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Sci-Fi writers and technology's future

Daniel Dern | Dec. 17, 2008
CIO invited noted science fiction authors Larry Niven, Robert Sawyer, Nancy Kress and Charles Stross to share their thoughts on technology-related predictions.

Talking lobsters? Post-singularity hyper-tech? Inherited parallel world-hopping? Bank robberies in virtual reality? Who else could this be but Charles Stross? In addition to dozens of articles for Computer Shopper and other computer publications on the subjects of Linux, Perl and other topics, Stross has written dozens of stories and 16 science fiction novels to date, including Saturn's Children, Halting State and his Merchant Princes series.

"Donald Rumsfeld was right," states Stross. "That is to say, his point about the known unknowns and unknown unknowns nailed the problem of predicting the future spot-on. We can point to extrapolations of current technological and social trends, but we can't extrapolate on the basis of stuff that hasn't been discovered yet. For example: In 1962 it was possible, just about, to see the future of integrated circuitry (and even, if you were very far-sighted, to glimpse Moore's Law and its implications), but the CD player was right out of the picture- solid state lasers lay at least a decade in the future."

What one or two predictions do you feel you got right-or way wrong?

"The one I'm proudest of is predicting the YouTube user-generated video revolution," says Robert Sawyer. "That was in 1998's Factoring Humanity (in which I called it 'desktop TV,' as a parallel to 'desktop publishing'); Factoring Humanity was a Hugo Award-finalist."

On his "missed" list, says Sawyer, "The notion that we'd have flying cars by 2030 (which I have in my 1999 novel, FlashForward. Granted, 2030 hasn't rolled around yet, but I now think that flying cars are as unlikely as eating pills instead of full meals, the other big prediction that 'The Jetsons' made; both of those things are cartoon ideas, not reasonable predictions."

Nancy Kress says, "My novel Beggars in Spain postulated sleeplessness, and although we're not yet there, the drug modafinil brings us much closer. My short story "Evolution" is based on the resistance of disease to every antibiotic we can throw at it-a prediction just starting to come true and likely to become far, far worse. On the other hand, I hope I'm dead wrong about Stinger's creation of genetically engineered pathogens that can target a specific population, and also about the ultimate extent of global warming in Nothing Human. We'll know in 100 years."

If you were writing one of your novels or stories today, would you change anything about the predictions you made?

"In my most recent novel, Rollback, published in 2007, I predicted that humanoid household robots would be common within 40 years," says Robert Sawyer. "I'd revise that figure way downward now. Having been to MIT recently, and looking at what's coming out of Japan, I suspect we'll see them much sooner than that. People want household help; people hate anything that makes them conscious of class and past injustices. Robots are the answer, and they'll be here soon."


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