J and D's Corner

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Predicting the Future (Move over, Nostradamus)

J engages in a long ramble of speculation

Predicting the future seems to hold some kind of instinctive attraction for humans.  I guess it is part and parcel of the way our brains have evolved to give us advantage in life beyond that enjoyed by fellow creatures whose long-term prognostication abilities are limited at best. 

I wager everyone has noticed that near-term predictions seldom turn out to be very accurate.  Well, maybe most people DON'T notice, because as the song says “we forget about the losses; we exaggerate the wins”.  A psychic will always trumpet the three or four accurate (or semi-accurate) predictions he or she has made over the years, but carefully sweeps under the rug the five thousand totally off-base clinkers produced during that same period.

The reason for this error rate, I think, is that near-term predictions tend to be detailed, and lie at the end of so many chained variables that the chance of even the most astute among us thinking it all through with any accuracy is slim to none.

Medium and far-future predictions, oddly enough, would seem to me to be a more fertile field as long as they are couched in generalities.  After all, you can blithely ignore the small stuff and concentrate on a more limited number of  really major and well-defined factors.  Let us try a couple, starting with medium-future and working outward:

First a little ground rule:  Medium-term, I am going to discount the old "we're going to blow ourselves up" end-of-humanity scenario.  Technically we could indeed do that, but I honestly don't think (1.) it is actually as easy as the doomsayers like to think, and (2.) we are all that likely to make the concerted effort it would require. After all, what's our motivation?

Having disposed so cavalierly of that significant possibility, we can move on to something like, say:

What's going to happen with our hydrocarbon-based world economy?  

My prediction on that is pretty simple, actually.  We are going to continue essentially as we are now, burning fossil fuel at an incredible rate as long as it is available at a price people can pay.  Any idea that we will expend the effort needed to move to any other primary source while there is still relatively cheap fuel in the ground is wishful thinking.  Humans simply don't behave in that fashion and attempts to force them to do so are limited by the necessity to hide the cost from Joe six-pack.  What will happen is that alternate technologies will continue to be developed and deployed, but will not really be adopted on a truly revolutionary scale until the cost of the existing fuels hits a point where the alternatives are actually cheaper rather than merely being artificially subsidized by government fiat.  How long?  Even the oil guys don't really know, but I'll go out on a limb and say around twenty or thirty years before we (well, maybe you, not me) see it changing over to a really major degree.

What are some things which could but won't change this?  Not global warming, I predict.  I think that bugaboo is being badly over-sold, like weapons of mass destruction.  It will fade into the background as the incredible costs of some proposed "solutions" come up against the ever-vague "might help a little" projections. For example, the rush to turn food into fuel, embraced without the slightest forethought, almost immediately came a-cropper.  It was almost comical to watch the same environmental "experts" slickly switch sides virtually overnight as soon as it became impossible to deny not only was their pet process releasing even MORE of the evil CO2 but was causing starvation in the world's borderline populations.

Another thing which I predict will not work nearly as well as proponents like to claim are the feel-good "alternative energy" sources wind and solar. Both of those are valuable but are limited by the nature of power generation and distribution.  There is no really practical way to store large quantities of electrical energy without huge process losses.  It has been suggested massive solar installations could "store" their product by charging electric vehicles, but most vehicles are in use during periods when the sun shines. Solar can utilize huge heat-sinks and any electrical source can feed some kind of pumped-storage scheme but the overall efficiency is low, vastly increasing the required size & cost of the installation per delivered KWH if anything even approaching 24/7 production is contemplated.  The key consideration is, no matter how much wind or solar power capacity you install there must still be essentially 100% backup capacity in place for those times when the wind doesn't blow or the sun doesn't shine, and realistically this means "conventional" power plants.    Yes, wind & solar do save fossil fuel, but their practical limitations dictate they will be only secondary sources of energy.

What things could significantly modify the projection?

Fuel cells and/or batteries could alter things in the mobile/portable field if indeed they can be developed to a sufficient degree and produced cost-effectively. Breakthroughs on solar electric panel fabrication that would significantly reduce the installed cost and/or increase conversion efficiencies are certainly a possibility, although it seems there are inherent limits on solar panel efficiency. 

Some technology out of left field might appear.  For example, a room-temperature superconductor which could be practically fabricated in quantity would enable transmission of power over extreme distances with little loss.  This would in turn open a path to greatly improve the practicality of wind & solar, because widespread inter-linked installations could even out to some degree the intermittent nature of that energy source.

And the easiest (and my favorite): A change of heart on using nuclear power most certainly would modify the equation significantly.  Removing the artificial hobbles that have been put in place to intentionally cripple the nuclear power industry would mean electricity could be produced cheaply and cleanly in huge quantities, coupled with side benefits like co-located water desalinization. This in turn would permanently slash fixed-facility use of fossil fuel and trigger a huge expansion in electric-vehicle use, both road and rail. Possibly it could also make hydrogen fuel more practical for mobile use by supplying the energy needed to crack out hydrogen.  To me it is very significant, and very sad, that we allowed political hysteria to override scientific reality on this. Rejection of cheap, clean nuclear power during this critical period will undoubtedly go down as one of the stupidest things our society ever did. 

Exactly how will we cope with the loss of fossil fuel, and what effect will the cost of doing it have on society?   Ah, you are asking for too much detail.  I'm on a big-picture roll here.

What's ahead in science for this century?

Big-picture predictive problems abound here, as this is an area where it is hard not to get sucked into detail. 

One prediction I have made for years is that as we can view the 19th century as the century of the machine and the 20th as the century of electronics, computers and data communications, the 21st will be the century of bioscience.

While we still have a long, long way to go before we are "masters" of biology, the elements most definitely are coming together. Bit by bit we are learning how life works on the molecular level, a process that is progressing so fast I have had to update this little blurb twice in the last 5 years.  New "customized" bacteria-level life forms designed to perform specific functions are announced almost weekly.  Very likely we will actually be "creating" life from the molecular level in the near future; in fact the initial demonstration has already been done. At first it will all be crude and uncertain, but I predict that by the time 2100 rolls around we definitely will be able to truly "engineer" life forms in almost any form we desire to do specialized tasks of all sorts. 

Quite naturally, skill at that molecular/cellular level translates directly into the ability to accurately customize existing higher life forms...even humanity itself.  Efforts will first center on correcting problems like genetic diseases and cancer, but as they say, if you build it they will come.  Who would not want their children to be healthier, stronger, smarter?

In a very real way, our control of the biological world is mirroring our conquest of the physical.  For the moment we have gained sufficient control of our physical environment to exempt ourselves from the "natural" constraints previously imposed by nature on our multiplication (see the next section).  A side effect of this is that we have essentially terminated, or perhaps inverted would be a better term, natural evolution.  Shielded from natural forces, the most "successful" reproducers within our species are no longer those who are stronger, or smarter, or healthier.  But no matter, as now we will have control over our own evolution.  What will we do with it?

All this carries deep undertones for the religious, just as any suggestion of the use of nuclear power does for the environmentalists today. Quite possibly these non-logic based rejection factors may turn out to be a key element in the "decline and fall of America" as the world's technological leader. Let's hope not, but certainly a basic component in our rise to the top was the "lets do it" mentality that once existed within the mass of our citizens but is being "bred out" by our current society. 

What about medium-term world social order?

The one primary factor that will drive the world social order in the medium term (~50-150 years) is the 800 pound gorilla in the parlor that everyone, by unspoken agreement, is not allowed to notice.

I speak, of course, of uncontrolled population growth.  Anyone with an IQ over 80 understands it is a simple physical fact that the planet can only support some finite, if uncertain, number of humans.  Nevertheless, willfully ignoring this simple basic truth is a political and religious imperative that is almost universally observed.

Of all fields touched by my "predictions", my thoughts about population growth are by far the most gloomy, because quite frankly I see little chance of avoiding severe negative impact on the quality of life of future generations.  The only bright spot is that population is self-limiting and only under unlikely circumstance could it result in what I view as the ultimate "oh shit", the end of humanity.  We'll survive as a species, we just won't enjoy it as much.

Up to the 20th century mankind never had to worry much about overpopulation.  Disease, starvation and critters with big teeth pretty well kept us in check.  In 1900 the world's population was about 1.6 billion, and had more or less doubled over the previous 200 years.  By 2000 it was 6.07 billion, an increase of 3.8 times in just 100 years.  This year (2014) it is headed for 7.2 billion or more, and half-way through the century, only 36 years from now, unless something changes it will hit 9 billion, with some projections going as high as 10 billion.

Significantly, most longer-term projections top out not far over the 9 billion point, primarily because the predictors feel mass starvation will hold it at that level, although they don't say so directly.

These numbers are mind-numbing in their own right, but for those of us in the later stages of life the effects within our own lifetimes are only too apparent.  Nation-wide, vast tracts of what we remember as open land are now wall-to-wall houses and cities. Neighboring towns & communities of our youth have entirely consumed separating land, merging into regional megalopolises. Waves of bodies from overcrowded neighbor nations have now made speakers of English as a native language an actual minority of Southern California's population. Roads everywhere are jammed. Our ability to supply basic utilities is strained to the breaking point in many areas of our own nation, and have already been completely overwhelmed in many other countries. 

Food, a necessity that is merely becoming more expensive in America, is once again in actual short supply elsewhere in the world after a 30-year respite purchased by the "green revolution".  And this time, science is fresh out of rabbits to pull from the hat.

The implication of this is that those parts of the world with already huge & still rapidly expanding populations are going to be in deep trouble in the relatively near future, and the developed countries, although less impacted, will not have the excess resources needed to "fix it" for them. 

SO...what does this mean for the world?  Well, hungry populations are unstable populations.  Worst-case, an unstable population armed with nuclear weapons could ruin a lot of days for a lot of people. I like to think it will not come to that, but in any case unless some mechanism comes into play that will hold back the population explosion a prediction of bad times ahead for billions on this planet is another no-brainer.

This particular medium-term problem is arguably the most significant of all that we face, because coping with it in a rational fashion means we must come to grips with an end to expansion.  Our whole world economic structure is built on constant expansion, with America's Ponzi scheme of Social Security only one of the most obvious examples.  Transitioning to a static economy and static environmental state where all books must balance (and stay balanced) is without doubt one of the most difficult tasks humans and their society will face over the next couple of centuries.

I only hope we can do it without mass starvation or billion-casualty wars, but our past history as a species doesn't lend much support to that hope, does it?

The Far Future, Thousands of Years & Beyond - Where do we Go?

Now we get into real speculation.

While yes, our ongoing over-breeding proclivities could bring on slam-bang billion-casualty dustups, don't think it particularly likely that the human race will totally disappear either by our own hand or by external disaster in the foreseeable future.  Going back to a pre-industrial world with vastly reduced population living in unpleasant conditions would probably be the worst we could do to ourselves. To completely wipe us out would take a big comet or meteor strike, which is statistically somewhat unlikely for thousands of years and within known technological limits could, theoretically at least, probably be avoided.

In spite of this at least somewhat cheerful outlook, I do find the long term prospects for humankind to be challenging at best. 

In order to come to grips with the static society that perforce must lie at the end of our long period of expansion, we must successfully accomplish the daunting task of keeping ourselves occupied, fresh and looking toward the future.  Engaging (finally!) in multi-generation planning & projects can do this. I would suggest spreading humanity, or at least human intelligence in some form, to nearby stars would be a good candidate project.  It would ward off the ennui that would surely envelop a society that could see no bright light to follow toward the future. And it's a natural goal to integrate into religion.

Can we do this? I always enjoyed science fiction, but also view the notion of zooming through the universe in starships or through wormholes as being just a pleasant fantasy. I think any rational plan we may have for the future must be based on the assumption that we are doomed to work within the physical boundaries we have already encountered, which is to say physical travel faster than (or even close to) light-speed is impossible.  This means our only practical method of projecting mankind beyond our own solar system will probably be to package ourselves in some way that will survive centuries of travel and be re-constituted at the other end. Just as an additional clue to my thinking, unless we somehow can first gain detailed recon data on our destination, a plan that requires we re-constitute only in our current physical form is probably way too limiting.  And of course, any two-way commerce would span generations.  This is all not impossible by any means, it is just not the type of project our short-lived race would prefer or has ever embraced.

The next group of paragraphs represent an addendum, seemingly slightly off-subject but implicit within this far-future ramble

If we go "out there" and find we have to alter ourselves radically to fit in, so to speak, will we still be human? What IS a human, anyway?  I virtually never allow myself to get into religious arguments, but once I did get embroiled in a discussion with a fairly religious type about where the conscious entity that was "he" actually resided by asking a series of questions relating to the loss of body parts.  Would "he" still exist without legs? Arms? What if he were reduced to a head kept alive by some elaborate heart-lung substitute? And finally just the brain itself, kept functioning in some kind of box with bio-electronic input from artificial "senses" and output to who-knows-what? 

He was a fairly technically savvy person and, after some back & forth, did agree that yes, "he" would still be "himself" and, conceptually if not cosmetically, still be a human being.  I was actually a bit surprised at this because many, if not most, religious believers reject the notion that "they" are what could be thought of as a hugely complex software program running on a purely physical platform (the brain, lately often referred to as "wetware").  As far as I know the belief structure in all major religions requires that the self-aware entity we think of as "me" simply MUST have some supernatural component that is somehow independent of our physical body.  If not, how could there be the promised life after death, future resurrection, or whatever similar concept the particular religion assures its adherents is fact?

The reason I feel this point is important is that an acceptance of the reality that self-awareness, or "being", is something created by the workings of a physical body rather than being some kind of vaporous supernatural thing is key to devising some way for humanity to expand outward into the universe in spite of the severe restrictions physical laws seem to impose. 

So how DO we 'game the system' to overcome the barriers of space & time?  When I was young, the notion of a purely hardware analog of our complex 'wetware' brains with their billions of active elements and interconnects was pure science fiction.  Yet in less than a century it has become apparent that such a construct will definitely not  be beyond mankind's capabilities. In fact current microcircuit R&D seems to indicate that within reach are techniques that will allow us to pack within a brain-sized volume more - and faster - processing power than nature has done.  This being the case, all we need to start designing hardware that will host a true human-level or higher artificial intelligence is to understand our very "selves", namely to gain understanding of what is needed to create a version of what we ourselves are:  A massively recursive, reasonably stable, self-aware and adaptive program/entity.  Such entities, properly supported, would never need to die and could carry the seed of "humanity" with all its hopes and aspirations to the stars.

Anyway, while there is much, much yet to learn we have reached the point where it can be seen that there are really no show-stoppers between us and the skills & abilities needed  to overcome or even physically adapt to changing future conditions, which could at least conceptually extend our run here for as long as the planet can harbor life.

Long-long term, as biological entities here on earth?  We're gonna die and, sometime later, the planet too.  But with judicious use of our intelligence, we can last a very long time and, should we choose to do so, leave a legacy of our own creation that lasts even longer.

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