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July 29, 2008

Tuesday Topsight, July 29, 2008

(Especially terse edition)

• Feel the Power of the Dark Side: New term of the week: "Dark Liquidity." This is the practice of trading large quantities of stocks with as little public notice as possible, in order to avoid having the trade shift the markets. That this practice exists is a bit discomfiting, but what's even more fun is the emergence of something of an arms race between dark liquidity trading systems (so-called "dark pools") and groups trying to gather market intelligence. New Scientist elaborates:

In an effort to find out what's floating in the dark pool, so-called "statistical arbitrage" firms place small orders to probe how much stock a pool conceals, and its going price. [...] Instinet's NightHawk system uses probabilistic analysis to create what Balarkas calls "thermal maps" of where the dark stuff is. For any firm to reveal precisely how these algorithms work would amount to commercial suicide, he says. But what works in the favour of these dark aggregators is that their orders are legitimate, so they can afford to probe for larger amounts of stock; statistical arbitrage firms, who may not actually be interested in bulk buying, need to minimise their expenditures.

Dark aggregators -- the ones assembling dark pool trades -- are in turn changing the way they assemble and communicate the trades, in order to spoof or fool the analysts.

• China's Lament: I occasionally get asked as to why I'm not inclined to see China as the leading international player in this century. Some of this is based on work I've done for various clients, but an article in the Washington Post this past week offers a good summary of some of my reasons.

A Long Wait at the Gate to Greatness details some of the environmental, economic and (especially) demographic problems facing China. One quote in particular spells out the depth of the problem.

When my family and I left China in 2004, we moved to Los Angeles, the smog capital of the United States. No sooner had we set foot in southern California than my son's asthma attacks and chronic chest infections -- so worryingly frequent in Beijing -- stopped. When people asked me why we'd moved to L.A., I started joking, "For the air."

Worth a read.

• Future Web: On Friday, August 15, I'll be on a panel at Adaptive Path's UX Week event, speaking about the future of the web browser. The panel will be based in part on work I did with Adaptive Path last year on this very subject. Bonus: later that afternoon, Bruce Sterling will be giving the closing keynote for the event.

July 27, 2008


Were-Car.pngBrad Templeton wants you to stop driving.

Templeton (Chairman of the Electronic Frontiers Foundation, programmer, dot-com entrepreneur, inventor of the "dot com" domain name structure -- no kidding! -- and more) laments the tens of thousands of people killed every year in traffic accidents, the waste of urban space for parking garages and gas stations, and the various institutional roadblocks to moving to renewable energy systems. But he doesn't suggest that you go get a bicycle, you lazy bum, or spend hours on packed public transit. He wants you to get a robot.

A robot car, to be precise.

Brad Templeton's set of essays, under the collective title "Where Robot Cars (Robocars) Will Really Take Us," explains exactly why robot (autonomous-driver) cars are possible, likely, safer, cleaner, and all-around a good idea. This isn't meant as a nuanced thought experiment; Templeton lays out page after page of statistics, arguments, and data. This is a massively detailed piece. If you think of an objection, chances are he's already covered it.

(Disclosure: Brad sent me a link to an earlier version of this piece, and I sent back numerous comments.)

Templeton doesn't make any claims that this would be easy, or that it could be done soon. As a professional programmer, he's well-acquainted with both the risks arising from relying on computer controls, and the difficulty of putting autonomous systems on the road alongside human drivers. He sees these as solvable issues, though, and points to present-day examples of extremely reliable coding and the "Darpa Grand Challenge" for automated drivers as reasons why. The social (particularly the legal-liability) issues are less-easily solved.

Probably the most provocative aspect of this piece is Templeton's effort to play out some of the consequences of a shift to robotic vehicles. Not only would autonomous vehicles allow for major changes to urban design (don't need downtown parking if your car can come when you call) and major reduction of accident rates (crash-avoidance would be the first form that car automation would take, potentially eliminated tens of thousands of crashes per year, saving hundreds of millions of dollars), we'd likely see the end of mass transit (with a few long-haul exceptions).

(His data on the overall energy efficiency of mass transit, versus standard, hybrid, and ultra-light automobiles, is startling.)

I suspect that both technophile and envirophile readers will find aspects of Templeton's piece to argue with, but I suspect you'll be surprised at how strong and reasonably well-supported most of his claims are. This is the kind of piece you go into thinking that it's all crazy, and come out thinking it's all quite plausible.

Do I believe him? I think he lays out a pretty compelling scenario. I do think he still under-estimates the social, cultural, and legal inertia likely to slow the rate of acceptance of such systems. This strikes me as almost certainly a generation-change issue -- that is, the rate of acceptance will map to the maturation of kids growing up riding in semi-autonomous vehicles. Lots of resistance for longer than expected, then boom, a phase shift.

But I doubt it will happen first in the US. Singapore, maybe Scandinavia, Japan almost certainly... but I expect USians to be watching this from afar.

July 22, 2008

3D Print-to-Order


Whenever I talk about the rise of low-cost 3D fabrication, one inevitable question (after "how expensive is a printer?") is "does anyone do print-on-demand fabbing?" Real soon now, the answer will be yes. (Update: As Sven notes in the comments, print-on-demand fabbing has been around for a bit, but this one seems to be the first aimed at non-professional users.) Shapeways is a new startup service that promises to take your dusty old X3D or Collada-format 3D design files and turn them into shiny new physical objects. Mashable has more, including invites to the closed beta program.

Prices range from $2.50 to $3.44 per cubic centimeter, depending upon the chosen material (which can be solid, flexible, or transparent) and whether or not you're ordering from the EU. That's not cheap, if what you're looking for is a finished consumer item (they use the cute/creepy "monkey baby" dolls shown above as samples; they measure just a couple of inches tall, and run upwards of $60), but it's terrific if you're looking to get a one-off of a unique design. Many of the pages on the Shapeways site remain locked to non-beta visitors, but the blog is open. The blog is good even for folks not about to get stuff printed, as it provides photos of and details about the 3D printers they use, and discusses the stumbling blocks Shapeways has encountered as they get this thing rolling.

This won't be for everybody. You'll have to do the hard design work, in a 3D program that outputs their preferred formats, so I really don't expect this to be the Next Big Web 2.0 extravaganza. Make an app that will convert Second Life (or other Metaverse environment) objects into fully-qualified X3D files, and we'll talk. I'm just fascinated by how fast this market evolves.

For When the Metal Ones Decide to Come For You

(From Saturday Night Live, some years ago.)

Be afraid.

July 21, 2008

Monday Topsight, July 21, 2008


• Green Acres, Now With Penthouse View: Vertical farms finally make the move from cybergreen fantasy to the pages of the New York Times. The logic is seductive: urban towers, filled not with more offices and apartments, but with food crops.

Dr. Despommier estimates that it would cost $20 million to $30 million to make a prototype of a vertical farm, but hundreds of millions to build one of the 30-story towers that he suggests could feed 50,000 people. “I’m viewed as kind of an outlier because it’s kind of a crazy idea,” Dr. Despommier, 68, said with a chuckle. “You’d think these are mythological creatures.” [...]

“If I were to set myself as a certifier of vertical farms, I would begin with security,” he said. “How do you keep insects and bacteria from invading your crops?” He says growing food in climate-controlled skyscrapers would also protect against hail and other weather-related hazards, ensuring a higher quality food supply for a city, without pesticides or chemical fertilizers.

Vertical farms offer a nice way of sidestepping a big urban density problem (that is, how does a city feed itself without relying on hundreds of square miles of farmland?), and have the (to me) right balance of futurosity and plausibility.

It occurs to me, though, that a variant of the vertical farms might work well for the hollowed-out suburbs, too: how much would it cost to convert a McMansion to allow it to grow food?

• Viva, Provigil!: Are people still going on about doping in sports? That's so last year. The big new panic-trigger is doping in the workplace -- not with steroids, but with cognitive-modification drugs. Tech Crunch, as close to a bellwether of Silicon Valley angst as you can get, lets us know that entrepreneurs have come to find drugs like modafinil (sold under the brand name Provigil) can give them a professional edge. The tone is that of condemnation, of course, but at the same time implicitly letting it be known that everybody's doing it, and if you're not, you're probably falling behind.

We're seeing the same thing happen with Adderal and Ritalin in high school and college, apparently, and I wouldn't be shocked to see that practice carry over more and more into the professional world.

But here's where this all gets tricky for me: I have a prescription for Provigil, as it is legally available for dealing with "shift work sleep disorder," which includes jet lag. And it works, at least for me. I've gone as long as nearly 40 hours without sleep while traveling internationally, in meetings where I had to be able to perform at a decent level. No dozing off, no weird hallucinations from lack of sleep, just mental clarity and alertness. Provigil wears off after about six hours, and doesn't interfere with normal sleep. Go me.

This isn't meant as an endorsement, only an observation that (a) yes, these kinds of cognitive modification drugs are in the workplace already, and (b) it's a lot more complex than a simple "doping is illegal and/or bad!"


• Uh Oh: Chris Mooney, author of (among others) Storm World, notes that the early days of the 2008 Atlantic hurricane season is looking a lot more like the deadly 2005 season than the comparatively mild 2006 and 2007 seasons.

In particular, the finally dissipated Hurricane Bertha set all manner of records, most of them associated with longevity and strength so early in the season. That includes becoming the longest lived Atlantic hurricane ever recorded in July, and the third strongest ever recorded in that month (and sixth strongest overall among pre-August hurricanes).

And now we're looking at a likely Hurricane Dolly, which will get the chance to churn over the extremely warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico before making landfall somewhere (presumably) along the Mexico or Texas Gulf coast.

Meanwhile, the National Hurricane Center has just begun to track a strong tropical wave--much like the precursor to Bertha--that is emerging off of the African Coast. The strongest Atlantic hurricanes, dubbed Cape Verde-type storms, generally form from such waves--and generally do so later in the season. But that's not the case in 2008.

The National Hurricane Center is your best bet for rapidly-updated information on the status of Atlantic and Pacific storms near North America. They have RSS feeds for all of their reports, and ScienceNewsBlog pushes NHC alerts out via Twitter.

• Got a Spare $60 Million?: My old WorldChanging colleague, Vinay Gupta, has a post on his "Bucky-Gandhi Design Institution" blog entitled "How to fix the developing world for sixty million dollars," and it makes for fascinating reading. It's a lengthy argument, but it boils down to this:

So, here’s what I’m going to spend your notional sixty mil on: television programs for farmers and people who live in slums. I’m going to blow the whole lot on making 200 hours of science telly, and giving them away. [...]

But the bulk of this science telly for farmers is the basics of what you need to thrive in the developing world, in four major categories

  • how to grow more food?
  • how to stay alive? (water, sanitation, basic medicine)
  • what is happening in the rest of the world? (physical and economic geography, including things like futures markets)
  • what is happening here? (where did television come from? what’s a computer? what’s an antibiotic? what’s science? why did things start to change, what does it mean, and where will it end?)
  • What I love about Vinay's proposal is that it's not just the "teach a person to fish" school of changing the world -- it goes to the level of "teach a person about ecosystems, nutrition and tools, so that if fishing doesn't work out, they'll be able to figure out what to do as an alternative." Yeah, it's more complex, but the near-term stuff is also there -- but Vinay doesn't just leave it there.

    Good reading, and good work, sir.

    • Heads Down: I've been trying to blog more lately (and without quite as much "here's the talk/interview I did" content), but I'm looking at a pretty intense next few weeks. Lots of work on Superstruct, of course, but also a few big writing jobs -- including a major piece for the Atlantic Monthly. I'll probably be going back to 1-2/week mode for awhile.

    July 18, 2008

    Needed: Game Masters/Community Leaders for Superstruct (Updated)

    UPDATE: We're no longer accepting applications for this position. But we do still need collaborators! If you'd like to be involved in Superstruct as more than a player -- for instance, if you'd like to throw a Superstruct party or workshop or camp; or if you'd like to organize a team of Superstruct players at your company, or your school; or if you'd like your blog to host a feed of advance game content; or if you'd like to rally your online community around a Superstruct theme; email Superstruct@iftf.org and let us know! Jane and I and IFTF would love to collaborate with you.

    The Institute for the Future is hiring five community leaders/game masters for the upcoming future forecasting game Superstruct.

    It’s an eight-week position beginning September 8, 2008. You can be a game master from anywhere in the world, and it will require ~12 hours of online work per week. You’ll work very closely with Jane McGonigal (Avant Game) and me (Jamais Cascio, Open the Future). This is a non-profit game with no commercial sponsors; the position comes with a stipend of $2500.

    Skills required: Great forum writing skills; online storytelling experience (blogs, videos, photos, Twitter, etc.); curiosity about the future; some expertise in issues related to sustainability, global health, environmental or climate issues, global business, social networks, or anything else you think might be useful to solving the problems of the future. We're open to considering anyone with great writing skills and a desire to investigate the future! No technical skills required, just great Internet skills.

    Your job will be to lead a team of players (at minimum, hundreds of players; more likely, thousands of players) in creating a collaborative online forecast of the year 2019. The forecasting will take place through wikis, forums, videos, blogs, Twitter, online comics, photo sets, and whatever else our players use to depict and talk about the future. You'll be reading and watching lots of player-created content, in addition to making your own content. You'll give the players feedback, and you'll synthesize and summarize the most interesting things in a short weekly story. You'll be moderating forums and wikis dedicated to solving a particular future-problem. You'll have to help your community manage a careful balance between "wow, the future might be scary" storytelling to "you know what, we might actually be able to solve this problem before it kills us all" optimism. Because the game isn't just about imagining the future. It's about inventing the future. This game is a kind of working prototype for the year 2019!

    Each game master will focus on one of five "superthreats", ranging from a devastating disruption of the food supply chain, to a pandemic, to "global weirding" weather patterns to create millions of climate refugees. (Depending on your interest and area of expertise, we'll make sure you get the right topic!) In the two weeks before the game launches, we'll give you a crash course in the IFTF research that is guiding this game, so you'll be an expert on your area when the game launches on September 22, 2008.

    To apply: Send a letter to Jane at superstruct@iftf.org explaining why you want to join us on the Superstruct team. Mention any previous experience as a writer, or thinking about the future, playing or making games, running online communities, or being an interesting person online. Include a CV or resume if you think it will help explain who you are, but most importantly, in your letter, answer this question: It's the summer of 2019. You are yourself, but 10 years in the future. Describe where you are having for dinner, what you're eating, and what you're thinking or talking about. How did you wind up there, compared to where you had dinner most often in the summer of 2008?

    July 16, 2008

    More Geoengineering Coverage

    It's fascinating to watch the evolution of the mainstream media coverage of the geoengineering concept. I'm actually pretty pleasantly surprised: most of the articles I've seen have had an overall tone of caution about the proposals, even while recognizing that if we end up using geoengineering technologies, it's because things have gotten so bad that we're down to our last-ditch methods of avoiding disaster. The basics of the stories have been pretty consistent: we're in an even bigger climate mess than we thought, so real scientists have begun to consider options for climate modification that they might have dismissed in the past, simply to head off catastrophe; nonetheless, more research needs to be done. I haven't seen any news stories (as opposed to opinion pieces, or blog articles) that even imply that geoengineering would be considered a replacement for decarbonization, and I'm seeing fewer news articles that start from the perspective that such climate modification is inherently wrong, period.

    Greg Lamb's new article in the Christian Science Monitor, "Can we engineer a cooler earth?" is an example of the current model for mainstream coverage of the concept. It's not just that he quotes me in the piece, but that he does so without too badly distorting what I tried to say. It does make me sound like more of an enthusiast than I really am, but it gets the essential point across: we need to get our carbon emissions down, but the climate is changing faster and harder than even the most pessimistic models had predicted a few years ago.

    Blocking sunlight, adds futurist Cascio, “is at best a delay of the worst temperature-related consequences of global warming in order to give us more time for de-carbonization.”

    Any long-term approach to solving global warming, Thernstrom says, almost certainly will have three aspects: emissions reductions, geoengineering, and steps to adapt to an altered climate. “The question is, ‘What is the ratio among those three pieces?’ ”

    Schemes to slightly dim sunlight also wouldn’t solve the problem of ocean acidification, caused by airborne CO2 entering seawater. More-acidic oceans would harm coral reefs and upset ocean ecology, with possible far-reaching effects. Ocean acidification is “at least as big” a problem as that of CO2 in the air, Cascio says.

    That last point is critical. Even if we manage to avoid a heat-related crisis with geoengineering, we'll still need to eliminate our industrial carbon emissions as quickly as possible to avoid ocean ecosystem collapse. I suspect that we'll come to see ocean acidification as a bigger problem than atmospheric warming, in fact.

    July 15, 2008

    Melting Icecaps and the Global Ocean (Updated)


    We're doooooomed, doooo-- wait a minute.

    If the Greenland icecap sees an even-more-significant melt, how soon do you need to pack your bags and head for the high country? Unless you live along the Atlantic coastlines of North America or Europe, you'll have a few decades, at least. And if the Antarctic icecap melts, we'll have even longer -- at least 50 years, probably much more. These are the surprising results of research undertaken by Detlef Stammer of the University of Hamburg, Germany, written up in "Response of the global ocean to Greenland and Antarctic ice melting," published in the Journal of Geophysical Research. New Scientist summarizes his findings thusly:

    ... the majority of Greenland's meltwater will stay in the Atlantic Ocean for at least 50 years, causing sea levels here to rise faster than expected. "The Greenland ice cap is much less of a threat to tropical islands in the Pacific than it is for the coasts of North America and Europe," he says. [...] Antarctic meltwater could be prevented from reaching much of the world for centuries due to strong currents in the Southern Ocean, says Stammer.

    Stammer's work covered a 50-year time horizon, mapping the progress of freshwater runoff through "boundary waves, equatorial Kelvin waves, and westward propagating Rossby waves." Stammer describes the volume of melting ice in his model as reflecting "enhanced runoff," although it appears from the piece that this ends up being a fairly conservative take on how rapidly the ice could melt. It does not appear from the model structure that increased meltwater volume would affect the overall global ocean current flows; however, the argument Stammer makes in the article (under-emphasized in the New Scientist summary) is that the cold freshwater flux would have a significant effect on salinity and surface temperature. The salinity and temperature changes, in particular, could have a measurable impact on the warm water flows keeping Europe warm, so once again we're back talking about localized "whiplash ice ages" (Stammer does not suggest this, but it follows).

    An even more important element (getting less play in the article, unfortunately) is the lack of significant sea-level increase in the global ocean in the first few decades of an enhanced Antarctic melt. Since the potential overall sea-level increase from Antarctic ice dwarfs the potential from Greenland, this is an important finding.


    One question that leaps out for me: if you have a cold freshwater flux cutting down on mixing and surface temperature, what does that do to ocean thermal inertia? My sense is that a flux of colder surface water, aside from all of the havoc it would wreak on ocean ecosystems, might actually slow the pace of overall global warming. I'd welcome more educated analysis on this.

    Stammer's work matches earlier, less complex, analysis, so there's a good chance it maps to reality. Even if the runoff flow is significantly greater than used in this model, we'll still see a slow wave of sea level increase, not reaching the Pacific and the Indian oceans for decades. In that sense, any delay of disastrous results is to be welcomed, since delays mean more time to figure out and implement mitigation and adaptation strategies.

    There's an important element of politics in this, too. The first places to be hit by Greenland icecap runoff-induced sea level increases would be the east coast of North America and (somewhat later) the west coast of Europe; the low-lying developing nations of the Pacific and Indian Ocean regions wouldn't be affected for decades. In fact, looking at the sea-level increase maps in the article, it looks like the North American east coast gets hammered pretty hard fairly quickly. I have no desire for my friends along the Atlantic coast to suffer, of course, but a direct threat to New York, DC, London and the like is more apt to bring a rapid response than would a more generalized threat that would hurt Tuvalu or Bangladesh first. Sad, but probably true.

    (Thanks to David Zaks for letting me read the article!)

    July 14, 2008

    The Big Picture: Collapse, Transcendence, or Muddling Through

    I'll start this essay by leading with my conclusion: do we make it through this century? Yeah, but not all of us, and it's neither as spectacular nor as horrific as many people imagine.

    Techno-utopianism is heady and seductive. Looking at the proliferation of powerful catalytic technologies, and the potential for truly transformative innovations just beyond our present grasp, makes scenarios of transcendence wiping away the terrible legacies of 20th century industrialism seem easy. If we're just patient, and don't shy away from the scale of the potential change, all that we fear today could be as relevant as 19th century tales of crowded city streets overwhelmed by horse droppings.

    But if you don't trust the technological scenarios, it's not hard to see just how thoroughly we're doomed. There are myriad drivers: depleting resources, rapid environmental degradation, global warming, international political instability, just to name a few. Any of these forms of "collapse" would pose a considerable challenge; in combination, they're simply terrifying. Most importantly, we seem to be unwilling to acknowledge the significance of the challenge. We're evolutionarily set to look for nearby, near-term problems and ignore deeper, distributed threats.

    But here's the twist: the impacts of these broader drivers for collapse and of technosocial innovation aren't and won't be evenly distributed globally. Some places will be able to last longer in the face of resource and environmental collapse than will others -- and (not coincidentally) such places may be at the forefront of technosocial development, as well. The combination of collapse and innovation will lead to profoundly divergent results around the world.

    One disturbing aspect is that the slowly-developing/late-leapfrog world may not be hurt nearly as badly as the recent-leapfrog nations -- it may be worse to be China or Brazil than Indonesia or Nigeria, for example, because rapid industrialization based on carbon-age technologies still leaves you more dependent upon the collapsing resources than you had been, but not yet in a good position to leap past the collapse itself. The key example here would be China and India's growing dependence on coal (and, to a lesser extent, old-style massively-centralized nuclear power). In order to support their rapid economic development, they're stuck using energy technologies that are devastating both locally (through pollution) and globally (through carbon footprint). Add to this that China's economic and demographic situation is more unstable than many people think, and that India faces significant political threats -- including terrorism -- both internally and along its border.

    So the dilemma here is how to construct a global policy that can take into account the sheer complexity of the onrushing collapse. If it was "just" resource depletion, it would be tricky but doable; but it's resource collapse plus global warming plus pandemic disease plus post-hegemonic disorder plus the myriad other issues we're grappling with. It's going to be difficult to see our way through this. Not impossible, but difficult.

    The aspects that are on our side:

  • We do have the technology to deal with a lot of this stuff, but not the political will. But we know that we can change politics and society, arguably better than we know we can build some new technologies. A major disaster or three will change the politics quickly.
  • To a certain extent, the crises can cross-mitigate -- for example, skyrocketing petroleum prices has measurably reduced travel miles, and are pushing people to buy more fuel-efficient cars, thereby reducing overall carbon outputs. Economic slow-downs also reduce the pace of carbon output. These are not a solution, by any means, but a mitigating factor.
  • We have a lot of people thinking about this, working on fixes and solutions and ideas. Not top-down directed, but a massively-massively-multi-participant quest, across thousands of communities and hundreds of countries, bringing in literally millions of minds. The very description reeks of innovation potential.

    Here's my best guess, for now:

    Over the next forty years, we'll see a small but measurable dieback of human population, due to starvation, disease, and war (one local nuclear war in South Asia or Middle East, scaring the hell out of everyone about nukes for another couple of generations). Much of the death will be in the advanced developing nations, such as China and India. There will be pretty significant economic slowdowns globally, and US/EU/Japan will see significant unrest. Border closings between the developed and the developing nations will likely spike, probably along with brushfire skirmishes.

    The post-industrial world will see a burst of localization and "made by hand" production, but even at its worst it is more reminiscent of World War II-era restrictions than of a Mad Max-style apocalypse. In much of the developed world, limitations serve as a driver for innovation, both social and technological. It's not a comfortable period, by any means, but the Chinese experience and the aftermath of the Middle East/South Asian nuclear exchange sobers everybody up.

    Imperial overreach, economic crises, and the various global environmental and resource threats put an end to American dominance, but nobody else can step up as global hegemon. Europe is trying to deal with its own social and environmental problems, while China is struggling to avoid full-on collapse. The result isn't so much isolationism as distractionism -- the potential global players are all far too distracted by their own problems to do much overseas.

    Refugees and "displaced persons" are ubiquitous.

    I'm near-certain that we'll see a significant geoengineering effort by the middle of the next decade, the one major global cooperative project of the era. The global economic crises, near-collapse of China, and faster-than-expected shift to non-petroleum travel will slow the projected rate of warming, limiting the necessary climate hacking. Solar shading works reasonably well and reasonably cheaply, so the clear focus of global warming worries and new geoengineering efforts by the late 2020s is on ocean acidification.

    A mix of nuclear, wind, solar, and a few others (OTEC, hydrokinetic) overtakes fossil fuels in the West by 2020s, but China & India retain coal-fired power plants longer than anyone else; this may end up being a driver for significant global tension.

    Technological innovation continues, though, with molecular nanotechnology fabrication emerging by 2030 -- not as a deux ex machina but as a significant boost to productive capacities. The West (including Japan) stabilizes around the same time, and finally starts to focus on helping the rest of the world recover.

    Then the Singularity happens in 2048 and we're all uploaded by force.

    (I'm kidding about that last one. I think.)

  • July 10, 2008

    Superstruct: Play the Game, Invent the Future

    This fall, the Institute for the Future invites you to play Superstruct, the world’s first massively multiplayer forecasting game. It’s not just about envisioning the future—it’s about inventing the future. Everyone is welcome to join the game. Watch for the opening volley of threats and survival stories, September 2008.


    SEPTEMBER 22, 2019

    Humans have 23 years to go

    Global Extinction Awareness System starts the countdown for Homo sapiens.

    PALO ALTO, CA — Based on the results of a year-long supercomputer simulation, the Global Extinction Awareness System (GEAS) has reset the "survival horizon" for Homo sapiens - the human race - from "indefinite" to 23 years.

    “The survival horizon identifies the point in time after which a threatened population is expected to experience a catastrophic collapse,” GEAS president Audrey Chen said. “It is the point from which it a species is unlikely to recover. By identifying a survival horizon of 2042, GEAS has given human civilization a definite deadline for making substantive changes to planet and practices.”

    According to Chen, the latest GEAS simulation harnessed over 70 petabytes of environmental, economic, and demographic data, and was cross-validated by ten different probabilistic models. The GEAS models revealed a potentially terminal combination of five so-called “super-threats”, which represent a collision of environmental, economic, and social risks. “Each super-threat on its own poses a serious challenge to the world's adaptive capacity,” said GEAS research director Hernandez Garcia. “Acting together, the five super-threats may irreversibly overwhelm our species’ ability to survive.”Garcia said, “Previous GEAS simulations with significantly less data and cross-validation correctly forecasted the most surprising species collapses of the past decade: Sciurus carolinenis and Sciurus vulgaris, for example, and the Anatidae chen. So we have very good reason to believe that these simulation results, while shocking, do accurately represent the rapidly growing threats to the viability of the human species.”

    GEAS notified the United Nations prior to making a public announcement. The spokesperson for United Nations Secretary General Vaira Vike-Freiberga released the following statement: "We are grateful for GEAS' work, and we treat their latest forecast with seriousness and profound gravity."

    GEAS urges concerned citizens, families, corporations, institutions, and governments to talk to each other and begin making plans to deal with the super-threats.


    This is a game of survival, and we need you to survive.

    Super-threats are massively disrupting global society as we know it. There’s an entire generation of homeless people worldwide, as the number of climate refugees tops 250 million. Entrepreneurial chaos and “the axis of biofuel” wreak havoc in the alternative fuel industry. Carbon quotas plummet as food shortages mount. The existing structures of human civilization—from families and language to corporate society and technological infrastructures—just aren’t enough. We need a new set of superstructures to rise above, to take humans to the next stage.

    You can help. Tell us your story. Strategize out loud. Superstruct now.

    It's your legacy to the human race.

    Want to learn more about the game? Read the Superstruct FAQ.

    Superstruct Now

    Get a head start on the game. It’s the summer of 2019. Imagine you’re already there, and tell us a little bit about your future self. Visit the Superstruct announcement at IFTF and tell us in email: Where are you having dinner tonight?

    What the Future Looks Like

    The Wilkins ice shelf, in Antarctica, is collapsing.

    This break-up is puzzling to scientists because it has occurred in the Southern Hemispheric winter and does not have characteristics similar to two earlier events that occurred in 2008, which were comparable to the break-up of the Larsen-A and -B ice shelves.

    "The scale of rifting in the newly-removed areas seems larger, and the pieces are moving out as large bergs and not toppled, finely-divided ice melange," said Ted Scambos from the National Snow and Ice Data Center who uses ASAR images to track the area.

    "The persistently low sea ice cover in the area and data from some interesting sources, electronic seal hats [caps worn by seals that provide temperature, depth and position data] seems to suggest that warm water beneath the halocline may be reaching the underside of the Wilkins Ice Shelf and thinning it rapidly - and perhaps reaching the surface, or at least mixing with surface waters."

    It's a floating ice shelf, so it won't raise ocean levels when it goes, but it's another startling indicator of environmental stress.

    July 9, 2008

    A Biking Dilemma

    Okay, it's a standard presumption that global warming is going to make major heat waves more likely, in more places, lasting longer. Moreover, because of thermal inertia and climate commitment (not to mention how stubborn traditional politics seems to be on environmental issues), we're going to continue to see warming temperatures for at least a couple more decades. In short, the kind of heat I've been seeing locally over the last week -- multi-day 110°+ temperatures -- may be an increasingly common event for some time to come.

    At the same time, you can't swing a dead climate treaty online without running into people who insist that a key solution for dramatic carbon reductions has to be vastly increased biking and walking. In principle, I agree (with the caveat that it's not always appropriate). But walking around a little bit today, I really started to wonder how much longer walking and bicycling will be considered viable transportation modes.

    Granted, the northern California fires have made the air particularly, um, particulate-laden, but the heat has been overwhelming. Walking even a short distance today felt deadly.

    I don't have an answer to this. I'm posing it more as an unanticipated dilemma: will one of the better ways of reducing personal carbon footprints see dramatic restrictions simply due to the heat?

    July 8, 2008

    Climate Signals

    What I've been reading:

    • Climate, Drought & Poverty: A Different Climate Change Apocalypse Than the One You Were Envisioning.

    Twenty-nine of 43 countries in sub-Saharan Africa experienced some kind of civil war during the 1980’s or 1990’s. The economists Edward Miguel, Shanker Satyanath, and Ernest Sergenti discovered that one of the most reliable predictors of civil war is lack of rain. If you have a largely agricultural economy, when the rain goes so does the agriculture, which makes political and economic breakdown much more likely.

    • Class Warfare, Climate Warfare: Rich country, poor country, hot planet

    India is not a member of the elite "Group of Eight" conclave of rich countries meeting in Japan this week, but Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will be attending anyway, bearing a succinct message on behalf of the developing world.

    From Reuters:

    "Climate change, energy security and food security are interlinked, and require an integrated approach," said Singh.

    The subtext, for those who are hoping that the G8 can hammer out at least the outlines of a new global climate change pact, is simple: Don't ask the developing world to cut back on emissions without ensuring continued progress in raising living standards for the billions of people who haven't yet had the chance to enjoy the perks of the Industrial Revolution.

    • Fire Water Burn: Access to water seen as potential flashpoint

    "More and more cities and countries see access to water as a security concern and a potential trigger of conflict," Lee said in a speech opening a series of conferences focussed on sustainable development.

    "Global warming can aggravate this by altering existing water distribution patterns, intensifying droughts and disrupting the lives of millions, as is happening in Darfur," he said, referring to the Sudanese region where conflict broke out five years ago.

    • Oceanic Acid: Acidifying oceans add urgency to CO2 cuts.

    Though most of the scientific and public focus has been on the climate impacts of human carbon emissions, ocean acidification is as imminent and potentially severe a crisis, the authors argue.

    "We need to consider ocean chemistry effects, and not just the climate effects, of CO2 emissions. That means we need to work much harder to decrease CO2 emissions," says Caldeira. "While a doubling of atmospheric CO2 may seem a realistic target for climate goals, such a level may mean the end of coral reefs and other valuable marine resources."

    • Political Chaos: Climate Change May Sap Military, Intel Chief Says.

    "Climate change will have wide-ranging implications for US national security interests over the next 20 years," Fingar noted, as he presented an open summary of a classified National Intelligence Assessment on the effects of global warming. But the biggest impact is likely to be overseas, where "climate change... will worsen existing problems — such as poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership, and weak political institutions. [That] could threaten domestic stability in some states, potentially contributing to intra- or, less likely, interstate conflict, particularly over access to increasingly scarce water resources." America will almost invariably have to cope with the consequences.

    Playing the News - A Chat with Asi Burak

    playthenews.pngI wrote about the "BoingBoing Censored" game on Play the News last week, and designer Asi Burak left a comment in reply. The ensuing conversation in email brought up some interesting issues, and Asi has generously allowed me to publish his subsequent responses here.

    Jamais Cascio: The version that I saw of BBCensored allowed me only to "play" as the editors, and the play amounted to two polling questions: what I think they should do, and what I think they will do.

    Asi Burak: Our current template/platform allows us to publish multi-role games (up to six), in this case we chose only one. Obviously, the more roles and actions we design, the longer it takes to compose a specific game. In certain cases we choose not to represent certain roles (for example Violet Blue in this case) as we don't believe they have an impactful action to take in the current situation.

    JC: There were no consequences to the questions/options, other than "we'll tell you at some point in the future how right you were or weren't." I was expecting, at the very least, to see some kind of follow-on question arising from the expected results of having taken whichever action. I was hoping, when I saw the format, that what would happen was that answering one stakeholder's questions would change the options available to subsequent stakeholders.

    AB: I heard these comments before, especially from game developers. Interestingly, that's our background- our first product PeaceMaker is a complex simulation of the Middle-East. It got significant press as a long-form game around current events with a clear social agenda. In our eyes, PtN is an evolution of that concept: rather than us being the "game gods", deciding what are the winning conditions and assumptions, we wanted to create something that equates more with interactive journalism than with traditional video games. The consequences you are looking for have different forms: the consequences in real-life, your ability to predict reality, your reputation in the community, your voice and participation in meaningful discussion etc. ( Btw- Many times we create a follow-up "turn" after we "close" a certain game and introduce new actions. )

    JC: The Play the News network seems pretty diverse, although the difference in scale between the BoingBoing argument and (say) the rigged re-election of Mugabe seems a bit stark.

    AB: mmm... not sure why. Right now, PtN is in its infancy and we create a game a day. The idea would be to create 10-20 headline games a day in conjunction with media partners. We are like a newspaper or a TV station. You could find stories about Britney Spears and Zimbabwe in CNN, side by side. I would argue that either story includes moral and social dilemmas worth exploring.

    JC: Navigating those social dilemmas can be tricky for a game. Having been writing about the social and political uses of games for about 15 years now, I've learned that the biases built into game structures tend to be overlooked because they're for "play."

    AB: Well, this is the core of our modest struggle. We argue a lot against the perception of games (and the people who play them) as a lesser medium, in the sense that they are "just for fun" or cannot convey meaningful messages. You can read more about it in the Guardian interview I gave recently.

    JC: I will definitely watch the evolution of this project eagerly.

    What was notable to me about the BB Censored game in particular, however, wasn't how detailed it was or wasn't, but how quickly it emerged to cover such a relatively obscure topic. In my work as a futurist, I pay a lot of attention to "weak signals" -- distant early warnings of changes coming. This game struck me as indicative of where things could be heading more broadly in our blended online/offline culture.

    AB: Yes, and I read it this way. The reason I emphasized the broader context of PtN is because there is clear tension between what you liked to see (the speed with which we responded to the story or any story for that matter) to what you were missing (more depth and details). Clearly, we are looking to find the balance. But again looking at other media- you cannot expect a new story to be as deep as a magazine article and definitely not a book on the same subject. And if PeaceMaker was a short book, PtN is a newspaper.

    July 3, 2008

    Singular Sensations

    Creation 2.0The Singularity concept remains inescapable these days, although rarely well-understood. Both are unfortunate developments, for essentially the same reason: the popularity of the term "Singularity" has undermined its narrative value. Its use in a discussion is almost guaranteed to become the focus of a debate, one that rarely changes minds. This is especially unfortunate because the underlying idea is, in my view, a useful tool for thinking about how we'll face the challenges of the 21st century.

    For many of its detractors -- and more than a few of its proponents -- the Singularity refers only to the rise of godlike AIs, able to reshape the world as they see fit. Sometimes this means making the world a paradise for humanity, sometimes it means eliminating us, and sometimes it means "uploading" mere human minds into its ever-expanding digital world. That this isn't all that close to Vinge's original argument is really irrelevant -- by all observations this appears to be the most commonplace definition.

    It's not hard to see why this gets parodied as a "rapture for nerds." It's not that it's a religious argument per se, but that it has narrative beats that map closely to eschatological arguments of all kinds: Specialists (with seemingly hermetic knowledge) [Premillennial Dispensationalists, Singularitarians, Marxist Revolutionaries] predict an imminent transformative moment in history [Rapture, Singularity, Withering Away of the State] that will create a world unlike anything before possible in human history, a transformation mandated by the intrinsic shape of history [The Book of Revelation, the Law of Accelerating Returns, Historical Materialism]. The details of the various eschatological stories vary considerably, of course, and this general framework matches each version imperfectly. Nonetheless, this pattern -- a predicted transformation creates a new world due to forces beyond our ken -- recurs.

    This comparison drives many Singularity adherents to distraction, as they see it as the intentional demeaning of what they believe to be a scientifically-grounded argument.

    The thing is, the Singularity story, broadly conceived, is actually pretty compelling. What Vinge and the better of the current Singularity adherents argue is that we have a set of technological pathways that, in both parallel and combination, stand to increase our intelligence considerably. Yes, artificial intelligence is one such pathway, but so is bioengineering, and so is cybernetic augmentation (I'll argue in a subsequent post that there's yet another path to be considered, one that Vinge missed).

    The version of the Singularity story that I think is well-worth holding onto says this: due to more detailed understandings of how the brain works, more powerful information and bio technologies, and more sophisticated methods of applying these improvements, we are increasingly able to make ourselves smarter, both as individuals and as a society. Such increased intelligence has been happening slowly, but measurably. But as we get smarter, our aggregate capacity to further improve the relevant sciences and technologies also gets better; in short, we start to make ourselves smarter, faster. At a certain point in the future, probably within the next few decades, the smarter, faster, smarter, faster cycle will have allowed us to remake aspects of our world -- and, potentially, ourselves -- in ways that would astonish, confuse, and maybe even frighten earlier generations. To those of us imagining this point in the future, it's a dramatic transformation; to those folks living through that future point, it's the banality of the everyday.

    Regardless of what one thinks of the prospects for strong AI, it's hard to look at the state of biotechnology, cognitive science, and augmentation technologies without seeing this scenario as distinctly plausible.

    What I'm less convinced of is the continuing value of the term "Singularity." It made for a good hook for an idea, but increasingly seems like a stand-in for an argument (for both proponents and detractors). Discussions of the Singularity quickly devolve into debates between those who argue that godlike AI is surely imminent because we have all of these smart people working on software that might at some point give us a hint as to how we could start to look at making something approaching an intelligent machine, which would then of course know immediately how to make itself smarter and then WHOOSH it's the Singularity... and those who argue that AI is impossible because AI is impossible, QED. And we know this because we haven't built it, except for the things we called AI until they worked, and then we called them something else, because those weren't real AI, because they worked. Since AI is impossible.

    In Warren Ellis' snarky piece on the Singularity from a few weeks ago, he suggested replacing "the Singularity" with "the Flying Spaghetti Monster," and seeing if that actually changed the argument much. Here's the parallel: replace "the Singularity" with "increasing intelligence," too. If it still reads like eschatology, it's probably not very good -- but if it starts to make real sense, then it might be worth thinking about.

    July 2, 2008

    "BoingBoing Censored" - The Game (!?!)

    bbcensored.pngGood googly-moogly. Just as it seemed to be settling down, the Internet drama about Xeni at BoingBoing "unpublishing" (a seemingly Orwellian term that's actually a MovableType command) posts talking about Violet Blue has taken a surreal turn. A site called "Impact Games" has offered up a project called "Play the News," and the latest news game subject is the Blue-BoingBoing-Bust-Up.

    [Required disclaimers: I'm friends with everyone involved, and wish to remain so. BoingBoing has a right to do what it wants with its material, but in my opinion this was handled very poorly. Although the site editors argue persuasively that they each have their own interests, Cory's passions about copyright and transparency have come to define the site, and the manner in which the articles were unpublished and -- more importantly -- the removal of comments and questions when the whole thing became known ran counter to that BoingBoing image. However, I don't think any of this was done with malice, and it's clear that People Have Learned A Lesson. Moving on.]

    "BoingBoing Censored" is actually pretty minimal -- frankly, it barely qualifies as a game. I find it interesting not because of what it is, but because of what it represents: the relatively fast turnaround of narrative into interaction. This has been, for less than a week, a story that a particular set of online communities followed; suddenly, it's something that people could play, too.

    If it's done well, a news game can provide useful insights into the choices and dilemmas involved in the stories. This game is not done well, particularly, but I could easily imagine how a subsequent version might be more compelling. If the site and the games it produces evolve into something more complex, this could be quite big.

    We need to remember, though, that games are not neutral. Take language -- by calling this game "BoingBoing Censored," Play the News takes a position on the story. Even a change as bland as (for example) "BoingBoing Edits" has a very different feel. And what's not there can be as important as the elements that are. What choices are you not given? What plays aren't available?

    Games aren't objective. They're political, whether or not they're obviously about politics.

    I've observed before that games are moving into new narrative and social spaces, and this simply continues that trend. "BoingBoing Censored" is worth noting simply for the speed with which it appeared. But its embrace of a seemingly minor personal and sub-cultural story should make us pay even more attention: what might we be doing with our own online lives that might end up as somebody's news game?

    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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