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What's Next - Jim Al-Khalili (Ed.) ***

There's a certain kind of book that's popular with academic publishers, where you collect together a set of essays on a topic from different contributors. Most of the contents are usually rather dull, but the odd one shines out. I assume it's a cheap way for publishers to get material, but it's rarely highly readable. This is just such a book, but from a mainstream source and packaged with a shiny foil-bedecked cover as if it were a fun pop sci jaunt through the subject of the future. Just look at that title with it's provocative tagline 'Even scientists can't predict the future... or can they?'

The whole idea of futurology - attempting to extrapolate how we and our technology will develop in the future - is doomed to failure. Everyone gets most of it wrong, and it's impossible to pick out the gems from the dross. You only have to look back at Alvin Toffler's Future Shock with its impressive disaster of an attempt to predict the year 2000, which was wonderfully well received when written in the 70s, to see how difficult it is to get the future right. One of the few genuine bits of effective futurology often cited is Arthur C. Clarke's prediction of the communications satellite. But we need to bear in mind that this was from the man who thought it reasonable that in 2001 we would sending a manned mission to Jupiter and would have a huge rotating space station producing artificial gravity, connected to the Earth by PanAm space shuttles and Bell videophones.

All the articles in What's Next are fairly readable, though some tend to the academic turgid style. There is, however, a distinct split in approach between negative and positive outlooks. Peter Bowler, in A History of the Future, suggests that traditionally future-gazers with a scientific training tend to have a more positive view, while the literary types tend to dystopian visions. I'm not sure that is entirely true here, where all the writers have a science/tech background, but not every essay is cheery.

We see the most effusive approach in the essay on smart materials by Anna Ploszajski. Here there is no uncertainty: 'In the future this will be a reality', we are told. Perhaps someone ought to have warned the author that futurology really doesn't work like this. Elsewhere, highlights include a thoughtful essay on demographics by the always excellent Philip Ball, fun with Adam Rutherford on synthetic biology and some straightforward thoughts on the future of cybersecurity: here I learned a new (to me) acronym - PICNIC for 'Problem Is in the Chair Not In the Computer' i.e. it's easier for computers to avoid falling into traps than the humans who use them.

A few oddities struck me. The first was that the section on transport by John Miles hardly mentions trains, though it does seem a bit over-optimistic about the workings of a smart public transport system, given after decades of trying we can't even get bus and train timetables to align. Secondly, although several essays mentioned self-driving cars and how they will bring down the number of road deaths, no one looked at the psychology of their adoption. They need to draw a lesson from the failed 'Summertime all year round' experiment in the UK. Like self-driving cars, this significantly reduced road deaths. But the experiment was cancelled because a few deaths were caused by the approach. People consider a handful of actual deaths to be much more significant than thousands of potential lives saved.

The final oddity was the closing essay, by Jim Al-Khalili. This was straight popular science with quick summaries of teleportation and time travel. The only futurology here was the suggestion they might be practical at some point, but otherwise it was a very rapid zip through quantum entanglement and general relativity-related time travel (strangely, no mention of the much easier special relativity one-way version). Though very readable, this seemed a little out of synch with the rest of the book.

Overall, it's hard not to answer that question in the subtitle with 'No, they can't.' I always feel that futurology is a bit like hearing about someone else's dreams - more interesting for the teller than the listener.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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