On Things to Come

December 16, 2005

IT’S about this time of year, when the falling leaves remind us that nothing lasts forever, that the prophets of doom and gloom feel it necessary to tell us what things are going to be like in 50 or 100 years from now. It’s a pretty safe exercise, as few of us are going to be around to prove them wrong, or even to remember their predictions, so I wouldn’t normally waste my time on them. But a big black headline caught my eye: THE BITTER END!

 

Delving deeper, I read that perfectly respectable citizens such as John von Neumann and Ray Kurtzweil had predicted a singularity for the mid-1950s, meaning that several different trends would come together then to change our world. By 2030, laptop-size computers would have the computing power of a single human brain, and, by 2050, the power of all the brains in the world put together. Moreover, by then computers would have become self-aware and capable of reproducing without any help from us.

 

At first glance, this doesn’t seem so shocking; it suggests house robots to do all the dirty work while we develop our creative talents. Nice, but Kurtzweil paints a darker picture, invoking nanotechnology and biogenetics. He argues that these two sciences are deliberately heading toward the replacement of damaged or worn-out body parts, including the brain, by therapeutically cloned spares. From there, it is but a short step to think about fulfilling the age-old dream of immortality by discarding the organic components of our body in favor of longer-lasting and more efficient inorganic organs capable of being upgraded when necessary to control the machines. In other words, we shall finally have merged with our own technology, and Homo sapiens will have passed into history along with the dinosaurs and the dodo.

 

ALL this sounds very fanciful, except that when you come to think of it, the process is already well under way. I was in the bank the other day when the central computer shut down, and the tellers had to sit there twiddling their thumbs while we waited for someone to fix the thing. It was humiliating, and would never have happened when the ledgers were kept by an army of clerks on tall stools scribbling away with quill pens. We’ve come a long way since then, but you have to admit we’ve given hostages to fortune.

 

The bank shutdown was merely inconvenient, but what about the new airliners designed to “fly by wire?” An intense burst of ionizing solar radiation, and the aircraft, with all its redundant electronics, becomes uncontrollable. Or consider the countrywide blackouts when a single generator breaks down, because the behavior of huge networks is sometimes unpredictable.

 

After the Y2K scare, you could think of dozens of examples in which control over your life had already passed to computer chips, which, frankly, couldn’t care less what happens to you.

 

I hate to be the one to break the news, but it’s time someone pointed out where the chip designers are taking us.

 

 

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