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The Age of Miracle and Wonder
by Robert J. Sawyer
Copyright © 1999 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved
Part of the "Canadian Authors on 2000" Series
commissioned for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's Web Site
As a science-fiction writer, I'm used to thinking in realistic
terms about the future, extrapolating from what we know to what
might be. But the new millennium is going to put me and my
colleagues out of our jobs.
Forty years ago, Arthur C. Clarke,
the author of the quintessential millennial work
2001: A Space Odyssey, coined "Clarke's Law," which says:
"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
When Clarke said that, by "sufficiently advanced technology," he
had in mind the fruits of cultures thousands of years beyond our
But scientific progress increases exponentially. Ninety percent
of all the advances made in the millennium we're now leaving
happened in its final ten percent the final century.
Antibiotics and organ transplants, space travel and radio
telescopes, computers and lasers, television and motion pictures,
civil rights and feminism all of them are the product of the
Within the next two decades, we'll see as much additional
progress as we did in all of the last century: the world of A.D.
2020 will be as incomprehensible to us as our world of today
would have been to Queen Victoria during the last year of her
We can guess at some of what the next couple of decades will
bring, but it very quickly transcends beyond the realm of what we
know as science into Arthur C. Clarke's magic.
Consider nanotechnology, which is probably just around the
corner. It will allow us to build things up atom by atom. You
want a five-course dinner? A brick of platinum? A new kidney?
Claudia Schiffer? No problem. We can build it for you.
At the most advanced levels, nanotechnology will tear down and
build up atoms from constituent parts: the differences between
a pile of old newspapers and gold-and-diamond jewelry are only
in how the protons, neutrons, and electrons are arranged.
Sophisticated nanotech gives you the alchemist's dream of
transmutation; it gives everyone the Midas touch and it means
there is no longer any such thing as a scarce resource. Food,
fuel, drinking water, clean air whatever you want, in whatever
quantity you want it, all free for the asking.
More: since nanotechnological machines will be able to make
anything including unlimited copies of themselves
the devices that perform this magic become essentially free of
cost. Material needs disappear. Bill Gates won't be the richest
person in the world two decades from now; rather, everyone will
have unlimited wealth.
But having all your material needs taken care of does you no good
if you're dead. No problem: if you manage to hold on until A.D.
2020 another twenty years it's likely that you will
We already know what causes cells to age and cease to function;
reversing the process will be one of the countless benefits of
the Human Genome Project, currently nearing completion. Almost
everyone born on this planet after 1950 will live to see not just
the twenty-first century, but the twenty-second, and perhaps the
twenty-third as well.
Of course, even with aging halted, there's still a risk of
accident of having your body destroyed. But that's only a
concern if we continue to have bodies. Certainly by the
end of the next century, we will be able to dispense with these
fallible sacks of flesh. We will have the technology to scan our
brains and upload our consciousnesses into computers, living
entirely in a virtual realm. At that point, we will be truly
We also will be quite different from what we were; we will have
entered the transhuman era.
Granted, these notions nanotechnology, life prolongation,
uploaded consciousness are the easy ones, the ones we
can foresee, because they grow out of work already
underway at our universities. But even science-fiction writers
like myself failed to predict the World Wide Web, which has
already transformed the planet. Life in the 21st century will be
utterly unlike anything we can predict. It will be alien and
strange, and during it, we will completely redefine what it means
to be human. But it also will be wonderful and luxurious.
It will, in fact, be magic.
Robert J. Sawyer is a Nebula Award-winning science-fiction
writer living in Toronto. His latest novel is
FlashForward, published by Tor.
More Good Reading
Rob's speculations on the future of:
Rob's thoughts on Asimov's Laws of Robotics
A dialog on Ray Kurzweil's The Age of Spiritual Machines
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