On Why Gen Z May Have a Great Future After All

Poor Gen Z. In the United States, the oldest members this generation (born between 1997 and 2012, give or take a few years) have only recently entered adulthood, and it’s been a pretty rough ride so far.

Let’s say the eldest are 25. That means that since their 18th birthdays, they’ve seen the divisive Trump years, the turmoil of the pandemic, an attempted insurrection, a sudden surge in inflation, record global warming, a couple of recessions (yeah, I’m calling this one even if the NBER isn’t), an invasion in Europe, the greatest amount of political polarization since the U.S. Civil war, and the descent of the U.S. political system into the category of flawed democracy.

It’s little wonder that they’re turning out to pessimistic about the future. The world in general and the U.S. in particular has looked like a real shit show in recent years, and the immediate future isn’t looking all that bright, either.

But will Gen Z really be the generation that comes to adulthood just in time to see economies collapse, the world burn up, nation states fall apart, and Orwellian authoritarian states become the norm?

Sure, it could happen, especially if they (and the rest of us) don’t fight against those dystopian futures. But here’s the thing. If you squint a bit, you can detect signs that the Gen Zers might have a pretty great future after all.

Here are just a few of the trends we can point to:

  • The emergence of a go-go green world: Few have commented on the trend so far, but renewable energy is growing at exponential rates. If we only confine ourselves to solar and wind globally, the rate of growth is doubling every 3.75 years. Even if we round this up to 4, these two energies alone will provide more power in 2034 than was generated globally in 2021. The future will be renewable, and soon. That’s not a bad way to spend your early adulthood.
  • The rise of the smart (and hopefully super helpful) machines: Artificial intelligence is advancing at remarkable rates, which may have massive implications for productivity, innovation and more. Recently DeepMind announced it had successfully used AI to predict the 3D structures of nearly every catalogued protein known to science: over 200 million proteins found in plants, bacteria, animals, and humans! Sure, it was hard to hear that astonishing news amid all the hubbub about the end of the Chaco Taco, but history will judge this a major historic event (DeepMind, not the Taco). If AI can so quickly be productive in this one extremely challenging area of science, then imagine the impact it can have on worker productivity in general. As productivity rates rise over the next decade or more, so will income per capita (in theory). Of course, those gains need to be properly redistributed throughout the workforce, but that’s a different challenge. Yes, powerful AI could potentially have a number of truly terrible repercussions as well, but let’s focus on the bright side here.
  • The dazzling advances in microbiology. The protein-folding achievement just noted is one part of a much larger set of advances in microbiology. CRISPR, for example, is an astonishing technology. The rapid creation of the Covid-19 vaccination was just one the modern miracles brought to you by microbiology. These advances will continue and, in fact, speed up due to aforementioned machine learning techniques. If we can avoid the specter of bioterrorism, these advances might well mean that Gen Z will be the healthiest and longest-living generation in history. Death? Hah. That was so 2020s!
  • The renaissance in reformed political systems. Yes, the U.S. as well as various other nations are in danger of turning away from democracy and toward totalitarianism. Based on the popularity of scary-ass demagogues like my governor Ron DeSantis, we might well see the Orban-ization of America in the near future. However, at the same time, there are various grassroots movements (e.g., RepresentUS) that are seeking to reform the more corrupt and dysfunctional aspects of government. Perhaps if the U.S. can build up its immunity to demagoguery and neo-fascism quickly enough, there could be a flowering of pro-democracy movements here and abroad. This could eventually lead not just to more democracy globally but to more functional forms of democracy than have ever existed.
  • The rise in environmental protections and the strengthening of Earth’s ecosystems. Humanity has done an enormous amount of harm to the global ecosystem, but, along with the advancement in renewables, there will also be more programs such as 30×30, which is is a worldwide initiative for governments to designate 30% of Earth’s land and ocean area as protected areas by 2030. Now it even looks as if the U.S. might be able to pass the The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, which would put about $385 billion into combating climate change and bolstering U.S. energy production through changes that would encourage cuts in carbon emissions. So, Gen Z may be the first generation to spend its early adulthood in a global culture that finally takes serious steps to heal much of the environmental damage humanity has already wrought

Sure, there are lots of things that could go disastrously wrong. Some of them surely will. But there are also a lot of things that could go very right. Since the Gen Zers can’t tell for sure, they can join one of the many movements to make things better.

At the very least, they’ll be able to enjoy the comradery of people trying to improve things. And maybe, just maybe, they’ll be able to help create a way better world than the one they’ve inherited so far.

Featured image: By Dian Dong, Toronto climate change activist Alienor Rougeot calling upon the public, with the youth, to take action in one of Fridays for Future's earlier climate strikes, 15 March 2019

Thinking About Thinking

What is thinking?

There has been a tsunami of articles related to cognition. How does your pet think? How (or should) we build thinking machines? How can you think more effectively? How can intelligence itself be boosted? Etc.

This got me thinking about thinking, so I became involved in several social media discussions on how we should view the thinking process. Below is a short definition I’ve arrive at, one that potentially includes cognition among many animals as well as, perhaps, computing devices today and/or in the future:

Thinking is the process of assimilating sensory information, integrating it into existing internal models of reality (or creating new models derived from old ones),  generating inferences about the past, future and present based on those models, and using those inferences as more input that can be assimilated into internal models via continuing feedback loops.

This is succinct but I’m sure it oversimplifies things. For example, infants are likely born with a certain amount of “hard-wiring” that allows them to interpret the world in basic ways even before they’ve developed many internal models about how the world works.  Still, I’d argue that this definition gets at what we mean by thinking, whether it relates to bugs, birds, elephants or hominids.

What’s the point? Well, cognition is quickly becoming the name of the game in modern society in nearly any discipline you can name: learning, artificial intelligence, information science, bioethics, research, analytics, innovation, marketing, justice, genetics, etc.

A lot of what we will be doing in the future is trying to answer hard questions about thinking:

  • What (and how) do other people (e.g., customers, employees, citizens, etc.) think?
  • How can we make learning more efficient and effective?
  • How can we make machines that are better at solving problems?
  • How can we understand what is in the minds of criminals so that we can reduce crime and make better decisions in our justice systems?
  • How should we view and treat other thinking animals on the planet?
  • How do we know (or decide) when machines are thinking, and to what degree is thinking different from consciousness?

To have better discussions around these and similar questions, we’ll need to develop better and more understandable cross-disciplinary definitions of terms such as thinking, consciousness (which seems to be a kind of attention to thinking), and comprehension. A lot of progress comes from our growing ability to create thinking machines, but we also seem to be getting considerably better at understanding human cognition as well. The next couple of decades or so should be interesting.

(Note: I wrote a version of this post nearly a decade ago.)

Author: Solipsist;
From Wikimedia Commons.
Featured image source: Robert Fludd. From https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Robert_Fludd,Tomus_secundus…,_1619-1621_Wellcome_L0028467.jpg