Seeing Acceleration and Development
If you believe in the reality of accelerating change, the biggest challenge facing the modern foresight field is that few others currently share your vision. Not nearly enough foresight practitioners, let alone members of society, realize how predictable or wide-ranging scientific and technological accelerations have become, and how broadly those accelerations will determine the future of business, politics and society, should they continue.
The top benefit we future thinkers can presently bring to the world is a more grounded and quantitative understanding of these accelerations, and help everyone develop their own vision of the kinds of progress that accelerating ideas, science, and technology can offer the world and its current problems.
Acceleration- and evolutionary development-aware foresighters know that memes (idea adaptability and diversity) and temes (technological adaptability and diversity) increasingly drive the future, not genes. It is our ideas and even more so, our technological tools and algorithms that are now the most important things we need to guide and control.
For example, our digital twins, primitive today, may soon become the most important interface we have to the world, and the only part of ourselves that will continue to double its intelligence and capacities every few years, the rest of our lives. Making sure that we are guiding fast, fair, and equitable digital empowerment for everyone is thus one of the most important things we can do today. Join the newsletters of groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Creative Commmons, Center for Democracy and Technology, and Access Now to find out more how to be an effective digital activist in your own life.
Evolutionary developmentalists see that our world is rapidly becoming more densified and dematerialized, and we’d like to know if this “race to inner space” is a universal trend. Earth seems to be becoming exponentially more computationally advanced, efficient, interdependent, transparent, and antifragile every year, as a result of our collective actions, and the digital layer we are busily constructing. This is a process biologists call niche construction, like ants build an anthill, or termites a termite mound. This accelerating technological niche, this planetwide anthill or mound, in turn, permanently and irreversibly changes our environment, which then acts in a form of top-down causation to permanently change the probable future of humanity.
Our scientific community doesn’t yet carefully study these trends, so it is up to the emerging foresight community to highlight them until our academic institutions make them a priority. Academia has been late to many other important subjects as well. PhDs in artificial intelligence, for example, didn’t become common until the late 1960s, ten years after the field was invented at the Dartmouth conferences in 1956, and PhDs in evolutionary artificial intelligence began later yet.
As Chapter 7 argues, recognizing that civilization acceleration is happening, and understanding its mechanics, is perhaps humanity’s central cognitive challenge. Making these exponential processes as equitable and empowering as possible, and heading off the disruptions and catastrophes they initially allow, is perhaps our central moral challenge.
As an always-learning, never-perfect foresight professional, yet someone working on all four foresight domains (personal, organizational, global, and universal foresight) and all three foresight types (probable, possible, and preferable futures), imagine what you will say publicly the next time you are asked for your opinion on any future impacted by global accelerating change. What will you say when asked whether you think certain scientific, technological, economic, social, or political developments, like a Basic Income Guarantee in advanced industrial democracies, are not just possible future evolutionary choices, but highly probable or inevitable future developments.
When asked whether you think science or technology have developed into the most powerful learning system on Earth, and whether you think that process is likely to occur on all planets with intelligent biological life, what will you say? Will you be vocal, or will you be silent? When asked your opinion on the predictability of exponential technology performance improvements, and the continued rise of machine intelligence, will you admit they seem likely to drive the biggest changes we are likely to see this century, or will you stay silent? If our technology continues to become more biologically-based in its design, will you expect it to develop its own self-awareness, morality and will? Do you think we should be funding much better study and understanding of how human morality emerged, so we can better understand its necessary emergence in our naturally intelligent machines in coming decades?
Will you offer your opinion on, or turn away from the obvious probable futures you can see?
Ten years ago, some people rolled their eyes when I said we’d see self-driving cars, groupnets, lifelogs, global language convergence, and digital twins in this generation. They don’t roll their eyes as often today. Now they realize the ethical and social issues of these and many other technologies need to be taken seriously. Some of the issues are here today, and the rest will be upon us before long. When enough people take a future seriously, not only does it typically emerge faster, but it happens in a much more socially useful and deliberate way.
In addition to admitting the predictability of accelerating change, our field’s leaders must also learn, teach and advocate the best of the quantitative and probabilistic techniques when we discuss forecasting, prediction, planning, risk management, statistics, data, and other foresight curricula. Futurists who like to think about possible and preferable futures but neglect to see and quantify the highly probable futures that lie ahead of us are like a stool with two legs, a structure easily destabilized by external critique.
Some practitioners even argue that presenting “just one future” to a client is not good professional practice. This is well-meaning but misleading advice. It is often best practice to present as many elements as you can of the most expected future (hard trend futures) that may be relevant to a problem, as well as a much wider set of possible futures, of lower probability (soft trend) futures, and of preferable futures (declared and hidden) of the other actors in the space. As we’ve seen, if we live in an evo devo world, both one convergent future (a set of predictable features of tomorrow) and a set of possible (alternative) and preferable (normative) futures continually lie ahead of us. If we are evo devo aware, we must simultaneously seek to discover one predictable future, explore many unpredictable futures, and try to converge on a set of preferred futures for ourselves and the other social actors.
For certain high probability events it can quickly become a waste of time and energy to present alternatives. What we often want next, when contemplating strategy and trying to reduce uncertainties, is one specific prediction relative to key uncertainties, with quantitative probability and variance attached. For example, is it likely my proposed customer will purchase my proposed product or service or not? If so, at what range of prices? Does a cognitively diverse and candid group of independent advisors think my business model will succeed as written? Or fail? And with what probability? Furthermore, the expected probability at which alternative (possibility) futuring becomes useful will vary depending on the client’s real strategic options, expectation of and tolerance for risk (outcomes for which probabilities can be assigned) and uncertainty (for which they cannot) the cost of additional foresight, and the ability and agility of management to consider and act on additional options, among other factors. In summary, we need to continually balance our use of the Three Ps, and of evolutionary, developmental, and evo devo approaches, and not denigrate any one of them.