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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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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