What Foresight is about

It’s a good thing we got Nanodot moved onto a new server recently — we just had a huge spike in readers.  This is due to one recent post, Some Historical Perspective, being picked up and spread around the climate-change blogosphere.  Of the pageviews we have had over the past three months, 10% of them happened yesterday.

Internet flashcrowds are something new in the world.  Fads mediated by print media unrolled with glacial slowness compared to the speed of the WWW.  Broadcast media speed things up a bit but lose the effect of feedback at its own speed.  Whereas the people visiting a blog page can talk to each other, just as if they were a crowd collecting in a town square.

Just in case some of you were interested enough to hang around and look at other posts here, here’s a quick guided tour of the square you find yourselves in.

Foresight is one of the longest-running think tanks devoted to studying the possibilities for revolutionary change in the human condition made possible by certain likely developments in technology.  We were essentially founded to extend the analysis of the startling possibilities popularized in the book Engines of Creation by K. Eric Drexler, (which can be read in its entirety here).  We have a lot in common with a number of newer institutes, many of which have the word “singularity” in their names, but there is a difference, albeit perhaps only a philosophical one. “Singularity” is a concept that emphasizes what we can’t know about upcoming changes (because, e.g., they are being made by AIs smarter than us).  “Foresight” emphasizes the things we can know.

The Foresight Institute brings a wide variety of tools to the job of understanding what’s next, ranging from direct examination of currently developing science and technology as in the Technology Roadmap for Productive Nanosystems, to historical examination of similar technological revolutions in the past:

What kind of growth rate would we expect from a mind-makes-mind loop? One possible hint is that the preceding jumps seem to have the structure of a 1-2 punch. Each is a ka-boom where the ka is something informational and the boom is the physical working out of the new knowledge. For the Industrial Revolution, the ka was the printing press and science itself. For agriculture, the ka was writing and proto-writing, such as cave pictures and counting with tally marks.
Now here’s an interesting statistic: the number of scientific papers, starting in the 1700s, had a doubling time (15 years) that foreshadowed the doubling time of the mature industrial economy. We don’t have any way of measuring the doubling time of proto-writing, as far as I know, so this is a shot in the dark.
The modern-day ka to the Singularity’s boom is of course computers and the internet. These have a very well known bundle of growth rates that are on the order of a year doubling time.

In this case, we would go from the factor of 250 for agriculture to the factor of 60 for the Industrial Revolution to a factor of 15 for the “Singularity.” Which means the doubling time would drop from 15 years to … one year, right in the Moore’s Law range. Our shot in the dark has been followed by a muffled thud.
To sum up: the “Singularity” should best be thought of as the second half of the information technology revolution, extending it to most physical and intellectual work. Overall economic growth rates will shift from their current levels of roughly 5% to Moore’s Law-like rates of 70% to 100%. The shift will probably take on the order of a decade (paralleling the growth of the internet), and probably fall somewhere in the 20s, 30,s or 40s.

A major similarity of the technological phase changes in the past has been that the new technology has always been self-reproducing — we call it autogenous — and thus being the basis for higher sustainable growth rates.  Fire, agriculture, machine tools, and soon, we believe, nanofactories.  In order to achieve Moore’s Law-like growth rates in the physical economy, a nanofactory would only have to be able to make a copy of itself in a year and a half.

So, here’s some more historical perspective:  the possibility of shifting into a 70% economic growth mode is enough to make many present concerns, including climate change, look pretty trivial.  The IPCC estimates of the effect of climate change through the end of the century are that it will cost 5% of the economy in 2100 (compare 2100 GDP in table 1a under scenario A1FI vs A1T here.).  That’s the same as lowering the growth rate from 3.04% to 2.99% over a century. Our grandchildren would be 19 times richer than us, instead of 20 times.

Assume instead that nanotech kicks in in 2050.  There’ll be the physical capability for there to be 10 billion times as much machinery in the world then as now (just as it’s easy for you to own 10 billion times the computing power your grandfather had in 1959, today).  A simple way to envision this is that everyone could own a space shuttle where they now own a car.  Or an ocean liner instead of a house (so we don’t care what the sea levels are).  But the simple bottom line is that is that 10 billion times as much machinery simply isn’t going to be run on fossil fuels.  There’s not the fuel, there’s not the air to burn, there’s not the heat sink for the back end of heat engines. Simply to allow it to come anywhere close to a fraction of a percent of its potential value, nanotech machinery will have to be extremely clean, quiet, and efficient, and even then it’ll probably mostly be in space.

In other words, all that greentech is going to happen anyway, purely due to market forces.  But there will be a Jevons effect with a vengeance.


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