Tag Archives: Society

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It’s 2014: Welcome to the Future

There’s a buzz in the January air, and it’s the feeling of the future.

I noticed something in 2013. For the first time in my experience, there were tangible moments when the future — in all its strange, heady, tech-infused, rapidly-accelerating unusualness — felt like it was really happening. It didn’t seem just around the corner, or the province of a distant tomorrow that you had to squint to perceive. The future was here, now, all around me.

For a moment. Then, quickly, it was back to business as usual in the mundane present. However, a heck of a lot of futuristic things happened in 2013. It occurred to me that this experience of the future will become more and more ubiquitous as technology, science, and society evolve rapidly. I have a hunch that, in 2014, many more people will begin to feel that they are living in the future.

So, without further ado, here is what’s coming in 2014 that will make you feel like science fiction isn’t so, well, fictitious anymore: Continue reading It’s 2014: Welcome to the Future

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When we predict everything, what if we’re wrong?

HISTORY, n. An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools.”

– Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

Bierce was being funny when he wrote The Devil’s Dictionary, but his definition of history seems pretty well on target. Or so we might think, given the usual portrayal of history as the speeches, battles, and poor-to-middling decisions of kings, beggars, and senators making the same mistakes over and over again.

That “over and over again” is a problem. If history were just about the decisions of individual human beings, we’d expect their actions to look like chaos on all scales. That doesn’t happen. We see plenty of chaotic behavior in normal life, but the further we zoom out, and the larger the time scale we examine, the more regular and repetitive history appears. To explain this regularity, people have proposed plenty of theories of history, ranging from the reasonable to the bizarre. One problem with most of them is that they tend to be qualitative, or concept-based, rather than quantitative, or based on consistent relationships between numerical data. When you’re trying to systematically predict or describe events, a quantitative theory goes a lot further than a qualitative one.

So I was pleasantly surprised several days ago, when I stumbled across this post on the Long Now Foundation‘s blog: Conway’s Game of Life and Three Millennia of Human History. The post briefly describes a remarkable computer simulation of 3,000 years of Eurasian history, recently conducted by ecologist Peter Turchin and his colleagues.

Simulation? History? That means a quantitative model. I was curious.  I dove into Turchin’s report, which you can read here, along with its supporting documents.

Turchin and company created their simulation very simply: they took a map of Africa and Eurasia and chopped it up into “cells” of 100 kilometers square. Each cell was classified as sea or land; land cells were assigned elevation and further classified as desert, steppe, or agricultural land. Every agricultural cell was supplied with a “community” that could possess two types of social traits: military technology and ultrasociality. (Ultrasociality, as the study defines it, is humans’ “ability to live and cooperate in huge groups of genetically unrelated individuals.”) Agricultural cells were randomly populated with ultrasociality traits, while military technology traits were granted initially to cells bordering the steppe, and spread outward from there (a way to simulate the effect of the steppe highway on the transmission and development of military techniques, most notably mounted warfare). The cells were programmed to attack their neighbors. Victorious cells built multi-cell empires, imposing their ultrasociality traits on the vanquished. Victory was more probable over cells with low elevations and fewer ultrasociality and military technology traits than their attackers. Continue reading When we predict everything, what if we’re wrong?

If animals are people, can A.I.s vote?

In late May, as you might have heard, India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests made headlines by banning captive dolphin shows with a statement that dolphins “should be seen as non-human persons”. Although to some people the news was blown out of proportion, it was and is a big deal for dolphins and their human advocates.

However, looking at it merely as a victory for animal welfare misses the deeper significance of the event. Ultimately, this is about personhood: an entity’s status, legally and socially, as an independent and responsible person. Personhood is not something most of us think about much, if at all, but it forms a massive part of the way we subconsciously view the world. If you consider an entity to be a person rather than a thing, you will act very differently toward it. When I started thinking carefully about India’s dolphin decision, I realized that it is a small part of a titanic shift in our definition of personhood, a shift that could lead to some incredibly strange futures.

In Europe, a few hundred years ago, the full benefits of personhood were restricted to adult, white, Christian, property-owning, male humans. Two hundred years ago, slaves were treated as “things” that could be bought and sold with legal and moral impunity in many civilized countries. Whether women were legal “persons” was questionable even to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1894. But during the last couple centuries, humanity has rapidly started to expand its societal and legal notions of personhood. Now, all human beings have personhood, as well as corporations in many nations, and animals are starting to gain that status. India’s dolphin declaration was only a matter of time. New Zealand and the Balearic Islands of Spain have both granted legal rights to great apes, while Germany and Switzerland have each amended their constitutions to recognize animal rights.

With animal personhood, the end result is simply better treatment of other living creatures, and recognition of their own intrinsic abilities and worth. It doesn’t mean turning them into humans; animals have their own cultures and societies and, as far as we can tell, don’t particularly care about the human versions.

The closer one gets to a human being, however, the more the lines blur.

Imagine that, many years from now, geneticists are able to successfully clone a Neanderthal from reassembled DNA. There are quite a few technical hurdles to this, but if it happens, and the Neanderthal baby is born and grows successfully to adulthood in the midst of human beings, he or she will certainly be considered a person, not merely an unusual animal. How far would their personhood go before becoming humanity? We don’t really know what a reconstituted Neanderthal would be like, so we are only able to speculate the extent to which one would participate in human society. Continue reading If animals are people, can A.I.s vote?

LAPCAT A2 - a supersonic plane - in flight.

Speed systems: the next century of transport—part 3

This is the final post in a series of three exploring the evolution of passenger transport locally, regionally, and globally over the next century. The first post, discussing regional transportation, is here; the second post examined ideas for local transit.

In this series of posts, I have described possibilities for how people will travel over short-to-medium distances perhaps twenty or thirty years from now. Locally (meaning within a metropolitan area), my bets are on personal rapid transit in the form of podcars (perhaps suspended from guideways like SkyTran) and self-driving taxis. To travel greater distances, between cities in heavily-populated regions, I’ve predicted that we will use something betweeen tube capsules, like in Elon Musk’s Hyperloop idea, and high-speed rail.

But what about traveling long distances, such as between New York and Los Angeles, or London and Hong Kong? Global transportation is the final tier of future transit technologies. More importantly, when we behold the full picture of local, regional, and global transportation, broad trends emerge that whisper of how we will live and travel in the middle of the 21st century.

Imagine, for a moment, that it’s 2035, and you’re preparing to travel to Shanghai, Dubai, Buenos Aires, or some other city on the opposite side of the globe, across continents and oceans. Today, you would almost certainly be boarding an airplane for a not-very-comfortable sixteen-hour sojourn in a cramped seat. For most destinations in the world, I doubt this will change by 2035, and perhaps never will, unless teleportation becomes a reality. (Sorry.) But, to connect certain important regions, pairs of the so-called “global cities“, new methods may appear. Continue reading Speed systems: the next century of transport—part 3

In the Beginning: Aba’s Tale

Not long ago, in a wide valley between tumbled hills, there lived a tribe of a couple dozen creatures. They walked upright on two legs, swinging their arms back and forth at their sides with each pace. They appeared mostly defenseless and harmless, without large teeth or strong jaws or sharp claws, and their forward-facing eyes flicked nervously from side to side in an unceasing vigil for food and predators. In the valley’s thickets they searched for berries, nuts, and roots, and occasionally scavenged a few strips of meat from a lion’s kill, furtively stripping the cold flesh from the bones and gulping it down with delight. At night, they huddled together for warmth in a cave near the head of the valley. They slept lightly and muttered noises to one another that held some ill-defined scrap of meaning.

One day, a healthy male of the tribe, who responded when his fellows cried out “Aba”, wandered off down a well-worn trail. The day was fair and warm, and Aba was aware, with an emotion akin to happiness, of the blood pulsing in his veins and the movement of his muscles. He walked, his head upturned to gaze at an eagle circling above the valley, and he did not notice that a sinkhole had collapsed across the path on the previous night. Aba stumbled in, landing with a grunt on his elbows and knees. Continue reading In the Beginning: Aba’s Tale