The future’s alright

Tom James @ 01-09-2009

futureThe role of science fiction vis a vis the future and predictions thereof has always been a target of lighthearted mockery. However Centauri Dreams articulates, with the help of futurist Peter Garretson, what science fiction can offer, even if predictions aren’t always on the mark:

Many forays into fictional futures, then, can give us alternative ways to make a new concept real. We can try on those futures by reading stories that make them come alive, seeing what effects these changes would have on society. And we can do more. By placing futuristic concepts in a tangible, fictional context, we can encourage their growth and dissemination.

Science fiction explores how human beings respond to change and disruption, and as such helps us explore ourselves. It can also offer pictures of how the world could be, so as to encourage us to actualise these images and build a better future.

[from Centauri Dreams][image from doug8888 on flickr]


The next 100 years

Tom James @ 31-08-2009

Pivot_areaGeorge Friedman, writing in The New Statesman magazine, has an article up on the next 100 years, as seen through the theoretical prism of geopolitics. This is a doctrine that emphasises the importance of the permanently operating factors of geography in determining global dominance:

Thus, the question is how these geopolitical and strategic realities shape the rest of the century. Eurasia, broadly understood, is being hollowed out. China is far weaker than it appears and is threatened with internal instability. The Europeans are divided by old national patterns that prevent them from moving in a uniform direction. Russia is using the window of opportunity presented by the US absorption in disrupting the Islamic world to reclaim its sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union, but its underlying weakness will reassert itself over the next generation.

New powers will emerge. In the 19th century, Germany, Italy and Japan began to emerge as great powers, while in the 20th century global powers such as Britain and France declined to secondary status. Each century, a new constellation of powers forms that might strike observers at the beginning of the century as unthinkable. Let us therefore think about the unthinkable.

Friedman paints a rather pessimistic picture of a future of exactly the same kind of nationalistic war that took up most of the 20th century.

I’ve never been comfortable with tub-thumping nationalism/patriotism as something to dictate beliefs and action. To me the future of the people living on Earth is as much about cultures, attitudes, and society as it is about the fight for power between specific nation states [1].

But states will remain the single most powerful entity on Earth over the next few decades, and as such it is worth thinking about which of them might gain greater influence in the future.

The central conclusion of Friedman’s article is that “they that control the North American continent, control the world” as they will have access to both the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans as well as the vast wealth of the North American continent. As such he posits Mexico as a potential rival to US power. He also suggests that Japan might engage on further military ventures. Turkey may become the core of an Islamic sphere of influence in the Mediterranean and Middle East.

[1]: Inasmuch as particular states have particular cultures and attitudes (e.g. pluralism, rule of law, liberalism, democracy, individual freedom) I think that it is a mistake to support a nation state because of the attitudes it purports to value, rather than the reality of its actions. You support the people and the ideals first, the countries second.

[from the New Statesman][image from here on Wikimedia]


Psychohistory in the real world

Tom James @ 28-07-2009

crowdResearchers at Indiana University believe that it may be possible to create a real-life version of Isaac Asimov’s concept of psychohistory:

Much as meteorologists predict the path and intensity of hurricanes, Indiana University’s Alessandro Vespignani believes we will one day predict with unprecedented foresight, specificity and scale such things as the economic and social effects of billions of new Internet users in China and India, or the exact location and number of airline flights to cancel around the world in order to halt the spread of a pandemic.

Psychohistory as described by Isaac Asimov holds that “while one cannot foresee the actions of a particular individual, the laws of statistics as applied to large groups of people could predict the general flow of future events.”

This certainly seems similar to the ideas of reality mining discussed here:

Vespignani writes that advances in complex networks theory and modeling, along with access to new data, will enable humans to achieve true predictive power in areas never before imagined. This capability will be realized as the one wild card in the mix — the social behavior of large aggregates of humans — becomes more definable through progress in data gathering, new informatics tools and increases in computational power.

It is an exciting direction, and offers the possibility of a black-swan style technological breakthrough. With improved data, through things like spimes and ubiquitous computing, combined with improved data processing techniques and communications there exists the possibility for a new and powerful way of studying, monitoring, and even controlling social and technological developments with precision.

[via Next Big Future][image from woodleywonderworks on flickr]


Predicting future technologies with Eric Drexler

Tom James @ 07-07-2009

chipEric Drexler describes how you can apply scientific methods to assess the lower bounds of the capabilities of future technologies:

A subset of the potential capabilities of future levels of technology can be understood by means of a design process that can be described as exploratory engineering. This process resembles the first phase of standard design engineering (termed conceptual engineering, or conceptual design), but it serves a different purpose

In the early 20th century, a missing fabrication technology was the combination of engineering expertise and metalworking techniques (among others) that were required to build large aerospace vehicles. The physics of rocket propulsion, however, were well understood, and the strength and weight of large, well-made aluminum structures could be estimated with reasonable accuracy.

On the basis of exploratory engineering applied to this kind of knowledge, engineers who studied the matter were confident that orbital flight could be achieved by means of multistage chemically fueled rockets.

This was an element of Drexler’s Engines of Creation I found especially compelling: that we should base our ideas of future technologies not on what we already have, but what lies within the bounds of what is possible by physical laws as we understand them.

[image from quapan on flickr]


Modelling the climate

Tom James @ 02-07-2009

weatherAn interview with Gavin Schmidt over on Edge explores the nature and development of climate modelling:

What we have decided, as a scientific endeavor, is to extrapolate as much as we can from our knowledge of the individual processes that we can measure: evaporation from the ocean, the formation of a cloud, rainfall coming from a cloud, changes in the wind patterns as a function of the pressure field, changes in the jet stream. What we have tried to do is encapsulate those small-scale processes, put them altogether, and see if we can predict the emerging properties of that fundamental complex system.

He explores the sometimes contradictory predictions of different climate models:

In the same way that you can’t make an average arithmetic be more correct than the correct arithmetic, it’s not obvious that the average climate model should be better than all of the other climate models. So for example if I wanted to know what 2+2 was and I just picked a set of random numbers, the answer by averaging all those random numbers is unlikely to be four. Yet when you come to climate models, that is kind of what you get. You get all the climate models and they give you some numbers between three and five and they give you something that is very close to four. Obviously, it’s not pure mathematics — it’s physics, it’s approximations, there is empirical tuning that goes on.

You need to have some kind of evaluation. I don’t like to use the word validation because it implies a kind of binary/true-false set up. But you need an evaluation; you need tests of the model’s sensitivity compared to something in the real world that can give you some credibility that that model has the right sensitivity. That is very difficult.

It is a lengthy essay/video interview but well worth the read/watch, as it is refreshing to hear firsthand from a professional climatologist.

[at Edge][image from Nicholas T on flickr]


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