Singularity Watch
HomeNewsletterReading GroupsConferencesPublications"Singularity Studies" LinksDegree ProgramsCritiques


Contrary to Popular Belief:
Common Myths in Futures Studies and American Culture

"The primary function of myth is to validate an existing social order. It is a sociological charter for a future society which is an exact replica of the present one" — Ann Oakley

There are a number of popular proclamations about the global future, our technological future, and the past and current state of society that on closer analysis don't seem to fit well with our best current data and known technological trends. Such beliefs often appeal to our psychological desires and cultural histories, but they don't jibe well with our rapidly evolving and developing technological reality. We hope you enjoy this small but growing collection of popular myths (as we see them, at present) in common circulation in the United States.

Let us know at mail(at)accelerating.org if you think we've made a mistake, or if you have clarifications or additions to the brief mythbusting attempts made below.

Global Myths

"World Population is Exploding"

"World Energy Use is Heading for a Crisis Due to Peak Oil"

"OPEC is Cause for Energy Independence"

"Solar Power Will Soon Solve our Energy Problems"

Transhumanist Myths

"Space Migration is the Future for Humanity"

"Biological Immortality is Plausible and Desirable"

 

Social Myths

"Social Change is Only Cyclic, Not Also Accelerating"

"Children's Intellectual Abilities are Declining"

"Divorce Rates are Increasing"

"Family Time is Decreasing"

 

Critiques? Clarifications? Others to add? Let us know at mail{at}accelerating{dot}org.

 


"World Population is Exploding"

Many people still think world population is exploding out of control, and that global population growth is one of the major problems facing humanity. That was true in 1970, when population growth was at its worst, but it is entirely untrue today. The latest data points to a maximum world population of 8-10 billion circa 2030-2060, and an increasingly rapid population decline thereafter. Some scholars put the maximum population even lower and arriving even earlier, such as this one projecting a maximum of 7.07 billion circa 2025. The issue was framed nicely by a 1998 UN projection, in the graph below:

The UN model projected a world population in 2150 of 28, 11.5, or 4.3 billion, depending on what at that time was still a major unknown: future fertility rates as the world's economic and technological development continues to accelerate. Since 1999, UN expert meetings have acknowledged a trend that has been increasingly apparent since the 1970's in developed countries: birth rates are falling fast and far as development spreads all over the world.

As mentioned, the most technology-aware estimates today roject that our current world population of 6.4 billion will reach a maximum of 8-10 billion in another generation or two then and shrink increasingly rapidly thereafter. For more on this, see Ben Wattenberg's, insightful essay, "It Will Be a Smaller World After All," March 2004, American Enterprise Institute.

Wattenberg notes that in the 1960s the Less Developed Countries (LDC's) birth rate was six children per woman. Today it is under three. And several major nations have declined from seven to two over this period. Huge declines have occurred in Brazil, China, Iran, India, Egypt, Turkey, Indonesia, and Mexico, among others. In the More Developed Countries (MDC's), fertility has gone from low to incredibly low. In the 1960s Europe the total fertility rate was at 2.6 children per woman. Today, the rate is at 1.3, far below replacement rate, as is the Japanese rate, and the Italian rate.

Something very interesting is happening here: a technological contraceptive is being constructed by our accelerating and increasingly sophisticated digital environment, all over the planet. Humans everywhere are finding that using technologies for the personal development of themselves or their offspring is a much better use of their precious and limited biological resources than physical procreation.

We see this as a soft sign that the leading edge of Earth's intelligence may eventually be moving beyond biology altogether, something we may understand much better in coming decades.



"World Energy Use is Heading for a Crisis Due to Peak Oil"

You may be familiar with the oil-crash scenarios on the websites of groups like:
http://www.lifeaftertheoilcrash.net/
http://www.peakoil.net/ (ASPO)

The best counterbalances to this misinformation are presentations like Royal Dutch/Shell's: "Energy Needs, Choices, and Possibilities: Scenarios to 2050," 2001.

Interested in understanding the future of world energy use? I recommend this 33 page report for some deep insights. Perhaps the most important slide is on page seven, energy use per capita, reproduced below. This IMF/BP data shows that in every economy where incomes go above $15,000/year (e.g, the U.S., Europe, Japan, Australia), national growth in energy use per capita slows dramatically, then effectively stops. This saturation may be due to several factors: the increasingly service-intensive, information-intensive, and "virtual" nature of developed economies, the sharply fixed basic needs (transportation, housing, etc.) of human beings, the increasing sustainability politics of affluent nations, and finally, the incredibly rapidly advancing energy efficiencies of all our replicating machines (unlike the replicating bodies of their human users). At $25,000/year, energy growth per capita becomes so slow that it is effectively saturated. Europeans like to say that Americans are much less interested in energy conservation than they are, but the graph clearly shows that we have saturated in our energy growth as well. The only difference is that our culture saturates at 350 Gigajoules/capita, while Europeans saturate at 150. This 2X difference, a matter of differing cultural choices, seems almost trivial by comparision to the exponentiating capacities of our technological infrastructure.

Combine this energy saturation graph with knowledge that our entire world's population will saturate circa 2050, at some 9-11 billion people, and then start shrinking therafter, and we can see that the total energy consumption of our species has a very finite upper bound. It's true that the development of the emerging nations will keep the energy growth curve steep for another generation or two in emerging nations, but there's plenty of evidence that later developers like India and China, using "leapfrogging technologies", require far less energy and time to reach the $25,000/year GDP at which their own energy use will saturate, just like ours has.

The first scenario in the Shell article, Dynamics as Usual, seems by far the most likely going forward. The second, Spirit of the Coming Age, was an interesting exercise but seems unlikely to happen as written, even if fuel cell technology innovation occured as projected, which is improbable given its anemic record to date. One good insight from the Dynamics scenario is that if oil prices increase further in the next two decades, which is far from certain given accelerating efficiencies in production (what Shell strategists call the "dematerialization" of the energy industry), natural gas will become the bridge strategy that we will use to allow us to reduce our oil use. Furthermore, if atmospheric CO2 levels continue to climb for the next decade, it is likely that we'll accelerate both natural gas use, which lowers CO2 emission over oil, and next generation nuclear power plant construction, which has no greenhouse gas emissions at all.

After 2050, several major factors will permanently change our energy environment. First, given their slow but steady development trend, we can see that distributed renewable energy technologies like solar power will finally be cost-competitive for mass use. Second, we'll have a flat or declining world population, living in societies that have all entered the energy saturation domain to varying degrees (though the global rich-poor income gap will continue to grow until 2050 due to current differential rates of birth in developed vs. developing nations). Third, and perhaps most importantly, we'll have several broad classes of human-surpassing technological intelligence all around us. So while energy infrastructure development is very important today and smart energy decisions will continue to be critical for at least two more generations, we can already see that our species future energy needs will be amply-supplied in a world of declining human population and energy use, abundant sustainable energy sources, and exponentiating technological intelligence. I would expect computational scarcities, not energy scarcities, to be the important political issue in that fascinating environment. If you'd like to fund or help us produce studies analyzing how to responsibly accelerate this transition to tomorrow's significantly more intelligent, efficient, and energy-rich environment, send us an email

Give the Shell article 30 minutes of your time, concentrating on the first scenario, and I think you'll understand the world energy future for at least the next twenty five years, to a reasonable first approximation.

In brief, the peak oil scenario states:

1) we are nearing or have recently passed the maximum of all easily recoverable oil reserves on Earth, and
2) every year forward we will see a situation of exploding global demand and decreasing oil recovery, leading to huge and unsustainable increases in the consumer price of oil and gas.

While the peak oil advocates may be correct about the first proposal, they are generally mistaken and unnecessarily alarmist about the second. They usually make claims that are at great odds with the energy companies, and at the same time frequently misrepresent their sources, making everything they say suspect, from my perspective.

The first peak oil group above states that "…estimates coming out of the oil industry indicate "a seemingly unbridgeable supply-demand gap opening up after 2007," which will lead to major fuel shortages and "increasingly severe blackouts beginning around 2008-2012." Royal Dutch/Shell disagrees, forecasting that supply-demand gaps are very unlikely before 2025, and that with increased conservation measures we may not see them before 2040. All the while the percent of primary energy supplied by oil will steadily decline (to 33% of total energy by 2025 and 27% by 2050) as other sources, at first natural gas and then renewables like solar as well as nuclear if solar doesn't improve fast enough, increasingly take their place.

None of this minimizes the possibility of the oil companies to make huge profits off of small fluctuations in demand unless they are properly regulated, however.

The second group, ASPO, cites a Feb 2004 ExxonMobil's publication, "A Report on Energy Trends, Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Alternative Energy," saying of the report: "once again they claim that the decline of oil and gas will be enormous in the coming years."

Like Royal Dutch/Shell, ExxonMobils is widely known as a no-nonsense planning group. They run one of the most profitable and productive companies in the industry, with decades of experience reinventing themselves with new more effective and efficient technologies. When you read the report cited by ASPO, you discover ExxonMobil's position is that "most experts predict the world will require about 40% more energy in 2020 than today, and consumption levels will reach almost 300 million oil-equivalent barrels every day. We expect that 60 percent of this 2020 demand will continue to come from oil and gas, as these primary sources of energy are available in sufficient quantity to meet the world's growth and are, at the same time, the most economical."

ExxonMobil notes further that as our conventional resource base of oil and gas is so very large, and that these sources are very likely to continue to be our primary source of energy through at least the middle of the twenty first century. They note that it will be a challenge to supply 40% more energy over the next 15 years but that they and other leading energy companies are up to the challenge, and they don't expect any supply crisis during this period.

They note the U.S.G.S. World Petroleum Assessment 2000 estimates conventional recoverable liquid oil to be about 3 trillion barrels, and the International Energy Agency has estimated there are more than 4.3 trillion barrels of unconventional oil resources (more difficult to recover oil sands, oil shale, etc.) available. By comparison, they remind us that less than 1 trillion barrels of petroleum have been developed since production started in the 1800's. They note efficiencies of extraction and production have been increasing at better than 1% a year for several decades now, and that efficiencies of use and conservation have also increased significantly more dramatically. As an example of the latter they cite hybrid automobiles, which in city driving increase fuel efficiency up to 50%.

Not mentioned in the ExxonMobil report are a wide range of commercial and near-commercial replacements for the eventual decline of conventional oil production. One set of substitutes is coal gasification and coal liquefaction, established techniques for producing clean substitute fuels from the world’s abundant coal reserves. It is estimated that we have over a thousand of years of unused coal at 2020 consumption rates, and coal gasification and liquefaction research is going in several locations in China today. Another oil substitute is liquid fuel produced from natural gas. Several organizations estimate we have hundreds of years of global natural gas reserves, though the extent of these reserves is not presently as well determined as our oil reserves. Again, the efficiencies of coal gasification, liquefaction and natural gas reduction do not make them competitive for today's very low oil costs, but they would become viable in an extended shortage situation. Furthermore, their efficiencies improve steadily every year. Any of these, particularly gasification, may be very competitive alternatives to oil extraction and refinement long before 2050.

One of the lesser-known facts of the modern era is that total world energy use has been peaking right along with world population for the last thirty five years, because energy use tracks very closely to population growth. There seems to be several reasons for this. Humans have a very fixed and finite interest in using machines to cause physical change, versus creating virtual or informational change in very energy-efficient ways inside our computers and simulation systems. Also, as each new generation of machines is created, they are exponentially more energy efficient than the last, unlike human beings, who are only modestly more energy efficient even in the most sustainability-oriented cultures.

Shell energy futurists proposes a maximum planetary energy use of 100-200 Gigajoules per capita for 10 billion individuals in 2050. Both the per capita energy use and the total number of our species on Earth can be expected to decline increasingly rapidly after 2050, due to continued accelerating technological development. If you'd like to see the total world energy use decline that has occurred already, look closely at the world energy use curves at the Energy Information Administration (DOE), IEA, and other websites.

Total world energy use hit an inflection point circa 1970, catalyzed both by the inflection of total world population that occurred at that time and by the pervasive conservation measures and behavior change that have occurred in the three decades since our first oil shocks 1973-74, at the start of the OPEC era.

First world energy use per capita is already declining in countries at the leading edge of the new sustainability movement, such as Germany in Europe, and will soon be declining in the United States (if it isn't already, I need to see the latest figures). Total world energy use grows upward at a flatter rate each year. Total U.S. electricity use, for example, is projected to grow by at most 50% by 2025, and still slower afterward.

This sharp bound on the number and energy use capacities of future first world humans on Earth makes any discussion of "Peak Oil" and the potential energy crises our planet may face in coming decades significantly less alarmist than many energy futurists would have you believe. It is true that we have a number of emerging nations that will be modernizing rapidly in the next two generations. But at the same time, each of those nations will also develop themselves in a small fraction of the time we did, and inevitably transition to zero and then negative population growth and per capita energy use.

As we understand the limits on future energy use we begin to suspect it is becoming increasingly unimportant by comparison to the exponentiating computational abilities of the "intelligent houses" surrounding the humans everywhere on our planet. In fact, the sufficiency of our rather staid energy infrastructure to date for supporting accelerating social and technological change is why there has been so little change in our modes of energy production in the last century, while our information technology has relentlessly redefined itself.

To understand this better, consider the inaugural issue of Business Week in October 1929, launched one week before the great depression. The magazine contained an advertisement by IBM for a monstrous, clunky, "electric sorting machine" and one by PG&E for "natural gas powered factory buildings" in San Francisco. In the seventy five years since, the IT sector has rapidly accelerated its capacities and been through a number of entirely new manufacturing paradigms, while the energy sector has seen a much more modest set of accelerating efficiencies and refinements.

Because we live on a planet where energy is so plentiful, and where efficiency increases have been so numerous, we haven't had to radically reinvent our energy systems. Incremental change and accelerating efficiencies have been sufficient to the task keeping energy plentiful, reliable, and a small fraction of the operating budget of modern business. Looking forward there's no reason to expect that future energy technologies won't be able to continue to deliver business as usual, either.

As Steve Jurvetson notes in his excellent talk "Nanotechnology, Accelerating Change, and Venture Capital," in 2003, the DOE currently estimates solid state lighting (such as the organic LEDs in today's stoplights) will cut the world's energy demand for lighting in half over the next 20 years. Today, lighting is currently approximately 20% of energy demand. Expect such energy efficiencies to be multiplied dramatically in coming years, in all areas of human endeavor, as our technology continues to miniaturize and enter the microcosm. Technology is becoming more energy-effective in ways few energy futurists currently understand.

Many in the U.S. environmental movement and the peak oil movements voice an urgent need to get away from oil as quickly as possible, but this seems to me to be a very overstated position. It makes much more sense for us to talk about making oil cleaner and safer over the next two to four decades than it does to talk about replacing it.

Peak oil debates sell magazines and are interesting and are worthwhile to raise awareness of the possibility of shortages, but I presently feel that most of the Hubbert Peak ("peak oil") projections simply ignore how amazingly cheap and plentiful oil and other fossil fuel sources are on the planet, at present. Read Bill Jamieson's informative "The Doomsters Are Wrong: There's Plenty of Oil," The Scotsman, 5.21.2004 for an alternative to the peak oil position.

I think many of the peak oil folks (not all, but many) are making the same mistake the Limits to Growth folks made back in the 1970's, when they predicted global environmental and life support catastrophes by 2000: they aren't factoring in the confluence of global accelerating technologies for energy efficiency, conservation, exploration, and refinement, as well as rapidly saturating global population and rapidly saturating global per capita energy use. Finally, they are missing the boat on the implications of accelerating computing power, which is moving so fast that virtually everything else right now is almost standing still.

While they may be right that we are nearing a peak in easily accessible oil reserves and while certainly should be sounding a gentle alarm bell about this, as this should stimulate new exploration in the same way that Limits to Growth and Silent Spring stimulated environmental reform, I think the methods of many of these groups are unscientific, and the peak oil message can easily be overconstrued. Conventional estimates say we've got at least 40 years left in the conventional oil and gas reserves, and we haven't even considered unconventional reserves, or almost inexhaustible sources like coal.

Finally, I don't think we really know yet what's below the ocean. ChevronTexaco found oil-saturated cores in the late 1990's in the Gulf of Mexico at 12,000 feet, for example, at a depth many times deeper than we currently have the technology to drill. Do we know how big those deep sea fields are? Is that geology unique to the gulf or might we find it all over the ocean? Robotic subs might do some significant drilling for us in coming decades. They are already moving autonomously in the world's oceans even here in 2005.

Just as likely, undersea oil may be outcompeted by more efficient methods of boosting recovery from existing fields, or harvesting tar sands and oil shale deposits, which will all become worth harvesting if oil heads north of $60 a barrel and stays there for an extended period of time. So we may never even get to most of the undersea deposits, especially as global conservation measures get increasingly effective every year forward.

Then there are the other fossil fuels: we've got thousands of years of coal, hundreds of years of natural gas available, and potentially thousands of years of methane hydrates frozen underwater on continental shelves. Will we ever even get to these fossil fuels in a world where global warming might continue? It seems doubtful at present.

As the futurist Glen Hiemstra likes to say, the stone age didn't end for lack of stones, the wood age didn't end for lack of trees, the coal age didn't end for lack of coal, and the oil age won't end for lack of oil, but when technology finally outcompetes our present cheapest energy source with something even less expensive, and cleaner. We are today rapidly developing several potential competitors, but don't expect solar or hydrogen to be competitive for many decades hence. The technology simply isn't there, and oil itself will see stunning improvements in its efficiency and environmental responsibility before its time has passed.

One possible successor to oil will be today's cleaner, safer, next-generation nuclear power. Peter Schwartz and Spencer Reiss have written an excellent article, "Nuclear Now!," in Wired February 2005 that makes the case for nuclear's resurgence in a world where global warming is confirmed, and should oil prices keep climbing in coming years.

Another possible candidate, if oil stays cheap all the way until 2040 as many suspect it will, might be renewable energy. Solar, too expensive today, may be cheap enough for mass use by then, and we may also finally have a way to make affordable and reliable systems for storing the energy produced in its intermittent production, like vacuum flywheels. Biofuels may make a resurgence as we phase out oil in transportation. Wind, geothermal, and other renewables will likely stay minority contributors as other systems scale up with less environmental impact.

China is already building a number of new nuclear plants (20?) in anticipation of a world community that may eventually pressure them to stop burning ultra-cheap coal. But until global warming is proven, they may just clean up their coal burning and stay with that until we all decide that greenhouse gases need to be regulated more vigorously.

If we are to go nuclear in just a few more generations, where will we put the waste? We can already immobilize it for many centuries in glass beads, and the newer reactor designs allow us to make waste that isn't a nuclear weapons proliferation threat. A number of folks today think that "many centuries" of waste storage isn't long enough. But technological history would argue that they are simply being acceleration-unaware. This will come as a shock to many, but those who believe that anything biological human beings will be doing on this planet in 2300 could have significance for the future of the planet are being both anthropocentric and acceleration-unaware. Consider that biological systems operate at least seven million times slower than the thinking, acting, and self improving presently occurring in our electronic appendages. Given what we've seen in computer development since the 1890's, an imminent human surpassing intelligence seems the most rational and data-backed view of the future, as surprising as it seems to some.

What our "digital twins" will be doing, the operation of our digital selves, will be the thing determining the nature of the future, not human biology, biological society, or its energy needs just a few centuries hence. More than a few centuries from now our technological successors can be reasonably be expected to know how to use subduction to recycle nuclear waste back into the Earth's radioactive core, to lift it up a nanoelevator and shoot it into the moon, to transmute it back to nonradioactive elements in tomorrows physics labs, or to do any number of other reycling, remediation, or reclamation processes that are simply unimaginable to our slow-switching biological minds. Being responsible for a millennium into the future is already far more future orientation than biological systems are going to need..

Even more curiously, when you look at the energy needs of our electronic successors, you learn another important fact: they don't really have energy needs to speak of. Present trends suggest they'll be doing everything they can to miniaturize themselves even further, and to get further into inner space, not outer space.

Outer space is the world of macromolecular friction, of poor efficiency in energy transfer, of slowness, of computational simplicity. Inner space, the world of the microcosm, is the exact opposite of this, and is the apparent developmental destination of our accelerating computational intelligence.

Photonic computers, for example, are substantially more energy efficient than electronic computers, and quantum computers are even more energy efficient than photonic computers. At the subatomic scale friction disappears, and energy conversion efficiencies approach 100%. That's where the future of Earth's intelligence appears headed, and that's ultimately why energy is such an overrated dialog when you try to understand the future of the environmental niche that our rapidly developing technological world system is constructing.

Humans today are selective catalysts, not controllers, of that rapidly developing technological world system, and it is increasingly autonomous and self-directing with each passing year. Due to the special physics of the microcosm in a universe that appears self-organized for accelerating computation, we are rapidly transitioning to a postbiological, energy minimizing domain.

For me, there is a yin and yang guiding accelerating change, evolution and development, human agency and human discovery. We need to better the accelerations built into the physics of the universe, so that we can be more aware of that developmental framework and use it to more intelligently guide the evolutionary choices in our lives.

In this model, sustainability in energy and any other domain needs to be balanced with the exponential engines of generativity and innovation, or our policies will be out of whack with the natural accelerating developmental trajectories built into the physics of the universe. Looking broadly at the chain of energy transformations in human culture, we seem to be learning to live increasingly more sustainably with time, but the key point is that we never become so sustainable that we lose our accelerating generativity.

The main tradeoff in a cultural computational system appears to be between sustainability and generativity (computational capacity), and many environmentalists don't realize that while sustainability is important, we always need to pursue it without undue risk to generativity. Those cultures that do pursue sustainability and harmony to extremes, at the cost of significant technical progress, are always rapidly outcompeted by their more generative neighbors. Furthermore, the better our generativity/cultural intelligence becomes, the more sustainable we become with any given resource set, as conservationist scholars such as Jared Diamond have noted.

Today, even the sustainability-centric United Nations is admitting that humans globally are beginning to flatline in world population, and that population growth will eventually go negative in every location on the planet. Contrast this with the accelerating intelligence of our technological progeny and we can see that a massive transition of some type, what many have called a technological singularity, is on the horizon.

The closer we look the more it seems that energy is generally more than sufficient in our environment to sustain the acceleration of ever more space, time, energy, and matter efficient (STEM efficient) computational complexity we see all around us. That seems to be a very underreported story, and we at the Acceleration Studies Foundation are doing our best to make it more conscious, so that we can make more informed choices in these few remaining decades of non-intelligent machines.

We must continue to encourage conservation and sustainability work, but without compromising the exponential growth of generativity and innovation in the process. We must realize that as energy-rich as our planet is, it is fantastically more computation-rich. Accelerating computation is the great bounty of the modern age, one being reaped every more consciously and dramatically each year. Let's maximize that awareness and use our energy resources to best global computational effect.



"OPEC is Cause for Energy Independence"

Even today some futurists suggest that OPEC created an overpriced environment and is holding the First World "hostage." This view proposes we must do everything we can to achieve "energy independence" as a national strategic priority. I think this is oversimplified, jingoistic, and retrograde reasoning.

Perhaps the greatest deficiency of this world view is that it treats the most important computational unit as the nation, when the important computational unit with regard to energy, since the mid 1980's at least, is the network of global actors. If we rank all the global actors by their economic resources, we will see that they are led today by international trade groups such as the WTO which represents large collections of MNC's, then by groups of leading nations (G8, etc.), then by individual leading nations (U.S., etc.), then by leading and rapidly growing MNCs (many with GDPs beyond all but the wealthiest nations), then by lesser nations, then by other institutions (NGO's, etc.), then by super empowered individual philanthropists, etc. We live in a very pluralistic world today, and national energy needs are satisficed by our global network, even as the energy needs per capita of all the first world nations decrease the better our technology becomes.

Furthermore, a quick look at oil prices shows that the world's energy markets have developed through three very different eras in the 20th century:

The first era was one of long term contracts, a stable and rather noncompetitive environment that ended in 1974. The next was the era of the early OPEC cartel, which pushed oil from $20 to $90 a barrel over eight years, and then saw its monopoly control progressively eroded thereafter, finally losing its effectiveness in 1986. The third and present era was one of pluralistic global competition, where OPEC has become just one of several energy suppliers.

While the OPEC cartel exists as a restriction on competition and thus is not ideal, it was also an improvement in some ways over the first world oligopoly that existed before it. In the early 20th century Europeans were extracting oil from the Arabic region for the same price as mineral water, at something like $3 a barrel. Virtually no money was going back into the local economies. The emergence of a strong OPEC in the early 1970's, in an era of liberalization (civil rights, women's rights) and political revolution (China, Southeast Asia, Africa) across the planet, seems quite natural, even a predictable developmental event for those futurists who stopped to think about it (fortunately, Shell's scenario futurists did), and an early step toward "rationalizing" economic development within emerging nations.

The OPEC era also stimulated tremendous conservation of energy within the first world, and sold us all on the value of energy efficiency. If the peak oil proponents are right, and we are presently nearing a global maximum of energy production, we can expect the price of oil to start climbing back up again, perhaps more slowly this time than in the 1970's. If so, we'll see another substantial conservation push in the emerging nations, who are cash-poor, and for whom transportation is even more important than the developed nations, who can use informational facsimilies to substitute for transportation (videoconference, telework, groupware, e-commerce, etc.). Conservation measures in emerging nations will be even more effective than they were in the first world in the 1980's, as today's technologies are significantly more intelligent and efficient. At the same time, higher oil prices will stimulate investments in new exploration and recovery technologies. The confluence of these factors could keep oil below $90 a barrel for many decades to come.

Finally, if oil does stay above $60 a barrel for an extended period of time, that is going to stimulate the development of clean, CO2-free nuclear power earlier than we would have otherwise seen it. There seems to be no cause for alarm here, just a number of natural developmental forces pushing our infrastructure into increasingly cleaner and cheaper energy regimes, either slower or faster, depending on how the energy supply system is run in coming years.

In the U.S. today, where the price of gasoline is subsidized, prices are presently still below their pre-OPEC levels, that's how efficient the energy supply system currently is for the first world. Our subsidized gasoline should be $3 a gallon today by 1973 prices, adjusted for inflation and keeping subsidies the same, but it is even cheaper than that today [postscript: in 2006 it is now finally over $3. High time for it too]. In Europe, where there are now and have historically been less subsidies, gasoline is $5 a gallon. Let's say we were to see the global average price of gasoline to go to $5 a gallon. This 2X increase over 30 years would still be quite modest in a world were computational capacities double every eighteen months. Conservation measures, the steadily improving efficiencies and automations of oil extraction and refinement, and the continual oversupply of this resource have all contributed to making energy a steadily less important geopolitical factor in the equation of the future.

As argued earlier, the importance of energy to the course of accelerating change on the planet is often overrated. If oil prices continue to rise we will see more exploration, but we must remember that big oil is not interested in creating an oversupply today, only in avoiding a supply crisis, which has been surprisingly easy these last thirty years. To date the oil industry has been almost as catastrophe-free as the electric utility industry, a testament to the unreasonable stability and malleability of our technological infrastructures.

In summary, as world population flatlines, the intelligence and process automation capacities of our technology are now a much more important determinant of the future than the energy that our machines consume. Our technologies become rapidly more energy efficient with each generation, unlike human beings. This efficiency improves the fastest whenever energy cost is significant, and also whenever we politically hold them to this standard. Let's do so today, but without sacrificing accelerating global economic and innovation growth.


"Solar Power Will Soon Solve our Energy Problems"

Solar efficiencies continue to improve, but even our best current systems, at 25% today are still are only about 10X more efficient than biological systems (e.g., photosynthesis), and require 40+ years of operation to pay for themselves.

We are going to need to see some nanosolar breakthroughs before they can become 20X more efficient (e.g., around 50-60% of theoretical efficiency), and cost of production that drops another order of magnitude before their adoption is likely to begin to take off.

Meanwhile, we are going to need to convince people to adopt solar based largely on philosophical grounds at present. I agree that is a good idea in many cases, but we have to be honest about where we are in the R&D phase. The economics are a very mixed bag at this stage, and any solar adoption undergoes risk, not the least of which is one's installation being obsoleted by more efficient solar systems that will just a few years hence.

Expect some big installations to start making breakthroughs (parabolics feeding Stirling engines look very promising) as peak load supplements in Western states, but don't expect any major impact on our energy mix. Even as individual setups will make major new advances, slow incremental change in the energy picture is still the order of the day here, in a world with incredibly plentiful and cheap fossil fuels.


"Space Migration is the Future for Humanity"

Most people believe future humans are going to outer space, rather than inner space. They don't realize that space is rapidly becoming an informational desert, that it is a "rear view mirror" on the trajectory of intelligence development in universal history, and that there will be very few people interested in going into space for any reason whatsoever in the future.

In 2050 there will likely be a "Planet Channel" for every planet of the solar system, but most people will be very content to watch what the robots are doing rather than run down Olympus Mons on Mars in person, at 1/3 gravity, as fun as that may sound. By the middle of this century, our "eyes in space" will have run out of almost everything that might be interesting to find. As the astronomer Martin Harwit observed in the excellent and very underappreciated Cosmic Discovery, 1981, we have been running out of unique astronomical features to discover for decades.

By the mid 21st century there will be a few areas of the physical spectrum, like gravity waves, and SETI, which will remain underexplored. But virtually everything else will have been modeled well to a first approximation, and our simulation science will be clearly more fruitful at that time than our data driven expolorations. Already, Hubble sees to the edge of the universe. What more can we ask? That's like having a map of Earth. Once you get the first one, you pay a lot less for the next ones.

Unlike inner space, the realm of possibility for probing, combining and computing with ever more miniaturized matter, outer space rapidly becomes "computationally closed." There is simply no compelling reason to go to outer space, and every reason to go to inner space, as we'll discuss more later.


"Biological Immortality is Plausible and Desirable"

Biological immortality is a flawed propositon, as all systems fall apart at the molecular level at accelerating rates the older we get, and they do this for deep biological reasons having to do with their inability to repair themselves fully and also differentiate indeterminately. There isn’t a nanotechnology we can conceive of that would fix this problem without moving us beyond biology altogether in the process, which tells us something very important about the limited future of biology from a universal computational perspective.

Not only is there no plausible pathway we can envision for bioimmortality, there seems to be no good rationale for its long term desirability either, as it would condemn us to sharply declining rates of future learning given the way metazoan brains are necessarily structured (“learning by pruning”). Again, there seems to be no way around this loss of general learning capacity in aging neural nets that create themselves through the unfolding of a fixed topology, as all biologically-built brains must do.

At present the only kind of immortality we can realistically expect and demand from the future is cyberimmortality. I do believe we will one day be able to migrate our selves from bio to cyber without any sense of interruption of the dying individual biological self. I hope as a species we can understand the unique future of technological intelligence, and begin to consiously accelerate the development of that highly empowering capability.

To better understand this, imagine either of the following post-singularity (2060+) human-machine merger scenarios. Both involve a high-level neural interface between the biological human and their digital extensions, via nanotechnology:

1. Wireless Exporting. It's 2060, and your digital twin (DT) has been whispering in your ear for years, answering all your questions to the best of its now-greater-than-human ability. It can even complete your sentences for you (as well as you could, in many cases) when you have a senior moment. At some point it offers to put a very complex set of reversible implants in your brain that will allow you to talk to your DT using the same nonverbal, neural language your mindsets use to talk to each other. Now you begin to "think" and "feel" in new ways, and your intuition tells you that your "external" DT is just another piece of yourself, engaging in nonverbal mental dialog. A few years after this, it offers to inject nanobots it has designed into your bloodstream (again, reversible) that will take up positions as "neural nanotransistors" within and around each of your biological neurons. It uses this technology to wirelessly export your biological neural structure into significantly faster hardware-based models that reside in your DT. By successive approximation, these models get closer and closer to your actual biological structure, and at some point (a decade later?) in this process you begin to discover that you not only feel like you are in both your biology and your DT, but you discover you can actually shift your consciousness between your biological and your electronic self. In the same way that an introspective part of you today can go, in abstraction, three feet above your head and look down on your biological self as you read these words, a part of you in 2070 can now go outside your biological body, and look back on it, at will. To your surprise, as you do this you discover that when you look back at your biological self from your electronic self you increasingly see it as frozen, immobile, operating on vastly slower timescales. You notice the acute difference in subjective time between these two inextricably linked parts of yourself, and you increasingly prefer keeping the center of your consciousness in your fast, as opposed to your slow self.

Do you have a problem believing that your biological self has been preserved in the above scenario? Believing that your consciousness might be able to do the shifting I've described? Do you suspect that the continuity of your consciousness might be interrupted in this process, or that your wireless export may just be a copy, and not an indistinguishable part of the real you? For those who still have a hard time seeing the continuity of consciousness, let me offer an alternative, and hopefully easier to picture merger scenario.

2. Neural Substitution. It's 2070, and your digital twin, which has been talking to your biological self through a crude nonverbal interface for years, offers to put nanobots into your bloodstream. This time they don't wirelessly export the information they find there, they just create a backup system, in place, for everything your biological circuits can do. As neurons get old and commit apoptosis (programmed cell death), as old dendrites shrink back in and old biological connections are lost, they jump into the gaps and take over the job. You are not your material substance (many of your molecules replace themselves every 7 years in the human body), but your pattern, your structure. What we are describing here is just a better "substrate" for maintaining your pattern. Furthermore, the patterns you care the most about, the 100 trillion average connections that exist between neurons in the human brain, are often made in a process of subtraction, not addition. They are made in the same way that Michelangelo created the marble sculpture of David, by a selective throwing away, reduction, or pruning of potential connections. A bunch of potential new connections are explored, and a small subset are kept after the pruning. Once this process gets complex enough, and has stored enough experience in its circuits, your concept of continuous, self-aware consciousness slowly emerges, several years after birth. Once it emerges, some of us (not all) wish that it would continue indefinitely. Once you have neural substitution, you can begin to create a stable alternative substrate for protecting your neural pattern, the core of your conscious self. But you will soon discover that this new technological substrate can think, when it wants, seven million times faster than the old one. Just as importantly, this new substrate has a lot more capacity for generating new connections in "inner space", growing them out and pruning them down, in vast new inner topological domains beyond those available to your biological lattices. As you begin to discover and use these new mental capabilities, you will of course change your pattern, over time, into something as different from what you are now as an embryo is different from a mature human being. Yet at all times, your subjective continuity of consciousness will be preserved, and perceived violence to self and others minimized.

In either of these scenarios, it is now easy to imagine that when the biological portion of yourself gets old and starts to fall apart, cell by cell, from the inside out, your electronic self is at peace with this, because it has captured everything you consider important within the new substrate. One way it realizes this is that its predictions (simulations) of what your biological self will do, moment by moment, have become highly accurate, long before your biological self starts to die, on its incredibly slow biological timescale.

When the death of your biological component finally does occur you see it as simply further growth. Death loses its sting because the essence of you, your pattern, your structure, your self-reflective conscious experience, has been continously preserved in the process.

At this point we can intuit that such technologically enhanced humans would even lose their urge to biologically reproduce from that point forward. Technological reproduction would offer far more interesting possibilities.While some of us would likely continue our biological reproduction, as an insurance policy if for no other reason, and while some humans would stay away from this kind of technological augmentation, again as a personal choice and desire for individuality, if for no other reason, we can imagine that the numbers of biological humans alive on the planet from that point forward would be vastly reduced from present levels.

As we get better models and data about all this, I believe we will discover that the eventual transition of all local intelligence from the biological to the technological is a very natural and unavoidable process. I would further predict that even in our pre-singularity culture, for the average person our personal biological death will become more, not less, acceptable in coming decades as we recognize that more and more of what we truly care about in ourselves, our unique selves, has been captured in our digital twins by the time we reach the threshold of our inevitable biological death.

This perspective is at odds with the typical bioimmortalist transhumanists (Aubrey De Gray, etc.), who I believe are mistaken about the capabilties and limitations of molecular biology, presently overly concerned with the "continuity" of their individual consciousness (a matter of real but decreasing importance the better we understand who "we" are) as opposed to the continuity of their patterns (which is what really matters), and who are being bio-centric about their essence, which is pattern, not atoms.


"Social Change is Only Cyclic, Not Also Accelerating"

A number of futurists have argued that even as technological progress has accelerated, human social change has moved to a rhythm that is largely unaffected by the rhythm of technology. Some cycles have even been elongating: time to physical maturity, marriage, and reproduction has clearly extended as we have put more energy into educating our youth, and as rapid reproduction has become less important in an industrial age.

Great social and economic cyles also appear to move to relatively fixed rhythms. Jonah Keri of Investor's Business Daily ("Today's Stock Market Looks a Lot Like Dow Back in the Early '30's", 17 August 2004) demonstrated that the post-2000 Nasdaq new economy stock values when matched against the post 1929 old economy (then a new economy) stock values, give almost a perfect match between the cycles. Post-bubble adjustments apparently have a pace that is tightly tied to finite rates and deeply ingrained patterns of human computation, and technological innovation has not been able accelerate that in an economy were artificial intelligence isn't yet making stock trading decisions (programmed trading apparently isn't sufficient yet to hijack this cycle).

This cyclic view of social change must be approximately true about many of our natural rhythms, but it is only half correct. We can also point out many examples of stunningly fast social and political change, at rates much advanced over previous eras.

Consider that Leninism took only twenty years to discover its pure socialist state was an impractical idealism. Soviet communism took only an additional fifty years to implode upon itself in our world of hyperaccelerated economic and technological growth (rising standards of living, at 4% GDP growth per year, global communications, and microcomputers). These accelerating advancements sealed Soviet fate more clearly than any other single factor. Even the Weather Underground, an extremist U.S. political movement born out of the injustices of the Vietnam War, effectively ran its underground bombing course in only six years (1969-1975). That is a stunning rate of social learning (and in this case, unlearning of extremist behavior). It is my contention that the U.S. will never, can never see that degree of extremism again in our own country. Technological and cultural immune systems are just too advanced.

A whole range of new social tolerances for individual behavior have emerged in our modern, media saturated culture. Civil rights, minority rights, women's rights, gay rights, the list is long and impressive. Rates of social adoption of new behavioral and legal standards may well be saturating in their acceleration vs. earlier eras (this is an interesting proposition), but social change does seem to be increasing in speed, even if it has switched to a saturation mode. There are just so many new laws and behaviors you can learn, and we learn these at finite rates.

Technology does accelerate our social behavior in many measurable ways: inexpensive Vaudeville and later, motion picture theatre chains allowed Americans to watch a certain (low) number of entertainment programs every month. Television increased this to a higher but still rapidly saturated rate, remote controls took us to a yet higher fractional program viewing rate, and we can expect personal video recorders, web TV, and smart interfaces to to accelerate our fractional viewing even more. Yet each system rapidly achieves a saturation that is intrinsic to the intelligence of substrate in combination with fixed human psychology.

Bottom line, it still takes decades to see significant change in most features of sociopolitical systems, so this issue seems beyond the average observer's scanning horizon. I'm looking forward to finding studies that address this topic. Let us know if you've discovered any.

 


"Children's Intellectual Abilities are Declining"

We all know that today's kids know either a little or a lot less about a large number of things (food preparation ability, mathematical ability, reading ability, standardized test scores, etc.) their "better-schooled" parents did.

There are children growing up today who may never even be able to read a map, if they are given regular access to GPS navigation PDAs from birth. But does this mean they are less prepared for modern society than someone who has devoted precious time and brainspace to becoming adept at the manual skill? If GPS mapreaders get exponentially more affordable, ubiquitous, and powerful each year, manual mapreading may eventually become as poor a skill choice as hand weaving of textiles. This manual skill certainly loses value every year forward by comparison to becoming adept at the technological alternative.

Are today's kids more cortically stimulated than the kids of a generation ago? Certainly. Do they have earlier social maturity and a more nuanced emotional intelligence than their parents? This seems quite clear. Do they have better analytical and critical thinking abilities? Not in a world where the old-guard hierarchical educational infrastructure is currently being taken apart and reorganized by our emerging network-based electronic educational infrastructure (digital television, first generation internet, video games, cellphones, etc.). Expect to see the new electronic ecologies to continue to outcompete the more humanizing, more mature, but substantially slower older infrastructures during this transition period.

First generation systems are often dehumanizing (see Smart's Third Law of Technology). They can grab the eyeballs and brainspace, can push a lot of raw information but much less filtered wisdom, and can't yet offer high levels of personalization or efficiency monitoring. But wait until the intelligent, CUI-based internet in 2020 then ask that same question about critical thinking skills.

By then, our digital personalities will be our best coaches and educators, and human performance will move to a whole new amazing level that only the future-aware among us truly appreciate today.

Want to accelerate that deeply humanizing transition? Get your kid digital!


"Divorce Rates are Increasing"

Utah has the nation's highest precentage of married households (in 2004), and 70% of the states 2.2 million residents are nominally Mormon, a religion that strongly espouses traditional family values. But according to the National Vital Statistics Report (NVSR), Utah's divorce rate has run slightly higher than the national average since at least 1990. Perhaps individual identity and liberation issues are playing a role in Utah's story. Utah is in the chaotic process of becoming more secularlized and tolerant. States like Connecticut, North Dakota, Maryland, North Carolina, and Wisconsin have been below the national average in recent years, and it would be interesting to investigate possible reasons. Furthermore, the Christianity-promoting Barna Research Group did a 48-state 1999 study on divorce which showed that faith groups actually had higher divorce rates than declared secular humanist groups like athiests, who probably marry less frequently and more selectively.

All this argues that simply declaring family values in your ideology group doesn't get you any closer to a stable marriage.

Some general statistics: There are about 2.4 million marriages a year in the US and and 1.2 million divorces a year. Hence on average, 50% of married couples divorce. The annual divorce rate has been gently declining since a peak in 1981. According to the U.S. Bureau of Census if current divorce trends continue “about 4 out of 10 first marriages to the youngest cohort may eventually end in divorce. Alternatively, if one assumes a return to the pattern of divorce during the 1975 to 1980 period, 5 out of 10 first marriages may eventually end in divorce” (Current Population Reports, P23-180, 1992, p. 5).

Clearly, marrying for a lifetime remains a particularly difficult goal in U.S. society. For those who wish to cultivate lifelong relationships among family, spouse, and friends, improved personal insight, relationship, and behavior modification tools could be very valuable.

As futurists, let's encourage the emergence of such tools in tomorrow's intelligent social software, interfaces, digital personas, and "life management" tools.

 


"Family Time is Decreasing"

The 1970's were a time of a number of major system transitions, some obvious, many still unknown to the average person. Here are a few examples: world population growth rate hit its inflection point and began to slow, nuclear armaments and trade barriers both began to relax, personal wealth began to concentrate at the top of the pyramid (plutocracy) after a long phase of rich-poor gap closing between 1900-1975, divorce rates started to slowly fall, and family time began to slowly increase. Let's explore this last curious trend a bit.

We all know dual-career families have greatly increased since the 1970's. But most of us don't realize that most of today's children spend more time with their parents than just a few decades ago. A 1997 University of Michigan national time-diary study found that in two-parent families, children between the ages of 3 and 12 spent about 31 hours a week with their mothers in 1997, compared to about 25 hours in 1981. Time spent with fathers also increased, from 19 to 23 hours a week.

This suggests that Americans are using our increasing national productivity to elect not only more career time than traditional homemaking time, but also to choose greater personal time in the area where it is most effective, raising children. In this trend America is thus drifting closer to the European citizen-centered, post-competive model here.

Spousal partners don't stay at home because they couldn't afford to — practicing voluntary simplicity I expect most could — but because they would be dissatisfied with the significantly lower standard of living that would ensue. That standard would be higher in many respects than what was available to families in the 1940's, but significantly lower than other two career families today. Which reminds us that modern society is still trying to aggressively maximize its economic and intangible returns.

American family values and choices themselves seem to pose no danger of slowing our burgeoning productivity. If anything, they are probably still a bit too oriented to materialism and economic and social acceleration at the expense of our own individual health and well being.

What a privileged time to be alive!