james debate
james debate

Wednesday 23 July 2008

Every few years, every few decades, there comes a paradigm shift that changes the world. New technologies arise that revolutionize all aspects of our lives in ways that were previously impossible.

Can you imagine a world without computers? The Internet? Wireless satellite communication to all corners of the globe? Our parents lived in such a world. In fact while a quick look at how the world has changed even recently in the past decade might not appear too interesting, upon closer inspection you'll find that quite a lot has changed indeed. In 2000, for example, I had never even owned a mobile phone, and now I have the iPhone, a device more complex and advanced than even the hypothetical handheld devices in star trek. 5 years ago I needed a computer the size of a bedside table to store up to 60gbs of files, now my similarly sized computer stores 2000gbs.

Technology increases exponentially, and when you look at how much the world has changed in recent years to the state it is currently in, with everyone and everything wirelessly connected, transferring media of all sizes (pictures, films, music) at high speeds, one can only dream of what will come next. What technological revolutions will we see in the not to distant future? What will we see by the end of our lifetime? In this article, we take a brief look at 6 of the most exciting technologies you can expect to see within the next hundred years.

6. Improved Cybernetic Implants
They're already here. Cochlear implants have been helping people regain their hearing for years now. However it is within the next few decades that this technology will fully realize its potential, as the technology becomes smaller and smaller, more efficient and less intrusive to one's daily life.

The potential applications of such technology have obvious implications for the medical industry, where implants will be able to replace failing organs and bodily functions, such as eyes to restore vision, and the aforementioned implants in the ear.

However it is especially interesting to consider the 'outside the box' potential such technology could have. For example a neural implant that allows the user to connect to the internet and immediately gain access to any information he desires, or communicate with friends all over the world (such theories often involve imprinting images on the back on the retina to create a sort of computer interface that responds to eye movements to allow control of such a system). Similar ideas involve additions to augment natural senses such as sight and hearing to make them more efficient or to have more diverse functions (an implant in the eye to allow vision in the dark for example) and using such implants to allow interface with a virtual reality system of some fashion, think the matrix but less horror.

ETA: 5-10 years

5. Complete Virtual Reality
With computer and communication technology advancing at such a rapid rate, and online communities becoming ever more commonplace, and the rise of online worlds such as 'second life', it is logical that there is only one eventual place for this technology to go. Virtual reality.

All this advance, it is believed, will someday reach its zenith in the creation of a matrix-style online world, as mentioned before. This is a world where people can change their physical properties and appearance to look like anything they want to, a world where two people can meet and hang out in any environment they want. A world where people can fly, travel across the world in the blink of an eye and experience things that are impossible in the real world. And the real kicker is that all of this will be completely indistinguishable from real life, with perfect life-like graphics, physics and complete immersion. Some theorists imagine that this will all eventually reach a point where much of our lives are carried out in such a world, for the sake of safety, convenience and comfort.

Imagine this world. A world where it becomes increasingly rare for humans to leave their homes, a world where the majority of interaction occurs in this online universe. Geography will become meaningless as it will no longer be important for people to be living close to work or close to friends and loved ones, online work and online social interaction will be completely indistinguishable from the real thing. To some people this is utopia, to others it is dystopia. Either way this is the way things are headed if you are to believe many computer scientists.

ETA: 15-20 years

4. Hydrogen Fuel
Let's face it, there are many reasons why the world would have been a better place if Al Gore had been elected president. It's not easy to say such a thing because I didn't particularly like him back then, but it's true. This man has the right ideas, and he's one of the few men in Washington who seems to have the conviction to really make the changes that are necessary.

One of the biggest and most fundamental of these changes is the advent of alternative forms of fuel in order to stop further damage to our environment, and with his recent challenge to completely remove America's dependence on fossil fuels and switch to alternative energy in the next decade (which pundits have likened to JFK's challenge to put a man on the moon) serious change could be right around the corner.

Such technology would serve to counteract the effects of global warming, reduce the currently outrageous price of fuel, and solve the potential crisis of depleting our fossil fuel supplies. The problem is, basically, that the technology still needs investment to make it more practical and economical, but this is never going to happen when so many potential funders in the government are in the pocket of people in the fossil fuel industry. There is a lot of money in that industry and they will do whatever they can to keep it that way, even at the expense of the environment and the customers. That's just the way it's always been, dating back to the discovery of petroleum.

ETA: 10 years with a democrat president, 25 with a republican

3. Mind Uploading
Now we're getting into serious sci-fi territory. The very notion of uploading one's consciousness into a computer format seems absurd to most people, impossible to many, and highly controversial to others.

Clearly the technology, even the understanding, required for such a development is a long long way off. We don't know nearly enough about the brain or consciousness to even begin to hypothesize how something like this might be pulled off. Recent thinking among many researchers in such fields equates the brain to being basically an absurdly complex natural computer system, controlled by electric impulses. Now, with this in mind one can begin to imagine that one day it could be possible simply to duplicate this on a sufficiently advanced artificial system.

With the exponential increase in computing power, many experts suggest that computers will within decades be powerful enough to manage such complex computations and neural interactions on a level equal to or even surpassing the computational ability of the human brain. For example it is estimated that by 2018, 10^13 bits of computer memory--roughly the equivalent of the memory space in a single human brain--will cost $1000.

At this point it will depend on our knowledge of the human brain and how the sensation of consciousness works whether or not such a thing will be possible. Clearly if it is, this presents amazing new possibilities, including but not limited to: immortality, complete virtual reality, infinite knowledge, and the ability to be anywhere in the world that you wanted.

However as previously mentioned there is a lot of controversy on this subject. Many researchers in the field are of the opinion that what creates this impression of 'self' that we all experience is something intangible, something that can't be transferred. For example it is apparent that it involves more than simply recreating an individual's brain. We can create an identical copy of a brain with cloning, or with identical twins and yet for all intents and purposes they are different people, so clearly there is something else there that designates 'self' to each of us. Computer scientists present an analogy for how this might work, suggesting that if you consider the brain to be the hardware, the consciousness is the software, and all it requires is discovering how to transfer this software on to a different medium.

Aside from the obvious moral, ethical and religious implications, a big practical issue here is concerning matters of identity; if you transfer all memories to an artificial brain that is identical to a natural brain and then stimulate the same electrical impulses to generate consciousness, are you not merely copying an individual? Even if that computer-based consciousness thought it was the same person the memories had been transferred from, and for all intents and purposes appeared to be the same person from an objective view, would it be the same from a subjective view? or would the original person have been killed off, replaced with an identical copy on an immortal computer format? It's these things that give me a headache and generate discomfort in thinking about such possibilities.

Far off in the distant future? Maybe not as much as you think: within decades computers will long have been powerful enough, and we will likely know as much about the brain as we are ever going to know within a few more decades.

ETA: 75 years (if it is indeed possible)

2. Strong AI
It's been the subject of fiction for ever and ever. It's been the subject of intense debate. But will a computer brain ever be able to think like a human? Will a computer brain ever be truly conscious, like us? Will a computer brain ever be able to paint a picture or write music? Or can the human brain simply not be recreated with such complexity.

Some people think that there is something mystic about the human brain, that our artistic ability and emotion come from something that is intangible and will never be possible for a computer brain. Many experts in neurology however now think of the brain as an extremely complex system of electrical impulses, and that somehow, all of these 'human' qualities arise as a result of these impulses.

This suggests that someday, if advances in the field of ai and artificial brain structure continue as they have been doing, it should be feasible to create an artificial intelligence that has these qualities, through an extremely complex artificial system. Some people argue that this would not be the same as true emotion or having a true soul as it would simply be as a result of a man made neural system, rather than a real living creature, but then you have to ask yourself; artificial or not, is it really any different to how we living creatures work? Are artificial impulses flowing through an identical artificial brain really any different than electrical impulses flowing through a natural one?

The next big step is for an AI to be developed that can pass the Turing test, a test that is designed to evaluate whether or not an AI is truly intelligent. Once this has been done, AIs will continue to improve in speed and complexity until not only can they think exactly like we do, but they can do so faster and more efficiently, augmented by the artificial abilities we can give these brains to hear and see in spectrums outside the human range of sensation, and surpass us. Or so the theory goes.

According to theories by leading computer scientists, once this happens it is only a matter of time until such intelligences completely take over from us in fields such as research, where they will be able to think so quickly between one another that humans simply won't be able to keep up

Don't worry though, most experts think that a Terminator-esque robot civil war is highly unlikely in the future. For one such intelligent beings would likely hold us in high regard as their creators and even as their ancestors. Further more by the time such technology exists it is likely that the line between 'human' and machine will be getting increasingly thin with cybernetic implants, possible mind uploading, etc.

ETA: 25-30 years

1. Nanotechnology
The grand daddy of them all, in my opinion. Nanotechnology involves the manufacture of tiny nano-sized machines that can directly interact on a molecular level. Such technology can, in theory, do pretty much anything.

Look at the world around you. You will see books, a desk, a computer, a lot of crap on the floor maybe. What you have to grasp in your mind is that a book is not just a book. A book is a specific sequence of atoms and molecules. A tumour is a sequence of atoms and molecules. A smell is a sequence of atoms and molecules. Our senses and movements are the result of the movement of muscles, neurotransmitters and the like, all made up of atoms and molecules. Nanotechnology, in theory, would be able to modify, create, pretty much do anything, to all of the above and more.

Probably the earliest application of such technology would be in medicine, where nanobots can be designed to replace various blood cells, boost our immunity to near invincible, target cancer cells, and much much more. Read back a week or two and you will see an earlier article i wrote about such devices performing a red blood cell function for an example. If you can imagine miniature devices that can perform all of these functions, without the flaws and weaknesses present in their natural equivalent, then it's not a big stretch to imagine a day when this can be used to cure all disease, to fight all cancer, to boost muscle mass, reflexes and even stop or reverse aging (by removing waste products, repairing damaged and worn out cells and organs, etc).

Other widely anticipated uses include the ability to create tiny nano-sized solar panels, revolutionizing our potential power sources, possibly solving all energy and pollution crises (if it beats hydrogen fuel there). Similarly imagine an army of programmed nanobots that can build atoms, create molecular structure, and then in theory build any object in the world from scratch.

As you can see such technology has the potential to be practically indistinguishable from 'magic' and could well be one of the most pivotal creations of man kind, allowing us to interact with and control our universe in ways we have never before been able to.

However, it is not without its own dangers. For example, imagine the potential problems with computer viruses? Maybe in 100 years terrorists will be using special computer viruses to control our nanobots instead of biological pathogens which will likely be useless by that point. At the end of the day, one has to realize that anything that can take such direct control over our world can just as easily destroy it in the wrong hands.

ETA: 20 years

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