The future is bleak (updated)

As regular readers will know, I am obsessed with death, and I do not understand why everyone else isn’t too. What could be more depressing than the knowledge that it is all going to end for each of us relatively soon, and that eternal annihilation is all that lies in wait for us, whatever we do?

As regular readers will know, I am obsessed with death, and I do not understand why everyone else isn’t too. What could be more depressing than the knowledge that it is all going to end for each of us relatively soon, and that eternal annihilation is all that lies in wait for us, whatever we do? I saw a very old gent in the café last week, and he was enjoying his coffee and smiling beatifically at all around him. Was he perhaps just simple, I wondered? Why isn’t he petrified by the imminence of his extinction? I spoke to my therapist about it, and she pointed out that perhaps he was just enjoying his remaining time (how, I wondered), and was practising radical acceptance of his situation rather than thinking so catastrophically. It’s true that it seems to me that most people I talk to just don’t to give a damn about their own death. And I agree that it is bizarre that I am so afraid of dying that the existential despair sometimes almost drives me to suicide.

On the other hand, in a way I am glad I am not young in these troubled times. Life must surely be much more worrying and stressful for people in their teens and twenties than it was for me, in the good old simple days before pocket calculators. There is so much pressure on you to do this and that, so much political presence and political correctness in your lives, “free space” that are really prisons, with mobile phone cameras you can be in the public eye all the time in an instant, you have social media contributing to enormous peer pressure and perpetuating your simplest most honest mistakes for eternity. And then after working your way through university while building up enormous debts you might struggle to find a good job – or any job at all. But then there’s plenty else to worry about; the end of the world is near for you. I doubt if many of the young today will die a natural death. The things below worry me, and I think I’m rational to be scared by them, even if I am a nutter; they would terrify me if I were any younger, and probably just immobilise me with fear. Or drive me to suicide.

Terrorism. Surely top of anyone’s list of worries? I worry about being personally involved every time I fly or catch a train, drive over a bridge, or visit London, but I’m sure I’m not worrying enough. They will find a way to get to us in places and ways I can’t imagine. And that’s just in the short term. Surely in the long run terrorists will acquire biological and nuclear weapons; we only have to wait long enough for the worst to happen. So in a hundred, too hundred, three hundred years, whatever, they will lay waste to London, Paris, New York, and doubtless many other places. It’s just a matter of time. Verdict: grim.

Russia. Now even as a proud liberal I’m more pro-Russian than most people I know. I appreciate its geography and history, and therefore that they feel threats many of us can’t imagine. I can see why they needed Crimea as west Ukraine headed in the direction of even more west; Sevastopol is their only warm water port, and not a particularly good one at that. I also am a great admirer of Mr Putin, and have my own ambition to be photographed naked holding a machine gun one day. Oh those Russians. And if Russia doesn’t scare you, what about China or India? And the Middle East isn’t going to become a happy place anytime soon. Apologies to all my readers living in those countries; you’re probably worried about us (as well as each other). Yes, the geopolitical situation keeps me awake at nights. Scary.

Viruses, biological, and chemical warfare. We don’t even need people actively searching for ways to kill us; accidents and mistakes will happen. But why people would want to unleash a virus that is just as likely to kill them in the end as kill us in the short term is a mystery to me, but that’s nihilism for you. Perhaps they’re just hoping for a little local mega-tragedy. But if the terrorists don’t get us first then nature surely will; new viruses are always appearing and mutating, and even good-old fashioned bacteria are becoming increasingly antibiotic resistant. Eventually something really bad is bound to turn up. Yes, a pandemic such as the Great Plague of 2026 will wipe most of us out, probably in an unimaginably horrible way. Boils on the brain or something. Time to prep! Frightening.

Nuclear explosions. See also under terrorism. With a new cold war round the corner, and rogue states acquiring weapons, surely it can only be a matter of time before something happens somewhere. And if countries somehow manage to restrain from throwing their nukes at each other, and if mad men (and men they always are) don’t take charge of the arsenal, mistakes will happen; we’ve come surprisingly close to accidental nuclear war before. Within the next millennium it’s almost certain to happen. Megadeaths will leave humanity looking like the worst kind of survival disaster movie. I expect to see a double flash most days. Horrifying.

Nanotechnology. Now we get to future technologies that most people don’t worry about much at the moment – but they should. Nanotechnology means lots of very tiny things that may be able to replicate and might turn out not to be that controllable. Nanobots crawling around your veins and arteries scraping away cholesterol and plaque sounds wonderful, until as a result of some coding error they start scraping away at your artery walls too. Who you going to call? Perhaps we should retrain the unemployed (everyone – see worry below) as Botbusters. And nanobots munching away on rubbish and plastic bags turning them into compost is an excellent idea, until by mistake they decide that everything organic, including humans, is there to be munched on as well. Disturbing.

The disappearance of work. Jobs are disappearing all the time. Those that can be are being outsourced to countries where the wages are much lower and where they don’t have troubling legislation such as a minimum wage. Computers and online resources are claiming many other jobs – when was the last time you went to a travel agent? Robots already do much manual labour in garages, and I see that they are now taking over the jobs of at least some surgeons. What will be left for us to do in a few decades? A few high tech jobs; some teaching; creative work; maybe. Politicians, for sure. The overall effect will be to reduce the availability of work and so drive wages down. But there is a problem here that I don’t think has been much thought about: the owners of most of the computers and robots are making products for people to buy. But what will happen when the people can’t afford to buy anything because they have no money because the robots took their jobs? The whole system will collapse. We will be reduced to a nation of people working in coffee shops so that we can earn just about enough to go and buy coffee in another coffee shop in our breaks. I’m glad I don’t have to worry about starting out on a career just now. Unsettling.

AI and robots. I have recently finished reading Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence, which talks about the threat posed by the development of artificial intelligence (and the associated robotics industry). Apparently the average prediction by “experts” of when we will develop an artificial intelligence with intellectual abilities greater than that of a human is 2040. Now of course as a professor of cognitive psychology I foresee all sorts of difficulties: our intellectual abilities and our consciousness arise because we develop from  birth, endowed with genes that prepare our brains and intellect for life that have been honed by hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, grounded in the world, surrounded by other people, and with five sensory inputs (with feedback). I think 2040 is very optimistic. But I don’t see that as “in principle” argument against the development of super-intelligent conscious artificial intelligence – just that it’s more difficult than many people image. It isn’t merely a question of developing a computer with enough megaflops. Some might be surprised that I accept the idea of a conscious computer so easily, but if it has the right stuff, I don’t that it’s possible, I think it’s inevitable. You can’t have a zombie that acts as though it’s indistinguishable from a conscious being but isn’t conscious. (More on this topic in my forthcoming book, The Science of Consciousness, due to be published in 2017.) But what reason do we have to suppose that when we develop a real AI that it will be friendly towards us? Might we not instead face a Terminator-like future where the missiles are fired and machines turn on the remaining few? I don’t find there to be much comfort in ideas such as those proposed by the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov that if we programme machines with his three laws of robotics (“a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm”; “a robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law”; “a robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws”) that all will be well. Humans live by laws, and they do a lot of people no good at all. People can’t even manage to drive without using their mobile phone. Why should a super-intelligent AI, with its own personality, life history, and at least the delusion of free will, feel obliged to do whatever we do them? We act in accordance with our own best interests (or at least think we do), so why shouldn’t an AI? I see disaster down the line. And will AIs suffer from existential despair? Will they worry about the power supply being switched off? And will they act to stop that happening? And then we’re assuming that intelligent AIs which have their own goals and personalities will be sane. Humans aren’t, so why should artificial humans? Why shouldn’t an AI become traumatised, or suffer from depression, or anxiety, or even personality disorder? Doesn’t mental illness come with the territory of being conscious? What would a psychopathic super-intelligent AI connected to the internet do? Or a suicidally depressed AI in charge of nuclear weapons contemplate? Alarming.

The network of things. My central heating is connected to the web, so when I’m in California I can play with turning the heating up to 30C back home. My pressure cooker is already pretty smart, but presumably the next generation will be networkable, so I will be able to cook my beans at a swipe of my iPhone from anywhere in the world. There are already robot vacuum cleaners, and fridges that check what you put in and take out and order food automatically for you. What happens if your fridge goes haywire and refuses to open, or if it orders a million toilet rolls instead of a nice piece of cheddar? Will you starve to death? So if terrorists, Russians, germs, the plague, nukes, tiny things, and robots don’t get you, your fridge probably will. Terrifying.

… To which I add a few weeks later:

Genetic engineering. How could I possibly overlook this one? I foresee nothing but trouble. Bring on the Daleks. Worrying.

Social media and surveillance. Isn’t Britain already the most watched society in the world? Aren’t there many calls of many people who should know better to monitor the press and curtail freedom of speech? Don’t we already have libel laws so draconian that people flock here from other more liberal counties (e.g. the USA) to press their grievances? I have just finished reading David Eggers’ “The circle”; although I think it is a flawed novel in some minor ways, it is immensely readable and thought provoking. With our obsessive use of social media, our pursuit of fame without effort and the idolisation of celebrities, and our ignorance of how our liberties are being eroded, we are sleepwalking to the sort of disaster chronicled in “The circle”. China is apparently working on a scheme that sounds like it should be left in science fiction where citizens accrue points for “good citizenship” (see this BBC article for example) – well, you can guess the sort of thing that makes you a worse citizen than your neighbours, and some of the possible consequences. Scores in the first instance might affect your credit worthiness or enable you to jump a queue for a good flat. But you can imagine a society where our Facebook posts and blogs are monitored, and all of a sudden things happen like your bin is “accidentally” not emptied one week. Or you get carted off to a gulag at dawn. Perhaps we already are monitored in this way and it was no accident that my supermarket home delivery last week didn’t include macadamia nuts. Thought provoking.

And then if we do somehow manage as a species to survive all that, and colonise space avoiding the doom of the solar system, we will eventually face the heat death of the universe. Surely anyone rational should all be very depressed.

Author: trevorharley

I am Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of Dundee, Scotland. I am the author of several books, including the best selling texts "The psychology of language" (now in its fourth edition) and "Talking the talk: Language, psychology and science". I am currently also writing books on the science of consciousness and on the philosophy of science as applied to psychology (the latter with Richard Wilton), with both due to be published in 2017. Several other books are in the pipeline. My research interests are varied and I have published widely in some of the leading peer-reviewed psychology journals. My interests include language production, how we represent meaning, computer models of the mind, sleep and dreams, consciousness, mental illness, personality and motivation, the effects of brain damage on behaviour, and how the weather influences behaviour. I believe passionately that scientists, particularly those paid from the public purse, have a duty to explain what they do to that public. I also believe that we can reach a wide audience by the use of social media and new ways of explaining what we do. In my spare time I use stand-up comedy to talk about my research; a few years ago I appeared at the Edinburgh Fringe. One of the strangest things about being a comic is that I am often severely depressed (as well as anxious and obsessive). I have been on many types of medication, with varying degrees of success. When depressed I am always struck by how pointless everything seems: nothing seems worthwhile, and those things that I usually enjoy (playing the piano - even if not very well, looking at the natural world, reading, watching movies) no longer entice. My interest in things is a very accurate barometer of how well I am. I have realised that some mental illnesses, particularly severe mood disorders, are in part a loss of purpose and meaning in life. Becoming well involves recovering this purpose. I am also very keen to help remove the stigma that still surrounds mental illness. All of my life I have been puzzled by the question of what is the best way to spend my time. This blog is my search for answer to that question. In it I talk about my life, psychology, mental illness, purpose, living a better life, time management, existential despair, death (making me a death blogger I suppose), being creative, writing, and trying to write when depressed. I try and blog once a week or so; long silences usually mean I'm too depressed to write. For more information about me, see the home page of my website at www.trevorharley.com. I welcome comments on my blog, or if you prefer you can email me at trevor.harley@mac.com. You can follow me on Twitter at @trevharley.

2 thoughts on “The future is bleak (updated)”

  1. Hi Trevor.
    Interesting viewpoint. From the moment of my mother’s sudden death when I was 10, I too have had a preoccupation with mortality, but in a very different way. It made life seem so precious and its duration so unpredictable (my father died when I was 28). As a consequence I am aware of my mortality every day but as an incentive to get on with things, leave nothing unsaid, and enjoy living the life I have with gratitude. I never expected to live to 60 so never renewed my domain name for more than a couple of years at a time (to save wasting the £3/annum!).
    I also had a drowning experience when I was 11 or 12. I reached the point when I believed I was going to die and chose to breathe the water to finish the dying my way. This immediately stopped the panic and I eventually got myself out of trouble. This helped my attitude to my own inevitable death. I have already stood in that doorway and no longer fear entering annihilation.
    While my approach may seem blind optimism in the face of your realism, I find it easier not to fret over that which I have no power to fix. Go Well.

    Like

    1. Oddly enough I had a near-drowning experience at the age of 11.5 too – I had to be rescued. I didn’t really think about it as nearly dying though. On my better days the intimation of my mortality does make me try to appreciate life more, and often successfully, but sometimes the OCD kicks in and I become obsessed with having the most, best experiences in my limited remaining time, so much so that it gets in the way of actually having them.

      Like

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