I subscribe to a couple of science and technology news feeds. I consider the idea of staying current with science and tech developments a requirement for the kind of stuff I write if I don’t want it to become outdated before it gets published. That goal is getting more difficult as our society builds upon each and every advance at an accelerated pace.
An interesting book I read not too long ago is called Race Against the Machine which discusses how rapidly our technological advances are proceeding and rapidly our capacity to anticipate what will come next. They use as analogy the concept of a chess board, which has 64 squares. If one were to place a penny or grain of rice on the first square and then proceed to double the amount on each succeeding square, the geometric progression of the number of pennies might seem easy to visualize, but it turns out, our intuition fails us after about the 32nd square. Beyond that point, the numbers involved move past our normal human ability to visualize them. The authors contend that the rate of technological advancement has been proceeding in such a manner and that now our society is at about the 32nd square.
Up to this point, the authors suggest, we have had the capacity to understand, appreciate and anticipate the next potential advances that can build upon what has come before. They suggest that beyond this point, the rate (more appropriately, the geometric explosion) of technological diversity and advancement will exceed our abilities to intuit and anticipate.
As an example, they cite the development of self driving automobiles in recent years. They did a study of earlier literature and discovered that as recently as 2004 self driving technology was too primitive to allow a computer to navigate a vehicle, citing the large number of real time decisions it would require and the associated computational requirements as impossible to overcome. Yet only six years later, computer processing technology had advanced to the point that Google had developed the first prototype fleet of self driving cars.
The rate of advancement has continued since that time and only today I read an article that researchers are close to developing a polymer film coating that will be able to turn contact lenses into computer screens. What had been relegated to the realm of science fiction only a few short months ago is now on the verge of being a viable technology.
The rate of advancement is frightening for an author. What might I invent for a society living 200 years from now that might in reality become common tech in only five or ten years? I am forced to dig deeply into the realms of magic and fantasy to anticipate new technologies.
As Arthur C. Clarke wrote in 1962, Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Maybe I need to work on a magic system for my next novel to stay ahead of the curve.