The Limits to Growth

If you are a pessimist and revel in the gloom and doom the future may hold, robots and artificial intelligence (AI) can add a lot of fodder. Robots are mostly in manufacturing plants today, but their presence is growing in many other places, including hospitals, restaurants, retail stores, and homes. Millions of jobs will be replaced by robots. AI will become pervasive in finance, insurance, and legal companies, healthcare, and educational institutions replacing lawyers, accountants, financial analysts, radiologists, teachers, and professors. As robots and AI get smarter, some believe there may not be much left for humans to do. Ultimately, the robots and AI could merge, and form a new population of super strong and super intelligent beings. The new beings may look back at history and see how humans have wiped out numerous species over time.  Then, they may conclude humans are no longer needed. The End.

Some experts believe the scenario I just described is a very real threat. They believe humanity is at great risk. The late Stephen Hawking, an English theoretical physicist, cosmologist, author, and Director of Research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology at the University of Cambridge, said efforts to create thinking machines pose a threat to our very existence. He told the BBC, “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”  Elon Musk, Founder of Tesla and SpaceX, said, “If you’re not concerned about AI safety, you should be. Vastly more risk than North Korea. In the end the machines will win.”

There are other threats. The possibility of a nuclear war is hard to imagine, but it could happen. At a lecture I attended some years ago, a scientist from IBM Research said the biggest risk is a terrorist or anarchist getting hold of smallpox or other biological agents and finding a way to initiate infections among a population. We all well know the devastation the coronavirus has caused. For all these reasons, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and other smart people feel we need to colonize Mars as a Plan B in case humanity on Earth gets wiped out. A thoughtful friend of mine sees a different set of risks. He said,

While all of those are real threats that we have no choice but to endure and very well may never experience, Stephen Hawking was more focused on what he considered to be inevitable, we are using up our planet.  When we were kids, there were about 2.5 billion people on this planet.  Today there are about 7.8 billion – far too many to be supported for very long.  We won’t need a bomb or a plague.  Overpopulation and the resultant over use of resources seems to be inevitable.  Also, however real one thinks the threat of climate change is, it certainly would not exist if we had only 2.5 billion neighbors.

In 1970, when I was serving in the United States Army, I read a book called The Limits to Growth, published by The Club of Rome. The heart of the book was about exponential economic and population growth with a finite supply of resources for the world civilization. A computer simulation model at MIT proved the point. The model considered the growth of the population, growth of pollution, and the decline in rare minerals needed for industry and the limit of food sources. The model included many other variables and predicted The End of humanity by the year 2000, 30 years from the publishing of the study. The model considered the effect of breakthroughs in the handling of pollution, discovery of new sources of food and materials. Even with the most optimistic scenario, the year 2000 would still be The End. Needless to say, The End did not occur. Unexpected breakthroughs of all kinds occurred, and growth continued.

Now the question is whether we are once again at or approaching a point of unsustainability as my friend suggests. New policies and new technologies are needed. The basic message of Limits to Growth warned exponential growth of our world civilization cannot continue very long and a very careful management of the planet is needed. The concerns of 1970 remain as valid as ever.

Despite the threats and trends, I am optimistic about the future. The landing of Perseverance on Mars shows the incredible capabilities of humans who are smart, innovative, and motivated. If someone had described the landing feat 30 years ago, no one would have believed it possible. A lot of money is flowing into technology startup companies who are working on new ways to reduce pollution and new ways to grow food. Shortages of rare minerals needed in electronic chips and devices are very real, but within 30 years or less, we may be mining minerals from other planets and asteroids. I am betting on the future of technology and believe it will sustain us, not eliminate us.