Professor Max Saunders examines where visions of the future come from, looking back to an enlightening series of projections written a hundred years ago that has led him to launch a new series called FUTURES, imagining what we might expect in a world of tomorrow.
Many would say it is science fiction in both literature and film that has shaped our imagination of futuristic things like submarines, space travel, robots, androids and cyborgs. The more politically-minded might point to utopian writing from Plato’s Republic onwards; or more likely the dystopian nightmares of Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four, or The Handmaid’s Tale. Or is it journalists who conjure our visions of ‘Cities of the Future’ or ‘the Home of the Future’? Social scientists or bureaucrats could argue that it is the modern think tank that has revolutionized how we think about the future, as pioneered by the Rand Corporation and the Hudson Institute after the war – groups of experts devising data-driven scenarios and estimating their probabilities. Their emergence coincided with the arrival of the digital computer, which has further revolutionised prediction.
Unimaginable quantum supremacy
Indeed, if you put the question in the form ‘What’s the best method for predicting the future?’, most – at least in developed countries – would be likely to invoke computer modelling or simulation. The emergence of big data and machine learning has made this seem axiomatic. A report in the Independent (23 November 2020) announced: ‘A recent test of the biggest computer chip in the world found that it can predict what is going to happen in the future “faster than the laws of physics produce the same result", researchers have said.’1 It’s a nonsensical claim of course. The computer can predict an event before the laws of nature make that event happen. Well, yes: if the computer predicted something after it happened it wouldn’t be a prediction any more, but history. . . But the serious point is that the Cerebras CS-1 using this chip is 200 times faster than a fairly high-ranking supercomputer, so can simulate very unpredictable things like weather more accurately.
Yet that advance scarcely seems like the future any more, given that Google had already announced success with a quantum computer in 2019 they said could solve a problem that would take conventional computers 10,000 years in 3 minutes and 20 seconds.2 And since then, China has announced its ‘quantum supremacy’ with a computer another 10 billion times faster than that – a staggering 100 trillion times faster than the fastest current supercomputer.
‘Moore’s Law’, which says that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit doubles every two years or so, has held true for 45 years – an astonishingly long time in such an innovative field. Doubtless it will be a while before quantum computing gets into our laptops and smartphones. But whenever it does, the implication of that change of scale – from doubling, to being trillions of times faster, renders the future of computing – and of everything affected by it, which is pretty much everything now – suddenly unimaginable. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that it has become less predictable; and that all we can do is try to imagine it. In some ways it already had been imagined, when quantum computing was only a dream, by Kim Stanley Robinson in his compelling vision of 2312, in which one of the characters has a quantum computer brain implant, which matches her agitated sarcasm with a possibly ironic calm. Whether we end up with such pacemakers for the mind only time will tell. But the question remains. When we finally arrive at the future, where will it have come from? Who will have thought of the technologies and their applications? The theoretical physicists? The programmers? The biotech CeOs? The writers and film-makers?
Revelations of the future from the past
Such questions were in my mind – though not about quantum computing, because again before it had been achieved – when I was working on Imagined Futures. I chanced upon the subject when researching on First World War Literature, and had picked up a book by Vera Brittain, admiring her searing memoir Testament of Youth. I hadn’t heard of this slim volume with the odd title, Halcyon; or, the Future of Monogamy, and saw in the back that it was in a series called To-Day and To-Morrow. There was a long list of the others, with similar classical titles, several of them by important writers like Bertrand Russell, Sylvia Pankhurst, and Robert Graves. I was intrigued; and the series proved a revelation. A series of revelations, even.
It certainly changed my view of those writers. Graves and Brittain produced two classic accounts of war trauma. Yet just beforehand, while they were working on their war memoirs, they each produced amusing and inventive volumes for To-Day and To-Morrow. Graves wrote on the future of swearing, in which he defended Joyce’s Ulysses against the charge of obscenity. He imagined censors burning it (several years before the Nazi book-burnings); and then provocatively went on to tease that if anyone should be banned for obscenity, it ought to be Shakespeare. He then wrote a second volume, on the future of humour. Brittain takes the brief to try to imagine the future more seriously, extrapolating contemporary advances in women’s rights, such as the granting of the vote to women over 30 in 1918, to project a future history of further advances such as ‘a Married Women’s Independence Act’ of 1949 (allowing women with children to continue their careers). This in 1929. She touchingly thought that television – then in its infancy – would make adultery less common, because people would get less bored.
It was a revelation about modernism too. Not all modernist writing has as traumatised a view of the past as T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land or Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. But the past is what it is generally obsessed with: childhood, memory, loss, betrayal, history, the classics. It is situated after disaster – understandably for a generation that had come through the horrors of the Western Front. Whereas To-Day and To-Morrow puts a sense of the future back into the modernist picture –not only because some modernist writers like Graves or Hugh MacDiarmid were writing for it, but because other modernists were reading it avidly. Eliot reviewed some volumes. Virginia Woolf’s husband Leonard reviewed more. And Joyce read twelve of them, mostly borrowed from Sylvia Beach’s Paris bookshop Shakespeare & Company. Evelyn Waugh even wrote a volume, on Noah; or, The Future of Intoxication, but the publishers rejected it as probably too facetious.
The biggest revelation was the science writing. The first volume, Daedalus; or, Science and the Future, by geneticist J. B. S. Haldane, appeared in 1923. It is widely agreed to be one of the most brilliant pieces of popular science writing, and anticipates genetic modification, ecological disaster, hormone replacement therapy, synthetic foods, and wind farms. But the idea that attracted most attention was what he called ‘ectogenesis’ – the gestation of human embryos in artificial wombs. It was used by his close friend Aldous Huxley in Brave New World; and was successfully trialled in sheep in 2019 – nearly a century after Haldane’s prediction – with plans to develop it for humans in cases of extremely premature birth.
What is also striking about the books – certainly to a literary specialist – is their form. Because they don’t fit any of the categories I began this piece with. They’re not science fiction (or not for long); they’re not rigorous, cautious quantitative scientific examples of groupthink. Many have a utopian tendency, but they’re neither naïve about the future nor appalled by it. Though written for a general readership like journalism, they are longer-form essays. That distinction proves crucial. When the books really work it’s because the writers are able to develop their ideas relentlessly, taking them beyond the frontiers of journalism and into the genuinely unknown.
Who predicted the internet?
No-one does that better than J. D. Bernal, another scientific star of the series. He would become a leading X-ray crystallographer whose work underpinned the discovery of the structure of DNA. Like Haldane he was also a leading Marxist intellectual, arguing for the social dimension of science. But in The World, the Flesh, and the Devil, one of the later books in the series, from 1929, he is electrifyingly visionary. The section on ‘the World’ imagines space travel, not in rockets (jets not having been invented yet; sci-fi astronauts were usually shot up like human cannonballs) but in gigantic, city-sized, self-sustaining spheres able to travel indefinitely in search of new worlds and resources. It is the section on ‘the Flesh’ that gets Bernal’s youthful imagination into overdrive. He sees the function of science as to overcome the limitations of the world; and the main limitation on the body is mortality. So his thought experiment is to see how best to extend longevity. He suggests that people will be able to live much longer by transferring the brain to a machine host, protecting it against bodily failures. This host then offers ways of enhancing not just bodily strength, but also sensation. He argues it would be better if we connected the brain to additional senses: why not x-ray vision, and certainly radio.
None of these elements is entirely unprecedented. But together they let Bernal do four new things. First, his is the earliest sophisticated vision of the cyborg. There were clockwork men and robots, but before the inventions which seem commonplace now of artificial hips and pacemakers, this was an extraordinary leap. Second, it is also the first elaboration of what philosophers call the ‘brain in a vat’ idea. This usually features in arguments about whether we can tell simulation from reality; i.e., if your brain was kept alive in a vat and electrical impulses were passed to it which corresponded to walking and looking at a landscape, would you be able to tell you weren’t outdoors?
But Bernal was more interested in thinking than walking. It followed from his wiring his cyborgs directly into radio that they could be in touch, not just with one another, but with everybody (even those space explorers across the universe). And this made a new form of thought possible; a super-intelligence, or what has since become known as a ‘hive mind’. Again, there had been notions of telepathy earlier, or mystical communion. But Bernal’s third invention was to imagine how it might practically be achieved. The other startling consequence he draws out of such a possibility is that if your mind is connected to other minds, and your thoughts are circulating in the crowd, then they achieve a form of immortality even after the brain eventually succumbs to mortality.
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We might now say, they have been uploaded. And that is the fourth innovation. For in imagining a population all interconnected by radio, he has effectively invented the wireless internet. Before the invention of the computer. Some of the other writers for the series nearly got computers. But not quite. That was a quantum leap just beyond them. But their example shows us why we need great futurology now – otherwise what will show us where emerging technologies like quantum computing might leap us?
That is why I’ve collaborated with my Birmingham colleague Lisa Gee and poet Don Paterson, to launch a new series called FUTURES, which aims to reboot To-Day and To-Morrow for the twenty-first century.
The first five volumes are just out. The Future of British Politics by Frankie Boyle; The Future of Serious Art by Bidisha; The Future of Men by Grace Campbell; The Future of Stuff by Vinay Gupta; and The Future of Seduction by Mia Levitin. Like the futurologists of the jazz age, they are by turns funny and serious, thinking about society as well as technology. What they try to do above all is to imagine what the future might be like; and to imagine how it might be different. As when blockchain expert Vinay Gupta imagines how AI will enable us to become more effective ethical agents in the market: ‘we are going to automate morality’. Or when Mia Levitin sees a fork in the path: 'Eventually, either Big Tech will go the way of Big Tobacco or we will become transhuman'.
1. World’s biggest computer chip can simulate the future ‘faster than the laws of physics’, creators claim
2. Chinese scientists 'build quantum computer able to perform nearly 100 trillion times faster than the world's most advanced supercomputer'
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