Putting the life back in science fiction

Hot hot hot!
September 30, 2010, 12:36 am
Filed under: fall, livable future, science fiction, Worldbuilding, writing

We’ve had a cool year here in southern California (the tragedy, fog at the beaches. What will the tourists do?). This week we’ve finally gotten hit by some reasonably hot, clear days, and wow, it does feel like global warming is back on again.

Great time to go back to the future. How are we going to survive all this change?

I don’t have any answers, but for this time travel work, I’ve been reading about so many mountain buildings, great volcanoes, mass extinctions, ice ages, new evolutionary lines, grass taking over, dogs and cats living together (well, miacids living together before the two lineages split), learning how many times evolution can reinvent a sabertooth (answer: more than 4. And Counting)…. It’s made me a little, well, jaundiced about today’s problems.

I just want to throw up my hands and say, “Meh, I think we’ll manage somehow.” That’s the pleasure of the long view. I’d hate to live through what our ancestors survived, but somehow, enough of them lived that we’re here.

That’s one thing that inspires my conservation efforts. As I tell people, straight-faced, in California, people lived off native plants and animals for something like 10,000 years, give or take. Therefore, we know it can be done sustainably. Conversely, we’re having trouble with this little suburbanization experiment a few decades after we started. This strongly suggests that we should be conserving native plants and animals as an emergency back up, just in case we were wrong in assuming that importing water, power, and food was a good way to live here. We need something for the few survivors to fall back on, after the apocalypse.

For some reason, this doesn’t make me so popular with more ardent conservationists. I’m not sure why.

Oh well. What’s the future look like for you, in the hot days of autumn? Maybe we’ll start cycling through boom-bust civilizations every 2000 years, a la Niven and Pournelle’s Moties?


5 Comments so far
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I started writing this in response to the somewhat-different entry about the future that you pulled just before this one went up, so it’s structured oddly…

Thoughts on the future:

The Singularity: keeping computing power on an exponential curve past 2020 will require something other than the silicon transistors we’ve been shrinking for the last 40 years. The rate of improvement could slow dramatically until the next paradigm picks up steam. But even if something’s ready to sustain the curve past 2020, I don’t expect the Singularity. AI is already here, and it can kick human ass at a variety of difficult intellectual problems. But AI shares nothing with human culture or evolutionary history. AI isn’t going to be Machine People. Expecting faster computers to become Machine People who will save or enslave humans is like expecting a toaster to gain telekinesis and an evil brain because it was struck by lightning. I am not dismissing Machine People in principle, but I think brain emulation is the only plausible way there and I have doubts that it will be realized, much less realized before 2050.

I think the future is still full of robots. But I think they’ll be purpose-built machines that are little like the robots of fiction. They may cook your food, drive your car, and eliminate your job, but they won’t pass a Turing test or plot an uprising.

The Environment: I expect extinctions to continue accelerating for some time. I expect the large cats and African megafauna to disappear from the wild in my lifetime. I don’t expect atmospheric CO2 to decline or even stabilize in my lifetime. I expect AGW denial to collapse at some point in the future when 1) the effects are really obvious and 2) it’s already too far gone to return to the 20th century norm, even with the most aggressive globally coordinated effort. I expect continued degradation of ecosystems over large portions of the Earth’s surface, plus exhaustion of fossil water and wild fish stocks. Unlike many environmentalists raising the alarm, I think this will make many humans miserable but not lead to death on a population-curbing scale. It turns out that people can live long enough to birth the next generation even when they’re already living 5 to a room and defecating right into the water that washes their pots. Many other species cannot tolerate so much crowding and filth; they, rather than we, will diminish in number. The future is bright for rats, dogs, and pigeons.

America and China: I wish the American empire had already ended. Why does the USA have a global network of military bases 20 years after the Communists gave up? I fear it’s going to drag out for decades to come, pissing away money when there’s not war and money plus lives when there is. A lot of American “thinkers” seem to expect China to play the USSR in an updated production of Cold War, but they’re aiming to win at global capitalism, regardless of internal political organization or rhetoric.

10 years ago I thought America had a large enough head start to remain competitive but China’s been building productivity and winning market segments while we’ve been incinerating mountains of money in the name of security. The good news is that American prosperity can fall a long way and Americans will still be wealthy by global standards. The bad news is that the decline isn’t going to be smooth and predictable. The ugly news is that the movers and shakers are happy to sacrifice a billion dollars of general prosperity if they can personally skim another 10 million.

The story is even bigger than America and China: whither capitalism in the 21st century? I have heard (mostly from Marxists) that capitalism cannot function without growing markets. If that is true, this is its last century, though it’s anyone’s guess if the successor will be better. Every nation but North Korea is already participating in the global capitalist economy. Global population is expected to peak mid-century. Then what, when there are no more markets to open or expand?

Expect the unexpected: it looks like quantum mechanics and relativity have the entirety of physics tidied up, except for a few cosmological mysteries and niggling problems of reconciling gravity with QM. On the other hand, physics in the late 19th century appeared to have almost everything tidied up except a few niggling mysteries of electromagnetism… Global nuclear war looks a lot less likely today than 50 years ago, but even a regional nuclear war could upend all sorts of projections. If nano-factories or even clunky von Neumann machines lead to completely automated manufacturing, the impact would be so great that I don’t want to even try to extrapolate.

Comment by Matt

Sorry about that, and I’m glad you were responding so fast. Next time, I’ll wait an hour before I post, rather than scrapping it online.

That said… Physics? The field where either we don’t know what 96% of the universe is, and/or we’re living in a hologram? Right. No new breakthroughs coming there. I only wish the Bible thumpers would go after the physicists as hard as they go after the biologists. Evolutionary theory is much more robust than cosmology, and anyone who sincerely believes in Genesis 1:1 should be able to hammer on a physicist. Too bad they don’t.(/soapbox).

I also agree with you on a lot of the environmental stuff, sadly, although I won’t be surprised if human numbers trend down as resources diminish. You can’t support high population densities without productive systems, and as productivity declines, we’re probably going to see people starve. The sad lesson from the Green Revolution (and from the Haber-Process N fixation before it) is that trying to feed the world ends up with more people starving when it fails. That said, birth rates are falling in places like Mexico, so it’s possible we’ll see some sort of demographic transition even in the most populous countries within our lifetime.

As for the singularity, I’ll leave that for a separate post, but I’m less of a fan than I used to be.

China/US relations? That’s another posting as well, really. My take is that some very clever people deliberately entwined our economies so thoroughly that there’s no way we can go to war without bankrupting each other in short order. Considering that the US financed a massive military build-up by borrowing money from China (They get paper, we got airplanes), having our economies tied together is probably wise.

Comment by Heteromeles

Existing models demonstrate excellent agreement with 99.9% of phenomena observable in a laboratory. But they have not been reconciled with each other, and they don’t account for some big cosmological mysteries. Clearly, physics isn’t done, but successor models won’t necessarily reveal significant technological opportunities.

UN population projections, which seem to go down with each revision, show a peak mid-century but starvation deaths overtaking births is not the expected cause. People starve right now, but not nearly enough to reverse net population growth. That’s been the story since Malthus first set pen to paper and I think it will continue to play out this century. I think that futurological seers of heaven and hell have a symmetry in that they try to extrapolate exponential trends too far and take the absurd outcomes as amazing prophecies instead of a prompt to re-check their premises. The Population Bomb and The Age of Spiritual Machines are the embarrassing fruits of these extrapolations.

Comment by Matt

Speaking of world-building, I loved Iain Banks’ world in Against a Dark Background. It’s set in a star system a million light years from every other star, with no hope of interstellar voyaging. Banks usually has FTL travel in his books, so I thought it was clever that he wrote a novel where even FTL wasn’t going to overcome the enormous distances rather than just declaring FTL off-limits for this one book.

Golter is the oldest inhabited planet in the system, but other planets and moons have been inhabited for thousands of years. Inter-system space travel is reasonably common but not an everyday affair. Golter has survived one planetary nuclear war (Year Zero of the calendar starts there), several more limited nuclear and post-nuclear wars, and thousands of years of institutions rising, falling, evolving, and fighting. There’s a powerful World Court but no global government. Posthuman machine intelligence has been created before, and it left some incomprehensible artifacts behind, but current thinking robots are only a little more impressive than ageless metallic humans.

Apart from some of the more outlandish artifacts left behind by super-intelligent machines, I think the setting “feels” like a plausible future of our own solar system. Industrial civilization never collapses completely, but it doesn’t steadily ascend higher peaks forever either. Over long periods of time the other planets open up, but interstellar unions are out of the question. It’s not a Malthusian hell or a cornucopian heaven. There’s little past technology that people couldn’t match or improve on if they really wanted to, but sometimes the artifacts of the past remain best in class because there’s not enough modern interest in reproducing or besting them. There’s still war, poverty, religion, and menial labor, waxing and waning over time, but never sticking at one extreme for long.

Comment by Matt

Thanks Matt, that’s one I’ll have to look up.

Comment by Heteromeles

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