Thoughts about the future, and a review to boot

Posted: February 7, 2008 in Futurism, iteration, Review

First off, the conversation I will attempt to engage in at the end of this post was inspired by the book I just finished reading. It’s called A guide to Mathematics for the Intelligent Nonmathematician by Edmund C. Berkeley. I found it while looking for some Iteration stuff in the library. It seemed like it might be fruitful, so even though it’s an old book (1966) and talks about ‘New Math’ like it’s a recent phenomenon, I took a look at it.

It’s an interesting book. Berkeley does what he says he intends and presents mathematics in a very accessible way, something that anyone can understand even without a basis in math. Though some chapters did start to shift into actual mathematics, for the most part I could read the entire thing without any memories from pre-calculus rearing their ugly heads. Berkeley goes point by point, slowly drawing the reader into a mathematical world by showing them that they’ve been dwelling in it all their lives. We do math all the time, Berkeley asserts. We just don’t usually look at what we’re doing.

That attitude reminded me of how I like to describe and teach logic. People think logically; it’s how we’re wired. Learning formal logic is really just forcing yourself to slow down and look at the steps you normally take, in order to be just a bit more careful. Berkeley seems to suggest that the same is true of math.

There were a few points interesting to my work on Iteration. When discussing approximation, and how to solve a few relatively simple problems, he suggests a variation of a guessing method. In his words, “Guess a reasonable value and try it. If it does not fit, then choose a more reasonable value and try that. And so on” (91). So make an attempt at something, then see if it works. If it doesn’t, improve and try again. This sounds like the mathematical equivalent of iterative development to me. Maybe it’s a primitive form of Iteration, but it’s right there.

Berkeley calls this method the “Method of Successive Approximations” (91), saying that while it is similar in principle to trial and error, there is thought between the trials that makes each successive trial more likely to succeed. Again, iteration.

Later on, he presents a form of iterative development at work. Discussing how correct figures are calculated at a business, Berkeley suggests that calculations are made first by one person, then passed on to the second. The second person does his/her own calculations, and marks any discrepancies between the second set and the first set. The first calculator then has to check each of the discrepancies and try to fix them, until both people agree with the calculations. Then the calculations are sent to a third person who spot checks several random figures. If he/she approves of those random figures, the calculations are taken as correct (110-112). This definitely seems like small group iterative development. Try something once, send it up the line to be tested. If it’s no good, try again. Keep doing that until the first person up the line approves, then send it to the second person. Continue the process until everyone’s happy. It’s a nice description.

Which brings me to the end of the book, where Berkeley, after discussing the way probability works (and demonstrating the proper way to look at the Gambler’s Fallacy), talks about the future. Before this section, he predicts that the likelihood that humanity will destroy itself with nuclear weapons at some point in the next 1000 years is 99.996%. Not very encouraging. But after that, he presents some predictions for what the world would look like if we got lucky and did NOT kill ourselves.

His predictions and then mine:

He predicts a world where we control the elements, making it rain when and only when we want it to, where we can colonize other worlds, where bacteria and insects are all gone (maybe he doesn’t understand biodiversity and the food chain), and where disease no longer exists. He predicts a world where we do very little ‘unpleasant work,’ and where there is a world police force but no army. Most of us will spend our time in leisure, and all factories will be automatic. In this world, we’ll know more about mathematics because it’ll be more of a part of our world.

It’s a cute vision of the future, though I think it’s misguided. Which brings me to my own predictions about the future.

First, I have to wonder about what Raymond Kurzweil said about technology. His suggestion is that over the next century, we will experience the equivalent of 20,000 years of progress, thanks to the law of accelerating returns. I take this to mean that in 2100, we will be as far ahead of 2000 as we were (in 2000) ahead of 18,000BC (the beginning of the Mesolithic era, or middle stone age).

That seems pretty incredible to me. I mean, to think of the difference between our current society and the stone age makes it kind of mind boggling to imagine what the future can bring. Still, I said I’d give it a shot, and so I will.

First, I’m not sure I believe the law of accelerating returns. I think that technology in 2100 may seem like magic to us today, but then again, I think that the iPhone might seem kind of magical in 1986. So while we’ll make some serious progress, I think there will be a few things that get in the way. Either way, never mind the year 3000; here’s what I think it’ll be like in the year 2100:

  1. First off, I think I’ll live to see it. That would put me in my 120s, but I think given the advances in life extension over the past few years (recently they managed to make yeast cells live 10 times their normal life spans with no ill effects), I’ll still be in good health then.
  2. I think that there still will not be flying cars, at least not many of them. The human brain thinks too much in two dimensions. With the number of car accidents that happen now, I think flying cars would be a bad idea. But I think that air travel may become so prevalent and so cheap (after all the current airlines finally go bankrupt) that public transit will seem like flying cars. This way, no one gets stuck behind a bus, because the bus flies overhead.
  3. Computers will be ever smaller and more powerful. (Moore’s law). Will this mean real AI? I think it likely will, but not in the way we expect. We intend AI to exist in the sense of something that can pass the Turing Test. I don’t think that’ll happen. I think the first real AI will point out that the Turing Test only proves that something is human, and that there are other kinds of intelligence. I also think that contrary to Frankenstienian fears, AI will not take over the world. I think they will be able to think more long term than we will and will do their best to help advise us in ways to make the world better; I don’t think they’ll feel either need or desire for temporal power.
  4. AI will work as people’s personal assistants. Maybe these won’t be true AI. Maybe they’ll just be sufficiently complex programs that we can’t tell the difference. But I think they’ll help with all the little day to day stuff, and humans will lose some short term memory in exchange for increased thinking abilities and more long term memory.
  5. The economy will collapse. The invention of effective nanotechnology will destroy the real need for money, and humanity will need something else to motivate it to go to work.
  6. The  suicide rate will (briefly) skyrocket. This is a corollary of 1 and 5. People won’t be motivated without money, and hence won’t have any reason to do anything but mope around. Also, longer lives means needing more to fill them. I think a lot of people lack the mental fortitude to be able to handle living for 500 years without needing to work. So a lot of them will kill themselves (or each other, in a big old war).
  7. Either Global Warming will be permanently defeated, or we will have technology to allow us to deal with the ill effects of it. This is the main thing that I think will be settled in the next 10-20 years. Either we’ll turn technology to solving the problem, or we’ll turn it to dealing with it. My guess is, whichever is cheaper.
  8. There will be some kind of new media (several, most likely) that is as different from the internet as the internet is different from radio. I can’t imagine what this is, but when it comes, it’ll do so in such a natural method that people will wonder why they didn’t think of that.
  9. Education will become more important. Just as it was once the case that 8 years of schooling were enough, we are fast coming to the point where a college education is all but required for success in life. If life lasted 3 times as long, there would be a much higher minimum education. Once life extension takes solid root, I imagine that it won’t be long until the first person finishes their 5th dissertation.
  10. We will colonize other worlds-but only if we find something valuable there. I think the only chance we’ll ever expand off Earth is if there’s money in it. If they found a huge diamond deposit on Mars, there’d be a colony there in 10 years. I think that until something of serious value is found elsewhere, we won’t go anywhere (by the way, I think if we made contact with alien intelligence, we would decide that expansion was valuable in and of itself, if only for competitive reasons).

That’s it for now.

I’m getting a serious urge to go write some sci-fi.

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