Monday, March 04, 2013

What big-unexpected problem we will face in coming decades? (Contest winners)

UnexpectedProblemMy latest novel Existence shows humanity confronting many challenges forty years in the future -- some expected and some unforeseen. Indeed, finding, revealing and exploring unexpected threats... this might be considered one of the most valuable services of good, thoughtful science fiction.

I recently crowd-sourced a question to my Facebook followersWhat do you view as the biggest unexpected problem we will face in the next few decades? Many insightful and thought-provoking responses poured in, from profound to comedic, ranging from political instability to economic collapse, civil unrest to over-reliance on machines, social disruption to psychological plagues. Others dealt with problems of over-population and life extension, shortages of water and biodiversity, severe climate change, collapse of our information systems, growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, even meteor impacts.

Here I'm posting the most intriguing responses that got the most fan votes (the top two won fee copies of the brand new paperback edition of EXISTENCE! Note that I do not necessarily agree with all of the cited entries and will respond to a few of them in comments. But all of them show verve and a willingness to peer ahead:

1. What form of government will replace capitalism? This system is devolving at FTL speed, and the world is still unaware of a viable solution to it, while world situation is becoming more erratic and explosive daily. We will find ourselves in need of new ethno-national definitions very soon. Also, what will replace religion, for the same reasons. However, I feel that space exploration and the focus towards space will, at least partially, contribute to the latter. --Margie Lazou

2. Political and economic pressures from spacefaring nations to keep others from having the ability to access the almost infinite resources off-planet; extremely low cost for resources - material and energy - for the space-capable, and artificially high prices for everyone else. --David Christensen

3. Longevity due to augmentation and medical advances will create a need to migrate off planet for resources but those left behind must deal with massive social strain and change along with the burdensome question of what it means to be human. --John Berry Gosnell

4. A plastic-eating bacterium with resistance to all known antibiotics. --Martha Dunham

5. The unexpected loss of a sense of humor in people of European extraction, leading to mass suicide and the end of sit com laugh tracks. --Rhonda Palmer

6. The consequences of a universal lie detector machine. Politics and virtually every other field of human endeavor will be changed by everyone having to tell the truth. The rules that will evolve to deal with social and business situations will rapidly change society. --Kevin Settle

7. The biggest unexpected problem we'll face will be psychological. A depression plague is going to begin to eat away at modern society. We lose a sense of personal control over the modern world (i.e. external locus of control), where people believe that things happen to us, rather than "we make things happen". Apathy and self destructive behavior will no longer be the domain of emo-kids. It will threaten the viability of all societies worldwide, fueled by environmental impacts (historically, we rarely see them coming) and a growing disparity in wealth, power, and liberties. Long term ramifications will include economic collapse, famine, civil unrest and finally social atavism. --Richard Carter

8. Fresh water supplies. --David Caune

9. Biggest unexpected problems? Aren't the expected problems enough?  Biodiversity depletion, climate change, class warfare, outright warfare, the depletion of basically every resource: food, energy, fresh water, a whole whack of strategic minerals including helium, orbital debris. Hell, the only thing "unexpected" capable of killing us more quickly than we're killing ourselves would be a meteor impact or giant-ass solar flare. --Gabriel Emilio Zárate

10. The replacement of skilled and unskilled labor by automation combined with an ever-increasing population could have drastic effects on unemployment levels and civil unrest. --Eric Berman

11. Clinical near immortality will create beyond Malthusian population growth, further stressing Earth's resources. The moral question of when life "ends" will arise, for while they are able to keep the body alive, the mind still fails within 90-120 years. Discussion begins around planned obsolescence being introduced as part of gerontological treatments. --Wes Edmunds

12. The social (A movement away from sexism and tribalism. Along with an exponential expansion of global leisure and tourism.) and economic (Explosive demand and shifting of manufacturing, agriculture, and service industries.) ramifications of the children of 1/5th of the world’s population growing up as a ‘spoiled generation’ with two living parents and four living grandparents focusing all of their energy, hopes and dreams for the future, and their own personal life choices and mistakes on a ‘state mandated’ single child. --Richard Praser

13. A growing number of disruptive technologies and culture's difficulties in adapting. The biggest problem here will be the growing rift(s) between the people who use the technologies and those who don't. (Either by choice or access.) We may find that our culture is not the quickest to adapt, and the United States may be left in the wake of the world, wondering where it went without us. --Luna Rebecca Flesher

14. Collapse of our information systems due to overwhelming amounts of information from untrustworthy sources and the inability to verify sources and filter information effectively. --Eli Roth

15. Fresh-Water Scarcity and the many consequences thereof! Including massive dust-storms that will cause air-quality problems and which will contribute to erratic weather patterns in some of the most populated areas of the World ( especially in China, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, the Middle East, North Africa and the US South-West ). And this will lead to food scarcity and pest-control problems; hence a massive increase in the risk of life-threatening/lethal disease epidemics! Hence social instability in countries that have nuclear and/or chemical weapons! ( OK: all this is actually expected...BUT...). 

But what is unexpected about this: failed states with nuclear/chemical arsenals and the dire need for the Super-Powers to cooperate on direct military interventions: so as to limit overall harm to general populations and mitigate the risk that those very same Super-Powers from going to war with one-another! Hence: a dangerous trend of ever-reduced civil liberties, freedoms and personal security! Hence: an ever-more dangerous, further erosion of trust between the general public and their respective governments! Which will lead to a massive increase in psychological breakdowns and the social disorder and related violence that will further harm our very need for social cohesion based on warranted trust: hence a whole new phenomena: psychological profiling and related witch-hunts! Hence the risk of a new dark ages. And given the kinds of dangerous technologies now in existence: a very real risk of total social meltdown and the subsequent high risk of a final, near-total, if not total, civilization collapse! --Jean-Pierre A. Fenyo

16. The development of mind-machine connections. While they will remain primitive in 30 years time, they will create a rift between those with the resources to afford their implantation and those who cannot. --Bradley Brown

17. I think the next crisis of truly global proportions will come from technologies that prolong life or even eliminate natural death. These technologies will inevitably and necessarily be restricted to a few. Not doing so would result in overpopulation, which would lead to forced birth control or mass starvation. Those who have these technologies will not want their enemies or those of whom they disapprove to live forever (would you allow a Hitler or a Stalin or even just a Castro to live forever?). Nations would want the balance of power that this brings to shift in their favor. But even in the unlikely case where none of this would happen, such technology would have to be deployed gradually and even if the intent were to make it available to everyone, those who are not at the front of the line would perceive it as hoarding and a denial of what they will surely claim is a "god given right".

 And then, of course, religions would get in the mix, calling this an evil and in opposition to the "clear" will of their god. However it happens, there will be two camps: those fervently in favor of it and those furiously opposed to it. This will lead to social unrest, widespread acts of sabotage, probably a few small wars, wildly disrupted economies, famines, plagues, rains of toads, cats sleeping with dogs, and Republicans and Democrats agreeing on something that has yet to be identified. --Claudio Puviani

18. A combination of events, which will result in over-population, lack of natural resources, an under-abundance of food stock, supply and sources culminating in a ridiciulously strained attempt to reach the stars, taking up more time, effort and money than it is really worth. --Stephen Ormsby

19. I see two upcoming problems, actually:

--The need to overhaul the global economic system. In an increasingly globalized world, "capitalism" tends to become associated solely with the U.S. model of industrialized society, while technological progress accelerates, along with obsolescence and resource depletion. This leads to disruptions due to environmental, cultural and legal differences between various countries/blocs; we will also see the need to overhaul the patent system and property rights, as well as redefine individual/collective responsibilities.

--A global religious crisis. With two of the three main Abrahamic religions in full recession - mainly in the highly-industrialized West - relegating proselytism as a secondary (less important) goal, fringe groups and extremist movements are likely to increase their public presence. The crisis of faith experienced mainly in the West will expand across the globe as more people under moderate regimes in developing nations will follow similar paths of questioning, enabled by technological progress and more discoveries in fields such as of bio logy (genetics) and astrophysics. While a truly global jihad seems unlikely, the tensions between believers and agnostics/nonbelievers will continue to grow, and this is bound to lead to cultural upheaval, with hard-to-foresee consequences. --Alex Savulescu

20. Shortages of critical materials for technology, pharmaceuticals, etc. Every environmental and problematic issue boils down to human population, however. We're trading quantity for quality, and there is nothing to stop it. You can't even bring the subject up without a volley of insipid, formulaic, unthinking responses, one of the first of which will be "Why do you want to murder people, you monster?" Given that every path to a survivable future involves some sort of conscious, deliberate action on population, like NOW, I don't see any path that saves us.  --Hank Fox

21. The biggest problem? There are two, I think, and they are intertwined. Climate change and the death of the oceans. --Michelle Connor

Thank you to my many bright readers for their wisdom and insight! We will need a generation of creative, ambitious, and far-seeing problem-solvers to face the unexpected over the next few decades. While not every suggestion was exactly "unexpected," all conveyed the passion of people who think seriously about our path ahead.  The kind of folks who read the literature of tomorrow.

My best-known aphorism is CITOKATE: Criticism Is The Only Known Antidote To Error. Here, we have attempted to shine light into possible (potentially dark) scenarios for the future, foreseeing various obstacles and stumbling blocks we may encounter along our path to creating a brighter future.


Dan Packman said...

Many thoughtful responses, but the ones that assume easy transport off planet might not be practical unless we can find very efficient mechanisms coupled with low cost energy for such trips.

Octarin Dragon said...

Thank you once again for this opportunity, I feel honoured that my name is mentioned in your post. Favourite author bias here :) ~ Margie

Alfred Differ said...

It looks to me like most of the problems listed are better described as 'expected' problems. The truly unexpected ones should be the ones tha arise from how we re-organize ourselves through our social institutions under the pressures we are facing. The costs associated with some of our newest tools are almost non-existent compared to a generation ago, so for simple economics reasons, we WILL change how we do things. We already are.

Inexpensive access to education (formal and informal) is going to change everything. An expected problem with that comes from the desire of some elites to control that access and shape the changes. The unexpected will come from the degree of success or failure these elites experience.

Stephen Beres said...

The rapid rise and spread of fanatical, anti-West Islam extremists having access to atomic weapons is the most urgent problem.
I predict a preemptive Israeli military attack on Iran; a conflict the US will be sucked into, before this summer.
I also predict that the next Pope elected will be the last Pope.
But what the hell do I know?
The future will susprise us with natural disasters, and unintended consequences of our well meaning choices.

Anonymous said...

I saw several mentions of the impact of life extension technologies. For an insightful look at the social and spiritual consequences of extended life spans, I would like to recommend "Tolkien and the Gift of Mortality":

Personal immortality, or the lure of it, seems to turn members of all these races in on themselves. The Elves dwell more in their memories than in the present; the long-lived mortal races turn to glorious deeds in an attempt at personal immortality. For the Elves and the Ents, the result is a kind of lethargy. For men it can be far more sinister: in Boromir and especially in Denethor, Tolkien shows the pride and despair that come from the pursuit of personal immortality through individual glory.

The Hobbits have no illusions that they can in any sense live forever. As a result, they concentrate on immediate and animal concerns. They pursue immortality only by a far humbler and more mortal path, the ordinary, impersonal, animal immortality of parenthood. It’s no accident that everyone who meets the Hobbits mistakes them for children at first. Even after long acquaintance, they are to Legolas “those merry young folk” and to Treebeard “the Hobbit children.” Something about the Hobbits is so lively and natural that they invariably turn the minds of others toward childhood and children.

This fertility, this willingness to pass life on to a new generation rather than grasping for “endless life unchanging,” is the Hobbits’ great strength, as it should likewise be mankind’s proper strength. It makes them at once humbler than immortals, since they place less confidence in their own individual abilities, and more hopeful, since their own individual defeats are not the end of everything. The life that lives for its offspring may never achieve perfection, but neither is it ever utterly defeated or utterly corrupted. Some hope always remains.

Richard Jordan said...

War. If a major war were really expected, we would do more than just prepare by producing new weapons. Seventy years since World War II has produced frightening weapons and potentials that can change us all. Humans are both cooperative and competitive and the competitive urge can break out at any time with a world wide scale war like no one has ever seen. There is much to be competitive about. The longer the general peace, the more unexpected the war.

Richard Jordan said...

War. If a major war were really expected, we would do more than just prepare by producing new weapons. Seventy years since World War II has produced frightening weapons and potentials that can change us all. Humans are both cooperative and competitive and the competitive urge can break out at any time with a world wide scale war like no one has ever seen. There is much to be competitive about. The longer the general peace, the more unexpected the war.

Anonymous said...

12,13,14 made fair attempts at "unexpected".

15, 16, 18 are sufficiently off-kilter from common thinking that if they happen, they qualify as unexpected.

Most of the rest are just common doomstering.

I would add "virtuality addiction (especially but not limited to video games and internet browsing) becomes widespread, with dire social and individual psychological effects."

Not that no one has suggested that before - but many lax parents will be shocked when THEIR kids are unwilling and unable to step up to "maturity" and actually experience psychological breakdowns if belatedly pushed to make something of their lives.

J. Daniel Sawyer said...

The two biggest unexpected problems I see both come directly out of "What happens if we correct for all the big problems we see on the horizon?" -- because, as of this date, *most* of those problems (overpopulation, global warming, desertification, resource depletion, fresh water problems, etc.) all have solutions in beta test phase. Many have multiple solutions from multiple angles in beta test.

So, let's grant that good enough solutions to all of the above happen, and that we achieve practical immortality in the space of this century, and look right over that horizon. I see two problems (which, if unaddressed, could really create some serious trouble).

1) Boredom. We're fast approaching the point where non-creative jobs will cease to exist, freeing up loads of the most precious resource (time). On the one hand, this means that the day is soon coming when future Einsteins won't have to spend their lives farming. On the other hand, since purposeful work is the #1 ingredient in what we call "happiness," we're going to have to be very creative indeed to keep the quality of life high, absent the struggle of the daily grind. It's a problem that most of our species has never faced, but in those that have faced it, the results are very mixed. I don't even know what to predict here, other than it'll be pretty dramatic, given our nature to try anything--destructive or not--to make ourselves feel alive and valuable.

2) Criminal policy. Incarceration--particularly as currently practiced--may arguably work to protect public safety by keeping the criminal element off the streets, but it is not hugely effective at deterring crime or rehabilitating the convicted. In an age of indefinite life extension *and* potential post-scarcity boredom, the current criminal justice philosophy will move from not working to being seriously detrimental to society as a whole.

So, what will we do? Will we scale laws back in a more libertarian direction? Will we shift punishment back to a humiliation and retribution philosophy as it was before the current age of prisons? Will we institute the death penalty for "uncurable" problems like pedophilia and psychopathy? Will we use brain surgery to fix the criminally inclined? Will we revive the penal colony and sentence the incorrigible to exile off-planet? All potential solutions currently imaginable have some serious downsides.

They will be interesting times indeed!


Anonymous said...

Bah - anyone can project doom scenarios.

Challenge them to come up with unexpected synergies and other pleasant surprises.

Thinly veiled political polemics would equate to automatic self-disqualification.

Jacob said...

Hi Margie,

Can you clarify the idea you are presenting? Do you mean what will replace the force behind government that capitalism currently fills? I would assume we'd stick with our various forms of government even if the current versions of Capitalism because anathema.

matthew said...

My most unexpected q uandary of the next 40 or so years will be a widespread rejection of modernism, with enclaves of like minded individuals forming to celebrate and live as "recreationists," everything from the expected middle ages freaks (SCA forever!), to the black powder rendezvous nuts (we bought this watershed so we could trap our beavers and make fur felt hats), to nativest aboriginal enclaves (yata hey!), civil war fetishests (wanted ad: "needed 100 individuals of color to be my personal property as I recreate my ancestors' antebellum property. Food and full medical included."), to 1950's white suburbia (communists not allowed). These enclaves won the right of their own binding covenants, superseding american federal law, through the activist rulings of the Scalia court in the early 2020's. They are ended after the debacle of the smallpox epidemic, which starts in the new age medicine enclave of "Hippyland" in 2035.

Anonymous said...

I do not intend to comment on the previous entries other than: democracy is not a form of government (unless it is directed at buying the government one wants -- but that is a form of oligarchy).

The problem I see coming is finding a process to provide training adequate to the expanding technology. Education would be nice, but training the world will be hard enough or there will be more Borpals (sp).

David Brin said...

Yes yes... nearly all the entries were derivative, straight out of the news. But. Well, not everybody can be a pro! In EXISTENCE I go into scores of "problems" and I guarantee you'll find half a dozen you never heard of till you read about them in the novel and go: "Thanks a lot Brin! As if I didn't have enough on my plate!"

Re the possible drawbacks of extended lifespan see:

Re the travails of modernism, see the whole series I did on that a few years back!

Or more recently/briefly:

Alfred Differ said...

Democracy is a technique for deciding what the business of government is. It can be used in many different types of governments, but gets unwieldy in large settings or where the voters are largely uninformed.

I'm not that worried about training anymore. Our centralized techniques will simply have to give way to decentralized ones where people use certifications to demonstrate competence. We've seen the beginning of new distributed techniques in India where they lack the budget in some regions to do it the western way. They have no choice but to innovate.

Richard Hod said...

My response to paragraph 21:

No it's not!


J. Daniel Sawyer said...

Another one of the interesting possible futures (spurred by a comment a few comments back): The dissolution of nation-states in favor of city-states with trade compacts. Don't know if that's an unexpected danger so much as an interesting wrinkle, but it is one that the latest National Security Assesment mentioned as a serious possibility.


Randy Winn said...

I'm surprised that the domination of economic and, increasingly, political activity by artificial entities only tangentially interested in the welfare of individual humans is not mentioned. In a very important sense, the most powerful intelligences on Earth today are not human at all, but organizations (often but not necessarily augmented by computer/communications systems). These systems don't think like we don't, don't have emotions as we understand them, and have goals very different from ordinary human goals. Let us hope they are benevolent!

reason said...

I really LIKE #6. It is unexpected but not difficult to imagine.

Ian said...

I'm surprised no-one mentioned the emergence of a new pandemic or of a Richter 8+ earthquake hitting tokyo; LA or Mexico city.

Such an earthquake would probably exceed the human and economic impact of the Fukushima quake or the Indian Ocean Tsunami by a factor of 10.

In Japan with a massive debt and an aging, shrinking population, it could take decades to recover.

David Brin said...


David Ivory said...

The biggest problem I see but that seems unexpected and counter-intuitive is the impending population crash.

Yes we may hit 9 Billion people by 2050 but soon after the populations of several countries will crash to a lot lower than currently. The shock of this sudden demographic infection point will drop many first countries into poverty.

Japan's 120 million population will drop to 40 million in 2100 - not recover. All that unused infrastructure - no incentive to invest.

Other countries at a similar infection point - Italy, Korea, Spain, Russia and much of the Eastern Europe.

Then comes China, with the one child policy it population will implode with dire consequences.

In the next decades other countries will probably turn the corner and start to decrease in population.

We can see that the current Eurozone and Japan economies are stagnant in part due to the structure of their demographic.

It's not a population explosion we should be worried about - it's population implosion in the countries that have driven the world economy.

When that inflection point is reached - it's not going to be fun. And I'm not optimistic about life extension delaying the process by much.

Some may see this all as a good thing - and a smaller more stable population will probably be a good thing - if civilisation can survive the transition.

Hank Roberts said...

Here's a dark one -- Canadian scientists banned by government from publishing or disclosing results; government denies they did it, lies; government is caught lying; so government now is banning scientists from applying for grant money without permission.

Cut'em off before they even start doing the research.

Brendan Mobert said...

Current ways of thinking state nanites (nano-mecnaical robots small enough to do work within a cell) will not be practicable, that nano-menchanical work will only happen in large machines. I do not accept this. I think the vision and expectancy of nanites will make their existence extent.

The penultimate expression of these creations --for I do not have the imagination to predict the ultimate expression-- will not be external to the human cellular mechanism but circumscribed within it. They will be subsumed, created and directed by our genetic information, incorporated completely within us. Clouds of them will surround each of us and obey our desires, both conscious and unconscious, and yet the doom of Forbidden Planet will not be ours to experience: if everyone has power of the gods from within, parity is maintained. And through these nanites --which will incorporate both classical, electronic and quantum computation, and mechanisms-- we will wield a power beyond the imaginings of the Greek Gods of old.

Only decades after the first implantations --a time soon coming-- all chemical pollution, all genetic damage, all environmental damage will be repaired on Earth. Earth will be a Garden of Eden beyond our wildest, Pollyanna fantasies, with all the Solar System following shortly thereafter. Human limitations will be at or beyond the Plank Scale. The speed of light will no longer be a limitation, allowing the possibility of a Galactic Garden of Eden, and not just for our own kind but every different kind of living thing we can find or imagine, or create.

We will be able to morph into any physically sustainable being we desire. And there, finally, is the dilemma. With no anchoring limitation, no constraint on what it means to be human, we become isolated, incompatible individuals instead of a cohesive, connectible species. Anyone attempting to become more than human --and this will be nearly everyone-- will be lost within their own fantasies, phantasms or hallucinations. Only those who wish to become more human (rather than more-than-human) will remain close enough to eachother to continue to propagate a genuine species. The rest will, over the millennia, disappear. Evolution at its least violent.