Eternity: Our next billion years by Michael Hanlon is a book that starts with a good idea, looking at the long term future but is disorganised and haphazard that the few flashes of brightness are overwhelmed. Hanlon delivered a good talk at the RSA that referred to the book. The book is divided into 3 related segments, the first near history, the second about big changes in the nearish future and the last part looks at about 1 billion years forward.
Hanlon makes a good point that most futurism is short term over the next few hundreds of years and that speculating further than that is interesting. The reasons for near term speculation are that we are far more interested in what we are likely to see in the future that we or our children may experience. We are probably also better at looking at the near future as we have a better idea of what it is likely to be like.
Our vision of the near future used to often go to the year 2000 because of numbering system and now as we pass it we appear to have gotten blase about the future. We also have a tradition of views about the future that extends back about 100 years. Hanlon makes the point that if you ask someone to envision the future the chances are that they will come up with smooth white surfaces and buildings that were thought to be the future that are essentially designs from the 1930s. Films like 2001 a space oddysey guide what we think a lot of our future will look like. It’s only recently that dirty visions of a more human near future as shown in Bladerunner have begun to appear.
The book goes into how robust our current civilization is which is really good. Hanlon points out that a major nuclear exchange, whilst being the most horrific event in history and likely killing millions and potentially billions is unlikely to remove humanity from the earth. He also points out to the thermopocalypse crowd of AGW believers that even if some of the more extreme visions of high temperature rises come to pass it will not wipe out humanity. Hanlon states that man is different from other animals in a lot of fundamental ways now. We cover the globe and we pass knowledge rapidly.
Hanlon talks about how our predictions have been off the mark, with the predictions of space travel being wildly overly optimistic but there having been no vision of how electronics would so radically improve and how culture would change. In the American South of the 1950s who would have imagined a black president and the tolerance of homosexuals that occurs today? The rise of China and the East would have been a surprise as would the failure of Africa.
Hanlon talks about Ray Kurzweil’s idea of the singularity, that is when electronic intelligence reaches a threshold where it rapidly expands and computers become vastly more intelligent than people. It’s an interesting idea and one that many of us will probably live to have a better idea of. Kurzweil predicts that around 2045 it will happen. Hanlon also writes a story about the event with a somewhat apocalyptic view. He also points out that the rate of increase of computation may slow and that our understanding of the brain will probably change and that consciousness may have more to it than we currently know.
The book looks at the big question of why we haven’t yet found any trace of other intelligent life, pointing to Fermi’s question that says it is odd that we haven’t given the current ideas on the age and size of the universe and the number of world’s that have been discovered.
The book looks at the current and near future and then takes a huge leap a billion years forward to the time when the sun will heat to the extent that all water on earth becomes a gas and the earth dies. It’s a sad but truthful end.
The book is almost two parts stitched together, a book about near term futurology and then a huge leap into the distant future with little in between. It’s a pity that the next thousand years are not thought about in more detail. Questions about whether economic and technological progress will progress at the rate seen for the last 200 years are not really looked at. The long term method of obtaining energy is neglected. Infinite longevity for humans is touched on but not really thought about.