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Communications of the ACM

Communications of the ACM

Many Zeros Ahead

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Shall we believe the predictions of the end of humanity at the hands of robots and our survival from global warming? Our science-fiction writers have done a much better job than our futurists. Here's what I learned from them about what might be in 1,010 years:

We will create superior robots that eventually decide they have no need for us.

By the end of the third millennium the robots had formed their own society apart from humans. Although they found the humans to be quite frail of body and mind, they were, in accordance with their robotic laws, very kind to them and protected them as an endangered species. But the humans seemed to lose all their motivation to live and eventually the last of them died, leaving only the robots.

The robots conquered time travel, a quest that forever evaded humans. Their time machines, however, could transmit only inanimate objects backward in time. Their robot laws prevented them from sending objects to the past for fear of injuring humans who lived there. So they excelled at snatching objects from future times. They learned their descendants would flourish in glorious civilizations, and they were very proud.

We will create superior robots that eventually decide they have no need for us.

They kept pressing to peer into ever more distant futures. Eventually they produced a machine that could reach out one million years. From a public square they snatched the statue of a great military leader, bedecked with medals and carrying a great glistening sword. After seeing the statue, the disheartened robots dismantled their time machines and discontinued their research. The statue was a six-foot tall cockroach.

Global warming is no threat to our civilization.

The last human expedition reached a point high in the Andes near the equator. The great glaciers marched toward them from both the north and the south. These sole survivors of billions of human beings carried the remaining artifacts of humanity in their backpacks. Realizing they could not outlast the advancing glaciers, they lovingly buried their artifacts under a cairn of rocks and they prayed that someday a new party of explorers would learn who they were.

The explorers who eventually came found that the third planet of this sun was a great green earth, utterly devoid of animate life. They scoured the surface for years, finding only rocks pulverized by the glaciers. Then one day they found a lonely cairn on the highest mountains in a place the glaciers had not quite reached. The cairn bore ancient artifacts of a lost civilization. One artifact stood out: a reel of film that had miraculously survived 10 millennia. After struggling for a quarter century, they unraveled the film's meaning as a moving sequence and they reconstructed a portrait of the lost people of earth. Their portrait was one of a marvelous and proud civilizationand also a crazed and frenetic people. But one part of the film eluded their greatest scholars. Try as they might, they could make no sense of its final frame. It contained an inscription no one would ever understand:

"A Walt Disney Cartoon."

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Peter J. Denning ( is a professor of Computer Science and University Coordinator for Process Reengineering at George Mason University, Fairfax, VA. He is also a member of Communications' Editorial Advisory Board.

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UF1Figure. The Augmented Man. Torsten Froelich and Didier Stricker, Fraunhofer Institute for Computer Graphics, Darmstadt, Germany; Claudia Soeller-Eckert, Institute for Media Technology, Mainz, Germany

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Copyright held by author.

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2001 ACM, Inc.


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