"Predictions for the Third Millennium"

The world's top science fiction writers and scientists predict what the coming millennium might hold

Conducted by Geoffrey A. Landis

participants: Larry Niven, David Brin, Robert L. Forward, Ken Jenks, Gregory Bennett, Lawrence Watt Evens, Robert Sawyer, David Krieger, Arlan Andrews, Eric Kotani, Marianne Dyson, Joe Haldeman, Marvin Minsky, James Oberg, Jack Cohen, Wil McCarthy, John G. Cramer, John Barnes, Harry Turtledove, Steve Gillett, and Geoffrey A. Landis

This is a transcript of a "Science Forum" which I conducted for the (now dead) magazine Science Fiction Age. Rather than have a science column, SF Age ran the "Science Forum", where we had a conversation with several scientist science-fiction writers on a subject of interest to science fiction fans. This forum was done for the January, 2000 issue.

A View into the New Millennium

From Nostradamus to the Book of Revelations to Edgar Cayce, every age has its predictions. As the great calender odometer turns over to the year of the triple-O, marking a major milestone on our unmapped road into the future, what can we foresee for the next thousand years?

Science fiction writers have been hailed as prophets, and certainly they have had their great hits, from Jules Verne predicting the submarine, Hugo Gernsback predicting radar and microwave ovens, and Robert Heinlein predicting waterbeds, waldos, and nuclear power. And we've had our misses-- we may not have have people rioting to get their ration of Soylent Green in 1999 (fortunately), but, alas, we’re unlikely to have a moonbase and flights to Jupiter by 2001, either.

Science Fiction Age set Science Forum regular Geoffrey Landis to asking the greatest prophets we know of, the intrepid scientists and science fiction writers who have participated in our ongoing "Science Forum" discussions since October 1992, to look into their clouded crystal ball and tell us what milestones to expect in the next millennium. From Hugo-winning hard-SF writer Larry Niven to artificial intelligence guru Marvin Minsky, who could be better than the science-fiction writing scientists to see ahead for us?

Some predict apocalyptic futures:

Larry Niven: "Mecca will not survive the next quarter century. Weapons have become too powerful and too available, and Muslims have become too good at pissing people off."

Ken Jenks: "In the next 1,000 years the world will not end, but you, I, everyone and every thing we know will be gone and all but forgotten. Only data and a few artifacts will survive. Worldwide, pollution will get worse before it gets better. A large-scale biotechnology industrial accident will cause widespread fear and minor damage. Nuclear terrorists will strike a major soft target, killing thousands. A medium-sized meteorite will kill thousands. Wars will decrease in duration and frequency, but increase in intensity."

Others see little new:

Gregory Bennett: "I predict that the turn of the millennium will be the greatest non-event in recorded history."

Lawrence Watt Evans: "Civilization will not collapse. On average, despite occasional short-term setbacks or local catastrophes, the everyday life of the average human being will get a little better with every passing decade."

Ken Jenks: "The rich will get richer. The poor will get richer, too, but not as fast."

And yet others see both apocalypses and possibilities.

David Brin: "I promise you, we won't see the future that's depicted most often in recent science fiction novels and films -- a cyberpunk-Bladerunner world of ultra high technology combined with angry slums and vast disparities of wealth. Such a world would self-destruct in no time. Weapons and other means of wreaking great harm are being "democratized"... brought within reach of ever-smaller groups of people... so that rogue nations and even lone crazies can do damage out of all proportion. Imagine a Timothy McVeigh who is armed with a chemsyth gene-splicer in his basement!

High tech has to be accompanied by advances in justice and general sanity, or we're doomed. Fortunately (and contrary to popular opinion) we've already made great progress in both of these areas. Despite images on the news -- and our century's reputation for violence -- three-quarters of the people alive today, worldwide, have no personal experience of war, starvation, or major civil strife. That fraction is unprecedented. It suggests we've made some progress, and have a real chance to turn a corner.

"Still, things may look really bad before we're out of the woods. The momentum toward environmental decline is already harsh. We've been soul-searching and analyzing ourselves for a hundred years, yet there's still no generally accepted model of human sanity. Only now, after a century dominated by soldiers and lawyers, have innovative methods for dispute resolution begun to emerge, using new techniques to give both sides in a conflict what they need (instead of what they want.) If we fail to solve these problems, the result won't be a Bladerunner world. It will be a cinder where Earth used to be.

"Indeed, this may explain why there's been no verified sign of extraterrestrial life. Maybe no one out there has yet figured how to be smart and wise at the same time. Wouldn't it be something if we were the first to manage it? The rewards could be mind-boggling."

Others predict not apocalypse, but apotheosis."

Robert Sawyer: "In a thousand years, we will have reached the limits of the possible. If time travel is possible at all in this universe, we will be doing it; if faster-than-light travel is possible at all, we'll be doing that, too."

David Krieger: "If you subscribe to Vinge's theory of a Singularity coming down the pike shortly -- a technological black hole so dense that no light can be shed on what lies beyond it -- you don't try to prognosticate on any scale beyond a few decades. I think everything that is both presently imaginable and physically possible will be within the reach of human technology within the next century at most, if we don't annihilate ourselves. At that point, we as a species will, I hope, emerge out of mammalian territorial wrangling into real societal maturity and start seeking appropriately cosmic purposes and challenges."

Arlan Andrews: "Before the Third Millennium of the Common Era ends, the human race will have achieved a fusion of individual identities, melding every human mind into one racial intelligence -- most likely through a combination of nanotechnology, genetic engineering and the manipulation of paranormal capabilities latent in the brain and nervous system. This event may take place solely by human will and design or with influences from outside the human race. The resultant Human Intelligence Matrix will take its place in a Universe that already teems with like entities, some billions of years old, the sum of which we presently sense in various degrees as the presence of God."

Many say our future will be in space.

Robert Forward: "Early in the next millennium, rotating space tethers will be used to get into space, build space resorts, and provide rapid comfortable transport to high orbit, the Lunar surface, Mars, and any other planet or moon in the solar system worth visiting. Toward the middle of the millennium, mankind will travel to the stars on laser-pushed lightsails, stopping at the target star using magsails. They will plan to stay there... learning for as long as they live... then resting for eternity in a glittering orbiting tomb that is larger, more elegant, and more expensive than that of the pharaohs. They will be followed by the first interstellar colonists, perhaps humans with radiation-resistant and age-resistant android bodies."

James Oberg: "The human population off Earth will exceed that on Earth well before the middle of the millennium, and that is NOT a "null case"(one stranded astronaut watches a war-sterilized earth) but a robust, expansionist result. Technological solutions will be implemented to biosphere disasters ranging from environmental pollution, to hurricanes, to earthquakes, outwards to warding off falling space rocks, solar flares, and even interstellar supernova radiation."

Marianne Dyson: "The light barrier will remain, but it won't deter exploration and expansion into space because the human lifespan will stretch to thousands of years. As a result, there will be more living things in space than on planets."

Eric Kotani: "Economical single-stage-to-orbit space-ships will push down the cost of reaching low Earth orbit greatly. Using continuous acceleration space-ships we will be able to travel to any place in the solar system in weeks to months. Solar power satellites will make clean energy available at reasonable cost. Terraforming of some planets and satellites will expand our Lebensraum, and the entire solar system, including asteroids, comets and Edgeworth-Kuiper Belt objects, will become our domain. We will even mount expeditions beyond our home system. On the other hand, if we fumble this golden opportunity and mess things up environmentally and otherwise, whatever is left of the human race at the end of the next millennium will likely be living in misery."

Jack Cohen: "The next millennium will see humans scattered over solar system and a few between the stars, although I doubt extra-solar colonies."

But a warning from Steve Gillett: "Trying to develop space without molecular nanotechnology is like trying to build an Analytical Engine without electronics."

Others predict robots and AI:

Marvin Minsky: "Here's the deal. By 2050 we will know a great deal about the brain, but not everything about it. By 2050, we may have some powerful AI machines. This depends, in my opinion, on progress toward "common sense reasoning"and ability to use large bodies of diverse kinds of knowledge."

Ken Jenks: "Robots will replace humans in all non-creative, repetitive jobs."

Geoffrey Landis: "I think we'll go into space, but the "people"who go into space may not exactly be human-- they will be our silicon avatars. After all, robots are stronger and tougher and don't need life support and don't get bored. But, when we get smart enough to put our own intelligence, even our own personalities on electronic chips, how can you tell the difference, anyway? By the end of the coming millennium, we'll be spread out across all the planets of our solar system and many others, and the dark spaces in between as well-- but there won't be any humans in space at all, they will be our electronic ghosts, smarter and faster engineered for the harsh conditions of space. And maybe every now and then, they will think about us biological humans a little, and maybe reminisce about living on planets."

And others predict advances in other fields.

Wil McCarthy: "Materials scientists are getting pretty good at making "quantum dots"-- devices which trap electrons in an atom-sized space. The trapped electrons will arrange themselves as though they were in a real atom, even though there's no nucleus inside. It's already possible to create "designer atoms"with properties which do not occur in nature, and there's been tentative progress in getting these atoms to interact. I'll be very interested to see what semi- imaginary "materials"these folks start coming up with as this technology matures."

Many SF writers predict bioscience as the next major advance:

Harry Turtledove: "Biotech will be as important to the 21st century as electronics were to the 20th and steam and steel to the 19th. I don't know in just what ways, but people a hundred years from now will look back on us and wonder, How could they live like that? because they'll take for granted so many things we don't have."

John Barnes: "Personality transfer and artificial telepathy before 2100."

Ken Jenks: "Despite accidents, biotech will be the most important invention to come from the second millennium. All of today's diseases will be conquered. Life expectancy will exceed 200 years. Our definition of humanity will expand."

Marianne Dyson: "In a thousand years, I predict that women will no longer have children. New humans and replacement "parts" (a mixture of the best of biology, engineering, and computer intelligence) will be created using 'Bujold uterine replicators'."

Jack Cohen: "Human bodies will be engineered and bio-engineered in many directions; reproduction taken out of present form, I can't tell where (because I'm an expert in the field); immense variety among progeny-species of H. sapiens sapiens; and productive interaction with other species, both terrestrial (as in Uplift?) and alien (e.g. Jovian, Europan, extra-solar). And the probable extinction of H. sapiens sapiens...."

John Cramer: "The inhabitants of the Third Millennium will look back on the Second Millennium at that primitive time when human evolution was left to random chance, the period before the human genome was taken in hand and subjected to rational design, critical editing, and far-reaching improvements."

Gregory Benford: "The human species will have split into several varieties, perhaps able to mate only by special arrangement... all from engineering our genome."

Several warn of the approaching technological singularity that will make any predictions impossible:

David Krieger: "If you subscribe to Vinge's theory of a Singularity coming down the pike shortly -- a technological black hole so dense that no light can be shed on what lies beyond it -- you don't try to prognosticate on any scale beyond a few decades."

Jack Cohen: "From general s-f sensibilities, expect inventions which are totally unpredictable - we haven't the language. Maybe FTL, or antigrav, but more likely problems we haven't even identified; communication modes we haven't thought of."

Marvin Minsky: "I'm afraid that Arthur C. Clarke was right, about predicting more than 50 years ahead. It will seem like magic, in many respects. In any case, once the AI machines pass a certain threshold, they will be able to learn with increasing power and speed. We can make predictions about what might happen then--and many of the great science fiction writers have done so. But we cannot predict when those things will happen.

"However, it seems to me inconceivable that this will take longer than a century or two. Therefore, there is no way to predict what will happen after that."

And many predict that humans will transcend our bodies:

John Barnes: "Personality transfer and artificial telepathy before 2100."

Robert Sawyer: "I'm becoming increasingly pessimistic about the likelihood of extraterrestrial life -- if it exists at all, anywhere in the universe, I suspect it's very rare -- but by the end of the next millennium we won't be alone, regardless. Rather, we will have created all sorts of new lifeforms, including other radically different intelligent beings."

Joe Haldeman: "The condition of being a human being will change into something that might not even be recognizable as life. Do I know how? Of course not; nobody does, yet. But interim technologies like cryonics and some sort of actual communion between machine intelligence and human intelligence will be steps on the way."

Robert Forward: "As the next millennium dawns, it will be greeted by humans in many forms, meat humans with genetically-cleaned near-perfect sexually-reproduced bodies, android humans with fabricated metal/plastic bodies and electronic brains, virtual humans that have no bodies at all but exist inside large electronic networks, and perhaps other forms of humans yet to be imagined. They will all share a common history of the human race, think of themselves as humans, and acknowledge that all the other types are humans. All will have a part to play in the next new millennium."

And finally, before we go off believing too much of what we write, maybe we should pay attention to Lawrence Watt Evans: "I predict that at least 80% of all predictions (beyond the utterly banal and obvious) will be wrong, including all predictions that the future will be dominated by any one thing, be it computers or bioengineering or capitalism or whatever."

Apocalypse or apotheosis; one thing for sure: the next millennium is going to be interesting.

Originally appeared in Science Fiction Age

Page by Geoffrey A. Landis
Copyright 2000, 2001