Saturday, March 17, 2012

A mere century's prediction

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, physics, predictions

If the future were a thing, I suppose we could do something about it. It is, instead, a process based on contingency, a set of outcomes mostly based on current trends, but subject to black swans. By 2001, according to Arthur Clarke's story "The Sentinel" (1951; adapted into the film 2001, A Space Odyssey in 1968), we would have an established presence on the Moon, a "Space Hilton" in a rotating ring-shaped space station, and the capability to send Hal and his pals in a huge ship to Jupiter (or Saturn in the story).

In 2001, none of this came to pass. We had a generation of college graduates who were born after we stopped going to the moon. One small space station had been allowed to crash to Earth, and another one that is moderately useful but is primarily an embarrassment, and an inwardly-focused Western society that seems ever more likely to be swallowed up by a burgeoning Islamicism that nobody dares to challenge openly. In 2100 AD, will the American constitution have been replaced by Sharia law? If so, science will be at a standstill, and world population will be reducing rapidly as we revert to an economic and political order that arose seven centuries ago among a people not noted for their toleration of new things and new ideas.

If all that doesn't come to pass, and more cosmopolitan values prevail, there is a chance that the dreams of Michio Kaku can come to fruition. Author of Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and our Daily Lives by the Year 2100, Dr. Kaku is a professor of theoretical physics. He's had the good fortune to get to know many of the scientists who are creating technologies that, they hope, will craft our future: biotechnology, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology and telecommunications.

I enjoyed reading the book, but came away with the melancholy feeling that it reaches too far, and possibly in the wrong direction. The author does anchor himself in the Cave Man principle: inside, we haven't changed much in 100,000 years. Thus, the first century of the Industrial Revolution may have radically improved life in the West, but it also issued in large-scale warfare, starting with the American Civil War, climaxing in the two World Wars, and winding down in the Cold War. The enemies of Western expansionism have adapted by raising guerrilla warfare to a level that nullifies much of the advantage of our high technology. Of course, society has gotten more soft-hearted (and soft-headed), so that we think losing 4,000 soldiers in two wars in the Middle East is too costly. Just as we thought losing 50,000 in Viet Nam was too costly. We lost 450,000 in Europe from 1942-1945, folks, don't forget. Was it too costly? What was the alternative? And we don't turn a hair at the 38,000 (down from 50,000 a decade earlier) that we lose yearly on American highways. We largely ignore the 100,000 (at least) lost to medical mistakes in American hospitals every single year. But a single soldier's death in Afghanistan is considered a tragedy beyond compare.

OK, what did Dr. Kaku write? He predicts that our grandchildren will have godlike powers. They well may. Will they have the wisdom to use them well? The Internet with its advanced searching strategies is the greatest library ever amassed. The majority of searches are aimed at finding pornography. The Cave Man has his dark secrets. Perhaps the Cave Man ought to be eliminated, but take care what you wish for. It is likely that the Cave Man's unique talents brought us where we are, and cannot be dispensed with if we are to continue to progress. We may not like aggressive behavior, but we may not be able to do without it.

Will we become wiser if the expected life span increases by another factor of two or three (into the range of 200 years or so)? If it is accompanied by an extended youthfulness, will women delay having children until they are in their forties or eighties? Will they be willing to keep having periods another fifty years or so? Biotechnology's promoters are promising all kinds of new cures and bodily enhancements, but they all have one of two aims: longer life or more frequent (and better) sex. Just what the Cave Man wants.

How soon will computers or robots be able to do all those things we've been promised for so long: such as household drudgery, dangerous mining, or underwater salvage? Will they ever be able to produce poetry or sonatas or convincing dialog for the theater? These are two ends of the AI spectrum. There is a little rug-cleaning robot already on the market (for a decade or so now). A few programs like Racter produce interesting, if clumsy, dialog. So far, though, no convincing winner of the Turing Test has arisen. I follow the news about autonomous automobiles that don't need a driver. Their recognition tasks are made easier by the use of GPS, but in the absence of satellite navigation, they don't do as well getting down the road as an average cockroach. And Shakespeare and Bach are as yet secure in their positions. My own take is, human-level AI is at least 1,000 years in our future.

Some medical researchers dream of a day when they can send a small army of "nanobots" into a human body, and have a cancer cured, or a bone fracture healed. Materials scientists hope to turn carbon nanotubes into larger and larger single-molecule structures with the tensile strength of diamond, but manufacturable in sizes ranging up to a 33,000 mile tall space elevator. Others are using "quantum dots" and similarly small particles for all kinds of materials with new properties. Will nanotech allow us to produce a contact lens that contains a computer, and can project an image with high resolution right onto the retina. Can you still call that a computer?

I have been jokingly saying for some years that in the near future, having a cellular phone will be considered a right, and that babies will have a phone implant inserted right behind their ear, shortly after birth. It may not be that much of a joke! Connectivity is a dire necessity for my son's generation.

There are a few things I think are quite unlikely. X-ray vision using specially sensitive goggles and a lot-intensity source of moderately soft x-rays, the kind that usually bounce off one's body rather than pass through. These would be similar to the x-ray backscatter devices now being used at some airports. For all but the most frequent travelers, the extra exposure to x-rays at airports may not be a problem, but if x-ray goggles become a consumer item, I'd expect a huge backlash from two constituencies, the folks who don't want privacy invaded and those who don't want the extra radiation. In another place, it is stated that a solar sail might propel a craft to 0.1% of the speed of light. This is possible. However, then it is stated, "perhaps [it will] reach the nearest star in four hundred years." The nearest star beyond the Sun is 4+ light years away. At 0.1% of the speed of light, reaching it would take more than 4,000 years.

There is a good bit of advice, to get work that a robot cannot perform, work that requires pattern recognition and common sense. So far, these cannot be reliably programmed. I would add creativity. There are no robotic Picassos in our immediate future, and possibly not ever. The book ends with a chapter outlining a possible day in the life, circa 2100 AD. Here is where the author needed a collaborator. He simply isn't a fiction writer, and it shows. The rest of the book is well written by contrast. It gave me a lot to think about, an attribute that I prize greatly.

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