Reasons To Be Optimistic About The Future

Reasons To Be Optimistic About The Future

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This Episode is sponsored by Ground News The future can sometimes seem a  bleak place or one so strange that   even when awesome it's not a place  we’re sure we really want to live,   but there’s a lot of reasons to think  it’s a destination worth traveling to.   So, this episode will air on Thanksgiving and is  being written on my birthday in late September and   for me that day is one given mostly to quiet  reflection on the year that’s gone by, its   highlights, and what I am thankful for, and what I  want the upcoming year to be about, and that’s not   a bad way to spend a birthday or Thanksgiving.  But it struck me that since we always have a   Thursday episode on every Thanksgiving and  I always write them early, sometime around   my birthday, that it’s not coincidental that  they tend to be more philosophical episodes.   Today we’ll be looking at technologies that  will help us solve problems like energy and   clean water and living space and nature  preservation and restoration and a ton   of others impacting the human condition, and I  hope to demonstrate there’s lots to be thankful   for already and that what we can glimpse on the  horizon leaves lots of reasons to be optimistic.   For my part I tend to think the future is hard to  see precisely because it is so bright. On the one  

hand, we should be grateful to live in an era of  such prosperity and technological might, standing   on the shoulders of many billions who have lived  harder lives in our past to help us get to this   point. On the other hand, I truly believe that  the breathtaking history of sapient life in the   universe has not even properly started yet. That  we’ve barely scratched a first stroke of the first   letter of the first word in the first line in the  trillion years long book, that is our story and   our Universe’s story. That the Universe is just  emerging from a young, fiery, chaotic beginning,   into a vastly longer and better era that will  likely view us with a mixture of sympathy and   fondness, as we often have for those who went  through critical and tough moments of history.   That is not the future we are looking at today  though, some deep and nebulous time in the distant   future. Rather, I thought today we would look  closer to home and I would present some of the  

reasons why I’m always so optimistic about times  coming, both in terms of technological prospects,   which we’ll get to in a bit, and just  humanity in general, which is a good   starting point. After all technology is only a  tool in humanity’s hands, and a hammer in the   hand of one man builds homes and in another  demolishes them, or even bashes in skulls.   I see humanity welding technology for all  those ends but tend to be more optimistic   about which we are prone to. Optimism tends to  be a good wager to make anyway. Folks often ask   me why I’m so upbeat about the future and  in my predictions and discussions of it,   and I suppose it helps that I know that if I’m  wrong and civilization does collapse, I’m not   likely to be called out on the mistake. Everyone  will be too busy roaming around the radioactive   wasteland, possibly as dust and ash themselves, or  possibly fighting off packs of mutant cannibals,   and in any event I’d still be upbeat about their  future too. So long as even a tiny remnant of us   remains, the seed for restoring us bigger and  better than ever remains inside that remnant.  

So, that's the first reason to be optimistic about  the future. Humans are very hard to kill. Nature   is not kind. Nature is not generous. Nature is  predators and parasites and plagues interrupted   by forest fires, droughts, deluges, asteroids,  volcanoes, earthquakes, climatic shifts,   and the occasional ruinous neighboring supernova.  Dystopian sci fi predicting a dark future paints   us a picture of a world where every inch of the  ground you walk on is made of garbage and corpses,   and ignores this is already true, what did you  think that dirt under your feet was made of?   Humanity sits on a throne atop a mountain-high  pyramid of skulls and catastrophes that would wipe   a mountain away and would still leave us behind. So, no matter what crisis we discuss today or what  

edge we have, keep that foremost in your mind:  there are far more humans alive nowadays than   at any time before, and simultaneously, it would  take fewer of us to survive and rebuild than in   the past. Add to that, we’re harder to kill than  we used to be, and the data shows that. Every   calamity that used to kill tens of thousands, now  gets hundreds at most. And the fact that it is   technology making us more survivable in that  regard doesn’t negate it anymore than pointing   to some critter’s tusks or thick skin as the  reason for their survival. But it’s not just   technology either, it is knowledge in general,  as well as our powerful bonds and networks.   We are much more capable planners and problem  solvers than we used to be, with vastly more   resources and people to draw on too, and it  shows in conjunction with that technology   when we do face natural disasters or even man-made  problems. Those are not trivial accomplishments,  

they have been achieved by great effort and great  past sorrow, and by the cleverness and courage of   many people, from the planners and innovators  to the first responders and just the people   in general, who have to suffer through calamities  and personal hardships while simultaneously being   called on to sacrifice to help others in them.  We often see the worst of people at hard times,   but also often their noblest and best too. I don’t say this merely as jingo or pep talk,   though it makes for a good one, but rather as  proof that we can recover from almost anything and   we have a track record of being good at it. I will  also take the somewhat unpopular view that at just  

about 8 billion people alive, we are now stronger  than ever, on the very simple grounds that there   are more of us than there used to be. We came into  the 20th century with a terrible fear that ever   more people would result in mass starvation and  inhuman responses to that, we left that century   four times as numerous but in better shape  in so many ways, and most particularly in our   food and health and lifespan, all up, when every  prediction of that era was that rising population   would lower all of those. I don’t say that wild  unchecked growth is automatically a good thing,   but rather that one person is one more mind and  pair of hands to tackle problems with. I also   feel that problems themselves are often  good things. On a day of Thanksgiving,   it is often good to ask if some of the problems  we’ve faced, or at least components of them,   individually or as a civilization, are things  we should be thankful for, while some of who and   what we are today is in spite of adversity,  some of it is also a result of adversity.   And while it’s a bit cliche to say it, how  we choose to view a situation, half-full or   half-empty, problem or opportunity, really does  often matter a lot. I’ve often found that simply  

choosing to view challenges in life that way,  rather than letting them embitter me, made all the   difference, and just because something is cliché  doesn’t make it wrong, quite to the contrary,   all the feel good advice and aphorisms and such  that we hear over and over again get repeated for   a reason. Often because it's true and it works. So our ability to hit crises with overpowering   momentum and determination and our ability to  recover from setbacks are two fundamental things   to keep in mind as we go through today. Now let’s  consider some of those technological solutions.   It really does also matter what our end goals are  that we want to be optimistic about, because not   all of us want the same future. The good news is  that a lot of the further-future options we look   at on the show, like colonizing space and building  megastructure space habitats, as well as options   here at home, will let us expand humanity’s realm  until its big enough to encompass many different   versions of paradise and find out which work.  And options like virtual reality let us even   permit those that don’t work. Moral judgements  aside, not everyone can be the king of the world,   but VR and simulated realities can let people  try that out, and maybe improve their genuine   interpersonal and leadership skills while they’re  at it, rather than just flee civilization into a   fantasy realm as we often fear people will. Virtual reality is definitely one of those  

half-full or half-empty situations, because  tons of folks lazing around in VR engaging   in various fantasy wish fulfillment is worrisome  but we shouldn’t ignore upsides like training or   treating people's medical conditions. There’s  nothing like immersion and hands-on training,   and yet we’re often limited on these by practical  reality. Soldiers shooting guns for training is   expensive, but shooting a rocket launcher  or sneaking up on a tank to plant a shaped   charge? Ruinously expensive and dangerous. Same  for practicing medicine, even first aid. No CPR  

doll is going to leave the same impression  and cement that training the way a realistic   person in a realistic setting and scenario will. Want to train your kid to use tools, well you need   to have them all and to have things to work on  that will be expended in the use and then you have   to clean up and put things away. I’m often shocked  by how few kids these days know what to do with a   lot of basic tools and craftmanship, whether its  carpentry, or fixing a car, or sewing clothes,   or cooking dinner, and a lot of that is simply  that the materials, equipment, and teaching time   is prohibitive while the students are actually  at risk. Even very good VR probably won’t match   the real deal, but it's going to get you a very  good, cheap, and safe exposure to the basics.   I made a big deal about how our adaptability  and cleverness and toughness gave us cause to   be optimistic about the future, along with our  ability to spring back up even if our species   were decimated, but faster and better training  available anywhere by VR, much as how every   house is now a library thanks to the internet,  represents another powerful tool that should   inspire some confidence about the future. VR is likely to have limits where extreme   sensations like pain are concerned, so  I suppose a kid might not learn the full   respect for a bandsaw that comes with accidentally  chopping off a finger, and most of us have a few   instructive and embarrassing scars from DIY  efforts, but I think learning to use a tool   in VR safely is still putting you a big leg up  on someone who first handled a real one live.  

We’re also better at sewing missing digits back on  too, and when thinking of reasons to be optimistic   about the future, all those prior improvements  to medicine and the ones on the horizon are   easy checkmarks. Replantation of missing limbs is  still a very new thing, just inside living memory,   and people live a lot longer too. Twice as  many folks live to 90 as when I was a kid,   and we’re expecting it to be 10% by 2050, ignoring  any hypothetical drastic improvements in medicine.   Same the quality of life for seniors is way  better than it used to be. The reality is,   the word ‘aging’ is a bit of an inaccurate blanket  term describing many unrelated or partially   related processes, see our episode the Science  of Aging for more details, so we can’t really   say folks age slower, but a lot of the hard use  that made people look and feel older is slowed and   reduced, and partially repairable or manageable. And while an awful lot of miracle treatments for  

slowing aging or curing cancer or burning fat  or building muscle are bunk, or mostly bunk,   we are making extraordinary and real gains in  those areas and while we have a real issue with   obesity in many prosperous nations these days,  my feeling is that will be one of those crises   that gets solved, much as how we had rampant  tooth decay issues in the past and so on.   It's hard to discuss certain things without  stepping on toes but since I mentioned obesity,   we should probably discuss physical appearance  too. We tend to have some cognitive dissonance on   what’s okay to change about ourselves versus what  is vain, and a lot of that is probably because of   how dangerous and irreversible a lot of body  modification has been as it got introduced as   an option. There’s minimal risk these days to most  cosmetic surgery but we still tend to discourage   that on the grounds that it is permanent and risky  and merely for vanity’s sake, unless the person is   horribly disfigured, in which case we’re usually  fine with it, and all that talk about inner beauty   and being content with our body and not judging  books by their covers goes out the window.  

For my part, I think if someone doesn’t like their  nose or cheekbones or overall shape below their   neck, I don’t see how wanting to change that is  inherently bad, anymore than wanting to put on   makeup or different styles of clothes, or for that  matter getting into better shape or changing our   bad habits, two things we encourage each other  not to be content with. It’s the cost, danger,   and irreversibility that really matter, and those  are all things technology has been addressing and   will probably further improve on. That being the  case I would rather expect body modification to   get more common as time goes on and probably see  at least one phase where the cultural mantra is   something along the lines of “Have the body that  fits you now” as opposed to have the perfect body,   it's a state which instead changes as you and  your life change. Add to that other technological   options, like virtual reality, augmented reality,  and even options like limited shapeshifting   using some of the options we discussed in our  episodes on Alien Impostors or Smart Matter.  

We’ve never really had a way to address people  being upset that they felt too short or too tall,   too wide, just didn’t like their ears or facial  features, asymmetries, the coloring of their hair,   skin, or eyes, shape of their hands, etc. We  basically tell people to learn to be content   with it, which is better than being obsessed or  bitter about it, but still strikes me as little   different than telling someone to be content with  their class and station as assigned at birth or   by standardized testing. I happen to do the job  that my parents wanted me to do and which testing   said I was suited for, but I had many options  and never felt restricted, let alone confined,   and I generally feel like that’s where we want to  aiming humanity in most respects. Lots of options   to choose from, some encouraged or frowned  on, but only with reasonable justification.   Our history has been one filled with lots of  castes and classes, and one of the driving   forces for that is limited land for people to own  and farm. We’ve made massive strides at getting  

better at bringing higher crop yields from land  while also decreasing other ecological impacts,   and research continues to improve that. Mobility,  be it upward or lateral, literal or social,   is at least partially abundant nowadays because  of that abundance of food and arable land and   the ability of folks to buy and sell and rent land  and associated properties, not to mention move.   It's cool to think of a house or farm being  in a family for a dozen generations but the   flipside of that is that it can be very hard  for anyone to get into farming or real estate   when everything is already owned by families with  all the associated equipment already bought and   lifetimes of training in running that business.  This is hardly limited to farming and real estate   but so much of the rest of the modern economy  is so constantly in flux from technological   disruption that there’s always new niches for  folks to break in. Though the flipside of that   is that there’s always people being displaced who  had their skills rendered redundant and aren’t   personally able to make a good transition  to something else, for myriad reasons.   One of the ways you can handle both problems is  by simply adding to the available resources as   you grow, and that’s exactly what colonization  of space allows, along with high-tech options to   add land; like arcologies on the ground and space  habitats in the sky. And bigger is not the same;  

only more of it, a larger system has more  diversity of options, a country of ten million   people doesn’t just have 10 times as many doctors  as one with a million, it has more specialists,   it has more brands of cereal, more types  of vacations and recreation, more sports   leagues not just more teams of the same sport.  More types of nations and sub-divisions too,   see our episode on Future Government types  for more discussion of all the different   combinations and variations folks might try. Using the midwestern model, which is generally   town and cities and villages inside counties,  themselves inside states, themselves inside a   nation, we might see a future in which there’s a  US State on the Moon, say the State of Armstrong,   or we might see one in which a small ring habitat  of a couple thousand is the Village of Kalpana and   part of a loosely-tethered conglomeration of a few  dozens other ring habs and O’Neill Cylinder’s in   the County of Glenn, itself part of the State of  Ohio. But the cool thing about space habitats,   as I often say, is that they are mobile, so if  Kalpana can’t stand the Glenn County government   any more, they can vote to have a tug come by and  move them to the neighboring County of Shepard or   even the mobile US territory of Aldrin Cyclers  between Mars and Earth, or leave the country   entirely and join the Mamoru prefecture  of Japan on the Shadow-side of the Moon.  

Mobility in a literal sense has a lot  to do with freedom, and while it’s very   nice to be able to put down roots and establish  yourself inside a stable and enduring community,   the option to leave, even if never taken, for  both the individual and that entire community,   seems to me a good one and another  bright option for our future.   That’s off in space and some centuries ahead  of course, but building to such a future can   make current hardships more endurable. So  too, growing options for remote work give   people much more mobility in their life. For all of our successes we have plenty of   hardships though, and some of those problems are  derived from our success. We have a shortage of  

water on a planet mostly covered kilometers  deep in it, and a lot of that is polluted   with islands of trash on it. So we develop ways  to better desalinate water, driven by solar or   nuclear energy, and to preserve or minimize that  water usage and without deprivation. We don’t   tell people not to irrigate with water,  we find methods to use less to do more,   we develop tricks to decrease erosion and our soil  and nutrients running down rivers to spill into   the sea. Those same tricks can keep garbage,  not just soil, from flowing out into the sea;   as we don’t want islands of trash, and we’ll  develop robot drone boats to go out and   reclaim those useful resources so they fuel our  civilization once more rather than polluting it.   We’ll get better and faster recycling with smart  identification allowing robots to rapidly and   accurately separate and process various types  of waste in the best manner for them. In truth   we probably won’t have garbage cans much longer  as along with your robot vacuums and mops you   will probably start having that augmented reality  layer that lets you quickly and casually designate   some object as garbage or a mess and a drone will  pop by to collect it and dispose of it properly.  

There’s another one of those less-noticed but  awesome improvements to life. It’s ragweed season   here in Ohio as I write this, and allergies are a  miserable thing. I’ve been getting allergy shots   for some months now and in fact will be pausing  in my writing to go to my weekly appointment in   a moment, and they and antihistamines definitely  have made life better for me personally. So does  

the air filter I run in my office here in my  home, so did quitting smoking two years ago   when I turned 40, and the robot that vacuums the  carpet in here against all those allergens and my   very furry cat Flax definitely help too. That’s  not just a quality of life thing, allergens and   mold are definitely factors in making people  sick and less resistant to other ailments,   and we shouldn’t ignore the psychological benefits  of a neat and tidy home. So every robot that makes   cleaning a little easier, improves your health  in body and mind, and gives you a bit more free   time for other matters of your choosing. One tiny  example among so many others, that makes life a  

bit healthier and happier, including the invention  of the vacuum cleaner before they were robots.   Robot lawn mowers will definitely be more of a  thing this decade and we’ll see more automation   and smart controls in homes and gardens, this  might get into some very sophisticated lawn and   garden maintenance being constantly updated  against current weather and local climate   too. The value of automation in agriculture is  almost incalculable as well. However, robots will   have a powerful role in nature preservation too. Consider the drone that counts every single member   of a species in a forest and can visually  ID them without needing a dot or tracker,   consider when an upgraded version of google  maps comes out that casually lets you pull   up how many of each type of tree or shrub or  mammal or bird are in a given parcel of land.   Consider when such a drone might have pheromone  emitters or sprayers to allow us to poke or prod   animals toward each other or to certain behaviors.  Consider a world in which vehicle detection and  

avoidance are so good you never see a dead animal  along the road, because roadkill is a thing of the   past, but you wouldn’t anyway because those  same robots patrol the roads for damage and   maintenance needs and garbage. Imagine a world  in which the death of a human or animal on the   road was a shocking rarity, not a terrible norm. All of this I think is very plausible and in most   cases sooner than later, and I think the one that  worries folks the most is how do we get enough   energy and cheaply enough and without wrecking  our environment in the process. Many think it   is too late, and if you do, then my advice is to  go all in for a moon base as soon as possible,   because industry on the Moon churning out  orbital or L1 solar shades can mediate that   problem a lot, no matter how far gone it is. That’s also a good path to power too. For my part,   I’m a big believer in a multi-method approach to  energy because even if some are cheaper or more   expensive than others, if you have a modest  amount of it out there, it not only can get   serious technological improvement through  real-world usage, but it helps remove the   sorts of instabilities and jugulars we get from  single-source energy. I’m a big fan of nuclear   and solar as mainstays though, and because when I  was born, solar was still nearly a hundred bucks   a watt, down a lot from just a couple decades  before, and since that time, the price per watt   has dropped by 10% or more every single year. We are just about at the point where solar will be  

the cheapest power source on average, that is very  debatable, and we still have issues of storage and   weather and nighttime, which is why I love it  with nuclear power, but that time is definitely   approaching when it won’t be debatable anymore and  more sunlight energy hits this planet every second   than we use all day, so there’s plenty of room  for expansion. Battery technology has similarly   improved, if more modestly, and other storage  options show continual improvement and promise.   The end is in sight, I really believe that,  and I believed it 20 years ago and reality has   outperformed my hopes there too. Aggressive  efforts at constantly improving the safety,  

cost, efficiency, and sustainability of all  our possible power sources, even hydrocarbons,   is probably the one area we fall short in, not  because we don’t make those efforts, but because   we often have rival interests attack other  approaches to energy. Our approach is better,   and their approach is therefore awful. To be fair,  that is something we see in many other industries   and policy areas too, where it’s a competition  for attention and resources rather than an   actual contradictory approach. I suspect as you’re  hearing this, if it's when it comes out or sooner   after, me saying energy will soon be cheaper than  ever is going to be met with some tooth-grinding   or rolled eyes. Energy is expensive in 2022 and  indicators are it will be a rough winter in that   regard, but I suspect that will only fuel the  push for more and cheaper and better energy.  

That’s the last area I will hit today to close out  on, it's very easy to get pessimistic about things   when it seems like we’re heading in the wrong  way or forming up for circular firing squads,   but the evidence seems to indicate we really  are better nowadays about working together and   reacting to possible problems. We see them sooner  and sometimes that means we never really act with   urgency, and I won’t say that doesn’t happen a  lot but at the same time I would make the case   for having a bit more trust in your fellow humans.  They’re not apathetic, most of us have issues   we’re very passionate about and wonder why others  aren’t, but it's not the same 10% of us who care   about everything. We are all spread out working  to other problems and while that can make it feel   like folks aren’t focusing on what matters, and  of course some really are not, just remember that   a lot of them are and just don’t agree on what is  most important or how to deal with it, and that we   can walk and chew bubblegum at the same time. The world is anything but perfect, same for   humanity and for you and I individually, but we’ve  a long history of success and improvement, and   much to be thankful for, and in contemplating that  we can see a shadow of that future to come, and   that shadow looks pretty impressive as that future  casting it is a very bright one indeed.  

A common concern about reaching a better future  is that while nowadays we have access to virtually   unlimited information, when it comes to our news,  folks often feel like they’re getting saturated   with news that’s full of bias from one group or  another and lacks accuracy or neutrality. And it   isn’t just the bias, it's the constant feed of  clickbait, hype, and sensationalized material   that all seems built around getting views and  appealing to one group or another’s echo chamber.   That’s where Ground News comes in, it's the  world’s first news comparison platform that   shows you how breaking news is being covered  across the political spectrum, and gives you   a visual breakdown of the new sources covering  a story and where they fall on the political   spectrum. It also shows you blindspots, like  which new stories are being underreported   by one side or the other. And you can watch  how international stories are being covered   across the globe using the interactive map. Cofounded by Harleen Kaur, who got her start  

working for NASA on the New Horizons Spacecraft,  Ground News is a Platform that makes it easy   to swipe between headlines to discover  which details are emphasized, exaggerated,   or left out entirely, and you can even  see your own news bias preferences.   Ground News is not better news, it’s a  better way to read the news, and you can go   to Ground.News/IsaacArthur to try Ground News  for free, or subscribe to get access to all the   features you see here and support our show and a  small team of independent media outsiders working   to make the news more transparent. And as an extra  bonus, Ground News has a Black Friday sale where   you can get 40% off a Vantage subscription,  again that’s Ground.News/IsaacArthur.   So we have our Livestream coming up this  weekend, Sunday, November 27 at 4pm Eastern time,   and that will probably be the last one for the  year since the next one in December would fall   on Christmas Day, which might be rather  tricky to pull off this year, and it might   get rescheduled or just skipped till January. As  I’ve mentioned in passing, Sarah and I are in the   processing of adopting 3 little kids and they  will have moved in the day before this episode   airs, which might make this weekend’s live stream  tricky too, and I’ll probably make the call on   December’s Livestream after we do November’s. Speaking of Livestreams though, some folks asked  

about the new piece of art behind me in the  Studio as it looked a lot like the NASA JPL   Visions Posters or paintings that many of us,  myself included, have hanging up around our   home or office. And it isn’t coincidental, they  were commissioned with that in mind and from   the same artist, the phenomenal Don Clark from  Invisible Creature, who worked with the team over   at The World Fair Co, who are on a mission  to inspire hope for the future by reviving   and reimagining the World's Fair. Personally I  love that idea, and loved the posters, and was   given that poster hanging up there by my friend  Cameron Weise, from Build The Future Podcast,   who was giving a talk on it I was attending. If  you want to find out more about that or grab one   of the posters, go to So that wraps us up on November episodes but   we sure still have December coming up before we  close out the year, and we’ll start the month off   with asking what if SETI’s attempts at detecting  alien signals succeeds and what we should do if   it does. Then we’ll look at the opposite case,  what if we never encounter aliens because we   are the first civilization in this region of  the Universe, period. Then it's onto Scifi  

Sunday for a look at the concept of Planetary  Civil wars and fighting between worlds.   If you want alerts when those and other episodes  come out, don’t forget to subscribe to the channel   and hit the notifications bell. And if you  enjoyed today’s episode, and would like to   help support future episodes, please visit our  website, Isaac, for ways to donate,   or become a show patron over at Patreon. Those  and other options, like our awesome social   media forums for discussing futuristic concepts,  can be found in the links in the description.   Until next time, thanks for  watching, and have a great week!

2022-11-25 22:16

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