Dream Machines


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Try this sexual fantasy on for size: author Howard Rheingold, who writes about the you-are-there technology known as virtual reality, predicts that consenting adults in the not too distant future will be able to enjoy sex over the telephone. First they will slip into undergarments lined with sensors and miniature actuators. Then they will dial their partner and, while whispering endearments, fondle each other over long-distance lines. For those who prefer something tamer, Nobel physicist Arno Penzias believes that in the 21st century it will be possible to play Ping-Pong (or any other sport) with phantasms that look and talk like the celebrity of your choice. And that's just the beginning. Someday, says visionary engineer K. Eric Drexler, molecular-size machines will be able to assemble objects one atom at a time. Using this method, they could manufacture everything from prefabricated skyscrapers to computers small enough to fit inside a living cell.

When asked to close their eyes and imagine the shape of technology in the 21st century, scientists and industrial planners describe a world filled with intelligent machines, multisensual media and artificial creatures so highly evolved they will seem as alive as dogs and cats. If even their most conservative projections come true, the next century may bring advances no less momentous than the Bomb, the Pill and the digital computer. Should the more radical predictions prove correct, our descendants may encounter technological upheavals that could make 20th century breakthroughs seem tame.

For the first few decades of the next millennium, new advances are likely to fit within familiar forms. People will still drive cars to work, albeit lightweight cars running on strange new fuels. Office workers will toil before computers, although those machines will probably respond to commands that are spoken or scribbled as well as typed. Families will gather around TV sets with big, high-definition screens and a large menu of interactive options. After a few decades, those familiar forms will blend together and begin to lose their distinct identities. TVs, vcrs, CD players, computers, telephones, video games, newspapers and mail-order catalogs will merge to create new products and services that can only be dimly imagined today.

Somewhere around the middle of the century, many scientists predict, technology may enter a transitional phase, a shift in the ground rules that will put what is now considered pure science fiction well within society's reach. "We're at the knee of a curve, after which all those intimations of the future may actually come true," says John Holzrichter, director of institutional research and development at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Among the scenarios he and his colleagues anticipate:


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