Sci-fi author David Gerrold makes predictions for AI, IoT, biotech, energy and data security, and calls humor a "defining aspect" of intelligence. We'd expect no less from the guy who foresaw the trouble with Tribbles.
David Gerrold is most famous for having written the Star Trek episode “The Trouble with Tribbles.” But his science fiction includes the first description of a computer virus and explores the nature of artificial intelligence (in his 1972 novel “When HARLIE Was One”), as well as covering big-picture sci-fi themes ranging from galactic empires to time travel. I recently managed to pin down the energetic author to talk about his visions for the future.
Opening with a witty, “I write science fiction; predicting the future is harder,” Gerrold started the conversation by talking about energy sources and energy management. “We are definitely shifting away from fossil fuels to clean energy sources. Solar and wind are the most cost-effective right now, but we are likely to need nuclear power as well. Thorium-based reactors might be the safest way to go.”
There are “safe technologies,” Gerrold said. “The problem has always been getting the power to the consumer. So there will have to be significant advances in battery technology. We’re already seeing some significant advances in the laboratory, if they can scale up, that'll be a good start, but … storing enough power in a practical container has always been the weak link in the chain.”
Gerrold then shifted focus to the user, saying, “We're definitely going to have to decrease our power consumption. Nobody needs 300 horsepower for driving around the city. I think that in the next decade we’re likely to see lighter-weight electric vehicles for local errands, as well as a cultural shift toward ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft.”
As for where the Internet of Things is headed, IoT “is the black swan in any attempt to predict the path ahead,” Gerrold said. He referenced some technological breakthroughs of the past to make his point: “It’s easy to predict the automobile, but can you also predict drive-through fast-food restaurants? You can predict the cellphone, but can you predict all of the things we use the smartphone for? So that's the problem with looking toward the Internet of Things. It’s all those unpredictable synergistic connections, all the side- effects, that are going to transform our relationships.”
On disruptive markets
I asked Gerrold which potential tech-related disruption would present the greatest challenge over the next 20 years. Might it be the elimination of labor? The shift from fossil fuels to alternative energy systems? Invasion of privacy via IoT services? The death of loud cars?
Gerrold thought a moment before answering, “The greatest challenge is going to be safeguarding our technology. We need to create hardware, software, and cultural barriers to criminal activities. We need to be able to trust that our machines are hardened against hackers and malware. We need to know that our privacy is safe, that our identities are secure against theft. We need to know that our self-driving cars can’t be hacked. Most important, we need to be able to trust that the people we’re corresponding with are real people and that our news sources are providing us with accurate information.”
Current technology “is as secure as a sieve,” Gerrold said. “Every aspect is constantly under attack — if not by spammers and scammers, liars and propagandists, then certainly by advertisers, who see every blank space as an opportunity to shove an advertisement in front of you. Sometimes silence is better.
“So to my mind, the greatest challenge is to give the people who use technology a guarantee that they are not going to be attacked by other people misusing that technology. I’d place a lot of importance on limiting the number of advertisements — cultural noise — that a person has to endure in a single day. We can’t really connect with each other or with our environment, if there's somebody standing in the way telling us that we're broken and need to buy their product to get fixed.”
What area of tech development might present itself that is not yet on society’s radar? Spreading his arms for emphasis, Gerrold answered: “The computer and all the allied technology that we’ve developed in the last half-century have made it possible to manage large data sets. This lets us create a much more accurate understanding of everything from whole economies to whole ecologies. We are moving from anecdata toward empirical evidence as source material.
“It's in the biological sciences that we are most changing our view of how things work. We're looking into things with a depth of understanding never before possible. Example: we’re looking at cancer cells differently, and we’re discovering ways to have those cells self-destruct. That’s just one of the ways we're changing our relationship with disease. But we’re also changing our relationship with health. “We already take it for granted that people can easily reach the age of 70 or 80. What that’s already created is a shift in cultural attitudes, but in the long run, it’s going to create a shift in economic structure as well. But because these are long-term changes, not as immediate as a new iPhone, most people aren't paying as much attention to these things as they should.”
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