Juan Enriquez' recent presentation at TED juxtaposes the accelerating world financial crisis against the backdrop of the longer term, more profound changes in robotics, biology and genetics. For the former, he suggests that we work longer before receiving social security and not get too tied up in the current morass that we lose track of the incredible advances in the latter. With regard to this he says we are beginning to evolve into a new species - "Homo Evolutis - Hominids that take direct and deliberate control over the evolution of their species...and others." This is not a new meme though it seems to be gaining traction and is popping up more frequently these days. Our ability to manipulate and integrate technology into our very beings will no doubt be one of the hot button issues of the next decade.
Since the recent appearance by Jeff, Garry and Alvis on The Speculist Blog Talk Radio program (click on Speculist meets MemeBox), I thought they and other Future Bloggers might find the below discussion stemming from a subsequent program of interest.
Phil Bowermaster has a post up at The Speculist examining the state of the progression of human society from it's present structure to one more closely tracking the various expectations stemming from the concept of The Singularity:
[The following is an expanded version of an e-mail I sent to Stephen in response to some reflections he had on our most recent FastForward Radio -- that show with guest Joseph Jackson discussing the possibility of a post-scarcity world. I think Stephen was going to post some additional thoughts, too -- to which I would have added comments -- but time's up!] ...
My issue is more practical. By what means could we possibly get to the kind of society he's describing? The assumption seems to be that it would be the federal government (or the Earth government or -- my fav -- the Committee of Robot Overlords) doing the distributing. But we don't have a working model of how a government can guarantee the material welfare of its population without ripping its economy to shreds and putting individual rights on the back burner. That doesn't mean it can't happen, but Joseph doesn't have a model of how we would get there, or at least he didn't articulate one Wednesday night.
I sympathise with Phil's dilemma, unfortunately Mr. Jackson's lack of specific insight isn't unique to him; nobody really knows how we get to "there" because we still haven't really articulated the starting point for the needed change(s) to progress from with any sort of degree of engineering specificity. It's all well and good to simply proclaim the need for a systemic advancement, but what specific mechanism achieves that to actual advantage - and to whom? It seems a bit solipsistic perhaps, but market pressures actually are the least disruptive mechanism to stimulating that process. This doesn't make for speedy adoption of course, but does assure wide-spread acceptance of the process within the production industry(s) generally once the never-ending search for competitive advantage resorts to such comparatively radical technological innovation. Until business profitability (with it's concomitant influence on tax collections) forces executives and governmental legislators to commit to some technology there will remain resistance to doing so. Despite the potential for individual developments altering the current production structure and economy, the likelihood of such a development actually forcing early change is slight for a variety of reasons - only some of them technologic in nature.
Economists and politicians are debating whether we are in a recession or a depression, and how many months or years it will take to recover from the downturn. But what is now happening to the economy is not typical or normal. I would call it a "retrenchment" rather than a recession.
In that sense, it is a permanent correction, and will result in a substantial and long-term contraction of GDP, the standard of living and the stock market. It will take many years to return to where we were. The problem is that the U.S. government and consumer have both been living on borrowed money for a generation, so that most of the gains of that period are illusory. We were never really that wealthy, and now we have to start paying for that extravagance.
A similar argument is made in an interesting article entitled "Will There Be A Recovery?" by Paul Craig Roberts, a former Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in the Reagan administration. He also sees the current situation as different from past recessions. Recovery in the past could be stimulated by cuts in interest rates, allowing consumers to spend more against rising real wages. This would lead the economy to rebound.
Now it is different though. For one thing, for most workers, real wages have remained stagnant for almost twenty years. Consumers have maxed out their credit and can no longer borrow so freely. And interest rates are already at rock bottom levels.
Chris Martenson has created a series of videos called The Crash Course 'to provide you with a baseline understanding of the economy so that you can better appreciate the risks that we all face.'
Martenson shows how important it is for us to understand the enormous implications of exponential growth, debt-deficits, wealth creation, asset bubbles and demographic shifts, resource production plateaus, hedonic models, fuzzy numbers of GDP, et al.
Martenson is not necessarily trying to sell a vision of inevitable collapse. Rather he makes a strong case to highlight the observable fundamental flaws in our current economic behavior and models, and the dire consequences of what might happen if we do nothing to change our course.
This is a must watch set of videos for thinking about the future.
With the Obama administration gearing up for action, the Fall stock market crash fading from memory, and a new year underway many economists (especially most of the folks I regularly watch on CNBC and Bloomberg) are predicting recovery to commence in the second half of 2009. Having noted the slow spread of the mortgage crisis, which some predicted several years before it ever began to look serious, I am more than a bit skeptical about their underlying assumptions and the likelihood of a near-term turn-around.
Fortunately there are some economists like Condé Nast Portfolio contributing editor John Cassidy who agree that economists may not be the best predictors of things economic. Pointing out their poor track record in 2008 (live by the Greenspan, die by the Greenspan), Cassidy now contrasts their 2009 forecasts against those of the general public and of finance professionals, revealing that the economists are far more optimistic than the rest.
He then asks the obvious question:
So who are we to believe: the experts who failed to predict the current crisis or the great American public? With due respect to my fellow dabblers in the dismal science [economics], I share Joe the Plumber’s queasy feeling. Unless something miraculous happens in the next few weeks, the new inhabitant of the Oval Office will inherit an economy flailing under the weight of record debts and rising unemployment. If a depression is defined as a deep, extended recession of a severity that nobody under the age of 75 can recall, then it is quite likely that we are already in one.
In my book The End of the American Century, I point to China as one of America’s new rivals, but also as a major factor in U.S. profligacy and in U.S. economic decline. To a large extent, the false U.S. affluence of the last decade has been underwritten by China, in two ways: the country has supplied American consumers with cheap toys, gadgets and clothes; and has been bailing out the federal government by purchasing U.S. debt.
The rapid growth of foreign ownership of U.S. debt is yet another dimension of the unraveling of the U.S. economy. In 1970, only 4 percent of U.S. debt was held by foreigners; now almost half is. In recent years, foreigners have financed about 80 percent of the increase in public debt. The two biggest holders of U.S. debt are Japan and China, with China alone owning about $1 trillion in U.S. debt. Senator Hilary Clinton raised concerns about foreign ownership of U.S. debt in early 2007, when she sent a letter to Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke. “In essence,” she observed,
"16% of our entire economy is being loaned to us by the Central Banks of other nations."
Reuters reports that most leaders in the mobile phone industry see sales plummeting in response to the global economic crisis. "On average, the poll of 36 analysts shows global market volumes shrinking 6.6 percent next year and 5.7 percent in the fourth quarter -- traditionally the strongest period for the industry due to holiday sales." The interesting note is that a similar poll in early November saw predictions that the market would grow by 2.6% next year.
We all know the economy is going to crap, so it's not surprising that people are going to stop buying things they don't really need. For many, that's a brand-spanking new cellphone. Our culture has become (or always has been) a sort of throw-away culture where if your technology isn't the latest then you're way behind the curve.
iPhone after iPhone is thrown away, replaced by a new one ten times better and sexier, only to get replaced less than a year later. This economic jolt might be what it takes to get people to start sticking to their stuff, quell the need for the latest and greatest, and stop shopping smartly. Imagine a phone where you could switch out some of the components instead of buy a whole new product. Like a computer tower, just upgrade the parts instead of buying a whole computer. Honestly though, I see this as unlikely.
In 1972 a team of futurists published the book Limits to Growth which explored long-term forecast models based on rapidly expanding global economic and population growth against finite natural resources.
While most people assumed that growth could continue unabated, Limits to Growth offered a shocking alternative scenario - overshoot and collapse. Their future? The modern industrial economy would expand beyond the legacy resource capacity of the planet as supplies plateaued and depleted faster than expected. The 'Overshoot and Collapse' future scenario was mostly ridiculed by mainstraem economists and political leaders.
Now the world's leading oil forecasting agency is hinting that this future is closer than expected with regard to our conventional oil supplies. They are calling for an 'energy revolution'.
For those who have followed the 'peak oil' conversation evolve, this is the most shocking admission on record from a leading global oil analyst. Birol acknowledges that the major differences between the IEA's World Energy Outlook report from 2007 were based on the 'wrong assumptions' of oil field decline rates. He admits that, until 2008, no organization has ever done a comprehensive global oil field decline rate survey.
Monbiot's annoynance with the IEA's failure to back their forecasts with actual data is priceless, and scary given the implications of IEA's role in providing governments with accurate oil forecasts. In 2007 the IEA said the decline rate asumption was 3%, now in 2008 they say data support 6-7%. At that rate, the world's conventional oil production plateau could happen between 2020-2030.
Birol says that the current path is "not (economically) sustainable" and the IEA is now calling for 'an energy revolution'. We think this should certainly start with global leaders pushing to Kill the Combustion Engine and taking away the liquid fuel fed energy device that makes us so dependent on oil.
What to watch: Peak Oil is about to go Mainstream The broad implications of peak production in conventional oil resources?
I argue in The End of the American Century that the U.S. has already lost its global supremacy. But can it recover it? In
a globalized and interdependent world, both the country and the world are better off without a superpower.
There is, first of all, both a descriptive (factual) and prescriptive (value judgment) aspect to this question. Will the U.S. regain its superpower status? And should it do so? I believe the answer is negative to both questions, but the reasoning behind them are similar.
Some scholars have argued that the world needs a powerful and stabilizing force, and that the United States is the only country in a position to play this role. The British historian Niall Ferguson has made this case in his book Colossus, as has the U.S. political scientist Michael Mandelbaum in The Case for Goliath. And through much of history, there has been a big single power that has played this role in great swaths of the planet—Rome, Britain, Spain, the Ottomans, etc. All of those are now gone.
The 21st century world is different in several important respects. First, power and influence are more diffuse. There are numerous “rising powers”—China, India, Brazil, Iran, Russia, South Africa—and they are spread all over the globe. None of them want or need a super powerful country encroaching on their turf, or telling them how to behave.
Second, the world is more interdependent, particularly in economic terms—“flat” in Thomas Friedman’s evocative phrase. Prosperity and security are being built on trade, cooperation and compromise. Some countries are bigger and wealthier than others and will naturally play a more substantial role in this globalized community. A “superpower”—economic or military—distorts and destabilizes such a system.
Fareed Zakaria is everywhere these days, articulating a message similar to those in my own book The End of the American Century. But I think he underestimates the seriousness of the situation facing the United States.
His was the lead article last summer (May/June) in Foreign Affairs issue on “Is America in Decline?” His book The Post-American World appeared shortly thereafter, and soon became a best seller. As an editor of Newsweek, his columns appear there regularly, and the October 20th issue of the magazine featured him on the front cover, with the title “The Bright Side” against a cheery yellow background. He even has his own television show, “Fareed Zakaria’s GPS,” where last week he endorsed Barack Obama as the best hope for America’s future.
Zakaria argues that it is not so much that the U.S. is in decline, but that other powers have risen, requiring the U.S. to deal with them with more consultation and compromise. He believes that the U.S. “has the strength and dynamism to continue shaping the world” (Foreign Affairs) and that “the world is moving our way” (The Post-American World). He sees a “silver lining” in the current economic crisis, in that the country will be forced “to confront the bad habits it has developed over the last few decades” (Newsweek).
These bad habits include spending and consuming more than we produce, leading to record levels of household debt, which has grown from $680 billion in 1974 to $14 trillion today. Spiraling consumer debt has been matched by the government. “The whole country has been complicit in a great fraud,” he writes in Newsweek. He quotes the economist Jeffrey Sachs: “We’ve wanted lots of government, but we haven’t wanted to pay for it.”
“Might this be a first step toward a Singularity X-Prize? :) What do you think a “Singularity University” might consist of?”
I address these questions directly in comments, but all of the foregoing inspires me to suggest a future X-Prize for the good doctor’s consideration: The Island Hop Challenge.
Here are the terms:
A $10 million prize to the first vehicle that can travel from Staten Island in New York to Coronado Island in California, within a six day period and using only the fuel carried by the vehicle at the start of the challenge (plug-in recharge of electric vehicles is forbidden, but an on-board mechanism to re-fill the internal fuel storage is permitted if such is powered from the vehicles on-board power system).
For most of the 20th Century, the U.S. was the world leader in science, technology, and innovation, with the best scientists, the best universities and the most advanced research and development programs. But all of that has begun to change as other countries and regions have become more advanced and more competitive and increasingly challenge U.S. dominance “
A recent article in the New York Times addressed the U.S. technological decline, and the ways Senators Obama and McCain have approached the issue. This story includes some eye-opening statistics about the loss of U.S. primacy in technology, innovation and R&D. At the top of the story, the Times points out the importance of this sector for America’s economy and role in the world:
For decades the United States dominated the technological revolution sweeping the globe. The nation’s science and engineering skills produced vast gains in productivity and wealth, powered its military and made it the de facto world leader. Today, the dominance is eroding.
One sees this in multiple indicators, but perhaps the most important is the country’s high-technology balance of trade. Until 2002, the U.S. always exported more high-tech products than it imported. In that year, the trend reversed, and the technology trade balance has steadily declined, with the annual gap exceeding $50 billion in 2007.
The U.S. has also fallen behind in spending on research and development, which drives high-tech innovation and development.