Monday, March 03, 2014

Physics of the Future

This book would make a great source of inspiration for science fiction novels. There are chapters here about energy from space, nuclear fusion, nanobots and all sorts of technology. The author even peppers the book with actual science fiction allusions. (Star Trek - money? What's that. Nanobots can make everything. However, an emotionless android would not be capable of being a good crew member. Honey I shrunk the Kids? Nope, physics would be totally different at the small level. Terminator? AI research is probably a long way off from getting a senscient computer.)

The book's fault is that it seems to be extremely optimistic towards the progress of science. It does acknowledge the "caveman principle" that we may like contact and physical stuff. Some inventions like the paperless office are doomed to fail because of this. (Or are they? Offices do seem to be getting more and more paperless. It is just not a sudden thing.) Face to face visits are still needed for all the personal contact. However, even beyond these there is the cost of the "Technology". Even if we could create technology to eliminate all our work, would we? If nanobots could produce anything for nothing, accumulation of "stuff" might be simple. But what about property? That is still scarce. We seem to be drowning in too much affluence. We could make automatic cars, but what about the roads? Where would we park all the cars? Reducing pollution might be a nice goal, but what about all the other impacts of cars? And what if medicine could cure just about every disease automatically through little chips. Would we simply become computers? Maybe our destiny is to design the new computers that will be our robotic progeny? Or perhaps a terrorist will use some of it to wipe out most of the earth, and send the world back into a dark age. Or we may even go the way of the dinosaurs.

I want to check out Jules Verne's Paris of the 20th century. I wonder how accurately his view of the future sounded. The problem with future predictions is that it never really goes forward linearly. Some new idea may disrupt the entire train of research. Or a physically inferior form of technology may get a huge amount of money behind it and inflict itself upon the market. Looking at what science can logically be able to do may be a good start. (I didn't realize we actually had fusion now, just not practical fusion.) However, things are never that linear in real life.

He also talks about the phases that things go through. At one time books were precious commodities. Then the price came down where everybody could afford them. Then everyone could afford a library. And now paper is a number one source of trash and books are often more about "fashion statements". He predicts computer chips will follow the same path. They will become embedded everywhere and eventually become a source of much trash. However, he predicts Moore's law will eventually collapse, bringing down much of Silicon Valley with it. (Ah, there is an issue. Silicon Valley has become more of an "innovation" and software hub than a chip producing location. Less rapid increases in processing may change some of the focus on computing, but probably wont be vary disastrous on the area as a whole. Even recently, focus has downshifted to the less powerful mobile devices. If hardware innovation slows, we can expect a lot more in the software innovation front.)

Discussion of economics also gets a little fuzzy. According to the author, all economic bubbles were caused by technological innovation. The previous generation's bubbles were forgotten and thus a new bubble. The bubble happens when the financiers of the new technology have more money than they know what to do with. The actual use of it happens later. The 19th century panics were caused by railroad money. However, the railroad was eventually expanded, providing the benefit. The real estate bubble was caused by internet money needing a place to go. This explanation makes sense on the surface, but seems a little too simplistic in practice.

This book does provide a good overview of technologies that are on the cusp of widespread commercialization. It has, perhaps, a little too much faith in its scientific predictive powers (especially when it veers into the social realm.) However, it still provides lots of fodder for futuristic immaginations.

No comments:

Post a Comment