The Future Seekers

Where is the technology revolution taking us? What will the new millennium bring? For some people, these are more than questions, reports CBS News Sunday Morning Correspondent Anthony Mason.
"You have to say, 'All right, if I was in this position 200 years from now, what would happen?'" asks Joe Straczynski. For him, the future is a full-time job.

In the new home he's building in Los Angeles, Straczynski, a science-fiction writer, will spend most of his day inside in front of a keyboard. But his confinement is only physical.

"How do you get claustrophobic when you're in a world thousands of years in the future, spanning galaxies and running around stars?" he asks. "It's all inside the paper, inside the mind. And the walls vanish and go away, and I'm somewhere else."

Straczynski took viewers to his future world in Babylon 5, the popular television series he created, wrote and produced.

"The main theme of the show being very simple: You must choose to create the future, or others will do it for you," says Straczynski. "And the choices you make will determine that future."

"The challenge, the obligation of a storyteller, particularly in science fiction is to point to a spot on the horizon and say, 'That's where we're going.' Define it, describe it and point to it, and for us to decide whether we're going to walk to that spot or not," Straczynski continues.

In a way, that's Dennis Bushnell's job, too. At NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia, where engineers test emerging technologies, Bushnell is the chief scientist.

His office is papered with awards, degrees and patents for his inventions, like the submicron high-pressure particle generator.

He has top-secret government clearance and a secure cryptographic phone. Both NASA and the Pentagon rely on him to report on what's coming. It can keep a scientist up at night.

"This is why I tend to work with the military people," says Bushnell. "I can get them scared and worried so it's not just me being scared and worried."

In the best-selling new comic book series he's now writing called Rising Stars, Straczynski envisions an external force striking a fictitious town called Peterson, Ill.

"When it strikes, the force of that affects everyone including all of the children who were in utero at that particular time," he explains.

What was the flash? Straczynski says it's a secret. "You find out down the road," he says. But it gives the children of Peterson extraordinary powers.

"All of a sudden, one of them catches a 2-ton ceiling, and we figure this kid is probably not normal," he says.

It may be just a comic, but Straczynski's questions are serious: What would parents, society, the courts, even the kids themselves, do?

For much of this century, in books and movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still, scince fiction has been asking us to consider the future.

"Science fiction is fiction, and I'm kind of a hard-nosed technologist," says Bushnell, who admits that science fiction has given scientists ideas.

"Star Trek, for instance....The tricorder...bears marked resemblance to today's cell phones," Bushnell explains. "The thing that Bones used to put over bodies to find out what was wrong with them medically - it's my understanding that's being developed in real time."

But so much of what science fiction promised has yet to come to pass.

"I am disappointed. I want my own personal rocket pack and jet cars I was promised back in the '50s," he says.

In fact, Bushnell says NASA is now at work on such a project "to produce an automatic personal aircraft, which by the way, would be vertical takeoff and landing. So that you can now get in your little aircraft and type in where you want to go."

This prototype is already being tested by a company called Moller International. The final product would fly at 350 miles an hour and get 15 miles a gallon. Says Bushnell: "This is a wonderful way to travel."

Bushnell's agency even took some inspiration from Straczynski's Babylon 5, and the spaceships he called star furies.

"They can turn, tilt, pivot, fly backward while they're firing forward a little bit," says Straczynski. "And some folks at NASA called us and said, 'We love that design. We need down the road to make forklifts...for the space station....Can we borrow this?'"

Go ahead, Straczynski said. His only requirement was that they use the name he created for them.

"I want to be 90 years old and look up at the television and see star furies over earth," he laughs.

For Bushnell, imagining the future is an adventure. But it's also frightening. Technology is advancing with such speed, that within decades, he predicts, computers and machines will be able to think exactly like humans.

"If it doesn't slow down, then we're going to be faced with some very serious moral, ethical and existence questions, fairly shortly, like in 25 to 30, 35 years," Bushnell explains.

So where will humans fit in, when the machines are smarter than people are?

"We don't know, and that's the really scary part of it," says Bushnell. "The changes will be so deep and so major that where it leads we're not sure."

And how reliable are human predictions?

"We generally, as we do these future projections, become too optimistic in the near term, but too conservative in the far term," he says.

But Straczynski says his mission now is to redirect our eyes.

"You look at your feet after a while. And you take your eyes off the horizon. Science fiction's job is to bring your eyes back to the horizon and point to a spot and say, 'That's the future. That's where we're going,'" says Straczynski.

In this century, scientsts pursued a vision that lifted people to the moon. In the next millennium, Stracynski says, people should look beyond.

"Planetary colonization," he declares. "Get to Mars. Get to the moon. Reach for the stars."