Ming the Mechanic
The NewsLog of Flemming Funch

Friday, August 20, 2004day link 

 Predicting the future
picture OK, it is a lot easier to criticise other people's predictions than to make one's own. But it might get one going on thinking of better ones. I was just reading an article, It’s 2014, and life is the same. Only better by Canadian science fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer. And, well, as his title honestly says, he's describing life the same, just a little better. And it struck me how much it sounded like essays I would write about the future when I was around 11. That's about 34 years ago. He writes better than I did, but then again my predictions were about the year 2000, which was considered "The Future" back then.

I thought that in the year 2000 we'd be able to work at home if we wanted, and we'd be able to shop in stores through video screens at home, and that we'd be able to get our own personalized newspaper printed out every morning, with exactly the kind of news we'd prefer. I'd be able to speak commands to machines around me, and robots in my kitchen could make me breakfast on their own, and clean the house. We'd have self-driving cars. Or flying cars if we were going into the country. We'd be able to easily travel up to a space station, or to the Moon or Mars.

The first part of my predictions were quite spot on. That's called the Internet. The rest is, shockingly, hardly any closer than in 1970. The space program was more active and vibrant back then. The test projects for self-driving cars look about the same as they did back then. You still can't buy a flying car.

Cars and houses look about the same. Oh, they have different styling, but nothing fundamentally different at all. Air bags? They could have made a balloon be blown up really quickly back then too, if anybody had asked for it.

The stuff that has changed unbelivably much is the virtual. The stuff we can do inside computers. Even though we're still strangely conservative about what we make them do. We manage to make computers 10,000 faster, and still word processing seems no faster than way back when. But the greater power leverages other things to happen. Like, the way we connect things together and how we network information - that suddenly puts us on a different plane.

Notice that the features of my old prediction that require AI didn't happen. Because, surprisingly to some, AI didn't really happen. I can buy a vacuum cleaner that will move around on the floor and clean by itself, fairly well, if you have certain types of flooer surfaces, and not too difficult things in its way. One could probably have made that mechanically in 1970 or 1950, if it were a priority, and not much worse. Today I can speak to a computer and it might type my words pretty well, if I've trained it, but it still doesn't understand what I say, even vaguely. No, it wasn't so much the AI that advanced. It was the ability to calculate much faster, and to connect lots of things together, and to make various kinds of virtual realities possible.

Interestingly, the material technologies that are most promising, and that really might give us a profoundly, drastically different future are all in the realm of the virtual. Making matter virtual. Nano-tech, quantum physics, genetics. Really small stuff that, if we find out how to program it, suddenly allows us to rebuild reality in a drastically different way.

Will we have done so by 2014? Will it really just be that your toilet analyzes your urine and tells you you've got a cold? And that your kitchen cooks a low-carb breakfast for you by itself? I hope not, although those might possibly be good things.

Predictions of daily life in the future easily end up sounding sort of sugar coated and problem free. So, if one 35 years ago predicted that I today could have a custom newspaper on a screen and shop in stores and talk with people in other countries on a video phone, it would be presented as if it somehow made life leisurely and problem-free. But life is no less stressful today, and my life isn't suddenly leisurely because I have those things. It is kind of like an architect's mock-up of a new building, with stylized people who stroll about between green trees and pathways, with conveniently located service facilities. But when it is actually built, it is just some mall, and it is filled with real people who're stressed and on their way somewhere. Usually never looks as leisurely and perfect as in the vision. At least not unless it stays as a virtual simulation of some kind.

But, again, in 10 years, will anything have managed to REALLY change how we live. The Internet changed it more in a couple of years than anything else I can think of in the past 100 years. It was a disruptive change. Most forecasters have a hard time guessing which disruptive changes will come along. Although we have a few very likely ones in our focus. Nano, genetics. And some people center it all around an expected major AI breakthrough. In part because that might potentially solve some of the huge dangers inherent in some of the other things.

It is entirely possible that somebody might invent cheap universal nano-tech within the next 10 years. I mean something that can construct whatever you imagine, or rather whatever you can program, or download the blueprint for, as long as the needed atoms are around. Like an inkjet printer that spits out atoms and print objects. Suddenly objects are virtual, and the game would totally change. How we live would change thoroughly and drastically within just a few months.

The future is so open now, with such a range of possibilies, that it becomes almost laughable to predict a world in 10 years that just has more, and a little cooler stuff, that is essentially the same. But many of the bold predictions from 35 years ago didn't happen at all, and we just got more of the same. So of course we might have just more of the same in 10 years. Maybe a better electronic voting system for choosing between your favorite Republican presidential candidate and your favorite Democratic candidate. Yawn, gasp! The FCC releases some more spectrum, and technology gets better, so you can have 100Mbits to your cellphone, and watch movies in 3D in the bus, which will be charged to your credit card, and which then self-destructs in 5 hours. All cars would have nagivation systems, and maybe collision detection systems. Just enough stuff every year to make you keep buying. The US army would have robotic bombers that more efficiently could kill more people in foreign places, without even having to send any people there. Microsoft would've come out with some updated version of the paperclip, which can make more wide-spanning stupid assumptions about everything you're trying to do, and correct even more things that didn't need to be corrected.

I'd be leaning towards hoping for some disruptive and more pervasive change. Something so disruptive that it kills most of those factors that would otherwise ensure that we'd just have more of the same. Something that destroys the current economic power structure. In a good way, in making it instantly obsolete and replaced with something better. I hope for such things because, despite increasingly rapid change in some areas, the future is at risk of being boring and stagnant.

I also expect disruptive change for the reason that progress in many areas is held back by backwards economics. The future that was expected from the year 2000 a few decades before was quite reasonable and logical. It would have happened if it weren't because there weren't any terribly profitable reason for investing capital in making it so. What was profitable was to give us apparently a little more of the same every year, in a new model, with new features, but nothing that really changed things. Weren't any profit in giving us space stations. Certainly weren't any in even attempting to feed us all, or even get us clean drinking water. Weren't any profit in taking good care of our environment.

Collectively I think we'll discover that we've been cheated, and that we're living in a falsely retarded world that doesn't have to be that way at all. Some forces are going to clash. Disruptive paradigm shifts sometimes come about because of pent-up problems that weren't solved, and pent-up solutions that existed, but weren't applied. At some point it breaks through, and things have to change rather quickly, because they failed to change gradually.

Our greatest leverage is in the areas that aren't artificially retarded, because nobody figured out yet how to do so, because they didn't start trying before it was too late. Our ability to network ourselves with each other and with information, electronically, and the likelihood we'll be free to do that faster and better. It is a way we can create something very different, which might at first be somewhat invisible. Not a different kind of car or microwave for me and my family. Not just something a few people are consuming. Something millions of people are doing together. A whole new collective organism. Which needs to start dealing better with meaning. And which, once it gets smarter, or we get smarter through it, needs to feed back to our material world and make it smarter and more fun and livable, on our own collective terms.

Being creatures who tend to live in certain mental grooves, when asked to predict the future, we usually extrapolate more of the same. Which might be right. But we usually forget to predict the changed behavior that comes about when certain things go through certain thresholds. For many years we had telephones. And for years one could very expensively get a portable one. We didn't expect the changed behavior patterns that would come about by a majority of people in the world having a cheap portable phone in their pocket at all times. One could have predicted that electronic networks would have allowed us to send electronic mail to each other, and it would be more efficient than paper mail. But the social aspects of what happened when enough of us were online would have been hard to predict. We can predict many things one could do if one had self-replicating nano-tech. But is hard to predict what will change and what will happen once those things are accepted and widespread, and we use that as a springboard for something else. We might see the next hilltop, but have a hard time seeing the valleys and bigger hills beyond it. There are event horizons beyond which we can't see, no matter the strength of our glasses, so we have to imagine.

I predict that within the next 10 years there will be at least one, but probably several disruptive changes that are so surprising and pervasive that life will be very different from how we know it or how we project it to be. There won't be a Ford Taurus 2014 or an NBC Nightline News or an aisle in the supermarket with fruit juice with 10% more real fruit. Other than in a retro simulation for people who like them for atmosphere. I don't know. There is no future, really. There's just right now, and there still will be just now in 10 years. Thinking about the future as separate from the now is just one of those mind games we play with ourselves, when we are bored or inspired, or fearful or hopeful. A mind game that sometimes helps us knowing which fork in the road to take right now, by examining which of the imagined journeys would suit us best.
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