Monday, November 7, 2011

Predicting the Future

Science fiction writers try to predict the future.  It's what makes their stories believable.  The better they are at it, the longer their stories remain valid, and the more real they seem.

We've seen stories get it disastrously wrong.  The Terminator series, for example, has predicted a number of doomsday scenarios. In the original, released in 1984, artificial intelligence becomes self-aware in 1997. They pushed that prediction forward to 2004 and then 2011 with subsequent sequels, and even prompted BBC News earlier this year to ask "How close were the Terminator films to the reality of 2011?"  Even with an amended timeline, one can easily make the argument they were way, way off in their predictions.  In fairness though, that wasn't the only thing they were off on.

Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey was actually pretty close to the mark with its predictions of the future.  Released in 1968, it's known in part for scientific accuracy.  The film shows a space station orbiting Earth, a moon outpost, and a mission to Jupiter.  While we're behind schedule on some of those accomplishments, we've been working with space stations in low Earth orbit since the mid-1980's.  And it's not hard to imagine we'd have an outpost on the moon if we'd kept the interest up.  We haven't been back to the moon since 1972, but certainly not for lack of ability to do so.  The possibilities of missions to Mars or Jupiter might also be far closer to reality if we hadn't seen such a high mishap rate with the Space Shuttle program.

Another interesting facet of the film was the computer technology.  HAL, a "heuristic algorithm" of artificial intelligence, is rather similar to advances in the field we're seeing with such AI forms as Cleverbot and Apple's Siri.  While 2001: A Space Odyssey was a decade early in predictions of such intelligence, those predictions were eerily accurate in terms of the applied technology.  Compare:

Yep.  Eerily similar.  Of course, that does beg the question, does art imitate life, or is it the other way around?  In either case, Kubrick was fairly close there, way back in 1968.  It's hard to imagine a science fiction storyteller getting any closer with predictions of the future.

So how do we predict the future that accurately in stories?  I've opined on the subject before, but the truth is, if we were that good in predicting the future, chances are we wouldn't be in the economical mess we're in right now, facing the worst recession since the Great Depression.  No, we're not that good at predictions at all.

But I'm going to take a stab at it.  I'm going to go out on a limb here and predict where the future of technology leads.  We've seen the trends in the past.  Technology is shrinking in size, becoming more portable and more interactive.  We're seeing the demise of physical media and the rise of the virtual world.  That is nothing new.  In fact, chances are, you'd agree we're going to see the death of almost every physical form of media such as CD, DVD, BluRay, and even newspapers, magazines, books, and other such formats.  Maybe not right away, but they're all facing a very dire future, and will likely be as popular with future generations as the 8-track is to today's.  But that's the easy prediction.

Harder to predict is the future of bio-medical engineering and its applications.  Nanotechnology is expanding by leaps and bounds, and it will only be a matter of time before nano-surgery becomes standard practice, not the exploratory science.  Doctors will be able to construct or reconstruct anything within the human body without even raising a scalpel.

We've seen recent advances with wearable computing and screen-less computers.  We've seen technology such as geo-tracking and wireless information transfer expand exponentially over the past few years.  The computer industry is redefining itself at such a rate that its advances seem almost like magic.

It's all going to come together, in ways we would think very intrusive today.  In another few decades, we will have media channeled to us individually, channeled via constructed relays from our brains to wireless connections embedded and integrated into our very flesh.  Want to watch a movie?  You won't watch it on a screen, or even projected in front of you.  It'll be relayed to your eyes, played neurologically to your mind via your own biological connection to the virtual world.  Want to listen to music?  You'll be able to access it and play it back to your own mind, completely unheard by anyone but yourself.

A decade or two after that, we'll see the extinction of all physical memory.  Using that same connection, we'll be able to tap into our minds and utilize those areas of the brain we don't actively use, and use them for memory storage or computing applications.  The mind is exponentially more powerful than the technology we use for memory today.  Tapping into the human mind for that will give us an unlimited amount of storage capacity, as one mind is far more powerful than the computing needs of a single person.

Eventually, we'll all be connected as much in the virtual world as the physical one.  The Internet will disappear, replaced by nothing physical at all.  We will simply have a virtual mirror of the physical world, available any time we need it, able to connect to media and one another with a simple command, or even a thought.  They say imagination is one of the most powerful things in the world, and we will see the fruits of that with a very real virtual world, melded completely with the physical one.

It's a scary concept, in terms of how we view society today, but a very real possibility.  At least that's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

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