Imagine the world thirty years from now. Very likely we’ll see quantum computing, nano-tech medicine, 3D-printed organs, artificial intelligence surpassing that of the human brain, possibly fusion power. Advances in molecular biology could be pushing life-expectancy ahead faster than we are ageing. Our bodies, senses, and mental functions may be augmented in ways that seem like science fiction today. These are just a few of the more obvious extrapolations of current trends.
Our predictions can, however, be way off the mark. If we go back thirty years, to 1989, and remember how we saw the future then, we realize how off the mark we can be. The Internet was in its infancy, most of us had not heard of email, the worldwide web did not even exist. Back then, who of us would have predicted online shopping, video streaming, social networks, the cloud, and many other aspects of the information age that today we take for granted.
Our predictions often fail for two reasons. First, we may be able to extrapolate current trends, but we cannot include innovation. Its very nature is unpredictable; it brings in something new and unforeseen. In the coming decades there will inevitably be various unanticipated developments: new scientific discoveries, technological innovations, socio-political revolutions, environmental surprises, and other changes that will render current predictions obsolete.
Secondly, we don’t take into account how the rate of change is accelerating. We can imagine how the future might be if the pace of change continues as it is—and even that can make us feel giddy—but we easily overlook the fact that change will be coming faster and faster. We think that if this much change has happened in the last thirty years, then we imagine a similar amount in the next thirty years. In reality, it may take half that time to witness a similar amount of progress.
Innovation Breeds Innovation
This speeding up in the pace of change is inevitable. And quite natural. Each new development is, so to speak, standing on the shoulders of what came before, and can come about that much easier and faster.
Take for example the arrival of the Information Age. The technologies behind mass manufacturing and distribution were developed during the Industrial Revolution; they did not need to be reinvented. Computer technology could therefore develop that much faster. Today, as we enter the era of artificial intelligence, there’s no need to reinvent computer technology. Consequently the Intelligence Age will develop much faster than the Information Age—as if that was not dizzying enough.
We are seeing here a universal principle whereby new innovations facilitate future innovations. I say “universal” because it is not limited to current technological progress, or even to human innovation; it’s a pattern that runs through the history of life on Earth.
For the first two billion years, there were only single cells. They reproduced by splitting into two daughter cells, each a clone of the original. Then, with the innovation of sexual reproduction, DNA from two cells was combined. Genetic changes now occurred in every generation, speeding evolution a thousand-fold.
Multi-cellular organisms led to another leap in the pace of change. Evolution was no longer dependent on the creation of new types of cells—the muscle cells in a frog are not that different from those in you or me. New species evolved through reorganizing existing structures, which took much less time. The result was another speeding up of development. The awe-inspiring diversity of multi-cellular species that we see on Earth today evolved in just the last tenth of Earth’s history.
Five hundred million years ago came vertebrates and central nervous systems, bringing a significant advance in life’s ability to process information and learn.
Fifty million years ago, mammals.
Seven or so million years ago the human line split from the other great apes. Their larger brains brought greater intelligence; the dexterity of the human hand led to better tools; and the advent of speech allowed people to share their discoveries, and build a collective knowledge.
Combine these three trends and you have an intelligent creature able to amass a growing understanding of the world, to think, reason and make choices, and thence mold the clay of Mother Earth into a diversity of new forms. An entirely new form of innovation had appeared on planet Earth.
These early humans naturally applied their innovative powers towards better satisfying their needs, and making life that much safer and more comfortable.
By a million years ago they had tamed fire. A hundred thousand years ago they were wearing clothes, making jewelry, and burying their dead. Twenty thousand years ago they’d developed farming. Five thousand years ago, civilization had begun.
Six hundred years ago came the printing press with its profound impact on the distribution of knowledge. On its heels came the Renaissance, with significant advances in art, technology and global trade. Three hundred years ago, the European Enlightenment and the birth of science. Two hundred years ago, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. A hundred years ago: automobiles, planes, telephones, radio. Fifty years ago computers and the dawn of the Information Age.
Homo sapiens had become a technologically empowered intelligence, creating more effective and efficient tools with which to modify and control the world, and using them to get more detailed knowledge and better understanding of the world. Innovation continued breeding innovation, leading to an exponential explosion in development.
Five hundred years ago, there was little concept of progress. Time was measured cyclically—the cycles of days and nights, the moon, the seasons, the years, a lifetime. One generation lived and worked much as the previous generation.
With the advent of the Renaissance, the European Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution, change came faster. People could remember the days of their childhood, before the printing press, the steam engine, or electricity. We looked back to how things were, and forward to how things would be. Cyclical time had given way to linear time.
Today, we look back now, not only to how things have changed, but also to how much faster things are changing. We’ve entered the era of exponential time.
Exponential growth occurs when the current growth of a system reinforces future growth—a process known as positive feedback (the output from the system is fed back as additional input, amplifying the output further).
Take population, for example. The more people there are, the more children are born. The more children that are born, the more parents there will be in the future, and the more children will then be born, and so on. If there are no constraints, the population keeps growing faster and faster.
Population growth does not follow a true exponential curve in the mathematical sense, where the rate of growth is a constant percentage of the current size. Other factors like health care, sanitation, and resources also have an impact. In what follows I shall use the term “exponential growth” in the more everyday sense of an “exponential-like growth.”
The exponential growth of human culture, science and technology likewise stems from positive feedback. New understandings and new tools lead to even better knowledge and more advanced technologies. The more efficient and effective the new innovations, the faster the rate of progress.
We see it today in the rate at which new scientific discoveries are made, new technologies are created, new products are developed, new social conventions and skills take hold, and existing ideas, technologies and products are improved upon. They are all building on each other, and all coming faster and faster.
The Fallacy of Linear Thinking
It is, however, difficult for us to comprehend the full impact of exponential growth; humans evolved in a world where the pace of change, if any, was much slower.
You may have heard the story of the king who was asked for one grain of rice on the first square of a chessboard, two grains on the second, four on the third, doubling each time till the 64th square would have… how many grains? A mindboggling 18,446,744,073,709,551,615. That’s approximately 45 trillion tons of rice, or a heap as high as Mount Everest—far more than most people intuitively expect.
In a similar way, we fail to see where exponential rates of change will take us. When we imagine the future, we unconsciously assume that progress will be happening at a fairly steady rate—and in most cases much slower than today. Take the Star Trek scenario, for instance, set a couple of centuries from now. Technology on the starship USS Enterprise remains basically the same over a hundred years. New versions of the Enterprise are built, with new capabilities, but the underlying technology hasn’t changed that much.
But how could that be? Would the rate of innovation have slowed way down? There is every reason to suppose that science and technology would still be progressing rapidly. Indeed, with exponential growth, the rate of progress would have become unimaginably rapid long before the first Enterprise was launched—and even more rapid in the years thereafter.
The same is true with almost every other long-term vision of humanity’s future. They are not set within a context of accelerating change. By the middle of this century, the rate of progress will be far faster than today’s giddy pace. By the end of the century it would be many times faster still. In the century beyond, the curve would be off the charts. Like the growing mountain of grains of rice on the king’s chessboard, it would soon be way beyond our comprehension—and any practical feasibility.
Our Blind Spot on the Future
Our inability to appreciate the full implications of exponential time has led to a major blind spot on the future. On the one hand, there is every reason to believe rates of progress will continue speeding up, taking us ever-more rapidly into futures that are as far beyond the world we know today as this world is beyond the stone age.
On other hand, when we imagine the world hundreds of years from now, or even thousands or millions of years from now, we still think in terms of linear rates of progress. We unconsciously assume that exponential development will somehow have given way to a relatively slow linear development. For that to happen, the engine of acceleration—the positive feedback loop of innovation breeding innovation, that has been there since the dawn of life —would no longer be operating. In other words, human creativity would have to have slowed way down, or be heavily curtailed. A most unlikely development.
Limits to Exponential Growth?
When people begin to grasp the full implications of ever-accelerating development some seek solace in the fact that no exponential growth can continue forever; it will eventually reach limits that slow it down.
It may well be that population, energy consumption, urban expansion, or some other facets of this acceleration, reach their respective limits. But the pattern we are considering here is not exponential growth in one particular area. It is the overarching pattern of ever-increasing rates of development. It is this that is set to continue, not any particular form of it.
Others hope that future technologies will provide more efficient, and more sustainable ways to satisfy our needs. Advanced artificial intelligence might be able to solve our most pressing problems—mitigating the effects of climate change, cleaning up pollution, and creating economic systems that distribute wealth and resources more equitably. Or, as some believe, a widespread shift in consciousness will bring different values and priorities, leading to a more equitable and less greedy culture.
But even if such shifts were to occur, innovation would not come to an end. We might choose to apply our creative capacities in more sustainable ways, but innovation would still breed further innovation. The rate of change would not stop gaining speed; it would merely move on into other areas.
Eventually there will come some upper limit to the overall rate of change—limits as to how fast the various human, social, and planetary systems could adapt. But such limits would not mean that the rate of innovation slowed down; only that it would no longer be gaining even more speed. We would still be living in a world where change came many times faster than today. Hardly a sustainable, or even desirable, world. And certainly not the more sedate pace portrayed in most visions of our long-term future.
Like it or not, increasing rates of change seem set to continue. Thus we are led to the initially uncomfortable conclusion that the future is not going to be one of steady development for centuries, or thousands of years ahead. Or to put it more bluntly, there is no long-term future ahead of us—certainly not along the lines we like to imagine. We are heading ever faster into something totally different.
The Stress of Acceleration
A second ramification of exponential growth that challenges our notions of a long-term future is the stress it places on all the systems involved.
Stress may generally be defined as a failure to adapt to change. In human terms, the more we have to attend to, plan for, worry about, and take care of—that is, the more we have to adapt—the more likely we are to suffer stress, with its various undesirable consequences in terms of physical, mental, and emotional health, and repercussions on family, friends, and colleagues.
Today the increasing pace of life is a growing source of stress. There are new technologies to adopt, more information to keep abreast of, new skills to learn, more tasks to accomplish. more time consumed by social media. Many find themselves having to work longer hours, even weekends. We feel overwhelmed, under increasing pressure to make quick decisions, having more and more things to do—and less time to do them all in. The amount of quality time we have with ourselves, family, and friends, relaxing and recovering from the pressures of work, is getting less, and for some disappearing completely. As adapting to increasing change becomes more challenging, exhaustion and burnout become increasingly common.
However, it is not only people who are experiencing the stress of ever-faster change. Our social, economic, and environment systems are all impacted as they fail to adapt. And with potentially disastrous consequences.
The exponential-like growth of the human population is now, thankfully, beginning to tail off. Nevertheless the consequences for food, water, housing, geo-politics, and other issues are still dangerous, and growing. This is compounded by the growing numbers of people seeking the lifestyle of the more developed countries, increasing the demands on already scarce resources.
Oil reserves are running out because we are consuming them a million times faster than they were laid down. Many other resources, such as platinum, copper, zinc, nickel, and phosphorus, all of which are crucial for contemporary technology, will have run out, or be in short supply, within a few decades. Yet our demand for them continues to grow, exacerbated by the rapidly growing needs of emerging economies.
On the other side of the equation, rapid growth in industrialization has led to an accelerating profusion of pollutants in the air, soil, and sea. Some are now being released thousands of times faster than the planet can break them down.
The increasing emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, stemming from the accelerating consumption of fossil fuels, has led to a climate crisis. Previously, plants and oceans reabsorbed the gas, but we are now producing it hundreds of times faster than these systems can handle. The repercussions, we are now beginning to appreciate, will be devastating: more extreme weather, unprecedented heat waves and drought, widespread crop failures and famine, flooded coastal regions, and mass migrations, to name but a few.
To make matters worse, most of these ramifications of accelerating development are on their own accelerating curves. Species are becoming extinct faster; temperatures are rising faster; glaciers are melting faster; sea levels are rising faster; ocean plastic is accumulating faster.
Furthermore, these various accelerating trends are not happening in isolation. They’re an interwoven set of crises, events in one area exacerbating the impact of others. As food, water and other resources become increasingly scarce, global conflicts are likely to increase. Unprecedented natural disasters could promote economic collapse, leading to social breakdown and increased authoritarianism. Epidemics of drug-resistant bacteria, uncontrollable wild fires, biological and chemical terrorism, collapse of the Internet through hacking or cyber-war, increasing systemic chaos—all are possible. Doubtless some will happen. And, more than likely, completely unforeseen events will also take their toll.
The End of Acceleration
A system can tolerate only so much stress before it breaks down. Spin a wheel faster and faster, and the increasing stress will eventually break it apart. In a similar way, as rates of change grow ever faster, the systems involved will reach a point where they too begin to crack and break. Whether it be our own biological system, our social, economic, and political systems, or the planetary ecosystem, the stress of ever-increasing change will eventually lead to breakdown.
Thus the acceleration will finally come to an end—but to an end of its own making. It ends not because we change our ways, or control innovation. It comes to an end as we spiral into the center of our temporal whirlpool—a moment in time we started heading toward as soon as the evolutionary engine of innovation was put into our own hands and minds.
Doom and Light
The future from an exponential perspective is not, however, all doom and gloom. The conclusion that human civilization is destined to end—and in the not-too-distant future—may, at first sight, seem to imply an end to the many scientific and technological advances on the horizon.
If we look through the lens of linear progress, it might appear to need centuries, or millennia, for our species to achieve all we imagine possible. From this perspective, the continued advancement of our species demands we change our thinking and mend our ways. If we don’t, things will fall apart and that vision of a hopeful future will have expired. On the linear view it is a race between breakdown and breakthrough.
From the point of view of exponential progress—which is the perspective we must now take seriously—the interval between significant advances will steadily decrease. We will see technological progress way beyond that which we can now imagine, plus equivalent advances in scientific understanding, all compressed into shorter and shorter periods.
In the coming decades we may gain as much knowledge as we have over the whole of human history. Or perhaps even more. Within a brief stretch of linear time we may come to a full knowledge of the world, both around us and within us. This does not mean knowing everything it is possible to know, but everything this particular intelligence could know in this biological form, from this point in the universe.
Breakthrough and breakdown now become two sides of the same coin. They are ramping up together, and coming to a head together. No longer is it a question of “either-or,” but an acceptance of “both-and.” In the coming decades we will see technology beyond our dreams in a world that’s falling apart at the seams.
Thus, to the recurrent question of how is it that the most intelligent and creative species on this planet has also become the most dangerous, the answer is now becoming clear: the two go hand-in-hand.
Across the Universe
When we view the future through the lens of exponential development we are faced with the conclusion that technological civilizations are intrinsically short-lived. They are short-lived, not because of any fault in technology itself, or wrong-thinking on the part of their people, but from the consequences of accelerating development.
When we think about advanced extraterrestrial civilization, we usually think in terms of linear time. We imagine them existing for thousands, perhaps millions, of years in a relatively static state, making advances from time to time, but not at the rapid rate we know today—let alone the even more rapid rate of tomorrow. But that probably never happens.
Whatever their physical form, any intelligent tool-using species will want to develop technologies that enhance their safety and survival. It is a fundamental goal of all life. They would naturally develop the knowledge and technologies that allowed them to do this more effectively and efficiently. The more they learned, the better their tools, the smarter they became, and the faster they would develop. Within a short time (evolutionarily speaking) they would meet the consequences of acceleration, spiraling into the center of their own evolutionary whirlpool.
Marvelous as they may be in their moment of glory, technologically empowered intelligence may exist for only a flash in cosmic time.
What If There Were No Future?
Not surprisingly, most people have great difficulty accepting that there may not be a long future ahead for our species. It’s the last thing we want to hear. We knew human beings would not last forever, but most of us have imagined the eventual end to be way off in the distant future. We think this intelligent, creative, self-aware being ought to be around for the long-term. The realization that our collective end may arrive much sooner than expected can come as quite a shock.
Obvious parallels exist with our own death. We know it is coming, but unless we are diagnosed with some terminal illness or suffer a potentially mortal injury, we tend to push it away to some time in the future—not tomorrow or next week. On the other hand, accepting our own mortality is part of being a mature human being. Indeed, confronting death directly can produce profound shifts. People may reconsider what is important, value love more than wealth, seek to make amends for past misdeeds, find a renewed purpose in life, and live more for the present moment.
Here, however, we are facing the end, not of our personal lives, but also of our species. And this can be much harder to accept. When we look at all we have created, all the good there is in us, all that we hold dear, and all we might yet become, it seems almost impossible to imagine this not continuing for a long while.
To make matters worse, what little future may lie ahead, does not look as rosy as we might have hoped. The increasing strain of exponential growth on various human, social, and ecological systems point to things coming to a head this century. Or rather, I should say “increasingly coming to a head,” since the consequences of this stress are already apparent in today’s world. Hardly welcome news for younger generations today who, even now, view the future with growing despondency. Or for parents, as they picture their children and grandchildren growing up in worlds very different from those they’d hoped they would have.
As the reality of the unraveling hits home, there will be widespread despair, depression, and distress. What have we done? This is terrible, the future looks so bleak.
How will we deal with such pain and grief? Will we lose ourselves in panic and terror? Anguish over how our lives will unfold as we head into the eye of the storm? Will we go into denial, refusing to accept what is happening? Or will we be able to allow in the profound sorrow over what has become of us, this wondrous, creative, intelligent species, and of this planet with its awe-inspiring beauty and diversity of life?
Many already feel a growing sadness at the dying coral reefs, the melting of the ice caps, the destruction of rain forests, and the loss of species never to return. This can only increase as the environmental impact becomes even more severe, and we begin to suffer the impact in our own lives and the institutions we so depend upon.
We’ve been conditioned to keep such feelings at bay. To grieve briefly perhaps, then wipe away the tears and carry on with life. But, as psychologists are wont to point out, keeping our sorrows at bay numbs our being and blocks our vitality. Allowing them in reminds us of what we love, and opens the heart.
Grieving that is blocked is often sublimated into anger and blame. When we look at what is happening to our world it is easy to get angry at the corporations, the politicians, the wealthy, the Church, the military, the terrorists, or anyone else we think is to blame for our predicament.
Or we may look to the past and blame the European Enlightenment when human activities took precedence over nature; to the Industrial Revolution; to the legalization of usury and the charging of interest, leading to economies wedded to continual growth; to the advent of civilization and the movement away from the land to living in cities; or to the Agricultural Revolution itself, when we moved from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle based on coexistence with nature to one in which the world was ours to control and exploit. All of these undoubtedly played a role in our present-day condition. But nowhere did we take a wrong turn. There is no one to blame; no group at fault. It is the inevitable accelerating pace of change, with all its consequences, that has brought us to this point. We’d have ended up in similar situation whatever path we took.
Recognizing there is no ultimate blame for having arrived at this place, will we be able to move beyond grieving to acceptance, and face an unknown future with courage and an open heart?
Will we be able to let go of our attachment to how things should be, our hope that things will turn out well in the end, and accept that this is the way it is for a technologically empowered intelligence spinning ever-faster into the eye of its evolutionary hurricane?
How then will things unfold? Perhaps the only certainty is uncertainty. The future will not only be unpredictable, it will become increasingly so. As developments are compressed into shorter and shorter intervals, the prediction horizon will move closer and closer, making it more challenging to make any long-term prediction.
Rather than trying to predict what might happen, and what particular eventualities we should prepare for, we should be focusing on preparing for a future in which the only certainty is uncertainty. For this we will need to become more resilient.
Resilience is defined as the ability to recover from setbacks. In this case, the ability to recover from unanticipated challenges and problems as the winds of change whip up into a storm of change, and then a hurricane of change.
Trees provide a good lesson. If a tree is to withstand a storm it must be flexible, able to bend with the winds. A rigid tree will soon blow down. In addition, it must have strong roots and be stably anchored in the ground.
The same is true for us. If we are to survive the coming storms—along with some unanticipated exceptional gusts—we need to be flexible. We’ve never been in this situation before, and have no past experience to go on. We’ll need to let go of outdated thinking, habitual reactions, and assumptions as to how to respond, and find the inner freedom to see things with fresh eyes and draw more fully on our creativity.
Second, like the trees, we will need greater inner stability. We need to be stably anchored in the ground of our own being, so that when the unexpected suddenly arrives, we can remain relatively cool, calm and collected, not thrown into fear and panic. If we lose our inner equanimity and react emotionally to every new change, we will become increasingly stressed and more prone to burnout. In this respect, it will be more important than ever to find time to unwind from the ever-increasing busy-ness of our lives, time to put things in perspective and respond with a clear head.
A third factor that helps trees withstand a storm is being in a forest of trees. They soften the wind for each other. Similarly, we will need the support and companionship of others. The future is uncharted territory, and we will all feel vulnerable at times, needing to express our feelings or asking for emotional support. The stronger our community, the more resilient we will be, and the easier it will be to navigate the changes.
Caring for others will become more valuable than ever, helping alleviate stress and suffering, adapting to unexpected circumstances, letting go of cherished lifestyles, and adjusting to new social and economic realities. We will need to open our hearts and be more forgiving, not only of others but also of the situation we are in, and of the species itself. Seeing ourselves with kinder, non-blaming, eyes.
For me, acceptance of the situation has brought with it some surprising shifts in attitude. I am not so angry at the people whose views and actions I disagree with. I am no longer so upset by the latest political shenanigans, economic swings, or social unrest. This is simply how it is to be living through the final generations of an intelligent, technological species. There is no blame to be apportioned. Instead I can be more understanding, more forgiving.
Nor does it mean I no longer care for the world around me. I still want to do what I can to preserve the planet. But now I want to do so for the planet’s own sake. Perhaps the best we can do with our remaining years is to make sure we leave the Earth in as good a state as possible for the species that remain and those that may follow.
A Blossoming of Consciousness
It also leads me to a different story of our cosmic significance.
How common is intelligent life in the Universe? Estimates vary. Maybe it arises on only one in thousand planets; or less. On how many of these do intelligent tool-using species emerge? Perhaps only a tiny fraction of those with life. But on those that do, a bud of creative intelligence suddenly appears.
Within a short time, cosmically speaking, it starts to bloom, bursting into an exotic, multifaceted cultural inflorescence. Billions of self-aware petals, seeking to become all they can be; to know all there is to know.
And here we are the fruits of this budding: wondrous beings, capable of love and empathy, an appreciation of beauty, the creation of great art, music, and poetry. We have studied the world around us, and been awed by what we have discovered. We find meaning in our lives, a sense of justice, and an inner wisdom.
There is much to celebrate about us. The question is: Can we celebrate all that we are, while accepting that our species is here but for a brief flash of cosmic time?
I am reminded of the so-called “century plant” that flowers once in twenty or so years. When it does finally bloom, we marvel at the giant stalk, holding high a magnificent array of flower-laden branches. The spectacle is made all the more awesome by the knowledge that it flowers but once; then dies, its function complete. Can we celebrate ourselves in a similar light? Another exquisitely beautiful blossoming in the cosmos.
Can we let go of the cherished belief that we are here to stay, rejoice in our existence, and live our final days with grace?
Despite knowing the journey, and where it leads,
I embrace it and welcome every moment.
Peter Russell is a Findhorn Fellow and revolutionary futurist and physicist.