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A Scientist's Notebook
As the next millennium approaches like an overloaded ocean liner, fat with metaphor and passengers, many will attempt to peer through the veil of foggy futurism, sighting fresh continents of the mind.
Beyond that magical number 2000---for purists, 2001---some will try to do linear extrapolations from current trends. Others will assume, like southern Californian weather forecasters, that tomorrow will be pretty much like today, only more crowded.
Alas, it cannot be so. Our society is driven by high rates of technological change and exploding social ideas, so powerfully that stasis in any arena is impossible---indeed, inconceivable. One idea that shall surely not survive this century (perhaps to be nostalgically recalled as the mythic TwenCen, as language compresses under cyber-pressure) is that of the readily foreseeable future.
Many future thinkers, especially sf writers, are now less interested in making straightforward predictions of the future, and thus in helping determine it, precisely because they do not believe that linear, programmatic determinism is the right angle of attack.
Their views of that future are often playful, seeking to achieve an almost impressionistic effect, imagining small scattered details of a future that imply more than they can say. This approach allows one to seek the most vibrant metaphors while cocking a wary eye at society's many looming problems.
Clearly we have come a long way from unblinking wonder at technology, distancing ourselves from the top-down social engineering doctrines that accompanied the optimism of the late-19th and early-20th centuries.
Virginia Postrel, author of 1998's The Future and its Enemies, argues that the essential political differences today are between stasists and dynamists. Sf sides with futures run not by Wellsian savant technocrats but by the masses, innovating from below and running their own lives, thank you very much.
This gathering belief in dynamic change driven by freedom and information flow contrasts with the oddly static tone of much earlier thinking. Mundane literature has carried an unspoken agenda, assuming that the present's preoccupations stand for eternal themes.
Even early sf presumed that elites should rule and that information should flow downward, enlightening the shadowed many. Sf's Shakespeare, H. G. Wells, was welcomed to speak by the Petrograd Soviet, the Reichstag, Stalin and both Roosevelt presidents. This company never doubted their managerist agendas, and Wells had his own.
Today, such mechanistic self-confidence seems quaintly smug. The genre looks to more vibrant metaphors, while cocking a wary eye at our many looming problems.
Sf writers are less interested in predicting and thus determining the future. They see themselves more as conceptual gardeners, planting for fruitful growth, rather than engineers designing eternal, gray social machines.
What does this portend for the next century? Clearly the TwenCen has been the century of physics, just as the nineteenth was that of mechanics and chemistry. Grand physical measures still beckon. We could build a sea-level canal across Central America, explore Mars in person, use asteroidal resources to uplift the bulk of humanity. Siberia could be a fresh frontier, better run by American metaphors than the failed, top-down Russian ones. . (In fact, the U.S. is the only power that knows how to build and run a frontier. Siberia would be a natural for us.) Our world will continue to be shaped by new physics-based technologies.
But that won't be where the main action lies.
Biological analogies will probably shape much political thinking to come. Though the converging powers of computers and biology will give us much mastery, how such forces play out in an intensely cyber-quick world will be unknowable, arising from emergent properties, not stasist plans.
Despite our rather dark impulses to control the shadowy future landscape, to know the morrow, it will be even harder in the science fictional worlds to come.
Imagining how science and technology could affect society now more often employs the self-organizing principles popular in biology, economics, artificial intelligence, and even physics. Rather than use monolithic ideas or institutions, we seem poised to employ smaller, more interactive scales. Market competition ideas echo Darwinian evolution. Order, even wholly new species, arise from individual mutations that propagate. In such distant scientific realms as fluid turbulence, small eddies build into larger ones through competition among whorls.
In our own brains, somehow the firing of synapses blends into a storm of electrical signals that organize into ideas or emotions---emergent order. Many phenomena display properties that grow from below in ways science does not fathom.
I've argued before that the 21st century will be the Biological Century. We will gain control of our own reproduction, cloning and altering our children. Genetic modification is surely a dynamist agenda, for the many mingled effects of changed genes defy detailed prediction. Although the converging powers of computers and biology will give us much mastery, how such forces play out in an intensely cyber-quick world are unknowable, arising from emergent properties, not detailed plans.
Despite our impulses to control the shadowy future landscape, to know the morrow, it will be increasingly hard to do so in the years to come.
The most infamous attempt to predict the economic and social future was the Club of Rome's The Limits to Growth (1972). Based on a computer model of the interaction of various global socioeconomic trends, the work foresaw only exponential population growth and dwindling natural resources, allowing for no substitutions or innovation. A famous bet over the projected price of metals in 1990 led to the Club's public debacle---copper became cheaper, not the fought-over commodity predicted.
Although the oil crisis of the 1970s lent the work credence, resource markets have since erased the gloomy, narrow view of how dynamic economies respond to change. (Not that oil won't get precious. World production will peak around 2010, and prices will rise steadily thereafter. Sell your SUV soon!)
Rather than looking at the short run and getting that wrong, we should consider peering beyond immediate concerns, tracing long-run ideas that do not necessarily parallel the present. A historical example of this approach is the Irish-born physicist J. D. Bernal's The World, the Flesh, and the Devil, which examined the long-term prospects of science and society in terms that seemed bizarre in 1929 but resonate strongly today: engineered human reproduction, biotechnology, and our extension into totally new environments such as the deep oceans and outer space.
Another, rather enjoyable way to regard the future is to listen to scientists thinking aloud in a long perspective, making ranging forays into territories seldom illuminated coherently in our era of intense narrowness. Prediction is speculation, normally frowned upon in science, and thus it often arrives well-disguised. Sometimes it is a short-term claim to a notion awaiting exploration, as when James Watson and Francis Crick, in the last sentence of their 1953 paper reporting the discovery of DNA's double helix, laconically noted that they saw its implications for reproduction: "It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material."
In similarly laconic British tradition is a slim tome of a stature comparable to Bernal's, Freeman Dyson's Imagined Worlds (1997). In his lofty view Dyson, an English physicist, shares an advantage with science-fiction writers. Both are good at lateral thinking---the sideways swerve into future scenarios not justified by detail, but by their intuitive sweep. Refusing to tell us how we may get to their visions, Dyson and others take in a wider range of possibility than the hampered futurologists. As Dyson wrote: "Science is my territory, but science fiction is the landscape of my dreams."
Yet another way to broaden the vista of prediction beyond the consensus is to recognize that the future will always deal us a few wild cards. An unlikely, but not impossible, fundamental discovery or development, or some strange combination---particularly when coupled with the vagaries of human behavior---can send the future veering from its expected course.
We need look only to our own recent technological history to know that big surprises are in store. As late as the 1950s no one, not even the most prophetic science-fiction writers, foresaw solid-state microelectronics and the personal computer revolution that it would bring. In the 1920s and '30s, who anticipated that genetic resistance to those new antibiotic wonder drugs and our indiscriminate use of them would end our rosy expectations for the quick conquest of bacterial infection?
Using intuition, educated guessing, random choice---whatever means we wish---we can focus on some of those potential wild cards, imagining their effects on the future. In so doing, we expand into the realm of the unexpected, where the improbable may become extremely salient, and sf is a favored tool.
As humans we suffer from contradictory demands: our biologically ordained decade-scale thinking contrasts with our social inertia, which requires a century to change. Nearly all our thinking is bounded within ten years, although the true agents of change, new institutions and new technologies, take longer than ten years to grow. Within the next decade, foreseeable advances include a flowering of digital astronomy, completion of the Human Genome Project, and the sequencing of DNA from many creatures, especially ourselves.
Single technologies can dominate over the scale of a century, but no more, and Dyson guesses that the next century will dance to the songs of petroleum scarcity, computers and biochemistry, plus the two newcomers, genetic engineering and artificial intelligence. Combining these last two alone could give us fresh variants on humans or animals, with microchip-augmented abilities. Such creatures would lie outside any linear mode of our thinking, introducing objects of amusement, wonder, or horror---or all three.
The street finds its own uses for things, as TwenCen writer William Gibson remarked.
Obviously we have yet to witness the full implications of our fast-evolving computers. Combining the present sensor revolution---the ability of machines to register their surroundings and react---with ever-cheaper computer chips will surely animate our future.
The first changes, coming in a decade or two, will be mild. Appliances will go far beyond obeying voice commands and respectfully replying. Ovens will not merely run and stop; they will know how long to heat a casserole or bake a cake without being told, or at least without being told more than once. Robotic vacuum cleaners will use microwave radar to avoid the walls and furniture. Set to operate when electrical rates are lowest, they will also save energy and money by not overcleaning.
Similarly, clothes dryers will run only until the clothes are dry, and washing machines will know how much hot water to use for a load of cotton sheets. Onboard software will allow washers to talk to the embedded chips of the smart clothes loaded into them. When we wear these clothes, the same chips will sense temperature and send signals to the reactive fabric, which then will adjust itself to suit our personal comfort settings.
There is no reason why a full-blown computer will not be wearable, too, perhaps as a fanny pack with a small keyboard fitted to the wrist. Wearable computers will be in especially high demand for people such as doctors, emergency service workers, and real estate agents---those who need immediate information but cannot be tied to a desk or accept the reduced mobility of a laptop.
Built-ins---computers implanted in the body---will start out as specialized physiological monitors, say, of metabolic waste for kidney patients or blood-oxygen levels for deep-sea divers, but then they will find myriad applications, real and trivial.
For simpler tasks a built-in "social secretary" with a small camera (or a direct tap into the optic nerve. You could recognize that vaguely familiar person we might bump into at an office party. It could provide not only the right name but also a short biography, enabling us to ask without a pause, "Say, Fred, how's that daughter doing at Caltech?"
We often think that the future belongs to the glitzy professions. Nevertheless, manual labor also will be altered by the changes to come, including the role of the farmer.
Consider a field of maize (corn, to Americans). At its edge a black swarm marches in orderly, incessant columns.
These long lines of ants carry a kernel of corn each. Others bear bits of husk. In some places entire teams coagulate around chunks of cob. The streams split, kernel-carriers trooping off to a ceramic tower, climbing a ramp, and letting their burdens rattle down into a sunken vault. Each returns dutifully to the field. Another, thicker stream spreads into rivulets that leave their burdens of scrap at a series of neatly spaced anthills. Dun-colored domes with regularly spaced portals, for more workers.
These had once been leaf-cutter ants, content to slice up fodder for their own tribe. They still do, pulping the unneeded cobs, stalks, and husks, growing fungus on the pulp deep in their warrens. They are tiny farmers in their own right. Biotechnology, however, has genetically engineered them to harvest and sort first for the human masters, processing corn right down to the kernels.
Other talents can be added. For example, acacia ants naturally defend their home trees, weeding out nearby rival plants, attacking other insects that might feast on the acacias. Take that ability and splice it into the corn-harvesters, and we do not need pesticides or the drudge human labor of clearing the fields.
Can the acacia ants be wedded to corn? It does not seem an immense leap. Ant species are closely interrelated and multitalented. Evolution gave them a wide, adaptable range.
Following chemical cues, they seem the antithesis of robotic machinery, though insects are actually tiny automatons engineered by evolution, the engine that favors fitness. Why not co-opt their ingrained programming, then, at the genetic level and harvest the mechanics?
Some human farmers will be insect tenders, more like beekeepers than tillers of the soil. Others will find their livelihood threatened.
The Achilles heel of predictions is that we have as much difficulty foreseeing the limitations of a technology as its promise.
A 19th-century dreamer might easily generalize from the newly invented "wireless" to envision the sending of not merely messages by radio waves but also cargoes and even people. Matter, after all, is at bottom a message, since it can be turned into energy and propagated. Nevertheless, the awesome radio did not develop into a matter transmitter, which is no closer to reality than it was a century ago.
Undoubtedly, then, some of these analogy-dreams will not come true, particularly in their timing. It seems likely that, despite the current fashion for nanotechnology---artifice on the scale of billionths of a meter, the molecular level---biotechnology will come first. The latter is easier to implement, because the tiny "programs" built into life forms have been written for us by nature and tested in her remorseless lab.
In fact, some of the more intriguing prospects for nanotechnological applications derive from our knowledge of the characteristics of biological materials. For example, one of the basic mysteries in biology is how the linear chemical structure of a protein molecule specifies the way that it will wrap itself into a unique three-dimensional shape, which in turn determines its biological function.
An obvious long-chain molecule to fold and use as a construction material is DNA, which, given the appropriate molecular machinery, can make more copies of itself. A self-replicating "bio-brick" could be as strong as any plastic. By adding bells and whistles at the molecular level, through processes of DNA alteration, we could then make intricately malleable substances, capable of withstanding a lot of wear and able to grow more of itself when needed.
It is not fundamentally absurd to consider sidestepping the entire manufacturing process for even bulky, ordinary objects, like houses. We have always grown trees, cut them into pieces, and then put the boards back together to make our homes. Someday we may grow rooms intact, right from the root, customized down to the doorsills and window sizes. Choose our rooms, plant carefully, add water and step back. To do fix-ups, simply paint the house with a solution that feeds the self-repairing functions.
Whether such dreams ever happen, it seems clear that using biology's instructions will change the terms of social debate.
The rate of change of our conception of ourselves will probably speed up from its presently already breakneck pace. The truly revolutionary force in modern times has been science, far more so than the usual "radical" politics.
Birth control pills changed social relations far more than edicts from the state. Cars and the Internet enhanced the flow of people and information that institutions as varied as corporations and police sought to control.
Nevertheless, many of the above examples underline the implications of leaving genetic choices to individuals. Society has some voice in defining boundaries, but typically we arrive at consensus only slowly, while biotechnology speeds ahead. Perhaps we are poised at the start of a profound alteration in the essential doctrine of modern liberal democratic ideology. There may be genetic paths we will choose to block. How do we recognize them, quickly?
Our species has made enormous progress through swift cultural evolution. Now, that quick uptake on changing conditions can come also from deliberate genetic alterations. We will hold the evolutionary steering wheel, however shaky our grip, and no longer rely on pitiless, random mutation.
We will emerge from the Biological Century with a profoundly different worldview. Our prospect is both wondrous and troubling. It is as though prodigious, bountiful nature for billions of years has tossed off variations on its themes like a careless, gushing Picasso. Now nature finds that one of its casual creations has come back with a piercing, searching vision and has its own pictures to paint.
The most difficult of all predictions is how all these social and scientific forces will intermingle, yielding a world as different from ours as we are from the optimistic security of 1900.
One thing is certain: the ride will be interesting.
Hold onto your hat.
Comments and objections to this column are welcome. Please send them to Gregory Benford, Physics Department, Univ. Calif., Irvine, CA 92717. email: email@example.com
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Copyright © 1998–2016 Fantasy & Science Fiction All Rights Reserved Worldwide