We rematerialized quite dramatically in the well of the United Nations Security Council. The terrible itch that was said to come with time travel was to me no more than a tingling sensation.
At first glance, the chamber seemed unchanged. The differences became notable later. A debate was ongoing which we’d momentarily derailed. They seemed to be debating the causes and lobbing blame for some “great crisis of empathy” that had broken out.
The chair beckoned for a protocol droid to receive us, and after we had presented our credentials to the meeting chair, he/she/it gavelled the meeting into continuation. We were ushered to an anteroom with the promise of an audience with the council later.
We were told that deputations from the past were an increasing feature, and informed that our memory would be wiped prior to our return to honour the “Prime Directive” of 2123 to not let futurewise time travellers return to their present and agitate to alter the versal trajectory. A supermajority at the UN would decide what message or disclosure if any would one day be sent back to the past to be reckoned with.
The droid wryly observed that time travellers often seemed more interested in what had happened soon after their own point in time – including for crass motivations like sports betting – than in the contours of the far future.
Human civilisation in 2373 seemed generally content with the status quo, or so it seemed. Exhibit A to me was how the Security Council was apparently now known as the Serenity Council.
Medical and security types, some human, some clearly robots, most in-between, screened us but otherwise left us alone as the protocol droid – Annan, it introduced itself as – droned on.
What seemed likely to us in 2023 did indeed go ahead and happen. World War III kicked off in the late 2040s and went nuclear after a brutal but inconclusive conventional hi-tech slugging match.
With most of what had been contested now a glowing waste land, the much depleted East and West could both claim vindication if not victory, make peace, and retreat sullenly into their own spheres – two peas in a bifurcated pod of a world.
The 2048 Congress of Astana formalised the fracture of the world, on "good fences (fashioned of devastated radioactive wasteland) make good neighbours" terms.
From the tragedies on a fathomable scale of the Russo-Ukraine war of the 2020s that killed in the hundreds of thousands, the immolation, radiation poisoning and starvation of billions was a numbingly incomprehensible statistic.
At least it gave the rump of humanity more elbow room, and eased the overboil of the climate emergency. In the run-up to World War III, the economies of both blocs had already become far more carbon efficient and circular – more from the need to end reliance on the other than any deep-seated eco-epiphany.
And so, droid Annan explained, the rump of humanity lived passably ever after, till the dawn of the 24th Century, a theme he would warm to.
Such versatile robots and intimidating AI that our own time had marvelled and fretted over ironically became the handmaidens of the long, passable peace: The proximate trigger of WWIII had been an AI malfunction that loosed the war's opening salvo. A week into hostilities, it was traced to the unintended effects of a boutique virus loosed by a criminal syndicate to open bitcoin server vaults. It had primed and loosed hypersonic weapons from their silos instead.
The Treaty of Astana enshrined among all parties the tight state control of AI and Cybersecurity protocols. The IT behemoths that had previously lorded over the world from the clouds were absorbed into restorationist regulatory states – all the more convenient given that governments had owed them trillions for the algos and hardware that had been expended in the futile conflict.
In all key economic, environmental, and public security systems the Cryptoconfederation of Malaya was tasked with crafting a disciplined and austere tech tree for the orderly and pacific harnessing of AI and automation by humankind, and monitoring compliance of the sides. AI would calculate and advise. Robots would operate under rigid parameters. In all key economic, climate control, and public security systems in both blocs, human controllers, committees, and community councils would hold the pen, pull the levers and press the buttons, with such AI as remained obsequiously looking on from beyond an air gap.
East and West were bloodied but content with the peace, focused on rebuilding. While the machines were tamed, the organic building blocks of life ran wild. In the decades that followed the great cataclysm, the plight of billions of radioactive survivors and vast blighted tracts on the edge of the doomscape – the “nike swoosh of the undead” anchored by Warsaw, Damascus, Hyderabad, Bangkok, Manila, Sapporo – led to great advances in nanotherapies and quantum genomics. Cancers were not just anticipated or cured, but even harnessed as a tamed beast for metabolic regulation and metamorphosis.
Under the threat of mass starvation, what previously had been considered Frankenfoods – bioengineered crops and animals, insects, algae, fungi, deep sea harvests – took on a tasty new sheen in the light of necessity. Bespoke species of lichens, mushrooms, and succulents bioremediated the Badlands and reclaimed them for use.
Over the decades, irradiated human beings, shunned by others, spawned yet more extraordinary beta versions of a new humanity, newly thriving in restored edges of a healing biome.
Unaltered humans began to envy and cleave after the advantages in strength, cognition, and even that glow that seemed to defy clear pigmentations and contours of “race,” for themselves and their progeny. In both East and West, entire societies embraced genetic research and therapies at scale. Generally voluntary in the West, and mandated in the East. Interesting contrasts developed between and within each bloc, with new humanoid traits tailored to cultural, economic, and climate peculiarities. “Pro-transfiguration” tax and health insurance incentives and government campaigns catalysed the takeup of new genes.
Only in the ragged gaps between the leading powers did a lack of various ideologies, railed against the defilement of the human essence, mockery of the plans of the gods, etc. Some took up arms, or resorted to terroristic acts. These were largely futile, and suppressed. Only in the wells of misery in the dregs of the neglected Global South did a lack of technology, capital, and the prevalence of traditional beliefs keep the preponderance of new genetic approaches at bay.
Our world of 9 billion human beings had by 2048 become a rump of 5 billion stressed and threatened survivors, which tapered down to 4 billion due to illness, deprivation, and unrest by 2050.
Genetic transformation and broader forms of technocratic social control and population management, and more sustainable use of resources including the embrace of new foods and drastic tapering of meat consumption stabilised our human and earth systems. The quarter millennia till the turn of the 24th century saw the world population gradually inch upwards to 6 billion, keeping pace with a modest but sustained recovery in Earth systems. But viewed another way, this was not population growth at all, as globally except in the South, the life expectancy of augmented humanity was a hundred years.
By now the medical and security droids had done their thing, and we were seated alone in the anteroom with Annan, watching the muted holographic feed of the Serenity Council’s deliberations.
A human attendant of indeterminate gender and age entered, leaving us refreshment which looked like hummus and sticks of beet, but probably wasn’t.
I prompted Annan on his reference to how humankind had lived reasonably happily and sustainably ever after, well sort of, till the cusp of the current 24th century. So what seemed amiss today? What was all that fuss going on the floor of the Council?
Annan let out what seemed like a sigh and went on with his exposition. AI drones had been faulted for a relentless if facile and unfeeling logic that could unleash unthinking, unfathomable ills. But there were dark sides, too, to hacking and augmenting the forces of nature. The exact turning point was difficult to pinpoint. But somehow, it was realised subjectively at first, then with confirmatory interdisciplinary fieldwork and research, that transformed humankind of the 2300s had somehow lost the capacity for deep emotions and empathy. Yes, a sense of ethics and etiquette could be imparted, and carnal urges remained, though their objects had become increasingly abstruse. But augmented humankind had lost the capacity to feel.
By any indices, human transformation, art and culture, and eco-regeneration were of historical anthropology, sociology, and cultural studies looked back at what moved their forbears’ passions to love, hate, reach out, turn away, sacrifice, sing, etc., and found that the same stimuli, even transposed to the 2300s techno linguistic context, failed to move. By any indices, human development and ecological redevelopment were at unprecedented levels. Something felt wrong, in that nothing seemed to be felt.
I unmuted the Serenity Council hologram feed. Representatives from East, West, and South were debating whether we should embrace what the last war had kicked into the long weeds: perhaps, if AI was accelerated and integrated bodily with humankind, we could be taught again to feel, or perhaps freed from a sense of its absence?
Intrigued, I asked Annan if we might make an intervention.
Luke Tay (luke_tay@CfutureS.xyz) is the Founder of Cornucopia FutureScapes, a Singapore-based, globally oriented foresight and strategy practice with a focus on future food systems and sustainability, overlaid with thinking on the influence of geopolitics and urban, technological, and design possibilities.