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未来是什么样的?What the future looks like

(2009-06-02 21:19:41)
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分类: 世界公民关注世界未来

未来是什么样的?

简介

人类热衷于预测未来,我们能预测未来的一切吗?我们所能预测到的未来是什么样的呢?

 

未来为我们这颗蓝色小星球及其居民准备了些什么?图片来源:Blue Line Pictures/Getty Images

自不量力地对2050年作技术预测是愚蠢的尝试。打算预测社会和地理政治的变化更是自不量力。事实上,最重要的发展,最重要的质的跨越,也是最不可能预言的。即使是最优秀的科学家也没预料到核物理的冲击力如此巨大,而回溯到上世纪五十年代,像iPhone这样的日常消费品一定会被看作不可思议的东西。

 

不过,我们能满怀信心地预言某些趋势。比如,除非爆发一场全球性大灾难,将来地球上一定会有比今天多得多的人口。五十年前,地球人口还不到三十亿;而五十年后的今天,地球人口已经翻了一番多,达到六十七亿。虽然人口增长的速度已经减缓,但是,由此类推,到2050年地球人口将达到九十亿,而且新增加的人口几乎都将出自发展中国家,因为现在那里年轻人的数量远远超过了老年人。

 

如果2050年之后人口继续增长,那么前景无疑会极其暗淡。由于气候变化的影响,要养活如此迅速增长的人口,我们必将面临更加严峻的考验。

 

到2050年,全球气候将比今天更暖和;世界各地的降雨及干旱的形式也将有所变化。如果我们继续“处之泰然”,到2050年左右,大气中二氧化碳的浓度级别将达到工业化以前的两倍。而二氧化碳的浓度越高,气温就会越高——更重要的是,还可能引发某些更严重、更不可逆转的变化:格陵兰冰盖的融化造成海平面上升;冻土地带的甲烷失去控制释放出来。

 

如今,某些技术(比如信息技术)的发展速度快得令人吃惊;而其它方面却似乎停滞不前了。苏联发射史波尼克人造卫星和尼尔·阿姆斯壮在月球上迈开“一小步”前后只过了十二年。我们许多人因此都期待着在三十年内完成月球基地的建设,甚至实现火星探险。然而,自从杰克·施密特和尤今·塞尔南最后登上月球又返回地球以来,已经过去三十六年多了。从那时起,已经有数百名宇航员进入轨道,但是,没有人再做进一步的尝试。

 

阿波罗计划如今看起来如同遥远的历史事件:全世界的年轻人听美国人登陆月球的故事,就好像听埃及人建造金字塔的故事一样;其动机无外乎是为了在一个又一个事件中猎奇。其实争先恐后地登上月球才是登陆月球的真正目的——这不过是受超级大国相互竞争驱使的壮丽的“特技”表演。从那以后,载人飞行的动力就消失了。当然了,我们今天的日常生活,比如GPS,天气预报和通讯等都离不开太空。机器人的探险活动已经迅速发展起来。针对其它星球的无人驾驶探测器也已经传回各种各样独特世界的图片。

 

我希望,到2050年,各种微型小机器人飞行器能够完成对整个太阳系的探测,并绘制出图谱。机器人和“制造者”也许能够使利用必要的非地球产原材料来建造大型建筑项目成为现实。可是,人们会遵照执行吗?把人送上太空的实际情况,使得机器人和小型化的每次改进都更缺乏说服力。尽管如此,我依然热心支持把载人飞行——去月球、去火星,甚至其它星球——仅仅作为人类(至少几个人)的远程冒险。

 

如今,每部移动电话的计算能力都比二十世纪六十年代整个美国宇航局可用的计算能力都强得多。移动电话的发展进程非常迅速。有人声称,计算机将在2050年之前达到人的智力水平。其实,在某些方面它们无疑已经达到了人的智力水平。早在三十年前,我们就能够买到计算能力大大超过人类的计算器。IBM的“深蓝”计算机就打败了国际象棋世界冠军卡斯帕罗夫。但是,即使是现在最先进的机器人,也还不能像五岁大的孩子一样熟练地识别或移动现实生活中棋盘上的棋子。

 

“深蓝”并不是像人类棋手那样计算棋着,而是利用自己快速的计算能力研究数百万条走法以及对策,再从中选定最佳的走法。同样,机器也能获得令人类大脑无法理解的科学发现,不过,它不是通过什么理论或策略,而是通过测试数百万条的可能性来完成任务的。

 

那么,我们是否能够继续推进这些尖端科学,扩大我们的交感理解力范围呢?现实的某些方面,比如,我们难以理解物理的统一理论或认知理论,也许只是因为它们超出了人类大脑的理解能力,正如量子力学必定会令黑猩猩大惑不解一样。

 

我们能颇为自信地预言计算机的性能、IT、技术等将继续发展,可以用于为基因组测序,理解并修改基因组。但是,至2050年,定然会出现新的变化。举例来说,人类的本性和人类的性格千年以来没有变化。而在本世纪,增智药物、基因和“半机器人”技术也许会开始改变人类本身。

 

我们应该向处于科学幻想边缘的观念开放我们的头脑,或至少是半开放。古怪的美国未来学家也有对的时候。他们提醒我们,具有超常智慧的机器是人类所能设计的终极仪器——机器将接管其本身以后的发展历程。还有一种推测,即人类的寿命将大大延长,这将对各种人口预测造成巨大的破坏性影响。目前,这种希望已经导致一些人留下遗言,要将他们的尸体“冷冻起来”,希望将来能够复活。至于我,宁愿选择在英国的教堂结束自己的一辈子,也不想进入加利福尼亚的冰箱。

 

我们能够确切地做出一个对所有“科学家公民”而言很重要的预言。那就是,科学能让我们做什么和科学所追求的明智或道德的应用之间肯定存在着宽大的鸿沟。

 

有时,人们会错误地想像,以数十亿的标准来衡量时间间隔的天文学家们一定很冷静,不会在乎明天、下周甚至明年。但是,“宇宙的观念”确实加深了我自己对眼前的关注。

 

自达尔文以来,我们已经熟悉了进化历史惊人的时间间隔。然而,不知为什么,大多数人仍然以为我们人类必然是进化树的顶点。而天文学家没人相信这一点。

 

我们的太阳形成于四十五亿年前,而六十亿年后它的燃料才能耗尽。膨胀的宇宙将继续——也许会永远——越变越冷、越变越空。正如伍迪·艾伦所说,“永远是很长的,尤其是通往终结”。任何能见证太阳死亡的生物,无论是在当今的地球上或是遥远的它方,都不会是人类。它们将是某种实体,其不同于我们,就好像我们不同于臭虫一样。

 

不过,即使在这张向未来,向过去延伸数百万世纪的“折叠式”时间表上,本世纪也是特别的一个世纪。在我们地球的历史上,这是第一次有一个物种——我们的人类——掌握了地球的未来,不仅可能危及其本身,而且可能危及生命的巨大潜力。

 

假设某些外星人一直观察着我们地球的整个历史。 随着那段极长的时间过去——四十五亿年——地球外貌必定一直都在逐渐地改变着。但是,在其历史的一小段时间内——即过去的几千年——植物的模样比以前变化得快得多。这标志着农业的出现。随着人类数量的增长,这种变化的速度也越来越快。

 

接着,出现了其它变化,更突然的变化。在过去的五十年里——只比百万分之一地球年龄的百分之一多一点——大气中的二氧化碳浓度开始反常地迅速上升。地球成了无线电波(电视、手机以及雷达传输器)的密集发射器。另外一些前所未有的事情也发生了:从地球上发射出去的小型抛射体逃离了我们的生物圈。其中一些被推入环绕地球的轨道,另一些则飞向月球和其它星球。

 

如果外星人懂得天体物理学,他们可能会自信地预测到,当太阳突然燃烧起来然后灭亡的时候,这个生物圈将在几十亿年之内面对厄运。他们会不会已经预测到地球生命过去了一半的信号?——总的来说,这些人类引发的变化占据了不到百万分之一已经过去的生命期,而表面来看却似以失控的速度在发生着变化。

 

如果这些假设的外星人继续监视着我们,他们在今后几十年内会见证到什么?会是在最后的痉挛之后归于静寂吗?或者地球本身将稳定下来?从地球上发射出去的某些东西会不会在其它地方孕育出新的生命绿洲?

 

这个结果取决于政治选择。而二十一世纪将要提供的知识和技术,可能会引导有影响、有理想的科学家、人类生态学专家和人类学者,对这些选择产生影响。

What the future looks like

What does the future hold for our small blue planet and its inhabitants? Photograph: Blue Line Pictures/Getty Images

It would be foolhardy to venture technological predictions for 2050. Even more so to predict social and geopolitical changes. The most important advances, the qualitative leaps, are the least predictable. Not even the best scientists predicted the impact of nuclear physics, and everyday consumer items such as the iPhone would have seemed magic back in the 1950s.

But there are some trends that we can predict with confidence. There will, barring a global catastrophe, be far more people on Earth than today. Fifty years ago the world population was below 3 billion. It has more than doubled since then, to 6.7 billion. The percentage growth rate has slowed, but it is projected to reach 9 billion by 2050. The excess will almost all be in the developing world where the young hugely outnumber the old.

If population growth were to continue beyond 2050, one can't be other than exceedingly gloomy about the prospects. And the challenge of feeding such a rapidly growing population will be aggravated by climate change.

The world will be warmer than today in 2050; the patterns of rainfall and drought across the world will be different. If we pursue "business as usual",CO2 concentration levels will reach twice the pre-industrial level by around 2050. The higher its concentration, the greater the warming - and, more important still, the greater the chance of triggering something grave and irreversible: rising sea levels due to the melting of Greenland's icecap; runaway release of methane in the tundra.

Some technical advances - information technology, for instance - surprise us by their rapidity; others seemingly stagnate. Only 12 years elapsed between the launch of Sputnik and Neil Armstrong's "one small step" on the moon. Many of us then expected a lunar base, even an expedition to Mars, within 30 years. But it's more than 36 years since Jack Schmitt and Eugene Cernan, the last men on the moon, returned to Earth. Since that time, hundreds of astronauts have been into orbit, but none has ventured further.

The Apollo programme now seems a remote historical episode: young people all over the world learn that America landed men on the moon, just as they learn that the Egyptians built the pyramids; the motivations seem almost as bizarre in the one case as in the other. The race to the moon was an end in itself - a magnificent "stunt", driven by superpower rivalry. Thereafter, the impetus for manned flight was lost. But, of course, we now depend on space in our everyday lives (GPS, weather forecasting and communications). And robotic exploration has burgeoned. Unmanned probes to other planets have beamed back pictures of varied and distinctive worlds.

I hope that by 2050 the entire solar system will have been explored and mapped by flotillas of tiny robotic craft. Robots and "fabricators" may enable large construction projects, using raw materials that need not come from Earth. But will people follow them? The practical case for sending people into space gets ever-weaker with each advance in robots and miniaturisation. But I'm nonetheless an enthusiast for manned missions - to the moon, to Mars and even beyond - simply as a long-range adventure for (at least a few) humans.

Each mobile phone today has far more computing power than was available to the whole of Nasa in the 1960s. And advances proceed apace. Some claim that computers will, by 2050, achieve human capabilities. Of course, in some respects they already have. For 30 years we've been able to buy calculators that can hugely surpass us at arithmetic. IBM's "Deep Blue" beat Kasparov, the world chess champion. But not even the most advanced robot can recognise and move the pieces on a real chessboard as adeptly as a five-year-old child.

Deep Blue didn't work out its strategy like a human player: it exploited its computational speed to explore millions of alternative series of moves and responses before deciding an optimum move. Likewise, machines may make scientific discoveries that have eluded unaided human brains - but by testing out millions of possibilities rather than via a theory or strategy.

But will we continue to push forward the frontiers, enlarging the range of our consensual understanding? Some aspects of reality - a unified theory of physics, or a theory of consciousness - might elude our understanding simply because they're beyond the powers of human brains, just as surely as quantum mechanics would flummox a chimpanzee.

We can with some confidence predict continuing advances in computer power, in IT, in techniques for sequencing and interpreting and modifying the genome. But there could, by 2050, be qualitatively new kinds of change. For instance, one thing that's been unaltered for millennia is human nature and human character. But in this century, mind-enhancing drugs, genetics, and "cyborg" techniques may start to alter human beings themselves.

And we should keep our minds open, or at least ajar, to concepts on the fringe of science fiction. Flaky American futurologists aren't always wrong. They remind us that a superintelligent machine is the last instrument that humans may ever design - the machine will itself take over in making further steps. Another speculation is that the human lifespan could be greatly extended, something that would wreak havoc on all population projections. At the moment this hope leads some to bequeath their bodies to be "frozen" on their death, in the hope of some future resurrection. For my part, I'd still opt to end my days in an English churchyard rather than a Californian refrigerator.

We can make one firm forecast that's important for all "citizen scientists". There will surely be a widening gulf between what science enables us to do, and what applications it's prudent or ethical to pursue.

It's sometimes wrongly imagined that astronomers, contemplating timespans measured in billions, must be serenely unconcerned about next year, next week and tomorrow. But a "cosmic perspective" actually strengthens my own concerns about the here and now.

Ever since Darwin, we've been familiar with the stupendous timespans of the evolutionary past. But most people still somehow think we humans are necessarily the culmination of the evolutionary tree. No astronomer could believe this.

Our sun formed 4.5bn years ago, but it's got 6bn more before the fuel runs out. And the expanding universe will continue - perhaps for ever - becoming ever colder, ever emptier. As Woody Allen said, "Eternity is very long, especially towards the end". Any creatures who witness the sun's demise, here on Earth or far beyond, won't be human. They will be entities as different from us as we are from a bug.

But even in this "concertinaed" timeline - extending millions of centuries into the future, as well as into the past - this century is special. It's the first in our planet's history where one species - ours - has Earth's future in its hands, and could jeopardise not only itself, but life's immense potential.

Suppose some aliens had been watching our planet for its entire history. Over nearly all that immense time - 4.5bn years - Earth's appearance would have altered very gradually. But in just a tiny sliver of its history - the last few thousand years - the patterns of vegetation altered much faster than before. This signalled the start of agriculture. The pace of change accelerated as human populations rose.

Then there were other changes, even more abrupt. Within the last 50 years - little more than one hundredth of a millionth of the Earth's age - the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere began to rise anomalously fast. The planet became an intense emitter of radio waves (TV, cellphone, and radar transmissions.) And something else unprecedented happened: small projectiles launched from the planet escaped the biosphere. Some were propelled into orbits around the Earth; some journeyed to the moon and planets.

If they understood astrophysics, the aliens could confidently predict that the biosphere would face doom in a few billion years when the sun flares up and dies. But could they have predicted this unprecedented spike less than halfway through the Earth's life - these human-induced alterations occupying, overall, less than a millionth of the elapsed lifetime and seemingly occurring with runaway speed?

If they continued to keep watch, what might these hypothetical aliens witness in the next few decades? Will final spasm be followed by silence? Or will the planet itself stabilise? And will some of the objects launched from the Earth spawn new oases of life elsewhere?

The outcome depends on political choices. But those choices can be influenced by effective and idealistic scientists, environmentalists and humanists, guided by the knowledge and technology that the 21st century will offer.

 

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