This essay is excerpted from Soonish: Ten Emerging Technologies That’ll Improve and/or Ruin Everything by Kelly and Zach Weinersmith, published by Penguin Press.
Yogi Berra reportedly once said, “Making predictions is hard. Especially about the future.” This is true enough, though as it happens Berra never said it. But the false attribution proves the quote’s point—we have enough trouble just predicting the present.
Our new book, Soonish, considers 10 technologies that will improve and/or ruin everything. One of the difficulties writing it was selecting exactly which 10 technologies to include. We wanted technologies that were less well-known, but nevertheless had the potential to change the course of the future. About one-third of our research time was spent researching ideas that didn’t make it into the book.
For example, we looked into whether space-based solar power was a plausible idea. Given that solar panels in space don’t experience day/night cycles, weather, or an atmosphere, some estimates suggest that a single panel could generate 40 times more energy than the equivalent solar panel down here.
So, why did we end up junking it? Well, it turns out that on a cost basis, you’ll probably always be better off putting 40 regular solar panels in Arizona than one really good one in space. Cleaning panels in Arizona requires an intern. Cleaning panels in space requires an astronaut or a very brave robot. Similarly, we researched, outlined, and wrote a 20,000-word draft of a chapter on quantum computing, only to nix it. So our editor on this project suggested we might save these things, in a way, by writing about them in a conclusion. This was the genesis of the Graveyard of Lost Chapters, wherein we discuss five ideas: space-based solar power, quantum computing, room-temperature superconductors, advanced prosthetics, and mirror humans. These ideas are all fascinating and important, and in some cases, they even affected our view of reality. But they didn’t fit in our book.
We ejected space-based solar for being economically implausible. Quantum computing was cut for being too complicated to properly explain without sacrificing the truth. Room-temperature superconductors were as complex as quantum computing and were less likely to be commercially useful than we’d first guessed. Advanced prosthetics was explainable and useful, but much of what you’d want an audience to understand was dry and technical. We had a pretty substantial paragraph on how ankles rotate a different amount depending on velocity of gait. Yowza.
Mirror humans—human beings altered at the molecular level so that they probably can’t get diseases, though they probably also can’t eat normal food—didn’t make the cut because it turned out they are probably not the easiest route to avoiding disease. Plus, mirror humans would be unable to mate with humans and would thus be a different species. So, even if they existed, regular humans like you and I would still be walking disease receptacles.
That said, we call dibs on the eventual Netflix series about them.
Don’t get us wrong. We want these things to come to fruition, and we want people to know about them. A working large-scale quantum computer would mean (depending on your interpretation) that we can access the near-infinite forking paths of the multiverse to hack your ex’s email. (There are more productive uses, but who cares?)
Although the Graveyard was intended mostly as a way to show off the broken remains of research that had taken months of our lives and years of our sanity, we came to think of it as a sort of totem of integrity—proof of our willingness to show you our failures and blind alleys. The truth is you probably shouldn’t believe any futurologist telling you they know the 10 technologies that’ll shape the future. We certainly don’t, and we suspect they don’t either. When predicting the future, humility is in order, and we did our best to behave accordingly. Or at least, we did as noted technologist Benjamin Franklin said of his attempt at humility: “I cannot boast of much success in acquiring the reality of this virtue, but I had a good deal with regard to the appearance of it.”
Technological history is thick with surprises. As we explain in the book, some of the most advanced modern devices for measuring brain activity trace their origins to the 19th-century study of how to supercool gasses. Similarly, the computer in your phone is a distant descendant of the Jacquard Loom, a punch card–based machine for manufacturing pretty fabric designs. If the future is like the past, some apparently trivial technology today will be cited 100 years from now as the progenitor of a trillion-dollar industry.
So, if we can’t predict life in the year 2100, what are we doing writing a book about it? Why do we go into all this detail? Why did we, for instance, read a shockingly technical set of articles dealing with the difference between skipping and jogging for the purpose of robotic legs?
Because the future isn’t more interesting than the present. In the future, we may have a cable that runs all the way to outer space, and we may have computer chips in our brains. That’s fascinating, sure, but in the present we have the most fun part—the struggle.
Building a “space elevator” will one day be about spacefaring, but today it is about the no-less-beautiful quest to create single carbon-based molecules that are several times longer than Earth’s circumference. Interfacing your brain with your laptop will change life as we know it one day, but today we have the quest to understand how a thought embeds itself in the 3-pound ball of goo between your ears.
To us, that’s enough. Even the most implausible technologies are fascinating in their difficulties. And hey—we could be wrong. A surprise advance may make space-based solar an economic reality, and we’ll be those stupid Weinersmiths who said it would never happen.
So, take a stroll through our graveyard. And while you’re there, look out for zombies.
This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.