Friday, May 28, 2010

Black Swans

When predictions about the future are incorrect, it is often because the predictor assumed that history wouldn’t provide us with any surprises, which it almost invariably does. Nassim Nicholas Taleb refers to these events as black swans. It is extremely difficult to predict them in advance, but they have a drastic impact on world history. Examples include 9/11, the AIDS pandemic, the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the invention of nuclear weapons, the stock market crash of 1929, the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, or the outbreak of World War I.

You may notice that most of the events on this list are widely considered to be disasters. As Warren Buffett has said, “Surprises are nearly always bad.” However, this isn’t universally true. There are, on rare occasions, examples of positive black swan events.

For example, in 1968 Paul Ehrlich wrote The Population Bomb, which predicted a nightmarish future of overpopulation and mass famine. Ehrlich looked at the global population trends from recent decades and saw that people were reproducing at an alarmingly fast rate. Yet within just a few years of the book’s publication, global birth rates began to decline and the global food supply increased exponentially. Ehrlich completely missed two very important “positive” black swans: The widespread adoption of the birth control pill and the Green Revolution in India.

The purpose of thinking about potential black swan events is to plan for events that are individually unlikely to occur, but would have a profound impact on the world if they do. I’ve thought of a few black swan events to think about for the next decade:

• A nuclear war between India and Pakistan
• The democratization or fragmentation of China
• Ecological collapse, followed or preceded by abrupt climate change
• Bioterror or bioerror releases a manmade super-plague
• The invention of effective anti-aging medicine offers indefinite lifespans
• The assassination of a major world leader
• An especially nasty strain of avian or swine flu results in a global pandemic
• An American state votes to secede from the union
• A global financial collapse

Depressing, huh? I tend to agree with Buffett that surprises tend to be bad (with some exceptions). Positive events tend to be much more incremental and predictable than negative events. You may believe the events on my list are all unlikely to occur in the next decade, as I do, but that’s the whole point. We must anticipate unlikely events and make contingency plans in case they occur. Life's surprises can be just as important as its long-term trends.

What do you think are some other black swan events that could conceivably occur in the next decade?

Friday, May 21, 2010

Are we living in a simulation?

Are we living in a simulated reality? Transhumanist philosopher Nick Bostrom thinks so. He puts forth the following argument. One of the following three statements must logically be true: 1) Advanced civilizations can never develop simulated realities; 2) No advanced civilization would ever choose to develop simulated realities; or 3) Our own reality is almost certainly simulated.

There are a few circumstances in which Statement #1 could theoretically be true. Perhaps there are no other advanced civilizations in the universe. Perhaps advanced civilizations exist, but simulations are simply impossible. Or perhaps they are possible, but beyond the technological capacity of any species. I think Statement #1 is the least plausible of the three. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, even extremely pessimistic interpretations of the Drake Equation should have yielded at least one other advanced civilization somewhere in our universe. The technological barriers to creating a simulation seem very small. We already have rudimentary virtual reality technology, and there is no fundamental reason why we shouldn’t be able to create all-encompassing simulations within a few decades. Since we’re nearly able to create them already, it seems unlikely that there are no other civilizations in the entire universe that are a few mere decades ahead of us.

Statement #2 involves speculation into the motives of other civilizations, of which we can’t possibly know anything. However, we do know about our own civilization and what motivates us. If humans develop this technology within a few decades, we will almost certainly make use of it, creating thousands upon thousands of simulations for entertainment or research. Therefore it seems very likely to me that Statement #2 is false.

This leaves Statement #3. If we have concluded that Statements #1 and #2 are false, Bostrom reasons that Statement #3 must be true. Why? Because there will be an enormous number of simulated realities. The probability that we find ourselves in the one parent universe, as opposed to one of the many simulations, must be vanishingly small.

The Simulation Hypothesis fascinates me, because it is one of the few rationales for the existence of some form of a god which I, an agnostic, do not think is easily refutable. Let’s examine the common rebuttals of the simulation hypothesis to see how much merit they hold.

Some have questioned the assumption that there is one parent universe and many simulations. If there are many parent universes and many simulated universes, critics reason, then the probability that we are in a simulation would not necessarily be quite so high. But I disagree. What are the implications of many parent universes capable of sustaining life and technology? Presumably EACH of them would be running many simulations, and thus it would not affect the probability of our being in a simulation much at all.

The most serious problem I see with the Simulation Hypothesis is that it has no empirical basis, and falls apart under the scrutiny of Ockham’s Razor. There is absolutely no conclusive evidence that we are living in a simulation. There may be a few teasing clues (e.g. the quantum world behaves suspiciously differently when we aren’t watching), but nothing substantive. However, I can see no obvious flaw in the logic of the Simulation Hypothesis. This leads back to an old philosophical debate between empiricists and rationalists: Can we determine reality through sound logic, without empirical evidence? I tentatively plant my flag on the side of the rationalists. Scientists frequently adopt a rationalist mindset when interpreting the Drake Equation or formulating string theory (despite absolutely no evidence for extraterrestrials or strings), but switch over to empiricist mode for topics like philosophy or theology. This seems to be a product of cultural bias. In my view, while we should always seek out evidence wherever possible, sound logic is often a sufficient (if inferior) substitute.

At the end of the day, I tend to lean toward the conclusion that Bostrom is correct: We are probably in a simulation. What do you think? Let me know if/where you think the logic of the Simulation Hypothesis is flawed, or any other examples of clues that would suggest a simulated reality.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Scientists create artificial life

Today was a milestone for biotechnology. J. Craig Venter and his team successfully created an artificial life form, for the first time in human history. I think this is the most important development in biotechnology since the Human Genome Project was completed in 2003. The ramifications of this are enormous.

Eventually, we could create microbes that eat pollution, microbes that we ingest to keep us healthy, microbes to destroy insects and other pests, and microbes that we use to terraform other worlds by developing a biosphere. The downsides are pretty steep as well; I think it's only a matter of time before someone intentionally or inadvertently creates nasty new diseases.

These things aren't going to happen immediately. The life form that was created today is very crude. While it (mostly) does what its DNA was "programmed" to do, scientists are still many years from being able to create organisms capable of doing our bidding.

Climate Change Solutions and Non-Solutions

The climate change debate in the United States seems to perpetually focus on the wrong questions. Some deny that climate change even exists, while others claim climate change may reach a “tipping point” which would permanently cause a drastic shift in the earth’s climate. The economic aspects of the debate are usually drowned out entirely, but they are important to consider when formulating public policy. How much will it cost to fight climate change? Will our efforts to combat climate change actually be effective? And would it be better to simply wait a few years for better technology?

Climate change is, of course, a real danger to our planet, but our ability to reduce our impact at the present time is very limited. First, there is the economic problem. Even if the developed world unilaterally limited its carbon emissions, the developing world almost certainly would not follow suit, thus negating any carbon reductions in the West. From the perspective of developing nations, the economic imperatives of developing as quickly as possible simply outweigh the environmental risks of global warming. China and India have successfully lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty through economic development; it is highly unlikely that they will be willing to acquiesce to Western demands to limit their carbon emissions (and thus limit their economic growth). With such a strong economic incentive to continue polluting, finding the political will to limit emissions will be almost impossible for these nations.

Second, there is the technological problem. Carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for 70 years. If the entire world suddenly reverted to the amount of carbon emissions they produced in 1990, the net impact on our climate would be almost negligible by the end of the 21st century. Programs like cap-and-trade are doomed to failure, due to both the political difficulty of implementing them and their lack of effectiveness at actually halting climate change. Therefore, any feasible solution must come from technology, not politics.

We need not accept the punishment Mother Nature will dole out for our meddling with the environment. On the contrary, I am optimistic about technological solutions on the horizon. Solar energy is following a Moore’s Law-like trajectory, with the cost falling by half every 2-3 years. Within 10 to 15 years, solar energy will be cheaper than oil. Switching from fossil fuels to clean energy will be the single biggest way to end our carbon pollution.

Additionally, many geoengineering solutions have been proposed to scrub the existing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. One of the most feasible ideas is called iron fertilization, in which we would seed the oceans with small flakes of iron to encourage plankton to grow, which would in turn “eat” carbon dioxide. Geoengineering solutions like this could be implemented today, and are very cheap. However, they carry environmental dangers of their own, and it remains to be seen if the good would outweigh the bad. Environmental scientists are studying the side effects of these solutions, and it should be clearer within a few years if the consequences of these solutions will be acceptable.

In the very near future, it is likely that we will have some cost-effective, feasible solutions for effectively limiting our carbon pollution, without the economic downsides of cap-and-trade or international treaties. However, they are not available quite yet, and we should not pretend that they are by wasting money on anti-global warming initiatives instead of spending the money on something that can actually help the world today. While I realize this suggestion does not fulfill our emotional need to pretend that we are doing something to solve the problem, doing nothing is the only rational course of action...for now.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

50 Years of Questions

This is a video I made a couple months ago, entitled "50 Years of Questions." It's my vision for what the world might look like in the future, as well as a look back at how far we've come in the last decade.

Note that I just think these are QUESTIONS people might be asking themselves around this time. I'm not necessarily suggesting that we'll know the answers to all of them by the dates I listed.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Resolving Fermi's Paradox

If intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe, where is everyone? Enrico Fermi’s 1950 question has elicited many theories in the sixty years since. If advanced life was as commonplace as Frank Drake or Carl Sagan believed, it seems unlikely that not a single extraterrestrial civilization would have made itself known to us.

Some, like futurist Ray Kurzweil, believe that this means that we are alone in the universe: the product of a series of astronomically unlikely occurrences. Kurzweil reasons that any advanced civilization would use all the matter of its own planet for computing, then radiate outward from their home world. The fact that no one seems to have done this already is supposedly evidence that we are alone.

I think this is a remarkably anthropocentric view of the universe. Both Fermi’s Paradox and Kurzweil’s reasoning employ the same faulty assumption that extraterrestrial life would act the same way that humans might. How can we possibly guess the goals of an extraterrestrial civilization when we don’t even know how our own civilization will act in the future? Why should we assume that extraterrestrials will be expansionists, desiring to conquer (or even communicate with) the rest of the universe? This is a remarkably human trait to project onto other potential civilizations. It’s entirely possible that extraterrestrial life does exist, but is simply not interested in interacting with us, content with not venturing far from their home worlds. Any civilization capable of interstellar travel or communication will almost certainly have access to anything it wants at home, and perhaps would have no particular reason to be interested in a pale blue dot populated by bipedal apes.

There is another, darker explanation for the lack of contact with extraterrestrials. If advanced civilizations tend to eliminate any inferior civilizations with which they come in contact, then we will have no evidence of them until immediately before our extinction, if at all. The fact that we have not yet been eliminated, then, simply means that no other advanced civilizations are aware of our presence yet. We can employ the Anthropic Principle here: We would not be here to speculate about Fermi’s Paradox if we had been discovered by another civilization.

These are the explanations for Fermi’s Paradox which seem the most plausible to me. The least plausible explanation is the one Kurzweil suggests: That we are alone. Even if advanced life developed in only one in a billion solar systems, there would be trillions of civilizations in the vastness of our universe. Finding them, however, may be much more difficult. Perhaps a truly intelligent civilization would leave no evidence of its existence at all.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Future of Automobiles - Driverless Cars

In 2007, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) sponsored an event called the Urban Challenge. Recognizing the utility of self-driving vehicles for military purposes, DARPA invited 11 teams from universities and corporations to build vehicles that would be able to navigate a course through a makeshift city without any human interference. Furthermore, the teams would have to obey all the traffic laws and avoid any collisions with other vehicles, buildings, or obstacles. Six of the teams were able to complete the contest, led by Carnegie Mellon University.

The most successful self-driving cars use cameras and lasers mounted on every side of the car to “see” their surroundings, and send the images to a computer in the car to process them in real time. The technology has already advanced to the point where computers can read road signs, detect other fast-moving objects (like cars), and generally obey the traffic laws. General Motors has announced that they will start testing driverless vehicles in 2015, and hopes to have them on the road by 2018.

The biggest technical obstacle that still needs to be overcome involves dealing with unexpected situations. The driverless car prototypes, such as Carnegie Mellon’s vehicle “Boss,” are fairly good at recognizing and obeying stop signs and traffic lights. However, these vehicles are built with the assumption that all other cars on the road will obey the laws as well. Most humans can hit the brakes if another car runs a red light or if an animal runs out in front of our car, but unfortunately the driverless cars are not quite there yet. However, with the speed at which driverless technology is progressing, it seems very likely that this problem will be overcome in the next few years, and self-driving cars will be able to react at least as well as human drivers.

The impact that driverless cars will have on society will be nothing less than transformative. The biggest revolutions will occur in safety and lifestyle.

In the United States, over 40,000 people are tragically killed each year in car accidents, 95% of which are due to human error. Driverless cars thus offer us the opportunity to save 38,000 lives every year. When the technology matures, the computerized systems in our cars will have reflexes thousands of times quicker than human drivers, and will be able to scan all around the car at all times to identify any potential dangers.

Driverless cars will also improve our lifestyle, by reducing commute times. Driverless cars will be able to identify any road delays via the internet, and plan an alternate route to avoid getting stuck in traffic. Furthermore, when driverless cars become ubiquitous, there will be no need for individuals to own cars. When cars can drive themselves, why would I spend thousands of dollars on a car that will sit unused in a garage or parking lot for most of the day? It would be much more efficient for cities to develop networks of public cars that could drive themselves to pick people up as needed. If I needed to go across town, I could use my phone to order the nearest car to pick me up. If I needed a car to pick me up at the same place and time every day (such as for my morning commute to work), I could schedule this as well. These networks of driverless cars could operate similar to taxi cabs, but much more efficiently, safely, and cheaply.

The biggest long-term obstacles to driverless cars are liability laws. While driverless cars could save up to 38,000 lives per year that would otherwise be lost due to human error, what happens if 1,000 lives are lost due to computer error? Under our present liability system, the auto manufacturers would lose their shirts. Unless these laws are changed, it will be extremely difficult from an economic standpoint for auto companies to roll out self-driving vehicles in the United States for commercial use.

I am optimistic that this problem can be overcome. As soon as the utility of driverless cars becomes clear (probably by 2015-2020), there will likely be a legislative push to limit the liability for auto manufacturers. When that happens, we will enter the era of automated transportation and the world will be forever changed.

By 2020 - Driverless cars are commercially-available and street-legal somewhere in the United States.
By 2027 - New driverless cars outnumber new cars requiring at least some human control, in the US market.
By 2035 - Driverless cars are widely perceived as safer than human drivers. Somewhere in the United States, it is illegal for humans to drive.