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Your Probable, Plausible, Possible Lunch
by James Patrick Kelly

futurists

When I began this column, I was hoping to browse (and grumble about) the kinds of food we see in science fiction.  But as I clicked through various websites to commend to your attention, I stumbled on something that led me to reconsider the whole enterprise of prediction. You see, in addition to thinking about future eats, I’d been pondering the difference between what futurists do <thrillist.com/tech/nation/what-does-a-futurist-actually-do> and what science fiction writers do.  Sure, we all imagine what the world might be like someday.  But not only do we SF writers prowl the far boundaries of what is possible, but we sometimes peer over the edge. We’re well aware that among our favorite tropes are impossibilities like time travel <futurism.com/the-physics-of-time-why-time-travel-may-be-impossible> and FTL starships <scienceworld.ca/stories/cosmic-speed-limit-why-cant-we-travel-light-speed/>. But who cares if an SF writer gets the future wrong?  Our job is to be amazing, fantastic, and far out.  Futurists, on the other hand, stake their claim on being plausible and probable, because they are often in service of those who seek to change the future.  Plus, they get paid better!  That’s because their government, corporation, and investor clients <forbes.com/sites/stephenwunker/2016/04/12/why-companies-need-corporate-futurists-but-will-fire-them-anyway> play for higher stakes than ’Mov’s readers. 

As I clicked around those sites, I watched futurists struggle to make a distinction among the concepts of probability, plausibility, and possibility.  Some of their efforts required heavy lifting on this reader’s part, like The rise of the futurists: The perils of predicting with futurethink <brookings.edu/research/the-rise-of-the-futurists-the-perils-of-predicting-with-futurethink/>, which explores probabilistic and possibilistic thinking about artificial intelligence.  Or Towards a clarification of probability, possibility, and plausibility <cspo.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/read_van-der-Helm-Towards-a-Clarification-of-Probability.pdf>. 

Let’s take a stab at simplifying some of their subtle and complex notions about what’s probable, plausible, and possible. Common sense tells us there should be differences, although in common parlance they are often used interchangeably.  On reflection, however, they seem to be on a kind of continuum.  For instance, you might say that it’s not only possible but plausible that you are going to read one of the stories listed in the ToC as soon as you finish this column. But is it probable? Maybe you’re reading this issue on a bus and you’ll be coming to your stop in a few moments. But then, you bought Asimov’s with the intent of reading some state-of-the-art science fiction, so maybe if not soon, then later.  Only what if you get distracted and leave this magazine — or perhaps your e-reader — on the bus? How probable is that? Okay, not very. But plausible.  And would you be more likely to forget and leave an eight-dollar magazine than a two hundred dollar iPad? So probable – like its fuzzier relative plausible – is contingent.  Some may be tempted to attach numbers to these contingencies. Say there’s less than a 1 percent chance of your losing the iPad, but maybe a 3 percent chance of forgetting a magazine.

But possible is a very different concept. If we insist on a robust (and hard-science-fictional) definition, possible would seem to have an absolute relationship with reality.  Something is either possible or impossible; it’s binary, yes? Whether you’re holding the print or the digital version of Asimov’s, you can’t read a symphony in these pages. Or a statue. Well, maybe, but there’s another binary to consider: what is possible now and what is not yet possible.

We have strayed deep into the weeds here, so maybe it’s time to deploy a tool that futurists like to use.  You might want to consult The Cone of Plausibility-Probability <researchgate.net/figure/The-Cone-of-Plausibility-Probability_fig1_243995158> on this, a website that points at a dense PDF called Being Without Existing.  Warning: again, you’ll need to budget some time and brainpower to parse it.  Or else you can watch the video Cone of Plausibility and Exploring Multiple Futures <https://vimeo.com/283961724>.  But basically the Cone of Plausibility is a graphical representation of how things might change over time.  The cone opens out from the present, ever expanding.  The most likely scenario is at the center line of the expanding cone, but there is also a range of plausible scenarios, just off center.  Accuracy in the plausibility zone is where the futurists earn their keep, especially if they can suggest how to reach one of the off-center, but preferred scenarios for their clients.  Beyond the plausibility zone are possible but increasingly less likely scenarios.  Futurists cover their asses temper their predictions by noting that unpredictable black swan events can cause wild card scenarios at the very edges of the possible, like a supervolcano eruption <cosmosmagazine.com/earth/earth-sciences/can-we-predict-the-next-supervolcano-eruption/>.  

But enough futurist theory; let’s move on.  Anyone hungry?

 

SF food

At the dawn of science fiction, there was the food pill <sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/food_pills>.  The SF Encyclopedia dates the first mention to 1899 in Arthur Bird’s Looking Forward: A Dream of the United States of the Americas in 1999 <gutenberg.org/ebooks/50148>.  Later it became a staple of future tech, either as a time-saving, super-nutritional, lifestyle “improvement” or as a mass-conserving necessity for Golden Age spaceship crews.  Technophiles of the last century paid scant attention to the fact that exchanging pills for real food would strip an irreplaceable source of pleasure from everyday life.  But had there been futurists at the turn of the last century, some might have placed food pills well within the plausibility cone. We know better now because the physics doesn’t work.  The average person needs two thousand calories a day, and no matter how we compress the necessary protein, fats, and carbohydrates, we’d still need to eat a half-pound of pills a day. Expanding on the idea of food pills, writers have imagined various kinds of synthetic foodstuff cooked up in labs, sometimes nutritionally complete, but typically bland or even tasteless. The presence of such slop in SF stories often signifies that we are in a dystopia.

In Real Life these days, instead of food pills, we have ultra-processed food.  A lot of it!  In 2021 researchers analyzing government data <usnews.com/news/health-news/articles/2021-10-15/americans-are-eating-more-ultra-processed-foods> reported that “the proportion of ultra-processed foods in Americans’ diets grew from 53.5 percent of calories in 2001-2002 to 57 percent in 2017-2018, while consumption of whole foods fell from 32.7 percent to 27.4 percent of calories, mostly due to people eating less meat and dairy.”  Many people believe this diet is the key driver of what the CDC calls an obesity epidemic <cdc.gov/obesity/data/adult.html>.  If I were a futurist working for Nestle or Tyson, I’d be happy to project that kind of growth and put more processed food dead center of the plausibility cone, pleasing my clients no end.

A recent SF extrapolation of our processed food trends anticipates the ubiquity of printed food <all3dp.com/2/3d-printed-food-3d-printing-food/>.  Most current printed food applications rely on extrusion of food slurries and pastes <3dprinting.com/food/> (yum … slurry!), with printed chocolate <cocoapress.com/> being the most market-ready.  Expect to see more of printed food stories as this plausible and probable technology improves and we continue to wrap our minds around the whole 3D printing revolution.   However, many writers have decided to skip past printed food to Star Trek style food replicators.   This daring but technologically questionable leap was first introduced in 1987’s Star Trek: The Next Generation <memory-alpha.fandom.com/wiki/Replicator>; Captain Kirk and his original series pals relied on food synthesizers, presumably distant descendants of our primitive food printers.  ST:TNG replicators can create any inanimate matter out of pure energy given the correct molecular blueprint, thus solving vexing problems around limiting mass and stocking ship’s stores.  Alas, no futurist would boldly go as far as placing this technology anywhere within a plausibility cone. While some devices have shown promise using light to print on a substrate <syfy.com/syfy-wire/star-trek-replicator-finally-replicated-by-real-life-scientists>, direct energy-to-matter replicators are as impossible as warp drives.  

 

menus

If I were a futurist, I’d be thinking more about sustainability of the food supply rather than high-tech processing.  According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations <fao.org/home/en/>, about 75 percent of the world’s food comes from just twelve plants and five animal species. Almost half of our plant-derived calories come from just three foods: wheat, corn, and rice. While estimates vary, it is believed that there are over 30,000 edible plants, and we only eat 150 of them. The Future Market <thefuturemarket.com/conceptproducts> responds to this imbalance by proposing a list of “conceptual products” like taro root flour, seaweed pasta, baobob powder, and canned unripe jackfruit.  For breakfast, how about a bowl of Kernza Krunch, “crispy flakes made from Kernza, the long-rooted, perennial grain that helps preserve soil health by resisting drought and reducing erosion”?

And let’s not forget our friends the insects when we’re looking for new protein sources. The FAO reports that two billion people worldwide munch bugs today. Yellow jacket wasp larvae are popular in Japan, the Chinese eat ant soup, water beetle is often served roasted in Thailand, while Cambodians eat their fried crickets on a stick. In Africa termites are fried, smoked, steamed, sun-dried, or ground into a powder.

If these exotic dishes give you pause, click over to What Dinner Will Look Like in the Next 100 Years <bonappetit.com/story/plates-of-the-future> for a look at sustainable, processed and recycled lunches of the future from Bon Appétit magazine.  The illustrated menu for ten years from now shows a cell-cultured burger topped with animal-free American cheese made from protein powder on a Kernza bun, a good old-fashioned pickle, hummus made with genetically edited chickpeas, a side salad with romaine lettuce from an indoor vertical farm, and a delicious glass of locally hyper-filtered, recycled sewage water.  Twenty years on, the menu includes sustainably farmed, zero-waste salmon, protein-enhanced lentils in a coconut milk broth and a tasty peach cobbler, hot out of the countertop 3D-printing oven.  For the lunch of 2122, the editors turned the menu over to science fiction writers – not futurists! – who suggested dishes like cricket tartare on a bed of Mariana Trench plankton, sustainably farmed mussels in a citrus broth, 3D-printed tortilla chips made from hydroponic black bean paste with cell-cloned cheese sauce and jalapeños, all sourced from aerial farms in the upper atmosphere of Venus, and a cup of java made from okra seeds, since coffee is likely to be extinct <euronews.com/green/2021/09/27/these-5-foods-could-soon-go-extinct-due-to-climate-change>..

 

exit

I don’t know about you, but I’m looking forward to most of these probable, plausible, and/or possible food adventures. Bon appétit, mes amis!

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