Children playing on a derelict railroad, New York

Book reviews

An urban railway route revived, and forecasts of what the future holds for technology in this month’s new books.

Cambridge Scholars Publishing

Technolife 2035. How Will Technology Change our Future?

By Elina Hiltunen and Kari Hiltunen, £29.99, ISBN 9781443874601

“He who predicts the future is lying, even when he is right,” according to an old saying. Courageously, the authors of this extraordinary book - two prominent Finnish futurists - quote this adage themselves in the Introduction.
Indeed, this is the book like no other. Its highly unusual structure was a surprise, even though I have known one of the writers - Elina Hiltunen - for a number of years. We first met in 2008 at the Lucerne Futurists Conference, an event that invariably debated pioneering trends and technologies, many of which would later be covered in the pages of E&T. Ms Hiltunen impressed me with the scope of her knowledge and education (MSc in chemical engineering; doctor of science in business administration), with her impeccable English, but most of all with her highly unorthodox views on the future of technology. I also knew that she was writing a book.

And now the book is in front of me. With her husband Karl, Elina Hiltunen has produced a truly remarkable volume combining technology writing with fiction. The first two sections are devoted to in-depth scientific analysis of possible technological developments in the course of the next 20 years, but the third section is a rather brazen attempt to fictionalise the authors’ conclusions in a modern take on Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Set in a fictitious 2035 city called Veronice (a merger of Verona and Venice), it is a tongue-in-cheek parable of the world’s most famous love story, or, to be more exact, three versions of the same story, each looking at a different ‘technolife’ scenario.

The first scenario - when all technology failed - starts with Romeo’s father chewing self-cultivated khat on the balcony, where he also grows beans and tomatoes; the second - when technology has developed linearly - shows Romeo taking vitamins on the advice of a computer; and the third one - with technology growing exponentially - begins with Romeo killing Tybalt by stopping his artificial heart. All three tales are grotesque, but that’s exactly what the authors were striving at to make their message easy to grasp and crystal-clear.

That third part of the book is in stark stylistic, generic and contextual contrast to the first two, where the analysis of all three scenarios of technological development is balanced and scholarly, and the conclusions are therefore highly believable. Here are some 2035 examples from the linear development scenario: The EU still exists; technology has become an integral part of everyday life, a constant battle between cyber criminals and terrorists is under way online; IT is entirely on people’s skin as wearable electronics; climate change is causing constant problems; synthetic biology is a popular school subject; robots have replaced people in service sector jobs; electric cars are the most common means of transport - and so on.

In short, the Hiltunens have come up with something that was very much needed: a book of futuristic analysis of technological trends which is accessible to almost everyone, not just to scientists and engineers, albeit the latter will undoubtedly enjoy reading it too.

The only thing missing from this otherwise beautifully produced volume is an index.

I want to finish with another quote from ‘Technolife 2035’: “Even though the technology around us changes, the writers believe that... the significance of human relations will remain the greatest influence on our lives.”

Vitali Vitaliev

Oxford University Press

Here Be Dragons: Science, Technology and the Future of Humanity

By Olle Häggström, £25.00, ISBN 9780198723547

Brytningstid is a Swedish word that translates as ‘transition period’ and sounds like a plausible title for a Scandi-noir detective drama. It was the title of a chapter in Olle Häggström’s 2008 book ‘Real Science and Bad Imitations’ which was the Swedish mathematician’s first attempt at analysing the potential impact of emerging technologies on humanity, an exercise he continues in ‘Here Be Dragons’.

Alongside his day job as professor of mathematical statistics at Chalmers University of Technology, Häggström is a prolific blogger whose interests range across climate science, artificial intelligence and philosophy. He counts himself among a generation of scientists and writers intent on “thinking about the future rationally and without fear of overstepping the narrow boundaries of the box of mainstream discourse”.

That means asking awkward questions about the downside of scientific research and technical innovation, particularly whether more science is always better.

‘Here Be Dragons’ was the warning that medieval mapmakers put on their charts when they had no clear idea of what lay in that general direction but had a definite feeling that it should be approached with caution. Häggström’s warning throughout this book is that we’re now in danger of sailing into uncharted regions of science and technology without thinking hard enough about what dangers lie ahead, just the benefits.

Extrapolating from where researchers are with various hot topics, readers are taken through an alarmingly long list of areas where Häggström believes the consequences of success are potentially as dangerous as they are beneficial. This encompasses attempts to tackle climate change by engineering the environment, and the unwelcome side-effects of engineering better humans through genetics and mechanical enhancement. Not to mention trying to develop artificial intelligence that’s smarter than our own.

With something like nanotechnology, it’s not just about the risk of new materials whose properties we don’t fully understand entering the ecosystem. The radical vision of civilisation revolutionised by nanotechnology that is portrayed by futurist Eric Drexler in his book ‘Radical Abundance’ and highlighted by Häggström raises moral issues too. In the Drexlerian future, humanity becomes so good at manufacturing things cleanly, cheaply and on a global scale, that problems flip from those associated with scarcity to those of overabundance.

That’s as speculative as things can get, but highlights the crux of Häggström’s case that we’re forgetting how scientific progress has the potential both to cause humanity great harm and to bring it great benefit. “To completely ignore this aspect of science seems like negligence bordering on insanity,” he says.

Some will dismiss his attitude as alarmism, but simply saying we need to know more before we can properly address these issues just puts off the problem for future generations to deal with.

As Häggström concludes, not making a decision is in itself a decision.

Dominic Lenton

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