Re: Futurism not so hard after all?

Damien Broderick (
Sat, 11 Dec 1999 17:23:38 -0800

At 01:52 PM 10/12/99 -0500, Robin wrote:

>A favorite exercise of futurism skeptics is to look at how far off past
>predictions were.

>But today as we approach the year 2000, most major media are full of
>futurist articles, purporting to tell us what is coming in the next century,
>or even the next millennium. And I can't help but notice that the people
>they have write these articles are mostly *not* decent futurists!

Okay, here's such an article I just had in the national Australian newspaper, in a bland series called `Chronicles of the Future'. I deliberately avoided Singularities and other Joe Six-pack repellents, putting in just enough to twist his brain a little. Is this the kind of thing you abhor, Robin?

Everyone used to know how the future would be.

In the wonderful year 2000, people would wear silver jump-suits, holidaying under huge glass domes on the Moon. We'd swallow small coloured pills for dinner, washed down with sparkling Betelgeuse beetlejuice. Father would leave for work each morning in his personal helicopter or aircar, flying across the clean, open 'burbs to a giant city soaring against the crisp sky.

Back at home, Mother would oversee her domestic robot as it did the household chores, cleaning and tidying and sometimes comically scaring the cat with its vacuum hose. Giant wall television screens showed scenes from the long-running soap opera, *The Waltons on Mars*. It was almost like being there!

The kids? In school, of course, learning from computers, fidgeting for their leisure time. Once school was out, they'd talk Pop into flying them to the Space Station, where they'd don wings and flap around in zero gravity. Or maybe they'd sneak off to Coral City, the deep sea resort where you could swim amid shoals of sparkling fish, breathing the water thanks to your temporary Aerator Lung.

Grandparents didn't feature much in this mid-fifties portrait of Tomorrowland. Maybe the old gentleman would smile over a magazine printed by his home terminal, puffing contentedly on his pipe. Grandma was probably arguing jealously with the Nannybot, hoping to take baby for a walk in the leafy local park.

That plastic, 1950s dream future now looks insanely dated. We don't have personal aircars, and chances are we never will. Would you want to live under a bunch of lunatics hurtling around at a few hundred kilometres an hour, even if their commuter gyros were controlled by smart chips? Think of the noise, let alone the hazard of falling hardware. And those magnificent cities with their opalescent towers twined with runways and fly-overs - not very likely, as a growing middle-class settles down into electronic commuting from their cocooned nests. The information superhighway beats the smelly, stressful real thing. In the real city alleys, meanwhile, junkies twitch and the unemployed seethe.

Those household robots are still pending, too. Deep Blue might trounce the world champ at chess, but it still can't make your bed or clean the shower. Instead, we have a huge array of specialised home helpers that once seemed `futuristic'. Microwave cookers were predicted (as `radar' ovens, since radar uses microwaves) in 1940s and 1950s science fiction, but nobody expected to find kids nuking their own TV dinners and chowing down at the Golden Arches or the local pizza joint.

As for those holiday trips to the Moon and points farther out - not a chance. Space turned out to be barren, harsh, mind-wrenchingly expensive to reach and even more treasury-draining to colonise. Intelligent aliens don't drop by from Ganymede to divert us on late night television. At the start of the century of the future, we're stuck here firmly on Terra Firma, and it's getting more crowded every day. [extra proviso abt moon trips being possible with nano added to accommodate artist's spread]

[Or] So *are* we stuck here? Maybe this is just near-millennial depression. The future mightn't be all it was cracked up to be, but who would want to live in a bland Disney-2050 anyway?

Let's try to glimpse the real future. Or some of the many possible futures, since they'll surely range from heaven to hell. Let's not forget that those dazed family-values images of Fifties' Tomorrows were created against a backdrop of almost unendurable anxiety. Global war had just ended with the death of two cities, not just metaphorically but literally `nuked'.

Although the evil empire turned into a nightmare of squabbling gangsters, like a tragic remake of Prohibition-Era Chicago, the bombs are still there. Somehow, though, we no longer dread them as much. The potential for world-wide havoc is increasing, if anything, but we don't expect nuclear winter to total us. Maybe it's the Prozac and the Internet, but we seem more optimistic. Actually this is a reasonable attitude. If the future isn't going to be like the 1950s picture, neither will it just be like today, only bigger and worse (or bigger and better). No, it's going to be strange, even alien. And we'll be there.

We'll be having fun. Very weird fun.

Take a simple fashion issue: what will we be wearing in 2050 when we head off to the club or to work? Will it be spandex and Goth black for the office, medieval peasant drab for the night out? Bzzzz! Regard the assumptions buried there. Jobs? Most people won't work, since artificial intelligence (AI) will be achieved by around 2025, and AIs will toil for nothing. Indeed, tiny virus-scale nanotechnology assemblers should be available by 2050 or earlier, building everything we need out of simple chemicals - including copies of themselves. When molecular factories duplicate themselves cheaply, using shareware programs downloaded from the net, everything is suddenly very different.

Sitting here at the very beginning of the AI, genome and nano revolutions, it's hard to lock into next century's reality. Within the first few years of the 21st century, we'll have a complete recipe of our genetic menu. Fifty years on, designers should have absolute control over our basic gene template. So how will fashion look? Hey, forget body piercing - the mid-21st century trend-setters might be four-legged hermaphrodites, or super-athletes buzzed out of their gourds on designer diseases, or crowds of dividuals (copies of yourself, electronic clones) roaming cyberspace in feral gangs.

Too laughably sci-fi to consider seriously? Maybe not. Fast change propelled this century. It's still accelerating relentlessly, driven by the inventive power of science and technology, the marketing urges of a global economy. The gap between now and 2050 will resemble the vast leap from 1900 to now.

Australians in 1900 had a life, Jim, but not as we know it. Silent movies and crude phonographs had only just been invented. The first plane hadn't yet taken to the air - while a century later, global tourism is routine, and a robot spacecraft has already left the solar system. Such trends will continue. We will be at home in the world, as the world grows ever more like us. Even the wretched of the earth will have fun, if nanotech gives them the necessities of life very cheaply, as I discuss in my book *The Spike*.

Telephones were few and far between back then. Mobile phones were unknown at the start of this decade, for heaven's sake. Tomorrow they'll be built-in. Radio hadn't even been *invented* in 1900, let alone television. The awesome fidelity of digital CDs are only decades old, the desktop computer even newer. In 2050 powerful computers will be truly ubiquitous - and some of us might be living inside them, as uploaded emulations of our own brains. Change is a juggernaut, mutating everything.

That 1950s portrait of wall-screen TVs is just around the corner, linked to the net, but we won't be watching anything so primitive by 2050, or even 2025. Head-up displays already exist that paint stereo images directly on each eyeball with harmless laser beams. Look forward to a jewelled headband with an internet uplink, able to enhance or even replace everything you look at. The headband will become a simple attachment, then an implanted chip acting directly on your brain's visual and auditory centres. Ultimately, we'll share a kind of electronic telepathy.

Everything will shift in a slow but remorseless earthquake. Even in advance of nanotech, some ludicrously tiny proportion of the work-force already provides all our food. If anyone in 1900 had glimpsed this dizzyingly weird world, which we take for granted, our daily lives would have seemed the most futuristic of fantasies.

How long you can expect to live, that most basic of facts, has nearly doubled this century. That's extraordinary. In 1900 Australia led the world, males expecting to make 53 and females 57. Those figures are a bit misleading, of course, factoring in an intolerable child mortality rate, prior to antibiotics. Still, even adults safely past vulnerable childhood could expect to die young by today's standards.

By 1950, life expectancy had shot up an extra 18 years for men and 20 for women. Those weren't empty years, either, ruined by pain and senility. We got healthier and stayed active longer. At century's end, men can expect to live to nearly 80, women older still. Fluoride halted the scourge of tooth decay. Now, though, the down-side of medical triumph is kicking in. Diseases that rarely show up in youth and middle-age can make extreme old age a drawn-out misery.

That might be temporary. Luckily, increasing mastery of the ageing process will likely solve these hazards as well, as I detail in my book *The Last Mortal Generation*.

By 2050, medical science might have put an end to routine ageing. Our cells, tissues and organs will be taught to repair and maintain themselves. Using techniques drawn from an unprecedented insight into the roots of mortality, we might gain an effectively unlimited lifespan. What we do with it - whether it hangs upon our shoulders like a curse or opens wonderful new pathways before us - is up to us.

So what will we do on our days off? Wrong question - that might be every day of the week, for most of the citizens of 2050.

Despite AIDs and other scourges, and all the moral panic attending them, late 20th century domestic mores are quite incredibly freer and more various than anyone expected fifty years ago. Half a century hence, genomic engineering will obliterate the worst diseases, and manage those that mutate to fill the gaps. The delirious sexual escapades of the 1960s and 1970s might return with a bang. Meanwhile, a lot of wild stuff will be happening in the ultimately safe sex zone - virtual reality (VR).

Movies like *The Matrix*, and high-end interactive games, hint at the ingenious and thrilling prospects of total immersion in computer-generated VR. Boundaries between outer and inner worlds will get fluid. Why go to Mars in a clunky rocket, at fantastic cost, when you can link into a robot chugging around the awesome mountains and canyons of the red planet? Better yet, visit the shrieking storms of Jupiter, or the rings of Saturn, either by linking your senses to a distant robot probe or inside a perfect simulation. These places are alien and hostile to the human body, but with VR you'll never know the difference.

That doesn't imply a world of VR couch potatoes. Leisure today is more exhausting and satisfying than ever. We work our bodies in the gym, because we want to. We play sport hard, practice martial arts at the dojo. You couldn't hang-glide or jet-ski 30 years ago, and while IMAX movies mimic some of the thrills we still yearn to do it ourselves. That impulse will surely persist - and our bodies will be increasingly morphed and re-shaped, our games more demanding. It will be a future made safe for nerds, but they will be pumped nerds, nerds with attitude.

Cities might go downward, not up. Nano replicators will make it cheap and easy to delve deep under the ground, pump moisture out and air in, provide ample power from solar cells or gene-tweaked fuel crops. The surface could be returned to a global wildness, alive with once-extinct species and some newly constructed. You won't feel constricted underground, because your illusion system will show convincing images of the African veldt (as in a famous Ray Bradbury tale), complete with breezes and scents and the roars of distant lions. Your housemates will have their own distinctive inner worlds, linked by a haze of in-built chips and electronics.

Your very mood may be under your own control, not just due to fifth-generation drugs (grandchild of Prozac) but tuned by gene-designed glands. In fact, by 2050, unmodified humans might be on the way out - replaced without strife or anxiety by smart AIs and posthumans, ourselves and our deathless children. That will be something to see. That will be something to be.

Damien Broderick