Friday, March 29, 2013

Technologies that might change everything

Straight from the pages of Existence… though sooner than I expected… researchers now claim to have the entire Neanderthal genome in published form, as clear as that of "any person on the street." Okay, start your countdown till someone announces she is pregnant with… That will be a real boat-rocker…

...but there are other events on the near horizon that may be more important to saving our world.

Cynics love to extrapolate while optimists look for game-changers. In my latest novel, I portray both spectra of personalities, each with some strong points to make… though only optimists get to see the most important waves of change coming. Take this year's arrival of reasonably priced and stunningly efficient LED light bulbs, for example. Businesses are already doing whole-building replacements and you should start now in your heavily-lit areas.  They pay for themselves so quickly that fluorescents are hogs, by comparison. Within two years, incandescents and pigtails will be considered bizarre or quaint.

That’s one game-changer.  Another is the rapid fall in prices for solar energy.  Photovoltaics can't yet compete with the plummeting (in the US) price of natural gas, but their economics are surprising cynics and could accelerate soon.

Now comes a bit of news that could matter a lot. And it has to do with the latest wonder material that's getting huge attention in Europe and across the industrialized world.  Graphene… a sheet-like molecular form of carbon, related to graphite, though in the way that a pile of organic sludge is similar to an Opera diva who can pitch a perfect game. I'll leave for another time a listing of the uses being explored, from electronics to biochemistry. But one recent announcement stands out as particularly hopeful.  Using graphene to create ultra-thin membranes, engineers at Lockheed Martin have just announced a newly-developed saltwater filter that could reduce desalinization energy costs by 99 percent.

Desalinization typically involves a sheet of composite (TFC) membrane manufactured from a thin-film layer of polyimide stacked on a porous layer of polysulfone. The problem? The thickness of these membranes requires high pressure to push water through. Lockheed Martin's Perforene filter is made from single atom-thick sheets of graphene. Because the sheets are so thin, water flows through far more easily.

Now if they can solve many problems (like tearing) and bring this on the market soon… our future will look brighter.

== Calling Algernon! Increasing intelligence? Or lobotomizing? ==

Toddlers with iPads... teenagers on FaceBook and iPods... do new electronic media help them learn to think? Or hinder? Studies show that "digital  natives" of the new generation are less agile at divided attention than they think.  Now, in the Atlantic Monthly, comes a fascinating article, The Touchscreen Generation, showing that the landscape is not simple. Electronic media do hold out promise... but it may be a while before we know what works, and what lobotomizes.

Meanwhile, George Dvorsky reports on io9 that by grafting human glial cells into the brains of mice, neuroscientists were able to "sharply enhance" the rodents’ cognitive capacities. These improvements included augmentations to memory, learning, and adaptive conditioning.  Yay Algernon. But the implications go much farther.

Long dismissed as mere support structures for the nourishing and maintenance of all-important neurons, glia have lately been shown to have important direct effects upon information processing and may have played a vital role in the breakout of human intelligence. Human glia are larger and have more fibers than those of lower species.  As to the mouse experiments: human glial progenitor cells were transplanted into each hemisphere of the developing forebrains of newborn mice -- who later acquired new conditional associations and learned tasks significantly more rapidly than did their unengrafted controls. (Glial cells extracted from other rodents had no such effects.)

It gets weirder. "Gap junctions" are connections of astrocytes (a type of glial cell)  to other astrocytes, and even to neurons. Gap junctions in neurons bypass the usual synaptic connection, providing a "short circuit" between cells and function to create high speed networks of signal propagation within some areas of the brain, eyes, heart, and other parts of the body. Gap junctions are sometimes referred to as "electrical synapses."

How-to-Create-a-Mind-cover-347x512Wow.  Amazing stuff.  Yet not quite surprising. For you see I expected something like this. Indeed, the news will excite those who are interested in some science-fictional ideas, for example uplifting animals,  plus enhancing our own intelligence and curing brain disorders. But it will dismay others, e.g. those who hope soon to download their minds into immortal robots.

Ray Kurzweil  and others in the transhumanist community talk about the "connectome"... the number and placement of the synapses that spark and flash with ion transport between the axons and dendrites of a hundred billion neurons.  There may be close to a trillion synapses.  Still, that is a tractable number and if they can be modeled by digital computer cells, then Moore's Law will cross a trillion fast connections easily by 2025, allowing us to create a brain-in-a-box theoretically as capable as a human one.

That leaves software as the tougher nut to crack!  But lets put that aside for now. Kurzweil and others pin their hopes on that grail – the date when Moore’s Law lets a box emulate a trillion synapse connectome.  Supposedly in time to download the true minds of aging Baby Boomers. That is… if synapses are the only important thing going on in a brain.

== Is that all we are? A trillion synapses? ==

At a Singularity Conference I once pointed out to Ray  and some of the other transhumanists that their fervent calculations might be way off regarding how many Moore's Law cycles it will take to have computers capable of emulating a human brain.

There is preliminary evidence that some degree of murky, non-linear (and hence difficult to model) "computation" may take place within neurons, and even surrounding astrocyte, glial or other support cells in a brain. Perhaps hundreds or thousands of bias computations for every synapse flash! Add to this the "gap junction" effects we saw above, offering a myriad paths for info to flow around synapses, and the math changes dramatically. It may take many, many more Moore's Law doublings before we can emulate in silicon the marvel that is a cogent human brain.

That’s bad news for the connectome transcendentalists!  Even if you successfully freeze or plasticize a brain to preserve every synapse for later analysis, you may still lose all the other delicate states within and between cells.

Ah but switch gears now.  Might this news help us enhance the intelligence of animals? Or even enhance our own?  Poul Anderson started the conversation in his epochal novel, Brain Wave. We had better start preparing now.

Oh, then there's this:  mouse neurons, or brain cells, implanted into rats can survive with the rats into old age, twice as long as the life span of the original mice. "The findings are good news for life extension enthusiasts."  Um…. maybe not.

Porfiro(BTW: Those of you who have read Existence know about "Porfirio" the super enhanced rat.  Can I call 'em?  Or what?)

== Science & Tech Miscellany ==

The new Samsung Galaxy S IV, will reportedly include an eye-tracking feature to make it easier to scroll pages without physically touching the screen. Some people will view this as an added convenience.  But gaze tracking may have a dark side.  In any event, you can glimpse where this all may lead in Existence, in Rainbows End and other near future SF.

We aren't in immersive Augmented Reality yet (AR), but the world I've portrayed in science fiction is fast approaching.  See what a difference eight years makes, in scenes outside the Vatican in 2005 and 2013. Prediction... this business of holding your phone over your head, in order to see over a crowd, is cool.  But our Google Glasses will project simple stalks upward to leave our hands free.  We'll have antennae like My Favorite Martian.  And you can see it portrayed vividly by renowned web artist Patrick Farley.

Japan became the first country ever to successfully extract natural gas from underwater deposits of methane hydrate, a frozen gas sometimes referred to as "flammable ice." The breakthrough could be a boon to the energy-poor nation, which imports almost all of its energy. And if the technology proves commercially viable, it could benefit other countries — including Canada, the U.S., Norway, and China — that are also seeking to exploit methane hydrate deposits. Better they should be used this way, than for climate change to simply release them into the atmosphere.  THAT is my nightmare scenario.  And the denialist cult is making the danger more acute, every day.

Physics-of-the-Future-Kaku-Michio-9780307473332$30 million in Google Lunar X-Prizes. That's the initial lure drawing companies and consortia to develop private moon landers/rovers that some hope to launch in 2015, in search of riches like platinum group elements, or Helium 3, or (only in a few polar craters) even water.
"We now estimate that if we were to look at 10 of the nearest small stars we would find about four potentially habitable planets, give or take," said Ravi Kopparapu, a post-doctoral researcher in geosciences. "That is a conservative estimate," he added. "There could be more." According to his findings, "The average distance to the nearest potentially habitable planet is about seven light years. That is about half the distance of previous estimates," Kopparapu said. "There are about eight cool stars within 10 light-years, so conservatively, we should expect to find about three Earth-size planets in the habitable zones."

More claims of "meteoritic life"? A team claims to see tiny, electron-microscopic trace fossils of living organisms in a meteorite that fell onto Sri-Lanka.  The group happens to involve core figures in the "panspermia movement," making the "discovery" suspicious… if interesting.

== And even MORE science Miscellany! ==

haasI first saw glimmers of this some years ago. What if every light bulb in the world could also transmit data? At TED Global, Harald Haas demonstrates a device that  flickering the light from a single LED too quick for the human eye to detect can transmit far more data than a cellular tower -- and do it in a way that's more efficient, secure and widespread.

I'm not certain how accurate this report is. But it claims that Chinese scientists have collected DNA samples from 2,000 of the world’s smartest people and are sequencing their entire genomes in an attempt to identify the alleles which determine human intelligence. 

Apparently they’re not far from finding them, and when they do, embryo screening will allow parents to pick their brightest zygote and potentially bump up every generation's intelligence by five to 15 IQ points.  It is essentially a variant on the eugenics approach described in Robert Heinlein's BeyondHOrizonBeyond This Horizon in which couples would fertilize a hundred zygotes (embryos) then analyze them and choose one to bring to fruition and birth, a wholly natural child that they might have had anyway, but still with both good and worrisome implications.

A fascinating article, We Aren't the World,  goes into why, after decades of emphasis on diversity and multiculturalism, the sciences of anthropology and psychology still tend to assume uniformity and that people around the world think largely like Americans… who may (according to some metrics) be the weirdest people of all.

President Obama has proposed a bill to allow anyone to unlock a cell phone that they already own.  This should be just the beginning of a trend toward freeing patents and copyrights and other Intellectual Property from the hellish trap they have fallen into.  Instead of serving their original purpose, to end millennia of secrecy and lure creative people into sharing their innovations, they have become tools for constraining and limiting use, even of things that you rightfully own. I do not oppose IP or patents or copyrights!  We do need to remember what they were for. Here's an essay going into some detail.  For even more of the basic concept, see: The Transparent Society: Will Technology Make Us Choose Between Privacy and Freedom? 

For decades, "phage therapy" was  a realm of medicine that always seemed to glimmer on the tantalyzing horizon. Pursued mostly by Soviet scientists, the notion was to find viruses that would preferentially infect and kill the kinds of microbes that are parasites on humans. There is even a variety that attacks human cancer cells preferentially. An oncolytic virus is a virus that infects and kills cancer cells without damaging healthy tissue.  In science fiction, the concept of an oncolytic virus was first introduced to the public in Jack Williamson's 1951 novel Dragon's Island. Alas, this field hovered at the edge of proved practicality… until (apparently) right now. In response to encouraging clinical trials. For example, Amgen purchased the oncolytic virus company BioVex for $1 billion in January 2011. And more recent news suggests a phage will soon be attacking melanomas in people.  Hopefully without the results seen in the Hollywood film I Am Legend.

== And finally … ==

V. H. P. Louzada and colleagues appear to be endorsing my kind of human. "Here we propose the use of contrarians to suppress undesired synchronization."  Yes, they are talking about damping wild swings in neuronal networks, but the same wisdom can apply in societies.

See?  I told you folks it was wise to put up with ornery bastards!  Dogmas and polarized “sides” are a sure sign of diminished brain capacity.  Criticize everything. Even your allies. Especially yourself.


Acacia H. said...

I hope that oncolytic virus research results come out in time to help a friend's fiancee who is suffering stage 4 melanoma that keeps coming back. Are they doing human trials yet?

Rob H.

Lorraine said...

Do you think this Summly about which everyone has been talking is essentially a "gisting" app?

locumranch said...

The laughs just keep on coming:

An oncolytic virus sounds like the prologue of almost any zombie or end-of-the-world film since 'Omega Man'.

The Chinese attempt to locate and augment the genes for human intelligence sounds like the plot of a 1984 Jerry Lewis film called "Slapstick (Of Another Kind)".

And, the (great) article in the Pacific Standard, "We Aren't the World," suggests that we practice self-delusion when we put our faith in a western intellectual hegemony:

"Cross-cultural studies that suggest that the “weird” Western mind is the most self-aggrandizing and egotistical on the planet: we are more likely to promote ourselves as individuals versus advancing as a group. WEIRD minds are also more analytic, possessing the tendency to telescope in on an object of interest rather than understanding that object in the context of what is around it. (Other) Studies show that Western urban children grow up so closed off in man-made environments that their brains never form a deep or complex connection to the natural world."

Makes me want to sing "We are the Weird" with a collection of washed-up celebrities.


Acacia H. said...

Given the tendency of pessimists to die at a younger age in most studies, are you sure you want to push non-stop defeatism, locumrach? And doesn't it get downright depressing to be in your head and look at a sunrise only to think "oh joy, skin cancer. And I'm one day closer to dying..." instead of marveling at the beauty of this world we live in, and the fact that despite all our differences, we are able to coexist?

Rob H.

Justin said...

Wonderful post, Mr. Brin!! Terrific writing and summation of fascinating advances. Looking forward to more!

Tony Fisk said...

World War Z via Oncolytic virus? Nah! Zombies are just an emergent property of collaborative crowd sourcing. (Get off m' lawn, ya damn zombies!)

I have a more mundane use for stuff like graphene: use it in airships, buoyed by vacuum, as Francesco di Lana intended.
All it takes is a material capable of withstanding
a compressive stress of 100 kPa!
Make it 1MPa for safety. Still well below the 50 GPa they're looking for in space elevators
(although, admittedly, that's extensive strain... Oh! Left. Right. Stress. Strain. Never can tell the difference!)

I've just remembered that, 'Ghost of the Grand Banks', Clarke used glass bubbles to float the wreck of the Titanic.
Same principle, and the pressure differentials would be significantly greater!)

Rhonda Palmer said...

yep. You can call 'em!

atomsmith said...

99% less energy cost, really?

Last I read, current RO processes were only about 10x less efficient than the theoretical best.

Anyone here (who remembers their high school chemistry) know what's up?

Tom Crowl said...

I'm optimistic about the potentials of technology to address the material limitations facing humanity.

However, other than the random meteor strike...

It seems to me the greatest threat now is related to how we manage the scaling of our human groups.

10,000 years ago a few disgruntled guys could make some serious trouble but not imperil humanity in general.

But the rise of technology is accompanied by vulnerabilities that are significantly changing that equation.

There are no perfect solutions.

But I'd suggest a good deal more attention to the problem.

BTW, maybe of interest:

Advances in Cultural Neuroscience

WB Reeves said...

7931lickydeAs always, lots of grist for the mental mill. Thanks.

BTW, in reading back over your previous posts I followed the link to your takedown of Frank Miller's repugnant 300. A pleasure to read. Sorry I missed the back and forth on that one.

Anonymous said...

Also, do some reading on HP's new "memristor" technology. It's a new memory tech with Flash-type capabilities, but also the speed of RAM and data densities beyond anything in existence. They're saying that a square centimeter would hold 100GB - and a cubic centimeter would hold a petabyte (1000 terabytes). A standard 3.5" shaped SSD could hold 100x that.

Of course, HP's tech is built out of titanium - which is rare and expensive. So look into OSU's announcement that they've built the same thing out of aluminum.

sociotard said...

Honestly, I'd be less interested in making people smarter and more interested in seeing what genes we could tweak to make them better at living in civilization. Maybe accelerate the natural process of domesticization in humans some people think is going on.

Ian said...

Anonymous, titanium is expensive but not rare.

It's all over the damn place but the metal bonds really well with Oxygen.

Currently we're in the same situation as we were with aluminium in the 1870s.

That may be about to change.

TheMadLibrarian said...

Regrettably, the scientist who thought he discovered fossilized diatoms in that meteorite didn't allow for Earthly, fresh water contamination. The diatoms were all of the above. He's also the same one who swore up and down that the 'red rain' which fell several months back in India was of extraterrestrial origin. He is so enamored of the panspermia theory that any unusual phenomena is instantly labeled potentially ET.

nedbitiz: economic theory of bitcoins

Acacia H. said...

It was recently discovered that nanowires can result in a significant improvement of the efficiency of solar cells - a 50% improvement in current I believe. According to an MIT study, it's a 5% overall improvement, which is still nothing to shrug at - and a second study looked into the use of sole nanowires as photovoltaics.

Here's one of the articles on the topic.

Rob H.

Alex Tolley said...

I think LEDs pay for themselves quickly if you employ labor to change teh bulbs. For teh homeowner, LEDs are still quite expensive (see Home depot prices) and the cheaper ones in HD, made in China, have a reputation for poor quality and short lives. I don't see LEDs as a game changer, but I do think that they will provide far more novel ways to do lighting, especially if they can be integrated into the building structure.

If the LM single layer graphene water purifier pans out as regards energy, that would be a huge gane changer. It solves California's water shortage for coastal cities at a stroke. SF can then safely close Hetch Hetchy if they desire. Could it even help recycle water in the interior and save farming over the Ogallala?

The brain gets ever more complicated as we delve deeper, delaying the "rapture of the nerds". OTOH, we are getting a raft of new techniques to image the neural firings in real time, which should help in teasing apart its mechanisms. We might then be able to find out if we need to model the brain in detail, or whether all the interactions can be modeled much more simply.

"Criticize everything. Even your allies. Especially yourself."
Almost a paraphrase of Feymman's
"The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool." A good aphorism to live by.

Acacia H. said...

It could also allow for widescale terraforming that could cool the planet. How so? Well, currently desertification is a problem in several regions. But what if a significant part of the Sahara Desert was turned into a fresh water lake (or would that be "sea" if it's large enough)? You start pumping water in from the Atlantic that's run through several filters (just to make sure there's no leaks that result in a deluge of salt water). The region surrounding the lake will be able to support plant life. Further, the lake itself will alter the climate in that area so to cause rainfall in surrounding regions... and at a certain point it may become self-sustaining.

What if this was done for the center of Australia? A vast desert region suddenly becomes a haven for plant life. Agriculture can flourish in the region while wildlife sanctuaries can also be established. And when self-supporting, it could lessen the risk of wildfires in Australia. And this could even be done for sections of the United States and Mexico that are deserts.

The added plant growth in both regions would draw carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. These areas thus become carbon sinks... or at the very least lower the rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

The only "problem" would be for desert species in those regions. But you know something? The benefits outweigh the problems for those species, especially as we can try to save some of them and put them in specific habitats... or even let nature run its course and let them evolve to the sudden altered climate. (I suspect it's easier to adapt to a moister climate than a drier hotter one.)

Ian said...

A quick note about solar cell prices:

There's a long-term downward trend in solar cell prices and that's likely to continue.

But the rapid decline in prices over the last year or so is probably a temporary phenomenon.

A few years back, there was a massive surge in investment in crystalline silicon refineries and in solar cell fabrication capacity.

That was inspired in large part by subsidies on solar cells in Europe and cheap capital and economic stimulus in China, the leading manufacturing country.

Subsidies have been cut in several leading markets now - particularly Germany and Spain.

Demand is still rising but supply is rising even faster - and there's a pipeline of new manufacturing capacity still under construction.

Ian said...

"What if this was done for the center of Australia? A vast desert region suddenly becomes a haven for plant life. Agriculture can flourish in the region while wildlife sanctuaries can also be established. And when self-supporting, it could lessen the risk of wildfires in Australia."

Water isn't the only restraint on vegetation in central Australia.

Australian soils are severely deficient in micronutrients and in carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus.

Also, there's a huge differential in cost between irrigation water and reticulated water for human use. Even reducing the cost of one part of the desalination process by a fator of 100 isn't going to close that gap in most areas of the planet.

Tim H. said...

I find it interesting that Lockheed-Martin has been in the news for things other than implements of destruction, the desalination filter's impressive, but there was also this:
Sometimes, the future looks interesting in a good way.

Ian said...

Even the 100 Megawatt prototype reactor would make a spectacular propulsion system for a spaceship.

Paul451 said...

Ew. Can we have tissue paper machine back?

Jumper said...

A lot of that "mysterious non-linear" computation in the neuron has been mapped and might be simpler to add in to computational models than Dr. Brin suggests. The chemical paths in neurons are studied pretty well. It's a requirement for more size to the model, but I think not too conceptually challenging.

I was thinking about the Pandora music algorithms they use to create an artificial intelligence to help select each listener's preference for new music. [it takes tweaking by the user, but works well rather quickly, and can work extremely well with more tweaking]

They started with some very labor-intensive sorting of musical pieces "by hand" using employees to create a large database of differing fields. From thence, the automated nature of the program is able to establish its own connections.

I think in AI, something similar will be likely to produce best results. Rough efforts to cordon off areas for such as "visual cortex" and "proprioceptive cue spaces" and "auditory cortext" and "reward spaces" prior to letting the self-evolving software make its forays into development might work better than just giving a trillion artificial neurons the order to begin creating networks out of general tweaking software.

rewinn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
rewinn said...

You might find this new use of technology interesting: As of today, every 15 minutes, a surplus Russian EBUTEBYA spy satellite transmits a photo of Seattle to a computer center on Queen Anne Hill. Advanced photoanalysis software scans each parking space and characterizes as either empty or occupied by a vehicle, which is further characterized by color, length and width. Any vehicle found in the same location for more than 3 hours has overstayed its parking meter. A Twitter message is sent to an enforcement vehicle for ticketing. Remarkably, Seattle Parking Enforcement Work System Tickets (SPEWS-Tickets) was implemented the 1st day of the 2nd quarter this year.
Press Release And Image

Tony Fisk said...

The acronym suggests they're expecting a bonanza... (probably take a day for people to wise up! ;-)

Ian said...

Well this is unexpected: there may be much more recoverable oil than we thought - but the recovery process uses large amounts of carbon dioxide mitigating some of the warming that would result from burning the oil.

locumranch said...

Most posters on this site are unabashedly 'WEIRD' -- "Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic" -- and they are damn proud of it despite the fact that these westerners are "outliers among outliers", representing a psychological exception rather than the human rule.

In the manner of Next Gen Trekkies, these weirdos then assume that "Technology might change everything". They hope against hope that improvements in human technology will somehow translate into improvements in human nature; and they worship the coming "singularity" which will (hopefully) (magically) alter human nature in a decisive manner.

This is why I find so inappropriately humorous about so many of these threads: The delusional belief that that technological "clothes make the man".

It is gallows humour to be sure. A gallows humour that springs from an absurd amount of self-deception and/or pretension. We tell ourselves that we would be happier (better) people if we were somehow smarter, richer, more accomplished or productive, yet we (US Society) suffer from more unhappy mental illness than anywhere else in the world (32.4% as of 2010).

We are guilty of probability fallacy on a grand scale; we project our problems on the greater world; and we think that we can alter the unalterable by 'positive thinking'.

I laugh at these human foibles because we must. Otherwise, we must cry.


Alfred Differ said...

How do we know what is unalterable?

Evidence suggests that WEIRD people have managed to change their own situation over the centuries as measured by our longer lives, reduced violence toward each other, and our wealth. That fact that many others in the world are adapting and adopting some of our ways suggests there is some usefulness to our tools and social constructs. The same measures apply.

Imagining a 'trekkie' world IS too much. On that I agree. Humans are going to keep being humans and 'trek' humans weren't. Nevertheless, humans DO change. We have more than enough evidence for this, so it is reasonable to expect it to continue.

Acacia H. said...

That depends on which Trek. Original series Trek? They were human enough. And Deep Space Nine? They were also nicely human (even the aliens! ^^). It's the other series where things started going in strange directions.

But then, I rather preferred humanity from Babylon 5. Indeed, much of what made ST:DS9 so great was the fact they were competing against B5. You'll noticed this was when we had ongoing storylines and story-arcs with a genuine sense of continuity... and a meta-story in which significant changes were being inflicted upon several of the Star Trek "nations."

Rob H.

rewinn said...

I must agree about DS9 and its uber-story arc; unlike every other series, the characters were allowed to have growth, change and learn because it was all sort of a novel; the other series were merely strings of episodes in which the characters could not grow significantly, unless they were being ejected from the series through apotheosis or death.
Having an arc allowed DS9 to explore deeper stories than the episodic series did; in particular the reactions to Sisko, Worf and Odo to extreme stresses of war just would not have made sense in the other series because it changed them; they were not the same characters at the end as they were at the beginning.

As for @locumranch's comments on technology vs. personality: the jury is out. Surely we retain much of the baggage of our ancestors, but modern humanity is vastly more human than they are. We do aweful things, yes, but sometimes we regret it afterwords, and sometimes we don't do it at all. In contrast, read Henry V's speech before Harfleur and keep in mind that he was the good guy!

Technology is not magic, but I have observed it help people feel the humanity of people around the world, and make a difference in a small way, e.g.

Tim H. said...

Technology can be an amplifier,letting us show our humanity in more ways, good and bad, so I could imagine it could enable enough change that our ancestors would have some difficulty dealing with our descendants. Even now, the 19th century would be excessively interesting to adjust to, and I think Eric Flint understates how unsettling the 17th century would be for us.

Tim H. said...

Gakk, I've been verbose again, whatever our descendants are, they'll be Human, the definition shifts over time.

Ian said...

Locumranch, got any recent examples of people going on the record as being in favor of slavery?

locumranch said...

Alfred makes a good point. We know what is unalterable only by trying, failing and trying again. I would add, though, that the evolutionary jury is still out regarding the long-term benefits of being 'WEIRD' because industrialization (which makes 33% of our population 'mentally ill') may or may not be an effective long-term survival strategy.

Randy says that 'technology is not magic' and I agree, but I would add that most people -- who use technology without understanding it -- are incapable of making that distinction. Like Prospero summoning Ariel, they perform magic when they flip a light switch or anoint themselves with an antibiotic elixer. I repeat: Technology, like clothes, do not make the man even though they serve similar purpose, keeping him warm, preserving food resources & helping him look marvelous.

Tim says that our descendents will also be "human" and I beg to differ. Was Australopithecus human in the same sense that we are? Were orangutans? Similarly, there is no guarantee that our descendents will define us (or themselves) as 'human' even though we do.

And, Ian:

As evidenced by fuss over the benefits of citizenship, illegal immigration, minimum wage, work-for-welfare & bonded labour, slavery has never left us. We merely call it by a different names. Even David pointed out that this is GOP political platform regarding the lack of legal protections for undocumented workers.


Jumper said...

" We tell ourselves that we would be happier (better) people if we were somehow smarter, richer, more accomplished or productive"

As that isn't the "royal 'we'" I find it presumptive. Except for the richer part, which also does not equal better in my mind nor in the minds of many. I guess it's a desire for ego-superiority that "we" have, to assume such.

The low absolute numbers of WEIRD may be inconsequential compared to the high absolute numbers characterizing technology's comparative capabilities as an effective tool.

Alfred Differ said...

OK. I'll give some ground with respect to DS9. That one was more interesting and the humans were more human.

The evolutionary jury never comes in though. It always hangs because nothing ever ends. Unless all life goes extinct on this rock, even species death leads to a hung jury if the species was around long enough to speciate. Our ancestors demonstrate this fairly well by the variety of 'human' types.

The jury may be out, but the fact that there are 7 billion of us on this rock is telling. We used to have a hard time keeping just 1% that many alive not that long ago. Our life span and quality of life back then sucked when compared to modern life. Unless you make and wield stone axes and hunt & gather in small family bands, everything you have is 'technology' including the clothes on your back and the social institutions in which you participate. Hard and soft technology are the 'end' products of innovation which is very much an evolutionary process.

I know there are people who argue we haven't changed in a fundamental way because the tech is not us. I disagree, though, because the soft tech IS us in the cultural sense. As individuals it is reasonable to argue we haven't changed much, but as cultures I think it is a slam-dunk that we have. The existance of WEIRD culture demonstrates this.

Acacia H. said...

You do realize, locumranch, that your argument is flawed. When the current form of Homo Sapiens came about, they were outliers. They weren't the norm. And yet they managed to become the norm and even surpass competitors such as Neanderthal.

So who is to say that this outlier you call WEIRD is not in fact an evolutionary adaptation of humanity that could eventually surpass the rest of sociopolitical and socioeconomic variants found within Homo Sapiens?

Or to put it another way, stagnation leads to death. A company that does not grow will in a free market situation end up overcome by competitors. A culture that does not change will be surpassed by other cultures (as pre-Communist China is evidence of).

Rob H.

Acacia H. said...

And speaking of technologies that may change everything... scientists have found a micrometer-scale structure in fireflies that is easy to replicate and increases the brightness of Light Emitting Diodes by 50%. Though technically this probably could be applied to CFCs and incandescent lightbulbs as well. Best of all, it could be done without having to retool LEDs through use of laser etching.

I mean, one of the major problems with LEDs is you pay through the nose for ones with sufficient brightness to compete with incandescents. So if you can turn a 40 watt-effective bulb into a 60 watt bulb with just a little bit of work without having a significant bump in price? Then you have just made something an effective competitor.

It also provides a method of extending the product lifespan of incandescent bulbs... because now you have 66 watt bulbs putting out the light of a 100 watt bulb. While the power savings isn't as great as LEDs or even CFCs, it still is a power savings for an inexpensive bulb.

Rob H.

Alfred Differ said...

WEIRD is a macro-innovation that is being adapted and adopted by others. Every cultural group struggling to join the global market is becoming a WEIRD variant.

If 33% of us are mentally unfit to function as adults, that sounds exactly like a selection pressure. Those of us who survive to have and raise children will make the next generation even weirder.

The thing to measure (if it can be done) is how infectious weirdness is. Does it displace other memes?

locumranch said...

The use of the royal "we" is a WEIRD prerogative. See Item 1.2: "Researchers Often Assume their Findings are Universal". If you find the royal 'We' use offensive, then congrats because you're less WEIRD than think.

Q:"Who is to say that this outlier you call WEIRD is not in fact an evolutionary adaptation?"
A: Why Nobody, of course. That's up to Time & the Universe, not the prospective Dodo.

Everything WE have is 'technology' including the clothes on OUR back and the social institutions in which WE participate (Apologies to to Jumper). Problem is that OWNING technology is not the same as BEING technology. To assuming that 'possessing' and 'being' mean the same thing is a classic logical fallacy.

"Say not that you are a fine man because you own a fine (technological) horse," says Epictetus, "Say instead that you own a fine horse" (because the term 'fine' refers only to the horse).


David Brin said...

Re North Korean bluster:

(1) NKorean nukes are an insignificant threat (today) compared to the thousands of artillery tubes now buried in reverse slopes in mountains within range of Seoul. They can "rain fire" quite literally, within a single, synchronized minute. The SKorean leadership was criminally negligent to keep the capital and commercial heart in such a locale.

(2) We are alive today because saner heads maintained containment of communism since 1945, and never heeded the yokels screaming "nuke'em now!"

(3) Have any of you noticed the side benefit to us? The US is rushing in reinforced missle defense systems to Guam etc and the big Asian power who might have objected strenuously and effectively cannot, because their client state made it untenable for us NOT to reinforce. Obama is rushing though long-delayed upgrades in East Asia using NKorean bluster as an excuse. And the big neighbor has to just watch.

This may finally propel them into seeing the hermit kingdom as no asset.

LarryHart said...

Just back from out of town, so a few quick points in no particular order...

locumranch is right that slavery is simmering just below the surface. The right-wing pretty obviously is hot to re-establish feudalism, thinly disguesd as the property rights of the so-called owners of the means of survival. "I own all the stuff you need to live, and you are free to bargain with me for a share of it." Thom Hartmann posits that the original economic sin was when agriculture made it possible for an elite to "lock up the food."

I agree with several of you that Star Trek DS9 was great when it had extended story arcs that changed the status quo (such as Gul Dukat allying with the Dominion, making the Cardassians a force to be feared again). But who says TNG didn't have extended arc either. I found some of the middle seasons absolutely fascinating because of the Klingon politics and Roumlan intrigue arcs.

Just returned from St Louis where the family and I saw (among other things) the lemurs at the zoo. I have to say that the reason the missing link between monkeys and humans hasn't been found is because everyone is looking for the wrong thing. Lemurs are the missing link between monkeys and CATS.

LarryHart said...

Technology in and of itself doesn't make us better people, but it does make it easier for large numbers of people not to be hungry, cold, desperate, and afraid.

And people who are not hungry, cold, desparate, and afraid are more likely to be better people than are people who ARE all of those things.

That's why a social safety net is a benefit to all of society, not just those who are "lucky ducky" to be poor enough to receive the benefits. Believing this to be the case is almost entirely the reason I consider myself a liberal.

Alfred Differ said...


I'm not concerned with whether or not others (non-weird) see technology the same way I do. I'm sure they won't. That doesn't mean there isn't value to my perspective on this. Insights at at the basis of innovations that tend to be adopted by outliers. I'm fine with that. If there is enough value in an insight others might adopt it for themselves, but value is always measured by the individual so that works out without bias.

Owning and being something can be overlapping. I'm following in an old liberal tradition described by Locke. The most fundamental property we own is ourselves, so there is a relationship between being free to use your property as you choose and being free to act as you choose.

For example, I both use the English language and shape it as if it were a tool. In a sense, I am also part of the English language since it doesn't exist without people who speak and write it. I own it. I am it. I shape it. I am not the only one who has a claim like this, though. The language IS what we all are.

Alfred Differ said...

Where the hermit kingdom is a possible asset to China is in the price we pay to get China to talk them down from apparent insanity. Watch for the possibility that we will roll back these upgrades if China helps out. If we do that it means we are setting the price instead of letting the Chinese do it.

I expect we will go along with this bluster-for-rewards for a little while longer. It currently serves our interests to do so. China has to step up soon, though, to make sure it serves theirs too.

Hank Roberts said...

Here's another -- if you don't know H.E. Taylor, take the time to read more starting here:

Damien Sullivan said...

I'm late... but where'd you get the trillion synapse figure? If directly from Kurzweil, that seems even less reason to take him seriously; the Webmind has estimates of 150 trillion to 700 trillion synapses.

ducotech said...

I wonder if they are doing human trials yet?