Saturday, March 7, 2009

a brief history of the future

I am reading a fantastic book called a brief history of the future by Jacques Attali. It
a) traces the development of mankind from the earliest primates to 2006,
b) promises (I'm only on page 37) to infer from this the principles that govern humanity's progress
c) will then use these principles to predict the next 100 years.

I'm really enjoying it, and especially looking forward to the predictions. Henry Kissinger called it "brilliant and provocative."

I thought you would enjoy reading a randomly selected early 2 paragraphs about early man:

Around 700,000 years before our era, in China and Africa, Homo sapiens masters the lightning and learns how to make fire. He is now capable of cooking vegetables, thus providing more nourishment for his brain. He also realizes that he can summon certain natural forces to his service. This is a considerable leap. He devises the first footwear, sews man's first garments, and penetrates Europe, that cold, forest-shrouded continent.

The lineage of homo sapiens splits into several branches. One of them evolves into homo neandertalis. Around 300,000 years ago*, he roams across Africa, Europe, and Asia. For the first time, he builds sophisticated huts wherever he goes, and he buries his dead. In Europe, still cut off by Alpine and Baltic glaciers, Neanderthals coexist with the other primates, neither mingling with nor replacing them.

Good stuff, right? I thought you might also find interesting the 21 questions Attali asks in the introduction and hopefully comes back to:

Will peace in the Middle East someday be possible?
Will global birth rates in some countries recover as mysteriously as they declined?
Will oil supplies run out in 20 or 50 years?
Will we find substitue energy sources?
Will poverty and inequalities in wealthy countries become the well-spring for new violence?
Will Arab countries one day experience a democratic movement like that of Eastern Europe?
Will the Straits of Hormuz and Malacca, through which the bulk of the world's oil flows, be blocked by ships sunk by pirates?
Will North Korea end up using nuclear weapons?
Will the West use force to prevent Iran from acquiring them?
Will a terrorist attack in the West topple a government?
Will it lead to the installation of authoritarian police regimes?
Will new technologies make new forms of dictatorships possible?
Will religions become tolerant?
Will we discover new ways of doing away with cancer, AIDS, obesity?
Will a dominant new religion or ideology emerge?
Will the exploited workers in Chinese or Bangladeshi mines rise up in revolt?
Will the American credit crisis plummet the world into another great depression?
Will genertically modified food or nanotechnologies prove a threat or an opportunity?
Will the climate one day be so degraded that life on earth becomes impossible?
Will a religious war once again pit Christianity against Islam?
Will new forms of sexual relations undermine morality?

There will be a prize for the comment with the most correct answers.

Here's an idea I had: You know how life has changed incredibly fast in the last 20 years, mostly because of computers and technologies? The speed of change is really just tremendous, and maybe the speed is on a permanently increasing course, so that the economic crisis will progressively degenerate and lead to massive unemployment, rioting, martial law, a breakdown in government, and in 2 or 3 years warlords will rule armed camps of people? But the idea wasn't really about this depressing scenario, it was about the possibility that the rate of change of life was permanently increasing.

Another idea I had: It annoys me when books capitalize the chess pieces. In what sense are they proper nouns? In any other sport, you would be made a laughingstock of if you started capitalizing the equipment: "Deftly twisting my Hockey Stick, I shot the Puck into the Goal"?? It's ludicrous, it's an embarrassment to the chess community.

*notice the brisk pace of the narrative!


Anonymous said...

Predictions of the future are always tricky - after WWI, many thought the "The Great War" would be the last one ever or at least a very long time. Only 20 years later, WWII was started.

The one trend through recorded history which I hope persists is that in general (with lots of exceptions) the importance of individual people has risen. Consider that no one really cared what the "man on the street" or "the peasant in the village" thought 200, 500 or 1000 years ago. Today even in many authoritarian cultures, there is some minimal level of sensitivity to this notion. The other trend is that rigidity in thought and society has usually led to either a pushback with development of greater individual freedom or if that doesn't occur stagnation. The most rigidity compliant societies end up being trapped in time.

Chess players may be an interesting example. Consider that strong players habitually criticize and question their own play - even during a game, the stronger players don't "wish" or "hope" that their moves or positions are good, they challenge and calculate and propose alternatives. I think the technical term is "falsification" - that is strong players don't accept as a "true" statement "my position is good" or "my move is a good one" but rather strive to prove or challenge that. So their minds in the game at least reject the notion that "everything is fine" and instead seek to question and challenge. One can see that this attitude when taken away from the chessboard could lead to a similar questioning of the status quo in other aspects of life and society.

Seems like an interesting book!


Anonymous said...

Here's a few (more) things to consider if you dare:
a.) Will Rogers once said "It's difficult to predict, especially the future."
b.) Most trends are self limiting, but usually in unintended/unexpected ways. (I said that.)
c.) Mooer's Law only applies to a few things & even Gordon Moore himself stated that, "It can't continue forever. The nature of exponentials is that you push them out and eventually disaster happens".
d.) I'm inherently skeptical of claims like "...the possibility that the rate of change of life was permanently increasing..." just based on my definition of permanently.
e.) I'm immensely grateful for this blog, otherwise I'd be addicted to chess, & you know what that can lead to.
f.) Chess pieces would be proper nouns in the sense that "Center", "Gaolie" & "Defenseman" in a hockey game between the two opposing coaches would be, & since they aren't, I guess that makes one more thing that I'd have to be annoyed about too except that the chess pieces are usually abbreviated by capitals in both algebraic & descriptive notation, so for me it's OK to capitalize them even when you're not on a first letter basis with them, so I'm not usually annoyed by this.
g.) I already have some reasonably plausible answers (I haven't read Attali's book, so I don't know if they'd be "correct" or not.) to about half the 21 questions, but I'm going to save them for another day because it's 4:27 AM & I still have to set the clocks ahead, so it's really 5:27 AM & I just had some coffee, which means I'll end up writing a book & it's not even my blog.
h.) There's a book called "Germs, Guns & (something else)" that has a similar feel to it. The author (who was on C-SPAN Booknotes about a year ago) discusses historic megatrends & makes some reasonable extrapolations from where we are to where we might be headed.
i.) Lately I've been spending more time developing the finer positional points of my game so my blitz play has gone to hell in a handbasket. I don't know if that's a good thing or not.
j.) I'm gonna shut up for now & go set some clocks.

Anonymous said...

The book ATH2044 refers to is "Guns, Germs, and Steel" by UCLA professor Jared Diamond, and it is indeed a marvelous work. I just happen to be listening to James Gleick reading his 1999 book "Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything," still-fascinating if now slightly dated. I recommend it to anyone interested in trend extrapolation.

I'd just like to thank whoever posted the pseudo-Proust and pseudo-Pascal citations in an earlier blog. There are only a couple of us locally who appreciate both the literary and chess references, but we found those hysterical!

Anonymous said...

Mark my words, a new Dark Ages is coming! But then, I'm a swordsmith, and I could use the extra business.

Anonymous said...

" He also realizes that he can summon certain natural forces to his service."

Explain. Troll does not get.

Anonymous said...

The speed of change is really just tremendous, and maybe the speed is on a permanently increasing course, so that the economic crisis will progressively degenerate and lead to massive unemployment, rioting, martial law, a breakdown in government, and in 2 or 3 years warlords will rule armed camps of people?

Um, that is not change, just more of the same. Change would be if we *didn't* have all of those things.

RE the 21 questions, I don't see how history can help predict sunken ships in a strait, just to pick one example. ... When does the contest end? I may still be around in 20 years but probably not in 50.

Anonymous said...

IMHO while we have made leaps and bounds in computers and related technologies....where we lack in advancement is medical knowledge. We are almost at a place where "The Jetsons", technology-wise, is here. However the medical breakthroughs on "Star Trek" where light and vibrations technique are the method of cure seem far away. It is there that we are in the dark ages.

Anonymous said...

Considering the greedy business interests & brain dead politicians for hire involved with the so called health care industry nowadays, Robert, that's an insult to the medical professionals of the Dark Ages. To be fair, some things don't respond well to economies of scale & Moore's law; for example, you can't rush a compost pile (unless you use a lot of BS).

Anonymous said...

Quantum computing is on it's way. When it becomes usable, all other technical advances with computers will be TINY in comparison.

For instance, all current forms of encryption used everywhere on the internet will be crackable in seconds, making internet commerce untenable. The good news is that many problems in science and medicine will also be solved, e.g. genetic research, protein synthesis, etc.

Germain to most of us here, imagine a machine that can evaluate millions of chess positions *at the same time* instead of one by one, and you can see how Rybka will end up looking like a five year old with a 250 rating.

It's hard to imagine, but we are still in the stone age when it comes to technology.


Anonymous said...

"Will global birth rates in some countries recover as mysteriously as they declined?"

This is the first time I've seen this referred to as mysterious! In industrial countries with highly educated populations where birth control and family planning are widespread, birth rates are down. In countries where these things are not as widespread, birth rates are much higher. If only there were a pattern here...

Anonymous said...

Sorry, can't let that last post slide.

Pretty sure high birth rates are driven by high infant mortality. Family planning and birth control are the result of wanting fewer children, not causal. And what women need is not to be "highly educated" but to have economic choices and control of their own bodies.

Probably the mystery referred to is confined to certain industrialized countries, say Japan and Germany, compared to other industrialized countries ... but I haven't read the book.

Anonymous said...

"Family planning and birth control are the result of wanting fewer children, not causal." Er, no. The causation runs in the opposite direction. Wherever and whenever birth control is made widely available, birth rates drop. And while you're right that birth rates also drop in response to more numerous economic choices for women, higher education gives them those choices, which is why you also see birth rates drop wherever and whenever female literacy increases.

Women everywhere already know that the more control they have over their reproduction, the more control they have over their economic lives. It's not as though family planning is unavailable in certain countries just because the wimmenfolk there haven't realized yet that they'd be better off with fewer than a dozen kids.

Anonymous said...

anjiaoshi: You make some good points ...

I'm not a woman. I've already said a little more than I am comfortable saying on that subject.

Speaking more abstractly, when a whole population has a high birth rate, it's time to stop thinking that families would be "better off" with fewer children and start asking why they have so many. I didn't make up the assertion about infant mortality driving the birth rate. This was the explanation I learned in school, based on WHO data. If that theory has been revised in the meantime, sorry I missed it.

I could be wrong about the birth control causation thing, but I doubt it. Correlation is not causation.

Anonymous said...

Another idea I had: It annoys me when books capitalize the chess pieces. In what sense are they proper nouns?

Probably in the sense that at one time chess was the game of actual Kings and Queens. You would have probably found yourself in hot water if you referred to them as "king" and "queen". Same for Bishops and Knights, though I suppose Rooks and Pawns got a free ride.

I prefer lower case because I find all the capitalization makes the sentences harder to read. Plus the monarchs these days are pretty tame.

Anonymous said...

I think that declining birth rates in Japan, Europe, and America have a lot to do with the advent of both adults in the family working. As the traditional middle class of working father and stay at home mother disappears, the women are too busy trying to earn a living and have a meaningful career to take time out to have children and care for them. I am not making a value judgement here, just pointing out that today's middle class family primarily consists of two working adults out of necessity.

ttch said...

In response to Globular's post viz. quantum computing and chess. A few years ago, a paper by quantum computing pioneer Lov Grover implied that chess could be effectively solved using a quantum computer. This result has now been withdrawn. See the article, David Deutsch’s Many Worlds, and the correction at the bottom of the page:

"...there is no special reason to expect better quantum chess algorithms to exist."


Unknown said...

I prefer it when people capitalize the names of chess pieces. I abhor it when people capitalize "Echange," meaning the difference in value between Rook and minor piece.

I grew up on descriptive notation. I learned the P-K4 meant "Pawn to King 4." On my score sheet I write Bb5, meaning "Bishop to b5."

Be annoyed if you wish. I've got a reason for what I do.

GeneM said...

E.V. wrote...
{It annoys me when books capitalize the chess pieces. In what sense are they proper nouns?}

...And E.V. wrote...
{... what difference does that difference make if it's white's turn?}

Lizzy, if you uppercase White when it is used to name an actual or virtual player (rather than as an adjective), then maybe the world would be willing to lowercase the piece names (as they should anyway).

On an tangent, there are no such things as white and black squares on a chessboard, only light and dark squares.
Further the squares have no color, instead they have-or-lack "shading"; IMHO.

GeneM , for FRC-chess960

GeneM said...

(I meant my above post of a moment ago in a light-hearted tone, which got lost in translation.)