What happens when technology and human nature collide? The final article in our series on the future of computing technology explains why technological development could threaten the concept of futurology itself.

In 1977, the Grateful Dead released an album called What A Long Strange Trip It's Been. These days, technology people are more focused on what a long, strange trip it is going to be. Whether optimists or pessimists, most luminaries in the technology business seem convinced that the next 50 years will bring changes on an unprecedented scale.

Over the past few months, Computer Weekly's future of IT series has examined a range of different technologies including robotics, storage, processors and display technology. One trend that runs through them all is that the development merry-go-round is speeding up and there is little chance of getting off.

Discussing the future of different computing technologies provides an understanding of where things are going in the short-term, but it is the medium- and long-term developments that get tricky. We have only skimmed over discrete technological developments ranging from X-ray lithography, Oled displays, molecular storage and walking robots. We have not had the chance to examine quantum computing, genetic engineering and nanotechnology in depth.

These are the big-ticket items; the research areas that, if they emerge, would give us the chance to do three things:

  • Quantum computing would increase the rate of acceleration of computing power

  • Genetic engineering (which is already here and in commercial use) would let us manipulate the building blocks of life

  • Nanotechnology would go beyond that, letting us tinker with the very building blocks of not only life, but the universe.



Genetic engineering has been covered extensively elsewhere, but the ability to splice genes has led to the production of crops that are less vulnerable to disease and that can produce higher yields. Animals have been cloned and if scientists are to be believed, it will be possible to clone humans very soon. Genetics also has computational implications too - DNA computing research is already underway, in which algorithms could be programmed into DNA directly, creating extremely small, fast computers.

Quantum computing research, which has created basic computers, works by taking advantage of the superposition of electrons - the strange sub-atomic effect in which they can be in two states at the same time. An electron could hold both a zero and a one simultaneously. String electrons together to create multi-bit registers and have computers that can process many numbers at once.

Finally, nanotechnology (as promoted by Ed Regis, who has a doctorate in molecular nanotechnology from Massachusetts Institute of Technology) promises to let us rearrange things on a molecular level. We have already discussed the possibility of nanobots - tiny robots that can roam the body fixing ailments at a cellular level - but Eric Drexler wants to take things further. Nanotechnological devices could be self-replicating, meaning that they could produce more of themselves (and perhaps even more sophisticated versions of themselves). Moreover, they could be programmed to change the structure of objects. So convinced is Drexler that this is going to happen, that he founded the Foresight Institute, an organisation to prepare society for its introduction.

In a world where Moore's law dictates that computing power grows exponentially, many are hoping that such technologies will cause it to continue doing so, even when current computing techniques reach their physical limits.

Manufacturers are already extending their techniques to squeeze every last advantage out of current methods, but it cannot last forever. Speak to three different analysts about when we will need to make the quantum leap away from silicon-based processing and you will get three different answers. No one really knows, but one thing is certain: quantum leaps in computing technology lead to a greater increase in power as we explore and enhance new techniques. This will give us fuel to pursue the technical goals that we have been hankering after for ages.

These are what science fiction writers have been looking forward to since the 1960s and which we have not yet been able to deliver. Goals like those created by Arthur C Clarke, who dreamed up HAL, an artificially intelligent computer that could understand speech and give an intelligent response. Philip K Dick proposed brain implants that allow us to exchange feelings and memories and William Gibson suggested the idea of telepathically "jacking in" to the Net and walking through cyberspace in our mind's eye.

What is interesting is not that these technologies will arrive eventually. The significance lies in their effect on us.

It is here that the community of futurists breaks down into optimists and pessimists. The pessimists worry that we will not be able to deal with the technology that we are building at a social level. The optimists feel that we will put safeguards in place to avoid it destroying us. Optimists include luminaries such as Ray Kurzweil (who predicts telepathic virtual reality in 30 years) and a man who goes by the name of Dr Tomorrow.

Dr Tomorrow's real name is Frank Ogden, a Canadian futurist running his own television channel at www.mediaontap.com/drtomorrow. Ogden believes Moore's law will soon be outpaced rather than underperformed and we will find ways to deal with its consequences.

"My mother said that no one would ever be able to go a mile a minute in an automobile because they won't be able to breathe," Ogden says, arguing that most technological developments have been accompanied by their fair share of nay-sayers, who have predicted negative social effects.

One such nay-sayer is Bill Joy, chief scientist at Sun Microsystems, who has advocated caution as a vital counterpart to scientific advance. Joy, no stranger to technological development himself, was a driving force behind many Sun developments, including the Jini peer-to-peer computing mechanism that the company announced a couple of years ago.

Joy wrote an essay for Wired magazine in the US early last year, arguing that the difference between previous technological developments such as the atomic bomb and newer ones such as nanotechnology and genetic engineering, is that the latter can self-replicate. Your mistakes can grow, taking on a life of their own. Consequently, we must relinquish the privilege of unbound research conducted just for its own sake, in favour of a more intelligent approach.

What is clear is that advocating caution about the future does not make you a Luddite. Take Dean Kamen, the inventor of the much-awaited secret product codenamed "Ginger", who also runs First, an organisation that teaches children about the benefits of science. Kamen has patented a technology that the computing industry gurus have hailed as a revolutionary device - but few people know what it is yet.

Kamen argues that every technological development produces unexpected change. You can visualise it as a cone of possibilities, extending out across time from a single point that symbolises the introduction of a technology. As the period of time extends, the cone (and hence the possible scope and extent of unexpected ramifications) increases in size. The introduction of the car is a good example of the unexpected effects of technology, says Kamen, pointing out that problems such as congestion and technological imbalance have increased as it has become an increasingly integral part of society.

Unfortunately, the increasing rate of technological development is compressing the timeframe in which it has an effect. We can infer from this that the cone - and hence, the scope of the unexpected impacts of such developments - is shortening. This limits our ability to do anything about these consequences. There is a good case for arguing that the scope of unexpected consequences is also widening, as our technological advances become more fundamental.

"You guys are meddling with the process itself when the inventions you make go into the core about how we create, spread and use knowledge. And it seems to me that now you're into a process that changes so fast that it's really not practical to predict the unintended consequences," says Kamen.

"There won't be enough time to deal with them," he warns. "And if you believe your own bravado, that computing is bigger than industrial revolution, then the unintended consequences will be bigger too."

If he's right (and empirical evidence gives us no reason to doubt his arguments), then this means two things. We should concentrate on developing our understanding of the social impact of our technological advances and develop the systems to cope with or alleviate them.

It has severe ramifications for the nature of futurism. As technological advances accelerate, the ability to innovate has also become more widespread. This means that developments appear and gather momentum more quickly than ever before. The Internet is a good example. Celera, the biotechnology firm formed in 1998 by Applera Corp, is another - it accelerated the human genome mapping process, outpacing public sector efforts.

The compression of development, the increase in uncertainty in a shorter timeframe and the difficulty in predicting new developments; all of this is a futurist's nightmare. For the rest of us, the choice between dream or nightmare depends not so much on the development of technology, as on what we end up doing with it.

Back to the future
Jim is in a good mood today. Having woken, he set to idly surfing the Net. Surfing in 2055 is nothing like it was at the turn of the century.

He surfs telepathically, thanks to his brain implants and he can find out when he is
getting close to the information he wants because his feelings change. He begins to feel a warm, cosy sense of pleasure, when he is getting to information that is relevant to him or slight cold when he is chasing up a blind alley. The warm feeling tells him that he's close to what he's looking for - the ripped-off nano-plans for a brand new solar-powered bicycle that he had had his eye on for a while.

He downloads the plans into his bio-store (he stopped calling it "memory" when he paid to have it enhanced with the DNA computer), and beams it into his Replicator-3000. An hour later, the old car tyre that he'd put in there has turned into the bike he had been wanting for ages. The invention of Nanopster in two years' time (a service that lets people post and exchange nanoplans in a peer-to-peer telepathic network) will severely affect the economy. Not that it will matter - in a nano-based world, who will need money, anyway?

The future of IT series
1 February - Networking
15 February - Biometrics
1 March - Processing
15 March - Storage
29 March - User interfaces
12 April - Screens
26 April - Robotics
All of these articles are available on www.cw360.com

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This was first published in May 2001

 

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