Saturday, December 18, 2004

Kurzweil, Bostrom, Peterson on SIAI Advisory Board

I was delighted to see this news in the latest installment of the newsletter put out every few months by the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence. I think Nick Bostrom and Christine Peterson have been cheering SIAI on from the beginning, but Ray Kurzweil had seemed to think SIAI’s cause was as hopeless and unnecessary as it was admirably idealistic.

Kurzweil’s is probably the best known voice in American futurism, and he has done much to educate people about the reality and potential consequences of accelerating technological progress—myself included. By accepting a position on the new Advisory Board of SIAI, Kurzweil has gained an additional measure of my esteem and gratitude.

(Anyone interested in receiving a copy of Kurzweil’s new book before it is released should check the beginning of the bulletin.)

Congratulations to Kurzweil and SIAI. May the Board advise well and increase public awareness of the Singularity Institute as a force for good in this universe.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

The Technology Squeeze: Teachers

I initially had teachers on my list under “professions that should probably be partially automated, but won’t be”, but after reading Richard Worzel’s ‘The Next Twenty Years of Your Life’, I feel inclined to move them into the “can expect to be partially displaced by automation” category.

The reason he sold me on was demographic: The elderly have historically proven themselves opposed to increased education spending—after all, their kids have long since graduated—and Baby Boomers are about to swell the ranks of the senior citizenry. This will mean a massively increased burden on government entitlement programs alongside shrinking tax revenues. Pushing through new funding for education in this fiscal climate may be next to impossible.

And yet, the attitude that “something is wrong” with our educational system does not seem to be disappearing, so we can expect the usual vague, contradictory pleas for education reform to continue. Pie-in-the sky plans that promise to both improve schools and cut costs will be more attractive than ever.

Worzel and I agree that technology does indeed allow better, cheaper education. Studies suggest that interactive educational software can be more effective than a traditional classroom environment when the products are well-crafted by talented teams of instructors and programmers. What is true in corporate training programs would be even more true in public schools: The high cost of production is more than made up for in volume, as the program gets used in thousands of classrooms and reduces staffing requirements. Woila. Improved educations and reduced budgets.

However, when educational software is implemented on the cheap, the cure is much worse than the disease. A developer who merely adds little quizzes and a few flashy bits of multimedia to a digital version of a textbook will always have the cheapest offering. Getting what they pay for, disappointment, ill-feelings, and much finger pointing ultimately ensue among the buyers.

The moral for today is that no matter the quality of the software, teachers in districts that spend heavily on these programs can expect pressure or outright reassignment to remove them from the traditional classroom setting. They may find themselves shunted into less-attractive duties that are not-so-subtle attempts to encourage tenured professionals to take an early retirement.

The trend will be spotty. The American public school system is a patchwork of local districts that usually have a great deal of autonomy. As the price of hardware continues to drop, the largest and most volatile districts—generally those of metropolitan areas—will set the trend. Chronically understaffed and underfunded, but with an unrivalled ability to pool large sums of capital, they will be eager to invest in software that promises to bring top talent to every classroom in the city. Barring flaming wreckage in pilot programs, the quality of the digital alternatives will be irrelevant from the standpoint of teachers whose subjects will shortly invite replacement.

Less deliberative subjects at junior high or high school levels will be obvious targets: Algebra, Earth Science, geography, and driver education, for example. Math and science teachers are usually in short supply, adding another reason to make heavy use of software in these subjects. Because of said shortage, however, these teachers will probably find ready employment in the more advanced subjects—or in other districts.

Elementary school teachers will be the least vulnerable, followed by teachers of writing, calculus, art or anything else difficult for software to helpfully evaluate. I’m not sure about physical education teachers—not because they’re easily replaceable but because P.E. programs make easy targets when funds are scarce.

Now, few will think it a good idea to leave students at terminals without adult supervision. So where, they will rightly ask, would the cost savings come from?

Larger class sizes. Not necessarily in the form of bigger or more crowded rooms—although this will be possible in some buildings. No, the nature of the media will mean that teachers can remain in the loop without being tied to a given room in a given building. Loose online arrangements can replace the typical class structure entirely, allowing students to complete courses at their own pace and still have professional teachers on call for one-on-one help or small group sessions at all hours. Teachers would be making better use of their time, increasing productivity and reducing payrolls. Those who take their teaching online may enjoy their jobs more, too, freed from the responsibilities of classroom management. The adult body in a classroom (or generic computer lab) will not be a low-paid teacher, but lower-paid aide—a glorified warden at the minimum security day-care institution that is a public secondary school.

But if we’re moving courses and teachers online, why come to school at all?

Why, indeed? It’s not inconceivable that schools would cope with decreased per-pupil funds by shortening the school day or year and requiring some specific courses to be completed from home. But I don’t expect things to reach their logical conclusion—the wholesale closing of school buildings. There is immense social inertia locked up in public education; too many roles to fill: day care, social interaction, moral and civil indoctrination, and the not-to-be-underestimated parental instinct to see that our children learn the same (often pointless) things that we did in the same (often ineffective) ways.

Expecting these same institutions to educate almost seems unreasonable, doesn’t it? Smart use of technology would help to compartmentalize these functions, which is probably a good thing. Too many students today graduate with an ingrained understanding that learning is something done at the behest of others in a building set aside for the purpose. In the typical public school, education can easily become an emotionally repellant activity—one students will avoid for life and never undertake without the whip of external discipline cracking overhead.

This is partly why, at the beginning of this post, I suggested that replacing many teachers with software would probably be a good thing, whether or not it was likely. It’s not a perfect solution to the problems inherent to public education, and probably not even a great one. But it’s one that we could actually see happen.

In any event, teachers—in some grades, in some subjects, in some districts—face what looks like a technology squeeze. They would be wise to take stock of their situation and plan accordingly. The teaching profession is not going to die anytime soon, but portions of it appear destined to become less hospitable.

Monday, December 13, 2004

'The Next Twenty Years of Your Life': Your Future as a Canadian

The late 1990’s were clearly a writer’s market for future studies. Among the works commissioned for the impending turn of the millennium, Richard Worzel’s ‘The Next 20 Years of Your Life: A Personal Guide into the Year 2017’ stands out for its combination of competence, politeness, and unpretentiousness. It is, to put it simply, very Canadian.

This is not to say that ‘The Next 20 Years of Your Life’ cannot apply to Americans or others, but unlike more generically focused works, this one is clearly written for Canadian consumption. The economic trends focus on Canadian corporations and Canadian institutions. But Americans have not been entirely incorrect in their simpleminded assumption that the provinces north of the border are basically U.S. states; most bureaucratic agencies mentioned in this book have close parallels in both nations, and we can expect them to react—or fail to react, in similar ways.

Worzel adds colorful projection to his restrained discussion with occasional present-tense vignettes of individuals in future scenarios. Some of these characters use wearable computers and semi-intelligent digital ‘genies’ to make their daily arrangements and monitor their health. Others create their own television programming, delivered via the internet. Loose, federated business arrangements provide freedom and profit for the well-connected, and new technology enables forward-looking schools to provide better education at lower cost. Medical patients benefit from sophisticated suites of non-invasive diagnostics combined with custom genetic or nanotechnological treatments. All are reasonably credible scenarios, though some seem to entail a great deal of expense.

Worzel does not miss a beat, however. One of the chief questions addressed by this book is “Who will pay for all of this?” Worzel’s economic discussions suggest a globalized future where those with incomes enjoy tremendous prosperity, but where incomes are harder to come by, even for those who are well off: a kind of punctuated poverty that provides both freedom and prosperity for the flexible and disciplined, but a lack of security for those unable or unwilling to do what it takes to stay in the game. Adding to the instability, the bulge of aging North American baby boomers threatens to overdraw the resources of the working population without drastic cuts in entitlements. Worzel makes such points with candor and compassion, in a kind of personal plea to prepare for a more rough-and-tumble era of capitalism than many of us have known.

There are a few dry spots in ‘The Next Twenty Years of Your Life’. The chapter on the evolving telecommunications industry occasionally reads like a biblical lineage about which Canadian telco begat which thanks to some regulation or other. And the chapters on learning and education sometimes feel redundant, with overlong vignettes.

But on the whole, Worzel is both reasonable and interesting, a sometimes difficult combination for a futurist to achieve. He keeps to his chosen focus, and only takes readers to the relatively pedestrian year 2017, rather than through a technological Singularity (which can’t be ruled out by then, but will probably come later) and on to the end of the universe. In ‘The Next Twenty Years of Your Life’, the promise of personal guidance for the years just ahead is kept by an author well worth reading.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

The Sick Truth About Virtual Reality?

In Mark Pesce’s ‘The Playful World’( a book I’ve previously mentioned but not reviewed), he relates an interesting insider’s tale of the early days of Virtual Reality. Actually, it’s the premature days of VR – the era of Nintendo’s Virtual Boy and other misguided, mislabeled implements of eye pain that gave VR the bad reputation it enjoys to this day. The system Pesce was working on at the time was for the Sega Genesis, and by his account would’ve been far better than anything else within reach of the general public: it had the essential head-tracking feature separating VR from mere 3D glasses (which is all that the Virtual Boy and an earlier Sega accessory were).

But the product was terminated at the cusp of completion.

It seemed that test subjects trying out the prototype would often take several minutes or more to recover from their experience. Pesce says that today’s VR equipment tricks the brain into adopting a new spatial awareness, but does so only with a limited number of the orientation cues used in the real world – and VR doesn’t manipulate these exactly the same way real life does. As a result, people can come out of the experience disoriented, with trouble focusing--even dizzy or nauseous. Concerns about immediate injury aside, there was the question of what effects long-term use might have on the developing brains of the target demographic.

With no medical evidence or background whatsoever, I’m going to suggest that any effects would probably be negligible, and could even be beneficial.

You see, we modern humans already adjust to different patterns of perceptual awareness with some regularity. Some of the first humans to get a real taste of this were probably sailors. The untrained mind revolts to the discrepancies of motion and vision on a body of water, often with chunky, acidic effect. Getting one’s “sea legs” takes some getting used to, but it does reliably happen. When sailors disembark, the firmness of solid earth can be disorienting, too. But again, the effects are temporary.

Nowadays, automobiles are a more common alternative perceptual experience. We don’t often notice it because we ride in cars from the earliest days of our youth, but to someone who has never traveled at speeds not reachable by animal legs, the smooth, cocooned accelerations of a car can be as nauseating as a sea voyage. I suspect most of us have felt car sick at some point or other, despite our usual acclimation.

Trains, planes, submarines, rollercoaster rides… all opportunities for disorientation, sometimes intentionally, but we seldom worry about long-term effects on our brains.

But none of these fully replace our visual awareness the way VR does. Is this a fundamental difference?

I doubt it. Consider getting a pair of glasses for the first time, or an updated prescription. You can experience a kind of fishbowl dizziness, but you adjust over a period of days, if not hours or minutes. And with some conditioning, can switch between wearing glasses or contacts or nothing with little discomfort

I’ve noticed the same thing when playing “first-person shooter” games on my computer, which are close cousins of VR. I’m a pretty talented player who quickly assimilates the spatial dimensions and physics of a game, and as such, I’m shifting my movement and visual directions very rapidly when I play, both to avoid being killed and to stay abreast of my three-dimensional surroundings. But I often go months at a time without playing a FPS. And if I haven’t played one in a while, I can get pretty green around the gills if I bust out of the spawn at full tilt without warming up. (Watching other hard-core players can be similarly disturbing, since my brain can’t anticipate their jinking and jumping.)

I don’t think that VR will be all that different. The technology is improving as well, which should make a comforting difference; instead of abstract Euclidian shapes, we’ll be getting the same level of detail we see in games today. In fact, today’s high-end game engines can accommodate multiple, shifting viewpoints so easily that hooking up VR hardware at home will be pretty trivial. I suspect I will be one of the first to jump on board when affordable VR helmets are introduced with display quality rivaling that of my monitor. I’ve always felt that certain games, particularly those with aerial dogfighting, need the smooth look-around capability in order to capture the essence of three dimensional combat. But most any game with a 3D environment could benefit.

First-timers will find the experience exhilarating, and probably a little disorienting when they disconnect. But in short order they will adjust to switching in and out of VR, and it will seem as natural as slipping reading glasses on and off.

There are people who use VR regularly today; most of them are scientific or engineering specialists who use it to help them model complex structures. I haven’t heard about any long-term disorientation problems.

I will even go so far as to say that young people will potentially be at a disadvantage if they are kept from using VR devices out of fear for their safety. I foresee a large number of commercial applications once the price point is reached, and many will come to depend on VR to earn a living. Those who have trouble making the adjustment will be in a tough spot; imagine a business person today unable to travel in any closed vehicle without getting sick.

Bring on the VR, I say. The corporation who doesn’t, out of fear, will miss out while a competitor scoops up tremendous profits. Their gear will be profusely labeled with warnings and disclaimers, just as it is now. (Epileptics beware!) And the fears will prove to be overblown.

Monday, December 06, 2004

‘Trends 2000’: Angry Diatribe from the Age of Aquarius

Have you heard the one about the astrologer, the medicine man, and the alchemist who walked into a bar? Apparently, they had too much to drink and decided to write a book called ‘Trends 2000: How to Prepare for and Profit from the Changes of the 21st Century

Perhaps I am too harsh. I am, after all, critiquing this book some seven years after the publishing date. There could be any number of innocent explanations for why I am so very embarassed for author Gerald Celente.

Perhaps this book fell into my hands through a wormhole from an alternate reality where the rules I know simply don’t apply; where the understanding of the ancients fully equals that of modern scientists. After all, the book is told in the past tense—events from the mid 1990s indistinguishable from those coming in 2000 or 2050, except where indicated by citing the headline of a newspaper article.

Or maybe I’m just not in the right frame of mind. Maybe if I were among the “unbufalloed”—a word much loved by Celente—I would recognize in this narrative the very world in which I live: a world where the establishment has conspired to keep me from recognizing the transcendent virtue of alternative medicine, the fading glow of my own inner energy, and the relentless assault of radiation poisoning.

It could even be that Celente does not share the neo-hippie consciousness espoused by his book at all perhaps he is merely predicting the mindset of mainstream America in the 21st Century by writing in the voice he expects them to have. After all, I don’t have any hard evidence that Celente wrote this book in a vacuum while under the influence of herbs of dubious salutary value. The jacket states that he is “founder of the Trends Research Institute”, an organization that supposedly had, as of 1997, an impressive track record in trend spotting.

But if this is the case, I fail to see why Chapter 2 was necessary, explaining how the celestial precession of the equinoxes places the new millennium in the Age of Aquarius.

In any event, this book is not entirely bad. It is truly multidisciplinary (not that I consider alchemy a discipline), living up to an introductory promise to not be blinded by technological advancement in a civilization with so many other dynamics. This is a rare and commendable trait in future studies today. But ‘Trends 2000’ cyclically flushes any accumulated credibility with an undercurrent of acerbic demagoguery and bad science, leaving little more than an awful song in the reader’s head. “This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, the Age of Aquarius, ooooh…”

In an early chapter, Celente fails to recognize the remarkable achievements in health and sanitation implied when a nation finds that cancer has become a leading cause of death. Worse, he seems to think that nuclear power is responsible for the terror. “Zooming radiation levels have made it a statistical certainty that the cancer death rate will go up still more dramatically within decades,” he claims, in a typical passage where the reader is left to guess whether the argument is an interpretation or a prediction. He doesn’t seem to think there should be any reason for Americans to put up with fossil fuels, either… at this point, early in the book, he’s begun offering hints of cheap, limitlessly energy just over the horizon. I couldn’t wait to find out what he had in mind.

Somewhere in the long middle of ‘Trends 2000’, when the ‘unbuffaloed’ have started acting on their realization that everything is giving them cancer and killing their souls, he makes his most memorably accurate prediction: “Home improvement and remodeling, from the architect/designer level to do-it-yourself, will be a strong growth sector.” (His pseudo-history is punctuated with bold-faced, future tense “Trendposts” like this one.) Of course, his psychological reasoning here is somewhat suspect. I would argue that the craze has had more to do with mortgage refinancing than with people trying to restore their souls through Feng Shui and hands-on labor. But still, he wins a couple of points.

He also foresees, with some accuracy, a growing fascination with vitamins and herbal remedies, whether they be “scientifically” proven or not. Celente obviously seems to think that the future will show them to be extremely worthwhile; I am much more skeptical.

In the final chapters of the book, we learn how new forms of education will restore balance and sustainability to an impoverished, toxic, crime-ridden, nation:

“On the colloge level, an Interactive U. diploma included courses in lost civilizations, sacred geometry, alchemy, reincarnation, psychic phenomena, ancient prophecies, extraterrestrial life-forms, alternative medicine and healing, esoteric philosophy and metaphysics, and other subjects formerly taboo at the university level.” p.256

It is here that one of Celente’s few technology-centered predictions come into play (though it’s lost in the New Age nonsense). By 2005, he explains, the videophone will have become an indispensable fixture in every home and office. I guess there’s still time.

But his grasp of technology doesn’t really become apparent until he finally unveils the cheap abundant source of power that will soon reveal today’s energy providers as the innovation-suppressing, money-grubbing monopolists they are. Yes. You guessed it: Cold fusion.

It could be that ‘Trends 2000’ is a book far ahead of its time—that much of what I’m laughing at now will indeed be the history of our past, albeit with a different set of dates attached. But if you believe that, I need to tell you the one about the shaman, the vitamin consultant, and the alien abductee who all died and wanted to get into heaven. The shaman goes up to St. Peter and says…

Thursday, December 02, 2004

The Toxins, My Friend, Are Blowin' In the Wind...

As a special treat for my readers today, I’ve cooked up a shred of polemical science fiction on the subject of electricity generation. I think you’ll see what I’m getting at.

Secretly recorded conversation in an upstairs office at the Summer Daisy (Coal-Fired) Power Plant:

“So, what was so important that you had to come down here personally?”

“My team has discovered a way to sequester all of the byproducts of fossil fuel use for power consumption. We wouldn’t have to send it all up the smokestacks anymore. We could start with this plant.”

“That’s amazing! What’s the catch?”

“The catch is that we’ll be sequestering all of the byproducts, instead of sending them up into the air.”

“Hmm. So we’d be moving into the waste storage business. How hard will this stuff be for us to keep?”

“All things considered, it won’t be hard at all. We send millions of tons of toxic waste up the smokestacks every year. My team has figured out how concentrate that into a single cylinder that would fit on a railroad car.”

“Wow. But what would we do with it?”

“That was beyond the scope of our research. But if I were in charge I would suggest we stick it under a mountain somewhere. That’s a lot of concentrated deadliness. It’s so potent we could turn most of that back into fuel if we felt like handling it a second time.”

“Well, nobody is going to want that stuff buried anywhere near them.”

“It would beat breathing it.”

“The locals won’t see it that way. We’d probably end up bogged down in court for years while the gunk piled up here at the plant.”

“Hmm. Well, we could easily store it here for decades. Like I said, it doesn’t take up that much room. It’s just really, really toxic. We’d have to keep an eye on to make sure it doesn’t leak or anything. And we wouldn’t want it to fall into the wrong hands.”

“Wouldn’t the ‘wrong hands’ be crazy for wanting anything to do with it?”

“Sure. But if they were both crazy and clever, some suicidal terrorists could turn it into a terrifying weapon just by smearing it over a few city blocks. They could also sell it to Iran or someone else who could probably turn it into a full-blown WMD. That’s how bad our garbage is.”

“Damn. All the more reason to bury it under a mountain. Easier to guard that way. How long would we have to look after it?”

“A few thousand years.”

“Jesus! I knew it was too good to be true.”

“We pump some seriously deadly shit into the air! My team has done nothing short of a miracle in figuring out how to turn it into something we can bury. As it stands right now, everyone on the planet is breathing it, not just the poor saps downwind of us. Who knows how many thousands of people we sicken or kill with just this—“

“Watch it, son. If we go down like Big Tobacco, we’re taking you eggheads with us.”

“My point is, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. But this comes pretty close to fat-free ice cream that actually tastes good. It’s a hell of an opportunity that I suggest we take.”

“Ok. I’ll take it up with the board of directors. But the public will be seriously wierded out by this. I wouldn’t hold your breath.”

“Oh, I already do. Every time I come down here.”

Think the comparison is unfair? Just the radioactive component of coal plant waste released into the air greatly exceeds that realeased by a nuclear plant, which is pretty close to zero. And those radioactives are nothing compared to the heavy metals, sulfur dioxides, and other carcinogens coming out of a coal plant. If we did have a way to sequester these, it would take up far more room than in the story, and be nearly as dangerous. The only real difference would be the inability to turn this variety of waste into nuclear weapons. (There are ways under development to keep nuclear waste from being useful in a weapons program, too.)

I’m not trying to be a doomsayer or a tree-hugger here. Our power has to come from somewhere. But I would like to see some rational decision making when it comes time to decide between new coal plants and new nuclear plants. The relatively clean natural gas plants we've been relying on to pick up the slack in recent years are expensive to fuel, and becoming more so as supply fails to keep up with demand, so the decision-making time is already upon us. Nuclear waste is bad stuff, but I think it’s more useful to see it as an opportunity than as a liability. Unlike smoke stack emissions, it’s manageable bad stuff.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

'Our Molecular Future': Two Books In One

"What happens to land prices when owners can construct palatial homes at low cost? And . . . what happens to real estate if the coastline ends up under a wall of water from a tsunami?” --page 251 (ellipses his)

Douglas Mulhall’s ‘Our Molecular Future: How Nanotechnology, Robotics, Genetics, and Artificial Intelligence Will Transform Our World’ brings to my mind an author writing two books at once, when a bolt of lightning fused them into an abominable, though functional, servant of chaos. On the cover, as suggested by the title, this is a broad futurist technology survey ripped almost entirely from the headlines, with all the scrappy, shallow, contradictory urgency that you would expect from such an approach. But inside, it is also an alarmist warning about natural catastrophes—a theme hogging 10 of the book’s 23 chapters, stitched onto the technology debate with a discussion of global connectivity and a few glitzy visions of nanotech defenses.

Where technology trends are concerned, Mulhall gives a lay of the land that is as expansive as it is uninspiring—and not for lack of intriguing concepts. On the contrary, fatigue is induced by an unrelenting barrage of unelaborated proclamations that sound like the sensationalist headlines of popular tech magazines—which they probably were. It’s true that scientists can slow light to a stop and speed it up again. It’s also true that satellites now orbit the earth with the ability to repair themselves. But as one who has probably read the articles that followed these claims, I can almost guarantee you that the circumstances omitted by Mulhall render them far less impressive than the images they first bring to mind. To make matters worse, he often jumps ahead to discussions of the future described in present tense; if you weren’t paying enough attention when the switch was made, you won’t know what time-period he’s talking about—that’s how hyped his discussion of the present is.

This weakness is perhaps inevitable given Mulhall’s chosen approach. He cites his conspicuously short sentences with endnotes that read like an unpurged cache of the Google News Sci/Tech section. He introduces these notes by telling us that he purposely worked mostly from sources that are “one step removed from the highly technical realm of scientific journals,” the better to give lay readers access to the background material.

Not that there aren’t some plusses to Our Molecular Future’s journalistic parentage. The illustrations are numerous and eye-catching. Chapters are numerous and subdivided, increasing the accessibility of what could be an intimidating, 392-page tome (after appendices, notes, and index).

But, how did this natural disaster book get here? Mulhall’s background on the bookjacket begins: “sustainable development specialist and technology journalist.” I guess that’s as good an explanation as we need.

He introduces “Part 2: Nature’s Time Bombs” by citing the Nick Bostrom’s hierarchy of human-species-killing existential risks, seemingly failing to notice that natural calamities are at the very bottom. Earthquakes, volcanoes, and tsunamis don’t make the list at all, but consume much of the next 90 pages, while the top-ranking “misuse of nanotechnology” gets hardly any space at all.

This is especially worrisome when Mulhall tells the story of a future where a mega-eruption in California, with its accompanying earthquakes, tsunamis, and stifling dust plume, is turned into a “dud” through the mitigating use of self-replicating nanobots. These nanomachines reproduce by the trillions all throughout the crust, oceans, and atmosphere by feeding on the molecules found naturally therein. It’s not that I don’t think it’s impossible to render such a scenario safe from mutating into runaway gray goo; and if any situation would warrant the use of such devices, it is this one. But, in a human society where the self-replication approach to nanotechnology is commonplace, there will be far too many individuals with the opportunity to insert a careless or malicious vulnerability into a replicator design that turns it into a fatal cancer of the biosphere.

The small-but-real risk of tomorrow bringing a natural existential calamity is increasing at an imperceptibly slow rate when compared to the increasing and accelerating risk of a disaster brought about through high technology. Mulhall’s discussion thus seems of relevance only in the context of weathering life on earth, over the very long haul, as classic Homo sapiens in a recognizably human civilization. It could happen, I suppose, but the deeper, more Singularity-conscious studies of futurists like Broderick, Moravec, and even Kurzweil, suggest that any such existence will be an Amish side-show compared to what will really be going on in our galaxy by then.

So, if you’re looking for a rational analysis of risk management for the coming decades, look elsewhere. But if you’re turned on by gargantuan tidal waves scrubbing the eastern seaboard of the United States, or are simply curious to see what interesting technology headlines you might have missed over the last decade, ‘Our Molecular Future’ is right for you. Just remember to Google for the fine print.