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Seven futures from New Scientist

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, July 11, 2017
Updated: Saturday, March 9, 2019

The following is a member post written by Andrew Curry and originally posted on his blog, thenextwave. It is about the 60th-anniversary issue of New Scientist. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily of the APF. 

60 years of New Scientist

I’ve got round to reading the 60th-anniversary issue of New Scientist, published in November, which tries to look forward in the general direction of 2076. There are 14 short “What If…” essays, on everything from “What if we engineer new life forms?” (we’ll need a ‘kill’ switch)  to “What if we found a theory of everything?” (it’s a very slow train coming) to “What if we discover room temperature superconductivity” (it would utterly transform our energy systems).

In this post, I’m going to review some of the essays on themes that futurists spend more time on, and pull out some of the ideas.

1. What if we create human-level artificial intelligence?

Toby Walsh, who’s a professor of AI at UNSW Australia, starts by saying that in line with other researchers, he thinks we’re 30-40 years away from AI achieving superhuman intelligence. But he’s sceptical of a singularity, for a number of reasons I haven’t seen rehearsed as clearly elsewhere.

  • The “fast-thinking dog” argument: “Intelligence depends on … years of experience and training. It is not at all clear that we can short-circuit this in silicon simply by increasing the clock speed or adding more memory.”
  • The anthropocentric argument: “The singularity argument supposes human intelligence is some special point to pass, some sort of tipping point… If there’s one thing we should have learned from history is that we are not as special as we would like to believe.”
  • The “Diminishing Returns” argument: “The performance of most of our AI systems so far has been that of diminishing returns. There are often lots of low-hanging fruit at the start, but we then run into difficulties looking for improvements.”
  • The “limits of intelligence” argument: “There are many fundamental limits within the universe. … Any thinking machine that we build will be limited by these physical laws.”
  • The “Computational Complexity” argument: “Computer science already has a well-developed theory of how difficult it is to solve difficult problems. There are many computational problems for which even exponential improvements are not enough to help us solve them practically.”

Walsh concludes, however, that even without singularity AI will have a large impact on the nature of many jobs, and a significant impact on the nature of war. “Robots will industrialise warfare, lowering the barriers to war and destabilising the current world order.” The answer: we’d “better ban robots in the battlefield soon.”

Walsh has a book on AI out later this year.

2. What if we crack fusion?

The joke about nuclear fusion, for as long as I can remember, is that it’s always 50 years away. That might be changing, though perhaps not. In 2035, if everything goes to plan, the ITER research project is scheduled to produce 500 megawatts of energy “for a few seconds,” which would make it the first fusion reactor to produce more energy than it consumes.

Even if that succeeds, there are still significant technical problems. And as Jeff Hecht notes in his article, if these are overcome, it seems that nuclear fusion won’t be the “too cheap to meter” energy that we were promised in the 1950s. Fusion reactors are vastly expensive to build, even if operating costs are modest. Nor are they carbon neutral, because of the carbon costs of construction, fuel production, and waste management. And there is also the radioactive waste to deal with, although the decay time is decades, not millennia. But the nature of the technology and its cost base means that even if it works, it’s still going to be used for baseload power. Peaks may have to be managed through renewables and storage. But it seems as likely that come 2076 nuclear fusion is still 50 years away.

3. What if we re-engineer our DNA?

Michael LePage has a little 2021 scenario in which a Japanese boy is born to an infertile father after fertility specialists have played with his DNA using CRISPR genome editing. More follow elsewhere in the world, depending on local regulation and cultural attitudes. Why would parents opt for genome editing rather than cheaper pre-implantation diagnosis (PGD)? Because germline genome editing can make dozens of changes at the same time, rather than a few.

And why stop there? There are beneficial gene variants that make people immune to HIV or less likely to become obese, for example. Perhaps as soon as the 2030s, some countries may allow these variants to be introduced…

[G]enome editing can definitely make individuals less prone to all kinds of diseases. And as it starts to become clear that genome-edited children are on average healthier than those conceived the old-fashioned way, wealthy parents will start to opt for genome editing even when there is no pressing need to do so.

On the other hand, we likely won’t be gene editing to improve personality or intelligence: “we have yet to discover any single gene variant that makes anything like as much difference to IQ as, say, having rich parents or a good education.”

LePage’s 60-year projection: states will pay for genome editing for public health reasons because the savings on lifetime health costs will far outweigh the cost of the treatment.

4. What if we end material scarcity?

This future is hard to imagine, writes Sally Adee, because scarcity is the basis of our current dominant economic system. But some people have started on this: Jeremy Rifkin, for example, in The Zero Marginal Cost Society, which describes a world where the cost of producing each additional unit of anything is all but zero. In the future, in other words, everything will look like the current music and publishing industries.

The critical technologies are fabrication devices that are highly sophisticated versions of our present 3D printers. Within 60 years time, these could be molecular assemblers (Eric Drexler’s phrase), working at nanoscale, which could “produce any substance you desire. Press a button, wait a while, and out comes food, medicine, clothing, bicycle parts or anything at all, materialised with minimal capital or labour.”

Rifkin thinks that fabricators will be the engines of a sharing economy, in which access replaces ownership; “purchases will give way to printing.” Rifkin thinks that within 20  years “capitalism…. will share the stage with its child.” In this future, says Adee, “You will have a job, but not for money. The company you work for will be a non-profit. Your “wealth”  will be measured in social capital; your reputation as a co-operative member of the species,” although it’s worth remembering that Cory Doctorow has visited this future (pdf) and it didn’t turn out well.

And, your reputation points? They might go on an antique chair that wasn’t built by a fabricator, which might be a sign of status in such a world.

5. What if we put a colony on Mars?

So the first set of non-trivial problems, according to Lisa Grossman, is that settlers would need to launch from Earth everything they need to set up the first base: “tonnes of life-support equipment, habitats, energy-generation systems, food and technology for extracting breathable oxygen and drinkable water from the air.”

The second set of problems: The alignment of the planets means that although the shortest journey time is around five months, we’ll only get 22 opportunities for that short journey between now and 2060. Landing on Mars is also tricky because of the combination of gravity and thin atmosphere: the heaviest craft that’s landed successfully is the 1-tonne Curiosity rover.

The third: It’s quite a hostile place: “high levels of radiation, the threat of solar flares, dust that covers solar panels and could rip through lungs like of shards of glass, and temperatures as low as -125℃.”

In short: “there is nothing to do there except to try not to die… The first settlers will be dependent on the home world for a very long time.” But hey; the settlers will be in constant communication with Earth. We will be able to watch them succeed or fail almost in real time.

6. What if we have to rescue the climate?

Hoovers and sunshades. We’ll have turbines that suck CO2 out of the atmosphere and ships dumping minerals into the sea to reduce acidification, but that’s just the start of it, according to Catherine Brahic. Because up in the atmosphere–10 to 18 kilometres up–we’ll have a fine spray of particles to shield Earth from the sun and keep us cool.

While it sounds manageable in theory, we don’t really understand it. The best-researched approach involves spraying fine particles of sulphate into the atmosphere, but this creates regional winners and losers. Northern Europe, Canada, and Siberia would remain warmer, the oceans cooler; there would also be regional rainfall effects, with monsoons potentially drying up.

So the whole thing needs some kind of global or multilateral council to arbitrate. And the sunshade needs to be replenished constantly. If we stopped spraying (because of an international disagreement, say) the temperatures would climb in a decade or so to where they would have been without geoengineering.

7. What if there’s a nuclear war?

TL: DR? It’s bad, really bad.

Even a regional nuclear war has terrible results. For example, if India and Pakistan let off half of their relatively small nuclear stock (or a hundred Hiroshima-sized bombs), according to simulations by Alan Robock and Michael Mills, quite apart from the millions of deaths on the sub-continent, “the fires would send about 5 million tonnes of black smoke into the stratosphere, where it would spread round the world. This smog would cut solar radiation reaching Earth’s surface by 8 per cent–enough to drop average winter temperatures by a startling 2.5 to 6℃ across North America, Europe and Asia,” for five years to a decade. As Fred Pearce writes, the Asian monsoon would collapse – destroying Asia’s water system, removing much of the ozone layer, and near ice-age temperatures would shorten growing seasons catastrophically.  In short:

Nuclear winter would deliver global famine.

And that’s just from a regional nuclear war.

Social ramifications

It’s worth ending with a couple of notes from the editor in chief at New Scientist, Sumit Paul-Choudhury, in his introduction to the whole section, looking back 60 years as well as forward.

The internet, global warming, artificial intelligence and genetic engineering were all on our radar in 1956. But our ideas about how they might pan out bore little resemblance to how they have actually evolved, particularly when it comes to their social ramifications. Ubiquitous information has not created rationalist utopias. Ecological catastrophes have not culled our population and neither have super-human machines nor people, although we’re getting there.

Although the tone of the introduction is over-interested in “prediction”, he takes that scepticism into looking forwards.

Linear extrapolation inevitably fails: it’s the kind of thinking that leads people to jokily ask, “Where’s my jetpack?”, a question borne of post-war trends in transport and the space race–none of them relevant today… prediction and extrapolation are of limited use. Well, that’s fine up to a point if you need to place semi-conductor  orders, perhaps. But it is not useful if you want to work out how semiconductors are changing society.

The image at the top of this post is by Andrew Curry, and is published here under a Creative Commons licence.

Tags:  artificial intelligence  DNA  war 

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Is Warfare Endemic to the Human Condition?

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, March 29, 2017
Updated: Saturday, March 9, 2019

Craig Perry wrote this member post originally for the Integral Futures blog hosted by Terry Collins. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily of the APF or its members.

As a military veteran with over two decades of experience in the Intelligence Community, the single question that most concerns me about the future is whether warfare is endemic to the human condition. Throughout my course of study in the UH Foresight program, I’ve often wondered how we will fight future wars, or what might precipitate such conflicts – but I never for a moment doubted that states would continue to utilize the military instrument of their national power for the foreseeable future. Warfare has been a recurring theme of human interaction since the dawn of history, and it has only grown more violent and destructive in the modern era. The persistence of armed conflict is consistent with the “realist” theory of international relations, which holds that states will maximize power in an anarchic international system without regard to their domestic political or social dynamics.

Yet when we were asked to conduct a “mental time travel” visualization exercise a few weeks ago, I found myself imagining a distant future without warfare, where “international” disputes are routinely handled without resort to violence. At the time, I struggled to explain how such a future could come about absent some global cataclysm or extraterrestrial threat, but I didn’t have to wait long. In A Theory of Everything, Ken Wilber presents an integral vision of existence, applying an “all-quadrant, all-level” approach to individuals and collectives in both their internal and external dimensions. Building upon the Spiral Dynamics model of social change, Wilber has created a highly complex and comprehensive theory that he uses to describe and understand virtually anything, including the behavior of nation-states. As I read his book, I began to realize this might be the explanation I was looking for.

Spiral Dynamics

According to Wilber, each individual passes through discrete developmental stages, from egocentric to ethnocentric to “worldcentric” and potentially beyond, as he or she matures. These same stages or levels – identified by color-coded “memes” – can be extrapolated to the collective to explain how societies operate, and they presumably describe human development anywhere in the world at any point in history. Each society manifests its own particular distribution of developmental levels – its “memetic mix” – among its population, and whenever enough people begin to exhibit an emerging level of consciousness, society’s developmental “center of gravity” moves further up the spiral.

For example, during the Enlightenment, leading-edge philosophers embraced the “orange” meme, which over time spawned scientific breakthroughs, capitalism, the Industrial Revolution, and various political revolutions, producing a gradual shift in the collective memetic center of gravity from traditional “blue” to more modern “orange.” Something similar happened after World War II, as much of the “boomer” generation adopted the more egalitarian “green” meme, according to Wilber.

As a society’s center of gravity drifts, its members begin to see the world in different ways, and its leaders are more likely to pursue policies consistent with the predominant meme. This would presumably apply to international relations as well: states where the ethnocentric “blue” meme prevails are likely to view others as threats, while “orange” states may treat them as competitors. In the “World 1” societies of Europe, North America, and the Asia-Pacific region, where the “green” meme is becoming more pronounced, liberal democracies often take less confrontational approaches to international relations. For example, members of the European Union have abolished borders, adopted a common currency, and surrendered other aspects of their sovereignty to supranational institutions, while committing themselves to collective security – an outcome realist theory simply can’t adequately explain. Clearly, power is not the only consideration motivating these states.

The Integral Connection

If states at a particular level of development tend to behave similarly, and those at different levels behave differently, then this would suggest that the behavior of a state can change over time as its developmental center of gravity moves up or down the spiral. This does not necessarily imply an end to warfare anytime soon, however. So long as revisionist powers like Russia and China remain at the “blue” or “orange” levels of development, threatening their neighbors and flouting international norms, the United States and its allies will have no choice but to remain ready to defend themselves and their interests, with military force if necessary.

Over time, perhaps, Russian and Chinese societies may develop further, prompting these great-power rivals to change their ways – but other “blue” regional powers and “red” rogue states will likely continue to seek influence through force. Therefore, while the likelihood and severity of conflict may gradually decline in the future, warfare will not soon vanish from the international scene.

Moreover, continued development further up the spiral is not a sure thing. First of all, while more people appear to be operating nowadays at the “green” level of consciousness or higher than ever before, approximately 70 percent of the population in America and Europe remains at the “blue” level or below. This suggests that, as the leading edge of society embraces ever-higher levels, the rest of the population largely lags behind, becoming increasingly heterogeneous and complex.

Second, while leaders are more likely to operate at a higher level of consciousness than the rest of society, they cannot generally implement their visions without the buy-in of those they lead – meaning they will have to package their proposals in terms the population understands, and perhaps forego some of their more visionary ideas. Third, as such leading-edge perspectives become mainstream, then pass into the realm of tradition over time, people operating at lower levels of consciousness may begin to defend past progress against future innovation, making further development even more difficult.

From Here

Such social development is also not irreversible. On the contrary, now that modernity and postmodern egalitarianism have opened up a “Pandora’s box” of global interdependence and transnational threats, some societies seem to be regressing to previous levels of development, devolving into nationalism and protectionism and rejecting values once embraced as universal. Such lower-level memes appear to be reemerging in the US, Europe, and elsewhere, as the “establishment” – social elites, government institutions, mainstream news outlets, even civil norms of behavior – comes increasingly under attack. Such seemingly disparate phenomena as President Donald Trump, the British vote to leave the EU, even the success of Islamist political movements in the wake of the Arab Spring, all display signs of unhealthy spiral development “holons,” where the various levels remain unreconciled to each other or the world around them.

Applying Wilber’s integral vision to international relations doesn’t mean that we’re concerned only with politics, however. On the contrary, the “all-quadrant, all-level” model suggests that we should examine individual beliefs and behavior, as well as cultural and systemic phenomena. Such an approach reveals complex interactions within societies, where changes in each quadrant can influence the development of the others. For example, technological innovations such as social media have obvious implications for our culture, behavior, even the way we think about ourselves. Similarly, “progressive” political ideals, such as those enshrined in the US Constitution or the EU’s “ever closer union,” may encourage citizens to embrace the better angels of our nature, driving societies to ever-higher levels of consciousness. Conversely, countervailing influences, such as the legacy of American slavery or Russian malign influence in its “near abroad,” may retard social development.

Final Thoughts & Questions

I believe Wilber’s integral model can offer fresh insights to the field of international relations, and my preliminary analysis suggests that humanity may one day “grow out” of its tendency towards violent international conflict. If I am to more fully develop an integral theory of international relations, however, there are several questions I need to tackle:

  • Is Spiral Dynamics a universal mechanism of social change, or did other (World 2/3) societies develop differently? Have societies always developed this way?
  • What factors contribute to the movement of a society’s center of gravity up or down the development spiral? What can cause this movement to accelerate or reverse?
  • How are emerging memes propagated through society? What role do leaders play?
  • How would a second-tier (“yellow” or higher) development level manifest itself in international relations? What distinguishes this level from the “green” meme at the societal level?

Craig is also the author of a recent book, Never Leave an Airman Behind.

Tags:  security  war  warfare 

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Making Peace with Chaos

Posted By Administration, Friday, November 25, 2016
Updated: Saturday, March 9, 2019

This is a blog post from a member of the APF, Sara Robinson, originally published at Civic Hall. It provides perspective about the point in history that the USA currently finds itself after the past 12 months of divisive campaigning and the presidential election. Any political preferences expressed are not necessarily shared by the APF or its respective members, but the post has provided great discussion on the association’s listserv. Further civil discussion is encouraged in the comments. 

As a futurist, I’ve worked with William Strauss and Neil Howe’s saecular theory of history off and on through the years. They first presented their thesis of recurring historical cycles 25 years ago; and so far, this theory has managed to predict some important things well ahead of the curve. The characters and life trajectories of the Boomers, Generation X, and the Millennials. 9/11 (which they predicted in some detail in 1997). The crash of 2008 (ditto). And this [the Trump election], too, is right in line with what they anticipated.

Their basic thesis is that every 80-90 years, America simply comes apart at the seams, and is forced to radically re-create itself. The failures—of the economic order, of physical infrastructure, of the political process, of foreign policy, of basic civility—mount for a decade or so. Then, apparently all at once, things hit a catastrophic acceleration point that suddenly launches us into another decade of blindingly rapid chaotic change. When we come out of it, we are never the same country. Our entire economic basis usually shifts. Almost always, our energy, communications, and transportation regimes change, too. Old institutions fail en masse, and are replaced with a suite of new ones. There’s a lot to be said about these big historical inflection points—S&H wrote several books laying it all out—but everybody, if they live a standard lifespan, gets to see this movie once. And as of this week, it appears to be our turn.

Previous crisis eras included the Glorious Revolution of the 1680s (which was centered in England, but had huge repercussions here as well); the American Revolution of the 1770s; the Civil War era; and the Depression/WWII crisis that shaped our grandparents. We were all born and raised into the world that forged in that war: Everything from the food we eat to the houses we live in to the roads we drive on to the world political order that has kept the peace are the results of the dreams and priorities our grandparents shared in the 1940s and 50s.

But the 80-year WWII cycle has now ended. The world has changed enough now that that the old system, which gave us 50 good years before beginning its slow breakdown, no longer works for any of us. We’re children of the Information Age, which is changing the entire epistemology of society away from machine metaphors and toward cybernetic ones—a shift that will require us to re-make all of our institutions, economies, and physical infrastructure to keep up. The carbon-based energy regime of that era is killing us. The Cold War balance of powers is now obviously archaic, and the relationships that once defined it are destabilizing. I could go on, but you get the point: we are entering an acute era of all-levels-all-sectors disruption, which has been a long time in the making, and which might be viewed as a seasonal, cyclic event—a historical winter, if you will.

That’s a scary thought, but it also gives us reason to hope. First: Just knowing that earlier generations of Americans have also gone through these convulsive times, going back centuries, allows us to look back at their experiences and draw lessons from the legacies they’ve left us. Many of the basic things they did to survive then will also sustain us now. Also: It’s good to know that on balance, while the losses of those previous eras were always catastrophic, we usually came out better and stronger in the end for them (though the end of the Civil War crisis resolved badly, and it took a very long time to get back on track). What we’re going through isn’t new at all: these are the birth pangs of the better world that we’ve nurtured in our hearts for 40 years. But pulling the country through these perilous times and safely to the other side of this will demand the best of us, just as it demanded the best of those who came before us. A lot of us are already intuiting this, and feel in ourselves the rising sense of determination and purpose the moment calls for.

But the more important thing, if you buy this theory, is that you need to cut yourself some slack about the failure of your predictive skills. It’s not you. It’s the fact that the entire system as we’ve always understood it—and as our parents and grandparents understood it before us—is breaking up under our very feet. None of the old rules that governed our conception of reality up until November 8 can be assumed to be operative now. Most of what we know about the past is now utterly useless. We’ve been abruptly swept through to the other side of a huge historical gate here, and are now swirling in the very first days of the next 80 years. It will be quite a while before we understand what the new rules are, and how this saeculum will operate. In the meantime, we need to make our peace with chaos, learn something about surfing change waves gracefully even when we can’t control them, and decide for ourselves (very quickly!) what principles we choose to live for—and if called upon to do so, die for.

For now, our value as intellectuals will not be in our deep understanding of a now-dead order; but in how quickly we can divine and organize around the emerging patterns that show us how things will work now and in the future. Studying past crises is useful here, but we also need to pay careful, wide-eyed, thoughtful attention to the present, and learn whatever we can about the nature of this particular shift — what’s driving it, and where it’s taking us. The future will not be forseeable for a long while. The only ones who will have any clue at all will be the ones who are most actively creating it.

Finally: Fascism has been a common ornament of these crisis eras going back to the first proto-fascisms of the 1860s. Apocalypticism has also been a handmaiden, going back many centuries. (S&H traced this cycle all the way back to the Plantagenets.) It feels like the world is dying, because it is. A lot of people may well die with it—that usually happens, too. But the worst is usually over in a decade or so, and after that things get much better quickly.

In the meantime, we are likely to make and see more history in this coming decade than at any point in our lives, before or after. And the things we do, the people we do them with, and the courage and character we bring to these efforts will define our legacies forever. We may not know squat about what’s up ahead; but we are still among our country’s best and brightest, and they’re still going to count on people like us to think the nation through the abyss. And our keen ability to know when to reach back into the past and pull up the right pattern, and when to let go of the past and figure out the new right answer on the fly are going to be critical to getting the USA sorted out.

Tags:  chaos  peace  war 

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