Our civilization does not develop linearly. There are tipping points that change the trajectory in a drastic way. Think of the World Wars. After the second one, and the birth of nuclear age, people decided that there has to be a better way to solve the world’s problems than getting all of us involved in a major war. Afterall, with nuclear weapons, the third World War can wipe out humanity. The result, relative peace for the past 75 plus years.
One of the next tipping points that can affect trajectory of civilization was when the Human Genome Project was completed in early 2000s and the human DNA was sequenced. Armed with the capability of reading the code of life, scientists of all types have unleashed a torrent of innovations that would cure diseases, address infertility, solve crimes, and even figure out how humans migrated in the past.
What is interesting today is that we are confronted with not one but several tipping points at the same time. Each likely to cause a significant change. The first two on my list are major and have direct impact right now. The second two can have a profound impact on our lives moving forward. The last one will take some time to mature, but can portend the beginning of a new phase of our civilization.
1. Climate Change
This is one of the most important tipping points. After years of ignoring the problem or calling it a hoax, there can be little doubt that climate change is happening. Just look at the evidence: Temperature is rising rapidly around the world, wild weather is happening almost everywhere, Greenland icesheet is melting at an alarming rate and the glaciers are disappearing. Of course, there are still those who believe that all this is caused by natural cycles and the earth has undergone periodic heating and cooling. Sure, it has but not at this rate. In thousands of years, not twenty.
The impact of this tipping point may be devastating. All the way from making this planet uninhabitable to creating major disruptions in the way our civilization functions. Agriculture in many parts of the world will be severely affected, and so will be the living spaces. This will cause wars fought over a scarce commodity — -water. The migration problem, already a serious concern in Europe and United States, will certainly get worse as desperate people try to enter these affluent areas of the world. Heat is known to cause death, but the “super heat” will be devastating, not to mention massive flooding that is already taking place.
How will we cope with this disaster we have brought upon ourselves is anyone’s guess. Will some drastic measures (such as the attempts to reduce greenhouse effects by seeding the atmosphere) work? Is there any possibility that the situation will stabilize, and even reverse course due to the actions to reduce greenhouse emission being undertaken, now that most of us have woken up to the unfolding calamity?
2. Artificial Intelligence
Another tipping point with potentially huge impact is Artificial Intelligence. This technology has been around for many years, but it took a while to figure out that machine learning is the way to go, and not a rule-based construct. With the arrival of ChatGPT a few months ago, the die was cast. Now most of us can have a machine that shows intelligence that only humans could until now.
This tipping point has received a mixed set of reaction. Some folks believe that AI will increase productivity and efficiency of our economy and make the tasks done by humans much simpler, just like many advances in technology have.
The others are scarred stiff. They see an existential threat to our civilization. An extreme scenario is that AI, working with robots, will take over, much like they do in movie “Terminator”. Humans will be nothing but a fodder to be sacrificed.
What will happen eventually may be some of both. It is inevitable that AI will have a profound impact on everything from the jobs we perform to the education we receive. Almost no job is immune to encroachment by AI. If what you are doing can be done by AI, maybe not as well but adequately well, what would prevent a future boss from replacing you to save cost? If what we teach prepares you for current jobs that may not exist in the future, what will we teach you?
Even creative arts will be invaded. Already an AI system has helped create Beethoven’s tenth symphony, how can music composed in the future not be affected by AI? Even now, Hollywood writers and actors are on strike and one of the guarantees they seek is that they will not be replaced by AI.
Of course, AI will have additional impact on our civilization. As it is, separating fact from fiction is difficult, what will happen when fiction is so well depicted that most people will think it is fact? How can an election take place when you have no idea what the actual candidate said or did when fictitious ones are running around looking and talking just like they were real? What about fraud?
This is a scary tipping point because of all the uncertainties surrounding it.
3. Automation in Transportation
Imagine a day when the trucking industry would be drastically changed with trucks driving without drivers. Autonomous trucks will ply the highways carrying goods from all over the place. Also, who will need to be taxi or Uber driver when self-driving vehicles appear to drive you around any place any time? Finally, personal vehicles? Maybe some will be around, but if a vehicle can appear anytime you want, why bother with the hassle of owning it? Just imagine the consequences if the personal vehicles, the mainstay of American household and industry were to disappear.
Some of us had a preview of this tipping point more than fifty years ago while doing research in the transportation area. That is when the essential elements of a driverless vehicle were being introduced and tested. We didn’t think it would take this long before we would have autonomous vehicles running around. However, they are here, at least on an experimental basis, and the implications will be profound.
4. Remote working
There was a slow progression in working remotely until 2020 when Covid hit the world in full force. Then the whole world went into a remote working mode. Now, with Covid receding, the business world is no longer operating on remote workers. Some companies want the employees to come to the office at least some days of the week. However, the cat is out of the bag. No longer will employees wonder if their employers will be productive while not in office.
This will have an immediate impact on whether a company should keep offices. What will happen to those tall buildings with shiny façades in downtowns? What will happen to the downtowns when people disappear? Some cities like San Francisco are already feeling the impact of hollowed out downtowns. Is that just the beginning of a massive change in urban infrastructure?
Once again, this is an area where I had a preview of things to come. While working at Arthur D. Little, a consulting firm, I did a study almost thirty years ago of what would be the societal benefits of telecommunications substituting transportation. I estimated the benefits; in terms of pollution and energy reduction, productivity increase, and infrastructure maintenance reduction; from mostly unheard-of things like telecommuting, teleshopping and teleconferencing. The findings were reported widely and was one of the elements in public sector spending on high-bandwidth telecommunications network. The conversion from transportation to telecommunications stayed at a low level until Covid hit and there was no choice. Now there is no turning back.
5. Commercialization of Space Travel
My final tipping point is related to something considered frivolous by many if not most people: Commercialization of space. Several firms, Virgin Galactic, SpaceX and such, have already sent civilians to space and are about to start regular launches for the well-heeled folks. The going up and down type of space travel will soon morph into a visit to a space station, much like what was envisioned in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Then will come travel to a colony on moon and then, some decade later, to Mars. Fanciful, yes, but when I was growing up, even travel by an airplane was fanciful. Now, everyone does it.
People of the future, my grandchildren included, will see the early 2020s as when space travel stopped being just for astronauts and started catering to civilians.
It is hard to speculate how each of these will playout. It may be that some of the advances will affect others. For example, AI will help create technologies to mitigate some of the effects of Climate Change. People displaced by rising water and unlivable temperatures may get employed through remote work openings. This will reduce hardship on them. If earth becomes unlivable due to climate change, some fraction of humanity may travel to a geo synchronous orbit, Moon or Mars. The survival of homo sapiens may depend on them.
Yes, science fiction for now, but a real possibility 50–100 years from today.