February 16, 2008
Topic Requests At FuturePundit?

Got questions? Always wanted to see a post about the future of some technology, social trend, stage in evolution, or looming disaster? I'd like to hear from you about your burning curiosities and topics you think deserve more attention than they get. Post in the comments or send me an email.

Update: I'm not feeling desperate for topics to write about. But I figure maybe there are major areas of interest that haven't occurred to me. Or perhaps someone has an interesting question that will pique my curiosity.

Writing this web log has given me a lot of brain food as I search out reports and data sources on an assortment of topics. I've reworked my views of the world as I have been forced to dig up relevant references to support or undermine various positions. But maybe there are areas of interest where the right questions haven't occurred to me. Or maybe I neglect some important areas (e.g. artificial intelligence comes to mind) that are far more important for the future than the quantity of my writings would lead you to expect. So what am I missing?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2008 February 16 01:12 PM  Miscellaneous Coverage


Comments
Brian Hayes said at February 16, 2008 5:21 PM:

I read your blog regularly; can't recall but it's years now. You're always deft to cull the mere PR from true discovery. Plus your extra comments help distill the posts, and fellow readers are no slackers with their comments. What's to change? Bravo!

David Tufte said at February 16, 2008 5:35 PM:

Having trouble feeding the content monster?

Nothing comes to mind - you usually have them before I've heard of them.

sf said at February 16, 2008 5:58 PM:

This is a great blog. I visit almost daily. The coverage of energy issues is what keeps me coming back, but the "frontiers of psychology" stuff is a nice treat as well.

Randall Parker said at February 16, 2008 6:10 PM:

David,

No, I don't have a problem finding content. It just strikes me that I have no idea what people really want to read. So maybe I'm missing questions that everyone is thinking "why hasn't he ever talked about that" and that I'm oblivious.

Plus, maybe some questions readers have are really interesting questions that haven't occurred to me before.

sf,

I started covering energy issues due to my own sense that energy problems are very important. But I wondered whether futuristic-oriented readers would find posts about oil reserves depletion or corn ethanol too present day pedestrian. I though they might find energy posts a distraction from reports about scientific research, human evolution, future societies, and other topics. But energy issues consistently get more reader comments than any other topic. Not what I expected at all.

HellKaiserRyo said at February 16, 2008 7:07 PM:

Computing power...

Do you think nanotubes will replace the current paradigm?

John said at February 16, 2008 7:52 PM:

I stop by pretty frequently, and I think the tech news combined with the psychology and sociology studies makes for an interesting combination. Maybe more posts on materials technology like graphene. I don't know if there's any info available, but I'd like to know how David Faiman's 10cm x 10cm solar cell absorbs so much heat without malfunctioning: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/01/25/faiman_negev_solar_plan/

Brian H said at February 16, 2008 7:56 PM:

I mentioned elsewhere on your site that you might like to investigate the work being done on Focus Fusion, a technique for forcing tiny "plasmoids" of boron11 and hydrogen to form and implode magnetically, producing C12, which dissociates in to a beam of H3 and electrons. The alpha (H3) beam is readily stripped of its energy by passing thru a solenoid, producing electricity directly; the electron beam feeds back in to heat the source plasma feeding the 1K or so "events" per second which the device uses to produce power. (Barely) adequate funding has now been obtained for validation and refinement (a few million $) and it is expected to reach practical/commercial status in 5 or 6 years. Check out focusfusion.org .

Brian H said at February 16, 2008 8:03 PM:

Erratum and other data:
"dissociates into..."

The device itself is a few inches on a side, plus some X-ray shielding/conversion layers, a few meters total diameter. A typical generation setup would be about home garage size, and generate ~20MW+, enough for a neighborhood or factory, or ship or submarine, etc. (Maybe even a plane? Spacecraft? A few tons is not excessive for that, IMO.)

Commercially, the operating and capital amortization costs (at about $300,000 per generator, declining with mass production) work out to about $0.001 / kwh, or about 2% of average minimum current costs for natural gas or coal.

Toadal said at February 16, 2008 9:19 PM:

I've read your columns about four years now and posted under various names. I've always enjoyed your research on life extension and agree with the philosophy of the individual taking an active, responsible role managing ones health. Recently while spending days researching pubmed and the web, I discovered studies and patients reporting astonishing results using curcumin. In the spirit of reciprocity I wanted to inform you and your readers.

Vincent said at February 16, 2008 10:19 PM:

Energy is important. If we ever want to really see the future, free and ubiquitous energy is absolutely essential to that.

But really, it's the psych stuff that really makes me think, and what I pass on to others.

TTT said at February 17, 2008 12:14 AM:

Randal,

You MUST do a consolidated, unified post on the nutritional/health benefits of various foods. It would have links to many of your other articles over the years, but serve as a consolidated resource that people could refer to. It would take the form of "Cauliflower helps prevent A, while tomatoes help prevent B, and cabbage helps prevent C".

That is what the readers need in order to understand which fruits and vegetables help what.

Rob Sperry said at February 17, 2008 12:31 AM:


On the first order writing about what you are most interested in is likely to produce the best results!

But since you asked, I'll do the second order:

One meta thing that always interests me is trend lines. I like Kurzweils graphs, but I don't see enough information like that, and from different sources and on a wider range of topics. With all the individual inventions and discoveries its hard to know what to expect, I think the long term trend lines are good ways to be grounded. So things like how fast is the cost of solar power coming down. Maybe this can be summed up as the economic projections of the future of technology.

AI is one of the technologies that gets a lot of play in future scenarios but where the ground level developments often don't match the vision. So more coverage of whats actually going on in this area would be good.

The most surprising of recently released 14 grand engineering challenges was "Advance personalized learning." I am just astonished when anyone recognizes education as a engineering problem. I have loved your coverage of fish oils, so this is maybe an expansion of that to what else can we do to improve effective human intelligence/problem solving abilities from instructional practices to meds.

your avid fan :)

James Bowery said at February 17, 2008 12:35 AM:

I've seen many references to "the cause" of oceanic "dead zones" being nutrients but this seems paradoxical:

Yes I know the story: nutrients create algae blooms which then die and decay thereby robbing the ocean of oxygen.

What I'm referring to as a seeming "paradox" is not only the fact that the base of the food chain is dramatically expanded by nutrients --
but that the organisms making up this foundation produce _oxygen_ from photosynthesis supporting algae grazers with both food _and_ oxygen.

Why don't the smaller, rapidly-reproducing zooplankton take up the gauntlet?

Virtually all of the articles I've read on hypoxic waters and dead zones fail to address this paradox. I've only read one paper that
mentioned even an _hypothesis_ of how algae grazers fail to flourish -- referring to algae species that protect themselves with toxins.
But this doesn't ring true: Why would the most pioneering of algae species be the most protective of themselves when there is so much
opportunity to evolve optimizations for growth rather than defense against grazers?

Jeff Bonwick said at February 17, 2008 3:15 AM:

It's all about energy.

Each year we spend $400 billion on defense, to arm ourselves.

And each year we spend $200 billion on oil, to arm our enemies.

Fixing that is the single greatest challenge of the next century. Islam without oil would be a curiosity, like the Amish. Islam with oil is a menace to civilization. Even the craziest ideas develop a following when the marketing budget is unlimited. We are funding our own destruction. It has to stop. Energy is the key.

odograph said at February 17, 2008 6:47 AM:

I can't remember, have you read Nassim Taleb ("Fooled by Randomenss" or "The Black Swan")? I very much value your site for "news of possible futures" but one thing I'm aware of (esp. after hanging with "forward looking groups" like peak oilers) is that there is a fuzzy curtain not so far ahead of us.

I can predict with confidence that flash memory devices will seem even cheaper a year from now, but I suspect that I won't care in three or five years because something else will have my attention.

It's kind of hard to post uncertainty, or a non-specific future, but I think it's needed now and then as a balance to the "scenarios" we construct.

(now i'll go back and read in more detail ;-)

odograph said at February 17, 2008 6:51 AM:

BTW, I think FuturePundit is good for being a "signposts" site rather than specifically a "scenario constructor." But you asked, and this is what I was thinking about this morning.

Randall Parker said at February 17, 2008 8:11 AM:

HellKaiserRyo,

I do expect nanotubes and similar nanodevices to come to dominate computing. But I have no idea when that'll happen and I do not understand the problems involved. I read a lot of press releases on advances made in manipulating nanodevices for computing. But when will these devices go into production?

When it comes to computers I understand computer software (I write Linux embedded in user space and drivers) and even some stuff about microprocessor architecture (I helped design a DSP instruction set for a processor now on the Cassini probe and I have assembly language orbiting Saturn as well). So I can talk about software. But I do not expect software to be that interesting to people.

Even without full sentience in an AI we are still getting better and better computer-based design tools every year. Maybe AI will just sneak up on us as a result of a very large number of incremental improvements done to existing software.

odograph,

Scenario construction versus signposts: Yes, I'm aware of the difference and shy away from scenarios mostly because they'll almost always be wrong. At the same time, it is hard to watch, for example, the series of sign posts on microfluidic devices and DNA testing costs and expect anything less than an enormous revolution in biotechnology in the next 30 years. Moore's Law is slow in comparison to the rate of advance in DNA sequencing technologies.

Though I think I ought to write up more scenarios so that people can more easily see the implications of some of the discoveries I report on. The scenarios aren't so much predictive as they are illustrative.

Jeff Bonwick,

Yes, funding Islam is a really bad idea. Islam is incompatible with free societies. It is an ugly truth that our elites do not want to face.

For the cost of the Iraq war we could have built hundreds of nukes, funded every researcher capable of making contributions in photovoltaics and batteries, and added hybrid tech to every car sold in America.

Think about the hybrid part of it. Take 16 million cars sold per year (granted lower this year) and say that hybrid capability costs $5000 per car (might be a little low but at that volume we'd get greater economies of scale). That's only $80 billion per year or about half the cost of the Iraq war per year (which is really much higher due to long term costs such as brain damaged soldiers due to concussions). Plus, we'd get back most of that money in the form of less oil purchased and oil purchased at a lower price.

Vincent,

Regarding the psych stuff: I see it as essential in the long run because it has 2 big implications:

1) We will be able to change human personality types and behavioral tendencies thru offspring genetic engineering. We might end up having wars between factions that have vastly different and incompatible values whose values differences are due to genetic engineering. John Alford has been researching genetic causes of political orientation for years. His results are very interesting:

As reported in this week's issue of "New Scientist" magazine, research by Rice University professor of political science John Alford indicates that what is on one's mind about politics may be influenced by how people are wired genetically.

Alford, who has researched this topic for a number of years, and his team analyzed data from political opinions of more than 12,000 twins in the United States and supplemented it with findings from twins in Australia. Alford found that identical twins were more likely to agree on political issues than were fraternal twins. On the issue of property taxes, for example, an astounding four-fifths of identical twins shared the same opinion, while only two-thirds of fraternal twins agreed.

"What we found was that it probably is going to take more than a persuasive television ad to change someone's mind on a certain political position or attitude," said Alford. "Individual genes for behaviors do not exist and no one denies that humans have the capacity to act against genetic predispositions. But predictably dissimilar correlations of social and political attitudes among people with greater and lesser shared genotypes suggest that behaviors are often shaped by forces of which the person themselves are not consciously aware."

2) Artificial Intelligence and what does it take to make AIs friendly toward humans? I find naive the libertarian view that the ability to reason can allow all reasoning entities to come to mutually agreed structures for society and peaceful co-existence. To design safe AIs (assuming that is even possible) we need to look at the structure of human emotions and the variations on human personalities to find out what makes human society possible. I do not believe that human society is simply the result of mutual agreement by reasoning entities. I think a great deal of it comes from instincts.

A general principle I use in my thinking about the future: We become more powerful in our ability to manipulate matter. With that greater power comes greater danger. Whatever it is about humans that make them dangerous is something we need to understand as an urgent matter for our survival.

Rob said at February 17, 2008 8:22 AM:

I'd like to see a bit of focus on intelligence increase. Also, how to turn ideas to money:)

357 said at February 17, 2008 10:34 AM:

I am amazed at your scope as it is. You manage to lucidly present research and ideas from across the spectrum and I have thoroughly enjoyed it. Yours is the site I've recommended to friends and relatives more than any other. So, please keep up the good work and, if you have the time or interest in it, maybe a bit more on getting humanity off the planet. Thanks for asking!

Bob Badour said at February 17, 2008 1:06 PM:

I would like to see more demographic and regional analysis.

What are the correlations between say insurance rates in various cities or states and intelligence, income, median age etc.

mercer said at February 17, 2008 2:12 PM:

I think you have two of the best blogs on the internet.
There is one potential good trend that I have not seen much information on: Is the falling of the dollar against the Euro and the Rupi had any effect on the outsourcing of white collar jobs(computer,accounting,etc.)? Have any companies decided to stop sending work to India or move jobs from the EU to the USA?
I read several economic sites where there is discussion of how currency exchange rates effects blue collar manufacturing jobs but little about white collar jobs.

JMG3Y said at February 17, 2008 3:20 PM:

Hmmm. Since you asked ( :-) ), one area that likely falls within your expertise is predictive modeling. The press has a lot about models and the predictions of models - IPCC climate change models, economic models predicting recession or the lack there of, infectious disease models predicting the spread of infectious agents such as H5N1, financial models that failed to capture the risk of bundling subprime real estate loans correctly and so on. And critiques of these - if they can't predict the weather very far out, how can they predict climate change even farther out, people being bankrupted because they thought their model gave them an edge on commodity speculation and so on. What are the insider stories behind all this?

What simulation models and open source modeling systems are available to the internet user and so on? What are people doing to bring Forrester's work into the internet age? For example, are people working on wiki-like versions to make them available to a wider audience? At one time, an initiative to get modeling into K-12 curriculums was underway but it required special proprietary software. The computer world must be full of interesting simulation models, the use of which would benefit interested internet users. Everyone has implicit predictive models about how their corner of the world works. Models of the physical world such as what happens if you jump off a swing at the peak to economic models such as what the price of gas is going to do, models of human behavior such as what makes a significant other happy and so on. Wiki-like models constructed by experts of complex phenomenon with all the lagged positive and negative feedbacks, ranges of uncertainty in the inputs and so on would enable people to check their implicit internal models against explicit models, particularly if they could see the effects of changing inputs and feedback relationships. People generally have a really hard time understanding the effects of probability and, due to cognitive limitations of our ancient brains, considering the effects of many inter-related factors on the outputs. Just as evolving digital technology and systems such as blogs and wikis are making information much more easily identifiable and accessible to everyone, the movement of simulation modeling into this realm might help many more people gain a better understanding of this very complex world that we live in, to improve their personal implicit models of the way their part of the world works and to collectively make better decisions. FWIW.

Randall Parker said at February 17, 2008 3:41 PM:

JMG3Y,

They can't predict long term climate changes. A planetary scientist (who unfortunately doesn't want to be quoted publically) told me the climate models are not really science because they have huge errors and are not predictive. He says science is predictive. You know things when you can predict.

The IPCC's models have some really big flaws. The biggest one is about future fossil fuels consumption. I believe we do not have as much oil and natural gas as the IPCC models assume. The biggest unknown in future CO2 emissions is on the question of coal reserves. Do we have enough coal to hit the CO2 emissions numbers in various IPCC scenarios? I do not know. I think the question of how much practically extractable coal we have remaining ought to be the biggest question in the climate debate.

I've thought of building some web pages that have really simple models in them for comparing, for example, source of energy for heating purposes and other models for showing, for example, how grain costs boost meat costs. I'd like to start small. I'm open to suggestion on what would be handy calculating web pages for modeling simpler scenarios.

RP said at February 17, 2008 7:35 PM:

I think "practically extractable" is a moving target. With oil at $150-200/bbl many things that are now silly will be come downright practical. Like this: http://www.energybulletin.net/11901.html.

Tim said at February 18, 2008 3:11 AM:

I would love you to do a follow up on: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ApoA-1_Milano. This was developed by a small company back in 2003. They published astonishing results; literaly removing plaque from arteries in a initial study of only a few weeks. Pfizer then bought the company and has been basically siting on it ever since.

Joe said at February 18, 2008 10:03 AM:

Hi,

Long time reader, years.

I tend to take an economic view of things, having that educational background. I'm thinking in terms of economic revolutions. Agrarian, industrial, transport, microcomputer, etc. My thinking now is that the $70 trillion in debt run-up by the government is going to leave the U.S. a failed state absent at least one major economic revolution in the next 20-30 years.

Alternative energy is not really a candidate. As a preliminary matter, it seems like that's a decade away, and always will be. But even if alt energy became economical today, the potential gains in productivity are limited. Put another way, alt energy is never going to become much more efficient (i.e. cheaper) than oil, just better in other ways.

I think a medical revolution (in the sense that the cost of medicine drops dramatically) is still 30-1000 years away. The real gains will come when large numbers of otherwise non-productive people (i.e. old people) can be efficiently turned into productive people (i.e. young people).

Robotics may be the only revolution that really has a chance to get the economic productivity gains necessary to save us. After all, if everyone was employed in maintaining, designing, and programming robots, per person output would skyrocket.

So.... I'd love to hear a bit more about what's going on in robotics. Where do you think it's going? How long until we get really subtle, versatile robots? Will biological components have a role (muscles, energy system?). What's the state of technology in robot "muscles", power supplies and methods, AI, and actual applications being tried in the private sector?

Thanks so much for all your work!

Joe

KevinM said at February 18, 2008 3:13 PM:

Really more for Para than Future:
http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200507/fallows
30 months have passed. Are his prediction too pessimistic, optimistic, or just right?

Also:
http://ap.google.com/article/ALeqM5hA5dUTyeCiSKpIJVm2VyDegLPQiQD8UQ9R5O0
The Gulf Stream as energy source. What would be the impact on the fisheries of the grand banks, or for that matter, the climate of NE Europe?

momochan said at February 19, 2008 1:48 PM:

I would like to echo Bob Badour's request for demographic analysis; I myself am most interested in comparing demographic trends among various countries of the world. What is going to happen next generation when China is the leading economic power and it has millions of men who have no hope of finding a wife (at least not locally)? Is it possible for countries like Japan and Italy to avoid disappearing from the map?

Bob Badour said at February 19, 2008 3:49 PM:

And I would like to echo Joe's "Thanks for much for all your work!"

Thank you very much!

David Tufte said at February 19, 2008 8:02 PM:

There was more stuff out this past month about cold fusion.

It probably isn't fusion, but what are we to make of this now that the experiments appear to be reproducible, and also are throwing off sub-atomic particles?

Also, anything new about chevrons out there?

Randall Parker said at February 19, 2008 8:29 PM:

momochan,

If Japan keeps a "No Welcome" sign to would-be immigrants then Japan can survive.

If Italy keeps letting in immigrants then Italy will cease to be Italian even though the peninsula will remain and lots of people will still live there.

I expect natural selection to eventually turn fertility rates back up again.

David Tufte,

Cold fusion: I ignore all that. I figure the odds are against it. Maybe some day. But I see other energy developments as far more certain. For example, the price of photovoltaics will fall low enough to become quite competitive in sunnier areas.

Matthew said at February 19, 2008 10:31 PM:

AGI is the missing subject, perhaps because so little is done on AGI.

Randall, as a software engineer, what is your opinion of these two AGI projects:

1) novamente
2) Peter voss (ai2I)

Are their any other persons with an AGI design? Wikipedia has a list, but only these two have companies with a clear vision (that I know of). I think their optimism is a delusion. Peter says 5 years, Goertzel 9. By these numbers I mean something good enough to appear on CNN or ABC news, etc at 5:30 in the evening. Could you imagine the response from the 'pro-life' crowd?

:P

Of course their is AGI 08' conference. IT would be funny if peter stopped by. You don't happen to actually know peter or ben personally or go to these transhuman type meetings? I don't, but I follow along on the net every once and awhile.

Randall Parker said at February 20, 2008 6:47 PM:

Matthew,

I got an invite with free pass to the AGI-08 meeting and if I only could manage to take a few days off from work right now I'd go. But I'm overloaded with work at the moment.

My take on big software advances tends to be more pessimistic precisely because I know how hard it all is to do. I expect AI will come from very large numbers of incremental steps done to solve immediate business needs. Attempts to take big steps won't work. That's only a guess on my part.

Matthew said at February 21, 2008 11:21 AM:

Yeah? Well it's surprising how much you post. For awhile I thought you were retired because how else could you be so productive? Keep it up.

Yep, AGI is the hardest of all. So how about posting about human intelligence more often and how to enhance it? Kurzweil was too optimistic here also. For example, augmented reality contact lenses are not even found in glasses yet. Simply imagine what life would be like with lenses that could overlay info easily over your every day reality. It's guaranteed to enhance human intelligence and make us a lot more productive and richer and more socially aware. Supposedly implants will be common - the nanotech kind - in 20 years, inside our minds. Why have implants? I want an exocortex! I want to download my dreams!

It seems even the most plausible pathways to augmented intelligence are at least a decade away. Well, except pharmaceutical intervention which will be delayed by bioethics and the FDA. A key question is how to enhance general intelligence (or the g factor) rather than sub areas like short term memeory or verbal recall, etc, without the drawbacks of harming other areas linked to intelligence.

Be on the look out for technologies and techniques that enhance IQ. This is something I would to study...I wonder if my school at UTD would support me. hmmm.


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