In 2002, a relatively unknown Oxford philosopher named Nick Bostrom published a paper in the Journal of Evolution and Technology. In a few years, Bostrom would vault to geek-fame because of his “Simulation Hypothesis,” which convincingly argues that we’re living inside the Matrix. However, this earlier paper also caused a stir, mainly because it scared the crap out of nearly everyone who read it. Bostrom’s paper described a new kind of threat, which he dubbed an “existential risk,” aka a “global catastrophic risk,” but of a slightly different variety.
Traditionally, “global catastrophic risks” have referred to everything from planet-killing asteroids to all-out nuclear war. But Bostrum wanted us to know that there was a new terror in town. Exponential technology, in his opinion, had a bad habit of becoming existential risk. Nanotech run rampant—aka, Eric Drexler’s “grey goo”—is one familiar example. Another is a pissed off AI waking up, hacking NORAD, and going DEFCON 666 on the entire world. There’s also genetically modified organisms overrunning ecosystems, cyberterrorists playing good night New York with the power grid, or biohackers playing goodbye San Francisco with weaponized Ebola. These are the horrors that go bump in the expo-tech night. And this is Bostrum’s dark point: We’re in for a bumpy ride.
Yet, are we certain? This is a contentious question. Sure, thought leaders like Elon Musk and the late great Steven Hawking have been exceptionally vocal about existential dangers, and institutions as august as Oxford and MIT have formed departments devoted to their study, but opinions remain all over the map. Trying to find accurate odds about our odds of survival is an exercise in futility. Despite this mess, a handful of consensus opinions have started to emerge. These are less solutions than categories of solutions: Vision, Prevention, and Governance.
Vision is about time horizons, how far we choose to look into the future. Our brains emerged in an era of immediacy, so we’re a shortsighted species. How to avoid being eaten by a tiger—today. How to find enough food to feed my family—today. If there was any longterm thinking, it was of the how do I find someplace warm to winter variety. In other words, evolution shaped our time horizons to see about six months into the future. Of course, we evolved ways to extend this perspective. Delayed gratification is the psychological term, and one distinguishing characteristic of our species is the ability to delay gratification beyond the limits of lifespan. Religions that shape behavior today by promising an afterlife tomorrow rely on this mechanism. No other animal can do this.
But we seem to be losing this talent. “Civilization is revving itself into a pathologically short attention span,” writes Stewart Brand in an essay for the Long Now Foundation. “This trend might be coming from the acceleration of technology, the short-horizon perspective of market-driven economics, the next-election perspective of democracies, or the distractions of personal multi-tasking. All are on the increase. Some sort of balancing corrective to the short-sightedness is needed.” The corrective Brand came up with was his aforementioned Long Now Foundation, an organization most famous for constructing a clock that’s hidden in a cave in the hinterlands of Nevada’s Great Basin National Park. The clock’s designed to keep time for ten thousand years, but its real purpose is psychological. It’s built to make us think about ten-thousand-year time horizons. The organization’s ultimate goal is to get people to understand that if you’re trying to protect against existential risks—then you need to think long term.
So how does thinking long term work in the real world? Prevention, our second category. One example is the Netherlands. Much of the nation sits below sea level, so it’s Europe’s most climate change–threatened locale. But rather than seeing rising tides as a problem in need of a quick fix—like larger seawalls that will, in turn, require short-term maintenance and eventual replacement—the Netherlands is being long-term proactive. “From a Dutch mindset,” explained Michael Kimmelman in the New York Times, “climate change is not a hypothetical, or a drag on the economy, but an opportunity. . . . [The] Dutch are pioneering a singular way forward. It is, in essence, to let water in, where possible, not hope to subdue Mother Nature: to live with water, rather than struggle to defeat it. The Dutch devise lakes, garages, parks and plazas that are a boon to daily life but also double as enormous reservoirs for when the seas and rivers spill over.”
Another example sits at the convergence of AI, networks, sensors, and satellites. Here, we gain the ability to develop global threat detection networks far more sophisticated than anything that exists today. Suggestions run the gamut, such as global food web monitoring to protect against catastrophic famines or terrorist attack; atmospheric sniffers that hunt for everything from plague-causing pathogens to the scent of nuclear materials; and rogue-AI detectors—essentially AI built to hunt for rogue AI. And while all of this may seem outlandish, consider planet-killing asteroid detection. Two decades ago, this idea seemed somewhere between conspiracy theory and Hollywood thriller. Today, it’s the “Sentry System,” designed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for “earth impact monitoring,” and NASA’s DART project, our first asteroid deflection mission designed for planetary defense.
Less futuristic but no less otherworldly, we’ve been using satellite imaging to track wildfires for a little while now. In 2018, NASA started training AI to interpret the data. After a year, their neural nets could detect forest fires from space with 98 percent accuracy. Other researchers are working on what to do about the fires we detect. Firefighting drones are already in development. Before decade’s end, it’s not ridiculous to assume that space-based forest fire–spotting AIs will be communicating with autonomous fire-fighting drones down here on Earth—or an early step toward the dematerialization of emergency services.
This kind of thinking is mandatory. Even without technological advancement, the Earth is a living system where change is a constant. Originally, our atmosphere was a delightful combination of methane and sulfur, until a poison gas called oxygen came along and ruined everything. The dinosaurs enjoyed a spot as the uber-dominant creature on our planet until the dinosaurs enjoyed a spot in our museums, celebrating their onetime uber-dominance. In a turbulent world, unless we’d like to join the dinosaurs, we need to master this art of prevention.
In a rapidly changing world, prevention might be key to defeating existential risks, but adaptability and agility are the ultimate measures of prevention. Yet this is not exactly how society is organized. The majority of our organizations and institutions were built in another era, at a time when success was measured in size and stability. For most of the last century, standard metrics for business success were number of employees, ownership of assets, that sort of thing. In our exponential world, agility beats stability, so why own when you can lease? And why lease when you can crowdsource? Airbnb built the largest hotel chain in the world, yet doesn’t own a single room. Uber and Lyft have all but replaced cab companies in every major metropolis yet don’t own a single taxi. And this level of flexibility, while now a requirement in business, is equally necessary in governance, which is our third and final category.
Modern ideas about government emerged about three hundred years ago, in a post-revolutionary world, when a desire for freedom from tyranny went hand in hand with a desire for stability. Thus, modern democracies are multi-house systems, a redundancy created to provide checks and balances. To fight tyranny and instability, these systems are designed to change slowly and democratically. Our exponential world demands much faster reaction times.
Since 1997, the tiny Baltic state of Estonia has become a pioneer of e-governance, or the digitalization of what’s traditionally been the most sluggish and recalcitrant sector on Earth. The goal is to massively speed up reaction times. Have a problem you need the government to solve? In almost any country in the world this means long lines, red tape, and big headaches. In Estonia, 99 percent of all public services are online, with user-friendly interfaces. Citizens pay taxes in fewer than five minutes, vote securely from anywhere in the world, and access all of their health information from a decentralized, blockchain-protected database. In total, the nation estimates they’ve reduced bureaucracy so much that they’ve saved eight hundred years of work time.
Encouraged by Estonia’s example, governments around the world are going digital. And startups are trying to help. OpenGov turns the morass of government finance into a series of easy-to-read pie charts; Transitmix allows for real-time, data-driven transportation system planning; Appallicious created a disaster-assistance dashboard to coordinate emergency responses; Social Glass makes government procurement fast, compliant, and paperless. The larger tech companies are also in on the action. Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs, for instance, is collaborating with the Canadian government on Quayside. In this smart community slated for Toronto’s industrial waterfront, robots deliver the mail, AI uses sensor data to manage everything from air quality to traffic flow, and the entire cityscape is “climate positive,” that is, built to green standards and sustainably powered. But what makes this project more than just interesting real estate news is that all of the software systems developed for Quayside will be open sourced, so anyone can use them, speeding up progress in smart cities everywhere.
Will any of this—from NASA’s asteroid detection plans to the Netherlands’ water-friendly redesign to Estonia’s nimble e-governance—be enough to de-risk exponential risk? The answer is somewhere between “not close” and “not yet.” But there are three reasons for optimism.
First, technological empowerment. Five hundred years ago, the only people capable of addressing these sorts of global, grand challenges were royalty. Thirty years ago, it was large corporations or big governments. Today, it’s all of us. Exponential technology gives small teams the ability to tackle large problems.
Second, opportunity. One of the central points we made in our last book, Bold, was that the world’s biggest problems are also the world’s biggest business opportunities. This means that every one of the risks we face, whether environmental, economic, or existential, is the basis for entrepreneurship and innovation.
Third, convergence. We tend to think linearly about the dangers we face, trying to apply the tools of yesterday to the problems of tomorrow. But we’re going to experience a hundred years of technological progress over the next ten years. In fact, many of the most powerful technologies we’ll have at our disposal—artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, biotechnology—are only starting to come online. So yes, the threats we face might seem dire, but the solutions we already possess will only continue to increase in power.
Author Bio: Peter Diamandis & Steven Kotler are the authors of The Future Is Faster Than You Think: How Converging Technologies Are Transforming Business, Industries, and Our Lives, from which this article is excerpted.