term psychological effects of regularly playing video games where you shoot people in the face and it feels exactly like really doing it. Do you really want to hang out with the guy who has the number one spot on the Blood 2: Rusty Saws Edition virtual reality leaderboard?
And what about the "have nots," who can't afford to jack into the CyberNetSpaceZone (or whatever we call it)? Allowing such a radical disconnect between the way the wealthy live and the way the poor live is just begging for a violent class war, and unlike the poor, the rich will be fat and pasty from a life spent at the computer.
And of course, none of this takes into account the devastating droughts, famines and urban squalor that would result from giving the mass of humanity easy access to a perfect, wish-granting virtual world. Who’s going to wash the dishes when they could be eating a five-star meal with Oscar Wilde on the surface of the sun?
My guess is people would spend the entirety of their lives either logged on, eating sustenance pellets or rubbing against their CPUs in the hopes of somehow melding with them and becoming fucking cyborgs.
And why not? If we’re going to be defining our identities by our technology, what’s the harm in getting some of it sewn into our skin, or wired into our eyes, or burning the contents of our brains onto a 9,000-layer DVD and making several hundred backup copies?
In the cyborg future, surgery and computing have finally come together, and thankfully not in a really gross way. Amputees have the robot power legs they've always wanted, but never use them because, like everyone else, they’re too busy communicating with the human group mind, or “metacore.”
This is basically the future science fiction writers imagined before they got all depressed in the late 40s and started writing exclusively about the A-bomb. This is mankind as a transcendent being, our tool-using potential pushed to the maximum and reincorporated into the organism.
Instead of breathing life into machines, we ate their delicious electric hearts, thereby gaining their power like a robotic version of the bad guy from Temple of Doom.
And sure, you’d basically be a talking Leatherman multitool. But multitools are awesome, right?
Why It’s Plausible:There’s no question that extreme elective surgery is more a part of life now than ever. I mean, just look at Michael Jackson or that cat lady. Or for that matter, the guy who's been breaking world running records because he has… wait for it… robot legs. True, they’re basically just metal strips, but the bottom line is they work a heck of a lot better than your stupid legs.
So see? Technically, we’ve already got a cyborg. Embed his cell phone in his forearm and give him a laser eye, and we’re halfway there.
The only question left is whether humans, as a species, will ever actually want technology to become such an intrinsic part of their lives that it’s grafted onto their bodies. And as someone whose favorite Star Wars character is Boba Fett, I can tell you with confidence that yes, yes I do.
Aside from the normal hiccups that come with any major technological revolution, there aren’t many downsides. As long as you don’t morally object to melding your identity with that of a computer, you’re golden. And even if you do, well, you’ll probably change your tune as soon as your friends start laughing at in-jokes they transmit to one another via in-retina status updates.
Downside:I guess, technically, we wouldn't become omnipotently powerful quite as fast as we could with an android intelligence thrown in here or there. And knowing how impatient humans are, that thought is probably enough to keep robotics and AI research going no matter how good our regular computers get, or how many we fasten to our bodies. Which takes us right back to the lazy Japanese Scientists, Mr. Roboto and the inevitability of a vast robot uprising.
Although at least in this scenario we get to fight back as cyborgs which, frankly, is the coolest possible outcome described in this article.
As you’d expect, each of the outlandish predictions I’ve described have their fair share of scientific detractors.
I’m not saying I don’t believe any of them could possibly happen (after all, I'm the blogger who declared it impossible to get Diet Dr. Pepper to taste more like regular Dr. Pepper), but they do take a certain leap of faith. Especially when all of the statistical evidence supporting them has been countered by cynics with arguments like “static analysis errors” and “logarithmic scaling” and “I'm a bitter cynic who doesn't want anyone to find joy.”
So what if the people with sand in their vagina are right? What if their sandy vaginas house a delicate pearl of wisdom?
If it really is impossible for our technology to mimic the human mind; if, as many argue, we are in fact reaching the end of a period of rapid technological development, what will happen to us?
Basically, we'll all die.
If you want to get less basic, experts have put forward a number of varied theories. Some predict food shortages leading to a collapse of civilization, while others go so far as to predict joblessness leading to a collapse of civilization. And of course there are the extremists, who predict a crippling economic downturn as a result of the dead-end technology market, leading to a collapse of civilization.
We don't have claws, or tails, or super hearing; we put all our points into INT. Being smart and building things is basically our only trick. Take it away from us, and some shit is going to go down.
Why It’s Plausible:
Because the engine driving our advancement is and has always been increasingly sophisticated tool use. From the lever to the plow to the printing press to the Krispy Kreme doughnut, a constant increase in the effectiveness of our tools is the only thing that’s allowed us to keep our economy going and provide for the livelihoods and survival of all--or at least a majority--of the world’s citizens.
Maybe it won’t be as doom and gloom as futurists tend to predict. Maybe we’ll start finding ways to advance in other important areas instead, like learning to not be such assholes to each other all the time.
But there’s no question that if our population continues to grow, and advancements in technology fail to keep up with our needs, we’ll be looking at things like widespread terrorism, piracy, human rights violations, destabilized governments and global environmental crises.
Actually, in hindsight, I guess this entry is more a prediction of the present than the future.
We’re already kind of used to it?
For starters, it seems to be the most likely scenario. The more we learn about the human brain, the more we realize how little we know about how it actually works. Technological advances that took months a decade ago--like doubling the processing power of a computer--now take much longer, as the level of specialized knowledge required, people involved and chances of something going wrong all increase.
Even if we do reach that gleaming robo-utopia or cyberpunk VR haven or cyborg nation we’ve been dreaming of, there’s a good chance it’s going to take a lot longer than predicted, and we’ll get there limping, with a lot of stops and starts along the way. Which all adds up to the ultimate downer of the “real world” scenario: personal responsibility.
If you’re like me, you’d love nothing more than a radical perceptual shift in life as we know it to come along and transcend you to a plane of pure light and thought, where all human minds are as one and paternity tests always come back negative.
But until that glorious, improbable (but theoretically possible) day, it looks like we may have to busy ourselves worrying about mundane stuff like “the development of true human nobility” and “feeding and educating the world before the ice caps melt or we all starve.”
And even worse, we’ve got to do it with nothing but the tools currently available to us and whatever else we can come up with along the way. Not nearly as cool as hurling rockets into space or having VR sex with Sandra Bullock, but there you go.
My advice: Anything is possible, and most of the more likely possibilities suck balls, so in the meantime let’s all make the best of a bad situation, shall we?
At least until the Large Hadron Collider blows a hole into another dimension and we can steal their technology.
If you actually read this far, you should know that Michael is also the head writer for and co-founder of Those Aren't Muskets!, and you can follow him on Twitter @SWAIM_CORP!