Within 50 years humans will merge with machines and become both superintelligent and immortal, in an event known as the technological singularity. So says the ever-controversial futurist Ray Kurzweil. We pick his brains on his latest initiative, the Singularity University, and on his plan to use advancing technology to bring his father back from the dead in our exclusive interview with him this week.
Kurzweil is just one of many players who have tried to map out the future of the human race, and tried to ensure that their vision comes true, from thetranshumanist movement to "human cyborg" Kevin Warwick.
New Scientist brings you five of the most interesting future-movers and shapers.
Although Kurzweil is the public face of the singularity today, Vernor Vinge coined the term.
He was inspired by a monograph written in 1964 by the statistician and code-breaker Irving John Good entitled "Speculations concerning the first ultra-intelligent machine". Good argued that for humanity to survive, we must create a machine more intelligent than ourselves. Such a machine would be able to continually improve itself, becoming more and more intelligent, essentially without limit.
The idea was developed by Vinge, a computer scientist and science fiction author, in an essay written in 1993 called "The coming technological singularity". He argued that the singularity would occur in the mid-21st century, and that barring civilisation-wide disasters it is inevitable.
In his later years, film-maker Walt Disney became obsessed with futurism, and in particular how cities should be designed.
He tried to bring his ideas to fruition in the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT). His community was intended to be a carefully designed city, with a population of 20,000. The city would incorporate all the newest technologies, and would change constantly in a bid to test and discover the best way for a city to be.
Disney's dream was never realised. He struggled to find financial backing, and his company's board saw little profit in it. The Epcot theme park at Disney World that was eventually built is devoted to technology and world cultures, but bears little resemblance to Disney's imagined utopia.
Disney is often reported to have been cryogenically frozen after his death, in the hope that a future civilisation will be able to revive him. While cryonics is a genuine field of research, the claim that Disney went in for it is an urban myth.
H G Wells
This list could have been filled entirely with science fiction authors many times over, but Wells was one of the few to make explicit predictions that he expected to be borne out, rather than simply exploring possible futures. Arthur C. Clarke was also known for his confident predictions.
The book, published in 1933, predicted that a second world war would begin in the 1940s, and that it would be characterised by a much greater use of aerial combat, devastating the world's major cities. These predictions were largely accurate.
However, Wells went on to say that a second world war would only be ended by a worldwide disease epidemic. After that, he expected a benign dictatorship to rule the world and foster scientific thinking, and eliminate all religion, until a global utopia was established. Only time will tell if he got this bit right.
The Club of Rome
Most futurists tend to concentrate on the amazing capabilities that future technologies will develop. But what of the resources we rely on to sustain and develop our technology?
In 1972, the Club of Rome think tank published its book The Limits to Growth(read a short version in rich text format). It was based on a computer model called World3, which estimated how the increasing human population, and continuing economic growth, would affect the world.
The book predicted that the 21st century would see mass starvation andeconomic collapse, as humanity exhausted natural resources. The book was roundly slammed by many economists, with particular criticism directed towards the nature of the modelling.
But a study in 2008 showed that the book's predictions of changes in industrial production, food production and pollution had been largely correct: the world is, on the whole, following the course predicted by the "business as usual" version of the World3 model which assumed that our technological capabilities were going to grow at roughly the same rate they had before (read the report, PDF format).
In 1970, computers were still primitive, but the PC and the global internet were on the horizon. That year, Toffler published Future Shock, in which he argued that the rate of technological change would soon become so great that people would be left disoriented, disconnected and alienated, suffering the eponymous disease of the book.
Toffler argued that civilisation was about to move from the industrial age to the superindustrial age – now more commonly known as the information age.
He also coined the phrase "information overload" to describe the psychological consequences of the information age. Bombarded constantly by information of dubious relevance, people would become confused and struggle to make decisions. Anyone struggling to cope with several hundred emails every daywill appreciate the feeling.
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