Since the recent appearance by Jeff, Garry and Alvis on The Speculist Blog Talk Radio program (click on Speculist meets MemeBox), I thought they and other Future Bloggers might find the below discussion stemming from a subsequent program of interest.
Phil Bowermaster has a post up at The Speculist examining the state of the progression of human society from it's present structure to one more closely tracking the various expectations stemming from the concept of The Singularity:
[The following is an expanded version of an e-mail I sent to Stephen in response to some reflections he had on our most recent FastForward Radio -- that show with guest Joseph Jackson discussing the possibility of a post-scarcity world. I think Stephen was going to post some additional thoughts, too -- to which I would have added comments -- but time's up!] ...
My issue is more practical. By what means could we possibly get to the kind of society he's describing? The assumption seems to be that it would be the federal government (or the Earth government or -- my fav -- the Committee of Robot Overlords) doing the distributing. But we don't have a working model of how a government can guarantee the material welfare of its population without ripping its economy to shreds and putting individual rights on the back burner. That doesn't mean it can't happen, but Joseph doesn't have a model of how we would get there, or at least he didn't articulate one Wednesday night.
I sympathise with Phil's dilemma, unfortunately Mr. Jackson's lack of specific insight isn't unique to him; nobody really knows how we get to "there" because we still haven't really articulated the starting point for the needed change(s) to progress from with any sort of degree of engineering specificity. It's all well and good to simply proclaim the need for a systemic advancement, but what specific mechanism achieves that to actual advantage - and to whom? It seems a bit solipsistic perhaps, but market pressures actually are the least disruptive mechanism to stimulating that process. This doesn't make for speedy adoption of course, but does assure wide-spread acceptance of the process within the production industry(s) generally once the never-ending search for competitive advantage resorts to such comparatively radical technological innovation. Until business profitability (with it's concomitant influence on tax collections) forces executives and governmental legislators to commit to some technology there will remain resistance to doing so. Despite the potential for individual developments altering the current production structure and economy, the likelihood of such a development actually forcing early change is slight for a variety of reasons - only some of them technologic in nature.
Reducing the amount of water needed to grow crops and prevent massive desertification could dramatically reduce the need for energy used in producing fertilizers, irrigation and desalination.
Hydrophobic Sand Nanowerk has featured a story written by Derek Baldwin of Xpress News on the development and use of layers of hydrophobic (water resistant) sand that prevents water from evaporating to keep it closer to the root systems.
The nano-coated sand could be used as a sub-layer for farming, urban landscaping, and a wide range of eco-friendly industrial applications like oil spills.
The proprietary coating process was developed by UAE-based DIME Hydrophobic Materials working with German scientist Helmut F. Schulze. The product's performance has been verified by a German materials testing agency (without details on coating's own environmental impact or longevity) and is now in pilot projects in the United Arab Emirates. Visit: Photo Gallery/Pankaj Sharma
MIT Technology Review has a great post on the use of (bee) 'swarm' inspired algorithms to reduce energy consumption of networked appliances like air conditioners, computers and heating systems. Toronto-based startup REGEN ENERGY is building smart energy platforms using new technology standards like Zigbee and micro-controllers to 'maximize collective efficiency'. Their trick is to enable 'bottom up' self organized smart grids for appliances without having to actively manage their energy consumption with a 'single order'.
My respect for IBM CEO Sam Palmisano continues to rise. As myriad unimaginative lemming financial pundits continue to explain away the present economic crisis as solely a failure of consumer confidence, Palmisano is making the rounds, advocating the construction of more intelligent infrastructure. His latest audience? None other than newly elected Barack Obama.
During a rountable discussion between Obama and various corporate CEOs (including Google CEO Eric Schmidt), Palmisano presented a summary of his thoughts on the United States' economic stimulus strategy. (video here)
Palmisano: There is clearly no reason we believe to undertake projects just for the sake of activity. We need to undertake projects that actually create jobs that will make infrastructure, make our country much more competitive for the long term.
[W]e need to invest and to build a more modern and more competitive infrastructure for the future.
It may be obvious, but it's also VERY refreshing to see that such messages are piercing the static and reaching the brains that need to hear them.
Should we create back-ups of websites due to be deleted for historical purposes?
Lynne Brindley, head of the British Library makes the case for preserving the web for future generations:
If websites continue to disappear in the same way as those on President Bush and the Sydney Olympics - perhaps exacerbated by the current economic climate that is killing companies - the memory of the nation disappears too. Historians and citizens of the future will find a black hole in the knowledge base of the 21st century.
But isn't that a moot point? Aren't companies like Google and other info aggregators backing up all of this data on their servers? Brindley says that's not the case:
People often assume that commercial organisations such as Google are collecting and archiving this kind of material - they are not. The task of capturing our online intellectual heritage and preserving it for the long term falls, quite rightly, to the same libraries and archives that have over centuries systematically collected books, periodicals, newspapers and recordings and which remain available in perpetuity, thanks to these institutions.
Quantify: To determine, express, or measure the quantity of. - Merriam-Webster
Why do we compulsively quantify?
An army with a map of the battle terrain is more formidable than an otherwise equal opponent without access to that knowledge. It can more quickly make decisions that will best optimize its chances for success. So it's no surprise that good mapping, or quantification, has been essential to human warfare, and that armies nowadays work to create the most comprehensive real-time maps that technology will allow.
But quantification isn't just essential to effective warring (unless you view life as a perpetual war or game). It's also critical to human decision-making on all levels. Whether we're taking short-cuts on the walk home, contemplating a new diet, planning to send our kids to college or writing software code, we're making these decisions in the context of systems maps (aka quantifications) that we run in our brains. Thus we can reduce the amount of Space, Time, Energy and Matter that we waste (a process related to what Evo Devo philosopher John Smart calls STEM Compression), avoid situations that threaten our well-being and generate max value by taking advantage of opportunities to control resources and our environment.
In short, quantification is an essential component of knowledge and leads to efficiency as we strive to survive, multiply and thrive.
Furthermore, quantification appears to be "rigged" into the game of life. As organims evolve and life's complexity increases, new species with brains capable of greater quantification and abstraction emerge at a regular clip. Over time, these organisms discover ways to expand their knowledge by communicating (actively or passively) information to one another and letting the network manage their quantifications and decisions. Then, eventually, the higher-level organism figure out how to extend their knowledge into the environment through technology that allows them to communicate and retrieve it more easily than before. This is accomplished directly through technologies like language, writing, or classical maps, and indirectly through the hard-technologies like spears, paint, and paper that critically support knowledge externalization.
To my mind, it seems likely that wherever life is found in the universe, it is required to steadily improve its ability to manage knowledge, lest it be overtaken by chaos or other organized life. This, of course, requires the systematic quantification of its complex environment.
Much has been made of Caloric Restriction (CR) and how it is the one true life-extension strategy currently available. In countless articles and videos it has been given much attention and there are a bunch of folks whose stomachs are growling as we speak that will be disappointed to learn that this strategy may be flawed.
A new study by Raj Sohal and Michael Forster recapped on EurekAlert! shows that CR is essentially only effective when "an animal eats more than it can burn off." The problem it seems is that it really only works for obese mice and has little or no benefit for those who aren't.
The study looked at two different genetically altered strains of mice - basically a fat mouse and a skinny mouse (I think this may have sitcom potential). The takeaway was that calorie restriction helped the mouse that had been programmed to double its weight over its lifespan while it did not extend the life of the skinny mouse. In fact, when CR is started later in life they found that it actually shortened the lifespans of leaner test subjects. The authors noted that previous studies have also demonstrated that wild mice experience minimal life-extension benefits from CR.
If you enjoy futuristic gadgets and evolution then this Saturn-commissioned steampunk commercial should be right up your alley (hi-def version here):
Though I'm sure it's primarily intended to wow, I enjoy the robotic take on evolution because of how it removes the emotional animal component and places the emphasis on basic form. It's very transhuman in spirit. Unfortunately the sky does not open wide to a transcendent singularity at the conclusion of the video, which would have made it super-viral among the growing singularitarian community, but I'm sure that we'll see newer, more philosophically advanced car commercials in the near-future. ;)
GE announced recently that they were partnering with the Transformational Medical Technology Initiative to develop the Biotic Man, a "physiologically based virtual human." The collaboration has the backing of the U.S. Dept. of Defense.
The Biotic Man will be based on computer modeling and has the potential to speed up the drug design process significantly. The project is aimed at providing a quicker response to biological threats on the battlefield and will advance the GE Physiologically Based Pharmacokinetic software tool. The tool employs computational models to measure drug response in the body far in advance of clinical trials.
Harvard education professor Daniel Koretz says we're not doing a good job teaching our children how to solve complex problems, thus failing to raise a generation possessing the new mandatory level of cognitive ability.
Koretz argues that we're teaching too much memorization and not enough "complex application of knowledge" and that "we need to back off the lower level skills to make room for the higher ones".
In his first ever post on the NYTimes' The Wild Side blog, biologist Aaron Hirsch describes what he sees as the increasing centralization and decentralization of scienctific processes. These new approaches, he argues, are driving larger and more complex efforts to generate more useful useful data in different ways.
Centralization: Across many different fields, new data are generated by a smaller and smaller number of bigger and bigger projects. And with this process of centralization come changes in what scientists measure — and even in what scientists are.
Hirsch attributes this to the high cost of powerful machines and technologies that can quickly generate results that otherwise would take far longer to discover. This new dependence on massive facilities or operations, he argues, is changing the nature of the scientist.
It’s not only scientific instruments, but also the scientists themselves who are transformed by centralization. If the 19th century was an age of far-flung investigators alone in the wilderness or the book-lined study, the 21st century is, so far, an age of scientists as administrators.
Decentralization: Simultaneously, we are are experiencing a huge decentralization of much of our scientific process through projects such as SETI that tap the distributed power of personal laptops. Hirsch labels this "Citizen Science".
This week Garry Golden, Jeff Hilford and I had the pleasure to participate in the latest of The Speculist's outstanding Fast Forward Radio series (audio below the fold). Hosts Phil Bowermaster and Stephen Gordon led us through a comprehensive exploration of the year ahead of us and then (of course) encourage a bit of speculation about events 10-30 years out.
Garry shared his energy and transportation policy insights and predictions for 2009 (a must listen), and ventured some suppositions for the future including the possibility of converging on a space-based Dyson Sphere.
Jeff discussed the ongoing rise of social media and the future meme, then offered up a longer-term prediction concerning Actuarial Escape Velocity, aka the point in time that medicine becomes capable of extending the average lifespan quicker than nature can take it from us.
After kindly facilitating our output :), the hosts also got into the speculation game, with Phil tackiling issues including Global Quantification and Cancer Containment (very cool conept), and Stephen venturing the prediction that the first generation of life extension technologies are much closer to reality that we may suppose.
All in all, it was a wonderful brain-fest that I encourage you check out whenever you've got a spare hour on your hands. And be sure to add The Speculist to your RSS as they've got a steady stream of great future content, including their weekly podcast, flowing through regularly. -- (Audio is below the fold.)