The Present Future

August 28, 2004

As a child I watched Elroy Jetson with a certain bemusement, flitting about in his jet pack, popping food pills, and relying on Rosy the Robot to keep his room clean. Likewise in Disney World's Tomorrowland I gazed in amazement at what was once envisione d for our future. Monorails and jet packs were just the optimistic incarnations of that Cold war futurism — but in science fiction particularly we find the more sinister predictions. Luminaries such as Bradbury, Roddenberry, and Gibson penned tales of continuing exploitation of all that humanity might invent. While their tales were scoffed at or ignored by the masses, especially when the Cold War ended with fall-out-free winters, the days of past present may be returning to the present future.

Dwellings perched on stalks above the land, orbiting the Earth, or traveling at sub-light speed are, perhaps, not around the proverbial corner. The very notion of human space flight has come into question in the highest, and most fiscally authoritative, circles. As all carb-watchers will readily admit, food is too much a vital part of our lives to be replaced by perfect capsules or Nebuchadnezzar's amino acid gruel. Doping, though overlooked by many in the audience, is fast becoming the athletic world's P2P dilemma—technology enables it, but the powers that be look to squash it (though only with the former do I acknowledge a black and white case).

Our limits are pushed, and they push back. Thanks to the liberating influence of free will, our expansion defies the first law of thermodynamics—though science puts pressure on technological barriers around us, morality, practicality, and money bleed energy from the system, imparting a random oscillation to the field of human endeavor. But two critical developments of the past twenty years may be leading us back to the edge: our unfolding comprehension of genes and DNA, and the rise of small-scale computing.

Our greater understanding of the building blocks of life is responsible for drugs that both extend and enhance our lives, and for pets that glow in the dark. While the full ramifications are not at all clear, the public debate about genetic manipulation has clearly begun. We have GMOs, Dolly, Richard Seed, and Ronald Reagan to thank for this. To cloning and stem cell research we can add muscle and brain enhancements as controversial applications of DNA research. It turns out that chemical athletic enhancement may be just a sideshow to the genetic Olympics.

Meanwhile, the PC and Internet revolutions have pushed productivity, wealth, purchasing and leisure habits to previously undreamt realms. Moore's law lives, and autonomous robots are now in the marketplace. Thanks to the wonders of modern computer engineering, we can now send a probe thousands of miles into space, find that the operating system has crashed harder than the vehicle, and reprogram and reboot it on the fly. Though computing may be a prime culprit in the ever widening rich/poor, north/south gap, its ubiquity and recent price trends have begun to bring economic development to impoverished lands and glimpses of democracy to isolated ones.

And then there is the realm were the twain meet: computer implants. Though little explored in the popular media, sci-fi has certainly had much to say about wet-ware and cyborgs. Implants may allow the blind to see, quadriplegics to return to near normal life, and day-traders to have the latest market news projected directly onto their optic nerves. But would Stephen Hawking be The Man if his crippled body did not force his equally brilliant mind to levels of utilization the rest of us cannot fathom?

Thus through biology and computing the old philosophical worry about the spiritual dehumanization of mankind is now realistically joined by the question of physical dehumanization. And what of the opposite process, of humanization? The Turing test is as yet unconquered, but perhaps one day soon it will join Fermat's Last Theorem as just another milestone in mathematics and symbolic logic.

Fusion is still not a viable alternative to fission; the hydrogen in our cars is still locked in dino-vapors; swarming clouds of nanoparticles do not yet choke our bodies or create shields around cities; humans are not batteries and cannot yet hibernate. But on many of these fronts we draw ever closer to the dreams and nightmares of science fiction. Great advances lie ahead, but we must allow ethics, philosophy, religion, and common sense to continue to navigate the hidden reefs that can yet tear us apart.