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The Other 10,000 Year Project: Long-Term Thinking and Nuclear Waste

Posted on Thursday, March 16th, 02017 by Ahmed Kabil
link   Categories: Futures, Long Term Science, Long Term Thinking, Technology   chat 0 Comments

With half-lives ranging from 30 to 24,000, or even 16 million years , the radioactive elements in nuclear waste defy our typical operating time frames. The questions around nuclear waste storage — how to keep it safe from those who might wish to weaponize it, where to store it, by what methods, for how long, and with what markings, if any, to warn humans who might stumble upon it thousands of years in the future—require long-term thinking.

The Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository was set to open on March 21, 02017, but has been indefinitely delayed / via High Country News

I. “A Clear and Present Danger.”

“For anyone living in SOCAL, San Onofre nuclear waste is slated to be buried right underneath the sands,” tweeted @JoseTCastaneda3 in February 02017. “Can we say ‘Fukushima #2’ yet?”

The “San Onofre” the user was referring to is the San Onofre nuclear plant in San Diego County, California, which sits on scenic bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean and sands dotted with surfers and beach umbrellas. Once a provider of eighteen percent of Southern California’s energy demands, San Onofre is in the midst of a 20-year, $4.4 billion demolition project following the failure of replacement steam generators in 02013. At the time, Senator Barbara Boxer said San Ofore was “unsafe and posed a danger to the eight million people living within fifty miles of the plant,” and opened a criminal investigation.

A part of the demolition involved figuring out what to do with the plant’s millions of pounds of high-level waste (the “spent fuel” leftover after uranium is processed) that simmered on-site in nuclear pools.  It was decided that the nuclear waste would be transported a few hundred yards to the beach, where it would be buried underground in what local residents have taken to calling the “concrete monolith” – a state of the art dry cask storage container that will house 75 concrete-sealed tubes of San Onofre’s nuclear waste until 2049.

This has left a lot of San Diego County residents unhappy.

The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station seen from San Onofre State Beach in San Clemente / via Jeff Gritchen, OC Register

“We held a sacred water ceremony today @ San Onofre where 3.6mm lbs of nuclear waste are being buried on the beach near the San Andreas faultline,” tweeted Gloria Garrett, hinting at a nuclear calamity to come.

Congressman Darrell Issa, who represents the district of the decommissioned plant and introduced a bill in February 02017 to relocate the waste from San Onofre, was concerned about the bottom line.

“It’s just located on the edge of an ocean and one of the busiest highways in America,” Issa said in an interview with the San Diego Tribune. “We’ll be paying for storage for decades and decades if we don’t find a solution. And that will be added to your electricity bill.”

“The issue of what to do with nuclear waste is a clear and present danger to every human life within 100 miles of San Onofre,” said Charles Langley of the activist group Public Watchdogs.

“Everyone is whistling past the graveyard, including our regulators,” Langley continued. “They are storing nuclear waste that is deadly to humans for 10,000 generations in containers that are only guaranteed to last 25 years.”

II. The Nuclear Waste Stalemate

Nobody wants a nuclear waste storage dump in their backyards.

That is, in essence, the story of America’s pursuit of nuclear energy as a source of electricity for the last sixty years.

In 01957, the first American commercial nuclear reactor opened in the United States.  That same year, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) recommended that spent fuel should be transported from reactors and buried deep underground. Those recommendations went largely unheeded until the Three Mile Island meltdown of March 01979, when 40,000 gallons of radioactive wastewater from the reactor poured into Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River.

The political challenge of convincing any jurisdiction to store nuclear waste for thousands of years has vexed lawmakers ever since. As Marcus Stroud put it in his in-depth 02012 investigative feature into the history of nuclear waste storage in the United States:

Though every presidential administration since Eisenhower’s has touted nuclear power as integral to energy policy (and decreased reliance on foreign oil), none has resolved the nuclear waste problem. The impasse has not only allowed tens of thousands of tons of radioactive waste to languish in blocks of concrete behind chain link fences near major cities. It has contributed to a declining nuclear industry, as California, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Oregon, and other states have imposed moratoriums against new power plants until a waste repository exists. Disasters at Fukushima, Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island have made it very difficult, expensive, and time-consuming to build a nuclear reactor because of insurance premiums and strict regulations, and the nuclear waste stalemate has added significantly to the difficulties and expenses. Only two new nuclear power plants have received licenses to operate in the last 30 years.

Yucca Mountain was designated as the site for a national repository of nuclear waste in the Nuclear Waste Act of 01987. It was to be a deep geological repository for permanently sealing off and storing all of the nation’s nuclear waste, one that would require feats of engineering and billions of dollars to build. Construction began in the 01990s.  The repository was scheduled to open and begin accepting waste on March 21, 02017.

But pushback from Nevadans, who worried about long-term radiation risks and felt that it was unfair to store nuclear waste in a state that has no nuclear reactors, left the project defunded and on indefinite hiatus since 02011.

Today, nuclear power provides twenty percent of America’s electricity, producing almost 70,000 tons of waste a year. Most of the 121 nuclear sites in the United States opt for the San Onofre route, storing waste on-site in dry casks made of steel and concrete as they wait for the Department of Energy to choose a new repository.

III. Opening Ourselves to Deep Time

“We must have the backbone to look these enormous spans of time in the eye. We must have the courage to accept our responsibility as our planet’s – and our descendants’ – caretakers, millennium in and millennium out, without cowering before the magnitude of our challenge.” —Vincent Ialenti

An aerial view of Posiva Oy’s prospective nuclear waste repository site in Olkiluoto, Finland / via Posiva Oy

Anthropologist Vincent Ialenti  recently spent two years doing field work with a Finnish team of experts who were in the process of researching the Onkalo long term geological repository in Western Finland that, like Yucca Mountain, would store all of the Finland’s nuclear waste. The Safety Case project, as it was called, required experts to think in deep time about the myriad of factors (geological, ecological, and climatological) that might affect the site as it stored waste for thousands of years.

Ialenti’s goal was to examine how these experts conceived of the future:

What sort of scientific ethos, I wondered, do Safety Case experts adopt in their daily dealings with seemingly unimaginable spans of time? Has their work affected how they understand the world and humanity’s place within it? If so, how? If not, why not?

In the process, Ialenti found that his engagement with problems of deep time (“At what pace will Finland’s shoreline continue expanding outward into the Baltic Sea? How will human and animal populations’ habits change? What happens if forest fires, soil erosion or floods occur? How and where will lakes, rivers and forests sprout up, shrink and grow? What role will climate change play in all this?”) changed the way he conceived of the world around him, the stillness and serenity of  the landscapes transforming into a “Finland in flux”:

I imagined the enormous Ice Age ice sheet that, 20,000 years ago, covered the land below. I imagined Finland decompressing when this enormous ice sheet later receded — its shorelines extending outward as Finland’s elevation rose ever higher above sea level. I imagined coastal areas of Finland emerging from the ice around 10,000 BC. I imagined lakes, rivers, forests and human settlements sprouting up, disappearing and changing shape and size over the millennia.

Ialenti’s field work convinced him of the necessity of long-term thinking in the Anthropocene, and that engaging with the problem of nuclear waste storage, unlikely though it may seem, is a useful way of inspiring it:

Many suggest we have entered the Anthropocene — a new geologic epoch ushered in by humanity’s own transformations of Earth’s climate, erosion patterns, extinctions, atmosphere and rock record. In such circumstances, we are challenged to adopt new ways of living, thinking and understanding our relationships with our planetary environment. To do so, anthropologist Richard Irvine has argued, we must first “be open to deep time.” We must, as Stewart Brand has urged, inhabit a longer “now.”

So, I wonder: Could it be that nuclear waste repository projects — long approached by environmentalists and critical intellectuals with skepticism — are developing among the best tools for re-thinking humanity’s place within the deeper history of our environment? Could opening ourselves to deep, geologic, planetary timescales inspire positive change in our ways of living on a damaged planet?

IV. How Long is Too Long?

Finland’s Onkalo repository for nuclear waste / via Remon

Finland’s Onkalo Repository  is designed to last for 100,000 years. In the 01990s, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency decided that a 10,000 year-time span was how long a U.S. nuclear waste storage facility must remain sealed off, basing their decision in part on the predicted frequencies of ice ages.

But as Stroud reports, it was basically guesswork:

Later, [the 10,000-year EPA standard] was increased to a million years by the U.S. Court of Appeals in part due to the long half lives of certain radioactive isotopes and in part due to a significantly less conservative guess.

The increase in time from 10,000 years to 1 million years made the volcanic cones at Yucca look less stable and million-year-old salt deposits — like those found in New Mexico — more applicable to the nuclear waste problem.

[The Department of Energy] hired anthropologists to study the history of language—both at Yucca and at the WIPP site in New Mexico—to conceive of a way to communicate far into the future that waste buried underground was not to be disturbed.

But the Blue Ribbon Commission’s report [of 02012] calls these abstract time periods a little impractical.

“Many individuals have told [BRC] that it is unrealistic to have a very long (e.g., million-year) requirement,” it reads. “[BRC] agrees.”
It then points out that other countries “have opted for shorter timeframes (a few thousand to 100,000 years), some have developed different kinds of criteria for different timeframes, and some have avoided the use of a hard ‘cut-off’ altogether.” The conclusion? “In doing so, [these countries] acknowledge the fact that uncertainties in predicting geologic processes, and therefore the behavior of the waste in the repository, increase with time.”

Public Law 102-579, 106, Statute 4777 calls for nuclear waste to be stored for at least 10,000 years / via EPA

In a spirited 02006 Long Now debate between Global Business Network co-founder and Long Now board member Peter Schwartz and Ralph Cavanagh of the Nuclear Resources Defense Council, Cavanagh pressed Schwartz on the problem of nuclear waste storage.

Schwartz contended that we’ve defined the nuclear waste problem incorrectly, and that reframing the time scale associated with storage, coupled with new technologies, would ease concerns among those who take it on:

The problem of nuclear waste isn’t a problem of storage for a thousand years or a million years. The issue is storing it long enough so we can put it in a form where we can reprocess it and recycle it, and that form is probably surface storage in very strong caskets in relatively few sites, i.e., not at every reactor, and also not at one single national repository, but at several sites throughout the world with it in mind that you are not putting waste in the ground forever where it could migrate and leak and raise all the concerns that people rightly have about nuclear waste storage. By redesigning the way in which you manage the waste, you’d change the nature of the challenge fundamentally.

Schwartz and other advocates of recycling spent fuel have discussed new pyrometallurgical technologies for reprocessing that could make nuclear power “truly sustainable and essentially inexhaustible.” These emerging pyro-processes, coupled with faster nuclear reactors, can capture upwards of 100 times more of the energy and produce little to no plutonium, thereby easing concerns that the waste could be weaponized.  Recycling spent fuel would  vastly reduce the amount of high-level waste, as well as the length of time that the waste must be isolated. (The Argonne National Laboratory believes its pyrochemical processing methods can drop the time needed to isolate waste from 300,000 years to 300 years).

There’s just one problem: the U.S. currently does not reprocess or recycle its spent fuel. President Jimmy Carter banned the commercial reprocessing of nuclear waste in 01977 over concerns that the plutonium in spent fuel could be extracted to produce nuclear weapons. Though President Reagan lifted the ban in 01981, the federal government has for the most part declined to provide subsidies for commercial reprocessing, and subsequent administrations have spoken out against it. Today, the “ban” effectively remains in place.

Inside Onkalo / via Posiva Oy

When the ban was first issued, the U.S. expected other nuclear nations like Great Britain and France to follow suit. They did not. Today, France generates eighty percent of its electricity from nuclear power, with much of that energy coming from reprocessing and recycling spent fuel. Japan and the U.K reprocess their fuel, and China and India are modeling their reactors on France’s reprocessing program. The United States, on the other hand, uses less than five percent of its nuclear fuel, storing the rest as waste.

In a 02015 op-ed for Forbes, William F. Shughart, research director for the Independent Institute in Oakland, California, argued that we must lift the nuclear recycling “ban” and take full advantage our nuclear capacity if we wish to adequately address the threats posed by climate change:

Disposing of “used” fuel in a deep-geologic repository as if it were worthless waste – and not a valuable resource for clean-energy production – is folly.

Twelve states have banned the construction of nuclear plants until the waste problem is resolved. But there is no enthusiasm for building the proposed waste depository. In fact, the Obama administration pulled the plug on the one high-level waste depository that was under construction at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain.

The outlook might be different if Congress were to lift the ban on nuclear-fuel recycling, which would cut the amount of waste requiring disposal by more than half. Instead of requiring a political consensus on multiple repository sites to store nuclear plant waste, one facility would be sufficient, reducing disposal costs by billions of dollars.

By lifting the ban on spent fuel recycling we could make use of a valuable resource, provide an answer to the nuclear waste problem, open the way for a new generation of nuclear plants to meet America’s growing electricity needs, and put the United States in a leadership position on climate-change action.

According to Stroud, critics of nuclear processing cite its cost (a Japanese government report from 02004 found reprocessing to be four times as costly as non-reprocessed nuclear power); the current abundance of uranium (Stroud says most experts agree that “if the world’s needs quadrupled today, uranium wouldn’t run out for another eighty years”); the fact that while reprocessing produces less waste, it still wouldn’t eliminate the need for a site to store it; and finally, the risk of spent fuel being used to make nuclear weapons.

Shughart, along with Schwartz and many others in the nuclear industry, feels the fears of nuclear proliferation from reprocessing are overblown:

The reality is that no nuclear materials ever have been obtained from the spent fuel of a nuclear power plant, owing both to the substantial cost and technical difficulty of doing so and because of effective oversight by the national governments and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

V. Curiosity Kills the Ray Cat

Whether we ultimately decide to store spent fuel for 10,000 years in a sealed off repository deep underground or for 300 years in above-ground casks, there’s still the question of how to effectively mark nuclear waste to warn future generations who might stumble upon it. The languages we speak now might not be spoken in the future, so the written word must be cast aside in favor of “nuclear semiotics” whose symbols stand the test of time.

After the U.S. Department of Energy assembled a task force of anthropologists and linguists to tackle the problem in 01981, French author Françoise Bastide and Italian semiologist Paolo Fabbri proposed an intriguing solution: ray cats.

Artist rendering of ray cats / via Aeon

Imagine a cat bred to turn green when near radioactive material. That is, in essence, the ray cat solution.

“[Their] role as a detector of radiation should be anchored in cultural tradition by introducing a suitable name (eg, ‘ray cat’)” Bastide and Fabbri wrote at the time.

The idea has recently been revived. The Ray Cat Movement was established in 02015 to “insert ray cats into the cultural vocabulary.”

Alexander Rose, Executive Director at Long Now who has visited several of the proposed nuclear waste sites, suggests however that solutions like the ray cats only address part of the problem.

“Ray cats are cute, but the solution doesn’t promote a myth that can be passed down for generations,” he said. “The problem isn’t detection technology. The problem is how you create a myth.”

Rose said the best solution might be to not mark the waste sites at all.

“Imagine the seals on King Tut’s tomb,” Rose said. “Every single thing that was marked on the tomb are the same warnings we’re talking about with nuclear waste storage: markings that say you will get sick and that there will be a curse upon your family for generations. Those warnings virtually guaranteed that the tomb would be opened if found.”

The unbroken seal on King Tutankhamun’s tomb

“What if you didn’t mark the waste, and instead put it in a well engineered, hard to get to place that no one would go to unless they thought there was something there. The only reason they’d know something was there was if the storage was marked.”

Considering the relatively low number of casualties that could come from encountering nuclear waste in the far future, Rose suggests that likely the best way to reduce risk is avoid attention.

VI. A Perceived Abundance of Energy

San Onofre’s nuclear waste will sit in a newly-developed Umax dry-cask storage container system made of the most corrosion-resistant grade of stainless steel. It is, according to regulators, earthquake-ready.

At San Onofre, wood squares mark the spots where containers of spent fuel will be encased in concrete / via Jeff Gritchen, OC Register

Environmentalists are nonetheless concerned that the storage containers could crack, given the salty and moist environment of the beach. Others fear that an earthquake coupled with a tsunami cause a Fukushima-like meltdown on the West Coast.

“Dry cask storage is a proven technology that has been used for more than three decades in the United States, subject to review and licensing by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission,” said a spokeswoman for Edison, the company that runs San Onofre, in an interview with the San Diego Union Tribune.

A lawsuit is pending in the San Diego Supreme Court that challenges the California Coastal Commission’s 02015 permit for the site. A hearing is scheduled for March 02017. If the lawsuit is successful, the nuclear waste in San Onofre might have to move elsewhere sooner than anybody thought.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Energy in January 02017 started efforts to move nuclear waste to temporary storage sites in New Mexico and West Texas that could store the waste until a more long-term solution is devised. Donald Trump’s new Secretary of Energy, former Texas governor Rick Perry, is keen to see waste move to West Texas. Residents of the town of Andrews are split. Some see it as a boon for jobs. Others, as a surefire way to die on the job.

Regardless of how Andrews’ residents feel, San Onofre’s waste could soon be on the way.

Tom Palmisano, Chief Nuclear Officer for Edison, the company that runs San Onofre, expressed doubts and frustration in an interview with the Orange County Register:

There could be a plan, and a place, for this waste within the next 10 years, Palmisano said – but that would require congressional action, which in turn would likely require much prodding from the public.

“We are frustrated and, frankly, outraged by the federal government’s failure to perform,” he said. “I have fuel I can ship today, and throughout the next 15 years. Give me a ZIP code and I’ll get it there.”

A prodding public might be in short supply. According to the latest Gallup poll, support for nuclear power in the United States has dipped to a fifteen-year low.  For the first time since Gallup began asking the question in 01994, a majority of Americans (54%) oppose nuclear as an alternative energy source.

Support for nuclear energy in the United States / via Gallup

Gallup suggests the decline in support is prompted less by fears about safety after incidents like the 02011 Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown, and more by  “energy prices and the perceived abundance of energy sources.” Gallup found that Americans historically only perceive a looming energy shortage when gas prices are high. Lower gas prices at the pump over the last few years have Americans feeling less worried about the nation’s energy situation than ever before.

Taking a longer view, the oil reserves fueling low gas prices will continue to dwindle. With the risks of climate change imminent, many in the nuclear industry argue that nuclear power would radically reduce CO2 levels and provide a cleaner, more efficient form of energy.

But if a widespread embrace of nuclear technology comes to pass, it will require more than a change in sentiment in the U.S. public about its energy future. It will require people embracing the long-term nature of dealing with nuclear waste, and ultimately, to trust future generations to continue to solve these issues.

 

The Future Will Have to Wait

Posted on Friday, January 6th, 02017 by Alexander Rose - Twitter: @zander
link   Categories: Clock of the Long Now, Futures   chat 0 Comments

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
link   Categories: Futures, Long Term Thinking   chat 0 Comments

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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.