The sci-fi futures we didn't get

A repost from the archives of my old blog

I haven’t been posting much about technology and futurism lately, so I want to get back to that soon. But first, here’s a post from my old blog where I tried to think about tech trends in terms of the kind of science fiction futures that authors have envisioned in various eras. The basic idea is that innovation goes through eras of novelty, where we dig into a bunch of new general-purpose technologies and try to figure out various uses for them, and eras of extrapolation, where we take a few successful use cases and push them to their limits (more powerful engines, faster microprocessors, etc.). Sci-fi authors, being much better at dreaming up cool ways to use stuff than at forecasting trends, tend to do better at predicting the future of tech in eras of novelty than in eras of extrapolation.

Basically, my thesis is that we’re now in an era of novelty. The previous era of extrapolation — the IT era based on Moore’s Law — is slowly drawing to an end, but now we find ourselves with a bunch of cool new toys — cheap solar and batteries, machine learning, Crispr, synthetic biology, economical space flight, and so on. So I kind of expect some new futuristic sci-fi movement to emerge around these technologies in the next decade, and to make lots of successful predictions (and quite a few unsuccessful ones too) about how we’ll put these new marvels to use.

Anyway, more on that later. For now, here’s my old post:

I recently wrote a fairly well-received Twitter thread about how the cyberpunk sci-fi of the 1980s and early 1990s accurately predicted a lot about our current world. Our modern society is totally wired and connected, but also totally unequal - "the future is here, it's just not evenly distributed", as Gibson was fond of saying. Hackers, cyberwarfare, and online psyops are a regular part of our political and economic life. Billionaires build spaceships and collaborate with the government to spy on the populace, while working-class people live out of shipping crates and drink poison water. Hobbyists are into body modifications and genetic engineering, while labs are researching artificial body parts and brain-computer interfaces. The jetpack is real, but there's only one of it, and it's owned by a rich guy. Artificial intelligences trade stocks and can beat humans at Go, deaf people can hear, libertarians and criminals funnel billions of dollars around the world with untraceable private crypto-money. A meme virus almost as crazy as the one in Snow Crash swept an insane man to the presidency of the United States, and in Texas you can carry a sword on the street like a street samurai in Neuromancer. There are even artificial pop stars and murderous cyborg super-athletes.

We are, roughly, living in the world the cyberpunks envisioned.

This isn't the first time a generation of science fiction writers has managed to envision the future with disturbing accuracy. The early industrial age saw sci-fi writers predict many inventions that would eventually become reality, from air and space travel to submarines, tanks, television, helicopters, videoconferencing, X-rays, radar, robots, and even the atom bomb. There were quite a few misses, as well - no one is going back in time or journeying to the center of the Earth. But overall, early industrial sci-fi writers got the later Industrial Revolution pretty right. And their social predictions were pretty accurate, too - they anticipated consumer societies and high-tech large-scale warfare.

But there have also been eras of sci-fi that mostly got it wrong. Most famously, the mid-20th century was full of visions of starships, interplanetary exploration and colonization, android servitors and flying cars, planet-busting laser cannons, energy too cheap to meter. So far we don't have any of that. As Peter Thiel - one of our modern cyberpunk arch-villains - so memorably put it, "We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters."

What happened? Why did mid-20th-century sci fi whiff so badly? Why didn't we get the Star Trek future, or the Jetsons future, or the Asimov future?

Two things happened. First, we ran out of theoretical physics. Second, we ran out of energy.

If you watch Star Trek or Star Wars, or read any of the innumerable space operas of the mid-20th century, they all depend on a bunch of fancy physics. Faster-than-light travel, artificial gravity, force fields of various kinds. In 1960, that sort of prediction might have made sense. Humanity had just experienced one of the most amazing sequences of physics advancements ever. In the space of a few short decades, humankind discovered relativity and quantum mechanics, invented the nuclear bomb and nuclear power, and created the x-ray, the laser, superconductors, radar and the space program. The early 20th century was really a physics bonanza, driven in large part by advances in fundamental theory. And in the 1950s and 1960s, those advances still seemed to be going strong, with the development of quantum field theories.

Then it all came to a halt. After the Standard Model was completed in the 1970s, there were no big breakthroughs in fundamental physics. There was a brief period of excitement in the 80s and 90s, when it seemed like string theory was going to unify quantum mechanics and gravity, and propel us into a new era to match the time of Einstein and Bohr and Dirac. But by the 2000s, people were writing popbooks about how string theory has failed. Meanwhile, the largest, most expensive particle collider ever built has merely confirmed the theories of the 1970s, leaving little direction for where to go next. Physicists have certainly invented some more cool stuff (quantum teleporationquantum computers!), but there have been no theoretical breakthroughs that would allow us to cruise from star to star or harness the force of gravity.

The second thing that happened was that we stopped getting better sources of energy. Here is a brief, roughly chronological list of energy sources harnessed by humankind, with their specific energies (usable potential energy per unit mass) listed in units of MJ/kg. Remember that more specific energy (or, alternatively, more energy density) means more energy that you can carry around in your pocket, your car, or your spaceship.

Protein: 16.8

Sugars: 17.0

Fat: 37

Wood: 16.2

Gunpowder: 3.0

Coal: 24.0 - 35.0

TNT: 4.6

Diesel: 48

Kerosene: 42.8

Gasoline: 46.4

Methane: 55.5

Uranium: 80,620,000

Deuterium: 579,000,000

Lithium-ion battery: 0.36 - 0.875

This doesn't tell the whole story, of course, since availability and recoverability are key - to get the energy of protein, you have to kill a deer and eat it, or grow some soybeans, while deposits of coal, gas, and uranium can be dug up out of the ground. Transportability is also important (natural gas is hard to carry around in a car).

But this sequence does show one basic fact: In the industrial age, we got better at carrying energy around with us. And then, at the dawn of the nuclear age, it looked like we were about to get MUCH better at carrying energy around with us. One kilogram of uranium has almost two million times as much energy in it as a kilogram of gasoline. If you could carry that around in a pocket battery, you really might be able to blow up buildings with a handheld laser gun. If you could put that in a spaceship, you might be able to zip to other planets in a couple of days. If you could put that in a car, you can bet that car would fly. You could probably even use it to make a deflector shield.

But you can't carry uranium around in your pocket or your car, because it's too dangerous. First of all, if there were enough uranium to go critical, you'd have a nuclear weapon in your garage. Second, uranium is a horrible deadly poison that can wreak havoc on the environment. No one is going to let you have that. (Incidentally, this is also probably why you don't have a flying car yet - it has too much energy. The people who decide whether to allow flying cars realize that some people would choose to crash those high-energy objects into buildings. Regular cars are dangerous enough!)

Now, you can put uranium on your submarine. And you can put it in your spaceship, though actually channeling the power into propulsion is still a problem that needs some work. But overall, the toxicity of uranium, and the ease with which fission turns into a meltdown, has prevented widespread application of nuclear power. That also holds to some degree for nuclear electricity.

As for fusion power, we never managed to invent that, except for bombs.

So the reason we didn't get the 1960s sci-fi future was twofold. A large part of it was apparently impossible (FTL travel, artificial gravity). And a lot of the stuff that was possible, but relied on very high energy density fuels, was too unsafe for general use. We might still get our androids, and someday in the very far future we might have nuclear-powered spaceships whisking us to Mars or Europa or zero-G habitats somewhere. But you can't have your flying car or your pocket laser cannon, because frankly, you're probably just too much of a jerk to use them responsibly.

So that brings us to another question: What about the most recent era of science fiction? Starting in the mid to late 1990s, until maybe around 2010, sci-fi once again embraced some very far-out future stuff. Typical elements (some of which, to be fair, had been occasionally included in the earlier cyberpunk canon) included:

1. Strong (self-improving) AI, artificial general intelligence, and artificial consciousness

2. Personality upload

3. Self-replicating nanotech and general assemblers

4. A technological Singularity

These haven't happened yet, but it's only been a couple of decades since this sort of futurism became popular. Will we eventually get these things?

Unlike faster-than-light travel and artificial gravity, we have no theory telling us that we can't have strong AI or a Singularity or personality upload. (Well, some people have conjectures as to reasons we couldn't, but these aren't solidly proven theories like General Relativity.) But we also don't really have any idea how to start making these things. What we call AI isn't yet a general intelligence, and we have no idea if any general intelligence can be self-improving (or would want to be!). Personality upload requires an understanding of the brain we just don't have. We're inching closer to true nanotech, but it still seems far off.

So there's a possibility that the starry-eyed Singularitan sci-fi of the 00s will simply never come to pass. Like the future of starships and phasers, it might become a sort of pop retrofuture - fodder for fun Hollywood movies, but no longer the kind of thing anyone thinks will really happen. Meanwhile, technological progress might move on in another direction - biotech? - and another savvy generation of Jules Vernes and William Gibsons might emerge to predict where that goes.

Which raises a final question: Is sci-fi least accurate when technological progress is fastest?

Think about it: The biggest sci-fi miss of all time came at the peak of progress, right around World War 2. If the Singularitan sci-fi boom turns out to have also been a whiff, it'll line up pretty nicely with the productivity acceleration of the 1990s and 00s. Maybe when a certain kind of technology - energy-intensive transportation and weapons technology, or processing-intensive computing technology - is increasing spectacularly quickly, sci-fi authors get caught up in the rush of that trend, and project it out to infinity and beyond. But maybe it's the authors at the very beginning of a tech boom, before progress in a particular area really kicks into high gear, who are able to see more clearly where the boom will take us. (Of course, demonstrating that empirically would involve controlling for the obvious survivorship bias).

We'll never know. Nor is this important in any way that I can tell, except for sci-fi fans. But it's certainly fun to think about.