Possible, Probable, Personal: Arguing against Castles in the Sky

Introduction:

 

I labeled this article with the heading ‘Possible, Probable, Personal’ because I think that a lot of failures in qualitative forecasting and putting the boundaries on quantitative forecasting result from an inability to differentiate what category new technologies and forecasts about technologies fall into. Like the flying car mentioned in the last post, people who were enthusiastic about it jumped straight from it being possible to it being personal, instead of an intermediary category of ‘Pragmatically Improbably’.
It is my hope that this framework or one that will evolve from it will help people understand why some technologies take a long time to make it to market, some are adopted immediately, and some never see the light of day at all (failing other interests, which are beyond the scope of this blog).

 

Is a technology impossible?

Flying cities--depending on how you count them, improbable or impossible. Credit to http://solartistic.deviantart.com/art/Laputa-The-Flying-City-385811018

Flying cities–depending on how you count them, improbable or impossible. Credit to http://solartistic.deviantart.com/art/Laputa-The-Flying-City-385811018

The first question to ask when evaluating the future with regards to a new technology or scientific discovery is to simply ask if it’s possible. Rather than establish all the different ways something could be determined to be possible, we can establish the ways that technologies could be easily determined to be impossible. Now, there could be specifics to certain scientific and technological fields that I don’t cover here, but I believe that these are the major ones.

  • Axiomatic impossibility: This is a scientific or technological discovery that violates the absolute most fundamental principles that we understand about the universe. This might include things like the values attached to fundamental forces, entropy, or the fact that there are no integers between 3 and 4.
  • Physical impossibility: This is a scientific or technological discovery that is completely un-grounded by what we understand about the universe currently, but doesn’t violate an axiomatic statement. This might include FTL travel, vacuum energy systems, anti-gravity, etc.
  • Conditional impossibility: This is a scientific or technological discovery that is impossible but only in a relational sense. In other words, describing one technology as being required to have higher capabilities than a different technology that it has never been shown to have an advantage over.

Now, as is the case with both of the previous articles in this series, none of these are absolute statements. As someone who studied Physics in my undergraduate years and still follows discoveries with the eye of a keen hobbyist, I’m well aware that there are still a number of interesting inconsistencies. All the same, just because we don’t know what the answer is doesn’t mean we can arbitrarily say that some result is likely–something that you can’t even comprehend or guess is just as likely, which is to say completely made up. It’s even worse in cases like FTL, where relativity is one of the most confirmed results in all of physics and no amount of wishing will get us around that. Choosing one outcome over another for no other reason than you like what it might mean is intellectually dishonest.

 

Is a technology improbable?

This question is much harder than the impossibility of a technology–and rightly so, as it relies significantly more on opinion than anything else. Well, perhaps  not opinion, but arguments are likely to be driven b opinion which will lead to cherry picked facts. All the same, we can still attempt to try to break it down further anyway.

  • Theoretically improbable: the most strict form of the term, a theoretically improbable technology is unlikely to be seen in even a laboratory or purely research sense, due to some restriction on the part of funding or even ethics. An example of the first would be experimenting with large equipment made out of rare earth metals (arbitrary-I do not know at the time of this writing if there’s any POINT to making large objects out of rare earth metals) and an example of the second might include human cloning or a number of experiments likely to leave their subject maimed, dead, or out of their mind.
  • Pragmatically improbable: while not burdened by some form of practical hard cut-off like theoretically improbably technologies, a pragmatically improbably technology is one that could theoretically be constructed unburdened by any realistic concerns, but is unlikely to be implemented on any larger scale. This relates back to the discussion of flying cars in the previous post, in that I’d consider flying cars to fall into this category. Notably, not even the military (which is well known for spending significant quantities of money on devices that wouldn’t necessarily be worth it outside of that context) has used ‘flying cars’ (when technologies that might be considered whackier, such as the Osprey, have been the focus of significant amounts of development effort because they were pragmatic).
  • Individually improbable: The last filter establishes that while a technology may see some form of large scale use (on an industrial, military, organizational, or government level–ie supporting a large number of individuals or requiring the support of a large group for the usage of one individual on behalf of that organization) it is unlikely to ever reach the hands of one person fro their own sake, either via purchasing or as an individual’s piece of equipment they used on their own behalf as opposed to the behalf of an organization.

Much of this blog will be about discussing the probability/improbability of various technologies and their implementations, though that specific discussion is likely to be far in the future considering the material yet to be discussed.

So, we’ve established impossible and improbable categories of technology. Many technologies will sit in one of these categories forever (in the case of impossible technologies) or for a very long time (in the case of improbable technologies). As our capacities advance, though, the scope of what is pragmatic is pushed back in some cases (transistors), though not all (flying cars), and things move to ‘personal’.

 

Is a technology personal?

So if a technology isn’t impossible, and it isn’t improbable–even on an individual scale, we can say that it may become a personal technology. In my opinion, technologies that are individually improbable (ie the loosest class of improbable technology implementation) are the most likely to eventually become personal, as they are often simply limited by results of scaling or development (mainframes, genetic sequencing, etc.).

Personal technologies are not necessarily technologies for private use. They may still be restricted to certain organizations–an example might be a certain firearm. The distinguishing feature here is that they are being used by an individual on behalf of themselves (and possible additional individuals as a side effect, but not as the point). Exoskeletons in warfare might go from ‘individually improbable’ to ‘personal’ when they become standard issue as opposed to being issued to squads (which itself is a forecast, though one I hope to cover in depth eventually).

 

Using this Framework

To conclude, this gives us a rough framework in which we can place technologies to evaluate their likelihood, at least at a very high level sketch. Axiomatic, physical, and conditional impossibilities can be examined first. If none of those prevent a technology, then theoretic, pragmatic, and personal restrictions on implementation can be examined. If the forecasted technology isn’t restricted by any of those reasons, then it likely is (or will be) a personal technology.

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