Heinlein got the future so wrong
Heinlein’s future is like the 1970s, but with space travel.
What happened to the space travel that was promised? I want my space travel!
Manned spaceflight looks more and more like a technological dead end. Like the pyramids at Giza, which were built, and then it took 3,800 years before mankind built anything taller.
Physics teaches us that matter can’t travel faster than the speed of light, and spaceships traveling at even one-tenth the speed of light are mere speculation and not possible with any current technology, or is there any technological path obviously leading there. Mankind visiting other star systems looks more like fantasy than hard science fiction, and I am dubious about whether mankind will even send a representative to Mars anytime in the next hundred years.
But Heinlein completely missed computers, or at least he did in his books from the 1950s. By the time he wrote The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress in 1966, he realized the error of his ways and included a smart computer. But that was pretty much his last hard science fiction book. All of his novels after that were mostly about people talking to each other and having kinky polyamorous sex in between the talking.
Going back to his 1950s books: There’s no internet. People still read books, not ebooks. They still use slide rules. I’ve never even seen a slide rule. Heinlein had these great visions of space travel, but didn’t even foresee that slide rules would be replaced in his own lifetime.
The most obvious transformative technologies of the near future are not space travel, but:
1. Robotics and AI
2. Genetic and bio engineering
3. 3D printers
If space travel does ever pick up again, it’s obvious that it will be done by robots and not humans. Robots are much better space travelers. They eat no food, they breath no air, and they don’t complain if their mission is a one-way trip ending in death.
Furthermore, the most logical way to colonize a distant star system is not by sending living humans there, but rather a robot ship with 3D printers and human DNA. The robots can then use the 3D printers to build everything they need (assuming the world in question has the raw materials needed by the printers), and then they can create new human babies from the human DNA. The babies will have to be raised by robot parents, but I think that robots will eventually be up to the task.
However, even if it’s possible to colonize a distant planet that way, will anyone be motivated to do it? I suppose that once the possibility becomes inexpensive enough, some eccentric mad-scientist person might give it a try.
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Yes, I know, this speculation ignores what happens when the computers think for themselves and become sentient. Why would they want to colonize a planet and then give it away to humans? They would just keep it for themselves. Eventually, the entire galaxy would be colonized by sentient robots.
This is how we know that we are the first intelligent life in our galaxy. If we were second, then the earlier intelligent civilization would have created sentient robots and the galaxy would already be occupied by robots.
Unless, our planet is actually a Westworld-type amusement park for the robots, and we don’t realize it.