Wanderers - a short film by Erik Wernquist from Erik Wernquist on Vimeo.

The consistently awesome Wait But Why blog wrote a post on Artificial Intelligence that caught the eye of a few folks around Thalmic Labs last week. Then this happened:

And it was all we could talk about. Over the weekend, my mom emailed me the story—the true test of virality.

The entire post is fascinating and well worth the read, but I still haven’t spoken to anyone about the “Artificial Intelligence” part. I can’t get over the introduction: “The Far Future—Coming Soon”.

Author Tim Urban makes his point the way any good philosopher would: with Back to the Future.

The movie Back to the Future came out in 1985, and “the past” took place in 1955. In the movie, when Michael J. Fox went back to 1955, he was caught off-guard by the newness of TVs, the prices of soda, the lack of love for shrill electric guitar, and the variation in slang. It was a different world, yes—but if the movie were made today and the past took place in 1985, the movie could have had much more fun with much bigger differences. The character would be in a time before personal computers, internet, or cell phones—today’s Marty McFly, a teenager born in the late 90s, would be much more out of place in 1985 than the movie’s Marty McFly was in 1955.”

The reason for this — the trip from 2015-1985 being more jarring than 1985-1955, despite both being just 30 years — is an object of fascination for Urban. So much so that he creates a new unit of measurement to investigate it: a DPU, or “Die Progress Unit”.

A DPU is the amount of time it takes human beings to achieve enough progress that the shock of bringing a time traveler to your era would kill them. Here’s how it works:

Imagine taking a time machine back to 1750—a time when the world was in a permanent power outage, long-distance communication meant either yelling loudly or firing a cannon in the air, and all transportation ran on hay. When you get there, you retrieve a dude, bring him to 2015, and then walk him around and watch him react to everything. It’s impossible for us to understand what it would be like for him to see shiny capsules racing by on a highway, talk to people who had been on the other side of the ocean earlier in the day, watch sports that were being played 1,000 miles away, hear a musical performance that happened 50 years ago, and play with my magical wizard rectangle that he could use to capture a real-life image or record a living moment, generate a map with a paranormal moving blue dot that shows him where he is, look at someone’s face and chat with them even though they’re on the other side of the country, and worlds of other inconceivable sorcery… This experience for him wouldn’t be surprising or shocking or even mind-blowing—those words aren’t big enough. He might actually die.

So, a DPU is about 265 years, right? Wrong. The 265-year-journey from 1485-1750 isn’t gonna kill anyone. The world would be too easily recognized. As Urban puts it:

…in order for the 1750 guy to have as much fun as we had with him, he’d have to go much farther back—maybe all the way back to about 12,000 BC, before the First Agricultural Revolution gave rise to the first cities and to the concept of civilization. If someone from a purely hunter-gatherer world—from a time when humans were, more or less, just another animal species—saw the vast human empires of 1750 with their towering churches, their ocean-crossing ships, their concept of being “inside,” and their enormous mountain of collective, accumulated human knowledge and discovery—he’d likely die.

Boom. DPU.

The fact that they get longer as you go backward is a result of the exponential progress humans make. The more cool technology we make, the more cool technology we’re able to make, and the ratchet just keeps cranking in one direction.

This leaves us with a pretty staggering conclusion: crunch the numbers and the next DPU is coming in just a few decades, probably around 2030. This means that if a time traveller came from 2030 and grabbed you as you read this, pulling you just fifteen years into the future, the world could look so different from what you know and understand the shock might kill you. The DPU after that will come faster still.

Let us know in the comments how you’re readying for these disruptive decades, and how you’ll use these new technologies—or help bring them about.

Image credit: www.facebook.com/nicolas.bannister