The Future is Big in the Present

Former GBN co-worker and Worldchanging buddy Jamais Cascio is in the spotlight this month with two simultaneous big media articles: a WSJ story on geoengineering and an Atlantic story on enhanced cognition.

Both have been long-time interest areas of many futurists and foresight groups, but rarely have they gotten airtime like this. Cheers to Jamais for introducing these concepts to a much wider audience while pushing the conversation forward.

My favorite part of the Atlantic piece:

As processor power increases, tools like Twitter may be able to draw on the complex simulations and massive data sets that have unleashed a revolution in science. They could become individualized systems that augment our capacity for planning and foresight, letting us play “what-if” with our life choices: where to live, what to study, maybe even where to go for dinner. Initially crude and clumsy, such a system would get better with more data and more experience; just as important, we’d get better at asking questions. These systems, perhaps linked to the cameras and microphones in our mobile devices, would eventually be able to pay attention to what we’re doing, and to our habits and language quirks, and learn to interpret our sometimes ambiguous desires. With enough time and complexity, they would be able to make useful suggestions without explicit prompting.

Does anyone else see a glimmer of this future in Hunch?

Demography (revised) is destiny (re-envisioned)

Informative piece from the Wilson Quarterly on recent demographic projections. With such a long-term view, it is typical for small changes in assumptions (e.g., country birthrate shifts) to register major changes in actual numbers. What is atypical, however, is how quickly many of our demographic assumptions have shifted over the past few years.

Something dramatic has happened to the world’s birthrates. Defying predictions of demographic decline, northern Europeans have started having more babies. Britain and France are now projecting steady population growth through the middle of the century. In North America, the trends are similar. In 2050, according to United Nations projections, it is possible that nearly as many babies will be born in the United States as in China. Indeed, the population of the world’s current demographic colossus will be shrinking. And China is but one particularly sharp example of a widespread fall in birthrates that is occurring across most of the developing world, including much of Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. The one glaring exception to this trend is sub-Saharan Africa, which by the end of this century may be home to ­one-­third of the human ­race.

via Paul Kedrosky

What Would Change Everything?

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The 2009 EDGE annual question is out: “What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?” Given that there are over a hundred responses from the Brockman mafia of brainy third culture types so far, I decided to condense the text of every answer into a Wordle in hopes of one-stop grokking. Full size version is here.

Favorite answers after the jump: Continue reading “What Would Change Everything?”

Break Point: CERA’s $150 oil scenario

Dan Yergin’s Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA) sees oil rising to $150 before policy, technology, and alternative fuels collectively put a halt to the run-up.

At the heart of the Break Point scenario is a slow pace of growth in liquids supply that reflects the range of aboveground risks. “Decision making to facilitate new development in oil-exporting countries loses its urgency,” we wrote. “Many countries with large oil endowments feel less pressure to expand production as the continued surge in revenues pours into their rainy day oil funds.” Current headlines about the future of oil production capacity in the world’s two largest producers — Saudi Arabia and Russia — have their own specific drivers, but the market’s interpretation is that supply growth is highly uncertain and may fall short. The amount of money flowing into the “rainy day oil funds” — now rechristened as sovereign wealth funds—has been enormous. Those mounting financial surpluses certainly reduce the urgency to expand capacity. Lower expectations for demand growth are having the same effect.

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Four-legged DARPA robot trots into uncanny valley

DARPA-funded quadruped robot BigDog has officially descended into the uncanny valley.

Congrats to DARPA for fifty years of disruptive technology development. The DARPA scientists I have met and worked with have to a person been fascinating individuals working on very tough problems. I don’t always support the military end goal that DARPA projects seek to achieve, but of all US military endeavors, I find the spillover into public benefit to be particularly high from DARPA. The agency is a unique organization within the military, and I hope it retains its sense of purpose and vision for the next fifty years.

[via Gizmodo]

Envisioning the future of Bombay’s slums

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Urban Typhoon is a participatory urban planning workshop on the future of the Koliwada region of Dharavi, Mumbai’s staggeringly large and impossibly dense million-resident slum.

The objective is to produce creative alternatives for the future of a neighborhood threatened by a redevelopment plan of the government as well as a multimedia testimony to the unique spirit of Koliwada. The workshop itself is a joyous and participatory takeover of the neighbourhood. It combines the city’s historic spirit of activism with the celebratory, independent and culturally dynamic traditions that the Kolis of Mumbai have always demonstrated. The plan builds on these impulses in the best traditions of a festive exchange with visitors, guests, strangers and locals of all shades and hues.

While I have some issues with the ideology of the conference organizers, who I feel are overly quick to characterize an incredibly complex issue as a struggle between an oppressed indigenous minority and a cold and corporate-friendly bureaucracy, I salute the effort. The workshop looks like it will bring a vibrant mix of international urban planning perspectives, technological savvy, and an eye for design to one of Mumbai’s thorniest challenges – the future of its nearly ten million slum dwellers. I hope there is some useful output for the residents of Koliwada and the rest of Dharavi.

Interested parties had better act quickly – it appears the week-long workshop (March 16-23) is only accepting 50 entrants (Why so small??). Interested partiers, however, now have an excellent option for the night of Holi, Saturday the 22nd. Mad Decent’s Paul Devro is flying out to spin a wicked set at Blue Frog to cap off the Urban Typhoon workshop, with 100 free tickets going to kids from Dharavi. While I probably can’t afford a week off to attend the workshop, I am definitely going to hit up that show!

Transforming transportation

Shai Agassi is an entrepreneur who has struck a multi-million dollar deal with Renault/Nissan and the Israeli government to bring electric cars to Israel (and eventually the world…) through his startup Better Place.

Pete Leyden from the New Politics Institute outlines Agassi’s transformative vision and announces that Agassi will be speaking at an upcoming NPI event:

Shai Agassi is trying to transform the $1.5 trillion-a-year auto industry and eventually make the $1.5 trillion-a-year gasoline industry obsolete. He is the CEO of a Silicon Valley start-up called Better Place that is trying to jumpstart the electric car business with an approach to building an infrastructure for swapping out batteries in a practical, quick way.

Agassi is no wide-eyed dreamer. He was one of a handful of top executives at SAP, the third-largest software company in the world, and he barely was edged out for the top CEO position in 2007. When he did not get that job, he left to become the founder and CEO of Better Place. Since then he has successfully lobbied the Israeli government to back his plan to quickly scale up electric cars in Israel.

A recent NYT piece goes into the business of Project Better Place:

The idea, said Shai Agassi, 39, the software entrepreneur behind the new company, is to sell electric car transportation on the model of the cellphone. Purchasers get subsidized hardware — the car — and pay a monthly fee for expected mileage, like minutes on a cellphone plan, eliminating concerns about the fluctuating price of gasoline.

Mr. Agassi and his investors are convinced that the cost of running such a car will be significantly cheaper than a model using gasoline (currently $6.28 a gallon here.)

Agassi has been working with the government of Israel to create clean-energy-friendly policy to support this initiative. From Agassi’s blog:

On January 21st 2008 we set the first step towards getting an entire country off its addiction to gasoline…We had a country, Israel, announcing its intent and actions towards a strategic shift from oil as the main source of transportation energy towards clean electricity (mostly solar) as the source of energy powering cars. The announcement was made at the visionary leadership level – by President Shimon Peres – who has been one of the driving forces behind Project Better Place for the last year. The Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert – who promised and delivered relentless backing across all government branches, and executive power through his own PM office General Manager, Ra’anan Dinur, drove the vision into policy. The Ministry of Finance, converted the policy into green taxation law, in the making for more than 2 years, by a team in the finance ministry, which made sure there is a great starting run for zero-emission vehicles, but more importantly – long term visibility for the law.

Businessweek followed up with a profile of Agassi and more expansion on the vision:

Agassi contends that Israel is just the start. He hopes to expand his business into several other countries over the next few years, with China, France, and Britain among the potential markets. Ultimately, he believes that his company and others like it could shake two pillars of the global economy, the $1.5 trillion-a-year auto industry and the $1.5 trillion-a-year market for gasoline. “If what I’m saying is right, this would be the largest economic dislocation in the history of capitalism,” says Agassi.

Here’s hoping that the more radical aspects of Agassi’s plan (e.g., applying the cellphone or razor & blades business model to cars) will outweigh the challenges (e.g., only 50-100 miles of driving before a 10 minute recharge is needed from a specialty battery station) involved in moving towards an electric car future.