This past year has been a big one in terms of technological landmarks:
— IBM’s Q System One became the first commercially available quantum computer.
— A new synthetic DNA was created which doubles our current 4-letter code (A,T,C,G) to 8, allowing for greater possibilities in DNA computing. In another study, scientists injected a synthetic DNA into some E. coli bacteria. They survived, reproduced, and actually carried along copies of the synthetic DNA as well, offering proof that actual synthetic life can be created in a lab.
— Researchers put nanoparticles that react to infrared light into the eyes of mice, giving them biological infrared vision.
— In a massive project called the Event Horizon Telescope, astronomers linked powerful telescopes from all around the world to create a virtual mega-telescope with an aperture the size of Earth, and were able to image the black hole at the center of the Messier galaxy 55 million light years away.
— 3D printing of human tissue and organs can now be done without using the traditional scaffold model which acts as a support structure, allowing for more possibilities to save lives.
And these are only a few large new steps into a world that used to exist only in our imaginations.
What might happen in the 2020's?
Futurists and other prognosticators have been hard at work coming up with lists, so here is a short one of my own:
— AI creations will become nearly indistinguishable from the humans or animals they are meant to imitate.
— Cloning of humans and animals (extinct or recently deceased) will continue to be debated by worldwide authorities, while rogue scientists continue to actually do it. Expect to see a lot of reborn labradoodles and a real, live baby mammoth, or something similar, by 2030.
— While green power will keep getting more efficient and cheaper, the continued growth in developing nations will stall progress in declining greenhouse emissions.
— 3D printing, of everything from organs to electronics and housing, will become a cornerstone of modern manufacturing.
— Robots and drones will grow into a truly transformative cultural phenomenon, launching new types of entertainment and becoming commonplace in daily life.
— Quantum computing will lead to a doubling of all human knowledge between 2020 and 2030.
— Humans will walk on the Moon, or Mars, or both.
— Real, effective life extension therapies will become available, but only for the very wealthy. The rest of us will have to wait a while.
— The Internet of Things will grow into what everyone’s been envisioning for it: Complete inter-connectivity that enables greater productivity. However, the dangers of hacking will continue to loom over it.
Now, let me return to the now.
Looking back a little farther — but still fairly recent — SpaceX launched the Falcon Heavy rocket, the largest ever, from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in February 2018.
Its cargo was a Tesla Roadster, which is now orbiting the sun somewhere between Mars and the asteroid belt.
Between Elon Musk’s numerous companies and passion projects (SpaceX, Tesla, Solar City, the Hyperloop, the Boring Company), and the quickly proceeding advances in VR/AR/MR, genetics/cloning, blockchain, AI, 3D printing, and other fields, someone who was in a coma since 1998 and just woke up yesterday would be forgiven for thinking they had jumped a hundred years into the future instead of a mere 20.
But then this person would actually get up and go out into the real world and see that mostly everything else is the same, aside from more traffic on the roads, more people in general, most of whom now carry miniature computers with them wherever they go that are more powerful than any desktop from the 20th century.
Elon Musk’s Grand Plan
Born in apartheid-era South Africa, he lived the first 16 years of his life in various towns, including Pretoria, moving back and forth between divorced parents. He reports being bullied in school and witnessing a lot of violence. He tried sticking up for some other bullied children, but that generally resulted in more pain for him. Musk retreated somewhat into science fiction and fantasy, and the dreams he read on the page would come to inform the man he eventually became.
He moved first to Canada to live with some relatives, and later earned economics and physics degrees from the University of Pennsylvania. He went on to co-found Zip2 with one of his brothers, Kimbal Musk, and Greg Kouri, which was acquired for $340 million. Next, he co-founded X.com, which became Paypal and sold to EBay in 2002 for one and half billion dollars.
Now very rich, Elon Musk turned his attention to those science fiction dreams.
In the short term: The environment has been poisoned at an ever-growing pace by the burning of fossil fuels for two centuries, beginning with coal and reaching a pollution peak as the massive population of China began using gasoline-guzzling automobile en masse. Musk’s contribution to helping slow this is multi-sided: popularize electric cars by offering visually appealing, efficient and powerful versions of them with Tesla. Invest in more solar power adoption via Solar City. Open-source a plan for super-fast commuter train transport with the electromagnetic vacuum-tube Hyperloop project. Invest in tunneling technology that can help move this project along with the Boring Company.
In the long term: There have been dozens of small extinction events on Earth since the dawn of life, and several that have wiped out 75–95% of all living things. It will happen again, and there is a good chance that a large event will take with it the vast majority of humanity. Because of this, Musk founded SpaceX with an ultimate goal of turning humanity into a multi-planet species. He’s funding this by creating reusable rockets that allow him to outbid competitors in taking cargo into orbit. The plan is to start a colony on Mars that will eventually be made self-sustaining. Ultimately, he thinks this can become home to a million people by roughly 2070.
In other words, Elon Musk wants to save us here and now, and also do what he can to save us for eternity.
All in all, this is both an ambitious and worthy cause.
There is nothing wrong with doing what you can to save people. Doctors, soldiers, first responders, they do this all the time.
And, in general, our governments don’t seem to be doing much to slow our pollution of the environment or protect us from future disasters. Yes, there has been some progress, but it is often mired in politics and red tape, and forward-thinking policies of one administration are often reversed by the following one. Our governments can barely protect us from rising sea levels and flu virii, let alone giant asteroid impacts.
So, someone has to do it. These grand efforts usually form around the resources of extremely wealthy individuals and take many forms. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, for instance, focuses on the physical and mental well being of the youngest and poorest people. Kimbal Musk, one of Elon’s brothers, is using his fortune on a decidedly smaller scale in a quest to help reconnect us and our children in particular to a more natural, local and organic food culture.
Hope is both the strongest driving force and an impediment to progress.
Many people who grew up in the early to mid 20th century thought we would be living in some kind of fairy-tale sci-fi wonderland by now. Others posited it would be a dystopia, or that all that would remain of our world would be a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
We’re living in a time when dreams of generations past are becoming true on a regular basis. If a person born anywhere on Earth in 1899 were to be transported into the future, to right now, into a modern city, they would find a lot to recognize but they would also be mesmerized by the miraculous pocket computers most people carry with them and the contrails of giant flying ships miles above. Said person might even experience a mild cardiac infarction upon seeing evidence that we’ve landed on the moon and are beaming pictures back directly from the surface of Mars (and they might be somewhat disappointed that Mars wasn’t teeming with jungle life).
Advancements, just in the medical field, come at a nearly dizzying pace:
— 2016 saw the use of a drone to take medicine to a remote part of Rwanda. This will become more commonplace and will be a great boon to the treatment of medical conditions in isolated parts of the world.
— The 1.25 million (and growing) people in the U.S. who are living with Type I diabetes have a ray of hope in the form of a new artificial organ that is an implanted blood sugar monitoring and insulin delivery device. Eventually this device will also be available for the other 28 million people in the U.S. who have Type II (adult onset) diabetes, and over 200 million diabetic people worldwide.
— Patients suffering from full-body paralysis, with functioning minds who are unable to physically speak — much like the late Dr. Stephen Hawking who lived with ALS and communicated via a keyboard text-to-speech system — will be able to eventually think what they want and have those thoughts become words.
The dreams and nightmares of our fictions have always pointed us to the truth of where we were headed. Echoes of George Orwell, Isaac Asimov, Ayn Rand, Jules Verne, Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip K. Dick, P. D. James, Arthur C. Clarke, and even Mary Shelley can be seen in our everyday lives. If we take what we have, examine the quickening rate of advancement, and extrapolate into the near future, we can easily believe that Ray Kurzweil’s singularity is right around the corner. An artificial superintelligence, almost as soon as it realizes what it is, will proceed to surpass humanity in every way, leaving us behind.
A super AI is one of the dangers Elon Musk sees as a potential extinction trigger, so it is likely his goals for a Mars colony will include keeping it rather well-separated in many ways from the civilizations of Earth. What good would his plan be, anyway, if he brought along to Mars the dangers that might doom us here on this planet?
There can be no light without darkness.
Just as with our development of atomic fission, which led both to the horror of atomic warfare and (relatively) clean electrical power for millions, every significant innovation seems to carry with it both extreme positives and extreme negatives. If we want TNT to help greatly increase the building of infrastructure, we must accept it will be used to kill hundreds of thousands of people. If we want safer, cheaper workplaces via robotics, we must remove millions of potential jobs from the marketplace. If we want the convenience of smartphones, we must deal with the repercussions.
One of the late Dr. Stephen Hawking’s common refrains was that the greatest threats to our existence come from the technologies that we’ve devised. In essence, by forging ahead we may well become our own downfall.
Newton’s Third Law states that for every action, there is an equal but opposite reaction. While this was meant to apply to the physical sciences, it has long since proven to be applicable in our daily lives.
What, then, might this mean for the ambitions of Elon Musk? Might splitting the human race across two separate worlds eventually lead to some Solar System civil war that devastates humanity as much as any cosmic or earthbound natural disaster would have? Could gaining a truly massive foothold among consumers with solar and electric car technology upend economies founded on fossil fuels and lead to more war?
Do we side with pushing onward despite the consequences?
The odds, based on history, are in favor of something bad being caused by every good intention. But without those good intentions in the first place, virtually no progress would have been made by our civilization over the past 500 years.
If you removed every major instance of innovation by humankind since the discovery that we could control fire, we would be living on an Earth that looked incredibly different. “We” wouldn’t be here. Humanity would amount to a few million individuals at most, living in bands and tribes on plains, in forested river valleys, along coastlines.
We would be safer, as a species, only because we did not dare to dream. By dreaming, we discovered there are risks, but we continued because there was always something to fix, something we could do better, somewhere else to go.
Elon Musk, and everyone who thinks like him, understand there are risks. In fact, they know that there will be some bad things, some complications, that arise because of their actions. But a choice had to be made between pressing onward versus sitting still, and they chose to face the darkness so that, at the very least, some light could be shed upon it.