Monday, May 17, 2010

Lessons from Future Past

After reading Isaac Asimov's 1950 novel Pebble in the Sky, I started thinking about what visions of the future people had around 50 years ago. While reading the book, I was particularly struck by a mundane passage where one character (Arbin) waits for his turn at the newspaper. This passage wouldn't have been jarring to me had the book's setting not been thousands of years in Earth's future, where spaceships routinely traversed the galaxy. Asimov (at least in this book) imagined people passing a newspaper around in an age of interstellar travel. This reminded me of Captain Kirk signing notepads brought to him by his crew or Princess Leia hiding messages in droids. Just send an email!

But who can blame people for imagining the future this way? The 50s and 60s followed an exciting time in physics -- in the preceding half-century, we had gone from searching for the ever-unfindable aether to discovering relativity and quantum mechanics, inventing televisions and the atomic bomb, and much more. Fusion power providing unlimited free energy was supposed to be just around the corner. Meanwhile, computer science was still in its early stages -- we sent a man to the moon still doing some calculations with slide rules. What happened in the next half a century blindsided everyone.

To be fair, physics has made its own remarkable advances since then (in ways people imagined) -- in everything from incredible materials to new and interesting theoretical developments. But in the last half-century, the real action was in computing. Some visionaries did foresee the rise of computers. But instant and universal access to information? Secure virtual payments? Zettabyte scales? Nobody saw that coming! People envisioned a Golden Age for spaceships and jetpacks, yet got one in computing first.

That some of our predictions would turn out wrong is of course expected, but I still can't help wonder what the next 50 years will bring. There's a near consensus that these advances will continue, that we'll spend more and more time online and computers will do more and more for us. And it's hard for me not to believe that this will help Golden Ages in other fields -- in medicine, now that we can quickly sequence genomes, run studies at unprecedented scales, and take advantage of nanotechnology; in math, as computers become more useful and we collaborate in new ways to solve open problems; even social sciences, as researchers get data they couldn't have dreamed of. Perhaps computers will even start to develop dreams of their own.

And while I think continued breakthroughs in computer science await (How can I not? I'm a computer scientist!), it's useful to remember that our predictions have never been perfect. Who knows where the next exciting advance will actually lie -- it might even be fusion reactors.

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