Destination: Tomorrow!

Later this month, the World Future Society brings its annual conference, including a Minnesota Futures Day, to Minneapolis. To mark the occasion, Dregni sat down with the most outspoken member of the Society’s Minnesota chapter, Hank Lederer, who forecast possible advancements over the next century for the book, Follies of Science: 20th Century Visions of Our Fantastic Future (see page 38). An advocate of scientific optimism, Lederer is a retired computer scientist and a past president of the Minnesota Futurists, which, he said, “is like being the future president of the Minnesota Historical Society”; he will co-present on nanotechnology at the conference on July 30.  

“I never think of the future,” Albert Einstein famously said sometime back in the twentieth century. “It comes soon enough.” Hank Lederer, though, can’t stop thinking about it. He rattles off descriptions of the technological marvels that await us with the rapidity of a semi-automatic ray-gun. “I have benefited enormously from high tech,” he says. “I was born two months premature, so technology saved my life.” Lederer was born in Chicago in 1933, and by the time he was ten years old, he’d read stacks of sci-fi books and comics. “I had chemistry sets, model airplanes, Erector Sets—I love all that crap. But I hate algebra, so I never went into science.”

Instead, he got a B.S. in business administration from Macalester College, an M.B.A. from Northwestern, and wound up back in Minnesota working at Honeywell’s aerospace division in 1960. “I loved computers, but Honeywell didn’t have any back then, so I went to Control Data Corporation in 1964. I used a lot of punch cards in those million-dollar computers,” Lederer said. “The discrete transistors got so hot that some were cooled by liquid nitrogen. Control Data had to turn on their air-conditioning in the winter.” Always one to point out the dramatic progress of technology, Lederer observes, “Now my cell phone is a hundred times more powerful than those giant computers that filled a floor of the building in Bloomington.”

Lederer firmly believes that the biggest invention of the twentieth century was the integrated circuit chip developed in the 1960s. “People use it as proof that aliens have landed here, because it is too fantastic for humans to have invented. Just imagine, there are twenty million transistors in one circuit chip the size of a postage stamp. They can’t even be seen with a microscope. The transistor is a billion times cheaper than the next cheapest man-made object—say, a staple.”

While Lederer was working with early computers at Control Data, the World Future Society came into being in 1966 in Washington, D.C. The organization’s goal was to promote more accessible visions by extrapolating into the near future, instead of promoting the kind of far-out utopian daydreams that authors like Jules Verne or Edward Bellamy had dreamt up one hundred years earlier. Rather than rockets and ray-guns, the WFS’s magazine, The Futurist, publishes thoughtful ideas with an academic bent, as opposed to the more fantastical visions in Popular Science. For example, it highlights simple yet crucial technologies invented for the developing world, such as the LifeStraw water purification device, pot-in-pot food coolers, and a bamboo treadle pump in an article called “Designing for the Other 90 Percent.” Another article, “Capitalism with a Conscience,” predicts that the rise of socially responsible investing in China and other developing nations will create sustainable economies as investors “vote” with their money to create a world using clean technologies.

The World Future Society was wary of organizing satellite futurist groups until Earl Joseph, a Minnesotan computer scientist, overwhelmed them with his enthusiasm. Joseph, who died last February at the age of eighty, worked for Sperry Univac (later Unisys), and eventually formed his own company, Anticipatory Sciences, Inc. The Minnesota Futurists became the first chapter of the World Future Society, with Joseph as the president.

When it came to forecasting the future, Joseph often looked back on trends for guidance. For instance, he wrote that life expectancy “in 1900 … was about 35 years. In 2000—it was about 75 years. If the same rate of increase continues, then in 2100, the average person could reach 150 years of age.” To forecast changes in computer technology—trending from vacuum tubes and silicon chips to artificial intelligence, bio chips, and quantum chips—Joseph wrote that the “rate of advance has been doubling computer capability every two years. If computers continue to advance at the same rate, then they will be a thousand times more capable by the year 2024!”

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