Predicting the future is not easy. Neither the Internet nor mobile phones were particularly foreseen by previous generations. All extreme predictions of cataclysm (from overpopulation to technological doom) have failed to come to pass. The only types of prediction that come true are those that are vague, or those which predict the downfall of various cities or nations - which if you wait long enough, always comes true. Since the 1980s there have been an inexhaustible supply of dramatic films in which robots become self-aware and attempt to wipe out humanity (i.e. The Terminator (1985), The Matrix (1999), I, Robot (2004)). The first to take up this theme was the 1920 play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) by Karel Capek, where robot slaves rebel against mistreatment and destroy the human race1.
Predicting the future is not easy. No-one saw the Internet coming, nor were mobile phones particularly foreseen by previous generations. These two technologies have had massive effects upon modern society. Most predictions never come true by the time stated, and all extreme predictions of cataclysm have failed to come to pass. The only types of prediction that come true are those that are vague, or those which predict the downfall of various cities or nations - which if you wait long enough, always comes true.
“Chesterton's hilarious fantasy of the future, Napoleon of Notting Hill [...] begins with these wise words:
The human race, to which so many of my readers belong, has been playing at children's games from the beginning. [...] The players listen very carefully and respectfully to all that the clever men have to say about what is to happen in the next generation. The players then wait until all the clever men are dead, and bury them nicely. They then go and do something else. That is all. For a race of simple tastes, however, it is great fun.
“[New advances] never quite present the insuperable challenges some doomsayers and dystopians imagine. [...] The most radically transformative technologies have not had the impact we might have expected. The dramatic electronification of everyday life that has taken place over the last few decades has not fundamentally altered the way we relate to each other. Love, jealousy, kindness, anxiety, hatred, ambition, bitterness, joy etc, still seem to have a remarkable family resemblance to the emotions people had in the 1930s. [...]
In Victorian times, it was anticipated that going through a dark tunnel in a train at high speed (30 mph) would be such a shocking experience that people would come out the other side irreversibly damaged. In one of his last poems, published in 1850, Wordsworth opined that the infantility of illustrated newspapers - the first tentative steps towards the multimedia of today - would drive us back to "caverned life's first rude career" [...] and he felt that the endless influx of news from daily papers would incite us to a level of unbearable restlessness. [...] Railway journeys and tabloid newspapers have not had the dire effects that were predicted.”
Fear of technological progress blights our development:
“Mankind is afflicted with a psychological weakness: we fear change. Neophobia in its psychological context is the pressing fear of things that are new, including changes in routine and "new" foods. Societally it explains why ideas, inventions, fashions, morals and other societal changes are often resisted despite their logical advantages.4,5. Many negative reactions are amusing in retrospect. Examples include the widespread outcries against centralized timekeeping, against soldiers wearing camouflaged clothes and against daily news - it would stir everyone into perpetual panic and destroy society6. Moralist Gerald Heard in 1937 warned that mechanistic physics, particularly that of Newton, held the blame for undermining mass ethics7.
Neophobia is easy to see in retrospect, but it is harder to see where it might be having an effect on us right now. In an age where we choose to indulge in risky behaviours such as luxury food, sports, drugs, drink and smoking, it makes no sense for us to shun GM food which undergoes extensive testing. Hollywood continually produces horrors and science fiction dramas based around technology-gone-wrong - I don't think there's a single film where mass produced Artificially Intelligent robots save the day. Proclamations that some new technology will destroy the fabric of society continue: what all these predictions have in common with those of the past is that they have all been wrong.”
We cope with substantial physical changes without losing our sense of self. People soldier on through puberty and pregnancy without losing their humanity. "We grow from something about a foot long and weighing about 7 pounds, to something about 6 foot long and weighing about 150 pounds, and for the greater part of that period we feel that we are the same thing. We assimilate these changes into an evolving and continuous sense of our identity"3 says Prof. Tallis. The future is full of amazing possibilities, we just need to embrace change and march onwards with it, rather than fear it.
There is an inexhaustible supply of dramatic fiction in which robots become self-aware, and attempt to wipe out humanity. Most famously, the Terminator series of films had an artificial-intelligence system developed by the military rise to take over military defence, and proceed to attempt to wipe out all humans. Only through special and unlikely plot-twists do we succeed against them! But such ideas pre-date the 1980s, and can be found throughout most of the 20th century.
“The word "robot," in fact, comes from the Czech word for "worker," first seen in the 1920 play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) by Karel Capek, in which scientists create a new race of mechanical beings that look identical to humans. Soon there are thousands of these robots performing menial and dangerous tasks. However, humans mistreat them badly, and one day they rebel and destroy the human race. [...]
In the movie I, Robot, the computer system decides that humans are self-destructive, with their never-ending wars and atrocities, and that the only way to protect the human race is to take over and create a benevolent dictatorship of the machine. [...]
[In 2001: A Space Odyssey] HAL 9000 was a sentient computer capable of conversing easily with humans. But the orders given to HAL 9000 were self-contradictory and could not be logically carried out. By attempting to execute an impossible goal, it fell off the mesa; it went crazy, and the only solution to obeying contradictory commands from imperfect humans was to eliminate the humans.”
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The Economist. Published by The Economist Group, Ltd. A weekly newspaper in magazine format, famed for its accuracy, wide scope and intelligent content. See vexen.co.uk/references.html#Economist for some commentary on this source. A newspaper.
Skeptical Inquirer magazine. Published by Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, NY, USA. Pro-science magazine published bimonthly.
Philosophy Now magazine. Published by Anja Publications Ltd.
Anderson, M S
(1985) The Ascendancy of Europe 1815-1914. 2nd edition. Published by Pearson Education Limited, Essex, UK. Anderson is Professor Emeritus of International History in the University of London and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society. A paperback book.
(2009 Sep/Oct) Violent Video Games: Dogma, Fear and Pseudoscience. Ferguson is an associate professor of clinical and forensic psychology at Texas A&M International University, USA. He has published numerous articles and books on violent behaviour and media violence. An Article in the magazine Skeptical Inquirer.
Gardner, Martin. Died 2010 May 22 aged 95.
(1957) Fads & Fallacies in the Name of Science. Originally published 1952 by G. P. Putnam's Sons as "In the Name of Science". Current version published by Dover Publications, Inc., New York, USA. A paperback book.
Kaku, Michio. Professor of theoretical physics.
(2014) The Future of the Mind. Subtitled: "The Scientific Quest To Understand, Enhance and Empower the Mind". Amazon Kindle digital edition. Published by Penguin Books Ltd, London, UK. An e-book.
(2007 May/Jun) Enhancing Humanity. An Article in the magazine Philosophy Now.