People love to classify things. Pre-hominids seemed more primitive than prehistoric humans who had tamed fire. Natives armed with spears and arrows seem less technologically advanced than invaders armed with firearms. Steam power seems less technologically advanced than nuclear energy. So naturally historicaly-minded people tried to codify this into a scale of technological advancement, to conveniently classify various cultures at various times in their history. A scale of "tech levels" in other words.
Since many early researchers were regrettably Western-centric, they tended to visualize tech levels as a linear path (that is, the path followed by Western civilization). This is a gross simplification. Latter researchers studying a wider range of cultures (such as China) realized the linear path was a poor model. There is no particular reason why Louis Pasteur's germ theory of disease was formulated about the same time as the invention of the Gattling gun. In other cultures they might occur at widely separated historical periods.
A much better model is the multi-branched "tech tree." The technology required to make an iron sword has the prerequisite of a supply of iron and a furnace to heat it. Both of which require the technology of making fire. In addition iron requires the skills of prospecting and mining iron ore, plus the technology of smelting ore into ingots of pure metal. And so on.
The superiority of a tech tree over tech levels is that different cultures can travel over various branchces of a tech tree at different rates. So culture Alfa might have germ theory tech at the same time as gattling gun tech, but culture Bravo might develope gattling guns decades before germ theory.
The convoluted way that tech advances influence each other was the entire premise behind James Burke's documentary series Connections and The Day The Universe Changed, which you should watch if you haven't already.
The role-playing game Traveller popularized the use of tech levels in 1977. The tabletop boardgame Civilization popularized the use of tech trees in 1980. And pretty much every 4x game uses tech trees, with the items accessed by investing in tech research.
Note that when an interstellar colony is established, the tech levels can become scrambled due to the colony infrastructure problem (e.g., horses make more sense than automobiles if the colony has no oil wells to produce gasoline).
Traveller TL Historical Era 0 Stone Age (fire) 1 Bronze Age (3500 BC) 1 Iron Age (1200 BC) 1 Medieval Age (600 AD) 2 Age of Sail (1450 AD) 3 Industrial Revolution (1730 AD) 4 Mechanized Age (1880 AD) 5 Circa 1910 AD 6 Nuclear Age (1940 AD) 7 Circa 1970 AD 8 Digital Age (1990 AD) 9 Early Stellar (2050 AD) 10 (A) Early Stellar (2120 AD) 11 (B) Average Stellar 12 (C) Average Imperial 13 (D) Average Stellar 14 (E) High Stellar 15 (F) Imperial Maximum 16 (G) Darrian Historical Maximum
Quality of life Tech Comparison TTL G3TL G4TL Energy Computers/Robotics Communications Medical Environment 0 0 0 Muscles Fingers and sticks Runners Mystics/Herbology Natural (Caves, Huts) 1 1-3 1-3 Water Abacus / Geometry, Trigonometry Long Distance Signaling Diagnosis Settlements, Towns (Irrigation) 2 4 4 Wind Algebra Printing press Internal Anatomy Cities (Canals, Roads) 3 5 5 Coal / Steam Calculus Telegraph, Audio Recording Surgery Cement Structures 4 5 6 Electricity Mechanical Calculators Telephone Vaccination, Antiseptics, Anesthetics Cities in Rugged/Desert Terrain, Crude Terraform 5 6 6 Petrochemicals, Internal combustion Electric Calculators Radio, Radar Mass Vaccination, X-Ray Sealed/Conditioned Cities 6 6 7 Nuclear Fission Electronic Computers (Large Model/1 bis) Television / Advanced Audio Recording Virus, Crude Prosthetics Skyscrapers, Weather Predict, Underground Cities 7 7 7 Solar energy, early Fuel Cells Desktop Computers, Expert systems, Model/2 Early Satellite, Video recording Organ Transplant, Slow Drugs Cities in Jungle Terrain 8 7 8 Geothermal Massive Parallel / Low Data, Model/2bis Fibre optics Artificial Organs, Metabolics Orbital Settlements, Early Weather Control 9 8 9 Early Fusion, Improved Batteries Non-Volatile / High Data, Vocal I/O, Model/3 Video Telephone, Flat Screen Limb Regeneration, Cryogenics, Fast Drugs Arcologies, Orbital Cities 10 9 10 Fusion Plants 2KL Minimum Early Synaptics, voice transcription, Model/4 Holovision, Text Transcription Antiviral Vaccines, Cancer Cure, Growth Quickining Under-Sea/Under Ice Cities 11 9 10 Fusion Plants 1KL Minimum Synaptic Learning Processors, Hand Computers, Model/5 Personal Global Communications Nerve Refusion, Artificial Eyes Gravitic Structure Support 12 10 11 Fusion Plants 250L Minimum, Advanced Fuel Cells Low Autonomous Robots, Model/6 Real-time Multilingual Translators Broad Spectrum Anti-toxins, Enhanced Prosthetics Major Terraforming, Advanced Weather Control 13 10 11 Fusion output 3Kw per L, Miniature Super-Batteries Holocrystal Storage, High Autonomous Robots, Model/7 Holovideo Recorders Cloning of Replacement Parts, Reanimation Non-mobile Gravitic Cities 14 11 12 Fusion Plants 100L Minimum Computer/Brain Implants, Model/8 Early Meson Communicators Genetic Engineering, Memory Erasure Mobile Gravitic Cities 15 12 12 Fusion output 6Kw per L Pseudo-Reality Computers, Pseudo Robots, Model/9 Meson Communicators, Pseudo Reality Communications Anagathics, Advanced Pseudobio Prosthetics Complex Terraforming Possible 16 13 13 Fusion output 7Kw per L, 80L Minimum Low Artificial Intelligence, Robots in all Facets Personal Meson Communicators, Personal Holovideo Brain Transplants, Crude Memory Transfer Global Terraforming, Hostile Worlds 17 - - Early Antimatter Plants High Artificial Intelligence, Self-Aware Robots Pocket Meson Communications Selective Memory Erasure, Intelligent Anitbodies Total Terraforming to 800Km worlds 18 - - Antimatter 1Mw/L, 750L Fuel Pod Minimum Robots become Society's Basic Workforce Partial Memory Transfer Total Terraforming to 4000Km worlds 19 - - Antimatter 2.5Mw/L, 200L Fuel Pod Minimum Non-Cryogenic Suspension, Advanced Bioengineering Total Terraforming 20 - - Antimatter 15Mw/L, 40L Fuel Pod Minimum Matter Transport Eliminates Global Communication Barriers Total Memory Transfer Mobile Worlds (Sublight) 21 - - Antimatter 50Mw/L, 5L Fuel Pod Minimum Matter Transport Eliminates Intra-System Barriers Early Total Rejuvenation Mobile Worlds (Jump Space) & Rosettes 23 - - Dyson Spheres (with many Capsules) 25 - - Ability to create Ringworlds, access pocket universe 27 - - Rigid Dyson Spheres 35 Create Pocket Universe
Transportation Tech Comparison TTL G3TL G4TL Land Water Air Space 0 0 0 Foot - Animals Raft / Canoe - - 1 1-3 1-3 Wheel - Carts/Chariots Rowed Galleys, Crude Sailing Vessels - - 2 4 4 Advanced Wheel - Moveable Axle, Replaceable Rims Early Multi-Mast Sailing, Crude Navigation - - 3 5 5 Extensive Road - High-Speed Coach Multi-Mast Sailing, Navigation Hot Air Balloons - 4 5 6 Trains Ironclads, Steamships Dirigibles, Early Gliders - 5 6 6 Ground Cars, Tracked Vehicles Personal Self-Propelled Boats, Steel hulls, Early Submersibles Airplanes, Seaplanes Early Rockets (unmanned) 6 6 7 Amphibian Vehicles, ATVsAFVs Submersibles, Scuba, Amphibian Vehicles Early Jet, Helicopters Early Manned Rockets, Unmanned Rockets 7 7 7 Hovercraft, High-Speed Trains Hydrofoils, Hovercraft Supersonic Jet, Hang Gliders Deep Space Probes (Unmanned), Maneuver-1/2 (non-gravitic) 8 7 8 Triphibian Vehicles Triphibian Vehicles, Early Artificial Gills Triphibian Vehicles, Hypersonic Jet Space Shuttles, Space Stations, Maneuver-3-5 (non-grav) 9 8 9 Early Grav Vehicles, Ultra High-Speed Trains Early Grav Vehicles, Artificial Gills Early Grav Vehicles, Rocket Assist Suborbital Jump-1 possible, Sublight Stellar 10 9 10 Grav Vehicles UH Grav Modules Gravitic Maneuver
11 9 10 Personal G-Tubes, HV Grav Modules Jump-2, Thruster Technology 12 10 11 Personal Grav Belts, LT Grav Modules Jump-3 13 10 11 Grav Vehicles Merge with Orbital Spacecraft, Jump-4 14 11 12 Jump-5 15 12 12 Jump-6 16 - - Raw Material Only Short Range Matter Transport 17 - - Inanimate Only Short Range Matter Transport 18 - - Self-Aware Starships, living being portal based Matter Transport 21 - - Multi Parsec Range Starship-Sized Matter Transport Portals
Military Tech Comparison - - - Personal Heavy TL G3TL G4TL Weapons Armour Weapons Armour 0 0 0 Club, Spear Fur - - 1 1-3 1-3 Early Weapons (Bow, Sword) Jack Armour Catapult Wood 2 4 4 Early Guns Small Cannons 3 5 5 Rifled Weapons Cannons 4 5 6 Cartridge Mesh Armour Howitzers, Gatling gun Soft Steel 5 6 6 Explosive Grenade, Shotgun Filter Mask Mortars 6 6 7 Automatic (SMG) Nuclear Weapons, Missiles Hard Steel 7 7 7 Grenade Launchers Cloth Armour, Flack Jacket Beam Lasers Composite Laminate 8 7 8 RAM Grenade Launchers, Early Laser Carbine Particle Accelerators, Target Desginated Missiles 9 8 9 Laser Weapons Ablative Armour Light Weight Composite Laminate 10 9 10 Advanced Combat Rifle Reflec, Combat Environment Suit Plasma Guns, Repulsors Crystaliron 11 9 10 Combat Armour Meson Guns 12 10 11 PGMP-12, Gauss Rifle Fusion Guns Superdense Armour, Nuclear Dampers 13 10 11 PGMP-13, X-Ray Lasers Battle Dress X-Ray Lasers 14 11 12 FGMP-14 Bonded Superdense 15 12 12 FGMP-15 Early Black Globes 16 13 13 FGMP-16, Plasma Rifle, Neural Gun Neural Shield Tractor Beam Black Globes 17 - - Fusion Rifle, Plama Pistol Disintegrators, Antimatter Warheads Coherent Superdense 18 - - Disintegrator Rifle, Fusion Pistol Personal Damper Long Range Disintegrator/Tractor Beam 19 - - Disintegrator Pistol Proton Screen, Plastic Metal Armour 20 - - Relativity Beam White Globes, Proton Beam 21 - - Relativity Rifle Personal White Globe Jump Projector Jump Damper
TL Era Timespan Signature technologies 0 Stone Age Prehistory and later Counting; oral tradition. 1 Bronze Age 3500 B.C.+ Arithmetic; writing. 2 Iron Age 1200 B.C.+ Geometry; scrolls. 3 Medieval 600 A.D.+ Algebra; books. 4 Age of Sail 1450+ Calculus; movable type. 5 Industrial Revolution 1730+ Mechanical calculators; telegraph. 6 Mechanized Age 1880+ Electrical calculators; telephone and radio; 7 Nuclear Age 1940+ Mainframe computers; television. 8 Digital Age 1980+? Personal computers; global networks. 9 Microtech Age 2025+? Artificial intelligence; real-time virtuality. 10 Robotic Age 2070+ Nanotechnology or other advances start to blur distinctions between technologies... 11 Age of Exotic Matter 12 Whatever the GM likes!
TL Transportation Weapons and Armor Power Biotechnology/Medicine 0 Skis; dogsleds; dugout canoes. Wooden and stone weapons; primitive shields; hides for armor. Human muscle power; dogs. First aid; herbal remedies; primitive agriculture. 1 Bare horseback; the wheel (and chariots); ship-building; sails. Bronze weapons and armor. Donkeys; oxen; ponies. Surgery; animal husbandry; fermentation. 2 Saddle; roads; triremes. Iron weapons; iron armor (including mail); siege engines. Horses; water wheels. Bleeding the sick; chemical remedies. 3 Stirrups; oceangoing sailing ships (longships, roundships, etc.). Steel weapons; early firearms; plate armor; castles. Heavy horses and horse-collars; windmills. Crude prosthetics; anatomical science. 4 Stagecoach; three-masted sailing ships; precise navigation. Muskets and pikes; horse artillery; naval broadsides. Improved windmills; belt drives; clockwork. Optical microscope makes cells visible. 5 Steam locomotives; steamboats; early submersibles; balloons and early airships. Early repeating small arms; rifled cannon; ironclads. Steam engines; direct current; batteries. Germ theory of disease; safe anesthetics; vaccines. 6 Automobiles; continental railways; ocean liners; submarines; aircraft. Smokeless powder; automatic weapons; tanks; combat aircraft. Steam turbines; internal combustion; alternating current; hydroelectricity. Antibiotics; blood typing and safe transfusions; heredity; biochemistry. 7 Nuclear submarines; jet aircraft; helicopters; manned space flight. Ballistic body armor; guided munitions; combat jets; nuclear weapons. Gas turbines; fission; solar power. Discovery of DNA; organ transplants; pacemakers. 8 Satellite navigation; SSTO ("single stage to orbit") spacecraft. Smartguns; blinding lasers; unmanned combat vehicles. Fuel cells; advanced batteries. Genetically modified organisms; gene therapy; cloning. 9 Robot cars; space elevators; manned interplanetary space flight. Electrolasers; heavy laser weapons; battlesuits; combat robots; designer viruses. Micro fuel cells; deuterium-hydrogen fusion; high-temperature superconductors. Human genetic engineering; tissue engineering; artificial wombs; cybernetic implants 10 Fast interplanetary space flight. Compact laser and heavy particle-beam weapons; Gauss guns; nanotech armor; nanoviruses; antimatter bombs. Helium-3 fusion; antimatter. Brain transplants; uploading; bioroids; uplifted animals. 11 Manned interstellar space flight. Compact particle-beam weapons; disassemblers ("gray goo"); defensive nanites. Portable fusion power. Living machines; cellular regeneration. 12 Faster interstellar space flight. Gamma-ray lasers; "living metal" armor; black-hole bombs. Portable antimatter power. Full metamorphosis; regeneration. ^ Reactionless thrust; contragravity; faster-than-light (FTL) travel; matter transmission; parachronic technology; time machines. Monomolecular blades; force-field technology; gravitic weapons; nuclear dampers; disintegrators. Broadcast power; cold fusion; zero-point energy; total conversion; cosmic power. Fast-growth clone tanks; psi drugs; regeneration ray.
In early pulp science fiction there were a couple of examples of tech level climbing that was totally out of control. An arms race on steroids. Arguably the most egregious was E. E. "Doc" Smith's Skylark of Space series, although John W. Campbell Jr's Mightiest Machine series gives it a run for the money. The super scientist hero and the super scientist villain frantically try to jump to the next tech step so they can vaporize their nemesis. But somehow their nemesis is only wounded, not atomized. Then its the nemesis' turn to make a tech jump.
In the first novel of the Skylark of Space series, the heroic Richard Seaton makes his first tech jump by inventing a potent power source and building a crude starship. By the last novel Seaton and his rival destroy an entire galaxy, star by star. That's a lot of tech jumps.
In my long and misspent youth I tried to make a tabletop wargame based on the Skylark of Space series. That's when I discovered the flaw in the situation: the novels have the arms race impossibly balanced. When each protagonist makes a tech level advance it is always just enough to threaten their opponent but not enough so they can squish him like a bug (which would prematurely end the series). Outside of a novel (where things are scripted) and into a wargame, it is far to easy for one player to jump up several tech levels at once and render their opponent helpless. Makes for a frustrating game.
UNDERESTIMATING PROGRESS RATE
A common failing of with those who write future histories is a failure to take into account Future Shock, that is, the rapid progress of technological advancement. Refer to the "Apes or Angels" argument. Consider that one hundred years ago the paper clip had just been invented, Marconi had invented the wireless radio, the Wright brothers had invented the airplane, and the latest cutting edge material was Bakelite. Assuming that technology continues to advance at the same rate, all of our flashy technological marvels of today will look just as quaint and obsolete in the year 2100. And in 2500, they will look like something made by Galileo.
Remember, this assumes that the rate of technological progress remains the same. The evidence suggests that the rate is increasing.
Authors who do not want to deal with such break-neck advances in technology will have to invent a way to put on the brakes to progress.
When it comes to futures histories in various SF novels, the main failing I have noted is a failure of scope. While you may read novels with orbital beanstalks, immortality drugs, virtual people living in digital cyber-reality, nanotechnology, transhumanity and post-humans, Dyson spheres, teleportation, zero-point energy, matter duplicators, time travel, cloning, and cyborgs; you almost never find an individual novel that has all of these things (although Greg Egan's DIASPORA comes close, and the Orion's Arm project comes even closer).
This is because future history SF novels are not meant to predict the future, so much as they are meant to illuminate a specific point the author is trying to make.
FAILURES OF PREDICTION
Naturally, the more specific the details of your future technology that you describe in your SF story, the bigger the risk that it is going to sound quite silly in the decades to come. This is called "Zeerust", and of course TV Tropes has a page devoted to it just chock full of entertaining examples and associated tropes (food pills, jet pack, video phone, flying car, etc).
My favorite example is "Into the Meteorite Orbit" by Frank K. Kelly (1933).
It starts out so good. It predicts air-traffic controllers, the 22nd century as being dominated by the energy crisis, it even has the hero finding a recorded message on his video-telephone.
Then the reader's willing suspension of disbelief crashes and burns as the hero pulls the wax cylinder out of the video-telephone, puts it in the replay unit, and places the needle on the groove. Oops.
And then there were the slide-rules in a short story by A. E. Van Vogt, complete with a radio link to the ship's computer.
In "How to Build a Future", John Barnes suggests as a rule of thumb one shouldn't try predicting technological advances past 500 years or so. After about 500 years of technological epochs, the current technology approaches 100% magic as compared to the starting technology, as per his explanation below:
My experienced-based rule of thumb is that ﬁve hundred years is the absolute maximum.
I need not tell an SF audience that technological advance has dramatic effects. There are a lot of different ways to model it; this time I used the “shopping list” approach—gadgets are invented at a steady rate, but they are economically deployed (that is, come into actual widespread use) in bursts. Schumpeter suggested deployment might correlate with the upswing in the Kondratiev wave; it’s also a truism that war brings rapid technical development.
To express this, I simply assume signiﬁcant new inventions go onto a “shopping list” or “technological backlog” of potential technology, and move off the list and into real deployment at a rate that varies between 0 and 100 percent, depending on the Kondratiev cycle value and the values of warfare indicators (see below).
As you can see in figure 2, this gives a fairly credible situation: technology sometimes stagnates as nothing new is deployed for a long time, and at other times skyrockets, especially after a long hiatus. This gave me as much information as I really wanted: eight major surges of technological innovation between now and the beginning of interstellar colonization. (A “major surge” is something on the order of the highly innovative periods 1900-20 or 1940-65.)
To envision the surges, I use a rule of thumb that has no justification other than gut feeling. Each new surge is 90 percent what you might have expected from the last one, plus 10 percent magic (in its Clarke’s Law sense). So from the viewpoint of 1920, 90 percent of the gadgets of the (roughly) Manhattan Project through Apollo Project boom would be imaginable (indeed, some, like TV, were abortively available in the previous boom). But 10 percent (lasers, nuclear power, transistors) would be absolutely incomprehensible—magic.
I further arbitrarily assume that the major discoveries for the next surge have all been made as of today.
The graph shows a major surge in the 2000s and 2010s, Surge Zero, which should deploy everything in SF that seems pretty likely right now. Everything.
Surge One must be an immense extension of everything in Surge Zero, plus a 10 percent addition of things that work according to as-yet-undiscovered principles. Surge Two must be extensions on everything in Surge One (including the 10 percent of magic) plus 10 percent new magic. From our viewpoint it’s now 19 percent magic.
And Surge Three … well, you see where this gets to. Since the Inward Turn starts at the end of Surge Seven, 52 percent of signiﬁcant new technology in the culture we’re imagining must be stuff we currently would not ﬁnd comprehensible.
Realistically, the world should be half magic. Who’d have thought calculations, the lifeblood of hard SF, could drive us that far into fantasy?
Magic Percentage Surge 0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 % Magic 0 10 19 27 34 41 47 52 57 61 65 69 72 75
Evolution is a remarkable designer. After all, it designed us, and every other living thing we know of.
It wasn't long before artificial intelligence researchers tried implementing evolution using computer software. Thus was born the science of the Evolutionary Algorithm. You create a data structure which acts like a gene, start with an enviroment populated with random genes, let them perform for a while, evaluate which were best at doing the task, delete the low performers and replace with new randoms, cross-breed the rest and throw in a few random mutations, and do a fresh cycle. Instant software evolution.
In 1996 Doctor Adrian Thompson had the brainstorm of using such evolutionary algorithms to design hardware. Thus was born the science of Evolvable Hardware. Since an algoritm instead of a human mind is doing the designing, the result tend to be somewhat alien. But effective.
Dr. Thompson's started with a field-programmable gate array (FPGA), which is basically a "programmable" integrated circuit. By sending special commands the user can change how the internal components are connected (actually how they are "virtually" connected, but don't worry about that). The task was to configure the FPGA so it would respond "YES" if you fed it a 1 kHz wave and "NO" if you fed it a 10 kHz wave ("yes" defined as outputting +5 volts and "no" defined as outputting 0 volts).
This was a bit of a challenge for the poor evolvable hardware algorithm. Humans build circuits to do such detection using some kind of electronic clock, but the FPGA has none. It would have to evolve the equivalent of a clock.
Halfway through the evolving, it was approaching a solution, but the output was weird. A FPGA is a digital device so it generally outputs +5v or 0v. But this was was outputting "fuzzy" values. A human engineer knows that a FPGA is a digital on-off device so it designs with that in mind. But the algorithm doesn't know that so it designs pragmatically. It worked with what the FPGA could actually do, not what it was supposed to do.
Finally the algorithm was successful and the FPGA performed as desired.
But when Dr. Thompson looked closer, things got weird again.
Part of the FPGA had been programmed with a circuit which was not connected to the main circuit. Dr. Thompson figured it was superfluous and removed it. And the FPGA promptly lost the ability to tell the two waves apart. When Dr. Thompson added the superfluous circuit back in, the FPGA started working again.
What the heck??
Dr. Thompson eventually figured out the cursed superfluous circuit was influencing the main circuit through electromagnetic coupling. It works, but it is very very alien.
Which is one of the reasons why Dr. Thompson's technique is not used today. For contractual and legal liability reasons chip designers want designs that they understand and can test rigorously. Neither of which is true of the weird designs created by Dr. Thompson's algorithm.
A final problem was when Dr. Thompson loaded the program arrangement from the algorithm into an FPGA of the same type it didn't work! It not only used properties of that type of FPGA, it also used specific quirks of that particular FPGA chip.
In 2003 Jason Lohn et al decided to create an X-band antenna for NASA's Space Technology 5 mission using established antenna evolvable algorithms.
They used two genetic algorithms to create two different antennae, then tested to see which was better. Genetic Algorithm 1 was a standard which created non-branching antennae, that is, the result looks like a twisted piece of wire. Genetic Algorithm 2 was a new one evolving "rod-structured robot morphologies", that is, the result looks like a little tree.
And yes, both look rather alien.
"Steam Engine Time" is a science fictional concept that when the time is ripe for Invention X it will be independently created by isolated individuals all over the world. Apparently the term was coined by Charles Fort.
Wikipedia calls it Multiple Discovery or Simultaneous Invention Hypothesis, as opposed to the more traditional Heroic Theory Of Invention And Scientific Development Hypothesis. Wikipedia also has an impressive list of multiple discoveries. Kevin Kelly calls it Technological Inevitability, the concept that some inventions are meant to be.
In science fiction, a good example is Harry Harrison's "In Our Hands, The Stars" (expanded into The Daleth Effect). SPOILERS: a scientist invents a reactionless drive which will turn a submarine into instant spaceship. The scientist does not want the invention falling into the hands of the military (of any and all nations) because it would be a horrific war weapon. Most of the novel is about the desperate efforts of the scientist to keep it secret and the desperate attempts of all the militaries of the world to seize the secret. Much death and destruction ensue. But the punch line comes when the invention is independently discovered by scientists all over the world. It seems that for the world it has become "Daleth Effect Time".
Some space opera writers are fascinated with the romantic concept of star conquerors charging out of their interstellar star ships on horseback, waving long-swords. While cinematically interesting, the concept is obviously scientifically silly, surely somebody advanced enough to run an FTL starship can manage to cobble together a laser pistol (or a submachine gun).
Note this trope is somewhat incompatible with the concept of tech levels, that is, a linear path of technological achievements. To use it you must instead use the concept of a tech tree, one with really long short-cut to starship technology.
A related notion is a high-tech interstellar empire threatened by "barbarians" waiting in their FTL longboat starships at the rim of the empire. Just like a galactic Roman Empire. One wonders about the tech assumptions though. Either starships are relatively cheap (ponder the idea of "barbarians" fielding aircraft carriers as a comparison) or the smallest feudal units are pretty good sized.
There are several related entries on the TV Tropes website: Elegant Weapon for a More Civilized Age, Archaic Weapon for an Advanced Age, Guns Are Worthless, Rock Beats Laser, and Heroes Prefer Swords.
Poul Anderson had this comment on de Camp's analysis:
John Brunner is of the opinion that at a bare minimum, a technologically primitive culture can only utilize high-tech items from a more advanced culture if they have some people who are "cobblers." These are tinkerers who can see the functionality of the high-tech components, and reproduce the functionality using native low-tech solutions.
Or things can be easy if the high-tech items are ultra-advanced indestructable self-repairing technology that any moron can use.
This may or may not be the story John Brunner was referring to:
In The Warlock of Rhada by Robert Cham Gilman, one thousand years after the fall of the first galactic empire, warriors are armed with swords and ride horses, but by golly the starships still work. Built to last.
For an even more unbelievable solution to the "sword on the starship" problem, read Harry Turtledove's "The Road Not Taken". Joshua Munn points out that there is a similar situation in David Brin's "Just a Hint"
After the fall of the first galactic empire, after the dark ages, comes the re-birth of the galactic empire. But it will take some time before the reborn empire's tech level reaches that of the old empire.
During that period, any first empire technology that survives will be highly prized, since it is more advanced than current technology.
A "cobbler" is a local person who can adapt stranger's high technology to the lower tech base of the locals. So local Afghan tribesmen observed stranger Europeans armed with rifles. When the Afghans tried to make their own rifles, the cordite used in the bullets was beyond the capablilities of the Afghan's tech base. So an Afghan cobbler adapted the concept by using easy-to-make gunpowder instead of cordite.
The main reason to harvest cobbler technology is in order to create space barbarians for fun and profit.
Funny thing about society in general and people in specific. Back in the 1750's this new thing called "Science" really started coming into its own. It was amazing the things it could discover, and so many of them with marvelously practical uses! It seemed like there was nothing science could not do. Science was going to bring us to a grand and glorious utopian future. Even now there is some nostaligia for this view, the technical term is "Retro-Futurism".
This all turned to worms in the early 1900's. Suddenly science revealed its dark side. Science unleashed unspeakable horrors, there were things man was not meant to know, and one started to see more and more dystopias in science fiction literature.
Science didn't change, it can't. The change was in the attitude of society.
So what happened? Yes, I know most of you suddenly shouted "The invention of the atom bomb, you moron!". BZZZT! You're wrong, thank you for playing. It was already in full swing long before 1945. So what's the answer?
I believe that master science fiction author and science explainer Isaac Asimov has the answer. He wrote about it in a 1969 essay entitled The Sin of the Scientist (collected in The Stars In Their Courses). He was speculating on what a "scientific sin" would be. Turns out it would be an act that would blacken the very name of science itself.
One of the many ways of classifying personally types in twain is into "Neophiles" and "Neophobes." The former love and enjoy changes and new things, the latter instead hate and feel threatened by the same. Neophobes are hostile to series of changes, with responses ranging from "Stop The World, I Want To Get Off" to full blown Reactionary feelings.
And when the changes start coming faster and faster (i.e, the rate of change increases), Neophobes become more and more frantic. Which makes the current world situation a pretty dire place for Neophobes, since accelerated change is exactly what is happening. None of the Neophobe attempts to turn the clock back have any effect (generally because large corporations are making too much money exploiting the changes). At some point a given Neophobe is going to snap.
This threatens advancement along a tech tree since technological advancement is by definition a series of changes. Such technological changes always have a social impact. Just ask anybody who used to have a job on an automobile assembly line. Or people forced to be caregivers for their elderly parents who were granted longer lifespans by advancements in medical technology (welcome to the Sandwich Generation).
A milder but more tech-hostile form of this comes from powerful people whose basis of power is threatened with technological disruption. If you are an ultra-rich oil baron for whom petroleum is the basis of all your wealth and power, you are going to fight the solar power industry like you were a cornered wolverine. Just try to find a CEOs of telephone-directories, newspaper, encyclopedia, and magazine publishers who has anything nice to say about the advent of the internet. All of those publishers are rapidly going bankrupt.
Such powerful people want the status quo ante, thank you very much. Not for deep-seated psychological reasons, it is just about the money.
On the other hand there are powerful people wannnabes who hope to seize power by exploiting a new disruptive technology. They are more or less at war with the status quo group. Examples include Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk. Let alone any corporation who have made their profits skyrocket by utilizing this new thing called "the internet."
Science fiction writers sometimes use this as a plot idea. Indeed, the oil industry's fight against solar power was predicted in Robert Heinlein's short story "Let There Be Light" (1940). On a cynical note, Heinlein made a time-line to place all his stories and characters on. In the story the two protagonists Douglas and Martin prevail over the Power Syndicate. On the time-line I noticed that Douglas and Martin died on the same day. I suspect that they were assasinated in revenge by the Power Syndicate.
The concept (and the very term itself) of Future Shock was popularized by Alvin Toffler in his 1970 book. As of this writing (2016) Toffler's book has been shown to be quite accurate by current events. There is a worryingly large segement of the population that is so oppressed by Future Shock that they apparently have undergone a psychological break, and now refuse to accept facts from science and indeed from reality in general.
Characteristically science fiction authors have some future shock aversion themselves, because it makes writing science fiction so much more difficult. There are many literary methods.
Eugenics is a set of beliefs and practices that aims at improving the genetic quality of the human population.
Obviously it is a hot-button issue. Most groups become hysterical when you suggest limiting their right to reproduce (especially if said group fears they will slip from being the majority to being the minority).
They get even more hysterical when they are prevented from reproducing by being put to death.
However there are other troubling questions. The main one is exactly what sort of measuring standard are you using to define "improved"? Almost as troubling is "who decides the measuring standards, and who does the measuring?" Obviously those in power can abuse this as a nasty form of ethnic cleansing.
More innocently, harm can mistakenly be done. For instance, sickle-cell anaemia is a genetically caused disease which occurs when the person inherits two allele of the sickle cell trait. People suffering from it rarely live past age 60. So that allele should be eugenically eliminated, right? Wrong! People with one allele are resistant to the even more deadly disease malaria. In this case, using eugenics would do more harm than good. The same holds true for the cystic fibrosis allele and cholera.
There is also the fear that such manipulation will reduce genetic diversity thus leading to inbreeding depression. In Beyond This Horizon by Robert Heinlein, genetic selection for increased health, longevity, and intelligence has become so widespread that the unmodified 'control naturals' are a carefully managed and protected minority.
Finally there is all those hideous overtones of Nazi Germany.
A milder form of eugenics is when the decision is made by the parents, not the government. You generally see this in science fiction with in vitro fertilization and a doctor giving the parents genetic counselling. The doctor gives the parents a list with check-boxes so the parents can chose what traits they want in their offspring, and advises them to omit obvious genetic diseases. The choices are fed into the machine, there is some quick genetic engineering on the zygote, then it is ready to be implanted (or popped into the artificial womb). See the movie Gattaca.
There are many ways to implement eugenics.
Quote Brain Wave has been moved here.
A concept that appears in science fiction once or twice is that "humans have stopped evolving", specifically technology and medical science have drastically hindered the process of natural selection. For instance, in primitive times a person with the genetic disease Phenylketonuria probably would not be able to survive long enough to reproduce (natural selection will prevent passing on the genetic disease). But currently modern medicine can detect the disease in newborns, and treat it with a special diet. In other words the person would survive long enough to pass it on to their offspring, thus thwarting natural selection.
Sir David Attenborough stated "We stopped natural selection as soon as we started being able to rear 95–99 percent of our babies that are born." Others have pointed out that while that might be true of 1st world countries, it is far from being true for the entire world.
In the Alan E. Nourse novel The Bladerunner (no relation to the movie of the same name) the world of the future has free, comprehensive medical treatment is available for anyone so long as they qualify for treatment under the Eugenics Laws. Preconditions for medical care include sterilization, and no legitimate medical care is available for anyone who does not qualify or does not wish to undergo the sterilization procedure (including children over the age of five). The ideas is to stop thwarting natural selection.
Others say humans are indeed still evolving, all we have done is shifted a large number of selective forces. While modern medicine has averted many biological cause of natural selection, one can see many new versions of natural selection by just perusing the Darwin Awards. In other words: deadly diseases has been replaced by Jackass.
A tangentially related concept appears in the Cyril Kornbluth short story The Marching Morons (which later inspired the movie Idiocracy). In the story, married couples who are intelligent tend not to have children, while unintelligent couples breed like cockroaches. After several hundred years of this, the average intelligence is what we would currently call an IQ of 45. The few intelligent people have no idea how to stop the collapse of society, but lucky for them a con artist who had been in suspended animation for 300 years has an answer that is effective (abet draconian).
The main flaw with the story is that the possibility of genetically breeding for stupidity is unproven.
The vast majority of mutations either [A] have little or no noticeable effect or [B] kills the embryo before it can be born. The process of evolution is advanced by zillions of tiny mutations over zillions of generations, culled by the relentless forces of natural selection.
No, exposure to radiation will not turn you into a mutant. But if your gonads are irradiated, your future children might be.
Early science fiction authors either didn't understand mutations or found the actual process incredibly boring. So they jazzed it up.
They frantically waved their hands and breathlessly announced that mutation could lead to the Next Stage Of Human Evolution™ !
This concept contains two ignorant fallacies for the price of one. First off it makes the ridiculous assumption that there are "levels" of evolution (measured by what metric, pray tell?) then it compounds the stupidity by postulating that evolution is working towards a specific goal ("orthogenesis") and you can use these non-existent evolutionary levels to measure the progress to the non-existent goal. The tell-tale sign of the latter is the phrase "more evolved."
In reality, the only "goal" of evolution is for the organism to be able to survive and thrive in whatever the current conditions happen to be in this geological epoch. Since conditions change with time, the goal of evolution is a moving target.
Early SF writers who were evolution-theory morons assumed that "intelligence" was the goal of evolutionary progress, the "ultimate life-form" at the top of the evolutionary ladder. The ultimate intelligent life-form was some sort of giant brain. Examples include the Arisans from E. E. "Doc" Smith's Lensman series.
This would lead more evolved females to demand Cesarean section. You see the relatively large size of the human baby's head is the reason why of all the species on Terra, humans are pretty much the only ones who suffer painful child birth. The evolution of a larger pelvis has not kept up with the evolution of larger baby heads.
Latter writers assumed that the goal was a set of superhuman abilities (you know: super-strength, advanced intelligence, immunity to various lethal things, and of course psionic abilities). Examples include Adam Warlock. Others cut to the chase and postulated that the end goal was to evolve humans into energy beings. Examples from Star Trek include the Organians, the Q, and arguably the Melkot, the Thasian, the Metrons, the Medusans, and the Zetarian.
The "levels of evolution" nonsense also lead to nonsensical stories where radiation from nuclear testing creates a crop of mutant children all with the same mutation. In reality mutations are more random than Pi. Not all such stories have this flaw, but there are enough to be really annoying. The only way to get lots of mutants with the same random mutation is if they share a common ancestor.
The stupid writers also got the mechanism wrong. In reality if somebody was exposed to a mutagen, their future offspring might be mutants because the DNA in the germ cells got mangled prior to procreation. But the writers were under the misapprehension that the mutagen would transform the poor exposed person into a mutant on the spot, much like the way cosmic ray exposure created the Fantastic Four. This erroneous concept was apparently created by Hugo de Vries in his 1901 story Die Mutationstheorie.
Mutants are not just people either, don't forget the radiation-spawned giant ants in the movie Them!.
None of this is scientifically accurate, but it is very exciting reading.
In Edmond Hamilton's 1931 story The Man Who Evolved, the concepts were twisted for a shock ending. The mad scientist Dr. John Pollard figures out that cosmic rays are responsible for evolution (sort of true) so exposing a person to concentrated cosmic rays will rapidly evolve them to the next stage of evolution (nope, author is unclear on the concept, it will just fry them to a crisp). With each treatment his brain becomes larger while his body becomes more spindly. At the next to the last stage he is nothing but a huge brain feeding on telepathic energy. Unfortunately for him the final stage is a pathetic primitive single-celled organism. Because apparently the levels of evolution are arranged more as a circle than as a rising staircase.
After 1945 science fiction writers finally got it through their heads that radiation would cause you to have mutant children, but not grant you any unusual powers apart from a drastically shortened lifespan. But they were still stuck on that goal oriented evolution nonsense.
The authors did however invented a brand new trope: a world wide rise in the number of mutants born due to either nuclear testing or in the apocalyptic aftermath of a nuclear war. "Children of the Atom" so to speak.
In science fiction, mutants from low level rises of background radiation due to nuclear testing tend to be superior beings with super powers. The X-Men and Perry Rhodan's Mutant Corps fall into this category.
Post-atomic-war mutants on the other hand tend to be pathetic cripples with misshapen bodies and the wrong number of limbs. In Forrest J. Ackerman's shaggy-dog story The Mute Question, the muties have a proverb: two heads are better than none.
The muties of Heinlein's Orphans of the Sky fall into this category, though in this case the radiation is not from an atomic war. As it turns out the mutie Joe-Jim also has two heads.
In the X-Men stories there is often deep-seated prejudice against mutants, since average humans have the not unreasonable fear that mutants will supplant them. Draconian anti-mutant laws are passed, and periodically there are attempts at mutant genocide. Which just goes to show what idiots average humans are. Especially given the stupendous superpowers possessed by mutants and how angry they become when you try pulling that "final solution" atrocity on them.
There is also plenty of "mutants are evil" garbage in John Wyndham's The Chrysalids. Take a post-nuclear apocalypse community with about Amish levels of technology, mix in an oppressive religion with a paranoid fear of the new, and you have a formula for a real eugenic nightmare. Mutations are considered to be "Blasphemies" and must be either killed or sterilised and banished to the Fringes.
In the Perry Rhodan novels, Terra discovers that the solar system is surrounded by highly advanced interstellar empires that would love to annex the planet. He needs an ace-in-the-hole or Terra is doomed. The Mutant Corps is a team of mutants with psionic powers which the alien empires cannot cope with. The 18 founding-members were mostly Japanese who were born shortly after the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The X-Men are sort of the Marvel comics version of Perry Rhodan's Mutant Corps, since X-Men issue #1 came out about two years after Perry Rhodan volume 6.
The archtypical superhuman mutants are the Slans from the eponymous novel by A. E. van Vogt. Every subsequent novel with "Homo Superior" mutants owes something to the Slans (though the novel is sadly unknown nowadays). When it came out, science fiction fans embraced the concept. This is because they naturally figured that they were Slans. The fans started using the pejorative term "mundane" for non-fans, sort of a science-fiction-fan version of the term "Muggle." A house or building where lots of SF fans lived was called a "Slan-shack."
There are a couple of science fiction novels dealing with mutants and galactic empires. They imply that mutants tend to appear when an empire is in the "decline and fall" stage. In his immortal Foundation and Empire, Isaac Asimov has the mutant the Mule appear during the Dark Ages after the fall of empire. In Andre Norton's Star Ranger the historian mentions that the current time of galactic empire collapse is when "change mutants" make their appearance.
Other novels mention dark rumors about how mutant occur on those planets beyond the rim of the galactic empire. An example is John Brunner's Altar On Asconel.
In Jack Williamson's Seetee Ship and Seetee Shock, the children of asteroid miners occasionally are born with abilities useful in the space environment. Rob McGee is immune to radiation, and has an ability to sense gravitational masses. This allows him to navigate the asteroid belt with relative ease. McGee is the first evidence of asterites evolving into humans suited for living in space.
"Immortality" means being partially or fully immune to dying from old age. You can still die from starvation, being blown out an airlock with no spacesuit, or being drilled between the eyes by a laser rifle.
"Invulnerability" on the other hand is being remarkably difficult to kill. Having a body composed of diamond, Wolverine-levels of regeneration, resurrection like Count Dracula, that sort of thing.
Having one of these abilities does not necessarily mean you have the other. TV Tropes calls having both Complete Immortality.
Immortality is a perennial favorite, since practically nobody wants to die. I'm not kidding. The concept dates back at least to the The Epic of Gilgamesh (circa 2100 BCE) the earliest surviving great work of literature.
But the invention of any new technique of prolonging lifespan is guaranteed to create major problems in the society and political power structure.
For one thing, unless you pass laws about term limits and maximum age of political office, you've suddenly got a gerontocracy on your hands.
For another, if the lifespan lengthens to past about 500 years or so, you'd better limit the number of children allowed to a family or overpopulation will make a reappearance. Once you have death control you have to have birth control or you'll be standing on Zanzibar. Logically, the reason any species has the ability to procreate is because they are mortal. Otherwise the species would go extinct. Remove the mortality and you remove the need for procreation.
Naturally, this becomes less acute if immortality is not for everyone, but just for a privileged few. Even if that spoil-sport Immanual Kant says it is immoral to do something that is only bad if everybody does it.
TV Tropes calls this the Immortal Procreation Clause: The fertility of a species is inversely proportional to its lifespan. Thus, as a species approaches immortality, their birth rate approaches zero. This can be the result of natural infertility, or because they don't want to be up to their eyebrows in squalling babies so contraception is employed.
On a broader level there is the problem that reducing the birth rate also reduces the evolution rate of the species. No children, no evolution. Keeping in mind that the invention of modern medicine has already put a damper on evolution.
There are other problems with immortality, over and above the literary motive of saying it is just plain immoral for some reason or another.
It has often been noted that in society "the rich get richer." At least nowadays the super rich eventually die so their wealth is divided among the children. But an immortal rich person is just going to keep getting richer. The same goes for a politically powerful immortal. They keep getting to be more powerful and are never removed by death.
In "The Martyr" by Alan E Nourse the invention of immortality puts the breaks on progress. They can only give the treatment to 500 carefully selected people each year, but after a couple of decades the effect is quite noticeable. The starship project stalls because there is no motivation to get things done in a timely fashion. Since each treatment adds another sixty years to your life, why not spend yet another year on starship testing just to be absolutely sure? And the politicians start becoming permanent fixtures. With each decade they just add to their repertoire of dirty political tricks, new novice politicians don't stand a chance. Stagnation.
The "lack of pressure" drawback is also featured in Between The Strokes Of Night by Charles Sheffield, in chapter 29.
In Isaac Asimov's The Naked Sun the Spacers have a lifespan of 400 years or so. They become hypercautious and terrified of disease, since they have so many more years to lose than a filthy Earthman with their three-score and ten. Spacers are also unbelievably conservative and resistant to change.
In many science fiction stories the supreme enemy of an immortal being is boredom. After ten-thousand years or so it is almost impossible for an immortal to find anything new, or even anything they've only encountered five hundred times before. In The Lost Worlds of 2001 Arthur C. Clarke said "There were few things that an immortal welcomed and valued more greatly than surprise; when there was none left in the universe, it would be time to die." This is explored in Raymond Z. Gallun's The Eden Cycle and Michael Moorcock's Dancers at the End of Time sequence where the protagonists must go to extreme and absurd lengths to keep ennui at bay.
In the role playing game The Burning Wheel, the Elves are immortal. As a consequence they are elegiac, tragic, and constantly grief-stricken. After all, the longer you live, the larger the number of friends you have seen die (generally in combat). Us older people have experienced a mild version of this: the older you get, the more of your beloved TV and movie actors you loved from childhood depart for that big silver screen in the sky. Especially in the year 2016.
In the movie Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End Captain Teague tells Jack Sparrow: "It's not just about living forever, Jackie. The trick is living with yourself forever."
But immortality is not all bad. It comes in handy with slower-than-light space travel. Or even faster-than-light, the "anti-agathic" immortality drugs of James Blish's Cities In Flight series were developed because star travel at 20c still consumes a huge chunk of one's lifespan. In Robert Forward's Rocheworld, the drug No-Die slows the aging process to one-fourth the normal rate. Unfortunately it temporarily lowers intelligence by roughly the same factor. It is needed because the STL laser light-sail is going to take 42 years to fly to Barnard's Star, and a crew of retirement-age astronauts would do an exceedingly poor job of exploration.
Science fiction authors are also fond of teasing the reader about immortality. In Whatever Happened to Corporal Cuckoo? by Gerald Kersh the protagonist meets the eponymous Cuckoo who was born in 1507. He suffered a severe head trauma, and was treated by mad doctor Ambroise Paré with The Digestive (a concoction of oil of roses, honey, turpentine, and egg whites). This makes Cuckoo both immortal and invulnerable. Cuckoo wants to buy a farm to produce the needed ingredients so he can make a fortune selling The Digestive.
The protagonist torpeodes Cuckoo's plan by pointing out the wide variations in bee honey, eggs, et al. The chances of recreating the formula by using such organic ingredients is zilch.
Technological Unemployment is when a machine steals your job.
(But the term "sabotage" did not come from Luddites tossing their wooden clog sabots into the the machinery. That is not supported by the etymology. I don't care what Lt. Valeris said in Star Trek VI. It is a common story, though.)
Anyway the economists will assure you that history proves there is nothing to worry about. Yes there will be some short-term pain as all the buggy-whip making jobs vanish, but in the long-term the march of technology will create more new jobs than were originally lost. Believing otherwise means you are an economic ignoramus making the mistake of falling for the Luddite Fallacy.
But around 2013 more and more economists became alarmed that this time it was different.
Up until now, machines were taking away jobs by replacing human strength. Now they were taking away jobs by replacing human intellect. Yuval Harari said “Humans only have two basic abilities — physical and cognitive. When machines replaced us in physical abilities, we moved on to jobs that require cognitive abilities. ... If AI becomes better than us in that, there is no third field humans can move to.”
It started slow. Personal computers with word-processing software drastically reduced the number of secretarial jobs. Income tax preparation software drastically reduced the number of tax preparation companies. Currently many fast food franchises are replacing food preparation workers with robots.
But that's OK said the economists. The displaced workers just need some more education so they can find jobs which have not been computerized yet. And they will be higher paying jobs, just you wait and see!
The economists got a rude shock when computers started taking away high-education jobs. That wasn't supposed to happen. It was also a chilling wake-up call to those with high-education jobs who had been smugly saying their jobs were safe.
For example, a new company called Enlitic applied Google's deep learning software TensorFlow to the task of diagnosing lung cancer by examining lung CT scans. They easily trained the software to do the work. Then they did a test where a panel of four of the world’s top human radiologists competed with the software. The results were dramatic. The human radiologists had a false positive rate (incorrectly diagnosing cancer) of 66%. The software had a false positive rate of only 47%. What is worse, the human radiologists had a false negative rate (missing a cancer diagnosis) of 7% while the software had a false negative rate of Zero.
Which means that once Enlitic trains their software on the other diseases, human radiologists will suddenly find themselves out of a job. The software will be cheaper than a radiologist's salary ($286,000/year), and can work 24-7. OK Mr. Economist, what sort of education would you suggest so these suddenly unemployed radiologists can find a better-paying job? Preferably a job that will NOT become lost to computer software before they even complete their education.
Such software is also making inroads into stealing such jobs as writing sports stories, journalism, computer programming, sewing garments, marketing, doing the job of junior lawyers by sorting through previous court cases and legal resources to find precedents, money management, and writing legal briefs. Not to mention financial analysts. And it is just a matter of time before general medical diagnosis falls as well.
The mood among economists is becoming grim. While many are still maintaining that new jobs will eventually replaced the vanished ones, their pronouncements are starting to sound a bit hollow. The economists who believe the jobs will not be coming back used to be a tiny minority, but a 2014 Pew Research revealed such economists are now more like 48%. Technology is now destroying more jobs than it creates. The Luddite Fallacy is on very shaky ground.
Oxford academics Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne published a study with the findings that almost half of U.S. jobs are at high risk of computerization over the next 20 years. Positions that are particularly vulnerable to automation include telemarketers, tax preparers, watch repairers, insurance underwriters, cargo and freight agents, and mathematical technicians. Driving jobs on mining sites are already being automated and long-distance truck drivers, forklift operators and agricultural drivers could be replaced within five to 10 years.
A more recent McKinsey report suggested today's technology could feasibly replace 45% of jobs right now.
And for jobs requiring lower education lost to automation, even if they are eventually replace in the long-term, the short-term can wreck the entire US economy if the number of jobs is huge enough. It can be a disaster if the transition is too fast. The advent of autonomous cars and driverless trucks could put five million people in the US out of a job. The point being that the US economy does not have the ability to create five million new jobs fast enough to employ these people.
There are those who say: but what about creative jobs? A robot might be stronger and a computer might be smarter, but can they make art? The first point is if you actually think you can solve the unemployment problem by teaching the unemployed to be artists, well good luck with that. The second point is yes, computers are starting to make art.
Taken to its logical extreme, eventually there won't be any more jobs. None, everything will be done by robots and computers. Which is a problem since in modern society one needs money in order to avoid starving to death. And there are not a lot of ways to get money without a job. Not legal ways at any rate. The only people with money will be the ones that own the robots, or have income from either stocks or being independently wealthy.
Yes, corporations that manufacture goods for sale are shooting themselves in the foot by firing all their employees and replacing them with robots. This reduces the number of potential customers (ones who have money to purchase your product at any rate). However this is a "tragedy of the commons" situation. Basically each company figures the declining number of customers is Somebody Else's Problem, not their problem. Even worse, if a company decides to virtuously hang on to their workers to maintain the number of consumers, the company will find itself at a competitive disadvantage with respect to all their evil competitors who use robots. The virtuous companies will go bankrupt from the unfair competition from the evil companies.
But the big point is any society is only three missed meals away from violent anarchy. If widespread technological unemployment increases, the problem will be solved either elegantly by government and society, or it will solve itself inelegantly by natural forces. Probably food riots and angry hungry people setting up lots of guillotines to take care of the robot owners. The French Revolution was over 200 years ago, but the situation is much the same and if we are unlucky so will be the solution. Everything old is new again.
And obviously the food riots are not going to hold off until 100% unemployment happens. They will start much sooner than that.
So what are the elegant solutions?
And there are those who say that the rich should foot the bill for a solution, telling them that this is the fee for "guillotine insurance."
But a commentator named Kalin said: The elites will share their wealth only insofar as it's cheaper to do that (bread and circuses) than it is to keep the proles at bay through force. What Marx saw as an inexorable trend towards socialism may have in fact just been a temporary consequence of the industrial revolution, wherein labor was especially important and the power of an individual worker was large in historical terms. It's not impossible to imagine a sort of "Neo Feudalism" where a small minority of elites find it cheaper to maintain control via technological force-multipliers than to share their earnings such that everyone is actually happy or nearly so.
In other words, the rich will do the math and may well discover that a private army is cheaper than funding a Basic Income.
The Singularity is a theoretical event where computer artificial intelligence escapes control and Everything Changes. If an AI figures out how to improve its intelligence, the Singularity will happen rather quickly because computers can do a gazillion mathematical calculations in a fraction of a second. It took mankind about 300,000 years to go from the Middle Paleolithic to present-day knowledge, a crude AI could do that much in about four months.
Charles Stross calls it "The Rapture Of The Nerds", because Singularity fans talk about it in terms one generally only hears among eschatologists. Human history will come to an end, beer will be five cents a pint, everybody will have their brain uploaded into the paradise of a hyper interstellar internet, there to live out a blissful immortality while being all watched over by machines of loving grace. And it is going to happen Real Soon Now.
But both predictions are meaningless, since the point of a singularity is it signals where the math breaks down and future prediction is impossible. Sort of like a historical event horizon. Any prediction you make is revealing more about the hopes and fears lurking inside your personality than it is the actual details of the post-Singularity future.
Anyway the label was first mentioned by Stanislaw Ulam in 1958. But it was popularized by Vernor Vinge to the point where pretty much every science fiction author has at least heard the term. Of course there have been a few science fiction stories written about it.
Vinge is of the opinion that the Singularity will strike the instant that some entity appears that is "Superintelligent." It will then work its will, and the human history will vanish into the unpredictable event horizon of the Singularity. Vinge figures this can happen four different ways:
- A computer may be developed that is both awake and superhumanly intelligent. This might be from some human genius who builds a very smart machine, or by a human who makes a computer capable of such recursive self-improvement that when the human's back is turned the computer undergoes an intelligence explosion, bootstrapping itself into superintellence.
- A large computer network may "wake up" as a superintelligent entity. Arthur C. Clarke used this in his 1965 story Dial "F" for Frankenstein when the telephone system wakes up. Nowadays the first thing that springs to mind is the internet, which is a disturbing thought. Blasted thing will have 4chan for a dark subconscious.
- A computer/brain interface may become so intimate that the users will be for all intents and purposes superintelligent.
- There may be no computers involved at all. Biological science might be able to grant human beings the power of superintelligence.
Naturally once you have a superintelligent being, there is nothing stopping it from creating a super-superintelligent being, and so on.
This is the nightmare Skynet Scenario, with hordes of Terminator robots hunting down humans with phased plasma rifles in the 40 watt range, crunching human skulls underfoot. Once the rogue artificial intelligence is created, it decided to exterminate the human race for reasons that make sense to its cybernetic mind.
UNOBTANIUM: We can't build a physical example of it, but insofar as we can postulate that it can be built at all, the laws of physics say it would behave like thus and so. While Handwavium and Technobabble tell you what you CAN do, Unobtainium usually tells you what is NOT possible. Examples: gigawatt laser, antimatter weapons, ladderdown reactors.
HANDWAVIUM: It flat out violates laws of physics. We're waving our hands and saying pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. Examples: faster-than-light drive, time travel, reactionless drives.
Science fiction authors can make up handwavium on their own with no help from this website, it ain't that hard. As long as you are not scared of RocketCat and his dreaded Atomic Wedgie. The main problem is keeping it internally consistent within its own made-up rules, and dealing with unintended consequences. It is a big help if during the design phase the author focuses on effects not causes.
Dating back to the Orichalcum that was all the rage in Atlantis, to modern-day Wolverine's indestructable Adamantium bones, fiction is full of marvelous materials that would be oh so useful if we could only lay our hands on some.
Material composed of nothing but closely packed neutrons. Found in the core of neutron stars. The best figure I can find for the density of neutronium is 4×1017 kilograms per cubic meter, and dwarf star matter 1×109 kilograms per cubic meter.
No, you can't us it as the ultimate armor because if you somehow take a chunk out of the neutron star's core, the accurséd chunk explodes.
Outside of the core the neutrons undergo beta-decay with a half-life of 10 minutes and 11 seconds (611 seconds) with each cubic centimeter emitting energy at a rate of 19 megawatts average over the first half life.
Translation: sitting next to a cube of neutronium will be like having four and a half sticks of TNT blow up in your lap every second for 611 seconds.
As with all half-life decays, the second half-life will only have half the energy (two and a quarter sticks TNT per second) but by that point there won't be much left of your miserable carcass anyway.
Physicist Luke Campbell points out to me that my understanding is imperfect. Beta-decay is the least of your worries. He told me "An additional thing I didn't see mentioned in the section on neutronium is that all the neutrons are unbound. That means, there is nothing sticking them together. Once removed from the crushing gravity of a neutron star, all the individual neutrons fly off on their own independent happy trajectories. In an instant, you no longer have any kind of -ium any more, but rather a flash of highly penetrating energetic ionizing radiation."
In atomic nuclei, neutrons and protons stick together due to the strong nuclear force. Since the neutrons in a neutron star are not in a nucleus, there ain't no strong nuclear force gluing them. They are unbound.
The only thing keeping them together is the neutron star's outrageous gravity field. Once you take a chunk of neutronium away from the neutron star's gravity, the unbound neutrons composing the chunk instantly go flying in all direction at relativistic speeds. In other words it becomes a blast of neutron radiation with a flux strong enough to shred you into subatomic particles.
Higgsinium may or may not be handwavium. It depends upon a subatomic particle called the negative Higgsino predicted by supersymmetry theory. So far there is no evidence for supersymmetry from any physics experiment, and obviously no proof the negative Higgsino exists.
Monopolium may or may not be handwavium. It depends upon a subatomic particle called a magnetic monopole. There have been a couple of experiments which produced candidate events that were initially interpreted as monopoles, but are now regarded as inconclusive. On the other hand, pretty much all of the various theories of subatomic physics predict the existence of monopoles.
Computronium is a material hypothesized by Norman Margolus and Tommaso Toffoli of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to be used as "programmable matter," a substrate for computer modeling of virtually any real object. It also refers to a theoretical arrangement of matter that is the best possible form of computing device for that amount of matter.
Superconductors are nifty wires that have exactly zero resistance to the flow of electricity. They are vital to the construction of ultra-powerful magnets (for coilguns, particle beam weapons, and some propulsion systems) and for hyperfast computers.
The first superconductors had to be cooled with expensive and troublesome liquid helium. They became practical when new superconductors were discovered which could work with cheap and easy liquid nitrogen.
But the holy grail is a superconductor that doesn't need to be cooled at all. These are high-temperature superconductors, colloquially called "room-temperature superconductors."
Larry Niven used superconductors a lot in his Known Space series, especially Ringworld. His electrical superconductors are also superconductors of heat, which I have so far failed to find a reference on that topic.