Predicting far future technologies

Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.
Niels Bohr

If you’re a science fiction writer, one of the things you do is try to predict what future technologies will come along.  If you’re not writing hard science fiction, this is relatively easy.  You just come up with a cool capability and throw in some plausible sounding technical jargon.  It’s like adding a magical ability in a fantasy story.  As long as you make sure the rules of magic are consistent, you’re in business.

But if you are aiming for harder science fiction, or you’re a futurist, what guiding principles can you use for making grounded predictions?  The difficulty level is actually much harder when making near term predictions, partly because your predictions will be assessed for accuracy in your lifetime, but also because it requires a pretty thorough immersion into current technologies, how they work, what the trends lines are, and what room exists for future improvement.

It gets a little easier for making longer term predictions, because instead of trying to figure out what technical breakthroughs will happen in the next few years, you’re focusing on what might eventually be possible, where the laws of physics may eventually be the deciding factor.

Of course, we could well discover new laws of physics down the road, and who knows what capabilities that new knowledge might enable?  As Arthur C. Clarke once observed, any sufficiently advanced technology becomes indistinguishable from magic for an observer from a less developed society.  We don’t know most of what we don’t know, and attempting to make predictions about future knowledge is basically just wild guessing.

But if we’re trying to be somewhat grounded, keeping our predictions to things that have a reasonable chance of being true, then it might pay to stick to known science, or at least science that isn’t too speculative.  When thinking about this, it pays to remember what technology actually is, which is the manipulation of natural forces for our benefit.  If the future technology you’re imagining isn’t based on some natural force, or a combination of natural forces, then you’re essentially positing magic.

This might be a little clearer if we think about the earliest technologies.  Many animals use sticks as tools to get food from out of tight places, what Douglas Adams called “stick technology”.  Early humans developed a technology no other animal had developed by taming fire and using it for cooking, protection, and many other purposes.  And starting with breeding dogs from wolves, humans began domesticating a number animals and for a variety of purposes and controlling how plants grow for food, again making use of existing natural resources.

If you don’t think these things count as technology, then consider plumbing.  Developed by ancient societies, plumbing makes use of the natural tendencies of water (hydraulics) for human convenience.  Or consider electricity, which Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle in their novel, Lucifer’s Hammer, referred to as tamed lightning.

A modern car is built to harness natural forces: electricity, air flow, the combustive reaction of gasoline (refined oil, which is stored concentrated solar energy), and mechanical force.  Without these natural forces, there can be no car.  Or any other kind of technology.

For future technologies, this means we need to find plausible natural forces which could be used to construct them.  It’s easy to imagine something like, say,  a Star Trek style teleporter, until we try to envision what kind of system could deconstruct, track, transmit, and reconstruct the 7 X 1027 atoms in a human body along with their precise physical configuration.  Even if we could come up with a computational system that could store that much information and get around quantum no-clone theorems, transmitting it using any variant of electromagnetism might take orders of magnitude longer than the age of the universe.  It seems difficult to imagine such a system without resorting to new physics, in other words without reaching for magic.

I think a good starting point when evaluating potential future technologies is to ask, does it happen in nature?  Or do all of its components happen in nature?  Once we observe it in nature, the question ceases to be whether it’s possible, but whether humans can do it?  Historically, assuming that the answer to that last question is “no” hasn’t been a winning bet.

By this simple metric, it should have been obvious to people in the 19th century that eventually flight would be possible, since birds were doing it everywhere.  And the fact that meteors and other natural phenomena routinely exceed the speed of sound should have clued in early 20th century pilots that aircraft would eventually be able to do so.

So, what does this mean for individual future technologies?  Well, organic life is built on molecular nanomachinery, which seems to indicate that nanomachines will definitely be possible at some point.  (Nanomachines that exist in attack swarms?  Not so much.  What would be the means of propulsion and levitation for such swarms?)  An interesting question is whether manufacturing nanomachines could happen without mutations creeping in, something evolved nanomachines haven’t accomplished.

Intelligent machines?  If you accept that we are intelligent machines, just evolved ones, then the question is how long it will take for us to build engineered intelligent machines.   Another question is what the potential might be for those engineered intelligences.  Many people seem to assume that they could have the capacities of human brains paired with the speed of silicon processors, making them super god-like entities.

But nothing like this yet exists in nature, and we may well find that achieving the necessary capacities requires inescapable trade-offs in performance.  (For instance, maybe that much information density requires water cooled operation.)  While human minds are highly unlikely to be the most intelligent systems that can exist, we shouldn’t assume that AI (artificially intelligent) minds will automatically be thousands of times more powerful than the human variety, particularly a human brain that has itself been integrated with technology.

The criteria become more problematic when we consider things like warp drives, hyperspace, or other putative FTL (faster than light) technologies.  We have no evidence for anything in nature that travels faster than light, except for a couple of exceptions that don’t seem like much help.

One exception is quantum entanglement, but whether it counts as FTL seems to depend on which interpretation of quantum mechanics you favor, and it allows for no actual communication.  (If you try to manipulate the quantum state of one of the entangled particles, you don’t affect its partner, you only destroy the entanglement.)

Another exception are galaxies beyond our cosmological horizon.  Due to the expansion of the universe, they’re moving away from us faster than light (from our vantage point).  But those galaxies are causally disconnected from us.  Since they moved over the horizon, they can have no affect on us, nor us on them.  In other words, they’re now effectively in a different universe.  No objects that can causally interact have ever been observed to move faster than light relative to each other.

People sometimes talk about concepts such as Alcubierre Drives or wormholes.  But these concepts require speculative phenomena such as negative energy or imaginary mass to exist, which puts us back in the realm of new physics, in other words, speculative guessing.

And under special and general relativity, any FTL capability, by whatever means, effectively allows for time travel.  Is time travel possible (that is, aside from our normal forward progression)?  Again, we have no observable phenomena in nature that seems to do it, nor any identifiable method that could built on to do it.  And the absence of tourists from the future seems to hint that time travel to arbitrary destinations isn’t possible.  (People sometimes imagine a code of ethics that prevents time travelers from making their presence known, but the idea that such a code would hold for all time travelers from all future societies seems improbable.)

Dyson Sphere
Image credit: Bibi Saint-Pol via Wikipedia

But the criteria does allow for some pretty mind bending concepts such as artificial planets, stars, even black holes, not to mention megastructures such as Dyson swarms.  All of which are rarely seen in science fiction.

What do you think?  Do you agree that looking for natural phenomena is a good criteria to evaluate the possibility of future technology?  If not, what additional or alternative criteria would you add?

14 thoughts on “Predicting far future technologies

  1. I agree that near-term prediction is much harder, as we can’t just make wild guesses. We’ll be found out!
    For the longer term, natural phenomena can be a very good starting point, but not the only one. I can’t think of anything in nature that looks much like a car, but the idea of a self-powered machine that moves is entirely consistent with even 18th century physics.
    Your comments on FTL / time travel seem sound – it’s ruled out both by modern physics and by the lack of examples. I find that a cause for optimism actually, since if we can ever reach the point where we colonize on an interstellar scale, we’ll be too dispersed ever to destroy ourselves entirely, and a major existential risk will have been removed. As for megastructures, these seem highly plausible. It’s just a question of scaling up – there’s no new physics required. Makes you wonder what kind of novel objects you could build on a solar scale – perhaps a particle accelerator capable of reaching Big Bang energies. And what could you do if you had the energy of a star available to you – turn it into a weapon perhaps? Or create exotic particles with interesting new properties? On the biological front, all kinds of mind-boggling ideas present themselves. And even good old-fashioned human-level intelligence could be aided and entertained incredibly by helpful machine intelligence.
    Good thought-provoking post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Steve!

      Good point on the car. That’s why I mentioned that we have to ask about whether the components of the technology occur in nature. (Although admittedly I didn’t expand much on it.) In the car’s case, electricity, air flow, combustive reactions, and mechanical force are all natural forces that we’re channeling. But I’d agree that it might have been hard for someone in the 18th century to imagine the whole framework, something we have to bear in mind about future innovations using existing knowledge.

      I agree about interstellar colonization and existential risk. I suspect successfully doing that will require that we change ourselves as a species. But if we succeed, it’s hard to see us not essentially becoming an immortal species. Certainly we’d be immune from asteroid strikes, gamma ray bursts, or the sudden nuclear war. The dangers that could take us out would have to be far more long lasting and severe.


  2. If we assume a block universe in which past, present and future are one cohesive whole – and it is our conscious perception flowing “forward” instead of linear time, then it is very possible to see outside the box, and beyond the illusion of the present moment, by expanding our consciousness.
    For the purpose of the books I’ve been writing* I assume that the future does already exist, that it is known by a God beyond our normal limitations on space and time, and that a small number of people have some ability to see the future.
    For those of us who have no control over any such latent human ability, we must speculate logically to imagine future technology. I worked very hard to have realistic technology in my still unpublished sci-fi novel, and after a great deal of communication with physicists and much deep thought, I still think the best most sensible method of time travel involves… the flux capacitor.
    If I were writing more science fiction, I would ask: what do people need solutions for? What will we struggle to overcome? These questions lead to the likeliest future developments. We will work to cure diseases, extend lifespans, maintain or store our consciousness after death, enjoy no calorie desserts, have sex without being encumbered by commitments and compromises and relationships and legal agreements (so virtual sex, and robot sex seem very likely)…
    We will aim to colonize other worlds, so we will aim for warp drives and wormholes and rematerialization transporters… And developing benevolent artificial intelligences that won’t turn against us could help develop all the other technologies… So I think in the near term the focus may be on developing AI helpers to help invent and develop the rest of the desired technology.
    * my recent books have been interpretations of prophecy: End Times and 2019, Antichrist 2016-2019, and Nostradamus and the Islamic Invasion of Europe can all be found on Amazon.


    1. Thanks for your thoughts. Can’t say I’m a believer in prophecy. I do agree we’ll work on all the things you mention. I guess my question is which ones we’ll succeed at. I’m not prepared to assume can-do spirit can get past the laws of physics, although I’ll admit there may be future innovations that make it look like that’s happening.

      “I still think the best most sensible method of time travel involves… the flux capacitor.”
      …and a power input of 1.21 jigowatts? 🙂


  3. Very responsible post Mike. I think the greatest weakness with people who consider themselves “futurists”, is that they generally find it too difficult to reign in their own biases — their own desires to believe in amazing things to come. So futurist or not, I’m now a bit less worried about you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! Yeah, the dividing line between science fiction writers and futurists often appears to be the former need storytelling skills and the latter are ostensibly being more serious. Like stage magicians, at least sci-fi writers are “honest fakes”. I have read some grounded futurists, but many appear to be writing science fiction without admitting it’s fiction.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Hey Mike,

    I think there is reason to believe that anything allowed by physics is doable given sufficient knowledge and resources. My latest pet example is our sun. Physicists say that in some number of billions of years the sun will expand to engulf the earth. Why would we let that happen? Assuming there are still people (or equivalent) on the earth who would prefer that it not happen, it seems like it would be possible to siphon out some amount of heavy elements and replace with hydrogen.

    Thus, after a certain point, barring catastrophe, the question is not so much what can be done as what will be done, and so that becomes a sociological question, and fodder for fiction. The point in question is obviously referred to as the singularity.

    As for “looking for natural phenomena”, I think finding natural phenomena is always good, but I don’t know how that helps when considering radically new technology like lasers and semiconductor transistors.

    Keep up the good work!


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks James!

      Earth is reportedly going to have problems long before the red giant phase. The sun’s luminosity is slowly increasing. In a billion or so years, it will supposedly be high enough to turn Earth into a Venus like planet, and even worse as more billions of years go by.

      One solution I saw on a science documentary is to steer a massive asteroid so that it passes in front of the Earth in its orbit. Each pass of the asteroid would gravitationally tug on the Earth, increasing its orbital velocity and causing it to move further out from the sun. Over the course of millions of years, it could be carefully orchestrated to keep Earth within the habitable zone. (The documentary admits that, in the case of a miscalculation, things could go horribly wrong.)

      If we managed to pull it off, Earth should be well outside the sun’s radius by its red giant phase. The problem after that is what to do in a few tens of millions of years when the red giant phase ends and the sun collapses to a white dwarf. (Actually, I’m not sure how habitable a red giant would be since it would be constantly hemorrhaging its outer layers.)

      Myself, I think if we haven’t gone interstellar in some manner by then, our best bet would be to build artificial habitats which could be moved as needed. We could then live for a few billions years in close orbit around the white dwarf. Eventually though, there’s no solution other than migrating to another star. (And, of course, eventually eventually, there may be no solution to the ultimate heat death of the universe.)

      The thing to remember about lasers and similar technologies, is that they’re built with natural phenomena. The components of lasers each work by following a natural process. The pump source, gain medium, and the resonator all work via natural processes (or are themselves built on components that work via natural processes).

      That said, as I admitted to Steve above, innovative combinations of these may well make it look like a device is superseding natural phenomena.


  5. I think that’s a very sensible way to think about it. I’ll be thinking about this in my writing. I’d add, though, that we humans have a way of taking natural phenomena and refining them to do more–sometimes a lot more–than you might expect possible based on nature alone. As an example, nuclear fission is certainly possible in nature, but we’ve found ways to amp up those reactions way beyond what nature typically does.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good point. Certainly once the mechanism is there, the possibility exists we might be able to shape and channel it in ways we’d have trouble imagining when it’s first discovered. People watched water flow for thousands of generations before anyone thought to channel it in pipes for our convenience. Who knows what future innovations might exist for known processes.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. When I think about the future like this, Mike, it is really hard for me to think long term. I agree in some respects it seems easier, but it also seems profoundly difficult to me. So many of our “big” ideas are biased by our knowledge of technology today, and our ideas regarding the parameters for its development, which could just be wrong, right? We don’t know what we don’t know so the scope of what is unknown seems to grow significantly with time.

    When I think long-term my initial reaction is that we are lacking, in just about every field, a technological base that is regenerative and sustainable. I think the biggest clue we could take from life–and which seems imperative to me if we were ever to seriously consider long, multi-generation space flights or viable, off-planet artificial habitats–is an integrated energy solution that is clean, safe, and regenerative. I would apply this idea both to the energy we need to consume and the energy we need to power our systems and technologies. And by regenerative, I mean that if it was a photovoltaic panel, for instance, it ought, at minimum, to be able to be remanufactured countless times without significant influx of new raw materials. I suppose we can assume we’re potentially mining asteroids for replacement materials, but ideally we would have a less costly approach to a stable and relatively close-looped system, excluding sunlight and gravity. And I think we’re quite a long ways off from that one? I don’t read much about it so that is just my sense. It seems we’ll need some interesting technological revolutions to solve it.

    I would apply the same idea to medicine. I think we are lacking in an approach to wellness and longevity that is based upon the body as a whole. We have all these different models of the body, but in some sense we think of the body as a computer, and yet we still work on it as though it is a car. What we can do is amazing–don’t get me wrong!–I just think our modalities continue to have way too many side effects. For me a side effect means the approach is not wholly resonant with the existing system, and that is probably because we have a great deal to learn.

    Just looking at those two areas, it strikes me we remain fairly crude with our deployment of technology compared to what seems possible, using the natural world as an example.

    It is also interesting to consider what psychological and social-cultural renovations will occur over the long-term. That is sort of a technology, too, isn’t it? Since our ideas of what is acceptable, possible, worthwhile, and/or necessary all influence our collective evolution.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Michael, you make excellent points. Reading your comment, I’m reminded how much science fiction makes far future technology look like modern advanced technology. This is more evident if you read old sci-fi from the 20s and 30s, where the spaceships often used technology that looked like advanced 20s and 30s technologies. Or in movies, such as Forbidden Planet, where the planet wide computer system operates on mechanical switches.

      And you’re totally right. We don’t know what we don’t know. However, while I think we always have to be cognizant of that, simply stopping at that observation is really no fun. And we do know some things. As physicist Sean Carroll pointed out, we understand the laws of physics for everyday phenomena pretty well. We may discover new laws in the future, but any new laws will have to explain the same observations our current laws do, meaning any new laws won’t completely discard the current laws but transcend them, much as general relativity did with Newton’s laws. All of which seems to indicate that the constraints and boundaries that the understood laws put on us shouldn’t be dismissed. (Not that you advocated that, but it’s often what I hear after someone notes that we don’t know what we don’t know 🙂 )

      I agree about finding sustainable sources of energy. Our civilization is burning through fossil fuels, solar energy stored across hundreds of millions of years, within a few centuries. Eventually it will be gone, although a geologist once told me that it won’t end suddenly but will gradually become increasingly more expensive to come by. Hopefully as the cost goes up, it will spur investment in more sustainable technologies. The problem, of course, is that the second law of thermodynamics dictates that no energy source will ever be completely sustainable. There will always be an aspect of energy usage that uses up some scarce resource.

      Also agreed on medicine. We make progress where we can, but there remain vast holes in our knowledge. However I think it would be a mistake to abandon scientific medicine because it fails in some areas. (Again, not that you advocated for that.) Despite its flaws, we’re still far better off today than people were centuries ago.

      Good question about future social changes. I fear those may be the hardest to predict. Although I’m not sure it’s impossible. I did a post a while back about the moral arc of history, an idea I was initially skeptical of until it occurred to me that societies might be evolving to get us back as close to the egalitarian ideal of hunter-gatherer societies as they can. Why? Because we lived in them for millions of years and many of our instincts about what is wrong with modern societies often seem to be an instinctive reaction against their divergence from those ancient principles.

      Liked by 2 people

Your thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.