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Are we ready for the future? We don't even know how to talk about it

Futurist Ray Hammond warns that we don't have the language to untangle the ethical dilemmas inherent in rapid technological change.


Technology is accelerating at a rate we may not be able to handle. Today's thorny questions about privacy and virtual reality could soon be overtaken by even bigger ethical quandaries about our very humanity. We aren't yet equipped to solve such dilemmas, warns futurist Ray Hammond.

After co-founding both magazine and advertising companies with publishing mogul Richard Desmond in the 1970s, Hammond turned to future gazing. The analyst, commentator and lecturer is the author of 17 fiction and nonfiction books taking a hard look at where we're going in the technological age.

We spoke with him about the science in the new sci-fi action film "Criminal" in which the memories of a CIA agent (played by Ryan Reynolds) are transplanted into the brain of a death-row inmate (Kevin Costner).

Futurist Ray Hammond sees lots of issues just around the corner.

Ray Hammond

"I can remember, even as a relatively young child, wondering if one day it might be possible to transfer bits of personality to a computer and then back again to a human," said Hammond. "In the next few decades, the elements are becoming possible."

One obvious question: If your memories are transplanted elsewhere, is that still you?

"To everybody else it would be you," said Hammond. "But the locus of your consciousness wouldn't move. The consciousness that arose in that entity would think it was you, but there's no continuance between it and you."

These kind of ethical issues are going to crop up more and more as technology accelerates.

"In the past, the successive waves of the future have come relatively slowly," said Hammond. "We adapted as things arrived and they caused a fuss for a while, then after a few years we tend to get on top of them. But what's beginning to happen now, as has long been predicted, is that the future is arriving in waves so rapidly we don't really have the time to develop the language with which to consider them."

Hammond offered an example of the language problem: "When motor cars were invented we called them 'horseless carriages.' Projectors were 'magic lanterns.' And today we call this device I'm holding a 'smartphone.'"

Kevin Costner's noggin gets a floggin' when he's on the receiving end of a personality transfer in action flick "Criminal."


One thing's for sure. In an age when technology advancement is accelerating at an unprecedented rate, Hammond believes we are faced with serious philosophical issues. "This is going to be the century where we face the biggest ethical dilemmas we've ever had," he said.

Here's his take on some of those big issues.

On privacy

"General privacy in the Facebook age is yesterday's news. That's a 20th century idea. Specific privacy, for example, our medical records, must continue to exist. The people have to hold on to a degree of anonymity and privacy if they're going to have true democracy."

On electric cars

"We took the easy option for a hundred years, which was the energy actually bubbling out of the ground in Texas [oil and fossil fuels]. Now we're moving back rapidly to more sustainable forms of transport....We've almost solved it. We're very close to the point where we get a 500-mile range on a single charge on a family car."

On 'smart bodies'

"Smart bodies will be the normal thing inside a decade. Unless we are unwell we won't be aware of it, we won't be checking the readings. The idea of being monitored hour-to-hour, minute-to-minute, second-to-second -- and even as importantly, recorded and kept -- is vital to our future health."

On the cashless society

"I was certain that there would be no cash in society today. I'll bet you've got a fiver in your pocket."

On Uber and the sharing economy

"It's the way forward. It's perfect. It's market efficiency par excellence. They also provide a wonderful service."

On disruption

"Of course I worry about human beings' lives. But who didn't worry about the textile workers? There used to be such things as typesetters. But then, 20 years ago, how many tattoo parlors were there? Twenty years ago, how many dog hairdressers were there? Twenty years ago, how many personal fitness trainers were there? We're just seeing the changes. This is natural and good."

On space

"I believe that we will explore space thoroughly, both close and far away, but it won't be humans doing it. Of course, there will be explorers and adventurers and billionaires and trillionaires who will do it, but it won't be part of any national effort or even global effort. Robots will be able to do everything and anything a human can, so why would we actually risk human life? And I'm sorry to disappoint anyone, but there isn't much out there!"