Tools for Thought
We aim to serve humanity as a whole, helping current and future generations all over the planet.
As described on our Mission page, Humanity 2050 helps society find better ways of addressing the challenges of the Anthropocene. The problems that society faces are so complex that the cognitive capacity of the human mind is easily overwhelmed in the search for solutions—when considering all the elements of potential plans and potential outcomes in a physical world, and when trying to minimize the risk that there will be unforeseen, unintended consequences.
We need new methods of thought that allow teams to develop effective plans, while still working within the limits of the human mind, and we have developed two key strategies to help.
Special Focus Teams
As described in our first white paper, “‘Special Focus Teams’ to Help Solve the Problems of the Anthropocene,” special focus teams are small teams dedicated to developing a plan (or set of plans) to address a single, specific challenge of the Anthropocene. (Our first test case on climate engineering is described below.) These teams differ from other efforts in the way they are allowed the space and time for careful deep thought—working for months or years to analyze the problem, considering risks and alternatives, and proposing an action plan that is realistic yet simple enough to be understood, debated, and modified (as necessary) by citizens and policymakers.
Algorithm for Thought
Such special focus teams need time and freedom from distraction, but they also need ways to sort and analyze and understand a massive amount of “pan-disciplinary” information as they try to consider the scientific, technical, social, political, economic, legal, and moral implications of any given strategy. Our second white paper, “An Algorithm for Thought to Help Solve Problems of the Anthropocene” outlines a new algorithm for thought that will allow teams—at intermediate stages in the planning process—to break the overall problem into a series of thousands of smaller, more manageable subproblems, thus avoiding cognitive overload. This new algorithm for thought should help humans survive in a world where complexity otherwise threatens to overwhelm the capacity of the human mind.
When these two strategies are combined—that is, when special focus teams employ this algorithm—we believe that fresh progress can be made on the most complex challenges of our time. With these strategies, we offer ways to dramatically improve the planning process, allowing more careful thought, and thus facilitating more effective action and improving the prospects for a flourishing human future.
Climate Engineering: A Case Study
The very novelty of our methods requires that we have a well-defined test case (making sure that our approach works well) before expanding to address the wider set of challenges.
We have launched our first large-scale project, using our special focus teams and our new algorithm for thought, applying them to the critical but often underappreciated issue of climate engineering. As the world struggles to deal with climate change, scientists and policymakers are increasingly considering whether climate engineering (climate intervention) could be used to cool the earth if global warming starts to spiral out of control.
Several studies suggest that spraying aerosols in the upper atmosphere could provide a relatively rapid, relatively inexpensive way of cooling the earth—thus buying time while searching for a better, long-term solution to the problem of rising carbon dioxide levels. However, climate engineering raises myriad scientific and sociopolitical challenges, and these require a more detailed analysis. Yet as the earth continues to warm, society may need to make a go/no go decision in the next 10 years.
At this stage, there are many careful studies of various aspects of climate engineering—looking at concerns about the science, the technology, and the challenges of governance. Yet no one seems to have set out a plan in sufficient detail so as to help us see all the operational challenges (as, for example, with cybersecurity and with the full burden of the damage claims and lawsuits the program is likely to face).
We work to fill this gap. Employing our new methods for thought and our new special focus teams, we have identified crucial, but underappreciated, risks to the long-term stability of a climate engineering program. We are now collaborating with colleagues in the scientific and policy communities to try to address these risks—helping to ensure that society can weigh the full set of risks and benefits when it’s time to decide what to do.
Follow our blog to keep up with our progress on this project.
Given our new perspective—focusing on the crisis of complexity as we work to address the challenges of the Anthropocene—we are expanding our work at Humanity 2050 in several different directions:
New Tools for Thought: After resigning a tenured faculty position at MIT in 2001, Carl Pabo spent years focusing on the development of new theories of thought. Although this work is still being revised for publication (as new perspectives and insights still continue to come so rapidly), this draft text provides a vitally important frame that will be used when training new members of the special focus teams.
Special Focus Teams for Other Problems: Although we have started with climate engineering as a test case, we believe that special focus teams can help with many other challenges of the Anthropocene. Our next projects at Humanity 2050 will look at the full range of approaches that might be used to address problems of climate change, and we look forward to sharing our experience and to working with other groups addressing these critical challenges of the modern world.
Artificial Intelligence: Given the “wicked complexity” of these challenges, there is a chance that developments in artificial intelligence will eventually help computers search for more effective solutions to the challenges of the Anthropocene. Although meaningful contributions from AI may still be five to ten years away, we are starting to explore prospects for this approach.
Other Ways to Tackle Complexity: We believe that special focus teams can play a critical role over the next few decades, but further steps will be needed to help address the full crisis of complexity now facing modern civilization. We hope that Humanity 2050 can—as the one global organization that focuses on the connection between the cognitive challenges of complexity and the challenges of the Anthropocene—provide a forum for ongoing discussion about other ways to try cutting through this Gordian knot of complexity and helping to ensure prospects for a thriving human future.