Magazine article The Futurist

The Marriage of Inventions; Technologies, like People, Form Relationships to One Another. in the Future, New Unions Will Produce Surprising Offspring

Magazine article The Futurist

The Marriage of Inventions; Technologies, like People, Form Relationships to One Another. in the Future, New Unions Will Produce Surprising Offspring

Article excerpt

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

It is eighteenth-century France; Joseph Marie-Jacquard has just invented a mechanical loom that uses punch cards to weave cloth in a set pattern, a device that--when eventually combined with electronics--will lead to the invention of the PC. Two hundred fifty years later, the tech bubble pops, sending the prices of overhyped computer and Internet companies tumbling.

In 1896, Orville Wright tests the hypothesis that a machine heavier than air can fly, so long as the wings are shaped a certain way and there is sufficient propulsion. The experiment is a success. About 100 years later, thanks to innovations in building construction as well as flight technology, terrorists steer hijacked aircraft into the World Trade Center and U.S. Pentagon, killing thousands in a matter of minutes and setting off a series of events affecting many millions more for years to come.

Jacquard and Wright never imagined their inventions would cause such disasters. They could not have anticipated how other inventions or innovations would merge with their own creations to produce new technologies, opportunities, and perils. In The Coming Convergence, physicist, science-fiction writer, and Analog editor Stanley Schmidt argues that, as the pace of technological discovery accelerates, the world will witness more rapid and starting convergences over the next 50 years.

Schmidt begins by outlining key technological comminglings that have occurred throughout history, and their mixed results. The invention of the microphone made possible the amplification of "quiet" instruments like the guitar, leading eventually to the electric guitar, and to rock and roll. The same technology, combined with the piano, produced the synthesizer and eighties New Wave--a bold step forward or an unfortunate one, depending on your affinity for that particular genre.

The technology of X-ray diffraction, which can be used to analyze the molecular nature of an object being X-rayed, led to the science of genetics and the mapping of the human genome. In the years ahead, genetic science will propel biotechnology to ever higher plateaus, helping researchers find cures for diabetes and even certain types of cancer. But genetics is also allowing millions of parents practicing in vitro fertilization to select the sex of their offspring and even screen for conditions like autism, fulfilling, in part, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World scenario.

What discoveries and innovations will create the convergences of the coming decades? In 2002, the National Science Foundation published Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance, a report that identified key technologies likely to shape the future; chief among them were nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, and cognitive science. …

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