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Author Topic: Challenges of “weak signal” analysis
Miriam-
J.S. Leis
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Post Challenges of “weak signal” analysis
on: May 17, 2011, 07:23
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Are there actually subtle signs – so-called “early” or “weak signals” that indicate social or technological changes in an early phase before such changes begin to have a full fledged impact? Are there early signs that indicate that a financial crisis, surprises by disruptive technologies or socio-political revolutions could happen in the foreseeable future? In hindsight people often say that what has happened could have been known if people would just have looked or listened properly – but hindsight is not foresight!

Also in geology, volcanology, meteorology, engineering or medicine, the concept of “early signals”, that e.g. indicate possibly occurring earthquakes, tsunamis, storms, system failures or epileptic seizures is important for research, assessment and modeling. But can such methods and concepts also be transferred to societal systems that bear inherent complexity and thus limits to calculability and predictability?

Thus so-called “weak” or “early” (warning) signals are a major research area within (strategic) foresight and many questions are still not resolved to our satisfaction:

- Does such “early signals” actually exist within societal contexts and if, how can they be detected?
- If a potential signal is detected, how can it be evaluated in regard to credibility?
- If such signals exist, what can people do about it? Does it provide advantages for preparation or would we even be able to “engineer” the outcome?
- In how far can such signals be socially created and manipulated?
- If such signals exist, what do they evolve into and how could we know?
- What is the relation of such signals to so-called “wild cards” and emerging issues?

And when it is too early or too late to communicate potential signals that you have detected? To cite a quote attributed to Gandhi: "First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.” At the beginning they just don’t believe you and in the end they tell you: why didn’t you tell me earlier?

I am curious about your experiences, insights, thoughts and comments!

MJSL2050
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Post Re: Challenges of “weak signal” analysis
on: May 17, 2011, 08:20
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In my view “signals” may exist, but people may not know what they indicate because we do not know anything about the future state they could lead to – so we may just lack the capabilities to relate certain observables to a potential future state. Also the farther one is away from a future point in time, the more possibilities for potential futures exist. Imagine a car. There are far less possibilities where it may be within the next minute (or even second) than there are where it may be within the next year (or even decade). The farther away one is from a certain point in the future, the more possibilities also exist that can interfere with the outcomes (look at it from the perspective of something like complex path dependency or analogies of quantum mechanical multiple world theory). If you have 5 seconds to act, you only have limited options for changing things. If you have 5 years, you have much more options.

But society itself is a complex system and as chaos/complexity theory shows, very small changes to a system can have very huge effects, especially on the longer run.

However in my view there can be signs for developments, especially on the technological side, that can be pretty well predicted, especially if disregarding societal factors. If one looks at the developments in science and technology under “ideal conditions” one can actually pretty well extrapolate what scientific knowledge and technology we may have in the future if current assumptions turn out to remain correct (that’s what e.g. Ray Kurzweil does). However, science and technology are embedded in socio-political contexts and these are far less predictable, e.g. do people want these developments, are there laws and regulations for or against it, do people manage to circumvent laws etc. But nonetheless, what can principally be done can be done since it is difficult to completely erase existing knowledge and completely prohibit research and development. Thus in my view the potentially disruptive nature of scientific and technological developments that can impact the “possibility spaces” for society need to be taken into account in any case as they will change the socio-political landscape in one way or another (even if they will not gain acceptability, they will change society through resistance).

DeTrans
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Post Re: Challenges of “weak signal” analysis
on: May 17, 2011, 10:02
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…this is why our organization, for example, looks at the developments in areas like advanced Artificial Intelligence, Human Enhancement Technologies, neuroscience, biotechnology/ genetics, regenerative medicine, life extension technologies and advanced nanotechnologies, evaluates the technological possibilities and the socio-political framework conditions that influence their development (e.g. funding schemes, laws/regulations, education etc.) and that could influence by such scientific and technological developments (e.g. change in laws, change in funding, change in communication, values, world views etc.).

Many scientific and technological signals have been discovered and discussed by our organization quite early, but maybe too early as most people laughed at us at the beginning (cf. the quote from Gandhi), then fought us in the context of controversies, but now it already looks as some predictions won out as they are now quite widely discussed in public and even the policy context.

However there is no such thing as either technological determinism or social determinism as both aspects shape and influence each other: Society is shaped by scientific and technological developments but it is society that enables and creates science and technology.

Look at social networking: it is a technology that shaped and changed our way to communicate, but social networking would not exist if nobody would take part in it.

However, people may need to be more open to the idea of growing possibilities that have the potential for inducing huge changes and disruptions (e.g. the possibility to achieve far higher life spans, interact with Artificial Intelligence in new ways and even create artificial minds, develop totally different methods of manufacturing, having the possibility to do complex research and development on your own, having different laws on R&D around the world, being able to change and augment ones identity, be confronted with real complex (!) – i.e. “inherently unpredictable” (socio-)technological systems (e.g. self-improving and self-designing systems) one is unable to understand) and at least keep this as a scenario in mind.

We have to bear in mind that our would could change rapidly and substantially, although we may not exactly now how (a central argument of the so-called “singularity thesis”) – but if one accepts this possibility, at least one is prepared for the notion of “disruptive changes”.

Miriam-
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Post Re: Challenges of “weak signal” analysis
on: May 17, 2011, 11:29
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...I came just across a documentary at German ZDF TV about meteorite impacts (http://www.zdf.de/ZDFmediathek/hauptnavigation/sendung-verpasst/#/beitrag/video/1308732/Armageddon---Der-Einschlag-%28Teil-1%29) - and as it was said by some experts: the time between the detection of a potential meteorite threat and its impact can be extremely short - leaving very little - too little time to prepare. In the context of weak signals, such huge - or (potential) existenmtial threats - pose a considerable danger. However such kinds of (alleged) improbable but high impact events are often ignored and get less attention and allocation of resources, which may turn them into a "wild card" (surprising event - and surprise has something to do with unpreparedness).

Should we think more about such events? And in how far should we invest resources for being prepared? Or are there smart ways to protect ourselves without requiring too much additional resources?

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