Faversham Stoa is a philosophy discussion group meeting on the 3rd Tuesday of every month from 7.30 to 9.30pm in the The Bull in Tanners Street. We cover a large range of topics. If you have an idea for a topic that you would like us to cover why not drop us a line? There's no charge for membership and everyone is welcome to drop in. Just bring your brain and some beer money!

The Future

To the stars!

Pessimist or Optimist?

Are you a pessimist or an optimist about the future?

What grounds do you have for adopting one attitude rather than another? Are there rational grounds or arguments for deciding whether we should be confident about the future turning out well or badly? Or is it just a matter of personality? Some people are glass-half-full people and others see it half-empty. That's just the way they are.

Personally, feel that there must be some fact-of-the-matter here – but I can't quite see how to produce an argument on an issue with such a broad span. Anyway, here's a summary of some of the ideas various “futurologists” have come up with. I hope they stimulate your own thinking.

Doomsday Scenarios

We will begin, pessimistically, by looking at the various ways that the world might end. There is a nice, succinct summary in an article entitled Twenty Ways the World Might End (Perhaps "nice" is not the best word to use in this context!)

Possible doomsday scenarios include:

  • Asteroid impact
  • Gamma-ray burst
  • Collapse of the vacuum
  • Rogue black holes
  • Giant solar flares
  • Reversal of Earth's magnetic field
  • Flood-basalt volcanism
  • Global epidemics
  • Global warming
  • Ecosystem collapse
  • Biotech disaster
  • Particle accelerator mishap
  • Nanotechnology disaster
  • Environmental toxins
  • Global war
  • Robots take over
  • Mass insanity
  • Alien invasion
  • Divine intervention

What do you think of these? Are any of them plausible endings? Do you lie awake at night worrying about the possibility of asteroid impact (Perhaps not – when the world has Bruce Willis!) or a “grey goo” incident? Perhaps you feel that global warming is a more likely scenario.

Mass Infertility

Surprisingly, the writer of Twenty Ways the World Might End has completely missed out one scenario, which is the possibility of mass infertility, a theme explored by PD James in her novel (and now film) Children of Men. Sadly, James treats her plot theme as little more than an excuse for a cops and robbers type chase drama. Patti Whaley, in her Thought Bubble, on the other hand, uses it as a thought-experiment to ask what the significance of the future must be to us now. Why would it matter to me personally if the human race died out as long as my life now is interesting and enjoyable? She concludes that it is the very existence of future human generations that gives purpose to most of our projects. Take away the possibility of people living after me to use and enjoy the products of my work then most of my activity becomes quite meaningless. For example can you imagine why anyone would bother to undertake large scale engineering projects, like the Eurotunnel, if we were living in the final generation of human beings? It's bad enough justifying the Eurotunnel when there are future generations to use it!

This is a particularly good thought-experiment from a philosophical point of view because all the other "endings" involve terrible pain and suffering which distract from the main conceptual point. Mass infertility isolates the idea of an absence of a human future from other unpleasant effects and allows us to reflect on the role of future generations to us.

What do you think most people's attitude would be if they believed that they were the final generation of humans? I think the population of western Europe, at least, would just curl up in a kind of mass ennui. They would become passive, depressed and just give up. There would be nothing to live for. This might give poor, Third World residents the opportunity to pour into the richer West and grab some of the riches for themselves while the population declines.

The Doomsday Argument

One discussion of the end of the world, that I really can't get my head around, is known as the ‘Doomsday Argument’. It is a purely statistical argument which says, basically, that since the population is exponentially growing (about 15% of people who have ever lived are living right now), most of the people who will ever live are going to appear a short time before the end of the world. Since we're here now, chances are we're near the end. There's something like a 95% chance the world will end in the next 9120 years. Just under a thousand years left for Humankind. Does that worry you?

There is lots of discussion of this problem on the internet – most of it very technical. Many people seem to think they can refute it but it's one of those problems that just doesn't seem to go away. It sounds intuitively implausible – but that proves nothing as several of the truths of probability go against our native intuition

Here are several links to sites that provide (relatively) simple explanations. If you can understand how it is possible to sit in an armchair and calculate by pure statistics (with no empirical data) the probability of human extinction, then please come along to a meeting of the Stoa and explain. It's beyond me!

Betting On The Future

Now's your chance to show how much of an optimist you are. Here are a number of predictions that you can actually bet on. Most of them are from a site called Long Bets

Apparently scientists have been betting on the outcomes of scientific research since the 1980s and this site is a continuation of that practice. You can read about how the practice developed

I have selected a number of predictions that we might want to discuss in the Stoa (and even put our money on!). One of the rules of Long Bets is that you have to give a reason for your prediction and so I've included a link to the bet so you can see what the better's argument is.

I was surprised that no one has bet on nuclear fusion and so I have added it to the list myself – with some links to explanatory material.

In the ‘society’ section there is only a prediction about racism. But what will be future for gay marriage; women's work and pay; religion; conflict in the Middle East?

Here are the predictions...

Government

  • By 2100 a world government will be in place and in control of business law, environmental law and weapons of mass destruction. Detail...
  • The End of State Sovereignty: By 2030, some form of international federation or global governmental structure will emerge that can exercise ultimate authority over world affairs. Detail...
  • One hundred years from now the world's governments will formally and legally recognize the basic human right of mobility: a person may live anywhere on earth if they agree to obey local laws. Detail...
  • By 2025, the states will have voted on at least one constitutional amendment to cede US federal power to a global government. Detail...

Currency

  • There will be only three significant currencies used in the world by 2063. More than 95 % of the countries in the world will use one of them. Detail...
  • By 2050, at least two pan-regional currencies, modeled on the Euro, will be used in the world. Detail...
  • By the end of 2024 there will be a Single Global Currency managed by a Global Central Bank within a Global Monetary Union.(3-G's) This currency will be legal tender in countries which comprise at least 51% of the world's GDP. Detail...

Survival

  • I predict that our civilization will survive until at least 2100. Detail...
  • Islam

  • Within two generations, the Iranian people will become an anchor of freedom for the middle east. Detail...
  • Turkey will join the European Union and become a model for a Democratic Islamic State and lead the way for advancing relations between the Islamic world and "Western World". Detail...

Bio Hazards

  • Bioterror, or bioerror, will lead to 1 million casualties in a single event by 2020. Detail...

SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence)

  • By 2050, we will receive intelligent signals from outside our solar system. Detail...
  • The first discovery of extraterrestrial life will be someplace other than on a planet or on a satellite of a planet. Detail...

Space Travel

  • By the year 2020, the tickets to space travel – at the least to Moon, will be available over the counter. Detail...
  • No human will set his or her foot on Mars and return safely to earth before 2050. Detail...

Artificial Intelligence

  • By 2050 no synthetic computer nor machine intelligence will have become truly self-aware (ie. will become conscious). Detail...
  • A machine capable of passing the Turing Test will be made in 2075 using only hardware that was available in 2005. Detail...
  • A computer will pass the Turing test by 2029. Detail...

Computers

  • Moore's Law, which has defined a doubling of price/performance/value produced by semi-conductors every 12 to 18 months since 1966, will continue to deliver its exponential benefits for at least another five decades, without stopping or slowing. http://www.longbets.org/70
  • By 2025, more than 50% of desktop computers in the world will be running an open-source operating system. Detail...
  • By 2025 at least 50% of all U.S. citizens residing within the United States will have some form of technology embedded in their bodies for the purpose of tracking and identification. Detail...
  • By the year 2035 non-invasive devices will allow us to interface with the internet (including accessing information in a similar sense to recalling memories) using electro-stimulus from neuron signals. Detail...

Transport

  • By the year 2020 the technology will exist that will allow for the "faxing" (teleportation- sending/receiving) of actual inanimate objects, such as text books, clothing, jewellery and the like. Detail...
  • Commercial airline passengers will routinely fly in pilotless planes by 2030. Detail...

Reading

  • By 2010 more than 50 percent of books sold worldwide will be printed on demand at the point of sale in the form of library-quality paperbacks. Detail...
  • By 2010 more than 50 percent of books worldwide will be read on digital devices rather than in print form. Detail...
  • Weblogs will outrank the New York Times Web site by 2007 (based on a Google search of five keywords or phrases reflecting the top five news stories). Detail...

Medical Technology

  • By 2030 all surgical anesthesia will be administered and monitored by computers, with no need for professional medical supervision beyond the surgeon. Detail...
  • By 2012, scientists will have announced a cure for breast cancer and mastectomies will have become almost obsolete. Detail...
  • By 2025, the very first human being will be cloned and this event will be accepted by most people. Detail...

Population

  • By 2060 the total population of humans on earth will be less than it is today. Detail...

Longevity

  • At least one human born in the year 2000 will still be alive in 2150. Detail...
  • By 2040, at least 40% of Americans making to age 65 will live to age 100. Detail...

Energy

  • By the year 2020 solar electricity will be as cheap or cheaper than that produced by fossil fuels. Detail...
  • By 2020, 75% of all incremental new generation will come from renewable/sustainable energy in the U.S. Detail...
  • The U.S Department of Transportation Bureau of Transportation Statistics will report a lower number of total highway vehicle miles traveled in 2010 than in 2005. Detail...
  • Nuclear fusion power will be a commercial option by 2040 Detail... (More information about the pros and cons of nuclear fusion...)

Environment

  • Over the next ten years, we will make measurable global progress in all five areas of the human condition: food, access to clean water, health, education, and the price of energy. Detail...
  • I predict that global warming denialists will be shown to be wrong over the next 20 years as global warming continues. I predict that temperatures will increase by at least .15 degrees Celsius from 2005 to 2025. Detail...
  • Science fiction author Michael Crichton has predicted the world will warm by 0.81 degrees Celsius by the year 2100. Detail...
  • Barring an unexpected decline in human numbers from current levels, biodiversity will not reverse its downward trend, air and water pollution will not reverse their increasing trends and the WHO will not report a decrease in the percentage of humans with persistent illnesses. Detail...

Entertainment

  • Music CDs compatible with current (2002) CD players will still be sold regularly in 2015. Detail...
  • A profitable video-on-demand service aimed at consumers will offer 10,000 titles to 5 million subscribers by 2010. Detail...

Cryptozoology

  • By 2025 the scientific evidence of a hither-to-unknown large bi-pedal great ape will be sufficient to convince at least 50% of primatologists that a yeti/bigfoot-like creature exists. Detail...

Society

  • By 2100 racism will no longer be a significant phenomenon in most countries of the world. Detail...

The Future Ain't What it Used to Be...

All this speculation on how the future might turn out may be fun but does it have any practical application? Well—there are people who make a living at predicting future trends—and I'm not just referring to fortune-tellers at the end of the pier. There is a whole profession now calling themselves "futurists". They even hold Futurist Conventions, belong to professional organisations and hold specialist university degrees in "Futurism" or "Foresight Analysis".

The problem is that when you look at past predictions they are often so far out that it's laughable:

  • "Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons." — Popular Mechanics, forecasting the relentless march of science, 1949
  • "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers." — Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943.
  • "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home." — Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977.
  • "This 'telephone' has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us." — Western Union internal memo, 1876.
  • "640K ought to be enough for anybody." — Bill Gates, 1981
  • "Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?"—H.M. Warner, Warner Brothers, 1927.
  • "Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible." — Lord Kelvin, president, Royal Society, 1895.
  • "Airplanes are interesting toys but of no military value." — Marechal Ferdinand Foch, Professor of Strategy, Ecole Superieure de Guerre.
  • "Everything that can be invented has been invented." — Charles H. Duell,Commissioner, U.S. Office of Patents, 1899.
  • "The bomb will never go off. I speak as an expert in explosives." — Admiral William Leahy, U.S. Atomic Bomb Project.
  • "There will never be a bigger plane built." — A Boeing engineer, after the first flight of the 247, a twin engine plane that holds ten people.

The future in the past

Here are a couple of websites that detail, in a light-hearted way, past visions of what the future might look like:

Science fiction

Science fiction is often held up as an example of a form of speculation that frequently gets it right. True—Arthur C Clarke accurately predicted in Wireless World magazine in 1945 how geostationary satellite communications would work. But no one got the first moon landing right. Not one SF writer described how the whole event would be broadcast on live TV. It's not that they didn't understand the technology—that there is nothing to stop TV signals reaching Earth from the Moon—it's just that they were stuck in an old-fashioned paradigm of exploration. In the past explorers went off in ships (notice how space vehicles are called "ships"—even Star Trek continues the Naval analogy) and come back with travellers tales. Everyone thought that was how space exploration would be.

The danger with prediction is that we make them in terms of the assumptions that are common now. It's difficult to break out of our assumptions which is probably why so many people supposedly ‘in the know’ in the 1950s failed to predict the rise of computers.

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