Book Review: Visions of the Future (2015)

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Because I have largely abandoned my own background as a fiction writer, I’ll be focusing on the nonfiction pieces in this book only. Visions of the Future is a compilation of futurist and science fiction texts published by the Lifeboat Foundation, a review copy of which I received.

The goal of the book is to make people think seriously about the future, although less about existential risks as it is in the Willard Wells book Prospects for Human Survival (2015) and more about how society may change. Fortunately, that is the kind of futurism I prefer to focus on.

There is still an element of existential risk being talked about. In his essay contribution to the book, Lord Martin Rees writes, “what happens here on Earth, in this century, could conceivably make the difference between a near eternity filled with ever more complex and subtle forms of life and one filled with nothing but base matter” (p. 579). That’s how I prefer this to be done. Let us balance not just preserving current society vs. a so-called apocalypse, but balance the infinite and the abundant against stagnation and regression to a primitive state.

“How will we balance the multifarious prospective benefits from genetics, robotics or nanotechnology against the risk (albeit smaller) of triggering utter disaster?” (p. 576) Rees asks. The essay doesn’t itself confront the question, but it serves as an excellent starting point for the other essays that follow, and I already published my own answer to the question long before it was asked when I wrote my Catalyst thesis (2013).

Dispelling the idea that artificial intelligence entails any grave risk to human survival, Ray Kurzweil provides the excellent judgment, “keep in mind this is not an invasion from Mars. We’re creating these technologies to extend our reach” (p. 586). The Lifeboat Foundation isn’t explicitly transhumanist in its aims, but it has a lot of transhumanists on its boards, and Kurzweil is the most prominent of those. Jose Cordeiro aptly describes Kurzweil’s transhumanism as “an intimate merger between the technology-creating species and the technological evolutionary process that it spawned” (p. 602). Almost identical predictions are made by Wired co-founder Kevin Kelly.

Lifeboat president Eric Klein responds to Kurzweil’s predictions of advancing artificial intelligence through constantly improving computer chips somewhat skeptically, it seems. He cautions that Moores Law alone should not be depended on for the growth of computer processing power to produce thinking AIs. New innovations like 3D integrated circuits (I would add liquid computing as a great place to look as well) must be encouraged and developed if we are to accelerate the pace and ensure “The Singularity is Near” in accord with Kurzweil’s captivating predictions (p. 587-589).

One area where advanced AI may receive its biggest contracts could be in space colonization, so predicts Tom Kerwick. “NASA has taken great strides in the last decade with unmanned missions. One can expect the next generation to be even more fascinating”, Kerwick notes (p. 634).

Perhaps more speculation is due in a book such as this on the role for autonomous robots and computer intelligences to build, colonize and terraform the Solar System ahead of us without exposing humans to the dangers of space. If only a fleet of auto-construction drones could build the industrial base required on Mars ahead of human colonists, even creating supply stockpiles and vending machines there before the first human sets foot on the Red Planet.

Jose Cordeiro‘s essay contribution to the book draws attention to the idea of the Enernet, which has been of great interest to me. Ethernet creator Robert Metcalfe’s idea, the Enernet would be part of the “Energularity”, a “global energy network” that would dispense free energy in much the way the internet dispenses free information today. It would, Cordeiro predicts, “positively transform humanity by increasing the global standard of living and connecting everybody around the planet” (p. 596). My own prediction is that providing free energy from distributed sources would be enormously empowering to impoverished communities and isolated, poor countries.

Here, however, we must note some of the shortcomings of the Enernet. There is the energy storage problem (596). My analysis is that a breakthrough in liquid metal batteries would first need to take place. In addition, decentralized local storage of energy would need to be accompanied by decentralized manufacturing of the parts making up the Enernet, for there to truly be “major positive network effects” as a result of this technology. Otherwise, energy poverty and sanctions will remain a reality of our global social system, due to the highly centralized production of high-tech energy production and storage media.

Another prediction that draws my praise comes from Zoltan Istvan, who writes “brain wave headsets” will improve dialogue and discussion to stimulate existing globalization. No longer will it be necessary to learn other languages, Istvan predicts (p. 641-643). People may worry that this is harmful and intrudes on privacy. I worry about privacy too, and have written much in defense of it, but you must weigh the costs against the benefits. Ending all war, reducing barriers between cultures and condensing the “global village” to the extent all humans are brothers is worth significant costs in privacy. Such a development might just shatter the paranoia, xenophobia and national security thinking responsible for mass privacy violations in the first place.

I omit analysis of the other nonfiction texts in the book, as they are mainly commercial product-oriented where my own focus is on social changes provoked by impersonal historic developments in technology and its culture. On the whole, Visions of the Future is a good compilation of works by some of the leading predictive minds in the world today. It ideally belongs on the bookshelves of anyone trying to get acquainted with what futurism, and more so the Lifeboat Foundation, are about.