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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Eras of Tomorrow: Ages of the Future

Eras of Tomorrow: Ages of the Future Historians like to divide human history up into different eras, such as the Bronze Age, the Ancient Era, the Medieval Era, the Renaissance Era, the Age of Reason, and the Industrial Age. But what type of era delineations will be made by future historians? Below are some speculative answers that admittedly involve a great big dose of guesswork. We will start by looking at some current eras that may well end in the future, and then go on to look at eras that will begin in the future.

The Age of Crude Oil, 1901 to 2050

Large scale oil production began around 1901, and between the years 1900 and 1960 our civilization pretty much built itself all around this liquid that was cheap and plentiful throughout the 20th century. The problem is that there is only so much crude oil in the ground, and experts predict that the easy-to-get stuff (called crude oil) will be pretty much used up by the middle of this century. Production of other types of oil such as shale oil may continue for a much longer time.

The Age of Coal, 1750 to 2075

Coal has been a big player on the industrial scene much longer than oil, and reserves of coal are greater than the reserves of oil. But experts such as David Rutledge at Cal Tech predict that coal prediction will peak in this century and begin to sharply decline by late in the century. There are environmental reasons why we need to end the Age of Coal as soon as possible, as coal plants are some of the worst agents of global warming. So we can predict the end of the Age of Coal by 2075, and hope that it ends much earlier.

The Age of Nuclear Weapons, 1945 to 2045

The total number of nuclear weapons in the world reached a peak around 1980 with a peak of around 65,000 weapons. The number has now dropped to about 17,000 weapons. If we optimistically project that disarmament will proceed at the same rate it has followed since 1980, we can project that nuclear weapons will be all but eliminated by the time of the hundredth anniversary of the detonation of the first nuclear weapon in 1945.

The Age of Hydrogen, 2040 Onward

Although we may soon experience difficulties in our supply of crude oil, there is a replacement technology waiting in the wings: hydrogen, which can power cars through fuel cells. Cars powered through hydrogen fuel cells may be very convenient, allowing you to drive 5000 miles before going back to a service station. However, a great deal of infrastructure investment must be made before there is anything like a hydrogen car infrastructure remotely comparable to our current oil and gas infrastructure. So even though prototype hydrogen cars may soon be available, we shouldn't list the Age of Hydrogen as beginning before about 2040.

The Age of Superintelligence, 2090 Onward

By superintelligence I mean some type of intelligence significantly greater than the mind power of the smartest human. There are three ways to get to the end result of superintelligence: creating computers smarter than humans, enhancing human intelligence electronically, or somehow just breeding people who are smarter (possibly with the help of genetic engineering). Somehow I think this is going to be a much harder nut to crack than a lot of people think. Ray Kurzweil predicts superintelligent computers by the year 2045, but I think he has greatly underestimated the software difficulties of creating such a thing. I think a more realistic prediction for the creation of true superintelligence is late in this century.

The Age of Global Warming, 1980 Onward (or 1980 to About 2080)

We are already in an Age of Global Warming – but how long will it last? On this matter I will hedge my bets and predict two possibilities. The first is that global warming just continues indefinitely through this century. The second is that sometime later in the century man finds some way to stop or reverse global warming, through the use of geoengineering techniques.

The Age of China, 2020 Onward

The economy of China is growing so rapidly that by the year 2020 the total gross domestic product of China will probably surpass that of the United States. The USA is hampered by ever growing amounts of debt, with a debt per capita of 52,000 dollars. China by comparison has a debt per capita of only 396 dollars. I can therefore predict a future Age of China marked by an economic domination of the superpower to the East.

The Interplanetary Age, 2040 Onward

By the Interplanetary Age I mean an age in which humans are traveling frequently between different planets in the solar system, mainly Earth and Mars. It seems for the past 40 years forecasters have predicted that we are about 15 years away from sending humans to Mars. Not wishing to commit the same “we'll send people to Mars in 15 years” error of past forecasters, I predict that there won't be much traffic between Mars and Earth for another four decades, and that the Interplanetary Age won't begin until roughly the middle of the century.

Credit: NASA
The Age of Leisure, 2045 Onward

An Age of Leisure is way overdue. It was predicted way back in 1930 by the leading economist John Maynard Keynes, who wrote: "Thus for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem-how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.” Eventually advances in automation and robotics seem likely to produce an Age of Leisure, in which the average person has to work much less than 40 hours a week, and may work no longer than 20 hours a week. Rather than regarding this as a curse, we should regard it as a blessing, as it will give people more time to pursue things such as art, reading, education, self-fulfillment and spiritual pursuits.

Credit: NASA

The Age of Homo Sapiens, 300,000 BC to 2300 AD

By predicting that the Age of Homo Sapiens will only last until about 2300 AD, I am not predicting the extinction of the human species by 2300. I am merely predicting that by that date some intelligence will exist on our planet that surpasses our current species, and dominates it. That intelligence may be robots smarter than we are, or it may be a new, improved version of the human species, made possible through things such as genetic engineering or a blending of men and machines.

The Interstellar Age, 2400 Onward

By the Interstellar Age I mean an age in which humans are traveling frequently between different stars. Traveling from one star to another is more than a thousand times more difficult than traveling between planets in our solar system. Some space enthusiasts like to think about launching spaceships as early as the next century, but I think they are underestimating the fantastic difficulties of launching a manned interstellar mission. A more reasonable date for the beginning of the Interstellar Age is 2400 or 2500. Of course, there is always the chance that we might be visited by creatures from another planet before that time, and if that happens an Interstellar Age might suddenly be thrust upon us.

The Age of Stars, 12 Billion BC to 100,000,000,000,000 AD

We are still in the Age of Stars, which means a phase of the universe's history in which stars are abundant. This age has lasted for about 12 billion years, and is expected to last for another 100 trillion years, about 20,000 times longer than the remaining lifespan of our sun.

Credit: NASA

The Age of Black Holes, 100,000,000,000,000 AD Onward

By about 100,000,000,000,000 AD the Age of Stars will gradually change over to an Age of Black Holes. More and more matter in the universe will be gobbled up by black holes, with most of the universe's matter existing in these mysterious sinkholes from which nothing can escape.

It will be the ultimate triumph of entropy. Looking from a perspective of the history of the universe, we can put it this way: the Second Law of Themodynamics always laughs last.