March 13 2008 / by memebox
Category: Technology Year: General Rating: 8
This interview was conducted by Venessa Posavec on 12/21/07
Memebox: What do you do and how is that related to the future?
DP: I write a weekly column called “Futuretalk” that appears in several print publications and on-line blogs. The column describes cutting edge science and technologies in a forward bent and forecasts how and when these technologies might evolve.
Memebox: What is the mission of your blog, PositiveFuturist?
DP: Positive Futurist is an organic, growing resource center. Its purpose is not only to provide information on advancing science and technologies, but also to address how they might influence our lives. The target audience includes seniors and ‘boomers, the groups that stand to benefit the most from tomorrow’s healthcare breakthroughs.
Memebox: What is NBIC convergence?
DP: Today’s technologists speak of “NBIC convergence” – the interaction of advances in nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, and cognitive sciences. My website, PositiveFuturist, takes this one-step further by focusing on how these technologies play on each other to advance exponentially as the speed of change gains momentum.
As this phenomenon becomes more understood, the possibility that we can enhance human performance and actually design our own evolution will become clear.
NBIC convergence will impact dramatically with working habits and the economy. Nanotech and infotech advances could, as early as the last half of this century, turn Earth into a non-commerce scarcity-free world.
Memebox: What, in your words, is a futurist?
DP: Futurists fall into different categories. Consulting futurists track relevant trends, analyze them, and think creatively about their direction and meaning. They do not predict the future, they project industry developments and future trends; and they do this for a living. Businesses employ this type of futurist to gain an edge on their competitors.
Then there are future thinkers like myself with an obsessive curiosity of what life may offer in the coming years and the desire to share this information with others as we enter into what I call a “magical future” in the coming decades.
To research information for my articles, I subscribe to a variety of journals and newsletters and regularly visit websites that promote a forward view of science and technology.
Memebox: You believe you’re going to live well into your 100s. What trends and breakthroughs do you see occurring to support that belief?
DP: As a futurist science and technology columnist, I view life with much optimism. At 77, I feel confident that, barring a fatal accident, I will maintain good health and survive into the next decade, 2010-2020.
In this decade I will live through my 80s, which by today’s standards, would be risky, but expected breakthroughs in stem cell and gene therapies will enable repair of body parts before they wear out. With help from these new technologies, I could end the decade at 90 years, but possess a biological body of a 40’ish person.
The following decade, 2020-2030, will provide nanotech miracles that promise radical improvements in both health and affluence. By 2030, I hope to resemble a healthy 20-something enjoying the good life.
By 2035-2040, there is an excellent chance the Singularity and quantum computing could enable my mind to be copied for uploading into a newly cloned human or silicon body, should disaster strike. At this time, my lifespan can be considered indefinite without fear of unwanted death.
Memebox: What is the singularity?
DP: The Singularity, a term first coined by San Diego State University’s Vernor Vinge at the 1993 Vision-21 Symposium sponsored by NASA, where he stated that within thirty years, scientists will have the technological means to create artificial general intelligence systems that surpass human intelligence.
Vinge predicted that this awesome intelligence will fast-forward technologies at such speeds that humanity will be unable to comprehend how the future is unfolding. He compared this phenomenon to the mysteries that lie at the center of a black hole, the singularity.
Others describe The Singularity as a point in time when technologies progress so fast that it becomes nearly impossible to keep up with the change. Experts reason that if computing power keeps doubling every eighteen months, as it has done for the last fifty years and as it will in the future, given boosts by molecular nanotech and quantum computers, then by late 2020s, computers will equal the performance of the human brain. From there, it is only a small step to a computer that outthinks humans. There would then be little point in our building future computers, as ultra-intelligent machines could design better ones and build them faster. This trend will produce an intelligence explosion unlike anything the world has ever experienced.
Futurist Ray Kurzweil predicts the Singularity will help us redesign the human body into an almost immortal form, eliminating all sickness and unwanted death. He says we will create a billion-fold increase in intelligence by strengthening our brains with nano-neurons and connecting our minds directly with these super machines to absorb their intelligence.
Memebox: When do you think the singularity may occur?
DP: Predictions by many experts range from early 2020s to 2100. Kurzweil sees this happening around 2045, but I believe we will begin to experience this intelligence explosion around mid-2030s.
Memebox: What general trends are you aware of that people should be looking at? (Can be in any fields)
DP: Household robot and automated system sales could outpace the auto industry within 20 years. Future robots could take over most home maintenance duties, provide care for care for older people and the handicapped, and even become soldiers.
Other automated systems in the dream stage today include computer-driven wheel chairs that automatically travel to preset destinations, using sensors to detect and stop at red lights and avoid obstacles.
A full-body robotic “lift” suit will help nurses hoist patients. Sensors detect when muscles are trying to lift something heavy and signal to the systems air pumps to kick in and provide support.
Nano replicators, expected by mid-2020s, will grab atoms from air, sea water, or waste materials and build useful products such as food, clothing, and other household goods. Today, researchers are racing to create the world’s first nano-assembler, a necessary component before the replicator can be realized. The winner in this race could become our planet’s first trillionaire.
And of course, technologies that extend health and human life will be in full swing in the 2010s and 2020s.
The National Cancer Institute predicts that no one will suffer or die from cancer by 2015; it may not be cured by then, but drugs will be available and affordable to keep it at bay.
Regenerative medicine, spearheaded by embryonic stem cell research and genetic engineering, holds the promise to cure nearly every disease, stop aging, and even restore youth to older people.
Experts predict that life expectancy will soon “round the curve.” In 1800, life expectancy was a mere 30 years; by 1900 it had grown to about 50, and by 2000, it reached nearly 80. With research advancing exponentially, by 2020, we will be adding more than one year of life expectancy to our life each year. This will enable everyone to live indefinitely, barring accident and violence deaths.
If fewer people die, will we run out of space or resources? Nanotechnologists suggest that molecular nanotech advances expected by mid-century or before, could enable Earth to support up to 100 billion people. This is certainly an exciting future. Will it happen? I believe that it will.
Memebox: What are some of the big opportunities that the future holds?
DP: Huge opportunities exist in the field of synthetic life. This is a technology that will change our world in fundamental ways – in fact in ways that are impossible to predict. The cobbling together life from synthetic DNA will blur the line between biological and artificial, forcing a rethinking of what it means for things to be alive.
Artificial DNA could instruct its non-biological cell to produce medicine, toxins, a bio-based gasoline substitute, or any other valuable chemical compound.
Gene pioneer Craig Venter predicts that within 3 to 10 years, the little-known field of “wet artificial life” could produce the world’s first human-made life forms that might be used to take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and replace it with methane; or a new auto fuel that would break our dependency on oil.
Nearly every device in our lives will be both smart and networked, giving rise to an Internet of things. Information technologies in the next decade will drive the convergence of computers, TVs, telephones, and Internet voice communications. Computers will become cheaper, more powerful and ubiquitous. Web data will automatically self-organize based on its content, allowing search tools and software agents to provide more relevant information on demand.
An enormous demand for personal security will spur development of cameras that interpret and identify all manner of human behavior, and radio frequency tags will become common for people and valuables.
Memebox: as we move forward in time, what are some potential drawbacks/risks?
DP: Beyond the many benefits, synthetic life houses a dark side. Already a few scientists have made viruses from scratch. The ability to make bacteria – which, unlike viruses, can live and reproduce in the environment outside of a living body – raises concerns about contamination, contagion, and the potential for harm. Synthetic biology means cheaper, widely accessible tools to build bioweapons, virulent pathogens and artificial organisms that could pose threats to people and the planet. It’s not just bio-terror; it’s also bio-error.
And in the hands of terrorists, molecular nanotech could be used to create invisible pathogens so small; they would not be breathed, but would seep into our bloodstream through the skin and cause instant death. Arrival of horrific weapons of mass destruction like this may be prevented with adequate supervision of this developing technology.
Memebox: Can you give us a landscape of what you think the future will look like in 10-15 years?
DP: 2018 to 2023 places us at the height of the biotech revolution and the beginning of the nanotech revolution. Biotech wonders at this time could replace worn and aging body parts by utilizing stem cells to re-grow new tissues and organs inside the body, and genetic engineering procedures could alter DNA to prevent most diseases from ever happening. This proactive healthcare regimen will change medicine forever, giving everyone a more positive outlook on life.
By 2020, we will enjoy the company of a “talking machine.” This electronic wonder will understand what we say and can immediately act on our request. It will learn through experience and even anticipate our needs. The device will operate as an avatar – an on-screen image resembling a favorite movie star or loved one. On command, it will appear on any TV screen, computer monitor, or cell phone display in our home, address us by name and ask, “How can I help you.”
Poised at the cutting edge of this fast growing industry, Fair Isaac’s Robert Hecht-Nielsen believes his company will soon market a machine called Chancellor that could bring the vision of true conversational machines closer to reality. Chancellor gets its power from the Internet and can also answer phones, make appointments and maintain schedules.
Memebox: List some specific predictions for the year 2008.
DP: Electric cars will make a big splash in 2008. Mitsubishi will launch the Miev, which can travel 155 miles on a 4-hour recharge, and is priced below $18,000. Subaru plans to introduce a lithium-ion battery-powered car that recharges in 5 minutes; and China’s new EV with a 250-mile range could hit U.S. showrooms by the end of the year.
The capability for ribonucleic acid interference (RNAi) to alter genes and prevent human sickness including heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s, and nearly all other diseases may be clearly understood in 2008. Alnylam, a 5-year old Cambridge MA pharmaceutical company, is partnering with major drug companies to bring this wonder science to market.
RNAi technology, experts believe, has the potential to target any human or viral gene and prevent disease-causing proteins from being made. The process can effectively zero in on any human disease or viral infection that causes disease.
Some clinical trials are underway now and more will begin shortly. Alnylam researchers predict that over the next 12 to 18 months, clear human efficacy results will demonstrate the potential of this technology and by as early as 2011 RNAi therapies could enter the market and begin saving lives.
The existence of wormholes, theoretical warps in space-time that physicists believe could one day allow communications and matter to be sent anywhere in the universe instantly, breaking the light-speed barrier; or even back and forth through time, could be proven when the Cern Large Hadron Collider goes on line in late 2008. If scientists become convinced that wormholes are possible, this could thrust humanity’s space exploration goals forward at warp speed.
Memebox: Again for 2008: What disruptive events don’t people see coming? Opportunities? Pitfalls?
DP: The most disruptive event I can think of is the possibility that in the very near future, biotech and medical nanotech will enable humans to find the “fountain of youth,” and stay alive in excellent youthful health for an indefinite time. Most people are unaware that science and technologies are on the brink of turning this radical concept into reality. Soon, nearly everyone could look forward to enjoying life for hundreds, maybe thousands of years or more. Becoming aware of this possibility could have a positive affect on how people live their lives today. This could trigger the end of much of today’s terrorist and criminal activities.
Memebox: Specific predictions for next 5 years, through 2012.
DP: A range of smart energy technologies will make it easy for people to manage their carbon footprint. In the next couple of years, data will begin to run through electrical wires. Dishwashers, air conditioners, house lights, and entertainment systems will be connected to a “smart” electric grid, making it possible to turn them on and off using a cell phone or web browser. Intelligent grids will also allow green energy sources like solar and wind technology to merge with electricity to reduce costs.
Driving will become more automatic in the next five years too. A wave of connectivity between cars and roads will keep us safer and reduce time spent in traffic jams. Intelligent systems will make real-time adjustments to traffic lights and divert cars to alternate routes, and will include more driver-assisted technologies making it possible for automobiles to communicate with each other. Cars will behave as if they have “reflexes” and will take preventive measures in dangerous conditions.
Memebox: Specific or general predictions for next 10 years, thru end of 2017.
DP: Stem cells will enable doctors to re-grow limbs, making artificial bionic legs, feet, arms, and hands unnecessary.
Neural enhancement will become a standard procedure enabling increased memory functions for normal people and eliminating dreaded diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
By 2015 cancer deaths could be eliminated, and by 2018, heart attacks may become only an unpleasant memory of the past.