Recently I finished reading Soonish: Ten Emerging Technologies That’ll Improve and/or Ruin Everything, published October 17, 2017.
This being a sci-fi blog, I think it’s important to keep up to date with what’s going on in our real, meat-based world, in order to leech ideas for new sci-fi stories. And, you know, to stay informed, etc., etc.
Well, right now there’s no better way to do that than with Soonish. The authors, Kelly and Zach Weinersmith, went out into the world to find out what’s going on and where our future is headed. The chapters each tackle a current technological problem, such as cheap access to space or robotic construction or precision medicine, and discuss where we are now in that field, where we’d like to be, and what problems may arise along the way. And they do it all with a great sense of humour.
The reason I like this book so much is because it’s well-researched and well-written, and it came at exactly the time I was wondering about what’s going on in these futuristic fields! Not just that, I had an idea for a similar book in my head! Then I discovered Soonish, and thought, “Blast! They beat me to it!” But still, I’m glad this book exists. I learned a lot, and it’s the type of book I can go back to if I need to refresh my memory about the different areas of technology.
And of course, it’s perfect fodder for sci-fi stories.
But anyways, some interesting things I learned while reading Soonish:
-It costs $10,000 to send 1 pound of stuff to space. I knew space launches were ridiculously expensive, I just didn’t know the precise numbers. One of the reasons we haven’t yet realized our Star Trek space-faring dreams is because we have a thing called money on our planet, and because of it launching rockets is really expensive. If we can get the cost down, that’s one major hurdle jumped.
-If we end up with affordable space travel, such that we can begin mining asteroids for their resources, such as metals, we will inevitably run into legal problems back here Earth-side. One thing we humans are really good at is wrapping bureaucratic red tape around everything.
-Nuclear fusion is the best source of energy, but there are some important reasons why we don’t have it powering us globally yet. Mainly, it’s really hard to get it to work! Fusion is what happens inside the sun, when two hydrogen atoms crash into each other and fuse to create helium. When they crash into each other and fuse, the result gives off energy that, if captured, could be used to power our lives. Unfortunately (or fortunately), it takes a lot of energy in the first place to get those hydrogen atoms to fuse, like the energy/gravity inside the sun! But if it were economically viable, it would be great for us and the environment!
-To get back to the whole humans-creating-legal-problems thing, if we successfully develop programmable matter (one of the chapters), that can, say, reconfigure itself depending on a human’s needs, what happens when that matter messes up? This is a problem already seen with self-driving cars. If we give matter agency, allowing it to evolve and make decisions in order to help us, who is to blame when things go south?
–Soonish also talks about the inevitable relationship between humans and robots. Having autonomous robots in our everyday lives would be great for so many reasons. For example, they could assist the elderly at home or they could help us build stuff, among other applications, of course. But one thing we don’t seem to want to talk about, but that the Weinersmiths do, is what do the robots want? For example, they mention the case of a Russian robotic assistant that keeps escaping from the company’s building in which it was built! (Ex Machina, anyone?)
-Another issue with robots helping us in our everyday lives, or not everyday lives, such as building things, is that it’s hard to explain things to robots that humans might grasp relatively easily. The example given in Soonish is of bricklaying. Bricklaying requires a lot of judgment on the part of the mason, and this is difficult to teach a robot, though some companies have already done so.
-And since we can never ignore the economic fallout of emerging technologies, one interesting point made in the book is that robots helping us in our everyday lives might actually worsen income inequality, which was not what I was expecting to read. But of course, it makes sense. For example, the people trained in building the robots and fixing them might receive huge salaries, while the rest of us, not so much. Of course, we can already see this at play in our current world. Software engineers and the People of Silicon Valley are certainly earning six-figure incomes, if not more.
Okay, I won’t go over everything the book talks about because that would take a long time and it’s better if you just read it. But the above-mentioned points are just a few (very few) interesting takeaways from Soonish. Augmented reality, virtual reality, bioengineering, and more fill the rest of the book.
As a regular person, sometimes I feel I have no idea what’s going on in this world. Further, as a person who’s basically focused on the humanities my whole life, I really don’t know how technology works, and it kinda bums me out. For example, I really don’t know how my computer works, yet I rely on it every day. Same thing with my cell phone. I’m not saying I need to know how to build a laptop or cell phone, but it would be nice to have some basic tech knowledge. And that’s not to say that the humanities aren’t important. They really are! But sometimes I get the sense I’m not super well-rounded in my education. That’s why I appreciate Soonish, because it actually explains a lot of complex concepts in easy-to-understand ways, and I now have a better idea of what’s going on in the world.
So if you’re interested in what the future holds for us, check out Soonish. It’s a well-written, funny read that will get you up to speed on how the future Robot Uprising will take place.