Review: Soonish

Soonish: Ten Emerging Technologies That’ll Improve and/or Ruin Everything, Kelly and Zach Weinersmith. New York: Penguin Press, 2017.

Summary: A cartoonist and scientist team up to look at ten emerging technologies and the challenges, both scientific and moral, that are involved in bringing these into existence in the “soonish” future.

There are an abundance of futurist scenarios about technological innovations on the horizon that will change, and perhaps, enhance our lives. In this fun and informative book, a scientist and cartoonist team up to explore ten of these technologies, the challenges involved with realizing them, and some of the challenges they may pose for us. In a text that explains these technologies in easily grasped language and amusing cartoons that accompany the text, the authors explore these emerging technologies:

  • Cheap access to space
  • Asteroid mining
  • Fusion power
  • Programmable matter
  • Robotic construction
  • Augmented reality
  • Synthetic biology
  • Precision medicine
  • Bioprinting
  • Brain-computer interfaces

Each chapter explains the current state (in 2017) of the technology, the challenges to its realization, how it might make things terrible, and ways it might make things wonderful.

Under challenges, I learned how expensive it is to get anything into space, how difficult it would be to build a space elevator that would reduce this cost, the challenges of transport and radiation with asteroid mining, the difficulty at present of developing a fusion reactor that puts out more energy than involved in making it work, the problems with large scale robotic construction–contractors can still build a house more cheaply, the privacy issues of augmented reality and medical information, and the difficulties in bioprinting anything more complex than thin layers of tissues.

Under terrible outcomes are the environmental impact of all that rocket fuel, the dangers of moving asteroids into earth intercepting trajectories creating an extinction event, that fusion will always remain in the future because of how hard it is to do, that programmable matter can be hacked, that control of augmented reality falls in the wrong hands, that synthetic biology creates killer organisms, and the use of brain-computer interfaces in manipulative ways.

The other side is wonderful outcomes including space exploration, various mineral resources, cheap and clean fusion power, “smart” construction and objects, and new versions of organs entirely compatible with our bodies because they are based on our genetic materials, greatly extending life, and cures for cancer and neurological diseases.

There has always been this double-edged character to technology. The Weinersmiths help us think beyond the ballyhooed technologies and a wonderful new world to the challenges and possible downsides. They do all this with a light touch that neither sees technology as a panacea nor to always be shunned. As in the past, there are challenges to be surmounted as there were in the past–some which seemed insurmountable, until solutions were found. In some areas, it is surprising how much progress has been made–precision medicine for example.

The greatest challenge then seems the human one. We have both the capacity for great good and unspeakable evil and no technological advance promises to change that. We also are not always very good at predicting the unintended effects of what we do and often our technological fixes only solve one problem while creating others. Perhaps at best, we can be aware of these things and not think we will be better, smarter, or more prescient than our predecessors. Sometimes a bit of humility is a good thing.

One thought on “Review: Soonish

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: December 2022 | Bob on Books

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