Yesterday's tomorrow is today
By Dr. Robert Owens
Science fiction has predicted many of today's realities from cell phones to tablets. Many things that are today part of History like walking on the moon, organ transplants, and space stations were once flights of fancy.
Futurists build current events on a foundation of History to provide a launching pad for visions of what is to come. One of the most widely recognized Futurists is Alvin Toffler whose seminal works include Future Shock and The Third Wave. He is also the one who told us, "Change is not merely necessary to life - it is life."
Here is my question for today "Is Ray Kurzweil a futurist?"
The Wall Street Journal has described Kurzweil as "the restless genius." Forbes calls him "the ultimate thinking machine." He has been ranked by Inc. Magazine as #8 among entrepreneurs in the United States He has also been called "the rightful heir to Thomas Edison," while according to PBS he is one of 16 "revolutionaries who made America."
His inventions are breathtaking and they impact our lives on a daily basis. These inventions include the first CCD flat-bed scanner, the first omni-font optical character recognition, the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind, the first text-to-speech synthesizer, the first music synthesizer capable of recreating the grand piano and other orchestral instruments, and the first commercially marketed large-vocabulary speech recognition.
Today, many websites attribute Mr. Kurzweil with accurate predictions about where the world will be tomorrow. In his latest book, The Singularity is Near he describes the singularity as, a reference to the theoretical limitlessness of exponential expansion) that will see the merging of our biology with the staggering achievements of "GNR" (genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics) to create a species of unrecognizably high intelligence, durability, comprehension, memory and so on. This is a bold prediction; however, bold predictions do not a Futurist make.
There is a fundamental difference between someone who is a professional writer and observer of humanity such as Toffler and someone who is a technological genius with almost unlimited resources who is actively working to make his predictions reality. Toffler reads studies and interviews on his way to predictions of where society and technologies will go next. Kurzweil traded in his massive private business built upon his inventions to become Google's Director of Engineering whose sole job is to make the company's computers smarter than humans. He is working every day to improve artificial intelligence and then wed that to cutting edge robotics and human interface to produce the very singularity he is predicting.
Reaching back to the science fiction genre which I referenced earlier we are looking at the rise of the machines, the coming of the cylons, skynet, and the matrix. These of course are all fiction; however, the reality we face brings this question to my mind, "Once we design and build machines that are smarter than we are and they design and build machines that are smarter than they are what do they need us for?"
The projected development of Artificial Intelligence (AI) foresees a time when machines not only rival but surpass human capabilities. Once this happens will we know when these super intelligent machines cross the threshold from hyper abilities to self-awareness? These scenarios are troubling, even terrifying yet most people would dismiss them as the science fiction they mirror. There is another aspect of this technological revolution that is not quite as far-fetched and not quite as unbelievable: automation.
We have lived with automation all of our lives. People have been displaced by innovation since the Sumerian water wheel took the place of people with buckets bringing water from rivers into their fields. I can remember people telling me in the 1970s, "I'm a keypunch operator, I'll always have a job." Today machinists, tool and dye makers, auto workers, and many people have been replaced by machines. Tomorrow white collar workers will face the same fate as so many of their blue collar brethren. Why do we need accountants when machines can fill in the same programs they use today to figure taxes and current accounts? Who needs teachers when lectures can be delivered by speech technology, questions answered by Watson type question answers, and tests grade themselves?
Look to Futurists like Toffler who are predicting where we are headed and look to inventors like Kurzweil who are telegraphing where they are headed and a collage of futures points to the tomorrow today will become.
It is my contention that we as a people, as a society, and as a civilization need to address this soon approaching brave new world. When I speak to people about these coming changes the almost universal reaction is, "Not in my lifetime." I believe this is a combination of wishful thinking, hiding our heads in the sand, and having no idea what is going on around us.
This is a social dislocation approaching at speeds unforeseen. I don't believe these changes are decades away. I believe within a decade they will be upon us. Large percentages of blue and white collar workers will be displaced. Machines will take the place of humans in many areas and humans will not be able to compete with them. If we allow this to come upon us with no preparation we will be swamped by the rising tide of change and drowned in the tsunami of innovation.
Change is accelerating as the interconnectedness of communication accelerates the cross-polarization of ideas. After tens of thousands of years the use of the wheel had not spread all the way around the world. Today something is invented in America this morning, improved in India this afternoon, and spawning new ideas tomorrow in China. We cannot contain the explosion of technology because someone somewhere will always seek to move beyond the known to the unknown. No matter what glories we have beheld yesterday tomorrow is coming whether today is ready or not.
Long ago Toffler told us, "Future shock is the shattering stress and disorientation that we induce in individuals by subjecting them to too much change in too short a time." He also predicted and predated Kurzweil's Singularity when he said, "The next major explosion is going to be when genetics and computers come together. I'm talking about an organic computer - about biological substances that can function like a semiconductor."
How long will it before our cars drive themselves, 3-D printers create human organs, and the government has the ability to monitor everyone at once? How long will it be before you cannot tell the difference between speaking to a computer on the phone and speaking to a human?
Failure to plan is planning to fail. If we as a society do not stop living in yesterday and face up to the challenges of today we will sacrifice our future.
Dr. Robert Owens teaches History, Political Science, and Religion. He is the Historian of the Future @ http://drrobertowens.com © 2013 Robert R. Owens firstname.lastname@example.org Follow Dr. Robert Owens on Facebook or Twitter @ Drrobertowens / Edited by Dr. Rosalie Owens