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Read An Excerpt From ‘The Skeptics’ Guide to the Future: What Yesterday’s Science and Science Fiction Tell Us About the World of Tomorrow’

In The Skeptics’ Guide To The Future, Steven Novella and his co-authors build upon the work of futurists of the past by examining what they got right, what they got wrong, and how they came to those conclusions. By exploring the pitfalls of each era, they give their own speculations about the distant future, transformed by unbelievable technology ranging from genetic manipulation to artificial intelligence and quantum computing. Applying their trademark skepticism, they carefully extrapolate upon each scientific development, leaving no stone unturned as they lay out a vision for the future.

Thanks to our friends at Grand Central Publishing, we’re happy to share the first chapter of this exciting new book.

Futurism—Days of Future Passed

The future begins with the past.

The  future  is  a  wild  fantasy.  It’s  feverishly  concocted  out  of  our hopes, fears, biases, ignorance, and imagination, saying far more about us than what is to come. Predictions of the future are really just reflections of the present. And that means we’re really bad at predicting what the future will bring. But that’s not going to stop us from trying to do just that—it’s simply too irresistible.

We can, however, try to learn from futurism’s checkered past, correct what errors we can find, and perhaps do a little better. Along the way, we can learn about the past and present of the technologies that dominate our world. We can follow the arc of the history of sci- ence and technology and perhaps extrapolate it a little bit into the future. My brothers and I have been doing this our whole lives.

As children growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, we were in love with science, technology, science fiction, and the incredible promise of the future. We were too young to have experienced the disappointment of future promises repeatedly failed, and so we naively believed the advances set before us. Many of them are now solid clichés about the future, but back then we anxiously anticipated our flying cars, jetpacks, moon settlements, and intelligent robot servants.

Our fondness for science fiction didn’t help. The movies and tele- vision we watched depicted a near future with technology that now seems to be about a century premature. In The Six Million Dollar Man Steve Austin sported prosthetic robotic limbs that fifty years later are still not even close to achievable. In 2001 we were sup- posed to have space stations and sentient computers. And weren’t researchers working on beaming vivid experiences directly into our brains? Even dark futures, like the year 2019 depicted in Blade Runner, had flying cars and genetically modified androids indistinguishable from humans. No matter how socially and environmen- tally devastated the future was presented to be, what I marveled at was the technology. We could work the other stuff out—as long as there were flying cars.

Our techno-optimism was likely significantly influenced by growing up in the era of Apollo. We were landing people on the moon and using “advanced” computers, and despite a few hiccups, it all worked out well. Watching Gene Cernan step off the moon and back into the lunar lander during the Apollo 17 mission in 1972, my younger self couldn’t conceive that fifty years later we still would not have returned, let alone not have a settlement on the moon. Where is Moonbase Alpha?

The flip side of this disappointment and false promises is that some of the biggest technological advances in the last half century, the ones that have had the most significant impact on our lives, were not featured in future predictions or science fiction. As I write this, I carry in my pocket a supercomputer (by the standards of my youth) that allows me to communicate instantly through video, audio, or text to almost anyone, anywhere in the world. As a bonus, I have access to my entire personal music library, it serves as a digital cam- era that can take as many photos as I want without the need for film, and can even give me directions to anywhere I want to go. It can access practically the sum of human knowledge in a searchable inter- active format. If I get bored, this device can play movies and contains countless video games that would have blown child-me away.

The smartphone and the World Wide Web that can be accessed through it, along with social media, online shopping, countless apps, and other features, are absolute miracles of future technology.

It far exceeds what I would have thought possible thirty to forty years ago. Past depictions of the future generally did not anticipate anything like it. Even Star Trek, a favorite techno-optimist utopian future, did not see our digital revolution coming.

So, we have made great technological strides in the last fifty years, just not in the ways that we thought. Why is it that people are consistently so bad at predicting the future? If we can understand this, perhaps we can do it a little better. Or perhaps the forces that shape the future are too chaotic to predict with any accuracy beyond a certain point, like trying to predict the weather.

But while we cannot predict specific weather with much accuracy, we can better predict overall changes in climate. It’s easier to predict that travel will get faster in the future, for example, rather than the specifics of automotive technology. One potential fix to bad futurism, therefore, is to focus on large trends, rather than trying to imagine tiny details. Even there, however, futurists can get tripped up.

In the movie Minority Report, for example, they presented a thoughtful picture of the near future of 2054. I will not be able to say how accurate it was for another thirty years, but one choice stuck out to me: People were using teeny-tiny phones. The movie was made in 2002, prior to smartphones. The trend then for cell phones was to get smaller and smaller, so the writers extrapolated this out another fifty years.

Unfortunately for them, the iPhone was released in 2007, essentially reversing the trend by fundamentally changing how personal phones are used. Suddenly, screen real estate became a premium, and inevitably phones got larger. The iPhone was a disruptive technology, changing the status quo of an entire industry and changing our lives forever. Perhaps we are now settling into a range of screen sizes that represents the optimal balance of portability and usability, depending on some personal and situational variables, or maybe a new disruption will occur.

Companies are indeed looking for ways to disrupt the cell phone market again by creating foldable or expandable phones reminiscent of a time before iPhones. Will this technology take off, remain niche, or completely fail? If you could reliably predict even the next step in how a single technology will evolve, you would be a tech millionaire. Even scientists and tech leaders in the past famously made terrible predictions about the future, including about technology in which they were involved. Take Thomas Edison, who said, “The phonograph has no commercial value at all” in the 1880s. Or Ken Olsen who claimed in 1977 that “there is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” Even if you can foresee that first step, try predicting the next fifty steps for a thousand technologies. That’s the future.

Of course, “the future” includes one second from the moment you read these words, to the ultimate heat death of the universe in 10^100 years (some trends are inevitable). Different factors apply depending on how far into the future you are trying to predict. The near future, say ten to twenty years, can benefit from high- probability extrapolation of existing trends, as well as coming technology that is already in the works. The medium future, twenty to a hundred years, gets a lot harder, but if you focus on the big picture and give yourself some wiggle room, you might get a glimpse of life in a century.

The far future, more than a hundred years, is where things really get interesting, and the technologies we are now just beginning to explore reach their full mature potential. While it may be easy to predict that some technologies will eventually be realized, the wiggle room for predictions here is in how long it will take. We may not be able to envisage when essentially complete brain-machine inter- faces will exist, but when they do, we can imagine what it may be like. The far future is where we can enjoy speculating about entirely new technologies that are now only a footnote in a physics paper about some newly discovered aspect of nature.

Our guide through the future will cover all of this—advancements in existing technologies, exploring emerging technologies, and speculating about fantastical tech from possible futures. As much as possible, science will be our guide.

Through it all, we will maintain a highly skeptical eye because that’s what we do. In addition to being science enthusiasts and technophiles, we are also scientific skeptics. For the last quarter century, we have been studying and promoting critical thinking and scientific literacy. We host the award-winning podcast The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, and our first book, of the same name, is a primer on science and critical thinking.

This means we always try to temper our enthusiasm for the future with sharp criticism. We let the failures and disappointments of the past inform our thoughts about the future. It is not enough, however, to simply be cynical. Being skeptical means separating the probable from the improbable, with solid evidence and logic.

Sometimes we let our enthusiasm get the better of us, but in the end, we always bring it back down to reality. This is, after all, a skeptic’s guide to the future.

The future, ironically, begins in the past. Our journey starts with the history of futurism to see what it can teach us.

The Skeptics’ Guide to the Future is available now.

Excerpted from the book The Skeptics’ Guide to the Future: What Yesterday’s Science and Science Fiction
Tell Us About the World of Tomorrow
by Dr. Steven Novella, with Bob Novella and Jay Novella.
Copyright © 2022 by SGU Productions, Inc
. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing.
All rights reserved. 

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