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December 31, 2006

An Eschatological Taxonomy

Eschatology: (noun) The study of the end of the world.
Taxonomy: (noun) A classification in a hierarchical system.

What do we mean when we talk about the "end of the world?"

It's a term that get thrown around a bit too often among a variety of futurist-types, whether talking about global warming, nanofabrication, or non-friendly artificial intelligence. "Existential risks" is the lingo-du jour, referring to the broad panoply of processes, technologies and events that put our existence at risk. But, still, what does that mean? The destruction of the Earth? The end of humankind? A "Mad Max" world of leather-clad warriors, feral kids, and armed fashion models? All are frightening and horrific, but some are moreso than others. How do we tell them apart?

Here, then, is a first pass at a classification system for the varying types of "end of the world" scenarios.

Class Effect
0Regional Catastrophe (examples: moderate-case global warming, minor asteroid impact, local thermonuclear war)
Global civilization not eliminated, but regional civilizations effectively destroyed; millions to hundreds of millions dead, but large parts of humankind retain current social and technological conditions. Chance of humankind recovery: excellent. Species local to the catastrophe likely die off, and post-catastrophe effects (refugees, fallout, etc.) may kill more. Chance of biosphere recovery: excellent.
1 Human Die-Back (examples: extreme-case global warming, moderate asteroid impact, global thermonuclear war)
Global civilization set back to pre- or low-industrial conditions; several billion or more dead, but human species as a whole survives, in pockets of varying technological and social conditions. Chance of humankind recovery: moderate. Most non-human species on brink of extinction die off, but most other plant and animal species remain and, eventually, flourish. Chance of biosphere recovery: excellent.
2 Civilization Extinction (examples: worst-case global warming, significant asteroid impact, early-era molecular nanotech warfare)
Global civilization destroyed; millions (at most) remain alive, in isolated locations, with ongoing death rate likely exceeding birth rate. Chance of humankind recovery: slim. Many non-human species die off, but some remain and, over time, begin to expand and diverge. Chance of biosphere recovery: good.
3a Human Extinction-Engineered (examples: targeted nano-plague, engineered sterility absent radical life extension)
Global civilization destroyed; all humans dead. Conditions triggering this are human-specific, so other species are, for the most part, unaffected. Chance of humankind recovery: nil. Chance of biosphere recovery: excellent.
3b Human Extinction-Natural (examples: major asteroid impact, methane clathrates melt)
Global civilization destroyed; all humans dead. Conditions triggering this are general and global, so other species are greatly affected, as well. Chance of humankind recovery: nil. Chance of biosphere recovery: moderate.
4 Biosphere Extinction (examples: massive asteroid impact, "iceball Earth" reemergence, late-era molecular nanotech warfare)
Global civilization destroyed; all humans dead. Biosphere massively disrupted, with the wholesale elimination of many niches. Chance of humankind recovery: nil. Chance of biosphere recovery: slim. Chance of eventual re-emergence of organic life: good.
5 Planetary Extinction (examples: dwarf-planet-scale asteroid impact, nearby gamma-ray burst)
Global civilization destroyed; all humans dead. Biosphere effectively destroyed; all species extinct. Geophysical disruption sufficient to prevent or greatly hinder re-emergence of organic life.
X Planetary Elimination (example: post-Singularity beings disassemble planet to make computronium)
Global civilization destroyed; all humans dead. Ecosystem destroyed; all species extinct. Planet itself destroyed.

Suggestions, additions, changes all welcome.

And, on that note, Happy New Year! See you in 2007.

(Updated 1/5 to change "ecosystem" to "biosphere" -- thanks, Mitch!)

Must-Know Concepts for the 21st Century

My colleague at IEET, George Dvorsky, posted a list of concept about the future that he sees as vital for people who consider themselves to be intelligent to know and understand. His goal is admirable: too much of what passes for public discourse (in the United States, at least, but from what I can see, also in much of the rest of the West) is deeply focused on the past, and much too narrow. Moreover, it's not simply that we've become a culture of niche thinkers; it's that the niche thinkers that dominate public discourse have seemingly decided that their particular set of niches (largely issues of domestic politics and economics) are the only important ones.

George's list is, by and large, a good one. I'd quibble about a couple of items he includes, but nothing strikes me as outrageously out-of-place. (I do wish he'd add links to the terms to help people who don't recognize various entries get up to speed, however.) He covers, for the most part, terms concerning advances in human engineering and in information and material technologies, with particular emphasis on various manifestations and implications of non-human intelligence(s).

George asks for additions, so in that spirit, here's a list of 10 more terms and concepts intelligent participants in the 21st century should understand. Mine has links. :)

I'm not entirely satisfied with this list; it remains a bit too tech-focused. Still, in combination with George's list, this looks like the beginnings of a good primer for dealing with the key issues of the new century.

December 30, 2006

Making the Future Yours

As a species, Homo sapiens isn't particularly good at thinking about the future. It's not really what we evolved to do. Our cognitive tools developed in a world where rapid and just-accurate-enough pattern recognition and situation analysis meant the difference between finding enough tubers & termites to munch on for the evening and ending up as dinner for the friendly neighborhood predator. In a world of constant, imminent existential threats, the ability to recognize subtle, long-term processes and multi-generational changes wasn't a particularly important adaptive advantage.

But what we haven't evolved to do, we can learn to do. And now, more than at any previous point in human history, our survival depends on our capacity to think beyond the immediate future. The existential threats we face today are, in nearly every case, slow, subtle, and seemingly -- but deceptively -- remote. We no longer live in a world of obvious cause and easily-connected effect, and choices based on these sorts of expectations are apt to cause us vastly more harm than benefit.

Unfortunately, thinking in the language of the long term isn't a habit most of us have cultivated. So the development I'd like to see happen in 2007 is something that all of us can do: try to imagine tomorrow. Not in a gauzy, indeterminate "what if..." kind of way, and not in a cyber-chrome & nano-goo science fiction kind of way. I'd like us to start with something concrete and personal.

On January 1st, as we recover from the previous night's celebrations, rather than making out a list of resolutions we know we're unlikely to keep, I'd like us each to imagine, with as much plausibility and detail as we can muster, what our lives will be like in just one year, at the beginning of 2008. What has the last year been like? What has changed? What has surprised us? What are we (the "we" of a year hence) thinking about? Regretting? Looking forward to?

Then, after we've exercised our future-thinking muscles a bit, try this: do the same thing, only for ten years hence. What are our lives like in 2017? If possible, we should try to give this as much detail as we gave 2008. Not because this will make it more accurate -- it won't. But it can make it more real, more anchored in our lives of the present.

We should write down what we've come up with, and save it (or if we're feeling a bit adventurous, blog it).

That's it; just for a little while, let's think about our future.

We create our tomorrows with every choice we make, but too few of us take even a moment to consider the consequences of our decisions. Every now and again, we need to think beyond the present, and recognize that we are as connected to our future as we are to our past. It's a good habit to get into; as our choices become ever more complex, it's the kind of habit that can even be worldchanging.

(This was my contribution to WorldChanging's "What's Next:2007" series, posted today.)

December 28, 2006

How to Read an End-of-Year Forecast

crystal_ball.jpgIt seems to be common practice among bloggers, columnists and other species of pundit to offer in the closing days of December a few predictions about the year to come. These usually include some brief sentences about how well or how poorly the predictions from last year fared, and the best include a tongue-in-cheek undercurrent, a subtle implication that the author knows as well as the reader just how ridiculous this whole thing really is. Aside from the blatantly satirical offerings, however, most of these year-end predictions are meant to be taken seriously to at least some degree, and provide a tangible sense of where the author thinks the world may be heading in the months to come.

As someone who thinks and writes about the months (and years) to come on a professional basis, I find these efforts a kick to read. I won't add my own, in part because it would be redundant (I write about the future all the time), and in part because the real fun comes from seeing people who don't spend a lot of time thinking about much beyond the next quarter, next project or next release pulling on their Futurist Pants™.

I enjoy reading them in large part because they often fall into the same traps that can snare the pros, but do so in much more obvious ways. The real value of the myriad forecasts for 2007 emerges not from what they predict, but from how they predict it. These predictions are a terrific training field for critical analysis and skeptical reading of futurist prounouncements of all kinds.

In that spirit, here are eight guidelines for how to read predictions (and scenarios, and forecasts):

Cui Bono?

  • Are they just parroting recent headlines? Are the forecasts and predictions simply rehashes of news items from the last couple of months? These subjects are rarely as important in the medium or long term as they seem in the here and now, but are the current triggers for blog links and Slashdot debates.

  • Poked in the eye by the invisible hand? Would the predictor be likely to benefit professionally if the "hot trend for the new year" actually manages to take off? While this doesn't necessarily mean that they're pushing the idea deceptively, it does mean that they're less-likely to be on the lookout for competing ideas and serious roadblocks.

  • Are they just reading their own marketing? Many of the end-of-year predictions come from advertising agencies, trade organizations, and other groups trying to get a bit of press. When the forecasts include buzzwords that don't buzz and "consumers" making radical changes to their behaviors because of some swoopy new gadget, chances are you're seeing an effort to predict the future by marketing it.

Less Than Meets the Eye

  • Shock and Awe? At the other end of the prediction spectrum are those forecasts that are so disruptive and radical that they simply beg for argument. While they may have some tenuous technological or social justification, they're the kinds of assertions that often get added to lists to make them appear less conventional.

  • Why? Next-year forecasts that simply offer up bulleted lists of terse sentences (e.g., "• Foobar defeats Google.") may be amusing, but offer little insight. Predictions that don't include even a cursory effort to explain the reasoning or offer a justification all too often include forecast items that have few reasons or justifications to begin with.

Positive Signs

  • Have you heard of this before? Somewhere between the items that everybody knows about already because they've been in the headlines, and the items that nobody knows about because they're internal marketing jargon, are those items that specialists are starting to pay attention to, but few others have picked up on yet. If you encounter a prediction that refers to something you haven't heard about, but you find hundreds of sites digging into its implications when you google it, there's a good chance that you've found a useful forecast.

  • Greater than the sum of its parts? Do the authors make connections between the predictions, or do they toss each out as unrelated phenomena? No technological or social development happens in isolation, and very often changes in one arena can profoundly alter the course of other trends and practices. Forecasts that show interconnections have a sense of a bigger picture.


  • What did they miss? Have the "future" predictions already happened, but just haven't been widely noticed? Are there other known factors at work that would prevent or substantially alter the predictions? Does one prediction cancel out another, without explanation? Are there alternative outcomes that are just as likely, and equally if not more interesting? Do the predictions miss an obvious connection or combination that could end up being far more influential than any of its component changes?

End-of-year forecasts make for a fun read, and are usually done in a spirit of play and cameraderie. Even the ones that are blatant marketing efforts can provide some surprises and (very occasionally) insights. This set of guidelines should not by any means be read as a condemnation of the practice. In fact, I'd like to see more people making lists of predictions and forecasts, as at the very least, it would provide more chances to practice skeptical futurism. Besides, with enough minds, all tomorrows are visible -- the more of us playing in this space, the better chance we have of spotting surprises before they happen.

December 27, 2006

Welcome, Treehuggers

My post on the carbon footprint of cheeseburgers got picked up on Treehugger, so this little site is seeing a new flurry of activity. For new visitors who recognize me as the co-founder of WorldChanging, the topics I cover here overlap with WC, but are more focused on understanding the future possibilities of where we're heading as a planet and civilization.

Other environment-related pieces here on OtF that Treehugging visitors may find interesting include:

  • Renewable Energy and Global Stability
  • Climate, Cancer and Changing Minds
  • Nature as an Information Economy
  • Terraforming the Earth, Now in the Spotlight

  • December 22, 2006

    The Footprint of a Cheeseburger (Updated!) (Updated Again!)

    Please read the updated and complete version of the cheeseburger footprint story, found here.

    I wondered a couple of days ago what the carbon footprint of a hamburger might be. It's the kind of question we'll be forced to ask more often as we pay greater attention to our individual greenhouse gas emissions. Burgers are common food items for many people; it's said that the average American eats three burgers per week, or about 150 burgers per year. What's the global warming impact of all that? I don't just mean cooking the burger; I mean the gamut of energy costs associated with a hamburger -- including growing the feed for the cattle for beef and cheese, growing the produce, storing and transporting the components, as well as cooking.

    The clues provided by my friends Martin Kelly and Kim Allen sent me looking in the right direction, but then I stumbled across an absolute treasure: Energy Use in the Food Sector (PDF), a 2000 report from Stockholm University and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, looking at the life cycle energy use associated with... a cheeseburger! This highly-detailed report covers the myriad elements going into the production of the components of a burger, from growing and milling the wheat to make bread, to feeding, slaughtering and freezing the cattle for meat -- even the energy costs of pickling cucumbers. The report is fascinating in its own right, but it also gave me exactly what I needed to make a relatively decent estimation of the carbon footprint of a burger.

    Based on a variety of sources, the researchers conclude that the total energy use going into a single cheeseburger amounts to somewhere between about 7 and 20 megajoules -- the range comes from the variety of methods available to the food industry.

    The researchers break this down by process, but not by energy type. Here, then, is my first approximation: I split the food production and transportation uses into a diesel category, and the food processing (milling, cooking, storage) uses into an electricity category. Split this way, the totals add up thusly:

    Diesel -- 4.7 to 10.8 MJ per burger
    Electricity -- 2.6 to 8.4 MJ per burger

    With these ranges in hand, I could then convert the energy use into carbon emissions, based on fuel. For electricity, I calculated the footprint using both natural gas and coal; if you're lucky enough to have your local burger joint powered by a wind farm, you can drop that part of the footprint entirely.

    Diesel -- 90 to 217 grams of carbon per burger
    Gas -- 37 to 119 grams of carbon per burger
    Coal -- 65 to 209 grams of carbon per burger

    ...for a combined carbon footprint of a cheeseburger of 127 grams of carbon (at the low end, with gas) to 426 grams of carbon (at the high end, with coal). Adding in the carbon from operating the restaurant (and driving to the burger shop in the first place), we can reasonably call it somewhere between a quarter-kilogram and a half-kilogram of carbon emissions per cheeseburger. (But see below...)

    Or, over the course of a year, between 37 and 75 kilograms of carbon emissions from the average American's cheeseburger habit.

    If each of the 300 million Americans hit that "average" burger consumption, we're looking at 75,000-150,000 tonnes of atmospheric carbon annually from burger consumption alone -- that's the equivalent of the annual carbon output from 7,500-15,000 SUVs.

    [But see below...]

    (Update: I was reminded in email (thanks, Geoff!) that this should also include the methane emissions from cattle. So, let's add that.)

    A typical beef cow produces approximately 500 lbs of meat for boneless steaks and ground beef. By regulation, a beef cow must be at least 21 months old before going to the slaughterhouse; let's call it two years. A single cow produces 114 kilos of methane per year in eructations and flatulence, so over its likely lifetime, a beef cow produces 228 kilos of methane (not including the methane from its manure). Since a single kilo of methane is the equivalent of 23 kilos of carbon dioxide, a single beef cow produces 5244 CO2-equivalent kilograms of methane over its life. If we assume that the typical burger is a quarter-pound of pre-cooked meat, that's 2,000 burgers per cow. Dividing the methane total by the number of burgers, then, we get about 2.6 CO2-equivalent kilograms of additional greenhouse gas emissions from methane, per burger, or about 5-10 times more greenhouse gas produced from cow burps than from all of the energy used to raise, feed or produce all of the components of a completed cheeseburger!

    At 2.85-3.1 kg of CO2 (equiv) per burger, then, that's 428-465 kg of greenhouse gas per year for an average American's burger consumption.

    (Second Update: More details on methane output from ruminants like cattle, courtesy of the EPA. The government estimates for methane output from "enteric fermentation" is a bit lower than the number cited in the Telegraph article, but when we add in the methane from manure -- which is about a third of that from cattle gas -- the overall numbers I've used still roughly work out.

    And to add the necessary correction: adding in the methane, the overall CO2-equivalent emissions from all the cheeseburgers consumed in the US (assuming the average of 3/person is accurate) roughly equal the greenhouse output of 100,000 SUVs.

    Obviously, these are all estimates, and will vary considerably by individual cow, feed type, and other environmental conditions -- but assuming my sources are correct, these methane outputs should be roughly accurate, enough to trigger a good conversation, at least.)

    December 20, 2006

    End-User License Agreement, StuffStation Deluxe


  • I will not use this product (STUFFSTATION DELUXE) to build, repair, or in any way constitute weapons of mass destruction;
  • I will not use this product (STUFFSTATION DELUXE) to produce tools or systems with the express purpose of undermining the duly-elected government;
  • I will not use this product (STUFFSTATION DELUXE) to produce self-replicating automata, including (but not limited to):
       - Gray Goo
       - Green Goo
       - Red Goo
       - Artificial Retroviruses
       - "Blood Music" Plagues
       - "Brain Goo" Neurotropic Substances
       - Spam

  • I will not use this product (STUFFSTATION DELUXE) to produce information processing devices that meet the conditions for self-awareness spelled out in the Phoenix Protocols of 2017 (UN DOC041202017.42);
  • I will not use this product (STUFFSTATION DELUXE) to produce derivative versions of the product (STUFFSTATION DELUXE), or devices that would allow for disassembly and reverse-engineering of said product;
  • I recognize that I provide an open-ended, uncompensated license to the manufacturer of this product (STUFFSTATION DELUXE) for any and all original designs used in this product, applicable throughout the known universe. (VOID in Nebraska, Saskatchewan, and Algeria.)
  • I will use this product (STUFFSTATION DELUXE) in accordance with all local, regional, national and transnational laws, regulations and treaties.


  • Carbon McCredits

    Dear Lazyweb,

    What's the rough amount of greenhouse gas emissions that go into a typical hamburger? I mean the entire process of raising, feeding, killing, packing, shipping, grinding and distributing the beef, from barnyard to bun. Extra points for including the effects of the lifetime methane output of the cattle.

    It seems to me that the calculation would have to include:

    • What portion of a beef cow goes into a single typical burger?
    • A cow's portion of the energy consumption of ranch over the cow's lifetime.
    • The energy required to grown and ship the feed for a cow over its lifetime.
    • Energy required to "process" the cow to turn it into hamburger.
    • Shipping the raw (and likely frozen) burger to a restaurant.
    • Energy needed to cook the burger.

    We can leave aside the energy costs of the bun and produce, at least for now.

    The underlying question is this: how many "carbon credits" would one need to purchase per burger to offset this greenhouse gas output?

    (I'm not necessarily looking for someone to give me all the answers, but pointers to good resources for where I could find the answers myself would be appreciated.)

    December 18, 2006

    The One-Sentence Challenge

    Rebecca Blood listed me as one of the folks to take a shot at the One-Sentence Challenge, as offered by Paul Kedrosky:

    Physicist Richard Feynman once said that if all knowledge about physics was about to expire the one sentence he would tell the future is that "Everything is made of atoms". What one sentence would you tell the future about your own area, whether it's entrepreneurship, hedge funds, venture capital, or something else?

    Examples: An economist might say that "People respond to incentives". I had an engineering professor years ago who said all of that field could be reduced to "F=MA and you can't push on a rope".

    A couple of good ones come immediately to mind: the GBN motto, "the future is uncertain, and yet we must act;" Bruce Sterling's "the future is a process, not a destination;" Yogi Berra's "prediction is very hard, especially about the future." But this really should be one of my own. So here's my try:

    The future is built by the curious -- the people who take things apart and figure out how they work, figure out better ways of using a system, and explore how to make new things fit together in unexpected ways.

    How's that?

    Passing this along, I'd like to see this challenge answered by:

    Green LA Girl [Siel responds here];
    Mike Treder [Mike responds here];
    Bruce Sterling;
    Kim Allen [Kim responds here];
    Violet Blue;
    Eric Townsend [JET responds here];
    Stuart Candy.

    And, of course, anyone who wants to chime in here in the comments.

    (Thanks to everyone who has participated!)

    December 15, 2006

    The Future is Here: The Wonkafabber

    chocofab.jpgOkay, it's not Wonka, but still: it's a fabber used to make chocolate bars!

    High school student Noy Schaal used the Fab@Home system design to make a fabber that could print out chocolate bars, including fancy textures. It's crude, but still -- chocolate bar fabber!

    I just can't tell whether I'm now suffering from future shock or glycemic shock.

    (Via CRN)

    December 14, 2006

    Bioprinters vs. the Meatrix

    One of the odder manifestations of the fabrication future may well revolutionize the world of medicine -- and quite possibly change how we eat and offer a new way to fight global warming, too.

    Bioprinters use ink-jet printer technology to lay down controlled layers of cells. Currently in development in a variety of locations (including the University of Manchester, the University of Utah, and Carnegie-Mellon), bioprinter systems will eventually be able to produce custom-made biological structures, including organs. This month, the Carnegie-Mellon group announced an important step towards that goal: a system able to print out biological patterns using muscle stem cells, which then differentiate into muscle and bone tissues. This kind of technology should one day be able to help treat people with degenerative and tissue-attacking autoimmune diseases, as well as people with damaged or failed organs.

    We're still a ways away from being able to click "print" and have a heart pop out onto a holding tray, of course. And even when the technology is perfected, the applications will be limited (albeit life-saving). But the work done on this system may have a far larger benefit for those of us who love the taste and texture of meat, but hate what the livestock industries do to the planet.

    It's hard to exaggerate just how destructive ranching -- cattle ranching, in particular -- is to the planet. Pasture and feed-producing land for livestock now account for 30% of the Earth's surface, according to a recent UN report, and is a major driver of deforestation. Moreover, the combined greenhouse gas emissions from cattle manure and the infrastructure around ranching (transport and the like) account for nearly 20% of our overall output -- higher than the transportation sector alone. Meat consumption is a major cause of ischemic heart disease, a top killer in the industrialized world. And the meat industry is, in a word, cruel, both to its workers and to the animals themselves. It's no exaggeration to say that a vegetarian planet would be a far healthier planet in nearly every respect -- environmentally, medically and ethically. Unfortunately, that's just not likely to happen any time soon.

    Most of what we think of as "meat" is really just animal muscle tissue. In principle, there's no reason why a system that could print human muscle for medical use couldn't do the same for cattle muscle for food use. In reality, such a system would be highly inefficient -- at least alone.

    But what if there was a source for animal muscle cells in great quantities, just waiting to be formed into meat-like structures?

    New Harvest is a non-profit trying to develop what they call "cultured meat" -- cloned muscle tissue fed on a mushroom-based nutrient, with all of the taste and texture of "real" meat but without the environmental and ethical problems. Moreover, with the right bit of tweaking, the cultured meat could be healthier than animal meat, simply through the substitution of fats and various proteins. The cultured meat process is simple:

    Matheny's team developed ideas for two techniques that have potential for large scale meat production. One is to grow the cells in large flat sheets on thin membranes. The sheets of meat would be grown and stretched, then removed from the membranes and stacked on top of one another to increase thickness.

    The other method would be to grow the muscle cells on small three-dimensional beads that stretch with small changes in temperature. The mature cells could then be harvested and turned into a processed meat, like nuggets or hamburgers.

    New Harvest is also a ways away from having a commercial product, but the problems they face seem to be more questions of engineering than of basic science.

    To grow meat on a large scale, cells from several different kinds of tissue, including muscle and fat, would be needed to give the meat the texture to appeal to the human palate.

    "The challenge is getting the texture right," says Matheny. "We have to figure out how to 'exercise' the muscle cells. For the right texture, you have to stretch the tissue, like a live animal would."

    One possible solution involves cultured meat cellular structures on bio-scaffolds -- exactly the kind of process ideally suited to an ink-jet bioprinter. The scenarios of food service industry giants battling over the best designs for printed meat almost write themselves.

    Of course, you can't talk about fabrication technology without at least thinking about the free/libre/open source possibilities. Desktop meat-jet printers are unlikely at first, but could easily be a hit with the DIY crowd. Will we see fights between the Open Source Steak movement and the Free Food Foundation movement? It takes the idea of swapping recipes to a whole new level.

    Then there's the form of the food itself. The first generation of cultured meat products would strive to be as close to familiar as possible: products indistinguishable from beef hamburger patties, chicken breasts, strips of bacon, and the like. But as the public grew more comfortable with the process, there's no reason why more unusual meat types couldn't find their way onto plates of adventurous diners. How about burgers made from the cloned cells of the prehistoric Auroch?. And that's just the start.

    Imagine: Soylent Green -- It's People™!

    December 12, 2006

    Life and Love in the Uncanny Valley

    There's a story I've seen about a philosopher who bet an engineer that he could make a robot that the engineer couldn't destroy. What the philosopher produced was a tiny little thing, covered in fur, that would squeak when touched -- and when threatened, would roll onto its back and look at the attacker with its big, glistening eyes. When the engineer lifted his hammer to smash the robot, he found that he couldn't. He paid the wager *.

    Evolution has programmed us, for good reasons, to be responsive to "cute" creatures. Even the coldest heart melts at the sight of kittens playing or puppies sleeping, and while parents respond most quickly to their own children, we all have at least some positive response to sight of a child. Given all of this, it wouldn't be surprising if our biological imperatives could be hijacked by things that are decidedly not puppies and babies -- but approximated their look and behavior. Like, for example, a robot.

    Sociologist Sherry Turkle has studied the effects of technology on society for years. Recently, she brought a collection of realistic robotic dolls called "My Real Baby" to nursing homes. Much to her surprise -- and dismay -- the seniors responded to these artificial dependents in ways that mirrored how they would interact with real living beings. They weren't fooled by the robots; they knew that these were devices. But the artificial beings' look and behavior elicited strong, generally positive, emotions for the elderly recipients. Turkle describes it thusly:

    In bringing My Real Babies into nursing homes, it was not unusual for seniors to use the doll to re-enact scenes from their children’s youth or important moments in their relationships with spouses. Indeed, seniors were more comfortable playing out family scenes with robotic dolls than with traditional ones. Seniors felt social “permission” to be with the robots, presented as a highly valued and “grownup” activity. Additionally, the robots provided the elders something to talk about, a seed for a sense of community.

    Turkle is bothered by the emotions these dolls -- and similar "therapeutic" robots, such as the Japanese Paro seal -- trigger in the adults interacting with them. She argues:

    Relationships with computational creatures may be deeply compelling, perhaps educational, but they do not put us in touch with the complexity, contradiction, and limitations of the human life cycle. They do not teach us what we need to know about empathy, ambivalence, and life lived in shades of gray.

    Turkle is particularly concerned with the issue of the "human life cycle." She worries about emotional bonds with beings that can't understand death, or themselves die. "What can something that does not have a life cycle know about your death, or about your pain?" she asks. She fears the disconnection with the reality of life when children and adults alike bond with machines that can't die. But this machine immortality may be a benefit, not a problem.

    Many, likely most, of the seniors who embraced the robotic children were seriously depressed. Aging is often painful, physically and emotionally, and life in a nursing home -- even a good one -- can seem like the demoralizing final stop on one's journey. Seniors aren't the only ones who are depressed, of course. According to a recent World Health Organization study published in the Public Library of Science ("Projections of Global Mortality and Burden of Disease from 2002 to 2030"), depressive disorders are currently the fourth most common "burden of disease" globally, ranking right behind HIV/AIDS; moreover, the research group projects that depressive disorders will become the second most common burden of disease by 2030, above even heart disease. Depression is debilitating, saps productivity and creativity, and is all too often fatal. Medical and social researchers are only now starting to see the immensity of the problem of depression.

    The ability of the therapeutic robots to reduce the effects of depression, therefore, should not be ignored. The seniors themselves describe how interacting with the robots makes them feel less depressed, either because they can talk about problems with a completely trustable partner, or because the seniors see the robots as depressed as well, and seek to comfort and care for them. Concerns about whether or not the robots are really feeling depressed, or recognize (let alone care about) the human's feelings, appear to be secondary or non-existent. Of far greater importance are the benefits for helping someone in the depths of depression to recover a sense of purpose and self.

    If you were to look for a My Real Baby doll today, you'd be hard-pressed to find one. They were a flop as commercial toys, with a common reaction (at least among adults) being that they were "creepy." That kind of response -- "it's creepy" -- is a sign that the doll has fallen into the "Uncanny Valley," the point along the realism curve where the object looks alive enough to trigger biologically-programmed responses, but not quite alive enough to pass for human -- and as a result, can be unsettling or even repulsive. First suggested by Japanese robotics researcher Masahiro Mori in 1970, the Uncanny Valley concept may help to explain why games, toys and animations with cartoony, exaggerated characters often are more successful than their "realistic" counterparts. Nobody would ever mistake a human character from World of Warcraft for a photograph, for example, but the human figures in EverQuest 2, conversely, look close enough to right to appear oddly wrong.

    As work on robotics and interactive systems progresses, we'll find ourselves facing Creatures from the Uncanny Valley increasingly often. It's a subjective response, and the empathetic/creepy threshold seems to vary considerably from person to person. It's notable, and clearly worth more study, that the nursing home residents who received the My Real Baby dolls didn't have as strong of an "Uncanny Valley" response as the greater public seemed to have. Regardless, it's important to remember that the Uncanny Valley isn't a bottomless pit; eventually, as the realism is further improved, the sense of a robot being "wrong" fades, and what's left is a simulacrum that just seems like another person.

    The notion of human-looking robots made for love has a long history, but -- perhaps unsurprisingly -- by far the dominant emphasis has been on erotic love. And while it's true that many emerging technologies get their first serious use in the world of sexual entertainment, it's by no means clear that there's a real market for realistic interactive sex dolls. The social norms around sex, and the biological and social need for bonding beyond physical play, may well relegate realistic sex dolls to the tasks of therapy and of assistance for those who, for whatever reason, are unable to ever find a partner.

    But that doesn't mean we won't see love dolls. Instead of sex-bots driving the industry, emotional companions for the aged and depressed may end up being the leading edge of the field of personal robotics. These would not be care-givers in the robot nurse sense; instead, they'd serve as recipients of care provided by the human partner, as it is increasingly clear that the tasks of taking care of someone else can be a way out of the depths of depression. In this scenario, the robot's needs would be appropriate to the capabilities of the human, and the robot may in some cases serve as a health monitoring system, able to alert medical or emergency response personnel if needed. In an interesting counter-point to Turkle's fear of humans building bonds with objects that can not understand pain and death, these robots may well develop abundant, detailed knowledge of their partner's health conditions.

    Turkle is also concerned about the robot's inability to get sick and die, as she believes that it teaches inappropriate lessons to the young and removes any acknowledgment of either the cycle of life or the meaning of loss and death. Regardless of one's views on whether death gives life meaning, it's clear that the sick, the dying, and the deeply depressed are already well-acquainted with loss. The knowledge that this being isn't going to disappear from their lives forever is for them a benefit, not a flaw.

    We're accustomed to thinking about computers and robots as forms of augmentation: technologies that allow us to do more than our un-augmented minds and bodies could otherwise accomplish. But in our wonder at enhanced mental feats and physical efforts, we may have missed out on another important form of augmentation these technologies might provide. Emotional support isn't as exciting or as awe-inspiring as the more commonplace tasks we assign to machines, but it's a role that could very well help people who are at the lowest point of their lives. Sherry Turkle is worried that emotional bonds with machines can diminish our sense of love and connection with other people; it may well be, however, that such bonds can help rebuild what has already been lost, making us more human, not less.


    *(If anyone has the source of this story, I'd love a direct reference.)

    December 11, 2006

    Nano-Health, Nano-War

    vivagel.jpgLots of nano-news over the past week or two -- and most of it good!

    Clean Bill of Health: One of the big questions about nanomaterials arising in recent months concerns the toxicity of nanoparticles, particularly carbon nanotubes. Since carbon nanotubes have applications ranging from solar power to artificial muscles (see below), their almost-magical potential would be blunted by confirmation of nasty effects on living tissues. Rice University is one of the leading institutions studying the biological effects of nanomaterials, so it was welcome news that a Rice University group (working with the University of Texas) has found through in-vivo tests that single-wall carbon nanotubes have no immediate harmful effects, and that they are flushed from the bloodstream within 24 hours -- long enough to be useful for medical procedures, but not long enough to trigger potential longer-term effects.

    Obviously these tests need to be replicated and built upon, but still -- good news!

    nanotube-yarn.gifMuscles Made of Yarn: One potential application in the body of carbon nanotubes may be in artificial muscle fibers. University of Texas at Dallas researchers have come up with a way to use carbon nanotubes, would together like yarn, as electro-chemical actuators acting essentially like muscles. According to Technology Review:

    By spinning carbon nanotubes into yarn a fraction of the width of a human hair, researchers have developed artificial muscles that exert 100 times the force, per area, of natural muscle. [...] The yarns are created by first growing densely packed nanotubes, each about 100 micrometers long. The carbon nanotubes are then gathered from a portion of this field and spun together into long, thin threads. The nanotube yarn can be just 2 percent of the width of a hair--not even visible--but upwards of a meter long.

    There's still much work to do to make nanotube yarn a full replacement for muscles, but their potential is clear. Among the many issues surrounding powered prosthetic limbs and walking robots is the insufficiency of current artificial muscle/muscle replication technologies. At present, mechanical muscles are far weaker than biological muscles, gram-for-gram. If this line of research is successful, the situation may end up reversed.

    Viva!: A biotech company with a comic-book name, StarPharma, has come up with a novel nano-material-based gel designed to block the activity of HIV and Herpes viruses. VivaGel™ is a "vaginal microbicide," made to be self-applied by women. It contains dendrimers -- synthetic polymer molecules shaped like the branches of a tree -- structured to stick to the linking surfaces on the virus in question, effectively making it impossible for the viruses to attach to the binding points on their cellular targets. The viruses can't harm the cells (or the host) because their molecular latches are clogged.

    This kind of physical attack on a pathogen is less apt to result in the kind of rapid evolutionary adaptation that is seen with traditional antibiotic and antiviral medicines. The virus has to be able to connect to the right spot on a cell to take it over, so there's a very limited assortment of molecular structures it can have on its binding sites -- evolving away from the dendrimer being able to clog the site means evolving away from the site being able to link to the target cell. Adaption remains possible, of course, but just much less likely.

    200px-DendrimerOverview.pngDendrimers are interesting molecules. Because of their branching structure, it's actually possible to design dendrimers that can target different viruses simultaneously. In principle, VivaGel™ could be an all-purpose viral STD blocker. StarPharma (not a wholly-owned operation of LexCorp) has begun safety trials with UC San Francisco.

    Nano-War, Uh, What is it Nano-Good For? Moving away from nano-materials, fellow futurist Michael Anissimov spotted the publication of the academic work Military Nanotechnology, written by Dr. Jurgen Altmann. The book covers the application of nanomaterials as weapons, the use of nanoscale devices as sensors and the like, and the use of nanofabrication technologies to create novel systems. Altmann even looks at the policy implications of the use of human augmentation technologies for military purposes. The answers to how to respond to the development of these technologies won't come easily, but will be even harder to devise if we wait until the technologies are already available.

    Unfortunately, as Michael notes, the people who need to take these issues seriously are likely to dismiss this as way off in the future, if they even give it that much thought.

    Urgency Noted: That doesn't mean that nobody is paying attention. The National Materials Advisory Board has just released a congressionally-mandated review of US nanotechnology policy. Although it looks chiefly at policies around nano-materials and current research into nano-scale devices, it does take a few pages to consider some of the implications of nano-fabrication. My colleagues at the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology have studied the report in detail, and have offered their own take on its findings.

    The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology (CRN) expects that the NMAB report will accelerate research toward the development of molecularly-precise manufacturing. However, without adequate understanding and preparation, exponential atom-by-atom construction of advanced products could have catastrophic results. Conclusions published in this report should create a new level of urgency in preparing for molecular manufacturing.

    Most of the risks arising from all forms of nanotechnology are familiar, at least on their face. What nano-scale engineering, particularly molecular manufacturing, does is to make those risks happen much more swiftly, more cheaply, more easily, and in greater abundance. It's not that we don't know how to deal with toxic particles or readily-obtained weapons; it's that we've never lived in a world in which the particles could result from such a wide variety of common products, and the weapons could be so hard to detect and yet so powerful. Some of the risks associated with molecular technologies are novel, to be sure, but the core lesson we need to learn has less to do with how to respond to individual threats than with how to grapple with an environment in which the threats arise orders of magnitude more quickly than ever before.

    Back, Alive and Staggered by the Backlog

    Seriously, I need to go on modafinil full-time and just forget about this whole "sleep" thing. Multiple topsight-style posts to follow, plus a long essay.

    (I got a chance to try modafinil last week, as it happens. Just a single dose, taken instead of coffee one morning while still adjusting to the time-zone change. The effects were subtle, but definite. It certainly woke me up better than coffee does, and without any of the "vibrating" effects that sometimes arise from caffeine overdose. This sense of being awake and clear slowly faded over the day, and I had no problem getting to sleep later that night.

    The one side-effect I noticed was a slight loss in inhibition about offering on-topic but sarcastic suggestions during the morning brainstorming exercise. None of the comments were entirely over-the-line, but most were ones that I would otherwise have framed a bit more diplomatically. Some were (apparently) funny, while others were presumably seen as "quirky" or "provocative."

    Great, just what I need: Uninhibited Snark in a Pill™.)

    December 8, 2006

    The Virtue of a Virtual Life -- Perfect Health

    Got back from DC late on Wednesday night, and woke up yesterday with the inevitable consequence of travel: a cold. I managed to drag myself to the WC event at the Commonwealth Club last night, but have spent all day today trying to get better. All of which is to explain why I haven't posted anything in a few days.

    In compensation, here's Stewart Brand's summary of Philip Rosedale's talk for Long Now last week:

    What is real life coming to owe digital life?

    After a couple years in the flat part of exponential growth, the steep part is now arriving for the massive multi-player online world construction kit called "Second Life." With 1.7 million accounts, membership in "Second Life" is growing by 20,000 per day. The current doubling rate of "residents" is 7 months, still shortening, which means the growth is (for now) hyperexponential.

    For this talk the founder and CEO of "Second Life," Philip Rosedale, tried something new for him--- a simultaneous demo and talk. His online avatar, "Philip Linden," was on the screen showing things while the in-theater Philip Rosedale was conjecturing about what it all means. "This is a game of 'Can I interest you more in what I'm saying than what's going on on the screen?'"

    He showed how new arrivals go through the "gateway" experience of creating their own onscreen avatar, explaining that because intense creativity is so cheap, easy, and experimental, the online personas become strongly held. "You can have multiple avatars in 'Second Life,' but the overall average is 1.25 avatars per person." The median age of users is 31, and the oldest users spend the most time in the world (over 80 hours per week for 10 percent of the residents). Women are 43 percent of the customers.

    The on-screen Philip Linden was carrying Rosedale's talk notes (handwritten, scanned, and draped onto a board in the digital world). Rosedale talked about the world while his avatar flew ("Everyone flies--- why not?") to a music club in which a live song performance was going on (the real singer crooning into her computer in real time from somewhere.) The singer recognized Philip Linden in the on-screen audience and greeted him from the on-screen stage.
    "More is different," Rosedale explained. People think they want total and solitary control of their world, but the result of that is uninteresting. To get the emergent properties that make "Second Life" so enthralling, it has to be one contiguous world with everyone in it. At present it comprises about 100 square miles, mostly mainland, with some 5,000 islands (all adding up to 35 terrabytes running in 5,000 servers). Defying early predictions, the creativity in "Second Life" has not plateaued but just keeps escalating. Everybody is inspired to keep topping each other with ever cooler things. There are tens of thousands of clothing designers. Unlike the aesthetic uniformity of imagined digital worlds like in the movie "The Matrix," "Second Life" is suffused with variety. It is "the sum of our dreams."

    The burgeoning token economy in "Second Life" is directly connected to the real-world economy with an exchange rate of around 270 Linden dollars to 1 US dollar. There are 7,000 businesses operating in "Second Life," leading this month to its first real-world millionaire (Metaverse real estate mogul Anshe Chung). At present "Second Life" has annual economic activity of about $70 million US dollars, growing rapidly.

    As Jaron Lanier predicted in the early '90s, the only scarce resource in virtual reality is creativity, and it becomes valued above everything. Freed of the cost of goods and the plodding quality of real-world time, Rosedale explained, people experiment fast and strange, get feedback, and experiment again. They orgy on the things they think they want, play them out, get bored, and move on. They get "married," start businesses with strangers--- "There are 40-person businesses made of people who have never met in real life." Real-world businesses hold meetings in "Second Life" because they're more fun and encourage a higher degree of truth telling.

    Pondering the future, Rosedale said that every aspect of the quality of shared virtual life will keep improving as the technology accelerates and the number of creators online keeps multiplying. ("Second Life" is now moving toward a deeper order of creativity by releasing most of its world-building software into open source mode.)

    Real-world artifacts like New York City could become regarded like museums. "As the fastest moving, most creative stuff in our society increasingly takes place in the virtual world, that will change how we look at the real world," Rosedale concluded.

    ---Stewart Brand

    December 4, 2006

    December Futurismic Column Now Up

    ucla2.jpgThis month's Futurismic column is now up (my fault that it's late). It's an update on what's happening with the participatory panopticon. This time, I look at what Michael Richards, UCLA cops, and George "Macaca" Allen have in common, and the lessons they have for the rest of us.

    The proliferation of cameras this scenario suggests is undoubtedly troubling for many civil libertarians and privacy advocates. The problem is, these cameras have already proliferated -- the majority of mobile phones sold around the world have a camera, and more cameraphones were sold in 2005 than any other kind of camera, digital or film. We will have more examples of the participatory panopticon in action in the coming weeks and months. Similarly, surveillance cameras have become a commonplace part of urban policing, whether mounted on buildings, street lights, or police car dashboards. What we need are rules and practices that make the use of these tools more responsible and transparent.

    Forecast that might seem obvious in retrospect: during the 2007-2008 runup to the US election, we'll see a rash of hoax videos on YouTube (and similar sites) impugning the credibility and character of numerous political candidates. As a result, some candidates will start recording every moment they're in the public (or semi-public) eye, as self-defense. By the 2010 US elections, every candidate will do so.

    In DC

    I'm in Washington, DC, with spotty connectivity. I'm taking pictures with my phone, though, and uploading them directly to Flickr.


    The rest of the pictures are at my Flickr page, with more coming sporadically throughout the trip.

    Jamais Cascio

    Contact Jamais  ÃƒÂƒÃ‚ƒÃ‚ƒÃ‚ƒÃ‚¢Ã‚€Â¢  Bio

    Co-Founder, WorldChanging.com

    Director of Impacts Analysis, Center for Responsible Nanotechnology

    Fellow, Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

    Affiliate, Institute for the Future


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