Saturday, April 02, 2016

Can we predict what physics, world will look like in 2116?

We can but the predictions are almost certain to be wrong.

Physics Today will pay you $7,500 if you write the best essay, according to a jury of physicists, about physics in 2116 and if you submit it by June. In the new issue of Physics Today, Frank Wilczek has already attempted to win:
Physics in 100 years
He's great but do I think he has succeeded? Do I think it's possible to succeed at all? One hundred years is a very long time and it's hard to make predictions, especially those about the future.

But the 21st century isn't the first century in which people are intelligent and to have an idea whether it makes sense to be this ambitious, we may start by evaluating the predictions about the future that people made in the past.

First, I can't resist to copy Robert Ščerba's list of 15 bad tech predictions at Forbes because it's so comical yet insightful:
1876: “The Americans have need of the telephone, but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys.” — William Preece, British Post Office.

1876: “This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication.” — William Orton, President of Western Union.

1889: “Fooling around with alternating current (AC) is just a waste of time. Nobody will use it, ever.” — Thomas Edison

1903: “The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty – a fad.” — President of the Michigan Savings Bank advising Henry Ford’s lawyer, Horace Rackham, not to invest in the Ford Motor Company.

1921: “The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to no one in particular?”

1946: “Television won’t be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.” — Darryl Zanuck, 20th Century Fox.

1955: “Nuclear powered vacuum cleaners will probably be a reality within 10 years.” — Alex Lewyt, President of the Lewyt Vacuum Cleaner Company.

1959: “Before man reaches the moon, your mail will be delivered within hours from New York to Australia by guided missiles. We stand on the threshold of rocket mail.” — Arthur Summerfield, U.S. Postmaster General.

1961: “There is practically no chance communications space satellites will be used to provide better telephone, telegraph, television or radio service inside the United States.” — T.A.M. Craven, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) commissioner.

1966: “Remote shopping, while entirely feasible, will flop.” — Time Magazine.

1981: “Cellular phones will absolutely not replace local wire systems.” — Marty Cooper, inventor.

1995: “I predict the Internet will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse.” — Robert Metcalfe, founder of 3Com.

2005: “There’s just not that many videos I want to watch.” — Steve Chen, CTO and co-founder of YouTube expressing concerns about his company’s long term viability.

2006: “Everyone’s always asking me when Apple will come out with a cell phone. My answer is, ‘Probably never.’” — David Pogue, The New York Times.

2007: “There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share.” — Steve Ballmer, Microsoft CEO.
Most of these predictors who got it so amusingly wrong were very famous or extremely powerful and their occupation and their fame could have led everyone to believe that they're the most reliable folks who could predict things. But the predictions are so wrong that we may use them for entertainment. Many of these predictions are the "exact opposites" of the truth as we know it. Sometimes, the people were victims of a wishful thinking (e.g. Ballmer). Sometimes, they were too worried (the YouTube guy). But in all cases, they should have better shut their mouth!

Or look at these futuristic French illustrations from 1899-1901 and 1910 about the year 2000. Some of those pictures resemble the present a little bit – but they may still be closer to the year 1900. When we look at those pictures with the hindsight, it's pretty self-evident that these are not actual pictures of the world in 2000 but some historical attempts to predict the future.

I think it's a good idea to try to analyze in detail why those pictures don't look like realistic predictions of the year 2000.

First, everything seems to be flying there – people have small personal airplanes. But flying is hard because of the laws of physics that people already knew in 1900. These problems make it a bit impractical. It's still possible that people will be flying in personal airplanes in 2050 but our belief in that scenario has surely decreased. It looks unnecessarily unsafe. Maybe we're too obsessed by safety or too regulated by the governments which don't want to allow us to fly personal airplanes. But whatever the exact reasons are, it doesn't seem that we were going in that direction. Moreover, the people in the flying machines were unprotected against the wind – they were dressed just like the pedestrians and there were no glasses around the interiors of the flying machines. It just seems unlikely that we will fly in this way.

Second, the people's outfits still look like the year 1900, not 2000. The fashion has changed dramatically. Regular people on the street have much less fancy dresses than they were imagining. I would go much further. People on the street had more elegant outfits in 1900 than we have today. Gentlemen had hats and suits and so on. They were trying to emulate higher classes. The contemporary fad is basically the other way around. Everyone including the wealthy folks wants to resemble the most generic masses. There are tons of things about the fashion and architecture that we should better perfectly copy from the year 1900 simply because things have deteriorated since that time.

Third, robots are found everywhere on the pictures and it's fine. But their design still looked like the machines in the late 19th century, nothing like the modern design we are used to today. The robots were either similar to simple configurations of metallic plates and levers; or they were attempting to resemble some animals etc. This is not what the machines look like in the modern era. Machines have developed their very complicated design that is specific for the machines. It tries to copy neither the animals nor the simplest machines. It has its own standards of elegance – which are influenced by aerodynamical and other considerations.

I suppose that the "design of the very far future" is impossible to predict. If someone could predict what machines will look like in 2116, he could get very rich already today. For example, the Red Dot Design Award 2 days ago for the best product in the world went to Ms Anna Marešová for her year-2116-style vibrator. Who could have thought that this shape beats the shapes developed by Nature – men are no longer at the top. ;-) She clearly got lots of money via IndieGogo, too. I think that the people in 1916 would agree that the cars produced in 2016 are far more perfect and impressive than the things they could produce or even imagine. And I think it's extremely likely that we would react in the same way if we were shown machines produced in 2116.

Fourth, the whole "information revolution" was basically overlooked by all the pictures. They couldn't think about it at all. People on those pictures from 1900 had no smartphones, MP3 players, they weren't even watching TVs or playing massive online 3D games. What the life would be in 2000 without all these basic things? Dear French illustrator, you have to get an F from the IT course, sorry.

The old French illustrations are cute but you could explain them as a simple extrapolation of the things that were getting widespread in 1900, combined with some often unrealistic ambitions about "what we can achieve". If these extrapolations show a "direction", it's always a direction extracted from the changes in a particular decade or two. But a century is much longer than a decade or two.

Even when I remember my childhood, the (early) 1980s in particular, I can identify lots of silly predictions about the year 2000. At that time, the talk about the nuclear war was everywhere. And I remember that in the science programs and science museums, people were constantly asking "Will the animals [or some animals] survive to the year 2000?" Many of the wild predictions about the space research were vastly exaggerated – the space researched has weakened, not strengthened, in the following 20 years, while the smartphone etc. revolution was largely missed. And it was just 20 years.

In his 1985 song "Everything onto Mars", Czech singer Dalibor Janda has predicted that in 2005 and 2006, horses and/or trees (and, at the end, humans) would be launched to Mars because they're redundant. I am afraid that it will be expensive to send so much meat to Mars for quite some time. And coffee was predicted to be superseded by "Bienergit", some pills. All these predictions were quite silly and probably not meant seriously (and they used the Jules-Verne-based visuals which suggest that they realized that they were just doing arts, not real predictions). But make no mistake about it – totally failed predictions about the year 2000 were everywhere around us even in 1985.

One more song, the 1980 song by the rock band named Katapult (funnily, my father loves to conflate these two songs). Interestingly, it was about the year 2006 as well – a popular year in the early and mid 1980s. ;-) By 2006, everyone will have moved to large cities (well, not quite). A highway will be stretched around the Earth (whatever it means). We will be proud about everything we can do. It will be too late to ask: What about children, do they have a place where to play? (The main question of the song.) This is actually a good point. But children ceased to play outside. What we were doing with my friends around 1980 would be considered unacceptably unsafe by most parents today. But the kids are sort of happy today – and it's likely that what they're doing (like playing games on tablets) makes them happier than we were while outside. Also, the raw materials were predicted to be taken from the Moon and the weather was supposed to be regulated by a satellite. Holiday trips to Venus (not yet), computers thinking instead of us (partly). Factories producing trees, artificial grass in front of the houses (possible but the demand isn't high). Prosperity across the world, everything can be produced, and children have no place to play.

What about the evolution of physics and physical theories by the year 2116? Can we predict what those will look like in 2116?

In his article, Wilczek summarizes some basic history of the 20th century physics and then he enumerates a couple of themes that he believes to "gain strength" such as
  • symmetries which will be even more omnipresent. He mentions SUSY and grand unification as examples that are not quite yet established now
  • the multiverse – he repeats the current "big questions" on whether some parameters are environmental in origin
  • axions – it's Wilczek's pet topic that he places on the third place
  • quantum gravity – Wilczek offers amorphous remarks about the existence of string theory, too
  • transition from ant's view to God's view of the birth of the Universe – these comments may be fundamentally wrong (because he may join those who are trying to remove the observer from the laws of physics which isn't possible)
  • the rise of algorithms – computers control many things in 2116
  • projects at the galactic and greater scale – gravitational wave astronomy, exoplanets, and similar things
OK, Wilczek is a smart and playful man. But I think that to present these ideas as a "picture of physics in 2116" seems like a way too ambitious goal to me. Wilczek's essay could perhaps be correlated with physics discussions in 2020. But 2116? Sorry, I don't buy it. I think it's pretty much guaranteed that Wilczek's thoughts will seem as silly in 2116 as the French illustrations from 1900 seem today.

Almost all the ideas that Wilczek discusses are "topics that physicists have focused on for 5-20 years". The answers to related questions and the way how these things are discussed and where they will have evolved by 2116 will almost certainly eliminate all resemblance to Wilczek's guesses.

By the way, when I was writing the previous paragraph, I was just bombarded by Wilczek's tweet about the threat of the nuclear war and climate change in the next 100 years. Apparently, some PC individual has pointed out to Wilczek that he has completely forgotten to mention that by 2116, the world will have been destroyed by an apocalypse discussed by the global warming crackpots, so Wilczek has immediately corrected this "omission" via Twitter. Please, all these things are so painful and readable. But let me return to the more serious part of Wilczek's prophesies.

In general, the timescale or "durability" of these topics is comparable to a decade, not a century. For example, take gravitational waves. It's arguably the most important discovery in the recent year or many years. The gravitational wave detectors will spread in 100 years and they will become new observatories that will give us some complementary information about the Universe. But they will probably remain a "minority" of sources of information. The excitement will turn into business-as-usual in a few years. The high prominence of the gravitational waves in Wilczek's picture of the year 2116 probably means that it's much closer to a picture of the year 2016, after all.

Axions. Wilczek loves them, he helped them to be born. They may be found or not. There may exist many axions if Nature is the stringy scenario known as "axiverse" is realized. But even if that is the case, and in fact, even when if the dark matter is wholly composed of axions, they will remain just some scalar particles similar to others – which are ultimately less important than other particles, less strongly interacting, and only fulfilling some "isolated technical tasks" in Nature.

Other particle types or subtypes may become important just in a few years from now – and surely in 100 years.

Quantum gravity. I don't see anything 2116-like in Wilczek's comments about quantum gravity at all. This looks like a sketch that could be included in a grant proposal funding a quantum gravity research in the next 3 years. Moreover, Wilczek's ambiguous assertions about string theory suggest that he hasn't quite understood the lessons that physics already learned in 1984 if not 1974 if not 1968 (let alone the big questions that the researchers are addressing in 2016). Isn't it a better idea to understand the present situation in the field before you decide to claim to know something about the year 2116? I am confident that either the mankind will become a bunch of savages that will have basically abandoned or banned fundamental physics; or it will have been totally clear that back in 2016, the string theory denialists will have been as ludicrous as the Flat Earthers.

Symmetries are cool but it's plausible that they may only get you this far. I have strong doubts that the concept of "ever greater symmetries" is a safe recipe to extend the progress in physics. The underlying principles that made the recent paradigm shifts weren't about symmetries in the strict sense – although the new principles have played and will probably play a similar role as the symmetries. When it comes to the symmetries, maybe Wilczek isn't even describing the situation as of 2016 – maybe it's right to say that it's an outdated view of the 1960s. But 2116?

And I could continue. The multiverse. It has looked like a big polarizing question. But we're 15 years after this "multiverse" and "anthropic" topic invaded professional theoretical physics research. We may already see that the arguments have faded away. No "clear and convincing" insights have been found in one way or another. It means that all sensible people know that they don't have too strong a basis to argue with others. People could have been polarized but the arguments don't polarize things clearly – because no too strong arguments exist. I find it likely that in 2016, the right questions about similar issues won't be formulated as "the multiverse Yes/No" at all. It's possible that as the picture of the laws becomes finer, the right answers will be "semi-anthropic" or alternative in other ways.

Computers and algorithms will surely keep on growing. I think that these things grow much more quickly than people's understanding of fundamental physics – or, more generally, their interest about how the world works. But it's clear that the computers (or whatever they will have evolved to) will be important for pure science in 2116, too. I just wouldn't dare to claim that I know what their usage will look like. It seems unavoidable to me that my guesses would be as "cute" as the French illustrations from 1900 and maybe Ballmer's predictions about the iPhone.

I wasn't always too decided about the question whether it makes sense to predict the world 100 years from now. But by now, I have pretty much made my mind and I agree with the words by late Michael Crichton in his 2003 Caltech speech Aliens Cause Global Warming. Concerning the merits of 100-year-long predictions, he said:
Now we’re asked to believe a prediction that goes out 100 years into the future?

And make financial investments based on that prediction? Has everybody lost their minds?

Stepping back, I have to say the arrogance of the model-makers is breathtaking. There have been, in every century, scientists who say they know it all. Since climate may be a chaotic system-no one is sure-these predictions are inherently doubtful, to be polite. But more to the point, even if the models get the science spot-on, they can never get the sociology. To predict anything about the world a hundred years from now is simply absurd.

Look: If I was selling stock in a company that I told you would be profitable in 2100, would you buy it? Or would you think the idea was so crazy that it must be a scam?

Let’s think back to people in 1900 in, say, New York. If they worried about people in 2000, what would they worry about? Probably: Where would people get enough horses? And what would they do about all the horsešit?

Horse pollution was bad in 1900, think how much worse it would be a century later, with so many more people riding horses? But of course, within a few years, nobody rode horses except for sport.

And in 2000, France was getting 80% its power from an energy source that was unknown in 1900. Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and Japan were getting more than 30% from this source, unknown in 1900. Remember, people in 1900 didn’t know what an atom was.

They didn’t know its structure. They also didn’t know what a radio was, or an airport, or a movie, or a television, or a computer, or a cell phone, or a jet, an antibiotic, a rocket, a satellite, an MRI, ICU, IUD, IBM, IRA, ERA, EEG, EPA, IRS, DOD, PCP, HTML, internet. interferon, instant replay, remote sensing, remote control, speed dialing, gene therapy, gene splicing, genes, spot welding, heat-seeking, bipolar, prozac, leotards, lap dancing, email, tape recorder, CDs, airbags, plastic explosive, plastic, robots, cars, liposuction, transduction, superconduction, dish antennas, step aerobics, smoothies, twelve-step, ultrasound, nylon, rayon, teflon, fiber optics, carpal tunnel, laser surgery, laparoscopy, corneal transplant, kidney transplant, AIDS. None of this would have meant anything to a person in the year 1900. They wouldn’t know what you are talking about.

Now. You tell me you can predict the world of 2100. Tell me it’s even worth thinking about. Our models just carry the present into the future. They’re bound to be wrong. Everybody who gives a moment’s thought knows it.

I remind you that in the lifetime of most scientists now living, we have already had an example of dire predictions set aside by new technology. I refer to the green revolution. In 1960, Paul Ehrlich said, “The battle to feed humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines-hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death.”

Ten years later, he predicted four billion people would die during the 1980s, ...
Obviously, he spent much more time with the insanely wrong predictions of various population and climate catastrophes – something I don't want to waste my time with here because I think that this stuff is way too cheap and stupid for this blog post. But even aside from these apocalyptic topics, Crichton has made many good points that suggest that we can't even have an idea about the "main important discoveries of gadgets or concepts" that will make the year 2116 different from 2016. If someone knew such things, he could bring "something from the year 2116" to the year 2017.

I want to say something else. Crichton was a trained physician but wrote many novels about the future, like the Jurassic Park etc. It's not just Crichton but also Spielberg and other creators of the relatively mainstream pieces of culture who may have thought more realistically about the future than some people like Wilczek who do it once. You know, Spielberg's movies and similar movies about the future pass some consistency tests, some credibility. They look like a possible future but they're not ludicrous. They're usually not tendentious – in the sense that they are trying to pay lip service to some fads of the year.

Similarly to Jules Verne (who correctly estimated e.g. the time needed to get to the Moon within a few percent), the filmmakers may have some skills by which they exceed most other people. But the smartest ones among them still realize that it's silly to take any of these guesses too seriously. It's a bit disappointing if Frank doesn't realize that.

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