The Future

To look at the future, lets start in the past.

If you took your average common man from the Early Dynastic period of Egypt, about 3,000 B.C. and dropped him into the Egypt of the Roman Empire some three THOUSAND years later, he would not have noticed the difference. In fact, had you dropped the same poor Egyptian into the Egypt of 1900, almost five thousand years later, he would probably not have noticed much difference.

Let’s do it again, if we took a freeman from the Roman Empire and dropped him a thousand years later, he probably would have noticed the world had changed for the worse. Technologically and scientifically, the world had not advanced and had even gone backwards.

In both these cultures, change was frowned upon. If a son did things differently than the father, or the apprentice did things differently than the master, they were wrong. Change was bad.

Then, just a few hundred years ago, came the scientific revolution. Men started testing and refining their hypotheses with experiments. These men were the first true scientists, the people who used the scientific method. From this point on, change became fast and furious. And people resisted change, as people always have.

In early nineteenth century England, the Luddites appeared. These were bands of workers who went about destroying looms and knitting machines. They felt that the new machines were taking away jobs because one worker could now do the work of eight. They envisioned a world where the great mass of people would be unemployed and starving because of the new machines.

The Luddites existed before anyone ever had a job making telephones, automobiles, airplanes, movies, musical recordings, refrigerators, radios, or televisions. They existed before people spent money on electric power, batteries, frozen foods, or soft drinks.

In other words, the Luddites could only see the world as it existed in their time. The Luddites were guilty of static analysis. They assumed things were going to stay the same.

When trying to solve a problem, you can’t assume people’s behavior or their technology will stay the same. In history, you will find many of the mistakes governments make are because of static analysis.

Let’s do it again. In the 1960s, the new Luddites objected to automation. They felt they would take jobs away. This was before anyone had made the first microprocessor, the first personal computer, the first video game, the first digital watch, the first VCR, the first CD Player… you get the idea.

Let’s do it again. In the early 1990’s, many people felt the microcomputer revolution was topping out. That all that could be done had been done. This was before the world wide web, before the explosion in cellular phones, before DVD’s. Do you begin to detect a pattern?

All these time periods had their Luddites. The naysayers believed there was nothing new under the sun. They all did static analysis, and they were all wrong. Things changed, and the biggest thing to change is the rate of change itself. The first major changes of the agricultural revolution took thousands of years. The next major changes of the industrial revolution took hundreds of years. Now we are seeing incredible changes in the space of decades and even years.

The rate of change is exponentially growing. Recent decades have been governed by Moore’s law. Back in the mid-60’s, a computer scientist named Gordon Moore postulated that computing power would double every eighteen months. People scoffed at him. Now, thirty-five years later, Moore’s law is still holding true. In 1965, one thousand dollars of computing bought one hundred calculations per second. Today, one thousand dollars buys one hundred MILLION calculations per second. The computers on your desks at home are far more powerful than the multimillion dollar computers of the nineteen sixties. And as you all know, the world has changed.

So what does this mean to you. Has everything been invented? Is there nothing new under the sun? Are we done?

The answer is no! If we project the rate of change into the future, it means we will see more change in the next twenty years than we have in the past one hundred. Think about that. One hundred years ago, the airplane had not been invented and automobiles and electric lights were novelties. Yet we’re going to see greater change than that by the time you’re in your thirties. Which means many of you will be the ones making the discoveries and inventing the new technologies.

The real changes and discoveries will be in science and technology. Here are some projections, both my own and other futurists:

-Within ten years, computers will be invisible, and incredibly powerful. Screens will be heads-up displays on your eyeglasses, input will be via a natural language voice interface, audio will be through small earplugs or implanted transducers. (Think about how teachers will give pop quizzes in that environment.)

-Within thirty years, we will have practical fusion power and MHD generators.

-Within forty years, medical science will be adding almost a year to our lifespan for every year that goes by. Today’s medical science will seem unbelievably primitive.

-We’ll spend most of our time in the next century in virtual reality. Certainly most of our business time and probably most of our recreational time.

– Within fifty years, we’ll have nanobots , microscopic robots built with nanotechnology, in our bodies. They will keep us healthy and might also act as our interface to virtual reality systems. We might install a new computer by snorting a tube of self-replicating nanobots.

-Deep space probes will travel near the speed of light to distant worlds, carrying the DNA and complete brain scans of their crew, who will happily live out their lives on earth at the same time they make the journey to distant planets.

-Forward time travel will therefore be possible. Crew members from such probes may come back to earth five hundred years after their birth.

-People will have multiple avatars and identities, basically throwing away the last hundred years of work in psychology.

-Computers will surpass humans in most measures of intelligence.

-We will have Star Trek like remote sensors for finding everything from bacteria to mineral resources. Did anyone here realize we have already successfully tested remote sensors to find land mines in Yugoslavia?

-Robots will design and build other robots.
And we’re not talking only about science. Every field will have major discoveries and changes. Just look at some recent events.

No doubt, many of you plan to become lawyers. A great waste, but so be it. A month ago, the Napster case threw a major wrench into our two hundred year old model of intellectual property. Obviously, cloning and increased lifespan are going to cause major changes in estate law.

In the art world, advances in computer and chemical analyses are giving us a more complete look at the past. Twenty years ago, people wrote of Michelangelo’s somber pallet. Then in the early nineties, they found out there was a very old protective coating on the Sistine Chapel. They recently unveiled the renovation that shows extremely vivid and bright colors, especially the red on the faces of art historians.

We often talk about having ten thousand years of recorded history. What a joke. We have about five hundred years of recorded history and then about five thousand years of tantalizing glimpses into the past. Archaeologists using modern scientific techniques are making new discoveries every day.

Obviously, politicians, sociologists, and psychologists will be working full time to try to explain the changes. My guess is they won’t be able to keep up.

Let me leave you with one thought, When machines are advanced enough to have a sense of humor, will we get their jokes?

Thank you.

[ The original version of this talk was delivered to an assembly of junior high school students at the Pine View School for the Giftedin 2003.  Due to a teacher’s e-mail recommending the talk,  versions of it were given to a number of classes ranging from 5th to 11th grade]