The Shape of Things to Come - Science in the 21st Century

author of The Next Fifty Years

We are all well aware of how fast technology changes in the modern world. Companies find it hard to make five-year, or even three-year business plans due to the pace and rate of technological change. Many people are familiar with the term “planned obsolescence,” which originated with car manufacturers 50 years ago, but they may be not be so familiar with the newer term that has emerged as a way to describe consumer electronics and cell phone technology: “instant obsolescence.” As soon as you buy a new cellphone, the company is already working on the next generation model and the one you just purchased is already obsolete.

As an information technology manager and course developer of interdisciplinary studies, I find it fascinating to learn about and understand technological change. Interdisciplinary inquiry is the study of how the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities work together and affect each other to address problems and create new knowledge. The truth is that the rate and pace of technological change make interdisciplinary studies more interesting and more relevant than ever before.

Technological change and advancement dramatically affect both the social sciences and the humanities. Traditional humanities subjects such as art, architecture, literature, theatre and film are all affected by changes in science and technology. Likewise, we are all aware of how technology has changed the social sciences. Psychology, sociology and interpersonal relations are now completely different than just 20 years ago before everyone had a cellphone and a computer.

Given this accelerated rate of change, it seems unreasonable—and unfathomable—to predict what the world will look like in 50 years, but the attempt does have value and is a fun exercise. The Next Fifty Years: Science in the First Half of the Twenty-first Centuryby John Brockman is a collection of essays from 25 of the world’s leading scientists who write about what they think the future holds. Here are some points from the book that I found fascinating.

The Next Fifty Years book coverThe mathematics of 2050

When I was in elementary school, my math teacher used to say in a loud voice, “You have to learn how to do these calculations by hand! You won’t be able to take a calculator with you wherever you go.” If she could only see my iPhone and all the complex calculator apps I can put on it! In The Next Fifty Years, the authors make the point that the computer has fundamentally transformed what is possible to discover in mathematics, allowing it to develop into a vastly diverse subject over time, with many areas of focus. The authors hypothesize that new complex systems in areas like the biosciences and financial markets will drive the creation of new math disciplines in the future.

The future of happiness

If you look back over the past 100 years, there is a long list of diseases that science and medicine have either eliminated or ameliorated—illnesses like smallpox, polio, cancer, heart disease and diabetes. But one ailment that has been surprisingly resistant to modern medicine and technology is major depression. The book explores advances made in genetic studies and what medical possibilities might emerge if we can discover the genes that affect depression. Gene therapy, or the transplantation of normal genes in place of missing or defective ones, is one possible option. In theory, this gene replacement would target maladaptive genes that contribute to depression and correct them via insertion of the more favorable genes. While all of this is speculative now, the authors offer a very positive outlook on our ability to overcome this illness and help countless people live improved lives.

Human/machine interface

The advancement of prosthetic limbs has dramatically changed in the last 20 years. This has been a particularly significant development for soldiers returning home from war injuries. The next 50 years will include even more complex advances where computers are interfacing with us biologically and neurologically. Right now we can replace hearts, livers, kidneys and limbs. As neurological science advances, we might even be able to download our memories and re-upload them into an artificial brain. You can probably imagine where I am going with this. What if we could replace our entire body with superior computer prosthetics?

These are just a few of the interesting topics examined in the book, and there are many more worth reading if you are interested in exploring future possibilities.

Even though we probably will never be able to accurately predict the future, dreaming of what could be has often been the first step toward shaping tomorrow, and these essays are a fun way to speculate about the shape of things to come.

Robert J. Dougherty

Robert J. Dougherty

Robert J. Dougherty is the Director of Information Technology for the college. He has 30 years of experience in the higher education IT field and is actively involved in University IT initiatives including learning management systems and database applications.