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Expanding Human Horizons...

Meta-category - Expansion: Technologies that exponentially expand human effort and activities. By Jona Nalder, with Rhys Cassidy

“I don’t think we will survive another 1000 years without escaping beyond our fragile planet.”
- Stephen Hawking

Expansion. Throughout our history, exploring for survival or new opportunities has been a constant theme. At the dawn of time, the Hawking’s of that era would perhaps have been warning about the need to move beyond Africa, or away from somewhere an ice age was beginning. During such migrations (1), it has often been the development of new technologies which have enabled such moves to succeed. For Vikings fighting the scarce resources of their arctic homes, the longship enabled commerce, trade and exploration. For sailors in the 1700’s, the sextant allowed ships to cross oceans with the certainty of success required before global travel could become commonplace, and today, millions of people cross borders and oceans held aloft by carbon fibre wings that are given lift by spinning turbo-fans. All of these are part of the story of technology impacting human efforts and abilities.

This lens of ‘the ways in which technology is impacting humanity, work and learning’ is the basis of the Future-U framework (2) developed to help us begin addressing the vast story of humans and technology into a discussion that can be most useful for us right now. ‘Expansion’, the third meta-category in this framework, follows on from both Automation and Augmentation. Rather than focusing on technologies that replace or assists human activities as they do however, it refers to the technologies that exponentially expand human possibilities. 

Specific examples in our current time-frame include the internet (information everywhere) and the smartphone (access and share information everywhere). In our near-future timeframe, ‘Expansion’ covers the arrival of low-cost renewable energy, access to free high speed internet, ‘New Space’ activities like asteroid mining and autonomous Artificial Intelligence and Robots. Any one of these have the potential to bring exponential change on a scale similar to what electricity did for our grandparents. 

Mining of Asteroids and the moon for example are now forecast to facilitate huge increases in building in space and expansion on Earth. Countries such as the US and Luxembourg are evolving policy and law to allow for mining in space, and several companies are racing to develop technologies to identify, mine, utilise and transport the vast quantities of resources found in asteroids (3). This includes Moon Express, the first private company to receive a government licence to go to the moon (4). The database of Asteroids compiled by Asterank details several whose equivalent value of trillions of dollars is the same as the total wealth produced in an entire year on Earth (5).

The long and continual process of expansion illustrated in maps of human migration (1) does make it hard to imagine that humans won’t soon continue this process and migrate off-planet. What will become possible when we are no longer limited just by the resources found only on Earth? Exponential expansions which build on automation and augmentation technologies like asteroid mining have the potential to increase our ability to cater for a growing population on Earth and beyond in ways that until recently were found only in Science Fiction. The ability of today’s learners to soon explore and settle our solar system does raise important big picture questions about our responsibility for this planet and our place in the universe however. Will we replicate Earth systems in space or use technology to devise new ways of being? Will this expanded awareness lead to different approaches to old and new problems? Future-U is here to help kickstart the answering of these questions. The future is you, and us. Let’s get started. 



2. This Future-U framework acknowledges that no one schema can ever encompass all the developments and directions technology is taking. However, it is important to make a start now that the impact of technology has accelerated so greatly. 





Intro to FUTURE-U: The ‘Overview Effect’

Future-U manifesto part1

Going into space is something that humans have dreamt of and written about for centuries. And, thanks to factors like engineering ingenuity and the way newly miniaturised transistors could help calculate the required orbital mechanics, this dream was finally achieved by Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in 1961.

Since Gagarin, programs like Apollo, Mir, Space Shuttles, the International Space Station and Tiangong have seen 0.000076% of people alive leave Earth. These approx. 550 women and men have been formally studied for changes that their time in space have caused such as the effect of low gravity on muscles and bone density — but one of the most fascinating impacts of being in orbit has been how it changes astronauts mindsets and world-views. This phenomenon, dubbed the ‘Overview Effect’ by Frank White in 1985, refers to the effect that viewing our planet and sole home from the distance of orbit has had on those who have witnessed it. View the official documentary here.

More recently, Astronaut Chris Hadfield, author of ‘An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth’ and poster of this prolific series of Twitter images from space has added to the reports of previous generations:

“We live on this little bit of cooled crust, and this little sliver of air, and we think it’s guaranteed. We think we’re invincible right, and we think the whole universe is here to serve us. And we’re like bacteria in a corner, just found a little niche that’ll support our life” — Chris Hadfield, 2013, JRE.

So, if we were looking down at our pale blue dot home right now, what would we see? It’s probable that with just such a big-picture perspective, we would see a planet undergoing massive transitions in technology, work, and society, the effects of which are showing in increased social and political instability particularly as many jobs that have been mainstays since the previous Industrial revolution of the 1800’s begin to disappear. The technologies involved in this transition are many, but the majority can be roughly organised into three meta or overall categories of Automation, Augmentation and Expansion. These categories will be covered in detail in ‘Intro to FUTURE-U’ parts 2–5, but overall refer to:

Automation: A.I., bots, Machine Learning, driverless cars, internet of things, robotics. Augmentation: VR, AR, mixed reality, tele-work & play, exo-skeletons, bio-tech, genome-editing, implants. Expansion: low-cost renewable energy, reduction of Earth-limits, Space mining and factories, off-earth living.

Many across the globe are of course aware of these developments and their effects and symptoms, but are not putting all the pieces together in an ‘Overview Effect’ -enough of a way that could allows us to think beyond today to plan for a successful future where soon many humans may be seeing Earth not just from near-space, but from Mars and beyond.

QUESTION: If we were mission control and could build an organisation to lead the next phase of work and education into a thriving future, what would it look like? is designed to answer just this question. Look out for more articles laying out the what, how and why in coming weeks.