Sunday, February 13, 2005

I can't wait 'til the future gets here

Here's an interesting article I read today.

COLUMN: I can't wait 'til the future gets here-(Iowa State U.)


10 Feb 2005

(U-WIRE) AMES, Iowa -- Most people think the best the future holds for us is nicer cars and better-smelling shampoo. Nothing could be further from the truth.

We stand on the cusp of a bold new era in the history of our species in which we will see the end of death, disease and sorrow. Although it may not seem like it now, by the time our 30-year reunions roll around, we will be living in a world more alien than most science fiction movies can even touch upon.

Technology has been accelerating since the dawn of our species. As one discovery is made, the doors to other mysteries are unlocked, which in turn unlock more doors in an exponential cascade of technological advancement. It took eons to develop language, millennia to develop writing, centuries until the printing press, decades to reach the computer age, and only a few years for the Internet to go from nonexistent to universally pervasive.

Inventor's Hall of Fame inductee Ray Kurzweil has said the magnitude of the achievements of the 20th century will comfortably fit into the first 20 years of the 21st century. Kurzweil suggests that after that it will take only 14 years for technological progress to double, and it will happen again seven years after that. Eventually, within our lifetimes, we will reach a point of infinite societal, economic and technological acceleration known as the Singularity.

The first and most obvious leap in technology will be in computer science. It is predicted that by 2019, about the time most current college students will be raising families and building careers, a $1,000 computer will have the processing power of the human brain. By 2030, an equally-priced computer will have the processing power of several hundred brains. By 2050, $1,000 will buy more processing power than all the human brains on the planet.

These advancements are going to lead to radical shifts in the socioeconomic framework of our society. The most significant shift will be in automation. Ten years from now, computer technology will be advanced enough to displace massive segments of the population from the workforce. Why would a company want to pay a forklift driver more than $40,000 a year in wages and benefits when a $5,000 computer will do the same job all day long with no breaks for years, only to be replaced by another at one-10th the cost?

Coming on the heels of this automation revolution is the single greatest achievement of our species.

According to anti-aging researcher Aubrey de Grey, in the next decade, we will be adding more than one year to our life expectancies every year, effectively keeping the cold hand of death at bay. She also predicts that we will be able to stop aging in mice in the next 10 years and will have human therapies to stop, even reverse, aging as little as five to 10 years after that. This makes the prospect of clinical immortality (the ability to stop aging and disease) something members of our generation should put considerable effort into.

This will coincide with the nanotech revolution. Nanotechnology allows machines to be constructed at the atomic level. These nanomachines will be able to manipulate individual atoms, much like the enzymes in our own bodies do, but on a much larger scale. Nanotechnology will enable us to convert carbon dioxide from smokestacks into valuable carbon atoms and oxygen molecules and construct buildings, roads, cars or anything else one atom at a time. Carbon nanofiber, already in use in industry, is 100 times lighter than steel. Using such a material, we could effectively construct skyscrapers more than 600 times taller, and as strong as diamonds (a diamond is only carbon), if we used present construction techniques.

Nanotechnology will enable us to build space elevators that extend into the stratosphere, initiating a golden age in modern space travel by launching payloads by means of magnetic rail and at a fraction of the cost of today's standards. In addition, nanorobots are much like biological organisms only they are designed by humans. These nanorobots could be sent ahead of us into space, self-replicating like bacteria, to produce a livable, breathable environment on Mars and Venus.

What I have described does not even scratch the surface of the progress we may witness in the coming decades. These are not the flying car and monorail pipe-dream fantasies of the 1960s, but are predictions based on science that is happening now and will lead us into the golden age of our species.

We may see the end of the world as we know it, perhaps even the end of the universe, provided we play our cards right. We have much to look forward to in the coming centuries and we may be there to experience it with our great-great-great-great grandchildren. The age of death and disease is on the way out. The age of infinite life spans and eternal bliss has yet to begin. We could bear witness to the end of our species and the evolution of our successors. This is our last chance to be human as we dwell in the brief transition between the ages.

It's the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.

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