This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.
Edited by well-known British scientist and writer Jim Al Khalili, this book is a series of speculations, under various headers, as to what we might expect from the future. I wasn't impressed with it, I'm sorry to say. I have a high regard for Khalili, who is a professor of theoretical physics and the Chair of the Public Engagement in Science at the University of Surrey. I've not read any of his books but I've watched some of his TV presentations, and enjoyed them. I was hoping therefore, that in a book that he's edited, I'd get some solid scientific grounding even for a speculative work about the future, but what I got instead was a lot of speculation and very little scientific grounding or even grounding in what;s happening today.
The authors of the various pieces were all scientists, and coming form a cutitng-edge technology sector myself, I was hoping for the speculation to be rooted in the present and logically extrapolating from existing trends and technology to give a realistic assessment, but for too many of these articles, it was evidently nothing more than an opportunity for the contributor to do little more than day-dream and fantasize about what's they hoped was coming rather than put some real effort into what;s actually likely to come. So while some articles were good and interesting, most were not, and the overall effect on me was one of "So what?" and blah.
Sometimes it was unintentionally amusing, such as when one speculator wrote, "Technologies are rarely,if ever,foisted upon us" which is patent nonsense. Did people calling into various agencies for help want a robot answering machine instead of a human? I think not. Did businesses like the one I work for, which typically have patented technology to safeguard, want everyone to legitimately carry a camera onto the premises - in the form of a cell phone? I don't think they wanted that either, but it's technology foisted upon them! Did people with a large vinyl record collection want tapes, then CDs, then e-music, constantly making their collection obsolete?
Did videotape movie watchers who were used to the movie starting pretty much as soon as you set the tape in motion want that technology to be overrun by two different forms of laser disk and then that latter one - the DVD - to be made obsolete by Blu-Ray™, which is now delighted to serve up - out of your control - a barrage of ads, then put on a glittering, overblown mini-movie menu to try and navigate before you can even the movie you paid for? I suspect not. No one asked for that, but it's what was served on us. That's not to say that people don't welcome - or perhaps more accurately, learn to live with - much of this, but they hardly begged for it. It was foisted upon us by progress, and clearly this writer wasn't thinking about what they were writing in this case. Unfortunately, this wasn't an uncommon problem in this book.
In another case, writing about autonomous vehicles, one writer declared, "The important point is that the race has been started," but he utterly failed to explain how it was that this was important! Why is it important to have autonomous vehicles? It may seem obvious to some, and others (autonomous vehicle builders, I'm looking at you) that these vehicles are safer, but judged by the long list of incidents and accidents, and design cluelessness we've read about lately (seriously your car doesn't need to keep track of stationary objects, not even the fire truck stopped front of you?!), some might believe it would be better if we waited a while for the technology to catch up before we make bold prognostications of autonomous and flying cars.
Another writer, talking about smart materials, declared that we could have sensors buried under the asphalt to have passing vehicles trigger street lights to be on only when the vehicle is passing. Unlike the characters in Back to the Future, this writer evidently did not consider a future where there are no roads, or where there's no asphalt because oil has gone, or where there is no need for vehicles to click buttons in the roadbed when a simple RFID chip - which already exists and is in wide use - could do exactly the same job. Talking about smart fabrics to build efficient airplanes assumes we'll always have oil to fuel them. Newsflash: we won't! This blinkered short-sightedness and lack of imagination/thinking outside the box absolutely plagued this book. This writer evidently didn't really give a lot of thought to how the future might look.
Topics covered include: demographics, the biosphere, climate change, medicine, genetic engineering, synthetic biology, transhumanism, the Internet of Things, cyber security, AI, quantum computing, smart materials, energy, transportation, and Robotics, and it ended with complete fantasy which I skipped, as I did the introduction. I wasn't impressed, and especially not by the total lack of cross-fertilization of ideas between all these topics. Everything was so compartmentalized you would think all these advances were taking place in complete isolation from one another. There was no speculation pursuing what happens in real life in that something is invented for one purpose and is then coopted for something else which was never foreseen, and which takes off in ways we had not imagined. Yes, that would involve speculation, but extrapolation from events like this would constitute no more wool-gathering than was already being widely indulged-in here!
There was one other important issue. This book has a whole section on climate change, yet the book itself - a book about what the future looks like - was appallingly wasteful of paper. It was printed in academic format which is, for reasons which utterly escape me, especially in this day and age, dedicated to huge whitespace margins and wide line heights. I estimate, very roughly, that about fifty percent of the page was wasted. Naturally no one wants to see, let alone try and read, a book that has the text so crammed-in that it's illegible, but I certainly don't want to see one delivered by a publisher which seems - as evidenced by its publishing practices - to have a vendetta against the one thing which is doing something about greenhouse gasses: trees.
You can of course snidely argue that "in this day and age" everyone gets their books electronically, which isn't true, but let's run with it. If you get it in ebook format, you don't kill trees, do you? Nope. But larger books still take longer to transmit over the Internet and require proportionately more energy to do so. This book is made available in PDF (Portable Document Format which is owned by Adobe, but which is now available license-free for coding and decoding files). PDF file size for a text document like this is proportional in size to the number of pages. So either way, reducing file size to, let's not say half, but three-quarters of its current size would bring it down from 256 pages to 192. Removing some of the common blank pages contained in it would bring it down more. What would the future hold if every publisher thought that way? It's one more reason why I can't recommend this.