FutureSource



FutureSource

Increasingly, Computer Systems May Harness Us and Our Data to Machines, Often Without Our Knowledge. How Should We Regulate That?


Back in 1999, Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, envisioned a time when computers would be used “to create abstract social machines on the Web: processes in which the people do the creative work and the machine does the administration.” More than 15 years later, the idea of social machines remains both arcane and relatively unexamined. Yet such machines are all around us. Many are built on social networks such as Facebook, in which human interactions—from organizing a birthday party to protesting terrorist attacks—are underpinned by an engineered computing environment. Others are to be found in massively multiplayer online games, where a persistent online environment facilitates interactions concerning virtual resources between real people.

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It seems like every day, an entirely new advancement or discovery is made in the energy sector. From solar to fusion to thorium, it is hard to determine what the future of energy will look like and what impacts these advances will have on the world. Over the next few weeks, The Future of Energy series will attempt to explore how new sources of energy work (or could work), the obstacles to their adoption, and their potential geopolitical impact.

Out of all the current “alternative” energy sources pursued today, shale gas and tight oil are the best developed and most widely-adopted. Shale is also the “oldest,” in that the extraction of natural gas and other shale hydrocarbons has technically been around for over a hundred years.

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In 1965, Dr. Gordon E. Moore wrote an article (PDF) based on a trend he noticed that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit (IC) doubles approximately every two years. Fueled by unrelenting demands from more complex software, faster games, and greater broadband video, this observation was later dubbed Moore’s Law and has held true for nearly 50 years. It became the de facto roadmap against which the semiconductor industry drives its research and development. But that roadmap may be faltering now due to fundamental physics limitations incurred at the incredibly small scales at which we fabricate chips. Can we find novel ways to circumvent these limits and thereby achieve Moore’s Law 2.0? If we are successful, what implications might such computational capacity have for society?

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Inexorable Concentration of Capital Undermines the Drive for 'Shared Prosperity'

Like seismic waves rippling outward after a tectonic shift, reverberations are roiling the economic-policy landscape after the US launch of the groundbreaking new analysis by Thomas Piketty, the scholar from the Paris School of Economics whose landmark tomeCapital in the Twenty-First Century – has newly jolted the economics profession.

Any Washingtonian or World Bank Group staffer who somehow missed the news of Piketty’s celebrated series of speeches and seminars last week – in Washington, New York, and Boston – received an unmistakable signal this week about what an important intellectual breakthrough Piketty has achieved. President Jim Yong Kim on Tuesday cited Piketty while putting the issue of economic inequality at the top of his list of priorities during his review of the Spring Meetings of the Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Noting that he was already about halfway through reading Piketty’s “Capital,” President Kim sent a clear message that the skewed global distribution of wealth, as analyzed by Piketty and emphasized by many officials at the Bank and Fund's semiannual conference, should be top-of-mind for policy-watchers at the Bank and beyond – indeed, at every institution that hopes to promote shared prosperity.

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With an Urgent New Focus on Overcoming Inequality

The challenge of promoting shared prosperity was one of the unifying themes throughout the recent Spring Meetings at the World Bank Group and International Monetary Fund – the whirlwind of diplomacy and scholarship that sweeps through Washington every April and October. A remarkable new factor, however, energized this spring's event: In a vivid evolution of the policy debate, the seminars, forums, and news-media coverage seemed focused, to a greater degree than ever, not just on the economic question of the creation of overall economic growth but on what has traditionally been seen as a social question: the distribution of wealth.

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As the global economy becomes increasingly grounded in the exchange of data, the ways in which those data are collected and analyzed will become even more opaque to individuals, and the value exchange that is taking place even harder to discern. Although an individual may receive something in return for their information, the real values of both the data provided and the service returned (i.e., the underlying exchange of value) is almost impossible to determine—one reason why few individuals seem to put much trust in the data-driven economy.

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Our civilization has a new reality. Computers meshed together by digital networks have transcended the system that built them becoming a new reality, a place where duplicating and moving information has near zero marginal cost. This alone has changed the nature of the world; we have a virtual playground where the reality of scarcity we have known and endured is largely gone.

Now Jeremy Rifkin endeavors to take us one step further. In Zero Marginal Cost Society, he argues for the next step in the human journey, applying the principles and benefits of zero marginal cost virtual space to physical reality. Decentralized renewable energy production at near zero post-investment cost enveloped in ubiquitous wireless computing and sensing networks, the Internet of Things (IoT). The pervasive truth of existence in a capitalist system, Rifkin maintains, is giving way to a hybrid economy; incorporating both traditional capitalism and the growing segment of technologically empowered peer-to-peer individuals Rifkin so eloquently calls the "Collaborative Commons."

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When the precursor to today’s Internet, the ARPANET, had its first nodes connected in 1969, only a handful of computer scientists knew about it. Now most of the world is dependent on the Internet’s vast web of links, tweets, posts, and likes for commerce, communication, and socialization.

But could the Internet of future generations be even more revolutionary? Keeping in mind that the Internet evolved largely without any central guidance – recently, the US government announced it will “transition out of managing domain names and addresses for the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN)” – what new forms or functions will this global system take as technologies such as robotics, autonomous vehicles, ubiquitous sensors, and others move toward an online presence? To understand these changes, we trace the Internet through four major stages of Web 1.0 to 4.0.

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This week, Medellin, Colombia is hosting the World Urban Forum, the 7th iteration of the United Nation's biannual conference series dedicated to the world's cities. Some 25,000 people from everywhere on Earth are gathering at "WUF7" to discuss the governance challenges, and the unlimited opportunities, that are found in the world's cities. The scale and color of this event demonstrates the power of the city to draw the interest of a vast range of people and organizations. National and local governments, intergovernmental organizations such as the UN and World Bank, NGOs, technology companies, and civil society organizations are all here to discuss, debate, show off accomplishments, and network.

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How much of human productive activity can be moved to "near zero marginal cost"? Jeremy Rifkin's provocative new book poses the question to our future. The case for "near zero marginal cost" in the digital world is pretty clear, as Rifkin so ably explains. Think of a piece of software (from Microsoft Office to a Beyonce track). Once produced (which could have enormous cost), production and distribution of additional copies over the Internet is virtually free. Any additional "cost" is amortized cost of building, maintaining and operating the transmission infrastructure (which can also be huge), not the product itself. Thus, the marginal cost of the product is almost zero. We are thus in an age of data abundance, virtually unlimited by physical reality. Put differently, there is no scarcity to drive up the price. You and I can both have copies of the same digital data or MOOC course without additional cost or competition for a scarce product as an unlimited number of copies can be made without using up physical resources. The marginal cost of Rifkin's "Communications Internet" is thus near zero -- after accounting for the costly infrastructure and its operation and maintenance.

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