National Geographic: part 2 of 2 – human forecasters fail us

The January 2015 issue of National Geographic has a “Looking Ahead” leaf of predictions on the second and third pages. Unfortunately, I cannot find an on-line link to share with you. But what I read in these forecasts is the kinds of rhetorical exaggeration that I believe distracts our society from engaging with much more relevant, up-front issues such as technological underemployment, disempowerment and inequity.  Here is a sampling for you to privately roll your eyes and share:

Paul Saffo writes “A new religion could emerge in the next decade or two, perhaps based around the environment.” I believe he’s unaware of some religions rather older than negative ten years that heavily focus on our world.

Bertalan Mesko writes that “The 3-D printing revolution will produce affordable exoskeletons and prosthetic devices.” While it’s very exciting to see how 3-D printers have enabled custom prosthetics- and that is a huge success story- the exoskeleton bit…well, no. 3D printing is an expensive way to make electronics; and exoskeletons are a fantastically important idea if we are to increase the number of years that fragile, elderly may live without managed care. But realizing these means major advances in materials, motor and battery technology, not 3-D printing of the hard parts.

Byron Reese writes:

soon we will be able to solve all problems that are fundamentally technical. These problems include disease, poverty, hunger, energy and scarcity. If you can live a few years more, there is a real chance you will never die, since mortality may be just a technical problem we solve. All these advances will usher in a new golden age, freed from the scourges that have plagued humanity throughout our history.

Where to begin!? Poverty, scarcity, disease. These are not technical problems. These are social, cultural and deeply historical phenomena. And living forever in a few years? I strongly suggest you not start saving for your infinite-retirement payment plan. We are all mortal for many, many years yet. The technology optimism suffusing this quote scares me, because it enables us to see any hiccups along the way as temporary, and allows us to justify just about anything en route to a nirvana-ending, where all disease is eradicated, where all our plagues have left us, and we have invented heaven on earth, byte by byte. The very reason I wrote Robot Futures is to try to demonstrate that technological invention is not magically transformative; indeed, many of the challenges we face as members of the human society are only exacerbated by improving technology.

There are many more quotes worth reading on this two-page leaf. This is a reminder that there is a surfeit of narrow-minded optimism at play in our pundit universe, and readers will continue to have their breath taken away by forecasts that promise a gleaming tomorrow if we just let exponential technology innovation do its thing for a few more years.

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