In June, Scientific American published an article, 12 Events that Will Change Everything, that outlined 12 major scientific discoveries that would change the world if they were discovered or if they took place. I like the list. It is a great list of external uncertainties that will help people think about things much bigger than their organization or themselves. But Scientific American made, in my opinion, a classic error in their predictions, which is providing a probability of their occurrence based on expert input.
Scenario planning recognizes expertise, but it also explicitly recognizes that no one is an expert on the future. Probabilities on these far flung ideas and events can foster unnecessary dread, or unnecessary comfort, which might both be misplaced because people will accept the probabilities as near facts, given their source—when they are, in fact, as uncertain as any other future forecast.
I was watching the Kennedy assassination recently through the eyes of AMC’s Mad Men. Although I was very young, I recall through years of personal testimony by friends and relatives, that loosing Kennedy was a shock to a set of predictions that people made about their future, and the future of the world. No one foresaw the random act of violence that cut short a Presidency. I can safely say that in this event, only the outliers were right. Scenarios are about embracing the outliers as a part of the analysis, not exclusively, but also not disregarding them because they are outliers.
With these twelve events, we have the ability to think about them as things to prepare for, things to prevent. They may not occur in the lifetime of any of this blog’s readers, or they may occur tomorrow—or they may fail to ever occur. There is, however, a relational link in many of them between preparation and eventuality. In some cases we own the trigger, as humans, between a future reality and speculation. In all cases, we own our reaction to them.
I will leave off the probabilities as I repeat the list, and I will add an action to each that should be considered, regardless of the our belief that the event will take place or not.
1. Fusion energy. Several new industries will be created, and several will undergo creative destruction. This will shift world power. Imagine, rather than fusion energy, other events that shift world power, other things, like the fall of China to anarchy from its millions and millions of disenfranchised young men. It isn’t science, but it would shift power. If India discovers fusion first, then they become an even bigger driver of the evolution of the world. What if a small country does this first, say Israel, what does that do to the world power based, both political and in terms of energy.
2. Extraterrestrial intelligence: This shifts our religious basis, which has been shifted before. We have experienced discontinuity of belief before, to devastating consequences at times. If we took the goal to reconcile the religions that exist today, we would be prepared for this event. And if it never happens, wouldn’t the world be a better place with religions that find tolerance and acceptance central doctrines, and co-exist with scientific inquiry rather than view it as a threat.
3. Asteroid collision. Not much different than preparing for a major earthquake. There is only so much people or governments can do. Short of the UN creating human lifeboats, which is even more unlikely than the asteroid collision, being prepared for a major natural disaster isn’t a bad choice, no matter where you live (see items 5 and 10).
4. Machine self-awareness: I do love the continued optimism that machines will at some point awaken when we have yet to build a meaningful model of human cognition. This would indeed be a game changer, but as I have said many times before, let’s gain an appreciation of other sentient beings, like cetaceans and the great apes, before we give ourselves the right to create another new consciousness on the planet. We already live on a planet with multiple intelligences. A machine intelligence will be no more like us than is the Bonobo (and probably a great deal different given that machines share nothing in common with humans).
5. Polar meltdown: Oceanic heat melts Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, reshaping the world’s coastlines. This one is a pretty safe bet. Not because of our currently panic about global warming, but because it has happened before. No matter what you believe is the cause of climate change, history illustrates that climate change takes place. The countries bordering the arctic circle will perhaps find themselves in political situations equivalent to discovering fusion. If not that dramatic, it will be a huge shift across the globe, from new waterfronts to changes in crop locations. Polar meltdown isn’t just about polar meltdown.
6. Nuclear exchange: No one want this to happen, which is the primary reason it hasn’t happened, and most likely won’t. Unfortunately, the United States was the country that demonstrated to the world how horrible this technology is. Nuclear weapons and extra terrestrial intelligence both require the will for global governments to seek tolerance and drive to reconciliation.
7. Deadly pandemic: Like polar meltdown, this has happened before and it will happen again. It is biologically inevitable. Vigilance, planning, education and action when first signs occur are important.
8. Creation of life : The world is full of strange things that have adapted to niches. Our ability to create new life may prove less meaningful that we think. The new life won’t look that much different than current life because it still needs to live, and life on Earth has certain preconditions. We aren’t talking about the re-animation of humans as in Frankenstein’s Monster. We are talking about microbiology for the most part, for decades at least. And we may find playing G-d much more boring than we thought, and the manipulation of existing forms of life, much more fruitful.
9. Room-temperature superconductors: Ah, better, faster, cheaper. I think we know how to deal with that. Sure, new industries, more reliable power, faster devices, etc. Technology and energy industries need to watch and be ready to bounce on opportunity, but this will be evolutionary, not revolutionary, for most people.
10. Pacific earthquake: I live in the Seattle area. It may be us and not California. Coming from California I have food and water stashed away. Better building codes and fewer stupid choices about where to build. Again, this one is inevitable, the only question is when. Being prepared isn’t that expensive for individuals. The choice for business and government is a bigger deal as a fragile economy can’t absorb retrofitting everything. This is one where you need to plan for personal safety and then help rebuild. If you plan for this disruption robustly, all the other events will likely have very little effect on your personal life.
11. Cloning of a human. This is probably one of the bigger issues on the list for people on a day-to-day basis. It will redefine what it means to be human. It is, however, related to machine cognition and extraterrestrial intelligence. They all force the same moral and identification issues. We aren’t alone, we aren’t homegrown and we are the product of technology. If we look to our friends in the water and in the forests, we can practice our answer as a species before this event occurs. As we continue to hunt whales rather than enjoy their company (Nations Fail To Limit Whaling, Japan Still Hunts) we don’t offer much hope for those amongst us who are just different enough to be exploited or persecuted. Never a bad time to step up and do the right thing. How we treat other species is a major reflection on how we define humanity. We should solve that before cloning humans.
12. Extra dimensions: Physicists will care, but it isn’t like these dimensions can be crossed over to and hold alternative versions of us. Those extra dimensions won’t be discovered at CERN. What they will find is an answer, perhaps, to some perplexing questions of physics that will help us create more accurate technology, and better predictions about the universe and quantum levels of reality—but for most people, this will be a cool thing to learn in science class—reality will remain what you can sense, not what you can imagine.