Future Shock

Not only is science accelerating, but the rate of acceleration is accelerating. Ray Kurzweil, in his book “Fantastic Voyage,” states that science is progressing exponentially, and he predicts that the 21st century will experience 20,000 times the progress of the 20th century. (The thrust of his book is (for baby boomers like us) is how to live long enough to live forever, primarily through nutritional supplements, according to him, until medicine learns to reverse the aging process. The only politician who seems to get it is Newt Gingrich who claimed in a 2008 speech, if memory serves, that looking back to the year 2008 in 25 years time would be like looking back to the 1880’s from today–that’s Newt Gingrich not me. What form will this future shock take? Let’s take a look. At some point, humanity will experience the rate of progress of the entire 20th century in less than a year’s time, then in less than a month, then less than a week, a day, an hour, a second . . . , but even the perfect future, you can’t build a Hoover Dam in a microsecond or travel to a star. I foresee some point in the not so distant future, when there’ll be no point in beginning long-term projects like the Hoover Dam or the Panama Canal because the science and engineering would be repeatedly leapfrogged before the project even got well underway. For instance, say we undertook today an Apollo project to travel to Alpha Centauri. Evan at today’s modest rate of progress, the propulsion technology would be leapfrogged to where a second spaceship would overtake the first spaceship before the first ship got beyond the Oort Cloud, then a third ship would overtake the second one before it even got beyond Neptune, etc. This is the stultifying paradox of progress: who will shell out for this year’s automobile if next year’s model makes this year’s look like a model T. But the progress paradox wouldn’t extend cyberspace. While you can’t build a physical Hoover Dam in a microsecond, you can build the equivalent in a microsecond in a quantum computer. Who’ll get in a physical conveyance to visit grandma when your avatars can interact every bit as vividly in cyberspace, so I foresee that the progress paradox will force humanity into cyberspace sometime in this century, leaving our physical bodies and physical world completely behind.

Once we’ve made the leap to entangling bosons in quantum computers we’ll detect the entangled bosons of The Borg in the form of dark energy, for you see, we won’t have been the first civilization to make the quantum leap.

Technology usually moves on a S curve, and those on the exponentially rising part often make the mistake of extrapolating this rate of increase beyond where it should go. You mention propulsion. From the early 19th century, when horses gave way to locomotives, to the mid 20th we had an explosive increase in speed. Then we hit the limits, and we haven’t gone faster than we went in 1968 in over 40 years.

Computers have pretty much stopped getting faster, and have just gotten more parallel. That’s good for more parallel applications, but not for raw power. The big increases will come in something totally different. A professor friend of mine told me that people stopped registering for EE and CS, and have instead registered for biomedical courses. Perhaps that is the next S-curve.

Also, another impact of future shock is the inability to use paragraph breaks or delineate ideas and arguments into discrete segments. :wink:

Sorry to poke fun at the o.p.; I think that the general concept he presents is a valid line of discussion, but the text is painful to read and from a distance initially appears to be the ravings of an anti-vaccine advocate or proponent of a new theory of quantum electro-relativity which invokes the concept of pan-dimensionsal giraffes as the underlying force mediating mechanism that distorts the savanah of the space-time continuum. The methodology used by Kurzweil to predict or even quantify future progress is highly suspect, or as we say in engineering, “handwaving.”

For all intents and purposes, we’ve already reached “The Singularity”, insofar as the modern technology that we use on a daily basis is beyond the capacity of even very smart people to fully understand, much less recreate. The first time Philo Farnsworth produced a transmitted image on his “Image Dissector” human technology was already indistinguishable from magic as far as the average person is concerned. Heck, most people can’t coherently explain how a toaster works, and outside of a comic book movie adaptation even a genius-level expert couldn’t walk into a well-equipped lab and construct a working iPod.


Meh, if I live for another 200 years I still won’t have the flying car I was promised in the '60’s.

We are going to need a cheap, and widely available source of energy to get where you think we are headed.

The thing is that you have to go through all the intermediary steps to develop technology even if that technology will be obsolete when you reach your goal.

I could take a smart phone back in time 60 years and show them what the future will be like. But without the development of small batteries that were used in hearing aids and watches, the GPS satellites developed for navigation, touch screen, materials, computer chips, all initially developed for other uses, the internet itself, without all the interceding technology already developed the phone can’t exist.

All the steps in between are important, even the failures, maybe especially the failures.

And I think your dream of such a rapid advancement runs into a form of the Fermi Paradox. If it is going to happen that fast, why hasn’t it already happened?

Is there an actual debate here? It seems like the OP is just proselytizing - Singularity instead of religion, but much of the same flavor.

Also, to get in the spirit of an actual debate, methinks the OP should look up “sigmoidal”, as in “advancements in most fields of human endeavor can be approximated by a sigmoidal growth function, which initially looks exponential, though eventually slows”.

wow–I’m panting and out of breath just reading that!
You got all the way to the Oort cloud and Alpha Centauri, but you forgot to start by saying that nuclear fusion is only 10 years away. oh, and where’s my jet pack?

And you’re gonna need a lot more paragraph breaks,too, or else the future will be really incomprehensible.

(okay,mods, I promise… no more sarcasm…)

On a more serious note: as the other posts have already said—not everything improves forever. The greatest and most important invention in all of human civilization is (ta-dum!) :
the flush toilet.
And it hasn’t been improved on for over a century.

The speed of manned spaceflight seems to have remained the same from the first shuttle flight in the early 1980s until now.

I for one plan to spend my senior years as a consciousness embodied by microscopic von Neumann machines, slowly dissipating throughout the universe, experiencing and thinking thoughts on multiple spatiotemporal scales, from the individual probe investigating an interesting planet, to stellar, interstellar, even galactic scales, with a single thought spanning millennia, observing galaxies colliding, stars being created and evaporating in an instant…

Either that, or zonked out on meds in a home somewhere. It’s probably the same effect for cheaper.

Thread I ran last year: Is “Future Shock” now a thing of the past?

No time! Seconds count! Future!!!

Well, then, why the fuck are you wasting my time with extra vowels? It should be “N tIm secs cunt Futur!” At least, according to a lot of the SMS messages I receive.


I find I must promptly acknowledge, utterly without purposeful evasion or implied reservation, that I must concretely draw the conclusion that this recent elucidation from your vantage point is entirely and satisfactorily correct to within any reasonable tolerance.

A question that always occurs to me is – what does “science accelerating” and “rate of acceleration” (as it concerns progress, scientific or otherwise) mean? What is/are the metric(s)? It’s not clear to me that the terms aren’t simply pie-in-the-sky nonsense.

As to the idea of acceleration overtaking actual effort, I think something akin to Amdahl’s Law would come into play. I’m not quite sure how to phrase it to be applicable here, nor whether my suspicions are correct (much less provably correct), but I thought I’d throw it out for discussion fodder anyway…

One thing to remember is that it’ll be some sort of aggregate technological sophistication that’s allegedly moving that fast.

Dam building and bridge building probably haven’t advanced much in the past 60 years or more; it’s likely the materials that have improved over that time frame, not the actual engineering. Hell, I suspect that a modern suspension bridge (not cable-stayed) is very much similar to the Brooklyn or Golden Gate Bridges- in other words, the engineering’s been well understood for quite some time.


Not a good example, that’s more a political limit than a technological one. If we were willing to use nuclear based propulsion methods we could be going much faster than we are now in space.

Are those really practical?

Sure, experimental versions have been built even. There’s nothing magical about nuclear power. The funny thing is that space is the perfect place for it since the major problem with it doesn’t matter; there’s no biosphere to irradiate out there, and space is full of radiation anyway.

“He’s gonna wear that danged keyboard right out with that kinda talk.”