The Future of Humanity: A Look at Possible Futures and How to Shape Them

  Perhaps many people have had the “daydream” of winning the lottery and getting rich overnight, and they have also imagined that they can have special functions and predict in advance the lottery numbers that will be drawn in the future. However, David Christian, an American academic now teaching at Macquarie University in Sydney, pours cold water on this idea: “Trying to understand the future may be a bit like trying to catch the air.” However, this is not the case. Not for nothing: “Most of the drama and excitement in life comes from ignorance of the future, which gives us the freedom to choose, and the moral obligation to think about it.” Perhaps, it is this “moral obligation”
  that David Christian authored Future Big History: How to Build a Future Mindset. The so-called “big history” is a term coined by Christian himself to explore the history from the Big Bang to modern times.
  In an academic sense, “big history” is an emerging field that uses a multidisciplinary approach to study the history from the Big Bang to the present. The “interdisciplinary” characteristics required to study “big history” are in line with David Christian’s life experience. He studied philosophy when he was a PhD student at Oxford University, and later specialized in Russian history. In 1984, he also wrote a book on the history of Russian peasants, entitled “Bread and Salt”.
  Why is the “big history” focusing on the “past” linked to the “future”? Christian has his own explanation: “It’s the weirdest bit that the only clues we have about the future come from the past. It explains why life can feel like driving a race car while staring in the rearview mirror, and it’s no wonder we have Time will crash.” But it is also because “we also step into the future while looking back at the past”, “so that we can better use the past to illuminate possible futures”.
  Regarding “possible futures”, he gave a somewhat depressing conclusion: “We really don’t know what will happen.” Based on the premise that “the future is uncertain”, Christian gave two A concept, “future thinking” and “future management”. The former is used to include all kinds of thinking about the future, while the latter describes “the attempt to control or adjust the future direction according to one’s own wishes”.
  For humans, “future management” can be divided into three steps: find a goal; look for and analyze trends in the environment to figure out what might happen next; Note”. This word is easily reminiscent of the famous saying of Caesar in ancient Rome when he swung his army across the Rubicon River, “The dice have been thrown (Alea iacta est)”.
  This book spends a considerable amount of time describing the “future thinking” and “future behavior” of single-celled microorganisms, multicellular microorganisms, plants and animals. In animals, these functions are carried out by “neurons”. For example, the fruit fly brain has almost 200,000 neurons, while the octopus has as many as 550 million neurons. As the “spirit of all things”, the human brain includes about 100 billion neurons.
  The speed at which neurons transmit information is actually very slow (27.4 m/s), which is more than an order of magnitude lower than the fastest speed of light in the known universe (300,000 km/s). But Christian also pointed out that the neurons transmit signals “losslessly”, like a telephone signal transmitted through an underground cable, so the pain in the toe is not diminished when it is transmitted to the brain. This “signal lossless” feature, as well as powerful parallel computing capabilities (millions of neurons are computing at the same time), make “the brain is still more powerful than the top computers in some respects.” This statement will obviously give some people who fear “AI” a big sigh of relief.
  Although “future thinking exists for most waking beings like us,” human future thinking is unique in its own way. First of all, this is because humans have relatively the largest (in ratio of brain size to body size) brains among living things on Earth. More importantly, humans have the ability to “collective learning”. In the book, Christian points out that “many species have some form of culture because they have language and share information and ideas”. Chimpanzees and gorillas, already classified as hominids, are naturally typical examples of this. However, “only humans can share information with such high precision”. “The collective knowledge reserve grows and is passed down from generation to generation,” “Our technology, living habits, and way of thinking have all undergone tremendous changes,” “More and more knowledge reserves make us more and more capable of controlling the surrounding environment and creatures. powerful”.
  The manifestation of such “great changes” is that the “future thinking” of human beings in different historical periods is different. In agricultural times, divination was a common practice. “For most people, their respect for prophets and soothsayers is no less than that of doctors, navigators or generals.” The book mentions that fortune tellers in ancient Greece observed flocks of birds, studied the organs of sacrificed animals, listened to dreams told by people, and interpreted omens. This is of course well-founded. There is a dumb example of this. During the Peloponnesian War, Athens went on an expedition to Sicily in order to compete with Sparta for hegemony. After several battles, they still lost, and finally had to withdraw their troops. On the night of August 27, 413 BC, just as Athens was preparing to withdraw its troops, a lunar eclipse suddenly occurred. The commander-in-chief heeded the warning of the prophet and ordered three nine days before withdrawing. This gave the enemy time to train and improve their navy, and crushed the once mighty Athenian fleet.
  In this regard, Christian lamented that “in the eyes of modern people, the future thinking popular in the agricultural age is very weird and naive in all aspects.” He also pointed out that “what drives people to do divination is a great sense of anxiety, a great sense of instability and insecurity in most people’s lives”. This sentence is still appropriate to evaluate some strange phenomena in the world today.
  But on the whole, the future thinking of contemporary humans is obviously different from that of the agricultural era. He summarized it into four aspects. One, causality. “Understanding why things happen, we have a greater ability to detect trends and act on them when thinking about the future.” The second is the theory of probability, “When there is no power to determine what is true, we should follow the one that is most likely to be true.” Third, data collection and statistics. “Our ability to detect, analyze, understand and calculate the trend of probability will be enhanced.” Finally, information technology and computer science. This point is actually closely related to the third point, “Modern computer science allows us to store and analyze statistical information on a previously unimaginable scale, and its speed and accuracy are unprecedented.”
  Of course, today’s “future thinking” is far from perfect. Logical induction based on past data is not reliable. “Inductive reasoning to true premises leads to a wrong conclusion.” In this regard, the “farmer hypothesis” mentioned in the book is the case. A turkey has been observed for nearly a year and found that people always come to feed it at a certain time every day, so it is concluded that food will come at this time. Unfortunately, it was Christmas and the farmer killed the turkey and ate it. Interestingly, Liu Cixin mentioned this famous hypothesis in “The Three-Body Problem”, and Christian also mentioned the book “Three-Body Problem” in “The Great History of the Future”.
  However, contemporary humans still have unprecedented powerful capabilities in “future management”. If they want, humans can easily exterminate any large wild animal on the earth, and they can also change the surface landscape by digging canals and building dams… This allows humans to determine the future of themselves and the earth’s biosphere to a certain extent.
  Christian is obviously a universalist. In his view, “when we realize that our interdependence increases, we can reach a broad consensus for the good future of the planet Earth.” But as a rational scholar, he still gave a cautious warning to the future of mankind: “Looking back at the past few hundred years, most people living in the world today seem to be a group of people who were favored before the crisis. “The last people with free access to the fruits of the fossil fuel revolution.” ”
  In a worst-case scenario, human society would crash to the ground in the midst of famine, war, political and economic collapse, and a global pandemic.”
  ”In most future scenarios, small, pioneering human colonies will spread across the solar system by the end of the 21st century, and robotic space capsules will embark on a journey to other galaxies.” Too extreme predictions may sound a bit far-
  fetched , Christian himself has patched this. “From a practical point of view, no matter what kind of scene it is, it is unlikely to be staged in a pure form. The future presented in the end will be a complex.” “When the future comes, it must be as chaotic as the past.” The passage is reminiscent of the characteristics of the ancient Greek “oracle” – “For the sake of being interesting and reasonable, it has enough details, and it will not be too general to be empty”, “These answers cover most of the future possibilities “.
  It is worth mentioning that at the end of the book, Christian even mentioned the concept of “multiverse”, in this concept, various future possibilities are realized in different universes, which also makes the book mentioned earlier The point of view seems to be no longer correct: “All futures except one possibility have disappeared, and what is left to us is the unique present.”
  And such a conclusion is tantamount to throwing another serious question to the readers: If The uniqueness of “reality” no longer exists in the “multiverse”, so what is the meaning of “reality”? As he does throughout the book, David Christian does not offer definitive answers or predictions, but instead encourages readers to think critically and creatively about the future—a scientific question, at the end of the day, that becomes a philosophical question.