Looking back at looking forward

Future vision ayres

Internal review draft of an article shortly to be published on Ayres on Environment, Energy, Economy & Growth

 

A decade later?

 

Robert U. Ayres

Prepared for a lecture at the Swedish Institute for the Future,

Stockholm,  2005

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Looking back at looking forward

Things that happened and things that didn’t:

Introduction

It is a popular entertainment to cite examples of bad forecasts, usually to suggest that forecasting itself – “especially of the future” as Mao Tse Tung is alleged to have said – is a hopeless waste of time and a foolish activity. It is true that a number of extremely bad forecasts have been made in the past, many of them well summarized in Chapter 1 of Arthur C. Clarke’s book (Clarke 1958). For instance, a committee of Parliament set up to investigate the collapse in gas security prices in 1878, attributed to Edison’s announcement that he intended to develop an incandescent lamp, the committee reported that the idea was …”unworthy of the attention of practical or scientific men.” Edison himself later pooh-poohed the Tesla-Westinghouse idea of alternating current. The astronomer Simon Newcomb famously asserted in an essay that heavier-than-air flight was a theoretical impossibility, just about the time the Wright Brothers demonstrated it in practice. Another astronomer, William Pickering was equally scornful of the idea of trans-Atlantic air transportation “even if a machine could get across with one or two passengers, the expense would be prohibitive…”

The early published work of rocket scientists Robert Goddard in the US and Hermann Oberth (Rumania) was derided by a variety of critics, including one Professor W. A. Bickerton who wrote “The foolish idea of shooting at the moon is an example of the absurd length to which vicious specialization will carry scientists working in thought-tight compartments.” He went on to explain (erroneously) why a chemical rocket to escape from the earth’s gravity field was basically impossible. (Clarke carefully pointed out the errors in Bickerton’s analysis, which amounted to failure to realize that (1) an explosive is not the ideal rocket fuel and (2) that a payload can be lifted even if the initial weight of the fuel is initially much greater than the weight of the payload, by exploiting multiple stages.)

Indeed, Bickerton was only one of a number of false prophets concerning rocketry and space flight. Others include Prof. J. W. Campbell, Richard van der Riet Woolley (the Astronomer Royal), Lord Cherwell, Churchill’s scientific advisor, and Prof. Vannevar Bush, who was the chief scientific advisor for both Roosevelt and Truman. The early history of the atomic bomb and the missile was replete with similar examples of faulty criticism, leading to bad advice by leading scientific authorities. This partly explains why the U.S. and the U.K. were so slow to develop ICBMs and the Russians were able to take the early lead.

I was not aware of the above-mentioned controversies, until I read Clarke’s book in the mid-60s while writing my own book on technological forecasting (Ayres 1969). However, not all forecasts (or criticisms) were as bad. I have in my personal library quite a large selection of interesting forecasts made before 1980 which was about the time I lost interest in the subject. The present meeting is a good opportunity to review the state of the art, so to speak.

Pre-WW II

In my own library I only found a few good pre-war examples, disregarding the fictional forecasts of H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, E. E. Smith, et al. The first was a very short (70 page) book “Daedalus or Science and the Future” by J. B. S.  Haldane, a famous biologist, published as a book in 1924 but based on a paper he read to The Heretics Club at Cambridge University in Feb. 1923 (Haldane 1924). The famous mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote an `answer’ to Haldane’s book, the following year It was called “Icarus or the Future of Science” expressing skepticism at Haldane’s “optimism” (Russell 1924). (Recall that whereas Daedalus flew successfully, Icarus flew too near the sun and the wax which attached his wings (!) melted, so he crashed into the sea and drowned.)

Haldane concerned himself with the case for and against progress in science, tilting slightly (according to Russell) towards the positive. His case against scientific progress was strongly colored by his experience of WW I, punctuated by scenes of carnage caused by high explosives, poison gas and terror-inducing’ gigantic steels slugs’(i.e. tanks). He posed the choice between two futures as follows:

“Has mankind released from the womb of matter a Demogorgon which is already beginning to turn against him and may, at any moment, hurl him into the bottomless void? Or, is Samuel Butler’s even more horrible vision correct, in which man becomes a mere parasite of machinery, an appendage to the reproductive system of huge and complicated engines which will successively usurp his activities and end by ousting him from the mastery of this planet?”

Before going on to consider these questions he pauses to ask whether there is any hope of stopping scientific research. His answer to that was a flat `no’, because “under capitalism”, science produces the “golden eggs” that feed the system. So far, he was right on target, save perhaps for the size of the machinery he envisions. Here is another accurate forecast of Haldane’s: “In fifty years, light will cost about a fiftieth of its present price and there will be no more night in our cities (pp.18-19).” In fact, the cost of light has gone down even more. His energy forecast was fascinating, if not equally prophetic, in view of recent developments: he foresaw the future England (400 years hence) powered by windmills, connected to a grid, storing the surplus generated during windy days as hydrogen, obtained by electrolysis of water. The hydrogen to be used as fuel for internal combustion engines instead of gasoline (pp. 24-26).

While Haldane did not foresee the whole range of energy alternatives now under development, his vision of the wind-power-hydrogen economy is looking remarkably realistic 80 years later. Other forecasts in his little book, and another that followed (“Callinicus: In defense of chemical warfare”) are no less plausible (Haldane 1925). On the whole, I would give Haldane quite a high mark for the technological specifics of his vision, except for one bad mistake. In Callinicus he says, speaking of the prospects for nuclear explosives, that if such weapons were ever created no “agency other than divine intervention would save humankind from complete and peremptory annihilation” (p.15). But he also thought the prospect exceedingly remote. “The reason we cannot do it is a simple matter of scale. …We cannot make apparatus small enough to disintegrate or fuse atomic nuclei, any more than we can make it [apparatus] large enough to reach the moon” (pp.16-17). The possibility of a chain reaction, discovered more than a decade later, was not imagined by him.

****

Bertrand Russell introduces his response with the remark:

“Mr. Haldane’s Daedalus has set forth an attractive picture of the future as it may become through the use of scientific discoveries to promote human happiness. Much as I would like to agree with his forecast, a long experience of statesman and governments has made me somewhat skeptical. I …fear that science will be used to promote the power of dominant groups, rather than to make men happy.”(p.5).

The rest of Russell’s little book (64 pp.) expounds this theme, with particular emphasis on political and organizational aspects. One more quote will provide the flavor:

“….men have used the increased productivity which they owe to science for three chief purposes in succession: first to increase the population; then to raise the standard of comfort; and finally to provide more energy for war. …competition for markets, which led to competition for raw materials, especially the raw materials of munitions.”(p.21)..

Looking back after the elapse of 80 years, it is clear that Russell’s skepticism about human progress was not inappropriate, even if his deterministic analysis of history was somewhat too simplistic. The single greatest scientific accomplishment of the decade marked by WW I was the fixation of nitrogen in synthetic ammonia by Haber and Bosch. Undoubtedly one of the motivations of the BASF company from 1900 on was to provide munitions (all of them nitrogen-based, and derived from ammonia) for the German military. Yet the war was over before the Haber-Bosch process was fully implemented and the real consequence was to provide nitrogen fertilizers that increased global food production enormously, preventing widespread starvation that would almost certainly have occurred otherwise (Smil 2001)

The Next Hundred Years” by C. C. Furnas, an American engineer/administrator writing in the mid-1930s, did not trouble so much with social and political issues, still less human happiness (Furnas 1936). As regards the potential for atomic energy, he saw that practical use of the energy in the atom would require something `radically different’, namely “a way to make the atoms smash themselves, and release their energy spontaneously” (p.160). He was right about that, and the way to do it was about to be discovered by Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin and subsequently implemented in the first reactor by Enrico Fermi et al under the west  grandstand at the University of Chicago. A few other Furnas forecasts worth mentioning include the following:

“…some day the enemies of our insects may be bred to order.” (p.98) This is happening.1

“..controlling … chestnut blight, is as hopeless as that of a leper in biblical times” (p.101)

Chestnut blight (to which European and |Chinese species are immune) and Dutch Elm disease are still uncontrollable and both species of trees are now nearly extinct.

“…glass that does not break, knives that would not dull, clothes that would show no wear and rugs that no moth could destroy..”(p.151).

Tempered glass, laminated glass (as in auto windshields and `plexiglass’are normal, as are moth-proof carpets made from synthetic fibers. However clothes still wear out and knives still need sharpening.

“…pipelines have only begun their development.” (P.214).

Very true.

“…as soon as television becomes a reality …the last frontier of communication will have been closed.”

He didn’t foresee email, the internet and the cell-phone. (Nobody did.)

“The day may come when transatlantic telephoning will not be done by the often-wheezy radio impulses but by underwater cable..”   (P.239).

Yes, it happened even before his book was published. (My father-in-law supervised the cable-laying project on behalf of Bell Telephone Laboratories) On the other hand, the transatlantic telephone cable was such an obvious development that I only wonder why he qualified his forecast with the phrase “the day may come”.

***

As regards spectacularly bad predictions, here is a good one, from the US National Academy of Sciences (1941) (Select Committee of the NAS/NRC 1940).

“The present internal combustion engine equipment used in airplanes weighs about 1.1 pounds per horsepower, and to approach such a figure with a gas turbine seems beyond the realm of possibility with existing materials. The minimum weight for gas turbines even when taking advantage of higher temperatures appears to be approximately 13 to 15 pounds per horsepower….it is believed that much additional development work …is still required before the gas turbine can be considered as a serious aspirant in the field of aeronautics.”

The six so-called experts, all top scientists, were wrong about the minimum weight to power (lbs/hp) for gas turbines by a factor of 40 (Samaras 1964).

Post-WW II: 1950-1965

After the war, and especially after 1955, the number of forecasts increased dramatically and a number of studies of forecasting techniques and their applicability were also introduced, including my own small contribution . There is no need to discuss methodological forecasts here, nor is it worthwhile to review short term (e.g. ten year) forecasts of which there were several.

The first postwar “futures” book on my shelf is “The Challenge of Man’s Future” by Harrison Brown . It’s focus is on long term problems, with special emphasis on resource availability, notably food and energy, in relation to population growth. The book was, in part, a popularization of the Report of The President’s Materials Policy Commission (known as the Paley Commission) created by President Truman. The Commission’s Report, entitled “Resources for Freedom” was published in 1952 , and led directly to the creation of Resources for the Future Inc. (RFF), which sponsored a major `kick-off’conference on the subject in 1953, and the huge work entitled “Resources in America’s Future: Patterns of requirements and availabilities, 1960-2000” by Hans Landsberg, Leonard Fischman and Joseph Fisher, published in 1963.2 However Brown’s book is not only far more readable, but also both more speculative (as regards scientific possibilities) and more normative, without sacrificing some degree of analytical rigor. However, it focused more on the problems than on the solutions.

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Also in 1954, Sir George Thomson, a Nobel laureate physicist, wrote “The Foreseeable Future”, mainly about future technological possibilities (Thomson 1955). He claimed that his forecasts were based largely on the principle that anything with obvious utility that is not known to be impossible is likely to be done. In fact, he did not see very far ahead. The major advances he did foresee were as follows:

-Increasing use of energy and power3, including atomic energy

-weather forecasting and deliberate climate modification

-great strides in biology (especially microbiology)

-use of computers to solve `complex problems’ like weather forecasting

-at least one major physical discovery with important applications.

His treatment of energy and power is more optimistic in some respects than the present view. He underestimated total discoverable reserves of oil and gas (as did all the experts) but greatly overestimated the growth of nuclear power. As regards weather forecasting, Thomson correctly anticipated substantial improvements due to the availability of high speed computers, but he was much too optimistic because of an error. He states on that “the future of any known meteorological state is …calculable…”  (p. 93)  which is not true. In fact, it was the recognition of the so-called “butterfly effect” and the fundamental incalculability of weather – beyond a few days – that spawned the new field of chaos studies. The latter part of the same chapter suggests a variety of ways in which controlled nuclear explosions might modify the Earth’s climate. None has been adopted or probably ever will be. The reclamation of a desert by desalination and irrigation would also depend upon much cheaper electric power (and improved desalination technology) both of which are clearly beyond our present capabilities.

Thomson was quite naive on the subject of urban form, transportation and communications. He expected large cities to be broken up into smaller dispersed units (of around 50,000) in order to reduce congestion and time wasted in travel to work. With a few minor exceptions, that didn’t happen. Regarding telecommunications, the flavor may be gathered from the following quote:

“Telephones as at present arranged are inadequate for a meeting between more than two. It would not seem difficult for a telephone company to offer facilities by which a group could hold a meeting, each sitting in his own office – provided at least that they were content to speak one at a time! A girl in room in the exchange could switch the wires so that others could all hear the speaker of the moment and a dictaphone record could be made of each speech.” (pp.55-56)

Evidently Thomson could not even imagine the digital electronic switching system that was already far advanced in development, still less the integrated digital network that exists today.

Thomson s analysis of the food production problem was equally based on straightforward applications of current technology. He focused on ways of increasing output of edibles, mainly by increasing the efficiency of production from existing crop-land, but with considerable attention to ways of utilizing wastelands and possible applications of cheap (nuclear) energy. His discussion of increased output from existing crop-lands was, if anything, too pessimistic, while the rest was too optimistic by far. In biology, however, Thomson’s speculations seem rather tame. He anticipated `controlled mutations’ which might be another term for gene-splicing, although the modern technology is far more efficient than the use of focused electron beams (`electron optics`) which was his best guess. Overall, I would say that Thomson’s foresight was very limited, and seriously wrong in a number of key particulars

***

The opposite applies to an article published in 1961 in the magazine Analog Science Fact and Fiction by G. Harry Stine (Stine 1961). The title was “Science Fiction is too conservative” and the article argued that technological progress is hyper-exponential and that many (he actually said `all’) trend curves would become asymptotic by 1982. He says, for instance, that “the speed trend curve alone predicts that manned vehicles will be able to achieve near-infinite speeds by 1982.” He concludes from this curve that `a major scientific breakthrough’ must occur in the next few years (after 1961). As regards other trends likely to go asymptotic before 1982:

-“Life expectancy is increasing and this trend curve predicts that anyone born after 2000 lives forever, barring accidents”

-“Population is rising rapidly and early in the twenty-first century there isn’t enough room on earth for everybody”

– “The trend curve for controllable energy is rising rapidly. The richest baron of feudal times did not control the same amount of energy in his human serfs and slaves as you have under the hood of your automobile. The advent of controlled nuclear energy has boosted that curve even more…”

-“The number of circuits in cybernetic devices is increasing on the familiar trend curve. The human brain has an estimated 4 billion neural circuits. By 1970 computer engineers may have achieved the same number of circuits in a digital computer or by slaving many small computers together…..What are the logical consequences of this? Will these machines think? Will they repair themselves? Will we finally achieve the ability to handle problems with extremely large numbers of variables?”

Stine was wrong about speeds, life expectancy, population growth and controllable energy, as well as his main point (hyper-exponential progress) although he came closer to reality in regard to computer hardware. He failed, however, to distinguish between software and hardware, whence his more detailed speculations about the uses of computers were naive.

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The next book on my shelf was science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke’s famous “Profiles of the Future: An inquiry into the limits of the possible” published as essays between 1958 and 1961 and as a book in 1962 (Clarke 1958). Like Brown, Thomson, and Stine, Clarke was concerned mainly with physical technology. Like Stine, and in strong contrast to Thomson, however, Clarke tried to imagine very long-range possibilities and their implications, but without attaching dates and only in a “why not?” sense. Clarke is well known for having conceptually invented (but failing to patent) the communications satellite long before it was launched in reality by AT&T. He suggests sensibly that fast nuclear submarines, which are more efficient than surface ships, would be ideal for towing flexible sausage-like tanks (`dracones’) of crude oil or other bulk goods. He points out that large ground effect machines (GEMs) are able to cross rough terrain, as well as water, without benefit of paved highways – a major advantage in many remote areas of the world. These ideas still look attractive, though neither has (yet) been adopted on a large scale.

Much of Clarke’s book is even more `far out’. He considers anti-gravity in a whole chapter, and believes that gravity control devices will someday be invented and even miniaturized so as to carry individuals around. (I doubt that.) A chapter on speed introduces the supersonic or hypersonic plane driven by a compact future nuclear fusion device. He sensibly rules out fission-based nuclear aero-engines on the grounds that airplanes do crash and that their remains should not be radioactive. (I agree). Another chapter deals with matter transmission (`teleportation’). While physical transmission is not theoretically possible without violating the law of conservation of mass/energy, it is theoretically possible to transmit information and reconstruct a physical object in another location, provided the channel capacity is large enough and the necessary atomic species are available at the new location. Mass and energy must be conserved at both ends, of course, but that is a detail. Difficulties arise with respect to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, but – who knows? – error correcting models might come to the rescue. Clarke also seriously considers the possibility of some kind of `space warp’ (or `wormhole’) as a means of by-passing normal Euclidean space. Some theoretical physicists have been willing to entertain the possibility, so – why not? I am skeptical about all of these possibilities. None looks more likely today than it did when he wrote.

Skipping over a lot of the book, it is pertinent to mention Clarke’s view of energy as a resource. He was unhappy (as I am) about nuclear fission as a power source, but not so about nuclear fusion. But he was properly skeptical that fusion reactors could be made small enough for cars or households, or even for factories or small towns. In fact, fusion plants seem likely to be feasible only in very large sizes (which would make them uncomfortable neighbors, and obvious targets for terrorists.) But Clarke was always an optimist. He was surprisingly optimistic about the possibility of a very efficient light weight energy storage device, i.e. a storage battery. (Here again he may have gone too far. As far as we know fifty years later, there is no plausible chemical combination that could achieve the necessary energy intensity, in a solid configuration, while also being electrically rechargeable. However perhaps I am showing my age.)

Anyhow the above is indicative. To put it bluntly, Clarke considers only very remote future possibilities, and makes few obvious errors as regards dates. But, for this reason, his book lacks a time line and cannot really be regarded as a forecast, at least in the usual sense.

***

In 1964 the New York Times Book Review commissioned a set of articles by leading authorities. Historian Arnold Toynbee wrote about the need for world governance in certain key fields. The first was the need to avoid nuclear war and control the use of nuclear energy (and waste) which – when he wrote – had already led to Eisenhower’s `atoms for peace’ initiative and the creation of the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA). However, Toynbee went further:

“The second field in which the establishment of an international authority will have become urgent long before the year 2000 is the production and distribution of food. The world has been overtaken by a population explosion in all except a small minority of the human race.” (Toynbee 1964)

In this worry about food, albeit he was joined by many others including the UN and the US Department of Agriculture e.g.(Brown 1963, 1970, 1973-74, Brown 1974, Ehrlich 1968). People are still malnourished, and some are starving, due to locust outbreaks, droughts, and civil wars – especially in Africa – but global food production has significantly outpaced population growth since the 1960s, at least until 2000. Recent trends in grain production per capita are not so favorable, however. The many opportunities for increasing food output dramatically without increasing land cultivation were actually described in an article by me in Science Journal, October 1967 (Ayres 1967).

Reverting to the 1964 NYT series, J. B. S. Haldane contributed “A scientific Revolution? Yes. Will we be happier? Maybe” (Haldane 1964). He was optimistic (and fairly accurate) about the future of science, subject of course, to the usual caveats: no nuclear war and continued funding of basic research by governments. Both conditions have been met. He was properly skeptical about whether scientific progress would promote happiness.

Margaret Mead wrote “Human nature will flower, if..” (Mead 1964). Her article was remarkably sensible, noting that global population was likely to double by 2000, and that there would be more people in cities, less open countryside and so on. Her article is not worth quoting at length except for a memorable phrase “Human beings do not carry civilization in their genes” meaning, of course, that the survival of civilization is never guaranteed.

The well-known historian Henry Steele Commager wrote “The nation: A visit to the year 2000″ which was much more explicit about the future of the U.S (Commager 1964). He predicted a population close to 300 million (it was 280 million), a quadrupling of GDP (adjusted for inflation), annual automobile production of 29 million (it was actually around 20 million), and related items. These were all trend extrapolations with slight, if any, judgmental modifications. Even so, he was wrong on a number of key details. For instance, he thought the foreign-born component of the US population would decline, whereas it has increased. (Without the influx of Latinos, US population would be significantly lower than it is.) His most interesting prediction concerns the response to automation:

“The response to automation will be twofold. First and most obvious is a reduction in the work week, the work year and perhaps the work-life…. Along with it will go, in all probability, a guaranteed annual wage. A second response will be…the growth of public service, a substantial increase in the number of those involved in teaching, social welfare, civil service, nursing and similar professions..”

It is clear, in retrospect, that in these predictions he was too much influenced by the “Great Society” rhetoric of the mid-60s. The changes he expected were indeed underway at the time, but most peaked and some have since been reversed. The work week and work year have declined, slightly but not a great deal and very little in the past twenty years. There is no guaranteed annual wage and social welfare in the U.S. is still minimal. The number of years of education has increased, but only modestly. Only health care (e.g. nursing) has increased significantly as an employer. Meanwhile prison populations have grown dramatically and have absorbed a surprising percentage of the unemployed young. To his credit, Commager was quite accurate in noting that the U.S. was unlikely to adopt any policies, such as those adopted by the Danes, the Swedes and the British (in the pre-Thatcher era) to redistribute wealth.

A surprisingly fearless forecast in the NYT series was offered by Clarence Randall, a retired steel industry CEO. He foresaw radical decentralization of industry away from central cities (Randall 1964). He expected the centers of large cities to be “completely immobilized” by traffic congestion, with private vehicles forbidden access. He foresaw rigorous urban planning, great investments in public transportation to replace dependence on the private automobile, industrial sites including housing for workers (as in Japan, at the time), and dual-use skyscrapers with apartments on-site for employees. He expected pleasure driving to disappear, “two car families to be outnumbered by no-car families” and the manufacture of automobiles to become much less of a factor in the economy. On the other hand, he thought the auto companies would prosper by manufacturing equipment for public transportation. His most interesting (and wrong) prediction was that

“the internal combustion engine will be practically extinct. Every vehicle, whether private or public, will be powered by nuclear energy that will be contained in a unit which will last as long as the vehicle itself.”

Much else in the article follows from this erroneous vision. Interestingly, apart from a technical misunderstanding the inherent miniaturize-ability (and safety) of nuclear power systems, he was somewhat on target as regards the congestion problems of central cities, and at least some of the solutions (such as pedestrian zones and “park and ride”).

The final article in that 1964 NYT series by Hugh Dryden, Deputy Administrator of NASA, was accurate about the near-term of the space program but wildly over-optimistic about the future beyond the scheduled end of the Apollo program in 1969 (Dryden 1964). He thought that by the year 2000 manned flights for scientific exploration would have been made beyond the moon, to Mars and possibly to the vicinities of other planets. On the other hand he was (properly) skeptical about the potential for lunar tourism. Of course, the reason for the slowdown in the space program was not technological; it was financial and political. Meanwhile the possibility of a manned flight to Mars has now been put off to c. 2020.

The period 1967-1976

In 1967 The Wall Street Journal produced a book-length series of 13 articles in 1966 and published them together as a book entitled “Here Comes Tomorrow” (Wall Street Journal Staff 1967). It confined itself explicitly to the period up to 2000, and considered (in order): population, food, computers, communications, energy, air travel, space, the cities, automobiles, the home, education, medicine and war. Only in the last one was the possibility of nuclear conflict even considered.

The population chapter consisted of uncontroversial projections of population and age cohorts, as then estimated, although the overall population growth for the US was over-estimated by about 10%, due to reduced birthrates in later years. Life expectancy on average was expected to increase from 72 to 74 The UN’s global population forecast of 6 billion by 2000 was almost exactly right .The ageing of the `baby bulge’ was expected to contribute to continued high growth of the US GDP, whence income was expected to increase four times faster than population. Most employment categories were expected to remain stable, but manufacturing and agriculture were expected to decline from 25% and 6% to 18% and 2% respectively, while miscellaneous services were expected to take up the slack. One prediction that did not happen was a decline in the length of the average work week to 31 hours. It remains close to 40.

The food article in the WSJ series lays out the dimensions of the global food problem, as seen at the time, based on past and current trends, and proceeds to review the possibilities for alleviating the problem In particular, the early results (from Mexico) of what later became the “green revolution” were noted., along with dozens of other developments ranging from uses of machines and computers to better means of storage (freeze-drying), fish farming, and a few rather exotic biochemical processes. In general, the article was about right on the outcome, if not on all the specifics.

The computer article in the WSJ series begins by describing a law enforcement procedure (radar-cameras to identify speeders; postal delivery of notices to pay a fine or appear in court) that has been operational in some European countries since the mid `80s, and will soon be universal in the European Union. There is a discussion of the often proposed (and opposed) national data base. The article focuses more on possible objections to such a system – notably depersonalization – than to its possible benefits. On the technology side, the article forecasts continued growth in the number of computers – projected to reach 220,000 by the year 2000 — but completely misses the potential of the integrated circuit and the microprocessor. The number of PCs in the world today is in the range of hundreds of millions, not hundreds of thousands. To its credit the WSJ article forecasts time-sharing networks and other features of today’s digital network. The communications article begins:

“By the year 2000…you will, for example, be able to hold a face-to-face meeting with business associates on the other side of the globe. While you’re talking you will be able to instantaneously transmit a facsimile of a blueprint or contract for his inspection. From your home …you will be able to examine in color a painting up for sale in a London gallery. Or you can request a bibliography on the subject [of your son’s homework essay] to the local library’s computer, which would respond with a reading list printed out on a device in your home.”

The article anticipates video telephones and fax machines but totally fails to anticipate PCs, laptops, WorldWideWeb, emails, cell-phones with wideband links, e-commerce, Google, etc. In this case, the reality has far outstripped the forecast.

The energy article in the WSJ is a litany of conventional wisdom from the 1960s. It assumes rapidly rising electricity demand, construction of more and larger nuclear power plants to supply the rising demand, and continued availability of fossil fuels at declining prices. (Official projections by the US Energy Information Agency and the International Energy Agency still make similar projections.) Nuclear power was also expected to be applied immediately to ships. The article also forecasts some interesting changes that never happened, including rapid increase in electric heating of homes, with painful consequences for the oil industry. The emphasis on nuclear power and electricity is total: One authority [cited in the article but unnamed] predicts that by 2000 all large plants ordered will be atomic and that “within 20 or 30 years after that the last important coal-fired generating plants will be shutting down”. The article quotes experts on both sides of the fusion power debate. The optimist, Dr. Amasa Bishop of the AEC, was quoted as expecting feasibility to be established by the end of the `70s and commercialization by the year 2000.

The WSJ chapter on air and space travel begins with the words: “The supersonic transport has yet to fly. But the forward thinkers in aerospace are already turning their attention to the hypersonic transport.” Another quote is enough to convey the message of the chapter:

“..`By the year 2000 we will undoubtedly have a sizeable operation on the moon, we will have achieved a manned Mars landing and it’s entirely possible we will have flown with men to the outer planets’ forecasts Werner von Braun the famed rocket expert”..

The rest of the article expounds this thesis in more detail.

The WSJ city article is equally enthusiastic. It speaks of more glass skyscrapers, but also major investments in mass transit such as air cushion vehicles capable of speeds of 600 mph, connecting core cities with distant suburbs. Congestion will be relieved downtown by the creation of pedestrian malls. Slums will be cleared. It is a cheerful and optimistic picture, but unfortunately wrong in most respects. Surprisingly for the WSJ, the reporter who wrote the article failed to note the lack of enthusiasm in government and the absence of private profit opportunities that would have been needed to drive the private sector in the expected direction.

***

Another important book that was published in that year was Robert Prehoda’s “Designing the Future” (Prehoda 1967), apparently inspired (and with a Foreword) by Sir George Thomson’s 1954 book noted above. The inside front cover includes the following claim:

“The author demonstrates that it is not utopian thinking to expect that we will be able to `cure’the aging process, extending the life span to 100years, 200 years, or indefinitely. Human hibernation or suspended animation may allow many to bypass the immediate future and emerge in a golden age with the vigor and industry of youth reawakened….”

The above quotation was intended for shock value, of course. In fact, the book reads more like it was written as a report for a government agency (the author had been a NASA employee). The first third of the book is background material on forecasting methodology, economic trends and R&D programs. The second third deals with material developments, notably energy sources, other raw materials, transportation and `cybernetics and communications’.

As regards energy sources, Prehoda surprisingly dismisses both fossil fuels and fissionable materials as inherently limited because of being based on finite supplies of exhaustible materials. He begins with a brief discussion of controlled fusion power which he takes to be unlimited (pp. 120-123). This is followed by an inconclusive discussion of applications of superconductivity to energy storage using liquid hydrogen as a refrigerant (no mention of high temperature superconductivity). He then moves to direct conversion (pp.126-129) where he touts the magneto-hydrodynamic (MHD) program – long since abandoned – as “the most promising near term development”. He adds a short paragraph about photovoltaic cells, which he dismisses as being costly and limited to 10% efficiency. The rest of the discussion of direct conversion is devoted to thermionic and thermo-electric schemes, none of which has led anywhere. The chapter is amazingly off-base.

Prehoda’s discussion of cybernetics and communications is equally unbalanced. He devotes several pages to the possibility of a computerized world “brain” to store and disseminate scientific information. He devotes two pages (pp. 176-178) to a sensible but brief discussion of computer-telecommunications interfaces, including facsimile transmission, high resolution printers and so on, more or less anticipating developments at Stanford Research Institute and Xerox PARC that were actually occurring in the late 1960s. He dithers about whether optical fibers will be able to compete with microwave guides, a competition long since resolved. Yet he speculates at length about holographic TV, which is still nowhere in sight. He then spends six pages (pp. 178-185) discussing whether artificial intelligence might eventually surpass human intelligence. As a prophet, Prehoda fails miserably.

     * * *

1967 was also the year of publication of the working papers of “The Commission on the Year 2000” of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and “The year 2000: A framework for speculation on the next thirty-three years” edited by Herman Kahn, William Pfaff and Anthony Wiener (Kahn and Wiener 1967). It was also the year of publication of “The Year 2000″ by Kahn and Wiener (Kahn and Wiener 1967) and a special issue of Science Journal  in October 1967 which included some of these materials (Kahn 1967, Ayres 1967). One of Kahn’s few firm predictions is that by the end of the century `90% of the world’s population will live in countries that have broken through the `subsistence’barrier  (however defined) and will be gripped by `industrial revolution’. This is clearly not true. The Kahn-Wiener contribution consists mostly of “surprise-free projections” from existing trends, subject to several key assumptions – largely shared by other authors – namely that no nuclear war4 or major European conflict would occur. It also supposes that no cataclysmic political “turning points” would occur during the 33 years after 1967. Looking back, there is no doubt that the collapse of the Soviet system in 1989-90 was just such a cataclysmic event, even though no war resulted.

Actually, only two years after Kahn’s forecast (1969), when opposition to the Viet Nam war began to heat up, the assumption of political stability looked very dubious to the authors of another more academic study entitled “Long Term Projections of Power” viz.

“Certainly the United States has been subject recently to considerable convulsions …and wherever we now look in the highly affluent societies – and especially at the attitudes and behavior of the young generation – one no longer has the impression that these societies are politically very stable, and that major surprises in this respect are extremely improbable.”  (Morgenstern, Knorr, and Heiss 1973 p. 51)

Kahn embroidered his thesis of relative stability in a paper written in 1969, entitled “The world of 1980”  (Kahn 1969) (pp 2-3), in which he says:

“What many today consider a `war system’is likely to seem increasingly able to produce and maintain peace while remaining, at the same time, both on the edge of crisis and increasingly capable of horrendous levels of violence. But I would expect that…military force and military considerations in general, will seem less central to international relations than they appear to be in 1969 – and one of the surprises of the 1960s has been their relative irrelevance.”

As it has turned out, nuclear deterrence did work, the social convulsions of the late `60s subsided when the Viet Nam war ended, and – notwithstanding the energy crisis, the Nixon impeachment, the Iranian revolution and the collapse of the USSR in 1989-80 – the Kahn-Wiener assumptions about relative stability turned out to be reasonable, or at least “not unreasonable”.

****

Among the other articles in the Science Journal special issue, were the following:

Olaf Helmer, of the RAND Corp. wrote on “Science” (Helmer 1967). He projected that by the year 2000 there would be 25 million scientists and technologists in the world, that their productivity would have doubles (probably due to computers) and that their motto would be “science for society’s sake”. He expected the continued increase in speed and computer power, including improvements in programmability (i.e. the development of languages) and interfaces. He completely missed the digital revolution and the effective merger with telecommunications. He expected social sciences to borrow from the methods of the physical scientists, which has not yet happened to any significant extent. Part from these, he presented a Delphi forecast by RAND experts that covered 31 possible breakthroughs, of which all 20 of the RAND experts agreed that 17 would be available by the year 2000. These included a few that have happened, such as desalination of sea-water, new light materials for construction, effective fertility control (“the pill”), organ transplants, reliable weather forecasts (?), central data storage with side access for info retrieval, and automated language translation (now available but far from perfect). The RAND experts also predicted many that have not happened, including the successful merger of quantum theory and gravitational theory, implanted artificial organs, personality changing non-narcotic drugs, X-ray and gamma ray lasers, ocean mining, regional weather control, synthetic protein for food, fusion power and primitive artificial life . Essentially none of the developments predicted for later times have happened yet or appear likely to happen in the near or medium term, except for the possible application of genetic engineering to control some hereditary defects. On the whole, the RAND experts were incredibly over-optimistic.

By contrast, the “Energy” article by Ali Bulant Cambel (Cambel 1967), is extremely sensible and makes no rash predictions. For example, with respect to controlled fusion, it cautiously notes “If controlled thermonuclear fusion ever becomes a reality…” It offers a very complete survey of the possibilities, including some very remote ones. This thoroughness may be partly because of it’s acknowledged reliance on the RFF book “Resources in America’s Future” by Landsberg, Fischman and Fisher (Landsberg, Fischman, and Fisher 1962). It even makes a positive prediction that the price of oil and gas will start to rise at “the beginning of the next century” (p.62).

The article on “Automation” by Hasan Ozbekhan (Ozbekhan 1967), by which he means the application of computers to manufacturing, postulates dramatic increases in computer power and cost reductions (such as have occurred). It forecasts fairly obvious applications such as computer-aided design (CAD), time sharing and networking, but completely misses the digital revolution and the creation of the internet and its implication. Here again a Delphi forecast is presented, where most of the events are supposed (by all respondents) to occur before the year 2000. These include many uses of computers that have happened, such as air traffic control, credit checking from stores to banks, automation of office work replacing 25% of office workers, automated libraries and so on. The Delphi experts also predicted things a number of things that did not happen, including widespread use of teaching machines, language translation with correct grammar, automated rapid transit, electronic prosthesis, automated diagnosis of medical symptoms, automated voting (in plebiscites), automated highways (half of the respondents predicted this would happen after 2000), centralized wire tapping, and so on. Only one of the Delphi predictions appears to be too pessimistic (if that is the right word) namely the last one, which all respondents agreed would not be possible before 2025 at the earliest. The Delphi forecast did not deal with possible unemployment problems due to automation, but the author had this to say:

“The classic analysis of this issue was given in 1965 by Herbert Simon in his book The shape of automation (Simon 1965). Nothing that has happened since then has seriously contradicted his conclusion that automation will not lead to massive unemployment. ….However some degree of discomfort remains, probably because we sense that, until now, automation has not gained its full, expected momentum. …Ultimately there is little doubt that the existing foundations of the economic system will have to be rethought… It is clear, if we look far enough into the future that the traditional tie between work and income upon which our current system is based cannot be maintained under large-scale automation.” (P.72)

As to this last prediction, which fails to specify dates or time-lines, I cannot make a judgment.

The article entitled “Communications” by John R. Pierce of Bell Labs (Pierce 1967), is as sensible, cautious and straightforward as Cambel’s article on energy. It presents a number of trends and suggests that they will continue (as they have). As to true forecasts, there are few, but one stands out:

“Fundamental advances will be made possible by the technology of integrated circuits. These are already in use in laboratories but not yet in the home or the office. But when they do become commercially available on a much wider scale, it will be possible to have devices as complicated as a small electronic computer in the telephone set, in the car, or even in the pocket. They will be inexpensive, use little power and last for decades, and when they fail they will be thrown away…..The use of computers is due to expand. Instead of trying to solicit a limited amount of information from one man – hotel porter or tourist guide, for instance – we will be able to make inquiries about hotel accommodations, weather forecasts, in any area, restaurant facilities, sporting facilities and many other items, simply by interrogating a computer.” (p.80)

Apart from devices lasting for decades, Pierce was exactly right, and he is the only forecaster I have encountered who saw what was coming as early as 1967. He also foresaw the picturephone, direct links between computers and TV phone networks and Of course his job at Bell Labs gave him a great advantage.

An article on “Space” by Robert Seamans Jr. of NASA (Seamans 1967), made forecasts similar to those of Hugh Dryden, mentioned earlier, and erred in the same way with respect to trips beyond the moon.

An article on “Transport” by Gabriel Bouladon of the Battelle Institute in Geneva (Bouladon 1967) was equally over-optimistic. It foresaw the end of buses and conventional underground trains. Instead, it postulated widespread use of short-distance `assisted pedestrian’systems – beyond the slow conveyors in use in airports today – operating at 10-16 km/hr. It also postulated continuous underground trains (a concept patented by the author). It postulates that motor-ways would be electronically controlled by 1985, at speeds ranging from 160 km/hr for trucks to 240 km/hr for fast cars. Trucks would utilize gas turbines and cars would be powered by fuel cells. Finally, he postulated glass tubes for high speed transport of freight containers and passenger trains operating at up to 800 km/hr. Essentially none of these innovations has yet appeared as of the year 2000. The nearest would be the experimental magnetic levitation train systems developed in Germany and Japan, neither of which has an assured future. Bouladon did not anticipate this possibility.

An article on “Materials” by W. L. Swager of Battelle Institute (Swager 1967) is, again, much more realistic and correspondingly less interesting for the purposes of this seminar. An article on “Population” by Roger Revelle  recapitulates the work of demographers, statisticians at the Population Reference Bureau and the UN. It’s most interesting forecast is that the population of India would exceed that of China by the year 2000, or soon after, which has turned out to be correct. My article on “Food”, cited earlier, is of interest primarily because it did outline a number of ways in which agricultural output could be increased at reasonable cost. It not forecast a future of inevitable starvation, thus contradicting some of the more exciting – but wrong – forecasts made during the 1960s. Looking back, I am not unhappy with what I said then.

****

There have been many forecasts (or pseudo-forecasts) since 1970, including one of the most famous, “Limits to Growth” (Meadows et al. 1972), which was essentially a forecast of economic collapse attributable to a combination of resource scarcity, population and pollution. The predicted collapse has not yet occurred, although a 1992 update  (Meadows, Meadows, and Randers 1992) argued that the original forecasts were on track. 1970 was, incidentally, the year of first publication of Alvin Toffler’s best seller, “Future Shock” (Toffler 1970)although the book was not really a forecast, but rather a study of the societal impacts of rapid change, especially in the area of communications and the media.

In view of recent events (since 9/11) I cannot resist mentioning one other book. One of the more imaginative thinkers about the long-term outcome was a book by Bruce Murray, entitled “Navigating the Future” (Murray 1975). He asks:

“Since strong pressures toward both homogeneity and diversity, toward both order and disorder, are present in the turbulent world in which we live, how will that balance tilt as the future consumes the present?” (p.108).

As part of the answer he presents three scenarios, one of which is the Imperial Possibility. He wrote

“Suppose somebody wins? …..Suppose one of the major powers gives in on a basic strategic matter. The stage would be set for gradual world domination by the superpower which won the game of `nuclear chicken’. Thus could arise the framework of a world empire ruled by one country with one capital, a modern Pax Romana” (pp.110-111)

It would appear that the Bush Administration, influenced by the so-called `neo-conservatives’has claimed American victory in the `cold war’and intends to establish a Pax Americana. (From a 2008  perspective, during the financial crisis provoked by the housing ‘bubble’, it is clear that the ambitious program of the neo-conservatives has failed utterly. In fact, US power is clearly inadequate for the war on terror, still less the  conflict between civilizations; and is declining.) Murray has many more useful insights, as regards globalization and global environmental degradation, but I cannot list them all.

I also regret that lack of time has made it impossible to review the many other interesting forecasts that were published after 1970, especially those that appeared around 1976, to celebrate – if that is the right word – the 200th anniversary of the US Declaration of Independence. However a summary table of major forecasts is attached below (TABLE).

ISSUE Got it right Partly right Wrong Comment
No World or European war; no nuclear war Haldane,

WSJ

Kahn et al.

Many, including C.P. Snow, Nevil Shute But nobody predicted the peaceful collapse of the USSR until Norman Macrae (1980’s?)
Nuclear weapons are possible Nobody Furnas (1936) Haldane, (1924) Nobody predicted it before discoveries of Meitner, Hahn et al
Future agricultural developments enabling the world to feed itself Furnas

WSJ,

Ayres

Thomson L. Brown

Toynbee

Ehrlich

Only the WSJ specifically noted the specific research which led to the “Green Revolution”
Population growth, urbanization, etc.. WSJ,

Mead

Revelle

Commager Stine, Ehrlich, others WSJ and Commager considered only the US; Commager did not foresee influx of Latinos
Resources: oil and gas reserves not  scarce before 2000; prices might rise after that. Furnas; RFF,

WSJ

Cambel

H.Brown Thomson,

Prehoda

Meadows et al;

Energy: fission power largely substitutes for coal and oil for electric power but not for propulsion WSJ

Cambel

Thomson

Clarke

Prehoda

Stine

Randall

Did not anticipate safety problems that stopped the growth of nuclear power (nobody did, except Clarke); Randall foresaw total substitution of small nuclear powered engines for the ICE
Energy: fusion power by 2000 Nobody WSJ

Cambel

Prehoda,

Stine,

Helmer

Virtually all forecasts were much too optimistic
Weather forecasting Nobody Almost everybody Thomson Nobody realized the limits of prediction (chaos) but Thomson was explicit in claiming deterministic predictability
Weather control and deliberate climate modification Nobody Thomson based on use of nuclear explosives; nobody considered other means
Progress in communications; TV,

the digital revolution

Nobody WSJ

Pierce

Furnas;

Thomson,

Prehoda

Helmer (Delphi)

Furnas thought TV was the last stage in telecom. Prehoda foresaw holographic TV; Pierce foresaw hand-held devices,  picturephone. Nobody foresaw the digital revolution that led to cell-phones, the internet and the WorldWide Web
Progress in computer technology and new uses, especially in telecommunication Most people foresaw improved interfaces, but not much else WSJ

Pierce

Stine

Helmer (Delphi)

Thomson

Prehoda

Thomson foresaw improved calculation ability but didn’t even expect automation of telephone exchanges. WSJ foresaw increased use but didn’t foresee the IC or miniaturization. Pierce correctly forecast the extreme miniaturization of computer technology and some of the implications. (Everybody missed the microprocessor, internet, cell phones, e-commerce, etc.)
Cities, urban transport, the automobile Nobody Commager, Thomson,

WSJ,

Randall

Bouladon

Most people foresaw problems of congestion, but those who considered alternatives were invariably much too optimistic; a few foresaw small changes like pedestrian zones and “park `n drive” but high-speed suburban trains, people movers, etc are still dreams.
Aero-space technology Nobody Clarke.

WSJ

Dryden,

Seamans

The Concorde did fly but there were no successors; hypersonic transports are still a dream; von Braun, Dryden and Seamans were correct about early stages, but much too optimistic about later developments. Arthur Clarke went much too far (e.g. anti-gravity, etc.)
Automation and unemployment Simon,

Ozbekhan

Commager Many others (not cited) have exaggerated the probable impact
Extended  life expectancy WSJ

Revelle

Stine

Prehoda

Prehoda was the most explicit; he expected cryogenic storage (which actually became a fad for a time.

References

Ayres, Robert U. 1967. “Food.”  Science Journal (October):100-106.

Ayres, Robert U. 1969. Technological forecasting and long-range planning. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Bouladon. 1967. “Transport.”  Science Journal (October):83-99.

Brown, Lester R. 1963. Man, land and food. Washington DC: Agricultural Research Service, United States Department of Agriculture.

Brown, Lester R. 1970. “Human food production as a process in the biosphere.”  Scientific American 233 (September).

Brown, Lester R. 1973-74. “The next crisis? Food.”  Foreign Policy 13 (winter).

Brown, Lester R. with Erik P. Eckholm. 1974. By bread alone. New York: Praeger Press.

Cambel, Ali Bulent. 1967. “Energy.”  Science Journal (October):57-62.

Clarke, Arthur C. 1958. Profiles of the future. New York: Harper and Row.

Commager, Henry Steele. 1964. “The nation: A visit in the year 2000.” New York Times Magazine, April 19, 88-.

Dryden, Hugh. 1964. “No tourists on the moon.” New York Times Magazine, April 19.

Ehrlich, Paul R. 1968. Population bomb. New York: Ballantine.

Furnas, C. C. 1936. The next hundred years. London: Cassell & Co.

Haldane, J. B. S. 1924. Daedalus or science and the future. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co.

Haldane, J. B. S. 1925. Callinicus; In defense of chemical warfare. London: E. P. Dutton.

Haldane, J. B. S. 1964. “A scientific revolution? Yes: Will we be happier? Maybe.” New York Times Magazine, April 19, 90-.

Helmer, Olaf. 1967. “Science.”  Science Journal (October):46-53.

Kahn, Herman. 1960. On thermonuclear war. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.

Kahn, Herman. 1967. “World futures.”  Science Journal (October):121-125.

Kahn, Herman. 1969. The world of 1980. Croton-on-Hudson: Hudson Institute.

Kahn, Herman, and Anthony J. Wiener. 1967. The year 2000: A framework for speculation on the next thirty-three years. New York: MacMillan Company.

Landsberg, Hans H., Leonard L. Fischman, and Joseph L. Fisher. 1962. Resources in America’s future. Baltimore MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Mead, Margaret. 1964. “Human nature will flower, if —.” New York Times Magazine, April 19, 96-.

Meadows, Dennis L., Donella H. Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and William III Behrens. 1972. The limits to growth, Club of Rome Reports. New York: Universe Books.

Meadows, Donella H, Dennis L. Meadows, and Jorgen Randers. 1992. Beyond the limits: Confronting global collapse, envisioning a sustainable future. Post Mills VT: Chelsea Green Publishing Company.

Morgenstern, Oskar, Klaus Knorr, and Klaus P. Heiss. 1973. Long-term projections of power: Political, economic and military forecasting. Cambridge MA: Ballinger Publishing Company.

Murray, Bruce C. 1975. Navigating the future. New York: Harper and Row.

Ozbekhan, Hasan. 1967. “Automation.”  Science Journal (October):67-73.

Pierce, John R. 1967. “Communication.”  Science Journal (October):77-81.

Prehoda, Robert. 1967. Designing the future. Philadelphia: Chilton Co.

Putnam, Palmer Cosslet. 1953. Energy in the future. New York: Van Nostrand.

Randall, Clarence B. 1964. “Industry: Incredible new markets.” New York Times Magazine, April 19.

Russell, Bertrand. 1924. Icarus or the future of science. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co. , Ltd.

Samaras, D. G. 1964. “Portents of the nuclear-space age: Nuclear electric propulsion.” In Applications of Ion Flow Dynamics, 305-322. Englewood Cliffs NY: Prentice-Hall Inc.

Seamans, Robert C. Jr. 1967. “Space.”  Science Journal (October):82-88.

Select Committee of the NAS/NRC, Max Mason Chairman. 1940. On the possibility of a gas turbine. Washington D.C.: National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council.

Simon, Herbert Alexander. 1965. The shape of automation for men and management. 1st ed. New York: Harper & Row.

Smil, Vaclav. 2001. Cycles of life: Civilisation and the biosphere. Cambridge MA.

Stine, G. Harry. 1961. “Science fiction is too conservative.” Analog Science Fact and Fiction, May 1961, 83-97.

Swager, W. L. 1967. “Materials.”  Science Journal (October):107-112.

Thomson, George. 1955. The foreseeable future. first ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge at the University Press.

Toffler, Alvin. 1970. Future shock. New York: Random House.

Toynbee, Alfred J. 1964. “At least the beginnings of one world.” New York Times Magazine, April 19.

von Neumann, John. 1955. “Can we survive technology.”  Fortune (June):106-110.

Wall Street Journal Staff. 1967. Here comes tomorrow: Living and working in the year 2000. third printing ed. Princeton NJ: Dow Jones Books.

 Footnotes

  1. For instance, Bacillus Thuringiensis is a commercially available “insecticide”. I believe there are others.
  2. RFF has published a large number of scholarly articles on resource needs and availabilities in succeeding years, which cannot possibly be summarized, or even listed, here.
  3. Thomson clearly distinguished between the use of energy, which is conserved in every action, and power, which is the rate of doing physical work and is essential for all human activity (Chapter 2) (Thomson 1955). He quotes an estimate from Putnam that, by the year 2050, total global power consumption would increase by a factor of 30. (Putnam 1953).
  4. In the 1960s there was a lot of pessimism about the ability of humankind to survive the nuclear age. Furnas’ pessimism was noted earlier. John von Neumann, the great mathematician and computer pioneer, and a member of the Atomic Energy Commission discussed the issue at some length in “Can we survive technology?” (von Neumann 1955). Herman Kahn’s book “On Thermonuclear War” (Kahn 1960) was attacked on the ground that it encouraged the use of nuclear weapons by suggesting that survival was a possibility and that measures to survive such a war (bomb shelters, etc.) should be promoted in the context of civil defense (Kahn 1960).
  • Top photo credit:Facing the Intelligence ExplosionLuke Muehlhauser,  Machine Intelligence Research  Institute, 2013

* A PDF of this posting is available at

# # #

About the author:


Robert Ayres InseadRobert U. Ayres
is a physicist and economist, currently Novartis professor emeritus of economics, political science and technology management at INSEAD.. He is also Institute Scholar at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria, and a King’s Professor in Sweden.   He has previously taught at Carnegie-Mellon University, and as a visiting Professor at Chalmers Institute. He is noted for his work on technological forecasting, life cycle assessment, mass-balance accounting, energy efficiency and the role of thermodynamics in economic growth. He originated the concept of “industrial metabolism”, known today asindustrial ecology” with its own journal. He has conducted pioneering studies of materials/energy flows in the global economy.  He is author or co-author of 21 books and more than 200 journal articles and book chapters.  The most recent books are The Bubble Economy (MIT Press, 2014) , “Crossing the Energy Divide” with Edward Ayres (Wharton Press, 2010) and The Economic Growth Engine with Benjamin Warr (Edward Elgar, 2009).

Penang – A Sustainable Transport Primer for a Battle of Ideas

Penang traffic - no sign of public transport

Introduction

In the coming weeks we are going to be presenting here coverage of a highly interesting public discussion of differences of perspectives, values and finally of interests, which have at its core the same concerns of World Streets and our readers: namely the challenges of sustainable development, sustainable transportation and the context of the politics of transport in cities.

But let’s not try to get into the interesting details and ongoing work in this first editorial; instead let’s see if we can present a quick canned history of this small South East Asian city that is facing some hard choices that are important for the immediate future but also for the long term. There is a lot of passion surrounding these issues and differences, so in this we shall do our best to maintain what our friends over at Wikipedia so deftly call, NPOV – a neutral point of view.

_______________________________________________

Penang BCF logo  smallLast Minute News from Penang – 13 July 2016. 10:00 local time:

The Penang Forum have today launched the: Better, Cheaper, Faster Penang Transport Master Plan

Sign the petition at www.bettercheaperfaster.my/votebcf

Start with the 2 minute introduction : https://youtu.be/6B9o1baUaP8

 

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Is World Streets doing its job?(USA)

* We asked 100 world experts for their views – – and 101 have responded.

Donald brackenbushI had some time and read through the World Street site yesterday at some length.

What a great wealth of information and effort. I applaud your originality, energy and organization skills.  Congratulations, you are a force.

You are the Darwin of transportation and sustainable streets/towns.

Donald H. Brackenbush
Architect, city planner  and engineer
Los Angeles California

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Mobilien: Better, Faster, Cheaper. . . than BRT (for Penang)

While Penang is thinking once again about its transportation arrangements, we are hearing a lot of late about BRT and tramways — and rightfully. Both a huge improvement over earlier proposals for a mad spaghetti mix of intrusive monorails, elevated LRT/LRV systems,  Sky Cabs hanging uselessly in the horizon, over-built road infrastructure projects  to serve and encourage yet  more car traffic, and a backbreaking  proposal for a sea tunnel that would bring yet more traffic into the island and in the process extend and multiply today’s traffic mess and associated inconveniencies

But before we make up our minds let’s also give a thought to another less well known mobility option, the Mobilien.  It may be just what you were looking for.

Paris Mobilien 1

Mobilien is the Paris version of what we know as a bus rapid transit system or a surface mass transport network. Paris has been doing its own version of “bus rapid transit” for decades, and after years of on-street operation and continuous fine-tuning they have now developed a system which they call the “Mobilien” – French for MOBI-lity plus “LIEN” which means link. Linking mobility.

The first Mobilien services hit the street in in Paris 2005, after a careful program  of  analysis and planning which involved taking a fresh look at and coordinating parking policies, delivery practices, treatment of intersections, priority traffic signals, and an increase in service frequencies between important traffic nodes and hubs. . . coordinating all these parts into a unified smart system offering much higher levels of service for their clients. A real competitor for taking your car. Better, and faster, and cheaper too.

Unlike the BRTs that many cities around the world are increasingly  looking at, the Mobilien solution adapts to different city contexts (i.e. street width and specific neighborhood dynamics). Mobilien doesn’t aim at producing high top speeds but making steady progress through the traffic stream. An important goal is to render the services more reliable and on time. To make the project possible, Paris’ officials eliminated much on-street parking to create dedicated bus lanes that are shared with bicycles, taxis and emergency vehicles.

Let’s have a look.

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Archives: STEP – Sustainable Transport Environment for Penang

Penang cener traffic growth

How were the leading minds  in Penang looking at the challenges of sustainable transport back at the turn of the century?  Did you know this? In many ways considerably better than is the case today. They were lucid, they had focus, and they stuck with the issues at hand..

To bring you into the picture (above)  let’s have a look at a presentation made back in 1999 introducing a collaborative civil society program at the time, called STEP – Sustainable Transport Environment for Penang. If you look closely you will note that just about all of the issues and recommendations that were being discussed back then, are every bit as topical today. But somehow we lost almost two decades.

What happened? Why did not this enlightened program take off at the time.  We shall be looking at that closely in the coming weeks and seeing if we can learn at least some of the lessons of the past.

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Sustainable Penang: Better. Faster. Cheaper

Better-Faster-Cheaper - script

It is amazing how words pop up and associate in a situation in which a number of people with different ideas and orientations come together to see if they can put their fingers on an elusive but important truth.

Over the past months as a civil society consensus critiquing the State government’s transport plan in Penang (and, no less important, the process behind it) this particular phrase has slowly taken shape, so that now these three words have come together serves as a motto, a watchword, a rallying point for the work toward coming up in various corners of civil society in Penang, coming up with ideas and proposals that are better adapted to the important work that remains to be done.

When we speak of the path to s sustainable transport system and sustainable Penang today we now speak with a unified voice of Better, Faster, Cheaper. Let’s have a look..

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Brainstorming the Penang Transport Master Plan(s)

Penang MP Poster top illustrationDraft introduction: Welcome to a collaborative thinking exercise inviting  any and all who may have some questions about the focus, the vision and in the end the quality of future mobility services as being proposed and aggressively pushed by the state government of Penang. The central instrument for this group investigative process is a group of poster illustrations which combine simple images and a few telling words in order test our understanding of the Penang Transport Master Plan — all this as  prepared for the recent Gertak Sanggul Art Festival by Kin Yin and a group  of young collaborators (who will be identified shortly in the final section of this first presentation).

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