Lifetime of Leisure

With the onset of mechanization, we were promised a lifetime of leisure. Machines would undertake all menial tasks and our time would be free to advance noble pursuits in arts and science. Today, some live this way. However, most of us remain fully occupied earning a living. As well, too many still live in extreme poverty. Nevertheless, given our expansive food supply system, many have copious leisure time because of freedom from the menial tasks of food gathering and preparation.

Will the onset of artificial intelligence (AI) engender similar promises? Imagine a lifetime free of menial thinking. Rather than solving a problem, you’d simply ask an automated AI service and undertake its response without worry. Perhaps this service, together with mechanization, would give rise to the real golden age of noble pursuits.

And herein lies the question, “Would advancing noble pursuits be sufficient?” Recall that the human population will soon swell to over 10 billion people. Most of these would be of working age. Yet, menial tasks would be undertaken by machines and automata, so most wouldn’t need to work. How will we engender noble pursuits for a future with so much leisure?

The obvious follow-on question is, “Will there be enough primary energy to service over 10 billion people?” If energy continues to be available, then fine. If not, can people relearn menial work and relearn menial thinking? Or, will a lifetime of leisure fail the future?


Closed Ecosystems

As Star Trek put it, ‘Space: The Final Frontier’. It’s not all make believe. We have travelled in space. However, building a sustained human presence in space is a whole other level. Effectively, we’d need to create and protect a sustaining ecosystem; a system akin to the one that’s keeping us alive on Earth. An obvious challenge to achieving this is knowing what’s essential to keep us alive while we explore the nether regions.

Looking at our current tentative forays into space, it would be easy to assume that all we need is a secure container full of breathable air. But if we want to live up there for more than a few hours, then we need to bring along food and water. And eventually, we’d need to dispose of our waste. Thus, to sustain ourselves over a long time, we’d also need to process our waste into something useful. With such a sustaining, closed ecosystem, we could travel to other solar systems or build bases upon Mars.

Vitally important to our planned, closed ecosystem is the energy that enables all these processes to perform. On Earth, the Sun provides nearly all this. And this also makes the Earth ecosystem an open system. Now, imagine travelling to other solar systems. Then, we expect no appreciable energy from our Sun. Instead, we’d need to gather and store all the energy before we departed. As we can’t gather anything in the void of space, our space-faring ecosystem has to be closed; except perhaps some radiant heat energy losses.

There is no manifest destiny drawing us into space-based habitation. We could remain on planet Earth. Our species could endure for many tens of millions of years, as did the dinosaurs. But we would always be limited by what’s available on Earth. After climbing every mountain and descending into every trench, writing every story and singing every song, then we’d live simply to relive the past. There would be nothing new to our destiny.

In space, there is no known limit. However, our current capability is nowhere near a sustaining, closed ecosystem. Further, we seem to be radically, negatively affecting the existing ecosystem on Earth. Why do we prefer to build roads, to play video games and to engaging in warfare on this functioning ecosystem? What do these preferences say about the development of a sustaining, closed ecosystem for humans in space? And what do they say about our future on Earth?

The Question – Planned or to be Planned

We’re quickly depleting the Earth’s stores of non-renewable energy. Oddly, the date for absolute depletion keeps getting extended outward. Noting this, some people proclaim that non-renewables will endure forever. They say that economic theory will control consumption and thus ensure continued availability. And they also say that the future will be rosy. Is this forecast reasonable?

In response, let’s consider economic theory as it relates to energy supply. As energy demand exceeds supply then cost increases, which thus reduces the demand. This is economically reasonable. But is it valid if energy is an essential commodity? Let’s look at an example. Most of today’s advanced societies rely upon ready, inexpensive transportation. If energy costs increase, such as with a carbon tax, then, presumably, consumption falls. Yet, we don’t see any indication of consumption falling. Indeed, with populations increasing and desire for evermore technology, then we expect energy consumption to continue to increase apparently with minimal impact from cost. For transportation, our insatiable demand for energy isn’t following the dictates of economic theory, leading us to presume that energy is an essential commodity.

This example leads us to ponder the expectation for a rosy future. As long as there’s unlimited energy supply, then owning a vehicle or enabling a technology is inconsequential. For example, data centres, at the heart of the new information technology, consume about 500TW per year (1.6e22J). But what if energy supplies become constrained? Do we react by excising technologies? Do we plan for this drop-off of energy supply? Have plans already been made? Did you provide comments to these plans? Let us know.
Redwing black bird

Earth, Start-point or End-point

Do you enjoy watching science fiction cinema? There, people dramatically meet other life-forms or overcome daunting obstacles. From it, we have the sense that our species is special and capable of anything. Given the plethora of such films over the last few decades, perhaps we over-confidently believe that such events will be our future. It’s just a matter of time.

The science fiction genre really developed just prior to the turn of the previous century. Its progenitor, Jules Verne, wrote ‘From the Earth to the Moon’ in 1865. In that year, about 1.3 billion humans used an estimated 2.9×1019J (8,005 Twh) of energy in their annual strivings. Today, on Earth, over 8 billion people use an estimated 6.4×1020J (178,899 Twh) annually, mostly from fossil fuels. But, instead of reading about space travel, we routinely watch films having people comfortably zip at faster than light speed to remote stellar galaxies.

In reality, space travel is anything but routine. A lucky few have visited Earth’s Moon. Will our future include space travel? Unlikely. As demonstrated with the USA’s Apollo space program, tax dollars only get expended on undertakings that benefit all or most. Further, individuals can’t afford to encamp our species on another world. So, Artemis and ILRS will go the way of the Europa settlement. That is, nowhere. Instead, people will continue watching science fiction and imagining. What does this say for our future?

Swallow flight

A Democratic Future

Greece claims to be the birthplace of democracy. Democracy is a governing method whereby everyone chooses policies to define their civilization and thus set the future. Ours is a representative democracy whereby one elected person represents many others. In this way, representatives make and vote on choices that (should) lead to better livelihoods.

While democracy seems optimal for shaping a society’s future, it has weaknesses. Principle among these is that a policy choice must be of immediate or near-immediate benefit to the majority. There’s no appetite for a choice that begins by incurring detriments and then delivers benefits much later. Another weakness is that a representative only considers their region of responsibility. Thus, even though a choice may inconvenience people outside an electoral region, the representative does not consider their inconvenience. These weaknesses ensure that democracies can, at best, maintain the status quo. Democracies might have a 4 or 5 year plan, to the next election, but not any further into the future.

Assuming we want better than the status quo, then where do we look to define and to progress toward a planned future? Is there such a thing as a benevolent dictator? Could corporations consider more than maximizing their shareholder’s compensation? Or do we simply stumble forward and react to whatever arises? What do you want in your civilization’s future in 10 years? In a hundred years? In a thousand years?