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The impact of new capabilities in 2040

The impact of new capabilities in 2040


This will be the last discussion paper posted before we formulate the scenarios. It is intended to give readers a sense of what it might be like to live in the world that we have called Oh My Gawd. It has made no pretense at moderation, and some readers may find it too extreme to be believable. But that is what the Comments section is for.

The section headings in this paper are as follows:

  Implants and augmented reality
  Birth options and childhood
  Personal and working relationships
  On (not) getting old
  The transnational "state", nations and politics
  Energy supply and demand
  Defence and security; opposition to the OMG style

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Technical forecasting is generally a doomed enterprise: we all recall the helicopter which every household would own. Nevertheless, the exponential growth in technical knowledge will abate only if we move into profound economic crisis. The equally exponential proliferation of things that can be hitched together to create novelty will also continue.

The 2040 period will be profoundly affected by new technical capability. We know that we are poor at predicting what this capability may be. What are we to do about this? The answer, I believe, is to think less about technology and more about things which would make a difference if technology were able to supply what was needed. I can guess at how aging might be slowed or halted, but it is perhaps more interesting to think what would be the consequences if this came about.

This text is therefore written from the perspective of the cutting edge of the Oh My Gawd (OMG) archetype. What it describes in not typical of life across the planet, but of the global elite and the geography which they inhabit. Please note the avoidance of the word "nation" in this context. The concept of nation may by then be appropriate chiefly to the regions which are excluded from the OMG world. OMG activities are largely delocalised, in a geographical sense, but extremely focused on intersecting networks of capability. The people who make these up are chiefly based in a limited number of cities, and a minority of the inhabitants of those cities are strongly engaged in such networks. (The current financial world offers a weak glimpse of this reality.) Engagement drops away very sharply outside of these locations, but the disciplines which they enforce demand common standards from the states which support them.

The greatest barriers to change are often the things which we do not know. If we know that we do not know them – to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld – we can at least anticipate the consequences of their becoming clear. There are two deeply significant issues of which we know that we are profoundly ignorant. (There may be more, but they reside in the domain of things that we "don't know that we don't know".) One of these is the nature of awareness, of cognition. If we can emulate this on a machine, in a network, augment or change it in humans, then a great deal becomes possible. Whether it is desirable is another issue.

Second, we do not know how physical reality is put together. This is a less a matter of understanding particles and their interactions and much more a matter of having a "handle" on spacetime, in which particles are line-like flaws. Or perhaps not: we know that conventional particles are about 4% of what is, and we have no idea whatsoever how the backdrop of spacetime is concocted. Knowing this may offer all manner of opportunities: chiefly, energy, but also materials with complex properties, extremely fast computing, useful features of the universe as closed to us now as electricity was to European the seventeenth century.

It also may tells us that we cannot know: that the experimental domain would be too high energy, to embedded in probability or otherwise inaccessible to analysis. Finally, we may see wide vistas spread out for us but be unable to make use of these. It is worth recalling that before Einstein's 1904 paper, we had no idea how the Sun shone, or why the interior of the Earth is hot. His 1917 paper told us why the Earth revolves around the Sun, and why things fall to earth. Newton told us that they did, Einstein told us something of how this occurs. One of these papers has bred a vast domain of technology, whilst the other has had almost no practical application at all. (GPS has to be adjusted for general relativity, but that is a problem and not a solution to anything.) One cannot, therefore, know where (or when) fundamental discoveries will have their impact.


Implants and augmented reality

Implants and augmented reality

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We have emphasised the importance of communications systems and contextually-aware computation in welding the OMG world together. These have sounded rather worthy and grim, but they are also capable of generating utter immersion and considerable fun.

The primary sense of "having fun" can, of course, be simulated in brains that are both understood by the system and open to such stimulus, perhaps through sophisticated interfaces which drop overlays on reality, or replace visual reality altogether with convincing artificial worlds. The means for doing this range from projectors ("3D TV") through devices that resemble spectacles (or contact lenses to physical implants. Implants themselves can range from quite modest interfaces with the nervous system to structures woven through the brain and acting as a partner to it. Some of the issues associated with this are discussed in a moment. Such systems woudl allow the complete replacement of sensed reality with a simulation, and allow flows of tacit and implied knowledge and skill, even triggering emotions on demand. Such entertainment and educational media would be immersive - addictive, perhaps dangerous - to an extraordinary degree. Many choose to spend a great deal of time in artificial worlds.

Simulated environments are, however, commonplace tools of daily life. People drop into them in much the way that they glance at road signs or make telephone calls today. Information is superimposed over much of life's experience, both on demand and in the manner of advertisements today. The law around this – on the propagation of infectious memes, for example – is strict. An entire nation could in infected with religious mania or an alien political commitment within minutes if strong firewalls and filtration were not in place.

The idea of direct interfaces to the brain is very alarming to many, and one can expect strong opposition. It willnto arrive all in one step. An acceptable early application might be that of minor therapeutic applications, much as deep brain stimulation is used today to control, for example, epilepsy and Parkinson's disease. Extending more intelligent systems to manage psychotic disorders would, therefore, be unobjectionable. As these prove their worth and become more sophisticated, so they gradually expand so as to interact with the brain at the cognitive level: as the means to augment a thought or improving percept stream. Early applications might offer memory adjuncts for the elderly, for example.

This capability opens many doors, however, manu of them of great commercial interest. They afford competitive advantage, insofar as the user has a direct, real time perceptionfo, for example, a financial market. Regions that permitted such applications would be at a considerable advantage, and - unlike the control of sports self-augmentation - this is not competition for its own sake, but raw battles over real things. Secondary applications expand rapidly into applications such as 'instant' language or motor skills. Such skills might be downloaded on demand, so a user would call down ability in a foreign language, or the ability to handle a tool, perform a task or interact with a computer system. Quickly, that becomes the ability to speak the language without thinking about it, or inhabit a virtual world to the partial or complete exclusion of physical reality.

Not only is this hugely advantageous to the individual, it is also completely flexible. One can discard one skill set and acquire another, perhaps instantly, as these are needed. In effect, one can download capacities on demand. Some of these could be very high level, such as oratory, improved social skills, child rearing. One could even install motives, such as an enthusiastic self-dedication to child rearing, and a warm glow at the ability to excel at this.

Plainly, this can be taken much, much too far. Such interfaces could create the perfected dictatorship, in which we all love to love the leader. It is potentially subject to invasion by others, by the equivalent of viruses, advertising slogans and con men of all persuasions. It can lock people into situations from which they are incapable to retreat. Companies might require that its employees accept the unacceptable, happy roboticisation. A vast panoply of regulation and inspection will therefore develop to manage this. As these issues are extremely personal, this will necessarily be invasive, much as the control of child pornography is (appropriately) invasive.


Birth options and childhood

Birth options and childhood

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Biological insight means that humanity has an enormous range of choice about its reproductive options. This is less a matter of 'babies in bottles' – although that option is easily achievable, and for some perhaps desirable – than it is about optimisation. Physiologies can be molded to meet whatever standards are required; and so to the basic structures of brains. Some aspects of this will predefine personality and aptitude, whilst the early years of a child's life will predictably shape the totality of its personality and capability. That is the potential, formal, provable and without hidden snags.

However, such a Brave New World will have vast opposition, intensive regulation and, even where accepted in full, subject to rules which prevent unintended consequences. Highly specialised aptitudes that meet today's requirements may be inappropriate for future needs. Fashion or over-focus may reduce natural variability to a dangerous low. A generational arms race is, however, almost inevitable once the social and economic consequences of even partial optimisation become clear.

Nevertheless, complete insight into how the human body works implies glowing health for those who can afford it, or those who can mandate it as a state service. The young brain is thus born into a nearly-perfect body.

The same analytical effort will have gone into the optimisation of a child's early years. The state will feel a responsibility to the child to ensure that its upbringing as closely follows this optimum as possible, and certainly that it be protected from absolutely negative influences. This implies monitoring of a child's progress, at many levels, and a degree of coercion of non-compliant parents.

The young brain develops in response to stimuli that have to present themselves in a timely manner. Social skills appear at their due Piaget stage. Languages and musical foundations each have their period when the brain is extraordinarily plastic to them. The deeper issues, of personality and values, are similarly molded from experience and genetic predisposition. Current research believes that the physiology of the brain puts an individual into a small subset of the space that personality can inhabit: more introverted than outgoing, domineering rather than following, amiable rather than cold; the measured dimensions are numerous and replicable across the world's populations. Early genetic choices have set the child into a loose subset of this space, and early experience now shapes the individual to a more defined position. At present, this is handled very much ad hoc, with parents attempting to influence the outcome in ways that are largely intuitive and often completely wrong, as Phillip Larkin recognised:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

Not in the OMG society. they don't. Children are "managed" in their exposure to stimuli, in a world made safe so that they can seek out adventures from an early age. Omnipresent scrutiny means that unsophisticated crimes are always detected and punished, and intelligent machinery means that hazards such as traffic are much less dangerous. Parents are encouraged to let children roam freely. However, they are far from free as they are constantly monitored by systems that they carry with them and systems in the environment in which they roam.

These systems are not passive. A child will receive suggestions, guidance, instructive entertainment from anything from communicators (the eventual descendant of the mobile telephone) to toys, with whatever implants they may have clearly playing a role. "There are some boys you might like who are building a float-boat down by the lake. If you ask that man there, he will give you a ten minute weeding job, and with the money you can buy the rudder bearing they are going to need, and be there in time for them to find that they need it." A life full of stimuli, encounters, educative examples.

The Diamond Age or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson. (Bantam 1995) gives a (somewhat Technicolor) account of a book that fulfils many of these functions. What he missed was what would happen if the individual books became nodes in a web, a system that provided physical security, absolute health and then attempted to optimise didactic and social flows for the young.

Biological insight and perfected medicine means soemthing additoonal to a criowded world. With the exception severe physical trauma, people would be very long lived. Indeed, functional immortality might be on the horizon for those who could pay for it. This has major issues for population growth in an already crowded world. The resultis that conception is unlikely to be the default position: in order to have a child, the precise opposite of a contraceptive would be required, and in many societies, permission to reproduce would be required as well.

Who gets to breed is not a question of rational selection amongst the best, both for the obvious arguments about elitism but also because all children are anyway optimised. Rather, different countries manage the matter differently: random lottery, purchased reproduction licenses, back door influence and 'earned' points that are consequent on extraordinary self denial or public service.

One can see something of this in contemporary China, where middle class children are (spoiled) little gems who may find adjusting to adulthood a challenge. In 2040, however, children are relatively rare in at least a significant number of the world's populations, and treated with all of the complex hedging about that we have just discussed: neither spoiled nor neglected, they are optimised as carefully as a prize bloom, brilliant, balanced, formidable when adult.


Personal and working relationships

Personal and working relationships

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The core of the OMG world consists of a society of networks. Social networks follow the usual laws of affiliation, but with the much greater transparency of society, people quickly gravitate to what are, for them, centres of weight. Commercial networks assemble around interests, and around scarce resources, such as collective capability and effectiveness, or around gate keepers to that such as regulators. Social status is of course defined by many things, but with membership of successful networks being very important.

To understand the reason why network membership is so important one has to understand what these networks do. In today's world, a network means a collection of people held together by informal and formal connections, some of these being information technology, others legal obligations and yet others voluntary. The value of the network is that its somewhat streamlines the flow of information and, on the whole, tends to have implicit within it at lesast some clear colelctive goals. It can do things which people cannot do on their own.

In 2040, however, matters have changed. The network is a virtually sovereign entity, and arguably at least semi-aware of itself as such. It has procedures and processes for gathering insight, settling upon an identity and set of values, and processing all of this into goals, tactics, project generation and approval. Its human members are in part contributors to the overall processing and in part they play the role of limbs and tools. An individual who is encapsulated in such a network receives constant prompts, direction, coaching and feedback; and is kept constantly aware of the changing situation. Peer to per communication is continuous and rich. Work is undertaken in increasingly virtual environments, where – for example – financial systems of complex plant are represented in multidimensional forms that those lacking the correct implants cannot even perceive properly.

All significant companies are such networks; some networks are, own, are owned by, manage, holds shares in companies. Any one domain in the net may, therefore, be defined by ownership, by what we would call a company or partnership. Equally, however, it may be defined through ties of what amounts to trust with other parts of the many supply chains in which it may sit. One element of such trust is reputation, and reputation sticks very close to an individual or organisation in this environment of transparency and information access. Default is therefore uncommon and networks can readily escape from many of the traps set by game theory: friction is thereby reduced and collaboration increases. Recruitment into such a network comes through personal introduction, capability and track record. Most work in a small, peripheral structure, do well and become noticed, and are sponsored into a tighter relationship with a greater network. Crossing the barrier from participation to full membership – not quite employment as we know it – comes at the cost of strong software changes to implants, such that disloyalty is physically impossible: a personal firewall with built in loyalty.

Elite networks are self-selecting oligarchies which owe allegiance to what works, rather than to any one political system or polity. In this, they are somewhat like today's CEO of large organisations, but also share something of the closed nature of top professionals in the law and medicine, sports elites and the inner circle of politics. The middle classes are valued but replaceable components in existing networks. The majority are peripheral service providers or parts of lesser networks.

Rivalry between networks equivalent to competition between companies, or nations. Early, we mentioned Neal Stephenson's ideas. One striking extrapolation from history is the idea of the 'clade', which he uses to denote a distinctive working style that a network may adopt. Stephenson notes that some societies prosper and others fade away in the face of competition. In common with contemporary development theory, he assigns success to the effectiveness with which a society addresses its problems: its formal institutions but also its work style, realism and tough mindedness. Networks feel the same selective pressures, and adopt a variety of styles and technologies to cope with this. In some cases, the resulting evolution is convergent, and in others it diverges wildly. Extreme clades that fail leave their people as exposed as goldfish on a kitchen floor. This is not like being made redundant because your company has failed today: it is more like the moment when life support is switched off. The extreme competition and fast change of the time makes such networks rabid for survival, and extreme in their behaviour. The transnational consensus about good practice that we have called the state, and identified as one of the key agents in the OMG world, manages or tries to manage the extent to which rivalry becomes dangerous.

The speed of change and obsolescence mean that most choose to place themselves or affiliate with in the upper reaches of several networks than at the peak of any one. Those who do so need close affiliates who access a yet wider range of networks, and this is a primary reason for marriage and friendship. The natural partnerships that we see today, between politics and law, or politics and journalism, are primitive examples of this process. We return to marriage in a moment.

There is an extremely complex social hierarchy, with no one optimum or apogee. Even wealth comes as separate tranches of purchasing power, access, permissions, trust. It is interesting to contrast social status in Victorian England, which depended on inherited social class and wealth, in roughly equal measure, with early C21st, where arts, sport, entertainment, business, "society" and politics are just a few of the mutually-indifferent hierarchies that now exist. Inherited social class is now largely irrelevant, and great wealth is more of a facilitator of status than a primary source of it.

Friendship networks characterise the young and the less busy. These relationships are seldom begun as casual acquaintances and thereafter cultivated into fast friends. As we have seen, active networks seek out compatible and useful individuals and groups. A delicate etiquette emerges around this form of constant computer dating. It is important to be properly connected, and one thing that parents can do for children is work on their network; and that friends can do for acquaintances.

Marriage has, at least for the OMG elite, become a somewhat different institution. It is about bridging networks and managing property, with reproduction a distinctly secondary issues. As already noted, population pressures constrain reproductive opportunities. Children are cherished for their rarity, and managed by expert structures that transcend and control what the biological parents may wish. Indeed, the notion of 'biological' parent is fast becoming a thing of the past. It is not necessary to carry a child in the womb, although many choose to do so. The genetic features of the child may be more or less strongly manipulated in order to emphasise desirable qualities, as already discussed. Marriages are thus complex arrangements that are organised around mutual advantage, and may involve many partners rather than the conventional two. They usually have a legal constitution, with careful book keeping around assets, liabilities and connections.


On (not) getting old

On (not) getting old

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The ageing brain is currently driven by biological failure and autoimmunity. In 2040, there is something else at play. This is the loss of coherence that comes from endless alterations and improvements. The individual functions well, but loses a sense of identity. Periodic rationalisations are needed, but a consequence of these is that the individual changes. Memories may or may not be fully retained, but the sense of identity and aspiration alters, often radically.

The human 'operating systems' - what allows any one of us the power cognition – can probably be encoded a few terabytes-worth of data. What makes any one of us an individual may well be no more than a few gigabytes on top of this. You recall a day in a wood: almost all of that employs cognitive primitives that we also use in perception. The cognitive Platonic tree is dressed with percept details, but in our mind's eye we "see" a placeholder, decorated with more and more specific facts as we look closer. Much of memory consists of evoking such primitives, and consequently, memories are more pointers to generics and their combinations than unique data.

Given this, and given brain implants, it is not hard to see how we could develop a recorder, not of specifics but of what makes "me", me. What can be read out can also be read in: into a muddled individual – a spring cleaning of the mind, or perhaps the soul – and into a new host body, grown for the purpose. Or into a machine, a network, two bodies with the same identity that marry; … The possibilities are endless.

In the world as a whole, pretty much anything that can be done will be tried by someone, for thrills, for advantage, out of curiosity. As mentioned elsewhere, some of these many experiments will work, will cross-pollinate and breed ever stranger offspring. The trend ever-more firmly evokes the old mantra: that just because you can do it, it does not follow that you should do it. There will be many attempts to regulate and to control, and the omnipresent scrutiny suggests that many new things will come from small, non-compliant but also non-reactionary locations. That said, genuine advantage is something that cannot be passed over in the intensely competitive world of OMG, and many experiments will go mainstream quite quickly.


The transnational "state", nations and politics

The transnational "state", nations and politics

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As discussed elsewhere, the state "engines" have undergone considerable change by 2040. They are for the most part still nominally nation-based, but they each exist in parallel with increasingly identical peer agencies in other nations. A network of information exchange and the ceaseless pursuit of best practice binds them together informally, and transnational accords does so in legal terms. Their expertise allows limited room for political manoeuvre. The collective, an effective international state apparatus, is replicated anywhere that has any pretension to joining the OMG world. These standards are extremely intrusive in areas of state service provision, such as health, education and security; and enter what we would today regard as private life in all manner of ways. The child's home environment is at least as important to healthy development as is state-provided schooling or health services: ergo, the state imposes standards on these issues. Similar things become true of adult health, further education, participation in social support and public security. There is no privacy, except inside the individual head, and even there, not very much of it is to be found.

The nation state exists, but it has a diminished role. There are two reasons for this. One is that the world has fallen into a few blocks that are distinguished by their desire and ability to accept the OMG style. These blocks have a great deal in common, and the more OMG-like they become, the more their states become cohesive around standards of best practice. The poor nations may remain as states, but the wealthy ones tend to dissolve into the OMG agglomeration. Second, the networks and processes in the OMG world have no real physical location, and whip around a virtual sphere that needs unitary regulation and policing. States may agree these regulations, but no one state can enforce them.

One of the consequences of this is that the marginally engaged in OMG territories are aliens in their own land. The powerful are engaged in activities which they cannot understand or access. Their children are growing away from them at an immense speed. Immersive entertainment beckons.

Their representation at the state level becomes more and more of a token. Their needs are fully supported, but their relevance to what is going on is negligible. Many, unsatisfied with virtuality, seek solidarity with movements in the poor nations. These are seething with ideologies and hate at the OMG block, which seems to embody everything they are not. Violent expression of this hate is widespread, and carefully managed by all manner of virtual firewall, by physical controls and by military means. Fellow travelers in the rich world are, therefore, a particular threat to a finely poised, just sustainable political and economic environment.

It must be emphasised how aware most are of the fragile nature of the world at this juncture. Nine or so billion are held together by weak institutions, and whilst the OMG group have found a way forward, the others baulk at what is required. Energy sources are focused in a few locations, as are minerals. Fresh water is scarce in many places, food supplies are fragile and the vast conurbations of many poor countries are chaotic and filthy. Below, we review two specific areas in which this fragility expresses itself: energy supply and international security.


Energy supply and demand

Energy supply and demand

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Energy demand in the world continues to rise, focused on those areas where industrialisation is continuing down the path of physical infrastructure, housing and urbanisation. The OMG world has become largely virtual in what it does, but the intensity with which it acts means that physical movement of goods and utilities – for example, water and drainage - also consumes substantial amounts of energy.

Energy supply remains problematic. It is not that energy sources are lacking, but that they are either located in difficult or politically unstable places, or else their use is excluded on environmental grounds. Early experiments with renewables have been consolidated in the typically vast projects that energy demands, such as space based solar collection, or immense ocean thermal stations. Waste heat and urban thermal islands are becoming a distinct problem, as is the consequence of Earth-based large scale renewable use. Currents that are mined by ocean thermal stations are beginning to falter, as wind energy extraction was also found to alter the weather when too much was extracted and air currents randomised.

New supplies are promised. Solar power, based on lunar fabrication and launch facilities, shows great potential, but – like orbital and Lagrange point solar – it comes with vast security implications. Plans exist to build "space towers", structures based on the equator which reach out of the atmosphere and serve as receiving antennae for the beamed energy from the remote solar collectors. This requires immense terrestrial reticulation facilities, places global energy in the hands of a few (militarised) locations and will cost immense sums.

Physics has begun to look towards unification. As noted in the introduction, this may be a dead end. We may find that there are things which we cannot resolve with any conceivable experimental set up, or that the universe we inhabit is simply a random example of countless others, each with slightly different properties. It may also be the case that such insight will tell us ever more sharply where to look for what we "don't know that we don't know".

By 2040 it may be possible to see how space, time and the contents of these are constructed, and from what. The endless regress - molecules, atoms, particles and fields - resolves upon a specific and necessary mathematical structure from which everything else drops out, its properties necessarily as measured in the everyday world. Such structures are termed "emergent". Emergence means that simple things, when connected together, have the property of emitting more complex behaviour. Social behaviour is a good example of an emergent. If you completely analyse an organism - let us say and ant - you have, in theory at least, the capacity to predict the behaviour of that ant in great detail. Thus, you can replicate this many times and have a swarm of independent ants. However, if you let the ants interact, they quickly begin to behave in regular ways: they "emit" social behaviour, which goes beyond the bounds of your hitherto perfect ant model. Much the same happens in many physical system: for example, ice changing to water, then to steam depends on unchanging water molecules that generate different behaviour in different circumstances.

Unified theories have to be grounded on the simplest and most self-evidently necessary properties of, for example, pure numbers. From something of this sort, layer upon layer of necessary emergence has to exist as necessary truths. One deep problem is how you generate time from any concept, given that without time you can have no interactions; indeed, no duration. Numbers, however...

It is likely that any such insight would have profound practical and philosophical implications. If everything is "constructed" and then plays to emergent rules, then changing those rules will have profound consequences, the applications of which that may look like transport, energy and so forth. Einstein's thought experiments about light beams and clocks now underpin the generation of 20-30% of the electricity used in most industrial nations.

Contemporary descriptions of the universe at very large scales are not compatible with the views that dominate descriptions at the very small. A universe of curved space-time and fields has no contingency in it: everything is frozen into one outcome, because time, the vehicle of alternative outcomes, is a fixed part of the structure. A universe of quantum uncertainty is, by contrast, founded on contingency and uncertainty. Both views have been subject to rigorous testing and have passed. Neither is mathematically or philosophically compatible with the other. Equally, neither can be complete. Both take space and time as givens, with particles as phenomenological objects that sit in space time and exhibit properties with allow them to interact. However, any true "theory of everything" has to construct space and time, show how fields and particles arise and play a role in this, or serve to generate it.

We know that our view of space and time is incomplete: as noted in a comment to previous paper, recent studies on quantum phenomena show that the universe is at some level non-local, meaning that there are connections which do not obey the rules of space time, which do not pass information but which do undertake something analogous to accountancy.

Such a synthesis is lacking and current attempts have built mathematic towers of Babel, reaching for the heavens but mutually uncomprehending. One can expect some of this to have been relieved by 2040 - by analysis, by experiment, by novel insight - and huge sums of money will continue to be spent on esoteric machinery. It may show promise that by 2050, perhaps…

Added: There is a review - here - of the 2009 IEA energy outlook for 2030. Taking a positive view about the extent that energy efficiency can be driven, they see that demand can easily be met if approriate investment is triggered. The key issues are technology transfer to poor nations, massive investment and strong price signals. This program also achieves the Copenhagen CO2 requirements. However, getting such investment (and technology transfer) depends on a willing, safe and predictable world. the opposite - turbulence, intransigence - will mean supply shortages, pollution and further instability.


Defence and security

Defence and security

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Most commentators expect that, within a generation, any battle field in which high technology forces are pitched against each other will not be survivable for human soldiers. Unmanned or semi-autonomous weapons systems will dominate the battle space. If any one of these can be detected then it is lost, and both stealth and intelligence stacking, filtration and active selection will be predominant. Such wars proceed through long pauses, then turn into quick-fire chess. However, the essential paradigm – gain territory, invade the heartland – is probably dead for all but primary producers. You can capture an oil field, but not a service industry. Pressure between rivals, amongst whom there is a considerable degree of mutual dependency, cannot easily lead to a pitched battle between formal armies. Any such dispute – over access to resources, for example – would be settled by attacks on the industrial base, and that is managed as it has been managed for two generations, by mutually assured destruction.

Commentators therefore expect the future defence environment to revolve around asymmetrical conflict, and see the use of force as an arm of the general projection of power into unstable or otherwise incapacitated regions. High on this agenda are states that have fallen out of connection with the world polity, but which retain the capacity to do harm. A collapsed state such as Somalia today is regrettable, but a nuclear armed North Korea is threat in direct proportion to its unpredictability and its seeming lack of realism as to the consequence of retaliation. Threat is largely proportional to resource and organisation, and thus ideology and block formation have enhanced potential to security issues. (Such opposition is discussed in the sub-section which follows.)

The OMG model (and the corresponding polar opposite, Fearsome Chaos) have the potential to divide the world in a dangerous manner. OMG nations will generate technologies that have the potential for misuse. Whilst a nuclear accident is deeply unfortunate, a biological or IT-related one has the potential to spread itself and affect, ultimately, everyone. OMG authorities will therefore regulate the use of these very firmly and thoroughly, and probably control the spread of the relevant knowledge. However, the gamut of nations at the other end of the spectrum will not take so solid a stance. Their attitude will range from the wholehearted rejection of modernity to ideological aggression or simply self-enrichment. The ideologies of poverty and Rejectionism will be widespread, professionally propagated and in some cases backed by destructive acts. These could well consists of orchestrated attacks from within the systems, to steal from banks or destabilise banking, for example; or of course, both of these. Terror needs its funds.

Defence preparations must take account of all of this. Its scope is set by a hierarchy of necessity, desirability and aspiration. Unhappily, what is necessary is not always achievable, and what is an aspiration often gets good press, public support and precipitate action without meaningful military goals.

Defence planning is aware of this dilemma. It needs concrete tools by which to assess such aspirations. With such a capability, a general desire for "stability", for example, can be translated into a sequence of required social states, each to be generated by defined tools which take so many resources and so much time to be delivered. If it can then be shown that this takes too long, or if the tools do not exist to do it at all, then the mission can be declared invalid. The cash and other resource costs are also open to better definition, making a decision to start both more painful and more clear.

Such tools do not exist, but as 'military' objectives become ever-more socio-political, the pressure to develop them will intensify. There is, therefore, a great deal of work to be done, and the will to fund it. In parallel, the social sciences as a whole are going through a transition from the qualitative and theoretical to the experimental, and perhaps to the quantitative.

The consequence of these forces is that, by 2040, the necessary social technologies should be in place. Whilst it may still be impossible to give the order: "Sergeant. Install democracy", it may be possible to point to exact procedures that will achieve stabilisation and progress. Many of these will involve the microscopic analysis of the socioeconomic framework – working at the level of the influential individuals – so as to tip the board so that the pieces all roll in the desired direction.

Surveillance will be universal and individual audit trails will be lifelong. Anyone graduating in the equivalent of biochemistry can expect to have his or her individual transactions and communications archived, studied for patterns and built into hierarchies of simulations. Getting one's retaliation in first, particularly if this takes the form of a happy coincidence or a sudden job offer, is a cheap and effective way of managing the wilder spirits.

Domestic security is the innermost shell of layer upon layer of tripwires and information synthesis. Everyone in an OMG society is permanently on the radar, simply by virtue of how life is lived. The difference between surveillance and passive data collection in a world where every transaction and activity leaves a record is a very narrow one. Individuals are automatically modeled, and deviations from normal behaviour patterns are flagged. To whom they are flagged – your leisure counselor, your colleagues, homeland security, the army of social workers – depends on the situation. There is no privacy in this world except for the very rich and the very eccentric.

As an example of omnipresent surveillance at work, consider an individual encountering another, both having time on their hands. The equivalent of their mobile telephones would handshake with each other and with the local networks: shops, cafes, security. One 'phone (or implant, or…) would recognise that that both have time on their hands, and that a given person was also free, had compatible interests, or could help solve a problem, or had common friends, and if so adjusted, would suggest an introduction. In doing so, it would update data bases, poll local coffee shops for a table and so forth.

Opposition and unequal growth

Fundamental discoveries - such as machines that appear to think, or self-replicating structures that can explore and mine the planets for us - can be very alarming for the general public. Readers may recall the "gray sludge" media panic about self-replicating nanomachinery, which was allegedly going to eat the planet. Wholehearted immersion in the new is certainly not for everyone. It requires trust that the state has made novelty safe, that its regulatory systems are alert and effective and that benefits therefore objectively outweigh the costs of novelty. OMG commerce requires complicit populations, and these demand excellent and reliable regulation. It is not possible to deliver OMG in effective isolation from the society or its government, although it may be possible to use some of its tools in this way. This leads to a central concern about any technological revolution, let alone a set of parallel explosions of this nature.

The OMG revolution will involve a small minority of the world's populations, and the active agents will be a tiny fraction within these. The complex network of capabilities will levitate away from the grasp of many groups and regions, carrying their geographically native population along with them. Those excluded will look at these heartland with envy, disdain and incomprehension in equal weight. Some nations which are trying to industrialise will adopt some of the tools, but probably not the state apparatus that it needs. Others will reject the entire movement, and try to shut it out. Issues such as machine cognition may be seen as offensive to religion for example. Deep and constant surveillance by many parallel systems, a necessary condition for OMG, is also potentially offensive.

The world of 2040 will have systemic problems around resources, energy and around the stability of natural systems. Human institutions should be designed to to damp rather than exacerbate crises. As already noted, this will be characteristic of the OMG heartlands. It will not true of areas which are in active opposition, which are too poor to be compliant or which are simply chaotic.

Advanced technologies have the potential to allow extremely dangerous things to be done by interest groups and individuals, analogous to the computer viruses and terrorist bombs of today, but of far greater potential to ramify out of control. Such capabilities arise from basic industrial infrastructure. For example, it does not sound alarming that there amy be ready access to predictive technologies which allow the simulation of biological structures, in full molecular detail. However, to access such a system is to have the power to test genetic changes - for example - in a common pathogen to make it less - or much more - infectious and virulent. Companion technologies that allow for gene manipulation open up a brand new world of terrorism, perhaps targeted at specific individuals.

Such things cannot be permitted and will not be permitted in the complex, post-industrial world. Their populations will be free to think widely, but their potential to take action will controlled as never before. Surveillance in omnipresent, not least by your own personal technology, which is trying to understand you current situation and help you optimise within it. At least some public attitudes will also be managed, much as racism is managed today, by a mixture of official morality, law and media complicity. Embargoes on key technologies that have dual use potential will be widespread, and much resented. They will cause nations which are subject to such embargoes will fall further behind, and to become dependent on the advanced core.

This may be less true of the poor nations, however, where outlawed technologies may find a home. It will certainly be untrue of those in ideological opposition. The world's populations may be divided between areas which oppose the OMG form of modernism, those which harbour effectively criminal versions of it and those who are fully compliant with it. Attempts at outreach and control are unlikely to be effective. We cannot, for example, control a simple agricultural crop today - Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy - so how can we expect to control far more subtle and complex things in the future? The transfer of potentially dangerous technologies to non-compliant nations will therefore most likely be limited by law. This will further widen the gap between the global rich and poor



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Response 1: Fantastic. At last a futurist who is prepared to talk about the alien future. And, what is more, with a positive slant to it. Too much science fiction deals with dystopias, and they are just too easy and not at all helpful.

My comment is the following. If what you say about cognition is not true, then most of this is going to fall over. If you cannot emulate human or even animal though in a machine, then none of this can be done. Two questions, therefore. What happens if this turns out to be the case, if we are just nine billion chimpanzees with no hope of rapid improvement? I don't think you can have OMG, which means that OMG is not humanly possible - just possible for trans-humans - and the future is pretty bleak. YF has to turn into either OMG or FC - unless we all die off from Libyan 'flu - and if OMG is blocked then we all get very chaotic indeed. But here I go, heading into dystopias. Tut.

The other thing is this. If you do get this sort of machine assistance to people, how many people are you going to need to make it work? What I mean is that this sounds like a world in which 95% of the population are doomed to non-material consumption of immersive environments - life long kids in the bedroom - and just a tiny minority get to play. I am not sure if that matters in terms of political sustainability, but it is a pretty sad swan song for the bulk of humanity. The meaning of life is shoot'em up for ever.

I think this is a real issue. As you can guess, I read a lot of sci-fi. I love Ian M Banks, and in particular the Culture novels. (For the poorly read, these are utopia set in a space going civilisation without money or possessions, in which machines provide endless support.) Ignoring the question of why the machines need the people, people in the Banks books live lives of pointless hedonism. Well, perhaps that is the end game of the human condition. But I think the drive to achieve is built into us, and that when we have got these, we fade. Is OMG a decadent state, or the stage when humanity sheds its last skin, pupates and goes on to do something unimaginable? This is what the ectopians call the "singularity", the point where human predictability breaks down.

Response 2: My first thought on reading this was that it was mind boggling. My second thought was that it was all about how, and very little about why. That is, networks are a means, not an end. Yes, I see how children are safe and educated; and you do talk about some such services ends. But what is industry doing with these tools?

I'm not looking for jet cars. But what replaces the washing machine? Not a network. You started with a remark about how poor technology forecasting is. But then you say that needs don't change, so here are some ways of fulfilling needs. Yes, you discuss energy and defence - sort of, child rearing in detail and lots about social relations. But when it comes to needs, I think you have left a whole lot of them out. Here are some:

Of course I'm not asking what the chemicals industry will be making and how in 2040, but you completely ignore this kind of thing in the text. It seems a bit of an old hippy vision without the harder bits put in.

Response 2: The OMG thing started as a response to systems issues. The big thing is that if the economy is 2.4 times bigger (3% for 30 years) it will roughly consume that much more stuff. The only way around that is for material and energy productivity to grow as fast or faster that 3%. Really, though, we are probably looking at slower growth in the efficient rich world and faster growth in the inefficient (and less motivated) industrialising and poor world. So either they get an injection of efficiency greater than their let's say 5% growth, or they grow very slowly, or we need a lot more stuff. Which makes stuff expensive. Which in turn makes stuff-users either get efficient or not grow so fast. Past evidence is that price elasticities have been pretty low for e.g. energy. Therefore: will your OMG people push efficient solutions at the poor and the industrialising? If so, how? That IMHO is how the systems issues are really addressed.

Response 3: A reflection for you is that the problems that we face seem to me to (potentially) become something to rally round. You discuss the opposite - that a lotof the opulation dissent, and it allfragments. The negative connotation of that would be all things associated with protectionism and denial. But also we could start to come together. This coming together could be at peer group (e.g. all the parents), city level (we as Londoners), nations, religions, etc. Such partial collectivism (badly put) is likely around certain issues, but the climate issue is one that can be seen to go a number of ways and (possibly) end up with us all being so fearful of the calamity that we all face that we all agree.

This depends on those in the systems rationalist space working on convincing the many others who see life differently. This (in my logic) then brings into play the role of the media (whatever that will look like) as a pressing force on those who set the laws, regulations, as well as the markets. It interested me to see just how slow behaviours and value-systems alter and this is going to become an increasing problem as technology continues to roar away. When scientists and technologists really get going on genetically altered life there is going to be a right old ding-dong and whereas I'm all for careful and thorough science, the choice will be there to act, but it may well be ahead of not only law, but also our ability to understand exactly what we are doing.

Response 4: I realise that this paper focuses mainly on OMG and we have to be careful to use OMG as an archetype and not a scenario. Of its very nature it contains the trap of unbridled imagination.

However I really have a problem over the timing of some of the ideas, particularly when we consider not so much the manifestation of the technology but also the way in which it will impact on people's lives. If I consider the life cycle of the current IT revolution then I can look back as far as the late 1950s when solid state electronics and something called a computer had already reached the school laboratory and we were taught to construct flip/flops and and/or gates if I remember correctly and to count in binary. By the 1960s we had big computer engines running on punch cards and paper tape and Fortran that were being used by academics and engineers. By the 1970s businesses had routine commercial applications doing clerical stuff. By the 1980s it was a major strategic issue for businesses trying to create new businesses with IT. I would really argue that it was really another decade before this came to fruition and started to change the lives of "the man in the street" when computers penetrated his car his phone his wrist watch and his way of communicating and living. I present this time line as a personal anecdote I am sure there are IT specialists who would choose differently. My point is that in some of the more challenging (particularly biological) ideas we have not yet even reached the 1950s stage of playing with the techniques in school. So I have difficulty with the idea of this impacting peoples lives in any realistic scenario for 2040 which is only 30 years hence

Editor comment: All true, but recall two things. Data processing was big business in the 1930s, with punch cards and mechanical systems. Bureaucratisation and Taylorism were given their unlovely flower by algorithms made of people, in trays and rows of desks. Second, the "system" has been following a logarithmic trend for 5-6 decades, and that generates a substantial momentum. The amount of calculation that you can buy for USD1000 has followed a straight lines since 1900. Extrapolated, it suggests the USD1000 laptop with the power of a human brain by 2025, and the human race a decade later. This pure crunch must enable rather different things from what has gone before.

Response to that: Yes, well that rather proves my point. It took from the 1930s, not from the 1950s; and maybe you get a laptop with alll that power, but how do you harenss it usefully for daily life?

Response 5: The paper presents an interesting selection of key themes. In each of these domains, we can, by the year 2040, expect a number of breathtaking ‘innovations’ - most of which we have not asked for, but which will emerge simply because they are in the pipeline.

The main question that this paper raised in my mind, concerns the essence and the nature of the OMG scenario. This is important because the paper is “written from the perspective of the OMG scenario”. In particular, I wonder whether all the intriguing future developments that the paper presents are compatible with an OMG-world. Some of them may make an OMG-scenario non-sustainable. I have selected three domains where a forceful and invasive Big Brother state is announced, and wonder how this fits into an OMG scenario.

1 Birth options and childhood

Scientific progress in this field and its potential applications are largely pre-determined, a matter of time. As a result, “we” will have a vastly increased degree of control over the next generation and hence the future quality of our society. But who is “we” ? Who decides which use will be made of the new technologies: a dictatorial state, or individuals each acting according to their own wishes and preferences?

The paper seems to suggest that the state, the nation-state and its leaders will be in control. Presumably for ‘our’ benefit, in ‘our’ common interest, they will de facto get involved in eugenics in a big way. Once the principle has become “salonfähig” again, it seems logical if not necessary to use society’s knowledge and skills to the maximum. (See 'State Shapes Society' archetype, found here.) If technology can improve society’s genetic material, it is only logical to aim for babies born without defects and as close to perfection as possible. It is a small step to continue these ‘personal improvement programmes’ when children grow up and become adults, once again in order to optimise the nation’s ‘human resources’ to everyone’s benefit.

All citizens can then indeed be “made to love their leader” and fulfil his wishes before he has expressed them. Or to love the flag, and to commit to whatever other people have decided ‘loving the flag’ actually means. This goes much further than controlling child pornography, which blocks information channels but does not invade a person’s body and mind. What these trends describe is indeed the creation of a Brave New World. If a truly Brave New World dimension fits into a scenario, it becomes its essence and main driving force. It is too important for playing a secondary role, for example in an OMG scenario that is characterised by ever more individual people becoming part of the ‘knowledge society’ and living their lives accordingly.

The OMG scenario is in first instance a bottom-up society, where the state nor corporate shareholders will be given the power to practice eugenics, regardless which reasons the various interest groups might have put forward (probably: security, protection from terrorism, maximum productivity, ‘others do it as well’, ‘we are merely helping our children’, etc.). In an OMG scenario, there will be individual parents who will grasp any opportunity to change the character, the skills, the mindset or personality of their children - even if this means that they themselves, as a result, become incubators rather than ‘parents’. But at the same time, people will learn from these experiences, and they will see the inevitable side-effects of such tailor-made babies. See the recent film about a lawyer who, for one day, can only speak the truth and has to say what he thinks : honesty is good, but also good things have their limits. Also at present, without ‘babies in bottles’, most parents could do much more to ‘optimise’ their children, simply by adhering to current insights and techniques.

On a macro-scale, the current problem is parents’ neglect rather than over-ambitious parents. Many observers doubt that, when cloning becomes technically possible and affordable, a majority will go for it. In this kind of scenario, the gap between what is technically possible and what society will routinely practice, will keep increasing rapidly. Even today this gap is already quite large - although we can, we do not drop nuclear bombs on people we don’t like, and, although we can, we do not spray graffiti on people’s cars. The OMG world is, in my view, strong, but not in the sense of powerful but of resilient.

2 Personal and working relationships,

Indeed there will in future be many more networks, and, especially in an OMG world, they are the main glue that holds society together. The question is whether these will be, as the paper suggests, totally dedicated to getting results, securing advantages, creating and maintaining elites, pushing children onto property-, status- and other ladders. If they are so goal-oriented, why is this so? If the networks, as described in the paper, continuously prompt, direct, control their members and if refusal to respond means elimination and expulsion, the question is who initiated such networks and who keeps them going? Ed: Maybe all companies are necessarily smart networks of this sort, and commercial imperatives keep them as decribed?

Are these networks a modern version of the elites that for centuries monopolised power in European societies, and is their purpose to serve the interests of the elites? In that case, parents should indeed do their utmost to position their children in the most promising networks, because these dominate society and take good care of themselves. However, I would assume that in an OMG-scenario, in the ‘knowledge society’ that it entails, the people will refuse to hand over control over their lives to self-appointed elites. The driving force for change is the individual who is constantly optimising the mix of networks in which he participates, on the basis of his personal criteria at that moment in time.

People who have a choice, will be a member of several, quite different, networks ; some for career advancement or the pure accumulation of power, and others for friendship and ideals. In such a scenario, it is possible that the traditional networks (Freemasons, Opus Dei, Clubs, Ivy Leagues, etc) will lose legitimacy because they refer to a pre-democratic and pre-globalisation era. The younger generation sees no need to entrust such networks with its well-being and future, as they are self-confident enough to trust their own judgment. How can networks, operating as “sovereign entities”, be in positions of total power unless they manage to impose themselves on society – and is that the kind of society portrayed in an OMG-scenario ?

3 The transnational ‘state’, nations and politics

Defence and security

The same dilemma returns, I think, in these domains. The assumption is that there will be a group of OMG nations in a hostile, envious, ideological world. The OMG group, however, is doing very well because it has developed an ability to impose stability and progress on the rest of the world, through sophisticated means of control and manipulation, in turn based on detailed understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of any society anywhere. 'Surveillance will be universal, and privacy is a thing of the past'. Every individual is monitored on an ongoing basis and any deviation from routine behaviour leads to risk assessment and perhaps corrective action (only ‘the very rich and very eccentric’ are excluded from this type of supervision, which is a pity because they are usually a high risk group). The question is once more: who will do the supervising, who is Big Brother ? Will Big Brother be monitored and controlled as well, and if so by whom?

The military dimension further intensifies both the need and the possibilities to control individuals. New wars will be about control, not the occupation of land. (Ed. capitals)

The OMG authorities are forced to inspect and regulate which new weapons end up in which hands, and will do so “firmly and thoroughly”. However, is an OMG scenario plausible in a world which is so divided, hateful and fundamentalist as is assumed? Extreme measures will be needed to ensure that any destructive act and intention, by a nation, group or individual, will be discovered and stopped. Preempting any conceivable attack or hostility, requires a totalitarian society. Which leaders can we expect to be in charge of these societies - can they be trusted, and which rules do they follow ? Most wars are started by the very people in these positions, and how will this be prevented ? It is unlikely that the billions outside the OMG group of countries will be bullied into accepting this state of affairs for ever.

On the contrary, an OMG world is only stable in the long term if there is a balance of power, perhaps based on MAD-thinking, and if no nation is so humiliated that it pursues even self-defeating actions in order to create change. In every scenario, many parties will have the potential to damage and destroy, based on new and affordable technologies. In an OMG scenario, they will on the whole conclude that a destructive course of action brings them no benefit. The various arms races will not be stopped, but, not least by responsible behaviour of the OMG-countries, an all-out escalation leading to new equivalents of “total war” will be avoided. If not, the world will de facto no longer be on course for the OMG scenario.

Response 6: A quickie: you seem to have two wedges. One, already noted elsewhere, is the arrival of the system issues. They will not all come at once, and some will be more intense than others. The timing of their arrival with serious intensity is very important, as already noted.

The second wedge is the OMG response, and the specifically "social technology" aspect of it as the solution to many of the systems issues. If that wedge lags the first, the oly responses are chaos or authoritarianism. If the second leads the first, then we have anaged responses: perhaps to consumerism-lite, as someone called it, or perhaps to this new thing, which we don't understand but we call OMG. The difference, I think, beween OMG and YF is that the former is open ended - like the 1950s, endless horizons - whilst YF is an end game of doing more with less for 9 bn, and hoping it all stays on track for a few more years.

There was a figure with three routes on it that was shown early in this process. The systems issues divided the flows into channels. These channels were referred to as being "archetypes", a word that has come up several times since. I'm not sure exactly what that means, but I think that we are thinking the same way: they are tectonic, architectural features in the terrain. The scenarios are detailed paths through this general landscape. OMG is the broad open plain, YF the closing but initially attractive valley. (Ed: Yes, that is about right, I think. An "archetype" is a thinking model that occupies the space where a proper scenario would go. It is often pretty generic and coarse, so much so that often three or more scenarios drop out of a single archetype. It seems to me, reading these comments, that we have several OMG scenarios superimposed and that we shall need to sort them out. At risk of teleology, what is OMG "for"?)

Response 7: You assume that science can be used for good or bad, but that science itself is neutral. This need not be so. We are making things that do not exist in nature - not cars and chemicals, but states of matter that may not be stable in a big way. There was a big fuss that accelerators might make black holes which I don't rate because many cosmic rays are a lot more powerful than anything an accelerator can make. However, consider the Bose-Einstein condensate, in which wave functions fuse to create a super-object. What stops that from superimposing to black hole qualities? My point is not that this or that is innately dangerous, but that we are running a large number of experiments which might backfire. For an example of the unexpected, there is a paper on arxiv suggesting that the Higgs may be so elusive that it sends "signals" back in time to stop the LHC from seeing it. Will that blow up the planet? Surely not, but it is an example of what seems possible when you fiddle with fundamental variables. The radio silence from putative alien species may be there because each one explores physics and tries one common, seemingly-logical experiment too many!

Response 8: I very much like Response 6, taken in conjunction with the wise Response 5. The overall analysis is founded on things that will almost certainly happen: science, population, environment, aspirations and so on. Generically, we can walk into a wall if the problems precede the means to fix them. The responses to this are probably both chaotic and authoritarian.

If the problems arrive after we have the means to address them, then we could go in two directions. One of these is for (some) to drift into a low impact consumerism; as noted, essentially an end game or a gradual transition into one of the other two possibilities (chaos, OMG). The other is somehow to grasp what we have - capable people, what they know, institutions and commercial structures - and so build a path to the sunlit uplands, the state which knows no limits. That is OMG.

There are two issues about this kind of OMG. The first is what it looks like in more detail, and here this text has taken me, at least, forward. Response 5 notes that it really does imply a new partitioning between what I can choose and what the collective chooses for me or imposes on me. It does not seem a libertarian paradise, as the potential for harm is too great. Imagine a gunfight on the fully loaded passenger aircraft that is 2040: nobody can win, it cannot be tolerated, so all of us will be psychologically x-rayed hourly. But, unlike previous generations, we in this crowded 2040 can "fly" to extraordinary destinations, trips with no conceptual limits.

The second question is how OMG gets going. Who benefits? What are the vehicles? I do not know, but I think the "agents" paper got a lot of this right.

What we see in this is a balanced system of pressures, in which two actors take up the tools for clear reasons, and the population drive them forward for a variety of clear reasons. This is not the happiest of worldin whch to live: YF can be seen as gentle decline - pale lavender consumerism - but there is nothing delicate about OMG except the balances that it has to maintain. I am trying to think of a metaphor - a fast jet, all fiery power at delicate the control of exactly adjusted systems? This is not a bunch of twinky little Eloi and parasitic Morlocks, but a blazing path to long range success that makes our world look, well, sepia. Hurrah!

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