Saturday, May 29, 2010

Ten Thousand Waves of Change. Welcome to the Tweens

I recently read an article on a DNA prototype nanofactory, and several responses to it by various futurists such as Michael AnissimovJamais Cascio, Chris Phoenix and others. It was quite interesting to watch the various discussions that arose from the posts.
But it also illustrated quite well a problem I have seen for years, the tendency of many futurists to have tunnel vision, to only focus on the final stages and ignore those which lead to them.
Image Credit: Javier Gomez Fernandez
A half sphere of polymer cubes built by researchers at the MIT-Harvard Division of Health Sciences and Technology. Image: Javier Gomez Fernandez
Most everyone is focused on Nanotechnology, and its final stages of development towards a true molecular manufacturing technology, but MM is only one part of the future. It's a very important one to be sure, but it doesn't exist in isolation. It is surrounded by hundreds, even thousands of other technologies just as profound, if more "commonplace" in comparison. My mother always used to say "The devil's in the details" and when it comes to understanding not only where we are but where we are going, one needs to look at a lot more factors than just the biggest players. Nanotech, Genetic Engineering, Robotics, even A.I. - -none of these bastions of future technological prediction exists in a vacuum. The steps which lead to them are just as important.
I happen to agree with Jamais Casico's assertion that by the time most people think a "Singularity" will occur, we're going to be underwhelmed. I just think it will happen for far different reasons than most people do. You see, it appears to me that by the time frames projected for the Singularity most of the cataclysmic changes it's supposed to create will have happened long since. In fact, they are already beginning.
I see it daily in articles all across the web, from this article about stem cell breast augmentation to this one on making a set of ovaries into testes to this one about making a replacement jawbone using a 3d printer and this one about 3d tissue printers. These are all interesting tidbits, but in isolation they are not worldshaking. Or are they?
Now toss in this laugh about building penises for rabbits and this about "tissue Legos", then add in who knows how many other recent stem cell breakthroughs have happened in the last year and a half.
Can you get the barest hint of where I am going with all this? Can you see even a fraction of the implications? Do I need to add in all the thousands of other medical stories I've read as well before you can see the big picture? Or can you see how rapidly we are approaching the day in which we can customize the human body as easily as we can customize our car?... or how quickly we are reaching an era where the genetic lottery of our inherited DNA will no longer dictate who we chose to be?
But before you really stop to consider that, let me toss in other factors that are equally important, like my recent article on Graphene and this on  DNA computers or this on Quantum Computers. And particularly this little tidbit on ATP powered transistors. The gist of all of this is that computers are about to undergo radical evolutionary changes as well, making orders of magnitude leaps in speed, processing power, even types of materials used. Not to mention becoming ever smaller, and more potentially integrated with biological systems. Then toss in the developments in VR that I discussed in my previous articles.
Starting to see a little more of the big picture yet? How advancing computer science mixed with advancing biotech combine to create a potential future in which trolls and elves could walk down the street side by side with humans? Where my succubus avatar is as commonplace as a cheerleader or a gothchick?

Vunjak-Novakovic used CT images (A and B) to build a TMJ-shaped scaffold (C). (Credit: Image courtesy of The Record, Columbia University)
But even that is not all, because there are many more factors to consider as well, such as how the massive increase in internet connections and the millions of cameras on cell phones are leading to such phenomena as"flesh search mobs" and "sousveillance". Add all of that to the mix as well.
Now stir in other developments like electronic printing and the fact that it recently yielded a 50" OLED screen printed in under two minutes. How about ultracapacitance batteries as well? And just for fun, let's toss in DARPA pushing most manufacturing companies to mimic the design/manufacturer separation so prevalent in electronics manufacturing. Then add in such possibilities as manufactured meat and cheap solar panels. Or how about even more outlandish tech like Plasma Fusion which could prove to have finally fulfilled all those long awaited promises of fusion power.
Are you starting to feel that low rumble yet?  That vibration in the soles of you feet that maybe is saying it's time to pull your head out of the sand?
A single wave of change is not what we face. There are ten thousand waves of change from every direction heading towards us, and nowhere to run to escape them.
I've barely scratched the surface, given no more than tiny hints as to the totality of the developments happening world-wide, all of which may seem unimportant when viewed as a single item. But when you step back, place them all together, and see how they can connect, and grow, and evolve, it is overwhelming. The big three of Genetics, Nanotech, and Robotics might be the big fish of the coming decades, but they swim in an ocean of technological innovation that is already threatening to sweep across our world in the very near future.
We're not going to be able to avoid the Tsunami of change heading our way, or even put it off. It's not comfortably decades down the road. It's right now, right here, in our faces, all we have to do is look around to see it. We've passed the event horizon, and we're accelerating down the gravity well at Warp Factor 9 while yelling at Scotty to give us more power.
The next few decades will define who we are, and who we want to be. It will be shaped by the choices we make in politics, in entertainment, and in religion as much as it is by technological innovation. The rumblings are already beginning, shaking the foundations of "the way things are done" in every aspect of the world. Soon, much of that which we took for granted will be crumbling, under relentless assault not just by changing technology, but by the failure of ideologies to adapt to change, and shortsighted refusal to accept that change is happening. The future anticipated and feared by so many is already here, it's just not evenly distributed, to paraphrase William Gibson. We've had a long childhood, but it's time to grow up. We don't have decades to decide on best courses or shape developments to our likings. It's long past the point of no return.
And like Jamais Cascio said, it's happing right under our noses. Unfortunately, the effects of all these changes will not be so easy to ignore. How well we will deal with these changes depends very much on how soon we begin to recognize these early warning signs. The problem is it seems like no one is watching, which is a pity, because it's an awesome show.
Welcome to the Tweens, and the opening decade of a new age. Here's to hoping I'll see you on the other side.

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