I just viewed a video clip from a recent conference sponsored by Singularity University. A question was asked by a member of the audience, as follows: can we have meaningful lives when society no longer needs us? This is a brilliant question that speaks to a whole variety of issues. Such a topic is of sufficient importance to support a whole range of research and postgraduate degrees.
One of the reasons I find this question so fascinating is that it parallels a question that was being asked in the 1990s, in reference to life after the turn of the millennium. Throughout the 1990s, which was still very early on in the technology revolution that we are living in today, I remember reading about predicted social issues for the year 2000 and beyond. Before the turn of the century, a number of pundits noted that a key field of interest, and as such a huge potential market, would be related to “free time”. It was predicted that people would have more and more available time for non-work-related activities. This would be due to the power of technology to free people from mundane and time-consuming tasks. There was a great deal of discussion about the entertainment industry and how it would fill people’s spare time. In fact, it was predicted that the entertainment industry would dwarf almost every other market.
The question asked by the audience member relating to our future value to society, relates to the next step after the creation of a world where people are no longer solely focused on pure survival. In the not-so-distant past, it was necessary to have a large population of producers to farm the fields and more recently manufacture goods that we use on a day-to-day basis. As these tasks require less and less human labor, and as entertainment becomes less and less expensive [such as via the Internet], people’s primary activity becomes far more one of consumption rather than production. As time goes on, more and more people will become almost entirely consumers. The obvious question is from where will they have the means and funds to continue to consume without producing? This question is presently challenging many anthropologists and sociologists, as well as population scientists.
In parallel to this conversion of our society into one that primarily consumes, it seems that the cost of day-to-day items and services will substantially drop. I’ve spoken in the past about the potential of 3-D printers to convert inexpensive batches of chemicals into the kind of food that we regularly eat today. With a basic batch of amino acids and lipids, a 3-D printer will one day be able to construct a steak, which will be indistinguishable from the rib-eyes that we enjoy today. The clear difference will be that the new age steak will not require a cow. In fact, the entire industry of meat production will no longer be necessary. Milk will also be generated from an equivalent 3-D manufacturing system. What happens when the cost of feeding an individual drops to pennies a day. What happens when a couple of hundred dollars a year, i.e. less than a dollar a day, is enough to support all of the needs of a family?
Energy may still cost a great deal of money. But it is more likely that the cost of energy will also come down over time. Eventually, we will manage to create controlled fusion at which point, the cost per kilowatt will drop dramatically. Housing costs will drop over time as new materials are created that can provide all of the necessary protection against the elements yet cost far less than wood and brick. Basically, I would be surprised if it takes longer than a century to make the cost of living almost null.
Would technology still be expensive in this future world? In 100 years from now, it probably will still cost a pretty penny to buy the latest Apple iPad. And yes, I realize that in 100 years from now, even Apple will probably charge less for an iPad ;). The point is that technology will become so ubiquitous and so integrated into us, that the idea of buying an external device to provide us with functionality that we previously did not have, will be totally outdated. Our effectively cyborg great-grandchildren will have access to everything that can be imagined at very minimal cost.
I find it fascinating that the ancient Jewish texts actually already planned for such an excessive free-time scenario. In the Talmud, the great rabbis discuss a Messianic world where our day-to-day needs will be fully provided for. So what will the Jews of the future do with their new spare time? They will do what Jews have done for the last many millennia – they will teach and learn. The Talmud specifically states that Jews will occupy their time with the learning of the holy Scriptures and Jewish law. But I think it is fair to extrapolate a bit and say that the Jewish view of paradise on this world is a time when we will be able to wholly devote ourselves to mindfulness. I don’t think it matters so much whether we occupy ourselves with philosophy, mathematics, religious studies, or even the very physical engineering of new types of devices that may carry us out into the galaxy. The point is that the human mind will find activities with which to occupy itself. In this new world, every person will be able to focus on their constructive imaginations. No longer will so many people need to be totally devoted to the basic survival issue of where to find their next meal.
I do realize that, most likely, many people will get lost along the way. It is not too hard to imagine a world in which a great part of the population will become wholly consumed with pleasure-seeking and even criminal activities. There is nothing wrong with seeking out pleasure in between discussing Plato and Maimonides. The key will be to find a balance. Of course, one could argue that neither Plato nor Playboy will be any more of value, at the point that any human being is effectively replaceable by technology. I envision a world where individuals will have to decide whether their own defined value is enough to sustain them. The future world will be one where self actualization will very possibly be the only justification for our existence. As long as we do not harm each other, people will probably be free to self-actualize in any way that they wish.
If within the next century or two we also conquer death, we will then have manifested the reality described in the book of Genesis. When we are effectively immortal, we will have eaten both from the fruits of the tree of knowledge and the tree of life. In the very first chapters of the Old Testament, this is seen as a very dire situation. Considering that the Bible does not prescribe any solution to this problematic combination of immortality and endless knowledge, I guess we will be on our own to find the best way to be.
The excellent question posed by the member of the audience is one that will define the entire human race in the years to come. Many of us will be “lucky” enough to still be mortal and die off before having to deal with this existential conundrum. But for our children and definitely our grandchildren who will be born into a world with few limits, our descendents will definitely have to create a path that we, their ancestors, always thought was mythical.
Thanks for listening