Looking to the Future: An Interview

Looking-to-the-futureAs I prepare to speak to the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Congress in Vilnius, Lithuania, on November 6, here is an interview that I gave to one of the major European journals covering the event:

  • 1. Mr. David Brin, you are a science fiction writer and in the past you had a chance to consult some of the world’s most largest corporations. So my question is – what can be predicted considering the future by a writer, that can’t be predicted by executives of the largest corporations?

Organs in our brains – the prefrontal lobes – uniquely compel human beings to do “thought experiments” about what might come to pass. We do this obsessively, despite knowing full-well that our forecasts won’t come true, because the process still enables us to confront a myriad bad decisions and outcomes, eliminating many of those and making up stories that might lead to success.

All human civilizations invested heavily in prediction. In the past, shamans read goat entrails or the stars. Our current society employs millions to engage in this kind of work, from stock market analysts to politicians and business leaders whose job — after all — is to appraise approaching needs and opportunities, allocating resources accordingly. Trained as a scientist, I tend to view those professions as ill-disciplined! But even science can be murky as it looks ahead.

1984It is in my role as a science fiction author that I get to stretch a bit, peering beyond the typical five-year horizon. It is the sort of long-gaze shown by the medieval cathedral builders.  In science fiction we seldom try to “predict” the future, so much as illustrate trends, extrapolate possibilities… and occasionally to issue stark warnings. George Orwell’s classic novel NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR  was a “self-preventing prophecy” that stirred millions of terrified readers into action, working to prevent the author’s vision from coming true.

  • 2. What are the most common questions asked by representatives of the largest corporations? What are they trying to learn from you? Do they want to know predictions about the evolution of the technology, or they want to learn how the new technology might influence people’s life in the future?

In the near term, they want hints about business opportunities and dangers.  For example, what trends might make the current motif for cell-phones (a rectangular slab in your pocket) obsolete?   Will rising world education levels, decentralization of skill, and the rise of desktop manufacturing mean the return of cottage industry, replacing large-scale manufacturing? Will biological synthesis follow its own Moore’s Law pattern, the way computers have, leading to an Internet of organic chemistry?

The biggest forces are social. What will happen when the 20th Century’s relentless drive to “professionalize everything” comes to an end — as it must. Will we see a rising era of amateurs? Will ubiquitous cameras — getting smaller, faster, cheaper and more mobile each year — lead to a Big Brother state, or to hyper-empowered individualism?  And if all individuals get to see, like gods, will this lead to tyranny by mobs? Or increased autonomous respect?

I do not offer answers, only lots of questions.

  • 3. Is it possible to state, that the vitality of a corporation directly depends on ability to identify how the world will change in next decade?

Our prefrontal lobes compel us to anticipate, and new tools for anticipation are arriving in a flood, from Big Data to vision and behavior analytics, from social modeling systems to face recognition and even artificial intelligence.  Setting aside (for now) the implications for freedom, the biggest concern is how uneven these tools will be, how fraught with error. No matter how effective, they will fail, sooner or later! And when anticipation fails, there is just one trait that can save the day.  For ten thousand years it has been the partner of anticipation.

That trait is resilience.

  • 4. When we talking about future predictions, how much are those predictions  important to small players? For example to small companies, or individuals who want to start a business? Maybe for a student, who want’s to become a dentist, isn’t important how the teeth will be fixed in the next decade, because in any case he will get all the necessary knowledge at the university? 

The corporation is one method by which human beings organize themselves to pursue common goals.  It has been remarkably successful, though there is nothing sacred about it, nor about any one form of government. (Indeed, both types of system become brittle when they are top-heavy.)

A counter-trend has been building momentum. It is the agility of self-organizing groups of highly skilled individuals.  At first this manifested in “non-governmental organizations” like Amnesty International, or Medicins Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders) who copied corporate structures in order to allow millions to sort their pooled efforts according to interest and passion.

Lately, we have seen bolder experiments with ad-hoc structures, most famously in quasi-legal entities like WikiLeaks and Anonymous. Online ratings systems, for example on Amazon, Yelp, and eBay, only crudely coordinate what will soon become a crucial matter of our era — reputation management. These primitive efforts are not yet the “smart mobs” portrayed in some science fiction.  Self-organizing systems may empower the new Age of Amateurs to spectacular achievements, like those accomplished by the 20th Century’s Age of Professionals.

  • 5. What do you think about a prediction and a vision, that maybe in the year 2050 nobody will be able to lie, because devices like Google Glasses will be able work as a 100% correct lie detectors? No more populists who try to win a president election by lying? 

SundiverMy 1980 novel SUNDIVER dealt glancingly with a future in which it became difficult to lie, because all citizens could track the gaze of politicians or salesmen and the eyes would involuntarily reveal deception.  Recent scientific work suggests that something like this may be coming.  In which case, we will have to decide what kind of society we want.  We have several options.  If we try to ban these technologies, that will only ensure that we — you and I — don’t have them, but elites will get them anyway, in secret.

Or we may all grab these methods and then use them against each other, dissolving into a morass of accusations and recriminations. A war of all against all.

Or we could decide to moderate this world of vision with good sense, by cultivating a general social norm of forgiveness for small mistakes… because we will all need it. Catching dangerous or malicious lies, we may also forgive and shrug-off the inevitable foolish exaggerations and slips of the tongue that are deeply part of human life.

  • 6. In your opinion, how will the world  look in a year 2050? People with artificial body parts and cyborgs all around? Or maybe every disease can be healed in seconds, and lost body parts regrown in minutes? How about a vision, where everyone is living in a virtual world, where androids do all the work in “real“ world? Will people live longer, and our world will be much safer place? (If possible please justify your arguments in more details)

People should become familiar with the term “social singularity” which is today much discussed by the brightest young people. It is the notion that human knowledge has been accelerating for generations and that acceleration will rise even faster across the next few decades. Just one technology — artificial intelligence — could arrive from any of six different directions. If it does come… and assuming the new minds are friendly … then our rise in knowledge and capability may accelerate even faster.

KurzweilSingularityCoverSome believers in this “singularity” expect that we organic humans will get to join the rapid rise in intelligence, through improvements in brain function or through augmentations, or by linking our minds with external components, much as our ancestors did when they added another layer — when mutation gave them the  spectacular prefrontal lobes. They, too, had to adjust to becoming much smarter, very rapidly.

We cannot know what life will be like for those descendants.  (Indeed, some believe it will happen so quickly that such godlike leaps will be provided to you, the person reading this, within a few years!)

Whether it happens fast or slow, we can hope that our best, most central human values (like honor and charity and a sense of humor) will be deeply embedded in that world to come. If that happens, then the mighty beings who follow us will still be… human.

  • 7. Which of the currently emerging technologies will lead to major changes in how we work, how we consume, and how we produce goods?

Desktop fabrication will probably not eliminate manufacturing, mass-production and delivery systems. But it will become a factor, when people can upload design patterns and create their own small parts or machines. Even factory-produced items will be personally tailored to the needs of particular customers. Impatience with old-fashioned delivery systems may provoke the return of pneumatic tube transport for small or medium-scale packages. If asteroidal resources become available, all metals will plummet in price, including gold and platinum.

resiliencyThe late 20th Century obsession with efficiency in production and delivery improved profit margins and quality in many industries, like automobiles. But we saw fads like Just-in-Time parts delivery hit a devastating wall in the calamity of Fukushima, Japan.  There – and in other disasters – we have learned that Nature does not only want us to be efficient. Our bodies are also resilient.  Governments and societies need to encourage this trait in our production and supply chains.

For example: laws that tax the warehousing of parts must be changed to instead encourage factories to keep on-hand supplies — stockpiles that can keep businesses going during disruptions. Beyond that, local production will reduce vulnerabilities and dependence on trans-oceanic shipping. A global economy is great, but local self-sufficiency will be a counter trend of real value.

  • 8. Let’s go back to the year 2050. What car we will drive then? Some people say that we’ll have better batteries for electric cars, others say that future belongs to hydrogen powered electric cars. What is your opinion? Maybe we won’t have cars at all and travel in glass tubes from one city to another?

UKEarthPBI portray hydrogen powered cars being used by 2050 in my novels EARTH and EXISTENCE. There are real potential advantages… but not in the near term.  The required infrastructure, if we copy gasoline distribution, would be insane. Hydrogen will make sense only when solar power becomes so plentiful that you fill your tank at home.

The big news has been the spectacular improvement in electric cars. The motors and control systems were more than ready and battery improvements, including super-capacitors, are clearly on the horizon.

What few people — including science fiction authors — expected was for the the self-driving car to burgeon so rapidly. Science fiction tales envisioned that it would require “smart roadways” with embedded cables and centralized computer control. But onboard vision and analysis systems have progressed to the point where cars can see us, anticipate trouble and avoid accidents. The implications are astounding.

  • 9. Another tough question – oceans and the human future? Will we have cities underwater? There is a lot of most needed resources under ocean flour, when we will be able to get our hands on them? Our maybe asteroid mining is the future? 

Asteroid-MiningAsteroid mining is a dream that only a few of us shared in the 1980s.  Ocean settlement goes even farther back.  Both frontiers offer the potential (still speculative but well-based) for spectacular benefits that might enrich human society far beyond any memory of poverty. Both must overcome serious obstacles. In accessing the vast resources from asteroids — which include almost everything we currently tear out of the Earth through mines — we must first decide to be ambitious. To become again a people who invest boldly in space. That dream has been almost crushed by cynicism, but the numbers suggest that cynics are wrong. The dreamers were right.

The sea is an immense problem and opportunity that we can only handle with care and plenty of science.  It will do us no good to exploit the riches below if we harm or kill Mother Ocean. At the same time, recall that 75% of the seas are “desert” areas, poor in nutrients and almost barren of life.  Ways may be found to “fertilize” some stretches, creating new fisheries and removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.  There is a careful middle ground, exploring these concepts with care, but refusing to be daunted into sitting on our hands.

  • 10. In the fifth decade of the last century science fiction writers predicted that by year 2000 we would have colonies on Moon, and a lot of people will be live in space stations orbiting Earth. That didn’t happen. What is correct year for Moon base? And if we ever construct a Moon base, how this will affect humanity’s thinking? Can a new philosophy or view to life emerge from space conquest? Will people still believe in God, when they will know that it takes only 15 minutes flight to an amusement park in Moon?

When the year 2001 came around, I had to answer many questions like: “where are the moon bases we were promised?” But watch again the film by Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick. It portrayed a civilization that by the year 2001 had made greater leaps in spaceflight than we’ve achieved. But society had progressed much less on a human plane. It conveyed a world commanded by patronizing, smug white-male-American bosses who operated in habitual secrecy. Now, you may claim that was accurate! But put aside the reflex. Today’s world – for all its flaws – is far more open and diverse — even at pinnacles of power — than Kubrick and other science fiction writers expected or imagined. In other words, space proved to be hard! But we have made progress in areas that seemed even harder, including the human heart.

BetterAngelsDo facts support this claim? In his book “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” Professor Steven Pinker shows how violence per-capita, worldwide, has declined steeply, every decade since 1945, propelled largely by the self-criticism habit that leaves us never satisfied, always eager to improve. Likewise, most of the world’s children now live in homes with basic sanitation and electricity.  Pinker had better be right!  If he is, then our heirs may have the wisdom to manage not only society and a planet, but a solar system filled with opportunities and wonders.

  • 11. Last, but the most important question for us. What kind of future you predict for small countries like Lithuania? What can you advise for our politicians and scientists? We have limited resources, so where to focus? Do we need to follow niche technology road (like focus on lasers, biotechnology), or try to invest even a small amount of money to every emerging technology? What advice would you give to parents who will have children this year, and those children will start studies in a year 2033?

Globalization has been a mixed blessing. Great positive benefits followed the wave of export-driven development as successive nations had a chance to work hard and send their children to school.  The process was seldom perfectly just — or easy on the planet — but the growth of a world-majority middle class has been a miracle, and those educated children will demand more improvements, still.

Globalization also carries dangers: ecological, ethical, and a risk of cultural homogenization as regional and local differences are drenched in a Standard International Culture. Corporate consolidation makes competition difficult for small countries or small businesses or individuals. Oligarchy is a mistake that plagued every society across 6000 years.

But we have seen that there will be opportunities, too. Smaller nations — like individuals — must be agile. Opportunities may be sudden and short-lived, the way Finland strode across the world stage of telecommunications for a time. More often, there will be opportunities for alliances our parents could never have imagined. A Lithuanian artists’ collective might collaborate with a consortium of independent neural-interface designers in San Diego, plus fabrication experts in Malaysia and a set of encryption crackers in Smolensk.  A new kind of passenger seat for automobiles might be prototyped in Chengdu but produced in Vilnius by a company that never learns the identity of the original designer… an artificial intelligence residing in one of Google’s self-driving cars.

Small countries will probably also be the drivers for innovation in governance. You will not get fresh ideas about constitutional freedom from major powers like the United States, China or Russia. We all may have benefited from a generally benign Pax Americana, but that Pax will have to give way to something else, in time. And that next thing is more likely to emerge from small nations that are bold enough to experiment, developing new and quicker ways for individual citizens to exercise sovereignty, freedom, creativity and the rising, agile power to make alliances anywhere on the planet.


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