What will the world look like 10 years from now? Forty years from now? Will the continuation of Moore's Law eventually allow us to have a society run by automated robots? Will we have conquered global warming and celebrate as a people as we approach the much-vaunted prospect of the singularity? Some futurists, the people who deal in this kind of speculation, have made predictions of this nature, but there are also those who say these forecasts are inaccurate. In this article, we'll take a look at some popular ideas about the future of technology that are likely myths.
Predicting future trends or developments, especially in a dynamic field like technology, is inherently inexact, but it is possible to make some informed guesses. Of course, it's also possible to argue the opposite point of view regarding the reality of some of these technologies, but in these cases, there's enough evidence out there, particularly from experts, to diagnose them as myths.
Let's start with one of the great fabled machines of the post-industrial age: the flying car.
The flying car has been prophesied for decades. It's one of the holy grails of the futuristic, utopian society, where everyone gets to zip around through the air and land easily, quietly and safely wherever he or she wants.
You've probably seen videos of flying-car prototypes, taking off from the ground, hovering and possibly crashing. But the first "autoplane" was actually unveiled in 1917, and many similar efforts have followed. Henry Ford predicted the flying car was coming -- in 1940 -- and there have been numerous false alarms ever since.
A decade into the 21st century, we don't seem to be any closer, despite what you might read on gadget blogs. Because funding dried up, NASA abandoned its contest for inventors to create a "Personal Air Vehicle," and there doesn't seem to be another government agency, except perhaps the secretive DARPA, ready to take on the project.
There are simply too many challenges in the way of a flying car becoming widely adopted. Cost, flight paths and regulations, safety, potential use in terrorism, fuel efficiency, training pilots/drivers, landing, noise, opposition from the automobile and transportation industries -- all stand in the way of a legitimate flying car. Also, these vehicles will likely have to be able to operate as cars on regular roads, posing another logistical challenge.
In fact, many of the so-called flying cars that are being hawked as the real thing are simply roadable aircrafts -- a sort of plane/car hybrid that is not capable of, say, making a short trip to school to drop off the kids. Plus, they're far too expensive. One such vehicle, the Terrafugia Transition, set for a release in 2011 or later, is expected to cost $200,000.
In recent years, prominent futurists like Ray Kurzweil have argued that we are approaching the singularity, perhaps as soon as 2030. There are many different conceptions of just what exactly the singularity is or will be. Some say it's a true artificial intelligence that can rival humans in independent thinking and creativity. In other words, machines will surpass humans in intelligence and as the planet's dominant species, capable of creating their own new, smarter machines. Others contend that it will involve such an explosion in computing power that somehow humans and machines will merge to create something new, such as by uploading our minds onto a shared neural network.
Critics of the singularity, such as writer and academic Douglas Hofstadter, claim that these are "science-fiction scenarios" that are essentially speculative. Hofstadter calls them vague and useless in contemporary discussions of what makes a human being and our relationships with technology [source: Ross]. There is also little evidence that the sort of "tidal wave" of technological innovation predicted by Kurzweil and other futurists is imminent [source: Ross].
Mitch Kapor, the former CEO of Lotus, called the singularity "intelligent design for the IQ 140 people" [source: O'Keefe]. One magazine called it "the Rapture of the geeks" -- hardly a complimentary term [source: Hassler]. Computer scientist Jeff Hawkins contends that while we may create highly intelligent machines -- far greater than anything we have now -- true intelligence relies on "experience and training," rather than just advanced programming and advanced processing power [source: IEEE].
Doubters point to the numerous sci-fi fantasies and predictions of the past that still have not come true as evidence that the singularity is just another pie-in-the-sky dream -- for example, we don't have moon bases or artificial gravity yet. They also argue that understanding the nature of consciousness is impossible, much less creating this capability within machines. Finally, the impending coming of the singularity depends in large part on the continuation of Moore's Law, which, as we discuss on the next page, may be in jeopardy. (It should also be noted that Gordon Moore himself is not a believer in the singularity [source: IEEE].)
Moore's Law is generally taken to mean that the number of transistors on a chip -- and by extension, processing power -- doubles every two years. In reality, Gordon Moore, the computer scientist who originated Moore's Law in 1965, was talking about the economic costs of chip production and not the scientific achievements behind advances in chip design.
Moore believed that the costs of chip production would halve annually for the next 10 years but may not be sustainable afterwards [source: Hickins]. The limit to Moore's Law may then be reached economically instead of scientifically.
Several prominent computer experts have contended that Moore's Law cannot last more than two decades [source: IEEE]. Why is Moore's Law doomed? Because chips have become much more expensive to produce as transistors have become smaller.
One analyst has predicted that by 2014, transistors will be 20 nanometers in size but that any further reductions in chip size will be too expensive for mass production [source: Nuttall].
For comparison, as of summer 2009, only Samsung and Intel have invested in making 22-nanometer chips.
The factories that produce these chips cost billions of dollars. Globalfoundries' Fab 2 factory, set to begin production in New York in 2012, will cost $4.2 billion to build. Few companies have those kinds of resources, and Intel has said that a company must have $9 billion in yearly revenue to compete in the cutting-edge chip market [source: Nuttall].
That same aforementioned analyst believes that companies will attempt to make the most out of current technologies before investing in new, more expensive, smaller chip designs [source: iSuppli]. So while the end of Moore's Law may limit the rate at which we add transistors to chips, that does not necessarily mean that other innovations will prevent the creation of faster, more advanced computers.
While we're probably not headed for a Skynet-like Armageddon, an increasing number of scientists worry whether adequate measures are being taken to safeguard ourselves from our robotic and digital creations.
One of the main concerns is automation. Will military drones eventually be allowed to make their own decisions on whether or not to attack a target? If a human is monitoring, will he or she still be able to override the drone's wishes? Will we allow machines to replicate themselves without human direction? Are we going to allow self-driving cars? (Some cars already offer the ability to park themselves or to prevent a driver from drifting into another lane.)
Then there is the issue of robots occupying roles they probably should not. Already, there are prototype medical robots designed to ask patients about their symptoms and to provide counsel, simulating comforting emotions -- a role traditionally occupied by a human doctor. Microsoft has a video-based receptionist A.I. in one of its buildings. A new class of "service robots" can plug themselves into electrical outlets and perform other menial tasks -- not to mention the long-established Roomba, an automated, vacuum like robot.
We may also be placing too many critical tasks and responsibilities into the "hands" of non-human actors, or will gradually find ourselves in a position of dependence on machines. At a 2009 conference of computer scientists, roboticists and other researchers, the experts in attendance expressed concern about how criminals could take advantage of next-generation technology, like artificial intelligence, to hack information or impersonate real people [source: Markoff]. The bottom line of this conference and other discussions seems to be that it's important to start tackling these issues early, to outline industry standards now, even if it's not clear what kind of technological advancements the future will bring.
Is global warming inevitable? The consensus among many scientists is that it is, at least to some extent, and that we can only hope to stop major disasters and deal with the consequences. Some of the world's most respected climatologists say that humanity has already passed the proverbial point of no return [source: Borenstein]. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of more than 2,000 scientists, met in 2007 and issued a stark warning, after having first announced that in 2001 global temperatures were already rising.
Even now, we are seeing the effects of climate change, such as in glacier melt and rising sea levels making South Asian cyclones more severe. The effects are expected to be particularly severe for hundreds of millions of people in the developing world [source: Kanter]. The atoll of Tuvalu now deals with high tides that threaten to submerge the entire nation.
If we produced no more greenhouse gases after today, the world would still see a 1 degree Fahrenheit increase in temperature by mid-century because existing carbon dioxide would stay in the atmosphere for a half-century or more [source: Borenstein]. (Some countries are trying to do something about this, such as Norway, which is pumping CO2 into disused underground oil wells.) And a potentially catastrophic increase of 3 to 6 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century is possible [source: Borenstein].
The major remaining question, for some, is whether the amount of warming can be kept in check in order to prevent these disastrous scenarios. Encouraging grassroots environmental action is important, but intergovernmental cooperation is paramount, and that's been slow in coming, particularly with the United States, China and India. We also, experts say, need to begin to plan how to respond to warming-related disasters, such as by aiding coastal areas, establishing quick-response units for wildfires and preparing for deadly heat waves.
For more information about technological myths and other related topics, look over the links on the next page.
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- Ater, Tal. "NASA Abandons Flying Cars for Greener Flight with a $1.5m Prize for Green Plane Innovation." Green Prophet. Aug. 3, 2009. http://greenprophet.com/2009/08/03/11134/nasa-abandons-flying-cars-for-green-flight/
- Borenstein, Seth. "Scientists say global warming inevitable, but disasters aren't." Seattle Times. Associated Press. April 3, 2006. http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/nationworld/2002906901_warming03.html
- Brain, Marshall. "Robotic Nation." 2008. http://www.marshallbrain.com/robotic-nation.htm
- Hassler, Susan. "Un-assuming the Singularity." IEEE Spectrum. June 2008. http://www.spectrum.ieee.org/computing/hardware/unassuming-the-singularity
- Hertsgaard, Mark. "It's much too late to sweat global warming." SF Chronicle. Feb. 13, 2005. http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2005/02/13/INGP4B7GC91.DTL
- Hickins, Michael. Moore's Law Reaching Statute of Limitations. BNet. July 22, 2009. http://industry.bnet.com/technology/10002761/moores-law-reaching-statute-of-limitations/
- Joy, Bill. "Why the future doesn't need us." Wired. http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/8.04/joy_pr.html
- Markoff, John. "Scientists Worry Machine May Outsmart Man." NY Times. July 25, 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/26/science/26robot.html
- Markoff, John. "Software That Cares." NY Times. July 28, 2009. http://tierneylab.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/07/28/software-that-cares/
- Nuttall, Chris. "Moore's Law reaches its economic limits." Financial Times. July 20, 2009. http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/01c8b5aa-754e-11de-9ed5-00144feabdc0.html
- O'Keefe, Brian. "The smartest (or nuttiest) futurist on Earth." CNN. May 2, 2007. http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/fortune_archive/2007/05/14/100008848/
- Page, Lewis. "DARPA at work on 'Transformer X,' a proper flying car." The Register. May 26, 2009. http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/05/26/darpa_flying_car_transformer/
- Popplewell, Brett. "Flying car not far away." The Chronicle Herald. July 28, 2009. http://thechronicleherald.ca/ArtsLife/1134623.html
- Ross, Greg. "An interview with Douglas R. Hofstadter." American Scientist. http://www.americanscientist.org/bookshelf/pub/douglas-r-hofstadter
- "Is Moore's Law Becoming Academic?" iSuppli. June 16, 2009. http://www.isuppli.com/NewsDetail.aspx?ID=20345
- "Tech Luminaries Address Singularity." IEEE Spectrum. June 2008. http://www.spectrum.ieee.org/computing/hardware/tech-luminaries-address-singularity
- "Suffering the Science." Oxfam. July 6, 2009. http://www.oxfam.org/sites/www.oxfam.org/files/bp130-suffering-the-science.pdf
- "Top ten flying cars." Gizmo Watch. March 22, 2007. http://www.gizmowatch.com/entry/top-ten-flying-cars/