Blog Archive for the ‘Futures’ Category

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The Future Will Have to Wait

Posted on Friday, January 6th, 02017 by Alexander Rose - Twitter: @zander
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Eleven years ago this month, Pulitzer Prize winning author Michael Chabon published an article in Details Magazine about Long Now and the Clock.  It continues to be one of the best and most poignant pieces written to date…

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The Future Will Have to Wait

Written by Michael Chabon for Details in January of 02006

I was reading, in a recent issue of Discover, about the Clock of the Long Now. Have you heard of this thing? It is going to be a kind of gigantic mechanical computer, slow, simple and ingenious, marking the hour, the day, the year, the century, the millennium, and the precession of the equinoxes, with a huge orrery to keep track of the immense ticking of the six naked-eye planets on their great orbital mainspring. The Clock of the Long Now will stand sixty feet tall, cost tens of millions of dollars, and when completed its designers and supporters, among them visionary engineer Danny Hillis, a pioneer in the concept of massively parallel processing; Whole Earth mahatma Stewart Brand; and British composer Brian Eno (one of my household gods), plan to hide it in a cave in the Great Basin National Park in Nevada [now in West Texas], a day’s hard walking from anywhere. Oh, and it’s going to run for ten thousand years. That is about as long a span as separates us from the first makers of pottery, which is among the oldest technologies we have. Ten thousand years is twice as old as the pyramid of Cheops, twice as old as that mummified body found preserved in the Swiss Alps, which is one of the oldest mummies ever discovered. The Clock of the Long Now is being designed to thrive under regular human maintenance along the whole of that long span, though during periods when no one is around to tune it, the giant clock will contrive to adjust itself. But even if the Clock of the Long Now fails to last ten thousand years, even if it breaks down after half or a quarter or a tenth that span, this mad contraption will already have long since fulfilled its purpose. Indeed the Clock may have accomplished its greatest task before it is ever finished, perhaps without ever being built at all. The point of the Clock of the Long Now is not to measure out the passage, into their unknown future, of the race of creatures that built it. The point of the Clock is to revive and restore the whole idea of the Future, to get us thinking about the Future again, to the degree if not in quite the way same way that we used to do, and to reintroduce the notion that we don’t just bequeath the future—though we do, whether we think about it or not. We also, in the very broadest sense of the first person plural pronoun, inherit it.

The Sex Pistols, strictly speaking, were right: there is no future, for you or for me. The future, by definition, does not exist. “The Future,” whether you capitalize it or not, is always just an idea, a proposal, a scenario, a sketch for a mad contraption that may or may not work. “The Future” is a story we tell, a narrative of hope, dread or wonder. And it’s a story that, for a while now, we’ve been pretty much living without.

Ten thousand years from now: can you imagine that day? Okay, but do you? Do you believe “the Future” is going to happen? If the Clock works the way that it’s supposed to do—if it lasts—do you believe there will be a human being around to witness, let alone mourn its passing, to appreciate its accomplishment, its faithfulness, its immense antiquity? What about five thousand years from now, or even five hundred? Can you extend the horizon of your expectations for our world, for our complex of civilizations and cultures, beyond the lifetime of your own children, of the next two or three generations? Can you even imagine the survival of the world beyond the present presidential administration?

I was surprised, when I read about the Clock of the Long Now, at just how long it had been since I had given any thought to the state of the world ten thousand years hence. At one time I was a frequent visitor to that imaginary mental locale. And I don’t mean merely that I regularly encountered “the Future” in the pages of science fiction novels or comic books, or when watching a TV show like The Jetsons (1962) or a movie like Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970). The story of the Future was told to me, when I was growing up, not just by popular art and media but by public and domestic architecture, industrial design, school textbooks, theme parks, and by public institutions from museums to government agencies. I heard the story of the Future when I looked at the space-ranger profile of the Studebaker Avanti, at Tomorrowland through the portholes of the Disneyland monorail, in the tumbling plastic counters of my father’s Seth Thomas Speed Read clock. I can remember writing a report in sixth grade on hydroponics; if you had tried to tell me then that by 2005 we would still be growing our vegetables in dirt, you would have broken my heart.

Even thirty years after its purest expression on the covers of pulp magazines like Amazing Stories and, supremely, at the New York World’s Fair of 1939, the collective cultural narrative of the Future remained largely an optimistic one of the impending blessings of technology and the benevolent, computer-assisted meritocracy of Donald Fagen’s “fellows with compassion and vision.” But by the early seventies—indeed from early in the history of the Future—it was not all farms under the sea and family vacations on Titan. Sometimes the Future could be a total downer. If nuclear holocaust didn’t wipe everything out, then humanity would be enslaved to computers, by the ineluctable syllogisms of “the Machine.” My childhood dished up a series of grim cinematic prognostications best exemplified by the Hestonian trilogy that began with the first Planet of the Apes (1968) and continued through The Omega Man (1971) and Soylent Green (1973). Images of future dystopia were rife in rock albums of the day, as on David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs (1974) and Rush’s 2112 (1976), and the futures presented by seventies writers of science fiction such as John Brunner tended to be unremittingly or wryly bleak.

In the aggregate, then, stories of the Future presented an enchanting ambiguity. The other side of the marvelous Jetsons future might be a story of worldwide corporate-authoritarian technotyranny, but the other side of a post-apocalyptic mutational nightmare landscape like that depicted in The Omega Man was a landscape of semi-barbaric splendor and unfettered (if dangerous) freedom to roam, such as I found in the pages of Jack Kirby’s classic adventure comic book Kamandi, The Last Boy on Earth (1972-76). That ambiguity and its enchantment, the shifting tension between the bright promise and the bleak menace of the Future, was in itself a kind of story about the ways, however freakish or tragic, in which humanity (and by implication American culture and its values however freakish and tragic) would, in spite of it all, continue. Eed plebnista, intoned the devolved Yankees, in the Star Trek episode “The Omega Glory,” who had somehow managed to hold on to and venerate as sacred gobbledygook the Preamble to the Constitution, norkon forden perfectunun. All they needed was a Captain Kirk to come and add a little interpretive water to the freeze-dried document, and the American way of life would flourish again.

I don’t know what happened to the Future. It’s as if we lost our ability, or our will, to envision anything beyond the next hundred years or so, as if we lacked the fundamental faith that there will in fact be any future at all beyond that not-too-distant date. Or maybe we stopped talking about the Future around the time that, with its microchips and its twenty-four-hour news cycles, it arrived. Some days when you pick up the newspaper it seems to have been co-written by J. G. Ballard, Isaac Asimov, and Philip K. Dick. Human sexual reproduction without male genetic material, digital viruses, identity theft, robot firefighters and minesweepers, weather control, pharmaceutical mood engineering, rapid species extinction, US Presidents controlled by little boxes mounted between their shoulder blades, air-conditioned empires in the Arabian desert, transnational corporatocracy, reality television—some days it feels as if the imagined future of the mid-twentieth century was a kind of checklist, one from which we have been too busy ticking off items to bother with extending it. Meanwhile, the dwindling number of items remaining on that list—interplanetary colonization, sentient computers, quasi-immortality of consciousness through brain-download or transplant, a global government (fascist or enlightened)—have been represented and re-represented so many hundreds of times in films, novels and on television that they have come to seem, paradoxically, already attained, already known, lived with, and left behind. Past, in other words.

This is the paradox that lies at the heart of our loss of belief or interest in the Future, which has in turn produced a collective cultural failure to imagine that future, any Future, beyond the rim of a couple of centuries. The Future was represented so often and for so long, in the terms and characteristic styles of so many historical periods from, say, Jules Verne forward, that at some point the idea of the Future—along with the cultural appetite for it—came itself to feel like something historical, outmoded, no longer viable or attainable.

If you ask my eight-year-old about the Future, he pretty much thinks the world is going to end, and that’s it. Most likely global warming, he says—floods, storms, desertification—but the possibility of viral pandemic, meteor impact, or some kind of nuclear exchange is not alien to his view of the days to come. Maybe not tomorrow, or a year from now. The kid is more than capable of generating a full head of optimistic steam about next week, next vacation, his tenth birthday. It’s only the world a hundred years on that leaves his hopes a blank. My son seems to take the end of everything, of all human endeavor and creation, for granted. He sees himself as living on the last page, if not in the last paragraph, of a long, strange and bewildering book. If you had told me, when I was eight, that a little kid of the future would feel that way—and that what’s more, he would see a certain justice in our eventual extinction, would think the world was better off without human beings in it—that would have been even worse than hearing that in 2006 there are no hydroponic megafarms, no human colonies on Mars, no personal jetpacks for everyone. That would truly have broken my heart.

When I told my son about the Clock of the Long Now, he listened very carefully, and we looked at the pictures on the Long Now Foundation’s website. “Will there really be people then, Dad?” he said. “Yes,” I told him without hesitation, “there will.” I don’t know if that’s true, any more than do Danny Hillis and his colleagues, with the beating clocks of their hopefulness and the orreries of their imaginations. But in having children—in engendering them, in loving them, in teaching them to love and care about the world—parents are betting, whether they know it or not, on the Clock of the Long Now. They are betting on their children, and their children after them, and theirs beyond them, all the way down the line from now to 12,006. If you don’t believe in the Future, unreservedly and dreamingly, if you aren’t willing to bet that somebody will be there to cry when the Clock finally, ten thousand years from now, runs down, then I don’t see how you can have children. If you have children, I don’t see how you can fail to do everything in your power to ensure that you win your bet, and that they, and their grandchildren, and their grandchildren’s grandchildren, will inherit a world whose perfection can never be accomplished by creatures whose imagination for perfecting it is limitless and free. And I don’t see how anybody can force me to pay up on my bet if I turn out, in the end, to be wrong.

Steven Johnson takes a Long Now Perspective on the Superintelligence Threat

Posted on Thursday, November 12th, 02015 by Andrew Warner
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Steven Johnson, former Seminar speaker & author of How We Got to Now, recently wrote on the dangers of A.I. on his blog “How We Got To Next“. He discusses evolutionary software, the existential threat of A.I., before concluding with a meditation of long-term thinking and The Long Now Foundation:

One of the hallmarks of human intelligence is our long-term planning; our ability to make short-term sacrifices in the service of more distant goals. But that planning has almost never extended beyond the range of months or, at best, a few years. Wherever each of us individually happens to reside on Mount Einstein, as a species we are brilliant problem-solvers. But we have never used our intelligence to solve a genuinely novel problem that doesn’t exist yet, a problem we anticipate arising in the distant future based on our examination of current trends.

“This is the function of science fiction. To parse, debate, rehearse, question, and prepare us for the future of new.”

To be clear, humans have engineered many ingenious projects with the explicit aim of ensuring that they last for centuries: pyramids, dynasties, monuments, democracies. Some of these creations, like democratic governance, have been explicitly designed to solve as-of-yet-undiscovered problems by engineering resilience and flexibility into their codes and conventions. But mostly those exercises in long-term planning have been all about preserving the current order, not making a preemptive move against threats that might erupt three generations later. In a way, the closest analogue to the current interventions on climate (and the growing AI discussion) are eschatological: in religious traditions that encourage us to make present-day decisions based on an anticipated Judgement Day that may not arrive for decades, or millennia.

No institution in my knowledge has thought more about the history and future of genuinely long-term planning than the Long Now Foundation, and so I sent an email to a few of its founders asking if there were comparable examples of collective foresight in the historical record. “The Dutch in planning their dykes may have been planning for 100-year flood levels, and the Japanese apparently had generational tsunami levels for village buildings. However, both of these expectations are more cyclical than emergent,” Kevin Kelly wrote back. He went on to say:

I think you are right that this kind of exercise is generally new, because we all now accept that the world of our grandchildren will be markedly different than our world — which was not true before.

I believe this is the function of science fiction. To parse, debate, rehearse, question, and prepare us for the future of new. For at least a century, science fiction has served to anticipate the future. I think you are suggesting that we have gone beyond science fiction by crafting laws, social manners, regulations, etc., that anticipate the future in more concrete ways. In the past there have been many laws prohibiting new inventions as they appeared. But I am unaware of any that prohibited inventions before they appeared.

I read this as a cultural shift from science fiction as entertainment to science fiction as infrastructure — a necessary method of anticipation.

Stewart Brand sounded a note of caution. “Defining potential, long-term problems is a great public service,” he wrote. “Over-defining solutions early on is not. Some problems just go away on their own. For others, eventual solutions that emerge are not at all imaginable from the start.”

Read the full article on Steven Johnson’s blog

Wire Cutters Short Film

Posted on Thursday, September 17th, 02015 by Andrew Warner
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Wire Cutters is a short animated film created by artist Jack Anderson. It concerns two robots who run into each other while mining on a desolate planet and then fight over their minerals. The film is too long to be considered a Long Short for our Seminar series, but nonetheless exemplifies long-term thinking.

Paul Saffo Featured on Singularity Hub’s Ask An Expert Series

Posted on Monday, August 17th, 02015 by Charlotte Hajer
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This week’s episode of Singularity Hub’s Ask an Expert features Long Now Board member Paul Saffo.

Ask an Expert is a new web series in which, well, experts answer tweeted questions about the future of technology. In this episode, Paul discusses virtual reality, weighs in on the word ‘disrupt’, and considers the possibility of having a wooly mammoth for a pet – with a quick shout-out to Long Now’s Revive & Restore project.

To see more videos in the Ask an Expert series, you can visit this page. And if you have a question of your own, you can tweet it to @singularityu with the hashtag #AskSU.

World Future Society Conference July 24-26

Posted on Thursday, July 9th, 02015 by Andrew Warner
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On July 24-26, the World Future Society’s annual conference WorldFuture 2015: Making the Future will be taking place at the Union Square Hilton in San Francisco. Speakers include Long Now Board Members Peter Schwartz & Paul Saffo and Seminar Speakers Rusty Schweickart & Ramez Naam.

Long Now Members get a 20% discount on tickets on single days & the full conference, please check your email for the discount code for the conference.

Founded in 01966, the World Future Society (WFS) is the longest-running global membership organization for futurists and the foresight minded.  Its mission is to improve decision-making about the future by empowering futurists, fostering networks, and advancing knowledge and action on future critical issues.

Every summer, WFS hosts their annual conference, WorldFuture. Designed to bring futurism to the mainstream and introduce a new entrepreneurial generation to the power of foresight, Making the Future reflects the intersection of foresight and action: three days of diverse, interactive sessions designed to unite hundreds of attendees identifying and addressing future-critical issues.. This year, WFS welcomes Long Now Members to join them with  special offers, from whole conference discounts to one-day passes and free entry for students living at home for local residents.

The World Future Society Annual Summer Conference
July 24-26, 2015
Union Square Hilton Hotel
worldfuture2015.org

The Near and Far Future of Libraries

Posted on Monday, March 2nd, 02015 by Andrew Warner
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The Near and Far Future of Libraries“, an article in the new publication “Hopes & Fears”, includes an interview with Long Now’s Dr. Laura Welcher on the dangers of the “digital dark age”.

Laura Welcher is Director of the Rosetta Project, The Long Now Foundation’s language-preservation effort that explores storage mediums that will last thousands of years.

 

Edge Question 02015

Posted on Wednesday, January 28th, 02015 by Charlotte Hajer
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dahlia640_0It’s been an annual tradition since 01998: with a new year comes a new Edge question.

Every January, John Brockman presents the members of his online salon with a question that elicits discussion about some of the biggest intellectual and scientific issues of our time. Previous iterations have included prompts such as “What should we be worried about?” or “What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?” The essay responses – in excess of a hundred each year – offer a wealth of insight into the direction of today’s cultural forces, scientific innovations, and global trends.

This year, Brockman asks:

What do you think about machines that think?

In recent years, the 1980s-era philosophical discussions about artificial intelligence (AI) – whether computers can “really” think, refer, be conscious, and so on – have led to new conversations about how we should deal with the forms that many argue actually are implemented. These “AIs,” if they achieve “Superintelligence” (Nick Bostrom), could pose “existential risks” that lead to “Our Final Hour” (Martin Rees). And Stephen Hawking recently made international headlines when he noted “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”

Is AI becoming increasingly real? Are we now in a new era of the “AIs”? To consider this issue, it’s time to grow up. Enough already with the science fiction and the movies, Star Maker, Blade Runner, 2001, Her, The Matrix, “The Borg.” Also, 80 years after Turing’s invention of his Universal Machine, it’s time to honor Turing, and other AI pioneers, by giving them a well-deserved rest. We know the history.

The extensive collection of answers (more than 186 this year!) is sure to prompt debate – and, as usual, includes contributions by several Long Now Board members, fellows, and past (and future!) SALT speakers:

Paul Saffo argues that the real question is not whether AIs will appear, but rather what place humans will occupy in a world increasingly run by machines – and how we will relate to that artificial intelligence around us.

George Church blurs the distinction between machine and biological life form, imagining a future of hybrids that are partly grown and partly engineered.

Michael Shermer writes that we should be protopian in our thinking about the future of AI. It’s a fallacy to attribute either utopian goodness or dystopian evil to AIs, because these are emotional states that cannot be programmed.

Bruce Sterling claims that it’s not useful to wonder only about the intelligence of AIs; we should be discussing the ways AI is employed to further the interests of money, power, and influence.

Kevin Kelly predicts that AI will transform our understanding of what ‘intelligence’ and ‘thinking’ actually mean – and how ‘human’ these capacities really are.

Samuel Arbesman calls on us to be proud of the machines we build, even if their actions and accomplishments exceed our direct control.

Mary Catherine Bateson wonders what will happen to the domains of thought that cannot be programmed – those distinctly human capacities for emotion, compassion, intuition, imagination, and fantasy.

George Dyson thinks we should be worried not about digital machines, but about analog ones.

Tim O’Reilly wonders if AI should be thought of not as a population of individual consciousnesses, but more as a multicellular organism.

Martin Rees suggests that in the ongoing process of coming to understand our world, human intelligence may be merely transient: the real comprehension will be achieved by AI brains.

Sam Harris writes that we need machines with superhuman intelligence. The question is, what kind of values will we instill in them? Will we be able to impart any values to machines?

Esther Dyson wonders what intelligence and life will be like for a machine who is not hindered by the natural constraint of death.

Steven Pinker thinks it’s a waste of time to worry about civilizational doom brought on by AI: we have time to get it right.

Brian Eno reminds us that behind every machine we rely on but don’t understand, still stands a human who built it.

Danny Hillis argues that AI most likely will outsmart us, and may not always have our best interest in mind. But if we approach their design in the right way, they may still mostly serve us in the way we had intended.

These are just a few of this year’s thought-provoking answers; you can read the full collection here.

“Wanderers” Short Film Gives Glimpse of Our Possible Future in Space

Posted on Thursday, December 11th, 02014 by Andrew Warner
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Wanderers“, a short film by director Erik Wernquist, depicts a not-so-far future in which humanity has expanded throughout the solar system. The film starts with a panorama of humans 10,000 years ago at the dawn of civilization, a key point of reference in Long Now’s own intellectual ecosystem.

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There are two specific aspects that set the video apart: the carefully researched hard science behind each shot of the video and the generally optimistic depiction of the future. To make the video, director Erik Wernquist made composite shots from images from different space missions and then filled in the rest. This image gallery gives a breakdown of the sources and science behind each shot in the film.

The generally optimistic tone of the film is in contrast with much of contemporary science fiction, which as a general rule shows dystopian scenarios in our near future. The call for more optimistic visions of our future has become a major point of discussion in the science fiction community, with author (and Interval donor) Neil Stephenson launch of Project Hieroglyph, an initiative that challenges science fiction authors to imagine optimistic hard-science futures.

World War II Sites, Then and Now

Posted on Wednesday, October 22nd, 02014 by Charlotte Hajer
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About two years ago, we shared with you a set of enhanced photographs that visualized the transformation of World-War-II-era Leningrad into contemporary St. Petersburg.

We recently came across a similar photographic experiment in picturing historical change. The temporal lapse is similar: this interactive series compares 1940s images of European sites that played an important role in World War II history with their contemporary counterparts. There is no stitching together of old with new in these images; instead, your mouse performs the magic of time travel, revealing the new in place of the old as you drag it to the right.

Nevertheless, these photos have the same effect of making visible, even tangible, the radical transformations that a locale can undergo in the fleeting span of a half century – while simultaneously highlighting the endurance of its sense of place.

 

Peter Schwartz: The Starships ARE Coming — A Seminar Flashback

Posted on Friday, September 12th, 02014 by Mikl Em
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In September 02013 futurist Peter Schwartz spoke for Long Now about realistic scenarios for human interstellar travel. Peter, a founding Long Now Board member, participated in “The 100-year Starship” project and contributed to the book Starship Century (Edited by Gregory Benford and James Benford) with scientists and science fiction authors positing realistic ways humanity could voyage beyond our Solar System.

Our September Seminar About Long-term Thinking (SALT) “flashbacks” highlight Space-themed talks, as we lead up to Ariel Waldman’s The Future of Human Space Flight at The Interval, September 30th, 02014.

Video of the 12 most recent Seminars is free for all to view. The Starships ARE Coming is a recent SALT talk, free for public viewing until September 02014. Listen to SALT audio free on our Seminar pages and via podcastLong Now members can see all Seminar videos in HD.

From Stewart Brand’s summary of this Seminar (in full here):

Standard-physics travel will require extremely long voyages, much longer than a human lifetime. Schwartz suggested four options.

  1. Generational ships: whole mini-societies commit to voyages that only their descendants will complete.
  2. Sleep ships: like in the movie “Avatar,” travelers go into hibernation
  3. Relativistic ships: at near the speed of light, time compresses, so that travelers may experience only 10 years while 100 years pass back on Earth.
  4. Download ships: “Suppose we learn how to copy human consciousness into some machine-like device.

Peter Schwartz is a futurist, scenario planning  expert, and author of The Art of the Long View. Currently he serves as Senior Vice President for Global Government Relations and Strategic Planning at Salesforce.com. In 01988 Peter co-founded Global Business Network and served as their chairman until 02011. He is a co-founding Board Member of The Long Now Foundation and has spoken in our SALT series on four occasions.

Peter Schwartz

The Seminars About Long-term Thinking series began in 02003 and is presented each month live in San Francisco. It is curated and hosted by Long Now’s President Stewart Brand. Seminar audio is available to all via podcast.

Everyone can watch full video of the last 12 Long Now Seminars (including this Seminar video until late June 02014). Long Now members can watch the full ten years of Seminars in HD. Membership levels start at $8/month and include lots of benefits.

You can join Long Now here.