Tag Archives: Good ideas

Introducing Future Portraits

Ever wonder why we have seen so many specific predictions of the future fall flat over the last century? Flying cars … moon bases … interplanetary atomic rockets … robots to wash your dishes … where are they? Curiously, most of those predictions aren’t too far-fetched. Flying cars exist; they’re just not common yet. We have the technology to build a moon base, and atomic rockets wouldn’t be too challenging, either. The visions that we would have these things now were wrong because they considered only the technologies themselves, not their context within the social, economic, and political confusion of human society.

The lack of this context is one of the biggest troubles futurists face when trying to describe the future. It isn’t difficult to take stock of current technological trends in some area and extrapolate to create a decent prediction of what technology will be available in ten or twenty years. It becomes very difficult, however, to precisely forecast how that technology will blend with and affect our future society, because of the mind-boggling complexity involved.

So I’m going to try something different.

It’s impossible to analytically simulate the color and complexity of life in the future. It is possible to creatively come up with scenarios that describe this, by studying trends in technology, society, culture, economies, and such, then mashing all of those together with a hearty helping of imagination. Science fiction authors do this all the time. The problem, though, is that scenarios in science fiction tend to be isolated from one another, so we end up with a mishmash of possible but unrelated futures.

I intend to change this by painting a web of future scenarios. The past is static and linear; the future is most definitely not. Different futures continually branch out from one another, in ways probable and improbable, separated by the dynamic uncertainty of our universe. Within this chaos, there are threads that can be followed. If I follow enough of them, I will, over time, create a gallery of the future, showing what the world might be like in a variety of conditions. Continue reading Introducing Future Portraits

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Photo of three dolphins jumping through waves in the Gulf of Mexico

The Overwhelming Abundance of Consciousness

Last week, I wrote about how animals becoming persons may lead to artificial intelligences and other unusual entities gaining personhood, and what the ramifications of that could be. There is another side to the question of animal personhood that I did not address, which profoundly impacts the way we perceive our world and all other life. That side is consciousness beyond humanity, and I feel it is well worth contemplating as our experience becomes increasingly technological.

When India declared that dolphins should have the status of non-human persons in May, it was fantastic news for dolphins and all humans (like me) who care deeply about animals. Much of the news coverage, like my previous post, focused on what exactly personhood meant for dolphins, how close it came to human rights, and where it might lead for animal rights. Only in passing was mention made of the extraordinary fact that, in saying “Whereas cetaceans in general are highly intelligent and sensitive… [it] is morally unacceptable to keep them captive for entertainment purpose”, the Indian government essentially acknowledged that our planet is home to conscious beings other than humans.

This acknowledgement is coming more and more frequently. On July 7, 2012, a bevy of prominent scientists (including  physicist Stephen Hawking) proclaimed and signed the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, which lays out the scientific case for consciousness in a variety of animals. It is a document that may figure prominently in the history of intelligent life on this planet (you can read it in full here [PDF]). In its conclusion, it declares:

The weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.

–Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness

Whether or not you agree that consciousness is wholly generated by physical, neurological processes, this is an eye-opening development in science and intellectual thought. For over two thousand years, it has been argued by philosophers, theologians, and scientists that humans are superior to the “dumb beasts” of field and forest, because we possess some combination of reason, self-awareness, and an immortal soul, and animals do not. This flies in the face of most human history and basic human experience. The traditional beliefs of Native Americans and most other indigenous tribes recognized animals as beings equal to mankind—in some cases, descended from the same ancestors. Respect and honor was always due to animals, especially when hunting them for food and clothing. (Interestingly, it appears that many modern hunters preserve some measure of this ancient tradition.) And who has not looked into the eyes of an animal and sensed there a will, intelligence, and presence at once familiar and incomprehensible? Continue reading The Overwhelming Abundance of Consciousness

Are we as smart as we think?

When Carl Linnaeus was completing his taxonomy of plants and animals and needed a Latin name for his own ilk, he settled on Homo sapiens, meaning “wise man”. More recent scientists, who were precise but not necessarily humble, have seen fit to single out modern humans among their extinct cousins by adding on another “sapiens”. Narcissism? Maybe. It is at least evidence that we humans think pretty highly of our species’ mental abilities.

My previous post offered a fanciful view of human evolution, in which our social and technological development started because an absent-minded bumbler didn’t pay attention to where he was going. That’s probably not accurate. But I do wonder how our species went from cavemen to CEOs. Were we choosing to advance, or just falling into pits the whole time? And what does either option say about our intelligence, and our right to the name “sapiens”?

It is fun to imagine that there was a single occurrence that determined human destiny—for example, the birth of some freakishly big-brained Australopithecus who survived to crush things with rocks and have lots of kids, and now here you are reading this on your iPad two-and-a-half million years later. Continue reading Are we as smart as we think?