Where did the 21st Century go? By this, I mean, where is the 21st Century futurists and even everyday scientists and technologists, promised the world, in my childhood? None of it ever happened.
I look around, for signs of the technological prophesies I not infrequently read as I was growing up...and it just isn't here. We don't live in a world of flying cars (the ultimate cliche of a future that will probably never happen, since they may always be just too dangerous); we don't live in a world of permanent space colonies, or holidays on the moon; we don't live in a world of vast life spans of virtually immortal humans - in fact, all the most interesting predictions of the future have just never happened. Instead, we have got the mobile phone: just great.
Robert Anton Wilson was a writer (The Illuminatus
Trilogy is his most famous, though I confess to not having read it), whom I once read of in an interview. He was convinced, in the early 1970s that he would live for hundreds of years (I believe he estimated 400 years, as "average" in what was to come), given the "pace of technological development", then current. Well, guess what? Robert Anton Wilson died in 2007 at around 75 years old. Optimism is not enough to make the future happen: it needs a lot of concerted work, too, work that just isn't being done.
Robert Anton Wilson was not alone in his belief. A lot of very smart people also had similarly optimistic views about the future. They looked at the pace of change in their own lives and then made what they thought were fair estimates of future progress, based on that. Even Nasa
thought, in the seventies, that they would have permanent space colonies, by now. Perhaps they should have read the kind of disclaimer that investment funds generally have: "Past performance is no guide to future returns." Indeed, the past is no guide to the future - for between one and the other, anything can happen - or nothing at all.
Looking at my own life, I note rapid technological change in the first twenty years - and then not a lot of change in the second twenty. It is as if, all over the world, scientists stopped doing science and technologists stopped doing technology, once I came of age. Indeed, there is some truth in that. They have stopped doing science and technology in the same way. There is less basic science now and more short term research aimed at immediate products. There is less risky, open-ended research and more conservative research that isn't really research (it is called development, really). So, in a way, Man seems to be pulling away from the future, where once we were rushing towards it. My views on what is happening in technology are based on personal observation - and on discussions with people working in large technological concerns: a basic summary of their discussions (which I shall detail more at another time) is that not a lot is happening. The "future" may not happen at all, given what I have learnt - or, if it does, it will be a lot later than it would have needed to have been.
There are still futurists at work, making great promises about the future that all of us, who are middle-aged (I hate that term) or younger, shall live to see. One of them is Ray Kurzweil
. He is predicting superhuman machine intelligences in twenty years time, believing that a computer will pass the Turing test (be indistinguishable in thought from a human) in 2029. He also believes that by 2050 radical life extension will be possible, making humans effectively immortal. His other ideas including augmenting humans with machine intelligence to make us into "superhuman cybernetic organisms".
I am not sure I like the future Kurzweil
portrays. It sounds like a future that would distort what it means to be human, should it ever occur. After all, if your thinking is being done by a machine implant, are you really human anymore? What have you become?
Looking at Ray Kurzweil's
predictions reminds me very much of Robert Anton Wilson's predictions of three decades before. They are very similar in time frame, too. Both are looking ahead two or three decades and seeing an utterly changed world that will bring them everything they have ever dreamed of. Yet, the future has a stubborn habit of not happening according to plan. Robert Anton Wilson is dead - so, too, might Kurzweil
be (he is 60) before his dreams come true.
Robert Anton Wilson spoke of space migration (it hasn't happened); intelligence increase (it hasn't happened) and life extension (it hasn't happened). In a sense, Wilson's vision is a better one for Humanity - for Wilson's vision did not include the diminishment
of Man, implicit in Kurzweil's
view that machines will surpass us.
I, personally, hope that Kurzweil
is wrong about machines and right about life extension. I fear, however, that it might be the other way around (the worst possible outcome).
Whatever the future may hold, it is unlikely to happen as readily as Kurzweil
believes. There is much work to be done to make his dreams come true - and the drive forward, in creative science, is not what it once was.
I think the best thing to do, in the face of futurists who paint amazing visions of the future, and the reality that such predictions have proven wrong in the past, (though they might not in the future!) is simply to look at the world as it is and not to expect more from it, than that. Yes, things will change. Yes, new things will come to pass. But, you know what...I think it is all going to take a lot longer than many people imagine. So, we might live to see Kurzweil's
future. However, it is more likely that we will live to see Kurzweil's
We are almost a decade into the 21st Century and it is nothing like what was promised. I wonder whether the "future" will ever come? When it does, will it at all resemble the prophesies of the futurists of today?
(If you would like to learn more of Ainan
, a scientific child prodigy, aged eight years and seven months, or his gifted brothers, Fintan
, five years exactly, and Tiarnan
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Labels: 2009, 21st century, anti-aging, cyborgs, futurism, immortals, post-humans, predictions that never happened, Ray Kurzweill, Robert Anton Wilson, the perils of prophecy, transhumanism, Turing test