Our visions of the future tend to be forged in the pages of science fiction. But for the past half-century, a number of prominent thinkers, activists, and scientists have made significant contributions to our understanding of what the future could look like. Here are 10 recent futurists you absolutely need to know about.
Above image courtesy Dylan Cole.
A few months ago we told you about 9 historical figures who may have predicted our future. Now it’s time to focus on major contributions made during the past five decades.
Needless to say, there were dozens upon dozens of amazing futurists who could have been included in this article, so it wasn’t easy to pare down this list. But given the width and breadth of futurist discourse, we decided to select nine thinkers whose contributions should be considered seminal and highly influential to their field of study.
And as for any futurist I might have missed, please add to comments and let’s discuss! But let’s not get into futurists who are also scifi writers — that’s a separate list I’ll hit in the future.
He’s known as the intellectual father of the cryonics movement. Physicist Robert Ettinger, who only died recently and is currently in cryonic stasis, was an early advocate of immortalism, or what we would today call radical life extension. In his 1964 book, The Prospect of Immortality, Ettinger argued that whole body or head-only freezing should be used to place the recently deceased into a state of suspended animation for later revival. To that end, he made the case that governments should immediately start a mass-freezing program. He also believed that the onset of immortality would endow humanity with a higher, nobler nature.
"Someday there will be some sort of psychological trigger that will move all these people to take the practical steps they have not yet taken,” he wrote, “When people realize that their children and grandchildren will enjoy indefinite life, that they may well be the last generation to die."
Ettinger is also considered a pioneer in the transhumanist movement by virtue of his 1972 book, Man Into Superman.
Image: Christopher Barnatt/ExplainingTheFuture.
Back in 1970, at the tender age of 25, Shulamith Firestone kickstarted the cyberfeminist movement by virtue of her book, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution. To come up with her unique feminist philosophy, Firestone took 19th and 20th century socialist thinking and fused it with Freudian psychoanalysis and the existentialist perspectives of Simone de Beauvoir.
Firestone argued that gender inequality was the result of a patriarchal social structure that had been imposed upon women on account of their necessary role as incubators. She felt that pregnancy, childbirth, and child-rearing imposed physical, social, and psychological disadvantages upon women — and that the only way for women to free themselves from these biological impositions would be to seize control of reproduction. She advocated for the development of cybernetic and assistive reproductive technologies, including artificial wombs, gender selection, and in vitro fertilization. In addition, she advocated for the dissemination of contraception, abortion, and state support for child-rearing.
She would prove to be a major influence on later thinkers like Joanna Russ (author of "The Female Man"), sci-fi author Joan Slonczweski, and Donna Haraway (who we’ll get to in just a bit).
British mathematician I. J. Good was one of the first thinkers — if not the first — to properly articulate the problem that is the pending Technological Singularity. Predating Hans Moravec, Ray Kurzweil, and Vernor Vinge by several decades, Good penned an article in 1965 warning about the dramatic potential for recursively improving artificial intelligence.
Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion,’ and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make.
The phrase intelligence explosion has since been adopted by futurists critical of “soft” Singularity scenarios, like a slow takeoff event, or Kurzweilian notions of the steady, accelerating growth of all technologies (including intelligence). His work has influenced AI theorists like Eliezer Yudkowsky, Ben Goertzel, and of course, the Machine Intelligence Research Institute (formerly the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence).
Interestingly, Good served as a cryptologist at Bletchley Park with Alan Turing during World War II. He also worked as a consultant on supercomputers for Stanley Kubrick for the 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Back in 1959, the renowned physicist Richard Feynman delivered an extraordinary lecture titled “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom” in which he talked about the “experimental physics” of “manipulating and controlling things on a small scale.” This idea largely languished, probably because it was ahead of its time. It wouldn’t be until 1986 and the publication of K. Eric Drexler’s Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology that the idea of molecular engineering would finally take root and take its modern form.
Drexler, by virtue of this book and his subsequent lectures and writings, was the first futurist to give coherency to the prospect of molecular nanotechnology. Given the potential for working at such a small scale, Drexler foresaw the rise of universal assemblers (also called molecular assemblers, or simply “fabs”) — machines that can build objects atom by atom (basically Star Trek replicators). He predicted that we’ll eventually use nanotech to clear the environment of toxins, grow rockets from a single seed, and create biocompatible robots that will be injected into our bodies. But unlike Robert Ettinger, Drexler actually came up with a viable technique for reanimating individuals in cryonic suspension; he envisioned fleets of molecular robots guided by sophisticated AI that would reconstruct a person thawed from liquid nitrogen.
But he also foresaw the negative consequences, such as weaponized nanotechnology and the potential for grey goo — an out-of-control scourge of self-replicating micro-machines.
As an aside, Drexler also predicted hypertext.
Image: New Scientist.
Timothy Leary is typically associated with drug culture and the phrase, "tune in, turn on, and drop out," but his contributions to futurism are just as significant — and surprisingly related. He developed his own futurist philosophy called S.M.I2.L.E, which stands for Space Migration, Increased Intelligence, and Life Extension. These ideas developed out of Leary’s life-long interest in seeing humanity evolve beyond its outdated morality, which would prove to be highly influential within certain segments of the transhumanist community.
As a futurist, Leary is also important in that he was an early advocate for cognitive liberty and potential for neurodiversity. Through his own brand of psychedelic futurism, he argued that we have the right to modify our minds and create our own psychological experiences. He believed that each psychological modality — no matter how bizarre or unconventional — could still be ascribed a certain value. What's more, given the extreme nature of certain psychedelic experiences, he also demonstrated the potential for human consciousness to function beyond what’s considered normal. More.
Donna Haraway made a name for herself after the publication of her 1984 essay, “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s.” At the time, it was seen as a reaction to the rise of anti-technological ecofeminism, but it has since been interpreted and reinterpreted by everyone from postmodernist lefties through to transhumanist postgenderists.
Referring to Haraway as a Cyborgian Socialist-Feminist, the futurist and sociologist James Hughes describes her legacy this way:
Haraway argued that it was precisely in the eroding boundary between human beings and machines, and between women and machines in particular, that we can find liberation from the old patriarchal dualisms. Haraway says she would rather be a cyborg than a goddess, and proposes that the cyborg could be the liberatory mythos for women. This essay, and Haraway’s subsequent writings, have inspired a new cultural studies sub-discipline of “cyborgology,” made up of feminist culture and science fiction critics, exploring cyborgs and the woman-machine interface in various permutations.
And as Wired’s Hari Kunzru noted, “Sociologists and academics from around the world have taken her lead and come to the same conclusion about themselves. In terms of the general shift from thinking of individuals as isolated from the "world" to thinking of them as nodes on networks, the 1990s may well be remembered as the beginning of the cyborg era.”
He’s primarily regarded as a philosopher, ethicist, and animal rights advocate, but Princeton’s Peter Singer has also made a significant impact to futurist discourse — albeit it through rather unconventional channels.
Singer, as a utilitarian, social progressive, and personhood-centered ethicist, has argued that the suffering of animals, especially apes and large mammals, should be put on par with the suffering of children and developmentally disabled adults. To that end, he founded the Great Ape Project, an initiative that seeks to confer basic legal rights to non-human great apes, namely chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans. It’s a precursor to my own Rights of Non-Human Persons Program, which also includes dolphins, whales, elephants — and makes provisions for artificial intelligence. Singer has also suggested that chickens be genetically engineered so that they experience less suffering.
And in 2001, Singer’s A Darwinian Left: Politics, Evolution, and Cooperation argued that there is a biological basis for human selfishness and hierarchy — one that has thwarted our attempts at egalitarian reform. What’s needed, says Singer, is the application of new genetic and neurological sciences to identify and modify the aspects of human nature that cause conflict and competition — what today would be regarded as moral enhancement. He supports voluntary genetic improvement, but rejects coercive eugenic pseudo-science.
Theoretical physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson is one of the first thinkers to consider the potential for megascale engineering projects.
His 1959 paper, "Search for Artificial Stellar Sources of Infrared Radiation," outlined a way for an advanced civilization to utilize all of the energy radiated by their sun — an idea that has since inspired other technologists to speculate about similar projects, like Matrioshka and J-Brains.
Swedish philosopher and neuroscientist Nick Bostrom is one of the finest futurists in the business, who is renowned for taking heady concepts to the next level. He has suggested, for example, that we may be living in a simulation, and that an artificial superintelligence may eventually take over the world — if not destroy us all together. And indeed, one of his primary concerns is in assessing the potential for existential risks. An advocate of transhumanism and human enhancement, he co-founded the World Transhumanist Association in 1998 (now Humanity+), and currently runs the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford.
Image: Nick Bostrom.
Love him or hate him, gerontologist Aubrey de Grey has revolutionized the way we look at human aging.
He’s an advocate of radical life extension who believes that the application of advanced rejuvenation techniques may help many humans alive today live exceptionally long lives. What makes de Grey particularly unique is that he’s the first gerontologist to put together an actual action plan for combating aging; he’s one of the first thinkers to conceptualize aging as a disease unto itself. Rather than looking at the aging process as something that’s inexorable or overly complicated, his macro-approach (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence) consists of a collection of proposed techniques that would work to not just rejuvenate the human body, but to stop aging altogether.
Back in 2006, MIT’s Technology Review offered $20,000 to any molecular biologist who could demonstrate that de Grey’s SENS is “so wrong that it was unworthy of learned debate.” No one was able to claim the prize. But a 2005 EMBO report concluded that none of his therapies "has ever been shown to extend the lifespan of any organism, let alone humans." Regardless of the efficacy of de Grey’s approach, he represents the first generation of gerontologists to dedicate their work to the problem that is human aging. Moreover, he’s given voice to the burgeoning radical life extension movement.