Foresight — Your Hidden Superpower!

My latest talk, for the Bay Area Future Salon. 45 mins + 35 of Q&A.

This talk is a brief summary of my new book, Introduction to Foresight, Executive Edition, 2021. The talk focuses on personal and team foresight, and the importance of living schedule-first. In the Q&A, with Mark Finnern, John RobbTyler Gothelf, and others, we get into a number of key exponential trends, including the global megatrends of densification and dematerialization (D&D).

At the end of my talk below (at 37:16), I give three slides on Exponential Investing, discuss the value of Custodial (for your children) and Regular (for yourself) Roth IRAs, explain how to use them to invest like a venture capitalist does, making one big exponential investment bet each year (and different each year), and share an investment I have made in 2021, in air taxi stocks. I’m particularly optimistic about air taxis as one key to the future of cities. Right now, most investors don’t even believe they are coming. Five years from now, everyone will know they are coming, and many will see all the benefits they will bring. In my view, now is a good time to place some bets, and do a long-term hold. See my 2018 Medium article, Our Amazing Aerial Future, for more details on this emerging new industry, just one of many positive exponentials that will increasingly reshape our 21st century lives.

Let me know what you think, dear friends!

Note: This post can also be found on Medium, an easier to use platform that pays its community for writing and readership. This site is a legacy site. Please visit my Medium page for my latest posts.


John Smart is a global futurist, and a scholar of foresight process, science and technology, life sciences, and complex systems. His new book, Introduction to Foresight, 2021, is now available on Amazon.

The Goodness of the Universe

In 2010, physicists Martin Dominik and John Zarnecki ran a Royal Society conference, Towards a Scientific and Societal Agenda on Extra-Terrestrial Life addressing scientific, legal, ethical, and political issues around the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI). Philosopher Clement Vidal and I both spoke at that conference. It was the first academic venue where I presented my Transcension Hypothesis, the idea that advanced intelligence everywhere may be developmentally-fated to venture into inner space, into increasingly local and miniaturized domains, with ever-greater density and interiority (simulation capacity, feelings, consciousness), rather than to expand into “outer space”, the more complex it becomes. When this process is taken to its physical limit, we get black-hole-like domains, which a few astrophysicists have speculated may allow us to “instantly” connect with all the other advanced civilizations which have entered a similar domain. Presumably each of these intelligent civilizations will then compare and contrast our locally unique, finite and incomplete science, experiences and wisdom, and if we are lucky, go on to make something even more complex and adaptive (a new network? a universe?) in the next cycle.

Clement and I co-founded our Evo-Devo Universe complexity research and discussion community in 2008 to explore the nature of our universe and its subsystems. Just as there are both evolutionary and developmental processes operating in living systems, with evolutionary processes being experimental, divergent, and unpredictable, and developmental processes being conservative, convergent, and predictable, we think that both evo and devo processes operate in our universe as well. If our universe is a replicating system, as several cosmologists believe, and if it exists in some larger environment, aka, the multiverse, it is plausible that both evolutionary and developmental processes would self-organize, under selection, to be of use to the universe as complex system. With respect to universal intelligence, it seems reasonable that both evolutionary diversity, with many unique local intelligences, and developmental convergence, with all such intelligences going through predictable hierarchical emergences and a life cycle, would emerge, just as both evolutionary and developmental processes regulate all living intelligences.

Once we grant that developmental processes exist, we can ask what kind of convergences might we predict for all advanced civilizations. One of those processes, accelerating change, seems particularly obvious, even though we still don’t have a science of that acceleration. (In 2003 I started a small nonprofit, ASF, to make that case). But what else might we expect? Does surviving universal intelligence become increasingly good, on average? Is there an “arc of progress” for the universe itself?

Developmental processes become increasingly regulated, predictable, and stable as function of their complexity and developmental history. Think of how much more predictable an adult organism is than a youth (try to predict your young kids thinking or behavior!), or how many less developmental failures occur in an adult versus a newly fertilized embryo. Development uses local chaos and contingency to converge predictably on a large set of far-future forms and functions, including youth, maturity, replication, senescence, and death, so the next generation may best continue the journey. At its core, life has never been about either individual or group success. Instead, life’s processes have self-organized, under selectionto advance network success. Well-built networks, not individuals or even groups, always progress. As a network, life is immortal, increasingly diverse and complex, and always improving its stability, resiliency, and intelligence.

But does universal intelligence also become increasingly good, on average, at the leading edge of network complexity? We humans are increasingly able to use our accelerating S&T to create evil, with both increasing scale and intensity. But are we increasingly free to do so, or are we growing ever-more self-regulated and societally constrainedSteven Pinker, Rutger Bregman, and many others argue we have become increasingly self- and socially-constrained toward the good, for yet-unclear reasons, over our history. Read The Better Angels of Our Nature, 2012 and Humankind, 2021 for two influential books on that thesis. My own view on why we are increasingly constrained to be good is because there is a largely hidden but ever-growing network ethics and empathy holding human civilizations together. The subtlety, power, and value of our ethics and empathy grows incessantly in leading networks, apparently as a direct function of their complexity.

As a species, we are often unforesighted, coercive, and destructive. Individually, far too many of us are power-, possession- or wealth-oriented, zero-sum, cruel, selfish, and wasteful. Not seeing and valuing the big picture, we have created many new problems of progress, like climate change and environmental destruction, that we shamefully neglect. Yet we are also constantly progressing, always striving for positive visions of human empowerment, while imagining dystopias that we must prevent.

Ada Palmer’s science fiction debut, Too Like the Lightening, 2017, is a future world of both technological abundance and dehumanizing, centrally-planned control over what individuals can say, do, or believe. I don’t think Palmer has written a probable future. But this combination of future abundance and overcontrol does seem plausible, under the wrong series of unfortunate and unforesighted future events, decisions and actions. Imagining such dystopias, and asking ourselves how to prevent them, is surely as important as positive visions to improving adaptiveness. I am also convinced we are rapidly and mostly unconsciously creating a civilization that will be ever more organized around our increasingly life-like machines. We can already see that these machines will be far smarter, faster, more capable, more miniaturized, more resource-independent, and more sustainable than our biology. That fast-approaching future will be different from anything Earth’s amazing, nurturing environment has developed to date, and it is not well-represented in science-fiction yet, in my view.

On average, then, I strongly believe our human and technological networks grow increasingly good, the longer we survive, as some real function of their complexity. I also believe that postbiological life is an inevitable development, on all the presumably ubiquitous Earthlike planets in our universe. Not only will many of us merge with such life, it will be far smarter, stabler, more ethical, empathic, and self-constrained than biological life could ever be, as an adaptive network. There is little science today to prove or disprove such beliefs. But they are worth stating and arguing.

Arguing the goodness of advanced intelligence was the subtext of the main debate at the SETI conference mentioned above. The highlight of this event was a panel debate on whether it is a good idea to not only listen for signs of extraterrrestrial intelligence (SETI), but to send messages (METI), broadcasting our existence, and hopefully, increasing the chance that other advanced intelligences communicate with us earlier, rather than later.

One of the most forceful proponents for such METI, Alexander Zaitsev, was at this conference. Clement and I had some good chats with him (see picture below). Since 1999, Zaitsev has been using a radiotelescope in the Ukraine, RT-70, to broadcast “Hello” messages to nearby interesting stars. He did not ask permission, or consult with others, before sending these messages. He simply acted on his belief that doing so would be a good thing, and that those able to receive them would not only be more advanced, but would be inherently more good (ethical, empathic) than us.

Alexander Zaitsev and John Smart, Royal Society SETI Conference, Chicheley Hall, UK, 2010

Sadly, Zaitsev has now passed away. Today, Paul Gilster wrote a beautiful elegy for him, at his site on interstellar exploration, Centauri Dreams. It explains the 2010 conference, where Zaitsev debated others on the METI question, including David Brin. Brin advocates the most helpful position, one that asks for international and interdisciplinary debate prior to sending of messages. Such debate, and any guidelines it might lead to, can only help us with these important and long-neglected questions.

It was great listening to these titans debate at the conference, yet I also realized how far we are from a science that tells us the general Goodness of the Universe, to validate Zaitzev’s belief. We are a long way from his views being popular, or even discussed, today. Many scientists assume that we live in a randomness-dominated, “evolutionary” universe, when it seems much more likely that it is an evo-devo universe, with both many unpredictable and predictable things we can say about the nature of advanced complexity. Also, far too many of us still believe we are headed for the stars, when our history to date shows that the most complex networks are always headed inward, into zones of ever-greater locality, miniaturization, complexity, consciousness, ethics, empathy, and adaptiveness. As I say in my books, it seems that our destiny is density, and dematerialization. Perhaps all of this will even be proven in some future network science. We shall see.

Note: This post can also be found on Medium, a platform that commendably pays its community for its writing and readership. Medium is also much easier to use than WordPress. I keep this site only as a legacy site at present. Please visit my Medium page to find and comment on my latest posts.


John Smart is a global futurist, and a scholar of foresight process, science and technology, life sciences, and complex systems. His new book, Introduction to Foresight, 2021, is now available on Amazon.

The Tangled Tree is also an Optimizing Network – Telling the Story of Molecular Convergent Evolution

The Tangled Tree, David Quammen (2019)

I have just read David Quammen’s The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life (2019). It is a beautifully written book on molecular phylogenetics. Quammen has written over a dozen books on the life sciences, and he is a great storyteller and science journalist.

I recommend this book, with one serious reservation. It describes a purely evolutionary view of molecular phylogenetics. Quammen unfortunately entirely ignores convergent evolution, and thus never allows the reader to consider its implications for universal development. He also does not discuss evo-devo biology. If he had, he might have recognized just how constraining accretive processes of biological development must be on all macrobiological evolutionary change.

Consider the fact that all complex animals, including humans, share almost all the same basic developmental regulatory machinery found in much simpler organisms than us. Like a tree that grows outward from a central trunk, we can’t update our developmental code as we grow more complex. We can only add to that code, progressively limiting our morphological and functional options in evolution. Constraining factors like accretive regulatory development and convergent evolution are physical realities we must recognize if we are to understand long-range macrobiological change on Earthlike planets.

Convergent evolution in antifreeze proteins in Arctic and Antarctic fish.

Scientists have been researching the molecular phylogenetics of convergent evolution since the 1990s, when evo-devo biology first became a formal subdiscipline. For example, we’ve known since 1997 that antifreeze proteins evolved via two clearly independent genetic means in Northern and Southern polar fish, to prevent ice crystal formation.

As our science and simulation advance, I think we will discover a vast number of developmental portals, uniquely adaptive and accelerative attractors on the road to competitive complexification that must be discovered via evolutionary search in our universe. Such complexification attractors have long been proposed by developmentally-oriented thinkers. Organic chemistry, Earthlike planets, nucleic acid-, protein-, and fat-based cells, oxidative phosphorylation, multicellularity, nutrient- and waste-carrying circulatory systems, and the emergence of antifreeze in animals living in near-zero temperature habitats are just a few of many proposed examples of such adaptive attractors. I’d argue they are examples of what EDU scholar Claudio Flores Martinez calls “cosmic convergent evolution” [SETI in the light of cosmic convergent evolution, Acta Astronautica, 104(1):341–349, 2014].

Fortunately, we can increasingly investigate some of the more recent proposed attractors via molecular phylogenetics, inferring the recent genetic history of life on Earth. Some of these more recent attractors include nervous systems, which according to Flores Martinez appear to have independently emerged at least three times (in bilaterians like us, in comb jellies, and in jellyfish) using three different neurotransmitter schemes. If nervous systems are a true portal, there won’t be anything else that can be built on top of our kind of multicellularity that would give collectives a comparable competitive advantage. In bilaterians, emergences like endoskeletons, muscles, prehensile limbs, opposable thumbs, emotions, ethics, language, consciousness, and extrabiological tool use have all been proposed as additional portals that are uniquely able to support accelerating complexification in collectives in their local environments. Such universal developmental checkpoints, if they exist, must be reliably statistically accessible, dominant, and persistent when discovered via evolutionary search. Today, increasing numbers of proposed universal adaptive convergences are becoming accessible to molecular investigation.

With respect to antifreeze in polar environments we learned in the 1990s that the antifreeze gene used by a Southern fish, Antarctic cod, arose from a mutation of gene that originally coded for a digestive enzyme. But the origin of the antifreeze protein in the Northern polar fish, Arctic cod, remained unclear. This 2019 article by Ed Yong at The Atlantic describes how, after twenty more years of diligent work, Chi-Hing Christina Cheng and her group deduced the complex way that Arctic fish built their antifreeze protein. It arose from a stretch of noncoding DNA, which was duplicated, mutated, relocated next to a promoter, and then a base was deleted to make it functional. In the twentieth century, some geneticists used to think noncoding DNA was “junk”. Work like Cheng’s tells us that noncoding DNA offers life a deep pool of potential genetic and protein diversity. We’ve also found antifreeze (and many other wintering adaptations) in other cold-dwelling species, like Cucujus clavipes, the red bark beetle. I’m sure we’ll learn many more stories of convergence there as well.

If Quammen had recognized that convergent molecular phylogenetics offers an exciting new way to understand long-known morphological and functional convergence in phylogenetically unique species, just as molecular methods give us exciting new ways to understand phylogenetics, he would have done a great service to general readers and scholars alike. Morphological and functional convergences, along with some hints at genetic and molecular evo-devo pathways toward them, have long been described by scientists like Simon Conway Morris (Life’s Solution, 2004; The Deep Structure of Biology, 2008),  Johnathan Losos (Improbable Destinies: How Predictable is Evolution?, 2018, and George McGhee (Convergent Evolution: Limited Forms Most Beautiful, 2011; Convergent Evolution on Earth, 2019).

Work like this tells us that our morphological and functional tree of life (a separate concept from our phylogenetic tree) is both continually diverging, due to contingent evolutionary innovation, and continually converging, due to the existence of universal environmental optima that will inevitably discovered, on all planets with environments like ours, via evolutionary search. In important ways then, this latter tree of life is significantly less tangled than it first seems. Life, a macrobiological system with fixed and finite complexity, is going somewhere, developmentally speaking. Both evolutionary contingency and developmental inevitability are central to the story of life on Earth, and other Earthlike planets in our universe.

We started our Evo Devo Universe (EDU) research and discussion community in 2008 precisely because the story of universal development is so widely ignored and downplayed. Most scientific work today perpetuates the one-sided, evolution-only view of change and selection that is the dominant scientific narrative today. There seems to be a strong emotional commitment among some scientists to the idea of an almost entirely contingent universe. Perhaps this commitment arises because of the unsettling implications of a universe that is developing as well as evolving. If our universe is developmental, science may become not merely descriptive, but prescriptive. It may learn to tell how we may better act, to be in service to universal processes and goals.

My new paper, Evolutionary Development: A Universal Perspective (2019) is my own latest small effort to offer an opposing, evolutionary developmental perspective. For a lay article on why we appear to live in an evo-devo universe, you may enjoy my post Humanity Rising: Why Evolutionary Development Will Inherit the Future (2012).

One of the books high points is its excellent discussion of the great Carl Woese. Woese and his student, George Fox, revolutionized microbiology by realizing we could trace bacterial phylogenetics through internal “molecular fossils.” They deduced the phylogenetic taxonomy of 16S ribosomal RNA, the universal machinery of protein manufacturing. This work allowed them to classify Archea, single-celled organisms that have a more complex internal structure than bacteria. Archaea range widely on Earth, and engage in a great variety of energy metabolisms (sugars, ammonia, metal ions, hydrogen gas), unlike their simpler bacterial cousins.

Woese and Fox’s Tree of Life, 1977

Woese’s work gave us our modern phylogenetic tree of life in 1977 (picture right). This tree showed that Archea are closer in phylogenetic history to us than bacteria. It is a good bet that both eukaryotes and prokaryotes branched off from an Archea that lived in undersea geothermal vents, making energy from hydrogen gas, warm water, and underwater nutrients richly available in those vents. Chemosynthesis, in other words, likely arrived on Earth long before photosynthesis.

What’s more, life on Earth appears to have emerged almost as soon as our planet became cool enough to support liquid water. Metal-rich Earthlike planets, with plate tectonics, plentiful water, and volcanic vents, appear to be ideal catalysts for life, and our geochemical cycles are ideal buffers and cradles for stabilizing life once it emerges. The complex set of homoeostatic protections for life on Earth, aka the Gaia hypothesis, when stated without the woo of “planetary intelligence”, appear far more developmental, from a universal perspective, than the hypothesis’s many detractors like to admit.

Woese’s work also lends credence to Alexander Rich and Walter Gilbert’s RNA world hypothesis, the idea that self-replicating RNA emerged first, before DNA and proteins. RNA is one of those rare complex chemicals that can store memory of its past evolutionary variation and self-catalyze its own replication. In other words, it is autopoetic (capable of self-maintenance and self-improvement).

Another high point is the book’s discussion of horizontal gene transfer. Amazingly, it appears that about 8% of human DNA arrived sideways in our genome, not via sex or mutation but via viral infection. As Harald Brüssow reminds us in “The not so universal tree of life,” we have not yet incorporated viruses into our current trees of life. That is a major oversight. Retroviral insertion sequences are found everywhere in eukaryotic DNA. Viruses and cells are constantly exchanging genetic material, in all species. [Brüssow H. (2009). The not so universal tree of life or the place of viruses in the living world. Phil trans. Royal Soc. of London. doi:10.1098/rstb.2009.0036]

Tree_Of_Life_(with_horizontal_gene_transfer)

Tree of life showing vertical and (a few) horizontal gene transfers. Source: Wikipedia

Our Real Tree of Life, once we draw it to include viruses, will look even more like a network than in the figure at right. The tree drawn at right is a good step beyond Woese’s 1977 tree, but it is still much too conservative. It includes no lines between eukaryotes, for example. It ignores retroviruses and other mechanisms.  See the Wikipedia article on HGT for the great variety of DNA transfer mechanisms we’ve discovered so far.

DNA is arguably still the dominant autopoetic system on our planet today. DNA’s astonishing ability to copy, vary, and improve itself, to jump around inside the cell as transposons, to jump between cells and organisms via viral and retroviral insertion, and to use vertical methods like germline mutation and sexual recombination, has made all living species on Earth much more of a single interdependent network than most of us realize.

This is an important idea to understand, because is the genetic network, not any collection of species, that has always been the true survivor and improver in life’s story. Many past environmental catastrophes, like the Permian extinction, and the K-T meteorite impact, have wiped out the vast majority of species, but I would personally bet almost all of the diversity of the genetic network survived each of those events. This is obviously true in developmental genes, which are highly conserved. If any complex species survives a catastrophe, the developmental core of all complex species survives. But I suspect it is true for most evolutionary (nonconserved) genes as well. We shall see if the evidence from modern catastrophes bears this assertion out. Genes are typically reassorted into hardier species after each catastrophe, and those species, having no competition and ample resources, make great leaps in innovation immediately after each major catastrophe. I call that the catalytic catastrophe hypothesis, and I look forward to seeing it proven in coming years.

Interdependent networks, in other words, always win out in complex selective environments, over time. Such networks are stabler, safer, more ethical, and more capable than isolated individuals. There are deep lessons in complexity science and network science to be discovered here, lessons that tell us why our leading forms of artificial intelligence later this century will be driven to not only be deeply biologically-inspired, but also ethical, empathic, and self-regulating collectives, just like us. Complex selection and developmental optima will ensure this is so, statistically speaking, in my view.

Again, if Quammen had covered convergent molecular phyogenetics, and a bit of evo-devo and developmental genetics, he would he would have given us a better set of trees and networks to ponder. If he’d wrestled with the convergent features of biological development at the organismic scale, he might have begun to recognize it at the ecosystem scale, and help us to begin to see and ponder it too.

Life is a complex, interdependent network, but it is also going somewhere. It is developing, not just evolving. I speculate on the intrinsic goals of evo-devo systems in my 2019 paper above. It may be too early to for us to say with certainty what goals life has, as a complex evo-devo network, but it is not to early to recognize that such goals must exist, both from evolutionary and developmental perspectives.

When considered as a single interdependent network, life’s story on Earth so far has been a curiously smooth and continually accelerating trajectory of increasing complexity, stability, ability, and intelligence. Something very curious is going on in all the Earthlike, high-complexity environments in the universe. We need to start recognizing and studying it much more closely if we wish to understand accelerating change, complexity and adaptation from a universal perspective, not just our own.

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