Open Questions: Technology

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See also: Biotechnology

Prediction is difficult, especially about the future.

It's like deja vu all over again.

If you don't know where you're going, you will surely end up somewhere else.

The future ain't what it used to be.

Yogi Berra


Looking backward

Looking forward

Advanced electronic technology
Digital storage technology
DNA and molecular computing
Quantum information and computing
Optical and optoelectronic technology
Artificial intelligence
Advanced networking technology
Advanced networking applications
Virtual reality
Supercomputers and grid computing
Alternative energy technologies
Controlled fusion
Carbon nanotubes
Quantum effects technology
Spacecraft and space propulsion
Microelectromechanical systems
Miscellaneous technology

Recommended references: Web sites

Recommended references: Magazine/journal articles

Recommended references: Books


The allure of technology lies in trying to guess what comes next. The temptation to "predict the future" is irresistable -- both as an intellectual exercise as well as for practical and financial reasons.

Of course, prediction of directions in technology requires an understanding of much more than the underlying science. Social and political factors usually play at least as large a role. In the area of transportation technology, for example, the politics of oil has governed the direction of technology (to say nothing of the fate of nations). Computer technology, on the other hand, has evolved largely on its own internal dynamics without being dominated by social and political influences -- at least, not up until the present.

Another thing that makes predicting the future of technology difficult -- but interesting -- is the fact that there's a large amount of variation in the rate and pattern of evolution of different technologies. The least successful approach to prediction is to assume a straightforward extrapolation of recent trends into the future. The next least successful approach is to assume that the pattern of evolution of one technology will be repeated in another.

One of the more recent, and controversial, ideas in the biological theory of evolution is the notion of "punctuated equilibria". This is the proposition that evolution isn't steady and uniform, but rather consists of long periods of stasis, occasionally interrupted by rapid bursts of change. Whatever the truth of that proposition may be in biology, it seems to hold in the history of technology.

For instance, consider the technology of commercial aviation. It began about 1930 and progressed rapidly to the advent of jetliners in about 30 years. However, since then, for the last 40 years, change has been much less dramatic. The largest jetliners have increased somewhat in size, but (except for the SST) they aren't any faster today than in 1960. Jetliners have become more fuel efficient, but only enough to compensate for the increasing cost of fuel. In a modern jetliner, the engine technology and the electronic systems are much improved, but this is almost invisible to passengers. At some point in the future, breakthroughs in engine technology and airframe materials may make a hypersonic transport commercially feasible, but that time isn't immediately at hand, and it's not at all clear when it will be.

Or consider space exploration. It progressed from the first artificial Earth satellites to a manned lunar landing in a mere 12 years. But it's spent the last 30 years just backing and filling. Although the pace here has probably less to do with technology and a lot more to do with international politics and the very high cost of space exploration, the technology itself hasn't advanced much. Booster and space propulsion systems actually in use are little different from what they were 30 years ago.

Some technologies, such as "true" artificial intelligence and controlled nuclear fusion have yet to actually get off the ground despite almost 50 years of effort. Steady, but slow, incremental progress has been made, and (in the case of AI) some commercial products have reached the market. Computers can beat the best human chess players, but only by virtue of brute computational force. No one really knows when fluent computer translation of natural languages will appear, to say nothing of the first megawatts of electricity from a commercial fusion reactor.

Computer technology in the last 50 years is actually somewhat atypical. It is the exception to the rule, in that it has evolved remarkably steadily and uniformly over that time span, according to the empirical rule known as Moore's Law, which governs the density of computer circuitry, and hence the effective computational ability and speed. Other aspects of computer technology have advanced just as uniformly, and even more rapidly, such as the bit density of magnetic storage media. Nevertheless, all indications are that fundamental physical limits to Moore's Law, as far as silicon technology is concerned, will be reached between 2010 and 2015. Some radically different technology may take over at that time, such as molecular electronics or even quantum computing -- but they're anything but a sure bet to arrive in time for a continuous transition. Optimistic projections of the continuation of exponential growth in computer power beyond another decade or so are just speculation at this point.

Biotechnology, on the other hand, has been evolving slowly but steadily since about 1980. It may reach a breakout stage and rapid acceleration within the next decade, based on our new ability to read genomes, to understand the mechanism of gene regulation, and to decipher the structure and function of proteins. At some point within the first quarter of the coming century that dramatic acceleration probably will occur, and will continue for decades, with scarely foreseeable results. But for now, even that is speculation.

The same may be said for nanotechnology, which is currently at roughly the stage biotechnology was at in 1980.

In any case, the lesson is that uniform extrapolation of technology trends over periods longer than two or three decades does not usually happen. Each different area of technology evolves at its own irregular and unpredictable pace. Close parallels between different areas of technology are hard to find.

Looking backward

There's a way of thinking about the future and making predictions that is very different from the "bottom-up" approach just discussed. It may be more effective at understanding what could happen 100 years out, because it doesn't try to anticipate the timing of specific details. That method consists of looking at what has happened in the last 100 years. It isn't unreasonable to suppose that changes (one hesitates to say "progress") as large as seen in the last 100 years will come about in the next 100. Although that isn't a sure thing, it's probably a conservative assumption that it will in fact happen. The 21st century could be far more surprising (in terms of technology) than the 20th. But at least this is a place to start.

So, what have been some of the principal innovations of the last century?

Obviously, the list could go on for pages. Several themes are apparent. We may expect similar innovations during the coming century to appear in each of these themes. Exactly how or when specific innovations will occur is generally less clear than that they will occur. This is enough to give us some idea of what life might be like 100 years from now -- assuming (what is hardly to be depended upon) that self-inflicted catastrophes do not occur.


One of the developments we can expect soonest is further extension of the two most important human senses -- sight and sound. At this point in time, we can "see" and "hear" anything anywhere in the world if the appropriate remote sensing device (telephone handset, video camera) exists and is connected to a commmunication pathway (telephone line, wireless base station, communication satellite) to which we are also connected, directly or indirectly.

We can expect the basic infrastructure components will be in place in the next decade or two that will fully enable remote sight and hearing between almost any two points people may be. Little technological innovation is required; it's all a matter of capital expenditure needed to build the infrastructure. (This was the case with the telephone system 100 years ago.)

Using straightforward extensions of existing "teleconferencing" systems, people will be able to socialize and interact with each other in a meaningful way while remaining in the "privacy" of their own homes or offices. As the systems improve, the sense of real "telepresence" will become increasingly realistic.

The social effects will be revolutionary, and will include:

Cognitive augmentation

Just as human vision and hearing can be augmented in an obvious and straightforward way by technology, faculties such as memory and imagination can too. The basic tools already exist.

As far as memory is concerned, the past century saw the general availability of tools like tape recorders, still cameras, and video cameras for making personal records of important events and experiences. Recording devices will continue to improve rapidly in terms of capacity and ease of use, enabling the storage of almost any important "memory". Computers and software will enable easy access and retrieval of such memories by making increasingly simple the indexing and combining into databases of memory data. Slowly and painfully voice recognition systems will improve their ability to accurately transcribe spoken narratives into "written" language. (Which will be helpful, if in no other way, at least for later retrieval or sharing with others.)

In a similar progression, existing computer-based "creative" tools such as image and video editors, creative writing assitants, and music composition and synthesis tools will allow people who are so inclined to exercise their imaginations in increasingly complex and satisfying ways. It won't be too long before people alone or in small groups can realize in a personal "movie" anything they can dream in their imaginations. The quality of the results, of course, will still depend on individual talent and practice -- but will increase over time for any given level of skill.

Society will face many challenges regarding what (if anything) to do with such products of the imagination that push the envelope of cultural taboos. There's a real danger of governments criminalizing thought and imagination themselves, once the technology exists for the representation of imagination in communicable forms. (This has already happened, of course, innumerable times with the older technologies of writing, painting, and photography.)


The internal combustion engine may well be near the end of its life cycle, at least for general use in powering motor vehicles. Unless new reserves of petroleum are miraculously discovered or some substitute is developed (synthetic fuels, bio-fuels), existing reserves of petroleum could be exhausted well before mid-century -- and their depletion will cause problems much sooner. In any event, use of carbon-based fuel of any sort still has the problem of possessing CO2 as a combustion product.

The obvious candidates to replace internal combustion engines in motor vehicles are electric motors powered either by batteries or fuel cells. Battery technology is not very satisfactory and is stubbornly resistant to much improvement. Fuel cells are satisfactory except for their present cost of manufacture and their possible need for new fuel storage and delivery infrastructure (for hydrogen as fuel). It will be interesting to observe how all this works out. Politics rather than technology will be a big factor, as the oil industry faces a major challenge under almost any scenario.

And what about aircraft engines as petroleum dwindles? Neither batteries nor fuel cells will do. If and when petroleum runs low, synthetic or biofuels will apparently be required. Solving this problem would seem to be more urgent than building cost-effective supersonic or hypersonic commercial aircraft.

Transportation is a slow-evolving technology, because it's based on moving matter rather than information. But it will continue to change, albeit slowly. Existing technologies will evolve rather than find themselves replaced. For instance, high-speed (200-300 mph) rail systems will appear gradually as population densities in specific corridors increase.

The pressure for evolving transportation systems will be relieved, though not entirely eliminated, as computer-based communication systems allow people to substitute telecommuting and telepresence for both short and long-distance travel.


Health and medicine

Biotechnology derived from detailed understanding of molecular and cellular biology gets most of the headlines now. It encompasses such promising technologies as new types of medicines, cloning, stem cell therapy, gene therapy, and personalized drugs. All of these are based on understanding and working with "natural" low-level biological systems (such as DNA, proteins, cells).

But completely "artificial", inorganic technologies have been slowly evolving in parallel. This is the domain of "bionics", where electronics, materials science, computer technology, and (eventually) nanotechnology meet biology.

Looking forward

In the discussions we offer here of many different new technologies, the thing to look for is how each technology can play a role in the various themes listed above.

Recommended references: Web sites

Site indexes

Open Directory Project: Technology
Categorized and annotated links. A version of this list is at Google, with entries sorted in "page rank" order. May also be found at Netscape.
Geometry.Net: Technology
Provides results of Web searches for many technology topics. See also the page on topics in computers and the Internet.

Sites with general resources

Surveys, overviews, tutorials

Industrial revolutions in the 21st century
December 1999 article from Physics World, by R. Stanley Williams. "Advances in nanotechnology, information science and molecular biology continue at a rapid rate and are poised to spark a series of industrial revolutions in the next " millennium.

Recommended references: Magazine/journal articles

Recommended references: Books


Copyright © 2002 by Charles Daney, All Rights Reserved