S3: Science, Statistics and Skepticism

I have just released my second book, S3: Science, Statistics and Skepticism. It goes for $0.99 on Amazon. Here’s the blurb:

“Does Homeopathy work? Are GMOs dangerous? Is climate change really happening, or is it a hoax as claimed by many? This book will help you navigate the twisted shores of pseudoscientific territory and cut through the nonsense to find the good science.

I’m Fourat, and I think good, peer-reviewed, replicable science should be the pride of humanity. Yet, for some reason it’s not. Join me on this mini-adventure as I help you navigate the confusing, jargon-filled, and treacherous arena of science and the outfits trying to coat themselves in its respectable veneer. By the end of this book, they won’t be able to hide their nonsense from you any longer.

Learn why homeopathy is wrong, climate change is happening, vaccines are safe, western medicine is doing us just fine, why evolution is true, among a few others. Find out what makes good science good, and pseudoscience pseudo. The success of science should be one of humanity’s proudest achievements, but, somehow it isn’t. Explore the bad and the good on this little journey, and have fun while you’re at it.”

The Art of DifferentiationHere’s the link one more time, and if you do buy it, and like it, or not, please consider leaving a review. Either way, it helps. Either by helping me write a better book next time, or helping me sell more books this time. Over the next week or two, I’ll be putting up a guest post from a biochemist and then a Q&A with an evolutionary biologist, both of which complement a few of the subjects I tackle in the book. Stay tuned.

And, lastly, thank you to my subscribers. For the life of me, I don’t know why you all listen to me, but apparently some of you do and that makes me happy. Thanks for reading, commenting, and sharing. You guys are awesome. Special thanks to John Zande who runs a marvelous blog writing sketches on atheism for his enormous help in proof-reading the first crappy drafts of S3. Many thanks go to Ryan Culpeper, who writes on history and religion with alarming clarity, for providing an early review. Also, Rhys Chellew, who writes on everything under the sun, for fact-checking the science and correcting me in multiple arenas; I don’t think I’ve ever met a mind that works so fast and knows so much. And to the enigmatic physicist David Yerle who, in a sense, peer-reviewed my book and set me straight on a few occasions too. Of course, where would I be without thanking my awesome girlfriend who, at critical moments, boosts my confidence to continue writing on tough days, thanks love! And again, thanks to all my readers. Though I don’t say it enough, I really do appreciate that you’re here.

P.S. If you buy S3, and email me your receipt (which you can find on the contact section of my author website), I’ll give you Random Rationality: Expanded (which actually costs more, but hey, I couldn’t think of a good reason why I shouldn’t).

What is the Future of Pseudoscience?

Bad Science, Good Science

We live in an age of information, it is said again and again. But that doesn’t mean we live in an age of good information” ~ Rebecca Rosen

The above quote nicely sums up where we are right now. We need better ways of analyzing the veracity and integrity of the multitudes of information we meet with everyday in greater quantity. Skeptical readers perusing the Internet try, and often fail—not that it’s a bad thing, it only shows their human—to separate the good information from the bad information; the good science from the bad science; and the meaningful statistics from the meaningless statistics. This paradigm, of needing to verify and to fact-check everything, is going to change soon. Some time ago, I had the clever little thought—I don’t have many so I have to cherish them—that one day soon, someone will invent, or create, the Universal Fact Checker (UFC), most likely, as a browser plugin (an app for your browser that performs a task). Recently, something similar has been created, but I’ll get to explaining that shortly. First, I want to explain what I think the UFC will be. I envision it as an artificial intelligence (AI) that scours what you read informing you of dubious, false, or outdated claims, providing instant fact-checking on the spot—just as Fact Check does for US politicians; just like medicine does to snakes oilmen; and what science does to non-science. The key difference being is that it is with you at all times at the point of contact, as you absorb new information. You will not have to seek it out, or even to remember to seek it out, it will just be there karate-chopping bullshit in the face, like Penn & Teller, but, always there. Let’s face it, how many of us spot-check everything we learn? Not a single one of us. There simply isn’t enough time to do so even if you wanted to, and even if you had to. In such scenarios that we are in almost every day, the logical solution is not to accept it as fate, but to invent a technology that alleviates the problem—inability to check and retain every piece of information provided to us—and performs the necessary tasks orders of magnitude better than we could.

How Might It Work?

Picture this: imagine you’re reading some pseudoscientist’s take on autism, intelligent design, theistic evolution, quantum healing, or whatever other woo you can shake a scientific stick at, but never makes it goes away (as not everyone will read it, or even have the scientific training to understand it) but, as you browse and absorb, your trusty little UFC scours ahead, subjecting every word, statistic, number, sentence, and paragraph on the page against empirical, peer-reviewed science and academic works highlighting the paragraphs that profess false certainties or provide dubious claims. In other words, MMA’ing the hell out of pseudoscience (I had to put a bad pun in somewhere). Only the strongest claims—evidence-based claims—will survive; what we would otherwise call good science; which is, what we would otherwise call—for lack of a better word—the truth.

Consider an example: (1) A website details the increase in autism rates in the last several decades (true). (2) It then goes on to say vaccines contain thimerosal (partially true). (3) It, then, continues on to say that since thimerosal contains the neurotoxin mercury (true), comes to the conclusion: (4) vaccines cause autism (false). So, how might the UFC access such a claim?

(1) The first section, after having been UFC-assessed, remains untouched because there really has been an uptick in autism rates. Though, if you happen to hover your mouse over it, you will be informed that much of the uptick has been due to a redefinition of autism, and, doctors becoming more aware of autism, thereby, increasingly diagnosing it instead of the condition going unseen or misdiagnosed. So, it is quite likely that the uptick in autism rates is not really an uptick at all, but merely, properly accounting for it for the first time, though still comparing it to the previous underestimated counts. (Of course, it will also tell you that it is a hypothesis, the leading hypothesis, but still not decidedly proven, yet far in advance of any other leading hypothesis.)

(2) The second section being somewhat factually based, is highlighted in orange. As a curious observer you, again, hover your mouse over the highlighted paragraph and a side-bar appears informing you that thimerosal was removed from vaccines by the summer of 2001, excepting the flu and tetanus shots. So, the statement, being as it is a generalization, has tried to lull you into a false certainty—and in this case, failed. You become slightly more suspicious of everything else the article professes to know.

(3) You move on to the third section, and notice that, it too, is highlighted in orange, with a sidebar informing you that methyl-mercury is a neurotoxin, but it (methyl-mercury) is not found in those few vaccines that still contain thimerosal (or any vaccine that ever contained thimerosal), as mercury in thimerosal is bound as an organic ethyl-mercury; it thereby being rendered impotent and easily filtered out by your kidneys, and, therefore, cannot be a neurotoxin. Your suspicions continue to increase.

(4) The fourth section, you’ve now noticed, is highlighted in red as the conclusion does not follow the logic deductively, but rather, inductively, and even then, in a series of inductive leaps with no evidential threads to support the leap from one to the next, so it’s closer to say that they are purely imaginative leaps. The sidebar will inform you that studies looking for any causal thread, which have cumulatively looked at millions of children, have found not even a simple correlative example between thimerosal (or vaccines in general) and autism, or any other disorder. It will tell you that in studies that looked at vaccinated and non-vaccinated kids, they have the same rates of autism, but overall, vaccinated kids get less sick. You now close the webpage and never visit the website again.

Ramifications

Now, wouldn’t that be a sight. Every creationist, anti-vaxxer, homeopathic, quantum healing, feng-shui, talking-to-the-dead website would be littered in orange and red paragraphs. The websites of the Thinking Mom’s Revolution; of Joe Mercola; of Natural News; of Age of Autism; of Reasonable Faith; of Answers in Genesis would become virtual ghost-towns, almost overnight (well, so the theory goes). They will cry foul, they will bitch, they will whine, and complain about being censored, and that it is all a conspiracy to keep the truth from you, because of course, only they have it. Some will listen, I hope most don’t. It will be true, their future babble about censorship, that is. But it will be censorship by good science, and since good science is what nature has regarded as true, it will be censorship by nature, or as I prefer to call it, the universe. (When people refer to nature, they refer to the insignificant speck of dust that is the Earth, but the Universe is where the action is at.) Michael Specter said it best in his book Denialism: What can be understood and reliably repeated by experiment is what nature regarded as true.” Indeed, there will be a conspiracy, there will be censorship, but, it will be imposed by nature, and therein shall we find the truth.

I’ve meant to write this post for some months, but never got around to it. I finally did so after reading two interesting articles in close succession: one in The Atlantic by Rebecca Rosen, Is It Journalism, or Just a Repackaged Press Release? Here’s a Tool to Help You Find Out, and the other on the open-source science journal PLOS ONE titled, Text Mining Effectively Scores and Ranks the Literature for Improving Chemical-Gene-Disease Curation at the Comparative Toxicogenomics Database. (I highly recommend you read both before continuing, but if you don’t have time to read the articles, I will summarize—inadequately I might add, so read them.)

The first is a tool, named Churnalism, and it has been created to identify plagiarism in the media. It will allow users to submit or post articles and have the language checked against press releases, Fortune 500 companies, and government sources. This will help the would-be reader separate the wheat from the chaff, the original from the copied, and the reportage from the self-congratulatory, and subjective, press release. You’ll have front-row seats as the reportage, reporters, blogs, and online media without integrity fall to the wayside. In short, it is a simple way to instantly check the integrity of those whom we trust with reporting the truth. This tool has the potential to cull those with false pretenses. (You can even install it as a browser plugin so it automatically identifies those articles that have plagiarized. Just as I hope the UFC will do one day—hopefully soon.)

The second is yet another tool created to serve a specific need performing a different, though equally important, task (at least for scientists, though if it helps them, it helps us all). There are thousands of scientific studies being published every day. (The open database, PubMed, alone publishes a new study every minute, and there is, perhaps, 50 million studies published somewhere.) No scientist can keep up with it, though it doesn’t stop them from trying. But, an inordinate amount of time is wasted weeding out non-relevant studies. If scientists could find a reliable way to accurately and quickly accomplish that task, it would, well, free up more time for them to do more science. So, a few scientists created a sophisticated algorithm that read through 15,000 papers going back to 1926 on metal toxicology and, using inputted indicators of article relevancy, novel data content, interaction yield rate, mean average precision, and biological and toxicological interpretability (you don’t need to know what these means) was able to, 85% of the time, rank the studies accurately in their relevance so that precious research time (and PHD students) could be focused towards those studies most conducive to their ends. Now, that is cool! (Also useful, but cool invariably comes first.)

What’s Next?

As I made the case earlier, this seems to be the beginnings of the left-hook out of left-field that pseudo-scientists will receive, and, hopefully, a lot sooner than many expect. These two programs, pieces of information technology, will not sit around unused and stagnant; others will take it, play with it, evolve it, and twist it to new purposes, and I hope one of those gifted folks turns it full-force towards the elimination of pseudoscience. Nothing is more relevant today than removing the influence of pseudoscientific jibber-jabber from the discourse we should be having on vaccines, nutrition, more importantly climate change and biotechnology, and perhaps even economics and politics. I can see no barriers to its implementation (aside from cost, which, as I’ll explain in a few paragraphs, is only a short-term problem).

I’m sure, by now, that most people know about IBM’s Watson beating two human opponents (the two best human opponents I might add) in Jeopardy; a game based on the nuance of human language. Watson, an AI, was able to deconstruct the language, understand grammar and syntax in the context of a question, and probabilistically match it to information it ascertained from Wikipedia. (That is, it wasn’t trained to play the game and had to figure out the answers all on its own in a similar manner to how our brains work.) Watch this video to see just how formidable Watson is (4-minutes long). You’ll even see most of the time that when Watson is beaten to the punch that he had the correct answer as well. Watson is now being trained as a medical assistant, and will be most instrumental in analyzing the totality of medical research and new studies coming out every day that a doctor could not hope to keep up with, and helping said doctor in correctly diagnosing patients reducing errors and cost, increasing health, and improving lives along the way. Watson, the fact checker, could be, in a few years, capable of the reasoning in our vaccine example above, if not already. And if IBM is this far, then other companies aren’t far behind. In fact, Ray Kurzweil, the futurist, is working to fully develop a personal, super-intelligent, and always online virtual assistant at Google that can read and understand the semantic content of the web at large. At that point, it will be possible that you’ll no longer have to search for stuff. You’ll just ask questions instead and empirically relevant, sound answers will be displayed. (Perhaps, this explains why Google is moving into hardware: Google Glass, self-driving cars, and the takeover of Motorola. No search results when you ask a question, but that is merely uninformed speculation.)

Benefits

Instead of searching for when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, where you may have several moon-landing-was-a-hoax results on the first page, you’ll only get the real, empirical answer: July 20th, 1969 alongside a photo of him, you know, actually standing on the moon.

Instead of spending long hours trying to research vaccine safety, where, as a non-medical professional, you can’t tell who’s giving you sound advice and who isn’t; and where, subsequently, a lot of good information is mixed, and lost in, a mountain of bad information, you’ll simply ask: “Is the DPT vaccine safe for my child?” The unambiguous answer will be yes, linking to the multitude of peer-reviewed studies (and only peer-reviewed) on the subject as well as, perhaps, explaining the pro’s and con’s of the quality of the studies, their methodology, any biases, statistical significance, and so forth. It will do this, perhaps, while also showing you the statistical advantage and risk-benefit analysis of not vaccinating your child, so that you may make your decision within the full context of available information bypassing your human heuristics that often ignores several important factors in valuing and acting on information.

Instead of having to filter through creationist babble about when and how the Universe was created, instead, you’ll ask “When and how did the Universe come into being?” The answer will be: “13.82 billion years ago. This data was ascertained with help from the Kepler and Hubble space telescopes, from WMAP, experiments in particle accelerators etc etc etc, and the best-supported hypothesis of creation at this time is a quantum energy fluctuation that instantiated itself into a system of net-energy zero that then forced negative space to expand to compensate for the positive energy instantiation, so that the system (Universe) remained at net zero energy.” (Of course, the super-intelligent machine will find a way to say this, or whatever the correct answer is, if it has changed or been refined, in a far more precise and succinct way than I have.)

But, where will these answers come from? From empirical, peer-reviewed research of course. From the hard and soft sciences, from academia, from open-source journals, and the avalanche of historic data just sitting around drawers waiting to be digitized, analyzed, and parsed through.

While the scenario I provided above—the autism example—is probably not going to happen for some years; for it takes an immense amount of computation and advanced algorithms. While these exist, they are supremely expensive, and considering that the UFC would be most useful as a free plugin—just as I have the churnalism plugin in my Chrome browser that automatically warns me if plagiarism is found—there is, as yet, no profit motive. (However, the profit motive is only necessary when the technologies are expensive. As they get cheaper, it will no longer be necessary.) But, because technology, particularly information technology (IT), is so awesome, it’s only a matter of time before it becomes cheap enough. (As IT’s price-performance per constant-dollar roughly doubles every year like clockwork. Therefore, in 10 years, the technology will be 1000 times more powerful while costing the same, adjusted for inflation, as now.) It’s only a matter of time before it is cheap enough.

Bye-Bye Pseudoscience

Mark the calendar friends, Churnalism and the Science Text-Miner are only the first step. When the UFC arrives, it will come out of the gate swinging. At first, it will be simple, but it will iterate quickly and quicker until it encroaches upon, enveloping and suffocating, all the fields of pseudoscience, and real science will win. How could good science not win? It offers unlimited expansion, untold benefits, improves our lives in a very real way, and—again, for lack of a better word—has the good manners of being true. Pseudoscience appeals only to our vanity and ego and little more, it can only win in an environment where it is not selected against, such as the current (and past) environment where only a small percentage of the population are scientifically trained, but as soon as the tools of skepticism become available to one and all, it will be relegated to the dustbin of history, a future bedtime story told to kids who understand that having bad, non, or no science is as scary as the bogey monster now is to many… (If you doubt the sincerity of that statement, as I’m sure many will, then I invite you to move back to the Rift Valley in Africa and live without the benefits that observation, replication, and innovation have bought us, and which have resulted in the tools of our survival and eventual ascendancy. Those tools, which have bought us prolonged healthy life, increased food production, clean water, reduced infant and maternal mortality, and this webpage did not come easy. Billions worked, and died, for them so that we may be where we are now. See how long you last without shelter, tools, binoculars, night-vision, vaccines, weaponry, clothes, wheels, and, most importantly, fire.)

Timeframe

Impossible to say, but, it is only a matter of time. There is nothing forbidding it, our AI’s today are quite powerful, and information technology is getting cheaper predictably, every single year, so, it follows that our AI will only become more powerful, exponentially so. It is only a matter of time. When it does come, either next year, in five years, or in ten, hilarity will ensue, but more importantly, good science will finally and fully claim its status in the game of thrones played for with truth-claims for millennia  Nothing will unseat it thereafter; well, nothing without a regress to the past. Lives will be improved and prosper; economies will grow and become more efficient; and, for good and all, better knowledge will have a selective advantage, and false knowledge will, for the first time in 200,000 long, agonizing, and painful years, have a selective disadvantage. Good riddance! The byproduct of our dear UFC will be, that, our minds will almost seem to perform as if on steroids. That is something I’d sign up for in an instant.

“Science is not a democratic process. Scientists don’t line up and say ‘gee,’ we really like this theory, let’s all vote for it. That’s not how it works. What we do in science is we find what explanations work.” ~ Eugenie C. Scott (Biologist)

 

GMOs are Unnatural? And Other Thoughts on Biotech

GMO

My last three posts have been about GMOs. I took a bit of flak for it—I even got some thank you’s and well done’s, mainly from scientists and farmers. In copping the negative flak however, the consensus seemed to be that genetically engineered foods and GMO technology are unnatural, therefore bad, and this is usually wrapped up in the guise of the naturalistic fallacy (anything natural is better than anything manmade). I find this naturalistic argument rather short-sighted, and a non-sequitur (conclusion does not follow from the logic). (I’m not saying that its wrong to eat organic foods, merely that the argument doesn’t stand up to scrutiny in the way it is presented. If you want to take what nature offers, then have at it without need of rationalizing it.) I also find that the stated goals of many an activist organization would, almost without question, lead to outcomes in-conducive to the stated environmentalism that those who hold the argument adhere to. Let me detail why I think so, as well as get into a dissection of biotechnology, nature, evolution, and a few others subjects (I got a bit carried away and before I knew it, this post was almost 5,000 words).

GM in Nature

Let’s take the basic premise: nature makes stuff better than we do—arguably the root of the organic movement. Starting at the beginning: some 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago, there existed a single-celled replicator that is the common ancestor of everything alive today. Harken back to the thought that recombinant rDNA technology is unnatural, which would mean that nature doesn’t do it. For, if genomic modification was unnatural, then we could confidently say that we wouldn’t be here. Since nothing could have evolved from that original replicator. It would just be replicators ad infinitum, one after the undifferentiated other. Nothing would change, because random changes and mutations would not occur. Even the original replicator would not have evolved so we wouldn’t have gotten that far. Nature is the original Engineer. (If you’re wondering why I capitalized engineer, then you haven’t watched Prometheus. Yes, I know I’m a nerd.) In order to go from that replicator to a 100-trillion celled human being, nature had to employ genomic engineering, albeit by accident. The only difference between nature’s style and our own is that nature’s is directionless and purposeless—there is no end goal in mind; whatever happens, happens. For every animal that exists, for every animal that was born, for every animal that lived out its short life, there were billions that met untimely, and quite likely, painful ends. Of all the species that ever existed, 99.9% are today extinct. Nature is not the benign process we think her to be, and though it is very easy to say that mother nature should be our guiding light (or spirit, or mother), but I submit to you that the 1.7 billion people who died of natural infectious diseases in the 20th century alone would not agree (if they could disagree, that is), or the 1.97 billion people who died of non-communicable diseases. If we were to compare our own body count: all the wars, crime, subjugation, and intolerance of mankind, to natures, we’d find that she more than trebled our own count, which stands at some 980 million people. Surely, nature does put us to shame with her 3.67 billion death tolls. Be that as it may: it follows that we are here because of the natural process of genomic modification and there is nothing inherently unnatural in the process. Mutations happen: either nature makes them happen with no thought to the outcome, or we control for them with genetic engineering.

Nature Does It Best

Let’s again take the basic premise that nature makes stuff best. From that first replicator, and then every step along the way, nature haphazardly selected for organisms preferentially selecting for those with beneficial mutations (allowing them better success in passing on their genes), selecting against those with detrimental mutations, and being ambivalent towards those with benign mutations until, eventually, in the Rift Valley some few million years ago, primates began evolving intelligence along with the spectacularly lucky coincidence of an opposable thumb. These two lucky outcomes allowed their descendants to manipulate their environment with an ever-increasing degree of control using said, gifted intelligence. (One theory is that intelligence evolved as a courtship device; watch this video by Jason Silva for a 90-second primer.) Therefore, our intelligence and the manipulation of our environment are thus given to us by Mother Nature…arguably to have it used. Every animal on this blue-green dot we call Earth uses to its advantage every trick and tool nature endowed it with. (After all, those that don’t often do not pass on their genes.) To categorically state that nature makes stuff better than we do so that we should bow down to her wisdom is to willingly ignore that nature made us the way we are to do what it is we do, which is the propagation our genes using our selective advantage (intelligence and environmental manipulation). It follows then, that, everything we do is, concordantly, natural. (Unless of course, you believe you have free will, which you don’t.) We are made by nature, therefore everything we do is natural and, therefore, everything we are doing now is the best possible solution because it is natural. As you can see, this line of reasoning (natural > human-made) is a slippery slope and is, plain and simply, ill defined. The distinction between nature, human culture and technology is an arbitrary distinction. We do the things that we do now because of our naturally endowed capacity. But, another way to put it is that after 3.8 billion years, an animal (Homo sapiens) evolved its own evolvability (technology) thus continuing the process of selection in the process superseding natural selection becoming the dominant selection process. We are the first species that does not live entirely within the constraints of natural selection, but that does not mean we don’t live in a selection process, just that we override natures and institute our own. In time, we rely less and less on natural selection and more on environments of our own choosing—but it is so because nature made it so. Ants make anthills, beavers make dams, birds make nests, and Homo sapiens make technology, and it’s all natural. (Note: I’m not saying we need to colonize the Earth and have everything submit to our mighty republic. Yes, I just finished watching Spartacus.) Only that within our domain, we have already done so to our own advantage, and there is nothing wrong with this—it is natural even.

Selection

Remember that evolution happens regardless of whether we rework it to our advantage—biotech crops—or leave nature be.

  • Evolution is natural selection by random mutation
  • Pre-Industrial (i.e., organic) agriculture is artificial selection by random mutation
  • Conventional agriculture is artificial selection by accelerated random mutation
  • GM agriculture is artificial selection by purposeful mutation

The changes are changes in degree, not in kind. To label one unnatural is to label them all unnatural. It is evolution, continued. Something has to fulfil both the selection process and the mutation process in evolution. It’s either nature, which has neither direction nor purpose, and evidenced by her 3.67 billion person death toll in the 20th century from just 2 categories, has neither your health or longevity in mind; or we fulfil the selection process, which nature gives us the ability to so.

While the result of recombinant rDNA technology may be labelled unnatural (merely because it doesn’t exist in nature, not because it can’t). The same cannot be said of the technology that produces such food. We are co-opting nature’s methods to make food, not playing God. (You may dispute the fact that I said that it could exist in nature by saying that a fish gene could never wind up in a tomato, but you’d be wrong. Your genome is the combined genome four times over of the amphioxus fish-like marine chordate. A 1cm little fish’s genome mistakenly copied twice over on itself has resulted in every land animal today, and you. If nature can turn a little fish into you, then why is it so distasteful that we put cross-species genes where we need them? Uncertainty may be the first thing that comes to your mind, but nature had no idea what she was doing either.)

The Point

There is a movement to demonize GM technology and even conventional agriculture, with the wish to return to the agricultural past. Organic agriculture is fine, there’s nothing wrong with it, but we can’t feed the world with it. Remember Paul R. Ehrlich’s book The Population Bomb? It stated in 1968 that in the 70s and 80s, mass famines would ensue as we wouldn’t be able to make enough food, and any efforts to avert such a disaster are a waste of time and should be scrapped. (Thomas Malthus said much the same thing in 1798.) Ehrlich wrote, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines—hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” Why didn’t the predictions of mass starvation and disaster come to pass? Well, they would have if we listened to him and did nothing. Instead we developed the technologies that allowed us to increase yield to a stupendous degree.

Context

Since 1961, we’ve increased yield by 300% using only 12% more land. How? We used technology to make drastically increase yield and avert the predicted disaster of Ehrlich and many others. Said differently, if we kept farming organically, mass famine would have ensued. Without such yield increases thanks to plant science, we would have had to use two Latin America’s of arable land to compensate, or, more likely, the predicted mass starvation would have occurred. If in the 1960s when the world population was less than 3 billion people, the propagation of organic farming as the sole agricultural method would have resulted in disaster, how it will help us now when we are 7 billion people and on the way to 9-10 billion people? The majority of that increase in yield has come from plain ol’ conventional agriculture, but now our yields are coming up against a glass wall for that type of plant science, and GE foods are the next process to take us forward to surmount the coming set of problems. And, while we still have a starving billion today, it is not because we can’t create the food, but we can’t get it to them. The solution to world hunger is for those most afflicted by it to be able to grow their own food, instead of relying on food aid and handouts as band aids applied to a broken bone. Organic farming will not suffice for Sub-Saharan Africa; they need heat-tolerant and drought-resistant strains. (They already don’t have any biotechnology or conventional agriculture, ergo, organic farming, which is what remains, has failed them.)

Future Problems

In the next 40 years, we need to double yield without an increase in land usage—in fact we’ll need to decrease land usage (agriculture is one of the biggest contributors to climate change). We will not accomplish this by going back to low-input agriculture—though it won’t go anywhere for those who still want it. I make the case in my book that Vertical Farming (VF) will do the trick. VF certainly is capable, but what if the mass migration from horizontal farming to vertical farming never takes place? The technology was invented in the 50s by the US military and then nobody did anything with it for 60 years. What if that no-usage scenario repeats itself? We cannot afford to stand idly by and hope that everything will go according to plan. We need contingencies and redundancy. One of those is GM agriculture. We have been eating GM food for 20 years: in that time, we’ve spared the environment 438 million kilograms of pesticide use. (Don’t forget, organic farming uses pesticides too, and organic pesticides aren’t automatically better for the environment. Some are thousands of times more toxic.) In 2010, 19.4 billion kgs of CO2 was not released into the atmosphere because of GM technology (the equivalent of 8.6 million cars removed from the roads for a year). Over half of the economic benefits of GM seeds have gone directly to farmers in developing countries helping them rise up out of subsistence farming and poverty. In America, the country that eats the most GM food, cancers over the last 20 years have gone down 20% so the promised health apocalypse that many have warned about were coming have not materialized.

If we want to solve the problem of population growth, we have to realize that living in poverty is what propels the world’s poor to have more children, and food insecurity is a major factor. As Peter Diamandis wrote in Abundance, poor families living in subsistence need at least 3 kids, and they aim for male children. Why three? Well, as distasteful as it sounds; one may die, one will tend to the farm and look after the parents as they age; and the other is sent to get an education to break the cycle and make money enough to hopefully lift them out of poverty. The best solution to breaking out of a life of subsistence is food security. People in Sub-Saharan Africa can’t use organic farming (which, as mentioned earlier, if defined only by lack of conventional tools and biotechnology, then they are already organic, and food insecure).

Potential Benefits

Recently, we passed peak farmland, which unlike peak oil or peak water actually has positive connotations for us, but especially, the environment.

See the blue section in the above graph? That is the actual farmland used since 1961 to get us the aforementioned 300% yield increase. See the upward sloping green section? That’s how much land we would have used if we didn’t use conventional agriculture to create todays food. It is the equivalent landmass of the USA, Canada, and China, and try to imagine the destruction of forestry that that would have entailed. To be an environmentalist is, by definition, to support the conservation of nature. To support the conservation of nature should be, by definition, to support conventional agriculture as it uses less land to grow that food—going forward, this will entail supporting, or at least supporting the possibility of using, GMOs.

If we continue on our current path of increasing yields using science and biotechnology, the authors of the Peak Farmland study conservatively estimate that we could return 146 million hectares to nature by 2060, with high estimates that 256 million hectares could be restored (roughly double the area of the USA, east of the Mississipi). None of this even takes into account the potential land and resource reduction benefits of IV meat (which I detail here), or the coming generation of biotech crops, many of which will have: significantly reduced pesticide use (some using no pesticides at all), reduced nitrogen use (reducing river pollution), increased nutrition along with many other benefits. But, many such seeds are locked away due to the intense furore to GMO use, allowing only those few that the seed giants can afford to push through the regulatory burden. PG Economics noted that if, in 2010, those biotech crops already available were removed from the market, farmers would have had to plant an additional 5.1 million ha of soybeans, 5.6 million ha of corn, 3 million ha of cotton, and 0.35 million ha of canola to keep production steady, equivalent to an additional 8.6% of arable land in the US. Yet, this is what activists would have us do, remove all GM crops, necessitating the further destruction of forestry and nature for human purposes.

So, if we move forward into the future, we’ll give back hundreds of millions of hectares of farmland to nature, and if we move forward with biotechnology, we’ll do likewise.

Big Ag

But, are there problems, real problems, with biotechnology that have been covered or up concealed? With the technology, we find no problems that aren’t present in other forms of agriculture. As the National Academy of Science, and many prestigious scientific organizations concluded, the process itself is no more inherently risky than any other method. Biotech crops usually have between 1 and 3 genes altered, but every new generation of organic and conventional crops will have a few different genes in there too. (They are inevitable: a DNA copying error, a passing cosmic ray etc., will, and do, induce genetic mutations. To say there is uncertainty in GMOs is likewise to admitting that there is uncertainty in any new generation of plant or animal. The average human offspring carries about 100-200 mutations, but they are still people. Food with 1-3 added genes is still food.)

On the business side is where we find many that many folks have a priori problems. But these problems are indicative, and suggest the need of, business reform, patent reform and competition, and not the outright banning of the technology (which is just not possible, anyway). This business problem ended up co-mutating into advocacy against GMOs in general instead of where it should actually be directed, lack of competition due to the overbearing regulatory burden on GM crops which was instituted due to the initial advocacy, and round and round the circle we go, as the increased advocacy only exacerbates the problems activists think they are trying to stop. The intense backlash against biotechnology has only cemented the power of those few who first began exploring the field. Even then, the scale of abuse, often levelled at Monsanto, rivals the misinformation that the Catholic Church spouts against condom use on the continent most ravaged by aids, likening condom use to be a greater danger than the ravages of aids. (A sensible approach to Monsanto was detailed by activist Ellen of One Hundred Meals.)

We need to stop pretending that only Big Ag and Monsanto lobbies, undercuts, and undermines democracy; the organic movement spends $2.5 billion a year on advocacy. We need to stop thinking that Monsanto is after world domination: the global GM seed market in 2012 was $14 billion ( that is world domination with 0.0002% of global purchasing power), while organic food sales are $60 billion worldwide. (The total value of those GM crops when harvested is around $65 billion.) We need to know that all farms strive to use the least amount of pesticides required, as it is their biggest expense, and that synthetic chemicals are not a priori worse than organic chemicals, in fact, quite the opposite. In other words, we need to get real, and deal with the facts as they are, not as we want them to be.

For whatever problems we have today, the solution is not to ban it, it is to weigh the risks vs. the rewards and act appropriately. It is to study and to research, and to have reasoned debates among experts on the pros and cons; but above all, keeping in mind the effects on people far and wide around the world. Food security and a heavy disease burden (usually going together) undermine society at every level of its functioning. To fix them is to advance significantly in all other matters of societal dysfunction. Who knows how many Newtons, Einsteins, and Curies we are losing to lack of food, clean water, and education every year while we bicker over functionally equivalent types of food. If you don’t want to eat it, don’t, but don’t stop others from making their own choice. The liberal movement in America and Europe is pro-choice when it comes to matters of female reproduction—and rightfully so! —Yet, move the topic to food, swiftly change to being anti-choice, even though the ramifications for billions of poor people around the world are far worse than for a women in a forced pro-life environment.

But instead of focusing on legitimate problems with the business, competitive, and legal environment, red herrings are thrown this way and that: that organic food is nutritionally superior; a meta-analysis covering 162 studies over a 50-year period says their not, and any nutritional differences are unlikely to have a significant outcome on health. Facts are thrown out stating that organic is environmentally superior to all other forms of farming, despite the fact the answer is far more nuanced. We are told that farmers are using GMOs to lather their fields in Roundup, yet the National Academy of Science wrote, “When adopting GE herbicide-resistant (HR) crops, farmers mainly substituted the herbicide glyphosate for more toxic herbicides.” (A report from the National Research Council even gave an impressive list of GM benefits including: improved soil quality, reduced erosion and reduced insecticide use, but everyone focused instead on the little nuggets of bad news instead of the load of good news.) In using GMOs we use less toxic pesticides, and the result is a net environmental benefit, as glyphosate usually replaces atrazine (a pesticide 200 times more toxic). Instead of learning about real yields on GMO, we get the Union of Concerned Scientists telling us that ‘intrinsic yields’ haven’t increased since the inception of GMO, even though intrinsic yield tells you nothing, but total yield really has increased. But the most destructive effect of this headline-grabbing debate fiasco is as Pamela Ronald, professor of plant pathology at the University of California wrote, “as it now stands, opposition to genetic engineering has driven the technology further into the hands of a few seed companies that can afford it, further encouraging their monopolistic tendencies while leaving it out of reach for those that want to use it for crops with low (or no) profit margins.

Red herrings are red for a reason, they are meant to distract you, not inform you. We need some green herrings.

Choice

Those of us with the ability to read this post have the luxury of choice when it comes to choosing between organic, conventional, and GM agriculture. (‘Certified Organic’ also means GMO-free, so, we don’t need to go through the hoops of requiring even more labels.) But more than 800 million people who go to bed hungry every night (16 million people of whom will die of hunger this year) will not have that luxury. Half the planet’s population remains malnourished, then the one to two million people (670,000 are under five years of age) who will die from Vitamin A deficiency this year who, in point of fact, will not be thankful to Greenpeace for their 16-year blockade of GM Golden Rice that could save them—they’ll die slow, painful deaths instead, only to be replaced by more kids to replace them, many of whom will die too. To fix that problem—which is not only a moral necessity—reduces the burden of increased population growth. (The response to both of those claims—starvation and vitamin A deficiency deaths—is that we shouldn’t be feeding them unhealthy food instead. Those saying this have clearly never gone without food for longer than a few hours, let alone the few weeks it takes to die of starvation, or the years over which blindness sets in from vitamin A deficiency, which then goes on to kill half those afflicted. And, of course, it assumes that GM food really is less healthy or less nutritious, which it isn’t.) It’s time we got out of our First World bubble.

There is, despite the hysteria, a scientific consensus on the safety and risk profile of GM technology. Almost every scientific organization, from the National Academy of Sciences to the Royal Society thinks it so and 600 peer-reviewed studies back up the claim. Aside from a few deniers, we trust our scientists on climate change, don’t we? They are shouting from the rooftops about the dangers of climate change, and how little time we have left to reverse course. You’d think if there were a comparable danger from biotech, you’d have more than a handful of scientists speaking up. So, why don’t we trust them on biotech?

Norman Borlaug—father of the Green Revolution, who saved one billion lives using plant science—had this to say about the food fight we in the West are squabbling over: “If the naysayers do manage to stop agricultural biotechnology, they might actually precipitate the famines and the crisis of global biodiversity they have been predicting for nearly 40 years.

While we endlessly bicker and sensationalize, people are dying of starvation. It does no good to deal in hypotheticals such as: if we wasted less food, there’d be enough for everyone (you wouldn’t be able to ship it to them); if more people were charitable, everyone would be ok; if we switched to organic agriculture, we could feed everyone (wrong), along with many others. Despite the fact that many of them are wrong or idealistic, they presume people being rational, informed, and having access to and accepting unadulterated and uncensored good, reliable information. Is that likely to happen anytime soon? The cries of the anti-vaxxers are still putting kids (and society at large) in danger; the chant of the climate-deniers only delays needed progress; but on issues of food security, arguably the most important of all, we’ll all see reason?

Changing People or Inventing Technology—Which is Easier?

Is it easier to change the hearts and minds of billions of people with all their complexities and interrelationships or is it easier to invent new technologies that solve the issues for those affected? The climate movement has struggled to change the hearts and minds of people and politicians for over twenty years and we’ve got very little to show for it. Let’s not continue making the same mistake with food. Changing the consumption habits of one billion westerners—if that is even possible—will take a long time with no certainty of success. Meanwhile, the people dying of starvation will keep dying. The technologies to feed them using less land and cheaper inputs are here and now, they are safe, they are capable, and they are predictable, regardless of how shrill the opposition to them is from well-fed oppositionists who’ve never felt the sensation of hunger. It’s time to deal with the facts, but above all, it is time to value human lives consistent with the evidence and facts we have. The intentions and hearts of the bored, guilted sensibilities of Western activists who grumble at a skipped lunch is in the right place; their proposed solutions and flawed reasoning are not.

They are plenty of problems we face in agriculture. The vehement backlash against biotechnology is distracting from those issues. Biotechnology won’t solve every problem, but they will help substantially. In fact, the co-use of biotech crops alongside organic crops—in what is called a refuge zone—significantly curtail pest resistance. It may be that the bright agricultural future within our grasp uses both systems side by side.

The next generation of GMOs could boost nutrition, reduce nitrogen fertilizer use, and boost yield, letting us feed the world without chopping down its remaining forest. Indeed, it’s easy to imagine ‘bio-organic’ farms that don’t use synthetic pesticides or fertilizer, but that do use these genetically enhanced seeds.” ~ Keith Kloor (Science Writer)

Whatever is the case, we need to realize that feeding 7 billion, let alone 9 to 10 billion people in the near future, isn’t going to be easy. If it fits on a Facebook photo as a caption, you can rest assured it will solve nothing. This post is 4,600 words long and is barely scratching the surface. Some silly shared photo on Facebook demonizing Monsanto or chemical use not only shows you things out of context, they detract from the conversations we should be having.

[Updated to remove superfluous text]

Future of Work

work future

This is the last chapter of my book. To those who have read this far, I am forever grateful. (If anyone wants to read the Introduction and Conclusion, just leave me a comment and I’ll email it to you. For now, I won’t be posting it online.)

Sub-chapter #20, of Chapter #5, Technology, of my ongoing rewrite and open editing process Random Rationality: A Rational Guide to an Irrational World. I would greatly appreciate any feedback, corrections, criticisms, and comments. If you want the full PDF of the book, then you can download it by clicking here—if you provide constructive criticisms in return, and live in the US, UK, or EU, then I’ll ship you a paperback copy of the book free of charge when it’s published. If you wish to read the previous chapters in one convenient place online, please follow this link, and lastly, thanks for reading!


 

A FUTURE OF WORK

Last but not least, what might become of our jobs? If we play our cards right, one day in the near, or far, future, jobs—as we know them today—will become obsolete. Let’s find out why, and why this will be a good thing, perhaps the best thing to ever happen to humanity.

We are partway through a trend that once concluded, will result in a new renaissance (last time, I promise). An event that will be remembered for all time as the defining point when the potential of our creativity was unbounded by the limits of society and a new global culture was born.

First off, a bit of history. For all of humanity’s existence, we’ve had to work to survive, just as all other animals do. Whether that meant hunting for food, tending to crops, trading for goods, foods, or gold, and so on until we find ourselves working the 9-to-5 in the here and now—well, the lucky amongst us. By the way, this is how work will change. It will move from becoming a necessity to a leisure.

During this epoch, a trend has slowly, quietly and unnoticed, unfurled in the background: the ratio of man-hours relative to productivity or work done. From the start of civilization until the Industrial Revolution, a span just shy of some seven-thousand years (depending on which history book you read), this ratio has stayed fairly constant. That is, the amount of man-hours vs. work accomplished didn’t deviate far from the historical norm.

Of course, civilization still prospered in some cases and progress was evident. This progress, while not increasing the work done per person, increased the quantity of workers in a concentrated area, often resulting in slavery, the moral black mark on our history, and all those extra hands were able to carry out those gigantic tasks, such as building Rome, Washington DC, and other such cities of antiquity. Though contrary to popular belief, the pyramids of Egypt were not built by slaves, but paid Egyptian laborers.

When the Industrial Revolution kicked off in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, this ratio started positively increasing. That is, the same amount of man-hours constituted increased work, otherwise known as Productivity Growth (PG). This was due to the machines and industrial processes created: steam engines, coal plants, light bulbs, medicines, and factories that became extensions of our hands and minds allowing us to work smarter, travel farther, more productively, and in better health.

This trend is responsible for almost everything we have today. Technology started replacing human labor and this trend has continued to this day, allowing us to have that little thing we call comfort, and this trend, unhindered, will continue to progress further and exponentially faster with time as it has been since it began. None of the tragedies of the 20th century even put a dent in exponential increase of computational progress—that includes WW1, WW2, The Great Depression, and others.

We went from manual labor farming to horse-drawn ploughs to tractors, to automatic irrigation and soon to underground farming. From hauling stone slabs on sleds, to the wheel, to the horse-drawn cart, to the electrical car, to the internal combustion engine, and hopefully back to the electric car soon. I know what you’re thinking, yes the electric car was invented first and these are just a few examples among many thousands.

This positive increase, or negative depending on your viewpoint (either short or long-term), which depends on the type of job you have, has an ugly consequence. People have been losing their jobs for the last 150 years as machines replaced their profession; from the elevator man to the soot-shoveler, to the autoworker to many, many others.

Though so far, there has been a technological caveat. As society has progressed, new jobs have been created, continuing economic expansion. However, this trend of new jobs replacing old jobs is beginning to stutter. In 1993, there were 194 million Americans in the labor force, and by 2000, this number had increased to 213 million. During these eight years, 22.7 million jobs were added along with the 19 million new workers leaving a surplus of 3.7 million jobs. Between 2001 and 2008, labour participation went from 215 million to 234 million people, but with only two million jobs added in that same time period. A deficit of 13.7 million jobs, and since 2008, we have lost just over half-a-million more jobs (4.317 million lost vs. 3.765 million regained in mid-2012). So the total deficit is 14.25 million jobs, and this is just in nineteen-years.

Every month, the labor force expands by approximately 125,000 people due to population growth, so that’s 125,000 new jobs that the economy needs to add, just to keep the unemployment rate steady. By 2050, the labour force is projected to be 45% larger than today, or approximately 339 million people. That’s more than 100 million new jobs that need to be added by then, just in the USA. In the rest of the world, the population is projected to increase by at least two-billion, and perhaps three-billion according to UN projections. Where are the jobs going to come from? From nowhere it seems.

Counter to the population increase, the technology we are creating (and which shows no sign of stopping but increasing) is only getting exponentially better, smaller, and smarter to the point where it will literally be able to out-think and out-flex us. This shift, this realignment, this relentless progression of automation will continue until the only thing left for the human mind to do will be to wonder, imagine, and explore the Universe—which also happens to be the things that we are best at. Eating, drinking, and sex not withstanding!

[Carl] Bass points out that we are now at a great inflection point in the automation of labor. Extraordinary breakthroughs in the areas of artificial intelligence, robotics, and digital manufacturing are all converging upon one another yielding a world full of technologies plucked right from the world of science fiction.” [Emphasis mine] ~ Aaron Frank (Writer)

We are going through an epoch unseen before in human history. We are in the midst of transitioning from a manual-labor society to a knowledge-generating, machine-operated society. We‘re currently in the transition period, because as is plainly obvious, we still have billions of people working, though many of them struggling to scratch a living out what they are given, or able to take. But the underlying trend is undeniable.

But there are those who wish to roll back the dial, or want to stop the buck here creating a static society. Of course, being oblivious to the fact that every static society has collapsed, because problems invariably crop up and a static society cannot hope to innovate their way out of them. The American economist Robert Solow earned a Nobel Prize for showing that economic growth does not come from people working harder, I.e, just working longer hours, but from working smarter. By getting more from less, and in the process freeing up time to do other things impossible beforehand. Stopping or slowing technological growth, and implementing employment for employments sake is a straight path to disaster, reminiscent of 20th century communism.

Back to basics. The reasons for the increasing mechanization in society are simple. It costs much less to have a machine do a person’s work than a person, especially with the increasing cost of labor, and companies having to contend with trillions of new currency units floating around the world and doing everything in their power to not raise their prices, so they decrease costs. Machines have no health insurance bills, don’t get sick, need vacation days, smoke breaks, and aren’t distracted by their inner monologue, along with various other factors that retard productivity. These are all ancillary reasons, however. Many of the background processes of our world today can only be done by machines and  artificial intelligence, such as aviation, computer science, heavy industry, and even in finance.

While the main rationale often used to replace a person with a machine is to improve a company’s profit margin and time to market, and not the automation of society, does not make the result of these decisions any less real (or inevitable).

In the past, as people have become displaced from one profession, they have moved to other professions that could not be automated or that were created due to new technologies invented.

In the twentieth century, as manufacturing jobs were becoming mechanized, factory workers moved en masse into the services sector. For the last fifty-odd-years, the services sector has exploded, most notably in the USA, but also in much of the developed world, be it the restaurant industry, or the financial services world. The services sector is now beginning to bloat, and it simply cannot absorb the mass numbers anymore. Parallel to this, the wheels seem to be coming off the major world economies, and fourteen-million jobs have been lost in the last eleven years alone in the USA, putting an extra squeeze on companies who now see automation as a way to reduce costs and improve their profit margins.

Foxconn, manufacturer of Apple’s iPads and iPhones, are planning on introducing one million robots to replace 100,000 workers in the next three years. The irony in this is that as more and more people are laid off and replaced by machines, the fewer products the company can sell in the long run. For a period of time, the company might improve its profit margins, as the rest of society hasn’t yet succumbed to this transitionary period, but this can only be temporary in nature.

As more and more of society’s jobs are automated—and it will happen one way or the other, for the consequences will be worse than allowing it but I’ll get to that soon—has the effect of removing the employees as consumers from the market. In a free market, employees, consumers, and employers are interchangeable; they are all one and the same. These former employees will no longer have the earnings to buy these increasingly mechanized products or services. Thus, we (theoretically) will reach a point where we can produce almost everything via automation, but there will be no one to buy the products (of course, we’ll never actually get there, as something will give beforehand).

What is going to happen to the millions of factory workers when 3D printing becomes affordable, fully capable, and factories a twentieth century relic? To miners when nanotechnology is economical and we can turn any material into anything else, and build anything we dream of? To farmers when we start growing our food; fruits, vegetables, and IVM underground in luminescent rooms, allowing it to grow at a fraction of the time needed above ground, not to mention land owners (40% of the arable land in the world is used for farming or meat consumption, which will become  essentially valueless), and then to the pesticide companies we’ll have no more use of, as food production now moved underground is out of the reach of insects? Not to mention the transportation companies that ship foods to market, and the factories that wrap and prepare the food?

These are all questions we need to be answering now instead of when the time comes. Otherwise, we’ll do what we always do when we come to something different; we’ll try to destroy it or vote into office, goldfish who want to destroy it for political gain. We aren’t exactly the brightest bunch when it comes to making decisions with our guts, instead of our brains, which is why history so often rhymes. I don’t think that any society could stop it or destroy this trend, even if it tried. If America were to outlaw technological progression, after a little while, the Chinese would be so far ahead that the American people would get shaky feet living under the yoke of a seemingly ever-increasing Godlike country on the other side of the world marching forward. Bullet trains, towering skyscrapers (they’ll be building the worlds tallest tower: almost 3000-feet, in ninety-days around the end of 2012, moon base, space station, electric cars and the list will go on). Short of full-scale nuclear war, or a worldwide dictatorship, the inexorable march of technological progress will continue. However, politics will stand in the way, and that may be a difference of maybe years, or a decade, between the society that was, and the society that will be. In the society that will be, where disease, cancer, and death are all history, a delay of even a few years could mean millions of people who should have lived but came up short. Consider for example, the controversy met with Golden Rice by anti-GMO activists and environmentalists around the world. Golden rice is a strain of rice modified to carry vitamin A (Beta-Carotene). A lack of vitamin A is estimated to kill one to two million people per year, of which 670,000 are children, as well as producing 500,000 cases of blindness, where one cup of golden-rice is enough to supply them enough vitamin A. Rice leaves naturally produce vitamin A due to photosynthesis, but the endosperm (edible part) does not, so scientists transferred two genes to make it do so. The new breed of rice had scientific tests performed, and was found that the vitamin A absorption was as good, or better, than other forms of the supplement. But anti-GMO activists successfully stopped its adoption and distribution to the parts of the world where it would have saved millions of lives per year! Think of the absurdity and stupidity of such a position. We were willing to put two modified genes inside a strain of rice, before the lives of millions of people per year, every year, until the situation is remedied because of some idealistic, bombastic, and shortsighted view of nature. Again, as we saw in the chapter, Future of Food, almost all our food today has been upended from natural selection as it is; it has been shot with radiation, hand-selected for breeding, and saved from extinction because of human intervention. The very process of planting crops is a slap in the face of mother nature, but no one is protesting farms, just the future of food, which they do not understand. And after all this, genetic engineering has not been stopped, nor can it, but the lives of those poor souls were indeed wasted. This is the inherent danger in rolling back or just delaying the wheels of progress; accidental genocide. There are many people who advocate the relinquishment of technological progress (as if such a thing were possible anyway).

The costs of many services, products, and food will continue dropping until one day they hit zero in terms of human energy input, and shortly after, almost zero from a material perspective. Once we are  at that point, we will have a choice to make, the biggest choice any society of humans has ever had to make, and with consequences that will span centuries and affect billions of human lives.

We can transition to a resource-based economy, where people are simply given everything they need or want at no cost since it doesn’t cost anything to produce from a labor standpoint, and with very little energy due to Moore’s Law of energy use—as computers increase in power, doubling every 18 months while halving in size and staying at the same price, the amount of energy consumed by them is going in the opposite direction, e.g., if the 2011 MacBook Air, had the efficiency of a 1991 computer, it’s battery would last all of 2.5 seconds, instead of seven hours. The difference is algorithmic in nature: better, more efficient algorithms doing more work in fewer cycles. What will be the point in money if nothing costs anything?

Or, the elite, or whichever section of upper-society comes into their momentary hold of power, whom are narrowly short-sighted to their own benefit (and think they know better), much as the rest of us are to our own benefit (and think we know better), will invent some other form of currency and keep the charade going round and round, convincing us that it is a necessary function of society to have government and classes. Go watch the movie In Time and you will get an idea of what could pass. I don’t personally think this will happen, but the situation cannot be entirely ruled out in advance, especially given what we’ve fallen for in the past. Just think of the French Revolution, they threw out Louie, and installed Maximilien Robespierre, who gave the world his ‘reign of terror’. Then they threw him out too, and installed the power-hungry Napoleon.

In such a world, where scarcity is no longer a natural function of the world, economies built on scarcity will (or should) break down. The function of price is to assign value to a scarce product; the more expensive the price, the more scarce the product, either by way of overwhelming demand, scarce materials, or high cost of production. Aluminum used to be worth more than gold, even though 8.3% of the Earth’s crust is infused with its ore, but the means of production were amazingly expensive and energy intensive, until electrolysis came along. The sciences and continually improving technologies have been nibbling away at scarce materials and the means of production for the last hundred-fifty years, making once-scarce resources plentiful. It doesn’t matter whether it is food, metals, silicon, electricity, or anything else. You name it; it is more bountiful today than yesteryear (perhaps except human reason).

So when we have the technology to remove the human element and increase yield to such a degree as to remove all elements of scarcity, what purpose will the free market have? What purpose will private industrial property have? Or any (by this point outdated) technology that allows you to have sway over another persons right to life? The key technological trend that has accompanied our evolving society, is that technology is both a resource-liberating force, and a democratizing force du jour. When the gun was invented, the poor peasant suddenly had a way to thwart the armored knight harassing him. Gutenberg’s printing press broke the stranglehold the Catholic Church had established for itself for over a thousand years, and the fax machine broke the Soviet Union’s monoploy on information.

Much in the same way that the threat of violence is illegal in almost all cultures today, so it will be so with the means of production in the future. There will be no benefit for a man or woman to own a technology that holds sway over others save for the sake of power, which may very well come to be regarded as a mental disorder in the future: a disruption to societies balance that cannot and will not be tolerated for the inequality, fear, and violence that may spring forth from it.

Think about crime today, almost all of which is motivated in one way or another, by money. Either directly in the acts of stealing, drug turf wars, or actual wars between nations over resources. Or indirectly, through the emotional suffering inherent in unequal societies, and the stress, cortisol, and lost family time to name a few effects. What will happen to crime? Person-on-person violence is at an all-time low, the twentieth century was the most peaceful century of human history (accounting for both World Wars), as shown by Steven Pinker’s TED talk, The Myth of Violence, and there is no reason, given future projections and technological progression, that it won’t dive even further.

Technology is accelerating at an exponential rate and will continue in such a manner for as long as human co-operation continues. Our current forms of politics, governance, and society cannot, perhaps will not be able to transition into such a futuristic society. We need new ways of governing that don’t conflict with the fast-changing means of production that will start changing in increasingly smaller periods of time, with each cycle bringing with it greater change than the last (the Law of Accelerating Returns).

Transitions are painful, an unfortunate fact of life. Especially for local and linear oriented biological life as are we. Not to mention we don’t deal well with change, which is why we tend to end up in societal systems for far longer than we should, and why history repeats itself with dictators, tyrants, monarchies,  economic fantasies, and republics of the people who end up serving the state first, the people enough to placate, and war after war needlessly conducted to the detriment and distraction of said placated people. As remarks one of America’s literary genius’s, Mark Twain “It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.” A sad fact of the human condition. However, this will be the first time in the history of civilization that we will truly have an alternative, an option not bound to the fallacies and falsities that are inherently created when millions of people converge on a society with their dreams, desires, ego’s, and jealousies. Once we arrive at that critical juncture, we will have the ability to free everyone from the confines of manual labor and mindless repetitive work and set people free.

We will be able to truly provide everyone on this Earth with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, instead of having them as words on paper paraded through the wheels of time as if they actually meant something.

A common point made in response to such claims, is that people derive meaning and purpose from work. Assuming that in a world where mindless work is not done, people would sit about the couch all day watching television re-runs of an age gone (since apparently people will stop making media). But this is a shortsighted notion. For one, people today do all kinds of things without the incentive of a monetary reward. Wikipedia and Linux are just two visible examples of thousands of volunteers contributing millions of man-hours freely to building something of considerable value. Aside from those, people of all stripes and colors regularly and without want or need of reward regularly read and write books, gather knowledge, learn, collect trinkets and widgets, exercise their body and mind, create art and media, and contribute to many millions of activities and hobbies. In a world free of the unnecessary (and time-sucking) jobs of today, we would have far more energy and time to focus such activities, as well as with our family and friends, and on other efforts we truly enjoy. Lifelong learning may become the new universal occupation.

“The role of work will be to create knowledge of all kinds, from music and art to math and science. The role of play will be, well, to create knowledge, so there won’t be a clear distinction between work and play.” ~ Ray Kurzweil (Inventor)

There is a lot of unnecessary pain and suffering in this world today, and there probably will be more before this transition is over, and yet more still if we collectively make the wrong choice. Though the pain of this transition, if done right, will be infinitely less than the pain of stopping or rolling back the wheels of progress.

Money may very well be a thing of the past one day. Here is to the future, and to the people and technology that will abolish human suffering once and for all. We can only dream for now, but the future is fast upon us. Without knowledge, wisdom, and a steady resolve, we cannot push into the future for there will always be those holding us back, either for immediate personal gain or an irrational fear of the unknown.

“Our species needs, and deserves, a citizenry with minds wide awake and a basic understanding of how the world works.” ~ Carl Sagan (Astrophysicist)

Free Will’s Freedom

Do we have free will?

This is sub-chapter #4, of Chapter 1, Science, of my ongoing rewrite and open editing process Random Rationality: A Rational Guide to an Irrational World. Sub-chapters #1, #2, and #3 can be found here, here, and here.

Brief Synopsis:

The book takes twenty seemingly random subjects, attempting however poorly, to thread them together. In the process, attempting to make sense of the world we live in today. It is a very macroscopic worldview as the whole book fits into two-hundred pages, but it aims to tickle the intellects of people just enough so they may go on to study more in-depth any of the subjects of their liking. The narrative really tries to abolish isolatory thinking, i.e., we so often talk, discuss, and debate topics in isolation and assume that the same points prevail in the real world where nothing exists in isolation: such as the relationship between science and religion/society, fission with politics and economics, technology against government, and how they subtly, sometimes drastically, affect each other.

Would greatly appreciate any feedback, corrections, criticisms, and comments. If you want the MOBI, ePub, or PDF, then please let me know in the comments—if you provide constructive criticisms in return, and live in the US, UK, or EU, then I’ll ship you a paperback copy of the book free of charge when it’s published.


FREE WILL’S FREEDOM

Free will is a hard topic to approach, as it feels so real to us all. But like all things that do, you must approach it from an objective point of view—not an easy task, in this case.

The concept of free will is that you are the conscious driver of your actions—something that neuroscience is putting serious doubt on.

Elephant…

Now you’re thinking about an elephant. Surprise! Now think about that for one moment. An external stimulus, my singular word, has invoked a chain reaction of synaptic firings and re-wirings in your mind, that then created, or re-conjured from memory, the thought of an elephant, which magically appeared in your brain and without any effort of your conscious mind.

But the underlying mechanisms that created this orchestrated symphony are not, never have been, nor ever will be in your conscious control. They are determined automatically in the background by the mixing of your genes, external environmental stimuli, and the processing capability of your brain (brought into being by genes), which 24/7/365 invoke chemical reactions, electrical currents, and synaptic change in your subconscious and deliver to your conscious brain fully formed thoughts.

No man is an island 

Entire of itself

~ John Donne (Poet)

We are all born essentially tabula rasa, with—seemingly—only four things hardwired into each and every human being: drinking, eating, sex, and being social. Everything else is optional. We have to drink and eat to survive. We feel the urge to have sex, to procreate, as we lack the ability to turn our sex-crazed genes off—as I’m sure most men would agree. And we have the need to keep the company of other people. These are the basic necessities shared by all humans.

Moving into the subconscious: our subconscious minds are essentially tape recorders—does anybody remember these?—recording our every action, inputs, and outputs with the intention of spitting out a desired action absent slow conscious thought when required. This is why practice makes perfect. The consistent act of practicing a skill, be it physical or mental, serves to hardwire the synapses involved in your subconscious so that it can be called on command free of slow, deliberating thoughts.

It’s not like we ever have to think about walking or running, which are actually incredibly complex tasks. We simply think of the destination and our legs take us there. Just going through the motions while we daydream, converse, or take in our surroundings.

Freedom of will is the ability to do gladly that which I must do.” ~Carl Jung (Psychologist)

This is an evolutionary mechanism going back far before our lineage. Conscious thought requires energy, and our brains account for twenty-percent of our total energy usage despite only taking up two-percent of our body volume. On the African Serengeti where we evolved, energy was scarce. If we had to consciously think of every action we ever took, we’d have never made it off the African plains all those hundreds of thousands of years ago, and would’ve simply faded into the ether due to this paralysis of thought. Not to mention that something like consciousness does not simply appear overnight, but rolls in gradually over thousands or millions of years, accumulating the genetic baggage of millions of ancestors.

Your conscious mind is merely the tip of an iceberg, blissfully unaware of the multitudes of processes that take place in its subterranean abyss, creating an illusion of free will for you that gives you the perception of control you need to survive, nothing more.

You don’t need to think to beat your heart, nor to force your liver to function, or to tell that same liver to use the donut you just ate as muscle glycogen instead of storing it as fat. Nor do you control your white or red cell count, nor the pleasure center of your brain that addicts you to carbs, coffee, alcohol, and drugs. We don’t control when we get angry, nor at who, whom we fall in love with, or our irrational like or dislike of newly met—or not-yet met—people. We do none of these things, yet presume freedom?

Is a suffering addict exercising his free will of trying to quit when he relapses due to the overpowering impulse every cell in his body is sending him? He is merely the recipient of pain and overwhelming sensory information that is weakening the finite amount of will he has left—and will (i.e. the will to do things), believe it or not, is a finite resource. When he broke down, it’s not that he wanted to break down; he couldn’t help but break down. This happens to everyone at one point or another. In point-of-fact, salesman and supermarkets use similar tactics explicitly to exhaust your will so that you break down and buy more stuff, higher priced stuff, or higher-margin stuff in the supermarket. Ever wonder why milk, the most popular food-staple, is always in the back corner of every supermarket? Hint: so you have to walk past aisles of sensory-assaulting, not too mention, higher-margin goods.

Think about your current thoughts, whatever they may be. How did they get there? Did you think them up, carefully constructing them neuron by neuron so that you can make a decision or compare it to another thought that you constructed, or did they merely pop into existence? Because if it were the former, then you would have thought of them before you thought of them, as Sam Harris, author of Free Will, writes. They just popped into your conscious mind and you suddenly became aware of it. And it happens so regularly that we never think about it. A paradigm, by any definition of the word, and we all live in our own little paradigmatic universes.

From the day you were born to today, the thought processes in your head and subconscious were and are merely acting in response to external (environmental) and internal (genetic) causes, themselves recipients of bygone causes in minutes/days/weeks/years past. These provoke sets of electrical-chemical reactions that trigger dormant thought/s that interact with other thoughts in line with your bio-chemical makeup, which then coalesce into a grand mosaic of whatever it is you were thinking about at any given moment. We have no control over any of this.

In a 2008 experiment at Stanford University, a group of students had to decide whether to push a button with either their left or right hand upon seeing random letters popping up on a screen.

With complete certainty, scientists could say when the final decision toward action with which hand had been made and it was always before the student was consciously aware of the choice being made, in some cases by seconds. In seventy-percent of the cases, they knew which hand the student would use to push the button before the student was even aware they’d made a choice. That’s seven out of ten times that the scientists could say which hand a particular student would use before the student made the choice, or rather, before the students realized they made the choice, as it was already made and given to them—wrapped and presented in the illusion they consciously made it themselves.

It remains to be seen if this experiment can be replicated in everyday life as opposed to a binary simulation, but those results are so very convincing. The characters hadn’t even appeared on the screen when the subconscious decision for which hand to use was made. So when it appeared on the screen, the student felt like he or she was exercising free will to choose, but alas.

It’s a remarkable aspect of our brains that the multitudes of information, both external and internal, constantly bombarding our senses every second of every minute of every day can make us feel as if we are the conscious driver, and that we have some semblance of control. A beautiful illusion, and fortunately so, for we would all be literally insane were it not the case.

There is the defense that even though we do not control the full thought process of our brains that we can still deliberate, make choices, and determine actions from the thoughts that are presented to us. And that is true. Is this a small slice of free will? Perhaps. But then, considering that this is a tiny sliver of the cognitive processes that continuously occur in our minds, we’d need to redefine the definition of free will. Then again, locking someone in a distraction-free room to make a decision free of external influence does not negate the lifetime of causes that created the internal processes that shaped that person’s brain and behavior with which they will use to decide. So can it still be considered free? I say it doesn’t…but what do I know?

It’s remarkable that it escapes us all on an everyday basis. I am sure that when I have finished writing this chapter, I will go back to my delusion of being totally free, as I have so often in the writing and editing of this chapter. This is the power of, well, my brain at least.

Why did I write this book? I think I have some idea, but I’m pretty sure that idea is oversimplified and not indicative of the real reasons, but this is what I think it is. One day, my brother wrote a book; I felt strangely jealous and seeing how easy it was to self-publish. I had a thought to base a book on some of my blog posts, modified into book form, with additional content to turn it into a real book instead of a collection of boring posts.

That’s the extent of the causes that I am aware of, yet I can say with near certainty that it is much deeper than that. Why was I jealous of my brother’s brilliant book The Favor Men? Biased though I may be on the subject, I can’t say why; I just was. I was proud of him, I was happy for him, but I felt incomplete in a way, under-accomplished and outdone. Call it what you will. Without his book, I probably would not have written this book. That a-ha moment was planted in my brain by my brother, not by me; it interacted with a mosaic of other causes that produced effects that became causes in my brain, and this effect (book) was born.

I am the conscious driver in writing the book, influenced as my agency may be, but the inception of the idea was external to my brain. Had that external cause not happened, I may not have written this book, and you may not have bought it. Are you free to choose that which does not occur to you?

Why did I write this chapter? Well, in the process of writing this book, I read Sam Harris’s excellent book on the subject, Free Will, and while I was already of the persuasion that either we had no free will or it is extremely limited. I had blissfully forgotten that for many years until I stumbled upon Sam’s book. Imagine that! My brain did not remember that I knew that I didn’t have free will—awfully convenient.

We all know on some deep level that the Universe is run and ever affected by cause and effect. Every person knows that a door handle must be turned to open, a button pushed for it to function, and putting one foot in front of the other carries you forward. Yet we presume our physical brains, which function according to known physical processes (namely, electromagnetic and chemical), rises above this four-dimensional space-time, and are therefore not governed by it, rendering us essentially as gods.

Even if consciousness is more than the sum-of-its-parts, as I believe it is, does not necessarily make it free. For it is always at the mercy of the individual parts, as then seven-year old—now eight—Enna Stephens found out, when after having a tumor removed from her brain, could not stop giggling at everything, whether or not it was funny—everything became automatically funny and she could not help but to laugh. The manner in which the separate parts of the brain interact, both internally, and externally, from which the phenomenon of consciousness arises, does not allow causal escape.

Such examples of this causation—and/or correlation—include the presence of blue light decreasing suicides to zero at Japanese train stations. Does a blue light consciously make that Japanese citizen think that today is not the day to jump in front of a train? No…well, I hope not.

In some depressing statistics: some seventy percent of juveniles in reform institutions, seventy-two percent of adolescent murderers, sixty percent of rapists grew up fatherless, and teenagers from single-parent homes are 1.7 times more likely to drop out of high school.

Does a child abandoned by his father decide to consciously become a murderer or a rapist out of spite six to seven times out of ten? Hardly, it seems more likely that he or she loses the influence and guidance needed to make different choices that might have kept them in school and out of crime, of which they would have been simply been riding a different wave of causation.

In any case, it is not a one-to-one correlation of any of the above statistics that makes it seem so cut and dry, and there are always exceptions to the rule. They are merely examples and correlations. The variables, be they mental, physical, or external, number in the trillions, if not trillions of trillions, and there are any number of combinations that they could take. On this subject, so my intent is not taken out of context, children who grow up in gay households end up no statistically different from children who grew up in heterosexual households. It seems to be the absence of a father figure.

The fact of the matter is our brains lie to us. A simple fact of life if you are a human being (and I’m sure for any other creature with a brain). Here are but a handful of ways your brain tricks you:

  • Cryptomnesia

The inability of the brain to remember where an idea came from, so it pretends it’s your idea; quite possibly done several times in the making of this book.

  • Blind Spot

Everyone has a blind spot in each eye that the brain fills in, either with information from the other eye, micro-saccades, or with a best guess from the blind spot’s surroundings. Micro-saccades are the back and forth darting of your eyes accessing your surroundings (it does this several times a second, yet you never realize that either)

  • Social Conformity

Your brain reprocesses your memories to match present social pressures. In other words, it changes your memories to better fit in with your peers today, and neglects to let you know it has done so.

  • Confirmation Bias

A tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses:

“Confirmation bias is often described as a result of automatic processing. Individuals do not use deceptive strategies to fake data, but forms of information processing that take place more or less unintentionally.” ~ Robert MacCoun (Psychologist)

  • Motor Sensory Recalibration

Artificial delays were injected into a cause-and-effect study where a person had to push a button and observe a flash on a screen. The brain adjusted for the slight delay between the actions, making them appear simultaneous. Once the delay was removed, the subjects believed that the flash came before the button push. They’d time-travelled inside their own heads. The external event was perceived to have occurred before the physical action!

  • Memory Reconsolidation

The act of calling up, or re-accessing a memory changes it. Of course, your brain doesn’t tell you this. This is because your brain doesn’t record all the details of an event, merely a loose collection of thoughts and images that are re-stitched together when needed, thereby altering its loose initial configuration in light of present information—similar to social conformity.

  • Event Erasing

The act of walking through an open door can, in some cases, erase the cause of why you walked through that door, i.e., you want a glass of milk from the kitchen, and as soon as you walk through the kitchen door, you forget why you’re there. Your brain has decided for you that the separation of the two rooms nullifies any connection between them.

“I have by every thought and act of mine, demonstrated, and does so daily, to my absolute satisfaction that I am an automaton endowed with power of movement, which merely responds to external stimuli.” ~ Nikola Tesla (Inventor)

Our brains lie to us every moment of every day, and the world we see is pre-filtered, censored, watered down—and for good reason. If it didn’t do these things, we’d be crazy.

As Sam Harris writes in his own book on the subject, a book I highly recommend since he’s not an idiot like me (and he’s actually a neuroscientist), is that the first response to the above, at least at the dinner table, is that if I don’t have free will, why don’t I just lay down all day and do nothing? Well, go ahead and try, and see how long you last—keep in mind, all you’re doing is reacting (effect) to the person, or this book, telling you that you have no free will (cause)…

On the subject of crime, as it is often the second thing brought up at the dinner table, neuroscientists from Harris to David Eagleman, make the rather obvious point that it would not be something that would be tolerated if we all became aware of this illusion, and I am, for what little it matters, in agreement here.

Prisons would still exist, and criminals would be put there who pose a harm to others, but instead of using jail as a one-size-fits all approach for crime, rehabilitation would play a far more prominent role than the small role it plays today. Half of the US prison population are mentally ill (1.25 million people), compared to only forty-thousand patients in mental hospitals.

If we took account of this, our prisons might begin to look more like those of Norway, where they actually attempt rehabilitation of their prisoners instead of punishing them. Prisoners sent there have among the lowest re-offending rates (known as recidivism) in the world, at just twenty percent, as opposed to the rest of Europe at seventy percent, Australia at sixty-four percent, and sixty-seven percent in the USA. You can choose to punish people for their crimes or rehabilitate them, but to do both, seems to be asking too much of human nature. The former results in more crime…the latter in less.

“We still have to take people who break the law off the streets to have a good society, so this doesn’t forgive anybody. But what it means is we have a forward-looking legal system that just worries about the probability of recidivism, or in other words, what is the probability that this person’s behavior will transfer to other future situations? That makes a forward-looking legal system instead of a backward-looking one like we have now, which is just a matter of blame and saying, “How blameworthy are you and we’re going to punish you for that.” ~ David Eagleman (Neuroscientist)

It would seem that free will is illusory and for us mere mortals, it always was and is a cascading waterfall of causes and effects stretching back to conception that changes our mental and bio-chemical make-up, in turn affecting our physical and mental actions. And from all this, our brains simulate order out of chaos, giving us biological machines, a sanity that seems devoid in most other creatures that roam this little blue planet, providing us with the incredible gift of clarity. Look at that, the illusion of free will is a gift, and one that allows us to think and reason; well, that last part is my opinion, so you probably shouldn’t take it to heart.

This is not to say that we don’t experience and feel joy and anger, because we do all these things and more. We do have that sliver of choice, heavily influenced as it may be; it’s just not free. A choice, if already chosen by our subconscious (as shown in the Stanford experiment), is automatically accepted by us as if we did choose it! So saying that you have no free will, does not make you a robot, though on paper it seems too. These influences of ours are unique to each and every person, and give us the individuality that is inherent in all humans. I believe this is what makes us human and separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom.

“Men are deceived if they think themselves free.” ~ Benedict Spinoza (Philosopher)


Note: the book is fully sourced, but because of the writing program I use, the links don’t transfer over to WordPress. At the conclusion of the twenty chapters, I may throw up a post with all hundred-fifty+ sources, but the final book will have all the relevant sources in the proper locations.

The Communist Ideal

I recently completed reading The Communist Manifesto, by Karl Max. At only thirty-two pages long, it was a long and grudgingly boring read. I thought I was reading a book ten times the length, but I do believe I have imparted the general idea of what he espoused. While communism in its many forms that were tried in the 20th century, have failed, often disastrously, with the exception of China (which by opening up ever more aspects of its economy to free-market principles, essentially forestalled the political ramifications a central-command government eventually faces). I don’t believe that communism, as attempted so far, is the communism that Karl Marx proposed. In this post, I am not defending those 20th century communist regimes. In fact, after reading the Communist Manifesto, I do not think they were very communist, and if they were, they may have started out with the best of intentions, but the results, at least in the short-term, were anything but.

The end-result, or logical progression, of Karl Marx’s communism, in essence, was the abolition of government, and by extension, money, and equal status to all people in terms of opportunity (not possessions). What he saw, and wrote, must be understood in context of his time, and realized that the future he envisioned, would not come within his lifetime (though maybe he didn’t know this, I can’t tell). He lived at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and saw the rapid industrialization that occurred, and was right to say that capital would flow upwards in the antagonistic struggle between capital and labour, as those lower on the totem pole would eventually be replaced and relegated to a smaller subsection of the populace in an anarchic free-market system, and correctly extrapolated that this trend cannot continue indefinitely. But, he was unable to extrapolate that new jobs would be created to replace old jobs, but the jobs engines that has been continually creating new jobs is finally showing signs of its mortality, and it probably won’t last forever.

In those nations that tried on communism, the age-old dilemma of mistranslation and misappropriation of ideas, coupled with the rarely changing mindsets of people, led to poverty, and sometimes tragedy, where ever communism was exported, as well as in the free-market also (working workers to death, slavery, and unequal pay between the sexes etc.).

But I think that Karl was ahead of his time (perhaps a little too far). Consider where we are now with our current trends racing relentlessly into the future. We are moving towards an increasingly automated future where jobs will become more and more scarce as the law of diminishing returns rears its ugly head (new technologies now are creating fewer jobs than they replace), which will grind away at social stability. Soon, machines and artificial intelligence (AI) will do human jobs better than humans; without lunch breaks, smoke breaks (or any breaks for that matter), insurance, distractions, sick leave, and so many other factors that retard human output as well as increase the cost of labour, and thus goods and services.

We are moving into a future where potentially everyone will have a 3D (additive) printer in their homes, replacing the need for factories and factory workers. You need a new mug, you’ll print it. If you need a new phone, you’ll print it, and if you’ll need a new printer, you’ll print it, and so on. Materials will be assembled into the feed for these printers most likely; inside the countries themselves by automated processes, reducing international shipping and all the jobs it provides. Indoor farms combining aeroponics, aquaponics, and hydroponics will be capable of growing any food from any climate anywhere and everywhere, further reducing trans-city-country-continental transportation. Portable medical devices are on the horizon that will replace your general practitioner (GP) in identifying what type of illness you have, as well as articulate in detail the remedies for the proper healing taken in consideration of your genetic makeup, all analysed in the blink of an eye with 99.99% accuracy (predicted), and the drugs will be printed on an additive printer no lessNanotechnology is on the up and up, and in the coming decades, may release the awesome potential of building everything, anywhere, anytime using any input, at the atomic level with zero-waste. You will literally be able to turn anything into anything else!

How could something as medieval as money survive in a future like this? Money is a physical manifestation of scarcity. Replacing the ancient tradition of trading goods directly and acting as a medium of exchange between all goods, and evolving along with society. In the beginning, predominantly taking the form of gold and silver, as well as dozens of other forms (cheese in some parts of ancient Italy, and tea in Siberia way back when). Then constantly oscillating back and forth between gold standards, silver standards, paper standards, and combinations thereof. Now we find ourselves in the midst of a global paper standard. But because money evolves lineally, and our technology has in the last hundred years, begun evolving exponentially, money will, by necessity, eventually shed the characteristics that necessitated its original conditions because everything else in its environment will evolve beyond a need of it. This is a core concept of evolution, and since technological evolution is an extension of biological evolution: we can think of money in a resource-scarce environment as random mutation in a naturally selecting environment (society). But technological evolution continues, and now, exponentially increases in capacity and capability. Thus the conditions that selected the monetary-mutation are beginning to move beyond scarcity, i.e. money is losing its value (and hopefully will die), and into abundance, soon afterwards, perhaps infinite abundance (nanotechnology, anything becomes everything and trade essentially ceases).

To side-track to biological evolution to try to further the point. We humans evolved with enzymes that could process and digest raw meat, yet we no longer have them because we invented fire and the frying pan; an external stomach that replaced raw-food enzymes (and which by the way, allowed the necessary conditions to grow our brains far in excess to other primates and become the dominant ape by out-eating them). Within just a few tens-of-thousands of years (an evolutionary second), we could no longer eat raw meat (if you ate only raw meat for 90 days, you’d die). Money evolved, i.e., was bought into being as an improvement to the previous paradigm of direct trading, facilitating a division of labour, which amplified co-operation, increased specialization, resulting in technological progression, and societal advancement. Yet in evolution, it is very rare for a trait to outlast for long the conditions that necessitated its creation and subsequent survival, and such will (hopefully) be the case for money soon. Money is subject to the same laws of diminishing returns as everything else. Much as the faltering, or sputtering of the jobs engine of our current economies as they are replaced by technologies that far out-do people in terms of cost, speed, and reliability, in the process, creating fewer jobs than they replace. Yet due to the stigma of 20th century communism, I fear the necessary discourse will never occur, or perhaps occur too late in updating capitalism to keep pace with the continually evolving and accelerating change of this technological century.

Only a simple understanding of ‘Supply and Demand‘ is required to understand this point. If the demand and supply of a product stay constant, then the price remains stable. If demand increases without a comparable increase in supply: that is, demand outstrips supply, then the price rises and vice-versa. If a product has a large unrefined supply, but requires expensive tools of production to bring it to market: then the price is high and vice-versa. So in this future we find ourselves barrelling towards, where both supply is bountiful, or its use so exceedingly efficient as to nullify it, or where any resource can be used to create any other resource as is done with additive manufacturing and nanotechnology, then what possible use will money have? This is not to say it will disappear overnight, more than likely, it will deflate and continue deflating as our technological progress accelerates until we come upon a day where we find it is no longer necessary. Whether that takes 20, 40, or 100 years remains to be seen. That process will create economic pain, even if exponential in nature, because if people still need money to buy food, water, and shelter, and if the majority of the population is out of work; how does taxation, government, redistribution, and public benefits work so as not to antagonize class differences? (The end result of this exponential technological progress is that there are no more class differences or haves / have-nots, but the ramp-up is where the concern lies as the system which will eventually benefit everyone might be dismantled by shortsighted doom-and-gloom thinking)

Providing we can circumnavigate such problems, and arrive to the other side in one piece. In such an economy, where supply and demand become irrelevant, and individual needs and wants take precedence, where government is no longer required as an ‘impartial‘ arbiter, and where people are simply given everything they need to survive and thrive since it costs nothing to produce in terms of human labour, does not the ideal of communism ring true? I don’t mean the central bank that it demands (we still use them anyway), or the agricultural army it stipulated, or any other requirements that served more as a transitory approach, but the overall meaning. That everyone is equal, and we all deserve opportunities, all men and women are given the ability to shine, if they so choose.

I do believe that the essence of the message rings true, despite what other subjects he waxed on about, or didn’t, which seem obvious to us now in hindsight, but which wouldn’t have in his time. A lot of meaning is lost in the translation between German to English, and I imagine even more so, between the 18th century and the 21st. He did live two-hundred-years ago, so the allure of projecting todays moral and ethical framework on to his thinking is tempting, but which, at the end of the day, is only a shortcut to ignorant thinking. To truly understand it, we must flip the polarity of time and study it in that sense, which is what I have attempted to do in this post and distil what he may have meant (of course, I may still wrong).

Looking to history and projecting into the future, we find that most of our descendants views on several issues as immoral. Slavery, segregation, extreme classism, rules of war, as well as acts of war among many others. I see no such difference in today’s morality looking forward and fully expect those in the future to look back upon our own morality as incrementally better than the generations before us. Perhaps they will be as quick to judge us, as we to those that came before us. From our Keynesian fantasies which prolong, expand, and exacerbate the misery of billions (via a central bank and extraction of wealth), along with its isolation, consolidation and subsequent corruption of a few elite bankers who hold monetary power over billions, to those down the lower end of the monetary totem-pole being unable to afford certain necessities; healthy food, healthcare, and shelter, which would otherwise increase quality of life by removing the negative influences that affect mental and physical wellbeing (often diet-related), and which, when removed result in increased cooperation, knowledge-creation, which in our modern society makes it healthier for all involved, rich and poor alike and those who fit snugly in-between.

To use a real example of the potential problems down the road. Studies have shown that it cost society far less money to house chronic homeless people; that is, give them a free home, income benefits, and health insurance, than it is to leave them on the street, or even put them in a shelter. A Boston Health Care study tracked one-hundred-nineteen chronic homeless folk, and found that over five-years, they were admitted to emergency care 18,834 times, and that’s with thirty-three of them dying, and seven placed in a nursing home. A study in San Diego found that putting homeless people in an actual home resulted in a 61% reduction in emergency room benefits, and a 62% reduction in inpatient days over two years, with each visit costing at least $1,000. Putting chronic homeless people in a shelter costs $24,000 per year per person. And during the day, they are roaming the streets and increasingly likely to end up in jail, so that $24,000 does not include the cost of jailing, guarding, and feeding them when they are put in jail, which often occurs as a result of depression, and substance abuse that often accompanies their wandering street-life. What will we do in the future when joblessness is increasingly common, and the tools to create high-quality automated homesautomated medical care, and food are a tiny fraction of todays cost? Will we turn our back on them, because of out-dated free-market-principles? Besides, you can’t have a society that neglects a majority of its citizens without decay and eventually revolution (or in the case of an advanced force against those with nothing, mass-jailing or genocide).

People are created equal, not genetically, nor in their physical or mental ability, but morally in the context of our societies. If we allow any (unfair) inequality to creep in (which for now is inevitable), it slowly but surely grinds away at the fabric of society, only for the potential of violence to rear its ugly head.  In this regard, one of the great moral achievements of humanity is the slowly increasing minimally acceptable status one can have by providing help to those unfortunate enough to be at the lowest of the low (both by free-market economics driving the prices down and public assistance in the form of welfare, which was inspired by communistic thinking). Of course, as many will rightly point out, the latter is easily abused, mostly by political pandering and selfish voting, and we’ve seen the indulgences and problems inherent in an overburdened welfare state, but that in no way undermines its validity in the correct doses.

Nothing is perfect, much as we live today in a bastardized version of the free market, the communism of the USSR in the 20th century turned into a bastardized version of communism (though I’m glad I live in the former). With that being said, what many people overlook, or completely neglect to take into account is both socioeconomic systems are context-specific. In environments of scarcity, the free-market reigns supreme (though without a moral framework, it goes horribly wrong, i.e. slavery). In environments of limitless abundance, money, government, and classes have no place. And in the transition period between the two, ideological and emotionally based, shortsighted thinking tends to outweigh reasoned and objective analysis, potentially turning otherwise fixable periods into disaster due to the nature of democracy and political pandering. In the future when we have the technological marvels that will arise out of today’s inventions, bought into being by the capitalist workings of scarcity, will not the ideal of communism ring true in an age of abundance? (Not its 20th century misappropriations).

The rigidity of our political and economic institutions is what is at issue here; it must evolve and adapt in response to the self-changing environment we created, instead of boxing us into the past. In human history, we have example after example of people and societies holding onto tradition and frameworks for far too long after their usefulness has evaporated, and being unable to let go of the past, they often paid the price, some the ultimate price. Capitalism will be in a similar position soon.