Printed: 2017-01-16

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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Re-inventing the Future—When Incremental Advances aren’t Enough

David Brin

Ethical Technology

February 29, 2012

Most of our holidays look backward, honoring past victories, dead presidents or long-standing traditions. How about a day that looks forward, toward thinking creatively about building a better tomorrow? The brand new Future Day (originally proposed by Ben Goertzel at Humanity+) will be March 1. How would you (productively) observe such a day, particularly to inspire the next generation?

Solve for X: Google’s new TED-style project aims for technologic ‘moonshots’ to develop innovative, far-reaching solutions to the problems of tomorrow, covering topics ranging from transportation to agriculture, genetics to computing.  Google notes: “Moonshots live in the gray area between audacious projects and pure science fiction; they are 10x improvement, not 10%,” because we can’t afford to think incrementally…

...for the future is a steamroller bearing down upon us. In Megachange: The World in 2050, Lawrence C. Smith takes at big picture look at the megatrends and forces shaping the civilization’s next forty years. We will need to anticipate the accelerating effects of globalization, climate change, population growth, and increased demands on natural resources, particularly water (which the author calls Blue Oil), which are likely to exacerbate inequalities across the globe.

Looking even further ahead, Deep Future: The Next 100,000 Years of Life on Earth, by Curt Stager, explores the potential long range impact of climate change on our planet. Stager notes, “We face a simple choice in the coming century or so; either we’ll switch to nonfossil fuels as soon as possible, or we’ll burn through our remaining reserves and then be forced to switch later on…We are faced today with the responsibility of determining the climatic future that our descendants will live in.”

The future of space exploration is increasingly international—yet the U.S. has backed out of 5 joint projects with the European Space Agency. The 2013 NASA budget slashes planetary science by 20%, with Mars exploration taking a severe hit. (Fortunately, the James Webb Space Telescope avoided the axe.) NASA may abandon the joint NASA-ESA ExoMars missions scheduled for 2016 and 2018, as well as a joint venture to explore the moons of Jupiter. Europe is now courting Russia for the ExoMars mission. We need to show some consistency and commitment to our partners overseas… and how about some commitment to our heirs and descendants? The War on Science has gone too far—if we are to remain a forward looking civilization.

Universities are critical in preparing students for a rapidly changing world, yet undergraduate education has changed little over the last century—large lecture halls, blue books and expensive textbooks still prevail. Lawrence Summers notes that factual mastery, passive learning and individual effort should be of less consequence than analytical, cooperative, cross-disciplinary thinking. In the real world, fields such as science, business and government rely on an ability to collaborate and work together, yet at schools this broaches on ‘cheating.’ A recent study showed that replacing the lecture part of introductory physics with an interactive peer-based seminars increased comprehension by 20%. Moreover, this fits already-embedded American ways of education. In addition, America will need to produce one million additional graduates in math, science and engineering to remain competitive globally, according to a recent report by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

For too long we have been tolerant of planned obsolescence—for manufacturers know they can sell us a new and improved model in a year or two.  A lovely nugget from Christian Cantrell’s hard SF novel, Containment: He describes the “Nobel Prize winning concept of ‘End of Life Plans’ or ELPs” – instructions included with every single manufactured item, specifying what to do when the item is discarded. With parts no longer tossed in landfills, manufacturers were forced to develop products using recycled/converted components. Anticipating that components would be reused, manufacturers had an incentive to use longer-lasting materials that could be upgraded for next-generation models. Make it so!

More generally, how about an overhaul of our entire trash collection system? One concept straight out of Sci Fi: Pneumatic tubes to whisk away trash. Such a system is already in place in several European cities, as well as Roosevelt Island in New York City, processing nearly 6 tons a day. The upfront costs to develop infrastructure would be substantial, yet there are long term savings in personnel, vehicle and fuel costs, as well as CO2 emissions. It currently takes 6000 heavy garbage trucks rumbling down already over-crowded streets to remove trash from New York City alone (The very model of inefficiency—these trucks get all of 3 miles per gallon!) Such pneumatic systems may be the future of municipal waste collection.

And the future of energy….The United States’ first new nuclear power plant in a generation won approval Thursday as federal regulators voted to grant a license for two new reactors in Georgia. Part of the promised “nuclear renaissance” to restart the road to energy independence… though with beefed up standards in the wake of the tsunami-caused problems in Japan. Finally (after 60 years) nukes will be required to have ample cooling liquid available on a purely gravity-supply basis. I mean geez, what’s so hard about that?

What do you get when you cross an accelerator with a nuclear reactor? The Accelerator-Driven Subcritical Reactor (ADSR) would use thorium instead of uranium. It doesn’t generate long-lived nuclear wastes and can even consume toxic wastes from traditional nuclear reactors.

The Possibilities are Endless

Now and when: some radical notions for the future of Australia. Many of these concepts, presented at the Venice Architecture Biennale, portray Australians moving onto and incorporating the ocean into the urban environment.

One way to build a lunar colony: print structures directly on the moon, using lunar rocks as raw material.

Things we were promised…By 2031 we’ll be flying personal blimp-jets.

Six inventors visualize the perfect toy—setting aside concerns over money, safety… and the laws of physics.

Lifebook: a single device that combines every gadget you carry.

Enter the 2012 Create the Future Design Contest – which aims to stimulate engineering innovation in areas such as Sustainable Technologies, Transportation, Electronics and Consumer Products.

Contacting the Alien: past and future

An essay in the New York Times asks: “If we made contact, what would we say? What answers would you expect?” A bit simplistic but fun.

Jill Tartar on Big Think: If you were an extraterrestrial looking at Earth, what would you observe?

A thoughtful rumination on the pros and cons of cloning a Neanderthal and bringing the Olde Race back to life… which I portray for you in Existence!

The Onion is nearly always worthwhile.  But this one about patronizing aliens was choice.

And while we’re on the funny-bone… here’s a rather specific “if this goes on” extrapolation that comes as a protest t-shirt. “God hates dolphins who marry chimps!”  Hm… I wonder where they got that idea! In fact… see Gorilla, My Dreams! About this very topic. 

And Finally

Time to start pondering where I’ll visit in my coming June book tour for Existence! Want your city to be included?  It will help if I can show the Tor publicity director eager invitations from local media and bookstores… and/or possibly offers of a major talk at a notable university… Give it a little thought… and thanks.

David Brin Ph.D. is a scientist and best-selling author whose future-oriented novels include Earth, The Postman, and Hugo Award winners Startide Rising and The Uplift War. David's newest novel - Existence - is now available, published by Tor Books."


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