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13 January 2014

Six steps to climate catastrophe

In a widely read Rolling Stone article from July 2012, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math”, Bill McKibben introduced what he called

Three simple numbers that add up to global catastrophe.

The three numbers are as follows:

  1. 2 degrees Celsius - the threshold of average global temperature rise “which scientists (and recently world leaders at the G8 summit) have agreed we must not cross, for fear of triggering climate feedbacks which, once started, will be almost impossible to stop and will drive accelerated warming out of our control”
  2. 565 Gigatons – the amount of carbon dioxide that can be added into the atmosphere by mid-century with still an 80% chance of the temperature rise staying below two degrees
  3. 2,795 Gigatons“the amount of carbon already contained in the proven coal and oil and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies, and the countries (think Venezuela or Kuwait) that act like fossil-fuel companies. In short, it’s the fossil fuel we’re currently planning to burn”.

As McKibben highlights,

The key point is that this new number – 2,795 – is higher than 565. Five times higher.

He has a vivid metaphor to drive his message home:

Think of two degrees Celsius as the legal drinking limit – equivalent to the 0.08 blood-alcohol level below which you might get away with driving home. The 565 gigatons is how many drinks you could have and still stay below that limit – the six beers, say, you might consume in an evening. And the 2,795 gigatons? That’s the three 12-packs the fossil-fuel industry has on the table, already opened and ready to pour.

We have five times as much oil and coal and gas on the books as climate scientists think is safe to burn. We’d have to keep 80 percent of those reserves locked away underground to avoid that fate. Before we knew those numbers, our fate had been likely. Now, barring some massive intervention, it seems certain.

He continues,

Yes, this coal and gas and oil is still technically in the soil. But it’s already economically above ground – it’s figured into share prices, companies are borrowing money against it, nations are basing their budgets on the presumed returns from their patrimony. It explains why the big fossil-fuel companies have fought so hard to prevent the regulation of carbon dioxide – those reserves are their primary asset, the holding that gives their companies their value. It’s why they’ve worked so hard these past years to figure out how to unlock the oil in Canada’s tar sands, or how to drill miles beneath the sea, or how to frack the Appalachians.

The burning question

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A version of Bill McKibben’s Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math essay can be found as the foreword to the recent book “The Burning Question” co-authored by Duncan Clark and Mike Berners-Lee. The subtitle of the book has a somewhat softer message than in the McKibben essay:

We can’t burn half the world’s oil, coal, and gas. So how do we quit?

But the introduction makes it clear that constraints on our use of fossil fuel reserves will need to go deeper than “one half”:

Avoiding unacceptable risks of catastrophic climate change means burning less than half of the oil, coal, and gas in currently commercial reserves – and a much smaller fraction of all the fossil fuels under the ground…

Notoriously, climate change is a subject that is embroiled in controversy and intemperance. The New York Times carried an opinion piece, “We’re All Climate-Change Idiots” containing this assessment from Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication:

You almost couldn’t design a problem that is a worse fit with our underlying psychology.

However, my assessment of the book “The burning question” by Berners-Lee and Clark is that it is admirably objective and clear. That impression was reinforced when I saw Duncan Clark speak about the contents of the book at London’s RSA a couple of months ago. On that occasion, the meeting was constrained to less than an hour, for both presentation and audience Q&A. It was clear that the speaker had a lot more that he could have said.

I was therefore delighted when he agreed to speak on the same topic at a forthcoming London Futurists event, happening in Birkbeck College from 6.15pm to 8.30pm on Saturday 18th January. You can find more details of the London Futurists event here. Following our normal format, we’ll have a full two hours of careful examination of the overall field.

Six steps to climate catastrophe

One way to examine the risks of climate catastrophe induced by human activity is to consider the following six-step chain of cause and effect:

  1. Population – the number of people on the earth
  2. Affluence – the average wealth of people on the earth
  3. Energy intensity – the average amount of energy used to create a unit of wealth
  4. Carbon intensity – the average carbon emissions caused by each unit of energy
  5. Temperature impact – the average increase of global temperature caused by carbon emissions
  6. Global impact – the broader impact on life on earth caused by increased average temperature.

Six steps

As Berners-Lee and Clark discuss in their book, there’s scope to debate, and/or to alter, each of these causal links. Various commentators recommend:

  • A reduction in the overall human population
  • Combatting society’s deep-seated imperatives to pursue economic growth
  • Achieving greater affluence with less energy input
  • Switching to energy sources (such as “renewables”) with reduced carbon emissions
  • Seeing (or engineering) different causes that complicate the relation between carbon emissions and temperature rises
  • Seeing (or engineering) beneficial aspects to global increases in temperature, rather than adverse ones.

What they point out, however, is that despite significant progress to reduce energy intensity and carbon intensity, the other factors seem to be increasing out of control, and dominate the overall equation. Specifically, affluence shows no signs of decreasing, especially when the aspirations of huge numbers of people in emerging economies are taken into consideration.

I see this as an argument to accelerate work on technical solutions – further work to reduce the energy intensity and carbon intensity factors. I also see it as an argument to rapidly pursue investigations of what Berners-Lee and Clark call “Plan B”, namely various forms of geoengineering. This extends beyond straightforward methods for carbon capture and storage, and includes possibilities such as

  • Trying to use the oceans to take more carbon dioxide out of the air and store it in an inert form
  • Screen some of the incoming heat from the sun, by, for example, creating more clouds, or injecting aerosols into the upper atmosphere.

But Berners-Lee and Clark remain apprehensive about one overriding factor. This is the one described earlier: the fact that so much investment is tied up in the share-prices of oil companies that assume that huge amounts within the known reserves of fossil fuels will all be burnt, relatively soon. Providing better technical fixes will, they argue, be insufficient to prevent the ongoing juggernaut steamroller of conversion from fossil fuels into huge cash profits for industry – a juggernaut with the side-effect of accumulated carbon emissions that increase the risk of horrendous climate consequences.

For this reason, they see the need for concerted global action to ensure that the prices being paid for the acquisition and/or consumption of fossil fuels fully take into account the downside costs to the global environment. This will be far from easy to achieve, but the book highlights some practical steps forwards.

Waking up

The first step – as so often, in order to succeed in a complex change project – is to engender a sustained sense of urgency. Politicians won’t take action unless there is strong public pressure for action. This public pressure won’t exist whilst people remain in a state of confusion, disinterest, dejection, and/or helplessness. Here’s an extract from near the end of their book:

It’s crucial that more people hear the simple facts loud and clear: that climate change presents huge risks, that our efforts to solve it so far haven’t worked, and that there’s a moral imperative to constrain unabated fossil fuel use on behalf of current and especially future generations.

It’s often assumed that the world isn’t ready for this kind of message – that it’s too negative or scary or confrontational. But reality needs facing head on – and anyhow the truth may be more interesting and inspiring than the watered down version.

I expect many readers of this blogpost to have questions in their mind – or possibly objections (rather than just questions) – regarding at least some of what’s written above. This topic deserves a 200 page book rather than just a short blogpost.

Rather than just urging people to read the book in question, I have set up the London Futurists event previously mentioned. I am anticipating robust but respectful in-depth discussion.

Beyond technology

One possible response is that the acceleration of technological solutions will deliver sufficient solutions (e.g. reducing energy intensity and carbon intensity) long before we need to worry about the climate reaching any tipping point. Solar energy may play a decisive role – possibly along with new generations of nuclear power technology.

That may turn out to be true. But my own engineering experience with developing complex technological solutions is that the timetable is rarely something that anyone can be confident about in advance. So yes, we need to accelerate the technology solutions. But equally, as an insurance policy, we need to take actions that will buy ourselves more time, in order for these technological solutions to come to full fruition. This insurance policy inevitably involves the messy worlds of politics and economics, alongside the developments that happen in the technological arena.

This last message comes across uncomfortably to people who dislike any idea of global coordinated action in politics or economics. People who believe in “small government” and “markets as free as possible” don’t like to contemplate global scale political or economic action. That is, no doubt, another reason why the analysis of global warming and climate change is such a contentious issue.

5 January 2014

Convictions and actions, 2014 and beyond

In place of new year’s resolutions, I offer five convictions for the future:

First, a conviction of profoundly positive near-term technological possibility. Within a generation – within 20 to 40 years – we could all be living with greatly improved health, intelligence, longevity, vigour, experiences, general well-being, personal autonomy, and social cohesion. The primary driver for this possibility is the acceleration of technological improvement.

In more detail:

  • Over the next decade – by 2025 – there are strong possibilities for numerous breakthroughs in fields such as 3D printing, wearable computing (e.g. Google Glass), synthetic organs, stem cell therapies, brain scanning, smart drugs that enhance consciousness, quantum computing, solar energy, carbon capture and storage, nanomaterials with super-strength and resilience, artificial meat, improved nutrition, rejuvenation biotech, driverless cars, robot automation, AI and Big Data transforming healthcare, improved collaborative decision-making, improved cryonic suspension of people who are biologically dead, and virtual companions (AIs and robots).
  • And going beyond that date towards mid-century, I envision seven “super” trends enabled by technology: trends towards super-materials (the fulfilment of the vision of nanotechnology), super-energy (the vision of abundance), super-health and super-longevity (extension of rejuvenation biotech), super-AI, super-consciousness, and super-connectivity.

Second, however, that greatly improved future state of humanity will require the deep application of many other skills, beyond raw technology, in order to bring it into reality. It will require lots of attention to matters of design, psychology, sociology, economics, philosophy, and politics.

Indeed, without profound attention to human and social matters, over the next 10-20 years, there’s a very real possibility that global society may tear itself apart, under mounting pressures. In the process, this fracturing and conflict could, among lots of other tragic consequences, horribly damage the societal engines for technological progress that are needed to take us forward to the positive future described above. It would bring about new dark ages.

Third, society needs a better calibre of thinking about the future.

Influential figures in politics, the media, academia, and religious movements all too often seem to have a very blinkered view about future possibilities. Or they latch on to just one particular imagining of the future, and treat it as inevitable, losing sight of the wider picture of uncertainties and potentialities.

So that humanity can reach its true potential, in the midst of the likely chaos of the next few decades, politicians and other global leaders need to be focusing on the momentous potential forthcoming transformation of the human condition, rather than the parochial, divisive, and near-term issues that seem to occupy most of their thinking at present.

Fourth, there are plenty of grounds for hope for better thinking about the future. In the midst of the global cacophony of mediocrity and distractedness, there are many voices of insight, vision, and determination. Gradually, a serious study of disruptive future scenarios is emerging. We should all do what we can to accelerate this emergence.

In our study of these disruptive future scenarios, we need to collectively accelerate the process of separating out

  • reality from hype,
  • science fact from science fiction,
  • credible scenarios from wishful thinking,
  • beneficial positive evolution from Hollywood dystopia,
  • human needs from the needs of businesses, corporations, or governments.

Futurism – the serious analysis of future possibilities – isn’t a fixed field. Just as technology improves by a virtuous cycle of feedback involving many participants, who collectively find out which engineering solutions work best for particular product requirements, futurism can improve by a virtuous cycle of feedback involving many participants – both “amateur” and “professional” futurists.

The ongoing process of technological convergence actually makes predictions harder, rather than easier. Small perturbations in one field can have big consequences in adjacent fields. It’s the butterfly effect. What’s more important than specific, fixed predictions is to highlight scenarios that are plausible, explaining why they are plausible, and then to generate debate on the desirability of these scenarios, and on how to enable and accelerate the desirable outcomes.

To help in this, it’s important to be aware of past and present examples of how technology impacts human experience. We need to be able to appreciate the details, and then to try to step back to understand the underlying principles.

Fifth, this is no mere armchair discussion. It’s not an idle speculation. The stakes are really high – and include whether we and our loved ones can be alive, in a state of great health and vitality, in the middle of this century, or whether we will likely have succumbed to decay, disease, division, destruction – and perhaps death.

We can, and should, all make a difference to this outcome. You can make a difference. I can make a difference.

Actions

In line with the above five convictions, I’m working on three large projects over the next six months:

Let me briefly comment on each of these projects.

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Forthcoming London Futurists event: The Burning Question

The first “real-world” London Futurists meetup in 2014, on Saturday 18th January, is an in-depth analysis of what some people have described as the most complex and threatening issue of the next 10-30 years: accelerated global warming.

Personally I believe, in line with the convictions I listed above, that technology can provide the means to dissolve the threats of accelerated global warming. Carbon capture and storage, along with solar energy, could provide the core of the solution. But these solutions will take time, and we need to take some interim action sooner.

As described by the speaker for the event, writer and consulting editor Duncan Clark,

Tackling global warming will mean persuading the world to abandon oil, coal and gas reserves worth many trillions of dollars – at least until we have the means to put carbon back in the ground. The burning question is whether that can be done. What mix of technology, politics, psychology, and economics might be required? Why aren’t clean energy sources slowing the rate of fossil fuel extraction? Are the energy companies massively overvalued, and how will carbon-cuts affect the global economy? Will we wake up to the threat in time? And who can do what to make it all happen?

For more details and to RSVP, click here.

Note that, due to constraints on the speaker’s time, this event is happening on Saturday evening, rather than in the afternoon.

RSVPs so far are on the light side for this event, but now that the year-end break is behind us, I expect them to ramp up – in view of the extreme importance of this debate.

Forthcoming London Futurists Hangout On Air, with Ramez Naam

One week from today, on the evening of Sunday 12th January, we have our “Hangout on Air” online panel discussion, “Ramez Naam discusses Nexus, Crux, and The Infinite Resource”.

For more details, click here.

Here’s an extract of the event description:

Ramez Naam is arguably one of today’s most interesting and important writers on futurist topics, including both non-fiction and fiction.

  • For example, praise for his Nexus – Mankind gets an upgrade includes:
  • “A superbly plotted high tension technothriller… full of delicious moral ambiguity… a hell of a read.” – Cory Doctorow, Boing Boing
  • “A sharp, chilling look at our likely future.” - Charles Stross
  • “A lightning bolt of a novel. A sense of awe missing from a lot of current fiction.” - Ars Technica.

This London Futurists Hangout on Air will feature a live discussion between Ramez Naam and an international panel of leading futurists: Randal KoeneMichell Zappa, and Giulio Prisco. 

The discussion aims to cover:

  • The science behind the fiction: which elements are strongly grounded in current research, and which elements are more speculative?
  • The philosophy behind the fiction: how should people be responding to the deeply challenging questions that are raised by new technology?
  • Finding a clear path through what has been described as “the best of times and the worst of times” – is human innovation sufficient?
  • What lies next – new books in context.

I’ll add one comment to this description. Over the past week or so, I took the time to listen again to Ramez’s book “Nexus”, and I’m also well through the follow-up, “Crux”. I’m listening to them as audio books, obtained from Audible. Both books are truly engrossing, with a rich array of nuanced characters who undergo several changes in their personal philosophies as events unfold. It also helps that, in each case, the narrators of the audio books are first class.

Another reason I like these books so much is because they’re not afraid to look hard at both good outcomes and bad outcomes of disruptive technological possibility. I unconditionally recommend both books. (With the proviso that they contain some racy, adult material, and therefore may not be suitable for everyone.)

Forthcoming London Futurists Hangout On Air, AI and the end of the human era

I’ll squeeze in mention of one more forthcoming Hangout On Air, happening on Sunday 26th January.

The details are here. An extract follows:

The Hollywood cliché is that artificial intelligence will take over the world. Could this cliché soon become scientific reality, as AI matches then surpasses human intelligence?

Each year AI’s cognitive speed and power doubles; ours does not. Corporations and government agencies are pouring billions into achieving AI’s Holy Grail — human-level intelligence. Scientists argue that AI that advanced will have survival drives much like our own. Can we share the planet with it and survive?

The recently published book Our Final Invention explores how the pursuit of Artificial Intelligence challenges our existence with machines that won’t love us or hate us, but whose indifference could spell our doom. Until now, intelligence has been constrained by the physical limits of its human hosts. What will happen when the brakes come off the most powerful force in the universe?

This London Futurists Hangout on Air will feature a live discussion between the author of Our Final InventionJames Barrat, and an international panel of leading futurists: Jaan TallinnWilliam HertlingCalum Chace, and Peter Rothman.

The main panellist on this occasion, James Barrat, isn’t the only distinguished author on the panel. Calum Chace‘s book “Pandora’s Brain”, which I’ve had the pleasure to read ahead of publication, should go on sale some time later this year. William Hertling is the author of a trilogy of novels

  • Avogadro Corp: The Singularity Is Closer Than It Appears,
  • A.I. Apocalypse,
  • The Last Firewall.

The company Avogadro Corp that features in this trilogy has, let’s say, some features in common with another company named after a large number, i.e. Google. I found all three novels to be easy to read, as well as thought-provoking. Without giving away plot secrets, I can say that the books feature more than one potential route for smarter-than-human general purpose AI to emerge. I recommend them. Start with the first, and see how you get on.

Anticipating 2025

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The near future deserves more of our attention.

A good way to find out about the Anticipating 2025 event is to look at the growing set of “Speaker preview” videos that are available at http://anticipating2025.com/previews/.

You’ll notice that at least some of these videos have captions available, to help people to catch everything the speakers say.

These captions have been produced by a combination of AI and human intelligence:

  • Google provides automatically generated transcripts, from its speech recognition engine, for videos uploaded to YouTube
  • A team of human volunteers works through these transcripts, cleaning them up, before they are published.

My thanks go to everyone involved so far in filming and transcribing the speakers.

Registration for this conference requires payment at time of registration. There are currently nearly 50 people registered, which is a good start (with more than two months to go) towards filling the venue’s capacity of 220.

Early bird registration, for both days, is pegged at £40. I’ll keep early bird registration open until the first 100 tickets have been sold. Afterwards, the price will increase to £50.

Smartphones and beyond

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Here’s a brief introduction to this book:

The smartphone industry has seen both remarkable successes and remarkable failures over the last two decades. Developments have frequently confounded the predictions of apparent expert observers. What does this rich history have to teach analysts, researchers, technology enthusiasts, and activists for other forms of technology adoption and social improvement?

As most regular readers of this blog know, I’ve worked in mobile computing for 25 years. That includes PDAs (personal digital assistants) and smartphones. In these fields, I’ve seen numerous examples of mobile computing becoming more powerful, more useful, and more invisible – becoming a fundamental part of the fabric of society. Smartphone technology which was at one time expected to be used by only a small proportion of the population – the very geeky or the very rich – is now in regular use by over 50% of the population in many countries in the world.

As I saw more and more fields of human interest on the point of being radically transformed by mobile computing and smartphone technology, the question arose in my mind: what’s next? Which other fields of human experience will be transformed by smartphone technology, as it becomes still smaller, more reliable, more affordable, and more powerful? And what about impacts of other kinds of technology?

Taking this one step further: can the processes which have transformed ordinary phones into first smartphones and then superphones be applied, more generally, to transform “ordinary humans” (humans 1.0, if you like), via smart humans or trans humans, into super humans or post humans?

These are the questions which have motivated me to write this book. You can read a longer introduction here.

I’m currently circulating copies of the first twenty chapters for pre-publication review. The chapters available are listed here, with links to the opening paragraphs in each case, and there’s a detailed table of contents here.

As described in the “Downloads” page of the book’s website, please let me know if there are any chapters you’d particularly like to review.

22 December 2013

A muscular new kid on the block

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man. – George Bernard Shaw, “Man and Superman”, 1903

How far should we go, to be the best that we can be? If personal greatness lies at the other side of an intense effort, should we strain every muscle, muster every personal resource, and vigorously push away every distraction, in order to seize that crown?

For example, should we accept the “Transhumanist Wager”, as dramatically portrayed in the trenchant new novel of the same name by former world-traveller and award-winning National Geographic journalist Zoltan Istvan?

The-Transhumanist-Wager-e1368458616371The book, which hit the #1 best-seller spot in Amazon a few months back (in both Philosophy and Science Fiction Visionary and Metaphysical), is a vivid call to action. It’s a call for people around the world to waken up to the imminent potential for a radical improvement in the human condition. The improvement can be earned by harnessing and accelerating ongoing developments in medicine, engineering, and technology.

However, in the nightmare near-future world portrayed in the novel, that improvement will require an intense effort, since the seats of global power are resolutely opposed to any potential for dramatic, human-driven improvement.

For example, under the influence of what the novel calls “a rogue group of right-wing politicians – those who considered Sunday church a central part of their existence”, the US government passes sweeping laws forbidding experimentation in stem cell therapies, genetic reprogramming, human enhancement, and life-extension. Istvan puts into the mouth of the President of the United States the soporific remarks, “Good old-fashioned, basic health, that’s what the people really want”.

That ambition sounds… reasonable, yet it falls far, far short of the potential envisioned by the hero of the novel, Jethro Knights. He has much bigger sights: “My words define a coming new species”.

Anyone reading “The Transhumanist Wager” is likely to have strong reactions on encountering Jethro Knights. Knights may become one of the grand characters of modern fiction. He challenges each of us to rethink how far each of us would be prepared to go, to become the best that we can be. Knights brazenly talks about himself as an “omnipotender”: “an unyielding individual whose central aim is to contend for as much power and advancement as he could achieve, and whose immediate goal is to transcend his human biological limitations in order to reach a permanent sentience”. Throughout the novel, his actions match his muscular philosophy. I read it with a growing mix of horror and, yes, admiration.

The word “wager” in the book’s title recalls the infamous “Pascal’s Wager”. French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal argued in the 17th century that since there was a possibility that God existed, with the power to bestow on believers “an infinitely happy life”, we should take steps to acquire the habit of Christian belief: the potential upsides far outweigh any downsides. Belief in God, according to Pascal, was a wager worth taking. However, critics have long observed that there are many “possible” Gods, each of whom seems to demand different actions as indicators of our faith; the wager alone is no guide as to the steps that should be taken to increase the chance of “an infinitely happy life”.

The transhumanist wager observes, analogously, that there is a possibility that in the not-too-distant future, science and technology will have the ability to bestow on people, if not an “infinitely happy” life, a lifestyle that is hugely expanded and enhanced compared to today’s. Jethro Knights expounds the consequence:

The wager… states that if you love life, you will safeguard that life, and strive to extend and improve it for as long as possible. Anything else you do while alive, any other opinion you have, any other choice you make to not safeguard, extend, and improve that life, is a betrayal of that life…

This is a historic choice that each man and woman on the planet must make. The choice shall determine the rest of your life and the course of civilisation.

Knights is quite the orator – and quite a fighter, too. As the novel proceeds to its climactic conclusion, Knights assembles like-minded scientists and engineers who create a formidable arsenal of remote-controlled weaponry – robots that can use state-of-the-art artificial intelligence to devastating effect. The military stance is needed, in response to the armed forces which the world’s governments are threatening to deploy against the maverick new entity of “Transhumania” – a newly built seasteading nation of transhumanists – which Knights now leads.

It is no surprise that critics of the book have compared Jethro Knights to Joseph Stalin. These criticisms come from within the real-world transhumanist community that Istvan might have counted to rally around the book’s call to action. Perhaps these potential allies were irritated by the description of mainstream transhumanists that appears in the pages of the book: “an undersized group of soft-spoken individuals, mostly aged nerds trying to gently reshape their world… their chivalry and sense of embedded social decency was their downfall”.

I see four possible objections to the wager that lies at the heart of this novel – and to any similar single-minded undertaking to commit whole-heartedly to a methodology of personal transcendence:

  1. First, by misguidedly pursing “greatness”, we might lose grasp of the “goodness” we already possess, and end up in a much worse place than before.
  2. Second, instead of just thinking about our own personal advancement, we have important obligations to our families, loved ones, and our broader social communities.
  3. Third, by being overly strident, we may antagonise people and organisations who could otherwise be our allies.
  4. Fourth, we may be wrong in our analysis of the possibility for future transcendence; for example, faith in science and technology may be misplaced.

Knights confronts each of these objections, amidst the drama to establish Transhumania as his preferred vehicle to human transcendence. Along the way, the novel features other richly exaggerated larger-than-life characters embodying key human concerns – love, spirituality, religion, and politics – who act as counters to Knights’ own headstrong ambitions. Zoe Bach, the mystically inclined physician who keeps spirituality on the agenda, surely speaks for many readers when she tells Knights she understands his logic but sees his methods as not being realistic – and as “not feeling right”.

The book has elements that highlight an uplifting vision for what science and technology can achieve, freed from the meddling interference of those who complain that “humans shouldn’t play at being God”. But it also serves as an awful warning for what might ensue if forces of religious fundamentalism and bio-conservatism become increasingly antagonised, rather than inspired, by the transformational potential of that science and technology.

My takeaway from the book, therefore, is to work harder at building bridges, rather than burning them. We will surely need these bridges in the troubled times that lie ahead. That is my own “transhumanist wager”.

Postscripts

1.) A version of the above essay currently features on the front-page of the online Psychology Today magazine.

DW on front cover2.) If you can be in San Francisco on 1st February, you can see Zoltan Istvan, the author of the Transhumanist Wager, speaking the conference “Transhuman Visions” organised by Brighter Brains:

Transhuman-Visions2-791x10243.) I recently chaired a London Futurists Hangout On Air discussion on The Transhumanist Wager. The panelists, in addition to Zoltan Istvan, were Giulio PriscoRick Searle, and Chris T. Armstrong. You can view the recording of the discussion below. But to avoid spoiling your enjoyment of the book, you might prefer to read the book before you delve into the discussion.

20 December 2013

Kick-starting the future – less than 24 hours to go

Filed under: Anticipating 2025, collaboration, communications, futurist — David Wood @ 10:18 am

By chance, two really interesting projects both seeking support on the crowd-funding site Kick Starter are coming to their conclusions in the next 24 hours.

They’re both well worth a look.

shift2020-book-cover

shift 2020 is a collaborative book about how technology will impact our future. The book is curated by Rudy De Waele and designed by Louise Campbell.

As Rudy explains,

The idea of shift 2020 is based upon Mobile Trends 2020, a collaborative project I launched early 2010. It’s one of the highest viewed decks on Slideshare (in the Top 50 of All Time in Technology / +320k views). Reviewing the document a couple of weeks ago, I realised the future is catching up on us much faster than many of the predictions that were made. I thought it was time to ask the original contributors for an update on their original predictions and new foresights for the year 2020.

The list of authors is extensive. I would copy out all the names here, but urge you to click on the links to see the full list.

My own set of five predictions from early 2010 that I submitted  to Rudy’s earlier project Mobile Trends 2020 seems to be holding up well for fulfilment by 2020 (if not sooner). See slide 36 of the 2010 presentation:

  1. Mobiles manifesting AI – fulfilling, at last, the vision of “personal digital assistants”
  2. Powerful, easily wearable head-mounted accessories: audio, visual, and more
  3. Mobiles as gateways into vivid virtual reality – present-day AR is just the beginning
  4. Mobiles monitoring personal health – the second brains of our personal networks
  5. Mobiles as universal remote controls for life – a conductor’s baton as much as a viewing portal.

5 predictions for 2010

I’ve added some extra content for shift 2020, but that’s embargoed for now!

People who give financial support via Kick Starter to shift 2020 have lots of options to consider. For example, a pledge of £13 will deliver you the following:

NO FRILLS PAPERBACK (UK SHIPPING).
shift 2020 Black and white printing on cream-coloured paper with a full-colour soft cover (5×8 in 13×20 cm) + 80 pages specially designed for business travellers, printed by blurb.com. Shipping costs included.

Estimated delivery: Jan 2014; Ships within the UK only

And £60 will deliver this:

PERSONAL NAME IN THE BOOK (PRINT VERSION).
shift 2020 shift 2020 nicely designed quality Hardcover, ImageWrap Standard Landscape 10×8 (25×20 cm) +80 pages Photo Book printed by blurb.com on Premium Semi Matt Paper, including a mention of your (personal) name in the acknowledgements page.

Estimated delivery: Jan 2014
Add £5 to ship outside the UK

Whereas shift 2020 seeks funding to support book publication, PostHuman seeks funding to support a series of videos about transhumanism.

The three supersThe “BIOPS” team behind this campaign have already created one first class video:

The first video by the British Institute of Posthuman Studies (BIOPS), entitled “PostHuman: An Introduction To Transhumanism”, investigates three dominant areas of transhumanist thought: super longevity, super intelligence and super wellbeing. It covers the ideas of Aubrey de Grey, Ray Kurzweil and David Pearce.

I’ll let the BIOPS team tell their story:

Writers Marco Vega and Peter Brietbart (that’s us!) have shared a passion for philosophy since we first met at Sussex University five years ago. Over time, we became frustrated with the classical, removed armchair philosophy, and began to look for philosophically sophisticated ideas with real human impact. Transhumanism stood out as a practical, far-seeing, radical and urgent field, informed by science and guided by moral philosophy.

We soon realised that our philosophy buddies and lecturers had barely heard of it, though the ideas involved were exciting and familiar. The problem for us is that even though transhumanism is incredibly relevant, it’s practically invisible in mainstream thought.

Influenced by YouTubers like QualiaSoup3vid3nc3CGPGreyRSA Animate,TheraminTreesVsauceCrashCourse and many more, we saw that complex ideas can be made accessible, entertaining and educational.

Our dream is to make this project – the culmination of five years of thought, reflection and research – a reality.

We’ve just released the first video - PostHuman: An Introduction to Transhumanism. We made it over the course of a year, in volunteered time, paid with favours and fuelled by enthusiasm. Now we need your help to keep going…

In the year 2014, we want to write, produce and release at least 6 more fully animated episodes. We’ll investigate a range of different transhumanist themes, consider their arguments in favour, highlight our greatest worries, and articulate what we perceive to be the most significant implications for humanity.

We’re worried that such critical topics and concepts are not getting the coverage they need. Our aim for the video series is to bring awareness to the most important conversation humanity needs to be having, and to do it in a way that’s accessible, balanced and educational.

In addition to animating the ideas and concepts, we also want to seek out and challenge influential transhumanist thinkers. We’ll record the interviews, and include the highlights at the end of the videos.

We’re looking to raise £65,000 to allow the production crew to make this happen.

I’m delighted that Marco Vega and Peter Brietbart of BIOPS will be among the speakers at the Anticipating 2025 event I’m holding at Birkbeck College on 22-23 March:

I wish both shift 2020 and PostHuman the best of luck with their fundraising and delivery!

30 September 2013

Questions about Hangouts on Air

Filed under: collaboration, Google, Hangout On Air, intelligence — David Wood @ 11:05 pm

HOA CaptureI’m still learning about how to get the best results from Google Hangouts On Air – events that are broadcast live over the Internet.

On Sunday, I hosted a Hangout On Air which ran pretty well. However, several features of the experience were disappointing.

Here, I’m setting aside questions about what the panellists said. It was a fascinating discussion, but in this blogpost, I want to ask some questions, instead, about the technology involved in creating and broadcasting the Hangout On Air. That was the disappointing part.

If anyone reading this can answer my questions, I’ll be most grateful.

If you take a quick look at the beginning of the YouTube video of the broadcast, you’ll immediately see the first problem I experienced:

The problem was that the video uplink from my own laptop didn’t get included in the event. Instead of what I thought I was contributing to the event, the event just showed my G+ avatar (a static picture of my face). That was in contrast to situation for the other four participants.

When I looked at the Hangout On Air window on my laptop as I was hosting the call, it showed me a stream of images recorded by my webcam. It also showed, at other times, slides which I was briefly presenting. That’s what I saw, but no-one else saw it. None of these displays made it into the broadcast version.

Happily, the audio feed from my laptop did reach the broadcast version. But not the video.

As it happens, I think that particular problem was “just one of those things”, which happen rarely, and in circumstances that are difficult to reproduce. I doubt this problem will recur in this way, the next time I do such an event. I believe that the software system on my laptop simply got itself into a muddle. I saw other evidence for the software being in difficulty:

  • As the event was taking place, I got notifications that people had added me to their G+ circles. But when I clicked on these notifications, to consider reciprocally adding these people into my own circles, I got an error message, saying something like “Cannot retrieve circle status info at this time”
  • After the event had finished, I tried to reboot my laptop. The shutdown hung, twice. First, it hung with a most unusual message, “Waiting for explorer.exe – playing logoff sound”. Second, after I accepted the suggestion from the shutdown dialog to close down that app regardless, the laptop hung indefinitely in the final “shutting down” display. In the end, I pressed the hardware reset button.

That muddle shouldn’t have arisen, especially as I had taken the precaution of rebooting my laptop some 30 minutes before the event was due to start. But it did. However, what made things worse is that I only became aware of this issue once the Hangout had already started its broadcast phase.

At that time, the other panellists told me they couldn’t see any live video from my laptop. I tried various quick fixes (e.g. switching my webcam off and on), but to no avail. I also wondered whether I was suffering from a local bandwidth restriction, but I had reset my broadband router 30 minutes before the call started, and I was the only person in my house at that time.

Exit the hangout and re-enter it, was the next suggestion offered to me. Maybe that will fix things.

But this is where I see a deeper issue with the way Hangouts On Air presently work.

From my experience (though I’ll be delighted if people can tell me otherwise), when the person who started the Hangout On Air exits the event, the whole event shuts down. It’s therefore different from if any of the other panellists exits and rejoins. The other panellists can exit and rejoin without terminating the event. Not so for the host.

By the time I found out about the video uplink problem, I had already published the URL of where the YouTube of the Hangout would be broadcast. After starting the Hangout On Air (but before discovering the problem with my video feed), I had copied this URL to quite a few different places on social media – Meetup.com, Facebook, etc. I knew that people were already watching the event. If I exited the Hangout, to see if that would get the video uplink working again, we would have had to start a new Hangout, which would have had a different YouTube URL. I would have had to manually update all these social networking pages.

I can imagine two possible solutions to this – but I don’t think either are available yet, right?

  1. There may be a mechanism for the host to leave the Hangout On Air, without that Hangout terminating
  2. There may be a mechanism for something like a URL redirector to work, even for a second Hangout instance, which replaces a previous instance. The same URL would work for two different Hangouts.

Incidentally, in terms of URLs for the Hangout, note that there are at least three different such URLs:

  1. The URL of the “inside” of the Hangout, which the host can share with panellists to allow them to join it
  2. The URL of the Google+ window where the Hangout broadcast runs
  3. The URL of the YouTube window where the Hangout broadcast runs.

As far as I know, all three URLs change when a Hangout is terminated and restarted. What’s more, #1 and #3 are created when the Hangout starts, even before it switches into Broadcast mode, whereas #2 is only available when the host presses the “Start broadcasting” button.

In short, it’s a pretty complicated state of affairs. I presume that Google are hard at work to simplify matters…

To look on the positive side, one outcome that I feared (as I mentioned previously) didn’t come to pass. That outcome was my laptop over-heating. Instead, according to the CPU temperature monitor widget that I run on my laptop, the temperature remained comfortable throughout (reaching the 70s Centigrade, but staying well short of the 100 degree value which triggers an instant shutdown). I imagine that, because no video uplink was taking place, there was no strong CPU load on my laptop. I’ll have to wait to see what happens next time.

After all, over-heating is another example of something that might cause a Hangout host to want to temporarily exit the Hangout, without bringing the whole event to a premature end. There are surely other examples as well.

27 September 2013

Technology for improved collaborative intelligence

Filed under: collaboration, Hangout On Air, intelligence, Symbian — David Wood @ 1:02 pm

Interested in experiences in using Google Hangout On Air, as a tool to improve collaborative intelligence? Read on.

Google’s Page Rank algorithm. The Wikipedia editing process. Ranking of reviewers on Amazon.com. These are all examples of technology helping to elevate useful information above the cacophony of background noise.

To be clear, in such examples, insight doesn’t just come from technology. It comes from a combination of good tools plus good human judgement – aided by processes that typically evolve over several iterations.

For London Futurists, I’m keen to take advantage of technology to accelerate the analysis of radical scenarios for the next 3-40 years. One issue is that the general field of futurism has its own fair share of background noise:

  • Articles that are full of hype or sensationalism
  • Articles motivated by commercial concerns, with questionable factual accuracy
  • Articles intended for entertainment purposes, but which end up overly influencing what people think.

Lots of people like to ramp up the gas while talking about  the future, but that doesn’t mean they know what they’re talking about.

I’ve generally been pleased with the quality of discussion in London Futurists real-life meetings, held (for example) in Birkbeck College, Central London. The speaker contributions in these meetings are important, but the audience members collectively raise a lot of good points too. I do my best to ‘referee’ the discussions, in a way that a range of opinions have a chance to be aired. But there have been three main limitations with these meetups:

  1. Meetings often come to an end well before we’ve got to the bottom of some of the key lines of discussion
  2. The insights from individual meetings can sometimes fail to be taken forward into subsequent meetings – where the audience members are different
  3. Attendance is limited to people who live near to London, and who have no other commitments when the meetup is taking place.

These limitations won’t disappear overnight, but I have plans to address them in stages.

I’ve explained some of my plans in the following video, which is also available at http://londonfuturists.com/2013/08/30/introducing-london-futurists-academy/.

As the video says, I want to be able to take advantage of the same kind of positive feedback cycles that have accelerated the progress of technology, in order to accelerate in a similar way the generation of reliable insight about the future.

As a practical step, I’m increasingly experimenting with Google Hangouts, as a way to:

  • Involve a wider audience in our discussions
  • Preserve an online record of the discussions
  • Find out, in real-time, which questions the audience collectively believes should be injected into a conversation.

In case it helps others who are also considering the usage of Google Hangouts, here’s what I’ve found out so far.

The Hangouts are a multi-person video conference call. Participants have to log in via one of their Google accounts. They also have to download an app, inside Google Plus, before they can take part in the Hangout. Google Plus will prompt them to download the app.

The Hangout system comes with its own set of plug-in apps. For example, participants can share their screens, which is a handy way of showing some PowerPoint slides that back up a point you are making.

By default, the maximum number of attendees is 10. However, if the person who starts the Hangout has a corporate account with Google (as I have, for my company Delta Wisdom), that number can increase to 15.

For London Futurists meetings, instead of a standard “Hangout”, I’m using “Hangouts On Air” (sometime abbreviated as ‘HOA’). These are started from within their own section of the Google Plus page:

  • The person starting the call (the “moderator”) creates the session in a “pre-broadcast” state, in which he/she can invite a number of participants
  • At this stage, the URL is generated, for where the Hangout can be viewed on YouTube; this vital piece of information can be published on social networking sites
  • The moderator can also take some other pre-broadcast steps, such as enabling the “Questions” app (further mentioned below)
  • When everyone is ready, the moderator presses the big red “Start broadcast” button
  • A wide audience is now able to watch the panellists discussion via the YouTube URL, or on the Google Plus page of the moderator.

For example, there will be a London Futurists HOA this Sunday, starting 7pm UK time. There will be four panellists, plus me. The subject is “Projects to accelerate radical healthy longevity”. The details are here. The event will be visible on my own Google Plus page, https://plus.google.com/104281987519632639471/posts. Note that viewers don’t need to be included in any of the Circles of the moderator.

As the HOA proceeds, viewers typically see the current speaker at the top of the screen, along with the other panellists in smaller windows below. The moderator has the option to temporarily “lock” one of the participants into the top area, so that their screen has prominence at that time, even though other panellists might be speaking.

It’s good practice for panellists to mute their microphones when they’re not speaking. That kind of thing is useful for the panellists to rehearse with the moderator before the call itself (perhaps in a brief preview call several days earlier), in order to debug connectivity issues, the installation of apps, camera positioning, lighting, and so forth. Incidentally, it’s best if there’s a source of lighting in front of the speaker, rather than behind.

How does the audience get to interact with the panellists in real-time? Here’s where things become interesting.

First, anyone watching via YouTube can place text comments under the YouTube window. These comments are visible to the panellists:

  • Either by keeping an eye on the same YouTube window
  • Or, simpler, within the “Comment Tracker” tab of the “Hangout Toolbox” app that is available inside the Hangout window.

However, people viewing the HOA via Google Plus have a different option. Provided the moderator has enabled this feature before the start of the broadcast, viewers will see a big button inviting them to ask a question, in a text box. They will also be able to view the questions that other viewers have submitted, and to give a ‘+1′ thumbs up endorsement.

In real-time, the panellists can see this list of questions appear on their screens, inside the Hangout window, along with an indication of how many ‘+1′ votes they have received. Ideally, this will help the moderator to pick the best question for the panel to address next. It’s a small step in the direction of greater collaborative intelligence.

At time of writing, I don’t think there’s an option for viewers to downvote each others’ questions. However, there is an option to declare that a question is spam. I expect the Google team behind HOA will be making further enhancements before long.

This Questions app is itself an example of how the Google HOA technology is improving. The last time I ran a HOA for London Futurists, the Questions apps wasn’t available, so we just used the YouTube comments mechanism. One of the panellists for that call, David Orban, suggested I should look into another tool, called Google Moderator, for use in a subsequent occasion. I took a look, and liked what I saw, and my initial announcement of my next HOA (the one happening on Sunday) mentioned that I would be using Google Moderator. However, as I said, technology moves on quickly. Giulio Prisco drew my attention to the recently announced Questions feature of the HOA itself – a feature that had previously been in restricted test usage, but which is now available for all users of HOA. So we’ll be using that instead of Google Moderator (which is a rather old tool, without any direct connection into the Hangout app).

The overall HOA system is still new, and it’s not without its issues. For example, panellists have a lot of different places they might need to look, as the call progresses:

  • The “YouTube comment tracker” screen is mutually exclusive from the “Questions” screen: panellists can only have one of these visible to them at a time
  • These screens are in turn mutually exclusive from a text chat window which the panellists can use to chat amongst themselves (for example, to coordinate who will be speaking next) while one of the other panellists is speaking.

Second – and this is what currently makes me most apprehensive – the system seems to put a lot of load on my laptop, whenever I am the moderator of a HOA. I’ve actually seen something similar whenever my laptop is generating video for any long call. The laptop gets hotter and hotter as time progresses, and might even cut out altogether – as happened one hour into the last London Futurists HOA (see the end of this video).

Unfortunately, when the moderator’s PC loses connection to the HOA, the HOA itself seems to shut down (after a short delay, to allow quick reconnections). If this happens again on Sunday, we’ll restart the HOA as soon as possible. The “part two” will be visible on the same Google Plus page, but the corresponding YouTube video will have its own, brand new URL.

Since the last occurrence of my laptop overheating during a video call, I’ve had a new motherboard installed, plus a new hard disk (as the old one was giving some diagnostic errors), and had all the dust cleaned out of my system. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for this Sunday. Technology brings its challenges as well as many opportunities…

Footnote: This threat of over-heating reminds me of a talk I gave on several occasions as long ago as 2006, while at Symbian, about “Horsemen of the apocalypse”, including fire. Here’s a brief extract:

Standing in opposition to the potential for swift continuing increase in mobile technology, however, we face a series of major challenges. I call them “horsemen of the apocalypse”.  They include fire, flood, plague, and warfare.

“Fire” is the challenge of coping with the heat generated by batteries running ever faster. Alas, batteries don’t follow Moore’s Law. As users demand more work from their smartphones, their battery lifetimes will tend to plummet. The solution involves close inter-working of new hardware technology (including multi-core processors) and highly sophisticated low-level software. Together, this can reduce the voltage required by the hardware, and the device can avoid catching fire as it performs its incredible calculations…

26 September 2013

Risk blindness and the forthcoming energy crash

Filed under: books, carbon, chaos, climate change, Economics, irrationality, politics, risks, solar energy — David Wood @ 11:28 am

‘Logical’ is the last thing human thinking, individual and collective, is. Too compelling an argument can even drive people with a particularly well-insulated belief system deeper into denial.

JL in Japan 2The Energy of Nations: Risk Blindness and the Road to Renaissance, by Jeremy Leggett, is full of vividly quotable aphorisms – such as the one I’ve just cited. I see Jeremy as one of the world’s leading thinkers on solar energy, oil depletion, climate change, and the dysfunctional ways in which investment all-too-frequently works. The Observer has described him as “Britain’s most respected green energy boss”. A glance at his CV shows an impressive range of accomplishments:

Jeremy Leggett is founder and chairman of Solarcentury, the UK’s fastest growing renewable energy company since 2000, and founder and chairman of SolarAid, an African solar lighting charity set up with 5% of Solarcentury’s annual profits and itself parent to a social venture, SunnyMoney, that is the top-selling retailer of solar lights in Africa.

Jeremy has been a CNN Principal Voice, and an Entrepreneur of the Year at the New Energy Awards. He was the first Hillary Laureate for International Leadership on Climate Change, chairs the financial-sector think-tank Carbon Tracker and is a consultant on systemic risk to large corporations. He writes and blogs on occasion for the Guardian and the Financial Times, lectures on short courses in business and society at the universities of Cambridge and St Gallen, and is an Associate Fellow at Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute.

On his own website, The triple crunch log, Jeremy has the following to say about himself:

This log covers the energy-, climate-, and financial crises, and issues pertinent to society’s response to this “triple crunch”…

Let me explain why am I worried about oil depletion, climate change, and dysfunctional investment.

I researched earth history for 14 years, and so know a bit about what makes up the climate system. I researched oil source rocks for several of those years, funded by BP and Shell among others, and I explored for oil and gas in the Middle East and Asia, so I have a background in the issues relevant to peak oil. And more recently I have been a clean-energy entrepreneur and investor for more than decade, as founder of a solar energy company and founding director of a Swiss venture capital fund, so I have seen how the capital markets operate close to. That experience is the basis for my concerns…

Many of the critics who comment on my blogs urge readers to discount everything I say because I am trying to sell solar energy, and so therefore must be in it for the money, hyping concerns about climate change and peak oil in the cause of self enrichment. (As you would). They have it completely the wrong way round.

I left a lucrative career consulting for the oil industry, and teaching its technicians, because I was concerned about global warming and wanted to act on that concern. I joined Greenpeace (1989), on a fraction of my former income, to campaign for clean energy. I left Greenpeace (1997) to set up a non-profit organisation campaigning for clean energy. I turned it into a for-profit company (1999) because I came to the view that was the best possible way I could campaign for clean energy – by creating a commercial success that could show the way. The company I set up gives 5% of its operating profit to a charity that also campaigns for clean energy, SolarAid. All that said, I hope Solarcentury makes a lot of money. It won’t have succeeded in its mission if it doesn’t. I’m hoping fewer people will still want to discount my arguments, knowing the history.

Today marks the UK availability of his book, The Energy of Nations. Heeding its own advice, quoted above, that there are drawbacks to presenting arguments in an overly rational or compelling format, the book proceeds down a parallel course. A large part of the book reads more like a novel than a textbook, with numerous fascinating episodes retold from Jeremy’s diaries.

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The cast of characters that have walk-on parts in these episodes include prime ministers, oil industry titans, leading bankers, journalists, civil servants, analysts, and many others. Heroes and villains appear and re-appear, sometimes grown wiser with the passage of years, but sometimes remaining as recalcitrant, sinister (yes), and slippery (yes again) as ever.

A core theme of the book is risk blindness. Powerful vested interests in society have their own reasons to persuade public opinion that there’s nothing to worry about – that everything is under control. Resources at the disposal of these interests (“the incumbency”) inflict a perverse blindness on society, as regards the risks of the status quo. Speaking against the motion at a debate, This House Believes Peak Oil Is No Longer a Concern, in London’s Queen Elizabeth II Congress Centre in March 2009, in the aftermath of the global financial crisis brought on by hugely unwarranted over-confidence among bankers, Jeremy left a trenchant analogy hanging in the mind of the audience:

I explain that those of us who worry about peak oil fear that the oil industry has lapsed into a culture of over-exuberance about both the remaining oil reserves and prospects of resources yet to be turned into reserves, and about the industry’s ability to deliver capacity to the market even if enough resources exist.

Our main argument is that new capacity flows coming onstream from discoveries made by the oil industry over the past decade don’t compensate for depletion. Hence projections of demand cannot be met a few years hence. This problem will be compounded by other issues, including the accelerating depletion of the many old oilfields that prop up much of global oil production today, the probable exaggeration by OPEC countries of their reserves, and the failure of the ‘price-mechanism’ assumption that higher prices will lead to increased exploration and expanding discoveries…

In conclusion, this debate is all about the risk of a mighty global industry having its asset assessment systemically overstated, due to an endemic culture of over-optimism, with potentially ruinous economic implications.

I pause to let that sentence hang in the air for a second or two.

Now that couldn’t possibly happen, could it?

This none too subtle allusion to the disaster playing out in the financial sector elicits a polite laugh from the audience…

Nowadays, people frequently say that the onset of shale oil and gas should dissolve fears about impending reductions in the availability of oil. Jeremy sees this view as profoundly misguided. Shale is likely to fall far, far short of the expectations that have been heaped on it:

For many, the explosive growth of shale gas production in the USA – now extending into oil from shale, or ‘tight oil’ as it is properly known – is a revolution, a game-changer, and it even heralds a ‘new era of fossil fuels’. For a minority, it shows all the signs of being the next bubble in the markets.

In the incumbency’s widely held view, the US shale gas phenomenon can be exported, opening the way to cheap gas in multiple countries. For others, even if there is no bubble, the phenomenon is not particularly exportable, for a range of environmental, economic and political reasons

This risk too entails shock potential. Take a country like the UK. Its Treasury wishes actively to suppress renewables, so as to ensure that investors won’t be deterred from bankrolling the conversion of the UK into a ‘gas hub’. Picture the scene if most of the national energy eggs are put in that basket, infrastructure is capitalised, and then supplies of cheap gas fall far short of requirement, or even fail to materialise.

As the book makes clear, our collective risk blindness prevents society as a whole from reaching a candid appraisal of no fewer than five major risks facing us over the next few years: oil shock, climate shock, a further crash in the global financial system, the bursting of a carbon bubble in the capital markets, and the crash of the shale gas boom. The emphasis on human irrationality gels with a lot of my own prior reading – as I’ve covered e.g. in Our own entrenched enemies of reasonAnimal spirits – a richer understanding of economics, Influencer – the power to change anything, as well as in my most recent posting When faith gets in the way of progress.

The book concludes with a prediction that society is very likely to encounter, by as early as 2015, either a dramatic oil shock (the widespread realisation that the era of cheap oil is behind us, and that the oil industry has misled us as badly as did the sellers of financial hocus pocus), or a renewed financial crisis, which would then precipitate (but perhaps more slowly) the same oil shock. To that extent, the book is deeply pessimistic.

But there is plenty of optimism in the book too. The author believes – as do I – that provided suitable preparatory steps are taken (as soon as possible), society ought to be able to rebound from the forthcoming crash. He spends time explaining “five premises for the Road to Renaissance”:

  1. The readiness of clean energy for explosive growth
  2. The intrinsic pro-social attributes of clean energy
  3. The increasing evidence of people power in the world
  4. The pro-social tendencies in the human mind
  5. The power of context that leaders will be operating in after the oil crash.

But alongside his optimism, he issues a sharp warning:

I do not pretend that things won’t get much worse before they get better. There will be rioting. There will be food kitchens. There will be blood. There already have been, after the financial crash of 2008. But the next time round will be much worse. In the chaos, we could lose our way like the Maya did.

In summary, it’s a profoundly important book. I found it to be a real pleasure to read, even though the topic is nerve-racking. I burst out laughing in a number of places, and then reflected that it was nervous laughter.

The book is full of material that will probably make you want to underline it or tweet an extract online. The momentum builds up to a dramatic conclusion. Anyone concerned about the future should make time to read it.

Not everyone will agree with everything it contains, but it is clearly an honest and heartfelt contribution to vital debates. The book has already been receiving some terrific reviews from an interesting variety of people. You can see those, a summary, Chapter One, and links for buying the book here.

Finally, it’s a book that is designed to provoke discussion. I’m delighted that the author has agreed to speak at a London Futurists event on Saturday 5th October. Please click here for more details and to RSVP. This is a first class topic addressed by a first class speaker, which deserves a first class audience to match!

17 September 2013

When faith gets in the way of progress

Is it good that we grow old, weak, disease-prone, and eventually succumb, dead, to the ravages of aging?

The rise and fall of our health and vigour is depicted in this sketch from leading biogerontology researcher Alex Zhavoronkov:

Aging Decline

This diagram is taken from the presentation Alex made at a London Futurists event on 31st August. Alex used the same slide in his presentation, several days later, to the SENS6 conference “Reimage aging” at Queens’ College, Cambridge.

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My impression from the attendees at SENS6 that I met, over the four days I spent at the conference, is that the vast majority of them would give a resounding ‘No’ as the answer to the question,

Is it good that we grow old, weak, disease-prone, and eventually succumb, dead, to the ravages of aging?

What’s more, they shared a commitment that action should be taken to change this state of affairs. In various ways, they described themselves as “fighters against aging”, “healthy longevity activists”, and as “campaigners for negligible senescence”. They share an interest in the declaration made on the page on the SENS Research Foundation website describing the conference:

The purpose of the SENS conference series, like all the SENS initiatives, is to expedite the development of truly effective therapies to postpone and treat human aging by tackling it as an engineering problem: not seeking elusive and probably illusory magic bullets, but instead enumerating the accumulating molecular and cellular changes that eventually kill us and identifying ways to repair – to reverse – those changes, rather than merely to slow down their further accumulation.

This broadly defined regenerative medicine – which includes the repair of living cells and extracellular material in situ – applied to damage of aging, is what we refer to as rejuvenation biotechnologies.

This “interventionist” approach, if successful, would lead to a line, on the chart of performance against age, similar to that shown in the bright green colour: we would retain our youthful vigour indefinitely. Mechanisms supporting this outcome were explored in considerable technical details in the SENS6 presentations. The SENS6 audience collectively posed some probing questions to the individual presenters, but the overall direction was agreed. Rejuvenation biotechnologies ought to be developed, as soon as possible.

But not everyone sees things like this. SENS6 attendees agreed on that point too. Over informal discussions throughout the event, people time and again shared anecdotes about their personal acquaintances being opposed to the goals of SENS. You can easily see the same kind of negative reactions, in the online comments pages of newspapers, whenever a newspaper reports some promising news about potential techniques to overcome aging.

For example, the Daily Mail in the UK recently published a well-researched article, “Do lobsters hold the key to eternal life? Forget gastronomic indulgence, the crustacean can defy the aging process”. The article starts as follows:

They are usually associated with a life of gastronomic indulgence and heart-stopping excess. But away from the dinner table, lobsters may actually hold the secret to a long, healthy — and possibly even eternal — life.

For this crustacean is one of a handful of bizarre animals that appear to defy the normal aging process.

While the passing years bring arthritis, muscle loss, memory problems and illness to humans, lobsters seem to be immune to the ravages of time. They can be injured, of course. They can pick up diseases. They can be caught and thrown into a pot, then smothered in béchamel sauce.

But rather than getting weaker and more vulnerable over the years, they become stronger and more fertile each time they shed their shells.

The typical lobster weighs 1 to 2 lb. But in 2009, a Maine fisherman landed a colossus of 20 lb, which was estimated to be 140 years old. And that isn’t even the oldest lobster found so far. According to Guinness World Records, a 44 lb leviathan was caught in 1977, with claws powerful enough to snap a man’s arm.

The species belongs to an elite group that appears to be ‘biologically immortal’. Away from predators, injury or disease, these astonishing creatures’ cells don’t deteriorate with age…

For healthy longevity activists, there was lots of good news in the article. This information, however, was too much for some readers to contemplate. Some of the online comments make for fascinating (but depressing) reading. Here are four examples, quoted directly from the comments:

  1. How would humankind cope with tens of millions of extremely old and incredibly crabby people?
  2. People have to die and they’re not dying quickly enough. Soon the earth will run out of water and food for the ever increasing masses.
  3. These “researchers” should watch Death Becomes Her
  4. The only guarantee of eternal life is to read your Bibles. Though even if you don’t, eternal life of another kind exists, though it’s not particularly appealing: “And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever” (Rev 14:11).

To be clear, the goal of project such as those in the SENS umbrella is to extend healthy lifespans (sometimes known as “healthspans”) rather than simply extending lifespans themselves. Rejuvenation technologies are envisioned to undo tendencies towards unwelcome decrepitude, crabbiness, and so on.

As for the reference to the 1992 Hollywood film “Death Becomes Her” featuring Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn in a frightful “living dead” immortality, I’ll get back to that later.

Infinite ResourceThe question of potential over-population has a bit more substance. However, the worry isn’t so much the number of people on the earth, but the rate at which everyone is consuming and polluting. With potential forthcoming improvements in harnessing solar energy, we’ll have more than enough energy available to look after a planet with 10 billion people. Arguably the planet could sustain at least 100 billion people. (That argument is made, in a well-balanced way, by Ramez Naam in his recent book “The infinite resource” – a book I thoroughly recommend. I’ve also covered this question from time to time in earlier blogposts – see e.g. “Achieving a 130-fold improvement in 40 years”.)

However, I believe that there are deeper roots to the opposition that many people have to the idea of extending healthy lifespans. They may offer intellectual rationalisations for their opposition (e.g. “How would humankind cope with tens of millions of extremely old and incredibly crabby people?”) but these rationalisations are not the drivers for the position they hold.

Instead, their opposition to extending healthy lifespans comes from what we can call faith.

This thought crystallised in my mind as I reflected on the very last presentation from SENS6. The speaker was Thomas Pyszczynski of the University of Colorado, and his topic was “Understanding the paradox of opposition to long-term extension of the human lifespan: fear of death, cultural worldviews, and the illusion of objectivity”.

The presentation title was long, but the content was clear and vivid. The speaker outlined some conclusions from decades of research he had conducted into “Terror Management Theory (TMT)”. I’ve since discovered that the subject of “Terror Management Theory” has its own article in Wikipedia:

Terror management theory (TMT), in social psychology, proposes a basic psychological conflict that results from having a desire to live but realizing that death is inevitable. This conflict produces terror, and is believed to be unique to humans. Moreover, the solution to the conflict is also generally unique to humans: culture. According to TMT, cultures are symbolic systems that act to provide life with meaning and value. If life is thought meaningful, death is less terrifying. Cultural values therefore serve to manage the terror of death by providing life with meaning…

pyszczynski

Here’s the “paradox” to which Pyszczynski (pictured) referred: people oppose the idea that we could have longer healthy lives, because of the operation of a set of culture and philosophical ideas, which were themselves an adaptive response to the underlying fact that we deeply desire indefinitely long healthy lives. So the opposition is self-contradictory, but the people involved don’t see it like that.

For all of history up until the present age, the idea of having an indefinitely long healthy life was at stark variance to everything else that we saw around ourselves. Death seemed inevitable. In order to avoid collapsing into terror, we needed to develop rationalisations and techniques that prevented us from thinking seriously about our own finitude and mortality. That’s where key aspects of our culture arose. These aspects of our culture became deeply rooted.

Our culture operates, in many cases, below the level of conscious awareness. We find ourselves being driven by various underlying beliefs, without being aware of the set of causes and effects. However, we find comfort in these beliefs. This faith (belief in the absence of sufficient reason) helps to keep us mentally sane, and keeps society functional, even as it prepares us, as individuals, to grow infirm and die.

In case any new ideas challenge this faith, we find ourselves compelled to lash out against these ideas, even without taking the time to analyse them. Our motivation, here, is to preserve our core culture and faith, since that’s what provides the foundation of meaning in our lives. We fight the new ideas, even if these new ideas would be a better solution to our underlying desire to live an indefinitely long, healthy life. The new ideas leave us with a feeling of alienation, even though we don’t see the actual connections between ideas. Our faith causes us to lose our rationality.

Incidentally, similar factors apply, of course, when other things that have profound importance to us are challenged. For example, when we think we may lose a cherished romantic partner, we can all too easily become crazy. When your heart’s on fire, smoke gets in your eyes.

Ending AgingIt turns out that Aubrey de Grey, the chief science officer of SENS, has already written on this same topic. In chapter two of his 2007 book “Ending aging”, he notes the following:

There is a very simple reason why so many people defend aging so strongly – a reason that is now invalid, but until quite recently was entirely reasonable. Until recently, no one has had any coherent idea how to defeat aging, so it has been effectively inevitable. And when one is faced with a fate that is as ghastly as aging and about which one can do absolutely nothing, either for oneself or even for others, it makes perfect psychological sense to put it out of one’s mind – to make one’s peace with it, you might say – rather than to spend one’s miserably short life preoccupied by it. The fact that, in order to sustain this state of mind, one has to abandon all semblance of rationality on the subject – and, inevitably, to engage in embarrassingly unreasonable conversational tactics to shore up that irrationality – is a small price to pay….

Aubrey continues this theme at the start of chapter three:

We’ve recently reached the point where we can engage in the rational design of therapies to defeat aging: most of the rest of this book is an account of my favoured approach to that design. But in order to ensure that you can read that account with an open mind, I need to dispose beforehand of a particularly insidious aspect of the pro-aging trance: the fact that most people already know, in their heart of hearts, that there is a possibility that aging will eventually be defeated.

Why is this a problem? Indeed, at first sight you might think that it would make my job easier, since surely it means that the pro-aging trance is not particularly deep. Unfortunately, however, self-sustained delusions don’t work like that. Just as it’s rational to be irrational about the desirability of aging in order to make your peace with it, it’s also rational to be irrational about the feasibility of defeating aging while the chance of defeating it any time soon remains low. If you think there’s even a 1 percent chance of defeating aging within your lifetime (or within the lifetime of someone you love), that sliver of hope will prey on your mind and keep your pro-aging trance uncomfortably fragile, however hard you’ve worked to convince yourself that aging is actually not such a bad thing after all. If you’re completely convinced that aging is immutable, by contrast, you can sleep more soundly.

Underwood_Mair_2013_smallAnother speaker from the final session of SENS6, Mair Underwood of the University of Queensland, provided some timely advice to the SENS6 community, that dovetails well with the discussion above. Underwood’s presentation was entitled “What reassurances do the community need regarding life extension? Evidence from studies of community attitudes and an analysis of film portrayals”. The presentation pointed out the many ways in which popular films (such as “Death Becomes Her”, mentioned above) portray would-be life extensionists in a bad light. These people, the films imply, are emotionally immature, selfish, frustrated, obstructive, and generally unattractive. This is the pro-death culture at work.

To counteract these impressions, and to help free the broader community from its faith that aging and death are actually good things, Underwood gave the following advice:

  1. Assure that life extension science, and the distribution of life extension technologies, are ethical and regulated, and seen to be so
  2. Assuage community concerns about life extension as unnatural or playing god
  3. Assure that life extension would involve an extension of healthy lifespan
  4. Assure that life extension does not mean a loss of fertility
  5. Assure the community that life extension will not exacerbate social divides, and that those with extended lives will not be a burden on society
  6. Create a new cultural framework for understanding life extension.

This advice is all good, but I suspect that the new few years may see a growing “battle of faiths”, as representatives of the old culture fight harder in opposition to the emerging evidence that we we are on the point of possessing the technological means to extend human healthspans very significantly. This is a battle that may need more tools, to influence the outcome, than mere hard-honed rationality. At the very least, we’ll need to keep in mind how culture works, and the ways in which faith draws strength.

Follow ups: Several forthcoming London Futurists meetups address topics that are directly relevant to the above line of thinking:

  • Futurism, Spirituality, and Faith, in Birkbeck College on Saturday 21st September, discusses ways in which committed technoprogressives can best interact with faith-based movements, without these interactions leading to fruitless irrationality and loss of direction
  • Projects to accelerate radical healthy longevity, a Google Hangout On Air (HOA) on Sunday 29th September, features a panel discussion on the question, “What are the most important ongoing projects to accelerate radical healthy longevity?”
  • Futurists discuss The Transhumanist Wager, with Zoltan Istvan, another Google HOA, on Sunday 20th September, reviews a recently published novel about a possible near-future scenario of a growing battle between the old human culture and an emerging new culture that favours indefinitely long healthspans.
  • Finally, if you’re interested in the question of whether solar energy will be able, as I implied above, to address pending shortages in global energy supplies, even as human population continues to increase, you should make it a priority to attend the London Futurists event on Saturday 5th October, The Energy of Nations, with Jeremy Leggett. The speaker on this occasion is one of the world’s foremost authorities on solar energy, oil depletion, climate change, and dysfunctional investment. The topic of the best energy systems for the decades ahead is, alas, another one in which faith tends to subvert reason, and in which we need to be smart to prevent our thinking being hijacked by adverse factors.

For more information about the evolution of London Futurists, you can take a peek at a new website which is in the process of being implemented, at http://londonfuturists.com/.

19 August 2013

Longevity and the looming financial meltdown

Filed under: aging, books, challenge, converged medicine, Economics, futurist, healthcare, rejuveneering, SENS — David Wood @ 2:12 pm

What kind of transformational infrastructure investment projects should governments prioritise?

In the UK, government seems committed to spending a whopping £42 billion between now and 2032 on a lengthy infrastructure project, namely the “HS2″ High Speed rail link which could see trains travelling between London, Birmingham, and six other cities, at up to 250 miles per hour. The scheme has many critics. As Nigel Morris notes in The Independent,

In an analysis published today (Monday), the IEA (Institute for Economic Affairs ) says the scheme’s cost has been vastly underestimated and had failed to take into account changes to routes and extra tunnelling because of local opposition.

Richard Wellings, its author, said: “The evidence is now overwhelming that this will be unbelievably costly to the taxpayer while delivering incredibly poor value for money.”

Supporters of this investment claim that the improved infrastructure will be a boon for business in the UK. Multi-year infrastructure improvement projects are something that the private sector tends not to attempt. Unless there’s coordination from government, this kind of project will not happen.

The BBC news website (here and here) helpfully listed ten alternative infrastructure improvement projects that might be better recipients of portions of the £42B earmarked for HS2. Suggestions include:

  • A new road motorway for the east of Britain
  • A bridge to the Isle of Wight
  • A new Channel tunnel, directly accessible to car drivers
  • Tram systems for Liverpool and Leeds
  • A tunnel between Great Britain and Ireland
  • Aerial cycle highways for London

If it were my decision, I would reallocate a large chunk of this funding to a different kind of multi-year infrastructure improvement project. This is in the area of health rather than the area of transport. The idea is to significantly promote research and deployment of treatments in preventive and regenerative medicine.

Ageless CoverThe argument for this kind of sustained investment is laid out in the book The Ageless Generation: How Advances in Biomedicine Will Transform the Global Economy, by Alex Zhavoronkov, which I’ve just finished reading. It’s a compelling analysis.

Alex will be sharing his views at a forthcoming meeting of the London Futurists, on Saturday 31st July. There are more details of this meeting here. (Note that a number of copies of the speaker’s book will be available free of charge to attendees of this meeting.)

The book contains many eye-opening pointers to peer-reviewed research. This covers the accelerating pace of medical breakthroughs, in areas such as bioartificial organs, stem cell therapies, repairing damaged tissues, fortifying the immune system, and autophagy. The research also covers financial and economic matters.

For example, here’s a snippet from the 2009 report “The Burden of Chronic Disease” (PDF) – which is written from a US point of view, though the implications apply for other countries too:

Our current economic reality reminds us that now more than ever, we need to invest in the backbone of our economy: the American workforce. Without question, the single biggest force threatening U.S. workforce productivity, as well as health care affordability and quality of life, is the rise in chronic conditions…

Further into that report, data is quoted from the Milken Institute report “The Economic Burden of Chronic Disease” (PDF)

By our calculations, the most common chronic diseases are costing the economy more than $1 trillion annually—and that figure threatens to reach $6 trillion by the middle of the century.

The costs include lost of productivity, as well as absenteeism:

The potential savings on treatment represents just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Chronically ill workers take sick days, reducing the supply of labor—and, in the process, the GDP. When they do show up for work to avoid losing wages, they perform far below par—a circumstance known as “presenteeism,” in contrast to absenteeism. Output loss (indirect impacts) due to presenteeism (lower productivity) is immense—several times greater than losses associated with absenteeism. Last (but hardly a footnote), avoidable illness diverts the productive capacity of caregivers, adding to the reduction in labor supply for other uses. Combined, the indirect impacts of these diseases totaled just over $1 trillion in 2003…

In his book, Alex builds on this analysis, focussing on the looming costs to healthcare systems and pensions systems of ever greater portions of our population being elderly and infirm, and becoming increasingly vulnerable to chronic illnesses. Countries face bankruptcy on account of the increased costs. At the very least, we must expect radical changes in the provision of social welfare. The pensionable age is likely to rocket upwards. Families are likely to discover that the provisions they have made for their old age and retirement are woefully inadequate.

The situation is bleak, but solutions are at hand, through a wave of biomedical innovation which could make our recent wave of IT innovation look paltry in comparison. However, despite their promise, these biomedical solutions are arriving too slowly. The healthcare and pharmaceutical industries are bringing us some progress, but they are constrained by their own existing dynamics.

Alex_cover_2_smallAs Alex writes,

The revolution in information technology has irreversibly changed our lives over the past two decades. However, advances in biomedicine stand poised to eclipse the social and economic effects of IT in the near future.

Biomedical innovations typically reach the mass market in much slower fashion than those from information technology. They follow a paradigm where neither demand, in the form of the consumer, nor supply, in the form of the innovator, can significantly accelerate the process. Nevertheless, many of the advances made over the past three decades are already propagating into mainstream clinical practice and converging with other technologies extending our life spans.

However, in the near-term, unless the governments of the debt-laden developed countries make proactive policy changes, there is a possibility of lengthy economic decline and even collapse.

Biomedical advances are not all the same. The current paradigm in biomedical research, clinical regulation and healthcare has created a spur of costly procedures that provide marginal increases late in life extending the “last mile”, with the vast percentage of the lifetime healthcare costs being spent in the last few years of patient’s life, increasing the burden on the economy and society.

There is an urgent need to proactively adjust healthcare, social security, research and regulatory policies:

  • To ameliorate the negative near-term effects
  • To accelerate the mass adoption of technologies contributing positively to the economy.

Now that’s a project well worth spending billions on. It’s a vision of expanded healthspans rather than just of expanded lifespans. It’s a vision of people continuing to be happily productive members of society well into their 80s and 90s and beyond, learning new skills, continuing to expand their horizons, whilst sharing their wisdom and experience with younger generations.

It’s a great vision for the individuals involved (and their families), but also a great vision for the well-being of society as a whole. However, without concerted action, it’s unlikely to become reality.

Footnote 1: To connect the end of this line of reasoning back to its start: If the whole workforce remains healthy, in body, mind, and spirit, for many years more than before, there will be plenty of extra resources and skills available to address problems in other fields, such as inadequate traffic vehicle infrastructure. My own preferred approach to that particular problem is improved teleconferencing, virtual presence, avatar representation, and other solutions based on transporting bits rather than transporting atoms, though there’s surely scope for improved physical transport too. Driverless vehicles have a lot of promise.

Footnote 2: The Lifestar Institute produced a well-paced 5 minute video, “Can we afford not to try?” covering many of the topics I’ve mentioned above. View it at the Lifestar Institute site, or, for convenience, embedded below.

Footnote 3: The Lifestar Institute video was shown publicly for the first time at the SENS4 conference in Cambridge in September 2009. I was in the audience that day and vividly remember the impact the video made on me. The SENS Foundation is running the next in their series of biennial conferences (“SENS 6″) this September, from the 3rd to the 7th. The theme is “Reimagine aging”. I’m greatly looking forward to it!

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3 July 2013

Preparing for driverless vehicles

Filed under: driverless vehicles, futurist, Humanity Plus, robots, safety, sensors, vision, Volvo — David Wood @ 10:56 am

It’s not just Google that is working on autonomous, self-driving cars. Take a look at this recent Atutoblog video showing technology under development by Swedish manufacturer Volvo:

This represents another key step in the incorporation of smart wireless technology into motor vehicles.

Smart wireless technology already has the potential to reduce the number of lives lost in road accidents. A memo last month from the EU commission describes the potential effect of full adoption of the 112 eCall system inside cars:

The 112 eCall automatically dials Europe’s single emergency number 112 in the event of a serious accident and communicates the vehicle’s location to the emergency services. This call to 112, made either automatically by means of the activation of in-vehicle sensors or manually, carries a standardised set of data (containing notably the type and the location of the vehicle) and establishes an audio channel between the vehicle and the most appropriate emergency call centre via public mobile networks.

Using a built-in acceleration sensor, the system detects when a crash has occurred, and how serious it is likely to be. For example, it can detect whether the car has rolled over onto its roof. Then it transmits the information via a built-in wireless SIM. As the EU commission memo explains:

  • In 2012 around 28,000 people were killed and more than 1.5 million injured in 1.1 million traffic accidents on EU roads.
  • Only around 0.7% of vehicles are currently equipped with private eCall systems in the EU, with numbers barely rising. These proprietary systems do not offer EU-wide interoperability or continuity.
  • In addition to the tragedy of loss of life and injury, this also carries an economic burden of around EUR 130 billion in costs to society every year.
  • 112 eCall can speed up emergency response times by 40% in urban areas and 50% in the countryside. Fully deployed, it can save up to 2500 lives a year and alleviate severity of road injuries. In addition, thanks to improved accident management, it is expected to reduce congestion costs caused by traffic accidents.

That’s 9% fewer fatalities, as a result of emergency assistance being contacted more quickly.

But what if the number of accidents could themselves be significantly reduced? Here it’s important to know the predominant factors behind road accidents. A landmark investigation of 700,000 road accidents in the UK over 2005-2009 produced some surprising statistics. As reported by David Williams in the Daily Telegraph,

Vehicle defects are a factor in only 2.8 per cent of fatals, with tyres mostly to blame (1.5 per cent) followed by dodgy brakes (0.7 per cent).

The overriding message? It’s not your car or the “road conditions” that are most likely to kill you. It’s your own driving.

In more detail:

The biggest cause of road accidents in the UK today? The statistics are quite clear on this and it’s “driver error or reaction”. It’s listed by police as a factor in more than 65 per cent of fatal crashes and the heading covers a multitude of driving sins many of which you’re probably on first-name terms with. Topping the charge sheet is failing to look properly (the Smidsy factor – “Sorry mate, I didn’t see you’, relevant in 20.5 per cent of fatals involving driver error), followed by “loss of control” (34 per cent) which, says Greig, often means leaving yourself with “nowhere to go” after entering a bend or other situation, too quickly. Other errors include “poor turn or manoeuvre” (12 per cent) and “failed to judge other person’s path or speed” (11.6 per cent.).

Second biggest cause of fatal accidents, to blame for 31 per cent, is the “injudicious action”, an umbrella term for “travelled too fast for the conditions’ (15.9 per cent of those labelled injudicious), “exceeded speed limit” (13.9 per cent) or “disobeyed give-way or stop sign” (2.1 per cent)?

Third culprit in the daily gamble on who lives and who dies is “behaviour or inexperience” (28 per cent), which covers faults such as “careless, reckless or in a hurry” (17 per cent), “aggressive driving” (8.3 per cent) and “learner/inexperienced” (5.3 per cent).

The fourth main category is “impairment or distraction” (to blame for 19.6 per cent of fatal accidents) covering “alcohol” (a factor in 9.6 per cent of fatal accidents) and “distraction in vehicle” (2.6 per cent).

(The numbers add up to more than 100% because accidents are often attributed to more than one factor.)

These statistics give strength to the remark by Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Google:

Your car should drive itself. It’s amazing to me that we let humans drive cars. It’s a bug that cars were invented before computers.

This suggestion commonly gives rise to three objections:

  1. The technology will never become good enough
  2. Even if the raw technology inside cars becomes better and better, there will need to be lots of changes in roadways, which will take a very long time to achieve
  3. Even if the technology did become good enough, legal systems will never catch up. Who’s going to accept liability for crashes caused by bugs in software?

The first objection is heard less often these days. As noted in a 2011 New York Times interview by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew P. McAfee of the M.I.T. Center for Digital Business, and authors of the book Race Against the Machine,

In 2004, two leading economists, Frank Levy and Richard J. Murnane, published “The New Division of Labor,”which analyzed the capabilities of computers and human workers. Truck driving was cited as an example of the kind of work computers could not handle, recognizing and reacting to moving objects in real time.

But last fall, Google announced that its robot-driven cars had logged thousands of miles on American roads with only an occasional assist from human back-seat drivers. The Google cars are but one sign of the times.

The third objection will surely fall away soon too. There are already mechanisms whereby some degree of liability can be accepted by car manufacturers, in cases where software defects (for example, in braking and accelerating systems) contribute to accidents. Some examples are covered in the CNN Money review “Toyota to pay $1.1 billion in recall case”.

Another reason the third objection will fall away is because the costs of not changing – that is, of sticking with human drivers – may be much larger than the costs of adopting driverless vehicles. So long as we continue to allow humans to drive cars, there will continue to be driver-induced accidents, with all the physical and social trauma that ensues.

That still leaves the second objection: the other changes in the environment that will need to take place, before driverless vehicles can be adopted more widely. And what other changes will take place, possibly unexpectedly, once driverless cars are indeed adopted?

That’s one of the topics that will be covered in this Saturday’s London Futurists event: The future of transport: Preparing for driverless vehicles? With Nathan Koren.

Nathan_Koren_PhotoAs explained by the speaker at the event, Nathan Koren,

The robots have arrived. Driverless transport pods are now in operation at Heathrow Terminal 5 and several other locations around the world. Driver-assist technologies are becoming commonplace. Many believe that fully driverless cars will be commercially available before the decade is out. But what will the broader impact of driverless transport be?

Automobiles were once called “horseless carriages,” as though the lack of a horse was their most important feature. In reality, they changed the way we work, live, and play; changed the way we design cities; and altered the global economy, political landscape, and climate.

It will be the same with driverless vehicles: we can expect their impact to be go far beyond simply being able to take our hands off the wheel.

This presentation and discussion goes into depth about how automated transport will affect our lives and reshape the the world’s cities.

Nathan is a London-based, American-born architect, transport planner, and entrepreneur. He is widely recognised as a leading authority on Automated Transit Networks, and designed what is scheduled to become the world’s first urban-scale system, in Amritsar, India. He works as a Transport Technology & Planning Consultant for Capita Symonds, and recently founded Podaris, a cloud-based platform for the collaborative design of Automated Transit Networks. Nathan holds an Architecture degree from Arizona State University, and an MBA from the University of Oxford.

I hope to see some readers of this blog, who are based in or near London, at the meeting this Saturday. It’s an important topic!

For additional background inspiration, I recommend the three short videos in the article “The future of travel: Transportation confronts its ‘Kodak moment’”. (Thanks to Nathan for drawing this article to my attention.)

Speakers in these videos talk about the industries that are liable to radical disruption (and perhaps irrelevance) due to the rise of collision-proof driverless vehicles. The airbag industry is one; car collision insurance might be another. I’m sure you can think of more.

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