Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Future- Mine and Yours

(Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)
For those of us afflicted with a progressive, incurable disease, time is not on our side. The younger the patient, the more likely he or she will eventually benefit from life-changing advances in medical technology. But I am fast approaching that age and that level of disability where my own prospects are fading. Even if I live thirty more years, and the mysteries of my disease are solved in ten years’ time, I’ll either be too old or too far gone to capitalize on it. Such is my likely fate, and I accept it (although this is not to say that I have given up all hope for improvement, as evidenced by my two recent CCSVI treatments).

As dismal as my circumstances may appear on the surface, and as likely as it is that my descendants will regard my life as having been needlessly tragic (in light of the inevitable, future cure for MS that I’ll only miss by a decade or so), I’m a hell of a lot better off than any of my ancestors would’ve been with the same affliction. My disease is wreaking havoc on my body in the same way that it has for MS patients throughout history, but because of wheelchairs like my iBot, public institutions like Social Security, improvements in community accessibility, computer networking, and comfort medicine, I can endure it so much more easily than people 20, 100, or 5000 years ago. For that I am grateful.

Now let’s broaden the scope of this discussion – beyond me and my particular disease. Our children, and especially our grandchildren, will live in a world so unlike ours that it is nearly impossible for our puny brains to envision it. The rate of advancement in the field of medical/biological technology, particularly in terms of genetics, is mind-boggling. Similarly, the pace of innovation in computer technology is growing exponentially.

Rather than bore you with my layperson’s understanding of these developments, I will instead share the following videos. Please keep an open mind, and at the same time acknowledge that the success rate of people who publicly forecast the future has always been poor. The predictions that these gentlemen make may not come true in the period of time that they propose. In fact, they may never come true at all. But their insights regarding the trends that are propelling us forward are invaluable.

The first video is from a TED conference in 2011. Medical ethicist Dr. Harvey Fineberg discusses how humans have evolved to this point, and how our continued evolution may be quite different (something he calls neo-evolution). I consider his presentation to be rather mainstream and uncontroversial. He doesn’t make bold predictions, but instead summarizes the various paths-forward and allows the viewer to draw his own conclusions. Enjoy.

This second video is from a 2009 TED talk by Ray Kurzweil. Kurzweil is an American author, inventor, and futurist. He predicts a technological singularity, such that human life and computer intelligence (artificial intelligence) become almost indistinguishable from one another. Kurzweil predicts that this singularity will occur as early as 2045. Compared to Dr. Fineberg, Kurzweil is a bit more radical, bold, and controversial. But who is to say that he is any less accurate? Only time will tell. Again, all of his predictions may not come to be, but the directions and trends that he identifies are indisputable. Enjoy.

And here is a bonus talk from Kurzweil, if you just can’t get enough of him (I can’t):

The wildcard here – the reason that none of what these gentlemen predict may come to fruition – is that we might destroy ourselves before we ever get there.  Think of the countless Hollywood movies depicting one or another doomsday scenario. Perhaps one of these may come to be, or perhaps some other malady, as yet unimagined by Hollywood minds, will befall us. Remember, nobody envisioned 9-11 before it happened. 

If we can tiptoe through this minefield, then we have a chance to witness the medical and computer advances discussed in the above videos. Otherwise, if we screw this up, or even have one really bad day, our species will regress to an earlier period in our social evolution, or we will perish from this planet entirely.

That would suck.

I am saddened by my inevitable mortality, not because I fear death (although the process of dying seems rather unpleasant in several of its more common manifestations), but because I would very much like to stick around and see how this all plays out.


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  1. MS has had a similar effect on me. While we're all inevitably going to die, MS has made me very aware of my mortality.

    In a way it's one of those horrible "gifts" of MS because now I realize I have to choose to do the things that are most interesting to me with the time and ability I have left.

    But being separated from the rest of humanity, if only in a small way, has made me realize how fascinating I find it. When I was born, there were no home computers. When I was a teenager, they were a hobby. When I was in college the internet started to be truly useful and the first web browser was created. I, along with many others, got my first email address. Today I make my living on that internet working from my own home.

    Now, technology is going full speed ahead with iPhones and iPads that put Star Trek technology to shame.

    What's coming next? What's coming after that? I'd really like to see.

  2. Not much to add other than I liked this post. Thanks Mitch

  3. Mitch, as a 36 year old with SPMS, I find your blog fascinating. You mentioned the TED talks and I thought you might be interested in this one - it sounds right up your alley.

  4. Sorry. The link didn't come through completely. Maybe this will work?


    Maybe this will work?

  5. Anonymous, thanks for that outstanding link!