Issue: Volume: 24 Issue: 1 (January 2001)

2001: An Update

When I was a kid, I was obsessed with science-fiction stories about “The Future,” especially those describing technologies so advanced they would be, as Arthur C. Clarke might say, “indistinguishable from magic.” In fact, a favorite was Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Like most all of his works, it was an extrapolation based on scientific principles, and, therefore, it seemed entirely plausible—even with respect to the notion that an intelligent computer, the HAL 9000, could become so delusional and paranoid that it would commit murder trying to protect itself.

Of course, now that 2001 has arrived, we find that computers do not have "minds of their own" as Clarke envisioned. But that's not to say science-fiction writers haven't predicted the future of computers with uncanny accuracy countless other times. Indeed, in 1968, when he wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey, Clarke himself described e-mail and laptop computers.

In any case, as we step into this fabled new year, it seems fitting that last month's Comdex conference featured a panel of top science-fiction authors-Greg Bear, Larry Niven, and Jerry Pournelle-who offered visions of where computing is headed from here. Here's an abridged and edited version of their predictions:

Greg Bear: The next big step is not to make faster computers; it's to make the step to real artificial intelligence. What I see over at Comdex is wonderful, but it's very old technology. And it's not as brilliant as technology far older than that-the human genome. My strong suspicion is that the genome is a natural language distributed network. Genes are social. They interact with hundreds of other genes, and they do so by teaching each other how to interact. We do that ourselves. We are social individuals. Everything in nature is social. To understand how the human brain works, we have to understand how neurons are social. The solution is not going to be based solely on mathematics, but on a full-fledged series of natural languages that interact with each other. I want to come to Comdex 20 years from now when the biological, programming, and mathematical communities have all gotten together to work on this problem.

Larry Niven: I've been working on the notion that tourism may be almost over. I can picture a future in which almost nobody goes anywhere. A tourist will become a trained professional who spends months exploring the Grand Canyon or Mecca or Mars. He'll be wired to the teeth with cameras, microphones, "neurosthetic" devices to track how his muscles are moving, and even "smellovision," to record the smells in the environment. Then he will sell you recordings so you can relive his experience virtually.

Jerry Pournelle: Engineer and author Dandridge Cole once said that you can't predict the future, but you can invent it. I don't know that you can do anything but continue to invent the future. To sit back and let it roll over you while you're trying to predict it strikes me as exactly the wrong thing to do. The people who know what they're doing have to take control of the situation before people who don't know what they're doing do it for them.

Pournelle's observation may be the most prophetic. While science fiction prepares us, warns us, and points the way, those of you who invent the future have the clearest vision of all.

Phil LoPiccolo: Editor-in-Chief