Predicting the Future


Predicting the future, not just of individuals, but of cultures, nations, and humanity is an ancient game. Once, this was done through speculation, astrology, interpretation of scriptures, etc. In the 19th and 20th centuries fiction writers began to express their ideas of the future through reasonable extrapolations of current science and technology.
A number of writers have been doing this for centuries: not just the science-fiction that comes from science-informed imaginative writers – the classic examples of which would be Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (17th century) which is about a country where a science-centered institution (Solomon’s House) directed the goings-on in that Utopia. Those were the early days of science, like freshmen in college, scientists were dreaming of all the knowledge to be acquired in the years to come, to be turned to epistemic power and intellectual prestige.
In mid-seventeenth century there was a fiction on a future century. (I forget the name of the author). Of course we have all read Gulliver’s Travels which speaks of super-weapons. Voltaire wrote a story about aliens landing on earth. We call Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Center of the Earth. In the twentieth century H. G. Wells’ wrote about the War of the Worlds and the Invisible Man. There are, of course hundreds of works of the genre we call science fiction.
Divining the future of science by scientists is of at least three kinds:
(a) Projection of what will happen to the world in the future: Current cosmology seems to suggest that in the distant future the galaxies would have receded so far away that they would no longer be detectable/visible from our galaxy (earth). Astronomers (should they exist) at that time, will have no idea of extra-Milky-Way galaxies, and their recession, and would be unable to come up with a Big Bang theory. Likewise in the very long future, practically all the stars would have died, and there would be utter darkness in the heavens, but there would be no humans on earth anyway.
(b) Eventual Fate of humanity: Some demographers say that after the human population peaks by the end of the century, it will begin to decline uncontrollably (as is already happening in Japan, Germany, and Ukraine), and will be eventually reduced to zero. On the other hand, Bryan Sykes argues in his “Adam’s Curse” that because of the declining sperm count and the gradual atrophy of the Y chromosome, a thousand centuries from not there will not be any human males on the planet.
(c) Possible impacts of science-based technology in the centuries to come: The negative side-effects of genetic engineering, the internet (invasion of privacy), cyber-wars, robots taking over, etc. Also, while our longevity might increase, our knowledge of what will happen to our individual bodies (which diseases when and how intense) may have negative effects on our psychological well-being. Knowing that one will have cancer or a stroke two and a half years from now may diminish one’s enthusiasm for going to the movies and attending a party. A war between nuclear-armed nations should also be listed among the dire possibilities.
There are optimistic transhumanist-futurists like Ray Kurtzweil, but as of now – imminent diminution in water and energy sources, the melting of the polar ice-caps leading to catastrophic rise in sea-levels, and the (possible) irreversibility of climate change sound more threatening than honor killings in Pakistan and the stoning of a woman for apostasy in the Sudan. Perhaps these latter evils are the kinds of plagues need to be eradicated, but we don’t know how to do that because they have nothing to do with science and much to do with ignorance and distorted religious views. While we can do little about sudden movements of tectonic plates and draughts and tornadoes, we can do a lot more to alleviate hunger, enhance basic health for millions, eliminate illiteracy, and decimate religious bigotry, superstitions, cultural prejudices, and such other factors that still poison human culture. Perhaps practical science and theoretical scientific knowledge can assist humanity in this regard.
Michio Kaku’s Physics of the Future presents visions of what is to come in fields ranging from computers and medicines to space travel and wealth. The book is based on serious study and interviews with pioneers in science and technology. It tells us about driverless cars, photographing dreams, resurrecting extinct life-forms, hot fusion, robots becoming conscious, reversing aging, and much more. It talks about a planetary civilization. At the end there is a fictional chapter on a day in a human life in 2100 and concludes with an insightful quote from Mahatma Gandhi which traces the roots of violence to
Wealth without work,
Pleasure without conscience,
Knowledge without character,
Commerce without morality,
Science without humanity,
Worship without sacrifice,
Politics without principles.

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About Varadaraja V. Raman

Physicist, philosopher, explorer of ideas, bridge-builder, devotee of Modern Science and Enlightenment, respecter of whatever is good and noble in religious traditions as well as in secular humanism,versifier and humorist, public speaker, dreamer of inter-cultural,international,inter-religious peace.
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