[home] [search] On Science, Fiction, and Future Reality [contact] [up] 

Informal talk given in 2005 and 2006 for high school students (age 13-16) at TASIS

Introduction. What are scientists currently working on? What is already technologically possibly? What will enter our everyday life in a couple of decades?
Below I present a list of changes that many people find surprising, scaring, or unbelievable. Potential reasons are: fear of change, indifference, or lack of imagination.
The school system is a main reason for that. For many years kids have to attend history courses, but there are no futurology courses. Why do educators care so much about the past and so little (not at all) about the future? Probably for the same reasons as above: fear of change, indifference, and lack of imagination. It's also much easier to grovel in the past than to think about our future.
But it is important to imagine our potential futures, since we will soon live in one of them, and we can (to some extend) influence the future, while the past is fixed and dead. The primary function of history should be to serve as inspiration for the future; e.g. to avoid making the same mistakes and as a means of extrapolation (e.g. Moore's law or the technological singularity).
The most pleasant way to broaden your mind is to watch or read science fiction. Better read the online science News for Nerds for state of the art developments or e.g. the recent ebook by Ray Kurzweil Reader about our future.
Note that many of the following future inventions will have severe social, ethic, environmental, philosophical, and legal consequences, too numerous and complex to be discussed here.

Space exploration. Since 1969 men have landed 6 times on the moon, since about y2000 there is an International Space Station in the earth orbit that even (rich) tourists can visit, thousands of satellites orbit earth, unmanned spacecrafts passed by nearly every planet (>9) and moon (>40) and left our solar system, and landed on some of them (e.g. Mars rover). Some planets and moons have climates with oceans, atmosphere, storms, mountains, etc.
[Watch some of the over 700 Star Trek episodes, if you like space exploration.]

Wormholes, parallel universes, time-travel, etc. Einstein's special relativity allows time-travel into the future. His general relativity theory may allow via wormholes time-travel into the past. Quantum theory implies that there are zillions of parallel universes. Most of these physical possibilities will probably not be technically realizable (soon), partly due to technical difficulties, partly due to immense costs. Practical space-travel will be confined to our solar system, nearby stars, and mostly unmanned. New species or individuals may occasionally settle on new planets, but active planet tourism is unlikely. [Nevertheless, the movies The Black Hole, Back to the future, and (with restrictions) the Star Trek series Deep Space Nine are fun.]

Exoskeletons and Cyborgs. Do you remember Ripley in Alien 2 fighting the alien in the exoskeleton industrial loader? The military already constructed exolegs which allow you to walk with nearly no effort (like power-steering) for a whole day while carrying heaviest backpacks. More immersive nerve-controlled artificial protheses already exist. The more we get used to replacing malfunctioning vital organs by synthetic ones (limbs, hearts, lunges, are already possible), the more open people will become to enhancing their body. The transition to becoming a cyborg (and ultimately completely artificial) is smooth. [A quite frightening vision are the Star Trek Borgs]

Virtual reality. Professional flight simulators for pilots immerse you quite well into a virtual reality (VR). Many video (in particular shooting) games also give you a good feeling of being in the virtual world. VR glasses, gloves, and suits make the illusion even better, but it's not perfect. Connecting your brain (sensoric and motoric regions) directly to the computer would make the illusion perfect (like in the movies eXistenZ and Matrix). Currently one can implant electrodes into paraplegics so that they can control e.g. a robotic hand by pure thought.

Virtual life. But why create fascinating virtual realities, while you stay real. The next step in the future is to completely scan your brain and simulate it in the machine too. You can choose to live in VRs that are close to real or in arbitrarily bizzare fantasy worlds. And if you like the virtual world better than the real one, and someone maintains the computer for you, you (or a copy of you) could stay virtual forever.
[The first virtual reality movie of this kind was Tron]

Nanotechnology and Nanobots. Nanobots are tiny robots at the size of nanometers to size of viruses. While no real nanobots exist now, there are already e.g. centimeter capsules you can swallow with cameras and senders moving through your digestive system. Next are capsules so small that they can move through your veins (e.g. as in the movie Fantastic Voyage but unmanned). The ultimate goal is to (self)produce nanobots in masses that collectively perform some task (like ants, or in the Borg).

Speech recognition. Instead of using mouse and keyboard it is more convenient to simply talk to the computer. This technology already exists and is used e.g. for telephone applications, by paraplegics, and some book authors. Every computer with Windows XP is already equipped with a rudimentary speech recognition system (go to start -> control panel -> speech). In the next decade Speech Recognition will be perfectionized to such a degree that this will be the default interaction mode with machines (like in nearly all science fiction). The reverse, talking computers, are already omnipresent.

Artificial Intelligence. The grand goal of Artificial Intelligence is to create computers or robots that are smarter than humans. The most straightforward route is as often in science to learn from nature, e.g. create an artificial brain, or simulate the whole evolution. Another approach is to create intelligent systems from rigorous principles. One such approach develops a mathematical definition of "intelligence".
[Nearly every science fiction contains some artificial intelligences, e.g. movies Colossus, Hal in Space Odyssey, Dark Star, Star wars, ...]

Genetically designed children. The whole human genome has been sequenced. The functionality of many genes has been identified. Plant genes are systematically modified to create "better" or "nicer" plants. Progress is even faster here than in the development of the computer. It is just a matter of time until parents can design their children, e.g. ask doctors to modify the genes to get a more healthy, smart, good-looking, etc. child (like in the movie Gattaca). Natural selection will be replaced by genetic design.

More. Many other developments have not been mentioned, e.g. on artificial life, robots, androids, search for extraterrestrians, cloning, gene therapy, organ farms, and topics like consciousness, technological singularity, theory of everything.

Literature Links

 © 2000 by ... [home] [search] [science] [personal] [contact] [up] ... Marcus Hutter