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Your mission, should you choose to accept it
james_nicoll
In an article referenced in an article reference here, Ken MacLeod said:

It's just rare to see stories written about a future that the writer believes in and the reader can get excited about - let alone one they'd like to live in. What we need is a new intellectual engagement with the real possibilities, coupled with a new confidence in humanity's capacity to deal with them.

Outline such a future [of your own creation]. Extra points for not tucking "embrace poverty" into it in one form or another, not creating a backswing setting [1], not praising the virtues of oligarchy or dictatorship and on and so forth. In other words, outline my Nightmarish Future or something equally attractive.

I have a report to do on something that is the exact opposide of MNF so my entry will have to wait until tomorrow.

1: Settings where the author slaughters ninety nine of a hundred people to give his characters more room for their sword's backswing. I think Andrew Wheeler invented the term. He certainly has expressed distaste for settings that as a side-effect wipe out his kids.

It seems to me that the Singularity is very precisely today's version of the interstellar exploration Future of old. It takes current trends and linearly extrapolates them to a point of wild implausibility while the authors involved seriously think it's plausible.

But I can imagine wanting to go look at Tau Ceti II even if I wouldn't want to live there (too many greebs) but I cannot imagine wanting to have my brain eaten by a superdeveloped HP 11C.

Should we get off your lawn now sir?

Which Singularity, though? It's a slippery multi-valent term. So was "space!" (interplanetary, interstellar, FTL) but that diversity seems to have mattered less.

But I kind of agree with you; the Singularity in some version or another is the great attractor of modern SF. I'm more aiming at James with the above, since "a computer eats our brains" is only one extreme of the Singularity range, others being "many of choose to upload into a computer", "we get smarter and longer-lived somehow", "post-scarcity!", and "we learn to engineer Mind (and Life) as thoroughly as we do anything else", which is vague, yet I think the strongest candidate (and implies some of the others.) Neuroscience and AI/robotics instead of space colonies. Having weird stuff happens seem *very* plausible, even if we're not certain what.

Oh, but Mission: Positive Future? The big Singularity candidate, apart from AI God mass uploads like Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect, is the Culture, with spinoffs in the Solar Union and The People, and a distant cousin in the Collapsium (less real Singularity intelligence stuff, more vague post-scarcity.) Or GURPS Transhuman Space, though it's explicitly optimistic without being utopian; no superintelligence yet, but better in the dimension of most people who can afford it being the core of a cloud of AI agents, vs. the AI God/Mind and human dichotomy of the Culture. Ken MacLeod's Civil Worlds (of _Learning the World_ and stories?), Egan's New Territories and the Amalgam.

Lots of people want to live in the Culture, and Transhuman Space (THS) won an RPG.net poll for game settings to live in. THS and the Amalgam probably come closest in engaging with the possibilities; the Culture, as mentioned, seems to kind of sidestep some of them, segregating some of the mental weirdness. (Though not all; it's still a society where you can make robust backups and at least partial duplicates; one gets the sense they'd frown on human copying themselves fully.)

Oh yeah, the Demarchists, and depending on perspective Conjoiners, of Reynolds, before the alien plot device virus hit. Partial engagement, and I think something happened to Earth or maybe it's just far away from the action.

I'd also like 2300AD/23xx, at least away from the further French Arm.

(no subject) (Anonymous) Expand
The stories were written on the far side of interstellar exploration -- that is, at least part of them took place on other worlds. Whereas by definition we're confined to *this* side of the singularity. I think they function very, very differently in SF.

But as my examples show, various authors haven't felt constrained by that alleged part of the definition, and happily to post-Sing societies, though less in the way of superintelligent minds, which gets back to what one takes away from the Singularity ideasphere. There's definitely a degree in bias, but it's not hard and fast; you can have near term space stories and far future post-Sing societies.

I can't think of anything less fun than the singularity but jaunting about the universe is hella fun.

Oh hell.

Picture a world where everyone's first two pressing material or health problems are fixed. (This is necessarily uneven. So?) The worst political system is roughly late Franco. Almost everyone has a cell phone equivalent, almost everyone has a computer equivalent, the world's libraries are open. People have voices. Everyone who wants to be is networked, and these networks get things done. The Solar System is filled with unobtrusive instrumentation, and so is the biosphere. The air is clean, the food is good, and there are grand projects in the making.

Heh, I thought of an outline like that, but thought James was asking for existing settings and stories. There's also whether what you say has the "new intellectual engagement with the real possibilities" in Ken's words; I don't think it's incompatible but he might have been asking for them to be more explicitly incorporated.

I must have been unclear. I mean "create what KM is asking for here", not "show examples of it already existing".


The Solar System is filled with unobtrusive instrumentation

It sure would be nice if the odds didn't favour me dying of old age before Neptune or Uranus get orbiters.

And so is the bioshpere.

They're making progress that direction in England, but I'm not sure that really counts as contributing towards YNF.

See, there's a story idea right there: Project Tontine, or the Neptune orbiter.

I'm hoping that medical techonology will continue to develop faster than people actually think it is, especially surgical techniques. One of the good things to come out of the Iraq war is a huge leap in trauma medicine and trauma surgery which will affect everybody.

There's a lot of progress towards Alzheimers which is looking good; more cancers are moving into the managable column; HIV is manageable etc...

The real question is can you live a healthy life, on the whole, until eventually something kills you quickly, which is, in my mind, more important than living a LOT longer, if most of it is spent drooling at the walls.

(no subject) (Anonymous) Expand
(no subject) (Anonymous) Expand
Ugh... broswer crash (not IE) lost this. Love online systems...

2050s...
Most people are connected in some way. The most extreme sharing video, presence and other data in real time with the WWW. Phone numbers and fixed lines are gone, people have real time location and IM services running the whole time. Many indulge in digitally enhanced reality with overlaid HUD in real time interacting with the world. This has lead to a separation in how people interact and work together.

While there is non-turing AI, mostly for menial interactions, there are significant numbers of Augmented humans with more indepth connections to the online world. A fair proportion of these work in the security services, both governmental and private who largely work invisably to the bulk of the population.

The growth of home frabrication and replication technology has led to a dramatic shift in the nature of scarcity economics with poverty as it would be recognised in the early 21st century as such.

Energy is still a problem but handled through a mixture of new technologies (super-capacitors), enlarged nuclear use and more distribution of the generation grid for personal household use.

There's a small space program working largely thanks to reduced costs of manufacture which is largely run by individualists who are concerned about the logical end of certain sociological collectivist trends towards removing privacy and conventional independant living...

There's currently a lot of gassing in political salons in the UK about how 21st century politics is going to be polarized between bureaucratic authoritarianism and social liberalism, fighting a tug-o-war over privacy in the backwash from the ubiquitous rollout of technologies of omniscient surveillance. A world in which Gordon Brown and New Labour have staked out the extreme wing of authoritarian politics the way Hitler did it in the last century is ... well, it's not ideal, but it could be worse.

The big project of the first three decades has got to be the uplift of China and India from the third world to the developed world -- if they get it right, it's going to be a change of epochal proportions. At the end of the 20th century, just 15-20% of the world's population had first world lifestyles; if by the middle of the 21st century that figure has increased to 50%, and we haven't suffered a massive environmental collapse as a consequence, I'd call that a huge win.

Power ... renewables are shit for base load grid power, but if you couple them to electrolysis cells and some sort of Fischer-Tropsch synthesis back-end feeding off H2 and atmospheric CO2 (which you can reduce to CO, given H2 and catalysts and an energy input) we could see renewables taking up the back end of our carbon fuel cycle and replacing fossil carbon (bad) with synthetic fuels (carbon-neutral). Add nukes for base load, and that's beginning to look like a viable future, energetically.

Warfare is becoming increasingly capital-intensive over time, at least for war-fighting in the conventional mode. I don't think we're going to be free of nasty civil insurrections and guerilla campaigns for a long time, but Panzer armies charging back and forth across the smoking wreckage of nations are hopefully going to become a thing of the past, and the ICBMs will continue to molder in their silos.

We tend to forget just how grim life was for ordinary folks in a developed nation just eighty years ago. I'd like to envisage a world where in 2090 folks look back at our lifestyle the way we look at the English working classes as depicted in "The Road to Wigan Pier".

Edited at 2008-08-21 05:25 pm (UTC)

I have a feeling we're going to all end up living with the bastard child of bureaucratic authoritarnism and social liberalism where we end up with a block of "don't scare the horses" exceptions to things that people worry about now, but don't blink at having every single aspect of our lives recorded, measured and monitored.

We're already seeing this with the degree to which people don't seem to care about people knowing who they are and where they are to a degree that makes me twitchy.

Having said that, I'm far more relaxed about online life now I have a Green Card - before I got that I was having the heeby geebies about people doing a search on me as part of the FBI checks, even if I had nothing to hide.

Charlie, far be it for me to nitpick, but you're framing things in terms of problems: the new Panoptikon, economic development, the energy crisis, major interstate war. Given the nature of many SF readers, this frame allows ample hooks for them to fret over How Things Could Be Worse, or to congratulate themselves that Their Idea Worked In A Fictional Situation.

How do things look after these issues are so resolved they aren't even mentioned?

Maneki Neko (Anonymous) Expand
Which renewables we talking about there? Coz down in NZ, we've already got hydro and geothermal for 75% of electricity, and it's pretty sweet.

Throw in tidal, wave, hot dry rock geothermal, demand-side management and solar hot water and you're looking at a nicely diversified generation portfolio, for a large number of nations.

It's not just a case of reliable base + fast peaking plants, with wind upsetting the apple cart. Future generation, hell, current generation is a bunch of different technologies, all with different response times, predictability and reliability, matched against a load that's reasonably predictable but variable across a wide range of timescales. It works pretty well already.

Now, the interesting question is who can squeeze someone else into holding reserve generation that isn't going to be running the vast majority of the time, and will thus never be profitable. That's a political question, not a technological one.

(Do they still have Economy 7 in the UK? Night storage heaters are demand side management for inflexible generation, namely base gen like nuke plants that can't change power levels quickly. From that point of view, you could argue that the UK already has too much base gen.)

I think I expect/can reasonably extrapolate:


  1. something like a Bussard inertial-confinement fusion plant bringing viable power in low mass.
    • cheap space travel, c. 2030, with SSTO & VASIMIR powered manned missions to any planet in the solar system

    • drops in the price of aluminum


  2. material advances, bringing to fruition fullerine reinforced materials
    • lightweight ultra-strong composites for aerospace

    • ultra-low weight vehicles, allowing better miles

    • super-effective capacitors, possibly replacing batteries altogether


  3. computer development (Moores Law) stagnating at ~20nm level as quantum tunneling becomes insurmountable. This is just 3-4 generations off, leaving us with ~32 core systems with 4 GHz clocks. (c. 2015)
    optical systems will then receive the greatest focus, they will reach their quantum limits c. 2100, but allow thousands of cores with THz clocks by then.
    • AI is possible, in a nueral-simulator, I see this being possible c.2030 [mainly slowed due to the linear systems mentality, which we'll have to raise a whole cadre of systems analysts with parallel systems as second nature).

      AI will not be significantly better than human thought until integrated into large optical systems c.2070

    • computers will be in everything, sensors will be cheap and memories will store years of data

    • computers will have the ability to keep track of everyone on the planet, though cheap cameras easily set up throughout the world and in low earth orbit.

      only a firm dedication to privacy rights will avoid having the governments in the position to query the records and find out what anyone has been doing for their entire life.


  4. world government will not come about, but multinational corporations will agitate for some sort of world tribunal c. 2040
    • brushfre wars will continue, but no major conflicts

    • terrorism will continue, until the cheap computer tracking of the entire planet is in place

    • still no push for space colonization, until it becomes cheap enough for private colonization groups.

    • the remaining dictatorships will fall to populist revolutions as accountability and information flow increases

  5. world population will plateau around 10-12 billion, as all the countries reach "first world" status
    • Malthus will be clearly shown wrong

    • Scientific advancement will likewise plateau about 12 times current, until AIs can come in and increase productivity, c. 2070; this will push it to about 20-30 times current rate of advance


  6. genetic manipulation will be cheap, consistent, and availiable
    • initially, governments will try to regulate, but the price will drop to "basement lab" cost, and countries will little oversight ability or libertarian ideals will subvert any attempts
    • sub-species of human will be developed, as some people will choose have their children be comfortable in a niche environment rather than compete with the masses in the main environment. Merfolk and mountain elves, for lack of better descriptions.

    • genetic terrorism will be tried, but any outbreaks from it will be easily cured


  7. nanotechnology will never be able to manipulate atoms from the environment into gross scale constructs, but will allow micron scale mini-machines with dedicated purpose
    • nano-spies

    • nano-surgery

    • nano-assembly from "soup" for platics, including fullerenes

      metal nano-assembly will be less effective




I'm going to give these points optimism ratings from 1 (I expect this to happen even over significant obstruction) to 5 (not surprising, but not forgone) to 10 (this is as optimistic as the Japanese WWII strategy).

- Cheap solar panel farms turn out to be quite feasible. (4) Deserts around the world become great sources of energy, if they weren't already. More northerly nations tend to lean on nuclear power (5). Net power output fusion turns out to be possible but not economic.

- More polar ice melts than is really good for coastal settlements. The Dutch, the Japanese, and a host of new experts get rich diking up the inhabited coastlines of the world. (3) The political fallout is extensive enough to create a World Environmental Impact Committe (WEIC) with some teeth. (6)

- China (5) and India (5) both (7) avoid numerous pitfalls on the way to becoming industrialized nations. China slides steadily democracy-ward (8) and India manages to forget its many internal and external fueds in a flood of affluence (6). Easter Europe ditto (5). Africa gets marginally better (3), the Middle East and oil exporters generally slightly worse (6).

- Personal communications tech results in most first world people living in augmented reality. (6) Information overload leads to steady progress on machine intelligence, that combines with robotics to make manufacturing stuff even cheaper. (2) Rapid prototyping grows into small scale flexible fabs (4).

- AI, WR, cheap electronics, and human cussedness leads a lateral movement in educational methods that greatly increases the productivity and happiness of humankind. (7)

- Ubiquitous surveillance is a fact of life in first world nations (2), and it is not a monopoly of the powerful (5). Young people don't understand why the old people complain about it(2). People becom much more tolerant of others behaviour (9) simply because it is no longer possible to pretend it doesn't happen. At least one major nation is an exception (1) - paranoia is rampant there, and many methods to foil US are first developed there. Data mining is a major industry (2).

- Ubiquitous surveillance knocks most victimed crime down to moments of passion, quickly responded to (3). Victimless crimes are taken off the books (7) or end up in a queue so long that authorities have a hard time dealing with them (4).

I think part of the appeal of Star Trek was the Universe in whihc its characters lived, no scarcity, no wants and lots of places to visit where you don't have to live.

The main job of the characters was making this part of the galaxy a better place to live.

Up until Star Trek Deep Space Nine anyway. Then the cracks started to show.

A comics blogger phrased it this way: "what if Star Trek really was just the most perfect, all-inclusive, wonderfully balanced society in all of history, with room for every misfit, including me ...?" Which I think explains the Maclean's Effect pretty well.

Coming in late, but my big future is one where the rest of the world achieves lifestyle parity with the richer First World countries. The future is one that is in one sense . . . predictable. Predictable enough that really big really long-term capital-intensive projects become feasible. Given 100-year schedules, I'd say that one big project would be to get everyone physically connected. Walk to the end of your block, go down a flight of steps, and take the rail downtown. From there you can go to any hub city at 16,000 mph by evacuated tube. If you want to go international, go to one of the dozen or so coastal sites and take the under-ocean tube. New York to Sidney in under an hour. You can order whatever you want off the net; PHOOMPH! It's there, half an hour later, tops. Delivered to your doorstep by pneumatic tube. Over the course of the next century, the crust is riddled by these sorts of subcutaneous transport systems. Fast, reliable, powered by nuclear energy. Expensive? Very. But once the initial system is set up, cheaper than the above-ground hodgepodge we have now. Developing countries get in on the action too. There are international celebrations when someone new gets connected to the grid.

I think this counts as fairly optimistic dreaming large kind of picture.