Future Scenarios that Don't Look Like SciFi Are WrongS

Science fiction is the go-to genre when you're looking for a glimpse of the future. Joel Achenbach makes a persuasive case in the Sunday Washington Post that the best way to stay in front of the dizzying pace of technological progress is to keep up on your Star Trek and take what Arthur C. Clarke wrote to heart. He also quotes Foresight Nanotech Institute President Christine Peterson, who says, "If you look out into the long-term future and what you see looks like science fiction, it might be wrong. But if it doesn't look like science fiction, it's definitely wrong."

Achenbach's point is smart, if unsurprising. His thoughts on why American politicians tend to avoid the subject of the future are especially clear-headed:

Peterson has one recommendation: Read science fiction, especially "hard science fiction" that sticks rigorously to the scientifically possible. "If you look out into the long-term future and what you see looks like science fiction, it might be wrong," she says. "But if it doesn't look like science fiction, it's definitely wrong."

That's exciting — and a little scary. We want the blessings of science (say, cheaper energy sources) but not the terrors (monsters spawned by atomic radiation that destroy entire cities with their fiery breath).

Eric Horvitz, one of the sharpest minds at Microsoft, spends a lot of time thinking about the Next Big Thing. Among his other duties, he's president of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence. He thinks that, sometime in the decades ahead, artificial systems will be modeled on living things. In the Horvitz view, life is marked by robustness, flexibility, adaptability. That's where computers need to go. Life, he says, shows scientists "what we can do as engineers — better, potentially."

Our ability to monkey around with life itself is a reminder that ethics, religion and old-fashioned common sense will be needed in abundance in decades to come (see the essay on page B1 by Ronald M. Green). How smart and flexible and rambunctious do we want our computers to be? Let's not mess around with that Matrix business.

Every forward-thinking person almost ritually brings up the mortality issue. What'll happen to society if one day people can stop the aging process? Or if only rich people can stop getting old?

It's interesting that politicians rarely address such matters. The future in general is something of a suspect topic . . . a little goofy. Right now we're all focused on the next primary, the summer conventions, the Olympics and their political implications, the fall election. The political cycle enforces an emphasis on the immediate rather than the important.


The Future is Now, Washington Post

Photo: IMDB