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Thursday, November 4, 1999 Published at 15:33 GMT


The future's not all bright

Prince Harry is destined to be the first royal in space

Visions of the future from some of the world's greatest thinkers paint a dismal picture for the inhabitants of Earth in the next millennium, with humans vying for supremacy with a new species of intelligent being.

Predictions, a new book including contributions from such esteemed visionaries as sci-fi writer Arthur C Clarke and economist JK Galbraith, suggests that within two decades a new life form will have evolved from artificially intelligent machines.

[ image: Telepathy promises to replace phones and faxes]
Telepathy promises to replace phones and faxes
This development will occur "far more rapidly than biology will ever permit," reckons Clarke, author of 2001.

With independent-minded machines threatening to leave us behind, the book predicts that humans will turn to genetics and computer implants in a bid to compete.

Geneticist Dr French Anderson fears that, not content with curing all disease using gene-based treatments, people in the next millennium will attempt to "improve" themselves and their children.

"Eugenics [might] be practised on a scale far larger than any 'selective breeding' policy could accomplish."

The end of sex

Couples will no longer have sex to reproduce, with individuals relying on sperm and egg banks instead.

Cybernetics expert Kevin Warwick, who already has a chip in his arm to remotely operate doors and switch on his computer, predicts that similar implants will become commonplace.

[ image:  ]
The time may come when such devices will make speech obsolete, with humans communicating to each other telepathically.

Such developments could pose a real threat to our established notions of who we are.

"A human brain is a stand-alone entity, guaranteeing a unique human identity," Warwick said. "But link a human brain via the internet to other brains, both human and machine, and what of the individual then?"

The anthology of forecasts by 30 noted thinkers - including Umberto Eco and Richard Dawkins - does envisage exciting leaps forward in space travel.

Prince in space

Arthur C Clarke even predicts that Prince Harry, youngest son of the Prince of Wales, will be the first royal to holiday among the stars.

He also says that by 2057, a century after Sputnik was launched, man will stand on the moons of Jupiter and Saturn.

However, many of the great minds quizzed were less than positive about the prospects for the future.

[ image: Space travel: taking chaos to the stars]
Space travel: taking chaos to the stars
British scientist Susan Greenfield thinks the attention span of humans will be eroded to the point where we will become a "society of restless, unimaginative individuals".

American feminist and historian Elaine Showalter suggests that future generations will be dogged by "new paranoias, new hysterias, new conspiracy theories and new imaginary diseases".

Sian Griffith, the Times Higher Education Supplement journalist who edited Predictions, said lessons should be learned from the prophesies.

"I get the sense from these predictions that there is a limited time span for human beings unless we change."

"There's a sense that we'll be struggling all the time, trying to do new things, but with a sense of disaster looming."

Humans: A lethal mutation

Linguist Noam Chomsky describes the human race as a "lethal mutation", acquiring in an evolutionary heartbeat the capacity to destroy ourselves and the other life forms which share our planet.

"Perhaps it will find ways to contain its destructive impulses. A rational Martian spectator might not be sanguine about the prospects."

Writing in the journal Nature, Arthur C Clarke says that alien civilisations should welcome the "annihilation" of the human race.

He thinks that extra-terrestrial onlookers will be glad that our mishandling of technology may destroy us before we can cause havoc on a galactic scale.

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