In the modern world, few people truly understand that the world is progressing at an exponential and accelerating rate. This is the most critical and fundamental aspect of making any attempt to understand and predict the future. Without a deep appreciation for this, no predictions of the intermediate and distant future are credible.
Read Ray Kurzweil's essay on this topic for an introduction.
Among the many examples of accelerating progress, one of the easiest to historically track and grasp is the rate of advancement in transportation technology. Consider the chart below :
For thousands of years, humans could move at no more than the pace of a horse. Then, the knee of the curve occurred, with the invention of the steam engine locomotive in the early 19th century, enabling sustained speeds of 60 mph or more. After that came the automobile, airplane, and supersonic jet. By 1957, humans had launched an unmanned vehicle into space, achieving escape velocity of 25,000 mph. In 1977, the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft were launched on an interplanetary mission, reaching peak speeds of 55,000 mph. However, in the 29 years since, we have not launched a vehicle that has exceeded this speed.
Given these datapoints, what trajectory of progress can we extrapolate for the future? Will we ever reach the speed of light, and if so, under what circumstances?
Depending on how you project the trendline, the speed of light may be reached by Earth-derived life-forms anywhere between 2075 and 2500. How would this be possible?
Certainly, achieving the speed of light would be extremely difficult, just like a journey to the Moon might have appeared extremely difficult to the Wright brothers. However, after the 1000-fold increase in maximum speed achieved during the 20th century, a mere repeat of the same magnitude of improvement would get us there.
But what of various limits on the human body, Einstein's Theory of Relativity, the amount of energy needed to propel a vehicle at this speed, or a host of other unforseen problems that could arise if we get closer to light-speed transportation? Well, why assume that the trip will be made by humans in their current form at all?
Many top futurists believe that the accelerating rate of change will become human-surpassing by the mid-21st century, in an event known as the Singularity. Among other things, this predicts a merger between biology and technology, to the extent that a human's 'software' can be downloaded and backed up outside of his 'hardware'.
Such a human mind could be stored in a tiny computer that would not require air or water, and might be smaller than a grain of sand. This would remove many of the perceived limitations on light-speed travel, and may in fact be precisely the path we are on.
I will explain this in much more detail in the near future. In the meantime, read more about why this is possible.