Mankind's future is inextricably intertwined with technology. Human physiology has changed relatively little over the millenia, but our capacity to change the world has grown exponentially because of the tools that we create. The vast power with which we change our environment, and indeed, the whole world, comes not from what we can do with muscle and bone - but with minds and tools. And there's something big coming in the near future that's going to make gunpowder, the printing press, flight, computers - seem quaint. Some futurists call it "The Singularity". What's the singularity?
Our capacity to invent new things is limited to our intelligence and our knowledge. Each successive generation has the accumulated knowledge of the previous generations to build on, and as such, the progression is linear. But human intelligence has not much changed - certainly no linear progression. The smartest person in the world today might be marginally smarter than the smartest person in the world 5,000 years ago. (Then again he might not be.) But for the most part, human intelligence is a fixed quantity within a certain range that has not varied. That's about to change.
Sometime in the near future, we'll create a computer that's as smart as a human being. With the advent of quantum computing and ever-increasing computing power, we get closer and closer to fully modelling the human brain. Even today, computer scientists have successfully modelled the brain of a mouse in its entirety. The whole thing! A virtual mouse-brain! It worked slowly - much slower than an actual mouse-brain - but it worked. From there it's just a matter of Moore's law catching up with the difference between mice and man. This is excting for a hundred reasons - modelling cures for neurological afflictions, for instance - which is unethical on a human but nothing at all with a virtual model.
But that's not even 1/1000th of what's exciting about this. No, it's the singularity that's thrilling - because there will come a moment when mankind creates an intelligence that is greater than his own. Intelligence was always the limiting factor on human progress - but no longer. Soon there will literally be no limit to human progress. Because the first thing a higher-order intelligence could do would be to design an even higher-order intelligence. Each successive generation would be more intelligent, and thus capable of creating an intelligence of a greater delta than the previous generation. That means that the growth of intelligence will be exponential, not linear. The change and progress of the last thousand years will be as nothing compared to the changes of the next 100.
This is the most important thing that will have happened in human history. And you can be a part of it. This isn't science-fiction, and it's entirely possible it will happen in your lifetime. Are the hairs on the back of your neck standing up? They are for me. Limitless power. Instantenous travel. No more aging or disease. Humanity will be forever altered by the singularity - and there are many people who are working steadily towards making this happen. Today, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Institute has announced that Peter Thiel (co-founder of PayPal and a prominent philanthropist) will match up to $400,000.00 in contributions to their work to bring about the Singularity.
The singularity isn't just the pipe-dream of a bunch of slashdotters and transhumanists - there have been summits at Stanford, books written, and a lot of serious, academic thought about how the future of AI can be made to serve, rather than threaten humanity. I'm a big believer in this. I'im going to contribute, and I hope you will too.