The Race to Inner Space: Our Ever Faster, Smaller, Smarter, and Wealthier Future

Seeing, Guiding, and Benefiting from Accelerating Physical and Informational Change

Humanity’s advances to date have been accompanied by great leaps in the density, diversity, and virtuality of our societies, and in the miniaturization and efficiency of our technologies. Among these and other variables determining social progress, two stand out as particularly special. The more our intelligence gains access to “Inner Space,” both to the domain of very small size scales, or Physical Inner Space”, and to the domain of very powerful brain-based and computer-based simulations, or Virtual Inner Space”, the faster we learn to generate major new economic, social, and adaptation benefits for civilization. This “Race to Inner Space” may turn out to be the dominant developmental trend for our species.

The Cosmic Calendar: 13.7 Billion Years of Universal History Depicted Over A Cosmic “Year”. Lovely creative commons image by Wikipedia author Eric Fisk.

As Carl Sagan famously argued in the Cosmic Calendar metaphor of Big History, life on Earth has been engaged in a continual acceleration of structural and functional complexity emergence since its birth 3.8 billion years ago. At the same time, each newly emergent complex system, from stars to cities, from prokaryotes to computers, uses vastly smaller quantities universal space, time, energy, and matter or STEM, per novel information production, computation, or physical transformation, than the system that came before it. We may call this phenomenon STEM efficiency and density increase, or STEM compression, and we can see and measure it in spatial, temporal, energetic, and material terms. Over time, the leading edge systems use ever less of the resources of “Outer Space” to generate ever more novelty, intelligence, and capability in “Inner Space”, an exciting and apparently universal process. If this astonishing trend continues, our and other universal civilizations may eventually reach black hole level computational efficiency and density and transcend our universe, a topic I’ve speculated on in the Transcension hypothesis.

Certainly humanity’s ability to think, act, and shape our world has grown ever faster, more powerful, and more novel since Australopithecus garhi, perhaps our earliest tool-using ancestors, fashioned the first stone tools more than 2.6 million years ago. We are also much more densely associated in our cities, and engaged in far more virtual activity than our ancestors. Since the advent of currency circa 5,000 years ago, human wealth production has also become an increasingly instantaneous and virtual economic process, today involving trillions of dollars in daily foreign exchange and billions in program trading. Though modern economies experience occasional recessions, these grow rapidly shorter with time, and even the worst now last less than one decade, just one seventh the typical human lifespan. Surprisingly, these periodic slowdowns are not even visible on long timescales. The curve to the left, charting GDP per capita in Western Europe from 1000-1999 AD, with data compiled by economist Angus Maddison, shows that global wealth production now grows almost instantaneously fast over the span of a century. Reporting on this in The Economist in 1999, the authors said it “looks less like an inevitable process and more like a single, astonishing event.” In my opinion, this acceleration, just one of several special Inner Space trends in human civilization, clearly does look like it might be an inevitable process, and it is precisely this parochial attitude, this failure of vision and lack of willingness to ask unpopular questions about value creation and technological change, that keeps today’s media from seeing and reporting on accelerating complexity development, and that keeps today’s economic theory ignorant of the inevitable accelerating benefits that come from our investments and actions in Inner Space.

At the same time, as Kevin Kelly notes in What Technology Wants, 2011, the redundancy of our technology and its distributed knowledge systems protects this accelerating planetary process of wealth and knowledge creation better than ever before. While individual nations, regions, companies, and individuals regularly suffer slowdowns and catastrophes, our global system, like an organism with a developing brain and immune system, rebounds from damage faster, stronger and better the more complex it gets. The story of our accelerating resiliency to complexity disruption, however, is even more ignored, ridiculed, and unaccepted today than the story of accelerating change. We need to fix this state of affairs. The longer we ignore planetary processes of collective intelligence and immunity development, the longer our political, economic, technological, and social policies remain unenlightened, ineffective, and focused on the wrong goals. The longer we wait to study these processes with the rigor they deserve, the longer we remain burdened with preventable suffering, living in the flatlands below the knee of the next growth curve of capacity building, intelligence advancement, and wealth creation.

I believe that humanity’s collective intelligence, wealth, and resilience have accelerated for so long because, via STEM compression, we have continually learned how to move our intelligence into ever smaller domains of nanotechnology, or Physical Inner Space, thus escaping resource limits, while at the same time, developing ever smarter simulations, or Virtual Inner Space, so we can “think more” and “act less” in the search for new capabilities and wealth-creating innovations. Today, a growing proportion of our leading innovations happen either at very small scales in physical, chemical, or biotechnological processes, or inside computers and their networks and software. It is only these special systems that use less and less physical resources to produce more and more social value, a process that the futurist Buckminster Fuller called “ephemeralization,” or doing more and more physical transformation (“acting”) and simulation (“thinking”) with less and less space, time, energy, and matter, or STEM. In a very real sense, we are “moving the world” to Inner Space at an accelerating pace, as depicted in the fullerene (“buckyball”) molecule enclosing Earth in the pretty picture to the right by nanoscientist Chris Ewels.

In humanity’s great race to Inner Space, we are on the edge of major new breakthroughs in nanotechnology engineering, and of the web becoming a metaverse, the most intelligent and valuable natural environment on the planet. We may soon see such infotech and machine intelligence advances as a conversational interface (a web that understands us when we talk to it), digital twins (aka “smart agents”, semi-intelligent avatars that can model and represent us), a valuecosm (quantified maps of all our values and goals), and statistical measures of our individual and social progress. These seem likely to be very empowering and democratizing innovations.

These same nanotechnologies and information technologies offer all the leading solutions to today’s greatest global challenges, including cheap energy and CO2 reduction (nanosolar, which doubles global installed base every two years, and halves its cost every ten years, engineered algal biofuels, which for some applications are now the same cost as oil, fuel cells, etc), food (a genetic green revolution), water (nanodesalination, which doubles global installed base every six years, and halves its cost every nine years), reducing poverty, overpopulation, and slums (smart internet, internet TV, online education, science and technology education, entrepreneurship, women’s and civil rights, green cities), reducing crime and terrorism (global transparency and sousveillance) and bioterrorism (immune system aids like DRACO), and building trustable machine intelligences and robots (we may evolve our machines to be trustable, just as we have bred domestic animals to be trustable, without “designing” them). Even human death is in the process of being challenged. For those who die today, one path to further life may be chemical brain preservation at death, followed later by advanced and inexpensive nano and information technology. Every major human problem we see today has one or more Inner Space technical solutions on the horizon.

How do we help more of our leading countries, institutions, corporations, and entrepreneurs to understand and benefit from our civilization’s apparently inevitable race to Inner Space? How do we get this realization to become part of the story of Big History, told to all curious children who seek to understand the universe? As the pace of life speeds up, many people and organizations react with fear and fundamentalism to accelerating change. How do we help them instead to embrace the most humanizing technologies, and to develop a continual learning and evidence-based culture? For how much longer will our political and corporate leaders continue to severely underfund global nanotech? The world’s governments spend just $10B/yr annually on nanotech R&D funding, with the US spending just $2.2B annually, primarily via the National Nanotechnology Initiative. This is just 0.3% (0.003) of our $740B defense budget in 2010. Just 0.06% (0.0006) of our $3.5T in federal spending. Since 2011, China now spends more on nanotech R&D than the US, with just one fifth our GDP. This positions them to start far more of the nanotech jobs of the future. We should be competing much more on that front.

We also seriously underfund global infotech. The US spends almost all of its unclassified investments in infotech R&D through the Networking and Information Technology Research and Development (NITRD) Program. As of 2007, NITRD spending was just $3B/year. You can bet it hasn’t gone up since then, given our recent economic woes. How long until we change our priorities? How many great nano and infotech solutions to our present global problems are we presently ignoring, instead wasting most of our precious time, intelligence, and energy on far slower, cruder, and less inefficient “Outer Space” technologies and strategies? I suspect every nation on Earth, and many companies, spend a good deal less on nanotechnology and information technology education, research, development, strategy, and entrepreneurship than they should, given the continually accelerating returns delivered by these special technologies. I know that nations and companies rarely have good forecasts of accelerating returns in Inner Space to guide their policy, or to time their product development strategy, because I’ve been a scholar this field for ten years now. The world, by and large, is not yet awake to this trend. We are all running a race, but most of us are not yet conscious of it. That needs to change.

Fortunately, some nations, regions, and companies do a much better job promoting technological progress than others. Some prioritize science and technology policy, education, research and development, innovation, and foresight. Some encourage competitions and give scholarships and hiring priority to the most technically proficient, innovative, and entrepreneurial. But few nations give sufficient access to credit and other startup resources for their best technology entrepreneurs, or create fair competition environments to allow both large and small businesses to create new technology products and services. As citizens, we often don’t measure and rank our local, state, and national politicians for their science, technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship credentials, and reward them with our votes. As consumers, we don’t always look for, rate, and buy the smartest and most resource-efficient products and services, as soon as they become available. I believe the best way to improve the world is to recognize where it is going, to Inner Space, and to see the powerful role that each of us can play in building a much faster, smaller, smarter, and wealthier future for all of us.

[This is the abstract of a talk I will give at Global Future 2045 in Moscow, February 2012, to a community of Big History scholars, entrepreneurs, futurists, and transhumanists. Hope to see you there.]

Thoughts? Disagreements? Corrections? Let me know, thanks! [tweetmeme source=”johnmsmart” only_single=false]

BBC Doc: People’s Century, Ep 7, Breadline – The Great Depression, Fascism and Full Employment

Today I’m watching episode seven of People’s Century*, 1995, the amazing 26 part BBC series, 54 minutes each, that chronicles our entire 20th Century. I now realize it is likely to be the most impressive documentary series I’ve seen so far, so I’ve decided to selectively blog some of the insights it provides.

I hope that you will consider watching all 26 episodes for yourself at some point in your life, and showing it to and discussing it with your children. It is a singular experience. If it stays as good as it has been to date, I think it should be part of the core curriculum in every enlightened high school or college. The critical thing documentaries with this kind of scope in time (100 years), and breadth in subject (the whole world) provide is what computer scientist David Gelernter calls topsight, the ability to see and understand the whole of a system, from a vantage point that allows you to see an unusually large amount of it, in its essentials. People’s Century, at least the episodes I’ve seen so far, will give you unparalleled topsight into the nature of human life, the perennial opportunities and challenges of civilization, and our relentless and uplifting history of accelerating scientific, technical, and social complexification.

This episode is about the Great Depression. The greatest lesson I got from this is how simplistic and intransigent our capitalist governments of the time (Ramsay MacDonald in the UK, Herbert Hoover in the US) were, and how little they understood that only governments in modern market economies have the unique ability and responsibility to intervene in the business cycle, to make the inevitable bubbles shorter, and the inevitable crashes milder. Most importantly, their governments needed to save and spend countercyclically, as the economist John Maynard Keynes would eventually argue, as one of the foundational ideas of what we now call Keynesian economics.

In a depression, when no one in the business sector has money to spend (or is willing to spend, as with our big corps today), the government needs to keep shoes on everyones feet, keep the mines and the shipyards running, and do its best to create or subsidize jobs for the 20-40% of people who are forced out of work by the market system’s natural volatility, and by the increasingly rapid (yet increasingly short lived) waves of technological advance causing technological unemployment.  In a boom, the government needs to save while the businesses and consumers are spending more than they should, so the country won’t incur huge debts during the crash, by printing money none of us have. Our politicians since Hoover, with rare exception, don’t seem to have learned that second part of the cycle.

At least in this Great Recession many have unemployment insurance, health care, and we are seeing major fiscal interventions. In the US, the majority of our new weapons against unemployment truly can be traced back to the insights and convictions of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his canny request in 1933 for and acquisition of executive powers to rival his powers under war, so that he could engage in a war on unemployment through his New Deal. Yet with all the advances we’ve made since the 1930’s, these films make clear how poor our policies remain relative to their potential.

It was fascinating to learn in the film that Sweden’s Social Democratic Government was actually the first of the advanced democracies to offer a New Deal style intervention against unemployment, not the US. Using major debt-incursion by the state, and serious public work projects for all, they’d largely recovered by 1934, while every other country was still in high unemployment. An American journalist, Marquis Childs, wrote Sweden: The Middle Way, in 1936. Roosevelt was excited by this book (see his quote at the book link), and sent a team to study Sweden’s cooperatives, businesses owned by their users for mutual benefit. I would love to know how much Roosevelt’s New Deal was influenced by the Swedish Social Democrats programs of intensive public intervention, which started when they came to majority power in 1932, a year before Roosevelt in the US. What is clear is that the Social Democrat’s Minister of Finance, Ernst Wigforss, is often credited with inventing and implementing Keynesian economics before Keynes.  Here’s a crazy Wikipedia quote: “John Kenneth Galbraith writes in his book A History of Economics: The Past as the Present, 1991, that it “would be more fair to say ‘The Swedish Economic Revolution’ than the ‘Keynesian revolution’ in economics, and that Wigforss was first in this transformation of thinking and practice about economy”. Yeah Sweden!

Another of the great ideas in the film was mentioned with respect to one of the megaconstruction projects, I believe it was the Tennessee Valley Authority. The worker noted that they’d had a chance to create three eight-hour shifts or four six-hour shifts to fill their 24-hour construction cycle, and went with the latter to maximize job creation. That’s a 25% sacrifice on the part of the eight hour workers who were instead paid for six hours a day. Imagine if we had a President bold enough to ask folks to voluntarily cut back, for a full year, the hours they are paid to work by 10-25%, in order to create more temporary (year-long) “training jobs” for all those presently out of work. The job-creating workers could spend the unpaid time on themselves or family, or they could use it to help train those getting the temporary training jobs. How many people (3% of us? More?) would gladly take turns, each year of a protracted depression, volunteering make such a sacrifice once they truly understood the hope, self-respect, and industry this action would stimulate for America? How many temporary new jobs could we create with such a scheme, and how soon would the economy grow enough for some of those jobs to become permanent? I don’t hear this kind of thinking from our administration today, and it is a major shame. Folks like that exist, and they should be given the ability to rise to the call, and their actions would shame or inspire a much larger fraction of Americans into helping out in less dramatic ways.

Have you heard of Oswald Mosley? I learned about him watching this episode.  Mosley created and led the British Union of Fascists 1932-40. The BUF flag is left. Look a bit like the Swastika? No surprise, Mosley was inspired by and friends with the Nazis. He left the UK parliament in 1930, when the do-nothing classical capitalist government of the time rejected his plan for any state intervention to create more employment. At the time, Hitler and Mussolini were promising full employment and state intervention in the Depression under Fascism in Germany and Italy. This promise of intervention, of at least doing something to get people employed, seems to have been the primary appeal at the time of the fascists to the common voter. The fascists, for all their unsettling extremism, were at least promising some kind of state intervention, when MacDonald (UK) and Hoover (US) were counseling “belt tightening” and had squat else to offer. This was a great failure of nerve and vision on the part of the capitalists.

The 1920’s was, if you think about it in historical context, the last gasp of the libertarians. Their policies became untenable from this point forward. As much as I appreciate their desire to bring fiscal responsibility to our very irresponsible modern governments, Ron Paul and his ilk today haven’t sufficiently learned the lessons of history. The more complex a social system gets, the more regulation, and the more intelligent regulation, it needs. The Great Depression made it clear we needed some kind of intervention, and fascism got its day because it at least offered serious intervention, when the capitalists were being the cold-hearted and short-sighted bastards they can so often be. Of course, as the lessons of the 1930’s and 40’s taught us, you have to be very careful who gets the keys to the house. I’m looking forward to seeing those in coming episodes.

To bring this post back to the present, I propose our current economic policies, and the messages of our governmental, corporate, and social leaders, fall far short of what history teaches us in at least four major ways:

1. We remain ignorant of defining, measuring, and managing technical productivity, the scientific, technological, and knowledge capital that is the real productivity base and foundation of every modern society. Technical productivity can be defined as all the elements and processes of a society that most directly drive its accelerating complexification, to the best of our current theories of machine and social intelligence. Gross domestic productivity is a very poor proxy for technical productivity. Entertainment, aesthetics, religion/philosophy, philanthropy, defense, and many other aspects of human commerce and activity, for all their many evolutionary benefits, simply do not have the same survival importance to modern society as a complex system as science or engineering, and never will. (If you doubt that large scale defense budgets are less important to society today than ever before, read Steven Pinker’s new masterpiece, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, 2011). Even the financial industry is also not of the same critical importance. Wall Street could vanish tomorrow and we’d rebuild our financial, credit, and monetary systems quickly, as long as Main Street had sufficient engineers and know how to run all the machines that modern society depends upon. In fact, sometimes debt forgiveness and starting over is the best thing for a financial system that has become too uncompetitive, too biased to reward the few players at the top. Evolution would argue that we need as much diversity and specialization of activity as possible to increase our wisdom and resilience, but development would argue that some products and services are much more important to social resilience and acceleration than others, and we need to recognize this, and do our best to support, subsidize, and advance the social, economic, scientific and technological policies that will accelerate technical productivity.

2. We need much smarter and more aggressive job-creation policies during a recession, some of which, like the job-training idea described above, don’t require extra spending, just some sacrifice, extra mental and physical effort, can-do spirit, and boldness from business, government, and media leaders. Corporations, the state, and the media can do a massive amount to combat unemployment in a recession without going to the unacceptable extremes of state socialism or fascism, methods of creating full employment that may work in the short run but are ultimately unsustainable.

3. This said, we also need to create consequences for spending money we don’t have. Countercyclical spending only works as intended if you’ve done countercyclical saving. Spending money you don’t have can only go on for so long, before the debt you create is worse than not spending. We need to know where that point is, and there need to be serious consequences, including the loss of political office and inability for reelection for those who cross it. We need to revise our governments rulesets so in the future, unless we are in a serious recession, politicians can only spend a bit over what they’ve saved. And if we are in a serious recession, there also need to be severe consequences to the politicians (loss of office, loss of ability to lobby after leaving office) and the wealthy and corporate leaders (new recession taxes imposed) who let us get there.

4. We need to address fifty years of growing corporate and social income and wealth divides. We have to recognize that the corporations and their lobbies fully captured the governments some time near the middle of the 20th century, as their wealth grew far faster than governments because of mass markets, connectivity, and globalization, and we need to take steps to getting corporations back under the control of democracies. Govt reform, tax policy reform, rich poor divides, far better regulation of the financial industry, and many related issues fall under this challenge.

Lots to do, but we can count on accelerating technical productivity delivering an ever more capable human civilization to empower our reform efforts as well. If accelerating complexification is a universal developmental process, as I think it is, then the acceleration will continue whether we grow wise enough to recognize and actively guide it, or not. It will continue whether we grow humble enough to recognize the laws of the universe seem to be doing most of the work, and we just need to stop getting in the way so much with our short term and selfish desires, or not.

*Finding People’s Century online isn’t easy at present. Episode 2, Killing Fields (WW I) is available free, if you have Amazon Prime, on Amazon Instant Video. A few more can be found online here. For now, to see all 26 you will have to go to the torrent or usenet sites (use an anonymizer of some type so your ISP doesn’t throttle your connection), or buy a VHS copy ($99 for the series) off Amazon or eBay. DVDs don’t appear to be available at any price. As I’ve written in How the Television Will be Revolutionized, until good educational video that is reasonably priced for middle classes (in every society) emerges, we should have no qualms going to the internet for them, and recommending others to do the same.

Objections? Additions? Omissions? Let me know. Hope you can find time to watch the series, it’s amazing.

Chemical Brain Preservation – How to Live “Forever” – WorldFuture 2012 Talk

Here’s an outline of a talk I will give at WorldFuture 2012, the World Future Society’s annual conference, in Toronto, July 27-29th, 2012. If you are a foresight professional or a futures enthusiast, I hope to see you there.

Chemical Brain Preservation: How to Live “Forever”

At present, roughly 57 million unique and precious human beings die every year, or 155,000 people every day. The memories and identities in their brains are permanently lost at present, but may not be in the near future. Chemical brain preservation is a technique that a growing number of neuroscientists believe may inexpensively preserve our memories and identity when we die, eventually for less than $10,000 per person in the developed world, and less than $3,000 per person in the developing world. Chemically preserved brains can be stored at room temperature in cemeteries, in contract storage, or even in private homes. Our organization, the Brain Preservation Foundation (brainpreservation.org), is offering a $100,000 prize to the first scientific team to demonstrate that the entire synaptic connectivity (“connectome”) of mammalian brains, where neuroscientists believe our memories and identities reside, can be perfectly preserved using these low-cost chemical techniques.

There is growing evidence that chemically preserved brains can be “read” in the future, analogous to the way a computer hard drive is read today, so that memories, and even the complete identities of the preserved individuals can eventually be restored, using low-cost and fully automated preserving, slicing, imaging and computerized reconstructing techniques. Such techniques are already being used to scan and upload the connectomes of very small animal brains (zebrafish, soon flies) today.

Amazingly, given the accelerating rate of technological advance, a person whose brain is preserved in 2020 might “return” to the world, most likely in a computer form, as early as 2060, while their loved ones and some of their friends are still alive. At the same time, all of their friends and loved ones who have also chosen preservation may also return to interact with them. We will discuss this astonishing technology and some of its social, political, and personal implications. Will 1% of any society ever choose low-cost chemical brain preservation, once it becomes available? Would you do it? If not, why not? We’ll explore group opinions and preferences, and likely scenarios for the next decade and beyond.

Still skeptical of the social value of the brain preservation choice? Please consider reading our Overview and particularly, Overcoming Objections pages at the Brain Preservation Foundation website.

Sectors: Commerce, Humanity, Futuring, Science & Technology

Comments? Feedback? Let me know, thanks. [tweetmeme source=”johnmsmart” only_single=false]

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