- In early September 2017, the world’s attention was focused on various pieces of salient news: Hurricane Irma was brewing in the Caribbean, Donald Trump’s administration had announced plans to dismantle an Obama-era immigration policy, and photographers captured Prince George’s first day at school.
- Status quo trajectories, in which human civilisation persists in a broadly similar state into the distant future.
- Catastrophe trajectories, in which one or more events cause significant harm to human civilisation.
- Technological transformation trajectories, in which radical technological breakthroughs put human civilisation on a fundamentally different course.
- Astronomical trajectories, in which human civilisation expands beyond its home planet and into the accessible portions of the cosmos.
Around the same time, a small, little-known group of researchers were meeting at a workshop in Gothenburg, Sweden with a goal to look much, much further ahead – far beyond this latest news cycle. Motivated by a moral concern for our descendants, their goal was to discuss the existential risks facing humanity.
The meeting would lead to an intriguing and readable co-authored paper called Long-term Trajectories of Human Civilisation, which attempts to “formalise a scientific and ethical field of study” for thousands of years hence. As they write: “To restrict attention to near-term decades may be akin to the drunk searching for his keys under the streetlight: it may be where empirical study is more robust, but the important part lies elsewhere.”
The Trajectories group began with the assumption that, while the future is uncertain, it is not unknown. We can predict many things with reasonable confidence, via observed patterns, repeating events, and established behaviours throughout human history. For example: biology suggests that each mammalian species exists, on average, for roughly 1 million years before it becomes extinct; history shows that humanity has continually colonised new lands and strived to transform our abilities with technology; and the fossil record demonstrates that global extinction events can and do happen.
Extrapolating these patterns and behaviours into the future allowed them to map out four possible long-term trajectories for our species:
So on the optimistic path, merging with some as-yet-unimagined technology or colonising the stars are two scenarios that are entirely possible with the passage of enough time, they suggest. Both paths could lead to our descendants thriving for millions if not billions of years, spreading out into the Universe or evolving into a more advanced species.
But we also are almost certain to face serious existential risks along the way. Natural disasters have pruned life on Earth continually – this much we know. What worries the Trajectories researchers more is that in the 20th and early 21st Century we've added a whole host of additional human-made risks into the mix too – from nuclear armageddon to AI apocalypse to anthropogenic climate change.
In their paper, they lay out a variety of chilling scenarios where civilisation is rewound back to pre-industrial times, or wiped out altogether. [...]
The researchers can't predict which order any of this will play out. They can predict, though, that it’s our trajectory to shape – for better or worse, the decisions we make this century could shape the next one and far beyond. “The stakes are extremely large, and there may be a lot that people today can do to have a positive impact,” they write.
The question is: will we?