Hopes, fears for 21st century


Predictions: Thirty intellectuals speculate on space travel, medicine and more in a new anthology.

November 07, 1999|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- Prince Harry will head into space, and humans will land on Mars.

There will be sex purely for love and lust, while fertilization will be achieved through reproduction "banks."

And the attention span could be in trouble.

They sound like supermarket-tabloid headlines, but these speculations are among the predictions offered by 30 intellectuals peering into the next century.

The Oxford University Press anthology "Predictions" is a provocative, playful and at times sobering look at the 21st century, as envisioned by scientists, writers and philosophers. It's a small volume with big ideas, published here and set for release early next year in the United States.

"Nobody is predicting the end of the world," says Sian Griffiths, the anthology editor.

Through snappy profile pieces and sharp essays, the intellectuals dive into the next 100 years in what amounts to the ultimate millennium parlor game. Dealing in everything from birth to death, artificial intelligence to robotics, and politics to medicine, they foresee a bright new world in the coming century.

Changing decades and centuries provide people with opportunities to make outlandish claims about the future. Most predictions turn out in retrospect to be way off the mark.

But some of the current material is magical. Take the predictions from science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, author of "2001: A Space Odyssey."

It's Clarke who forecasts the travel adventure of Prince Charles' younger son, Harry, the first space-bound royal who "may even stop off at the Hilton Orbiter hotel."

By 2021, humans will land on Mars, he adds, and in 2057, the centennial of the Sputnik satellite launch will include celebrations on Earth, the moon, Mars, Jupiter's moons Europa and Ganymede and Saturn's largest moon, Titan.

Clarke also predicts that after 2020 there will be two intelligent species on Earth: humans and one evolving from artificial intelligence.

Clarke's optimistic embrace of the future is countered by neuroscientist Susan Greenfield's lament that, despite all the gains, biomedical advances could be misused. She wonders if George Orwell's world of 1984 might arrive by 2084, with humans monitored "from their genes and molecules through to their mental worlds."

As the young interact with virtual-reality products, Greenfield says, there is a risk the attention span and imagination needed to read may no longer exist, and "we may end up a society of restless, unimaginative individuals."

According to chemist Carl Djerassi, who helped bring the world the birth control pill, human fertility is due for a change, perhaps in the next 30 years "when sex and fertilization will be separate" and the 21st century becomes known as the century of "A.R.T. -- assisted reproductive technologies."

Djerassi pictures young men and women opening "reproductive bank accounts full of frozen sperm and eggs. And when they want a baby, they'll go to the bank to check out what they need."

W. French Anderson, sometimes called the father of gene therapy, boldly predicts that gene-based therapy will revolutionize medical practice by 2030, yet cautions that it may not be used responsibly.

"I fear that the downside of this powerful technology might be that eugenics will be practiced on a scale far larger than any `selective breeding' policy could accomplish," Anderson writes.

Telephones and faxes could be headed for the junk heap if Kevin Warwick is proved right.

The British cybernetics professor sees humans using implant technology to link with computers. Through the power of the mind and the computer, people will open doors, turn on lights.

"In the future we could have memories of events that we have not witnessed, and mathematical abilities that far surpass anything of today," Warwick writes.

There could be brain-to-brain communication via the Internet, he suggests, and "we will simply be able to think to each other."

Philosopher and bioethicist Peter Singer envisions changes designed to "reduce avoidable pain and suffering," including animals gaining rights enforced by courts.

Others list their hopes. British scientist Richard Dawkins yearns for people to "finally understand what consciousness is and how it works."

American feminist and writer Andrea Dworkin describes what she wants for women, including "a woman-dominated legal system in every country."

Paul Nurse isn't promising a cure for cancer, but the head of Britain's Imperial Cancer Research Fund envisions "a complete understanding of the workings of a cell, which in turn will provide real insights into the nature of life."

Economist John Kenneth Galbraith calls for the "income gap to be narrowed," and writes that "a rich country can guarantee an income to the deprived. If some do no work, so be it. The rich are also known on occasion to prefer leisure."

Galbraith concludes his elegant, no-nonsense essay, "No economist can take professional refuge from the omnipresent and overwhelming danger of nuclear destruction. Nor can anyone else."

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