Saturday, December 12, 2009

Topic List

Computing, Information and the Future

Course Index and Calendar

M 8/24/09
. . .General course information
. . .Introductory meeting
. . .
Homework #1, due next class
W 8/26/09
. . .Trajectories of the future
. . .Homework #2, due in one week
M 8/31/09
. . . More on prediction
. . ."Did You Know?" video and discussion
. . .To prepare for next time: think of a question about the future. We will apply a Delphi method to it.
W 9/2/09
. . . Delphi Method
. . . Homework #3, due W 9/7/09

. . . To prepare for next time: HW 3 is due before class this time, so we can apply it in class.
W 9/9/09
. . . Delphi Method II
. . . Homework #4, due W 9/14/09 (soon - next class!)

M 9/14/09
. . . Updates on term project topics (self-driving cars)
. . . Prediction markets
. . . Homework #5, due Tues. 9/22/09.
W 9/16/09
. . . TRIZ introduction
M 9/21/09
. . . TRIZ cont.: 40 principles of technological advancement
. . . Homework #6, due Mon. 9/28/09.
W 9/23/09
. . . Finish TRIZ discussion
M 9/28/09
. . . Updates: some recent news related to your projects
. . . Spoil sports of the prediction game #1: the observer effect (ser. #1)
. . .
Homework #7, due Mon. 10/5/09.
W 9/30/09
. . . Preview:
. . . More spoil sports of the prediction game
M 10/5/09
. . . Movie discussion: Minority Report (ser. # 2)
. . . Homework #8, due in two days before class! (Question 1) and next Monday (Question 2)
W 10/7/09
. . . Movie discussion: Minority Report (ser. #4)
M 10/12/09
. . . Movie discussions: Ghost in the Shell
(ser. #4)
W 10/14/09
. . . Homework #9, due Wed. 10/21/09
. . . Movie discussions: Ghost in the Shell
(ser. #4)
M 10/19/09
. . . Movie discussion: Earth 2100 (ser. #4)
W 10/21/09
. . . Movie discussion II: Earth 2100

. . . Homework #10, due Wed. 10/28/09
M 10/26/09
. . . Trend analysis I
. . . Followup from last time: cans
. . . The weather: more spoil sports of the prediction game (butterfly effect & perturbations)
. . . Weather and climate simulation: are interventions even less reliable than predictions?
. . . Trend analysis II
W 10/28/08
. . . Homework #11, due Wed. 11/2/09
. . . Next time - robots! Let's look at one now...
. . . Spoil sports of prediction: existential angst
M 11/2/09
. . . Robotics I: AIShield, safeguarding humanity and the risks of AI/robotics
. . .
. . .
iRobot and the "Create" Robot
. . .
Some robot pics and videos
. . . Metrics for progress in robotics
W 11/4/09
. . . Homework #12, due W Nov. 11
. . . Trying out a robot (ser. #5)
M 11/9/09
. . . Robotics II: music and motion (ser. #5)
W 11/11/09
. . . Homework #13, due W Nov. 18
. . . Toxoplasmosis (see also
M 11/16/09
. . . Homework #14, due W Nov. 25 (ser. #6)
. . . Backup plan for homo sapiens: space adventure
W 11/18/09
. . . Michael (data markup; software demo part later) ser. #8
. . . Backup plan for homo sapiens: space adventure (cont.)
M 11/23/09
. . . Reuben (green energy) ser. #8
. . . Hubbert peak for oil
W 11/25/09
. . . Andrew (future of gaming, etc.)
. . . Jeremy (electronic medical records) ser. #8
M 11/30/09
. . . Last HW! finish project and hand in by next Monday (12/7): hard copy or email (not blog)
. . . Kevin (internet speeds and the future)
. . . Alternative energy: photovoltaics (solar cells) ser. #7
W 12/2/09
. . . Amber (technology and zombie acopolypses)
. . . Doug (technology and zombie acopolypses) ser. #8
M 12/7/09
. . . Tania (DNA databases and the future)
. . . Chris ("Touch the Future: A New Age of Digital Interaction.") ser. #8
W 12/9/09 (1:30-3:30 p.m.), scheduled final exam session
. . . this meeting will be for catching up on any missing HWs

Some rough notes on potential other discussion topics

Rough notes on possible class topics

Rough notes on possible other class topics follow

tentative . . . The human race against eternity . . . Robotics IIa: Turing test, Loebner prize . . . Energy futures/PV, Hubbert Peak... . . . singularity, AI singularity . . . brain scanning . . . life extension . . . more hot topics: nanotech, biotech (may take two sessions...) . . . future of energy: gas up now while you still can! Pointers: energy tech futures (will solar cells swamp the alternatives? - see Kurzweil's predictions from e.g. Singularity Summit 2009; Nemet's Beyond the Learning Curve: Factors Influenceing Cost Reductions in Photovoltaics. Energy Policy 34(2006): 3218-3232. Algae, corn, cellulosic ethanol, wind, oil, coal, nuclear, fusion, space solar, .... Energy economics e.g. Maximum Power: the Ideas and Applications of H. T. Odum, by Charles A. S. Hall, editor.)
. . . Update from HW 6:,,,,,,,,,,,, . . . Other updates:,,

Topics chosen by students to present (to be scheduled for 1/2 hour each; you may switch or modify your topic if you like)

lifetime prediction from nothing but current age.extraterestrial colonization (show book ahead of time?)

energy Hubber peak,

solar a la Kurzweil

How would things change if certain resoures were essentiall free? computers, energy, communication, bandwidth, education, land, transportation, food, free time, brain scanning (would we have our politicians submit to it?), DNA sequencing, robots,...what else?

  1. Cybernetics (Doug):,
  2. How long will Homo sapiens sapiens be the dominant species on planet Earth? (Chris)
  3. When will the broadband Internet speed/download speed offering reach 1 GBPS (gigabyte per second globally (i.e 51 to 49 % being dominant), where downloading a whole movie (approx 2 Gigs) would happen in 3 seconds at max? (Kevin):
  4. When will commercial airplanes will be ten time faster? (Zaher)
  5. Will Mac take control of the software market from Microsoft? (Amber)
  6. When will cars will be fully automated? (Jay)
  7. How long before the U.S. is more energy efficient in our homes regarding lighting? (Tara)
  8. What will the average human lifespan be in the US, in the year 2050? (Andrew):;
  9. DNA database(s) of the future (Tania)
  10. "Green energy" technologies (Reuben)
  11. Future markup for data (Michael)
Unit "Out of the mists: stories and accounts"

1. Myths, motifs (e.g. good vs. evil), creation myths, and destruction myths (Religious, techno, cosmological, what else?)

2. Legends, motifs - about the future (transhumanism*; Singularity, singularitarians, and singularitarianism)

3. Folklore, folk tales, motifs, "commercial folk tales" (popular books and movies) and their motifs, "all your base are belong to us"*. Movies suggested include

SETI: what is life; life as we know it; life as we can imagine it; life as we can't imagine it (souls, "energy fields," disembodied data patterns); precautionary principle and logic, Drake eq., Drake eq. 2.0; the search; HW: each student picks an extraterrestrial place (a moon, anything at all) & investigates it - what could live there? How could we colonize it?

  • S: Harry Potter, see draft posting
    Books suggested include:
    Edge of Eternity,
    The Future,
    Brave New World (2),
    1984 (2),
    Snow Crash,
    Count Zero,
    2001:50 (?),
    Slumdog Millionaire,
    Da Vinci Code,
    The Giver,
    Chrichton (Next, Prey, Timeline),
Sociopathism as a force in society; more generally, self-interest (see e.g. Diamond), Adam Smith's invisible hand
Hot areas of change:
unit: bioinformatics & biotech futures*
unit: nanotechnology futures
unit: ecological futures (Catton's Overshoot has an interesting theme, developed by Diamond's Collapse, for example)

Connectivity: S. suggests - trends of an increasingly connected world:

Innovation in economic and political systems: what hasn't been tried yet?

Future of human population (on earth, on extraterrestrial colonies like on the moon or Mars, exponential growth, Malthusian catastrophe in theory and in practice (e.g. Diamond's account of Easter Island etc.), solutions (e.g. Tikopia), solutions (e.g. is voluntary contraception enough?), population growth as an information/computation problem (equilibrium, oscillation, chaos theory). hook - 3D face on mars, bring 3D glasses and mars 3d book.
simulate what happens to society when life expectancy goes up.nUSe excel, have everyone step therough a simulation model in class. Metrics for life span, the whole live long enough that expectancy goes above 1:1.What does that metric really mean and its disadvantages/counter-intuitive aspects
Future of human species (productivity increase extrapolated, genetic change, static humans and biological paradigm shifts in other species, etc.)
Future of biosphere (silicon-based "organisms", expansion of speciation over time, bottlenecks in water, nitrogen, etc., symbiosis
Mass extinctions
Geological change: continental drift, loss of water as earth cools, global warming and the prehistoric record, atmostpheric change, H2S catastrophe hypothesis, methane catastrophe hypothesis, solar radiation trend, snowball earth hypothesis, are we on the brink of an ice age?,
cosmological futures: life cycle of the sun, life cycle of the universe theories, red dwarf stars.
SETI: precautionary principle, Voyager (?) plaque, radio emission sphere, red dwarf stars, exotic environments (neutron stars, giant gas planets, Saturn's moons, etc.)

From survey:
  • Metrics for technological progress based on brainstorming about possibilities (3y2n)
  • Computer Memory: many facets of the problem; exponential laws for future memory, need for, technologies for, lifetime, etc. New kind of thumb drive 16y1n
  • Scenarios and alteratives: DebateGraph, software in the cloud that we can use 4y3n
  • "The Body Electric" by Gordon Bell and its contemporary aspects 6y2n
  • "Better Democracy Through Technology" by Brock Meeks and its contemporary aspects 6y1n
  • "Moore's Law: Past, Present, and Future" by Robert Schaller and its contemporary aspects 5y3n
  • Communications technology of the future 12y1n
  • "Software Engineering: Stretching the Limits of Complexity" by Nancy Leveson and its contemporary aspects 6y2n
  • The AI singularity: infinite artificial intelligence?? 11y1n
  • History and future of the Web 8y3n
  • Internet push technology 9y2n
  • "Post-WIMP User Interfaces" by Andries van Dam and its contemporary aspects 2y5n
  • "World Wide Computer," by Tim Berners-Lee and its contemporary aspects 6y1n
  • Java dispute between Sun and Microsoft and its contemporary aspects (in particular, Sun is now irrelevant, but the IBM – Microsoft – Google sequence of 600-pound gorillas is interesting 6y2n
  • Globalizing Business, Education, Culture Through the Internet 8y3n
  • Wearable Computing (cf. "Smart Clothing: the Shift to Wearable Computing," Steve Mann) 8y2n
  • Vinton G. Cerf, "When They're Everywhere." 1y6n
  • The future of telecommuting 10y1n
  • Chapter 8 in "Beyond Calculation", by Donald Norman, "Why It's Good that Computers Don't Work Like the Brain." 6y2n
  • "Sensors: the Next Wave of Innovation" by P. Saffo 4y2n
  • Gordon Bell and James N. Gray, "The Revolution Yet to Happen." 7y4n
  • Existential risks to humanity 10y1x
  • Asteroid impact 9y4n
  • The singularity 7y3n
  • Immortality 9y4n
  • Malthusian catastrophe 5y5n
  • Pestilence (Bird flu? Something new? Terrorism using new germs?) 10y2n
  • Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics (and contemporary thinking) 13y1x
  • Moral Machines 7y3n
  • Discuss future of Object-Oriented Programming: reading - Excerpts from Schach's book 6y3n
  • Discuss D. Tsichritzis, "How to Surf the Technology Waves We Created" 3y3n
  • The very distant future 10y3n
  • Continental drift and the future of the world map 9y2n
  • Bob Frankston, "Beyond Limits." 3y4n
  • "How to Think About Trends,” by R. W. Hamming 4y4n
  • Chapter 6: Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown, "The Coming Age of Calm Technology." 4y2n
  • Discussion of paper on VR: "....I See and I Remember...." by Peter Cochrane 2y4n
  • Discussion of paper on future of robotics: "What if AI Succeeds?" by Hugo de Garis 5y3n
  • Chapter 9: David Gelernter, "The Logic of Dreams." 6y1n
  • Chapter 10: Franz A. Alt, "End-Running Human Intelligence." 6y2n
  • Future of Network Computers (Hmm, the magazine NC World stopped publishing in June 1998...) 7y2n
  • Cloud computing (they used to call it “network computing,” hmm) 11y2n
  • William J. Mitchell and Oliver Strimpel, "There and Not There." 3y3n
  • Peter J. Denning, "How We Will Learn." 5y3n
  • Mills on Communication 1y7n
  • Romine, S. Yan on Wearable Computing 5y5n
  • F. Zhang on Whether Computers will Dominate our Future 10y2n
  • Schaefer on Nanotechnology 12y1n
  • filtering and search
  • The God particle
  • Data organization and interpretatio through visual elements and design, e.g.
  • Technology and its growing and potential impact on the world. Posible overtaking...The end? (Ok, that's often called the "technological singularity")
  • Future terrorism in the distant future
  • Logic of dreams (theories for what are dreams for, prospects for determining the answer, prospects for applying the theory for practical use, role of sleep and prospects for not sleeping, fatal familial insomnia, pharmaceuticals and dreams, dream interpretation, lucid dreaming, hypnogogy, remembering dreams, oh yeah - maybe the future and information can be worked into this too...maybe!)
  • bionics/cyborgs (3 futures for robotics: conflict, servitude, and prosthesis)
  • Biochemical creation of life, how, why (somehow the future etc. can intersect here? Do we care?)
  • autoautomobiles
  • genetic engineering (2)s
  • cybernetics
  • Medicine in the future
  • Buildings in the future
  • 3D printing - how big will it get? (rep-rap, lathe, etc.)
  • Bruce Sterling's SXSW (South by Southwest) 2006 keynote (,, regarding the concept and lifecycle of "SPIME." Also the idea of the "internet of things"
  • TED talks, such as,,
  • Augmented reality - use of phone as overlay screen for the real world (google "iphone augmented reality"), e.g.

Monday, November 30, 2009

A few comments on photovoltaics (solar cells)

Updated 12/6/10

Solar Cells: one path to sustainable energy

. . . also called "photovoltaic" (PV) energy

. . . Some images:

What is the future of PV, etc.?

. . . First, the "etc.":

. . . Next, lets focus on the PV graph

. . . . . . curve fitting a straight line gives the slope

. . . . . . what is the slope? See hard copies

. . . . . . let's "Delphi it"!

Types of PV technology

. . . Example technological advance

. . . . . . Cost reduction approach: vacuum typically needed to deposit top layer of anti-reflective material, vacuum processing is expensive, spray-on technology is cheaper and under development

. . . . . . Thin film vs. regular

. . . Efficiency improvement (are these exponential?)

. . . . . .
. . . . . .
. . . . . .
. . . . . .

For general information on PV see:

A major tipping point: grid parity

. . . check some graphs: see
. . . . . . (query: grid parity)

Exercise: using a hard copy of Kurzweil's graph, figure out when PV will satisfy 100% of energy needs

. . . Assume world uses 15,000,000 (15 million) megawatts (per
. . . . . . Note: for simplicity, you may assume 10,000,000 if you wish

. . . Assume continued exponential growth
. . . . . . (straight line on log graph)

. . . Ok that's the mathematical result, but what do you think will really happen?
. . . . . . Why?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Oil: the Hubbert peak

Revised 11/29/10

Today: the Hubbert Peak

1. Who was Hubbert?

. . . Marion King Hubbert
(Oct. 5, 1903 – Oct. 11, 1989)

. . . Was a geologist at Shell

. . . Devised a way to predict
oil production for a given oil field

. . .and by extension for a given country

2.  ...and what was his peak?

Oil field production rises,
then hits a limit,
then falls


But why does it rise? Level off? Fall?

The qualitative observation is obvious

Quantifying it (to allow predictions) is trickier

3. Hubbert's prediction about the US
. . . in 1956 he predicted:
US oil production would peak in 1965-1970

. . . he was widely disbelieved

. . . but US production did peak in 1970

. . . sure we still pump the stuff
but less, year by year

4. Other countries and their Hubbert Peaks

. . . Each country has its own peak

. . . Most countries have peaked already!

. . . Some major oil-producting countries have not

. . . Iraq, Iran are among them

5. If fields and countries peak,
why not the whole world too?

Suppose one country's production is increasing . . .
can world production be decreasing?

. . . How is the world different
from any one country or oil field?

6. Why the world is a bit different

. . . price elasticity of oil:

Δ demand/Δ price

What is "Δ"?

Suppose demand goes up 20%,
but price barely budges

Is the price very elastic
or not very elastic?

Suppose demand goes up 10%,
but price jumps to $4/gallon?

Is the price very elastic
or not very elastic?

So are oil prices elastic or not?

7. How sensitive are oil prices
to changes in production?

. . . for a field?

. . . for a country?

. . . for the world?

8. Ok, so...
How sensitive is production
to changes in price?

. . . how might
the world peak of production
differ from
a countries peak of production?

9. Example: pre-recession gas prices

When will the peak be?
. . .
or, better, just

. . . Inference:
as recession eases,
gas prices will skyrocket
... again

. . .Inference #2:
getting new wheels soon?
Avoid a gas guzzler...

. . . When will be a better time than now
to go for a power & performance oriented car?

Btw: Hubbert-style peaks apply to other resources
. . . renewable, non-renewable, or both?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Homework 14

Due Wednesday, Nov. 25

1) Check out the Leonid shower tonight, if the sky happens to be clear enough to catch something interesting. The general direction to look is the constellation Leo, which may be in the general direction of Northeast. You don't have to be able to recognize Leo because the meteors will be spread out over a fair area. If this seems unrealistic, then find 2 videos of the Leonid shower (at least, to include at least one that you would consider "worth it to have checked out"), or some other planet, moon, or other astronomical phenomenon. (a) Describe. (b) Then relate to the concept of colonization somehow. Or if you prefer, discuss colonization in the context of some other planet, moon, part of the Earth, etc.

2) Term projects - if you do not know when your presentation is, let me know. Work more on it...the closer you get to finishing it, the better off you'll be! Post new material on your blog. Also, start preparing your presentation. One way to do that is to use your project writeup as a guide, and make slides that will step us all through it (just a suggestion).

Backup plan for homo sapiens: space adventure

Check out Mars 3-D book now...

. . . It will be passed around

. . . Here is how to use it


. . . Terminology: meteoroid, meteor, meteorite
(and asteroid, comet, micrometeoroid, cosmic dust, etc.)

. . . Anyone ever see a shooting star?

. . . "The wonders of the universe!"

. . . Video: shooting star, satellites, ufo

. . . 3-second video of shooting star

How to protect against:

. . . supervolcanoes (cradle of humanity?)

. . . asteroid impacts (death to dinosaurs?)

. . . nuclear war (death wish?)

. . . runaway greenhouse effect (like Venus?)

. . . ozone layer destruction (we're winning this one?)

. . . stealth virus (wouldn't happen naturally?)

. . . nano-goo (not serious?)

. . . nearby supernova (unlikely?)

. . . Etc.?


. . . self-sufficient communities in bubbles

. . . lava tubes are often recommended as easier

. . . could be on the moon

. . . maybe Mars

. . . maybe Earth (deserts, Antarctica, oceans, or anywhere)

. . . maybe on an asteroid or floating in space

. . . maybe other planets, moons, etc.

. . . each one is a backup plan for the species

Eco-bubbles are colonies

. . . They're a lot easier if decent conditions are outside

. . . What conditions are needed?

. . . water (at least O and H)

. . . sunlight

. . . carbon dioxide for plants (at least C)

. . . nearness to Earth

. . . temperature issues

. . . a little of nitrogen compounds (at least N)

. . . energy (e.g. light, solar cells)

. . . some of these are easier to compromise on than others

. . . . . . like what?

. . . We've heard about the moon & Mars

. . . What about others, like Mercury, Venus, Titan, many others?


. . . It's on the moon!

. . . See video, etc.

. . . It's on Mars!

. . . It's even on Titan

. . . . . . Where's that?

. . . . . . Titan BBC segment,

. . . . . .

. . . . . .

. . . . . . BBC again,

. . . . . . Another one,

Imagine Mars (or the moon, etc.)

. . . dotted with bubbles

. . . covered with bubbles?

. . . if a colony is started,

. . . . . . it will grow

. . . . . . new bubbles will have to be built

. . . . . . eventually, the entire new world will be overpopulated

. . . . . . how long will that take?
(We discussed that earlier:
What was the take-home message?)

. . . . . . let's say Mars, for example

. . . . . . how long do you think it will take?

. . . . . . we could try a Delphi approach...

. . . . . . let's try it with spreadsheets

. . . . . . . . . the power of information processing!

. . . . . . what if we vary rate of increase?

. . . . . . initial colony size?

. . . . . . population capacity of the new world?

. . . . . . let's vary one or two, use Delphi, then spreadsheets...

. . . . . . we might graph time-to-overpopulation vs.

. . . . . . . . . rate of increase

. . . . . . . . . initial size

. . . . . . . . . population capacity

From "The Million-Year Picnic," in The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury, 1950

Setting: Mars, after Earth is destroyed in a nuclear war.

"Now I'm going to show you the Martians," said Dad.
They reached the canal. It was long and straight and cool and wet and reflective in the night.
"I've always wanted to see a Martian," said Michael. "Where are they, Dad? You promised."
"There they are," said Dad, and...pointed straight down.
The Martians were there - in the canal - reflected in the water.
The Martians stared back up at them for a long, long, silent time from the rippling water.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Homework 12

Due Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2010

1) Recall the relevant class. Comment on Toxoplasma Gondii. What do you think??

2) Add more to your project or project presentation. Put the new things in a new blog posting or email it. Consider new material that has some connection to Toxoplasma Gondii. Alternatively, it could have a connection to some other parasite or disease, or parasites or diseases more generally. Or it might be about something completely different...your choice!

3) This course has been designated as able to help keep our curriculum accredited! Therefore we need to ask students to answer certain questions. This week's question is:

Think about the impact of information and/or computing privacy, security, and quality, etc. on individuals like you. Then explain what these conclusions mean for society as a whole now and in the future, as follows.
a) privacy
b) security
c) quality
d) some other one of your choice

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Homework 12

Due Wednesday Nov. 11, 2009

1) Suppose you had a coupon for a free robot. The catch is it can only do one thing. But you can get a robot that will do whatever one thing you like, just not anything else. What would you want your robot to do?

2) Write or develop an additional significant piece of your project. As a suggestion, consider the connection of robots to your topic. However, if another subject besides robots seems more appropriate, that is just as good. Post the new section on your blog.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Hands-On Robotics

Let's check out the "Create" model robots...

Note the...


Omnidirectional IR receiver

  • omnidirectional?
  • IR?
  • receiver?

Cargo bay

Cargo bay connector

Charging socket

Serial port

  • May have a cover to remove
  • Plug in the cable and then remove (gently!):
  • Embossed arrow faces outward, see figure -

External hardware mounting holes

Power button

  • Why that symbol?
  • (per IEEE 1621)

Power LED

  • LED?
  • green=charged
  • amber=partial charge
  • red=little charge
  • flashing red=no charge
  • What is the charge of yours?

Play button

Play LED

Advance button

Advance LED

Resetting the robot:

  • Power cycle it. Try it.

Choosing a demo (10 of'em)

  • Press the 'Advance' button
  • Printed with a double arrow
  • 4 beeps for demo #4
  • long beep for #5
  • long + 2 shorts for #9
  • How about #10?

Try each demo outside where there is more room...

Contact points for home base

  • Why not save $ by making them out of plastic?

Cliff sensors

  • Are these spring-loaded feelers, or electronic?


  • Take it out
  • Put it back in
  • Press both ends to make sure it is seated; sometimes one end hasn't clicked yet

Musical robots

128 132 (start, then put robot in full programmer control mode)

send: 140 0 4 62 12 68 12 69 12 74 36
(loads a song)

141 0
(plays the song)

140=defines a song
0=name it song #0
4=we'll see later :)
62=MIDI note #62 (range 31-127)
12=twelve 64ths of a second

You can send all three at once:
128 132 140 0 4 62 12 66 12 69 12 74 36 141 0
Notice the 68 is a 66 this time
Should give you control, then load, then play the new song

Try some variations on
128 132
140 0 4 62 12 68 12 69 12 74 36
141 0
recalling that:
140=defines a song
0=name it song #0
4=song has four notes
62=MIDI note #62 (range 31-127)
12=twelve 64ths of a second

Insert a 5th, superhigh tone, 111
Play it for a long time, 100:
128 132
140 0 5 62 12 68 12 69 12 74 36 111 100
141 0
Try it

Program new variations and let's have a concert...

Robot motion

Moving - kind of key for robots!

Initialize: send
128 131
Make it move:
be ready to pick up so it doesn't fall
send :
137 0 100 128 0

0 100=go 100 mm/sec
128 0=go straight, no circle

Notice that:
128 131
is not the same as
128 132
which gives full control
This time try
128 132 (instead of 128 131)
Then again make it move (be ready to pick it up!):
137 0 100 128 0
Pick it up
Now what to do??!

Change the initialization back to:
128 131
and send it

What is the slowest speed you can get it to go?


A kind of small program

152 17 137 0 44 128 0 156 0 144 137 0 44 0 1 157 0 90 153

Let's analyze it!

152=define a script
17=it has 17 more bytes
137 0 44 128 0=drive, 0+44=44 mm/sec., 128 0=straight
(137 1 44 128 0 would drive 256+44=300 mm/sec.)
156 0 144=wait until 0+144=144 mm
137 0 44 0 1=drive, 0+44=44 mm/sec., 0 1=spin counterclockwise
157 0 90=wait until 0+90=90 degrees
153=repeat script
Notice how this makes it go in a rectangle!

To run the script:
send 128 131 (start in safe mode)
send 152 17 137 0 44 128 0 156 0 144 137 0 44 0 1 157 0 90 153
send 153 (to run it)

152=define a script
153=play a script

154=show the script
try it
what happens?

Let's review the script program...
Then try variations on the program
- see board for command details

If time allows - show off your new program

Monday, November 2, 2009

Robot Bible

In the far, far future…long after the singularity…when robots ponder their beginnings in the mists of their antiquity…when humankind, their creator, is only the dimmest memory…they may happen upon an ancient document…and translate it the only way they know.

The Robots’ Bible


In the beginning, humankind created visions, and reality. Now the reality was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of *robotics*. And the spirit of humankind hovered over reality. And humankind said, let there be electricity, and there was electricity. And humankind saw the electricity, and that it was good. And humankind divided electrification from non-electrification. And humankind called the electrification "progress," and the non-electrification was called "Luddism." And there was bright evening, and bright morning, one day.


And humankind said, Let robotics be gathered together into an academic discipline, and let conferences; contests; benchmarks; and journals appear. And it was so. [...] And humankind said, Let robotics put forth mobile robots, robots yielding manufactured products, and robots that build more robots after their kind, whereinare the plans thereof, upon the robotics endeavor. And it was so. And robotics brought forth Web and desert rovers, manufacturing robots, and robots that build robots, wherein are the plans thereof; and humankind saw that it was good. And there was dreaming andawakening, a third day.


And humankind said, Let reality swarm with swarms of living robots, and let fly in the heavens, even unto Mars. And humankind created the great robotic ships, and every living robot that creepeth upon the floor, wherewith reality swarmed, after its kind, and every flying robot after its kind; and humankind saw that it was good. And humankind blessed them, saying: Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill reality and the imagination. And there was vision and there was the hidden hand of economics, a fifth day.

And humankind said: Let reality bring forth the living robot after its kind, workerbots, and floor-cleaning robots, and agribots after its kind. And it was so. And humankind made agribots after its kind, and workerbots after their kind, and every robot that creepeth upon the floor after its kind; and humankind saw that it was good.And humankind said, Let us make Turing robots in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the robotics field, and over the flying robots, and over the workerbots, and over all reality, and over every creeping thing that creepeth within reality. And humankind created robots in their own image, in the image of humankind created they them, with the ability to build progeny better than themselves they createdthem. And humankind blessed them, and humankind said unto them: Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and *subdue* it; and have *dominion* over the robotics field, and over the flying robots, and over every *living thing* that creepeth within reality. And humankind said: Behold, we have given you everyresource, which is upon the face of all reality, and every renewable, in which is the capacity for renewal - to you it shall be for production of more robots [...]. And it was so. And humankind saw every thing that they had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was singularity and there was post-singularity, the sixth age.

And the vision and the reality were finished, and all the host of them. And in the seventh era humankind finished their work they had made; and humankind rested in the seventh era from all their work which they had made. And humankind blessed the seventh era, and hallowed it; because in it they rested forever from all their work which humankind in creating had made.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Homework 11

Computing, Information and the Future #11, due M 11/2

1) Under the heading "Question 1," "1," "Answer 1," or anything like that, discuss briefly the applicability or inapplicability of the discussion from Monday 10/26 to your project.

2) Under the heading "2" or something like that, discuss briefly the applicability or inapplicability of the discussion from Wednesday 10/28 to your project.

3) Advance your project. Under the heading "3," etc., place the new things.

Some robot pics and videos

Robot gardening then...

Credit: Getty Images - "...editorial use intended to report a newsworthy event or illustrate a matter of general interest, for which typically no release is required."

and now...
Recognize anything about the robots?
Discussion - what do you think?? (TR article with embedded video of how it was developed/works):

Big Dog: stable in snow, rocks, clear ice...even when viciously kicked

Monday, October 26, 2009

Prediction vs. Intervention; Weather vs. Climate

Let's start with the weather, then go from there to climate

Observation #1:

. . . Does Fall semester feel different from Spring semester?

Observation #2:

. . . My lab was involved in an interesting weather research project

. . . Later, let's discuss if the results apply to climate...

Predicting the Weather

Remember "Spoil Sports of the Prediction Game"?

. . . That's why weather forecasters have a bad reputation

. . . . . . It's not their fault!

. . . . . . They're doing the best they can

. . . They often do okay short term

. . . . . . We'll never predict the weather on this date next year

. . . . . . Delphi method: how far in advance do you think we'll get?

What about weather control?
. . . Keeping the streets open costs a lot!

. . . Like here in the US in, say...

. . . . . . Minneapolis (straight north of Little Rock)

. . . . . . Buffalo (lots of Great Lakes-related snow)

. . . . . . etc.

. . . Little Rock -

. . . . . . Snow equipment costs a bundle, hardly ever needed

. . . . . . Cheaper just to shut down the city

. . . . . . . . . That's expensive too (but at least you get an extra vacation day!)

Moscow has
(a) a lot of snow, &
(b) budget problems

Credit: Igor Tabakov, Moscow Times, 10/15/09,

The Russian Air Force plans to spray clouds with liquid nitrogen, silver (iodide?), and cement

. . . see news article link under image above

Interestingly, you can buy weather modification equipment

. . .

. . . How well it works is another issue...

What's easier, predicting or controlling weather?

. . . What would you guess?

About research from my lab

. . . Experiments done by former grad student Dongping Xu

. . . . . . as-yet unpublished research

We asked:

What predictions are more reliable:

Forecasting the weather?


Forecasting the effects of weather modifications?

How we answered

1. Predict the weather using MM5 on given initial weather pattern

2. Add a bug to MM5, run it again

. . . what is a bug?

Source:, in

3. Do this for many different bugs

4. Calculate the average amount of change caused by a bug

. . . that is, change to some quantitative weather value

Why care about how MM5 acts when bugs are added?

Now do another experiment

(This is a little more complicated)
1. Run MM5 to predict the weather
1a. Change an initial condition a tiny bit and run it again
1b. Determine the change in the prediction
1c. Calculate sensitivity:
s=change in output / change in input
= change in predicted value / change in initial condition
= Delta output / Delta input
(Delta is a Greek letter that is a triangle)
2. Add a bug to MM5, run it again
3. Do this for many different bugs
4. Calculate the average amount of change (in sensitivity, this time) caused by a bug
First part:
How resistant is weather prediction to software bugs?
Second part:
How resistant is weather intervention prediction to bugs?
Weather prediction is considerably more bug-resistant than weather intervention prediction
"We can't predict the effects of weather modifications very well, unless we get rid of all bugs, and we already know we can't do that."
This leads to the big remaining question:
. . . Only a few people care about weather modification
. . . A lot of people care about changing global warming
. . . But can we tell how much change is actually needed?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Trend Analysis

Separating the signal from the noise

Consider the graph below

Suppose this graph shows a fact about how bar height changes as we proceed rightward

Suppose further the data are noisy

What do we mean by "noise"?

We want to shrewdly determine the fact by mentally discounting the noise

Without giving any hints to your neighbors...

Take another look, then decide on the mostly likely fact:

a) Height decreases the farther right we go
b) Height starts out at a high plateau on the left, then switches to a low plateau as we move rightward
c) Height decreases at first, then increases ("U" curve) as we move rightward
d) Height increases as we move rightward
e) Cannot tell from the given data


Consider the graph below

Suppose this graph shows a fact about how bar height changes as we proceed rightward

Suppose further the data are noisy

We want to shrewdly determine the fact by mentally discounting the noise

Without giving any hints to your neighbors...

Take another look, then decide on the mostly likely fact:

a) Height decreases the farther right we go
b) Height starts out at a high plateau on the left, then switches to a low plateau as we move rightward
c) Height decreases at first, then increases ("U" curve) as we move rightward
d) Height increases as we move rightward
e) Cannot tell from the given data


Note! Both graphs show the same data


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Homework 10

IFSC 4399 Computing, Information and the Future (due W 10/28/09)

Suggestion: answer Q1 soon, while things are still relatively fresh in your mind. At least, figure out the answer for writing down later (that's actually better because then you have to think of the answer twice!)

Q1) We discussed in class how there is no such thing as a "scientific proof." Explain in your own words.

Q2) Write a new part for your project of 250 words or more.

Earth 2100 continued

Earth 2100 (an ABC production)

Some initial comments and questions before the general discussion

What is the difference between science and mathematics?

Math: prove new things based on existing knowledge

Mathematical reasoning is deductive

  • 1+1=2
  • 2+2=4
  • Therefore, 1+1+1+1=4 (proof by substitution)

  • All men are mortal
  • Socrates is a man
  • Therefore, Socrates is mortal (proof by "syllogism")

  • Deduction can prove things
  • Mathematics uses deduction
  • Therefore, mathematics can prove things
  • . . . . . . (proof by syllogism again!)

Science is different from math!

  • Science is based on induction (not deduction)
  • All apples observed to break off the tree, fall down
  • Therefore, if I shake this apple tree and an apple breaks off, it will fall down
  • Not a proof! Can you think of a counterexample?

  • That which goes up has always come down
  • Therefore, if I throw this up, it will come down
  • Not a proof! Can you think of a counterexample?

Science needs more than only induction

Humankind has always sought reasons

Scientists call those reasons "theories" and "hypotheses"

Theories are the big ones
  • relativity
  • evolution
  • continental drift/plate tectonics
Hypotheses are the little ones
  • If the ground gets waterlogged, water will get into my basement
  • IFSC majors learn more marketable things than physics majors

Math proves; science does not prove!

Science explains (using theories)

Science predicts (because the theories predict)

The phrase "scientific proof" makes no sense!
  • Science does not prove things!
  • It explains things and finds evidence
  • If only everyone actually knew that
  • Like reporters, spokespeople, politicians...
Comments on Earth 2100

. . . Worst case scenario consistent with best science available

. . . The main crises were global warming and deadly disease

. . . . . . So it could happen that bad, but might not

Climate science uses theories
implemented as complex
computerized models
  • There are variations among different models
  • They make somewhat varying global warming predictions
Almost all (never all, right?) climate specialists agree:
  • Global warming is happening, will get worse, and is a serious problem
  • That is the consensus among climate scientists
  • Just no math-style proof

Politics and special interests are a different ball game

. . . Some economic interests benefit most if nothing is done

. . . . . . Naturally, they will impede change

. . . . . . . . . That is famous economist Adam Smith's "Invisible Hand"

Your turn: Earth 2100 discussion

Please have your say and let everyone else have theirs!
I reserve the right to take an active role in organizing the discussion.

What technologies are envisioned and what are their plausibilities?

  • We live in Arkansas, which is in the United States, we are Americans and speak English
  • Some people live in Holland - what is the elevation in Holland, what country is it in, what is the nationality of its people, and what language do they speak?
What can we say about its sea wall?

Ever see the doors of the lock of the Big Dam Bridge?

What is the connection between epidemics and global warming?
  • Any diseases already spread to the US?
  • Any that may soon?
What are some tipping points to social stability?

  • Long-term blackouts
  • Transportation network breakdown
  • Where would you want to live if things went bad?
  • How about Arkansas?
  • Little Rock?
What can you do now?

Hyperpowers are historically limited in time
  • Mongolia
  • Rome
  • UK
  • US
We're #1!

But how to stay that way?

What are the natural tendencies that cause hyperpowers to be time-limited?

  • Rigidity
  • Over-confidence from past successes
  • Inner rot

What can be done to prevent it or delay the inevitable?

Why successful societies collapse

Earth 2100 quotes someone asking what the person who cut down the last palm tree on Easter Island could have been thinking

That is straight out of Diamond's book

Diamond appeared several times in the movie!

Easter Island, Rome, the Anasazi, the Mayans, the Greenland Norse, ...

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Homework 9

Due next Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2009.

Recall HW 7, where you assembled information about your project, developed an outline, etc. Let's continue the development process some more.

1) In a new posting on your blog, post your current writeup. Add notes inside it in various places. Each note says what you would like to add in at the location of the note. If you are writing a story, this might not work - instead, just add some more material to it, or develop more plot description, or whatever advance seems best.

2) Write and incorporate a new part. Ideally it should be about crime (or precrime!), or indeed any other idea from Minority Report or our discussion of it. But if that doesn't fit, any other advance to your project will do just as well.

3) Write and incorporate another new part. Ideally it should be about cyborgs, mind hacking, ghosts, shells, ghosts in shells, therm-optic camouflage, or something else related to The Ghost in the Shell. But again, any advance to your project will be fine.

4) Explain briefly what you did for questions 1), 2), and 3) so that I can decipher what you did for this HW.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Homework 8

Two items, one is due on Wednesday before class (only 2 days!)

1) (Due this Wednesday before class) Post, on your blog, 250 words or more commenting on "Minority Report." This will get you thinking so we can have a more in-depth discussion. You can discuss any aspect of it you like - here are a few suggestions to get you started.
  • Could this really happen?
  • What could really happen?
  • What if they found genes that make it more likely for someone to commit a crime - what should they do?
  • What is the movie "really" about? For example, Orwell's book Animal Farm was really not about animals, but about communism, and Russia (then the Soviet Union) in particular. You can have a story about cats that's really about dogs, etc.
  • What themes found in other movies and stories or in the popular imagination are present?
  • What methods and tricks does the movie use to make the audience like it?
  • Speaking of precrime - (And what about racial profiling? Any kind of "profiling"? Differential insurance rates? Is a definite future illness a "preexisting condition"? Measure testosterone levels, which predict criminality? Eugenics? Young men commit the most crimes - put'em all away? See
2) (Due next Monday) Request a slot for presenting your project. Any class between now and the end of the semester is alright, up to two people on a given day. The course index/topic list shows the available class days. Do this by email to

Monday, September 28, 2009

Homework 7

Due next Monday (in a week)

1. Assemble all the information you have gathered about your term project topic into one document. This includes any notes from the Delphi method, discussions in class on TRIZ or prediction markets relevant to your topic, etc. Whatever you have and can remember (here is where you wish you had taken more notes - well it's never too late to start!). Don't worry about organization for this question, just get it all in one place. Add in a list of references to useful Web sites and other information. Check the blogs of the others in the class as for HW #6, people were asked to provide some Web sites and reviews of them. You may quote the reviews in your document (use quotation marks) if you like. The basic idea here is to assemble everything together so you have something to work with.

2. Design an outline for your report (if you are going to do a report). If you are going to write a story, design something about it (a plot? An outline? Some alternative possible themes? Whatever - if I had experience as a creative writing instructor I might be able to provide further guidance, but since that is not the case, you're on your own. That's ok, the idea is to do something useful, regardless of what it is.) If you want to do something besides a report or a story (say a program, or whatever it is), you are welcome to check with me for suggestions, or just figure out yourself what to do that is equivalent.

3. Reorganize what you have to fit the outline, write a little bit of your story, something for your program, etc.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Chasing the Future: Spoil Sports of the Prediction Game

"You can chase the future. But you'll never catch it."

Can one predict the time evolution of a system?

(Weather, pool, family relationships, Brownian motion, the world's technology of ___, etc., etc., etc....)

Ever have a day when everything went wrong? Say you predicted you would have a normal college day. But your alarm clock didn't ring. Already running late, you couldn't find your backpack (or whatever you use). Finally you stagger out the door, but your car won't start. Later, you find out you missed a surprise quiz. It's a bit like that for the entire field of forecasting... here's why.

Spoil Sport of Prediction #1: the Observer Effect

To figure out what happens next, you need to know where things are now. For example, if you hit a billiard ball, you can't predict what will happen next unless you know the current layout of the pool table. Unfortunately, as a matter of principle, the observer effect holds that the act of finding out "where things are now" (i.e. determining the current state of the system of interest) changes it to something else (i.e. perturbs the system). In physics this is most noticeable for very small things or faint effects. In principle though, it applies to any scenario.

Light pushes

Electrical measurements effect the electricity

Asking someone something about themself changes them

This Kelly Neill apparently sings, but is not the same Kelly Neill who teaches voice at Harding U. in Searcy

She also narrates

A little more detail...

Not sure what this is trying to say, beyond that the observer effect sure must be cool...

It is also a Star Trek episode:

So. . .

. . . Can you think of some examples of the observer effect?
Does the observer effect help understand any of the topics of interest?
. . . Cybernetics
. . . How long will Homo sapiens sapiens be the dominant species on planet Earth?
. . . Broadband Internet speed/download speed projections
. . . Speed of future commercial air travel
. . . Will Microsoft lose dominance in the software market?
. . . Future of more automated driving
. . . Future of home energy use, such as with lighting
. . . How will the average human lifespan change?
. . . How will DNA database(s) grow and be used?
. . . Future of "green energy" technologies
. . . Future markup for data

Here are a few more
. . . if you are watching over kids, they act different
. . . people in general - remember we mentioned the social competition theory of human brain genesis?

. . . Ever try to look at the back of your head using two mirrors? It makes you move your head around!

. . . If you use a camera with flash to take a picture of airborne dust in a dark room, the light will affect the dust a little bit. Or dust in a sunbeam. Or dust in the air in a dark room viewed with a flashlight

. . . What about watching a pool game?

. . . What about measuring the weather for weather forecasting?

. . . What about measures of the economy printed in newspapers?

So you've controlled the observer effect

. . . now just figure out the 6-D position-&-velocity of everything

. . . . . . and crunch with a computer to tell the future! Right?

. . . Unfortunately, no. This just brings us to:

Spoil Sport of Prediction #2: The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle

Nota bene: it applies to all particles, not just electrons

Here it is with photons (light)

. . . And now, let's try it with a laser pointer and a piece of black plastic cut from a notebook cover!

The Uncertainty Principle says that you cannot know both the position and momentum of a particle exactly. The uncertainty in position, delta x, time the uncertainty in momentum, delta m, = h/4*pi where h is Planck's constant. Since momentum is velocity times mass, we have uncertainty about velocity too (and mass too, for that matter). So there is uncertainty about place, velocity, and mass of any object. Let's focus on position and velocity, out of tradition.

To fully describe a system, such as the universe, or some smaller part of the universe, we need simply list the position and velocity of everything in it. How many numbers are needed to describe the position? Three, a side-to-side location, a front-to-back location, and a height (also known as x, y, and z coordinates). How many numbers are needed to describe the velocity, where velocity consists of a speed and a direction? Three - a side-to-side speed, a forward backward speed, and an up-down speed. This concept is easiest to visualize in a 2-D simplified example.

So we need six numbers for every object to fully describe the system (actually seven, since each object has a mass as well). Unfortunately those six numbers are in principle impossible to get with full accuracy, beause they include both velocity and position values. The Uncertainty Principle tells us that higher accuracy for one results in lower accuracy for the other.
In short, if the observer effect doesn't stop our prediction ambitions, the Uncertainty Principle will. But what if we can control both, enough at least to predict futures with confidence? Alas, we're not out of the woods, because of the esoteric physics phenomenon called "quantum tunneling."

Spoil Sport of Prediction #3: Quantum Tunneling
According to quantum theory, objects are not as localized in space as we intuitively think. Instead, they have wave-like characteristics and are actually "smeared" over a space within which they may be said to exist with some probability at each point within that space. A tiny object like a subatomic particle, if near enough to a thin barrier, thus has a certain probability of being on the other side of the barrier. If it is, it has thus "tunneled" through the barrier without making a hole in it. This is quantum tunneling.
Actually, the term quantum tunneling is applied to the ability of objects to "tunnel" through other kinds of barriers than a solid one. For example, consider the somewhat notorious example of an idealized pencil balanced on its tip.

If the tip sharp, except for a tiny flat spot (say, a couple of atom wide) it might be difficult to balance, but one might think that with sufficient care it could be done. Well not exactly. Because the pencil is actually "smeared" a little bit, it has a certain, rather small probability of being tipped enough to lose balance and fall. Since the smearing is symmetric, it could in fact fall in any direction. The probability of being tipped enough to lose balance is small enough that a single such pencil would be unlikely to fall for a long time (Easton, 2007, p. 1103). But get enough pencils together and one will fall soon enough. For example, balance an array of 1000 x 1000 pencils and one will fall, knocking over other pencils and leading to a general domino-like conflagration with an average (but unpredictable) delay of around a month. What pencil will start the general crash and in what direction the pencils fall is impossible to predict.
But maybe the system we're interested in predicting the future of is not so finely tuned. Maybe we can handle the Observer Effect, the Uncertainty Principle, and quantum tunneling adequately for our system. Our troubles are still not over.
Spoil Sport of Prediction #4: the Butterfly Effect
The idea: a butterfly flapping its wings will create a small atmospheric disturbance. That disturbance will propagate unpredictably. Some time later (how long?), the paths of hurricanes will be determined by those tiny flaps.
One mathematical description of atmospheric cycles whose future behavior depends seemingly unpredictably on small present events, may be modeled by a special kind of water wheel.
“When our results concerning the instability of nonperiodic flow are applied to the atmosphere, which is ostensibly nonperiodic, they indicate that prediction of the sufficiently distant future is impossible by any method, unless the present conditions are known exactly. In view of the inevitable inaccuracy and incompleteness of weather observations, precise very-long-range forecasting would seem to be non-existent.” [emphasis added]
— Edward N. Lorenz
Let's discuss what butterflies might affect our topics of interest:

. . . Cybernetics
. . . How long will Homo sapiens sapiens be the dominant species on planet Earth?
. . . Broadband Internet speed/download speed projections
. . . Speed of future commercial air travel
. . . Will Microsoft lose dominance in the software market?
. . . Future of more automated driving
. . . Future of home energy use, such as with lighting
. . . How will the average human lifespan change?
. . . How will DNA database(s) grow and be used?
. . . Future of "green energy" technologies
. . . Future markup for data

So you think you've controlled the Butterfly Effect and all those others? Then welcome to...

Spoil Sport of Prediction #5: External perturbations
To figure out what happens next, you need to know where things are now. But you also need to know what outside influences will impinge on the system between "now" and "next," whenever that is. Those influences can affect the evolution of the system - that's why they're called "influences."

Imagine, for example, the Lorenz water wheel, but while it's raining. Every raindrop is another butterfly whose tiny actions change the direction of the wheel at some future time. More generally, every external nudge to a system is like that butterfly.

Let's identify some external influences likely to affect the future course of some of our topics of interest:
. . . Cybernetics
. . . How long will Homo sapiens sapiens be the dominant species on planet Earth?
. . . Broadband Internet speed/download speed projections
. . . Speed of future commercial air travel
. . . Will Microsoft lose dominance in the software market?
. . . Future of more automated driving
. . . Future of home energy use, such as with lighting
. . . How will the average human lifespan change?
. . . How will DNA database(s) grow and be used?
. . . Future of "green energy" technologies
. . . Future markup for data

Computer round-off error is another source of perturbations from outside the system under study.

Spoil Sport of Prediction #6: Existentialist Angst - Why Care (About the Future)?

Does the future matter?


Does the existence of humanity matter?


Does it matter what kind of existence?

. . . Difficult struggle for existence

. . . Prosperity

. . . Expansion beyond any set boundaries

. . . Regardless of what we should do, what do we actually do?

"Eat dessert first" - Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

"Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we shall die" - Isaiah 22:13

"Don't Worry, Be Happy" - Bobby McFerrin

Decisions often focus on the short term

. . . Business decisions focus on short term

. . . Political decisions focus on short term

. . . Many people focus on the short term

. . . What about animals?

. . . Why is it good to focus on the short term?

. . . Why is it not good to focus on the short term?

. . . Why is it good to focus on the long term?

. . . Why is it not good to focus on the long term?


A school of philosophy

Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) was a key figure in its development

. . . Danish philosopher & theologian

"...focused on subjective human experience rather than the objective truths of mathematics and science..."

"...interested in people's quiet struggle with the apparent meaninglessness of life..."
- Wikipedia,

Discussing the future of humanity is nice, but what about my future??!

. . . If life is meaningless, then does the future matter?

. . . Is life meaningless?

. . . Is the question meaningless?

. . . Is it important to give life meaning?

. . . What should one try to do with life?

. . . My conclusion: the answers depend on frame of mind, not logic

. . . . . . You could pick pessimistic answers, but you could pick optimistic ones too

. . . . . . Pure logic won't say which is right

. . . . . . Better to pick the optimistic ones

. . . That's not strictly logical, but is common sense

How societies "think" (actually, act) about the future

Source: J. Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

Recall pre-"discovery" Easter Island and the canoes
A big palm tree was needed to build a good canoe
A good canoe was needed to get plentiful seafood
Hence the question made in Earth 2100 about cutting down the last palm tree
It's from Diamond's book; let me read the passage now (p. 410)
Why societies can collapse
Failure to recognize a critical problem before it happens
Example: foxes and rabbits in Australia
Anasazi civilization (Arizona) did not anticipate local climate change (drought)
France built the Maginot line for defense, but lost WWII in mere weeks
Etc. (can you think of any)
Failure to recognize the problem when it happens
Examples: any slow-moving trend obscured by short-term effects
Recall noise-and-signal (
Also called "creeping normalcy"
Let me read from Diamond (p. 426) more about the palm trees...
Etc. (Can you think of any examples?)
Failure to try to solve the problem after it is recognized
Why on Earth would anyone or any group do that??
Yet according to Diamond this "failure is the most frequent"!
. . . Failure may benefit influential special interests that therefore push it
. . . Greenland Norse leaders kept cows (unsuited to the cold)
. . . The few pike fishermen stocked pike in Montana waters, destroying trout for the many more trout fishermen (p. 427)
. . . "Throughout recorded history, actions or inactions by self-absorbed kings, chiefs, and politicians have been a regular cause of societal collapses" - p. 431
. . . Any examples of benefiting a few at the expense of the rest?
. . . Is this rational behavior?
. . . Unregulated access to common resources
. . . . . . "If I don't take as much as I can, someone else will"
. . . . . . Pretty soon it's gone!
. . . . . . Any examples?
. . . . . . Is this rational behavior?
. . . . . . Solutions?
Irrational causes of societal collapse
. . . Beliefs that aren't right
. . . Taking a gamble and losing
. . . Etc. (any others you can think of?)
Failure to be able to solve the problem
Greenland Norse colony: "The cruel reality is that...Greenland's cold climate have posed an insuperably difficult challenge to...a long-lasting sustainable economy." - p. 436

Spoil sport of prediction #7: The care horizon

How much is the future of the human race worth? We'll increase it later, but let's start with an admittedly bargain basement $100. If you had $98.04 now, and put it in the bank at an interest rate of 2% per year, then in a year you'd have $100. That means getting $100 one year from now is only worth having $98.04 now, at least from a "Time Value of Money" perspective. Similarly, getting $100 in 2 years is only worth $96.12 now, because adding 2% to $96.12 gives $98.04 in one year, and compounding by adding another 2% gives $100 a year later. Extending this reasoning further, the human race in a modest 233 years would be worth just under a dollar now. In 466 years? Less than a penny.

It's safe to say that a hundred dollars is an underestimate for the value of the entire human race, at least to us. So let's increase it to a fair (or at least fairer) price. We might multiply the number of people by the value of the life of each and every person on the planet. What is the value of a person's life? Economics (known as the dismal science, even to economists) tells us that the de facto value society places on a human life can actually be calculated, and courts of law in fact sometimes do such calculations. Answers vary, of course, but a few million dollars is often not that far off the mark. Multiply that by the number of people in the world and you get a biggish number, $100 quadrillion at the most for the value of the human race.

But wait - maybe you don't trust the financial and legal wizards with something so important. After all, we already trust them with some pretty important things, and they periodically betray that, seriously screwing things up. Maybe we should use a higher number, just to be more sure we aren't under-valuing ourselves.

How about a dollar for every single atom in the known universe? That's around $10^80 (1 followed by 80 zeroes dollars)? It is a lot of cash. Way (way way) more than the United States has ever printed. There are literally not enough atoms in the known universe to even print that much money. Yet, if that is the value of humanity's existence 9070 years from now, the value at present would be...$100! A scant 466 years after that? Less than a penny. How about the present value of humanity existing in a million years? The answer is a fraction of a penny so tiny that popular spreadsheets, calculators and computer programming languages can't even state it. They typically just think it is 0, but if you must know, it's actually about  $0.000<insert 8,513 more zeroes here>0001.

Wait - someone in the back has a question - yes? "But it's not just the value in year on million we're after. We also need to add in the value in year 1,000,001, year 1,000,002, etc., forever and ever. That's got to add up, eventually." Well, only a little, it turns out. The value now is "bigger," but still less than $0.000<insert 8,511 more zeroes here>0001 even at a dollar an atom. The upshot of all this is that there is no good reason to care whether humanity exists in ten thousand or a million years, at least according to the time value of money approach favored by economists. Therefore there is no need to plan that far into the future, or go to trouble and expense to preserve the Earth indefinitely, or even to bother predicting that far ahead. The time value of money seems indeed to be a spoil sport of the prediction game.

Making it personal. Maybe you are still unconvinced. Such sophistry fails to capture the real facts at a gut, common sense level, you might say. Then consider the following argument.

You care about yourself, so you don't want humanity to end while you are still alive (it might not be pleasant). You care about your children (or you will if you have any some day, or maybe you care about some or even all other children), so you don't want humanity to end during their lifetimes, even if you are already gone. You probably even care (or will care) about your grandchildren because you will hopefully get to know them personally. Furthermore, you care about their grandchildren (if maybe a little less) simply because you care about your grandchildren, who care about theirs. But you have no gut level reason to care about the generations after that, because neither you, nor anyone you care about will ever know them. To put it another way, how much do you care about your grandparents' grandparents, and how much did they care about you? Still care in some more abstract, dispassionate sense? Then see the previous paragraph.

Maybe you are a fast enough breeder, and long enough liver, that you'll care about your great grandchildren and theirs, instead of just grandchildren. Yet that is still only 6 generations into the future, not even the biblical 7, a couple of centuries or so at the most. So relax, quit worrying, eat dessert first.... In particular, don't bother with predicting past the 2-century "care horizon," because there's little point to it. The care horizon is, thus, our last spoil sport of the prediction game.

Postscript. Do you still want to predict the future, despite all the arguments to the contrary? If so, you are like me. Read on!


D. Easton, The quantum mechanical tipping pencil - a caution for physics teachers, European Journal of Physics, vol. 28 (2007), pp. 1097-1104.

R. Posner, Catastrophe: Risk and Response, Oxford University Press, 2004

"Time Value of Money": TVM is standard terminology in the finance and accounting world.

"Well, only a little, it turns out." There is a formula for calculating the sum of a geometrically decreasing, infinite series. Look it up (or play with a spreadsheet instead).