The Coming Convergence: The Surprising Ways Diverse Technologies Interact to Shape Our World and Change the Future

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Overview

Imagine direct communication links between the human brain and machines, or tailored materials capable of adapting by themselves to changing environmental conditions, or computer chips and environmental sensors embedded into everyday clothing, or medical technologies that eliminate currently untreatable conditions such as blindness and paralysis. Now imagine all of these developments occurring at the same time. Far-fetched?

Not So. These are actually the reasonable predictions of scientists attempting to forecast a few decades into the future based on the rapid pace of innovation.

Author Stanley Schmidt – a physicist, a writer, and the editor of Analog: Science Fiction and Fact – explores these and many more amazing yet probable scenarios in this fascinating guide to the near future. He shows how past convergences have led to today’s world, then considers tomorrow’s main currents in biotechnology, cognitive science, information technology, and nanotechnology. Looking even further downstream he foresees both exciting and potentially dangerous developments:

Longer, healthier lives
Cheap, generally available food, energy, and technology
Reduced pollution and environmental stress
Economic disruption during transitional periods
Excessive power in too few hands
Increased vulnerability from overdependence on technology.

Schmidt notes that even a routine technology such as the CAT scan is the result of three wholly separate innovations started many decades ago which recently converged: the X-ray, the computer, and advances in medicine. On a more ominous note, he also observes that the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center was made possible by the malicious convergence of two separate trends in modern engineering and technology: the concentration of people in high rises within cities and the success of the passenger airline industry.

The message is clear: the choices we make now will converge to create a near and distant future that will be almost unbelievably wonderful or unimaginably catastrophic, or both. This knowledgeable, fascinating glimpse into the future is a must read for everyone interested in technology, upcoming innovations in business, science fiction, and the future.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

It's far easier to describe the past than to predict the future: this principle is unwittingly demonstrated by Schmidt, a physicist and longtime science fiction editor (Analog: Science Fiction and Fact). His book is best when discussing how past technologies have come together, usually in unforeseen ways, to enable social change. Joseph-Marie Jacquard's late-18th-century work on automatic looms controlled by punch cards, for example, can be traced forward to the development of early computers. Schmidt is glib but far less informative when projecting where the confluence of current technologies is likely to take us. He touches on nanotechnology and improvements in computing power, among other fields, and offers projections about how medicine, communication and interpersonal relationships are apt to change, but he largely does so superficially and perhaps overly optimistically: "In the kind of world we can aspire to, everybody will have enough and nobody will have to work very hard to get it." Though he acknowledges that some convergences can be harmful, he dismisses this downside with equal ease, concluding simply that we need to be vigilant about the choices we make. Illus. (Apr.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781591026136
  • Publisher: Prometheus Books
  • Publication date: 4/22/2008
  • Pages: 356
  • Product dimensions: 6.32 (w) x 9.27 (h) x 1.04 (d)

Meet the Author

Stanley Schmidt, PhD has served as editor of Analog: Science Fiction and Fact for twenty-five years. With a doctorate in physics from Case Western Reserve University, he has been a member of the Foresight Institute since its inception, has participated in a think tank with the Advanced Concepts Group at Sandia National Laboratory, and is a member of the Board of Advisers of the National Space Society. He has published both science fiction novels and nonfiction works on the future, and has edited or coedited many anthologies.
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Read an Excerpt

THE COMING CONVERGENCE

Surprising Ways Diverse Technologies Interact to Shape Our World and Change the Future


By STANLEY SCHMIDT Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2008 Stanley Schmidt
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-59102-613-6



Introduction

CONVERGING CURRENTS Then, Now, and Tomorrow

What do these two events have in common?

I

Kimberly, a young woman who has recently married and sees herself as well launched toward a bright future, suddenly begins suffering severe headaches. Her doctor, finding no obvious cause, sends her to a specialist, who in turn sends her for a "CAT scan." This is a test in which her head is positioned and held steady for several minutes inside a large machine while, as she sees it, nothing of any clear significance is happening. She is sent home, still as frightened and unsure as before.

A few days later her doctor calls. The CAT scan has been analyzed and a tumor has been found deep in her brain-but the doctors now know exactly where it is, how big it is, and what shape it is. They don't know whether it's malignant. If it is, it could kill her-and soon, if nothing is done about it.

But, thanks to the knowledge obtained from the CAT scan, they can target the tumor so precisely that they can eliminate it with very little damage to the surrounding tissue. The process is not fun, buta couple of months later she is pain-free and back on the road to that rosy future.

II

On the clear, sunny morning of September 11, 2001, a jetliner bound from Boston to Los Angeles swerves off its planned course and turns toward New York City. A few minutes later, it smashes into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, killing everyone on board and a great many in the tower. A few minutes after that, another plane similarly strikes the South Tower, and it becomes clear that the city-and through it, the country-has become the target of a massive terrorist attack carried out by a handful of individuals. The upper parts of both structures are engulfed by flames as their occupants frantically struggle to get out. Within a couple of hours, to the horror of watchers all over the country, both towers collapse. Thousands are killed, many more injured, and far more lives-and the economy of a nation-are massively disrupted. The entire mood of the country has been transformed in a fraction of a morning, in ways that will affect everyone and last a long, long time. As I write this, a few years later, it's still far too early to tell just how profound, far-reaching, and permanent the effects will be.

And all because of the actions of a few fanatics.

At first glance, these two incidents might seem as different and unrelated as two occurrences could be. One (see plate 1) is a tale of newfound hope for an individual, with no large-scale significance except that it's representative of many such incidents, now happening so routinely that we tend to take them for granted. We forget how remarkable it is that so many people can now be saved who would have been written off as hopeless just a few decades ago. The other (see plate 2) is a real-life horror story: thousands of lives destroyed and millions disrupted, in little more than an instant, by a few individuals not only willing to die for their beliefs, but also to kill thousands of innocents for them-and, unfortunately, with the physical means to do so.

The common denominator is that both the lifesaving tool called the CAT scan, and the swift murder of thousands by a few individuals, were made possible by the convergence of two or more seemingly separate technologies. The CAT scan (short for "computerized axial tomography," and now usually further shortened to CT scan) is the result of intentionally bringing together the fields of x-ray imaging and electronic computation that can analyze complex relationships among vast amounts of data in a reasonable amount of time. The World Trade Center disaster resulted from the technologies of aviation and large-scale building coming together in ways that the inventors of neither had in mind.

These convergences and others like them will continue to produce radical developments that will force us to make difficult, unprecedented choices. Many of those will have life-or-death significance, not just for individuals, but for civilization itself.

For example:

Should we do everything we can to increase human longevity? If we do, the worldwide problems already caused by population growth will be made even worse. Will longer life spans mean we have to do something drastic to reduce birth rates? Are we willing and able to do that?

Should we continue to build very tall buildings, or do they represent too much of a liability? How much freedom and privacy are we willing to give up to be safer from terrorists? Is privacy itself still a tenable ideal, or an outworn relic of an extinct past?

Can we get the advantages of large-scale power and communication networks without making ourselves vulnerable to catastrophic breakdowns caused by a single technical glitch or act of sabotage? Are very large cities still necessary, or even viable, as a basis for large-scale civilization? If not, what can replace them, and how can we get there from here? If individuals can "grow" whatever they need, that will eliminate their dependence on such large infrastructures, but it will also destroy the basis of our whole economic system. How can we ease the transition to a better one?

Under what conditions, if any, should we allow human cloning? Should we "preserve" our dearly departed as artificial intelligences that can simulate the personality (if not the physical form) of the deceased and continue to interact with the living? If so, should such "artificial citizens," being in a sense continuations of "real" citizens, be allowed to vote?

To some people, the idea that we will actually face such choices may seem too fantastic, bizarre, or farfetched to take seriously. Yet we have already had to confront such problems as the ethics of organ transplants (should faces be transplanted?) and abortions (at what point and to what extent should a fetus be considered a human being?). We are only beginning to create a body of law to deal with thorny dilemmas arising on the electronic frontier-problems like identity theft and what copyright means in a world where copying has become trivially easy and cheap. All of those would have seemed just as farfetched a few short decades ago.

What we have seen so far is just the beginning. As technologies continue to converge, they will continue to produce new possibilities both exhilarating and horrifying. We will have to make choices to embrace the opportunities while avoiding the horrors.

The goal of this book is to think about how we can make such choices intelligently. The first step in doing this is to understand how converging technologies can lead to results that could never be anticipated by considering a single field in isolation. As a preview of how it works, let's take a quick look at the broad outlines of what happened in my opening examples.

MEDICINE, X-RAYS, AND COMPUTERS

I won't go into much detail about how a CT scan works just yet. For now, I will merely observe that three things were going on more or less concurrently in the nineteenth and the early and mid-twentieth centuries:

(1) Doctors were, as they had been for a very long time, trying to keep patients in good health by preventing disease and injuries and making repairs when something went wrong. A major problem they faced was that doing their job often required knowing what was going on deep inside the human body, and that was usually out of sight.

(2) In 1895 a German physicist named Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, while looking for something else, serendipitously discovered a new kind of radiation which soon came to be known as x-rays. Those turned out to be closely related to visible light, but were not visible to the eye. They did have one most intriguing new property, however. They passed easily through many materials that were opaque to visible light (such as skin and muscle), but were stopped or attenuated by other materials (such as bone or metal). Since those rays could be used to expose photographic film, they quickly became a diagnostic tool for medical doctors. If x-rays were passed through a patient's body to a piece of film, parts of the film would be darkened more or less depending on how much of the radiation got through. This depended in turn on how much of what kinds of tissue or foreign matter it had to traverse. Thus the film formed a picture of the inside of the body, letting a doctor or dentist see such things as the exact shape and nature of a tumor, fracture, or cavity, or the location of a bullet.

(3) In the early twentieth century, several researchers developed the first digital computers, machines that could do complicated mathematical calculations by some combination of automatic electrical and mechanical processes. The first working models used electromechanical switching devices called relays and were huge, slow, and of limited ability-quite "clunky" by today's standards. But in the ensuing decades, workers found ways to dispense with macroscopic moving parts and do similar operations electronically. First they used vacuum tubes (now largely forgotten), followed by transistors and, later, integrated circuits, which combined huge numbers of microscopic transistors on a single small chip. The result of those improving technologies was a steady, dramatic, and accelerating improvement in computing capabilities. Recent computers are far smaller, faster, and more powerful than those of past decades, which allows them to be used to do types of problems that were simply far too difficult before. Such as the CT scan, which is the result of the confluence of medicine, x-ray technology, and computing technology.

In principle, CT scans could have been done almost from the beginning. The basic idea is that instead of making a conventional x-ray-a flat picture of the body as seen from one angle-you use x-rays to construct a three-dimensional image of everything inside the body. All you have to do is shoot x-rays through the body in many different directions and measure how much comes out the other side in each case. Since different materials absorb x-rays more or less strongly, there's only one distribution of materials that would give the pattern of absorption that you measure. The problem is that figuring out what that distribution is requires solving many simultaneous equations for many unknown quantities. That can be done, but doing it with pencil and paper is extremely difficult and time-consuming. The patient would die of old age while waiting for the test results.

But if you have fast, powerful computers available, they can do just that sort of tedious "number crunching" quickly and very efficiently. Set up a machine to take a series of x-rays from different angles, program fast computers to solve those tangles of absorption equations in a short time, and you get one of the most powerful diagnostic tools in medicine.

AIRPLANES AND BIG BUILDINGS

In the World Trade Center incident, two technologies had developed independently, for quite different purposes. An incidental property of one of them-one that most sane people would try hard to avoid bringing into play-was used to attack an incidental vulnerability in the other.

Building very large structures isn't easy, but has a number of advantages if you can learn to do it. The original inspiration was the growth of crowded cities that needed lots of businesses to support their populations, but had relatively little land on which to put those businesses. Building up rather than out effectively increased that area by a large factor, allowing tens of thousands of people to work (or live) on a couple of blocks of land. Building high also posed a whole complex of related engineering challenges. Before structures like the Sears Tower or the World Trade Center could be built, engineers had to develop ways to support all that weight, to ventilate and heat the large volumes within, and to transport large numbers of people quickly and easily through large vertical distances. Once those problems were solved, the technology of building big was widely applied not only to bustling business centers but also to housing large populations.

Aviation, meanwhile, followed a path of its own, with a quite different, essentially simple goal: getting people or cargo from point A to point B. It's hard to say how far forward such pioneers as Orville and Wilbur Wright were looking, but they surely would have been astounded at some of the developments to which their early experiments would eventually lead. Quite possibly they saw it purely as a technical challenge, a problem to be solved "because it's there": to get a manmade, self-propelled machine off the ground and keep it there long enough to go somewhere else. Once that possibility was demonstrated, large potential advantages began to suggest themselves. An airplane would not require good roads-or any roads-all the way from its point of departure to its destination. All it would need would be a few airports, and in the beginning, those didn't have to be large or complicated. Since a plane en route would be above all the obstacles that a ground vehicle has to contend with-trees, buildings, hills, chasms, rivers-it could travel much faster.

Powered flight took a few years to catch on, but once it did, it attracted lots of talent and money to grow exponentially. Within a few decades big, fast airplanes had become one of the world's most important modes of transport for both people and goods. They also became weapons, at least indirectly. Fighter pilots machine gunned one another in World War I dogfights; and Orville Wright, the Ohio bicycle repairman who made that first brief flight at Kitty Hawk, lived to see planes drop atomic bombs on Japanese cities in World War II.

And in 2001, planes themselves became weapons. A plane big enough to carry hundreds of passengers, fully fueled for a transcontinental flight at close to the speed of sound, is itself a powerful bomb, if used in the wrong way.

And the same tall buildings that enabled thousands of people to work in a small area became tempting targets, concentrating thousands of potential victims in a compact, sharply defined bulls-eye.

RIVERS AND TRIBUTARIES OF CHANGE

Much of our past has been shaped by such convergences of what started out as independent lines of research or invention, and even more of our future will be shaped in this way. We live in what our ancestors, even quite recently, would have viewed as a "science fictional" age; but there's an important difference between our present reality and much science fiction. Many science fiction writers have tried to follow the principle, perhaps first enunciated by H. G. Wells, of limiting themselves to one contrary-to-present-knowledge assumption per story-for example, to use cases from Wells's own work, suppose someone developed a way to travel in time, or to make himself invisible. What has happened in reality (and is happening in more modern science fiction by writers seeking to imitate reality more believably) is that several new things develop concurrently, and important events grow out of their collision and interaction.

Try to look at my real-world examples from the viewpoint of a writer trying to imagine them before they happened-say, a writer working around 1870, shortly after the Civil War in the United States. Such a writer might have come up with a story in which everything was just as the United States was in 1870 except that somebody found a way to photograph the inside of the human body, or to build and fly airplanes, or to build huge buildings, or to make powerful computers that could be used for calculations too complicated for human bookkeepers. Such a story would follow Wells's advice diligently, but it would be a world little like the one we live in, and considerably less interesting. For the world we actually have at the beginning of the twenty-first century is the result of all of those things being done concurrently, by different people, and other people seeing ways to put them together to yield still other developments, even more surprising.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from THE COMING CONVERGENCE by STANLEY SCHMIDT Copyright © 2008 by Stanley Schmidt. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Foreword     9
Acknowledgments     13
Introduction: Converging Currents: Then, Now, and Tomorrow     15
From Fabric Looms to the Internet: The Story of Computing     31
Aviation and Big Buildings     49
New Arts and Sciences     69
Looking Inside: New Technologies and Medicine     87
Computers and Genes     101
New Directions in Biotechnology     115
Cognitive Science: How Do We Know?     129
The Explosion in Information Technology     147
Nanotechnology     173
Metaconvergences: When Big Streams Make Still Bigger Streams     185
Potentials and Promises     215
Pitfalls and Perils     223
Getting There from Here: Challenges and Strategies     235
Notes     247
Index     263

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