Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Future Will Be Different

Among the books I've had to read to understand where my employer, Zero Point Frontiers, wants to go is Ray Kurzweil's The Singularity is Near, which I've read previously. Darlene Cavalier even managed to arrange for us to interview Kurzweil on this site. Briefly, the Singularity is a technological takeoff point, where our computer, nanontechnological, biotechnological, and robotic technologies fundamentally change the way we live.

It's one thing to think about when you're casting about for science fiction ideas or treating the Singularity as a purely intellectual exercise. But what if you were tasked with thinking about how to plan for it--purposely engage with the Singularity-related tech fields (plus energy and space)--and figure out how to adjust your corporate strategy to account for it? Mind you, Kurzweil and others are charging $25,000 a person to help CEOs do exactly that at The Singularity University. However, lacking $25K in pocket change, I've taken to learning on my own.

So what could this sort of high-technology future look like? Without going all John Lennon on y'all, imagine some of these possibilities...
  • Material Plenty: Obtaining the basic necessities of life from a "replicator" machine in your home. This would be an advanced version of the 3D printers now being built by hobbyists and some companies (Zero Point Frontiers has one). Instead of building only computer-modeled solid objects, future replicators could provide basic necessities like food, clothing, and medicine. Why go to the store? Why build stores in the first place? And suppose these things were available to everyone. Yes, everyone. No more hunger. No more unnecessary illnesses.
  • A Cleaner World: You can't get something from nothing. Where would the replicators get the materials to make all this useful stuff? Garbage dumps, for one. No, you wouldn't be eating trash; the replicators would be transforming the physical materials currently cluttering the landscape at the molecular level and changing those molecules into something useful or healthy. Nanotechnology also could build artificial trees to extract carbon dioxide more quickly from the atmosphere. Think this is ridiculous? Consider trees themselves, which grow to massive size from tiny acorns.
  • Healthier Bodies: Medical technologists are already developing molecule-sized materials and machines that could target specific diseases like cancer. Other machines could patrol our bloodstreams to help our white blood cells fight disease while helping red blood cells more efficiently carry oxygen to our bodies. Still other machines could help us access the internet directly with our minds. I've been joking about "getting that chip in my head" for years, but semiconductor chips might soon be overtaken by atomic-scale quantum computers. We could live for centuries with such enhancements. Or, if you believe Kurzweil, forever.
It's difficult to imagine such a world, yet our machines keep getting faster and more advanced every year. Let's say you don't believe computers will become conscious or that we'll all be assimilated to become the Borg. Fine. But our machinery is getting faster, more advanced, and more capable every year. The paces of progress and change are increasing. A world without poverty? Hunger? Ignorance? That's crazy talk, yes?

Okay, so (as they said in Firefly), let's talk crazy.

Prompted by my recent reading, I posted the following item on Facebook to see what people would come up with:

Thought-provoking question of the night: if you could do one big thing to make the world better, what would you do? Ground rules: no "offing" individuals or groups that bother you. Entries of that nature will be deleted. Think positively, have fun!

One of my coworkers, Maria, posited this idea:  

 Have all occupations pay equal salaries

I won't lie: my inner free-marketeer, immediately thought aloud, "Communist!" But then I considered some of this Singularity stuff I've been reading. They've got a ways to go yet, but once the 3D printers/replicators can produce anything on a mass scale, they will fundamentally change manufacturing and Life As We Know it. If all of life's necessities become essentially free, what need is there for money? Here are the advantages of a society with mass-produced plenty:
  1. If money has only limited utility, the traditional incentives of capitalism go right out the window and they can be replaced with things like autonomy, mastery, and purpose. 
  2. If money is no longer the primary motivator for a career, you just might get (no guarantees, just playing with ideas here) people who want to be in the field because they love the work rather than because they just want to make a lot of money.
There could be disadvantages, of course, or at least hard questions for which I don't have ready answers:
  1. Money is a medium of exchange for obtaining equitable trades for scarce resources. In a world where all the basics are covered or readily available, why would you want or need money? Why would you need to work, for that matter? What luxuries would be incentive enough for people to work? 
  2. Would you need that world of uniform resources (replicators) first, before you could make career salaries equal?
  3. What do you do with human ne'er-do-wells in an everything-is-free society? They have any number of problems, even if you provide them with their basics: violence, drug use, general hostility to or unwillingness to help others, etc. 
  4. If, in this high-tech utopia, so much is provided for you and a lot of basic trades or services are automated, what are people supposed to do?
  5. Human beings are competitive and always seeking for what they don't have. If we all have what we need, what will we find to compete over?
  6. Would there be any limits on individual replicators--amount of energy or mass used per day? Number of calories produced (in the case of food)? Safety measures to prevent abuse of alcohol or drugs? Prohibitions on harmful chemicals or weapons?
Which leads me to another talk I heard this week by consumer consultant Mike Walsh. He asked, "If you could re-imagine cities as video games, what sorts of behaviors would you incentivize?" And, more to the point, what incentives would you use to encourage those behaviors if money is no longer a motivator?

The best place to test this theory might be in space, either on a space station or on a lunar or Mars colony. For example, the Deep Space Industries folks--the second commercial space mining venture--plan to mine the asteroids of our solar system, starting with the mere 2-3 million of them that pass near to Earth. After collecting this material, they plan to put it into 3D printers or the equivalent and use it to build useful items for people living in space. In addition to metals and other ores, asteroids are supposed to have carbon, water, and rare earth elements--all of which could be applied toward more advanced 3D printers (replicators) in the future. So if you're in space, and all of the basics of life are coming from these orbital foundries in mass quantities for free, are you really going to need to get paid? In any case, this sort of resource-abundant, money-free environment would be an excellent place to test the notions described above.

Yes indeed, the future can and will be different. Sometimes we overlook just how different it might be, and how quickly the changes might occur. Cash money is on the decline. 3D printers are increasing and improving regularly, and do-it-yourself kits can be found free on the internet. Ray Kurzweil is predicting that we might reach the Singularity by 2045. Not saying you should mark your calendars, but just reminding you that the future might come sooner than you think.

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