Monthly Archives: October 2012

Solving the Big Problems — FastForward Radio

The cover of MIT Technology Review shows Buzz Aldrin, second man to set foot on the moon, with a caption reading: “You promised me Mars colonies. Instead I got Facebook.”

Have we really stopped solving the big problems?

On a special Thursday evening FastForward Radio, Phil and Stephen examine whether human achievement has peaked.

Will we ever go back to the moon or beyond?

Will we ever make progress on the great challenges humanity faces — war, poverty, disease, the environment?

Will we ever live in a “City of the Future?”

Tune in and find out!

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Humanity Rocks — FastForward Radio

Are human beings better or more important than other living things?

Should we be just as concerned about the lives of animals as we are our fellow humans?

Woud the world be better off without humans?

Phil  and Stephen  discuss the case for human exceptionalism and explain why humanity has a unique role to play in determining the destiny of all life on earth, the earth itself, and the entire universe.

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Training Wheels

I was talking with a friend the other night about how much I enjoy the works of P. G. Wodehouse, especially the Jeeves novels. They are laugh-out-loud funny, even today, primarily because Wodehouse was a genius at ending a sentence differently than the reader expects. He does it dozens or hundreds of times in each book and it always works (at least it always works for me.) I went on to explain that another reason the books are great entertainment is that nothing serious happens in them: Bertie Wooster and his aristocratic pals think they are suffering huge losses and facing unbearable consequences, but their lives have training wheels, as it were.

Nobody is going to fall off.

In the end, they are all still going to be rich and they are all still going to be leading very comfortable lives.

This public service ad for Water Is Life makes the point, using Haitians to recite tweets delivered by folks living in the developed world, that quite a few of us lead lives with training wheels these days:

(The kid talking about pickles really gets to me. I don’t know why.)

A true Utopian believes we can have a world in which all problems will be solved. This is nonsense. I believe that in the future people — and I mean everybody, including people who currently live in the kind of conditions shown in the video — will face tremendous, momentous, devastating problems–most of which would be incomprehensible to us today. But if we could understand them, they would sound every bit as trivial as “I hate it when my leather seats aren’t heated” sounds to these Haitians.

Career Track for Sexy Immortal Billionaires

According to Harvard Business Review, the sexiest career these days is data scientist:

Goldman is a good example of a new key player in organizations: the “data scientist.” It’s a high-ranking professional with the training and curiosity to make discoveries in the world of big data. The title has been around for only a few years. (It was coined in 2008 by one of us, D.J. Patil, and Jeff Hammerbacher, then the respective leads of data and analytics efforts at LinkedIn and Facebook.) But thousands of data scientists are already working at both start-ups and well-established companies. Their sudden appearance on the business scene reflects the fact that companies are now wrestling with information that comes in varieties and volumes never encountered before. If your organization stores multiple petabytes of data, if the information most critical to your business resides in forms other than rows and columns of numbers, or if answering your biggest question would involve a “mashup” of several analytical efforts, you’ve got a big data opportunity.

Not as sexy, apparently

Much of the current enthusiasm for big data focuses on technologies that make taming it possible, including Hadoop (the most widely used framework for distributed file system processing) and related open-source tools, cloud computing, and data visualization. While those are important breakthroughs, at least as important are the people with the skill set (and the mind-set) to put them to good use. On this front, demand has raced ahead of supply. Indeed, the shortage of data scientists is becoming a serious constraint in some sectors. Greylock Partners, an early-stage venture firm that has backed companies such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Palo Alto Networks, and Workday, is worried enough about the tight labor pool that it has built its own specialized recruiting team to channel talent to businesses in its portfolio. “Once they have data,” says Dan Portillo, who leads that team, “they really need people who can manage it and find insights in it.”

We’ve heard for years that one of the biggest challenges organizations face is getting a handle on all their data, getting their data under control. Full disclosure: I used to do product marketing for a database company, so I have in fact been saying things like that for years. It was true years ago and is even more true today.

The stakes are higher today, however, not just because there’s more data — although there is — but because of the myriad possibilities that lie within that data. Huge, game-changing market opportunities are waiting to be tapped; potential business-killing trends are beginning to emerge. Knowing how to look for these possibilities, finding them and defining them, understanding them and making them understandable to others within the organization — these are skills whose value it would be difficult to overestimate.

Individuals who possess that skill set, who can look at data and create working scenarios from it, can pretty much write their own ticket. But is there really anything sexy about it?

Okay. Maybe.

UPDATE: Equal time. Apparently this guy isn’t as sexy, either, unless he happens to be a data scientist. For that matter, we don’t know that the angel shown above isn’t one.

(Angel image via Wikimedia Commons. Bodybuilder image also via Wikimedia Commons.)
Cross-posted from Transparency Revolution.

Space Jump! — FastForward Radio

Felix Baumgartner’s supersonic feat of high-altitude skydiving may be more than just an impressive accomplishment. Is it a signpost on the way to a future in which we are all Baumgartners?

Phil  and Stephen  discuss how balloons in space, cardboard bicycles, underground parks, and other developments show us a world of nearly limitless possibilities: one in which ourown amazing feats may be limited only by…our own imaginations.

Plus: Scientific proof that we’re living in a computer simulation?

And: A voyage to Alpha Centauri.

Also: Other superfantastic, speculicious topics!

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Why Now?

So did you hear about this guy who rode a balloon out into space — more than 100,000 feet up! — and jumped from it, hurtling towards the earth at hundreds of miles per hour before safely parachuting to the ground?

His name is Joseph Kittinger. He made his astounding leap from the US Air Force experimental craft Excelsior III some 52 years ago,  on August 16, 1960. You may have seen Kittinger recently (or at least heard his voice), as he was in charge of mission control communications for Felix Baumgartner’s successful space jump — which finally, after all these years, broke Kittinger’s records for skydiving altitude and skydiving speed.

It’s less likely that you’ve heard of Nick Piantinida, who broke Kittinger’s record for high-altitude ballooning on February 6, 1966, reaching 123,500 feet in his balloon named Strato Jumper II. Unfortunately, Piantinida’s attempts at beating Kittinger’s skydiving record were unsuccessful; he was severely injured in his final attempt and died shortly thereafter. But his ballooning record held for some 46 years, until earlier this week when Baumgartner topped him by less than a mile.

All of which raises an interesting question about Baumgartner’s amazing achievement: why now? Why has it taken all these years to add 4500 feet to Piantinida’s altitude and 115 miles per hour to Kittinger’s speed to finally deliver the ultimate, supersonic, feat of skydiving?

The reason it’s taken so long is that we’ve been waiting for someone willing to put up the money–someone willing to make it happen. I have no doubt that the Air Force could have broken Kittinger’s record decades ago if they had seen any point in doing so. But they aren’t in the business of performing crazy stunts and setting records. Red Bull, on the other hand, is a huge promoter of extreme sports. They are all about the crazy stunts. In this project they saw an outstanding opportunity to build awareness of their brand, so they were happy to pony up the cash needed to make Baumgartner’s jump possible.

Expect to see a lot more of this sort of thing. As de-industrialization continues to push capabilities that once belonged only to large governments into the hands of smaller enterprises (think Red Bull in this story, but also think SpaceX) or even individuals, the relentless compounding of improvements opens up all kinds of possibilities. As with the introduction of the cardboard bicycle, most of the elements needed to make Baumgartner’s jump possible were already in place. All that was needed were a few supporting bits of technology and the will to make it happen. 

The will is the real clincher. If you have enough of that, you can get the technical stuff working. In this world there has always been a lot more will to do extraordinary things than capability to support that will. What we are witnessing today is the early stages of a capability explosion. This will inevitably lead to a possibility explosion — so many people doing so many extraordinary things that we will have to constantly recalibrate  what we mean by “extraordinary.”

How long before anyone who wants to can recreate Baumgartner’s amazing jump? And how long before some corporation or individual recreates Neil Armstrong’s giant leap?



Why We Do What We Do

The Human Imperative is the relentless drive to improve the human condition. This is the one commandment obeyed by virtually of all humanity for all of human history: Thou shalt improve thine own circumstances, the circumstances of thy family, the circumstances of thy tribe, or the circumstances of thy species.  

This commandment is pervasive; it is written directly into our DNA. In fact, it is the reason our DNA is what it is. When we grew large brains, when we developed a bipedal stance, when we positioned our thumbs opposably to the rest of our hands, we were carrying out the human imperative through the slow and deliberate process of evolution.

The commandment is also embedded in our language, our fundamental thought processes, and virtually everything we do, both consciously and unconsciously. It’s at the heart of day-to-day activities like preparing dinner or putting gas in the car, and is also the principal driver behind those great multi-generational projects called culture, science, technology, and civilization itself.  All improvements, great and small, derive from the Human Imperative.

Industrial Revolution? Check.

Polio vaccine? Check.

Recycled cardboard sleeve that keeps you from burning your hand on your tall skinny soy mocha? Check.

The Human Imperative is universal and therefore we are all, unavoidably, participants.

Some people are focused only on improving the circumstances of others, while others are focused exclusively on improving their own circumstances. Most of us are somewhere in between, devoting some measure of our energies to improving the lives of others (whether those “others” be our own friends and families, our communities, or humanity as a whole) and devoting the rest of our energy to improving our own lives.

Whichever way we focus our efforts, it’s important to note that many of us are pretty bad at carrying out the Human Imperative. Some of us do little or nothing to make things better, while others move the needle in the wrong direction — actually making the human condition worse. However, the vast majority of both the ineffectives and those who cause real damage are at least trying to improve the condition of at least one human life — if only their own.

And as we’ll see, there is more value in any attempt to make anything better — no matter how callous or wrongheaded or even downright evil the approach — than we might otherwise think.

When we set out to improve our own personal circumstances, we can do it one of three ways:

* At the expense of others
* Without regard to the circumstances of others
* By way of improving the circumstances of others

Everybody likes that third way of improving their own lives because it’s the nice way. It’s the win-win scenario.

In The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley argues that trade is a key driver of progress because it’s a means of improving one’s own circumstances while improving the circumstances of others. Obviously it’s much easier to get people on board with your plan to improve your own life if that plan involves some means by which they can improve their lives. And every offer to do business of any kind involves just that — a proposition to the other person about something you think will be of value to them.

The more trade that takes place in the world, the more lives that get improved — theoretically, at least. Of course, not every deal is a good deal. Sometimes the unscrupulous take advantage of the unsuspecting — leaving them with less money (or less of whatever was being exchanged) and no improved circumstances to speak of. Plus we’re often wrong about what will represent a true improvement in our lives; that is to say, sometimes we just don’t know what’s good for us. Moreover, individual acts of improvement often lead to unforeseen (or ignored) negative consequences that outweigh the benefit of the improvement that we were seeking.

No big surprise, but it has to be said: well-intentioned actions often lead to negative results. Rabbits are introduced as a food source in Australia and, lacking any significant predators, become a major feral pest. Prohibition of alcohol is implemented in the US to create a decent, clean, and sober society, leading to rampant lawlessness and the empowerment of organized crime. Or, as we’ve discussed recently in some detail, student loan programs are introduced as a means of making college education widely accessible, leading to skyrocketing tuition costs and college graduates (and worse-yet, non graduates) saddled with decades of debt and the overall reduction of options and quality of life that goes with it.

It’s called the law of unintended consequences. It lies behind virtually all of the man-made challenges we face. Pollution of and damage to the environment, overpopulation, depletion of resources — these are all direct results of human success. They represent the downside of the Human Imperative.

Now here’s where the story gets kind of strange. Sometimes when people act in spite of the interests of others, or with no regard to the interests of others, or even in willful opposition to the interests of others, they end up making improvements that one day improve the circumstances of others anyway. Simply put, bad behavior sometimes leads to positive results.  For example, when you do a search that uses Google satellite view or when you use the GPS function on your smartphone, do you ever stop and think about the tremendous debt these technologies owe to Nazi Germany? The satellite age was ushered in with rocket technology based on rockets developed by the Nazis in the hopes of raining destruction down on Great Britain and (eventually) the United States.

Does this mean that Nazi Germany was really okay deep down, and that no one should think badly of them because, after all, they gave us the V-2?  Of course not — it was an evil regime that committed acts of unspeakable evil. That’s why it seems surprising (at first) that we should be enjoying the fruits of Nazi military R&D all these years later.

But it’s really not surprising at all. Nazi rocket technology represents the flipside of the law of unintended consequences. Just as unforeseen negative consequences arise from what were intended to be good actions, unforeseen benefits arise from evil and despicable actions. The difference is that benefits are good and tend to persist no matter where they came from, whereas the problems that arise simply demand the development of still more improvements.

All of which explains why, in spite of the very real problems we’ve faced and continue to face, the evidence is clear that the human condition has improved vastly over the millennia and is continuing to do so. (Anybody who thinks otherwise is welcome to try to adopt the lifestyle of people from a previous era. I think most of us are more dependent than we realize on things like electricity and running water, never mind the Interenet.)  Apparently there’s enough cumulative good in the improvements we’ve made, the ones that really are improvements, to outweigh all the mistakes we’ve made and sins we have committed.

And that’s a staggering thought when you consider just how horrifying and appalling  some of those mistakes and sins have been.

The simple observation that the human condition has improved (and make no mistake, it’s an observation, not a hypothesis or bit of wishful thinking) — combined with the logical projection that the trend of improvement will continue — constitutes a complete departure from the conventional wisdom surrounding what’s happening in the world and what’s likely to happen next.

The story of the Human Imperative is the story of rapidly expanding human understanding and capability, of improvements to the human condition run wild. Our world is getting better all the time. We are getting better all the time. And one of the things we’re getting better at…is getting better.

We’re talking about a virtuous cycle — a truly virtuous cycle if we take into account research showing that human beings are becoming less violent and more cooperative over time, as documented in Stephen Pinker’s excellent book The Better Angels of Our Nature. Improvements to the human condition continue to reinforce each other with greater impact and at a higher rate of speed with each new iteration. Where can such a cycle possibly be leading us?

That, my friends, is the question that The Speculist and FastForward Radio are here to ask, the question that we’ve been asking for more than nine years on the blog and that we have been asking weekly for the past five years on the radio show. And of course, we’re not just here to ask the question; we’re here to try to answer it. If you’d like to hear the full answer as we have articulated it so far on FastForward Radio, all of the shows are archived and, as we calculated a couple of weeks ago, 10 days of non-stop listening will get you more or less caught up.

Over those 10 days you will hear the thoughts of some of the most brilliant people alive — often in their own words. You’ll hear about driverless cars, 3-D printers, universal assemblers, artificial intelligence, utility fog, vat meat, life extension, abundance, alternative energy, virtual worlds, the death of employment, the coffeeshopification of everything, space travel, time travel, the Simulation Hypothesis, the Omega Point, the Technological Singularity, and — of course — sex with robots.

You’ll hear about a relentless and accelerating wave of technological, cultural, and social change that is driving the next stage of human evolution. You’ll get a glimpse of a world where the boundaries have been reset — or removed — where the possibilities are so vast that it’s intimidating, dizzying, even to try to contemplate them. And maybe you’ll get a glimpse of a future version of yourself: happier, smarter, more capable than you ever thought possible — a Sexy Immortal Billionaire with Superpowers (in the making, at least.)

Or if you prefer to try the short version, it is simply this. We are witnesses to a world transformed. (For those who don’t know, the word “Speculist” means one who observes.) But as human beings we are called to be — no destined to be — more than witnesses. The Human Imperative impels us all to be participants in the transformation of the world.

As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “We know what we are, but know not what we may be.” The question of what comes next, of what we do next, of who we may yet be, that is a question worth pursuing. And we’re in pursuit. An unimaginable future lies before us. Our challenge is to try to imagine it anyway, and then to try to make it real.

If we can imagine it and we can make it real, then there’s only one thing left to do:

Live to see it.

Five Years that Changed the World — FastForward Radio

Phil  and Stephen celebrate FastForward Radio’s fifth anniversary on BlogTalk Radio. Special guests P. J. Manney and perhaps one other join to talk about the big changes that have occurred over the past half decade and what we can expect from the next five years.

Plus: what’s next for FastForward Radio?

BONUS: Phil (finally) explains what the show is all about!

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The Big Robot, College, Sex Debate — FastForward Radio

Having postponed this week’s show in favor of Wednesday’s presidential debate, Phil and Stephen  engage in a debate of their own, on the issues that really matter:

And, time permitting:
  • Resolved: Sex is going to be way better in the future.
Plus maybe some other topics!

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