Coming soon – the day when we live forever

The Matrix: Balaji Srinivasan advocates a world which is ever more connected. © Warner Bros

Should we be excited about the future? A podcast by academic technologist Balaji Srinivasan has caused a stir with its vision of how our lives will be transformed in the ultra-digital age.

Balaji Srinivasan is both a successful entrepreneur and a highly respected academic. He has several degrees in electrical engineering and chemical engineering, and teaches at Stanford University in California. These are some of his key predictions:

Living longer. Srinivasan argues that the ultimate goal of technology is to help humans live for ever – and much more progress is being made than people realise. “You’re genetically wired to die – so maybe we can unwire that.” In the 2020s, there will be breakthroughs in everything from curing deafness to reversing ageing. People will keep information about their genomes on their computers so they can track problems with their bodies. “We can start making miracles happen with technology.”

Digital countries. Thanks to VR and architectural software, it is possible to build a virtual city. You would start by writing a manifesto to attract people to join your community; you could then put up buildings and design a system of government. Once the city was running to everyone’s satisfaction, you could buy land and build it in reality using crowdfunding. Eventually, a whole country could be created on this basis.

Children working. It used to be common for children to be sent out to work until laws were passed to stop them from being exploited by employers. But Srinivasan believes that work helps children learn responsibility and grow up faster – and since they can work online from home, their parents can protect them from abuse. So, there is no reason why, say, a clever teenage coder should not earn lots of money while still at school.

Maximising ideas. Humans would make much faster progress if they shared ideas more. We need to develop online communities to do this, with proper incentives, so that if someone writes an essay with a suggestion that somebody else builds a business on, the writer gets a share of the profits. Many people are afraid to express all their ideas for fear of social media attacks, so they should use pseudonyms and take payment through cryptocurrencies.

Establishing truth. At present, the internet is plagued by fake news. The way forward is to create “crypto oracles”: depositories of reliable information which are safe because they are widely shared, and have digital hallmarks showing who posted what when, so that nobody can falsify the record. Statistics about the pandemic, for example, would be indisputable because everyone would have access to the original data.

Social-media learning. “The next generation of content can’t be like the current social media, where you interact by liking and retweeting: it has to be about learning and earning.” The gap between entertainment and education can be bridged by “edutainment” – textbooks should be written like novels, so that they are more exciting to read. You can already earn money online by taking part in academic exercises – with this as an incentive, people will focus more on screen activity that is useful.

Should we be excited about the future?

Future perfect?

Some say yes. Srinivasan is right to say that the internet and technology could be put to far better use than it is now. We can achieve infinitely more than was possible in the past – advances in medicine being an obvious example. Digital cities would enable us to develop better societies, without any of the painful and costly mistakes people make in the actual world.

Others argue that Srinivasan’s vision is a bleak one. There is more to life than “learning and earning”. Children should be allowed to enjoy themselves and grow up at their own pace, not encouraged to start work at the first opportunity – particularly if they are going to live forever. If humanity is to survive, we need to engage more with the natural world and less with the digital one.

You Decide

  1. How would your view of life change if you knew you were going to live forever?
  2. Some believe the answer to social media abuse is passing a law preventing people from posting anonymously. Is this a better solution than encouraging writers to use pseudonyms?

Activities

  1. Write a manifesto for a digital city.
  2. In some countries, children still have to work in factories. Imagine you are one of them, and write a diary of a typical day.

Some People Say...

“Our future is more like the 1800s and 1700s than the 1900s. We’re going into reverse.”

Balaji Srinivasan, American entrepreneur and academic

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that we are moving towards what Srinivasan calls a “decentralised” way of life. He believes that the age of the “9 to 5” person, who travels to work every day and remains there for a defined period of time, is over. Instead, more of us will operate from home and work – as he does – for 16 hours one day and hardly at all the next. The flexibility that the internet gives us has been recognised: in his words, “We are finally achieving our destiny as digital people.”
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around whether the world will be fairer in future. Srinivasan believes that technology is a great leveller: devices become cheaper all the time, and anyone can educate themselves through the internet. In digital cities, everybody will start out as equals, without inherited status or wealth. But Srinivasan sees state regulation as the enemy of innovation, while critics argue that it is needed to protect people – including children made to work – from exploitation.

Word Watch

Entrepreneur
Someone who engages in business at their own risk, rather than working for a company. It used to mean the organiser of a musical event.
Genomes
The genetic material that makes up an organism.
Manifesto
An Italian word meaning a public declaration of your aims. Political parties issue manifestos in the run-up to an election.
Laws were passed
In Britain, the 1802 Factory Act limited the amount of time a child could work to 12 hours a day. Another act in 1878 made it illegal for those under 10 to work.
Incentives
Things that encourage you to do something. Money is a common incentive, as is fear.
Pseudonyms
False names. Some of Charles Dickens’s earliest work appeared under the name Boz.
Hallmarks
Marks stamped on articles of gold, silver, or platinum showing them to be genuine.

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