- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 30, 1999

The machines of the future could be … human beings.

And humans could become machines.

More and more, computerized and mechanical things are a part of daily life. Roosters used to wake us in the morning. Now, a beeping digital alarm clock-radio does the job. Half a millennium from now, a robot maid might be waking folks, feeding them and taking them to work.

And the line between human beings and machines easily could be breached in the future. Higher-functioning computers will assume more human roles, including the ability to make decisions and direct other machines. Individuals will become more task-oriented, like most of today's machines.

"People will become computers," says Greg Bear, the author of more than 20 science fiction books, among them "Darwin's Radio," "Eon" and "Anvil of Stars."

"A person is a user, a computer is a tool," Mr. Bear says. "We are becoming more and more computerlike tools. And the other way around. Computers are becoming like people. They remember, record things. Our instincts will be to work with a machine, use a machine."

Hollywood long has explored the concept of machines becoming "human," from the renegade spaceship computer Hal in "2001: A Space Odyssey" more than 30 years ago to the robot that is turned into a person in the new Robin Williams movie, "Bicentennial Man."

The movie-world fantasy is not so far-fetched, as Mr. Bear sees it.

Predictions for the end of the millennium have circulated for years. Some guessed robots would replace labor. Others foretold the end of the world.

Just two days short of 2000, the words of science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke come to mind: "The future isn't what it used to be."

"Thirty years ago, we were talking about things in the future," says Hugh Burns, a spokesman for Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin Corp., the nation's largest defense company. "By 1987, we were supposed to have atomic-power vacuum cleaners and flying cars like the Jetsons. And where are they? But a lot of things people had no concept of exist right now."

Your Skycar is waiting

So what newfangled machinery does the future have in store? Dream programmers, virtual reality, more robots?

Moller International, a California company, already is testing a prototype four-passenger flying car. As early as 2001, the Federal Aviation Administration could certify the M400 Skycar as air worthy.

In the next 1,000 years, Frank Vizard, technology editor at Popular Science magazine in New York, imagines the development of computerized headgear that can instantaneously transmit messages, almost like telepathy.

"Sort of like a mental cell phone," Mr. Vizard says.

He also envisions robot dogs programmed to fetch the newspaper in the morning and "Star Trek"-like computers that react to the human voice. Voice-activated computers already are in the early stages of development.

"There will be a variety of technologies so small that they would be so integrated into your daily life that they would be like throwaway Post Its," Mr. Vizard predicts.

The question is how those new technologies will affect people over the next 500 or 1,000 years.

"Imagine asking someone in the Middle Ages what life would be like today," says Fred Edwords, editor of the Humanist, a publication of the American Humanist Association, a D.C. nonprofit that tracks the human condition. "They couldn't have imagined, couldn't have come close to where we are today."

Machines evolve

When the first computer the size of a living room, as heavy as several elephants was developed 30 years ago, nobody could have known it would become as commonplace as it is today.

Nowadays, computers the size of wristwatches are being introduced.

"This is a period of unusually rapid change," says William J. Raduschel, technology chief at Sterling, Va.-based America Online, the world's largest Internet service provider. "We are in the middle of an exciting 50 years. But 25 years from now most of the change will have happened. The current technology can't continue for a thousand years.

"As machines become more powerful they let you build other, more powerful machines," he says. "This generation of computers could not have existed without the previous one."

The complexity and capacity of computers increase with each minute, yet their size diminishes. Relatively soon, maybe in the next century, computers will be the size of electrons. We're talking tiny.

"People are talking about biological computers, optical computers, new forms of storage that are very different technologies from what we know," Mr. Raduschel says.

In the next 100 to 200 years, computers will work by re-creating the way the brain operates, adding complexity to the machines of today.

Computers already play a larger role in the operation of everything from Oldsmobiles to ovens.

Cars that can monitor themselves and issue warnings when something goes wrong were only the beginning. Computers that act as co-pilots, telling drivers how to get where they're going, will become pervasive. The ability to build ovens that refrigerate food until it's time to start cooking exists now. And today's ideas are tomorrow's machines.

At work

One advantage to the influx of machines is that the same number of human beings will be able to work on far more complex projects.

Computers have to a large extent already made this reality. But in the future the scale of the projects will increase, scientists say.

In the 1940s, for example, designing a building involved a few men drawing on paper, going back to it later, calculating, erasing and redrawing. Today, computer programs do the drawing and calculations; architects and engineers can design a building in far less time.

So perhaps developing technologies won't replace humanity, but simply will continue to change the nature of jobs.

Examples already can be found in the workplace: Computers now do inventory, so clerks don't have to count boxes in a storage room. Scanners at checkout counters not only register prices, but log inventory and even reorder items that are running low.

Perhaps the most drastic effect of relatively inexpensive, widely available technology on work is that employees no longer will have to travel to perform their jobs.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 21 million of us already telecommute at least one day a week, up from 4 million in 1990. The bureau projects that number will rise to 51 million by 2030.

And if machines are going to do more of the work, the question of who will run them becomes important, as evidenced by the current shortage of qualified employees for the high-tech industry. Employees who are able to keep up with or stay ahead of new technology will only increase in value.

Dale Vonhaase, a member of the corporate science and engineering staff at Lockheed Martin, says it is just as likely that jobs will be created, not just eliminated, to accommodate new technology.

Life-changing effect

Scientists envision a world where machines make, fix, work with and watch other machines. No later than 500 years from now, some say, humans no longer will be needed to perform most jobs.

For example, a repairman won't fix a car anymore a machine will.

"It's inevitable that machines become a larger part of life because it's better for the consumer and better for the manufacturer," Mr. Raduschel says. "If the motor of your dishwasher knows that it's going to fail within six weeks and it can notify its manufacturer that it needs repair, and someone shows up at your house before it breaks, you are ecstatic as a consumer and the manufacturer is saving on the warranty."

But machines will progress far beyond that, actually creating human life.

By using genetic engineering, a machine can design a baby. Although a mother still will give birth, a machine will have assigned the baby's sex, coloring, favorite pastimes and inclination in life, whether artistic or technical.

"Just wait until we have created a novel life form we have to give definition to," Mr. Bear says. "The moral and ethical dilemmas of creating a life are well beyond those raised by the digital revolution."

Mr. Edwords predicts biotechnology, specifically nanotechnology the designing of molecular machines will be the next big revolution.

"So just imagine preprogrammed molecular machines fixing up things in your body," he says. "You just inject them into your body where there is tissue damage and it goes in and restructures the organism to grow new tissues. Just imagine it."

Of course, humanity's judgment on this version of the future will be key.

Concerns about developing technologies, such as biotechnology, are heightened even today. Europeans and many Americans are refusing to buy and eat genetically engineered foods, and all over the world religious groups are protesting human genetic engineering.

Free thinkers?

If the fears of a millennium bug provide a clear lesson, it's that machines are so pervasive that modern societies have grown dependent on them.

So how independent human beings will be in a world of even more machines is the subject of much debate.

"Freedom is the big question for us in the future how to determine if you have that freedom," Mr. Bear says. "Some people will want to advance themselves [by using new technologies]. Other people are going to try and prevent them from doing it."

As surely as the Puritans burned "witches" at the stake in the 16th century and Sen. Joseph McCarthy hunted communists in the 1950s, some in the future will fear technology's increased role in their lives and stand up against it.

Such concerns could turn out to be well founded, as evolving machines have less need for humans.

"We can't count on ancient value systems to be of much use now or in the future," Mr. Edwords says. "We have to develop new moral standards to go along with new, modern technologies we are developing. We need a whole new way we think about this."

Mr. Raduschel, on the other hand, argues that the "grand fantasies that machines will control everything are simply erroneous."

"I think that humans will push back," he says. "We as a society will want to put the limit on how far technology can go."

Speeding communications

Communications technology has made breathtaking strides since Samuel Morse invented the telegraph in 1837.

These days, a teen-age girl in Venice can type on her laptop while being rowed through the city's canals. With the click of a button, she can send news of her adventure to her best friend in New York.

In the middle of the next millennium, those two girlfriends wouldn't have to send e-mails overseas. They could meet in the world of virtual reality simply by putting on "goggles," even if they couldn't transport themselves in much the same way characters in TV's "Star Trek" beam up, down and around. (Many scoff, but some speculate teletransportation will be possible within the next 1,000 years.)

The future of communications is much debated among engineers, Mr. Raduschel says. The day may not be far when babies are assigned telephone numbers and e-mail addresses at birth. And the existing line between the voice-sensitive telephone and the text-and-photo-driven Internet is destined to disappear as teleconferencing becomes the norm.

When the U.S. military invented the Internet in the 1970s, it was meant for communications in case of nuclear war. Today, the complex web of information is used by everyone from the world of academia to those teen-age girls sharing first love stories via e-mail.

New age of weaponry

New communications technology will be critical in war during the next 1,000 years.

"War is a complex system that is all information-based," Mr. Raduschel says.

Specifications and blueprints of one Navy warship weighed more than the ammunition it carried, he notes.

What happens when information systems are the key to winning wars was the main topic at a recent planning meeting at Lockheed Martin.

"A defense system needs to talk to another system somewhere else," Mr. Vonhaase says. "Twenty-five years from now, the [defense] industry will be dominated by information between platforms, weapons systems, people. That's an enormous amount of information. The trick is to sort out which of those pieces of information are important to the war fighter. Because if they knew everything, they wouldn't be able to digest it."

Scientists and engineers say manual weapons most likely will disappear. They will be replaced by more efficient, cheaper and easier-to-make biological weapons that dispense viruses and diseases.

Mr. Edwords, the Humanist editor, predicts the day when almost anyone could have access to germ warfare.

"Now minor powers can have these kinds of weapons," he says. "Wait until not only dictators but terrorists have all kinds of germ weapons. If computer viruses can spread the way they do, pretty soon diseases will be the same way.

"We have to figure out how to control this sort of weapon," he says.

Traveling through space

One guarantee for the near term is more space travel, Mr. Bear predicts.

"The space tourist industry is a good investment for long term, 20 to 30 years from now," he says. "I'd put my money on that. Because if you could go even on a small orbital flight for $10,000, would you go? Yeah, people would. Tens of thousands of people would."

Mr. Bear sees space tourism becoming a reality as soon as the next decade. Companies already are putting out brochures and taking reservations.

Space-travel advocates who attended the first U.S. Space Tourism Conference in the District last summer said the public could begin suborbital, up-and-down trips like Alan Shepherd the first U.S. astronaut in space as soon as 2002.

A Seattle-based adventure travel company, Zegrahm Expeditions, has taken 250 reservations since October 1997 for a seven-day flight into space that it hopes to offer late in 2002 at the price of $98,000 per person.

Sixty adventurers have paid at least $5,000 of the $98,000; 10 have paid for the entire trip.

Orbital trips would follow in the next 100 to 200 years, allowing us to circumnavigate the globe about 180 miles above the Earth, experts say.

So the next step is creating the vehicles that would allow space tourism.

"It's hard to get venture capitalists to look in that now," Mr. Bear says. "Now they want to spend money on the Internet."

A millennium from now, he predicts, inhabitants of Earth will have left either on long space adventures or to permanently live on space stations or other planets.

"Our descendants will be making very different choices," Mr. Bear says. "They will be farther away from us than we have ever been from a medieval person. By the end of the next millennium, we won't even be able to recognize our surroundings if we are still around, and we could be."

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