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You too can predict the future using math - Wil McCarthy

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  • David M Gordon
    You too can predict the future using math ... By Wil McCarthy ... Predicting the future has never been easy, and the gradual replacement of tea leaves and goat
    Message 1 of 2 , Nov 19, 2005
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      You too can predict the future using math


      By Wil McCarthy

      Predicting the future has never been easy, and the gradual replacement of tea leaves and goat entrails with mathematical techniques like statistical analysis and chaos theory has improved the results only slightly. Still, the desire to know what lies ahead, especially at a turning point like a new year (or century, or millennium), runs strong and deep. And, as it turns out, there are some straightforward prediction techniques that yield reliable--if approximate--results. For example, using nothing more than the science of demographics, we can make some shrewd guesses about the course of the next 50 years.
      One thing we know for certain is that a lot of people have already been born, and we can expect that roughly half of these people will continue to age until they reach or exceed their life expectancy, at which point they will politely exit the population. A graph of U.S. births from 1930-1999 provides an excellent picture of just who is alive today, and who is likely to be alive tomorrow.

      Looking at the figure above, we see right away that there are two large humps, the demographic Grand Tetons of 20th-century America. These trends hold throughout the Western world, so while I'll continue to use U.S. data, understand that we're talking about events and circumstances that are essentially global. The first hump, commonly known as the Baby Boom, begins in the late 1940s and tapers off by the mid-1960s. The second, variously known as Generation Y, the Echo Boom, and "Those darling kids you see behaving so politely at Denny's," begins just before 1980 and is still going on today. The dip in the middle is sometimes referred to as Generation X, after the Douglas Coupland novel of the same name. The folks in the much deeper trough before the baby boom were apparently never self-involved enough to need a generational label of their own. Stripping away emotional baggage in the interests of science, I'll refer to these four groups by the colorful but culturally neutral labels Group 1, Group 2, Group 3, and Group 4, in order of chronological occurrence.

      Now, the first thing a scientist will do with data like this is build a grossly simplified model, because that makes the math easier. For example, we might presume that all members of a given group were born at the same time, share the same tastes, and engage in all the same economic activities. This is clearly not the case, but since science is rarely fazed by little details like that, some additonal simplified rules can be applied:
      1. Young people are primarily concerned with acquiring the skills, experiences and possessions that will help attract a suitable mate, while middle-aged people are concerned with providing for their children and investing for their retirements, and retired people are interested in divesting, i.e., swapping carefully saved stocks and bonds and real estate for the cash they need to live on.
      2. The value of any commodity (e.g., stock) increases when people are buying it, and decreases when they're selling it.
      3. Energy and creativity tend to decline with age, while wisdom and economic clout increase.
      4. Benefits or no, we'd all stay young if we could.


      And the future holds...

      Collectively, these rules make up our model, which we can use--really!--to take some quick, blurry snapshots of future Decembers. Here goes:
      2010: Group 1 is solidly retired and busily divesting. Since stocks and bonds, like all commodities, lose value when lots of people are selling them, this should cause the stock and bond markets to go down. But Group 1 is small, its numbers dwarfed by the workers still in the work force. Group 2, still working, is saving and investing madly for its impending retirement. This drives a continuing economic boom, but a skittish one, because the science of demographics tells us it can't possibly last much longer. Meanwhile Group 3 is in its prime, but represents only a quarter of the work force. Group 4, just now entering that work force, retains a healthy interest in music, drugs, crime, and bumming around in tourist nations. We're talking about 78 million people here, so this will be a lot of interest. Expect some summers of love, and an unprecedented boom in slick, youth-oriented advertising.
      2020: By now Group 1, alas, has exceed its average life expectancy. Its ranks begin to thin markedly, and Group 2, some 76 million strong, has mostly retired. Their gradual but enormous sell-off of assets, lasting the entire decade, has a dizzying impact on world markets, the Social Security Trust Fund, etc. In addition, the work force shrinks by one-third over the same period, causing other major dislocations in the economy. Meanwhile, Group 3 is taking advantage of a serious shortage of senior workers in nearly every industry; folks with 20 years' work experience have their pick of job offers. For employers, the outlook is considerably less rosy. Meanwhile, Group 4 is entering the prime of its life, and again, the staggering size of Group 4 makes this a large event. Every generation has its own core interests, which are very difficult to predict ahead of time, but it's safe to say there will be a renaissance in something: politics, art, business, architecture.... In fact, there will be parallel renaissances occurring in many areas at once and also, probably, the start of a new demographic bubble as these folks start having children of their own. But their exuberance will be forcibly tempered by the aforementioned economic problems.
      By this time, incidentally, about 85 percent of the world's citizens are expected to be living in urban areas; the rural experience won't just seem old-fashioned anymore, it'll be old-fashioned.
      2030: Group 2, no longer represented in the work force but still madly engaged in the profit-taking of retirement, creates a huge drag on markets and other resources, possibly balanced by the activities of Group 4, which has begun to show interest in saving, investing, and otherwise accumulating wealth. By now, Group 4's generational Big Thing is a juggernaut crushing all in its path--including those stubbornly backward artists or scholars who adhere to an older aesthetic. Group 3, now in its fifties, is beginning to dabble in life extension technologies, which by this time may actually be starting to work. 1999's Viagra and Rogaine may give way to therapies that relieve, however imperfectly, the causes of aging, rather than merely its symptoms. Certainly Group 2, with all its money and power, will have stirred up a lot of research in these areas.

      Overpopulation and swords...

      Globally, the population will have reached nearly 10 billion--twice as many as we had in the same space in 1980--and it's in the 2030s that the prevailing birth rate will determine once and for all whether our population will decline, stabilize, or continue to grow exponentially past the carrying capacity of the Earth. Full-to-bursting countries that still favor large families can be expected to turn pleading or envious eyes on the open-vistaed countries which don't. Too, global temperatures are expected to increase steadily, and most climate models predict increased hurricanes and flooding of low coastal areas, endangering the very existence of certain densely-populated regions. That gives us a lot to argue about, a lot of people to do the arguing, and, unfortunately, a lot of technology for beating ploughshares into deadly, cunning swords. If I had to pick a single decade for major and unpleasant upheaval, this would be the one.
      2040: By now Group 1 has only a few hardy members left, and, for better or worse, Group 2 has discovered for the most part which age-control therapies work and which do not. Here we will begin to see sharply skewed death rates, depending on what medications people have access to. Piggybacking on these discoveries, Group 3 may reach traditional retirement age and be too vigorous--and possibly too economically valuable for their experience--to retire. Or, being so greatly outnumbered by Group 4, they may find themselves pushed out anyway, as those millions of men and women slowly take over senior positions and solidify their investments. Population-driven squabbles may still be ongoing in some areas, further increasing the disparity between those who live long and well and those who don't.
      2050: Despite the best efforts of future medicine, Group 1 is now entirely gone. Group 2 is represented primarily by people who've found effective age therapies, and who've held onto enough money to keep paying for them. Group 3 is definitely retired by now, though possibly still spry. Group 4, anticipating a long and healthy run to the 22nd entury, is working hard and investing heavily, and through sheer force of numbers is finally driving an economic boom that dwarfs our paltry 1990s. If there was some chaos in the 2030s, its transient effects have died out long ago, and the willpower to fix global problems--backed by Group 4's realization that it will actually inhabit the future it creates--now has an unprecedented windfall of money to back it up as well. Meanwhile, there is a certain Group 5 now entering its 20s, with all the fun and silliness that entails. 2050 is too distant in the fog of time for any further detail to be resolved; all the crystal ball shows for this particular December is a clear path for the future and a fresh generation to hand it off to.

      So our demographic model, simplistic though it be, predicts a happy ending for the coming half-century. Here's hoping we'll all be around see it.

      Wil McCarthy is a rocket guidance engineer, robot designer, science fiction author and occasional aquanaut. He has contributed to three interplanetary spacecraft, five communication and weather satellites, a line of landmine-clearing robots, and some other "really cool stuff" he can't tell us about. His short fiction has graced the pages of Analog, Asimov's, SF Age and other major publications, and his novel-length works include Aggressor Six, the New York Times Notable Bloom, and The Collapsium.


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    • David M Gordon
      Yet another very fascinating essay from Wil McCarthy; Wil will be the featured speaker of the joint meeting of the Las Vegas Future Salon and SNAFFU (Friday,
      Message 2 of 2 , Dec 1, 2005
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        Yet another very fascinating essay from Wil McCarthy; Wil will be the featured speaker of the joint meeting of the Las Vegas Future Salon and SNAFFU (Friday, 13 January 2006).
         
        David
         
        PS: If interested, IT Conversations interviewed Wil some time ago. The interview runs ~40 minutes; Wil discusses his science fiction novels, immortality, programmable matter,  the likeness of technology to "magic", etc. You can find it here, if interestedÂ… http://www.itconversations.com /shows/detail535.html
         
         
         

        You too can predict the future using math


        By Wil McCarthy

        Predicting the future has never been easy, and the gradual replacement of tea leaves and goat entrails with mathematical techniques like statistical analysis and chaos theory has improved the results only slightly. Still, the desire to know what lies ahead, especially at a turning point like a new year (or century, or millennium), runs strong and deep. And, as it turns out, there are some straightforward prediction techniques that yield reliable--if approximate--results. For example, using nothing more than the science of demographics, we can make some shrewd guesses about the course of the next 50 years.
        One thing we know for certain is that a lot of people have already been born, and we can expect that roughly half of these people will continue to age until they reach or exceed their life expectancy, at which point they will politely exit the population. A graph of U.S. births from 1930-1999 provides an excellent picture of just who is alive today, and who is likely to be alive tomorrow.

        Looking at the figure above, we see right away that there are two large humps, the demographic Grand Tetons of 20th-century America. These trends hold throughout the Western world, so while I'll continue to use U.S. data, understand that we're talking about events and circumstances that are essentially global. The first hump, commonly known as the Baby Boom, begins in the late 1940s and tapers off by the mid-1960s. The second, variously known as Generation Y, the Echo Boom, and "Those darling kids you see behaving so politely at Denny's," begins just before 1980 and is still going on today. The dip in the middle is sometimes referred to as Generation X, after the Douglas Coupland novel of the same name. The folks in the much deeper trough before the baby boom were apparently never self-involved enough to need a generational label of their own. Stripping away emotional baggage in the interests of science, I'll refer to these four groups by the colorful but culturally neutral labels Group 1, Group 2, Group 3, and Group 4, in order of chronological occurrence.

        Now, the first thing a scientist will do with data like this is build a grossly simplified model, because that makes the math easier. For example, we might presume that all members of a given group were born at the same time, share the same tastes, and engage in all the same economic activities. This is clearly not the case, but since science is rarely fazed by little details like that, some additonal simplified rules can be applied:
        1. Young people are primarily concerned with acquiring the skills, experiences and possessions that will help attract a suitable mate, while middle-aged people are concerned with providing for their children and investing for their retirements, and retired people are interested in divesting, i.e., swapping carefully saved stocks and bonds and real estate for the cash they need to live on.
        2. The value of any commodity (e.g., stock) increases when people are buying it, and decreases when they're selling it.
        3. Energy and creativity tend to decline with age, while wisdom and economic clout increase.
        4. Benefits or no, we'd all stay young if we could.

        And the future holds...

        Collectively, these rules make up our model, which we can use--really!--to take some quick, blurry snapshots of future Decembers. Here goes:
        2010: Group 1 is solidly retired and busily divesting. Since stocks and bonds, like all commodities, lose value when lots of people are selling them, this should cause the stock and bond markets to go down. But Group 1 is small, its numbers dwarfed by the workers still in the work force. Group 2, still working, is saving and investing madly for its impending retirement. This drives a continuing economic boom, but a skittish one, because the science of demographics tells us it can't possibly last much longer. Meanwhile Group 3 is in its prime, but represents only a quarter of the work force. Group 4, just now entering that work force, retains a healthy interest in music, drugs, crime, and bumming around in tourist nations. We're talking about 78 million people here, so this will be a lot of interest. Expect some summers of love, and an unprecedented boom in slick, youth-oriented advertising.
        2020: By now Group 1, alas, has exceed its average life expectancy. Its ranks begin to thin markedly, and Group 2, some 76 million strong, has mostly retired. Their gradual but enormous sell-off of assets, lasting the entire decade, has a dizzying impact on world markets, the Social Security Trust Fund, etc. In addition, the work force shrinks by one-third over the same period, causing other major dislocations in the economy. Meanwhile, Group 3 is taking advantage of a serious shortage of senior workers in nearly every industry; folks with 20 years' work experience have their pick of job offers. For employers, the outlook is considerably less rosy. Meanwhile, Group 4 is entering the prime of its life, and again, the staggering size of Group 4 makes this a large event. Every generation has its own core interests, which are very difficult to predict ahead of time, but it's safe to say there will be a renaissance in something: politics, art, business, architecture.... In fact, there will be parallel renaissances occurring in many areas at once and also, probably, the start of a new demographic bubble as these folks start having children of their own. But their exuberance will be forcibly tempered by the aforementioned economic problems.
        By this time, incidentally, about 85 percent of the world's citizens are expected to be living in urban areas; the rural experience won't just seem old-fashioned anymore, it'll be old-fashioned.
        2030: Group 2, no longer represented in the work force but still madly engaged in the profit-taking of retirement, creates a huge drag on markets and other resources, possibly balanced by the activities of Group 4, which has begun to show interest in saving, investing, and otherwise accumulating wealth. By now, Group 4's generational Big Thing is a juggernaut crushing all in its path--including those stubbornly backward artists or scholars who adhere to an older aesthetic. Group 3, now in its fifties, is beginning to dabble in life extension technologies, which by this time may actually be starting to work. 1999's Viagra and Rogaine may give way to therapies that relieve, however imperfectly, the causes of aging, rather than merely its symptoms. Certainly Group 2, with all its money and power, will have stirred up a lot of research in these areas.

        Overpopulation and swords...

        Globally, the population will have reached nearly 10 billion--twice as many as we had in the same space in 1980--and it's in the 2030s that the prevailing birth rate will determine once and for all whether our population will decline, stabilize, or continue to grow exponentially past the carrying capacity of the Earth. Full-to-bursting countries that still favor large families can be expected to turn pleading or envious eyes on the open-vistaed countries which don't. Too, global temperatures are expected to increase steadily, and most climate models predict increased hurricanes and flooding of low coastal areas, endangering the very existence of certain densely-populated regions. That gives us a lot to argue about, a lot of people to do the arguing, and, unfortunately, a lot of technology for beating ploughshares into deadly, cunning swords. If I had to pick a single decade for major and unpleasant upheaval, this would be the one.
        2040: By now Group 1 has only a few hardy members left, and, for better or worse, Group 2 has discovered for the most part which age-control therapies work and which do not. Here we will begin to see sharply skewed death rates, depending on what medications people have access to. Piggybacking on these discoveries, Group 3 may reach traditional retirement age and be too vigorous--and possibly too economically valuable for their experience--to retire. Or, being so greatly outnumbered by Group 4, they may find themselves pushed out anyway, as those millions of men and women slowly take over senior positions and solidify their investments. Population-driven squabbles may still be ongoing in some areas, further increasing the disparity between those who live long and well and those who don't.
        2050: Despite the best efforts of future medicine, Group 1 is now entirely gone. Group 2 is represented primarily by people who've found effective age therapies, and who've held onto enough money to keep paying for them. Group 3 is definitely retired by now, though possibly still spry. Group 4, anticipating a long and healthy run to the 22nd entury, is working hard and investing heavily, and through sheer force of numbers is finally driving an economic boom that dwarfs our paltry 1990s. If there was some chaos in the 2030s, its transient effects have died out long ago, and the willpower to fix global problems--backed by Group 4's realization that it will actually inhabit the future it creates--now has an unprecedented windfall of money to back it up as well. Meanwhile, there is a certain Group 5 now entering its 20s, with all the fun and silliness that entails. 2050 is too distant in the fog of time for any further detail to be resolved; all the crystal ball shows for this particular December is a clear path for the future and a fresh generation to hand it off to.
        So our demographic model, simplistic though it be, predicts a happy ending for the coming half-century. Here's hoping we'll all be around see it.


        Wil McCarthy
        is a rocket guidance engineer, robot designer, science fiction author and occasional aquanaut. He has contributed to three interplanetary spacecraft, five communication and weather satellites, a line of landmine-clearing robots, and some other "really cool stuff" he can't tell us about. His short fiction has graced the pages of Analog, Asimov's, SF Age and other major publications, and his novel-length works include Aggressor Six, the New York Times Notable Bloom, and The Collapsium.


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