Imagining the Future Archives

November 19, 2003


Building an argument for a better world runs into a recurring problem: people like to imagine awful futures. Seriously. There are undoubtedly numerous explanations for this, ranging from Cassandra complexes ("I warned you, but you didn't listen!") to Terriblisma, the wonderful term Alex dredged up out of Renaissance Italy to describe the awe-filled feeling one gets from witnessing utter devastation. The unwillingness to imagine positive futures may be a wish to avoid hubris, or it may denote an underlying hope to be wrong, to encounter a good future as a pleasant surprise.

For most of the last decade, my job (in its various manifestations) has been the development of scenarios, plausible stories about the future. Usually, these scenarios were linked to a given organization's strategic concerns, whether that organization was as large as a global IT manufacturer or as small as a local school district. Sometimes, the scenarios were used to build out dramatic worlds for film, television, or games. Occasionally, the scenarios were simply an exercise in thinking through what the next five, ten, or fifty years might look like.

When people set out to think about the future, the first (and usually only) question they ask is "what if things go wrong?" This is by no means a bad question (in fact, it would be nice if it were asked more often). But focusing only on negative outcomes blinds one to the possibility of things going right. The possibility of victory. I'm not alone in this observation; Alex has spoken in the past of working with environmental groups, asking what their "win" scenario looked like, and getting nothing but blank looks in response.

Continue reading "WorldEnding" »

December 4, 2003

Welcome to the World of Tomorrow! (Part One)

What does the future hold? Building a better future takes foresight: you need to have a sense of how things are changing, what you're going to be up against, and what new tools and systems may be available over the coming years. While there are myriad writers trying to tell you (or sell you...) their visions of what tomorrow may bring, few of them are truly useful if you're trying to change the world.

Quite a few futurists fall into a trap of imagining that the invention of things is a good way of thinking about the future. British Telecom has a forecasting department that specializes in just this, and has published a calendar of technology development. As the document was initially published in late 2001, and we are about to enter 2004, looking at how well they mapped out developments in 2002 and 2003 is a useful exercise. We seem to have under a month for the first talk show hosted by a robot to hit the airwaves, for example.

Not everyone who focuses on devices and innovations is content to simply list things in a terse "10GHz chips -- 2006" format. MIT's journal Technology Review publishes an annual "10 Emerging Technologies That Will Change the World" article, going into substantial detail about how the inventions work, how they are used, and what the next steps are in their development. The 2003 listing, from early this year, has been made available here; the 2004 edition, due out in a month, will likely be available initially only to subscribers.

More recently, Fast Company magazine took a similar approach, listing "5 Technologies That Will Change the World." As with the Technology Review piece, the article goes into some detail about the people and processes involved in the creation of the new systems.

Of course, the world is more than innovative new technologies and processes. Politics, demographics, design, and more all help shape global outcomes.

But few of these futurist and forward-looking projects take the next step, and consider how the developments, changes, threats, and opportunities they describe combine with those described by others. How does an increase in average lifespan mix with the proliferation of tiny, wireless, networked cameras, for example? At first blush, they seem unrelated -- and they are, superficially -- but upon reflection, one can start to imagine how a growing elderly population might use ubiquitous networked cameras for their own personal security (fearful of roving bands of teenagers), how an overtaxed healthcare system might use abundant netcams as a way of monitoring seniors who don't need onsite care but might need rapid responses to a fall or heart attack, how active older people might use mobile networked cameras as a tool for prompting their gradually failing memories when meeting someone new, trying to recall where they put their keys, etc. (frankly, I could use something like that now...). I'm sure you could think of others.

None of these musings would necessarily have been apparent just from thinking about the implications of either aging demographics or wireless cameras, but pop right out when you put the two together.

In part two, I'll talk a bit more about how we can use this as a tool for building a better world.

December 18, 2003

Arthur C. Clarke

As WorldChanging often links to sites and stories which reflect the ideas and activities of younger people, it is worth noting that one of my heroes, a person whose ideas and values parallel those of WorldChanging, just turned 86 years old. Arthur C. Clarke ostensibly writes science fiction, but in reality what he does is show us our own potential. OneWorld South Asia has an interview with Sir Arthur, discussing topics as varied as what he thinks of satellite television and how we can all work to solve issues of poverty and inequality.

In this interview, he utters a line which I think describes our efforts at WorldChanging perfectly: I have great faith in optimism as a philosophy, if only because it offers us the opportunity of self-fulfilling prophecy.

December 31, 2003

Transhuman Space

BD cover Cyborg Democracy had a post yesterday about the game series Transhuman Space. I note this for several reasons. The setting of the game is interesting and provocative. A game like this is a different way of thinking about the future. And I'm one of its authors.

Transhuman Space is a role-playing game setting. (No, not on a computer. This is old-school paper & dice role-playing, kind of like Dungeons and Dragons. Yes, people still play games like these, although the number of players is way down from 10 or 20 years ago.) It actually comprises 11 books, covering what the world of 2100 looks like on Earth and throughout the solar system, and doing so in as scientifically and conceptually plausible a manner as possible -- there's no faster-than-light travel, telepathy, or humanoid alien life. I wrote two of the books: Broken Dreams, just released last week, which looks at the developing world and the global politics of intellectual property in 2100, and Toxic Memes, due out in the spring, which examines conspiracy theories, political movements, urban legends, and the like in 2100. (The links in this paragraph will take you to the description pages for each book; the images are linked to larger versions of each cover.)

Most of the books (including mine) run about 100,000-150,000 words, with only about a quarter of the text focusing on game mechanics. The rest is detailed exploration of what life may be like a century from now, from the minutiae of popular food trends and clothing styles to broader issues of environmental conditions, political struggles, and the extension of human rights beyond what we currently call "human."

Continue reading "Transhuman Space" »

January 2, 2004

Modeling and the Future

(No, not involving swimsuits.)

Mark Kleiman runs a political blog I subscribe to with my RSS reader. In response to novelist Michael Crichton's rant that global warming is just bad science, he recently posted a brief but insightful exploration of why, although predictions are usually wrong, thinking about the future -- and, in particular, building models to tell us about how the future may unfold -- is still a useful and important endeavor:

Right, then. We can't know what the world will look like in 2100. But unless we also don't care what the world looks like in 2100, or unless we think our current actions have zero predictable impact on what he world will look like in 2100, we need to make decisions now -- we are, in fact, making decisions now -- in which results a century hence are part of the objective function.

Uncertainty about the results of our actions will indeed suggest that we should discount predicted far-future effects vis-a-vis more predictable near-future effects (this in addition to the normal discounting for the time-value of resources). But not to zero, surely?

In short, as we used to say at the scenario-planning company I worked for in the 1990's, "the future is uncertain -- and yet we must act."

February 5, 2004

Thinking About The Precautionary Principle

Dale Carrico, in his "Progressive Futures" column over at BetterHumans, takes a thoughtful look at the "precautionary principle." For those unfamiliar with the term, the most-broadly accepted definition is from the Wingspread Statement:

When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof. The process of applying the Precautionary Principle must be open, informed and democratic and must include potentially affected parties.

While much of the debate in emerging technology circles focuses on the first part of the statement, Carrico instead gives his attention to the last sentence, arguing that the precautionary principle has the best chance to both protect us from hazardous results and still encourage innovation and experimentation when it is open to broad participation:

I think many underestimate how often the most reasonable assessments emerge from open encounters among actual stakeholders to questions at issue. Even expert knowledge is most useful when it is answerable to multiple and contending stakeholders to a question, rather than imposed unilaterally by an organized authority (whether corporate or otherwise), the particular and interested viewpoint of which it will tend to reflect, often to the cost of sense. Even people who weight potential harms unreasonably strongly may still be readily persuaded to undertake risks when benefits are made clear or the rewards offered for undertaking them are sufficient enough. Again, it isn't clear to me why anybody can be so certain that a technological development answerable to these more democratic demands would necessarily have failed to deliver even historically a comparable level and speed of developmental achievement than we have managed otherwise, and certainly it is hard to see what would be appealing in such a view today when democratic ideals are broadly affirmed.

March 2, 2004

WorldChanging Scenarios

Scenarios are powerful tools for getting people's attention. That's something we need to remember as the Pentagon's sudden climate change report continues to stir controversy. A purely factual, present-knowledge-based report to the Department of Defense about the possibility of a whiplash ice age would not have sparked the same kind of public reaction that the scenario did. Scenarios bring issues to life in a way that straight reportage often cannot.

But the real point of using scenarios is not publicity, but foresight: we build scenarios not to hype an idea or predict the future, but in order to see more clearly the choices we will be facing. By building a model of how the future could turn out, we can then explore how our plans and goals would be challenged and strengthened in such a world. To that end, nearly all scenario projects result in a small number (3-5) of divergent narratives, giving the readers a broad set of perspectives on possible outcomes.

Scenario narratives are more powerful than detailed checklists of possible outcomes in large part because they paint a picture of what we would find outside our window (or on our computer screen) if we actually lived in that world. Some more elaborate scenario projects use representational artifacts -- videotaped news reports, magazine articles, even advertisements purporting to be from the scenaric future -- as ways of changing the scenarios from something one reads into something one experiences. By making the possible futures more than a simple listing of assertions, scenarios make it easier to imagine how one would react, and what one can do now to prevent -- or encourage -- such outcomes.

Useful scenarios have a number of aspects in common:

  • They're provocative -- they push the readers to think about possibilities they'd often rather not face. While this often means confronting unpleasant outcomes, it can also mean admitting the possibility of success, what it would take to get there, and what one would do if it happened.
  • They're plausible -- they make use of real-world facts and models to construct a set of futures that could actually come about. This is important, especially for organizations trying to make the world face up to the challenges in front of it.
  • They're broad -- while they usually have a specific issue as a focal question, they can't simply look at the actions of the organization or group at the issue's heart. Good scenarios look at the context of an issue, and examine changes across a wide spectrum of concerns.
  • They're diverse -- they acknowledge that the future is ultimately unknowable, so the best way to plan for what will really happen is to think about broadly different possibilities. This was, for me, the singular failing of the Pentagon abrupt climate change scenario -- it only told one story.
  • Finally, they're open -- even readers not directly involved with the issue at hand can start thinking about their own choices and plans as shaped by the scenario narratives.

    Good scenarios are open in another way, connecting back to plausibility. Good scenarios "show their work" -- that is, are complete with references (and, if web-based, links) to material supporting the demographic, scientific, technological, etc., projections made in the narratives. This allows readers to understand why a scenario story turned out in a given way, but more importantly, allows readers to assemble their own, alternative scenarios.

    Over the last decade or so, scenarios came into relatively common use in business and government. Until recently, their use has generally been limited to large institutions -- which is too bad, as the grassroots needs foresight at least as much as the Fortune 500 . This may be changing. I and other colleagues have been working on a model of collaborative scenarios which would make the tools of strategic anticipation available to a much wider audience. Stay tuned for more...

  • March 10, 2004


    Andrew Zolli at Z+ Partners points us to the BBC's new series, If..., which brings plausible scenarios of near-future developments to the (British) TV screen. This ongoing series dramatizes different possible scenarios of the future -- of power problems, of explosive social inequality, of generational conflict, etc. -- in order to provoke discussion and thought about the choices we make now.

    The show's editor, Peter Barron, describes why scenarios are useful tools for thinking about the future:

    Are we guilty of scare-mongering?

    Not any more so than the Emergency planners, BT or the CIA when they create their future scenarios.

    Only a hopeless optimist would make a plan based on the best case scenario.

    On IF we tackle the difficult and uncomfortable issues head on. That way, if there are problems ahead perhaps we stand a better chance of preventing them or at least getting out of their way.

    At this point, the series is only available on the BBC in the UK; they currently don't have the distribution rights to put the episodes on the web. If the show comes to BBC America, it might be time for me to get a satellite dish...

    April 8, 2004

    A Participatory Panopticon?

    wearable wireless cameraWhat happens when you combine mobile communications, always-on cameras, and commonplace wireless networks? We're going to find out very soon.

    Mobile phones and PDAs with cameras are increasingly common; one in six phones sold in 2003 had a camera in it, and last year cameraphones actually out-sold other digital cameras. But, as this photo (which I took with my Sony-Ericsson T610 cameraphone and cleaned up a bit) shows, image quality from cameraphones is often quite poor. That's a temporary problem, however; Nokia just introduced a one megapixel camera phone, and other phone manufacturers are sure to follow suit. Within a decade, your phone will likely be able to take pictures at least as good as your present-day digital camera.

    The bigger change will come from an entirely-new class of hardware -- what I call the "personal memory assistant." Both Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft have built test versions of wearable cameras designed to record the world around you as you go about your day (the HP wearable always-on camera is the illustration at the top of this post). Nokia and HP are working on the software required to make such cameras usable. If you've seen or used a TiVo, imagine a TiVo for your day-to-day life. If you don't think that's revolutionary, consider that human memory is notoriously faulty; what happens when a person can have perfect recall?

    There is no reason why wearable personal memory assistants wouldn't be linked to wireless networks. There are good reasons why they would be, in fact: to let others see what you're seeing (so that they can help you); to access greater computing power for image-recognition (including, eventually, facial-recognition routines so that you never forget a face); and for off-site storage of what you're recording, giving you far greater capacity than what you could have on-camera (and keeping the images safe if the unit was lost or damaged). I suspect that nearly all of these systems, once they come to market, will have wireless communication built-in.

    Of course, along with these new devices come a host of new dilemmas. Just as with cameraphones today, there will be people using them for various unethical purposes. The situation will be made worse by the potential invisibility of these systems: it may be difficult to tell whether a given pair of glasses is web-camera-enabled just by glancing at it. There will undoubtedly be attempts to embed software in the cameras to prevent the recording of copyrighted material, or to make an obvious noise if the image appears too much like a naked body. Perhaps there will be a mandate of a "remote shutoff" switch iin the devices, so that theaters and locker rooms and the like can automatically prevent wearable camera functions. Some of these fixes will work, some won't.

    Now tie this technology to what Alex posted yesterday about Way New Urbanism. Mobile systems combined with GPS and GIS and social software and RFIDs and "smart dust"... These are tools to reshape your relationship with your environment, other people, and even your sense of self.

    I offer up this scenario in order to ask: if we know these devices are on their way, are really already here in crude form, how can we use them as tools for good? Are these systems the harbingers of a Transparent Society, or are they the makings of a Panopticon Singularity? Does the sousveillance concept make sense, a world where we are all have the ability -- and responsibility -- to "watch the watchmen?" Would these be the perfect tools for corporate whistleblowers and anti-corruption activists?

    This could be big.

    April 10, 2004

    How Big of a Boom?

    For those of you with a morbid interest in just how bad an asteroid strike could be (see our post Life in the Shooting Gallery for our chances of being hit), the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona has an Earth Impact Effects Program, allowing you to calculate just how big the fireball, crater, and other effects would be. No fancy graphics, just cold numbers and text.

    Example: I live about 30 miles outside of San Francisco. If a 10 meter porous rock asteroid were to hit there, with a strike energy of about 27 kilotons of TNT, it would leave a crater of 1192 feet, I'd feel ground shaking of about 3.5 on the Richter scale, and the sound of the boom would be about 40 dB. The average intervel between impacts of this size is 6.8 years (fortunately, not all on San Francisco).

    Universe Today has the details on the simulator.

    April 22, 2004

    Participatory Panopticon (Post-Script)

    Today's Salon has a good article about how easy it is to doctor photographs with digital technology ("A Picture Is No Longer Worth A Thousand Words," registration or click-through ad required). Towards the end of the piece, the author, Farhad Manjoo, and one of his interviewees, photographer Pedor Meyer, make an excellent point, reinforcing some of the complexities we discussed recently in A Participatory Panopticon?:

    [Meyer says:]"...if you don't have other sources to confirm something, you can't conclude it happened. Now enter into the picture this fact -- over the last 12 months there have been more cellphones with cameras sold than all other cameras, digital or analog combined. Cameras are becoming ubiquitous. We have the possibility for the first time to cross-reference everything, something that was never done before. It doesn't matter if the picture is a shitty little picture, it's a reference." And if you have enough references, it doesn't matter if one person doctors an image; if a hundred -- or maybe a thousand -- cellphones say a massacre occurred, it probably happened.

    In a cross-referenced, constantly photographed world -- a thing that might scare you but that is probably becoming inevitable -- we would probably have better proof of what actually happened in an important event than we do today.

    May 27, 2004

    Distributed Intelligence on the Highway

    Automobile designers love to create "concept cars" -- vehicles which will never actually see the showroom floor, but demonstrate ways in which new technologies or design ideas can be implemented. Sometimes, the concept vehicle just looks like an oddly-muscular version of a modern car or truck, as if the designers were hoping for it to be included in the next Batman movie. And sometimes the concept car looks nothing like anything currently on the road, a design guaranteed to stop traffic. Such is the Toyota PM -- the "Personal Mobility" vehicle.

    First unveiled at the Toyota Motor Show last October, the PM is a single-passenger electric vehicle designed to fit in a niche somewhere between the convenience of a motorcycle and the comfort of a regular car. The website "HowStuffWorks" has a good, heavily-illustrated write-up of how the PM is supposed to work, along with some previews of other Toyota concept cars (including the "Alessandro Volta," a hybrid sports car able to go 0-60 in 4 seconds and still get around 35 miles per gallon). While I doubt we'll see funky single-passenger cars like this on the road any time soon, even in small-car-friendly places like Japan and Europe, many of the innovations in the PM design will certainly find their way into actual production vehicles.

    But while the science-fiction-styling and joystick controls may draw the initial interest, what leapt out at me was the description of the PM as a mobile networking device:

    Continue reading "Distributed Intelligence on the Highway" »

    June 3, 2004

    Diesel Hybrid Electric Cars Now!

    If you find this article valuable, please support WorldChanging. We are a nonprofit website, and are able to continue our operations largely through your donations. You may also find our other pieces on tools, models and ideas for building a better future useful. Check 'em out!

    How come nobody sells a hybrid diesel car?

    For those of you familiar only with the sooty smoke belching from older big-rig trucks or the foul smells from 1970s diesel cars, the question may come as a surprise. But modern diesel engine design coupled with the much-cleaner types of diesel fuel increasingly available (particularly "biodiesel") make diesel vehicles a surprisingly environmentally-friendly choice. Diesel-hybrid-electrics would be an obvious positive development. So why don't we see them?

    I suppose the answer varies depending upon where you are. In the US, the diesel fuel available in most locations remains the old, dirty, high-sulfur variety, so a hybrid diesel actually wouldn't be a significant improvement in emissions; once low-sulfur regulations take effect in 2006, this may change. In Europe, where advanced-technology "clean" diesel autos are one-third to one-half of the auto market and growing, some diesel cars already get mileage roughly equivalent to hybrids, so I suspect there's simply less demand.

    The irony is that diesel hybrids could be far more efficient and clean than anything now on the market, without any leaps in technology. The combination of modern clean diesel engines, Prius-style serial hybrid-electric systems, and biodiesel/vegetable oil fuels could provide amazing mileage, cleaner air, and vastly reduced petroleum dependency. Comfortable, powerful sedans could get upwards of 80 miles per gallon and be carbon-neutral.

    (More in the extended entry...)

    Continue reading "Diesel Hybrid Electric Cars Now!" »

    June 16, 2004

    So Long, Grey Goo?

    I've never been particularly worried about the threat of "grey goo" -- self-replicating nanomachines devouring everything in their path. Anything that tore apart and reassembled the physical world fast enough to be truly dangerous would likely cook itself from the heat output. But ever since the nanotechnology guru Eric Drexler mentioned the possibility in his seminal nanotech manifesto, The Engines of Creation, out of control nanoassemblers have become a staple of bad sci-fi and easily-startled doomsayers alike. Still, it's good to see that Dr. Drexler (along with Chris Phoenix from the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology) have published a paper spelling out precisely why free-range nanoassemblers, goo-making or otherwise, are simply not needed for the imminent nanotech revolution.

    The article, Safe Exponential Manufacturing, will be freely available from the Institute of Physics electronic journals page until July 9. It's a PDF, and you'll have to create a free account on the site to get access to it. For those of you not interested in making that effort, this press release from CRN summarizes the argument.

    Contrary to previous understanding, self-replication is unnecessary for building an efficient and effective molecular manufacturing system. Instead of building lots of tiny, complex, free-floating robots to manufacture products, it will be more practical to use simple robot arms inside desktop-size factories. A robot arm removed from such a factory would be as inert as a light bulb pulled from its socket. The factory as a whole would be no more mobile than a desktop printer and would require a supply of purified raw materials to build anything.

    “An obsession with obsolete science-fiction images of swarms of replicating nanobugs has diverted attention from the real issues raised by the coming revolution in molecular nanotechnologies,” said Drexler.

    This said, I doubt that the grey goo meme will go away. If anything, it serves as an unpleasant metaphor for the the potentially serious disruption full-bore molecular nanotechnology would unleash upon the economy, and will keep us all on our toes about potential military applications of nanoengineering (even if it's only used to produce cheap, non-replicating hardware). Still, it's good to know that, even if the meme exists, the threat doesn't.

    July 7, 2004

    Going With The Flow

    Traffic sucks. It wastes time, it adds to pollution, and it increases driver stress levels. While taking public transit can be a good alternative, often that option simply does not exist. Making traffic worse are those all-too-frequent episodes when, after crawling along for an hour, the traffic suddenly -- and inexplicably -- picks up, as if the traffic jam was nothing but the ghost sensation left over after the original trigger had long ago departed.

    To the surprise of some, more roads and more lanes don't help. Traffic jams don't occur due to the number of cars on a given road so much as due to the distance between cars. Less space between your car and the vehicle in front of you means that you have less time to react to sudden moves, and are more likely to engage in a kind of high-speed stop-and-go, hitting the brakes briefly in response to the car in front of you doing so; if the car behind you is driving too close to you, then it will also have to brake, and the too-close car behind it, and so forth. These "pinch effects" propagate backwards along the highway like a wave.

    The simplest solution is for people to drive more intelligently, keeping sufficient space between vehicles to buffer the transient braking, sudden lane changes, and unexpected (but brief) changes in speed of the car in front. You're also less likely to end up in an accident if you leave more space. But since traffic planners and safety experts have been trying to get people drive this way for a long while without much success, it's a good idea to look at some technological assistance that might help.

    New Scientist and The Economist this last week identified two very different technological approaches to reducing the driver-distance traffic jam problem.

    New Scientist looked at a German traffic simulation system used to predict where these "pinch effect" traffic tie-ups will occur on the autobahn. Recent changes to the model, taking into account the fact that cars can't slow down instantly and the bad driving habit of keeping too close to the car in front, allow the model to "see" incipient jams up to an hour before they form. Once predicted in this way, the information can be made available to drivers, who can then change their driving routes or times accordingly. Unfortunately, the system is currently a victim of its own success: so many people choose alternate routes based on the predictions that the forecasts are becoming less accurate.

    The Economist, conversely, is looking at "Adaptive Cruise Control" (ACC), which combines standard cruise control speed management with vehicle radar watching how close the car gets to the vehicle in front. According to projections by the University of Michigan, if 20% of the cars on the road were equipped with ACC, the clear-highway traffic jams would be eliminated (this suggest, of course, that a similar result would obtain if 20% of human drivers drove better, but I digress). This sounds great, except that the system isn't smart enough to adapt the way human drivers do, and ACC can actually make things worse under certain (unspecified in the article) bottleneck conditions. Ironically, the solution suggested by the developers is to let ACC vehicles driver closer the car in front than would otherwise be safe; since ACC systems can react far faster than humans to sudden changes in condition, even vehicle distance of less than a second between cars can be safely maintained. The article doesn't mention what happens when the ACC computer fails.

    So which will work better -- more information or more computer control? From a just-in-time, flexibility perspective, the individual car ACC system is the winner, making traffic jams less likely regardless of the path or time chosen, although if too few drivers have the system (or drive safely), the effect is minimal, and the ACC-equipped car is stuck. From a plan-ahead/plan-for-trouble perspective, the road information approach is better, as it makes it possible (in principle) to avoid the tie-ups completely regardless of what you're driving, and if the computer system crashes (as they all do), the worst that happens is that you're in an unpredicted traffic jam.

    Fortunately, both approaches are complementary, and are moving from the labs to the real-world. The ultimate effect of these developments may well be that traffic tie-ups based on too-close driving will be a thing of the past sooner than we think. Quite a pleasant surprise.

    July 26, 2004

    Transportation Futures That Never Were

    The Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, is now hosting an exhibit entitled "Transportation Futuristics: Visionary Designs in Transportation Engineering." The exhibit -- which runs from July 6 through September 30, 2004 at the Bernice Lynn Brown Gallery -- is accompanied by a "virtual gallery," which puts many of the illustrations online. The site covers autos, monorails, hover vehicles, and more -- the range of this bestiary of imagined vehicles is simultaneously amusing and staggering. While the fevered transportation dreams of the early part of the 20th century are well-represented, the exhibit also includes some much-more-recent offerings, from the Moller Sky Car to various manifestations of "Personal Rapid Transit" and "Intelligent Transportation Systems." The one thing each of these transit designs have in common is that they never really managed to revolutionize transportation -- they were all, to varying degrees, futures that never were.

    For those of us who make thinking about how the future could unfold our profession, exhibitions like "Transportation Futuristics" hold an almost fetishistic fascination. While some of the designs featured in the show are clearly hand-waving "wouldn't it be great if..." sketches, many are the result of long hours of debate, research, and informed speculation. They were not offered up in expectation of failure. These vehicles and systems were considered to be plausible -- or at least possible -- extrapolations into a future yet to unfold.

    (continued in the extended entry)

    Continue reading "Transportation Futures That Never Were" »

    August 17, 2004

    Counterfactual India

    One way to get some insight into the way things are in the present is to imagine how things would have turned out had some key historical issue been resolved differently. What if the Germans had won WW2? What if Apple had licensed the Mac interface in 1986? What if Los Angeles hadn't torn up miles of streetcar lines to build highways? And so forth. The imagined outcome doesn't have to be better than the present situation, of course, or even entirely plausible. But thinking about historical contingencies can be a good way of seeing otherwise subtle connections between events, ideas, and people.

    Historians call these "counterfactuals;" science-fiction writers call them "alternate histories." Most people just think of them as "what if..." stories, which is just what OutlookIndia calls them in its special issue of essays about how India -- and, sometimes, the world -- would be different today had various historical events turned out differently. Even for those of us not steeped in the details of South Asian history, the essays make for fascinating reading; not only do the stories provide insights into how present-day India actually came about, they reveal the concerns that modern Indian historians (and amateur historians) have about India's place in the world.

    A list of some of the What If... stories should get most of you clicking over (the alternate history buffs hit the link quite awhile ago):

  • What If India Hadn't Been Partitioned?
  • What If Gandhi Had Lived On?
  • What If We Had Embraced America?
  • What If India Had Won The 1962 War Against China?
  • What If India Hadn't Gone Nuclear?

    ...and so forth. Some of the stories require some knowledge of Indian history, but most can be appreciated even if you don't know your Patel from your Jinnah.

  • August 24, 2004

    Thirty Essential Studies

    The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology is, for me, one of the best examples of the intersection of activism and anticipation. The CRN founders -- Mike Treder and Chris Phoenix -- have a detailed understanding of the science underlying the growing field of nanotechnology, and a strong desire to make sure that when the molecular nanotech era arrives, we (as a civilization) are ready for it. I've talked about CRN a few times before -- and they're on WorldChanging's small link list -- and while I don't necessarily agree with all of their conclusions, they are far and away the best resource around for understanding the implications of emerging molecular technologies.

    The CRN blog and the newsletter are valuable information sources, but by far the most useful -- and challenging -- part of the CRN site is their Thirty Essential Studies section, where they lay out the research that should be done over the next few years to better understand how we can deal with potentially game-changing technological developments. By and large, these are not technical questions, but social, political, and economic ones -- that is, they are the questions of how the technology is developed and used by people. While many of the suggested studies are very nanotechnology-focused, the Thirty Essential Studies taken as a whole could serve as a model for other groups interested in a given early-stage technological development.

    Treder and Phoenix are not neo-Luddites, as they clearly believe that the potential benefits of molecular nanotechnology are numerous and transformative. But neither are they Nano-Cheerleaders, as they ask hard questions about the ways in which molecular manufacturing would affect jobs, military power, and the environment. They are (although they don't actually say so) embracing the Precautionary Principle -- they're trying to figure out the ways in which nanotechnology could emerge, so that we can avoid the pitfalls and disasters.

    Molecular nanotechnology is coming, and coming soon. Skeptics are harder to find with each new development, and governments around the world are starting to talk openly of using molecular nanotech as an economic and military equalizer. The more we can work now to think about, to plan for, and to direct the nanotechnological era, the better off we'll be.

    August 29, 2004

    Personal Genomes, Gene-Doping, and the Olympics

    As Emily posted about a few days ago, there's a growing level of anxiety out there about the ways in which genetic modifications could alter what it means to be human. One of the most visible manifestations of that, in this Olympic year, is the fear that "gene-doping" could make it impossible to determine whether a given athlete has had modifications done to enhance strength, speed, flexibility, or other sport-related physical abilities. Biochemical modifications, no matter how subtle, will eventually be discovered; gene-doping may not be detectable at all through traditional methods.

    Gene-doping is the process of introducing new genetic material into cells in order to induce new or increased physiological products (proteins, hormones, etc.). A gene-doping process to increase muscle production has been shown to be successful in mice tests and is moving swiftly to human trials; it has enormous potential for treating muscular dystrophy. The athletic applications are self-evident.

    Here's the scenario, then: as I noted in my post on Friday about Harvard Medical School's Personal Genome Project, it's very possible that cheap, fast genome sequencing technology will be widely availble by 2010. It will almost certainly be available by 2012, in time for that year's Summer Olympics. I suspect that the first use of individual genome scanning we'll see outside the doctor's office will be at Olympic events, and, from there, spreading through amateur athletics around the world. By late in the next decade, we'll probably see gene-scanning done as a matter of course even at the high school level.

    It's possible that this cycle will start even by the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, but I suspect that it will take a global scandal to push institutions towards the regular use of genome scans. The idea of having one's DNA on file is just unnerving enough that I expect to see push-back, at least at first. I may be wrong; we could well see genome sequencing technology deployed at the next Summer games.

    How would this work? I'm not a geneticist, but it might play out something like this: Since gene-doping is a targeted, localized process, it doesn't change the genome in every cell of the body. Genome sequencing-based doping tests would probably do a comparison of genes from sport-appropriate muscle groups (thigh muscles for runners, shoulders and arms for shot-put, etc.) and a random selection of unrelated body parts. Down the road, as gene-doping techniques become more sophisticated, there might be a requirement for all amateur athletes to register their genomes at an early age with an international committee, so the DNA would be available for later comparison should the athlete compete on the world stage.

    The question, for me, is where does this lead? Will we start looking for evidence of gene-doping in other competitions where it might be useful? Will we see mandatory DNA tests for spatial-processing modifications at high school "Math Field Day" events, or memory improvement doping at the National Spelling Bee? Or will this lead to a future where genome modifications are seen as no more unfair than any other training technologies?

    August 30, 2004

    Participatory Panopticon-level Storage by 2009?

    One of the ideas we've talked about in some detail on WorldChanging is the "participatory panopticon" -- the notion that the evolution of networked mobile personal cameras (i.e., cameraphones) will trigger big changes in how we interact with each other both individually and socially. Signs of this are hard to miss, but key aspects of the revolution are still missing. One important step will be to make the devices wearable, not hand-held; primitive versions of such devices are already on the scene. Another step will be to make these devices record images constantly, not just when the user clicks a button, to allow the user to review what s/he had previously seen. Again, primitive versions of this concept are in development, although these are set to record a picture a minute -- a snapshot, not a journal.

    When I say "big changes," I mean it. The number one comment I get when I talk about the participatory panopticon is "Great! I'll never lose another fight with my wife/husband!" Mildly amusing, sure, but think about it: what does it do to a relationship when everything you ever say to each other may be recorded for later review? And we shouldn't assume that partners will just shut off the capture when talking to each other. Even for healthy relationships, the ability to recall exactly what one's partner said (a grocery store request, for example, or a casual mention of a favorite movie) will be hard to ignore.

    That's off in the future -- but how far off? One key reason why such devices are currently limited in how often they record an image is storage. Taking one high-resolution image every minute can add up quickly: taking a 5 megapixel image every minute will fill a typical 50 gigabyte hard drive in a matter of a couple of weeks (depending upon compression and whether it ever gets turned off). Filling that same space with 24 frame-per-second video would take far less time, probably less than a day at a reasonably high resolution.

    Colossal Storage may have the technology on track to make this concern go away: "3D rewriteable atomic holographic optical data storage nanotechnology". This article at the physics and technology news site, although basically a rewrite of a Colossal Storage press release, gives some detail (and is more readable than the company's website). If the technology they've developed works -- and they claim that it will, of course -- we could see relatively inexpensive 10 terabyte to 10 petabyte removable disks (with read/write speeds in the 1000 Mbps range) on the market by 2009.

    10 terabytes is 10,000 gigabytes; 10 petabyes is 10,000,000 gigabytes. With that kind of storage, it becomes possible to imagine keeping a real-time video (and audio) record of one's life, swapping disks out perhaps only once a year. (I have this sudden image of one spouse shouting to another from across the apartment, "Honey, do you remember where we put 2013?" "You put it away last April, do a lookup!")

    There are other uses for such a volume of storage, of course, particularly in medical research. While the data from the Human Genome Project fits nicely on an iPod, data from the Brain Atlas Project will likely take "petabytes." But for most people, keeping a record of one's own life is the use that has the most potential to demand massive amounts of storage.

    Colossal Storage may be onto something important, or may be little more than big promises and dodgy research. I'm not qualified to say, and would certainly appreciate comments here from people who can parse the research material linked on the company's website. But regardless of whether this particular development works out, the technology is coming, and faster than we may be ready for.

    September 1, 2004

    Ecological Nano-Footprint

    In a nice bit of serendipity, just as we were posting today about Fab Labs and the potential for "personal fabricators" upending material design and production processes, Chris Phoenix at the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology was writing about the next step beyond even that. In his essay "Living Off-Grid," Phoenix describes some of the more prosaic implications of the development of nanofabrication systems -- a technological leap quite possible within the next couple of decades, and almost certain by 2040 (and I'm being intentionally conservative with these estimates).

    Most notably, Phoenix argues that the use of nanofabbers will allow individuals to see exactly how big their "ecological footprint" really is:

    The developed nations today have a massive and probably unsustainable ecological footprint. Because production is so decentralized, it is hard to observe the impact of consumer choices. And because only a few areas of land are convenient for transportation or ideal for agriculture, unhealthy patterns of land use have developed. Economies of scale encourage large infrastructures. But nano-built equipment benefits from other economies, so off-site production and distribution will become less efficient than local productivity. Someone living off-grid will be able literally to see their own ecological footprint, simply by looking at the land area they have covered with solar cells and greenhouses. Cheap sensors will allow monitoring of any unintentional pollution--though there will be fewer pollution sources with clean manufacturing of maintenance-free products.

    What Phoenix doesn't address is whether there would be even greater advantages to not going off-grid, but instead to combine efforts in dense distributed networks. While living the self-sustaining, rugged existence is a Waldenesque fantasy for some, urban environments remain enormously popular. The molecular nanotechnologies that Phoenix describes will be even more beneficial for those living in dense communities than for those living in quiet isolation.

    September 29, 2004

    Design the Car of the Future

    French automaker Peugeot is set to start its third "Challenge the Imagination" design contest (warning, Flash-heavy website), open to anyone 14 years or older. The winner gets to see her/his design built as a full-scale concept car on display at the 2005 Frankfurt Auto Show (yes, including the flight to Frankfurt), along with €6,000 and a prize. 29 runners-up will also receive recognition and cash -- the 11th-30th get €300. Not bad.

    This year's theme is "design the car of your dreams." Past themes have included "the future of 2020" and "back to the future." Peugeot is looking at both exterior design and vehicle concept -- you turn in up to 500K worth of jpegs and 100K of text -- so a truly worldchanging design is entirely possible.

    Designs must be submitted by e-mail between October 15th and midnight (French time) December 8th. Full rules here (PDF). Peugeot encourages the use of the Free/Open Source Blender3D software for rendering the designs. Blender3D which can be downloaded for Windows, MacOSX, Linux, FreeBSD, and more here.

    Here's your chance to have a voice in what the car of the future could look like.

    (Via IDFuel)

    November 6, 2004

    Notes from ACC04 -- the Transparency Debate

    This afternoon at the Accelerating Change Conference 2004, David Brin, author of The Transparent Society,and Brad Templeton, chairman of the board at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, debated the relative virtues of transparency and privacy.

    (I should admit a personal interest in this right up front: way back in 1996, I "debated" Brin in the pages of Time magazine on this very subject (the text of the article can be found online). My own views have evolved a bit since then; the "participatory panopticon" essays I've written here at WorldChanging reflect the ambivalent nature of transparency-enabling technologies, and my appreciation of both their benefits and drawbacks.)

    In the extended entry, you'll find the notes I took during the Brin-Templeton debate. It seems they both want to play the role of the "realist" in the discussion. The core of Brin's argument is that surveillance technologies are here, and we should fight to make sure that they are two-way, and not just in the hands of elites; the core of Templeton's argument is that widespread transparency technologies will inevitably be corrupted and co-opted by those in power, and that we're better off fighting to hold the line where it stands now. It's the sign of a good discussion that they both made very strong cases for their views.

    Continue reading "Notes from ACC04 -- the Transparency Debate" »

    November 9, 2004

    Weaving The Future

    When we read about "wearable" computers, we generally see accompanying pictures of awkward-looking college students wreathed in cables and black plastic or adorned with oversized sunglasses with all sorts of bumpy protruberances. But such images are an artifact of the requirement that computers be encased in hard shells. Such a limitation may now be falling away. Recent advances in flexible electronics have made it possible to weave computational intelligence, including both input and output, directly into fabric. We may soon be in a world where wearable computers don't just show up on the cover of Wired, but also on the cover of Vogue.

    Eleven years ago, WorldChanging Ally #1 Bruce Sterling wrote a brief essay for cyber-counterculture magazine Mondo 2000 entitled Computer As Furoshiki, which described a computing device in the form of a meter-square piece of cloth. Solar-powered, the fabric could serve as a display, was touch-sensitive, and could even fold itself with embedded artificial muscles fibers. Computer As Furoshiki laid out a vision of pervasive computing that feels very different from the mobile-phone-and-eyewear-centric conventional notion of the future. Cloth is more intimate than hard plastic; clothing is as much an extension of our skin as it is a tool. A world where computing devices are regularly embedded in fabric is one where the computer adopts that same intimacy. It's a kind of cyborgism, without the messy implants.

    Continue reading "Weaving The Future" »

    November 13, 2004

    Mobility 2030

    mob2030.jpgGreen Car Congress turns us on to the new Sustainable Mobility Project report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD): Mobility 2030. The final report from a two year research project, Mobility 2030 covers a broad range of transportation issues. The list of "indicators of sustainable mobility" give a small taste of what the full report covers: accessibility; financial outlay required of users; travel time; reliability; safety; security; greenhouse gas emissions; impact on the environment and on public well-being; resource use; equity implications; impact on public revenues and expenditures; prospective rate of return to private business. It's a pretty mainstream approach -- there's no talk about more radical solutions -- and appears to represent a mobility-focused iteration of what I've come to call the New Baseline. There's a lot of data here, and I'm still reading through it. As you might expect, the report is big: 180 pages, and a 5.7MB PDF download.

    Continue reading "Mobility 2030" »

    November 29, 2004

    Wireless Cities

    futurecity.jpgIf cities evolve, what will shape their evolution over the next few decades?

    Salon has an interesting article today about the use of wireless technologies as the drivers for urban change. "Urban Renewal, the Wireless Way" (subscription or brief advertisement required) looks at the realization that embedding networked technologies in urban spaces isn't dehumanizing, doesn't "eliminate geography," but can be enriching both socially and economically. Cities have long been home to dense social and information networks -- in the ethnic and artistic subcultures, in the patterns of business and commerce, in the every day communication of millions of people -- and digital tools make these networks both more accessible and more powerful.

    Call it the "new new urbanism," a fusion of telecommunications technology and urban design that is at once a 21st century zeitgeist and a familiar riff on the age-old interface between cities and technology. "From an urban design perspective, a lot of technologists are just discovering public space," says Dennis Frenchman, chairman of the master of city planning program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "It's an old story that goes back hundreds of years." A consultant on Seoul's Digital Media City, Frenchman himself is part of a very new story. The DMC will incorporate all-digital signage, with programming capacity accessible to the public, personal positioning services, intelligent street lamps and transparent storefronts that will reveal a building's inner uses as well as real-time Web feeds from sister cities.

    The overall purpose of the DMC design, Frenchman says, is to infuse life on the street with multiple layers of meaning. "We're in a transitional moment," he hastens to add. "Huge kinds of things are happening."

    Continue reading "Wireless Cities" »

    December 3, 2004

    Event-Based Risk Analysis and Global Warming

    storm.jpgSwiss Re is the world's second largest insurance company, is known for taking the threat of global warming-induced climate change very seriously. One big problem with climate disruption is that it makes loss estimate projections based on historical trends unreliable. Environmental Finance reports (via WBCSD) that the insurance firm is now shifting to an approach they call "event-based risk analysis," which creates 500,000 simulated hurricane life cycles, modeling nearly every possible combination of storm intensity and path. This also allows them to model what happens when a storm hits an already-storm-damaged location.

    Swiss Re has a short report (PDF) going into more detail about the results of the 2004 Hurricane season, and how event-based risk analysis is used. It makes for interesting reading, revealing how insurance analysts think about risk and natural disasters. While the authors are exceedingly careful to point out that climate change cannot be definitively fingered as the driver of the unusual (and occasionally unprecedented) weather seen this year, it's clear that Swiss Re is acting under the assumption that the 2004 storm season isn't an anomaly, but a harbinger.

    December 4, 2004

    Martian Park Service

    olypark.jpgNo human's going to step foot on Mars for a couple more decades at best, but that hasn't stopped people from thinking about what we should do when we get there -- or, more to the point, what we should not do. Charles Cockell, a microbiologist for the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge, and Gerda Horneck, an astrobiologist from the German Aerospace Centre in Cologne, have proposed that we (the global 'we') set aside a series of conservation parks on Mars, places where no human activity (especially terraforming) should take place. The seven proposed park locations cover relatively obvious locations such as the northern (water) ice cap and Olympus Mons, the largest volcano in the solar system, as well as locations of either historical (the Viking and Pathfinder landing sites) or geological (the Hellas crater) interest. They seek to limit the environmental impact of human activity in these areas.

    The UN Office for Outer Space Affairs in Vienna, Austria, would be best placed to administer the parks, [Cockell] says, although he has not contacted them about the idea. They already oversee planetary protection regulations that limit the number of spores allowed on a Mars lander. But the sole purpose of this is to stop experiments looking for life becoming contaminated, says Cockell. "There's no sense of any greater environmental protection."

    The struggle between those who wish to keep Mars pristine and those who wish to make Mars more habitable for humankind is the core plot driver for Kim Stanley Robinson's excellent Mars trilogy (and in a delicious bit of meme-play, those who want to change the environment are referred to as Greens, and the Reds are those who want to keep Mars as it was). This Martian Park proposal would satisfy neither side, of course, as it either blocks off too much potentially interesting places from human activity or gives up most of the planet, depending on one's point of view.

    Continue reading "Martian Park Service" »

    December 9, 2004

    Military Diesel Hybrids in Testing

    The US Marine Corps and US Special Operations Command are now testing the "Shadow Reconnaissance Surveillance Targeting Vehicle" (Shadow RST-V for short). What makes this notable is that the Shadow RST-V is a diesel hybrid-electric, able to run in electric-only mode, hence making it a "full hybrid." It gets nearly three times the miles-per-gallon of the military version of the Hummer, and about twice the commercial Hummer mileage: 758 kilometers on 95 liters, or roughly 18 miles per gallon, vs. 8-10 mpg for the H2.

    That the American military is testing a new stealthy recon vehicle is not particularly worldchanging. But think about American car culture: the military styling and legacy of the Hummer line is a key motivation for the many purchasers who want that alpha-monkey feeling. The same motivation would apply to the Shadow. A civilian version of the Shadow, stripped of armor and hardpoints and the sundry trappings that the military needs and civilians can't have, would be lighter and get better mileage, probably up into the low 20s. That's not revolutionary, but it is significant. Even more significant would be the "hybrid reframing," directly attacking the myth that hybrid cars are wimpy vehicles for greens & yuppies; that, more than anything, could be the key to making hybrid vehicle technology dominant.

    December 16, 2004

    The Material Future

    brucesrfid.jpgBruce Sterling, WorldChanging Ally #1, recently gave a talk at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet Muenchen about the future of objects, design, spimes and the "internet of things." The talk is now available in streaming video. He's not in his familiar (and beloved) Sterling Rant Mode; it's more of an academic presentation (perhaps he's practicing for his new guest teaching gig). Although Bruce is somewhat subdued, it's still an interesting talk -- he has an excellent sense of the important factors shaping the future of material objects, and the results of deep integration between objects and information.

    He argues that there are six key factors shaping the future of material objects:

    1) Interactive chips that can label objects with unique ID;
    2) Local and global positioning systems that can determine the location of tagged objects;
    3) Powerful search engines, particularly for local searches -- a Google for finding things around you;
    4) 3D virtual design of objects;
    5) Rapid prototyping production and fabricators;
    6) Cradle to cradle manufacturing, zero-emissions production, "design for disassembly," and "a new kind of death for objects."

    It's a lengthy talk, lasting for about an hour, but Bruce manages to tie together some important trends in a compelling way. If you have any interest in the future of design, sustainable production or privacy, definitely take a look.

    December 23, 2004

    Dale Carrico on the Trouble with Transhumanism

    One of the hats I wear is Global Health and Development Fellow at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. It's no secret that the founders of IEET (as well as many of its Fellows and supporters) openly describe themselves as "transhumanists;" this concept, in turn, troubles some people who might otherwise sympathize with the Institute's aims. As it happens, I'm uncomfortable with the term, as well.

    WorldChanging friend (and fellow IEET Fellow) Dale Carrico, in his Progressive Futures column at the futurist/technology site BetterHumans, makes a persuasive case that the use of the term "transhumanist" is dangerously confusing, inaccurate, and ultimately not in the interest of those who would promote the socially-beneficial use of new technologies. (Disclosure: Dale shared earlier drafts of this essay with me, and I responded with comments and suggestions, some of which are reflected in the final version.) The Trouble With Transhumanism (Part One and Part Two) argue that "transhumanism" undercuts the outcomes-orientation of those who would support progressive technologies, but feel either excluded from or disturbed by the identity focus of the term. I agree very much with his perspective, although I'm more willing to jettison the term entirely than he is.

    I would encourage you to read Dale's pair of essays, even if you have no interest in "transhumanism" as a concept. The tension between identity and outcome is found in nearly every activist community (e.g., "environmentalist" or "feminist"), and the question of what technology-progressivism entails is relevant to many WorldChanging discussions. You may not agree with his perspective on human nature or human modification, but his larger arguments are important to consider.

    January 4, 2005

    Artificial Intelligence, Real Rights

    creation 2.0Should a "thinking" machine have human rights? The question is less absurd -- and less distant -- than some may assume. We may be getting very close to the point of being able to build machines able to emulate (or display, depending upon one's perspective) consciousness. Thinking about what that might imply is useful now, before the reality confronts us, argues Columbia University's Benjamin Soskis in the current edition of Legal Affairs. Moreover, thinking through the details of whether to assign rights to seemingly self-aware machines will allow us to examine other messy ethical issues in ways which give us some emotional distance. Soskis' essay is a detailed, thought-provoking piece, well-researched and illustrative of a variety of perspectives. He doesn't come to any grand conclusions, but he does raise important questions.

    There have been no significant recent breakthroughs in AI research to make one think that the R2D2 is just around the corner, but the combination of steady advances in hardware sophistication and new advances in cognitive science suggest that such breakthroughs are entirely possible. As "traditional" approaches to AI have faltered, it's quite possible that a breakthrough will come more as an "aha!" moment, a realization of a new paradigm, rather than as the cumulation of a long history of close-but-not-quite attempts. But even absent Microsoft Conscious Self-Awareness for Windows, there are good reasons to have considered ahead of time what we will and will not accept as "proof" of consciousness, and what limitations there should be on the rights of self-aware non-humans. At the very least, we should be aware of how the idea of self-aware machines can be abused:

    Continue reading "Artificial Intelligence, Real Rights" »

    January 7, 2005

    Mike Treder on Nanotech and Poverty

    WorldChanging ally Mike Treder, at the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, wrote a great short piece today asking hard questions about the role nanotechnology might play in reducing global poverty. He has generously agreed to let us repost in full.

    Nanotechnology Priorities
    Mike Treder, Center for Responsible Nanotechnology

    Michael Lerner of Tikkun has published a sobering commentary on how funds are spent to relieve suffering. Here is an excerpt:

    Two weeks ago the United Nations issued a report detailing the deaths of more than 29,000 children every single day as a result of avoidable diseases and malnutrition. Over ten million children a year! The difference between the almost nonexistent coverage of this ongoing human-created disaster and the huge focus on the terrible tsunami-generated suffering in South East Asia reveals some deep and ugly truths about our collective self-deceptions.


    Continue reading "Mike Treder on Nanotech and Poverty" »

    January 15, 2005

    CIA 2020 Scenarios

    The National Intelligence Council is a nominally-independent group of intelligence analysis and strategists who provide policy advice to the President (whether he listens to said advice is another story). Although most of the work they do is classified, they do occasionally produce open material available to everyone to read. This week they presented their scenarios for 15 years out, a document entitled Mapping the Global Future: Report of the National Intelligence Council's 2020 Project. The full text is available as HTML and as PDF. It's an interesting read: a well-structured set of scenarios that do an excellent job of completely missing the big picture -- a big picture which is implicit in the report's own supporting material.

    The four scenarios -- Davos World, Pax Americana, A New Caliphate, and Cycle of Fear -- represent different visions of conflicts between "terrorism" and "globalization." The underlying themes of the scenarios are clear from their titles, and roughly boil down to whether globalization or terrorism "wins" and the degree of US domination of the system. Absent is any consideration of responses to globalization other than terrorism, or to an evolution of the nature of globalization (other than a bigger role for Asia). Also absent are any real signs of scientific or technological breakthroughs, decentralization as a model, the second superpower, the rise of developing nations (other than China), or indications that climate change and sustainability are concerns. In short, it's a set of scenarios of a changing world which forgot to include any real changes.

    What makes this all the more striking is that the documentation for each scenario includes substantive data and analysis, often specifically discussing the key issues ignored by the scenarios themselves. Although the focus is primarily on economic globalization and conflict, there is useful information on demographic changes, the status of women (particularly with regards to education), the role of international institutions, even a mention of leapfrog development. If the scenario authors had actually used the given source material, the scenarios could have been a bold look at future possibilities, instead of reading like a rehash of The Lexus and the Olive Tree with a little Tom Clancy thrown in.

    But even bad scenarios have value. As mentioned, the supporting material is well-presented, and is worthwhile reading for anyone wanting to think about what the next decade might hold; there will be few surprises for WorldChanging readers, but it's good to see various elements brought together. More importantly, the scenarios serve as triggers for "hey, what about..." observations, highlighting important drivers of future change by simply making their absence so conspicuous. In this way, the scenarios are a template; the real story of the future can be told by filling in the missing pieces.

    February 2, 2005

    A Little Peek at the Future

    wmbelevator.jpgWilliamsburg doesn't need a space elevator, or so says a flyer now found on the streets of this Brooklyn community. Boing Boing has already mentioned this, but I thought I'd post about it for a slightly different reason. While it's a nice bit of activist memetics, what struck me when I saw it was that this is an example of Marx's famous phrase ("history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce") turned on its head. This call for protests against the building of a space elevator is political satire, aimed at luxury high rise development, but I have no doubt we'll see similar protests against the construction of a real space elevator. People will fear pollution from nanoparticles used in construction, the risks of an accident (and since the equator is the best location for a space elevator, any accident could hurt those who live along the equator -- i.e., the poor -- the most), and yes, even problems of "Less Parking, Weird Ribbon Thing, Constant Loud Whirring Noise, Increased Space Elevator Truck Traffic." Many of those fears will be unsubstantiated, but we will see protests nonetheless. F.E.T.S.E.o.t.N (Fight Extremely Tall Space Elevators on the Northside) should be thanked for giving us this little glimpse at tomorrow.

    February 4, 2005

    Vodafone Predicts the Future

    vodafone.jpgIt used to be a requirement that cutting-edge technology companies produce a video showing what The Future (tm) will be like when the swoopy new toys their R&D folks are thinking about over beers eventually come to pass. The best-known of these videos is the Apple "Knowledge Navigator" video from the early 1990s (and if anyone has a link to that video, please let me know), showing just how much better (happier, more fulfilling, not drinking too much, etc.) your life will be (in The Future (tm)) once you have a computer-generated guy in a bowtie reading your email to you, making your travel plans, carrying on an affair with your spouse (if I remember correctly)...

    Corporate videos are somewhat out of fashion, replaced by websites chock full of Flash animation. Last year, Vodafone -- one of the world's biggest mobile communication companies -- launched its Future Vision website, which shows you what it thinks The Future (tm) will look like when everyone has organic polymer wrist displays, wireless communication between everything around them, cell phones drilled into their skulls (if I remember correctly), and the like. I kid because I love -- this is actually a very cool demo site, with branching storylines of attractive young people on the go and at home in London and Rome, attractive middle-aged people at work in the office and on trains in Germany, and requisite schlumpy guy getting in shape in Stockholm (but surrounded by attractive young and middle-aged people).

    The technologies on display fall into the realm of "pretty likely, albeit not quite like that," from my point-of-view. They're all a bit too hip and clean, with none of the "street finds its own uses for things" quality I'd expect in reality. Nobody's bluejacking the electronic paper magazines or snapping untoward photos with the cameras built into their hipster eyeglasses. But Vodafone, to its credit, does give the viewer a chance to comment on the technologies presented in each vignette, rating them and telling the company (in effect) "yes, I want this" or "no, stop doing that."

    You may not think that you're going to learn how to make the world a better place by spending a bit of time poking around in this vision of The Future (tm), but the site provides a useful exercise for the reader. Think about the tools as shown -- wireless displays, two-way wrist TVs, realtime networks everywhere you go -- and ask yourself how would they really be employed. How would they be used outside of European capitals? How would they be used in the developing world? Assuming these devices come about, how can we use them to make the world a better place? Because Vodafone's vision may not be completely on target, but I suspect they're not too far off; it's good to start thinking now about how to make these tools our own.

    February 18, 2005

    Scout World

    Motor Trend of THE FUTUREIf you're not reading WorldChanging Ally #1 Bruce Sterling's weblog at Wired News, now's definitely the time to start. The class that he's teaching at Pasadena Art Center College of Design has embarked on an exploration of scenarios for the 2010 future of Southern California, the most provocative of which (and the one the class is now focusing on) is "Scout World":

    In "Scout World," the threat is hysterically extreme but people are hysterically inventive! They're out beating the boundaries of the possible, looking for anything thatworks or even doesn't work!


    "The Scout World society... will probably make quick (wrong?) decisions when the conflict between science and ethics rears its head. The growing population and aging demographics will continue to pose threats that cannot completely be answered with technology. Scout World denizens may put off long-term solutions... people also want to feel secure and install any gadget that they feel might enable them to cope with any catastrophe."


    "Yeah, sure, we make mistakes here -- but we can make a MILLION brand-new mistakes super fast!"

    For the last week, Bruce's blog has been filled with artifacts of this future -- magazine covers, newspaper headlines, and, most recently, product designs: what does something as simple as a bottle of apple juice look like in 2010? The students have come up with a variety of options. They've been using "personas" (or, as they've been called elsewhere, "microscenarios") -- stories of individuals, their lives, needs and desires -- as anchors for the designs. This is a standard technique in the world of design, but is increasingly becoming a useful tool for business and organizational strategists.

    As with any set of scenarios, you don't have to agree with the assumptions or conclusions to learn something. And Bruce's posts on this project form a well-illustrated primer on the intersection of design, futurism, and innovation. I greatly look forward to what this group will come up with next.

    Therapy, Enhancement and the Augmented Society

    Global warming isn't the only topic being discussed at this week's AAAS meeting. University of Pittsburgh researchers at the conference announced a significant step forward in the development of functional-replacement artificial limbs. They created a simple artificial arm which can be controlled by neural impulses directly from the brain, via a series of extremely thin implanted probes. A test monkey (its healthy real arms restrained) was able to learn to move the prosthetic arm with sufficient precision to be able to feed itself. Or, rather, the monkey and the arm co-learned: the monkey learned how to control the arm, and the arm's software learned what the various brain signals meant. The next step will be to create more complex hands and fingers for the artificial arm, and ultimately to make neurally-controlled prosthetics available to humans with missing or paralyzed limbs.

    This is certainly encouraging news for the millions of people around the world who have lost the use of hands, arms or legs due to disease, accident or conflict. Sophisticated cybernetic limbs will undoubtedly be initially very expensive, but advances in microprocessor, software and material sciences will over time drive down the costs of everything but the surgery; those who receive these artificial limbs later will also benefit from the years of "beta testing" by the early recipients. It may be a decade or two before who have lost limbs due to land mines could gain the benefit of this technology, but the University of Pittsburgh research suggests that such a day will come.

    This is also another step forward in the ongoing process of figuring out how to use digital technology to augment human abilities. This is not the only research on how to make machines "listen" to nerve signals. And while the point of the research is (quite appropriately) figuring out ways to assist the disabled, the history of adaptive technology shows that augmentation for therapy usually leads to augmentation for enhancement.

    Continue reading "Therapy, Enhancement and the Augmented Society" »

    February 23, 2005

    What Does Augmentation Look Like?

    parkingassistjpg.jpgDig through the galleries of what the "car of the future" is supposed to look like, and you'll often see pictures of families riding comfortably in what looks like a parlor on wheels, perhaps playing a game, with no human behind the wheel. It's a recurring fantasy -- the automobile auto-pilot, the car able to drive on its own, the robot taxi navigating the city to your destination. As with many futuristic technologies which look so nice in the movies, reality is a bit more difficult: DARPA's computer-controlled auto competition last year, for example, ended with no successful finishers.

    It remains to be seen whether people would even want a computer-controlled car. There's not a lot of anecdotal or statistical evidence that people would be willing to give up control in that way; think about the cultural implications of the terms "driver" and "passenger." And computer-controlled vehicles would almost certainly be required to drive better than 99% of humans behind the wheel to be trusted. What we're far more likely to see is computer-augmented driving -- and therein lies a question.

    Continue reading "What Does Augmentation Look Like?" »

    February 24, 2005

    The Bright Green Panopticon

    camphone.jpgThe "participatory panopticon" is the emerging world of camera and network-enabled devices, allowing us to capture, store and send our passing observations of the world around us. We see it emerging with cameraphones sending email to doctors for inexpensive telemedicine. We see it emerging with software designed to annotate and index every file, every sound, every bit of video on one's computer. We see it emerging with digital images, sent around the web, threatening the centers of power. That the participatory panopticon is a mixed blessing is a given; for every activist surreptitiously documenting polling abuses via cameraphone, there are dozens of sad voyeurs hoping to capture a wardrobe malfunction the same way.

    But our observations about this phenomenon have, so far, focused on its social manifestations, the changes to our behavior and our politics. But how does the participatory panopticon intersect the Bright Green future? They're more closely connected than you might think.

    Continue reading "The Bright Green Panopticon" »

    March 7, 2005

    DoCoMo Predicts the Future

    docomo.jpgVodafone isn't the only telecom company producing snazzy visions of what tomorrow will bring. NTT-DoCoMo, the major player in the Japanese telecom world, has produced its own scenario of the future, fully enabled by ubiquitous computing and communication, of course. "Vision 2010" is set (you guessed it) in 2010, and portrays the lives of several friends. It's a video, not a flash presentation, so unlike the Vodafone scenario, there are no branching storylines.

    Although set in Japan, the video is available in (dubbed) English. The voice acting and translated dialogue are all pretty cheesy -- it's hard to avoid thinking about the bad old days of Toho Studios rubber monster movies -- but if you can get past that, the world presented is not at all implausible. It's a bit less "clean" than the Vodafone version, but not terribly different otherwise. It's actually somewhat interesting to see how close the two telecom visions are: does the similarity arise from (perceived) inevitability, from the nature of the telecom industry, or from an inability to really get imaginative?

    After you compare the DoCoMo future with the one from Vodafone, check out the Apple Knowledge Navigator (Quicktime) from 1988. What has changed? What do they get right? What did they miss entirely?

    (Via Unmediated)

    March 18, 2005

    View from the Peak

    Peak Oil -- Hubbard's Peak -- Peak Energy -- no matter what you call it, the notion that we will be at maximum oil production far sooner than anyone thought has caught fire of late, with a series of reports popping up in the industrial, environmental, and mainstream press. Some of these have been triggered by crude oil prices once again popping up above $55/barrel, flirting with an absolute record price (although still nowhere close to 1980's dollar-adjusted price of above $80/barrel). But the biggest peak oil news has to be the report coming from the analysts at John S. Herold, Inc., a respected independent energy industry research group, which made predictions of when various oil companies would see peak production.

    Salon has a good story on Herold's report (subscription or advertisement views required), and it's sobering reading.

    Continue reading "View from the Peak" »

    March 21, 2005

    Another Step Towards the Participatory Panopticon

    There are two major characteristics of the world I've called the "Participatory Panopticon:" personal mobile networked cameras are everywhere; and a significant portion of what we see and hear gets digitally recorded. The first part is more or less already here -- and now we have another step towards making the second part real.

    Unmediated reports that an Israeli company, Natural Widget, is now selling an application which will automatically record your mobile phone conversations. Although it's apparently dependent upon the limited storage built into your phone (assuming you have the Nokia Series 60 phone it works with), the application is being sold for precisely the reasons which I've argued will lead us to a world where everything is seen, everything is recorded, and not by the government, but by us all.

    Continue reading "Another Step Towards the Participatory Panopticon" »

    March 25, 2005

    Centennial Challenges

    We reported last August about the Elevator 2010 competition, an effort to kick-start the design and construction of an Earth to orbit elevator by holding competitions for interim developments. While we focused on the climber competition, a reader noted that a tether strength competition was in the works, too. This week, NASA's Centennial Challenges program, intended to fund prizes for innovative ideas and competitions for solar system exploration, announced that it would be underwriting the Elevator 2010 competitions, including boosting the 2006 prize money. With the NASA support, the climber competition will include a 'beamed power' component, where the elevator's power is beamed to it from the ground rather than carried onboard.

    This Elevator 2010 page includes some answers to common question, as well as a link to a video explaining the concept, complete with computer graphics and a cheesy corporate-video soundtrack.

    April 6, 2005

    A Shortage of Death?

    holy_fire.gifWhat will happen when biomedical science allows people to live healthy lives lasting well beyond what is now considered "maximum possible age?" This is not a new question at WorldChanging; both Alex and I have addressed various possible scenarios and possibilities. It is a topic less often explored in the mainstream media, however, and when it is, it's usually presented as something wacky or fringe, and rarely given its due consideration. It's highly likely that the next several decades will see substantive breakthroughs in health and longevity science; it's important to start thinking now about how we want such a world to turn out.

    Charles C. Mann, in the May 2005 edition of The Atlantic Monthly, gives us "The Coming Death Shortage," one of the few mainstream articles that both takes the idea of radical longevity seriously and explores its implications. It's not a perfect article -- some of its conclusions are a bit alarmist -- but it's a good one. The full text online is available only to subscribers, so I would encourage you to either pick up the issue or find it in your local library. Hit the extended entry here for some excerpts and discussion.

    Continue reading "A Shortage of Death?" »

    April 15, 2005

    Googling the Future

    googlezon.jpgWe regularly point to scenarios of the future crafted by businesses and other organizations. These are usually short stories of people making use of various gizmos and gadgets from Tomorrow to live their otherwise very recognizable lives. But that's often one of the biggest downfalls of these corporate scenarios -- they may show changes to the tools people use, but they rarely show the broader changes in behavior that would result. For the most part, that's to be expected -- the telephone or computer company wants you to focus on the neat new toy, not think about the new ways you'll live.

    Continue reading "Googling the Future" »

    May 4, 2005

    The Rise of the Participatory Panopticon

    This week, I spoke at the first MeshForum conference, held in Chicago. The following is an adaptation of my talk, which adapts some earlier material with some new observations. Fair warning: it's a long piece. I look forward to your comments.

    The photo at right is by Howard Greenstein, taken during my presentation.

    Soon -- probably within the next decade, certainly within the next two -- we'll be living in a world where what we see, what we hear, what we experience will be recorded wherever we go. There will be few statements or scenes that will go unnoticed, or unremembered. Our day to day lives will be archived and saved. What’s more, these archives will be available over the net for recollection, analysis, even sharing.

    And we will be doing it to ourselves.

    This won't simply be a world of a single, governmental Big Brother watching over your shoulder, nor will it be a world of a handful of corporate siblings training their ever-vigilant security cameras and tags on you. Such monitoring may well exist, probably will, in fact, but it will be overwhelmed by the millions of cameras and recorders in the hands of millions of Little Brothers and Little Sisters. We will carry with us the tools of our own transparency, and many, perhaps most, will do so willingly, even happily.

    I call this world the Participatory Panopticon.

    Continue reading "The Rise of the Participatory Panopticon" »

    May 9, 2005

    Leaving the Stone Age

    One of my favorite bright green clichés has to be: "The Stone Age didn't end because we ran out of stones."

    It's a reminder that efforts to replace non-renewable sources of energy with more sustainable technologies can be driven by innovation rather than desperation. But desperation is a powerful motivator; it's usually easier to sell policies with fear rather than hope, even if playing the fear card has nasty repercussions down the road. Desperation comes from a sense of vulnerability, not a recognition of undesirable results. And right now, the US is feeling particularly vulnerable when it comes to oil. The two most visible manifestations of the desperation agenda are the so-called "geo-greens" and the increasing visibility of the "peak oil" concept.

    Continue reading "Leaving the Stone Age" »

    June 4, 2005

    Greens in Space, Part II

    Earth as seen from MarsGreens in Space was one of the first long essays I posted to WorldChanging, back in January of 2004. In it, I argued that space exploration was an important tool for environmentalists, both because satellites give us otherwise unobtainable information about Earth and because studying the geophysics (and, potentially, biology) of non-Earth planets gives us points of comparison with our own world, moving us beyond trying to model planetary processes based on just a single data point. But the argument I made in that essay presumed that the space program(s) doing the exploration would be the traditional government-run agencies -- NASA, ESA, and the like. In that, I was probably wrong.

    Over the next couple of decades, we could well be moving to a world in which space activities are no longer limited to governments and big corporations. From private space launches to space tourism to the (increasingly likely) space elevator, Earth's orbit (and potentially beyond) could become as accessible as the deep ocean -- not easy, not cheap, but still quite possible to visit. Author Robert Zimmerman referred to this emerging era as a "space renaissance" -- a revolution in how people on Earth see and can use space resources. Because of changes in our culture, a stagnant and hide-bound field -- aerospace -- is ripe for transformation:

    Continue reading "Greens in Space, Part II" »

    June 9, 2005

    Heads Up

    olympushmd.jpgI know I said I'd wait to post participatory panopticon-related pieces until I had several to do together, but I couldn't wait on this one: Olympus is now testing a very light-weight wearable "head mounted display" (HMD). As described on Wonderland:

    To explain the system briefly: it projects information on your glasses (normal or sunglasses). The goal here is to project everyday use data like train schedules or the arrival of an email or whatever else you might want. We can imagine a system that incorporates a database with information about the city and that gives information about the area where you are situated, possible hooked up to a GPS system and a system that detects what the eye is looking at.

    Asian technology news website Tech-On has more:

    Continue reading "Heads Up" »

    June 13, 2005

    Getting Smart About Disasters

    Nearly six months ago, on December 26, 2004, a massive earthquake off of Indonesia resulted in a tsunami which killed upwards of 160,000 people in South and South-East Asia. In the days and weeks following, questions of how best to identify, communicate and report on the possibility of disaster consumed many weblogs and media outlets. What tools could be used to make sure that a tragedy of this magnitude could not happen again?

    While attention to the aftermath of the tsunami has faded in many (but not all) areas, the continued likelihood of other disasters -- natural, such as earthquakes or asteroid strikes, or human-related, such as terrorist attacks or disease pandemics -- has kept numerous researchers focused on improving our collective responses in emergencies.

    The most important tool we have, of course, is information. Knowing what to do before disaster strikes makes smart responses far simpler, as can having access to good information once a crisis is underway. For many people who pay attention to the ways we could all be in trouble, the most likely near-term emergency is the possibility of an Avian flu pandemic. Thanks to Dr. Lucas Gonzalez, we may now be in a much better position to be able to respond effectively to a possible pandemic.

    Continue reading "Getting Smart About Disasters" »

    Prospective Age and the Effect of Life Extension

    standardizedage.jpgWhat does healthcare improvement and life extension do to a society's average age?

    According to Warren Sanderson and Sergei Scherbov of the World Population Program at Austria's International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, longer lives reduce the effective average age. This according to their paper (subscription required) in the latest issue of Nature (National Geographic has a good summary; the IIASA press release is more terse).

    Conventional measures of age count years since birth; however, as lives lengthen, we need to think of age also in terms of years left until death or in proportion to the expanding lifespan. Here we propose a new measure of ageing: the median age of the population standardized for expected remaining years of life.

    They call this the "prospective age," and it's getting higher in nearly every country. Prospective age is the expected number of years remaining for a given age range; as healthcare and medical technology improve, that prospective age grows. As various efforts at radical life extension begin to have an effect, prospective age will grow quickly.

    Continue reading "Prospective Age and the Effect of Life Extension" »

    June 16, 2005


    Charlie Stross does the plausibly surreal trick better than almost anybody I know. The worlds he builds are painfully real, viscerally real, and yet push the boundaries of what may happen in ways that go well beyond spec. This is best seen in the short stories he wrote from June of 2001 though December of 2004, the multi-generational tale of the Macx family, spanning the years leading up to, during, and well past what often gets called the Singularity. Those stories have been collected and edited into a novel: Accelerando.

    Accelerando as a bound book is due out in the US the beginning of next month, but Stross has joined a growing list of authors who recognize that, in many cases, giving away your work actually increases sales. To that end, he's made a Creative Commons licensed version available for download at He has it in a variety of (free) formats, all zipped up and ready to be grabbed via BitTorrent.

    What makes Accelerando particularly appealing to me is Stross' depiction of the world, the noises and flows and people. It's most recognizable in the first section, unsurprisingly, but even as things get very, very strange, the underlying familiarity of the world remains. And through this world roams one Manfred Macx, venture altruist:

    Continue reading "Accelerando" »

    June 17, 2005


    metroquest.jpgAmong the various "innovators" profiled in the latest Sierra Club magazine, one that leapt out for me was the write-up on Dave Biggs, founder of Envision Sustainability Tools. Envision makes software called MetroQuest, which allows urban planning teams to devise scenarios of how a city could evolve over the coming decades. Operating in a manner similar to SimCity, MetroQuest is used by Envision for urban planning workshops. But like SimCity, the question of how the assumptions shape the model can't be ignored.

    MetroQuest enables what consultants often call a "multi-stakeholder" conversation, allowing various groups with differing agendas to work out plausible balances of interests. By visualizing the results of these discussions, and allowing the participants to change the parameters to work out the best (or least-bad) compromises, MetroQuest is intended to help the stakeholders get a more visceral appreciation of differing outcomes.

    Continue reading "MetroQuest" »

    July 6, 2005

    Getting Smarter About Getting Older

    The implications of an aging global population is something that we cover on a regular basis here. The basics of the story are well-known -- there are a lot of young people in the developing world, and most nations in the developed world are getting older at a rapid clip -- but these basics mask some subtleties. Although there are more young people than old in the developing world now, for example, that's transient; rates of population growth are slowing, and that youth bulge will, in time, become a big wave of older folks needing age-appropriate services. Similarly, it's arguably less important that the average age is increasing in the developed nations than that the lifespan is increasing; the relative ages of people in Western societies, as measured by the amount of time they have left, is actually dropping.

    And these don't even come close to accounting for what could happen as medical technology extends healthy lifespans to a radical degree.

    Much of the public discussion of aging and society centers around concerns that are less and less relevant: fears of hordes of baby boomers in retirement homes, supported by back-breaking taxation on the handful of remaining young people; worries that the populations of European nations are dwindling at a dangerous pace; warnings of a world where the developing nations are home to masses of armed, jobless youths. Focusing social and global planning around those scenarios will only result in having no clue how to handle what really happens.

    That's why this story in the Financial Times is so heartening.

    Continue reading "Getting Smarter About Getting Older" »

    July 7, 2005

    Fighting Global Warming With Lab-Grown Meat

    meat.jpg(Author's note: I debated whether to post this today; it's not exactly keeping in tone with the earlier pieces. I decided, however, that at a time when reality is almost too much to bear, a bit of surreality is useful.)

    "Faux" meat biologically identical to real tissue but grown in the lab is something of a staple in science fiction. In January, researchers at the University of Manchester, UK, came up with a method of using ink-jet printer technology to build animal tissue structures, including differentiated skin, bones and organs. I referred to them as "meat-jet" printers, and argued that they could be the harbinger of the future emergence a new kind of cuisine: cruelty-free, waste-free, prion-free meats grown in the lab. Little did I know how rapidly this scenario might come about.

    In the June 29 issue of Tissue Engineering, researchers describe methods of mass-producing "cultured" meats: muscle tissues with the same taste, nutrients and texture of "real" meat, grown under controlled conditions in the lab. This wouldn't be fake meat made from processed vegetables, it would be cellularly identical to the flesh from livestock -- but no animal would be killed for its production. (The article itself is under a subscription barrier The article is now available online, and a detailed summary is available here.)

    The researchers -- from the US and the Netherlands -- aren't just talking about theory. They've started a non-profit company called New Harvest to develop cultured meat.

    Continue reading "Fighting Global Warming With Lab-Grown Meat" »

    July 14, 2005

    Terraforming Earth

    As long as humans live on our home planet, we will change its environment. Even the most sustainable cities change wind and weather patterns; even the most ecologically sound farming changes the local biosphere. This was true when the Earth held far fewer people; even if every human and human artifact disappeared tomorrow, the changes we've made to the water, soil and atmosphere would continue to exist for decades, centuries, even millennia. The question isn't how can we stop changing the planet, the question is how we can do so more wisely, avoiding the changes most harmful to the planetary ecosystem, and applying greater recognition of the long-term effects of our changes.

    I say this to preface a look at a set of proposed feats of ecological engineering on a scale never before attempted intentionally. They may not be the best courses of action -- they may not be wise, or evince a good balance of benefit and risk -- but we should not rule them out simply because they involve making big changes to the environment. We're already making big changes, only without any foresight or design; to paraphrase Stewart Brand's 1968 epigram, we are already terraforming Earth, and might as well get good at it.

    The August edition of Popular Science includes a relatively brief article by Michael Behar entitled "How Earth-Scale Engineering Can Save the Planet." In it, he looks at a series of massive projects intended to curb global warming. None of them could be considered easy; all are expensive, and carry a measure of risk. A few refer to ideas we've touched on here, and some border on science fiction. They don't address energy use efficiency, a reduction of CO2 outputs, or any other way to slow the increase of greenhouse gases. These are all responses to the unfortunately-too-plausible scenario of climate disruption going too far to be stopped with windmills, insulation and bicycles.

    Continue reading "Terraforming Earth" »

    July 26, 2005


    NIAC.jpgIt's not often that one gets a chance to see the future. Oh, we can make projections and forecasts, but honest "this is what tomorrow will hold" moments are few and far between. Looking through the list of funded projects at the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts feels a bit like getting a peek at the next decade; some of the myriad proposals will turn out to be plausible and readily implemented. The trick is figuring out which ones.

    NIAC gives a relatively small amount of money (in two phases) to a wide assortment of research projects trying to push the edges of the possible. As a result, the project list feels like mashup of worldchanging ideas, scientific "what if.." games, and back issues of Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine. NIAC looks for "revolutionary ideas," defined thusly:

    In the context of a focus on advanced concepts, NIAC defines "Revolutionary" as possessing one or more of the following six attributes:

    Continue reading "NIAC" »

    July 29, 2005

    Stick It In Your Ear

    goldfish.jpgIf you wear a hearing aid, are you a cyborg?

    How about if you wear hearing augmentation gear, even though your hearing is otherwise fine?

    The UK design group human beans has come up with three prototype hearing augmentation devices (Flash interface) intended not simply for the hearing impaired, but also for the hearing able. Mute can sample and silence selected noises, from screaming infants to road work to "twittering colleagues." The .scp format allows an in-ear player to play music or other "soundscapes" altered to match the pattern of other noises around you. But best of all is the Goldfish:

    Ever missed something you wanted to hear? - a name, an announcement at the station, a vital fact in a meeting?

    Pop a goldfish in your ear and with one discreet tap you can reply what has just been said. In-ear short term memory.

    The Goldfish ear plug keeps a constant 10 second buffer, allowing for immediate playback of what has been recorded. If this concept sounds familiar, it should -- the notion of a "tivo for one's life" is a big part of the Participatory Panopticon. In addition, these devices demonstrate the "curb cut" effect, where augmentations initially meant for the disabled come to provide benefits for the able-bodied, as well.

    They're also spectacularly good examples of industrial design -- and there's a reason for that.

    Continue reading "Stick It In Your Ear" »

    August 1, 2005

    Disaster Relief from Space

    ICSMD_Rom.jpgIn the wake of the December 26 tsunami, we posted a piece touching on the International Charter: Space and Major Disasters (ICSMD), a global agreement to share satellite information to support post-disaster relief efforts. The Charter is an important tool for nations without space programs of their own, allowing even the poorest regions the ability to use satellite images, maps and data to aid with rescue, recovery and rebuilding efforts. The ESA and NASA are participants, along with the Indian, Canadian and Argentinian satellite programs.

    The ESA has just posted an update on ICSMD relief, this time focusing on flooding in Romania. Storms across Southeast Europe have resulted in the worst flooding in Romania in over 50 years; 31 out of the 42 counties in the nation have been hit. On July 15, Romania officially sought support from ICSMD -- and had useful information before the day was out.

    "We can say we had the chance to get very fast, very good images and maps," stated Iurie Maxim at the Nature Conservation Directorate of MEWM. "We were able to show out minister at 8pm some posters with images from the same day. The next morning the same posters were presented to the Prime Minister and forwarded to the people working on this issue. "We were able to provide the necessary tools to the people involved in the water department and to those involved in the civil protection."

    The ICSMD is a powerful reminder that space programs aren't just about looking out at the rest of the solar system and the stars beyond; the ability to launch satellites and space probes is absolutely critical for both a better understanding of our home planet and our ability to respond effectively to environmental problems. As climate disruption and global warming lead to stronger and more frequent storms, we'll be very happy that programs like ICSMD -- and the space efforts it relies upon -- are available.

    August 6, 2005

    Simulations versus the Avian Flu

    h5n1_outbreak.jpgGlobal warming is a slow-motion disaster; peak oil is still subject to a lot of debate; even a meteor strike is too much of a bolt-from-the-blue. No, when I really want to keep myself up nights with stress stomach aches, I turn to Avian Flu. Avian Flu -- H5N1 to its friends -- combines a variety of nightmares into one, easy-to-digest package. If an Avian Flu pandemic hits, we might see global deaths in the hundreds of millions, along with the long-term cessation of travel, massive reduction of trade, abandonment of environmental and development efforts, and the conflict that such chaos would unleash. Fortunately, one of the tools we can use to keep that scenario from happening is one we understand very, very well: computer simulations.

    H5N1 is a rapidly-evolving virus easily transmitted across bird populations, fatal to a significant percentage of those infected. It occasionally mutates into a version that can be picked up by humans from infected birds; the first reported case was in 1997, and new outbreaks occasionally pop up in different parts of Asia. (For an excellent account of the early history of H5N1, see the indispensable Flu Wiki.) Over 100 people have died so far in southeast Asia and China, and the disease has been spotted in birds in Russia and Kazakhstan. There's no vaccine, although the heavy-duty antiviral Tamiflu has some value in knocking down the infection. So far, none of the human cases of Avian Flu have evolved into a version that could be readily transmissible from human to human.

    So far.

    Continue reading "Simulations versus the Avian Flu" »

    August 19, 2005

    Remote Control

    remotehuman.jpgThis isn't "worldchanging" in terms of it being something that we should work to achieve; this is "worldchanging" in that it's a kind of technology that could have some seriously negative consequences if abused, so we should be paying closer attention to it now, while it's still early in its development. Moreover, we could even start brainstorming uses that could have real human benefit.

    I'm talking, of course, about Galvanic Vestibular Stimulation.

    The term may not ring a bell, so how about this: remote control of someone else's navigation while walking.

    It's long been known that certain kind of electrical stimulation can trigger changes to body perceptions of its location and where various limbs are (and aren't) -- a kind of awareness known scientifically as "proprioception." The body area so stimulated is the "vestibular" system, which controls balance. Electric stimulations of the vestibular system are used in research on how the body perceives itself (PDF), and as a way to control balance disorders. But it turns out that Galvanic Vestibular Stimulation (GVS) can do much more. Researchers at Japan's Nippon Telegraph and Telephone (NTT) have found that it's possible to use GVS to the mastoid region (just behind and below the ear) in order to "steer" a walking person. Moreover, they are already planning on commercializing this technology.

    Continue reading "Remote Control" »

    September 9, 2005

    Motion As Power

    lawrencerome.jpgDr. Lawrence Rome's "Suspended-Load Backpack" has clearly struck a nerve on the web, with links to it popping up all over the place. One aspect of the story that's unusual is that Rome is a biologist, not a product designer or engineer, and he published his discussion of the concept in Science. For Rome, the backpack is as relevant to the study of biomechanics as it is to figuring out new forms of energy production. I won't belabor you with the details of the backpack and how it works; National Geographic does a terrific job of filling that role. Instead, I'd like to speculate for a moment about the bigger picture.

    We've become accustomed to idea of embedding solid-state electronics into various materials, making it possible for airplane wings to report otherwise invisible damage, walls to become solar panels, and objects of all sorts to be able to report their location and condition with cheap RFID tags. But all of these, while they may make the materials "smart" in some way, remain intrinsically passive systems. What happens when motion and pressure are added to the mix?

    Continue reading "Motion As Power" »

    September 23, 2005

    Time to Worry?

    h5n1_in_tissues.jpgWith all of the attention in the US focused on hurricanes and attention in Europe focused on figuring out who's in charge in Germany, it's not surprising that a story out of Indonesia isn't getting quite the attention it deserves. If it turns out the way some fear it might, however, it will be getting quite a bit of attention soon enough.

    We've been pointing out the possibility of a global Avian Flu outbreak for awhile now. One of the catalysts for such an outbreak would be a shift in the genome of the virus, making transmission from bird to human -- and human to human -- easier. This week, we have the first sign that such a mutation may have happened: there are reports of a jump in cases of H5N1 in Indonesia. According to the Avian Flu news aggregator site, The Coming Influenza Pandemic?, health officials in Indonesia are clearly very worried, even as World Health Organization spokespeople try to "dial back" concerns, arguing that the increased number of cases could simply be increased effectiveness of screening.

    That may well be true -- let's hope it is, in fact. But this is very much how a pandemic would start: with confusion, conflicting reports, initial denials, and a growing number of the dead. Even though this particular surge will almost certainly turn out to be a false alarm (except for those in Indonesia who are dying), we should use it as a reminder to accelerate the construction of strong bottom-up tools for disease awareness, modeling, social response and treatment. The next time we start getting these kind of reports, it may be too late.

    September 27, 2005

    Sequestration Revisited

    "Carbon Sequestration" is sometimes suggested as a parallel process alongside a significant shift away from carbon-producing technologies. The logic is straightforward: carbon dioxide is still produced, but rather than remaining concentrated in the atmosphere for a century, it is extracted. This extraction can take place at the point of production (so-called "carbon capture") or more generally, using CO2-loving plants. Although some may hope to use carbon sequestration as an excuse to delay or ignore a move towards non-carbon-emitting technologies, the reality is that the planet is close enough now to a potential climate tipping point that we should not rule out any effort that might help us forestall disaster. Moreover, as much as we would like to see all manner of CO2-producing industries (such as power production or cement manufacturing) move to cleaner technologies, even in the best likely scenario it's going to take decades for the transition to be complete. In principle, if CO2 output can be reduced from those industries during the transition, we're all better off.

    But the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) wondered just what kind of effort would be required to make a real difference in CO2 output. The IPCC commissioned a study, and the preliminary results are now in. Read on for a discussion of our sequestration options.

    Continue reading "Sequestration Revisited" »

    September 30, 2005

    Earth + 1000'

    liftportballoon.jpgAn Earth-to-orbit elevator became all the more plausible last week with the successful test of a "climber" robot -- the moving part of an elevator system. The test, organized by the LiftPort group, had the robot climb a thousand feet into the air on a ribbon attached to a high-altitude balloon. LiftPort notes that this was the first-ever use of the climbing technology on a free-hanging ribbon.

    This LiftPort climber is a huge advance; design and construction of a device able to climb a ribbon is just as important -- and nearly as difficult -- as producing the carbon nanotube-based elevator ribbon. And while a thousand feet is a tiny fraction of the eventual length of the LiftPort elevator (100,000 kilometers), this development is still a pretty big step forward.

    Coincidentally, Arthur C. Clarke -- often given credit for being the first to popularize the idea of elevators to space, in his 1978 novel Fountains of Paradise -- had an editorial in the London Times about the idea. In it, he notes:

    Continue reading "Earth + 1000'" »

    October 4, 2005

    Mars By Balloon

    marsballoon.jpgIn an odd bit of irony, the first technological method of human flight, the lighter-than-air vehicle, continues to haunt the imaginations of many futurists and technology forecasters. Images of mega-blimps hauling material goods have been staples of what the Future Will Hold for at least the last 30 years, and even today, inventors talk about turning airships into "gravity planes," or using them as "stratellites" to serve as city-wide WiFi hubs.

    For me, the most plausible future use of lighter-than-air technology is also the most distant: as a means of extended study of other planets. On Earth, the airship proposals largely focus on tasks that can be accomplished by other means (even if less elegantly); on other planets, controlled-flight balloons are often the only way of achieving research goals. Balloons can get a much closer view of the world being studied than can satellites, can see much more of the planet than can ground rovers, and can stay aloft far longer than powered air vehicles. Two balloons have flown (relatively briefly) in the corrosive atmosphere of Venus, and many have pondered the possible use of balloons on Mars. Now the aerospace company Global Aerospace has come up with a design for exploring Mars by lighter-than-air vehicle that just might work.

    Continue reading "Mars By Balloon" »

    October 13, 2005

    Kenguru and the Long Tail

    kenguru.jpgIf you think this is just another "electric mini-car" post, think again. Yes, the Kenguru is a small, electric-power auto, but that's not what makes it interesting. The visible innovation of the Kenguru is the target market: people in wheelchairs; its deeper value is what it suggests for the future of material production: "Long Tail Manufacturing."

    Vehicles for people in wheelchairs aren't terribly unusual, but they're nearly always a modification of an otherwise stock car (typically a van, to allow room for the wheelchair). Such vans are often ungainly and extremely fuel-inefficient, and the modifications to allow wheelchair access are expensive. The Kenguru, designed by Hungarian rehabilitative services company Rehab Ltd., is in most respects the exact opposite from the modified van: small, efficient, and built from the ground up to fit the needs of wheelchair users. The Kenguru was a top nominee for the 2005 INDEX design award in the "Community" category (won by Architecture for Humanity).

    The concept is simple:

    The car’s interior space has no front seat – just a space built to house the driver’s own wheelchair so all he/she has to do is simply roll in through the extra large car doors and into position. The wheelchair locks into place, within easy reach of the car’s controls which are centred around a joystick.

    Continue reading "Kenguru and the Long Tail" »

    October 28, 2005

    Nanotechnology: Less Dangerous, Potentially Life-Saving

    There has been a flood of nanotechnology-related stories popping up of late; it's almost enough to make one suspect a major breakthrough was near. I found two recent reports, one about current research, the other about potential capabilities, particularly interesting. In the first, Rice University researchers have figured out how to reduce toxic effects of some nanoparticles; in the second, editors at discuss the direct medical applications of the emerging technology.

    Concerns over the toxicity of nanoparticles are certainly valid, and remain an important line of research. A great deal of useful nanomaterial safety research is happening at Rice University, including the Nanotechnology Risks and Benefits Database. In an upcoming issue of Toxicology Letters, researchers at Rice University's Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology (CBEN) report that water-soluble forms of carbon nanotubes can be rendered essentially nontoxic with minor chemical modifications:

    Continue reading "Nanotechnology: Less Dangerous, Potentially Life-Saving" »

    November 11, 2005

    Gravity Tugboat for Dangerous Asteroids

    gravtractor.jpgHow do you keep a large asteroid from hitting the Earth? If you're in Hollywood, you blast it with a nuke; sadly, in the real world, that really wouldn't work. A more considered approach would be to attach rockets and push it gently, changing its orbit enough to miss us. But it turns out that the best approach of all could be to park beside it and just sit there.

    NASA astronauts Edward T. Lu and Stanley G. Love describe this scenario in the latest Nature. In "A Gravitational Tractor for Towing Asteroids," the scientists argue that a sufficiently large mass, about 20 tons or so, kept within close range of a moderate-sized asteroid, could exert sufficient gravitational influence to pull the object off-course. You would have to keep the gravitational tugboat parked by the asteroid for a year or so. And you'd have to do it 20 years in advance.

    With the gravity plan, a spacecraft would not have to dock on the asteroid, but instead hover above its surface. The craft's thruster jets would angle outward to avoid blasting the asteroid's surface and pushing it away.

    Continue reading "Gravity Tugboat for Dangerous Asteroids" »

    December 1, 2005

    Thinking About the Fabrication Future

    chaplin_mod_times1.jpgDavid Pescowitz tells us of the fabrication future scenario in yesterday's Salon (subscription or brief advertisement required). In "Desktop Manufacturing," Pescowitz lays out what would go into a personal fabricator, from 3D printing of the physical frame to polymer electronics. RepRap gets its due, as does MIT's Neal Gershenfeld. In fact, nearly every point that Pescowitz makes covers something we've gone into here at WorldChanging.

    So why is this worth reading?

    Because Pescowitz provides a useful summary of how the fabrication future could unfold, and does so in a relatively mainstream publication. This is a sign that an idea is starting to take hold; people outside the design and technology communities will soon want to have a say in how this future comes about. If it follows a path similar to previous emerging technologies with real-world implications, in a few years -- as the first early designs start to appear in labs -- we'll start seeing lobbyists looking for influence on the subject, industry groups looking for publicity, and poorly-drafted laws looking for a court date.

    This concluding bit from the Salon piece tells us why:

    Continue reading "Thinking About the Fabrication Future" »

    December 7, 2005

    Efficiency, Intensity, and Getting from Here to There

    efficiencychartxrpt.jpgCarbon dioxide output from the United States will peak and then begin to fall in just a few years, according to the numbers derived by John Whitehead at the Environmental Economics blog. The reason is that carbon intensity -- the amount of carbon produced per dollar of GDP -- is dropping at a rate faster than GDP is growing. At the current pace of intensity reduction, CO2 output in the US will peak in 2008, and begin a gradual decline thereafter. (We previously discussed carbon intensity here.)

    This is good news for a number of reasons, not least that it suggests that the current biggest contributor to the greenhouse effect could, with a bit more effort, achieve a far more dramatic reduction in CO2. How to do this is a mainstay of discussion at WorldChanging; here's a look at some of the numbers underlying these options. CO2 intensity is a function of two components: the energy required per dollar equivalent of GDP (or use efficiency of energy); and the CO2 output per MW equivalent of energy (or carbon efficiency of energy). By taking a closer look at the data, we can see which one has mattered more -- and which could stand some improvement.

    Continue reading "Efficiency, Intensity, and Getting from Here to There" »

    December 8, 2005

    Safer Nanotechnology

    nanobarbedwire.jpgOf all of the developments we talk about here, the one with the greatest potential for both beneficial transformation and disastrous risk is nanotechnology. Today, nanotechnology consists primarily of nanomaterials and nanoparticles, which have properties that have effects at the molecular scale. This is already of great value (witness advances in photovoltaics, batteries, and medicine), but many people have raised questions about their safety. The importance of nanomaterials, however, pales in comparison to the potential impact of molecular-scale manufacturing. The implications of molecular manufacturing just get bigger and bigger the more one thinks about it, because of the way functional nanofactories would upset long-standing models of economic (and social and political) interaction. It's heartening, therefore, to see the growth of resources supporting the safe, ethical and responsible development of nanotechnologies.

    WorldChanging readers are familiar with allies the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, run by Mike Treder and Chris Phoenix. CRN looks primarily at the implications of what they term "middle period" nanotech, such as nanofactories -- much more sophisticated than nanomaterials, but not the fantastic nanoassemblers of science fiction. I'm in the middle of an extended interview with Mike and Chris, but in the meantime, I strongly encourage readers to check out the recently-concluded "Inside CRN" series at the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology blog. The five posts cover CRN's mission and goals, and explains how their focus differs from other nanotech resources. It's a great introduction to an extremely valuable organization.

    CRN's focus on "middle period" nanotech is nicely complemented by the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. A project of the Pew Charitable Trusts, PEN is an attempt to collect and analyze reports on the current and near-future status of molecular technologies. As they put it:

    Continue reading "Safer Nanotechnology" »

    December 15, 2005

    Peak Oil Scenarios in Ireland

    eis4box.jpgI can think of few better topics for scenario-based analysis than peak oil. The mechanism (decline of petroleum production levels) is straightforward, but the timeline is highly uncertain; plausible results range from disastrous to transformative, with little chance that just ignoring the problem is the best path; it's arguably quite sensitive to technological development; and its impact will be felt at both the micro level of individual households and the macro level of global politics.

    It's unlikely that there will be a consistent international response to the clear onset of peak oil. Rather, each country, and potentially regions within countries, will respond in different ways. Some will adopt a laissez-faire, market-based approach; others will see it as an opportunity for relentless top-down intervention. Earlier this year, the Irish sustainability non-profit FEASTA (profiled here a year ago) and Irish scenario planning consultancy Vivid Logic joined forces to run a scenario planning project looking at the impact of peak oil on Ireland. The preliminary results are now available at Energy Scenarios Ireland (ESI).

    As the graphic illustrates, ESI uses a four-box model, where two divergent "axes of uncertainty" determine the broad shape of the scenarios. The two axes chosen by the ESI workshop are simple but useful: does the oil peak happen in the near term (2007) or the long-term (2030); and is the primary response by the Irish government reactive or proactive? Those two variables give us four very different worlds.

    Continue reading "Peak Oil Scenarios in Ireland" »

    January 14, 2006

    Making Backups

    seeds.jpgAnyone who has owned a computer knows: always make backups of important content. Do so regularly. Preferably, put those backups some place that is unlikely to be harmed in a disaster -- a fire safe, or an off-site location. Disasters happen, but they're far easier to recover from if one plans ahead.

    The same logic applies to other materials we hold dear. The government of Norway announced this week that it will be building an artificial cave deep in a frozen mountain to act as a storage facility for seeds collected by the Global Crop Diversity Trust.

    The room is a "doomsday vault" designed to hold around 2 million seeds, representing all known varieties of the world's crops. It is being built to safeguard the world's food supply against nuclear war, climate change, terrorism, rising sea levels, earthquakes and the ensuing collapse of electricity supplies. "If the worst came to the worst, this would allow the world to reconstruct agriculture on this planet," says Cary Fowler, director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, an independent international organisation promoting the project. [...]

    Continue reading "Making Backups" »

    February 23, 2006

    Transportation Futures

    Urban_Colonies.jpg"Infrastructure" is a painfully wonky word for an utterly necessary concept. Infrastructure is the pathway for a society's flows -- of traffic, of information, of power, and so forth. Infrastructure is as necessary to civilization as blood vessels and nerves are to a body. And as with our body's systems, many of us only pay attention to infrastructure when it's showing signs of collapse.

    That's why I am particularly heartened to find the new results from a large-scale scenario project looking at the future of infrastructure, run by the UK government's official Foresight Directorate. (And, as an aside: just how cool is it that the UK government has an official Foresight Directorate?!?) The project, entitled "Intelligent Infrastructure Futures" (PDF), offers four possible scenarios for how changes to energy, environment, and society will change transportation systems in the UK over the next 20-50 years.

    Continue reading "Transportation Futures" »

    March 1, 2006

    Torino 2, and Counting

    2004vd17.jpgWhether or not we acknowledge it, the possibility of an asteroid impact on the Earth continues to loom over us, along with the possibility that humankind may well go the way of the dinosaurs. Asteroid impacts may be rare, but they can have utterly devastating results; moreover, thinking about how to estimate and respond to asteroid impacts good practice for all kinds of thinking about big-picture, slow-changing planetary challenges. We now have another chance to practice.

    According to New Scientist, asteroid 2004 VD17 has been given a Torino scale rating of 2 -- higher than any other object in the sky, at present -- indicating a small but measurable risk of impact. As of measurements on February 26, the asteroid has a 1 in 1600 chance of hitting the Earth in 2102 -- an increase over the initial estimate. So far, almost every time astronomers have discovered an asteroid on a potential impact course, subsequent refinements of the data confirm that the rock will miss us. It's extraordinarily rare for further refinement to increase the measured risk; the last time this happened was with asteroid 2004 MN4, which is now estimated to miss the Earth by a whisker in 2029.

    It's likely that further observations will put the risk of impact at 0 -- but it's not guaranteed. Eventually, we will find that an asteroid is on a direct impact orbit, and we'll have to start thinking about how to deal with it. That's why this bit from the New Scientist article so frustrating:

    Continue reading "Torino 2, and Counting" »

    March 30, 2006

    Design a Mars Flyer

    marsuav.jpgAttention, European university students (or their friends and families): how would you like to design an unmanned aerial vehicle for use on Mars?

    EUROAVIA (European Association of Aerospace Students) DeWo WG and the European Space Agency have kicked off a competition, open to students at European universities specializing in aeronautics and/or space technologies, asking them to come up with a design plan for a UAV best suited for exploring the planet Mars.

    The authors of the 25 best papers will be invited to participate in the three-week design workshop at ESA's research and technology centre (ESTEC). During the workshop they will create a preliminary design of a UAV for Mars with the assistance of specialists from the industry and other institutions. Selected participants will be hosted at no cost.

    More information can be found at the Design Workshop 2006 site.

    Although many of us at WorldChanging are Areophiles, the most appealing aspect of this program is the inclusion of university students in a potentially revolutionary space effort. As with other student competitions, such as the Cradle to Cradle Home Competition, the Solar Decathlon, and the Car of 2030 competition, the point isn't to get the best possible design, but to get the most innovative design -- ideas from people who haven't yet learned to listen when told that something is impossible.

    Continue reading "Design a Mars Flyer" »

    April 22, 2007

    Earth Day Voices: Jamais Cascio

    Four Futures for the Earth
    by Jamais Cascio

    Never trust a futurist who only offers one vision of tomorrow.

    We don't know what the future will hold, but we can try to tease out what it might. Scenarios, which combine a variety of important and uncertain drivers into a mix of different -- but plausible -- futures, offer a useful methodology for coming up with a diverse set of plausible tomorrows. Scenarios are not predictions, but examples, giving us a wind-tunnel to test out different strategies for managing large, complex problems.

    And there really isn't a bigger or more complicated problem right now than the incipient climate disaster. Today, there seems to be two schools of thought regarding the best way to deal with global warming: the "act now" approach, demanding (in essence) that we change our behavior and the ways that our societies are structured, and do it as quickly as possible, or else we're boned; and the "techno-fix" approach, which says (in essence) don't worry, the nano/info/bio revolution that's just around the corner will save us. Generally, the Worldchanging approach is to emphasize the first, with a sprinkle of the second for flavor (and as backup).

    The thing is, these are not mutually-exclusive propositions, and success or failure in one doesn't determine the chance of success or failure in the other. It's entirely possible that we will change our behavior/society/world (ahem), and also come up with fantastic new technologies; it's also possible that we'll stumble on both paths, neither fixing things in time nor getting our hands on the tools we could use to repair the worst damage.

    To a futurist, a pair of distinct, largely independent variables just begs to be turned into a scenario matrix. So let's give in, and take a brief look a the four scenarios the combinations of these two paths create:

    Dodging a Bullet

    2037: It's amazing how fast we went from "is this real?" to "what can we do?" to "let's do it now." There was no silver bullet, no green leap forward, just a billion quiet decisions to act. People made better, smarter choices, and the headlong rush to disaster slowed; encouraged by this, we started to focus our investments and social energy into solving this problem, and eventually (but much faster than we'd dared hope!) the growth of atmospheric carbon stopped. There's still too much CO2 in the air, and we know we're going to be dealing with a warming climate for awhile still, but the human species actually managed to choose to avoid killing itself off.

    This is a world in which civil society begins to focus on averting climate disaster as its primary, immediate task, even at the cost of some economic growth and general technological acceleration. Most governments and institutions curtail research and development without direct climate benefits, leading to a world of 2037 that's nowhere near as advanced as futurists and technology enthusiasts had expected. A succession of environmental disasters linked (in the public mind, at the very least) to global warming -- killing hundreds of thousands, and leaving tens of millions as refugees -- gave added impetus to a world-wide effort; by 2017, a clear majority of the world's population was willing to do anything necessary to avoid the environmental collapse that many scientists saw as nearly inevitable. One popular slogan for the climate campaign was "we could be the best, or we could be the last."

    Teaching the World to Sing

    02037: I stumbled across a memory archive from twenty years ago, before the emergence of the Chorus, and was shocked to see the Earth as it was. Oceans near death, climate system lurching towards collapse, overall energy flux just horribly out-of-balance. I can't believe the Earth actually survived that. I had assumed that the Chorus was responsible for repairing the planet, but no -- We told me that, even by 02017, the Earth's human populace was making the kind of substantive changes to how it lived necessary to avoid real disaster, and that 02017 was actually one of the first years of improvement! What the Chorus made possible was the planetary repair, although We says that this project still has many years left, in part because We had to fix some of We's own mistakes from the first few repair attempts. The Chorus actually seemed embarrassed when We told me that!

    This is a world in which immediate efforts to make the social and behavioral changes necessary to avoid climate disaster make possible longer-term projects to apply powerful, transformative technologies (such as molecular manufacturing and cognitive augmentation) to the problem of stabilizing and, eventually, repairing the broken environment. It's not quite a Singularity, but is perhaps something nearly as strange: a world that has come to see few differences between human systems and natural/geophysical systems. "We are Gaia, too," the aging (but quite healthy) James Lovelock reminded us in 2023. And Gaia is us: billions of molecular-scale eco-sensors and intelligent simulations give the Earth itself an important voice in the global Chorus.

    Geoengineering 101: Pass/Fail

    2037: The Hephaestus 2 mission reported last week that it had managed to stabilize the wobble on the Mirror, but blurbed me a minute ago that New Tyndall Center is still showing temperature instabilities. According to Tyndall, that clinches it: we have another rogue at work. NATO ended the last one with extreme prejudice (as dramatized in last Summer's blockbuster, "Shutdown" -- I loved that Bruce Willis came out of retirement to play Gates), but this one's more subtle. My eyecrawl has some bluster from the SecGen now, saying that "this will not stand," blah blah blah. I just wish that these boy geniuses (and they're all guys, you ever notice that?) would put half as much time and effort into figuring out the Atlantic Seawall problem as they do these crazy-ass plans to fix the sky.

    This is a world in which attempts to make the broad social and behavioral changes necessary to avoid climate disaster are generally too late and too limited, and the global environment starts to show early signs of collapse. The 2010s to early 2020s are characterized by millions of dead from extreme weather events, hundreds of millions of refugees, and a thousand or more coastal cities lost all over the globe. The continued trend of general technological acceleration gets diverted by 2020 into haphazard, massive projects to avert disaster. Few of these succeed -- serious climate problems hit too fast for the more responsible advocates of geoengineering to get beyond the "what if..." stage -- and the many that fail often do so in a spectacular (and legally actionable) fashion. Those that do work serve mainly to keep the Earth poised on the brink: bioengineered plants that consume enough extra CO2 and methane to keep the atmosphere stable; a very slow project to reduce the acidity of the oceans; and the Mirror, a thousands of miles in diameter solar shield at the Lagrange point between the Earth and the Sun, reducing incoming sunlight by 2% -- enough to start a gradual cooling trend.

    Say Goodnight

    2030-something. Late in the decade, I think. Living day-to-day makes it hard to keep track of the years. The new seasons don't help -- Stormy, Still Stormy, Hellaciously Stormy, and Blast Furnace -- and neither does the constant travel, north to the Nunavut Protectorate, if it's still around. I hear things are even worse in Europe, if you can believe that. I don't hear much about Asia anymore, but I suppose nobody does now. The Greenland icepack went sometime in the last few years, and I hear a rumor that Antarctica is starting to go now. Who knows? I still see occasional aircraft high overhead, but they mostly look like military planes, so don't get your hopes up: they're probably from somebody who thinks it's still worth it to fight over the remaining oil.

    This is a world in which we don't adopt the changes we need, and technology-based fixes end up being too hard to implement in sufficient quantity and scale to make a real difference. Competition for the last bit of advantage (in economics, in security, in resources) accelerates the general collapse. Things fall apart; the center does not hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

    Pick your future.

    Jamais Cascio co-founded Worldchanging, and wrote over 1,900 articles for the site during his tenure. He now works as a foresight and futures specialist, serving as the Global Futures Strategist for the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology and a Research Affiliate for the Institute for the Future. His current online home is Open the Future.

    About Imagining the Future

    This page contains an archive of all entries posted to WC Archive in the Imagining the Future category. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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