Smart Thoughts

About Designing the Future

You Want the Future? You Can’t Handle the Future!

Written by: Brad Allenby

The human future as a design space – what does that mean to you?

It is a hubristic illusion that the future can be controlled or designed.  Indeed, it is a hubristic illusion that humans or their institutions can even perceive, much less vaguely understand, the present – never mind the future.

We now live on a terraformed planet: the Earth has been, and is being, engineered by a single species for its own purposes.  Evolved biodiversity may be shrinking, but engineered biodiversity flourishes, and there are no scientific grounds to claim that the amount of information contained in biological systems is diminishing.  What is true is that biology is beginning a fundamental shift from being observational – a scientific domain – to being designed, an engineering domain, to much accompanying angst.  In all of observable space, bodies are defined by a radiation pattern determined by their temperature; the exception is the terraformed Earth, which augments its black body radiation with, among other things, reruns of “Gilligan’s Island” broadcast to the stars (and, of course, much more).  Human activities have changed atmospheric and oceanic physics and chemistry – we call it climate change – as well as virtually all major chemical and nutrient cycles.  Virtually no ecosystem on the planet, with the possible exception of deep sea vents, has not been changed by human activity.  Pilot plants to grow meat in factories, rather than in animals, are already deploying: the changes such technology could introduce to management of the nitrogen, carbon, phosphorous, water and other cycles, as well as land use and climate change implications, are profound. The planet is a design space, and all our wishing otherwise and fantasies about stopping evolution in its tracks – the model behind human response to global climate change – won’t change that.  The relevant challenge is not, as the Kyoto Treaty would have it, “just say no!” – rather, it is “what kind of planet would you like . . . and who gets to vote on that?”

The most important planetary system is, of course, the species that has terraformed the planet, and all its vast institutions, cultures, technologies, ideologies, beliefs, politics, economic behaviors, and tribes.  Here, as well, we have crossed the Rubicon already, without admitting it to ourselves: the human, and everything about it, is a design space.  For example:

  • With search engines, mobile devices, apps, and other social media tools, we busily offload human cognitive function onto networks, a necessary response to the increasing complexity and rapidly decreasing cycle time of financial, military, social, economic, and technological systems.

  • Integrated with artificial intelligence and deep mind technology, big data, and complex analytics, this trend shifts cognition from the individual to techno-human networks, as layers of cognition build on each other.  When Robert Green Ingersoll wrote that “an honest god is the noblest work of man,” he didn’t know it would be happening, literally, as humans across the planet build cognitive capabilities that integrate into intelligence far beyond the Cartesian individual mind.

  • Radical life extension moves from the speculative to the mundane as the US Federal Food and Drug Administration begins a study of the diabetes drug Metformin as an anti-aging treatment.  Many researchers now routinely speak of the probability that at least some of today’s youth in developed economies will live healthy lives well past 100, while treatments that actually reverse aging in mammals are tested in dogs. Aging as disease state makes immortality the sign of a healthy human.

  • Human subjects with chips embedded in their brains have successfully coupled to other humans (technological telepathy), and managed drone fleets remotely.  Research is underway to directly connect human brains to robotic systems using broadband wireless computer-brain interfaces.  Research is also exploring connecting human brains to cloud-based metacognitive systems, which can then be coupled to AI systems creating high level cognitive functionality that is no longer directly accessible or intelligible to humans.

  • Genetic engineering coupled with 3D bioprinting and organ growing technology open up new design prospects for the human body: remote brain chunks can be placed in underutilized body space (take an appendix out, put in a chunk of brain tissue) and connected up to brain central with broadband neural pipes.  Warriors can be genetically engineered to see in the infrared.  Humans who want to go to space can be genetically engineered to have more supportive skeletons and less susceptibility to radiation . . . traits that would be profoundly unfit on Earth itself.

  • Rapid progress in personality, social, and evolutionary psychology; behavioral economics; neuroscience; marketing; and related fields, combined with state level artificial intelligence and data gathering activities, is fueling accelerating capabilities to model, manipulate, and design the cognitive capabilities and identities of people, communities, institutions, and states.  The result is weaponized narratives that are not intended to simply achieve strategic goals such as inducing Brexit or manipulating American presidential elections, but to achieve “reflexive control,” in which the target population has been so conditioned that it behaves as the attacker wants it to without the need for further intervention.  Fighting battles around reflexive control is, in essence, fighting in the battlespace of identity and individual cognition.  The Russians are doing it, and the Americans are clueless.  The battleground of modern war is your brain.

And our response so far?  Retreat to ideology, activist over-simplification, and self-indulgent, whimpering tribalism.  Anger, fear, and emotion, recharged constantly by social media, creating deeply defensive communities that reinforce their hysteria, myopia, and sense of victimhood by demonizing anything that suggests progress or optimism – and, of course, especially demonizing all other communities that aren’t them.  In short, not too good.  The spirit of Rousseau, which approvingly hangs above the inchoate emo screaming of today’s academy, calls for return to the noble savage and the defeat of civilization (seen as the original sin and the source of all evil in human affairs).  On current trend, that’s where we’re heading. 

There are constructive options, but they require an emphasis on resilience, agility, and adaptability – not retreat to verities, or assertions of control which, given the lack of perception of even today’s real challenges, are not only laughable but dysfunctional.  Muddling through, with constant shucking and jiving as new data and observations accrue, is not just expedient, but the only ethical process.  And, above all, any real effort to help birth an ethical, rational, and responsible future must begin with the determination to perceive the world as it is, for without that, there can be no meaningful response. 


About Brad Allenby

At Arizona State University, Brad is President's Professor of Engineering; Lincoln Professor of Engineering and Ethics at the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment; and Distinguished Sustainability Scientist at the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability.  He is also Founding Co-Director of the Weaponized Narrative Initiative; Fellow of the Royal Society for the Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce; and AAAS Fellow.