It’s been awhile since we revisited the three questions on the LOTRW masthead. Today’s post and the two to follow give them a fresh look. Let’s stand back and take a running start with regard to the first one…
What kind of world is likely if we take no deliberate action?
For most of human experience, homo sapiens have become accustomed to taking our supremacy in Earth’s affairs as a given. True, there were difficulties in the early going — perhaps a million or so years past. Back then our numbers were few and we hadn’t yet doped out effective rules for living on the real world. But it wasn’t long before we got the human big-brain thing working to our advantage. The challenges once posed by the patchy availability of water and food and the threats posed by predators swifter and stronger than us have long since faded from our memory, if not our DNA. But it seems going forward our value, and our supremacy in the scheme of things here on Earth, are no longer automatically assured. For the first time in a long while, we’re being challenged not just individually but as a species.
An overstatement? Possibly. But here are a few recent data points on this particular trend line. They’re anecdotal, cobbled together. They only hint at the problem. To do this more comprehensively or definitively would require a book (and several have been written along these lines). You can easily come up with your own, better list. We start zoomed-in, looking at interests close to home for readers of this blog; then expand our field of view, zooming out:
A late-October workshop on spaceflight. Several participants and stakeholders familiar with the U.S. space program from different perspectives assessed the prospects for human spaceflight. They found that future problematic. In particular it doesn’t appear that federal budget resources are there in the amounts needed to reach aspirational goals such as putting people on Mars.
The Orbital Sciences explosion on launch of October 28 and the Virgin Galactic crash of October 31. These two events occurred on the heels of the workshop as if to drive home the point. The latter flight involved loss of human life. The former was a cargo lift – scheduled resupply for the International Space Station, a human venture. Both efforts attempted to do spaceflight on the cheap… the Virgin Galactic effort looking to put recreational space tourism within reach (for the wealthy, at least). The Orbital Sciences mission relied on a Russian launch vehicle mothballed for many years before being pressed into service to cut costs.
Drones. Meeting the needs of fragile human beings isn’t just expensive in space. It’s also an issue in flight – especially military flight. The cost of today’s fighter aircraft are high in part because of the need to protect fragile human occupants, either from the altitudes and g-forces that 21st-century high-performance aircraft can achieve or from hostile action. Such protection was necessary when computers and IT infrastructure weren’t up to the demands of flight. But today’s drones are proving quite capable of performing many military missions. And amidst concerns, there’s talk of allowing artificial intelligence a greater role in choosing targets for robotic weapons. (What’s more, the world’s armies are giving the idea of using robots in ground combat a long look.)
Other forms of transportation. But of course we’re seeing a future in which artificial intelligence will take control of virtually all vehicular travel. Google has been advancing and demonstrating robotic capabilities to drive cars for several years. Truckers are contemplating fleets of robotic vehicles whose drivers will no longer tire. If ground-based personnel can fly military drones, presumably they can pilot commercial flights.
Zooming out further…
The global workplace. Since the 2008 financial debacle, business media (see, e.g., the recent special report on technology and the world economy published in The Economist) have been telling us repeatedly that the world’s economies have been growing but job numbers have not kept pace. Moreover, wages remain stagnant or have been declining slightly. Corporations have preferred during this most recent recovery to improve their stated profits through financial measures such as stock buybacks, relocating their headquarters to tax havens, and through investment in robotics and technology rather than hiring people (with our inconvenient propensity to tire after several hours of effort and our pesky need for health benefits and retirement plans). The articles moot the proposition that unlike the first two industrial revolutions, which ultimately led to vast improvements in the human condition across the board, the current digital revolution may not confer the same benefits to all… that employment opportunities will be available only to a privileged few. Pundits such as David Brooks and Tom Friedman have also recently picked up on the theme. They question whether we will master machines or they will master us.
In summary, then, some world trends hint that if we take no action, the human race, individually and as a species, will have to scramble to maintain its place in world affairs over the course of the 21st century. Taken to the extreme…given the talk of recent decades that overpopulation is the root cause of most environmental woes… the recent events might be suggesting that the ideal population level for us might be … zero.
Which brings us to the second LOTRW question, slightly rephrased…
Is that the kind of real world that we want?
You know the answer. More in the next post.
 For an interesting take on this see The Improbable Primate: how water shaped human evolution, by Clive Finlayson, Oxford University Press 2014.
 A tongue-in-cheek prediction, made in the context of this summer’s LOTRW posts: should there ever occur such a decline in human numbers, at no point will the handful of people remaining “speak with one voice.”