What We Talk About When We Talk About the Future

Here are two graphs I made with Google’s Ngram Viewer. The graphs show how frequently a number of future-related terms occur in the more than 100 billion words of Google Books’ English-language corpus from 1950-2008. The charts are moderately smoothed to highlight longer-term trends. Although these terms are not all completely comparable with one another, the relative frequency of broad popular phrases like these tells us a lot about what’s on our collective mind.

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    1. Frequency of promising technology terms in the English-language Google Books corpus from 1950-2008.

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What’s at Stake for the World in Ukraine

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The US and Russia keep nearly 2000 strategic nuclear weapons deployed and ready to launch. Modern strategic nuclear weapons generally have much larger yields than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A single nuclear warhead has easily enough explosive power to destroy a city and kill millions. An exchange of 100 of these weapons—which would be devastating in itself—would kick enough soot into the atmosphere to disrupt the global climate and cause a worldwide famine. A more total conflict between the US and Russia could threaten the survival of the human race and of life on Earth more generally.

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Have We Reached the Limits to Growth?

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Dire Warnings

In 1967, William and Paul Paddock’s best-selling book Famine 1975! argued that stagnant agricultural productivity and growing populations would mean abandoning countries like Egypt and Haiti to starvation by the middle of the next decade. (1) In 1968, Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich’s book The Population Bomb—another bestseller—warned that overpopulation would soon lead to starvation and social upheaval on an enormous scale. (2) In all caps on the cover, just under the title, were the words, “WHILE YOU ARE READING THESE WORDS FOUR PEOPLE WILL HAVE DIED OF STARVATION. MOST OF THEM CHILDREN.”

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December 2013 News

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Russian President Vladimir Putin told senior Russian officials that long-range conventional high- precision weapons could provide an alternative to nuclear deterrence. Long-range conventional weapons give Russia a conventional means of striking discrete targets quickly anywhere in the world. But conventional ballistic missiles could carry the same danger of escalation as nuclear weapons, since they are difficult to distinguish from nuclear weapons once they have been launched. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin also reiterated that Russia might retaliate with nuclear weapons if it were attacked with conventional weapons.

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November 2013 News

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Iran reached a deal with China, France, Germany, Russia, the UK, the US to temporarily limit the amount of uranium it enriches. Iran agreed for the next six months to stop production and dilute its stock of highly-enriched uranium, to stop installing new centrifuges, to stop work on a heavy-water reactor capable of producing plutonium, and to allow greater oversight from the International Atomic Energy Agency. In exchange, the six other states agreed to ease trade sanctions and unfreeze around $4 billion of revenue from Iranian oil sales held in overseas accounts. Other sanctions against Iranian oil and banking interests would remain in place. The deal is intended to be a first step toward comprehensive, long-term agreement. An arms race in the Middle East would complicate other global issues and could escalate into a larger conflict. Former US Defense Undersecretary Walter Slocombe said a fundamental change in Iranian nuclear policy would make Congress less likely to finance the anti-missile program that is a major point of contention between the US and Russia. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the deal didn’t go far enough to limit Iran’s nuclear program and called it “a historic mistake”. But it’s not clear Netanyahu would be willing to accept any deal with the current Iranian regime.

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October 2013 News

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The US federal government shut down for 16 days when Congress failed to authorize funds for the 2014 fiscal year. The Centers for Disease Control furloughed two-thirds of its employees, which left it without enough staff to monitor safety procedures at high-security biolabs, watch for outbreaks of potential pandemics, or respond to a major public health emergency. During the shutdown 338 people in 18 states became ill with antibiotic-resistant Salmonella from contaminated chicken. “If there is an outbreak of something like Legionella pneumonia, we may not detect it, we may not find it, we may not stop it,” CDC Director Thomas Frieden warned when the shutdown began. “If there is an outbreak of foodborne illness that affects people in multiple states, we may not identify it properly.”

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September 2013 News

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The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report concluded after reviewing 9,200 peer-reviewed studies that there’s at least a 95% chance that global warming is primarily caused by human activities. The IPCC said in its 2007 report that there was a 90% chance global warming was caused by humans, but alternate explanations for climate change have been ruled out since then. The IPCC found that the global mean surface temperature has increased an average of 0.12 °C a decade since 1951. The report said that the evidence for the long-term warming trend is robust and attributed the fact that the mean global surface temperature has grown somewhat more slowly in recent years to natural variability caused in part by a strong El Niño in 1998. A number of recent studies have suggested that the deep oceans may temporarily be absorbing more heat as part of natural decadal climate cycle. The IPCC report found that sea levels have risen 19 cm since 1901 and that the pH of ocean water has decreased by a tenth of point—corresponding to a 26% increase in the concentration of hydrogen ions—since the before the Industrial Revolution. The report estimated that in order to have a 66% chance of limiting the global temperature change to less than 2° C we would have to limit total carbon dioxide emissions to about 1000 gigatons of carbon. As of 2011, about 531 gigatons of carbon had already been emitted. Burning all the fossil fuels in known reserves would release around 2,800 more gigatons of carbon.

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August 2013 News

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California governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency for San Francisco County when a large wildfire on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains threatened to disrupt public utilities. Two of the three hydroelectric power stations in the region were forced to shut down. San Francisco also gets 85% of its water from the nearby Hetch Hetchy reservoir. Most of the western US is in drought and the recent increase in the number and severity of wildfires may be partly the result of climate change. Leia Guccione and James Sherwood argued that communities with smart microgrids stand the best chance of surviving a catastrophe:

Without human beings around to perform certain routine tasks, the electricity system will quickly cease to function. In regions dependent on fossil fuels for electricity generation (i.e. the entire US), power plants will shut down, or “trip,” within 24 hours (or less) without continuous fuel supply. As soon as one plant trips offline, voltage at various points along the transmission system will drop below preset thresholds, spurring a domino effect as automated protection devices kick in and disconnect additional sections of the network. This cascade of trips would bring the system to a standstill, and a blackout would ensue.

Electrical infrastructure could be damaged by a fire, a hurricane, or a geomagnetic solar storm—like the 1859 “Carrington Event”—as well as by cyber and physical attacks. If the electrical infrastructure failed, among other things many communities would no longer have clean drinking water. While critical facilities like hospitals and pumping stations generally have on-site generators to provide backup power, these systems fail at high rate and cannot provide power for very long. But microgrids that generate and store electricity locally from renewable resources should be able to provide continuous power if something happens to other parts of the power system.

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The Sentinel Mission

Full moon as seen from STS-103 orbiter Discovery.

There are no passengers on spaceship Earth. We are all crew.—Marshall McLuhan (1965)

Ed Lu wants to save the world. In a talk Thursday at the University of Hawai‘i, the former astronaut recalled looking at the moon while he was aboard the International Space Station. Its craters were dramatic visual evidence of the number and size of the asteroid impacts the moon had sustained. Lu knew that the more massive Earth is hit by asteroids even more often than the moon, although the evidence of those collisions is obscured by water, weather, and vegetation.

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July 2013 News

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ConceptNet, an artificial intelligence program developed by a team led by Catherine Havasi at the MIT Media Lab, performed as well as an average four-year-old on the information, vocabulary, and word reasoning portions of standard intelligence test. The program uses a crowdsourced semantic network—a database of statements of basic facts—to answer questions. Miles Brundage explained in Slate that the program did well on “precisely the parts of the test that one would expect computers to excel at,” but that it did poorly compared to a four-year-old on the comprehension portion of the test. Brundage wrote that

things we humans think of as hard (playing chess, winning Jeopardy!) have been conquered by researchers, but things we think of as easy (recognizing a chess board and moving pieces around it without knocking other ones over, walking around the set of Jeopardy!) remain unsolved.

For that reason, the program’s success may not say much about how close we are to developing computer programs that can compete with human intelligence.

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