Recap: “Discounting the Future”

The March Columbus Futurists was held in Thompson Library room 165 on the Ohio State campus.

Policies whose foreseeable costs and benefits are spread over long time periods—as they are in CO2 reduction policies—raise the ethical question of what we owe to future generations. But this question can be hidden behind the choice of a “discount rate,” a parameter used in economic analysis that allows for the comparison of the value of consumption occurring in different years. Even a low discount rate over a longer period of time can make the disvalue of future costs negligible in the present, thereby greatly privileging benefits to the present generation over costs to future ones. This panel will explore the economic and ethical questions raised by the use of a discount rate in long-term policy-making.
Participants included:

Recap: On the Future of the Humanities

The National Endowment for the Humanities received a reprieve earlier in the year, when Congress voted to continue funding (in its “skinny budget,” the Trump administration had planned a zero budget for the NEH).  Academic job listings in the humanities are at their lowest levels in 30 years, and politicians on both sides of the aisle say that studying the humanities means “unemployablity.”

At the same time, a number of denizens of Silicon Valley have been announcing that the tech world needs more people who are steeped in the humanities.  Christian Madsbjerg–himself trained as a humanist–is founder of the management consulting firm ReD Associates, and uses “applied phenomenology” with his global clients.  In an era where artificial intelligence is replacing human intelligence in a number of tasks, will humanistic knowledge prevail as something algorithms will never duplicate?

What is the future of the humanities in the United States?

Excellent conversation, led by David Staley, Director of the Ohio State University Humanities Institute.

Recap: Future of Technology

Forum: December 7, 2017

Topic: Future of Technology

For the first time in our group’s history, we will have a December meeting of Columbus Futurists.  On Thursday December 7 at 6:30 PM at the Panera Bread community room (875 Bethel Rd.).  Students in David Staley’s “Future of Technology” seminar at Ohio State will be presenting scenarios they researched this semester.  Their interests ranged from the future of artificial intelligence to geoengineering to “elective prosthetics.”

Recap: Big History – techniques for analyzing possible futures?

Big History – techniques for analyzing possible futures?

The study of history has always been pursued with the goal of gleaning insights that can help shape the future.  “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” Santayana is reputed to have said.  What can we learn from the past that enables us to find better paths, and avoid disastrous pitfalls – as we move into an inevitable future.

History is traditional studied and taught in relatively thin slices.  Whether it’s the Peloponnesian Wars or the US Election of 1968, the story begins from a base of a certain status quo – the results of history up to the point of the beginning of this bit of the story – and goes from there.  The base is assumed, given.  An almost infinite amount of complexity is embedded in that given base – but we accept it to get to the heart of the little story we want to explore.

But that thin slice of story selected from the totality of all the history that got us to that point – may not be as telling as it seems.  It may be an interesting story – but taken out of context, any lessons we may draw from it may very well be mis-directed or confused.

Some years ago an Australian professor, David Christian, got the idea that the only real way to capture all the context that gets us to the slices of story that we can understand – is to study the complete history of what we are – all the way back to the Big Bang.  Christian began publishing about the idea around 1989.  Some years ago, the idea caught the attention of Bill Gates, who decided to fund a program to spread the concept.  Thus began the saga of “Big History.”

Big History is a multidisciplinary approach that  begins with the the birth and evolution of the physical universe, then gradually resolves to the origins of life – which begets mammals and then humans – and then finally the social, artistic, political – “civilized” – epochs in which we have deeper details and information we see as relevant to our lives, and structuring a future.

However, a basic rule of the study of the future is that the past is an unreliable predictor of the future.  We may be able to extract trends and patterns, but specific events and results are out of our reach.  That’s perhaps the single lesson we can see in any study of the past.  Patterns that seem destined to continue forever are inevitably interrupted by statistically improbable events (“black swans”) that knock the pins out from under  the common wisdom, and a new pattern emerges – only ultimately to suffer the same fate.  Sometimes the change is slow – as in the decline of the Roman Empire.  Sometimes the end comes quickly – as in the downfall of IBM from its catbird seat in the 60’s and 70’s, or AOL in the 90’s.

In the classic story of a mathematically predicted future – the Foundation Trilogy, by Isaac Asimov – the meticulously described future foreseen and prepared for by protagonist Hari Selden, is thrown way off track by a mutant named the Mule.  In Asimov’s tale, the path of events ultimately winds its way back around to Selden’s vision.  In our experience, we never really seem to return to a pathway, always finding a new one.

So how can Big History help us get a handle on the future?  The proposition is that the structure that has developed for the organization of the evolution of our world – might in some way be applied to the study of possibility ahead.  But obviously, we can’t use specific events or personalities to speculate out much further than a generation or two.  To a large extent – looking forward is a lot like trying to assemble a puzzle turned face down, able only to see the shapes of the pieces, but having no way to put them into context with each other.

Big History divides the past into “thresholds,” gateways that mark a quantum leap in change that can be observed and understood.  So we wonder if that idea might be applied to the future.

What might the thresholds be that will shape future generations?  These must be large, wide concepts, not narrow ones.  Perhaps global political unification.  Perhaps the availability of immortality.  Perhaps the acquisition of limitless energy.  Perhaps the population of other planets and the expansions of humans across the solar system, galaxy, universe?  Perhaps any number of other possible thresholds which will change our species and our planet forever going forward.

One big difference, of course, is that we have the benefit – in look backward – to see the results of the conflicts at the thresholds – and understand what trends emerged the winner, what course dominated all evolution thereafter.  In studying the future, we can’t really determine what circumstances will carry the influence to make the Big Change.  All we can really do is look at two or more alternatives, choose among those possibilities, and create scenarios that might result from one choice winning over another.

So studying the future in this way will lead quickly to an array of bifurcating pathways, dividing at the threshold points, each with their own stories, their own implications for the next step.  The possible advantage of this approach is that it does help to structure a consideration of the future.  Instead of looking at an amorphous wave of events rushing forward – we can imagine the organization of related events into a choice of sufficient scale to qualify as a “threshold” – in the same way the considerable scale of circumstance allows the study of significant divergences in the past.

Maybe this approach is meaningful, perhaps not.  It might be that we artificially constrain ourselves so greatly that we ignore real influences that will change the future.  We won’t know until we have some experience with the idea – and that experience will take real time, substantial time, and probably considerable amounts of it.  So we may not see the results.  But we do get the pleasure of creating the exercise and launching it into the breeze of time, which will carry it forward unto some barely knowable reality.


Another great discussion!.

Recap: Hyperloop and It’s Impact on Central Ohio October 19, 2017

Topic: Hyperloop and It’s Impact on Central Ohio

In 2016, Columbus was awarded $50 million in the Smart City Challenge primarily to analyze and experiment with issues in transportation.  Almost in parallel with the effort resulting in this award, Columbus interests have been supported an initiative to build a new form of mass transportation – Hyperloop – in a new connection with Chicago and Pittsburgh, with travels times on the order of 30 minutes to Chicago.

Hyperloop is a concept created and promoted by multi-savant Elon Musk.  In essence, passengers would travel in a tube (think wingless fuselage – in a tube which creates front-end vacuum that compels a maglev-type engine at super high speeds, until a terminus is reached.  There are many technical challenges.  The costs have not been calculated, but they will be very high.  And certain socio-political issues must be resolved – like acquiring the land and the rights-of-way for the structures (pylons and tubes) to have a place to go.

Because of the high expense and complexity, Hyperloop wants to focus on only one or two routes to begin with.  And so they are sponsoring a competition of sorts, to determine which of the over 100 sites which originally volunteered, might be suitable for a working prototype.  The Chicago-Columbus-Pittsburgh run was late this summer selected as a Top Ten finalist for this this privilege.

So what would it mean for this area? Once operational, 30 minutes to Chicago and less to Pittsburgh might displace a lot of airline travel to Midway and O’Hare.  What would that mean for other airline development?  Would our tourism business increase from the influx of Chicagoans coming to Central Ohio?  Or would the traffic – for entertainment and fun – go the other direction, leaving a net loss in this area?  What industries might Columbus attract with this transportation feature installed?  What might we lose?

Who would pay for it?  How would it be paid for?  Would the benefits to Central Ohio justify a tax of some sort?  Do we exercise the right of public domain to acquire land and rights-of-way.  This may be run by a private corporation – or public-private partnership (PPP) – should taxpayers be asked to subsidize the new system?  (We seem to be asked constantly to subsidize and underwrite stadiums and arenas for sports teams.)

We discuss these questions and more – with some details about the operation of the technology.  Following are some resources, that might help bring an attendee up to speed.


Another great discussion in an exciting agenda emerging for our meetings this year. Hope to see you in the 21st!

Recap: Future of Truth in a Post-Truth World

This month’s discussion of truth in a so-called post-truth world will be the biggest event of the year for Columbus Futurists.. It will be huge!  The biggest audience ever, the best ideas ever!  And this will be our report after the event, whatever actually happens!  (Hopefully, obvious satire …)

Why?  Because we have entered an age where truth has become a highly personal matter – my truth and your truth don’t have to match.  At least, that’s what some people contend.  Some people rely on alternative facts.. Facts that aren’t quite true – or might be radically off the generally accepted truth – but are still facts,  We might think of them as “aspirational” facts.  They may or may not be true, but they are seeking more support in the polls.

The challenges to “truth” and “facts” – ultimately a challenge to “authoritativeness” –  is of particular importance to Futurists, and anyone interested in trying to grasp the possibilities of the future.  It is confusing.

  • “Fake news” has come to mean both fictional stories generated to mislead, AND real stories whose veracity is called into question because someone uses the label.  We have experienced  outrights mendacity, compounded by a semblance of a bureaucratic structure which seeks to back up and strengthen the falsehoods.
  • Recently, there are reports of a forged NSA document being shopped to news organizations as a trap – to tempt them into publishing news about a document that then is shown to be fake, in order to ruin news credibility (Rachel Maddow, MSNBC, 7/6/2017).

Without confidence to rely on generally agreed sources for accurate information, how can one project the evolution of that information into a possible future?

There have been many pieces written on this subject – sorting out those which deal with the substantive issues can be a challenge.  Here a few you might consider – if you find others that you have found useful, please feel free to share:

  • What makes a truth a reliable truth? How much truth is necessary?
  • We are facing a “crisis of authority.” What makes a source reliable?
  • How can false information be identified?
  • What tools do we have – or need – to navigate the Sea of Veracity?

Some articles to consider:

Not just politics:

Another great discussion in an exciting agenda emerging for our meetings this year. Hope to see you in the future!

(Some discussion notes attached in a Word doc.)

Recap: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Higher Education

Topic: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Higher Education

There are very serious people today imagining and considering the implications of a “world without work,” with algorithms performing cognitive tasks once thought only humans could perform. It is commonplace in our contemporary society to say that the purpose of higher education is to prepare young people for work. But if predictions of a world without work come to pass, then the linkage of higher education and job preparation would be torn apart. What will be “the primary purpose of higher education” when artificial intelligence has made human employment redundant?

Columbus Futurist David Staley presented three scenarios for the future of higher education under such conditions, and as a group we will imagine a scenario where the purpose of a university education is teaching students and AI to “think together.”

Here is an article David wrote for a special section of the Columbus Dispatch:  Here Come the Machines, Again

Some articles to consider: