Speculation Unlimited Part VIII: The Future

The future is a wonderful thing to speculate about. You can say anything you like and by the time it gets here, almost everyone will have forgotten about it. Just don’t market it too loudly or you will be on the receiving end of movies like Tomorrowland.

Before we get to the future, I want to say a few things about the present. We live in a remarkable age. This blog post could theoretically be read by most of the adults on Earth, or at least those who can read English, which is still an amazing number of people. There are people who cannot access the internet, but grand efforts are currently being made to reduce that number.

Not only that, but there are seven billion people on the planet, and that number is expected to reach nine billion or more. The possibility of communicating with so many people and with every corner of the globe means we have just started to really think as a human race. We have only just begun.

It was Douglas Adams who spread the idea of the human race as a thinking machine. He probably invented the idea as well. Of course, he pointed out that this world does a much better job of creating questions than it does of creating answers, but it is still a remarkable concept.

Human beings do not think by themselves. Everything we think is a synthesis of a mishmash of other people’s thoughts. We pass along knowledge to the next generation, primarily our children, but not exclusively so, and they keep working on the problems and ideas we leave to them. The human race really does resemble a massive supercomputer.

Increasingly superior methods of communication have allowed people to exchange ideas like never before. First, postal systems democratized long-distance communication, then the telegraph, the telephone, radio, movies and television all ramped up the possibilities. Now, the internet explosion has made long-distance communication so easy and so democratic that it is hard to imagine communication methods improving much from here on out.

The current barrier to communication is now language, so I suppose once everybody learns English the possibilities will multiply several times more. (That was actually intended to be a joke, since it is a rather common and arrogant assumption among my cultural fellows that English is all we need. Strangely, it didn’t really sound like one.)

Still, we can now trade ideas almost without limit. Someone from China or Nigeria or Chile or Samoa or Egypt could read this post and correct me or point out something that turns my thoughts in a new direction. Or it could stimulate their own thoughts and allow them to come to a better conclusion or to understand something entirely different.  Or they could mention one of my ideas to someone else, possibly in Chinese, Yoruban, Spanish, Samoan or Arabic, and that could trigger a new idea in the mind of that third person, who could go on to transmit that new concept to someone else, possibly in a completely new language.

This massive interaction started about 500 years ago and is now reaching astounding levels. It has enormous implications for the development of culture, philosophy, science and technology. People are exposed to new ideas to a degree that has never been possible. People move around the world in ways that were never possible. People marry outside of their culture more often than was ever the case before. Cultural change is inevitable, everywhere.

This makes the future inherently unpredictable. There is no telling where we will be in a hundred years. It could be a total disaster. It could be a paradise. It will most likely be something in between, because people have been pretty consistent in that respect for a very long time and in every location.

Still, here are a handful of predictions that I am willing to make: in the next two decades carbon-based fuels will go into serious decline and computing power will massively increase. We will also come to understand what our genes and epigenes are and what they do. That’s it. (Ok, “epigenes” isn’t a word, but I couldn’t find one that fit.)

I make these three predictions because I am alive, and also because I am an avid reader of the website sciencedaily.com. This website carries news articles about new scientific research. It is clear that a great deal of time and money is currently being invested in finding ways to reduce the cost of solar power, create better batteries (which are needed for alternative energy sources to be truly viable), increase computing power and study our DNA.

We may have an electronic leaf in the relatively near future that works like plants do. We will certainly have much cheaper solar cells. We will also have much better batteries to run our cars and store our electricity. We may have quantum computers or photon computers that make our electronic computers seem like something out of the dark ages. We will definitely have a much better understanding of our DNA and what it does, although it will probably take longer than 20 years to sort that out.

That is where we are headed. Carbon emissions may mostly disappear, which would be a great blessing. The question is, will it be soon enough? I have hope that we will avoid the worst of the effects of increased carbon dioxide levels, but we may not. The Earth is near a tipping point when it comes to land ice and ocean acidity. We really do not know how well the ecological system can adapt to this new reality. We can only try to make things better and hope. My gut instinct tells me that we will make it, but the future is probably not going to be a total paradise. As human beings, we continually solve old problems and create new ones. That is one thing that is not likely to change any time soon.