Ask A Futurist
What is the way that humanity is most likely to become extinct?
“Humans in the 21st century are so connected and global that the most likely extinction event will be a viral assault that attacks the networks essential to our survival. Whether a weaponized virus or a gene-edited vector that targets our food and water supplies, the biggest risks to our future will be those threats that target our interdependence.”
Read more about epidemics, viruses and beyond in Pandemic by Sonia Shah
We humans will be highly responsible for our own extinction. We’ve triggered and are hastening the elevating factors by hunting, changing the climate and the chemistry of all the oceans, and altering the surface of the planet. We deforested earth harshly. We planted mono-culture agriculture. We’re overfishing. The list goes on. These will be the major reasons for extinction, but not robots or creatures that we create.
Read more about the history of species extinction in in The Sixth Extinction by Pulitzer-prize-winning author Elizabeth Kolbert.
Total annihilation of humanity is a difficult scenario to imagine. One possibility is profound levels of destruction by an asteroid strike that would generate enough heat to destroy the agricultural layer of the Earth. The other likely scenario is a biological contagion, natural or human-created, that decimates urban areas leading to a depopulation of the world’s largest cities and rural upheaval.
Read more about the hidden world of viruses in A Planet of Viruses by Carl Zimmer
The key way is that we sleepwalk into the future—ignoring and not preparing for the developments in science and technology that could transform our world. We can’t afford to ignore how ownership of the technologies is being consolidated into the hands of a few powerful and wealthy people who could end up destroying the 99% in their pursuit of total global domination.
A variety of scientific and technological developments could wipe us out. We could create a superintelligence that decides it no longer needs humanity and just uses us as fuel for the machines that it runs on. We could develop an AI that becomes angry and mischievous and tricks us into all-out war. Clearly there is potential for ever more destructive weapons to be used by nations and entities that sit outside the system. New viruses, waterborne infections, and food chain poisoning could be engineered using techniques from synthetic biology such as genetic modification. And then, if we ever reach the singularity and connect our brains directly to the web, then the potential exists for a virus to be downloaded to our brains that destroys us.
Read more about what your brain is capable of—and how AI might evolve it—in How To Create A Mind by Ray Kurzweil
Humanity will never go extinct. But it’s urgent that we start to take more responsibility towards our planet and its resources. We also need to start dialogues about the development of AI and Robotics. The current problem is that there is no moral system for the use of technology. We need to address the ethical consequences of such developments. Just think about Google Ads being used by terrorist groups in order to grow website traffic. Technology itself doesn’t have any ethics. I’m an optimist so I believe we’ll get there, a whole new generation is starting to take charge and we’ll see the outcome of these movements soon on a larger scale in the near future.
To learn more about the rise and spread of artificial intelligence, check out The Rise of the Robots by Martin Ford
Extinction is inevitable, at least for homo sapiens, the current version of the human species. But it’s not going to happen from some extinction-level event like a comet impact — instead, it’s more likely that it will happen by design.
There is already evidence that modern hominids are evolving towards something new, as a result of the different environmental pressures of the modern world. Some experts speculate that we will lose certain muscles, that the sense of smell will continue to decrease, that we will lose one of our toes, and that our cognitive capabilities will continue to develop but also change as a result of computer technologies. But I think the biggest changes will likely come from genetic engineering. It is possible that what makes homo sapiens extinct is actually an intentionally designed “new and improved” human genome that results in the first intentionally designed new hominid species — perhaps we might call this homo genomicus.
Homo genomicus will be intentionally designed to be a better version of a human — a super-human. We could think of this is as humanity 2.0. As well as the obvious improvements such as eliminations of certain mutations in the gene pool, elimination of many diseases, improved ability to fight off cancer and slow the aging process, improved neurophysiology, reduced obesity rates, improved fertility rates, resistance to cardiovascular degeneration, improved energy efficiency, improved sense organs, etc. — there will also be some less obvious changes that we introduce into our artificially designed gene pool.
There will also likely be some commercial, non open-source versions of the genomicus genome that will have patented features. Parents will be able to purchase these and splice them onto the genomes of their future children during the IVF process, such that a child will have 3 or even 100s of parents effectively — the two biological parents, plus various commercial add-ons that are purchased and added on before or after in vitro-fertilization.
At the very least, what will happen is that homo genomicus will yield several lines of competing non-commercial and commercial homonid genomes, resulting in a form of specialization across the human population that will resemble what we see in other social superorganisms such as bees and ants: there will be different kinds of humans with different versions of the genomicus code, for specific kinds of work. Some will be specialized more for cognitive work, others for physical work, others for artistic or athletic performance. There may be lines that are custom-designed to survive the unique challenges of living in the dangerous environment of space, or for living on planets with different gravity and atmosphere than Earth. There may be lines that are designed to live underwater. There may be designs that are designed to more readily combined with nano-electronics and function as cyborgs. All of this is possible and probably will happen sometime in the future, simply because it can. Regulations may delay this for a while, but eventually as humanity spreads through space and time there will be places where these experiments are able to run.
The result is that homo genomicus will replace homo sapiens, making them extinct. But humanity will continue and unfold in ways we cannot imagine, and might not presently even approve of. We could say the same about what we already are however; what would our chimpanzee ancestors think about homo sapiens, and their effect on the planet, if they could? For better or for worse, homo genomicus is coming.
Read more about the rise of artificial intelligence in Superintelligence by Nick Bostrom