Thursday, April 05, 2001

The Past is Prologue

An interesting statistical anomaly surfaced amidst the crush of data released from the government about the year gone by. According to reports, the number of deaths in the first weeks of the year 2000 was way above normal. While experts have no concrete explanation for this phenomenon, some analysts speculate the reason that lots of folks who might have moved on at the end of 1999 didn't was that they wanted to live to see the new century. As such, they buckled down and rather than held their breath, they actually breathed. In essence, they willed themselves to hang on and see the ball drop, just so they could say to themselves, "I did it."

Well... welcome to the future that they wanted to see.

It's easy to lose sight of that as you rush for your train, get your kids lunches ready, do the departmental budget or just sort through the junk mail at the end of the day. Hard as it might be to believe, this is that time fabled in song and story. By now, according to prophetic writings by authors from H.G. Wells ("From the Earth to the Moon") to George Orwell ("1984") to Arthur C Clark ("2001: A Space Odyssey"), we were supposed to be rocketing hither and yon on a regular basis, colonizing other planets, and generally enjoying robotics, teleportation and zero gravity. But last I checked, the biggest traffic jams were still on the Long Island Expressway, and not at the Kennedy Space Center.

Yeah, this is it. No doubt that it's far removed from "Leave It To Beaver," but it's also a long way from "The Jetsons." Sure, we have computers that control almost everything, yet we are buried in an avalanche of paper produced by those same computers. Yes, we all have personal communications devices called cell phones, but spend more time on them going "hello, hello, can you hear me?" than having actual conversations. It's as easy to travel to the next country as to the next town, though you'll likely to be late because there're planes stacked up in one case and cars in the other. We're not all clothed in metallic spandex. We don't have daily flights to the moon. And the best thing to eat is still chocolate ice cream. In short, the future looks suspiciously like the past.

It's not that the seers were wrong completely. After all, if you give yourself just a moment to stop taking everything around you for granted and examine your environment, it's easy to be wowed. I write this not on a cave wall or on paper, but on a machine that's less than an inch thick with enough computational power to search the entire Library of Congress in seconds. In the sky over my head is a conveyance of aluminum capable of ferrying hundreds of people thousands of miles, in time measured in hours rather than weeks. By keyboard or voice, a few taps on a keypad can connect me with virtually anyone anywhere on the planet. Not that I have anything I want to talk about, but it's there if I want it.

That's not to say that there are no serpents in Paradise. Most major diseases have been eradicated or controlled, and yet we struggle with AIDS in humans, and hoof and mouth disease in animals. An incredible variety of foodstuffs is relatively cheap and abundant, yet there are pockets throughout the globe where famine is rampant. The prevalence of super drugs has given rise to the appearance of super germs. And while we have Velcro, Peanut M&M's and "The West Wing," we also have soap scum, headcheese and "The Michael Richards Show." Into every life a little rain must fall.

But on balance, we haven't done too bad. And while it's true that those who don't remember the past are condemned to repeat it, those who don't look to the future are bound to be surprised by it. What's coming down the pike? While there are no guarantees, and crystal balls are often cloudy in hindsight, there are some fascinating speculations.

Many revolve around the next great frontier of biotechnology. In that vein (no pun intended), guesses range from "perfect" organ replacements to the introduction of "second skins" and artificial sensory systems that will enhance human sight, hearing, memory, and physical strength. And once ethical considerations are worked out, there are few who would discount the likelihood of widespread human (and other) cloning, and eventually the trading in of biological bodies for more stable forms.

As to where the next computing revolution will lead, we're talking consumer robotics and personal virtual realities, as well as thinking appliances from your television to your refrigerator. Further out there's the wedding of intelligence to robotics in the form of androids, and the replacement of biological entities with nanotechnology. In matters beyond our world, there's lightspeed transport, the colonization of Mars and Venus, and faster-than-light communications.

While the global marketplace will most likely will mean the end to world wars (they're too expensive and bad for business), we're likely to see environmental decline due to pollution and an over harvesting of natural resources, increased religious conflict and terrorism on a widespread scale. On the more mundane level, we're probably going to see a serious threat to the worldwide internet when junk email reaches epidemic levels.

Will any of these ideas come to pass? Time, of course, will tell. But it's wise to keep in mind this caution from Vinod Khosla of venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins: "Most of our predictions are based on very linear thinking. That's why they will likely be wrong."


Marc Wollin of Bedford hopes that by 2172, someone will invent a dishwasher that empties itself. Other predictions can be found regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

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