Destination: Tomorrow!

It turns out that it’s surprisingly easy to be a futurist. “If you are interested in the future and what is going to happen,” says Lederer, “then you’re a futurist.” So apparently anybody can declare himself one—although, as Lederer points out, “there are some who make quite a bit of money at it: Alvin Toffler, Faith Popcorn, John Naisbitt, Daniel Burrus … Some of these guys get ten to fifteen thousand dollars per speech!” As to whether all that speechifying makes a difference, the optimistic Lederer believes it does in some cases. “Take Al Gore, who is interested in the future. As a senator, he helped push through legislation for ARPANET [the precursor to the internet] for military purposes, to get research labs to be able to share information. He also helped push through the National Nanotechnology Initiative, which now receives a billion dollars a year in research money.”

For those who don’t make big bucks as professional futurists, the local chapters of the World Future Society serve as a gathering point. The mostly male Minnesota Futurists convene weekly meetings at a Unitarian church in Kenwood, where they debate issues related to nanotechnology, genetic engineering, and where life extension might be thirty years down the road. Lederer joined the group in 1986 after reading Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology, the hugely influential book by Eric Drexler, then a post-doc student at MIT. “I gave seventeen copies to friends for Christmas, and I don’t think anyone read it all the way through. They told me that it was like sci-fi. I said, ‘This is better than science fiction, this is much more far out!’”

Lederer became such a fan that he got Drexler to speak at Control Data. “It went over like a lead balloon. Everyone said, ‘What does nanotechnology have to do with us? We’re not even going to be in the business in twenty-five years’,” he recalls. “In fact, Control Data isn’t! The one guy that understood Drexler was a fundamentalist Christian. He told me, ‘Henry, God won’t let it happen. It’s too powerful of a technology.’” Lederer says he was “pissed off” that the only person who could envision the power of nanotech was someone who believed God would strike them down. But Lederer’s Control Data colleagues weren’t the only ones who didn’t get Drexler’s ideas. “When he went to IBM, he had to stay an extra hour to field questions. When he went to Apple, he had to come back two more times because they realized that he was on to something.”

Now living through his eighth decade on this planet, Lederer resides with his wife in Minnetonka, on the edge of a quiet pond. He’s retired but hardly idle. His mind and memory are as sharp as the bright red Corvette he drives; and even if his voice occasionally grows hoarse—this is a voluble man—he chuckles as he talks about all the technological wonders that lie in store.

In fact, Lederer is so excited to witness life in 2100 that he’s invested in what he calls “an ambulance to future medicine”—that is, cryonics. “See this bracelet on my wrist? It says that if this guy isn’t breathing, call up Alcor. They’ll send their own ambulance, pack me on ice, and ship me to Scottsdale, Arizona. They use a cryoprotect
solution that is glycerol-based, like nontoxic antifreeze, to replace your blood. They’ll store me in liquid nitrogen at about seventy-seven degrees Kelvin,” he said.

Actually, though, Alcor will not put Lederer’s entire body into deep storage. “Freeze your head to save your ass” is how he describes his arrangement. “I’m just going to have my head frozen. If they freeze your whole body, I think it’s a waste because by the time I’m thawed out, they’ll be able to regenerate a new body through DNA. It’ll be so cheap to do it with nanotechnology.”

I asked if his wife was going to have herself frozen, too. “No, she thinks it’s a bunch of science-fiction nonsense,” he replied. For his part, Lederer has a healthy sense of skepticism, acknowledging that the chances of his deep-freeze and thaw working are “probably one in ten thousand.” He also is keenly aware of how the vagaries of human nature could easily throw a wrench into the whole process. “Who knows?” he says. “Maybe someone will just take my money and go to Acapulco rather than reanimate me. The bigger questions are will society allow reanimation of these bodies and will the company still be in existence?”

Despite the myriad ways in which the coming technological utopia could get thrown off track, Lederer remains devout in his faith in technology. With regard to his cryonics plan, he recalls Eric Drexler telling him, “‘The second dumbest thing you can do is to die and get frozen. The first dumbest thing you can do is to die and not get frozen. The smart thing to do is to not die in the first place.’” And that last option is supposedly a distinct possibility—at least for those of us who make it through the next eighteen years. According to Lederer, Drexler believes that by 2025, the advances made by medical science each year will result in increasing life expectancy by more than one year.

Lederer has his own beliefs about predicting what will come to be in the years to come. There are two basic methods: The most common is simply to extrapolate past trends into the future, as in the earlier quotes from Earl Joseph. Another is to write “future history,” taking a year in the distant future, say, 2100, and plotting back to the current year to find out how we arrived there—in terms of politics, ecology, geopolitics, technology, and religion. “The advantage of a future history is that it has to make some sense of how the world could unfold. You have to develop a reasonable scenario. But there are always things that you don’t expect: GPS, the internet … we wouldn’t have predicted the fall of the Soviet Union in 1980. These are the unexpected breakthroughs, the wild cards.”

So while futurists will never be able to predict—or “anticipate,” to use a term many of them prefer—everything that comes to pass, what if they do presage something that actually occurs? “You worry about things like that,” says Lederer. “There are a lot of ethical questions. If you know how to make a suitcase bomb, should you put it on the web?”

While Lederer believes that most futurists are optimists, he also acknowledges that “pessimism makes good stories. Orwell was a pessimist who wrote about never-ending war, constant surveillance, and doublespeak—‘war is peace.’ Now we have the Clear Skies Act that would pollute more. I think our government read Orwell and said, ‘He had some good ideas.’”

 

In spite of Orwellian prophecies coming true, Lederer remains optimistic, dreaming of the fantastic advances of which humans are capable, rather than envisioning the kinds of grim dystopias so popular among science fiction writers. “There’s no use being pessimistic; that’s a dead end. Look at how interesting the world is compared to two hundred years ago. The avenues open to people, the things we can do. People live longer, and that’s all technology. There’s less disease, less hunger—at least in the Western world. The future will be great—if we don’t kill ourselves.”

In fact, when many futurists make their forecasts, they’re presuming a relative level of civilization in the future that will allow advances in science. “It’s based on the hope that fundamentalism won’t take over the world,” says Lederer. “If we don’t do stem-cell research, some other country will do it.” He views “religious zealotry derailing science” as a major potential hurdle to positive advances—along with faith-based science and the idea that “we don’t look because we’re not supposed to know, which is very anti-science.”

The other caveat all futurists must face is war and terrorism. “A few of us worry that there will be an attack that will make 9/11 look like a bake sale,” says Lederer. “We search only about six percent of container ships, while Hong Kong does one hundred percent. A dirty bomb on a container could spread the radiation across the country … This will look like the good ol’ days. There are lots of doomsday scenarios out there. I love high tech; it’s people that are no good!”

Lederer is particularly smitten with nano-technology. He predicts that it will engender the most profound changes to civilization. “If you have the ability to make structures from the atomic level, the way nature builds a tree, then you can make some really cool stuff. All atoms are the same; there are no rejects. In a hundred years, humans will design the machines that write the software that will employ little robotic nanotech assemblers that construct literally anything.” He grew more excited as his vision expanded. “We could populate our solar system with trillions of humans by using material from asteroids to make doughnut-shaped space colonies fifty miles across, which could hold two to ten million people!” He proposed this with both urgency and delight, as if he simply couldn’t understand what was holding up everyone else.

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