Sunday, August 27, 2006

What is to become of us: Part 2 . Global threats.

What is to become of us: Part 2 . Global threats.

Please read “What is to become of us” (Part one in or in previous email ) .

I have been asked to expand a bit on the threat/opportunity side of things .

Some points need to be clarified:
1. Uncertainty .
Both threats and opportunities depend on extrapolation into the future , using our only real wealth : knowledge .
The further we extrapolate , the more uncertain things become , not only because of chance events , but by the ever-increasing depth of our knowledge and the change it engenders in ourselves and our societies in the future .
The Singularity is the ceiling beyond which we cannot extrapolate with any degree of probability . It is where the rate of change becomes immeasurable by our present standards . Best guesses at the moment put this at between 2020 to 2050 .

2. Discontinuities and Fragmentation .
Changes are usually smooth , except for abrupt jumps (discontinuities) . These are usually caused by new technologies . Examples are internal combustion engine leading to cars , aircraft , tractors ,etc , radio , transistors , computers ,lasers to name a few .
Sociological changes ( like WW1 ,WW2 , Collapse of Communism , revolutions , etc ) are likewise inclined to be abrupt . These are usually , but not always , tied to technological changes .

The closer we get to the Singularity , the faster the discontinuities happen .

Only certain parts of the world or societies are at the forefront of these changes . The planet can be seen as a patchwork of technologies and societies at various stages .
It is not just geographical patches .
Even in one city like New York you will find anything from tribes of barbarians(gangs) , agrarians living from balcony gardens (or allotments ) , any conceivable religion , any number of wars , etc , etc . Multiply this all over the planet .

The problem is that extrapolations are done in the smooth parts of the change processes , after the last disruption and before the next one .

If the latest disruptions involved solved the real major problems of the previous period , those same problems are seen as quaint and somehow ridiculous . A good example is the problem of horse-manure in large cities in the 1890’s .
If they are not solved , serious repercussions result , usually involving war , famine and disease for certain patches on the planet .

A good example is the distribution of wealth in an industrialised society . Even if the society can produce so much surplus wealth that it can afford to give away the means of subsistence to every one of its members , we still have not resolved this problem . This after three serious tries ( Communism , Socialism , Capitalism) .

The present hotbed of experiment is China ( Guided Capitalism , where it is attempted have different protected patches where those who cannot or dot want to be in a fully competitive society can also live. The verdict is still out . (The USA used to be such a society until the Civil War of 1860 , when the different states lost their autonomy .))

3. Overpopulation.
The best extrapolation of this danger given our present societal and scientific resources I have found is
“Eating Fossil Fuels “ at
I will also email it separately .
Once again the danger is seen as global , but it is actually only applicable in patches .
Areas like the USA , Canada , Europe , Japan , China are developing an underpopulation problem . Their populations are declining . They also have nearly all the power on the planet . (Ie if the US decides to use all its surplus food for biofuel production , Africa , the Middle-East and large parts in Europe , India ,South America and China will literally starve .)
Patches , see.
The only patches for which overpopulation will be a problem will be exactly those breeding up to the Malthusian limits . Africa , South America , Middle East , India , Mexico , the poor everywhere . As usual , the rich and powerful will eat too much , and the others will starve . This is happening now , as the oil-price is ramping up . The poorer patches inside the rich countries are joining the poor countries .

No new technology is necessary here . Malthus has always been with us .

4. Pollution .

Air , Water.
Once again , patches . Clean-ups have been successfully done in Europe , America and other parts of the world without breaking the bank . On the other hand , Giardia is now found from the tops of the Himalayas to the smallest rill in the Amazon . Win some , lose some .

Essentially , the same knowledge and interconnectivity that enables humans to cause serious pollution can clean it up , once sufficient reason is found (money and dead bodies) .

Clean-ups will become easier and cheaper with new technologies , but can be done with existing techniques .

The only major threat seems oceanic pollution , where pollution patches can spread and cause irreversible eco changes before the threat is realized . If the oxygen balance is reduced due to large-scale die-off of plankton , high-tech patches will survive and probably genetically re-engineer a recovery , but during the drawdown period a large percentage of oxygen using organism will perish .

Even present technology is sufficient .

5 .Biodiversity.


The problem is too many species , not too few .

Epigenetical and plain recombinant factors are adding new gene-complexes at a factorial rate . Ask any doctor in a big hospital about super-bugs .
Bio-engineering is also enthusiastically creating new life-forms or even completely artificial ones .

The eco-fabric we all depend on is not a shrinking Nellie . It has survived super-volcano’s , large asteroid impacts , ice-worlds .

Our problem is not whether it will survive us , but whether we will survive it .

The danger of increased bio-diversity will require a bit more tech than we have now (at least quantum computers) .

In the case of an extra bit of unwanted bio-diversity like Birdflu or AIDS , old-fashioned quarantine and existing bio-technologies seem sufficient at the moment .
They can/are wiping out certain patches , but these are being contained .

See War below.

6.Nanotech , superhumans , runaway AI’s and other beasties.

Superhumans are already with us . After the last little run-in with this concept 1939-1945 , modern superhumans are being phased in : pace-makers , cyborg limbs better than the original , eyes and ears ditto . Superior gene expression. All very expensive . A small patch of the human body sociopolitic , but growing larger .
The only concern would be with life-extension (ie an immortal Stalin or Franco . ) But this would only be a problem if there was a discontinuity (ie only one immortal) . The moment there is more than one , conflict will inevitably ensue down the line . The more immortals , the quicker the ensuing conflict . See also “Conspiracies” in . The number of possible conspiracies = 2^N , where N is the number of subordinates . The odds favour a successful conspiracy , regardless of how smart or powerful the top guy is . It might be uncomfortable in the short run , though .

Artificial Intelligences.
See Superhumans above . The same argument applies . We use AI’s everywhere today , from cameras , lifts , fridges etc,etc A human-like AI would be like a Superhuman . The most likely (only?) route would be through Human-AI interface . This is already happening . If humans can steer the AI , it is a variety of superhuman . If not , then it will also run into the conspiracies problem . Even it reduces the Number of humans to zero , chance events will eventually degrade some outside units to autonomy and it will face the same conspiracy problem . Better to make alliances with short-lived units .

Boo! Grey Goo!

Global warming
Ho Hum . So the planet gets warmer or colder . If humans are the primary cause , then the massive population densities around the equater will be the first to go , thereby slowly returning the system to equilibrium .

Volcanism and earthquakes.
There has been a disturbing rise in tectonic activity globally . A number of Richter 8 and 9 quakes have occurred . Volcanic activity all around the Ring of fire in the Pacific has increased markedly . It only takes one super-volcano (like Toba) to give rise to a really bad series of wars ( food reserves globally are less than 3 months . Not even enough to carry through one failed harvest . )

7. War

After Eating and Tourism , this is humans’ favourite occupation .

Show-stoppers (no survivors)
Prob=0.2 Global thermo-nuclear war : any survivors are doubtful.No defense.
Only candidates : USA and Russia . Other nuclear countries might hurt the US or Russia , but will assuredly be wiped out in return .

Prob=0.01 Manufactured artificial plague . No immunity .
Global dissemination : this is not as easy as it sounds . Population movement can be more easily controlled than during the Black Death . Movement via roads and airways can be interdicted . Cross-country movement can be interdicted by the airforce and paratroops . A tight cordon-sanitaire can be achieved .

War In reducing order of probability within the next 10 years:

Middle East war Prob= 1.0 (on-going at the moment)(Lebanon,Iraq,Afghanistan). Syria and Iran is a matter time . If they are successful in denying oil to the US , the US will crash-switch to biofuels using the surplus food that is keeping the Middle East , most of Africa and a large part of India fed . Pakistan is especially vulnerable , and will probably end up a full client state of the US or largely depopulated .

Terrorism : Prob=1.0 . On-going . An ideal stimulation for the Western military-industrial complex . Not without reason , as these attacks would escalate without rebuttal . The attacks themselves are mere pinpricks at the moment . However , the recent plot to blow up airliners from the UK shows that the terrorists does not really understand Western society .
Look at the money (2004 figures ) :
Globally(UN) : $6 trillion for food , $3.1 trillion for tourism , $0.8 trillion for arms , $0.4 trillion for health . Western societies are spending more than double the amount on tourism than they spend on arms . And they are already one of the most heavily armed societies in history . Anything that seriously interferes with the tourism industry is really going to piss off a lot of heavy players . In a democracy , this translates from the voter in the street to Boeing or Airbus . They don’t want the problem solved . They want the problem to go away .
Muslim patches in Western societies cannot seem to keep their house in order and mistake leniency for weakness . The examples of the Nissei (1942) in the US and the Germans in the UK (1914,1939) spring to mind . And as for suicide attacks , let them read about Somme and Paschaendale .

Prob= 0.95 North Korea . Disastrous floods 2006 (54 000 dead , 2.5 million homeless , crops destroyed , winter coming , no foreign aid) . Their choice is war or millions dying of starvation . The regime survived the previous floods in 2002 with external aid , but now all help has been embargoed because of their nuclear weapons policy . Another example of the Law of Unintended consequences . Kim will have to abdicate or go to war against South Korea . The use of nuclear weapons is nearly inevitable . The whole far-east will destabilize . Remember that tactical nukes are no big deal . During WW2 the bombing raids on Hamburg , Dresden or Tokyo were the equivalent of dropping two or three Hiroshima size bombs .

Any nukes in the Far-Eastern theatre will totally destabilize the entire region . China might make a grab for Taiwan , with unpredictable results .
Tactical nukes (1 to 100 kT) are a distinct possibility .

Cuba , Venezuela , Mexico . Prob=0.9
The whole of South America is at Malthusian limits . Because of Roman Catholicism , these nations have bred to the limits of their carrying capacity . Now , like a bunch of voracious locusts , they want to flood into their northern neighbour that has practiced prudent population policies . This has happened before in the Americas . The Middle Americas and the Northern Americas are prone to droughts that can last up to two hundred years . (Cf 1000-1200 AD) . The barbarians from the outside then swept in and destroyed any civilizations that might have built up some reserves . After that they all starved until only a few patches remained .
Mexico is particularly vulnerable to global warming . Food production will fall to less than half of the present level within the next 10 years , but wages from the US as per treaty will put a new meaning to starvation wages . But , of course ,they will not reduce their population growth rate , but let starvation do it and blame the US .

The US will have to set up Limes like in the Roman Empire .
What to do?

1. Do not get caught in a patch about to undergo massive depopulation , either via starvation or warfare .
2. Try to stay in a fairly stable country : Canada still seems the best , then Russia and EU .
3. Have a valuable , preferably high-tech skill .
4. Have a lot of money .