[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
ROBERT J. SAWYER
Hugo and Nebula Winner


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Science in the 21st Century

by Robert J. Sawyer

Copyright © 2000 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved


First published in The Globe and Mail: Canada's National Newspaper, Saturday, January 1, 2000.


One of my most illustrious predecessors as a science-fiction writer was Jules Verne. Back in the 1860s he wrote a novel called Paris in the Twentieth Century; the book was set a hundred years on, in the 1960s.

Big Julie had it easy, though. He knew there was no way he'd be around a century later to have to face up to whether his predictions were correct. (As it happened he did get a bunch of things right, including fax machines and elevators, but he got many more wrong.)

Well, I've been asked to make some predictions here about what science will discover in the next hundred years. But, unlike good old Jules, I suspect I will be around in the year 2100, one way or another — and doubtless, if I'm wildly off in my prognostications, people will tell me so with glee.

Around in a hundred years, you say? Yes, indeed. We've taken enormous strides recently towards understanding why it is that we age and die.

We now know, for instance, what causes the Hayflick limit — the fact that human cells only seem able to divide about fifty times before they give up the ghost. The ends of chromosomes have little caps on them, called telomeres, that are reduced with each division; when they're exhausted, the cell stops dividing.

We can now prevent this, rendering cells immortal. It's only a matter of time — perhaps another twenty-five years — before we figure out how to give human beings much, much longer life spans.

Other medical breakthroughs will occur, as well. I have no doubt that we'll conquer cancer, AIDS, Alzheimer's, obesity, and most other diseases within a century. And we will take cloning beyond its present, ethically troublesome stage.

Currently, we can only clone a complete organism, but soon we'll be able to grow duplicates of just those parts we need: new hearts, new lungs, new eyes. That will put an end to the shortage of organs for transplant, and difficulties over tissue rejection.

That's not to say that cloning won't be seen as a valid reproductive choice; dynasties will doubtless exist by the end of the twenty-first century consisting of genetically identical individuals.

Other reproductive possibilities will be common, too. Today's test-tube babies are only the beginning. Tomorrow, we'll be able to mix and match genes from any two individuals, meaning same-sex couples will be able to have offspring that are as much a product of their union as kids produced the old-fashioned way are; the same technology will allow post-menopausal women to have children, too.

Artificial wombs will be practical before century's end, as well, optionally putting an end to the inefficient (and dangerous) process by which babies are brought to term now. Of course, some women will still choose to carry a fetus within their bodies — but that won't be an exclusively female prerogative.

Men will be able to become pregnant, too, if they so wish (an ectopic pregnancy isn't all that much different from what one inside a man's body would be like). Of course, sexual politics a century hence will be much different than they are today; it seems clear that almost any consensual relationship will be considered normal.

Within a matter of months, the first phase of the international Human Genome Project will be complete, mapping out all the DNA that makes up a human being. The next phase, figuring out what each gene does, will take a few decades.

But, soon enough, designer babies will be realities: parents will be able to choose what traits they want their children to have. Of course, many traits are the results of combinations of genes. Because of this, it may be impossible to produce a child who will grow up to be both a world-class wrestler and a toy maker.

Some commentators have tried to make this technology out to be an awful thing, but I have trouble seeing the downside of it. We all know couples in which he looks great and she's a genius — but their hapless child has gotten his brains and her looks. Kids only get fifty percent of each parent's DNA; why wouldn't you want to ensure that your son or daughter got your best half?

And you just know there will be lawsuits launched by kids against parents who could have chosen to spare them from diabetes, or shortness, or stupidity, or ugliness, but chose not to. Making the best possible blending of your traits and your spouse's will likely become the norm.

But, of course, we'll eventually be able to go even farther than that, adding characteristics that neither parent possesses — or even things that no human yet has. Gills might be a very handy addition if you live in a coastal community, for instance; the ability to see infrared heat patterns could come in handy, too. A little genetic tinkering could give human beings either of those capabilities.

If you get the sense that I think the next hundred years will be the biotech century, you're right — but that's hardly the only area in which great strides will be made. Arthur C. Clarke predicted that computers would be able to think before the end of the twentieth century. Remember HAL? In the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, he was created in 1992. Well, that didn't come to pass. Indeed, we're still a long way away from artificial intelligence — but it is coming.

As science-fiction writers go, I'm not particularly alarmist. But I do worry about the emergence of thinking computers. If we make machines that are smarter than us, there's no particular reason to believe they'll still want to be our servants. Although Luddites rose en masse when the sheep Dolly was cloned, no protests were staged when Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov at chess — and yet I think the latter is the thin edge of a much more dangerous wedge.

But, like most science-fiction writers, I'm relegated to the role of Cassandra; we doubtless will see computers involved in every aspect of our lives. Paper books and newspapers will, of course, disappear — but so will software distributed on disks or CDs. Everything will come over the web (with access that will seem instantaneous), and we will run programs off the web, instead of installing them on our own computers.

But you won't have to sit in front of a monitor to be online. Rather, you will be the web terminal. By 2050, most people will have implants in their heads, bring them any information they want, whenever they want it, just by thinking about it.

I said at the outset that I'll likely be around in 2100, one way or another. The "another" also involves computers. Our brains are hardware; our minds are software. There's no reason why whatever it is that we consider to be ourselves cannot be transferred into a computer.

There's already a "transhumanist" movement, active on many university campuses, dedicated towards taking us into this next quantum leap in evolution. If you uploaded your consciousness into a machine, you'd live forever — quite possibly in an idyllic, utopian virtual world.

Even for those who decided to stay flesh-and-blood, virtual reality will obviate the need for much travel; everybody will be able to see the Grand Canyon, or ski at Banff, without leaving the comfort of their own homes.

And you'll be able to do all the things that currently require you to go into the office — including attending meetings and just socializing with your coworkers — without ever leaving your living room, too. The hour-long commute each way will be looked back on as sheer madness, and the office cubicle as inhumane and counterproductive.

When people stop having to commute to work each day, they'll see little reason to live in overcrowded cities. Expect to see a huge exodus to rural environments — and, of course, a huge reduction in smog, as cars are used less and less.

People have been predicting the four-day workweek for decades; I'm not going to make that mistake. It seems clear that, so long as we have rewarding, dignified jobs, human beings actually like working. But we clearly also like learning; education will no longer be something just for the young.

And there will be much to learn. I expect enormous strides in almost all fields of research. In cosmology, for instance, we will definitively answer that most vexing questions: precisely how old is the universe? We're getting close to that figure now, but there's no reason why we can't pin it down exactly. The year 2100 A.D. might just as easily be known as absolute year 12,333,259,327 — the twelve-billionth-and-change year since the origin of the universe.

We'll also know for sure the ultimate fate of the universe — whether it will expand forever, or collapse down again in a big crunch. (Actually, I expect some even bigger upheavals in cosmology; it wouldn't surprise me if the current inflationary big-bang model was replaced with something more elegant.)

And we'll figure out what "dark matter" is: the mysterious material that accounts for ninety percent of the mass of our universe, but has never been observed. That the subatomic particles known as neutrinos seem to have some mass probably accounts for a portion of it, but I suspect something much more exotic is responsible for the rest.

If other forms of life exist in the universe, we'll probably have proof of their existence shortly. I'm optimist enough to still hold out hope for the existence of subterranean life on Mars, and I'm increasingly enthusiastic about us finding life in an ocean beneath the surface ice of Jupiter's moon Europa.

But I suspect we'll also make radio contact with extraterrestrials by century's end. And, indeed, the first human voyagers will probably have left Earth on a one-way journey to another star (and it goes without saying that there will be permanent human settlements in Earth orbit, on the moon, and on Mars).

The most profound breakthroughs of all may come in the area of nanotechnology — machines on the order of a billionth of a meter in size. The first generations of these devices will be able to do such useful work as moving through the human bloodstream, scraping plaque off arterial walls.

But, later, nanotech will go even farther, tearing down and building up atoms from their constituent parts, making the alchemists dream of transmutation a reality. Nanomachines will be able to turn raw materials — rocks, old newspapers, oil spills — into whatever we want, including food, fuel, and, yes, more nanomachines, meaning this technology becomes essentially free. If it works, it will usher in a true golden age (with as much gold as anyone could possibly want), putting an end to poverty and the economic incentives for war.

In the next century, I suspect science will even answer the biggest question of all: is there a god? If the universe had an intelligent designer, it should show signs of intelligent design.

Even today, many credible scientists argue that it clearly does: the relative strengths of the four fundamental forces that drive our universe — gravitation, electromagnetism, the strong nuclear force, and the weak nuclear force — do seem to have been chosen with great care, since any substantial deviation from the present ratios would have resulted in a universe devoid of stars or even atoms.

Likewise, the remarkable thermal properties of water — most notably, that it expands as it freezes and that it has higher surface tension than any other fluid except liquid selenium — seem specifically jiggered to make life possible.

What we need to know is if an infinite number of parallel universes exist or has existed, each subtly different from the others. If so, then this particular set of physical values had to turn up somewhere in the panoply, and therefore there's nothing remarkable about it.

But if not — if science can prove that this is the only universe that has ever existed — well, then, it would be extraordinarily difficult to explain its remarkable life-sustaining qualities without recourse to an intelligent designer. One way or another, not as a matter of faith, but as a matter of empirical knowledge, we'll know the truth by the end of the twenty-first century.

Sound far-fetched? Maybe. But let's make a date to get together on December 31, 2099. If it turns out I'm wrong, you can tell me so then.


Robert J. Sawyer's latest science-fiction novel is FlashForward, published by Tor. On Sunday, January 2, 2000, he is co-hosting the documentary Inventing the Future on The Discovery Channel.


More Good Reading

More Futurism articles
Rob's thoughts on the future of Artificial Intelligence
Read Calculating God for more on intelligent design
Both Golden Fleece and Factoring Humanity examine artificial intelligence


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