Category Archives: population

Population Growth is a Good Thing

Many people are worried about world human population, that we are overpopulating the planet and will reap environmental catastrophe. Some suggest draconian measures to limit or even reduce it. I’m not panicking about population at all. I’m not even particularly concerned. I don’t think it is necessarily a bad thing to have a high population. And I think it will be entirely sustainable to have a much higher population.

Nobody sane think the Earth’s human population will carry on increasing exponentially forever. Obviously it will level off and it is already starting to do so. I would personally put the maximum carrying capacity of the Earth at around 100 billion people, but population will almost certainly level off between 9 and 10 billion, let’s say 9.5Bn. Further in the future, other planets will one day house some more people, but they will have their own economics.

We aren’t running out of physical resources, just moving them around. Apart from a few spacecraft that have moved some stuff off planet, some excess radioactive decay induced in power stations and weapons, and helium and hydrogen escaping from the atmosphere, all of which is offset by meteorites and dust landing from space, all we have done is convert stuff to other forms. Almost all materials are more plentiful now than they were 40 years ago when the loudest of doom-mongers warned of the world running out imminently. They were simply wrong.

If we do start to run short, we can mine key elements from rubbish tips and use energy to convert back to any form we need, we can engineer substitutes or we can gather them from space. Another way of looking at this issue is that we live on top of 6000km of resources and only have homes a few metres deep. When we fill them we have to dispose of one thing to make room for a new one, and recycling technology is getting better all the time. Meanwhile, material technology development means we need less material to make something, and can do so with a wider range of input elements.

We are slowly depleting some organic resources, such as fossil fuels, but there are several hundred years supply left, and we will not need any more than a tiny fraction of that before we move to other energy sources. We’re also depleting some fish stocks around the world, so fishing needs some work in designing and implementing better practices, but that is not unachievable by any means and some progress is already happening. Forestry is being depleted in some areas and expanding in others. Some areas of forest are being wiped out because environmentalists and other doomsayers have forced policies through that encourage people to burn them down to make the land available for biofuel plantations and carbon offset schemes.

We certainly are not short of space. I live in Southern England, which sometimes feels full when I get stuck in traffic jams or queues for public services, but these are a matter of design, not fundamental limits. Physically, I don’t feel it is terribly overpopulated here yet, even with the second highest population density on Earth, at 470 people per square kilometre. India only has 345, even with its massive population. China has even less at only 140, while Indonesia has 117, Brazil just 22, and Russia a mere 7.4 people per square kilometre. Yet these are the world’s biggest populations today. So there is room for expansion perhaps. If all the inhabitable land in the world were to be occupied at average English density of today, the world can actually hold 75-80 Billion people. There would still be loads of open countryside, still only 1 or 2% covered in concrete and tarmac.

But self-driving vehicles can increase road capacity by a factor of 5, regional rail capacity by a factor of 200. Replacement of most public sector workers by machines, or better still, good system design, would eradicate most queues and improve most services. England isn’t even full yet. So that 75-80Bn could become 100Bn before it feels crowded.

So let’s stop first of all from imagining that we are running out of space any time soon. We just aren’t!

Energy isn’t a problem in the long term either. Shale gas is already reducing costs in the USA at the same time as reducing carbon dioxide emissions. In Europe, doom-mongers and environmentalist have been more successful in influencing policy, so CO2 emissions are increasing while energy costs create fuel poverty and threaten many key areas of the economy. Nuclear energy currently depends on uranium but thorium based power is under development and is very likely to succeed in due course, adding several hundred years of supply. Solar, fusion, geothermal and shale gas will add to this to provide abundant power for even a much great population, within a few decades, well ahead of the population curve. The only energy shortages we will see will be doomsayer-induced.

Future generations will face debts handed on to them without their consent to pay for this doom-induced folly, but will also inherit a physical and cultural infrastructure with built in positive feedback that ensure rapid technological development.

Among its many benefits, future technology will greatly reduce the amount of material needed to accomplish a task. It will also expand the global economy to provide enough wealth to buy a decent standard of living for everyone. It will also clean up the environment while producing far more food from less land area, allowing some land to be returned to nature. Food production per hectare has doubled in the last 30 years. The technology promises further gains into the foreseeable future.

The world of the future will be a greener and more pleasant land, with nature in a better state than today, with a larger world population that is richer and better fed, almost certainly no more than 10 billion. Providing that is, that we can stop doom-mongers forcing their policies through – the only thing that would really wreck the environment. A doom-monger-free human population is not a plague but a benefit to the Earth and nature. The doom-mongers and their policies are the greatest proven threat. Environmentalists should focus on making sure we are inspired by nature and care for it, and then get out of the way and let technologists get on with making sure it can flourish in the future.

Let’s compare the outcomes of following the advice of the doom-mongers with the outcome of following a sensible economic development path using high technology.

If everyone wants to live to western standards, the demands on the environment will grow as the poor become richer and able to afford more. If we try to carry on with existing technology, or worse, with yesterday’s, we will not find that easy. Those who consider technology and economic growth to be enemies of the environment, and who therefore would lock us into today’s or yesterday’s technology, would condemn billions of people to poverty and misery and force those extra people to destroy the environment to try to survive. The result would be miserable future for humanity and a wrecked environment. Ironically, these people have the audacity to call themselves environmentalists, but they are actually enemies of both the environment and of humanity.

If we ignore such green lunacy – and we should – and allow progress to continue, we will see steady global economic growth that will result in a far higher average income per capita in 2050 with 9.5Bn people than we have today with only 7.7Bn. The technology meanwhile will develop so much that the same standard of living can be achieved with far less environmental impact. For example, bridges hundreds of years ago used far more material than today’s, because they were built with primitive science and technology and poor understanding of science. Technology is better now, materials are stronger and more consistent, we know their properties accurately as well as all the forces acting on the bridge, so we need less material to build a bridge strong enough for the purpose, which is better for the environment. With nanotechnology and improved materials, we will need even less material to build future bridges. The environmental footprint of each person will certainly be far lower in 2050 if we accept new technology than it will be if we restrict growth and technology development. It will almost certainly be less even than today’s, even though our future lifestyles would be far better. Trying to go back to yesterday’s technologies without greatly reducing population and lifestyle would impose such high environmental impact that the environment would be devastated. We don’t need to, and we shouldn’t.

Take TVs as another example. TVs used to be hugely heavy and bulky monsters that took up half the living room, used lots of electricity, but offered relatively small displays with a choice from just a few channels. Today, thin LCD or LED displays use far less material, consume far less power, take up far less space and offer far bigger and better displays offering access to thousands of channels via satellites and web links. So as far as TV-based entertainment goes, we have a far higher standard of living with far lower environmental impact. The same is true for phones, computers, networks, cars, fridges, washing machines, and most other tools. Better materials and technologies enable lower resource use.

New science and technology has enabled new kinds of materials that can substitute for scarce physical resources. Copper was once in danger of running out imminently. Now you can build a national fibre telecommunication network with a few bucketfuls of sand and some plastic. We have plastic pipes and water tanks too, so we don’t really need copper for plumbing either. Aluminium makes reasonable cables, and future materials such as graphene will make even better cables, still with no copper use. There are few things that can’t be done with alternative materials, especially as quantum materials can be designed to echo the behaviour of many chemicals. So it is highly unlikely that we will ever run out of any element. We will simply find alternative solutions as shortages demand.

Oil will be much the same story. To believe the doom-mongers, our use of oil will continue to grow exponentially until one day there is none left and then we will all be in big trouble, or dead, breathing in 20% CO2 by then of course. Again, this is simply a nonsensical scenario. By 2030, oil will be considered a messy and expensive way of getting energy, and most will be left in the ground. The 6Gjoules of energy a barrel of oil contains could be made for $30 using solar panels in the deserts, and electricity is clean. Even if solar doesn’t progress that far, shale gas only produces half as much CO2 as oil for the same energy output (another potential environmental improvement held back by green zealots here in the UK and indeed the rest of Europe).

This cheap solar electricity mostly won’t come from UK rooftops as currently incentivised by green-pressured government, but somewhere it is actually sunny, deserts for example, where land is cheap, because it isn’t much use for anything else. The energy will get to us via superconducting or graphene cables. Sure, the technology doesn’t yet exist, but it will. Oil will only cost $30 a barrel because no-one will want to pay more than that for what will be seen as an inferior means of energy production. Shale gas might still be used because it produces relatively little CO2 and will be very cheap, but even that will start declining as the costs of solar and nuclear variants fall.

In the longer term, in our 2050 world of 9.5Bn people, fusion power will be up and running, alongside efficient solar (perhaps some wind) and other forms of energy production, proving an energy glut that will help with water supply and food production as well as our other energy needs. In fact, thanks to the development of graphene desalination technology, clean water will be abundantly available at low cost (not much more than typical tap-water costs today) everywhere.

Our technologies will be so advanced by then that we will be able to control climate better too. We will have environmental models based on science, not models based on the CO2-causes-everything-bad religion, so we will know what we’re doing rather than acting on guesswork and old-wives’ tales. We will have excellent understanding of genetics and biotech and be able to make superior crops and animals, so will be able to make enough food to feed everyone, ensuring not only quantity but nutritional quality too. While today’s crops deliver about 2% of the solar energy landing on their fields to us as food, we will be able to make foods in factories more efficiently, and will have crops that are also more efficient. It is true that we may see occasional short-term food shortages, but in the long term, there is absolutely no need to worry about feeding everyone. And no need to worry about the impact on the environment either, because we will be able to make more food with far less space. No-one needs to be hungry, even if we have 9.5Bn of us, and with steady economic growth, everyone will be able to afford food too.

This is no fanciful techno-utopia. It is entirely deliverable and even expectable. All around the world today, people’s ethical awareness is increasing and we are finally starting to address problems of food and emergency aid distribution, even in failing regimes. The next few decades will not eradicate poverty completely, but it will make starvation much less of a problem, along with clean water availability.

How can we be sure it will be developed? Well, there will be more people for one thing. That means more brains. Those people will be richer, they will be better educated, and many will be scientists and engineers. Many will have been born in countries that value engineers and scientists greatly, and will have a lot of backing, so will get results. Some will be in IT, and will develop computer intelligence to add to the human effort, and provide better, cheaper and faster tools for scientists and engineers in every field to use. So, total intellectual resources will be far greater than they are today.

Therefore we can be certain that technological progress will continue to accelerate. As it does, the environment will become cleaner and healthier, because we will be able to make it so. We will restore nature. Rivers today in the UK are cleaner than 100 years ago. The air is cleaner too. We look after nature better, because that’s what people do when they are affluent and well educated. In 50 years we will see that attitude even more widespread. The rainforests will be flourishing, some species will be being resurrected from extinction via DNA banks. People will be well fed. Water supply will be adequate.

But all this can only happen if we stop following the advice of doom-mongers and technophobes who want to take us backwards.

That really is the key: more people mean more brain power, more solutions, and better technology. For the last million years, that has meant steady improvement of our lot. In the un-technological world of the cavemen hunter-gatherers, the world was capable of supporting around 60 million people. If we try to restrict technology development now, it will be a death sentence. People and the environment would both suffer. No-one wins if we stop progress. That is the fallacy of environmental dogma that is shouted loudly by the doom mongers.

Some extremists in the green movement would have us go back to yesterday, rejecting technology, living on nature and punishing everyone who disagrees with them. They can indulge such silliness when they are only a few and the rest of us support them, but everyone simply can’t live like that. Without technology, the world can only support 60 million, not 7 billion or 9.5 billion or 75 billion. There simply aren’t enough nice fields and forest for us all to live that way.

It is a simple choice. We could have 60 million thoroughly miserable post-environmentalists living in a post eco-catastrophe world where nature has been devastated by the results of daft policies invented by self-proclaimed environmentalists, trying to make a feeble recovery. Or we can ignore their nonsense, get on with our ongoing development, and live in a richer, nicer world where 9.5Bn people (or even far more if we want) can be happy, well fed, well educated, with a good standard of living, and living side by side with a flourishing environment, where our main impacts on the environment are positive.

Technology won’t solve every problem, and will even create some, but without a shadow of a doubt, technology is by far nature’s best friend. Not the lunatic fringe of ‘environmentalists’, many of whom are actually among the environment’s worst enemies – at best, well-meaning fools.

There is one final point that is usually overlooked in this debate. Every new person that is born is another life, living, breathing, loving, hopefully having fun, enjoying life and being happy. Life is a good thing, to be celebrated, not extinguished or prevented from coming into existence just because someone else has no imagination. Thanks to the positive feedbacks in the development loops, 50% more people means probably 100% more total joy and happiness. Population growth is good, we just have to be more creative, but that’s what we do all the time. Now let’s get on with making it work.

Good times lie ahead. We do need to fix some things though. I mentioned that physical resources won’t diminish significantly in quantity in terms of the elements they hold at least, though those we use for energy (oil, coal and gas) give up their energy when we use them and that is gone.

However, the ecosystem is a different matter. Even with advanced genetic technology we can expect in the far future, it will be difficult to resurrect organisms that have become extinct. It is far better to make sure they don’t. Even though an organism may be brought back, we’d also have to bring back the environment it needs with all the intricately woven inter-species dependencies.

Losing a single organism species might be relatively recoverable, but losing a rain forest will be very hard to fix. Forests are very complex systems. In fact designing and making a synthetic and simpler rainforest is probably easier than trying to regenerate a lost natural one. We really don’t want to have to do that. It would be far better to make sure we preserve the existing forests and other complex ecosystems. Poor countries may reasonably ask for some payment to preserve their forests rather than chopping them down to sell wood. We should certainly make sure to remove current perverse ‘environmental’ incentives to chop them down to make room for palm oil plantations to satisfy the demands of poorly thought out environmental policies in rich countries.

The same goes for ocean ecosystems. We are badly mismanaging many fisheries today, and that needs to be fixed, but there are already some signs of progress. EU regulations that used to cause huge quantities of fish to be caught and thrown back dead into the sea are becoming history. Again, these are a hangover from previous environmental policy designed to preserve fish stocks, but again this was poorly thought out and has had the opposite result to that intended.

Other policies in the EU and in other parts of the world are also causing problems by unbalancing populations and harming or distorting food chains. The bans on seal hunting are good – we love seals, but the explosion in seal populations caused by throwing dead fish back has increased the demand of the seal population to over 100,000 tons of fish a year, when it is already severely stressed by over-fishing. The dead fish have also helped cause an explosion in lobster populations and in some sea birds. We may appreciate the good side, but we mustn’t forget to look for harmful effects that may also be caused. It is obvious that we could do far better job, and we must.

A well-managed ocean with properly designed farms should be able to provide all the fish and other seafood we need, but we are well away from it yet and we do need to fix it. With ongoing scientific study, understanding of relationships between species and especially in food chains is improving, and regulations are slowly becoming more sensible, so there is hope. Many people are switching their diets to fish with sustainable populations. But these will need managed well too. Farming is suitable for many species and crashes in some fish populations have added up to a loud wake-up call to fix regulations around the world. We may use genetic modification to increase growth and reproduction rates, or otherwise optimise sustainability and ocean capacity. I don’t think there is any room for complacency, but I am confident that we can and will develop good husbandry practices and that our oceans and fish stocks will recover and become sustainable.

Certainly, we have a greater emotional attachment to the organic world than to mere minerals, and we are part of nature too, but we can and will be sustainable in both camps, even with a greatly increased population.

Advertisements

The future of land value

St BeesI don’t do investment advice much, and I am NOT an investment adviser of any kind, just a futurist doing some simple reasoning.

World population is around 7.7Bn.

It will increase, level off, then decline, then grow again.

Any projections you see are just educated guesswork. 9.8Bn figure is the UN global population estimate for 2050, and I won’t argue with that, it seems as good a guess as any. Everyone then expects it to level off and decline, as people have fewer kids. I’m not so sure. Read my blog five years ago that suggested it might grow again in the late century, perhaps reaching as high as 15Bn:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2014/02/05/will-population-grow-again-after-2050-to-15bn/

I only say might, because there are pressures in both directions and it is too hard to be sure in a far future society which ones will be stronger and by how much. I’m just challenging the standard view that it will decline into the far future, and if I had to place a bet, it would be on resumed growth.

Population is one large influence on demand for land and ‘real estate’.

Another is population distribution. Today, all around the world, people are moving from the countryside to cities. I argue that urbanization will soon peak, and then start to reverse:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2018/06/13/will-urbanization-continue-or-will-we-soon-reach-peak-city/

De-urbanization will largely be enabled by high technology and its impacts on work and social life. It will be caused by increasing wealth, coupled to the normal desire to live happier lives. Wealth is increasing quickly, varying place to place and year to year. It is reasonable, given positive feedback effects from AI and automation, to assume average real growth of 2%, including occasional recessions and booms. By 2100, that means global wealth will be 5 times today’s. Leaving aside the lack of understanding of exponential growth by teachers indoctrinating schoolkids to think of themselves as economic victims, taken advantage of by greedy Boomers, that means today’s and tomorrow’s kids will have one hell of a lot more money available to spend on property.

So, there will be more people, with more money, more able to live anywhere. Real estate prices will increase, but not uniformly.

Very many of them will choose to leave cities and with lots of money in the bank, will want somewhere really nice. A lovely beachfront property perhaps, or on a mountainside with a gorgeous view. Or even on a hill overlooking the city, or deep in a forest with a waterfall in the garden. Some might buy boring homes in boring estates surrounded by fields but it won’t be first choice very often. The high prices will go to large and pretty homes in pretty locations, as they do today, but with much higher differential, because supply and demand dictates that. We won’t build more mountains or valleys or coastline. Supply stays limited while demand and bank balances rockets, so prices will rocket too.

Other property won’t necessarily become cheaper, it just won’t become as expensive as fast. Many people will still like cities and choose to live there, do business there, socialize there. They also will be richer, and there may be a lot more of them if population does indeed grow again, but increasing congestion would just cause more de-urbanization. Prices may still rise, but the real money will be moving elsewhere.

Farmland will mostly stay as farmland. Farms are generally functional rather than pretty. Agricultural productivity will be double or triple what it is today, maybe even more. Some food will be made in factories or vertical farms, using tissue culturing or hydroponics, or using feed-stocks based on algae grown at sea, or insects, or fungi. The figures therefore suggest that demand for land to grow stuff will be lower than today, in spite of a larger population. Some will be converted to city, some to pretty villages, some given back to nature, to further increase the attractiveness of those ultra-expensive homes in the nice areas in the distance. Whichever way, that doesn’t suggest very rapid growth of value for most agricultural land, the obvious exception being where it happens to be in or next to a pretty area, in which case it will rocket in value.

As I said, all of this is educated guesswork. Don’t bet the farm on it until you’ve done your own analysis. But my guess is, city property will gain modest value, agricultural land will hold its value or even fall slightly, unless it is in a pretty location. Anywhere pretty will skyrocket in price, be it an existing property or a piece of land that can be built on and stay pretty.

As a final observation, you might argue that pretty isn’t everything. Surely some people will value being near to centers of power or major hubs too? Yes they will, but that is already factored into the urbanization era. That value is already banked. Then it follows the rules just like any other urban property.

 

The caravan and migration policy

20 years ago, fewer than half of the people in the world had ever made a phone call. Today, the vast majority of people have a smartphone with internet access, and are learning how people in other parts of the world live. A growing number are refusing to accept their poor luck of being born in poor, corrupt, or oppressive or war-torn countries. After all, nobody chooses their parents or where they are born, so why should people in any country have any more right to live there than anyone else?  Shouldn’t everyone start life with the right to live anywhere they choose? If they don’t like it where they were born, why shouldn’t someone migrate to another country to improve their conditions or to give their children a better chance? Why should that country be allowed to refuse them entry? I’d like to give a brief answer, but I don’t have time. So:

People don’t choose their parents, or where they are born, but nor did they exist to make that choice. The rights of the infinite number of non-existent people who could potentially be born to any possible combination of parents at any time, anywhere, under any possible set of circumstances is no basis for any policy. If lives were formed and then somehow assigned parents, the questions would be valid, but people don’t actually reproduce by choosing from some waiting list of would-be embryos. Even religious people don’t believe that their god has a large queue of souls waiting for a place and parents to be born to, assigning each in turn to happiness or misery. Actual people reproduce via actual acts in actual places in actual circumstances. They create a new life, and the child is theirs. They are solely responsible for bringing that life into existence, knowing the likely circumstances it would emerge into. The child didn’t choose its parents, but its parents made it. If they live in a particular country and choose to have a baby, that baby will be born with the rights and rules and all the other attributes of that country, the skin color, religion, wealth and status of its parents and so on. It will also be born in the prevailing international political and regulatory environment at that time. Other people in other countries have zero a priori political, social, economic or moral responsibility towards that child, though they and their country are free to show whatever compassion they wish, or to join international organisations that extend protection and human rights to all humans everywhere, and so a child anywhere may inherit certain internationally agreed rights, and countries will at some point have signed up to accept them. Those voluntary agreements or signings of international treaties may convey rights onto that child regarding its access to aid or  global health initiatives or migration but they are a matter for other sovereign bodies to choose to sign up to, or indeed to withdraw from. A poor child might grow up and decide to migrate, but it has no a priori right of entry to any country or support from it, legally or morally, beyond that which the people of that country or their ancestors choose to offer individually or via their government.

In short, people can’t really look any further than their parents to thank or blame for their existence, but other people and other countries are free to express and extend their love, compassion and support, if they choose to. Most of us would agree that we should.

Given that we want to help, but still don’t have the resources to help everyone on the planet to live in the standard they’d like, a better question might be: which people should we help first – those that bang loudly on our door, or those in the greatest need?

We love and value those close to us most, but most of us feel some love towards humans everywhere. Few people can watch the migrant caravan coverage without feeling sympathy for the parents trying to get to a better life. Many of those people will be innocent people running away from genuine oppression and danger, hoping to build a better future by working hard and integrating into a new culture. The proportion was estimated recently (Channel 4 News for those who demand sources for every stat they don’t like) at around 11% of the caravan. We know from UK migration from Calais that some will just say they are, advised by activists on exactly what phrases to use when interviewed by immigration officials to get the right boxes ticked. Additionally, those of us who aren’t completely naive (or suffering the amusingly named ‘Trump derangement syndrome’ whereby anything ‘Fake President’ Trump says or does must automatically be wrong even if Obama said or did the same), also accept that a few of those in the caravan are likely to be drug dealers or murderers or rapists or traffickers or other criminals running away from capture and towards new markets to exploit, or even terrorists trying to hide among a crowd. There is abundant evidence that European migrant crowds did conceal some such people, and we’ll never know the exact numbers, but we’re already living with the consequences. The USA would be foolish not to learn from these European mistakes. It really isn’t the simple ‘all saints’ or ‘all criminals’ some media would have us believe. Some may be criminals or terrorists – ‘some’ is a very different concept from ‘all’, and is not actually disproved by pointing the TV camera at a lovely family pushing a pram.

International law defines refugees and asylum seekers and makes it easy to distinguish them from other kinds of migrants, but activist groups and media often conflate these terms to push various political objectives. People fleeing from danger are refugees until they get to the first safe country, often the adjacent one. According to law, they should apply for asylum there, but if they choose to go further, they cease to be refugees and become migrants. The difference is very important. Refugees are fleeing from danger to safety, and are covered by protections afforded to that purpose. Migrants don’t qualify for those special protections and are meant to use legal channels to move to another country. If they choose to use non-legal means to cross borders, they become illegal immigrants, criminals. Sympathy and compassion should extend to all who are less fortunate, but those who are willing to respect the new nation and its laws by going through legal immigration channels should surely solicit more than those who demonstrably aren’t, regardless of how cute some other family’s children look on camera. Law-abiding applicants should always be given a better response, and law-breakers should be sent to the back of the queue.

These are well established attitudes to migration and refugees, but many seek to change them. In our competitive virtue signalling era, a narrative constructed by activists well practiced at misleading people to achieve their aims deliberately conflates genuine refugees and economic migrants to make their open borders policies look like simple humanitarianism. They harness the sympathy everyone feels for refugees fleeing from danger but and routinely mislabel migrants as refugees, hoping to slyly extend refugee rights to migrants, quickly moving on to imply that anyone who doesn’t want to admit everyone lacks basic human decency. Much of the media happily plays along with this deception, pointing cameras at the nice families instead of the much larger number of able young men, with their own presenters frequently referring to migrants as refugees. Such a narrative is deliberately dishonest, little more than self-aggrandizing disingenuous sanctimony. The best policy remains to maintain and protect borders and have well-managed legal immigration polices, offering prioritized help to refugees and extending whatever aid to other countries can be afforded. while recognizing that simple handouts and political interference can be sometimes counter-productive. Most people are nice, but some want to help those who need it most, in the best way. Moral posturing and virtue signalling are not only less effective but highly selfish, aimed at polishing the egos of the sanctimonious rather than the needy.

So, we want to help, but do it sensibly to maximize benefit. Selfishly, we also need some migration, and we already selfishlessly encourage those with the most valuable skills or wealth to migrate from other countries, at their loss (even after they have paid to educate them). Every skilled engineer or doctor we import from a poorer country represents a huge financial outlay being transferred from poor to rich. We need to fix that exploitation too. There is an excellent case for compensation to be paid.

Well-managed migration can and does work well. The UK sometimes feels a little overcrowded, when sitting in a traffic jam or a doctor waiting room, but actually only about 2% of the land is built on, the rest isn’t. It isn’t ‘full’ geographically, it just seems so because of the consequences of poor governance. Given sensible integration and economic policies, competently executed, immigration ought not to be a big problem. The absence of those givens is the main cause of existing problems. So we can use the UK as a benchmark for reasonably tolerable population density even under poor government. The UK still needs migrants with a wide range of skills and since some (mainly old) people emigrate, there is always room for a few more.

Integration is a growing issue, and should be a stronger consideration in future immigration policy. Recent (last 100 years) migrants and their descendants account for around 12% of the UK population, 1 in 8, still a smallish minority. Some struggle to integrate or to find acceptance, some don’t want to, many fit in very well. Older migrations such as the Normans and Vikings have integrated pretty well now. My name suggests some Viking input to my DNA, and ancestry research shows that my family goes back in England at least 500 years. Having migrated to Belfast as a child, and remigrated back 17 years later, I know how it feels to be considered an outsider for a decade or two.

What about the USA, with the migrant ‘caravan’ of a few thousand people on their way to claim asylum? The USA is large, relatively sparsely populated, and very wealthy. Most people in the world can only dream of living at US living standards and some of them are trying to go there. If they succeed, many more will follow. Trump is currently under fire from the left over his policy, but although Trump is certainly rather less eloquent, his policy actually closely echoes Obama’s. Here is a video of Obama talking about illegal immigration in 2005 while he was still a Senator:

https://www.c-span.org/video/?c4656370/sen-barack-obama-illegal-immigration

Left and right both agreed at least back then that borders should be protected and migrants should be made to use legal channels, presumably for all the same common sense reasons I outlined earlier. What if the borders were completely open, as many are now calling for? Here are a few basic figures:

Before it would get to UK population density, the USA has enough land to house every existing American plus every single one of the 422M South Americans, 42M Central Americans, 411M Middle Easterns, the 105M Philippinos and every African. Land area isn’t a big problem then. For the vast majority in these regions, the average USA standard of living would be a massive upgrade, so imagine if they all suddenly migrated there. The USA economy would suddenly be spread over 2.5Bn instead of 325M. Instead of $60k per capita, it would be $7.8k, putting the USA between Bolivia and Guatemala in the world wealth rankings, well below most of Central and South America (still 40% more than Honduras though). Additionally, almost all of the migrants, 87% of the total population would initially be homeless. All the new homes and other infrastructure would have to be paid for and built, jobs created, workforce trained etc. 

Even the most fervent open borders supporter couldn’t pretend they thought this was feasible, so they reject reasoning and focus on emotion, pointing cameras at young families with sweet kids, yearning for better lives. If the borders were open, what then would prevent vast numbers of would-be migrants from succumbing to temptation to better their lives before the inevitable economic dilution made it a worthless trip? Surely opening the borders would result in a huge mass of people wanting to get in while it is still a big upgrade? People in possession of reasoning capability accept that there need to be limits. Left and right, Obama and Trump agree that migration needs to be legal and well managed. Numbers must be restricted to a level that is manageable and sustainable.

So, what should be done about it. What policy principles and behaviors should be adopted. The first must be to stop  misuse of language, particularly conflating economic migrants and refugees. Activists and some media do that regularly, but deliberate misrepresentation is ‘fake news’, what we used to call lies.

Second, an honest debate needs to be had on how best to help refugees, whether by offering them residency or by building and resourcing adequate refugee camps, and also regarding how much we can widen legal immigration channels for migrants while sustaining our existing economy and culture. If a refugee wants to immigrate, that really ought to be a separate consideration and handled via immigration channels and rules. Dealing with them separately would immediately solve the problem of people falsely claiming refugee status, because all they would achieve is access to a refugee camp, and would still have to go through immigration channels to proceed further. Such false claims clog the courts and mean it takes far longer for true refugees to have their cases dealt with effectively.

Thirdly, that debate needs to consider that while countries naturally welcome the most economically and culturally valuable immigrants, there is also a good humanitarian case to help some more. Immigration policy should be generous, and paralleled with properly managed international aid.

That debate should always recognize that the rule of law must be maintained, and Obama made that argument very well. It still holds, and Trump agreeing with it does not actually make it invalid. Letting some people break it while expecting others to follow it invites chaos. Borders should be maintained and properly policed and while refugees who can demonstrate refugee status should be directed into refugee channels (which may take some time), others should be firmly turned away if they don’t have permission to cross, and given the information they need to apply via the legal immigration channels. That can be done nicely of course, and a generous country should offer medical attention, food, and transport home, maybe even financial help. Illegal immigration and lying about refugee status should be strongly resisted by detainment, repatriation and sending to the back of the queue, or permanently denying entry to anyone attempting illegal entry. No country wants to increase its population of criminals. Such a policy distinguishes well between legal and illegal, between refugees and migrants, and ensures that the flow into the country matches that which its government thinks is manageable.

The rest is basically ongoing Foreign Policy, and that does differ between different flavors of government. Sadly, how best to deal with problems in other countries is not something the USA is known to be skilled at. It doesn’t have a fantastic track record, even if it usually intends to make things better. Ditto the UK and Europe. Interference often makes things worse in unexpected ways. Handouts often feed corruption and dependence and support oppressive regimes, or liberate money for arms, so they don’t always work well either. Emergencies such as wars or natural catastrophes already have polices and appropriate agencies in place to deal with consequences, as well as many NGOs.

This caravan doesn’t fit neatly. A few can reasonably be directed into other channels, but most must be turned away. That is not heartless. The Mediterranean migration have led to far more deaths than they should because earlier migrants were accepted, encouraging others, and at one point it seemed to be the EU providing a safe pickup almost as soon as a trafficker boat left shore. The Australian approach seemed harsh, but probably saved thousands of lives by deterring others from risking their lives. My own solution to the Mediterranean crisis was:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2015/04/19/the-mediterranean-crisis/ and basically suggested making a small island into a large refugee camp where anyone rescued )or captured if they managed to make the full trip) would be taken, with a free trip home once they realized they wouldn’t be transferred to mainland Europe. I still think it is the best approach, and could be replicated by the USA using a large refugee/migrant camp from which the only exit is back to start or a very lengthy wait from the back of the legal migration queue.

However:

My opening questions on the inequity of birth invite another direction of analysis. When people die, they usually leave the bulk of their estates to their descendants, but by then they will also have passed on a great deal of other things, such as their values, some skills, miscellaneous support, and attitudes to life, the universe and everything. Importantly, they will have conveyed citizenship of their country, and that conveys a shared inheritance of the accumulated efforts of the whole of that countries previous inhabitants. That accumulation may be a prosperous, democratic country with reasonable law and order and safety, and relatively low levels of corruption, like the USA or the UK, or it may be a dysfunctional impoverished dictatorship or anything between. While long-term residents are effectively inheriting the accumulated value (and problems) passed down through their ancestors, new immigrants receive all of that for free when they are accepted. It is hard to put an accurate value on this shared social, cultural and financial wealth, but most that try end up with values in the $100,000s. Well-chosen immigrants may bring in value (including their descendants’ contributions) greatly in excess of what they receive. Some may not. Some may even reduce it. Whether a potential immigrant is accepted or not, we should be clear that citizenship is very valuable.

Then analysis starts to get messier. It isn’t just simple inheritance. What about the means by which that happy inherited state was achieved? Is one country attractive purely because of its own efforts or because it exploited others, or some combination? Is another country a hell hole in part because of our external interference, as some would argue for Iraq or Syria? If so, then perhaps there is a case for reparation or compensation, or perhaps favored immigration status for its citizens. We ought not to shirk responsibility for the consequences of our actions. Or is it a hell hole in spite of our interference, as can be argued for some African countries. Is it a hell hole because its people are lazy or corrupt and live in the country they deserve, as is possible I guess, though I can’t think of any examples. Anyway, heredity is a complex issue, as is privilege, its twin sister. I did write a lengthy blog on privilege (and cultural appropriation). I probably believe much the same as you but in the hostile competitive offence-taking social media environment of today, it remains a draft.

Sorry it took so many words, but there is so much nonsense being spoken, it takes a lot of words to remind of what mostly used to be common sense. The right policy now is basically the same as it was decades ago. Noisy activism doesn’t change that.

 

Will urbanization continue or will we soon reach peak city?

For a long time, people have been moving from countryside into cities. The conventional futurist assumption is that this trend will continue, with many mega-cities, some with mega-buildings. I’ve consulted occasionally on future buildings and future cities from a technological angle, but I’ve never really challenged the assumption that urbanization will continue. It’s always good  to challenge our assumptions occasionally, as things can change quite rapidly.

There are forces in both directions. Let’s list those that support urbanisation first.

People are gregarious. They enjoy being with other people. They enjoy eating out and having coffees with friends. They like to go shopping. They enjoy cinemas and theatre and art galleries and museums. They still have workplaces. Many people want to live close to these facilities, where public transport is available or driving times are relatively short. There are exceptions of course, but these still generally apply.

Even though many people can and do work from home sometimes, most of them still go to work, where they actually meet colleagues, and this provides much-valued social contact, and in spite of recent social trends, still provides opportunities to meet new friends and partners. Similarly, they can and do talk to friends via social media or video calls, but still enjoy getting together for real.

Increasing population produces extra pressure on the environment, and governments often try to minimize it by restricting building on green field land. Developers are strongly encouraged to build on brown field sites as far as possible.

Now the case against.

Truly Immersive Interaction

Talking on the phone, even to a tiny video image, is less emotionally rich than being there with someone. It’s fine for chats in between physical meetings of course, but the need for richer interaction still requires ‘being there’. Augmented reality will soon bring headsets that provide high quality 3D life-sized images of the person, and some virtual reality kit will even allow analogs of physical interaction via smart gloves or body suits, making social comms a bit better. Further down the road, active skin will enable direct interaction with the peripheral nervous system to produce exactly the same nerve signals as an actual hug or handshake or kiss, while active contact lenses will provide the same resolution as your retina wherever you gaze. The long term is therefore communication which has the other person effectively right there with you, fully 3D, fully rendered to the capability of your eyes, so you won’t be able to tell they aren’t. If you shake hands or hug or kiss, you’ll feel it just the same as if they were there too. You will still know they are not actually there, so it will never be quite as emotionally rich as if they were, but it can get pretty close. Close enough perhaps that it won’t really matter to most people most of the time that it’s virtual.

In the same long term, many AIs will have highly convincing personalities, some will even have genuine emotions and be fully conscious. I blogged recently on how that might happen if you don’t believe it’s possible:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2018/06/04/biomimetic-insights-for-machine-consciousness/

None of the technology required for this is far away, and I believe a large IT company could produce conscious machines with almost human-level AI within a couple of years of starting the project. It won’t happen until they do, but when one starts trying seriously to do it, it really won’t be long. That means that as well as getting rich emotional interaction from other humans via networks, we’ll also get lots from AI, either in our homes, or on the cloud, and some will be in robots in our homes too.

This adds up to a strong reduction in the need to live in a city for social reasons.

Going to cinemas, theatre, shopping etc will also all benefit from this truly immersive interaction. As well as that, activities that already take place in the home, such as gaming will also advance greatly into more emotionally and sensory intensive experiences, along with much enhanced virtual tourism and virtual world tourism, virtual clubbing & pubbing, which barely even exist yet but could become major activities in the future.

Socially inclusive self-driving cars

Some people have very little social interaction because they can’t drive and don’t live close to public transport stops. In some rural areas, buses may only pass a stop once a week. Our primitive 20th century public transport systems thus unforgivably exclude a great many people from social inclusion, even though the technology needed to solve that has existed for many years.  Leftist value systems that much prefer people who live in towns or close to frequent public transport over everyone else must take a lot of the blame for the current epidemic of loneliness. It is unreasonable to expect those value systems to be replaced by more humane and equitable ones any time soon, but thankfully self-driving cars will bypass politicians and bureaucrats and provide transport for everyone. The ‘little old lady’ who can’t walk half a mile to wait 20 minutes in freezing rain for an uncomfortable bus can instead just ask her AI to order a car and it will pick her up at her front door and take her to exactly where she wants to go, then do the same for her return home whenever she wants. Once private sector firms like Uber provide cheap self-driving cars, they will be quickly followed by other companies, and later by public transport providers. Redundant buses may finally become extinct, replaced by better socially inclusive transport, large fleets of self-driving or driverless vehicles. People will be able to live anywhere and still be involved in society. As attendance at social events improves, so they will become feasible even in small communities, so there will be less need to go into a town to find one. Even political involvement might increase. Loneliness will decline as social involvement increases, and we’ll see many other social problems decline too.

Distribution drones

We hear a lot about upcoming redundancy caused by AI, but far less about the upside. AI might mean someone is no longer needed in an office, but it also makes it easier to set up a company and run it, taking what used to be just a hobby and making it into a small business. Much of the everyday admin and logistics can be automated Many who would never describe themselves as entrepreneurs might soon be making things and selling them from home and this AI-enabled home commerce will bring in the craft society. One of the big problems is getting a product to the customer. Postal services and couriers are usually expensive and very likely to lose or damage items. Protecting objects from such damage may require much time and expense packing it. Even if objects are delivered, there may be potential fraud with no-payers. Instead of this antiquated inefficient and expensive system, drone delivery could collect an object and take it to a local customer with minimal hassle and expense. Block-chain enables smart contracts that can be created and managed by AI and can directly link delivery to payment, with fully verified interaction video if necessary. If one happens, the other happens. A customer might return a damaged object, but at least can’t keep it and deny receipt. Longer distance delivery can still use cheap drone pickup to take packages to local logistics centers in smart crates with fully block-chained g-force and location detectors that can prove exactly who damaged it and where. Drones could be of any size, and of course self-driving cars or pods can easily fill the role too if smaller autonomous drones are inappropriate.

Better 3D printing technology will help to accelerate the craft economy, making it easier to do crafts by upskilling people and filling in some of their skill gaps. Someone with visual creativity but low manual skill might benefit greatly from AI model creation and 3D printer manufacture, followed by further AI assistance in marketing, selling and distribution. 3D printing might also reduce the need to go to town to buy some things.

Less shopping in high street

This is already obvious. Online shopping will continue to become a more personalized and satisfying experience, smarter, with faster delivery and easier returns, while high street decline accelerates. Every new wave of technology makes online better, and high street stores seem unable or unwilling to compete, in spite of my wonderful ‘6s guide’:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/01/16/the-future-of-high-street-survival-the-6s-guide/

Those that are more agile still suffer decline of shopper numbers as the big stores fail to attract them so even smart stores will find it harder to survive.

Improving agriculture

Farming technology has doubled the amount of food production per hectare in the last few decades. That may happen again by mid-century. Meanwhile, the trend is towards higher vegetable and lower meat consumption. Even with an increased population, less land will be needed to grow our food. As well as reducing the need to protect green belts, that will also allow some of our countryside to be put under better environmental stewardship programs, returning much of it to managed nature. What countryside we have will be healthier and prettier, and people will be drawn to it more.

Improving social engineering

Some objections to green-field building can be reduced by making better use of available land. Large numbers of new homes are needed and they will certainly need some green field to be used, but given the factors already listed above, a larger number of smaller communities might be better approach. Amazingly, in spite of decades of dating technology proving that people can be matched up easily using AI, there is still no obvious use of similar technology to establish new communities by blending together people who are likely to form effective communities. Surely it must be feasible to advertise a new community building program that wants certain kinds of people in it – even an Australian style points system might work sometimes. Unless sociologists have done nothing for the past decades, they must surely know what types of people work well together by now? If the right people live close to each other, social involvement will be high, loneliness low, health improved, care costs minimized, the need for longer distance travel reduced and environmental impact minimized. How hard can it be?

Improving building technology such as 3D printing and robotics will allow more rapid construction, so that when people are ready and willing to move, property suited to them can be available soon.

Lifestyle changes also mean that homes don’t need to be as big. A phone today does what used to need half a living room of technology and space. With wall-hung displays and augmented reality, decor can be partly virtual, and even a 450 sq ft apartment is fine as a starter place, half as big as was needed a few decades ago, and that could be 3D printed and kitted out in a few days.

Even demographic changes favor smaller communities. As wealth increases, people have smaller families, i.e fewer kids. That means fewer years doing the school run, so less travel, less need to be in a town. Smaller schools in smaller communities can still access specialist lessons via the net.

Increasing wealth also encourages and enables people to a higher quality of life. People who used to live in a crowded city street might prefer a more peaceful and spacious existence in a more rural setting and will increasingly be able to afford to move. Short term millennial frustrations with property prices won’t last, as typical 2.5% annual growth more than doubles wealth by 2050 (though automation and its assorted consequences will impact on the distribution of that wealth).

Off-grid technology

Whereas one of the main reasons to live in urban areas was easy access to telecomms, energy and water supply and sewerage infrastructure, all of these can now be achieved off-grid. Mobile networks provide even broadband access to networks. Solar or wind provide easy energy supply. Water can be harvested out of the air even in arid areas (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-5840997/The-solar-powered-humidity-harvester-suck-drinkable-water-AIR.html) and human and pet waste can be used as biomass for energy supply too, leaving fertilizer as residue.

There are also huge reasons that people won’t want to live in cities, and they will also cause deurbansisation.

The biggest by far in the problem of epidemics. As antibiotic resistance increases, disease will be a bigger problem. We may find good antibiotics alternatives but we may not. If not, then we may see some large cities where disease runs rampant and kills hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps even millions. Many scientists have listed pandemics among their top ten threats facing humanity. Obviously, being in a large city will incur a higher risk of becoming a victim, so once one or two incidents have occurred, many people will look for options to leave cities everywhere. Linked to this is bioterrorism, where the disease is deliberate, perhaps created in a garden shed by someone who learned the craft in one of today’s bio-hacking clubs. Disease might be aimed at a particular race, gender or lifestyle group or it may simply be designed to be as contagious and lethal as possible to everyone.

I’m still not saying we won’t have lots of people living in cities. I am saying that more people will feel less need to live in cities and will instead be able to find a small community where they can be happier in the countryside. Consequently, many will move out of cities, back to more rural living in smaller, friendlier communities that improving technology makes even more effective.

Urbanization will slow down, and may well go into reverse. We may reach peak city soon.

 

 

Why superhumans are inevitable, and what else comes in the box

Do we have any real choice in the matter of making  super-humans? 20 years ago, I estimated 2005 as the point of no return, and nothing since then has changed my mind on that date. By my reckoning, we are already inevitably committed to designer babies, ebaybies, super-soldiers and super-smart autonomous weapons, direct brain-machine links, electronic immortality, new human races, population explosion, inter-species conflicts and wars with massively powerful weaponry, superhuman conscious AI, smart bacteria, and the only real control we have is relatively minor adjustments on timings. As I was discussing yesterday, the technology potential for this is vast and very exciting, nothing less than a genuine techno-utopia if we use the technologies wisely, but optimum potential doesn’t automatically become reality, and achieving a good outcome is unlikely if many barriers are put in its way.

In my estimation, we have already started the countdown to this group of interconnected technologies – we will very likely get all of them, and we must get ready for the decisions and impacts ahead. At the moment, our society is a small child about to open its super-high-tech xmas presents while fighting with its siblings. Those presents will give phenomenal power far beyond the comprehension of the child or its emotional maturity to equip it to deal with the decisions safely. Our leaders have already squandered decades of valuable preparation time by ignoring the big issues to focus on trivial ones. It is not too late to achieve a good ending, but it won’t happen by accident and we do need to make preparations to avoid pretty big problems.

Both hard and soft warfare – the sword and the pen, already use rapidly advancing AI, and the problems are already running ahead of what the owners intended.

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other media giants all have lots of smart people and presumably they mean well, but if so, they have certainly been naive. They maybe hoped to eliminate loneliness, inequality, and poverty and create a loving interconnected global society with global peace, but instead created fake news, social division and conflict and election interference. More likely they didn’t intend either outcome, they just wanted to make money and that took priority over due care and attention..

Miniaturising swarming smart-drones are already the subjects of a new arms race that will deliver almost un-killable machine adversaries by 2050. AI separately is in other arms races to make super-smart AI and super-smart soldiers. This is key to the 2005 point of no return. It was around 2005 that we reached the levels of technology where future AI development all the way to superhuman machine consciousness could be done by individuals, mad scientists or rogue states, even if major powers had banned it. Before 2005, there probably wasn’t quite enough knowledge already on the net to do that. In 2018, lots of agencies have already achieved superiority to humans in niche areas, and other niches will succumb one by one until the whole field of human capability is covered. The first machines to behave in ways not fully understood by humans arrived in the early 1990s; in 2018, neural nets already make lots of decisions at least partly obscured to humans.

This AI development trend will take us to superhuman AI, and it will be able to accelerate development of its own descendants to vastly superhuman AI, fully conscious, with emotions, and its own agendas. That will need humans to protect against being wiped out by superhuman AI. The only three ways we could do that are to either redesign the brain biologically to be far smarter, essentially impossible in the time-frame, to design ways to link our brains to machines, so that we have direct access to the same intelligence as the AIs, so a gulf doesn’t appear and we can remain relatively safe, or pray for super-smart aliens to come to our help, not the best prospect.

Therefore we will have no choice but to make direct brain links to super-smart AI. Otherwise we risk extinction. It is that simple. We have some idea how to do that – nanotech devices inside the brain linking to each and every synapse that can relay electrical signals either way, a difficult but not impossible engineering problem. Best guesses for time-frame fall in the 2045-2050 range for a fully working link that not only relays signals between your organic brain and an IT replica, but by doing so essentially makes external IT just another part of your brain. That conveys some of the other technology gifts of electronic immortality, new varieties of humans, smart bacteria (which will be created during the development path to this link) along with human-variant population explosion, especially in cyberspace, with androids as their physical front end, and the inevitable inter-species conflicts over resources and space – trillions of AI and human-like minds in cyberspace that want to do things in the real world cannot be assumed to be willingly confined just to protect the interests of what they will think of as far lesser species.

Super-smart AI or humans with almost total capability to design whatever synthetic biology is needed to achieve any biological feature will create genetic listings for infinite potential offspring, simulate them, give some of them cyberspace lives, assemble actual embryos for some of them and bring designer babies. Already in 2018, you can pay to get a DNA listing, and blend it in any way you want with the listing of anyone else. It’s already possible to make DNA listings for potential humans and sell them on ebay, hence the term ebaybies. That is perfectly legal, still, but I’ve been writing and lecturing about them since 2004. Today they would just be listings, but we’ll one day have the tech to simulate them, choose ones we like and make them real, even some that were sold as celebrity collector items on ebay. It’s not only too late to start regulating this kind of tech, our leaders aren’t even thinking about it yet.

These technologies are all linked intricately, and their foundations are already in place, with much of the building on those foundations under way. We can’t stop any of these things from happening, they will all come in the same basket. Our leaders are becoming aware of the potential and the potential dangers of the AI positive feedback loop, but at least 15 years too late to do much about it. They have been warned repeatedly and loudly but have focused instead on the minor politics of the day that voters are aware of. The fundamental nature of politics is unlikely to change substantially, so even efforts to slow down the pace of development or to limit areas of impact are likely to be always too little too late. At best, we will be able to slow runaway AI development enough to allow direct brain links to protect against extinction scenarios. But we will not be able to stop it now.

Given inevitability, it’s worth questioning whether there is even any point in trying. Why not just enjoy the ride? Well, the brakes might be broken, but if we can steer the bus expertly enough, it could be exciting and we could come out of it smelling of roses. The weak link is certainly the risk of super-smart AI, whether AI v humans or countries using super-smart AI to fight fiercely for world domination. That risk is alleviated by direct brain linkage, and I’d strongly argue necessitates it, but that brings the other technologies. Even if we decide not to develop it, others will, so one way or another, all these techs will arrive, and our future late century will have this full suite of techs, plus many others of course.

We need as a matter of extreme urgency to fix these silly social media squabbles and over-reactions that are pulling society apart. If we have groups hating each other with access to extremely advanced technology, that can only mean trouble. Tolerance is broken, sanctimony rules, the Inquisition is in progress. We have been offered techno-utopia, but current signs are that most people think techno-hell looks more appetizing and it is their free choice.

2018 outlook: fragile

Futurists often consider wild cards – events that could happen, and would undoubtedly have high impacts if they do, but have either low certainty or low predictability of timing.  2018 comes with a larger basket of wildcards than we have seen for a long time. As well as wildcards, we are also seeing the intersection of several ongoing trends that are simultaneous reaching peaks, resulting in socio-political 100-year-waves. If I had to summarise 2018 in a single word, I’d pick ‘fragile’, ‘volatile’ and ‘combustible’ as my shortlist.

Some of these are very much in all our minds, such as possible nuclear war with North Korea, imminent collapse of bitcoin, another banking collapse, a building threat of cyberwar, cyberterrorism or bioterrorism, rogue AI or emergence issues, high instability in the Middle East, rising inter-generational conflict, resurgence of communism and decline of capitalism among the young, increasing conflicts within LGBTQ and feminist communities, collapse of the EU under combined pressures from many angles: economic stresses, unpredictable Brexit outcomes, increasing racial tensions resulting from immigration, severe polarization of left and right with the rise of extreme parties at both ends. All of these trends have strong tribal characteristics, and social media is the perfect platform for tribalism to grow and flourish.

Adding fuel to the building but still unlit bonfire are increasing tensions between the West and Russia, China and the Middle East. Background natural wildcards of major epidemics, asteroid strikes, solar storms, megavolcanoes, megatsumanis and ‘the big one’ earthquakes are still there waiting in the wings.

If all this wasn’t enough, society has never been less able to deal with problems. Our ‘snowflake’ generation can barely cope with a pea under the mattress without falling apart or throwing tantrums, so how we will cope as a society if anything serious happens such as a war or natural catastrophe is anyone’s guess. 1984-style social interaction doesn’t help.

If that still isn’t enough, we’re apparently running a little short on Ghandis, Mandelas, Lincolns and Churchills right now too. Juncker, Trump, Merkel and May are at the far end of the same scale on ability to inspire and bring everyone together.

Depressing stuff, but there are plenty of good things coming too. Augmented reality, more and better AI, voice interaction, space development, cryptocurrency development, better IoT, fantastic new materials, self-driving cars and ultra-high speed transport, robotics progress, physical and mental health breakthroughs, environmental stewardship improvements, and climate change moving to the back burner thanks to coming solar minimum.

If we are very lucky, none of the bad things will happen this year and will wait a while longer, but many of the good things will come along on time or early. If.

Yep, fragile it is.

 

We need to stop xenoestrogen pollution

Endocrine disruptors in the environment are becoming more abundant due to a wide variety of human-related activities over the last few decades. They affect mechanisms by which the body’s endocrine system generates and responds to hormones, by attaching to receptors in similar ways to natural hormones. Minuscule quantities of hormones can have very substantial effects on the body so even very diluted pollutants may have significant effects. A sub-class called xenoestrogens specifically attach to estrogen receptors in the body and by doing so, can generate similar effects to estrogen in both women and men, affecting not just women’s breasts and wombs but also bone growth, blood clotting, immune systems and neurological systems in both men and women. Since the body can’t easily detach them from their receptors, they can sometimes exert a longer-lived effect than estrogen, remaining in the body for long periods and in women may lead to estrogen dominance. They are also alleged to contribute to prostate and testicular cancer, obesity, infertility and diabetes. Most notably, mimicking sex hormones, they also affect puberty and sex and gender-specific development.

Xenoestrogens can arise from breakdown or release of many products in the petrochemical and plastics industries. They may be emitted from furniture, carpets, paints or plastic packaging, especially if that packaging is heated, e.g. in preparing ready-meals. Others come from women taking contraceptive pills if drinking water treatment is not effective enough. Phthalates are a major group of synthetic xenoestrogens – endocrine-disrupting estrogen-mimicking chemicals, along with BPA and PCBs. Phthalates are present in cleaning products, shampoos, cosmetics, fragrances and other personal care products as well as soft, squeezable plastics often used in packaging but some studies have also found them in foodstuffs such as dairy products and imported spices. There have been efforts to outlaw some, but others persist because of lack of easy alternatives and lack of regulation, so most people are exposed to them, in doses linked to their lifestyles. Google ‘phthalates’ or ‘xenoestrogen’ and you’ll find lots of references to alleged negative effects on intelligence, fertility, autism, asthma, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, neurological development and birth defects. It’s the gender and IQ effects I’ll look at in this blog, but obviously the other effects are also important.

‘Gender-bending’ effects have been strongly suspected since 2005, with the first papers on endocrine disrupting chemicals appearing in the early 1990s. Some fish notably change gender when exposed to phthalates while human studies have found significant feminizing effects from prenatal exposure in young boys too (try googling “human phthalates gender” if you want references).  They are also thought likely to be a strong contributor to greatly reducing sperm counts across the male population. This issue is of huge importance because of its effects on people’s lives, but its proper study is often impeded by LGBT activist groups. It is one thing to champion LGBT rights, quite another to defend pollution that may be influencing people’s gender and sexuality. SJWs should not be advocating that human sexuality and in particular the lifelong dependence on medication and surgery required to fill gender-change demands should be arbitrarily imposed on people by chemical industry pollution – such a stance insults the dignity of LGBT people. Any exposure to life-changing chemicals should be deliberate and measured. That also requires that we fully understand the effects of each kind of chemical so they also should not be resisting studies of these effects.

The evidence is there. The numbers of people saying they identify as the opposite gender or are gender fluid has skyrocketed in the years since these chemicals appeared, as has the numbers of men describing themselves as gay or bisexual. That change in self-declared sexuality has been accompanied by visible changes. An AI recently demonstrated better than 90% success at visually identifying gay and bisexual men from photos alone, indicating that it is unlikely to be just a ‘social construct’. Hormone-mimicking chemicals are the most likely candidate for an environmental factor that could account for both increasing male homosexuality and feminizing gender identity.

Gender dysphoria causes real problems for some people – misery, stress, and in those who make a full physical transition, sometimes post-op regrets and sometimes suicide. Many male-to-female transsexuals are unhappy that even after surgery and hormones, they may not look 100% feminine or may require ongoing surgery to maintain a feminine appearance. Change often falls short of their hopes, physically and psychologically. If xenoestrogen pollution is causing severe unhappiness, even if that is only for some of those whose gender has been affected, then we should fix it. Forcing acceptance and equality on others only superficially addresses part of their problems, leaving a great deal of their unhappiness behind.

Not all affected men are sufficiently affected to demand gender change. Some might gladly change if it were possible to change totally and instantly to being a natural woman without the many real-life issues and compromises offered by surgery and hormones, but choose to remain as men and somehow deal with their dysphoria as the lesser of two problems. That impacts on every individual differently. I’ve always kept my own feminine leanings to being cyber-trans (assuming a female identity online or in games) with my only real-world concession being wearing feminine glasses styles. Whether I’m more feminine or less masculine than I might have been doesn’t bother me; I am happy with who I am; but I can identify with transgender forces driving others and sympathize with all the problems that brings them, whatever their choices.

Gender and sexuality are not the only things affected. Xenoestrogens are also implicated in IQ-reducing effects. IQ reduction is worrying for society if it means fewer extremely intelligent people making fewer major breakthroughs, though it is less of a personal issue. Much of the effect is thought to occur while still in the womb, though effects continue through childhood and some even into adulthood. Therefore individuals couldn’t detect an effect of being denied a potentially higher IQ and since there isn’t much of a link between IQ and happiness, you could argue that it doesn’t matter much, but on the other hand, I’d be pretty miffed if I’ve been cheated out of a few IQ points, especially when I struggle so often on the very edge of understanding something. 

Gender and IQ effects on men would have quite different socioeconomic consequences. While feminizing effects might influence spending patterns, or the numbers of men eager to join the military or numbers opposing military activity, IQ effects might mean fewer top male engineers and top male scientists.

It is not only an overall IQ reduction that would be significant. Studies have often claimed that although men and women have the same average IQ, the distribution is different and that more men lie at the extremes, though that is obviously controversial and rapidly becoming a taboo topic. But if men are being psychologically feminized by xenoestrogens, then their IQ distribution might be expected to align more closely with female IQ distributions too, the extremes brought closer to centre.  In that case, male IQ range-compression would further reduce the numbers of top male scientists and engineers on top of any reduction caused by a shift. 

The extremes are very important. As a lifelong engineer, my experience has been that a top engineer might contribute as much as many average ones. If people who might otherwise have been destined to be top scientists and engineers are being prevented from becoming so by the negative effects of pollution, that is not only a personal tragedy (albeit a phantom tragedy, never actually experienced), but also a big loss for society, which develops slower than should have been the case. Even if that society manages to import fine minds from elsewhere, their home country must lose out. This matters less as AI improves, but it still matters.

Looking for further evidence of this effect, one outcome would be that women in affected areas would be expected to account for a higher proportion of top engineers and scientists, and a higher proportion of first class degrees in Math and Physical Sciences, once immigrants are excluded. Tick. (Coming from different places and cultures, first generation immigrants are less likely to have been exposed in the womb to the same pollutants so would not be expected to suffer as much of the same effects. Second generation immigrants would include many born to mothers only recently exposed, so would also be less affected on average. 3rd generation immigrants who have fully integrated would show little difference.)

We’d also expect to see a reducing proportion of tech startups founded by men native to regions affected by xenoestrogens. Tick. In fact, 80% of Silicon Valley startups are by first or second generation immigrants. 

We’d also expect to see relatively fewer patents going to men native to regions affected by xenoestrogens. Erm, no idea.

We’d also expect technology progress to be a little slower and for innovations to arrive later than previously expected based on traditional development rates. Tick. I’m not the only one to think engineers are getting less innovative.

So, there is some evidence for this hypothesis, some hard, some colloquial. Lower inventiveness and scientific breakthrough rate is a problem for both human well-being and the economy. The problems will continue to grow until this pollution is fixed, and will persist until the (two) generations affected have retired. Some further outcomes can easily be predicted:

Unless AI proceeds well enough to make a human IQ drop irrelevant, and it might, then we should expect that having enjoyed centuries of the high inventiveness that made them the rich nations they are today, the West in particular would be set on a path to decline unless it brings in inventive people from elsewhere. To compensate for decreasing inventiveness, even in 3rd generation immigrants (1st and 2nd are largely immune), they would need to attract ongoing immigration to survive in a competitive global environment. So one consequence of this pollution is that it requires increasing immigration to maintain a prosperous economy. As AI increases its effect on making up deficiencies, this effect would drop in importance, but will still have an impact until AI exceeds the applicable intelligence levels of the top male scientists and engineers. By ‘applicable’, I’m recognizing that different aspects of intelligence might be appropriate in inventiveness and insight levels, and a simple IQ measurement might not be sufficient indicator.

Another interesting aspect of AI/gender interaction is that AI is currently being criticised from some directions for having bias, because it uses massive existing datasets for its training. These datasets contain actual data rather than ideological spin, so ‘insights’ are therefore not always politically correct. Nevertheless, they but could be genuinely affected by actual biases in data collection. While there may well be actual biases in such training datasets, it is not easy to determine what they are without having access to a correct dataset to compare with. That introduces a great deal of subjectivity, because ‘correct’ is a very politically sensitive term. There would be no agreement on what the correct rules would be for dataset collection or processing. Pressure groups will always demand favour for their favorite groups and any results that suggest that any group is better or worse than any other will always meet with objections from activists, who will demand changes in the rules until their own notion of ‘equality’ results. If AI is to be trained to be politically correct rather than to reflect the ‘real world’, that will inevitably reduce any correlation between AI’s world models and actual reality, and reduce its effective general intelligence. I’d be very much against sabotaging AI by brainwashing it to conform to current politically correct fashions, but then I don’t control AI companies. PC distortion of AI may result from any pressure group or prejudice – race, gender, sexuality, age, religion, political leaning and so on. Now that the IT industry seems to have already caved in to PC demands, the future for AI will be inevitably sub-optimal.

A combination of feminization, decreasing heterosexuality and fast-reducing sperm counts would result in reducing reproductive rate among xenoestrogen exposed communities, again with 1st and 2nd generation immigrants immune. That correlates well with observations, albeit there are other possible explanations. With increasing immigration, relatively higher reproductive rates among recent immigrants, and reducing reproduction rates among native (3rd generation or more) populations, high ethnic replacement of native populations will occur. Racial mix will become very different very quickly, with groups resident longest being displaced most. Allowing xenoestrogens to remain is therefore a sort of racial suicide, reverse ethnic cleansing. I make no value judgement here on changing racial mix, I’m just predicting it.

With less testosterone and more men resisting military activities, exposed communities will also become more militarily vulnerable and consequently less influential.

Now increasingly acknowledged, this pollution is starting to be tackled. A few of these chemicals have been banned and more are likely to follow. If successful, effects will start to disappear, and new babies will no longer be affected. But even that will  create another problem, with two generations of people with significantly different characteristics from those before and after them. These two generations will have substantially more transgender people, more feminine men, and fewer macho men than those following. Their descendants may have all the usual inter-generational conflicts but with a few others added.

LGBTQ issues are topical and ubiquitous. Certainly we must aim for a society that treats everyone with equality and dignity as far as possible, but we should also aim for one where people’s very nature isn’t dictated by pollution.

 

Should Dr Who be a different sex or race?

Dr Who is one of my first TV memories. I even got a Chad Valley toy projector with Dr Who slides.

There seems to be a current obsession with political correctness regarding the next Doctor, so I thought I’d throw in my two pennies worth. As you probably know if you are a regular reader, I’m not a big fan of PC. I much prefer actual truth to adjusted truth, whatever it looks like.

Dr Who was originally intended to have 7 lives and when he dies, he regenerates into a new body, convenient since that allows the character to remain but a new actor to take over. Those 7 lives are now long gone, and the original 7 has conveniently been dropped from the lore ages ago. The gender of the Doctor remains male, as in the original set of books, allegedly, but there is much debate about changing Dr Who to a woman. Some people object to that.

I don’t care either way since it has become so dull and predictable and PC that I never watch it any more anyway. Any sci-fi interest has long since been replaced by blatant activism. Now there is more debate on whether Doctor should be gay or a different color. All 13 so far (though I haven’t seen the last several episodes so I might be out of date) have been straight white men. Shouldn’t he/she be black or at the very least, non-white? An interesting question, hence my blog.

We do have some base for an answer. Regenerated Doctors don’t look like their predecessors, so genes related to appearance are presumably ignored, whereas the Doctor retains the same overall biology and species, keeping two hearts for example and remaining humanoid, so many genes are acted on. Does that apply to gender? Who knows, who cares? If it is important to stick to the lore, then he should remain male. If not, then it should really be on the basis of whichever actor or actress could play the character best.

What about race then? If he was human, then why not be another race? Most humans are not white, so if the Doctor were human, and genetics doesn’t count, then gender and race should presumably be random. However, again, any story is entitled to stick to its lore. Dr Who is not human, but an alien from Galifrey, in which case, to be scrupulously fair, I’d expect regenerations to follow the statistical demographic mix on Galifrey. I’d have to say they do based on episodes that show crowds on Galifrey.

Given that the default from the original stories is for Dr Who to be a straight white male, surely it is sexist or racist or anti-straight to demand he be anything but. If the series were about ancient Egyptians, few people would be demanding Cleopatra be played by a white man.

In fact, given that the stories have all had British Doctors, since they were aimed at a British audience, then it could be argued that Doctors should follow the racial mix of the UK. Due to recent immigration, BME Brits now make up about 10% of the current population, but that proportion was much lower in the past. If we calculate the probability that all 13 Doctors would be white if each were based on the racial makeup of the UK at the time of casting, then the probability that all would be white is about 40%. Slightly less than average, but certainly not evidence for any discrimination.

If, and that’s a big if, we now make the concession that all future Doctors should be randomly chosen to represent UK ethnic makeup rather than ‘sticking to the lore’, which is important to many viewers, then obviously 50% from now on should be women and around 10% of future Doctors should be non-white, with 2% black and the rest from other BME variants.  If the average Doctor Who actor survives 4 years in the role, then we should certainly expect a woman to play the Doctor soon, but only start worrying about racial discrimination if we still haven’t seen a BME Doctor in the next 6 or 7 regenerations, i.e. by 2045. Complaining before that is just anti-white racist activism with no factual basis.

 

Future sex, gender and relationships: how close can you get?

Using robots for gender play

Using robots for gender play

I recently gave a public talk at the British Academy about future sex, gender, and relationship, asking the question “How close can you get?”, considering particularly the impact of robots. The above slide is an example. People will one day (between 2050 and 2065 depending on their budget) be able to use an android body as their own or even swap bodies with another person. Some will do so to be young again, many will do so to swap gender. Lots will do both. I often enjoy playing as a woman in computer games, so why not ‘come back’ and live all over again as a woman for real? Except I’ll be 90 in 2050.

The British Academy kindly uploaded the audio track from my talk at

If you want to see the full presentation, here is the PowerPoint file as a pdf:

sex-and-robots-british-academy

I guess it is theoretically possible to listen to the audio while reading the presentation. Most of the slides are fairly self-explanatory anyway.

Needless to say, the copyright of the presentation belongs to me, so please don’t reproduce it without permission.

Enjoy.

New book: Society Tomorrow

It’s been a while since my last blog. That’s because I’ve been writing another book, my 8th so far. Not the one I was doing on future fashion, which went on the back burner for a while, I’ve only written a third of that one, unless I put it out as a very short book.

This one follows on from You Tomorrow and is called Society Tomorrow, 20% shorter at 90,000 words. It is ready to publish now, so I’m just waiting for feedback from a few people before hitting the button.

Frontcover

Here’s the introduction:

The one thing that we all share is that we will get older over the next few decades. Rapid change affects everyone, but older people don’t always feel the same effects as younger people, and even if we keep up easily today, some of us may find it harder tomorrow. Society will change, in its demographic and ethnic makeup, its values, its structure. We will live very differently. New stresses will come from both changing society and changing technology, but there is no real cause for pessimism. Many things will get better for older people too. We are certainly not heading towards utopia, but the overall quality of life for our ageing population will be significantly better in the future than it is today. In fact, most of the problems ahead are related to quality of life issues in society as a whole, and simply reflect the fact that if you don’t have to worry as much about poor health or poverty, something else will still occupy your mind.

This book follows on from 2013’s You Tomorrow, which is a guide to future life as an individual. It also slightly overlaps my 2013 book Total Sustainability which looks in part at future economic and social issues as part of achieving sustainability too. Rather than replicating topics, this book updates or omits them if they have already been addressed in those two companion books. As a general theme, it looks at wider society and the bigger picture, drawing out implications for both individuals and for society as a whole to deal with. There are plenty to pick from.

If there is one theme that plays through the whole book, it is a strong warning of the problem of increasing polarisation between people of left and right political persuasion. The political centre is being eroded quickly at the moment throughout the West, but alarmingly this does not seem so much to be a passing phase as a longer term trend. With all the potential benefits from future technology, we risk undermining the very fabric of our society. I remain optimistic because it can only be a matter of time before sense prevails and the trend reverses. One day the relative harmony of living peacefully side by side with those with whom we disagree will be restored, by future leaders of higher quality than those we have today.

Otherwise, whereas people used to tolerate each other’s differences, I fear that this increasing intolerance of those who don’t share the same values could lead to conflict if we don’t address it adequately. That intolerance currently manifests itself in increasing authoritarianism, surveillance, and an insidious creep towards George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The worst offenders seem to be our young people, with students seemingly proud of trying to ostracise anyone who dares agree with what they think is correct. Being students, their views hold many self-contradictions and clear lack of thought, but they appear to be building walls to keep any attempt at different thought away.

Altogether, this increasing divide, built largely from sanctimony, is a very dangerous trend, and will take time to reverse even when it is addressed. At the moment, it is still worsening rapidly.

So we face significant dangers, mostly self-inflicted, but we also have hope. The future offers wonderful potential for health, happiness, peace, prosperity. As I address the significant problems lying ahead, I never lose my optimism that they are soluble, but if we are to solve problems, we must first recognize them for what they are and muster the willingness to deal with them. On the current balance of forces, even if we avoid outright civil war, the future looks very much like a gilded cage. We must not ignore the threats. We must acknowledge them, and deal with them.

Then we can all reap the rich rewards the future has to offer.

It will be out soon.