Tomorrowland: Our Journey from Science Fiction to Science Fact

The Future Is Here: An Introduction

11 Apr 2015, Posted by Kotler Steven in Uncategorized

It was early spring of 1997, about five years into my career as a journalist, a day of dark skies and cold rain. Peter Diamandis and I had gotten together for the very first time at a rundown diner on the outskirts of Chinatown, San Francisco. The diner was long and narrow and we were seated towards the rear of the room. I was sitting with my back to the building’s far corner, Peter with his back to the rest of the restaurant. And the rest of the restaurant was staring at him.

For the past twenty minutes, Peter had been getting more and more excited while telling me about his newly launched endeavor—the X Prize—a ten million dollar competition for the first team to build a private spaceship capable of taking three people into space twice in two weeks. Already, the sharpie had come out. There were charts on napkins, graphs on placemats, a healthy rearrangement of condiments—the ketchup marking the end of the troposphere, the mustard the beginning of the mesosphere. About the time he got loud about how some maverick innovator working out of a garage somewhere is going to—TAKE DOWN NASA—people started to stare. Peter couldn’t see them; I could. Twenty folks in the restaurant and all looking at him like he was stark, raving mad. And I remember this—I remember thinking they were wrong.

It’s hard to put my finger on why. Part of it was a strange hunch. Journalists tend to be cynical by nature and disbelieving by necessity. The job requires a fairly healthy bullshit detector and that was the thing—mine wasn’t going off. 

More of it was that I had just come from a month in the Black Rock Desert, outside of Gerlach, Nevada, watching Craig Breedlove try to drive a car through the sound barrier. Breedlove’s effort was terrestrial-bound rocket science, for sure. The Spirit of America, his vehicle, was pretty much a miniature Saturn V—40 feet long, 8 feet wide, 6 high, and powered by a turbo-jet engine that burned, well, rocket fuel. 

During those long days in the desert, I spent a lot of time talking to aerospace engineers. They all made one thing clear: driving a car through the sound barrier was a lot harder than sending a rocketship into low-earth orbit. In fact, when I asked Breedlove’s crew chief, former Air Force pilot turned aerospace engineer, Dezso Molnar (who we’ll meet again later as the inventor of the world’s first flying motorcycle), what he was going to work on when all this was over, he said: “I want to do something easy, something relaxing, I think I’m going to build a spaceship.” 

He wasn’t kidding.

Plus, Breedlove’s effort was exactly the kind of big budget project you would expect an agency like NASA to get behind. Except there was no budget. And no NASA. The Spirit of America had a crew of seven working out of an oversized tool shed. And while they never did break the sound barrier, they got really close—670 miles-per-hour (700 was the barrier)—and then ran out of cash. They were literally one sponsorship check away from making history. 

So, that day in the diner, despite Peter’s exuberance, despite the fact that, back then, the X Prize had no major sponsors and no money in the bank, and despite the fact that NASA had called his idea utterly impossible and the entire aerospace industry had agreed, from where I was sitting, some maverick opening the space frontier didn’t seem too outlandish. 

Of course, today, with the X Prize won, with the private space industry worth more than a billion dollars, and with Richard Branson’s SpaceShipTwo slated to begin taking paying customers into low-earth orbit over the next twelve months, none of this may seem incredibly shocking. But it was. In 1997, space was off-limits to anyone but big government. This much was gospel. Yet, I left  that diner absolutely certain that sometime in the next decade, the far frontier would open for business.

I also left the diner a little gobsmacked. In less time than it took to drink a cup of coffee, a paradigm had shattered—science fiction had become science fact. On the way home, I started to wonder about other paradigms. After all, if private spaceships were possible, what about all the other sci-fi mainstays? What about bionics? Robotics? Flying cars? Artificial life? Life extension? Asteroid mining? What about those more ephemeral topics: the future of human evolution, the possibilities of downloadable consciousness. I made a long list—and that list defined large parts of the next two decades of my career. 

Tomorrowland is the result of that investigation. The pieces in this book come from an assortment of major publications—New York Times, Wired, Atlantic Monthly, to name a few—and were all penned between 2000 and 2014. They are all investigations into those moments when science fiction became science fact and the massively disruptive impact these moments have on culture. Because of the blitzkrieg rate of change in today’s world, few of these stories appear exactly as they ran. Instead, I’ve updated the science and technology so—unless the tale is historical in nature—the information contained in this book is as current as possible. 

 Furthermore, to help make better sense of things, I’ve also broken these stories into three categories. The first grouping—The Future In Here—is about us, an examination of the ways science and technology are fundamentally altering you and me. Here we’ll explore artificial senses (the world’s first artificial vision implant) and bionic limbs (the worlds first bionic soldier) and evolution’s future (say goodbye to Homo sapiens), among other seismic shifts in what it means to be human. The second section—The Future Out There—is about the ways science and technology are radically reshaping our world. Here we’ll cover everything from on-world paradigm shifts like the birth of the world’s first genetically engineered insect to off-world paradigm shifts like the birth of the asteroid mining industry. Finally, in The Future Uncertain, we’ll examine the gray areas, those explosive collisions between science and culture—for example, the use of steroids for life extension or the use of synthetic biology for the creation of bio-weapons—where lines are being crossed and controversy reigns and no one is certain what tomorrow brings.

This last bit is no small thing. All of the technologies described in this book are disruptive technologies, though not as we traditionally define the word. Typically, disruptive technologies are those that displace an existing technology and disrupt an existing market, but the breakthroughs described herein do more than dismantle value chains—they destroy longstanding beliefs. You will, for example, come across an article about William Dobelle, the inventor of the world’s first artificial vision implant. Dobelle was extremely paranoid about talking to the press. This isn’t that uncommon, but it’s usually about protecting intellectual property. That wasn’t Dobelle’s problem. When I asked him about his reticence, his answer surprised me: “Jesus cured blindness,” he said, “people don’t like it when mortals perform miracles.”

It was an offhand comment, but one that stayed with me. Consider the enormous influence that our spiritual traditions exert in today’s world. Think about the blood that has been spilled in the name of religion in just these past hundred years. Think about the ongoing hubbub surrounding the—shall we say—“philosophical question” of millions of years of evolution versus the more economic, six-day approach. Now, think about what’s coming. 

Right now, researchers are storming heaven from every direction. In “Extreme States,” we’ll see how things like trance states, out-of-body experiences, and cosmic unity—all core mystical experiences that underpin our spiritual traditions—are now understood as the product of measurable biology. The hard science has been done, the disruptive technologies are what come next. So forget about science putting something as flimsy as “philosophical” pressure on religion, pretty soon the direct experience of the numinous is going to be available via a video game. 

And that’s just the beginning of the storm. How many spiritual traditions rely on the premise of the hereafter to steer morality? Yet, as you’ll see in “The Genius Who Sticks Around Forever,” we are already poking at the possibility of downloadable consciousness—the idea that we can store self in silicon, loading consciousness onto a chip and loading that chip onto a computer and allowing us to hang onto our personalities forever—so what happens to morality in the face of immortality? 

Or take synthetic biology, a technology explored in “Hacking the President’s DNA,” that allows us to write genetic code much like we write computer code, and a development that gives us the power to create life from scratch. So now we can cheat death and jumpstart life and e. e. cummings once said “listen there’s a hell of a good universe next door, let’s go.” 

Well folks, we’re already gone.

Of course, some might not be moved by the above “spiritual” arguments, so it’s worth taking a moment to examine these ideas in more secular terms. One of the most well-established facts in psychology is that the burden of consciousness confers on every human being an innate fear of death. In 1973, psychologist Ernst Becker won a Pulitzer Prize for The Denial of Death, arguing that death anxiety is the most fundamental of all our motivational drivers—meaning it’s more powerful than our need for food, drink and sex. In fact, Becker claims, everything we consider culture is nothing more than an elaborate defense mechanism against the awful knowledge of our own mortality. A great many researchers now agree. Fear of death is the fundamental human experience, the very cornerstone of our psychological foundation. Yet, right now, in labs all over the world, researchers are chipping away at this cornerstone, hollowing out our very essence. So what happens when they succeed?

Who knows. 

What we can say for sure is that the future that’s coming is unlike anything we’ve ever seen. I’ve heard it called the Age of Prometheus, I’ve heard it called the Age of Icarus, but either way, the part that strikes me truly strange is these mythic metaphors are no longer metaphors. We actually are stealing fire from the gods; we really might be flying too close to the sun.

Another thing I can say is that it’s been an astounding ride. On a number of occasions, I’ve been lucky enough to be in the room when history happens. In fact, when William Dobelle switched on his artificial vision implant for the first time, I wasn’t just in that room—I was what was seen.

That wasn’t my intention. Twenty seconds before Dobelle switched on the device, I realized that I was sitting directly across from Patient Alpha, smack in the middle of his line of sight. I didn’t feel right about what was about to happen so I actually tried to get out of the way. In the final moments of the countdown to curing blindness, I slid back my chair and took a couple of quick steps to the left. What was I thinking. Patient Alpha was blind. He’d spent his entire life tracking motion through sound. Of course, when I slid back my chair and took a couple of steps, he tracked the sound and turned his head and that—as they say—was that.

I’ve come to see this moment as emblematic of these past few decades. Despite my best intentions and best efforts, I wasn’t stealthy enough. I wasn’t fast enough. I couldn’t duck. No matter what I did, there was no way to get out of the way of the future. 

And so it is for all of us. 

These are exponential times. The far frontier is no longer a distant dream. It is there today and here tomorrow and that’s the thing. Luddite revolutions don’t seem to hold for long. Resisting the lure of technology isn’t really in us. In What Technology Wants, Wired co-founder Kevin Kelly argues that this is because technology is actually another form of life—a living, natural system with ancient origins and deep desires. And while Kelly has a point, I also think there’s simpler truth at work. Life is tricky sport. It can be hard here, often harder than we want it to be, sometimes harder than we can take. And that strikes me as the emotional core of the story, the real reason we can’t put Pandora back in the box. When you strip everything else away, technology is nothing more than the promise of an easier tomorrow. It’s the promise of hope. And how do you stop hope?

Right now, in a deep forest in the South of France, researchers are completing work on the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, which is far and away the most complex machine ever built. When switched on, the reactor will ionize hydrogen to temperatures over two million degrees—which is ten times hotter than the sun. In other words, when ITER is switched on, we will be turning on a star. How far has hope taken us? From the very first time one of our primate progenitors sharpened a stick to a star. A freaking star. In a lab. Created by us.

So let there be light.

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