If The Future Is Big
One way to predict the future is to find patterns in the past, and extend them into the future. And across the very long term history of everything, the one most robust pattern I see is: growth. Biology, and then humanity, has consistently grown in ability, capacity, and influence. Yes, there have been rare periods of widespread decline, but overall in the long run there has been far more growth than decline.
We have good reasons to expect growth. Most growth is due to innovation, and once learned many innovations are hard to unlearn. Yes there have been some big widespread declines in history, such as the medieval Black Death and the decline of the Roman and Chinese empires at about the same time. But the historians who study the biggest such declines see them as surprisingly large, not surprisingly small. Knowing the details of those events, they would have been quite surprised to see such declines be ten times larger than as seen. Yes it is possible in principle that we’ve been lucky and most planets or species that start out like ours went totally extinct. But if smaller declines are more common than bigger ones, the lack of big but not total declines in our history suggests that the chances of extinction level declines was low.
Yes, we should worry about the possibility of a big future decline soon. Perhaps due to global warming, resource exhaustion, falling fertility, or institutional rot. But this is mainly because the consequences would be so dire, not because such declines are likely. Even declines comparable in magnitude to the largest seen in history do not seem to me remotely sufficient to prevent the revival of long term growth afterward, as they do not prevent continued innovation. Thus while long-term growth is far from inevitable, it seems the most likely scenario to consider.
If growth is our most robust expectation for the future, what does that growth suggest or imply? The rest of this post summarizes many such plausible implications. There far more of them than many realize.
Before I list the implications, consider an analogy. Imagine that you lived in a small mountain village, but that a huge city lie down in the valley below. While it might be hard to see or travel to that city, the existence of that city might still change your mountain village life in many important ways. A big future can be like that big city to the village that is our current world. Now for those implications:
The Great Filter – If our descendants continue to grow, some of them should eventually occupy and rearrange much larger volumes of space. It is unlikely that the best way to rearrange that space will look from a distance just like the dead matter that was there before our descendants arrived. So eventually the large volumes we change should look visibly different from far away. Yet when we look out now into the universe seeking aliens who have visibly changed the universe near them, everything we see looks dead.
This suggests that a great filter lies along the evolutionary paths between simple dead matter and an expanding visible civilization, and raises the key question: how far along this filter are we? Evidence of alien life having reached further along such a path would be bad news, suggesting that our past filter is easier than we thought, and thus our future filter is harder. We have other clues to where we are in this filter.
Cryonics – Today when people’s bodies fail them and current medical science fails them as well, we usually let their bodies decay into nothing. For example, we burn them, or let worms eat them. But it is possible to instead freeze those bodies in liquid nitrogen. The freezing process does some damage, as do antifreeze chemicals often used to limit freezing damage. But once frozen in liquid nitrogen, bodies should stay almost exactly the same for many centuries.
And so if our descendants grow in technical capability, eventually they may be able to repair both the freezing damage and whatever went wrong with those bodies before freezing. And if brain emulations are possible, at an earlier date it should be able to create brain emulations from only mildly damaged frozen brains. Thus people today who “die” might be revived in the future, if their brains can be frozen and stored for long enough. You might want to try to be one of those people.
Simulation Argument – We today are often interested in the past. Some of us study it formally, as historians, while others explore history via fiction and games. Some of these ways we explore history can be seen of as “simulations”, intended to mimic some details of a historical period via playing it out step by step. This sort of thing has been going on for thousands of years, and we expect that our descendants to continue this tradition.
Our much more capable descendants should be able to create much more detailed simulations. Such simulations could include individual people simulated to such a detail that they are real living people who don’t know that they are in a simulation; they believe that they are actually living in the historical period being simulated. For a historical event of great interest to our descendants, there might be a great many simulations, containing more simulated people than existed during that actual historical event. Which raises the provocative question: what is the chance that each of us is actually living in such a future simulation?
Biology Replaced – Today the capabilities of our industrial economy are powerful and important, but are overshadowed in many ways by the capacities of biology. Biology has designed and can produce vast complex systems than we today only crudely understand. But our industrial abilities are increasing far faster than those of biology, so eventually industry should displace or assimilate biology. Future industry may incorporate particular biological chemicals, reactions, structures, and even systems, but within a more industry-style system. That is, things will be more designed by engineers, tested in labs, made in factories, and then controlled as centrally as is found useful. They’d be made out of materials from organized mines and trash recyclers, fed energy from large-scale energy systems, move around via large-scale transport systems, and communicate via large-scale communication systems.
If so, the familiar self-reproducing self-feeding self-moving autonomous biological organisms that have dominated Earth for billions of years have a limited future. Some of this might be saved in nature/history preserves/museums, but the distant future will be filled with stuff more integrated into an advanced industrial economy. This includes the descendants of humans, also made more in structured factories than in autonomous wombs. In this sense our descendants, and any advanced aliens we meet, should be “robots.”
Who To Influence – You may not be very interested in influencing empty space or even empty deserts, because you mostly care to influence and help people. If so, then note that you should expect to find the vast majority of people, or at least people-like creatures, in the distant future. So as long as the future contains at least moderate variety, then according to a wide range of criteria of which people you’d most like to influence, most of those people will be found in the distant future. (Helping is a kind of influence.)
Yes, if your interest in people declines with cultural distance, and if future people tend to be more culturally distant, then on average future people are less interesting to you. But you don’t have to influence average people, you can select who to influence, and the future will have a lot more people. So most of those that you most want to influence may still be in the distant future. Even if future folks are richer on average (which I doubt), there are likely to be plenty of suffering folks there as well to help.
In addition, for thousands of years the average rates of return on investments have been consistently higher than economic growth rates. Given this, if you save and invest resources to be spent to influence people later, your influence should rise as a fraction of the world economy! Yes investments are often stolen, and you suffer losses when trying to control future agents who are supposed to execute your instructions about who to help. Even so, after these losses it may still be cheaper to influence future folks than folks today. The future will be big and by you might even be able to influence a larger fraction of that future world than today’s world. This makes the future an obvious place to consider when looking to influence others.
Where to Migrate – If you would consider migrating from where you are now to some new place, a big future means that most interesting places to move may be out there in that future. Yes, you might be picky about the kind of place you want to go, and yes all else equal future place might be more cultural distant and hence less attractive. But being bigger the distant future may still contain most of the places that best fit any given migration criteria.
To get to the future you either need to live a long time, to use some sort of suspended animation such may be found in cryonics, or to have change accelerate so that the future gets bigger faster during your lifetime. All of these seem like viable options, and they can be combined. In addition, using rates of return on investment you can bring more resources with you into the future than you left with from our time. And for a big, rich and capable future, many things you want will be cheaper to buy in that future than they are here today. Furthermore, one of those things is the ability t0 migrate to still even more distant futures.
Who To Impress – We like to pretend that we don’t care what other people think, that we just do things to please ourselves. But this isn’t remotely true, and we can’t just will it to be true. But we do have some flexibility in who exactly we want to impress. And when choosing which people to try to impress, most of our available candidates will be in the distant future. Thus most of the potential audiences who meet any particular audience criteria will also be in the distant future.
In addition, not only will future people be wiser and more knowledgable in many ways, and thus better judges to impress, it should be cheaper to get future folks to pay attention to evaluating us. High rates of return on investments means that a small sum today might be enough to pay several future people to spend a lifetime carefully considering our accomplishments and contributions. Yes, one needs to make sure to save the right sort of data to allow future folks to make such judgements. But it seems possible to save a lot of data cheaply, and many scale and scope economies seem available to groups seeking to share related data together.
Incentives For Honesty – Today we often want to rely on the honesty and forthrightness of experts and advisors, but fear that those experts and advisors often have incentives to mislead us. One simple way to encourage honesty is to have experts make bets supporting their claims. Or, similarly, have them post bonds that they lose if proven wrong. Such approaches, however, require that we can sometimes settle such bets. There must at least be a substantial chance that eventually enough people will know the answer. In this context, we can be encouraged by the fact that the distant future should be wise and knowledgable on many topics. So we can try to have the distant future settle bets.
For a fanciful example, imagine that we save lots of data about today’s academics, including not just their publications, but also their tweets, emails, and much more. We commit to paying distant future folks to use that data to do very detailed analyses of a random one percent of today’s academics, carefully judging their overall intellectual contribution to things that turned out to matter. We then set up assets today that pay in proportion to those distant evaluations, and use the current prices of these assets to rank people for key decisions today like jobs and grants. This sort of system could cut incentives for citation grubbing, mutual-admiration societies, and other games people play today to create the illusion of a consensus on who is good. All by making stronger use of the fact that the future can know more, and can learn more cheaply, including about people today.
Here’s another fanciful example. Today if I sue you today for $10,000, we soon have a court decide if you have to pay me or not. You and I each pay big amounts for lawyers and preparation, and the court also pays to make a decision. A decision that could be wrong. Imagine instead that we saved lots of data about this lawsuit and put off the decision, committing to have distant future folks decide, when the world is wiser and analysis is cheaper. In the meantime you pay $10,000 immediately and in return get the asset “$10,000 if found innocent”, while I get the asset “$10,000 if found guilty.” We can trade these assets to others if we like, and anyone who has both kinds of these assets can merge them back into simple money. We might treat these assets as if they were closely tied to our true innocence or guilt.
In sum, we expect continued growth to create a big distant future, a future that can influence life today just as a big city in the valley might influence life in nearby mountain village. A big future suggests that we worry about being smashed by a great filter. Big future tech abilities suggest that we could survive current death via cryonics, that we might be today actually be part of a future simulation of history, and that biology as we know it won’t last. A big future is an attractive place to migrate, to influence, and to impress. And a wise knowledgeable future offers many ways to improve current incentives for honesty. Like a big city in the valley below, a big future can matter to us now.