Monday, November 22, 2004

'Profiles of the Future': A Blast From the Past

I’m scheduled to be the Immortality Institute’s guest chat person this coming Sunday, on the topic of futurism in the past and present. This is why my reading list has been so heavy on the future these last few weeks; I’d like to be at my most intelligible best. Finding futurism from the present has been no problem thus far, but futurism from the past has been tough. Even forty or fifty years back would be nice, although I intend to go back much farther before drawing my conclusions, into the depths of that history stuff I'm supposed to know so much about.

With this in mind, I was hoping to get my hands on a copy of the 1962 version of Arthur C. Clarke’s classic 'Profiles of the Future: An Inquiry Into the Limits of the Possible', but the best my library could do was his 1984 revision. Some chapters are revised extensively, and others not at all, but Clarke doesn’t always tell you which ones, so I don’t know how close to the original I got. Most of it doesn’t seem to have changed too much, and holds up well even now, because this book does not try to defend any particular scenario of the future so much as describe the possibilities that exist within our understanding of the laws of physics; the changes in understanding between 1962 and 1984 didn’t close off much, if any, of that territory.

Older writers in a non-fiction format that amounts to a soap box can sometimes be tedious, but I found Clarke to be surprisingly readable and even playful; for example, his recognition that advances in communications and telepresence might greatly diminish the need for passenger vehicles does not keep him from explaining how hovercraft, conveyer systems, sky hooks—even antigravity and extra dimensions—might get us from place to place. (Yes, he admits that those last two methods seem pretty unlikely, but he can’t rule them out, and the point of this book is to cover the interesting things he can’t rule out.) Similarly, he accepts the possibility of superintelligence and uploads, but still talks about human-equivalent machines assisting humans in their daily affairs. I daresay that Profiles of the Future is the most entertaining non-fictional future study I’ve read in years—a blend of rational insight and old-school Sci-Fi fun.

But I wasn’t reading for the entertainment value. I was trying to be more critical. But between winning me over and playing it safe, Clarke didn’t leave me much chance to fault him. As if anticipating my needs, however, he appended his text with a rough, extensively disclaimered timeline – pay dirt. I quickly surmised that his general error class was the one Kurzweil most likes to brings up: short term expectations (20 years or so) are a little too optimistic, while long-term predictions are much too conservative. He correctly expected cloning and super-heavy elements between 2000 and 2010, but he also expected manned planetary landings and non-cryogenic superconductors around this time. Well, I suppose the decade isn’t over yet. As for space elevators and the creation of greater-than-human intelligence: he didn’t see these until 2090-2100, which seems much too distant given the discovery of carbon nanotubes and the contemporary consensus of 2030 or so for greater intelligence.

I may just have to see what interesting things he’s said lately. He’s pushing 90 now, but his name still appears on collections and collaborations from time to time, so maybe he’s not completely out of the game.


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