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by Jakkrit Srivali
Men's Review (Malaysia), October 2002
Forget Hogwarts. Forget Middle Earth. Forget the Police rhapsodizing about how every little thing she does is magic. If you want to see, and even work, real magic, technology can hand it to you on a platter.
Arthur C. Clarke famously said that any technology that is sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic. This is the same guy who wrote the science fiction classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, and who predicted a global network of geosynchronous satellites 20 years before they became reality. So when he talks, futurists listen.
He also deserves our attention because this is the same guy who discovered the universal law that "Reading computer manuals without the hardware is as frustrating as reading sex manuals without the software." So when he says that magic is nothing but sufficiently advanced technology, who are we to argue?
Okay, so we’re not quite there yet. We can’t levitate inanimate objects with a wave of our wand. We can’t put spells on people that cause them to sprout superfluous appendages such as pig’s tails. Heck, we can’t even stop Windows from crashing whenever it wants to.
But several technologies promise to radically transform the world as we know it. Hopefully it will be for the better, though the law of unintended consequences tells us not to put our money on the table just yet. Here in a nutshell are some mind-blowing technologies that will lay the foundation for a new age of magic.
So you thought the digital effect in The Mummy where Imhotep’s ravaged face knitted itself together into baby-bottom-smooth skin was pretty cool. Now imagine a physical object building itself up like that, with no assembly line to put it together, no human hands to mold it, just the object forming itself out of a pile of dirt.
That is the promise of nanotechnology, where engineering is performed at a molecular scale, with infinitesimally tiny gears, motors and levers composed of a few molecules or even atoms. These tiny gears act as mechanical forklifts and cranes to put together the building blocks of matter to construct any object for which you have a “blueprint.”
In his novel The Diamond Age, cyberpunk author Neal Stephenson offers us a peek into what such a world may look like. Nanotech has become so pervasive that diamond (which is, after all, a form of carbon) has become a common construction material. Computers and sensors have become so cheap and tiny that they are embedded into practically everything, including motes of dust (an idea the US military is already working on, by the way).
Obviously, it will take more than one molecular construction set to build anything of substantial size and complexity. That is where the idea of self-replication comes in. Nano-assemblers, as the construction sets are called, would assemble other assemblers, and so forth. Ever felt like playing God? Nanotech is your chance to make things go forth and multiply.
Although this technology is still mainly at the theoretical stage, scientists have succeeded in building simple nanoscale mechanisms and even positioning individual atoms on a surface. Scientists and marketers are encouraged that materials made of synthesized carbon nanotubes 10 atoms thick have proven to be 50-100 times stronger than steel.
The hype of a potential trillion-dollar economic payoff – not to mention the awesome military applications – guarantees that scientists and corporations are hard at work to bring nanotech to a store near you.
Public opinion and mass entertainment have not been kind to biotech. Its power to bestow God-like powers conjures up visions of virulent GMOs, fearsome Frankenfoods, Jurassic Park and Gattaca-style eugenics.
But biotech is not just about genetic engineering. Its real promise lies in its combination with other cutting-edge technologies. Take genomics, cognitive computing and smart materials, for example. Shake them all together and you have bio-interactive materials, like clothing that changes colors on command, bones that heal themselves, and real-time health monitoring.
On the energy front, biofuels made from genetically engineered crops could reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. Remember Doc Brown’s souped-up DeLorean in Back to the Future II? Chances are vehicles of the future will no longer guzzle polluting fossil fuels, but use a combination of fuel cells and organic matter to power them.
Biotech would also mean that human potential would be boosted in ways long dreamed of by pencil-necked comic book writers. Worried about your 97-pound physique? Well, worry no more. Bionics would give us armor that dramatically increases the strength of the wearer, much as the Batsuit transformed scrawny Michael Keaton into a butt-kicking bat on steroids. Better still will be the ability to kick butt without having to lift a finger. Brain-computer interfaces would allow us to do physical things just by thinking about it. Like locking on and shooting down an enemy plane. And don’t worry about the more fundamental things in life. Scientists are working around the clock to perfect mind-controlled bra clasps.
The unrelenting hype about IT has made us all a bit blasé, and the dotcom crash only confirmed our suspicions. But information science is here to stay as the technology that underpins all others.
That’s because, according to scientists such as Seth Lloyd of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Mathematica founder Stephen Wolfram, everything in the universe can be translated to bits of information and computational processes, including the universe itself. If you have enough information on something, you can simulate it and play around with it.
Thanks to our growing ability to manipulate information, we are on our way to cracking the secrets of, in Douglas Adams’s immortal words, life, the universe and everything. Remember Gordon Moore and his Law that says the number of transistors on a chip, and hence computing power, will double every 18 months? The original microprocessor introduced in 1971 had 2,300 transistors. By 2010, that number is expected to be more than 1 billion. That will give us a lot of power to play around with information.
The ubiquity of information will spur new ways to link and use it. Stand-alone devices will be things of the past, if the marketers have their way. Embedded computing will make every appliance “intelligent” and connected to everything else, unobtrusively making sure your needs are taken care of. It is already possible for refrigerators to do your grocery shopping. Okay, so they don’t drive the car out to the supermarket and troll the aisles for the day’s specials, but what they do is monitor your stock of edibles and order refills whenever supplies run low. Only question is whether consumers really want appliances that are smarter than they are.
Brave New Whirl
There’s no telling for certain what the social and economic impact of these dizzying technologies will be. There’s a good possibility that we’ll solve one set of problems only to create another. Loss of privacy, environmental disaster, and the end of all life on earth are but a few of the possibilities acknowledged by experts. But to be forewarned is to be prepared. Technological progress rarely proceeds linearly but is shaped by societal forces at least as much as it shapes those forces in turn.
What is certain is that a lot of this will seem like magic from today’s viewpoint. The power is within our reach, within our lifetimes. You just have to get in line like the rest of us. And get your credit cards ready.