Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Critical Thinking about the Future

by Gary Berg-Cross

Yogi Berra famously said “The future ain't what it used to be.” There are several ways to take this and recently I’ve been thinking about this from a futurist perspective. Obviously we have been having some hard times and seeking for some better things to look forward to. Some in the Techno-futurist camp are pretty bullish about things. There are light, business-tech futurists like New York Times columnist Tom Friedman who FLAT- out predicted global prosperity. A broader, professional effect comes out of the World Future Society (WFS) organization is in nearby Bethesda MD and I’ve read their THE FUTURIST magazine from time to time which features professional futurists, but also other interesting thinkers, scientists and passionate, informed lay-people who write and sometimes dialogue on interesting topics. Lisa Donchak, for example, has a blog on the WFS site (http://www.wfs.org/blogs/lisa-donchak ) with many interesting topics such as:

Traditional Futurists have frameworks that assist in understanding topics like social, historical and technology trends. Serious Futurist workshops, such as the one coming up in July in address issues like:
  • How will people in your part of the world live, work, and think in 2025?
  • Which values, lifestyles, and structuring institutions will prevail?
  • Will lifestyles be more complex or simpler?
  • Which professions will be the most highly valued, and which personality types will best adapt?
  • What culture-based hidden assumptions define the boxes in which you think and your notion of personal identity? (See http://www.wfs.org/content/trans-cultural-impacts-future0
Perhaps the best now-Futurist is Alvin Toffler who predicted main aspects of globalization 40 years ago. He popularized futurist views and terms in his portrait of things to come in his book called Future Shock. Toffler had mixed success with his crystal ball. He was good in predicting social trends and we continued to move into a more networked world that he foresaw. But not all predictions have been good. We have not achieved the substantial exploitation of the oceans or relative control of the weather that he proposed Two other major predictions of Toffler's – the paperless office and human cloning – have yet to be realized, although Toffler like some futurists can be fuzzy on exact time schedules and just point to a trend to more control of more of this. So while we continue a trend to expand into outer space, things have been slow and we have not generally profited financially from an initial move into space.
In the face of slow progress some fall back on interesting but challenging ideas of using space elevators as our means of getting into space. These replace rockets with structure designed to transport material from the surface of the Earth on or near the equator to geostationary orbit. Such discussions date back to 1895 when Konstantin Tsiolkovsky proposed a free-standing tower reaching from the surface of Earth to geostationary orbit which is 35,785 km from the surface (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_elevator). Although this sounds like classic science fiction some “experts” say that research advances in nanotech could soon provide the materials necessary for this effort. Perhaps there will be a Grand Prize in this area. Already there are great sales pitches for the ride on a space elevator:
Our first stop will be the Bigelow Sky Hotel where some of you will begin your vacation among the stars. We will then continue on to the GEO area, 22,300 miles high where the rest of you will board a Virgin Shuttlecraft and continue to your destinations. For your convenience, the elevator is Internet-enabled allowing contact with loved ones on Earth. The trip takes seven days, so relax in your luxury suite and enjoy the beautiful views from space. From Dick Pelletier
Wild!  But as people note there’s lots of serious engineering that has addressed the issue. Still, like nuclear power, costs and safety seem serious issues. Can you imagine one of these structures failing and falling? What costly war targets they would represent. Much of our future may depend on our living in a much friendlier and safer world.
Futurology (aka futures studies) seems less a science of prediction than a branch art under the field of history about possibilities. Natural futurists Galileo and Leonardo could imagine helicopter flight and submarines. In fact, they did, following some highly inferencable trends. But they could not foresee advances like radar installation, nuclear reactors or carbon-dating, since these rely on physical systems they were unaware of.
Still, perhaps for fun, USA Today recently asked the Toffler team to project 40 more years into the future ("40 For The Next 40") -see http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2010-10-14-futureshock14_ST_N.htm
The Toffler group seems to follow somewhat of a linear trend model in 4-5 area that they say will “shape our world from now to 2050”. So in Politics they see an increase in female leaders and a push by religious groups to get into government and what they call "Philanthro-capitalists" such as Microsoft's Bill Gates will have more global influence. Technology they see as better linking of "answer seekers" with "problem solvers", having chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear & meteorological sensors integrated into our mobile devices. And it is easy to predict more invasions of our personal privacy— Data may be collected faster than it can be analyzed, resulting in what the Toffler group calls "cyberdust."
A different kind of la-la futurists has a strange combination of oddball scientists and skeptics. Some engage in UFO investigations. Such endless investigations appeal to a sort of grand skeptic type who raises the question of who really wrote Shakespeare’s plays. Some extreme futurists have a strange mix of rejection of consensus and an almost religious faith in some topics such as anti-gravitational technology. You can see some of their writing on some internet groups such as http://tech.dir.groups.yahoo.com/group/lvfuturists/
They claim special source of 'secret information' that is limited to a handful of people. They develop followers and can then make money selling books and getting paid for talks. They are weak on making testable predictions. To me this extreme form feels more like a religious faith if something that a scientific style belief mixed with skepticism and critical thinking. Techno-science is something to respect but when it becomes like a god then faith in the progress of science to solve everything takes on a religious tone.

One such area seems to exist around the idea of radical life extension. Technologists like Ray Kurzweil inventor, futurist, and author of The Singularity is Near is a well know voice on life extension. He is part of the baby boom generation that has an ever pressing, personal interest in the expansion of human life. Kurzweil believes that hyper expansion of technology is coming rapidly. By around 2029 he predicts that information technology will become more sophisticated than the human brain. This and other innovations that he trend-fully predicts will enable reversing of human aging, illness and death to be “cured.” These ideas, like space elevators, has lots of science appeal at first blush. The expanding technology innovation is summarized in his new book on the Singularity where info science, nanotechnology and biology hyper advance to allow us a singular freedom. The idea is that we will break free of previous biological constraints (see http://singularity.com/).

As I mentioned, one particular idea is about life expansion which is described at http://www.fightaging.org/archives/2006/02/kurzweil-radica-1.php. There is also a Barry Ptolemy documentary film called Transcendent Man which chronicles Ray Kurzweil life and ideas. Transcendent Man presents Kurzweil’s vision of what he calls a technological singularity. This is a point in the future (2040?) where ever accelerating technology will have advanced so rapidly that we humans will have to enhance ourselves with artificial intelligence in order to keep up with the change (and extreme Future Shock).

One appeal of the Kurzweil vision is that it not only avoids a decline, but predicts a Science-enabled dawning of a new civilization where world hunger and poverty will be solved. Future humans
will no longer be dependent upon their physical bodies. Instead we will become billions or trillions of times more intelligent than what evolution has provided. As part of this we will essentially leave the real world and the ability to distinguish between real and virtual reality. 
Powerful ideas, and appealing in a down time for the USA. But I tend to doubt the vision, if only because it relies in part on a simple, linear projection. Like Galileo and Leonardo, it can see some things but not others. Some things like evolved intelligence are a highly dynamic.  The fulfillment of IT future visions rely on more than processing speed and large memory storage. The costly and limiting part of IT systems is now the design effort that goes into the programming and data structuring. It's like the building of a human body, which have chemical elements that cost a few bucks to purchase. The cost of structuring a cell from these elements is beyond a billion dollars, to say nothing of all the interacting systems assembled from many cells. There is no royal, linear road to this complexity. And there may be Black Swans along the way!
My worry is that there are groups of people who seem to be reacting a bit naively, if not slavishly, to the easy life expansion and immorality message. They assemble around a thought leader as in a church. Futurists like Kurzweil become high priests, if not a messiahs, to the Sci-Fi-ish faithful. Their writings become a bit like a sacred script projecting a vivid view of the future with little constraints. They create narratives, or at least lead to narratives, that break the bounds of critical thinking. 

Some disciples seem to become spin-meisters and profit oriented motivational speakers. They minister to a fearful flock who need an upbeat message in a time of crisis. Their talks and articles resemble Science Fiction more and more. They speak to a new-faith community, clinging to a message of tech-hope and avoiding critical thinking that may counter their new hopes.

I wish that Kurzweilian predictions were true. I am of the same generation so I here time's steps.  But I’m skeptical of a simple techno-fix as an easy way out of our problems (climate change included). It seems something like a royal road and I doubt that it will be so easy. We certainly need serious work along these lines and a spirit of hope, but hyping expectations can be a problem and developing religious-like atmospheres sets off alarm bells in my mind.

1 comment:

Gary Berg-Cross said...

BTW, Steven Mandzik is putting together a launch event on open government at the World Future Conference in Vancouver in July.

If you know someone with a start-up/innovation/idea that you think 1,000 attendees would benefit from, let him know.

He would especially love to have something focused on transparency, civic
engagement, and/or government.

If it all works out he will send an invite to the conference and guarantee exposure for the event.

*Steven Mandzik is founder of 1x57 - see