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The Mother of All Sci-Fi Wonders
Mike Treder   May 14, 2009   Ethical Technology  

“The convergences of the past, like small streams flowing together to form a great river, have created stronger currents that carry the potential for even faster and more dramatic changes as they converge in the near future. These include information technology, genetic engineering and biotechnology, nanotechnology (the manipulation of matter at the molecular level, which may allow manufacturing without factories as we know them), and cognitive science (how we know and learn).”

Following is a guest article from Stanley Schmidt, author of The Coming Convergence: The Surprising Ways Diverse Technologies Interact to Shape Our World and Change the Future. He is a physicist (Ph.D., Case Western Reserve University), musician, photographer, traveler, naturalist, outdoorsman, pilot, and linguist who writes fiction and nonfiction at both long and short lengths. He has contributed numerous stories and articles to original anthologies and magazines and has edited about a dozen anthologies. As editor of Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Dr. Schmidt has been nominated 27 times for the Hugo award for Best Professional Editor. He is a board member for the National Space Society and the Science Fiction Museum, and has been an invited speaker for numerous organizations including NASA, museums, and universities. He was Guest of Honor at the 1998 World Science Fiction Convention in Baltimore, and has been a Nebula and Hugo award nominee for his fiction. - M.T.

‘Convergence’ will be the mother of sci-fi wonders

Imagine tinier and tinier, ever more powerful computers. Cameras you can swallow to show your doctor the inside of your digestive tract. Airplanes that change shape in flight, like birds. Tabletop synthesizers that make useful items from raw materials whenever you want them. Surveillance cameras everywhere. Human cloning. Remote controls that let surgeons do delicate operations from the other side of the world. Huge colonies in space. Machines and prosthetics we can control just by thinking. Interactive games so vivid they’re virtually indistinguishable from reality ...

When I told people I was writing a nonfiction book that touched on all these topics (and many more), a common reaction was, “Oh, it’s a book for techies.”

“Not at all,” I said. “It’s a book for everybody. Techies already know a lot of this. Everybody else needs to.”

Why? You might not work with electronics, or computers, or medicine, or pursue them as a hobby. But, like it or not, they have a profound influence on virtually every aspect of your life. And they’re going to keep doing so, at a faster and faster rate. We all will have to make choices about how to let them shape our lives, so we all have a vested interest in knowing something about them.

Need proof? Just look at your own experience. You routinely travel in cars and airplanes, possibly using GPS navigation to find your way in all kinds of weather. You chat casually with somebody across the country or on the other side of the world, using a phone you carry in your pocket. You probably use the Internet in more ways than I have room to mention. And I hope you’re at least a little concerned about global warming and terrorist attacks using biological, nuclear or cybernetic weapons.

All of these things would have seemed like the wildest sort of science fiction, if not outright magic, to your ancestors just a few generations back, yet now these wonders are matters of everyday convenience—or concern.

And as the saying goes, you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet.

Much of what we now take for granted could not have been predicted by looking at the progress being made in any one field. It depended on two or more seemingly unrelated technologies coming together to do things that none of them could have done alone. The present ubiquity of tiny computers, cell phones and iPods, for example, traces roots to an 18th-century Frenchman’s automatic loom, but we never could have reached our present state if that line of development hadn’t come together with other people’s work on light bulbs, solid-state physics, ultra-miniature manufacturing methods and tiny batteries.

To get any idea what the future might be like, you need to look at all the “currents” of research that are going on at the same time, and think about what might happen when they converge. These convergences can be very beneficial, or very dangerous. The CAT scan, a vital lifesaving tool of modern medicine, is a result of one such convergence (of X-ray imaging, medicine and high-speed computing). The 9/11 World Trade Center attack was made possible by another (of aviation and large-scale building).

Both exhilarating and terrifying possibilities lie not far ahead, and we all need to think about where we’re going so we can avoid being blindsided and reap the rewards while avoiding the dangers. The convergences of the past, like small streams flowing together to form a great river, have created stronger currents that carry the potential for even faster and more dramatic changes as they converge in the near future. These include information technology, genetic engineering and biotechnology, nanotechnology (the manipulation of matter at the molecular level, which may allow manufacturing without factories as we know them), and cognitive science (how we know and learn).

We soon may have the ability to live much longer lives—but are we ready to deal with the resulting increase in problems caused by rapid population growth? We as individuals may be able to have great material wealth while having to work very little to get and maintain it. But how can we get from our present social and economic system, which depends on most people having full-time jobs, to the very different one that such a change would require?

New surveillance and data-mining methods can make life much more difficult for would-be criminals—but how much freedom and privacy are the remainder of us willing to give up for more security?

These problems and more like them will profoundly affect life for all of us, not in some hazy future too far off to seem real, but tomorrow, next year, and for the rest of our lives. We’re all going to have to make decisions about which changes we want to strive for, and which ones we want to avoid at all costs. We don’t dare leave all those decisions to politicians and alleged experts. They may not be as expert as we’d like to believe, and they may not have our best interests at heart. We owe it to ourselves to understand enough about the issues and options to know when they’re making sense and when they’re trying to put something over on us.

So who needs to care about technology? Anybody who ever intends to vote, raise children, teach, stay well-fed and free, run for office, or just live in our rapidly evolving world. We don’t have to go wherever it takes us; we can and must try to steer it where we’d like to go. But to do that, we have to understand something about how it’s getting there.

Originally published in the Athens (GA) Banner-Herald on Sunday, May 10, 2009

Mike Treder is a former Managing Director of the IEET.



COMMENTS

“Imagine ...Cameras you can swallow to show your doctor the inside of your digestive tract. ...  prosthetics we can control just by thinking. ...”

For these two things in particular, great strides have already been made. Search on “PillCam” for the first, and “DEKA” for the second.  Can’t wait to see more.

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