Editor's note: To close out the week, instead of our usual market commentary, we're sharing an eye-opening essay from Casey Research founder Doug Casey.
In short, Doug believes we're only 10–30 years away from the biggest change in human history.
Read on to learn why Doug is saying “the components of reality itself—Matter, Energy, Space, and Time—will soon be manipulated on a cosmic scale”…
HIGHLY INTERESTING TIMES
What you’re going to read in the next few minutes will be shocking and unbelievable. But it’s also factual and logical. That will make it upsetting and disturbing. Most people are at least vaguely aware of what’s happening. But very, very few are aware of its degree or the implications.
As you probably know, I believe times are about to get quite rough economically and politically. But, at the same time, I’m very optimistic about what’s happening in science and technology. So let me hazard some predictions. And break the old rule about how, if you predict an event will occur, to make sure you don’t predict its timing.
THE RECENT PAST
I was born just after the end of WW2. It was an idyllic era to be an American. The U.S. had more wealth than the rest of the world combined. Things were mellow at home as “Leave It to Beaver” in the ’50s transitioned into “California Girls” in the early ’60s.
True, there were at least a couple of times (the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and a while in the early ’80s) when it looked like there might be a global thermonuclear war. We not only dodged those bullets, but things kept improving. The average American accumulated so much stuff that he had to rent a storage unit, after filling up his two-car garage.
The USSR collapsed, and the U.S. government went on to become the world’s only superpower. Things have been pretty good within the living memory. No matter that the last couple of generations of prosperity were financed mostly with borrowed money.
Although everybody (including me) tends to focus on political events, it’s a mistake to pay too much attention to them. Governments, and even countries, come and go, rise and fall. Political events should be viewed as flavoring to the stew, painting on a house, or trim tabs on a flight. They’re worth noting, but—unless they’re really bad—only marginally important over the long run.
What is important? From a long-term point of view, there are really just three things: science, technology, and capital. Science lets you understand how and why things work. Technology lets you put the theory into practice. And capital gives you the time and material to make use of science and technology.
Let’s look at civilization from that long-term point of view. Since the appearance of Homo sapiens about 200,000 years ago, things improved at only a glacial pace until the end of the last ice age about 12,000 years ago. Then, with the start of the Neolithic era and the Agricultural Revolution, things started getting better every millennium. Then, since the start of the Bronze Age about 5,000 years ago, they started getting better by the century. Then, with the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, by the decade.
Since the Industrial Revolution, about 200 years ago, they’ve been getting better every year. And it’s been an accelerating trend. Exponentially accelerating. Most people don’t keep up with these things, but important advances are now being made weekly.
Why are these things accelerating at an exponential rate? There are several reasons, I think. One is that, since all the past advances in science and technology still exist, we don’t have to constantly reinvent the wheel. Another is that, in earlier eras, there was very little surplus left over after covering basic food, shelter, and clothing; now there’s a lot. That’s capital, and it’s compounding. But, very important, there are more scientists and engineers alive today than have lived in all previous human history put together.
Not only that, but radically new technologies are coming into existence—not gradually at an arithmetic rate, but at a geometric rate. So things are on the verge of becoming much, much better, and very, very quickly. Not only better than you imagine, but better than you can imagine.
Moore’s Law was formulated in 1965; it states that computational power will double, and costs will halve, about every 18 months. But it appears to apply to several areas besides computing.
As a result, it’s highly probable that Timothy Leary was not just right, but conservative, when he anticipated SMIILE—Space Migration, Intelligence Increase, and Life Extension. Those things are just part of the picture.
So here’s the good news. It’s likely the very nature of life is going to change for the better, almost unrecognizably, over the next 20 years or so.
I’ve very arbitrarily divided the areas of progress into 10 areas. There’s a lot of overlap between them because all the areas of science and technology are an increasingly integrated whole.
I’m sure you’re familiar with all these trends. But the chances are low that you’ve adequately considered how quickly they’re advancing and where that advance is going to lead—very soon. I only want to broach the subjects; libraries can be written on all of this. The takeaway is that the very components of reality itself—Matter, Energy, Space, and Time—will soon be manipulated on a cosmic scale.
THE NEXT INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION
Some of these things, like energy and space exploration, are just extensions of current technologies. Others, especially nanotech, are game changers.
Energy—With the exception of nuclear, all power comes from the sun. In the past, solar, wind, and similar power sources existed mainly in the dreams of economically illiterate hippies. But now, combined with rapidly advancing battery technology, they finally make sense. Better yet, oncoming generations of modular nuclear reactors will be tiny, extremely safe, simple, and cheap. Maybe fusion power will finally become practical—although that would just be a bonus.
Oil and gas? They’re important as feedstocks, but mainly because they provide very dense energy. They are, however, essentially compounds of hydrogen and carbon, two of the most common and simplest elements. With adequate (and sufficiently cheap—this is the key) power, they can be created in unlimited quantity; the chemistry is quite basic and well understood. Among other things, algae can be programmed to manufacture them in quantity.
Space—One of the good things about most governments being bankrupt is that they’re being forced to cede the conquest of space to entrepreneurs, who will colonize the moon, the asteroids, and the planets. I love Elon Musk’s quip: “I hope to die on Mars. Just not on impact.” Of course, if he’s lucky, he may live to be several hundred years old because of other developments.
You need “stuff” to make what you need. A lack of raw materials has always been a major reason for conflict. But digging things out of the Earth, using big yellow trucks, will no longer be humanity’s only option. The asteroids are full of dense elements. They’ll soon become available in massive quantity, cheaply.
Life extension—It’s clear we’re on the edge of solving the problem of aging; it should be addressed as a degenerative disease. All other diseases are simply footnotes to aging. If you live long enough, you can be, do, and have everything that you can imagine. It’s likely to be possible soon.
Biological engineering—The creation of not just new body parts, but new bodies, made to order, is in the works. And new species. And much more. Who really knows what can be done with DNA? But the answer is probably: Almost anything, in lots of ways.
Distributed manufacturing—A.E. van Vogt’s The Weapon Shops of Isher predicted machines that would create advanced weapons for you, in the privacy of your own home. Now that’s possible with 3-D printing. Soon, if you can design something, or get the design, you can create it. At home.
Robotics—Not just smart machines in factories. In fact, factories themselves may be on their way out. Humanoid beings—products of bioengineering and AI—could replace them. They’ll perhaps be almost indistinguishable from normal people.
This alone, the creation of intelligent machines, will overturn the nature of society, family, warfare, work—everything.
Artificial intelligence—I believe that a difference that makes no difference is no difference. That’s the concept behind the Turing test. At some point, very soon, machines will be smarter than their creators and will in turn create other machines smarter than they are. And continue doing so at a geometric rate.
Nanotech—I did a chapter on this in Crisis Investing for the ’90s. At the time, not one person in 100 had a clue what it was. In its ultimate form, nanotech—the use of molecular-sized assemblers and supercomputers—will change the character of reality itself. Totally and unrecognizably. It amounts to pixie dust, making it possible to manipulate the 92 naturally occurring elements into useful compounds cheaply and easily. It’s becoming possible to fabricate totally new materials, like carbon nanotubes, vastly more capable than any “natural” material.
Computer science—Electromechanical switches, then vacuum tubes, then transistors, now silicon chips, and soon quantum computing are taking place on a molecular level. All the knowledge in the world, contained in a cube. Or perhaps in the head of a biologically enhanced robot. Or perhaps in an interface to your own brain.
Virtual reality—You’ll be able to immerse yourself in a world of your own creation, activating all of your senses, in a veritable Star Trek holodeck that will be almost indistinguishable from real reality. Perhaps you will prefer to live in unreality. All in the privacy of your own home.
WHERE THIS IS GOING
You may think I’m pulling your leg and that I’ve gone too far in these projections. But this isn’t just a titillating compilation of cover stories from Popular Science magazine. Our brains are accustomed to thinking arithmetically—1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, etc. But technology is compounding geometrically—1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, etc. You’ve seen this happen in the realm of computing and electronics just in our lifetimes. But—partially enabled by those things—it’s happening in many areas.
You might analogize this to what happens to water as it gets colder. There’s not much difference between water at, say, 45 and 33 degrees Fahrenheit. But once it gets to 32, it has a change of state, a transformation in what it is, its very nature. And it happens very, very quickly.
The advances being made are the stuff of science fiction. In fact, sci-fi has long been a much better predictor of the future than think tanks, futurists, or even the best scientists. I’ve often wondered why this is the case. As someone with solipsist tendencies, I’m partial to believing that anything you can conceive of can probably be done. And anything that can be done will be done. The transformation of reality itself is just a matter of having sufficient matter, energy, space, and time added to technology. When you see it that way, you have to be intensely optimistic. And I am. In fact, for the first time, advances in the real world are starting to outrun the imaginings of sci-fi.
Skeptics might counter: “Sure. Given enough time, everything happens eventually. Including the heat death of the universe.” And they’re right.
But because of the exponential rate of improvement in the things I’ve mentioned and some others I haven’t, I suspect we’re about to have a change in the state of existence. This is what Ray Kurzweil, Google’s chief technology officer, has dubbed “The Singularity.”
Go back to the things I listed. The really important things—computers, AI, robotics, nanotech, and bioscience—are all advancing according to Moore’s Law. Doubling every 18 months, with costs dropping 50%. Things move very quickly when they move at an exponential rate. Extrapolating them only 10 years into the future, which implies only eight doublings. And eight doublings result in 256 times the starting point.
There’s a good chance they’re all going to come together at once. Exactly when might that be? This is the tricky part, predicting the time as well as the event. Kurzweil thinks about 20 years from now. If he’s right, this is not only good news. It is, by orders of magnitude, the best news of any type in human history.
NOW FOR SOME BAD NEWS
What might the bad news be? You may (quite logically) be thinking about some unsavory implications of these advances. The evolution of Skynet and Terminators. People failing to reproduce. Grey goo from runaway nanotech covering the planet. Humanity destroying itself in all manner of ways. I agree that bad things can happen. It’s not just a question of misfeasance, some unforeseen accident happening. But actual malfeasance isn’t out of the question.
Why? Technology is advancing exponentially, but human ethics don’t seem to be advancing at all. In fact, maybe the general moral tone of humanity is actually degrading. If that’s true, then you can argue it’s a bad idea for large-brained chimpanzees to have the magic technologies we’ve been discussing.
So, of course, some people will say: “We have to slow down this mad rush to the future! We have to at least regulate these scary things!” Sound reasonable? Actually, no; the concept is incredibly stupid. You might also ask who the “we” is that wants to make those decisions. Of course, it’s the same professional busybodies who are naturally drawn to government, NGOs, media, and the like. They’re not the best and brightest, as they like to believe. They’re actually the worst and most dangerous of mankind, and they’re always fearful of progress.
Why? Because although the leaders always get new technologies first (e.g., horses, gunpowder, computers), the cat always gets out of the bag, and these things act to further liberate the average man after a while.
Notwithstanding various drags on our progress, mankind has been expanding its powers exponentially since about the time it learned to make fire. But the nature of the math is that the real growth doesn’t come until the end, at which point it seems instantaneous. We can see what’s happening intellectually, but very few can picture it in reality. Recall the fable about the mathematician who invented chess and got a king to reward him by giving him double the amount of wheat for each of the 64 squares of a chessboard, starting with one grain. How much grain might that be? The answer is over 18 quintillion grains, which is around 1,000 times the world’s annual production of wheat. It’s counterintuitive because intuition can’t deal with geometric increases beyond a low level.
It’s idiocy to try to curtail the rewards of a process—and here we’re talking about the Ascent of Man itself—at the very moment of triumph. Maybe humanity is now (wild guess) at around the 50th chessboard square. Exactly where things start getting interesting.
It’s been said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. But there’s a big problem for you and me as individuals. At the moment, we all have very finite lifetimes. What if (even though medical advances are extending our life expectancies radically) we die before magic happens?
That’s why there’s absolutely nothing to be lost by going for the brass ring.
Let’s consider mundane life the way it’s always been and still is. Unless things change very quickly for the better, you’re going to be dead sometime in between tomorrow morning and, if you’re both young and lucky, 50 years from now. Considering the (current) absolute and total certainty of death, taking any risk to avoid it, even with long-shot odds, doesn’t just make excellent sense. It’s imperative.
So I’m not particularly concerned with the possible ultimate consequences of runaway technological advance. In fact, I think they’re almost all good, even if they’re a little scary. And now, for the first time in history, the inevitable is imminent. We can deal with potential problems when the time comes. Right now, I’m only concerned with things that might stop us from getting there in a reasonable (i.e., a fraction of a lifetime) time frame. But it’s entirely possible that humanity could blow it.
How might we blow it? In decreasing order of probability, you can worry about a lot of things. You can worry about a bus hitting you tomorrow morning. Or a pandemic. Or a super volcano. Or an asteroid strike, for that matter.
I’m most concerned about human-caused (anthropogenic, if you will) possibilities. Like World War 3, recalling that Einstein said he didn’t know what weapons would be used in it, but he was confident that sticks and stones would be used in WW4. That would put a stop to the advance of technology for a while, in addition to its other unpleasantness and inconvenience.
I’m also concerned about the consequences of the next phase of the Greater Depression. We entered the leading edge of the economic hurricane in 2007. We’ve been in the eye of the storm since 2010. And now, we’re going into the trailing edge.
No one can tell you exactly what it will be like. Very possibly, both catastrophic deflation and hyperinflation in sequence (in any order). Or in different parts of the economy at the same time (basic foodstuffs skyrocketing; the value of McMansions and BMWs collapsing). People with their life savings in dollars losing most everything. The State raising taxes hugely. All kinds of police-state measures being enforced in a vain attempt to restore stability. And a lot more things of this nature. It’s likely to last at least as long, be much worse, and much different even than what the world went through from 1914–1946.
This is extremely important because, you’ll recall, science and technology are only two legs to the tripod. Capital is equally necessary. And the Greater Depression, and its knock-on effects, could destroy a lot of capital.
One consequence of the Greater Depression might be that the tech trends I listed above will slow down radically. Less capital may be created and much less put aside for investment. Much could be misallocated. And the government always puts itself first; it may use what capital there is for its own purposes. Technology and science need as much capital as possible to advance as quickly as possible.
Vested interests, typically shortsighted, always use politics to fight innovation. Taxi drivers stupidly lobby against Uber; hoteliers lobby against Airbnb. They don’t see themselves as modern Luddites, but they are. Even worse, people may see some bad effects of technology and react against it. Under certain conditions, you could find scientists hunted down like witches for violating God’s will. Stranger things have happened in times of stress.
To be clear, I don’t think there’s such a thing as bad technology; people confuse the concept with its use by people with bad intentions. This is why I’m concerned about government using, or even financing, technology. I often talk about how the State is dangerous and destructive. But now, on the cusp of The Singularity, it’s true on a cosmic level. If, for instance, they delay a medical advance that may save you by a year, they may not be costing you a year. They may be costing you 500 years.
And it’s not just technology, but science itself that is in jeopardy. If it turns out that anthropogenic global warming is a gigantic hoax (I believe it is), even though it’s said that 97% of scientists believe in it (a lie), and that the science is settled (it’s not), that may discredit the idea of science to the average person. Anything is possible. After all, something like 40% of Americans think the world is about 6,000 years old and cavemen lived with dinosaurs.
Let me sum up. It’s likely we’re only 10, 20, or 30 years from what will turn out to be the biggest change in human history. I understand that sounds unbelievable to 99% of people. But I urge you to consider it seriously.
What does that mean? In fact, you might ask why investment results even matter if we move into an economy of total abundance. Almost everyone will benefit from these changes, at least indirectly and eventually, if they live long enough. But you want to benefit as directly and immediately as possible. Having capital will put you first in line. Having capital allows you to be an early adopter, and that could be critical.
Furthermore, earning capital makes you deserving of that place. Are the useless mouths on welfare deserving of these benefits? It may become a huge, and currently unanticipated, political issue over the next decade. There are huge numbers of hoi polloi out there—you’ll see them rioting this summer—who absolutely believe they deserve everything from free food, to free education, to a guaranteed income.