What kinds of grand futures are there?

I have been working for about a year on a book on “Grand Futures” – the future of humanity, starting to sketch a picture of what we could eventually achieve were we to survive, get our act together, and reach our full potential. Part of this is an attempt to outline what we know is and isn’t physically possible to achieve, part of it is an exploration of what makes a future good.

Here are some things that appear to be physically possible (not necessarily easy, but doable):

  • Societies of very high standards of sustainable material wealth. At least as rich (and likely far above) current rich nation level in terms of what objects, services, entertainment and other lifestyle ordinary people can access.
  • Human enhancement allowing far greater health, longevity, well-being and mental capacity, again at least up to current optimal levels and likely far, far beyond evolved limits.
  • Sustainable existence on Earth with a relatively unchanged biosphere indefinitely.
  • Expansion into space:
    • Settling habitats in the solar system, enabling populations of at least 10 trillion (and likely many orders of magnitude more)
    • Settling other stars in the milky way, enabling populations of at least 1029 people
    • Settling over intergalactic distances, enabling populations of at least 1038 people.
  • Survival of human civilisation and the species for a long time.
    • As long as other mammalian species – on the order of a million years.
    • As long as Earth’s biosphere remains – on the order of a billion years.
    • Settling the solar system – on the order of 5 billion years
    • Settling the Milky Way or elsewhere – on the order of trillions of years if dependent on sunlight
    • Using artificial energy sources – up to proton decay, somewhere beyond 1032 years.
  • Constructing Dyson spheres around stars, gaining energy resources corresponding to the entire stellar output, habitable space millions of times Earth’s surface, telescope, signalling and energy projection abilities that can reach over intergalactic distances.
  • Moving matter and objects up to galactic size, using their material resources for meaningful projects.
  • Performing more than a google (10100) computations, likely far more thanks to reversible and quantum computing.

While this might read as a fairly overwhelming list, it is worth noticing that it does not include gaining access to an infinite amount of matter, energy, or computation. Nor indefinite survival. I also think faster than light travel is unlikely to become possible. If we do not try to settle remote galaxies within 100 billion years accelerating expansion will move them beyond our reach. This is a finite but very large possible future.

What kinds of really good futures may be possible? Here are some (not mutually exclusive):

  • Survival: humanity survives as long as it can, in some form.
  • “Modest futures”: humanity survives for as long as is appropriate without doing anything really weird. People have idyllic lives with meaningful social relations. This may include achieving close to perfect justice, sustainability, or other social goals.
  • Gardening: humanity maintains the biosphere of Earth (and possibly other planets), preventing them from crashing or going extinct. This might include artificially protecting them from a brightening sun and astrophysical disasters, as well as spreading life across the universe.
  • Happiness: humanity finds ways of achieving extreme states of bliss or other positive emotions. This might include local enjoyment, or actively spreading minds enjoying happiness far and wide.
  • Abolishing suffering: humanity finds ways of curing negative emotions and suffering without precluding good states. This might include merely saving humanity, or actively helping all suffering beings in the universe.
  • Posthumanity: humanity deliberately evolves or upgrades itself into forms that are better, more diverse or otherwise useful, gaining access to modes of existence currently not possible to humans but equally or more valuable.
  • Deep thought: humanity develops cognitive abilities or artificial intelligence able to pursue intellectual pursuits far beyond what we can conceive of in science, philosophy, culture, spirituality and similar but as yet uninvented domains.
  • Creativity: humanity plays creatively with the universe, making new things and changing the world for its own sake.

I have no doubt I have missed many plausible good futures.

Note that there might be moral trades, where stay-at-homes agree with expansionists to keep Earth an idyllic world for modest futures and gardening while the others go off to do other things, or long-term oriented groups agreeing to give short-term oriented groups the universe during the stelliferous era in exchange for getting it during the cold degenerate era trillions of years in the future. Real civilisations may also have mixtures of motivations and sub-groups.

Note that the goals and the physical possibilities play out very differently: modest futures do not reach very far, while gardener civilisations may seek to engage in megascale engineering to support the biosphere but not settle space. Meanwhile the happiness-maximizers may want to race to convert as much matter as possible to hedonium, while the deep thought-maximizers may want to move galaxies together to create permanent hyperclusters filled with computation to pursue their cultural goals.

I don’t know what goals are right, but we can examine what they entail. If we see a remote civilization doing certain things we can make some inferences on what is compatible with the behaviour. And we can examine what we need to do today to have the best chances of getting to a trajectory towards some of these goals: avoiding getting extinct, improve our coordination ability, and figure out if we need to perform some global coordination in the long run that we need to agree on before spreading to the stars.