Literary Links: Our Technological Future

Every once in a while I learn about a new technological breakthrough, and I’m struck with a sense that I’m living in a science fiction novel. The stuff of dreams when I was a kid — virtual reality, robots, artificial intelligence — is now becoming the domain of nonfiction and the nightly news. But as wondrous as these advancements are, they can also bring with them a feeling of anxiety. These things will certainly alter our society and daily lives, but will it always be for the better? There are a growing number of books that look at where our technology is heading and provide thought-provoking answers to this question. Here are a few of them.

Soonish book coverIf you want to start with a good primer on the future of technology, there is “Soonish: Ten Emerging Technologies That’ll Improve and/or Ruin Everything” by Kelly and Zach Weinersmith. As its name suggests, this book takes a somewhat humorous approach to examining the potential benefits, challenges and pitfalls of technologies like cheap access to space, fusion power and programmable matter.

Life 3.0 book coverMax Tegmark’s “Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence”  is more than just an introduction to a fascinating subject. It is also a call to be more forward-thinking and ethical in the development of this technology. Scientists mostly agree that sooner or later humanity will develop software with the ability to learn and improve upon itself, ultimately making it smarter than us. Tegmark lays out a number of scenarios, both positive and negative, that could result, and he insists that now is the time to really think about which of them we want to occur.

Rise of the Robots book coverMuch of the current anxiety over technology stems from the increasing effects of automation on the job market. Martin Ford does little to alleviate these fears in “Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future.” He points out that our perception has shifted to viewing machines as workers instead of merely tools. As our machines grow smarter, they can be put to use in jobs that require more complex skill sets, including those of many white-collar professionals. While Ford paints a bleak picture of the future of employment, he does offer possible solutions.

Although it is still in its infancy as a consumer product, virtual reality could be on its way to becoming the next big thing in entertainment. But, as virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier argues in “Dawn of the New Everything: Encounters With Reality and Virtual Reality,” this technology is much more than a tool for gaming. Part autobiography, part scientific overview and part meditation on the artistic possibilities of the medium, Lanier’s take on virtual reality is an interesting look at its history and cultural impact.

A Crack in Creation book coverPerhaps no recent discovery holds the potential to benefit humanity more than CRISPR technology. In “A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution,” Jennifer A. Doudna and Samuel H. Sternberg provide an overview of this tool, which allows scientists to easily insert, edit or delete individual genes of virtually any living plant or animal. The possibilities for what could be done with it, including curing or eliminating genetic diseases and improving food production, seem endless. As amazing as this technology is, it raises a number of serious ethical questions that the authors are clearly concerned about and explore in depth.

Body Builders book coverIn a similar vein is Adam Piore’s “The Body Builders: Inside the Science of the Engineered Human,” which examines science’s attempts to overcome humanity’s physical and mental limits. As the author investigates various trials and studies around the nation, he comes to the realization that we are on the brink of a revolution in human augmentation. Along the way, he encounters projects focused on regrowing lost body parts, developing a pill that will improve memory and even telepathy.

Utopia is Creepy book coverIf you tend to take a more skeptical view of technology’s benefits, you will probably enjoy the works of Nicholas Carr. Although he is no Luddite, he has made a name for himself by describing the hidden costs of technology in his books, including “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.” His most recent work, “Utopia Is Creepy and Other Provocations,” is a collection of blog posts and essays in which he muses on everything from the demise of the “Encyclopedia Britannica” in print to the use of social media in politics.