Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The Future Ain’t What It Used To Be

Sometime ago I took the Arthur C. Clark test determining how oriented I am to the future meaning did I have a clue regarding what is in store for us down the road. Although I scored a respectable 19+, I am led to these observations regarding this test, its validity, and the future. I disagreed with Clark on 20 of his answers, sometimes while wondering precisely what this crazy person was thinking.

My first observation is that Futurists are either self-anointed or appointed by society and the media and rarely do they have any credentials that raise them above the average person. In any case their public record of accuracy leaves much to be desired. Their prognostications are a mixture of dreams, wishes, and current projections usually mixed with a liberal dose of personal biases. So it was with Arthur C. Clark. Writing Science Fiction does not make him any more of a futurist than reading his science fiction stories makes me a futurist. This raises several questions: Should we listen to a "futurist"? Should we act on what a futurist says? What makes a futurist more knowledgeable than anyone else? Remember, Chicken Little wasn't totally wrong. SOMETHING did indeed fall on his head.

Some of Clark's answers were dated and showed a blind faith in technology without any recognition of practical business issues. Any one who has ever worked in R&D knows that moving something from the lab to production has a very low success rate. A great many wonderful ideas and products die in the cost analysis. For example Mr Clark forecasts a commercial future for the Space Shuttle. It is unlikely the Space Shuttle will ever be used for any viable commercial purpose, certainly not passenger traffic. The Space Shuttle is a technical triumph, but not a commercial one. Commercial Space traffic will require a new technology – probably anti-gravity and until some very inexpensive method is created to get a space vehicle off the ground we will be anchored to Earth.

Arthur Clark is a well known anti-war advocate, so his response indicating that man would not survive World War III represents his personal bias, not rational thinking. In the nearly 50 years since the Atomic Bomb was first used, it has not been used by any one else. Yet wars have been on-going during that entire time. In fact we have been engaged in world war against Islam for at least 20 years and possibly longer depending on how you measure it. It is highly unlikely that there will ever be another world war between nation states and even if there were there is no reason to believe atomics would be used and even if they were, I believe mankind is resilient enough to survive it.

Clark's anti-war bias again shows itself over and over again and is the basis for his prediction that we will have done away with nuclear arms by 2045. The technology is simple (by today’s standards) and it is unlikely that these arms will ever go away. But having them, having the capability to have them, and using them are very different things. Weapons technology is REPLACED not ABANDONED. Remember, the invention of the crossbow doomed the mounted armored knight. This weapon, even today is formidable. At the time society and the church railed against the use of this "ungentlemanly" way of killing people. But those peasants were tired of being slaughtered by those mounted gentlemen so they continued building and using crossbows and the mounted Knight was doomed. Atomic weapons will be abandoned when there is a better weapon available.

Personally, I expect technology to permit parents more of an opportunity to work at home, at least on a part-time basis. What will be the impact? I believe as this comes about we will see dramatic improvements in the divorce rate, crime rate, quality of life, and overall productivity. This will also contribute to an overall improvement in the environment. Although this was not a point Clark addressed, I think it is a real trend. We already see wireless access points everywhere which enable people to work wherever they happen to be.

My favorite disagreement with Clark is in the use of Robots. Like so many people, he views robots anthropomorphically. Therefore he concludes that people in the 21st century will primarily use their robots for housecleaning, rather than for laundry, cooking, etc. This borders on the laughable. From the perspective of the Computer Scientist we are surrounded by robots today. A robot opens/closes my garage door, cooks my food, answers my telephone, and sniffs for unauthorized fire or prowlers. True, these robots don't look like Robby and don't talk back to me, but they provide the same function. We already have most of the robots described. Clark is simply waiting for them to look like him. There is a dark side to robots though. I believe they will contribute to the isolation of many people. Once people can stay at home and work some will opt to have less and less to do with people at large. It is these people that will turn to their robots for companionship. You see this already in the growing popularity of electronic bulletin boards and telephone party lines. My question in this area is what impact will "virtual reality" have on our lives? I know it will be significant, but will it be for the good? Once our robotic slaves begin to talk to us, I believe all of these problems will be raised by a magnitude.

In short, I disagree with Clark, just as I disagree with most Futurists. The people best able to look into the future are those who are trying to solve a real problem today and answer specific questions.

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