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Published: November 29, 2005

 
 

Best Business Books 2005: The Future

Radical Evolution paints a future that presently seems unimaginable, with everything from IQ implant chips to superpowered exoskeletons, microscopic factories that assemble anything you need from raw materials, and smart computers that design smarter computers, but Mr. Garreau grounds his scenarios in current research. Much of his narrative brings readers into the halls of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the U.S. military’s R&D lab that brought us such technologies as computer graphics, personal computers, and the Internet — all of which must have seemed similarly unimaginable before they were invented.

Heaven or Hell?
Mr. Garreau also enlists the scenario method that was pioneered by Shell and refined by the Global Business Network — a methodology that starts with predetermined factors (the amount of petroleum in the ground, for example), driving forces (the need to fuel the transportation of physical matter that keeps the global economy running), and critical uncertainties (will anyone come up with energy sources to replace petroleum when we run out of it?), then uses those elements to construct plausible stories about the future.

Mr. Garreau’s scenarios deal not just with unprecedented power to alter the external environment — the arena in which Mr. Friedman’s and Mr. Kunstler’s analyses play out — but also with the power to augment the human body and brain, perhaps even to replace them. His driving force is what he calls “the Curve” — the acceleration of change and knowledge brought about by the combination of organized research and mind-amplifying tools from computers to the Internet. This, in his view, guarantees more and more powerful technological capabilities in coming decades. He focuses on what he calls the “GRIN technologies” — genetic, robotic, informational, and nanotechnological. He introduces big ideas about radically better or worse futures through the stories of some of the colorful characters who have championed them: Bill Joy, creator of Berkeley Unix and cofounder of Sun Microsystems (who now fears that desktop bioengineering, runaway nanofactories, or self-reproducing robots could end the human era before we have a say in our fate); Ray Kurzweil, brilliant inventor and entrepreneur (whose track record at creating technologies lends weight to his belief that the generations who will live for centuries are alive today), and dreadlocked virtual-reality visionary Jaron Lanier (who puts his bet on the human capacity to prevail).

Mr. Garreau’s scenarios are Heaven, in which people use techno-superpowers to create an earthly paradise; Hell, where intellectual power trumps wisdom and we become slaves to our creations, die out as victims of our own tools, or are replaced by more intelligent robots who see no need to keep us around; Prevail, where humanity collectively does what it has always done before — step up to the challenges posed by external circumstances or humankind’s own inventiveness; and Transcend, in which we or our descendants use technological powers to achieve the spiritual goals our great religions have set for us for thousands of years. Like all good scenarios, they aren’t predictions, but believable pictures of different futures, intended to inform decisions we make today.

With Mr. Friedman claiming a broad view, Mr. Garreau encouraging us to take the long view, and Mr. Kunstler trying to draw our attention to a looming abyss ahead, let’s not neglect the interior view: What are we to think? More important, how are we to think if these analyses and forecasts turn out to be accurate? I agree with Daniel H. Pink’s claim that what we need is A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age (Riverhead, 2005), although I found his harking back to the useful but limited “right brain/left brain” metaphor and revival of John Naisbitt’s decades-old “high-tech/high-touch” trope to be more retro than futuristic.

 
 
 
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