Man in space

It was on April 12th, 1961, that Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the Earth. Sergei Korolev designed and built the Vostok spacecraft that launched Gagarin on his single-orbit mission. Only 58 years had passed since Wilbur and Orville Wright achieved the first powered heavier than air flight over a distance that is shorter than the wingspan of a 747. A mere 66 years after that first flight, men put their footprints on the moon, this time in a Saturn V rocket designed by Wernher von Braun.

It provides a telling illustration of the rapidly-accelerating pace of change. Since the Renaissance we have been climbing the rapidly-rising curve of a hockey stick graph. Before that time, men and women lived pretty much as their grandparents had lived, in a world that stayed familiar. Since then this has not been true. We have lived in a world in which constant change has been the norm, the world of Heraclitus in which it is a new river into which we step for the second time.

We cannot predict the future with any accuracy because, as Popper pointed out, the future state of society depends on the knowledge available to it. We cannot predict future knowledge without knowing it now, and thus cannot predict society’s future. We do know, however, that it will depend on the technology that we and our successors develop.

We are witnessing a series of revolutions, each of which will have transformational effects. Three significant ones are being developed simultaneously. Autonomous vehicles, genetic modification and artificial intelligence are all game-changers, and they are arriving together.

The economic consequence of this accelerating pace of progress are immense, in medicine, agriculture, transport, communication and computing. We do not know what jobs there will be for the next generation, but we know they will be different ones. Gagarin’s flight was a breakthrough, but breakthroughs now happen almost daily. He and Korolev died within a couple of years of each other, and the houses they lived in, side by side at Baikonur, are now preserved as museum pieces. I saw them when I witnessed a couple of Soyuz launches close up. We can be reasonably sure that what we regard as today’s marvels will themselves be museum pieces in a much shorter time.