Sunday, January 27, 2008

Advanced Technology as Magic

Yesterday's UFOs kept flying around in my head all night and reminded me of "Clark's Law of Prophesy" from Arthur C. Clarke's Profiles of the Future:

Clark's Law of Prophesy

First Law: When a distinguished by elderly scientist states that something is impossible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

Second law: The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

Third Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Clarke is challenging us to step into the realm of the "impossible" to open the door of magic, or what some might call supernatural. But is it really that? A wise man once said that one should look to the natural before the supernatural--for everything is natural, meaning it follows universal law. That we know little of that law yet is only a problem of evolution. We will catch up. That's guaranteed.

There are others like Clarke who are venturing a bit past the limits of the present vision and looking at what lies ahead. WSJ reporter Paul Boutin reviewed two books that looked at the future by asking others what they had on their minds (1-16/27-08, p. W8.) Boutin says that John Brockman in What Are You Optimistic About? and Jane Buckingham in What's Next? distilled the essence of the future by interviewing leading scientists and thinkers. His summary of the author's more mundane findings included: human violence is in a steady decline even though the news shows otherwise; the environment is going to get worse before it gets better--but that it is going to get better faster than we expected; the world-wide baby-boom will subside as the undeveloped countries become, well, developed; and business will out-perform the competition by "out-behaving them in customer and partner relationships." Arguable these are improvements for humanity, but a bit ho-hum in the neuvo-thinking department.

However, according to Boutin, the most far-reaching and detailed predictions came from information technologists and, I would add, scientists. I think that is probably true because these analytically minded groups consistently thinks out of the box into the realm of magic.
Boutin reports that author John Brockman interviewed J. Craig Venter, the human genome entrepreneur scientist, to find out his take on the future--I'm sure it would make entertaining reading. This is the same explorer who circumnavigated the globe to collect new species from the global seas in order to uncover genes for his enlarging database. Having completed that adventure, Venter with his usual aplomb announced this past week that he will create life from scratch in the test tube for the first time, most likely by the end of 2008 (TIME magazine, February 4, 2008, pp. 44 - 48.) Some would call him and others like him magicians.

But even past this, computer technologists have overtaken ordinary scientists because they create applications that enrich people's lives in real-time. Boutin says that several of Brockman's technical essayists predict that "the Internet, for all it has brought so far, is only the first step before a much bigger leap in information and connectivity between people. [So far it] has been built and used by only a fraction of the Earth's population. What happens when, like telephones and televisions, Internet-connected computers make their way into most of the world's homes and ever more gadgets become Net-ready?"

What would happen if the genome scientists linked with the information technology geeks? That was the burning question on my mind after reading Boutin's review. Will the whole interconnected Internet system come alive one day for the betterment of humanity? Now that would be the kind of magic Arthur C. Clarke would appreciate.

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