Saturday, March 29, 2008

Thanks For The Mindstorms, Arthur C. Clarke

As you probably know, Arthur C. Clarke died last week. What a fascinating man--science fiction writer, author of the novel 2001 on which the Kubrick movie was based, one of the first to promote the idea that geosynchronous satellites could be used for telecommunications, and a resident of Sri Lanka since 1956 (he reportedly moved there to pursue his love of scuba diving).

Most of the tributes to Clarke didn't mention his 1962 book Profiles of the Future, except perhaps to note that it was the source of his most-quoted statement, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." But that book, which I read as a kid, has remained vivid in my mind to this day despite the fact that I haven't even looked at it in at least thirty years. (My dog-eared paperback copy has long since vanished.)

Though a non-fiction book, Profiles of the Future was infused with the mind-blowing vision spirit of Clarke's science fiction. It included a cheeky "timeline" of likely future scientific developments, culminating, as I recall, with "Human Immortality" (I forget what year Clarke predicted that for). On a slightly more mundane note, Clarke predicted an electronically-based "Library of the World" which he thought might be in place by 2005, a forecast which of course was spot-on thanks to the Internet.

Clarke's book also included some other predictions that I've never forgotten because they were so weird, fascinating, and cleverly described. For example, Clarke suggested that biologists would learn to breed animals with near-human intelligence--smart enough, at least, to make them extremely useful to have around. (He predicted we might someday ride to work on horses that we could then tell, "Go home now and come back for me at five o'clock.") I don't think he addressed the question of whether it would be ethical to use such animals as slaves, which of course is what we do with animals today.

My favorite prediction from Profiles of the Future was Clarke's description of a machine that would be capable of completely analyzing the physical makeup of any object, even a living being, down to the atomic level, and then replicating it precisely. This Matter Duplicator (as I think he dubbed it) would have several purposes. It could be used as a teleportation device, since an object or even a person could be "deconstructed" by one machine in New York and then "reconstructed" by a matching machine in (say) Paris based on coded instructions sent over the airwaves.

Of course, it could also be used to multiply material goods endlessly, thereby eliminating human want forever. And on a purely isn't-that-cool level, it could be used to provide anyone who wants one with, for example, a copy of the Mona Lisa or Las Meninas that is absolutely identical to the original.

Clarke acknowledged that creating the first Matter Duplicator would be an enormous technological challenge. He described it, as I recall, as being the equivalent of many Manhattan Projects, and projected the cost as some astromical amount--a trillion dollars, perhaps. But then he pointed out that the second Matter Duplicator will be free, since the first thing we will do with the first machine is order it to duplicate itself.

I hope somebody, somewhere, is working on this project. Forty-six years later, I still have enough of my nine-year-old self inside to find the ideas Arthur C. Clarke was germinating back in 1962 enduringly cool.

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