Worldchanging ally Charlie Stross is not only a science fiction writer of some reknown, but one of our best thinkers about technology and the future as well. Recently he published the following speech on his blog. It's a sharp piece of thinking, which informs in new ways all sorts of subjects we've covered here before, and he's graciously given us permission to post it here as well. -Alex
Shaping the future
Good afternoon, and thank you for inviting me here today. I understand that you're expecting a talk about where the next 20 years are taking us, how far technology will go, how people will use the net, and whether big shoulder pads and food pills will be fashionable. Personally, I'm still waiting for my personal jet car — I've been waiting about fifty years now — and I mention this as a note of caution: while personal jet cars aren't obviously impossible, their non-appearance should give us some insights into how attempts to predict the future go wrong.
I'm a science fiction writer by trade, and people often think that means I spend a lot of time trying to predict possible futures. Actually, that's not the job of the SF writer at all — we're not professional futurologists, and we probably get things wrong as often as anybody else. But because we're not tied to a specific technical field we are at least supposed to keep our eyes open for surprises.
So I'm going to ignore the temptation to talk about a whole lot of subjects — global warming, bioengineering, the green revolution, the intellectual property wars — and explain why, sooner or later, everyone in this room is going to end up in Wikipedia. And I'm going to get us there the long way round ...
The big surprise in the 20th century — remember that personal jet car? — was the redefinition of progress that took place some time between 1950 and 1970.
Before 1800, human beings didn't travel faster than a horse could gallop. The experience of travel was that it was unpleasant, slow, and usually involved a lot of exercise — or the hazards of the seas. Then something odd happened; a constant that had held for all of human history — the upper limit on travel speed — turned into a variable. By 1980, the upper limit on travel speed had risen (for some lucky people on some routes) to just over Mach Two, and to just under Mach One on many other shorter routes. But from 1970 onwards, the change in the rate at which human beings travel ceased — to all intents and purposes, we aren't any faster today than we were when the Comet and Boeing 707 airliners first flew.
We can plot this increase in travel speed on a graph — better still, plot the increase in maximum possible speed — and it looks quite pretty; it's a classic sigmoid curve, initially rising slowly, then with the rate of change peaking between 1920 and 1950, before tapering off again after 1970. Today, the fastest vehicle ever built, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft, en route to Pluto, is moving at approximately 21 kilometres per second — only twice as fast as an Apollo spacecraft from the late-1960s. Forty-five years to double the maximum velocity; back in the 1930s it was happening in less than a decade.
One side-effect of faster travel was that people traveled more. A brief google told me that in 1900, the average American traveled 210 miles per year by steam-traction railroad, and 130 miles by electric railways. Today, comparable travel figures are 16,000 miles by road and air — a fifty-fold increase in distance traveled. I'd like to note that the new transport technologies consume one-fifth the energy per passenger-kilometer, but overall energy consumption is much higher because of the distances involved. We probably don't spend significantly more hours per year aboard aircraft that our 1900-period ancestors spent aboard steam trains, but at twenty times the velocity — or more — we travel much further and consume energy faster while we're doing so.
Around 1950, everyone tended to look at what the future held in terms of improvements in transportation speed.
But as we know now, that wasn't where the big improvements were going to come from. The automation of information systems just weren't on the map, other than in the crudest sense — punched card sorting and collating machines and desktop calculators.
We can plot a graph of computing power against time that, prior to 1900, looks remarkably similar to the graph of maximum speed against time. Basically it's a flat line from prehistory up to the invention, in the seventeenth or eighteenth century, of the first mechanical calculating machines. It gradually rises as mechanical calculators become more sophisticated, then in the late 1930s and 1940s it starts to rise steeply. From 1960 onwards, with the transition to solid state digital electronics, it's been necessary to switch to a logarithmic scale to even keep sight of this graph.
It's worth noting that the complexity of the problems we can solve with computers has not risen as rapidly as their performance would suggest to a naive bystander. This is largely because interesting problems tend to be complex, and computational complexity rarely scales linearly with the number of inputs; we haven't seen the same breakthroughs in the theory of algorithmics that we've seen in the engineering practicalities of building incrementally faster machines.
Speaking of engineering practicalities, I'm sure everyone here has heard of Moore's Law. Gordon Moore of Intel coined this one back in 1965 when he observed that the number of transistor count on an integrated circuit for minimum component cost doubles every 24 months. This isn't just about the number of transistors on a chip, but the density of transistors. A similar law seems to govern storage density in bits per unit area for rotating media.
As a given circuit becomes physically smaller, the time taken for a signal to propagate across it decreases — and if it's printed on a material of a given resistivity, the amount of power dissipated in the process decreases. (I hope I've got that right: my basic physics is a little rusty.) So we get faster operation, or we get lower power operation, by going smaller.
We know that Moore's Law has some way to run before we run up against the irreducible limit to downsizing. However, it looks unlikely that we'll ever be able to build circuits where the component count exceeds the number of component atoms, so I'm going to draw a line in the sand and suggest that this exponential increase in component count isn't going to go on forever; it's going to stop around the time we wake up and discover we've hit the nanoscale limits.
The cultural picture in computing today therefore looks much as it did in transportation technology in the 1930s — everything tomorrow is going to be wildly faster than it is today, let alone yesterday. And this progress has been running for long enough that it's seeped into the public consciousness. In the 1920s, boys often wanted to grow up to be steam locomotive engineers; politicians and publicists in the 1930s talked about "air-mindedness" as the key to future prosperity. In the 1990s it was software engineers and in the current decade it's the politics of internet governance.
All of this is irrelevant. Because computers and microprocessors aren't the future. They're yesterday's future, and tomorrow will be about something else.
I don't expect I need to lecture you about bandwidth. Let's just say that our communication bandwidth has been increasing in what should by now be a very familiar pattern since, oh, the eighteenth century, and the elaborate system of semaphore stations the French crown used for its own purposes.
Improvements in bandwidth are something we get from improvements in travel speed or information processing; you should never underestimate the bandwidth of a pickup truck full of magnetic tapes driving cross-country (or an Airbus full of DVDs), and similarly, moving more data per unit time over fiber requires faster switches at each end.
Now, with little or no bandwidth, when it was expensive and scarce and modems were boxes the size of filing cabinets that could pump out a few hundred bits per second, computers weren't that interesting; they tended to be big, centralized sorting machines that very few people could get to and make use of, and they tended to be used for the kind of jobs that can be centralized, by large institutions. That's the past, where we've come from.
With lots of bandwidth, the picture is very different — but you don't get lots of bandwidth without also getting lots of cheap information processing, lots of small but dense circuitry, hordes of small computers spliced into everything around us. So the picture we've got today is of a world where there are nearly as many mobile phones in the EU as there are people, where each mobile phone is a small computer, and where the fast 3G, UMTS phones are moving up to a megabit or so of data per second over the air — and the next-generation 4G standards are looking to move 100 mbps of data. So that's where we are now. And this picture differs from the past in a very interesting way: because lots of people are interacting with them.
(That, incidentally, is what makes the world wide web possible; it's not the technology but the fact that millions of people are throwing random stuff into their computers and publishing on it. You can't do that without ubiquitous cheap bandwidth and cheap terminals to let people publish stuff. And there seems to be a critical threshold for it to work; any BBS or network system seems to require a certain size of user base before it begins to acquire a culture of its own.)
Which didn't happen before, with computers. It's like the difference between having an experimental test plane that can fly at 1000 km/h, and having thousands of Boeings and Airbuses that can fly at 1000 km/h and are used by millions of people every month. There will be social consequences, and you can't easily predict the consequences of the mass uptake of a technology by observing the leading-edge consequences when it first arrives.
It typically takes at least a generation before the social impact of a ubiquitous new technology becomes obvious.
We are currently aware of the consequences of the switch to personal high-speed transportation — the car — and road freight distribution. It shapes our cities and towns, dictates where we live and work, and turns out to have disadvantages our ancestors were not aware of, from particulate air pollution to suburban sprawl and the decay of city centers in some countries.
We tend to be less aware of the social consequences, too. Compare that 1900-era figure of 360 miles per year traveled by rail, against the 16,000 miles of a typical modern American. It is no longer rare to live a long way from relatives, workplaces, and educational institutions. Countries look much more homogeneous on the large scale — the same shops in every high street — because community has become delocalized from geography. Often we don't know our neighbours as well as we know people who live hundreds of kilometers away. This is the effect of cheap, convenient high speed transport.
Now, we're still in the early stages of the uptake of mobile telephony, but some lessons are already becoming clear.
Traditional fixed land-lines connect places, not people; you dial a number and it puts you through to a room in a building somewhere, and you hope the person you want to talk to is there.
Mobile phones in contrast connect people, not places. You don't necessarily know where the person at the other end of the line is, what room in which building they're in, but you know who they are.
This has interesting social effects. Sometimes it's benign; you never have to wonder if someone you're meeting is lost or unable to find the venue, you never lose track of people. On the other hand, it has bad effects, especially when combined with other technologies: bullying via mobile phone is rife in British schools, and "happy slapping" wouldn't be possible without them. (Assaulting people while an accomplice films it with a cameraphone, for the purpose of sending the movie footage around — often used for intimidation, sometimes used just for vicarious violent fun.)
It's even harder to predict the second-order consequences of new technologies when they start merging at the edges, and hybridizing.
A modern cellphone is nothing like a late-1980s cellphone. Back then, the cellphone was basically a voice terminal. Today it's as likely as not to be a video and still camera, a GPS navigation unit, have a keyboard for texting, a screen for surfing the web, an MP3 player, and it may also be a full-blown business computer with word processing and spreadsheet applications aboard.
In future it may end up as a pocket computer that simply runs voice-over-IP software, using the cellular telephony network — or WiFi or WiMax or just about any other transport layer that comes to hand — to move speech packets back and forth with acceptable latency.
And it's got peripherals. GPS location, cameras, text input. What does it all mean?
Putting it all together
Let's look at our notional end-point where the bandwidth and information processing revolutions are taking us — as far ahead as we can see without positing real breakthroughs and new technologies, such as cheap quantum computing, pocket fusion reactors, and an artificial intelligence that is as flexible and unpredictable as ourselves. It's about 25-50 years away.
Firstly, storage. I like to look at the trailing edge; how much non-volatile solid-state storage can you buy for, say, ten euros? (I don't like rotating media; they tend to be fragile, slow, and subject to amnesia after a few years. So this isn't the cheapest storage you can buy — just the cheapest reasonably robust solid-state storage.)
Today, I can pick up about 1Gb of FLASH memory in a postage stamp sized card for that much money. fast-forward a decade and that'll be 100Gb. Two decades and we'll be up to 10Tb.
10Tb is an interesting number. That's a megabit for every second in a year — there are roughly 10 million seconds per year. That's enough to store a live DivX video stream — compressed a lot relative to a DVD, but the same overall resolution — of everything I look at for a year, including time I spend sleeping, or in the bathroom. Realistically, with multiplexing, it puts three or four video channels and a sound channel and other telemetry — a heart monitor, say, a running GPS/Galileo location signal, everything I type and every mouse event I send — onto that chip, while I'm awake. All the time. It's a life log; replay it and you've got a journal file for my life. Ten euros a year in 2027, or maybe a thousand euros a year in 2017. (Cheaper if we use those pesky rotating hard disks — it's actually about five thousand euros if we want to do this right now.)
Why would anyone want to do this?
I can think of several reasons. Initially, it'll be edge cases. Police officers on duty: it'd be great to record everything they see, as evidence. Folks with early stage neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimers: with voice tagging and some sophisticated searching, it's a memory prosthesis.
Add optical character recognition on the fly for any text you look at, speech-to-text for anything you say, and it's all indexed and searchable. "What was the title of the book I looked at and wanted to remember last Thursday at 3pm?"
Think of it as google for real life.
We may even end up being required to do this, by our employers or insurers — in many towns in the UK, it is impossible for shops to get insurance, a condition of doing business, without demonstrating that they have CCTV cameras in place. Having such a lifelog would certainly make things easier for teachers and social workers at risk of being maliciously accused by a student or client.
(There are also a whole bunch of very nasty drawbacks to this technology — I'll talk about some of them later, but right now I'd just like to note that it would fundamentally change our understanding of privacy, redefine the boundary between memory and public record, and be subject to new and excitingly unpleasant forms of abuse — but I suspect it's inevitable, and rather than asking whether this technology is avoidable, I think we need to be thinking about how we're going to live with it.)
Now, this might seem as if it's generating mountains of data — but really, it isn't. There are roughly 80 million people in Germany. Let's assume they all have lifelogs. They're generating something like 10Tb of data each, 1013 bits, per year, or 1021 bits for the entire nation every year. 1023 bits per century.
Is 1023 bits a huge number? No it isn't, when we pursue Moore's Law to the bitter end.
There's a model for long term high volume storage that I like to use as a reference point. Obviously, we want our storage to be as compact as possible — one bit per atom, ideally, if not more, but one bit per atom seems as if it might be achievable. We want it to be stable, too. (In the future, the 20th century will be seen as a dark age — while previous centuries left books and papers that are stable for centuries with proper storage, many of the early analog recordings were stable enough to survive for decades, but the digital media and magnetic tapes and optical disks of the latter third of the 20th century decay in mere years. And if they don't decay, they become unreadable: the original tapes of the slow-scan video from the first moon landing, for example, appear to be missing, and the much lower quality broadcast images are all that remain. So stability is important, and I'm not even going to start on how we store data and metainformation describing it.)
My model of a long term high volume data storage medium is a synthetic diamond. Carbon occurs in a variety of isotopes, and the commonest stable ones are carbon-12 and carbon-13, occurring in roughly equal abundance. We can speculate that if molecular nanotechnology as described by, among others, Eric Drexler, is possible, we can build a device that will create a diamond, one layer at a time, atom by atom, by stacking individual atoms — and with enough discrimination to stack carbon-12 and carbon-13, we've got a tool for writing memory diamond. Memory diamond is quite simple: at any given position in the rigid carbon lattice, a carbon-12 followed by a carbon-13 means zero, and a carbon-13 followed by a carbon-12 means one. To rewrite a zero to a one, you swap the positions of the two atoms, and vice versa.
It's hard, it's very stable, and it's very dense. How much data does it store, in practical terms?
The capacity of memory diamond storage is of the order of Avogadro's number of bits per two molar weights. For diamond, that works out at 6.022 x 1023 bits per 25 grams. So going back to my earlier figure for the combined lifelog data streams of everyone in Germany — twenty five grams of memory diamond would store six years' worth of data.
Six hundred grams of this material would be enough to store lifelogs for everyone on the planet (at an average population of, say, eight billion people) for a year. Sixty kilograms can store a lifelog for the entire human species for a century.
In more familiar terms: by the best estimate I can track down, in 2003 we as a species recorded 2500 petabytes — 2.5 x 1018 bytes — of data. That's almost ten milligrams. The Google cluster, as of mid-2006, was estimated to have 4 petabytes of RAM. In memory diamond, you'd need a microscope to see it.
So, it's reasonable to conclude that we're not going to run out of storage any time soon.
Now, capturing the data, indexing and searching the storage, and identifying relevance — that's another matter entirely, and it's going to be one that imprint the shape of our current century on those ahead, much as the great 19th century infrastructure projects (that gave our cities paved roads and sewers and railways) define that era for us.
I'd like to suggest that really fine-grained distributed processing is going to help; small processors embedded with every few hundred terabytes of storage. You want to know something, you broadcast a query: the local processors handle the problem of searching their respective chunks of the 128-bit address space, and when one of them finds something, it reports back. But this is actually boring. It's an implementation detail.
What I'd like to look at is the effect this sort of project is going to have on human civilization.
The Singularity reconsidered
Those of you who're familiar with my writing might expect me to spend some time talking about the singularity. It's an interesting term, coined by computer scientist and SF writer Vernor Vinge. Earlier, I was discussing the way in which new technological fields show a curve of accelerating progress — until it hits a plateau and slows down rapidly. It's the familiar sigmoid curve. Vinge asked, "what if there exist new technologies where the curve never flattens, but looks exponential?" The obvious example — to him — was Artificial Intelligence. It's still thirty years away today, just as it was in the 1950s, but the idea of building machines that think has been around for centuries, and more recently, the idea of understanding how the human brain processes information and coding some kind of procedural system in software for doing the same sort of thing has soaked up a lot of research.
Vernor came up with two postulates. Firstly, if we can design a true artificial intelligence, something that's cognitively our equal, then we can make it run faster by throwing more computing resources at it. (Yes, I know this is questionable — it begs the question of whether intelligence is parallelizeable, or what resources it takes.) And if you can make it run faster, you can make it run much faster — hundreds, millions, of times faster. Which means problems get solved fast. This is your basic weakly superhuman AI: the one you deploy if you want it to spend an afternoon and crack a problem that's been bugging everyone for a few centuries.
He also noted something else: we humans are pretty dumb. We can see most of the elements of our own success in other species, and individually, on average, we're not terribly smart. But we've got the ability to communicate, to bind time, and to plan, and we've got a theory of mind that lets us model the behavior of other animals. What if there can exist other forms of intelligence, other types of consciousness, which are fundamentally better than ours at doing whatever it is that consciousness does? Just as a quicksort algorithm that sorts in O(n log n) comparisons is fundamentally better (except in very small sets) than a bubble sort that typically takes O(n2) comparisons.
If such higher types of intelligence can exist, and if a human-equivalent intelligence can build an AI that runs one of them, then it's going to appear very rapidly after the first weakly superhuman AI. And we're not going to be able to second guess it because it'll be as much smarter than us as we are than a frog.
Vernor's singularity is therefore usually presented as an artificial intelligence induced leap into the unknown: we can't predict where things are going on the other side of that event because it's simply unprecedented. It's as if the steadily steepening rate of improvement in transportation technologies that gave us the Apollo flights by the late 1960s kept on going, with a Jupiter mission in 1982, a fast relativistic flight to Alpha Centauri by 1990, a faster than light drive by 2000, and then a time machine so we could arrive before we set off. It makes a mockery of attempts to extrapolate from prior conditions.
Of course, aside from making it possible to write very interesting science fiction stories, the Singularity is a very controversial idea. For one thing, there's the whole question of whether a machine can think — although as the late, eminent professor Edsger Djikstra said, "the question of whether machines can think is no more interesting than the question of whether submarines can swim". A secondary pathway to the Singularity is the idea of augmented intelligence, as opposed to artificial intelligence: we may not need machines that think, if we can come up with tools that help us think faster and more efficiently. The world wide web seems to be one example. The memory prostheses I've been muttering about are another.
And then there's a school of thought that holds that, even if AI is possible, the Singularity idea is hogwash — it just looks like an insuperable barrier or a permanent step change because we're too far away from it to see the fine-grained detail. Canadian SF writer Karl Schroeder has explored a different hypothesis: that there may be an end to progress. We may reach a point where the scientific enterprise is done — where all the outstanding questions have been answered and the unanswered ones are physically impossible for us to address. (He's also opined that the idea of an AI-induced Singularity is actually an example of erroneous thinking that makes the same mistake as the proponents of intelligent design (Creationism) — the assumption that complex systems cannot be produced by simple non-consciously directed processes.) An end to science is still a very long way away right now; for example, I've completely failed to talk about the real elephant in the living room, the recent explosion in our understanding of biological systems that started in the 1950s but only really began to gather pace in the 1990s. But what then?
Well, we're going to end up with — at the least — lifelogs, ubiquitous positioning and communication services, a civilization where every artifact more complicated than a spoon is on the internet and attentive to our moods and desires, cars that drive themselves, and a whole lot of other mind-bending consequences. All within the next two or three decades. So what can we expect of this collision between transportation, information processing, and bandwidth?
We're already living in a future nobody anticipated. We don't have personal jet cars, but we have ridiculously cheap intercontinental airline travel. (Holidays on the Moon? Not yet, but if you're a billionaire you can pay for a week in orbit.) On the other hand, we discovered that we do, in fact, require more than four computers for the entire planet (as Thomas Watson is alleged to have said). An increasing number of people don't have telephone lines any more — they rely on a radio network instead.
The flip side of Moore's Law, which we don't pay much attention to, is that the cost of electronic components is in deflationary free fall of a kind that would have given a Depression-era economist nightmares. When we hit the brick wall at the end of the road — when further miniaturization is impossible — things are going to get very bumpy indeed, much as the aerospace industry hit the buffers at the end of the 1960s in North America and elsewhere. This stuff isn't big and it doesn't have to be expensive, as the One Laptop Per Child project is attempting to demonstrate. Sooner or later there won't be a new model to upgrade to every year, the fab lines will have paid for themselves, and the bottom will fall out of the consumer electronics industry, just as it did for the steam locomotive workshops before them.
Before that happens, we're going to get used to some very disorienting social changes.
Hands up, anyone in the audience, who owns a slide rule? Or a set of trigonometric tables? Who's actually used them, for work, in the past year? Or decade?
I think I've made my point: the pocket calculator and the computer algebra program have effectively driven those tools into obsolescence. This happened some time between the early 1970s and the late 1980s. Now we're about to see a whole bunch of similar and much weirder types of obsolescence.
Right now, Nokia is designing global positioning system receivers into every new mobile phone they plan to sell. GPS receivers in a phone SIM card have been demonstrated. GPS is exploding everywhere. It used to be for navigating battleships; now it's in your pocket, along with a moving map. And GPS is pretty crude — you need open line of sight on the satellites, and the signal's messed up. We can do better than this, and we will. In five years, we'll all have phones that connect physical locations again, instead of (or as well as) people. And we'll be raising a generation of kids who don't know what it is to be lost, to not know where you are and how to get to some desired destination from wherever that is.
Think about that. "Being lost" has been part of the human experience ever since our hominid ancestors were knuckle-walking around the plains of Africa. And we're going to lose it — at least, we're going to make it as unusual an experience as finding yourself out in public without your underpants.
We're also in some danger of losing the concepts of privacy, and warping history out of all recognition.
Our concept of privacy relies on the fact that it's hard to discover information about other people. Today, you've all got private lives that are not open to me. Even those of you with blogs, or even lifelogs. But we're already seeing some interesting tendencies in the area of attitudes to privacy on the internet among young people, under about 25; if they've grown up with the internet they have no expectation of being able to conceal information about themselves. They seem to work on the assumption that anything that is known about them will turn up on the net sooner or later, at which point it is trivially searchable.
Now, in this age of rapid, transparent information retrieval, what happens if you've got a lifelog, registering your precise GPS coordinates and scanning everything around you? If you're updating your whereabouts via a lightweight protocol like Twitter and keeping in touch with friends and associates via a blog? It'd be nice to tie your lifelog into your blog and the rest of your net presence, for your personal convenience. And at first, it'll just be the kids who do this — kids who've grown up with little expectation of or understanding of privacy. Well, it'll be the kids and the folks on the Sex Offenders Register who're forced to lifelog as part of their probation terms, but that's not our problem. Okay, it'll also be people in businesses with directors who want to exercise total control over what their employees are doing, but they don't have to work there ... yet.
You know something? Keeping track of those quaint old laws about personal privacy is going to be really important. Because in countries with no explicit right to privacy — I believe the US constitution is mostly silent on the subject — we're going to end up blurring the boundary between our Second Lives and the first life, the one we live from moment to moment. We're time-binding animals and nothing binds time tighter than a cradle to grave recording of our every moment.
The political hazards of lifelogging are, or should be, semi-obvious. In the short term, we're going to have to learn to do without a lot of bad laws. If it's an offense to pick your nose in public, someone, sooner or later, will write a 'bot to hunt down nose-pickers and refer them to the police. Or people who put the wrong type of rubbish in the recycling bags. Or cross the road without using a pedestrian crossing, when there's no traffic about. If you dig hard enough, everyone is a criminal. In the UK, today, there are only about four million public CCTV surveillance cameras; I'm asking myself, what is life going to be like when there are, say, four hundred million of them? And everything they see is recorded and retained forever, and can be searched retroactively for wrong-doing.
One of the biggest risks we face is that of sleep-walking into a police state, simply by mistaking the ability to monitor everyone for even minute legal infractions for the imperative to do so.
And then there's history.
History today is patchy. I never met either of my grandfathers — both of them died before I was born. One of them I recognize from three photographs; the other, from two photographs and about a minute of cine film. Silent, of course. Going back further, to their parents ... I know nothing of these people beyond names and dates. (They died thirty years before I was born.)
This century we're going to learn a lesson about what it means to be unable to forget anything. And it's going to go on, and on. Barring a catastrophic universal collapse of human civilization — which I should note was widely predicted from August 1945 onward, and hasn't happened yet — we're going to be laying down memories in diamond that will outlast our bones, and our civilizations, and our languages. Sixty kilograms will handily sum up the total history of the human species, up to the year 2000. From then on ... we still don't need much storage, in bulk or mass terms. There's no reason not to massively replicate it and ensure that it survives into the deep future.
And with ubiquitous lifelogs, and the internet, and attempts at providing a unified interface to all interesting information — wikipedia, let's say — we're going to give future historians a chance to build an annotated, comprehensive history of the entire human race. Charting the relationships and interactions between everyone who's ever lived since the dawn of history — or at least, the dawn of the new kind of history that is about to be born this century.
Total history — a term I'd like to coin, by analogy to total war — is something we haven't experienced yet. I'm really not sure what its implications are, but then, I'm one of the odd primitive shadows just visible at one edge of the archive: I expect to live long enough to be lifelogging, but my first forty or fifty years are going to be very poorly documented, mere gigabytes of text and audio to document decades of experience. What I can be fairly sure of is that our descendants' relationship with their history is going to be very different from our own, because they will be able to see it with a level of depth and clarity that nobody has ever experienced before.
Meet your descendants. They don't know what it's like to be involuntarily lost, don't understand what we mean by the word "privacy", and will have access (sooner or later) to a historical representation of our species that defies understanding. They live in a world where history has a sharply-drawn start line, and everything they individually do or say will sooner or later be visible to everyone who comes after them, forever. They are incredibly alien to us.
And yet, these trends are emergent from the current direction of the telecommunications industry, and are likely to become visible as major cultural changes within the next ten to thirty years. None of them require anything but a linear progression from where we are now, in a direction we're already going in. None of them take into account external technological synergies, stuff that's not obviously predictable like brain/computer interfaces, artificial intelligences, or magic wands. I've purposefully ignored discussion of nanotechnology, tissue engineering, stem cells, genomics, proteomics, the future of nuclear power, the future of environmentalism and religion, demographics, our environment, peak oil and our future energy economy, space exploration, and a host of other topics.
As projections of a near future go, the one I've presented in this talk is pretty poor. In my defense, I'd like to say that the only thing I can be sure of is that I'm probably wrong, or at least missing something as big as the internet, or antibiotics.
(I know: driverless cars. They're going to redefine our whole concept of personal autonomy. Once autonomous vehicle technology becomes sufficiently reliable, it's fairly likely that human drivers will be forbidden, except under very limited conditions. After all, human drivers are the cause of about 90% of traffic accidents: recent research shows that in about 80% of vehicle collisions the driver was distracted in the 3 seconds leading up to the incident. There's an inescapable logic to taking the most common point of failure out of the control loop — my freedom to drive should not come at the risk of life and limb to other road users, after all. But because cars have until now been marketed to us by appealing to our personal autonomy, there are going to be big social changes when we switch over to driverless vehicles.
(Once all on-road cars are driverless, the current restrictions on driving age and status of intoxication will cease to make sense. Why require a human driver to take an eight year old to school, when the eight year old can travel by themselves? Why not let drunks go home, if they're not controlling the vehicle? So the rules over who can direct a car will change. And shortly thereafter, the whole point of owning your own car — that you can drive it yourself, wherever you want — is going to be subtly undermined by the redefinition of car from an expression of independence to a glorified taxi. If I was malicious, I'd suggest that the move to autonomous vehicles will kill the personal automobile market; but instead I'll assume that people will still want to own their own four-wheeled living room, even though their relationship with it will change fundamentally. But I digress ...)
Anyway, this is the future that some of you are building. It's not the future you thought you were building, any more than the rocket designers of the 1940s would have recognized a future in which GPS-equipped hobbyists go geocaching at weekends. But it's a future that's taking shape right now, and I'd like to urge you to think hard about what kind of future you'd like your descendants — or yourselves — to live in. Engineers and programmers are the often-anonymous architects of society, and what you do now could make a huge difference to the lives of millions, even billions, of people in decades to come.
Thank you, and good afternoon.
Wow, so I'm not the only one wondering where are the flying cars I was promised.
-the end of lost: that would take all the adventure and fun out of travel.
-the end of forgeting: what are politicians going to do?
-my second and first life will merge: or will our secod life become our first life and our first life become our second???
thanks for the great read
Excellent article! My only response is to wonder how much of humanity will have access to our entire history, or even to the ability to record their own lifelogs, not to mention self-driving cars. Even if the $100 (and less) laptop gets most of humanity to lifelogs, the cars seem doubtful.
I just wanted to quickly let you know that I thought this was a very interesting article and that it raised some good questions. I especially liked the quote from Edsger Djikstra which eloquently shows that asking about whether robots will be able to think is pretty much an issue of semantics as opposed to anything else.
I would suggest that Charlie Stross plot one more set of numbers before he leaps to conclusions. Please plot global per capita energy consumption throughout the 20th century into the 21st century. Then consider the laws of thermodynamics as applied to anything manufactured. I suspect he may wish to review his conclusions, especially in light of basic human nature.
Mr Stross has raised an issue that I have been privately preaching for a few years now. anyone taking a few seconds to think about the human state today in light of communications and travel in general can see that the 'shrinking world' trend that has been ongoing since Magellan circumnavigated the world and completely proved the round world theory, has brought us to the point that instant world-wide comunication of any event is possible.
As cell-based devices become increasingly complex and incorporate additional features (GPS, Texting, Push-to-talk, etc) our 'private' worlds continue to shrink. Lifelogging is a natural extension of this. Talk of how things will be accomplished are almost irrelevant in my opinion - who really cares whether we lifelog via neural implants or high res cameras on our glasses?
The bottom line is that each of our 'world's is shrinking and the time will soon come when the lines are so thin as to be nonexistant. This to me is "The Singularity" not an unguessable event horizon but rather a unification of the human species. Each of us with our own willpower, but unquestionably interlinked to an extent that we are all bound together.
Great article. Very sensible. Also remarkable in understanding its limitations. I have always been fascinated by the fact that extrapolations of science fiction are often inaccurate and that the real future includes an unrecognized underdog technology or phenomenon that emerges to define the times.