Under-predicting the Future

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Posted on: April 14, 2011 / Last Modified: April 14, 2011

The new movie, Source Code, contains lots of technology that people interested in the Singularity and Transhumanism would recognize: Consciousness uploading. Parallel universes. Immersive virtual reality. Time travel. And on.

There’s also some technology we might not expect. For instance, people are still traveling to work in trains.

Doesn’t that strike you as odd?

Obviously the writers will explain that this “source code” technology is a super-secret, government-eyes-only technology that has yet to be released (or unleashed) on the world at large. Obviously, Wikileaks has been closed in the near future.

But the writers of Source Code aren’t the only folks that have a difficult time grasping the pre-Singularity and post-Singularity world.

I recently read Damien Broderick’s 2001 book, The Spike: How Our Lives Are Being Transformed By Rapidly Advancing Technologies. It’s a fantastic book. I recommend it. However, I noticed in one section Broderick ponders what uploads will do for a living. I personally was hoping that once we create technology powerful enough to upload consciousness that I wouldn’t need to work schlepping digital hamburgers at some cyber version of McDonald’s to pay rent on my new virtual reality.

I don’t mean to pick on these folks. I include myself in the group that finds it difficult to conceive and articulate what exponential technological change will cause. We all have blind spots.

Here are a few blocks to understanding the Singularity:

Drama addiction. Let’s face it. Drama — challenges, threats, suspense — creates and moves myths. If Dorothy crushes both the witches at the start of the Wizard of Oz, it’s not much of a movie, is it? I’m sure the Source Code writers grappled with this. But, this may create unnecessarily negative outlooks on technological change.

Pieces versus Patterns. Humans are generalists who try desperately to specialize, especially in knowledge collection. So, we tend to have better grasp over specific pieces of information rather than whole patterns. The future, however, rarely arrives in a single-file fashion. Fore example, we might be able to predict satellite technology would change how we watch television. But could we see that this technology would create GPS systems or new warfighting powers? The ability to predict the future piecemeal often leads to the law of unintended consequences. When people talk about quantum computer today they often discuss super-secure communication, but that may only be the lowest of the lowest hanging fruit. How could a quantum computer affect virtual reality, for example?

Imagination (or the lack thereof). Most of us don’t have the imagination to conceive how the future will shape our lives in the next two weeks, let alone the next few years. The type of change we’re facing is also unprecedented. We can be excused for lacking the imagination to get our heads around the paradigm-changing technology that’s already on the horizon.

There are probably more, but I hope this offers some reasons why both predicting the future is always iffy, but not impossible and why writing good sci-fi is iffy (but not impossible). The first step to making better predictions and better fiction, though, is to recognize our blind spots.

About the Author:

Matt Swayne is a blogger and science writer. He is particularly interested in quantum computing and the development of businesses around new technologies. He writes at Quantum Quant.

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