Future Shock

OPINION | COSMOS | April 2009



On a clear and warm night years ago, looking up at the beauty of a full Moon rising, my grandmother confided in me: “You know, they didn’t really go to the Moon.”


By Wilson da Silva


WHEN MY GRANDMOTHER was born, in the dying years of the 19th century, the idea of people flying was fanciful. By the time she was six (in 1903), the Wright brothers had flown their little engine-powered glider over the sand dunes of North Carolina. In a generation, airlines were flying people between Europe and Australia and, another generation later, the sound barrier was broken. The first artificial satellite was orbiting Earth a decade after that. Within 12 years, people were walking on the Moon.


To my grandmother, this must have all seemed too much. On a clear and warm night years ago, looking up at the beauty of a full Moon rising, she confided in me, “You know, they didn’t really go to the Moon.”


I was puzzled. “You mean, the astronauts?” I asked. She nodded her head. “It was done in a film studio. It had to be. How could someone go to the Moon?”

The silicon progeny of these computers will have astounding processing power, and may even become sentient.

She’s now dearly departed, but her observation stayed with me. It’s not that she believed in conspiracy theories. She just had difficulty accepting such monumental change in her lifetime.


More than 40 years ago, Alvin Toffler coined a name for this condition: ‘future shock’. It’s what happens when the familiar becomes strange, changing to the point of being unrecognisable – such as your street or your bank – and when the strange becomes ordinary, such as computers talking to you on the telephone.



We are likely to face many such challenges in the 21st century; some small, some large. For this will be a century like no other. Global economic growth has risen spectacularly in the 10,000 years since the advent of agriculture, and began accelerating after the Industrial Revolution.


It has been picking up speed in the 20th century, and computers now double their processing ability every two years – a phenomenal growth rate known as Moore’s Law, which has held for more than 50 years.


But, according to many noted thinkers, this is nothing compared to what might happen the day we build a computer whose processing power substantially surpasses human cognitive capability and ask it to build even better computers.

Science is like a candle held against the dark; each year, another candle is lit, and our surroundings become a little less dark. But the unknown is an immense expanse, and we will never have enough candles to light it all.

Soon, Moore’s Law will go from a doubling of processing capability every two years to every few hours, as fast computers build even faster computers which in turn design faster and faster computers, leading to runaway technological development. The silicon progeny of these computers will have astounding processing power, and may even become sentient.


Intractable problems will be offered to these artificially intelligent leviathans – curing cancer, making batteries 500 times more efficient, extracting more power from sunlight – and they will spit out novel solutions that will dramatically accelerate technological development while drastically reducing costs, leading to an economic boom that will spike off the charts.


This is a moment dubbed ‘the singularity’ – a time when technology accelerates so fast, we cannot even imagine the changes that will follow. Is it possible? And if so, is it a mere 20 or 30 years away, as some of its proponents believe?



We stand at a number of unprecedented thresholds this century: manipulating genes, building materials atom-by-atom and harnessing fusion energy. And while I doubt we will see the emergence of sentient machines so soon, I don’t doubt they will eventually arise. It’s just a question of when.


Nobody can truly predict what the future will bring. As a journalist and editor, I’ve covered developments in science and technology for more than 20 years, and I still find myself surprised and astounded. It’s what makes science so fascinating.


Each year, we know a little bit more about the world, and a little bit more about this immense universe around us. Science is like a candle held against the dark; each year, another candle is lit, and our surroundings become a little less dark. But the unknown is an immense expanse, and we will never have enough candles to light it all.


And, for the record: yes, people really did walk on the Moon.

Wilson da Silva is the editor-in-chief of COSMOS. This was originally published in COSMOS in December 2010.

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