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the good life in a digital age

The Edge Annual Question — 2009

This year the Edge question is “What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?”. This seemed to inspire far more lengthly articles than in previous years so getting through the whole lot is quite a time commitment.

The answers cover AI, space travel, understanding genius, nanotechnology, intelligent alien life, human speciation, the elimination of violent impulses,  life on mars, mastering death, cheap energy, universal translation, climate change, mind-reading, and nothing. These are the things science fiction has been promising me for three decades (except for ‘nothing’ – that would make a rather challenging sci-fi novel).

Many of the authors are idealistic:

“But a young girl born in Africa today will probably have access in 10 years’ time to a cell phone with a high-resolution screen, a web connection, and more power than the computer you own today. We can imagine her obtaining face-to-face insight and encouragement from her choice of the world’s great teachers.”  Chris Anderson

This is a nice image but rather skips over the economics of teaching and buys into myths of educational choice. The world’s great teachers are scarce, have limited time and will still need to be paid. You might get access to their lecture notes, MIT-style but personal access to individual teachers is far less likely.

As usual (and particularly having been sick for the whole festive period) I’m rather more attracted to the more cynical voices, those that question how much we really change:

“Those Romans, despite their technological privations, led lives remarkably like ours. Bring them into the 21st century and they would of course be amazed by what science has achieved. Yet they would soon discover that beneath the modern wrapping it is business as usual. Politics, crime, love, religion, heroism.. The stuff of human biography. The more it changes, the more it’s the same thing.” Nicholas Humphrey

“I grew up expecting that, when adult, I’d travel to Mars. I expected cancer and the flu—and all illnesses—to be cured, robots taking care of labor, the biochemistry of life fully unraveled, the possibility of recreating damaged organs in every hospital, the nations of the Earth living prosperously in peace thanks to new technology, and physics having understood the center of a black hole. I expected great changes, that did not came. Let’s be open minded: it is still possible for them to come. It is possible for unexpected advances to change everything—it has happened in the past. But—let’s indeed be open minded—it is also possible that big changes would not come.” Carlo Rovelli

“Where are our flying cars? My answer is clear: we haven’t developed them because we couldn’t be bothered” Aubrey de Grey

As last year’s Edge question inspired my future-facing grumble the internet is not a flying car it was nice to see the flying cars making an appearance again. In the spirit of that post I wonder which of these game-changers when and if they happen, will I refuse to have anything to do with?

Written by Karen

January 2nd, 2009 at 11:44 am

Posted in future