Robot Soldiers, Quantum Leaps 

Is futurism the new, genetically modified poetry?

In 1946, the poet and critic W.H. Auden wrote that "technology, with its ever-accelerating transformation of man's way of living, has made it impossible for us to imagine what life will be like even twenty years from now." There's a lasting rightness in this observation, which, to employ a little quantum thinking, is partly why it now seems wrong. That accelerating transformation continues, and so does our ambition to predict it. But imagining the near future is hardly impossible these days; it's an industry. Whether they realize it or not, writers with such varied backgrounds and perspectives as Douglas Mulhall, Rodney A. Brooks, and Bruce Sterling have all taken up Auden's call to arms.

Auden's essay, "The Poet and the City," began with his astonishment at how many young people then wanted to become creative writers, and it delineated the daunting task that lay in store for them. He concluded that the writing life, whose appeal had increased in what already seemed a hyperindustrialized society, had dramatically diminished in social usefulness. Moreover, it was complicated by some major obstacles, including the loss of belief in the eternity of the physical universe; the loss of belief in the significance and reality of sensory phenomena; and the loss of belief in a human-nature norm that would always require the same kind of world in which to feel at home.

These ideas are the bread and butter of today's successful futurists, who traffic in the thrill of unstable paradigms, and flirt with the prospects of human obsolescence. Auden's obstacles lurk in the lurching advancements of quantum physics, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, genetics, virtual reality, and the new frontier of cyberspace -- the stock characters of futurism. Ours is by default an explainer's age, and science writers have inherited the social utility Auden lamented. If the last century offered a modest and temporary pulpit for the poet-critic, this new one might offer the world's stage to the ambitious futurist.

Douglas Mulhall, a journalist and sustainable development consultant, acknowledges that thousands of books in print today, including his own, use the word "future" in their title. In his case, it's Our Molecular Future: How Nanotechnology, Robotics, Genetics, and Artificial Intelligence Will Transform Our World. He had an epiphany in 1994, when Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 smashed into Jupiter, and "suddenly, after centuries of ridicule, catastrophe got respect." Mulhall began thinking about the ways in which technology can cause, or prevent, environmental disaster.

Making good use of an established futurist tradition, Mulhall isn't above the scare tactic: "The strategy of 'sustainability,'" he writes, "may condemn us to waiting for one of nature's galactic clearance projects to discard us from an ever-changing universe. It wouldn't be the first time that a species had gone extinct." He is right to assert that "normally, we have to live through a disaster, unleash one on ourselves, or have our habits altered by technology, to overcome our state of complacency," but his inevitably alarmist description of such calamities as "nature's September 11ths" is at best a fraught metaphor. But then, he's not a poet.

And what of the future's other dangers? Regarding the possibility of malevolent robots taking over the world, Rodney A. Brooks writes, "I have recently come to realize that this will never happen." Brooks directs MIT's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, where he has worked for nearly two decades, so it is mildly disconcerting to think that he's only recently figured this out. But his authority is reassuring, because tenure at MIT's lab confers a place in that revered class of public intellectual entrusted to do our thinking about such things for us, and to preach the new silicon gospel.

Brooks' book, Flesh and Machines: How Robots Will Change Us, anecdotally recounts the history of his field, and of course looks forward to its posterity. Where the poet-critic might have a worldview, Brooks has a "research heuristic." He writes with singular empathy about robots feeling their way through a complex environment, and determines that they won't eventually conquer us, simply because before long we will have "merged" with them. Well, it's not the end of the world.

Brooks has tackled uniquely difficult existential questions: "What was the key about the way in which the nervous systems of insects was organized that let them perform so well with so little computation?" And in his way, he is a romantic. Brooks is a guy who gets misty watching 2001: A Space Odyssey. When he writes, "There is no chance that technology will not continue to change our existence in a significant way," it's curiously rousing, as if he's waving a flag.

Indeed, for today's futurist to last, he (rarely is it a she) must call up something antithetical to a sense of futility, even if he thinks doomsday is at hand. This isn't optimism per se, but neither is it the defeatism implied by Auden's obstacles. As Bruce Sterling writes in Tomorrow Now: Envisioning the Next Fifty Years, "People pay futurists to predict glittering novelties, not to mourn the solemn doom of the obsolete and the overthrown." Sterling's is one of the more lively new titles available, perhaps because he is a practiced writer of science fiction and has a finely honed sense of play. "Science fiction can manage just fine without the future," he observes. "Quite often the future is a drag on our market."

Sterling asks two good questions of the future: "What does it mean? And how does it feel?" He organizes his material imaginatively, with a chapter for each of the seven ages of man as outlined in the "All the world's a stage" soliloquy from Shakespeare's As You Like It.

Sterling's demeanor seems far removed from Auden's, in the sense that he seems really to love his job. Perhaps it's because, unlike Auden, he knows there's a future in it. "Western civilization has lacquered spiritual transcendence onto technological innovation whenever it gets the chance," Sterling writes, in his typically giddy, undaunted tone.

Science writers should be giddy -- they have the accumulated product of the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution to work with. The life of the 21st-century futurist has already proven lucrative, creatively satisfying, socially and politically relevant and, on the shifting sandhill of the economic landscape, uniquely sustainable. But before buying futures in futurism, today's creative aspirants, like those of Auden's day, should recall what's required, and what's in store.

The best futurist works will require a very definite poetic intelligence, embodying, as Auden wrote, "the aesthetic virtues of beauty, order, economy, and subordination of detail to the whole." They will also demonstrate fluency in the expanding language of science, and the derring-do to thrive on a multiplicity of simultaneous possibilities -- the very quantum thinking needed to ride the wave (or is it a particle?) of that uncertainty.

They should acknowledge Mulhall's admonition that "it's time for us to consider the unbelievable, without ridiculing it, yet without being adamant that one future or the other will likely occur." They should allow, as Brooks does in two adjacent chapters, that "We Are Special" and "We Are Not Special." They should take Sterling's suggestion that the two essential virtues for the 21st-century scholar are "flexibility and patience."

"When I find myself in the company of scientists," Auden wrote, "I feel like a shabby curate who has strayed by mistake into a drawing room full of dukes." Not so these futurists, to whom no such stratification can exist, and for whom there can be no going back, only forward.

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