Perhaps there is a reason that the hoary old aunts and uncles who badger us about our career choices tend to take a risible amount of pleasure in reminiscing about their days as quasi-superheroes on the high school football field and homecoming court. Enamored with the past, they fail to realize that the future is something very few currently possess the ability to see. 

Back alley palm readers and creepily insightful science-fiction novelists aside, the majority of the population’s vision is limited to the present moment. As those same relatives’ suspiciously rosy memories suggest, it is not even clear that we have a firm grip on the past. The future? It’s another world altogether. 

No honestly, the future is a world that I am not sure we will even recognize. Have you read anything about Neuralink, Max Hodak’s (P’12) new venture? If all goes well in the coming years, you should be able to read the thoughts that flicker through my mind just as easily as you do the words that I type. Moreover, in another magic act, they claim that they will improve brain interfaces to the degree that individuals can select pseudo-biological sixth senses like the ability to detect birds via their heat signals. 

As ridiculous as any of the preceding sentences may sound, that’s not even the half of it. 

Cryonics promise eternal life in the cloud. Rockets, driverless cars, and drone pods are reshaping our current notions of both journeys and destinations. Meat is well on its way to being genetically recreated to allow for a more sustainable approach to its consumption. Parents may be given the ability to create “designer babies.” Virtual-reality will transform the way that humans interact with one another and everything else around them. 

The point is that life as we know it continuously ceases to exist. And society’s inability to recognize this is nothing short of unnerving. 

Driverless cars are not the only thing that loom upon the horizon, but even if they were, cabbies everywhere should shudder. Automation, according to experts, is set to replace more than 47% of American’s jobs and superintelligence could very well prevail within the century. Given a number of Princeton economists’ recent research into the “diminishing returns of experience,” such facts are more than disconcerting. 

Many have cited the individual’s inability to achieve things they consider “earned” as a key factor contributing to the alarming rise of “deaths of despair” and mortality rates among middle-aged Americans since the early 1990s. Seeing that mortality rates are on the decline in nearly every other category in every other developed nation, this stands as a serious issue. It is more than probable that conventional returns for experience will plummet even further, as technology advances, more jobs become automated, and an increasing number of employees are deemed démodé. 

If the despair associated with the Great Depression arose from an unemployment rate amounting to only 25% at its peak in 1933, what will happen when intensive automation dawns as a societal reality? Depressed obsolescence and oblivion with which all aforementioned aunts and uncles who did not prepare for an unrecognizable future will have to grapple. But there is every reason to assume that many intelligent humans, rollicking in the comfort of familiarity, will also be blindsided. Ignorance is not bliss–-- neither is intellectual complacency. 

Medical schools have reached an all-time high in enrollment over the past decade, although nine out of ten physicians are “unwilling to recommend healthcare as a profession” and medicine is cogently a vocational field that is ripe for automation. Attending law school has lately been proclaimed by economists to be “one of the worst career decisions you could ever make.” As two dozen law schools are currently facing class action lawsuits for “misleading recruits about their employment prospects” and one prominent law firm has even established an “Anything But Law School” scholarship, this assertion finds support even outside the alarming statistics it references. Nevertheless, hordes of brilliant students continue to confidently declare themselves pre-law. 

Seeking answers to the extremely interesting question of why relatively smart people often act so stupidly, psychologist Daniel Kahneman has propounded a number of theories, the just of which can be summarized as follows: “When people face an uncertain situation, they don’t carefully evaluate the information or look up relevant statistics. Instead, their decisions depend on a long list of mental shortcuts, which often lead them to make foolish decisions.” Ironically, more recent studies in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology vouchsafe that increases in intelligence correlate directly with an increase in vulnerability to the utilization of these so-called “mental shortcuts,” or cognitive biases. The more intelligent you are, the more asinine you may be prone to act. 

Though usually examined within the context of short-term decision making or problem solving, the stupidity associated with cognitive biases possesses more extreme consequences when analyzed in light of our inability to accurately discern and respond to portended future events. Why is it that we continue to contribute to climate change and recklessly pursue research that could lead to superintelligence? Both are obviously dangerous and as Eliezer Yudkowsky notes, “all else being equal not many people would prefer to destroy the world.” To this same end, not many people would prefer to dedicate years to the pursuit of some plan or idea that will leave them displaced and dysfunctional within that world. Yet an inability to mentally picture this danger and an ensuing susceptibility to cognitive bias, causes many to churn towards both of those objectively undesirable ends. Traditional paths of comfort are no longer guaranteed. 

As unforeseeable as the future is, there are some things that we can to do ensure that we actually have one–and a meaningful one at that. A good start is the recognition that modern humans do a fantastic job of maintaining an illusion of control over nature, technology, and luck. Individuals like Elon Musk stand out for a reason: they possess a capacity for speculative reason and thoughtfulness that is unfortunately uncharacteristic of the population at large. The world is changing rapidly, and our view of the future must be trained to take this change into account. 

So where do you see yourself in 25 years? Perhaps this question should not be dreaded, for truth be told wide eyed silence may be the most valid response. But an elaborate sketch of the uncontrollably clever world of metallic and magic that awaits us could also be an acceptable answer. I’d bet the future will resemble some far flung, opioid-induced dream more so than any of your galling relatives’ current estimates of reality. And besides, the look on their faces will be priceless.