1. The Robots are coming - - Essay
2. The Future is all at Sea - - Essay
3. A New Computer - - Comment
This page will carry essays and stories that reflect my thoughts and ideas on the future. I don't see how we can ever predict the future accurately, but I think we're now at the stage where we can design some aspects. So we have a new responsibility to ourselves and our children to make it a humane one. I'm not sure how to structure this page, but I'd like it to be a forum or a discussion starter of some sort - So, as ever, tell me what you think.
1. THE ROBOTS ARE COMING - - - - - - -
The strange, far future is almost here. Within present lifetimes Arthur C. Clarke's 'future technology, indistinguishable from magic' can be a reality. And we will be magicians, if we choose. The human world will have changed beyond recognition.
The tools and toys that we enjoy now were the props of science fiction only a few years ago.
And the Robots have been coming to get us since the very earliest days of film making.
When we imagine the future we still tend to see a continuation of the past; with the details improved. Despite appearances, the essentials of the human world have not changed so much since we first found a cave and a new skin to wear. The business of living in a human group, however it might have been organised. The first fire-hardened stick to be discarded was probably retrieved, and notched, by an accountant. Getting through a day, a winter or a lifetime has always been the primary concern.
All most people have ever wanted is a human, and humane, world for their children to grow up in. Power and riches fall to the few. The majority get through their lives, proud to have raised a family or built up a career, and are content with their small share of the world.
So far this is how it has been; for most humans, most of the time. Living in interesting times may have been one's fate, but it was always a human world that got rebuilt.
So the pattern of generations has repeated for tens of thousands of years - Each individual growing up within a family, forming their own, and then resigning themselves to death. In the knowledge that there is a continuity, and that they have achieved their primary goal. Many of the most poignant life tragedies revolve around the loss of children, or loss of the opportunity to have them.
Each person accepted and accepts death in the end, willingly or not, because there is no choice. One can go bravely or not, but death is the one absolute certainty. Other things may be vanishingly unlikely, but not impossible - Everyone will die for sure. Or so we still believe.
But the extraordinay aspect of the present time is that now even death is uncertain - It is unlikely that anyone alive now will live beyond their allotted span, but it is no longer impossible.
New technologies, nanotechnology and information technology, will make the possibilities of life extension and transference to new, robotic bodies possible.
What does seem unlikely is that continuously increasing numbers of human beings can continue to live on this planet. The last fifty years have seen more fundamental changes to the world than the last fifty thousand, and a doubling of the population. It is thought that damaged ecosystems may take millennia to recover, and that extinct species are almost certainly gone forever. This is the trap we appear to be in.
Many plans and scenarios have been developed for moving into space. But all the evidence so far is that space is the 'final frontier' for the human body. We could solve the problems of living in space, no doubt, but the bulk of the effort and technology would be devoted to maintaining biological systems that are intrinsically unable to deal with zero gravity.
Real space travel has all the glamour of an intensive care ward; because that is exactly what a space ship designed for human occupation is.
The initial move into 'space colonies' will probably be redirected into colonies on the world's oceans. New construction techniques, materials and fusion reactors will allow a breathing space as the world population continues to expand. We occupy perhaps ten percent of the planet's land area, and over sixty percent of the planet's surface is water. Even allowing for polar ice sheets we have by no means yet run out of living space in the short term. But in the long term, even with a population stabilised somewhere between twelve and twenty billion, and much improved use of materials and recycling , we will be in trouble if life extension becomes the norm.
Nightmare scenarios of an immortal elite ruling slave hordes on a ruined world aside, the technologies we are developing indicate an extraordinary, and initially terrifying, future.
Terrifying because both change and responsibility on a nearly unimaginable scale are inevitably implied. Unless some unavoidable disaster sets us back many centuries the new technologies will be developed. Human beings and technology are so intimately intertwined that we and our tools really amount to a single, unstoppable process. Nothing can be uninvented and no new idea permanently suppressed.
Since life first formed on our planet information and organisation have steadily evolved to ever increasing levels of sophistication - And the graph is about to go vertical.
If life is information, organised to resist chaos for a period of time, then we are that process's highest expression. And our technology will provide the next, unprecedented leap forward.
The 'final frontier' has turned out not to be space after all, we already live on a space platform, but the exploration of human consciousness.
We sent out observers and saw that the world does indeed move in a vast universe, space is not somewhere else, and now we are looking to the unknown within. We have been gazing out to sea from an uncharted coastline. And now it's time to turn inland and explore.
The most recent, major discovery appears to be that maps can, in principle, be made. New, non-invasive scanning techniques and computer simulations are allowing the unobservable to be observed. Introspection is giving way to genuine analysis.
This leads on to the emotionally fraught issue of artificial intelligence / consciousness. And the most startling aspect of the debate, in recent years, has been the shift from 'if?' towards 'when?'. The difficulties are acknowledged, but can probably be overcome.
When first artificial intelligence, and then artificial consciousness, are achieved we will be faced with our first real competitors in the history of human evolution. Conscious entities, whom we have created, will move on from that starting point. How will we 'control' them? They will rapidly exceed us in intellectual ability. They will be as benign as any well educated and well balanced human being.
These are all assumptions - That intelligence and consciousness are synonymous, that any sort of control will be necessary or possible and that artificial, conscious entities will have a moral sense. They won't be human, but will they be humane?
Surely any form of consciousness requires a childhood. Can self awareness be just 'switched on' fully formed? Can a robot experience emotions?
What in fact is a robot?
Our conception of a robot, self-aware or not, is most commonly some form of mechanical human mimic. It has jointed limbs, a torso and head, and is approximately human in form and size. It is obviously 'artificial'.
Something which is 'robotic' has a different popular image. We accept robotic vehicles or devices in factories, in space or in the oceans. A 'robot' is most often perceived as an inadequate substitute for a human being. And, until very recently, no free standing, two-legged robot had been seen to walk outside the boundaries of a film screen.
Films and magazines (comics) have preconceived our vision of the robot. The term 'cyborg' is not much better. A cybernetic organism is perceived as some sort of blending of machine and flesh. It is, again, an artificial substitute.
Perhaps the term 'artificial' is the problem.
We still tend to make a sharp distinction between what is natural and artificial. The new technologies will blur that distinction, to the point where not even an electron microscope will give a clear definition either way. Artificial systems will mimic living systems to the point where the two are indistinguishable. Visually if not in terms of 'performance'. Artificial systems will rapidly become more efficient and far more durable.
Going back to the point that human beings and their tools are an inseparably intertwined process; from this point of view nothing is either natural or artificial. Anything which can exist is a product of the materials and conditions prevailing on this planet.
So there is nothing unnatural about a street lamp, an aircraft or any other product of human technology.
This is a harsh overview from an eco-preservation perspective. But we are parochial in our view of human civilisation within geological time and under-estimate the planet's ability to adapt to it's effects. We are causing an extinction event beyond any doubt; but the world's ecosystems have survived worse damage in the past. And as fast as we destroy we also create. There are few, if any, landscapes that have not been altered by the activities of human beings. There is evidence that even symbiotic societies ( eg. Native Americans and Australians) can have a marked effect on their ecosystems over a long period of time.
Human civilisation has developed in one of the brief windows of warmth between ice ages; ice sheets reaching far into temperate latitudes appear to be the norm. If global warming prevents the next descent of the ice then we are preserving conditions that are favourable to human life.
We want warm and comfortable houses, a pleasant place to work, the benefits of all forms of communications and a supposedly 'natural' landscape to relax and play in. We also like to be fed well and regularly.
We really can't have it both ways.
There is very little that is natural about most landscapes occupied by permanent human settlements. They are the product of many centuries of management and adjustment. These landscapes certainly support living plants and animals, but they would rapidly revert to the wild without our continuous intervention, and we would now find it very difficult to live in them if that happened.
What human civilisation has created is frequently denigrated with reference to what has been lost. The wish to live in a simpler, more natural, age is often expressed. What is forgotten are the conditions that prevailed within living memory.
Fifty years ago, before penicillin and nearly all other modern drug treatments, people died horribly from simple infections, from TB and a range of conditions that were not then properly defined or able to be diagnosed; let alone treated and cured. Surgery was primitive and often led to complications, death or a lifetime of disability. The lucky survivors were only lucky to be alive. Their quality of life had often been damaged for good.
It is a modern myth that people were happier in the good old days. They were simply used to the conditions of their lives, as we are to ours, and made the best of them.
Can all six billion of the world's current population aspire to a good, average standard of living; as achieved in the 1st world? A standard of living, education, health care and life expectancy that would have seemed miraculous only fifty years ago.
The answer is probably yes; if politics, economics and perceptions of national identity can somehow be adjusted to allow these benefits to reach all the people of the world.
Purely in terms of technology the world can probably support six billion people at the standard of an average, middle income 1st world family.
Even as the population continues to expand the rich might well move out into condominiums on the oceans. And poorer people could soon follow them in ship cities and on artificial islands that are designed to relieve the pressure on available land areas. Life in these places could be at least as good as in the best of our city environments currently existing. And quite possibly not so crowded; there is a lot of ocean to be sailed on, and the technology to build enough space to go around.
The next question is how many more people can then live the good life? And another is, what happens if/when life extension becomes a reality?
Since reasonably accurate statistics have been available nearly every prediction of the world's capacity to feed and supply it's human population has been negative to various degrees, and wrong.
We've not yet run out of food, or fuel, or space. The planet has suffered in the process, and far too many people live a precarious and unpleasant existence, but a much higher percentage of the population lives better than ever before in history.
However, even colonising the oceans will not provide unlimited space to live, nor fusion power unlimited supplies of energy. And with life extension there has to be, at some point, an upper limit to how many crew this space platform can carry.
By then, though, single stage to orbit spaceplanes, even a space elevator, will be available; and it will be time to build new colonies around the earth and the moon.
But the same constraints will still hold; biological systems are not adapted to, and are quickly damaged by, conditions of zero gravity. Even with severe exercise regimes astronauts living in orbit for more than a few months suffer bone and muscle wastage and their bodies can be prematurely aged. There is also the danger of radiation, particularly from solar flares.
So a major part of the structure and cost of any space habitat built for human occupation, with a supporting ecosphere, will be the means to provide artificial gravity and shielding from solar radiation. Unless some really extraordinary breakthrough has been made in our understanding of gravity this will mean spinning the colony to generate centrifugal force, and so provide artificial gravity on it's inner face or rim - Depending on whether the colony is a drum or a wheel.
This may not be a problem in terms of construction with advanced, nanotechnology methods and materials. But it is a massive complication. Once we have a full time base in space, in earth orbit, we can tap a vast reservoir of power from the sun and materials from the moon and asteroids. But all our time and travel in space will require an enormous expenditure of energy, organisation and effort just to maintain and protect our biological bodies.
This is the real reason that no one has yet travelled to Mars. Russian cosmonauts hold most of the records for long duration flights in space, some of over a year, but no one has solved the problem of sending a crew on the three year (estimated) round trip to Mars and back. Not without building large, complex ships capable of feeding the crew, keeping them in good health and protecting them from solar flares for that length of time. Despite research into closed-system ecospheres no technology has yet proved reliable enough to attempt this with any degree of safety.
By contrast, the Apollo moon flights took under three days each way.
Our main effort on earth is devoted to maintaining and protecting ourselves. But here we have a relatively benign environment, that our bodies have evolved within, which supplies an abundance of necessary food, materials and opportunities to adapt to change.
Space is such a totally unforgiving environment that it requires a whole new order of adaptability.
A new process of evolution may be the answer. In other words we redesign ourselves to suit the new challenge. Like sea creatures evolving to live on land.
The changes will have to be radical. There is no useful equivalent to the intertidal zone where we can move either way and inch steadily forwards to the goal.
Instead of experimenting within the tide zone we can experiment within technology; simulating conditions and testing solutions to the problem of living naturally in space.
But to really succeed we need to be really radical. We don't just need a body that fits comfortably into a spacesuit - We need a body that is a spacesuit.
In other words we need to become the robots.
To achieve our most important transition yet, as representatives of life from planet earth, we should evolve ourselves to take full advantage of the new place to live.
If the ocean was our egg; we are now about to leave the nest and learn to fly.
This is where the 'final frontier' of human consciousness will meet our new home. Space is not so much a frontier as the place where we have always lived. We have been like villagers who never saw the need, nor had the opportunity, to go beyond the surrounding hills.
The bulk of the world was always 'somewhere else' and only the village was home.
Will space be so frightening when we can live there comfortably? We see it as dark and desolate and devoid of life. So we're already homesick for the world, before we have to leave it and move on. There's an awful lot of space in space, and it's hard to foresee how a human mind could live happily there. Most people will want to stay in their Eden, whether that is a beach within a coral reef or a garden within suburbia. Why shouldn't we stay safe under the blanket of blue skies?
Once we can live easily in space their will be three things we can find in abundance - Energy, materials and room to move. Each person can have their own space, and plenty of it. With power from the sun, and a place in orbit, the old dreams of habitable colonies could come true. Not a cramped corner in a flying tenement block, but many acres per person.
There are contemporary accounts of how we may soon have the ability to cure genetic disorders, prevent disease and slow, halt or even reverse the ageing of our bodies. Memories and personality may be downloaded into computers or transferred to robot bodies. Those who dream of living forever find these ideas fascinating, and a cause for hope.
But how will it really be?
Who wants to live forever?
Who wants to be a robot?
Anyone faced with the reality of living a very long life will be forced to address some hard questions about the nature of self, of consciousness and the perception of time. What will be their motivation, and how will they fill their days and years?
When there is so much of life to lose, will they become fearful of the slightest risk?
People who already live uneasily with themselves will have to do so for a very long time; and wonder, even more than now, how reliable their memories are. 'Most people would rather die than think' might become an intolerable truth in an existence that stretches far into the future. What else, in the long run, is there going to be to do? How many trips and games can fill the time when time seems never-ending?
Living forever as some form of endless retirement is going to be very boring. And will it be so easy to take out a spare decade to learn a new skill or a new discipline? Having the discipline to stay interested and applied is going to be an essential attribute to avoid a maddening ennui. This whole problem may be fixable with advanced mood control and psychological treatments, and these will probably be an intrinsic part of any 'immortality' package.
By contrast, being a robot might be a surprisingly easy part of the new experience. Many people find it easy to control extensions of themselves and their capabilities. When we put on a pair of skis, drive a car, ride a motorbike or fly an aircraft we are really just extending our own bodies. If a machine breaks down we can feel almost as helpless as when we are ill or injured. When both are working well together we are barely conscious of the interface; and accept whatever abilities the equipment or machine confers as being our own.
Others make the transition into a new costume or image without feeling a loss of identity; in fact their sense of identity is changed and enhanced.
Both areas could be partial analogies for the experience of transferring to a robot body. The major fear and difficulty will be in the process. Making the transfer irrevocable would be a terrifying jump into the unknown. A temporary trial full of the fear of possible errors in moving either way. If a copy could be loaded into the robot, which would be the 'real' person and how would they report back to themselves?
As always, there will be a few brave pioneers; and they will witness the experience and provide demonstrations of the possibilities and problems.
A robot body will not be a 'mechanical man/woman', unless that is the type specified, but could take almost any form that is desired or designed. The humanoid pattern is probably the optimum design for moving and manipulating objects in a gravity field. The new body could be indistinguishable from the original, in appearance, or be a smoothly flowing humanoid form, with any embellishments that the new inhabitant might specify.
The body will be 'grown' from flexible carbon (diamond) with a muscular system that is analogous to the mechanical structure of biological muscle. But it will be far stronger, and considerably superior at self-repair and self-maintenance; able to operate underwater or in a hard vacuum without assistance, if those capabilities are specified.
A 'basic' model could be much lighter, faster and more efficient than the original, and far more resistant to damage or 'illness'. For really extreme emergencies it would have the equivalent of an aircraft 'black box'; where consciousness and memory are stored until the body is retrieved and repaired, or replaced.
The most likely areas of concern and controversy, apart from worries about safe transfer, are likely to be sexuality and parenthood. Even people who are not religious may well view an 'artificial' body that is able to experience sexual pleasure as somehow blasphemous. Our primary imperative is to reproduce; to pass our genes along to the next generation. It is what our animal bodies are here to do.
But two (or more?) individuals could combine elements of themselves to produce a child. Perhaps the child would play a part in it's own design as he or she (or whatever) grows up. It's almost certain that childhood is a necessity for any conscious entity, whether artificial or 'natural'.
Is this blasphemous control, or an evolution of responsibility?
When people can make conscious choices about what they admire and desire in each other then surely the resulting personality will be an improvement on the workings of blind chance?
No-one can know the history and hidden potential of their own DNA, whether desirable or not, and the ability to 'design' a child will necessarily involve a very sophisticated analysis of each partner's strengths and weaknesses.
If people have the ability to share and explore each other's consciousness then trust and understanding will have to rise to new levels of humane sympathy. Hidden prejudices will be exposed, and insight into anyone's real motivations will be aided by another's direct observation of their internal landscape.
The obvious question then is how many people will seek or allow such intimate sharing of their personal experiences of the world? Hopefully the possibility would encourage mutual exploration; and compassion and understanding would be enhanced. The obvious downside would be the possibility of forced, or enforced, viewing of consciousness; and controls would be needed to prevent any such invasion of privacy.
So the future promises long life, and a much improved physical and mental presence for each person's choice of lifestyle. No one will need to suffer or fear death, not as we understand those terms at present, and life will offer a magical series of abilities and opportunities.
But how, and where, will we live?
If it is inevitable that the earth's capacity to support a semi-immortal population will eventually be exceeded, then the move out into space will become a requirement rather than an option.
It is quite possible that the earth will already have begun to be healed. With a high percentage of citizens living on the oceans, and nanotech industries supplying food and products with almost magical efficiency and a minimum of waste, the old industrial areas and dumps could be restored. Possibly much faster than we can imagine now.
Rainforests and woodlands would be growing back, lakes and rivers becoming clean for the first time in centuries and most farmland would have reverted to it's original, wild state. Cities and transport systems would by now have a minimal impact on the environment - Most long distance journeys would be by 'mag-lev' trains running in deep tunnels or by 'wing in ground effect' ships across water. Tourism by airship will allow the close view without millions of feet trampling and damaging the landscape.
But, even so, there will be too many of us. And we will almost certainly not be alone.
Alongside the development of robot bodies, for the transference of human minds, will have been the creation of artificial intelligence. If 'when rather than if' has come true (above), then minds that are human-created, but not human, will be sharing the planet with us. They will initially have been designed to live in and run machine systems; as pilots, drivers, house and industry managers and the sentient cores of exploratory spacecraft. This last area is likely to be the one that gives birth to artificial consciousness.
Given that the most effective and adaptable form for a general purpose robot is the human pattern, artificial intelligence will have been housed in this type of robot sooner rather than later. They will walk the streets with us, be indistinguishable from us, and will justifiably claim the same rights as us.
The fate of humanity has often been described as being superseded by superior intelligences that we have created. But it seems more likely that human minds in robot bodies, with the steady addition of enhancements (upgrades), and artificial intelligences in human pattern bodies will be initially very similar to each other; and will then rapidly blend together to become a new form of 'life'. Humanity will be assimilated within it's own creation; not destroyed, discarded or ignored.
And, by any definition, this will truly be life.
A definition of life has never been written to satisfy every condition or opinion - An attempt is:
'Life is a repeatable pattern of matter, which manipulates other matter to maintain the pattern dynamically through time'.
How much time is not specified; and, from current human perspectives, it is not relevant. The problem of entropy, the degradation of information over time, affects us very obviously during an average lifetime of seventy years. Other than the fact that it eventually kills us, we don't worry about it unduly. We accept that it is 'natural' to change, become different people, as we grow older.
When lifespans are dramatically extended it could become common practice to store blocks of memory for later reference; much as we now use photos, letters and videotapes to reinstall our past experiences. And the accuracy of information storage and retrieval will improve as fast as our ability to extend life.
Returning to the eventual shortage of space on earth for an enlarged population of intelligent and conscious 'creatures', one solution suggested has been that individuals could be downloaded into the future web of computers to live out their lives in 'virtual reality'. A reality that might, by then, be indistinguishable from the real thing.
This could be the point where a need to move out into space, and the desire to do so, will coincide. If people are still as curious about existence, in their new form, as formerly, which seems highly likely, they will still want to savour the experience first hand. It is a question of self perception rather than quality of perception. 'Being there' will be as important to future beings as it is to us now. Sophisticated entertainments, however compelling, may not replace the experience of primary reality so easily.
If this becomes the case, then most people will still want to live in a physical body; and the problem of the space to do so doesn't go away.
If our new bodies allow us to live easily and comfortably in space then a place in near earth orbit could become very attractive.
It's been said that the one thing astronauts and cosmonauts never tire of is looking out of the window - Any free time has often been spent watching the earth, and it's changes from day to night and back, rolling by beneath them. Storms and night-time cities and forest fires. The colours of oceans and continents. The patterns of mountains and deserts. The eerie power of lightning, and electrical discharges high in the atmosphere. All have a compelling beauty that is rooted in a knowledge of home and it's obvious unity.
The awareness that one is living close by a healed and restored planet earth would be an experience of achievement and reconciliation that more than compensates for any sense of separation.
And surely the new guardians of the planet would have visiting rights?
It is possible that orbital platforms would have gardens of their own - Solar farms which grow like wild woodlands, with or without a canopy of air, and support a population of animal-like forms; that are both part of the new ecosystem and companions to the tenants of the ground.
Imagine stepping out into the open vacuum, or under a curving roof of crystal clear diamond, and moving through acres of park-like land. While above you the earth is lit by the same sunlight that feeds and powers your body.
The planet is largely restored to it's wild state, with a new population of many species that we thought were lost forever. The cities which once consumed the land and all it's resources are now actively living museums and research centres that watch over, but do not impose on, the landscape. Visitors come and go from space, to enjoy or work on a world that is freed to evolve how it will but is still home for all the people and intelligence that it gave birth to.
This is a future that is worth having; and worth living a long time to build and maintain. The next steps outward will already be happening; as the solar system is thoroughly explored and ships and systems are designed and prepared to move beyond it.
We are the process by which the universe becomes aware of itself. It's not a process which can be stopped, or controlled, by human passions and fears which belong to the past. We will do our best by going onwards and outwards to explore the stars that we came from.
John Coppinger - October 1998.
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2. THE FUTURE IS ALL AT SEA - - - - - - - - - - - - -
During the last fifty years the human population of the world has more than doubled. There is now a dulling of the perception that there is any danger in this dramatic increase. Repeated predictions of disaster by various authors and institutions appear to have been proven wrong. Despite the media's focus on bad news, it now seems true that a larger number of people enjoy a higher quality, and expectation, of life than ever before in recorded history.
With better access and observation, particularly by satellite, we can now observe and record most of our effects on, and modifications to, the world that we live on. We have unprecedented levels of data, and the means to analyse it, which allow an ever more accurate assessment of our impact on landscape, seascape and the atmosphere. Only in the last century have the continents been fully explored, the highest mountains climbed and the deepest oceans visited by observers and machines.
Although we are aware of a crowding of more and more people into ancient cities and living spaces we are not often given a broader view of just how large, and largely empty, our home planet is. Most of the worlds' people live on less than ten percent of the land area; crowded together in fertile river valleys and on narrow coastal plains. Vast areas of mountains, deserts and forests are still mostly untouched by the pressure of human habitation.
This does not mean that limited exposure to a human population has been benign in these areas. Many of the desert areas are man-made. Deforestation in mountains has had disastrous effects on environments and people in the lowland areas below. And we are slow to put to use the realisation that rain forests are far more productive if managed rather than exploited. But the lessons are being learned, and the planet has regenerated itself from far worse damage than we have so far inflicted.
Much of the damage is permanent however, particularly the rapid loss of species and small, complex ecosystems in the last half century - A period of time that will barely be measurable in the geological record. There is now a general awareness that we have to find new ways in which to co-exist with the living systems that support us. And possibly a faint, underlying despair that as fast as we change our ways and try to develop a benign relationship with the world and its' natural life, so the pressures of industry, technology and the demand for a decent quality of life for all of the worlds' citizens overcome any improvements in our management of the planet and its' resources.
Since the heady days of the sixties and seventies, and the first manned flights to the moon and back, there have been many dreams and visionary designs for space colonies which would give us new worlds to live on; relieving the pressure on the old world and solving the ancient problems of human nature and the desire to establish boundaries between nations and groups.
While the proponents of these schemes argued that the technology to build space colonies was already available, or soon could be with a suitable level of funding, the realities of world politics denied them any chance to prove their case. Not even the richest governments were willing to divert the vast resources of military equipment and research budgets to such an idealistic and unproven area - Under the blanket of the worlds' blue and threatening skies very few people looked up and saw that we already live on a space platform. Most people talked about space as if it were somewhere else.
After Apollo 8, when three men were witnesses to the reality of the Earth in orbit around the sun, and the actual moon landings, there was a rapid general awareness of the gulf between our capabilities as space architects and any immediate realisation of the colony dreams. Flight to the moon was seen to have all the glamour of three days in an intensive care ward - And even walking or driving on the surface occurred on a desolate and frightening dust bowl.
Even the visualisations of vast cylinders, full of parks and lakes and rivers and idealised, spacious cities, could never compete with the romance of science fiction - Great space liners flitting easily between star systems, and always finding a suitable heaven or hell. Who would want to live in the weightless equivalent of an inner city housing block, without even the freedom to fall apart in ones' chosen fashion? Because nobody believed in the parks and lakes, any more than they believed in the visions of city architects on earth.
A significant proportion of over six billion people on this planet now have an expectation of reaching their maximum possible life span - And it is likely that, as living standards go up across the world, more and more will actually achieve this. Then there is a possibility of life extension becoming a reality. Will this only be available to a rich and privileged minority; greedy for existence as they are greedy for all other resources? Every other benefit of our advancing technologies is being gradually filtered down to become available to all. It is unlikely that life itself could ever be rationed to a fortunate few - Unless the current moves towards a just and equitable future are doomed to failure.
So where do we house and feed and employ an increasing and healthily long-lived population? If the space colonies are not about to be built where is the extra living room to be found? As more and more of the available living space on land is urbanised, or those suburbs are absorbed by the expansion of cities, useable farm land is lost. Attempts to reclaim land from the sea involve massive and expensive engineering projects which are already threatened by rising sea levels. Existing low lying agricultural areas will be damaged by the sea and by runoff from de-forested mountain areas upstream. Attempts to irrigate desert land are already seen as potential sources of conflict in the Water Wars of the near future. All these factors are producing the first signs of a siege mentality in the more privileged sectors of the First World.
The rich have always lived behind high walls; whether those walls were physical or the barriers of a rigidly defined social structure. Now the perceptions and realities of urban unrest are leading those who can afford to protect their families and their property to take refuge in closed living areas. Protected towers and housing blocks are being built in and around every city in the world. These areas are watched over by the latest surveillance technologies and small armies of private security guards, who work together with local police forces to provide safety from attack by less privileged people. Those who might be tempted or desperate enough to steal or kidnap or destroy.
Now there is a plan to take the condominiums to sea - To find safety and security on the oceans. This is the clue to where our future might lie. Freedomcity is a projected vessel of seven million tons displacement, able to carry a maximum population of 115 thousand people - Each with four times the area to move in that would be available on a conventional cruise ship. It is claimed that modern materials, construction methods and sensors would make the ship/city genuinely unsinkable; unlike the Titanic and a whole list of much more advanced vessels that have succumbed to fire, collision or the sea.
This would be a place to live that is safe from weather, earthquake, forest fires and social unrest. The vessel as planned is so large that even hurricane force winds would not disturb its' equilibrium; beyond the need to use a larger number of its' one hundred diesel engines to maintain a heading. The projects' brochure makes it very clear that Freedomcity will be a place to live and work. Although tourists will visit the ship/city, the majority aboard will be owner/occupiers of their apartments; either retired or earning a living. There will be provision for light industrial workshops and other service, trading and freelance businesses. So, even as planned, the ship/city will not only be a haven for the rich, but has the potential to become a functioning community - A large town earning its' living as it moves around the oceans of the world.
Given the interest already shown in Freedomcity it seems likely that the vessel will be built and set sail - In which case it is also likely that this will be the forerunner of similar, even larger communities on the sea. This could very well be the new living space that we need. As the worlds' surface is two thirds water, and we now intensively occupy only one tenth of the third that is land, there is a vast new territory for us to colonise. Discounting the cold polar seas, we could still count a ten-fold increase in the available living room.
This need not suggest that the oceans be full to the horizon with floating tower blocks. The old vision of orbiting space colonies may have been a misinterpreted dream of a future reality - An interim stage that allows a more modest technology to give us a breathing space. And a chance to take a kinder hold of the planets resources while we stabilise our population. The first sea cities will likely be between one half and two miles long. Any larger and the practicalities of moving close inshore might outweigh the advantage of size. A fleet of ten thousand such vessels could disappear over the horizon and never be noticed by strollers on the shore. With careful regulation of landfall and mooring sites the sea cities would be less of a problem than the ongoing sprawl of urban and city expansion on land.
The next step, moving into the next century, could exploit several new, near miraculous technologies - Miraculous in Authur C. Clarkes' sense that 'the technology of the future is indistinguishable from magic'. New structural materials and the first practical fusion power plants would make possible floating islands that could be many miles in diameter. Constructed to take account of the earth's curvature these fabricated island states might float just over the horizon of client coastlines, drift with the ocean currents or gently propel themselves to wherever their citizens might wish to go.
Why should these ideas be any more believable than the architect's models of the fifties? The gap between vision and reality often widened to a dynamited end for housing schemes that had failed to deliver a decent place to live. Who would want to float hopelessly in a rusting version of inner city decay with only the waves as a way of escape? The answer should lie in the design lessons learned after those mistakes; and maybe in changes to the way the world economy is working. Also in the way that these new mini-states may be able to operate. Being designed to be largely self sufficient, using deuterium fuel found in sea water to run their fusion reactors, their first industry could be to produce copies of themselves. The second might be the production and launch of space vehicles, from the equator for maximum efficiency, to begin the real move out into orbit and beyond.
So we might have a period of time to solve a perceived crisis of overpopulation. By going back to the sea we can accommodate a population that is predicted to level out somewhere between twelve and twenty billion by the middle of the 21st century. And provide living space and conditions that are a significant improvement for the whole of the world's peoples. This is the dream; a dream that has every prospect of becoming a reality.
John Coppinger - October 1998.
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A NEW COMPUTER - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
So I finally did it. I went out, or rather stayed in, and bought a new computer. I bought my 'which computer magazine' magazine, and got on the phone.
My fascination with computers goes back a long way - To the mid-sixties at college. A friend was filming a TV screen, with a Super8 movie camera, to record his prototype animation program. A few weeks later Sony provided a demonstration of their first personal video system. The technologies were arriving. The new miracle was on the road. But my own acquaintance with the PC has been a slow affair. I can remember television coming into use. So soldering together my Sinclair ZX81, hooking it up to a portable TV and tape recorder, was a peak experience of new technology. Then long years of an aloof overview, as colleagues technobabbled about software and hardware. Conversations full of numbers. I'd been interested in computers when they were still at school. They said I took a long time to make up my mind. Now I'm at least as boring as them. An obsession, long resisted, has been born.
It's just like my first car. In the days before they were magic boxes. If you didn't get under, and grease something, every hundred miles the wheels fell off. And the wheels fell off anyway. When a legal 80mph was far more exciting than an illegal 140mph, on a motorbike, now. Then came the days of bolt on gadgets; and some of them even worked. Electronic ignition. Electric cooling fans. Tape players. Just when your roadburner was up and running you'd stick something new in to worry about. Now if a car doesn't go 20,000 miles before the electric windows get a little jerky, you get very annoyed indeed. Car mechanics, good ones, were magicians who could look at five interrelated factors and work out which one, or two, of them was the problem. Our 'user-friendly' computers remind me of those old cars. They are amazing devices. It's a miracle that they work at all. But software, that is so logical, lies. And hardware is like relatives being polite to each other, because it's expected.
So I'd found a supplier, and they were very good despite all the horror stories, and unpacked and plugged up, and begun to enjoy playing/working with the new toy/tool. Then I decided, sooner than planned, to get the scanner, the Zip drive, and a SCSI card to run them. For some reason I rang a different company - 'Did I want a bare card or a kit?'. Remember the last 'kit' had been my ZX81. I wasn't going to mess about assembling things; putting it in was going to be interesting enough. After a long wait, suppliers always lie too, I got my bare card. No manual, and no software. I rang up - I felt a fool. All part of learning; get on the Net, download software, and away. But first came installing hardware. Back in the early car days I'd taken deep breaths, taken it apart and found out how it worked. A fine illusion of understanding. But usually, in the end, a car that would run. I was happy, in a curious way. Once I'd levered the motherboard dangerously aside, to position a 'universal' mounting plate, I'd realised - It's just another damn machine!
There was this difference though - The strange cottage industry aspect to the whole thing. Very high tech components, sourced from all over the planet, assembled into a huge variety of personalised systems. A Personal Computer indeed. And then you start to add on the extras yourself. Apart from the obvious benefits of a guarantee and a technical helpline, I wondered why I hadn't ordered all the bits and assembled them myself. I imagined I was buying a house, or a flat. You go for the right size shell, then equip and decorate it to suit your needs and preferences. Lots of high tech appliances in a box. Used by different people in different ways.
By the time I'd sorted out cables and software, and decided that Device Manager couldn't find a loaf in a bakery, I had my illusion of understanding. I knew something about making a computer work, but almost nothing about working a computer. Using it as a tool, driving the car or living in the house, was another story. Fascinating and infuriating by turns, it was going to be a new adventure.
The PC as magic box cannot be far off. As suppliers struggle to stay one jump ahead in the flood of new devices, installation standards and software, the customers struggle to keep up with all the best options and prices. With new, integrated systems coming onto the market it won't be long before a home computer becomes a simple package that works reliably for it's three to five year lifespan. Then the manufacturers can concentrate on details and styling, and everybody wins.
In the meantime, being an enthusiast appears to be obligatory. The nervous competition with friends and colleagues and one's own estimates of need. Filling up a drive bay because it's there - I think I might have done that. I can justify the cost, just, but how exactly am I going to use it all? That has all come a lot slower than I thought it would. But buying books on the net, becoming more sociable via emails, scanning and printing a poster for a lost cat, even writing this now; the system is becoming familiar and useable. My hopes of finding new areas to work in, of catching up with the future, get a little closer all the time.
So I'm looking up at my old ZX81, a decoration now, and being amazed again by what's happened in twenty years. In another twenty I could be wearing all this on my wrist or inside my head and talking to people and resources all over the world. As naturally as a conversation in the street or an office. What's an office? Who knows?
John Coppinger - October 1998.
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