Unhappy or Depressed? In the Future, Everything Will Be All Right!
I fundamentally believe everything will be all right. In fact, I think that the future is going to be much better than any of us could possibly imagine.
Today's world is not perfect - far from it. There are hundreds of millions of depressed or unhappy people and billions suffering from one or more diseases. Actually, if we include mental illnesses and back-pain, but not the common cold, as much as 95% of the world's population had a at least one health problem during 2013, according to the Global Burden of Disease Study! And it even seems like we're getting more sick. According to the same study, the number of individuals with more than ten disorders increased by 52% between 1990 and 2013.
The situation isn't as bad as it sounds, though. We have medicines that can improve the quality of life for many sick people. We're also living longer, and since almost everyone (99.97%, according to the study) above the age of 80 suffers from at least one health condition, increased longevity (which I would say is a good thing) is certainly one of the reasons for the rise in the number of sick people.
But if we look at more than just the number of sick people, we see a much brighter picture. The world is actually moving in the right direction quite fast. There are just so many positive trends. Peter Diamandis has created a web page with a collection of charts visualizing these trends, arranged in eight different categories:
- Increasing Happiness & Increasing Equality
- Increase in Safety & Reduction in Violence
- Increasing Health Abundance
- Increasing Energy Abundance
- Reducing Poverty
- Increasing Technological Abundance
- Increasing Learning & Literacy
- Increasing Global Connectivity
Technological progress plays an important role in enabling many of these positive trends, and the rate of technological progress has always been accelerating and will surely continue to do so in the foreseeable future. So if we extrapolate these trends, it's not entirely unlikely that we'll end up with a world that is very nearly perfect. To be sure, there are dangers along the way, so I can't say it's a certainty, but, in my opinion, it is quite likely.
You may be thinking that it's not possible to predict the future. True, no one can know exactly what will happen in the future, but some less specific things can actually be predicted quite confidently, assuming just that no catastrophic events occur. One such less specific thing is the fact that technology is always getting better, which is not a coincidence: Once one person figures out something new, the whole world can eventually benefit from that new discovery. The more new discoveries, the better off we all become, so the fact that we're more than 7 billion people on this planet isn't necessarily a bad thing - quite the opposite, I would say!
You wouldn't think the world was moving much forward if you listen too much to mainstream media. Doing so can be rather depressing. Bad news is what sells, and the media is thus bombarding us with it.
We are all unknowingly addicts. Addicts of bad news. Twenty-four hours per day, seven days a week, the news media is constantly feeding us negative stories on every digital device in their arsenal - our mobile phones, tablets, computers, radio, television and newsfeeds. Every murder, terrorist plot, economic downturn, no matter how remote, is brought to us live, instantly, over and over again.
The reason for this is simple. Our brains are hardwired to pay far more attention to negative news, than positive stories. Millions of years ago as our brains were evolving, if we missed a piece of good news, that was an inconvenience, but missing a piece of bad news could mean the end of your life and your germ-line. For that reason, we've developed portions of our brain that are constantly scanning for bad news and thereafter putting us on high alert. The old newspaper adage, 'if it bleeds, it leads' is as true today as it was a century ago.
But if we compare the world of today with the world a hundred years ago, there's not much doubt that the average human is much better off today. Don Boudreaux would rather be himself today than the world's richest man in 1916. I don't expect that everyone would make the same choice, but I, too, would definitely choose me today!
Why? Well, one thing is that we have so much more advanced technology that's making our lives more convenient and fun, and less painful. Back then, traveling was slow, air-conditioning was uncommon, there was no radio or television, and just a few movies. You could listen to recorded music, but the quality was poor, there was less music to choose from and you couldn't download it from the Internet, because, of course, there was no internet. There were no mobile phones. Medical care was both more painful and less effective, and women had a near 1% chance of dying giving birth.
I would also really like to quote the last paragraph of Don Boudreaux's article:
Honestly, I wouldn't be remotely tempted to quit the 2016 me so that I could be a one-billion-dollar-richer me in 1916. This fact means that, by 1916 standards, I am today more than a billionaire. It means, at least given my preferences, I am today materially richer than was John D. Rockefeller in 1916. And if, as I think is true, my preferences here are not unusual, then nearly every middle-class American today is richer than was America's richest man a mere 100 years ago.
It is just extraordinary to think about how much has happened in as little as 100 years! And it's not going to stop here, of course. On the contrary, the rate of technological progress is going to continue to speed up, and I wouldn't be surprised if 30 years from now, we can similarly say that the average person in 2047 is richer than the richest person in the world today.
Ray Kurzweil, Director of Engineering at Google, has tried to put some numbers on how big the speed-up in technological progress is. He has said that, if we use the year 2000 as the baseline, in the 21st century we'll see progress equivalent to 20,000 baseline years. He wrote this in the introduction to his 2001 essay, The Law of Accelerating Returns. It may be useful to include the full introduction, as the implications he sees from this incredible speed-up are quite radical:
An analysis of the history of technology shows that technological change is exponential, contrary to the common-sense "intuitive linear" view. So we won't experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century - it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today's rate). The "returns," such as chip speed and cost-effectiveness, also increase exponentially. There's even exponential growth in the rate of exponential growth. Within a few decades, machine intelligence will surpass human intelligence, leading to The Singularity - technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history. The implications include the merger of biological and nonbiological intelligence, immortal software-based humans, and ultra-high levels of intelligence that expand outward in the universe at the speed of light.
If Ray Kurzweil is right - or at least about half right - about how much progress there will be in the 21st century, then there's almost no limit to the kinds of problems that can be solved just this century.
And the most important problem to solve is arguably death, and in particular involuntary death, though all deaths are sad. Even the death of someone who wanted to die is sad, because it is sad that he ended up in a position where he wanted to die.
I don't know if we'll ever solve the problem of death completely, but we will come a long way this century.
About two thirds of all deaths worldwide are caused by aging (including age-related diseases), so aging is the most urgent part of the death problem that needs to be solved. And it will be mostly solved within a few decades. A year ago I argued that if you're alive 30 years from then (in 2046), you would have good chances of being alive in a thousand years also. Time will tell, but I don't think I was being too optimistic, as 2016 was another exciting year for rejuvenation science, and for technological progress in general.
Now, think back to 1916 again, and how much less convenient people's lives were back then. But for me, the most important reason I'd rather be me today than a billionaire in 1916, is that nobody - not even John D. Rockefeller - could have any realistic hope of living much beyond 100 years. Many of today's relatively young people, on the other hand, will be able to live virtually forever, avoiding all the age-related diseases and staying completely healthy indefinitely.
Although death may be the most important problem to fix, there are many other problems that need fixing as well, like providing clean water and enough food for everyone, end violence and war, eradicate poverty, disease and depression, and maybe ensure that everyone gets educated.
I think the rationale for fixing all these problems is to make all humans happy and feel good. 1) I also think all these problems are eventually going to be solved, and I think it's going to happen much sooner than most people can even imagine. Just remember, we're more than 7 billion people - we can work on a lot of problems at the same time! Also keep in mind that each different type of technology - like medical technology, artificial intelligence, computer hardware etc - doesn't get developed in a vacuum. Various branches of technology can benefit greatly from advancements in other branches:
Technological convergence is going to lead to unexpected results, it's not enough to say computers are getting faster, it's the fact that computers, and AI and robotics and 3D-printing, and all these technologies are coming together, and converging to change the world.
So, if you're not happy with your life, for whatever reason, you should know that there's a very realistic hope that your life can improve to be really awesome in the future.
The reasons why someone isn't quite happy with their lives could be many, including mental disorders, physical injury or handicap, serious, painful or embarrassing diseases, poor social skills, obesity, loneliness, unattractiveness, old age, or just low status in society compared to others. Below, I'm going to discuss how each of these problems could potentially be fixed in the future:
We all seem to have a default genetic happiness level (hedonic set point) which varies from person to person. Permanent changes in life situation can lead to temporary changes in the person's happiness level, but in most cases, the person's happiness level eventually approaches his or her default happiness level.
It's possible to have a very high default happiness level and still function perfectly fine in society, so there's no obvious reason why everyone shouldn't have a high default happiness level. Designer drugs, or, preferably, genetic engineering could be used to raise our happiness levels in the future.
David Pearce has also promoted the idea of tweaking our biology so that we aren't just generally happy, but that we even feel varying degrees of pleasurable feelings at all times. It may sound a little far out at first, and, in any case, abolishing suffering (which includes depression) should have higher priority.
In the future, it will be possible to heal damaged spines, allowing paralyzed people to walk again. Scientists are experimenting with several different approaches to achieving this. A new material combining graphene and polymer gels has been used to help knit together damaged spinal cords in rats. Stem cell treatment of the corticospinal tract has also been successful in rats. And in monkeys, which are much closer to humans, though it's not actually a repair strategy, a brain implant in combination with electrodes around the spine have allowed paralyzed individuals to walk again.
Some animals are able to regrow lost limbs. Unfortunately, that's not the case for humans. But perhaps there's a dormant genetic program for it buried deep within our genes. If so, it might be surprisingly easy to trick the body into regrowing a lost arm or leg. If not, it could take several additional years to enable limb regrowth. But scientist are working on it today, and Michael Levin has developed a theoretical procedure that might work, though it would probably be slow (could take more than a decade to regrow completely).
Blindness and hearing loss will be cured, as well, of course. Scientists have now been able to connect a camera directly to a person's brain, bypassing the eyes entirely. Electrodes need to be installed on the surface of the brain, so it's a bit of an invasive procedure at the moment. But things will only get better. Eventually, bionic eyes will be better than real eyes, and they could include features such as zoom, and seeing outside the visible spectrum, in infrared and ultraviolet, for example.
When we can cure aging and rejuvenate people, then we will automatically have cured most age-related diseases, which account for about 75% of all Medicare spending in the US.
But there are a lot of other diseases, so being able to cure all of them may seem like wishful thinking. I don't think it's an unrealistic goal, though, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan, seem to agree. They're investing $3 billion over the next 10 years with the goal of curing, preventing and managing all diseases within this century. I think it could be possible well before the end of the century, and with their help, it is probably going to happen a little sooner than it otherwise would have.
If you're old today, there's unfortunately a high risk that you may not live long enough to live forever. There could still be hope, however. There are a few companies around the world that offer cryopreservation of a person's body after he's been pronounced legally dead. The idea is to preserve the body in almost the exact same state it was in following legal death, so that more advanced future technologies can fix the health problems that caused the body to stop working, and then resuscitate the person. The odds of being successfully resuscitated are unknown, but even a 5% chance is a whole lot better than what you get with burial or cremation, which is zero. Cryopreservation is quite expensive, but can often be paid for with a life insurance policy.
Artificial intelligence has improved tremendously in recent years and will eventually be able to mimic humans so well that we aren't going to be able to tell the difference. This means that you can have an AI as your best friend, or even as your lover in virtual reality. Virtual reality, by the way, has the potential to feel just as real as real reality if we can make nano-robots interface directly with the neurons in our brains.
But you may not be satisfied with just artificial friends. There may be a solution for that, as well. Artificial intelligence is going to become orders of magnitude smarter than biological intelligence. What is likely to happen is not that we allow robots to become that much smarter than us, but rather that we also make ourselves smarter by connecting our brains directly, using the Internet, to this vast artificial intelligence - effectively merging with it. What that also allows is for your brain to be connected directly to someone else's brain, allowing the two of you to read each other's minds, to know each other's feelings and really connect on a deeply intimate level.
If you struggle to find friends today, you may have better luck when geographic location doesn't matter. If everyone is connected through the Internet, you could more easily find your soulmate even if she's living on the other side of the planet (or maybe even on Mars...).
Poor social skills
Social skills are just skills - something you can learn.
And about learning... Don't you think it's a bit annoying that you have to study for 3, 5 or 8 years after high school just to get the degree you want? That it takes tens of hour to read a book? Think about how much more you could learn if you could absorb knowledge ten times faster. Or a hundred times, or a thousand!
It may sound crazy, but there are scientists already today, who are working on technologies that can help us learn faster.
But 30 years from now learning could be done in a radically different way than how we learn today. At the end of this TED talk video from 2014 (when he's interviewed after the actual talk), Nicholas Negroponte says:
[W]e are going to ingest information. You're going to swallow a pill and know English. You're going to swallow a pill and know Shakespeare. And the way to do it is through the bloodstream. So once it's in your bloodstream, it basically goes through it and gets into the brain, and when it knows that it's in the brain and the different pieces, it deposits it in the right places.
Maybe he's not exactly right - maybe it won't actually be a pill, and maybe it'll be 35 years from 2014, not 30, but if we can connect our brains to the Internet, then we are certainly going to find more efficient ways to learn than those that are available today.
So, in less than 30 years, social skills could perhaps be learned effortlessly, by swallowing a pill. But even before we get to that point, there will probably be other technologies that can help us learn things faster. As for learning social skills, maybe virtual reality games that focus on social interaction can help?
Low social status
Although you may in a sense be richer than the richest man 100 years ago, let's face it; you're probably not the richest person in the world. So relatively speaking, you're maybe not that rich. And we humans have a tendency to compare our lives with our neighbors', and if we're not rich relative to other people, many of us aren't as happy as we perhaps could have been. This means that no matter how rich we become in absolute terms, all this wealth in itself is not going to make everyone happy, so there must be another way to achieve more happiness... And there probably is.
One option is to use genetic engineering to raise our default happiness level, as discussed earlier.
Virtual reality could be another option. I think that when virtual reality feels just as real as real reality, or very close to it, virtual reality will become extremely popular. In virtual reality we don't need to have all the restraints that we have in the real world, so you could, e.g., defy gravity or move instantly from one place to another. You could live your life as Superman/Supergirl or a great king or queen in your own virtual world, and you could probably invite other (real) people into your world. But would you truly be happy if you knew it wasn't quite real? I don't know.
If we really do enjoy living in virtual reality, maybe we won't be that interested in exploring the real universe? And maybe that's even the solution to the Fermi paradox? The Fermi paradox states that when there are so incredibly many galaxies, stars and planets, and the universe has existed for as long as it has, why haven't we encountered any aliens. They should have colonized the universe a long time ago. There are many possible explanations to this seeming paradox, but I think I like the virtual reality explanation the most.
According to Ray Kurzweil, people will spend most of their time in full-immersion virtual reality in the 2040s.
Some people really like food and really don't like working out. I don't blame them. 2) And some people gain weight much more easily than others. It would be nice if people could live the lives they wanted without worrying about putting on weight. I think therapies for this could become a reality in the relatively near future.
Mice have already been genetically engineered to lose weight in at least two different ways (probably more): They have been genetically engineered to feel a sense of satiety sooner than they previously did, and they have been genetically engineered to burn fat instead of carbs. I'd be surprised if we don't have similar therapies for humans - therapies that are safe - before 2030.
Attractiveness is subjective, so, to try to be a little bit politically correct here, what really matters is how each person feels about him/herself. So if a person is happy with his/her looks, that's fine, even if the rest of the world should disagree. But if you're not happy with your looks, it would be nice if there'd be some non-invasive way to make you look better in your own eyes, making you feel better about yourself.
Today, plastic surgery is an alternative, but it's a rather invasive procedure. We should be getting less invasive methods that can achieve the same thing in the future. Actually, surgery in general has become less invasive in recent years with more widespread use of keyhole surgery, among other things. Eventually, advanced gene editing, maybe in combination with other forms of nano-technology could be all that's needed.
Another solution is, again, virtual reality where you don't have to look like the real you, but can design your appearance just the way you like. You could even look like an imaginary animal if you want. And you could, of course, change your appearance at any time.
I did not include every single reason why someone might be unhappy with their lives, but progress happens on all fronts, so even if I didn't discuss your particular problem, there's probably cause for optimism anyway!
So, I do think everything will be all right in the future. But not just that - I think the future is going to be insanely amazing! I almost can't wait!
1) When we have the tools for it, we may also want to try to eliminate suffering in non-human animals.
2) I really like food, too. Especially chocolate. Lucky for me, I also enjoy exercising.