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Fantastic optimism!

In my younger days I had a soft spot for well crafted “space opera,” with David Brin’s “Uplift” series being an excellent exemplar. And yet the reality is that part of me always felt that these were more akin to space fantasy than science fiction. The reason is that a world such as the one you see in Star Trek, where aliens often meet each other at technological parity, just did not seem intuitively plausible to me. Rather, much more likely was the dark universe Gregory Benford outlines in Great Sky River. In this imaginging intelligent life forms meet across a chasm of technological sophistication which makes the idea of a broad class of organisms with the term “intelligent life form” laughable; humans were to the “higher intelligences” in this universe as ants are to us. Benford’s novel was depressing from a human perspective, and its coldly Malthusian universe reflects the pessimism of many biologists. I first encountered this in Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee, where the author suggests that optimism in regards to “First Contact” promoted by astronomers such as Carl Sagan in his work Cosmos was incredibly naive. Diamond’s basic contention was that if the universe was full of intelligent life forms, then we had better be glad that they weren’t here yet, because it probably wouldn’t end well for human beings, using our own planet’s encounters between different civilizations as models.

But I no longer even hold to the position that the cosmos is teeming with intelligences of varied levels of sophistication. Rather, I would guess that we humans are all there is in this galaxy.* I don’t speak of this often because I haven’t thought about this issue in great depth. And with these incredibly big picture inferences deduced from sparse data points one has to admit (at least I do!) that one’s confidence is just not high. What can a puny human truly grasp?

So why would I suggest that we are the only intelligence? Basically, the Fermi paradox. Rather that outlining my inchoate thoughts I’ll point you to Nathan Taylor’s posts at Praxtime, Life on Wet Planets, and Intelligent life is just getting started. With the appropriate caveat that we don’t really know much about this in any deep sense, it strikes me that major bottleneck for the emergence of intelligent life is the transition from simple unicellular life forms to multicellular organisms. Therefore the prediction from this model is that the universe is filled with life, but of the single celled kind. As Taylor lays out time almost ran out for the emergence of intelligent life on this planet (the sun is getting brighter, and it seems like that runaway greenhouse is inevitable ~1 billion years into the future).

Yet please note that we are likely just the first intelligent life form. If we go extinct soon before developing a form of automaton which can populate the galaxy there is plenty of time for other organisms similar to ourselves to emerge. The local universe is relatively young when measured in terms of the future existence of G (or K) class stars. That means the “responsibility” of being the first intelligent galactic species is somewhat attenuated on a cosmic scale.

Addendum: It is possible that the universe is teaming with intelligent non-technological life forms, and the upward ratchet of cultural complexity of Homo sapiens is a major bottleneck. I doubt that, therefore I have omitted a qualifier of technological intelligences, because I do think that if intelligences were numerous then many would have become technologically sophisticated.

* The whole space of possibilities is so much larger than our galaxy that I am somewhat wary of making broad assertions about the universe.

• Category: Science • Tags: Contingency, Futurism 
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H. sapiens sailermoon?

I’m somewhat interested in genetics and evolution, to engage in a bit of understatement. My friends know this, so whenever a genetics and evolution themed story or meme explodes in the media they ask me about it. A large fraction of the time I get irritated, because the media often grasps upon very sensational nuggets, distorts them out of shape, and makes genuine understanding difficult. A few weeks ago it was the story of an artist being able to reconstruct portraits from DNA, credulously reported by NPR and The Smithsonian. As someone who tries to keep up on the latest genetic research in forensic genetics I knew the media depictions of what this individual was doing were simply not realistic. Either the artist in question was a fraud, or the media was engaging in conscious or unconscious misrepresentation and conflation. If Matthew Herper’s reporting is correct, and I see no reason to doubt it, seems more likely the latter than the former. Before that there was the genius Chinese babies meme, the robustness of which is attested to by its interjection into the Geoffrey Miller saga (an update was offered, but it is still notable that the original sensationalism has had more legs than subsequent corrections of that sensationalism). Finally, today there emerged a bizarre critique of weblogs over at Current Biology, which was nicely satirized by Christie Wilcox. It always strikes me as rich when institutions which still publish in print and have reasonable overhead costs (e.g. editors) make a big show of their oversight, but due to their power and prominence they are often invariably the exact sort of organization which is perfectly placed to launch a ridiculous meme in the first place!

So in this vein today Forbes publishes a piece titled How The Human Face Might Look In 100,000 Years. I saw this on Twitter and Facebook, and my first thought after seeing the headline was 1) probably totally unfounded in substance 2) multiple people are going to try and sound me out on this. That’s exactly what happened. When Herper asked on Twitter for thoughts on the piece I responded with a vulgarity and a query as to why the faces of the future had the hair of men and women of 2013. I also suggested that these are more likely to be the faces of the future. Why is the piece so ridiculous? Just click through to the article and you’ll see that the faces of the future look something like Rick Hunter and Lynn Minmay.

As far as the text of the piece it reminds me of the incoherence of mediocre space opera. On the one hand humans have access to all sorts of advanced genetic engineering, and yet they value being human-looking due to a mysterious implicit Orange Catholic Bible. Actually taking the inferences seriously is even more humorous:

Eyes will meanwhile get larger, as attempts to colonize Earth’s solar system and beyond see people living in the dimmer environments of colonies further away from the Sun than Earth. Similarly, skin will become more pigmented to lessen the damage from harmful UV radiation outside of the Earth’s protective ozone.

Does anyone believe that future Titanians will deal with the distance from the sun simply via enlarging their eyes? Even today we have infrared goggles, so one presumes that more modular technologies which one might discard and rotate between are going to be more important. Similarly, the nature of solar radiation is such that one will need more than darker skin. Of course there is likely going to be terraforming, but in that case humans could probably create their own artificial ozone layers as well. For more entertainment read the whole thing.

The bigger issue is that these sorts of projections into the far future are folly. It presumes that while technological advancement accelerates by leaps and bounds, our culture is as static as the Oldowan. I am very skeptical even of 100 year projections! And you should be too. If technological civilization still exists 100,000 years from now, and our species has not gone through cycles of booms and busts, then I presume that these far future individuals will live in worlds far less recognizable than that of Alvin in The City and the Stars. If the world of 98,000 years A.D. is recognizable, then something has seriously gone wrong with technological civilization and human cultural evolution.

(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Science • Tags: Anthropology, Futurism 
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Life Expectancy Rises Around the World, Study Finds:

A sharp decline in deaths from malnutrition and diseases like measles and tuberculosis has caused a shift in global mortality patterns over the past 20 years, according to a new report, with far more of the world’s population now living into old age and dying from diseases more associated with rich countries, like cancer and heart disease.

In the West declinism has set in, for legitimate reasons. But that doesn’t mean that things aren’t getting better in the rest of the world. They are. What irritates me is that some of my acquaintances who fancy themselves cosmopolitan internationalists nevertheless engage in declinism, despite their avowed concern for the well-being of humans as a whole. Yet their fixation on the decline in the relative status of their own societies, and their own status, reveals the transparent false signalling nature of their cosmopolitan internationalism.

Mind you, I think it is legitimate to worry about your own, and your society’s, position the relative order of things. But to constructively address this issue you need to not confuse your own station with that of the aggregate whole.

(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Science • Tags: Culture, Future, Futurism 
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This is an incredible story, Meet ROBOT-Rx, The Robot Pharmacist Doling Out 350 Million Doses Per Year:

If medical errors are one of the leading causes of death, and medication dispensing errors account for 21 percent of all medical errors, then higher accuracy through robots would be a welcomed change. It’s happening, and not just with ROBOT-Rx. Both the University of California, San Francisco’s Automated Pharmacy and the PillPick system at New Jersey’s Holy Name Hospital work ’round the clock filling thousands of doses each day.

The end result of greater back end automation will be to bring the pharmacists to the front, allowing them more time to interact with patients and answer doctors’ questions. As they introduce robotics into production lines, companies are quick to say the robots won’t take away jobs, that it frees up people for more skilled tasks. At least for the pharmacist, this seems to be true.

From what I have read the UCSF pharmacy has been an incredible success in terms of reducing errors.

(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Science • Tags: Futurism, Robots 
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In 2007 Reihan Salam asked me when the $1,000 genome was going arrive. On paper, probably around this year, or early next. But as I’ve been suggesting it really isn’t that big of a deal (the sticker price isn’t real in any case, someone will want the publicity). Over at The Crux I try and do my own impersonation of Peter Diamandis. But I wanted to emphasize that genomics alone, ubiquitous as it will be, is not going to be the “real deal.” Rather, it has to be integrated into a much thicker and richer information environment plugged into more efficient analytic tools. Personal genomics is a visible manifestation of the likely revolution in the health information ecology which is possible just around the corner. As an example, Mike Snyder starts out with his genome in his presentations on the outlines of this nascent revolution, but probably the more important aspects have to do with fine-grained tracking of his biomarkers (which resulted in actionable information for him personally). Imagine a daily check-up instead of a six month check-up (or a minute by minute tracking system for the hypochondriacs out there).

With all that said, keep in mind the dynamic that Christina Agapakis highlights in The Crux. The hype around some technologies always results in them being 10-20 years into the future.* Artificial intelligence is probably a case of this, but less commented upon is the similar phenomenon in humanoid robotics. And yet it is easy to “problematize” the contention that robotics hasn’t yielded anything; I put the qualifier humanoid there precisely because my understanding is that robotics is more pervasive away from prying eyes than we might think. Genetic engineering probably hasn’t hit people as being a revolutionary technology, but it is, in the form of GMOs. There are many ways that we don’t live in the world of the Jetsons, but there are many ways that the Jetsons could not imagine our own world. We see the visions of the future through a dark mirror.

* Shiny unitards are always in the future it seems.

(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Science • Tags: Futurism, Genetics, Genomics 
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Believe it or not I am probably mildly skeptical about the possibilities for the 21st century as a canvas for human flourishing. That is one reason I like to emphasize the positive, because it is important for me to not get caught up in my own bias. Over the last two human generations (50 years) mean world life expectancy has gone from ~53 to ~69. This is easy for me forget concretely because I come from a relatively long lived family. Though all were born in British India and died in Bangladesh my grandparents lived to ages of 75, 100, 80, and 80. My grandparent who died at the age of 75 still lived 25 years longer than life expectancy in Bangladesh in the year he died.

Today I see a headline in The New York Times, Majority of Chinese Now Live in Cities. For some reason I was prompted to look up the Wikipedia entry for Shenzhen, a city of 350,000 in 1982, which is now at 10 million. The image below of Shenzhen captures for me the poignant banality of the future present. One the one hand it is nothing special, a typical “world city” skyline. But there is also an aspect redolent of the soft focus depictions of the cities of the future in the children’s books I would read in the 1980s. The photo is proof of nothing. Rather, it is an illustration of fact.

Image credit: Wikipedia

(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Science • Tags: Futurism, Technology 
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That time of the year for a certain type of nerd, the Singularity Summit. Here’s a a preview:

This Singularity Summit line-up this year features a mix of 25 speakers from numerous fields, with a central focus on robotics and artificial intelligence, in particular the victory of the IBM computer Watson in Jeopardy! this February. Inventor and award-winning author Ray Kurzweil will give the opening keynote on “From Eliza to Watson to Passing the Turing Test”. Registration for the Summit, which runs on October 15-16 at the 92Y in New York, is open to the public now.

The theme of the Summit this year is the Watson victory and future Watson applications, such as in medicine. Dan Cerutti, IBM’s VP of Commercialization for Watson, will give a talk on medical applications for Watson, and the closing keynote will be by Ken Jennings, who won 74 consecutive Jeopardy! matches only to lose to Watson in February. Watson won $1,000,000 in the contest and Jennings won $300,000, coming in second place. Jennings’ talk will be “The Human Brain in Jeopardy: Computers That “Think”.

I won’t be able to make it because I’m very busy right now, but that’s too bad. Ken Jennings is a great headliner, but do look at all the speakers. Tyler Cowen and Sonia Arrison will be there. I had lunch with some of the practitioners of Masonomics a few years back, but Tyler and Bryan Caplan were both out of town. No doubt the day will come. Just not this day. I haven’t had time to review 100 Plus (alas, the neglect of the Razib Khan on Books website), but it’s an excellent take on the possible implications of greater longevity (no, I don’t think longevity research is crazy as such, though I’m probably not as optimistic as many in the community).

(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Science • Tags: Futurism, Singularity Summit, Transhumanism 
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In the comments below Jason says in regards to the connection between eugenics and genocide and the “slippery slope”:

In your current comfortable first world circumstances, you are right the slope is perhaps not that slippery. I hope you are never tested in a less comfortable setting as then I think you might find it can be pretty slippery after all.

A reference to the interlocutor’s status as a citizen of the comfortable First World (which itself is a somewhat archaic term by now I think) seems de rigueur in many arguments. And I think many people will find it plausible that someone in an affluent consumer society would be blind to the “dark side” of eugenics, and how it could lead to genocide. But I think this plausibility is entirely superficial, and collapses upon closer inspection. Rather, it is I believe in “First World” and advanced nations where the likelihood of the ubiquity of eugenics and possible genocide predicated on systematic eugenics is going to be the most probable outcome.

There is a large general issue at the root of this confusion, the implicit progressive “Whiggishness” in our sensibilities, which derives in part from the power of science to advance in a clear fashion. This sensibility has some grounding in our contemporary realities, but we take it too far. History can, and does, move in cycles. In the 18th century the most articulate and crisp racist sensibilities were arguably elucidated by relatively secular forward thinking intellectuals such as Voltaire, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant. This seed of scientific racialism waxed and reached its peaks in the years around 1900, before waning in the 20th century. This complex reality is often not appreciated when we Americans consider the arc of history moving always forward as the arrow. Similarly, because of the Whiggishness of our conception of cultural change many Americans have a hard time wrapping their minds around the fact that between 1837-1841 the the Vice President of the United States, Richard Mentor Johnson, was known to have had common law mixed-race wives, with whom he had daughters who he acknowledged. Johnson was the nominee of the more racially populist party of the time, the Democrats, to boot! This would not have been conceivable in a few generations, when despite the outlawing of slavery the racial boundaries were much more finely and sharply demarcated.

This Whiggish tendency means that when it comes to barbarities “less developed” societies are perceived to be more susceptible to breakdowns in civilization. But that’s just not true. People are regularly surprised that in much of Asia economic development is correlated with sex selective abortions. That’s fine to be surprised, but this seems to be something that’s replicated in both China and India.

So on to the specific point of personal eugenics, it will be societies where there is personal wealth, as well as a demographic transition, where the means of reproduction will become a major public policy and individual choice. These are also the societies where medical costs are far more socialized, whether directly (e.g., through single payer or national health services) or indirectly (e.g., requirements that no one be turned away from the emergency room). When health care is socialized it seems that there is the strong possibility that society will feel that there is an incentive for it to become active in the shaping of the characteristics of the citizenry. In contrast, in underdeveloped societies where health care is not a right and the population pyramid still skews toward youth, finely-grained eugenical sensibilities won’t be necessary, there’ll be a surplus of humanity.

All this is not to say that I think that the “end of history” will be toward some eugenical regulatory state, at least in the medium term. Rather, the necessary preconditions for this sort of society exists in the developed First World, not the less developed Third World.

(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Science • Tags: Eugenics, Futurism, Health 
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In the post below, Moderate marginal value to genomics, I left some things implicit. It turns out that this was an ill-considered decision. In reality my comments were simply more cryptic and opaque than implicit. This is pretty obvious because even those readers who are biologists didn’t seem to catch what I had assumed would be obvious in the thrust of my argument.

The point in the broadest sense is that DNA and genomics are not magical. Genetics existed before either of them. Understanding the physical basis of genetics has certainly been incredibly fruitful, and genomics has altered the playing field in many ways. But there was a broad understanding of genetics before DNA and genomics, both in a Mendelian sense and in the area of biometrics and quantitative genetics. In the earlier post I indicated that the tools for predictions of adult traits due to the effect of genes have been around for a long time: our family history. By this, I mean that a lot of traits of interest are substantially heritable. A great deal of the variation within the population can be explained by variation of genes in the population, as inferred by patterns of correlation between individuals in their traits as a function of genetic relatedness. This is genetics as a branch of applied statistics. It has great “quick & dirty” power, especially in agricultural science.

Let’s look at something simple, height. It’s a continuous trait which is rather concrete. No one argues that “height” is a social construct. In Western societies height is ~80-90% heritable. That means that most of the variation within the population of the trait can be explained by variation in one’s family background. Tall people have tall children, short people have short children, and so forth. Here’s a “toy” scatterplot which shows the relation between mid-parent heights and adult offspring heights (I made up the numbers):

The correlation isn’t perfect. But it’s pretty good. The more heritable a trait is, the more a scatterplot of this form (offspring regressed on parents) approaches tight linearity with a slope of ~1. These plots are measuring narrow sense heritability, which is the additive genetic variance over the phenotypic variance. Additive genetic variance just means the variants which have additive or subtractive values to the trait value (or, they can be transformed as such).

To make this plot in a fashion which is more than illustrative you need a lot of data on a large number of individuals and their parents. This would be tedious and require a substantial labor investment in earlier periods, but today with powerful data mining techniques I think it would be much, much, easier. In a world where the child is the father of the man these methods would have great power.

But they’re not perfect. Siblings vary in height, even though though the trait seems mostly controlled by variation in genes on the population level. What’s going on? Genetically, Mendelian segregation and genetic recombination are going to reshuffle the many alleles which control variation in height from parent to offspring in terms of what the gamete contributes. Additionally, the nature of the environmental “noise” may vary from sibling to sibling. Using population wide data you can infer the expected value of the offspring based in heritability and mid-parent value, but there’s going to be variance about the mean of the theoretical distribution. For example, the standard deviation of I.Q. within the population is 15 points, and across full-siblings it is also 15 points.

This is where genomics comes in. It does make a difference, on the margin. I suspect it would do so by removing some of the uncertainty of segregation and genetic recombination. Going back to the height example, imagine that you know of the ~1,000 genes which vary within the population to control variation in height. You sequence two parents, and so know which regions of the genomes they’re enriched for “tall” or “short” alleles. Some of the variance in the offspring is going to be due to the fact that the offspring don’t receive a perfect proportional representation of their parent’s alleles in terms of aggregate effect size. You could then remove some of the uncertainty in outcome because you can check the child’s genome against the parents’ and assess whether they received more or less of the “tall” or “short” alleles.

But there would still be environmental “noise” which you probably couldn’t account for. You can see an illustration of what I have in mind in the two normal distributions I plotted above. Both of them represent the theoretical distribution of possibilities of a child on a quantitative trait which only becomes realized in adulthood. The blue line shows what you can infer from the plain information of parental phenotypes. But what happens when you give them a genomic test? You remove some of the uncertainty from your calculus, and the variance drops. You see that in the red line.

This is what I mean when I say that genomics matters on the margin. It does have an effect. But all the tools to profile and predict are around us now. Even determined amateurs can find out quite a bit about someone’s family if they’re determined. This is no different in deep principle from the sort of techniques which large corporations are utilizing to create a “profile” of your possible future purchases by what you purchased in the past. The parents are past purchases. The adult offspring are future purchases. Knowing a lot of behavior genetic implicated genes might help the profile, but at the end of the day it’s not a deal-breaker or a game-changer.

An analogy to current market research and prediction algorithms is particularly apropos I think. They creep people out. So I naturally expect people to be creeped out if the state or insurance company has detailed fleshed out acturial tables based on genetics and genomics. But genetics or genomics don’t make it any more or less scary on a deep level. Nor do they make the techniques qualitatively more effective. And the policy questions and responses are going to be the same no matter what.

(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
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Image Credit: Stefan Kuhn

I was at a coffee shop recently and a SWPL couple (woman had dreads to boot!) a number of tables away were reading a newspaper, and the husband expressed worry about the Fukushima disaster. The wife responded that “now other people will understand how dangerous nuclear power is,” with a sage nod. They then launched into twenty minutes of loud righteous gibberish about chemicals (I had a hard time making sense of it, despite the fact that I learned a lot about chemicals in the past due to my biochemistry background). Because they’d irritated me I was curious and I tailed them as they left. Naturally they had driven to get coffee in a S.U.V. of some sort (albeit, a modestly sized one which looked like it was more outfitted for the outdoors’ activities common in the Pacific Northwest; they’d probably done their cost vs. benefit about those chemicals!).

In terms of radiation fears, I suspect that if more people just automatically knew the inverse-square law in relation to the drop off of its effects we’d be in a whole lot less public relations trouble. More obviously there is clearly a salience problem with nuclear disasters; people always notice them. For fossil fuels the negative environmental consequences usually don’t get so in your face as ‘fracking’. Or, they’re only really evident in godforsaken places like the Niger Delta. Of course people in Louisiana are well aware of the ‘Cancer Corridor’, but they seem to take it as the cost of doing business by and large. I have a hard time imagining such an equanimous attitude toward nuclear power. So I thought I’d pass on the 1000th article reiterating the obvious, Fossil fuels are far deadlier than nuclear power:

The explanation lies in the large number of deaths caused by pollution. “It’s the whole life cycle that leads to a trail of injuries, illness and death,” says Paul Epstein, associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School. Fine particles from coal power plants kill an estimated 13,200 people each year in the US alone, according to the Boston-based Clean Air Task Force (The Toll from Coal, 2010). Additional fatalities come from mining and transporting coal, and other forms of pollution associated with coal. In contrast, the International Atomic Energy Agency and the UN estimate that the death toll from cancer following the 1986 meltdown at Chernobyl will reach around 9000.

In fact, the numbers show that catastrophic events are not the leading cause of deaths associated with nuclear power. More than half of all deaths stem from uranium mining, says the IEA. But even when this is included, the overall toll remains significantly lower than for all other fuel sources.

So why do people fixate on nuclear power? “From coal we have a steady progression of deaths year after year that are invisible to us, things like heart attacks, whereas a large-scale nuclear release is a catastrophic event that we are rightly scared about,” says James Hammitt of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis in Boston.

In other news, Vive la France!

Image Credit: Ichabod Paleogene, Krzysztof Kori

Here’s a scatter plot I generated using NationMaster:

Note, I am not from 1950, and I do not believe that nuclear power will be the “miracle energy of the future.” I am no nuclear power maximalist. Rather, I think that we should enter into a calm and medium-term time scale cost vs. benefit analysis, and not react and respond based on our rough reflex heuristics which to me seem more rooted in pre-scientific intuitions and biases, rather than a rational calculus of the positives and negatives. A nuclear meltdown is the sort of danger we were evolved to detect and react to (the analogy would be to a fire). False positives have a much lower downside than false negatives in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness. In contrast, the morbidity inducing consequences of exposure to fossil fuel pollution are “time released” in their impact, with many of them coming to “fruition” after our reproductive peak (I won’t even get into other negative externalities).

A rational weighting of any such global-consequential decision has to be grounded in “doing the sums,” and not allowing our mystical conceptions of contagion to overwhelm our higher faculties. Electricity is electricity, and moves across borders. The ad hoc response of European nations is grounded in local politics of fear, not global assessments of reason. For example, France does export electricity to Germany which is originally nuclear power derived. So in the developed world there is clearly some transparent NIMBY aspect to this, in addition to the psychology of fear.

(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
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humaplus I was going to try and make it to the Humanity+ conference this year, but life intruded and the scheduling didn’t work out. Here’s the program. If you live in the LA area and this is your cup of tea, registration still looks open. Also check out H+ magazine. I noticed that my friend Michael Vassar seems more optimistic about the teens of the 21st century than he was a few years ago, Top 10 Reasons to expect the next 10 years to be more exciting than the last. I’m most excited by #2 b the way, if it’s viable.

(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Science • Tags: Futurism 
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If you have some time to kill, the Paleo-Future weblog is really awesome. It shows what people thought the future was going to be like (often around the year 2000) from the 1870s through every decade of the 20th century. As usual with this sort of thing it tells you more about the salient aspects of a given time period, as people have a tendency of projecting contemporary fashions, technologies, and trends, rather than being able to anticipate innovation and changes of kind. Here’s a depiction of flying machines which dates to between 1900 and 1910:

circa 1900 harry grant dart crop paleo-future

(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Science • Tags: Futurism 
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Rod Dreher mulls his bias toward declinism while evaluating Matt Ridley’s new book The Rational Optimist. Here’s a portion of Ridley’s argument:

But with new hubs of innovation emerging elsewhere, and with ideas spreading faster than ever on the Internet, Dr. Ridley expects bottom-up innovators to prevail. His prediction for the rest of the century: “Prosperity spreads, technology progresses, poverty declines, disease retreats, fecundity falls, happiness increases, violence atrophies, freedom grows, knowledge flourishes, the environment improves and wilderness expands.”

Dreher gloomily observes:

Well, I would certainly love to be wrong; neither I nor my descendants gain anything out of a world of decline. But it would be useful to go back and look at how 19th-century progressives expected the 20th century to be a wonderland of peace, prosperity and progress. Didn’t quite work out that way. I suspect the truth is that nobody knows anything about tomorrow, and that we can only make our best educated guesses based on history and the wisdom of experience.

Looking at the imaginings of past futurists is often pretty amusing. And Ridley’s projections of plentitude and prosperity seem to involve an extrapolation of the conditions of the past 200 years, whereby a greater and greater proportion of humanity has broken the shackles of the Malthusian trap. The reality is that for most of human history innovation was always immediately counter-balanced by population growth so that median wealth never increased. Only in the 19th century did a new social pattern and demographic dynamic emerge whereby prosperous individuals did not reproduce to a greater extent in keeping with their greater wealth. Rather, societies went through the “demographic transition”, and greater wealth for future generations became the new norm. There’s no reason that this doesn’t have to be a transient state between long epochs of Malthusianism, so I think assuming that the new normal is the normal forever more is a step too far.

That being said, it seems to me that we do truly live in a utopia in any objective terms when viewed from the 19th or early 20th centuries. The Dickensian lot of the poor no longer characterize the lower classes of the developed world, and obesity is actually a feature of the lives of the poor, as opposed to starvation. The period between 1800 and 1970 witnessed a massive shift in earning power to the working classes, and a closing of the wage gap between skilled and unskilled workers. Infection has not been abolished, but it is no longer so deadly. Violence has decreased, despite the periodic outbreaks of industrialized genocide. And so on.

Utopia is always over the hill, and the new normal was the aspiration of the past, not the bliss of the present. But the past and the present and the future are actually instantiated simultaneously. Consider three airports which I have sharp experiences of. Dhaka airport is the past. John F Kennedy airport is the present. And Munich airport is the future. If you took a flight from Dhaka to Munich you would have thought that you’d been transported to utopia.

I don’t take these utopian dreams as an injunction toward complacency. Rather, we should appreciate all that modern science, technology and government has achieved, and be vigilant. Before we despair at all which might be lost, remember this famous chart:


(Republished from Discover/GNXP by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Science • Tags: Culture, Futurism 
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Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at"