Each of the last two posts has spawned a particularly interesting comment thread. I will, a bit arbitrarily, reserve the one about monarchy (and other political systems) for a future post, and take up here - not for the first time, not for the last - the question of the limits of technology.
As regular readers know, I tend to be a technological conservative. This may be, at least in part, a generational thing. Those of us (old farts) who grew up expecting that controlled fusion, scheduled Moon flights, and Real [TM] AI were all Right Around The Corner are perhaps inclined to be cynical about claims for new technologies. We have been stung before - repeatedly.
If, on the other hand, your tech experience started with PCs, then the Internet, then the mobile Web, and now apparently credible progress toward automated cars, claims about the Next Big Thing probably look rather more convincing.
Let us look at a few familiar and popular technologies, and how they have or haven't panned out:
AI, in the old Asimovian robot or HAL 9000 sense, has to date been a pretty complete bust. The Web offers the perfect environment for the classic Turing test, and so far no prominent blogger (or even obscure one) has been outed as an AI.
But the flip side, as previously noted here, is that capabilities we once regarded as the sole province of human-like intelligence - such as winning at chess, or even Jeopardy! - have turned out to be within the reach of brute-force computing power. If we get driverless cars in the near future, or even midfuture, they will utilize a combination of sensors and processing power that would have seemed fanciful or at least unaffordable in the 1960s.
The computer revolution also has a third side: the Gutenberg-on-steroids impact it has had on communications between people. Rocketpunk-era SF predicted AI that we don't have and aren't even close to. It did not predict the Internet, not even kinda sorta. (One or two stories hinted at the idea, but it never emerged as a trope.)
Fusion power is also high on the disappointment list. There was a time when the joke was that it had been 20 years away for the last 40 years - now make that the last 60 years. My (somewhat hazy) understanding is that they are making progress, and getting fairly close to the power break-even point.Whether a technology so demanding will end up as a practical power source (or space drive) is another matter, and it is hard to be really sanguine about the prospects.
Astronautics is yet a different matter. Something to remember as we pine for those scheduled moonships is that, on a purely technical level, most of what the space evangelists promised us in 1955 has worked out just fine. Multi-stage rockets can and do reach orbit, routinely, a hundred or so times each year, even if only a handful of their missions carry humans. We have largely scouted out the Solar System, and are moving on to more detailed investigation, such as putting vehicles on Mars.
What failed to pan out in this case were optimistic assumptions about ease and - especially - cost. There is no need for this post to beat the mummified remains of that particular horse.
Now, on to biotech. I can't claim even an informed layperson's knowledge of things bio-, so I have no formal basis for believing or disbelieving much of anything. That said, my first-blush reaction is to regard pretty much everything from radical life extension to 'designer organisms' as hype.
After all, I would argue, the devil is almost always in the details. I tend to picture biotech as most likely providing such agribusiness miracles as flavorless cubical tomatoes (for more efficient packing) that remain blandly edible for decades.
I can even point to a preliminary - and perhaps premature - hint or two in that direction. Genetic technology has not, in its first decade or so, produced the patentable and profitable drugs that Big Pharma was eagerly predicting a few years ago.
The prospects may, however, be more complicated than that. Commenter Thom S, who has a professional background in the field, sketches out a few possibilities.
When I first read the comment, I confess that I was merely grumpy. On a second reading, however, it dawned on me that hardly anything described fit my stereotype of biotech pipe dreams. Nor are they mere cubical tomatoes. In fact, these informed projections compare to my vague stereotypes roughly as the Internet compares to HAL 9000.
Some technology revolutions never deliver on their early promise. Others deliver in spades. And yet others deliver not what was predicted, but instead deliver something rich and strange.
But dammit, I still want spaceships.
The quite cool image comes from Luke Campbell's Google+ page. Because, come on, when it comes to biotech, as with other fields, wouldn't you really want to do the Cool Stuff?