Thursday, March 1, 2012

Happy Future Day!



Reinventing the Future by David Brin

Most of our holidays look backward, honoring past victories, dead presidents or long-standing traditions. How about a day that looks forward, toward thinking creatively about building a better tomorrow? The brand new Future Day will now be celebrated annually on March 1. 

How would you (productively) observe such a day, particularly to inspire the next generation?

Google’s new TED-style project aims for technological ‘moonshots’ to develop innovative, far-reaching solutions to the problems of tomorrow, covering topics ranging from transportation to agriculture, genetics to computing.  Google notes: “Moonshots live in the gray area between audacious projects and pure science fiction; they are 10x improvement, not 10%,” because we can’t afford to think incrementally for the future is a steamroller bearing down upon us. In "The World in 2050", Lawrence C. Smith takes at big picture look at the megatrends and forces shaping the civilization’s next forty years. We will need to anticipate the accelerating effects of globalization, climate change, population growth, and increased demands on natural resources, particularly water (which the author calls Blue Oil), which are likely to exacerbate inequalities across the globe.

Looking even further ahead, Deep Future: The Next 100,000 Years of Life on Earth, by Curt Stager, explores the potential long range impact of climate change on our planet. Stager notes, “We face a simple choice in the coming century or so; either we’ll switch to nonfossil fuels as soon as possible, or we’ll burn through our remaining reserves and then be forced to switch later on…We are faced today with the responsibility of determining the climatic future that our descendants will live in.”

The future of space exploration is increasingly international - yet the U.S. has backed out of five joint projects with the European Space Agency. The 2013 NASA budget slashes planetary science by 20%, with Mars exploration taking a severe hit. Fortunately, the James Webb Space Telescope avoided the merciless axe. NASA may abandon the joint NASA-ESA ExoMars missions scheduled for 2016 and 2018, as well as a joint venture to explore the moons of Jupiter. Europe is now courting Russia for the ExoMars mission. We need to show some consistency and commitment to our partners overseas and how about some commitment to our heirs and descendants? The War on Science has gone too far - if we are to remain a forward looking civilization.

Universities are critical in preparing students for a rapidly changing world, yet undergraduate education has changed little over the last century - large lecture halls, blue books and expensive textbooks still prevail. Lawrence Summers notes that factual mastery, passive learning and individual effort should be of less consequence than analytical, cooperative, cross-disciplinary thinking. In the real world, fields such as science, business and government rely on an ability to collaborate and work together, yet at schools this broaches on ‘cheating.’ A recent study showed that replacing the lecture part of introductory physics with an interactive peer-based seminars increased comprehension by 20%. Moreover, this fits already-embedded American ways of education. In addition, America will need to produce one million additional graduates in math, science and engineering to remain competitive globally, according to a recent report by the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology.

For too long we have been tolerant of planned obsolescence - for manufacturers know they can sell us a new and improved model in a year or two. A lovely nugget from Christian Cantrell’s hard SF novel, Containment: He describes the “Nobel Prize winning concept of ‘End of Life Plans’ or ELPs” -  instructions included with every single manufactured item, specifying what to do when the item is discarded. With parts no longer tossed in landfills, manufacturers were forced to develop products using recycled/converted components. Anticipating that components would be reused, manufacturers had an incentive to use longer-lasting materials that could be upgraded for next-generation models. Make it so!

More generally, how about an overhaul of our entire trash collection system? One concept straight out of Sci Fi: Pneumatic tubes to whisk away trash. Such a system is already in place in several European cities, as well as Roosevelt Island in New York City, processing nearly 6 tons a day. The upfront costs to develop infrastructure would be substantial, yet there are long term savings in personnel, vehicle and fuel costs, as well as CO2 emissions. It currently takes 6000 heavy garbage trucks rumbling down already over-crowded streets to remove trash from New York City alone (The very model of inefficiency - these trucks get all of 3 miles per gallon!) Such pneumatic systems may be the future of municipal waste collection.

And the future of energy? The United States’ first new nuclear power plant in a generation won approval Thursday as federal regulators voted to grant a license for two new reactors in Georgia. Part of the promised “nuclear renaissance” to restart the road to energy independence… though with beefed up standards in the wake of the tsunami-caused problems in Japan. Finally, after 60 years, nukes will be required to have ample cooling liquid available on a purely gravity-supply basis. I mean geez, what’s so hard about that!

What do you get when you cross an accelerator with a nuclear reactor? The Accelerator-Driven Subcritical Reactor (ADSR) would use thorium instead of uranium. It doesn’t generate long-lived nuclear wastes and can even consume toxic wastes from traditional nuclear reactors.

The possibilities are endless!

About the author:

David Brin, a scientist and best-selling author whose future-oriented novels include Earth, The Postman, and Hugo Award winners Startide Rising and The Uplift War, is a 2010 Fellow of the IEET. Brin is known as a leading commentator on modern technological, social, and political trends. His nonfiction book The Transparent Society won the Freedom of Speech Award from the American Library Association. Brin’s most recent novel, Kiln People, explores a fictional near future when people use cheap copies of themselves to be in two places at once. The Life Eaters - a graphic novel - explores a chilling alternative outcome of World War II. His latest book Existence will be published in June. 


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