We are proud to announce the open-sourcing of The Uncertain Future, the first web-based application for making rigorous, scientific forecasts of transhumanist technologies. The Uncertain Future was started in early 2008 with funding from the Singularity Institute, to allow anyone interested in futurism to form their own, mathematically consistent model of what the future of technology and civilization holds. The code is now available for download here under the GPL.
The Uncertain Future focuses on the development of transhumanist technologies– including artificial intelligence, genetics, and biotechnology– as the key element in predicting the future. The application takes into account a bunch of different factors that might impact technology development, such as the speed of scientific progress, the difficulty of building technology, and the possibility of catastrophe.
Our original, primary purpose for building the Uncertain Future was that psychological research has shown that our intuitions about the future are often inconsistent. For instance, someone might say that, over the next hundred years, there is a 10% chance of humanity going extinct, and a 15% chance of humanity going extinct because of nuclear war (for more on this, see, eg. Cognitive Biases Potentially Affecting Judgment of Global Risks). Actually writing down probabilities, even if the probabilities are wrong, avoids this particular brand of mistake.
To predict the development of transhumanist tech, we used a formal mathematical model, with a tool called the continuous-time Bayesian network framework. This allows for precise computation of what a prediction is, and how strongly the user thinks it will come true. Everyone smart and rational knows that you can always find some way to make a vague prediction (like a horoscope or fortune cookie) seem like it was accurate after the fact, if you just spin it the right way. Using a mathematical model means that you can’t make a wrong prediction seem like it “fits”, no matter what really happened- the prediction is either correct or it isn’t.
We also believe that it is important to use probability distributions, rather than specific scenarios. In conventional, “story-telling” futurism, one might predict event 1, and then predict how event 1 will lead to event 2, and so on, up through event 100. The trouble with this method is, if any one thing in the chain of predictions breaks (for instance, if event 37 does not lead to event 38), the entire sequence of predictions will be wrong. By using probability distributions, it is fairly straightforward to avoid this problem. For example, if event 11 has an 80% chance of happening, the application tries to forecast what would come next if event 11 happened, and what would come next if event 11 didn’t happen. This requires some fancy footwork with math, which is described in more detail in the technical section.
Since the Uncertain Future is a forecasting tool, rather than an attempt to convince the user of any one specific scenario, the reference section includes both transhumanist and anti-transhumanist expert opinions. A conventional essay about the dangers of cloning might include references that discuss why cloning is a serious possibility, but since the point of the essay is to convince the reader, it might include no references that point out the remaining obstacles in cloning technology. The future is hard enough to predict without adding in these sorts of biases on top of the usual difficulties.
We first presented the software at the 7th Annual European Conference on Computing and Philosophy, held in Barcelona, Spain from July 2 to July 4, 2009. The presentation, titled “Changing the frame of AI futurism: From storytelling to heavy-tailed, high-dimensional probability distributions,” outlined previous research in forecasting technology, discussed the need for a new kind of prediction software, and included a live demo.
As mentioned earlier, starting today, all Uncertain Future source code will be freely available on GitHub, under the terms of the GNU General Public License (GPL). The GPL allows anyone to freely download, modify, and distribute the source code. We hope that the Uncertain Future code will form the basis for a wide range of other projects, both inside and outside of transhumanism and technology forecasting. If you are interested in working with the Uncertain Future’s source code or technology, you can contact software engineer Michael Blume at email@example.com; if you are interested in the expert references, research, or specific model of the future that the Uncertain Future uses, contact Thomas McCabe at firstname.lastname@example.org.