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« Nanotechnology and Zyvex | Main | CRN Goes Nova »

March 06, 2005


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Mike Deering

"Heinlein's space ship pilots loading three-dimensional cams into their navigation computers"

What book or story are you referring to?

Michael Vassar

It's not a legitimate argument, but I suspect that among many people referring to sf hurts your reputation. It's up to you whether you care.

Tom Craver

Nah - it's ok to refer to SF as long as you make fun of it... :-)

Good SF doesn't attempt to predict the future - it attempts to project interesting possibilities, and usually SF intentionally or unintentionally says a LOT about current society and its directions.

Whether you like "alternative history" novels or not, probably the most significant thing going on in SF today is the number of SF authors writing about what might have been, rather than what may be. It's almost as if they've given up on the future.

Those that still focus on the future tend to write either escapist "space fantasies", or stories in which recognizably human characters struggle with a future in which humanity can no longer see itself as the center of the universe.

It seems that the major projection of current SF is that humanity as we know it will end one way or another in this century - changed radically, or relegated to a niche role by intelligences so superhuman as to be effectively alien, and therefore impossible to write about in a way that emotionally connects with readers. Bill Joy might have been summarizing the attitude of SF writers when he said "the future doesn't need us".

Brett Bellmore

Not so much "the future doesn't need us", as "chimps don't appreciate novels about humans". But, yes, I've heard more than one SF author, notably David Brin, express exactly that concern: That if you realistically extrapolate out technological progress, you soon arrive at a society you can't write about, because you have no insight into the motivations of superhuman entities, (Even if they ARE derived from humans.) and even if you could, who'd understand it?

Tom Craver

Speaking of science fiction - the boldest attempt (like it or not) at predicting/creating the near future is coming from the Bush administration! They appear to have a vision of an Americanized world. Getting there requires conflict and chaos, but out of that they expect to forge a new stability.

I doubt they have much idea of the big issues coming at us, other than perhaps the idea of peak oil, but even if they do, I doubt they're much bothered - those issues are too far off. They would expect to deal with such issues as they came up, in the same simple fashion they dealt with cloning and stem cells and perhaps nanotech. They have slowed progress in those areas, and pushed the most innovative work overseas, but the damage to the US probably won't show up in the next 4 years.

Meanwhile, Bush's "Hydrogen economy" effort (anyone else remember that?) has run out of gas. His MoonAndMars "vision" is going nowhere fast. Space shuttle technology grows rusty on the ground from a failure of nerve, while the space station rots and Hubble's orbit decays - sad metaphors for American technological decline. The Nanotech Initiative funds conventional research while (recently) giving lip service to molecular manufacturing. As far as I can tell, all bold science and technology pronouncements from this administration have been Science Fiction, intended only to entertain and distract. Their real technological efforts have been in spying and control - Homeland Security, Patriot Act, digital rights management, etc.

Brett Bellmore

I would just as soon the space station rotted; While I'm a strong believer in the expansion of man into space, that space station was a largely useless money pit, sadly typical of Nasa's one-off, gold plated monstrosity approach to space hardware. What was needed was a repair dock/junk yard, with an associated lab doing partial gravity and closed life support research. Built out of spent external tanks and the like, as was done with Skylab.

Tom Craver

Getting well off topic perhaps, but I feel like we've dumped so much into getting all that hardware up there, we ought to at least KEEP it up there, not let it come burning down as did SkyLab. And if we don't keep it operating, it will come down eventually.

How about boosting it to lunar orbit, as a first step to fulfilling Bush's MoonAndMars vision? What could we do with it there, other than go visit it? Emergency shelter for lunar missions gone bad? Way station for transferring cargo to a lunar landing tug? Laser comm relay station for a far side radio telescope array? Lunar prospecting via remote sensors of some sort? Experimentation with solar storm shielding in a spacecraft with an active life-support system? - that's certainly a "hot" topic for manned exploration. If nothing else, thinking about a Moon Move should stimulate some creative thinking about how to best use it.

Chris Phoenix, CRN

Tom: I'm not sure whether SF has given up on the future, or simply given up trying to write about it. Funny that Brett should mention David Brin: Brin's novel Earth came out (1990) around the time I realized that SF was going to be squeezed against an inability to write about post-MM worlds. This is a practical problem with the craft, not an indication of their view of the future. In Earth, Brin solved it by saying that MM would only be useful for very regular, simple, specialized structures, but that was a cop-out that couldn't work for long.

Mike: I leafed through a few likely suspects among Heinlein's juveniles.

Rocket Ship Galileo, 1947.
p. 91: Morrie had selected, with Cargraves' approval, one of several three-dimensional cams and had installed it in Joe's innards. The cam "told" Joe what sort of a course to follow to the moon, what course to head first, how fast to gun the rocket and how long to keep it up.

Also, Space Cadet, 1948. (Set in 2075.)
pp. 106-7: "The problem could not be solved in any reasonable length of time without machine calculation. However, Matt could set it up and then, with luck, sweet-talk the officer in charge of the Base's computation room into letting him use a ballistic integrator."
It's worth noting that Matt had a stereo projector hooked to a voicewriter in his room (p. 77) --but not a ballistic integrator.

The Rolling Stones, 1952.
p. 55: "An IBM company representative from the city installed the new ballistic computer and ran it in, but after he had gone the boys took it apart and checked it throughout themselves..."
p. 62: "Hand me that slide rule."
p. 74: "He adjusted the microvernier on his tracking indicator..."

I'm sure I could find more with little difficulty. I remember a line from Have Space Suit, Will Travel. Something like, "That slide rule is the best that money can buy!"


Mike Deering

Thanks Chris, I'll have to go back and reread Rocket Ship Galileo again.

I wonder what the three dimensional cam for Windows would look like?

Tom Craver

Chris: Yeah, I agree that SF writers may feel they can't write about a future in which people are changing or have changed radically.

But I do think there are ways to write about what will happen over the next half century at least. It might be totally wrong, but it'd be interesting.


Speaking to the issue for future predictions I have given considerable thought to this over the past few years. There are essentially three separate technologies that come to mind.

The first being molecular manufacturing
the second robotics and
the third artificial intelligence.

Independently each of these technologies would seem destabilizing and together they would represent a new way of life.

Many would say that a form of robotics currently exists the robotics l am speaking of in the above statement is as I would define. A near sentient humanoid machine capable of producing work on par with a normal man. This robot would be capable of verbal communication and have the ability to move in its environment. The robot could be tethered for power in the first generations as this would not represent a significant restriction as most general labors work in a very small area. Also the robot would be able to replace driving that is the need for drivers as vehicles could be outfitted with this robot and the and power internally to allow the robot continuous use. The robots would in a scenario operate equipment that performs the operations of mining. They would also deliver the raw materials from point A to point B. the robots would then refined the raw materials delivering the semi refined materials to production facilities where products would be then produced by the robots. The robots would then deliver products to individuals or to a warehouse situation for further distribution. This essentially closes the loop and creates a situation where a given product is produced completely and delivered to an entirely automated system.

In this scenario it becomes clear that it is difficult to find a given price for product as the only variable is the amount of energy required to produce a product. We of course would see where robots would build themselves so they are to quote self replicating.

The first general criticism of this scenario is the intelligence of the robots and the possible requirement for artificial intelligence before we see the existence of the unit described above. Is my opinion that we do not need a robust strong AI for this scenario we do however need a better version of intelligence than currently exists in the programming world. Others argue of course that it is a hardware issue where individual hardware for the running of the program for AI does not currently exist and perhaps thay are right. We see a steadily increasing complexity in available hardware with the new cell chip on the horizon and breakthroughs daily in quantum computer. Hope runs rampant as to the timeframe of the availability of set hardware.

There is a alternative possible scenario where the development of strong AI comes first prior to the existence of large numbers of independent functioning robots. This serial is possible given me negative impact of the media toward robots and those units appearing to be human. This nomenclature would and could delay the acceptance of the first stages of the robots defined above. And if this mentality continues for another 15 or so years we perhaps see a situation where strong AI becomes prevalent before the deployment of the above unit. We are left with some possible scenarios as to the uses of strong AI. The first and in my opinion most probable use for such technology would be in the Internet for searching out information. But the second and perhaps more important use of the technology is in genetic DNA research. With a accurate prediction model developed and a strong AI all possible combinations of genes could be worked out and forecasted. This information would lead to considerable and profound changes to our way of life notwithstanding impacts of immortality we see a situation where a general health exists throughout the species and increased overall well-being due to the elimination of countless diseases and hardships.

Turning to the impacts of molecular manufacturing if in a scenario where this technology becomes available prior to the existence of the robot defined above or the existence of strong AI. We see a situation where the availability of products expand and dramatically impact the way of life for all. If a general purpose manufacturing device is released to the general public for production of useful products we can expect and anticipate some of the changes forthcoming. The end of the current market economy is within sight. The end of hardship caused by excessive physical work. The availability of extended time periods for reflection on oneself and one's family will begin. The migration away from large cities to a simpler and less congested lifestyle will in itself, bring great change to our society's, one I would deem positive.

One of the impacts that I think has been overlooked here consistently is in my opinion the likelihood that both parents will be in a situation where they can together raise their children without the need for their presence to be elsewhere for extended periods of time i.e. at work. This impact will be profound to the family and the family unit and should not be overlooked when predicting the outcome or possible outcomes of the future. In general it is my opinion it is less likely that we will see considerable conflict brought about by individuals that were raised by both of their parents although the timeframe's allotted are shortened due to the nature of the technology and perhaps significant conflict will occur before the benefits of the two-parent home are seen.

In closing I would just like to say I'm very hopeful for the future. And although there are many out there that rightfully argue individuals today are not doing all they can to assist in the development of these and other technologies. Time inevitably marches forward and small changes become destabilizing technologies. I'm sure all of you that are reading this will wish the future here today but we should hold ourselves certain that the only thing for sure in life is change. Let us hope that the changes not death.


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