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August 31, 2007

Upcoming Calendar

It appears that I'm now shifting into the "public presentation" section of my work year. I'm reasonably comfortable giving a talk in front of a crowd, but that comfort will definitely be put to the test by this flurry of speeches. They'll be on diverse topics, which means I won't be able to recycle my presentations, but it also means I'll be reaching a wider variety of audiences.

    September 8: Singularity Summit 2007, in San Francisco, California

    September 13-14: Swiss Re*, in Zurich, Switzerland

    October 3: Government of Hungary*, in Budapest, Hungary

    November 8: Behavior, Energy and Climate Conference, in Sacramento, California

    November 9: Green Business Conference, in San Francisco, California. Note that I'm stepping in as a replacement for IFTF's Bob Johansen, the actual author of Get There Early.

    November 17: [Will be announced on Wednesday]

    December 6-7: Metaverse Summit 2007, in Berlin, Germany

    [* IFTF-related conferences]

If you'll be attending any of these, please let me know -- and say hi when you see me.

August 29, 2007

The Problem of Cars

smartcar-enlarged.jpgEven among many of the generally tech-friendly and realistic bright green types, the automobile remains an irritant. It's not simply that the petroleum-powered internal combustion engine is an ecological disaster; the automobile, historically, has been a catalyst for many of the more damaging developments in our social geography, from the spread of suburbia and exurbia to the elimination (in many locations) of light rail lines, and continues to enable the proliferation of economic and social institutions of dubious long-term benefit (such as big-box retailers). In many ways, the automobile is the canonical example of a trigger for long-term, unanticipated and undesired results. If we think of the car in this way, it's clear that even shifting entirely to electric cars, biofuel cars, or cars that ran on pixie dust, would still enable many of the larger social pathologies that damage our climate, ecological, and social systems.

At the same time, the typical solutions offered in response -- remaking urban design, increased bus and rail use, increased walking and biking -- have significant drawbacks. The first is expensive and slow, and the latter two impose significant limitations to what one can accomplish over the course of the day. I sometimes think that calls for everyone to give up cars are sufficiently unrealistic that they may actually be counter-productive: if the only alternative under discussion is to completely rebuild our cities and make everybody walk to the bus stop, cars will remain firmly in place as the dominant transportation model.

It doesn't have to be that way. I have from the outset considered it a strength of the bright green philosophy that it values workable idealism, and recognizes the futility of telling people that the only way to solve problems is to make their lives viscerally worse. Moreover, one of the cornerstone concepts of bright green environmentalism is a recognition of the strength of distributed solutions over centralized technologies. Telling people just to give up cars is a startlingly old green concept for the new green generation.

To be clear, I'm not dismissing urban redesign and greater access to public transit & walking out of hand; the former is a terrific medium-term goal, and the latter is certain to be part of the solution to the looming climate disaster, especially as better urban designs make non-car transit more efficient. But demands for the immediate adoption of these approaches seem blind to the underlying reasons why the automobile culture is so deeply entrenched in Western society, and why it has become so attractive to nations seeing rapid economic development.

[This is a personal issue for me. Right now, I live some distance from my once/twice-weekly workplace, the Institute for the Future; because of the current housing market, selling our place and moving in closer isn't an option. If I take public transit, I must ride BART to a Cal-Train station, and take that to Palo Alto (fortunately, IFTF is just a block from the station there). If I time it just right, it will take no less than two hours -- longer, of course, if there's a delay and I miss my transfer (which happened the very first time I took the route). If I drive (my hybrid, naturally), it typically takes me 90 minutes, and can take as little as 75 minutes if the traffic is completely clear. Still a very long commute (fortunately, it's not daily), but with greater flexibility as to when I can leave and which route I can take if there's an unexpected delay. For now, I tend to swap back and forth between the two modes of transit.]

One way of re-examining this subject is to stop thinking about cars as "cars," and to start thinking about them in terms of the services they offer. This sort of abstraction is commonplace in the business consulting field -- it's not a carpet, it's a floor covering service. Surprisingly, that simple shift in perspective can sometimes elicit novel ideas. But it's important that new services that replace the old can replicate or improve upon the capabilities of the previous model.

Thinking about cars in this way, I would argue that a car is a way of providing:

  • Personal mobility. The most obvious characteristic of the automobile, personal mobility means more than simply getting from one place to another. It encompasses: range and speed (being able to travel for great distances in a reasonable amount of time); carrying capacity (being able to carry items too large, bulky or awkward to carry by hand any significant distance); destination flexibility (being able to travel to one's exact destination, and to change destination along the way); and operational flexibility (being able to use the car for both short and long-range travel, to carry very little or a large amount, and to change uses mid-stream).

  • Personal expression. Perhaps less obviously important, personal expression is in reality a key element of how drivers choose their vehicles. While this may seem like a superficial issue, consider: in a world where home ownership is out of reach for many people, the automobile becomes the biggest investment one will personally make -- the desire to have the car reflect one's personality (through color, design, or brand) is a near-inevitable result. As we move to urban models of higher-density shared buildings, such desire for personal expression via automobiles may actually increase.

  • Independence. This is related to the previous two, and can best be summed up as: being able to use the car in a way that is not contingent upon the desires and needs of others. Total independence is not possible, of course (at the very least, one is supposed to obey traffic laws), but superficial independence -- being able to choose the radio station, to travel at any time of day or night, to be as messy or as neat as one wishes -- clearly is.

Thought of in this way, it's easy to see why urban redesign, public transit and walking/biking are having such a hard time replacing automobile use for most people. There are exceptions; for some people, these substitutions may be entirely adequate. But even people getting around fine without a car in San Francisco, New York, or London will acknowledge how overwhelmingly abundant cars are in those cities, and they aren't just the cars brought in by people from the 'burbs.

There are more innovative alternatives, and these offer some promise. Car-sharing allows many of the benefits of car use without the trappings of ownership. Limited-range micro-cars (think the Reva or Zap) remain personal transportation, but are much smaller and have a much smaller footprint (as they're often all-electric). Both fall short of being a total replacement for today's autos, however, for a somewhat subtle reason. Most of the time, such alternatives would actually be fine. They're perfect for the regular, predictable travel that we tend to undertake, and the running around town that makes up the majority of our vehicle trips. But for the outlying uses, such as the unexpected need to drive somewhere at 3am, take a longer-than-usual trip, or carry something especially large -- the alternatives fail. And since the outlying uses, while uncommon, are still relatively frequent, many people hesitate to give up the ability to accomplish them readily.

So, what would work to replace car culture as it is currently manifest but still perform the services that the modern automobile offers?

Here's one scenario that comes to mind:

Cars as LEGO.
I back out of the parking shed, slowly -- I know that the p2p nav system wouldn't let me continue if there was another car coming, but I have old habits. The car, a 2017 Honda Civic M, is still a bit weird to drive. It feels like it's missing half the car: no real front-end to speak of, and a trunk that barely qualifies for the name. It's roomy on the inside, though, and I know that the safety measures are top notch (they meet race car specs).

Normally, I'd just drive from home to the train. Plugging into the train is one of the times that the law requires that drivers give up control to the nav system; it's not that people can't maneuver the cars into the slots, but that careful human drivers are just a lot slower than navs. Getting several dozen cars into and out of train slots in a one-minute stop is a real trick. Apparently BART hired theme park designers who know just how to get people on and off roller coasters most efficiently, but the basics are the same with most platooning systems, whether on trains or freeways.

BART's going to have to add some more platoon units to their trains; lately, I've had to wait for two or three trains to pass through before getting a slot. It's worth the wait. No parking worries at the station, and I can drive to work easily once I get to Palo Alto. At the end of the day, I can pick up a return train or just head home directly. Unmodded, though, the Civic M just barely gets freeway speeds, so I tend to stick with the train.

Today, I'm going for a mod. I need to make a quick run out of the area to visit my mom, and the train station near where she is doesn't yet have rail platoon roll on/roll off setup. Getting to San Luis with the car as it is would take way too long, so I'm going to pick up a "go pack" -- an engine & battery booster kit. That'll get me up to freeway speeds and give me the range I need.

I pull around the corner to where the Shell station used to be. Gas stations are hard to find these days, but they're still around -- by law, there's one every 200 miles along major highways to support legacy drivers and vehicles still requiring petroleum, and bigger towns usually have one or two. Most gas stations have been converted into modding stops: drive in, select the desired modification packs, let the system plug them in, pay and go. Takes about as much time as gassing up an empty tank used to, and competition between vehicle modification service providers (VSPs) keeps the prices reasonable. In this case, the mod stop is out of basic go packs, and I don't see a need to step up to the "sport utility" pack. Fortunately, there's another VSP just down the street.

Although every car maker still has its own set of nameplates and designs, the mod pack system is blissfully standardized. The go pack I get plugged into my Civic M would work just as well on a Micro-Prius or a Volvochev Daytripper convertible. Most car makers' warranties include a lifetime retrofit guarantee, which I suppose is strong motivation for adhering to the mod pack standard. The range of mod options is pretty good, regardless; I could, if I wanted, even get a truck mod installed, but that requires some post-mod safety checks, and I've only needed the added carrying capacity once or twice.

The nice thing about the mod system is that, when I'm done, I just drop the mod off at a convenient VSP. The mods are geotagged so the owner (who may or may not be the original VSP) knows where they are and which vehicles are using them. A sorting algorithm at the VSP asks the car's nav for destination info in order to offer up an appropriate unit needing to head back home. It's not unusual for high school students to make a bit of money on the side taking a truck mod out to collect wayward go packs that haven't made it back home in awhile.

Some people who need daily access to a longer range or heavier cargo capacity buy permanent mods, but most of us just either do one-time rentals or discounted service plans. In a way, it's kind of like treating a car like a mobile phone.

What's really cool is the hacker community that has sprung up around this system. I've seen all kinds of home-brew car mods in MAKE: amphibious packs, emergency relief systems (turning the car into a mobile power supply and communication station), even a "swarm charge" kit that'll let you share power from your car with another vehicle in a platoon. Now I just need one that'll wash the car for me.

There are plenty of nits to pick in this scenario. It's tech-heavy, and would require some infrastructure replacement, although not necessarily to the same scale as the urban redesign model (but neither would it prevent or slow a redesign). Getting car makers to agree on a standard mod design would be a nightmare, and would be almost as hard as convincing drivers that it's okay to go without the massive trunk or room for 14. It would work best with electric-only vehicles, but (with some changes) would likely be okay for plug-in hybrid, H2 fuel cell, or possibly even biofuel vehicles.

The biggest objection is likely that it would do nothing to alter the existing suburban/exurban-automobile model. That's true, but at the same time I would say that it's an enabler for that kind of change, opening urban life up to people who otherwise wouldn't consider it. Smaller vehicles are easier to fit into denser environments, and roll-on/roll-off train systems would make rail commuting much more accessible to people with destinations beyond a reasonable distance from a station. Personal mobility, personal expression, and independence remain satisfied, but so too are the needs of a denser, more energy/carbon-conscious urban environment.

August 26, 2007

"You Really Need to Write a Book"

Reason for no posts over the last week: busy & blogger-blocked.

Reason for blogger-block (possible): trying to figure out just what I should write a book about. I've been told yet again this past week that I really need to write a book. I agree. I just can't quite figure out what to write about.

  • A book on meal footprints? I'm pretty tired of the cheeseburger meme, but it's far and away the most visible idea I've come up with. It would probably be an easy sell to a publisher, and clearly the idea has some popular appeal. However, I suspect that my being tired of the topic would show through.

  • A book on futurism, in general?

  • A book on dealing with this century's likely challenges, especially human-caused? It would be essentially a book-length version of the Apocalypse Scale. This is the one that I think would be the most interesting, but is probably the one that would be the hardest to sell to a publisher.

    Anyone have a better idea?

  • August 20, 2007

    Begging Your Indulgence

    Home now from the mini-vacation, sad that I actually didn't have time to blog while away but relieved that I actually got a chance to relax for a bit. But I digress.

    If you're at all hooked into the cultural side of the blogosphere, you probably already know that South by Southwest Interactive has just opened up its interactive panel picker for SXSW08. Scan through the 600-odd panel proposals and vote for the ones you'd like to attend, you'd find interesting, or are just being organized by your friends. You have to sign-up for a SXSW voting account -- it's free, and they claim that they will discard the address after the voting period ends in late September without ever bothering you -- so the voting has some minimal security against ballot-stuffing.

    You see where this is going, I trust.

    I offered two different panel proposals:

    The Future is You

    Futurism isn't just for marketing and the military. In a world of rapid change, it's also a way to make smarter choices about one's own life. I'll go through the basics of personal futurism, and make the case that (as Bruce Sterling says) the future isn't a noun, it's a verb.


    The Whole World is Watching

    Lifelogging. Participatory Panopticon. Total History. By whatever name, it's a world where everything we do and say can be captured on video -- not by "Big Brother," but by Little Brothers and Sisters carrying cameraphones. Downside: loss of privacy. Upsides: Better memory, better understanding of the world, better politics. Are you ready?

    If you're so inclined, I'd love to have your vote for my panels. The nice thing about this process is that voting for one panels doesn't eliminate your ability to vote for another -- give all of your online friends and favorite bloggers big SXSW 5-star kisses!

    August 14, 2007

    I've Got A Fever... And The Only Cure... Is More Calvin

    emissions 1900ffBW copy.jpgI'm packing to head off for a few days (it's ostensibly a vacation, so I'll only be working part of the time), but I thought that this was something that should be at the top of your web reading list.

    Bill Calvin, emeritus professor of neurobiology at the University of Washington, is putting the finishing touches on his latest book: Global Fever. David Houle at EvolutionShift got to interview him, and both the interview and the pieces of his book that he has put online are well-worth checking out:

    The timetable is really 2020? That means that we must truly accelerate efforts on all fronts. What can we do as individuals?

    You can’t enjoy the long run unless you do the right things in the short run. We’ve only got a decade to make a big dent in fossil fuel use or deploy new carbon sinks in equivalent numbers. Anything slower means a disaster for today’s students.


    Climate change is a challenge to the scientists but I suspect that the political leadership has the harder task, given how difficult it is to make people aware of what must be done and get them moving in time. It’s going to be like herding stray cats, and the political leaders who can do it will be remembered as the same kind of geniuses who pulled off the American Revolution.

    What does a neurobiologist know about climate change? A whole lot -- Calvin's specialty is the evolution of human intelligence, and it turns out that past climate changes have been very important in the development of the human brain. He explores this topic in a book entitled A Brain for All Seasons: Human Evolution and Abrupt Climate Change. Bill Calvin is remarkably prolific; just skimming through his website can be mind-boggling. He may well be the smartest person I've ever met.

    (Oh, yeah, disclaimer time: I first met Bill Calvin about 12 years ago, and we are still in sporadic contact.)

    Bill has a variety of solutions in mind, but he's adamant that this is such a big and immediate problem that deeper, more culturally-transformative changes (like redesigning urban life) simply won't be fast enough to help us avoid disaster. This runs somewhat against the WorldChanging canon, but I have a stark suspicion that he's right; of course, it doesn't hurt to be redesigning urban life at the same time as we strong-arm encourage people to drive hybrids.

    The last big climate change helped to make us smarter; let's hope that we're smart enough to deal with this new one.

    August 13, 2007

    Official Singularity Summit Announcement

    creation.jpgI've mentioned before that I'll be speaking at this year's Singularity Summit, taking place in San Francisco next month. Today's the official announcement, however, so you'll undoubtedly see word of it showing up across the futurist blogosphere. Key excerpts from the press release (you can read the whole thing here):

    ...What are the major challenges to achieving advanced AI? What are the benefits and dangers? How far are we from self-improving AI? How should we prepare for this potentially powerful innovation?

    These are among the questions that 17 outstanding thinkers will explore and debate at the Singularity Summit, to be held Saturday and Sunday, September 8-9, at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, California. The summit is organized by the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit institute in Silicon Valley for the study of safe advanced AI.


    Tickets can be purchased online for $50 at http://www.singinst.org/summit2007/tickets/.

    Confirmed speakers include:

    * Dr. Rodney Brooks, famous MIT roboticist and founder of iRobot
    * Dr. Peter Norvig, director of research at Google
    * Paul Saffo, Stanford, leading technology forecaster
    * Sam Adams, distinguished engineer within IBM's Research Division
    * Jamais Cascio, cofounder of World Changing and creator of Open the Future
    * Dr. Ben Goertzel, director of research at SIAI and founder of Novamente
    * Dr. J. Storrs Hall, author of Beyond AI: Creating the Conscience of the Machine
    * Dr. Charles L. Harper, Jr., senior VP at John Templeton Foundation
    * Dr. James Hughes, executive director of Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies
    * Neil Jacobstein, prominent AI expert and CEO of Teknowledge
    * Dr. Stephen Omohundro, founder of Self-Aware Systems
    * Dr. Barney Pell, founder and CEO of Powerset
    * Christine Peterson, cofounder of Foresight Nanotech Institute
    * Peter Thiel, cofounder of PayPal and founder of Clarium Capital
    * Wendell Wallach, author of Machine Morality: From Aristotle to Asimov and Beyond
    * Eliezer Yudkowsky, Friendly AI pioneer and cofounder of SIAI
    * Peter Voss, founder and CEO of Adaptive Artificial Intelligence

    So what am I going to be talking about? You can see my abstract here, among the rest, but in brief, I'll build off the Metaverse Roadmap Overview to look at how different kinds of metaversal environments lead to different kinds of Singularities.

    August 11, 2007

    Weekend Topsight, August 11/12, 2007

    brains.jpg"Hey, Jamais, what's up with the lack of blogging? You turning into a slacker or something?"

    I wish. I could use the sleep.

    Four big projects for IFTF. Continuation of the Open University project (from home, this time). Prep for my Singularity Summit talk. Prep for a talk at Swiss Re. Article for Metropolis magazine, courtesy of Pope-Emperor Bruce (thank you, my friend!). And one more project I can't yet talk about, other than to say it's one of the coolest things I've ever been asked to work on. All now underway.

    Good thing I have a short vacation coming up -- I'll be able to get some blogging done in between the stress attacks.

    In the meantime...

    • Neurocognitive Engineering Project #1: A 2004 research project on decision-making (PDF) is getting a fair bit of play lately (BoingBoing, Salon, Long Now, etc.) because of the correlation made by Science Blog "The Frontal Cortex" made to the accelerating mortgage crisis in the U.S.. But what jumped out at me was the identification of the section of the brain involved with long-term, rational thinking.

    Our analysis shows that the δ areas, which are activated uniformly during all decision epochs, are associated with lateral prefrontal and parietal areas commonly implicated in higher level deliberative processes and cognitive control, including numerical computation. Such processes are likely to be engaged by the quantitative analysis of economic options and the valuation of future opportunities for reward. The degree of engagement of the δ areas predicts deferral of gratification, consistent with a key role in future planning.

    I wonder: what would it take to stimulate this region? If the survival of human civilization this century requires greater use of long-term thinking, is there any way to make this region of the brain more active?

    • For All of You With Home Chip Fabs: Sun just announced its latest UltraSPARC processor, super-fast (89.6 GHz), super-efficient, etc., etc., but what makes it particularly notable is that Sun has put the blueprints for the core design under the GPL free/open source license. Oh, sure, sure, this will be handy for developers who want to work as close as possible to the hardware to maximize performance, but part of the value of free/open source is the ability to make your own copy -- not just read the code, but compile it for yourself to make sure that what you're working with is exactly what the code says. Kind of hard to do when the "compiler" costs millions of dollars.

    (via Make)

    • "We got computers, we're tapping phone-lines, we know that that ain't allowed": Add one more item to my list: putting together a proposal for the Technology in Wartime conference being put on this January by the organization Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility.

    This conference will explore how computer technology is used during war -- both for the purposes of combat/defense, as well as for human rights interventions into war-torn regions. Topics will range from high tech weapons systems and internet surveillance, to privacy-enhancing technologies that aid human rights workers documenting conditions in war-torn countries and help soldiers communicate their experiences in blogs and e-mail. We are also interested in the history of computer-aided weapons systems. Our goal will be to consider the ethical implications of wartime technologies and how these technologies are likely to affect civilization in years to come. Ultimately we want to engage a pressing question of our time: What should socially-responsible computer professionals do in a time of high tech warfare?

    This sounds like a terrific conference topic -- kudos to CPSR Board President Annalee Newitz.

    August 7, 2007

    City Lights, Part Deux

    atcitylights.jpgThe second half of the R.U. Sirius event at the City Lights bookstore (previously, here, here, and here) is now up at the Neofiles website. Pesco gets a chance to speak, and I continue to talk a lot. I am apparently rather fond of the sound of my own voice.

    True Mutations Live! at City Lights (Part 2)

    Favorite bit:

    I have to push back on the notion that technology develops itself. I mean, technology... technology is a social process. It's all too common, especially in the circles that we run in, to have the conversations focus on the toys, focus on the technology, the gadgets, and really ignore that these emerge on the basis of social and human decisions.

    August 6, 2007

    Crimes Against the Future

    reddykilotrial.jpgThis week's Newsweek contains an article ("The Truth About Denial") that, on the surface, offers a good look at the politics of global warming pseudo-skepticism. When you read between the lines, however, it becomes increasingly clear that we've hit a phase transition in the politics of global warming, and -- especially when coupled with this week's Time story on the fragility of the recovery of New Orleans -- how close we are to treating the carbon-emissions industries as enemies of society. In short, the tobaccofication of carbon is imminent.

    Since the late 1980s, this well-coordinated, well-funded campaign by contrarian scientists, free-market think tanks and industry has created a paralyzing fog of doubt around climate change. Through advertisements, op-eds, lobbying and media attention, greenhouse doubters (they hate being called deniers) argued first that the world is not warming; measurements indicating otherwise are flawed, they said. Then they claimed that any warming is natural, not caused by human activities. Now they contend that the looming warming will be minuscule and harmless. "They patterned what they did after the tobacco industry," says former senator Tim Wirth, who spearheaded environmental issues as an under secretary of State in the Clinton administration.

    The Newsweek article goes on for six damning pages. Few readers will be surprised that this was not (and has never been) an honest effort to make sure that the climate field respected a scientific process of considering all plausible explanations. This was, from very early on, a conscious effort to obfuscate, undermine and delay (pun intended) any and all official efforts to reduce carbon emissions. Scientific accuracy didn't matter, only resistance to any government activity.

    Those of us who have been following this issue closely will come away from the article having learned little that's new, but what's remarkable about the piece is that something this dismissive of the global warming deniers (let alone the denialist position) is the cover story of a mainstream news magazine. This isn't just another piece reaffirming the reality of global warming as science; it's a brutal evisceration of the corrupt industry that emerged through the efforts of ideologues and crony capitalists. The companies and think tanks involved in the denialist effort come across not as defenders of their beliefs and industry, but as people willing to say and do anything to protect the accumulation of short-term profits, the future (and the world) be damned.

    Whether or not Katrina could be indisputably linked to global warming, it has become the iconic global warming event in the public mind -- a climate 9/11, if you will. When New Orleans is hit again (and it will be), the ineffective projects from FEMA, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the sundry contractors hired to rebuild hurricane defenses will be brushed aside, and the city will be hit all the harder. (Ironically, because the poor residents of New Orleans are still largely unable to rebuild their homes and communities, they may end up being spared this second hit if it comes in the next few years.) When that happens, or when we have a big hurricane hit on a city that isn't even as prepared as New Orleans (such as, say, Washington D.C.), this emerging recognition that the carbon industries have been working to prevent us from acting against global warming -- in effect, working to harm us in the name of maximizing profits -- is likely to take on even greater vigor.

    For the global warming denial industry, congressional hearings will be the least of their worries. In a post-Katrina II America, aware that some of the largest companies and the most influential think tanks worked hard to make sure that attempts to mitigate climate disruption were stopped, the perpetrators of this crime may face far greater trials. It couldn't happen to a more deserving bunch.

    August 5, 2007

    Not Missing, Just Tired

    Sorry about the blog silence for the last few days; I'm still playing catch-up from the previous week. I have a few items that I'm mulling for later posting, but they don't seem to be suited to pithiness.

    I'll post more, soon.

    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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