September 25, 2003

Now Who's Asking the Questions?

Speaking of the Future with the Speculist

The FastForward Posse is a loose confederation of futurists who contribute to our occasional internal blogwave on a subject of interest. So far, weíve done FastForwards on life extension, ubiquitous computing, Mars, and artificial intelligence. The ringleaders are a subset of the posse who either helped me get The Speculist going in the first place, or who have made sufficient contributions to FastForward and to the other features such that I feel perfectly comfortable dashing them off e-mails and asking them to do even more.

Which leads me to this weekís interview.

Having so glibly delivered what I considered to be challenging and thought-provoking questions in the various interviews Iíve conducted, itís only fair that I should be on the receiving end of a few. The FastForward Posse ringleaders were more than happy to oblige. The following includes my answers to some of their questions. We may do a few more of them somewhere down the road. Anyway, as a member of the gang so appropriately put it...

Now whoís asking the questions, smart guy?

If you could go back in time to change a single act that would have the greatest effect on todayís world, what would it be, and how would you go about changing it?

This question would be great addition to the Seven Questions About the Future. Maybe weíll do an addendum, A Question About What Might Have Been.

Iím reminded of L. Sprague de Campís novel, Lest Darkness Fall, in which a modern-day engineer awakens in the 5th century and decides to prevent the impending dark ages. Of course, to pull that off, he has to rely on his excellent knowledge of history and introduce several technological and social changes. He canít do it with a single change. Interestingly, towards the end of the book, he writes a letter either to the Pope or the Emperor (I canít remember which) warning of a soon-to-arrive heretical religious leader, Mohammed, whom he recommends nipping in the bud. Thatís a good example of making a single change that would have a huge impact.

Not that thatís the change I would make.

Iím no historian, so standard disclaimers apply. But if I could go back, I would prevent that Serb separatist from assassinating Archduke Ferdinand. All the horrors of the twentieth century originated with that act. Thereís no guarantee that World War I wouldnít have started shortly thereafter anyway, but itís the only single act I can think of that might have prevented it. Letís suppose for a moment that it truly never did happen. If World War I never happened, maybe the communists would not have achieved the upper hand in the Russian Revolution. Millions of lives lost under Stalin would be saved, hundreds of millions of individuals around the world would be spared the degradation and brutality of life in a totalitarian regime. With no World War I, there would have been no Treaty of Versailles, no humiliated Germany, no climate in which Hitler could come to power. Tens of millions more lives would be spared, both the casualties of World War II and the victims of Hitlerís genocide. Without the Ottoman Empire taking the "wrong" side in World War I, there would have been no post-war divvying up of the Middle East. Itís hard to say how things would look there now (particularly the Arab world), but it is just possible that politicized Islamic Fundamentalism and pan- Arab nationalism might never have taken off.

It's probably true that the horrors warded off by preventing World War I would simply have been replaced by other horrors. But I would give it a shot, anyway.

What is the most effective way for a visionary or group of visionaries to guide change in the current environment? (Some choices: ĎVoice in the wilderness" hair-shirt prophecy, Illuminated conspiracy, recruitment and political advocacy, showdown debate, etc.)

I donít know whatís most effective, but Iíve observed a tendency on the part of visionary organizations to be very institutionally focused. Donít get me wrong, itís tremendously important to have that focus. But most people live lives that are far removed from the halls of government or academia, and are perfectly happy with that.

As voters, we have a civic obligation to know the issues and understand the process. But the folks who make the political campaign ads will tell you that itís the issues, and only a small subset of those, that people care about. By and large, people donít care about the process. The process is not interesting. The inner workings of bureaucracy are not interesting. In fact, you can take an inherently interesting topic and make it much less interesting simply by adding the word "policy."

Think about it. Space travel is an interesting subject. Space travel policy much less so. I mean, which would you rather do: watch a football game, or listen in on some NFL officials talking about possible tweaks to the Instant Replay rule?

I was in a discussion with a group of futurists a while back and we were talking about how the group could get its message out better. Every single one of them came up with ideas that had to do with reaching out to the local academic community. Thatís not terribly surprising; they all work and live in that world. When I suggested that we need to think of ways to get the message out to the broader public, they were stumped ó and not because they couldnít think of ways to get the message out there. What stumped them was why they would even want to try to reach the general public.

"What does Joe Six-Pack care?" one of them asked me.

These were smart, wonderful folks, but they just couldnít quite get their heads around the idea that the kinds of changes they advocate are going to have an impact on society in general.

The answer to the Joe Six-Pack question is found in the Bible, Proverbs 29:18

Where there is no vision, the people perish.

And that vision has to belong to the people, not just the bureaucrats and academics. If we want to guide changes in the current environment, we must get the publicís attention concerning the benefits and/or risks of what weíre talking about. A successful visionary is one whose message touches the popular imagination.

Is the concept of intellectual property an overall help or hindrance to visionary progress? Why or why not?

Overall, the concept of intellectual property helps. It ensures that there is wealth to be generated through the development of intellectual assets. Markets can thus fuel innovation.

I do think that intellectual property law should be modified along the lines recommended by Lawrence Lessig. Copyrights and patents should ensure that the developer of an intellectual asset can profit for his or her work. Itís reasonable to define a period during which the creator has the exclusive right to benefit from the asset. Whatís unreasonable is to define that period as forever. At some point, these assets should be available to anyone who wants to use them. Or in the case of patents, maybe it would be better to say that they should be available to anyone willing to pay to use them.

There should definitely be an expiration date on copyrights. Disney is currently pushing US law to allow perpetual corporate copyrights. This is a very bad idea. Back when it was still okay to talk in these kinds of terms (i.e., when I was an undergraduate), we used to describe the Western tradition as the Great Conversation. Homer gives us the Iliad; centuries later, Virgil writes the Aeniad; centuries after that, Dante writes the Divine Comedy; then finally Milton writes Paradise Lost.

If perpetual copyright was in effect and in force throughout history, the conversation would have stopped with Homer. Virgil would never have been allowed to publish his "unauthorized sequel" to the Iliad. And Shakespeare wouldnít have been able to write much of anything heís famous for. Hamlet? Romeo and Juliet? Forget it. Even the history plays were freely adapted from the works of others without attribution.

What are the top three technologies or lines of inquiry that, if given sufficient attention in the immediate term (not more than five years), would most advance overall human progress? (i.e. where are the nascent breakthroughs?)

Five years? Criminy, thatís too close. Futurists like to talk about how things will be 100, 50, even 25 years from now. Really gutsy folks like Ray Kurzweil and Aubrey de Grey will make 10-year predictions. But five? Or less?

Iím going to dodge this question just slightly. Iíll take a stab at what I think might happen in these areas over the next few years, rather than what we could do if we lined everything up right. Okay, here goes nothing.

  1. Anti-aging Research

    It wonít be long before the Baby Boomers start hearing footsteps. If we make significant strides towards Aubrey de Greyís Engineered Negligible Senescence over the next five years, it will have the effect of holding back a tremendous swell of interest in cryonics which would otherwise emerge. So itís all good. Either Aubrey gets us pointed towards the fountain of youth, or the Boomers get so nervous that they pour bazillions of dollars into cryonics, pushing that field along nicely.

  2. Nanotechnology

    Interest in this field is going to escalate geometrically over the next five years, and itís going to receive a lot of financial attention. We can expect a number of small breakthroughs over that time, as well as the emergence of a consensus as to what the Big Goal (or goals) should be.

  3. Artificial Intelligence

    I donít know how far this field will advance over the next five years, but I expect there will be a tremendous surge in popular interest in the subject. Concepts like AI avatars that accompany us and work for us, the uploading of human personality, and the Technology Singularity will all enter the popular consciousness the way human cloning did in the late 1970ís. The lines will begin to be drawn (as they were back then for cloning) for and against these ideas.

    Getting back to my answer to the earlier question, the time is now to get positive and realistic pictures of what these developments might mean into the public eye. And that goes for nanotechnology and anti-aging research as well as artificial intelligence. In the future (to start yet another sentence with my favorite phrase), I think the biggest political division ó maybe the only one that will really count ó will between those who favor technological development and a new class of Luddites who want to hold it back.

  4. Space Travel

    (I know I was supposed to stop at three. Sue me.)

    Serious business applications will begin to emerge for sub-orbital launch technology, which is going to be a growth industry. One of the Big Goals for nanotechnology might well be the Space Elevator, in which case serious work on it might begin.

If someone visited you from the future, what would you want them to say was the best thing you did to affect their lives, what was the worst thing and what would they wish you had done?

Thatís a tough one. I think I would want them to say that the best thing that Iíve done is to imagine a bright future, share that vision with others, and try to make it happen. The worst thing is that Iíve waited so long before seriously trying to do it. I canít say what they would wish I had done. One of the great tricks to life is trying to figure out what youíre doing now that later youíll wish you hadnít done, what youíre not doing that youíll wish you had done, and what youíre doing that youíll wish you had done differently. I havenít entirely mastered this trick, but Iím working on it.

Posted by Phil at September 25, 2003 12:55 PM | TrackBack
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