In another 50 years

In a recent post I remarked that I had been thinking about historical events every 50 years. Some students at Trinity college had observed that Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was published exactly 150 years ago, and that Einstein’s theory of general relativity was first presented 100 years ago.

So I got to wondering what might have happened 50 years ago which similarly challenged our notions of time and space. I concluded that it was “Moore’s Law” — the prediction 50 years ago by Gordon Moore that the cost of computation will continue to decrease exponentially with time. This remarkable and prophetic statement has held true for the last half century, leading to profound and astonishing changes in our world.

But then the other day somebody asked me what might be happening right now — in the year 2015 — that people will one day look back upon as the next step in this legacy. Will it be virtual reality, neural implants, or something else that is so radical and paradigm changing that we are as yet unable to even recognize it?

I am open to suggestions.

4 Responses to “In another 50 years”

  1. Jason Smith says:


  2. Phil H says:

    Full-spectrum automation revolution. We’ve had machines in the workplace, in manufacturing, in farming for decades, but a lot of the lives of ordinary people is the same as it was. We have seen the sudden and penetrating change of the internet (witness grandparents using Skype to talk to their grandchildren). Here we have the beginnings of a vast social change; automated transport makes a lot of things possible that were not before – very long distance commutes, travelling overnight to business meetings (why have a hotel room..?), living in vehicles.

    This is the point where humans can be cut out of the loop for a vastly expanded range of services. The machine doesn’t just replace the means by which things are done, it replaces the entire interface. The pizza is ordered, cooked, dispatched and delivered by machine. At 3am. For very little cost. It doesn’t need to be done in a shop with neon lighting any more, it can be done in a box mounted to the side of a building. The costs just tumble.

    Much of our lives currently revolves around the management of stuff. Before computers, there were millions of secretaries whose work was the management of information – bits of paper to be filed, copied, typed, sent, received. They are gone, the machine manages our information and our communication. If a machine stored your stuff, would you still sort it? Would you put it carefully in boxes?

    With physical stuff, we are in the age of the encyclopedia. You store a big encyclopedia because when you need information, it’s worth having a store of the usual information around. And so it is with your storecupboard; you have tins of stuff in there in case you feel like Cream of Chicken Soup. But you don’t consult your encyclopedia any more, even if it is right there on the shelf of your office! You demand a fresh answer from the internet. So why would you choose the cold can of soup from the back of the cupboard, when a hot soup can be delivered in, say, 15 minutes, freshly prepared?

    My grandchildren will sit on my knee and hear stories of how we spent our lives shuffling things about. How there were entire professions dedicated to packing things up into boxes, moving those boxes to shops, putting things onto shelves, waiting for the customer to come and put them in a basket and take them to pay, with coins, no less! “Tell me about the poor truck drivers, grandpa! The ones who had to move the big wheel to tell the big pollutervans where to go, because the pollutervans were too stupid to do it themselves!” How we will try to point out that these were valuable skills and careers, as my generation is told that it was important work to take the dictation of a middle manager and type it up with carbon copy paper and put it in the internal post and send it to someone else’s secretary who stored it carefully away in a neat filing system.

    I just stare at a filing cabinet and wish it had a search box. Perhaps in 50 years people will stare at a deep freeze and wish it had a make box.

  3. It is interesting that all three of your examples (Alice, GR, Moore’s Law) would only have been recognized as important by tiny groups in the few years after their introduction. Alice sold well, but took many years to be recognized as a classic. GR had to wait until the 1919 eclipse. And Moore’s law only gradually gained in stature, although I know some people immediately recognized its importance.

    These examples suggest that only tiny groups recognize important work quickly.

  4. admin says:

    Michael’s comment supports my suspicion that we may look back on 2015 as the year when the first strong empirical evidence started to appear that we can non-invasively image brain activity at a fine scale — a development that is so far being paid attention to by only a relatively small group of scientists.

    For better or worse, that capability may bring us a lot nearer to being able to “read” the thoughts that go on inside the human brain.

    Like Alice in Wonderland, General Relativity and Moore’s Law, such a striking change in how we think about things can lead to an evolution in the relationship between the thoughts in our heads and the physical reality around us.

    I hope the change will be for the better. :-)

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