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Outlook: Think Ahead

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Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Reporter
Monday, April 14, 2008; 12:00 PM

"Joe Lykken is a very smart guy -- you don't get to be a theoretical physicist unless you have the kind of brain that can practically bend silverware at a distance -- and even he, with that giant cerebral cortex and the billions of neurons flashing and winking, saw the proto-Web and harrumphed. Even scientists don't always grasp the significance of innovations. Tomorrow's revolutionary technology may be in plain sight, but everyone's eyes, clouded by conventional thinking, just can't detect it."

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Washington Post reporter and achenblogger Joel Achenbach was online Monday, April 14 at noon ET to discuss his Outlook article about the difficulty -- and essentiality -- of changing how we think about the future.

The transcript follows.

Archive: Transcripts of discussions with Outlook article authors

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Joel Achenbach: The Future is now and this chat was supposed to start three minutes ago. See that's what I'm talking about: The rise of technonanopharmagenomicology, combined with a lack of punctuality.

Please send questions about my Outlook piece or anything else that you have on your mind involving the Future, the Past, the political world, the science world, your psychic distress, whatever. I'm here to solve your problems and make your pain go away.

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Joel Achenbach: Before we get started, let me address one line in the story, brought up by a reader named patrick, who writes:

"The first use of the word "Internet" to refer to a computer network seems to have appeared in this newspaper on Sept. 26, 1988, in the Financial section, on page F30"

According to Wikipedia...

"Use of the term "Internet" to describe a single global TCP/IP network originated in December 1974 with the publication of RFC 674"

So which is correct?

Dear Patrick: What we got here is some sloppy writing. The first use of "Internet" in the Post is what I'm talking about. Not in the entire whole wide world. Writing is something I'm just getting hang of.

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Fairfax, Va.: Great piece, Joel. Do you think it explains why we aren't yet using food pills? When do you think we'll get our jet packs?

Joel Achenbach: I hate to keep flogging the Michael Pollan book, but he explains why you can't just take a pill. Food is not just a package for specific, isolated molecules. Well, I guess at some level it is, but we don't know how to isolate them and package them and make them remotely as healthful as real food. As for jet packs, isn't the problem a matter of basic physics -- weight of the fuel combined with directionality issues? Like, you want to zoom in all directions like a balloon with the air coming out? I wrote about this in Why Things Are, back in the day. Will try to find it.

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Los Angeles: If you could influence the future, what technological advance would you most like to see? What innovation from science fiction are you most disappointed has not been achieved yet?

Joel Achenbach: I'd like to see self-recycling newspaper so that when you're done with the paper it doesn't pile up in the corner. That way people won't feel guilty about it and will keep subscribing.

As for your second question, "Barbarella" comes to mind for some reason.

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Porchintheother: What books would you recommend that qualify as "hard science fiction"?

Joel Achenbach: I haven't read much science fiction since ... well, since Larry Niven wrote the first "Ringworld," and Herbert was still pumping out the "Dune" books. Okay, so I read "Red Mars" by Kim Stanley Robinson -- he's a great example of hard science fiction. Ben Bova, maybe? Someone out there should weigh in and help me on this.

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Washington: You describe technological advances as if they are glittering toys that wash up on randomly the beach, but in a rational world, shouldn't technological innovation be driven by legitimate human needs?

Joel Achenbach: Sure, except we do a lot of "basic" research for which the application is yet unknown. Look at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, that's a 10-billion-dollar (at least) project designed to probe high-energy physics for which there is, as yet, no known direct application. We have no idea what we'd use a Higgs boson for. But I guess you are asking about technology; I would guess that technology at some point in the not very distant future will begin to design itself. That decoupling from human intention could get interesting. The optimists think we will always have it under our control; pessimists give us the Terminator scenario etc. A good source on that is my colleague and friend Joel Garreau who wrote a book on the future recently (will dig up exact title).

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Joel Achenbach: It's called "Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds."

Joel gave me some very helpful advice on my article, and noted, among other things, that sometimes technology is the lead agent and basic science is the trailing agent. In other words, an engineer/technician invents something and then scientists have to figure out why it works the way it does.

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Chester, S.C.: This year's iteration of the electronic home gadgets show and expo showcased a variety of robots specializing in some very rudimentary human behaviors. Should we be looking for these in a home like ours soon, or are they still research and development garage things, like the one in the Geico commercial?

Joel Achenbach: A good rule of thumb is that people have an unlimited appetite for communication and for playing games. Inventions meant for noble purposes often wind up as mobile video game players etc. So with robotic gadgets, my guess is that their future will be, ultimately, to entertain and amuse more than, say, vacuum the house. How soon? Who knows. But dig up my review of "Love and Sex With Robots"" (very silly but interesting book) ... That author was saying by mid-century people will actually have relationships and even marry robots.

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washingtonpost.com: Programmed for Love: If advances in artificial intelligence continue, your next lover may have an on/off switch. (Post, Dec. 23)

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Arlington, Va.: The best hard science fiction tales are from classic writers such as Pohl, Goldman, Clarke, Asimov and even Wells. Not so many anymore, since the genre has gone in a different direction.

Joel Achenbach: Tell me more.

I should have given Wells a nod. His "The Island of Doctor Moreau" prefigured biotech, cloning, etc. And I think his best book, "The Time Machine," is particularly haunting with its vision of a world in which the human race splits between the affluent and the poor, the above-ground and the subterranean.

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Washington: I am struck by your distinguishing between the short run and the long run. Here in Washington, the long run is the next election, which is never more than two years away. It's really hard for science-oriented government agencies to do any kind of meaningful planning given that orientation. I only can imagine it's worse in the private sector, where the long run seems to be the next quarter's earnings statements.

Joel Achenbach: The long run is the Pennsylvania primary.

Thanks for the interesting comment.

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Falls Church, Va.: Don't you agree with me that catalytic converters contribute to global warming by making air pollution difficult for folks like me to see with their naked eyes? Therefore, don't you agree that we must make carbon emissions visible by adding green food dye or some other such coloring to our vehicle exhausts and power plant smoke stacks? Eh? I mean, in the 1970s I had no problem conceptualizing air pollution because I could see the smog with my own eyes, but today I can't see carbon emissions. Maybe we need carbon emissions glasses that enable us to see carbon emissions? I prefer green food dye, but I am open to suggestions. Or maybe we could ban catalytic converters in a desperate "one step back, two steps forward" strategy?

Joel Achenbach: And maybe we can add something to the air so that we could see bovine methane emissions.

I dunno, I think your suggestion is 18 steps back, one step forward.

The source of the carbon is ultimately the energy we use in general, so there's already a gauge of your energy use in your car, called your speedometer, your odometer, etc. A good idea would be to install, as at Earthaven, digital read-outs in your home telling you precisely how much electricity you're using moment to moment.

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Rochester, N.Y.: Should we really even be talking about the future in a public forum? Doesn't that just let the terrorist know what we're going to do next? Most scientists are liberals anyway, so this whole discussion is biased.

Joel Achenbach: Yeah, but the really good stuff on this chat, the smartest questions and answers, are hidden. I only post the safe stuff.

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Washington: So, what are you suggesting your children majoring in?

Joel Achenbach: Biology might not be a bad idea.

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McLean, Va.: Although I know my question goes against the underlying premise of your article, I must ask it anyway. You are clearly a very smart guy who hangs out with the technological elite; what do you think is going to be the Next Big Thing?

Joel Achenbach: That's a very good question and perhaps a weakness in my article in that it didn't actually get around to saying what the next big thing might be. I assume it will be related to life-span, because if you suddenly extend it by a couple of decades or make it affluence-dependent you have social and economic and philosophical problems galore. Why shouldn't the oldest folks give way for a new generation?

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Rockville, Md.: Heinlein was the best for science fiction to get people ready for the future, but now I think Philip K Dick may take that honor if we lose our rational basis. If? May be gone already.

Joel Achenbach: Good point, thanks.

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Reston, Va.: Joel, as much as I'd like to be able to predict the future, I find the nearly-infinite possibilities as described by Everett's many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics far too overwhelming to contemplate. I am considering a "duck-and-cover" strategy for the future. Do you think this is a reasonable response to the Infinite by a warming mudball-dwelling, Internet-surfing, sports-watching, father of teenage daughters?

Joel Achenbach: In the future when we're watching sports and get overly excited we'll actually be able to run onto the field right through the TV screen. And trip the runner who's about to score a touchdown for the other team.

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Columbus, Ohio: Instead of the digital rapture or a "Matrix"-like virtual reality, isn't it more likely that in the next 80 years or so we probably will just improve on what we already have been doing? I mean that instead of flying cars, shouldn't we think of a really efficient 2030 Prius? Or instead of HAL, a simple, seamless connectivity between the computer and the other dumb appliances, devices and vehicles? Why the persistent set of loonie heads that constantly predict crazy ideas that people in the future turn back and make fun of? I think more than a few people in the '50s could have told you that flying cars probably were too inefficient to become reality (on a mass scale, anyway ... there was a flying car at some point but it was not very practical).

washingtonpost.com: Flying cars, including past and in-development examples (Wikipedia)

Joel Achenbach: True, flying cars didn't happen, and we don't live in plastic houses where we just hose down the interior, and our cities grew outward instead of upward (I have a great book called "Yesterday's Tomorrows" that shows some of the visions of the future, many of them comical), but I do think the Internet and cell phone come close to being Future-is-now, accelerative technologies that really change ordinary life and are in some ways more dramatic than anything envisioned in the 1950s.

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washingtonpost.com:" Yesterday's Tomorrows: Past Visions of the American Future"

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It's called "Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds.": I've just started it and it's great so far. Just reading about the telekinetic monkey at Duke University is startling. Sobering to know how much really out there research is funded by the Army.

washingtonpost.com: Official Web site for "Radical Evolution"

Joel Achenbach: Thanks!

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Reston, Va.: I've read a lot of "hard science fiction," and a lot of what I find myself gravitating to (ahem) is written by scientists. I'd recommend darn near anything written by the late Arthur C. Clarke, David Brin, Robert Forward, Vernor Vinge, Joe Haldeman, Frank Herbert, Ben Bova, Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle or Stephen Baxter.

Joel Achenbach: Now we're talking. Thanks so much for the list.

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Arlington, Va.: It seems to me that at some point increasing technological complexity gives you decreasing returns, and actually can be counterproductive. Do you think we are getting close to that?

Joel Achenbach: I think there's an aesthetic issue: Do we want the returns we're getting from technology? Just for example, think of all the people who feel the urge to take a break from email, and "unplug," because they sense they've gotten too attached to, and almost imprisoned by, the electronic universe. What kind of world do we really want to create? Ideally one in which we're more in control of our lives and not less in control; more capable of experiencing art and beauty and not (as Weingarten showed with is Josh Bell piece) too rushed for it. I'm not sure the world is getting "better" because of technology.

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washingtonpost.com: Pearls Before Breakfast (Post, April 8, 2007)

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Joel Achenbach: Let me add something to that last comment. I make the case in the Outlook piece that science and technology are the big change agents. But I don't think that has always been necessarily so, even in my lifetime. I think the civil rights movement was every bit as important as the space program in the 1960s, for example. The Outlook section was titled The Science Century and I think that's about right: If the 20th was (in Luce's formulation) "the American Century" then perhaps the 21st will be one in which no single nation or ideology is as important as the changes driven by converging technologies in biology, physics, medicine, chemistry, etc.

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Alberta, Canada: A commenter posted this on your blog this morning, but it seems to be the question fits. "I'll do the preview in the future and be patient with the submit button..." Are the people who develop technologies the best people to see how it could be used in the future? I would worry that they are too close to the subject to see it. Isn't there a think tank out there looking at a technology before the developers hit submit? Once a thing is dreamed, can you stop an idea? Should you?

Joel Achenbach: Technology works great if you're the geek who designed the 37-window triple-toggled F12 function key backspace feature.

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Arlington, Va.: Maybe this is a naive thought, but how sure are we that there really will be revolutionary technology coming along at all? It seems to me that most of the interesting technology of the past 50 years has been more a refinement and extension of existing technology. We have been making things faster, better and cheaper, but are they really new? Even the Internet is just an extension of existing communication networks.

Joel Achenbach: I'm not sure I agree with that. Certain technologies come along and lead to a big step-function change in the world. Think of how steam suddenly altered a world in which, for thousands of years, all power came from human and animal muscle, wind and water. Or how the telegraph decouple communication from human mobility. I think things like the transistor can be mentioned as part of that, and maybe -- someone help me here -- the packet-switching technologies of the Internet. Townes et al inventing the laser ... gene-splicing. ... simply being able to see life as a information-based system -- that's new and revolutionary.

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Columbia, Md.: How can you reconcile the need to embrace the future by understanding science with what's going on today? America seems to be rejecting science and engineering. People are abusing the concept of Scientific Theory ("Evolution is just a theory") and suppressing scientific results that are not favorable to their political position. The best jobs for science grads aren't in the laboratory, but on Wall Street. Heck, does anybody really work on their cars nowadays? Do they try and understand how the cars work? Do people even try to understand how anything works nowadays? Apparently not, based on what's being sold nowadays on TV.

Joel Achenbach: You're not supposed to work on your car anymore. No one knows how anything works. Though my big goal as I get older is to become the kind of guy who tinkers with things. If there's anything left that tinkerable.

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Washington: "The future is often viewed as an endless resource of innovation that will make problems go away -- even though, if the past is any judge, innovations create their own set of new problems. Climate change is at least in part a consequence of the invention of the steam engine in the early 1700s and all the industrial advances that followed."

How should we then approach problems such as global warming? Many people advocate the morality of this issue, rather than adopting some magic piece of technology that will help reverse global warming. When do we need to replace or perhaps reject technology in place of good old common sense? Do we rely on technology to solve too many of our problems?

Joel Achenbach: I am skeptical that technology alone will curb global warming -- unless you throw in, under the label of technology, revised urban architecture and changes in the way people move, work, shop, etc. ... There has to be a way to embed the real environmental cost of all of our actions in the prices we pay.

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Reston, Va.: Joel: I recently read Ray Kurzweil's " The Singularity is Near," and I am in agreement with his major points -- none of the biggest problems we face are the ones you see in the headlines today, even the big, long-term issues like global warming. I think the biggest problem we face is the accelerating rate of change not just in technology but in human society itself, and specifically our inability to adapt fast enough to manage and/or somewhat control it.

I see signs already indicating the advancing rate of change in our society. I was initially surprised at the speed with which the "Obama Phenomenon" took hold across the country; I don't think that we would have seen anything like that happen even five years ago in this country, and it was clear that the leaders of both political parties were caught by surprise by it just as much as the media was. Clearly, the "next Internet" is not going to be easy to spot, even with the great research capability of the current Internet at our disposal...

My biggest hope for the future is that we someday soon can move away from the politics of idealism and confrontation and discard the artificial divide between "liberal" and "conservative." I would like to see a new political movement based on recognizing and solving problems and issues, or taking practical steps to reduce them rather than arguing endlessly about which approach is the most morally upright one.

Joel Achenbach: Except conflict is rewarding. It pays dividends to the partisans. You don't get ahead as a moderate in today's political environment. Or get a TV show.

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Colorado Springs, Colo.: Interesting article, and mostly true. But with regard to personal medical information being "kept under wraps," don't you agree that keeping medical information on paper is not the future? There are many security measures (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) firmly in place and taken very seriously, including security access and audit controls. We must urge automation and interoperability of medical information as long as privacy concerns are fully addressed. It already is happening, although not fast enough. Look at the banking industry -- it's pretty safe to bank online. Yes, humans are a unique commodity and we want to control our health records as much as our general health. The electronic health record (EHR) ultimately will decrease health costs (redundancy of tests, medication errors, etc.) and increase patient safety and positive outcomes.

Joel Achenbach: Good point. But let me throw out a very simple thought: What happens when everyone's genome is stored in digital format? Information wants to escape. If nothing else, you can imagine a day when a number of people find out that they are not the genetic offspring of the person they call "dad."

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Arlington, Va.: People who have cell phones eventually lose the ability to plan ahead -- as in, "let's meet at spot X at time Y." They always are "replanning" last-minute, or calling the person waiting to say "oh, I'm over here and let's meet at this different spot blah blah blah." Not to mention all the other annoyances of interacting with cell/BlackBerry people.

Joel Achenbach: And GPS destroy's one's ability to read the landscape.

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Herndon, Va.: Mr. A: sci-fi "predictions" -- the late, great Robert Heinlein was as good as any, but in his later years (he died in the 1980s) he noted how wrong he was in predicting cheap housing for the millions. He said he never realized that modular and other mass-produced housing never would catch on. As he noted, if automobiles were manufactured like houses, each car would cost at least $100,000 (that's in 1980s dollars).

Joel Achenbach: Harder to predict than technology is human desire -- what exactly people will want. They tend not to want to live the way futurists think they will want to live (like, who would want to live all cramped in a space colony?).

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Tiburon, Calif.: In order to download, distribute and process data obtained from experiments in the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, planned for launch in June, I am hearing about the new fiber optic data transmission system called " The Grid" -- 10,000 times faster than the Internet. What impact do you imagine being delivered by the next evolution after the Internet? On knowledge dissemination, solution generation, communication exchange, human interaction? Thanks for your consideration.

Joel Achenbach: I'm glad you brought this up. When I was at CERN I got a briefing on the Grid and saw all the hundreds of servers that will handle the data from the subatomic collisions and all that -- but what's intriguing is the outsourcing of data-crunching in the same manner as SETI at Home. What happens when all the world's computers join forces in a parallel-processing endeavor to once and for all figure out where we left the car keys?

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San Diego: Good hard science fiction writers: Robert Charles Wilson, Charles Sheffield, Stephen Baxter, Greg Bear, Gregory Benford...

Joel Achenbach: Thanks!

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Nellysford, Va.: As a former engineer, I recall times when we would discover some unintentional consequence of a particular design. If it didn't interfere with the device's primary function we would jokingly recast the event as a "feature." On more than one occasion, it turned out that a "feature" could be exploited in some new device for some other purpose. Sometimes, however, "features" would come back to bite us in unexpected ways.

I worry that some of the "features" of so-called "renewable energy sources" are of the latter kind. For example, both solar and wind power have the potential side effect of changing local wind patterns -- the former by absorbing radiant energy that otherwise would be reflected (albedo) and the latter by slowing or stopping wind flow. Building larger solar collection stations and windmill farms will have larger effects.

The main consequence of changing wind patterns is changing where the rain falls -- or doesn't. At the extreme, we could turn fertile farmlands into deserts, and deserts could become rain forests. Our engineering firm did not have any formal means for anticipating the unintentional consequences of these features. Who is in charge of worrying about the unintentional consequences of expanding solar and wind power "solutions"?

Joel Achenbach: The story of humankind is perhaps one long tale of unintended consequences. Did we plan on having 6.5 billion people on this Earth? Maybe it was a mistake to invent fire. In any case, thanks for the interesting comment.

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Instead of the digital rapture or a "Matrix"-like virtual reality, isn't it more likely that in the next 80 years or so we probably will just improve on what we already have been doing?: I think that's more the nature of humanity, at any given point in history, to say "that's it, we've broken all the barriers, now we just refine." It's about our overall inability to have broad vision. But in fact, we do always break out of the envelope and make changes we couldn't envision a few decades ago. Who among us over 40 would have believed in the Internet when we were 20? Lasik surgery? Cell phones?

Joel Achenbach: Exactly.

Folks, I'm going to wrap this up ... thanks so much for joining in! Have a great day. Get outside and enjoy spring. Right now's a good time to unplug. Cheers.

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