The future begins tomorrow. This being so, it doesn’t seem especially difficult to say what will happen in that uncertain land. Weathermen, and their noble sisters the weatherwomen, daily dispatch dependable forecasts for tomorrow.
Weatherpersons are not especially gifted soothsayers. Tomorrow can be seen by many—but only just. Peering twenty-four hours into the future is like a near-sighted man who has forgotten his glasses trying to identify a friend in front of a building at fifty yards. The face is blurred, but the building takes shape.
Big things are easier to see than small, but even the large grows small with distance, where the view grows murkier. Yet these difficulties don’t dissuade some from telling us of their visions. This only becomes a nuisance when the person telling the tale swears he can see where others cannot. I’m thinking of cocksure climatologists who claim to be able to call the temperature to within a tenth of a degree a decade hence.
And then there are the “futurologists.” Robert Nisbet calls futurology, “one of the more pretentious of the pseudo-sciences of the twentieth century and is fully deserving of the neologism by which it is known, comparable to labeling the study of the past ‘pastology.'”
It’s easy to set up shop as a futurologist: get somebody to pay you to make predictions of what will be in ten years. As long as you are confident, bold, and pay heed to fears and desires, your success is guaranteed. Your mistakes will rarely be held against you.
There are a hefty share of self-publicity hounds among futurologists: the Faith Popcorns who beguile businessmen into forgetting the pain of paying for poor predictions. But there are also, according to the Boston Globe, “serious futurologists” like “Nick Bostrom, an Oxford University philosophy professor who heads the school’s Future of Humanity Institute.”
One debate within this community is when the “singularity” will hit and what should one be wearing when it does. The singularity can be roughly defined as the point at which life emulates the plot of the movie Terminator. Technology becomes so advanced that humans are superfluous, mere cogs in the world machine.
Actually, there is no precise or universally agreed upon definition of what this mystical point is. Some say it will mean the rise of “Ems“, a.k.a. “future whole brain emulation robots”, machines into which we frail, death-plagued people will download our “selves.”
With an ample supply of spare parts, we would live forever! This idea thrills proponents, but I see it as dystopian. Issac Asimov predicted that if life can last millenia future people will spend most of their time avoiding all risks trying not to wear out and die. Who would volunteer to take a risk, what rewards could there be?
Machine-people aren’t likely, either. First, despite all the progress, modern computer chips are like tinker toys bought at a garage sale that lasted one day too long compared to the wiring of our nervous system. Calculating the digits of π at blazing speed is trivial next to computing how many shirts to pack on your next business trip. The difference in complexity is orders upon orders of magnitude.
Second, we are not our brains, but our entire bodies. We aren’t just the synapses in our skulls, but nerves, sinew, bone, and muscle. All these things are one interacting system. We can’t just invent a database for our brains, we must create an entire life-like machine, one whose intricacy would rival our own bodies.
Third, we very probably aren’t smart enough to do it. It has only been a bare 100 years that humans—who have existed for 250,000-400,000 years—that we have been able to invent toys which are sufficiently entertaining to distract us from our real work. Who says progress will continue? The only reason we got this far is because we figured out how to make food cheap and plentiful.
By “we”, I mean the species; thus, I speak nonsense. Only actual people know how to farm. When these people go to meet their grandfathers, some will leave their wisdom behind in books. But those that come after them will have read and understand those books.
Time must be spent by each new generation to learn what came before them. Once knowledge reaches a certain level, our progeny will spend most of their lives assimilating what came before. They won’t have time to create.
We are not infinitely intelligent, therefore we can’t think ourselves into every corner of the universe. Some things will always remain a mystery. Our great-etc. children might be able to see farther than we, but even their vision won’t penetrate into the future.