The front page of the latest edition of Time magazine carries a warning that we are at the ‘End of humAnIty’ in the sense that AI will take over the world and potentially exterminate the human race. The good news is that Time magazine covers tend to be contraindications, and I am closely watching the share price of AI mania stock Nvidia to see if its share price is going to peak on the publication of the Time cover story.
Regular readers will know that we have treated the dangers of AI on a number of occasions (The Final Problem, Talos, and LevAIlling), and I suspect that the ultimate effect of AI could ultimately be to lengthen human longevity. However, while we sit and worry about AI led drone strikes on our cities and being chased by drone swarms, we underestimate the effect of machines on our bodies and importantly, on our sociability. I had two reminders of this last week.
The first was hearing social historian Miriam Nyhan (formerly of NYU) describe the transition in the economy of Cork from one dominated by Ford to Apple
While Ford’s initial contribution was to change the way we worked (I have had the benefit of a tour of the Dearborn factory, the most impressive element of which was to see robots making cars), the automobile industry has also changed the way we live – notably in terms of how cities are structured and the amount of exercise we get. Then, Apple and social media in general have changed commerce and entertainment but have also left us with physical contortions (the hunched phone user) and even worse, social deformities in the sense that for the first time ever, humans no longer interact with each other in a solely human way.
The second insight was from Prof. Rose Anne Kenny (author of the excellent ‘Age Proof’) the founder of TILDA (The Irish Longitudinal Study on Aging) that has tracked nearly 9,000 adults aged fifty and older, and covers all aspects of life — from sex to food, to physical and brain health, genetics, childhood experiences, friendships, finance and much more — to fathom how and why we age, and to resolve how we can live longer and better.
When we combine the changes to our lives from technology, with changes to identity and acts such as drug taking, we are on the cusp of the most dramatic change in human behaviour ever. We can live for longer, but in many instances, we are not living better. What is clear is the degree of flux around our bodies and minds – from longevity to the atomization of societies, the diffusion of identity, and radical changes in average body shapes.
I don’t have a clever name for this epochal transformation – perhaps ‘The Regression’ – but we might date it as having crystalised in the post COVID period when the combined results of all of these factors came together.
This is characterized by a number of factors – generalized longevity across the world with worrying regressions in life expectancy in specific economies owing to a combination of obesity, cardiovascular diseases, drug dependencies and depression. The US stands out here where life expectancy has dropped (see America’s periphery problem) precipitously to 76 years, its lowest level in over two decades (for reference Canada is 82 years and Japan 85).
In the future, these changes will be complicated by a range of factors, notably where morality and money are concerned. Wealthy people will try to access longevity (but perhaps not happiness) and advances in genetic engineering may open up an entirely new vista for the rich to grow and transplant organs or to design their ‘next generation’.
Then, AI broadly has the ability to help diagnose many illnesses depending on countries’ ability to collect good data, but where it is introduced into social welfare systems, may act in a cruel way to exclude people with say cardiovascular complications from getting insurance or social welfare.
As a final point, the striking aspect of Rose Anne Kenny’s work is that healthier and happier, long lives are essentially a function of good design – of cities and towns, healthcare provision, social education and diet (note that the journal Public Health Nutrition shows that ultra-processed food makes up over 45% of household purchases in Ireland, the UK and Germany as opposed to less than 14% in France, Italy and Portugal).
For that reason, I have a lot more confidence in the future of European democracies than autocracies or the Anglo-Saxon socio-economic model to successfully manage the enormous changes taking place in our bodies and minds.