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 Russian Reaction Blog / Genetic EngineeringTeasers

Audacious Epigone has a blog post on the percentage of GSS respondents by religion who would have an abortion if it emerged their child has a genetic defect.

The term is used accurately in this context. The question reads “Suppose a test shows the baby has a serious genetic defect. Would you (yourself want to/want your partner to) have an abortion if a test shows the baby has a serious genetic defect?”

anepigone-abortion-if-genetic-defect

Let’s see what the results would be by race.

gss-eugenics-by-race

Very true to stereotype.

Here are the results by country of family origin:

gss-eugenics-by-national-origin

The Chinese are going to go for it (non-Chinese/Japanese Asian-Americans are more ambivalent, split 50/50).

The Hispanics won’t.

“Russia” respondents here are predominantly Jewish (55% say they were outright raised in a Jewish household). Ethnic Russian-Americans will likely be somewhere transitional between average whites and the Jews/Chinese.

It’s reasonable to posit that openness to genetic tinkering is described by a bell curve. Since genetically augmenting your offspring to be more intelligent is far more controversial than merely sparing him from a life of suffering by having an abortion, this would imply that only the tails would be interested in it. And not only are the Jews and American Asians more intelligent in the first place, but their openess to genetic augmentation tails are far, far fatter than those of whites, Latinos, or Blacks.

menaquinone4′s autistic Jewasian elite ruling over mulatto gamer underclass clicking sponsored content all day – here we come!

PS. That said, Timofey Pnin notes that Down abortion rate in the US is around 67% (article), so revealed preferences might not match stated ones.

PPS. Audacious Epigone comments: “It looks like higher fertility = less likely to say they’d abort a defective fetus.” That seems right.

gss-eugenics-by-ideal-fertility

 
• Category: Race/Ethnicity • Tags: Eugenics, Genetic Engineering 

Fundamentally solve the “intelligence problem,” and all other problems become trivial.

The problem is that this problem is a very hard one, and our native wit is unlikely to suffice. Moreover, because problems tend to get harder, not easier, as you advance up the technological ladder (Karlin, 2015), in a “business as usual” scenario with no substantial intelligence augmentation we will effectively only have a 100-200 year “window” to effect this breakthrough before global dysgenic fertility patterns rule it out entirely for a large part of the next millennium.

To avoid a period of prolonged technological and scientific stagnation, with its attendant risks of collapse, our global “hive mind” (or “noosphere”) will at a minimum have to sustain and preferably sustainably augment its own intelligence. The end goal is to create (or become) a machine, or network of machines, that recursively augment their own intelligence – “the last invention that man need ever make” (Good, 1965).

In light of this, there are five main distinct ways in which human (or posthuman) civilization could develop in the next millennium.

matrix-art

(1) Direct Technosingularity

kurzweil-singularity-is-near The development of artificial general intelligence (AGI), which should quickly bootstrap itself into a superintelligence – defined by Nick Bostrom as “any intellect that greatly exceeds the cognitive performance of humans in virtually all domains of interest” (Bostrom, 2014). Especially if this is a “hard” takeoff, the superintelligence will also likely become a singleton, an entity with global hegemony (Bostrom, 2006).

Many experts predict AGI could appear by the middle of the 21st century (Kurzweil, 2005; Müller & Bostrom, 2016). This should quickly auto-translate into a technological singularity, henceforth “technosingularity,” whose utilitarian value for humanity will depend on whether we manage to solve the AI alignment problem (i.e., whether we manage to figure out how to persuade the robots not to kill us all).

The technosingularity will creep up on us, and then radically transform absolutely everything, including the very possibility of any further meaningful prognostication – it will be “a throwing away of all the previous rules, perhaps in the blink of an eye, an exponential runaway beyond any hope of control” (Vinge, 1993). The “direct technosingularity” scenario is likely if AGI turns out to be relatively easy, as the futurist Ray Kurzweil and DeepMind CEO Demis Hassabis believe.

(2) The Age of Em

The development of Whole Brain Emulation (WBE) could accelerate the technosingularity, if it is relatively easy and is developed before AGI. As the economist Robin Hanson argues in his book The Age of Em, untold quintillions of emulated human minds, or “ems,” running trillions of times faster than biological wetware, should be able to effect a transition to true superintelligence and the technosingularity within a couple of human years (Hanson, 2016). This assumes that em civilization does not self-destruct, and that AGI does not ultimately prove to be an intractable problem. A simple Monte Carlo simulation by Anders Sandberg hints that WBE might be achieved by the 2060s (Sandberg, 2014).

deus-ex-rbs

Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

(3) Biosingularity

We still haven’t come close to exhausting our biological and biomechatronic potential for intelligence augmentation. The level of biological complexity has increased hyperbolically since the appearance of life on Earth (Markov & Korotayev, 2007), so even if both WBE and AGI turn out to be very hard, it might still be perfectly possible for human civilization to continue eking out huge further increases in aggregate cognitive power. Enough, perhaps, to kickstart the technosingularity.

There are many possible paths to a biosingularity.

The simplest one is through demographics: The tried and tested method of population growth (Korotaev & Khaltourina, 2006). As “technocornucopians” like Julian Simon argue, more people equals more potential innovators. However, only a tiny “smart fraction” can meaningfully contribute to technological progress, and global dysgenic fertility patterns imply that its share of the world population is going to go down inexorably now that the FLynn effect of environmental IQ increases is petering out across the world, especially in the high IQ nations responsible for most technological progress in the first place (Dutton, Van Der Linden, & Lynn, 2016). In the longterm “business as usual” scenario, this will result in an Idiocracy incapable of any further technological progress and at permanent risk of a Malthusian population crash should average IQ fall below the level necessary to sustain technological civilization.

As such, dysgenic fertility will have to be countered by eugenic policies or technological interventions. The former are either too mild to make a cardinal difference, or too coercive to seriously advocate. This leaves us with the technological solutions, which in turn largely fall into two bins: Genomics and biomechatronics.

The simplest route, already on the cusp of technological feasibility, is embryo selection for IQ. This could result in gains of one standard deviation per generation, and an eventual increase of as much as 300 IQ points over baseline once all IQ-affecting alleles have been discovered and optimized for (Hsu, 2014; Shulman & Bostrom, 2014). That is perhaps overoptimistic, since it assumes that the effects will remain strictly additive and will not run into diminishing returns.

Even so, a world with a thousand or a million times as many John von Neumanns running about will be more civilized, far richer, and orders of magnitude more technologically dynamic than what we have now (just compare the differences in civility, prosperity, and social cohesion between regions in the same country separated by a mere half of a standard deviation in average IQ, such as Massachussetts and West Virginia). This hyperintelligent civilization’s chances of solving the WBE and/or AGI problem will be correspondingly much higher.

The problem is that getting to the promised land will take about a dozen generations, that is, at least 200-300 years. Do we really want to wait that long? We needn’t. Once technologies such as CRISPR/Cas9 maturate, we can drastically accelerate the process and accomplish the same thing through direct gene editing. All this of course assumes that a concert of the world’s most powerful states doesn’t coordinate to vigorously clamp down on the new technologies.

Even so, we would still remain “bounded” by human biology. For instance, womb size and metabolic load are a crimper on brain size, and the specificities of our neural substrate places an ultimate ceiling even on “genetically corrected” human intellectual potential.

There are four potential ways to go beyond biology, presented below from “most realistic” to “most sci-fi”:

Neuropharmocology: Nootropics already exist, but they do not increase IQ by any significant amount and are unlikely to do so in the future (Bostrom, 2014).

Biomechatronics: The development of neural implants to augment human cognition beyond its peak biological potential. The first start-ups, based for now on treatment as opposed to enhancement, are beginning to appear, such as Kernel, where the futurist Randal Koene is the head scientist. This “cyborg” approach promises a more seamless, and likely safer, integration with ems and/or intelligent machines, whensoever they might appear – this is the reason why Elon Musk is a proponent of this approach. However, there’s a good chance that meaningful brain-machine interfaces will be very hard to implement (Bostrom, 2014).

Nanotechnology: Nanobots could potentially optimize neural pathways, or even create their own foglet-based neural nets.

Direct Biosingularity: If WBE and/or superintelligence prove to be very hard or intractable, or come with “minor” issues such as a lack of rigorous solutions to the AI alignment problem or the permanent loss of conscious experience (Johnson, 2016), then we might attempt a direct biosingularity – for instance, Nick Bostrom suggests the development of novel synthetic genes, and even more “exotic possibilities” such as vats full of complexly structured cortical tissue or “uplifted” transgenic animals, especially elephants or whales that can support very large brains (Bostrom, 2014). The terminal result of a true biosingularity could might be some kind of “ecotechnic singleton,” e.g. Stanisław Lem’s Solaris, a planet dominated by a globe-spanning sentient ocean.

Bounded by the speed of neuronal chemical reactions, it is safe to say that the biosingularity will be a much slower affair than The Age of Em or a superintelligence explosion, not to mention the technosingularity that would likely soon follow either of those two events. However, human civilization in this scenario might still eventually achieve the critical mass of cognitive power needed to solve WBE or AGI, thus setting off the chain reaction that leads to the technosingularity.

great-filter

(4) Eschaton

Nick Bostrom defined existential risk thus: “One where an adverse outcome would either annihilate Earth-originating intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential.(Bostrom, 2002)

We can divide existential risks into four main bins: Geoplanetary; Anthropic; Technological; and Philosophical.

In any given decade, a gamma ray burst or even a very big asteroid could snuff us out in our earthly cradle. However, the background risk is both constant and extremely low, so it would be cosmically bad luck for a geoplanetary Götterdämmerung to do us in just as we are about to enter the posthuman era.

There are three big sources of “anthropic” existential risk: Nuclear war, climate change, and the exhaustion of high-EROEI energy sources.

Fears of atomic annihilation are understandable, but even a full-scale thermonuclear exchange between Russia and the US is survivable, and will not result in the collapse of industrial civilization ala A Canticle for Leibowitz or the Fallout video games, let alone human extinction (Kahn, 1960; Kearny, 1979). This was true during the Cold War and it is doubly true today, when nuclear weapons stocks are much lower. To be sure, some modest percentage of the world population will die, and a majority of the capital stock in the warring nations will be destroyed, but as Herman Kahn might have said, this is a tragic but nonetheless distinguishable outcome compared to a true “existential risk.”

Much the same can be said of anthropogenic climate change. While it would probably do more harm than good, at least in the medium-term (Stager, 2011), even the worst outcomes like a clathrate collapse will most likely not translate into James Lovelock’s apocalyptic visions of “breeding pairs” desperately eking out a hardscrabble survival in the Arctic. The only truly terminal outcome would be a runaway greenhouse effect that turns Earth into Venus, but there is simply nowhere near enough carbon on our planetary surface for that to happen.

As regards global energy supplies, while the end of high-density fossil fuels might somewhat reduce living standards relative to what they would have otherwise been, there is no evidence it would cause economic decline, let alone technological regression back to the Olduvai Gorge conditions as some of the most alarmist “doomers” have claimed. We still have a lot of fat to cut! Ultimately, the material culture even of an energy-starved country like Cuba compares very positively to those of 95% of all humans who have ever lived. Besides, there are still centuries’ worth of coal reserves left on the planet, and nuclear and solar power have been exploited to only a small fraction of their potential.

By far the biggest technological risk is malevolent AGI, so much so that entire research outfits such as MIRI have sprung up to work on it. However, it is so tightly coupled to the Technosingularity scenario that I will refrain from further commentary on it here.

This leaves mostly just the “philosophical,” or logically derived, existential risks. For instance, the computer simulation we are in might end (Bostrom, 2003) – perhaps because we are not interesting enough (if we fail to reach technosingularity), or for lack of hardware to simulate an intelligence explosion (if we do). Another disquieting possibility is implied by the foreboding silence all around as – as Enrico Fermi asked, “Where is everyone?” Perhaps we are truly alone. Or perhaps alien post-singularity civilizations stay silent for a good reason.

We began to blithely broadcast our presence to the void more than a century ago, so if there is indeed a “superpredator” civilization keeping watch over the galaxy, ready to swoop down at the first sign of a potential rival (e.g. for the simulation’s limited computing resources), then our doom may have already long been written onto the stars. However, unless they have figured out how to subvert the laws of physics, their response will be bounded by the speed of light. As such, the question of whether it takes us half a century or a millenium to solve the intelligence problem – and by extension, all other problems, including space colonization – assumes the most cardinal importance!

manyukhin-tower-of-sin

Vladimir Manyukhin, Tower of Sin.

(5) The Age of Malthusian Industrialism (or, “Business as Usual”)

The 21st century turns out to be a disappointment in all respects. We do not merge with the Machine God, nor do we descend back into the Olduvai Gorge by way of the Fury Road. Instead, we get to experience the true torture of seeing the conventional, mainstream forecasts of all the boring, besuited economists, businessmen, and sundry beigeocrats pan out.

Human genetic editing is banned by government edict around the world, to “protect human dignity” in the religious countries and “prevent inequality” in the religiously progressive ones. The 1% predictably flout these regulations at will, improving their progeny while keeping the rest of the human biomass down where they believe it belongs, but the elites do not have the demographic weight to compensate for plummeting average IQs as dysgenics decisively overtakes the FLynn Effect.

We discover that Kurzweil’s cake is a lie. Moore’s Law stalls, and the current buzz over deep learning turns into a permanent AI winter. Robin Hanson dies a disappointed man, though not before cryogenically freezing himself in the hope that he would be revived as an em. But Alcor goes bankrupt in 2145, and when it is discovered that somebody had embezzled the funds set aside for just such a contingency, nobody can be found to pay to keep those weird ice mummies around. They are perfunctorily tossed into a ditch, and whatever vestigial consciousness their frozen husks might have still possessed seeps and dissolves into the dirt along with their thawing lifeblood. A supermall is build on their bones around what is now an extremely crowded location in the Phoenix megapolis.

For the old concerns about graying populations and pensions are now ancient history. Because fertility preferences, like all aspects of personality, are heritable – and thus ultracompetitive in a world where the old Malthusian constraints have been relaxed – the “breeders” have long overtaken the “rearers” as a percentage of the population, and humanity is now in the midst of an epochal baby boom that will last centuries. Just as the human population rose tenfold from 1 billion in 1800 to 10 billion by 2100, so it will rise by yet another order of magnitude in the next two or three centuries. But this demographic expansion is highly dysgenic, so global average IQ falls by a standard deviation and technology stagnates. Sometime towards the middle of the millenium, the population will approach 100 billion souls and will soar past the carrying capacity of the global industrial economy.

Then things will get pretty awful.

But as they say, every problem contains the seed of its own solution. Gnon sets to winnowing the population, culling the sickly, the stupid, and the spendthrift. As the neoreactionary philosopher Nick Land notes, waxing Lovecraftian, “There is no machinery extant, or even rigorously imaginable, that can sustain a single iota of attained value outside the forges of Hell.”

In the harsh new world of Malthusian industrialism, Idiocracy starts giving way to A Farewell to Alms, the eugenic fertility patterns that undergirded IQ gains in Early Modern Britain and paved the way to the industrial revolution. A few more centuries of the most intelligent and hard-working having more surviving grandchildren, and we will be back to where we are now today, capable of having a second stab at solving the intelligence problem but able to draw from a vastly bigger population for the task.

Assuming that a Tyranid hive fleet hadn’t gobbled up Terra in the intervening millennium…

2061su-longing-for-home

2061.su, Longing for Home

The Forking Paths of the Third Millennium

In response to criticism that he was wasting his time on an unlikely scenario, Robin Hanson pointed out that even if there was just a 1% chance of The Age of Em coming about, studying it was well worth his while considering the sheer amount of future consciences and potential suffering at stake.

Although I can imagine some readers considering some of these scenarios as less likely than others, I think it’s fair to say that all of them are at least minimally plausible, and that most people would also assign a greater than 1% likelihood to a majority of them. As such, they are legitimate objects of serious consideration.

My own probability assessment is as follows:

(1) (a) Direct Technosingularity – 25%, if Kurzweil/MIRI/DeepMind are correct, with a probability peak around 2045, and most likely to be implemented via neural networks (Lin & Tegmark, 2016).

(2) The Age of Em – <1%, since we cannot obtain functional models even of 40 year old microchips from scanning them, to say nothing of biological organisms (Jonas & Kording, 2016)

(3) (a) Biosingularity to Technosingularity – 50%, since the genomics revolution is just getting started and governments are unlikely to either want to, let alone be successful at, rigorously suppressing it. And if AGI is harder than the optimists say, and will take considerably longer than mid-century to develop, then it’s a safe bet that IQ-augmented humans will come to play a critical role in eventually developing it. I would put the probability peak for a technosingularity from a biosingularity at around 2100.

(3) (b) Direct Biosingularity – 5%, if we decide that proceeding with AGI is too risky, or that consciousness both has cardinal inherent value and is only possible with a biological substrate.

(4) Eschaton – 10%, of which: (a) Philosophical existential risks – 5%; (b) Malevolent AGI – 1%; (c) Other existential risks, primarily technological ones: 4%.

(5) The Age of Malthusian Industrialism – 10%, with about even odds on whether we manage to launch the technosingularity the second time round.

There is a huge amount of literature on four of these five scenarios. The most famous book on the technosingularity is Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near, though you could make do with Vernor Vinge’s classic article The Coming Technological Singularity. Robin Hanson’s The Age of Em is the book on its subject. Some of the components of a potential biosingularity are already within our technological horizon – Stephen Hsu is worth following on this topic, though as regards biomechatronics, for now it remains more sci-fi than science (obligatory nod to the Deus Ex video game franchise). The popular literature on existential risks of all kinds is vast, with Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence being the definitional work on AGI risks. It is also well worth reading his many articles on philosophical existential risks.

Ironically, by far the biggest lacuna is with regards to the “business as usual” scenario. It’s as if the world’s futurist thinkers have been so consumed with the most exotic and “interesting” scenarios (e.g. superintelligence, ems, socio-economic collapse, etc.) that they have neglected to consider what will happen if we take all the standard economic and demographic projections for this century, apply our understanding of economics, psychometrics, technology, and evolutionary psychology to them, and stretch them out to their logical conclusions.

The resultant Age of Industrial Malthusianism is not only something that’s easier to imagine than many of the other scenarios, and by extension easier for modern people to connect with, but it is also something that is genuinely interesting in its own right. It is also very important to understand well. That is because it is by no means a “good scenario,” even if it is perhaps the most “natural” one, since it will eventually entail unimaginable amounts of suffering for untold billions a few centuries down the line, when the time comes to balance the Malthusian equation. We will also have to spend an extended amount of time under an elevated level of philosophical existential risk. This would be the price we will have to pay for state regulations that block the path to a biosingularity today.

Sources

Bostrom, N. (2002). Existential risks. Journal of Evolution and Technology / WTA, 9(1), 1–31.

Bostrom, N. (2003). Are We Living in a Computer Simulation? The Philosophical Quarterly, 53(211), 243–255.

Bostrom, N. (2006). What is a Singleton. Linguistic and Philosophical Investigations, 5(2), 48–54.

Bostrom, N. (2014). Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies. Oxford University Press.

Dutton, E., Van Der Linden, D., & Lynn, R. (2016). The negative Flynn Effect: A systematic literature review. Intelligence, 59, 163–169.

Good, I. J. (1965). Speculations Concerning the First Ultraintelligent Machine. In F. Alt & M. Ruminoff (Eds.), Advances in Computers, volume 6. Academic Press.

Hanson, R. (2016). The Age of Em: Work, Love, and Life when Robots Rule the Earth. Oxford University Press.

Hsu, S. D. H. (2014, August 14). On the genetic architecture of intelligence and other quantitative traits. arXiv [q-bio.GN]. Retrieved from http://arxiv.org/abs/1408.3421

Johnson, M. (2016). Principia Qualia: the executive summary. Open Theory. Retrieved from http://opentheory.net/2016/12/principia-qualia-executive-summary/

Jonas, E., & Kording, K. (2016). Could a neuroscientist understand a microprocessor? bioRxiv. Retrieved from http://www.biorxiv.org/content/early/2016/05/26/055624.abstract

Kahn, H. (1960). On thermonuclear war (Vol. 141). Cambridge Univ Press.

Karlin, A. (2015). Introduction to Apollo’s Ascent. The Unz Review. Retrieved from http://www.unz.com/akarlin/intro-apollos-ascent/

Kearny, C. H. (1979). Nuclear war survival skills. NWS Research Bureau.

Korotaev, A. V., & Khaltourina, D. (2006). Introduction to Social Macrodynamics: Secular Cycles and Millennial Trends in Africa. Editorial URSS.

Kurzweil, R. (2005). The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. Penguin.

Lin, H. W., & Tegmark, M. (2016, August 29). Why does deep and cheap learning work so well?arXiv [cond-mat.dis-nn]. Retrieved from http://arxiv.org/abs/1608.08225

Markov, A. V., & Korotayev, A. V. (2007). Phanerozoic marine biodiversity follows a hyperbolic trend. Palaeoworld, 16(4), 311–318.

Müller, V. C., & Bostrom, N. (2016). Future Progress in Artificial Intelligence: A Survey of Expert Opinion. In V. C. Müller (Ed.), Fundamental Issues of Artificial Intelligence (pp. 555–572). Springer International Publishing.

Sandberg, A. (2014). Monte Carlo model of brain emulation development. Retrieved from https://www.fhi.ox.ac.uk/reports/2014-1.pdf

Shulman, C., & Bostrom, N. (2014). Embryo Selection for Cognitive Enhancement: Curiosity or Game-changer? Global Policy, 5(1), 85–92.

Stager, C. (2011). Deep Future: The Next 100,000 Years of Life on Earth. Macmillan.

Vinge, V. (1993). The coming technological singularity: How to survive in the post-human era. In Vision 21: Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering in the Era of Cyberspace. Retrieved from https://www-rohan.sdsu.edu/faculty/vinge/misc/singularity.html

 

Like my post on Resource Depletion and Peak Oil, this is intended as a reference article for another key future trend. One important observation I will make at the beginning is that the approach of Limits To Growth (already imminent in the developed world) will not lead to a cessation in technological growth. In fact, they might even act as a spur to innovation, because 1) the end of growth prospects in material product will encourage a reallocation of resources to doing things better or more efficiently, and 2) the Boserupian Effect (in the Malthusian context – “relative overpopulation creates additional stimuli to generate and apply carrying-capacity-of-land-raising innovations”). So to my fellow peakists, please bear these qualifiers in mind before condemning me for “cornucopian” or “techno-progressive” heresies.

One of the best summaries is the Wikipedia page with the List of emerging technologies and I’ll be drawing heavily on it. I’ve marked out the technologies I consider to be more important and MOST IMPORTANT. Please feel free to chime in with your own suggestions.

Energy & Transport

OVERVIEW: Up to 2050, the dominant trends will be 1) exploitation of already-existing energy sources like coal and natural gas, as well as conventional oil in ever deeper and remoter locations, with marginally improving technology, 2) new unconventional hydrocarbon sources such as shale gas or coalbed methane, and 3) a massive expansion in nuclear power (assuming problems in the supply side don’t materialize early). Many modern renewable, battery, and energy efficiency technologies are critically reliant on Rare Earth Metals. Too bad that 1) you need energy to mine them, 2) they peaking at the global level (see 1, 2, 3, 4) and 3) their production has been largely monopolized by China. Though wind and solar are becoming more efficient, they are starting from a low base, which added to their other problems (dependency on REM’s, low EROEI, low energy density, intermittence, etc) will prevent them from becoming dominant energy sources within the next few decades. However, space-based solar power may be an exception. If an extensive space infrastructure is built up, e.g. for military purposes, then adding on an energy component will become highly desirable.

Information Technology

OVERVIEW: As the decades go by, and as long as industrialism remains intact (i.e. at least until 2040), the line separating the real world from the virtual world of cyberspace will become blurred. There will be ultra high-bandwidth communications, perhaps directly connecting human brains in reality (telepathy?), as well as to their avatar within other full immersion virtual realities. Specialized AI’s will proliferate as ever more “conventional” products become digitized and act as “virtual assistants” to cyborg humans in “augmented reality”. Perhaps some AI’s will pass the Turing test (Ray Kurzweil suggests 2029), helped in part by accurate brainscans (enabled by nanobots injected into the bloodstream) and brain simulations (enabled by progress of Moore’s Law). The spread of these global, intelligent networks of cyborgs and AI’s will be a revolution unprecedented in history.

Biotech & Agriculture

OVERVIEW: Bioengineering will revolutionize the way people live and very soon – longer and healthier lives, largely free of degenerative diseases, and with enhanced physical and mental capabilities. Existing life forms will be modified or mated with machines, while entirely new bioconstructs may be created to fulfill specific purposes. And with the decline of the petroleum economy and the industrial agriculture it subsidizes, other techniques like permaculture, organic gardening, and hydroponics will become more prominent.

Robotics, Nanotech & Materials Science

OVERVIEW: Nanomanufacturing may revolutionize economic values, but only if it’s of the “bottom-up” variety; but there is little cause to expect a general breakthrough in this sphere until around 2040 at the earliest, since even the experimental basis for it is very weak now (upshot: we won’t die from gray goo). But there will be a great deal of innovations in materials building using nanotech using the “top-down” approach – lighter, tougher, stealthier, and more flexible, efficient, and resilient. This will improve many already existing technologies and physical assets.

  • The long process of miniaturization is at the heart of NANOTECHNOLOGY, the science of manipulating matter on the molecular and atomic scale (see molecular self-assembly, nanomaterials, molecular nanotechnology). Progress will advance along two fronts – smaller size, bigger complexity. Distant possibilities include the reengineering of the human body, building nanoscale “swarm bots” that can enter the human body and do anything from creating an inner virtual reality to killing her, and molecular replicators that could build anything or turn the world into “gray goo”. Its nearer and more realistic possibilities include powering the continuation of Moore’s Law and creating nanomaterials.
  • SWARM ROBOTICS involve many agents operating by simple rules and communicating with each other to organize complex outcomes (like bees or ants). Popularized in Crichton’s Prey novel.
  • Powered exoskeleton are suits that can increase the wearer’s strength, endurance, and mobility. Obvious applications to prosthetics, workers in hazardous conditions, and soldiers. Popularized in Iron Man films.
  • High-temperature superconductivity so as to create no loss conductors, frictionless bearings, magnetic levitation (MAGLEV) and lossless high-capacity accumulators. High-temperature superfluidity may enable frictionless mechanical devices. Huge efficiency savings will be made if such devices are developed at a cheap enough cost.
  • Nanomaterials are new materials created with nanotechnology such as fullerenes (e.g. carbon nanotubes needed for space elevators) or other nanoparticles “of particular interest for their mechanical, electrical, magnetic, optical, chemical and other properties” (e.g. see quantum dots, with applications in quantum computing, solar power, and LED’s). Metamaterials “are artificial materials engineered to provide properties which may not be readily available in nature” with applications such as the superlens, “cloaking” (stealth), and sensors.
  • Self-healing materials could detect and repair physical faults in a structure like biological organisms do. Programmable matter can change its actual physical properties “based upon user input or autonomous sensing”.

Military & Security

OVERVIEW: I really recommend you read On Future War, but in summary, networks will become more important than ever to warfare. But they must not only be intelligent and flexible, but also resilient, because they may be massively disrupted by precision weapons, EMP’s, and cyber attacks – should the networks they rely on fail, the units beneath them must retain cohesion to achieve victory. Surveillance is ubiquitous both on the battlespace and the home front, indeed, the two are hardly distinguishable. Railguns and battle lasers will revolutionize naval warfare, and in response naval platforms will have to become deeper, quieter, faster, nimbler. On the ground, tanks will be entirely sidelined by RPG’s, and combat will come to resemble first person shooter video games in almost all respects. Drones and MANPADS will sideline legacy fighters, smart RPG’s will sideline tanks. Developments in missile defense will force a move to newer nuclear delivery systems (hypersonic bombers and scramjet cruise missiles). There will be “space wars” between satellites and ASAT weapons for control of the commanding heights and C&C might even move into space.

  • Already covered in a series on this blog. See On Future War, Revolution in Naval Warfare, Augmented Reality Warfare, Thinking about Nuclear War, and my upcoming articles on future aerospace warfare (Battle for the Heavens), on cyberwar, and on biological warfare.
  • [Key terms covered above: ballistic missile defense, anti-missile shields (including "plasma shield), scramjets, EM railguns, battle lasers, supercavitating torpedoes (and even submersibles), "smart dust", hypersonic cruise missiles, hypersonic strategic bombers, battlespace awareness, precision weapons, fuel air bombs, EMP bombs, NCW/4GW/RMA, cyberwar, ekranoplan, space war, drones, Augmented Reality Warfare, "cybernetic reprimitivization", "ecological war", the Iron Light Phalanx, cyborg soldiers, stealth, semi-submersible arsenal ships, military bioconstructs.]
  • The modern SURVEILLANCE STATE (e.g. particularly well developed in Britain) is highly subject to Moore’s Law: databases = information storage, detection = pattern recognition & processing power, based on networks, increasingly mobile (can be operated from drones, satellites) and all-encompassing (due to rising ubiquity and sensitivity of sensors). This may, arguably, encourage corruption and authoritarianism. Though the technological advances are unstoppable, one solution is to insist on a democratization of surveillance power (i.e. sousveillance) to encourage the emergence of a “transparent society“.
  • The HI-MEMS project to create cyborg insects that can be controlled by a military for surveillance and reconnaissance purposes.
  • Due to falling costs of DNA sequencing, the means for making biological warfare will become accessible to small groups and individuals (Biowar for Dummies).
  • See also force fields, particle beam weapons, The age of the great battlestars.

Other Developments

OVERVIEW: My own pet technologies…

  • GEOENGINEERING hardly exists as a scientific discipline today, but it will become all important by 2030. Runaway climate change is pretty much inevitable and geoengineering will be a last ditch attempt to right the careening Earth ship, but has only break even chances of success at best (see The Final Gambit: Geoengineering and S/O forum discussion about this for more details).
  • The science of SYSTEM DYNAMICS will achieve far greater prominence in all walks of life. It is central to understanding both the information networks that are overspreading the world, and the systemic limits to growth on the planet that we are breaching. It can also draw on the emerging science of cliodynamics, still in its incubation period, that seeks to mathematically model historical processes. Combining its insights with the World3 model, the various Hubbert’s peak models, etc, will surely yield great benefits in understanding current trends and envisioning our likely future path (and how to avoid the best outcomes).
  • I suspect one side effect of increased computing power, combined with greater understanding of limits to growth and respect for the systems approach, will be a rehabilitation of central planning (e.g. as first argued in the book Towards a New Socialism by P. Cockshott A. Cottrell). Why should be intuitively obvious. The emerging complex of surveillance systems, AI’s, databases, and networks should solve the classic problem bedeviling all earlier attempts at real socialism, the problem of getting accurate, real-time information about the state of the economy. But in the future, all this information will be at the central agent’s fingertips, far more than any individual (or even cyborg) could hope to possess let alone analyze. Central planning will no longer be a byword for inefficiency and cronyism; it will be the wave of the future! See also my posts on ecotechnic dictatorship and collapse ethics.

Instead of a Conclusion…

… I’m writing a “Top 10″ list* of the most significant future technologies, taking into account their 1) immediacy, and most importantly 2) their feasibility of achieving transformative global effects.

  1. Though the full ramifications of Artificial Intelligence are some distance away, they will be truly epochal in their significance (a superintelligent AI is the last invention man need ever make). Even before that period, specialized AI’s will become to impinge on and dominate ever wider spheres of human activity – driving, playing chess, sorting information, firing guns… and most importantly, developing other technologies (including better AI’s).
  2. Bioengineering enables everything from better crop productivity to life extension; though unlike AI this technology won’t displace humans, it has the potential to redefine what it means to be human. Not only will we be able to play God by modifying existing species, or creating entirely new ones to serve our whim, but we can change our own species and become transhumans. And significantly, biotech is already a huge industry.
  3. Permaculture, with its offshoots, may be the most significant technology we leave behind to our descendants after 2050. It will play an important role in mitigating the stresses placed on the agricultural system by energy shortages and climate change; should industrial civilization collapse altogether, then these farming techniques may be able to sustain a few billion people at sustenance levels and hence spare the world a full-blown dieoff.
  4. There will be rising interest in Geoengineering as the true scale of our global warming dilemma reveals itself in the immediate decades ahead. Eventually, some kind of aerosol or ocean seeding solution will be attempted in a desperate bid to prevent the world’s metamorphosis into Mad Max in Waterworld. I suspect its success (or not) will largely determine whether industrial civilization collapses or ekes out a path to a sustainable steady state by 2100.
  5. People will spend more and more time in Virtual Reality, which will become increasingly indistinguishable from real reality in some ways. Prime candidates for this are video games and movies (you are the direct protagonist or observer, respectively), social networking sites like Facebook (meet your “Friends” in person… on a deep space cruiser!), or even cyberspace in general.
  6. The falling costs of computer technology and networks, coupled with the rising social tensions of the Age of Scarcity Industrialism, will make Mass Surveillance systems irresistible for any state. The main question is whether it will be the unaccountable CCTV type, or the democratic “transparent society” type. And needless to say, advanced surveillance technologies will become more vital than ever on the ultra-lethal future battlespace…
  7. Exploiting “top-down” Nanotechnology will reliably deliver continuing improvements in computer hardware, as well as useful new materials such as carbon nanotubes and quantum dots. If “bottom-up” nanotechnology is realized, then this technology will become truly transformative, and will move up to the #2 slot. However, this prospect is probably at least several decades distant.
  8. Pacemakers, prosthetic limbs, even eye contacts can be classified as Human-Machine Interfaces. But the future possibilities are far grander. Exoskeletons can multiply human power and endurance. Bionic contacts with embedded “virtual assistant” AI’s can make people far more functionally intelligent (e.g. integrating people’s faces with their personal info streamed from their social networking profiles), thus enabling people, now cyborgs, to experience an “augmented reality”.
  9. Life Extension may hold the solution to Europe’s and Japan’s aging crisis. If old people become functionally younger, they can get back into the workforce instead of burdening their welfare states with expensive treatments for degenerative diseases.
  10. This is a bit of a wildcard, but on the energy front I’m going to throw out Space-Based Solar Power. In my view, it may be the most reliable way of solving our energy dilemma for the longue durée. Unlike hydrocarbons or uranium, it will never peak (at least not until the Sun dies). Far away from the debris in Low Earth Orbits, it should be relatively safe and stable once positioned in place. Energy can be constantly microwaved down to Earth, where it is used immediately or stored in batteries. The upfront costs are prohibitive, and in the coming age of fiscal and energy stresses many nations will be unwilling or unable to foot the bill. However, they also have an innate interest in building up their space capabilities, and providing space-based solar power may constitute an excellent economic justification for the expenditures. If industrial civilization survives its post-hydrocarbons transition and contains runaway climate change, then the second part of the 21st century will be a solar one.

I’m sure I’ve made plenty of mistakes and missed many other important technologies in this post, so please feel free to chime in on this score.

* Actually, Information Technology is not only transformative by itself, giving us ever bigger networks and more powerful computers, but it also drives progress in most of the other technologies on this list! Without its Moore’s Law dynamics, we would be in a deep technological rut. The reason it is not on the list of emerging technologies is because it has already fully emerged… it is now part of the technological background, much like the wheel or the internal combustion engine.

(Reprinted from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
Anatoly Karlin
About Anatoly Karlin

I am a blogger, thinker, and businessman in the SF Bay Area. I’m originally from Russia, spent many years in Britain, and studied at U.C. Berkeley.

One of my tenets is that ideologies tend to suck. As such, I hesitate about attaching labels to myself. That said, if it’s really necessary, I suppose “liberal-conservative neoreactionary” would be close enough.

Though I consider myself part of the Orthodox Church, my philosophy and spiritual views are more influenced by digital physics, Gnosticism, and Russian cosmism than anything specifically Judeo-Christian.