Sunday, October 11, 2009

FutureThink: the Mindset of the Future

To think strategically about the future, it is necessary to realize that the mindset of today may be outdated for appropriately contemplating the future. The inadequacy of current human minds is sometimes given as a possible reason that humans may not be able to understand the full physics of the universe (multiple dimensions, multiple universes) or design artificial general intelligence.

One technique to improve the current mindset is to try deriving future intellectual norms from historically trending principles.

There are other examples of this concept. Successful athletes do not move to where the ball is now but where it is going to be. Ray Kurzweil exhorts not to invent a future object based on today’s technology, but rather where the technology will be in the future.

Three key principles and one meta-principle are discussed below.

1. Increase in humaneness: The first historical principle that can be identified is an increase in humaneness. Over time, there are new tiers of behavior that are deemed inhumane and become unacceptable. For example, slavery was acceptable in past eras but is not now, many societies have moved away from capital punishment and diminished discrimination is ongoing. Some contemporary issues are the rights of homosexuals, and noise and light pollution. In the future, it could be seen as inhumane to keep people waiting, or bored, or under-actualized, or without personalized-temperature control, or exposed to air pollution or disease toxins emitted by others.

Medicine and dentistry are obvious fields of increased humaneness. Today state-of-the-art treatment from 100 years ago seems primitive and barbaric. When seen from the lens of the future, it is easy to contemplate a time where people would be shocked to be operated on with a knife; we are already starting to see this now as da Vinci robotic surgery is 90% less invasive than traditional methods.

2. Increase in choices: A second historical principle is an increase in choices. For example, in music, with the advent of records, industry insiders were afraid that people would stop listening to the radio, however there was a boom in both as they reinforced each other and expanded music-listening as a category. If a new concept provides value, it helps to refine, stratify and expand the whole market. Contemporary examples are TiVo, YouTube and free e-books spurring traditional sales.

3. Decrease in limitations: The third idea is related to the second, not just are there more choices but there are new choices. For example, population growth may be a problem if only certain areas of the Earth can be inhabited and if resources are constrained, but FutureTech may open up living in places that were formerly uninhabitable (for example, the Seasteading Institute is investigating the feasibility of water-based settlements). Resources could become more abundant such as is happening now with solar and wind energy and the possibility of repurposing of cellulosic plant waste for fuel or food with synthetic biology. A significantly higher population could be supportable on Earth. Today’s constraints will not be tomorrow’s constraints.

Meta-principle: Abundance
These three principles, increase in humaneness, increase in choices and decrease in limitations are all aspects of the overarching principle of abundance. With abundance, there is more in every dimension, not a world of either/or scarcity. For example, a classic futurist thought experiment is whether someone would forsake their embodied form by uploading their mind to a computer. This is a perfect example of the fallacy of applying current thinking, e.g.; today’s resource scarcity mindset, to future scenarios. A future seems much more likely where many options would be possible. People may have many digital backup copies of their mind files, possibly multiple copies engaging in different activities, as well as one or more embodied forms, rather than an either/or choice of identity representation. An increase in options in existing and new possibility spaces, physical, intellectual, emotional and philosophical, is the hallmark of abundance thinking about future scenarios.

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