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Forbes.com

 

Copenhagen's Future Schlock

December 18, 2009

By Mark P. Mills

It is sheer hubris for humans, even the supposedly smart ones, to believe they can predict the future with any accuracy.

Suppose it’s the year 1910. Could anyone forecast the iPhone and all the technology that underlies and surrounds it? Can anyone forecast today the iPhone equivalent in 2110?

A central conceit in the climate change debate is not just that experts can forecast the planet’s weather a century from now. It is the implicit, and explicit, assumption that anyone might forecast technology in the year 2110. The world’s future energy choices and appetites are the central features of all climate mitigation schemes. But it is not today’s technology that is relevant here, but the technology of the 22nd century that will determine how we will then obtain energy and what kind, how it is used, how much is used and for what.

The challenge of forecasting 2110 is readily illustrated by looking back 100 years ago to 1910. Consider what sages a century ago might have guessed about the impact of just a handful of technologies invented circa 1910: the washing machine, vacuum cleaner, vacuum tube, air conditioner, central telephone exchange and airplane.

If thinking backward or forward a century seems a stretch for tech forecasting--it is a long time, although to repeat, this is the time-frame engaged by serious climate-related policy wonks--how about 50 years? Fewer years ago than even that, many of us of a certain boomer age were still using slide rules. A representative list of world and energy-changing inventions centered around 1960 would include the first video tape recorder, integrated circuit, laser, light emitting diode, the first communications satellite, and the ARPANET (mother of the Internet). Who forecast their impacts?

President Kennedy’s America of early 1960 was still a world of rotary dial phoning, vinyl LPs, AM radio music, and the early days of color TV (tube of course). It was world in which no one forecast the GPS or iPhone. Most of what happened wasn’t forecast; not least by government agencies and their NGO pilot fish. And most of what was forecast didn’t happen, like the Jetsons’ flying cars, colonies on the moon and under the seas, to name a few. Four decades ago, experts surveyed by U.S. News & World Report--as part of a future look at America in AD 2000--forecast the demise of the internal combustion engine. There are almost a billion more such on the road today than then.

Over century-long time frames, a lot can change. In 1910 the idea of global air commerce was a gleam perhaps in a poet’s imagination, but hardly forecast. Global air miles exploded by 1960, and continued ballooning for the next 50 years. The central challenge is not forecasting how many air miles we’ll fly in 2110, or gigabytes of bandwidth grandsons-of-iPhone will consume (a lot by the way--data centers already consume more energy than civil aviation). We can only dimly guess--never mind plan nor create--a specific technology future.

In a century, it is possible (even likely) that some of the very precepts of physics could change, yielding who knows what outcomes. Circa 1910 we saw the dawn of the modern physics of relativity, quantum and nuclear energy that defined a century’s modern physical science. The notion that we’re at the end of new science has been laid to rest by the utter failure of science to explain so much that is fundamental about the universe we inhabit. For heaven’s sake, we not only cannot yet explain something as ubiquitous as gravity; we don’t even know what the basic constituents of matter are, nor how much and what kind of fundamental energies exist. Scientists have conjured up the undefined and totally opaque ideas of both "dark matter" and "dark energy" to explain the inconvenient energized expansion of the universe.

The more-than-reasonable underlying assumption for the next 50 to 100 years is that technology progress will continue, even accelerate as it has over the past century. But exactly what technologies lurk below the radar screen, soon to emerge? What will flower and dominate new products and services? Hindsight will make picking the impactful inventions easy. Likely many will emerge from things like genetic engineering, quantum computing, single-atom-thick grapheme materials, cloud computing (the emerging knowledge, never mind phone, exchange), remote-piloted vehicles, holographic storage, and meta-materials.

It is tempting for governments and reflexive central planners to try and come up with schemes, incentives, policies, and regulations to direct and cherry pick from the well of innovation. They get lucky episodically, but history shows they mostly fail. "Successful technologies are pulled along by the needs of the buyers, not pushed along by the ideology of the sellers," says Freeman Dyson, professor emeritus at Princeton and one of the great scientists of the 20th century still living and lucidly pontificating.

We do know a few things about the 50 or 100 year future that are locked in. First, people will be the same and there will be more of them. There’s no evidence that human or social evolution has changed or will change people’s basic proclivities. Even in the very far future, people will still have two eyes, a nose, and a mouth--the same desires and emotions, both good and bad. Second, new technologies will emerge and will be rapidly pulled into widespread use if they yield opportunities to live more comfortably, pleasantly and safely. And third, over many centuries these two inexorable trends in combination increase energy consumption--met by new energy sources and techniques.

Wood used to be society’s primary energy source; it’s now shrunk to a few percent of the total pie, yet we consume more total wood now. Coal’s trajectory was the same; used to dominate (1910) as two-thirds of the world’s energy but its share has declined since, though total coal use is up. Oil’s share of world energy peaked in 1973; still total consumption has since risen as economies expanded. New energy sources and techniques to sustain and propel society don’t displace old ones in absolute terms, just relative ones. Likely some combination of solar and nuclear will take the next slot in this long line, expanding choices, but not replacing what came before. After that, in a century? Dark energy? Who knows.

Policy makers, elected and otherwise, like to suppose the far future can be forecast with such precision that we should today engage concrete expenditures and policies to make that clear future happen sooner. Permit me to paraphrase Mark Twain’s famously irreverent observation about Congressmen: Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a forecaster. But then I repeat myself.

Original Source: http://www.forbes.com/2009/12/18/copenhagen-climate-change-personal-finance-financial-advisor-network-obama-kennedy.html

 

 
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