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It's Too Late for "Future Shock"

By Charles Hopkins Published 04/23/2006 | Science and Technology
In 1970, Alvin Toffler's book "Future Shock" predicted a world in which technology evolved so quickly society was stunned, unable to adjust, succumbing to "shattering stress and disorientation". A decade later, John Naisbitt took a less cataclysmic look, focused on the next decade, with "Megatrends - Ten New Directions Transforming Our Lives"; he updated that in 1990 with "Megatrends 2000".

Toffler proved to be both right and wrong. "Future Shock" did attack millions of people, but primarily those in the newly freed nations of the former Soviet Bloc, especially Russia itself. Hundreds of immigrants pouring out of those nations to the United States in the 1990s reportedly returned complaining about "too much choice".

Even a worldly British author and high tech consultant who spent the 1990s living and working in Southern California and Washington, DC, will soon publish a book about his American experience that includes a chapter on how even Western Europeans can be overwhelmed by American-style consumerism. The working title? "A Cornucopia of Confusing Consumer Choices: Forty-Five Types of Shredded Wheat?"

What Toffler failed to foresee was the ease with which Americans, Canadians and, within the dominion of their own societies, the rest of the "developed" world not only would accept but often demand faster implementation of new technologies. Generations raised on Star Trek and Star Wars did not merely anticipate desktop computers, instant global information access, hand-held global "communicators" and robots, they built them.

Some of Naisbitt's predictions, such as a rise in home-based "networking", were amazingly on target, especially considering he never used the words Internet, e-mail, global positioning system (GPS) - none of which as yet existed - nor terrorism, arguably four of the most important factors driving late 20th and early 21st Century society.

Perhaps the most astounding - and controversial - look at our technology-based future came in 2001, when Ray Kurzweil, one of the world's most honored inventors, authors and futurists, published his "Law of Accelerating Returns".

"An analysis of the history of technology shows that technological change is exponential, contrary to the common-sense 'intuitive linear' view. So we won't experience 100 years of progress in the 21st Century - it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today's rate). The 'returns', such as chip speed and cost-effectiveness, also increase exponentially. There's even exponential growth in the rate of exponential growth. Within a few decades, machine intelligence will surpass human intelligence, leading to The Singularity - technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history. The implications include the merger of biological and non-biological intelligence, immortal software-based humans and ultra-high levels of intelligence that expand outward in the universe at the speed of light."

And that is only the opening paragraph! (The entire piece is available at http://www.kurzweilai.net/articles/art0134.html?printable=1).

Kurzweil's "law" helps explain what Toffler feared and Naisbitt sought to analyze. As to whether Kurzweil is qualified to make such bold statements, consider his remarkable biography at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ray_Kurzweil. Or simply Microsoft chairman Bill Gates' 2005 description of him as "the best at predicting the future of artificial intelligence".

Given Kurzweil's Law, Naisbitt's "Megatrends" and Toffler's "Future Shock" already are being dwarfed by the speed of technological advance. Any new version of either book would have to be electronically published to avoid being comically out-of-date before ever reaching a bookstore.

Consider a few examples of where we are headed in the next 20 years or so:

Military doctors already are looking to field, within a decade, an early version of Star Trek's medical tricorder - not hoping, not expecting, but planning.

The US Army's Future Warrior, the combat infantry ensemble circa 2020, has been called everything from a futuristic medieval knight's suit of armor to a Star Wars' Imperial Trooper. But Future Warrior is an evolutionary process, with the first elements now on their way to US troops in Southwest Asia, for whom small robots that perform dangerous tasks such as checking for explosives at roadblocks already are considered honored and invaluable teammates.

Hydrogen fuel cells the size of soda cans have been powering TV field cameras for the past two years; people all over the globe can flip open their own "communicators" and not only talk to anyone anywhere, but take and send photos and movies, listen to music, download information, send and receive text messages, obtain precise GPS locations - even Mr. Spock would be likely to raise an eyebrow and mutter, "Fascinating".

Kurzweil's Singularity foresees a time - perhaps within the next two decades - when it will be possible to download a human being's memories and personality into a computer. Add an advanced and highly realistic avatar based on that individual's actual appearance (at any age) and an equally accurate voice synthesizer and it will be possible to have a real-time, original conversation with a dead relative or teacher. Imagine Einstein or Mozart or da Vinci preserved for all time.

The religious implications, of course, are obvious, as are the legal and societal: With AI Grandpa still own his house? Will flesh-and-blood Grandma be able to remarry? Is erasing an AI personality disk murder? And for writers and publishers, if copyrights continue for 70 years after the author's death, is an AI author dead - or immortal?

Nanotechnology - microscopic machines - and microbiology are expected to combine to enable the repair of almost anything that goes wrong with any part of the body. No chemotherapy, no contact lenses, no open heart surgery, just an injection of thousands of tiny robotic surgeons programmed to deal with the problem.

Experiments already have been performed to enable two people to share sensory perceptions. In others, robotic limbs have been activated by subjects thinking about moving their own arms or legs. Such bioelectronic advances are expected to enable quadriplegics to walk away from their wheelchairs, possibly within a generation.

Consider:

- In 1906 we had just witnessed the first flight of a heavier-than-air manned aircraft, a flight that lasted less than the wingspan of a Boeing 747. Six decades later, we were walking on the Moon.

- In 1906, few people had access to a very cumbersome, expensive and unreliable telephone system and radio was still an experiment; today, you can watch television on your cellphone.

- In 1906, the average life expectancy in the US was 46.9 for men, 50.8 for women; today, it is 74.5 for men and 79.9 for women, according to US government tables. But many futurists say for those of us now living, the trick will simply be to live long enough . . to live forever - which they believe the merger of biology and technology will make possible, in one form or another, within a generation.

"Future Shock" and "Megatrends" were products of the late 20th Century, when Kurzweil's Law of Accelerating Returns was just beginning to reach the Tipping Point -- "that dramatic moment when something unique becomes common". In contrast, the 21st Century will require entirely new legal, sociological, philosophical, religious, political, moral and personal concepts.

Perhaps it is - 250 years earlier than claimed by the 1990s TV show "Babylon 5" - truly the "dawn of the Third Age of Mankind".