What the Future Looks Like

Jim Al-Khalili 2018 / Beaverton 501 WHA

NO NOTES OR CITES just references to other books in the same genre. No references at all on the author's website.

Party line futurist essays by British journalists and writers. It begins with balderdash:

"According to Einstein's theory of relativity, the future is out there, waiting for us -- all times, past, present, and future, pre-existing and permanent in a static four-dimensional spacetime."

Special and general relativity (TWO theories) say no such thing - they describe some aspects of space and time, but mostly describe limits to interactivity (and knowledge). Reality is nonlinear and divergent. Quantum theory (at best) describes the statistics of large ensembles, but mostly tells us what we intrinsically cannot know. Godel's theorem, nonpolynomial completeness, and the disturbance of systems by observation, all tell us that the future is not deterministic.

Hence, the "future fables" in this book were chosen for their adherence to popular pseudo-scientific determinism. This book is ideological dogma, not a magic crystal ball.

Healthy human societies select and amplify good but unpredictable surprises, produced by billions of unpredictable and creative people and their imperfect artifacts. Sometimes the future is invented in response to the inadequacies or failures of those artifacts, or human misunderstanding and misuse.

An article by the 30 year old Arthur C. Clarke in the 1948 Journal of the British Interplanetary Society describes future electronics for space applications; interesting ideas, all based on vacuum tubes. Meanwhile, at Bell Labs, Bardeen and Brattain are experimenting with the first bipolar point contact transistor. Which led to the junction transistor, planar oxide transistors, the integrated circuit, PMOS, NMOS, CMOS, and another six decades of absurdly rapid innovation, which I (and thousands of others) helped shape.

I write this on a laptop that rarely leaves the house; sometimes, it crosses the country in my backpack. It usually stays on the dining room table. Even the clever designers and assemblers of this laptop would be unable to predict its use after it left the factory, or how hardware/software hackers like me would modify it. Artifacts are shaped by, and shape, all of human experience. Presuming that my current culture leaves an enduring information trail (no guarantee), the essay that I'm writing now will be "read" by "you" in the far future, and I cannot possibly predict who or what you are, or why you are reading this, or how your own future will change because of what you read.

So why bother reading futurist essays, or even this essay, as opposed to the "end times fables" of isolated tribes in the Amazonian jungle? All have anthropological value. Fables embedded in my own culture help me exploit or provide for others nearby. Incorrect fables can be especially useful; they distract other exploiter/providers and reduce competition.

A more thoughtful futurist book is The Infinite Resource : the Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet by Ramez Naam. Naam is an engineer, not a "scientist", and engineers will build the future, not scientists.


p15 Demographics by journalist Philip Ball. 150 million city dwellers now live with water shortages That's an infrastructure problem, not a water supply problem. Many of them suffer floods in rainy season. Southern California gets much of its water from the Colorado River, hundreds of kilometers away. Poor shanty neighborhoods in Indian cities lack running water, and are also subject to devastating floods. My water comes from the Bull Run watershed, in the mountains 80 kilometers east.

p32 The Biosphere by journalist Gaia Vince. Interesting: a Costa Rican village is licensed to harvest turtle eggs, and protect them from poachers and predators.

p57 The Future of Medicine by assistant professor and writer Adam Kurcharski. researchers ... have estimated that by 2025 human genome data will require more computer storage space than YouTube or Twitter. Duh - a genome is 6 billion bits, or 750 megabytes, about 1.5 hours of DVD movie. I recently paid $200 for a 6 terabyte hard disk, 48 trillion bits, so the cost of storing one copy of one human genome is 2.5 cents; for 8 billion people, 200 million dollars. It will cost far more to collect that data, and do something interesting with it. It also costs a lot more to download and view YouTube and Twitter information.

Genomics and Genetic Engineering by video journalist Aarathi Prasad. p68, a "CRISPR pill", edible DNA sequences, WTF? I eat celery DNA, but don't become celery.

p123 Artificial Intelligence by cognitive science researcher Margaret A. Boden. AI is in every GPS query - uh, no. Just radio receivers and some computation.

p139 Quantum Computing by physicist Winfried K. Heisinger. NIST Quantum Algorithm Zoo. A proposal for a large scale quantum computer using trapped ions at the University of Sussex.

p156 Energy by climate researcher Jeff Hardy. All about harvested energy generation, nothing about transmission and a brief mention of storage (battery or molten salts).

p168 Transportation by engineer John Miles. Miles focuses on mechanical cost, time, and capacity. He doesn't consider alternatives to transport, like telepresence and in-transit distribution. He questions "hyperloop" - Concorde in a tube - as a niche application for passengers with expensive tastes.

The far future ...

p190 Interstellar travel by astrobiologist Louisa Preston. Canonical meat moved slowly, rather than moving nanobots, constructing receivers with destination materials, then moving bits at the speed of light. Solar system destinations: Moon, Mars, icy moons; doesn't consider small asteroids or Deimos. Doesn't discuss radiation shielding. Does consider low/zero gravity damage. Doesn't consider scientific damage to Mars - surprising attitude for an astrobiologist.

Apocalypse and Teleportation and Time Travel - blather.


FutureAlKhalili (last edited 2018-09-05 17:56:07 by KeithLofstrom)