From a struggling past to a glowing future

August 29 2008 / by futuretalk / In association with Future
Category: Other   Year: General   Rating: 6 Hot

By Dick Pelletier

By some fortuitous circumstance I was born on October 26, 1930, the day the government announced that world population had exceeded two billion people, so I figure that was me.

In the early 1930s, President Hoover announced that “Prosperity is just around the corner,” but he could not have been more wrong. One-eighth of the population owned seven-eighths of the nation’s wealth – a formula for disaster – and the “Great Depression” was on.

My five siblings and I were raised on a farm near Hermiston, Oregon. Our home had no electricity and few modern conveniences. We bathed in a small tub in the kitchen with little privacy, drank water from a hand pump in the back yard, and made bathroom trips to a two-seater outhouse.

In 1938 we finally connected to the electric grid and quickly replaced the outhouse with an indoor toilet, installed electric lights throughout the house, and built an indoor shower. Then in 1939, another miracle arrived – our first telephone was installed. The world was looking better.

Jet travel didn’t exist in the 1930s; a five-day ocean trip was the main way to go from America to Europe, and wireless meant the wood-paneled Zenith radio in the living room.

But America’s mastery of the physical and biological world would grow tremendously. Life expectancy soared from about 50 years in 1930 to nearly 80 today, and the Green Revolution transformed agriculture, which now provides food for a world population that exceeds 6.5 billion.

In late 1930s, President Roosevelt, emboldened by his “New Deal” legislation which ended the depression, authorized the “Manhattan Project”, an aggressive effort to build an atomic bomb and use it to hasten the end of World War II.

Developing atomic energy led to nuclear energy and prompted a demand for machines that could crunch numbers and arrange information; this eventually produced the PC and Internet. Thanks to advances like these, worker output in the U.S. increased an average of 2% per year, raising our standard of living to the highest in the world.

In 1965, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore predicted that computers would double in cost/performance every two years. His correct prophecy became known as “Moore’s Law”, and experts now predict that all technologies advance exponentially.

So a fair question would be: If over the last 78 years, technology changed our lives so radically, what might we expect in the future? The following predictions offer some amazing possibilities:

• By 2020. Regenerative medicine, the ability to use organs built from stem cells and modified by genetic engineering, could enable replacement of most body parts damaged by disease and aging.

• By 2030. Molecular nanotech could provide replicators that supply food, clothing, and necessities at little or no cost, and nanobots that rejuvenate cells, allowing middle-aged and elderly people to regain their health, strength, and youthful beauty.

• By 2040. Robots with massive artificial intelligence could outthink humans, sparking human-machine merges. Some refer to this as becoming “transhuman”; others say it is simply the next step in our evolution.

Could this “magical future” become reality? Experts believe these miracles will be driven by human needs and could happen in time to benefit many of us alive today.

Comments welcome.

What has been America's greatest achievement since 1930?

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Comment Thread (19 Responses)

  1. The problem with all this accelerated change is the backlash that is starting to percolate underneath the surface of American society. We are seeing some resistance from the top and from the bottom. I fear there will be a lot of reluctance to accept these changes from this “magical future” in the very near-term before we see the next wave of technology arrive at our doorstep.

    I am really glad that I am in my early 20’s.

    Posted by: Covus   August 30, 2008
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  2. Remember the technologies that point toward this optimistic future – nanotech, biotech, infotech, and cognitive sciences – are all advancing exponentially.

    I see nothing surfacing today that could prevent our “magical future” from becoming reality over the next few decades.

    Posted by: futuretalk   August 30, 2008
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  3. @ futuretalk—While I agree with you, the controversy pertaining to embryonic stem cell research makes me uncomfortable. I just hope things like that are a small blip in the grand scheme of things.

    Posted by: Covus   August 30, 2008
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  4. That problem will fade as the pace of change accelerates. In the past, change was only noticeable over a lifetime (20th century). Nowadays, change is quick, but still slow enough for people to either

    1)adapt to it and take it for granted. These people become used to steady change, and often deny its existence, or its importance (the ‘naysayers’)

    2)accept it and be alert to change, be keenly aware of it. These people either rejoice or complain (e.g. stem cell research).

    In the third and final phase starting soon, the acceleration phase, people will not have the time to casually debate the implications of a particular technology. The only way to prevent the snowball from rolling down the hill is to blow up the snowball, i.e. melt the world economy (no pun intended).

    Posted by: CptSunbeam   August 30, 2008
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  5. Covus, if improving human health with technologies like regenerative medicine makes you uncomfortable, you might ask yourself why.

    I don’t know of anyone who is suffering from a debilitating disease who would not welcome a chance to live a better life.

    Humans have always tried to improve themselves. The desire for survival and to better ourselves is ingrained in our genes and has been with us since before our caveman ancestor days.

    Scientists are just now unraveling the mysteries of how nature uses stem cells to make repairs in our bodies and hopefully by around 2020 or so, we will be able re-grow failing organs, skin, muscles, bones; any body part that is deteriorating.

    Already researchers have harnessed stem cells to grow new heart tissues and have successfully created a complete human bladder. Regenerative medicine promises to one day provide improved health for everyone.

    Posted by: futuretalk   August 30, 2008
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  6. @futuretalk – No, you misunderstood my comment. I am uncomfortable because people were and are trying to impede progress of embryonic research. I am very progressive and want these changes to occur because I know these scientific discoveries could lead to the end of many diseases.

    Posted by: Covus   August 31, 2008
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  7. @CptSunbeam—Yes, and as soon as the last phase begins, the world is in for a wild ride.

    Posted by: Covus   August 31, 2008
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  8. These transhumanist visions have increasingly diverged from economic reality in the U.S. more and more Americans have to cut back, do without health and dental care, cancel satellite or cable TV services, use the phone less, buy cheaper food and so forth just as this quasi-religious talk about the singularity has gone mainstream. The abandoned suburbs, unsellable SUV’s and “ghost malls” now surrounding major American cities suggest that all this talk about technological acceleration as the solution to our economic problems amounts to whistling past the graveyard.

    Posted by: advancedatheist   August 31, 2008
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  9. Advancedatheist, I find it difficult to understand what you are trying to say, but I gather that you have a negative view of today’s life.

    As a positive futurist and a glass half full person, I have a more optimistic outlook. I see that today, humanity is much better off than when I first arrived on the scene in 1930, and that the future will offer an even better life.

    I believe that as science fiction sometimes precludes real science advances, positive thoughts about our future can also serve as a template for the real future.

    Think positive and you too could one day be enjoying a “magical future.”

    Posted by: futuretalk   August 31, 2008
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  10. You’re not a very advanced thinker advanced atheist. The US economy is in trouble, temporarily, because of mismanagement – the same sort of mismanagement which caused the temporary blip we call the Great Depression.

    I wonder, are you aware, economic progress since the 17th century has been driven almost entirely by scientific progress? Find a graph of Europe’s economic growth since the Industrial Revolution. It is exponential, and it was kicked off by the scientific revolution (Galileo, Newton, Maxwell etc.).

    Even today (especially today), economic growth is driven by increases in productivity each year. The overall trend continues in spite of ghastly political mistakes or recessions. The credit crunch was caused by morons handing out mortgages to people who couldn’t pay. High fuel prices are really the results of america’s fuel inefficiency, not China’s consumption (Europe’s per capita fuel consumption is much lower). These things prove that politicians are incompetent, not that acceleration is a myth.

    So advanced atheist, the bigger picture exists whether you accept it or not, and these trends will exist and accelerate long after you are gone. It’s odd that people such as yourself who own laptops more powerful that a supercomputer of the early 90’s cannot see what this growth implies. It implies that things are going to change massively. As for the political problems, they will be replaced by new ones. Accelerated change will continue.

    Posted by: CptSunbeam   August 31, 2008
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  11. @ advancedatheist – I share many of your short-term concerns, but have come to attribute sub-par innovation stretches to either 1) punctuated change or 2) the fact that most technology / info / intelligence advances take place under the hood and are thus not readily noticeable.

    Posted by: Alvis Brigis   August 31, 2008
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  12. “these trends will exist and accelerate long after you are gone.”

    Yep. Even the optimists say that radical life extension won’t happen for us, only our descendents.

    Posted by: adbatstone80   August 31, 2008
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  13. I know plenty of technological optimists in their 30’s and 40’s (I turn 49 in November) who (1) have had trouble staying employed in the fields the trained for, (2) have trouble affording healthcare, (3) have seen their wealth positions deteriorate significantly in recent years, and (4) clearly don’t live as well as their parents did in the same stage of their lives. Anyone at least halfway through his realistic life expectancy still talking about a “magical future” without a net worth of several million dollars to protect him just sounds delusional to me.

    Posted by: advancedatheist   August 31, 2008
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  14. @ adbatstone80—I don’t know, I believe by the time I am 60, which will be in 2043, there will be multiple solutions to extend my life well beyond 100 years. Please don’t be a complete troll.

    Things are getting better, whether you realize it or not. While by how much is debatable, you are not an arbiter or prophet of all things in the future. By 2050, I will be in a good position (67) to experience many things, and even Intel has said the Singularity should happen by then in a recent article.

    Posted by: Covus   August 31, 2008
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  15. The Singularity is NOT coming in the next few decades, and the future will NOT be as “magical” as Futuretalk makes it out to be.

    Where I come from is a place called Reality that you might of heard of from somewhere. It’s a place where a tiny elite of cold, calculating human beings have a firm grip of 90% of the world’s wealth and where these same elites engineer devastating wars for capital gain.

    A place where the stupid and gullible are handsomely rewarded while outside-the-box thinkers receive a torrent of punishment and ridicule and are ostracised in society.

    Our economy is in a mess and is about to collapse along with the oil supply. Most people are selfish and apathetic, not giving a hoot about the well-being of their neighbours or looking out for them.

    We have no clue how the complex kludge known as the human brain properly works (same with the body), and we won’t have a ghost of a clue how to fix that evolutionary muddle in the next 50-75 years.

    We are stagnating.

    Posted by: adbatstone80   September 01, 2008
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  16. Hey people, in my lifetime I have already seen the average lifespan increase by three decades. Why shouldn’t I expect that life spans could increase exponentially over the next few decades?

    Granted this will require new paradigms to appear – regenerative medicine, molecular nanotech, and eventually merging with machines.

    There is nothing in the laws of physics that prohibit these advancements and there is a huge desire from older citizens to make them become reality.

    Forward thinkers at the National Cancer Institute believe that all cancer deaths can be eliminated by 2015. Should this milestone be achieved, focus could then switch to ending deaths from heart disease by 2020; and it is reasonable to assume that deaths from all current diseases could come to an end by 2030.

    This would lead us to merging with machines (replacing body parts one-by-one with more powerful and durable non-biological parts), which could get underway in mid-to-late 2030s and 2040s.

    I see nothing in the way of achieving an indefinite lifespan by mid-century or before. Granted this will take making lawmakers aware of life extension possibilities, but this too could advance at exponential speeds at the end of the next decade and into the 2020s.

    Think positive and you may enjoy a positive future. Negative thoughts will get you nowhere; thinking negatively could keep you stuck in a future that is not much different from today’s troubled world. Which future do you want?

    Posted by: futuretalk   September 01, 2008
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  17. We have no clue how the complex kludge known as the human brain properly works (same with the body), and we won’t have a ghost of a clue how to fix that evolutionary muddle in the next 50-75 years.

    You mean you have no clue how it works. I’m no scientist and yet I know plenty about how the brain and body work just through reading textbooks.

    Posted by: gremlinn   September 01, 2008
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  18. Abatwhatever just talks out of his behind. Nothing is ever backed up. “We don’t know anything!! We don’t know anything! The sky is falling! Run for the hills! It’s the End of Civilisation! We are doomed”.

    Fortunately, as Michio Kaku points out, physicists have a tendency towards optimism, and it’s not a coincidence – it’s the nature of our field.

    Besides, I also told OldBatBrain7 once that we didn’t need to completely understand the brain to design anti-migraine drugs. What will we achieve with the stides being taken currently in Neuroscience? Did AdbatBone listen? Never. The sky is falling remember!!! We don’t have dental treatment for the next few years during the economic downturn!! Run for the hills!!

    Posted by: CptSunbeam   September 01, 2008
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  19. I hope that this magical future comes to pass. I do agree that there will be controversies and people who are uncomfortable with certain research techniques, but I don’t think they’ll be able to impede all progress.

    Posted by: jvarden   September 03, 2008
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