We talk a lot about the future here—or, rather, we talk about a number of different possible futures. But what will the future actually be?
Barring the existence of (and our access to) parallel branching universes, we actually will experience only a single future. No matter how many different futures we way anticipate or speculate about, only one will come to pass.
Desktop Nanofactories - Every home has one, and every user can create any product for a few pennies per ounce (plus fees, if any, for downloaded product designs). Sophisticated CAD systems allow users to customize designs or invent new products at will. Bottom-up manufacturing means the economy is turned upside down, almost literally, as consumers become producers, and corporations scramble for relevance. Ingredients are now in place for a rapidly evolving and probably unstable new arms race. Tight technical restrictions are required to prevent illicit production of dangerous artifacts, and debates rage over the need for and dangers of ubiquitous surveillance. Many of societies longest-lasting problems have been solved, while many new ones have taken their place.
Note: Most of CRN’s efforts are placed in analyzing this particular near future (circa 2015-2025) when personal nanofactories have been developed and are used extensively. We’re aware, of course, that other momentous technologies likely will emerge during that period, but our primary emphasis is on molecular manufacturing, because we believe it will be the most transformative, and potentially disruptive, during the next two decades.
Jetsons - You remember this future (if you’re old enough, that is): the one in which every family has a domestic robot; hot, delicious meals are ordered and produced at the touch of a button; people zoom around in jet cars between apartments and office towers that soar miles into the air; and so on…
Cyborgs - Robots, computers, and humans (some, at least) merge into cyborgs. the variations here are endless.
Bio-Morphing - Using techniques of genetic engineering and advanced nanomedicine, the human body becomes elastic, a designer’s palette for experimentation in form, function, and frivolity. People look back at early body modification enthusiasts—those indulging in piercing, tattoos, and implants—and laugh at how quaintly conventional they seem.
Human Speciation and Diaspora - An extension of the two futures above is one in which humans differentiate into a number of distinct species and habitats. If molecular manufacturing and other technologies enable easy access to space and ready colonization of our solar system, then almost without limit new homes may be available for beings descended from humans who bear little resemblance to their ancestors.
AI - Vastly more powerful computers and better software writing finally result in the achievement of artificial general intelligence. If it is constrained by some form of built-in “friendly” (to humans) motivation, then maybe it’s a good thing. If not, well then all bets are off.
Singularity - The ever accelerating progress of technology and rapid changes in the mode of human life lead inexorably to a singularity. At that point, the dizzying pace of development surpasses our unaugmented human ability to predict what is coming next. (In practical terms, we may always be able to see what the near future holds, but the range of “near” will continue to shrink as the metaphorical event horizon comes closer and closer.)
Techno-Apocalypse - Bad stuff happens. The machines take over, or a hyperwar kills us all, or out-of control GMOs destroy Nature, or grey goo eats everything. Very bad.
Dystopia - Take any item from the previous category, plus other possibilities like rampant global climate change, a worldwide economic collapse, the pandemic to end all pandemics, or just an old-fashioned nuclear war, and you’ve got the makings of a thoroughly depressing future.
World Government - Continued economic globalization, a desire for better coordinated international response to terrorism, and a recognition that the challenges of ubiquitous molecular manufacturing can best be met with a unified approach: all this leads to the eventual end of state sovereignty. (I have predicted elsewhere—apart from my role with CRN—that before 2030, some form of international federation or global governmental structure will emerge that exercises ultimate authority over world affairs.)
Plus ça change - The more things change, the more they stay the same. Years pass, significant changes emerge, and yet, somehow, we still find ourselves looking forward and wondering, when is that startling future ever going to arrive?
So, what do you foresee? All of the above? None of the above? Some of the above? What is the future, actually?