We are on a road to somewhere

‘Prediction,’ said the great sage of quantum physics, Niels Bohr, ‘is very difficult, especially about the future.’ Bohr was usually right; even the greatest minds slip up when they indulge in crystal ball-gazing. We stumbled across the words of another of the 20th century’s great visionaries while preparing our current issue — Arthur C Clarke, of Space Odyssey and Mysterious World fame, appearing in our pages in the early 1960s in his role as a pioneer of communications satellites.

While looking into Clarke’s history, we found that in 1958, he produced a ‘profile of the future’, where he predicted what the dominant technology in areas such as transportation, communication, materials manufacture, biology, chemistry and physics would be in each decade up to 2100. And while some of his predictions are spot-on — a global library, which we could see as the internet, by 2005; the start of artificial intelligence by the late 1990s — others are way out. Clarke thought we’d crack Cetacean languages in the 1970s; foresaw fusion power by 1990; and like many space scientists was mislead by the rapid advances of the early years of the space race, predicting the colonisation of other planets by 2000 and gravity control by 2050.

Some years later, British Telecom’s futurologists had a crack at a Clarke-esque timeline, and came up with some startling predictions — a space elevator during the 2030s; artificial brains by 2040; full telepathic communication by 2050. Maybe they’ll be proved right.

The one thing their timeline has in common with Clarke’s is that they think nuclear fusion is about 40 years off from their start date. Nuclear fusion is always 40 years off. It’s still 40 years off, but with a bit of luck, that clock will soon start ticking downwards.

All of this got us thinking. From our coverage of technology, we thought: what would be available when? Widespread holographic television by 2015? Hypersonic transcontinental flight by 2025? An orbital hotel (which Clarke thought would happen around now) by 2040? Resurrecting extinct species, such as the mammoth, from preserved DNA by 2050? If we’re not being mislead by the speed of development, none of these are impossible. How likely they are is another matter.

Then there are those technologies that could be invented, but probably shouldn’t. There’s a lot of research devoted to interpreting the electrical signals from the brain through the surface of the skull; it might well be possible to use these to do away with keyboards so that we on The Engineer could think our articles directly onto our Word Processors. But you wouldn’t want to read that. Believe me. You wouldn’t.

And then there are the completely insoluble problems. Nuclear fusion was once in that box, but it might not be for much longer. A cure for cancer? Well, there’s no such single disease, but it seems that we’re well on the way to cures for several different types. It might well be that, as we approach the year 2100, the only technological conundrum that will still fox us is how to install air conditioning on the London Underground.

Stuart Nathan, Special Reports Editor