The Shape of the Future

I love Star Trek. As a kid Kirk was my hero and Spock was always fascinating (and just a little bit mysterious). I loved the idea of starships exploring the galaxy, of alien worlds and strange beings. The technology of tomorrow was just amazing – communicators, tricorders, warp drives, phasers and even hyposprays. I’m pretty certain that Star Trek was what started my love of science and technology. If I hadn’t grown up watching the crew of the Enterprise (both Kirk and Picard’s) using science and technology to save the day I would probably have been a historian or a writer. So basically, I owe Gene Rodenberry a huge debt.

A lot has happened since I was a five year old watching Kirk slug it out with the Klingons and Picard battle the Borg. I’ve read and seen a lot more science fiction – Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, recently Charlie Stross – and I’ve seen a lot more too – Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who (though that’s not really science fiction), any number of scifi movies. More importantly, the world around me has changed. Ubiquituous connectivity, portable supercomputers, massively distributed computation systems and the first steps towards cybernetic implants.

A lot of what we once considered science fiction we now accept as part of daily life without batting an eyelid. Our smartphones are much cooler than Kirk’s communicator (though smartphone is a misnomer, that’s a matter for another post). Any large datacenter probably has more computing power than the Enterprise. On the other hand we’re also far behind some science fiction classics. Warp drive, or any other form of faster than light travel, is still only a fantasy (though an ion-powered starship may be much closer to reality). It will probably be thousands of years before we achieve the technology (and harness the sheer resources) to create stable traversable wormholes.

That being said, there are areas in which we will probably surpass science fiction. I’ve find it interesting that most “popular” science fiction shows have some form of interstellar travel and starships but little by way of advanced robotics, artificial intelligence, genetic engineering or nanotechnology. Even in shows that do have them (the later Star Trek series, BSG, Andromeda) they’re still mundane and boring. Robotics is mostly limited to personal butlers or killer drones. AI are either hell-bent on destroying humanity or they’re our loyal servants. Human genetic engineering is either outlawed (Star Trek) or again rather banal (Andromeda). There are no interesting political or economic systems. There are no uploads, no interesting alife and very little by way of actual space-time engineering.

For better or for worse our future is going to be far more interesting (and much less neat and tidy) than what scifi television would have us believe. Most science fiction literature paints a far more interesting vision of things to come. Ubiquitous computation and connectivity is just the beginning. We’re barely using any of the computation capacity in our pockets for our benefit. Within a decade or do I’d like to see a more subtle merging of man and machine as our technology becomes better at monitoring our behavior, actions and needs and steps in to take over when we’re under stress. With 3D printing getting better and cheaper we’re well on our way to another manufacturing revolution. I won’t be surprised if a startups of the near future starts shipping products as 3D-printable templates instead of the physical product.

Any attempt to look into the future carries with it the danger of being hopelessly wrong. After all we were promised flying cars and we got a high-bandwidth globally distributed data and computation net instead. Not a bad bargain if you ask me. Luckily, while the future may be hard to foresee, it is also something we have a direct hand in shaping. “Invent the Future” has an inspiring ring to it. Perhaps for the first time in human history it’s actually possible for large sections of the human race to invent their own future. While interstellar travel and hard AI are still a dream and a hope away there’s a lot of interesting stuff between here and there.

The shape of the future is being designed on portable supercomputers, communicated over fast data nets and brought into being by affordable 3D printers. And we’re going to have a hand in making it happen.

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2 thoughts on “The Shape of the Future

  1. It’s so true that what your average layperson thinks about the future tends to be hopelessly wrong when it comes to technology. For an extreme example, when asked in kindergarten to draw a bike in the year 2000, I made my able to fly. Yep. Kids dream big!

    1. I think we tend to focus on the big shiny things — flying cars, starships, time travel — while the real innovations sneak up on us: the Internet, portable computers, 3D printers. Of course that’s what makes the future so much fun.

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