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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.

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