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Pathfinders: Crystal ball gazing

Prediction is very difficult, the great physicist Niels Bohr once observed, especially about the future. Future trends in economics and geopolitics may be difficult to map out, but surely nothing is harder than attempting to guess what’s going to happen in the realms of science and technology in the next thirty years. Nevertheless, the UK Ministry of Defence has had a go. Within the broad sweep of their hundred page strategy document (see The Military Are Not That Unintelligent, page 14) the MoD’s think-tank, the Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre (DCDC) includes an illuminating discussion on probable developments across the range of applied science, together with its implications for society and social stability.

The most substantial developments, according to the DCDC, will be in the fields of nano and biotech, energy, cognitive science, and the universe of communications, network and sensor technology that comes under the general heading of ICT. Nanotechnology has so far failed to produce any wow factors, being still in the low foothills of an Everest of development, but it has nevertheless turned out some pretty useful materials, from sun creams that dont turn white to carbon-fibre compounds that are both lighter and stronger than steel and which will be used in everything from electronics to aircraft. As an enabling technology, it is predicted to underpin breakthroughs in computing, biology, chemistry and physics. Biotechnology, uniquely vulnerable to ethical, religious and political disputes, may see advances in disease control, customized drug treatments, stem-cell and gene therapy, age limitation or reversal, bionic and biochip implants and human-computer interfaces, memory and intelligence enhancing drugs, and revolutions in food production.

The controversies over stem-cell research and GM crops are of course old news, but now there is a growing debate about drugs that make you smarter (look up Modafinil or see Drugs May Boost Your Brain at hi/health/6558871.stm). Should we take them, or are we merely making ourselves into harder-working super-proles with enhanced durability and XXL productivity, and all for the same wages as before? The answer to both questions is: probably. The limitations on capitalist exploitation are that we get worn out and die too fast, and the rich could get a lot richer with our continued labours into a second century of living, however, if the DCDCs predictions for cognitive science are anything to go by, we wont have a choice, because well be up against machinery thats soon going to be as smart as we are. As they put it: Soft Artificial Intelligence is already well established with self diagnosing and self reconfiguring networks in use and self repairing networks likely in the next 10 years. Mapping of human brain functions and the replication of genuine intelligence is possible before 2035 (p.59, original emphasis.) Just imagine, robo-workers you dont even have to pay. Or worse, soldiers you cant kill, demoralise or turn off. In among the section on future military battlebots, aerial drones, microspies and other products of the MoD boffins preoccupation with violence, we find an uncomfortable marriage of AI to super-advanced battlefield hardware. While US troops have for some time been testing prosthetic enhancements that make them as strong as ten men, the future of warfare as described here does not involve humans at all at least not on the side that can afford these autonomous proto-Terminators.

But perhaps it wont be that bad, as the DCDC recognizes that any extreme military or other technical advantage by one power may be undermined by the leakage of secrets, perhaps by scientists themselves keen to preserve a level playing field. If everybody gets the Terminators, and they just slug it out between themselves without involving any real humans, that wouldnt be such a bad thing at all. Ah well, some hope.

So, are they right? Yes and no. They’re right in that all or most of these things are possible, and they’ve covered all the bases as they see them. At one farthest extreme they speculate on a lasting technological ceiling which will not be broken until various disparate strands of development conjoin, but the possibility of a Kursweil-like ‘Singularity’ event, one so explosive that it launches a scientific and social revolution, remains off their radar. At the other extreme they envisage a reaction to globalisation leading to greater cultural conservatism, with science throttled by economic protectionism leading to a global economic downturn, but they do not entertain any more extreme scenarios, such as the rise of a powerful religious fundamentalist anti-science lobby, or an anti-globalisation retreat into luddite neo-medievalism. There is no consideration of the raging debate about patent laws and their ambiguous role in innovation, on the one hand supposedly stimulating it, on the other, most certainly stifling it.

And did they miss anything? They only missed what you’d expect them to miss, firmly rooted as they are in the authoritarian assumptions of the government ministry of which they are a part. World social organisation to them is a question of which set of rulers has their hands on the gadgets. Thus, cheap technology may be acquired by terrorists and rogue states in order to blow up or poison innocent civilians, but it does not occur to the DCDC to ask what those innocent civilians themselves might do with this technology. Although other parts of the report mutter darkly about a resurgence of Marxism, it is clear that they have in mind the authoritarian, doctrinaire parody which existed in the Soviet era, and there is no indication that the writers suspect that ‘ordinary people’, as opposed to rulers, might start punching their weight in the decision-making process, and that governments might for the first time find themselves on the back foot. Of course, people may not take advantage of the information revolution to effect a personal and social revolution that destroys the power of the owning class and sets the human race free to manage its own future. However, the DCDC may well be overestimating the power of states to keep control amid this tidal wave of ‘enabling’ technology, and they may also be underestimating the ingenuity and collective strength of those same ‘ordinary people’ who increasingly do not see the need for capitalism at all – especially if they’ve all been knocking back the get-smart pills.