On worrying about the future

Berkeley recently started a small program of "Big Ideas" courses, and it occurs to me that one appropriate topic might be The Future: things to be optimistic about and things to worry about. I claim no professional expertise, but as part of my own Probability in the real world course I talk about whether one can estimate probabilities for possible short-term geopolitical or economic events, or longer-term risks. This is perhaps not wholly unconnected with my personal interest in SF (science fiction). So over the years I have rather haphazardly encountered different sources of speculation about the future on the worry side. The time scale I focus on is "one generation ahead": my 20 year old students may not be running the world then, but they will be certainly be engaged with it!

The impetus for this essay was reading the responses (available free online here or in book form here) to the 2013 annual Edge Question What Should We Be Worried About? This consists of 155 short (1-3 page) essays by academics (mostly scientists, interpreted broadly) and would-be public intellectuals and authors. Before commenting on this, let me mention, for comparison purposes, two other sources for thinking or worrying about the future.

1. A portion of "serious" SF -- that is, not Hollywood movies or "young adult" best sellers -- involves the society and technology of possible futures one or two generations ahead. The SF editor Gardner Dozois, writing in 2015, remarks that there is currently a SF "consensus future" which he describes as follows.

A linked-in, hooked-up, continuous surveillance society, profoundly shaped by social media and the internet, set in a world radically altered by climate change (but one where it hasn't gone to civilization-destroying lengths), featuring autonomous drones, bioengineering, cybernetic implants, cyborgs of one degree or another of extremeness, wearable computers, the manipulation of emotions and memory (sometimes by external means), AIs, renewable energy, in which 3D printing is being used to produce almost everything.

2. A rather different perspective is provided by the 2016 version of the annual World Economic Forum Global Risks Report. This seeks to estimate likelihood and severity (measured primarily by economic impact) of about thirty risks (listed at the bottom of ghis page) over the coming 10 years.

So ......... What Should We Be Worried About?

Returning to the 155 Edge Question essays, they naturally cover a lot of topics (while missing many more), and naturally have different styles of writing. A reader content to come away with a handful of new thoughts will surely be quite content. But I personally was looking out for three categories of essay: novel interesting worries, or authoritative descriptions of more familiar ones, or incisive "musings" about the future. And from this perspective I found most essays rather disappointing.

However let me start with positive comments in each of those categories. Amongst "novel interesting worries" I only rated one as a standout:

Amongst "authoritative descriptions of more familiar ones" I noted

Now we are segueing into "musings":

Topics and tone of the Edge essays

On the negative side, I will not critique individual essays, but rather comment on the more common types of topic and tones of discussion in the collection.

A. 12 of the essays were about worry itself, but provided me with little insight beyond "a modest level of worry is usually best" (Robert Provine), though Joel Gold gave a useful reminder of the prevalence of anxiety disorder.

B. There were a surprising prevalence of different worries about baleful consequences of the internet, social media etc. At the individual level:

At the societal level: I found these surprising because these worries are commonplace and surely already familiar to Edge readers. And easily satirized by references to analogous worries through recorded history e.g. xkcd:1227. While future speculation is necessarily mostly evidence-free, a refreshing antidote was Jonathan Gottschall's more evidence-based argument that we worry too much about fictional violence. Rather that analyzing which specific worries turned out well-founded, I suspect that future historians will comment on the fact that we have implicitly conducted an unplanned uncontrolled worldwide experiment on the effect of e-devices on mental development of young children and teenagers without any prior knowledge of or research into the likely effects (Sarah-Jane Blakemore, Sherry Turkle). A more specific observation is that, if we accept the results of a (search engines) search for, say, "dictators of the world" as definitive, then we are handing over the judgment of "what is a dictator" to an algorithm (W. Daniel Hikkis).

C. There were many worries about science itself. Some were external: worrying about

this accompanied by a rather anachronistic essay asserting that the complex of poverty-large families-religiosity-poor education will lower IQ in future generations and increase anti-science sentiment (Douglas T. Kendrick).

Moving to worries more internal to science, we find

D. In contrast to the topics above, there was a curious lack of worries about consequences of specific other aspects of science and technology; indeed the only ones firmly in that category regarding what science is doing concerned

There were however several worries about what science is not doing: It is intriguing that no essay focused on climate change, though it did appear as background --- perhaps on a "preaching to the choir" principle?

E. There were several essays on the general topic of fragility of modern interconnected systems of different kinds (Randolph Nesse, Steven Strogatz, Scott Atran, Peter Schwartz); these struck me as both over-vague and over-familiar, and sometimes based on absurdly superficial analogies with physics or biology (Seth Lloyd, Stuart Kauffman, Kirsten Bomblies.).

F. A set of essays by theoretical physicists (Lisa Randall, Peter Woit, Amanda Gefter, Steve Giddings, Mario Livio, Leo Smolin, Lawrence M. Krauss) betrayed a bizarrely Sheldon Cooper-like self-absorption -- essentially they are all worried only by the fact that they don't completely understand all the laws of physics ( FYI, we never thought you did). Worrying that theoretical physicists have drifted into fantasy (Carlo Rovelli) is perhaps now more understandable.

G. There was a refreshingly small amount of implausible SF. Worries about the singularity were articulated by Max Tegmark, but countered by Bruce Sterling and Andy Clark. David Dalrymple wrote about posthumanism, and Gregory Benford expressed retro enthusiasm for interplanetary engineering, while Ed Regis pointed out that interstellar human travel is not remotely feasible, and Seth Shostak told us not to worry about aliens hearing us. Perhaps the only substantial point here is that "we are in denial about catastrophic risks" to humanity (Martin Rees, Gary Marcus).

H. Moving away from scientific topics, the essays become harder for me to categorize. There was curiously little about politics: Haim Harari explicitly worried "technology may endanger democracy", a worry implicit in some earlier essays; Eduardo Salcedo-Aldeban worried about failed states due to criminality; Daniel Haun worried about lack of international cooperation in general, and Giulio Boccaletti analyzed the global water crisis, pointing out the difficulties in international and inter-stakeholder cooperation.

I. There was also curiously little about economics. In addition to the essays by Satyajit Das and Laurence C. Smith mentioned before, essays pointed out the "social limits to growth" idea that material progress makes positional (status-seeking) goods more out of reach (Rolf Dobelli) and is only part of a "good life" (David Christian); and the more specific political-economic issue of regulatory capture (Charles Seife). But the general tone of the science essays resembled bad SF in the sense of ignoring or only superficially engaging economic issues, aside from self-interested complaints about funding and some general distaste for profit-seeking.

J. Some of the worries might be described as concerning the individual in relation to society:

Eric R. Weinstein provided a counterpoint to the "the best is the enemy of the good" saying by arguing in rather overblown prose that "excellence is the enemy of genius", and Michael Vassar argues that identifying "smart" with "learns quickly" leads to a population submissive to authority.

K. The remaining essays, perhaps a quarter of the total, strike me as off-topic (e.g. musings on free will) or overly specialized, or overly vague, or boring rants, or just too hard to summarize.

Do I have a bottom line?

Well, not really. As said earlier, let me use the "SF consensus future" above and the Global Risks Report (GRR) below for comparison. The fact there is little overlap between the Edge topics and the GRR topics is in one sense not surprising. The GRR topics are intended as plausible rather than speculative risks -- an analysis of comparative risks mostly familiar to readers interested in the future -- whereas Edge authors likely deliberately choose topics that they regard as less familiar. As noted before, the GRR topics are explicitly those with economic impact, whereas many of the Edge essays pay too attention to real world economics.

Turning to the SF topics, it was surprising that Edge essays were not much concerned with technology beyond internet-related issues.

Writing this review several years after the Edge essays were written allows one to see some overlooked risks which materialized: state surveillance, Islamic State-like entities, massive refugee movements, and populist demagoguery in Western countries, for a start.

Risks in the Global Risks Report

Asset bubble in a major economy
Deflation in a major economy
Failure of a major financial mechanism or institution
Failure/shortfall of critical infrastructure
Fiscal crises in key economies
High structural unemployment or underemployment
Illicit trade (e.g. illicit financial flow, tax evasion, human trafficking, organized crime, etc.)
Severe energy price shock (increase or decrease)
Unmanageable inflation

Extreme weather events (e.g. floods, storms, etc.)
Failure of climate-change mitigation and adaptation
Major biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse (land or ocean)
Major natural catastrophes (e.g. earthquake, tsunami, volcanic eruption, geomagnetic storms)
Man-made environmental catastrophes (e.g. oil spill, radioactive contamination, etc.)

Failure of national governance (e.g. failure of rule of law, corruption, political deadlock, etc.)
Interstate conflict with regional consequences
Large-scale terrorist attacks
State collapse or crisis (e.g. civil conflict, military coup, failed states, etc.)
Weapons of mass destruction

Failure of urban planning
Food crises
Large-scale involuntary migration
Profound social instability
Rapid and massive spread of infectious diseases
Water crises

Adverse consequences of technological advances
Breakdown of critical information infrastructure and networks
Large-scale cyberattacks
Massive incident of data fraud/theft