Tuesday, September 20, 2011
Mind-controlled Video Games but Probably not a Robot Butler
Here's something we old people know: futurists are notoriously bad at predicting the future. As a kid I remember reading a futurist, who, seeing the expansion of robotic and computer technologies in the 70s and 80s, predicted that in the 21st century the typical American work week would be no longer than 25 hours. He then went on to speculate about how we would spend all of our newfound leisure. This futurist's mistake was that he forgot to factor in competition in the marketplace. Robots and computers did spread, but once every company had robots and computers, the only way to get an edge was to work the humans a little harder. Thus, the typical work week actually got longer.
Still, while it may be tough to predict what's coming, you'd be silly to look at our world not think, Wow, the future is gonna be crazy. How can one prepare?
Reading Physics of the Future: How Science will Shape Human Destiny and our Daily Lives by the Year 2100, by Michio Kaku, might be a good start. Kaku, physicist, author (Physics of the Impossible), and Discovery and Science channel host, admits to being fully aware of the bad track record most futurists have. In his introduction he puts more stock in the predictions of science fiction authors Jules Verne and H.G. Wells than in self-styled futurist writers. Still, he takes the plunge, claiming that his long career as a scientist makes him more qualified than most to write about the possible technological advances of the 21st century.
And to his credit, he takes a careful and thoughtful approach, avoiding both excessive optimism or pessimism. While excited about advances in artificial intelligence, he points out the long, tortured and as yet largely fruitless struggle to create thinking machines, describing our most advanced robot--a 4 foot tall, talking, dancing Japanese marvel named AISMO--as about as intelligent as a cockroach. He predicts that the advances in computer chip speed and memory will greatly slow as technical limits are reached in the coming decades. At the same time he is impressed with cars that drive themselves and he sees great promise in the so far futile search for fusion power. Without making any promises, he even thinks room temperature superconductors may be on the horizon, finally allowing kids to abandon their wheeled skateboards--so last century--for far superior hoverboards. Oh, and be prepared to live forever, and to control objects, or at least computers, with your mind.
He avoids, finally, predicting that simply because a technology is possible, doesn't mean that we will create it. Social and economic forces will play a large part in what comes to pass. For instance, while genetic engineering may allow people to adopt all sorts of freaky enhancements to their bodies like tails or antlers, Kaku believes there won't be a market for such things and that most people will just try to be beautiful or smart. (Having seen some rather impressive tattoos and piercings, I think Kaku might be wrong here, but the effort to account for human natureis laudable.) He reminds us that, physically, mentally and genetically, we are pretty much identical to our cave man ancestors and that, regardless of our technologies, most of our desires are and forever will be driven by what nature taught us when we were hunters and gatherers.
Finally, he does not dismiss the possibility that a global disaster, perhaps brought on by global warming, could cut the legs out from under all kinds of technical advancement. Still, he is convinced that technical solutions to the global warming problem abound, and it is only the political issues that stand in the way. If only they were as easy to solve as the hoverboard problem.