Saturday, December 31, 2016

The next ten years: how desperate can we become?

With the year's end, it is tradition to make predictions for the next year. In this case, I looked for something that would take a longer timespan as a target and I found something published in 2015. It can be used to learn how bad some predictions can be and how desperate we are becoming.

Do you remember the predictions of the 1950s? The time when scientists and science fiction authors alike engaged in describing to us how bright the future would be? There was no shortage of wonders that were presented to us at that time. Space travel, energy too cheap to meter, robotic home helpers, anti-gravity, a cure for cancer, increased human lifespan, and much more. It is disheartening to think of how little of all that fluff actually materialized. Overall, in terms of problem-solving, the performance of science during the past 50 years of so has been comparable to that of the Iraqi army in 2003 in terms of military effectiveness.

A taste of how desperate our situation has become can be gained by taking a look at an article published in 2015 by Peter Diamandis. A little more than a year after it appeared, it can be used to understand not only how bad a prediction can be, but also how desperate we have become.

The article by Diamandis falls flat from its very first line; when he says that "in accordance with Moore's Law, we'll see an acceleration in the rate of change." But, as we know, Moore's law was declared officially dead in 2016, and it was known to be terminally ill a few years earlier. So, Diamondis starts from an overoptimistic premise but, even so, it is surprising to see how unappealing are his predictions.

In the article, all the wonders predicted in the 1950s have disappeared and all what Diamandis can do is to line up a list of internet-related gadgetry whose usefulness can only be limited or debatable - or even defined as negative. Yes, in the future we'll probably have more people connected to the Internet at faster speeds, but then what? Can more Internet connections lead us to "perfect knowledge"? (prediction n. 3). Diamondis was writing before the "fake news" story became a widely recognized issue, but it was there and it is remarkable how he could miss so badly that quantity is not the same as quality! Then, there is the "trillion-sensor economy" (prediction n. 2) that probably means what we call the "Internet of Things". Not an impossible target but, as for many other things, are we really sure it is a good idea? What if the hyperconnected world goes to the blue screen of death? The other predictions are not much better, for instance about the overhyped "3D printing".

It looks like we are becoming increasingly desperate. We expected from science solutions for the climate and the resource crisis. We expected knowledge, wisdom, health, and abundance. All we got were 140 characters and it seems we'll have to be happy with that.


  1. Hi Ugo,

    Diamandis and others of the "Church of Singularitarianism" ( are singing the song of the exponential future where we will accelerate so much, that that let's us escape out problems - like an ever accelerating spaceship that can escape the gravity well of the earth.

    There are some videos online of the "Singularity University" where he is a founding member... also the Google Brothers and Kurzweil.

    Problem with minerals or metals? Mine the kuiper belt! Building things in space? Self-replicating "3D-Printers" on monecular level (e.g. nano-assemblers) - only read the (free and quite good) novel Accelerando ( - thats the spirit!

    For those folks all the real problems we or the earth faces are non-exists and only to be overcome by accelerating technology. Unfortunately these folks apply the (temporary) shrinking of die and structure sizes to everything (tangible) else.

    But the weight of a person doesn't exponentially change and it still needs tomorrow approx 2000 calories a day to survive. Also the sizes and the weight of a car didn't change much to a lower degree. And to move a certain amount of mass (weight) you need a certain amount of energy... but those folks may believe that it is possible to use exponentially less energy to to the same work tomorrow.

    The real pitty is, that all this diversion deflects lots of people to act now in the right direction.

    Wish you all the best and a good start in 2017 & was nice to meet you in person at the ASPO Workshop in Berlin!

  2. It appears that the "minds of the 21st century" look very much alike those of the 19th.

  3. I don't agree with your conclusion. Science, as a way of asking questions, is not to blame. This burden lies on technology, which pretends to answer them.

    1. Jose:

      As a fallen scientist, I would have to disagree with you. In the current world view of the bulk of the world is that science=technology=science.

      Scientists and the Collegium of Science has too long hidden behind the "Purity" of the scientific method and disclaim any and all negative aspects of the peculiar subculture that they engender.

      I tend to see scientists as the moral and intellectual equivalents of the Jesuits of the 16th and 17th centuries. Well educated apologists for the Powers, who would defend the Pope against any and all attacks.

      I would strongly recommend that you read John Michael Greer's excellent essay "The View From Outside"

      The most damning turn of a phrase is this:

      "Among the outsiders whose opinion of contemporary science matters most are some that haven’t been born yet: our descendants, who will inhabit a world shaped by science and the technologies that have resulted from scientific research. It’s still popular to insist that their world will be a Star Trek fantasy of limitlessness splashed across the galaxy, but I think most people are starting to realize just how unlikely that future actually is."

    2. Thanks, Degringolade, I was going to write something very similar

    3. i'm inclined to agree with jose. there is definitely a difference between science and technology. i see the remit of science as 'only' objectively finding out what natural world is and how it works. technology is what we do with such knowledge, there is a moral and rational component. it is no fault or a failure of science, ie as it reflects the universe, if it fails to give humans what we desire at the click of our fingers! saying science has failed us is as silly as saying nature has failed us!

  4. Biological organisms have been evolving for billions of years. They have levels of complexity that operate from the atomic scale to the macro scale, all the way up to multi-ton organisms. Living things have evolved such complex relationships with other living things and the physical environment that we are barely scratching the surface of understanding them.

    By comparison our most complicated technology is simple. If Kurzweil or Diamandis ever get to the point where they can throw a computer chip out on the ground and have it reproduce itself, they will have even then only begun the process of creating a synthetic ecology.

    Meanwhile the laws of thermodynamics that rule our place in the real world still require huge resource and energy flows. The real human world will run out of real resources long before any so-called singularity or complete de-materialization of intelligence will ever happen (even if it could).

    Afterwards, life will go on, but Moore's Law and the internet won't. I second Selbst Denken's view that all our infatuation with high-tech is keeping people from preparing for a world without it. A world powered entirely by photosynthesis is as complicated and beautiful as any human could ask for. We need to learn, once again, how to live in that world.

  5. A trillion sensor Internet of Things, or a trillion sensor botnet?

    8b people. Hmmm? I'm curious how long business as usual can keep going as we add +80m/yr people and +10GtC/yr into the atmosphere. The UN demography stats is still all based on business as usual continuing.

    Please don't disrupt or disintermediate my NHS healthcare. And I don't particularly want to dematerialize, demonetize or democratize it either. #WeLoveTheNHS Don't let them destroy it. Growing new organs by 2025? I think not. I just want a free at point of service health system that works to still be around when I start to really need it.

  6. Typo:

    "...but it was there and it is remarkable how he could miss so badly quality for quality!"

    ---QUANTITY for quality.

  7. Oh....and happy New Year to everyone. Deserving and undeserving. Let's all try to do better next year.

    Off to the important things, brewing beer and watching football.

    Be well.

  8. There's a lot of different potential responses to the relatively realistic models of the near future. The Techno-topian response is looking increasingly desperate and fanciful. The deep problem is that even the IPCC and the INDCs now depend on trust in our ability to invent some imaginary technology to get ourselves out of the hole.

  9. The flipside of Moore Law...

    The flip side of that coin, however, is a phenomenon often referred to as either Rock’s Law or Moore’s Second Law:
    “The capital cost of a semiconductor fab also increases exponentially over time.”
    A fab is typically a large building or collection of buildings that houses the equipment, materials, tools and personnel to fabricate semiconductor chips.
    State of the art fabricators, such as the “Gigafabs” created by Taiwan
    Semiconductor Manufacturing Corporation (TSMC), cost nearly $10 billion to install. Such a fab, over a potential operating lifetime of 10 years, would need to produce nearly twenty million dollars of gross margin output every week just to cover the depreciation of its building costs.

    1. A question I'm fond of. What's the minimum global population that can support a chip fab?

    2. A fundamental question, indeed. I think much less than 7 billion, but how many, exactly?

    3. A chip fab isn't at the top of the technological pyramid but it must be pretty high up there. My guess is that it takes 1b or so people in a stable technological global society. That's both to provide the infrastructure that can support it but also a financial/supplier/consumer system that's big enough to pay for it.

      Without chip fabs, how are we going to have fully-automated, luxury communism?

    4. Probably true, at least in a market-based system. That doesn't necessarily have to be the future, though.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)