By Greg Surber
I often find myself thinking about the future. I do not think much about my career, my death, my wife and children, my retirement or other events and people that may define me as I grow older. No, instead I think about “The Future,” the ever-changing not-quite-yet we try in vain to predict and try harder to forget as we drift from Then to Now. The Future looks quite different than it looked to my ancestors. It does not even appear like any vision I have ever had. It is a world defined by perception, and it is a world that feels very much like the world we know, but all similarities end there. It is the future of the so-called Information Age; of shrinking technology and expanding knowledge; of conscious computers and cybernetic humans. It is a future riddled with science fiction prediction. And it is utterly unknown. Even trying to predict the next decade appears to be an exercise in folly. Every year brings a mind-blowing innovation. What new technology will redefine our lives? I do not think we can assume it will be only one.
Whether the human race becomes digitized, mechanized or vaporized, there is an abrupt shift in our species completely divorced from modern humanity.
But consider this: humans have looked into the depths of the universe and found explanations (along with thousands more questions) to events and objects across trillions of miles. Black holes, white dwarves and red giants are no longer defined only by their colors and sizes. Hundreds of planets have been found in the “Goldilocks” zone, and thus may have the conditions necessary to sustain life. While many of us view space only in relation to where we can travel within it, others are gazing into the crevices of the cosmos, reading stories written in light literally billions of years ago. Humans may have naïvely projected our species onto the stars within a century, but to our credit, we are much wiser than that now as we observe the unfathomably big and pinpoint the infinitesimally small. Even our concept of “space” is changing as we discover that even though matter may not exist in empty space, that certainly does not make it empty.
Of course, that is “just the universe,” a place scientists warn is underrepresented in both the federal budget and the classroom. What instead has left us enraptured with the promise of progress? There are numerous examples that we can cite in the Information Age, but I would like to share the two that stand out in my mind: synthetic intelligence and biotechnology, both of which are intertwined with nanotechnology. Discoveries in one field propel the others forward symbiotically, catalyzing innovations in fields that had only existed in the realm of theory. Synthetic biology, self-healing materials, 3D printing, atomic memory storage, invisibility. It is staggering to keep up with them all.
Remember Dolly the sheep in the summer of 1996? It is hard for me to forget. She graced the cover of most major news magazines. She inspired sitcom episodes and philosophical debates alike. She was the center of attention as we entertained the idea of a person born of a cell instead of a womb. Even schoolchildren talked about Dolly and fantasized about “copying” themselves (I know I did). But, for better or worse, Dolly may be the last groundbreaking scientific advancement to capture the public imagination if only because breaking new ground has become so commonplace. Consider the following advances in the 21st century thus far:
2001 – The first draft of the human genome is completed
In the past decade, further developments in genetics make this achievement look rather unimpressive. A columnist recently had her genes mapped to learn more about her ancestry. Her story reveals the incredible leaps this technology has made in a few short years.
While it is true that the only synthetic material was the genetic code, that code was placed in an “empty” cell, and that cell multiplied. Whether this is truly synthetic life is a moot point when one considers that what was created and executed was biological software. True, that software may have been the computing equivalent of, say, the “Hello world!” exercise all computer science students complete in their first programming course. Even so, it illustrates that greater, more complex, more dynamic sequences are limited only by time and resources instead of feasibility or imagination.
2011 – Watson competes on Jeopardy!
Admittedly, this one sounds like a stretch. A computer beating people on a game show? However, consider that in 1997, chess-playing computer Deep Blue won against world champion Garry Kasparov. Jeopardy! may not be a “harder” game than chess, but for a computer to navigate the ambiguities, multiple meanings and occasionally counterintuitive structures of human language relatively easily is an incredible feat. While it is in a limited arena, Watson’s comprehension was stunning even in its wildest errors. When Watson had little confidence in his answers, it was easy to understand how he came to the answers displayed: he was making associations, constructing ideas, “thinking” like a human. The implications are enormous: imagine a computer than can communicate with you as clearly and adaptively as another person. Imagine a machine that makes jokes, provides personal advice and diagnoses your leg cramps, all while you prepare for work in the morning. Watson may well be seen as a link between the computers we know today and the sentient beings we are trying to create.
2012 – The Higgs boson is discovered
This discovery happened only weeks ago, and I still have almost no idea what it means. Yet I am trying to understand because I am sure this particle has great implications for our future. After discovering the electron in 1897, J.J. Thomson thought the electron too small to be of any importance outside of the lab. Yet harnessing this tiny particle clouding our view of the nucleus set in motion most of the technologies of the last century. Who knows what the Higgs boson may reveal with time?
If the trend of history maintains, these advances and technologies will multiply exponentially. Perhaps they may even surpass our ability to incorporate them into our lives without significant disruption. Yet our lives as we understand them may be subject to radical shifts beyond the tools that surround us. These tools may, in fact, infiltrate us, tiny robots inhabiting our bodies improving our health, our senses and our mental faculties. It is not hard to imagine microscopic computers coursing through our veins, searching for those defects that biological evolution had neither the familiarity nor the foresight to identify and eliminate. Perhaps these machines could even repair our DNA or, in the farthest-reaching cases, execute some form of genetic reconstitution, gradually redefining our nucleic programming cell by cell and changing not who but whatwe are at the most basic level. These computers may also reside in our synapses, balancing our neurotransmitters while keeping us “online” at all times, transforming Google into the search engine of our minds. This is assuming that we have not already mapped the brain to copy the mind, remove it from the corporeal realm and place it in a digital domain, a virtual environment where all thought and emotion are experienced simultaneously in an oceanic consciousness beyond the wildest dreams of McLuhan and Jung.
That last paragraph went off in so many directions, and I suppose it is the best representation of my mind when I mull over these ideas—it splinters into a thousand pieces. Trying to wrap my mind around the ramifications of even one of these possibilities leaves me paralyzed as my thought accelerates, rendering the world as I know it in sepia-toned irrelevance. The possibilities burgeon until I crash into some extreme that trivializes human existence, or at least as I understand it. Whether the human race becomes digitized, mechanized or vaporized, there is an abrupt shift in our species completely divorced from modern humanity. Only then I am brought back to reality to pull back, regroup, and go about my day as though the world is sitting idly by awaiting this strange and beautiful and frightening tomorrow right along with me. But in the back of my mind, I know that like this planet rotating beneath our feet, we are moving quickly, so quickly that we do not even realize how quickly until we stop to consider it. I could attempt to expound on each strand of thought expressed above, but honestly, I could only reiterate what many before me have said with greater eloquence and authority than I may ever possess. I’ll leave that exploration to you, dear reader, as we sit and wonder what tomorrow may bring.
* front page slider photo © by NASA