BY DAVID D. FRIEDMAN, PROFESSOR, SANTA CLARA LAW
A few years ago I attended an event where the guest speaker was a Cabinet member. In conversation afterwards, the subject of long-term petroleum supplies came up. He warned that at some point, perhaps a century or so in the future, someone would put his key in his car’s ignition, turn it, and nothing would happen—because there would be no gasoline.
What shocked me was not his ignorance of the economics of depletable resources—if we ever run out of gasoline it will be a long, slow process of steadily rising prices, not a sudden surprise—but the astonishing conservatism of his view of the future. It was as if a similar official, 100 years earlier, had warned that by the year 2000 the streets would be so clogged with horse manure as to be impassable. I do not know what the world will be like a century hence. But it is not likely to be a place where the process of getting from here to there begins by putting a key in an ignition, turning it, and starting an internal combustion engine burning gasoline.
My book, Future Imperfect: Technology and Freedom in an Uncertain World, grew out of a seminar on future technologies that I taught for a number of years at Santa Clara Law. Each Thursday we discussed a technology that I was willing to argue, at least for a week, could revolutionize the world. On Sunday, students emailed me legal issues that that revolution would raise, to be put on the class web page for other students to read. Tuesday, we discussed the issues and how to deal with them. Next Thursday, a new technology and a new revolution.
The idea for the course started with two then-obscure technologies: public key encryption and nanotechnology. As the course developed I found myself exploring a considerable range of others, with one feature in common: Each might change the world within my lifetime. What you are reading is an exploration of those technologies, the futures each might generate, and how we might deal with them. This chapter briefly surveys the technologies; the next discusses the problem of adjusting our lives and institutions to their consequences.
At the moment, the fashionable focus for worries about the future is global warming. It is probably a real problem and perhaps something should at some point be done about it. But, despite all the public furor and images of flooded cities, on current evidence it is not a very large problem. The latest estimates from the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predict, if nothing is done, a sea level rise of a foot or two by the end of the century, an increase in average temperature of a few degrees, and perhaps a small increase in the frequency and force of hurricanes. It is possible that those predictions will turn out to be far too modest, but they are what we currently have to work with.
At least three of the technologies I discuss in this book—nanotech, biotech, and artificial intelligence (AI)—have the potential to wipe out our species well before the end of the century. They also have the potential to create a future sufficiently rich and technologically advanced to make global warming a problem that can be solved at the cost of the spare cash of a few philanthropists. Other technologies might create futures strikingly different from the present in a wide variety of ways: a radically more, or radically less, free society than we now live in, more privacy than humans have ever known or less, humans living like gods or like slaves. Their consequences will affect not only law but marriage, parenting, political institutions, businesses, life, death, and much else.
I am not a prophet; any one of the technologies I discuss may turn out to be a wet firecracker. It only takes one that does not to remake the world. Looking at some candidates will make us a little better prepared if one of those revolutions turns out to be real. Perhaps more important, after we have thought about how to adapt to any of ten possible revolutions, we will at least have a head start when the eleventh drops on us out of the blue. The conclusion I want readers to draw from this book is not that any one of the futures I sketch is going to happen. The conclusion I want them to draw is that the future is radically uncertain. In interesting ways.
And that it is worth starting to think about the possibilities, and how to deal with them, now.
Editor’s Note: This is excerpted from Friedman’s book, Future Imperfect (Cambridge University Press, 2008).