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Future shocks

The fundamental things will still apply, as times go by

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I enjoyed reviewing the books noted in "Birth of the biotech religion" because it's fun to think about the technological developments likely to occur over the next half-century. For example, I suspect that by 2055 publishers will be printing many nonfiction books on electronic paper, with buyers purchasing not only the volume but a warranty promising that the information won't be out of date. When a reader opens such a book, an immediate link to an advanced internet will open and update the material.

Regular dental visits may well be a thing of the past because of nanopaste, by which enamel in microscopic cavities will replace bacteria so that decay does not occur. Instead of having our teeth cleaned in dental offices every six months, though, we'll schedule artery cleanings, with microscopic devices entering our arteries to knock away fatty deposits, or hitting the colon to destroy polyps that could become cancerous.

We may also have clothes that will adjust to temperature and precipitation, and change color on wearer demand. Maybe the late summer hurricane season will be only a blip because of turtle buildings with sidings that can create a hard shell to protect buildings against high winds and floods. Homes might include not only three-dimensional printers but small molecular assemblers so that people can order some products and have them made automatically in their kitchens. I suspect that illiteracy will grow as voice-recognition computers become universal. Study of foreign languages will decline as people can have instantaneous translation in computerized earpieces. We may have computerized glasses that will give us immediate background information on people we meet or even encounter while walking down the street-although some may decide to go without such data in order to maintain the thrill of strange encounters.

But, with all these changes, it's unlikely that high tech will make as much of a difference as some science fiction writers predict. For example, say that VRMs-virtual reality machines-do replace DVDs or similar devices; say a young man can buy a Valentine's Day program that will place him in a virtual walk on the beach with a beautiful woman, and it will seem as real as the most vivid dream. So what? The participant will still know that it has been just a dream. Virtual reality could well be the opiate of the masses, but people will know that it's an opiate-and that will leave a sense of dissatisfaction.

Prospects for deeper changes are all overrated, I suspect. If Christ does not first return, will artificial intelligence be in the saddle, riding mankind? No-computers will still be glorified calculators. They will be able to imitate humans and leave a person reading a transcript unable to know whether computers or humans are speaking, but they will still be responding to software and without the spark of life that is God's gift.

More likely than a melding of man and computer is the genetic engineering of half-human, half-animal chimeras through the uniting of human and great ape sperm and eggs. Guidelines published this spring by the National Academy of Science and three affiliated groups gave species-mixing experiments the go-ahead, and if those experiments proceed all kinds of legal, ethical, and theological issues will arise: Will such creatures be considered persons? Can they be owned? Might they have souls?

Potential increases in human longevity could also bring about difficult issues. Since the Fall, God has commonly limited our spans to 70 or 80 years, as Psalm 90 points out, and I doubt whether we'll typically go longer than the number of that psalm: Doctors will be able to patch many holes in our systems, but after a while one system or another will still spring a leak. Still, if medical innovations more often send us into three digits, how will Christians respond? If this life is only a vestibule for the life to come, how much time do we need to spend in the waiting room?

We learned in the last century that better things make for easier living but not necessarily better lives. We're likely to learn the same about biotechnology in this century.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is the former editor in chief of WORLD, having retired in January 2022, and former dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.



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