It is funny how things happen. Actually, we need a new phrase because a coincidence of topics recently arrived that I find thoughtful, but not funny. My sci-fi novel, Firewatcher, is set at least a couple of decades from now. Over on another of my blogs, PretendingNotToPanic.com, there were two posts from last month that are about different trends that will probably affect each other about then. And, recently YouTube offered up a video from about a year ago, MIT Has Predicted that Society Will Collapse in 2040. Funny? No, but definitely thoughtful.
Let’s start with the simple and easy one. There are now more than eight billion (>8,000,000,000) people on the planet. The trend is expected to accelerate enough to add another billion (1,000,000,000) by 2037. In 2022, Earth Overshoot Day was July 28, the day when we’ve used up a year of the planet’s resources. To make that clearer, if our current civilization was sustainable Earth Overshoot Day would be December 31, at worst. Winter, not summer.
Seemingly unrelated, even while poverty is down, the highest paid and the richest are receiving more of the income and accumulating more of the wealth. The top 10% incomes in the US make 45.5% of the nation’s income. The richest 10% of households own 70.7% of the wealth, an even greater disparity. The richest 1% own 34.9%. Some have become so familiar with the situation that it is taken as normal. This trend is accelerating, too. In 2015, “US wealth inequality continues and has reached the level where 20 Americans are now worth as much as half the population.” When we get to the point where one (1) person owns half the wealth in the US then the rest of us will be trying survive on what is left. Some time before that the economy may become unsustainable.
Then YouTube offered up, “MIT Has Predicted that Society Will Collapse in 2040”. The original study was in 1972, but the recent update suggests that trend too could be accelerating. Basically, three independent perspectives on the sustainability of our civilization.
The part that fascinates me is that early projections of a Digital Singularity are for about that same time.
“Four polls of AI researchers, conducted in 2012 and 2013 by Nick Bostrom and Vincent C. Müller, suggested a confidence of 50% that artificial general intelligence (AGI) would be developed by 2040–2050.”
The Digital Singularity is a hypothetical event when 1) artificial intelligence becomes more powerful than humans, and 2) that AI becomes evolving at speeds measured in chip speeds instead of human speeds. While technological changes are accelerating, they are still slowed down by pesky humans who can take months or years to significantly upgrade computer hardware and software. If, if, if, if the software can rewrite itself, then the changes may be measured in computer speeds. Wake up the next morning and find that overnight an AI has gained consciousness and then evolved to the point that we are considered inconsequential, or something to be dealt with because we’ve done such a bad job of managing our environment.
Those who have read my book, Firewatcher, may recognize a fictional response from humans how saw it coming and could do something about it. Run! I didn’t mention a date specifically because the story is not about a far-off (fictional, hopefully) future.
OK. So, there’s the worrisome news and the book plug. But, this blog is about personal finance. Personal finance usually doesn’t consider such possibilities. Personal finance assumes stable governments, historical averages and growth rates within finance, thirty-year mortgages, and an environment that isn’t changing. We need those assumptions so we can make plans so we can feel like we are in control. As I hear the future laughing at plans even without overpopulation, increasing wealth and income inequalities, collapsing conventions or maybe civilizations, and rapidly evolving Artificial Intelligence. It is enough to convince someone to build rocket ships to the stars, or at least the Moon or Mars.
I’m not changing my personal finance plans. Of course, that’s partly because I just quit real estate, am concentrating on writing while regaining my health, and because over ten years of working at an unhealthy pace has not regained the financial solvency I had twelve years ago. (Come on, book sales…)
I am changing my expectations. Societies, civilization, and the environment can’t collapse at the speed of economies, and none of them can change the world as rapidly and uncontrollably as a Digital Singularity. I am also recognizing that some of the assumptions behind any plan will undoubtedly become invalid within the next decade or two.
So, what am I going to do? This may sound boring or dull, but I’m paying attention to history. Civilizations can limp along for hundreds of years. The Romans fall took centuries. North Korea somehow survives. Many species can become extinct during climactic changes if they can’t move or evolve quickly enough. Humans can move, and are already doing so – if they can afford it. Economies can collapse, but the US has inertia and the other countries probably want us to survive just like we don’t want China’s markets to even stumble. Except for the Digital Singularity, history chronicles examples of how some have survived or even thrived during upheavals.
The Digital Singularity can overwhelm them all and by its nature is unpredictable, so I won’t plan for it. I plan for what I can.
A person’s life, my life, can change in an instant. Eventually someone wins the lottery jackpot. The list of more likely changes is far longer, but there’s no value in making that list here.
It is 2022. 2023 is less than a month away as I type. Eighteen years ago my life was very different with a different mix of good news and bad news. Eighteen years from now my forty-year mortgage still will not have concluded. I’ll probably be skiing less, but hopefully still dancing. There are days when I doubt that the United States of America will be united. Maybe MicroVision will finally have become profitable. Maybe the work I’ve done will fund the life I want to live. (Did I mention those book sales?) I don’t know what 2040 will be like, but whenever I think of the significant trends I’ve mentioned above I remind myself to make those plans and be ready to laugh at them.
History is probably a good guidepost but not a script for the future. Concerns about GAI and singularity are, in my opinion, sensational but not irrelevant. Technologies/technology companies/technologists are yet more not fully understood risks. AI applications for good e.g. modeling climate change under various scenarios, predicting social collapse, etc. will likely ameliorate the downsides such as wiping out jobs such as article writing, some programming, commercial art, etc. (see https://techcrunch.com/2022/12/01/while-anticipation-builds-for-gpt-4-openai-quietly-releases-gpt-3-5/)
And I suspect that you, like myself, will live out our Actuarial Life span before the the best/worst is realized. So, in the meantime, good luck with your book sales and keep writing freeform. -jgp