Friday, December 31, 2010

Prediction is difficult ...

... especially concerning the future, as Niels Bohr is meant to have said.

I have been thinking about what could have been predicted in the past. If you had asked Isaac Newton in 1710 to predict life in 2010, what could he have got right and what would he have missed?

I don't believe, by the way, there was much of a concept of future extrapolation back in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The idea that the future will be different to (better than?) the past depends on the idea of relentless technological innovation, a uniqely capitalist phenomenon. It was only in the nineteenth century that the concept of permanent capitalist progress became clear, both to K. Marx and to H. G. Wells.

Still, based on what Newton knew I think he wouldn't be too surprised by cars, modern apartments and even radio and TV. Atomic energy meanwhile is based on principles unknown to Newton but today it's an embedded technology and in its utilisation behaves like a super form of exothermic chemical reaction. (That's probably an indictment of our lack of imagination).

On the other hand, I think ubiquitous computers would be a genuine paradigm-level mystery. What kind of thing are they and what are they for? I think David Deutsch almost uniquely got it right when he asserted that a computer is a way of constructing virtual realities: of animating rules of behaviour which need bear no connection to the laws of this physical universe. Getting an unbounded virtual reality machine to work using parts firmly grounded in this reality requires some really sophisticated engineering as you will fail to fully comprehend if you open your laptop (unless you have electron microscope eyes).

So predicting the computer is, I think, the one area of modern life which would have been a paradigm beyond Newton. Also of Leibnitz, despite his dreams of mechanical calculators (a mundane extrapolation).

As we look into the future on this last day of 2010, what could we realistically predict?

The first issue is that every possible extrapolation of currently-understood reality has already been worked on by SF writers.

* We have scenarios which encompass the entire history of the universe factoring in extra dimensions and various species of multiverse.
* No aspect of artificial intelligence or virtual reality has been overlooked.
* In fiction we have colonised not one but billions of galaxies, terraformed worlds and transformed utterly our physical and psychic selves.

Never in the history of humankind have we been more active in anticipating the broad forms of every conceivable future. So in a sense, it's impossible to be surprised (at a sufficiently coarse granularity) by any conceivable scientific breakthrough.

* A future unified field theory in physics? So we get to manipulate gravity.
* Brain uploading and stardrive? We get to colonise the galaxy.
* The aliens show up? We beat them, they beat us or we nod along uneasily.

I can refer you to titles discussing these and half a dozen other big ideas.

If you're still interested in surprises, the place to look is where the greatest gap exists between the phenomena, the science and the engineering. I would cautiously flag two areas.

1. Materials (or condensed matter physics). There is so much work going on at the moment in areas like high-temperature superconductors, metamaterials and the applications of new kinds of nanoscale-structure stuff that our physical environment seems set to alter in fascinating and unimagined ways.

2. Artificial Life. Today, we and our pets are smart and our environment (roads, houses, cars, myriads of artifacts) are almost entirely cognitively-inert: that is going to change. In the future, the best metaphor for our artificial environment, our created infrastructure will be that we are surrounded by artificial creatures. Some will be more adept at urban living than ourselves. Wow, that's going to be interesting.

Now, I wonder what I've missed because I just don't have the concepts?