TCS Daily

Unfogging the Future

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - July 24, 2002 12:00 AM

Sometimes the federal government does something right. And I have proof.

The proof is in this report on future technologies, now available in a pre-publication PDF version. (Warning: huge PDF file; broadband connection, or great patience, recommended.) The report, entitled Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance, looks at the ways nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, and cognitive science will all be working together ("converging") to produce a new era of medicine and human transformation. It's the result of a series of workshops held by the National Science Foundation and the Department of Commerce.

Perhaps a better title would have been Leon Kass's Nightmare, since its focus is on the myriad ways new technologies can be used in pursuit of what Bacon called "the relief of man's estate." Some of the approaches, such as wearable devices to help blind people navigate, are relatively quotidian. Others go a great deal farther, such as a mention of using quantum teleportation to help disabled people get around (page 240), or a discussion of mind uploading (page 150), in which a person's mind can be copied into a form that will run on a computer, with various consequences:

No death: You back yourself up. You get new hardware as needed.

Turn up the clock speed: Goodbye, millisecond-speed neurons. Hello, nanosecond-speed

Choose space-friendly hardware: Goodbye, Earth; hello, Galaxy.

References to medical nanotechnology, advances in bioinformatics, and other over-the-horizon technologies are common. None of the ideas in this report will surprise readers of science fiction authors like Greg Bear, Vernor Vinge, or Greg Egan, but to see such speculation (along with calls for further research and a calm assumption that such capabilities are both desirable and largely inevitable) in a serious government publication is another thing altogether.

Overall, I'd say the report is uneven. One or two of the contributions are naked pleas for funding. Some are overly cautious, a couple are mostly hand-waving, and one is (I think) just wrong. But the vast majority seem on-target to me, and the specifics are in a way the least interesting thing about this document. What's most interesting is its core recognition that advances in technology, occurring across a wide range of fields, are interrelated - and that these advances will produce consequences that are greater than the sum of the individual advances would suggest. The result will be dramatic changes (the report says that we are in a "transitional age" comparable to the Renaissance) with consequences that at present are only dimly foreseeable.

Vernor Vinge first used the term "singularity" to describe a point in the future beyond which technological change - and the accompanying social change - makes predictions more or less impossible. This report, despite its occasional excursions into hand-waving, represents a serious effort to look ahead to the singularity, to deal with the challenges posed between here and there, and even to look a bit beyond it. I'm especially pleased with bracingly realistic statements like this one (page 3):

Most progress over the next century will require the use of converging technologies, and it is advisable to take advantage of these benefits sooner rather than later. However, we may not have the luxury of delay, because the remarkable economic, political and even violent turmoil of recent years implies that the world system is unstable. If we fail to chart the direction of change boldly, we may become the victims of unpredictable catastrophe.

This is absolutely right. Trying to stand still might well prove the most dangerous course of action. Thinking about such issues is a major part of my job description, but it's damned hard and I'm glad to see a lot of other people joining in, particularly with the support of the NSF and the Department of Commerce.

Those organizations are important not only because they had the clout to bring in good panelists, but also because they get listened to (sometimes, anyway) in Washington. Politicians in general tend to take technological progress for granted. They may be interested in particular technologies, but they tend not to think about the real qualitative social changes that technology brings. I don't expect that many of our political leaders will skim, much less actually read, the 405 pages that make up this report. But I hope that the thinking in this report diffuses outward, and helps to inform discussion in
the coming years. Because the changes will come, and so will the public debate. Better that it's informed by this kind of expansive yet rational thinking than that it should become the preserve of Luddites and demagogues.

So let's praise the federal government for getting this one right. I'll go back to bashing it for its mistakes soon enough.



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