The uses and abuses of speculative futurism

My post last week – “We will have the power of the gods” about Michio Kaku’s upcoming TV series generated a certain amount of heat amongst transhumanists and singularitarians unhappy about my criticism of radical futurism. There’s been a lot of heated discussion on the blog of Dale Carrico, the Berkeley rhetorician who coined the very useful phrase “superlative technology discourse” for this strand of thinking, and who has been subjecting its underpinning cultural assumptions to some sustained criticism, with some robust responses from the transhumanist camp.

Michael Anissimov, founder of the Immortality Institute, has made an extended reply to my post. Michael takes particular issue with my worry that these radical visions of the future are primarily championed by transhumanists who have a “strong, pre-existing attachment to a particular desired outcome”, stating that “transhumanism is not a preoccupation with a narrow range of specific technological outcomes. It looks at the entire picture of emerging technologies, including those already embraced by the mainstream. “

It’s good that Michael recognises the danger of the situation I identify, but some other comments on his blog suggest to me that what he is doing here is, in Carrico’s felicitous phrase, sanewashing the transhumanist and singularitarian movements with which he is associated. He urgently writes in the same post “If any transhumanists do have specific attachments to particular desired outcome, I suggest they drop them — now”, while an earlier post on his blog is entitled Emotional Investment. In that he asks the crucial question: “Should transhumanists be emotionally invested in particular technologies, such as molecular manufacturing, which could radically accelerate the transhumanist project? My answer: for fun, sure. When serious, no.” Michael is perceptive enough to realise the dangers here, but I’m not at all convinced that the same is true of many of his transhumanist fellow-travellers. The key point is that I think transhumanists genuinely don’t realise quite how few informed people outside their own circles think that the full, superlative version of the molecular manufacturing vision is plausible (it’s worth quoting Don Eigler here again: “To a person, everyone I know who is a practicing scientist thinks of Drexler’s contributions as wrong at best, dangerous at worse. There may be scientists who feel otherwise, I just haven’t run into them”). The only explanation I can think of for the attachment of many transhumanists to the molecular manufacturing vision is that it is indeed a symptom of the coupling of group-think and wishful thinking.

Meanwhile, Roko, on his blog Transhuman Goodness, expands on comments made to Soft Machines in his post “Raaa! Imagination is banned you foolish transhumanist”. He thinks, not wholly accurately, that what I am arguing against is any kind of futurism: “But I take issue with both Dale and Richard when they want to stop people from letting their imaginations run wild, and instead focus attention only onto things which will happen for certain (or almost for certain) and which will happen soon…. Transhumanists look over the horizon and – probably making many errors – try to discern what might be coming…. If we say that we see something like AGI or Advanced Nanotechnology over that horizon, don’t take it as a certainty… But at least take the idea as a serious possibility….”

Dale Carrico responded at length to this. I want to stress here just one point; my problem is not that I think that transhumanists have let their imaginations run wild. Precisely the opposite, in fact; I worry that transhumanists have just one fixed vision of the future, which is now beginning to show its age somewhat, and are demonstrating a failure of imagination in their inability to conceive of the many different futures that have the potential to unfold.

Anne Corwin, who was interviewed for the Kaku program, makes some very balanced comments that get us closer to the heart of the matter: “most sensible people, I think, realize that utopia and apocalypse are equally unrealistic propositions — but projecting forward our present-day dreams, wishes, hopes, and deep anxieties can still be a useful (and, dare I say, enjoyable) exercise. Just remember that there’s a lot we can do now to help improve things in the world — even in the absence of benevolent nanobot swarms.”

There are two key points here. Firstly, there’s the crucial insight that futurism is not, in fact, about the future at all – it’s about the present and the hopes and fears that people have about the direction society seems to be taking now. This is precisely why futurism ages so badly, giving us the opportunity for all those cheap laughs about the non-arrival of flying cars and silvery jump-suits. The second is that futurism is (or should be) an exercise, or in other words, a thought experiment. Alfred Nordmann reminds us (in If and Then: A Critique of Speculative NanoEthics) that both physics and philosophy have a long history of using improbable scenarios to illuminate deep problems. “Think of Descartes conjuring an evil demon who deceives us about our sense perceptions, think more recently of Thomas Nagel’s infamous brain in a vat.” So, for example, interrogating the thought experiment of a nanofactory that could reduce all matter to the status of software, might give us useful insights into the economics of a post-industrial world. But, as Nordmann says, “Philosophers take such scenarios seriously enough to generate insights from them and to discover values that might guide decisions regarding the future. But they do not take them seriously enough to believe them.”

28 thoughts on “The uses and abuses of speculative futurism”

  1. I have given the range of competing technologies in my prior posts. I have a range of predictions in terms of outcomes on my blog. The molecular manufacturing dominant is one category.

    However, advances in some areas make it easier for advances in lagging areas to occur.

    The various ways to get to far better computer performance enables better molecular modeling and better planning and more elaborate work with proteins and DNA nanotechnology.

    So the criticism that there is only one future vision is wrong.

    However, I am constantly looking at how to refine my predictions and projections. When new develops and trends gain momentum then it needs to be recognized. when I look at the range of capabilities and pace of improvement with DNA nanotechnology, self assembly, arrays of probes, atomic layer deposition, and other methods for primarily 2-20 nanometer patterning and some molecular precise actions, I do not see any future (short of catastrophe) where we degrade from this capability.

    I see AI systems already used to control many billions of dollars in finances through program trading.

    Again I wonder what is the objective and precise definition of superlative technology and how are its first principle justified and how is the result applied.

    Because of A, B and C we can objectively classify tech X, Y and Z as superlative while J,K and L are not. Therefore because of A this means that X is different from K in this way and means such action or inaction is justified.

    Plus would any of this be analogous to choice of business, career or investment. I cannot invest in business plan X because it has too much potential upside. A billion dollar opportunity would clearly be taken by one of the existing large companies. A Google could not arise because Yahoo or Microsoft are entrenched. Or only superlative people could have founded and enabled Google, because I am most likely only average then I should just get a salary job as say a rhetorical professor at Berkeley or a professorship somewhere else where the upside and downside are in a tight bound. (downside protected by tenure). Then I could tell everyone to not do anything superlative. Don’t try things that have too much upside. Well what is superlative? Well 10 times the average salary is not superlative but 1000 times is. Ok, Why ?
    Hey don’t you see you only have one fixed vision of the future where you get a 1000 times greater than average salary ? Actually I was trying to execute on a business or technology plan which had that as a possibility but which also might fail or only partially succeed. I think that if enough people creatively try to work on plans and projects with high upside that the collective result would be superior to everyone taking low risk opportunities only.

  2. Futurism can be far more than present hopes and fears.

    I strive for far more accuracy in my predictions and a far deeper survey of what is going on now that would have the most impact.

    So how does the superlative discourse rule (is there a rule other than no predictions that MNT, AGI or life extension of 1000 years succeeds ?) apply when there are 50 different paths and 500 different projects to get to a similar class of result ?

    Instead of AGI breakthough :
    How about study progress to exaflop and then zettaflop computing
    Using fast persistent computer memory (various ways Nram, MRAM, copper doped CMOS)
    New architectures, such as Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGA), Processor in Memory (PIM), the Vector architecture (reborn), and others.
    New devices capable of computing, such as RSFQ, CNFET, RTD, SET, Y-junctions, Moltronics, Quantum Dots, spintronics, and other devices of which the participants may be aware.
    New ways of using devices, such as adiabatic logic design or reversible logic.
    optical computing
    Optical interconnects in on processor communication.
    What would the results of such systems be ?

    What will continuing progress with algorithms help to achieve.
    the computing power is applied to help advance the state of the art in researching the physical sciences and engineering.
    Development of hypersonic scramjet engines has been limited by inadequate computing power.
    Being to model in better than realtime effects in the body at better than cellular precision with input feeds from live sensors and scanning tools would have a big effect in terms of personal medicine. Being able to combine all of readouts to advance the science of medicine seems like it would have big impact.
    Where is the superlative boundary crossed and why was it important ?

    If billion electronic neuron devices are created then what is the result, when would it be superlative, when not.
    Trillion electronic neurons. etc…
    I don’t know if variations on those systems will achieve AGI, but they would seem likely to have conquered various challenges that we are close to now. Self driving cars. self directed and robust robots.

    how does the superlative discourse rules square with the debate over high risk/high payoff research ?

  3. I’m sure that any discussions of likely futures need to go well beyond making lists of plausible technologies to consider the socio-economic realities that determine whether technologies will actually be adopted. One also needs to recognise that some advances are going to need conceptual breakthroughs whose nature or timing simply cannot be predicted, not just technology development (I believe AGI to be in this category).

  4. So is it correct to say that you have not sufficiently studied the disciplines of forecasting, or put effort into trying to achieve accurate forecasts and are unable to make accurate forecasts therefore you believe that no one else can or could be usefully more accurate ?

    There are still no specifics of the utility of the “Superlative discourse” or any clear definition (unless the above I don’t know so you and others can’t know either was one of the main points).

    Here is a mini-review of some of the forecasting disciplines (or why we can do better than a range of wild guesses about the future) and basically that I have considered the socio-economic and technological development realities that effect the likelyhood of every item (and a lot more items not listed) in my entire list of technologies.

    90% accuracy for a game theory model for political predictions

    I believe that this shows the possibility of training oneself and learnnig what the proper inputs are in determining a future outcome and then rigorously reducing biases and focusing solely on an accurate assessment and prediction then an expert person could also achieve near 90% accuracy in predictions. As has been noted, technology adoption has political, economic and sociological components.

    There is also the science and practices of

    product market prediction/forecasting
    , economic forecasting and technlogy forecasting
    and forecasting in general

  5. We can judge the reliability of forecasting by the success of such forecasts in the past. Since you are interested in energy, I can recommend Vaclav Smil’s book “Energy at the crossroads”, which has a very salutory chapter called “Against forecasting”. This lists, in quantitative detail, the dismal history of failure of forecasts of energy demand, capacity and price when compared with what actually happened. To give just a couple of examples, in 1971 Glenn Seaborg, then chair of the Atomic Energy Commission, gave as the median of estimates of generating capacity for 2000 as 1600 GW, but opined that the upper end of the range of estimates, at 2100 GW, was more optimistic. What was the actual value in 2000? 780 GW. Coming closer to the present, Smil cites six 10-15 year projections of oil prices, published between 1997 and 2001 by authoritative sources. Their price predictions for 2007 are actually pretty closely bunched around $18 a barrel.

  6. Most forecasters are not very good. However, it is a relative thing like baseball. Hitting at a 0.400 rate or higher and you are a hall of famer. Hitting at 0.150 or less and you do not make the major leagues. Plus there is the quality of the swings.

    The vast majority of the impact is from those who are very good.

    Plus better predictions are from those who would stand to make or lose money based upon the accuracy of their prediction. What were the best commodities traders predicting ?

    Billionaire Jim Rogers, legendary commodities trader, who picked the bottom of the commodities bull market in 1999. With George Soros, Jim Rogers co-founded the Quantum Fund in 1970. I had bought his 2004 book and knew that he had a good record on commodities. He identified the impact of the rise of China on commodities well in advance.

    So the flaw is in looking to regulatory bodies where there are people with a government job putting together a forecast for accuracy. Sources that are consistently wrong should not be turned to again and again for another prediction.

    Do you also look for Securities and exchange commission civil servant to give you stock picks ? Would you then cite a book on how most people, even “experts”, underperform the indexes in stock portfolio performance.

    The better course of action is to look and find the consistent winners in picks and predictions and strategy.

    Celebrating forecasting losers who have some kind of claim to authority but inaccurate predictions is bad strategy. All I respect is proven accuracy on predictions and the ability to select the correct high impact factors.

    The list of losers is long. It is useful to know why they were losers and what the flaw was in thinking that they should have been right. Learn the lessons for identifying winners. Accept the unbiased feedback of the facts and results.

    Forecasting is another area to seek out those who are Superlative. Superlative forecasters: they exist too.

  7. I expand upon my comment in this post. Btw: it was billion kwh and not GW. The prediction was for 13.75% growth in nuclear power in the USA from 1971 to 2000 when it was 10%. Actually not a horrible prediction. But it was inferior because it was only a linear projection without identification of key factors with which the projection could be updated. It was also inferior for not identifying key factors such as the potential development of nuclear fusion, vastly superior wind and solar, lower natural gas prices etc…

  8. In response to: If any transhumanists do have specific attachments to particular desired outcome, I suggest they drop them — now

    If Dale and other Antisuperlativians have any specific attachment to a particular desired outcome (like communism, higher taxes, guaranteed minimum income), I suggest he follow his own advice and drop them- now.

    If Richard Jones has a specific attachments to particular desired outcome, like Soft Machines, I suggest that he drop them – now.

    I hope you find these suggestions as useful as I found yours.

    Another suggestion is – please try and reflect upon how the suggestions or statements that you make work if they were turned back upon yourself. It will help you to identify completely bonehead statements.

    You will notice that when you said that you had to increase your patience, it was in response to me using a small bit of the same methods that you and Dale use. You and Dale initiated the psychoanalysis postings. (and group think, wishful thinking accusations). I am not surprised that you did not connect it and say. Oh right, I was doing that same completely obnoxious thing and it had nothing to do with anything of substance.

    you have group think with Dale. He has no evidence or substance and you went along with it anyway. Group think.

    I do not know for certain where the molecular manufacturing efforts will lead. I do think it is worth trying and I rate the probability of value as good. For now this is more support and funding for Freitas, Merkel et al. I support a long list of other projects (Dwave’s quantum computers, Zyvex’s atomic layer deposition work, LANL superthread work, the work of the UK Ideas lab – of which you contibute, IEC Bussard Fusion, colliding beam fusion, thorium reactors, molten salt reactors, nuclear space propulsion, laser array launch, robotics etc…)

    Specific more combinations and plans:
    Low energy transfer robotic industrialization of the moon

    Lorentz force fuel delivery to minimag orion rockets

    Other cheaper space launch systems

    Laser arrays and mirror laser launch systems

  9. Brian, I’m skeptical of your forecasting because you have a bizarre list of new devices capable of computing. RSFQ, SET and RTD are old topics now and still show little commercial promise. If you were to ask around any research group studying Molectronics, Quantum Dots or Spintronics about the prospect of commercialisation you would be lucky to get more than laughter in return. It is a no-brainer to predict that in ten years time we will have even more exotic devices and research fads to get excited about. Simply reciting them in parrot fashion does not fool anyone into thinking that you have any more insight than a high school kid who makes reference to Moore’s law.

    If technology forecasting was really any good, would you not spend more of your time making money rather than posting wikipedia links in blogs?

  10. I will not be revealing my own net worth or income. But I am doing well in the SF Bay Area. I have been paid to speak on future technology (universities and companies). How I make my money is not affected by my blogging. It is a paid hobby at this point, but which is something that I am good at and will defend.

    By your measure then Ray Kurzweil should be believed.
    Ray charges a $25,000 speaking fee and gave 40 speeches last year. Plus he is worth in the range of $100 million from inventing technology and selling companies and now using AI for a hedge fund.

    Commercialization of spintronics already started happening.
    MRAM sold by Freescale. Not a DRAM killer yet but it has applications.
    IBM working on racetrack memory. Could have more impact.
    Quantum dots also have been commercialized. Biological purposes.

    So the research groups that you say are laughing are wrong OR you did not ask any research labs. I do not parrot a list. I have plenty of analysis. 1600+ posts on my own site.

    Your money theory is either wrong or you should believe Ray Kurzweil.
    Your method for assessing and laughing at technology that is being commercialized is wrong. So laughing at the prospect of commercialization is because of someone who does not know what is already happening. Like you and whoever you may or may not have been asking.

  11. Brian, you have missed the point. I was criticising your list of devices capable of computing, not your memory devices list. Maybe your analysis doesn’t distinguish between these applications. Many of your 1600 blog posts are just copies of press releases.

    I never intended to question how much money you make. I never stated a money theory either so I’m not sure what you mean by that.
    Ray Kurzweil made his money as a software company entrepreneur. Jim Rogers made his money as a commodities trader. Neither of them has made fortunes from correctly forecasting scientific developments.

  12. Ray has indicated that he has achieved his success from timing his inventions. He uses his futurist forecasting of scientific trends to help him make money from inventions. He has said it repeatedly. So Ray is saying that he owes his success with inventions (which he made his money from) forecasting science and technology.

    The 1 million/year he makes from speaking is for speaking about Accelerating technology and his views on the Singularity. Yes it is only a part of his income, but for others it would be considered a fortune form money directly related to forecasting scientific developments.

    So either way you, Vince, are wrong in the statement about Ray did not make fortunes from correctly forecasting scientific developments.

    Jim Rogers was pointed out in response to my conversation with Richard. Richard said that the future could not be predicted and quoted a faulty prediction on nuclear power and about failed oil price predictions. I showed that there are successful forecasters of oil prices. You, Vince, missed the point of that part of the conversation.

    You had indicated that if technological forecasting was any good (mine tech forecasting or anyone elses) then the good forecasters would be making money from it rather than posting or blogging. It was an implied money theory of credibility. If it was any good then you or someone else would make money from it. Well I have made some money from it and my blog. Ray has made money from it.

    There is an industry around technology futures:

    Not including technology and IT industry market forecast businesses of Gartner, Jupiter Research.

    You are trying to weasle out or were highly imprecise in your comments about what technology was laughable. You said the commercialization of Spintronics was laughable according to the implied authority of “unnamed research groups”.

    Your complete lack of precision and loose terminology seems to indicate a complete lack of understanding of what is in the broad field of Spintronics. I did not even include GMR for hard drives.

    I will bet that RSFQ circuit-based products will have a significant commercial market (at least 20 millions of dollars/year) by the end of 2013. It does not have to be RSFQ based supercomputers. Commercial meaning selling stuff where RSFQ components is a critical part of the product.

    I think RSFQ based supercomputers could be made but it is not clear whether they will be commercially successful. I believe a small market for certain military applications could exist. It is also possible that next generation superconducting circuit variants could displace RSFQ for that application.

    I understand the distinctions. There is nothing in my writings to indicate otherwise.

    My blog is also for the purpose of tracking what I feel are relevant technological and other developments. I do not state analysis in each one, but if I note it in my blog it was because of its significance. There are plenty of postings that I have made with analysis of technology and the future. There are limitations because of time, but the quality and value of my blog is one for which I do not apologize and would stack up against other sites like this one.

  13. “I worry that transhumanists have just one fixed vision of the future, which is now beginning to show its age somewhat, and are demonstrating a failure of imagination in their inability to conceive of the many different futures that have the potential to unfold.”

    I must agree that this is ALWAYS a danger: the danger of not being imaginative enough, of sticking to some particular, blinkered view of the future, and perhaps even letting it become a dogmatically held belief.

    So what should you do about this problem? Perhaps a good thing to do would be to exercise your own imagination and start outlining your own possible futures; preferably some desirable ones. The way to help people who have one “fixed” vision of the future is to provide them with other views of the future. To put it another way, we want to think of MORE plausible, desirable future scenarios to play around with.

    What are you actually doing by posting on “the superlativity critique”? Are you being imaginative and coming up with interesting future scenarios for us to mull over? No, you’re just trying to pooh-pooh somebody else’s speculative ideas, which is always an easy task. In doing so you are exacerbating the of lack-of-imagination problem. You are trying to bury imaginative ideas about the future. If everyone did that, we would end up with precisely zero imagination, and we would not be able to make any plans for a better future.

    In summary, I totally agree that we all need to think imaginatively and creatively about the future, and we all need to make sure that our ideas don’t get old and stale. So Let’s go do that! Let’s not try to shoot each other’s ideas down in flames, let us instead offer each other constructive criticisms (did you hear that dale?). Before we can create a better world, we have to imagine a better world.

  14. (did you hear that dale?)

    Sure. I’ve also heard it all before.

    One can devote plenty of time to constructive, practical, promising, programmatic discussion concerning technodevelopmental change without feeling the least bit compelled to take marginal cult-like pronouncements and hyperbolic salesman’s pitches about nanotech superabundance, artificial superintelligence, or imminent medical superlongevity particularly seriously. In some circumstances the most constructive thing to do is to expose obfuscation, confusion, and falsehood where one finds it by one’s lights, even if that will appear “negative” to those who affirm the notions so exposed. I’m sorry to hear that you feel critique is a matter of shooting others down in flames: in my opinion it is the profoundest sign of respect that one will direct arguments to the better judgment of even people who seem to one to be spouting the most foolish imaginable sorts of nonsense.

  15. Roko, I did write a book about the direction I think nanotechnology should be taken in. It’ll be out in paperback in a couple of weeks so you can read it and judge for yourself whether it is imaginative or not. In fact, most of this blog is devoted to positive discussions of the (non-superlative) potential outcomes of nanotechnology, and when I do criticise (for example in my six challenges for molecular nanotechnology) I think those criticisms are couched in a constructive way. So, there’s plenty of stuff for you to mull over.

  16. @Richard:

    I look forward to going out and buying your book!

    I think that perhaps you slightly misunderstand me when I talk about visions of the future; I am thinking about long-term visions of the future. I’ve actually just spent a pleasant hour and a half looking over all of your blog posts from this year. Your blog is interesting, informative, and thought provoking, and I can only applaude you for writing it. But what you are writing is not long-term speculation on where nanotechnology will take us; nowhere in the posts that I read could I find material that looks very significantly beyond what is possible today. For example, you write about how one might use certain materials to more efficiently produce UV light to sterilize water for people to drink. You write about better targeted mechanisms for delivering drugs. Yes, this is great stuff. It is the cutting edge of science, the next step, but it is not highly speculative. You, from what I have read, make uncontroversial predictions about what will happen in the short-term (say with a time horizon of 15 years) in the world of nanotech, and it seems that you’re doing a bloody good job of it.

    Transhumanists, on the other hand, like to think long term. What will nanotech look like in 50 years time? Will we be able to build a general intelligence in the year 2050? etc. We’re doing long-term thinking, you’re doing short-term thinking.

    Your original post contains the following definition of a superlative technology discourse:

    “[a superlative technology discourse] starts with an emerging technology with interesting and potentially important consequences, like nanotechnology, or artificial intelligence, or the medical advances that are making (slow) progress combatting the diseases of aging. The discussion leaps ahead of the issues that such technologies might give rise to at the present and in the near future, and goes straight on to a discussion of the most radical projections of these technologies. The fact that the plausibility of these radical projections may be highly contested is by-passed by a curious foreshortening.”

    When you argue against such discourses, you are effectively arguing against serious long term thinking. Why? because in a world of accelerating technological change, long term thinking requires thinking about a world where technology is very significantly more advanced. In order to think about a world where technology is very significantly more advanced, we have to gloss over technical details, and we have to make claims that are likely to be incorrect, because most interesting claims about the medium-long term future are likely to be incorrect. It’s still worth considering them as possibilities, and it is very much worth thinking about which ones we like most.

    The best thing for people like yourself to do is to come up with your own superlative technology discourses; this should work rather like a Monte Carlo simulation – if you ask one person what they would like the world to be like in 50 years time, the answer will not be particularly illuminating, but if you ask 10 people with widely differing opinions, you’ll at least get some understanding of the space of possibilities. I encourage you to go out and do this, and post your thoughts.

    If you don’t feel that long-term prediction is your thing, then that’s fine, but then don’t go around shouting down other people’s speculative ideas about the future – it’s hypocritical. To put it another way, don’t criticize another person’s idea of where we’re going unless you can think of a better one.


    This response applies to Dale Also. However ridiculous you think Transhuman ideas are, you can’t knock them until you can come up with something better. What is your vision of the world in, say, the year 2080? Go ahead, write a post on it.

  17. Roko, your comment that I don’t say a great deal about what I think 2080 will look like is a fair one. But, and it is a big but, you need to remember that the most prominent transhumanists are not talking that far ahead either. Michael Anissimov says he thinks full MNT will arrive between 2015 and 2025, and this is actually quite conservative by the standards of some MNT proponents; Kurzweil expects full artificial general intelligence by 2030. Aubrey de Grey thinks that we will be able to triple the life expectancy of a fifty year old in 25 years. These superlative outcomes are all forecast to take place on a timescale which is pretty similar to the 15 year timescale you point out that I operate on! So I don’t accept at all that pointing out ways in which these superlative outcomes are implausible is at all at odds with longer term thinking.

    Moving on to this, it seems to me that you confuse two rather different concepts. One can attempt to predict what the world will be like in 50 years time, and one can say how one would like the world to be in 50 years time. These exercises are not the same! There is a lot of value in what some commentators call “normative scenarios” – i.e. saying how you think things ought to be, as a tool to help us work towards that goal, without necessarily expressing a view about how likely they are. For me, since you ask, my normative scenario for 2080 would involve a stable population of perhaps 8 billion people all of whom enjoy healthy lives with decent living standards underpinned by the universal use of decentralised, renewable energy, largely from the sun. This may not be, to you, very imaginative or indeed superlative, but most of the more imaginative scenarios I think are plausible involve outcomes I wouldn’t want to see. These undesirable scenarios are useful, if somewhat depressing, to work through, too. I found this set of scenarios quite enlightening.

    To return to your suggestion that long-term prediction isn’t my thing, a more accurate comment to make about me is that I’m not very comfortable with Utopian thinking. The historical record of political and social movements underpinned by such thinking is not very encouraging.

  18. Richard

    Your most recent post about less is Moore suggests that CMOS scaling peters out leaving computers 100 times as powerful as we have now

    This is already wrong as we are skipping ahead to systems that 100-900 times faster in 2008 and 2009 and FPGA is being integrated for automated acceleration.

    FPGA supercomputer 900 times faster than the 68 opteron cluster it replaces

    500 gigaflop GPGPU/CPU hybrid 100 times faster than opterons for $1999 in 2008 with dual precision suitable for most scientific work

    Some other big tech impacts.

    28 qubit adiabatic computer being demoed next week 512-1024 qubit planned for 2008.

    Those faster computers accelerate molecular modeling and computational chemistry packages.

    These things are why I contend that your view is wrong.

    Myostatin inhibitors (4 times as powerful as steroids without the side effects) in expanded phase II human trials Highly antidipated by millions with muscle disease and those 7 million around the world already using steroids.

    A claimed virtual dictation and langauge translation breakthrough is claimed

    Toshiba will be making gigabit scale MRAM (spintronic memory) as I indicated MRAM chips are already sold for some special applications, such as devices that will be exposed to harsh environments.

    Which will compete with nano-ionic memory, which could also slash energy consumption by more than 99 percent, could be on the market within 18 months

    There are studies that show maximum lifespan is increasing

    Even with the past rates of progress.
    Life expectancy has been increasing for 50 and 60 year old

    There has been plenty of interesting work on cancer

    Solar energy is not base load energy unless you have energy storage or space solar

  19. “But, and it is a big but, you need to remember that the most prominent transhumanists are not talking that far ahead either”

    Well, some are, some are not. I, from my limited technical knowledge of MNT would say that Michael’s predictions are way over-optimistic. As for Kurzweil’s prediction, where did you get that from? I thought he was talking 2040’s as a ballpark figure. In any case, I think that kurweil’s predictions are a bit too optimistic. I think it is a fair point that some transhuman thinkers are getting a little bit too “eager” about their predictions, which I find annoying.

    “There is a lot of value in what some commentators call “normative scenarios” – i.e. saying how you think things ought to be, as a tool to help us work towards that goal”

    – indeed! That is what you should think of transhuman thinking as being. I think most of the debate misses this point, and instead focuses on whether or not scenario X is likely or not, which is often a less interesting question, especially since the likelihood of a scenario is often heavily influenced by whether we actively try to achieve it, which is in turn influenced by what we think it’s likelihood is.

    “my normative scenario for 2080 would involve a stable population of perhaps 8 billion people all of whom enjoy healthy lives with decent living standards underpinned by the universal use of decentralised, renewable energy, largely from the sun.”

    The issue I have with your normative scenario for earth, 2080, is that it gives people nothing at all to look forward to! We – in the developed world – already have “healthy lives with decent living standards”, and in the end people don’t care very much where their electricity comes from, as long as it comes. So your normative scenario boils down to

    “this is how things could be about the same as they are now, except for some irrelevant technical differences”

    Contrast this with transhumanist normative scenarios; we talk about a world in which old, hard problems like death, ignorance and unhappiness have been solved, in which humans overcome the limitations and sorrows that our evolutionary past has burdened us with.

    I would certainly rather live in the transhuman version of the future than yours; in yours, things will not be significantly better than they are now. I’ll still get old and die, I’ll still be unhappy, I’ll still have the very limited intelligence I have now, I will still be limited to the types of experience that I can have now.

    Now I accept that some people who embrace the transhuman vision of the future like it so much that they start fooling themselves into thinking that it can be achieved more quickly and easily than is realistic. (Brian Wang’s talk of the D-wave quantum computer makes me think that he has fallen victim to this temptation.) This is, of course, a mistake, but the cure is not to completely abandon the vision. Rather, we should be as realistic as possible about timescales and likelihoods of events, whilst maintaining an optimistic and exciting vision of our future. I find the transhuman vision – of a future where almost anything is possible and life is routinely fantastic to be a rather nice one to pursue, but if you have an alternative, then do come out with it.

  20. One area I think H+ futurism can be improved is by actively initiating the positive future desired. Kurzweil, Freitas and de Grey certainly fit this mold. But beyond that I don’t think futurists are learning enough about what specific improvements now, will improve longevity.
    I read a Sept/05 Scientific American article about a Financial Manager turned stem cell proponent who has made stem cell funding in California his mission. When I think of those leading biomedical research innovations, I think of existing university research centres and industry research prorogatives. No doubt there are innovations, but what do futurists bring to the table? Have US futurists looked at various presidential candidate health care plans and picked the best one to lobby for? Biomedical research occurs divorced from futurism. What innovations can be realized now to make a “better future”?

  21. Roko,
    I have placed a comment about Dwave systems adiabatic quantum computer on your site.

    I have a longbet prediction out there for Quantum computers.

    Anyone is welcome to challenge it.

    It should be clear by the end of 2008 if Dwave system when scaled up to the necessary level delivers the performance to make an impact financially and scientifically. I have written about 100 articles on quantum computers and looked at the adiabatic QC papers and the QC algorithms. I am comfortable with my view assessment of the developments and potential impact of QC.

    How about the article of Richards for 100 times improvement in computers over 10 years versus 100 to 1000 times spreading over the next two years ? Am I being over optimistic about Nvidia or AMD ? How about computer memory ?

    In terms of legislation, I have lobbied for
    Nuclear power in california

    and the lieberman climate change bills

    I have assessed the presidential candidate positions on health care.
    However, by my analysis only a few positions matter. I think Hillary is 70% likely to win the overall election. I think she is 85-90% to win the Democratic nomination. I think it is Rudy coming out for the Republicans. I think Rudy’s chances will be further hindered by Ron Paul taking 2-10% of the vote (more from Rudy than from Hillary). Hillary and Rudy would both lift the ban on stem cell funding at the federal level. Rudy would still ban human cloning. Hillary supports therapeutic cloning.

    I also recognize that my coming out in support of Hillary or if other futurists did so would have minimal impact.

    where I feel more impact is possible for futurists is to come up with new plans and ideas which could be picked up by companies or politicians to help make the systems function better. My suggestion for a plan related to medicine is devices for gathering more data about biomarkers for people to help provide data to be mined by researchers and then also for personalized medicine.

    New and reasonably adoptable potentially high impact ideas instead of adding another voice in a sea of voices in support of one slightly less inferior plan.

  22. Philip

    In terms of longevity now or very near
    1. don’t eat garbage and exercise
    Some sites on lifestyle that has more chance of longevity

    2. There seems to be some promise with calorie restriction (but many people are unable to incorporate it.). there is an alternate days of semi-fasting approach as well. There is work on drugs and gene therapy to achieve these effects without lifestyle modification
    Calorie restriction linked to mitochondria one of the seven pillars of SENS

    So it seems that SENS is an avenue worth pursuing even based on nearterm work.

    3. Take the tests needed to detect cancer and heart disease early. Find out your own higher risks based on family history.

    4. Look at modifying the environment (air polluition) and public health to reduce chronic disease

    However, besides the near term steps for important small gains I also look at the high potential and underfunded opportunities. This is where a little more effort can bring a lot more rewards. So first two on the list are SENS and molecular manufacturing. I also try to find overlooked ways to use old or near term technology and processes.

  23. Brian, I skimmed your biomarker proposal. How much would it cost for a pharmacy or individual to lease or procure a lab-on-a-chip and operate it for the trial duration? I’m not sure, but I don’t think lab-on-a-chips are cheap or mature enough to be available for general consumption, or they already would be widely utilized, wouldn’t they?

  24. Yes, there would be work to do to bring costs down and to make more comprehensive tests. Which is why I was suggesting that someone like an Andy Grove (who lead Intel in bringing the costs of semiconductors lower) would be an ideal person to bringing this about. Andy Grove has lamented the lack of pharma progress. He is motivated.

    The global market for microfluidic technologies was worth an estimated $2.9 billion in 2005. This figure should grow to $3.2 billion in 2006 and $6.2 billion by 2011. Self monitoring of blood glucose in diabetics is $1.2 billion business.

    There are
    51 tests for $100. Results downloadable to PC. Have to make more detailed blood analysis and then transmit results for centralized processing.

    There is work on lung cancer blood tests

    It is a goal to work towards that would provide a lot of benefits.
    Plus there are earlier stages where it is only for a few thousand people like Nielson boxes. A statistically diverse group that would help researchers to make better inferences about larger populations. Instant clinical trial data from recorded data mine-able information. Information to improve health and lower costs.

    I think the initial few thousand Nielson box goal is achievable in a few years and the larger vision within ten years. Lab on a chip are lithography and MEMS. It is a matter of getting HMOs and PPOs and government funded medical programs to see that this would help them lower costs in the long run.

    In terms of the costs. The system would be a lot cheaper than doctors or nurses taking the blood samples and sending them to labs for the tests. A really capable machine would probably initially cost several thousands to tens of thousand of dollars. It would have several chips and perform multiple tests and would have re-usability (instead of throw-away systems).

    I think the attitude of – if this was cheap enough then it would already be widely utilized is the wrong way to look at it. I think this would be a superior way to figure out what is really happening with people when they get treatment and in between exams.

    Your suggestion was to pick from the current presidential candidate suggestions for healthcare which all amount to put more money into the current broken down system (110 billion/year for the Clinton plan) and get some more insurance for some or all of the uninsured. These plans do not try to prevent people from getting sick in the first place or take steps to get the data we need to make people healthier.

    Turning your observation on any of those healthplans:
    If healthcare was cheap enough or mature enough so that everyone could have it then it would already be implemented wouldn’t it.

    Are we trying to change the future for the better or aren’t we ?

    $5 billion per year would pay for tens of thousands of machines and a research program for further development and refinement. 5% of the Clinton plan.

  25. I agree when lab-on-a-chips become available for longitudal/latitude studies, researchers (not necessarily Andy Grove) should certainly submit proposals to the NIH or whoever, and the federal government at the time should fund such research. I remember a while back such a survey (to determine root causes of asthma and such) that didn’t utilize lab-on-a-chips was cancelled by Bush, thus my mention if health care advances are the H+ raison d’aitre, why not lobby for the most progressive candidate? I’m hooked on Clinton’s $50 billion environment trust fund and her health rhetoric seems is the most sophisticated, but I’ve yet to look at any platform details of the other candidates.

    “If healthcare was cheap enough or mature enough so that everyone could have it then it would already be implemented wouldn’t it.”

    It is in Canada. The main drawback appears to be Soviet-style lineups for some medical procedures (MRIs for example). Those not wealthy enough to tacitly have the procedure done elsewhere suffer. From within the system it is worse for maybe the 50-75% highest income households. Since universal health care is 1/2 the price of US private insurance, it is an acceptable tradeoff instead of sickly citizens or flirting with bankruptcy.

    I agree active living and preventative medicine behaviours are the cheapest longevity gains in the Western world, but how specifically to initiate this? In Canada the PM has given a tax-break for children’s recreational sports dues. I think everyone wants athletic lifestyles for their population. How?
    Processed foods are subsidized and so much cheaper than fresh foods. When I used to be a labourer, I had a lunch choice of a $6 Subway sandwich or a $2 box of noname cookies. Guess which I could afford? If I go into Mc Donald’s, the cheap burgers are less than $2 and the health menu much more. What you really seem to be espousing is a tax on livestock/hog farmers and a tax on processed foods containing veggie oils? Is there any superior solution or should H+ proponents be lobbying to treat unhealthy food companies like cigarette makers (and soon big oil)?
    I know H+ are tacitly concerned with cutting-edge longevity gains, but prerequisite funding for the research dollars will be drained fighting obesity…

    I agree $5 billion would certainly advance lab-on-chip timetables, but cost-effectively? I think lab-on-a-chip diagnostic technologies are derived from a much larger semiconductor manufacturing industry; some underutilized semiconductor processees eventually trickled down to be used for other purposes. If so, I wouldn’t necessarily think $5 billion would buy a whole host of deflationary manufacturing processes, but maybe it would. How would the $5 billion be allocated? Are lab-on-a-chip technologies originated from an industrial library in their own right, or do they just piggyback on semiconductor advances? Would the $5 billion lead to anything novel that DARPA or NiH (who both have funded lab-on-a-chips at much higher levels) haven’t thought of yet? I’d like to see cheap medical diagnosis, but computer makers can afford Moore’s Law because everyone has a computer or items with chips. There isn’t an analogous economy of scale for medical surveys by lab-on-chips since the products (medical R+D knowledge) take years to decades to output.

  26. One of the objectives of gathering the data on individual health fluctuations on an as close to real time basis as possible is to enable personalized medicine and supplanting the FDA regime of 15 years studies on statistical populations. Provide the detailed data and analysis necessary so that individual computational models can be produced so that the drug and treatment recommendations can be

    –We performed virtual modeling of the treatment options on your computational health model. This treatment had the best results. We have verified FDA individual authorization from the FDA servers for the registered and validated individual treatment plan (just like registering a flight plan) We will monitor the effects and the treatment and see over the next few hours if everything is tracking as expected and continue monitoring to ensure that results are correct.

    The $5 billion/year would not just be to make lab on a chips cheaper. The goal is t get the same kind of detailed data collection on health biomarkers that we have on TV viewing habits. What is novel is findout what are the actual root causes of health changes not just for populations but for individuals.

    It took decades to change the food pyramid recommendations. Even though within a few years doctors and nutritionists knew that the guidelines were helping to increase obesity. If you are performing detailed tracking you can catch incorrect health guidelines early and provide highly detailed and personalized recommendations.

    Universal healthcare – Plenty of people fighting over that now (millions of people and billions of dollars). My impact on resolving that would be neglible. I think looking at the problems from a different angle is a better contribution.

    Why suggest things go through the NiH and federal government ? When has anything like my more radical idea gotten any kind of traction there ? Were the Nielson ratings justified and set up by the federal government ? where did you come up with me espousing a tax on farmers ? I made nothing like that statement. My main talk about $5 billion/year vs $110 billion is that my plan is far more affordable than what Hillary has been talking about and I believe would lead to better health for more people and it would help to lead to changing the statistical nature of FDA approvals.

    More exercise and healthier living: I am not a proponent of a nanny state in most cases. If you have looked at my writing and arguments with Dale, you would know that I am not going to be promoting socialists causes or nanny states. If people choose to not exercise that is there choice. I am certainly willing to look at some ways to tilt society to encourage and not block healthier choices.

    Healthier eating: Buy fruit, veggies and bag your own lunch. 33 cents for one lb of oranges, 80 cents for one lb of apples, bananas 33 cents a lb. Whole wheat bread $3 per loaf or 1.50 on sale. Smoked salmon about $10/lb. enough for 2 weeks of sandwiches.

    If one is performing calorie restriction with alternating semi-fasting. Monday, Wednesday, Friday would be semi-fasting days with only 400 calories with 20 grams of protein all day. Morning slimfast shake or salmon. And something similar in the evening. No lunch at all or just 20 nuts for a snack.

    Exercise – riding a bike or walking is cheaper than driving a car.

    Healthier living and near term longevity enhancement (how to initiate) – It is initiated for people who take the time to figure it out. The basics eat right and exercise are constantly being broadcast. All of the information is available. Just like info is available that people should stop smoking yet about 20% in western countries still do. where regulation and policy is needed is to get rid of sources of problems that are controlled by policy like switching from coal and fossil fuels to nuclear and renewables. This is the cause of 60,000 deaths in the USA and 6,000 in canada. Fortunately Ontario is on track to eliminating coal. Safer transportation systems is also within the control of federal government and city planners.

    For Canada, since it is provincial government paying for healthcare then actively managing public health would be in the financial interest of the provincial government. Just as the utilities pay people to switch out of less efficient appliances, there would be justification for financial rewards and penalties for health behaviorial targets or for keeping biomarkers within prescribed target ranges.

    fighting obesity: Myostatin inhibitors will increase muscle mass which will reduce obesity.

    Plenty of money goes to other stuff or is wasted. Still progress is being made and will be made. That is why it is a good thing that not all of the money is one pool with the government. A lot of individuals and corporations can make and fund other choices.

    H+ is not just about longevity.

  27. Brian, your idea to take bloodwork, urine analysis and perhaps skin biopses from individuals in their homes at several intervals per day and have the samples analyzed by a lab-on-a-chip, is good. But this idea (and whatever useful database it generates) is dependant on cheap lab-on-a-chips, not upon a $5 billion investment. I’m sure if you or I or anyone went to a venture cap with an idea for better medical diagnostic equipment or any medical equipment in general, we’d get the cash no problem (gelFAST/Sprixx already stole the idea I would’ve had years from now for portable hand-sanitizers).
    The barrier here is innovation, I think. You could just as easily say University X needs better solid-state clean room equipment, country Y needs a new synchrotron, or research park Z needs better interdisciplinary collaboration. Given cheap lab-on-a-chips, your $5 billion could no doubt go far. One prerequisite I can think of is good medical databases, something the various provinces of Canada are grappling at what velocity to introduce.

  28. Philip

    I pulled the $5 billion guesstimate out of the air. I merely stated that $5 billion/year would make the plan a slam dunk and yet still be far cheaper and have better results than other plans. Basically I had a few points.

    1) That there are better medical plans than what is being tossed around by presidential and politicians. (I was being told, that as a futurist, I should recommend one of the current plans that are being discussed.) I indicated that since I spend my time thinking about the future and the application of technology that I can come up with better and more innovative plans and tha I can recognize better plans. Thus I identified the medical plan proposed by Intel X-CEO Andy Grove and my own suggestion of using massive amounts of data gathering and getting the equipment for that cheaper and to develop better business models and processes to make it work.

    2) I also have suggestions which I think would lead to superior space programs, environment, energy and transportation programs.

    3) I think cheaper labs on a chip are coming from the progression of many businesses and technologies. The progress of technology and business models will likely enable this before the political situation were to change to enable and accelerate it with lesser and more expensive technology.

    4) It all goes back to the original arguments put forward about speculative futures. That futurists should not project superlative futures or technology.

    My argument has been that if all someone who really knows that kind of technologies that we already have and the kind of technologies that we are getting from research and development progress, and all that they can think to recommend is a “non superlative future”, then I make the case that they do not really understand what is available and possible or they are not being innovative is thinking about problems.

    You Philip have again made that point. We could radically alter public health and the development of our understanding medicine with a little innovation usage of what we have and some willingness for a few people to get out of the way of better ideas or for innovative people to bootstrap something better and avoid the blockages to innovation.

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