The Human Measure


The Wink of an Eye

I remember this Star Trek episode: Wink of an Eye. It was the first series, with the real Kirk and the real Spock. Aliens who live on a different time speed take over the ship. The Enterprise crew does not see the aliens, just hear an insect-like buzzing. And the camera switches to the time speed of the invaders, now they move at normal speed and the Enterprise crew does not seem to move at all. I was very excited about the concept of different speeds, with beings in the one system not being able to comprehend the other system. A great theme that is too!

As a child I was fascinated by things that go slower than the eye can see: I would take multiple timed pictures of growing plants and then compare them, one after the other. I would plant a young oak tree in our garden and measure it every year. These were processes I could not see with my bare eye. But these were all still processes I could observe in my lifetime. They are of human measure. And I could, and can, grasp them.

Watching Trees Grow

More difficult it became to understand the teacher’s story about how oil develops. How can rests of plans and animals get many thousands of meters below the surface? I can go on and on listing things that are of measures that are beyond our capability to imagine: Try to imagine the Planck-length (1.6 x 10-35 m), a lightyear (9.5 x 1015 m), the age of the Universe (13.7 x 109 yr). Try imagining phenomena from Einstein’s theories of special and general relativity (I have tried that many, many times!). And worst of all: Try imagining quantum phenomena. As Bohr once stated: If you believe you understand quantum theory, you clearly have not understood it.

As humans we can imagine measures that have been relevant for our survival through the millennia of our existence, that is, before the era of technology. So for time we have a pretty good grasp of periods of seconds all the way up to tens of years. For distances we are able to think of millimeters all the way up to a few kilometers, probably as far as the eye can see on Earth. Weight: Grams up to maybe 100 kilograms. These are the sizes we are able to get our mind around, and even determine, with a pretty good accuracy, without any instruments.

Go beyond these measures, and we must switch off our imagination and switch on our abstract thinking, scientific mind. I am able to calculate with very large and very small numbers, without truly grasping these numbers. It is as with money: I have no clue how much 1 billion dollars is. Do you? Does anyone?

One Billion Dollars

The point is that we live in a world that has expanded into realms that we cannot imagine, we can only calculate them. Doing calculations with these unimaginable numbers (not to say: imaginary numbers…) requires education, and the ability and willingness to think abstractly, i.e. think in categories for which we do not possess a clear mental concept.

This inability to imagine these very small and very large quantities is outside of our comfort zone and drives many people to either ignore them or, and this is much worse, deny them. And this denial leads to anti-science movements, denial of climate change, denial of evolution, and in the end a denial of taking responsibility for what we are doing with our world.

In our daily lives we are also governed by short time spans: Business are focused on the next quarter, politicians on the next election, families on the next pay check. I know, there are companies who do some long term scenarios. There are now and then discussions about the costs of health care 30 years from now. And many people have a pension plan. But these are typically not the driving forces behind our day to day activities, be it in business, in politics or in our family lives. Even Scientific research seems to be going from publication to publication, from grant to grant.

With the size of the human population, and our technical ability to really make a difference, for better or for worse, it is mandatory that we start thinking and acting based on a longer term perspective. Not by a select elite, but by the drivers of where we go. By business leaders, by political leaders, and that means by all people. This requires teaching the longer perspective at school, discussing it on TV, study the longer perspective of human society seriously through long-term studies using simulation and scenarios. We need to expand the psychological comfort zone of human beings to the sizes of things: Times, distances, weights, energy levels, etc. that are now crucial for the survival of humanity.

Seeing far


Can we predict the Future?

Isaac Asimov

Psychohistory dealt not with man, but man-masses. It was the science of mobs; mobs in their billions. It could forecast reactions to stimuli with something of the accuracy that a lesser science could bring to the forecast of a rebound of a billiard ball. The reaction of one man could be forecast by no known mathematics; the reaction of a billion is something else again.”

Isaac Asimov, The Foundation Novels (Prelude to Foundation (Foundation, Book 1)

Before I continue my posts on science, technology and how these may change our lives beyond our wildest imagination, I need to set the stage with some remarks regarding futures studies, sometimes called futurology.Let’s face it: We all want to know what the future brings us. Therefore we watch the weather forecast. We try to find secret recommendations for the horse races or for investments that will sky-rocket. Science is all about making predictions, and so are the economic and social sciences. We try to predict what tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow, will bring us.

Asimov’s Foundation novels, written in the 1950s, describe a Universe many tens of thousands of years in the future, when Earth is just a distant rumor. The hero of the books is the inventor of psychohistory, the mathematical science of predicting the future. Of course this is only fiction. But the good SciFi authors are typically very well trained in science and technology, just as many scientists are fans of SciFi. This genre of novels stimulates the creativity and the fantasy, and is often an inspiration for actual scientific and technological research. Think of the robots that play such a crucial role in Asimov’s novels. Since then we have been working, step by little step, towards the goal of making robots feasible!

DARPA robot

So, just as a starting note, I can highly recommend some SciFi works. I am not an expert in this genre, and certainly have only read a few well known authors, but those are great reads: Asimov’s Foundation Series and Robot series (I, Robot), and then the Culture Novels by Iain M. Banks, a grand master of the genre who recently died, way too young! (e.g. The Player of Games (Culture) and Use of Weapons (Culture). In this context I cannot leave out the granddaddy of them all: Jules Verne: I just re-read several of his books, and that man was a genious! Highly recommended (The Collected Works of Jules Verne: 36 Novels and Short Stories (Unexpurgated Edition) (Halcyon Classics).

But back to the topic of Futures Studies, and predicting what the future has in store for us. Most sciences try to understand the workings of a particular aspect of reality. The extent to which a particular explanation is successful is tested by making predictions based on that new understanding. The better the predictions are realized, the more confidence we have in the validity of the understanding we have of that phenomenon.

Through Newton’s 3 laws of motion and his inverse square law of gravitational attraction we are now able to predict with high accuracy the position of planets and space craft. Our increased understanding of the workings of bio-chemistry lets us predict the effects of certain medications. Our standard model of particle physics made us predict the existence of the Higgs boson.

Once we have explanatory models that we are confident of, because they are good at predicting the future of that particular phenomenon, we can start using such understanding to engineer things: space craft, medication, cars, cathedrals, ice cream.

Also in business we do a lot of forecasting. All the market research that is being paid for is aimed at predicting if people and companies will buy certain products and services. If we know where the world is going, we can anticipate that direction and make some good money with that! Market forecasting is becoming more and more a quantitative social science, using more or less the scientific method. The questions for which answers are sought tend to be highly precise, e.g: How large, in USD, will the total accessible market be for product XYZ?

Trend spotting is a less precise field of identifying large scale trends that effect and drive markets, technologies and social behavior. Trend Spotters are somewhat like oracles: If you have once predicted (or should I say: guessed?) a major trend, then you build a reputation, despite the fact that you usually are only one time right! But identifying major trends is a popular hobby, and some companies make a good living out of it. Good examples are again the market research companies. Often these trends are presented as the next big thing, with not much reservations or modesty shown. I have never considered it wisdom to make investment decisions based on the trends predicted by market researchers.Whether that is the reason I am not rich or the reason I am not broke is unclear.

Now we get to the topic of Futures Studies. Futures Studies, also called futurology, is an interdisciplinary field of study that aims to draw potential futures based on past and current developments in the world. There are difference of opinion as to whether this is an art of a science. It is currently taught at some 40 academic institutes worldwide.

The need for understanding of what is in store for us is beyond any doubt. For example some businesses and other human endeavors need to make decisions with long lead times. Think of law makers in the area of environmental protection. Think also of oil companies, with their very long exploration and development cycles. Shell has been known for developing and using scenario writing for the purpose of exploring possible futures, see e.g. here. Crucial feature in the scenario writing approach is that potential futures (plural) are being developed and investigated. The approach is aimed at analyzing the consequences of different possible futures. Then, based on the different outcomes, patterns in the different options are identified, and based on that we can make probabilistic statements about in this case the use of energy in the year 2015. Scenario writing is one of the much used techniques in futures studies. More about these methods and techniques for conducting futures studies below.

But let’s now first look at some of the issues with making predictions. We know that many, if not all, natural and social processes are fundamentally stochastic and contingent (chaotic). This is nicely stated in the quote from Asimov at the top of this post. In the past many scientists had the positivist illusion that our inability to make hard predictions e.g. regarding the weather or regarding the development of society were caused by our lack of understanding. Wasn’t it the same with astronomy: Before Newton we were not able to predict with precision the location in the sky of planets and comets. But then Newton cracked the secret of celestial dynamics, and now we can predict these motions with great precision. Would it be the same in chemistry, biology and history?

However, since the beginning of the 1900s we know that our Universe on the smallest scales is fundamentally stochastic, killing off the concept of determinism for once and for all. To answer Einstein: God is playing at dice!  But although the behavior of individual particles like photons and electrons can not be predicted, the behavior of large numbers of them can be described with great precision. Therefore the laws of thermo-dynamics are laws, providing very precise descriptions of the behavior of e.g. gasses. And in the world of Asimov’s Hari Seldon the same principle is valid for billions of people. In a weaker form this is also the premise of fields of study like economics and sociology!

And this is also one of the foundations behind futures studies: We cannot predict individual developments with any precision, but we can say within certain limits of uncertainty what waves and trends will result from all the individual developments.

Futures studies are said to contain four dimensions, described as 3Ps and a WPossibilityPrediction and Preference, completed with Wildcards.

Many futurologists are driven by the preference P: the field clearly has a strong value component, sometimes also political: The thought directions are very diverse: From a culture pessimism a la Spengler, ecological disaster predictions, to technology optimism from people like Ray Kurzweil (see my previous blog on progress). They then make their point by showing the feasibility of the future they more or less predict. E.g. Kurzweil goes a long way in describing the current status of fields like genetics, brain research, artificial intelligence and robotics, and how from the current status in these fields we can expect a “Brave New World”! (The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology).

In my eyes the P of Predicted is often the weakest component. Not often enough is the future model presented as a potential future, one among many. In that sense I would want to stimulate this scientific approach to the field.

The final W of Wild Card refers to highly unlikely events with major impact. Often included in this field are disaster scenarios like a collision of the Earth with a comet or an asteroid.

We have now a growing toolbox of techniques to develop and evaluate possible futures. I mentioned above scenario writing. Well-known is the computer simulation of mathematical models, as used by Meadows and Forrester in their study Limits to Growth which they performed in 1972 for the Club of Rome (Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update). Until today most studies in this field have been weak in empirical testing, a limitation that deserves ample attention.

If history teaches us one think, then it is that the future is always more exciting, more different, more mind blowing, than we could imagine at the time. Just take the period of my own life: Think of the Internet, wireless communications, ubiquitous computing, robots driving around on Mars, space telescopes looking all the way to the dawn of the Universe, to name just a few things. Of course some predictions did not come out, yet: We are not yet traveling to the stars, and humanoid robots are not yet all around us. But the developments I mentioned above were not anticipated, and have had a dramatic impact on the world and our lives.

What this shows us is that we should be prepared to think far out-of-the-box in the creation of our futures scenarios. Many of the developments we think up will go slower than we now think, others will go faster, and other matters we will not even have thought about. But thinking-out-of-the-box gives us models of tomorrow on the basis of which we can make decisions regarding what research to stimulate, and what risks to anticipate. So thinking-out-of-the-box I will do (or at least I will share in my posts preposterous ideas from others): terra-forming, post-biological life, hyper-intelligence, and even travel FTL (Faster Than Light), which sounds like impossible, but was considered even by Einstein!

And with these future posts I will not pretend to be predicting the future, as Asimov’s Hari Seldon does, but to evaluate possible futures, so we can prepare, prevent or promote.

In some of my coming posts you will be presented with radical and often outrageous ideas and concepts. When that happens, bear with me, these thoughts are brought to yo in order to stimulate the thought process, and to evaluate the consequences. The future will be different from the models anyway! And probably the future will be very exciting!

Enjoy the ride!

Technological and Scientific Progress

In last week’s post I made the case for strong investments in big science, see here. On the web we see a culture clash between religious and often fundamentalist denialists on the one hand, and usually rational and usually atheist “believers” in science and the scientific method on the other. From my wording it is not hard to guess my position in this debate.

I will not advocate any links to the “Dark Side”, but good and often funny (and probably known to my readers) places to follow this debate are on Facebook: “I Feacking Love Science” (actually the title of the page is different, but I believe it would be filtered out as inappropriate language, so I use the same word as the URL), and on Twitter people like Bill NyeRichard Dawkins and Neil deGrasse Tyson.

The debates are around global warming, evolution, cosmology, stem cell research, just to name the loudest and most published of them. On a higher level the debate is about different paradigms of reality: Between on the one hand people who have ready stories of the world versus people who display continuous curiosity and ever deeper searching for how stuff works; but also a debate between people who hope for Armageddon versus people who care for the world we leave to humanity after us and who believe that we do make a difference. This last facet is nicely discussed by Christopher Hitchens in “God is not Great“, a recommended read for all who are interested in the debate between religion and atheism (God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything).

In the many debates we see strong emotions on both sides. On the side of the rationalists we see often a pessimistic fear that the influence of the religious fundamentalists will lead to a destruction of science, and therefore a destruction of the Earth. Though I sympathize with those emotions, the thought is incorrect and does not consider the evolutionary logic of scientific and technological progress.

As with many temporal catastrophes, it is good to take a historical perspective. Ray Kurzweil does a nice job at drawing this bigger picture in his book The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. I will refer to Kurzweil again in later posts, he has a very optimistic but therefore inspirational view on our mid-term future.

Kurzweil claims that most scientific and technological progress show an exponential growth curve. The example in the figure on the right is from computing speed which is the well-known Moore’s Law, but he provides many more examples. Basically all forms of growth or development that show a more or less fixed percentage of increase per time unit are exponential growth processes. Exponential growth curves exhibit a number of interesting features.

The first is that they appear linear and quite flat in the early phases of the process. That is, until they reach what Kurzweil calls the “knee”, when the growth takes off to explosive growth rates. Until this knee is reached, we all seem to recognize a linear growth. And many of our predictions regarding the future are based on this perceived linear development rate. Kurzweil then argues that the development of a number of technologies are close to reaching this knee in their growth curve, and will reach explosive growth rates during the coming 20 to 50 years: in particular computing, brain science and cognitive science. He names this explosive growth phase “the singularity“, free after John von Neumann who coined the concept in the mid-1950s.

As indicated above, I guess Kurzweil can be criticized for his boundless optimism, and partially for being somewhat selective in finding evidence to support his claims, instead of using the scientific approach of critically searching for falsification. But then again he doesn’t claim his work to be a piece of science. Place it somewhere in between science fiction – which also provides mightily important inspiration for science and technology, just think of Asimov – and science. I actually see his work as part of the tradition of futurology, which is a form of quality speculation (and always fun to follow-up over the years). Futurologists make predictions about the future. But then again, isn’t that what science does? As long as we are comparing the predictions with what happens in the real world there is nothing wrong with this activity!

The second feature of many growth curves that Kurzweil presents is that they seem so very continuous. Maybe we see a little bump due to some world wars, maybe some small wiggles here and there. But in the big picture, think 70 years and more, these growth curves are very very continuous. My point here is that the growth seems to be driven by forces stronger than the Pope, Stalin, Hitler, Khomeini or the Tea Party.

On a regional scale developments may slow down for several decades due to political or religious obstruction, but globally not much changes. Brains follow the money! Many scientists escaped from Russia and Germany before WW2 to move to either the UK or the USA to continue their scientific and technological work. Many people of learning left Iran after the initial illusion of liberation by the Ayatollahs had faded. Unfortunately Iran pays good money to nuclear physicists, so too many of them stayed in the country! And there are examples of genetic scientists leaving the US after Bush II stopped the funding for stem cell research, see e.g. here. And stem cell research has continued in Europe and Japan, hardly noticing the obstruction in the USA.

Scientists are people with a mission (if you are a scientist and you don’t recognize this statement you may consider getting into a different business!). They will go where ever they can do their work. Think of the famous example of Wernher von Braun, the father of the V2 and of the Apollo program. Often this type of behavior  is considered amoral. Well, whatever. But it is the driver behind scientific and technological progress. Scientists will continue to do science and go where the money is and where the possibility exists to do their work. Scientists and technologists have moved for as long as written history exists: Thinkers went to Athens, Tycho Brahe moved away from Denmark after the funding for his Hven observatory was stopped by the new Danish King Christian IV, and found new funding by Bohemian king Rudolph II in Prague.

So Scientists continue to do science and  technologists will continue to develop technology. The exponential growth curves show it. Therefore I can now write this post on a PC with thousands of times more computing power than the Mainframe on which I did my first programming. Therefore we are beating AIDS. Therefore we are able to give pre-tsunami warnings to people in coastal regions. Therefore we are now progressing with treatment research for Alzheimer disease using stem cells. Because scientists do what they have to do: Science.

And no Congress, no Ayatollah, no Pope and no economic crisis can stop science and technology. Not on the larger scare, in the longer time. They can cause small dips in the curve. They can cause utter frustration with groups of dedicated scientists. But in the bigger picture these obstructionists of progress are irrelevant.

Therefore I am not so pessimistic about the future of our civilization. Not that there are no potentially catastrophic threats! There are! But the evolutionary forces of variation of ideas and survival of the most fruitful of those ideas is unstoppable as long as there is humanity. And that is a good thing!

Now don’t get me wrong: I strongly support efforts to stop the anti-progress zealots, I object to teaching creationism, I campaign against the Global Warming Deniers and in favor of strong action to reduce Greenhouse gasses. Those are necessary actions to prevent unnecessary human suffering. But I do not believe that even if we lose one or two of these battles it means the end of science and the end of the world. The evolution of progress and intelligence has too strong a logic to be stopped by human stupidity. Call me an optimist, I can live with that. Optimism and speculation about where we can go inspires us, and our children, to work on our future, in all it’s fascinating complexity and in all its surprising directions.

Where will this all bring us? Kurzweil and others have strong opinions about that, and some of those ideas are very thought provoking. What especially fascinates me is the concept of post-biological humanity. First of all because it is feasible. Secondly because it will solve some important obstacles to space travel. But I am now jumping ahead. This will be a topic I will come back to in the near future.

What to do between today and 2113?

So there we go! A reader starts writing. In that sense we are talking about an experiment, testing a hypothesis. The hypothesis is that someone who reads a lot (and I mean A LOT, just ask my wife!) also has something to say. Is able to process all that information, mix it, judge it, cut it up and combine it in now ways, to generate valuable new thoughts.

Also this is an experiment in the workings of social media: Believe it or not, but I have been teaching and consulting on the topic, but have never done a blog, never attempted to draw a following. I realize that I had three words in the previous sentence (believe, teaching, following) that could create a suspicion regarding religiosity. Just to take that suspicion away immediately (and warn the religious faint-of-heart): I am quite un- if not anti-religious, and will no doubt show that on a regular basis in this blog. So: If you can’t handle that, don’t read me!

So this blog is the start of a journey towards the year 2113, and in parallel a learning experience in generating traffic, followers, sharing, comments, based on my texts. In order for that to be successful I need to write good and well thought through blogs on topics that matter to people. Well, if I can create such texts we will see, as that is part of the experiment.

The topics you will find orbit around the exciting development of science and technology in the coming 100 years, and they ways in which this will change our lives and who we are in most profound ways. I will write about the mega trends that I see, which include genetics, robotics and space exploration, to mention the most important ones.

I will aim at painting possible scenarios of the world between today and the year 2113, and connect that futuristic image with developments of today: Technology developments, science developments and the social and political processes that have an impact on them.

So, the first question I am now curious about is the effect of mentioning the topics above on interest in and visits to by blog. My expectations are modest. I realize that I will need to create content that you want to read, spend your precious time on. Therefore I will ask your feedback, so I can accommodate.

For all non-Finnish readers: On Friday we celebrate Juhannus, which is Mid-Summer, a very important day for Finnish people (and for Dutchmen living in Finland. So I wish all a great Mid-Summer, and remember: After Friday the days are getting shorter, and we will be heading straight towards winter (Finnish optimism!).

This post is transferred, in slightly modified form, from Blogger.

Summer in Finland