A bold claim, I know. It won’t surprise you to find out that I want to stick some qualifiers on it. For the purposes of this article, “futurists” means educated industry analysts and hard science fiction authors with a comprehensive knowledge of physics.
Now to address the elephant in the room, no, obviously the world we inhabit now doesn’t look like what futurists from prior generations predicted. But this is to say only that they didn’t predict fashions accurately. Architectural styles, clothing trends, industrial design flourishes and whatnot.
Those are all matters of human whimsy and preference, so of course there’s no predicting them. Anybody expecting engineers to know anything about fashion fundamentally misunderstands them. But what about the capabilities they predicted? Do we have flying cars, for example?
Our flying cars don’t look like yellow and red flying Buicks, but do we have passenger quadrotors capable of VTOL? Yes, that’s finally becoming a thing. There’s now about a dozen companies all producing variations of the same concept, a single seat or two seater electric, autonomous manned multicopter. Basically, a drone you can ride on.
Pretty spot on I’d say, only the styling is wrong. Arguably also the notion that these vehicles will be made available for private individual ownership and operation, but I suppose that remains to be determined.
By now, after balking at the seemingly absurd title, I have you rubbing your chin somewhat. Before I go into the deeper meaning I hope to explore a more revealing example. First, retro futuristic rocket ships. Silvery, monolithic, landing on their tails under their own propulsive power. A ridiculous anachronism it would’ve seemed during Apollo, even moreso during the shuttle program.
Yet here we are now with Starship. State of the art in heavy lift platforms, looking exactly like something ripped from the pages of Clarke, Bradbury or Asimov. There’s a very good reason for that. All of the physics and economics of manned spaceflight were worked out by physicists and economists decades before even the Gemini astronauts got off the ground.
Much has changed since then, except for physics. Our understanding of its finer details has evolved, but the basic Newtonian physics that spaceflight operates upon have remained sufficiently static since that time to have brought us back around, from our costly and ill conceived tangents, back to the silvery, tail landing rocketships of fifties pulp mags.
That’s because Wernher Von Braun designed the rocketship those popular scifi depictions were patterned after. Not based on what disposable rockets like the Saturn V would have to be like in the 60s given the urgent political goal NASA intended them for. Rather what rockets of the future might look like, what they in fact would need to look like in order to make possible plans for colonies on the Moon and Mars.
Rocket science doesn’t have a lot of room for artistic flourish. Margins are very tight. Every additional fractional ounce of weight you add costs you fuel, or eats into payload capacity. So, Starship looks like an aerodynamic flying fuel tank, about as proportionally thick on average as a pepsi can. Tail landing under its own propulsive power, likewise with the booster, for reusability.
Not because those things were possible in the 60s or even reasonable near term expectations, requiring among other things enormous improvements to the power and weight of computers. But because those were the qualities a heavy lift rocket would need to have in order to facilitate offworld settlement in an economically sound manner.
Much in the same way that dolphins resemble sharks because there’s a very narrow range of right answers to what an aquatic predator should be shaped like, there’s an equally narrow range of right answers to what a fully reusable heavy lift platform looks like, and it’s not the fucking space shuttle.
This is something like giving away the magician’s trick, surely? But now, anybody who understands the trick can perform it themselves. Wernher simply started from an understanding of what the laws of physics permit, engineering according to the limitations of materials available at that time or expected to become available, according to what the intended purpose (Mars settlement) would require of the machine he was designing, assuming steady improvements to computing and other (at the time) emerging technologies.
That’s why his rocketships from 1948 look just like Elon’s from 2021. Because all of this was figured out already by engineers and their physicist buddies nearly a century ago. Efforts to perform manned spaceflight beyond LEO in a financially sustainable way could not help, ultimately, but to produce a modern rocket that looked almost exactly like Wernher’s. Because times change, but physics (mostly) does not.
After all, what is technology but applied physics? At its most fundamental level, technology is when humans (or any other intelligence) re-organize matter into forms which exploit one or more principles of physics, manipulating matter and energy in some way, so as to bring about a desired result.
This deconstructed definition furnishes us with the key ingredients needed to successfully predict future technologies. First, that it be consistent with the laws of physics, not in any way violating the conservation of energy, causality, or anything along those lines. Secondly, that it be something there’s strong, widespread demand for. Third, that there not be some obvious practical, political or economic barrier to realization.
This is a belabored way of saying that if enough people want something badly enough, and nothing about it violates any laws of physics, it will almost certainly become technologically possible to achieve at some point. The consent of nature’s laws furnish us with the means, and public demand furnishes us with the motive, either by profit incentive or government direction.
This is the simple formula that guaranteed we’d eventually get virtual reality, first predicted in 1935, after many decades during which it was considered an abortive folly. The demand was there, the incredible potential was clear to everyone, we just had to wait for technology to catch up to the vision.
It’s also the formula which guaranteed we’d eventually get flying cars, even after a century of public opinion that was either undecided on the matter or considered it fodder for jokes. The same formula predicted the inevitability of solar powered cars:
…and electrics in general:
…and modern combinations thereof:
The eventual realization of solar, electric, driverless and now actual god damn flying cars (which in fact combine many of those features) required only that lots of people continued to desire these capabilities, and that nothing about them was physically impossible, would make implementation impractical, uneconomical, or…okay, so the formula is a little more complicated than that.
But there is a formula, and it’s never been wrong. It can’t be, because technology is fundamentally defined by desire: It’s nothing but matter reconfigured to do something that lots of people want. Whether that’s robot vacuums, spaceships or flying cars.
And because of the design constraints imposed by the laws of physics and economics, someone who understands what’s possible within them can not only tell you with very high accuracy how the technological fulfillment of a particular desire will work, but in rare cases, even what it will look like. This is not only why Elon’s rocket looks and functions like Wernher’s, it’s also why modern flying cars, aka passenger vtols, work exactly as we expected they would.
If anything, their predictions were too conservative. Often assuming for example that flying cars would need to be manually operated, powered by internal combustion and so on, because they didn’t anticipate computers or battery technology would improve to the extent that they have.
In the case of driverless electric cars, they often assumed some system of embedded magnets in the highway would be necessary to assist the computer in keeping the car centered in a given lane, not anticipating how capable vehicular imaging and navigation software would become.
By now I hope I’ve made my point to your satisfaction, that anyone grounded in a comprehensive understanding of what physics and economics permit can reliably make startlingly accurate predictions about future technologies.
Not just how they will work, but in certain cases where margins are tight (as in rockets and aircraft) specifically what solutions to those problems are likely to look like, because they have to.
Finally, that on top of all of this, our predictions are in fact often too conservative. Assuming for example then-necessary concessions to certain design constraints that were later overcome with better computers, software, battery technology, and so on.
This is the crystal ball with which you, or anybody else grounded in an accurate understanding of physics and economics, can predict with near perfect accuracy what technological capabilities future generations will enjoy that aren’t available to us modern day plebeians just yet.
So, is that it? Is that the only point of this article? It would be enough if it were, I feel. Futurists get such a bad rap and are viewed so dubiously by the general public that it should shock them to realize how reliably correct futurist predictions actually are.
The same public often views science fiction very dismissively as a flight of fancy when popular scifi is often little more than a wishlist of things we want STEM Santa to bring all us good little boys and girls, once the technical details are all worked out and it’s ready for market.
This is why we got flip phones thirty years after we first saw James T. Kirk using one. It’s why we got bluetooth communicators twenty years after we saw the TNG crew walking around with them pinned to their uniforms, using off-brand iPads.
I’m making more than just a facile point here. This principle isn’t limited to small things like consumer goods. The first depictions of space stations in fiction date back to 1869, Edward Everett Hale’s “The Brick Moon”.
…Bricks being somewhat more sensibly exchanged for steel in Alexander Belyaev’s conceptual designs for rotating, spin-gravity space stations…in 1936. Smart people were really working all of this stuff out that far back. Even the Brick Moon, for all its steampunk silliness, was based in a sound understanding of orbital mechanics.
It would take seventy five years between the publication of “The Brick Moon” and the launch of the first ever crewed space station in low Earth orbit, Salyut, in 1971.
Just 27 years after that, the first module of the ISS was launched. Today it’s the size of a football field, orbiting overhead as you read this. At one point during 2009, it was home to 13 astronauts simultaneously. It received the first inflatable module ever to be used on orbit in 2016, and will soon host the initial module of Axiom’s commercial station, probably the first of many to come.
Maybe this doesn’t amaze you given that it’s already happened, but hindsight is 20/20. What should shake you to your core is that it was first foreseen vaguely in 1896, in perfect clarity by 1936, then it became reality just a few decades later in spite of a world war and all manner of other disruptions.
They dreamed it, we made it real. What we dream today, engineers of tomorrow will make real. Not only true of neat nice-to-haves like smartphones, ipads or whatever, but also grand conceptual stuff like space stations, or the lunar base NASA is finally getting their asses in gear to build.
As fantastical a prediction as space stations must’ve seemed in 1869, their eventual realization was guaranteed simply because of what a compelling value proposition it is for humanity to be able to live and do science off the Earth, as well as the vital fact that nothing in the laws of physics forbade it.
The incredible promise of the concept ensured strong, sustained public desire, which in turn ensured the financial support needed to get the engineering done. Anything you could possibly want, if it isn’t forbidden by the laws of physics, is nothing but an engineering problem waiting to be solved. And it surely will be, if enough people want it as badly as you do.
So why have I told you all this? Will you be rewarded for following me all the way down this twisting path, or have I wasted your time? Not to worry, this is where I finally show you my hand.
Basically, a great many surprising things are entirely possible within the laws of physics. Things seemingly ridiculous as space stations were when The Brick Moon was written, yet equally possible to realize given the inexorable forward march of time and technological progress.
Things like bringing the dead back to life. What could there be a stronger, more sustained demand for? Have humans not bitterly scorned death through the ages? Haven’t we all suffered the pain of loss? Who is there, having lost a loved one, that wouldn’t spend every last cent to their name if it could bring them back? In good, youthful health, same as they were in the fondest memories of their surviving friends, family, and lovers?
Probably I’ve lost you now. I wouldn’t blame you, it’s an emotionally loaded subject. The notion that there’s any hope whatsoever of physical restoration and a second chance at life for the deceased has historically been the sole purview of religions.
Many of you, like myself, will have already swallowed the bitter pill that death is an inevitability. Even regarding it as childish frailty to entertain delusions to the contrary. This is where your strong instinct to dismiss the topic out of hand comes from.
You’ve already been down that road. You already cauterized that wound and are getting on with your life. You have accepted death so completely that you dare not seriously hope for anything else. Anybody telling you to revisit that conclusion, to re-assess it in light of new information is a threat to your emotional stability. A twisting knife, tearing open old wounds you’d rather were left to heal.
So, instinct tells you to ridicule me (fight) or to click off this article and forget about it (flight). To write me off as delusional, a peddler of false hope, no different from the holy men of all the various religions to have come and gone over the ages. But futurism has something no religion of old can compete with: Repeated, independently verifiable, fulfilled predictions.
Not of what the future will look like in most cases, but what will become possible. The raw capabilities that will exist, if not what their implementation looks like, who will use it, or how widespread it will be. Given these admittedly extensive qualifiers, futurist prognosticators, grounded in an accurate understanding of physics and economics, have never been wrong.
The capability I’m predicting is a bold one. Returning the dead to life. I’m not talking about biological immortality either, that has to be achieved within the limits of the biochemical paradigm and it remains to be determined whether that’s a realistic possibility. Although nothing about it requires a violation of the laws of physics, so far as we know, which bodes well.
Re-creating deceased persons is very likely an easier engineering problem, in fact, than preventing them from dying in the first place. We didn’t invent biology, we don’t set those parameters, even with genetic engineering there is only so much we can do within the fundamental limits of biochemistry as imposed by physics.
What we can do, potentially, is create molecular printers. Something like modern 3D printers but, as the name implies, able to do additive manufacturing on a much finer resolution, using biochemical printing materials.
But even that isn’t good enough for what we want to do. To recreate a person, exactly as they were at a specific point in time, down to what they were wearing and even what they were thinking about at that moment, you need to be able to print at atomic resolution. Possibly even subatomic.
It may not be printers that do this, as we know them. That may just be familiar terminology and imagery to 21st century minds. Nanoscale robots are expected to be able to manipulate matter at the scale of individual atoms. Programmable matter, claytronics and other anticipated evolutions of nanorobotics imply, to my mind, that your “atomic printer” might just resemble a tray full of goop. Probably in a vacuum chamber though, or a nonreactive liquid suspension.
What we’re really talking about here is a way to put atoms together precisely how you want them. It seems like remarkable fantasy, but is an entirely foreseeable technological development. Nothing about it violates physics and the number of potential use cases motivating its development would be staggering. So much so that a famous author wrote this cool book about all the ways it would affect society if anybody could reorganize matter into whatever arrangement they wanted, on demand.
But then you don’t just need to put atoms together with precision, it needs to be done very quickly. A human, or any living creature, is a dynamic ongoing biochemical process. Even after you die, your atoms don’t sit still.
On top of that, every last particle of that person you want to re-create not only needs to be where it was in relation to the others, it also needs to be doing exactly what it was doing at that moment. Which is to say that the spin, direction and velocity must also be accurately replicated.
This unfortunately means that copies could never be absolutely exact as a consequence of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle (barring simulationism, but we’ll get to that). They could still be very, very close. Their re-assembly would need to be near-instantaneous though, for the resulting person to resume their normal biological life processes.
But again, none of that is impossible according to physics. It is only an engineering problem. A very, very, very, very difficult engineering problem. But then again, so were space stations. Because loads of people badly wanted to see it happen, engineers earned some fat paychecks, and now there are space stations.
If you’re still with me, I expect by this point to have satisfied you that generalized fabrication at the atomic scale is a reasonable expectation for the future, albeit one that is probably pretty far off. I hope also to have persuaded you that the ability to create, or re-create, any desired arrangement of atoms as well as their activities/interactions would necessarily imply the ability to create, or re-create, 99.9999~% accurate replicas of deceased humans.
This is basically what transporters and replicators are in Star Trek canon, although they dance around it, inventing all kinds of arbitrary limitations on how long data can be held in pattern buffers and whatnot specifically to avoid the Pandora’s box of immortality weirdness that such a technology would actually open.
They say all sorts of wishy washy things about “matter streams”, converting matter to energy and back, yada yada because of how squeamish the writers were about simply copping to what it was: The atomic level disassembly, then reassembly of human beings. Subatomic I should say, before some Trek nerd corrects me.
And that’s the easy part! Technology is a lot more flexible in many respects than biology. We can almost certainly one day assemble a cell out of atoms, but not fundamentally change how that cell operates because so far as we know right now, that’s how life has to work, from a biochemistry standpoint. Which is to say that even if we can re-create people, they’ll still grow old and die eventually, if biological immortality is never worked out.
Then again by the time we’re able to manufacture objects and organisms at this level of precision, there are likely to be better options than living out the remainder of your days in the body you were born with. Popular science fiction explorations of this subject like Ghost in the Shell and Altered Carbon focus on what sort of artificial bodies people might design for themselves, if that were an option.
But in my mind the more elegant solution would just be to recreate deceased persons not out of real atoms, but simulated ones. This is without assuming we’d have, by this time, reverse engineered the human brain to the point that we understand consciousness fully and can replicate it in software. We wouldn’t need to know how to do that. Just how to simulate a very, very, very large number of particles and their interactions, accurately enough to the laws of physics. Oh, and to have a complete atomic map of someone.
This would neatly solve the incredibly difficult problem of how to perform near-instantaneous assembly. We can make simulated atoms do basically whatever we want, in an environment where we also control the laws of physics and the flow of time.
To simulate an entire person, we would feed a map of atomic positions and behaviors to the simulation software and it’d build whatever the map told it to, out of virtual atoms that behave and interact with one another in the same manner as real atoms.
There’s a lot of people today who speculate that some kind of weirdness happens in the brain that can never be reduced to physics. That something supernatural is happening in there. Not because anything in neuroscience indicates it I think, but because they hope for life after death. I don’t mean to disabuse them, only propose an alternate path to the same goal.
If they’re correct, recreating people in the way I propose wouldn’t work. Either they would never resume life, they would be some sort of p-zombie or they would have their own soul. In which case when they die, you would be joined in the metaphysical afterlife with a bunch of other versions of yourself.
Hundreds, maybe. Thousands, even millions, if your atomic data was used in a research project or something. Substance dualists generally insist upon the “stillbirth” or p-zombie possibilities because the last one creates too many theological problems. That tends to happen when reality collides with fantasy.
If they’re wrong however, then per-particle simulation of whole persons should in fact produce conscious individuals with the same personalities and memories they had in life. Simulating them rather than physical reconstitution would furnish those recreated people with functionally indefinite lifespans, coming to an end only when they desire it.
Whether you feel that a 99.999999~% accurate recreation of you, physical or simulated, would really be “you” is your own business. I tend to think that if the copy isn’t “me”, in the way that philosophers mean, then neither am I.
What people who object to that position are getting at, whether they have the language they need to articulate it or not, is that continuity is not preserved. If you die, decompose and then are reconstituted either physically or virtually, there’s an interruption of conscious experience.
But then again that is also true of a dreamless sleep. If the you that awakens from that sleep is an identical copy with all of your memories intact, how would he/she know? What difference would it make?
Such philosophical quandaries likely wouldn’t trouble whoever is ultimately in control of the technological capability to recreate deceased persons. They might be more concerned with collecting firsthand accounts of important historical events, which wouldn’t require the resurrected subject of historical interest to agree that they are authentically themselves.
A great many people in history took important information with them to the grave. This would be one way, perhaps the only way, to find out what it was. If the idea of post-mortem interrogation doesn’t worry you enough, imagine what would be possible for malicious actors with the technological capability to recreate you, including the very physics of the simulated environment you’re part of.
Imagine for example a future totalitarian regime using this technology to resurrect counter-revolutionaries so they can stand trial, then be subjected to torment that would end only when the regime is either toppled or no longer cares to maintain or power those servers. That’s before we get into how your perception of the passage of time could be manipulated.
The fact of the matter is, once a scan of you exists that’s sufficiently precise for emulation purposes, it will inevitably be out of your control at some point, either during life or after you die. There’s no such thing as “deleting something off the internet”, so anybody by that time may be able to get ahold of that information to do with as they please, depending upon what sort of laws are in place and how enforceable they are.
This is why the foreseeable eventuality of resurrection technology is, to me, as much a cause for concern as it is for comfort. There are after all many fates worse than death, and out of all the conceivable motives for restoring you from the grave, very few of them would result in a pleasant outcome for you.
Waking up after death and finding out you have to do a bunch of interviews in compensation for your own revival before fucking off to enjoy your indefinite lifespan would be winning the jackpot. Tedious, certainly. Callous too, not exactly a high minded philanthropic reason for restoring you to life.
Yet it’s far and away better than many of the other fates you could awake to, depending upon who possesses the technology necessary to reconstitute or simulate you, and the information to feed into it. Ah, but that’s the rub, isn’t it? Where do you get that information from?
Many transhumanists think we’ll soon be able to obtain the information necessary to emulate the brain, if not the rest of the body, by slicing it into single molecule thin layers after death and scanning them. This would result in a digital “connectome”, or map of the positions and interconnections of the neurons comprising your brain.
What about people who die before that becomes possible? Regular folks whose life insurance won’t cover cryopreservation, I mean. Out of luck, surely? Lost to the sands of time. Scattered by entropy into a thousand trillion fragments, whereafter all the king’s horses and all the king’s men will never be able to put Humpty back together again. Right?
Not necessarily. The reasoning behind this conclusion is longer and more technically involved even than what you’ve already subjected yourself to in reading this article until now (sorry for that btw). It basically amounts to very advanced forensics, and only really works if hard determinism is true.
There’s another way to accomplish the same thing, retrieving information lost to entropy and time, even if hard determinism isn’t true…but that relies on simulationism being true. Which premise is more far fetched depends on who you ask.
I could spend the next hour or two explaining how it works in dry, technical language. But I’ve already strayed well beyond the scope implied by the title of this article. Besides, I would much rather tell you a story. One that I trust, now appreciating what science fiction really represents, you’ll understand as more than just a flight of fancy.