IEET > Vision > Fellows > David Brin > Futurism
Re-inventing the Future—When Incremental Advances aren’t Enough
David Brin   Feb 29, 2012   Ethical Technology  

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."


I find the link between climate change and the (future) timescale of 100,000 years somewhat unconvincing, to put it mildly. Climate change is a serious problem with a potential to destabilise human civilisation and thus bring about untold suffering within decades. Focusing on such long-term effects makes it seem comfortably, but unhelpfully in terms of motivating us to act, remote.

I like the idea of a Future Day, but it needs to be more than just about science and technology progress as interesting as that is. It should have a major component of “It’s my future and I’d better start thinking of how to shape it, starting today!” That would include taking on responsibility for making the ethical choices that will form the basis for future economics, justice and ecology.

One mistake (among many) I made in the past was to play along with the religious and rightists (r&r) in attempting to find common ground. But it doesn’t work, as one ends up confusing more oneself than them, because they know what they want: they want the peace of mind that comes from believing in something tried and supposedly true. “I have seen the past, and it works.”
It is better to say to the r&r that their constructs are probably necessary fictions and leave it that. No one is going to be swayed unless they have severe doubts; r&r, with few exceptions, are not doubters. So there is little purpose in stringing them along—because the outcome is them stringing you along.

@Intomorrow Yes, I think there’s a lot of truth in that. As the saying goes, “a man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still”. Whether there’s even much point in saying that r&r constructs are “probably necessary fictions” may also be questionable. They don’t like that either. The question, I guess, is to what extent we have a _responsibility_ to point this out, both to them and to the people they influence. I think we do in some cases, but I agree we need to be realistic about what we can expect to achieve. Otherwise we just end up participating in a dialogue of the deaf (and at worst, as you say, confusing ourselves in the process).

@Pastor Alex Yes I agree with this as well, it would be nice if more people started thinking about how they want to shape the future, and above all believing that they can. But we need to be careful about language like “making the ethical choices”. At the risk of banging the same old drum as nauseam, what we regard as ethical is itself a choice, and different people have different views on this. Above all I think we need to be _listening_ to each other, and especially to each other’s positive (from their perspective) visions about the future, and try to reserve judgement. In order to steer our way to the best possible futures, and even just to avoid the worst ones, we urgently need to come to a more common view, globally, on where we want to go. And this means we need to listen.

@ Peter

Exactly, the ethical choices need to come out of a real dialogue. Listening means listening and being open to the possibility of change. It is easy to hear the words without taking them in. It is easy to reject others’ opinions because they aren’t enough like ours to count.

“Whether there’s even much point in saying that r&r constructs are ‘probably necessary fictions’ may also be questionable.”

Then if one cannot express oneself in a direct manner to them, what purpose in attempting to communicate with them at all? the time for doubletalk/doublethink is over.
Now, if someone makes a copy of themself they can have one copy be a Believer; the other copy an agnostic/atheist: until copies of oneself can be made, to try to reach a commonality with them is talking out of both sides of the mouth. Writers at IEET sometimes write that we must takes risks- they are correct, but that includes communicating, or attempting to do so. No, we cannot cry “Humbug!”, nevertheless we also can’t go on about cosmic nomos and that sort of malarkey and still retain our technoprogressive integrity. The very definition of a phony is someone who tries to please too many, yet who winds up eventually pleasing no-one.
So we have to walk a tightrope—we always did.

So trying to tie these two strands together: on the one hand we have the need to listen and be receptive to opinions even when they differ wildly from our own, on the other hand the need to walk a tightrope between crying, “Humbug!” and being dishonest.

In fact, I think the listening point offers a helpful triangulation to get us away from the one-dimensional tightrope. In other words, it’s not (just) a choice between overtly disagreeing or pretending to agree, there’s also a choice about how we listen, and what to listen to. Listening is always selective, since we only have so much attention capacity, and we need to be judicious about what and who we listen to. But we are not obliged to cry, “Humbug!” every time we hear something with which we disagree, or even necessarily to decide whether we agree with what’s being said or not. Sometimes it’s better to withhold judgement.

Yes, Pete, and sometimes it is helpful to let the old-fashioned argue in perpetua amongst themselves about Romney versus Reagan.
Let them go into combat, while we hide in the trenches.

... the following is the best example:
let the GOP devour itself this year like tigers in a cage together; such is how the system they admire so much works—so let them do the fighting. That is how Americans change things: one might say radically conservatively; in a convoluted one-step-forwards-one-step backwards manner, because they are sentimental for the past, for 1776.  America went to the Moon because of the Russians- because of Sputnik. What happened when the Cold War finished?: the Space Race ended as well.
For better and worse this is how America is.. if it were not the case America would be a different nation. Living in Belgium, you know how France is not interchangeable; you take away French language, French culture, its customs, and France would no longer be France.

Future Day is a difficult idea to get across. You seem to be struggling. Perhaps others will too after reading so many specific details that are only tangent-ially related.



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