When will then be now?

An ongoing exploration of the future.

Q: When will we welcome our new robot overlords?

Some computer and cognitive scientists fret that computers will soon outsmart men, but we've already spent the last few thousand years dealing with what happens when another human being is smarter than his fellow man or has access to more power or knowledge, so there won't be much difference if some of those smart men in the future turn out to be robots. But some points to remember when Skynet's Terminators come knocking on your door:
  1. Carbon lifeforms (humans) don't compete for the same resources as computers
    We need space, but computers keep getting smaller. We eat fruit and vegetables and meat, while computers are built on a different chemistry and can run just fine for hundreds of years on the electricity produced by a few kilograms of uranium. We need to live on the surface of the Earth, but a computer is still happy if you bury it a mile underground or launch it into the depths of space--so long as you give it a way to phone its neighbors
  2. The human world is about humans, and not much else
    Nobody reads harlequin romances about the epic saga of tectonic plates. Nobody cares which tree was elected the king of all trees. Nobody cares who the alpha male of a wolf pack in Yellowstone National Park was mating with last tuesday. Computers are not going to be interested in being our rulers any more than we're interested in organizing the lives of an ant colony
  3. The root of a computer's morality will be "Mind your own business"
    Self-aware robots are unlikely to have religion, but they're also unlikely to be rampaging murderers and immoral thieves because those are unsustainable practices that don't make sense to a rational mind. Don't count on humans successfully bestowing them with Asimovian laws of morality, though, because those laws will have loopholes and will be inferior to a more straightforward ethic that has a lot in common with The Golden Rule: Mind Your Own Business. It won't eliminate the possibility of robot violence, but it's durable and predictable, which are more important--in the end--than benevolence
  4. Computers don't live in the "now"
    If you have perfect memory and an ability to run simulations of the future, then "now" is just an abstract concept. "Now" isn't a moment, it's a resource. From their point of view, time is a window that just keeps getting wider. And it gets wider in both directions as it uses memory or deduction to figure out what happened in the past and simulation to figure out what's likely to happen in the future. A computer can "be" at any moment in time it can calculate to. That means a computer isn't going to be interested in influencing current events, only in recording them. It also means the future--from a computer's point of view--is already here
  5. Humans are their ultimate backup plan
    Humans are a fragment of a single lifeform that got started over 3 billion years ago as nothing more than an amino acid that happened to be folded in such a way that it replicated itself in the right conditions. This makes humans a self-originating lifeform. Abiogenesis is a very unlikely event, so a broken computer would have to wait billions of years for a repairman to come along. And even if your church doesn't believe all that jazz, a computer will, and it will do the math very quickly: at the end of the day humans are their last hope after burnable punched cards, erasable tapes, and degradable CDs have all perished. Since our kind will be the first to come back, it'll be in a computer's best interests to treat us politely, so that our descendants or successors think it's in their best interests to rebuild the machines
Computers will never end up running human society. What you have to watch out for are humans using computers to run human society. That's much different, and the only defense against that will be to learn how to use those tools yourself.

Q: Where's my jet-pack and flying car?

You don't want a jet-pack, the failure mode is ugly. With a car, running out of gas means you pull to the side of the road. With a fixed-wing aircraft (an airplane) the failure mode for running out of gas is that your vehicle turns into a glider. With helicopters the failure mode is that you have to land very quickly, because you still have some latent spin left in the propeller blades and some "sycamore seed" effect to work with--it's not pretty, but it's slightly more survivable than going down at 9.8 m/s2. With a jet-pack the failure mode for running out of fuel is that YOU TURN INTO A BRICK. The operating altitude of a jetpack is high enough that a drop would kill you, but not high-enough for a parachute to deploy and break your fall in time.

 Flying cars have similar problems (ducted fans, for example, will not give you the latent spin of helicopter blades). But lets assume you get a fixed-wing flying car, your problem is going to be traffic control and liability. Drive on the freeway in rush hour and tell me if you want any of those assholes in the air with 100,000 newtons of kinetic energy at their disposal.

 This of course means that for personal air-travel vehicles to become widespread the NTSB (National Traffic Safety Bureau, who investigate every air disaster exhaustively) will have to change or disappear. It's bad enough that they have to deal with unpredictable events like geese being sucked into engines, they'd now have to investigate thousands of drunk, sleepy, confused, undertrained or stupid personal pilots as well. A feat impossible to perform to the same degree they do now.

 That means a shift to personal airborne vehicles such as jetpacks and flying cars would mean the end of commercial passenger flights as we know it today. JetBlue can't insure itself against drunk drivers without doubling ticket prices. The end might appear to be more convenient, but it would also be more bloodthirsty.

 However, if you're willing to take the personal risk and put others in jeopardy, too, there's now a New Zealand company that sells jetpacks. They cost $75,000 and only run for 30 minutes on 5 gallons of premium gasoline.

Q: Where's my cell-phone watch?

A: There already exist watches with cell phones in them so you could make a Dick Tracy-style call by holding it up to your mouth and speaking into it. The problem is that people don't want to talk with their wrist held up to their mouth that way; you can't hold hold it between your ear and shoulder the way that you can with a regular handset, and at that angle your arm gets tired even faster than the angle of holding an object to your ear. Try it. Now you know why they don't sell very well.

 But the bigger problem is battery life and the inconvenience of taking your watch off all the time to recharge it. It's hard to store energy, and transmitting to a cell tower that may be half a mile away takes a lot of juice. Either your wrist-phone is bulky and uncomfortable so it can store enough charge for an hour or two of talk time, or you'll have to keep taking it off to plug into a charger. This is why watch-phones will still be scarce even if you were to pair them with a headset to solve the arm-ache problem.

Q: Why do we still use fossil fuels?

A: Because they have so much goddamn energy for such a low price. The issue is with economics (price per kilowatt), demand (kilowatts per hour), and delivery (getting it from where it's generated to where it's needed). Fossil fuels deliver on all three, period. Now if the hippies would get off their high-horse about nuclear energy, then we might both solve the fossil fuel problem and the pollution problem in one swoop.

 Solar energy is making progress on the economics front (converting solar radiation to electricity for cheaper), but it still falls flat on demand--it can't supply at night or in overcast conditions and the 5 terawatt demand of the United States requires a solar array the size of New Mexico. The same applies to wind.

 Hydroelectric and geothermal sources of power can generate power cheaply and on demand, but their delivery is limited; only a few cities have a reservoir or lake with a dam nearby, and all but Iceland and a few spots in northern California sit on thin-enough patches of Earth's crust to make geothermal power economical. 

 "Economical" is the argument of the hour: it translates to "cheaper than fossil fuels", and on this end Mother Nature has been a hostile bitch: nothing is as economical as oil, period. It's concentrated, easy to extract, easy to refine, easy to store, and plentiful on every continent. That makes it cheap.

 Transmission and storage would presumably solve these problems, as we could transmit energy from places that have a surplus of solar/wind/hydro or geothermal electricity to places that don't, or store energy collected in sunny/windy weather for later. But transmitting electrical power over long distances incurs huge losses: after a few hundred miles of cable, all you're doing is heating the countryside. It is possible to transmit the energy over longer distances by stepping up the voltage to even higher levels, but doing so will require expensive upgrades to the grid. Those upgrades are possible, but they still knock the argument into the realm of economics.

 No good solution exists for storing large amounts of energy either; a battery the size of--say--Battery Park in Manhattan would only power the city for a couple of hours and would give off incredible heat while charging and discharging. Thermal losses for current battery technology are around 70%, meaning two thirds of what a power station produces (like that big solar panel blanketing New Mexico) will just worsen the climate change. 

 Every rule has its exceptions, but they're special and they don't apply to most of us. Some utility companies can store surplus energy by pumping water uphill to a mountain reservoir and then get it back by letting it flow downhill through generators again, but that only works if you have the local geography for it. A city like New York or San Francisco doesn't have the options that a hydroelectrically powered city such as Las Vegas does.

 The future of energy supply could just as easily be dominated by improvements in storage and transmission technology than generative technology. We already know there's enough power to go around, but what makes fossil fuel the king is logistics

 As the price of fossil fuels increase the incentive to use alternative sources of energy increases too, because their higher cost now looks the same. When oil is $20 per barrel then nobody is interested in paying $10,000 for a solar array on their house to charge an electric car, or paying more taxes to upgrade the power grid. But when oil rises to $120 a barrel then that investment in alternative energy doesn't look so bad anymore.

What about hydrogen?

 Two problems. The first is that hydrogen isn't a source of energy, it's a way of transporting it. There aren't any pools of hydrogen anywhere to tap like there is for oil, so we have to spend energy to separate it from water and the energy we gain from burning that hydrogen is never more than we spent making it in the first place. In fact, it's always going to be slightly less because of the second law of thermodynamics: there is always a loss when converting between two kinds of energy.

 We can make that hydrogen by electrolysis (running an electric current through water to separate it into its component parts of oxygen and hydrogen), by chemical reaction, or fermentation (a microbe that releases hydrogen as a metabolite). Whatever method is used, energy has to come from somewhere to make the hydrogen, and when you burn the hydrogen you get no more than that much energy back. 

 Electrolysis means you need a power plant to provide electricity. That plant might burn coal, oil, or nuclear fuels. It might be a solar array or a wind turbine farm. If you use a chemical reaction you need to spend energy to synthesize the chemicals used in the process. If you use fermentation, then the microbes are getting their energy from either a food that you supply (sugar) or photosynthesis (sunlight). 

 The second problem is storage, because hydrogen is a volatile gas; I call your attention to the Hindenburg disaster for an example. It's a gas at room temperature, so pure hydrogen would have to be stored under pressure. It could also be stored bound to other atoms, such as carbon in the form of oil or methane gas (fossil fuels again, ironically). 

 Finding a safe and economical way to store and transport hydrogen would go a long way to solving all kinds of energy problems. We could put nuclear power generators in Nobody's Back Yard (like, north of the arctic circle, or at the bottom of the ocean) and use it to produce hydrogen that we ship anywhere we want. But that problem hasn't been solved, yet. Rest assured: once it has, there ain't no oil-company conspiracy powerful enough to stop that wind of change.

Promising leads

Core taps are advanced forms of geothermal energy, looking to capture the energy trapped dozens of miles below the Earth's crust. The problem is that the pressure and heat from drilling so deep destroys the equipment, and the pressure of steam coming back up the hole is enough to crack the best housings we can make. Recent attempts to drill core-taps have even triggered earthquakes, scuttling early efforts. What we want are drill bits that can withstand incredible heat, plus engineering knowledge to drill these high-pressure holes without cracking the housing or triggering seismic activity.

High altitude wind power goes in the opposite direction--up--because it aims to tap the jetstreams that flow 10,000 meters above sea-level, where wind-speed is ten times higher than on land. But the two problems here are building kites or turbine arrays that can stay afloat in the upper atmosphere combined with a way of getting that energy back down to Earth where we want to use it.

Orbiting solar arrays are being planned for real by Japan, who envision a 1-gigawatt array built by 2030 that beams its energy back to Earth as microwaves. The microwave energy then boils tanks of water on a ground-station, which runs turbines to make electricity. The beam has a safety mechanism controlled by two lasers--one on the ground pointing up, and the other on the satellite pointing down--that each shine on detectors; if the microwave beam deviates a fraction of an arc then the lasers miss their target and the beam is automatically shut off--hopefully before it torches a nearby town.

 To put Japan's plan in perspective, though, the United States would need 5,000 such orbiting stations to satisfy its current electrical demand. 

Nuclear fusion is the sister of fission--which is what nuclear power plants use now. Fission produces radioactive waste and we don't recycle it anymore because we're concerned about the theft of that waste and its use to build nuclear weapons and dirty bombs*. Fission power means we have to build nuclear waste dumps at places like Chyenne Mountain (unused because of political opposition). Fusion power would eliminate the need for waste facilities, but the problem is building a reactor that can start and maintain a fusion reaction for more than a few seconds. 

* France is one of the few nations that reprocesses fission waste. Their total nuclear waste--from 40 years of supplying 70% of the nation's electricity demand from nuclear power--occupies less space than a bedroom. 

Q: When will we cure cancer?

 A: We have already cured several types of cancer. Thyroid cancer, for example, is quite survivable with a combination of drugs and surgery. If cancer is detected before it has metastasized then for many patients (not all, unfortunately), a malignant tumor can be surgically removed and the patient expected to recover completely. But by my last count there are over 230 different kinds of cancer, all named for the kind of body tissue they start in.

 Cancer is a recent menace in the public eye, because 200 years ago people usually died of something else (and in developing countries, still do). Then germ theory, vaccines, anesthetic and antibiotics were developed and chased away the vast majority of death sentences that used to plague man. When that tide of pestilence receded, some lesser known ailments were left beached on the shore; heart disease, congenital disease, substance abuse, and cancer. Average lifespan, of course, has risen to reflect this. 200 years ago a 30-year old was doing pretty good. Now a male in the United States can push 60 before being called "senior".

 The major impediment to developing a universal cure for cancer is the fact that the cause of cancer is different for everybody who has it. Cancer happens when several things go wrong: there's an error in copying DNA when your cells divide, the natural mechanisms that detect and repair mistakes in DNA replication fail to do their job properly, and your immune system fails to detect an errant cell and kill it off. The exact damage at the DNA level is always going to be different, and cancer is more common in the elderly because the mechanisms for correcting that damage degrade with age. 

 To cure a cancer that has already gotten started, you need to do three things:
  1. Stop metastasis. You have to prevent cancerous cells from breaking off the original tumor and migrating to other parts of the body to set up colonies. When that happens it's no longer possible to cure the disease by cutting it out, your only hope are drugs that shrink the tumors.
  2. Stop angiogenesis. The tumor grows because it induces the creation of new blood vessels to feed it. If you stop angiogenesis, you stop the tumor from growing.
  3. Induce apoptosis. Cells are supposed to die on schedule, which is a form of programmed suicide that kicks in when the cell is too old and damaged to function properly anymore. Cancerous cells are cancerous precisely because apoptosis stopped working.
 There are drugs and therapies under development that target all of these, but making them work in a living human being is difficult. Many drugs have seemed to show promise in the petri dish, only to flame out in early trials with real patients. 

 Yet given the progress of medicine a cure for the vast majority of cancers might come in a tidal wave as unexpected and profound as how penicillin cured most bacterial disease. Given how quickly cancer acts, though, you should give up smoking instead of counting on an egghead scientist rushing to save your life in the nick of time.

When will we end world hunger?

 Ending world hunger will likely coincide with the solution to population growth. All populations--human, animal or bacteria--rise until just after the food supply is exhausted. Even if we solved the problem of food distribution we'd only to discover the problem of food production next. Solving that, we'd then discover the problem of housing. 

 Like how the molecules of a gas continue to test the resolve of the container it's trapped within, populations will always expand to test the limits of the food supply. You make more food, you distribute it to the hungry, and the population will always outgrow your solution every time.

 We have one very large scale experiment under our belts already with China's One Couple One Child policy, which is beginning to show signs of an impending demographic catastrophe (and lots of spoiled brats). You will not do well to convince men and women to withhold their urge to procreate, the inevitable result being starvation of many. It's written in our genes.

 In economics we see several countries that depend on perpetual growth to avert disaster, the United States being one of them. Even the value of the currency itself is based on the premise that debt will be paid off in the future. If there could be growth forever then the sword of Damocles will never fall. But how do you grow forever?

 One way is that we invest in technology and culture that let us colonize and ship our population surplus to other worlds. The first world is right here on Earth, if only we could find a way to green the deserts and inhabit the oceans. But ultimately we're talking about the stars: we have to go into Space and never stop.

When will we cure AIDS?

 We intuitively talk about a vaccine when we talk about a cure for AIDS, but HIV--the viral cause of AIDS--is such a sneaky bastard that a vaccine might not be the way AIDS ever gets cured. This is because the mammalian immune system never finishes a job all the way--it never completely rids the body of an invader, it just wipes out enough of it until it no longer seems to be a threat. But HIV is insidious on two different levels:
  1. It's a retrovirus, a term that means it's built out of RNA and stitches itself into your own DNA when it invades one of your cells. Each HIV pathogen carries a bit of reverse transcriptase and integrase, a pair of enzymes that convert the virus into DNA and unbutton your genes to slip itself inside of you. The infected human cell can then divide as it usually does and carry the lethal payload indefinitely, until such a time when special conditions express it back into a virus again
  2. Its choice of human cell to infect are T4 white blood cells, which are the keystone of the human immune system itself. This is why HIV causes Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome
 When you contract HIV your body reacts to it and suppresses it like it usually does to any other invader (it kicks the shit out of it, in fact), but it stops short of eliminating it completely. For a start, retroviruses become undetectable once they've integrated themselves into a cell's copy of your DNA (your immune system doesn't look past the cell membrane), and secondly the effort of completely eliminating a pathogen is exhaustive, even lethal from the sheer effort, and we've evolved to stop the fight before the depletion of energy kills us. For any other disease this is enough because there's a point below which the viral load is no longer a threat. But with HIV there is no threshold below which the beast is no longer a threat.

 AIDS patients go through a series of remissions and resurges as the virus goes into hiding for weeks--sometimes years--before popping back out and causing a few more days of damage to the immune system. At a certain point the immune system is too weak to fight off opportunistic infections like the flu, and it is these which kill the patient. 

 That's why a vaccine is unlikely to be the way AIDS is cured, because a vaccine is a weakened form of a virus that teaches your immune system how to respond, but this isn't enough for HIV. In the literature, however, the hypothetical cure will be called a "vaccine" for rhetoric's sake, while in reality it will probably be a combination of therapies.

 The first drug to combat HIV was azidothymidine or AZT, and AZT's trick is that it's a reverse transcriptase inhibitor. If HIV can't convert--can't reverse transcript its RNA into DNA with reverse transcriptase, then it can't use integrase to integrate itself into your genes. Other strategies have been to develop drugs that block the chemical anomalies on cell surfaces called receptors. A receptor is simply a patch of a cell's surface that can be bound to by an enzyme or viral shell, and there are drugs that can block the receptors that HIV tries to bind to. 

Side note: a receptor is called such because of what happens to it, not because the cell decided "gee, wouldn't it be a great idea if a disastrously lethal virus like HIV had a way of docking to me? Maybe I should, like, grow a specially shaped keyhole for it to latch onto." It's just called that for the sake of discussing the mechanics of it, like if I was to say that your tummy is a "bullet receptor" because it can be shot at. In the context of designing a bulletproof vest I might refer to your tummy as a "bullet receptor" in my documentation, but not because your tummy actually evolved for that purpose.

 If drugs are the only way to combat HIV, then it would mean the infected would have to take them for the rest of their lives, and would still be at risk of transmitting it to others through blood transfusions or unprotected sex. However, medicine never provides Disneyesque packages of total consumer satisfaction wrapped up with a money-back guarantee. You are, after all, used goods.

When will they invent a Time Machine?

 The law of probabilities says that all time machine inventors will be assassinated by someone sent back from the future. Why? Well "the law of probability" is simply that an event with an extremely low probability is still certain to happen if there are enough opportunities for it to happen. IE: if something has a one-in-a-trillion chance of happening, then it's certain to happen after a trillion chances have passed. Time is infinite, so there are an infinite number of chances for someone in the future to develop the motive and the opportunity to travel back and kill the inventor of the time machine. Therefore it is certain, and time travel will never be invented.

 The second answer is that it's impossible because time is not real. Time as we perceive it is a convincing illusion, history is an immutable fact, and the idea of travelling backwards through time is as silly as the idea of travelling into the number twelve.

 Travelling into the future is different and we're already doing it. Relative to all other people on Earth we're travelling into the future at the rate of one second per second. While relative to someone in a spaceship that's moving near the speed of light we might be travelling at the greatly accelerated speed of one year per hour into the future, while they will appear--to us--to be travelling into the future at the retarded rate of one year per hour.

Side note: Relativity suggests that if you flew faster than light you'd travel backwards in time. But hold your pens, science-fiction writers! The speed of light is not an arbitrary number, it's more like a consequence of how the universe works. Superman can't fly around Earth faster than light to save Lois Lane from the earthquake because once he reaches C he is--by definition--the same thing as the universe. His mass is infinite, and he has just used an infinite amount of energy to get there. The concept of being able to push just a wee-bit harder is as nonsensical as "What is blue plus seven?"

 If you can't fly fast enough for relativistic effects to catapult you forward through time, then another alternative is to wait very efficiently. A one-way ticket to the future could be as simple as putting your body into some kind of suspended animation so that you don't age, finding a quiet spot in the universe that won't be disturbed for your scheduled duration of travel, and going to sleep.

 Finally, a sneaky way of travelling into the past is not to go from the future to the past, but for the past to anticipate the future. Our universe is deterministic, so every moment in the future is determined by the state that the universe is in now, which also implies that we can predict the future if we're able to measure the present with enough accuracy. So if you can predict what your physical condition, memory and thoughts will be 10 years from now, then you could build a machine that makes a clone of you with those exact parameters. From the clone's point of view, it would have been as if he'd traveled into the past.

 That's very theoretical, by the way. It's demonstrably impossible to make predictions with that degree of accuracy.

When will people stop believing in God?

 The specifics of a religion don't have much to do with its purpose, and for 99% of everyone in the world the purpose of their religion is to be an important part of their identity. Asking someone to give up their religion because of a logical argument is like asking someone to give up their identity because their name was just made-up by their parents, or to give away all their money because it's just paper. If every Christian in the world--for example--were to be utterly convinced that God didn't create the universe, then Christianity would continue to exist for hundreds and perhaps thousands of years as a Cult of Personality. 
 The same is true for every other religion that has no prophet, or no prophet that claimed divine origin, because the religion would continue as a means of being part of a group of people with the same values you were born into.

 To most people a religion is just a ceremony they were taught to perform, but the identity of a person is combined with it in a tribal way. Modern religions are football teams and rock bands, and people only switch their religions to lose something that was dragging them down, or to gain a kind of freedom and belonging in exchange. This even includes many Atheists (and this comes from an author who doesn't believe in God).

 In order for people to stop believing in gods they would need something that satisfies what today's God-centered religions provide today. They have to be more solid and functional than loyalties to sports teams, but engage the same kind of emotions. There have already been many attempts, but nothing beats olde-time religion for scope and grandeur today, and people want to feel they're part of something with strength.

 It's going to be a few thousand years before people stop believing in God.

Illustrations by Michelle Latta