Showing posts with label the future. Show all posts
Showing posts with label the future. Show all posts

Sunday, May 30, 2021

WWCF: First Contact

Which will come first?

Aliens Contact Us


We Contact Aliens

How quickly you dismiss this question on its very premises is interesting in itself. Let's start with the basic assumption that there have been, are, or will be aliens (intelligent life with origins beyond Earth). Now that we have that out of the way . . .

Where are you on the Fermi Paradox and The Great Filter? For this question to have meaning we have to additionally assume it is actionable because there will be a determination of contact made. So . . . 

Here are the terms:

Aliens contacting us would include the obvious spaceship lands on the White House lawn, but also signals deliberately sent that we detect/decipher even if they are not aimed directly for us. Add to this discoveries of artifacts here on Earth of past alien civilizations if those were exploratory or communicative in nature. So a deliberate message sent by aliens and received by us through passive discovery or active looking by us is the first condition met.

The second condition, that we make first contact, seemingly has a lot of hurdle to it. We have to discover aliens keeping to themselves to the extent they don't find us and make contact or we see one of their signals sent out prospectively, and then we make the first engaging move. Yet there is another way. If our signals we have been sending out unintentionally/sloppily since the time we have been aware that we've been transmitting to the cosmos or sending out deliberately to "is there anybody out there?" are received by aliens, then we have made first contact. Another feather in the cap of us first is what qualifies as "intelligent" life. While I am open to revision, right now I would allow anything at or above the minimum threshold of animal cognition. So Martian mice count, but Martian bacteria do not. As impressive as space monkeys would be, there is no chance they contact us first.

Robin Hanson has already been putting in the heavy lifting on this one. And don't tell me that it is already settled--dis ain't ova

My prediction: Perhaps I allow the Fermi Paradox to overly influence me or perhaps I'm too optimistic in regards to The Great Filter. Nevertheless, I come down on the side of the second case, we contact aliens first. To this I will assign a respectable but still negotiable 65% probability.

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Failure Due to a Lack of Imagination

How can you possibly have this without that

How can we have great TV without commercials that are viewed? 
Journalism without newspapers? 
Lending without banks? 
Currency without gold backing government issuance? 
Meat without slaughtered animals? 
Cars without gas? 
Cars without drivers? 
Mail delivery without a U.S. Postal Service?

If the demand for X is there, supply will come. The specific means of supply are almost always sufficient but not necessary. In fact the means of supply are constantly shifting and fleeting as competition makes sand of once sturdy foundations. 

This is all for the better for society no matter the temporary pain specific producers must endure. We hold back change, question new developments, innovations, and techniques, and stifle entrepreneurial exploration all for lack of imagination and faith in the process. 

It is not just regulation where government is aiding the bootlegging vested interests at the behest of the Baptist worriers. We see slow adoption and disapproving dismissal throughout society--all the way from concept to highly proven result.

Yes, there is another side to this. Chesterton's Fence is an important force for good. But it is just a starting point in the conversation about change asking us to slow down and consider what we may not fully understand. It is not an ironclad rule that change must be bad. And it fades from being relevant as those with the most at stake and who are the most involved are the ones leading the way for change.

Friday, May 14, 2021

Being Nostalgic for the Future

Nostalgia is not a fond memory of an accurate past. Rather it is either fond memories of being young, good moments taken out of perspective (over emphasized), or a mythologized history that is not based on fact. 

As the philosopher Billy Joel told us, “…
Cause the good ole days weren't always good, and tomorrow ain't as bad as it seems…”.

Put another way and paraphrasing the historian Austin Powers: As much as we might want the future to resemble a fictional past that we are nostalgic for, that is just not in the cards, baby. 

A much more productive and healthy mindset is to be excited about what the future will bring. Think past technological advancements, as great as they should be. The cultural developments will be splendid. 

If we can just get out of its way, there awaits us a brilliant future eager to get here. 

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

The Future of Education Post COVID-19

Tyler Cowen pointed to this “debate”, which I was a bit disappointed in for being too much an untethered discussion. Tyler’s portion I found more meaningful, but still it didn’t do much to advance my thinking.

Since they didn’t really have an objective topic, I guess I shouldn’t be too critical. But I find that a lot of the recent thinking on how things will change in the age of COVID-19 to be like this—not very deep, a combination of wish list and fear. My own view is an attempt at nuance between "most things will change very little" (we will snap back to prior norms) and "this epoch event has accelerated by multiple years that which was already underway" (e.g., teleworking just leapt forward at least 5 years along the prior trendline). To be clear I think holding both views is the best prediction--that is the nuance. Not a lot will change, but that which was already changing has been accelerated. 

Here are some of my thoughts regarding changes in education (both what was already happening and how they have accelerated) as well as the obstacles faced (incumbents and traditionalists don’t go down without a fight).

Elementary and High School

  • The major role of babysitting that school plays for many families has been shown to be replaceable. Schools aren’t as essential as previously imagined.
  • While the pandemic-induced schooling-from-home experience was miserable for most of us forced into it, schooling from home was already widely assumed to be awful. Now many are probably seeing arrangements other than traditional school as decent substitutes.
  • Much of what kids do in elementary school has little to no benefit for them. This is likely much more widely realized or at least considered as parents got a more up-close look at their kids “learning”.
  • For the kids trapped in poor schools, online and other arrangements now look like realistic improvements.
  • Teachers and schools that cannot provide good online options and flexibility have been considerably exposed.
  • For students old enough to not need babysitting and for those capable of learning outside of the regimented classroom (perhaps a large majority of students are in this latter category), questioning the necessity of a 7 to 8-hour daily routine is rising.
  • Unions and bureaucracies will be as formidable obstacles to change. However, they have a conundrum: teachers, administrators, and parents are afraid of the risk of infection. All of this pushes for alternative options to be explored, which drive experimentation toward alternatives that threaten the existing power structure.
  • Status quo bias/inertia are also obstacles. People tend to be very traditional when it comes to choices for their children. It is hard for them to wrap their heads around questioning the conventional wisdom narrative of school as we know it--especially government school.
Higher Education

For higher education I think we should solve for the equilibrium and use a typical university, the University of Oklahoma, as an example.

  • Although non-profits are insulated from market forces, they are still subject to the strength of the underlying economy on which they draw resources as well as the philosophical support of those in power. For universities those in power includes donors, alumni, legislators, employers of graduates, purchasers of research, and the public zeitgeist. So where are these headed? Saying that expectations will be to do more with less is a considerable understatement. Donor money and state funding will be much lower for a long time. However, desires/demands of universities will continue with smaller changes in overall goals. We will continue to virtue-signal about college-education being great hope for the future. So….
  • How does OU do more with less? By outsourcing what is not in their core competency. Why would we have students show up in a gigantic auditorium to watch a professor repeat a lecture he has given every semester for a decade plus? What is the value in having everyone in that room squinting at the board from the back rows and trying to avoid the inherent, multiple distractions? Can’t that be done online without the risk of infection? And once you realize that it can, it is just one more step to realize not each and every university need duplicate the tasks. Rather have grad students available to perform office hours and optional workshops. What is the point in offering the ~100th best programs in this, that, and the other? Partner with other universities for those services especially the undergrad basics. Specialize in only that where there is comparative advantage. For OU that might be areas like petroleum engineering, social networking, and football.
  • Social networking? Yes, with one of the biggest/best Greek life systems in all of higher ed, OU is among those that offer this feature. Even if the benefit is only perceived rather than real, perception matters to consumers. Drinking Gatorade doesn’t make you a better athlete.
  • And football? Yes, the football team is a source of revenue and marketing for the university. OU is great at it. And OU is in a much better position than most now that paying football players for their value contribution is rightfully (finally) trending to be the reality.
  • Thinking more of the general case, these trends lead to barbell effects: niche schools (elite quality where average is very much over) and enormous diploma-producing machines (economies of scale). While this is probably a trend within the realms of both undergraduate and advanced degree programs, it is more so a trend between these levels because . . .
  • The line between high school and undergraduate college will blur greatly while the line between undergraduate and graduate work will likely sharpen. This latter division will resemble the distinction that once existed between high school and major university such that grad school becomes the new, true higher education. 
  • Universities need to maintain their status (true in either the human capital model or the signaling model). To do so will require some exclusivity, which I think comes mostly at the entrance process to grad school--getting accepted to graduate programs becomes much more difficult. 
  • What happens to research? More rent-a-lab, rent-a-brain with corporate interests outsourcing to universities more than ever and universities renting away these resources. 
  • Obstacles? The same forces as above are at work against change here, and they are probably more powerful. But the stakes are higher and the willingness to experiment is probably higher too.
  • The major universities aren't going away, but they may be transforming so much that what emerges over the next ten years is vastly different from what we've known for so long. Imagine "going to" a major university, but not directly taking but a few classes there until upper-division-level work.
P.S., John Cochrane had two great posts recently on this topic (here and here).

Sunday, March 16, 2014

WWCF: Robot Surgeons or Robot Firefighters?

Which will come first?

Autonomous Robot Surgeons


Autonomous Robot Firefighters

Here the critical consideration is autonomous. Robot-like machines today assist in surgery and firefighting. But they are guided by set routines and humans running remote controls. And while there are autonomous elements to these actions, we are not yet to the point where we need to insure Asimov's three rules are being followed. With surgery it will probably be harder to define when that line is crossed. The simple concept would be turning the power switch to "On" and telling the robot, respectively, remove this patient's appendix or go into that building to find any trapped people.

Obviously, we need a high level of comfort that the robot is up to the job. So perhaps the desire for robot autonomy in these cases comes down to figuring out where the benefits from autonomy are greatest relative to the costs. At first blush the benefit would seem highest in the somewhat random and uncontrolled environment of a fire. Likewise the cost would seem to be lowest--if the robot fails to get you out of the towering inferno where no human could have saved you anyway, the opportunity cost is nil, but not so for a robot botching your nose job. But it is not just the cost of robot error that is a factor. The surgery robot can be reused over and over. The firefighting robot may have a much shorter use life. Recent developments are taking this point into consideration.  

Critical still is what I'll term the "devil you know" factor. Surgery may not always be elective, but generally the patient does exert some discretion as to who performs it. And firefighting technology doesn't have to pass through the death-causing gauntlet that is the FDA. The discussion below this post indicates these issues well.

My guess is that we are 10-20 years away from these technologies, which actually seems close I think. I'll give a slight edge to robot firefighters largely driven by the devil you know factor slowing robot surgery down.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords

This article (HT: Tyler Cowen) got me to thinking about the coming dystopia where the robots take our jobs, eat us, etc. As bad as it will be, we are bound and determined to bring on the singularity . . . So, what to do about it or rather how to do it right?

What if we put sufficient distance between us and the new life form and shrouded its creation in enough mystery that they wouldn't come looking for us? And what if we still had some method of observing them unbeknownst to them and perhaps an ability to interact in their world--affect change here and there? Not a lot, just when they needed a miracle or a little sign they weren't alone.

Yes, this isn't exactly what the singularity is all about, but I'm just spitballing here.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

WWCF: Solar power or passive heating and cooling systems?

Which will come first?

Economical solar power
Economical passive heating and cooling systems

The key here is the leading term economical. It is not enough to develop the technology--especially not in simply a proof of concept form. We are interested in when we can truly use these technologies. In some limited cases we are already there for both types, but those are indeed limited. The essence of this puzzle is when can we expect to see these things widespread including in average households. And while these are related in many cases, I don't think I'm splitting hairs here to make the distinction.

A passive heating and cooling system (or either one alone to satisfy the achievement) would be something akin to geothermal but not necessarily limited to such. The roof and attic of my house are exceptionally hot in the summer. Once the sun goes down, my attic cools a lot faster than my garage because the soffits work air through the attic accelerating cooling. There is an opportunity in this greenhouse effect. Similarly, my brother's basement has a more moderate climate (albeit more humid) than the ground floor and upstairs of his house. To qualify a passive system would rely on a minimal amount of catalytic energy to initiate a system that would use these energy properties to the effect of a desired cooling or heating result. To be clear, using my attic heat in the summer to run a generator to cool my house counts.

Solar is the great, green hope. The power the sun rains down on us continually during the day, which is obviously a big impediment to solar energy, is fountain of youth and El Dorado all rolled into one. The future society that can economically use this energy will be quite rich. It is important to note that the there is a bit of chicken and egg here as the society may be rich enough to develop the technology as much so as the technology makes that society rich.

The trends in the economics of geothermal look less favorable as compared to solar (note: the links here are not supposed to be a comprehensive look at the economic trends affecting these technologies). Geothermal capital costs are exceptionally high since the target tends to be on the large scale as opposed to the household level. In the larger consideration of all passive-type, non-solar solutions, many of those potential technologies probably fall into the category of those in need of a happy accident (we aren't specifically looking for these breakthroughs). Because solar is thought of and more so developed for the individual end user, that probably gives it the edge in this WWCF. The other leading factor is that solar is a more politically attractive cause resulting in a lot more "investment" using the best kind of money, OPM. 

My guess is that solar edges out passive systems by less than a decade, but both are 30+ years away. The standard error is large in these estimates; so I have very little confidence in my guess about solar winning. I'm sure others have a firmer grip on this, and I will follow up with new information as I discover it. 

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The value of authenticity

Business Insider has an article about a new technology, 3D printing that replicates paintings, and the implications are interesting. The article focuses a lot on worries that the technology will threaten the art market. These concerns are misplaced for at least three reasons.

First and foremost, the ability to more easily satisfy demand for fine art including "priceless" masterpieces is a feature not a bug. Certainly those who have invested in art will be worse off in direct proportion to the magnitude that this new technology offers a good substitute. But that is simply a transfer from those who own the art to those who would like to own the art. We would have that same effect if we simply took the art from the current owner and gave it to someone who wanted it. But where that property-rights violating transfer probably is utility reducing since the one who loses the art probably valued it more than the one who received the art, this technology is utility enhancing since it creates value on net. The owner still has the art. Someone who values it for less than the current owner wished to relinquish it prior to the technology's advent now has greater access to it--the price of purchasing the art is lower and hence may now be in reach. And others can enjoy the art by replication in a way not previously possible.

We would see the same effect if we stumbled upon a second Mona Lisa truly painted by Leonardo da Vinci. The Louvre might be upset, but the world would gain a second painting of artistic value. The loss in value to the first would be more than displaced by the gain of now having a second.

Second, the value of art is inherently the value of the creation, not simply the monetized utility of those who yield satisfaction from owning, viewing, possessing, etc. the art. Great art has value even if no one is around to appreciate it. The most popular band is not necessarily the band with the best musical artistry. The best food is not made and could not be made for mass consumption. There really is something to expert opinion on matters artistic rather than appeal to popularity--the so called ad populum fallacy. Unfortunately for those in the business of art and art investment, this technology serves to decouple somewhat the artistic appreciation from the financial appreciation.

Third, having more art more widespread enhances us culturally. The promise of this technology advances the football considerably. Greater availability and exposure means more minds can appreciate, admire, and aspire. The economies of scale are the initial effect. The substantial secondary effect is to deepen the market for art. Music is more widespread today than ever by orders of magnitude. At the same time music appreciation, depth, quality, and variety are greater than ever and growing at a compounding rate.

The lesson here is that sharing and duplication continues to be the future. Only the selfish suffer.

It is also interesting how this technology will serve to clarify the value of authenticity. We will now be better able to see how much the average patron really likes a particular painting versus how much the average patron really likes authenticity. We might also learn a lot about how popular certain artists and works are removed from the rarity via authenticity of the work itself--for example, how many people will be hanging Picassos in the living room? And if no one really likes to look at a particular work, does that imply a change in value? I've thought for some time that a future with machines building mastercrafted furniture, art, clothing, etc. will create a world where the truly old and authentic takes on heightened meaning. But a counter force to this is not just how much easier and cheaper it is to preserve antiques (both yesterday's and tomorrow's). It is more strongly how uninteresting authentic may become when everything old is new again.