In 1995, Bill Gates was forced to republish his book The Road Ahead just months after publication. His mistake: “I vastly underestimated the … importance of the internet”.
If Gates could get it so wrong with the internet right under his nose, then the rest of us could be forgiven for being rubbish at predicting the future. From spiritualists to scientists, humans are no better than monkeys at picking market crashes, sports results and general elections.
Except, that is, for science fiction. If you want to see what happens next read some classic sci-fi, say the boosters. And there are indeed some spectacular successes, such as Arthur C. Clarke, author of 2001: A Space Odyssey. In 1945, he correctly predicted satellite communications, 12 years before Sputnik hit the stratosphere. In 1956, he wrote about nanites, tiny machines that could operate at the micrometre scale, prefiguring nanotechnology by about 50 years. And who could forget HAL, the nasty AI in 2001 that sounds disturbingly like Siri (well, it does to me).
Clarke was one of the three giants of early sci-fi, along with Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, all of whom correctly picked space travel, bionics and AI. The latter hit the jackpot in 1949 with a list of 19 predictions about the year 2000, including:
“Your personal telephone will be small enough to carry in your handbag.”
“Your house telephone will record messages, answer simple inquiries and transmit vision.”
“Contraception and control of disease is revising relations between the sexes to an extent that will change our entire social and economic structure.”
And how about this: in the book Friday, the main character retrieves archival copies of the New York Times via a nationwide information network. Google anyone?
What Heinlein fans ignore, of course, is that the network wasn’t electronic, it was a series of pneumatic tubes. And the New York Times has a paywall. Heinlein got more wrong than he got right. By 2000, he said, we’d have a cure for cancer and colds, found life on Mars and be travelling across America on conveyor belts.
He’s in good company. Despite the shelves of prose dedicated to meteorites, alien invasions, climate catastrophes and zombie-cowboy epidemics, Earth stands pretty much as it did 5,000 years ago. And it’s neither dystopian nor utopian: we just have a lot people living longer and happier with a slightly unhealthy interest in Kardashian butts.
We all suffer from ‘survivor bias’ – the tendency to remember only the correct predictions. It’s a futurist’s version of wishful thinking.
That said, life’s no fun without baseless assertions. As a sci-fi nut, I feel well equipped to predict what will happen to humanity. Here’s five, sure-as-eggs futures that have the ring of truth about them.
Longevity combined with genetic manipulation will allow us to change our sex over the course of our 1,000-year lives. That’s how humans live in the Culture series by Iain M Banks. The Scottish author imagined a universe where humans and aliens live in peace thanks to the benign dictatorship of kindly AIs, called Minds. With scarcity and disgruntlements eliminated, humans devote themselves to pleasure with their genetically enhanced bodies – except for a species of religious nutcases who hate the Minds and want a life free of machines. What could go wrong?
Observing how absorbed kids became with 1980s video games, William Gibson invented the idea of cyberspace, where man and machine are indistinguishable and the question of what’s real becomes moot. Gibson’s book Neuromancer launched the cyberpunk genre that reached its apogee in the Matrix and Avatar. The ‘future you’ is as digital as it is biological. As the memorialized pages of Facebook already hint at.
No, we won’t be travelling faster than light, but we will be traversing the universe thanks to short cuts envisaged in the 1950s kids’ classic A Wrinkle in Time. Foreseeing a time when humans could manipulate the quantum level of existence, Madeleine L’Engle had her characters ‘tesseract’, or take a short cut, across the universe. It’s not that mad. In 1935 Albert Einstein published a paper suggesting a collapse in space-time could shrink the distance between objects. Officially called Einstein-Rosen Bridges they got a new name in 1957: wormholes.
The end of money
In Star Trek: The Next Generation, money has been made redundant thanks to a brilliant machine called a replicator that can materialise anything, on the spot. A bit like a 3D printer, it’s the machine to end all machines, creating a world of abundance and eliminating the need for a value of exchange. In the future we’ll all have to strive for something else godless and vain (see point one).
And finally, the dream of so many sci-fi stories, including my own brilliant unpublished work Concordia: Erebus Unveiled (get in touch publishers!), must include bikes, ships and cities that float free of gravity. Using the polarity of nuclear fusion-powered electron magnets these floating transports allow for frictionless travel and the kind of floating luxury you see these days on cruise ships. The future, for some, looks more like The Love Boat than Mad Max.