Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Book Review: 'What the Future Looks Like' by Jim Al-Khalili

Risky Business

When I was born, the five biggest cities were New York, Tokyo, London, Osaka and Paris. Today, they are Tokyo, Delhi, Mexico, Shanghai and Sao Paulo. No one predicted that. Soon Mumbai and Beijing will displace the laggards. The point is, how do we justify predicting the future? Meaning, beyond simply The Jetsons? Jim Al-Kahlili’s collection of essays stabs at it from numerous angles. They are arranged from the inside out: microbiology, artificial intelligence, diminishing biodiversity, climate change, robotics, apocalypse, space travel, and time travel/teleportation.

For the most part, it is all reasonable and recognizable. Scientific breakthroughs are extrapolated and exploded, posing some possibilities for future exploits and exploitation. One of the recurring ideas is DNA as a replacement for digital ones and zeroes in a base eight system. The amount of data in DNA is staggering, and if we can adapt that to our computers, it will be an order of magnitude beyond anything we’re drooling over today.

The book is for a general audience, so even though its chapters come from various academics and PhDs, the words and sentences are easy to read and understand. It is what is now called accessible. This is fortunate, as many of the topics are not understood by anyone at all. How artificial intelligence programs result in the results they do is a mystery. Quantum physics is famous for being incomprehensible. Biochemistry is right in there, opening new vistas we never knew of. We don’t even have names for things biologists are discovering.

Of the 18 chapters, seven are by women scientists, the first time I have come across anything like a balanced presentation. That is as refreshing as the book itself.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.

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