Author: Malcolm Morgan
Ever since we came out of the trees and into the plains man has tried to predict the future, and even though our methods and predictions have changed, two features have remained invariably true; firstly it has been extremely difficult to do, and secondly the have usually been wrong. If you look over the popular fiction of the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, it is littered with men living on the moon, hover cars, and bizarre ray guns. Yet today we still do not live further away than a low orbit, our cars still have wheels, and the idea of ray guns stay very much something of the past.
Yet does that mean we have not made progress? Of course not. It is merely the fact that the progress we make does not necessarily lead to the life changing leaps what we are fed with in Science Fiction but gradual incremental improvements. Armed with this experience I will try to make rational and logical predictions about the next hundred years and hopefully we will have a glimpse of what the future may be.
Part One: Science in general
Historically science has not improved linearly, but at an accelerating rate; less than one person on average read a scientific publication, which gives an idea of quite how many publications are made. If this trend continues our output is likely to go “through the roof” quite literally as we now have enough journals to build a tower to the moon, and as number of published articles relates to number of discoveries we can see that the rate of scientific discovery is increasing. It is now widely accepted by futurists that scientific progress occurs in powers of ten. That is to say in 2100 we will be ten times more advanced than we are today, compared with 1900. This is a phenomenal jump, and as we draw towards 2007, we can compare 2005 with 2000 and from that draw out some of the orders of magnitude of progress for 2100.
Part Two: Computers
I start with computers for two simple reasons; firstly, I doubt that anybody can deny the importance of computers in the modern world and the high probability that they will take an even more significant role in the future. Secondly, for many years, computers have obeyed Moore’s Law, which states; computer power doubles every 18-24 months (see graph). The volume of data we can store on a computer also obeys similar laws. The other factor is that alternative computing technologies like Quantum Computing and Carbon Based Computing promise to be even more powerful than silicon computing, and may compensate for physical limitations of conventional computing.
However, we will stick with silicon as our base prediction tool since it is amazingly convenient for predicting the future.
A rough calculation of the power of the average home computer in 2100 will be 250 to 267 times more powerful than a computer today; that is up to a hundred billion billion times more powerful. When you consider that a modern supercomputer is only around 200 times more powerful than a games console, this implies that in 2100 everybody will be able to carry in his or her pocket unimaginable computing power. So what will we do with such amazing computers? I am hesitant in making this prediction as it has been made so many times before, but could we finally see artificial intelligence? It has been estimated by Raymond Kurzweil that a computer with a processing power of 10 Terra FLOPS (about 20 times what the world most powerful super computer is capable of) would be able to simulate the human brain. If computing power continues under Moore’s Law then we will build the first supercomputer capable of such power by 2013. Therefore, by 2100, people could have in their pocket a computer so powerful it could simulate no only their own intelligence but that of every human that has ever lived. This point of unsurpassed technological advance is known as a singularity. Futurists recognize singularities as a potentially disastrous event.
“When we create the first super intelligent entity, we might make a mistake and give it goals that lead it to annihilate humankind, assuming its enormous intellectual advantage gives it the power to do so. For example, we could mistakenly elevate a sub-goal to the status of a super-goal. We tell it to solve a mathematical problem, and it complies by turning all the matter in the solar system into a giant calculating device, in the process killing the person who asked the question.”
Some have argued that we could prevent this by creating machines that are naturally friendly to humans needs. However, anybody who has read or seen ‘I Robot’ will tell you of the flaw in that argument.
In ‘I Robot’ the computers gain such high levels of intelligence that they take over the world to prevent war as allowing wars to take place infringes their first code of ethics “No robot by action or neglect should allow a human to come to harm”
Therefore, in summary by 2100, we can reasonably expect some form of artificial intelligence, it may not be as powerful as I have stated above due to some unforeseen problems, but it is clear that above human intelligence should be obtainable. I.J. Good best summed up the consequences of this in 1965:
“Let an ultra-intelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultra-intelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion,’ and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultra-intelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make.”
Part Three: Space, Cosmology and Physics
Space travel has been the staple prediction of the Science Fiction genre for generations. However, hindsight has show that space travel is actually far more expensive and difficult than previously thought. However, there are some encouraging prospects on the horizon that could make space travel practical for the first time. By 2009, Virgin Galactic hopes to take the first tourists to sub-orbital space for £100,000. This could be a turning point in space tourism. Current space tourism costs around £20 million, but this change would bring it into the budget range of the average millionaire and history shows us that something that was once the plaything of millionaires could soon become a common luxury and then an essential part of life: take, for example, the expansion of flight and holidays abroad.
NASA and ESA also intend to make their first manned missions to Mars by 2030, with the intent of forming permanent bases on Mars and the Moon; this will have a major effect on the space industry in a way that Apollo did not. If there are truly going to be bases on the Moon and Mars two things need to be developed; fast practical ways to get supplies to astronauts on other planets, ways to survive off the resources already on that planet. If “necessity is the mother of invention”, then needing to keep these astronauts alive will lead to a technological advance in our ability to survive off our planet. Only then will we be able to get close to what fiction clamours for. One of the most difficult problems we must over come is gaining the ability to travel at speeds that make space travel practical. At this point predictions often go down the road of “faster than light travel” and “warping space-time”. I do not want to go down that path because if it is possible it will only become apparent in some kind of eureka moment; this is impossible to predict and thus impossible to hypothesise about.
It is not necessary to go faster than light to go fast enough for my liking. It takes light eight minutes to get from the sun to the earth. If we could only get there in sixteen or even sixty, it would still make travel within the solar system practical and sending probes to other systems common place. If we could accelerate a ship to a 10th of the speed of light, we could get to the nearest star in about 40 years. Although this does not sound fantastic when you consider that, it took 27 years for Voyager 2 to leave the solar system, and would not reach the next star for another 76000 years it is a significant improvement. But how could we accelerate to such speeds? Certainly not under conventional rocketry. An here we hit another block however I am happy to concede that in a 100 years something will come up, especially when in 1900 the fastest speed vehicle achieved 100km/h and today is about 62000km/h by Voyager 1. That’s a 620 times improvement in 100 years if we used our predictions of how science would improve mention in section one then by 2100 we would be able to travel at 1024 times the speed of light. This is a contradiction of what I said earlier but I merely make the point that we will be going very fast in 2100 what ever happens.
Another practical problem is the absence of gravity in space, which has adverse affect on our health. Whether we will be able to generate artificial gravity by then or not is dependant on the discovery of the graviton. As Ladbrokes have put the odd on discovery by 2010 as 1:6 it is more than possible, but there are other proven systems to provide gravity such as that used in 2001 ‘A Space Odyssey’ where the ship rotates to generate a resultant force similar to that of gravity. I see no reason that such a system could not be implemented with sufficient will power and finance. Alternatively, we could send some of our intelligent robots.
With all of this zooming around, we hope some good science would also materialise. Physicists have been trying to unify the separate branches of physics though things such as string theory. Over the next hundred years, it seems likely that we will come to one of two conclusions; we will either, unite everything under a grand theory or we will come to understand that everything is not quite a simple as we had imagined. At this point, it is impossible to predict what the outcome of this science will be. However, we can make some predictions, Firstly we will probably have built some very big particle accelerators, and if there are any more fundamental particles we will have probably found them. However, we will not be able to prove this conclusively because to get down to very small scales such as the Plank length as the accelerator would have to be larger than the solar system, and we would require many solar systems worth of material to build such an object. Once we could see down to the Plank length we could measure the number of curled up dimensions predicted by theories like String and M Theory, but we are likely to be confined to measuring larger dimensions like the four we are naturally aware of. Secondly, we will have much better telescopes and much better space telescopes. These will allow us to see far more of the universe. For example OWL (Overwhelmingly Large telescope) will be able to see magnitude 38 objects (objects that are 4.66×10-10 fainter than can be seen by the naked eye). If this telescope was in space or on the moon it would be able to see objects that were significantly further away in stunning detail. Improvements in automation could mean networks of such telescope could work in tandem to produce sky maps in a few years rather than the decades it takes today. It may also be possible with very careful measurements to deduce accurately the distance of object by comparing the apparent magnitudes from opposite sides of the solar system.
Part Four: Chemistry, Materials and Structures
The future of material sciences will lead to some ground breaking new technologies. Our ability to synthesise increasingly complex materials and invent new materials will continue to grow. This will allow us to push the limit of what is possible from the materials around us. For example, steel cables can currently withstand stresses of 300,000 pound per square inch. The maximum stress a steel cable can take is 4,000,000 pound per square inch, thirteen times more. This can only be achieved by growing structures out of single crystals of steel. This is already done for small parts in jet engines but is a major contributor to their enormous cost. This would allow us to build enormous structures and potentially items such as a space elevator.
Arthur C. Clarke once said that the space elevator “will be built about 10 years after everybody stops laughing.” In addition, the institute of scientific research has estimated we would be capable of building a space elevator by 2020 at a cost of around £5 billion. This would allow simple and easy passage to space, as launch is one of the most expensive and difficult aspects of current space travel this could make a big difference of the feasibility of permanent space presence.
Nanotechnology is likely to come into it own in the next hundred years as well. This will allow us to build these giant crystals more easily, as it may be possible to weave building out of carbon nanotubes. The U.S. Army is currently working on the Future Force Warrior project looking into using nanotechnology to make materials that are lightweight and flexible yet can become instantly bullet proof when necessary. These materials will also be able to filter out chemical and biological agents thus allowing the modern solider to enter highly dangerous areas with minimal risk and maximum flexibility to move.
Another U.S. Army project is looking into nanomuscles to provide extra strength to clothing thus allowing soldiers to lift enormous weights and run and jump like Olympic athletes even when carrying a 20kg pack on their back.
Nanotechnology will also help in the synthesis of materials, it is believe that by 2020 simple materials will be easy to synthesize, and eventually we will be able to synthesize almost any thing, because of this NASA is looking into ways to produce Star Trek style “replicators” to produce food and spare parts for astronauts on long space missions.
Part Five: Biology
The 19th Century was the Century of Chemistry, the 20th Century was the Century of Physics, the 21st Century will be the Century of Biology
It is impossible to dispute the fact that we are on the verge of uncharted and dangerous waters when it comes to the biological sciences, it is now becoming clear that with increased understanding of genetics and the fundamental behaviour of cells we could potentially have unprecedented control over the very nature of life. If progress continues as it has today, we will be able to grow spare organs when ours fail; patch and repair our selves at our leisure. Will that make us immortal? Probably not, but it could increase our life span dramatically, a healthy person not exposed to toxins and harmful circumstances may easily live to 150 if not longer, and we will have more useful and productive lives.
The modern 60 year old is already showing serious signs of aging and loss of performance across the body even though they could live another 30-40 years.
The elderly of the future will have enhanced performance allowing them to have a “middle aged” body until there into their 70s and 80s, and we can expect working ages to rise to around a 110 to compensate for this.
This could be achieved with a variety of different long and short-term systems. Nanotechnology mentioned above could allow an army of robots to supplement the body’s immune system. This would have major advantages over a natural system, as many diseases are not fatal because of what the pathogen does to you but how your body attempts to combat it. In a similar way to an oyster, attempting to remove a parasite actually makes the situation worse by making a pearl it cannot get rid of; our body can often make mistakes or fail to remove the problem such as cancers. Artificial system could instantly recognise harmful agents that could hide from biological defence systems, and could be updated with the latest information to protect against new risks. The could also aid in surgery by destroying cancerous tissue without the need of cutting open the patient, the cancer can then be draw out with a syringe making the chance of success higher and the risk of relapse due to some of the cancer being left behind lower.
The Federal Initiative for Regenerative Medicine believes that by 2020 regeneration of damages tissue will be commonplace allowing for recovery from strokes possible and significant increases in lifespan. Gene therapy could potentially allow many genetic diseases to be eradicated in a generation, in some cases this is already possible but is banned in many countries as it is considered unethical.
Modern technologies could also help save lives in accidents and short-term events; a new gel developed recently can stem bleeding and stop it in a matter of minutes, this could make surgery significantly easier and safer.
There is also the potential to make humans “better” by genetic engineering, this initially could be done mealy by selecting those genes that are stronger, but eventually we may invent our own genes. However, this is a minefield of ethics and restrictions and laws as we come to terms with our own technology will slow any change here.
Improvements in computer technology will allow us to interface with computers merely by thought. Experiments conducted by Dr. Nicolelis have allowed monkeys control a robotic arm by thought alone, while the technology is being applied to allowing people with locked in syndrome (where the person is unable to move or talk but has full awareness and senses) over come their difficulties and talk again. The technology also allows Sangjiv K. Talwar of the State University of New York to create remotely controlled rats that turn the way they controller wants them to by sending electrical pulses to the brain. The rat has a choice but if it does what the scientist tells it to it receives a pulse to the pleasure area of the brain, hence it is under the control of the scientist. This may eventually allow us to replace our body with an enhanced robotic one and we may be able to gain extra intelligence by having a intelligent computer interfaced with our brain, at this stage we will start to redefine what it is to be human and what it is even to be alive.
It has become increasing clear that it is almost impossible to predict the future, trends that hold true today don’t necessary hold true tomorrow.Sometimes we make amazing leaps and other times we reach insurmountable barriers and where these may be is what makes the future of science and technology so foggy. The only aspect that is certain is that 2100 will look nothing like 2000 or what we think 2100 will like.
Many of the predictions I have made have been alarming or sensationalist, but they are based on current experiments and current trends what are being conducted.