On occasion I will watch a MIT lecture covering such things, or read a book on Nanotechnology (Richard Feynman is said to have begun Nano-Tech as a field by saying, "There's lots of room at the bottom.") A few particularly thoughtful writers have written on the subject however. I'm thinking of one guy in particular tonight. His name is Raymond Kurzweil. He is a graduate of MIT (in the Seventies), and he gathers his erudition on the subject of technological trends, and realities, from his statistical analysis of technological development in the past.
His most powerful trick is easy to understand in the abstract; later we can look at why it matters. Basically, he graphs the development of different disciplines in Science (many, many different disciplines) to better understand the development of trends in Biology, Computers, and Nano-Tech. His crucial trick is that he looks at his data from the past development of scientific disciplines on a logarithmic scale. This serves to decompress the seeming cliff like verticality of a trend like the growth of microcomputers, for example. He is able through his analysis to show the slow development of the discipline of microprocessor manufacture all the way through to the most powerful laptops today. Like most phenomena, the graph should not truly be a cliff, but should reflect data that gradually gathers in richness and size. Like what happens when a sperm meets an egg, not a virgin birth.
The long and the short of it is that many disciplines of science are moving quite a bit faster then most of us realize. This would not matter were it not for what science tends to do to society. Most of us realize somewhat dimly how different our lives are due to a cell phone, or Google. But what we are unlikely to realize without truly thinking about it is how disruptive to our lives technology ultimately is, whether we desire the changes or not.
A good example is social networking. It is simply not possible at this date to imagine an American teenager who is not online for most of their day, and checking in at least a few times an hour with the "notes" of their generation: their social network. Whether by texting, Twitter, or Facebook, it hardly matters. Young people have always reveled in their private communications, and young people today are glued to their electronic devices. How many of them will ever be apart from such a connection to the world, and their friends, as most of us once were? I spent the vast majority of my life completely free of a phone. I love my cell phone for the way it connects me to my highly dispersed family and friends. And yet part of me realizes that the cell phone doesn't necessarily belong in my pocket at all times. Unfortunately I must be available to my clients and the school I work for around the clock. Nobody imagines that I might be unavailable. My cell phone is my alarm clock. It is the one object that is always with me. The only one. And one day, God help me, it will be a computer. A very very powerful computer. It makes me nervous to imagine what that will do to my impulses and choices, especially in terms of reading books, ect. But I probably will so enjoy the relentless infinite box that a computer tends to be in its appropriation of all info/communication devices, that I will hardly notice the slow curve of the change in my life.
Many many things are like this. It is easy to believe otherwise, and futurists have a justifiably bad reputation of promising the Jetsons, when Married With Children is more like it. But the numbers don't lie and computers are a great example of how we will be surprised.
Everyone knows that the power and speed of microprocessors is increasing enormously. And most people dimly realize that the fact that you can download a photo while in your car traveling at sixty miles per hour is probably somewhat amazing were it not for the fact that it's so damn easy. But few people really put two and two together and look out at the most substantial impacts that such a hurtling technology such as computers represents. When scientists look at the complexity of the brain, only a few decades ago it was easy to dismiss computers as hopelessly simple compared to the brain. But those few decades were all it took to see that Moore's Law ain't a joke. It's exponential in a tangible way. You type a word in your Google box, like "Moore" and two spaces down, in an instant drop down menu, is the option, "Moore's Law". Trust me, that is just the beginning. I use Google for Email, so when I write addresses in my Email (physical Addresses) Google Maps, and Google Earth automatically offer them up, virtually before I even know I want to look them up. Google Maps knew I wanted to use the address to the house I stayed in last week, before I even went to the website, due to the fact that the address was filed away by Google, when it appeared in the body of a letter written to me. This is a form of intelligence that is extremely useful in life, but also quite scary. Of course people will take advantage, but that is not my concern right here. My point is that things have been gradually becoming more complex and intelligent in the world of computers without us completely realizing it, and this is just the beginning. Virtually before we know it computers will surpass the complexity of the human brain. Whether that will mean they are intelligent or not is a very interesting question, but somewhat irrelevant due to what fascinating creatures they will become.
Cognitive science was enlivened considerably for me by one of my closest friends, Damien Fricker. Indiana University has a Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Imaging device specifically for experiments in Cog-Sci. Zero imaging for medicine on that machine. Why? Turns out you can see the brain do some pretty amazing things when the brain is doing its thing. Turns out computers can be trained to recognize patterns in these things. Electrical activity, nerotransmitter activity, on and on. In some cases from a distance of ten feet some devices have been developed that can read certain kinds of brain activity. Sixty Minutes has a few wonderful programs about such things.
My point is that almost without realizing it we are growing closer and closer to a set of tools for reading your mind. And without quite realizing it we are also growing closer and closer to where our brains might accept information, or whatever you call brain readable data at that point, from machines. You might wonder why that matters terribly much.
To answer that question you have to return to my comments above about the speed with which things are progressing in microprocessors. At the rate things are going, computers will become as complex as the human brain in the 2030's. Whether they will become sentient or intelligent at that point is of small interest to me next to the meaning of their power. There is so much I would like to be able to do with this wonderful device that I am typing on right now. But at this point, we as a species, do not even consider certain projects in our lives due to the impossibility of doing them. Very fast computers, mixed with input devices that take away the abstraction of the keyboard and allow you to instruct a computer with a language as rich and direct, speedy and meaningful as a spoken language, simply by thinking, will happen. They are being developed now. These are facts available to anyone who wishes to look upon the research. We will not be able to protect our society forever without considerable increases in our powers and ability to control the world. Computers are a strategic asset to our nation. The internet began as a military project. Code and crytographics are indistinguishable in this world from your credit card. Every time you use your credit card the time, date, geographical spot, amount spent, type of mechandise or service, and special number assigned that credit card are all recorded. If you use your card three times a day, then your movements in the last few decades are very probably recorded for the remaining days of history. Code is the only thing that keeps your biography, your very personal biography, from being written. Stuff even you don't really want to know about yourself. Lucky for you, the defense department realizes the strategic importance of your privacy. So it hired a bunch of hackers. White hats, I guess they call themselves.
I'm not even going to go into what nano-tech means to the way in which we will go about things in the future. Or how biology has advanced. One of the coolest discoveries I saw on MIT World's website were a few lectures on the subject of the field of MicroFluidics. Micro Fluidics is a field similar to microprocessors, but which uses chemical solutions, and logic pathways to carry out miniturized experiments on "cards". A great example are some of the instant tests that have been developed in medicine, using microfluidics. The most powerful example I have seen was a card about one foot square where one hundred compounds could be tested on two sides of the square to see how they reacted with one another. All of them dissolved and mixed and reacted and titrated by this little card of tiny tiny pipes lithographically "printed" and then pieced together. Unbelievable. But just the beginning of a hugely useful field. Interestingly, water behaves rather normally at the micro level. Scientists were concerned that it would be somewhat viscous or strange acting at that size, but it turns out to have very similar properties in the micro as in the macro. So germs swim more or less like you and me. Molecules are that small. And their bonds that weak.
To wrap it up, our world is hurtling toward a very strange place. Science is taking us there. Many hundreds of thousands of researchers are working toward a very strange future where you will think of something and your device will know what you are thinking about and very probably comment about it, or ask if it might not be able to suggest a few things. At first people will recoil from this invasion of the primacy and intimacy previously the sole domain of our private minds. Then they will try this service, and hook into a bizarre world where information hangs so low that it brushes your clothes like the hands of a Dickensian urchin.
If you are feeble you will not be feeble when given the control of a computer with your mind. For your computer will have a number of devices for manipulating the world at its disposal. If you sew, you will control a sewing robot with your mind, and make quilts with your eyes closed. If you love to work with wood, you will design and build whatever you wish simply by communicating silently with your computer. If you are muted by stroke the machine will not await your voice, your words, but will limn the faint traces of your intentions: for the concept "chair " looks the same, electrochemically, in most brains. Trust me though, if your computer hears you think chair, the first time you ask it for one after a stroke, your brain will register something more than normal, as it brings it to you. And that is why I wonder at the power of this eventuality.