It’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:
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.
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.
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.
This talk is sold out.
Long Now members can tune in for a live audio simulcast at 7:15 PT on January 27
In “Pace Layer Thinking” Stewart Brand and Paul Saffo will discuss Stewart’s six-layer framework for how a healthy society functions. It is an idea which, 15 years after he first suggested it, continues to be influential and inspiring.
Because interest in this event has been overwhelming (tickets sold out within hours of our announcing it), Long Now will share a live audio stream on the Long Now member site. Any member can access this stream starting at 7:15pm PT tonight. Memberships start at $8/month. We also live stream our monthly Seminars About Long-term Thinking to our members.
Stewart Brand photo by Pete Forsyth
Stewart will join fellow Long Now board member Paul Saffo (Stanford, Singularity University) to reflect on the past and future of one his many enduring ideas. An expert forecaster himself with decades of experience, Paul will put Pace Layers’ influence into perspective. And lead a discussion with Stewart and the audience about the many ways that Pace Layers thinking can be useful.
This talk takes place at The Interval, Long Now’s San Francisco museum/bar/cafe/venue. The Interval hosts events like this on Tuesday nights a couple times a month. The limited capacity guarantees an intimate event. Speakers at The Interval stay afterwards to continue the discussion with the audience. See our upcoming lineup here.
Photo by Because We Can
Stewart Brand first explained the idea of “Pace Layers” in his 01999 book The Clock of Long Now. On page 37, in a chapter that cites Brian Eno and Freeman Dyson amongst others, the diagram first appears. It shows six layers that function simultaneously at different speeds within society. We will have a limited number of signed copies of The Clock of Long Now as well as Stewart’s How Buildings Learn for sale at the talk.
Recently Stewart spoke about Pace Layers at the Evernote Conference (video below) at the request of Evernote CEO Phil Libin. Phil’s intro makes it clear how much Stewart’s work has influenced him. Especially Pace layers.
Stewart Brand co-founded The Long Now Foundation in 01996 and serves as president of the Long Now board. He created and edited the Whole Earth Catalog, co-founded the Hackers Conference and The WELL. His books include The Clock of the Long Now; How Buildings Learn; and The Media Lab, and most recently Whole Earth Discipline. He curates and hosts Long Now’s monthly Seminars About Long-term Thinking series in San Francisco. He also co-founded Revive & Restore, a Long Now project focused on genetic rescue for endangered and extinct species.
Paul Saffo is a Long Now Foundation board member and a forecaster with extensive experience exploring the dynamics of large-scale, long-term change. He teaches forecasting at Stanford University and chairs the Future Studies and Forecasting track at Singularity University. He is a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council and a Fellow of the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences. Paul’s essays have appeared in The Harvard Business Review, Foreign Policy, Wired, Washington Post, and The New York Times amongst many others.
The main arguments against geo-engineering (direct climate intervention) to stop global warming are: 1) It would be a massive, irreversible, risky bet; 2) everyone has to agree to it, which they won’t; 3) the unexpected side effects might be horrific; 4) once committed to, it could never be stopped.
What if none of those need be true?
Harvard climate expert David Keith has a practical proposal for an incremental, low-cost, easily reversible program of research and eventual deployment that builds on local research and is designed from the beginning for eventual shutdown. All it attempts is to reduce the rate of global warming to a manageable pace while the permanent solutions for excess greenhouse gases are worked out. Global rainfall would not be affected. The system is based on transparency and patience—each stage building adaptively only on the proven success of prior stages, deployed only as needed, and then phased out the same way.
One of Time magazine’s “Heroes for the Environment,“ David Keith is a Professor of Applied Physics in Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and Professor of Public Policy in the Harvard Kennedy School. He is also executive chairman of the Calgary-based company, Carbon Engineering, which is developing air capture of carbon dioxide.
Tickets are still available: space is limited and these talks tend to sell out.
Technology enables art, and artists push technologies to their limits. That’s just part of the long-running story that Mathieu Victor will tell in his salon talk on January 20 at The Interval at Long Now in San Francisco. It’s a story that features Bell Labs and Marcel Duchamp, Computer Numerical Control (better known as “CNC“) and, yes, lasers, too.
Mathieu’s talk will survey centuries of fine arts practice as well as some of today’s most cutting edge work. Trained as an art and technology historian, he has hands-on experience in bringing ambitious projects into reality including his work as production manager for artist Jeff Koons.
Koons’ studio is one of the world’s largest purely fine arts enterprises, integrating a “factory” and “design studio” model and employing hundreds of artists and an international network of fabricators. In his more than a decade of work with Koons, Mathieu oversaw the technical aspects of this multidisciplinary practice, working with professionals ranging from fashion designers to aerospace manufacturers.
Jeff Koons, “Gorilla”, CNC Milled Absolute black granite, 2009-11. Photograph: Timothy A Clary/AFP/Getty Images
In the course of his fabrication work Mathieu has run R&D projects with GE, Delcam, AutoDesk, M.I.T, and other industry leaders in creative and manufacturing technologies. He has collaborated with many of the world’s top creative entities including BMW, Stella McCartney, Taschen Publishing, Lady Gaga, and the Macy’s Thanksgiving day parade, and lead some of the most ambitious efforts to date in applying manufacturing technology to the fine arts.
We hope you can join us for this exciting look at the interplay of technology and fine arts, craft and design. Tickets and more information about the talk are here.
Next in the series: artist Jonathon Keats speaks at The Interval on April 7th, 02015 in conjunction with his Neanderthal Design Studio opening at ZERO1 on April 3. Stay tuned for more details on that event. Tickets will go on sale in March.
The Big Here video documenting a drive from San Francisco to Mount Washington in eastern Nevada was made in 02009 and shown as a Long Short before Stewart Brand’s Rethinking Green SALT talk. We showed it again this week at The Great Basin in the Anthropocene talk by Scotty Strachan at The Interval. That event focused on the larger region that includes Mount Washington.
The mount Washington site was originally purchased as a potential site for a monument scale 10,000 Year Clock to act as an icon to long-term thinking. The first of these Clocks is now underway in Texas (see longnow.org/clock/ for more details), and Long Now remains involved in this fascinating, important region of eastern Nevada.
Our Mount Washington property is home to the largest population of bristlecone pines on private land. Bristlecones, amongst the oldest living things on Earth, are a symbol of The Long Now. And Long Now is working with scientists, like Scotty Strachan, at University of Nevada, Reno to study these bristlecones for insights into the last 10,000 years of climate amongst other research efforts.
Photo of Mount Washington by Scotty Strachan
On Tuesday, January 13, Jesse Ausubel will present Nature is Rebounding: Land- and Ocean-sparing Through Concentrating Human Activities, as part of our monthly Seminars About Long-Term Thinking. Each month the Seminar Primer gives you some background information about the speaker, including links to learn even more.
The stories and scary graphs aren’t hard to find: the global industrialization that has been taking place since the middle of the 19th century has had a disastrous effect on our environment. It has led to massive deforestation, depletion of other natural resources, and a (resulting) rise in greenhouse gases not seen in millions of years.
But Jesse Ausubel counters this gloom with a bit of optimism. He argues that modernity and technology are not necessarily the unusually destructive forces we make them out to be. Humans were impacting the world around them long before we first started burning fossil fuels to power large-scale factories. And the technological progress we’ve made since then, Ausubel suggests, can actually – and might very well – help us diminish our harmful environmental footprint.
Ausubel is an environmental scientist who combines research with an active policy agenda. He has played an important role in bringing environmental, ecological, and climate issues to the attention of governments and scientific agencies, and has been instrumental in the formulation of US and international climate research programs. He helped organize the first United Nations World Climate Conference in 01979 – the event that first brought the issue of global warming to governments’ attention – and served on a variety of federal research agencies throughout the 01980s and 90s.
Through his work with the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, where he is a science advisor and former Vice President of Programs, Ausubel has pursued several efforts at documenting and conserving biodiversity. He helped develop the Census of Marine Life, an international mission to study the distribution, diversity, and abundance of life in Earth’s seas and oceans. The census has so far discovered numerous previously unknown species, and species thought to have gone extinct millennia ago. Honoring Ausubel’s efforts, a recently discovered deep-sea lobster was named Ausubel’s Mighty Clawed Lobster (or dinochelus ausubeli).
In addition, Ausubel is a co-founder of the Barcode of Life – an initiative to begin using very short genomic sequences (rather than morphological characteristics) as universal ‘barcodes’ for species identification. He is also founding chair of the Encyclopedia of Life, a wikipedia-like website, first proposed by former SALT speaker E.O. Wilson, that aims to catalog all species of life on earth.
Ausubel is currently Senior Research Associate and Director of the Program for the Human Environment at Rockefeller University, where he studies how human technological and economic development interact with the environment. He is considered a founder of the field of Industrial Ecology (and his 01989 textbook, Technology & Environment, is accepted as one of the sub-discipline’s foundational texts).
Ausubel argues that industrial development can help us diminish our harmful environmental footprint, because it always tends toward greater efficiency. As the New York Times reported in 02011,
In a recent interview in his office at Rockefeller University on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, Mr. Ausubel explained his view that the environment will be protected, not harmed, by technology. Over the long run, he notes, the economy requires more efficient forms of energy, and these are inherently sparing of the environment. Cities used to use wood for heat and hay for transport fuel. But the required volumes of wood and horse feed soon led to more compact fuels like coal and oil.
As industry evolves, Ausubel argues, it constantly finds ways to use fewer material resources for every unit of production, thus decreasing its consumption of the world’s natural resources, including land. In other words, industrial development follows a path of dematerialization. Ausubel claims it is also on a course of decarbonization: a consistent and gradual replacement of carbon-based fuels by much more efficient hydrogen-based ones. Indeed, Ausubel is an advocate of nuclear power as a highly efficient source of energy, and a useful alternative that can help us spur society’s decarbonization along.
The builders of the beautiful home of the US National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., inscribed it with the epigraph, “To science, pilot of industry, conqueror of disease, multiplier of the harvest, explorer of the universe, revealer of nature’s laws, eternal guide to truth.” Finally, after a very long preparation, our science and technology are ready also to reconcile our economy and the environment … In fact, long before environmental policy became conscious of itself, the system had set decarbonization in motion. A highly efficient hydrogen economy, landless agriculture, industrial ecosystems in which waste virtually disappears: over the coming century these can enable large, prosperous human populations to co-exist with the whales and the lions and the eagles and all that underlie them–if we are mentally prepared, which I believe we are.
Human culture is poised to realize technology’s potential to liberate the environment, Ausubel suggests: we need simply to pursue our drive toward efficiency and greater convenience. This drive might just allow us to have our cake and eat it, too – a prosperous and growing human society amid a thriving natural environment.
To hear more about Jesse Ausubel’s vision of a prosperous human population co-existing peacefully with a thriving natural world, please join us on Tuesday, January 13 at the SFJAZZ Center.
This Tuesday a very special event begins our 02015 series of salon talks at The Interval in San Francisco. The Great Basin in the Anthropocene on January 6 will be a night full of science, natural beauty, and Long Now lore.
Scotty Strachan will talk about the natural history of the Great Basin Region. Scotty’s scientific research includes study of the climate and hydrology of the area as well as tree-ring analysis of bristlecone pines. This work has been conducted throughout the region including on Long Now’s property on Mount Washington in Nevada. Alexander Rose, Long Now’s Executive Director, will give a special introduction about Long Now’s history and connection with the area. You can purchase tickets here while they last.
In Stewart Brand’s 02004 TED talk (full video below), he tells some of the story of Long Now’s Mount Washington. It’s a talk Stewart called “How Mountains Teach”.
In 02004 we were considering the mountain as the initial site for the 10,000 Year Clock. And while we are currently building in Texas, we remain committed to this fascinating, important area. Long Now’s property features the largest group of bristlecone pines on private land. Bristlecones are amongst the oldest living things on the planet and are a symbol of The Long Now.
If you go up on top of those cliffs, that’s some of the Long Now land in those trees. And if you go up there and look back, then you’ll get a sense of what the view starts to be like from the top of the mountain. That’s the long view. That’s 80 miles to the horizon. And that’s also timberline and those bristlecones really are shrubs. That’s a different place to be. It’s 11,400 feet and it’s exquisite.
This talk is a great introduction not only to Mt. Washington, but also to the entire Great Basin region. Alexander’s introduction before Scotty’s talk will revisit the story of Long Now’s purchase of the land, and talk about why it means so much to our organization.
Scotty is also a talented photographer. While conducting field research in the mountains and valleys of eastern Nevada, he also takes the time to document the natural beauty of the area. We are thrilled to share dozens of Scotty’s photographs not only during his talk but on video screens at The Interval leading up to and following his talk. Below are just a few examples of Scotty’s work. Tickets and more information about the talk are here.
Imagining the future can be daunting, but The Thing from the Future card game makes it fun. While its creators the Situation Lab (a project of artist/designer Jeff Watson and Long Now fellow Stuart Candy) simply call it “an imagination game”, it’s quite an elegant factory for generating alternative futures.
Through collaboratively and competitively describing objects from a range of possible futures, The Thing from the Future players confront questions about the near and long-term future from unconventional vantages that yield creative solutions. Each round of the game begins with a collectively generated creative prompt that describes the type of future a yet-to-be-imagined object comes from, as well as where it fits in a given culture or society, what kind of object it is, and what sort of emotional reaction an observer from the present might have when confronted with it. The player who comes up with the most compelling future scenario wins the round.
The Thing from the Future underscores how the constraints of generative systems can be used to inspire long term thinking. In their 02006 SALT talk Playing with Time, Brian Eno and Will Wright discussed the role of generative systems in their respective fields of music and game design.
“The power of generative systems is you make seeds rather than forests.”
-Brian Eno, June 02006 Playing with Time SALT
Whether a game of chess, a computer simulation of a city, or a piece of music, from a simple set of rules, or “seeds,” complex futures emerge. Changing any one of these rules vastly affects the future outcome. In the case of The Thing From the Future, the constraints are the key to enabling players to break out of traditional patterns of thinking about the future. In that sense, The Thing From the Future evokes Eno’s Oblique Strategies, a card game of aphorisms that the artistically-inclined are encouraged to turn to in moments of creative blockage. For example: “Do nothing for as long as possible.”. “Repetition is a form of change,” reads another.
In a 01980 interview, Eno discussed the inspiration behind the cards:
The Oblique Strategies evolved from me being in a number of working situations when the panic of the situation – particularly in studios – tended to make me quickly forget that there were other ways of working and that there were tangential ways of attacking problems that were in many senses more interesting than the direct head-on approach.
In much the same way that Oblique Strategies inspires “tangential” ways of thinking in moments of creative panic, The Thing from the Future grounds musings about the future and turns them into concrete scenarios.
The Thing From The Future, while intellectually stimulating, is at its core, fun, and meant to be played by anyone. You can buy it online here or stop by and ask to use the deck we keep at The Interval (open daily from 10am-midnight).
Here at Long Now, we often like to tell the story – or perhaps better said, legend – of the oak beams at New College in Oxford. First told to Stewart Brand by anthropologist Gregory Bateson, this short and simple story epitomizes the tremendous value we can reap from some long-term thinking.
Despite what the name may suggest, New College is one of Oxford’s oldest. Founded in 01379, at its heart lies a dining hall that features expansive oak beams across its ceiling. About a century ago, an entomologist discovered that the beams were infested with beetles and would need replacing. The College agonized over where they might find oaks of sufficient size and quality to make new beams. Then, as Stewart Brand recounts,
One of the Junior Fellows stuck his neck out and suggested that there might be some worthy oaks on the College lands. These colleges are endowed with pieces of land scattered across the country which are run by a college Forester. They called in the College Forester, who of course had not been near the college itself for some years, and asked him if there were any oaks for possible use.
He pulled his forelock and said, “Well sirs, we was wonderin’ when you’d be askin’.”
Upon further inquiry it was discovered that when the College was founded, a grove of oaks had been planted to replace the beams in the dining hall when they became beetly, because oak beams always become beetly in the end. This plan had been passed down from one Forester to the next for over five hundred years saying “You don’t cut them oaks. Them’s for the College Hall.”
In all likelihood, the story is a blend of myth and reality. While the College, in keeping with standard woodland practices in Britain, has always kept groves of oaks intended for construction purposes, it isn’t clear that any particular set of trees was officially designated to replace the beams of the College dining hall.
But as with all good legends, this story conveys a larger truth: that a symbiotic relationship with the natural world around us is a useful and sustainable way to maintain human civilization for centuries to come. Atlas Obscura concludes:
Somewhere on the land owned by the New College are oaks that are, or will one day, be worthy of use in the great hall, assuming that they are managed in the same way they were before. It is in this management by the Forester in which lies the point. Ultimately, while the story is perhaps apocryphal, the idea of replacing and managing resources for the future, and the lesson in long term thinking is not.
There are other stories that, like this one, convey the value of this kind of long-term partnership. For example, NPR recently featured a story on the Bosco Che Suona – the ‘woods that sing’. It’s in this Italian Alpine forest that Antonio Stradivari, Giuseppi Guarneri, and Nicola Amati found the spruce trees from which they made their world-famous violins.
Centuries later, artisan luthiers still come to these woods to source their raw material – and it is in large part due to this ongoing use that the Bosco continues to thrive. In partnership with local foresters, instrument makers select trees they think produce high-quality violins. The felled tree in turn makes room for new saplings, and the many months required for the production of a single instrument ensures that these young trees have time to grow up. NPR writes:
Before a tree hits the chopping block, Mazzucchi looks around to see if there are any tiny saplings struggling to grow nearby. If so, removing an adult tree will let more sun in and actually help the babies mature.
Bruno Cosignani, the head of the local forest service, explains that light is the limiting factor on tree growth.
“As soon as a tree falls down, those who were born and suffering in the shadows can start to grow more quickly,” he says.
And centuries from now, those trees, too, might become musical instruments.
Elsewhere in the Mediterranean, forests of cork oak likewise thrive in large part because of their utility to human industry. For centuries, possibly even millennia, the bark of these trees has been used to make the cork stoppers that keep wine (or any other liquid) inside a bottle. Because only the outer coating is harvested, the trees are left to stand – and thus continue to sustain both local ecosystems and human economies. As a feature in the Huffington Post explains,
Clearly, the environment supports rural livelihoods (and diets). But it also provides substantial ecosystem services. By resisting both fire and drought, cork oaks stabilize the region’s sandy soils and hold a line against creeping desertification. The trees, which are neither irrigated nor treated with herbicides or fertilizers, store carbon. (Because a harvested tree needs to regenerate its bark, it absorbs up to five times more carbon than an unharvested tree.) They also provide plant and animal habitat, absorb rainfall and prevent soil erosion, thus protecting the watershed that supplies two thirds of Lisbon’s drinking water.
By harvesting material sustainably, the cork industry supports, rather than endangers, these forests. In fact, the largest threat to the Mediterranean cork oaks in recent decades has been the advent of aluminum screw caps and plastic corks. Without utility for the wine industry, there is little economic incentive to help sustain these cork groves.
These three different stories share a common message: by making responsible use of natural resources, we actually allow them to thrive, in turn ensuring their availability for centuries to come. In each of these three instances, humans have developed a symbiosis with trees that is uniquely long-term in approach. Whether out of respect for their lengthy lifespans, a recognition of their vital importance to aerobic life, or simply for utilitarian reasons, humans in each of these three instances make use of trees in ways that deliberately foster their longevity. Long-term thinking can be difficult for us short-lived humans, but perhaps trees can help us make a leap beyond the horizon of our own lifespans. Like the 10,000 Year Clock, trees – alive like us, but for so much longer – can help us imagine a time scale, and thus a world, that exceeds our own.
In December 02013 film archivist Rick Prelinger presented Lost Landscapes of San Francisco 8 for our Seminars About Long-term Thinking series. It’s been an annual tradition in our series since 02008. Click here to watch the full video. We do not publish audio podcasts for Lost Landscapes events because of their reliance on visuals.
Rick, the founder of the Prelinger Archives, curates a vintage filmic view of San Francisco to show our audience each December at the historic Castro Theater. He includes some industrial films and Hollywood “B roll”, but primarily Rick showcases home movies by amateur San Francisco filmmakers of decades past. As most footage is silent, Rick always begins the night by reminding the sold-out audience that “You are the soundtrack!”
From Stewart Brand’s summary of the event (in full here):
Rick’s film this time featured the China Clipper taking off from the water next to the World’s Fair on Treasure Island; another float plane hopping along the water from Oakland to San Francisco as a ferry; the now outlawed traditional downtown blizzard of calendar pages drifting down from highrise offices celebrating the last day of work every December; the dirt roads of Telegraph Hill leading to Julius’ Castle; one of the 80,000 Victory Gardens in the city during World War 2; the bay filled with war ships (no one was supposed to photograph them); a tourist promotion film lauding San Francisco’s “invigorating sea mists”; a drive down historic middle Market Street, with the audience crying out a landmark: There’s the Twitter Building!
Video of the twelve most recent Long Now Seminars is free for all to view. Lost Landscapes of San Francisco 8 is a recent SALT talk, free for public viewing until February 02014. The most recent 12 currently also includes Lost Landscapes of San Francisco 9 (from December 4, 02014). Long Now members can see all Seminar videos in HD including the five previous years of Rick’s “Lost Landscapes”.
Rick Prelinger is an archivist and filmmaker based in San Francisco. In 01983 Rick founded the Prelinger Archives which focus on home movies and industrial films. With his wife Megan Prelinger he runs The Prelinger Library in San Francisco: an independent research library with regular public hours. His film project No More Road Trips? is assembled from hundreds of home movies dating back to the 1920s. It has screened at the New York Film Festival and SXSW. Rick serves on the Board of The Internet Archive.
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 video until February 02015). Long Now members can watch the full ten years of Seminars in HD. Membership levels start at $8/month and include lots of benefits.
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