Sunday, December 21, 2003
Profiles of the Future: Beasts of Burden
"When [the creation of person-bearing animals of relatively high IQ] happens, much of the short-range transport - at least in rural areas - may once again be nonmechanical, though not necessarily equine. The horse may not turn out to be the best choice in the long run; something like a compact elephant might be preferable, because of its dexterity...What I am suggesting is an animal large enough to carry a man at a fair speed, and intelligent enough to forage for itself without creating a nuisance or getting lost. It would report for duty at regular times, or when summoned over a radio command circuit, and it could carry out many simple errands by itself, without direct human supervision. It seems to me that there would be quite a demand for such a creature; and where there is a demand, eventually there is a supply."
An interesting variation of the Super Now fallacy; the Super Past.
While I do not pretend that my foresight is any more powerful than Mr. Clarke's (quite the contrary), and I have the benefit of 40 more years of hindsight, I find this particular bit of fantasizing more than a little bit surprising. Surely he's reacting to the state of the automobile at that time (of which I have little understanding), perhaps being noisy and unreliable. The impression I get from this vision is that he expected that our mastery over biology would far outweigh our mastery of machinery and computation in any foreseeable time period. Surely small, mechanical scooters (which he mentions earlier), that were fuel efficient, environmentally friendly, and quiet would provide a better means of conveyance for a multitude of reasons than a biological entity. It is true that we are still some way from having machines perform the simple tasks that Mr. Clarke envisioned (whatever they may have been), but we would seem to be even farther from having an animal that could do the same thing unless these tasks are of a sort that current biology has already been proven to be able to handle (such as slipper fetching, and the like).
Again, there are issues outside of just the development of such a creature that would at least serve to brake such progress, if not derail it altogether (though I think the latter is exceptionally unlikely). If the animal were smarter than any existing animal, you could expect that people would be campaigning for its rights as an intelligent species. Further, we have yet to really accept the integration of technology beyond the chemical or biological into an animal on a large scale, though, again, I think this hurdle would be small.
No doubt if Mr. Clarke decides (or has already decided) to write this book over again now, he would probably be influenced by such advances as the Segway and the Internet (the former he should have been able to see, and the latter he probably couldn't have seen at the time) and come to a different conclusion. He may yet have the last laugh as, given enough time, we will probably overcome any obstacles that could prevent us from realizing his vision, but my guess is that if his vision is ever really brought to bear, it will be from the direction of computer/mechanical technology evolving into biology, and not from biological engineering directly. We shall have to wait and see.