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Soonish

Soonish: Ten Emerging Technologies That’ll Improve and/or Ruin Everything

Kelly Weinersmith and Zach Weinersmith
Penguin Press
2017
368 pp.
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Curiosity is a beautiful thing, and Kelly and Zach Weinersmith have it in spades. Their coauthored Soonish is an unabashed nerd-out of a book, zinging from outer space to DNA, hardly pausing for breath.

The book is ostensibly divided into 10 technologies that will be here “soonish.” But the Weinersmiths are far too broad-minded to consider a technology to be something specific, such as a new kind of carbon nanotube or brain-imaging technique. What they really mean is the capability to do something that humans could never do before, regardless of the exact engineering details. For example, the chapter on programmable matter asks what it would take to make physical objects adaptable into many forms and then dives into four-dimensional printing, origami robots, and minirobot swarms.

In each chapter, the authors savor the weirdest ideas they can find (think rocket balloons, brick-laying robots, and neurotrophic electrodes) and punctuate them with corny cartoons. However, they always bring the discussion back to the essential scientific facts and engineering constraints that make some things hard to do. In the chapter on bioprinting, for example, they point out that extruding cells is like firing tomatoes from a cannon—shoot them too quickly and they burst. In the chapter on what it will take to enable cheap access to space, they explain just how much faster orbital velocity is than even the fastest of supersonic jets.

The gleeful geeking out makes for a great read—I couldn’t help chuckling or outright cracking up a number of times—while surreptitiously teaching some really important science. It’s a winning combination. The sheer breadth of topics covered is also amazing: Probably no other book in history has seriously described the science behind both tentacle construction robots and the human nasal cycle.

Zach Weinersmith

The authors make sure to address the concerns and effects of these technologies if they were to become real. Biohackers could use synthetic biology to bring back smallpox, for example, and ubiquitous virtual-reality glasses could completely destroy personal privacy.

The book also asks how these technologies could change the world. Unfortunately, this is one of the few places that it stumbles. The authors suggest, for example, that 3D-printed housing might help Syrian refugees. Although we can’t rule that out, it’s pretty far down the list of solutions that governments and nongovernmental organizations should probably fund to house displaced Syrians.

The book would make a great gift for that friend who always asks questions like “but why couldn’t we just mine platinum on asteroids—come on, aren’t you a scientist?” The Weinersmiths have done all the homework for you on this and many other far-out questions, and—from the looks of it—they had a great time doing it.

About the author

The reviewer is at Conservation X Labs, Washington, DC 20009, USA.