Seth Lloyd is a professor at MIT whose areas of research include quantum information and quantum computing. He will discuss the current state of quantum computer progress, where it stands in life’s long process of comprehending and harnessing information in the universe, and what the prospects are for the field over the next few decades.
Lappajärvi has caught the attention of safety case experts working on radioactive waste management company Posiva Oy’s underground dump for used-up nuclear fuel at Olkiluoto, Western Finland. These experts are tasked with predicting how Posiva’s repository will interact with the region’s rocks, groundwater, ecosystems, and populations throughout nuclear waste’s multi-millennial time spans of dangerous radioactivity. From 02012 to 02014, I spent thirty-two months in Finland conducting anthropological research on how safety case experts see the world, how they relate to one another, and how they reckon with various spans of time in their professional lives.
When I returned to my home institution Cornell University in August 02014, I wrote a three-article series for NPR’s Cosmos & Culture blog. In it I described how safety case experts envisioned Finnish landscapes changing over the next ten thousand years. I explained how they study a present-day ice sheet in Greenland and a uranium deposit in Southern Finland as analogues to help them think about Finland’s far future ice sheets and nuclear waste deposits. I suggested that, in this moment of global environmental uncertainty some call the Anthropocene, it becomes a pressing societal task to embrace long-termist “deep time thinking.”
I continue this line of thought here by exploring how safety case experts study prehistoric places – like Lappajärvi crater-lake – to forecast how Finland will change one million years hence. I present these prehistoric places as tools for imagining distant future worlds. I advocate that societies at large use these tools to do intellectual exercises, imagination workouts, or thought experiments to cultivate their own deep time thinking skills. Doing so is crucial on a damaged planet wracked by environmental crisis.
Safety case experts make mathematical models of how the Olkiluoto repository might endure or fall apart in the extreme long-term. They assess the nuclear waste dump’s physical strengths. This is the crux of their work. However, they also develop more qualitative, speculative, quirky approaches in their Complementary Considerations report. A hodgepodge of scientific evidence and PR tools aimed at persuading various audiences of the facility’s safety, this report plays a supporting role in their broader safety argument. And it contains a fascinating thought experiment: a section called “The Evolution of the Repository System Beyond A Million Years in the Future” (p197-200).
Safety case experts also use prehistoric Littleham mudstone in Devon, England as a tool for forecasting Finland’s far futures. In Devon one can find copper that has survived over 170 million years without corroding away. The copper was long encased in the sedimentary rock. Complementary Considerations predicts a similar fate for the huge copper canisters Posiva will use to secure Finland’s nuclear waste. It also suggests that – because Littleham mudstone is more abrasive to copper than is the bentonite clay to surround Posiva’s canisters – the canister copper might see even rosier futures.
Safety case experts see the distant pasts of mudstone and copper in England as tools for envisioning the distant futures of bentonite and canisters in Finland. They see the distant pasts of a Southern Ostrobothnian crater-lake as tools for envisioning the distant futures of an Olkiluoto repository’s local geology. Deep time forecasts are, in this way, made through techniques of analogy. Visions of far future worlds emerge from analogies across time (extrapolating from long pasts to reckon long futures) and analogies across space (extrapolating across distant locales sometimes thousands of miles apart).
Yet, as safety case experts and their critics both cautioned me, one should not take these deep time analogies too seriously. There are, of course, limits to what, say, native copper in mudrock in Devon can really tell us about manufactured copper pieces in clayin Olkiluoto. Differences between repository conditions and these prehistoric places are, for many, simply too vast to make reasonable analogies between them.
But I am only half-interested in whether these techniques ought to persuade us of Posiva’s repository’s safety. I let the engineers, geologists, chemists, metallurgists, ecosystems modelers, and regulatory authorities sort that out. Instead, I find a unique intellectual opportunity in them. I wonder: can safety case experts’ techniques be retooled to help populations reposition their everyday lives within broader horizons of time? Can farsighted organizations like The Long Now Foundation help inspire general long-term thinking?
One does not have to be a Nordic nuclear waste expert to benefit from the deep time toolkits I present here. An educated public can too reflect on how analogical reasoning can stretch one’s imaginative horizons further forward and backward across time. For example, many drive through rural regions where stratigraphic rock layers are visible on highways carved into rocky hills. When doing so, why not visualize what the surrounding landscape might have looked like in each of the past times the rock faces’ layers respectively represent? Are the imageries that come to mind drawn from forest, mountain, desert, or snowy environments out there in the world today? What analogical resources did your mind tap to imagine distant past worlds? What might these landscapes’ far futures look like if they were to have, say, Sahara-like conditions? What about Amazonian rainforest-like conditions?
Scenes in which radically long time horizons enter practical planning, policy, or regulatory projects – with Finland’s nuclear waste repository safety case work as but one example – can be sources of tools, techniques, and inspiration for thinking more creatively across wider time spans. And groups that advocate long-termism like The Long Now Foundation have a key role to play in disseminating these tools, techniques, and inspirations publically in this moment of planetary uncertainty.
Vincent Ialenti is a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow and a PhD Candidate in Cornell University’s Department of Anthropology. He holds an MSc in “Law, Anthropology & Society” from the London School of Economics.
Monday June 20, 02016 – San Francisco
Deciding when to stop your quest for the ideal apartment, or ideal spouse, depends entirely on how long you expect to be looking, says Brian Christian. The first one you check will be the best you’ve seen, but it’s unlikely to be the best you’ll ever see. So you keep looking and keep finding new bests, though ever less frequently, and you start to wonder if maybe you refused the very best you’ll ever find. And the search is wearing you down. When should you take the leap and look no further?
The answer from computer science is precise: 37% of the way through your search period. If you’re spending a month looking for an apartment, you should calibrate (and be sorely tempted) for 11 days, and then you should grab the next best-of-all you find. Likewise with the search for a mate. If you’re looking from, say, age 18 to 40, the time to shift from browsing and having fun to getting serious and proposing is at age 26.1. (However, if you’re getting lots of refusals, “propose early and often” from age 23.5. Or, if you can always go back to an earlier prospect, you could carry on exploring to age 34.4.)
This “Optimal Stopping” is one of twelve subjects examined in Christian’s (and co-author Tom Griffiths’) book, Algorithms to Live By. (The other subjects are: Explore/Exploit; Sorting; Caching; Scheduling; Bayes‘ Rule; Overfitting; Relaxation; Randomness; Networking; Game Theory; and Computational Kindness. An instance of Bayes’ Rule, called the Copernican Principle, lets you predict how long something of unknown lifespan will last into the future by assuming you’re looking at the middle of its duration—hence the USA, now 241 years old, might be expected to last through 2257.)
Christian went into detail on the Explore/Exploit problem. Optimism minimizes regret. You’ve found some restaurants you really like. How often should you exploit that knowledge for a guaranteed good meal, and how often should you optimistically take a chance and explore new places to eat? The answer, again, depends partly on the interval of time involved. When you’re new in town, explore like mad. If you’re about to leave a city, stick with the known favorites.
Infants with 80 years ahead are pure exploration— they try tasting everything. Old people, drawing on 70 years of experience, have every reason to pare the friends they want to spend time with down to a favored few. The joy of the young is discovering. The joy of the old is relishing.
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Since the mid-01980s Kevin Kelly has been creating, and reporting on, the digital future. His focus is the long-term trends and social consequences of technology. Kelly’s new book, THE INEVITABLE: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future, is a grand synthesis of his thinking on where technology is heading in the next few decades, and how we can embrace it to maximize its benefits, and minimize its harms.
Kevin Kelly is the founding executive editor of Wired magazine and is a founding board member of The Long Now Foundation.
It is possible to be extremely astute about how we manage difficult decisions. With just a few mental tools we get the benefit of better outcomes along with release from agonizing about the process of deciding.
Many mental tools—algorithms—developed with obligatory clarity for computers turn out to have ready application for humans facing such problems as: when to stop hunting for an apartment (or lover); how much novelty to seek; how to get rid of the right stuff; how to allot scarce time; how to consider the future; when to relax constraints; how to give chance a chance; how to recognize when you’re playing the wrong game; and how to make decisions easier for others (“computational kindness”).
Brian Christian, the co-author of Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions, lives in San Francisco, deploying his degrees in philosophy, computer science, and poetry.
Monday May 2, 02016 – San Francisco
In the 1960s, Mischel and colleagues at Stanford launched a series of delayed-gratification experiments with young children using a method that later came to be known as “the marshmallow test.” A researcher whom the child knew and trusted, after playing some fun games together, suggested playing a “waiting game.” The researcher explained that the child could have either one or two of the highly attractive treats the child had chosen and was facing (marshmallows, cookies, pretzels)–depending on how long the child waited for them after the researcher left the room. The game was: at any time the child could ring a bell, and the researcher would come back immediately and the child could have one treat. To practice, the researcher left the room, the child rang the bell and the researcher came right back, saying, “You see, you brought me back. Now if you wait for me to come back by myself without ringing the bell or starting to eat a treat you can have both of them!!” The wait might be as long as 15 or 20 minutes. (About one third made it that far.)
The kids varied widely in how long they could stand it before ringing the bell. Mischel emphasizes that the focus of the research was to identify the specific cognitive strategies and mental mechanisms, as well as the developmental changes, that make delay of gratification possible–not to “test” or pigeonhole children. Between the ages of 4 and 6 years, for example, the older kids could delay their gratification longer, apparently as the impulse-overriding “executive function” of their maturing brains kicked in. And in some conditions it was easy for the children to wait, while under other conditions it was very difficult. The research sought to identify the cognitive skills that underlie willpower and long-term thinking and how they can be enhanced.
Longitudinal studies of the tested children suggested that something profound was going on. By the time they were adolescents, the kids who had been able to hold out longer for the bigger reward in some conditions were also likelier to have higher SAT scores, to function better socially, and to manage temptation and stress better. On into their adulthood, they were less likely to show extreme aggression, less likely to over-react if they became anxious about social rejection, and less likely to become obese. For the kids who did not hold out well and took the quick reward, Mischel said the findings suggested that “the inability to delay gratification can have quite serious potential negative effects.” (Mischel cautions that the longitudinal results are only correlations that describe group findings and do not allow accurate predictions for individual children.)
Can “delay ability” be trained? Mischel thinks it can, if we understand how our mind works. He and colleagues postulated a “Hot System” and a “Cool System” in the brain. (They are similar to Daniel Kahneman’s “System 1” and “System 2” in his book Thinking Fast and Slow.) The Hot System (Go!) is: emotional, simple, reflexive, fast, and centered in the amygdala. It develops early in the child and is exacerbated by stress. The Cool System (Know), on the other hand, is: cognitive rather than emotional, complex, reflective, slow, and centered in the frontal lobes and hippocampus. It develops later in the child and is made weaker by stress. In the Hot System the stimulus controls us; in the Cool System we control the stimulus.
You can chill a hot object of desire by representing it to yourself in Cool, abstract terms. Don’t think of the marshmallow as yummy and chewy; imagine it as round and white like a cotton ball. One little girl became patient by pretending she was looking at a picture of a marshmallow and “put a frame around it” in her head. “You can’t eat a picture,” she explained. (Girls were better handling temptation than boys.)
While coolly defusing a temptation, you can also make Hot the delayed consequences of yielding to it. Mischel was a three-pack-a-day smoker ignoring all warnings about cancer until one day he saw a man on a gurney in Stanford Hospital. “His head was shaved, with little green X’s, and his chest was bare, with little green X’s.” A nurse told him the X’s were for where the radiation would be targeted. “I couldn’t shake the image. It made hot the delayed consequences of my smoking.” Mischel kept that image alive in his mind while reframing his cigarettes as sources of poison instead of relief, and he quit.
“If you don’t know how to delay gratification,” he said, “you don’t have a choice. If you do know how, you have a choice.”
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The Long Now Foundation is making its video archive of the Seminars About Long-Term Thinking (SALT) freely available on its website and on the new Apple apps, allowing people to stream the SALT Seminars on Apple TV and their iOS devices.
The free iOS apps feature videos of The Long Now Foundation’s latest Seminars, including those by author and Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman; author Neil Gaiman; English composer and record producer Brian Eno; oceanographer Sylvia Earle; biotechnologist, biochemist and geneticist, Craig Venter; WIRED’s founding executive editor Kevin Kelly; author and MacArthur Fellow Elaine Pagels; Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh; biologist Edward O. Wilson; author and food activist Michael Pollan; and psychologist Dr. Walter Mischel, creator of The Marshmallow Test.
The Long Now Foundation Seminars, which are hosted by Stewart Brand, are online and available in the iTunes store as as free app and audio podcast. The iOS app initially launched with 50 Seminars with new videos added monthly as part of the Foundation’s ongoing lecture series.
The Seminars are free to watch, and are made available through the generous donations of the members and sponsors of The Long Now Foundation. Membership begins at $96 per year, and includes free tickets to the monthly Seminars held at the SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco, as well as a quarterly newsletter, free and discounted tickets to partner events amongst other member offerings. The Seminar media is created in association with Shoulder High Productions, a full circle media company and with FORA.tv, a San Francisco-based video production and marketing company.
Can you pass the marshmallow test? You’re a little kid. A marshmallow is placed on the table in front of you. You’re told you can eat it any time, but if you wait a little while, you’ll be given two marshmallows to eat.
The kids who have the self-control to pass this most famous of psychological tests turn out to have more rewarding and productive lives. Walter Mischel, who first ran the test in the 1960s, spent the rest of his career exploring how self-control works, summarized in his 2014 book The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control. “The ability to delay gratification and resist temptation has been a fundamental challenge since the dawn of civilization,” he writes. “It is the ‘master aptitude’ underlying emotional intelligence, essential for constructing a fulfilling life.”
This talk spells out the remarkable things have has been learned about willpower and self-control in the individual. It also considers wider implications. Does it make a difference when an organization or society has more people able to fully engage self-control? Does it make a difference when that kind of behavior is publicly expected and trained for explicitly? Is there a social or political or cultural level of surmounting marshmallow-test temptations? That might be the essence of long-term behavior.
1100Lab has developed a visualization mapping all of the battles in Wikipedia in the last 5,000 years. Their blog details how they compiled the data, as well as other projects by the Netherlands based research and development firm.
On March 8th & 9th at Fort Mason Center, Autodesk will be hosting their annual conference event REAL2016, which focuses on new 3D technologies, including 3D modeling, 3D printing, laser scanning, augmented reality, and fabrication. Autodesk has generously offered Long Now Members a 50% discount for the event, please check your email for instructions on how to redeem this discount.
The programming over 2 days features talks, panels, demonstrations and a startup competition – all centered around capture, compute and create technologies and their increasing convergence.
Do stop by and visit The Interval while you are at the event, we’ll be open from 10am to midnight offering thoughtful coffee and cocktails. Private events and ticketed lectures are noted on The Interval website and our Twitter.
We hope that many of you will be able to attend!
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