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Nine Historical Figures Who May Have Predicted Our Future

George Dvorsky

October 09, 2012

We like to think that many of our fantastic dreams of the future — from space colonization to artificial intelligence and human enhancement — are fairly recent conceptions. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Futurist visionaries have been speculating about these possibilities for centuries. And now, as we head into an era of accelerating change, some of these longstanding predictions may actually come true. Here are nine futurists of the past 400 years whose predictions were ahead of their times.

1. Robert Boyle (1627-1691): Life extension, nanotechnology, synthetic life, and designer drugs

Best known for developing Boyle’s Law (which describes the behavior of gases), Robert Boyle possessed one of the most creative and insightful minds of the 17th century. After his death in 1691, the Royal Society discovered a handwritten list in which he predicted such things as “the prolongation of life”, the “art of flying” and “perpetual light.” He also speculated about the possibility for sleeping tablets, artificial stimulants, antidepressants, and drugs to “exalt imagination.” Boyle also predicted that we’d eventually accelerate the “production of things out of seed” and be able to “transmutate” minerals, animals, and vegetables — all precursors to what today we call nanotechnology, synthetic biology, and genetic engineering. And lastly, he predicted that we’d eventually be able to “cure…diseases at a distance or at least by transplantation.” Not bad for a pre-Enlightenment thinker surrounded by magical and superstitious beliefs.

2. Denis Diderot (1713-1784): Human enhancement, artificial intelligence, reanimating the dead, and animal uplift

Denis Diderot is probably the most remarkable futurist of the European Enlightenment. He is probably best known for being the chief editor and contributor to the Encyclopedie, the world’s first comprehensive and publicly accessible encyclopaedia. But his legacy extends much further than that. Writing in Lettre sur les aveugles à l’usage de ceux qui voient and other works, he argued that organisms were the products of self-generation that changed over time — a precursor to the theory of natural selection. In the same essay — one that landed him in the dungeons of the Vincennes fortress on account of its anti-religious overtones — he predicted that humanity might eventually be able to redesign itself into a great variety of types “whose future and final organic structure it’s impossible to predict.” And consistent with his materialism, Diderot also argued that consciousness was a product of brain matter (what he called “thinking matter”). Consequently, he believed that the conscious mind could be deconstructed and put back together. He felt that science would eventually find a way to bring the dead back to life, and redesign animals and machines into intelligent creatures (in other words, animal uplifting and artificially intelligent robots). At the same time, however, he rejected the idea of progress, saying that the aim of progressing through technology was doomed to fail — including his prediction that we could end up in a Borg-like end-state. Wow.

3. Marquis de Condorcet (1744-1794): Perpetual progress, radical life extension, and brain enhancement

Unlike Diderot, Marquis de Condorcet was a vociferous supporter of the idea of perpetual human progress through the application of reason, science, and technology. A hugely influential Enlightenment era thinker who contributed significantly to the rise of secular humanism, Condorcet was also a brilliant mathematician and political scientist. His ideas on the “perfectibility of human society” would later provoke Thomas Malthus into writing his famous paper on unsustainable population growth. His most influential work was Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind (written in prison, where else) in which he argued that reason and science can and should be applied to better develop humanity’s intellectual and moral faculties. He also felt that the limited human lifespan was a major contributor to various inequalities and social injustices — and that it could be overcome. To that end, Condorcet argued that discoveries in the sciences and the arts will result in the “true perfection of the intellectual, moral, or physical faculties of man, an improvement which may result from a perfection either of the instruments used to heighten the intensity of these faculties and to direct their use or of the natural constitution of man…”

4. Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790): Eradication of diseases, physical immortality, and bodily preservation after death

Benjamin Franklin, in addition to being a political theorist, activist, scientist, inventor, and a bajillion other things, was also a damn fine futurist in his own right. Reflecting on the fantastic possibilites that may be introduced through the application of “true science,” he wrote to his Unitarian scientist friend Joseph Priestly in 1780:

The rapid progress true science now makes occasions my regretting sometimes that I was born too soon. It is impossible to imagine the height to which may be carried, in a thousand years, the power of man over matter. We may, perhaps, deprive large masses of their gravity, and give them absolute levity, for the sake of easy transport. Agriculture may diminish its labor and double its produce: all diseases may by sure means be prevented or cured (not excepting even that of old age,) and our lives lengthened at pleasure, even beyond the antediluvian standard. Oh that moral science were in as fair a way of improvement, that men would cease to be wolves to one another, and that human beings would at length learn what they now improperly call humanity.

Earlier, in 1773, he suggested that it might be possible to preserve a human life in a suspended state for centuries until such time that the person could be revived — a kind of precursor to cryonics and chemopreservation. Instead of cold storage, however, Franklin hoped that he’d be preserved in a vat of madeira wine until science could bring him back to life.

5. Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935): Space elevator, human space flight, self-sustaining space habitats, and interstellar colonization

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky is probably the greatest scientific visionary to ever come out of Russia. Tsiolkovsky was a seminal figure in the Russian cosmism movement (a precursor to transhumanism) and was heavily influenced by Nikolai Fyodorovich Fyodorov (1827-1903) who advocated for radical life extension, resurrection of the dead, and ocean colonization. In 1895, inspired by the newly-constructed Eiffel Tower in Paris, he was the first to come up with the idea of the space elevator (though his model described a freestanding tower reaching from the surface of Earth to the height of geostationary orbit, as opposed to the more modern vision in which tensile strength would keep it together). And while earlier mathematicians such as Isaac Newton, Leonhard Euler and Joseph Louis Lagrange may have described the physical dynamics of objects traveling through space, it was the Jules Verne-inspired Tsiolkovsky who first suggested that humans could actually be sent into space (he developed the now-famous rocket equation describing rocket-based propulsion), travel from planet to planet, and permanently live there. In addition, he thought that space colonization would lead to the perfection of humanity, along with virtual immortality and a carefree existence. And in his 1928 book, The Will of the Universe. The Unknown Intelligence, he predicted that humanity would eventually colonize the entire Milky Way galaxy.

6. Vladimir Vernadsky (1863-1945): The global brain

Another Russian cosmist, Vladimir Vernadsky was a mineralogist and geochemist who posited the idea of the noosphere, what Pierre Teilhard de Chardin would later describe as the “sphere of human thought.” In his original theory, Vernadsky suggested that the noosphere would be the third phase of life on earth, after the “geosphere” (inanimate matter) and “biosphere” (biological life). The engine driving the noosphere, however, would be human cognition. Vernadsky thought that intelligence (or consciousness) would eventually converge and form a massive network of collaborating individuals. Today, its modern equivalent includes the World Wide Web, the global brain hypothesis, and some interpretations of the Technological Singularity.

7. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955): The Technological Singularity

Writing in his posthumously published book, The Phenomenon of Man, the French Jesuit priest and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin speculated that humanity was on an evolutionary trajectory that would result in one final transformation. Taking Vernadsky’s idea of the noosphere to its (seemingly) logical conclusion, he surmised that humanity would eventually achieve an “Omega Point,” or what some futurists today might call the Technological Singularity. Chardin argued that the evolution of intelligent life was goal driven (Lamarckianism), and that it would eventually reach a stage of ultimate complexity and conscious awareness. He posited the Law of Complexity/Consciousness, in which he argued that the universe is constantly evolving towards increasing levels of material complexity and consciousness. Eventually, he thought, an Omega Point would be achieved in which conscious life would become transcendent and independent of the physical universe. Chardin’s ideas would go on to inspire such thinkers as Ray Kurzweil, including the development of his Law of Accelerating Returns.

8. J.B.S. Haldane (1892-1944): Artificial wombs, human cloning, and human genetic engineering

It was the evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane whose shocking predictions inspired his friend Aldous Huxley to write his dystopian masterpiece, Brave New World. Writing in his short work, Daedalus; or, science and the future, Haldane suggested that humanity would soon use genetics for self-improvement and engage in the practice of cloning. He also predicted “ectogenesis” (artificial wombs), the manipulation of genes (what today we would call gene therapy and RNA interference), and fertilization outside the human body (in vitro fertilization). Haldane is famous for once saying, “I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”

9. John Desmond Bernal (1901-1971): Generation ships, cyborgs, and mind uploading

In 1929, the Irish physicist J.D. Bernal published The World, The Flesh and the Devil — a piece of work that Arthur C. Clarke would later call “the most brilliant attempt at scientific prediction ever made.” In the book, Bernal speculated that humans would eventually construct a type of space habitat for permanent residence, what has since been dubbed the Bernal Sphere. He also predicted that humans might someday choose to go about cybernetic implantation, writing that, “Normal man is an evolutionary dead end; mechanical man, apparently a break in organic evolution, is more in the true tradition of a further evolution.” And in fact, his vision of cyborgs was more radical than most; he thought that we might eventually be able to migrate our brains into a “short cylinder” where our nerve cells would be kept circulating at a uniform temperature — a definite precursor to the idea of mind uploading. This “brain cylinder” could be wirelessly connected to powerful external devices that would serve as new sense organs. The brain itself would be subject to continual refinement and redesign, including “mental improvement.” Keep in mind that this was in 1929!

Top Image of space elevator by Kenn Brown of Mondolithic Studios.

Images: Boyle, Diderot, Condorcet, Franklin, Tsiolkovsky, Vernadsky, Chardin, Haldane, Bernal.

George P. Dvorsky serves as Chair of the IEET Board of Directors and also heads our Rights of Non-Human Persons program. He is a Canadian futurist, science writer, and bioethicist. He is a contributing editor at io9 — where he writes about science, culture, and futurism — and producer of the Sentient Developments blog and podcast. He served for two terms at Humanity+ (formerly the World Transhumanist Association). George produces Sentient Developments blog and podcast.


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