Science and technology are changing our world so rapidly that it’s a struggle to keep up. If the latter-day soothsayers are to be believed, humans of the future will evolve into human-machine hybrids with near-miraculous mental powers. Capable of uploading their minds on to the Internet and living in virtual worlds, they will routinely postpone ageing and even evade death. Alan Duggan gazes into his crystal ball…
Nearly 40 years ago, an American sociologist and futurologist named Alvin Toffler wrote a book called Future Shock. He argued that our world was undergoing an enormous structural change as it transformed itself into a “super-industrial society”, predicting that the accelerated rate of technological and social change would leave people feeling stressed, disconnected and disoriented. Toffler also coined the term “information overload”.
Do we indeed feel disconnected? Has the blistering pace of social and technological change elevated our stress levels, leaving us lost and bewildered? Are we feeling battered by the deluge of information from all sides? Would the world have been a better place if we’d kept things simple?
Speaking entirely for myself, I’d say no. In fact, I give fervent thanks for the fact that I’m here to witness scientific and technological breakthroughs so amazing that they belong in the realm of science fiction. I’m grateful for the fact that science has protected me from disease, prolonged my life, exposed me to a vast storehouse of knowledge, and generally enhanced my world in countless exciting ways.
Living in a sci-fi movie
In fact, we are already living some of our wildest dreams. Scientists and engineers have developed a form of teleportation, created tiny amounts of antimatter, enabled patients to operate computers with brain signals alone, augmented our reality (iPhone owners can already pick up on-screen information about their surroundings simply by pointing the camera), and manipulated the very building blocks of life (genetics pioneer Craig Venter is actually attempting to create life from scratch). Emulating the wizardry of Harry Potter’s world, they’ve even made a form of “invisibility cloak”, using metamaterials that can manipulate light and other electromagnetic waves.
Welcome to the present!
Dr Ray Kurzweil is an inventor and radical futurist who calculates technology trends using what he calls the law of accelerating returns, a mathematical concept that measures the exponential growth of technological evolution. Kurzweil predicts a future in which there is no distinction between human and machine – “the culmination of the merger of our biological thinking and existence with our technology, resulting in a world that is still human but that transcends our biological roots”.
By the 2030s, he says, humans will become more non-biological than biological, capable of uploading their minds on to the Internet and living in virtual worlds, postponing ageing and evading death. By the 2040s, humanity’s non-biological intelligence will be billions of times better than today’s biological intelligence. This movement towards the merger of man and machine, according to Kurzweil, is already starting to happen and is most visible in the field of biotechnology.
Future humans – if that’s still an accurate description of these composite beings – would have access to countless drugs that would prolong their lives and stave off disease. Nanotechnology would also play a critical role… “to transcend biology and go beyond its limitations by merging with non-biological systems”.
Kurzweil’s vision of the future raises some mildly alarming questions. At what point will we cease to be human? Will the hybrids reproduce in the conventional manner, or via some bizarre form of budding? Are we sure the resulting mutations will be beneficial? And finally, can real humans and hybrids co-exist peacefully?
Perhaps not. Dr Nick Bostrom, director of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, told a conference on Global Catastrophic Risk last year: “Any entity which is radically smarter than human beings would also be very powerful. If we get something wrong, you could imagine the consequences would involve the extinction of the human species.”
Bostrom is also a leading light in the transhumanist movement, which regards aspects of the human condition such as disability, suffering, disease, ageing and involuntary death as unnecessary and undesirable (I’m with them so far). They’re looking forward to a time when molecular nanotechnologies, biotechnology, artificial intelligence (AI) and other cognitive tools will be used to amplify our intellectual capacity, improve our physical capabilities and even enhance our emotional well-being. As he tells it: “We want to preserve the best of what it is to be human, and maybe even amplify that.”
Robots infiltrate our lives
Kurzweil and Bostrom are by no means alone in their vision of a radically different future. Microsoft’s Bill Gates, a man not given to wild flights of fancy, said in 2007: “I believe that technologies such as distributed computing (essentially, a system of multiple autonomous computers), voice and visual recognition, and wireless broadband connectivity, will open the door to a new generation of autonomous devices that enable computers to perform tasks in the physical world on our behalf. We may be on the verge of a new era when the PC will get up off the desktop and allow us to see, hear, touch and manipulate objects in places where we are not physically present.”
In fact, this is already happening. The Dan Vinci robotic surgical system, for example, uses a remotely controlled robot, sophisticated software, finely engineered hardware and serious computing power to perform delicate operations remotely. Then there’s the recently unveiled Ares robot, an Italian prototype designed to act as a self-assembling swarm. Once inserted into the body, its 15 modules link together to form a bigger device that is theoretically able to carry out precise surgery.
Just a few years ago, the Japanese Robot Association predicted that by 2025, the global personal robot industry would be worth more than 50 billion dollars. But it’s not just about help with the domestic chores. As Gates points out, robots can play an important role in providing physical assistance and even companionship for the elderly, extend the strength and endurance of soldiers and construction workers, handle hazardous materials, monitor remote oil pipelines, and function as a critical component of security systems and search-and-rescue missions.
Says Gates: “Although a few of the robots of tomorrow may resemble the anthropomorphic devices seen in Star Wars, most will look nothing like the humanoid C-3PO. In fact, as mobile peripheral devices become more and more common, it may be increasingly difficult to say exactly what a robot is.”
Inevitably, perhaps, the future will bring new and diabolical ways of waging war. Writer Nick Turse tells of biological weapons being delivered by militarised cyborg insects. “Right now, researchers are already growing insects with electronics inside them. They’re creating cyborg moths and flying beetles that can be remotely controlled.
“One day, the US military may field squadrons of winged insect/machine hybrids with onboard audio, video or chemical sensors. These cyborg insects could conduct surveillance and reconnaissance missions on distant battlefields, in far-off caves, or maybe even in cities closer to home, and transmit detailed data back to their handlers at US military bases.”
Time Travel 101: In the year 2029…
Interestingly, the laws of physics don’t rule out the possibility of time travel. In fact, some Russian scientists already claim to have achieved it in a laboratory. Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku is more cautious, suggesting that it could take us millions of years to achieve. Since we can’t wait that long, I’ve taken the route of “informed speculation”, fuelled by a mixture of curiosity, acute observation and a nicely chilled Sauvignon Blanc:
- Education: Conventional schools have disappeared, having been replaced by virtual classrooms in which teachers and students interact inside holographic projections. Language instruction and other specialised courses are fed directly into chips embedded in students’ brains. Stressful examinations are a distant memory.
- Travel: Space tourism is commonplace. Animatronic replicas of Richard Branson wave goodbye to passengers at spaceports around the world as they head for resorts on Mars and the Moon. (The real Branson, perfectly preserved by thousands of nanobot “doctors” in his bloodstream, is finalising plans for yet another launch party.)
- Information: Quantum computing has given ordinary citizens access to phenomenal calculating power and an inconceivably huge storehouse of data. Every book ever written, ever song ever composed and every document in the public domain is available to anyone who plugs into the public Web via a subcutaneous port.
- Environment: Global warming has stabilised, but too late to reverse its effects. The Gulf Stream has slowed almost to a standstill, affecting weather patterns across the globe and triggering an emergency relief plan to assist starving Third World nations, some of which were once part of the First World.
- Art: Computers have created a large number of artworks, including astoundingly lifelike sculptures and replicas of Old Masters that are indistinguishable from the originals. As a result, many of the world’s most famous paintings (with the notable exception of Tretchikoffs) lose 90 per cent of their value.
- Sex. Safe but extremely boring. Conducted mainly in cyberspace, using virtual surrogates resembling Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and an SABC weather presenter whose name escapes me.
Alan Duggan is publisher of Popular Mechanics magazine, www.popularmechanics.co.za.