Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Odd Way We Design Our Destiny

ODDWAYIn order to bridge the holidays, while we cruise the Caribbean and use skepticism to stave off the "end of the world"... here’s a classic bit of blather about the future, written way back in the early nineties, when the web was new and when pioneers like former JPL director Bruce Murray were trying out these new conversational methods utilizing a brand new breakthrough called the “world wide web.”  

(New... except portrayed even earlier in EARTH.) In conjunction with the TV show Closer to Truth, I had suggestions for Bruce’s Hyperforum experiment that included some innovations still never seen on sites like Facebook and so on.  Enjoy. – DB 12/21/12)

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What will tomorrow be like?  Human beings are fascinated by the future.  We project our thoughts into unknown territory, using the brain's talented prefrontal lobes to explore and envision, sometimes even noticing a few errors in time to evade them.

moses1People acquired these mysterious nubs of gray matter -- sometimes called the “lamps on our brows” -- before the Neolithic.  What has changed lately is our obsessiveness at using them.  Citizens of the NeoWest devote large fractions of the modern economy to predicting, forecasting, planning, investing, making bets, or just preparing for times to come.  Indeed, our civilization’s success depends at least as much on the mistakes we avoid as the successes that we plan.

Do we live in a special time?  In an episode of his science-interview show Closer to Truth, Robert Lawrence Kuhn warned against temporal chauvinism... the ever-present temptation for any observer to believe this particular moment is unique, the crucial fulcrum around which destiny will turn, decisively transforming all future ages. That claim has been made by thinkers in every generation that ever recorded its thoughts.  And yet, Bruce Murray maintained that this era truly does face unique challenges; unprecedented crises confront the world's social, scientific and ecological networks.  Why else would average citizens find shows like Closer to Truth so fascinating?

1984If we face a time of crisis, it isn't with our eyes shut!  Consider George Orwell’s groundbreaking novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Published fifty years ago, it foresaw a dark future that never came to pass, perhaps in part because Orwell's chilling tale affected millions, who then girded themselves to fight “Big Brother” to the last.   Since then, other “self-preventing prophecies” have rocked public awareness. Did we partly avert ecological catastrophe thanks to warnings like Silent Spring and Soylent Green?  Did films like Dr. Strangelove, On The Beach, and Fail-Safe help caution us against inadvertent nuclear war?  Above all, every power center, from governments and corporations to criminal and techno-elites, gets repeatedly targeted by Hollywood’s most relentless message... to stay suspicious of all authority.

No, if our prefrontal lobes fail in their crucial job of predicting/exploring/preventing, it won't be for any lack of trying.

closer to truthThis episode of Closer to Truth touched on many contemporary worries. For example, what kind of human population can be sustained by the planet?  Citing the high-densities that today thrive in countries such as Holland, Graham Molitor projected that sixty billion humans may someday share the Earth -- assuming powerful symbiotic technologies arrive in time.  Bruce Murray seemed rather more worried about the planet's near-term ability to support even today's seven billions.  Which of them is right?

The panel also discussed the fate of nationalism, long a controlling force in human affairs.  Today, some countries are creaking and splitting into ethic sub-units while others seem just as busy amalgamating -- eagerly surrendering bits of sovereignty to supra-national groupings like the European Union and the World Trade Organization.  And I should draw attention to a third anti-national trend.

CollapseAbout a hundred years ago, people all over the world began drifting away from priests, kings and national flag-totems, transferring their loyalty instead to fervid ideologies -- models of human nature that allured with hypnotically simplistic promises.  Often viciously co-opted by nation states, these rigid, formulaic, pseudo-scientific incantations helped turn the mid-20th Century into a hellish pit.  But ideology may at last be passing from its virulent phase toward a more commensal one, as millions of educated people pin their righteous passions to more narrowly-focused agendas -- from child labor to animal rights, from privacy to dealing with land mines. In a third de-nationalizing trend, thousands of non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, now must be heard and accommodated whenever great powers meet.  It is a chaotic trend, noisy and self-righteous... yet also full of promise.

Even if NGOs offer hazy outlines for a distributed style of world governance, it won't happen overnight. Meanwhile, there remains the perennial question of war.   Robert Kuhn suggested -- and Bruce Murray agreed -- that we haven't seen an end to conflict.  In fact, Pentagon officials are deeply worried that future foes won't ever again let us meet them with our strengths. Instead, adversaries will try to exploit the inherent weaknesses of a complex, interdependent civilization, using inexpensive -- and possibly uattributable -- modes of attack.

One key to our survival will be agility in dealing with whatever the future hurls our way. That means not relying on assumptions just because they worked in the past.  As the late Richard Feynman put it --  “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself - and you are the easiest person to fool.”

The panel raised another important issue: how to manage technological change so that it benefits all people, not just those living in the NeoWest.   They also touched lightly on the problem of preserving both freedom and privacy at a time when cameras seem about to prodigiously expand human vision and databases exponentiate human memory. Worthy topics that merit further discussion in our followup hyperforum.

How-to-Create-a-Mind-cover-347x512One more aspect of the fast-approaching future has become a fixation among some of our best and brightest. It is the possibility of a sudden break in the balance of intelligence and power on Earth.   For example, many foresee the imminent arrival of human-level -- and then transhuman -- artificial intelligence.  Optimists expect this transforming event to result in a "singularity," when all humans will share access to all knowledge, advancing together toward a sublime, godlike state.  Pessimists, including Sun Computers V.P. Bill Joy, view the prospect of hyperintelligent machinery with dread akin to what Homo erectus may have felt, upon glimpsing the first fully modern man.

Similar scenarios are offered by those who see either salvation or ruin in some looming breakthrough of biology, or in physics.  Such wild speculations may  all prove to be smoke.  But if any of them -- optimists or the pessimists -- turn out to be right, we will see astonishing changes in far less time than it takes to wreck an ecosystem.  Or to teach a new generation how to cope.

It means we'll have to handle things on the fly, improvizing as we go along.

A final topic always gets raised, whenever we talk about the notion of "progress," and this episode of Closer to the Truth is no exception.  Why has human wisdom not advanced as rapidly as our technology?  How can we hope to deal with all of these new dangers and opportunities, if our moral character stays mired in primitive brutality?

I've heard this question asked so often that a strange thought occurred to me.  Yes, it's a cliche.  But could it also be a lie?

51gDDxs-xlL._SL500_AA300_Consider the famous Stanley Kubrick film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. When it appeared in 1967, two monumental new projects transfixed the people of the United States -- conquering outer space and overcoming deeply ingrained social injustice.  Now compare the world depicted in the film with the one we live in.  Who would have imagined that colonizing space would prove so grindingly slow -- yet by 2000 we’d refute so many cruel bigotries that citizens once took for granted, back in 1967?

We still don’t have the fancy space stations of 2001, but our astronauts come in all sexes and colors.  And kids who watch them on TV feel less fettered by presumed limitations. Each may choose to hope, or not, without being told you can’t.  At this rate, who will bet me that a woman or a person of color won’t preside in the White House long before the first human being steps on Mars?

ProgressQuoteProgress doesn’t always go the way we expect it to.

It is sometimes wiser than we are.

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And now a glimpse at the sort of thing we were doing around 1996... online polls that were then collated and intelligently discussed in something Bruce Murray called a "hyperforum", some of whose characteristics have yet to be achieved even now, in the age of Facebook and Twitter, alas.

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Which of the following fields of human endeavor will bring about the greatest positive changes in the next 25 years?

a.  Advances in physical science (e.g. allowing access to the resources of space)
b. Advances in biology (e.g. extending human lifespan or intelligence)
c. Advances in cybernetics and related fields (e.g. creating intelligent or hyper-intelligent machines)
d. Advances in human sanity, behavior and understanding
e. Something else (write-in) __________________________
Which of the above will have the greatest Negative impact? (Answer a-e, or write-in) ___________

SOME FOLLOWUP QUESTIONS:

1.  What is the sustainable human population of Earth, assuming that technology keeps advancing?
--Less that one billion.
--One to three billions.
--Three to six billions.
--Six to twelve billions.
--Much more than twelve billions.

2.  Will nation states continue to be important, fifty years from now?
As important or more so.
--Less important but still valuable for organizing largescale efforts.
--Unimportant because of World Government.
--Unimportant because power will devolve to individuals and self-organizing groups.
--Some combination of the above.

3.  Click which statement you agree with.
--My own favorite ideology is a good approximation of what it will take to make a better civilization.
--It will be enough to raise a next generation that is measurably saner and better educated than ours; it's none of our business to prescribe their model of utopia.

4.  Scientific advances suggest that:
--Destructive powers will become available to ever-smaller groups of angry people.
--Error-detecting and problem-solving tools will become available to ever more numerous groups of sincere people.
--Artificial intelligence and nanotechnology may enable humans to redesign themselves in fantastic ways.
--Artificial intelligence and nanotechnology may enable new forms of "life" to overtake or replace humanity.
--All of the above.

QuestionnaireN5.   Click which statement you agree with.
--Human decency and justice haven’t kept pace with technological progress.
--Wealth and technology have helped us start to address ancient injustices, maturing enough to face new challenges.

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One outcome of this exercise was my Questionnaire on Ideology that is still taken by hundreds, every year.  It is less a survey than it is a exercise for each individual to take a chance to re-assess, poking at some of the assumptions that underlie belief and things that we take for granted. 


David Brin
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25 comments:

Nick de Vera said...

There's no poll at davidbrin.com.

Which of the following fields of human endeavor will bring about the greatest positive changes in the next 25 years?

"c. Advances in cybernetics and related fields" for the low-hanging fruit. And I think "d. Advances in human sanity, behavior and understanding" would be hugely helpful across the board, and contribute towards eventually developing AI.

1. What is the sustainable human population of Earth, assuming that technology keeps advancing?

Much more than 12 billion. algae farming, plankton farming, etc. At current progress, the hockey stick graph keeps going.

2. Will nation states continue to be important, fifty years from now?

Some combination of the above. More administrative power will migrate to groups like the EU, UN, etc, and some more power goes to smaller groups: banks, NGOs, Wikileaks, individuals, Anonymous.

3. Click which statement you agree with.

My own favorite ideology. Bit of an epistemic, definitional trap there. Of course I think I'm right, how could I think otherwise? Though I'm open to changing my mind given evidence and sound argument.

5. Click which statement you agree with.
Human decency and justice haven’t kept pace with technological progress. I know we've made huge strides, but I still see all the stupid, ridiculous, obvious crap we're still struggling with: gender equality, reproductive health, human rights, everywhere the millstone of religion holding us back.

Robert said...

Actually, one thing about the launch and landing of a lower stage for a SpaceX Rocket is to suggest that this could be used to help humans eventually land on Mars. The process would be similar to that used by the Lunar Landers, but bringing significantly more fuel with us. There is but one question: is there water ice located on the Martian moons, and if so, is there enough to mine it for fuel?

After all, if ice exists on those two wee moons, then they become refueling stations for rockets to gain enough reaction mass so to successfully land on Mars without needing to bring it all the way from Earth. If not... then a lander would require something more akin to the winch system used for Curiosity.

Ultimately, the colonization of Mars will occur after either a space elevator or skyhook system is built around Mars. Again, current technologies are sufficient to allow for the building of such a system (and they could even be built atop one of the Martian volcanoes, reducing the height needed for the elevator). Once a safe and effective method of landing on Mars is established, then we'll see colonies arise on our cousin world.

Then we'll have the next conflict as existing Martian squatters protest future geoengineers who want to drop a sizable ice asteroid on Mars to increase the density of the atmosphere the old-fashioned way, which would disrupt existing colonies. ;)

Rob H.

Timothy Whitworth said...

Which of the following fields of human endeavor will bring about the greatest positive changes in the next 25 years?

"c. Advances in cybernetics and related fields"

What will cause the greatest harm? The slow failure of oil as an energy technology.

1. What is the sustainable human population of Earth, assuming that technology keeps advancing?

None, humans cannot live sustainably, only almost so.

2. Will nation states continue to be important, fifty years from now?

Nation states will still be important, I don't know whether more or less.

3. Favourite ideology:
technology will solve almost every problem, given time, sometimes in unexpected forms, but it will also create other problems along the way.

4. I think there will be little progress in any of the areas stated in 25 years.



5. Human tendencies towards justice have been rather impressive over the last fifty years. I think this trend will continue.

Paul451 said...

David,
Thank you and yours for saving us from the nonsensical threat.

Rob H.,
Re: SpaceX from the last thread.

I can see the Dragon design being able to land humans on Mars. It's just such a clever design. But how do they get back up again. I mean, I get refuelling from Martian CO2 produced methane and LOx, but the Dragon capsule cannot hold the tiniest fraction of the fuel required to get back to Mars orbit, let alone home. Essentially you need something like the Falcon 9 first stage. And how to you get that to Mars? And how do you handle the logistics of what amounts to a major sub-orbital launch on Earth, without the launch logistics and manpower available on Earth. Hell, how do you get the crew capsule back on top of it, without a launch pad or crane, using EVA-suits, and with 3-4 guys in total available for all the work?

All,
Hope everyone had a Happy and/or Merry arbitrarily chosen point in Earth's orbit. Remember, all things in moderation... including moderation itself.

(75 cratesc: you take one down you pass it around, 74 cratesc...)

Paul451 said...

The Quiz,
"Which [...] will bring about the greatest positive changes in the next 25 years?"
Electronics. More new tech in more old objects. More computers, more sensors, more displays. But never true AI. AI will keep being a sort of "god of the gaps", we'll keep expanding tech's capabilities, but it will never seem "human-like". Any problem we solve computationally, they will be able to do a million/etc times more/better/faster than we can. It'll never just be parallel to us, always broadly dumb, narrowly genius.

Biotech won't equal that, but at-home biotech will be open up a million minds of creativity, like '70s era personal computer clubs. Nano-tech will allow cool bulk-materials/coatings, but not nano-bots/nano-assembly. Humanity itself? I keep seeing signs of growing sanity, but god damn the other side is fighting hard; both the princes and the priests. They hate each other, but both attack us. They may actually be better at this than us.

"Which of the above will have the greatest Negative impact?"
Humans. IT. Biotech. Nano-tech. In that order. (And nano-tech's negative is limited to their creating the next asbestos/DDT.)

"Population"
No number. I think we'll muddle through and just sort of make that "sustainable".

"My own favorite ideology [will] make a better civilization."
God, I hope not. Some of the stuff I believe is... just... wrong. We should try to invent and advocate and test our utopias, otherwise what will the next generation sharpen their tiny little claws on? But "prescribe"? No.

"Scientific advances suggest that:
Destructive powers will become available to ever-smaller groups of angry people.
Error-detecting and problem-solving tools will become available to ever more numerous groups of sincere people."


Both. But the other two (transhumanism/posthumanism) won't be an issue for the next century.

"Human decency and justice haven't kept pace with technological progress." versus "Wealth and technology have helped us..."

Progress begets progress. Science, technology, society. Thinking about scientific progress makes us think social progress is inevitable or necessary. Social progress makes more people available for new tech, which funds and inspires development. All at the same time, in a big tangly three-way mess.

The current lack of social progress in the US, the narrowing of distribution of wealth, may be why things feel so... wrong. And coincidentally why people are talking about technological stagnation. You guys broke the cycle.

Paul451 said...

The one I skipped:
"Will nation states continue to be important, fifty years from now?"
50 years is too short to end the nation-state. At the very least, the nation-state will unfortunately continue to be the "minimum unit of democracy" in international governance.

So a question for others: What type of... thing... could be used to create a global, borderless, proper one-person-one-vote democracy? An activity in parallel with the nation-state/etc that starts out trivial, a hobby, but becomes more important as... the thing... develops.

In a similar way, I was also thinking about Kickstarter. Can you imagine a system of government (or decentralised self-governance) based on that. A sort of anti-Randian polar opposite version of Libertarian society. Instead of taxation, you "vote" with your wallet on things you care about, where "rewards" are doled out on the basis of the amount you donated. Different from a corperatocracy (vote per share bought), but not socialism either. Certainly not a democracy... but still sort of democratic. And a meritocracy, in a populist kind of way. Rewarding generosity, which that makes it self-interest, but almost always less reward than what you paid, nothing like conventional investment, nor conventional "there is no society, only the self" libertarianism.

David Brin said...

The onion reveals the true history of the Internet

http://screen.yahoo.com/onions-extremely-accurate-history-internet-235209925.html

Paul451 said...

http://gizmodo.com/5971544/wild-dolphins-giving-gifts-to-humans-is-a-real-thing-that-happens

What it says on the tin: Wild dolphins giving gifts to humans is a real thing that happens.

Speculation in io9's comments range from "they think we a gods" to "they think we are too stupid to live".

Paul451 said...

"they think we a gods"

{sigh} They think we left out a few letters.

locumranch said...

Although they are often used to imply teleological importance, terms like "purpose", "progress", "improvement", "advancement" and "destiny" represent culturally-suspect value judgemnts which can only be defined in retrospect.

In the first question, the questioner insists that newly-acquired knowledge in certain disciplines must necessarily represent an "advance" even though such knowledge could just as easily represent a 'dead end' that invalidates an entire line of inquiry and moves us back to 'Square One'.

Questions regarding the sustainability of earthly human populations also asks us to assume that our 'valued' technological present will maintain its 'value' into the (indefinite) technological future even though this does not necessarily follow.

Likewise, value questions regarding the nature of sanity & education are culture specific, yet we assume that our conceptions of each are both eternal & universal, believing that sanity & education are causally dependent even though we cannot prove that they are related at all.

Finally, I need to point out that conceptual terms like 'Rationality' and 'Morality' are NOT necessarily synonymous. Quite the opposite. More often than not, they are mutually exclusive.

As in the case of our 'Cell Phones', many of our most valued technological 'advances' hinder communication, complicate our lives & disrupt our society. Yet, in the name of technological progress, advancement or "destiny", we continue to throw good resources after bad.

We invest in '5G Networks' & 'WiFi' instead of mosquito nets or an adequate diet so millions die needlessly of malaria & malnutrition; we become stupider & stupider as we text & chatter endlessly (LOL!!) about less and less of importance; we cling to our techno-emotional crutches in an irrational fashion; and we pretend that our technological obsessions are neither immoral nor irrational.

All in the name of progress.

Best.

Robert said...

Inertia works both ways. An object in motion remains in motion unless acted upon by an outside force. And an object at rest tends to stay at rest unless also acted upon by an outside force.

The object is human curiosity and progress. If we stop it, it won't start up again. And without progress and communication and all, we'd not know about the people in Africa suffering from malaria and the like. We'd all be in tiny non-connected worlds.

What's more, this is what the Power That Were want. They want everyone to be beholden upon them and for their divine right to rule. And if there is never another ounce of progress? They'd be satisfied. And we'd die as a species.

No. As helterskelter as it may be and while it might not be equal at times... continual progress is needed for us as a species. And for our future.

Rob H.

Jumper said...

Something no one has thought of will change things in a manner no one is predicting. And, robots.

(I get the feeling Google is having us verify street addresses in the capchas...)

Jonathan S. said...

"At this rate, who will bet me that a woman or a person of color won’t preside in the White House long before the first human being steps on Mars?"

Called it! :-)

David Brin said...

I said that? Yipe

Ian said...

We invest in '5G Networks' & 'WiFi' instead of mosquito nets or an adequate diet so millions die needlessly of malaria & malnutrition; we become stupider & stupider as we text & chatter endlessly (LOL!!) about less and less of importance; we cling to our techno-emotional crutches in an irrational fashion; and we pretend that our technological obsessions are neither immoral nor irrational.""

Except that at the same time as we're investing in telecoms we're also investing more than ever in fighting disease and hunger and more importantly, incomes in the developing world are rising allowing people there to address those problems themselves.

Cellphones may b an "emotional crutch" to you, but to peopel in South Africa or Bangladesh they're a vital means of communication.

Paul451 said...

David,
Care to update the prediction? First President who is openly gay, or openly atheist, or openly Muslim, before the first human on Mars? Or any two of three? First President from a party other than Dem/Rep? First transhuman elected President?

David Brin said...

Think I'll rest on my laurels. I predicted the 21st Century will "begin" in 2014 -- as happened in 1814 and 1914. Scary. That's my big one.

sociotard said...

Who would have imagined that colonizing space would prove so grindingly slow -- yet by 2000 we’d refute so many cruel bigotries that citizens once took for granted, back in 1967?

Granted, we eliminated some of the grosser social injustice issues. They lynchings don't happen and if they do they aren't accepted.

Still, in 1967 there was only one black man in the US senate. In oh-so-advanced 2012 there is . . . One. Since the first black senator in 1870 there has never been more than one black senator, and there have been long stretches with none. In a country that is 13.1% black.
(representation in the House is better, thanks to Gerrymandering)

I'm not sure people in 1967 would be any more impressed with our social justice advances than they would with our space program.

locumranch said...

Whether or not a techno-fetish like cell phones are useful or not is beside the point.

More than 5 Billion cell phones worldwide multiplied by their own proprietary service plan at a minimum cost of (say) $40/month gives us an estimated worldwide cost of $ 2.4 Trillion/yr in perpetuity.

That's a truck-load of finite resources to piss away on what amounts to a postmodern 'Pet Rock'.

My point is that the idea of continual incremental "progress" is in no way historically accurate, "scientific" and/or "predestined".

Some of you could learn a thing or two from Karl Popper.

Best.

Ian said...

"More than 5 Billion cell phones worldwide multiplied by their own proprietary service plan at a minimum cost of (say) $40/month gives us an estimated worldwide cost of $ 2.4 Trillion/yr in perpetuity."

except that around 4 billion of those phones are in the developing world and most of them are pre-paid phones with a typical use of a dollar or so a month.

Tony Fisk said...

The developing world makes good use of their pet rocks.

locumranch said...

Worldbank.org begs to differ, stating that mobile phone cost is still the major hurdle.

Mobile airtime minute costs are lower in India (almost 6 X lower) than in the US, but don't forget that India's annual mean household income is almost 62 X lower than in the US.

Popular they may be, cell phones are still just expensive luxuries and/or toys. Like the Pet Rock, their appeal is based on hyperbole.

They are "destined" to go the way of the snuff box.

Ian said...

Yes "expensive luxuries" people use for stuff like checking crop prices; contacting emergency services; doing banking when the nearest bank branch is 50 miles away; sending remittances; keeping in touch with family members working overseas...

Oh and every single damn thing westerners use phones for since the vast majority of these people have no access to landlines.

"India's annual mean household income is almost 62 X lower than in the US."

While I can't find any figures on India's annual mean household income, India's GDP per capita at purchasing power parity is just under $4,000 per annum and America's is $48,000

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_GDP_%28PPP%29_per_capita

That's a differential of 12:1 not 62:1.

You can buy a Nokia 1280 in India for under 1,000 rupee ($18).

http://www.fonearena.com/mobile_phone_pricelist.html





Robert said...

I think people from 1967 would be very impressed with our space program. After all, we have a space station in orbit that can house up to six people from different nations. We have satellites orbiting several planets and sending pictures back to us. We have telescopes in space giving some of the most spectacular pictures ever. We landed a SUV-sized rover on Mars and are performing science that shows there was running water on Mars. And when you consider in 1967 we'd not gotten to the Moon yet? Oh hell yes, they'd be impressed.

I think even someone from 1972 would be impressed.

Rob H.

David Brin said...

...onwards!