I used to love reading. I still do actually, but in recent years I haven’t really been able to do much reading (that made me sound really old, didn’t it). Anyway, I just started reading again and I’m going to try to read one book a week. I just finished reading How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci by Michael Gelb and started on Ray Kurzweil’s Age of Spiritual Machines. For some reason I was also thinking of astronauts at the time and my subconscious very handily put two and three together to get the following result:
Human exploration has shifted from exploring outer space to inner space
It’s no big secret that the state of space exploration is pretty pathetic. It’s more 37 years since the last Apollo mission to the moon. The Space Shuttles are showing their age and there still isn’t a definite long-term replacement. Commercial space flight is just starting to take off, but we’re not going to have a Hyatt in space anytime soon. Being someone who loves Star Trek with a passion and who wanted to be an astronaut (and still wants to go into space someday) this makes me really sad. But as I read the opening chapter of Spiritual Machines, I realized that just as the exploration of outer space has declined, the exploration of inner space has exploded.
By inner space I don’t mean oceans or forest or anything physical like that. Rather I’m talking of mental and thought-related spaces. Since the 70s computer technology has progressed by leaps and bounds. The Apollo 11 computer had about the same amount of computing power that you’d find in a modern digital wristwatch and teenagers routinely carry around supercomputers in their pockets. More powerful computer clusters are starting to simulate significant sections of the human brain. No one disputes that computers have fundamentally changed just about everything, including all the other basic sciences.
Hand in hand with the growth of computer technology, there has been incredible growth in biology, particularly genetics and neuroscience. We know much more about ourselves, how we come to be and how we think than we ever did before. And of course computer technology has played no small part in this. Sequencing the human genome would have been practically impossible without powerful processing and data manipulation tools.
At the same time, there seems to have been a growing interest in developing the human mind as well as its tools. Self-help and self-development are huge business areas, but more importantly people in important positions are using techniques such as those in Think like Leonardo to push the limits of what they thought possible. Personal productivity is becoming more about living a fulfilling life than it is about cranking out more widgets per hour. And the internet has only helped this phenomenon to spread and thrive. Computer technology is quickly becoming an intelligence multiplier for the common person.
Is it a coincidence that the decline of the exploration of outer space happened at the same time? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Perhaps that question is irrelevant compared to the actual happening. And even that is less important compared to what might happen in the near future. Commercial space travel as well as missions by countries like China and India might breath new life into space exploration, but it might not. But the pace of computer development should still go forward just the same. Unlike space exploration, which probably seems very far-removed to most, computation is a part of all our lives and we can always use more of it.
Even though Moore’s Law may have slowed down and will probably come to halt within the next few decades, there are other substrate technologies hiding just around the corner. Quantum computation seems to be coming along nicely and as our understanding of biology progresses we may even seen DNA based computing (and direct neural interfaces). And while the backends are evolving, so will the frontends. E-ink is already making a splash in ebook readers and very soon we’ll have flexible low power LCD screens will enable a range of devices that we can’t even begin to imagine. Personally I really hope to see proper voice interfaces and better touch interfaces in the next decade. Kurzweil seems convinced that we will see real AI within the next few decades and while I’m still skeptical on that front, I’m certain that we will use computers to amplify human intelligence and capabilities i.e. true cyborgs will emerge. We already use computers to curate and search massive amounts of data and such applications will only become better and more powerful.
In many ways, the last century was a century of shrinking. Distances shrunk as air travel and then instantaneous communication became more popular. Technology shrunk and we began to understand increasingly tiny structures in our bodies and in the universe at large. However, this century will probably be a century of expansion again. As we deplete Earth’s resources we’ll be forced to expand outward into space and new space propulsion technologies currently being developed (ion engines and solar sails). On the other hand we’ll also be expanding our mental capacities and intelligences. I won’t try to make any guesses as to exactly what will happen, especially since technology is rarely the sole determining factor in the course of human history. But these are certainly exciting times and I’m glad to be in a position to be taking part in the events that shape our world.