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Beyond Prediction

I've just spent two years working toward a Master's degree in Strategic Foresight and Innovation.

Because most people look at me blankly when I tell them this, I've developed two ways to describe what what I'm doing, and foresight is. The first is to say that foresight used to be called futurism, but that futurism has increasingly become associated with the idea of predicting the future. Foresight is not about predicting the future, it's about minimizing surprise. The second way I usually put it is that foresight is not about predicting the future; it's about designing the future.

Actually, I'll say it's just about anything, as long as it's understood that foresight is not about predicting the future.

The reason is that, frankly, I'm pretty tired of all those, "Dude, where's my flying car!" digs. There's always been a certain brand of futurist who's obsessed with getting it right: with racking up successful predictions like some modern-day Nostradamus. I'm sure you know who I'm talking about; some futurists play the prediction game very well, but in the end it is a game, and closer to charlatanism than it is to science. There's actually no method for seeing the future, and nobody's predictions are more reliable than anybody else's.

If actual prediction were possible, the insurance companies would be all over it. They don't try to predict how you're going to die, though, do they? They look at trends and probabilities, and try to minimize surprise for their investments. That's exactly how strategic foresight works--as a kind of institutional insurance policy against disruptive surprise. There's a whole raft of methodologies for this, ranging from Delphi polls to trends analysis and scenarios. For me, this way of looking at the future is complementary to my other way of looking, which is the more fun and disreputable wild-eyed prophet--that is, as a science fiction writer.

There are no limits on me when I write SF. In contrast, doing foresight is a disciplined activity. I like this combination; I'm finding that each way of looking forward influences and improves the other--as long as I don't get the two confused.

I'm still coming to grips with how these two years will affect my writing. One result of undertaken the programme is that I've developed a different attitude toward writing near-future SF. Most writers I know avoid at all costs writing about the near future, because nothing goes out of date quicker than next year. I've always tended to agree with this assessment and--because SF writers aren't in the job of predicting the future either--have tended to set my novels and short stories very, very far in the future. Thousands of years, usually.

I'm no longer satisfied with doing that. There's the little matter of my second way of describing what foresight is: not as prediction, but design. If you're afraid of being a poor predictor of the near future, you'll avoid writing about it. But what if you were never out to predict in the first place? What if you don't care if a story you set in 2012 gets immediately overtaken by events? What if you set the action there not to predict some event or outcome, but to encourage some action on the part of your readers?

In other words I have a new ambition for my own SF: not as prediction, and not cautionary, either--but aspirational.

The fact is that if I've learned one thing in two years of studying how we think about the future, it's that the one thing that's sorely lacking in the public imagination is positive ideas about where we should be going. We seem to do everything about our future except try to design it. It's a funny thing: nobody ever questions your credentials if you predict doom and destruction. But provide a rosy picture of the future, and people demand that you justify yourself. Increasingly, though, I believe that while warning people of dire possibilities is responsible, providing them with something to aspire to is even more important. The foresight programme has given me a lot of tools to do that in a justifiable way, so I might as well use them.

Now all I have to do is put my money where my mouth is. By, say, writing an optimistic, aspirational novel set in the near future and unflinchingly accurate to the possibilities, both positive and negative, of the next few years?

Yeah, okay. --At least, I'm going to try.



Although not exactly the same time scale, I absolutely loved the first few chapters of Accelerando. I'd love this.


Good. We've been short on that for quite awhile. (I generally attribute this to information overload, but it's also true that it's probably more difficult now than it was.)


Hear hear, we need more aspirational SF.

But fiction thrives on conflict, so it's hard not to fall into the "Here is awesome future thing X, and here's how it goes wrong and kills us all" trap.

I suppose it should be possible to mention the downsides of future tech without turning it into a central part of the narrative, like how internet access has played havoc with my attention span, but I still wouldn't give it up for anything.


Its an entropy thing. The positive future is more complex, but a gigantic disaster very simplifying. So those with a limited imagination gravitate to what they can understand best - doom.


providing them with something to aspire to is even more important

Absolutely what I want to read more of. There is no need for utopias or dystopias. Just a future where the environment is different, and the associated problems are therefore different, and interesting.

Charlie once wrote a short story involving surrogates. There was the awful Bruce Willis cop movie "Surrogates". Yet if you could easily use different ones, why was anyone actually moving about so much? Wouldn't most be inelegant machines that stayed on site? Who would use them, and how? Would laborers live in poor countries? The ramifications were much bigger than the movie's simplistic assumptions. Thinking through the technology (is there enough wireless bandwidth, or would they have to be mostly tethered), legal issues, what other technologies would be implied by this technology, etc in such a world should result in a very interesting textured future with a lot of room for problems to energize plots.


They look at trends and probabilities, and try to minimize surprise for their investments. That's exactly how strategic foresight works--as a kind of institutional insurance policy against disruptive surprise.

Karl, is that even possible except at a basic level? As I recall from the "futurism" course of my MBA, the problem is that no technique, even scenario building, can get to grips with discontinuities. Thus reducing future risk is about as useful as eliminating financial risk, and we know how that turned out recently, with people who had a lot of skin in the game to not make the mistakes.


I think there is also the general tendency for people to like seeing destruction (not involving themselves) and the monetary value from writing books that feed into this. I'm thinking especially of Crichton's books, and teh recently well publicized "Robopocalypse."


You’re quite right—there’s little SF that presents a positive future, and even less that tries seriously to show how we might get from here to there. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Pacific Edge takes a shot at it, but even that skips over the very near future. The example that springs to mind, actually, is After The Deluge by Chris Carlsson—not brilliant in strictly literary terms, but quite a disciplined attempt to portray a better future that still has believable warts, internal contradictions, and unresolved difficulties with a new culture in development. Its biggest fault is the Vyne, which is too magical, but it’s not central to the story. Worth a look.


So Ken, nobody bugs you about whether you've read The Black Swan? I'm surprised.


"minimizing surprise" and "designing the future"... I like that way of putting it.


Tell it, Karl! A breath of non-pessimism is not only welcome, it's downright overdue; creative designs for the future, even more so. While I do not seriously expect to find The Answer to Life, The Universe etc. in a work of fiction[0], I do strive to retain ideas of merit from virtually any source – whether a treatise, a comic book or a bible – and to test, re-examine, sharpen (or cull) such ideas when possible. [1]

    Which is not to say that I shun all dystopian speculative fiction… Heck, even some of the worse imagined dystopias can cheer one up when one realizes all the other doom'n'gloom which isn't touched upon. [2]

[0] Will share water with the thirsty, but not gonna get mysticational about it, okay?

[1] Bits from SFnal contexts which I've absorbed do seem to have a better-than-average survival ratio against skeptic examination. Coincidence?

[2] Cue the inevitable "because it feels good when I stop" rejoinders.   :-/ 


The Lobsters chapter of Accelerando was set in 2012 by internal dating. (Assuming you think the fundamentalists thought Jesus would be reincarnated in 2000.) So things haven't been moving quite that fast.

OTOH, expect a FAST change towards an accelerated future when glasses-mounted video screens become practical/fashionable. (Note that this will require cameras mounted on the glasses, so that what is seen is a transformed version of what's actually out there. See Halting State or the Dream Park series, particularly "California Voodoo Game".)

FWIW, there's already a video game "Ghosts" that's played on cellphones with forwards facing cameras where you run around trying to catch the ghost while looking into the cellphone, where you can see the ghost superimposed on what the camera sees. (But that's a clumsy and dangerous game, that can cause you to run out into the traffic.)

Mesh networks are another society changer. But they have so far been successfully repressed. Mesh networks appear, however, to allow for truly anonymous communication from undetectable locations (well, except for "Somewhere within the network"). They do, however, allow networks to exist without a centralized controller. One may doubt how well they would scale, but that's a matter on which I have no knowledge.

Energy harvesting materials (fractional volt devices harvesting fractional watts from the vibration of the blood are in the lab) could replace batteries in some circumstances, allowing embedded electronic (cyborg) devices that don't need repeated operations to replace their batteries. Probably not significant on it's own, and as they are rather low power couldn't handle much...but...

Consider telepathy...imagine an implanted radio that can communicate over a mesh network. But what would the signal be? How would it be interpreted? There's no particular reason that pictures couldn't be transmitted (outside of bandwidth). We don't really know how to determine emotional states, but they could well be automatically heterodyned onto a signal generated by the nerves. But how could one learn to interpret them? What would the range be? Could the messages be intercepted? Encrypted?

Well, I'm not quite sure what "near future" means. That's not within the next two decades, but almost certainly possible within the century. Doesn't mean it will be done. There might be significant drawbacks. (Cost of the operation? Time in training how to use it? Pain? Legal liability? Having other people read your mind?)

Next on the list, ESP. Again I go with a net connected brain interface. Now we depend on lots of web-cams distributed around and connected to the net.

How about mind controlled robots? These will almost certainly be developed to assist severely injured patients. Then other uses will be found.

Note that these are all developments of one theme. But if one is attempting to be realistic one should project from at least three themes.

So lets presume that buckytubes turn out to be a practical construction material. Nets woven from them might be one ideally strong, light, porous fabric. (They'd almost certainly be a bit stiff, however. Possibly not wearable.) But this might blend a vision of Buckminister Fuller with the dreams of a dirigible renaissance. Bucky envisioned enclosing a medium sized city with a dome-like roof, and calculated that the heat produced would be sufficient to lift the city. Perhaps. And with a motor that gives us a giant dirigible. But if, instead, the city is anchored and a chimney is used to direct the rising air, that airstream could be directed through a turbine to produce electricity. If it's enough power to lift the city, it should be enough to run the city. So what kind of heat pumps would the people use to adjust their temperature? The heat would need to flow towards the central chimney, but there's no requirement that it flow around freely. And people would be more comfortable if the temperature of the city as a whole were regulated. So there needs to be "heating ducts" that direct the flow towards the chimney.

Another thread would be the increased cost of water...unless it somehow becomes practical to get it from the sea. Say the Sahara is made useful. An area the size of, say, the Dead Sea is designed for evaporating sea water. Domed (or, at any rate, roofed) to concentrate the heat, and to prevent the water that evaporates from escaping. It's designed with a meandering channel that slowly leads water further into the area. Every high tide, additional water enters the end near the Mediterranean Sea. Air from the environment is lead to a "cooling shed" where the moisture is extracted at night. (The desert gets very cold at night, to condensation is manageable. The problem is to do it where the water can be collected.) At the extreme end of the canal away from the ocean, the brines have become thick enough that it makes sense to just skip further water extraction, and pour them out onto a salt-pan. But perhaps at this point it would be profitable to process them for materials besides salt. Bromine and Iodine, certainly. But if solar power is cheap enough perhaps a lot more. OTOH, this would certainly change what minerals were readily available. Ocean water doesn't contain, e.g., much iron.

OTOH, if solar power becomes cheap enough, the ground itself could be fractionally distilled. Many places this wouldn't be very useful. Silicon dioxide is already plentifully available. (Still, I've seen a picture of a solar powered sintering operation that used only sunlight and desert sand as inputs, and produced glass as output. Not, I'll admit, a very good glass...or at least not a very transparent one.) The context was "solar powered 3D printer".

What's near term? Currently it looks like we can do a lot more with MMS (micro-meter scale?) machines than with nano-machines. They run into much less problem with stiction. Everyone talks about nano-machines, though. I'm a bit dubious, at least for the near term. (But do note that many of the components of MMS are below micrometer in size.) One that I saw that looked particularly interesting is a non-volatile computer memory. Basically a tube with an iron bar in it that was moved with a magnet, and read with a laser. One state the laser can't penetrate because the bar is blocking the hole, the other it's retracted into it's tube, and the hole is free. Well, they may have run into some kind of trouble with it, because it's been around 5 years since I heard about it. But it was memory as dense, or denser, then a semiconductor, and non-volatile, and writeable. N.B. I'm not arguing against nanometer scale electronics, or anything else where there aren't any moving parts.

One wild one: Classical scale quantum devices. I don't know what that would mean, or what it implies, but the scales for quantum devices that depend on coherence has been increasing rapidly in the last few years. Some of them don't seem to be particularly sensitive to temperature. (OTOH, I didn't see any claim that they don't require a good vacuum.)

Social consequences: As the population ages, it becomes less willing to consider radical ideas. Political unrest tends to be muted. OTOH, this doesn't mean that they don't care. It seems quite likely that this could lead to violent revolutions occurring without then traditional early signs. Just people becoming less and less satisfied until suddenly it breaks. Still, as people become older, they also tend to become more dependent on services provided through or by the currently dominant political power. So it takes more and more discontent to get them to act.

Social consequences: As the military becomes more an more automated, the government may require less and less domestic support. But be vulnerable in other ways.

Social consequences: There's a report that revolutionaries in a part of the middle east were using toy trucks as robot attack delivery vehicles.


In reply to Alex (#7): it may not be possible. But it's important to try.


That is utterly brilliant. What I want to know is: what University offers such a program?


"OTOH, expect a FAST change towards an accelerated future when glasses-mounted video screens become practical/fashionable."

I doubt this will be happening all that soon.

I am very short sighted, so much so that I have to take my (necesarily very powerful) glasses off to read. But the lenses in my glasses (and therefore any screen replacing them) are still to close to my eyes for me to focus on. For less short-sighted people, it can only be worse.

There are of course solutions to this, that involve creating a longer real or apparent optical path between screen and eyes. But this will require a clutter of mirrors and lenses to do the job, with all the required mounting. The result would resemble a helmet more than glasses.

Not to mention the problem already found with 3D movies. The screens are at a fixed distance, requiring a fixed focus, and setting up a conflict with the various distances consistent with parallax. Reports say that up to 30% of the population cannot watch 3D because of this. Disclaimer: I've never seen a 3D movie, so don't know if this applies to me.

J Homes


I look forward to reading the results, Karl. I agree with the others - here's hoping for a sustained shift in SF, back towards relevance.

(I stopped reading SF for many years because, as Charlie has discussed at length, it all assumed stuff that was never going to happen - over-c space travel, mind uploading, pocket-sized fusion reactors, etc., etc., etc. Sturgeon's law fulfilled.)

I'd suggest it is possible to make some broad predictions about the future. Barring apocalypse, the world's population pyramid is shortly going to become more bullet-shaped than pyramid-shaped. More than half the world's population now live in cities; soon more than half the world's population will live in mega-cities (million-plus size). There will be great growth in digital radio of all kinds. The percentage of world GDP spent on healthcare will rise. Humans will increasingly manage "natural" ecosystems. The economic "centre of gravity" will return to east Asia. Neither fast-breeder fission nor fusion will make a significant contribution to world energy for at least forty years. (The last is a broad prediction about energy supply in the 21st century.)

These things are so likely to happen that they can be termed predictions. I guess they, and their social and cultural implications, form part of the backdrop to strategic forecasting.


Man, my guidance counselor really let me down during my school days. Another professional track where you could be wrong most of the time and yet keep your job? Weather man or Futurist..... I really missed out. :-)

Really though, I think that you've set an admirable goal for yourself. I've always believed that good SF sparks the imagination of the reader. If we are lucky that little spark grows into a flame of practical innovation. Which has more effect; the SF writer influencing science and technological advancement or does scientific breakthroughs inflame the imagination SF writers? Both very closely I imagine.

An interesting side note about prediction that the readers may be able to weigh in on. Why is Kurzweil generally portrayed as a crackpot; whilst, the IPCC is portrayed as the consensus of science? Their predictive methodologies on the surface appear very similar?

They seem to both look at independent data trends and try to extrapolate a view of a more complex system.

They both seem to extend the present sociological attitudes forward without change.

So, why is one prediction more valid then the other?


it may not be possible. But it's important to try.

Are you absolutely sure, you don't simply succumb to a bunch of psychological biases?


I'd love it if you'd at least consider writing a small, free, aspirational short story, to really illustrate exactly what you're talking about here. Or, barring that, if you could point to a work someone else has done that you consider to be of this sort.


Kurzweil's predicting of the singularity is not much more than simple extrapolation of a geometric trend. It is rather similar to predictions that we would have craft able to exceed the speed of light based on historic transport data including early spacecraft. We haven't even got rudimentary AIs yet, let alone ones that will redesign themselves until they are "god like".

OTOH, climate science draws on a large body of different data and techniques, including paleo climate data and climate modeling to make it's predictions. There is nothing predicted that is impossible, nor hasn't happened before that would make one doubt that the models are reasonable reflections of reality.


Hm... like with the concept of strategic foresight being about minimising surprise and designing the future. A good example of the latter is the way John F Kennedy instigated the Apollo program.

We've made great strides in understanding our environment, which take into account a myriad of contributions and interactions. If we can put as much effort into strategic foresight, then we'll understand our future much better.

Is there any way that science fiction can help give better strategic foresight?

But this will require a clutter of mirrors and lenses to do the job, with all the required mounting. The result would resemble a helmet more than glasses.

No, there are ways of moving the focal plane using flat optics: holographic lenses are one technology to do this that's not terribly expensive at this point. At the same time, it's possible (though currently expensive because the equipment isn't mass-produced) to make a hologram of the lens of the eye and compute a compensating holographic lens for the glasses. Combine the two technologies and get excellent corrected eyesight (including better astigmatism correction than is common) plus heads-up display and augmented reality.

I've been to 1 3D movie in this decade (last year), and I got a migraine from it. As best I could tell the problem wasn't so much a conflict between parallax and fixed focus as that the parallax in many scenes was extreme (and wrong). In fact some scenes seemed to take place behind my head as far as parallax was concerned. This should be fixable.


I can't see 3-D movies at all...but they still exist.

For that matter, currently there are digital cameras are operating on the complete wave, and just calculating what the waveform would be in focus. Slip your prescription in and your electronic glasses automatically correct for your vision.

But, yeah, the first versions of them won't do people who don't wear contact lenses, but need corrective prescriptions very much good. This doesn't mean they won't take off. Either a more advanced model will come out, or more people will wear contacts.


My programme is taking place at OCAD University here in Toronto, but there are also foresight degrees being granted now in other places, such as Hawaii and, I believe, Australia. There should be some in Europe and Britain; Google should be able to tell you for sure.


At OCAD? wow I'm less than an hour down the road... nice.

Thanks for that Karl. I'll read up on the program.



I think the reason why we have become so pessimistic lately is that it has become obvious that humanities biggest problem is itself. And we are having a hard time imaging a future where we change who we are.


You have presented a very good argument for the difference of the two predictions. But, if you'll allow me to argue just for fun.

You point out, quite correctly I think, that the short coming of a purely geometric trend is that it is bound by fundamental laws. But, can't I argue that what Kurweil suggest is not breaking any law that we see in nature now. Nature uses nano-mechanics to build new forms out of other forms of matter. My skin can be made out of the rice and beans that I eat. A spider can make silk out of the flies it consumes. Many levels of intelligences are formed from the star dust that accumulated here. So, if natural processes can build a thing; can't man, with the proper tools and understanding, also build the same thing? Unless, that is, you feel that there is a super natural quality that we would never be able to emulate.

With the IPCC assessment. Couldn't I argue that while there is a lot of data concerning past temperature and gas content; to add a new variable to the system that has never appeared in previous records and yet still project a predictive outcome is a little optimistic of their models? That variable is man. If we do change the system dramatically; and, it must be dramatic to account for a systemic effect in less then two hundred years.


The University of Houston in Houston, TX offers a graduate degree in "Futurism in Commerce".


Kurzweil predicts a hell of a lot more than "AI is possible" when he talks about the Singularity AIUI he's making strong claim about timelines based on optimistic extrapolations and perhaps a very fudged view of history.

Meanwhile, we know for a fact that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, and we know for a fact that we've significantly increased its presence in the atmosphere and will continue to do so. Plus methane and CFCs. A prediction of global warming requires special pleading to avoid.


Oh, I'll stipulate that CO2 is a greenhouse gas along with methane, water vapor, ozone, and so on. I'll stipulate that humans put more CO2 into the atmosphere then they ever have in recorded history. What I'm interested in is whether predictions based of data from essentially a human-less world system can be used to predict temperature with humans skewing the system.

The easiest thing to do is accelerate temperature increases with the increase of greenhouse gases. But, is it fair to assume that the global climate system will act according to historical trends- just faster? There won't be other changes to the system?

Historically temperature and CO2 are stuck in a feedback, amplifying each others effect, until at a certain point both drop precipitously. So, given a accelerated model could we conclude that we will reach a peak temperature faster but also rebound faster?


Actually, Darknets like Freenet have not been suppressed, its just that they have not taken off because no pressing reasons exist in the West. Of course, that may change if anti-piracy laws really start to bite. The law of unintended consequences.


I predict that what used to be called futurism, and is now called foresight, will be called something else within ten years.

What will it be called? How the frack would I know? I'm not a foresightist!


Given that the models use physics and actual laws of the known universe, I fail to see what you are talking about regarding a world without humans.
Also I find your terminology extremely confusing, so it is impossible to respond to the rest of the post.


People have been edging arounf game-changers which appear, not from "Nowhere" but accelerate a lot faster, and have unforeseen consequences, even as you sit and watch them. Prim example over the past 40+ years is the advance in computing power of course.

I suspect "Fabbing" is going to be the next one, and very soon, particulalry s the cumultive-error-problems are sorted, probably by careful recheck-and recalibrate algorithms. Couopled with fabbing in more durable materials. A much cheaper method of getting to orbit would also have profound effects, since, let's face it it is the apprent high cost at present that is the real drag on progress here. Cheap, reliable, repeatble continuous-running photosynthesis-substitution would also make a really big difference. I'm suprised more money is not being put into this one. I know quite a few universities and research-companies are plodding along, but the payoff/benefits are potentailly so large ....


The whole solar energy thing is getting a HUGE amount of attention and research. Literally every day something major is announced on sites/newsletters like physorg. I suspect that one of the game changers might be a glut of cheap energy around 2030. Certainly by then I expect maybe one third of the world's population to be offgrid and using solar PV for domestic purposes, simply because it will be the cheapest form of energy. And that is assuming no breakthrough on one of the fusion scheme like polywell or dense plasma focus.


I recall a documentary looking back at the fuss over cold-fusion, which pointed out that several big corporations had invested in research, which had kept the idea alive for longer. The amounts were small change, from the corporate point of view, but the potential pay-off had been huge. But from the outside it was easy to think that there must be something to cold-fusion, or nobody would spend all that money.

When I look at how new science gets reported in the media, it's easy to see how we seem to be saturated by a miasma of hopeless disappointment. Miracle cures are ten-a-penny in the headlines. So are flying cars.

I sometimes think my lifetime shall encompass the first and last men in space.


Re: designing the future. One of today's greatest practitioners of this has to be Warren Ellis, who has the advantage of being able to deliver a visualization of his picture of the future at the same time. One of the other great examples of this is the 'Lobsters' section of Accelerando; I have a magnet in my finger as a moderately direct result of it and a magazine article. ",)


Maybe I could interest you in the bio-hacking project of Zero State?


If you are interested in the idea that Cold Fusion might be viable. You should read Michael Brooks' 13 Things That Don't Make Sense: The Most Baffling Scientific Mysteries of Our Time. Everyone who supported the idea destroyed their credibility and chances for future research funding.

The scientist involved were not cooks or crackpots; but, were painted as such afterward.

Julian Schwinger, who won a Nobel prize, couldn't get papers printed in scientific journals.

Eugene Mallove, the Chief Science writer at MIT's news office, resigned over MIT's mishandling of data. He thought they were trying to discredit cold fusion. When he tried to submit papers to support cold fusion; he was blacklisted.

After reading the book you might strengthen your view that they really do have something.


I'm one of the Sapiens Anonym blog-comments/ heads. ",) I took a look at Zero State early on; must go back and have a look...


That is going further than I would.

What you're producing is one of the commonplace patterns of conspiracy theories (which may be an interesting point to some: why do we see those patterns so easily?) but that doesn't make it right or wrong. New energy source covered up by big oil, or whoever, is just so ordinary.

If Cold Fusion worked where are the patents? Why aren't they making money out of it, instead of going after ever more expensive sources of fossil fuel?


ZS is still evolving quite rapidly, considering its only a few weeks old. Right now we are still putting various items of infrastructure in place. Freenet and grid computing are the next two biggies on that list. Project lists are being revamped this weekend.

For those who don't know, Zero State is a step beyond Transhumanism to include all aspects of society. However, its focus is on actually doing stuff rather than talking about it (although there's plenty of talking...)


Sorry, let me try to clarify what I was suggesting.

To understand how climate works; scientist look at historical data. From ice cores, tree rings, etc.

The majority of this data is from when humans had negligible impact on climate. So, if they model a system of climate change with this data they get a good view of how the Earth would handle temperature change if humans were not on it and the natural system just continued like normal.

My question then was if they added human influenced data, post industrial revolution, could the models still accurately predict with an untested variable; since, the assertion is that humans have influenced the climate at a rate and scope never seen before. Does the climate system continue to work exactly like it has throughout history just faster; or, are there other unforeseen changes in the system, variables that cannot handle the rapid change, that might be unaccounted for?


"Certainly by then I expect maybe one third of the world's population to be offgrid and using solar PV for domestic purposes"

For solar PV to work you need exposed area under the sun. Solar PV barely provides all the energy for a domestic suburban household. Cities are almost defined by high density populations, especially the growing mega cities.

At this point more than 50% of the global population lives in cities and is growing rapidly.

For 1/3 of the population to use off-grid solar would imply very low energy usage per capita for teh city populations, far below developed country needs and probably too low to allow for cooking and heating water for daily use. Solar PV on-grid is more likely for city populations, especially in cities where high rise living is common. Even here I expect other energy sources for hot water and cooking, and for backup during cloudy days.

It would probably work better for the remaining, but poorer, rural populations. They have the space, but do not have the funds.

Climate is also a factor. Solar works well in dry, sunny climates. Monsoons create real solar energy gaps that must be filled.

So I am very skeptical of the claim.


The prospect of Cold Fusion hasn't completely vanished in a cloud of over optimism and general pseudo scientific Kookiness. See here ...

"Italian scientists claim to have demonstrated cold fusion "

We will see, but, I do rather cling to the view that if something looks to be Too Good To Be True then it's likely to be a lie. In the mean time though, and in the interests of "Strategic Foresight and Innovation" I shall plan a nice clear space in my utility/storage room - that is now occupied by cardboard boxes that foresight told me would be really useful one of these days - so that when the time comes I will be ready to install my sparkly new Cold Fusion Reactor.


"It would probably work better for the remaining, but poorer, rural populations. They have the space, but do not have the funds. "

Given that unsubsidized PV is already cheaper than domestic mains electricity in parts of S Europe I suggest that it will primarily be poor people who instal PV simply because of cost. PV costs are dropping 10-15% a year. My electricity prices just went up by 11% this month.


Cheap, reliable, repeatble continuous-running photosynthesis-substitution would also make a really big difference.

What are you envisaging here? High efficiency conversion of sunlight to usable energy. Fuel or feedstock production? A combination of the two?

Whenever I read about synthetic photosynthesis, the emphasis has always been on how long it runs. Neither conversion efficiency or costs are explained. In the meantime, tweaking or engineering natural biochemical pathways is solving the fuel/feedstock problem. This suggests to me that artificial photosynthesis will only compete if it can run at much higher efficiencies to compensate for the fabrication costs. Bear in mind that solar PV is already exceeding the 20% conversion range with a theoretical maximum efficiency IIRC in the 60%+ range.


I'm not suggesting an outright conspiracy. Rather a cliquish system of scientist and peer review that make unpopular ideas hard to become accepted. This is not unheard of.

Lee Smolin's The Trouble with Physics comments that for a while if your work did not include string theory the chances of getting published were very low. This was due to the peer reviewers having a natural inclination to like string theory because it was their own field of specialty.

As to why we are not using cold fusion. Although some lab test suggest that there is a nuclear reaction; it is much too low to even heat a beaker of water. But, does that mean that they should stop investigating?


And the cost of storage so that the off-grid household has power at night?

For 1/3 of the global population to be using off-grid solar, the market penetration of the poor, rural population would be approaching 100% and need to work in many different climate regimes.

I'm still not buying it.

Can you also be more specific about the costs of unsubsidized solar being cheaper than grid power in S. Europe. Where would that be - certainly not Spain. Sicily? Greece? I'm not reading about these markets suddenly opening up in the rush to install solar.


Not much storage is needed if lighting is LED and energy efficient computers and entertainment devices are being used.

As for why S Europe is not rushing to PV, the amortization is over 20 years, so its a big initial outlay esp if you do not plan to stay in the same house for that time.


My electricity prices just went up by 11% this month.

Mine will be going up by 8% in September, but:- 1) That will be the first rise in 3 years. 2) The company have made a written guarantee that they will not impose a further increase before August 2012.

So that headline 8% is actually effectively 2% simple per year.


So an evening dinner is off the table? And if it rains for a while (as it does in S. European winters), no hot food, tv or lights at all? ;)


In the US at least, the claim by the industry is that solar PV recoups 100% or more of the cost in higher home values. So early moving shouldn't be an issue.

Of course, that doesn't help the poor renter.


Karl, I'm confident that I will enjoy anything that you write, but I have to admit that without space pirates, I won't be as excited in advance.


The only really reliable way of predicting the future is to invent it (make the prophecy and then cause it to come true, either by making the prophecy both doable and awesome -- the star trek communicator to cell phone deal -- or by actually going and inventing the thing you just wrote about), so you could argue that the foresight people are the best futurologists. As statistical techniques become more elaborate, trying to use rule-heuristics to predict things has in many industries approached obsolescence (you mention insurance, but ad placing is also a very good example, since having good statistics backing up ad placing is what makes Google a success and arguably a failure).


The answer is yes.
To unpack - limits can be set on climate responses by examination of evidence from the past. Add this to the physics of energy transfer, storage etc, and you get models of the past. The human influences in turn are pretty well known and characterised (Except aerosols). CO2 and other greenhouse gases especially so, because their behaviour is comparatively straightforwards.

The models in turn show that without human influence, the 20th century would not have ended so warm, and nobody has come up with any reasons why this is wrong. Or in other words, the scientists accept that the models reasonably predict the influence.
On the other hand the models aren't quite as accurate as thought, since the warming and ice loss in the Arctic is quicker than expected.

Basically, yes, the climate system continues to work exactly as it always has done, "faster" doesn't come into it, it is the wrong term to use. And yes, there are unnacounted for variables which are not yet fully understood, e.g. the response of Arctic ice to the warming, or the effects of warming upon monsoon rains. Another example being some of the sources for sea level rise - IIRC they left out the Greenland ice cap contribution simply because it is so uncertain. Or was it the Antarctic contribution? I can't recall now. Anyway, there are plenty of variables that are insufficiently constrainted for really really accurate results. Nevertheless, it is a scientific certainty that we are causing the warming and it is only going to get worse, unless we get ourselves off fossil fuels.

Your best bet is to head over to and read their FAQ's and links to other places, so that you understand it better.


Ahh... Thank you for the link. I will check it out.


Uh, Spain is a world leader in solar power.

In the MIT museum I read of some work where artificial photosynthesis directly uses sunlight to produce hydrogen at decent efficiencies. The reader may ponder the uses of that.


It's actually, not .com.


Well, this reader ponders the question how efficient photosynthesis can be, remembers something on the order of 3-4% and arrives at the conclusion, that photovoltaics + electrolysis is more efficient (for pretty bad values of efficiency).


Alex Tolley @ 48 Both. 20-35% conversion-efficiency AND continuous running for several thosand hours at least without fail/breakdown/degradation. As you and others say, it's coming - so why do we not hear more of it? or is it a matter of bothe first (installation) costs and vested interests? Remember that until very recently trying to generate your own, no matter how small, was penalised by a cosy guvmint-&-power-generators stitch-up.


What pisses me off to no end is the number of people (although nobody on this blog, it seems) who seem to take it for granted that SF must be either utopian or dystopian. Like the common response to a question why one reads/writes dystopias: "Because utopias are boring!" Which implies complete obliviousness of anything in-between.

One of my favorite SF novels is "Pandora's Star" -- nobody starves, with a little foresight people can live forever, and there is no war (until a very aggressive alien species is met), but there is still crime, terrorism, corrupt politicians, conspiracy theorists, crank ideologies, airheaded heiresses, etc. IOW, it is not too different from the world today. "Pandora's Star" is neither utopia nor dystopia, and it has plenty of interesting and exciting -- even without the title aliens.


1/3 of the world's population using off-grid solar sounds a little high, but not a lot high. You have to keep in mind that most of the solar-reliant population won't be trading down from a reliable electrical grid offering as much energy as you like at 15 cents per kWh, but trading up to solar energy from kerosene lamps, the odd bit of juice stolen from the local grid (such as it is) during the times when that grid is actually energized, and simple deprivation.

With one square meter of 20% efficiency solar panel (commercially available from SunPower, based on well established silicon cells, no gallium, germanium, tellurium, or indium required) you can harvest one kilowatt hour of energy per day, on average, in the continental United States. Energy production will be somewhat higher in tropical areas with greater average insolation.

The median inhabitant of Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Nicaragua, Sri Lanka, Ghana, Cameroon, Angola, Laos, Bhutan, Yemen, Kenya, Liberia, Burma, Sudan, Guinea, Tanzania, Cambodia, Madagascar, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mali, Haiti, Somalia, Burundi, Chad, or Sierra Leone consumes even less than 1 kilowatt hour of electricity per day. Giving them that much in the form of distributed solar generation would be a marked improvement in material comfort.

With just one kilowatt hour of electricity you can:

-Pump 2000 liters of water up from a 100 meter deep well -Disinfect 1000 liters of water* -Desalinate 100 liters of sea water* -Synthesize 250 grams of nitrogen fertilizer, starting from water and air -Travel 70 kilometers on an electric bike -Provide 200 hours of steady, smokeless illumination for night time security, study, play, or work -Use a smartphone for 6 weeks

Obviously, phones, water pumps, e-bikes, etc. are not bundled with solar panels at zero cost, but it's impressive how much modern machines can do with even as little electrical energy as you can get out of a daily square meter of sunlight.

*Both of these figures assume use of small-scale machines. Large scale installations are more efficient but less suitable for locations with limited electrical availability/reliability.


Whoops, it's

not dot com.


Remember this gem, from right around election day 2008? Distributed on trains in NYC.


That sounds pretty impressive even by today's standards. 100Wh/h will make you pretty much self sufficient IT-wise. No AC or fridges, obviously, but I can run an i5 laptop, a couple of netbooks and a wlan-lan-router on about 80W.

I was thinking about adding a solar panel to this year's equipment for the CCC, but I'd have to build in an extra battery, charge distributor and charger unit on top of that which is too much for a place with readily available standard current sockets. The solar-power-in-a-packet things (including panel, charger and battery) are too much of a plaything to contemplate at approximately 10Wh/h optimum. Enough to charge your smartphone, but not even close to sufficent at powering your smallest computer when you're looking at at least 10h/d of continuous use.


Re: Kurzweil: Probably because K. is one man, making a variety of specific predictions about different fields many of which are demonstrably wrong (and which he refuses to admit are wrong). A lot of qualified people disagree with him.

The IPCC is a coalition of experts, who check each other's work and carefully err towards smaller effects, and which focuses on one theme (the effect of human activity on the climate). There is a whole system for updating their predictions as new information is found. Despite a lot of noise on the internet, none of the IPCC reports has been riddled below the waterline the way some of Kurzweil's books have.



Pandora's star? That book made me want to vomit. Hamilton seems to be a very peculiar individual, he seems to relish having pathetic protagonists end up badly and the society outlined there made me sick.

Nothing more but an extrapolation of the present, which is disgusting. Vote buying (welfare buys votes, campaign contributions buy subsidies and the end result is slow creep towards bankruptcy ), political idiocy, representative democracy.. a plethora of rights but no obligations and a mass culture that makes one believe most people are effing idiots.

Pet political ideas for the near future..

I for one think I would like to live in a state where voting was a privilege, not a right. A privilege one'd have to work at. From everyone according to his ability, I guess. Low intelligence people could work in reclamation, forestry, construction for little money for the state. Engineers and scientists could work on state or non-profit projects while earning less than in the private sector. Then there's military and police work.

If people demonstrate they are willing to put their own financial interests and luxuries below the common good, they deserve to have a greater say in society.

Also, no votes for people who don't pay taxes. Not taxation without representation and no representation without taxation.

And .. tada..

Sane laws. Written clearly, concisely, not the present convoluted mess. Laws that are like great computer code, easy to understand, easy to maintain, effective. There is no reason why laws shouldn't be held to higher standards.

Let citizens engage in Law Reviews. Let smart, well-read people analyze, in their free time, paragraphs and vote on them. Sure it'd be work, sure there'd be ways of corrupting, but there is game theory, and game theorists would be falling over themselves to submit clever ideas on how to make sure the process runs nicely.

The bloody lawyers and the fucking lawmakers.. it is in their vested interests to make laws as opaque and as far-reaching as possible. The more vague and more powerful laws are, the more power they wield and the more work they can get.

I'd be all for selling all lawyers except those willing to give up all their worldly possessions and live like monks in cloisters as cheap labor to Siberian forestry companies.

Those who'd choose the cloister would be sterilized, and in the future, the study of law would be only allowed for people who can't have children. No more lawmaker dynasties.


"I for one think I would like to live in a state where voting was a privilege, not a right. A privilege one'd have to work at. From everyone according to his ability, I guess." Welcome in the people's democratic republic of China, comrade ! :) We live in a country which is far more than "an extrapolation of (YOUR) present", which is disgusting, isn't it? :) As for Hamilton, he proved he is already an ennemy of the people in his Greg Mandel serie. Would you be kind enough to buy the bullet ? thanks.


I'm not sure if this is related, but here goes:

I've spoken to many people about their lack of planning (I'm a Project Manager after all), and quite often the root cause seems to be a general feeling of discomfort or negativity about the future. Once this becomes clear, they often joke about 2012 or some other harbinger of the end times, and move on to other topics. To be clear, the context is usually career, financial, but sometimes spiritual or personal development if I know them well.

I'm often struck by how many folks are hamstrung by what is essentially nihilism. The wonder of life; be it the feeling of wind on your face or the smile of a child are simple and regular sources of joy that everyone experiences on a daily basis. Even when the clouds are rolling in one must know somewhere deep inside that eventually blue skes will return. To quote a Persian Sufi (or King Solomon): This too shall pass.

To loop back on Karl's article; optimism or the will to dream a better future into being isn't popular right now. I guess I agree with his position that he (and by extension each of us) can chose to create a better world in our own way. His is through writing, mine may be through creating better project teams, yours some other wonderous AND mundane thing.

Leave the world a better place then you found it.

p.s. Karl: Always happy to hear from a fellow Torontonian; I'm waiting to buy your next book.


The problem with Kurzweil is that he explicitly assumes faster processing equals greater intelligence. It doesn't, never has. All faster processing gets you is the ability to make dumb decisions more quickly. Intelligence requires understanding concepts and problem-solving, and the AI field isn't noticeably any further towards this than they were back in the 80s when Eliza was queen of the chatbots.


I do not have time to dissect your post, so I will just say this:

Assuming you are serious and not just pulling everyone's leg, I am REALLY glad you have no political power.

As far as "Pandora's Star" is concerned, you seem to hate it for exactly very reasons I like it.


...Kurzweil is that he explicitly assumes faster processing equals greater intelligence.

That is not my understanding. He saye that the processing power of computers are increasing towards human brain levels. Since computers are Turing machines, that means that computers could support human level AI with the right software.

There is certainly room to argue that computers are not matching natural processing power as he thinks. We certainly don't have the right software either.

Having said that, we may be blindsided by software developments that offer general AI capability. It may even be hardware given the developments in applying neuroscience to special chip design.


Predicting the future using scenario planning ..

Since no one has yet mentioned it, you might find this of interest - Peter Shwartz' 2010 update to his 1991 book 'The Art of the Long View'- it built on the scenario planning work originally done at Shell - when making decisions about which oil field investments to make, it helped to extrapolate forward for things like 30 year population demographics, climate changes, and political risk.


@Ilya You may be like him, but the reason I dislike his books is that he probably has an inferiority complex and takes it out on his characters. If you have a something like an inferiority complex, you may like his books too. I feel sorry for you.

Assuming you are serious and not just pulling everyone's leg, I am REALLY glad you have no political power. I may go into politics in about twenty years. As to no representation without taxation, that's very popular among young people where I live.


China is a bloody one party fascist regime. An autocracy that breaks up and sells political prisoners for body parts, if those reports are to be believed.

What I would like to see would be a regime where

a) only those who pay taxes would get to vote

b) votes of people who are smarter would have more weight. This is looking out for my own interests, as supposedly my general intelligence is around the 97th percentile

c) you'd have to prove you are willing to sacrifice something for the good of the community to gain vote. Or it could be that everyone would have a vote, but each year of state service would get half of another.

d) laws would not be so convoluted only lawyers can have a hope of understanding them

Sure, accomplishing that won't be easy, but that's no reason not to try it.


I may be a bit late here, but...

As far as aspirational futures are concerned, I find "gapminder" to be really good - how the world has substantially improved in the last fifty or two hundred years (depending on which presentation you watch) and how in the future it can continue to get better based on current trends.

He's also a good speaker :-)

Real statistics for a reasonably optimistic outlook on the world!


Lanius @ 78 Already been thought of. By Nevil Shute Norway. "In the Wet"


I remember what the futurism think tanks said what would happen to America if the jobs were taken away. They said the winners in what the government did would have to be taxed to pay for a shorter work week. If they did not everything would go to hell. Got that one right.


Any system which restricts the right to vote according to some rule or another is open to abuse. In the UK, you can't vote while serving a sentence in prison. That is hard to abuse, because it's difficult to convict and sentence enough people to affect an election. In many states of the USA, that conviction prevents you from voting for the rest of your life. I don't know if that is abused, but I suspect it is.

We have the same sort of prohibition on the insane voting. It is something to be careful of, and people have been locked up as insane for what now seem to be trivial reasons.

But when you switch it from defining who cannot vote to defining who can, it changes the whole balance. Maybe we should require all voters to be paying tax and holding six or more GCSEs.

Do you trust the taxman to keep the records right? Many pensioners don't pay tax. Have you just excluded your wife, or your intelligent son at University?

And can you trust the teachers to be honest about getting "difficult" kids past exams?

I'm not sure where my exam certificates are.

It certainly looks simpler to let everyone vote, and just make sure that the "right" candidates stand, so that whoever they vote for doesn't matter so much. How much difference is there between Conservative, Liberal, and Labour? And you can point with pride at your honest electoral system.


A lot of people do not understand why the "right to vote" exists. Primarily, it is to make armed rebellion against the government illegitimate. As such it works extremely well.


Lanius --

You may be like him, but the reason I dislike his books is that he probably has an inferiority complex and takes it out on his characters. If you have a something like an inferiority complex, you may like his books too. I feel sorry for you.

Care to extrapolate?

I am not offended, but genuinely have no idea what you are talking about.


What I would like to see would be a regime where

a) only those who pay taxes would get to vote

b) votes of people who are smarter would have more weight. This is looking out for my own interests, as supposedly my general intelligence is around the 97th percentile

c) you'd have to prove you are willing to sacrifice something for the good of the community to gain vote. Or it could be that everyone would have a vote, but each year of state service would get half of another.

I am curious - how old are you? Because these are very common sentiments among people who are smart and young. I felt pretty much same way when I was 20 or so. Now (at 45) I understand the value of universal voting, however I may dislike idiots voting. Idiots staging an armed rebellion because they are "unfairly denied representation" is a lot worse.


Reminded me of Fred Polak in The Image of the Future:

"The rise and fall of images of the future precedes or accompanies the rise and fall of cultures. As long as a society’s image is positive and flourishing, the flower of culture is in full bloom. Once the image begins to decay and lose its vitality, however, the culture does not long survive."



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This page contains a single entry by Karl Schroeder published on July 26, 2011 6:10 PM.

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