To answer these questions and others that shape the future, let's look at a concrete example of technological advancement and see what it tells us.
In 2007, when I got my first iPhone, I knew I was holding the future in my hands. And when the iPad arrived, it seemed that Apple single-handedly propelled us into the 24th century. But these inventions also depended upon the relentless advancement of technology: capacitive touch panels, software and hardware for multitouch processing, thin display panels, battery technology, architecture for economical power consumption, MEMS, and so many other cool things. We will look at thin display panels for a moment just to get an idea of how technology advances. This will give us a time frame that we can use to understand how fast the future might arrive.
Thinner, brighter display panels that consume less power, clearly necessary for smartphones and tablets, are one invention that has taken years and years. Let's consider the timeline from conception to real-world commercial availability.
|George du Maurier's illustration in Punch, 1879|
On December 9, 1878, George du Maurier's sketch for the Telephonoscope appeared in the Punch Almanack for 1879, which showed a window-sized display of video transmitted from another source, and it shows people talking to each other at a great distance, like FaceTime. Although it was intended as a spoof of Edison's inventions, it indicates that people were thinking of this as something they wanted.
|Philo Farnsworth and the first television|
But I remember our first color TV when I was a kid, and it was quite large, and even had tubes inside. Well, all CRTs have at least one tube, the Cathode Ray Tube it is named for. At some point CRTs were replaced almost entirely by flat panel displays. Did that happen right away?
Not at all. The first flat plasma panel displays were introduced in 1964 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Chamapign. It took 33 years until the first color plasma panel display as introduced by Fujitsu.
LCDs have been researched since the 1880s but LCD panels didn't start appearing until 1972 when Westinghouse demonstrated the first active-matrix LCD panel.
Because technology marches on in separate but simultaneous paths, plasma panels were the dominant television flat-panel technology from about 2000 through 2008, when LCD panels finally took more than a 50% share of the flat-panel television market.
Now, companies are producing thin bright TVs that appear to be bringing us directly into the world of Total Recall, where the walls are just displays. Sharp Electronics is bringing us ultra thin displays with their factory that is building 10th-generation panels. Also, an ID card has been shown with an embedded OLED panel with a 3D display of the person, that is activated by RFID. Just like Total Recall.
In fact, the movie is now being remade, in part because its technology is realizable and just doesn't seem so much like the future any more.
|Apple iPhone 4|
So, to sum it up
- 161 years ago people first started transmitting images
- 135 years ago people first imagined having a transmitted image display on a wall
- 84 years ago people first demonstrated an all-electronic display
- 67 years ago that television's commercial success began
- 48 years ago people first demonstrated a flat panel display
- 40 years ago companies first started marketing LCD panels
- 29 years ago Seiko introduced the first hand-held TVs
- 20 years ago portable computers first featured flat panel displays
- 16 years ago Fujitsu commercially introduced a 42" plasma display panel
- 9 years ago Kodak and Sanyo introduced the first AMOLED color panel
- 5 years ago Apple introduced the iPhone
My first point is that technology advancement definitely accelerates over time. My second point is that, also, sociological, political, and economic forces hold technology back. A third point, not specifically illustrated by the display panels example is that external requirements can force progress.
Why Technology Accelerates
My theory is that there is a copy effect, a synergy effect, and a forcing effect and together they accelerate technology.
One of the basic principles of technology advancement is that once a technology has been demonstrated, it is only a small amount of time before someone else can duplicate it. This I call the copy effect. Whether it happens because of stealing of information, or because there are a large number of clever people is a good question. People are motivated by the understanding that the advancement is highly desirable.
In 1945, the secrets of the atom bomb were smuggled out of Los Alamos by Klaus Fuchs and Sergeant David Greengrass through Harry Gold, and delivered directly to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and from them to Anatoly Yakovlev, their Soviet contact. When there is desire, information finds its way out.
Today, information doesn't need to be smuggled. In order to transmit it, all one needs is an internet cafe. There is evidence that information doesn't even need to be encrypted to be disseminated widely. So all it takes is one whistleblower to move technological secrets.
Although it is not about technology per se, it can quickly be seen that Bradley Manning and Julian Assange were able to move large amounts of secret information very quickly through the WikiLeaks scandal.
There is another basic principle of technology advancement, demonstrated admirably by the display panels example, is that technology is created by standing upon the shoulders of those who have come before. I call this the synergy effect, particularly when it is accelerated by free dissemination of information. In other words, the internet.
Why synergy? With synergy, 2+2=5, or the sum is greater than the parts. When person A discovers something, and person B knows that, it is possible that person B can improve upon it in some way that makes it truly useful.
For instance, the invention of money enabled us to advance beyond a barter system. The invention of electronic exchange of money enabled banks to create commerce on a larger scale. But it wasn't until the invention of point-of-sale systems for transacting commerce, including credit, debit cards, and the systems for reading them, that the promise of electronic commerce became really useful for all people.
A third basic principle guiding progress is that necessity is the mother of invention. Once the telegraph was in common use, the need to convey emotion and intent forced the invention of the telephone. This is the forcing effect.
Many technological inventions have been made in order to gain the upper hand in matters of conflict. The creation of armor emboldened the knights of the crusade. Attacks by large numbers of people spurred on the advancements in defense: castles, heavy stone walls, towers, moats, and traps. Advancements in defense forced the creation of new technologies for advanced sieges, such as trebuchets, siege towers, and siege hooks. The American Civil War led to the invention of the Gatling gun and later the machine gun, which was prominently used in World War I. And then came the dawn of the nuclear age, when the atom bomb became the deciding technology that ended World War II.
It continues to this day, with man-in-the-loop systems, precision-guided munitions and bombs, and UAVs.
When you put these three principles together and into the hands of billions of people, it becomes impossible for technology to be held back. And, at some point, information spread will reach a maximum limit, where everybody knows everything as soon as it is known. But also notice that some events can simultaneously hold back and push forwards technology.
All in all, this is still good news for the future, if we survive it.
Why Technology Gets Held Back
Public sentiment is a very good first reason that technology can get held back. Right now, we seem poised on the brink of new methods of portable energy storage, like fuel cells. But the electricity required to generate enough hydrogen for mass fuel cell adoption is large. Where will we get the electricity? One technology that seems almost certain to be able to provide this electricity is nuclear energy.
But such events as Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, and more recently the effect of the March 11, 2011 Tohoku tsunami on the Fukushima nuclear power plant, are turning public sentiment against nuclear power. The dangers associated by the storage of High Level Waste (HLW) such as spent fuel rods are also widely known problems, and their implications for future generations cannot be ignored. This has led to the rejection of the Yucca Mountain facility in Nevada (though it's not over yet), and also to the creation of better HLW storage facilities, such as the Östhammar Forsmark facility in Sweden, which could be completed in 2015.
Political turmoil is a second reason that technology can get held back. As discussed earlier, World War II held back the advancement of television. It also held back jet engines.
Periodically, purges have caused huge destruction of information. The burning of the Library of Alexandria was one example and it is speculated that the plans for mechanical inventions, including perhaps the Antikythera mechanism for predicting astronomical positions, was destroyed accidentally by Julius Caesar in 48 BC. This disrupted scientific progress since huge stores of knowledge were lost.
When, between 213 and 206 BC, the Qin dynasty ordered the burning of books and then ordered more than 460 scholars to be buried alive, they however decided to keep the military technology.
Pressure from economic interests is an excellent third reason that technology can get held back. Existing investments in infrastructure can quickly be obsoleted by disruptive technology. Companies wishing to retain control over a market can buy up invention rights to prevent them from coming to market. Or simply suppress them.
For instance, General Electric engineer Ed Hammer invented the compact fluorescent light (CFL) in 1976, but GE failed to bring this device to market, or to prioritize its research. It is believed that they thought their incandescent light bulb business would be disrupted by such a technology. In reality, they might have owned that market for the many intermediate years before LED light bulbs were introduced. And saved the world plenty of energy in the meanwhile. But they were also selling nuclear reactors, you see.
It isn't a real stretch of the imagination to think that petrochemical energy companies might not want alternative energy sources to come to light. Some of these speculations border on conspiracy theory, but such incidents have certainly happened in the past.
One of the most common predictions of the future is the flying car. In fact, we have flying machines today, in the form of airplanes. And we have magnetic levitation and induction, used in bullet trains. But to realize the flying car without using the ground effect or a rocket to keep it aloft (both rather a problem for those underneath it) requires something different.
It requires antigravity.
Anti-gravity seems like so much science fiction today, but what would it really entail? We know gravity is one of the four non-contact forces, alone with electromagnetism, the strong nuclear force, and the weak nuclear force. In the hypothetical Theory of Everything (ToE), the gravitational force is unified with the other three forces by a single theory that clarifies the origins of all forces.
If force unification can be achieved, then it may be possible to treat gravity like another force. There is some experimental proof that gravity travels in waves. This is because it is known that gravitation propagates at the speed of light. So, if gravity can be treated like electromagnetism, then perhaps it can be polarized or cancelled.
We always assume that a vacuum is empty, that space is completely devoid of all matter. Gravity waves are interesting because of how they must propagate: through the curvature of space-time itself. This implies that vacuum is not vacuum at all, but is permeated with energy (known as dark energy). In one theory, the Superfluid Vacuum Theory, space is actually made up of a Bose-Einstein Condensate, a dilute gas of weakly-interacting subatomic particles. This theory might be a basis for quantum gravity, which attempts to explain the gravitational force through the quantum interactions between these particles.
The duality of photons, tiny bits of light, as either particles or waves may also testify to the internal workings of space. Since photons can be polarized, it is not a stretch of the imagination to think that gravity can also be polarized, and thus components of gravity that act in a particular direction might be cancelled.
The discovery of dark matter, matter with mass but which doesn't interact with light or any other electromagnetic radiation, shows us that some kinds of matter can exist outside the Standard Model of particle physics, which in turn indicates that we have a lot to learn about physics in general.
Communication Through the Earth
The verification of quantum teleportation shows how communication between two entangled photons can be done. It has been verified through free space over distances of multiple kilometers. However, several problems exist that make the process currently unsuitable for transmitting classical information. First, only a quantum state can be transmitted. Second, the information is not transported instantly, but is instead transmitted at the speed of light.
Yet, at the end of the day, a quantum state does get transmitted between the two entangled photons without interacting with the intermediate space. This is clearly evidence for the non-Cartesian connectedness of the fabric of space-time, at least at the quantum level.
While this technology does not accomplish zero-time transmission, it does have the promise of transmitting information from point-to-point without the possibility of an intermediate interloper. Such a technique is extremely important to secure transmission, and would employ quantum cryptography, a two-key cryptosystem that is entirely based upon the entanglement of quantum states.
Using such a system, you could communicate with a satellite in orbit at arbitrary bandwidths, regardless of whether or not it was on the other side of the planet. And to intercept the information being transmitted, you would have to be at one end or the other. And even then, you couldn't get the information because it would be dependent upon highly-randomized quantum states, which are kept in sync at both photons at either end.
Perfect for keeping secrets.
To create such an entangled pair of photons, called an Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen (EPR) pair, you would need a source for single photons that operates at room temperature. NASA is sponsoring the creation of such a device.