Back to the future of the past? Venture capitalist advocates a return to radical futurism

Paul Raven @ 18-02-2010

Advocates of science fictional thinking crop up in the weirdest places. For example, Peter Thiel helped found PayPal and invested early in Facebook, and his main business is hedge funds and venture capital (which may predispose one to take his ideas with a large pinch of salt, given the economic events of the last couple of years), but he also invests in the sorts of venture that seem to have leapt right off the pages of old-school science fiction novels: sub-oceanic human colnisation projects, life extension research and private space flight, for instance.

So why does a man with that much money sloshing around want to invest in blue-sky futurism? Because he believes that radical progress is the only thing that will keep the existential wolves from civilisation’s door:

Wired: You’re worried about economic stagnation, but you’re optimistic about artificial intelligence and space?

Thiel: I think we have to make those things happen. We should be looking at technologies that might lead to really big breakthroughs. As a starting point, let’s just go back to the science fiction novels of the 1950s and ’60s and try to run the past 40 years again.

Wired: We need underwater cities and flying cars, otherwise we’re going bankrupt?

Thiel: We go bankrupt if radical progress doesn’t happen and we don’t realize it’s not happening. That’s a dangerous combination.

It’s a strange and topsy-turvy world when venture capitalists advocate wild flights of fanciful imagination while science fiction writers advocate plausible extrapolations from the status quo, don’t you think? 😉

Playing Our Way To the Future: Consumer Science and Technology goes Military

Brenda Cooper @ 10-02-2010

Last month, I spoke at a United States Army Training and Doctrine Command event billed as a mad scientist conference. That was actually quite an honor, and I enjoyed it more than I expected to, even though it was hard to spend three days thinking about threats based on new technology. I’ve got a blog entry up at my regular site that talks more about the conference, but suffice it to say I’ve been thinking about the military and science/science fiction. In the way of all attractive coincidences, I was also recently asked to write a military science fiction story. All that, and I’m basically a pacifist! Continue reading “Playing Our Way To the Future: Consumer Science and Technology goes Military”

Wired’s manifesto for radical financial transparency

Paul Raven @ 26-02-2009

stock value reportsIf there’s one thing every politician seems able to agree on at the moment, it’s that we need to overhaul the way the financial sector works so as to (hopefully) avoid another catastrophic screw-up like the one we’re currently mired in. Part of the problem was caused by regulatory bodies being simply unable to keep up with the huge amount of publicly filed data  from financial businesses, and by some of that data being… massaged, shall we say. [image by pfala]

The obvious answer is “more regulation” (though we might want to throw in brainscans for CEOs while we’re at it), but that’s just going to build another baroque architecture on top of the one we already have… and baroque architecture has plenty of hiding places for gargoyles, if I might overextend my analogy.

Daniel Roth at Wired has a different idea, and it’s one that resonates with the way the web works. He calls it radical transparency: a way to sum it up in a nutshell might be to say that instead of worrying about who should watch the watchers, why don’t we make sure everyone – and anyone – can get at all the data in standardized formats?

The whole article is well worth a read, but here’s Roth’s three-point manifesto:

Set the data free

Today, public companies and financial institutions disclose their activities in endless documents stuffed with figures and stats. Instead, they should be forced to file using universal tags that make the data easy to explore.

Empower all investors

Once every company’s data carries identical tags, anyone can manipulate the numbers to compare performance. And they can see details of every financial instrument—not just balance sheets and income statements.

Create an army of citizen-regulators

By giving everyone access to every piece of data—and making it easy to crunch—we can crowdsource regulation, creating a self-correcting financial system and unlocking new ways of measuring the market’s health.

Those of you with no trust in free markets probably find this even less appealing than the current system, but it makes a certain amount of sense to me. As Roth points out, the web has enabled a similar sea-change in journalism, and as a result changes are afoot in governmental and corporate practice around the world, because it has become easier for whistleblowers and contrary voices to have their say.

TechDirt‘s Mike Masnick came up with a similar idea late last year; as he points out, it’s unlikely to gain much support right away because it takes the power away from the financiers, and they’re unlikely to be particularly keen on that arrangement. But that’s all the more reason to discuss the notion now, while trust is at an all-time low; after all, as Masnick says:

We’re not going to fix a broken Wall Street by throwing extra money at the problem, but we might be able to fix it by opening up, adopting radical transparency, and then letting the market more accurately value things based on real data.

Amen to that.

Oil-rig hotels could become Dubai on the high seas

Paul Raven @ 18-02-2009

If you found the recent post on seasteading a bit intriguing, but decided that either it looked too spartan for you or that you didn’t fancy turning your back on solid ground forever, you may be in luck. An LA-based architectural outfit has come up with a prize-winning design concept that sees decommissioned oil-rigs turned into luxury hotels, complete with prefabbed rooms that can be sailed out as a package the size of a standard shipping container.

oil-rig hotel conversion concept

As Morris Architects points out, the Gulf of Mexico alone has over 4,000 oil rigs that are destined for decommissioning over the next century – so why not make them into luxury resorts?

But as Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG notes, that’s rather like the thinking behind Dubai… and look how that’s working out right now:

… if the real Dubai is any model for what might actually happen with such a resort, then we’ll probably see dozens of oil rigs partially converted to luxury hotels only then to be abandoned by their construction crews and investors. As the lands of southern Louisiana continue to disappear into the Gulf, heavily armed refugees on fishing boats will move out to sea, recolonizing the derelict structures. There will be campfires at night, burning driftwood, and speciality gardens.

4,000 of the things, just sat out there rusting away in the Gulf. You could get yourself an entire anarchic archipelago out of that little lot. [image borrowed from Morris Architects]

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