TED Conversations

Steven Meglitsch

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Will there still be humans on this planet a million years from now?

I keep mulling around in my mind the question of whether or not the human species is evolutionarily viable on the long term. There seem to be a lot of pros and cons, but to me it looks as though the jury is still out.

The secondary questions are:
1. If we are still here in a million years, what will be different about us? What parameters will permit us to succeed.
2. If not, what will lead to our downfall, and what parameters in the human species will have hindered our continued survival?


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  • Nov 27 2012: A million years from now... no, definitively the answer is: a rotund NO. Human beings won't be around 300 years from now. If we are a pessimist we can assume self-destruction will occur at some point in the near future, either by an ecological catastrophe or by world war 3, so form a pessimist point of view, there is not even a slight chance we will be here a hundred years from now. If we are optimist, on the other hand, within the next 100 years, human beings will merge with machines and become one, a new species capable of driving its own evolution in such a way, so fast and so effective that 10 generations from now our descendants may be the last living things (notice I use the word "things" instead of "organisms") to have a trace of natural DNA. So form an optimistic point of view, even when the human spirit may be preserved, the human DNA will eventually disappear completely in the next few centuries. So no matter if you assume a pessimistic or an optimistic point of view, humans won't be here 300 years from now.
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      Nov 27 2012: So, George, our future is either self-destruction or cyborg-"evolution." Both have been a popular themes in SF, and give us a couple of reasonable scenarios.

      You are the first to point out that our decendents won't necessarily be Humans (or, alternatively that future Humans will be as different from us as we are from australopithicines). I rather figure that any evolutionary change to come will be biological, because we will have used up our resources before we create the technology to either create cyborgs or control our DNA on a mass scale.

      I mean, we can't even feed everybody today even when we have the resources to do so.
      • Nov 29 2012: I've seen a couple of TED talks, sadly I'm unable to recall the names of the speakers, but one of them is a researcher at the university of Glasgow, he is talking about the possibility of an alternative "synthetic biology" based completely on inorganic elements... there are so many chemical elements with lots of wonderful properties that may empower future synthetic biologists far beyond our current imagination. Now days mainstream researchers are talking about both, artificial (based on organic elements) and synthetic biologies. There's also a lot of research being done in the field of nanotechnology and I don't doubt there are medical researchers trying to find practical applications for all this technologies. Currently these are just ideas being developed, but I can assure you one day, within the next 100 years, someone will find a way to merge natural DNA with synthetic "DNA" and/or nanobots. Once that happens, the future not only of the human being, but the whole biology will be changed.

        You may say: "only wealthy people will get all the benefits of all this research", but I will answer: "yes at first, but we should be confident that very shortly after that an "open source movement" will slowly make them available TO ALL!!!!"... I can assure you, it won't stop there, sooner or latter, nanobots and synthetic biology will also reach pets, crops, and form that point, there's only one step to rewrite the whole biology... and that my friend, will occur between 100 and 300 years from now, that of course if we don't destroy ourselves first."
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      Nov 29 2012: I am familiar with the 2 - 300 year time frame for synthetic evolution. Of course in your last sentence you say it all: "If we don't destroy ourselves first." At a guess, if we don't really screw things up within the next century, we will surely see a lot of new medical advancements, both in robotics and nanotechnology. Controlled evolution/mutation/cyborgization may or may not follow, depending on other things.

      One problem would be that if everybody has the chance, say, for life extension, what do we do about all the new babies being born? The only reason we don't already have an 8 digit population is that people die.
      • Nov 30 2012: Like John Lennon said: "There are no problems, only solutions", guided evolution will allow scientist to blend animal DNA and with plant DNA and make anyone capable to produce its own food out of its own waste, so they won't need to eat or defecate very often, so food won't be a problem, and if it were, I'm confident people of that time will be able to harvest crops form ships orbiting the earth around. Space won't be a problem either, if you cannot grow sideways there is plenty of space upwards. Energy?... the sun will provide more than we can use. Once your technology reaches the point in which you can either (a) scale food production beyond available physical space or (b) make anyone food independent, the size of your population can grow without worrying. Believe me, for any problem human kind may find in the way, there will be at least one person willing to solve it and not minding giving their life on that quest.
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      Dec 4 2012: But, George, I still have problems envisioning a global population of, say, trillions and trillions of humans without us more or less destroying all tre rest of nature on the planet., even if they had become, as you suggest, low resource consumers.
      • Dec 5 2012: I can understand your point, however I think our descendants (which won't be fully humans) will have more reasoning power than us, and surely will find a way to keep population growth under control. Currently death and reproduction drive evolution, but what if you can separate evolution from the reproduction process, if that can be achieved, it may open the door for immortality and would make biological reproduction (as we know it) obsolete, that way population will reach a certain limit, around which it will stabilize. Just imagine this: One of your descendants meets a real nice person of the opposite sex, so they mate... in therms of our current biology the end of the story would be: "she eventually gets pregnant and a new human being is born"... but what if, instead of that, they actually merge into some kind of cocoon which passed some amount of time would yield 2 new adult persons whom would be at the same time parents and children of themselves... too crazy???... may be, but don't forget we are talking about synthetic biology, nanotechnology and guided evolution... this is just a quick solution I think our descendants may figure out, but the possibilities are endless, including taking more traditional measures like birth control, or tax incentives for couples with only one child.

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