June 3, 2010
To provide a preview of the “world’s fair of ideas” that will transpire at the conference our partner,
Bentley Systems, is hosting three Webinars featuring WorldFuture 2010 speakers.
The Webinars are free but require advance registration.
Go here to register now!
The Virtualization of America
(and the World)
A Conversation with Michael Rogers
Time: Tuesday, June 8, 2:00 PM EDT US (6:00 UTC)
The Internet will change tremendously in the next 10 years. A more important question is, how will it change us? Children born this decade will have to learn what “offline” means, because being online will be the normal condition of life. It is an era of social reorganization equaled only by the rise of cities 6,000 years ago. But unlike urbanization, this enormous transition will take place in a matter of decades rather than centuries. At WorldFuture 2010, “practical futurist” Michael Rogers will describe what will be
gained in this historic transition, what will be lost, and what challenges are ahead.
Internet Evolution: Where Hyperconnectivity and Ambient Intimacy Take Us
A Conversation with Lee Rainie
Time: Thursday, June 17, 2:00 PM EDT (6:00 UTC)
Imagine the implications of the future that most technology experts foresee: Wireless devices are embedded in everything including us; cameras record activity in all public spaces; databases catalogue our online moves; invisible, ambient networked computing makes us available to more people in more ways; software exhibits humanlike thinking; and a direct brain-to-computer interface is possible. These are just some of the future scenarios predicted by experts, as documented by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, directed by Lee Rainie. At WorldFuture 2010, Rainie will discuss the most recent, widely covered Future of the Internet Survey, which asked Internet experts from across the globe for their take on how the Web will evolve in the decade(s) ahead.
The City Sustainable
A Conversation with Jennifer Jarratt and John
Time: Tuesday June 29, 2:00 PM EDT (6:00 UTC)
What’s the future for the metropolis? Except for some experiments in planned communities, cities develop haphazardly over the ages. At WorldFuture 2010, leading futurists Jennifer Jarratt and John Mahaffie will introduce alternatives to the city of today, which are masses of people, buildings, and structures linked together chaotically. The tools for reinventing the city in the twenty-first century include new building technologies that bring sustainability and greater efficiency into construction and changes in the very concept of “city” from urban concrete to green communities.
Merging With the Machines: Information Technology, Artificial Intelligence, and the Law of Exponential Growth
This interview was conducted by Aaron M. Cohen on behalf of World Future Review.
World Future Review: What does it mean to build “new and improved” human intelligence? And where are we in terms of bringing this to reality?
Kurzweil: There are two components must be achieved to create a human-level artificial intelligence. First, the hardware capacity of the human brain and, second, emulating the brain’s own software techniques.
There are a number of different ways to analyze what the hardware requirements are. If you take the most conservative analysis, which is 1016 calculations per second [10 million billion calculations per second or 10 billion MIPS], we’ll actually have that by next year in a supercomputer and we’ll have it for about $1000 by 2020. By 2029, that level of computation will be very inexpensive….
But the goal is not just to create a simulation. The actual goal is to understand how it works, understand its basic principles. That’s the software. We can engineer systems that don’t have the restrictions of a human brain, which, for example, has to fit into a less than one cubic foot skull that runs on a chemical substrate that sends messages at a few hundred feet per second (which is a million times slower than electronics), that computes at a mere 200 calculations per second, and so on. We won’t be limited to a billion pattern recognizers in the cerebral cortex—we could have a trillion. And if we understand the basic principles by which the brain creates intelligent behavior, we can focus and leverage it and create much more powerful systems.
I’m actually writing a new book to amplify that case called How the Mind Works—and How to Build One which will talk about the tremendous progress since The Singularity Is Near came out in 2004 in this reverse-engineering project. Human level intelligence in machines is not going to displace us, compete with us, it’s not an invasion coming from Mars—these are tools we’re creating to basically expand ourselves, who we are. And that’s what we’ve done with tools since we’ve had tools. Ever since we picked up a stick to reach a higher branch, we’ve used it to extend our reach—the things we couldn’t otherwise do. First physically and now mentally.
WFR: What are the most pressing environmental issues that we should be concerned about as we move forward? And in a world where nanoengineered photovoltaic panels have eliminated fossil fuels, what will our obligation to the environment be?
Kurzweil:The first industrial revolution technologies were a compromise. They are harmful to the environment. Like, for example, fossil fuels. We are running out of energy if we limit ourselves to 19th century technologies like fossil fuels, but obviously we don’t need to do that.
We have the opportunity to move away from fossil fuels. Solar has the most headroom but there are others … [for example,] there’s also a tremendous amount of geothermal energy. There are many different renewable, decentralized, environmentally-friendly technologies that ultimately will be extremely inexpensive. There’s a 50% deflation rate to information technology (an implication of the law of accelerating returns). It’s actually about 25% in the case of solar energy—a 25% deflation rate each year—but that means that it ultimately will be very inexpensive—much less expensive than comparable fossil fuels—and it has the added advantages of being environmentally-friendly and decentralized, unlike today’s supertankers and nuclear power plants, which are centralized and therefore vulnerable to catastrophic centralized destruction. New technologies in general are decentralized, and that makes them safer. The Internet is decentralized—if a piece of it goes down, the information just routes around it.
Over the next one or two decades, there will be another food revolution. We’ll go from horizontal agriculture, which has dominated humanity for the last several thousand years, to vertical farming—basically, computer-controlled factories creating hydroponic plants for fruits and vegetables and in vitro-cloned meat, which could be engineered to be much healthier. [For example,] you could have beef with Omega 3 fats rather than saturated fat.
Same thing for housing. There’s an emerging industry of three-dimensional printing. Right now, the key features are at the microscale, but within 20 years, it will be at the nanoscale and we’ll be able to print out three-dimensional objects of extreme complexity. Today, we can print out modules to build inexpensive housing that’s very sturdy, earthquake proof, and basically snap them together Lego-style. These little modules have all the pipes and communication lines built in. One of the projects at Singularity University was to use three-dimensional printing to create low-cost housing for the developing world. We can house people very comfortably if we convert resources in the right way. Ultimately, with nanotechnology being able to produce inexpensive modules for houses as well as everything else we need, we’ll be able to do that at very low cost.
WFR: You recently said in a interview with H+ Magazine, “whereas we can articulate technical solutions to the dangers of biotech, there‘s no purely technical solution to a so-called unfriendly AI. We can‘t just say, ‘We‘ll just put this little software code sub-routine in our AIs, and that‘ll keep them safe.’ I mean, it really comes down to what the goals and intentions of that artificial intelligence are. We face daunting challenges.” In THE FUTURIST in 2006, you acknowledged that unlike nanotechnology, “superintelligence by its nature cannot be controlled.” Can you elaborate a little more on the risks and dangers? Also, given those risks and dangers, if there’s no real way to safeguard things from a dystopian scenario, why is strong AI desirable?
Kurzweil: I don’t think we should envision it with a model of, someone’s going to create this Strong AI in a laboratory and unleash it on the world. That’s not the way it’s going to happen. We have hundreds of examples today of Narrow AI—programs doing tasks that used to be done by human intelligence but doing them better and less expensively—and the narrowness is gradually getting less narrow. And this intelligence is deeply integrated with our own already, even if, for the most part, it’s not yet in our bodies and brains. There’s going to be a continuous exponential progression of computers getting more powerful, getting smaller, and we’re going to become more and more integrated with them. And they’ve already made us smarter, and I don’t just mean as measured by IQ tests. I mean by measurement of intellectually capability of our civilization, which includes all of the things that we can do with biological and non-biological intelligence working together.
That integration is going to become more and more intimate. In 2035, you’re not going to be able to walk into a room and say, “humans on the right side, machines on the left.” It’s going to be all mixed up and integrated—one complex, dynamic, chaotic human/machine civilization. Gradually over time, the nonbiological portion of humanity’s intelligence is going to grow exponentially. The biological portion is fixed. It’s really not going to change—not to any significant degree. So, over time, nonbiological technology will predominate. But it’s still going to be one civilization with people having different philosophies and arguing about values.
I would maintain we actually have much more consensus on human values than might appear. People focus on our differences and talk about culture wars, and yes, there are certain issues, but what we all agree on is actually much more pervasive than what we disagree on. This includes a belief in progress. The idea of progress is a fairly recent concept in human history. People didn’t think in terms of progress a thousand years ago. There actually was progress, but it was so slow as to be unnoticeable.
World Future Review: There are tens of billions of devoutly religious people around the globe. How do you sell the idea of super-intelligence, technological human enhancement, and virtual immortality to a global populace who would have to give up their core religious beliefs to embrace such a future? And would traditional religious beliefs be compatible with a world governed by technology?
Kurzweil: First, I think we should recognize that the major religions emerged in pre-scientific times and we need to update our philosophies based on what we’ve learned in the thousand years or so that we’ve had science. However, such ideas are not necessarily inconsistent with religious beliefs. In fact, the major religions have embraced technology and technological progress and the idea of human beings applying tools to overcome human suffering and extend life here on earth,. The major religions tend to be very pro-life and clearly support medical and scientific progress to expand human longevity. While they may not necessarily talk about radical life extension, [such concepts] are just natural extensions of the idea of human progress which the major religions do endorse. Even the pope has endorsed the idea of using science to overcome disease.
WFR: Speaking of e-commerce, you point to a future economic boom based on the exponentially increasing capability of computer power, coupled with decreasing cost, through the fulfillment of Moore’s law. Can you tell us a little about the explosion of wealth that will follow the explosion of technology?
Kurzweil: We have economic growth every year. If there’s a very slight downturn one year, we consider that a disaster and call it a recession. But there is economic growth in almost every year and all of that comes from information technology. The information industries grow 18% in constant dollars each year, despite the fact that you can get twice as much each year for the same price, because as price performance reaches a certain level, whole new applications explode. People didn’t buy iPods for $15,000 each15 years ago, which is what they would have cost. Social networks weren’t feasible six or seven years ago. And as new applications become feasible, they suddenly take off. E-books are now taking off because all the enabling factors are in place.
Every industry is gradually transforming into an information industry. Health and medicine is making that transformation now. Most of the economy will be information technology in the 2020s. … This is what’s providing economic growth. The non-information technology industries are shrinking.
WFR: I want to talk about something a little different, and that’s the role of creativity in a post-Singularity world. You’re the author of some of the first computer programs that compose poetry and music. What place is there in a post-Singularity world for those classic works of art and literature produced by non-enhanced humans—Shakespeare and DaVinci, for example—and how will we redefine creativity and the creative process in general? What will be lost if we give up these processes to software programs?
Also, is there room in the digital future for analog processes? There’s no linear progression when it comes to artistic tools—but there are constellations of widely-varying processes that are different from—but not superior to—the others. Movies didn’t render plays obsolete, for example. What will be lost if we give up these processes in our haste to embrace a fully-immersive technological future?
Kurzweil: Well, first of all, digital technology has already revolutionized the creation of art in every field, including graphic arts and music. Perhaps less so in language—although even there, certainly, research tools and other online tools are certainly helpful. But I was recently at the National Association of Music Merchants show, which I’ve gone to since 1983, and aside from the elaborately-dressed musicians and the cacophony of musical sounds that you hear on the trade show floor, it really looks and reads like a computer conference. I mean, there are some acoustic instruments, but for the most part, the instruments are very sophisticated from a technological perspective and the users are speaking in very sophisticated terms of single-processing and other computer paradigms. Same thing at a graphic arts conference. Graphic artists are using very sophisticated tools. Almost all of commercial music—at least popular music—is done by synthesizers. The digital world is doing a better and better job of emulating specific art forms that have evolved using real-world methods. It’s really just one aspect of virtual reality. I’ve been very involved with that in the musical field.
The ability of the digital world to emulate the real world is advancing and getting more and more subtle. Virtual reality today is cartoon-like, but if you look at Second Life, over the last 18 months, it’s become much more realistic. You can see where it’s headed to being very realistic and three-dimensional and full-immersion. That is the goal of the digital world: to emulate the natural world.
There are still many things that we can’t do in the digital world. You can simulate brush strokes and so on with digital tools, but you can’t yet really achieve the three-dimensional effect of an oil painting. But that’s the direction we’re headed in.
—Aaron M. Cohen
(Note: Patrick Tucker contributed to this interview.)
About the Interviewee:
Ray Kurzweil was the principal developer of the first CCD flat-bed scanner, the first omni-font optical character recognition, the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind, the first text-to-speech synthesizer, the first music synthesizer capable of recreating the grand piano and other orchestral instruments, and the first commercially marketed large-vocabulary speech recognition.
His many books include The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence (Viking, 1999), The Singularity is Near (Viking, 2005), and his most recent, co-authored with Terry Grossman, Transcend: Nine Steps to Living Well Forever (Rodale, 2009). He is the co-founder (along with X Prize Foundation chairman and CEO Peter Diamandis) of Singularity University. He is also a keynote speaker at WorldFuture 2010, the annual conference of the World Future Society.
May 4, 2010
At this year’s World Future Society conference, top minds and thought-leaders will collaborate and debate the major issues of the twenty-first century. Topics include:
Technology Futures and Their Massive Potential Societal Impacts, with Dennis Bushnell
At WorldFuture 2010, Dennis Bushnell, chief scientist at the NASA Langley Research Center, will discuss the stark reality of climate change and the high-tech solutions that the mainstream media have yet to discover. He’ll also touch on the technology breakthroughs, from quantum computing to nanotechnology to genetically engineered biofuels, that will remake human civilization in the twenty-first century.
As Bushnell recently told THE FUTURIST magazine, “If, by the year 2020, we’ve passed a critical climate tipping point and guaranteed future generations a much more difficult future, it won’t be because of a lack of available solutions today.”
Oceans and Our Global Future, with Susan Avery
Global sustainability is unrealizable without a strategy that includes the oceans. Susan Avery, president and director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, reminds us that the ocean and the atmosphere are shared, and we must have global cooperation to address such issues as ocean acidification, collapsing fisheries, and adaptation to and mitigation of global climate change. Avery will discuss the dangers facing the oceans today and how we can safeguard them for the future.
Keep It Simple Stupid: Energy/Environment Strategies, with Tsvi Bisk
When it comes to the intersection of economic growth and environmentalism, Israeli energy futurist Tsvi Bisk considers himself a realist. He wants to help businesspeople differentiate between what he calls “ideological wishful thinking” and doable policy aims. At WorldFuture 2010, he’ll discuss alternative energy technologies that are economically viable today, and he’ll lay bare the national security and business imperatives of energy self-sufficiency.
Building the Human Mind, with Ray Kurzweil
The computer is going to make its way into our bodies and brains says inventor Ray Kurzweil. At WorldFuture 2010, Kurzweil, winner of the National Technology Medal and author of the bestselling The Singularity Is Near, will discuss the research in his new book, How the Mind Works and How to Build One.
Around 2030, says Kurzweil, humankind will create a computer capable of creativity and contemplation, an artificial intelligence indistinguishable from what we today call human intelligence.
Thalamocortical Algorithms in Space! The Building of Conscious Machines and the Lessons Thereof, with Stephen Thaler
A highly proficient synthetic consciousness exists today, and it has been quietly thinking, creating, and churning out products for more than 30 years, according to inventor Stephen Thaler. His program, The Creativity Machine, has invented new-and-improved everything from toothbrushes to warheads, and has even released an album of original music compositions; it may represent the closest that inventors have come to achieving artificial intelligence and machine consciousness, says Thaler. At WorldFuture 2010, he’ll discuss the sociological, philosophical, and spiritual implications of this enormous breakthrough.
Navigating the Future: Moral Machines, Techno Sapiens, and the Singularity, with Wendell Wallach
“The possibility of a human disaster arising from the use of robots capable of lethal force is obvious,” wrote Yale bioethicist and AI expert Wendell Wallach in his 2009 book Moral Machines: Teaching Robots Right from Wrong. “Humans can hope that the designers of such systems becoming increasingly embedded in nearly every facet of society, from finance to communications to public safety, the real potential harm is most likely to emerge from an unanticipated combination of events.” At WorldFuture 2010, Wallach will lay out how we, as a society, will navigate the promise and perils emerging from today’s artificial intelligence research.
Media and the Internet
Internet Evolution: Where Hyperconnectivity and Ambient Intimacy Take Us, with Lee Rainie, Janna Anderson, and Barry Wellman
Imagine the implications of the future that most technology experts foresee: Wireless devices are embedded in everything—including us; cameras record activity in all public spaces; databases catalogue our online moves; invisible, ambient networked computing makes us available to more people in more ways; software exhibits humanlike thinking; and a direct brain-to-computer interface is possible. These are just some of the future scenarios predicted by experts, as documented by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, directed by Lee Rainie. At WorldFuture 2010, Rainie, Wellman, and Anderson will discuss the most recent, widely-covered Future of the Internet Survey, which asked Internet experts from across the globe for their take on how the Web will evolve in the decade(s) ahead.
The Virtualization of America (and the World), with Michael Rogers
The Internet will change tremendously in the next 10 years. A more important question is, how will it change us? Children born this decade will have to learn what “offline” means, because being online will be the normal condition of life. It is an era of social reorganization equaled only by the rise of cities 6,000 years ago. But unlike urbanization, this enormous transition will take place in a matter of decades rather than centuries. At WorldFuture 2010, “practical futurist” Michael Rogers will describe what will be gained in this historic transition, what will be lost, and what the challenges are ahead?
How the United States Can Remain a Competitive Force in the 21st Centurywith Michael G. Zey.
Are we entering a new historical epoch–a post-American world in which the United States will no longer be the world’s dominant economic, political, and military leader? According to futurist Michael Zey, the U.S. not only can remain competitive, but also could maintain its position as a global economic force. At WorldFuture 2010, Zey will discuss how the nation can “reindustrialize” to grow its energy base, embrace the human-enhancement revolution, revitalize its space program, and expand liberty and opportunity to further economic growth.
Appropriate Economics for the 21st Century? with Michael Marien
The time has come to redefine “economic growth,” for a new era, says Future Survey founder Michael Marien. We should replace our current measure of GNP, which omits “fundamental components” of wealth, such as the value of nature and human capital, with an economics appropriate for twenty-first century conditions. At WorldFuture 2010, he’ll discuss the “alternative economics” that will help us prosper in the twenty-first century.
These speakers, plus dozens more, will be on hand for Worldfuture 2010. We hope to see you there.
May 4, 2010
Communications scholar, WorldFuture 2010 speaker, Janna Anderson is charting a new path for education outside of the classroom.
The following interview was conducted by FUTURIST senior editor Patrick Tucker.
THE FUTURIST: You’ve talked about entrenched educational institutions of the industrial age, and how those will be replaced as computer interfaces will be improved. You’ve said that developments in materials science will make learning into a process that happens via computer and video game, and that may even be a precursor to learning by computer implant by 2030 or 2040. My first question is: What role does the classroom have in the classroom of the future?
Janna Anderson: I do believe that a face-to-face setting is an important element of learning. The era of hyperconnectivity will require that most professionals weave their careers and personal lives into a blended mosaic of activity. Work and leisure will be interlaced throughout waking hours, every day of the week. We need to move away from the format of school time and non-school time, which is no longer necessary. It was invented to facilitate the agrarian and industrial economies.
Faculty, teachers, and principals could inform students that they expect them to learn outside of the classroom and beyond homework assignments. The Internet plays a key role in that. Rather than classrooms, one can see the possible emergence of learning centers where students with no Internet access at home can go online, but everyone will be working on a different project, not on the same lesson. You can also imagine students making use of mobile and wireless technology for purposes of learning.
More importantly, we need to teach kids to value self-directed learning, teach them how to learn on their own terms, and how to create an individual time schedule. We need to combine face time with learning online. And we can’t be afraid to use the popular platforms like text-messaging and social networks. As those tools become more immersive, students will feel empowered and motivated to learn on their own — more so than when they were stuck behind a desk.
THE FUTURIST: One thing you and many others have said is that neuroscience has the potential to radically change the way we teach. As we develop a more real and full understanding of the way the brain accumulates knowledge, what technology, aside from IT, could change education?
Anderson: It’s hard to predict which new technology could capture people’s imaginations. I think the combination of bioinformatics — biology and information technology — could have the biggest impact in the next couple of decades. If we continue to see the digitization of all information, which renders even our chemistry knowable, the ramifications for education could be immense and unfathomable. But the far future is the confluence of too many different factors to see.
THE FUTURIST: Right now, many educators perceive a digital divide between the members of different socioeconomic classes. You’ve talked about how scalability — technology becoming cheaper and more available in the future — could help solve that. But what if some people adopt the new technology faster than others? There are early adopters and late adopters. Being a late adopter is a small matter when you’re talking about the new iPhone, but as education becomes increasingly digitized, late adoption could have significant consequences in terms of the educational quality. Do you see any threat of an adopter divide?
Anderson: There’s no doubt that there are capacity differences. When we’re talking about the digital divide, we’re not talking just about access to equipment, but also the intellectual capacity, the training to use it, and the ability to understand the need for it, as well as its importance. There’s no doubt that cultural differences are also a huge factor. In areas that have been less developed, especially in the global south, a capacity gap in terms of adoption of a new technology may emerge because some societies are less able to adopt something new at this point in time.
THE FUTURIST: How can this cultural divide be overcome?
Anderson: This is why the effort to educate women is so important. In cultures where women are highly educated and tend to be heads of the family in terms of the upbringing of their children, there’s a higher likelihood that those children are going to show a more open cultural perspective and be more willing to take up new technologies.
THE FUTURIST: So, you still see an active role for actual physical teachers. In many ways, teachers will be more necessary than ever if they’re going to help people, especially in less-developed nations, to pick up these technologies to improve their own lives?
Anderson: There’s definitely a role for technology evangelists who can help people to understand how to use information technology no matter what level they happen to be at. But the traditional idea of the teacher may be much less valuable to the future, just like the traditional library will have much less value. We need to remove the old books that no one has opened in twenty years and put them in nearby storage. What we do need are places were people can gather — places that foster an atmosphere of intellectual expansion, where learners can pursue deeper meaning or consult specialists with access to deep knowledge resources. It’s all about people accessing networked knowledge, online, in person, and in databases. We need collective intelligence centers, and schools could be that way, too.
THE FUTURIST: The Internet is inherently disruptive to business models; the decimation of the newspaper industry is a case in point. One of the aspects of digital education that people don’t talk about much is how disruptive it could be to the career of teaching. On the one hand, really great teachers will be able to reach a broader audience than ever before, but younger educators — teachers who have not yet hit their stride — could be left out. What happens when the educational community one day realizes that they’re facing the same forces of creative destruction that newspapers are facing today?
Anderson: Today there’s actually an advantage for young teachers because they generally understand better than the oldest generation how to implement new digital tools. If we eventually are able to “patch in” to all of the knowledge ever generated with a cybernetic implant, or if we are able to program advanced human-like robots or 3-D holograms to deliver knowledge resources, “elders” will have more influence over the content delivered. Regarding forces of advancing technology and their influence on things such as the news industry, the story of the entrenched institutions fighting change is an old one. We have to overcome the tyranny of the status quo. Many media leaders understood in the 1990s that they had to prepare for a new day, but they had this great profit machine. They wouldn’t let go of it until the economics of the situation forced them to change. Economics is generally the force that pushes leaders of stagnating institutions to adopt new paradigms. It will be interesting to see how all of this develops over the next few years.
Maybe what we need is a new employment category, like future-guide, to help people prepare for the effects of disruptive technology in their chosen professions so they don’t find themselves, frankly, out of a job.
About the Interviewee
Janna Anderson is an associate professor in Elon University’s School of Communications and the lead author of the Future of the Internet book series published by Cambria Press. She is also the author of Imagining the Internet: Personalities, Predictions, Perspectives (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005). She will be speaking at the World Future Society’s 2010 conference in Boston.
May 4, 2010
Unless we act, the next century could see increases in species extinction, disease, and floods affecting one third of human population. But the tools for preventing this scenario are in our hands.
By Dennis M. Bushnell, NASA Langely Chief Scientist, WorldFuture 2010 Speaker
Carbon-dioxide levels are now greater than at any time in the past 650,000 years, according to data gathered from examining ice cores. These increases in CO2 correspond to estimates of man-made uses of fossil carbon fuels such as coal, petroleum, and natural gas. The global climate computations, as reported by the ongoing Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) studies, indicate that such man-made CO2 sources could be responsible for observed climate changes such as temperature increases, loss of ice coverage, and ocean acidification. Admittedly, the less than satisfactory state of knowledge regarding the effects of aerosol and other issues make the global climate computations less than fully accurate, but we must take this issue very seriously.
I believe we should act in accordance with the precautionary principle: When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures become obligatory, even if some cause-and-effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.
As paleontologist Peter Ward discussed in his book Under a Green Sky, several “warming events” have radically altered the life on this planet throughout geologic history. Among the most significant of these was the Permian extinction, which took place some 250 million years ago. This event resulted in a decimation of animal life, leading many scientists to refer to it as the Great Dying. The Permian extinction is thought to have been caused by a sudden increase in CO2 from Siberian volcanoes. The amount of CO2 we’re releasing into the atmosphere today, through human activity, is 100 times greater than what came out of those volcanoes.
During the Permian extinction, a number of chain-reaction events, or “positive feedbacks,” resulted in oxygen-depleted oceans, enabling overgrowth of certain bacteria, producing copious amounts of hydrogen sulfide, making the atmosphere toxic, and decimating the ozone layer, all producing species die-off. The positive feedbacks not yet fully included in the IPCC projections include the release of the massive amounts of fossil methane, some 20 times worse than CO2 as an accelerator of warming, fossil CO2 from the tundra and oceans, reduced oceanic CO2 uptake due to higher temperatures, acidification and algae changes, changes in the earth’s ability to reflect the sun’s light back into space due to loss of glacier ice, changes in land use, and extensive water evaporation (a greenhouse gas) from temperature increases.
The additional effects of these feedbacks increase the projections from a 4°C–6°C temperature rise by 2100 to a 10°C–12°C rise, according to some estimates. At those temperatures, beyond 2100, essentially all the ice would melt and the ocean would rise by as much as 75 meters, flooding the homes of one-third of the global population.
Between now and then, ocean methane hydrate release could cause major tidal waves, and glacier melting could affect major rivers upon which a large percentage of the population depends. We’ll see increases in flooding, storms, disease, droughts, species extinctions, ocean acidification, and a litany of other impacts, all as a consequence of man-made climate change. Arctic ice melting, CO2 increases, and ocean warming are all occurring much faster than previous IPCC forecasts, so, as dire as the forecasts sound, they’re actually conservative.
These threats exist in addition to the documented economic, geopolitical, and national-security issues associated with the continued use of fossil fuels. The finite nature of coal, oil, and natural gas will instigate higher energy prices and greater energy price disruptions. According to some credible estimates, the world will realize “peak” oil fuel availability before 2015, peak uranium around 2025, peak natural gas around 2035, and peak coal around 2050. Because of these climatic, economic, national-security, and geopolitical drivers, it makes sense to alter our energy sources and uses in an expeditious manner.
Conquering Climate Change
The world currently derives 300 exajoules (83 million gigawatt hours) of energy from fossil fuel use each year. The major renewables — such as biomass, drilled or hot rock geothermal, solar thermal, solar photovolatics, and wind — could yield 4,000 exajoules per year each. In my previous article for THE FUTURIST magazine, I touched on the potential of genetically engineered saltwater algae, and I would reiterate my enthusiasm for that solution here.
There are several other intriguing renewable alternatives, such as a number of wind-energy systems that merit more research. These include not only terrestrial, or even offshore wind projects, but also high-altitude wind-energy farming. Estimates of the high-altitude wind capacity off the East Coast indicate the presence of enough potential energy to meet U.S. electrical grid requirements.
Researchers are also considering several unconventional sources of heated water with huge potential capacity. These include harnessing the waste water sitting in deep oil wells that’s been geothermally heated and tapping the Gulf Stream off the U.S. East Coast. Researchers at MIT have documented the potentials of drilled or hot rock geothermal energy.
Oceanic thermal energy conversion (OTEC) uses the temperature differences in the ocean to run turbines and produce energy. In tropical climates, the surface of the water, continually exposed to the sun, can reach temperatures of 80°F. Some 3,000 feet below the surface, the temperature descends to 40°F. This temperature difference, harnessed correctly, is enough to drive generators. New research suggests that descending to depths of 3,000 feet and lower may not even be necessary, as very cold water actually runs alongside the Gulf Stream and can be tapped horizontally. Studies from the University of Massachusetts suggest that this type of OTEC could produce sufficient energy to power the U.S. electrical grid.
These are among the more exotic solutions, but simple conservation could reduce overall energy use by 30%. In the United States alone, some 200,000 homes are off the electrical grid. The technology for this type of distributed power generation, where individuals are much less beholden to utility companies, is developing rapidly. Tomorrow’s off-the-grid pioneers will use next-generation photovoltaic panels, windmills, solar thermal, passive solar, thermoelectrics, and bioreactors, which convert sewage, yard waste, and kitchen scraps into fuels.
Nuclear power could play a larger role if we were able to go to nuclear reactors that generate more fissile material than they use (also called breeders) and switch from uranium to thorium, which is three times as abundant but otherwise is probably not a major portion of the energetics solution space. Renewables remain the less-costly option.
Skeptics such as former U.S. Energy Secretary James Schlesinger have raised concerns about the difficulty of storing energy from renewable sources, as opposed to oil or coal. But geothermal energy and biomass produce power continuously, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Wind, photovoltaics, and solar thermal power plants are, of course, cyclical — when there’s no wind or light, there’s no power — but storage options are increasing daily. Future batteries will take advantage of new technologies that will make them orders of magnitude more efficient than today’s chemical battery options. Researchers at Sandia National Labs are already researching the practicality of batteries using ultracapacitors and superconducting magnetic energy storage with carbon nanotube magnets. Low-energy nuclear reactors (LENRs), otherwise known as cold fusion reactors, were considered impossible to build a decade ago but are gaining attention thanks to the work of Allan Widom and Lewis Larsen, who have proposed a new theory to explain how LENR might work. NASA is conducting experiments in an attempt to verify their theory, which explains the decades-long LENR experiments as products of quantum weak interaction theory applied to condensed matter, not fusion.
The footprint of human civilization on this planet is now so large, covering so much geographical area, that we can even have a meaningful effect on climate change simply by painting our roofs and roads white to reflect more sunlight back into space.
The costs of fossil carbon fuels are increasing, and this trend will accelerate due to potential “carbon taxes,” but mostly due to worsening shortages. The costs for the renewables have been dropping for years. Many, such as certain biofuels, are already economically competitive with fossil fuels, and all renewables are projected to be as cheap as oil and even coal within some 10 to 15 years or sooner. If governments mandate that power companies who run coal-fired plants sequester their waste CO2, the costs of coal use will go up, hastening its inevitable replacement.
If, by the year 2020, we’ve passed a critical climate tipping point and guaranteed future generations a much more difficult future, it won’t be because of a lack of available solutions today. It’s not technology, capacity, or costs per se that are slowing humanity’s move to renewables, but rather conservatism, our attachment to the industries and strategies we’ve already invested money in (sunk costs), and lack of creative strategic planning for the inevitable demise of fossil fuels.
About the Author
Dennis Bushnell is the chief scientist at the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, and a speaker at the World Future Society’s conference in Boston this July. His previous article for THE FUTURIST, “Algae: A Panacea Crop?” was published in March-April 2009. Web site http://www.nasa.gov/centers/
Hi, my name is Timothy Mack and I’m the President of the World Future Society. I’d like to take a moment to invite you to
WorldFuture 2010: Sustainable Futures, Strategies, and Technologies, the Society’s annual conference to take place this July in Boston.
Economic, digital, and cultural globalization is accelerating, as are the perils and possibilities of our new interconnected age. According to one scientist with whom I spoke recently, if today’s consumption and growth patterns persist we’ll need four more planets by the end of this century.
The time to change the way we live and work is upon us. As our knowledge increases, our time horizons are shortening. Much of what ten years ago was called the distant future is now the present.
We’ve booked an incredible array of speakers to share with you their ideas on using tomorrow’s technology to transition to a more sustainable and prosperous civilization.
Ray Kurzweil has been described as “the restless genius” by the
Wall Street Journal, “the ultimate thinking machine” by Forbes,
and “the rightful heir to Thomas Edison” by Inc. magazine, which ranked him #8 among entrepreneurs in the United States.
Ray is the recipient of the National Medal of Technology, and he’s been inducted into the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame. He’s received 19 honorary doctorates and honors and has written six books, four of which have been national best sellers.
The Age of Spiritual Machines has been translated into nine languages and was the number-one best-selling science book on Amazon.com. His latest book,
The Singularity Is Near, was a New York Times best seller, and has been the number-one book on Amazon in both science and philosophy.
WorldFuture 2010, Ray will discuss his landmark ideas on exponential technology growth; the genetic, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence breakthroughs we’re likely to see in the next decade, which we will use to reinvent our economies, our society, and even ourselves.
Also speaking at
WorldFuture 2010, Dennis Bushnell, the chief research scientist at NASA’s Langley Research Center, will present what I promise will be a blockbuster talk on how to transition to an environmentally sustainable global society. This highly regarded scientist will tell you about the new research and breakthroughs — from IT to quantum physics — that humanity will use to overcome the looming dangers of climate change.
“Humans are now responsible for the evolution of nearly everything, including themselves,” says
Dennis. “The ultimate impacts of all this upon human society will be massive and could ‘tip’ in several directions.”
Needless to say, this talk from one of the globe’s top scientific minds should be ground-shaking.
One aspect of being a more sustainable society is becoming a more equitable one. Anyone interested in the future of gender relations and their impacts on organizations won’t want to miss
Karen Moloney’s address on Men and Women: The Battle for Supremacy. Karen follows a long line of influential feminist writers to speak at World Future Society events,
such as Betty Friedan.
We are learning more about the biological differences between the sexes and are becoming a little more comfortable about accepting them, says Karen. Nonetheless, our lives are colored by trying to make the sexes the same: from preschool years when parents give “boys’ toys” to girls and vice versa, through the pressures of co-ed rather than segregated schooling, through choosing their university degrees and careers along gender lines. Karen will discuss how the balance of the sexes may change over the forthcoming decades, if we become more accepting of differences. She’ll tell you what we need to do to achieve real gender equality in the next 20 to 30 years.
On the theme of sustainability, Anthony Flint, a former reporter for
The Boston Globe, Loeb Fellow, visiting scholar at Harvard Design School, and author of the book
Wrestling with Moses, will touch on how the cities of the twenty-first century can decrease humanity’s environmental impact. Cities, says Anthony, are the greenest form of human settlement to which we can aspire; they’re hubs of innovation
and reservoirs for savings on energy and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Anthony will discuss how best to support cities so the planet can continue to support us.
Stephen Aguilar-Millan, director of research at the European Futures Observatory, will detail what a low-carbon economy might look like, the metrics of sustainability, how we can ensure fair shares for present and future generations, and how we can devise an international framework to achieve low-carbon economic growth. This is an essential talk not only for sustainability proponents but but also public policy makers, and anyone charged with running a business or industry in the the coming decade.
Of the many technologies we’ll use to increase the efficiency of our activities, Information Technology and the Internet are the most significant.
Lee Rainie, the director Pew Internet & American Life Project and the former managing editor of
U.S. News & World Report, along with Janna Anderson, Mike Nelson, and
Barry Wellman, will discuss a future where wireless devices are embedded in everything—including us; cameras record activity in all public spaces; databases catalogue our online moves; massive data centers allow our information to be sorted and understood in new ways; the physical environment changes as “the Internet of things” and “everywhere” applications spread; software exhibits humanlike thinking; and direct brain-to-computer interfacing is common. These are just some of the future scenarios the Pew Internet & American Life Project survey gathered from a wide array of experts. Lee and his colleagues in education will let you in on this research and what it means for today’s and tomorrow’s young people.
If you register for
WorldFuture 2010 today,
you can save $100 off the on-site registration fee. We can’t extend this special price for long.
There are also a number of special preconference courses I’m excited to tell you about.
For instance, are you now in the mid-career stage and wondering if the path you’ve been on for many years is still the right road for you to reach your greatest heights? You might be shifting gears, changing lanes with ease, falling asleep at the wheel, or jumping off the fast track, ready to move onto a less quick-paced phase of your life. If so, you’ll want to meet
Karen Sands, master certified coach, professional futurist, gerontologist, and author of
The New Sixties, Crossing the Canyon, and The Greatness Challenge: Your Ultimate Guide to the Future. Her all-day workshop, Mid-Career in the Fast Lane, will help you access untapped inner wisdom, creativity, to create personal and professional money-making futures that matter.
Anyone interested in how to become a futurist — i.e. the theory, methods, and the field of futures studies — can’t afford to miss an Introduction to Futures Studies from
Peter Bishop, founder of the University of Houston Futures Studies, the only degree program in the United States and one of only three in the world devoted exclusively to the study of the future.
You can also get an insider’s view of the unique challenges of writing serious, future-oriented nonfiction, whether it’s an article for a general-interest audience or a report for a specific client, at the Futurist Writers Workshop, led by FUTURIST magazine managing editor
Cynthia Wagner and senior editor Patrick Tucker.
Since 1971, the annual conference of the World Future
Society has served as the premier event for the world’s most important thinkers,
leaders, and visionaries to explore the future. This year’s event, set at the
spacious and modern Westin Boston Waterfront hotel, looks to be our best in many
years. This is an opportunity to network with some of the world’s top minds, and more than a thousand futurists from around the globe, on the critical issues of surviving this century. I hope we can count you among us.