You may not know it, but you are probably living in the final generation anywhere on the earth to endure poverty, disease and scarcity of physical goods — at least in the way such things have existed from the dawn of civilization until now.
If that seems unbelievable, consider how much of today's world — especially the Internet — would've sounded like an absurd, utopian fairy tale to you just 15 years ago.
What if someone had told you in 1992 that it would be not just possible, but commonplace, in less than 15 years to literally find more information on your computer, all free, through it being linked to a network of other computers, literally than you could buy then for many, many millions of dollars?
Would you have believed that?
Imagine what it would've cost 15 years ago to even attempt to amass a personal library of books, photos, audio and video tapes to rival what's available now online, free. A billionaire probably couldn't have afforded it. If you bought it all, where would you store it? Even if you figured out how to store it, you wouldn't have been able to retrieve any of it, in literally a second or two, the way you can now with a search engine. Plus it wouldn't be continuously updated, with no work on your part, the way the Internet is today.
The Internet has also produced other miracles. To name another, through sites like You Tube, it's now possible to produce your own television show, totally on your own with no approval from anyone, for literally less than $500 — including the cost of a computer and a camcorder.
Would you have believed that 15 years ago either?
Consider how many other products you now take for granted in your daily life that didn't even exist 15 years ago, at least not as they do now: cheap, disposable cell phones; navigation systems; satellite radio; DVD; digital satellite and cable TV; flat-panel TVs; high-def TV; etc.
Would you have believed just 15 years ago that any of this would ever be possible, much less that it was all less than a generation away?
Such skepticism about imminent, massive change and improvement is understandable. And it's not new. In his 2005 book, Nanofuture: What's Next for Nanotechnology, J. Storrs Hall, Ph.D., asked readers to imagine someone pulling up to a farmer in 1899 in an early automobile, and trying to convince the farmer what his grandchildren's lives would be like — including that they would live to see a man walk on the moon. The farmer probably wouldn't have believed any of it. But he would've been wrong.
Consider again whether you would have believed predictions of today's world just 15 years ago. Keep your answer, and the farmer's from 1899, in mind as you read this article, because you would've been wrong then; if you doubt this article's predictions, you're going to be wrong again.
The Industrial Revolution
The biggest change so far in human standard of living, of course, was the Industrial Revolution. It's startling to think that comparatively little progress of this type occurred from the dawn of human civilization until about 1800; the average person didn't live much better in 1800 A.D. than he or she did in 1800 B.C.
There is still much propaganda and misinformation about the Industrial Revolution, especially from the left. We read often of the "horrors" of child labor and "sweatshops." It's true that such conditions were horrific by 2007 American standards. But, by 1807 or even 1907 standards, they were vast improvements over pre-industrial farm life; otherwise, those millions of people wouldn't have voluntarily worked in such conditions.
Few Americans today have any concept of what life was like prior to the Industrial Revolution, nor do they stop to consider how incredibly blessed they are. There is no poverty left in America today in terms of what was considered poverty throughout the entire history of the world until the last 100 years or so.
Consider that the poorest people in this country who at least have jobs and places to sleep literally have a higher standard of living than the wealthiest person on the earth did less than 150 years ago; 150 years ago, the wealthiest person on the earth didn't have anything that the poorest today consider basic necessities, like indoor plumbing, electricity, central heating or air-conditioning, antibiotics or a refrigerator — much less things that may not be life-sustaining necessities, but are the luxuries of yesterday that most consider the necessities of today, like cars, televisions, computers, etc.
Were it not for the Industrial Revolution, we would all be working 1518 hours per day on our own farms, with little to show for it but barely producing enough food to keep ourselves from literally starving to death, and making our own clothes out of rags.
As Lew Rockwell commented in 1997: "Anthropologists note that throughout human history, one key sign of prosperous times is the wide consumption of beef (which requires far more land and other resources than crops). It’s no surprise that America distinguished itself in world history for being the first society in which beef was available to one and all, no matter how poor, especially through the hamburger."
This is a specific, astounding example of how capitalism has made a daily, cheap, virtual necessity for the poor out of something that throughout all of history, until just a few generations ago, was a very rare luxury for the extremely wealthy.
The Industrial Revolution made mass production of not only food, but everything else, possible for the first time. In countries with relative economic freedom, productivity — and thus, wages — grew; prices were massively lowered; hundreds of new products became available; and basic necessities like food, clothing and shelter became more and more widely available — with luxuries not far behind.
The World Will Continue to Improve
Of course, most everything will continue getting better long-term. New products we can't even imagine now will be invented, and existing products will get better and cheaper overall, in spite of the government's inflation.
One of the more exciting advances coming soon is the emergence of household robots. In 2005, Toyota announced that it plans to begin selling humanoid robots (meaning robots with bodies like people, with a head, torso, arms, legs, hands and feet, that can perform similar physical movements to a human) in 2010 for around $1,000 US. And, of course, like all electronics, they'll face competition and will all rapidly get better and cheaper. By 2025, the personal robot industry is expected to be a bigger industry in the US than the automobile industry.
This will be one of the greatest advances ever in human standard of living, where even the poorest people will have full-time bodyguards and servants. Imagine having a robot that can clean your house, do your yard work, laundry, etc., shine your shoes, cook your meals, guard you and your house, and more. As artificial intelligence improves, they will soon also be able to handle more complex chores, like dangerous jobs that humans shouldn't be doing, and highly skilled personal repairs, like home remodeling and auto repairs. Humans will soon be free from such burdens, able to move on to other things and produce more wealth.
But what's really exciting is, as blessed as we are today, and aside from the more minor improvements that will continue to occur, there are three more revolutions coming over the next 2025 years that will make all prior progress look like blips on the radar of history.
The Law of Accelerating Returns
Ray Kurzweil is a world-renowned inventor and author. In the 1970s, he invented the first flatbed scanner and the first reading machine for the blind. Bill Gates calls him "the best person I know at predicting the future of artificial intelligence." Among other accurate predictions, in his 1989 book, The Age of Intelligent Machines, Kurzweil predicted that a worldwide computer network would emerge around 1995, and gave a quite accurate description of the late-90s Internet. Of course, those predictions were ridiculed at the time.
Earlier this year, Kurzweil said that by the time a child born today graduates from college, poverty, disease and reliance on fossil fuels will all be things of the past.
Kurzweil is perhaps the world's foremost futurist, and his projections are based on what he calls The Law of Accelerating Returns, the heart of which is that the rate of change is accelerating. Kurzweil believes that progress is exponential, rather than linear, although most people intuitively believe that it's linear, probably because they experience time linearly. But the price-performance of computing power is now doubling about every year (which means you can buy twice as much computing power for the same money, or the same for half the money, as you could one year ago), which is, by definition, an exponential trend. Kurzweil believes this is just the latest in a series of exponential changes going back billions of years, and that this change will affect all of society by the 2020s.
Kurzweil stated in 2004, "The past is not a reliable guide to the future. The 20th Century was not 100 years of progress at today's rate but, rather, was equivalent to about 20 years, because we've been speeding up to the current rates of change. And we'll make another 20 years of progress at today's rate, equivalent to that of the entire 20th Century, in the next 14 years. And then we'll do it again in just seven years. Because of this exponential growth, the 21st Century will equal 20,000 years of progress at today's rate of progress — 1,000 times greater than we witnessed in the 20th Century, which itself was no slouch for change."
The Human Genome Project is an example of the accelerating rate of change. In 1989, medical researchers began working on decoding the human genome. After finishing 1/10,000th of the genome that year, they announced a plan in 1990 to sequence the entire genome in 15 years. Naturally, this plan was ridiculed as a waste of time, money and effort chasing an impossible goal. In 2000, only 2% of the genome had been sequenced, and the critics were still scoffing. But the entire genome was completed in 2003, and the critics weren't scoffing any more.
That's what happens with exponential change: almost all of the progress happens right at the end.
The genome is basically the software instructions for building the human body, and research indicates that the human genome hasn't changed significantly in at least 40,000 years. As Kurzweil has quipped, how many people have software that they haven't updated or replaced for 40 months, much less 40,000 years?
The knowledge of the human genome that increasing technology is beginning to provide will create the first revolution, which is already beginning and should reach maturity in 1015 years: Biotechnology.
Biotechnology will soon make it possible to turn genes partially or totally on or off. As more is learned about the genome, it appears that certain genes provide nothing to sustain life (at least in today's modern world), but are necessary for certain diseases to occur. Turn off the gene, and you decrease vulnerability to a certain disease, or even create immunity from it.
A perfect example of an obsolete gene is the Fat Insulin Receptor Gene, which is the gene that causes the human body to store fat. Tens of thousands of years old, this gene basically says: "Store every possible calorie, because the next hunting season may not work out so well." That was undoubtedly a useful gene at one time, but today it not only causes cosmetic and self-esteem issues, but contributes to all kinds of diseases as well.
Researchers have already succeeded in turning off the FIR gene in lab mice and rats; after taking a drug to turn off the gene, the rodents gorged themselves on nothing but junk food like candy, milkshakes, cheeseburgers and pizza, yet lost all of their fat reserves and became physically incapable of storing fat. Five pharmaceutical companies are rushing to bring FIR inhibitor drugs to the human market, and Kurzweil estimated in 2005 that the drugs were only 510 years away. Of course, you can thank the FDA and the government's pharmaceutical-industrial complex for the drugs not already being cheaply available.
The following stage of biotechnology will make it possible to insert new DNA into a person, curing hereditary diseases, cosmetic defects, and fixing formerly permanent injuries, like paralysis, and re-growing missing limbs.
Mainstream medical researchers are seriously talking about soon being able to slow and eventually reverse aging, and Kurzweil believes that human life expectancy, which was 18 in prehistoric times, 35 in 1800 America, 50 in 1900 America, and now approaching 80 in the developed world, will be growing by more than a year every year within 15 years.
In their 2004 book, Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever, which was aimed mainly at Baby Boomers and older, Kurzweil and Terry Grossman, M.D., wrote that, if you can hang on for just another 1015 years, you can live to see the remarkable progress that lies ahead and see your life expectancy grow into the hundreds of years.
The next revolution, which will take over in 1520 years where biotechnology leaves off, is nanotechnology, which is generally understood to involve anything less than 100 nanometers in size. One nanometer is the length a human fingernail grows in one second. The ability to manipulate matter at that scale is so profound that eventually, human history will likely be separated into two basic eras: pre- and post-nanotech.
Since 1965, the paradigm that has governed the number of transistors that can fit on a chip has been Moore's Law, named after Intel researcher Gordon Moore. The law originally stated that the number of transistors that can fit on a chip would double every 18 months. It's now about every 12 months. At the current rate of progress, Moore's Law will hit a wall about 2020, meaning that the distance between transistors on a chip will be only a few atoms, and it will be physically impossible to fit any more onto a chip.
However, as Kurzweil notes, Moore's Law is the fifth, not the first, computing paradigm. When one hits a wall, the next takes over.
The next paradigm, which is verified by companies like Intel, is three-dimensional molecular computing, which is a prerequisite to molecular manufacturing, and will take over from Moore's Law around 2020, just as electronics enters the nanotech (100 nanometers and less) range.
The implications of mature nanotechnology are enormous; probably the biggest is that it will bring to physical goods a similar deflation to what the Internet has already brought to raw information.
Nanotechnology will make almost all physical products self-assembling and nearly free. Everyone will have a personal nanofactory in their homes. They'll shop online (which full-immersion virtual reality will make indistinguishable from shopping in a physical store today), select a product, pay with a credit card for the software to manufacture it, and download the software it to their nanofactory, which will then manufacture the product out of free materials like carbon and hydrogen pulled from the air. And there will be free, open-source blueprints available, just as there are today with software.
Here's an animation of a personal nanofactory from Nanorex, Inc. and K. Eric Drexler, who was awarded the first Ph.D. in Molecular Nanotechnology from MIT.
A personal nanofactory will make almost all physical goods, including food, clothing, shoes, toiletries, etc. nearly free. It will also be able to make larger products — like furniture, cars and houses — either with a larger nanofactory or in a modular fashion, to be assembled by humans or by robots.
Nanotechnology will also make possible blood-cell sized robots, which can perform precise and painless surgery; kill pathogens and cancer in seconds; clear the arteries of the heart of plaque; deliver oxygen to the tissues so efficiently that it will be possible to sit at the bottom of a swimming pool for hours or run a marathon without taking a breath; repair wounds or broken bones in hours; align teeth in minutes; or repair or replace teeth, with synthetic material indistinguishable down to the molecular level from natural teeth, painlessly in minutes.
Nanotechnology will completely decentralize energy, making everything solar and electricity, heat and air-conditioning free; making all fossil fuels and other polluting technologies obsolete; and will quickly, easily and cheaply clean up all existing pollution.
By the 2020s, almost the entire world economy will be information, and there will no longer be significant human employment in service and manufacturing industries. As Kurzweil notes, we're automating jobs at the bottom of the skill ladder and replacing them with jobs higher on the skill ladder. This may alarm some, but anyone who understands economics knows that it's glorious, miraculous progress whenever jobs are lost through normal market forces.
"Strong" (human-level and beyond) AI (artificial intelligence)
Despite the massively world-changing implications of nanotechnology, even that will be dwarfed by Strong AI, which should arrive just as nanotechnology fully matures in the mid-2020s.
The price-performance of artificial intelligence is doubling every year, and is currently about at the level of a mouse brain. At the rate its doubling, AI will reach human levels around 2025, then soar past it as it continues to double every year. That means one year later, artificial intelligence will be twice as smart as the average human. The next year, it will be four times smarter. The year after that, 16 times smarter, etc. When one stops to ponder the implications of this, it's not hard to imagine that the world of 2030 will be unrecognizably better than the world of 2025, as artificial intelligence easily solves age-old problems that unenhanced humans have never been able to solve.
Modern Luddites like Unabomber Ted Kaczynski hear such predictions and imagine dire outcomes, like robots making humans their pets. But the retort of optimists like Kurzweil is much more sensible: Rather than a war between humans and machines, there will be a merger of humans with the technology they've created. The nanotechnology that will make possible, by the time Strong AI arrives, to kill pathogens and deliver oxygen to the body's tissues more efficiently will also be able to massively upgrade the functionality of the human brain. So, as artificial intelligence doubles every year, human intelligence will, too.
There isnt space here to address all of the objections to these ideas — especially about their implications. But the following objections are probably the most common about the veracity of these predictions:
1. The future is unpredictable.
Generally, this is true. In fact, one of my core rules for life is that the future is unknowable. But technological progress has been proceeding on a smooth upward curve for 60 years, and there’s no indication it’s going to stop; if anything, its speeding up. Extrapolating trends into the future, barring unforeseen changes, is likely to produce reliable predictions.
Ray Kurzweil has dozens of predictions going back at least 20 years that have turned out to be quite accurate. As he says, if you ask him what Googles stock price will be in five years — or whether Google will even exist then, all he can do is guess. Ten years ago, there was no such thing as Google, and no one couldve foreseen it. But if you ask him how much computing power one will be able to buy for x number of dollars in 2012, or how much it will cost to sequence a base pair of DNA in 2019, he can make a predictions for questions like that based on extrapolating trends, and those predictions are likely to be quite accurate — and, if they’re off, it will likely be because they were too conservative.
2. Im still waiting for the flying cars they predicted in the 50s.
I have never seen such a statement that documents who said such a thing, when they said it, exactly what they said, and why the person who said it was credible. Every time Ive seen it, this objection is in the form of: My neighbors uncles co-workers barber said back in the '50s, someone (I dont know exactly who) said thered be flying cars by 2000, or Back in the '60s, people thought wed be living on the moon by now.
Credible experts with reliable track records like Kurzweil arent responsible for predictions others made.
Besides, if such predictions were made, the year 2000 was likely chosen randomly because 2000 sounded futuristic at the time. And, if such predictions occurred, its not yet known that they were wrong; all thats known for certain now is the timetable was off. (Incidentally, there are people like J. Storrs Hall who are working now on producing flying cars.)
If youre intrigued by these ideas, please take the time to educate yourself about them, rather than relying on hear-say from others. Theres a list of recommended reading at the end of the article.
3. Youre describing an impossible, ridiculous utopia, free of problems.
This world wont be a utopia any more than is today’s, although our world probably wouldve sounded like utopia to a person in 1800. But we knew that we still have problems, just not ones as basic as a person faced then, like starving to death or contracting cholera from drinking a glass of water.
Naturally, the most basic human needs for survival are food, clothing and shelter. In 1800, about 90% of the U.S. economy worked in agriculture, meaning our technology was so primitive that it took almost everyone who was working just to attempt to feed everyone. By 1900, that number was down to 30%, with another 30% in manufacturing. Today each figure is around 3%, but the poor live better than kings in 1800, and the unemployment rate is still under 5%, because human desires are unlimited and there could never be enough labor available to do all of the jobs other people would like to have done. Automation of some jobs frees people to purse other jobs.
If it still took almost the entire labor force to even attempt to produce enough food for everyone, who wouldve had time to invent, develop and bring to market things like indoor plumbing, central heating and air-conditioning, electricity, etc? A person literally starving or infected with painful disease would be too preoccupied with that to concentrate on writing a book, singing a song or accomplishing anything else that makes life so much better for us all.
As K. Eric Drexler wrote in his book, Unbounding the Future, There is more to life than material goods, but without material goods life is miserable and narrow. If goods are expensive, people strive for them; if goods are abundant, people can turn their attention elsewhere.
The coming world wont be utopia — just a massive improvement over todays.
And its also true that new technologies, while solving old problems, will also bring new problems. Virtually everything in life is a mixture of good and bad, but the benefits of these new technologies will far outweigh the drawbacks, and people acting in their own self-interest will find ways to mitigate the problems. For example, the massive improvements the Internet has brought far outweigh its drawbacks, like computer viruses or spam, and new products are constantly being developed to combat the problems.
4. Scarcity is, by definition, incurable. And no one could find work in a world without scarcity.
This is true, of course. But a world where most physical goods are super-abundant, mostly self-assembling and nearly free wont be a world without scarcity. There will still be scarce physical goods, like antiques or original works of art. And there will still be a market for them; while such items will be able to be replicated at almost no cost, it will be a measure of status to own originals — just as some will likely choose to drive pre-nanotech, gasoline-burning cars as status symbols as such cars will be more expensive and rare.
And even if almost the entire economy is information by the 2020s, as people like Kurzweil predict, the more intangible realm, such as individual knowledge and talents, will still be rife with scarcity, and will continue to make work and trade possible.
As an example, there will always be scarcity of information, and people today continue to make money selling information and ideas. But the scarcity of information that exists today is nothing like that which existed just 15 years ago, prior to the Internet. Technology hasnt eliminated scarcity; it has just alleviated it in some ways, and changed it in others.
The Implications for the State
Aside from the massive increase in standard of living that's coming, another exciting aspect to these changes is it may finally kill support for the state. It's very likely that within 25–30 years, if not sooner, individuals will have more wealth at their disposal than entire nation states do today. In a world where the private sector has eliminated poverty, disease and other health concerns (like the obesity "epidemic"), scarcity of physical goods and pollution (like the statist "global warming" scam) through nanotechnology, and personal bodyguard robots have taken on the purported role of government police, it'll be fascinating to see what excuses, if any, the state will be able to successfully make for itself then.
Another Reason to Support Ron Paul
Opponents of laissez-faire often attack libertarians by pointing out that living standards were much worse in the 19th Century, and we had less government then; and that our living standards are much higher now, and we have much government now. All of this is true, of course. But statists point out these facts as "evidence" of the necessity of significant government intervention in the economy.
What's implied, but rarely stated or backed up with further evidence (because there's little, if any, further evidence to offer), is that living standards were worse in the past due to lack of government, and they're higher now due to much larger government. This is the logical fallacy of correlation proves causation, also known as false cause or cum hoc ergo propter hoc (Latin for “with this, therefore because of this”).
The fallacy of this logic is evident on its face. If living standards rise with the size of government and the amount of its regulations, people in countries like the Soviet Union and Communist China in the past, and Cuba and North Korea today, should have the highest standards of living in the world. But the opposite is true.
The fact is, people in the United States have a higher standard of living than anywhere else in the world due to the foundation of relative laissez-faire that spawned such a massive capital accumulation during the 19th Century. At the time of the Revolution, the U.S. was a third-world country; within 100 years, it was the wealthiest nation on earth.
But this massive progress was slowed dramatically by the rotten Progressive Era, and slowed further by the growth of government since. As blessed as we are, the standard of living the poorest American would enjoy today, if government at all levels still consumed only about 5% of the national income as it did 100 years ago, rather than nearly 10 times that today, boggles the imagination.
If the prospects for the future discussed in this article excite you, then they are still more reasons, in addition to all of the other benefits of significantly increased freedom, to support Ron Paul, because the freer the country and the economy and the sounder the money, the faster this progress will arrive.
As an example, consider again the Fat Insulin Receptor knockout drugs. The reason they're still 510 years away is due to the way the FDA massively slows down progress with its ridiculous tests. And when the drugs arrive, as miraculous as they'll be, they'll be far more expensive than they would otherwise be, due also to government regulations like the FDA's ridiculous tests, which cost roughly $800 million to complete.
Do you think we'd be seeing such massive progress, innovation and deflation with technology like computers, DVD players and plasma TVs if we had a Federal Technology Board requiring similar tests, costs and delays?
In a free market, drugs like Fat Insulin Receptor inhibitors would almost certainly be available now, or very soon, and be quite inexpensive, eventually becoming dirt cheap.
Among many other things, Ron Paul wants to create such a market by busting the medical cartel and the pharmaceutical-industrial complex. Probably the biggest thing you can do right now to massively increase your future standard of living, and that of those you care about, is to devote whatever time and money you can to Ron Paul.
When I read about these coming advances, it sometimes makes me wish I had been born a couple of generations later than I was, so that I would never have known first-hand the world of disease and scarcity that exists today. Even so, at 30 years old, barring a fatal accident or disease, I'll not only live to see these changes, but will still be relatively young when they arrive — especially considering the coming advances in life expectancy. While I sometimes wish I'd been born later, I'm deeply grateful to be able to experience these changes in my lifetime. There may have never been a better or more exciting time in the history of the world to live than right now.
If you'd like to learn more about these ideas, a Google search of any of the terms or people mentioned in the article is a good place to start.
There are also a number of fascinating speeches available from people like Ray Kurzweil on video sites like You Tube.
Here is a list of some books I've read on these ideas, which you may like if you're interested in a much deeper study:
- The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence by Ray Kurzweil
- The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology by Ray Kurzweil
- Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever by Ray Kurzweil and Terry Grossman, M.D.
- Nanofuture: What's Next for Nanotechnology by J. Storrs Hall, Ph.D.
- Our Molecular Future: How Nanotechnology, Robotics, Genetics and Artificial Intelligence Will Transform Our World by Douglas Mulhall
- Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies — and What It Means to Be Human by Joel Garreau
- The Next Fifty Years by John Brockman
November 1, 2007