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23 January 2014

The future of learning and the future of climate change

Filed under: climate change, collaboration, education — Tags: , , , , — David Wood @ 6:52 pm

Yesterday, I spent some time at the BETT show in London’s ExCeL centre. BETT describes itself as:

the world’s leading event for learning technology for education professionals…  dedicated to showcasing the best in UK and international learning technology products, resources, and best practice… in times where modern learning environments are becoming more mobile and ‘learning anywhere’ is more of a possibility.

I liked the examples that I saw of increasing use of Google Apps in education, particularly on Chrome Books. These examples were described by teachers who had been involved in trials, at all levels of education. The teachers had plenty of heart-warming stories of human wonderment, of pupils helping each other, and of technology taking a clear second place to learning.

FutureLearn logoI was also impressed to hear some updates about the use of MOOCs – “Massive open online courses”. For example, I was encouraged about what I heard at BETT about the progress of the UK-based FutureLearn initiative.

As Wikipedia describes FutureLearn,

FutureLearn is a massive open online course (MOOC) platform founded in December 2012 as a company majority owned by the UK’s Open University. It is the first UK-led massive open online course platform, and as of October 2013 had 26 University partners and – unlike similar platforms – includes three non-university partners: the British Museum, the British Council and the British Library.

Among other things, my interest in FutureLearn was to find out if similar technology might be used, at some stage, to help raise better awareness of general futurist topics, such as the Technological Singularity, Radical Life Extension, and Existential Risks – the kind of topics that feature in the Hangout On Air series that I run. I remain keen to develop what I’ve called “London Futurists Academy”. Could a MOOC help here?

I resolved that it was time for me to gain first-hand experience of one of these systems, rather than just relying on second-hand experience from other people.

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I clicked on the FutureLearn site to see which courses might be suitable for me to join. I was soon avidly reading the details of their course Climate change: challenges and solutions:

This course aims to explain the science of climate change, the risks it poses and the solutions available to reduce those risks.

The course is aimed at the level of students entering university, and seeks to provide an inter-disciplinary introduction to what is a broad field. It engages a number of experts from the University of Exeter and a number of partner organisations.

The course will set contemporary human-caused climate change within the context of past nature climate variability. Then it will take a risk communication approach, balancing the ‘bad news’ about climate change impacts on natural and human systems with the ‘good news’ about potential solutions. These solutions can help avoid the most dangerous climate changes and increase the resilience of societies and ecosystems to those climate changes that cannot be avoided.

The course lasts eight weeks, and is described as requiring about three hours of time every week. Participants take part entirely from their own laptop. There is no fee to join. The course material is delivered via a combination of videos (with attractive graphics), online documents, and quizzes and tests. Participants are also encouraged to share some of their experiences, ideas, and suggestions via the FutureLearn online social network.

For me, the timing seemed almost ideal. The London Futurists meetup last Saturday had addressed the topic of climate change. There’s an audio recording of the event here (it lasts just over two hours). The speaker, Duncan Clark, was excellent. But discussion at the event (and subsequently continued online) confirmed that there remain lots of hard questions needing further analysis.

I plan to invite other speakers on climate change topics to forthcoming London Futurists events, but in the meantime, this FutureLearn course seems like an excellent opportunity for many people to collectively deepen their knowledge of the overall subject.

I say this after having worked my way through the material for the first week of the course. I can’t say I learnt anything surprising, but the material was useful background to many of the discussions that I keep getting involved in. It was well presented and engaging. I paid careful attention, knowing there would be an online multiple choice test at the end of the week’s set of material. A couple of the questions in the test needed me to think quite carefully before answering. After I answered the final question, I was pleased to see the following screen:

Week 1 resultIt’s fascinating to read online the comments from other participants in the course. It looks like over 1,700 people have completed the first week’s material. Some of the participants are aged in their 70s or 80s, and it’s their first experience with computer learning.

There hasn’t been much controversy in the first week’s topics. One part straightforwardly explained the reasons why the observed changes in global temperature over the last century cannot be attributed to changes in solar radiation, even though changes in solar radiation could be responsible for the “Little Ice Age” between 1550-1850. That part, like all the other material from the first week, seemed completely fair and objective to me. I look forward to the subsequent sections.

I said that the timing of the course was almost ideal. However, it started on the 13th of January, and FutureLearn only allow people to join the course for up to 14 days after the official start date.

That means if any readers of this blog wish to follow my example and enrol in this course too, you’ll have to do so by this Sunday, the 26th of January.

I do hope that other people join the course, so we can compare notes, as we explore pathways to improved collaborative learning.

PS for my overall thoughts on climate change, see some previous posts in this blog, such as “Six steps to climate catastrophe” and “Risk blindness and the forthcoming energy crash”.

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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.

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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.

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!

21 March 2013

The burning need for better supra-national governance

International organisations have a bad reputation these days. The United Nations is widely seen as ineffective. There’s a retreat towards “localism”: within Britain, the EU is unpopular; within Scotland, Britain is unpopular. And any talk of “giving up sovereignty” is deeply unpopular.

However, lack of effective international organisations and supra-national governance is arguably the root cause of many of the biggest crises facing humanity in the early 21st century.

That was the thesis which Ian Golding, Oxford University Professor of Globalisation and Development, very ably shared yesterday evening in the Hong Kong Theatre in the London School of Economics. He was quietly spoken, but his points hit home strongly. I was persuaded.

DividedNationsThe lecture was entitled Divided Nations: Why global governance is failing and what we can do about it. It coincided with the launch of a book with the same name. For more details of the book, see this blogpost on the website of the Oxford Martin School, where Ian Golding holds the role of Director.

It’s my perception that many technology enthusiasts, futurists, and singularitarians have a blind spot when it comes to the topic of the dysfunction of current international organisations. They tend to assume that technological improvements will automatically resolve the crises and risks facing society. Governments and regulators should ideally leave things well alone – so the plea goes.

My own view is that smarter coordination and regulation is definitely needed – even though it will be hard to set that up. Professor Goldin’s lecture amply reinforced that view.

On the train home from the lecture, I downloaded the book onto my Kindle. I recommend anyone who is serious about the future of humanity to read it. Drawing upon the assembled insights and wisdom of the remarkable set of scholars at the Oxford Martin School, in addition to his own extensive experience in the international scene, Professor Goldin has crystallised state-of-the-art knowledge regarding the pressing urgency, and options, for better supra-national governance.

In the remainder of this blogpost, I share some of the state-of-consciousness notes that I typed while listening to the lecture. Hopefully this will give a flavour of the hugely important topics covered. I apologise in advance for any errors introduced in transcription. Please see the book itself for an authoritative voice. See also the live tweet stream for the meeting, with the hash-tag #LSEGoldin.

What keeps Oxford Martin scholars awake at night

The fear that no one is listening. The international governance system is in total gridlock. There are failures on several levels:

  • Failure of governments to lift themselves to a higher level, instead of being pre-occupied by local, parochial interests
  • Failure of electorates to demand more from their governments
  • Failure of governments for not giving clearer direction to the international institutions.

Progress with international connectivity

80 countries became democratic in the 1990s. Only one country in the world today remains disconnected – North Korea.

Over the last few decades, the total global population has increased, but the numbers in absolute poverty have decreased. This has never happened before in history.

So there are many good aspects to the increase in the economy and inter-connectivity.

However, economists failed to think sufficiently far ahead.

What economists should have thought about: the global commons

What was rational for the individuals and for national governments was not rational for the whole world.

Similar problems exist in several other fields: antibiotic resistance, global warming, the markets. He’ll get to these shortly.

The tragedy of the commons is that, when everyone does what is rational for them, everyone nevertheless ends up suffering. The common resource is not managed.

The pursuit of profits is a good thing – it has worked much better than central planning. But the result is irrationality in aggregate.

The market alone cannot provide a response to resource allocation. Individual governments cannot provide a solution either. A globally coordinated approach is needed.

Example of several countries drawing water from the Aral Sea – which is now arid.

That’s what happens when nations do the right thing for themselves.

The special case of Finance

Finance is by far the most sophisticated of the resource management systems:

  • The best graduates go into the treasury, the federal reserve, etc
  • They are best endowed – the elite organisation
  • These people know each other – they play golf together.

If even the financial bodies can’t understand their own system, this has black implications for other systems.

The growth of the financial markets had two underbellies:

  1. Growing inequality
  2. Growing potential for systemic risk

The growing inequality has actually led to lobbying that exaggerates inequality even more.

The result was a “Race to the bottom”, with governments being persuaded to get out of the regulation of things that actually did need to be regulated.

Speaking after the crisis, Hank Paulson, US Treasury Secretary and former CEO of Goldman Sachs, in effect said “we just did not understand what was happening” – even with all the high-calibre people and advice available to him. That’s a shocking indictment.

The need for regulation

Globalisation requires regulation, not just at the individual national level, but at an international level.

Global organisations are weaker now than in the 1990s.

Nations are becoming more parochial – the examples of UK (thinking of leaving EU) and Scotland (thinking of leaving UK) are mirrored elsewhere too.

Yes, integration brings issues that are hard to control, but the response to withdraw from integration is terribly misguided.

We cannot put back the walls. Trying to withdraw into local politics is dreadfully misguided.

Five examples

His book has five examples as illustrations of his general theme (and that’s without talking in this book about poverty, or nuclear threats):

  1. Finance
  2. Pandemics
  3. Migration
  4. Climate change
  5. Cyber-security

Many of these problems arise from the success of globalisation – the extraordinary rise in incomes worldwide in the last 25 years.

Pandemics require supra-national attention, because of increased connectivity:

  • The rapid spread of swine flu was correlated tightly with aircraft travel.
  • It will just take 2 days for a new infectious disease to travel all the way round the world.

The idea that you can isolate yourself from the world is a myth. There’s little point having a quarantine regime in place in Oxford if a disease is allowed to flourish in London. The same applies between countries, too.

Technology developments exacerbate the problem. DNA analysis is a good thing, but the capacity to synthesise diseases has terrible consequences:

  • There’s a growing power for even a very small number of individuals to cause global chaos, e.g. via pathogens
  • Think of something like Waco Texas – people who are fanatical Armageddonists – but with greater technical skills.

Cyber-security issues arise from the incredible growth in network connectivity. Jonathan Zittrain talks about “The end of the Internet”:

  • The Internet is not governed by governments
  • Problems to prosecute people, even when we know who they are and where they are (but in a different jurisdiction)
  • Individuals and small groups could destabilise whole Internet.

Migration is another “orphan issue”. No international organisation has the authority to deal with it:

  • Control over immigration is, in effect, an anarchic, bullying system
  • We have very bad data on migration (even in the UK).

The existing global institutions

The global institutions that we have were a response to post-WW2 threats.

For a while, these institutions did well. The World Bank = Bank for reconstruction. It did lead a lot of reconstruction.

But over time, we became complacent. The institutions became out-dated and lost their vitality.

The recent financial crisis shows that the tables have been turned round: incredible scene of EU taking its begging bowl to China.

The tragedy is that the lessons well-known inside the existing institutions have not been learned. There are lessons about the required sequencing of reforms, etc. But with the loss of vitality of these institutions, the knowledge is being lost.

The EU has very little bandwidth for managing global affairs. Same as US. Same as Japan. They’re all preoccupied by local issues.

The influence of the old G7 is in decline. The new powers are not yet ready to take over the responsibility: China, Russia, India, Indonesia, Brazil, South Africa…

  • The new powers don’t actually want this responsibility(different reasons for different countries)
  • China, the most important of the new powers, has other priorities – managing their own poverty issues at home.

The result is that no radical reform happens, of the international institutions:

  • No organisations are killed off
  • No new ones created
  • No new operating principles are agreed.

Therefore the institutions remain ineffective. Look at the lack of meaningful progress towards solving the problems of climate change.

He has been on two Bretton Woods reform commissions, along with “lots of wonderfully smart, well-meaning people”. Four prime ministers were involved, including Gordon Brown. Kofi Annan received the report with good intentions. But no actual reform of UN took place. Governments actually want these institutions to remain weak. They don’t want to give up their power.

It’s similar to the way that the UK is unwilling to give up power to Brussels.

Sleep-walking

The financial crisis shows what happens when global systems aren’t managed:

  • Downwards spiral
  • Very hard to pull it out afterwards.

We are sleep-walking into global crises. The financial crisis is just a foretaste of what is to come. However, this need not be the case.

A positive note

He’ll finish the lecture by trying to be cheerful.

Action on global issues requires collective action by both citizens and leaders who are not afraid to relinquish power.

The good news:

  • Citizens are more connected than ever before
  • Ideologies that have divided people in the past are reducing in power
  • We can take advantage of the amplification of damage to reputation that can happen on the Internet
  • People can be rapidly mobilised to overturn bad legislation.

Encouraging example of SOPA debate in US about aspects of control of the Internet:

  • 80 million people went online to show their views, in just two days
  • Senate changed their intent within six hours.

Some good examples where international coordination works

  • International plane travel coordination (air traffic control) is example that works very well – it’s a robust system
  • Another good example: the international postal system.

What distinguishes the successes from the failures:

  • In the Air Traffic Control case, no one has a different interest
  • But in other cases, there are lots of vested interest – neutering the effectiveness of e.g. the international response to the Syrian crisis
  • Another troubling failure example is what happened in Iraq – it was a travesty of what the international system wanted and needed.

Government leaders are afraid that electorate aren’t ready to take a truly international perspective. To be internationalist in political circles is increasingly unfashionable. So we need to change public opinion first.

Like-minded citizens need to cooperate, building a growing circle of legitimacy. Don’t wait for the global system to play catch-up.

In the meantime, true political leaders should find some incremental steps, and should avoid excuse of global inaction.

Sadly, political leaders are often tied up addressing short-term crises, but these short-term crises are due to no-one satisfactorily addressing the longer-term issues. With inaction on the international issues, the short-term crises will actually get worse.

Avoiding the perfect storm

The scenario we face for the next 15-20 years is “perfect storm with no captain”.

He calls for a “Manhattan project” for supra-national governance. His book is a contribution to initiating such a project.

He supports the subsidiarity principle: decisions should be taken at the most local level possible. Due to hyper-globalisation, there are fewer and fewer things that it makes sense to control at the national level.

Loss of national sovereignty is inevitable. We can have better sovereignty at the global level – and we can influence how that works.

The calibre of leaders

Example of leader who consistently took a global perspective: Nelson Mandela. “Unfortunately we don’t have many Mandelas around.”

Do leaders owe their power bases with electorates because they are parochial? The prevailing wisdom is that national leaders have to shy away from taking a global perspective. But the electorate actually have more wisdom. They know the financial crisis wasn’t just due to bankers in Canary Wharf having overly large bonuses. They know the problems are globally systemic in nature, and need global approaches to fix them.

ian goldin

22 February 2013

Controversies over singularitarian utopianism

I shouldn’t have been surprised at the controversy that arose.

The cause was an hour-long lecture with 55 slides, ranging far and wide over a range of disruptive near-future scenarios, covering both upside and downside. The basic format of the lecture was: first the good news, and then the bad news. As stated on the opening slide,

Some illustrations of the enormous potential first, then some examples of how adding a high level of ambient stupidity might mean we might make a mess of it.

Ian PearsonThe speaker was Ian Pearson, described on his company website as “futurologist, conference speaker, regular media guest, strategist and writer”. The website continues, boldly,

Anyone can predict stuff, but only a few get it right…

Ian Pearson has been a full time futurologist since 1991, with a proven track record of over 85% accuracy at the 10 year horizon.

Ian was speaking, on my invitation, at the London Futurists last Saturday. His chosen topic was audacious in scope:

A Singularitarian Utopia Or A New Dark Age?

We’re all familiar with the idea of the singularity, the end-result of rapid acceleration of technology development caused by positive feedback. This will add greatly to human capability, not just via gadgets but also through direct body and mind enhancement, and we’ll mess a lot with other organisms and AIs too. So we’ll have superhumans and super AIs as part of our society.

But this new technology won’t bring a utopia. We all know that some powerful people, governments, companies and terrorists will also add lots of bad things to the mix. The same technology that lets you enhance your senses or expand your mind also allows greatly increased surveillance and control, eventually to the extremes of direct indoctrination and zombification. Taking the forces that already exist, of tribalism, political correctness, secrecy for them and exposure for us, and so on, it’s clear that the far future will be a weird mixture of fantastic capability, spoiled by abuse…

There were around 200 people in the audience, listening as Ian progressed through a series of increasingly mind-stretching technology opportunities. Judging by the comments posted online afterwards, some of the audience deeply appreciated what they heard:

Thank you for a terrific two hours, I have gone away full of ideas; I found the talk extremely interesting indeed…

I really enjoyed this provocative presentation…

Provocative and stimulating…

Very interesting. Thank you for organizing it!…

Amazing and fascinating!…

But not everyone was satisfied. Here’s an extract from one negative comment:

After the first half (a trippy sub-SciFi brainstorm session) my only question was, “What Are You On?”…

Another audience member wrote his own blogpost about the meeting:

A Singularitanian Utopia or a wasted afternoon?

…it was a warmed-over mish-mash of technological cornucopianism, seasoned with Daily Mail-style reactionary harrumphing about ‘political correctness gone mad’.

These are just the starters of negative feedback; I’ll get to others shortly. As I review what was said in the meeting, and look at the spirited ongoing exchange of comments online, some thoughts come to my mind:

  • Big ideas almost inevitably provoke big reactions; this talk had a lot of particularly big ideas
  • In some cases, the negative reactions to the talk arise from misunderstandings, due in part to so much material being covered in the presentation
  • In other cases, Isee the criticisms as reactions to the seeming over-confidence of the speaker (“…a proven track record of over 85% accuracy”)
  • In yet other cases, I share the negative reactions the talk generated; my own view of the near-future landscape significantly differs from the one presented on stage
  • In nearly all cases, it’s worth taking the time to progress the discussion further
  • After all, if we get our forecasts of the future wrong, and fail to make adequate preparations for the disruptions ahead, it could make a huge difference to our collective well-being.

So let’s look again at some of the adverse reactions. My aim is to raise them in a way that people who didn’t attend the talk should be able to follow the analysis.

(1) Is imminent transformation of much of human life a realistic scenario? Or are these ideas just science fiction?

NBIC SingularityThe main driver for belief in the possible imminent transformation of human life, enabled by rapidly changing technology, is the observation of progress towards “NBIC” convergence.

Significant improvements are taking place, almost daily, in our capabilities to understand and control atoms (Nano-tech), genes and other areas of life-sciences (Bio-tech), bits (Info-comms-tech), and neurons and other areas of mind (Cogno-tech). Importantly, improvements in these different fields are interacting with each other.

As Ian Pearson described the interactions:

  • Nanotech gives us tiny devices
  • Tiny sensors help neuroscience figure out how the mind works
  • Insights from neuroscience feed into machine intelligence
  • Improving machine intelligence accelerates R&D in every field
  • Biotech and IT advances make body and machine connectable

Will all the individual possible applications of NBIC convergence described by Ian happen in precisely the way he illustrated? Very probably not. The future’s not as predictable as that. But something similar could well happen:

  • Cheaper forms of energy
  • Tissue-cultured meat
  • Space exploration
  • Further miniaturisation of personal computing (wearable computing, and even “active skin”)
  • Smart glasses
  • Augmented reality displays
  • Gel computing
  • IQ and sensory enhancement
  • Dream linking
  • Human-machine convergence
  • Digital immortality: “the under 40s might live forever… but which body would you choose?”

(2) Is a focus on smart cosmetic technology an indulgent distraction from pressing environmental issues?

Here’s one of the comments raised online after the talk:

Unfortunately any respect due was undermined by his contempt for the massive environmental challenges we face.

Trivial contact lens / jewellery technology can hang itself, if our countryside is choked by yoghurt factory fumes.

The reference to jewellery took issue with remarks in the talk such as the following:

Miniaturisation will bring everyday IT down to jewellery size…

Decoration; Social status; Digital bubble; Tribal signalling…

In contrast, the talk positioned greater use of technology as the solution to environmental issues, rather than as something to exacerbate these issues. Smaller (jewellery-sized) devices, created with a greater attention to recyclability, will diminish the environmental footprint. Ian claimed that:

  • We can produce more of everything than people need
  • Improved global land management could feed up to 20 billion people
  • Clean water will be plentiful
  • We will also need less and waste less
  • Long term pollution will decline.

Nevertheless, he acknowledged that there are some short-term problems, ahead of the time when accelerating NBIC convergence can be expected to provide more comprehensive solutions:

  • Energy shortage is a short to mid term problem
  • Real problems are short term.

Where there’s room for real debate is the extent of these shorter-term problems. Discussion on the threats from global warming brought these disagreements into sharp focus.

(3) How should singularitarians regard the threat from global warming?

BalanceTowards the end of his talk, Ian showed a pair of scales, weighing up the wins and losses of NBIC technologies and a potential singularity.

The “wins” column included health, growth, wealth, fun, and empowerment.

The “losses” column included control, surveillance, oppression, directionless, and terrorism.

One of the first questions from the floor, during the Q&A period in the meeting, asked why the risk of environmental destruction was not on the list of possible future scenarios. This criticism was echoed by online comments:

The complacency about CO2 going into the atmosphere was scary…

If we risk heading towards an environmental abyss let’s do something about what we do know – fossil fuel burning.

During his talk, I picked up on one of Ian’s comments about not being particularly concerned about the risks of global warming. I asked, what about the risks of adverse positive feedback cycles, such as increasing temperatures triggering the release of vast ancient stores of methane gas from frozen tundra, accelerating the warming cycle further? That could lead to temperature increases that are much more rapid than presently contemplated, along with lots of savage disturbance (storms, droughts, etc).

Ian countered that it was a possibility, but he had the following reservations:

  • He thought these positive feedback loops would only kick into action when baseline temperature rose by around 2 degrees
  • In the meantime, global average temperatures have stopped rising, over the last eleven years
  • He estimates he spends a couple of hours every day, keeping an eye on all sides of the global warming debate
  • There are lots of exaggerations and poor science on both sides of the debate
  • Other factors such as the influence of solar cycles deserve more research.

Here’s my own reaction to these claims:

  • The view that global average temperatures  have stopped rising, is, among serious scientists, very much a minority position; see e.g. this rebuttal on Carbon Brief
  • Even if there’s only a small probability of a runaway spurt of accelerated global warming in the next 10-15 years, we need to treat that risk very seriously – in the same way that, for example, we would be loath to take a transatlantic flight if we were told there was a 5% chance of the airplane disintegrating mid-flight.

Nevertheless, I did not want the entire meeting to divert into a debate about global warming – “that deserves a full meeting in its own right”, I commented, before moving on to the next question. In retrospect, perhaps that was a mistake, since it may have caused some members of the audience to mentally disengage from the meeting.

(4) Are there distinct right-wing and left-wing approaches to the singularity?

Here’s another comment that was raised online after the talk:

I found the second half of the talk to be very disappointing and very right-wing.

And another:

Someone who lists ‘race equality’ as part of the trend towards ignorance has shown very clearly what wing he is on…

In the second half of his talk, Ian outlined changes in norms of beliefs and values. He talked about the growth of “religion substitutes” via a “random walk of values”:

  • Religious texts used to act as a fixed reference for ethical values
  • Secular society has no fixed reference point so values oscillate quickly.
  • 20 years can yield 180 degree shift
  • e.g. euthanasia, sexuality, abortion, animal rights, genetic modification, nuclear energy, family, policing, teaching, authority…
  • Pressure to conform reinforces relativism at the expense of intellectual rigour

A complicating factor here, Ian stated, was that

People have a strong need to feel they are ‘good’. Some of today’s ideological subscriptions are essentially secular substitutes for religion, and demand same suspension of free thinking and logical reasoning.

Knowledge GraphA few slides later, he listed examples of “the rise of nonsense beliefs”:

e.g. new age, alternative medicine, alternative science, 21st century piety, political correctness

He also commented that “99% are only well-informed on trivia”, such as fashion, celebrity, TV culture, sport, games, and chat virtual environments.

This analysis culminated with a slide that personally strongly resonated with me: a curve of “anti-knowledge” accelerating and overtaking a curve of “knowledge”:

In pursuit of social compliance, we are told to believe things that are known to be false.

With clever enough spin, people accept them and become worse than ignorant.

So there’s a kind of race between “knowledge” and “anti-knowledge”.

One reason this resonated with me is that it seemed like a different angle on one of my own favourite metaphors for the challenges of the next 15-30 years – the metaphor of a dramatic race:
Race

  • One runner in the race is “increasing rationality, innovation, and collaboration”; if this runner wins, the race ends in a positive singularity
  • The other runner in the race is “increasing complexity, rapidly diminishing resources”; if this runner wins, the race ends in a negative singularity.

In the light of Ian’s analysis, I can see that the second runner is aided by the increase of anti-knowledge: over-attachment to magical, simplistic, ultimately misleading worldviews.

However, it’s one thing to agree that “anti-knowledge” is a significant factor in determining the future; it’s another thing to agree which sets of ideas count as knowledge, and which as anti-knowledge! One of Ian’s slides included the following list of “religion substitutes”:

Animal rights, political correctness, pacifism, vegetarianism, fitness, warmism, environmentalism, anti-capitalism

It’s no wonder that many of the audience felt offended. Why list “warmism” (a belief in human-caused global warming), but not “denialism” (denial of human-caused global warming? Why list “anti-capitalism” but not “free market fundamentalism”? Why list “pacifism” but not “militarism”?

One online comment made a shrewd observation:

Ian raised my curiosity about ‘false beliefs’ (or nonsense beliefs as Ian calls them) as I ‘believe’ we all inhabit different belief systems – so what is true for one person may be false for another… at that exact moment in time.

And things can change. Once upon a time, it was a nonsense belief that the world was round.

There may be 15% of truth in some nonsense beliefs…or possibly even 85% truth. Taking ‘alternative medicine’ as an example of one of Ian’s nonsense beliefs – what if two of the many reasons it was considered nonsense were that (1) it is outside the world (the system) of science and technology and (2) it cannot be controlled by the pharmaceutical companies (perhaps our high priests of today)?

(5) The role of corporations and politicians in the approach to the singularity

One place where the right-wing / left-wing division becomes more acute in the question of whether anything special needs to be done to control the behaviour of corporations (businesses).

One of Ian’s strong positive recommendations, at the end of his presentation, was that scientists and engineers should become more actively involved in educating the general public about issues of technology. Shortly afterward, the question came from the floor: what about actions to educate or control corporations? Ian replied that he had very little to recommend to corporations, over and above his recommendations to the individuals within these corporations.

My own view is different. From my life inside industry, I’ve seen numerous cases of good people who are significantly constrained in their actions by the company systems and metrics in which they find themselves enmeshed.

Indeed, just as people should be alarmed about the prospects of super-AIs gaining too much power, over and above the humans who created them, we should also be alarmed about the powers that super-corporations are accumulating, over and above the powers and intentions of their employees.

The argument to leave corporations alone finds its roots in ideologies of freedom: government regulation of corporations often has undesirable side-effects. Nevertheless, that’s just an argument for being smarter and more effective in how the regulation works – not an argument to abstain from regulation altogether.

The question of the appropriate forms of collaborative governance remains one of the really hard issues facing anyone concerned about the future. Leaving corporations to find their own best solutions is, in my view, very unlikely to be the optimum approach.

In terms of how “laissez-faire” we should be, in the face of potential apocalypse down the road, I agree with the assessment near the end of Jeremy Green’s blogpost:

Pearson’s closing assertion that in the end our politicians will always wake up and pull us back from the brink of any disaster is belied by many examples of civilisations that did not pull back and went right over the edge to destruction.

Endnote:

After the presentation in Birkbeck College ended, around 40-50 of the audience regrouped in a nearby pub, to continue the discussion. The discussion is also continuing, at a different tempo, in the online pages of the London Futurists meetup. Ian Pearson deserves hearty congratulation for stirring up what has turned out to be an enlightening discussion – even though there’s heat in the comments as well as light!

Evidently, the discussion is far from complete…

9 May 2010

Chapter completed: Crises and opportunities

Filed under: alienation, change, climate change, Economics, H+ Agenda, recession, risks, terrorism — David Wood @ 12:16 am

I’ve taken the plunge.  I’ve started writing another book, and I’ve finished the first complete draft of the first chapter.

The title I have in mind for the book is:

The Humanity+ Agenda: the vital priorities for the coming decade

The book is an extended version of the 10 minute opening presentation I gave a couple of weeks ago, at the Humanity+ UK 2010 event.  My reasons for writing this book are spelt out here.  The book will re-use and refine a lot of the material I’ve tried out from time to time in earlier posts on this blog, so you may find parts of it familiar.

I’ve had a few false starts, but I’m now happy with both the framework for the book (9 chapters in all) and a planned editing/review process.

Chapter 1 is called “Crises and opportunities”.  There’s a copy of the current draft below.

I’ll keep the latest drafts of all the chapters in the “Pages” section of this blog – accessible from the box on the right hand side.  From time to time – as in this posting – I’ll copy snapshots of the latest material into regular blogposts.

It’s my hope that the book will benefit from feedback and suggestions from readers.  Comments can be made, either to regular blogposts, or to the “pages”.  I’m also open to receiving emailed comments or contributions.  Unless someone tells me otherwise, I’ll assume that anything posted in response is intended as a potential contribution to the book.

(I’ll acknowledge, in the acknowledgements section of the book, all contributions that I use.)

========

1. Crises and opportunities

<Snapshot of material whose master copy is kept here>

The decade 2010-2019 will be a decade of crises for humanity:

  • As hundreds of millions of people worldwide significantly change their lifestyles, consuming ever more energy and generating ever more waste, the planet Earth faces increasingly great strains. “More of the same” is not an acceptable response.
  • Alongside the risk of environmental disaster, another risks looms: that of economic meltdown. The massive shocks to the global finance system at the end of the previous decade bear witness to powerful underlying tensions and problems with the operation of market economies.
  • The rapid rate of change causes widespread personal frustration and societal angst, driving a significant minority of people into the arms of beguiling ideologies such as fundamentalist Islam and the militant pursuit of terrorism. Relatively easy access to potential weapons of mass destruction – whether nuclear, biological, or chemical – transforms the threat of terrorism from an issue of national security into an issue of global survival.

In aggregation, these threats are truly fearsome.

To improve humanity’s chances of surviving, in good shape, to 2020 and beyond, we need new solutions.

I believe that these new solutions are emerging in part from improved technology, and in part from an important change in attitude towards technology. This book explains the basis for these beliefs.  This chapter summarises the crises, and the remaining chapters summarise the proposed solutions.

In the phrase “Humanity+”, the plus sign after the word “Humanity” emphasises that solutions to our present situation cannot be achieved by people continuing to do the same as before. Instead, a credible vision of wise application of new technologies can bring humans – both individually and collectively – to operate in dramatically enhanced ways:

  • Humans will be able, in stages, to break further free from the crippling constraints and debilitations of our evolutionary background and our historical experiences;
  • We will, individually and collectively, become smarter, wiser, stronger, kinder, healthier, calmer, brighter, more peaceful, and more fulfilled;
  • Instead of fruitless divisions and conflicts, we’ll find much better ways to cooperate, and build social systems for mutual benefit.

This is the vision of humanity fulfilling its true potential.

But there are many obstacles on the path to this fulfilment.  These obstacles could easily drive Humanity to “Humanity-” (humanity minus), or even worse (human annihilation), rather than Humanity+.  There’s nothing inevitable about the outcome.  As a reminder of the scale of the obstacles, let’s briefly review five interrelated pending crises.

1.1 The environmental crisis

Potential shortages of clean drinking water.  Rapid reductions in the available stocks of buried energy sources, such as coal, gas, and oil.  Crippling impacts on our environment from the waste products of our lifestyles.  These – and more – represent the oncoming environmental crisis.

With good reason, the aspect of the environmental crisis that is most widely discussed is the potential threat of runaway climate change.  Our accelerating usage of fossil fuels means that carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere has reached levels unprecedented in human history.  This magnifies the greenhouse effect of the atmosphere, tending to push the average global temperature higher.  This relationship is complex.  Forget simple ideas about increases in factor A invariably being the cause of increases in factor B.  Think instead about a dance of different factors that each influence the other, in different ways at different times.  (That’s a theme that you’ll notice throughout this book.)

In the case of climate change, the players in the dance include:

  • Variation in the amount of sunlight striking earth landmasses, due to changes over geological timescales in the axis of the earth, the eccentricity of the earth’s orbit, and the distribution of landmass over different latitudes;
  • Variation in the slow-paced transfer of heat between different parts of the ocean;
  • Variation in the speed of build-up or collapse of huge polar ice sheets;
  • Variation in numerous items in the atmosphere, including aerosols (which tend to lower average temperature) and greenhouse gases (which tend to raise it again);
  • Variation in the amounts of greenhouse gases, such as methane, being suddenly released into the atmosphere from buried frozen stores (for example, from tundra);
  • Variation in the sensitivity of the planet to the various “climate forcing agents” – sometimes a small change in one will lead to just small changes in the climate, but at other times the consequences are more severe.

What makes this dance potentially deadly is the twin risk of latent momentum and strong positive feedback:

  • More CO2 in the atmosphere raises the average temperature, which means there’s more H2O (water vapour) in the atmosphere too, raising the average temperature yet further;
  • Icesheets over the Antarctic and Greenland take a long time to start to disintegrate, but once the process gets under way, it can become essentially irreversible;
  • Less ice on the planet means less incoming sunlight is reflected to space; instead, larger areas of water absorb more of the sunlight, increasing ocean temperature further;
  • Rises in sea temperatures can trigger the sudden release of huge amounts of greenhouse gases from methane clathrate compounds buried in seabeds and permafrost – another example of rapid positive feedback.

Indeed, there is significant evidence that runaway methane clathrate breakdown may have caused drastic alteration of the ocean environment and the atmosphere of earth a number of times in the past, most notably in connection with the Permian extinction event, when 96% of all marine species became extinct about 250 million years ago.

Of course, predicting the future of the environment is hard.  There are three sorts of fogs of climate change uncertainty:

  1. Many of the technical interactions are still unknown, or are far from being fully understood.  We are continuing to learn more;
  2. Even where we believe we do understand the technical interactions, many of the detailed interactions are unpredictable.  Just as it’s hard to predict the weather itself, one month (say) into the future, it’s hard to predict the exact effect of ongoing climate forcing agents.  The effect that “a butterfly flapping its wings unpredictably causes a hurricane on the other side of the planet” applies for the chaos of climate as much as for the chaos of weather;
  3. There are huge numbers of vested interests, who (consciously or sub-consciously) twist and distort aspects of the argument over climate change.

The vested interests include:

  • Both anti-nuclear and pro-nuclear campaigners;
  • Both anti-oil and pro-oil campaigners, and anti-coal and pro-coal campaigners;
  • Both “small is beautiful” and “big is beautiful” campaigners;
  • Both “back to nature” and “pro-technology” campaigners;
  • Scientists and authors who have long supported particular theories, and who are loath to change their viewpoints;
  • Hardened political campaigners who look to extract maximum concessions, for the region or country they represent, before agreeing a point of negotiation.

Not only is it psychologically hard for individuals to objectively review data or theories that conflicts with their favoured opinions.  It is economically hard for companies (such as energy companies) to accept viewpoints that, if true, would cause major hurdles for their current lines of business, and significant loss of jobs.  On the other hand, just because researcher R has strong psychological reason P and/or strong economic incentive E in favour of advocating viewpoint V, it does not mean that viewpoint V is wrong.  The viewpoint could be correct, even though some of the support advanced in its favour is non-logical.  As I said, there’s lots of fog to navigate!

Despite all this uncertainty, I offer the following conclusions:

  • There is a wide range of possible outcomes, for the climate in the next few decades;
  • The probability of runaway global warming – with disastrous effects on sea levels, drought, agriculture, storms, species and ecosystem displacement, travel, business, and so on – is at least 20%, and likely higher;
  • Global warming won’t just make the temperature higher; it will make the weather more extreme – due to increased global temperature gradients, increased atmospheric water vapour, and higher sea temperatures that stir up more vicious storms.

A risk of at least 20% of a global environmental disaster deserves urgent attention and further analysis.  Who among us would enter an airplane with family and friends, if we believed there was a 20% probability of that airplane plummeting headlong out of the sky to the ground?

1.2 The economic crisis

The controversies and uncertainties over the potential threat of runaway climate change find parallels in discussions over a possible catastrophic implosion of the world economic system.  These discussions likewise abound with technical disagrements and vested interests.

Are governments, legislators, banks, and markets generally wise enough and capable to oversee the pressures of financial trading, and keep the systems afloat?  Was the recent series of domino-like collapses of famous banks around the world a “once in a lifetime” abnormality, that is most unlikely to repeat?  Or should we expect a recurrence of fundamental financial instability?  What is the risk of a larger financial crisis striking?  Indeed, what is the risk of adverse follow-on effects from the “tail end” of the 2008-2009 crisis, generating a so-called “double dip” in which the second dip is more drastic than the first?  On all these questions, opinions vary widely.

Despite the wide variation in opinions, some elements seem common.  All commentators are fearful of some potential causes of major disruption to global economics.  Depending on the commentator, these perceived potential causes include:

  • Clumsy regulation of financial markets;
  • Bankers who are able to take catastrophic risks in the pursuit of ever greater financial rewards;
  • The emergence of enormous monopoly powers that eliminate the benefits of marketplace competition;
  • Institutions that become “too big to fail” and therefore derail the appropriate workings of the market system;
  • Sky-high accumulation of debts, with individuals and countries living far beyond their means, for too long;
  • Austerity programmes that attempt to reduce debts quickly, but which could provoke spiraling industrial disputes and crippling strikes;
  • Bubbles that grow because “it’s temporarily rational for everyone to be irrational in their expectations” and then burst with tremendous damage.

We must avoid a feeling of overconfidence arising from the fact that previous financial crises were, in the end, survived, without the world of banking coming to an end.  First, these previous financial crises caused numerous local calamities – and the causes of major wars can be traced (in part) to these crises.  Second, there are reasons why future financial problems could have more drastic effects than previous ones:

  • There are numerous hidden interconnections between different parts of the global  economy, which accelerate negative feedback when individual parts fail;
  • The complexity of new financial products far outstrips the ability of senior managers and regulators to understand and appreciate the risks involved;
  • In an age of instant electronic connections, the speed of cascading events can catch us all flat-footed.

For these reasons, I tentatively suggest we assign a ballpark risk factor of about 20% to the probability of a major global financial meltdown during the 2010s.  (Yes, this is the same numeric figure as I picked for the environmental crisis too.)

Note some parallels between the two crises I’ve already discussed:

  • In each case, the devil is in the mix of weakly-understood powerful feedback systems;
  • Again in each case, our ability to discern what’s really happening is clouded by powerful non-rational factors and vested interests;
  • Again in each case, the probabilities of major disaster cannot be calculated in any precise way, but the risk appears large enough to warrant very serious investigation of solutions;
  • Again in each case, there is deep disagreement about the best solutions to deploy.

Worse, these two looming crises are themselves interconnected.  Shortage of resources such as clean energy could trigger large price hikes which throw national economies into tailspins.  Countries or regions which formerly cooperated could end up at devastating loggerheads, if an “abundance spirit” is replaced by a “scarcity spirit”.

1.3 The extreme terrorist crisis

What drives people to use bombs to inflict serious damage?  Depending on the cirumstance, it’s a combination of:

  • Positive belief, in support of some country, region, ideology, or religion;
  • Negative belief, in which a group of people (“the enemy”) are seen as despicable, inferior, or somehow deserving of destruction or punishment;
  • Peer pressure, where people feel constrained by those around them to follow through on a commitment (to become, for example, a suicide bomber);
  • Personal rage, such as a desire for revenge and humiliation;
  • Aspiration for personal glory and reward, in either the present life, or a presumed afterlife;
  • Failure of countervailing “pro-cooperation” and “pro-peace” instincts or systems.

Nothing here is new for the 2010s.  What is new is the increased ease of access, by would-be inflictors of damage, to so-called weapons of mass destruction.  There is a fair probability that the terrorists who piloted passenger jet airlines into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon would have willingly caused even larger amounts of turmoil and damage, if they could have put their hands on suitable weapons.

Technology itself is neutral.  A hammer which can be used to drive a nail into a piece of wood can equally be used to knock a fellow human unconscious.  Electricity can light up houses or fry someone in an electric chair.  Explosives can clear obstacles during construction projects or can obliterate critical infrastructure assets of so-called enemies.  Biochemical manipulation can yield wonderfully nutritious new food compounds or deadly new diseases.  Nuclear engineering can provide sufficient energy to free humanity from dependency on carbon-laden fossil fuels, or suitcase-sized portable weapons capable of tearing the heart out of major cities.

As technology becomes more widely accessible – via improved education worldwide, via cheaper raw materials, and via easy access to online information – the potential grows, both for good uses and for bad uses.  A saying attributed to Eliezer Yudkowsky gives us pause for thought:

The minimum IQ required to destroy the world drops by one point every 18 months.

(This saying is sometimes called “Moore’s Law of mad scientists“.)  The statement was probably not intended to be interpreted mathematically exactly, but we can agree that, over the course of a decade, the number of people capable of putting together a dreadful weapon of mass destruction will grow significantly.  The required brainpower will move from the rarified tails of the bell curve of intelligence distribution, in the direction of the more fully populated central region.

We can imagine similar “laws” of increasing likelihood of destructive capability:

The minimum IQ required to devise and deploy a weapon that wipes out the heart of a major city drops by one point every 18 months;

The minimum IQ required to poison the water table for a region drops by one point every 18 months;

The minimum IQ required to unleash a devastating plague drops by one point every 18 months…

Of course, the threat of nuclear annihilation has been with the world for half a century.  During my student days at Cambridge University, I participated in countless discussions about how best to avoid the risk of unintentional nuclear war.  Despite the forebodings of some of my contemporaries at the time, we reached the end of the 20th century unscathed.  Governments of nuclear-capable countries, regardless of their political hues and ideological positions, found good reason to avoid steps that could trigger any nuclear escalation.  What’s different with at least some fundamentalist terrorists is that they operate in a mental universe that is considerably more extreme:

  • They live for a life beyond the grave, rather than before it;
  • They believe that divine providence will take care of the outcome – any “innocents” caught up in the destruction will receive their own rewards in the afterlife, courtesy of an all-seeing, all-knowing deity;
  • They are nourished and inspired by apocalyptic writing that glorifies a vision of almighty destruction;
  • They operate with moral certainty: they seem to harbour no doubts or questions about the rightness of their course of action.

Mix this extreme mindset with sufficient raw brainpower and with weapons-grade materials that can be begged, bought, or stolen, and the stage is set for a terrorist outrage that will put 9/11 far into the shade.  In turn, the world’s reaction to that incident is likely to put the reaction to 9/11 far into its own shade.

It’s true, would-be terrorists are often incompetent.  Their explosives sometimes fail to detonate.  But that must give us no ground for complacency.  The same “incompetence” can sometimes result in unforeseen consequences that are even more destructive than those intended.

1.4 The sense of profound personal alienation

Environmental crisis.  Economic crisis.  Extreme terrorist crisis.  Added together, we might be facing a risk of around 50% that, sometime during the 2010s, we’ll collectively look back with enormous regret and say to ourselves:

That’s the worst thing that’s happened in our lifetime.  Why oh why didn’t we act to stop it happening?  But it’s too late to make amends now.  If only we could re-run history, and take wiser choices…

But there’s more.  Here’s a probability that I’ll estimate at 100%, rather than 50%.  It’s the probability that huge numbers of individuals will look at their lives with bitter regret, and say to themselves:

This outcome was very far from the best it could have been.  This human life has missed, by miles, the richness and quality of experience that was potentially available.  Why oh why did it turn out like this?  If only I could re-run my life, and take wiser choices, or benefit from improved circumstances…

The first three crises are global crises.  This fourth one is a personal crisis.  The first three are highly visible.  The fourth might just be an internal heartache.  It’s the realisation that:

  • Life provides, at least for some people, on at least some occasions, intense feelings of vitality, creativity, flow, rapport, ecstacy, and accomplishment;
  • These “peak experiences” are generally rare, or just glimpsed;
  • The majority of human experience is at a much lower level of quality than is conceivable.

The pervasive video broadcast communications of the modern age make it all the more obvious, to increasing numbers of people, that the quality of their lives fall short of what could be imagined and desired.  These same communications also strongly hint that technology is advancing to the point where it could soon free people from the limitations of their current existence, and enable levels of experience previously only imagined for deities.  Just around the corner lies the potential of lives that are much extended, expanded, and enhanced.  How frustrating to miss out on this potential!  It brings to mind the lamentations of a venerable French noblewoman from 1783, as noted in Lewis Lapham’s 2003 Commencement speech at St. John’s College Annapolis:

[A] French noblewoman, a duchess in her eighties, …, on seeing the first ascent of Montgolfier’s balloon from the palace of the Tuilleries in 1783, fell back upon the cushions of her carriage and wept. “Oh yes,” she said, “Now it’s certain. One day they’ll learn how to keep people alive forever, but I shall already be dead.”

Acts of gross destruction are often motivated by deep feelings of dissatisfaction or frustration: the world is perceived as containing significant wrongs, that need righting.  So there’s a connection between the crisis of profound personal alienation and the crisis of extreme terrorism.  Thankfully, people who experience dissatisfaction or frustration don’t all react in the same way.  But even if the reaction is only (as I suggested earlier) an internal heartache, the shortcoming between potential and reality is nonetheless profound.  Life could, and should, be so much better.

We can re-state the four crises as four huge opportunities:

  1. The opportunity to nurture an amazingly pleasant, refreshing, and intriguing environment;
  2. The opportunity to guide global economic development to sustainably create sufficient resources for everyone’s needs;
  3. The opportunity to utilise personal passions for constructive projects;
  4. The opportunity to enable individuals to persistently experience qualities of human life far, far higher than at present.

I see Humanity+ as addressing all four of these opportunities.  And it does so with an eye on one more crisis, which is the most uncertain one of the lot.

1.5 The existential crisis of accelerating change and deepening complexity

Time and again, changes have consequences that are unforeseen and unintended.  The more complex the system, the greater the likelihood of changes leading to unintended consequences.

However, human society is becoming more complex all the time:

  • Multiple different cultures and sub-cultures overlap, co-exist, and influence each other;
  • Worldwide travel is nowadays commonplace;
  • Increasing numbers of channels exist for communication and influence ;
  • Society is underpinned by a rich infrastructure of multi-layered technology.

Moreover, the rate of change is increasing:

  • New products sweep around the world in ever shorter amounts of time;
  • Larger numbers of people are being educated to levels never seen before, and are entering the worlds of research, development, manufacturing, and business;
  • Online collaboration mechanisms, including social networks, wikis, and open source software, mean it is easier for innovation in one part of the world to quickly influence and benefit subsequent innovation elsewhere;
  • The transformation of more industries from “matter-dominated” to “information-dominated” means that the rapid improvement cycle of semiconductors transforms the speed of progress.

These changes bring many benefits.  They also bring drawbacks, and – due to the law of unintended consequences – they bring lots of unknowns and surprises.  The risk is that we’ll waken up one morning and realise that we deeply regret one of the unforeseen side-effects.  For example, there are risks:

  • That some newly created microscopic-scale material will turn out to have deleterious effects on human life, akin (but faster acting) to the problems arising to exposure from asbestos;
  • That some newly engineered biochemical organism will escape into the wild and turn out to have an effect like that of a plague;
  • That well-intentioned attempts at climate “geo-engineering”, to counter the risk of global warming, will trigger unexpected fast-moving geological phenomenon;
  • That state-of-the-art high-energy physics experiments will somehow create unanticipated exotic new particles that destroy all nearby space and time;
  • That software defects will spread throughout part of the computing infrastructure of modern life, rendering it useless.

Here’s another example, from history.  On 1st March 1954, the US military performed their first test of a dry fuel hydrogen bomb, at the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands.  The explosive yield was expected to be from 4 to 6 Megatons.  But when the device was exploded, the yield was 15 Megatons, two and a half times the expected maximum.  As the Wikipedia article on this test explosion explains:

The cause of the high yield was a laboratory error made by designers of the device at Los Alamos National Laboratory.  They considered only the lithium-6 isotope in the lithium deuteride secondary to be reactive; the lithium-7 isotope, accounting for 60% of the lithium content, was assumed to be inert…

Contrary to expectations, when the lithium-7 isotope is bombarded with high-energy neutrons, it absorbs a neutron then decomposes to form an alpha particle, another neutron, and a tritium nucleus.  This means that much more tritium was produced than expected, and the extra tritium in fusion with deuterium (as well as the extra neutron from lithium-7 decomposition) produced many more neutrons than expected, causing far more fissioning of the uranium tamper, thus increasing yield.

This resultant extra fuel (both lithium-6 and lithium-7) contributed greatly to the fusion reactions and neutron production and in this manner greatly increased the device’s explosive output.

Sadly, this calculation error resulted in much more radioactive fallout than anticipated.  Many of the crew in a nearby Japanese fishing boat, the Lucky Dragon No. 5, became ill in the wake of direct contact with the fallout.  One of the crew subsequently died from the illness – the first human casualty from thermonuclear weapons.

Suppose the error in calculation had been significantly worse – perhaps by an order of thousands rather than by a factor of 2.5.  This might seem unlikely, but when we deal with powerful unknowns, we cannot rule out powerful unforeseen consequences.  Imagine if extreme human activity somehow interfered with the incompletely understood mechanisms governing supervolcanoes – such as the one that exploded around 73,000 years ago at Lake Toba (Sumatra, Indonesia) and which is thought to have reduced the worldwide human population at the time to perhaps as few as one thousand breeding pairs.

It’s not just gargantuan explosions that we need fear.  As indicated above, the list of so-called “existential risks” includes highly contagious diseases, poisonous nano-particles, and catastrophic failures of the electronics infrastructure that underpins modern human society.  Add to these “known unknowns” the risk of “unknown unknowns” – the factors which we currently don’t even know that we should be considering.

The more quickly things change, the harder it is to foresee and monitor all the consequences.  There’s a great deal that deserves our attention.  How should we respond?

>> Next chapter >>

17 January 2010

Embracing engineering for the whole earth

Filed under: books, climate change, Genetic Engineering, geoengineering, green, Nuclear energy — David Wood @ 2:14 am

One thing I’m trying to do with my blog is to provide useful pointers, into the vast amount of material that’s available both online and offline, to the small small fraction of that material which does the best job of summarising, extending, and challenging current thinking.

Whole Earth Discipline: an ecopragmatist manifesto“, the recent book by veteran ecologist and environmentalist Stewart Brand, comprehensively fits that criterion.  It is so full of insight that virtually every page contains not just one but several blogworthy quotes, ideas, facts, putdowns, and/or refutations.  It’s that good.  I could write a book-length blogpost signing its praises.

Brand turned 70 while writing this book.  In the book, he indicates that he has changed his mind as he grew older.  The book serves as a landmark for various changes of mind for the environmental movement as a whole.  The argument is sustained, easy-to-read, detailed, and compelling.

The core argument is that the future well-being of the whole planet – human societies embedded in biological ecosystems – requires a thoroughgoing embrace of an engineering mindset.  Specifically, the environmental movement needs to recognise:

  • That the process of urbanisation – the growth of cities, even in apparently haphazard ways – provides good solutions to many worries about over-population;
  • That nuclear energy will play a large role in providing clean, safe, low-carbon energy;
  • That GE (genetic engineering) will play a large role in providing safe, healthy, nutritious food and medicine;
  • That the emerging field of synthetic biology can usefully and safely build upon what’s already being accomplished by GE;
  • That methods of geoengineering will almost certainly play a part in heading off the world’s pending climate change catastrophe.

The book has an objective and compassionate tone throughout.  At times it squarely accuses various environmentalists of severe mistakes – particularly in aspects of their opposition to GE and nuclear energy – mistakes that have had tragic consequences for developing societies around the world.  It’s hard to deny the charges.  I sincerely hope that the book will receive a wide readership, and will cause people to change their minds.

The book doesn’t just provide advocacy for some specific technologies.  More than that, it makes the case for changes in mindset:

  • It highlights major limitations to the old green mantra that “small is beautiful”;
  • It unpicks various romantic notions about the lifestyles and philosophies of native peoples (such as the American Indians);
  • It shows the deep weakness of the “precautionary principle”, and proposes an own alternative approach;
  • It emphasises how objections to people “playing God” are profoundly misguided.

Indeed, the book starts with the quote:

We are as gods and HAVE to get good at it.

It concludes with the following summary:

Ecological balance is too important for sentiment.  It requires science.

The health of the natural infrastructure is too compromised for passivity.  It requires engineering.

What we call natural and what we call human are inseparable.  We live one life.

And what is an engineer?  Brand states:

Romantics love problems; scientists discover and analyze problems; engineers solve problems.

As I read this book, I couldn’t help comparing it to “The constant economy” by Zac Goldsmith, which I read a few weeks ago.  The two books share many concerns about the unsustainable lifestyles presently being practiced around the world.  There are a few solutions in common, too.  But the wide distrust of technology shown by Goldsmith is amply parried by the material that Brand marshalls.  And the full set of solutions proposed by Brand are much more credible than those proposed by Goldsmith.  Goldsmith has been a major advisor to the UK Conservative Party on environmental matters.  If any UK party could convince me that they thoroughly understand, and intend to implement, the proposal in Brand’s book, I would be deeply impressed.

Note: an annotated reference companion to the book is available online, at www.sbnotes.com.  It bristles with useful links.  There’s also a 16 minute TED video, “Stewart Brand proclaims 4 environmental ‘heresies’“, which is well worth viewing.

Thanks to Marc Gunther, whose blogpost “Why Stewart Brand’s new book is a must-read” alerted me to this book.

By a fortunate coincidence, Brand will be speaking at the RSA in London on Tuesday.  I’m anticipating a good debate from the audience.  An audio feed from the meeting will be broadcast live.

2 January 2010

Vital for futurists: hacking the earth

Filed under: books, climate change, futurist, geoengineering — David Wood @ 1:16 am

Here’s a tip, for anyone seriously interested in the big issues that will dominate discussion in the next 5-10 years.  You should become familiar (if you’re not already) with the work of Jamais Cascio.  Jamais is someone who consistently has deep, interesting, and challenging things to say about the large changes that are likely to sweep over the planet in the decades ahead.

In 2003, Jamais co-founded WorldChanging.com, a website dedicated to finding and calling attention to models, tools and ideas for building a “bright green” future. In March, 2006, he started Open the Future.

One topic that Jamais has often addressed is geoengineering – sometimes also called “climate engineering”, “planetary engineering”, or “terraforming”.  Geoengineering covers a range of large-scale projects that could, conceivably, be deployed to head-off the effects of runaway global warming.  Examples include launching large mirrors into space to reflect sunlight away from the earth, injecting sulphate particles into the stratosphere, brightening clouds or deserts to increase their reflectivity, and extracting greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.  It’s a thoroughly controversial topic.  But Jamais treads skilfully and thoughtfully through the controversies.

A collection of essays by Jamais on the topic of geoengineering is available in book format, under the title “Hacking the earth: understanding the consequences of geoengineering“.  It’s a slim volume, with just over 100 pages, but it packs lots of big thoughts.  While reading, I found myself nodding in agreement throughout the book.

At present, this book is only available from Lulu.com.  As Jamais says, the book is, for him:

an experiment in self-publishing…

… in recent weeks various friends have tried out – and given high marks to – web-based self-publishing outfits like Lulu.com… I thought I’d give this method a shot.

The material in the book is derived from articles published online at Open the Future and elsewhere.  Some of the big themes are as follows (the following bullet points are all excerpts from Jamais’ writing):

  • Feedback effects ranging from methane released from melting permafrost to carbon emissions from decaying remnants of forests devoured by pine beetles risk boosting greenhouse gases faster than natural compensation mechanisms can handle.  The accumulation of non-linear drivers can lead to “tipping point” events causing functionally irreversible changes to geophysical systems (such as massive sea-level increases).  Some of these can have feedback effects of their own, such as the elimination of ice caps reducing global albedo, thereby accelerating heating.
  • None of the bright green solutions — ultra-efficient buildings and vehicles, top-to-bottom urban redesigns, local foods, renewable energy systems, and the like — will do anything to reduce the anthropogenic greenhouse gases that have already been emitted. The best result we get is stabilizing at an already high greenhouse gas level. And because of ocean thermal inertia and other big, slow climate effects, the Earth will continue to warm for a couple of decades even after we stop all greenhouse gas emissions. Transforming our civilization into a bright green wonderland won’t be easy, and under even the most optimistic estimates will take at least a decade; by the time we finally stop putting out additional greenhouse gases, we could well have gone past a point where globally disastrous results are inevitable. In fact, given the complexity of climate feedback systems, we may already have passed such a tipping point, even if we stopped all emissions today.
  • Geoengineering, should it be tried, would not be a replacement for making the economic, social, and technological changes needed to eliminate anthropogenic greenhouse gases. It would only be a way of giving us more time to make those changes. It’s not an either-or situation; geo is a last-ditch prop for making sure that we can do what needs to be done.
  • We don’t know enough about how the various geoengineering proposals would play out to make a persuasive case for trying any of them.  There needs to be far more study before making any even moderate-scale experimental effort. This is not something to try today. The most important task for current geoengineering research is to identify the approaches that might look attractive at first, but have devastating results — we need to know what we should avoid even if desperate.
  • Like it or not, we’ve entered the era of intentional geoengineering. The people who believe that (re)terraforming is a bad idea need to be part of the discussion about specific proposals, not simply sources of blanket condemnations. We need their insights and intelligence. The best way to make that happen, the best way to make sure that any terraforming effort leads to a global benefit, not harm, is to open the process of studying and developing geotechnological tools.
  • Geoengineering presents more than just an environmental question. It also presents a geopolitical dilemma. With processes of this magnitude and degree of uncertainty, countries would inevitably argue over control, costs, and liability for mistakes. More troubling, however, is the possibility that states may decide to use geoengineering efforts and technologies as weapons. Two factors make this a danger we dismiss at our peril: the unequal impact of climate changes, and the ability of small states and even nonstate actors to attempt geoengineering.
  • It is possible that, should the international community refrain from geoengineering strategies, one or more smaller, non-hegemonic, actors could undertake geoengineering projects of their own. This could be out of a legitimate fear that prevention and mitigation strategies would be insufficient, out of a disagreement with the consensus over geoengineering safety or results, or—most troublingly—out of a desire to use geoengineering tools to achieve a relative increase in competitive power over adversaries.

I particularly liked Jamais’ suggestion of a “Reversibility Principle” as an alternative to the “Precautionary Principle” and “Proactionary Principle” that have previously been suggested as guidelines for deciding which actions to take, regarding the application of technology.

Geoengineering is, by its nature, a huge topic.  The “Technology Review” magazine contains a substantial analysis entitled “The Geoengineering Gambit” in its Jan-Feb 2010 edition. And the authors of Freakonomics, Stephen J Dubner and Steven Levitt, included a chapter on geoengineering in their follow-up book, “Superfreakonomics“.  As it happens, there seems to be wide consensus that the freakonomics team were considerably too hasty in their analysis – see for example the Guardian article “Why Superfreakonomics’ authors are wrong on geo-engineering“.  But the fact that there were mistakes in that analysis doesn’t mean the topic itself should fade from view.

Far from it: I’m sure we’re going to be hearing more and more about geoengineering.  It deserves our attention!

24 December 2009

Predictions for the decade ahead

Before highlighting some likely key trends for the decade ahead – the 2010’s – let’s pause a moment to review some of the most important developments of the last ten years.

  • Technologically, the 00’s were characterised by huge steps forwards with social computing (“web 2.0”) and with mobile computing (smartphones and more);
  • Geopolitically, the biggest news has been the ascent of China to becoming the world’s #2 superpower;
  • Socioeconomically, the world is reaching a deeper realisation that current patterns of consumption cannot be sustained (without major changes), and that the foundations of free-market economics are more fragile than was previously widely thought to be the case;
  • Culturally and ideologically, the threat of militant Jihad, potentially linked to dreadful weaponry, has given the world plenty to think about.

Looking ahead, the 10’s will very probably see the following major developments:

  • Nanotechnology will progress in leaps and bounds, enabling increasingly systematic control, assembling, and reprogamming of matter at the molecular level;
  • In parallel, AI (artificial intelligence) will rapidly become smarter and more pervasive, and will be manifest in increasingly intelligent robots, electronic guides, search assistants, navigators, drivers, negotiators, translators, and so on.

We can say, therefore, that the 2010’s will be the decade of nanotechnology and AI.

We’ll see the following applications of nanotechnology and AI:

  • Energy harvesting, storage, and distribution (including via smart grids) will be revolutionised;
  • Reliance on existing means of oil production will diminish, being replaced by greener energy sources, such as next-generation solar power;
  • Synthetic biology will become increasingly commonplace – newly designed living cells and organisms that have been crafted to address human, social, and environmental need;
  • Medicine will provide more and more new forms of treatment, that are less invasive and more comprehensive than before, using compounds closely tailored to the specific biological needs of individual patients;
  • Software-as-a-service, provided via next-generation cloud computing, will become more and more powerful;
  • Experience of virtual worlds – for the purposes of commerce, education, entertainment, and self-realisation – will become extraordinarily rich and stimulating;
  • Individuals who can make wise use of these technological developments will end up significantly cognitively enhanced.

In the world of politics, we’ll see more leaders who combine toughness with openness and a collaborative spirit.  The awkward international institutions from the 00’s will either reform themselves, or will be superseded and surpassed by newer, more informal, more robust and effective institutions, that draw a lot of inspiration from emerging best practice in open source and social networking.

But perhaps the most important change is one I haven’t mentioned yet.  It’s a growing change of attitude, towards the question of the role in technology in enabling fuller human potential.

Instead of people decrying “technical fixes” and “loss of nature”, we’ll increasingly hear widespread praise for what can be accomplished by thoughtful development and deployment of technology.  As technology is seen to be able to provide unprecedented levels of health, vitality, creativity, longevity, autonomy, and all-round experience, society will demand a reprioritisation of resource allocation.  Previous sacrosanct cultural norms will fall under intense scrutiny, and many age-old beliefs and practices will fade away.  Young and old alike will move to embrace these more positive and constructive attitudes towards technology, human progress, and a radical reconsideration of how human potential can be fulfilled.

By the way, there’s a name for this mental attitude.  It’s “transhumanism”, often abbreviated H+.

My conclusion, therefore, is that the 2010’s will be the decade of nanotechnology, AI, and H+.

As for the question of which countries (or regions) will play the role of superpowers in 2020: it’s too early to say.

Footnote: Of course, there are major possible risks from the deployment of nanotechnology and AI, as well as major possible benefits.  Discussion of how to realise the benefits without falling foul of the risks will be a major feature of public discourse in the decade ahead.

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