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March 27, 2008

Please Don't Kick the Robots

If you follow the futures blogosphere at all -- or just read BoingBoing -- you've undoubtedly seen this video of the "packbot" called Big Dog:

It's an interesting prototype, and a telling example of how rapidly we're moving into the robotic age. The use of four legs for mobility gives it a particularly sci-fi appearance -- as if, at any moment, a tiny flying drone could show up and wrap a cable around its legs. Its walking pattern is distinctly mechanical, except under a particular condition: when it's in trouble, at which point it moves its legs around, trying to stay up, in an eerily animal-like way. I found Big Dog's efforts to recover from slipping on the ice fascinating. But I had a somewhat different reaction to its efforts to recover from being kicked: I felt a bit sick.

My reaction to seeing this robot kicked paralleled what I would have had if I'd seen a video of a pack mule or a real big dog being kicked like that, and (from anecdotal conversations) I know I'm not the only one with that kind of immediate response. True, it wasn't nearly as strong a shocked feeling for me as it would have been with a real animal, but it was definitely of the same character. It simply felt wrong.

pleo.pngI had a similar reaction when I learned that the "Pleo" robot dinosaur toy reacts to being picked up by the tail by crying out in apparent distress.

Pleo is also capable of getting upset—when you hold him upside down by his tail, Pleo lets out an panicky wail until you put him down on his feet.

This is where the emotional pull of Pleo—not in him, but in you—is apparent, because once placed safely on a flat surface, Pleo knows how to lay a guilt trip. Like a dog that has just been beaten, Pleo's tail trembles and goes down between his legs, all while he hangs his head and makes noises like a baby dinosaur sobbing. Oh, Herbert, I never meant to hold you upside down all those times. Please forgive me.

Like the author of the above review, my immediate, gut response mirrors what I would feel for a living animal. Intellectually, I know that it's a simple machine without any actual sense of pain or fear; emotionally, it's horrifying.

This response is, at least to an extent, hard-wired -- most of us react to the sight of an animal in distress with empathy for the creature and, if applicable, disgust for the person abusing it. Psychologists have long recognized that humans without this empathy for non-human animals are more likely to be abusive to other people. The behaviors of these robots -- the scrambling legs, the desperate cries -- mirrors real animal behavior closely enough, at least for some of us, to elicit this same kind of empathy.

Some of this "mirror empathy" comes from the robots being biomorphic, that is, having animal-like appearances. Even if a Roomba let out panicky squeaks and flashing lights at being turned upside-down, for example, few of us would react as we would to seeing a turtle on its back. There's no biomorphism to the Roomba. And that's probably a good thing. After all, it's trying to carry out a particular task efficiently, and it probably wouldn't work as well if people constantly picked it up because it was so cute.

kicktherobot.pngIt strikes me that there's a likely split in the near-term evolution of human-environment robots in the years to come. Some robots, those meant to interact on a regular basis with humans, will likely take on stronger biomorphic appearances and behaviors, usually in order to deter abusive behavior. A small number of robots, intended to provide emotional support to the injured or depressed, may have human-like appearances. Other robots, meant to work more-or-less out of sight, will probably take on more camouflaged appearances, trying to avoid being noticed.

Note the "usually" above. I would expect that some human-interactive robots will be designed with biomorphic cues meant to elicit a response other than empathy. Fear, for example: a robot that triggers deeply-rooted responses to (say) spiders or snakes may be a better tool for the police or military than one that makes people think of puppies or ponies. Such a design wouldn't necessarily undermine its interactions with the military/police units; we know that soldiers already have strong emotional attachments to completely non-biomorphic, remote-control robots.

I don't think it's likely that we'll stop having these kinds of emotional reactions to biomorphic (in appearance and/or behavior) robots. I think it's rather healthy that we do, actually. For one, it's an indicator that our sense of empathy remains strong and sensitive, and that seems quite a good thing. Another reason, however, is a bit more speculative. At some point, whether in the next decade or next century, we're likely to develop robots that really won't like being kicked. I'd rather not have them start to want to kick back.

March 25, 2008

Peak Oil vs. Global Warming

Could we avoid the worst ravages of global warming because we run out of oil?

Not since King Kong vs. Godzilla have we seen a monster fight of this magnitude. Disaster vs. Disaster! Things Fall Apart vs. The Center Cannot Hold! Category I Apocalypse vs. Category I Apocalypse! Best of all, NASA's James Hansen serves as referee.

In the first corner, we have Peak Oil, the premise that we'll soon (or perhaps already) have reached the maximum production of petroleum, and that remaining reserves are far lower than generally acknowledged. The result: ever-rising fuel prices, global conflict over dwindling resources, and possibly even social and economic collapse if peak oil hits faster and harder than expected. Even the moderate-case scenarios show declining petroleum access by the 2020s -- and all while China and India are ramping up a car economy.

In the second corner, we have Global Warming, the result of greenhouse gases -- particularly CO2 from human sources, such as burning petroleum -- trapping heat in the atmosphere. We're now at 385 parts-per-million and rising (up from 284ppm in the pre-industrial era). Climatologists generally consider 450ppm a tipping point into unrecoverable disaster, although there are now some signs that the already-past 350ppm would be a safer maximum. Among the actions required to avoid global warming disaster: a dramatic reduction in the consumption of fossil fuels.

In the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, the "business-as-usual" scenario, which posits that society keeps going as it has, and fossil fuel consumption continues to grow at its current pace, results in an atmospheric CO2 concentration of over 950ppm by the end of this century. That's not likely to happen, of course -- the effects of global warming (sea level rise, drought, pandemic disease, dogs and cats living together, etc.) would make such steady growth untenable. Technology change would play a role, too, as would shifts in population. But the biggest reason why it wouldn't happen is a simple one:

There isn't enough petroleum in the ground, in any form, to make it possible.

That's the argument that James Hansen and his colleague Pushker A. Kharecha make in an article posted to the science website Arxiv.org. (I've been informed that the article went up about six months ago, but hasn't received much attention.) In "Implications of “peak oil” for atmospheric CO2 and climate" (PDF), Kharecha and Hansen assert that the effort to keep atmospheric carbon levels below 450ppm may be greatly helped by basic limits on the amount of available oil. Because of peak oil forcing limits on petroleum consumption, a reasonable phase-out of coal ("developed countries freeze their CO2 emissions from coal by 2012 and a decade later developing countries similarly halt increases in coal emissions. Between 2025 and 2050 it is assumed that both developed and developing countries will linearly phase out emissions of CO2 from coal usage"), active measures to reduce non-CO2 forcings (including methane and black soot), and draw-down of CO2 through reforestation, would limit CO2 to below 450ppm. This doesn't require the most aggressive peak oil scenarios, either -- simply using the US Energy Information Administration's estimates of oil reserves is enough. Using more aggressive numbers, atmospheric CO2 peaks at 422ppm.

Kharecha and Hansen present five scenarios, using a variety of estimates of peak oil timing and pace.

Peak oil emission in the BAU scenario occurs in 2016 ± 2 yr, peak gas in 2026 ± 2 yr, and peak coal in 2077 ± 2 yr (Fig. 3a). Coal Phase-out moves peak coal up to 2022 (Fig. 3b). Fast Oil Use causes peak oil to be delayed until 2037 (Wood et al., 2003), but oil use then crashes rapidly (Fig. 3c). Less Oil Reserves results in peak oil moving to 2010 ± 2 yr (Fig. 3d), under the assumption that usage approximates the near symmetrical shape of the classical Hubbert curve. In the Peak Oil Plateau case, oil emissions peak in 2020 and remain at that level until 2040 (Kerr, 2007), thereafter decreasing approximately linearly (Fig. 3e).

The difference between Kharecha and Hansen's business-as-usual and the other scenarios points to the importance of limiting coal and other greenhouse gases. Peak oil isn't going to save us from global warming by itself. We'll still have to make major changes to how we live, how we build, how we generate energy, etc. -- all of the imperatives we've had to reckon with for awhile.

And peak oil itself, despite its global warming benefit, remains a real problem. While the "doomer" peak oil scenarios seem to me to be overwrought and simplistic, it's true that our society is thoroughly dependent upon fossil fuels, and an abrupt reduction in availability would be traumatic. As I noted in The Big Picture: Climate Chaos, the intersection of global warming and peak oil means that we have overwhelming reason to move away from fossil fuels as energy sources as rapidly as possible -- and that solutions in one arena can help in the other.

It will be interesting to me to see how both peak oil watchers and anti-global warming activists take this report. I suspect that some oilers will dismiss it as not big news, since they already knew that society is going to collapse before we reach the worst of global warming; others might take it as an indicator that trying to deal with peak oil by producing liquid coal fuels (or similar fossil substitutes) is a bad idea, as it would eliminate the one slight benefit of peak oil conditions. I hope that climate watchers might have a generally more positive response, relief that the worst-case scenarios are even less likely than before. Unfortunately, I have a feeling that more than a few global warming-focused activists will see this report -- despite coming from Hansen -- as an attempt to reduce the urgency of the need to deal with anthrogenic carbon emissions.

What this report tells us, however, is that we can't simply focus on one crisis -- no matter how large and looming -- without taking into consideration the other key drivers of change. The onset of peak oil will alter how we deal with climate disruption, rendering climate strategies that don't take peak oil into account of limited value. Similarly, the fact of global warming must shape how our economies deal with a permanent oil crunch.

For both issues, the kinds of strategies most likely to succeed are those based on the precepts of an open future: innovation and experimentation; transparency and shared knowledge; and collaboration and shared responsibility. It's a future worth fighting monsters for.

March 24, 2008

Future Salon (This Time, For Sure!)

Okay, so having the Cold of Doom last month prevented my appearance at the February Bay Area Future Salon, but I'm feeling reasonably healthy now, and Mark Finnern has graciously allowed me to step in for the March Salon on Thursday, March 27th.

So, one more try:

Jamais will be talking about Green Tomorrows at our Future Salon on Thursday the 28th of February. [...] A Future Salon has the following structure: 6-7 networking with light refreshments proudly sponsored by SAP. From 7-9+ pm presentation and discussion. SAP Labs North America, Building D, Room Southern Cross or Cafeteria depending on how many people sign up. SAP is located at 3410 Hillview Avenue, Palo Alto, CA 94304 map As always free and open to the public, spread the news. Please RSVP: http://snurl.com/2252c

If you're in town, come on by.

Super-Empowered Hopeful Individuals

This is my column for the latest edition of Nanotechnology Now. Mike Treder reposted it over at CRN's blog, so I thought I'd go ahead and repost it here, too. Feedback, as always, is more than welcome.

Most discussions of the benefits of technologies like molecular manufacturing tend to focus either on broad social advances (engineered by helpful governments, NGOs, or businesses) or individual desires that transformative technologies may be able to satisfy. These are surely useful ways of thinking about a nanotech-enabled world. But what if this model misses another category, one that may be less noticeable precisely because we pay so much attention to its opposite?

A leading fear for those of us looking at the longer-term implications of molecular manufacturing is the technology's capacity to give small groups -- or even individuals -- enormous destructive capacity. This isn't unique to advanced nanotechnology; similar worries swirl around all manner of catalytic technologies. In fact, some analysts consider this a problem we currently face, and give it the forbidding label of "super-empowered angry individuals."

Thinking about it for a moment, the question arises: Where are the "super-empowered hopeful individuals?"

The core of the "super-empowered angry individual" (SEAI) argument is that some technologies may enable individuals or small groups to carry out attacks, on infrastructure or people, at a scale that would have required the resources of an army in decades past. This is not an outlandish concern by any means; many proponents of the SEAI concept cite the September 11 attacks as a crude example of how vulnerable modern society can be to these kinds of threats. It's not hard to imagine what a similar band of terrorists, or groups like Aum Shinrikyo, might try to do with access to molecular manufacturing or advanced bioengineering tools.

But angry people aren't the only ones who could be empowered by these technologies.

As a parallel, the core of the "super-empowered hopeful individual" (SEHI) argument is that these technologies may also enable individuals or small groups to carry out socially beneficial actions at a scale that would have required the resources of a large NGO or business in decades past. They would rebuild towns or villages after a natural disaster, or provide health care to refugees; they would clean up environmental toxins, or build renewable energy systems. The Millennium Development Goals would be their checklist. They would carry out the kinds of projects that humanitarian organizations do today, but be able to do so with smaller numbers, greater speed, and a far larger impact.

To an extent, these are tasks we might expect governments, NGOs or businesses would seek to accomplish, and they'd be welcome to do so. But catalytic technologies like molecular manufacturing could so enhance the capabilities of individuals that, just as we have to account for SEAIs in our nano-era policies and strategies, we should pay attention to the beneficial role SEHIs could play. They change the structure of the game.

In my work at Worldchanging, I became acquainted with numerous individuals and small organizations who would jump at the chance to become SEHIs. There's a tremendous desire out there for tools and ideas to build a better world. In addition, if molecular manufacturing proves as economically disruptive as some have argued, there may also be large numbers of people looking for something to do with their lives after their previous jobs disappear; it's in our collective interest to make sure that more of them become SEHIs than SEAIs.

Some readers may be wondering why we should care. It's obvious that we need to be concerned about SEAIs -- they can kill us -- but if SEHIs want to go out and make the world a better place, hooray for them (and the world). So why worry?

One answer is that there would be debate over just how beneficial some of the SEHI plans would actually be. Clean water, rebuilt homes? Fine. But what about building churches or mosques or other religious centers? Or think of the controversy surrounding the One Laptop per Child project; now picture thousands of One Laptop per Child-scale projects, run by passionate (but quirky) individuals. Worse yet, imagine the havoc that could ensue if well-intended but misguided SEHIs decide to solve global warming on their own and embark on massive geoengineering projects with disastrous side-effects.

Still, the outlook is not all bad. Far from it. The amount of good that can be done by future super-empowered hopeful individuals may prove to be far greater than the damage produced by their angry counterparts.

The lesson I took from Worldchanging was that it is precisely when the risks and challenges are greatest that we see just how many of us are willing to act to build a better world. There are millions of people out there right now, looking for ways to build a better world. Perhaps you’re one of them. As Pierre Teilhard de Chardin has said, "The future belongs to those who give the next generation reason for hope."

March 23, 2008

It's not all about me...

Geeze. I just noticed that all of the front-page posts on OtF right now are in some way self-referential, either linking to interviews or talking about travel (or physical infirmities). I didn't mean for this site to turn into a LiveJournal page.

Blogging about actual, you know, ideas will resume shortly.

March 21, 2008

Exit the Machine

JC@SXSWCameron Reilly, voice of "G'Day World," on Australia's Podcast Network, listened to "The Chorus" -- the scenario I had constructed for the Futurist's Sandbox panel at SXSW -- and was thoroughly disturbed by the story it told. Disturbed enough, it turns out, to ping me and ask to do an interview for his podcast on where we seem to be going with social media technologies, and just what it might mean to opt out.

GDay World #320 icon for podpress Approximately 50 minutes, ~100MB.

Oh, and anyone who wants to see how long I've been mulling some of these ideas should check out Howard Rheingold's archive of Electric Minds, his 1996 website bringing together a variety of writers to talk about cutting-edge subjects. I wrote the "Future Surf" column (all six entries), and it's somewhat amusing to look back and see early iterations of my obsessions.


March 17, 2008

It's the Business of the Future to be Dangerous

Things to ComeThe title of this post is a quote from Alfred North Whitehead. What I like about the line is that it can be read in a couple of different ways: the role "the Future" plays in our lives is to be the danger to come, that is, to symbolize the rising challenges; and being dangerous is the "Business of the Future," i.e., risk is the industry of tomorrow. Both are likely true.

I've had to introduce myself to a variety of audiences with some frequency lately, and the question of what job title I use remains troubling. I tend to default to "futurist," because it's requires the least explanation -- everyone knows (or think they know) what a futurist does, and what I do falls close enough to that fuzzy concept for people not to be confused by what I say. But that's a dissatisfying term, in part because there's quite a bit of baggage associated with the term (from design movements to trend-spotters), and in part because "futurist" doesn't acknowledge the connection to the present (in the way that, say, "foresight" -- with its suggestion of looking ahead while standing here -- does). Making clear that what we do today builds the world we live in tomorrow remains a critical part of my work.

My business card says that I'm the "World-Builder-in-Chief" at Open the Future, and that feels closer, in that the mix of snark and wonder nicely sums up my attitude. But that one requires some explanation, and could still leave people feeling confused, especially if I'm not doing explicit scenario or world-building work.

"Foresight engineer" and "paradigm engineer" -- both of which I've seen elsewhere, and toyed with for myself -- have the double drawback of (a) sounding far more techie than I'd like to imply, and (b) sounding like a play on "sanitation engineer" as the replacement title for garbage collector.

"Tacitician" -- in that my job is to uncover the hard-to-spot threads and connections we know are there, but can't put our finger on? Too easily mistaken for "tactician."

"Provocateur" -- I probably couldn't put that on a business card and get past Homeland Security, and (in my experience) executives have a habit of pronouncing this as "provocateer" -- like "Mousekateer."

"Scenario planner," "scenarist," and "scenario designer" aren't bad, but I do more than scenarios in my futures work. Need something a bit broader.

"Tomorrow Scout" -- sounds like the title of a really earnest and cheesy comic book from the 1950s. Maybe one that's recently been revived and re-imagined by Warren Ellis as being about a sullen, probably alcoholic, more than a little crazed futurist who has seen what new Hells tomorrow has in store for us, but can't get people to listen, let alone change their behavior. A Cassandra for the 21st century. No, I'm not talking about myself.

(And as my mind wanders from this vision, I discover that there are no links for the term "Nostranomicon," a conceptual mash-up of Nostradamus and the Necronomicon. This post hereby corrects that oversight.)

Any suggestions?

So I'm now back home, complete with a new virus picked up from my hundreds of good friends at South-by-SouthWest. (Seriously, it's actually kind of scary how many bloggers in attendance at SXSW now report being sick. It's biological warfare against the blogosphere, I tell you.)

Given that this last month or so has been a bit, um, stressful (hard drive crash, trip to London, horribly sick, trip to Wisconsin then Austin, sick, with my normal work continuing throughout), blogging here has suffered a bit. Let me just say that I will get back to the "The Big Picture" as soon as possible, and have a multitude of things running through my head that I need to get out onto pixels.

March 11, 2008

SXSW Interactive Panels

chorus.pngHad both of my South-by-Southwest Interactive panels today, "Visualizing Sustainability" and "Futurists' Sandbox: Scenarios for Social Media, 2025."

The sustainability panel offered a traditional panel format, and went reasonably well. One of the attendees, Michael Gomez of Green Interfaces, recorded the session with his laptop, and the recording is of surprisingly good quality. Listen to it here (29MB MP3).

The futurists' panel was... weird.

No, scratch that. It was freaking bizarre.

When the recordings and such become available, you'll be able to see for yourself, but just check out the comments on Twitter from people talking about the session: as many people loving it as hating it.

As I ended up pre-recording my part of the event, you can download it and give it a listen (6.4MB MP3). Remember, it was arguably the least weird of the bunch.

March 10, 2008

WIRED Interview

Wired's Alexis Madrigal caught me and sat me down for a conversation today at SXSW -- and has already posted the results.

Read the interview here -- and be prepared for shocking, shocking language.

The road to hell is paved with short-term distractions. The biggest potential and actual crises of the 21st century all have a strong long, slow aspect with a significant lag between cause and effect. We have to train ourselves to be thinking in terms of longer-term results.

Back in the 1500s, the culture that we had built in the west embraced multigenerational projects quite easily. Notre Dame. Massive cathedrals were not built over the course of a few years, they were built over a few generations. People who started building them knew they wouldn't be finished until their grandchildren were born.

That's not a type of thinking we do very often because of the rapid pace of change. Yet the big problems around climate, transformative technologies like artificial general intelligence, energy and resources, all of these have long slow aspects. Decisions we make today lock us in for years, if not decades. And ignoring things today can have tragic effects.

March 9, 2008

Interview -- "The Future Is Now"

The folks at the video blog "Ryan is Hungry" interviewed me recently on just what it means to try to change the world. Thank you to Lisa Rein for facilitating the connection -- and for providing the space.

The Future Is Now: Jamais Cascio, Co-Founder of World Changing
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March 7, 2008

Waking Up in Austin

My travel from Wisconsin to Texas went with fewer than expected hitches, and I'm now camped out at Jon Lebkowsky's flat in Austin, here for South by Southwest Interactive. I head back home on Wednesday, and thankfully have few travel plans for awhile thereafter.


For those of you attending SXSWi wanting to say hi, you can be certain to find me at my two panels:

Visualizing Sustainability, Tuesday March 11, 11:30-12:30, Room 9

How can we visualize the city of the future and create more interactive steps that lead to sustainability? How can we use technical simulations and games to build understanding of the resource-balanced world? What's the connection between an emerging Global Sustainable Society and video games?

Panelists: Jon Lebkowsky, Dawn Danby, Pliny Fisk, Joel Greenberg, me

Futurists' Sandbox: Scenarios for Social Technologies in 2025, Tuesday March 11, 5-6, Room B

What futures emerge when everything is hyperlocal and the boundaries between what is real and virtual disappear? Will our current social media tools lead us to a participatory panopticon? Take a futurists' tour of emerging social technologies and tap into the collective genius of fellow SXSWers. In this session we'll present four possible scenarios about social technologies in the year 2025 and ask the audience to join us - and each other - in an interactive deep dive to explore the implications of each for the present and the future. Get out of your seat and into the future!

Panelists: Michele Bowman, Jake Dunagan, Stuart Candy, Wayne Pethrick, me

You'll notice two things -- that both of my panels are on the last day, and that my "Core Conversation" on the Participatory Panopticon is nowhere to be found. It turns out that being on two panels bends the rules, so being on three (even if the third was just a poster session) just isn't going to happen. Being that it was easier to replace a poster session than a panelist, bye-bye to the PartiPan.

I'll be posting photos from the trip to my Flickr feed, and updates to my Twitter feed -- and will work in some more considered posts here.

Oh, and I'm doing much better today. Still have a cough of doom, but it sounds worse than it feels.

March 4, 2008

Still Ill

Whatever this is that has taken ahold of me -- plague 2.0, dinovirus, "the grippe," or just an awful, awful cold -- it's still hanging around, although today was the first day I felt like I could form coherent sentences again. Good thing, too, since I leave the house at 5:30am tomorrow to head off to the airport: Wisconsin (with a high of 25 degrees F), here I come.

I'm doomed.

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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