Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Future in Assassinations

Every once in a while, when I'm looking to learn something completely new and random, I head over to DARPA's website, to browse around and see the possible technologies of the future. And today I found a little gem: the Extreme Accuracy Tactical Ordinance (EXACTO) program.

By way of a brief summary, DARPA paints the picture of an extremely accurate 50 caliber rifle with maneuverable bullets, which it claims will radically increase the range and accuracy of two-man sniper teams. It vaguely mentions a 'real-time guidance system', but understandably doesn't say more. There's no mention, of course, of how close this technology is to full development. (I'm not the only one to find this fascinating, it also received a write-up at WIRED.

My initial guess is that DARPA hopes to create something like the laser-guided smart bombs that have been used in our recent wars. In this case, I can imagine a spotter who gets much closer to the target and lights him up with a laser (the range of the laser obviously becomes important here). Then the bullet would have some sort of fins that allow slight adjustments to hone in on the spot. However, its also possible the technology would allow the target to be marked in advance (imagine a James Bond type sticking something to the back of a jacket) so the spotter can get away before the shot is fired.

According to a quick web search, the farthest shot to kill a human target ever was about a mile and a half. If this technology can double that and make such long-distance shots more accurate, assassinations would become easier by an order of magnitude. (Imagine being in charge of securing all the possible firing positions within over 20 square miles.) But the interesting question is whether and how we would use this technology if we had it available. Right now, we're using Predator drones to kill a lot of Al Qaeda types. In the future, will we once again opt for the bullet over the bomb? Or is ordering a person shot, instead of a target bombed, a little too real for leaders detached from the fight?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Madness? THIS. IS. PARIS!

The picture to the left depicts some modernist architect's vision of an updated Paris. And while it might be hard to imagine a sophisticated (read: wimpy) Parisian parroting Leonidas' words from 300, I'd argue Sarkozy, the French leader trying to implement a massive modernization plan in the City of Lights, deserves to be dragged to the top of the Eiffel Tower and thrown off for his treachery. The thought of turning the world's most harmonious and beautiful city into the set of Blade Runner 2 is more than I can tolerate.

David Brussat, the tireless architecture critic writing for the Providence Journal, routinely highlights the many modernist horrors inflicted upon our great cities. And I am right with him in believing that the current style of architecture is a destructive force when applied to existing cityscapes.

Yet, the part of me that thinks we have abandoned the search for the future to better enjoy the familiar comforts of the past knows that without experimentation, a city risks becoming a museum. So what to do? I think you can find a hint of the answer in New York. While the city has its classical structures, it embraced the latest techniques and trends of the time of its great expansion, the 19th and early 20th centuries. The skyscraper works in New York in a way it simply cannot in Paris, because the development happened organically and the cityscape was built around this new form.

The new styles and building techniques are not going to originate in New York, or Paris, nor should they. The growing cities of the world (for example Sao Paolo, or Shanghai) should look for approaches that solve their unique problems, and these solutions will diffuse to other cities. And even more importantly, when we find ourselves building under the ocean, or on Mars (assuming we ever do) those environments will reflect new needs and new thinking about the best way to live.

The other option is to destroy our built heritage and model our urban cores after Dubai. That is to say, a series of monumental, impressive buildings that fail to congeal into anything like a liveable, cohesive cityscape. But if that comes to pass, I think we'll have a lot of architects and leaders that we want to throw off the top of their monstrosities.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The World in 2200: Part Three

In the two previous posts in this series, I examined some social trends that I believe will be significant drivers of our future, and then hypothesized about the type of events that would happen in a world where those forces were shaping history. In this post, we'll take a look at how this world might appear to a typical citizen of New York City, a physician named Zeke.

At 8:30, Zeke bought a soy bagel and walked to his customary bench in Battery Park, where he would scarf down breakfast. It was Wednesday, so he'd get to see the weekly Mars Cruiser launch from the Jamaica Bay spaceport. Not for the first time, he wished he was on it: the biggest city on Mars, Anconia, was a model libertarian community, and he was increasingly feeling that life in old Manhattan was a little oppressive. He looked at the solid old scrapers of the Wall Street historic district: nothing new had been built there in about 150 years. The streets were closed to vehicle traffic both to preserve its tourist appeal and so no terrorist could bomb the old buildings into rubble. In Brooklyn and Queens, where more new development took place, the buildings were engineered to take a lot more. Just last month, a Bolivarian freedom fighter had driven an old electric van into the base of the Twitter Tower in Long Island City, and the blast had done little more than crack a few lower windows.

Zeke pulled out his thin-screen reader and unfolded it. Its smart cells snapped it rigid after it was fully expanded, and he quickly downloaded the print and video feeds from the Huffington Times. He glanced up as the Mars Cruiser fired its big fusion-powered jet, then went back to reading about a plan for Indian Buddhists to set up "New Tibet" in the asteroid belt. The Chiinese were objecting, as they claimed there was no country named Tibet that it could be named after. Zeke chuckled: he remembered the settlement between India and China after their last scuffle, 20 years earlier, and how China had to keep Tibet because neither side wanted to attract the wrath of the Warriors of the Lama, nor did India want the challenge of an independent base for its dissident Buddhists to rally around. Now, like it had for so many nations with unhappy minorities, it seemed that space would solve the problem.

He then watched yet another debate about the legality of genetic enhancements in children. It seemed besides the point to him. Like most physicians, he saw many patients who had obviously been 'upgraded' in some way or another, and despite the laws he never reported his suspicions or gave evidence to investigators, even when the mods were obvious. (One of his patients, an avid diver, always wore turtlenecks to hide his gills.)

Before he shuffled off to work, he noted that the Southern Autonomous Region was threatening to declare total independence again. The new wrinkle was that now Washigon (he still hated that name) was claiming that if the South went, they would form a new state with British Columbia, which was already independent of Canada. Zeke wondered how long the US was going to hold together: with all the independent space colonies, it seemed like every region with a few million people thought it could and should run itself. "I might be old-fashioned," he thought, "but I still rather like the idea of one big country, even if I don't much care for some of the decisions the government makes."

He folded up his paper-thin screen, threw his trash into a disintigrator (The motto of Waste Repurposing: 'The building blocks of tomorrow's...Whatever!' was cheerfully printed across its side) and headed to his office. His local patients would start arriving at 11:00, for the first two hours, he was required by law to practice vid-medicine for patients in Africa, as part of the Emerging World Grievance Resolution Treaty of 2182. The compromise was that American doctors didn't have to move there. He consulted with a few patients in Great Congo, who all had easily resolved complaints, then finally saw his first live human promptly at 11:00. The poor woman had been suffering from Grant's Syndrome for weeks, and had not been able to get an appointment before now. It doesn't make sense, thought Zeke, that the 'disadvantaged' countries could get better care than the 'modern' ones. He imagined things were better on Mars.

He walked home after work, happy he wasn't one of the people screaming all over the northeast on one of the new MagLev Commuter Trains. Part of the recent "Renewing America" program, they could get a person from Ohio to New York in 70 minutes. But the damned things were still unreliable, and they were packed for almost every run. He supposed they were good for the economy, but they had made New York more crowded than it had been in quite a long time.

In his apartment, his wife had left a holo-message to say she'd be out late with friends, and his son had left for his weekend trip to Moscow. So, with a free evening for the first time he could recall, he played his favorite Virtual Reality war game (relive the epic battles of the great South American wars of the 2080's!) and downed a bit of his illicit scotch. He would be damned if he gave up the occassional drink because he was over 50, and the bureaucrats thought it would increase his medical costs. He was a doctor, and could take care of himself. Eventually, his wife still not home, he drifted off, thinking about how nice Mars sounded.

Monday, April 12, 2010

The World in 2200: Part Two

In my last installment of this brief series, I attempted to identify some driving trends that could exert significant influence over our next two centuries. (Full disclosure: I somewhat arbitrarily picked that amount of time.) In this post, I will attempt to outline some representative events you could expect to observe if I am correct. These specific events are highly unlikely to happen, of course, but the point of the exercise is not to make a prediction, but to model what the rough shape of our future might be.

1) The great Indo-Chinese war:

Every prognosticator likes to line up two combatants for a big battle over the future. If you forced me to pick my two adversaries, this is where I would look, though I wouldn't expect it all that soon. As I mentioned in my last, China doesn't quite fit into either the rich/old/materialist or the poor/young/spiritual camp. I believe, in the words of Mark Steyn, that China will get old before it gets rich. Its government trades authoritarian control for a rising standard of living, and as they catch up with the West on the one hand, while trying to support a more geriatric population on the other, their economy will slow. This will put pressure on the government and make it more belligerent. India, meanwhile, has the potential to be more vital due to its growing population and open political system. It will also likely be allied to some degree with the US, making it feel secure. As it grows powerful and affluent, it may become economically dominant in areas China once controlled. The competing spheres of influence may force war, although it will probably bear little resemblance to the battles of the 20th century, as robotics and digital warfare will play a major roll. In general, any young, growing nation that can organize its economy to allow growth will clash with the entrenched interests of the old, rich nations trying to hold on to their inherited advantages.

2) Extreme political affiliation:

We might feel like we're already there, but I assure you that politics could get a lot uglier. As the Internet allows each individual to choose the information that most conforms to their view of the world, it becomes ever easier to avoid reading or hearing anything that contradicts your opinion. Eventually, this will lead to such a radical divergence of opinion that some groups will find it impossible to live with another. A trend that will start as families moving to more agreeable towns will accelerate so that colonies (whether under the oceans or off the planet) will be founded for like-minded people, and powerful nations will be under strain to break up as those with wildly divergent viewpoints cluster together and reject the compromises of diverse democracies.

3) The new energy

In my last post, I speculate that we will hit the limits of 'convenience-focused innovation', or products and services that are targeted at individual welfare and happiness. To expand on the thought, I think we will hit a natural limit of how much further we can innovate without a fundamental transformation in the power that drives all our stuff, and how we transmit and store it. First, the major advances of the future will probably require exponentially more energy than the incremental advances of our current technology base (which I would define as being based on the microchip and the internal combustion engine.) When we develop a power source (I still think fusion makes the most sense, but we've been working on that for a long time with no great results) that can generate much more energy (and, secondarily, better battery technology that can store that energy better and deploy it in a wide range of stuff), new vistas of innovation will open. But until that happens, we will start to see diminishing returns as more and more expensive innovations deliver more and more marginal improvements in our quality of life.

4) We will negotiate with terrorists

Terrorism stinks as a strategy against an enemy in about the same circumstances as you: you are losing your most dedicated soldiers and inflamming your opponent with your cruelty. And it doesn't make much sense against a ruthless enemy, because the amoral response to terrorism is to wipe out the people that are supporting and supplying the terrorism. But it is great as a strategy against a much richer and more powerful enemy with a lot to lose, if your goal is to get marginal concessions. In a way, the model isn't Islamic terrorism, it is the Irish terrorism of the 1970's and 1980's. Your goal can't be to destroy your enemy, but get them to give you something you value much more than them. And then have a 'terrorist' wing distinct from a 'political' wing. Ideally, you ensure there is no obvious connection between the two, so the enemy can negotiate with the political wing without giving the impression that they are responding to the terrorism. As the western nations grow old, they will be ripe targets for this type of approach, as they will be living off the accumulated wealth of the past and thus prefer a slightly dishonorable peace to seeing their (relatively few) children sent off to fight. The only problem is that their enemies will keep nibbling, with each outbreak of terrorism getting slightly bigger concessions. The balancing act is to go far enough that the terrorism threatens to disrupt the enemy's happy life, but not so far that the people get outraged enough to fight back. Expect to see the strategies of terrorism refined over this century.

So, what might it be like to live in this world? I'll cover that in my final 2200 post later this week.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The World in 2200: Part One

I had a thought, on my long and lovely vacation to Ireland, staring at ruins of churches and castles that had been dotting the countryside for hundreds of years, that it might be fun to do a little speculating about our somewhat distant future.

Now, I'm not going to try to make any hard and fast predictions about specific events that will happen, but I thought I could do a brief series that would outline where I think we're going and what it might mean for what it means to be a human being in about 2200. I intend to write three parts: in this first one, I'll identify five drivers that I think will be major shapers of the future. In the second, I'll point out some of the types of things that will happen if my drivers end up being as influential as I think they'll be. And in the third, I'll compose a brief sketch of how a citizen of this 2200 world might perceive his civilization.

To get to it, here are five driving forces I think will profoundly shape our world over the next 190-or-so years:

1) Divergent Demographics

Over the next century, we will see a number of nations (specifically in Western Europe and Japan) continue to accumulate wealth while having fewer and fewer children. These nations will become old, rich, and materialistic. At the same time, there will be a number of nations in the traditional third world that will be young, poor, and spiritual. Will the old nations fight to maintain their dominance over economics and culture? Or will they gracefully hand the world over to the nations with youthful energy? The two exceptions to this trend are, on the one hand, the USA, which will stay rich while remaining relatively young and spiritual, and China, which will rapidly age as a result of its one child policy while the vast majority of its population is still poor.

2) The Limits of Convenience

In the past few decades, wealthy nations have increasingly put their capital and top minds to work on creating products and services that make life more convenient and fun for individuals, rather than investing in exploration, infrastructure, or elite culture (which were traditionally the larger areas of investment). For many decades, science and business will continue to find ways to improve the individuals well-being (think genetic engineering), but this drive to make life more comfortable and pleasurable will generate diminishing returns. There will be a backlash as people demand their lives have more meaning, and a renewed desire among our entrepreneurial elite to make "giant leaps for all mankind."

3) Communities of Choice

The Internet has given us a peak of what happens when we can choose exactly where to get our information. In the next two centuries, we'll be increasingly free to choose every aspect of our environment. I predict in the relatively near future the upper and even middle classes will increasingly country-shop for a nation or community that fits them, and opinions and beliefs will polarize as we increasingly only see and hear what we are predisposed to like. Further out, the desire to live life 'just so' will lead to Pilgrim-style space colonization. Mars won't be settled by a country, it will be settled by religious our scientific dissidents who want to remove themselves from the dominant culture of their day.

4) Techno-Warfare

As societies become more networked and more dependent upon computers (and eventually robots) to make day-to-day life work, they will be increasingly vulnerable to interruptions to their networks and computerized infrastructure. Massive attacks on the technological underpinnings of a nation will serve the role of saturation bombing in World War II: an attempt to sap an enemy's will and ability to fight. Only in this case, an increasing squeamishness about taking life (especially in low-birthrate nations) will mean this form of warfare exists somewhat independently of bullets and bombs. Victory truly may not require a shot.

5) Terrorism as Leveler

Of course, the above only applies if you fall into the old, rich and materialistic side of the demographic divide outlined in item one. If you are a younger, poorer and more spiritual nation (or ideological organization, as you might see form based on item three), a loss of life may be more than justifiable. Expect terrorism to evolve from a dramatic act with limited political payoff to a dramatic, focused activity directly linked to achievable political goals. In other words, we can expect a war to be won with terrorism as a primary weapon. The 'old' nations will negotiate with terrorists as a means to preserve their comfortable lives before they fade into history.

All of these trends are visible in nascent form today, but I think we can expect them to accelerate and mix in the coming decades. What that may look like is the subject of Part Two.