Science fiction never predicts the future, but it often anticipates things to come. Of these three breakthrough visions of science fiction, which do you believe will happen first?

  1. The AI Singularity
  2. A self-sustain colony on Mars
  3. Humans leaving the solar system

It feels like the vast majority of science fiction has been about space travel, especially interstellar travel. Star Trek and Star Wars certainly suggest that’s what we hope will happen. Mars has always been a popular destination in science fiction, and in the old days, a common source of Earth invaders. And finally, robots are that other big science-fictional idea that has been kicking around for centuries.

I grew up with Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space programs in the 1960s. When I graduated high school in 1969 I was predicting we’d land on Mars by the late 1970s or early 1980s, and by the 21st-century, be building a colony. That prediction failed miserably. Nor do I expect it will happen anytime soon, despite the successes of Elon Musk.

As a kid, I wanted the 1966 TV show Star Trek to herald the future of mankind. Since then I’ve learned to say humankind, which is another kind of progress. After a lifetime of reading science books, I realize interstellar travel will probably never happen — well not for us.

That leaves intelligent robots. Everything depends on the Technological Singularity. If it’s possible, and I believe it might be, even as early as 2030-2050, when a world full of intelligent robots might begin. Once our laboratories evolve one superintelligence, it will create the next, and after that, the robot transformation will happen fast. Who knows, AI robots could help us build a colony on Mars and even engineer interstellar spaceships. However, the long voyages into space will be better suited for silicon-based beings. Isn’t it becoming obvious that machines are perfectly suited for colonizing space, and we’re not?

My pick? Robots will happen first, and they will have all the space exploring fun.

Are we ready for that? Despite all the science fiction books and movies about robots becoming our evil overlords, are we ready to be the #2 intelligence on planet Earth? I’m not sure we’ve thought this through carefully. I’d say most science fiction hasn’t explored the idea of intelligent machines deeply enough. Too often, robot characters are just silly, or variations of ourselves. I do think Robert Sawyer did a good job with his WWW Trilogy, but we need more science fiction about a post-singularity world. Not Terminators are falling from the sky stories or more stories about fuckable robots that look exactly like humans. What if The Humanoids by Jack Williamson came true, but the humanoids actually made created a utopian society? Wouldn’t that even be scarier?

James Wallace Harris, 8/3/20

10 thoughts on “Which Will Come First?

    1. That’s probably true. However, we’re spending billions on developing AI and if it’s possible to create an AI with general intelligence it could accidentally happen. We have so many of the pieces now. We have speech and language processing, vision processing, we have pattern recognition, machine learning — once they start combining these subsystems something could arise out of the interactions.

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  1. Dear James,

    I beleive the first is a prerequisite for numbers 2 and 3!

    I have recently finished “The Metamorphosis of a Prime Intellect”! A very interesting take on the post-singularity theme! I highly recommend it!

    What would be your favorite book recommendations (or any other media for that matter) envisioning a post-singularity world?

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    1. I have never heard of The Metamorphosis of a Prime Intellect but it looks interesting after researching it.

      I’m not sure I have any favorite post-singularity stories but I was impressed with the WWW Trilogy by Robert S. Sawyer which I would call at the singularity story. I’m more fond of those. They include The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, When H.A.R.L.I.E. Was One, Galatea 2.2, The Forbin Project, and stories like them.

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    2. I started reading The Metamorphosis of a Prime Intellect and it’s fun story. However, I don’t believe people will ever be converted into digital beings. Brain downloading is a fun science-fictional concept, but not realistic. I would love to read a post-singularity novel about a realistic view of how human society would change. Would we let superior AI minds solve our problems?

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      1. I read Michio Kaku’s “The Future of Humanity: Terraforming Mars, Interstellar Travel, Immortality, and Our Destiny Beyond Earth”. Very interesting read. He argues that Mind Uploading is rooted in solid science (see Human Connectome Project). He also argues that Mind Uploading will make interstellar travel possible via a technology called Laser Porting. Unfortunately most probably we will not be alive to experience that but still! 🙂

        It would be interesting if you could make a sub-genre list about post-singularity or post-human society novels! What do you think?

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