Now that we're in December, we'll be hearing lots of end-of-the-year forecasts about what's coming up in 2006 and beyond. Here's my prediction: Barring catastrophe, we'll continue to see immense technological change, but not a radical change in human relationships.
The futurist literature is awash with news of the information revolution. Publishers down the road will probably print many nonfiction books on electronic paper, with buyers purchasing not only the volume but a warranty promising that the information won't be out of date. When a reader opens such a book, an immediate link to an advanced Internet will update the material.
Good news for those who hate regular dental visits: In several decades, they may well be a thing of the past because of nanopaste, by which enamel in microscopic cavities will replace bacteria so that decay does not occur. Instead of having our teeth cleaned in dental offices every six months, maybe we'll schedule artery cleanings, with microscopic devices entering our arteries to knock away fatty deposits.
I've been reading about likely material changes. A generation from now, we'll probably have clothes that will adjust to temperature and precipitation, and change color on wearer demand. Homes might include not only printers, but small molecular assemblers so that people can order some products and have them made automatically in their kitchens.
Illiteracy may grow as voice recognition computers become universal. Study of foreign languages will decline, as people enjoy instantaneous translation in computerized earpieces. We may have computerized glasses that will give us immediate background information on people we meet or even encounter while walking down the street -- although some may decide to go without such data in order to maintain the thrill of strange encounters.
But, with all these changes, it's unlikely that high tech will make as huge a difference as some science fiction writers predict. For example, say that VRMs -- virtual reality machines -- replace DVDs or similar devices. Say a young man can buy a Valentine's Day program that will place him in a virtual walk on the beach with a beautiful woman, and it will seem as real as the most vivid dream. So what? The participant will still know that it has been just a dream.
Virtual reality could well be the opiate of the masses, but people will know that it's an opiate -- and that will leave a sense of dissatisfaction.
After reading the technological radicals, I still suspect that some prospects for deeper revolutions are overrated. Will artificial intelligence be in the saddle, wiping out mankind? No. Computers will be even more glorious machines, able to imitate humans and leave a person reading a transcript unable to know whether computers or humans are speaking -- but they will still be responding to software, without the spark of life that is God's gift.
More likely than a melding of man and computer is the genetic engineering of half-human, half-animal chimeras through the uniting of human and great ape sperm and eggs. Guidelines published this spring by the National Academy of Science and three affiliated groups gave species-mixing experiments the go-ahead. If those experiments proceed, all kinds of legal, ethical and theological issues will arise: Will such creatures be considered persons? Can they be owned, or does the 13th Amendment's abolition of slavery apply to them? Might they have souls?
Those will be hard questions. Potential increases in human longevity could also bring about difficult issues, but I doubt we'll average triple digits. Doctors will be able to repair parts of our bodies, but after a while all systems will spring leaks. I may be wrong on that and much else, yet I feel sure about this: We learned in this last century that better things make for easier living but not necessarily better lives, and we're likely to learn the same about biotechnology in this century.