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I've made my first novel, Ventus, available as a free download, as well as excerpts from two of the Virga books.  I am looking forward to putting up a number of short stories in the near future.

Complete novel:  Ventus


To celebrate the August, 2007 publication of Queen of Candesce, I decided to re-release my first novel as an eBook. You can download it from this page. Ventus was first published by Tor Books in 2000, and and you can still buy it; to everyone who would just like to sample my work, I hope you enjoy this version.

I've released this book under a Creative Commons license, which means you can read it and distribute it freely, but not make derivative works or sell it.

Book Excerpts:  Sun of Suns and Pirate Sun

I've made large tracts of these two Virga books available.  If you want to find out what the Virga universe is all about, you can check it out here:

Major Foresight Project:  Crisis in Zefra

In spring 2005, the Directorate of Land Strategic Concepts of National Defense Canada (that is to say, the army) hired me to write a dramatized future military scenario.  The book-length work, Crisis in Zefra, was set in a mythical African city-state, about 20 years in the future, and concerned a group of Canadian peacekeepers who are trying to ready the city for its first democratic vote while fighting an insurgency.  The project ran to 27,000 words and was published by the army as a bound paperback book.

If you'd like to read Crisis in Zefra, you can download it in PDF form.

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Dec 28, 2011

If I had a Billion Dollars: Holiday Edition

My occasional game of speculation about how best to fund the future

I've played this game before--and I will again. I find it clears the mind wonderfully to wonder what you'd do for the world if you had a billion dollars to spend. Build a secret volcanic island lair? Check. Cure necrotizing phlombosis? Check. Oh, there's all kinds of stuff you could do. 

--There's one rule, though: whatever you spend your billion on, it has to be something nobody else is doing--and something that's worthwhile in a completely game-changing way.

After all, in today's market a billion dollars will get you a few miles of subway, or a new sports stadium. Yay. But it can get you so much more, as Elon Musk has demonstrated with his reinvention of the space launch business (and he hasn't spent more than a fifth of a billion on that). In fact, a billion is enough to solve more than one problem, if it's properly distributed. 

I play this game regularly because the world keeps changing, and what's important keeps changing. Some items remain from previous lists; some are new. Here's today's list:

  1. $200 million to studying and developing new systems of governance. --No, I don't mean e-voting, or even e-democracy. I'm talking about a systematic study of how humans govern themselves, and how our cognitive biases and interactions at different scales scuttle effective problem-solving among groups. Think this is fringe science? I happen to think it's the most important problem in the world, the only one that counts. Because if we reinvented governance (on the level of individual self-control and choice, on the level of small-group interactions, and all the way up to how millions of people make collective decisions) then every other problem facing us now would become tractable. So I'd be exploring cognitive science, promise theory, structured dialogic design and a lot else besides.  $200 is really far too little to spend on this, but it's a start.
  2. $200 million to develop efficient and economical carbon air capture and sequestration. Carbon air capture is the only potentially feasible method of returning Earth's atmospheric CO2 balance to pre-industrial levels in less than a hundred years. Emissions controls won't do it, neither will renewable energy, or even the complete disappearance of human civilization. The CO2's there. It has to actually be removed from the atmosphere. Currently, far less than $1 million is spent per year on how to do this. And that's just crazy.
  3. $200 million to develop a microwave space launch system. --Again, this sounds wacky. But the physical resources of the solar system are effectively infinite; and the world looks like a very different place if you play the game of imagining that access to space was really cheap. All sorts of currently impossible problems fall like dominoes if it costs as little to get to space as it does to fly across the Atlantic. And, in space development, there is only one problem, and that's the cost of going the first 100 miles. Literally every other issue becomes tractable if you solve that one. So let's stop dicking around with incredibly expensive launch systems and solve it.  (Why microwave launch and not laser launch? Because microwaves are more energy efficient, and can be done now; and because I think laser launch is a political non-starter, because accidental or deliberate straying of a laser launch beam could blind or fry anything in the sky, including airliners or other nations' satellites.)
  4. $200 million to finally realize the dream of nuclear fusion energy. We are that close. Most of the money would be divided up between the chronically-underfunded research projects that are getting close: IEC fusion, magnetized-target fusion, and several others. I'd fund General Fusion's steampunk pneumatic-fusion system, for instance. But I'd also fund one method that nobody's trying right now, but may be the best of all: levitating dipole fusion. 
  5. $200 million to prototype the business models, supply chains and build a first-generation Vertical Farm. Because sane governance, free energy, a solution to global warming and unlimited material resources aren't enough if half the planet's starving, which will be the case in forty years if we don't act now. This one seems like a no-brainer, if it can be properly optimized.

An odd set of priorities? But, what if they all worked? Simultaneous breakthroughs in energy, resource access including food, removal of the threat of global warming, remediation of the natural environment destroyed by intensive agrivulture and, most importantly, a Renaissance in collective problem-solving would literally mean the world to us. 

The point of all this should be clear. Even in a global recession, money's not the scarce commodity. Audacity is. 

What can you do with a billion dollars? 

You can build a new sports stadium.

Or, maybe, you can save the world.

Nov 30, 2011

The Deepening Paradox

A new paper on the Fermi paradox only adds to the mystery: are we alone?

Okay, Keith B. Wiley's new paper does have a somewhat daunting title: The Fermi Paradox, Self-Replicating Probes, and the Interstellar Transportation Bandwidth. But it's a pretty easy read and hugely well worth it--because in this paper Wiley provides what may be the clearest discussion yet of the core puzzle Fermi first proposed sixty-two years ago: if alien technological civilization is even possible, then they should be here; at the very least, such civilizations should be visible to us. That we are instead faced with 'the great silence' is one of the most troubling and, yes, paradoxical, results of modern science.

I addressed the Paradox in my novel Permanence, coming up with a possible new solution for it; although Milan Cirkovic and other astrophysicists haven't disproved my central contention, they've since shown that it's not a show-stopper. As Wiley points out in this paper, even if the lifetime of an interstellar civilization is short; even if they're all doomed; there is no credible argument as to why they couldn't create self-reproducing probes (SRPs) to investigate the entire galaxy that, collectively, outlive the originating civilization. This is the very scenario I paint in Permanence. SRPs are a cheaper solution than one-off expeditions. In fact, SRPs are so efficient a solution to exploration and colonization that, plugging in some highly conservative numbers of how many civilizations there might be out there, Wiley shows that hundreds to billions of such probes should actually be here, in our solar system, right now!

Wiley blows up some of the keystone explanations for the Paradox, including Geoff Landis's percolation model, which previously I'd considered a pretty solid argument. Wiley is so good at demolishing easy explanations, in fact, that he brings us almost all the way back to square one, where Fermi had us in 1950. Where are they? We haven't a clue.

The mystery deepens almost by the day, because we've now identified 700 extrasolar planets and the count is increasing rapidly. We should shortly be racking up lists of Earthlike worlds, and we're closing in on good estimates of how many there must be in our galaxy. And the number is in the billions. So one central argument against the existence of alien life--the 'rare Earth' argument that environments to host it must be rare--has been more or less disproven. And that, just this year.

As possible explanations dwindle, we are being drawn inexorably toward the one explanation that is no explanation: that we really are alone. Why should this be? As Wiley shows, all it would take would be one alien species with our capabilities appearing, sometime in the past couple of billion years, and for that species to surpass where we are now technologically by, oh, say, a couple of hundred years... and the evidence for their existence should be present right here in our own solar system. It's an astonishing conclusion.

So are we alone? Well, there is one other possibility, at this point. I've lately been trumpeting my revision of Clarke's Law (which originally said 'any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic'). My revision says that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from Nature. (Astute readers will recognize this as a refinement and further advancement of my argument in Permanence.) Basically, either advanced alien civilizations don't exist, or we can't see them because they are indistinguishable from natural systems. I vote for the latter.

This vote has consequences. If the Fermi Paradox is a profound question, then this answer is equally profound. It amounts to saying that the universe provides us with a picture of the ultimate end-point of technological development. In the Great Silence, we see the future of technology, and it lies in achieving greater and greater efficiencies, until our machines approach the thermodynamic equilibria of their environment, and our economics is replaced by an ecology where nothing is wasted. After all, SETI is essentially a search for technological waste products: waste heat, waste light, waste electromagnetic signals. We merely have to posit that successful civilizations don't produce such waste, and the failure of SETI is explained. 

And as to why we haven't found any alien artifacts in our solar system, well, maybe we don't know what to look for.  Wiley cites Freitas as having come up with this basic idea; I'm prepared to take it much further, however.

Elsewhere I've talked about this particular long-term scenario for the future, an idea I call The Rewilding. Now normally one can't look into the future; in the case of the long-term evolution of technological civilization, however, that is precisely what astronomy allows us to do. And here's the thing: the Rewilding model predicts a universe that looks like ours--one that appears empty.  The datum that we tend to refer to as 'the Great Silence' also provides the falsification of certain other models of technological development. For instance, products of traditionally 'advanced' technological civilizations, such as Dyson spheres, should be visible to us from Earth. No comprehensive search has been done, to my knowledge, but no candidate objects have been stumbled upon in the course of normal astronomy. The Matrioshka brains, the vast computronium complexes that harvest all the resources of a stellar system... we're just not seeing them. The evidence for that model of the future is lacking. If we learn how life came to exist on Earth, and if it turns out to be a common or likely development, then the evidence for a future in which artificial and natural systems are indistinguishable is provided by the Great Silence itself.

Check out Wiley's paper. And just think: the Great Silence may turn out to be no paradox at all, but positive data about what our own future will look like.

Nov 09, 2011

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Saving the world is going to require a lot of work. Here's a few places to start

I've been reading Global Risks 2011, the sixth edition of the World Economic Forum's Risk Response Network report. It reviews the various major issues that face the world--and there's a lot of them. Most interestingly, though, it also mentions, almost in passing, what some of the solutions might be. Many of them are things that are not being done, but that could be done, and could in fact be the basis of entire careers, business models, or academic careers.  So for instance, take the following:

  • For the potential problem of global governance failures, they say that "A counterbalance would be a well-informed and well-mobilized global public opinion sharing norms and values of global citizenship, but this is not yet fully developed." Okay, I sense a truly massive business opportunity here. CNN and Al Jazeera were just the beginning; what if we treated all news as local? We've been edging this way for decades, but we can automate things now we couldn't have imagined just a few years ago. So, I want an interactive map of the world that shows all of today's reported murders as red dots; and a weddings overlay as well; and... well, everything. I want to know what's going on. News reports themselves should just be the last level of drill-down in the process.
  • For resource security, the WEF advocates something they call sustainable consumption. Becoming an expert in this or getting in on the ground floor of this new business movement could make the next generation of billionaires. There's many opportunities here, eg., garbage design, which should have its own degree programs.
  • The WEF views potential retrenchment from globalization as a risk. I understand this position, but see my last post on the perils of interconnectedness; there's a space here in the early 21st century for building local resilience for food, water, energy, and other resources. Call it a new kind of insurance--not a step towards a "new medievalism" but part of a general strategy of keeping our civilization robust. DARPA's recent announcement that they want to put 1000 3d printers in U.S. schools points in this direction. Globalization is a strong trend, naturally; but the counter-trend is also strong and should be encouraged.

There's a lot of worry and hang-wringing today about the financial system and jobs. The fact is, though, that certain aspects of the future are very, very clear. Water will be an issue throughout the U.S. midwest. Some new measure of prosperity other than GDP will become the norm by which nations are compared. Economic growth, in the traditional sense, will have to slow, but something much more interesting could replace it. These things are crises only if you are desperately trying to hang on to old ways of doing this. For those willing to try something new, they're gigantic opportunities.

Oct 19, 2011

An Enchanted Materialism reading list

Something I'd promised my audience at Applied Brilliance. Here it is

I found the latest issue of Nature waiting for me when I got home from speaking at this year's Applied Brilliance conference in Jackson Hole. In this issue of Nature (October 2011, Vol. 478) there's a brief article by Jan Helge Solbakk in the News & Views section on "Persons versus Things."  To quote:

Since the time of Roman law, legal thinking has operated with a fundamental distinction between person and thing. Even today, the entities subject to regulation are either persons or things, and there is no third option. This conceptual lacuna continues to generate regulatory paradoxes in the health and life sciences, because many of the entities subject to regulation--including bodies, body parts, organs and tissues, and sperm and oocytes--cannot be considered either persons or mere things.

How interesting. This is what I was talking about at Applied Brilliance--although on a more abstract level. More and more people are starting to realize that we need a third option; I talked about some of the lines of evidence from cognitive science that led this way, and mentioned some names, but I'm sure they flew by too quickly for most people in the audience to write them down.  Here they are.

In her book Vibrant Matter, Jane Bennett reminds us that we've been dancing around this third option for centuries. She introduced me to an old English word, deodand, which I've started adapting for my own use. In old English law, a deodand was an object that had killed someone (an cartwheel that had rolled over somebody, or a bag of grain that had fallen on somebody's head). Deodands were neither objects nor people; they had a strange intermediary status. Like a shirt that we might happily put on, unless we found out that it had once been worn by a murderer during his crime.

Bennett's book deals with the 'new vitalism' strand of current philosophy. It's a part of the New Materialism or Speculative Realist school (there are various names for this new phenomenon in philosophy). This school or movement consists of a number of young thinkers who are determinedly steering away from the Continental philosophy of the last 25 years or so--avoiding Deleuze, abandoning Critique and eschewing postmodernism in favour of a return to a belief in the reality of the physical world. Materialism, but a kind of vital materialism in which the third option--of material as vital and self-powered--is being explored.

I ran out of time during my talk at Applied Brilliance to really describe this stuff; all I was really able to do was present an introduction, using the metaphor of the Copernican Revolution.  There've been several such revolutions, I said:

  • Newton introduced the idea of motion without a prime mover;
  • Darwin presented evidence for design without a designer;
  • computers show us thought without a thinker;
  • and now, cognitive science is shaking up our fundamental ideas of who and what we are. It is presenting nothing less than a vision of spirit without a soul.

The best summary of this fundamental shift can be found in the works of Thomas Metzinger; The Ego Tunnel is a good place to start, and, for the not-faint-of-heart, the more thorough and daunting Being No One

Andy Clark, in books such as Being There and Supersizing the Mind, presents the theory of Extended Cognition, which proposes that the human brain off-loads cognitive activities into the environment whenever possible, and that therefore the mind has to be seen as normally extended into the world around us. And in Cognition in the Wild, Edwin Hutchins presents the theory of distributed cognition, which suggests that what we think of as thought is often carried out by groups of people (and instruments) rather than occurring in the head of any one member of the group.

Similar changes are echoing through other disciplines. For instance, in Where Mathematics Comes From, George Lakoff and Rafael Nunez claim that cognitive science shows exactly how we think when we do math, and those thought processes don't just operate without recourse to some separate realm of mathematical reality--how we actually do math precludes the possibility that a distinct mathematical reality exists. And, after more than twenty years of study into computers and computation, Dean of Information Sciences at the University of Toronto, Brian Cantwell Smith, concludes, in his essay "God, Approximately,"

We will never have a theory of computing, I claim, because there is nothing there to have a theory of. Computers aren’t sufficiently special. They involve an interplay of meaning and mechanism—period. That’s all there is to say. They’re the whole thing, in other words. A computer is anything we can build that exemplifies that dialectical interplay. 

I said during my talk that 'this is the point where some people start to panic.' With this phase of the Copernican revolutions, all agency has been removed from the world. Nothing is left of the spirit that was thought to move material reality, not even our own minds. If there is no special agency (mover, designer, thinker, or spirit) behind the material world, isn't reality left barren and empty? Yet, there is an alternative interpretation to this final step of creative destruction; Jane Bennett's 'enchanted materialism' provides a hint of what that could be.

The new materialists (or speculative realists, or new vitalists) see that what we've done by proving that there is no special agency (mover, designer, thinker, or spirit) behind the material world, is on the contrary to show that material reality itself is its own mover, is its own designer, that thought and thinker are identical, and that material reality is spirit. 'Enchanted materialism' indeed.

I've mentioned Bennett. Other respected scientists and philosophers who are going down this road include:

These thinkers all come at the problem from different directions, and their conclusions may seem to be divergent as well. But what they all share is that they are taking the extra step, from the facts of the final Copernican upheaval, to new and positive interpretations of what it means. It's good that their ideas are divergent--this is a creative period. What is important is they all see new vistas of possibility for our self-definition as human beings alive in a vibrant and essentially living universe; and they do this without resorting to mystification, new age formulas, or any turning-away from reality to some soothing metaphysics.

I tried to express all of this in half an hour at Applied Brilliance; I don't think I succeeded. Follow this trail of breadcrumbs, though; you'd be amazed where it leads.

Oct 17, 2011

Some numbers to argue about

Which is more efficient, electricity or gasoline? A complicated and surprising answer...?

I've been waxing nostalgic lately over the placidity of my blog in comparison to the knock-down, drag-out free-for-all that is Charlie Stross's (where I guest-blogged for a couple of weeks this summer). So I thought I'd share an interesting bit of data that came across the twitterverse yesterday and (while it may not be news to you, is news to me) bears some contemplation. It is simply this:

According to various sources, including apparently the United States Department of Energy, it takes between 4 and 7.5 kWh of energy to refine one gallon of gasoline. To drill and transport that gas takes another 1.5-3 kWh. So, the average energy cost of one gallon of gas is roughly 8 kWh, or even more.

A lot of that energy is provided by fossil fuels, chiefly natural gas; but a big proportion of it is provided in the form of electricity.  Those who have totaled it up find that a gasoline-powered automobile uses more electricity to run per mile than a comparable electric vehicle. The total energy cost of the gasoline economy is therefore at least double that of an electric economy. 

A corollary to this is that a complete conversion to electric vehicles would not place any more strain on the grid than there is now; it would simply distribute it (because right now much of that energy is going to fixed installations, and with an EV economy it would be going, at least potentially, to millions of individual houses). So a 100% EV economy would not require any increase in electricity production, only an upgrade to the grid (and lots of companies, such as GM, are designing that grid). In fact, all things being equal, in a 100% EV world, electricity demand should go down somewhat.

The remaining issue for electric vehicles, then, would be battery disposal, because their toxicity is high when they contain lead, but with Li batteries is becoming lower and lower.

Except that...

This isn't quite the whole story. What remains to be factored in here is the electricity cost of manufacturing the EV's batteries. I haven't yet found numbers for this cost; if anybody can supply it, that would be helpful. 

And while we're at it, we should do a complete parts count for the additional complexity and wear-out rate of internal combustion engines, and factor in the electricity cost of those components...

...And round and round we go.

Oct 27, 2010

METAtropolis and the future of cities

We're not just making this up

Just as METAtropolis:  Cascadia teeters on the brink of release, the global conversation about the withering of the nation-state and the rise of cities is heating up.  If you want to know what METAtropolis is about, look no further than the Glasshouse Conversations, or Foreign Policy magazine.  For the first time in history, the majority of human beings live in cities, and the trend will accelerate. By 2030, according to some analysts, China will have more than 200 cities with populations above 1 million each.  The political implications are staggering--especially when you consider that, while leadership of nations is pretty much restricted to the moneyed elites, in many cities, anybody can become mayor.

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About Me

I'm a member of the Association of Professional Futurists with my own consultancy, and am also currently Chair of the Canadian node of the Millennium Project, a private/public foresight consultancy active in 50 nations. As well, I am an award-winning author with ten published novels translated into as many languages. I write, give talks, and conduct workshops on numerous topics related to the future, including:

  • Future of government
  • Bitcoin and digital currencies
  • The workplace in 2030
  • The Internet of Things
  • Augmented cognition

For a complete bio, go here. To contact me, email karl at kschroeder dot com

Example: The Future of Governance

I use Science Fiction to communicate the results of actual futures studies. Some of my recent research relates to how we'll govern ourselves in the future. I've worked with a few clients on this and published some results.

Here are two examples--and you can read the first for free:

The Canadian army commissioned me to write Crisis in Urlia, a fictionalized study of the future of military command-and-control. You can download a PDF of the book here:

Crisis in Urlia

For the "optimistic Science Fiction" anthology Hieroglyph, I wrote "Degrees of Freedom," set in Haida Gwaii. "Degrees of Freedom" is about an attempt to develop new governing systems by Canadian First Nations people.

I'm continuing to research this exciting area and would be happy to share my findings.


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    A Young Adult Scifi Saga

    "Lean and hugely engaging ... and highly recommended."

    --Open Letters Monthly, an Arts and Literature Review

    Sheer Fun: The Virga Series

    (Sun of Suns and Queen of Candesce are combined in Cities of the Air)

     “An adventure-filled tale of sword fights and naval battles... the real fun of this coming-of-age tale includes a pirate treasure hunt and grand scale naval invasions set in the cold, far reaches of space. ”
    Kirkus Reviews (listed in top 10 SF novels for 2006)

    "With Queen of Candesce, [Schroeder] has achieved a clockwork balance of deftly paced adventure and humour, set against an intriguing and unique vision of humanity's far future.
    --The Globe and Mail

    "[Pirate Sun] is fun in the same league as the best SF ever has had to offer, fully as exciting and full of cool science as work from the golden age of SF, but with characterization and plot layering equal to the scrutiny of critical appraisers."

    "...A rollicking good read... fun, bookish, and full of insane air battles"

    "A grand flying-pirate-ship-chases-and-escapes-and-meetings-with-monsters adventure, and it ends not with a debate or a seminar but with a gigantic zero-gee battle around Candesce, a climactic unmasking and showdown, just desserts, and other satisfying stuff."