Pushing the Envelope of Human Existence
Having been born and raised on a small rural farm in South Dakota, I grew up with a very narrow perspective of the rest of the world.
With only two TV channels and three radio stations to pick from, our news options were very limited.
As a teenager, watching the nightly newscasts on television, I was thoroughly amazed at all of the things happening around the world, and yet none of them were happening near me.
I truly felt like I was living in a bubble, far away from all the excitement.
But I wasn’t alone. People everywhere were still getting used to the new technology, and limited TV and radio access wasn’t just a South Dakota issue.
For the most part, I didn’t know what I was missing, so inside my bubble were all the families and neighbors I hung out with. Much like me, they didn’t know what they were missing.
In understanding “bubble cultures,” there are micro-bubbles like the farm community I was raised in, and macro-bubbles that affect entire countries, planets, or civilizations as a whole.
Few people realize that humanity today is being confined to a macro-bubble. Our limited grasp of today’s technology, coupled with our limited understanding of the world, and just the limitations of being human, blind us from seeing our true potential.
In short, we’re living our lives as bubble people, limiting our view of the world to what we know, what we can prove, and what “the experts” say is possible.
But the bubble we’re in is not permanently confining or unbreakable. Over the past few centuries we have indeed been stretching the size and shape of our bubble, but even though it’s far bigger today, we still have a long ways to go to see what’s on the outside.
So is there an “outside” to our bubble?
The short answer is yes. In fact, the most exciting areas of the future will happen outside our current bubble. For this reason, I’d like to take you on a short journey to the other side of the bubble and an expansive view of human existence in the years ahead.
Eight Dimensions – Pushing the Envelope of Human Existence
In the past, I’ve talked about how technological unemployment is a double-edged sword. On one hand people’s jobs are being automated out of existence, but at the same time, we’re freeing up human capital.
It’s rather preposterous to think that we’re somehow going to run out of work in the world, but having jobs aligned with the work to be done is another matter entirely.
I’ve also talked about the “Laws of Exponential Capabilities,” where the technologies being developed will give us exponentially greater capabilities. When this occurs, accomplishments of the past will seem tiny in comparison to accomplishments in the future.
Many of the columns I’ve written pertain to idea of catalytic industries like the Internet of Things, flying drones, big data, driverless cars, smart homes, health tech, 3d printing, VR, swarmbots, and sensors that will be creating many of the jobs in the future.
But going beyond today’s seedling industries are any number of human endeavors capable of creating entire new playgrounds for business, industry, and human accomplishment.
Stepping into this topic further, I’ve framed my thinking around the eight dimensions for expanding the bubble of human existence.
For those of you who think three-dimensionally, expanding our bubble is like pushing on ever facet of an octahedron, growing the size, reach, and capabilities in each of the X, Y, and Z axes.
The labels I’ve assigned to each of these dimensions include the following, and I’ll explain them in more detail below:
Are humans really destined to master the universe? If so, what have we done to deserve this esteemed position?
There are many who would say that the world would be a far better place without people.
If we started making a list of all of the negative attributes humans possess, it would begin with words like dirty, dangerous, self-centered, moody, greedy, unreliable, hateful, destructive, self-centered, and perhaps ten thousand other descriptors that paint a very dim picture of who we are and what we’ve become.
For this reason, I’d like to propose the first dimension for expanding human existence – “the honorable human.”
1. The Honorable Human
Before we can ever be entrusted to receive the venerable keys to the universe, we must first prove we’re worthy of this grand undertaking?
While we have achieved great things in the past, the mysteries that remain locked “behind door number three,” will make our cumulative achievements to date appear as the tip of a needle in a universe filled with an endless supply of needles.
So what constitutes an honorable human?
Is an honorable human someone with great integrity, loyalty, and trustworthiness that you can always count on to do the right thing? Is it perhaps an evolved form of the transhuman that will arise from the singularity? Will it be a form of machine intelligence that enables us to take the higher road in every adversarial situation?
How will we ever know what attributes a person or persons will need to be deserving of this privilege? Does it have to be all of mankind or can it just be a select few?
The irony is that the people we are most likely to entrust with our future are those with great courage, strength, ethics, and willing to tackle life’s greatest challenges. However, in today’s world, one person’s greatest hero is often someone else’s greatest enemy.
We find ourselves divided by righteous differences, and these differences can lead to some very destructive consequences.
Righteous destruction is still destruction.
Similarly, a righteous conflict, battle, or killing is still a conflict, battle, or killing. Does an evil act that comes from good intentions somehow nullify the results?
At the same time, will we ever value someone without strength, conviction, drive, and passion? Probably not.
For this reason, our quest for expanding the bubble of human existence begins with a still indefinable goal of unlocking the honorable human in each of us.
What is it? What will these look like? How do we get there?
2. Extending Human Awareness
In 1998, a column I wrote for The Futurist Magazine took issue with the state of computer displays. Viewing the vast and growing Internet through a little square box on our desk was, in my opinion, the equivalent of watching a baseball game through a knothole.
As a solution, I proposed we experiment with a variety of different shapes for displays starting with my favorite, a spherical display, well suited for viewing global activities such as travel itineraries, animal migrations, pollution flows, and weather patterns.
Even today, fifteen years later, we still find ourselves viewing the online world with primitive 2-dimensional flat displays. So when I heard about one satellite company’s vision for developing a real-time globe, with up to the minute live video feeds of virtually every square inch on earth, naturally it caught my attention.
It wasn’t just the spherical displays or video feeds of the earth that peaked my imagination, but the overall convergence of data. The number of sensory devices monitoring the earth is about to explode, and it occurred to me that a cross-pollination of data flows would radically alter our way of life.
- Satellites monitoring the earth will grow from thousands to millions.
- Embedded sensors will grow from billions to trillions.
- Street cams, smartphones, wearables, and other connected “things” will grow from billions to trillions.
- The amount of data generated will burst from petabytes, to exabytes, to zettabytes, to yottabytes.
Our growing number of data-generating devices will vividly increase awareness of the world around us. Increased awareness improves our ability to predict, and superior predictability will lead to greater control. Super awareness gives us the ability to pinpoint critical inflection points, and make changes before something serious happens.
3. Extending Human Purpose
We are born as a baby, struggle our entire life with everything from finding food to eat, homes to live in, educating ourselves to gain more understanding, staying healthy, making friends and relationships, raising a family, earning a living, and then we die.
If we have more accomplishments in life, earn more money, have more friends, raise a bigger family, and somehow do everything better than anyone else, we will still eventually die. Right?
In a world teaming with 8.7 million different life forms, how do humans fit in?
Every past civilization, with their manmade structures, machines, systems, and cultures, has eventually succumbed to Mother Nature. Plants, animals, bacteria, and fungi have methodically removed every trace of what they left behind.
Are human accomplishments just a stepping-stone to what comes next?
We live in a world driven by prerequisites. A machinist needs to understand a single-point lathe operation before he or she can advance to multi-axial milling. Engineers need to understand the concepts of mechanical stress and strain before they start bending a cantilever beam. Metallurgists need to understand thermodynamics before they attempt phase transformations in solids. Physicists need to understand quantum mechanics before they can understand a standard model for particle physics. Mathematicians need to understand nonlinear differential equations before they can understand strange attractors.
Are all our accomplishments just stepping-stones to something else that we don’t know or understand yet?
Does the fact that we can ask questions like these, ponder the unponderable, think the unthinkable, and accomplish things that no other species can accomplish, somehow give us a higher purpose?
If we limit our thinking to solving past problems, we can only see a very narrow spectrum of our larger purpose. But who gets to decide what that is, and how will that expand over time?
4. Extending Human Mastery
In my column, “In Search of Anomaly Zero,” I describe how we can begin to control the forces of nature and circumvent major disasters long before they happen. Once we can detect the earliest micro change in conditions and craft a timeline for an impending disaster, we will be able to create response mechanisms capable of mitigating whatever forces are in play.
Human mastery does not only give us the abilities to master the forces of nature, but every law of physics, every human condition, and every exception to every rule.
But disasters are not inevitable. Neither are illnesses, human aging, or even death.
So can we imagine something better?
If we can do a better job of controlling the negative aspects of life, and even extend it to enriching the positive aspects, how will we ever know if we are managing things better?
The opportunities for extending human mastery are endless, and a critical piece for extending the boundaries of human existence.
5. Extending Human Reach
Many people think we live on an over populated planet. But at the same time, we also live in a very under populated universe.
The option for extending the reach of humanity throughout the universe is seemingly limitless, and yet our “reach” cannot be confined to outer space.
We also know very little about inner space, such as what lies inside our planet, inside our atoms, and inside our emotions.
In a universe that is over a trillion times greater in length than the combined distance traveled by all humans in all history, we will not overcome this challenge anytime soon.
6. Extending Human Potential
Google’s Director of Engineering, Ray Kurzweil, has predicted that we will reach a technological singularity by 2045, and science fiction writer Vernor Vinge is betting on 2029, a date that is ironically on the hundredth anniversary of the greatest stock market collapse in human history.
But where the 1929 crash catapulted us backwards into a more primitive form of human chaos, the singularity promises to catapult us forward into a future form of human enlightenment.
Cloaked in an air of malleable mystery, Hollywood has taken license to cast the singularity as everything from the ultimate boogeyman to the penultimate savior of humanity.
In 2013, consumer genomics company 23andMe received a patent for a designer baby kit that would allow parents to pick and choose attributes for their soon-to-be-conceived kids. This was prior to the FDA cracking down on the claims they were making.
But they were not the first. The Fertility Institutes’ clinic in Los Angeles delivered the first designer baby back in 2009.
Designer babies have long been a cocktail party discussion topic with the understanding that the era of “super babies” will soon be upon us, with the prospects of creating bigger, faster, stronger humans.
Will these so-called super-babies grow up to become super-humans?
People like Vernor Vinge and Ray Kurzweil have begun focusing in on the exponential growth of artificial intelligence, as a Moore’s Law type of advancement. This has led to an entire new field of study called transhumanism with many speculating on the next iteration of humankind and how it will be exponentially more advanced than people today.
What are the true limits to human potential, and how will we ever know if we’ve reached the limit?
7. Extending Human Durability
No person should ever die… EVER! Is that our goal?
There are many reasons why people die, yet these reasons may all disappear as we develop fixes and cures for everything that ales us.
Aging is currently our biggest problem. Over time we’ll likely be able to fix the aging problem and delay aging indefinitely.
Injuries and disease are also problems. Over time we will likely be able to prevent and fix the issues associated with injuries and disease as well.
In a past column I posed the question, “How long before I can 3D print a replacement body for myself?”
With major strides being made in the area of bio printing, this becomes a legitimate question. At the same time, we still live in a very primitive time when it comes to advances on the medical front.
Perhaps the most perplexing problem to fix will be deviant behavior, because the idea of fixing deviant behavior presumes we will have a good way of sorting out the dividing line between deviant and non-deviant behavior. But there again, over time we will likely develop medical or behavioral strategies that address deviant behavior.
So, if we have the ability to fix the problems involved with aging, injury, disease, and deviant behavior, theoretically we can create a society of people capable of living forever.
Is that our goal? And if not, why not?
8. Extending Human Freedom
For many of us, the idea of freedom conjures up symbols of containment, like steel shackles or doors that are somehow unlocked before us, allowing us to breathe the rare air of independence.
But going beyond the insular notion of conscious confinement, is a life unrestrained by the bonds of our own limitations.
Universal freedom comes with the sense that anything is possible.
If people did not have to worry about illness, safety, natural disasters, the limitations of time and space, and human frailty, what things will then be possible?
How long before we have the unbridled freedom to live life on a macro level, take on projects larger than our solar system, and begin living outside our own bubble?
Sill trapped in the bubble of human existence, but finding a way to expand our bubble, or actually live beyond our reality sphere is a challenging big picture perspective.
Granted, we’ve been doing it all along, first by taking micro steps, but moving to giant leaps over the past century.
What I’m suggesting here, by adding labels to each of these dimensions, is that this is our calling, our “unfinishable mandate” to continually stretch, grow, propagate, and master not only the world around us, but also the entire universe.
The human race is genetically predispositioned to push the envelope, color outside the lines, and reach for things that will forever be unreachable.
As individuals, there will always be some who are content to find inner peace and live a minimalist lifestyle. But as a race, we will always be driven by a need to make a difference, be admired for our accomplishments, and create moments of triumph in our otherwise pale existence.
We have only taken the first step in a trillion mile journey. The next few steps, in my opinion, will be absolutely amazing.