Do Not Expect Breakthroughs

I run in multiple circles of acquaintances. Amongst my circles of acquaintances, one is a heavily transhumanist/futurist/post-human circle. I would often engage in discussion – over drinks usually – about the Singularity and what’s to come, our minds would meander amongst the hopeful and not so hopeful futures.

There were many ideas floated. Most were interesting, but few were realistic. Being around transhumanist acquaintances gives me a feeling of hanging out amongst science fiction authors of the 1950s. I often get a sense of retrofuturism when I discuss transhumanism. There is just this feeling of un-realism that I get when I hear people talk about transhumanism. Granted, a lot of these people who talk about these things are fantasizing and do not have a realistic hold of what is possible. There was a guy who seriously thought nanobots were literally robots shrunken to molecule size. It was a very awkward moment explaining that really, nanotech and nanobots are basically chemistry, and how to structure molecules so they do stuff.

I also hang in another circle of acquaintances who are very much into startup and hacker culture. Given the topic matter at hand, it is obvious that these two circles do intersect. We would hang out and talk about the Glorious Transhumanist Future, and how we can profit from it. I do however, have some reservations about these discussions.

One particular discussion stood out for me. We had just came off playing with an Oculus Rift, and he mentioned that in the future, we would be replacing our eyes with digital cameras which feed directly into the brain. And he mentioned that NOW would be the best time to get prepared for such an event: create a startup around the expectation that people will replace their eyeballs with straight-to-the-brain cameras.

Yes, you read that right. Not start a startup to get the tech, but start a startup anticipating the breakthrough.

To me, that was the most ridiculous thing I’ve heard. The level of ridiculousness would have dropped had he said “let’s work to bring the eyeball-replacement tech to the public”. Instead, when I asked him if he knew roughly the basics of replacing a human organ, he merely replied with “I trust someone will discover how to. And by that time, if we decide to enter the market it’d be too late”.

I’m sorry, but that has got to be the most bullshit thing I’ve heard. The fantasizing that someone will bring a breakthrough that will benefit you. I’d be a lot more sympathetic to the idea if he had said he’s working on the breakthrough.

And I think this is the problem with a lot of futurists. The ideas remain in the realm of pure fantasy and are not rooted in realism. Another discussion I had centered around powered exoskeletons. If one had given even the mere thought to conceptually building a powered exoskeleton (like say an Iron Man suit), one’d immediately run into problems that would require breakthroughs to solve. In the case of the Iron Man suit, there would need to be a breakthrough in battery technology, or portable power (miniaturized arc reactor, anyone?)

I’m not being a Debbie Downer pissing on everyone’s optimism though. My main thesis is: if a certain future you expect requires a breakthrough in technology or scientific knowledge, you shouldn’t be counting on the fact that the breakthrough will happen due to someone else’s hard work.

There is a lot to be said about black swans and counterfactual thinking, but I shall instead end with this xkcd from yesterday.

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