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NASA Chris, smiling Chris 2009
Just realized I posted a couple of other places but not here - sorry! I was on NPR this morning, talking about how accurately science fiction predicts the future (and how that's not really what SF tries to do) in a piece entitled, "What did science fiction writers predict for 2012?" In 1987, L. Ron Hubbard challenged his fellow science fiction writers to forecast what the world would be like in 25 years. Then they put together a "time capsule" of letters to us, now, that was just opened.

Here are those predictions, and here's the Salon article about them, written by AlterNet's futurist editor, Sara Robinson.

The show was live this morning from 11:20am - noon on Minnesota Public Radio's Daily Circuit, and is now available for streaming on their website.

Didn't get a chance to call in during this morning's show? Share your thoughts on what the world will look like in 25 years on the Daily Circuit blog.

At the end of the conversation, the show's host, Kerri Miller, asked us to send our predictions for 2040. Here I go. My prediction for 2040:

The Singularity.


A few years after the time-capsule predictions we discussed today, in 1993, mathematician and SF author Vernor Vinge wrote the seminal essay, "The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era." He stated that, "Within thirty years [by 2023], we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended."

This is arguably the single most-important concept that SF authors have had to address ever since the concept became widely known. All near-future SF written today must take the Singularity into account, whether the author believes it will happen or if she explains how the combination of rapidly accelerating advances in biotechnology, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence will change civilization on Earth, the Earth itself, and what it means to be human. In other words, will we reach the Singularity? If not, what devastating events brought our ever-accelerating technological advances to a halt? If we do, how will the human species remain relevant? What will it mean to be human in a world of superhuman intelligences, ubiquitous information and information-processing (both within and around us, via biotech and nanotech) that work like magic? Will humans resist this change - which might feel like marginalization - so hard that we destroy our civilization and, perhaps, become extinct without ever having invented Terminator-like AI killing machines?

This is what much of today's SF explores, because we will face these things by the year 2040, no matter how much some people want to stop progress or change. How SF most affects the future is not in its prediction or even that it encourages positive outcomes, but rather in the negative outcomes it helps prevent:
  • The environmental movement was fertilized by SF stories set on a ruined Earth.

  • Nevil Shute’s SF novel and film On the Beach and the TV movie The Day After probably helped us avoid nuclear war.

  • Orwell's 1984 might have helped us avoid tyranny of that sort, and we can only hope that Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale helps us avoid that one.

So we ask, What are people's greatest concerns today? We might answer, "Climate change, disease, energy and water depletion, economic collapse" and so on. All these are important challenges we must overcome, so these are what today's SF authors explore in their work, just as the authors from the time capsule reflected what was on the minds of people in 1987. But the most-fundamental issue at hand in the next 25 years is this:

What will it mean to be human in a post-Singularity world? How will we survive - free, happy, and fulfilled?

Best,
Chris

Comments

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
professormass
Sep. 19th, 2012 07:45 pm (UTC)
Singularity == bunk.
As I've written elsewhere, the Singularity is hogwash. It's just bad science. It amounts to a religious prophecy.

I think your last paragraph is spot-on -- the biggest changes we'll see in the next 25 years relate to the rise of India and China as the world's most populous and likely successful nations. The Middle East will continue to remain a conflicted zone. But, by far, dealing with the disastrous effects of global warming will be the biggest problem we face, barring a plague of some sort.

What a lot of people have failed to realize is that we're at the end of the explosive level of innovation that characterized the 20th century. Barring the harnessing of some new energy source, or figuring out how to counter gravity, we are essentially entering an era of slow development. The population and technological explosion that lent us the massive change of the 20th century has leveled out, and created risk-averse cultures. We put a man on the moon in eight years; started and finished WWII in seven years; saw computers go from massive business appliances to home boxes in ten.

This isn't going to happen anymore.

The biggest changes in the next 25 years will be environmental, as we deal with two hundred years of using the planet as a toilet. Expect disease, war and border re-writing, as the countries above the equatorial regions push further north in search of cooler climates that are already starting to turn into breadbaskets, and have resources that are suddenly accessible.

I have lately been wondering if there will be a Canada by 2050. Sigh.
mckitterick
Sep. 19th, 2012 07:58 pm (UTC)
Re: Singularity == bunk.
I totally agree with you about the rise of Asia, continued decline of the West, and environmental issues being super-important. However, I totally disagree that we won't continue to see rapid - even logarithmic - advances in science and technology.

We have not leveled off at all; in fact, the nay-sayers about Moore's Law are about to be silenced by quantum computing, which is already in the test stages. Sure, we're seeing great resistance against change from the conversatives and power elite who fear losing their dominance of the world. But once unleashed, democratizing information technologies like nanotech and biotech will utterly change everything about society.

And you don't need sentient AI for that! Just super-duper processing power, high-speed internet, and information-sharing.

Viola! The Singularity, only human-centered.

I think this is more likely, actually, than self-aware computers, but I don't discount it. They'll just be different from us.
dichroic
Sep. 20th, 2012 12:52 pm (UTC)
Interesting. Most of the 25-years-ago predictions were way off; it appears that they mostly forgot that 25 years is, in fact, a short span of time in historical terms. Silberburg was spot on, though mostly by virtue of being vague. I have no idea who Dave Wolverton is, but he was actually pretty close.
mckitterick
Sep. 20th, 2012 02:42 pm (UTC)
I loved Fred Pohl's satiric approach - of course he wouldn't take "future forecasting" seriously! But why not dream, eh?

I found it interesting that Benford predicted a Dow Jones of 8400, while today it's over 11,000... yet we're still feeling the effects of a recession. If ever anyone needed proof that only the rich get to enjoy trickle-up economics, there it is.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )