BOOKS: The future as an ego trip

Good on feelings, suspect on science is how Hermann Hauser sees these ideas.

by Dr Hermann Hauser, a director and co-founder of specialist VC firm Amadeus Capital Partners
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Reviewing a book about the future is as dangerous as writing one, since neither the assertions nor the criticisms of them can be proved. Any view of the future will be a personal selection of often contradictory predictions made by distinguished people in different fields. The picture that emerges will be as much influenced by the author's ability to grasp complex technical issues as by emphasis on one scenario rather than others.

Tomorrow's People discusses some alarming possibilities resulting largely from the convergence of certain aspects of IT with biotechnology, predicting that 'new technologies ... will be the sole source of all experience'. But many of the horrors suggested are based on biased use of information and on omission, which weakens the case.

Where the book may add a valid contribution is in the softer area of how we might feel about a new environment, and as such it is a well-written addition to the genre of futuristic fantasy, closer to the novel of Susan Greenfield's original intention than to a considered analysis of the benefits and detriments of developing technologies.

As a venture capitalist with a physics background, I have spent my life building companies on the future of 'hard' sciences. Tomorrow's People disappoints in the use of scientific extrapolations that are often lax and unbalanced - which I would not have expected from a professor of a scientific subject at one of our better universities.

The book takes us on a whistlestop tour of imaginings, based on how developments in hard sciences, such as computing, biotechnology, energy production and the evolution of cyberspace, might affect aspects of our lives, our interactions with each other and our relationship with ourselves.

In the process, Greenfield quotes a vast array of authorities from Prince Charles to GB Shaw and Francis Fukuyama, and cites research and predictions by eminent scientists and technologists, including some of my colleagues and favourite authors, such as Ray Kurzweil ('Computers will be as powerful as the human brain by 2020') and Michio Kaku. At the end, we read: 'The bottom line of this book is that the private ego is the most precious thing we each have.' Well, that is one point of view and one with which Margaret Thatcher might agree. I'm not sure that I do.

Let me give three examples among many of what worries me most about this book. First, how can any scientist argue that quantum computing will be sufficiently powerful to crack every security code in no time, therefore exposing us to a life of complete information nakedness and no privacy, without mentioning that quantum cryptography, using quantum entanglement, provides a proven, unbreakable, totally private way of transmitting information?

Second, although I agree with the author's suggestion that nuclear energy is the best hope for our long-term energy needs, she laments the fact that we'll run out of uranium in our fission reactors; this ignores the development of nuclear fusion, which uses hydrogen, the most abundant element.

Third, the discussion on fuel cells as battery replacements is limiting, since these will play an important part in the promising hydrogen cycle, soon to become an alternative to petrol for cars. Whatever makes cars less polluting and independent of oil supplies ought to feature prominently in any book about future technology.

The Nobel Prize-winning physicist Werner Heisenberg said: 'Asking the right question is half the way to the answer.' Tomorrow's People fails not because it doesn't ask some of the right questions and not because its exploration of how we might feel about changes under way is uninteresting, but because much of the hard science is superficial, or wilfully ignores the fact that for every minus in a new technology there is a plus, and it is up to us - society, thinking and working together, not as lone egos - to balance innovation with a diligent application of values in our use of new technologies.

Finally, I rank books by the new facts I learn from them and the new ideas they convey. On this criterion, the lone scorer in Tomorrow's People was the buttock print on the loo seat which, like fingerprints, uniquely identifies the owner of, in this case, what has been deposited for instant analysis and health-check. This may be a helpful addition for diagnosing and preventing certain illnesses. But there should also have been facts to report and ideas to offer with more gravitas.

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Tomorrow's People

By Susan Greenfield

Penguin &#163;20

MT price &#163;17 (see panel below)

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