ON Ted Gordon's desk sits a white model of a Thor rocket. On his walls are photographs of gliders. And on his agenda for the 21st century are flights of technological inventiveness that could both resolve and complicate the problems facing mankind. As he settles into his chair in shirtsleeves for the interview, the former aerospace engineer admits with a smile that ``I'll be talking about a technological future that's all glitter and better mousetrapping.'' His ideas, however, are not merely speculative. Anchoring his vision of the future in the long-term forecasting done by his 70-member, 16-year-old consulting firm, he begins with the ongoing computer revolution.
``The trends that we see in making computers smaller, faster, cheaper, seem to have in them the seeds of another two decades of growth,'' he says.
The result: computers with 10,000 times the current capability within 20 to 30 years. ``That means machines on the desk that can do what main frames do today,'' he says, ``[with] storage capabilities of staggering proportions.''
What will be the consequences of these developments? ``In the old days we worried about [computers] forcing us into a mold,'' he says. ``The concern was that we would be regimented.''
``I think quite the opposite is the result,'' he says. The new technology, he says, will actually encourage individuality.
To illustrate, he describes an experimental promotion undertaken by Chevrolet. It consisted of a disk allowing users of personal computers to assemble, on their screen, the truck they wanted from a vast list of options - and then determine its performance standards, calculate its cost, and test drive it around a simulated track.
The effect of computers SHOPPERS, Gordon notes, will be able to use computers to assemble such preprogrammed options ``in the way that is most meaningful to the individual.'' Thus computers will ``promote individuality of choice and diversity.''
New computers will also help ``equalize small business and large business.'' In the past, the capacity to handle information differentiated large and small businesses. In the future, ``that threshold will be lowered.''
Education, too, will be affected. In the near term, he says, some textbooks will be accompanied by computer disks providing data bases and models that will help students investigate the subject.
Further out in the 21st century, he sees computer simulation as ``an exceedingly important educational tool.'' So far, he says, it has been applied only to such areas as pilot training.
But imagine computer simulations that teach labor-management negotiations. ``You can play Continental Illinois,'' he says, ``and see if you can pull the corporation out of the tailspin. But it's not just a computer game. You are there across the table from this three-dimensional image that is negotiating with you. You're playing chess, but human chess here in a realistic situation.''
In such simulations ``you are learning in a way which doesn't require your being taught. The learning goes on because you're being subjected to a realistic environment.''
Also on the horizon are major advances in:
Genetics `I CAN'T overemphasize the importance of this frontier,'' he says. The next century, he says, will see the widespread use of microorganisms to produce specific chemicals. And genetic research may also allow the reading of ``the genome,'' the complete set of chromosomes for an individual plant or animal. By reading the genetic code of a human infant or adult, for example, ``you'll able to tell everything about that person that is genetically determined'' - including, he says, a hereditary propensity for certain diseases.
Once people read their own genetic ``books,'' he says, ``there will be an overwhelming need to manipulate [the genes and] to cure before the disease occurs - to change fate to the degree that the genetic molecule projects fate.''
Will we, then, deliberately try to build traits in from the start? ``I suspect so,'' he answers. ``For example, if we consider low intelligence to be undesirable, and we have the ability to manipulate the gene in embryo to improve intelligence, wouldn't we do it? The capability for doing that by the year 2100 is a fair bet - maybe well before that.'' But couldn't one also manipulate to produce low intelligence - to create a slave race, for example? Admitting the possibility, he notes that the entire issue has ``got a lot of hellish overtones to it.''
Psychology `I THINK we're on the verge of a breakthrough in the understanding of how the brain functions,'' he says - a breakthrough that has both ``scary consequences and important and favorable consequences.''
The real question, he says, is the nature of memory. If it turns out to be chemical, the use of ``psychotropic'' or mind-modifying drugs to increase, alter, or erase memory is conceivable. ``That means that the ability to create moods and tailor performance - even transmit information chemically - has to be imagined,'' he says.
By 2030, he foresees that drugs may be developed that will produce ``certain predictable mental states that will be seen to be desirable.'' He mentions drugs to improve attention spans, to produce ``programmed dreams ... where the dream is a predictable one,'' and even ``programmed attitudes with respect to war'' or ``population control through the control of basic human drives.''
Artificial intelligence OF particular interest to Gordon is the development of ``artificial expertise,'' in which a computer, fed by ``the judgments of experts responding to particular problems,'' will develop its own expert decisionmaking system - and even be capable of learning from its mistakes.
``The interesting thing about this approach,'' he says, is that ``the judgments of various people who are expert at different disciplines can be combined, so that the synthetic expert that's created has ostensibly the experience levels of all of the people who contribute to its construction.'' In theory, ``the machine becomes better than any single expert.''
Robotics COMBINING the developments of artificial intelligence, miniaturization, and manipulation, the coming generations of robots should respond even to unfamiliar environments and strange situations.
``I think what comes out of this, in the near term, is a series of household robots,'' he says. These will not be ``little R2-D2s,'' he explains, referring to the robot character in the ``Star Wars'' movies. Instead, they will be machines for special-purpose jobs.
``Snow-eaters are my favorite example,'' says Gordon. ``On a snowy morning, you send them out to the driveway, they eat the snow, and they park back in the garage and recharge their batteries.''
But robots raise serious threats - especially when used in place of people on production lines.
``Our studies here show that between now and the turn of the century, robotics and further automation will not have the capability, on the whole, of replacing the large percentage of the labor force.'' But certain industries, like automobile manufacturing, could be hit much harder.
``Beyond the turn of the century, however, it's much less clear that the overall impact will be benign,'' he says. ``We can talk about machines replacing labor and resulting in large-scale unemployment and catastrophe, or [about] machines replacing labor resulting in much-needed increases in human understanding and leisure and enjoyment.''
Space GORDON foresees increasing work on space stations. By mid-century he foresees ``manned exploration of the solar system'' as ``a unifying goal, maybe an international goal.''
``From the platform of 2050, we'll look back and wonder why we stopped when we had won the moon,'' he says. Manned exploration ``still has the ability to fire imaginations.''
He does not foresee, however, much business being carried on in space.
``Every time we've looked at the economics of manufacture in space, it's proven to be illusive.'' One possible use, however, could be waste disposal - by rocketing noxious materials straight into the sun, ``the ultimate disposal.'' Aging ALREADY, says Gordon, increasing numbers of people are living into their 90s - although few are living past 100. Toward the end of the next century, however, ``we can begin to conjecture that the number of people who will be much older than the oldest people today'' will increase. That will happen, however, only if technology solves ``the riddle of aging.''
Gordon also points to future developments in several other technologies. One is the science of materials - particularly the recent breakthrough in superconductors of electricity that do not require temperatures as cold as their predecessors. ``That's phenomenally important in terms of improved efficiency of motors, for example'' or for building ``light bulbs that store their own energy.''
Another area is micromechanics. Using the techniques of photolithography to create extremely small machines, he says, allows the construction of ``pipes, valves, pumps, even rotating machinery'' measuring only one-eighth of an inch or less.
Such machines could be used as ``little transmitters built into concrete buildings so that they can telemeter stress after an earthquake.'' Also possible: electronic listening devices or ``bugs'' the size of a grain of salt.
What can technology contribute to solving the major problems facing mankind in the 21st century?
Noting that superpower arms-control treaties are difficult because ``we [in the United States] don't trust them [in the Soviet Union] and they don't trust us,'' he points to the need for ``a technology of treaty violation detection.'' One way forward, he says, is to ``take these ultrasmall machines and build them into whatever it is they're building'' - to transmit data directly to watchdog organizations.
On the population issue, Gordon points to the need for better food production for a world that will have 10 billion inhabitants in the next century. Needed, he says, is ``the complete revision of agriculture as we've known it.''
In the past, he says, ``we've always grown food'' rather than manufacturing it. But with the advances in genetics ``you can think about things like steak factories, where cells are produced and instructed to self-replicate, or triggered into self-replication, to produce material that can then be transformed and consumed by human beings. In other words, we will not necessarily be tied to land for production.''
On the question of the ``North-South gap'' between the developed and the developing worlds, Gordon is less sanguine. He sees the gap widening because of technology - since industrial-world technologies are aimed at labor-saving, while the developing world needs to find ways to employ increasing populations. In trying to use modern production technologies, for example, developing countries increase their output at the expense of jobs, and thereby ``create the potential for political instability.''
``I'm not giving you `small is beautiful,''' he adds. ``What I am saying is that there is a whole class of technology not yet discovered which may be big technology, but it is labor intensive.''
Finally, on the question of public and private morality, Gordon observes that ``technology can only challenge [morality], because it provides new domains in which old moral issues must be tested.''
``I used to say that values are built on a framework that technology creates, and people will do whatever they're capable of doing and [then] bend the morality to justify it. I no longer believe that. But it's not entirely false.''
In fact, he feels that in the relation of morality to technology the latter will tend to dominate. ``Where the technology provides the capability to do something that is economically desired, then the morality adapts. I think that's true - more true than the converse, [which is that] we won't develop the technology if it's morally repugnant.''
``We may have some technology-free zones,'' he concludes, ``but the world thrust is in the [opposite] direction.''
Futurist who seeks solutions
When Theodore J. Gordon looks for solutions to today's problems, he turns to the future.
``Solutions can't all be based on what happened [in the past],'' he says. ``If you take a projection from history and extrapolate it, it's got to be wrong, because there are new things about the future that will change that extrapolation.''
In 1965, as an engineer at the McDonnell Douglas Astronautics Company, he wrote a book titled ``The Future'' - ``on the theory,'' he says, ``that at least a component of the future could be described on the basis of research in progress today.''
``I was fascinated by it,'' he says, ``[but] I was doing it as an amateur.'' That book put him in contact with several researchers at the RAND Corporation, with whom he established the nonprofit Institute for the Future in Middletown, Conn., in 1968. In 1971 he left to found the Futures Group, a private consulting firm that does the bulk of its work under government contract.
After graduating with a bachelor of science degree from Louisiana State University in 1950, Gordon earned a Master of Science degree in aerodynamics at Georgia Institute of Technology in 1951. In his 16 years at McDonnell Douglas, he served as chief engineer for the Saturn program, test conductor at Cape Canaveral for the Thor rocket, and director of advanced space systems and launch vehicles. He has written and collaborated on a number of books, holds several patents, and has produced more than 100 reports at the Futures Group on topics ranging from geothermal energy to the future consumption of soft drinks.
Previous interviews in 1987: March 12: Paul Johnson March 18: Olusegun Obasanjo April 3: Amitai Etzioni April 9: Shuichi Kato April 17: Andrei Voznesensky (The first 17 installments of ``Agenda for the 21st century'' ran from Sept. 23 to Dec. 31, 1986.)
Last in a series.