Monday, April 04, 2011

Predicting the Future... a Touchy Business

We authors of “speculative” fiction like to say we don’t predict the future.  We peer ahead and find possibilities... plausibilities... to then write up as conjectures.  As exercises to help stretch and practice the reader’s pre-frontal lobes. Sure, we sometimes build a good record of “hits.”
But that’s not the core point.

As I often tell clients in government and business, the key thing is to find the ways that your forecasts have been consistently wrong... and to figure out why.  After all, the best definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, while expecting different results.

This came very much to mind as the frenzied news of recent weeks reminded me of 1968 - a year so eventful that we all reached its end in a state of utter exhaustion. Amid all the news of war and quakes and natural and man-made disaster, several authors have pointed at one of the oldest and nastiest cliches, expounded by smug pundits and cynics and hollywood directors for ages. Predictions are made about every disaster -- that once the lid of a tightly policed civilization is knocked off for a second, humans will become beasts.

3793616506_fb5b3e088aIn fact, the opposite is far more generally the case. The vast majority of people, when a disaster hits, behave in the aftermath as altruists. They organize spontaneously to save their fellow human beings, to share what they have, and to show kindness. They reveal themselves to be better people than they ever expected. A point that is made especially well by one of my favorite nonfiction authors, Rebecca Solnit, in her book A PARADISE MADE IN HELL.

In fact, I have been saying this for decades, expressing an ongoing theme about the 21st Century’s struggle to empower citizens, after the 20th Century's relentless trend toward the "professionalization of everything."  One overlooked aspect of the 9/11 tragedy was that citizens themselves were most effective in our civilization's defense, reacting with resiliency and initiative while armed with new technologies:

Now a large project is taking shape to improve forecasting. It involves thousands of volunteers and the wisdom of crowds. It’s officially known as the Forecasting World Events Project and is sponsored by the Intelligence Advanced Research Activity (IARPA). The idea is to raise five large competing teams of people of diverse backgrounds who will be asked to make predictions on fields that range from politics and global security to business and economics, public health, social and cultural change and science and technology. The project is expected to run for four years and stems from the recognition that expert forecasts are very often wrong.

Now, mind you, I approve of this general idea and endeavor.  Still, one looks back across earlier “crowd-sourced wisdom” efforts, like the “delphi” polls of the 1960s, and it’s clear that we are still stumbling around.  My own general take on the topic of prediction takes a very broad view, spanning centuries. (For a less abstract, preening approach, see a wiki that has been set up by some meticulous fans, attempting to track my own near future forecasts.)


A new series in Scientific American asks science luminaries to "describe a hard problem that may be impossible - or almost impossible - to investigate." The initial essay deals with printing human organs. Some time later, my own contribution will be about (you guessed it) uplifting higher animals to sapience.

But heck, as long as were on the subject, though, here’s another “almost impossible problem" that I ruminated about. The most cosmic -- even meta-cosmic -- question that we can grapple with is: "Are we currently living in a simulation?

 It is the biggest simply because everything we consider to be "the universe" - and even its possible participation in some larger "context" of multiple cosmos - might be contrived and presented to us in an ersatz experience.

Of course, this is an old quandary, going back to Plato's allegory of the cave or the Chinese tale of the Emperor and the butterfly.  In our case, the "dream" or "illusion" may be something tangible - a super extrapolation of our own technology. Are we being just as naive and clueless now?

Several suggestions have been made, regarding experiments or observations that might reveal whether the larger context of our universe is a simulation. One of these is already known... the discrete division of nature into "quanta" that cannot be further divided. Also, the tendency of quantum mechanics to deal in probabilities, without having to calculate position and momentum to infinite precision.

These two traits of our universe are spectacularly convenient, if it happens to be a simulation.  They limit the amount of computing power required in order to drive our simulated world forward.  A fact that one might deem very creepy. (As if quantum mechanics weren't creepy enough!)

Would it be dangerous to explore this hypothesis further? Consider that it may displease the owners of the simulation, to have their subjects aware that they are in an experiment, and possibly biasing their decisions because of that, or even interfering!  Perhaps even thereupon speaking up and demanding rights?

StonesSignificanceNuevoI explored all of this in an award-winning short story: "Stones of Significance."

Um, in fact, I have just been told that I had better stop talking about this.  The owner has his finger on the REBOOT button....

(Till then... keep making conjectures!)


Did some of you have trouble ordering e-book copies of The Transparent Society overseas? It now looks as if folks in the UK can order it on Kindle, so I think it’s been released throughout the world.  Would some of you folks in Asia/Australia/Europe please check and report back?  Thanks.

My friend and collaborator Jeff Carlson ( has republished the best of his award-winning short fiction on Kindle and Nook in 99 cent mini-collections including "The Frozen Sky," an alien encounter set beneath the ice of Jupiter's sixth moon, Europa.  You can find cover art, blurbs, free excerpts. Try out this bright talent!

University exchange programs with aliens! (April fool.)

At once looking a bit silly -- and showing some pizzazz - the trailer for the Captain America movie has been released. First, I always prefer it when the hero rises from brave everyman status (as in Spiderman or Cat. America) or through cleverness with tech (Batman/Ironman) than from mutants or magic or by some alien invading the Earth as a baby.  Which is why I root for ol' Cap'n over THOR! With both movies coming soon, remember the title of my Hugo-nominated story "Thor Meets Captain America!"  (And see how much better I dealt with both characters in the expanded graphic novel -- THE LIFE EATERS.


*This is actually pretty big news. * See an excellent and dispassionate survey of the most recent re-appraisal of rates of average climate warming (without examining the cause.) You’ll get a better picture of the players in the controversy and  how (gradually) science is starting to eliminate the skeptics’ concerns.

Interesting, slightly-creepy technical discussions of implanted RFID tags letting the researcher enter his house/car and control his environment with waves of the hand. The beginnings of Harry Potter style incantation! Plus discussion of security/hacking dilemmas. Loved the “Faraday-Cage pants!”

Also a panel discussion on “Uberveillance.”

Analyzing percentages of deaths by kilowatt hour. Nuclear far down the list. Even after Fukushima. We need to learn, improve, innovate and not lose our heads. 

See a fantastically effective chart portraying the various thresholds and doses and known effects from exposure to ionizing radiation.  Sets a lot of things (including Anne Coulter's loony notion of immunizing hormesis of low doses being "good for you") in perspective. (One small observation. Don’t go into a profession requiring you to fly from Ny to LA every week!)


Eyes on the Solar System" is a 3-D environment full of real NASA mission data. Explore the cosmos from your computer. Hop on an asteroid. Fly with NASA's Voyager 2 spacecraft. See the entire solar system moving in real time. It's up to you. You control space and time!

Alert to all you hard sci fi writers. To Search for Intelligent ETs -- Signs of Mining Asteroid Belts may be visible from Earth. Any technologically advanced civilization will require resources, which may become depleted on their home planet. Large scale mining may be detectable by analyzing the thermal and chemical signatures from dust debris  -- though such signs may be hard to distinguish from collisions and natural erosion. (I used to do research in this field. Knew it all along! ;-)

Electric wands could allow future firefighters to extinguish flames with a wave of the hand, recent experiments suggest.

After a 6 year journey, 15 loops around the sun and three flybys of Mercury, NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft entered the orbit of Mercury -- the first probe to orbit the planet. Its mission: to photograph and map Mercury’s surface composition, study its atmosphere & exosphere, its magnetic field and interaction with solar wind. I want to see those polar craters! MESSENGER stands for MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, Geochemistry and Ranging. It’s the second spacecraft sent to Mercury - -the first being Marine 10 in 1975. Why polar craters? It’s where there just might be water!

And now this... Solar Probe: First mission to sun scheduled for 2018. I was named in the proposal... because of my novel SUNDIVER!

The hexagon on Saturn’s north pole... solved! (?)


Facebook has declared that all posts by members on their walls are public property. And the Library of Congress is recording all Tweets. The U.S. has a patchwork of laws, some applying to banking, some to medical records. Even those laws won’t prevent those in the know from knowing everything about you. If you don’t want something made public, don’t put it online. I've been writing about this since before the Web.

There are solutions, but they'll take innovation, compromise... and agility.


David Brin said...


(PS guys see how I just did that above. It prevented blogger from hiding the last part of the URL.)

C. Keith Ray said...

"Would it be dangerous to explore this hypothesis further?" -- remember Isaac Asimov's story where that guy was telling jokes to The Computer, and then asked why do we laugh at them? And the answer was that it's an experiment, and now that we know it's an experiment, jokes are no longer funny — and we don't know what the next experiment may be.

Duncan Cairncross said...

Hi Dr Brin

Transparent Society on Kindle is now available to us peasants in NZ

matthew said...

The Salon article is very disturbing and interesting both. I have friends, good, decent, smart friends that are Rand-worshippers. Like the article states, a form of intellectual immaturity. The lawyer that urges his daughter to self-emanipate in order to reduce his child support payments is a prime example of what is wrong with many, many people in the US.

Acacia H. said...

I thought I'd repost my Facebook comment concerning extrasolar mining activities (and on a possible explanation for the Fermi Paradox):

When you think of it, habitable planets that can support space-faring species are probably not that common. You need a planet that is large enough to support and maintain an atmosphere but not too large for rockets to escape the planet's gravity well.

We on the Earth lucked out because not only is our planet not that large (but still being large enough to nurture and protect life), but we've a sizable moon in orbit that not only attracts attention to the stars but also assists with gravitational slingshots.

And heck, when you consider that the Earth is on the cusp of being too large for a Space Elevator without the use of exotic materials... if something hadn't happened to destroy Mars' atmosphere, we very well could have seen a vibrant Martian spacefaring civilization greeting us when we stepped beyond our atmospheric boundaries. But Mars seems to have been either too small... or too close to Jupiter (allowing something to smash into the planet, disrupting magnetic fields and atmospheric retention).

The Fermi Paradox may exist not because life isn't out there... but because life is trapped on each of their planets because they can't. Ultimately, humanity may end up uplifting other species... by helping them escape their planetary shackles when (and if) we eventually reach them.

Robert A. Howard, Tangents Reviews

Tim H. said...

Simulation? Perhaps, or an experiment in a synthetic space-time bubble. A civilization with Star Trek levels of energy might do such a thing, and the creationists would be right, in a way they never dreamed.

sociotard said...

To point out, humans behave altruistically in some situations, but not all.

I'm thinking specifically of the Rwanda Genocide, and the Jared Diamond explanation therof. He pointed out that for all people claim it was because of racisim and bigotry it had a lot more to do with overpopulation.

Could it be that some instinctive level people can tell when their own numbers need culled for general survival? And could it be that they can likewise distinguish between short-term catastrophe (earthquake, meltdown, terrorism)and the former?

Now that is a chilling thought.

rewinn said...

More news on the anti-science front: The Indiana State House, which is trying to order doctors to read a state-specified message to women seeking an abortion, voted DOWN an amendment that would have required that the information be "medically and scientifically accurate".

What is "conservative" about opposing scientific accuracy?

David Brin said...

Thanks Duncan. Glad the foreign availability of The Transparent Society has been fixed. Thrive down under and thanks for sending us our summer back! ;-)

Matthew... I don't think you're fair. Most dads love their children. This guys was a hyper-randroid lunatic.

Robert... biggest hypothesized benefit of the moon MIGHT have been that it drew off some of the original Venus-like atmosphere. See Niven's universe.

Your "they are all trapped" Fermi excuse is close... but needs modification. It's Water Worlds. Earth skates the INNER EDGE of the Sun's habitable zone. Hot and relatively dry. Most such worlds have less continental surface. It's whales and squid and turtles out there... all the way down.

David Brin said...

From Vanity Fair: "It’s no use pretending that what has obviously happened has not in fact happened. The upper 1 percent of Americans are now taking in nearly a quarter of the nation’s income every year. In terms of wealth rather than income, the top 1 percent control 40 percent. Their lot in life has improved considerably.

"Twenty-five years ago, the corresponding figures were 12 percent and 33 percent. One response might be to celebrate the ingenuity and drive that brought good fortune to these people, and to contend that a rising tide lifts all boats. That response would be misguided.

"While the top 1 percent have seen their incomes rise 18 percent over the past decade, those in the middle have actually seen their incomes fall. For men with only high-school degrees, the decline has been precipitous—12 percent in the last quarter-century alone. All the growth in recent decades—and more—has gone to those at the top."

I quibble over one thing. The author says "It’s no use pretending ..." But encouraging such pretending is the exact and sole mission of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp & Fox News and their puppet Tea Parties.

If they can milk another ten years, then by the time the ruined middle class radicalizes, they will have moved all the money offshore and we'll be serfs.

LarryHart said...


The lawyer that urges his daughter to self-emanipate in order to reduce his child support payments is a prime example of what is wrong with many, many people in the US.

While taking your point, despite hearing Rand invoked by numerous Tea-Partiers lately, I know of very few who would construe the doctrine of selfishness as a compettion AGAINST their own children.

Rand is writing adolescent fantasy rather than anything LIKE a manual on how to conduct a society of real people. The surest clue of this is the complete absence of procreation among her uber-humans. She apparently doesn't have a clue how families would work in her imaginary world, so instead of exploring the idea, she simply ignores it.

The lawyer in the article who conducts his relationship with his daughter according to Rand's theories? That reminds me of parents in the 1980s who had their children on trendy lowfat diets, presuming that the rules concerning what's good (or "good") for adults is also good for growing young bodies.

LarryHart said...

Dr Brin:

If they can milk another ten years, then by the time the ruined middle class radicalizes, they will have moved all the money offshore and we'll be serfs.

Or...We The People stop playing that game and create new money, declaring the old bills worthless just like that episode of M*A*S*H where the army changed scrip to keep it from having a black-market value off-base.

What exactly have these folks got stored in those Swiss banks? Nothing of intrinsic value, to be sure. A bunch of paper currency, or probably electronic representations of such. The only thing that gives it value is that people are willing to trade goods or services for it, and the only reason for THAT is because THOSE people know that OTHER people will do so as well. Ultimately, the whole thing is held up by nothing more than the printed phrase "This note is legal tender for all debts, public and private."

In a sense, the economics of our society depends upon people being willing to play that game. Even if they're not the ultimate "winners", they respect the rules and accept their place when they can do reasonably well, or expect that someday they can do so. Or that their children can. Or at least, that there's a good and just reason why others are better off than they are.

But if the game is rigged? If the bottom 90% or 98% or 99% of the country decides that there's no POINT to playing any more? And no moral imperative to do so?

The Murdochs, the Kochs, and their ilk seem intent on killing the goose that's laying their golden eggs.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed "Stones of Significance" but it occurred to me that once the simulations know they're simulations designed to prevent reification, but their reward is reification, wouldn't they conclude that their optimal strategy should be to not help? If the reifiers on the next level up win, then the simulations get to be "real" anyway!

David Brin said...

Heh! Ever see the movie Dark Star, when the astronaut tries using phenomenology and Plato's cave to talk a bomb out of detonating?
Now see:

Ayn Rand never had kids and neither did ANY of her characters. Ever. At all. It is the huge indictment of her entire movement. The most important thing humans do. But she had to eliminate kids:

1) inheritance raised the failure mode of feudalism/aristocracy, which devastated human competition in 99% of societies and demolishes her whole argument.

2) reproduction make biology relevant. Especially darwinism... which would also demolish her entire edifice.

Stigant... the problem is solidarity. Prisoner's dilemma.

David Brin said...

Anyone know a site that gives a long list of automatic contractions like "late"->"L8"?

I am NOT looking for with-it abbreviations that stylish folks use in texting! like AFIK and WYSIWYG. In other words, not abbreviations for multi-word expressions.

Rather, the very basic stuff that a program might use to compress a normal paragraph of normal speech way down in length. Like be->b, easy->ez, you->u, are->r, for->4...

Also, what whole words can be eliminated? like the, this, that, a, an, What am I missing?

Also contracting "ing"? "ght"? anything else?

Rob said...

Your request reminds me of the compression algorithms Microsoft used in DOS 6 disks in the mid 90's. But you probably want it to be human readable!

Here are 20. Some of them meet your requirement, some do not:

David Brin said...

Rob could you please re-send that URL, but with line returns stuck in so I can see it all? Blogger cuts off everything that spills pas the right margin of the narrow comment column

Rob said...

Let me try it this way:

Click here




David Brin said...

Thanks. Worked

A few were useful like:

attention atn
busy bz
date d8
does ds
eight 8
enough nuf
forget 4get
from fr
hate h8
hello hlo

But need also words to eliminate. And contractions. thx!

Neil Miller said...


Or...We The People stop playing that game and create new money, declaring the old bills worthless...

What exactly have these folks got stored in those Swiss banks? Nothing of intrinsic value, to be sure. A bunch of paper currency, or probably electronic representations of such. The only thing that gives it value is that people are willing to trade goods or services for it, and the only reason for THAT is because THOSE people know that OTHER people will do so as well. Ultimately, the whole thing is held up by nothing more than the printed phrase "This note is legal tender for all debts, public and private."

The Murdochs, the Kochs, and their ilk seem intent on killing the goose that's laying their golden eggs.

Interesting point, but they seem to be on to it. Have you noticed that there seems to be an increase in talk of a return to the Gold Standard, especially among those aligned with the people of that ilk? While that wouldn't totally prevent We The People from taking our ball and going to play a different game, it would make it more difficult.

I'd also waging that large portions of the wealth isn't stored in things of no intrinsic value, but rather the opposite: stock, real estate, commodities, all the things that make up the means of production, etc. And, of course the money that leaves the country will undoubtedly be converted to othe moneies that we can't declare worthless. It's never going to be as easy as looking over and saying "Oh, that's a nice pile of paper you've got there. We don't use that anymore."

David Brin said...

Which is why it all comes back to Transparency of Ownership.

Ian said...

Space X has announced plans for the Falcon Heavy rocket - intended to put over 100 tonnes into orbit at around $1,000 per pound or 1/10th the current cost.


First launch could be within a couple of years.

David Brin said...


David Ivory said...


Transparent Society is now available in Hong Kong too.

Thanks for the heads up.


LarryHart said...

Neil Miller, I continued the discussion of wealth fleeing the country on the later thread that Dr Brin just posted.

I apologize to all if that's an ettiquette violation, but I didn't want further comments buried. It's a very interesting discussion that I want to continue. And by no means to I claim to have definitive solutions--just ideas to toss out there.

Ian said...

The good news is : we may soon have a massive new source of cheap fossil fuel.

The bad news is: we may soon have a massive new source of cheap fossil fuel.