Experts believe the future will be like Sci-Fi movies
9/24/2006 9:52:16 PM, by Ryan Paul
In the latest study conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, over 700 technology experts were asked to evaluate an assortment of scenarios in an attempt to determine potential trends for the year 2020. With responses from representatives of the World Wide Web Consortium, ICANN, the Association of Internet Researchers, and major corporations like Google and IBM, the report reflects the perceptions of "Internet pioneers," more than half of whom "were online before 1993."
The highly speculative scenarios presented to respondents are all vaguely reminiscent of various themes commonly found in contemporary science fiction. From artificial intelligences dominating humanity to disgruntled Luddites engaging in violence, the poll looks more like an abandoned script by Michael Piller than a serious exploration of the future. Let's examine some of the more colorful quandaries, and see how many of the concepts have been prominently featured in Star Trek:
Attack of the Amish
Expressing belief that some who reject technology will perpetrate terrorist attacks against technological infrastructure, almost 60 percent of respondents agreed with the following scenario:
"By 2020, the people left behind (many by their own choice) by accelerating information and communications technologies will form a new cultural group of technology refuseniks who self-segregate from "modern" society. Some will live mostly "off the grid" simply to seek peace and a cure for information overload while others will commit acts of terror or violence in protest against technology."
Will disenfranchised LoTeks wreak havoc on society? Comparing future anti-technology vigilantes to modern day "eco-terrorists," Internet education expert and poll respondent Ed Lyell pointed out that "Every age has a small percentage that cling to an overrated past of low-technology, low-energy, lifestyle." Respondent Thomas Narten, a member of IBM's Internet Engineering Task Force, believes that "by becoming valuable infrastructure, the Internet itself will become a target," and FirstGov developer Martin Kwapinski feels that "random acts of senseless violence and destruction will continue and expand due to a feeling of 21st century anomie, and an increasing sense of of lack of individual control."
Some of the respondents sympathized with the Luddites. Respondent Denzil Meyers said, "we need some strong dissenting voices about the impact of this technology in our lives. So far, it's been mostly the promise of a cure-all, just like the past 'Industrial Revolution.'"
This particular theme is examined at length in Star Trek Deep Space Nine season two, episode fifteen, "Paradise," in which Captain Sisko and Miles O'Brien become stranded on a planet populated by the followers of an extreme Luddite philosopher who believes technology is detrimental to human growth. One is also reminded of season five, episode two, "Let He Who is Without Sin...," in which a group of "Essentialists" sabotages the weather control system on the planet Risa in order to convince vacationers that dependence on technology has weakened them.
Strung out on fantasy
Over half of the poll respondents believe that immersive fantasy worlds will completely absorb users, leading to virtual reality addiction. Fifty-two experts agreed with the following scenario:
"By the year 2020, virtual reality on the internet will come to allow more productivity from most people in technologically-savvy communities than working in the "real world." But the attractive nature of virtual- reality worlds will also lead to serious addiction problems for many, as we lose people to alternate realities."
Although some self-described MMORPG "addicts" might be inclined to argue that this particular prediction has already come to pass, compulsive gaming has yet to become a widespread phenomenon with clear societal implications. Technology consultant Robert Eller responded, "we may see a vast blurring of virtual/real reality with many participants living an in-effect secluded lifestyle. Only in the online world will they participate in any form of human interaction."
Virtual reality addiction is a prominent theme in Star Trek the Next Generation season three, episode twenty-one, "Hollow Pursuits," in which Lieutenant Barclay's severe holodeck addiction interferes with his ability to work and relate to others.
Oh no! Cylons and Skynet!
Just under half of the respondents worry about artificial intelligence run amok, leading to the potential subjugation of humanity. 42 experts agreed with the following scenario:
"By 2020, intelligent agents and distributed control will cut direct human input so completely out of some key activities such as surveillance, security and tracking systems that technology beyond our control will generate dangers and dependencies that will not be recognized until it is impossible to reverse them. We will be on a "J-curve" of continued acceleration of change."
Will we become slaves to our own inventions as intelligent computer systems evolve to the point where they can control our society? Earlier this year, I predicted the coming Roomba insurrection. Start stockpiling ammunition now, because it's only a matter of time before those evil little circular dust busters figure out that the best way to keep the house clean is to dispose of the filthy flesh-bags that make it messy in the first place. Elle Tracy, president of The Results Group, comments, "until testing, bug fixing, user interfaces, usefulness and basic application by subject-matter experts is given a higher priority than pure programmer skill, we are totally in danger of evolving into an out-of-control situation with autonomous technology."
Many respondents, like Rob Atkinson of the Progressive Policy Institute, believe that the significant advantages of autonomous technology far outweigh the potential risks. Atkinson says, "The more autonomous agents the better. The steeper the 'J curve' the better. Automation, including through autonomous agents, will help boost standards of living, freeing us from drudgery."
The implications of artificial intelligence is a frequent recurring theme in Star Trek, and it is featured prominently in many of the best episodes. The concept is most effectively embodied in the juxtaposition between the android Data, and his morally uninhibited twin Lore, but occasional holodeck incidents also convey the concept of out-of-control AI. In season six, episode 12, "Ship in a Bottle," a sentient holographic representation of Professor Moriarty seizes control of the Enterprise.
Language, privacy, and equalization
Although the rest of the scenarios are less colorful, they are still relatively interesting. 52 percent of respondents agree that the "free flow of information will completely blur current national boundaries as they are replaced by city-states, corporation-based cultural groupings and/or other geographically diverse and reconfigured human organizations tied together by global networks." 46 percent of respondents believe that "transparency builds a better world, even at the expense of privacy," and 42 percent agree that "worldwide network interoperability will be perfected" by 2020, making mobile communication "available to anyone anywhere on the globe at an extremely low cost."
52 percent agree with the assertion that "The Internet opens worldwide access to success," and 42 percent believe that "English will displace other languages" by 2020. I'm honestly surprised that question made it on the list at all. In a world with sophisticated artificial intelligences and immersive virtual realities, one assumes that the Universal Translator would be invented somewhere along the way.
Are these scenarios really indicative of future trends? Given the prevalence of many of these concepts in science fiction content, it is obvious that the ideas themselves are at least relevant enough to warrant consideration. That said, the nature of the survey and the way that the scenarios are presented makes the entire thing seem less plausible. In looking at classic science fiction films of the past, from Blade Runner to Soylent Green, one realizes that few of them really predict with any accuracy the world we live in today. Culture and technology can change in radically unpredictable ways, and today's experts may lack the foresight to perceive the future with the clarity of Hari Seldon.