Tag Archives: Future

Assimilated Futures

I’ve long said that it is backwards to worry that technology will change faster than society can adapt, because the ability of society adapt is one of the main constraints on how fast we adopt new technologies. This insightful 2012 post by Venkatesh Rao elaborates on a related theme:

Both science fiction and futurism … fail to capture the way we don’t seem to notice when the future actually arrives. … The future always seems like something that is going to happen rather than something that is happening. …

Futurists, artists and edge-culturists … like to pretend that they are the lonely, brave guardians of the species who deal with the “real” future and pre-digest it for the rest of us. But … the cultural edge is just as frozen in time as the mainstream, … people who seek more stimulation than the mainstream, and draw on imagined futures to feed their cravings rather than inform actual future-manufacturing. …

When you are sitting on a typical modern jetliner, you are traveling at 500 mph in an aluminum tube that is actually capable of some pretty scary acrobatics. … Yet a typical air traveler never experiences anything that one of our ancestors could not experience on a fast chariot or a boat. Air travel is manufactured normalcy. …

This suggests that only those futures arrive for which there is human capacity to cope. This conclusion is not true, because a future can arrive before humans figure out whether they have the ability to cope. For instance, the widespread problem of obesity suggests that food-abundance arrived before we figured out that most of us cannot cope. And this is one piece of the future that cannot be relegated to specialists. …

Successful products are precisely those that do not attempt to move user experiences significantly, even if the underlying technology has shifted radically. In fact the whole point of user experience design is to manufacture the necessary normalcy for a product to succeed and get integrated. … What we get is a Darwinian weeding out of those manifestations of the future that break the continuity of technological experience. …

What about edge-culturists who think they are more alive to the real oncoming future? … The edge today looks strangely similar to the edge in any previous century. It is defined by reactionary musical and sartorial tastes and being a little more outrageous than everybody else in challenging the prevailing culture of manners. … If it reveals anything about technology or the future, it is mostly by accident. . …

At a more human level, I find that I am unable to relate to people who are deeply into any sort of cyberculture or other future-obsessed edge zone. There is a certain extreme banality to my thoughts when I think about the future. Futurists as a subculture seem to organize their lives as future-experience theaters. These theaters are perhaps entertaining and interesting in their own right, as a sort of performance art, but are not of much interest or value to people who are interested in the future in the form it might arrive in, for all.

It is easy to make the distinction explicit. Most futurists are interested in the future beyond the [manufactured normalcy field]. I am primarily interested in the future once it enters the Field, and the process by which it gets integrated into it. This is also where the future turns into money, so perhaps my motivations are less intellectual than they are narrowly mercenary. …

This also explains why so few futurists make any money. They are attracted to exactly those parts of the future that are worth very little. They find visions of changed human behavior stimulating. Technological change serves as a basis for constructing aspirational visions of changed humanity. Unfortunately, technological change actually arrives in ways that leave human behavior minimally altered. .. The mainstream never ends up looking like the edge of today. Not even close. The mainstream seeks placidity while the edge seeks stimulation. (more)

Yes, I’m a guilty-as-charged futurist focused on changes far enough distant that there’s little money to be made understanding them now. But I share Rao’s emotional distance from the future-obsessed cultural edge. I want to understand the future not as morality tale to validate my complaints against today’s dominant culture; I instead want to foresee the assimilated future. That is, I want to see how future people will actually see their own world, after they’ve found ways to see it banally as a minimal change from the past.

Cultural futurists have complained that the future I describe in my upcoming book The Age of Em is too conservative in presuming the continuation of supply and demand, inequality, big organizations, status seeking, and so on. Don’t I know that tech will change everything, and soon? No, actually I don’t know that.

Added: To be clear, eventually fundamentals may well change. But the rate of such changes is low enough that in a medium term future most fundamental features probably haven’t changed yet.

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Max & Miller’s Mate

Geoffrey Miller’s book The Mating Mind was very influential on me, and so I spent several posts on his book Spent. He has a new book out, coauthored with Tucker Max, called Mate: become the man women want. It is a how-to book, on how men can attract women.

The book’s voice is less academic and more like a drill sergeant — stern older men giving harsh but needed instructions to younger men. They don’t mind using some crude language, and they don’t argue much for their claims, expecting readers to accept what they say on authority. Fortunately, most of what they say seems to be pretty well-grounded in the literature.

The world view they present has mating quite thoroughly infused with signaling. Pretty much everything you do with actual or potential mates is used as a reliable signal of your hidden features. Makes me wonder in what other self-help books it would be okay to present as strong a signaling view. Perhaps there are career advice books that infuse signaling as throughly into their view of the work world. But I expect people wouldn’t tolerate advice books on school, religion, arts, and charity that are this signaling heavy. Even if the advice was solid.

Though heavy on signaling, Max & Miller don’t consider self-deception. They talk simply about men just looking inside themselves to see what they want, and tell men to take what women seem to want at face value. But perhaps talking about self-deception to their target audience (young men who feel they are failing at mating) would just confuse more than help.

At several points Max & Miller warn their readers that women never evolved general ways to see and appreciate things like wealth and intelligence; women instead evolved to appreciate more specific signals like nice clothes and wit. So don’t go trying to show off your IQ score or bank balance.

They don’t advise women to fix this oversight, but instead advise men to fix how they show off. I suspect the idea is that humans are just more general and flexible on how to achieve their goals than on what exactly are their goals. And I suspect this is right. While one can imagine a creature that just wants “whatever helps me have many descendants”, humans are just not those creatures.

Two suggestive implication follow from this fact. First, if descendants of humans are ever blocked in their growth or expansion into the universe due to their failing to be sufficiently flexible or general, that failing will more likely come from their preferences, rather than their engineering or science. Second, as human incomes fall toward subsistence, our primary preferences for survival trump others, inducing effectively more general and flexible preferences. So subsistence income descendants have a better chance of avoiding generality failures.

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Forsee The Speakularity

James Somers at Nautilus on the “Speakularity“:

We are going to start recording and automatically transcribing most of what we say. Instead of evaporating into memory, words spoken aloud will calcify as text, into a Record that will be referenced, searched, and mined. .. Think of all the reasons that you search through your email. Suddenly your own speech will be available in just the same way. “Show me all conversations with Michael before January of last year … What was the address of that restaurant Mum recommended? …” Robin Hanson, an economist at George Mason University and a co-author of a forthcoming book on evolutionary psychology, has speculated that we might all get in the habit of peppering our speech with keywords, to help us look it up later. …

Much of what is said aloud would be published and made part of the Web. An unfathomable mass of expertise, opinion, wit, and culture—now lost—would be as accessible as any article or comment thread is today. ..

It won’t reshape the basic ways we live and love. It won’t turn our brains to mush, or make us supermen. . .. People talk a lot—on average, about 40 percent of their waking lives. .. anyone who’s ever recorded someone knows that self-conscious monitoring of your own speech is just too mentally expensive to carry on for very long. … After a short while, you go back to normal.

Hanson also thinks “normal” would be the operative word once ubiquitous speech transcription arrives. He’s not convinced that it would change the world as much as some seem to think it would. “As soon as you see just how different our world is from 1,000 years ago, it’s really hard to get very worked up about this,” he says.

There was almost no privacy 1,000 years ago, he explains. Living quarters were dense. Rooms were tiny … Other people could overhear your lovemaking. When you traveled, you hardly ever went by yourself; you roamed around in little groups. Most people lived in small towns, where most everybody knew everybody else and gossiped about them. The differences in how we lived between then and now were huge. And yet we adapted. “I gotta figure the changes we’re looking at are small by comparison,” he says. …

Having a Record will just give us a new dimension on which to map a capacity we’ve always had. People who are constantly being recorded will adapt to that fact by becoming expert at knowing what’s in the transcript and what’s not. They’ll be like parents talking around children. They’ll become masters of plausible deniability. They’ll use sarcasm, or they’ll grimace or grin or lean their head back or smirk, or they’ll direct their gaze, so as to say a thing without saying it.

It sounds exhausting, but of course we already fluidly adapt to the spectrum of private, small-group, and public conversations—just go to a workplace. Or go to a party. We are constantly asking and answering subtle questions about our audience, and tuning our speech based on the answers. (Is Jack in earshot? Is Jack’s wife in earshot?)

“There’s no way this means that everything we say is now in the open,” Hanson argues. “There’s a layer of what we say that’s in the open … but we’re always talking at several levels at once.” … Our brains adapted to writing, to libraries, and to the Web. They will adapt to the Record. And people will, anyway, continue to be less concerned with how they sound than with how they look. (more)

Even if this change is smaller than changes to which we’ve already adapted, still it will be a real change. The biggest open question is what fraction of our speech will go directly into a public record. I find it hard to believe this would be the majority, but then I wouldn’t have predicted how much people are willing to say publicly on Twitter or Facebook.

Even for speech that isn’t directly made public, we would all know that everyone who heard a conversation had a private record, from which they could choose to privately share selected quotes. Of course we already worry about people quoting things we say in private to others, but direct recordings would be more believable and thus more worrisome. Laws prohibiting such recordings could reduce such problems, but would hardly eliminate them.

The big obvious change to predict is that we will be less clear and direct, even in private, when saying things that might make us look bad when quoted later. Already twitter speak tends to be more sarcastic, ironic, and loaded with local references that make it harder for outsiders to clearly understand. Expect most ordinary speech to move in this direction.

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Failed Singularity Model

Noted Yale economist William Nordhaus has a new paper “Are We Approaching an Economic Singularity? Information Technology and the Future of Economic Growth”:

Assume that labor is constant, that all technological change is capital-augmenting at 10% per year, and that the elasticity of substitution between labor and information capital is 1.25. Figure 3 shows a typical simulation of the share of capital and the growth rates of output and wages.

NordhausSingularityIn this model, capital slowly gets a larger share of total income and the economic growth accelerates, even though the rate of innovation never changes. Nordhaus lists six empirical predictions for the sign of observed parameters, and finds that four of the six are rejected by our best estimates having the opposite sign. And this doesn’t include the fact that our best estimates find the elasticity of substitution between labor and capital to be less than one. The two sign predictions that match the data suggest it would take a century or more before growth rates exceed 20% per year. Nordhaus says, “The conclusion is therefore that the growth Singularity is not near.”

Of course this is far from the only possible economic model of a singularity. But it sets a good standard for future efforts. Can anyone find a concrete simple economic model of singularity that better fits the data?

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Specific vs. General Foragers & Farmers

Scott Alexander in 2013:

Rightism is what happens when you’re optimizing for surviving an unsafe environment, leftism is what happens when you’re optimized for thriving in a safe environment. … “Take actions that would be beneficial to survival in case of a zombie apocalypse” seems to get us rightist positions on a lot of issues. We can generalize from zombie apocalypses to any desperate conditions in which you’re not sure that you’re going to make it and need to succeed at any cost.

What about the opposite? Let’s imagine a future utopia of infinite technology. Robotic factories produce far more wealth than anyone could possibly need. … Even death itself has disappeared. What policies are useful for this happy state? …

If the brain finds itself in a stable environment where everything is abundant, it sort of lowers the mental threat level and concludes that everything will always be okay and its job is to enjoy itself and win signaling games. If it finds itself in an environment of scarcity, it will raise the mental threat level and set its job to “survive at any cost”. … Leftism wins over time because technology advances over time which means societies become more secure and abundant over time. …

Both Greece and Rome were relatively leftist, with freedom of religion, democratic-republican governments, weak gender norms, minimal family values, and a high emphasis on education and abstract ideas. After the Fall of Rome, when Europe was set back technologically into a Dark Age, rightism returned with a vengeance. …

“So you mean rightism is optimized for tiny unstable bands facing a hostile wilderness, and leftism is optimized for secure, technologically advanced societies like the ones we are actually in?” And this conclusion, too, I will mostly endorse. (more)

Much of this is pretty compatible with the forager-farmer perspective I outlined in 2010. To review, as foragers our attitudes and inclinations were well adapted to our environment, but the farming environment was so different that to become effective farmers we had to drastically change such things in a short time. So we cranked up the pressure on social conformity, religion, etc. in order to enforce strong new social norms favoring new farming behaviors. But because these were built on fear, and went somewhat against our deeper natures, rich safe elites have often drifted back toward forager styles, and the whole world has drifted that way together since we’ve all gotten rich and safe with industry. This view makes sense of many long term trends over the last few decades, such as trends toward more leisure, travel, product variety, egalitarianism, democracy, peace, and slavery aversion.

However, in addition to the forager-farmer or survive-thrive distinction, there is another related distinction that I think I, and Scott above, haven’t been thinking clearly enough about. And that is the distinction between supporting specific ways of foragers and farmers, and generalizing their attitudes toward simpler more general principles. Let me explain. Continue reading "Specific vs. General Foragers & Farmers" »

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Stock Vs. Flow War

When our farmer ancestors warred, they often went about as far as they could to apply all available resources to their war efforts. This included converting plowshares into swords, ships into navies, farmers into soldiers, granaries into soldiers on the move, good will into allies, and cash into foreign purchases. When wars went long and badly, such resources were often quite depleted by the end. Yet warring farmers only rarely went extinct. Why?

The distinction between stock and flow is a basic one in engineering and finance. Stocks allow flows. A granary is a stock, and it can produce a flow of grain to eat, but that flow will end if the stock is not sufficiently replenished with every harvest. A person is a stock, which can produce work every week, but to make that last we need to create and train new people. Many kinds of stocks have limits on the flows they can produce. While you might be able to pull grain from a granary as fast as you like, you can only pull one hour of work from a worker per hour.

Natural limits on the flows that our stocks can produce have in the past limited the destructiveness of war. Even when war burned the crops, knocked down stone buildings, and killed most of the people, farmland usually bounced back in a few years, and human and animal populations could grow back in a few generations. Stones were restacked to make new buildings. The key long-term stocks of tech and culture were preserved, allowing for a quick rebuilding of previous professions, towns, and trade routes.

Future technologies are likely to have weaker limits on the conversion of stocks into flows. When we have more fishing boats we can more quickly deplete the stock of fish. Instead of water wheels that must wait for water to come down a stream, we make dams that give us water when we want. When we tap oil wells instead of killing whales for oil, the rate at which we can extract oil grows with the size and number of our wells. Eventually we may tap the sun itself not just by basking in its sunlight, but by uplifting its material and running more intense fusion reactors.

Our stronger abilities to turn stocks into flows can be great in peacetime, but they are problematic in wartime. Yes, the side with stronger abilities gains an advantage in war, but after a fierce war the stocks will be lower. Thus improving technology is making war more destructive, not just by blowing up more with each bomb, but by allowing more resources to be tapped more quickly to support war efforts.

This is another way of saying what I was trying to say in my last post: improving tech can make war more destructive, increasing the risk of extinction via war. When local nature was a key stock, diminishing returns in extracting resources from nature limited how much we could destroy during total war. In contrast, when resources can be extracted as fast and easy as grain from a granary, war is more likely to take nearly all of the resources.

Future civilization should make resources more accessible, not just to extract more kinds of slow flows, but also to extract fast flows more cheaply. While this will make it easier to flexibly use such stocks in peacetime, it also suggests a faster depletion of stocks during total war. Only the stocks that cannot be depleted, like technology and culture, may remain. And once the sun is available as a rapidly depletable resource, it may not take many total wars to deplete it.

This seems to me our most likely future great filter, and thus extinction risk. War becomes increasingly destructive, erasing stocks that are not fully replenished between wars, and often taking us to the edge of a small fragile population that could be further reduced by other disasters. And if the dominant minds and cultures speed up substantially, as I expect, that might speed up the cycle of war, allowing less time to recover between total wars.

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Beware General Visible Prey

Charles Stross recently on possible future great filters:

So IO9 ran a piece by George Dvorsky on ways we could wreck the solar system. And then Anders Sandberg responded in depth on the subject of existential risks, asking what conceivable threats have big enough spatial reach to threaten an interplanetary or star-faring civilization. … The implication of an [future great filter] is that it doesn’t specifically work against life, it works against interplanetary colonization. … much as Kessler syndrome could effectively block all access to low Earth orbit as a side-effect of carelessly launching too much space junk. Here are some example scenarios: …

Simplistic warfare: … Today’s boringly old-hat chemical rockets, even in the absence of nuclear warheads, are formidably destructive weapons. … War, or other resource conflicts, within a polity capable of rapid interplanetary or even slow interstellar flight, is a horrible prospect.

Irreducible complexity: I take issue with one of Anders’ assumptions, which is that a multi-planet civilization is … not just … distributed, but it will almost by necessity have fairly self-sufficient habitats that could act as seeds for a new civilization if they survive. … I doubt that we could make a self-sufficient habitat that was capable of maintaining its infrastructure and perpetuating and refreshing its human culture with a population any smaller than high-single-digit millions. … Building robust self-sufficient off-world habitats … is vastly more expensive than building an off-world outpost and shipping rations there, as we do with Antarctica. …

Griefers: … All it takes is one civilization of alien ass-hat griefers who send out just one Von Neumann Probe programmed to replicate, build N-D lasers, and zap any planet showing signs of technological civilization, and the result is a galaxy sterile of interplanetary civilizations until the end of the stelliferous era. (more)

These are indeed scenarios of concern. But I find it hard to see how, by themselves, they could add up to a big future filter. Continue reading "Beware General Visible Prey" »

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Ford’s Rise of Robots

In the April issue of Reason magazine I review Martin Ford’s new book Rise of the Robots:

Basically, Ford sees a robotic catastrophe coming soon because he sees disturbing signs of the times: inequality, job loss, and so many impressive demos. It’s as if he can feel it in his bones: Dark things are coming! We know robots will eventually take most jobs, so this must be now. … [But] In the end, it seems that Martin Ford’s main issue really is that he dislikes the increase in inequality and wants more taxes to fund a basic income guarantee. All that stuff about robots is a distraction. (more)

I’ll admit Ford is hardly alone, and he ably summarizes what are quite common views. Even so, I’m skeptical.

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Growth Could Slow

Human history has seen accelerating growth, via a sequence of faster growth modes. First humans grew faster than other primates, then farmers grew faster than foragers, and recently industry has grown faster than farming. Most likely, another even faster growth mode lies ahead. But it is worth remembering that this need not happen. For a very concrete historical analogue, the Cambrian Explosion of multi-cellular life seems to have resulted from an accelerating series of key transitions. But then around 520 million years ago, after life had explored most multi-cellular variations, change slowed way down:

In just a few tens of millions of years – a geological instant – almost every major animal group we know made its first appearance in the fossil record, and the ecology of the planet was transformed forever. …

Scientists have struggled to explain what sparked this sudden burst of innovation. Until recently, most efforts tried to find a single trigger, but over the past year or two, a different explanation has begun to emerge. The Cambrian explosion appears to have been life’s equivalent of the perfect storm. Instead of one trigger, there was a whole array of them amplifying one another to generate a hotbed of animal evolution the likes of which the world has never seen before or since. …

The first sign of multicellular animals is in rocks about 750 million years old, which contain fossilised biomolecules found today only in sponges. Then another 150 million apparently uneventful years passed before the appearance of the Ediacaran fauna. This enigmatic group of multicellular organisms of uncertain affinities to other lifeforms flourished in the oceans up to the beginning of the Cambrian. Then [110 million years later] all hell broke loose. … Studies of “molecular clocks” – which use the gradual accumulation of genetic changes to estimate when particular evolutionary branches diverged – suggest that animal complexity emerged before the Cambrian. …

Two huge ecological innovations that make their debut in the Cambrian fossil record. …The first is the ability to burrow into the sea floor. … The second innovation was predation. … What else were these early creatures waiting for? One intriguing possibility is that they were waiting for fertiliser. Geological evidence suggests that rising sea levels during the Cambrian could have increased erosion, boosting levels of nutrients such as calcium, phosphate and potassium in the oceans. …

Atmospheric oxygen levels crept up gradually. … The crucial threshold seemed to be between 1 and 5 per cent of present oxygen levels. Geochemists’ best guess at when the ancient oceans reached this point is about 550 million years ago – just in time to kick off predation and its resulting ecological feedback. …

Precambrian oceans were full of single-celled algae and bacteria. When these small cells died, they would have started to sink, decomposing quickly as they went – and because decomposition consumes oxygen, this would have kept ocean waters anoxic. Filter-feeding sponges, which evolved sometime before the Ediacaran,then started clearing these cells out of the water column before they died and decomposed. The sponges themselves, being larger, were more likely to be buried in the sediment after death, allowing oxygen to remain in the water. Over time, this would have led ever more of the ocean to become oxygenated. (more)

So it remains possible that growth will slow down now, or after the next transition, even if a new series of accelerating transitions lies far ahead.

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The Evolution-Is-Over Fallacy

David Brin and Jerome Barkow both responded to my last Cato Unbound comment by assuming that the evolution of aliens would end at somewhere around our human level of development. While aliens would acquire new tech, there would be little further change in their preferences or basic psychology over the following millions or billions of years. In my latest comment, I mainly just repeat what I’d said before:

Even when each creature has [powerful tech and] far broader control [over its local environment], this won’t prevent selection from favoring creatures who better use their controls to survive and reproduce. No, what is required to stop selection is very broad and strong coordination. As I wrote:

Yes it is possible that a particular group of aliens will somehow take collective and complete control over all local evolution early in their history, and thereby forever retain their early styles. … Such collective control requires quite advanced coordination abilities. … Anything less than complete control of evolution would not end evolution; it would instead create a new environment for adaptation.

My guess is that even when this happens, it will only be after a great degree of adaptation to post-biological possibilities. So even then adaptation to advanced technology should be useful in predicting their behaviors.

I’ll call this mistake the “evolution is over” fallacy, and I nominate it as the most important fallacy about aliens, and our future. Evolutionary selection of preferences and psychology is not tied to DNA-based replication, or to making beings out of squishy proteins, or to a lack of intelligence. Selection is instead a robust long-run feature of decentralized competition. The universe is influenced more by whatever wins competitions for influence; where competition continues, selection also continues.

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