We generally live in the now, washing dishes, typing emails, talking to friends, staring at the television. Looking backwards at history does fill our minds on occasions. Education seems all about looking backwards, and much of fiction is about the past, and even during football games or golf playoffs on TV, commentators will spend time talking about past games and legendary players. Many hobbies dwell on the past including collecting coins, guns and stamps, genealogy, airplane modeling, refinishing antique furniture, learning to play music, art collecting, woodworking, rebuilding old cars, and so on.
Of the past, present and future, we mainly live in the present, and look backwards, but some people like to think about the future. When you buy a lotto ticket you are hoping to change the future. A political election is all about the years to come. But there are little ways to think about the future too. Like waiting for an anticipated job change, or looking forward to your favorite TV show coming back next week, or just thinking about cake after dinner. Overall though, we don’t spend a lot of time on the future. People are notoriously bad about preparing for what’s to come, such as saving money for retirement, eating right for getting old, teeth care to avoid large dental bills, and so on. The future is there and we know it, but we only deal with it in a cursory fashion, like planning your day during a shower, or studying Consumer Reports to pick the best TV to buy.
The past has a sweep of 13.7 billion years to the big bang. K-12 and college years are when we cram in thousands upon thousands of facts about the past. We don’t however dwell on the next 13.7 billion years, that is unless we read science fiction. I’ve always felt that reading science fiction was studying future history. Robert A. Heinlein even called some of his SF stories his future history series. Now science fiction isn’t meant to predict the future, but its alternate name is sometimes speculative fiction. We could also call science fiction, tales of future histories. Science fiction may come true, but that’s accidental, what science fiction tries to do is show what happens if this goes on, regarding a single point of speculation.
I’m not particularly old at 56, but I can remember the Mercury space program and how TV commentators talked of the future Gemini and Apollo programs. I waited a few years and those missions came to pass. Then NASA talked about orbiting labs, space shuttles, robotic missions to the planets, and a giant space telescope called Hubble. I waited and they too came to be. Stuff NASA has been doing since 1958 was vaguely suggested by science fiction going back hundreds of years.
It is possible to change the future through imagination. Take for instance T. Boone Pickens and his Pickens Plan? Pickens, an oil billionaire gets an idea, and now he’s trying to create a future in which his vision unfolds. It helps to be a billionaire if you want a big idea implemented fast, but it also takes a practical idea that millions will support. Whether Pickens’ plan plays out according to his intent still remains to be seen, but I think it’s pretty obvious that energy windmills will start sprouting all across the U.S. midsection like giant dandelions. You don’t have to be a science fiction visionary to spot a money making idea.
There’s a new nonfiction book out called 10 Books That Screwed Up the World by Benjamin Wiker. Wiker is a Christian moralist worried that ideas can be unleashed that adversely affects our culture. I don’t agree with his conclusions, but I do think ideas can be like seeds that blossom into cultural change. Over the years I think science fiction, and it’s earlier incarnations, have planted many of these seeds. Some have taken a very long time to come to fruit, and others won’t blossom until far into the future, and many still, will never germinate at all.
Science fiction’s biggest claim to fame is space travel. Stories of fantastic voyages to the moon, planets and stars go back centuries, but many people give Jules Verne and H. G. Wells credit for popularizing the ideas for the 20th century, which led to modern science fiction, rocket experimenters, and eventually the Russian and American space programs. I won’t dwell too much on this idea because it’s so obvious, but I will say it’s been over speculated. Although the word “science” is part of the label “science fiction” the field has always been weak on the science aspect and heavier on the fiction component. Many readers can’t tell fantasy from speculative fiction. The potential for mankind traveling across the galaxy is there, but it probably won’t look like Star Wars or Star Trek.
The human race is about three years away from its 50th anniversary of manned space flight. Long dormant, manned space exploration has gotten renewed interest with the take-off of the Chinese space program. I think the odds are good for humans returning to the Moon, and slight for making it to Mars during the next 50 years of exploration. For imagining further we need to study both space science and science fiction, and reconcile the two visions.
Almost as old as space travel are dreams of creating mechanical men. If you watch the science shows on television you will know that the science of robotics is taking off like a Atlas V. Most people are familiar with toy and movie robots, and some even know about industrial robots, but will intelligent, free moving humanoid robots ever appear in the next 50 years? Guessing that involves following a number of scientific breakthroughs.
Electronic and mechanical bodies that are roughly shaped like people, and are as mobile as our species, should be ready within 50 years, and probably much earlier. We have humanoid robots now, but they are slow and limited. Like futuristic cars, battery technology will limit the range of android life. Robots will always be hungry for energy and an AI companion that can go where you go, and for as long as you go, will require some very good batteries.
Next in limitation is intelligence. There will be two levels of intelligence involved. What scientists are working on now is what we might call mammalian intelligence. They need to create a machine with the hardwired wits to survive in the real world like an animal. Currently the progress seems to hover around the development of insects, but I’ve seen one robot that reminded me of a dog in its behavior. Of course the real goal of our robotic dreams is artificial intelligence. We want our mechanical pals to be as smart as Data on Star Trek.
What we’re waiting for is an AI breakthrough, the singularity, like that promoted by Vernor Vinge. Personally I don’t see any laws of science stopping us there, not like Einstein’s laws putting the kibosh on FTL interstellar travel. Like the kid in 1961 waiting for the moon landing in 1969, I feel like seeing intelligent robots is merely a matter of waiting. This is going to have a big impact on society. For a period robots will be like serfs and slaves, but at some point the civil rights of AIs will come up. At what point does your faithful Rosie the Robot maid become too close to a manmade Hazel?
I’m hoping personal robots will be ready by the time I get old and need a caretaker. I’ve watched a lot of people age and lose their independence, so I think the most obvious purpose for a personal robot is as a companion and helper for when we get frail. Interestingly, this overlaps perfectly with another science fiction prediction, life extension.
Science predicts that I should die around age 79. Those are my odds. I might beat them by a bit, or I might cash in early. In other words, on average I can plan to live another 22 years. With the direction my body and mind has taken during the past decade I worry that even those 22 years will not all be good ones. However, I’d like to think that medical technology could fix me up and keep me going. If I had decent health, especially if my mind holds out, I could picture wanting to live to 100 or 110. There’s plenty of science fiction predicting people will live hundreds, if not thousands of years, but for the next fifty years I think those stories are in the realm of the fantastic. My personal fantasy is to double those 22 expected years and live a bit past 2051, and enjoy a 100th birthday.
The odds are against me, but medical science is moving fast. I really don’t want to live to be 100 so much as I want to see what life will be like a 100 years after my birth. Will we make it to Mars. Will intelligent robots be common. Will we make SETI contact. Will space telescopes detect Earth like planets with artificial chemicals in their atmospheres?
With a little bit of life extension, baby boomers might get to see another decade called The Sixties. What will life be like then? Well, we all know what science is predicting for those years, the weather.
Science is usually not in the business of predicting the future, except for the limited time frames of controlled experiments, but climate scientists are now oracles prognosticating quite far into our futures and it isn’t good. Despite the beliefs of climate change deniers, thousands, if not millions of scientists, engineers and technicians are working on the assumption that human activity is changing the climate of planet Earth and they are working hard to engineer ways to stop it. In relation to science fiction, global warming is not an idea that came out of left field, because science fiction has often explored the end of the world through environmental catastrophes.
Global warming, overpopulation and the limits of resources will really determine the true nature of the next fifty years, and those forces could drastically effect what happens with space travel, robots and life extension. If you want to get an idea how bad things could get, and why we should avoid any possible chance that we’re damaging the environment, then take up reading after-the-collapse stories written by some of the more gloomier science fiction writers.
For science fiction to be truly speculative fiction it must consider the laws of science carefully. Will it be practical for 10 billion people to own a robot and live longer? We know we can apply alternative technologies to solve the problems and answer the question in the affirmative, but science isn’t very good at predicting human nature, and that’s the real factor in how our future unfolds.
The reason why I’ve taken side tracks into exploring polarized attitudes and speculating on twin human species is because I’m not sure we can change our habits even with the aid of better technology. If you read Thomas Friedman’s Hot, Flat and Crowded, you’ll see with some changes in the laws we could dramatically transform society. That transformation will be like the major societal shifts we’ve seen in the last few hundred years. Examples include converting to an industrial economy, the migrations to urban environments, the move from horse power to horsepower, learning to fly, and supplementing our neural brains with silicon thinking. Climate change deniers may have no more impact on slowing change than Luddites or lovers of the horse and buggy did in the past.
If this is true, science fiction has a lot of room left in writing future histories. Despite what conservatives want, and fundamentalists dream, we won’t stay the same or move backwards in social development. Fossil fuels will run out, but new technologies will replace them. The future can be as bright as we want, the question is will we dial darkness or light. If we can unintentionally change the world, can we intentionally change it back?
Humans show a talent for adapting, just look how fast DVDs, cell phones and iPods were adopted. I think integrating robots into society will happen just as fast. Reading science fiction will give us a range of future histories to study on how to handle that problem, from Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics stories, to City by Clifford Simak, and Blade Runner‘s demand for empathy for androids. Space travel is harder to accept because most of us will be paying for a few people to have all the fun. And how many will reject life extension if offered?
Humans are very quick to accept change if it’s cheap and easy. Dealing with Global Warming is more like not smoking, eating healthy, exercising and flossing your teeth. Being disciplined on a world-wide level will require laws because on average we’re not a particularly disciplined species.
I read science fiction to think about all those centuries that I won’t get to see, all those billions of years of evolution I won’t get to study. If you’ve explored the past you know great upheavals are common. It would not be all that hard to write science fiction novels about futures where the number of carbon molecules in the atmosphere doubled and tripled, and the population halved and then halved again, and then again and again. Humans have the adaptability and survivability of cockroaches and eventually we’ll make a comeback.
People do not like change. Overall, we’re all like gamblers who go to casinos every single night hoping to break even. What are the odds on that? We don’t like change, but we certainly have the training for it.