on 3 January 2011
An extremely readable and well written book about potentially world changing emergent science, the possible implications and the characters shaping some of these alternative futures. What I liked particularly is that it doesnt claim to have all the answers - just good questions and interesting answers. Plus some remarkable moments of serendipity spiced with the authors dry comedy.
The travelogue format and the authors ability to get to speak directly with some of the worlds leading thinkers in their fields gives the book a personal feel that, together with a non-prescriptive approach, puts it well above a lot of popular science; it would appeal to a wide range of readers.
on 6 January 2011
After more than a year of travelling, researching and writing, Mark Stevenson has finally finished his first book - An Optimist's Tour of the Future. Like its writer, the book is by turns geeky, funny, thought-provoking and - at times - controversial.
An Optimist's Tour is a rollercoaster headf*ck of a book that leaves you shaking your head and muttering "wow!" as it speeds around the world asking the question "what next?" The premise is simple, but the answers are incredible and have the potential to change humanity as we know it.
Rather than all the doomsayers predicting war, famine, death, drought, pestilence, climate catastrophe and Katie Price's next book, Mark asks what would happen if all the amazing technology that scientists are working on actually comes off. What if we can make robots that can think and feel? What about cheating death and engineering humans that can live for thousands of years? Solving the energy crisis using only some humble algae or a giant cauldron? How about restoring the drought-stricken Australian outback with nothing more than a few fence panels and a motorbike?
To answer these questions, he went on an incredible journey to meet some of the most visionary (and geeky) people in the world - Google's Vint Cerf, futurist maverick Ray Kurzweil, Maldivian president Mohamed Nasheed, transhumanist Nick Bostrom, one-woman Kiwi superhero Vicki Buck and robot "godmother" Cynthia Breazeal are just a few of the characters brought to life in glorious detail. You get a real feel for what it's like to meet these people and get caught up by their energy and ideas. It helps that much of the book is written using direct quotes as the scientists set out their stalls in their own words, handily sidestepping the acres of dreary prose that can dog popular science books.
The stories they have to tell are just as vivid, and have major implications for the future of humanity. As I read the book, my mind kept filling with plots for schlocky science fiction stories - The man who lived forever! The sludge that saved the world! - but these are real-life scenarios that Mark's describing. Technology is advancing at an unprecedented pace, and he finds out that we already have - or nearly have - within our grasp a lot of the tools that we need to significantly improve human health and lifespan, reverse rising CO2 levels, solve the energy crisis and even create a networked tube of toothpaste that can re-order itself when it's empty.
But here's the rub - how do we actually cope with it all? There's a nice bit of pacing at work in the book, as Mark pulls the reader through three sections entitled Man, Machine and Earth, laying out not just the "what ifs" but the "what whens" of this new technology. It's enough to leave you feeling amazed, dazed and not a little bit frightened. How does it all fit together? What will the future look like?
It's hard to imagine that our lives will be significantly different from today in ten years time, or even 20, 30 or 50. Will it really have changed that much, or will I still be yelling down the phone at my broadband provider while dodging the feral children roaming the streets of Hackney? And haven't we always had this promise of a glorious techno-future dangled at us? It's 2011 already - I want my hoverboard, dammit!
Luckily just at this point, there's the final section - Re-boot - where Mark tries to pull it all together and make some kind of sense from the tsunami of ideas he's collected. The main conclusion seems to be that human curiosity, ingenuity and creativity has never been a problem - after all, that's why we're not (mostly) still living in caves and grunting at each other. It's whether we actually have the will, both personal and political, and the vision to embrace change and run with these new ideas that could make the world a better place.
To me, this is summed up in the quote from Mark Bedau, telling us that "Change will happen and we can either try to influence it in a constructive way, or we can try and stop it from happening, or we can ignore it. Trying to stop it from happening is futile. Ignoring it seems irresponsible." In summary, Yay! For technology, and fingers crossed for human nature.
An Optimist's Tour is an exciting and engaging book, but not just because of the gee-whizz subject matter. It's clear that Mark knows his stuff and has done his research, as the book bristles with facts, figures and scientific detail. That's not to say it's a dull read. He uses stats like Rocky uses his left hook, delivering killer blows to support his arguments. Clever analogies and metaphors, coupled with his easy-going, conversational writing style, make complicated scientific principles pop off the page into graspable reality.
Although I really enjoyed reading the book, I do have to vehemently disagree with one of Mark's premises. Duran Duran are clearly NOT better than the Pet Shop Boys. Despite this lapse in musical taste, An Optimist's Tour is an absolutely cracking read, providing plenty of food for thought and discussion, and I highly recommend it.
on 17 January 2011
In 'An Optimist's Tour of the Future', Mark Stevenson appeals to us to consider again the omnipresent relationship between humans and technology. Futurism is a strange and difficult field, and unexpected and unlikely events and processes can easily throw off specific predictions. The book is a whirlwind tour of some of the technologies that Stevenson believes may influence our future. At the start of the 21st Century, there is a widespread consensus of pessimism among many authors and commentators like Al Gore and Michael Moore; that humanity is irrevocably damaging its environment, that it is dabbling and 'playing God' in fields it does not understand, that we face brick walls that we cannot, or will not climb.
The technologies that Stevenson overviews range from the visionary -- Eric Drexler's idea of building practically anything with localized molecular manufacturing -- to the wonderfully mundane -- Bruce Barton's idea of mitigating carbon emissions by making farm animals graze in more 'natural' patterns. Stevenson avoids the pitfalls of the highly cliched futurology of the 1950's by focusing on real technologies being harnessed by real people to do real things.
The book appeals to the human spirit of progress, and adventure or 'questing'. The technologies to mitigate carbon emissions, to roll out cheap solar power, to mine rare metals and minerals from asteroids, to create genome-specific medicines and to produce fossil fuel-equivalents from viruses already exist. Although there are dangers and drawbacks (but there have been dangers and drawbacks in every technological revolution in human history) Stevenson seems to be imploring us to ask the questions: 'Why aren't these technologies and their benefits more widespread? Why aren't we doing more as a species to spread the benefits of technology to humanity?'.
This book confirmed my view that just as long as we have the will power, the investment, and the institutional innovation to tackle the challenges that 21st century life presents -- Malthusian pressures, anthropogenic global warming, global poverty, drought, ageing, pandemics, etc -- we already have the technology that can overcome them.
on 4 January 2011
And I've never felt compelled to write a review for a book before, but this book had me hooked from the first page. By the time I finished it I felt like I had been on the same journey as the author who travelled the world meeting some amazing people (most of whom I'd never heard of) who were all at the forefront of technological, scientific, environmental work that was sometimes mind-boggling (and some of it unnerved me) but was mainly awe-inspiring.
What really appealed to me about this book though was its tone - which mixes light hearted humour (I laughed out loud more than once), with some seriously serious science...but the science was so clearly explained I didn't have a chance to get lost or bored, it just kind of came to life
So refreshing to hear about things going on in the world that might just make it a much better place.
on 6 January 2011
Not many books can make you think about such questions like "what is intelligence?" and "what will happen if we all start living longer?", without boring you or sounding like a preacher talking about the end of the world, but this book keeps you wanting to know more and getting excited thinking about the ideas people have come up with in the world today.
This book kept me interested all the way through and even convinced me to look into some of the people the author meets, because frankly I was surprised I hadn't heard of them sooner.
It presents the world we live in, in a different light to what we usually hear about not doomed due to some of the various reasons presented to us by the mainstream opinion, but something to look forward to where we can think our way through some of the problems that we have today.
Overall a refreshing read, and a book that will definitely give you something to talk about.
(also I haven't read something as witty yet thought provoking since I read Hitchhikers)
on 6 March 2011
This book really made me think about the future, but not in the usual 'I-want-to-throw-myself-out-of-the-nearest-window' kind of way. I'm inspired by Mark Stevenson's vision of the future and loved being taken on this whirlwind tour of mind-bending ideas and concepts. I'm no science geek, and quite often this kind of writing goes over my head, but this book tackles some complex subjects in an accessible way that made them easy to grasp. A lot of it totally blew me away, and I was amazed to learn that technologies that seem to be far-fetched in science fiction films are actually already possible. What's more, it made me laugh out loud on the bus. It looks like it's going to be an amazingly exciting future, and I'm taking this book along with me as the perfect travel guide as we hurtle towards it!
on 1 November 2011
This is a most unusual book in both scope and style. The scope is considerable, being a review of many new technologies that are profoundly reshaping our world - in many cases out of sight of most of us. Yet the style is very accessible, being written in a clear, even light-hearted, above all positive, manner.
Stevenson - a native of south London - made a 'tour' of over 60,000 miles across four continents to talk to over 30 experts about the very latest technologies, most of the gurus - it has to be said - male, aged and American. Each of the 16 chapters is centred on a number of conversations around a particular technology and could be a weekend newspaper supplement piece. If the work has a fault, it is that the material is not really integrated sufficiently into an overall analysis.
The first section is called 'Man'. It examines how ill-health can be attacked and longevity increased through medical advances such as stem cell research, synthetic biology, and personal genomics. Stevenson acknowledges that some fear how these bio-tech techniques could be misused - what he calls "the bio-error/bio-terror issue". He even mentions what has been called "the world's most dangerous idea" which is transhumanism - the notion that the human species can transcend our current bodies.
The second section is titled 'Machine". This looks at the latest developments in robotics and artificial intelligence and considers options such as the failure to achieve human-level intelligence, the attainment of sentient intelligence, and the merging of man and machine. Then it explores nanotechnology or - as some call it - molecular manufacturing which, according to Stevenson, has the potential "to end industrial capitalism, revolutionise energy production, boost the power of medicine" and more. The prospect for imminent commercial space flight is examined before, finally in this section, the future of the Net - including 'the Internet of things' and augmented reality - is discussed.
The third section is about 'Earth'. How can we combat climate change? Stevenson explores various geo-engineering solutions including carbon capture & storage techniques such as the conversion of bio-mass into charcoal and new forms of solar power such as 'thin film' solar cells. In Australia, he visits farms using grazing management techniques which deliver increased levels of soil carbon. Lastly he reminds us that the world's population has gone from about 230 million two millennia ago to seven billion today and speculates that we could stabilise at just over nine billion because increased prosperity is likely to reduce fertility rates.
The fourth and final section of the book is characterised as 'Re-boot' because Stevenson believes that these changes in technology require an equally dramatic change in our forms of thinking. Perhaps above all, we have to look beyond the notion of linear growth or change and recognise that many technologies - most notably info-tech, bio-tech and nano-tech - enable the output of a process to be fed back into the process itself so that we have what Ray Kurzwell calls "the law of accelerating returns". For instance, the power of computers is not progressing arithmetically but geometrically and this is impacting many other fields of science.
All this leads Stevenson to conclude: "As we learn to control the very atoms of matter, the mechanisms of biology, and the power of computation, there is in fact very little that we can't do in a physical (and indeed virtual) sense". Or, as Ian Drury put it in the song: "Reasons To Be Cheerful".
on 25 January 2011
Mark Stevenson is nothing if not ambitious. He wants to look into the future, as far as he possibly can, to see if it's any good.
Initially, I had some qualms about the applicability of optimism in this context, thinking that perhaps it flew in the face of realism, but the philosophy behind this book isn't about rose-tinted crystal balls. In some places, it takes current concepts of pessimism and asks for their justification. A good example is the regularly heard lament about how violent a place the modern world is. The truth might very well surprise you and tempt you to go out at night.
The book is obviously a piece close to the author's heart, and a lot of work has gone into it. Hard, unrelenting work, involving much travel to exotic locations and far off cocktail bars. It is testament to Mark's writing style that you don't hold this against him, actually being glad he made the effort.
Mark is obviously a skilled communicator and, whilst not a scientist, he is interested in science and displays a talent for scientific thinking. Coupled with a light-hearted flavour, this book examines the current state of cutting edge technology, concentrating on robotics, genetics and nanotechnology, with a chunky side order of agricultural know-how mixed in with the future of thinking and philosophy.
He then meets an absolutely staggering array of experts in these fields (interviews with whom any journalist worth their sodium chloride would give their genetically modified left-nut for) and asks them what we all want to know. Namely, how is THAT going to affect ME?
I found the section on Earth and its climate particularly evocative, in part because of the obvious connotations in respect to the entire planet, but also because I feel it was the part of his journey that affected Mark the most.
I was rather taken by the the fact that, as a man who had experienced the latest in emotional robots, in the potentials of human immortality, in the arguably crazy and/or genius predictions of world renowned futurologists, he was particularly blown away by a new concept in Australian fencing.
As was I.
So, does Mark Stevenson see into the future? And does he retain a sense of optimism?
I don't think it spoils things to say the answer to both these questions is yes, but perhaps it should be mentioned that the foreseeable future he 'discovers' is a lot shorter than even he thought it was going to be.
Strangely, and maybe counter-intuitively, I found this a source of optimism in itself.
on 9 June 2015
I haven't even finished this yet but I'm loving it so much I'm reviewing it now. I adore science (yes I did say 'adore' ... if there were a god of science I would worship it!) especially reading about what's just around the corner.
So far two concepts have blown my mind:
1) The development of bacteria that ingest CO2 & produce fuel .. how cool is that? Two problems solved in one. I'm not saying we should stop trying to be good environmentally-conscious people, but it's really not all doom and gloom (hence the word Optimist in the title I guess).
And, even better than no. 1
2) Currently 90% of drugs developed never make it to market because of their bad side effects on a v. small percentage of the population. But in the not-too-distance future your doctor will have a complete copy of your personal genome. They will be able to cross check your genetic code against a huge database which will tell them whether you are in that small percentage. The implications of this are VAST. Think about it. It means that instead of 90% of drugs being rejected, it will be more like e.g. 30% (total guess on my part) because we'll know who can and can't take them. This in turn means that the cost of drugs is bound to plummet because the drugs companies will no longer have to charge huge amounts for the few drugs that do reach market in order to cover the R&D costs of all those that failed. I'm extrapolating beyond Stevenson now, but surely then, in the not too distant future, all 7 billion of us will have access to basic medicines rather than just those lucky few of us who happen to have been born in an affluent country.
Wow, I love this stuff. While many people sit and whinge there really are hard-working scientists out there who are quietly getting on with solving the world's problems. Can't wait to read the next chapter.
What can be most annoying about futurologists is their predictions. Here the author carefully avoids going into the concrete and just presents the themes that he thinks are going to be important. These include biotechnology, nanotechology, information technology,space technology, renewable technology and climate change technology. My last technology is pushing it but the key is technology and Kurzweil's law of accelerating returns. I know some of the research and I am a Kurzweil skeptic. I think he is too vague, and has an ego to match his claims. I am also doubtful about George Church's work as biology is a lot more complex than he is prepared to admit. Finally I really doubt the AI people as they are still grounded on "If then ..." no matter how they try and make it look more human. Until you can build a machine with emotional attachment to its learning you will not get originality and human like thought. But these are criticisms of the subject matter not the book itself.
For me the most positive part is the last section where he thinks about the reboot needed to face this rapidly changing world. He is positive about the roles we can all play and he attacks the cynics and I liked that. It is also here that he touches on the problem of education which is a huge limitation on our imagination. all of big info-tech companies were founded by drop-outs. But they all only hire the best graduates. What this tells us about who will make the future I don't know. So like everyone else I will enjoy finding out.