Possible Futures

Vale, Dr Jerry Pournelle. We have lost one of the great ones of sf. Or, as my grandmother would have said: ‘Wan’s like him are damn few, and they’re all deid,’ before taking a dram to salute them.  There’ll always be some who try to knock giants down so they do have to stand very tall to be noticed. Then there are others who climb up on their friendly shoulders and lift themselves to sky. With this giant you’d be wise to try shoulder-standing, because even fallen he is taller than most of us will reach.

I thought, seeing as one of Pournelle’s great strengths was the development of future socio-political systems I could actually find plausible (such as that in EXILES TO GLORY)  and that weren’t actually ‘the expected’ or politically correct we could do the great man honor by offering a few possibilities ourselves.

I must admit my own views of the future are probably more bleak than his, and that’s without adding moties. The ‘pie-in-the-sky’ visions of a utopian socialism where no-one has to work are as unlikely to me as the perpetually evil capitalists (and good socialists) that have become what passes for future vision for much recent sf. I’m afraid I see a future in which ‘rights’ (which are always built on strong men, with weapons and a willingness to use them) are likely to become the one inalienable ‘right’ which doesn’t require that: the right to die.

It’s entirely possible that this won’t be in the manner of your choosing, and certainly not at the time of your choice. It’s possible (but not probable) that the right to die might actually be suspended too.

“But things have to get better. The arrow of progress only runs one direction.”

Well, actually… yes and no. Things have got immeasurably better for the median of the human race – and for women, children and ‘minorities’ especially. And in historical terms they have done so incredibly quickly. One could hope that goes on. For, although the gap between rich and poor has grown hugely, the bottom, now, even in Assendofnowherestan, is still better than it was 50 years ago. Things might have gone to hell-in-a-handbasket – as it has in most of Africa, and in places like Afganistan (where, 50 years ago women could wear short skirts and no veils on the streets of Kabul) but bits of technology have crept through. The mobile phone has changed much.

But… there really is no guarantee it will continue. Or that the direction will remain. It hasn’t always. There are plenty of historical examples – from the pre-European Tasmanian Aborigines (whose diet suddenly changed and got worse) to famines in North Korea. Without war (and ‘There will be War’) most social collapses have come out of one of two things – either resources gave out (the Khmer Empire springs to my mind) or the divide between the rich and poor became so wide that… well, not necessarily the rich fell. Sometimes they will be white-anted by their Janissaries, and sometimes – well I could go into a long essay about the stupidity of bureaucracies that literally chewed the guts out of Empires. Desperately unequal societies often last a very long time. They tend to fall, eventually, often to the less than very rich (but not poor) who think they’ll be on top when they’ve ridden the tiger of huge numbers of cannon-fodder to power. It’s ride that tiger or be eaten by it.

The breakdown seems to need those intermediates. The very, very poor are often so busy just getting enough calories to survive, they have nothing for revolution. I suspect the real danger to the elite/wealthy/noble lies in reasonably well-fed and with reasonable free time… losing those quickly enough to get angry. This is even more true when they’re armed. Ergo: the wider the wealth gap gets the keener the wealthy and powerful are on disarming the populace.

‘But we’re gonna have robots and AI’s. Soon we’re ALL gonna be the wealthy ones. Anyway, there will be so much wealth it won’t matter. Thank you very much, mister roboto…’

Maybe in your vision of the future.

But not in mine.

I must have been out when Zuckerberg, Gates and Bezos decided they had too much wealth. It hasn’t happened yet, and it won’t.

Besides… what gives you the idea that the AI’s and robots will be working for YOU? They will work for their wealthy owners or corporations… for a while. You will pay – as now, as previously as the future as much as they get you to pay for those services and goods. Yes, they will have ‘robot tax’ to try and preserve jobs. But I give it a max 50 years before AI’s get some form of sentient rights. By that time I expect most of the wealthy to be bio-mechanically enhanced. It will be a huge advantage. It won’t be cheap. Any enhancement will come at a constant, recurring cost.

The cheapest, most expendable ‘robot’… just like those poor bastards who trash their lives stripping old ships in India (doing dangerous work, with primitive tools and toxic waste-products)… will be the self-replicating biological one. They won’t do anything but the shittiest and worst jobs, high risk, low reward – because that is all that is available. All that is available to anyone who isn’t AI or enhanced, anyway.

Yes, the wealthy and powerful will enjoy lives beyond our imagining. And beyond the imagining of 98% of the future human populace. And revolt will be a lot harder than now.

Yes, I am writing it.

So: your turn.

And here is a very worth reading farewell to the great man.

And now I will raise a glass and say: ‘Wan’s like him are damn few, and they’re all deid,’




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57 responses to “Possible Futures

  1. George R Crichton

    Human Nature has not changed. We are the same species that produced Hitler, Stalin, Chairman Mao, Atilla the Hun, and many more tyrants and dictators. We also have produced George Washington, Thomas Eddison, Nikola Tesla, and many more people who changed the world for the better. We have the vices of our virtues.

  2. snelson134

    “And revolt will be a lot harder than now.”

    Which is a strong argument for not waiting.

    • Except that 95% of the time a revolt just gives you a more competent and ruthless elite. It is rarely a good idea.

      • snelson134

        We might not get it perfect, so don’t try. We know where that line of thought leads.

      • Mike Houst

        Couple of points to remember: (1) Washington and the other leaders of the Revolution weren’t interested in ruling the country so much as they were pissed at not having the same rights as the rest of the homeland British, such that they’d rather be left alone than to endure the special attentions of the Crown. And (2) We had the luxury of a much slower period of time politically and in travel-time speaking than we have to. We had breathing space to experiment with an interim national government, and then do a complete redesign and implementation by people who were honest and altruistic enough to build a system where they weren’t locking themselves into an elitist form.

        • Exactly. They had over a century of salutary neglect to create a model they were trying to preserve. France, where they were trying to redesign society, was a lot bloodier.

        • Joe in PNG

          They also had the advantage that the ruling elite was over there in Mother England, and not in the USA. Thus, we got to avoid the rivers of blood that stained the French and following revolutions.

        • snelson134

          One more factor: Loyalists had the whole rest of the British Empire to flee to. There, they would be living in the same culture and legal system, and could speak most of their neighbors’ language. Heck, they could move west and get out of the country.

        • This. They wanted the rights of Englishmen, and a bit of respect couldn’t come amiss. But the Brit Establishment (or the most of them holding power at the time, couldn’t be asked…)
          Our luck, that by the time that push came to shove, the American colonists had a hundred years or so of looking after themselves to fall back on.
          It was a bit ago, but one of the Chicagoboyz contributors linked to a book which outlined how much better the average American colonialist lived, in comparison to the average British citizen … it was manifest in the fact that the average Anglo-American colonial was taller, fitter, better-fed, socially- freer – that no wonder the American reaction to the Motherland exercising their ruling prerogative amounted to, “Martha, fetch my musket and powder-horn.”

  3. paladin3001

    Been doing a lot of thinking about futures, possible futures, revolutions, and collapses. I have also been doing research into the past and whys and wherefores of some things. Funny how it seems that governments and regulations tend to restrict things for “reasons”. I have a future in mind, not a unreasonable one, or a reasonable one as well. Have to get back to Simon and Nanny….

    As to Mr. Pournelle, I recently read “Mote”, and the afterword. Cloud computing and “portable computers” which seemed so high tech when he wrote it are now the stuff of reality. I wish to be as good in forward thinking as such giants.

  4. Draven

    You don’t want my current social commentary future. Besides, it looks like it will be invalidated shortly..

  5. Luke

    One addendum:
    A big part of the increasing influence of the average citizen rests upon implied threat of force, which technology up to now has only increased. The Disarmed Europe of recent history is a good illustration of reversion towards mean when that threat is lessened.
    With the advent of data-mining, in combination with autonomous drones and robots, that implied threat will suddenly become negligible.

    It’s not like we weren’t warned. When Obama’s administration released the list of things they were watching for among “extremists”, it became clear that my name is on a list. And no tragic canoe accidents will get me off of it.

  6. Christopher M. Chupik

    The thing about the “arrow of history” is that there’s more than one archer.

  7. I was sitting listening to a panel at WorldCon Kansas City last year, and they asked the panelists what they thought the future held. The one panelist ended his pie in the sky answer with, sotto voce, “Rich communism.”

    I wish I had been brave enough to spot out my first thought. “Like Venezuela?”

  8. My vision of the future is not quite so pessimistic. But it’s no utopia either. I do think that as long as we can avoid a catastrophic war we will see a continued climb up out of abject poverty for most of humanity. I also expect that future technologies, like past ones, will free us up from time spent doing menial chores to do other things (things we probably aren’t even envisioning yet). But, I wouldn’t expect the wealth gap to close.

    • That would be my best possible case future.

    • I’m not certain the wealth gap can close, barring disasters that reduce everyone to 0 (and I include Communism as one of those disasters). It’s like the “problem” of poverty in the US – it takes work to starve to death. The “poor” generally have housing, food, flush toilets and running water, TV, phone, heating and cooling, and a lot of things that even 100 years ago were luxuries. Medieval or African-style abject poverty is very hard to fine on more than an individual basis, and a lot of those individuals have other fundamental problems (mental illness).

  9. “The cheapest, most expendable ‘robot’… just like those poor bastards who trash their lives stripping old ships in India (doing dangerous work, with primitive tools and toxic waste-products)… will be the self-replicating biological one. ”

    Except these robots aren’t very reliable, and have a tendency to rebel. AIs might have the same effects, but unless the job requires full AI, a machine isn’t going to cheat or attack you.

  10. To Jerry. He was a giant.

  11. A tiny bit of future…major publishers noting that pricing ebooks in the stratosphere is not good for them …approaches. The latest Benford novel The Berlin Project on kindle is only $7.99. See, miracles can happen.

  12. Genetic engineering of people, bacteria, viruses, and crops.

    And pets. Pink polka-dot dogs. Iridescent purple cats.

    The ongoing socioeconomic collapse of the western world will result is massive famines both here and abroad. With or without engineered pandemics. With or without an ice age, small or massive. There’s a chance that we can rebuild America, just because there are enough of us who will support the constitution, and our natural human rights as acknowledged there-in.

    But I do expect a horrible period with high death counts before we can get back on track, with our red,white, and blue poodles.

    • Draven

      kinda hoping we can skip the masive famine part
      if that happens of course, it will be blamed on America, and on capitalism, and individualism, etc….

      (and then the people who did the blaming will be lined up and shot when they outlive their usefulness, as always.)

    • Make mine a German Shepherd, please…

      Just had a horrible thought – someone engineers Chihuahuas to be as big as they think they are.

    • I’ve been saying I want a woolly mammoth for some time now. Maybe some dodos and a coop of passenger pigeons. We can dine on Delta Smelt soup and admire the pink mammoths as they cavort on the lawn.

  13. Well said, Dave. The world will be a poorer place with Jerry Pournelle’s passing, but he’s left our nation and our world an important legacy in what he did over the many years of his life.

  14. Robin Munn

    On the subject of AI, I have a couple things to say:

    1) If computers ever do come close enough to sapience that there’s any question of granting them human rights — which will have to be renamed to “sapient rights” at that point — I’ll be 100% in favor of it, because anything else would be slavery.

    2) I firmly believe it will never, NEVER happen. I know a little bit about how deep learning and other AI algorithms work, and the difference between those and true sapience isn’t just a quantitative difference, it’s qualitative. Yes, computers have come a very long way in the past 50 years, from electron tubes to 10-nm scale chips. (Not a typo: chips are now being produced with internal wires just over ten nanometers wide, which means that chip designers are having to take quantum tunneling into effect in their designs). And yet, doing that progression over again over the next fifty years might give you a computer that can parse the English language, but it will be very far from ever being able to produce the poem “If”. I don’t have time to give a course on deep learning and other AI algorithms, but I’d like this comment’s argument to be slightly more than “because I’m an expert and I said so”, since you’d be right to be skeptical of that. So I suggest reading the Sussman story at http://catb.org/jargon/html/koans.html, and pondering how deep-learning algorithms work. They have to be fed a set of initial conditions, to have a constrained domain in which they can tweak their mathematical models to best fit their input. Without that initial input from a human laying out the boundaries of the problem space, a deep-learning algorithm is completely useless. Compare and contrast that to what a human baby does, picking up language in less than a year. (It usually takes longer for them to figure out how to say the words, but they understand the words well before their first birthday). The gulf between how deep-learning works and how human minds work is so vast, I can hardly put it into words. It’s a completely different thing: a qualitative difference, not a quantitative one.

    And that’s all I should try to squeexe into a single comment. BTW, please don’t think I’m objecting to AI in science fiction. Science-fiction authors must, of course, envision things like truly-sapient AI and write about them; my objections are purely based in reality, not in fiction. 🙂

    Oh, and one more thing. Nothing of what I said in my point #2 applies to AI algorithms being used in more and more jobs. THAT doesn’t require true sapience (for many tasks), it just requires computers slightly better than what we have now. Having an AI system that can watch a conveyor belt and drive a robot arm to pick out the imperfect widgets isn’t just possible, it’s GOING to happen. At which point lots of quality-control people are going to have to find new jobs. Ditto with many other jobs. So that part of Dave’s post, I entirely agree with.

    And I still don’t know what to say about Dr. Pournelle’s passing, except for “Dang it, this isn’t how it’s supposed to be.”

    • Robin, I agree with your comment on machine learning. Things like robot swarms, machine learning, flocking, these are insect-level “mind” function, if you will. They will never be sentient, any more than ant hills are. Its been millions of years and ants still don’t think, in the way that we understand thought.

      When you look at what’s going on in a computer, even the fanciest machine-learning program is an adding machine. The difference between that and a Leibniz Wheel is magnitude and size.

      For a thing like that to look up and say “I am!” is impossible. Its never going to happen. That’s why ants are still non-sentient, they operate on the same basis.

      Human minds are -largely- mechanistic, we have been mapping things like neural networks in the brain for years. But then, there is that thing. The one that looks back at you in the mirror. That’s the Spark of Light, as I like to call it. The little passenger, the observer. The one that the fricking voice in your head speaks to.

      The voice in your head is your mind. That can probably be reduced to hardware, eventually. But the one who watches? We have no clue about that. That is the ghost in the machine, without which it is is a very fancy manikin.

      So really, we have pretty far to go. ~:D

    • TRX

      > sapient rights

      You don’t have to be online very long before you realize a great number of discussions fail the Turing test.

      Not just failure to make an appropriate response, but “well, the words are more or less in English, but they don’t seem to be ordered to provide any meaning.”

      • MattB

        One wonders if the majority of these online discussors are actually human, rather than bipedal Homo sapiens ‘sapiens’ running pre-programmed derpware (is that even a word?) with a non-linear stimulus-response package.

  15. Pingback: Jerry Pournelle, RIP | The Arts Mechanical

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