Predicting the Future….a Touchy Business

We authors of “speculative” fiction like to say we don’t predict the future. We peer ahead and find possibilities… plausibilities… to then write up as conjectures. As exercises to help stretch and practice the reader’s pre-frontal lobes. Sure, we sometimes build a good record of “hits.”
But that’s not the core point.

As I often tell clients in government and business, the key thing is to find the ways that your forecasts have been consistently wrong… and to figure out why. After all, the best definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, while expecting different results.

This came very much to mind as the frenzied news of recent weeks reminded me of 1968 – a year so eventful that we all reached its end in a state of utter exhaustion. Amid all the news of war and quakes and natural and man-made disaster, several authors have pointed at one of the oldest and nastiest cliches, expounded by smug pundits and cynics and hollywood directors for ages. Predictions are made about every disaster — that once the lid of a tightly policed civilization is knocked off for a second, humans will become beasts.

In fact, the opposite is far more generally the case. The vast majority of people, when a disaster hits, behave in the aftermath as altruists. They organize spontaneously to save their fellow human beings, to share what they have, and to show kindness. They reveal themselves to be better people than they ever expected. A point that is made especially well by one of my favorite nonfiction authors, Rebecca Solnit, in her book A Paradise Made in Hell.

In fact, I have been saying this for decades, expressing an ongoing theme about the 21st Century’s struggle to empower citizens, after the 20th Century’s relentless trend toward the “professionalization of everything.” One overlooked aspect of the 9/11 tragedy was that citizens themselves were most effective in our civilization’s defense, reacting with resiliency and initiative while armed with new technologies:

Now a large project is taking shape to improve forecasting. It involves thousands of volunteers and the wisdom of crowds. It’s officially known as the Forecasting World Events Project and is sponsored by the Intelligence Advanced Research Activity (IARPA). The idea is to raise five large competing teams of people of diverse backgrounds who will be asked to make predictions on fields that range from politics and global security to business and economics, public health, social and cultural change and science and technology. The project is expected to run for four years and stems from the recognition that expert forecasts are very often wrong.

Now, mind you, I approve of this general idea and endeavor. Still, one looks back across earlier “crowd-sourced wisdom” efforts, like the “delphi” polls of the 1960s, and it’s clear that we are still stumbling around. My own general take on the topic of prediction takes a very broad view, spanning centuries. (For a less abstract, preening approach, see a wiki that has been set up by some meticulous fans, attempting to track my own near future forecasts.)


A new series in Scientific American asks science luminaries to “describe a hard problem that may be impossible – or almost impossible – to investigate.” The initial essay deals with printing human organs. Some time later, my own contribution will be about (you guessed it) uplifting higher animals to sapience.

But heck, as long as were on the subject, though, here’s another “almost impossible problem” that I ruminated about. The most cosmic — even meta-cosmic — question that we can grapple with is: “Are we currently living in a simulation?

It is the biggest simply because everything we consider to be “the universe” – and even its possible participation in some larger “context” of multiple cosmos – might be contrived and presented to us in an ersatz experience.

Of course, this is an old quandary, going back to Plato’s allegory of the cave or the Chinese tale of the Emperor and the butterfly. In our case, the “dream” or “illusion” may be something tangible – a super extrapolation of our own technology. Are we being just as naive and clueless now?

Several suggestions have been made, regarding experiments or observations that might reveal whether the larger context of our universe is a simulation. One of these is already known… the discrete division of nature into “quanta” that cannot be further divided. Also, the tendency of quantum mechanics to deal in probabilities, without having to calculate position and momentum to infinite precision.

These two traits of our universe are spectacularly convenient, if it happens to be a simulation. They limit the amount of computing power required in order to drive our simulated world forward. A fact that one might deem very creepy. (As if quantum mechanics weren’t creepy enough!)

Would it be dangerous to explore this hypothesis further? Consider that it may displease the owners of the simulation, to have their subjects aware that they are in an experiment, and possibly biasing their decisions because of that, or even interfering! Perhaps even thereupon speaking up and demanding rights?

I explored all of this in an award-winning short story: “Stones of Significance,” that you can read on my website.

Um, in fact, I have just been told that I had better stop talking about this. The owner has his finger on the REBOOT button….

(Till then… keep making conjectures!)


*This is actually pretty big news. * See an excellent and dispassionate survey of the most recent re-appraisal of rates of average climate warming (without examining the cause.) You’ll get a better picture of the players in the controversy and how (gradually) science is starting to eliminate the skeptics’ concerns.

Interesting, slightly-creepy technical discussions of implanted RFID tags letting the researcher enter his house/car and control his environment with waves of the hand. The beginnings of Harry Potter style incantation! Plus discussion of security/hacking dilemmas. Loved the “Faraday-Cage pants!”

Also a panel discussion on “Uberveillance.”

Analyzing percentages of deaths by kilowatt hour. Nuclear far down the list. Even after Fukushima. We need to learn, improve, innovate and not lose our heads.

See a fantastically effective chart portraying the various thresholds and doses and known effects from exposure to ionizing radiation. Sets a lot of things (including Anne Coulter’s loony notion of immunizing hormesis of low doses being “good for you”) in perspective. (One small observation. Don’t go into a profession requiring you to fly from Ny to LA every week!)


Eyes on the Solar System” is a 3-D environment full of real NASA mission data. Explore the cosmos from your computer. Hop on an asteroid. Fly with NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft. See the entire solar system moving in real time. It’s up to you. You control space and time!

Alert to all you hard sci fi writers. To Search for Intelligent ETs — Signs of Mining Asteroid Belts may be visible from Earth. Any technologically advanced civilization will require resources, which may become depleted on their home planet. Large scale mining may be detectable by analyzing the thermal and chemical signatures from dust debris — though such signs may be hard to distinguish from collisions and natural erosion. (I used to do research in this field. Knew it all along! 😉

Electric wands could allow future firefighters to extinguish flames with a wave of the hand, recent experiments suggest.

After a 6 year journey, 15 loops around the sun and three flybys of Mercury, NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft entered the orbit of Mercury — the first probe to orbit the planet. Its mission: to photograph and map Mercury’s surface composition, study its atmosphere & exosphere, its magnetic field and interaction with solar wind. I want to see those polar craters! MESSENGER stands for MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, Geochemistry and Ranging. It’s the second spacecraft sent to Mercury – -the first being Marine 10 in 1975. Why polar craters? It’s where there just might be water!

And now this… Solar Probe: First mission to sun scheduled for 2018. I was named in the proposal… because of my novel SUNDIVER!

The hexagon on Saturn’s north pole… solved! (?)


Facebook has declared that all posts by members on their walls are public property. And the Library of Congress is recording all Tweets. The U.S. has a patchwork of laws, some applying to banking, some to medical records. Even those laws won’t prevent those in the know from knowing everything about you. If you don’t want something made public, don’t put it online. I’ve been writing about this since before the Web.

There are solutions, but they’ll take innovation, compromise… and agility.



Filed under science, society

5 responses to “Predicting the Future….a Touchy Business

  1. atroon

    Looks like all three of the links in the section ‘More Science That’s Just Cool’ are dead, as well as the two to in the previous section. Thanks for a great post though…my first time here. A lot to think about.

  2. beoShaffer

    On the topic of simulation. Can you think of anything that would disprove the idea that we are in a simulation? The only thing that springs to mind is if we were to observe phenomenon that aren’t turing compatible, like certain types of time loops(yes I am reading Harry Potter and The Methods of Rationality). And even then I think I can come up with some ways that a turing machine based simulation could fake those phenomenon, not sure yet, but I have ideas including but not limited to the obvious ones involving memory modification.

  3. Is the universe a simulation? That’s a titillating speculation, but how can it be tested? If we could call out, “Computer, exit!” and see an opening into the broader reality, that would be a way of knowing. Other than that, the typical way of determining one’s status is to notice a glitch in the programming. I suppose that a perfect simulation is actually not a simulation at all. It’s a creation. And here we’re coming to religion and philosophy, but not science.

  4. ralph

    Interesting article. I have been pondering such questions for years, and have also been on the lookout for signs that could represent some form of inevitable glitch. No created system is going to be perfect. Unless we are continually ‘rolled back’ to a previous state to erase obvious system errors from our experience, there will likely be some unexplained oddity in this virtual world.
    How odd is something as commonly accepted as the speed of light? Real or illusion? Particle/wave duality? Your guess is as good as mine. Deja vu? Perhaps a memory remnant of a rollback? How about the ostensible accelerated universal expansion, based on an questionable, yet generally unchallenged, assumption of redshift relating to distance?
    Alas, maybe we make the universe stranger than it really is sometimes. Even if we were to find clues of simulation, the question simply expands to whether ‘they’ are also simulated, and ‘those others’ before them, and… never ending.

  5. The idea of a simulated reality had me thinking all day. On the face of it, the question seems to point toward an answer to another question: can the existence of God be demonstrated scientifically? After all, “God” seems as good a designation as any for the “simulator.”

    On the other hand, does there have to be a conscious agency running the simulation? Could the universe itself be the engine on which the simulation runs? Can this idea be connected with the notion of a holographic universe? Perhaps “simulation” is itself a misleading term, and it would be more accurate to say that reality is a computed output running on an operating system of fundamental laws that could be many (or no) steps removed from the physical laws we observe.

    Heady stuff. If it seems depressing, though, I can think of no better response than:

    Let teachers and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.

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