For a very long time, we did not understand the atom. The mysteries of science were locked within its invisible structure, and it would take centuries of philosophy, experimentation, analysis and synthesis before we finally got to the bottom of how the laws of physics interacted with matter. Once we did, there was no stopping progress. There still is no stopping progress, but how will it all pan out? The question is answered in Megatech, a book based on the idea that it can be useful to consider the long view.
Megatech is a series of ‘educated guesses’ about what the future holds, and it draws on the opinions and insights of scientists, entrepreneurs, academics and sci-fi writers. The result is a peek into the future that is largely optimistic, and enough to dispel the doom and gloom sometimes iterated by those who see scientific progress as a threat. If there is any pessimism in the outlook for the future in Megatech it is more of a warning; we have the power, all we have to do is use it well. Will we invent ourselves into a corner and be forced to fight our way out of it, or will technology bring us that long expected utopia: a world without hunger, inequality and fear, where the power of human invention can at last be put to work for the benefit of humankind, instead of stirring up the demons the Industrial Revolution first brought into being: the demons of capitalism.
“Almost all the productivity gains of the past 30 years have been gobbled up by the richest 1%. Growing inequality is dividing our society into two worlds, ‘between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy’”.
The problem, says Economist’s Editor Adrian Wooldridge, is with us again, and either technology will give us the tools to solve it, or the threat to liberal order it represents will be the undoing of us.
The authors’ take on what won’t happen is likely to prove a bit of a disappointment to fans of popular science fiction though — you know, those of us who like to regale ourselves with talk of time warping, wormholes, and the prospect of nipping back to the past and tweaking the future. Not going to happen apparently. (Although I do feel compelled to add that history is full of ‘not going to happens’ that do). Long-range influences and mental powers also get the brush off here, which does seem a little harsh. Developments along those lines would apparently “require us to unlearn principles that, so far, have served us very well”. Pity. As for Artificial intelligence, the situation is dangerous, and complicated. Let’s put it this way: be careful what you program.
However, on the upside, the technologies that do get the green light are likely to prove life changing on a massive scale. Take the prospect of a mental interface, a direct connection between the human mind and the Internet. Our cortical modem could become “a two-way communications channel”. While the benefits of “streaming the internet into our brains” would certainly reduce download time, the thought of brain-spam is a frightening one. But let’s not joke; it is probably going to come, driven by a demand for expanded human capability that is already rearing its head.
The key point about the ideas put forward in this book, is that they are based not on predictions but on trends and technological capacity: if we have the means to do it and if the demand is there, the likelihood that we will in fact do it is strong. That being so, many different forces affect the way that technology arises. Past inventions have shown us that all too often it is other factors than demand and capability which dictate whether a particular idea takes off or not. We have to be able to exploit the idea; we have to be, in a sense, ready for it. An idea may hang around for a long time before some new technology comes along to give it meaning. Take electricity for instance. It took a long time for us to finally flip the switch. The practical utility of electricity was not immediately realised. Cables were first conceived early in the 18th century but it was at least another hundred years before they were actually put to use. In the beginning there seemed little point to them other than actually proving the existence of electricity as a phenomenon.
Power in general underlies the current in Megatech; quantum computers could have us operating on a different level — one that will enable us to pierce the final quantum secrets that continue to elude us. Then, happily, there is the prospect offered by alternative power. Yes, folks, it will happen. With any luck, coal — the favoured resource of developing countries and certain presidents — will be totally eclipsed by environmentally friendly energy providers. The sun and the wind will blow away the old way of thinking and replace it with the new. Finally. We live in megahope.
Any Cop?: A fascinating, but sometimes frightening read.