What’s the World Coming to?

One, two, or three words of advice for the (2021) Graduate (or maybe its just one)

To keep my prediction success rate where it is, I start with an easy one, absolutely guaranteed 100% to happen in the next five years

Police are electronic or robotic.

I’m not talking about Robo Cop. Mine are much more benign and abide by Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics.

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence except where such actions conflict with the First or Second Law.

When Asimov’s robots were running the governments of planets and galaxies, he decided the three laws weren’t enough and so added the “Zeroth Law”:

0.  A robot may not harm humanity, or, through inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.

Human police should observe similar laws.

Let’s begin our police reform with home plate umpires in professional baseball. The fallibility and idiosyncrasy of human beings in the role of calling balls and strikes bring nothing to the game with the possible exceptions of uncertainty, mistakes, frustration, anger, hostility, confrontations, and expulsions.

(Strike “uncertainty” from the list. There is very little of that in baseball: half the people involved are certain the umpire is wrong, and the other half are certain he [sic] is right. Despite appearances to the contrary, any uncertainty present is probably in the mind of the umpire.)

The strike zone is defined by four planes: three rectangles for left, right, and front, and one pentagon on top. If the ball touches any one of those planes, it is, by definition, in the strike zone; if it doesn’t, it isn’t. A bottom plane isn’t necessary because pitches don’t curve up and I have yet to be convinced that it is physically possible for a pitch to miss the side planes but catch the back point. A new species of pitchers will evolve who can throw high lobs that nick the back point and are almost unhittable.

The home-plate computer finally requires us to decide once and for all what the top and bottom of the zone are and what a ‘checked swing’ is.

Question: “What then will the home-plate umpire do?”

I note in passing that Major League Baseball is not a jobs program and I ask in return,

Response: “What does the third-base umpire do?

Answer to Both: Decide what’s fair and what’s foul and who’s safe and who’s out. In real time. Unless that’s too hard, then we wait for the video review.

Moving on to more mundane things: car deodorizers, tolls, HOV lanes, parking, speed limits, reckless driving, impaired driving, broken taillights, and excessive noise are enforced electronically. Some already are in most states and countries. This is less invasive, less arbitrary, more consistent, not subject to bias, and more effective than a few police officers cruising the streets.

First objection: you can’t tell it was me driving my car. Actually, we could but that’s a little too Big Brother-ish even for me. The solution is to charge the fees for the privileges of driving fast or using loud mufflers against the vehicle, not the owner, like we do with parking fines and tolls. It may not be your fault (probably is), but it is still your responsibility, and we don’t need to worry your insurance company with your car’s bad behavior.

Second objection: the car may be stolen. The solution is cars recognize their rightful drivers and are trackable electronically. Tracking is only activated when the driver is unauthorized, as when your spouse ‘borrows’ your car without asking or your teenager takes a detour on the way to the library.

If you think all this is Big Brother infringing on your personal freedom, it does not compete with being stopped by humans because they think you don’t belong in their patch.

All this, of course, is a short-term problem; see the fourth section below below.

Moving on to things less certain where, because the time frame is longer, extrapolating is risker.

Major League Baseball outfield fences are uniformly 450 feet from the pointy end of home plate.

Baseball dumped the Bob Uecker Philosophy, “Swing hard in case you hit it.” and embraced the Yogi Berra Philosophy, “Hit it were they ain’t.” Speed trumps power. Triples are more common than home runs, which are usually the inside-the-park variety. The game features more line drives and fewer moon shots; more base running and less base jogging; more Carews and fewer Killebrews. Byron Buxton collides with fewer walls. The ‘Shift’, hated by two thirds of fans because it works and one third because it doesn’t, is moot. The record books will be closed and begun anew.

Pitchers will endorse the new dimension but come to hate it; sluggers will immediately and eternally hate it; hitters will question it but will learn to love it. Batting averages will go up; strike outs down; more runners will be on base. The old saw that the three-run homerun is a rally killer will be forgotten.

The transition will happen when Wrigley and Fenway are eventually replaced. Sad perhaps but inevitable. The Romans no longer use the Colosseum, the Egyptians the Pyramids, nor the Brits Stonehenge for the original purposes. Americans demolished them.

Fossil fuels are about as relevant as whale oil.

Abandoning fossil fuels is another gimmee and, as Thomas Friedman pointed out twenty plus years ago, “The Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones.” It ended because we figured out something better.

We are awash in energy, most originating with our friendly neighborhood star, some from our molten core, some from the Moon and warping of space-time, a tiny bit from the rest of the Universe, leaving oil, gas, ethanol, and uranium completely out in the cold and out of the equation. The problem is not any shortage of energy; it’s just not conveniently packaged for us where we need it when we need it.

Mr. Robinson’s word of advice to The Graduate Ben Braddock in 2021 is not “Plastics”; it is “Batteries”. Including an energy storage component as part of every solar field and wind farm would accumulate energy as the sun shines and dispense it when we need to see, compute, or recharge whatever has replaced cars and smart phones. ‘Cars’ themselves will provide tertiary energy storage, buying from the grid when they expect to move and selling it back when they don’t.

Adding storage components at nodes of the grid, like power generating stations, ends of transmission lines, and one in every ‘garage’ means we build to cover average, not peak demand. We probably already have enough power plants and lines. Scattered storage sites greatly reduce the threat from natural or human assaults on the grid.

Solar and wind farms are less intrusive than our current power generating stations. They do not take land out of production for the indefinite future. By “production”, I mean food production. Farming around the base of a wind turbine is at worst a little annoying, but 95% of the land is still available. The shade provided by solar panels will be helpful to many crops, offering some relief from effects of global warming. Once the technology we now have and can foresee is replaced with something even better, reclaiming the land involves minimal toxic waste or long-term damage.

A person-driven car is as quaint in the 22nd Century as a horse-drawn buggy in the 21st.

There is an old joke, which isn’t that funny, that the biggest safety issue with a car is the nut holding the steering wheel. Vehicles are currently killing about 100 people a day in the US and worldwide 3,700 daily. If any other form of transportation had numbers like that in a day, it would be front page news all over the world. Most traffic deaths are noted on the inside pages of the local paper.

[To be fair and balanced, this is about 12 fatalities per billion vehicle miles in the US, which is a pretty high standard for auto-driving autos to match. The US statistics are better than Asia, Africa, and the World; worse than Europe and Canada.]

A computer will never drive drunk, fall asleep, be enraged by someone changing lanes or only driving the speed limit, nor be distracted by an urgent message from a frantic spouse, impatient offspring, or someone selling extended car warranties. A police officer will never want to open the computer’s trunk, smell its breath, or check its residency status.

The change-over will take a while but in the end, self-driving vehicles will bear about as much resemblance to those we now have as a 2021 Lamborghini bears to the 1893 gas-powered horseless carriage built by the Duryea Motor Wagon Company of Springfield, Mass. The 21st Century proto-types tried to build technology that mimicked humans, relying heavily on the visual. The next generation will rely heavily on senses we don’t have: radar, sonar, infrared, electronic sharing of information with the road and other vehicles. Traffic is cooperative rather than competitive; more like a school of fish or flock of birds and less like figure-8 stock car racing.

Road signs are as rare as Burma Shave signs.

You may not remember any of them.

Don’t lose
Your head
To gain a minute
You need your head
Your brains are in it.
Burma Shave

Your GPS already can tell you what the speed limit is and where you should turn, but that was just the beginning. Not only are our ‘vehicles’ smarter than we are about getting from point A to point B, our roads are smarter too. The road and the vehicles on it are in constant communication, and amongst their collective ‘artificial intelligences’, work out the optimal solution to get everyone from where they are to where they want to be. All this without waking you up or diverting your attention from whatever tabloid, reality show, play list, or video game that currently has it.

For better or worse, roadsides aren’t cluttered with billboards and posted speed limits. With no gas taxes to rely on, roads pay for themselves by selling on-line advertising and in-app products for a captive audience. You should have seen this coming.

We no longer live back of the garage.

Maybe we’ll have front yards and porches permitting unscripted encounters with actual people. We do not devote a few hundred square feet of prime real estate to storing vehicles. “Garages”, where they still exist on old houses from the 2020s, are officially designated as the “workshops” or junk rooms that they are and stopped claiming to be for storing cars.

There are about 300 million cars in the US[1] and there are estimates that vary from 3.5 to 8 parking spaces per car[2]. (Something between 500 and 1,200 square feet per car; enough room for one or two people, even by US occupancy standards.)

If the typical car is driven 15,000 miles a year at an average speed of, say, 35 mph, then it is parked 95% of the time. If demand were uniformly distributed over the day and over days (implying you are just as likely to want a ride at 3:00 am on Thursday or 8:00 am on Sunday as at 5:00 pm on Friday), then we would need only one vehicle out of twenty. That’s a little unrealistic but there is not much of a case beyond convenience and ego for each of us to own, maintain, and store our own.

[As of this writing, the direct cost of owning a car in the US is closer to $10,000 than to $5,000 per year, and that leaves out the cost of “free” parking.]

People don’t own cars; cars own cars.

Much of the savings ensue because people don’t own cars; the car owns itself. And it drives itself. It doesn’t need a salary for the driver or a profit for the owner. The car just needs to cover operating expenses and a replacement reserve. Same as if you owned it.

A second word of advice for the 2021 Ben Braddock is “Blockchain”. Or is that two words?

Blockchain technology allows cars to own themselves and manage their own affairs. Buildings, forests, batteries, highways, and lemonade stands will also own and manage themselves. The idea of a blockchain was created to implement Bitcoin and is used by all cryptocurrencies. It will become ubiquitous in our future, and perhaps insidious. I don’t know any more about it, nor do I need to know, than I know about televisions, cell phone networks, quantum computers, or flush toilets. Without our even being aware of it, it will manage long-distance financial transactions, real estate titles, residency status, supply chains, family trees, copyrights, food supplies, water distribution, patents, energy storage, and perhaps your water closet.

If the economics of not owning a car don’t grab you, the convenience will. You never deal with buying or selling cars, filling gas tanks, changing oil, buying insurance, washing and waxing, replacing the tires, battery, or windshield washer fluid, renewing your driving license, finding a parking space, retrieving your car from the impound lot, filing insurance claims, or negotiating with a body shop or a teenager who “needs’ wheels. Unless you want too.

If you need to attend a meeting at 10:00 am in Manhattan, you summon a “car” to your door in Chicago. When the car arrives promptly at 8:00 pm, you enter a small private lounge and spend the evening eating, reading, prepping for the meeting, writing a novel, answering ‘emails’ (or whatever they are called), ‘zooming’, ‘facetiming’ (or whatever they are called), practicing the violin with a virtual quartet, learning Chinese from a native speaker, practicing yoga with a virtual master, and, time permitting, sleeping. You arrive in Manhattan in time for a shower, change, and coffee before the meeting.

If you were travelling by plane, what time would you need to leave home and how would the time be spent?

Airplanes may be faster than cars, but the total time may or may not be less. Much of the elapsed time for air travel is truly “lost”, i.e., not used constructively, unless you consider moving your body 800 miles for a meeting constructive.

The cost will compete with airfares, while missing airports, airport parking, security checkpoints, stashing carry-ons, reclining seats, airline food, perhaps hotels.

For your trip to Manhattan, the second person travels free and increases the options for constructively investing the travel time. That is time better spent than standing in a security check line or waiting for an oil change.

Some people own cars like some people own horses.

Jay Leno and Paul Newman need hobbies. Some people enjoy driving and need ‘bridle paths’ for their cars; many already believe freeways and city streets are recreational facilities. These pursuits can and perhaps should be accommodated but separate from the common utilitarian infrastructure needed to get people from A to B. There may be enough abandoned freeway capacity to take care of this demand, but scenic by-ways would be a better fit for me. It takes neither skill nor intelligence to aim a car down a freeway and stand on the gas (I use ‘gas’ as a metaphor for whatever form of stored energy we use, and it makes as much sense as ‘dialing a phone’.)

Boxing is as popular as gladiators with spears and as legal as bear baiting

By the third decade of the 21st Century, sports like football, rugby, basketball, baseball, soccer (aka football), volleyball, and tennis have gone to great lengths to eliminate or at least mitigate brain damage from concussions. Boxing, by contrast, is intended to cause brain damage; gloves are to protect hands not heads. Knock-outs are loss of conscious resulting from a deliberate blow to the head; I don’t know if they are concussions or are symptoms of concussions, but that truly is a distinction without a difference.

In any sport, the way to improve is compete against someone slightly better than you are. That path doesn’t work for boxing; you can’t take those beatings and succeed in the ‘Noble Art’. Most boxers who rise to national prominence, i.e., become ‘contenders’, have records like 25 and 2, and 17 by knock-out. The ’17’ were not contenders; they were victims or fodder or punching bags.

The worst thing that can happen to an amateur boxer is to be good enough to turn pro. Most become fodder, not contenders; most of the money they earn goes to their owners(!), managers, trainers, and gym owners. Many fight under two or three names in two or three jurisdictions to avoid limitations on how frequently they can fight in order to eke out a living.

It certainly takes a lot of serious training, effort, dedication, practice, and commitment to be good. Those are important values but can be learned just as well through bridge, swimming, tennis, golf, dance, chess, table tennis, music, etc., etc.

Banning boxing, along with all the efforts to take concussions out of sports, effectively eradicated Dementia pugilistica as a neurological disorder.

Virtual is the new reality.

Virtual in the sense of computer-generated or simulated. Much of the ‘decor’ of the space we occupy comes through large holographic displays, eliminating the need for windows. We pick and change our setting for wherever and whenever we choose. Without leaving Omaha or Harrisburg, we can ‘live’ on a tropical beach, by a mountain stream, Greenwich Village, or on the Moon. Zoom and FaceTime, as we know them, will seem like Alexander Graham Bell saying, “Watson, come here. I need you.” We will pop in and out of others’ virtual presence more readily than tapping a phone, sending a text, or stepping into the next room. And the idea of moving your body 800 miles, or even across town or down the hall, for a business meeting will be as antiquated as rotary dials, fax machines, and long-distance operators.

In-person encounters will be reserved for friends and family; not business associates or first dates.

Salt is a waste by-product and disposal problem.

Alternatively, water rights­ will become the main cause of regional conflict. Like between northern California, which has 75% of the water supply, and southern California, which has 80% of the demand.

As with energy, we have plenty of fresh water, just not where we need it when we need it. But once we learned to harness all the energy around us and the oceans became larger, it became more convenient, equitable, efficient, practical, and practicable to take water out of a nearby ocean and remove the salt than to haul fresh water all over.

[This purified water is much better for irrigation than ground or surface fresh water. Fewer minerals accumulating in the soil.]

Salt is a necessity of life; the water that makes up two thirds of our bodies is a saline solution. Salt was once valued for preserving food and making it palatable when not preserved well. It was once used as an economic exchange medium; the word ‘salary’ comes from the same root. It is a vital ingredient, agent, and catalyst in many industrial processes, but the supply will quickly exceed the demand in my future world. Because salt is corrosive and toxic, disposal should be thought through.

The two things most essential to life on our small planet are the atmosphere and the oceans. Yet those are the two things we treat as our primary dumping grounds. Are the oceans big enough that we can just dump the salt, and other minerals, we take out back in. Maybe, I dunno.

In the ‘60s and ‘70s, there was an environmentalist mantra, “The solution to pollution is dilution.” It had a good beat we could dance to, but we now know our oceans aren’t big enough. Witness global warming, the haze limiting our view of the stars, and the plastic ‘island’ (or continent) growing in the middle of the Pacific.

Water is not in short supply; with climate change, we often have too much of it in spots. And too little in other spots. With an abundance of energy to desalinate and 75% of the planet covered by oceans, we can manage the water.

Can we manage our management?

Computers are our Jubilee, not our Armageddon.

The “Robotic Singularity” has been suggested as an existential threat. An ‘existential threat’ is anything that threatens our existence if that definition isn’t too circular. Nuclear bombs and climate change are existential threats; robots aren’t.

‘Singularity’ is a word borrowed from mathematics for points where things like derivatives and integrals aren’t defined. In our context, it means a point for which we have no idea what’s on the other side. For astrophysicists looking backwards, the Big Bang is a singularity.  For us, personally looking backward and forward, birth and death are singularities. For a non-futurist, ‘future’ is a singularity.

For technology geeks, the point at which computers become smarter than us is the singularity. Some very ‘smart’ people are asking questions like, “What happens then? Will computers be ‘sentient’[3]? Empathic? Altruistic? Will they see any value in preserving a colorably dangerous and inferior lifeform like the species Homo sapiens? Will Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics be enough to save us?”

The question is perhaps poorly framed because I’m no longer sure what they mean by ‘computer’ or ‘smarter than’. Maybe they already are smarter. They can beat us at chess and answer questions like “What day of the week was I born?” (Thursday) “What are the factors of 581?” (1, 7, 83, 581) “How old is the Universe?” (14,780,000,000 years plus or minus 21 million.)

Empathy and altruism are very human traits, although dog or cat lovers and primatologists will object to my calling them “human traits”. There is clear evidence that the traits evolved in us along with our big brains and opposable thumbs. They may have evolved in dogs and cats to wiggle their way into our affections. That may be a hint about how they evolved in us.

Altruism involves selfless acts of kindness that entail some cost to ourself. Research suggests we receive more benefit from giving our own lunch to a homeless stranger than from distributing free lunches provided by someone else.

Empathy enables us to experience the pain or pleasure of others. It is beyond sympathy: we don’t just feel bad because you are in pain; we feel your pain. It motivates us from expressions of sympathy to acts of altruism. It is innate, controlled by some high-level neural pathways. We know this partly because they may be damaged by, for example, concussion, injury, stroke, performance-enhancing drugs, or pre-natal alcohol syndrome.

Regardless of the requisite neural pathways, the behaviors are skills that must be learned and cultivated. Neonates are not ‘smart’ enough to feel any empathy for the agony their mothers just went through on their behalf. It is several months before babies have concern for anyone’s wellbeing, comfort, and pleasure except their own. As a learned skill that takes two decades or more to reach full expression, higher intelligence people tend to be better at it.[4]

Asimov’s Laws won’t be necessary if we (Homo sapiens) don’t botch it up. Robots, computers, and AI will make the right choices with the right parameters because that is the logical, rational, and sensible thing to do. They will value human life as we value primates, King Charles spaniels, rain forests, coral reefs, and grey wolves; because the world is better with them than without them.

If intelligent people learn and cultivate the practices of empathy and altruism, super-intelligent computers surely will.

That should stir us to action, not lull us into complacency.

Some semi-related thoughts from others,

  • Asking if computers can think is like asking if submarines can swim. Anonymous
  • The danger is not that computers will think like humans, but that humans will think like computers. Sidney Harris
  • The question isn’t if computers think, but if humans do. B. F. Skinner[5]

The question isn’t if computers are the existential threat, but if we are.

The population of our planet continues to grow but not so fast.

The ‘not so fast’ part is the easy bit. The rate of growth for a population is described by an S-shaped curve. It is determined by the ‘carrying capacity’ K of the biome and the current population N. If N is small compared to K, growth is exponential. As N approaches K, the rate of growth slows and plateaus when N nears K. This, of course, assumes K is fixed, which isn’t the case for Homo sapiens, for better or worse.

(There is no law that says K must continue to go up or that we must test the limits. Things like Chernobyl, shifting weather patterns, and rising ocean levels should keep us alert.)

As of this writing, the Earth is nowhere near full. We have enough room. There is no shortage of space.

If we divide everyone up into four-person households and allot each household a standard city lot, the state of Alaska could hold lots for almost 15 billion people, which is close to twice the current population of the World. For those who object to living at 20,000 feet on the side of Mount Denali or on a melting glacier, the state of Texas will hold 87% of the households; for those who object to the climates in Texas, the last 13% would about fill Ohio. Or everyone could move to North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, without anyone actually living on any of the lakes. If that’s still not to your taste, the World’s population would fit in Spain and Italy.

If we increase the family allotment from 0.1 acre to one half hectare (that’s about one and a quarter acres, leaving ample room for gardens and swing sets) per household, then the world’s population would fit in Europe. This doesn’t touch Antarctica, and leaves Africa, Asia, Australia, and the Americas for vacation homes. And farmland.

If you are concerned with feeding all these people when we have so many starving now, there probably aren’t as many starving people as you might think; maybe 10%, depending how you define starving. I don’t mean what a teenage boy feels an hour before dinner. Ten percent starving means 90% or seven billion people are eating adequately but about 750 million aren’t. For the 10%, it is a big deal but we already have the food.

As with water, energy, and space, this is not a supply problem; it’s a logistic problem. It’s not where it’s needed when it’s needed. Between one third and one half of the food being produced today is never consumed. In much of the world, it is lost in handling, storing, or shipping due to lack of refrigeration, presence of rodents and insects, or undependable infrastructure. And maybe some bureaucratic incompetence and corruption.

In places like the US, it has more to do with buying more than we need, not understanding “sell by dates”, and not checking what’s living in the back of the fridge. The lost 50% does not include the food that we eat but don’t need and would be better off not eating.

This goes to say, we could feed most of “Alaska’s hypothetical fifteen billion” people without using any more land, water, or resources than we do now.

Because we have been experiencing exponential population growth pretty much since the birth of agriculture, we don’t seem to be close to the Earth’s carrying capacity.

A final word of advice for The Graduate, “Logistics.” That should encourage us, not lull us into complacency.


[1] That’s about 0.8 for every man, woman, and child in the US. There are about a billion more cars for the other seven plus billion people in the world.

[2] Counting parking spaces is tricky. Do you just count stripped spaces in cities and towns? Or do you include private garages, on-street, and wherever rural vehicles come to rest.

[3] From the Latin sentire “to feel”, but we also use it to mean “aware, conscious, responsive, thinking, and alive”, unless that is a distinction without a difference.

[4] It is also true that many cognitively impaired people are among the most empathetic and caring people you will ever know. I’m sure that supports my argument in some round-about way.

[5] For Skinner, this question is neither trivial nor flip; it is the essence of Skinner.

6 thoughts on “What’s the World Coming to?

      1. For MLB, it might be necessary to “calibrate” every batter once a year or on demand if the stance changes radically. What makes more sense to me, keep it simple and define the strike based solely on height and let batters stand however they want to best cover the zone. Here’s my strike zone: for a batter 182 cc tall, the strike zone starts 50 cc from the ground and extends upward 50 cc, leaving armpits, belts, letters, and knee caps out of the formula entirely. For taller batters, the zone is higher and longer; for shorter, if there are any, it’s lower and shorter. People with low knees and long torsos might gain an advantage or maybe that’s just the way hitting is taught now.

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  1. Whew! Better than a month of New York Times op-eds. And Wow! Great thinking. If you were my grandkid I would brag on you.. But i cannot visualize an interface where solar panels shade and cool plants. Guess my personal internal robot is not yet highly evolved. Here’s to the tumultuous future. Katherine

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    1. There already are some truck farms that are exploiting the shade under the panels for plants with lower tolerance for direct sunlight. The panels do need to be raised a bit unless they farm with their knees in their armpits.

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    2. You are 60 or 70 years too young to be my grandmother, but would have fit in. My grandparents were all good country stock, survived two World Wars and the Great Depression. One grandmother was a poet; one a musician. One grandfather was a conservationist (never heard of an environmentalist); the other was a dreamer, fisherman, and story teller, not necessarily in that order. I seem to have missed the music and fishing genes.

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