In 'Soonish,' a Scientist/Cartoonist Couple Predict Tomorrow's Technologies

From asteroid mining to brain-computer interfaces, ‘Soonish’ explores ten developing technologies with the power to make the future awesome, awful, or a little of both.

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Nov 6 2017, 6:20pm

From the Oracle at Delphi to the prophecies of Nostradamus, there has always been a healthy market for prognostications about the future. But as authors Kelly and Zach Weinersmith point out in their newly published book Soonish: Ten Emerging Technologies That'll Improve and/or Ruin Everything, predicting the future is a piece of cake. The hard part is actually getting it right.

Fortunately, the Weinersmiths are up to the challenge, thanks in part to the couple's prodigious nerd cred. A parasitologist based at Rice University, Kelly Weinersmith brought her scientific toolkit to the project, while Zach Weinersmith, creator of the webcomic Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, punctuated the chapters with original comics and jokes about each subject.

Image: Kelly and Zach Weinersmith

The result is an in-depth compendium outlining the nascent innovations that could drastically alter our lives over the coming decades—for better or for worse. Ranging in scale from asteroid mining to brain-computer interfaces, the technologies outlined in Soonish are dazzlingly advanced. But the couple doesn't follow the common futurist pattern of overhyping potential breakthroughs in those fields.

"I wonder if we pump people up too much with optimism, they inevitably get disappointed," Zach Weinersmith told me in a phone interview. He cited the longstanding fascination with "flying cars" as a persistent—yet totally anachronistic—symbol of the future. To avoid falling into this trap, the Weinersmiths scrupulously focused on the obstacles that need to be cleared to make these technologies possible, instead of relying too heavily on speculative deadlines.

"New technology is not simply the slow accumulation of better and better things. The big discontinuous leaps, like the laser and the computer, often depend on unrelated developments in different fields," the Weinersmiths warn in the introduction.

"We urge you to check back in a few years to grade our accuracy," the couple adds. "Please note that we specified no time frame, so your grading options are either correct or 'not not correct.'"

This cheeky writing style and measured stance on Moore's law are in play throughout Soonish, making it accessible to a wide range of ages and backgrounds. "I think that the real skill of science communication is picking a level of technicality and sticking to it," Weinersmith told me. "Often, people will walk you through stuff, and you get it at first, but then they hit you with something that requires a couple years of molecular chemistry to understand. It's obvious to them, but not you."

Image: Kelly and Zach Weinersmith

With that in mind, the Weinersmiths began this project by whittling down a list of around 50 possible predictions to ten technologies that could be explained on a nuts-and-bolts level. This meant killing some darlings, such as a chapter on quantum computing, because they felt they couldn't do the topic justice without "simplifying it to the point of absurdity," Weinersmith said.

The chapters that were left standing after this process are rigorously researched, but still lighthearted in tone. The "Fusion Power" section includes the subhead "It Powers the Sun, and That's Nice, but Can It Run My Toaster?" Likewise, the "Bioprinting" chapter raises the ultimate question: "Why Stop at Seven Margaritas When You Can Just Print a New Liver?"

These teasers act as hooks for each subject, but they also hint at the broader practical problems inherent to these new concepts, and how they could be potentially be abused by people if they ever come to fruition.

"If you can laugh a little, maybe you can learn a little more in depth," Weinersmith said. "It's almost like a test. A lot of the jokes don't make sense outside the context of you understanding the concept. It's like an inside joke that you get to be inside because you understood what was in the chapter."

That philosophy makes Soonish a refreshingly readable guide to some of the major technological advances that may be coming down the pipeline (including an actual carbon nanotube pipeline, to outer space). And it will be interesting to note, over the coming decades, which of the Weinersmiths' predictions turn out to be "correct" or "not not correct."

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