Monthly Archives: december 2018

The future …. coming soon

By | Algemeen | No Comments

The future is approaching much faster than we realize.

The most spectacular manifestation of an accelerating trend is when its progression becomes exponential or more. An exponential progression is clearly unsustainable in the real world reaching very quickly a collapse point of the underlying process. In case of accelerating technological development, the collapse point is generally identified with the so called Singularity, caused by the rise of self-improving Artificial Intelligence.

The technological singularity corresponds to the time when ordinary humans will be overtaken by artificially intelligent machines and/or cognitively enhanced biological intelligence. It will be the advent of artificial general intelligence (also known as strong AI). Such a singularity in human history will have far-reaching consequences so much so that -our understanding of what it means to be human- to be an individual, to be alive, to be conscious, to be part of the social order – all this would be thrown into question, not by detached philosophical reflection, but through force of circumstances, real and present. Artificial intelligence (AI) is overtaking our human ability to absorb and process information. Robots are becoming increasingly dextrous, flexible, and safe to be around (except the military ones). The advent of super artificial intelligence (or artificial general intelligence), a real intelligence not just equal to but greater than our own. An intelligence that can act on massive volumes of data at a speed that no human can match. Nobody knows the consequences of this turning point – or when it will happen, if ever – but this is probably an issue for the next generation and outside the scope of today’s pressing issues. But you just never know.

This technological singularity is a game-changer, but what happens when there are more singularities?

Taking a wider look of what is going on with us and our planet we could say that there are various singularities that are lining up and coming our way. This is not good news and, besides the intrinsic risk represented by accelerating trends, the significance of what is about to happen is very profound.

Echoing the changes that the technological singularity will impose upon humans, an ecological singularity could be defined as period in time or the event, when our (growing) capacity to solve the totality of the anthropogenic problems is superseded by the volume of the (growing) totality of the anthropogenic problems. The precise date is of course difficult to forecast but it looks inevitable. Beside climate change, loss of primary tropical forests, resources consumption, etc. the loss of biodiversity is reaching an unstoppable and unbelievable rate showing that we are in the middle of a mass extinction. This mass extinction has been already named as the Permian extinction which will be the sixth global mass extinction in the history of our planet and one of the most severe. We are approaching a collapse point of the ecosystem beyond which we cannot predict what will happen. Many negative feedbacks will trigger self-feeding loops impossible to control. At that point we will hit the Ecological Singularity.

The old lengthy natural process of waiting for random changes to be tested by natural selection in order to become permanent features of living beings will be shortly replaced in human beings by technology through genetic modifications and technological augmentations of our bodies and minds. Changes will no longer be random, they will be planned to serve a purpose and the process will become proactive and not reactive, making it billion of times more efficient and faster. As technology accelerates dragging everything with it, we will have to also change in order to keep up. This process constitutes an accelerating feedback loop; the more technology improves, the more we improve our capabilities creating better technology which, in return, will be used to improve us even more. Technology is incompatible with the way we have been living until now and as it accelerates we will have to adapt faster and faster to the new environment. Failure will result in extinction. We are on the verge of an epochal transition; we are passing from an era driven by Natural Evolution to an era driven by Artificial Evolution and, at the transition point, we will encounter a Evolutionary Singularity.

The orthodox economic model at the foundation of the modern society is based on continuous indefinite growth and on an ever increasing supply of energy and resources. As a matter of fact the world economy has been growing at steady level of 3% per year on average. This constant 3% steady growth could appear not much but this impression is wrong; growing at this rate we will need about 5 planets to support our civilization by 2050. The classical economic model is clearly unsustainable and it will hit various hard constraints in the near future due to limited resources, increasingly impacting the planet and the collapsing ecosystems. As it is, the world is consuming resources at an unsustainable rate.

AI will drive unprecedented changes to the structure of employment — changes that will have lasting effects on every society. How smooth or disruptive this will be is up to us: industry, politics, research and education. Beside the hard limitations there are many other disruptive forces at work that risk to destabilize the entire economic model. One of the most relevant is the rising of a new economy based on zero marginal cost enabled by the new technologies and internet. Various industries have been revolutionized already with massive corporations being crippled because they couldn’t adapt to changes occurring too fast. From the music industry, to photography and telecommunications we have already seen a disruptive revolution with costs approaching near zero for the end consumer. The next step will be the sharing of goods, properties and assets, such as self-driving cars and the distributed generation of electricity. In parallel, virtual currencies are making their way to the global scene having the potential to replace conventional currencies revolutionizing the economy from within. Technological unemployment will be another powerful disruptor of our economic model considering the enormous possibilities of narrow AI and robotics. The continuous increase of life duration and the consequent number of aging people, combined with the technological unemployment, will bring the collapse of social welfare systems across the world. All of these elements influence each other and will occur simultaneously causing an accelerating rate of change of great complexity leading to a singularity, the Economic Singularity.

We are approaching a fundamental step in the evolution of our civilization, an evolutionary jump that probably only few civilizations in the universe managed to overcome. Should we be afraid? No, but we should be aware. We don’t know where this adventure will take us but, one thing is sure, with a business as usual approach we will go nowhere. We must instead acknowledge that we now exist in an ecosystem of disruptive singularities and we must evolve and update if we are going to be capable of navigating these transformative impacts. It should encourage us to imagine—even demand that we imagine—a different but possible future. It is incumbent that we do not sleepwalk into a crisis. But imagine if we manage to go through it ….

It is bad enough as it is, but are we not just treating the symptoms …

By | Algemeen | No Comments

The massive transformation enacted by humanity is also why our geological era, which is akin to the operating system on which the living world depends, recently had its name updated to the anthropocene – the age of humanity. So what is the path forward? The necessary solutions for ensuring that our children enjoy healthy and abundant natural habitats are not simple. But one thing is certain. For humanity to head in the right direction, we must take a closer look at what is around us. We cannot count on the blind leading the blind.

The Anthropocene represents the beginning of a very rapid human-driven trajectory of the Earth System away from the glacial– interglacial limit cycle toward new, hotter climatic conditions and a profoundly different biosphere. The current position, at over 1 °C above a preindustrial baseline, is nearing the upper envelope of interglacial conditions over the past 1.2 million years. More importantly, the rapid trajectory of the climate system over the past half century along with technological lock in and socioeconomic inertia in human systems commit the climate system to conditions beyond the envelope of past interglacial conditions. Therefore, it is possible the Earth System may already have passed one ‘fork in the road’, a bifurcation with potentially many trajectories , often represented by the large range of global temperature rises simulated by climate models.

In most analyses, these trajectories are largely driven by the amount of greenhouse gases that human activities have already emitted and will continue to emit into the atmosphere over the rest of this century and beyond—with a presumed quasilinear relationship between cumulative carbon dioxide emissions and global temperature rise. However, biogeophysical feedback processes within the Earth System coupled with direct human degradation of the biosphere, may play a more important role than normally assumed, limiting the range of potential future trajectories and potentially eliminating the possibility of the intermediate trajectories. There is a significant risk that these internal dynamics, especially strong nonlinearities in feedback processes, could become an important or perhaps, even dominant factor in steering the trajectory that the Earth System actually follows over coming centuries.

The trajectory of the Earth System is influenced by biogeophysical feedbacks within the system that can maintain it in a given state (negative feedbacks) and those that can amplify a perturbation and drive a transition to a different state (positive feedbacks). Some of the key negative feedbacks that could maintain the Earth System in Holocene-like conditions— notably, carbon uptake by land and ocean systems—are weakening relative to human forcing, increasing the risk that positive feedbacks could play an important role in determining the Earth System’s trajectory.

Beyond the threshold of 2 °C above preindustrial temperature this intrinsic biogeophysical feedbacks in the Earth System could become the dominant processes controlling the system’s trajectory. Precisely where a potential planetary threshold might be is uncertain. The 2 °C warming could activate important tipping elements, raising the temperature further to activate other tipping elements in a domino-like cascade that could take the Earth System to even higher temperatures (Tipping Cascades). Such cascades comprise, in essence, the dynamical process that leads to thresholds in complex systems. This analysis implies that, even if the Paris Accord target of a 1.5 °C to 2.0 °C rise in temperature is met, we cannot exclude the risk that a cascade of feedbacks could push the Earth System irreversibly onto a ‘Hothouse Earth’ pathway.

A critical issue is that, if a planetary threshold is crossed toward the Hothouse Earth pathway, accessing the Stabilized Earth pathway would become very difficult no matter what actions human societies might take. Beyond the threshold, positive (reinforcing) feedbacks within the Earth System —outside of human influence or control— could become the dominant driver of the system’s pathway, as individual tipping elements create linked cascades through time and with rising temperature.

It is bad enough as it is, but are we not just treating the symptoms …

The discourse around climate change, is about the metric buzzwords – carbon, greenhouse, emissions, temperature, alternative energy etc. Is it possible that in the debate around measuring what’s happening and how badly it’s happening, we have been distracted from a true root cause of ecological crisis?

What is typically measured is that which serves the economic and political interests, and unconscious biases, of those who commission the measurements. The conventional climate discourse is heavily influenced by a geo-mechanical view of the world. From that view, fixing the planet becomes a matter of tweaking the atmospheric gas composition. When we focus on quantifiable metrics of the climate problem, we may be led to believe that the control of these metrics brings us closer to planetary safety or even healing, when in fact, the root cause drivers of ecological destruction remain active.

In the dominant climate change narrative, humans are an external force driving change to the Earth System in a largely linear, deterministic way; the higher the forcing in terms of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, the higher the global average temperature. Human societies and our activities need to be recast as an integral, interacting component of a complex, adaptive Earth System. This framing puts the focus not only on human system dynamics that reduce greenhouse gas emissions but also on those that create or enhance negative feedbacks that reduce the risk that the Earth System will cross a planetary threshold and lock into a Hothouse Earth pathway.

Humanity’s challenge then is to influence the dynamical properties of the Earth System in such a way that the emerging unstable conditions in the zone between the Holocene and a very hot state become a de facto stable intermediate state.

This requires that humans take deliberate, integral, and adaptive steps to reduce dangerous impacts on the Earth System, effectively monitoring and changing behavior to form feedback loops that stabilize this intermediate state. There is much uncertainty and debate about how this can be done—technically, ethically, equitably, and economically—and there is no doubt that the normative, policy, and institutional aspects are highly challenging. Societies could take a wide range of actions that constitute negative feedbacks, to steer the Earth System toward Stabilized Earth.

While reducing emissions is a priority, much more must be done to reduce direct human pressures on critical biomes that contribute to the regulation of the state of the Earth System through carbon sinks and moisture feedbacks, such as the Amazon and boreal forests, and to build much more effective stewardship of the marine and terrestrial biospheres in general. The present dominant socioeconomic system, however, is based on high-carbon economic growth and exploitative resource use. Attempts to modify this system have met with some success locally but little success globally in reducing greenhouse gas emissions or building more effective stewardship of the biosphere.

Incremental linear changes to the present socioeconomic system are not enough to stabilize the Earth System. Widespread, rapid, and fundamental transformations will likely be required to reduce the risk of crossing the threshold and locking in the Hothouse Earth pathway; these include changes in behavior, technology and innovation, governance, and values.

In addition to institutional and social innovation at the global governance level, changes in demographics, consumption, behavior, attitudes, education, institutions, and socially embedded technologies are all important to maximize the chances of achieving a Stabilized Earth pathway.

Ultimately, the transformations necessary to achieve the Stabilized Earth pathway require a fundamental reorientation and restructuring of national and international institutions toward more effective governance at the Earth System level, with a much stronger emphasis on planetary concerns in economic governance, global trade, investments and finance, and technological development. And even if world leaders somehow got their act together, significant and dangerous levels of warming are still inevitable, baked into the system from all the carbon dioxide that has already been dumped. There’s a time lag between carbon dioxide increase and subsequent effects, between the wind we sow and the whirlwind we reap. Barring a miracle, the next 20 years are going to see increasingly chaotic systemic transformation in global climate patterns, unpredictable biological adaptation and a wild spectrum of human political and economic responses, including scapegoating and war. The middle and later decades of the 21st century — my grandchildren’s adult life’s — promise as it looks like at the moment a global catastrophe whose full implications any reasonable person must turn away from in horror. Society is not simply an aggregate of millions or billions of individual choices but a complex, recursive dynamic in which choices are made within institutions and ideologies that change over time as these choices feed back into the structures that frame what we consider possible. All the while, those structures are being disrupted and nudged and warped and shaken by countless internal and external drivers, including environmental factors such as global warming, material and social innovation, and the occasional widespread panic. We choose from possible options, not ex nihilo.

Our (grand)children will not face the choices we face. They won’t have the opportunities we now have for action. They’ll confront a range of outcomes whose limits were determined by the choices we made. Yet while some degree of warming now appears inevitable, the range of possible outcomes over the next century is wide enough and the worst outcomes extreme enough that there is some narrow hope that revolutionary socio-economic transformation today might save billions of human lives and preserve global civilization as we know it in more or less recognizable form

This requires a fundamental change in the role of humans on the planet: a deliberate and sustained action to become an integral, adaptive part of Earth System dynamics, creating feedbacks that keep the system on a Stabilized Earth.