Future Tech: An Interview with Dr Paul Halpern, Best Selling Science Author, Professor of Physics and Fellow in the Humanities at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia (Part 2)
In this Future Tech interview, we’re continuing our dicussion with Dr Paul Halpern, noted science author and Professor of Physics and Fellow in the Humanities at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia. Some of the books that Paul has written include: What’s Science Ever Done for Us?, What The Simpsons Can Teach Us About Physics, Robots, Life, and the Universe, Time Journeys, Cosmic Wormholes, Collider and Edge of the Universe. His latest book is Einstein’s Dice and Schrödinger’s Cat: How Two Great Minds Battled Quantum Randomness to Create a Unified Theory of Physics.
Check out Part 1 to see which sci-fi authors predicted submarines, the atomic bomb, robotics, getting news from phones, satellites, exponential growth in computer processing power and more.
Star Trek — More than just a TV series
Shara Evans (SE): Another one of my favourite sci-fi series is “Star Trek” and the influence that it had on so many things, particularly in the communications world. What’s your take on that? What’s your favourite gadget from the “Star Trek” universe?
Paul Halpern (PH): Well, there are a lot of high-tech gadgets in “Star Trek.” Of course there’s transporters and communicators, and there are Tricorders, for evaluating people.
Transporters are interesting. There’s been very, very little progress on this. We actually can transport atomic states of single atoms across distances, which is really remarkable, using quantum physics. But to break down somebody into their basic atoms and then to transport them for a distance — that’s far from realised today. I don’t know if anybody would trust it if somebody said, “Well, I’m going to disintegrate you into your atomic state and then transport you somewhere else.” How do you know you’re going to be the same person when they reassemble you?
On the other hand, communicators were supposed to be developed in the 23rd century, and they were predicted on “Star Trek” in the 1960s. Then you look at flip phones, flip phones from the 2000s — early 2000s, and they look just like communicators. Perhaps the idea of flipping them open like a “Star Trek” communicator was inspired by the “Star Trek” series.
SE: I’m sure it would’ve been. I had a Motorola StarTAC, and tell me a StarTAC doesn’t sound like a “Star Trek.”
PH: Yes. The weird thing is: now if the actor William Shatner took out a flip phone and said, “Scotty, beam me up,” those observing him would say, “Wow, you’re using a vintage device. That’s really retro, man!”
SE: Well, not in the original “Star Trek,” but certainly by the time we got to “Star Trek: The Next Generation”, we had replicators, where literally you can push a button and have almost anything materialise for you.
PH: Right. Now we have the 3D printers, which in some ways are like the replicators.
SE: Yes, well, I think they have the potential to become replicators, perhaps not as fully functioned as in the Star Trek universe, at least not in the near-term future.
PH: With the tricorders, they do have apps now that can take, for example, medical readings such as heartbeat and pulse and things like that, which I think is very much in the spirit of the tricorder.
SE: Yes. I’m curious, what sort of predictions do you think “Star Trek” got wrong? We don’t know if teleportation will be possible one day or not, but can you recall anything that you think they might have gotten really wrong?
PH: Well, with the space travel, I think they might be ambitious. We’ll see when we get to the 23rd century, but I think the “Star Trek” universe timeline for space travel imagines that by today we would have already colonised the solar system and have, for example, moon colonies and Mars colonies and so forth.
A lot of people from the 1960s thought, “Well, we’ll step foot on the moon, one small step, but that will turn out to be a giant leap, which means not just going to the moon but also going to Mars, setting up space colonies and so forth.” That never panned out. We still don’t know if we’ll have a lunar colony or a Mars colony.
I think you need those steps first before we start talking about colonising the galaxy, which is what “Star Trek” envisions in the 23rd century. I don’t really see that happening today. You would need tremendous leaps in technology to be able to travel to other stars, let alone across the whole galaxy.
SE: Well, for something like a warp drive, would we really be talking about faster-than-light travel?
PH: Well, that’s true, and the “Star Trek” science fiction universe imagines faster-than-light travel. There have been some proposals in physics for trying to do that using general relativity, but all these are very, very hypothetical and involve tremendous amounts of energy, far more energy than we can muster up today.
Predicting of the Future: What Science Fiction got Right
SE: Let’s now turn to some of the true predictions from science fiction. What are some of your favourites?
PH: Well, we mentioned a few of them: the satellite and the atomic bomb.
SE: How about medical predictions? In science fiction, for example, so many books talk about bioengineering or gene modification or even altering the human form through genetic modification. I think we’re still in the early days, but it does seem promising.
PH: Yes, I think it is remarkable how much we’ve been able to manipulate the human genome. I think that that’s just going to really take off, and there could be designer drugs that are individualised based upon people’s genome. I think the biomedical industry is just going to become more and more advanced.
It’s remarkable how many diseases have found treatments that even 20 years ago no one would’ve thought of a treatment. Medical science is progressing so quickly.
There are warnings, by people like Michael Crichton in “The Andromeda Strain” and so forth about viruses that could spread very rapidly, and I think that still continues to be a big worry. There have been worries about designer viruses that infect a large number of people. I think there’s a plus and minus side to all this manipulation, and hopefully they’ll proceed towards improving human health, rather than towards warfare and things like that.
SE: Well, so much of science fiction talks about human augmentation with either built-in computing devices or genetically modified limbs or exoskeletons that actually become part of their bodies. Think about cyborgs and things of that nature. Do you see that happening in the near future?
PH: Certainly I see people using more and more sort of augmented devices to try to help them out. And, different kinds of prosthetics that will be used, not just in a case of injury, but also to augment human powers and to make people stronger, to make people more durable and so forth. I definitely see that happening, and people are already starting to talk about artificial retinas and things like that. Hopefully various forms of blindness would be eradicated through different kinds of technologies.
SE: We’re seeing a merging of technology — with the use of 3D printing in particular — and the medical field. Things like the concept of being able to grow new organs, or to be able to replace an ear with another ear that really looks like the ear that might have been damaged rather than something that’s artificial looking.
PH: That is remarkable, yes.
SE: It truly is. It seems to me that this type of development is going to accelerate in the course of time. Do you see a day when it might be possible to literally regrow a limb, like a salamander that loses a body part and it regrows it?
PH: I think as our understanding of stem cells improves, there’ll be ways of regenerating cells and making them act like stem cells and start to grow again. I think that’s entirely possible in the near future.
Predicting the Future: What Science Fiction got Wrong
SE: Looking back to science fiction and how well it was able to predict the future, there are obviously some false predictions. I think one of our favourites that we’ve talked about before the interview was this concept of moving sidewalks.
PH: Yes, well, it’s interesting because there was a very famous futurist, Herman Kahn, who was a military strategist. One interesting thing about Kahn is that he was perhaps one of the inspirations for Dr. Strangelove in the movie “Dr. Strangelove” because he was a very hard-nosed military strategist and talking about nuclear warfare. In 1967, he and his colleague Anthony Wiener, who were both members of the Hudson Institute, published a book called “The Year 2000” and had a list of 100 technical innovations very likely in the last third of the 20th century.
It’s interesting to see their hits and misses. Their hits included use of lasers for surgery, genetic-modification techniques, which we were talking about, medical databases and use of artificial parts, and even things like the VCR and the fax machine. Some things that are almost right included people having a computer console in every home that’s connected to large central computer. Well, they didn’t imagine the PC; they imagined a computer console, but that’s almost right.
SE: That could’ve actually been the World Wide Web, the cloud rather than the large central processors.
PH: Yes. That’s right. But in that form, Kahn and Wiener predicted that computers would find ubiquitous use, including things like accessing libraries, which of course is true today, exchanging money, which is true today, and students getting help for their homework, criminal checks by police. All these things came true.
Then there were things that were way off, like predicting that everybody by the year 2000 would have a household robot that will clean up. Well, I’m still waiting for mine.
SE: Well, mine just does some basic dusting. He doesn’t do the dishes yet.
Then they predicted holographic feature-length movies. Well, we’re starting to see more and more 3D movies, but not yet actual holographic feature-length movies.
Then one that was way off is that people would have individual flying platforms, which interestingly was also predicted in the “Back to the Future” series, the hover boards.
SE: Yes. I want one, though.
PH: “Back to the Future II” predicted that would happen in 2015, so we still have very little time left for the hover boards to be invented.
SE: Yes, less than a year.
PH: Then aside from Herman Kahn, around the same time, a little bit later, Alvin Toffler had a book called “Future Shock.” The gist of the book was that the future will be very different, and that future developments would occur very rapidly and people would almost feel a cultural shock because the future changes so much. I think that’s true today.
But, one prediction that he was off by was he thought that we would be so efficient that workers would enjoy far more leisure time, and the big problem of today, according to Toffler, would be finding things to fill our leisure time. I don’t think people have more leisure time today than they did in 1970.
SE: No. If anything, these little tiny pocket computers have made people do things like check email for work and all sorts of things at strange times, in the weekend at night, and first thing in the morning.
One of the last things I’d like to touch on are some of the predictions from, say, the 1964 World’s Fair, where they imagined what the future would look like in the year 2000 and beyond.
PH: At the 1964 World’s Fair, there were a lot of futuristic exhibits, and the World’s Fair was in New York, which was the site of the earlier World’s Fair held in New York in 1939 that had an exhibit called Futurama, and in 1964 that exhibit was updated by General Motors.
It featured living environments of tomorrow, and that included underwater homes, so they imagined that the sea will be colonised and that there’ll be all these homes under the sea. Not sure quite why people thought that would be a good idea to live under the ocean, but maybe for living space or something. You’d be able to get there by an atomic submarine.
Then Futurama pictured a lunar colony, with space vehicles. Well, that hasn’t transpired. Another prediction was for people living in Antarctica in year-round commercial port. Well, right now, only researchers live in Antarctica. There isn’t really a colony there.
Then, finally, a desert farm irrigated with desalinated seawater. Well, that’s been done today, using desalinated seawater to irrigate deserts. It’s a really good idea. That was probably the most realistic of all the predictions.
And Ford, to compete with General Motors, had a Space City, which imagined computerised vehicles going from place to place in outer space — and people living there. Those were some of the predictions of the 1964 World’s Fair. Well, none of them really happened yet, except for the use of desalination.
SE: So, no lunar colonies, no undersea colonies, no colonies in Antarctica. I think people like to live in places that are comfortable and perhaps near other people that they know.
PH: That’s right.
SE: It’s hard to break the social bonds.
PH: With ready access to emails so they can constantly be in touch with work, rather than the leisurely lives that were predicted in the past.
SE: Well, one of the other things that I’ve seen in science fiction is the divergence between these utopian societies, and then dystopia. In a lot of the dystopian societies, we end up with things like a surveillance state. Now some of the things that have been happening in the world lately are leading me to believe that we might be heading towards that path, where we find the NSA has been spying on not only US citizens but citizens around the world. In Australia, we have this talk right now with mandatory data retention laws. What’s your take on this dystopian side of science fiction?
PH: Well, I think some of the science-fiction writers, and if you categorise George Orwell as kind of a science-fiction writer, although he wrote a lot of other things, thought that there was potential for good or evil in terms of technology. Orwell worked during the war for the BBC and could see how information could be controlled and how there could be surveillance. At the same time he hoped for a more equitable society, for a fair society, but he saw the potential for a mass surveillance state. I think, unfortunately, with technology becoming more and more powerful, there’s the potential for this to be exploited. One would hope that democratic societies, will develop new laws that keep up with the technology and protect citizens from surveillance.
SE: I think you’re very right. Privacy and human rights must be legislated in order to protect them.
SE: I think if we just leave it up to randomness, then we’ll find that those rights get eroded.
PH: Right. We certainly don’t want to see it all controlled by some central computer somewhere or some robot to monitor all of us…
SE: Or some AI.
PH: …because then you could have the future of “Terminator,” which would be pretty bad.
SE: Agreed, I don’t think I’d want to see that!
One last thought before we close off, Paul: time travel. I know you’ve written many books that touch on time travel, and so many science-fiction greats talk about time travel, and also wormholes and the ability to get from one side of the galaxy to another or even the universe. Are either of those concepts conceivable? Obviously, not in the near-term future, but do you think that they might be somewhere in the future?
PH: Well, interestingly, with time travel you need to distinguish between future-directed time travel and past-directed time travel.
Future-directed time travel is entirely possible because Einstein’s special law of relativity says that the closer you go to the speed of light, the quicker your timeframe is moving, the quicker your pace of time is moving relative to somebody who is, let’s say, stationary on Earth. This is called a relativistic timeframe.
If you could develop space travel that goes close to the speed of light, you could head off from Earth, make a round-trip journey and come back to Earth and find that your friends are 100 years older when you’ve only aged one year or aged even hours, depending on how fast you go. The faster you go, the less you would age. That’s been tested both with particles — particles live longer when they’re travelling fast — and even with very, very precise clocks put on high-speed aircraft. The clocks showed that people age slightly less on a high-speed aircraft.
Of course, if the food is bad and the service is bad, they age more than they would, but all things being equal on the aircraft, if they’re travelling at a relativistic speed, they would age less.
SE: Is there anything practical that you could do with this?
PH: Well, it depends. If you really wanted to see the far future, and you had a rocket ship that could travel fast enough, you could say, “Well, forget the 21st century. I want to visit the 23rd century,” and then all you would have to do was travel at 99.99 percent speed of light or add more nines to that, say 99.9999999 percent — depending on how far into the future you want to go.
SE: It would be a way of skipping over a bad part of current times.
PH: Yes, you would still exist through that time period but you would travel through it quicker.
Now past-directed time travel is controversial because people don’t know if that’s possible. If it were possible, it could create paradoxes, such as somebody going back in time and preventing themselves from existing, and that wouldn’t be good because then how could they have travelled back in time if they didn’t exist?
SE: Well some other theories — and I know you’ve written about those, Paul — are that if you were to travel back in time, you’d actually end up in a parallel universe or a parallel multiverse.
PH: Right. These are all very, very hypothetical ideas because no one’s ever travelled back in time; no one’s ever visited a parallel universe, but that would be a hypothetical possibility, that instead of altering our universe, you would propel yourself into a parallel universe.
SE: What about wormholes? Do you think that that’s even feasible in the far future?
PH: Theoretically, but right now you would need something like the energy of a galaxy, a massive galaxy, to produce a traversable wormhole that would fit a space ship going through.
SE: I don’t think we’re quite at that level of technology yet.
PH: Yes, but who knows? Maybe someone will find a wormhole that was developed by another civilization, an advanced civilization, and we’d be able to use it.
SE: That could be a more likely nearer-term scenario.
PH: Or maybe there’s a way that they developed naturally. I wouldn’t rule them out. I would say that this is part of hypothetical physics, but still publishable physics because there’ve been a number of scholarly articles exploring the possibilities of wormholes, which has made them a lot more respectable than when they were just in science fiction.
SE: Well, thank you so very much for your time today, Paul. It’s been great chatting about this.
PH: My pleasure. It’s been great chatting with you, Shara.
About the author: Shara Evans is internationally acknowledged as a cutting edge technology futurist, commentator, strategy advisor, keynote speaker and thought leader, as well as the Founder and CEO of Market Clarity.