R.I.P.–Alvin Toffler

“The future always comes too fast and in the wrong order.”–Alvin Toffler

Alvin Toffler

Alvin Toffler

The world lost its foremost futurist in the past week,  a man who was one of my heroes.   Alvin Toffler taught the world how to think about the future some 45 years ago.  It’s a lesson the world should relearn.   I read Future Shock way back in 1973–and have been thinking about it–and the future–ever since.

The quote above describes the cause of the disease–the human psychological malady–he calls future shock.  He made me think about the implications of a future that comes too fast and too hard for most people to comprehend or tolerate.  It made me think about the dangers of thinking improperly about the future–or avoiding the thought of it at all.  I’ll go into detail on these issues–and the potential remedies thereof–in future posts.  In the meantime, I take off my virtual digital hat to the man who just may have been the foremost futurist of all time.

Writing in the New York Times on July 6, Farhad Manjoo lays out clearly and concisely why Toffler’s ideas are so relevant today.  I highly urge you to read this piece, and to read Future Shock if you’ve never done so.  I intend to reread it now.  We have never needed foresight more than we do today.

For (mostly) lighter fare,  visit my other blog,  The Millennium Conjectures.

 

The Bleeding Edge

“Humanity is acquiring all the right technology for all the wrong reasons.”–R. Buckminster Fuller

“Engage your mind before you shift your mouth into gear.”–Unknown

My father used to warn me about talking before thinking.   This definitely applies to blogging as well.  One should cogitate before pushing the “publish” button.

I said in a previous post that I would present two major types of articles herein,  but I didn’t think before pushing that button.  As it turns out, there will be three.  As previously promised, the first category of posts in the How to Think About The Future category will summarize basic methods, philosophies and general assumptions about foresight.

The second, category, The Future of…, will tackle the future of various domains of human endeavor, such as education, politics, environment, economy, healthcare and various subsets thereof.

The third category, the one I left out originally, is The Bleeding Edge, which will delve into critical emerging technologies that may potentially upend the established course of human activities, for better or for worse, or probably both.   Here are some of the hot topics to look forward to,  hopefully in the not-to-distant future.

Gene Editing–Last November, a New York Times Magazine article,  aptly titled The CRISPR Quandary, was even more aptly subtitled A new gene editing tool might create an ethical morass–or it might make revising nature seem natural.  As this ground-breaking technology is advancing far faster than the ethical and regulatory guidelines to control it, it is well on its way to doing both.

Artificial Intelligence/The Singularity–While CRISPR has so far escaped broad public scrutiny,  Artificial Intelligence certainly has not.  With warnings of the potential dangers of strong AI from the likes of Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk getting big play in the media,  even while Ray Kurzweil waxes almost poetic on the virtues of an A.I. singularity.  The controversies continues to grow.

Robotics–The combination of robotics and A.I. is rapidly accelerating, offering the potential for great convenience and efficiency, but also wholesale upheavals in the world of work.  Some pundits project that automation of various forms may obsolete up to 50% of all jobs in the near future.

3D Printing–No field of work is more susceptible to job loss due to automation than is manufacturing.   And while the progress of 3D printing has been much slower than some other technologies, it still holds out the promise of an eventual sea change in the world of fabrication–potentially breaking up major national and regional manufacturing plants into hundred of thousands of small local sites.  The skills to design and run 3D printing applications are specialized and very different from those of traditional manufacturing.

Nanotechnology–If ever there was a double-edged sword in technology, this is it.  While the most optimistic prognostications outlined by Eric Drexler in his landmark 1986 book, Engines of Creation, are still a distant pipe dream,  progress is being made.   And while those optimistic dreams envision a world of unlimited abundance on demand, the most pessimistic counter views see the potential for catastrophic human harm, either inadvertently or by intentional malice.  Kurt Vonnegut warned of these dangers as long ago as 1963 in his sci-fi classic Cat’s Cradle.

Virtual Reality/Augmented Reality–Poised to become a hot new consumer electronics category, Virtual Reality devices offer a wide range of very useful applications, from education, to training and entertainment.  But there are downsides, too.  Will some people get so addicted to it that they lose contact with actual reality?  And at least one futurist has forecast a huge market for virtual reality porn.  If you’re not familiar with the concept of teledildonics, well, you might be in for a shock.

Blockchain–The shared public ledger technology that enables Bitcoin cryptocurrency is rapidly being advocated and to some extent deployed in a variety other domains including education, law and banking. It is massively distributed, open, and indelible.  But even this might have some downside.

The hope here is to cover these and many other emerging technology issues in the coming weeks and months.  Keep an eye out for an accompanying podcast as well, assuming I can get my technical act together.

Physics and The Future (Part two)

Note: This is the second part of an article originally posted in 2012 on my first blog, The Millennium Conjectures™.  Now, it’s time to invent a future in which I figure out what to post next.

I Conjecture:  Every Possible Future Exists

Part Two: Quantum Mechanics and The Future

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”–Alan Kay

Note: In case you had not surmised it, the most literal title for this conjecture would be “Every Physically Possible Future of Our Universe Exists.”   There is probably not a future in our universe where the laws of physics will change to allow Harry Potter to cast a patronus spell on demontors.

Inventing the quantum future at NASA

Alan Kay’s proposition suggests a philosophical viewpoint that emerges from this conjecture.  But for a better quote to describing its why and wherefore, I harken back to the E.B. White words from Conjecture #2Everything that is not forbidden is mandatory.  It all boils down to Quantum Mechanics.   Many physicists have latched on to this notion;  given enough time, every physically possible combination of matter and energy is bound to occur.  It’s all just a matter of probability.  That said, there are clearly at least two distinct ways of looking at it, depending on which interpretation of quantum mechanics you ascribe to:  Copenhagen or Many Worlds.  Although there are other interpretations, these two have garnered the lions share of advocates in the scientific community, and the notion that every possible future exists can emerge from either one of them.  (See Quantum Weirdness 102 and 103 in The Millennium Conjectures™ for an explanation of both ideas.)

The difference between the two as pertains to the future can easily be stated as virtual vs. actual.  The Many Worlds interpretation asserts that every physical possibility will become an actual reality in an infinitely expanding sea of parallel universes.  Every possible future is, or at least becomes, physically real.  On the other hand, Copenhagen implies that there is no absolute physical reality until the quantum wave function breaks down, that there is only probability on the sub-atomic level until we observe it. From this we can infer that every possible future exists only as a statistical  probability, and only the one we ultimately experience will actually exist.

So what’s the difference?  There isn’t any.  It makes no difference, from the practical experience of entities conscious in a single one of them, whether the futures are real or virtual; we can’t tell the difference.  Every one of those physical realities is still a real possibility.  The good news?   There most certainly is a future out there where you win the lottery!  The bad news?  The only sure way to “invent” that future is to buy every possible number combination.  I don’t recommend quitting your day job. 😦

 

Physics and the Future: Every Possible Future Exists

This two part post originally appeared in my first blog, The Millennium Conjectures™ in 2012.   Some background on the basic concepts of quantum mechanics discussed in these posts is available by reading the Quantum Weirdness Primer thread in that blog.  The entire Millennium Conjectures thread provides a fairly comprehensive view of my philosophical views on science, reality and the future.  In this conjecture, I put forth the notion that every possible future exists.

Part One: The Post-Newtonian Wordview

“The Future ain’t what it used to be.”–Yogi Berra

Yogi

Yogi, philosopher extraordinaire, deep in thought

Yogi was right. Literally.

He had absolutely no idea what he was talking about, but he was right nonetheless.  For the way we view the future must, of necessity, be directly related to how we view physical reality. Ergo, as our understanding of physical reality changes, so changes how we think about the future and how we understand what it might turn out to be.   An entire graduate level lecture could probably be based on this conjecture.  I’ll condense the basic idea to a few paragraphs.

Before Apple, the company, there was apple, the fruit.  And before that fateful day when one of those red orbs conked one Isaac Newton on the noggin, worldviews were simplistic and not generally  based on science.   They were mostly mystical or religious.  Supernatural forces ruled the world and what they had in store for mankind was up to them; it was not to be known by us.  But when the soon-to-be “Sir” Isaac set forth his rules of motion and gravity classical physics was born.  Every action had an equal and opposite reaction, every force and its interaction with mass was theoretically calculable, and therefore predictable.  Newton’s laws ruled physics, and indeed, most science based worldviews for nearly 250 years.

Then two guys named Einstein and Planck came along and screwed up the whole thing.  They were followed by the likes of Heisenberg and Bohr and Schrodinger, who threw the monkey wrenches of quantum mechanics, and most disturbingly, quantum uncertainty, into the mechanisms of physics.  Nothing was ever the same again.**

Just how did these 20th century scientific revolutions, along with chaos and complexity theories, alter the Newtonian worldview?

The Newtonian worldview was deterministic, the post-Newtonian worldview is not.  It was theorized, under Newton’s classical laws, that if one could know the position and momentum of every particle of matter and energy in the universe, then one could know everything that has ever happened and could predict everything that ever would happen in the future.   Quantum mechanics and uncertainty skewered that notion; it killed it stone dead.  As explained in my Quantum Weirdness primers, it is not possible to simultaneously know the exact position and momentum of quantum objects, and interactions of quanta with their environment are only calculable as probabilities. 

In other words, the Newtonian worldview asserted that we could calculate exactly where any particle of matter or energy would be at any time.  The post-Newtonian worldview states that we can only calculate the probability of finding it in a given position at a given time.  The disconcerting part of that last statement is the “finding” part.  For it asserts exactly that, the probability of finding it if we look for it; it does not predict where it is, for until we look it is effectively in every possible position at once.

How does this affect our view of the future and my conjecture that every possible future exists?  In the Newtonian worldview, there is no free will; everything is determined by the existing state of the universe and there is therefore only one possible future.  That would be the one that follows from applying Newton’s laws to the current state of every bit of matter and energy in the universe.  But in the post-Newtonian world, those rules do not work on a quantum level.  Position and momentum are uncertain and results of interactions can only be stated as probabilities.  In a non-deterministic world, free will is enabled and the totality of the future is unpredictable no matter how much data we have to crunch.

Does this future exist?

OK.  Many futures are possible.  But how can I assert that every possible future exists?   I’ll take that up in Part Two of this post.

**It should be noted that while Albert  Einstein, along with Max Planck, laid the foundations of quantum mechanics, he never believed its predictions of uncertainty and randomness.  Perhaps his most famous quotation, “god does not play dice,” refers to this very matter.  He spent much of the last thirty years of his life attempting to find a deeper meaning–hidden variables–that would give the lie to these notions.  He failed and was ultimately proven wrong.  

Text in this post © Mark Sackler, 2012, 2016

Forethought or Foresight?

“Forethought we may have, undoubtedly, but not foresight.”–Napoleon Bonaparte

Is it foresight or forethought that is required to navigate forward? www.cartoonstock.com

Is it foresight or forethought that is required to navigate forward?
http://www.cartoonstock.com

Foresight? Forethought?  What’s the difference? Maybe with better forethought, Napoleon would have had the foresight to avoid Waterloo.   Maybe.

But really, the two words are practically synonymous, so we are more in the province of semantics.    Just take a look at how Dictionary.com defines them.   Its first given definition of foresight  is care or provision for the future.  The first definition for forethought is thoughtful provision for the future.  Practically the same thing, no?  But for the purposes of this blog, I’ll come down on the side of none of the above.

Slightly paraphrased, the 4th definition of foresight given by Dictionary.com is knowledge or insight gained by looking forward.  This is foresight as I see it, and for that matter, I believe it is how the true professional futurist sees it.  We cannot really predict the future, but we can be better prepared for it by adroit use of foresight.   This type of insight is the aim of Seeking Delphi.™

Moving forward then (what other direction is there?), posts herein will fall into two broad categories.  Posts in the How to Think About the Future category will discuss the theory and practice of forethought–they will cover the basics for the layman.  They will also delve into some of my heavier philosophical and scientific views on how we ought to think about the future.   Posts in the Seeking Delphi category will delve into the future of various domains of human endeavor,  including, when possible, interviews with experts in the fields covered.  There will be obvious subjects, such as biotechnology, information technology, education, politics and the like;  there will also be less obvious explorations into narrower areas.   A podcast is targeted for a July launch.

Up next will be a reprise of two posts from my other blog The Millennium Conjectures,™  which provide my rather physics imbued philosophy of the future.

 

 

Welcome

“Never predict  anything, especially the future.”–Casey Stengel

 The Ol’ Perfessor knew what he was talking about.   Well, maybe he didn’t, but the advice is sage nonetheless.  It is notoriously difficult to predict anything in the future with consistent accuracy.  So why in the world would anyone want to become a futurist?  Why bother?  Well, to be blunt, that is exactly why!  Ignoring the opportunities and dangers of the future is what I like to call The Ostrich Syndrome.  Go ahead, hide your head in the sand.  The future is not going to go away;  it will get here.  And if we can’t predict it, there are certainly ways to prepare for it.  To prevent bad outcomes, or at least make them less likely.  To create good outcomes, or at least make them more likely.  And to be  better prepared to deal with whatever does come.

The sad fact is, we live in a short-term oriented society with a short attention span.  So what is the antidote to this malady?  It is more thoughtful foresight.  We have everything to gain and nothing to lose.  Kurt  Vonnegut compared science fiction writers like himself to the proverbial canary in the mine shaft, warning of weak danger signals before others perceive them.  That’s what futurists do, though those weak signals can signal opportunities as well as dangers as the world changes.  That’s what I aim to do with the rest of my life.  I’ve enrolled in the  University of Houston’s Masters in Foresight program.  I’m adding a foresight element to a friend’s existing market research business.  I’m becoming an advocate for taking a longer view of everything.  Economics. Education. Environment. Government. You name it.  This my second blog, aptly named Seeking Delphi after the famed Oracle of Delphi.  We can’t predict the future, but we can anticipate the possibilities, avoid the catastrophes (or some of them) and create the opportunities.

See the about page for my background, and see the link below for a book review I published in 1999 in the Reed Elsevier journal Futures.   It provides a very succinct view of my personal philosophy on how we should view the future.    Here goes something.  See you tomorrow and beyond…

sackler review F31 April 1999

 

 

 

Welcome

“Never predict  anything, especially the future.”–Casey Stengel

 The Ol’ Perfessor knew what he was talking about.   Well, maybe he didn’t, but the advice is sage nonetheless.  It is notoriously difficult to predict anything in the future with consistent accuracy.  So why in the world would anyone want to become a futurist?  Why bother?  Well, to be blunt, that is exactly why!  Ignoring the opportunities and dangers of the future is what I like to call The Ostrich Syndrome.  Go ahead, hide your head in the sand.  The future is not going to go away;  it will get here.  And if we can’t predict it, there are certainly ways to prepare for it.  To prevent bad outcomes, or at least make them less likely.  To create good outcomes, or at least make them more likely.  And to be  better prepared to deal with whatever does come.

The sad fact is, we live in a short-term oriented society with a short attention span.  So what is the antidote to this malady?  It is more thoughtful foresight.  We have everything to gain and nothing to lose.  Kurt  Vonnegut compared science fiction writers like himself to the proverbial canary in the mine shaft, warning of weak danger signals before others perceive them.  That’s what futurists do, though those weak signals can signal opportunities as well as dangers as the world changes.  That’s what I aim to do with the rest of my life.  I’ve enrolled in the  University of Houston’s Masters in Foresight program.  I’m adding a foresight element to a friend’s existing market research business.  I’m becoming an advocate for taking a longer view of everything.  Economics. Education. Environment. Government. You name it.  This my second blog, aptly named Seeking Delphi after the famed Oracle of Delphi.  We can’t predict the future, but we can anticipate the possibilities, avoid the catastrophes (or some of them) and create the opportunities.

See the about page for my background, and see the link below for a book review I published in 1999 in the Reed Elsevier journal Futures.   It provides a very succinct view of my personal philosophy on how we should view the future.    Here goes something.  See you tomorrow and beyond…

sackler review F31 April 1999