August 31, 2003

These Things Happen in Threes

First it was Ray Bradbury. Then the Professor.

Now yours truly. Blogging will be light today and tomorrow (which is Labor Day anyhow, plus I'm going to be suffering from a major cake hangover.)

Posted by Phil at 07:17 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 30, 2003

One Last Approach

Homer Hickam, former NASA engineer and author of the book Rocket Boys, (which became the movie October Sky), wrote an op-ed in yesterdayís Wall Street Journal (link requires paid subscription) in which he described the shuttle program as Americaís Viet Nam. Hickam takes issue with the CAIB report assertion that NASAís flawed culture is to blame for the Columbia disaster:

I don't believe there's a NASA culture. There is, however, a Shuttle cult. It is practiced like a religion by space policy makers who simply cannot imagine an American space agency without the Shuttle. Well, I can, and it's a space agency which can actually fly people and cargoes into orbit without everybody involved being terrified of imminent destruction every time there's lift-off.

The problem, as he sees it, is the placement of the shuttle amid what he describes as " the turmoil of launch." The shuttle sits in a precarious position at launch, wedged between two solid rockets and strapped to a huge fuel tank which, as Challenger demonstrated, can explode like a massive bomb. Hickam attributes this flawed design to the mistaken belief that it would be cheaper to re-use the main shuttle rocket engine, so it needed to be a part of the orbiter.

That has not proved to be the case -- far from it -- but it has left us with a crew sitting in the most vulnerable position possible in terms of design. Simply put, had that spaceplane been on top of the stack, the destruction of Challenger and Columbia wouldn't have occurred. The CAIB ignored this flawed design and that makes their conclusions suspect: no amount of inspections or condemning another NASA generation to worry over this thing will solve it.

So let's get practical. We can't just shut the thing down. We need the Shuttle to finish the space station and also to keep the Russians and Chinese from dominating space. I'm not willing to see that occur while we dither. Human spaceflight is important to this country. But the Shuttle is as safe as you're going to get with what's in place today. Let's put some tough engineers in charge, fly it 10 more times over the next four years with hand-picked crews to finish the space station and meet our international obligations. Then close the program and replace it with expendable launchers and a shiny new spaceplane. And, this time, put it on top.

Rand Simberg has some interesting reflections on Hickam's ideas.

I wonder whether Hickam is suggesting building a whole new launch infrastructure. If NASA creates a new rocket to place our shiny new space plane in orbit, it will no doubt be smaller and less powerful than the current shuttle launch infrastructure. As Robert Zubrin has pointed out, this will mean the loss of launch capability that could send us to the moon or Mars.

I have a modest proposal. After Hickamís final 10 shuttle launches, why donít we plan on four more uses of that infrastructure? Using the shuttle launcher in an expendable configuration, it would take four launches to complete the first phase of the modified Mars Direct mission. Four launches could place a habitat, an ascent vehicle, a return vehicle, and a crew all in place. We would have a proof of concept mission to Mars and, if we approached it correctly, a roadmap for moving forward.

Clearly, this would involve a lot more work than just launching the rockets: someone would need to design and build the hab, the return vehicle, the ascent vehicle, and the Mars transport vehicle. Who would do it? I propose that our new space agency (or a new and improved NASA) take on that piece by administering a series of X-Prize type initiatives for private companies to design workable versions of those components. Even the re-purposing of the shuttle launch infrastructure could be accomplished by private entities. After those first four launches, we would take NASA (or its successor) completely out of the loop except for setting direction and awarding incentives. The space agency would exist only to push private space development along. The new space plane, the next space station, and the ongoing exploration of the solar system would belong almost completely to the private sector.

From there, all the private sector has to do is draw a line from winning NASA prize money to making real money from the settlement of Mars or other commercial exploitation of space. If they can somehow traverse that line (or, if you like, cross that T Relative boundary), the human settlement of space will take off fast.

Mars isnít a necessary component of such a scenario. Itís one of many possible destinations. But it has a lot going for it. Itís resource-rich. Itís fairly close. It would be a good staging area for expeditions to the asteroids or to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. And besides, as I have alluded to frequently during this weekís festivities, Mars has a hold on the popular imagination that no other destination in the solar system can match. A mission to Mars wouldnít just be logical, it would be exciting. It would be fun. It might very well re-awaken the spirit that drove our ancestors to cross the Atlantic in dodgy sailing vessels or the Amrican continent in vulnerable covered wagons.

That, above all, is why I think we need to set our sites on the red planet.

Posted by Phil at 12:29 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Future Roundup 08/30/03

Here's the full list of this week's Mars-related predictions for the future. Hat tip to FastForward Posse members Mike Sargent and Robert Hinkley for helping us to keep looking ahead.

In the Future...

...people will be so smart that they will only need reassurance if an object passes within, say, 25 million miles.

...alterations will be included in the price of a suit. (See item dated August 22.)

...Martian colonists will sell Earth rocks on-line as a novelty gift item.

...every household will have its own Hubble. scavanged from vacuum cleaners and washing machines will also have a role to play in building Mars robots.

...Martian settlers will capture iceballs from the asteroids for their own use, while making a fortune selling bottles of Sparkling Olympus Mons back to Earth.

That does it for this week. I hope you all enjoyed Red Planet Madness as much as we did. And until next time, we'll see you in the future.

Posted by Phil at 12:16 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 29, 2003

Seven Questions with Robert Zubrin

This week's special guest, Dr. Robert Zubrin, answers the Seven Questions about the Future.


1. The present is the future relative to the past. What's the best thing about living here in the future?

People have far more opportunity to exercise human potential.

2. What's the biggest disappointment?

We're not where we could be. NASA had planned to send the first mission to Mars by 1981. That's what should have happened. That's the road not taken. If we continued down that road, with the first humans on Mars in the early 1980's, the first base, the first embryonic settlement would have been in place by the late 1980's. And the first children born on Mars would be entering middle school right about now.

3. Assuming you die at the age of 100, what will be the biggest difference be between the world you were born into and the world you leave?

By 2052, there will be a new branch of humanity living off the Earth.

4. What future development that you consider likely (or inevitable) do you look forward to with the most anticipation?

The opening of the first community orchestra on Mars.

5. What future development that you consider likely (or inevitable) do you dread the most?

Biological warfare. I consider it likely, not inevitable.

6. Assuming you have the ability to determine (or at least influence) the future, what future development that you consider unlikely (or are uncertain about) would you most like to help bring about?

Well, the one I've been dedicating my life to, the settlement of Mars.

(But I think you've already listed that one as something you think of as likely.)

I think it's likely eventually because of the nature of humanity. We are species of explorers, we do have a fundamental drive to go where we've never gone before. And so we will go into space whether we have a hand in it or not, but I want to see it in my lifetime.

7. Why is it that in the year 2003 I still don't have a flying car? When do you think I'll be able to get one?

Blame Nixon.

(What's the deal with these seven questions?

Posted by Phil at 09:29 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

The Good Stuff

FastForward Supplement

Just in time for the weekend, Posse Ringleader Vic is chiming in with some cocktail recipes for those post-Mars-Day/Labor Day parties that everyone is sure to be having. There's also another Mars cocktail recipe in this week's main FastForward feature, plus reader Sanjeev was good enough to provide one the other day (check the comments).

As old Jon Jonzz would say, "Drink responsibly, everybody."

Vic's Tips

The Future of Style, Fashion, Hipness

Hey, Folks

This weekend is not too late to have a few friends over to celebrate our close encounter with Mars. Even geeky Future Fanboys like you can throw a decent Mars party if you have the right refreshments on hand. Consider serving your guests one or all of the following to sip on while viewing Big Red.


Valentine Michael Smith Martini

Want to try to grok that special someone? Mix her up a couple of these. (Works quicker than plain water.)


Viking Lander on the Rocks

The perfect thing to down before extending your probe arm in the search for signs of life.


Combine Gin and Midori in Shaker with ice. Shake. Strain into a martini glass. Enjoy.

Mix with ice and strain into a shot glass.

(Modified from a drink found on BarNoneDrinks.)

(Modified from a drink found on BarNoneDrinks.)


This one goes over especially well with the future-minded ladies:

Barsoomian Wallbanger

Turns the girl next door into a Princess of Mars every time.


Shake with ice and strain into a 2 oz. shot glass.

(Modified from a drink found on BarNoneDrinks.)

I guarantee your exploration will be ultimately enhanced with the help of these extraterrestrial libations.

— Vic —

Posted by Phil at 09:03 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 28, 2003

ITF #30

In the Future...

...Martian settlers will capture iceballs from the asteroids for their own use, while making a fortune selling bottles of Sparkling Olympus Mons back to Earth.

Futurist: Posse member Mike Sargent

Posted by Phil at 10:30 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Columbia Fall-Out

By the way, if you're interested in a serious, in-depth analysis of the Gehman Report on the Columbia disaster, you really need to drop by and pay Rand Simberg a visit.

UPDATE: Rand is directing us to the more spruced-up versions over at Fox News and NRO.

Posted by Phil at 09:46 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

ITF #29

In the Future... scavanged from vacuum cleaners and washing machines will also have a role to play in building Mars robots.

Futurist: Posse member Robert Hinkley

Posted by Phil at 09:21 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 27, 2003

Mars Day is Here!

What an auspicious day.

In addition to everything else going on, today is the Big Guy's birthday. Well, yes, that big guy, too. But the big guy I'm talking about is Ray Bradbury. He turns 83 today.

So, please. Before you do anything else. Before you take advantage of all the wonderful options you have for celebrating Mars Day, before you read today's startling interview Dr. Robert Zubrin on the path forward to Mars, take a moment to send a birthday greeting to the genius behind the Martian Chronicles.

Thank you.

Posted by Phil at 09:26 AM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

The Case for Mars Revisited

Speaking of the Future with Robert Zubrin

Two items in the news set the stage for todayís piece.

  • The Gehman Report on the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster has been released, and it is as critical of NASA as many predicted it would be. While the report calls for an overhaul of the culture that drives the space agency, there are those who suggest that fixing NASA wonít be enough. Some critics are calling for the end of the space shuttle program or for the abolishment of NASA altogether.
  • Today, Mars and Earth are at their closest point in nearly 60,000 years. What a treat itís been, on recent evenings, to stand in my back yard and gaze at this amazing golden light shining in the southern sky. Thereís another world, right there, almost close enough to touch. Itís a world many of us have thought about, read about, dreamed about all our lives.

The crux of these two news stories is that it may be time to put away childish things where Mars is concerned. Iíve always believed that I would live to see the day that human beings set foot on Mars. And Iíve always assumed that, when that day comes, it will be NASA that makes it happen. Both that belief and that assumption are now seriously in doubt.

After all, if we were ever going to go to Mars, wouldnít we be doing it right now? Wouldnít this have been the perfect time, with Mars so close?

And how could NASA — an agency apparently still mired in the same cultural bog that gave us the Challenger disaster — possibly get us there?

Enter Robert Zubrin.

While many of us have been reading and dreaming about Mars, Zubrin has been making concrete plans. Heís a former Staff Engineer with Lockheed Martin, and the founder and President of both Pioneer Astronautics and the Mars Society. Zubrin is the author of several books on the future of space exploration and settlement, most notably The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must.

For years, Zubrin has been making the case that a series of missions to Mars could be deployed quickly and safely, and at a much lower cost than other experts have suggested. These missions would serve as the first steps in the human settlement of the red planet and of the rest of the solar system.

Some will argue that such ideas are pipe dreams, that any attempt by NASA to take on a major exploration initiative would inevitably dead-end just as Apollo did, to the detriment of other, more realistic space inititiatives. That may be true. On the other hand, if abolishing the space shuttle and even NASA itself are going to be on the table, then some other alternatives need to be there as well. And maybe — just maybe — itís time to think big again, as we did when the space program was born.

In the wake of the Gehman report, with Mars shining bright in the southern sky, itís time Robert Zubrin had a fair hearing.

You've been in the news this week saying, "Next year is a crisis that may well determine whether humans to Mars occurs in our lifetime. This is a unique opportunity, but if we let it slip by, we're going to blow it." Can you please explain what that means? How are we going to blow it?

We have a conjuncture of events that are facing us right now. First of all, NASA is about to be thrown into chaos over the shuttle report, which is going to be deservedly very harsh. It's going to be impossible to suggest that we should keep launching the shuttle orbiters for the next 25 years or so. Also, there's going to be a severe rethinking of NASA's overall priorities. Human space flight is risky. Is it worth taking those risks just to fly ant farms into Earth orbit? Or, if we're going to take those kinds of risks, should we be attempting goals that are worthy of those risks?

You mentioned keeping the shuttle orbiter going for the next 25 years. What's the plan of record for that?

Well, that's the party line prior to the Columbia, actually. And it's ridiculous. You can't maintain these things, they're Carter-Administration-era constructs. They take a hell of a beating every time we fly. Actually, it's somewhat incredible that they have had the good luck they have had up to this point. NASA has already begun to move on this and they've started a program called the orbital space plane.

You see, the shuttle is irrational as a launch vehicle regardless of whether an accident occurs. It's a huge launch vehicle; it has 7 1/2 million tons of thrust — the same amount of thrust the Saturn V, a moon rocket, had at take-off. A Saturn V could lift 140 tons of payload to Earth orbit. The shuttle delivers 20 tons of payload to Earth orbit. It actually delivers 120 tons, but most of that is the inert mass of the shuttle itself. So flying cargo to Earth orbit is like trying to truck cargo in a Winnebago. You've got a powerful engine, but most of it is hauling your house around. So weíre using the shuttle to transport crew to the space station, basically to perform a taxicab function . It can do it, but it's like using an aircraft carrier to pull water skiers. The vehicle is way oversized for the task.

That's why NASA has come up with a plan to create a thing they called the Orbital Space Plane, which would be, by comparison, a relatively modest capsule or a mini-shuttle.

Is that the ramjet/scramjet?

No. It's either a capsule or a miniature shuttle put on top of an expendable launch vehicle, an Atlas or a Delta, which sends it to orbit. It can have a crew of six people in it. It will have about one-tenth the take-off thrust and one-tenth the cost of the shuttle. That's rational. Fine. Okay.

However, the question then becomes: what do we do with the shuttle launch infrastructure? The shuttle launch infrastructure is more than the orbiter, it's also the external tanks, the solids, the space shuttle main engine, the pads, and all the people and technology that support that. Now if you simply discard that, you're discarding a gigantic asset.

Really, what you want to do with the shuttle launch infrastructure is lose the orbiter and replace it with an upper stage, a rocket stage. And then, all of a sudden, without the burden of this huge mass, this giant Winnebago, it becomes a proper launch vehicle. It provides Saturn V class launch capabilities, which means it could serve as the primary instrument to send humans to the Moon or to Mars. With this approach, we can achieve direct throw, straight from the launch vehicle, just like we had with Apollo. No monkeying around with trying to build gigantic science fiction interplanetary space ships. Just throw the payload to the planet using the booster. Bang! You're there.

NASA can do that, or not do it. They have a choice. They can simply rationalize the shuttle's taxicab function to orbit, to move people back and forth to the space station on a little capsule on top of an Atlas, and lose the shuttle pads, and capabilities. Or they can turn the shuttle into a heavy-lift vehicle. The only way they can rationalize turning the shuttle into a heavy lift vehicle is if they decide weíre going to go to the Moon or Mars, or both. With people.

Because otherwise we don't need that big lift capability.

Right. NASA has had an academic position for the past 30 years that some day, we'll go back to the Moon. Someday we'll go to Mars. Of course, someday we're going to do it. But now, they've got a choice: they either have to do it now or throw away a $10 billion asset. So it's like a guy who's been hanging around a girl for five years, and she finally turns and says, "Jack, are you going to propose or not?"

Let me give you a choice: shuttle launch infrastructure or Saturn V for going to Mars which one would you pick?

I'd take the Saturn V.

We really lost something, there, didn't we?

Yes, we did.

Now, in risking throwing away the shuttle launch infrastructure, is NASA poised to repeat the mistake they made with the Saturn V after Apollo?

Yes, that's exactly what they did with the Saturn V after Apollo. And it was the most catastrophic mistake that has ever been made in the history of the space program. We destroyed tens of billions of dollars worth of space capability. We set ourselves back a generation. It was like Columbus coming back from the New World and Ferdinand and Isabella saying, "Oh, so what? Burn of the fleet." That's what happened after Apollo, and that's the juncture they're at right and now. So they can choose. Which way are they going to go?

Some of the contractors have a vested interest in how this position works out. There's jobs at stake. There's money at stake, here. Some of the contractors don't see the possibility of getting a moon/Mars program launched. And so what they're trying to do instead is to make the Orbital Space Plane as expensive as possible. It's basically you're the cabdriver, there's one fare at the airport, and you want to show him all the sites in town. They're coming up with designs for this capsule — I cannot believe this, but it's true — with proposed program cost-to-development of $17 billion. That's almost twice what it cost to develop the shuttle, the whole shuttle, its propulsion systems and its external tanks as well as the orbiter. It's three times what we were going to pay to build the Superconducting Supercollider. It's crazy. And yet all it gives you is a capsule, to go back-and-forth to the station. This program should be a $1 billion program, not a $17 billion program. Maybe $1.5 billion. But they're trying to run it up on the meter.

Now if they do that, there will be no money to convert the shuttle, there will be no money to do anything in space, except to build this stupid taxicab. And then people have to start asking the question, "If we're just going back and forth to the space station, why are we going to space all?" Because the only real justification for the space station is to prepare the way for human interplanetary flight. You can't justify that if, at the same time, you're destroying your main asset that would support this requirement.

On the other hand, for many of the contractors, the destruction of the shuttle infrastructure means they're out of business.

They are in crisis, too, and this gives the people who want to launch a planetary initiative a certain constituency right now. All this is happening at a time when five spacecraft are on their way Mars:

There's the Mars Express, the interplanetary probe from the European Union; thereís the Beagle 2, the first British interplanetary probe; there are two NASA Mars landers equipped with capable rovers, robotic rovers, which will move kilometers across the Martian surface; and finally thereís the Japanese Nozomi orbiter, which has been limping along towards Mars for several years now, but looks like it's finally going to get there in the spring. And then there's two American orbiters in orbit around Mars right now as well. So next spring, there will be seven spacecraft operating on Mars, representing Europe, the United States, Britain, and Japan. There's going to be worldwide excitement about Mars. If the robotic space program is ever going to have the effect of kickstarting a human exploration program, it has to happen next spring. There'll never be another show this big. It's going to be a hard act to follow. I mean, there will be other probes, which can do this and do that, but in terms of public impact, this spring is the climax of the robotic program.

So you've got NASA itself in a crisis, you've got the robots doing everything they can to move things forward, and it's all happening in the high political season in United States. The New Hampshire primary is going on virtually simultaneously with the Rover landings. The timing of these missions and the political climate make this an excellent opportunity to generate interest in a humans-to-Mars program among the American public.

Let me ask about something else that I think is going to attract a lot of attention towards the end of this year. I'd like to know what your views on it are. That is the X Prize. Will it generate interest not only in getting people into orbit, but in doing it in something other than a make-it-as-expensive-as-we-can kind of approach?

A little. But the X Prize, if someone does win it, is a sub-orbital junket on a rocket. It's not the same as planetary exploration. It's not exploration at all.

And it doesn't help to get us there?

Well, you know, it's giving some publicity to small launch vehicle companies that need some publicity and so, by running it as a race, you can generate public attention and perhaps some investment, but the scale of these operations are very small compared to what is needed to open the solar system for humanity. And that's what we're really doing now. So hats off to the X Prize. And hats off to anyone who wins it . But it's a peripheral element of the situation from where I stand.

The X Prize approach of doing it more-or-less on the cheap reminded me a lot of The Case for Mars.

That's true. But you know, you don't have to do things on the cheap if you're the United States. You just have to do them. The incredible waste that we've had in our space program is not a function of particular operations being expensive. It's a function of the fact that the space program as whole has no plan. They're literally spending as much money per year right now as we spent on average during the Apollo period, and accomplishing nothing. Nothing.

The average NASA budget, taken from 1961 when Kennedy made his speech, to 1973 when we had the close-down of the Apollo and Skylab missions was $17 billion per year in today's money, inflation-adjusted. NASA's budget this year is $16 billion. We're within six or seven percent of Apollo-level funding, and we're not accomplishing anything. We spent $150 billion on NASA in the 1990's, and we're not one step closer to the Moon or Mars today than we were in 1990. That is because they have no plan. So they launch a series of simultaneous programs. They start them; they stop them. None of them ever produces anything, with the exception of the robotic probes. The robotic probes are good. A few elements have advanced since 1990. We've got a bit more scientific knowledge about Mars from the Mars Global surveyor probe. Of the $150 billion, that was $150 million. Just one-tenth of 1 percent of the money was usefully spent.

I'll just give you one example. In the 1960's we had Apollo. We knew where we going. We're going to the Moon, thanks to Kennedy, and we had a deadline.

Within this decade.

Within this decade. Sitting there in 1961 they say, if we're going to do this by 1969, weíre going to have to figure out how weíre going to do it in a year and then put out contracts, and then build the elements and have them test-flying around 67, and then go on to the Moon from there. And that's exactly what they did. Take the Saturn V: from1961 to 1962, they figure out how they're going to do the Moon mission. In 1962, they said okay, these are the elements we need: the command module, the lunar lander, the service module. We need a vehicle that can throw all that to a trans-lunar trajectory, the Saturn V, it's got to have this capability. They put out a request for proposals to select contractors. The deadline is to fly by 1969. They have the first test flight in 1966. And they send people to the Moon in 1969.

Now contrast that to NASA's more recent approach. In 1996, NASA administrator Dan Goldin says he'd like to work on "new launch vehicle technology." No requirements, no deadlines, no nothing. So they spend a billion dollars and five years on the program they call X-33, which they cancel in 2001 without having flown anything, and without having achieved anything. And if you look at it, since the 1980's, NASA has had a series of launch vehicle programs: it was the Shuttle C, we had the Advanced Launch System, we had the New Launch System, we had the SpaceLifter Program, we had the X-33, we had the Space Launch Initiative — I know I'm leaving a couple of them out. But they just start them up and shut them down; start them up and shut them down. They just spend money without making any progress.

Administrator O'Keefe has been going around saying NASA should not have a goal. It should not be destination-driven. That's what he says.

What would NASA be driven by, then?

He says instead we're developing the technologies to allow us to go anywhere, anytime. So, organically, the technologies are being developed until they're mature. And then we will have them to go everywhere, instead of just a particular place, like Mars.

This could not be further from the truth. They're not developing the technologies that will allow them to go anywhere at all, let alone "anywhere, anytime." Without a goal, they don't develop a coherent set of hardware that can do anything. We didn't get to the Moon by a bunch of guys running into each other in the cafeteria at the Johnson Space Center in the spring of 1968 And saying, , "You know, if we put your booster together with my lunar landing module and his command module, we could call these pieces together and gee, we could go to the Moon. Isn't it lucky all the pieces fit?"

It went to the other way. You define the goal; you figure how do the goal; you figure out what hardware elements we need to do the goal; you build those hardware elements; and you go do it. The way they're attempting to develop space technology right now is like this: imagine a couple is trying to build a house. The way they're doing it is, they're accumulating things that might be useful to build the house. So they go to a garage sale, where somebody's got a banister and they think, hey, that's a good-looking banister. Hey, there's some aluminum siding, next year maybe we'll get a spiral staircase, how about a Doric column or two. They accumulate all this junk in their backyard and they hope that eventually theyíll have all the right pieces to build a house.

So that's the problem, here. NASA's spending $16 billion a year, and taking no material steps forward toward human space exploration, because they have no commitment in place to do human space exploration. They have no plan. Then have no goal. They're not destination-driven. They need to be a destination-driven. That's what's needed to create a productive space program.

You put together what reads to me like a really coherent plan to get us to Mars a number of years ago in your book, The Case for Mars. To what extent is the plan that you outlined there what you would propose now in this (potentially) post-shuttle era? Would you recommend the same approach?

Pretty much. If you look at the Mars Direct Plan, we used the shuttle as our heavy-lift launch vehicle. It moves the orbiter replaced with an upper stage. It was the right approach in 1990, and it's the right approach today.

Do you have any hope that there's going to be a change of heart at NASA around adopting a kind of mission-oriented, destination-driven approach to these things?

I'm going to try to make it happen.

The Mars Society is going to try to make it happen. We're going to mobilize our chapters to go and visit with Congressmen all across the country. The goal is to visit with at least 300 Congressmen in their offices over the next six months and tell them that America needs a space program thatís going somewhere. That's what we need if we're going to have a viable space program. We need to have a viable space program if we're going to continue to be a nation of pioneers.

Here's the question that maybe either doesn't get asked, or doesn't get answered properly. Why think about going to Mars? It's been 30 years since we've been to the Moon, we've done a fair job of exploring the planets with the unmanned satellites, we have Hubble doing a pretty good job for us. Have things just kind of evolved to where the human exploration of the planets of outer space is over?

Try exploring the Earth with orbiters. Yes, you can do some imaging from orbit, you can learn something about the Earth from orbit, but try to exploring the Earth from orbit. Try exploring Paris from orbit. The orbiters are worthwhile. No doubt about it. In pointing out the limits of robotic exploration, I am not opposing robotic exploration. I am simply making clear that it's a limited tool. It's like aerial reconnaissance. You can't win wars with aerial reconnaissance. It comes in handy. It's good to do. You should do it. But it's not the decisive element. The decisive element in exploration is the human being on the ground. If weíre ever going to find out if there's ever been life on Mars, if we're going to find fossils on Mars, we're going to have to drill into its crust to extract water from the subsurface, and examine it for life ... you have to send human explorers there.

These rovers that we're sending to Mars this year, in their life they will travel a kilometer. You know, the Mars Society has a simulated Mars exploration environment on Devon Island. We constrain people to operate as if they were on Mars. The canít go outside without wearing space suits, for example. Our explorers on Devon have found stromatolites, which are fossils left by colonies of bacteria. I guarantee you that you could have parachuted a hundred robots to Devon Island and you never would've found those stromatolites. You could parachute a thousand of these rovers into the Rocky Mountains, and you'd never find a dinosaur fossil.

What about taking the argument one step further? So what if we drill into the crust and find those things? Why is it worth spending this kind of money to have people standing there so they can discover ancient bacteria on Mars?

Well, we get an answer to the question of life in the universe, whether it's a general phenomenon or not. We find out if it's life like on the Earth or not. Getting an answer to that question is worth the money. But beyond that, there's something worth much more: if we go to Mars, we're going to open up a new world for humanity. We're going to open up a world that has a surface area equal to all the continents of the Earth put together and that has on it all the resources needed to support not only life, but civilization. If we go to Mars in our time, then 200 years from now there will be a new branch — or perhaps many new branches — of human civilization on Mars, with their own dialects, literatures, cities and universities, used bookstores. They will have made contributions to social thought, to technology and invention, and they'll have epic stories to inspire those who go out further. When they look back at our time, what will they think that we're doing today that is equal in importance to what we did to make their existence possible?

We look back today to 1492: who was queen of Spain?


All right, who was queen of Spain in 1540?

Beats me.

And I bet you couldn't find one person and a thousand who could tell you that one. Or 1640. Or 1740. Or 1840. Isabella is only a significant person because she sponsored Columbus.

So this is a message you need to get to President Bush, right?


What about this. I've heard it argued that Greens, people who support the environment, really should be in favor of space exploration. The argument goes like this: take the Apollo missions for example. For a short time, we brought life to what had always been a lifeless body. If we continue with the human settlement of space, we can bring life to many places where it's never been before. But at the same time, you hear about this movement to keep the Moon and now Mars pristine and make a preserve out of them.

Well, that point of view is anti-life. It is the nature of life to take barren environments and transform them to those that are friendly to the development and propagation of life. That's the whole history of life on Earth. That's why life on Earth has been a success. And we regard this process as marvelous. When Hawaii came out of the Pacific Ocean, this huge piece of bare basalt, would anyone have wanted it to stay that way? No, we want the birds to fly over and drop seeds so the islands become lush, then the animals arrive, then the Polynesians show up, and then Europeans come and build hotels. This is what life does. This is what life should do. Who would want the Earth today, with all its natural wonders, to become a place like Mars? No one sane. So, clearly, it is a good thing to take Mars in the state that it is in and transform it into becoming something as wonderful as the Earth.

So, if you get your wayif the Mars Society is successful, and a program is adoptedlet me give you a list of things, and then you tell me when you think they will happen. Starting with a manned mission to Mars.

If we get our way, we can be on Mars in 10 years. Weíre closer today, from a technological point of view, to having humans on Mars than we were to having people on the Moon in 1961 when that goal was adopted.

How about a permanent settlement on Mars?

Twenty years.

How about permanent settlement elsewhere in the solar system? And where you think that would be?

Well, you could establish a settlement on the Moon, but it wouldn't be anywhere near as self-sufficient as one on Mars.

Because of the lack of resources there?

Yes. And then similarly in the near asteroids, and eventually the main-belt asteroids. Mars is not the final destination, but it is the direction. It's where we establish our first new branch of humanity in space as a space-faring species. And if we do it, that in itself will develop our capabilities. The first people that go to Mars are going to go in chemically propelled spacecraft. They're going to make the passage in cramped and uncomfortable quarters. The grandchildren of the first Martian immigrants will find it difficult to credit the story that their grandparents tell about how long it took. Because they'll be traveling in fusion-powered spacecraft which can do it in three weeks in great comfort.

Once there is a branch of human civilization on Mars, we have the incentive to develop more of the technologies that will allow us to make the transit routine. Columbus fared the Atlantic in ships that even a generation later no one would have attempted to the Atlantic in. Because until there was transatlantic transportation, there was no need to develop transatlantic-capable ships. But after Columbus came a trans-oceanic civilization and your three-masted sailing ships, your clipper ships, your steamers, your ocean liners, your Boeing 747ís all followed in turn. But the same technology that makes the transfer to Mars routine, will also make it possible for more daring people to take much greater steps. If you can get to Mars in three weeks, you can get to the Moons of Saturn in a few months. Perhaps even attempt interstellar voyages within a few decades.

A few decades from now?

No, a few decades of transit.

Actually, that was the next item on my list. Using the same time line, when we would we venture to the stars?

If we go on this trajectory, if we take the high road, and establish a new branch of human society on Mars, such that 50 years from now there are growing settlements on Mars and we're seeing the beginnings of settlement of the broader solar system — with mining colonies in the outer asteroids and so forth — I think a few decades later, we will see the first exploratory missions beyond the solar system.

Posted by Phil at 08:55 AM | Comments (17) | TrackBack

August 26, 2003

ITF #28

In the Future...

...Every household will have its own Hubble.

via VodkaPundit.

Posted by Phil at 04:44 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

ITF #27

In the Future...

...Martian colonists will sell Earth rocks on-line as a novelty gift item.

Futurist: Posse member Robert Hinkley

Posted by Phil at 01:54 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

My Favorite Martians

...all read The Speculist. Presented for your interplanetary enjoyment, a list they have compiled of things to do this week in celebration of the convergence of Mars and Earth.

(This and other righteous Mars Photos downloaded from Calvin J. Hamilton's Views of the Solar System.)

FastForward to Mars

Join the Mars Society. This week, we're closer to Mars than we've been in nearly 60,000 years, but we're still about 35 million miles away. The Mars Society believes that's too far, and they're working to close the gap.

See Mars at its best: A list of resources from

Grok the Red Planet. Read this essay on Mars as part of our popular culture.

Explore Mars now. Check out the interactive Mars Base.

Eat at Mars. Mars 2112 is a restaurant in NYC.

Buy a piece of Mars. It's easier to get than you think.

Read fun Mars fiction.

Fight City Hall. Why haven't we sent a manned mission to Mars yet? Is it a failure of NASA leadership? Some of us were discussing this over on Transterrestrial Musings last week and we concluded that the problem might be with the job title of the head NASA guy. He's called the "NASA Administrator." How lame is that? Give the guy (or his replacement) a better title, and maybe he or she can get more done.

Check current conditions.

Martian Clock & Calendar

The Daily Martian Weather Report

Read fun Mars nonfiction.

Get all Eastern and philosophical about Mars. Contemplate this haiku inspired by the long-suffering Nozomi probe.

Ruddy arid orb,
Our new home away from home,
Why aren't we there yet?

Become a Martian.

Mars has the same land area as Earth plus a much weaker gravity well. In a few thousand years, it will be better connected to the rest of humanity than Earth will.

Will Mars be adapted to humanity or vice versa? It's more likely that the latter will occur, making "terraformed" Mars unlikely. We won't need a "second Earth". The weaker gravity will always mean some degree of adaptation by humanity is required. This may become part of the beginning of the speciation of the human race.

A key export product of Mars will be data from novel experimentation with social systems in an environment more Earth-like than outer space. A successful social experiment in, say, the Asteroid Belt might find its way to Earth via early adopters on Mars. That is to say, the belters take the big risks, Mars then tries it out, and finally conservative Earth slowly accepts it.

Get a telescope so you can get a good up-close look. Lots of choices here. Also here. (They're having a big sale called Mars Madness. Good name!)

Here's another possibility:

Also, they say that Mars is so close this time around that you can make out features of the planet using a good pair of binoculars.

Face the unpleasant possibilities. What if Mars is turns out to be very different from what we expected or hoped for?

Ponder what might have been. Man Conquers Space is a fictional documentary tracing the history of space exploration had it followed the path outlined in a visionary series of articles in Colliers Magazine in 1952.

Mix up a pitcher of Stoli Orange Martians and have some friends over.


2 shots of Stoli Orange
l/4 shot Cointreau
Slice of Orange

Shake in chipped ice, pour in Martini glass and add slice of orange, voila!!!

Fight City Hall (2). Maybe we need more than just a change of job title. Joe Katzman explains why, perhaps, NASA itself has to go.

Go completely bonkers. Resources to help you in your quest to become some kind of unbalanced, flipped-out, in-need-of-medication Mars Nut.

Remember the good old days. Mars has been on our minds a lot over the past 150 years. Here are a few of the high points:

A great big Martian thank you to our FastForward Posse for helping put this list together, and a warm Red Planet welcome to all new Posse members. Contributors this week: Mike Sargent, Troy Loney, Karl Hallowell, Steve Yeago, Jeff Patterson, Andrew LLoyd, Bob Baker, Robert Hinkley, Joanie (our number one Posse recruiter), and Vic (our resident artist). Plus anyone I missed. Thanks, folks.

Posted by Phil at 01:37 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

White Mars

Check out Nick Hoffman's White Mars website.

Nick is a geophysicist at the University of Melbourne, with past experience in oil geology and several other areas; he contends that Mars has always been cold and dry, and that the fluid erosion so dramatically visible on the surface is due not to liquid water but to carbon dioxide — in both fluid and turbidity flows (he uses the term "cryoclastic flows", in analogy with the pyroclastic flows so familiar with terrestrial volcanos; what makes them active over longer distances on Mars is the continual addition of fresh gas from the entrained solid and liquid CO2 components). The concept also naturally explains the prevalent layering on Mars, in ways sedimentary rock can't.

While we'd all love to see a warm Mars, especially one which had developed life (and preferably one which still had relict life), Nick's arguments are persuasive; the cold, dry picture fits much better than the other ones, which
have tremendous problems in explaining where all that water went (in the White Mars scenario, the water is right where it's always been: frozen in the crust), why the amount of carbonate rocks is so small, and why the currently-active flow gullies are formed on the cold side of the cliffs in the martian arctic (rather than nearer the equator, on the sunlit sides).

And then there's Philip Christensen's (of Arizona State University) recent observation of olivine layers at the base of Valles Marineris, some 4.5 km below ground surface. These olivines quickly rust away when exposed to liquid water, yet they are preserved here after ~3 billion years. Therefore, the crust of Mars must have been frozen at this (equatorial) location for all of the last 3 billion years, to a depth of at least 4.5 km.

Recent statements from NASA appear to support the White Mars picture. This was also recently discussed on VodkaPundit. Don't miss Robin Goodfellow's interesting remarks in the comments section.

Submitted by: Posse member Troy Loney

Posted by Phil at 08:21 AM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

NASA Chief Redux

Posse member Mike Sargent recommends the following alternatives to "Administrator," the current wimpy job title of the head of NASA.

  1. Secretary Simberg er, that is to say, Surname of the Cabinet-level Department of Space Development.

  2. Doctor Surname, Lead Presidential Advisor of the National Advisory Council on Aerospace Science [NACAS], a sub-unit of the National Science Foundation.

  3. Admiral Surname, Chief of Staff, United States Space Fleet (USSF) a uniformed branch of service within the Department of Defense. This position would be equivalent to an Undersecretary of a Cabinet-level Department.

  4. General Surname, Chief of Staff, United States Space Force (USSF) a uniformed branch of service within the Department of Defense. This position would be equivalent to an Undersecretary of a Cabinet-level Department.

  5. Director Surname, of the Central Space Agency (CSA), or the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA), or the Congressional Office of Space Policy or the Presidential Office of Space Policy, etc., etc. etc.

  6. Senator Surname, Chair of the Senate Select Committee on National Space Policy

  7. Representative Surname, Chair of the House Committee on National Space Policy

  8. Commissioner Surname, Executive of the United States Commission on Space Policy. The Commission would be an independent governing body similar in concept to the Baseball Commission or the Securities and Exchange Commission.

  9. Supreme Astro-Commander Surname. Organization unspecified.

  10. Ouranarch Surname, Leader of the United States Center for Exo-Atmospheric Research and Development. Ouranarch: [pronounced OW-ran-ark] literally ‘leader of the heavens’ from ancient Greek root words and akin in construction to nauarch, the ancient Greek term for admiral.

Posted by Phil at 08:08 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

August 25, 2003

Types of Future

Time Travelerís Toolkit, Part 3

Previous Entries:
What's a Speculist?
Practical Time Travel
Divvying up the Future

We begin with a simple question: to what extent can the things we do affect the future? Can we change the future only for ourselves or can we change it for others and for the world in general??

First, letís back up and answer a more basic question: what doe we mean by "the future?" I can think of three pretty good answers:

  1. The future is everything that hasnít happened yet.
    This is the best and most straightforward definition of the future. Weíll call this the Simple Future.

  2. The future is something that happens after something else happens.
    We often use signposts to separate the present from the future. A good example comes from World War II. Most people thought of the war as being the present and the post-war world as being the future. So it wasnít just a distinction between what had happened yet and what hadnít. The present was not the immediate moment, but the current era. The future was the next era. Weíll a future so defined the Relative Future.

  3. The future is something that happens after everything else happens.
    The future is the end of time, the end of the world as we know it. The Big Crunch, the Apocalypse, and (perhaps to a lesser extent) The Technology Singularity all fit into this category. This is the Absolute Future.

Now letís review the three points of view we identified last time and give a handy short name for each :

    • T
      The Future, Omniscient view. The T is short for "the."

    • 3PL
      The Future, Third Person Limited view.

    • IAM
      The Future, First Person view. The IAM is short for "itís all about me" and also has a more obvious meaning which I think we can all grasp without any elaborate explanations.

If we combine our types of future with our three points of view, we come up with nine different flavors of the future, as shown here:

IAM Simple

IAM Relative

IAM Absolute

3PL Simple

3PL Relative

3PL Absolute

T Simple

T Relative

T Absolute

We can assume that an individualís ability to affect the future is greatest in the upper left corner and diminishes to almost nothing as we work our way from left to right and from top to bottom.

Let's take a closer look at each and see how that analysis holds up.

IAM Simple
At the outset, we should note that a person's ability to influence any of these different types of future is going to vary greatly from individual to individual. But the IAMs are pretty straightforward, especially this first one. All those futures in which we are fat, skinny, tattooed, and pregnant exist in the IAM Simple future, although any of those might slop over into the next category depending on how important we take any one of those changes to be. Other exciting futures that lie along the IAM Simple path include those in which we have decided what to have for breakfast, which shirt to wear, and whether to go to work or call in sick.

The IAM Simple includes many events which are (apparently) not under our control. My phone may or may not ring in the next hour. I may or may not get the parking space Iím looking for. That check may or may not clear before the weekend. These are all things that havenít happened yet, they are about me (or at least can be defined as being about me) and I would appear to have little or no control over them.

And there is an interesting middle ground between these kinds of future events. What about the question of whether I will be happy tomorrow? To what extent am I able to control that? I may not be able to do much about it if something terrible happens (assuming Iím not capable of preventing terrible things from happening) but what if tomorrow is a "normal" day? Can I just choose to be happy? Or do I have to create circumstances that will make me happy? In any case, to whatever extent our future subjective emotional state is our own doing, the doing of others, or the product of an uncaring world, it is part of the IAM Simple future.

IAM Relative
We are expecting a landmark, a milestone, and things are going to be different when we get there. Of course when we reach the landmark or pass the milestone and things arenít as different as we had planned, a condition that I call Future Disappointment sets in. Many of us had this after the year 2000. So many of the things we had been led to believe would happen by that year never came about. (Questions 2 and 7 of the Seven Questions about the Future have to do with Future Disappointment.) But it isnít just about a particular year, Future Disappointment can occur around much more individualized false horizons:

  • After I lose all the weight...
  • When I get promoted to senior manager...
  • After weíre married...
  • Once I get my degree...

Calling these events false horizons is not to diminish the impact that they might have on us. But how often do they really pan out to have the kind of impact we expect? They are relative. The IAM Relative future includes changes like moving, switching jobs, changing haircuts. It can be planned events, such as the events listed above, or unplanned events such as a really nice weekend or a really bad hangover or moving, only this time because youíve been evicted. In the case of planned milestones (getting a car, coming out of the closet) we can plan for the change and the relative future really does exist for us as the future. In the case of the unplanned milestones (car accident, waking up and realizing that youíre gay), we only see them as a relative future that we are currently living in (or have already passed.) And of course, the term "future" is at that point more of a temporal courtesy. Few of us really believe that weíre living in the future, question 1 of the Seven Questions notwithstanding.

IAM Absolute
Declaring so many personal crises, above, to be relative, we hardly left room for the notion of a personal absolute future. Even without thinking about it, however, there are two obvious examples:

  • Birth
  • Death

Of the two, the second probably has the better case for being an Absolute Future. Birth is stuck in a kind of a permanent past. Itís the Go space on the game board.. As we saw last time in the example of the three predictions of the future that turn out to be true, death represents an absolute, ultimate future.

But are there other life-changing events which could be classified as Absolute? Possibly. There do seem to be certain events that can reflect a kind of "end of the world" and the beginning of a completely different, transcendent reality. These might include:

  • Falling in love
  • Religious conversion
  • Conviction for a crime
  • Death of a loved one
  • Military service
  • Head injury
  • Heavy drug usage

How are these distinguished from the signposts that lead to the relative future? On the one hand, itís purely subjective, so maybe there isnít even a good case for keeping the two categories separate. On the other hand, when your world ends, you know it.

Some of these example may seem absolute at the time they occur, but donít necessarily thrust their subject into a completely different plane of existence. Perhaps a few weeks/months/years after the amazing transformation occurs, we awaken to find it somewhat less amazing. And although our lives have been fundamentally transformed, the transcendence has passed.

We are at that point in the same position as the children of that caveperson who discovered fire. We are in a position to appreciate the magnitude of the change, and we may still consider it to be the turning point in history, the beginning of the new age. However, we no longer lose sleep thinking about it.

Our lives have been transformed, but not ended. Not replaced with something utterly different. Life after the discovery of fire was much better than life before the discovery of fire, but when the excitement died down...we were still cave people.

With that in mind, I'm going to update our model thusly:

IAM Simple

IAM Relative

IAM Bridge Events

IAM Absolute

3PL Simple

3PL Relative

3PL Bridge Events

3PL Absolute

T Simple

T Relative

T Bridge Events

T Absolute

Bridge events are milestones that are transformative but not absolute. They are, if you donít mind a small paradox, near absolute. Bridge events are different from the events that trigger a relative future in that they tend to be unplanned. They are what those paradigm people refer to as "discontinuous change."

Letís look at some examples. Getting married is listed as an event that triggers an IAM Relative future. It is definitely a milestone: the anniversary of the event is tracked for years to come. Itís almost always a planned event. And it is for most people, to say the very least, a significant change. Getting married is generally not, however, the end of the world as we know it or the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. Itís big. But even the bigness is expected. Unless there is something fundamentally wrong (or amazingly right) with the marriage, we know that what we are experiencing is somewhere along the spectrum of what is to be expected.

So getting married is relative.

Falling in love, on the other hand, is much closer to being absolute. It is by and large unplanned. We donít exactly cause it, which is not to say that our behavior doesnít play an enormous role in its coming about. And it is hugely transformative, an upheaval that impacts almost every aspect of what we do and how we feel.

However, the transcendence experienced with falling in love (or religious conversion, or going to prison, or what have you) wears off after a while. So what occurred was transformative, but not absolute. It wasnít really the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. It wasnít really the end of the world. It was a bridge event.

3PL Simple
Like the IAMs, the 3PLs are pretty straightforward, especially this first one. The 3PL Simple includes all those futures in which those around us become fat, skinny, tattooed, or pregnant. We can have tremendous impact on this future. Everything we do for the people in our lives, everything we do to them, and everything we allow to happen to them by doing nothing...these all factor into the 3PL Simple.

3PL Relative
Some of the IAM Relative events that we experience are shared by the people who are closest to us and so become doorways to the Relative future for them as well. Getting married, which I listed above, begins a Relative future for you and at least one other person. If you and that person decide to have children, it also marks a major event in their pre-history.

There are other examples of ways you can impact the 3PL Relative future. Many of these have to do with family. For example, if you decide to pack up the old Buick Roadmaster wagon with your spouse, three kids, and all your worldly goods and head out from your little house in Kentucky to a much smaller apartment in San Diego, you have probably defined a relative future horizon for everyone involved (including some of the folks in San Diego.) There are also good opportunities to spark Relative futures among your friends, co-workers, and even total strangers. It can happen.

All that being said, opportunities to impact the 3PL Relative future are limited. Itís no easy task to create Relative future horizons for other people. People tend to want to make up their own minds about what the big stuff going on in their lives is. And besides, who wants to create the definitive future for someone else? Generally, when you think about the future (obvious family considerations aside) you think about your own future. Often as not, when you create a Relative future horizon for another person, you didnít even intend to do it. You were trying to make something big happen in your own life and you just happened to drag a few of the rest of us along with you.

Witness the Kentucky/San Diego move detailed above. Much as they may end up appreciating it (or hating you for it) later, the kids probably didnít have that much of a say.

3PL Bridge Events
Can you cause 3PL Bridge Events? Can you give others a whiff of a near absolute future, a future that transcends everything theyíve ever known?

Possibly. Maybe you can provide information or point someone in a direction that fundamentally transforms their life. But more likely, you just happen to be in the vicinity when these things occur. Even gifted teachers and spiritual leaders will rarely claim full credit for major changes taking place in their subjectsí lives. Like relative future horizons (only moreso), people tend to bring these on themselves.

3PL Absolute
You can give birth to another person. You can kill another person. Thatís all I can think of. Even if you save another personís life, this is just a relative future horizon.

T Simple
Technically, every event that occurs in the IAM Simple future also occurs in the T Simple future. So, yes, you can control things that happen in The Future® to the same extent that you can cause things to happen in your future. That doesnít mean, from the broader perspective, that anyone will necessarily notice or care.

T Relative
The previous example given of a relative future was the end of World War II. Can we as individuals have an impact on this level of event? A very few of us will have a visible impact. Many, many more of us will have a smaller, but real impact. The war effort provides good examples. Only a few people signed declarations of war or stormed Omaha Beach. Many more folks were involved in scrap metal drives or in manufacturing equipment. But everyone involved had a real impact.

Several future developments that weíre interested in at the Speculist will represent the beginning of a Relative Future for humanity. Both the development of a cure for aging and the establishment of the first interplanetary settlement are good examples. It isnít hard to view the present as the era when human beings can generally expect to live a century or less, or the era when human beings live only on Earth. Nor would it be hard to define the future as the period that occurs beyond one of these landmarks.

T Bridge Events
As individuals, we can impact T Bridge Events to the same extent that we can impact T Relative events. The only question is whether there are any on the horizon. The one I can think of is the Technology Singularity. Although I listed this earlier as an Absolute Future, it might fit better in the Bridge Event category.

You can argue it either way. If the Singularity is the end of the human era, it's an absolute future. If it's the migration of human intelligence to a new computational substrate, maybe it's just a Bridge Event.

It's till bigger than the invention of fire, though.

T Absolute
Again, we can have some impact on it, but is it on the horizon? Some religious folks believe the Apocalypse is imminent. We could collide with a giant meteor. It would be that kind of thing, an unexpected catastrophe that brings the world to the end. Personally, I don't see any T Absolute Futures on the horizon (with the possible exception of the Singularity.) And, clearly, that's just as well.

Next time, weíll begin to look at how these different futures fit into what I call Possibility Space.

Posted by Phil at 05:33 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Enzymes for Young Astronauts

I recently opined that amongst the long-living humans who will populate this planet in the years to come, perhaps those of us who are alive now will be the best-suited for space travel. We might be a tad less risk-averse than our progeny, and more willing to take on the hardships involved in long voyages, especially the interstellar variety.

Several readers wrote in to the effect that the only thing standing between themselves and taking part in a dangerous, long-term space mission is the invitation/opportunity to do so. Such invitations and opportunities are pretty scarce right now, but they will no doubt start cropping up more frequently in the future. All we have to do is live to see it.

Here's some help in doing so. reports this morning on a major development in aging research: the discovery of the means to increase production of an enzyme whose presence seems to have the same anti-aging properties as caloric restriction. According to the Washington Post article that Kurzweil links:

"It's looking like these sirtuins serve as guardians of the cell," said Harvard Medical School researcher David Sinclair, who led the new work published in yesterday's online edition of the journal Nature. "These enzymes allow cells to survive damage and delay cell death."

Now the race is on, Sinclair said, to find the most potent sirtuin stimulators -- or create synthetic ones -- and test their ability to extend the lives not only of cells, flies and worms but also of mice, monkeys and humans.

Other researchers were more cautious, warning that aging is a complex and poorly understood process that is unlikely to be slowed by any single drug. As promising as the research may appear today, they said, sirtuin would not be the first fountain of youth to prove a mirage.

That last note of caution is an important one. Readers of the Speculist know that aging can be attributed to not one, but seven distinct causes. It's unlikely that this enzyme will take on all seven. But, hey, every little bit helps.

We've got a flight to catch.

Posted by Phil at 08:30 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

ITF #26

In the Future...

...alterations will be included in the price of a suit. (See item dated August 22.)

Futurist: Posse member Mike Sargent

Posted by Phil at 08:02 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

ITF #25

In the Future...

...people will be so smart that they will only need reassurance if an object passes within, say, 25 million miles.

via MarsBlog

Posted by Phil at 07:25 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

This Week 08/25/03

On Wednesday, Earth and Mars will be closer to each other than they've been for nearly 60,000 years. To mark this momentous occasion, all this week we'll be slanting everything we do in a Marsward (or at least a spaceward) direction

Let the Madness begin.

This week:

Time Traveler's Toolkit. So far we have explained what a Speculist is, defined Practical Time Travel, and had a glimpse at how the future looks from different points of view. This week, we're going to classify nine — no, make that twelve — distinct kinds of future and talk about the role we have to play in each.

A rapidly growing FastForward Posse provides the ulitmate guide to all things Martian.

We'll be Speaking of the Future with Dr. Robert Zubrin, President of the Mars Society and author of The Case for Mars. Dr. Zubrin will explain why we shouldn't just focus on how close Mars is to us, the real question is how close are we to Mars? He has some ideas for getting us a whole lot closer.

Stillness, Chapter 4. Reuben's date with Ksenia takes the promised ugly turn. We say goodbye to all that kissy-lovey stuff as we plunge into heart-pounding suspense.

Robert Zubrin will answer Seven Questions About the Future.

Future Round-up. All of the In the Future... predictions for this week brought together in one handy list. We're still not caught up from doing only four a couple of weeks ago, so we'll see how it unfolds.

Plus, throughout the week we'll be blogging developments in Mars, nanotechnology, Mars, artificial intelligence, space exploration (especially like to, say, Mars), robotics, Mars, and other future-impacting areas. Such as Mars.

Posted by Phil at 06:46 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 24, 2003

Special Offer

Speculist readers are eligible for a $50 discount (13% off) when they register for the upcoming Accelerating Change conference (see previous entry.) Just use this discount code


when registering on-line. Or, if you register by phone, simply mention that you're a reader of the Speculist.

Posted by Phil at 06:38 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

August 23, 2003

Accelerating Change Conference

I just got a reminder that the Institute for Accelerating Change is holding their conference September 12-14 in Palo Alto, California. Check out that lineup: Ray Kurzweil, Steve Jurvetson, James Gardner, Robert Wright, and our good friend Christine Peterson, among others. (Not to mention Eric Drexler!) If you're interested in getting a handle on the staggering implications of the changes that are taking place all around us, I can't think of a better event to attend. I had the pleasure of listening to talk by John Smart, President of the IAC, a few months ago and it absolutely blew me away.

If there's any way you can make it to this event, don't miss it. And be sure to tell 'em the Speculist sent you.

Posted by Phil at 10:47 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Future Roundup 08/23/03

Here's the full list of this week's predictions for the future. Hat tip to FastForward Posse member Robert Hinkley for providing a couple of these.

In the Future...

...some of us will be cool again.

...parents will be fully qualified to assess whether their children are overweight.

...few homes will be without a potted Prozac or Viagra plant.

...genetic technologies will familiarize the public with giant forest animals, letting us know that we need not fear them.

...they'll make their own monthly payments, too.

That does it for this week. Thanks for dropping by. And until next time, we'll see you in the future.

Posted by Phil at 10:33 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

August 22, 2003

Red Planet Madness

Next Wednesday is an important day in the history not just of the Speculist, but of planet Earth. On Wednesday, the Earth will be closer to the planet Mars than it has been for almost 60,000 years.


To celebrate, I've declared that next week will be Red Planet Madness at the Speculist. Everything we do will have a Mars or space theme.

This would be a great time to think about joining the FastForward Posse. To apply for membership, all you have to do is send us something to use in next week's FastForward column. If we use it, you're in!

Here's what we we're looking for:

  • Links to interesting Mars-related websites, news stories, products, pictures
  • .

  • One-liner tips about how to make the best of Red Planet Madness, etc.

  • Write a mini-essay (50 words or less) on Mars, space, rockets, that kind of thing.

  • Any and everything else you'd like to do. Surprise me!

Send your submissions to me before noon, Mountain time on Tuesday.

Posted by Phil at 07:08 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Seven Questions with...You

I'm still waiting for final approval from the Foresight Institute to run the interview with Christine Peterson, so I'm not sure that we'll be able to see her answers to the Seven Questions today. But that's okay: patience is a huge part of being a futurist.

Meanwhile, I thought this would be a good time to revisit my original post of the Seven Questions, and to invite you all to give your answers. Just put your answers in the Comments section, as Troy did.

Posted by Phil at 06:15 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

This is Good News

In fifty years, I'll be a couple of weeks shy of turning 91.

Posted by Phil at 06:00 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 21, 2003

ITF #24

In the Future...

...they'll make their own monthly payments, too.

via GeekPress

Posted by Phil at 09:55 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

New Head for NASA

Rand Simberg links to a James Oberg piece in USA Today calling for a change of leadership at NASA. In a nutshell:

NASA needs an inspiring leader, not just a competent manager, to guide it out of this wilderness and set a course for the next decade and beyond.

Not that anyone's asking me, but I nominate Dr. Robert Zubrin. He's an ex-NASA guy, president of the Mars Society, and he literally wrote the book (see below) on how to get there safely, quickly, and cheaply. Let's put human beings on Mars. Now there's a course for the next decade and beyond.

Plus, Dr. Zubrin is going to be our special guest when Red Planet Madness strikes the Speculist next week. He will be the subject of both our Speaking of the Future and Seven Questions features.

Anyhow, check out Transterrestrial Musings (the comments section) to see the debate unfolding. Rand is, of course, at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to debating me on these kinds of issues. He actually knows what he's talking about.

That can be pretty encumbering, from what I've heard. I wouldn't know.

Posted by Phil at 02:20 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Nanotechnology Review

Derek Lowe provides a good summary of recent nanotechnology research over on Corante.

Lots of interesting work is going on. The building blocks of molecular machinery and DNA-based computing are being put in place today. Right now.

As Derek so eloquently puts it:

As the citations above show, this research is taking place all over the world. And the pace is picking up. These results are going to look a bit quaint in two or three years; some of them are going to show their age in half that time. (And what the contents page of PNAS is going to look like in about 2020, I couldn't begin to tell you.) I'm just glad to be here while it happens.


via InstaPundit

Posted by Phil at 01:27 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

ITF #23

In the Future...

...genetic technologies will familiarize the public with giant forest animals, letting us know that we need not fear them.

Futurist: Posse member Robert Hinkley

Posted by Phil at 07:51 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 20, 2003

ITF #22

In the Future...

...few homes will be without a potted Prozac or Viagra plant.

Posted by Phil at 09:44 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Carnival #48 Kicks Off

...over at Outside the Beltway. Don't miss it!

Posted by Phil at 09:11 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

The Serious Optimism of Nanotechnology

NOTE: My interview with Christine Peterson is going through a final approval by the Foresight Institute before I run it. It should up in a day or two. Meanwhile, to whet your appetite, here's the introduction.

Speaking of the Future with Christine Peterson

Candide, amazed, terrified, confounded, astonished, all bloody, and trembling from head to foot, said to himself, "If this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the others?"

Candide, Chapter 6
Francois-Marie Arouet Voltaire

Voltaire's revulsion for philosophical optimism was a palpable thing. He dragged poor Candide and friends through hundreds of pages of battles, plagues, torture, and other horrors, always to Dr. Pangloss' absurd refrain that this is, indeed, the "best of all possible worlds." We might think that a short story would have made the point as well as a novel, but it doesn't seem that Voltaire wanted merely to dispute what he considered a shallow and utterly facile system of thought. He wanted to destroy it.

I would have to second that impulse.

The Lisbon earthquake that inspired Voltaire to write his novel was, in a sense, the 9/11 of its day. It was obviously not an act of terrorism, but it was a huge, unexpected catastrophe which raised many questions about the meaning of life and our place in the universe. Imagine anyone (other than an outright terrorist psychopath) having the gall to suggest that 9/11 was not only a good thing, but that it was the best thing that could happen, and a key ingredient in making this world the best place it could possibly be. When we consider that it was this attitude that Voltaire challenged with his novel, we might go so far as to suggest that he should have written a few hundred more pages.

Voltaire's rejection of philosphical optimism is a lynchpin of Enlightenment thinking that remains with us to this day. Unfortunately, that well-placed mistrust has spread, diffusing itself into a sort of vague cynicism towards all hopeful modes of thought. Those who turn up their nose at superficial "best of all possible worlds" scenarios will sometimes hastily shun any sort of optimism. And that's a mistake.

There is a kind of optimism that is not informed by wishful thinking nor driven by a desire to make everything seem (no matter what) to come out "right," but that is grounded in science and driven by realistic extrapolation of current capabilities. This is the optimism that talks not just about benefits, but about risks and downsides and the need for better understanding. Ironically, it is this kind of optimism that tends to gives us our most vivid and positive glimpses into the future. After all, who is really the more optimistic: the philospher who tries to paint a happy face on a tragedy, or the seismologist who works on developing warning systems, and the engineer and the architect who work to design buildings that can withstand the next quake? One takes an image of what we know to be bad and tells us that it's good; the others create an image of good things that can be.

Nowhere is this kind of optimism better exemplified than at the Foresight Institute, and there is no more serious nor passionate advocate of it than the Institute's President, Christine Peterson. I spoke with her recently about nanotechnology, living hopefully, and contending with detractors.

This interview is temporarily unavailable. It will be back online very soon.

Posted by Phil at 08:36 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 19, 2003

Get Jacked In, People

This week we welcome several new members to the FastForward Posse as we try to make sense of the Infinite Internet. Let's see what there is to see in this Brave New Unwired World.

FastForward to the Infinite Internet

1. Read the Book!

2. Mike Sargent:

A couple of the things I anticipate (with varying degrees of dread and desire) about Mr. Lightman's "exponentially smarter and more responsive" future environment are:

— The eventual (within this century) integration of biological (nerve tissue) sensors and processors (eyes, ears, skin, tongues, noses and brains, human and otherwise) either directly (current examples: cochlear and retinal implants) or inductively (see ITF#8). When combined with '4G', IPv6, or similar data-transfer concepts this implies that the entire phylum Chordata (if not further afield) might conceivably be 'wired together', downloaded and archived, or interrogated (in either the positive and the pejorative senses).

—Initially, the 'skinriders' (those who cross-connect their own nervous systems with others) will probably be regarded in a similar light to the pierced, tattooed and scarified of our current society. As 'skinriding' and 'upgrades to the wetware' (enhanced senses, offboard storage of memories, etc.) become more capable and more frequently used for 'practical' purposes like sociobiological research or military applications, those who do not, at minimum, use some kind of noninvasive neural interface on a daily basis will come to be regarded as marginal, nearly crippled, and probably suspected of motives similar to some of the more violent anti-technological religious sects active today.

Mike wins this weeks LISP Memorial Prize for robust use of parentheses.

Some of our less astute readers are going to need a little help with the "positive sense of interrogation.” (Okay, actually it’s me. What the heck does this mean?) I wonder: if the whole phylum is wired together out here in meat space, how much longer will it be before an exact digital replica exists online? And when that happens, will everything out here be considered redundant? Expendable, even?

I propose we drop the name FastForward Posse in favor of The Skinriders. Or does that sound too much like something you'd order on Adult pay-per-view?

- Phil -

3. Get a Wearable Display

Available from

4. Bob Baker:

One of the uses of G5 technology will be transmitting medical data from monobots resident in the human body. Monobots (monitor robots), based on nanotechnology, will monitor the health of the host at the cellular level. Monobots specifically designed to measure cellular processes will send the data to storage sites where it will be analyzed for variance with previous data archived in massive medical storage facilities. The future of the human race is not to wear computers but to host them. This technology is at least 50 years distant and probably 100 - 200 years before it is perfected and common.

Bob knows his robots. Plus he’s the only member of the Posse who can parse the phrase "50 words or less.”

- Phil -

5. NTT DoCoMo

One of the companies Alex talked about extensively last week. Check out their Vision 2010 video for a look at a truly wired (wireless) world.

6. Ringleader Vic:

I've been waiting for someone to capitalize on the best idea yet. Picture a world in which you never have to carry a wallet again. There will be no need for identification. No need for cash or credit cards. No more John Does.

Instead of credit card machines and ATM's, technology should allow for a device that scans your most unique identifier, your fingerprint. Just think of all the major conveniences. Dining out? "That'll be $65.75 Sir. Please touch the pad. Pulled over by the cops? "I need to see your index finger please!" There will be no more wondering if the two slaughtered gentlemen on the TV screen are really who the media says they are: just scan the fingers dude.

Lost children would be no problem. "I want my mommy!" Scan the finger…….beep…beep ….zip…zip…zip, out comes the sheet. Joey Jones - Ph. 555-5555 address 1935 Maple St. "We're taking you home son!"

Imagine the effect on petty theft. "Hey!, someone stole my wallet!" Now it will be, "Hey! Someone cut my hand off!" The only problem with trying to steal the entire hand is that the original owner would have to enter four fingers in his predetermined order. The thief would have no idea what that order is and would look pretty stupid trying to scan a bloody hand.

In Short there would be no need for any ID or any need for billing of any kind again. Every service would require a touch that would automatically be deducted from your bank account monthly. Groceries, gas your phone….EVERYTHING. Just make sure your employer recharges your print on payday to cover all of those convenient expenses.

Vic, don’t you ever watch the Sopranos? They always cut off the heads and hands of the victims to make sure you can’t identify them. I think nanotechnology will make counterfeiting fingerprints fairly easy. We’ll need to find another unique identifier. Retina? Probably not much harder to copy than fingerprints. Your individual DNA? Nope. Too easy to steal.

Maybe DNA plus PIN code?

Bonus points to Vic for providing a self-portrait.

- Phil -

7. Get a Complete Wearable Computer

Available from

8. Joanie:

Do we really need access to the Internet everywhere we go? Do we?

At first thought, this sounds like a great idea. You have access to store websites and can compare prices while you're out shopping. You can e-mail your significant other and ask where the hell they are when they're supposed to have met you at Ikea 30 minutes ago. Keep tabs on your kids while they're out on a date.

MOM: Hello! I know you're there.
MOM: I know you have your instant messenger up. That better be ALL that's "up" or you'll be in serious trouble. I'm getting your dad in on this one.
DAD: Listen up, I expect you to answer your mother when she's messaging you!
DAD: I can see you're online.
DAD: Answer me now, you hear?
KID: Oh, hi Dad. I was just in the bathroom and left my jacketputer here at the table.
DAD: What table? Where are you? Why didn't you have your GPS working? Aren't you wearing your ballcapputer?
KID: No. I'm not wearing the cap tonight. I hate that hat. We're at XYZ Pizza.
DAD: Let me see.
MOM: I don't like their pizza. It tastes like cardboard. And, why are you out without your hat? What's wrong with your hat? Your grandmother bought that for you!
KID: (Firing up the jacketcam) See? There's Shannon, Keith, Jack, Beth, and the rest of the gang.
DAD: Did you just say gang? Are you involved in gang activity?
KID: Dad, chill. I meant the whole "gang" of my friends. You know, a group of people? Not, like, Crips and Bloods. As if! You know we're not those kinds of kids. I mean, we live in a town of 1,400 people! Everyone knows everyone else...we're tiny! What territory would we fight over? The corner of 1st and Main? Hardly worth it. Who wants the claim the flower shop as their territory?
DAD: Okay, I misunderstood.
MOM: Honey, you really shouldn't read so much into what he says.
DAD: Are you behaving yourself? Why'd Shannon go under the table? She better not be unzipping your pants, young man!
KID: Dad! She dropped her napkin. The pizza's here. Can I go now?
DAD: Lower your sleeve so I can see what she's doing.
KID: (Shannon appears back on screen - waves napkin at KID'S dad.) See? There she is. Nothing to worry about. I'm gonna go now. I wanna eat this pizza while it's still hot.
MOM: You will be home by curfew won't you?
DAD: Leave the jacketcam on, son.
MOM: Leave the jacketcam on, son.
KID: No way! I gotta go. (End cam)
DAD: You leave that cam on, young man!
DAD: Hey! Put that back on!
KID: (signed off messenger)
DAD: He signed off.
MOM: I see that.
DAD: I have half a mind to go down there after him and take him his capputer.
MOM: Not dressed like that, you won't! And, quit looking at porn!

...whoah, I have to cut this short lest I compromise the pristine, Epcot-like atmosphere we’ve maintained so well here at the Speculist. Read the rest (it’s wicked funny) over at Joanie's blog.

More from da Goddess:

Or, imagine what bloggers would do computer access EVERYWHERE! We already have people blogging about bowel movements and plumbing disasters. Do you really wanna go into the bathroom with these people? You do realize they'll start taking pictures and posting them, don't you? We don't wanna go there. Please.

Technology at our finger tips is handy. But, it can also be intrusive and obstructive. People should get off-line and live life! There's nothing wrong with a little old-fashioned legwork while out shopping. There's nothing wrong with being disconnected from the rest of the world and enjoying time alone with family or friends or heck, even truly "alone"....

Now, where did my coffee mug with the WiFi card go?.

Joanie is the official choice of the Speculist for TBOTCOTW's sexiest female blogger poll. Everyone drop by (early and often) and cast your votes for her.

- Phil -

9. Consider the Alternatives

How about these four possible futures for the Internet?

10. Ringleader Mike

It seems that jacking in these days centers around getting broadband and then synching everything you own to it. This is the PDA model in which you have single point of managing everything: appointments, contacts, reminders, emails, phone calls, web sites, music, movies, lovers. Then you work from there. It seems pretty limiting, but with all the noise, it is comforting to know that everything you care about collects in one place. It's sort of like having a home, which I think we all connect to on some level.

Wireless still seems a bit for the birds. I'm yet to see an implementation that actually gives you true freedom from the wired world. At best, it fills in the short gaps of the wired world and lets you wander off a bit before getting out of range or needing a refresh from the wired home base. Again, unless you're a true nomad, you probably don't care about this limitation.

The great thing about this brave new hooked-to-everything world (and perhaps it's ultimate flaw) is that there's always a way to connect to someone doing something somewhere somehow for some stupid reason. It seems great but it could turn the whole place into a bad episode of short attention span theatre. Google is great but how do you even begin to care about everything? Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but I need my blinders.

I think we’re fast approaching the day when having any kind of blinders at all will require installing a really good firewall.

- Phil -

Thanks to everyone who participated this week. Good stuff!

All next week, the Speculist celebrates the near convergence of Earth with the planet Mars. FastForward will be a compendium of all things Martian. How do we get there, what would we do there, is there life there? Entries on Barsoom, Mars Bars, Mars Attacks, The Martian Chronicles, and Kenneth Mars are all welcome. Send them to the Speculist by midnight Monday (8/25).

Posted by Phil at 01:56 PM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

ITF #21

In the Future...

...parents will be fully qualified to assess whether their children are overweight.

Futurist: Posse member Robert Hinkley

Posted by Phil at 07:52 AM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

August 18, 2003

Need a Lift to Mars

Here's an interesting report on the Sixth Sixth International Mars Society Conference, which took place in Eugene, Oregon last week. Money quote:

"Next year is a crisis that may well determine whether humans to Mars occurs in our lifetime. It is a unique opportunity. But if we let it slip by we really are going to blow it," said Robert Zubrin, President of the Mars Society. He is an unabashed advocate for putting humans on the red planet, and doing it near-term.

The question of whether we can go on with manned space travel comes down to a question of lift capacity. We lost the infrastructure to produce the magnificent Saturn V rockets of the Apollo program shortly after that program ended. In light of the recent Columbia tragedy and the aging of the shuttle program, it's likely that the shuttle will be shut down in the near future. That could lead to disaster:

A vital step is retaining the shuttle infrastructure, sans the human-carrying orbiter. By using the shuttle external tank, solid rocket motors, the shuttle main engines, and adding a new upper stage, that collective hardware can toss extremely weighty payloads into space.

Doing so results in the primary tool needed for human exploration of the Moon, Mars, as well as the near Earth asteroids, Zubrin said.

"We need to turn the shuttle into a heavy-lift vehicle and give it a goal thats worthy of a heavy-lift vehicle. And that means supporting humans being sent to either the Moon or Mars, or both," Zubrin said.

Zubrin said he does not see how the Columbia Accident Investigation Board can avoid recommending that the shuttle be replaced as the primary taxi for sending humans to orbit. The question then is whether the nation will preserve the space shuttle infrastructure or not.

In mothballing the shuttle infrastructure, so goes the human spaceflight program, Zubrin said. "The only way out is forward."

Without the shuttle, the only way to get humans into space will be NASA's proposed spaceplane. But it will be too small and short-range to allow for trips to the moon and the planets. [By the way, we'll be running an interview with Robert Zubrin on August 27th, the day Mars and Earth reach maximum convergence. Previous entries here and here.]

Whatever anybody wants to say about the Apollo program, we must have been doing something right. We live in an age of great change, on the verge of what will be remembered as some of humanity's greatest achievements. I find it interesting how often Apollo is referenced by those who are looking ahead, trying to bring one of those achievements into being.

- As I reported a while back, the nanotechnology community is looking for a moonshot goal of their own to move the industry along.

- The Discover Magazine article I linked to earlier today described the need for "a research and engineering effort at least as intense as the push behind the Apollo program" in order to get us to the stars.

- This morning, Rand Simberg linked to an MSNBC piece describing how we could solve our energy problems by collecting solar power on the moon and beaming it back to earth via microwaves. What will it take to get us there? "[A] financial commitment on par with the Apollo era could bring the first jolt of otherworldly electricity down to the ground in 12-15 years."

- A while back, Peter Schwartz and Doug Randall of the Global Business Network published an article in Wired calling for a national initiative to switch the U.S. over from petroleum to hydrogen power. Their rallying cry? "We put a man on the moon in a decade; we can achieve energy independence just as fast."

- Just last week, in talking to us about the future of wireless networks and ubiquitous computing, Alex Lightman suggested that the U.S. could take a dominant position in the global race to 4G with the help of "an Apollo moon mission-style speech by President Bush"

Think about that last one. He isn't calling for an Apollo-style budget. If we could just get a speech on par with the one that launched Apollo, we'd be getting somewhere.

But Zubrin is calling for something even more modest than that. He's not saying give me an Apollo-like mission to Mars. He's not calling on anyone to try to emulate the program's success. He's just warning that we not repeat the mistakes we made after Apollo. That doesn't seem like too much to ask, now does it?

Posted by Phil at 01:54 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

ITF #20

In the Future...

...some of us will be cool again.

Posted by Phil at 12:31 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Divvying up the Future

Time Traveler's Toolkit, Part 2

Previous Entries:
What's a Speculist?
Practical Time Travel

In response to last week's piece in which I defined Practical Time Travel, FastForward Posse member Mike Sargent wrote the following:

Today's entry is great, as far as it goes. One, particularly annoying, issue with the automotive analogy is the distinct lack of navigation aids to cut through the otherwise impenetrable fog ahead to give us a view comparable to the one in the rear view mirror (although the true quality of that vista is also open for debate). Without headlights [1] and / or a good map [2] intentional progress can only be slow, cautious, conservative, and fraught with danger.

[1] "headlights" in this case would have to be some kind of well-developed civilian intellegence-gathering and analysis network. It would have to make CNN/Fox look like the salon correspondence of 18th c. Europe.

[2] "a map" would resemble the beginning stages of Asimov's 'psychohistory'. I don't hold out a great deal of hope for the development of such a predictive science in the next couple of centuries since (In my humble, if educated, opinion) the social sciences are somewhere between "If I bang on this rock hard enough with this other rock I get two sharp rocks." and the phlogiston model of combustion by comparison to the physical sciences.

As brilliant as he was, Asimov was very much a creature of his time. I suppose it's only natural that, as a twentieth century writer, he would view approaching the future as some vast collectivist enterprise. I realize that I verge on blasphemy in suggesting this, but seriously: what was the Foundation, really, but a benign (and much more accurate) Politburo, cranking out 5,000 year plans rather than the Five-Year variety? I'm not saying this collectivist or "mass future" approach is necessarily wrong, unfortunate political associations notwithstanding. I'm saying it's one of many possible approaches to the future. The future can also be approached from an individual or small-group perspective. And when it is approached this way, when we focus our energies on What Am I Going to Do for the Next Three Years rather than How Can I Unravel the Ultimate Fate of Humanity, we find that many of the roadblocks are diminished, if not eliminated. Or, to extend the automotive analogy just a bit, I think the availability and quality of travel aids increases greatly as we choose routes nearer to home*.

There are a number of reasons why our own future is easier to map out than the future of our family or town or planet. But not least among them is the simple fact that we're generally more interested in our own future than we are in any other. Let's look at an example that illustrates this point. Imagine you somehow come into possession of a sheet of paper on which are printed a list of three things that will happen in the future. These are accurate predictions, things that definitely will happen. For purposes of this illustration, we will allow that such predictions are somehow possible.

The first item on the list tells you that in two years, a landmark peace agreement will be reached in the Middle East and that the Israelis and the Palestinians will cease hostilities and live in relative peace, prosperity, and justice for the next 400 years. Well, right off, you have to wonder what exactly is going to happen after those 400 years are up? You can't help it — a prediction like this one practically begs you to ask that question. But other than that knee-jerk response, how do you react to this prediction? You're glad, of course. Relieved. Depending on how close to this situation you are and/or how much you've worried about it, you might be very glad indeed. Only the worst kind of extremists and agitators (of which there are unfortunately plenty) would take this as bad news. You'll probably view it as good news for the world. You will think of the lives that won't be lost or wasted in hatred and strife. You will think of the resources that can now be freed for more productive pursuits. It's wonderful news.

The next prediction is that there will be major breakthroughs in the fields of nanotechnology and biotechnology over the next ten years leading to the elimination of almost all diseases and the extension of the human lifespan to more than twice what it currently is. More good news! This one might hit a little closer to home. Everybody has some kind of connection to or association with the Middle East, however indirect. But we all have a direct interest in our own lifespans. Sure you'll think of others, those who are close to you who are sick or aging — what will this news mean to them? And we think of yourself. You're going to live twice as long! What will you do with the time? Can you still retire on schedule? How will the new technology allow you to feel as you advance through these later years? Will you look like you're 150 years old?

And you'll give a thought to society as a whole. What will it be like having all these super-old people running around? What will this do to Social Security? What will it do to the population of Florida? What impact will this have on friendships, families, marriages? What will it do to the economy? It sure sounds like good news for the planet in general and for you in particular, but there may be some downside and the whole thing bears looking at very carefully.

Unless you live in the Middle East or have friends or family that do, it is hard not to regard this second prediction as the more important of the two.

That's why a discussion about "the future" as often as not ends up being a discussion about "your future" or "my future," by the way. We can't help it; we're in it. Talking about "the future" means talking about setting. Talking about "my future" means talking about character and plot.

Which leads us to the third prediction. It says that you will be dead in three weeks. That's all.

Here's the thing. Those other two predictions deal with major breakthroughs for the world, the kind of changes that you might think of as marking the beginning of a new era, a new age in the history of humanity. But this last one is the truly big news.

Hold on a minute. It's only about one person. So what's the big deal?

Well, first, it's not just some person, for crying out loud. It's you. You're going to die. Who cares about everybody else getting to live twice as long, you're going to be dead in three weeks. You won't live to see the Middle East thing happen. Hell, you won't even be around to see who wins the Superbowl.

You're going to die.

Secondly, while both of the events named could be viewed as a threshold to a new era for humanity, I don't think many of us would tend to look at them as the ultimate fate of humanity. The third prediction, on the other hand, represents your ultimate fate. It's the end of the world, the end of time, for you. And even if you believe in an afterlife, it's the end of this world. It's over. Finished.

This is all a matter of point of view. There are a number of POVs to consider. We can borrow a few from Creative Writing 201 to shed some light. First there is the one that none of us actually has, the Omniscient View. This is the one that gives us The Future™. Only an Omniscient Being could actually see the world from this view, but we refer to it all the time as though we were intimately acquainted with it. It's the point of view in which you can see everything going on at once and in which these events are not colored by individual perceptions and desires.

Everybody who makes general statements about the world is relying to some extent on the Omniscient View. In the preceding statement, I relied upon it. This doesn't mean that I'm claiming Omniscience, it just means that underlying my statement is the assumption that it's possible to make true statements about the assumptions that underlie true statements. And by "true statements" in the second instance, I mean these generalized objective statements about reality.

In fact, another — and probably more familiar — name for the Omniscient POV would be the Objective POV. We all know about the Objective point of view. "Let's be fair," we might say or even "let's be objective." In arguments, objective is always what you're trying to be but that the other person apparently has no concept of. It's what scientists and journalists aspire to. Honest ones, anyway. Effective salesmen and virtually all politicians, on the other hand, use it without actually aspiring to it. They talk about objective reality, and in fact talk from the standpoint of objective reality, but don't really believe in it and would have no interest in it or use for it if they thought it did exist.

So this Omniscient POV relies on the assumption that there really is a real reality "out there." In other words, true statements can be formulated about the universe. The universe is not just a bunch of perceptions, it's a thing and it has its own existence outside of our minds. I'm sure this idea doesn't strike anyone as being particularly big news, and I run the risk of getting into all kinds of philosophical stuff that I hadn't planned on by bringing it up, but it is important to understand the Omniscient POV and its distinction from the other POVs if we are to make any headway in our thinking about the future.

When aimed toward the future, the Omniscient POV is all about the big picture. While it (theoretically) provides the ability to peak into individual feelings and motivations, it is generally not used for this. There are too many Big Truths to be addressed. Individuals become abstractions, part of a greater statistical whole. This is the point of view of the Foundation and of psychohistory.

The next POV is Third Person Limited. It's the one that provides our future as opposed to the future. Third Person Limited was the recommended point of view for writing serious fiction when I was taking creative writing classes back in college. It means that you can see the world around a particular character. If he can't see it, neither can we. The word "limited" is a very important part of the name of this POV. Consider the following passage from a novel about a guy named Harry written from the Omniscient point of view.

Harry removed his shoes and, too exhausted for even the simplest effort, collapsed still dressed onto the bed and fell immediately into a fitful sleep. As he slept, a light burned late into the night from the window of a luxury apartment building far across town. Annette sat at her antique mahogany desk and poured over the ancient text, hoping to find another way out, unwilling to accept the thought that it could all end this way. Meanwhile, aboard the cloaked Mother ship that hovered silently over the same building, Gnyzt thought longingly of the muddy green pools of his homeworld, trying to hold back for now his ravenous hunger and the sweet anticipation of the feast of human flesh and blood that the morning would surely bring.

How would the same passage read if written from the Third Person Limited POV?

Harry removed his shoes and, too exhausted for even the simplest effort, collapsed still dressed onto the bed and fell immediately into a fitful sleep.

You can't have any of that stuff about Annette or Gnyzt because the point of view is limited to what Harry can see. Also, I believe I mentioned that this is a POV used by writers of Serious Fiction, so you're not allowed to have ancient texts, Mother ships, or bloodthirsty aliens, anyway. They aren't serious. Now maybe if Annette is frantically reading ancient texts not in an effort to save the world, but as a way of avoiding the deep, gnawing ambiguity she feels towards life, particularly her mother, we might be on to something. Gnyzt is a bit more of a problem, but maybe we can say that he isn't really an alien, he's a tax attorney. And the Mother ship is his apartment, one floor above Annette's. But the bloodthirsty part is real, because he's a total psycho.

Um, no. Nope.

I don't like it.

Let's just leave the story pretty much intact, keep the Third Person Limited POV, and see how we can fix the whole thing by having Harry stay up just a tad longer:

Harry removed his shoes and, too exhausted for even the simplest effort, collapsed, still dressed, on the bed. He reached over to the nightstand and picked up the phone. He slowly dialed the number, straining with the effort to punch each digit.

"Hello?" Annette answered.

"It's me," he gasped. "I've made it home. I'm all right."

"Harry, thank God," she said. "I'm coming right over."

"No," he said. He tried to catch his breath. "Not safe. I'll wait for daylight and then find you."

"But by then it might be too —"

"Don't say it. We have time."

"I have the scroll, Harry. The ancient text. Father gave it to me before he…before he…oh, Harry…" she sobbed.

With a tremendous effort, Harry pushed himself up to a sitting position.

"I heard about your father, Annette, and I'm sorry. But listen to me. We're going to make it out of this. I swear it. At sunrise, it'll be safe to move around again."

"I know," she choked, "I know, Harry. And I'm not giving up. I can read the scroll, almost as well as father can. Could."

She paused for a moment, seeming to steady herself.

"And I won't give up, Harry. I'll keep looking. There has to be another answer."

"Yes, keep looking." Harry slumped back down in the bed. "Keep looking…the answer is there…" he murmured.

"Yes. I'll keep looking. And, Harry, I want you to know that I—"

"I know," he answered softly. "Tomorrow. Tell me tomorrow."

He hung up the phone and fell immediately into a fitful sleep. In his dreams, he saw a cloaked Mother ship that hovered silently over Annette's building. On board the ship, the Alien thought longingly of the muddy green pools of his homeworld, trying to hold back for now his ravenous hunger and the sweet anticipation of the feast of human flesh and blood that the morning would surely bring.

You'll notice that in addition to getting longer and even hokier, our story has become very specific in how it tells us things. It gives us information not necessarily from Harry's point of view, meaning that the words that we're reading are not meant to be his thoughts, but from the point of view that Harry could have. What we know about what Annette is doing is what Harry learns from talking to her. What we know about Gnyzt is what Harry imagines in a very prescient dream. Outside of the bounds of what Harry can know, the world is not knowable.

The Third Person Limited POV gives us our future, assuming that we're talking about an "us" that just includes ourselves and our immediate sphere. It's kind of a small town compared to the future provided by the Omniscient Point of View. As I pointed out, the Omniscient POV assumes that there's a real reality out there. The Third Person Limited has less use for that; it's more interested in you and your little world.

That's okay: it's a much smaller pond and you therefore get to be a much bigger fish.

Granted, we can use the phrase "our future" to refer to the future of the planet earth or the human race or some other such grandiose collective We, and that's okay by me if that's the way you want to do it. But in the parlance I am introducing here, that would be correctly referred to as the future, relying as it does on the Omniscient point of view.

Our third POV option is the First Person point of view:

I removed my shoes and, too exhausted for even the simplest effort, collapsed still dressed on the bed. I reached over to the nightstand and picked up the phone. I slowly dialed the number, straining with the effort to punch each digit.

"Hello?" Annette answered.

"It's me," I gasped. "I've made it home. I'm all right."

"Harry, thank God," she said. "I'm coming right over."

"No," I said. I tried to catch my breath. "Not safe. I'll wait for daylight and then find you."

The last thing in the world I needed or wanted at that moment was to see Annette. I knew I would have to find her in the morning, we would have to save the world, and then I was going to have to somehow let her know about what had happened between Ruby and me. Not that I owed her any explanations. There was never anything between me and Annette, after all. Her old man kicks, the world starts coming to an end, and suddenly she discovers she has feelings for me. Well, it's just a little too damn late, sweetheart. Anyway, I certainly didn't have the strength to deal with it right then.

"But by then it might be too—"

"Don't say it. We have time."

"I have the scroll, Harry. The ancient text. Father gave it to me before he…before he…oh, Harry…" she sobbed.

With a tremendous effort, I pushed myself up to a sitting position.

"I heard about your father, Annette, and I'm sorry. But listen to me. We're going to make it out of this. I swear it. At sunrise, it'll be safe to move around again."

Anyway, at least the Old Guy was out of the picture. What a pain in the ass he had been.

"I know," she choked, "I know, Harry. And I'm not giving up. I can read the scroll, almost as well as father can. Could."

She paused for a moment, seeming to steady herself.

"And I won't give up, Harry. I'll keep looking. There has to be another answer."

"Yes, keep looking." I slumped back down in the bed. "Keep looking…the answer is there…" I murmured. I knew the scroll would probably tell us something, but that in the end this whole thing was coming down to me kicking some major alien butt.

"Yes, I'll keep looking. And, Harry, I want you to know that I—"

"I know," I answered softly. Keep her from using the "L" word at all costs."Tomorrow. Tell me tomorrow."

I hung up the phone and fell immediately into a fitful sleep. In my dreams, I saw a cloaked Mother ship that hovered silently over Annette's building. On board the ship, the Alien thought longingly of the muddy green pools of his homeworld, trying to hold back for now his ravenous hunger and the sweet anticipation of the feast of human flesh and blood that the morning would surely bring.

I woke for a moment, startled by the though that hey, if he got to her first, it would sure save me a lot of trouble.

The first person POV is the one that allows us to think and talk in terms of my future. Harry is interested in what's going to happen to him. It's not a coincidence that his desires are at odds with the expectations that the earlier versions would have led us to expect. The Omniscient POV gives us a story about the impending end of the world and two heroic people doing what they can to stave it off. Third Person Limited gives us a tender story of two people who care for each other caught up in the whirlwind of an alien invasion. First Person gives us the story of a man who really wants to get some sleep and who will deal with a few annoyances (breaking it off with a woman, saving the world) when he wakes up.

Did you notice that somewhere between POVs, Harry became a self-centered jerk? That's what the First Person Point of View is all about. You don't have to worry about the fish-to-pond size ratio anymore; now you are the pond.(Paradoxically, Harry also became more interesting, even more likable.)

Let's go back and look at the earlier example, in which we got to peak into the future. It is obvious that the first prediction, the one about the Middle East, is very much about the future, and it requires that we look at the world from the Omniscient POV. The second prediction, the one about nano- and biotechnology, is also definitely about the future, but it immediately spins us off into thinking about our future. What will this mean to me? That's a question that you never have to ask in the case of the third prediction, the one about dying in three weeks. In fact, this third prediction will require us to think about our future, about how this news will impact those around us. But our initial response to it is very much from the First Person POV. It is clearly a prediction about my future.

So to whom does the future belong? It depends on which future, which POV, you're talking about. In some sense (although there are severe restrictions to any such generality) it is fair to say that my future belongs to me. We can then carry on and say that our future belongs to us and that the future belongs to The — or possibly to the world or to God if you're uncomfortable with the entire future belonging to the definite article. There are good approaches to the future from each of the POVs.

One's ability to influence the future from a particular POV will be the topic for next week's TTT.

* Which is not to say that I don't have any use for the collectivist approach, or interest in developing something like Asimov's psychohistory. I think real progress will come towards this kind of capability not from the social sciences, but from analysis of financial markets. The recent flap over a futures market in terrorism got people thinking about the applicability of the predictive power of markets to future events in general. I think there is definitely something there. Also, check out what Ray Kurzweil has to say about using computers to evolve highly accurate systems of market prediction. (Unfortunately, I can't find a reference online, although you might try for yourselves at However, he explains this concept in some detail in the book named below.) If such systems can be evolved for financial markets, couldn't they also be evolved for markets that deal in general future events?

I'll be examining these issues in greater detail in later installments of TTT, but right now we're kind of getting ahead of ourselves. Which is okay, because, you know, we're talking about the future.

Posted by Phil at 11:46 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Live Long, Prosper, See the Universe

Discover Magazine presents a detailed article on what it would take to get us an earthlike planet in the Alpha Centauri system should such a planet be found. This is good reading, with descriptions of the different propulsion systems we might use (fission, fusion, matter-antimatter, laser sail) and a good run-down on issues like food, air, water, radiation, and gravity. With all these ducks in a row, the star voyagers could make the trip in about 45 years, raising the question of who would want to go on such a long trip, with no real possibility of return?

Ken Layne has the answer to that question:

Who wouldn't want to go? Let's see, die while taking the greatest voyage in history, or die down at the Loser's Club Home For The Aged? Just 500 years ago, the chances were very slim that a human would see anything beyond his or her village. Hell, a century ago it was terribly rare for a human to leave its birthplace. In this country, at least, the majority of us die far away from where we were born.

Absolutely. Besides, as we've been reporting here lately, we ought to have some good answers on the human lifespan front around the same time we have our laser sail starships ready to fly.

One of the issues Aubrey de Grey and I got into when doing the Seven Questions was the likely high-levels of risk-aversion that go hand-in-hand with a longer life. It isn't just flying cars: we would expect virtually all forms of transportation to be totally risk-free. Even the one-in-a-million threat that commercial aviation currently poses would be unacceptable. We would demand that all homes, workplaces, and public meeting places be indestructible: completely fire-, lightning-, earthquake-, and even bombproof. We might even decide to give up travel altogether in favor of staying home where it's safe. Some of us might even go so far as to shun personal relationships because of their occasional tendency to lead to violence.

There are three reasons why I believe this might happen:

  1. With other causes of death out of the way, all our death-prevention thinking will focus on how not to get killed.

  2. Risk aversion has historically gone up as our lifespan has increased and our own infrastructure has driven the risk of mortality down. That very infrastructure make us more risk-averse.

  3. Death is less acceptable when it occurs less frequently. Compare the horror and revulsion that we feel towards Sudden Infant Death Syndrome with the attitude towards infant mortality that our ancestors of 100 years ago had. It's not that they loved their children any less, but (by necessity) they viewed the death of an infant as more to be expected, more part of the natural order of things, and more acceptable than we can really fathom.

Of course, I'm painting in very broad strokes. I'm sure there will still to be those who are not only non-risk-averse, but who are downright risk-friendly: the thrill seekers and the adrenaline junkies. In fact, risking an abrupt and premature end to a 700-year life might be considerably more of a thrill than doing the same for one of our old 80-year models. But on the whole, I think attitudes will tend towards an intensely risk-averse direction. Eventually, the major cause of death may be suicide as people grow bored with hundreds of years of not going anywhere and not having any friends.

It is beyond ironic that the very technologies that are most likely to bring about radical life extension, and thereby foster radical risk-aversion, are the same technologies that will enable humanity's grandest adventure: the exploration and settlement of the solar system and beyond. When the starships are ready to fly, will there be anyone left ready to face the challenges and dangers of space exploration?


Maybe the very old. Maybe people who are alive now (or who will be born in the next few years) who live to see those days will be the most willing to go. After all, they might be a little more risk-friendly than their progeny, remembering as they will a world in which icy roads or unprotected sex could do you in. If that turns out to be true, then those of us who are interested in subjects such as life extension, nanotechnology, and space exploration have an additional motivation to stay alive.

The future needs spacefarers. And that might very well mean us.

Posted by Phil at 10:23 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

DNA Power Computing

What if we used living cells as computers?

SAN FRANCISCO -- It almost sounds too fantastic to be true, but a growing amount of research supports the idea that DNA, the basic building block of life, could also be the basis of a staggeringly powerful new generation of computers.

If it happens, the revolution someday might be traced to the night a decade ago when University of Southern California computer scientist Leonard Adleman lay in bed reading James Watson's textbook Molecular Biology of the Gene.

"This is amazing stuff," he said to his wife, and then a foggy notion robbed him of his sleep: Human cells and computers process and store information in much the same way.

Computers store data in strings made up of the numbers 0 and 1. Living things store information with molecules represented the letters A, T, C and G.

There were many more intriguing similarities, Adleman realized as he hopped out of bed. He began sketching the basics of DNA computing.

This sounds like the first steps towards Greg Bear's "intelligent cells" scenario in Blood Music. If Aldeman were a SF fan, he might have had this inspiration a few years ealier than he did. I wonder if he realizes that he's taking baby steps towards the Singularity?

Via GeekPress.

Posted by Phil at 09:40 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

SpaceShipOne Update

SamizData has the latest.

Posted by Phil at 09:17 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

This Week 08/18/03

Had a blast at the Rocky Mountain Blogger Bash on Saturday. It was great seeing the faces behind Liquid Courage, TalkLeft, RessurectionSong, RoverPundit, The Blog of the Century of the Week, Walter in Denver, Conclusive Evidence: of Dave Cullen Having Existed, The Worldwide Rant, Protein Wisdom (if this guy is a Rocky Mountain blogger, how come his Coming Soon notice is all about Cincinatti? am I too literal-minded or what?), and others, I know I'm leaving a few out — sorry! A couple of FastForward Posse members also put in a guest appearance to kind of round out the evening. It was great!

Speaking of the Posse, we'll be introducing some new members this week so watch TTT and FastForward. Plus we're still looking for new Posse members, and joining up has never been easier.

This week:

Time Traveler's Toolkit. Having explained what a Speculist is and having defined Practical Time Travel, we spend some time talking about who the future belongs to, and what the future looks like (and what we can do with it) from various points of view.

The FastForward Posse takes a look at jacking in, wearing computers, and basically living in logged-on-all-the-time world. Some good stuff!

We'll be Speaking of the Future with Christine Peterson, President and co-founder (along with Eric Drexler) of the Foresight Institute. Christine will weigh in on the Great Assembler Debate, misconceptions about nanotechnology, and provide an answer to the question that's been eating away at many of us: will we all soon have tiny robots in our pants?

Stillness, Chapter 3. Reuben and Ksenia go on a date. There may be some kissing. Okay, there definitely will be some kissing. But if you don't like that sort of thing, don't worry, it's only right at the end. (Maybe I'm giving too much away?) There's also some hand-holding earlier than that. But if hand-holding bothers you, maybe you're not quite ready for grown-up stories, hmm? Or maybe hand-holding bothers you because you don't like all this sissified lovey-kissy stuff. If that's your problem, all I can tell you is...hang on. Next week, in Chapter 4, things are going to take a really ugly turn. (Okay, now I'm definitely giving too much away.)

Christine Peterson will answer Seven Questions About the Future.

Future Round-up. All of the In the Future... predictions for this week brought together in one handy list. I'll probably do six this week, since I only did four last week and I want to get the average back up to five per week.

Plus, throughout the week we'll be blogging developments in nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, space exploration, and other future-impacting areas.

Posted by Phil at 07:57 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

August 16, 2003

Future Roundup 08/16/03

Here's the full list of this week's predictions for the future. What with the worm and the blackout and all, there was only time for four of them, which is too small a number for there to have been much of a theme or common thread. Two of them did involve kids at play, though. (Sort of.)

In the Future... versions of Hula Hoops, Footsies, and Whacky Clackers will also be available. will trade 5-carat gem-quality diamonds colored or shaped to match characters on a TV show.

...we'll have smaller lasers for household cleanup jobs, especially bathrooms.

...a second opinion will be only a remote-click away.

That does it for this week. Thanks for dropping by. And until next time, I'll see you in the future.

Posted by Phil at 11:51 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 15, 2003

Man's Best Friend

Technology Trends reports on a breakthrough at Sandia National Laboratories, the development of what they're calling a cognitive machine. According to a press release put out by the Sandia team, this computer can "accurately infer user intent, remember experiences and allow users to call upon simulated experts."

The press release continues:

The idea borrows from a very successful analogue. When people interact with one another, they modify what they say and don't say with regard to such things as what the person knows or doesn't know, shared experiences and known sensitivities. The goal is to give machines highly realistic models of the same cognitive processes so that human-machine interactions have essential characteristics of human-human interactions.

This sounds like a major breakthrough. One step closer to strong A.I.

And here's something that struck me as intriguing. Compare the above passage to this, taken from an article on (via GeekPress) about the secret inner lives of dogs:

Canine-deflators point to a study published last year by Dr. Brian Hare of Harvard and colleagues which suggested dogs are exquisitely attuned to us, just not in the way we'd like to think. Rather than looking deep into our souls, dogs have evolved a special talent for picking up on basic human cues. They watch our hands and eyes to get hints on where food is hidden, for example, whereas chimpanzees, though smarter than dogs in general, show no such talent. Nor, for that matter, do wolves. This suggests that much of what we think of as canine intelligence is just an understanding of our body language. Or, as Budiansky would put it, we are the ecological niche that dogs have evolved to exploit.

Exploiting this niche has enabled dogs to evolve — or more precisely, has enabled us to evolve dogs — from wolves to myriad specialized breeds having various levels of intelligence and sets of capabilities. I have to that we have bestowed a similar talent on computers, how will they use it to evolve?

Or — again, to be precise — how might they use it to evolve us?

Posted by Phil at 04:37 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Human-Rabbit Hybrids

It sounds like a joke or a bad movie, but apparently some Chinese scientists have started creating these in order to get around misgivings associated with killing a human embryo in order to harvest stem cells. People don't have the same qualms about killing a rabbit embryo as they do a human embryo, it seems.

And as for a human-rabbit hybrid embryo — well that just sounds like something that really ought to be killed, doesn't it? Apparently, the hybrids wouldn't be viable much past the embryo stage anyway.

I was going to do a jokey In the Future... with this, but I just found the whole thing too disturbing.

Posted by Phil at 04:07 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Mars Approaches

Or rather, we approach Mars.

Actually, I suppose it's mutual.

Anyhow, while you're over at TCS, check out this excellent article by Sallie Baliunas on the upcoming near-pass we're going to have with Mars:

This year Mars and the earth will be extraordinarily close -- on August 27 the earth will sweep closer than 35 million miles to Mars. It's enough to give earthlings Mars Fever.

Remember, you read it here first. August 27th should be a banner day in the blogosphere. We've got some big stuff planned for that week. I hope everyone else decides to join the party.

UPDATE: Pejman has caugh the fever. Maybe we should have one of those blogwave deals on the 27th?

Posted by Phil at 12:42 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

The More Things Change

In his new Tech Central Station column, Rand Simberg sees a potential for moving on to the next stage from space exploration's long childhood:

After decades, ruts as deep as this are hard to get out of, but we may be about to do it. With the full funding of the X Prize, and the emergence of dot-com millionaires' interest in the nascent commercial space transport industry, all that's about to change. We may be on the verge of introducing a disruptive technology, which will have interesting, and possibly unsettling effects on both our economy and national security, and sooner than we think.

Read the whole thing without delay.

Hmm...wasn't somebody around here talking about disruptive technology (actually, I think the phrase he used was discontinuous change) just the other day?

Meanwhile, Speculist reader Eric S. has proposed a disruptive idea of his own: use the technology behind a proposed gamma-ray weapon as the basis for an orbital propulsion system. (See the comments.) In his TCS piece, Rand bemoans the baggage that the military origins of our present missile-based launch systems created for subsequent applications of the technology. If we were to convert our (as yet nonexistent) gamma-ray weapon into a launch system, I wonder whether we would encounter some of the same problems.

Plus ca change, as the French astronauts always say. Or are they cosmonauts? Plus c'est la meme chose, I guess.

UPDATE: Good discussion on the potential of sub-orbital systems going on on Transterrestrial Musings (see the comments).

Posted by Phil at 12:24 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

ITF #19

In the Future...

...a second opinion will be only a remote-click away.

Posted by Phil at 07:36 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Seven Questions with Alex Lightman

This week's special guest, Alex Lightman, answers our Seven Questions about the Future.

  1. The present is the future relative to the past. What's the best thing about living here in the future?

    We live in an ever smarter world. An exponentially increasing number of people, places and things will be getting exponentially smarter and more responsive.

  2. What's the biggest disappointment?

    I don't have anything that's a disappointment. It's all good. Even environmental damage is teaching us to become teraformers, leading us to be much wiser and more cautious when we go out to terraform millions of planets like grains of sand around trillions of stars.

  3. Assuming you die at the age of 100, what will be the biggest difference be between the world you were born into and the world you leave?

    Going from millions of people per computer and per local digital network per person to millions of computers and a dozens of networks - local, regional, global, interstellar - per person. That's the digital big bang, and the world that 4G will create.

  4. What future development that you consider likely (or inevitable) do you look forward to with the most anticipation?

    Equitocracy, my term for "government by owners". Taking every government - national, regional, munipal - public and letting people both own and vote their shares. This will increase wealth at one go more than any other social innovation, and be part of the exponential increase in feedback loops.

  5. What future development that you consider likely (or inevitable) do you dread the most?

    None. Even pollution will cause us to go into space. Humans exist to face new and novel problems, so it's all grist for our growth. How boring and pointless to have no challenges or fears to face.

  6. Assuming you have the ability to determine (or at least influence) the future, what future development that you consider unlikely (or are uncertain about) would you most like to help bring about?

    I don't consider anything that I want to bring about unlikely, since I want things that would be for the good of the world, and, ultimately, if they are for the good of the world, others will help bring them about. Even a few dozen people can get things started and, contrary to the dreams of religious zealots, political tyrants, and would-be monopolists, there is no way to veto a technolgical or other beneficial development that is desired by many people in many countries.

  7. Why is it that in the year 2003 I still don't have a flying car? When do you think I'll be able to get one?

    Because idiotic teenagers can get a plane and crash it into building. The hazards of bad driving outweigh the benefits. Flying generally requires tremenous thrust, which requires a big engine and big wings, or hovering, which involved huge stresses on bearings or the same thrust. In either case you end up with high capital and/or maintenance costs, with few marginal benefits that can't be substituted for. Want to see the view from your flying car? Buy the pictures books, or go on the web and see the satellite photos. Want to get to meeting in less time? Telecommute with broadband. And so on.

(What's the deal with these seven questions?)

Posted by Phil at 06:43 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

August 14, 2003

ITF #18

In the Future...

...we'll have smaller lasers for household cleanup jobs, especially bathrooms.

via New Scientist

Posted by Phil at 02:19 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Here Comes the Ray Gun

New Scientist reports on a development that's got to make you stop and think.

AN EXOTIC kind of nuclear explosive being developed by the US Department of Defense could blur the critical distinction between conventional and nuclear weapons. The work has also raised fears that weapons based on this technology could trigger the next arms race.

Scientists have known for many years that the nuclei of some elements, such as hafnium, can exist in a high-energy state, or nuclear isomer, that slowly decays to a low-energy state by emitting gamma rays. For example, hafnium178m2, the excited, isomeric form of hafnium-178, has a half-life of 31 years.

The hafnium explosive could be extremely powerful. One gram of fully charged hafnium isomer could store more energy than 50 kilograms of TNT. Miniature missiles could be made with warheads that are far more powerful than existing conventional weapons, giving massively enhanced firepower to the armed forces using them.

The effect of a nuclear-isomer explosion would be to release high-energy gamma rays capable of killing any living thing in the immediate area. It would cause little fallout compared to a fission explosion, but any undetonated isomer would be dispersed as small radioactive particles, making it a somewhat "dirty" bomb. This material could cause long-term health problems for anybody who breathed it in.

So it isn't really a ray-gun, it's a gamma-ray bomb. Sounds pretty nasty. Well, better we have it than they, I suppose.

Via Voyage to Arcturus

Posted by Phil at 02:13 PM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

ITF #17

In the Future... will trade 5-carat gem-quality diamonds colored or shaped to match characters on a TV show.

via GeekPress

Posted by Phil at 12:16 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

You Can Call Me Ben

Obi-Wan Kenobi

With the prowess of a seasoned samurai and the wisdom of a wizard, you try to do the sort of things that root out evil.

The Force can have a strong influence on the weak-minded.

Which Fantasy/SciFi Character Are You?

Posted by Phil at 12:10 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

DNA Plagiarism

FuturePundit Randall Parker on some disturbing potential consequences of a new technique for extracting DNA from fingerprints:

See my previous posts Will The Death Of Genetic Privacy Hasten The End Of Freedom? and Genetic privacy: can it be protected? for more on the implications of advances of this kind. What already seems naive about my previous posts is that I speculated on how women would try to get saliva samples or other cell samples from close contact with guys in order to get DNA samples. Well, getting a DNA sample will be easier than that. It will be easy to get a DNA sample from any person seen holding a drink in a bar. When they get up to leave someone could walk by and grab one of their drinking glasses to take a quick sample off of it. The person trying to get the sample never even has to meet their quarry. Combine the ease of sample acquisition and cheap DNA sequencing and personal genetic privacy will become impossible to maintain.

This ability to sequence another's DNA is going to have interesting ramifications for paternity suits. A woman will be able to stalk a guy by going to the same bar or restaurant, grab a glass he held, get a sample, and then sequence the guy's DNA. The woman can then judge the suitability of the guy's DNA. If he passes muster in terms of what she wants in a child she will also be able to use the DNA sample to have it be manipulated in a microfluidic device to make a viable set of chromosomes to use in artificial fertilization. Then she'll be able to sue for paternity. Will courts hold men responsible for offspring when the men start claiming they never even met the women who sue them for paternity?

Read the whole thing. It's fascinating.

The introduction of the capability described above will probably mark the end of the paternity suit as we know it. But perhaps a new kind will emerge. What happens when a determined and stalkerish George Clooney fan collects one of the star's fingerprints from a freshly autographed photo and decides she wants to have "his" baby?

One day the kid, having been told all his life who his "father" is, seeks Clooney out and confronts him. This raises two questions:

  1. What kind of claim could the kid possibly have on the star? Granted, the mother could assert that the child was conceived naturally. But if she doesn't do that, or if Clooney's snoops find the records of the elaborate procedure she went through in order to conceive, or if (as I believe) the possibility that such a procedure could be used eventually creates a legal presumption that it has been used, what then? Does the mere sharing of DNA create a legally binding relationship? Would a celebrity — or anyone else — feel any sort of obligation to a child forced on them in this manner?

  2. What kind of claim would Clooney have against the mother? Perhaps his DNA is his intellectual property. He might decide to sue for copyright violation and demand that the woman pay royalties.If the Intellectual Property approach is what the legal establishment settles on for this kind of DNA theft, it raises another interesting possibility. Would DNA ever become public domain?

That's something for Lawrence Lessig and his buddies to mull over.

Posted by Phil at 08:20 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

August 13, 2003

Advantage, Speculist

Once again, Old Media scrambles to catch up with the blogosphere. Check out this New York Times op-ed on life extension, opening with a quote from our very own Aubrey de Grey.

So there's your choice, folks. You can find out what's going on in the world right now in the Speculist, or you can wait a week and read about it in the New York Times.

UPDATE: Aubrey clarifies his position and provides a detailed timeline for curing aging.

Posted by Phil at 11:41 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Towards the Infinite Internet

Speaking of the Future with Alex Lightman

A big part of looking ahead is trying to identify coming instances of discontinuous change.

The horse and buggy that our recent ancestors abandoned was a direct descendant of Pharoah's chariot. For thousands of years, improvements to this mode of transportation were incremental, often subtle. However, switching from the horse-drawn carriage to the automobile was anything but subtle. It was an enormous, world-transforming leap. It was a prime example of discontinuous change.

At the Speculist, we're watching for a number of coming discontinuous changes. The winner of the X Prize (along with, potentially, some of the losers) may well open up a new era of private, do-it-yourself space travel. The development of the first molecular assembler could usher in the era of true nanotechnology, in which manufactured goods are grown from seed like crops, towers rise from the earth into space, and legions of sub-microscopic machines patrol your bloodstream keeping you in perfect health. The emergence of the first strong artificial intelligence may fundamentally alter what we mean when we use the words "human" and "machine," and may in time lead to the biggest discontinuous change of all, the Technology Singularity.

While watching the horizon for coming changes, it's easy to lose sight of some of those changes that we are in the midst of. One futurist who has not done this is Alex Lightman. CEO and co-founder of Charmed Technology, Alex has his finger on the pulse of the rapid developments in wireless technology (from first to second to third generation) and the convergence of these developments with the increasing portability of ever-greater computing power. He predicts that this convergence is leading us to nothing less than a Digital Big Bang. This phenomenon will have an impact as great as or greater than any of the discontinuous changes named above, save the singularity itself. And the singularity will not be possible without the big bang.

I spoke with Alex recently about his vision of coming discontinuous change.

Alex, let's explore the idea of the digital big bang. First off, you've been credited with coining the term "4G" in reference to a kind of ultimate direction for wireless systems.

Thank you. I liked the article that referred to me as father of 4G. The recognition is not as much about the term, which is arithmetically obvious, but for advocating three things, relating to what, when and how.

What: 4G is the next and last generation of wireless communication, enabling anyone to get any information anywhere (vs. just faster transmission).

When: Starting in 2004 instead of 2010.

How: involving multiple Standards Development Organizations, and using both licensed and license-exempt spectrum If 4G turns out to be wonderful, it will be because, for the first time, many people and organizations were able to participate in its creation, not just telecom giants and their spectrum-squatting friends in the relatively tiny telecom regulating parts of national or regional government. 4G is broadband for universal access, for six billion people by 2010 or 2015, not just a few tens or hundreds of millions by 2020.

It's worth pointing out that there are 1.3 billion mobile users and sales of 107 million mobile devices in the first quarter of 2003, as a basis of comparison of the G's.

Can you briefly step us through what each of the generations of wireless communications have been, starting with 1G.

1G is analog, easy to clone, didn't roam. Amazingly, GM still uses 1G in its ONstar cars. It's very inefficient, with the fewest calls per herz of spectrum. Typically uses frequency division. There are 34 million 1G users in the world today, a number that, coincidentally is equal to the number of mobile users in Africa.


2G is digital. Harder to clone, easier to roam. If you are American, this is most likely what all the cellular phones are or will be soon. The vast majority of both people and countries use GSM. ATT's GSM service in the US offers m-Mode with email and limited web capabilities, making it more like 2.5.

World-wide, there are 847 million GSM users, 29 million 2G CDMA users, and 120 TDMA users (majority in the US).

Many people think of Japan's i-Mode as 2.5G because it offers Internet-like services. Most of the websites are hosted by NTT DoCoMo, which takes 9% of the revenue, so it's not wide open like the Internet as Americans see it. NTT DoCoMo has claimed to be the largest ISP. Email and photos are part of 2.5G. Japan has 79.5 million mobile users, nearly 70 million could be called 2.5G users.


3G is several different things to different people. In order to get spectrum allocations (which nearly always are about taking away from one group and giving to another) promises were made of 2 Mbps transmission speeds (Bosco Fernandez of Siemens once bragged to me that he was the person who made this commitment). Currently there are 14 million 3G users in Korea, using Qualcomm's cdma2000 and 9 million in Japan, mainly via KDDI's au cdma2000. Meanwhile, NTT DoCoMo, the first to offer 3G, is lagging with only 600,000 users of their W-CDMA system that is supposed to be upgrade path from GSM. Typical users get 64 to 364 Kbps on their color phones, allowing them to play games, get email, use camera and even send short music and video clips.

Some say that there are 130 million 3G users, but I find this statistic hard to believe.


Our choices for 4G are the most important technology and society agreements facing humanity today. On the one hand, there are the big cellular equipment makers and operators, who want to control, limit, and especially delay 4G until they can make back their $500 billion investment in 3G. This group says, "4G won't happen until 2010 or later, as if other people don't get to ask for this sooner. This group also makes much of transmission speeds - Japanese say 4G is 100 Mbps - even though other factors are much more important to end users.

On the other hand, there is the rest of the world (including the 99.99% of people who don't work for or own shares in these companies) who would love to get any information, anytime, anywhere, including movies, music, and television shows, as well as secure access to their own remote databases. 4G is faster in some cases - 11 Mbps is likely - but effective power management, spectral efficiency, open standards, increased spectrum for experimental uses and smaller entities, are all part of my vision for 4G.

Does the model stop there? Or will we someday get to 5G?

I have had over 1,000 people tell me they are doing 5G, and then laugh at their own joke, as if this is incredibly clever. This is why I say 4G is the next and last generation of wireless communication, because, with flexibility and openness built in, we don't need another standard. If I have a say in the process, 4G will cover several huge gaps of logic in 1G, 2G, and 3G.

First, 4G will cover both licensed and license-exempt spectrum. Isn't this an amazing oversight for 3G? Second, 4G will be protocol independent. 1-3G are all based on specific ways to divide. Respectively, frequency division, time division, and code division. 4G can and will make use of all three of these, depending on the spectrum used, and whether the priority is power efficiency or spectral efficiency. Many companies are claiming that OFDM is 4G. Orthogonal Frequency Division is spectrally efficient, but power inefficient. If you just need to send sensor data from moisture sensors the middle of Siberia, OFDM would be poor choice, but those sensors and other machine-to-machine (M2M) communications are a big part of 4G.

That said, if 4G includes my list of 20 technologies and policies, it is unlikely that we would need a new generation, which has historically meant (1) new handsets, (2) new base stations (3) new spectrum allocations and, often, auctions or government selection, (4) new transmission standards, and (5) lack of backward and forward compatibility. I think that, after 4G, one should be able to swap improved handsets and capital equipment out on an incremental, rather than universal basis. So, no 5G unless the telcos again control the process and use proprietary standards exclusively. Given that over 1 billion Internet users will want Internet-style openness, I don't think any one entity or group can control the standards.

It's been widely reported that a number of telco operators (Nextel perhaps the biggest among them) have announced plans to skip 3G altogether in favor of 4G networks. No less august a source than The Economist has lauded this move, stating that these "new networks may even be profitable." Strong words! Is the lukewarm roll-out of 3G systems creating a demand for 4G?

3G networks in Korea and Japan that use cdma2000 are doing great for their operators. If by lukewarm you mean that operators in all but a handful of other countries (Portugese like 3G for soccer/football, for instance) haven't even begun to roll out 3G. However, Nextel has no articulated vision for 4G. They just don't want to install all this equipment when the marginal benefit to consumers is so minimal that they can't make profit projections that would be consistent with Wall Street expectations. The Economist, by claiming that OFDM = 4G or Mesh Networks = 4G is not acting as journalist source but as propogandist for a very ill-considered, very limited view of 4G as "whatever is not 3G," rather than being a true breakthrough. It's not so hard to have networks be profitable. What's hard is to enable any person, anywhere, access any data including movies and television, at a price affordable to almost everyone, within the spectrum available. That's what 4G could be, and The Economist is simply using Hollywood "Good vs. Bad" comparisons based entirely on press releases of tiny companies rather than referencing anything from a standards body such as the IEEE, IETF, or ITU-T.

When these operators say they're going to 4G, are they talking about the same set of capabilities that you had in mind when you came up with the term?

Absolutely not! NTT DoCoMo, stung by the fact that their relatively tiny rival KDDI has over 15 times the 3G subscribers, is moving up the date for 4G, and lowering the standards, by a year every month or so. Two years ago, the Japanese government said it would have trials of 4G, at 100 Mbps, in 2008. At the current rate of spin doctoring, we will soon be told that patches and bug fixes for W-CDMA are 4G, so this is not at all what I'm talking about. OFDM is one of only twenty technologies for 4G, not the sole technology, or you could say 4G is there today. Mesh Networks says that their "multihop routing" is 4G (Google them and see for yourself). Is there any other kind of routing besides multihop?

As the author of the first book on 4G, I have, for years, advocated a very broad and ambitious agenda for 4G. I think it's irresponsible for companies to claim that any technology or suite of technologies is more than simply a fraction of what will be needed to enable anyone, anywhere, to get any information at an affordable cost in the near future. For me the litmus test is IPv6. If you don't have IPv6, you can't have end to end connectivity for billions, or tens of billions of end users and sensors. Anyone who says that have 4G without using IPv6 is not really talking about 4G. 3G, or even EDGE (2.5G) with IPv6 could be vastly more successful, but some people don't get smarter even after losing hundreds of billions of dollars. Not all entities learn from their mistakes.

In your book, you warn that the U.S. is not poised to take a leadership role in the global implementation of 4G. You provide a possible scenario in which China takes the lead. In the time since the book was published, have the relative positions of the U.S. and China (and any other players) changed at all? And what does it mean to the U.S if we don't take the lead in 4G?

The US is indeed poised to take a leadership role. I say that several times, and I say it could be catalyzed simply by an Apollo moon mission-style speech by President Bush, saying that leadership in 4G is a goal of the United States. Unfortunately, that speech has already been given, years ago, by the Prime Ministers of Japan and Korea, and it's only a matter of months before the same speech is given in China, Sweden, Finland, Germany, and Belgium. In the year and a half since the book was published, China has continued to astonish those who are awake to civilizational shifts of power through knowledge by signing up so many mobile users.

As of June 2003, in China there were 234.7 million mobile users vs. 237.6 fixed line users. Sooner or later, China will turn to IPv6, enabling them to get all the IP addresses they can't have now. (Interestingly, the number of IP address China would need is almost exactly twice as much as the unallocated IPv4 addresses, since they would need 2 IPv6 addresses for every mobile device, one for the handset and one for the agent that forwarded messages even as different networks are used).

The US, by comparison, has 140 million users. Not only will China soon have twice as many 2G users, but it's conceivable that China will have many times this number of 3G users, especially if their home-grown 3G standard TD-SCDMA takes off and they use IPv6.

You've been a leading advocate of the new version 6 of the Internet Protocol. Why is this important?

Americans invented the Internet and, Oklahoma Land Rush-style, grabbed about 70% of the IPv4 addresses (I love how we blame Canada by saying North Americans have 73% of IPv4 addresses!). There are six billion people out in the world, and soon there will be tens of billions of Internet-addressable devices. With IPv6, we can have an ever smarter world that has an exponentially increasing number of feedback loops as well as 4G. Without IPv4 we simply build NAT after NAT, the equivalent of turning a beautiful stadium in which big things can be happen, and everyone can directly see, into a squatters town with barbed wire around every little hovel. IPv4 is the ugly American's dream: a world that can't really progress without US involvement. IPv6 is the single most important transition the human race will ever take, because it clears the path for everyone on earth to communicate, end to end, with every other human, as well as with trillions of sensors.

Let's talk a little about wearable computers. As co-founder and CEO of Charmed Technology, you're a pioneer in this field. How have people begun to use wearable computers?

There are several distinctions to make. First is discrete or occasional use vs. continuous use. Occasional users are primarily in warehouses, repairing, assembling, or performing systems administration in the broadest sense, with experimental use on soldiers, sailors, aviators, people with dyslexia, and those with vision or other sensory impairments.

For continuous wearables users, I think of borgs. (This usage, which originated on Star Trek and was popularized by MIT Media Lab, has caught on). Three types have emerged — text borgs, sound borgs and video borgs — with others (TV borgs, game borgs, security borgs) soon to follow. Achetypal examples of these: Thad Starner, Ass't Prof. at Georgia Tech, has a CharmIT with an 80 GB drive that has digital copies of everything he's read. He even saws off the spines of books on a vice grip, OCR's them, and saves them. The really interesting thing is that he uses Remembrance Agent software that compares new text strings with the entire data base, a sort of self-Google of every phrase or so, with ranking.

Sound borg Greg Priest-Dorman, inventor of the CharmIT, has dyslexia and has configured his wearable to read him his email at 3 to 5 x normal speaking rates so he can be a great sysadmin at Vassar College.

Video borg Steve Mann, ass't prof. at the U of Toronto, transmits and stores hundreds of hours of his walks around town and claims to choose vegetables with his wife's teleadvice.

Where do you see this market going? Why will we be wearing computers in the future?

I see wearable shrinking in size and cost even as mobile phones and PDAs bulk up in terms of processing power, storage, memory, and full function keyboards until they almost meet each other in the middle, with a 2 GHz, 1 Terabyte system that is like a fat mobile phone with 12 - 24 hour talk time and a Head Up Display with augmented reality as the interface.

We will wear computers in the future because knowledge is the fuel for both power and potential relationships with powerful people, and people will both want to grow more powerful (by knowing who, what, where, when) and to keep track of thousands of acquaintances, which will take lots and lots of reminders based on ques like facial recognition. Litigation and security concerns will also cause us to record more of our activities, in the personal liability arms race.

Can you make a prediction about the ubiquity of wearable computers — when will we all be wearing computers around?

That relates to whether my vision of 4G or the telco's opposition to early 4G eventually becomes the way of the land. No technology is completely ubiquitous, but I can offer an estimate from my friend Paul Shepherd. He reckons it took from 1983 to 2003 to get from thousands to over a billion mobile phone users, and estimates it will take from 2003 to 2023 to get from thousands to over 1 billion wearable computer users. Of course, the definition of wearable computers, like 4G, will be subject to many claims, hence the need for ITU-T anticipatory regulation to chose standards for what we call things.

A while back you did a series of fashion shows to give an idea of where wearable computing is heading. How were these received?

The Brave New Unwired World Technology Fashion shows were done in countries to tremendous interest. Charmed was covered by the media over 1,000 times, and I was interviewed on television over 700 times. Over 50,000 people saw the 100 shows live, with publicity valued at over $100 million in advertising equivalent. People thought they were wonderful shows.

Are you planning any more?

I co-produced a show with Isa Gordon, the artist who performs as a cyborg two weeks ago at SIGGRAPH for almost 900 people that lasted nearly an hour. People love it, especially the luminous clothing. Isa was very brave, reading a seven page text on a HUD with a CharmIT and a fingermouse, the first time anyone has ever done something like that for a big audience. Charmed might soon receive a patent for aspects of shows and that might spark a new tour, but not before we build and launch our badge business.

So we have 4G networks, wearabale computers, and IPv6. Few of us have these items on our radar. What other pieces must come into play (obscure or otherwise) in order for the digital big bang to occur?

That's a very big question, one that literally takes three books to cover. There are 300 pages in my book Brave New Unwired World related to this. However, at an ITU-T meeting 69 people from standards-related organizations and ITU staffers put together a list of 25 important technologies, including software radios, augmented reality, and 4G.

So when do you think the big bang will get here?

We are living in the big bang right now. 1.3 billion mobile phone users and 660 million Internet users, vs. 750 million cars, trucks and buses. The digital big bang is the most important experience of this era in human history, though it will take a future Alvin Toffler or Edward Gibbons to point it out in manner that most educated people will understand. Only, by then, the definition of 'educated person' will have gone from millions of people to billions of people! What a fun, complex world that will be to live in.

Posted by Phil at 08:46 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

August 12, 2003

No FastForward

Looks like the worm got the better of us. I'm going to postpone this week's FastForward until next Tuesday. So if you're interested in joining the FastForward Posse, this is your big chance. Just read our interview with Alex Lightman (this week's Speaking of the Future) and send in your own ideas for reaping the benefits of 4G communications systems, wearable computers, or just plain jacking in to the everywhere,on-all-the-time Internet.

Send suggestions, scenarios, vignettes, links to The Speculist.

Posted by Phil at 10:34 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

This Week 08/12/03

That worm that you've been reading about elsewhere has Comcast (my Internet provider) down all over the country. That's why this summary is going up today instead of yesterday when it should have. Anyhow, worm permitting, this week in the Speculist:

Time Traveler's Toolkit. We define Practical Time Travel.

The FastForward Posse takes a look at jacking in, wearing computers, and basically living in logged-on-all-the-time world.

We'll be Speaking of the Future with Alex Lightman, CEO and co-founder of Charmed Technologies, a spin-off from MIT's Media Lab which is positioning itself as a leader in the emerging market for wearable Internet Technology.

Stillness, Chapter 2.

Alex Lightman will answer Seven Questions About the Future.

Future Round-up. All of the In the Future... predictions for this week brought together in one handy list.

Plus, throughout the week we'll be blogging developments in nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, space exploration, and other future-impacting areas.

Posted by Phil at 10:26 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 11, 2003

ITF #16

In the Future... versions of Hula Hoops, Footsies, and Whacky Clackers will also be available.

via GeekPress

Posted by Phil at 11:37 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Did We Create the Universe?

From Kenneth Silber's Tech Central Station column:

Has an Oregon lawyer discovered the secret of the universe?

Gardner's hypothesis is called the "Selfish Biocosm." It states that intelligent life plays a key role in a cosmological cycle whereby the universe, over enormous timescales, creates new copies of itself. The laws of physics, in this view, strongly favor the emergence of life and intelligence -- and indeed are designed to do so.

But how did the cycle begin? Isn't there a gigantic chicken-and-egg problem? One might suppose the first universe containing intelligent life arose by accident, perhaps as part of an ensemble of universes that were mostly unfriendly to life. But Gardner regards this as an unsatisfying explanation. Rather, he proposes a notably strange idea. There may be a "closed timelike curve," a gravitational warping of space and time such that future events can influence the past. Thus, the universe may have been created by its own inhabitants!

This is an interesting idea. A while back we took a look at the idea that maybe inhabitants in one universe create other universes. Merge these two ideas and you can come up with something like Escher's Drawing Hands. Maybe inhabitants of another universe created our universe and so, when the right time comes, we'll return the favor by creating their universe.

via Rand Simberg

Posted by Phil at 11:31 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

We have Nothing to Fear but Joy Himself

In the process of zinging the daylights out of Bill (All this Future Stuff is Too Dangerous for Us) Joy, Scott Forbes holds forth with a truly profound observation:

People would much rather take risk to avert loss then to capture gain. And inspiring fear of uncertainty--of what nightmares may come and how to protect yourself from them--is a great purchase motivator to avoid such loss. After all--in the most reductionist sense--it is the yin-yang duality of greed and fear that govern markets and human behavior. Today, fear has the scales tipped in its favor.

While I agree that greed and fear govern markets, I'm not sure that's the duality that drives human behavior in general. I think fear and hope would be a more accurate pairing. And while fear definitely has its place, I think that being a speculist is all about doing what one can to tip the scales in the direction of hope.

Posted by Phil at 10:58 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Robo Blood

James M. Pethokoukis takes a look at one of the most intriguing proposed uses of nanotechnology. How would you feel about having your blood replaced with a swarm of a trillion little swimming robots?

Posted by Phil at 10:35 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Practical Time Travel

Time Traveler's Toolkit, Part 1

Previous Entries:
What's a Speculist?

As I outlined last week, a speculist is someone who defines, looks for, attempts to unravel, or otherwise contends with what might be, what might not be, what might have been, whatever — and then who takes that understanding and tries to make it into something useful. A practical time traveler is a speculist whose something useful is nothing less than a future of his or her own design.

Let's spend some time on terminology. The time travel that we're going to be talking about is not:

  • Going back and killing your great Grandfather.
  • Going ahead to the age of levitating cities built by our descendants with shiny, swollen bald heads.

Those are fun concepts, and the basis for a lot of great (and not-so-great) fiction, but if you were hoping I was going to tell you how to build a time machine, well, sorry.* The time travel I'm talking about is the practical kind. It's what we do every moment. It's built into the human experience.

Time, as the song reminds us, keeps on slipping, slipping, slipping...into the future. Through the course of each day, we move ahead 24 hours.

That's it.

That's the basis for practical time travel.

I realize that moving into the future at the rate of one day per day doesn't seem all that remarkable. Moreover, I think some will complain (somewhat justifiably) that what I'm talking about isn't time travel at all. Just sticking the word "practical" on there doesn't make it okay to use "time travel" to describe something completely at odds with how the term has traditionally been used. "Time travel," has generally been used to describe some activity that goes against the normal course of time. The activities listed in the two bullet points above are examples. Now I seem to be using the term to mean going with the normal course of time. That's cheating.

Get a souped-up DeLorean and blast yourself 30 years into the future in the blink of an eye. Now that's time travel.

Go to sleep at night and wake up eight hours later. Would anybody seriously call that "time travel?"

I would.

It may seem slow and unpromising, but advancing through time at the rate of sixty seconds per minute is the one method of time travel available to us. It's slow, but it's relentless. The time adds up. Do you want to travel 30 years into the future? You can.

Live to see it.

That hardly sounds like a method for time travel, practical or otherwise. It sounds like more of a survival strategy — or not even a strategy, really, just a kind of axiomatic statement of intent. And that's all it is. But if you can make good on that statement of intent, you will travel to the future.

Or, to be more precise, you will travel to a future. Think of your progression through time in terms of driving. Your car moves forward at a fixed speed. Everybody's car moves at that same speed. The traditional definition of time travel involves making your car go faster or putting it in reverse. As I said, I can't offer the means of doing either of those things. But there's another way to change the course of your car relative to its present course. You can use the steering wheel.

Practical time travel means learning to steer your vehicle towards a future of your choosing, or away from one you want to avoid. Maybe you can't instantaneously arrive in the future, but you can incrementally work towards a future. In science fiction stories, time travelers are invariably surprised by what they find when they arrive in the future. (It wouldn't be much of a story otherwise.) Practical time travelers have nothing against surprise — in fact, they look at it as a crucial resource, as we'll see later — but they don't like the idea of driving aimlessly. They have a destination in mind.

So if you can do these two things...

  1. Live to see it
  2. Learn to steer to a particular destination can be a practical time traveler.

The Time Travelers Toolkit is a set of ideas and strategies that enable practical time travel. In the coming weeks, we'll be taking a close look at the different kinds of future that are out there and exploring how we can interact with each. We'll look at how the rate of technological and social change opens up possibilities that were unimaginable even a few years ago. And we'll examine some esoteric notions such as thought space and possibility space, and see how our ability to operate within them can improve our ability to achieve specified outcomes.

* If you're really interested in time machines, you might try reading this:

Posted by Phil at 09:57 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

August 09, 2003

Future Roundup 08/09/03

Here's the full list of this week's predictions for the future. Our first official week of operation was a real mixed bag. Time travelers, walk-through advertising, dolphins with cell phones, cheapskate banks ripping people off...actually, I'm not sure why I considered that last one a prediction.

In the Future...

...we'll walk and drive through advertising without giving it a moment's thought..

...we'll have a reliable means of telling whether a self-proclaimed time traveler is legitimate or some kind of nut.

...dolphins will have the option of calling us back if they're busy doing something else when we call.

...banks will charge you for saving money in your mattress or for burying it in jars in your back yard.

...the computer itself will be considered your roommate.

That does it for this week. Thanks for dropping by. And until next time, I'll see you in the future.


Posted by Phil at 07:07 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

August 08, 2003

ITF #15

In the Future...

...the computer itself will be considered your roommate.

Posted by Phil at 06:48 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Planet of the Robots

In the original Planet of the Apes (the novel moreso than the book), ape society was divided into three segments based on species:

  • Gorillas were soldiers and manual laborers
  • Chimpanzees were intellectuals
  • Orangutans were bureaucrats

Interestingly, this aspect of ape society was left out in the recent remake. Maybe it seemed pointlessly racial.

Anyway, reading the recent news from LinuxWorld that Linux-based robots are being developed to conduct search-and-rescue missions, I got to wondering what robot society will be like someday, and whether it will be segmented according to operating system. If so, I think things will break down differently from Pierre Boulle's ape model. After all, Boulle was basically just taking 20th century (French) society and "peopling" it with apes.

Here's how I think the robot world will break down:

  • Windows robots will will be a sort of commercial class. Initially, when robots are still our slaves, they'll be the mass-market utility bots, handling all kinds of domestic and business-oriented tasks. After the robots take over, they'll be the masses. They'll live in robot suburbs and drive SUVs.

  • Mac robots will start out as minstrels and interior designers. After the robot revolution, they will be the artists and entertainers of the robot world. They'll dress nice and live in lofts in the more chic robot neighborhoods.

  • UNIX robots will be the government. Obviously, they're the ones the robots will want running the military, collecting the taxes, etc. You can see it happening already. The Linux robots mentioned above have been assigned to search and rescue — essentially a government job. The robot revolution will be fomented from among their ranks. Frustrated mail-carrier robots will plead for liberation to their UNIX-based brothers operating the world's weapons systems.

I haven't seen T3 yet, but I think I've just outlined the plot for it and the next sequel. Interesting to note that Arnold was most likely running UNIX in all three movies. (He was clearly some kind of letter-carrier robot gone postal.) But I think in T2, Robert Patrick must surely have been a Macintosh. I know that doesn't conform to my breakdown, but whenever you see such cool graphics (remember when he like totally melted and then came back into shape?), you figure it's got to be on a Mac.

Posted by Phil at 06:45 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Seven Questions with Aubrey de Grey

This week's special guest, Aubrey de Grey, answers the Seven Questions about the Future.

  1. The present is the future relative to the past. What's the best thing about living here in the future?

    For me, there's nothing different about living in the future than in the present in terms of desires. I don't want to live longer in order to be able to do things we can't do yet — go to Mars, that sort of thing. I want to live longer so that I can carry on doing what I already enjoy about life today.

  2. What's the biggest disappointment?

    Disappointment about living in the future? I guess I don't really understand the question. As humanity becomes more in control of our environment, we'll have more choices to live how we want to live, so ideally there should be no disappointments. Things may go badly wrong of course — but nothing is certain to go wrong.

  3. What future development that you consider likely (or inevitable) do you look forward to with the most anticipation?

    The development of engineered negligible senescence, of course!

  4. Assuming you live to be 100, what will be the biggest difference be between the world you were born into and the world you leave?

    Um, do you mean if I die aged 100? I fully intend not to leave the world at such a paltry age. But even if I died aged 100, that's still 60 years away — far too long to be able to make such predictions. Hmm, well, in 60 years we'll definitely have aging under complete control — I guess it would be difficult to imagine a bigger difference than that.

  5. What future development that you consider likely (or inevitable) do you dread the most?

    None, really — I think that all the bad future developments that we might experience are ones that we should be able to avoid, so none of them qualifies as likely. Hey, I'm an optimist, okay?

  6. Assuming you have the ability to determine (or at least influence) the future, what future development that you consider unlikely (or are uncertain about) would you most like to help bring about?

    That's another hard one, because I tend to find that anything I want to bring about is something that plenty of other people also want, so it's not a matter of whether the development would happen but when. If you allow "expedite" as well as "bring about", the answer is of course the same as above, the development of engineered negligible senescence.

  7. Why is it that in the year 2003 I still don't have a flying car? When do you think I'll be able to get one?

    You don't have one because it's very hard to build something that fits the bill — fast, safe, affordable. "Safe" is probably the hardest. When will they become available: I suspect never, in fact, because quite soon we will know that the end of aging is on the way, and the consequences in terms of increased risk-aversion will be so great that there won't ever be a market for things that risky. In theory they might eventually be risky only for people on the ground, not for the occupants, but that's quite enough: back in 1999 I predicted that, once we cure aging, driving (even on the ground!) will be outlawed as too dangerous for others. Remember also that when we have so many more years ahead of us, we won't need to be in such a hurry all the time, so flying cars would only be for recreation anyway.

(What's the deal with these seven questions?)

Posted by Phil at 05:38 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 07, 2003

ITF #14

In the Future...

...banks will charge you for saving money in your mattress or for burying it in jars in your back yard.

via Duckboy

Posted by Phil at 10:04 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

ITF #13

In the Future...

...dolphins will have the option of calling us back if they're busy doing something else when we call.

via GeekPress

Posted by Phil at 09:57 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Some Restrictions Apply?

At the risk of being one of those guys who quotes himself, allow me to reiterate the following from yesterday's award-winning piece on transhumanism:

I believe the struggle that's shaping up in this world is going to take place between those who believe that we should be defined by our limits ó and who have restrictive and pointless notions as to what those limits are ó and those who refuse to be so defined.

Okay, so everybody knows where I stand.

Now, let's look at the commentary that's coming in on this week's Speaking of the Future interview. I spoke with Aubrey de Grey, a man who is doing serious scientific research towards developing a cure for aging.

Kadamose makes a highly provocative suggestion:

What happens when we achieve near-immortality? What about the population problem? If such methods of curing aging exist, and it is given to everyone on the planet, then the only solution to this problem is to shut the human reproductive system down...for good.

Many people would not agree with this stance, but I think immortality should come with sacrifice.

I agree with the second point. Immortality (which is not, in the strictest sense, what's on the table) will involve sacrifice. We will have to give up the poignancy and sense of drive and purpose that life's brevity currently supplies. That may sound ridiculous from this side of the chasm, but it will be very real to ourselves and our descendants when facing a vast and open-ended future. We will also have to give up many cherished notions that have carried the species through thus far. Concepts of family, tribe, and nation, in their current form, may disappear — replaced by new forms of association that we can barely imagine now.

But give up reproduction? I don't think so.

Posse ringleader Vick takes the opposite approach, and returns us to those halcyon days of Dick Lamm and the "duty to die."

Death and aging are an important part of evolution. Nothing is eternal. Life will end. Considering that, we must get the old members of the species out of the way. Leave space and food for the strong to eat and reproduce. That's what we are a lean, mean f***in'/eatin' machine.

I disagree. If I understand what Aubrey is telling us about evolution, aging is more of a by-product than a necessary component. But let's look at this space and food issue.

The potential for overpopulation is there and it must be seriously addressed. But if we're going to discuss a future development such as life extension, I think we need to take other future developments into consideration when making our plans. There is a famous (possibly apocryphal) story of a city planner in New York circa 1890 who wrote a report, reasonably extrapolated from then-current trends, that showed that by the middle part of the twentieth century, the city would be practically buried in horse manure.

Now the fact that Manhattan in the year 1960 was not deluged with poop doesn't mean that the city was totally without problems. But that "reasonable extrapolation" was not one of them. Technology had intervened, eliminating that problem and creating new ones.

I expect that overpopulation may have a lot in common with New York City's manure problem. The overall standard of living for planet earth is going up. As standard of living increases, population growth tends to slow. I believe that new technologies are going to bring about dramatic increases in worldwide standard of living levels over the next half century or so. Plus, if our life expectancy does increase tremendously, that should have an additional dampening effect on population growth rate. There is a significant correlation between countries whose citizens can expect a long life and those where the birth rate is dropping sharply.

Even so, with people taking a very long time to die and having some babies, the population will continue to grow. Probably quite dramatically. That's why we have to get off this planet.

Not all of us, just most of us. This would be a good start. Eric Drexler devotes a chapter to the idea of space settlements in Engines of Creation, now available online. A few excerpts:

Space holds matter, energy, and room enough for projects of vast size, including vast space settlements. Replicator-based systems will be able to construct worlds of continental scale, resembling Dr. O'Neill's cylinders but made of strong, carbon-based materials. With these materials and water from the ice moons of the outer solar system, we will be able to create not only lands in space, but whole seas, wider and deeper than the Mediterranean. Constructed with energy and materials from space, these broad new lands and seas will cost Earth and its people almost nothing in terms of resources. The chief requirement will be programming the first replicator, but AI systems will help with that. The greatest problem will be deciding what we want.

[R]eplicators and space resources will bring a long era in which genuine resource limits do not yet pinch us - an era when by our present standards even vast wealth will seem virtually free. This may seem too good to be true, but nature (as usual) has not set her limits based on human feelings. Our ancestors once thought that talking to someone across the sea (many months' voyage by sailing ship) would be too good to be true, but undersea cables and oversea satellites worked anyway.

The history of human advance proves that the world game can be positive-sum. Accelerating economic growth during recent centuries shows that the rich can get richer while the poor get richer. Despite population growth (and the idea of dividing a fixed pie) the average wealth per capita worldwide, including that of the Third World, has grown steadily larger. Economic fluctuations, local reversals, and the natural tendency of the media to focus on bad news - these combine to obscure the facts about economic growth, but public records show it clearly enough. Space resources and replicating assemblers will accelerate this historic trend beyond the dreams of economists, launching the human race into a new world.

All of which leads, finally, to Karl Hallowell's inventive modifications to Kadomose's shut-down-our-reproductive-capability idea:

A caveat here. There should be a way to restore the Human race even if most or all technology is destroyed in some cataclysm.

I don't think we should shut down reproduction, anyway, but potential future cataclysms are something we should take into consideration. A huge asteroid, for example, could wipe us and our technology out altogether. We will eventually have technology that will allow us to prevent this. But in the mean time, maybe we don't want to put all our egss in one basket. Or one planet, for that matter. Sustainable human settlements off the earth can mitigate the overpopulation problem and help to ensure the survival of the species.

Further discussion is encouraged.

Posted by Phil at 09:18 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

August 06, 2003

Space Elevator

Here's a good overview of the upcoming engineering achievement that's going to do more towards moving humanity into space than anything that's come before. As I noted earlier, not everyone is convinced.

Posted by Phil at 04:42 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

There's a Reason

why Glenn Reynolds is the number one blogger. It isn't just that he's a fast typist. A sampling from his latest Tech Central Station piece:

Would I like to be smarter? Yes, and I'd be willing to do it via a chip in my brain, or a direct computer interface... And I'd certainly like to be immune to cancer, or AIDS, or aging. But these ideas threaten some people, who feel that our physical and intellectual limitations are what make us human.

I don't know whether I believe this. Which limitations, exactly? Would humanity no longer be human if AIDS ceased to exist? What about Irritable Bowel Syndrome? Was Einstein less human? If not, then why would humanity be less human if everyone were that smart? It may be true, as Dirty Harry said, that "A man's got to know his limitations." But does that mean that a man is his limitations? Some people think so, but I'm not so sure. Others think that overcoming limitations is what's central to being human. I have to say that find that approach more persuasive.

Right on the money, Professor. I believe the struggle that's shaping up in this world is going to take place between those who believe that we should be defined by our limits — and who have restrictive and pointless notions as to what those limits are — and those who refuse to be so defined. I don't think I have to tell you which camp the Speculist and the FastForward Posse are in.

After reading this piece, the latest in a long series of highly readable and though-provoking essays, I did something I should have done a long time ago: I dropped a few electronic coins into Glenn's tip jar. I urge you all to do the same.

UPDATE: the Speculist earns its first major blogosphere distinction: Phillip Coons has named this post today's shameless Reynolds suck-up! I'm not sure whether this is like being included in Taranto's Best of the Web, or whether it involves a cash prize, but hey — either way, I couldn't be more thrilled.

Ironically, I wasn't really even going for a suck-up thing. I just got a huge kick out of Glenn's piece and then got a little carried away. I do that.

But none of that matters. The point is, we're number one!

Posted by Phil at 02:16 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

ITF #12

In the Future...

...we'll have a reliable means of telling whether a self-proclaimed time traveler is legitimate or some kind of nut.

via GeekPress

Posted by Phil at 01:28 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

A Cure for Aging

Speaking of the Future with Aubrey de Grey

Aubrey de Grey has been with the Department of Genetics at Cambridge University for more than 10 years. Over that time, his research has progressed from extensive work in mitchondrial mutations to a bigger problem: how to stop human aging. I met Aubrey at a recent gathering of Foresight Institute senior associates. With his long hair, longer beard, and deadpan English demeanor (make that demeanour), he didn't immediately strike me as the kind of guy who would have a hand in fundamentally redesigning the human experience.

But then I heard what he had to say.

What Aubrey has to say is explosive — aging is curable. The answer will soon be in our grasp if we devote the necessary resources to going after it.

One of the things I learned in our recent chat is the relationship between aging and predation. As Aubrey eloquently points out below, highly predated (i.e., frequently eaten) animals age pretty fast if allowed to do so. They have to. If you spend your whole life in a shadow of possibility that a lion or a leopard could take you down at any time, you are forced to live life in fast forward mode. You don't have time for meeting cute, dating for a few years, and then getting engaged. You mate, you produce young, you move on. You don't have time for regrets and reminiscences and long good-byes. You live, you die, that's it.

That was once our lives. A long time ago, human beings (and our ancestors) lived a fast-forward life under the constant threat of predation. As we grew in our understanding of the world and our ability to shape our circumstances more to our liking, our life expectancy increased. Today, there are few predators that still threaten us. But of those that remain, there is none more frightening than time. Even if nothing else gets you, it's still there. It's always been there, prowling in the background, waiting for its moment.

If Aubrey de Grey is right, we might soon have the means of warding off this last of the predators, of seeing to it that its moment never comes.

Aubrey, let's begin with a snapshot of the problem you're trying to solve. What is aging?

That's a question which has a reputation for being hard to answer, but in fact the only hard thing is finding an answer that suits all contexts. For purposes of discussing aging as a problem to be solved, we can define it as the set of side-effects of normal metabolism that progressively reduce our remaining life expectancy. If no such side-effects existed, we could clearly still die of causes having nothing to do with aging, but our probability of doing so in any given time period would not differ depending on how old we were.

Via your SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence) project, you have identified and pronounced curable seven "killers" which will eventually do all of us in (if something else doesn't get us first.) Let's run through the list of them, with you explaining what each one is and how it can be treated.

We'll start with nuclear mutations/epimutations:

Nuclear mutations are changes to the DNA sequence of our chromosomes, and epimutations are changes to the molecular structure of individual DNA units (termed bases) or to proteins that bind the DNA. Epimutations make our DNA more or less easy to make proteins from than it would otherwise be. Both these things happen randomly to cells as side-effects of metabolism, and they're progressive — they accumulate with time — so they count as aspects of aging by my definition just given.

In my view — though some people disagree — the only mutations or epimutations that matter are ones that make cells more eager and/or able to divide. These mutations eventually lead to cancer, which we need to cure if we're going to achieve a non-diminishing remaining life expectancy. Other mutations happen too rarely to matter until we're far older than any human has ever yet been. To be precise: they don't happen any more rarely than cancer-promoting ones, but because a cancer can kill us starting from just one cell whereas other mutations can't cause tissue malfunction unless a reasonable proportion of cells are affected, that isn't enough to matter. So, it's enough to stop cancer-promoting mutations from mattering, and that can be done by stopping cancer itself from mattering. We can do that by making sure that all cancers die before they get big enough to kill us. It turns out that this may well be doable by a very general method: replacing all our stem cells with ones whose telomere-elongating genes have been deleted. Those stem cells would probably only last a decade or so before becoming unable to make the cells we need them to (such as our blood), but we could just repeat the process every decade.

Mitochondrial mutations:

Mitochondria are components of cells that house their own DNA. They are unique in this — all our other DNA is in the nucleus. The mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) suffers mutations, just like the nuclear DNA, though it doesn't suffer epimutations. The way to fix this problem is not to get rid of the mutations but to obviate them. Only 13 proteins are made from the mtDNA — less than 0.1% of what the nucleus encodes. It turns out that many nucleus-encoded proteins actually function inside the mitochondria, despite being constructed outside them. After construction, they are dragged through the mitochondrial surface by a special machine called the TIM/TOM complex. So we could stop mitochondrial mutations from mattering by putting copies of the 13 relevant genes into the nucleus, with modifications that would cause them to be imported into mitochondria just like these others. The technology for doing this mostly exists already — indeed, a few of the 13 have already been made to work this way in cell culture. The only really hard part is probably going to be getting the genes into living cells within our body — somatic gene therapy — and progress in that area is steady, albeit slow.

Intracellular aggregates:

Our cells are constantly breaking down bits of themselves, when they get damaged or when they have done their job. This is an extremely critical part of metabolism. Its accumulating side-effect is that the processes of degradation are not perfect — occasionally, molecules are targeted for degradation but don't go quietly, because of the particular type of damage they've suffered. These accumulate in the cell and eventually take up so much of it that cell function is compromised. We can fix this by making cells better at breaking stuff down. This should be doable by giving them extra genes encoding enzymes from soil microbes.

Soil microbes?

No kidding! Think about it: we bury people in the soil and they're full of these aggregates. Unlike bone, the aggregates are made of energy-rich molecules -- ones that a microorganism could live off if it could break them down. So, genes to do that breakdown should evolve. We know that this logic is valid because it is exploited in many ways in the field of bioremediation: bacteria have been found this way that can eat TNT, dioxins, rubber, many things. We also have preliminary experimental evidence, generated by a colleague of mine. Moreover, there's good reason to believe that we wouldn't need very many such genes in order to break down most of what we currently accumulate.

Cell senescence:

This is a phenomenon best known in the artificial system known as cell culture, but it happens in our bodies, too. Cells get into a state where they have lost the ability to divide, but they also do various things they're not meant to, especially secreting molecules that may be harmful. They increase in abundance with age, so they're part of aging. The most promising way to fix this problem is just to kill the affected cells. This will not deplete the tissue of cells, because neighboring (non-senescent) cells will divide to replace the lost ones, which are relatively few and far between. Killing the cells can probably be done most effectively by enlisting the immune system -- that is, vaccinating us against something that these cells express on their surface but other cells don't. The search is on for such molecules; if they can't be found, an alternative is to target something into cells that is toxic only if in the presence of something which is found only inside senescent cells.

Extracellular aggregates:

These are just like intracellular aggregates in terms of their origin and their accumulation. The most well-known one is the amyloid plaque that we see in Alzheimer's disease, but there are plenty of others, including in normal aging. The most promising way to get rid of them is just as for senescent cells — to vaccinate against their component molecules. This is already being tried by various groups. The difference from senescent cells is that being engulfed by some other cell (which is what vaccination causes) won't necessarily make the aggregate dissolve; but if it doesn't, we can just use the same approach as for aggregates that were intracellular all along.

Extracellular crosslinks:

These are distinct from extracellular aggregates, because the molecules that are linked together in aggregates are themselves detritus, whereas here we're talking about links between useful, functioning molecules. They accumulate because the molecules in question are very long-lived: they are the ones that give some tissues their elasticity and texture, which are important for their function in places like the artery wall. This elasticity is reduced by the cross-linking. The cross-linking is randomly induced as a side-effect of sugar metabolism. The elimination of these cross-links sounds tricky, but in fact there has been a lot of progress in the past few years. A small molecule has been found, called ALT-711 (or, more technically, phenacyldimethylthiazolium chloride), which seems to break the random cross-links without doing harm to the regular, orderly cross-links that are laid down on purpose in the tissue to hold it together. There is still a lot of controversy about exactly how it works, but there's no doubt at all that it does work — it's been in clinical trials for hypertension for a few years now. A molecule with similar properties has reputedly been identified by an Indian company.

Cell loss, cell atrophy:

Quite a lot of our tissues have only rather limited ability to replace cells that die. The heart is a good example — heart cells die off at a considerable rate throughout life, and the only thing the body seems to be able to do in compensation is to make the remaining cells bigger and to fill in the spaces between them with increasing amounts of fibrous material. This is a reasonable short-term strategy, but clearly it can't work forever. Various parts of the brain also lose cells during life. Cell atrophy is a particular problem for some brain cells too: rather than dying, they lose their tendrils (synapses) and so become unable to communicate with other cells.

As you might expect, cell atrophy is easier to reverse than cell loss. There are certain naturally-produced molecules, growth factors, which promote regrowth of synapses when they are supplied in greater amounts than the body normally does. There's plenty of progress in reversing cell loss too, though. In fact, of all the therapies I've discussed here, this is the one that's best-known. We can in principle replenish essentially any tissue by introducing cells that are in a state that resembles the developmental precursors of the cells we're trying to replace. This is a great example of how powerfully we can improve on what evolution has achieved without understanding how our therapy works in more than the most utterly superficial way: we just put the cells in and they do the rest. They find the exact best place to reside, and go through the mysterious differentiation process to replace the lost cells.

So the much-sought key to long life exists somewhere in the midst of the those seven killers. If we could develop a treatment for only one of the seven, which do you think would give us the most bang for the buck?

The chances are that no one of these would give us a noticeable life extension benefit on its own. A couple of them might do so — a few years ago I wrote a book about the role of mtDNA mutations and suggested that the therapy I just described might double life expectancy — but even back then when mitochondria were my main focus I only gave this a 10% chance of that degree of success.

What do you consider a realistic timeframe for putting treatments in place that address all seven?

That's hard to say, because some of them need really good gene therapy, which is still rather black magic. I won't stop there, though, because I feel that biogerontologists have a duty to give their best guess at timescales. What I can say is that we should be able to implement all seven in mice within a decade. This is because gene therapy in mice is a lot easier, for the simple reason that we don't have to worry about safety. And the thing is that as soon as we do implement them in mice, and presuming that they give the sort of life-extension benefits I predict, the general public will realize that aging is not inevitable after all, and will push incredibly hard for more work on human gene therapy etc. to get the therapies working in humans as fast as possible.

If these treatments are put in place, how long can we expect to live? Forever?

Well, clearly there will always be the risk of death from causes that have nothing to do with aging, so "forever" seems unlikely. But if you're asking whether we will no longer suffer a progressive rise with age in our likelihood of death per unit time, I'd say yes, we won't. That's the definition of "negligible senescence," after all. But I should elaborate a little: this will not be a direct result of those treatments in and of themselves, but of those plus other treatments that we develop in the future. The longer we live, the more things we will suffer from that were developing too slowly to hit us in a currently normal lifespan. But the life extension that we get from these first seven things should give us time to work out how to fix the slower things.

Let's back up for a moment and ask a more fundamental question. Why do we age? And by that, I don't mean how do we age. I mean why. What possible evolutionary advantage could there be to getting old and dying? Is that a fair question, or do we just have to start with the assumption that we do age and go from there?

No in fact, there is a very good answer to your question, which has been debated by evolutionary gerontologists for a long time. In the late 1800's, a prominent biologist called August Weismann realized this was an important question and gave an answer that is wrong, but was accepted by everyone for about 70 years: that aging is good for the species because it allows evolution to work better, by facilitating competition between new members of the species. The older generations would get in the way of this. It wasn't until 1952 that an immunologist called Peter Medawar noted that this couldn't possibly be right, because hardly any organisms in the wild really experience aging. He suggested that the problem is that genes that have deleterious effects on survival are not selected for uniformly. Genes that have those effects only at a late age, as opposed to the ones that are bad for us even when we're young, are more likely to be selected for, because they will not much diminish the number of offspring we have. (Actually this only really works if you take into account that offspring produced later make less of a contribution to the subsequent gene pool because they can't have any of their own offspring until later.)

Let me see if I understand this. We age because genes that are bad for us when we're old don't stop us from reproducing. Because they don't stop us from reproducing, they never got selected against. Aging, then, is just the accumulation of these bad genes that we stumbled on accidentally.

Partly, but they aren't all accidental. A few years after Medawar, George Williams refined this idea by observing that many genes have effects on multiple processes, and thus that a given gene could be bad late in life but good early in life. A gene like that will actually be selected for. We now know good examples of exactly this: gene variants that are protective against cancer are bad for maintenance of the immune system late in life, and genes that give a good reaction to infection seem to be bad for atherosclerosis and neurodegeneration. Later, in 1977, Tom Kirkwood thought about a supplementary question: why do some animals live longer than others? The answer is essentially that the less likely you are to die (per unit time) from causes other than aging (such as predation) the slower your aging should be for maximum progeny survival. A highly predated animal will generally be eaten before it ages even if that aging is quite fast, so it should concentrate on fast reproduction, whereas a less predated animal should try to age slowly so as to have the choice of multiple summers to have offspring that will have enough food to survive. But it turns out that even if a species has no extrinsic mortality at all, they probably won't evolve away all their aging, because (until the arrival of medicine, which wrecks this argument totally) progressively slower aging needs progressively more sophisticated maintenance and repair mechanisms to evolve and be encoded in our genes.

So nature has done the best it could in providing anti-aging capabilities to species for whom long life made evolutionary sense. But now we seem to be back to our seven killers. Are they examples of the good-for-us-early-on-but-bad-for-us-later genes, or do they simply reflect a failure to meet requirements for more sophisticated repair mechanisms? Or both?

Some of each. Cell loss is a good example of the bad side of anticancer defense; aggregate accumulation is really just the result of evolutionary neglect.

What's your response to those who claim that finding a cure for aging is in some way irresponsible or immoral? A number of years ago, the former governor of my home state of Colorado, a fellow by the name of Dick Lamm, made a speech that was to haunt the remainder of his political career. In it, he told his audience that "We have a duty to die" in order to get out of the way, make room for the coming generations, not use more than our share of resources, and so forth. He was talking primarily about heroic lifesaving efforts such as keeping an individual who has had a massive stroke on life support, spending resources and effort on prolonging their life even when there is little or no chance of recovery. His words were widely misquoted as "You have a duty to die," and he became something of a pariah, especially among seniors who didn't take kindly to being told that they should drop dead for the benefit of the kids. But I wonder if there isn't a notion of a "duty to die" lurking in the background of various green movements or in the sustainable growth meme.

I think there probably is, yes. But the deeper question is, why do people find that sort of thinking attractive? I think the only reason is denial: people know they can't escape aging, so they find ways to convince themselves that it's okay not to escape it. When people cease to "know" that aging is inevitable, this whole way of thinking will vanish overnight. As for my response to such people, well, my favorite one is to ask exactly what age the person thinks is the optimal life expectancy for humans, and why that age is better than ten years longer. I've never heard good replies to that one. A similar question is whether the person approves or disapproves of research to delay the age at which people get heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer's etc. When they realize that therapies which do that will also, inexorably, extend lifespan, they have to propose that there's some age of onset of those diseases beyond which it ceases to be a good idea to delay them further.

What about the problems that it is argued will plague the long lived? Boredom, for example. Plus, a lot has been said about the relationship between life extension and risk aversion. If we live for hundreds of years, will we find the experience worthwhile? Or will we be too bored or afraid of having an accident to enjoy it?

Boredom is a very real problem for less well-educated people, even with their current lifespans. Obesity is an incredibly big problem right now, and it's mostly caused by television — people can't think of anything to do with their time, so they watch soap operas. But that means that boredom can be avoided by educating people better. This will be possible because of the vast increase in global wealth that will result from having our elderly population contributing to society rather than leaning on it through ill health. Risk aversion is certain to rise with life expectancy. I'm not sure whether this will be seen as a bad thing, but it might. I can't see it as a reason not to develop real anti-aging medicine, though!

Can you say a few words about what your own plans would be for a life that spans several centuries?

Well, first of all I have a lot of catching up to do — all the films I haven't seen, books I haven't read, etc.— while I've been spending every spare minute in the fight against aging. But in addition, there are masses of things that I enjoy doing and will always enjoy — spending time with my wife and friends, taking a punt out on the river Cam, playing a game of Othello, etc.— and I reckon I'll just carry on doing those things forever.

At root, the reason I'm not in favor of aging is because I like life as I know it.

UPDATE: Aubrey answers the Seven Questions About the Future.

Posted by Phil at 08:18 AM | Comments (45) | TrackBack

August 05, 2003

Think Like a Human

How can we make robots smart enough so they'll take our jobs away? Here's some more interesting stuff on WiredNews.

LifeLog -- the controversial Defense Department initiative to track everything about an individual -- is just one step in a larger effort, according to a top Pentagon research director. Personalized digital assistants that can guess our desires should come first. And then, just maybe, we'll see computers that can think for themselves.

The controversial program intends to record everything about a person -- what he sees, where he goes, how he feels -- and dump it into a database. Once captured, the information is supposed to be spun into narrative threads that trace relationships, events and experiences.

There's more background on the project here. This is just one of several possible approaches to the problem of making a machine think like a human being. I bet this one doesn't work, either. But we're getting closer and closer with each failure.

Posted by Phil at 01:09 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

The Truth About Robots

Forget about outsourcing to India, here's the real threat to your job:

Listening to Marshall Brain explain the future as he sees it, it's relatively easy to suspend disbelief and agree how plausible it is that over the next 40 years most of our jobs will be displaced by robots.

According to Brain's projections, laid out in an essay, "Robotic Nation," humanoid robots will be widely available by the year 2030, and able to replace jobs currently filled by people in areas such as fast-food service, housecleaning and retail. Unless ways are found to compensate for these lost jobs, Brain estimates that more than half of Americans could be unemployed by 2055.

Damn, Steve Martin might not have been crazy after all. Maybe he was just ahead of his time. Because if they take our jobs, isn't it just a matter of time before they come after our luggage?

And then, eventually, our women?

Posted by Phil at 12:38 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

X Prize Update

Via InstaPundit, here's the latest on the X Prize, a $10 million contest to build the world's first do-it-yourself spaceship. The winning craft will be the first to fly to a height of 62.5 miles twice within a two-week period. (I really like precision of that "point five." Why not fly to 60 miles? Why not 65? Something significant must happen right at 62.5.) There is hope that a winner will claim the prize in time for the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers' flight in December of this year. In fact, the organizers of the X Prize contest are inspired by the big aviation prizes of the 20th century that led to major breakthroughs.

An example:

In 1919, hotel owner Raymond Orteig offered $25,000 to the first person to fly nonstop from New York to Paris - a prize won in 1927 by Charles Lindbergh aboard his Spirit of St. Louis.

What followed was the "Lindbergh boom": Aviation stocks skyrocketed as did public interest in commercial air travel.

Now, thanks to the X Prize, we have "astropreneurs" working feverishly to kick of a new space boom. And get a load of the descriptions of the elegant solutions they're working to implement:

They're pod-like. Cone-shaped. Bullet beauties.

They launch from water. From planes. From ships at sea.

They are named Wild Fire, Aurora, Cosmos Mariner. One is a flying saucer christened The Space Tourist.

This is a space race of a different kind. There's money to be won. By putting money on the line and saying exactly how high/how fast/how many times, the organizers of the X Prize have done a tremendous job of specifying an outcome. In response, the contestants have broadened their thought space as to what will and will not work in low-cost spacecraft design, and are even now pushing out the boundaries of the possible.

We need more contests like this.

UPDATE: Rand Simberg says it time to kill the myth that it takes a huge government bureaucracy to get us into space.

Posted by Phil at 12:36 PM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Be a Long Liver

Tomorrow, Cambridge professor Aubrey de Grey will be telling us about serious scientific work that he's doing in search of a cure for human aging. In the mean time, the FastForward Posse presents a list of practical life-extension techniques that you can try right now. You'll note that actual anti-aging suggestions are interspersed with ideas for feeling and acting younger. It's all a package, folks.

Also, we know we need to work on the attitude of the ringleader who submitted items 3, 9, and 13. Mike, here's a life extension tip just for you: lighten up, dude.

FastForward to Life Extension

  1. Be a scientist or engineer. It turns out they live longer. Who knew?

  2. Solid colors are your friend — no patterns.

  3. I've got one word for you: implants. The bigger, the better. Something to put the bop back in those tube-sock boobs. Something to resurrect that chin from that pool of neck. Something to elongate, bolster, emphasize, downplay, brighten, and otherwise fix what materialized after millions of years gene pool tic-tac-toe. There's also the creams and ointments that put the youth back in your face, thigh, neck, butt, foot, hand, chest, and...elsewhere. Gagillions of workout and diet regimes with the gigagillions of dollars to go with them. The list goes on forever. If I could just be stronger, smoother, littler, thinner, faster, pithier, better in bed, more like him, less like her, blah, blah, blah...

  4. Get a bicycle. The exercise will make you healthier and riding it will make you feel like a kid. You'll probably want to avoid busy streets (or this could really backfire as a life-extension strategy).

  5. Highlight your hair.

  6. Eat like a freaking sparrow or super-model or something. Calorie restriction is the only approach that has been clinically proven to slow aging (for mice, that is.)

  7. Make sure your friends are all at least five years older than you. Ten is better; fifteen is ideal. You'll look younger by comparison.

  8. Get your teeth whitened.

  9. Get some mid-life crisis accessories. You know, the fast car, loose woman, new toy, old flame sort of thing. This is the stuff that goes beyond (but usually with) looking young; it's feeling young. People might do anything to give them a sense of renewal or power. That's really what it all boils down to: renewal and power. Those are things we had we were young: the ability to bounce back, that sense that you can make a difference and had the power to do so; just an overall resiliency. That's what people want to have back. It's a sort of sentimental longing for those salad days when everything was so much better than they are now. Except the only reason everything was so rosy back then, is because you were probably too ignorant to realize how bad it really was.

  10. Have an affair with someone 10-15 years your junior. Not recommended for those under, say, 35. Not recommended for married people. Important tip: get out early, before the age difference dawns on both of you and you begin to feel older.

  11. Improve your posture. (Yoga really helps.)

  12. Live in Andorra, Japan, or San Marino. If you live in Malawi, Mozambique, or Zambia, move.

  13. To live younger, you must embrace reality with the same vitality you had in your youth. Take everything that life has to offer and charge ahead. Everything hasn't turned out quite right, this is true, but to be truly young, who really gives a flying crap. Look at any child. Are they agonizing over a failed life? Are they contemplating the value of their existence? Hell no. They take what the get because they really have no idea what they're missing out on. Strive for reckless abandon. Strive for seeing things for the first time. Strive for break, bend, burst, bust because you were just too damn curious. Strive for noticing nothing at all. It's really all there is anyway.

  14. Lycopene.

  15. Above all, moisturize.

  16. Hedge your bets. Have a good backup plan just in case you do die.

Thanks to Posse ringleaders Mike, Suraya, and Vick for helping to compile this list.

Next week, Alex Lightman is going to introduce us to a coming brave new world of ubiquitous wireless networks and computers embedded everywhere in our environments, including on our persons. If you have any thoughts on how we can enjoy the benefits of "jacking in" today, send them on to me. If one of your ideas is included in next week's FastForward, you will receive no compensation to speak of. However, you will be admitted as a member in full standing of the FastForward Posse.

Posted by Phil at 07:02 AM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

August 04, 2003

ITF #11

In the Future...

...we'll walk and drive through advertising without giving it a moment's thought..

via GeekPress

Posted by Phil at 04:51 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Privatizing the Futures Market

James Bennett traces the origins of aversion to innovation in bureaucracy, and explains how this aversion killed the idea-futures market.

America and all the world's strong civil societies are under challenge. Our opponents have been quite innovative and clever in their grisly way, working with tools of suicidal attack that we cannot copy. Victory will require innovation, a quality America and its allies have in abundance. But we cannot make use of it if innovators are forced to operate under rules originally devised to maintain the ever-normal granaries of the Ming emperors. The truly appalling aspect of this incident is that we have succeeded brilliantly in fostering innovation in government, only to have it sabotaged by a handful of cheap grandstanding politicians.

Bennett turns to another approach that several of us have been talking about.

The idea-futures market DARPA had created to improve predictive capability about Middle Eastern affairs was a classic example of the innovation it was chartered to exercise. Hopefully the idea-futures market will go forward under private auspices, but we have lost valuable time we may soon come to regret.

I'd like to see the blogosphere get behind the idea of making a privatized version of the futures market. Whether it's done offshore to avoid gambling restrictions (as Rand Simberg has suggested) or whether a legal solution can be pushed through here in the US, this is too good an idea to let go to waste. I'm open to suggestions. How do we push this thing along?

Via InstaPundit

Posted by Phil at 04:49 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Nano Nano Nano

It's possible that I was unduly hasty in putting forward my defense for excessive use of the term "nano."

Posted by Phil at 04:46 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack


If I had a FAQ, one of the questions would surely be, "How can you 'launch' something that you've been doing for a month?" This is one of the reasons I don't yet have a FAQ. Another, perhaps more compelling, reason is that I'm just launching today, so I haven't really had any questions. Much less any frequently asked questions.

I hope that clears everything up.

This week in the Speculist:

The first official installment of Time Traveler's Toolkit. TTT — how I wanted to call it T3; damn James Cameron and his superfluous sequels — is a guide to do-it-yourself futurism, introducing ideas, tool sets and modes of thinking that can help us make the best possible use of the future. Today we back up a little and look at what I mean by the word Speculist.

The first-ever installment of FastForward. With the help of my FastFoward Posse, I'll be providing ideas for reaping the benefits of the future right now. This week, in line with our special guest, we'll take a look at life extension, posse-style.

We'll be Speaking of the Future with Aubrey de Grey, a Cambridge professor who is working to develop a cure for human aging. How long do you expect to live? Aubrey will give you some reasons to re-think your answer.

The premiere of Stillness.

Aubrey de Grey will answer Seven Questions About the Future.

Future Round-up. All of the In the Future... predictions for this week brought together in one handy list.

Plus, throughout the week I'll be blogging developments in nanotechnology, aritifical intelligence, space exploration, and other future-impacting areas. It's great having you along. Welcome!

One more thing. The blogosphere is full of incredibly creative, wonderful, generous people. I'd like to thank the following bloggers for their help and/or encouragement going into this week: Scott Forbes, Bill Quick, Dan, Josh Wolfe, Howard Lovy, Joe Dougherty, Joanie, John Rosenberg, Natalie Solent, Rand Simberg, Laurence Simon, Jeff Medcalf, Paul Hsieh, Henry, Adam Harris, Vincent Ferrari, and Glenn Reynolds. I hope I didn't miss anyone. But if I did, thank you, too! Special thanks to Posse Ringleaders Vick, Mike, and Suraya. And above all, thank you Dean Esmay for setting this thing up in the first place.

Posted by Phil at 06:46 AM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

What's a Speculist?

The poet's eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!

A Midsummer Night's Dream
Act V Scene I



\Spec"u*list\, n. One who observes or considers; an observer. [R.] --Goldsmith.

Source: Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, © 1996, 1998 MICRA, Inc.
(found on

The word speculist gets so little use that I hope no one minds if I do a little tinkering with its definition. We already have the word observer to convey the idea expressed in the above definition. What do we typically call one who observes? An observer.


Even if we choose to emphasize the "or considers" language in the definition, there are words like "analyst" and "pundit" that not only cover this idea adequately, but that are actually used pretty freqently. This leaves us with the word "speculist" serving no particular purpose and all but forgotten.

Meanwhile, there is a great need (in my view) for a word for someone who does what Shakespeare talks about in the above excerpt from A Midsummer Night's Dream. What do we call someone who looks heavenward and back, and whose imagination "bodies forth the forms of things unknown...and gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name?" Shakespeare (via the character Theseus) ascribes these activities to poets. And, yes, this is the work of poets. But it's also the work of those who write science fiction and fantasy. And then on top of that we have theorists and scenarists and futurists and military strategists and economists and take-the-long-view types and on and on, all of whom engage in attempting to make the ineffable, effable.

I want to group all these folks under the common heading of speculists: anyone who defines, looks for, attempts to unravel, or otherwise contends with what might be, what might not be, what might have been, whatever — and then who takes that understanding and tries to make it into something useful. That's a speculist.

I think it's important to note that Theseus isn't exactly singing the praises of speculists in the above excerpt. And who can blame him? He has a city to run and a new bride to bed, more than enough on his plate without worrying about a spat in the royal house of the fairies, or some working stiff who got his head swapped out with a donkey. Why should he waste his time on the forms of things unkown when things known are so pressing?

Why? Because the things unkown become the things known. It happens all the time, every second. It may be a waste of time to dwell on some imaginary bringer of imaginary joy. But it's no waste looking for the things that can bring us joy in the days to come, or even right now. And it may be silly to mistake a bush for a bear, but, hey — Theseus, old buddy — isn't it downright dangerous to make the opposite mistake?

Besides, we all know that any time things got truly out of whack in Athens, the Duke himself would hop an express train to Delphi and ask the Oracle what was going to happen next.

Speculism is a growth area. We live in an age of accelerating change and geometrically expanding possibility. The things unknown are becoming the things known faster than they ever have before. This rate of change leaves plenty of room for those who would focus their attention only on the latter, but at what cost? Change brings us opportunity and risk. Accelerating change means accelerating levels of both. Whoever would take advantage of these opportunities, or work to avoid the risks, is going to have delve into the realm of the possible and, as best they can, body forth the forms of things unkown. So today I take up my (metaphorical) pen and begin the work of giving a local habitation and a name to the airy nothings that soon may be the all-too-substantial somethings that define our daily lives. This website is that habitation, and I'm honored to have you here as my guests. I hope that you will join me in giving both shape and name to these images of what might be. We have a lot of work to do.

And now...on to the future.

Posted by Phil at 05:35 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Who is this Phil Guy?

Phil Bowermaster has been a full-time amateur speculist since about age three. Often misunderstood during his childhood and adolescence, he fought a frequent perception that he was "daydreaming" or "goofing off" when in fact he was involved in serious contemplation of alternative scenarios to the world he saw around him. This misunderstanding persists to the present day.

As college degree programs in speculism were not available in the recent past, Phil studied English as an undergraduate and took a master's degree in technical communication from the University of Colorado.

For more than 15 years, he has worked in the fields of IT and Telecommunications. His first big break came when he accepted the position of reviews editor for MacGuide, a now-long-defunct magazine devoted to the Apple Macintosh computer. After MacGuide, he was hired by Denver-based Quark, Inc., developing end-user documentation and training materials for their QuarkXPress desktop publishing software. Phil was pleased recently to note that, some 12 years after his departure, the Tutorial Guide that Quark was shipping with the current release of the software was still much the same manual he wrote.

After Quark, Phil joined U S WEST (now QWEST), where it took him about two years to parlay his Technical Editor position into the role of Global Business Process Development Specialist. (Note: this was never actually his job title.) As an international man of process, Phil worked on the roll-out of a number of digital mobile joint-venture companies in Russia. He had the chance to work in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Nizhni Novgorod, and Rostov. Plus he spent some time in London and Budapest.

He eventually landed in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where he spent four years heading up the Process Management/Business Improvement group for a company called Maxis. Originally a joint venture of U S WEST and local Malaysian partners, Maxis was the most ambitious start-up in the history of telecommunications: a single company that would (from its inception) incorporate digital mobile service, fixed wireline service, digital cable television, internet access, international gateway, and satellite communications — including the launch of MeaSat, Malaysia's first sattelite.

At Maxis, Phil was introduced to a beautiful and brilliant corporate lawyer named Suraya. The two worked briefly together on a project, and both were glad to see it come to an end. She considered him a typical loud American with a sophomoric sense of humor. He found her to be intractable and difficult to work with.

They were married in November, 2000.

Phil returned to Denver in early 1999 and remained with U S WEST Information Technologies until shortly before the QWEST merger. He's spent the past three years at Sybase, doing product management and business development for the telecommunications vertical group.

He lives in Colorado with his wife and a Shih Tzu named Rygel. Suraya is a senior manager in the legal department of a major Telecom. Phil's daughter— who lives with them part-time — is a teenage writer/ artist/actress/musician quadruple threat who shows strong speculist tendencies in her own right.

Today, Phil continues the work he began at an early age: re-imagining the world he sees around him, devising scenarios of what might have been and what might yet be, and developing tools for making the most of the future. The Speculist gives him the chance to share this work with others.

If you have comments on this site, or interesting speculations of your own, Phil would love to hear from you.

Posted by Phil at 05:32 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

August 02, 2003

Two More Days

I think that does it for me this weekend, and really for the entire pre-launch phase of the Speculist. See you all on Monday, when this thing starts for reals.

Posted by Phil at 08:53 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Future Roundup 08/02/03

Here's the full list of this week's predictions for the future. Two of the five had to do with parenting, both of which were pretty cynical. Actually, the baby-brain-monitor thing is a practical idea — an enhanced version of the walkie-talkie monitors we have now — but the electronics will have to be improved. I don't think we can wire babies up like the one shown in the picture (follow the link.)

In the Future...

...there will be options for parents with fat or ugly kids. and technology will give us back all the monsters they have taken from us.

...potty-training accidents will be greatly reduced via hardwired interfaces to babies' brains.

...elections will be merged with futures markets , greatly increasing voter turnout as players vie for the big November payoff.'ll be able to eat unlimited french fries and cupcakes and never gain an ounce.

That does it for this week. Thanks for dropping by. And until next time, I'll see you in the future.

Posted by Phil at 08:51 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Tiny Cameras Everywhere

It was Phil Zimmermann, creator of PGP encryption software, who did a one-up on Andy Warhol by pronouncing that in the future, we will all have 15 minutes of privacy.

Few of us have a lot of enthusiasm for the idea of being surrounded by dozens or hundreds of little cameras. I know I don't. But there may be an upside to the rapid approach of the day when every waking moment of our lives will be photographed and recorded.

Consider this:

A 15-year-old boy foiled an apparent abduction attempt when he pulled out his cell phone camera and snapped photos of a man trying to lure him into a car, police said.

The teen also photographed the vehicle's license plate and gave the evidence to police, who arrested a suspect the next day.

Somehow, the tiny cameras seem a lot less threatening when it's us, the good guys, snapping the pictures. And while I want to have some semblance of privacy in my own doings, it bothers me not a whit if predatory creeps like this lose all the advantages that "privacy" has brought them.

Posted by Phil at 08:34 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

ITF #10

In the Future...'ll be able to eat unlimited french fries and cupcakes and never gain an ounce.

via GeekPress

Posted by Phil at 08:12 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

August 01, 2003

Don't Hate Me

Because I'm nano-beautiful. Howard Lovy and the latest on nanotechnology in the cosmetics industry.

Confidential to the reader who wrote to suggest that I use the word "nano" too much: freaking get used to it or find yourself another blog to read. And have a nice day!

Posted by Phil at 04:04 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Now That the Idea Has Been Killed

Just watch it take off.

It's no coincidence that the WiredNews story that I linked to for ITF #9 should run so soon after the demise of the proposed futures market in terrorism. Only now, after this idea has been brought to public attention via its dismissal, are we taking the opportunity to evaluate it.

As I've said, I think there may be tremendous potential for this kind of market. Consider the case of the Irish Sports Book site where gamblers are even now attempting to make a buck from the ousting (or survival) of California Governor Gray Davis. They currently give Davis only about a 35% chance of surviving.

Those who believe Davis still will be in office at the end of the year stood to win $6 for every $4 wagered. Those betting against Davis -- selling the contract short -- would win $3.10 if he is out of office, or lose $6.90 if he bucks the odds and keeps his job.

Hal Varian, a professor of business at the University of California at Berkeley, said such online markets provide better predictions than traditional polls because cash forces a more dispassionate analysis of issues.

"You talk to a loyal Democrat they'll say, 'Oh no, Gray Davis won't be recalled.' You talked to a Republican they'll say, 'Of course, that bastard will be taken out of office,"' Varian said. "They let their emotions or their desire influence their beliefs and opinion polls are subject to that wishful thinking."

"When it is money and the market is moved by the smart players, the guys who are weighing the odds and not weighing their emotions, you get a better forecast," he continued. "You have to put your money where your mouth is."

This is the case for futures markets in a nutshell.

We need to know where things are going, and these markets seem to be a clear (and fairly accurate) way of getting a handle on that. Plus, here's an interesting twist, from an analysis by James Pethokoukis earlier this week:

But these markets seems to do pretty well even if only fake money is at stake. The Foresight Exchange, around since the mid 1990s, allows traders to make bets on terrorists attacks -- and pretty much anything else -- with pretend money. And in a study of its predictive prowess, Douglas Hubbard, a risk consultant in the IT industry, found that when the Foresight Exchange markets said an event had a 30 percent or 50 percent or 70 percent chances of happening, the outocme pretty much fit those forecasts. Ken Kittlitz, co-founder of the Foresight Exchange, told me that "even though we only use play money, people try to bet rationally because they feel inside that they have their reputations on the line."

This struck me as pretty interesting, so I decided to give it a shot. I now have an account with Foresight Exchange. They start you out with $50. So Far, I have invested in the following predictions.

  • That there will be a building taller than the Empire State Building in Manhattan (the payout on this one is driven by when it occurs.)

  • That the United States will have fewer than 20,000 active duty military personnel stationed in Germany on December 31, 2013.

  • That the US will not be nuked by the year 2010 and that President Bush will be re-elected in 2004.

Looking at these predictions, I have to wonder how the market can possibly impact their accuracy. I mean, here I am participating and I don't have any special knowledge about any of these things. I'm just a follower.

For example, the Empire State Building prediction was selling at 78, meaning that the investors collectively figure there is a 78% chance that the prediction will come true within the assigned time frame. So no way was I going to bet against that.

Likewise, the Troops Stationed in Germany prediction was trading in the high 70's. What do I know about troop deployments? Zip-a-dee-doo-dah. This is where you want your Steven Den Beste or someone of his ilk participating. Actually, in placing the bet, I was going on the idea that there are a couple of SDB's in there driving the price — with the rest of us just sort of along for the ride. Does my participation impact the accuracy of the prediction for the better or the worse? Or have no impact?

I really can't say, but I find it unlikely that it has no impact. Somehow I'm in there pushing it one way or another. And even if most of us who participate aren't experts, the predictions that we make are as good as, or better than, predictions made by any given expert.


Wait a second.

Isn't this some kind of collective intelligence we're talking about here? As a small "l" libertarian, my knee is jerking violently in reaction to any suggestion that a collective something could possibly be better than an individual anything.

Fortunately, there's money involved. That's different. That makes it a market. Even us small "l" libertarians can endorse collective behavior and decision-making if it's defined in those terms.

What a relief. That was a close one.

Finally, that last prediction I bought into is kind of a mutual fund of future events. In order to get paid, I need for Bush to be re-elected in 2004 and for us not to be nuked by 2010. Either of those events can be purchased as a stand-alone prediction. The We Get Nuked prediciton is currently selling at about 26. So there's your futures market in terrorism.

It's kind of scary if you think about it. If the Foresight Exchange really is accurate in predicting outcomes, then we could have somewhere in the neighborhood of a 25% chance of being nuked by 2010. (The selling price is based on the Yes prediction that we will be nuked; the "mutual fund" I bought into pays out on the No prediction.)

Actually, it's scary, but it isn't exactly news. I can't say for sure, but I think that had I been asked (before logging on to the exchange) what I thought the chances are of the US being nuked by 2010 — I might very well have said something along the lines of 25%.

So maybe collective intelligence is just a fancy way of saying common sense? Or even consensus? I'm not sure. What I am sure about is that I'm going to continue looking into futures markets as a way of dealing with rapid change and making the most of my future. I suspect many others will do the same.

Meanwhile, WiredNews has more on the fallout from the Futures Market controversy — it seems that John Poindexter is going to resign in light of his involvement with the futures market and the Terrorism Information Awareness system. I wonder if any markets saw this coming?

They probably did.

In retrospect, it seems like a sucker bet.

UPDATE: Rand Simberg has been putting up some very interesting stuff on this. Look here and here. I think that Caymans idea sounds like a good one. Maybe somebody just needs to talk the Foresight Exchange folks into running their little operation on a different set of servers and changing the currency to real money. Also, check out these two postings to Just One Minute (here and here) which indicate that the existing stock market has probably already been manipulated as a terrorist futures market.

Posted by Phil at 06:56 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

ITF #9

In the Future...

...elections will be merged with futures markets , greatly increasing voter turnout as players vie for the big November payoff.

via WiredNews

Posted by Phil at 05:53 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack