Wicked Problems and ends to limitless [x]

Paul Raven @ 02-08-2011

That Steelweaver post on Reality As A Failed State I mentioned a few days back really did the rounds. So I’m going to link to Karl Schroeder at Charlie Stross’s blog once again, and without any sense of shame – he’s been quiet for ages, but he’s spooling out a year’s worth of good shizzle over the space of a few weeks at the moment, and I think he’s a voice worth paying attention to.

Here he is talking about the “metaproblems” that Steelweaver mentioned, which have not only been known and named (as “wicked problems” for some time, but are already a subject of intense study… which is a good thing, too.

It is not the case that wicked problems are simply problems that have been incompletely analyzed; there really is no ‘right’ formulation and no ‘right’ answer. These are problems that cannot be engineered. The anger of many of my acquaintances seems to stem from the erroneous perception that they could be solved this way, if only those damned republicans/democrats/liberals/conservatives/tree-huggers/industrialists/true believers/denialists didn’t keep muddying the waters. Because many people aren’t aware that there are wicked problems, they experience the failure to solve major complex world issues as the failure of some particular group to understand ‘the real situation.’ But they’re not going to do that, and granted that they won’t, the solutions you work on have to incorporate their points-of-view as well as your own, or they’re non-starters. This, of course, is mind-bogglingly difficult.

Our most important problems are wicked problems. Luckily, social scientists have been studying this sort of mess since, well, since 1970. Techniques exist that will allow moderately-sized groups with widely divergent agendas and points of view to work together to solve highly complex problems. (The U.S. Congress apparently doesn’t use them.) Structured Dialogic Design is one such methodology. Scaling SDD sessions to groups larger than 50 to 70 people at a time has proven difficult–but the fact that it and similar methods exist at all should give us hope.

Here are a few wicked problems I think are exemplary. I touched on one of them yesterday, in fact, namely the roboticisation curve in manufacturing; far from liberating the toiling masses in some utopian fusion of Marx and capitalism, it might well increase the polarisation and widen the gap between the poor masses and the super-rich elites, a process that Global Dashboard‘s Alex Evans refers to as “jobless growth”::

In some developed economies (and especially the US), research suggests that job opportunities are increasingly being polarised into high and low skill jobs, while middle class jobs are disappearing due to “automation of routine work and, to a smaller extent, the international integration of labour markets through trade and, more recently, offshoring”. Meanwhile, data also show that while more women are entering the global labour force, the ‘gender gap’ on income and quality of work is widening between women and men. These trends raise a number of critical uncertainties for employment and development to 2020.

If automation of routine work genuinely is a more significant factor in developed economy job polarization than international trade or offshoring, then the implication is that developing economies may increasingly also fall prey to job polarisation as new technologies emerge and become competitive with human labour between now and 2020. Chinese manufacturing and Indian service industry jobs could increasingly be replaced by technology, for example, and find their existing rates of inequality exacerbated still  further.

And here’s a serendipitous look at the economics of a world where replicators and 3d printing become cheap enough to be ubiquitous [via SlashDot]:

Prices for 3D printers are tumbling. Even simple systems often cost tens of thousands of dollars a decade ago. Now, 3D printers for hobbyists can be had for a fraction of that: MakerBot Industries offers a fully assembled Thing-O-Matic printer for just $2,500, and kits for building RepRap printers have sold for $500. The devices could be on track for mass-production as home appliances within just a few years.

So, will we all soon be living like Arabian Nights sultans with a 3D printing genie ready to grant our every wish? Could economies as we know them even survive in such a world, where the theoretically infinite supply of any good should drive its value toward zero?

The precise limitations of replicator technology will determine where scarcity and foundations for value will remain. 3D printers need processed materials as inputs. Those materials and all the labor required to mine, grow, synthesize or process them into existence will still be needed, along with the transportation costs to bring them to the printers. The energy to run a replicator might be another limiting factor, as would be time (would you spend three days replicating a toaster if you could have one delivered to your home in an hour)? Replicators will also need inputs to tell them how to make specific objects, so the programming and design efforts will still have value.


Perhaps the most important limitation on the replicator economy may competition from good old mass production. Custom-tailored suits may be objectively better than off-the-rack outfits, but people find that the latter are usually the more sensible, affordable purchase. Mass production—especially by factories adopting nimble 3D-printing technologies—can still provide marvelous economies of scale. So even when it is theoretically possible for anyone to fabricate anything, people might still choose to restrict their replicating to certain goods—and to continue making their tea with a store-bought teabag.

The unspoken underpinning of that last paragraph (as hinted by my bolding) is the important bit: the economies of scale of fabbing will see more and more human labour replaced by machines – machines that don’t need holidays, or even sleep; machines that don’t get tired and make a higher percentage of dud iterations as a result; machines that, before too long, will be able to make other machines as required. The attraction of such a system to Big Capital (and small capital, too) is pretty obvious.

And all in the name of chasing perpetual infinite growth, a central assumption of most modern economic thought (or at least the stuff I’ve encountered so far) that relies on a lot of other assumptions… like, say, the assumption that we’ll always be able to either produce more energy, or use the amount we have available more efficiently [via MetaFilter]:

It seems clear that we could, in principle, rely on efficiency alone to allow continued economic growth even given a no-growth raw energy future (as is inevitable). The idea is simple. Each year, efficiency improvements allow us to drive further, light more homes, manufacture more goods than the year before—all on a fixed energy income. Fortunately, market forces favor greater efficiency, so that we have enjoyed the fruits of a constant drum-beat toward higher efficiency over time. To the extent that we could continue this trick forever, we could maintain economic growth indefinitely, and all the institutions that are built around it: investment, loans, banks, etc.

But how many times can we pull a rabbit out of the efficiency hat? Barring perpetual motion machines (fantasy) and heat pumps (real; discussed below), we must always settle for an efficiency less than 100%. This puts a bound on how much gain we might expect to accomplish. For instance, if some device starts out at 50% efficiency, there is no way to squeeze more than a factor of two out of its performance.


Given that two-thirds of our energy resource is burned in heat engines, and that these cannot improve much more than a factor of two, more significant gains elsewhere are diminished in value. For instance, replacing the 10% of our energy budget spent on direct heat (e.g., in furnaces and hot water heaters) with heat pumps operating at their maximum theoretical efficiency effectively replaces a 10% expenditure with a 1% expenditure. A factor of ten sounds like a fantastic improvement, but the overall efficiency improvement in society is only 9%. Likewise with light bulb replacement: large gains in a small sector. We should still pursue these efficiency improvements with vigor, but we should not expect this gift to provide a form of unlimited growth.

On balance, the most we might expect to achieve is a factor of two net efficiency increase before theoretical limits and engineering realities clamp down. At the present 1% overall rate, this means we might expect to run out of gain this century.  Some might quibble about whether the factor of two is too pessimistic, and might prefer a factor of 3 or even 4 efficiency gain.  Such modifications may change the timescale of saturation, but not the ultimate result.

So it ain’t just Moore’s Law that could be running into a brick wall real soon. A whole lot of caltrops on the highway to the future, then… and we’re still arguing about how to bolt more governers and feedback loops onto fundamentally broken polticoeconomic systems. Wicked problems, indeed. It’s hard not to feel bleak as we look into the eye of this abyss, but Schroeder suggests there’s a way out:

Here’s my take on things: our biggest challenges are no longer technological. They are issues of communication, coordination, and cooperation. These are, for the most part, well-studied problems that are not wicked. The methodologies that solve them need to be scaled up from the small-group settings where they currently work well, and injected into the DNA of our society–or, at least, built into our default modes of using the internet. They then can be used to tackle the wicked problems.

What we need, in other words, is a Facebook for collaborative decision-making: an app built to compensate for the most egregious cognitive biases and behaviours that derail us when we get together to think in groups. Decision-support, stakeholder analysis, bias filtering, collaborative scratch-pads and, most importantly, mechanisms to extract commitments to action from those that use these tools. I have zero interest in yet another open-source copy of a commercial application, and zero interest in yet another Tetris game for Android. But a Wikipedia’s worth of work on this stuff could transform the world.

Digital direct democracy, in other words, with mechanisms built in to ameliorate the broken bits of our psychology. Oh, sure, you can scoff and say it’ll never work, but even a flimsy-looking boat starts looking like it’s worth a shot when the tired old paddle-steamer starts doing its Titanic impersonation in the middle of the swamp. What Schroeder (and many others) are suggesting is eminently possible; all we lack is the political will to build it.

And it’s increasingly plain that we’re not going to find that will in the bickering halls of the incumbent system; it’s only interested in maintaining its own existence for as long as possible, and damn the consequences.

Which is why we need to turn our backs on that system and build its replacement ourselves.

Got 99 metaproblems (but a lack of aspirational futurism ain’t one)

Paul Raven @ 29-07-2011

Good grief, but the RSS mountain really piles up in 24 hours, doesn’t it?

Well, mine does, anyway… which means it’s probably high time I had a spring-clean in there to make it more manageable. As well as maybe, y’know, stopping the habit of adding more feeds to the damned aggregator all the time. There’s too much interesting stuff (or grim stuff, or grimly interesting stuff) going on in the world, y’see; the temptation to stay on top of it all and let it just flow through my head like some sort of Zeitgeist/sewer-outflow hybrid is horribly compelling. I am the gauzy mesh in your perpetual flow of present history, plucking out interesting lumps of… no, actually, let’s stop that metaphor right there.

Anyways, long story short: had a busy few days and have more busyness ahead, so minimal commentary from me today. Instead, an exhortation to go and read stuff written by other folk far smarter than I. We’ll start with the manageably short piece, which is another Karl Schroeder joint at Chateau Stross (or should that be Schloss Stross?) where he talks about the difference between foresight futurism and “predicting the future”, and a new aspirational direction for his near-future science fiction output that is reminiscent of Jetse de Vries’ Optimistic SF manifesto:

… I’m pretty tired of all those, “Dude, where’s my flying car!” digs. There’s always been a certain brand of futurist who’s obsessed with getting it right: with racking up successful predictions like some modern-day Nostradamus. I’m sure you know who I’m talking about; some futurists play the prediction game very well, but in the end it is a game, and closer to charlatanism than it is to science. There’s actually no method for seeing the future, and nobody’s predictions are more reliable than anybody else’s.

You know, I think we do know who he’s talking about…

And while we’re thinking about the future, it’s hard to avoid thinking about problems, for – as a species and a planet – we have rather a lot of them right now. So many, in fact, that you might even say that reality itself is a failed state:

So maybe what we have today are not problems, but meta-problems.

It is very useful to confirm our understanding with others, to meet with fellow humans – preferably face-to-face – strength flows from this.

However, disquiet remains – no pre-catastrophic change of course seems in any way likely. What we might call ‘Fabian’ environmentalism has failed.

Occasionally a scientist will be so overcome with horror that he will make a radical public pronouncement – like the drunken uncle at a wedding, he may well be saying what everyone knows to be true, pulling the skeletons out of the family closet for all to see, but, well, it just doesn’t do to say that sort of thing out loud at a formal function.

This is all a little bit strange.

We understand the problems. We also, pretty much, understand the solutions. But their real-world application is a whole unpickable, integrated clusterfuck.

I believe part of the meta-problem is this: people no longer inhabit a single reality.

Collectively, there is no longer a single cultural arena of dialogue.

And we need to construct one. Go read the rest for the full lowdown. I’d love to be able to name the writer as something other than “Steelweaver”, but as he’s using a Tumblr with no About page or anything*, I am largely unable to do so. If you can fill in that datagap for me, please get in touch or leave a note in the comments.

[ * Note to writers of serious and/or interesting stuff on the intetubes: this is rather frustrating, and Tumblr really isn’t the best platform for this sort of stuff. Basically it’s the post-naivete ironic MySpace, optimised for collecting hipster aphorisms and reposting “art” shots that tend to contain boobs.

Just sayin’. ]

Futuristic Medicine: Stem Cells

Brenda Cooper @ 30-06-2011

So…last month I did a bit of a rant on climate change. I decided maybe I’d do something a bit more hopeful this time, and focus on future medicine. Medicine is one of the areas where the network effect works wonders and the speed of change is pretty phenomenal. Continue reading “Futuristic Medicine: Stem Cells”

A week in the unnecessary trenches of futurist philosophies

Paul Raven @ 29-06-2011

First things first: I should raise my hand in a mea culpa and admit that framing the recent spate of discussion about Singularitarianism as a “slap-fight” was to partake in exactly the sort of dumb tabloid reduction-to-spectacle that I vocally deplore when I see it elsewhere. There was an element of irony intended in my approach, but it wasn’t very successful, and does nothing to advance a genuinely interesting (if apparently insolvable) discussion. Whether the examples of cattiness on both sides of the fence can be attributed to my shit-stirring is an open question (and, based on previous iterations of the same debate, I’d be inclined to answer “no, or at least certainly not entirely”), but nonetheless: a certainty of cattiness is no reason to amplify or encourage it, especially not if you want to be taken seriously as a commentator on the topic at hand.

So, yeah: my bad, and I hope y’all will feel free to call me out if you catch me doing it again. (My particular apologies go to Charlie Stross because – contrary to my framing of such – his original post wasn’t intended to “start a fight” at all, but I’ve doubtless misrepresented other people’s positions as well, so consider this a blanket apology to all concerned.)

So, let’s get back to rounding up bits of this debate. The core discussion consisting of responses to Stross and counter-responses to such [see previous posts] seems to have burned out over the last seven days, which isn’t entirely surprising, as both sides are arguing from as-yet-unprovable philosophical positions on the future course of science and technology. (As I’ve said before, I suspect *any* discussion of the Technological Singularity or emergent GAI is inherently speculative, and will remain such unless/until either of them occur; that potentiality, as I understand it, informs a lot of the more serious Singularitarian thinking, which I might paraphrase as saying “we can’t say it’s impossible with absolute certainty, and given the disruptive potential of such an occurance, we’d do well to spare some thought to how we might prevent it pissing in our collective punchbowl”.)

The debate continues elsewhere, however. Via Tor.com, we find an ongoing disagreement between Google’s Director of Research Peter Norvig and arch-left-anarchist linguist Noam Chomsky over machine learning methodologies. As I understand it, Chomsky rejects any attempt to recreate a system without and attempt to understand why and how that system works the way it does, while Norvig – not entirely surprisingly, given his main place-of-employment – reckons that statistical analysis of sufficiently large quantities of data can produce the same results without the need for understanding why things happen that way. While not specifically a Singularitarian debate, there’s a qualitative similarity here: two diametrically opposed speculative philosophical positions on an as-yet unrealised scientific possibility.

Elsewhere, Jamais Cascio raises his periscope with a post that prompted my apology above. Acknowledging the polar ends of the futurist spectrum – Rejectionism (the belief that we’re dooming ourselves to destruction by our own technologies) and Posthumanism (the technoutopian assumption that technology will inevitably transform us into something better than what we already are) – he suggests that both outlooks are equally destructive, because they relieve us of the responsibility to steer the course of the future:

The Rejectionist and Posthumanist arguments are dangerous because they aren’t just dueling abstractions. They have increasing cultural weight, and are becoming more pervasive than ever. And while they superficially take opposite views on technology and change, they both lead to the same result: they tell us to give up.

By positing these changes as massive forces beyond our control, these arguments tell us that we have no say in the future of the world, that we may not even have the right to a say in the future of the world. We have no agency; we are hapless victims of techno-destiny. We have no responsibility for outcomes, have no influence on the ethical choices embodied by these tools. The only choice we might be given is whether or not to slam on the brakes and put a halt to technological development — and there’s no guarantee that the brakes will work. There’s no possible future other than loss of control or stagnation.


Technology is part of who we are. What both critics and cheerleaders of technological evolution miss is something both subtle and important: our technologies will, as they always have, make us who we are—make us human. The definition of Human is no more fixed by our ancestors’ first use of tools, than it is by using a mouse to control a computer. What it means to be Human is flexible, and we change it every day by changing our technology. And it is this, more than the demands for abandonment or the invocations of a secular nirvana, that will give us enormous challenges in the years to come.

I think Jamais is on to something here, and the unresolvable polarities of the debates we’ve been looking at underline his point. Here as in politics, the continuing entrenchment of opposing ideologies is creating a deadlock that prevents progress, and the framing of said deadlock as a fight is only bogging things down further. There’s a whole lot of conceptual and ideological space between these polar positions; perhaps we should be looking for our future in that no-man’s-land, before it turns into the intellectual equivalent of the Western Front circa 1918.

Nanolaw with Daughter: a parable of a litigatory future

Paul Raven @ 01-06-2011

Via the indispensable TechDirt, here’s a short fictional excursion into the near future by Paul “Ftrain” Ford. If you’ve ever wondered whereabouts the rising tide of petty litigations – copyright breach buckshot, nebulous class-action suits, mass-target John Doe patent infringements, libel tourism, the list goes on – might beach us, Ford paints an all-too-believable picture of today’s tomorrow.

On a Sunday morning before her soccer practice, not long after my daughter’s tenth birthday, she and I sat down on the couch with our tablets and I taught her to respond to lawsuits on her own. I told her to read the first message.

“It says it’s in French,” she said. “Do I translate?”

“Does it have a purple flag on it?”

“No,” she said.

“You don’t actually have to worry about it unless it has a purple flag.”

She hesitated. “Can I read it?” she asked.

“If you want to read it go ahead.”

She switched the screen from French to English and read out the results: “’Notice from the Democratic Republic of Congo related to the actions of King Leopold II.’”

This was what I’d been avoiding. So much evil in the world and why did she need to know about all of it, at once? But for months she’d asked—begged—to answer her own suits. I’d told her to wait, to stop trying to grow up so fast, you’ll have your whole lifetime to get sued. Until finally she said: “When I’m ten? I can do it when I’m ten?” And I’d said, “sure, after you’re ten.” Somehow that had seemed far off. I had willed it to be far off.

“Honey,” I explained, “you’ll get a lot of those kinds. What happened is, a long time ago, the country Belgium took over this country Congo and killed a lot of people and made everyone slaves. The people who are descendants of those slaves, their government gave them the right to ask other people for damages.”

“I didn’t do anything. I thought you had to do something.”

Where do you start? Litigation-flow tariff policy? Post-colonial genocide reparations microsuits? Is there a book somewhere, Telling Your Daughter About Nanolaw?

“You know,” I asked, “how you have to be careful about giving away information?”

She did. We talk about that almost every day.

Go read it all; won’t take you ten minutes.

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