The British weather washout and the interruption of the Olympics mean it’s probably not too late to be recommending summer reading for the late-going holidaymaker. But for those who want something factual but fun… well, that’s always a challenge.
Mark Stevenson, science communicator and occasional stand-up comedian, is up for the challenge, though, and his book, An Optimist’s Tour of the Future, published in hardback last year and in paperback this year, might well fit the bill.
Stevenson’s self-imposed task is to take himself on a world tour of experts across the range of technologies and ask them the very simple question: “What’s next?” And because he’s been talking to the people who are actually working on problems and their solutions, many of them engineers even if their titles don’t always reflect that, he gets a refreshingly upbeat view. They wouldn’t be working on these things if they didn’t think they were going to work, would they?
So he meets people who are using fairly basic chemistry to devise methods for carbon dioxide capture and sequestration. He tackles one of MIT’s particularly publicity-shy professors in her lab about whether artificial intelligence in robots counts as intelligence at all. And he talks to people who are, on one side, extending human lifespans and, on the other, accelerating the pace of technology development.
Quite a lot of the ideas he covers in a wide-ranging tour d’horizon are directly or tangentially within the remit of environmental engineers. Control systems, data acquisition, climate change, and nanotechnology all come into it, alongside many other ideas. It’s not deep but it is broad-ranging.
In fact, what’s particularly good about Stevenson is that he asks some pretty simple questions: the kind of questions that you and I might feel rather silly for asking but which often get the most interesting answers. In the section about nanotech, for example, he doesn’t shy away from asking top experts about the “grey goo” concept of a world drowning in miniature self-replicating devices. When the highest in the land (or rather, the second highest) went down the route of voicing his fears about that kind of thing a few years back, we all of us of course shook our heads in mock-horror at the apparent royal faux pas – while at the same time wishing that someone could tell us in simple terms why his fears are pretty baseless. Well, Stevenson does that for you (and me).
There are plenty of other examples. The reclusive MIT robotics expert (who is wooed into being interviewed with chocolate) gets to answer the question that is fundamental to every movie ever made about robots, which is whether “intelligent” machines will inevitably turn on their creators (humans) and destroy us. (The answer, you’ll not be surprised, is No.)
There are very strong elements of Bill Bryson’s semi-humorous explanatory style in this book, but where Bryson tends to deal with the past in his books about the history of technology or the present in his travelogue books about different countries, Stevenson is always looking to the future, and to a not-too-distant future at that. He starts out by wondering how long he’s likely to live.
The access that he’s had to top brains worldwide is what makes this book more than just a jaunty record of visits to interview people in far-flung places – he gets to go to the Maldives and outback Australia, as well as the more usual technology haunts of US campuses and European cities with dreaming spires. Sometimes the style grates a bit: in a voyage of discovery, it tends to be the discoveries that are most interesting, rather than the voyage. There’s probably too much of the first person singular in it and sometimes it reads like a radio script or one of those TV programmes where you realise what happened to your licence fee as the presenter steps ashore on yet another continent.
But the ideas are interesting and the optimism that comes across is infectious. It won’t change the world and it probably won’t change your view of the world. But for a light summer read, with some laugh-out-loud moments, it’s a winner.
An Optimist’s Tour of the Future by Mark Stevenson is published by Profile Books: ISBN 1-846-68357-2