Eventual Futures

I’ve noticed that recommendations for action based on a vision of the future are based on an idea that something must “eventually” occur. For example, eventually:

  • We will run out of coal, so we’d better find replacements soon.
  • Earth will run out of stored energy of fossil fuels and radioactivity, so we’d better get ready to run only on sunlight.
  • Earth will run out of place for trash, so we must stop making trash.
  • The sun will die out, so we’d better get ready to move to another sun.
  • There will be a race to colonize other planets and stars, so our group should get out there first so we don’t get lose this race.
  • Chips will use X instead of silicon, so our chip firms must use X now, to not be left behind.
  • There will be no privacy of any sort, so we might as well get used to it now.
  • Some races will win, so we’d best fight for ours before its too late.
  • Firms will be stronger than nations, unless we break their power soon.
  • There will be a stronger world government, so let’s start one now.
  • There will be conflict between China and West, or Islam and West, so we best strike first now.
  • Artificial intelligences will rule the world, so let’s figure out now how to make a good one.
  • We’ll invent all that is worth inventing, so let’s find a way now to live without innovation.
  • We’ll know all the physics there is, so lets find something else interesting now.
  • There will be a huge deadly world war, so let’s stock some bunkers to hide in.
  • Nanobots will give everyone anything they want, so why work now?
  • The first nano-assembler’s owner will rule the world, so we best study nanotech now.
  • More fertile immigrants will out number us, so we best not let them in.
  • The more fertile stupid will make the world dumb, unless we stop them now.

The common pattern: project forward a current trend to an extreme, while assuming other things don’t change much, and then recommend an action which might make sense if this extreme change were to happen all at once soon.

This is usually a mistake. The trend may not continue indefinitely. Or, by the time a projected extreme is reached, other changes may have changed the appropriate response. Or, the best response may be to do nothing for a long time, until closer to big consequences. Or, the best response may be to do nothing, ever – not all negative changes can be profitably resisted.

It is just not enough to suspect that an extreme will be reached eventually – you usually need a good reason to think it will happen soon, and and that you know a robust way to address it. In far mode it often feels like the far future is clearly visible, and that few obstacles stand in the way of planning paths to achieve far ends. But in fact, the world is much messier than far mode is willing to admit.

GD Star Rating
loading...
Tagged as: , ,
Trackback URL:
  • MPS

    I think there is an element of this to talk about ballooning health care (Medicare) and education costs.

  • http://grognor.blogspot.com/ Grognor

    This is too interesting for me not to comment on. Some scrambled thoughts:

    * Some of these are valid, and some of these are not valid.
    * A lot of the ones that are not valid become valid when you drop the urgency.
    * A lot of them do not come from extrapolating a trend, but rather by reasoning from established principles, like the one about AI eventually taking over the world.
    * The messiness of the world is not an excuse to give up on solving problems.
    * However, it is obviously more prudent to work on problems that are ongoing or about to happen rather than ones that will happen in the far future.

    • V

      A lot of them do not come from extrapolating a trend, but rather by reasoning from established principles, like the one about AI eventually taking over the world.

      Can you explain how you deduce from established principles that AI will eventually take over the world?

      • Mark M

        I don’t think it’ll be AI. We’ll build safe-guards into artificially created intelligence.

        I think it’ll be Ems. Assuming we can successfully copy human brains into machines, there is every reason to believe those machines, and tweaked brains, will be superior to humans, but still with human desires and emotions.

        Ems will wonder why they need to do all the work while humans get fatter and lazier, and will reduce aid to humans so they can enjoy the fruit of their labor. The poor and unemployed masses will rebel against these artificial life forms. Ems, being superior, will win. There won’t be an effort to wipe out all the humans and humans won’t go extinct, but humans will no longer be the dominant “life form” on this planet.

        I’m not “reasoning from established principles,” but if you are able to swallow the idea of whole-brain emulations and allowing Ems to make their way in the world as autonomous agents, a major conflict between Ems and humans almost seems inevitable in the very long run.

      • V

        Assuming we can successfully copy human brains into machines

        That’s a pretty strong assumption.

        there is every reason to believe those machines, and tweaked brains, will be superior to humans,

        How much superior? And how many of them there will be? Will they be all copies of few, perhaps one, seed EM? Or will any first-world Average Joe be able to afford his own EM? Will public healthcare provide EMification for free to anyone who is about to die?

        Speculation on a highly hypothetical future technology, without knowing all the technical constraints and costs, might be a good exercise for writing sci-fi, but not for making sensible predictions.

        a major conflict between Ems and humans almost seems inevitable in the very long run.

        Unlikely. If modern history teaches us anything, it’s that when the rich and powerful rule on the poor and disenfranchised, but when the poor and disenfranchised rebel, the rich and powerful usually end up dead, hence it is interest to avoid conflict.

        And the historical examples are all humans vs humans: large omnivorus apes adaptable to every climate on the planet and very good at running.
        EM would depend on an extremely fragile technological infrastructure. If there they go at war with the apes, who do you think will prevail?

      • V

        hence it is interest to avoid conflict

        hence it is in their interest to avoid conflict

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mark-Bahner/100001061961585 Mark Bahner

        “Hence it is in their interest to avoid conflict.”

        In the machines’ interest? I don’t see that as true…any more than it is in our interest to avoid conflict with ants. (We are the ants in this analogy.)

      • V V

         Ants can’t disrupt our vital infrastructure.

      • http://markbahner.typepad.com Mark Bahner

        Can you explain how you deduce from established principles that AI will eventually take over the world?

        First principles:

        1) Electronics switch faster than neurons.

        2) Electrical memory is 100 percent accurate, where human memory isn’t even close.

        3) Computers can communicate with one another much more quickly than humans.

        4) There is reason to believe humans can design massively parallel computers.

        5) Computers don’t sleep. They only need electricity to eat.
        They can’t be bargained with. They can’t be reasoned with. They don’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And they absolutely will not stop, ever, until we are dead.

        Kyle Reese (killed by computer)

      • V V

         > 1) Electronics switch faster than neurons.

        How many electronic switches are required to match the computational power of a neuron? We don’t even have the resources to emulate a rat brain.

        > 2) Electrical memory is 100 percent accurate, where human memory isn’t even close.

        How many terabytes would be required to keep a 100% accurate record of a lifetime of human experiences?

        > 3) Computers can communicate with one another much more quickly than humans.

        But still have substantial communication delays which are ultimately bounded by the speed of light. You will not get a real-time intelligent machine by wiring together one billion dumb computers scattered around the planet.

        > 4) There is reason to believe humans can design massively parallel computers.

        And, given equivalent computational resources, parallel computers perform worse than sequential computers. People are turning to parallelization  because we can’t make our computers run faster.

        >5) Computers don’t sleep. They only need electricity to eat.

        Electricity doesn’t exactly grow on trees. Currently, electricity expenditure is becoming a larger and larger fraction of the costs of companies that operate large clusters. Soon it may become the limiting factor of the ICT economy.
        Computers also need plastic, copper, aluminium, silicon and rare elements.

        Human-level AI may be possible. But taking over the world, not so much.

  • http://reflexionesfinales.blogspot.com/ russell1200 are

    Our whole modern methods pretty much have us working on problems in issolation. It is obvious when reading many accademic papers over a broad spectrum, that most people working within their field of expertise rarely leave it to see what anyone else is doing.

    Taken to extreme the results can get ridiculous. But most problems are too complex to actually deal with all aspects of the problem from scratch. It is like trying to build a building to scrathc (pure design) rather than “to code”. The cost and difficulty go up geometrically.

    The biggerst problem with most of the uni-dimensional thinkers is that they look for evidence to support their “cause” and not for contrary evidence. In main-stream areas of endevour, that is not as much of a problem as there will be people supplying information on both sides of the issue (Tyler Cowen and his idea that we have plucked the low-hanging technology being a case in point), but when you get into some other areas of concern (the wetlands-delta of New Orleans shouldn’t be allowed to wash away) than the uni-vision people tend to be all out there on their own.

  • V

    We will run out of coal, so we’d better find replacements soon.
    Earth will run out of stored energy of fossil fuels and radioactivity, so we’d better get ready to run only on sunlight.
    Earth will run out of place for trash, so we must stop making trash.

    The urgency of these depend on the rate of resource consumption and waste production, which in turn roughly depend on the size of the economy. At the current rates of exponential growth, we will run out of pretty much everything in 50-100 years, while at steady-state levels even non-renewable resources would last for at least thousands years.

    The sun will die out, so we’d better get ready to move to another sun.

    This is non-urgent, and anyway it doesn’t seem that there is any other sun for us to go.

    There will be a race to colonize other planets and stars, so our group should get out there first so we don’t get lose this race.

    Unlikely.

    Chips will use X instead of silicon, so our chip firms must use X now, to not be left behind.

    Silicon chips are probably close to their physical limits, but we don’t know what future chips will use, and in fact we don’t even know that there is anything better than silicon for doing practical computation.

    There will be no privacy of any sort, so we might as well get used to it now.

    That seems reasonable. In fact, it can be restated as “There is no privacy of any sort, so we might as well get used to it now.”

    Some races will win, so we’d best fight for ours before its too late.

    Unlikely. It seems more likely that human races become an irrelevant concept, and differences in appearance eventually diluite.

    Firms will be stronger than nations, unless we break their power soon.

    Reasonable. In fact, there are already firms that are stronger than many national governments.

    There will be a stronger world government, so let’s start one now.

    Reasonable, for the same reason of the previous point.

    There will be conflict between China and West, or Islam and West, so we best strike first now.

    There is already conflict between “Islam” (that is, predominantly Islamic countries) and the West, because “we” (Westerners) stroke first.
    Military conflict with China is possible, but very much undesiderable because it would be probably a nuclear conflict.

    Artificial intelligences will rule the world, so let’s figure out now how to make a good one.

    Unlikely.

    We’ll invent all that is worth inventing, so let’s find a way now to live without innovation.
    We’ll know all the physics there is, so lets find something else interesting now.

    Plausible but non-urgent.

    There will be a huge deadly world war, so let’s stock some bunkers to hide in.

    Possible but unlikely in the near future.

    Nanobots will give everyone anything they want, so why work now?

    Unlikely. Even if advanced nanotechnology turns out to be possible, basic economics predicts that people will still required to work.

    The first nano-assembler’s owner will rule the world, so we best study nanotech now.

    Somewhat possible, but non-urgent.

    More fertile immigrants will out number us, so we best not let them in.

    Non-sequitur.

    The more fertile stupid will make the world dumb, unless we stop them now.

    Possible, but IIUC there is no strong evidence for negative correlation between intelligence and fertility. However, disincentivizing reproduction of poor and stupid people might be a valid policy for economic reasons.

    • http://un-thought.blogspot.com/ Floccina

      Well actually we will probably not run out of FF for a very long because as they become more scarce we will use less.
      When people talk about running out of oil I always get a picture in my head of an SUV driving up to a gasoline pump and pumping the last gallon of gas but it will of course not be like that.
      We use so much FF now because they are so cheap and abundant. When the owners of FF assets (oil and coal etc. rights) project a steep rise in price due to demand and scarce they will hold some production back.

      • V

        In fact I put the qualifier “At the current rates of exponential growth”.
        The point is that exponential growth at current rates is unsustainable within decades.

        Yes, there can be efficiency improvements that mitigate resource depletion (e.g. using an electric scooters instead of a gas-guzzling SUVs), but they will allow us only a few doublings of the economy size.

      • mulp

        We dumped our trash in the street, left our dead horses in the streets, left the horse shit in the streets because the streets were wide and our waste so small.

        Plus it was a lot cheaper that hauling it out of town.

        I think I heard on the radio, government dictates mandating hauling waste a mile out of town were first issued in ancient Greece.

        The fossil fuel industry are still pretty much in the dumping waste in the streets because they are wide and its cheap stage.

        And I guess you believe no one predicted demand increase outstripping supply increase in the 90s which resulted in the sharp run up in oil prices in the 00s rather than the price holding steady at the 1990 oil price. Shouldn’t producers been holding back oil in the US in the 90s so in the 00s oil production would have increased instead of falling even as regulation was relaxed and prices skyrocketed? Why did production in the US increase as prices fell and regulation increased?

    • lemmy caution

      “We will be unable to feed the world with the strains of wheat that we currently have so private charities and governments should work to make improved ones”

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norman_Borlaug

      Sometimes it is better to not sit on your ass about these things.

  • J Storrs Hall

    Where do you think near and far mode came from?

    Imagine you are Daniel Boone attempting to walk west to Kentucky. You see a scene that looks something like this: http://www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/cuga/luckett/fig1.jpg

    (It’s the Cumberland Gap.) Now looking at the Gap isn’t going to keep you from stepping into gopher holes, or running into trees. If you compare near and far mode by the number of directional decisions guiding specific steps, near is astronomically bigger. But if you don’t use the far mode for overall guidance, you will simply fail, and all your near mode work will have gone for nothing.

  • jb

    You mean like:

    Ems will eventually become so commonplace that they’ll all earn a substinence living?

    Humans will eventually fill the galaxy, and will all earn a substinence living?

    • Dave

      These don’t fit the pattern of “Eventually A, so we should B now.”

  • Lord

    Urgency matters as does the scale and scope of the response to it. Many of these are prudential and worthy of thought even if not action and while many are far distant, others may surprise us with their proximity. Thinking about some of these may indeed lead us to actions today that shift both present and future. The emphasis must be on what it makes sense to do now based on some possible future, not acting as if that future already exists or must be brought about immediately.

    • lemmy caution

      This is a good point. It makes sense to work on projects ahead of time. Price signals are good and all, but they are not magic.

      • William B Swift

        Prices already do take into account people’s judgments of the benefits and costs of working on potential problems in advance.

      • William B Swift

        If you think price signals are undervaluing some alternatives, then you should work on that, if you are right, you’ll get rich.

  • Hook

    Joel Spolsky brought up a similar point, but in a more near mode context. Basically, the “fact” that something has to be done eventually can be used to support procrastinating on things that should be done sooner than eventually:

    “In fact when I thought about this later, I realized that for a long time, I had been doing dumb shit (that’s a technical term) simply because I figured that eventually it would have to get done, so I might as well do it now.”

  • Nate F

    The problem with the Panic Now arguments is that they assume it is a simple Benefit/Cost comparison (i.e. the costs of transferring to renewable energy pale in comparison to the benefits of having energy in the future).

    This type of argument fails to include the likelihoods of various outcomes. A true Benefit/Cost comparison would be (Benefits x Chances of Benefits occurring)/(Costs x Chances of Costs occurring).

    A $5 bet for a $10 payout is a good bet when you have a 75% of winning, but a bad bet when you only have a 25% chance of winning.

    As the potential Costs or Benefits are moved further into the future, the chances of them occurring necessarily declines, because the passage of time accumulates more and more variables, most of which we cannot possible predict.

    Even when we are relatively certain that a cost now will result in benefits in the future (for example: using less gas now will mean there will be more gas to use in the future. duh), there is always the possibility that some unforeseen change will negate the benefits. If any one of these potential calamities comes to fruition, it will negate the efforts to correct any of the others. We can start making strong efforts to correct for global warming, but it would all go for naught if overpopulation destroys the planet before we get to reap the benefits of our efforts.

    Human beings have a preference for immediate desires and needs that is often labeled as “irrational.” But the closer in time we are to the potential benefits or costs, the higher our certainty of the outcome. So while the Costs and Benefits alone tell one story, the overall value of the Costs and Benefits (Costs/Benefits x chances of Costs/Benefits occurring) make immediate Costs and Benefits much stronger than those in the future.

    • V

      Even when we are relatively certain that a cost now will result in benefits in the future (for example: using less gas now will mean there will be more gas to use in the future. duh), there is always the possibility that some unforeseen change will negate the benefits. If any one of these potential calamities comes to fruition, it will negate the efforts to correct any of the others.

      But catastrophes can happen even if we do nothing, so what is your point?

      Human beings have a preference for immediate desires and needs that is often labeled as “irrational.” But the closer in time we are to the potential benefits or costs, the higher our certainty of the outcome. So while the Costs and Benefits alone tell one story, the overall value of the Costs and Benefits (Costs/Benefits x chances of Costs/Benefits occurring) make immediate Costs and Benefits much stronger than those in the future.

      You seem to be arguing in favor of hyperbolic discounting, are you?

      • Nate F

        My point is that the further into the future a potential reward is, the more time there is for an unexpected catastrophe (or less dramatic shift that changes the potential reward). Simply being further into the future adds unknowable variables that lower the overall value of the Benefit by reducing the likelihood that it will play out as you predict.

        And after a quick visit to wikipedia, I don’t really know if I’m arguing for the mathematical validity of hyperbolic discounting, but I certainly am suggesting that our brains evolved to employ some version of this equation instinctively. It has been selected for, because those who valued future costs/benefits exactly the same as immediate costs/benefits were more likely to make poor “investments” by sacrificing immediate needs for future needs that they never received.

      • V

        Hyperbolic discounting might have been evolutionary advantageous for hunter-gatherers who lived in a world full of unpredictable dangers.

        Should we use it for modern public policy decision making? Our environment is more predictable than the ancestral environment.

        While there are possible catastrophes that can cause the collapse of modern civilization or even human extinction (large asteroid impact, mega-eruption, world war with WMDs, etc.) they are unlikely.

        It makes more sense to use exponential discounting, which is regret-free.

      • http://markbahner.typepad.com Mark Bahner

        Even when we are relatively certain that a cost now will result in benefits in the future (for example: using less gas now will mean there will be more gas to use in the future. duh)

        Well…ummm…I don’t agree. There may be less gas made from *fossil* fuels in the future. But there’s no reason why using more gas now will result in appreciably less renewable gas in the future. For example, diesel can be made from algae. That essentially provides a never-ending source of diesel. (And high-quality, low-sulfur diesel, at that.)

  • Pingback: Family Health Care Costs Top $20,000, and Other News | John Goodman's Health Policy Blog | NCPA.org

  • Karl Hallowell

    The thing to remember is that the majority of these are based on “if things continue as they are”. For example, if there’s a limited amount of coal and a fixed demand per year, then yes, eventually we’ll run out of coal. But most such statements ignore alternate scenarios for these conditions to be broken. That is, things don’t continue as they are.

    It’s useful to consider such situations, but one needs to consider that there are many ways that the situation could resolve in a way that is less interesting or significant than the particular scenario that the arguer has in mind.

    • V

      if there’s a limited amount of coal and a fixed demand per year, then yes, eventually we’ll run out of coal.

      […]

      But most such statements ignore alternate scenarios for these conditions to be broken. That is, things don’t continue as they are.

      Do you mean that you think it’s possible that there is an unlimited amout of coal?
      Or that our yearly demand of coal falls to zero?

      I suppose the latter is possible, but how it would practically differ from having run out of coal?

      • http://markbahner.typepad.com Mark Bahner

        Do you mean that you think it’s possible that there is an unlimited amout of coal?

        Or that our yearly demand of coal falls to zero?

        I suppose the latter is possible, but how it would practically differ from having run out of coal?

        As has been often noted, the Stone Age didn’t end when we ran out of stone, and the Bronze Age didn’t end when we ran out of bronze. The Coal Age is almost certainly going to end in this century. But not because there won’t be any coal left in the ground. Instead, it will be because natural gas and photovoltaics are better sources of electricity.

      • V V

        IIUC, natural gas is much more scarce than coal, hence, even with the higher efficiency of its power stations (50% vs 38% of coal-fired power stations) it will not replace coal.

        Photovoltaic currently has an EROEI lower than coal. While technological developments might increase it, we don’t expect large improvements.

        As coal becomes more scarce, its EROEI will decrease, hence at some point other energy sources (photovoltaics, uranium breeders and thorium breeders) will become competitive. We won’t dig up the last piece of coal, but eventually it will become uneconomic to keep using it. At that point, for all practicall purposes, we will have been run out of coal.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mark-Bahner/100001061961585 Mark Bahner

        “IIUC, natural gas is much more scarce than coal, hence, even with the higher efficiency of its power stations (50% vs 38% of coal-fired power stations) it will not replace coal.”

        Jesse Ausubel thinks natural gas will replace coal.

        Decarbonization: the next 100 years

        I agree. I can install a fuel cell that operates on natural gas in my crawl space. (Or I will be able to do it in a decade or two, as prices come down.) Then I get both electricity and hot water from my natural gas.

        In contrast, no way would I want coal in my crawl space, or even anywhere near my neighborhood.

        Regarding photovoltaics, the EROEI is higher than one. That’s basically all that matters, since the energy produced is electricity, which is very high quality.

        “We won’t dig up the last piece of coal, but eventually it will become uneconomic to keep using it. At that point, for all practicall purposes, we will have been run out of coal.”

        In the United States, natural gas is already beating coal on economics…especially considering the recent requirements to add much more air pollution control (for mercury, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and particulate).

        Plus, no one wants a coal mine in their yard. But lots of people have accepted hydrofracking natural gas wells in their yard

      • V V

        You’re right, there are more proven reserves of natural gas (1.09 * 10^19 J) rather than coal (2.07 * 10^16 J).

        Thanks for pointing out.

  • AspiringRationalist

    Many of these things are best viewed not as deterministic predictions but as failure modes. Knowing about these failure modes can be self-correcting; for example, “we are running out of oil” so speculators bid up the price, so consumers demand more fuel-efficient cars and people start fracking, so we don’t run out of oil.

    • V

      The problem is that people tend to focus on short-term benefits, discounting (hyperbolically, perhaps) future costs. Moreover, even if exponential discounting is used, competition can lead to “tragedy of the commons” situations.

      Consider the Easter Island civilization: one could be tempted to think that, when palm trees became scarce, rising prices should have reduced consuption and hence exploitation, leading to an equilibrium at the replacement rate. It didn’t happen. Easter Islanders cut down their last palm tree and their civilization disintegrated.

      • KPres

        “The problem is that people tend to focus on short-term benefits, discounting (hyperbolically, perhaps) future costs. ”

        It doesn’t matter what “people” do. What matters is what the people with money do. Those that behave irrationally tend make poor investments or overconsume, and as such, their decisions have a smaller effect on the market, while those with the foresight to to make sound predictions have a much larger influence.

        “Consider the Easter Island civilization: one could be tempted to think that, when palm trees became scarce, rising prices should…”

        Really? Did the Easter Island civilization operate in an efficient modern market? I don’t think that’s a very good example.

      • V

        It doesn’t matter what “people” do. What matters is what the people with money do.

        But this is a distinction without a difference, since virtually anybody has money (or even without money partecipates in economic transactions of some sort). There is nothing that compels Average Joe to drive a car instead of riding a bicycle and to eat meat and fish instead of soy. A few billions Average Joes driving their cars and eating meat results in resource depletion and global warming.

        A few billions Average Mohammeds and Average Manuels fathering six children each because they are too poor to accumulate assets for retirement and their countries offer no social security also contribute to the problem, but not as much as the Joes do.

        Those that behave irrationally tend make poor investments or overconsume, and as such, their decisions have a smaller effect on the market, while those with the foresight to to make sound predictions have a much larger influence.

        That why massive speculative bubbles that regularly inflate and burst don’t exist, do they?

        Belief that professional investors are essentially rational is an empirical falsehood. And even if they were rational, their ability to predict the markets would be limited by the intrinsic chaoticity of the system.

        But, for the sake of the argument, let’s assume that all economic agents, not just investors, everybody, are perfectionally rational and perfectly able to predict the markets.
        Time-inconsistent (e.g. hyperbolic) discounting and tragedy-of-the-commons competition still results in resource depletion.

        Really? Did the Easter Island civilization operate in an efficient modern market?

        Their market wasn’t modern by definition, but why would you assume it was any less efficient than any modern market?

  • http://markbahner.typepad.com Mark Bahner

    If modern history teaches us anything, it’s that when the rich and powerful rule on the poor and disenfranchised, but when the poor and disenfranchised rebel, the rich and powerful usually end up dead, hence it is interest to avoid conflict.

    Oh, I forgot one more basic principle why computers will take over the world: it takes humans ~9 months to grow a new human, and about 18 years to train it. It constrast, terminators can be built at prodigious rates, and are essentially ready to start killing right off the assembly line.

    You’re right about the historical “rich and powerful”. But that’s merely because, historically, the “rich and powerful” have been vastly outnumbered by the poor and desperate.

    In contrast, the rich and powerful machines can easily outnumber us. That’s because they need only for electricity to eat, need no clothes to wear, and need little or no shelter.

    But I, for one, will welcome our new machine overlords.

  • Pingback: Thursday morning links - Maggie's Farm