Church 2063: Technology

photo credit: JoshuaDavisPhotography via photopin cc

Right now, I’m sitting with a laptop on my lap that’s so powerful that it’s actually exporting video, receiving email, and enabling me to connect remotely to a server, I know not where, on which I’m writing this chapter. In 1963, this would have be completely inconceivable. Yet, today here I sit doing what would have been impossible just a few years ago. That’s the thing about technology; it’s always changing and advancing.

If Moore’s law remains in effect for the next 50 years, that processing power doubles every eighteen months, processors in 2063 will be so powerful that we can’t imagine what people will do with them.

Let’s start with some math. Fifty years times twelve months divided by eighteen months is a little over thirty-three speed doublings. If we were to call a Mac Mini available today with a dual core Intel core i5 processor running at 2.5 Ghz the baseline (there are faster computers, but let’s just choose this modest machine for giggles) and give it a number 1 as a representation of the baseline speed, that means in 2063, after doubling 33 times, the speed won’t be 1 or even 100, but 4,294,967,296 times faster (if I did the math right) than the mid-range computers we have today. That’s fast.

Think of it this way, there are about 7 billion people on earth as I’m writing this. If we gave one of our baseline computers to every two people in the world, and somehow were able to network them all together and write software that would make them all into a single large cluster computer, processing as one, we’d begin to approach the power of a single computer in fifty years.

I can’t imagine what you could do with that kind of power. Then again, my first new computer was built in 1995 and I was so proud that my hard drive could store a whopping 520 megabytes that I told anyone who asked. During that time, if I ran out of hard drive space, I’d look for files that were a megabyte or larger and get rid of those to free up space. Today, I look for files that are a gigabyte (about 1,000 times larger) to get rid of. It’s been not quite twenty years and that’s how much it’s changed.

A few years ago, I started to see that computing was getting to the point that you didn’t have to upgrade every three years to keep up. More and more people were surfing the web and word processing on their computers, but those activities didn’t require machines that were much more powerful than the ones that came before them.

Some professions still require expensive computers, but they’re rare. Video, protein folding, large scale searches for signals in the universe, etc. all benefit from better computers, but typing doesn’t. Software companies try and add more and more features, but when it comes down to it, Office 97 is still quite capable of writing a novel or a recipe book or taking notes just like Office 2013 can. Sure the 2013 version is more polished and has more features, but if you pull an old computer out of storage and type a document on it, the letters are all there and basic formatting is still the same.

I think that some of the high end applications will take advantage of lots of processing power. The user experience will get richer as computers get better and better at understanding what we mean, not just what we think we mean. With the ability to do so many calculations in such a small amount of time, voice control, eye tracking, posture recognition, and gestures will likely be the most common ways of interacting with computers.

We’re still in the early days of digital assistants and I imagine that 2063 will be a time when whatever you ask for, an assistant like Apple’s Siri or some similar personality will be able to get for you. They’ll also be better at finding what you mean from context and other clues.

Right now computers are like kindergardeners. They don’t understand the subtleties in language. Saying “I’ve never been more angry” and “I’ve never been angry” mean totally opposite things, but the key words “never” and “angry” don’t easily differentiate themselves in web searches from the two. Subtleties like this will become more and more apparent to computers.

Do your remember having factual questions in the 1980s and before? I do. You had to hope you remembered your question until you were at a library or around reference material. Knowing the question was no guarantee you’d find the answer either.

I was reading Pilgrim’s Progress in 1996 for a class. It’s an older book, so some words have changed their meaning. I noticed that Bunyan had a character tell about a mother calling her baby a “slut.” I thought that was horrible, but then thought, “Maybe it didn’t mean the same thing back then that it does now.” A few months later, I was at a library with an Oxford English Dictionary. I looked up the word and found out that an older meaning is something like “pig” or “slob” is today. It was an insult, but a much milder one. Only the OED could answer that question. Today, I can go to that website on my phone to find the answer. Back then, no one seemed to know and even the dictionaries I consulted couldn’t tell me why.

With so much computing power available to everyone, I imagine that you’ll be able to read a book, indicate some way that you don’t understand a word, phrase or concept (by tapping or more likely just by saying, “huh, I wonder what that means in that context”) and your computer, dutifully waiting to be needed will tell you what it means.

Perhaps there will be a mental interface that will make it possible to just think your question. Maybe the computer will whisper the answer directly to your auditory nerve, like a cochlear implant does for the deaf. Maybe there will be an optical nerve implant or even wireless device that will project the answer into your field of view. Whatever the mechanism, previously precious computer cycles can simply be set to do all sorts of things.

In your house, a computer can recognize who is home, set the temperature, lighting, and music appropriately and even prepare meals at the right time. As robotics come more and more into the mainstream, household chores could be a thing of the past. We already have the Roomba and the Scooba, why not a laundry, cooking, and dish washing robot as well. Sure, some people will continue to do things the old way just as some people hand-wash their dishes, but as the technology gets more and more affordable, people will choose to have a robot do the work that they used to do.

I imagine that the easier life gets, the more people will complain about minor annoyances. Today we call them first-world problems, but someday, as more and more of the world becomes “first world,” we’ll hear people from all over complain about these minor problems.

For the church, this presents a great opportunity. As luxury and ease become more and more the norm, the big questions get louder and louder. It’s easy to ignore the nagging sense in the back of your head that you’re hear for a reason if you have to work hard to stay alive. If you find yourself with more time on your hands, art, entertainment, and thinking come to the fore. We can look at the ancient Athenians for an example of this. They didn’t have robots, but slave labor was so plentiful, that it is a great analog for what we will possibly face in the future.

Look at how the Apostle Paul interacted with the Athenians, interacting with their culture and using it as a starting point for discussion. I think the Church in 2063 will need to do just that, seeing what truth is available in the free-time rich people it interacts with.

The Church must embrace neutral technologies. Just as people would be reluctant to meet in the summer in a building without air conditioning, as future technologies develop, the Church needs to view them as uncontroversial as a new HVAC system. It doesn’t matter who else uses an HVAC system for what ends; it’s just a tool. Churches are too often throwing out the baby of technological advancement with the bathwater of how people misuse the technology.

The result of this thinking is that we are less able to compete with those who would misuse people and resources. In order to avoid being “contaminated” by a new tool that has been misused, we allow those who fight against us the advantages that come with use of that tool. Imagine if the US had refused to use tanks and guns in World War II because the Axis powers used them. The results of the war would have been quite different.

Technology will make the next fifty years look like a science fiction movie. The Church can keep up with those changes or become as irrelevant as those who refuse to embrace motor vehicles and electricity.



Comments are closed.