In 1985 I gave a series of lectures in Scotland, and the lectures were published in a book with the title Infinite in All Directions. One of the chapters, "The Twenty-first Century," contained my guesses for the most important things to come. It included my list of the three most important technologies for the coming century: genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, and space travel. Now that the coming century is almost here, things look different. The twenty-first century has moved from the far to the near future. My predictions are less concerned with the long run and more concerned with the short run. In the short run, space travel is a joke. We look at the bewildered cosmonauts struggling to survive in the Mir space station. Obviously they are not going anywhere except, if they are lucky, down. Artificial intelligence is also doing poorly. Robots are not noticeably smarter today than they were fourteen years ago. When I sat down to revise my predictions for the book, I removed space travel and artificial intelligence from the list. The only item left from my old list is genetic engineering, which is forging ahead faster than I expected. Everyone has heard about Dolly, the cloned sheep. Much more important than Dolly is the discovery that the basic patterns of genetic control of development are the same in yeast and fruit flies and mice and humans, so that we can learn from experiments with yeast and fruit flies and mice how human babies grow. Genetic engineering stays on the list of important things for us to worry about.

Meanwhile, during the last fourteen years, the internet and the World Wide Web have exploded. They have become the dominating technology in modern life. I did not foresee this fourteen years ago, and neither did Bill Gates. Now it is obvious that the internet must be on the list.

The third item on the new list was not so obvious. I chose the sun, because I see solar energy as a winner in the game of matching new technologies to human needs. I could be wrong about this. I have been wrong before when I made predictions, but it is better to be wrong than to be vague. The sun has at least a possibility of being a winner during the next century. The new list--the sun, the genome, and the internet--became the title of this book.

Although space travel and artificial intelligence disappeared from the title, they have not disappeared from the book. Artificial intelligence is inescapably involved in the growth of the internet. As the internet and the World Wide Web become more capable and more complicated, they develop a kind of intelligence, too dispersed and too agile for the slow-moving human brains to comprehend in detail. My son, George, in his book Darwin Among the Machines, describes the long history of artificial intelligence, tracing it back three hundred years into the past. He sees it as a central theme in the evolution of human society, both past and future. I shall return briefly to the subject of artificial intelligence in the epilogue to this book.

There are two reasons why space is still an important part of our future, in spite of past disappointments and failures. First, even at present-day prices, space science is a cost-effective tool for exploring the universe, and space communication is a cost-effective tool for building bridges between people around the world. Space science and space communication will be flourishing during the first half of the twenty-first century. Second, radical reduction of the price of space operations is a real possibility. If prices can be radically reduced, the dream of enlarging this planet might become reality. But the new technologies that might spread life over the universe will come, if they come at all, during the second half of the century.

In this chapter I am examining technology from an earthbound point of view. I am looking for ways in which technology may contribute to social justice, to the alleviation of differences between rich and poor, to the preservation of the earth. The emphasis will be on technologies that could be developed within the next half-century, within the lifetimes of our children and grandchildren. In this near-term perspective, space communication may be important but space travel is irrelevant. In the next chapter I will take a longer view. Although space travel is today failing ludicrously to fulfill the promises of its promoters, it sill might one day become cheap enough to be accessible to ordinary people. That day will not come soon. It will not be with the lifetimes of our children. But it might happen, before the end of the twenty-first century, that new technologies will be opening public highways into space for our great-grandchildren to travel.

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad