Monday, June 1, 2009

Bring The Future To Pass

I last wrote about the evolution of civilization and wrapped up by concluding that almost all world-changing inventions involve making it easier to move materials and information. The past century in particular has brought astounding technological marvels, far more impressive than the last several thousand years combined. It seems reasonable to conclude that this next century will put the past to shame, as will the one after that.

But what kinds of things can we expect of future civilization? Predictions of future technology are remarkably hit-and-miss. In the 1950s, people were predicting flying cars by the year 2000. But people in the early 1900s also predicted things like email and television. I think the lesson is that it much easier to move information than matter.

So at the risk of being wrong, let me make my own technology predictions for the future:

Abundant Electricity:

There isn't enough oil to provide for more than a few more decades of consumption at current technology levels. And while our coal and uranium supplies can last for a few centuries, they won't last for a few millenia. But since the use of electricity, every major invention has depended on it. The earth can support life for millions of years, but without a more efficient means of generating electricity, humanity won't be able to survive in its current state for long. Better use of nuclear and solar power will help this. But long term, hopefully humanity will develop some kind of new technology like cold fusion, if its even possible.

Artificial Intelligence:

I believe true AI, one that can pass a full turing test, is the ultimate goal of civilization. An artificial intelligence is essentially a thought generation machines. This is an incredible boon for any area of scientific research, as it enables the easy recruitment of able-minded researchers. Estimates on when this can occur range from decades to centuries, but most scientists believe it is possible. I'm in agreement that this is both technically possible and extremely difficult. There is also the distinct possibility that even after the first AI is created, it takes centuries before more than a handful can be created. The energy requirements for this kind of technology could be unimaginably large in today's terms. But if and when it happens, civilization will change forever. Hopefully for the best.

Matter Synthesis:

A large portion of new discoveries depends on very rare or hard to obtain materials. For example, most superconductive materials require extremely strange composites. Or consider the extraction of aluminum. It requires a crystal that can only be found in large quantities at a specific mine in Greenland. The mine is now empty, but a synthetic version of the crystal is an acceptable substitute. And these days, scientists can even turn lead into gold-- they just don't do it because the energy cost is higher than the value of the gold. A low energy method of creating arbitrary elements and basic crystalline structures will go a long way towards ensuring the technologies we develop can be deployed for lower production costs.

Space Elevator:

The earth can sustain life for millions of years, but eventually this planet will become inhospitable. If humans cannot learn to survive in space or on other planets, we will eventually go extinct. And while a few of the richer nations have space exploration programs, we are nowhere near having a real colony in space, much less the moon, mars, or another solar system. The issue is that the cost of even getting things off of Earth is very high. Each pound of cargo costs on the order of $10,000. There is research into cheaper means of propulsion, but the best hope seems to be a space elevator. Conceptually, a space elevator is a structure connected to earth that is high enough that the top is in geosynchronous orbit with the planet. Then goods could simply by hoisted up for a fraction of the current cost. Think of it as the world's largest dumbwaiter. There are some clear technical challenges to a construction like this, but it would mark the beginning of the industrialization of space.

Disposable Electronics:

For decades, people have talked about how extremely portable computing devices could change our lives. Many people have suggested the logical conclusion is the human/computer hybrid known as a cyborg. In other words, humans will be embedded with microprocessors. I actually think this concept is a bit farfetched. This is primarily because the mere suggestion of this technology offends the moral sensibilities of many people, so it has major political obstacles. But there's clear utility to having processing power everywhere, as shown by the popularity of Apple's iPhone. It's more likely that electronic devices will instead get so cheap and thin that they will be everywhere-- built into the side of a can of soda or on the cover of a book, for example. And all of it will have wireless network connections. This sidesteps the discussion of embedding technology in human flesh while meeting the objective of ubiqutious computer interfaces.

All that said, I'm sure there's another dozen things I haven't even considered. This is such a great time to be alive! Celebrate the extreme unlikelihood of having life at such a wonderful time in history and cherish it. When you think about it, each person's life is much better than they give it credit for, simply because it is life.


Jonathon said...

A very interesting look at what we might see in the future. I tend to disagree about the implants/'cyborg' comments though. I think ultimately that's where people are headed. It's way too early for that now but we're already seeing steps towards such a future.

As people demand and desire more and more information at their finger tips electronics will constantly increase in functionality and ease of use. First we'll probably see better smart phones, then devices that are constantly aware of surroundings like .

As these devices increase in sophistication they'll eventually try to use thought as their driving mechanic. We already have the technology for using thought as an input device. These devices will be external at first but over time people will begin to be accustomed to them. After that it's one short jump to internally placed devices.

Really I think the future in devices like this comes down to the collision of a few different fields and trends.
1- Implants to help the handicapped
2- Communication devices to satisfy the demand for more and better communication
3- Desire for better input devices that create easier to use demands.
4- Decreased value of privacy and the increase exhibitionism seen through blogs, twitter, social networks, 'sexting', etc.

Once everyone is wired in it'll be interesting. Even if implanted devices aren't prevalent better technology is going to exponential increase our ability to communicate. It's interested because it's almost like we're heading towards an approximate hivemind where unparalleled communication will create immense social pressure for people to listen to the popular opinion.

Anonymous said...

There are already 'cyborgs'. Consider the pacemaker as a primitive example, and the cochlear implant as a more clear case of the merger between the human mind and electronics.

I heard an amazing interview on NPR from a previously deaf man with a cochlear implant talking about going in to the hospital to have his software upgraded, which then increased the quality of his hearing.

We need a few more iterations of miniaturization before the idea of implants can really take hold, but I definitely believe that people will value being able to google stuff with their thoughts.