Back in 1981, when I graduated from high school, the 21st century seemed like a lifetime away. In a sense, it was, but this is not so much about my personal experience as it is the human experience. Technology has transformed us in ways few could ever predict. Technology in 1981 was advanced compared to just 20 years prior, but the gains made since make the technology of the 80s look down right primitive.
This is hardly news to anyone not living in a cave. Anyone old enough can remember the days before the CD, the cell phone or the personal computer. My first programming class in high school consisted of programming in BASIC on dumb terminals connected via a telephone coupler to the Stanford University VAX mainframe. The desktop computer was just in its infancy. I remember in grade school we had a desktop calculator (performing only simple arithmetic tasks) that dwarfed the MacBook I am using at this very moment.
In seventh grade, I knew the daughter of Charlie Spork, the founder of National Semiconductor – one of the early leaders in creating what would become known as Silicon Valley. Through her, I was able to obtain my first handheld calculator – one that not only performed simple arithmetic tasks, but also was able to store a number in its “memory.” Due to my connection, I bought it for the bargain basement price of $75. Those are 1975 dollars, mind you.
By the time I finally got off my butt and went to college in 1983, Tandy, Commodore and some others were marketing rudimentary home computers. The telephone coupler had been replaced by a MODEM that did not need to have the handset nestled into it; one could simply plug a telephone cable into it (modular and touch-tone telephones were also relatively recent developments - rotary phones used to be hard-wired right into the wall). The Internet existed, but it was only accessible to a select few… the World Wide Web was science fiction. I would connect my Commodore 64 to the San Diego State University Vax and write my programs in Pascal and Fortran – lines and lines of code did what the Graphical User Interface, so ubiquitous today, does with apparent and invisible ease.
Fast-forward to 2009. In looking back, it is simply amazing how much technology has progressed. It begs the question – where will it be by the end of my lifetime? By the time my children reach their twilight years? And my grandchildren’s? Could it be that technology could extend the life expectancy of humans beyond the limits of biology and, more importantly, what will that mean for the advancement of science and technology.
As it stands right now, our children must learn what has already been discovered before they can pick up the baton and run with it. The amount of knowledge held collectively by the human race must be passed from generation to generation before new advances can be built upon prior achievements. But what if we could continue to pursue these frontiers for 100, 500, 1,000 or more years. The advantages would be realized in the ability to extend the period of one’s education by many years and the ability to build upon one’s own research without having to pass it on to succeeding generations.
We’re talking about the possibility, through any number of technologies, to achieve veritable immortality. The rate of advancement would increase logarithmically. With virtually unlimited life expectancies, time would become so plentiful that the human race could conceivably colonize the vast distances of intergalactic space. And we would have to, for our population would expand without constraint. There are, of course, philosophic and ethical overtones to such a scenario, but today we must face the real possibility that technology will advance… and probably at a rate and in ways no one can predict.
Are we tomorrow’s Gods? Does the power to create and extend life – to be the complete and total masters of our own destiny give us what has been the dominion of the all powerful? One hundred years ago, space travel was laughable, man had only just learned how to fly and automobiles were still a rarity. My computer from just ten years ago is today an ancient relic, good for next to nothing. So much of what was once considered impossible has today become not only part of everyday life, but also a necessary part. What will tomorrow bring?