Apr 21 2022

The Skeptics’ Guide to the Future

I am happy to announce that pre-orders are open for my upcoming book, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Future, which will be released by Grand Central Publishing on September, 27th. You can preorder your book here.

This was a particularly fun book to write, with my two brothers, Bob and Jay (who also co-host the SGU podcast with me). This is our second book, with Evan and Cara also contributing to the first one (The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe). In this new book we explore futurism itself – what have we learned from past attempts at predicting the future and how can we use those lessons to perhaps do a little better? We explore, for example, what I call “futurism fallacies”, common errors in trying to extrapolate our world into a vision of the future. One common fallacy is to extrapolate current trends indefinitely into the future, even though this is generally not the path that history has taken. Disruptive technologies, changing priorities, the interaction among various types of technology, and evolving culture all introduce zigs and zags into the course of history, and therefore the future.

Is futurism, therefore, doomed to failure? This is actually a matter of scholarly debate, with critics and advocates. Overall I think predicting the future is similar to predicting the weather – while it is impossible to predict the details beyond a very short window, we can make broad predictions about the climate. Similarly we can say that technology will not only continue to advance but the pace of that advance is accelerating. We explore those individual technologies that are just emerging and most likely to have a profound impact on our future, such as genetic engineering, additive manufacturing, artificial intelligence, and metamaterials. There are also some established technologies that will continue to advance, expanding into new niches, such as robotics.

We also discuss technologies that are just in the conceptual stage, and give our opinion as to whether or not they are likely to ever come to fruition. We will likely have fusion power someday, but I doubt we will ever have a space elevator (at least not on Earth).

Fusion power is also a great example of how it is easier to make broad predictions rather than detailed ones. Given the current state of investment and research, in addition to the undeniable benefits, it seems like a safe bet that we will develop fusion power. In fact, I would bet that fusion power will dominate for most of our future, especially as we move out into the solar system and farther away from the sun.  Predicting, however, which approach to fusion will eventually win out is much harder. There are several competing approaching. One is to use magnetic confinement, with the most advanced prototypes using a torus-type shape (tokamak design) and powerful superconducting magnets to maintain a fuel plasma at very high temperature and pressures. These reactors have achieved fusion, but not sustained fusion, and cannot produce more net energy than they consume. There is also the pinch method of magnetic confinement, which attempts to squeeze a stream of plasma to high density. The leading contender for a tokamak fusion reactor is the ITER, which will begin low power test operations in 2025.

The main competitor to magnetic confinement is inertial confinement, physically squeezing down the fuel to a density which produces fusion. The primary method of doing this uses multiple powerful lasers to heat a chamber which then implodes down onto the fuel. Perhaps the leading project here is the National Ignition Facility. They have also produced fusion, and even “burning plasma” where some of the fusion is produced by energy from the fusion itself. But still they have not generated net energy, but they are a little bit ahead in the race. Bob and I in particular have been debating which approach is more likely to cross the finish line first.

And then, just recently, both of us get blind-sided by a new contender – projectile fusion. This is an entirely different approach to fusion power (although is still considered inertial confinement). Basically a target containing fuel for fusion is dropped into a reaction chamber. A high velocity projectile is then shot at about 20 times the speed of sound into the target as it’s falling. The impact causes shockwaves that produce cavitation that then collapses inward onto the pellet of fuel, rapidly squeezing it down to the point of fusion (and accelerating it to 200 times the speed of sound). This causes a burst of fusion which releases a tremendous amount of heat. That heat is absorbed by liquid lithium in the reaction chamber, which then heats water which turns into steam to turn a turbine to generate electricity. So instead of attempting to produce sustained fusion, they are just trying to produce bursts of fusion. They have already achieved fusion, but again have not produced net energy and will have to build a larger facility in hopes of doing that.

This is the kind of innovation that makes predicting the details of future technology nearly impossible. We now have three main contenders for fusion technology, and at least one underdog (the pinch method). It is high probability that one or more of these methods will be producing fusion power in the future. But we cannot say which technology will win, or if multiple approaches will succeed, or if some entirely new approach will eclipse them all. It’s also hard to say how long it will take. Will we have fusion in 20 year? I think it’s unlikely but not impossible. How about 50 years? That is more of a coin-flip. What about 100 year? That seems like almost a certainty (but again, people in the future may look back at my naive predictions and smile). Further still, if and when we do develop fusion power, how will that affect the world? How will it mesh with other advancing energy technologies, like solar power? Will it have implications for other technologies, like space travel?

We explore all of these questions, about dozens of technologies. We also explore the plausibility of sci-fi technologies that are now only a dream. Does anti-gravity have any plausibility? Will quantum computing change the world, have only extreme niche applications, or fizzle out entirely? Throughout we try to blend our enthusiasm with hard skepticism.

Exploring these questions is a lot of fun, and along the way we learned a great deal about current cutting edge technologies, and the history of science and technology.


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