I recently just finished Asimov’s fourth Foundation Book: Foundation and Edge. The series is excellent and I wholeheartedly recommend it to any sci-fi fans. The empire is about to fall into 30000 years of darkness when Hari Seldon Mathematician/Prophet establishes a Foundation of scholars to document all of human knowledge as part of a complicated 1000 year plan to establish a stronger second empire.
The first novel of the series was written in 1942 and it should be extremely curious for modern readers to note that an entire planet was needed to document all of human knowledge. In fact Wikipedia has provided such a documentation by instead crowdsourcing the entire process and had it more or less completed in a decade.
Interpolation as a predictor
Breakthroughs might not happen on problems we deem important today, but instead refine current technologies to enable other kinds of breakthroughs In the Foundation even though the protagonists are in the distant future where mankind has colonized into the far reaches of the universe, mankind still communicates via letters. I believe that for an author in 1942 paper and a complex system of inter-spatial tubes might have never looked like an improper medium to communicate information but the complexity and cost of such a system dwarves the internet. So ask an author in 2014: how would people communicate in the future and odds are they’ll imagine something like people sitting on ergonomic chairs typing away on their paper thin tablets transmitting information wirelessly. The infrastructure might include satellites operating as routing stations transmitting Wi-fi signals through space.
The problem is that any attempt to imagine what future technologies will look like will attempt to do so via analogy to technologies we use today.
We’ve made breakthroughs in the speed at which we can transmit information but yet we haven’t made substantial progress in finding other planets we could colonize. Yes we do have Philae on the Rosetta comet and Curiosity on Mars yet we still don’t have affordable spacecraft or space-travel, we don’t know how to travel through wormholes and maybe fundamentally we can’t.
Neuroscientists face a similar problem where the tools they are working with makes them incapable of making any great strides to understand the human brain. There are no instruments that can measure the various concentrations of neurotransmitters on a subject who is alive, we have no instruments to map specific neural level activity with cognition. However, because we believe that the brain is essentially a computer with hundreds of billions of components we call neurons then there should be no fundamental reason why we can’t understand them by analogy to computers.
I propose that maybe we are facing an instance of reasoning via a false analogy, maybe a computer is the wrong abstraction for the brain.
When Descartes took to studying the brain, he also used the analogy that made the most sense at the time. He imagined the brain as a complex hydraulic engine that moves the body or creates thoughts via a fluidic pressure on different parts of the brain. The center of decision making would be the Pineal Gland (Last I checked people still don’t know what a Pineal Gland does).
So really the lesson is: any prediction we might make about the future is still an extrapolation of what we observe in the present. Asimov and Descartes were doomed to think via false analogies. Asimov failed to predict what technology would look like 40 years after he published the first Foundation and Descartes’ story reminds us how foolish we will look in retrospect for reasoning via incorrect abstractions.