Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Technologies Converge to Shape our Lives in Unimaginable Ways

Snagged from the Prometheus Newsletter as being "of possible interest":

Imagine direct communication links between the human brain and machines, or The Coming Convergencetailored materials capable of adapting by themselves to changing environmental conditions, or computer chips and environmental sensors embedded into everyday clothing, or medical technologies that eliminate currently untreatable conditions such as blindness and paralysis. Now imagine all of these developments occurring at the same time. Far-fetched? Not so. These are actually the reasonable predictions of scientists attempting to forecast a few decades into the future based on the rapid pace of innovation.

Author Stanley Schmidt--physicist, writer, and Editor of Analog: Science Fiction and Fact-explores these and many more amazing yet probable scenarios in The Coming Convergence: The Surprising Ways Diverse Technologies Interact to Shape Our World and Change the Future ($27.95, April 2008), which New Scientist says, "does an excellent job of highlighting how all sorts of technologies have historically converged to create new and unanticipated possibilities." In this fascinating guide to the near future, Schmidt uses his scientific knowledge and expertise to show how past convergences have led to today's world, then considers tomorrow's main currents in biotechnology, cognitive science, information technology, and nanotechnology. Looking even further downstream, he foresees both exciting and potentially dangerous developments:

* Longer, healthier lives
* Cheap, generally available food, energy, and technology
* Reduced pollution and environmental stress
* Excessive power in too few hands
* Increased vulnerability from overdependence on technology.

Schmidt notes that even routine technology such as the CAT scan is the result of three wholly separate innovations started many decades ago which recently converged: the X-ray, the computer, and advances in medicine. On a more ominous note, he also observes that the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center was made possible by the malicious convergence of two separate trends in modern engineering and technology: the concentration of people in high rises within cities and the success of the passenger airline industry. The message is clear: the choices we make now will converge to create a near and distant future that will be almost unbelievably wonderful or unimaginably catastrophic, or both.

As John Gribbin, author of The Scientists: A History of Science Told Through the Lives of Its Greatest Inventors, puts it, "Stanley Schmidt's vision of the future manages to steer a fine line between doom and gloom. He warns us of the problems inherent in the runaway growth of technology, but also describes the almost unimaginable benefits that can occur when different technologies come together in a happy marriage. The overall effect is uplifting and inspiring; if you think the world has changed a lot in the past twenty years, as someone once said, 'you ain't seen nothin' yet'."

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