Book review: An Optimist's Tour of the Future

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Mark Stevenson Profile, £12.99

IT IS BECOMING increasingly difficult to distinguish between magazines like New Scientist and magazines like SFX.

Given that nowadays most of us have a device remarkably similar to a Star Trek communicator - and one, moreover, that doesn't require Lieutenant Uhura on the bridge acting as exchange operator - the conceit of this book is neat: how science-fictional is our future going to be?

Beginning with mid-life-ish musings on personal mortality, the book ventures into the life expectancy of the planet as a whole.

Stevenson interviews leading figures in fields such as transhumanism (with particular emphasis on life extension), cybernetics, genomics, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence and a variety of climate change experts, ending up with the most famous futurologist, Ray Kurzweil.

He insists that the optimism of the title was prompted by his agent; but throughout his moderately interesting tour, a kind of rose mist tends to descend.

There are remarkable scientific discoveries and technological advances described in this book, and it's rather too easy to get swept along on a tidal wave of giddy, geeky thrills.

Stevenson tends to downplay some of the more cautionary tales: such as that of Jesse Gelsinger, an early volunteer for gene therapy who died within four days of treatment.

It doesn't help that Stevenson has an inappropriate, wise-cracking levity throughout (comparing Gelsinger's death with the successful treatment of Corey Hass, he quotes Hass's father - "they've changed my son's life forever" - then comments "there again, Jesse Gelsinger's father could say the same"). The choice of a present tense, overt first person narration conspires to make the book sound like the voice-over on a Channel Five documentary.

And there are enough needling inaccuracies - the solar power pioneer Augustin Mouchot was not patronised by Napoleon, but Napoleon III; the claim that there were no systems of public education before the 19th century rings hollow in Scotland - to undermine any confidence in the conclusions.

But it's the ethical side-step that most unsettled me. If we can extend life, whose lives will be extended - even with Obama's health care reforms? The blue-collar worker or the millionaire? Will medical advances benefit the healers or the plastic surgeons?

And there's one very odd omission in this book: quantum computing. Of all the speculative changes, it's the one with most to offer and the most tantalising early successes. But quantum physics might be a bit too mathematical for this jaunt.

This article was first published in Scotland On Sunday, 2 January, 2011