Monday, 16 January 2012

Twenty predictions from readers for life 100 years from now

The numbered predictions below are not mine. They were on the BBC website (link above) and I felt the need to engage with them and all of the comments are my own. The 'expert' opinions are omitted but can be found on the BBC page should you wish to read them. I have no affiliation with the BBC and I'm not a futurologist, any more than most people are.

In the tradition of futurology, I will be speaking here in certainties. No hedging bets. Actually that’s not quite true. I shall throughout be wandering between faux certainty and strong hunches vaguely hinted at. The future is a wave of time collapsing into the most probable forms through some version of quantum mechanics, so at this point a fuzzy, self-contradictory stance is entirely accurate.

I disagree with most of the predictions and with the experts’ opinions on a lot of them. The predictions say a lot about individual issues and interests, current national preoccupations and fantasies, but don’t seem to engage much with actual trends in culture and scientific progress. The ubiquitous ‘cyborg brain’ predictions are on the same level as ‘personal jet-packs’ and as unlikely in 100 years as they are now, unless there is a revolution in psychology leading to unprecedented progress in understanding how the brain works. Traditionally it’s been a very slow process. Psychology became a science around 5000 years after physics did, demonstrating how bad we are at noticing our thought patterns. Emotions weren’t even recognised as a part of decision-making until 1985 (this is still not accepted by science in general). Advances in psychology take around 150 years to filter out into the world of non-psychologists due to the massive resistance to most of the ideas (unless it’s bad news that fits with our prejudices, then it takes less time but is poorly understood and usually misquoted).

Freud still comes up a lot, many years after his ideas were refuted and any sliver of accuracy gleaned from them and used by other, for the most part unknown psychologists.

Bowlby’s post-war ‘delinquent mother’ notion was mentioned in parliament a couple of years ago despite the last 30 years of research arguing against it.
Even if the mysteries of the brain are solved, the population won’t want to know. Evidence so far is that the answers won’t be well received as they are, somewhat predictably, counter-intuitive.

In practical applications the advances in cybernetic technology will first be in the use of brain signals to switch things from one state to another, becoming more refined to allow us greater control. But don’t we already have fingers for that? Brain-controlled devices will mostly benefit the disabled and won’t get much government funding or will be too expensive to roll out to everyone who needs it. The tech already exists for brain and computer assisted prosthetics (see Simon Lewis’ TED Talk “Don’t take consciousness for granted”), but you won’t see it on anyone who isn’t wealthy.

Ok, to the predictions.

1. Oceans will be extensively farmed and not just for fish (Jim 300)

I expect much more land to be turned over to food production before they farm the seas for crops. Urban developments using the sides of skyscrapers will be quicker, easier and cheaper. Before anything is farmed in the sea (assuming the salt water issue is resolved) we’d have to figure out how to harvest it cheaply and how to keep the hag fish from eating it all. Life in the sea has had longer to evolve and to come up with winning strategies, so if we think pests on land are tricky we’ll be in for a shock on the ocean floor. I predict underwater farming will become successful and widespread only after we build stable large-scale under-sea environments and I doubt we’ll do that by 2112.

2. We will have the ability to communicate through thought transmission (Dev 2)

As PT says, this will be in electronic form, so not thought transmission at all. There’s confusion between using the ‘power of the mind’, i.e. the electricity that fluctuates as we think, and actually willing something to happen remotely. We can do this now so it’s not that big a deal. Driving a vehicle by thinking ‘left’ and ‘right’ is the same principal as thinking ‘tennis’ and ‘artichokes’. As long as there is a distinct difference in how the driver feels about those things. The subtle difference between thinking left and right is actually quite tricky for the devices to pick up, so the driver may have to be trained to think about Bjorn Borg when he/she wants to go left and about a giardiniera pizza to go right. The tech will become more sophisticated and sensitive, but essentially this will just replace getting up and doing it with your hands.

If people can learn to visualise their thoughts very clearly they might tap in to similar tech used in current speech recognition, but only if the thought patterns for each word are distinct. Devices will pick up on changes in the brain, not on thoughts. And as each person’s brain is different every device will have to be calibrated to an individual, with the equivalent of several sessions of physio to bond the machine with the user. If we ever invent telepathy the first thing we’ll discover is that each person has their very own unique thought-language.

3. Thanks to DNA and robotic engineering, we will have created incredibly intelligent humans who are immortal (game_over)

No. Well, maybe some very rich people or pseudo-people who could go on for centuries as long as their bodies are maintained by mortal technicians. They won’t be incredibly intelligent though. They might have some abilities that enable them to process numbers very quickly, either through access to a device that inputs to their brain, but this isn’t much different to a person trained to manually work an abacus. If we have a calculator plugged into our brain we still need to operate it and know what data to enter. If the implants do too much of the work it’s not you doing it, it’s a machine and you just see the results, exactly like reading a screen. You can’t know that the answer is right or how it was reached, you can only observe the results shown to you.

Brains are organs for ‘knowing’ and anything that simply presents information to a brain is by definition external. Augmenting the brain so it ‘knows’ something within the internal systems of cognitive functioning is still so far beyond us that we can’t even begin to imagine how we might do it. We can’t say how knowledge is acquired so that it becomes something we ‘know’, where or how it’s stored, or how we assign priorities to it. No cybernetic advances will go beyond some variation of visual/auditory input until cognition is better understood.

4. We will be able to control the weather (mariebee_)

No. Influence in some small way maybe, but with huge consequences that will make it too problematic to bother with. The weather is made up of interconnected systems that cover the whole planet, from the mountaintops to the deepest ocean floors. It’s too erratic to predict more than three days in advance so weather control will be a small affair, no doubt causing mayhem for neighbouring regions. The people with the money for weather control will spend it on buying up land in the areas that have the weather they want.

5. Antarctica will be "open for business" (Dev 2)

Yes, totally. Resources and the fortunes tied up with them are the irresistible force of human civilisation. Nothing is sacred if it’s needed to keep the machine going.

6. One single worldwide currency (from Kennys_Heroes)

No. Too many people care about remaining separate and too many eggs in one basket. A global economic collapse would be devastating with no one to bail us out.
On the other hand, a universal ‘virtual currency’ via online markets and agencies like PayPal is possible in some form, but why not just continue providing a hidden conversion from local currency as they do now? That would remove the need to work out what the exchange rate is between, say, pounds and online credits. The software does it for you and you just decide if the cost in local cash is acceptable. This is already happening.

7. We will all be wired to computers to make our brains work faster (Dev 2)

No. See above. Brains won’t work faster for being wired to machines, anymore than watching a TV or using a computer make us quicker. Yes watching David Attenborough in the Congo is quicker than going there myself, but it’s not the same thing. It hasn’t sped anything up, it’s replaced it with a simulation by proxy.

8. Nanorobots will flow around our body fixing cells, and will be able to record our memories (Alister Brown)

Ok, what are memories made of? Where are they? Are they permanent or do they change with time, mood and situation? (Answers: unknown, unknown, no, yes, yes and yes) Memories aren’t what most people think. They’re not little reference libraries we use to look up information about the past. I know you think that’s what they are, but that’s because your brain is programmed to feel that way. The evidence shows that different memories are accessed depending on context and mood, and that memories change a lot over the years in order to reinforce feelings we have in the here and now.

We don’t, on a conscious level, doubt and question ourselves. We construct certainties. If people could use faultless recording instruments (nanobots in our eyes and ears that play back information as it was received at the time) they would be so upsetting and challenging to us they’d be almost universally rejected. Scientists and artists would love them though.

Fixing cells, maybe. Curing cancer, maybe. Memories no.

9. We will have sussed nuclear fusion (Kennys_Heroes)

And have the power of a star inside a tiny, flimsy building less than one Astronomical Unit from a major residential area. Whoopee.

10. There will only be three languages in the world - English, Spanish and Mandarin (Bill Walker)

With a million local variations of each.

11. Eighty per cent of the world will have gay marriage (Paul)

Only if the swing towards right-wing fundamentalism is reversed or we come out the other side of it. Attitudes change on a sociological pendulum, they don’t occur along a straight line of ‘progress’.

12. California will lead the break-up of the US (Dev 2)

No. Too much money tied up in it.

13. Space elevators will make space travel cheap and easy (Ahdok)

No, but they might have made enough carbon nanotubes to make it possible to build one or two for the richest space-faring nations – China and India.

14. Women will be routinely impregnated by artificial insemination rather than by a man (krozier 93)

Only if the robot-brains we’re all using have failed to successfully assimilate sexual desire.

The psychology of procreation and parenting is usually tied up with the bonding and nurturing of people in love. The processes have evolved together and it’s only our modern contraceptualised society that separates sex and pregnancy. Couples often decide to have a family together. Women aren’t baby-making robots and child-bearing isn’t a mechanical process outside the social arena of relationships.

15. There will be museums for almost every aspect of nature, as so much of the world's natural habitat will have been destroyed (LowMaintenanceLifestyles)

I don’t think so. The emotional burden will be too unpleasant. Who would want to go to a museum displaying the enormity of human-based calamity? Exhibit after exhibit screaming at you that your awful species is guilty of wholesale destruction across the planet. Not a fun day out.

16. Deserts will become tropical forests (jim300)

Reverse that and then yes. Forests will disappear, soil will erode, deserts will expand and sea-levels will rise from all the water contained within the trees.

17. Marriage will be replaced by an annual contract (holierthanthou)

No. People are still romantics who live in social groups. Marriage is a celebration of this and will always have a place in one form or another. Church weddings will be rarer. Hilariously, in the UK poverty-stricken churches will offer non-denominational marriages in an attempt to get money from the increasing number of atheists. Immigration to the UK from the US will rise dramatically as America becomes increasingly extreme in its outlook.

18. Sovereign nation states will cease to exist and there will be one world government (krozier93)

Not a chance. Too many people want a slice of the pie. This would only happen if the major corporations were running everything and decided to construct a single puppet government for them to control more easily.

19. War by the West will be fought totally be remote control (LowMaintenanceLifestyles)

There’s a Flash Gordon novel about this.

I read it many years ago and I think the message was that if you fight wars where no one dies it has no purpose. It’s the tragedy that gives it meaning and makes us seek an end to it. An increase in tech will cause a increase in the urge to start wars (for those that get them) and a corresponding increase in ‘collateral damage’ (i.e. civilians). Tech wars will be opposed by populations and civil unrest will be rife, as soon as the ‘wow factor’ wears off and people tire of watching foreigners die on YouTube.

See also Star Trek (the original series) episode ‘A Taste of Armageddon’

20. Britain will have had a revolution (holierthanthou)

A war is more likely. Some sort of economy/resources driven conflict thinly veiled with rhetoric about maintaining our values against a monstrous threat. Current trends suggest we’ll be at war with someone in the east or middle east and we’ll be on the side of the US. But in 100 years the US might well be an imperialist puritan dictatorship that we and the rest of a tattered Europe oppose in a bizarre ‘what if’ replay of World War 2 that finds us allied with Germany against the Americans.
Either way I predict a lot more riots in Europe and the US before the end of this decade.

More readers' predictions

• English will be spelled phonetically (jim300)

No. Too much opposition and too much confusion between homophones. People forget the importance of etymology in text-based communication. Phonetically written homophones can be misread to give very different meanings.
More likely the far eastern influence on pronunciation will have a big effect globally and text messaging and equivalents will provoke a codified form of recognised informal English. Forms will probably have to state that they must be filled out in pen and refraining from use of ‘txt-spk’.

• Growing your own vegetables will not be allowed (holierthanthou)

How will they stop you? How will this be policed?

• The justice system will be based purely on rehabilitation (Paul)

Only if humans come to terms with the evidence that retribution is counter-productive and we let go of the desire for revenge. A tenth of the money spent on punishing crime is spent on preventing it. American prisons make vast profits from prisoner workforces so prevention is very bad for business. Expect that model to be rolled out in the UK as soon as British consumers completely boycott sweat shops and Third World slave labour.

Politicians trade on the fact that criminals are seen to be punished, and unfortunately prevented crimes are invisible. No politician will claim the glory for something not happening without being challenged; someone will have evidence it happened by chance. The stats beloved of politicians everywhere due to the revulsion they cause in the average person will always be used to maintain a ‘crime & punishment’ approach until voters learn to grasp the basics and realise they’re being duped continuously by their leaders and by their own brains. I predict it will take more than 100 years to iron out all those wrinkles.

• Instead of receiving information from the media, people will download information directly into their brains (krozier93)

Maybe, if broadcast to be ‘read’ or ‘heard’ internally, but it will interfere with normal senses far more than headphones or texting while driving and cause a lot of death (unless we all end up in chairs like in Wall-E).

If the idea here is to receive news as thoughts, then no. See above. Several times.
Apart from the major issue with understanding how thoughts work, each brain would need unique information calibrated specifically for it. Not financially viable unless some kind of thought-news-filter is invented.

• Crops will be grown in sand (jim300)

They already are:

No mention of humanity living under the Red Star of the Solar Federation by the year 2112 or of the ruling Priests of the Temples of Syrinx? How disappointing.

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