Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Wanted: Technological Revolutions

My seminar on "Legal Issues of the 21st Century" deals with technological revolutions that might happen and the legal issues those revolutions would raise. After teaching it for some years, I turned it into a book. I am teaching it again this spring and am in search of new material, new revolutions. I have one idea, am looking for more.

The one idea is the possibility of non-human animals with roughly human level abilities, including some way of communicating with humans. It is at least arguable that some species already have adequate intelligence and lack only a common language. That is the claim implicit in some highly publicized—and controversial—past work teaching sign language to non-human primates. The people who worked with Koko, for instance, a female gorilla, estimated her IQ at 75-90 and claimed she understood 2000 words and had a working vocabulary of over 1000 signs. Other possible candidates are cetaceans, especially dolphins, and, surprisingly enough, grey parrots. I am suspicious of such claims, since the primate experiments got a lot of attention quite a long time ago; if the results were as good as claimed, we should have seen a lot more evidence by now. But I could be wrong.

If suitable animals do not yet exist, perhaps we could get them via genetic engineering, a popular theme in science fiction. Or we might learn enough about the functioning of the brain to be able to improve the brains of other species (and our own, which raises another set of issues), perhaps by the use of suitable drugs. Whatever the mechanism, the existence of animals able to communicate with us on a more or less human level would raise many interesting questions, including lots of legal issues.

While I welcome comments on this idea, that is not the main reason for this post. What I am looking for are some more revolutions. What technological developments not already covered in Future Imperfect might revolutionize our world over the next thirty years or so?


At 4:49 PM, October 28, 2009, Anonymous Andrew MacFie said... has some ideas

At 7:48 PM, October 28, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Embryo selection to create super-geniuses, especially if it is used by China but not the U.S.

See this:

At 9:33 PM, October 28, 2009, Blogger Bill Drissel said...

Dr F: I have a dim memory of a complete refutation of the Koko experiment by someone who made and analyzed extensive movies of the interaction w/ humans. As I recall, he was able to show that Koko's responses were not intelligent or linguistic but the same kind of thing as teaching a dog to roll over for a reward.

Bill Drissel

At 11:41 PM, October 28, 2009, Anonymous Jon Leonard said...

I personally find the reports for Koko and Alex plausible: The researchers have every reason to correct the methodological errors of the early research. For that matter, communication ability obviously exists in animals. That the peak level corresponds to roughly what a 2-year-old can do (if with rather different motivations) really isn't very surprising.

In terms of possible advancements, I think you have most of them covered in Future Imperfect (including AI, which I think is the most likely/significant). But as an alternate: Suppose the finance industry, instead of finding new ways to siphon off money and go bankrupt, instead got substantially better at allocating resources? The current system, while substantially better than command alternatives, still leaves a lot of opportunities. Substantially increased economic growth would have significant societal effects.

At 4:22 AM, October 29, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Suborbital Spaceflight could be adapted into semi-ballistic intercontinental delivery systems for cargo or passenger transport. Payloads could be shot into space and glided down, via computer pilot, across hemispheres in a matter of a few hours or less.

One emerging tend you see today is world famous restaurants shipping their food across the country to displaced patrons and other food fans. (Chicago Deep Dish Pizza from Gino's East, )

Combine this with the ballistic payload delivery system and you will eventually be able to order a hot meal from any restaurant in the world and have it delivered straight to your home. Demand for meals at famous restaurants will spike, and dine-in customers will be forced out. This will lead legislators to ban ballistic food delivery. Bogus health concerns about ballistically-delivered food will be a popular reporting topic in the newsmedia and will help seal the ban's popularity and get it passed. The media will portray the ban as a heroic effort to protect society from ever-present danger. Anyone who objects will be treated as a crackpot.

It's not that hard predicting the future

At 6:38 AM, October 29, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dr. Moreau may have some input.

At 7:27 AM, October 29, 2009, Blogger jimbino said...

Since our animals and plants are evolving to higher levels of intelligence while humans themselves are selected for qualities like poverty and subservience, it won't be long before humans will be communicating with the plants and animals on their level.

Here in Texas, our breeding and education incentives are so skewed that our cockroaches and St. Augustine grass are already achieving higher SAT scores than many kids at our failed public schools.

At 7:38 AM, October 29, 2009, Anonymous William H Stoddard said...

As a brief note to the idea you already have, I would add elephants to the list. They have good manipulation, they form moderately large social groups (correlated with brain size in mammals), and I think I've read something about their doing a fair bit of signaling via subsonic frequencies.

At 1:09 PM, October 29, 2009, Blogger Divia said...

I imagine that true lie detection (as described by Sam Harris here: would have profound legal implications.

At 7:46 PM, October 29, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have you not spoken to Robin Hanson about this? He speaks on this topic often, and a recent presentation can be listened to and viewed here:

At 8:56 AM, October 30, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The ability to monitor individuals' caloric intake.

At 9:55 AM, October 30, 2009, Blogger Jonathan said...

The idea of raising animal intelligence reminds me of Vernor Vinge's story, "Bookworm, run!", which featured a smart chimp with a wireless mental link to a computer. The story is more than 40 years old, but Vinge always had an unusual knack of writing sf that doesn't date much.

At 9:40 PM, October 30, 2009, Anonymous Stephen Dawson said...

Perhaps SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence). Average age of death in the longevity-stakes leading nation, whichever it may be from time to time, increases by 1 year for every four real-time years. If this ratio ever reaches parity, then massively long life spans (thousand year plus) may become possible. Some claim that such strategies may be possible within a period of only a few decades.

At 5:19 AM, November 01, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just had this idea today! I think it's definitely feasible and would change the world significantly. Prices databases already exist like which require sellers of an item to submit the items they are selling and for what price. It's pretty good but it doesn't cover nearly every store and every item.

A website/company could do a deal with the people who make checkout machines (those things you put your CC in when you buy something at a store) to send the details of what the anonymous person bought and at what price to "" or something like that. would then have a comprehensive list of all the items available in an as long as all the shops were using the new checkout machines. When consumers search for an item on they will receive a list of all the shops that have recently sold one of those items and be able to see which shops had the cheapest price.

This would bring unprecedented competition to retail stores because consumers could easily find the cheapest price of an item and the store location. shops would be competing with almost every other shop in the city as long as consumers were willing to drive there.

The only problem is that most big retail stores would probably not want the prices sent out precisely because their stuff is overpriced.

At 3:50 PM, November 01, 2009, Anonymous Steve Dekorte said...

If we had standard sizes for product packaging, most of distribution and stocking could be automated (which would tremendously reduce costs and energy use). Likewise, if we had standard container sizes for transporting humans, such containers could be "plugged into" and transferred between land, air and sea vehicles as well as buildings and moving withing buildings.

At 9:20 PM, November 01, 2009, Blogger said...

Right now, informational needles are buried in haystacks of data. Perhaps something such as quantum computing will allow those needles to found at-will, by people of only avergae competence. If-and-when that happens, most of us may find ourselves living in what seem like fish-bowls.


At 9:06 AM, November 02, 2009, Blogger Garg the Unzola said...

Where I'm from, we're really looking forward to electricity and broadband.

At 11:12 AM, November 02, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

AIUI, much of the recent research in great ape communication is quite sound. While linguistic competence has not been shown, it's become quite clear that great apes can acquire a sizable vocabulary and display interesting cognitive capabilities. Much of this work involves pictureboards or physical tokens rather than sign language.

Unfortunately, much of this research is conducted in private institutions such as the Great Ape Trust, with very little transparency--AIUI, no independent researchers have tried to replicate these newer results.

At 7:20 AM, November 04, 2009, Blogger Lindsay said...

Perhaps this is very much in the realm of science fiction, but suppose someone invented a cure for aging, through gene therapy or whatever. Within a few generations, the life expectancy at birth of an American or European could be measured in hundreds or even a couple of thousands of years. Is this really any less realistic than the life extension we have had from the biblical three score years and ten, so that centenarians are not now uncommon.

Of course, people would still die of diseases, through trauma or whatever, but the aging process itself could be overcome.

Quite apart from the effect on population sizes, etc., what would be the implications now in terms of the usual philosophical suspects such as rights of future generations (which would now overlap with existing generations)? How would the political process change (think of incumbency advantage to the nth degree)? What of lifetime appointments (such as judges) and the incentive effects on younger generations who currently expect to succeed in certain positions as existing holders apply? of course, in this latter case the younger generations could wait a little longer.

At 7:43 AM, November 04, 2009, Blogger Lindsay said...

D'Oh! I just realised that a cure for aging is covered in Future Imperfect. Oh well.

At 12:31 PM, November 16, 2009, Blogger Doc Merlin said...

Assemblers and 3d printers. They will revolutionize manufacturing completely.


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