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What Foresight is about

It’s a good thing we got Nanodot moved onto a new server recently — we just had a huge spike in readers.  This is due to one recent post, Some Historical Perspective, being picked up and spread around the climate-change blogosphere.  Of the pageviews we have had over the past three months, 10% of them happened yesterday.

Internet flashcrowds are something new in the world.  Fads mediated by print media unrolled with glacial slowness compared to the speed of the WWW.  Broadcast media speed things up a bit but lose the effect of feedback at its own speed.  Whereas the people visiting a blog page can talk to each other, just as if they were a crowd collecting in a town square.

Just in case some of you were interested enough to hang around and look at other posts here, here’s a quick guided tour of the square you find yourselves in.

Foresight is one of the longest-running think tanks devoted to studying the possibilities for revolutionary change in the human condition made possible by certain likely developments in technology.  We were essentially founded to extend the analysis of the startling possibilities popularized in the book Engines of Creation by K. Eric Drexler, (which can be read in its entirety here).  We have a lot in common with a number of newer institutes, many of which have the word “singularity” in their names, but there is a difference, albeit perhaps only a philosophical one. “Singularity” is a concept that emphasizes what we can’t know about upcoming changes (because, e.g., they are being made by AIs smarter than us).  “Foresight” emphasizes the things we can know.

The Foresight Institute brings a wide variety of tools to the job of understanding what’s next, ranging from direct examination of currently developing science and technology as in the Technology Roadmap for Productive Nanosystems, to historical examination of similar technological revolutions in the past:

What kind of growth rate would we expect from a mind-makes-mind loop? One possible hint is that the preceding jumps seem to have the structure of a 1-2 punch. Each is a ka-boom where the ka is something informational and the boom is the physical working out of the new knowledge. For the Industrial Revolution, the ka was the printing press and science itself. For agriculture, the ka was writing and proto-writing, such as cave pictures and counting with tally marks.
Now here’s an interesting statistic: the number of scientific papers, starting in the 1700s, had a doubling time (15 years) that foreshadowed the doubling time of the mature industrial economy. We don’t have any way of measuring the doubling time of proto-writing, as far as I know, so this is a shot in the dark.
The modern-day ka to the Singularity’s boom is of course computers and the internet. These have a very well known bundle of growth rates that are on the order of a year doubling time.

In this case, we would go from the factor of 250 for agriculture to the factor of 60 for the Industrial Revolution to a factor of 15 for the “Singularity.” Which means the doubling time would drop from 15 years to … one year, right in the Moore’s Law range. Our shot in the dark has been followed by a muffled thud.
To sum up: the “Singularity” should best be thought of as the second half of the information technology revolution, extending it to most physical and intellectual work. Overall economic growth rates will shift from their current levels of roughly 5% to Moore’s Law-like rates of 70% to 100%. The shift will probably take on the order of a decade (paralleling the growth of the internet), and probably fall somewhere in the 20s, 30,s or 40s.

A major similarity of the technological phase changes in the past has been that the new technology has always been self-reproducing — we call it autogenous — and thus being the basis for higher sustainable growth rates.  Fire, agriculture, machine tools, and soon, we believe, nanofactories.  In order to achieve Moore’s Law-like growth rates in the physical economy, a nanofactory would only have to be able to make a copy of itself in a year and a half.

So, here’s some more historical perspective:  the possibility of shifting into a 70% economic growth mode is enough to make many present concerns, including climate change, look pretty trivial.  The IPCC estimates of the effect of climate change through the end of the century are that it will cost 5% of the economy in 2100 (compare 2100 GDP in table 1a under scenario A1FI vs A1T here.).  That’s the same as lowering the growth rate from 3.04% to 2.99% over a century. Our grandchildren would be 19 times richer than us, instead of 20 times.

Assume instead that nanotech kicks in in 2050.  There’ll be the physical capability for there to be 10 billion times as much machinery in the world then as now (just as it’s easy for you to own 10 billion times the computing power your grandfather had in 1959, today).  A simple way to envision this is that everyone could own a space shuttle where they now own a car.  Or an ocean liner instead of a house (so we don’t care what the sea levels are).  But the simple bottom line is that is that 10 billion times as much machinery simply isn’t going to be run on fossil fuels.  There’s not the fuel, there’s not the air to burn, there’s not the heat sink for the back end of heat engines. Simply to allow it to come anywhere close to a fraction of a percent of its potential value, nanotech machinery will have to be extremely clean, quiet, and efficient, and even then it’ll probably mostly be in space.

In other words, all that greentech is going to happen anyway, purely due to market forces.  But there will be a Jevons effect with a vengeance.

 

One Response to “What Foresight is about”

  1. Valkyrie Ice Says:

    Hi JoSh. Always fun reading your blogs.

    Been having quite the arguments at ImmInst over your Historical perspective piece. Also been having quite the debate over at H+ about the inevitability of technological progress. I always find it highly amusing to have a long debate, and then come over here to Foresight and suddenly read a post you’ve made which seems to echo the same reasoning I’ve been following.

    To wit, I’ve been arguing for a while, and recently on H+, that mankind has gone through numerous singularities. The Industrial Revolution was one, but the one I really find fascinating is the printing press.

    Many people don’t see the printing press as that big of a deal, but it truly was a singularity. No-one who was living before the printing press could really understand exactly was mass printing could lead to. Yes, it’s quite possible to describe how a printing press works to a pre PP person, but they would have never foreseen the Reformation, the fall of the feudal system, the Renaissance, the age of reason, and eventually the rise of democracy, modern industrial society, and eventually the internet.

    All shockwaves from the Singularity caused by the Printing Press.

    I think too many people view the singularity as a techno savior. Let’s make smarter than us AI and they will solve all our problem. But to me, it’s the technologies that lead to the Singularity which I find the most fascinating.

    I doubt you remember, but in the 90′s I wrote to you about the possibility of Utility Fog uploads, i.e. uploads interfacing with the physical world through the use of Utility Fog robots. This was way back on my days discussing things on Sci.nanotech, and the original slash.dot and Nano.dot. Since then, so many things have happened that it really excites me.

    I truly believe we will see some amazing advances in the next decade. The sheer number of advances made just this year alone is staggering. With the release of the Project Natal for the XBox, it looks like we finally have all the elements in place for commercial VR available to the public, not just in labs, and I think in many ways, that is going to speed up the research in most everything else. VR can give people a taste of that so hard to visualize future of nanomanufacturing, and the economy of abundance it will bring, as well as the abilities which human enhancement can provide, and the personal freedom to alter their bodies to suit themselves. By allowing us to test drive the future, not only will it spark interest in creating that future, it will allow us to understand the dangers which we must be aware of and counter.

    The year I was born, Man first walked on the moon. But through the 70′s and the 80′s it seemed like the world was only going to be a drab dreary dystopia. I lived my teens and early twenties wishing I had been born at any time but this one. I would have rather been fighting off the Cardinal’s men next to D’Artagnan or exploring space on the Enterprise. Anywhere but in this world that seemed only made of broken dreams and empty promises.

    And then I read a book called Nano, and read about the ideas of Drexler, and you, and others, and realized that far from being in a world without hope, we stood on the brink of a world in which the wildest dreams of Asimov and Heinlein, and Clark were but the faintest of hints of what would come.

    I’ve been watching that dream come true step by step ever since.

    So in addition to enjoying reading your blog, let me just say thank you for making me realize that I live in the most interesting of all times to be alive, and making me take an interest in the real world.

    And most of all, for giving me hope. Even if it is nano-sized :)

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