Ever since the first primitive humans, namely Homo Habilis, decided it would be easier to use stone tools to do certain things, human evolution has been marked by technological leaps. Fire, stone, bronze, iron, steam, coal/oil (electricity), and silicon have all played their parts. With the earlier leaps forward, cranial capacity expanded in conjunction and anthropologists continue to argue the 'chicken or the egg' question: whether the technological leaps preceded or drove the increase in brain size. Such a question is important because our technological leaps are proceeding at an ever advancing rate.
Over the course of the last century or so, humanity has driven enormous change in its internal and external environments. We have conveniences and a standard of living, particularly in the western world, that our great-grandparents in the 1800s would have thought impossible or the stuff of a Jules Verne or HG Wells novella.
We can travel across the world in less than a day, television provides us with entertainment and, with the help of satellites, programming and news is transmitted across the globe in the blink of an eye, advances in medicine have helped us to live longer and delivered cures for diseases and ailments that were previously a death sentence, a tunnel snakes its way across the English Channel (as well as many other water courses), we have buildings that rise more than a hundred stories into the sky, and we have computers and the internet that have connected people and improved efficiency like never before, so that information has become as crucial a commodity as physical goods.
Not only these wonders, but we have begun our tentative foray into the immeasurable reaches of space, putting manned missions on the surface of the moon and brought them back safely again. We have sent probes beyond the solar system and our telescopes afford us a clearer picture of distant galaxies and even some of the planets within them, giving us a sense of place in the bigger picture of the universe and beginning to unravel the big question of whether there is other life out there in the cosmos.
All this progress has come at a price. The all consuming economic machine of humanity has devoured natural resources at an ever increasing rate, far greater than the ability of nature to replenish. Scientists believe we have even changed the climate of our world, and not for the better. There is but one planet, that we know of, suitable for sustaining life as we know it and in treating like a limitless resource and refuse tip, we are putting at risk the futures of the generations to come.
As to what comes next, I believe there are two major technological advances coming up in the not too distant future. One will be driven by the energy demands of the world and I personally hope that this one occurs within the next 10-20 years. This will be clean, renewable and plentiful energy. I have no idea what form it will take. The focus at the moment seems to be solar, wind and geothermal, but there is much discussion about such mind boggling and obscure concepts as hydrogen power, cold fusion, and even matter transfer (and wouldn't the Trekkies delight in that one!).
Transport and electricity generation are the two largest users of fossil fuels. It is difficult to imagine a world when these considerations are taken care of by way of cheap, clean power, but I believe it will come. The quantum leap to develop the engines associated with fossil based fuels in the early part of the twentieth century has largely fallen idle. Yes, there are small incremental enhancements, just not the dazzling leap that the engines themselves represented in the first place. Humanity has effectively been lulled in to a false sense of security because of its reliance on cheap plentiful oil and coal. Over the past year, the price of oil has more than doubled and industry analysts now concede that the writing is on that wall, peak oil is here. This means that demand exceeds supply and recoverable reserves. The gap between the two will continue to grow and other technologies that were previously considered uneconomic are now becoming viable.
The ability of humanity to innovate in times of crisis should hopefully lead to quantum changes in these areas. What will this mean to human evolution? I think it will see a flow away from a society that seeks to continually reinvent itself through creating new markets and products and then seeking to fill those markets and creating those products. In the next phase of human evolution, it seems highly probable that we will move away from the era of material goods to higher order needs, particularly as environmental considerations render rampant pillaging of natural resources both impractical and expensive. In moving away from a throw-away society, the focus will shift to reliability and longevity (and re-usability). This in turn will take away much of the need to work and we may finally start to realise the promise of increased leisure time. Without the self-perpetuating need to work to consume, humanity will turn its attention to more advanced methods of entertainment and learning.
This flows into the other area of technological innovation, which is a continuation along our path of making things smaller. Ten years ago, the average computer was a desk sized behemoth, mine personally was a 386 with a massive, at the time at least, hard disk capacity of 850Mb. Ten years before that, the Commodore 64 gave us a DOS screen and dazzling text based adventures. Now, we have wireless broadband accessible through mobile technology that will fit in the palm of your hand.
In the silicon world, chip capacity has doubled ever eighteen months or thereabouts. Like the 100m sprint in the Olympics, one would expect that there will eventually come a point where it is simply not possible to get any faster, but every time we seem to reach that barrier, something comes up to shatter that illusion and the evolution continues. Research in the area of nano-technology, combined with computer technology should one day pave the way to enhance human consciousness.
In 1959, Richard Feynman addressed a meeting of the American Physical Society at Caltech and described a process where it might be possible to manipulate matter, possibly re-engineering individual molecules or even atoms. In 1974, this concept was given a name, nano-technology, and the possibilities are limited only by the imagination. The potential medical applications alone are profound. If you can imagine, tiny devices or machines injected into your bloodstream that will continuously monitor and repair problems as they occur. Individual cancer cells hunted down and killed before they get the chance to do any lasting damage, arteries continually cleansed, nerve cells repaired so that spinal injuries become a temporary inconvenience, not the life changing traumatic events that they are at present. All manner of sickness, injury and even self inflicted harm (alcohol and drug abuse) may become a thing of the past and humanity could feasibly tickle the fringes of immortality.
There is an old chestnut that we only use about ten percent of our brains and that the other ninety holds the key to some psychic or extra-sensory power. Sadly, that is all it is, an old chestnut. We do now know what we actually use pretty much all of our brains and what each part of the brain does. It is just that some of us are much better at it than others. In the next stage of human evolution, combined with technological breakthroughs in computing and nanotechnology, could see all of us become much better at using our brains and may even see the prospect of a vast human network of our minds. Some sort of cranial internet where it may be eventually possible to exchange thought. At the very least, learning will be vastly improved and we could all know all things. Well, the sum of all human knowledge in existence at that point.
So, I believe that the next stage of human evolution will be a higher order of development, an era of the mind. From there, the possibilities for human evolution are only limited by the imagination. And that poses a big question. If we think we know everything and have the tools by which we can now anything, would that thwart or enhance our desire to know things and to try and learn more?