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Are you ready for the future?

Reasons for hope and for concern

By CNN's Michael Bay
Robots and smart machines will be everywhere in the future.

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Future Summit

ATLANTA (CNN) -- Hold on tight.

The future is coming faster than you think.

CNN Future Summit is looking ahead to the future, at how technology is going to change and shape our lives. We've asked a number of scientists, futurists, scholars and writers to join us for an ongoing discussion about how technology, science and society will develop in coming decades. And we want you to participate. Each week, we'll pose a new question and ask for your feedback.

We begin with a look at where we've been, where we're going, and hopes and concerns about the future.

Life 50 years ago

Remember what life was like in 1956? Even if you only know it from books and movies, you know it's a far cry from life today.

Satellites were still a year away, so there was no global network to link us all, to show us our world and what lies beyond.

Computers were just making the transition from vacuum tubes to transistors. Putting a computer on your lap would have crushed your legs.

The mobility of your phone was limited to the length of the cord attached to the wall. You might have had a personal assistant, but certainly not a digital one.

Television programs were still mostly broadcast in black and white. The very first videotape recorder was being introduced, but it would be decades before you bought one for your home.

There were some key discoveries being made in medicine, but there was still much we didn't know about the underlying causes of many diseases.

Calder Hall, the first large scale nuclear reactor, began operation in England. The average price of a barrel of oil was $2.94 ($21.30 adjusted for inflation, less than a third of what it costs today).

Life in the future

Now imagine what life might be like in future. Go ahead. Close your eyes.

You'll be healthier than ever and you'll potentially live much longer, thanks to individualized medicine made possible by genetic testing and a growing understanding of human biology.

Diabetics will undergo stem cell therapy to replace the islet cells in their pancreas. Or perhaps they'll just get a whole new pancreas, grown from their own stem cells.

People will recover from traumatic accidents, through either biological or technical means. Artificial limbs will provide tactile sensory feedback directly to the nervous system, and will be made, partially or completely, from organic materials.

Nanotechnology will provide tiny machines that will revolutionize industry and manufacturing, and will also be deep inside our bodies, repairing damage we may never realize exist.

We'll be living in a world filled with machines, which will be far smarter than ever before. Perhaps they'll be smarter than we are. Robots and smart machines will be everywhere, doing all manner of work, from basic manual labor to designing the next generation of technology. Some of those machines will be moving around, looking very much like the beings that created them. Some of them will be living in your home, perhaps helping to take care of your children, or your elderly parents.

Alternative energy sources will help power an energy hungry world. Genetic designers may be creating artificial life forms that could solve energy needs and cleaning up environmental pollution.

When will this come about? That depends on who you ask. Many scientists hesitate to make predictions. There are many challenges to be overcome still, and no guarantees on how long it will take to overcome them. Others say the future is coming faster than you can imagine, and that the pace of discovery is increasing faster every year.

Radical changes ahead

These developments are going to have a radical effect on our lives, our societies, cultures and economies. Humanity will live in a world vastly different than today, with many common problems we face today long solved, and new challenges facing us.

As communities and societies, we'll be forced to face changes unique in history. People living healthier and longer will challenge us to ensure their quality of life. Artificial life and artificially intelligent machines will challenge our notions of ourselves. Robots may become an intimate part of our societies. Nanotechnology and materials science, as well as many other technologies, may have a profound impact on global economies. And we may be venturing farther in space than ever before. Will mankind be living on Mars and elsewhere in our solar system?

These changes won't happen overnight. Tomorrow morning, your world will still look like it did today. But consider this: If tomorrow, you spend a few minutes reading a blog on the web, or searching for information on a search engine, you'll be doing something that was impossible just thirteen years ago.

"The word blog hardly existed three years ago," points out futurist Ray Kurzweil. "People didn't use search engines five or six years ago. The first reference to the world wide web was in 1993 in the New York Times."

So how should we view the changes that await us in coming decades? Should we be optimistic about the years ahead, or worried about what the future holds?

A sense of optimism

"For I dipped into the future,
far as human eye could see,
Saw the vision of the world,
and all the wonder that would be"
- Alfred Tennyson

"I'm optimistic about the future because I don't see any end in sight of how we can develop," says Rodney Brooks, the director of MIT's Robotics Lab. "I see us pushing ahead quite well, and I'm looking forward to technology unfolding and coming more to my life as I get older and older."

"We have certainly made great advances over the last century," says Australian genetics researcher Lyn Griffiths. "And I expect will make many more - all of which contribute to our quality of life." But Griffiths notes, "It would be good to see medical advances and quality of life more equitably distributed."

"I feel optimistic about the way applications of science for the health and welfare of a large majority of people in the developing world are taking shape," says Dorairajan Balasubramanian, Director of Research at the L.V. Prasad Eye Institute in Hyderabad, India.

start quoteI clearly see the potential for harnessing the power of natureend quote
-- Craig Venter

"As a scientist," says Craig Venter, "I clearly see the potential for harnessing the power of nature." Venter, who led the team that was first to sequence the human genome, is now working to engineer life forms he believes can help provide alternative energy sources.

"One can imagine a more interesting world, perhaps even a healthier world than today," says Hugh Herr, of MIT's Biomechatronics Group. "But we have to architect it, and do everything we can to make it happen." Herr says that in the future, "it may be possible to be anywhere on the globe and give the world your service, and also receive the world's services. That's an interesting world, because you can live anywhere. You can live in Greenland and play a violin in Paris, if that's what you do."

"The pace of scientific discovery seems to be getting faster," says Brown University neuroscientist John Donoghue. "Both technology and biomedicine have the potential to make what would now seem to be unbelievable new advances to cure or prevent disease and to help people to live more fulfilling lives." Donoghue serves as the director of the Brown University Brain Science Program. "The exciting trend toward integrating engineering, biology, mathematics and physics will create new ways of thinking and bring new ideas to practical use."

"I am optimistic about the future growth of technology," says John Searle, a University of California Berkeley Philosophy professor, "because I think improved understanding in such areas as genetics, physics, chemistry, medicine, physiology, and especially neurobiology will enable us to prolong life, improve health, and overcome poverty and malnutrition."

"Mankind adapts rapidly to innovation, often in spite of itself," says Mark Reed, Yale University professor of Engineering and Applied Science. "We are amazingly adaptable, which is why we survived - our progeny will not only adapt, they will excel."

Hans Moravec, a roboticist serving as chief scientist at Seegrid, sees improvements in computers as a reason for optimism: "In all fields of science, computers make new things possible, because more and more science is done computationally. You can simulate things, so can you can try out things where the experiments may be hard or impossible to do. And you learn things, enormously surprising things often from simulations."

Reasons for concern

"The person who does not worry about the future
will shortly have worries about the present."

- Chinese Proverb

Venter worries about the quality of science education: "That's our key to the future, if we have bright, well educated children coming up to pick up the next level of challenge, we have a chance for a very positive future."

That's a concern shared by Professor Balasubramanian. "While creativity and intellectual brilliance is common to all nations," he says, "kindling them and making them blossom seems to happen in but 30 or so counties out of the 192 in the world." Balasubramanian also expresses concern about how science is managed and applied by governments and businesses. "Useful science," he says, "is now increasingly thought of in commercial terms."

"What makes me a little pessimistic is whether we can think long term enough to solve some of our big problems," says Brooks. "We have to worry about energy. We have to worry about global warming. We have to worry about health care and social security. Many of these things require some long term thinking, and I think that's going to be hard for us to figure out how to do."

start quoteI am afraid that the long term future we are building will have no space left for human beings.end quote
-- Daniela Cerqui

"I am afraid that the long term future we are building will have no space left for human beings," says Daniela Cerqui, a social and cultural anthropologist. "The main values of our so-called information society are related to data that must circulate and be processed as quickly as possible, and computers are much better than humans in these tasks."

"Human beings are characterized by their ability to give a meaning to what happens and take decisions about what they want," says Cerqui, who serves as a lecturer at the Institute of Sociology and Anthropology of the University of Lausanne. "If aware that the future of humankind is at stake -- and it is, definitely! -- people will hopefully react and try to preserve themselves."

"There are limits to what technology can do for us," Searle points out. "One of the really great sources of pessimism about the future is the likelihood that we will have unexpected epidemics. My medical friends assure me that it is quite likely that we will have a return of the type of flu epidemic that occurred worldwide in 1918 and killed far more people than were killed in the First World War. Global warming continues apace as does the general pollution of our environment. We can look forward to increased number of hurricanes like Katrina, and more unpredicted earthquakes and tidal waves."

"Though technology may be beneficial in many ways and we humans may adapt both intellectually and physically," says robotics expert Joanne Pransky, "I question our ability to emotionally, socially, and psychologically acclimate at the same exponential rate. How are we humans to adapt to change that rapidly? How are people to have effectiveness, self-efficacy, and direct control of their environments?"

"For a technologist," says roboticist Ron Arkin, "it becomes very hard to predict what the end-products of our research will eventually be used for, and what unsuspecting outcomes will arise, for better or worse. As a designer of technological artifacts such as intelligent robotic systems, this gives me pause to think about the consequences or our endeavors."

"The future of the human race is too important to leave to politicians and corporations," says Reed. "A scientifically educated global population will help us focus on the truly important problems, such as energy - arguably the most important crisis we as a species will face - instead of wasting efforts on petty squabbles for short term economic and political gain."

Moravec says he finds it hard to be a pessimist. "It's true, we could mess up. We are just coming out a situation where we were well set up to mess up in a very big way, namely, we had 50,000 nuclear warheads aimed at each other on a hair trigger. Now that was a situation that was genuinely dangerous. And it wouldn't have taken very much and would have set us back at least quite a while."

Hugh Herr cites the ability for people to obtain very powerful weapons as one reason for concern over the future. Another is the growing role of technology in our lives. "Machines systematically taking over what humans do is not a healthy thing," Herr says. "There are certainly many areas of danger. It's important to do this, start talking about it, create a dialogue, and try to push things and, so we end up at a place that's reasonably healthy."

Join the conversation

We want to know how you feel about the future and we invite you to participate in this discussion. Send us your thoughts about what reasons you have to feel optimistic or pessimistic about the future of science and technology.

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