According to the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research and analysis think-tank that claims to have “invented the Postwar World,” the year 2015 is going to be awesome. This is the year I’ll be able to clone myself and get bionic biceps. With advanced brain scanning, I’ll copy everything I know (shouldn’t take long) and imprint it onto my clone’s brain. Through gene therapy, I’ll slow down my aging process and speed up my clone’s, stopping him at a younger version of myself so that he can do any physical labor that I don’t have time to take care of with my bionic biceps. A younger version of me running around could have unforeseen consequences, but I’ll get to that in a bit.
If the old me gets sick, I’ll down a genetically engineered “prescription banana” that will make me all better. The discarded peel will be magically mixed with other waste, broken down into its atomic parts then reassembled into siding for my house that has a 10,000-year warranty and can change color with the seasons. I’ll have other “smart materials” at my disposal. My clothes will respond to the weather, breathing when it’s hot out and forming an impenetrable shell when it rains. My clothing will do this while tracking my vital signs with embedded nano-scale computing devices woven into the fabric. If I have a heart attack, my shirt will dial 911, reporting my condition and location via GPS. I’d miss work, but that’s okay—my clone will go for me. If any heart tissue is damaged, it will be rebuilt with my stem cells. Meanwhile, microscopic nanobots will swim through my bloodstream to seek out and repair any vascular blockage.
This is all according to RAND’s 2001 report, The Global Technology Revolution. As I reread that report as we head into the actual 2015, I couldn’t help but laugh. Why does the future always sound so fantastic but when we arrive in it, it’s not as cool as it seemed? The future arrives. The world has changed, but usually not to the degree or in the way we imagined. Some old problems have been solved, but some new ones have been created along the way.
For example, what do I do if my wife falls in love with my clone and they run off to Vegas together? Let’s face it: me at 25 was a lot more attractive and fun to be around than the me at 45 is. If my wife leaves me for my clone do I demand her DNA as part of the divorce settlement so that I can clone her and remarry? Or do I demand my clone back? It’s my DNA after all. If she’s in love with my clone would she technically still be in love with me? What is me? Is it me and my clone? Or does personal identity die in a world with clones, a world in which life is manufactured through the new science of genetic replication rather than resulting from old fashioned copulation?
These and other deeply philosophical, moral and ethical questions are bound to arrive with a future shaped by a “technology revolution” that enables us to control and manipulate life itself; a future in which I suspect marital fidelity and personal identity may be the least of our concerns.
According to the RAND report, “Life in 2015 will be revolutionized by the growing effect of multidisciplinary technology across all dimensions of life: social, economic, political, and personal... The results could be astonishing... The fast pace of technological development and breakthroughs makes foresight difficult but the technology revolution seems globally significant and quite likely.”
In 2015, we’ll feed the world with genetically modified foods that will grow faster and in arid environments like the Sahara desert, which is what Southern Oregon would be like if we hadn’t solved the problem of global warming with bio-engineered “carbon sequestering” trees and “nanoscrubbers,” microscopic catalytic-converters released into the atmosphere to convert carbon molecules into “less harmful forms.” We’ll live longer and have a better quality of life. We’ll continue to advance our technology at an accelerating and staggering pace through the dichotomous process of “creative destruction”—that is, “the continuous process by which emerging technologies push out the old.”
Or maybe not. There could, of course, be unforeseen, drastic and dystopian downsides to all of this. Maybe 2015 will be the year we botch the biological recipe and create monsters; destroy our natural food supply through some unforeseen consequences of genetically modified organisms (GMOs); or create a synthetic nano-virus that will wipe out the human race. Or perhaps worse—we’ll be at the mercy of those who control the advanced technology that controls the future. Perhaps this is happening already with the haves controlling the have-nots in this world through the use of superior technology.
“Consumers and citizens should gain a basic understanding of technology to make informed decisions and demands on our political, social, economic, legal and military systems,” the RAND report recommends. “Likewise, scientists, engineers, technologists, and the government will have increasing responsibilities to think about and communicate the benefits and risks of technological innovations.”
This is sound advice as we head—somewhat blindly I fear—deeper into a revolution that will have a tremendous impact on how the actual future will unfold. But it’s going to be increasingly difficult to understand and make informed decisions about the technology coming our way. This hits me hard when I read in the RAND report that, “self-assembling materials include colloidal crystal arrays with mesoscale lattice constants that form optical diffraction gratings.” Apparently the vocabulary of the technology revolution isn’t even something I can understand without several PhDs. But who knows, perhaps in 2015 my younger and smarter clone will be able to explain it all to me, that is, as long as he doesn’t run off to Vegas with my wife.
Scott Dewing is a technologist, teacher, and writer. He lives with his family on a low-tech farm in the State of Jefferson. Archives of his columns and other postings can be found on his blog at: blog.insidethebox.org.