MIND MELD: Optimistic Scenarios for Our Future World
[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
You hear new stories every day: humans are ruining the planet. If we don’t do something now, we’ll certainly destroy the world for our children. Dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction is wildly popular, and for good reason! These scenarios, while bleak, are also exciting and offer the opportunities for lots of what-ifs. However, in the spirit of optimism, I wanted to explore some future scenarios that offer hope and a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel.
We asked this week’s panelists…
Here’s what they said…
I have always been an optimist. It IS a little tough to pull that off right now, but there is still reason for hope. I know that climate change is a common topic, and you’ll get more than this post on it. But I do think we can get better at taking care of our world than we are now. The just-past election is one example. President Barak Obama mentioned climate change in his acceptance speech (after it had been off the radar all election). Here in Washington State, we just elected a rabidly pro-environment Governor, Jay Inslee. In fast, the US elected five people who are expected to drive change in this area. In addition to Jay, there are two new senators and two new congressional representatives who get it. Our city just passed a levy that funds, among other things, a program called Green Kirkland that is about support for our beautiful local environment. Katrina was a knock on the door. Sandy was a louder wake-up call.
The trick is that we are past the first tipping point – the climate is going to keep on warming even if we shut off all of the carbon spigots tomorrow. Success now looks like slowing and eventually stopping or even (maybe!) reversing the trends that are putting us in mortal danger right now. We caused a lot of this problem, and as ill-equipped as we are, we will have to help mitigate it. In addition to gaining at least some of the policymakers that we need, there is significant progress being made on important fronts: Electric cars, higher emission standards, more efficient buildings, green energy, better batteries. We are also gaining deeper understanding the world through big data modeling. We have the Internet. We have increasingly specific and high quality mapping and sensor nets. We can intervene on some levels, and we’re going to have to.
We have the communication tools to support what we’re going to need to do. If we could turn these tools to unseat bad governments all over the world last spring, and to occupy our own ill-behaved banking system, we can use the power of the Internet to spread ideas and action on climate. All we need is focus. Hurricane Sandy was a focus point. The heat waves were focusers. There will be more on the way. It will take some pain, some death, and a lot of action, but we can transform our relationship with the planet. That may leave us as the tenders of the garden in more ways than we want, but it is a path to success.
I portray precisely this tradeoff in three of my novels. In The Postman, wrong choices were made and civilization fell. The Earth barely skates along disaster but, since the human population plummeted, the planet recovers. And so does civilization, with a little help from its friends. In EARTH, the tradeoffs are more explicit. In a complex plot filled with speculative science, two women typify the choice between two models for environmentalism, a radical kind that views humanity itself as the enemy, and another that hopes we’ll become wise planetary managers for our own sakes, maturing to become the “brains” and eyes and hands of a new kind of life, taking its place in the Galaxy.
My latest novel, EXISTENCE, goes into the dozens of choices we can make in our near future, whether to safeguard humanity by forging ahead into scientific discoveries at breakneck speed? Or to go the other way, stifling research in order to plunge into retro-nostalgia… and so many other decisions. I try to give good voices to all sides, amid a rollicking adventure! But it turns out a whole lot more than the destiny of one little planet may be at stake.
It’s not surprising that dystopian fiction is so popular with writers; a dystopian scenario carries much scope for narrative conflict. If we’re talking positive, let’s look at the opposite end of the spectrum for a moment. True utopias are vanishingly rare. This is also unsurprising – in a perfect world, there’s no grand drama. I’m sure the immortal artists (they’ll all be artists of course, in togas) of the peaceful future might see working for five centuries toward the casting of the perfect clay pot as deeply affecting, but it’s not going to make for an exciting 21st century SF novel. SFnal Utopias are only useful either as a philosophical exercise, or, in a story, as a ‘not everything is as it seems’/ ‘paradise has a dark underbelly’ set-up.
The only SF with a relentless streak of positivism is Star Trek, and even Star Trek only got properly interesting when it had dark undercurrents – like when Benjamin Sisko went to extremes to get the Romulans involved in the war against the Dominion. Bear in mind, Star Trek’s future would only be a paradise for some – for others it would be a living hell, and that is one of the major drawbacks of any ‘ideal’ society, leaving aside their boring nature. Apropos of that, note that Trek’s biggest hero – Captain Kirk – is a man who constantly flouts the rules.
I’m a big fan of Neal Asher’s Polity universe; his future society is built on Libertarian lines, where humans, supremely empowered by technology, can basically do what they like within the framework of the law. An all-seeing AI government makes sure the rules are adhered to, but is otherwise distant and non-interfering. Asher’s heroes might have it good in some ways, but for the AIs humanity’s survival is a cold numbers game, and the greatest irony is that mankind only exists on the sufferance of its children. I reiterate, there is no such thing as an ideal society.
It’s tricky to come up with a realistic scenario, positive or negative. SF often takes a fairly simplistic starting point – a story has a big idea (Time Travel! Dinosaur Survival! Machine Rebellion! The birth of AI!) and the narrative comes from the tension between that development and the status quo. In actuality, things are vastly more complicated. Not one thing changes with time, everything changes with time, and all the components, tiny and huge, that make up our world feed back into each other in ways that are impossible to predict. I try to take this view in my Richards & Klein books. In their future, some things are better, some things are worse, people carry on regardless. That’s the way the world works. Even in situations that might seem intolerable to earlier or later generations, people just get on with it, and they remain recognisably people. We’ll just muddle on as we always have.
Humanity has already come through several major planetary changes. We’re too adaptable to properly kill of. Look at the end of the Ice Age, the changes that gripped the planet then make global warming look fairly tame, and we’re still here.
The key to humanity’s success is that we’re so sociable. Peace and co-operation, not war, is the natural state of our species. That’s why there are seven billion of us. Our social nature is a great strength that only the mightiest calamity could overpower. The most glorious, positive thing we can do, we already do. Cooperation is fundamental to what we are. The digital revolution is, perhaps, reinforcing this tendency. But even that’s not SF any more, it’s real.
There is a caveat to this – we could do better, we could be less short-sighted. Technology and cultural change could make Earth a paradise, or we can carry on with hyper-capitalism and have a parking lot instead, to paraphrase Joni Mitchell. We’ll still be here either way, because surviving isn’t a problem for us; it’s surviving well that is.
Finding the optimism and hope in a seemingly increasingly dark and closed off world is sometimes a tough row to hoe. However, the human race has gone through near extinction events (See the Eruption of Mount Toba 70,000 years ago: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toba_catastrophe_theory) before, and has survived a lot the Earth and fellow humans have thrown at them. That’s no guarantee, but it does speak to our resilience as a species.
With that spirit in mind, my favorite positive spin on the future is the Terraforming Earth Scenario. It will be messy to get there, and we’re in for a rough few centuries. But if we hold our noses to the grindstone, we can make a better world on the far end of it. Let me tell you how:
Space is harsh, uncompromising and unforgiving, and possibly not suited to long term human habitation. We might all be on this ball of rock, physically, for centuries yet. We’ve wrecked the climate something fierce, but given time, we can stop the damage we are doing and even reverse it. Using telepresence robots, high grade software (possibly A.I.’s) and other virtual means, we’re going to move a lot of the manufacturing and energy production to space. We’ll capture asteroids, drag them to Earth orbit, mine and smelt the raw materials and send the finished products down to Earth via space elevator, especially plastics and metals. With n-generation 3-d printers, the raw plastics and materials can be made to create anything we want, everything we need except food.
And even food production is going to change, drastically. With the population reduced to around a billion, less acreage will be needed for grains. Meat is going to be vat-grown. Lots of the rest of the Earth can be reverted to the wild state. We’ll encourage the return of prairie grasses, forests, and other carbon sinks.
Improved geriatrics will give our descendants mean lifespans in three digits. We’ll use low gravity for protein folding and crystal creation to make the superdrugs of the future. Computing technology will be indescribable as World of Warcraft would be to Blaise Pascal. The online/offline worlds will be indistinguishable, and we might divide ourselves by the consensual virtual reality we overlay the real one.
Microwave-beam satellites, or large scale solar mirrors in the Sahara will provide the electricity requirements we need.
Even without direct geoengineering (beyond a lot of forest planting) slowly and surely, the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will drop, the climate will ameliorate, the seas will recede, and our descendants will have the Earth a practical, habitable world. It will take time, long periods of time, but it will happen. We may even clone mammoths back into existence and have them tramping along the great plains as they did 15,000 years ago. Why not?
And then we’ll start planning our probes to the stars.
What do I see in our future? As much as I enjoy dystopian future, at heart I’m an optimist, so I see the potential for many wonderful things – asteroid mining, space elevators, more Moon landings and more unmanned missions to the moons of the outer planets, where water may be found. If we (and by “we”, I mean unmanned probes) can make it out to the asteroid belt, we gently push some asteroids towards Earth orbit, and make the laws of physics do the hard work for us to provide earth with additional minerals in close orbit. With human genome mapping I’m curious to see where genetic testing and possibly genetic engineering takes us. I’d love to turn off the gene that makes me genetically susceptible to high cholesterol and arthritis. The possibilities are pretty much endless, and many of these technologies are within our reach.
What I don’t see is a focus on the Earth. Unfortunately, I believe we’ve pretty much screwed this pooch, so I see us focusing on moving outward in the solar system. There’s plenty of room out there, and when you’re a foot away from hard vacuum, you learn from your mistakes pretty quick.
Another thing I don’t see is a focus on government funded research and projects. Usually, I’m all for social projects and government funded everything (how come my entire income tax bill can’t go to public libraries, public universities, and parks and rec?). But getting off the Earth and getting out there? I see these as unconventionally and privately funded projects. It might be crowdsourced or kickstarted, it might be funded by selling tickets to tourists, and hopefully it will be international. If we play our cards right, the solar system could be ours within the next hundred years. We’ve got the scientific knowhow, we’ve got the tech, we’ve got the materials, there’s nothing stopping us except our own doubts, fears, and misconceptions about what’s possible.
And next, to misquote President Roslyn, we’ve got to start having babies. But not on Earth. We’ve got to start having children in orbiting space stations, on lunar colonies, in atmospheres different than on our home planet. Instead of waiting for the physics of light speed travel to become possible, we’ve got to push the boundaries of the human body to see what is survivable and what’s best avoided.
It will be dangerous, there will be losses and deaths. At first the innovators will be laughed at, no one will believe what they propose is even possible. But the payoff is having, quite literally, the universe at our fingertips.
Three hundred years ago electricity was a pipe dream. 200 years ago automobiles were a fantasy. 50 years ago video conferencing was science fiction. We got a guy on the moon with a sliderule and the computing power of a Commodore64, just imagine where we’ll be in fifty years.
First of all, I’m a little bit disappointed that the question immediately skips to the far future. Depicting how things are going well in the far future without explaining how we actually got there seems a bit like a cop-out. Personally I prefer to brainstorm over near-future scenarios that try to change things for the better: they’re both more challenging (and not just for the SF writer) and give more immediate hope.
Even worse: your average SF writer might (and has!) proposed that first one would need a dystopian or apocalyptic near-future (environmental disasters, total panopticon society with a genocidal endlosung, unstoppable plagues and what-have-you) in which 90% (or more) of the human race is killed, while the survivors live on happily ever after on a much less burdened Earth. It’s been done so often—and keeps rearing its ugly head—that I find this intellectually and ethically lazy thinking at the cost of five-and-a-half billion dead bodies (we’re talking future scenarios here).
An ambitious SF writer can—and should—do better than that.
So two short proposals for optimistic near-future societies before we get to the far-future scenarios:
Usage of the ‘Law of the Handicapping Head Start’: right now, Africa is technologically behind the western world. However, it could use this disadvantage as a jumping-off point to do things differently:
- Instead of installing a very expensive communication infrastructure of glass fiber cables to each and every home and office it could set up a mostly wireless network and:
- Use mostly mobile computing devices (smartphones, tablets and whatever the next generation of mobile computing might be, not VR/AR spex—I know Google is working on such glasses—but augmented reality contacts, just take miniaturisation a step further);
- Use the next generation zeppelins for transportation instead of airplanes (more fuel efficient, no large runways required);
I realise that Alastair Reynolds (a good friend) has already done something similar in his latest novel Blue Remembered Earth and his story The Water Thief in Arc 1.1, but I did propose this already back in 2009.
Our current mainstream model of economical thinking is one of growth. There must always be growth for an economy to be successful. However, constant growth is not sustainable, as resources eventually will run out. We live on a planet with finite resources: simple mathematics then show that eternal growth is simply impossible. Hence the need for a new economical model, and we could do worse than look at, for example, Japan. To quote a recent article in Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant, ‘if aliens who would not understand English (or any other human language), and neither know what is hip and cool in human society, would come to Earth, they would probably settle in Japan because’:
- the people look the most affluent;
- everybody is dressed well;
- the social environment is the most stable one;
- no visible abandoned offices or shops;
A true blue economist would immediately quote that Japan did not have one, but two ‘lost decades’ after its stock market crash of 1989: the Nikkei was at 38,000 before that crash, and is now about 9,000, suggesting that Japan has become four times as poor in twenty-three years.
Nevertheless, the unemployment rate is 4.1% (6.6% in The Netherlands, 8.7% in the USA), the Yen is one of the strongest currencies of the moment, and Japan has a surplus on its balance sheet. And while its debt is—expressed as a percentage of its BNP—higher than that of Greece, this debt is complete financed by its own people (robbing Peter to pay Paul). And Japan holds about 3,3 trillion dollars in foreign currencies, about the same amount as China. Half of its population is over 45 years old.
This could serve as an example of a future nation where population increase is slow—barely above replacement levels—and economic growth stalls as well—the ‘zero growth’ model—while at the same time prosperity and health increase. In other words: a more sustainable economic model.
Keep in mind that back in the 80s (remember cyberpunk and Neuromancer?) the rest of the world thought that Japan would be 40% richer than all other western countries, its high growth levels would continue unabated (through the Japanese working culture and superior management), and Japanese corporations would take over the world. Yet eventually the Japanese appeared to be normal humans, after all, who could appreciate spare time just as much (or even more) as more money.
Now, looking a bit further in time, if we do extrapolate things logically (according to our current set of logical rules) and linearly, then one would expect a far future where humanity learns how to live on planet Earth in a sustainable manner, before it embarks on travels to other planets, solar systems and—who knows—even galaxies, and does this in a sustainable manner. Meaning the exclusive use of renewable resources only, and thoroughly checking if there is alien life—no matter how small or unevolved—before settling another planet (or other celestial body). Life, it seems (again to the best of our knowledge today), is a very rare occurrence in a huge, cold Universe(*).
However, there will always be—especially at longer time scales—significant scientific breakthroughs that will turn our current thinking on its head. Unexpected approaches that catalyse a paradigm shift, a conceptual breakthrough thought impossible in our times.
Well, maybe the second law of thermodynamics can be superseded. Maybe the law of conservation of energy can be circumvented. Maybe there’s a Universe where the speed of light is the minimal speed, and we can get in and out of it at our leisure.
This may seem overtly optimistic, extremely fanciful or just plain crazy, but consider the following: back in the early twentieth Century, people in New York thought that the biggest problem facing them in the future was an overload of horse manure. The city was growing rapidly, and the most common form of transport was horse & carriage. Extrapolating in a direct manner, this would mean that New York would eventually be covered in horse shit. Literally. Then the T-ford came along(#).
So, on the one had, as we get more intelligent as a species over time, we should be treating our home planet with the respect it deserves. On the other hand, scientific breakthroughs we cannot conceive of now may turn our thinking of what is, and is not sustainable to its head, and then the game completely changes. However, proposing that the only way to go is down, as the utmost majority of written SF seems to do in the last couple of decades (‘lost decades’ of SF?) is both intellectually and ethically lazy, and uninspiring to future generations, as well.
(*) = Considering what we know today, not what we might know tomorrow—I strongly suspect that if we meet aliens in other solar systems (or other places), or if aliens meet us, then they—or we—will be extremely happy when meeting the other, after crossing the immense interstellar distances.
(#) = Similarly, people in the early twentieth Century thought that boats made of steel would not float (as steel is heavier than water), let alone that airplanes made of metal could ever take off.
Having gone through a period of being addicted to ranting political blogs I made a deliberate change to read science blogs (which are infinitely better for my sanity). The former made me pessimistic while the latter make me optimistic and affirm the obvious: the scientists and inventors are steadily improving the length and quality of our lives, while all the talk and effort of the ideologues, evangelists and social reformers are just static around that steady signal. Few of them, for example, have done more for sexual equality than the inventors of the Pill.
I could cite endless similar examples of this sort of thing, but all you really need is names, Lister, Pasteur and Jenner being ones that immediately spring to mind. I can now point to a numerous science articles every day that make me optimistic about the future – usually on the Internet. I recently found something from which I’ll give you one line: ‘Regulators yesterday approved the first therapy in the western world that can correct errors in a person’s genetic code.’ I also found it in a newspaper about five pages in and just one small column.
But my overall optimism is about the place where I read most of the above articles and the effect it is having, and that’s the Internet of course. It’s creating a steadily accelerating synergy and should be another exponential curve for Ray Kurzweil to add to his collection (well, he probably has). Scientists on either side of the globe can talk to each other at the push of a button, exchange data in a second, view experiments, and share processing of data across thousands of computers. And damn, they can do this now while sitting on the train, or while squatting in a jungle scraping fungus off a tree root. Compare that to the day, not long gone, when a researcher only learned of some critical work in his field upon reading a science magazine or on hearing a talk at some conference. But – shrugs – readers here will be thoroughly aware of this already, and I’m preaching to the choir.
First, let me say I love this question. As a scientist and to me personally, optimism is a driving, creative force. There are unknowns. There are wonders waiting to be discovered. I will always have questions and know I’ll find, if not answers, then new things to explore. Shiny! Plus, I’m a people fan. I believe, given any chance at all, gather people together and a party will ensue. (Admission: my worldview includes that fabulous subset of humanity known as fandom.) How does all this get into my far future sf? (Did I mention loving this question?)
In my Clan Chronicle series, you toss dirty dishes at the kitchen wall and they are whisked away to become clean dishes in the cupboards. More seriously, although that’s pretty cool if I do say so, in that series I postulated a growing role for humankind in a multi-species universe based on our ability to muddle along. As someone who has studied animal behaviour and communication, I put high value on our species’ social strengths. The desire and ability to share information, be it trivial or vital. Our empathy for the non-human. (At our best, we’re pretty amazing at it.) To compromise. To make things work, somehow. In my story, we make great bartenders and go-betweens, not to mention traders, and, sometimes, cops. Go us.
In the Company of Others is quite different. We’re on our own. The Earth is crowded and we desperately need to spread out or choke on ourselves. I created a situation in which a very large number of would-be settlers are stuck in space stations for a generation, low on supplies, low on hope. I chose to focus, being an optimist, on what they do to survive. There’s a bar called Sammies, and those drinking change with the shift bell. There are families, growing traditions, habits that make the overcrowding and danger bearable. I don’t see that as a reach, because people endure dreadful hardship now. But it was a deliberate choice to see how we can make the best of things, and find ways to live and love.
Last, but not least, in my Species Imperative trilogy I took a look 300 plus years into the Earth’s future, and decided we’d get it right. Oh, there are privacy issues and bureaucracies and those who’d rather not do things differently and I’ve doubts about the beer. But in my future view, we’ve set aside vast tracts of wilderness and protect them zealously, for the value they have for us all. Anthropomorphic-free zones, I called them. Not because humans don’t belong in wilderness, but to enrich this planet by leaving some of it to muddle along without us. Biodiversity banks, if you will, where the interest is paid out in abundance in the oceans and land for us to harvest.
Optimistic? I’m that. My science fiction is too. Life picks itself up and gets on with living. I see humankind doing that too, in wondrous, peculiar, and unexpected ways. To the future and beyond!
Dystopian futures in literature, movies and TV are excessively common due to the fundamental nature of stories. All stories are about something either being wrong or going wrong. If nothing is wrong there is no story. Stories begin by showing how the thing that is wrong is impacting the lead character, and end when the lead character either fixes what’s wrong or escapes from its reach. The future may include just as many terrible time periods as the past, but there is no evidence that it will include more.
Our future will be created mostly by the trends going on now; and many of today’s trends (though not all) suggest positive futures. Here are a few positive outcomes which most futurists agree we can reasonably expect:
 Photovoltaic cells have been dropping in price by more than 25% per year for over a decade and will soon produce electricity cheaper than power plants which burn coal or oil or even natural gas. Free-market competition, as a result, will force the price of grid electricity down to a fraction of today’s rates and electric cars will dominate the road since they will cost pennies per day to run. Like past eras of cheap energy, this one is likely to produce an economic boom-time.
 Building materials a hundred times stronger than steel will be commercially available and reasonably cheap. First made a few years ago, they are currently very expensive. Nanofilaments embedded in a resin (in the same way that glass fibers are embedded in epoxy resin to form fiberglass) will allow traditional structures like airplanes, cars, bikes, and buildings to be built either a hundred times stronger or a hundred times lighter. Most engineers will eagerly choose a little from both options. This means all the structural components of an automobile, for example, might be ten times stronger and yet ten times lighter.
 Human life expectancy will continue to increase. Every year throughout my life the average life expectancy has grown longer. Not once in the last fifty-seven years has it gotten shorter. But how long can science keep a record like that going? And just how long can a human being live? Is there a limit that is genuine and unbreakable? Some say yes; some say no. The most accurate answer is, of course, that we don’t know. Some futurists anticipate a time in which our medical technology becomes so good that people no longer die of old age. Not rarely; but never. If they’re right, death would come only by accident.
 Extending life is nice but it’s not enough; extending robust good health is the real goal of medicine. You are not robust if you live to 100 but struggle to walk outside to get your mail. Retaining the level of vigor which people generally experience in their twenties, thirties and forties into your nineties and beyond is something we can look forward to. It may not come soon enough for those alive today. A goal this difficult might take centuries. But of course, the future contains an unlimited number of centuries. We will not run out of them.
One contributory factor is the relative decline of the west. Go back to 1860, and the UK, the first nation to industrialize, had about 60% of the planetary GDP — and a navy larger than those of the next two Great Powers combined. By 1950, the USA was in much the same situation — the true planetary hegemonic superpower, with around 50% of the world’s GDP. (Yes, everyone was scared of Stalin’s USSR, but look how that turned out in the long run.) Today the US share of planetary GDP has declined to 25%. Which sounds bad, until you consider that the USA has around 2.5% of the planetary population, and that everyone is better off than they were in the 1950s; this is a *relative* decline, the consequence of the rest of the world playing catch-up.
Another contributory factor is our news media. The job of the media is not to keep us informed. Rather, it’s to sell our captive eyeballs to advertisers. Our monkey brains, only a million years removed from being somewhere below the big cats on the veldt predator pecking order, are hard-wired to pay more attention to horrible, grisly messes than to happy pretty flowers; after all, if we pay no attention to signs of predation around us, we might be next. You can see this on the highway, any time you pass the scene of a traffic accident that’s been cleared — there’s a bottleneck caused by people slowing down to rubberneck. Our news media reflect this, and exaggerate dangerous, nasty stuff. Serial killers and terrorism are far less likely to kill you than lightning, much less a car crash: more Americans were killed by auto accidents in October and November of 2001 than died in 9/11. But which gets our attention?
Anyway, this is by way of saying that today’s world is actually a much better place than you might imagine if you get your vision of it from the constant drip-feed of bad news served by the news media. In the past two decades we have halved poverty on a global scale. China alone has moved 300 million people out of rural subsistence peasant agriculture into an urban industrial lifestyle which, for all its problems, is still better than running a 1 in 7 chance of going hungry in any given year due to crop failure. India is developing. Africa has, overall, undergone 6% compound economic growth for the past 15 years. Despite all our efforts, we’ve only had one nuclear war in the past two decades — and it was fought underground, as India and Pakistan beat their chests and demonstrated their arsenals *without actually dropping bombs on cities*. (Even though they’ve had a shooting war going on and off for the past half century.) If you want a positively panglossian view, Steven Pinker has figures to back up his assertion that the level of violence in human societies is dropping precipitously, in a long term trend that shows no sign of reversal.
This is not to say that everything is fine. It isn’t; we’ve got major climate disruption — for the past 27 years now, on a global scale, every single month has been warmer than the long term average. We’ve got a population issue that has, so far, not turned into mass starvation only because our agricultural techniques have undergone a biotechnology revolution that enabled us to keep everyone fed (more or less). We have an energy economy that is damaging the environment we all live in, and a model of capitalist economic development that is frankly unsustainable in the long term. Fusion is still 30 years away (and turns out to make lots of nasty short half-life high level waste anyway). The pharmaceutical revolution of the 1980s has stalled, and the genomics revolution hasn’t yet delivered the treatments it promised — it turns out that the way our genome operates is way more complex than it looked in the 1970s.
But we’re still here and we’re still coping with the slings and arrows of a changing world. And we have some immensely powerful tools that science fiction writers mostly missed until relatively recently. The traditional focus of SF on speed and travel and interstellar flight was to some extent a reflection of the paradigm of the 1820s to 1960s, when our maximum speed went from a horseback gallop to escape velocity. The sigmoid curve of increasing speed in transport has topped out, due to several factors — notably the limits of chemistry and the physical constraints on our materials and the sheer mind-numbingly incomprehensible scale of the cosmos. But we’re in the middle of a couple of new development curves: computation and information, and biotechnology (which, when fully developed, will deliver most of the capabilities of Drexlerian nanotechnology even if diamond-phase nanotech remains forever out of reach). And we’re nowhere near the limits.
Here’s a tiny vision for a future maybe 30 years away. Imagine a city, wired (or rather, unwired — it’s all wireless) for ubiquitous surveillance. Every metre there’s a microprocessor as powerful as a modern laptop, hooked up to sensors, talking to its peers, watching sleeplessly. But this isn’t some sort of authoritarian police state nightmare. A middle-aged man walking on the sidewalk collapses suddenly, the victim of a cardiac arrest: within seconds, a self-driving ambulance is on its way to him. The ambulance tears through the city’s streets — which lack almost all traffic signs and road markings we’d expect today — with eerie abandon, jinking from side to side, ignoring the non-existent stop lights to tear through junctions. But it doesn’t hit anything, even the small child who runs out into the road in front of it in pursuit of a ball; the ubiquitous sensors are feeding it updates about obstacles and hazards, advising other cars to slow down and give the ambulance priority through the junction, tracking the child and the ball and warning it to take the other side of that particular stretch of road. The ambulance reaches the dying man within two minutes — far faster than would be the case today — and the paramedics are able to defibrillate him and take him to an intensive care unit alive, even though no human eyes saw him collapse.
There are other uses, too. Shotgun sequencing of the urban genome (using somewhat larger sensor platforms) may identify dangerous hot-spots for Legionnaire’s or West Nile disease. (And don’t even *think* about not scooping after your dog craps on the sidewalk!) LED street lights — or rather, arrays of micro-focussed LEDs in overhead clusters — switch on and off at night as pedestrians or cyclists make their way through the low energy city, ensuring that each person can see whatever they’re looking at, because the city can see where their head is pointing. And by scanning for RFID tags, the ubiquitous sensor net can determine that the anonymous black bin-bag a householder has just dumped by the kerb contains domestic refuse for recycling — and route a garbage collection robot to it.
Surely this is going to be expensive? A sensor every square metre means there must be hundreds of millions for a city! But the flip side of Moore’s law is that semiconductor manufacturing costs for a given circuit halve every eighteen months or so. Today’s density of computers — virtually everyone in a city has a phone, after all — would have looked insane in the 1970s. This 2040s vision will be cheap enough to cost about as much as all those painted traffic signs the city doesn’t need any more. And I haven’t even started on its effects on agriculture, when every apple tree has its own monitoring station and wheelbarrow-sized farm robots identify individual weeds and zap them by laser.
The future’s going to be weird. The future’s going to be intelligent, in a way that we will boggle at, the way a visitor from the 1970s would boggle at our ubiquitous internet everything and the small glowing slabs of glass we’re carrying around the whole time and talking to. But if we do it right, a whole bunch of horrible things we take for granted — deaths due to cardiac arrest with nobody to perform CPR, road traffic accidents, outbreaks of Legionella — are going to silently vanish from our lives, just like leprosy and choking coal-fire smog. And the best thing of all? It isn’t even going to make the news.
I think this is a funny question to be asking sci-fi writers. The last scientific talk I attended was a panel on open science at the University of Washington. A number of audience members expressed concern about the potential worst-case scenarios of doing things like, oh, you know, publishing instructions for creating new strains of flu. Until that moment I’d found the talk interesting, but now I was truly riveted. My brain simply would not stop spinning on how all of this could go horribly wrong – and not for the obvious reason. The things that make sensible folk watch out for bits of falling sky . . . well, they can at least temporarily make sci-fi writers maniacally gleeful.
Though in fairness, maybe this is because sci-fi writers think of themselves as trading on the *possible*, as opposed to the *likely*. I think we couldn’t write about this stuff if we weren’t optimists at heart – we’d be too depressed. Okay, according to statistics many of us ARE depressed, but you see what I mean. My two books for Tor focus on (1) subjugation of the first-encountered alien race and (2) a transgenic apocalypse. Do I actually believe either of those things will happen? No.
Now that I’ve shot down my own thesis and gotten completely off track, let me see if I can circle round and answer the question.
In the above-mentioned panel, crowdsourcing of science also came up for discussion — not surprising since UW designed the protein-folding game Foldit. Here’s a plain-English description of Foldit from CNET: “Citizen scientists using a 3D jigsaw puzzle video game are helping decode how proteins work to advance research [in] drug treatments and potentially renewable fuels and chemicals.”
We’re competitive as a species. And we’ve long nurtured this notion we don’t need each other. In my view it’s one of the most destructive forces in our culture. I’ll fess up right now and say I’m practically a Buddhist, and I think every problem we collectively face can be solved by a combination of valuing and respecting each other, and by working together. (GHOST PLANET readers will recognize this as a favorite theme of mine.)
You can read up on Foldit, and what you’ll find is that it works. The gamers are BETTER than the computers. From an article in Forbes last year: “A small group of enthusiastic gamers on a site called Foldit recently solved the structure of a protein found in an AIDS-like monkey virus. The structure had stumped scientists for over a decade; the gamers, incredibly, cracked it in less than three weeks.”
Why? Partly due to fresh perspective. The gamers don’t know the rules of biochemistry so they don’t bother following them. But one of the open science panelists also pointed out that the players bonded together in groups, redirecting those competitive instincts from higher gaming scores to medical breakthroughs. This is an example of us at our best, and I find it incredibly encouraging and inspiring. (Despite the fact my writer brain has already charted a path to the zombie apocalypse.)
Filed under: Mind Meld
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