According to Einstein’s theory of relativity, the future is out there, waiting for us – all times, past, present and future, pre-existing and permanent in a static four-dimensional spacetime. And yet our consciousness is stuck in an ever-changing now, crawling along the time axis, welcoming the future as we gobble it up, then leaving it in our wake as it transforms into the past. But we are never able to see what is ahead of us. It is an incontestable fact that we cannot predict the future, despite the claims of psychics and fortune-tellers.
On a metaphysical level, whether our future is predestined or open, whether our fate is sealed in a deterministic universe or whether we have the freedom to shape it as we wish, is still a matter of debate among scientists and philosophers. Sometimes, of course, we can be reasonably confident what will happen – indeed some future events are inevitable: the Sun will continue to shine (for another few billion years anyway), the Earth will continue to spin on its axis, we will all grow older, and the team I follow, Leeds United, will always leave me disappointed at the end of every football season.
In other ways, the future can unfold in completely unexpected ways. Human culture is so rich and varied that very often events happen in ways no one could have predicted. So, while there will have been a few who foretold Donald Trump’s US election victory in 2016, no one can (thus far) predict when and where the next big natural disaster – maybe an earthquake or a flood – might strike.
Predictions about the way in which our lives will change thanks to advances in science and technology are spread across that wide expanse between the inevitable and the utterly unforeseen. The most reliable, and imaginative, soothsayers when it comes to conjuring up the future are usually science fiction writers, but how many of them before 1990 described a world in which the internet would connect all our lives in the way it does today? The World Wide Web still sounds fantastical when you stop to think about it.
Solutions to our global problems will require financial, geopolitical and cultural elements as well as scientific and engineering ones, but it is clear that harnessing our knowledge of the natural world, as well as the use of innovation and creativity in the technologies that exploit any new science, is going to be more vital than ever in the coming decades.
It is also undeniably true that the implementation of new technologies, whether in AI, robotics, genetics, geoengineering or nanotechnology, to name but a few exciting current areas of rapid advancement, must be carefully considered and debated. We cannot afford to allow ourselves to be propelled headlong into an unknown future without carefully exploring the implications, both ethical and practical, of our discoveries and their applications. Many examples come to mind, such as the way robots are already beginning to replace humans in the workplace, how we can best guard against cyber terrorism, or the way we use up our natural resources while destroying habitats and threatening the ecosystem as the world’s population grows both in size and greed. But I am painting a bleak picture, and our future need not look like that.
It is important to remember that scientific knowledge in itself is neither good nor evil – it’s the way we use it that matters. You can be sure that within a decade or two we will have AI-controlled smart cities, driverless cars, augmented reality, genetically modified food, new and more efficient forms of energy, smart materials, and a myriad of gadgets and appliances all networked and talking to each other. It will be a world almost unrecognisable from today’s, just as today’s world would appear to someone in the 1970s and 1980s. One thing we can say with certainty is that our lives will continue to be completely transformed by advances in our understanding of how the world works and how we harness it.
You can read more of Jim Al-Khalili’s vision of the future, as well as a team of eighteen scientists and experts (including Adam Rutherford, Louisa Preston and Philip Ball) in his new book What’s Next?, which is available now.