Five Drivers of the emerging civilisation
It is always fascinating to speculate on the contours of the future, but perhaps it is easier to do so in terms of what might actually shape it. Rather than trying to define where we want to go or determine how to go there, let us instead try to determine who, or what, our drivers are and let them lead us into whatever it is that awaits us in the years, and the road ahead. So sit back and take a ride through a thoughtscape delineated by nuclear energy, space travel, biohacks, the metaverse and artificial intelligence. A ride that ends with an unusual Indic twist in the tail or tale.
The first driver is energy which is what gives dynamism to an otherwise static universe. It is obviously a prime driver for the emergence of civilisation, which is why the discovery – and control – of fire was such an epochal event in the evolution of human society. Without access to substantial sources of energy, human society can only regress to a primitive state.
The Kardashev scale is a method of measuring a civilization's level of technological advancement based on the amount of energy it is able to use. The measure was proposed by Soviet astronomer Nikolai Kardashev in 1964. The Kardashev scale has three designated categories : A Type I civilization, also called a planetary civilization, is one that can control and use all of the energy available on its planet. A Type II civilization, also called a stellar civilization, can use and control energy at the scale of its planetary system and a Type III civilization, also called a galactic civilization, can control energy at the scale of its entire host galaxy. Human society is obviously stuck at the low end of a Level I category with its current dependence on the fortuitous discovery of carbon based fossil fuels.
Since fossil fuels will get exhausted or, if used recklessly, will cause unpleasant environmental side effects, there is a great demand for clean energy from sources that are renewable. Solar and wind energy have been touted as possible solutions but both have serious drawbacks. First, they are too widely dispersed and need lots of land area to be collected in usable quantities. This land acquisition along with the management and maintenance of dispersed collection devices is a severe managerial and technical challenge. What is worse is the irregularity and uncertainty in generation and this calls for significant investment in storage devices. We cannot have a city shut down because of a cloud cover. Hence wind is a no-starter but solar can surely play an important role in being auxiliary, or secondary source of energy, and of course in remote locations. But the primary burden of keeping civilization alive must lie with a new generation of small, modular nuclear power plants.
Yes, nuclear energy is the key. The general public who do not understand the nuances of technology are led by motivated, professional agitators to believe that nuclear energy is no different from the atom bombs at Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Those who are little more clued in would like the rest of the world to believe that Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima represent the horrific face of nuclear devastation. This is patently false. The number of people who have died in these three locations is miniscule compared to the number of deaths caused in industrial accidents all across the world. In Chernobyl, the number of immediate and direct deaths was about 60 but estimates put the total death toll over a 20 year period to be between 4,000 and 16,000. In Fukushima, there were no direct deaths, one death due to radiation exposure and 573 stress induced deaths in elderly people. The huge difference in the fatality of these two accidents represents, first, the progress of technology and second, the efficiency of Japanese professional management vis-a-vis the ignorance and irresponsibility of the communist regime in the USSR. Net-net, nuclear power is nowhere as dangerous as its techno-phobic opponents would like us to believe.
In fact, the small modular reactors (SMR) that are under development at NuScale (US) and Rolls Royce (UK) are generations ahead in safety because they are designed on the premise of being able to survive for an indefinite period of electrical shutdown without overheating. Being small, they have fewer moving parts or points of failure and being modular they can be manufactured in factories and then transported to the final location for installation and commissioning. This reduces cost and makes the technology affordable and easy to deploy.
Another new development in this area is the technology of -- the accidentally anagrammatical MSR -- molten salt reactor. MSR reactors are even more secure because the fuel is used in a liquid state and any accidental power shutdown causes the fuel to drain out, solidify and become inactive. What is even more interesting is that MSR reactors were originally designed to operate with Thorium, an element that is more abundant than the traditional Uranium. Moreover, India has the world’s largest deposits of Thorium; it is found in abundance on the beaches of peninsular India. But China is already ahead in the game with its TMSR-LF1 reactor, a Thorium based MSR with its fuel sourced possibly sourced from mining operations in Sri Lanka, that shares the same oceanfront as India.
In fact, despite Thorium being identified by Dr Homi Bhaba as the key to India's self sufficiency in nuclear energy, political opposition fuelled by hostile foreign powers has hampered India's ability to capitalise on this technology while China has surged ahead. It is time for the political establishment in India to rein in anti-national opposition and give our engineers a free hand to build on this immense potential.
After energy, the second driver is space. To even dream of moving up to a Kardashev-II civilisation, we first need to leave Earth and set up colonies not just on the Moon, but also on Mars, on the moons of Jupiter and Saturn and on the mineral rich asteroids that lie between Mars and Jupiter. But beyond the lure of the minerals that lie in abundance in solar orbit, the drive to space has another interesting imperative. It epitomises the spirit of endeavour and enterprise, to go where no one has gone before, a civilisational goal that any progressive society must strive for so that it does not end up being stuck on, or even slide back into a moribund and desultory past. One can of course go in other directions, for example, into the human mind, where no one has gone before either, but we will explore that later. For now, let us focus on space habitats as the second driver because only when we leave Earth can we think of harnessing the energy and other resources of the solar system.
Space travel and the colonisation of other planets – moons of other planets are also referred to as planets in space jargon – calls for innovation and investments in a spectrum of new and creative technologies. From propulsion systems to human habitats and everything in between there are scientific and technological challenges that will stress each and every body of knowledge that mankind has built up and has access to. While technology is a very big challenge, an even bigger challenge is the investment needed to develop it and – perhaps this is the biggest challenge of all – to build social and political consensus to fund these massively expensive missions. There will always be oddballs who see more advantage in providing drinking water in slums than in going to Mars. One can of course say that the technology developed for space has applications that can improve the quality of life on Earth but this is trivial and facetious. At best, these reasons can only be used up to a point but then we, as a society, must stand up to the fact that expansion into space is the manifest destiny of the human race. Humans are not cockroaches whose only claim to fame is to have survived millions of years without becoming extinct. We, as a race, are destined for greater things and one of them is to explore and expand into realms beyond our own. The European colonisation of America and Africa is an example of such an expansion even though it caused the decimation of certain cultures. That is Darwin in action, and one must be careful that in going to space, we do not repeat the mistakes of the past.
Coming to more prosaic matters, space travel should be led by autonomous robots. This will dramatically reduce the cost and complexities necessary to support human life on crewed missions and initial settlements. From this perspective, Gaganyaan is an expensive luxury. We would have been better off landing an autonomous mining robot on the Moon or on Mars. We already have an enormous variety of industrial robots and autonomous vehicles that we can send to other planets, possibly Mars and then Titan, and use them to build the basic infrastructure for human habitats. Similarly, mining robots can be sent to land on the asteroids, like the metal rich Psyche, and excavate minerals that can be used for both construction as well to meet the energy requirements of distant worlds. These robots should be the vanguard, the tip of the arrow, with which we should break the frontiers of space. Humans can follow in the second wave, once the initial teething problems have been overcome.
One of the major problems with colonising space is the habitability of the worlds that we desire to colonise. Our physical bodies have evolved to survive with comfort on Earth but are of little use in the utterly cold, airless and perchlorate filled surface of Mars. Or in the methane and nitrogen atmosphere of Titan. To survive under such different conditions, the initial response is to create Earth-like oases, bubble-cities, underground caves where we can regulate the environment and make it mimic Earth. Subsequently, with the advent of more energy and materials, we can look at terraformation -- or converting alien planets to look like Earth by gradually changing the atmosphere to include more oxygen.
Many of these terraforming techniques call for the creation of new plants and insects with a different kind of metabolism. This is where a whole new world of creative biology or, the third driver, biohacking comes in. Thanks to exciting new technologies like CRISPR, it should now be possible to stitch together the genetic templates that can impart new capabilities to biological or carbon based life forms. Modifications are possible, not just at the genetic level but also at higher levels to allow organisms, for example, to see in the dark, sense electromagnetic radiation, generate energy through anaerobic means and have the crucial ability to repair damage and heal themselves. In fact, the quantum of change induced in carbon based life forms can also be augmented by implants made of inorganic, synthetic materials as in, the relatively simple case of prosthetic limbs and even artificial internal organs.
Going forward, we see the immense potentials of new carbon-silicon hybrids, often referred to in sci-fi literature as cyborgs. While popular representations of cyborgs represent them as clunky, malevolent, zombie-like creatures, the reality could be very different. In fact our current, flawed perception of a cyborg could be similar to the way a cow or a dog perceives a teen-ager cruising on a motorcycle while being connected to the internet through a cell phone and bluetooth enabled Google Glass spectacles. We ourselves need to evolve significantly, to understand the potentials of hybrid carbon-silicon life forms
Biohacking is a generic name for a variety of processes that can cause significant changes in both the genotype and the phenotype and leads to the evolution of new and hybrid forms of life. A key component of this evolution would be the arrival of self healing mechanisms. Medical and surgical procedures will evolve to the point where -- and of course, we are being very optimistic here -- disease is history and death is only by desire. However some of these processes could be fraught with danger and initiate debates about the ethics of such technology. Unfortunately, debates do not stop the arrival of new ideas but only delay them. So eventually, and sooner the better, biohacking would become mainstream and pave the way for new classes of life forms that blend the best of man and machine. Paving the way for this integration would be the seamless flow of information between carbon processing units, or organic brains and silicon processing units, or digital computers.
This brain-machine interface, that has its genesis in the technology that allows thought controlled devices, like wheel-chairs and now ‘video’ games, is a natural stepping stone for the fourth driver - the virtual reality of the metaverse. Metaverse was a concept that emerged from a 1980s science fiction novel, Snowcrash, and was given shape in the Massively Multiuser Online Role Playing Games (MMORPG) like World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy, Call of Duty. But the real contours of the metaverse were first evident, not in games, but on platforms like Second Life that allowed users to, not just play with, but actually create their own existence and experiences in the virtual world of avatars -- 3D, animated representations of themselves. The immersive 3D experience that companies like Facebook, Microsoft and NVidia are encouraging with virtual reality devices like Oculus and Hololens, would be where humans will increasingly migrate to -- for social and commercial purposes.
Users or inhabitants of the metaverse have the ability to free themselves from the physical constraints of the ‘real’ world and create their own fantasy world. In such a world, avatars can take different shapes, as in an octopus and fly around or teleport themselves either alone or in the company of the avatars of their social friends. This break from reality, or rather the immersive experience of an alternate reality is today somewhat constrained by being tethered to a keyboard-and-screen interface or a cumbersome virtual reality headset. But as brain-machine interfaces become simpler to use this constraint will loosen and eventually vanish. Then the level of interactivity and the ease with which one interacts with other objects in the metaverse, including the avatars of other users, will actually blur the borders between the real and the virtual worlds.
In fact, these virtual worlds will evolve into different planes of existence that human minds can enter and pass through in pursuit of creative objectives that are impossible in the real world. Interactions will expand beyond sight and sound and include touch, taste and smell and even the seamless exchange of thoughts. This will be possible since sensory signals will be delivered to the brain even in the absence of the biological sensory organs, as in the bionic eyes. As avatars, one could experience sports, concerts and other events where the players and actors are represented by their avatars. Movies and plays can give way to interactive 3D experiences where the audience, the observer, can influence the script. This may sound way too futuristic but it is not so. Thought controlled devices are a reality today and it is just a matter of time before they get integrated with the metaverse. This will create multiple layers and types of existence, or perception, that are accessible to human minds through avatars of different types and capabilities.
Driving, or rather facilitating these four drivers - energy management, space colonisation, biohacks and the metaverse, is the fifth driver : artificial intelligence. The One Ring to Rule Them All.
Artificial intelligence comes in many shapes and sizes but the consensus at the moment is that artificial neural networks (ANN) with millions and billions ( and soon trillions) of parameters display the astonishing ability to perform tasks normally associated with intelligent human beings. This includes diagnosing diseases, recognising faces, recognising and decoding human voice, driving cars on public roads, running across difficult terrains, generating original text and images that are indistinguishable from those created by humans and even carrying out reasonably coherent and meaningful conversations. All these capabilities come together when ANN powered systems interact with flesh-and-blood humans through their avatars in a metaverse-like environment of MMORPG games. These games create situations that lead to conflict and competition between man and machine. In such adversarial scenarios, the machines generally outwit and outmaneuver humans which can give rise to fears of a take over of the planet by hostile machines. This is staple science fiction of the dystopian kind!
But if we can anticipate such behaviour and preempt them by putting in safeguards, like Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, then the potential to leverage this technology is nearly infinite. Linked to the other four drivers, AI is a force multiplier that will increase the power, the potency, the potential of everything that we can envisage or execute. This will mean that in principle, our robots that colonise other planets would be smarter, our power systems would be safer and more reliable, our biohacking will yield more useful results and the metaverse will become more magical and paradoxically, more realistic. But the real benefit of AI could accrue when multiple AI systems, with different and diverse capabilities, come together -- in a centralised, cloud computing like scenario -- to create an immense engine of cognition and consciousness that can reach out and touch each and every sentient artifact across the metaverse.
But can machines become conscious? Many learned people are of the opinion that despite all advances in AI, consciousness is something that is possible only in biological systems through their contact with a divine transcendence that lies beyond the logical approach that forms the basis of AI. This is an endless debate that we will dodge for the time being. Instead, we will move ahead on the assumption that if an AI displays behaviour that is indistinguishable from the behaviour of conscious sentients then it does not matter whether it is indeed conscious or not. In fact, consciousness is an emergent phenomenon that becomes apparent at the confluence of multiple cognitive and behavioural traits. Incidentally, much of our very successful AI is currently as inexplicable as the intuitive behaviour of a mystic. From this perspective, our fifth and final driver, AI, is the true foundation of the civilization that awaits us in the future.
So we have five key technologies that will define the contours of the future : Nuclear Energy, Space Exploration, BioHacks, Metaverse and Artificial Intelligence. This is of course a very high level view and the devils in the detail will emerge when we break this down into smaller, more manageable tasks. There will be many challenges, mostly technological but some very social challenges that will emerge around the question of ethics, morality, privacy and the need to strike a balance between private enterprise and public good. As a society we need to acknowledge and address these challenges in a manner that advances the goals of our civilisation as a whole.
But there is one perspective that could be very interesting for anyone who has an interest in the Hindu view of the world. Here we are looking at a five column spectrum of technologies - the Pancha Tantra. At one end we have AI -- the embodiment of pure knowledge, cognition and consciousness -- as a manifestation of Shiv. At the other end we have the Shakti of nuclear energy, that animates and gives life to the potential that lies dormant in pure knowledge. Between this Shiv and his Shakti, we have the Maya, or the illusion of the three worlds -- the physical world of space, the world of life and metabolism and the metaverse that transcends the other two. Could this be the vision that is revealed to adepts who sit on the PanchMundi Asana - the seat of five skulls - and meditate on the Leela, the divine play, of Shiv-Shakti?
If these ideas seem like Science Fiction, you may consider checking out my sci-fi novels Chronotantra and Chronoyantra :-)