Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Peak Happiness

NOTE: This post is a continuation of “Lessons from a Simulated History,” whose underlying data has been updated.  It has also been corrected with more accurate numbers since its original release on February 16.

If my analysis of global trends is accurate, the terrorist attacks of September 2001 may have been the equivalent of the first earthquake in a massive seismic shift. As some members of the world's population reached the peak of happiness and life expectancy, the relentless pursuit of its growth raised the level of the poorest for the first time in human history. A decade later, we are seeing repressive regimes toppling or under siege while the ultra-rich try desperately to push beyond the peak they are stuck at.

If these trends could continue, I conservatively estimate that the population would increase from 7 billion now to 148 billion in 2212, and level off when everyone attains maximum happiness. The total mass of resources consumed each year would be 432 times what it was at the end of 2010, and in the intervening period we would use 770 times the total amount of resources our planet has left. Because we would need to transport that material in at least one transaction each year, our speed would increase by the same factor as our consumption, and we would almost certainly be covering interplanetary distances.

This week's Time magazine features a cover story about the certainty some people have that by 2045 technology will enable humans to become effectively immortal by transferring our minds into computers. Meanwhile, biotechnology is progressing fast enough that we may soon be able to arrest and possibly reverse the aging of our current bodies. In addition, nanotechnology (the controlled atomic-level restructuring of matter) could conceivably allow us to use and reuse everything, thus eliminating the waste problem that forces us to seek out new resources all the time.

In the context of my own research, these developments amount to pushing through peak happiness on an exponential basis, fueled by an increase in locally reusable resources. The fastest possible growth I can foresee is an exponential increase in minimum happiness. Coupled with an increasing maximum, transport speed would need to reach the speed of light by 2131 if we started now and were using non-renewable resources, consuming more than one-millionth the mass of Earth each year; this is the amount of mass we would instead be recycling. At that maximum speed, we would be at another peak in happiness, only another 49% more than the present maximum, with a life expectancy of 140 years. Of course, I'm still assuming we would be humans instead of machines that may require less. Whatever the assumptions, the mercilessness of exponential consumption would eventually reach a limit such as the speed of light, imposed by natural laws that can't be broken no matter how smart our machines become.

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