Friday, August 01, 2014

Science that threatens… and promises wonders

AI-birthGeorge Dvorsky has a piece on iO9, How Artificial Intelligence Will Give Birth to Itself,  summarizing many of the worrisome aspects of a possible runaway effect, when self-improving artificial intelligences (AI) get faster and faster at designing new and better versions of themselves. A thoughtful reflection on how the Singularity might (or might not) go out of control.

Alas, George left out a process issue that makes all the difference. That issue is Secrecy, which lies at the root of every Michael Crichton science-goes-wrong scenario. (Not one of Michael's plot drivers would have taken place, if the "arrogant scientists" had done their innovating in the open - as most scientists have been trained to prefer - exposing their new robots/dinosaurs and so on to truly public, error-correcting criticism.)

Efforts to develop AI that are subject to the enlightenment process of reciprocal scrutiny might see their failure modes revealed and corrected in time. Those that take place in secret are almost one hundred percent guaranteed to produced unexpected outcomes. And most likely dangerous ones.

The worst example of AI research that is secret and extremely well-funded, while creating AI systems that are inherently amoral, predatory and insatiable? It's a danger that I explore here: Why a Transaction Fee Matters to You. Automated investment programs... of which High Frequency Trading is only one example... represent probably the most dangerous AI research on our planet today.

== But who needs AI, with brainy-folks like this? ==

Closer-To-Truth-David-BrinRobert Kuhn’s television series Closer To Truth “gives you access to the world’s greatest thinkers exploring humanity’s deepest questions. Discover the fundamental issues of existence. Enjoy new ways of thinking. Appreciate diverse views. Witness intense debates. Express your own opinions. Seek your own answers. Get smarter.”

Wow… that’s a pretty hefty promise! So why not check out this fabulous series, now available online? Full disclosure: I contributed a few bits to the program, on topics ranging from cosmology and SETI to religion and ESP.

But scan the impressive lists of other folks, some of them - heck, most of them - way smarter than me! Such as David Deutsch, Freeman Dyson and Francisco Ayala. Mind-blowing stuff.

== We can do that! Should we? ==

You’ve got to wonder why this politically self-destructive course has been chosen.   Perhaps something isn’t being told. China building Dubai-style fake islands in the South China Sea. All in service of asserting extremely aggressive territorial claims.

Also. Dubai is planning the largest indoor theme park in the world, which will be covered by a glass dome that will be open during the winter months. The project will also house the plant's largest shopping mall with an area of 8 million sq. ft., which will take the form of an extended retail street network. Oil is creating whole climate controlled cities in the middle east, prototypes for space colonies?

Meanwhile, America declines into superstition. Nation apparently believed in some point. (I guess the Greatest Generation truly was better than us boomers.)

Stirling cycle engines have long been considered an under-developed opportunity in power generation. Using a closed gas cycle to tap energy from any substantial heat difference, these external combustion devices have been used in spacecraft. They can - at very low maintenance - draw power from burning just about anything.   Now… Segway inventor Dean Kamen thinks his new Stirling Engine will get you off the grid for  under $10,000.

== Physics and astronomy ==

A massive solar storm -- or Coronal Mass Ejection -- barely missed the Earth in 2012. “If it had hit, we would still be picking up the pieces,” physicist Daniel Baker, about the biggest storm in at least 120 years. Looking around and taking prudent precautions in a dangerous universe is what both science fiction and sanity are for. Ostriches who stick their heads in the ground will lose everything.

Long predicted — the Age of Amateurs in astronomy! Astronomers have long known that combining the data from several astrophotographs can reveal dramatically more detail about astrophysical objects. So what will they discover by combining all the astrophotographs on the Web? They’ve developed a system that automatically combines images from the same part of the sky to increase the effective exposure time of the resulting picture. And they say the combined images can rival those from much professional telescopes.

Cool. The Curiosity lander on Mars happened to be perfectly situated to catch images of the tiny (14 miles) moon Phobos eclipsing the Sun. Wow.

Oh!  Hot off the presses... (when will that phrase lose all relation to its origins?)...  NASA has revealed the suite of instruments that will likely fly on the next (2020) Mars roving laboratory, or “son-of-Curiosity.”  A way cool set of new scientific methods… though again nothing to explicitly check for life itself.  Meanwhile, NASA's Opportunity Rover sets an off-world driving record: 25 miles covered!

Astronomers announced the discovery of the fifth known triple supermassive black hole system in the universe. Some galaxies have more than one central black hole — each orbiting the other in relatively close proximity — and scientists say this is probably the result of two or more smaller galaxies merging. The two closest black holes are separated by a distance of 140 parsces (one parsec equals about 3 light years). The third supermassive black hole is much farther away.

HIGGINSA very interesting and challenging and smart series of cartoons explaining tough fields of physics, like magnetohydrodynamics. Also black holes and weird geometries. I do sniff a little crack-pottery, around the edges, so be aware some of it is… non-paradigm. Still, very good tours of difficult topics!

A Caltech prof’s new theory suggests a highly unusual class of stars -- 1 in 10,000 -- may be made entirely of metal. Wow. I wonder how long they last.

Microscopically structuring steel like bamboo makes it stronger yet more flexible.

Finally, I have been putting in queries to Kip Thorne and other General Relativity experts about Hawking Radiation at the fringes of a gravity well... do any of you out there know such an expert with an open mind? I really do have a physics PhD!  So a little professional courtesy? ;-)


Anonymous said...

It is always both the best of times and the worst of times expanding. Open bright minds operating under the light of wisdom always enthrall. I love and respect science. Never fear it.

Stefan Jones said...


I am right at this moment watching an episode of the new SF series "Extant."

Great cast, splendid production values, nicely realized near-future setting, interesting sub-plot about a robot kid (raised, like the AIs in Existence, as a kid, switching bodies as "he"grows) . . .

. . . and of COURSE they turn it into a Sinister Conspiracy story, with remorseless government agents acting on behalf, it seems, of a billionaire-scientist-genius.

* * *

I would like to plug an on-line-acquaintances Kickstarter project. "Shrox" wants to fund production of a calendar of art depicting the settlement of Mars:

Jonathan S. said...

Interesting physics comics. I think I might have even understood about half of the one about magnetohydrodynamics.

It did, however, leave me with one question: What would be the effect on a human body of prolonged exposure to a magnetic field of 20 teslas? (I do know that MRIs are done at field strengths of up to 3 teslas, and there is some concern in the literature about the effects of stronger fields than that...)

David Brin said...

Just FB promoted that Mars Kickstarter.

Anonymous said...

Intriguing news about a reactionless (in the conventional sense of the word) electric thruster:

The generally reliable Gerald Nordley noteed on the CONTACT list:

"Jeroen and all,

Is it real?

It's hard to tell from that article. The NASA nd the Cannae work are not experimental replications of Shqwer's EM thruster. The Chinese claim is for several orders of magnitude more thrust. And so on. I think one has to wait for the dust to settle.

I will note that a 300 kW mircowave source will produce about a millinewton of thrust from photon reaction pressures alone. (Thrust = Power/c, where c is the speed of light). While the article cites various thrust levels, it doesn't give the power levels used to get the thrust cited Presumably, they are lower than those needed by a photon rocket or there wouldn't be so much excitement--but we need the numbers.

The notion of somehow transferring momentum to virtual particles is akin to what is sometimes described in science fiction and elsewhere as "reacting against the fabric of spacetime," a longtime dream and consistent with momentum conservation laws. A more modern version would be to react against dark matter, somehow. Anyway, despite some hyperbolic language in the popular press, thes results are not "impossible" from a conservation law standpoint.

My standard for getting excited as a physicist would be for consistent replication of the performance of a given device (not some other device) by at least two independent skeptical investigators, and my standard as a propulsion engineer would be for the resulting thrust to be significantly higher per unit power than a photon drive would achieve. I don't think we're quite there yet, at least from this article.

--Best, Gerald"

Stefan Jones said...

Whoops, that was me right above there!

sociotard said...

for those amused by Ken Ham:

End the space program, because aliens are going to hell anyway

David Brin said...

I've put in a query to Geoff Landis - NASA scientist and SciFi author who probably attended that conference and may give the straight dope... or poop.

Paul451 said...

Re: All "metal" stars.

Of course it's worth remembering that astronomers call anything except hydrogen and helium, "Metals". Carbon, oxygen, neon...

Doesn't make a hydrogen- and helium-less star not freaky, but don't picture some kind of SF-pulp cover art silvery metallic star.

Re: Extant.
Yeah, couldn't finish the first episode. Trained astronaut keeps impossible-pregnancy a secret after not only keeping severe hallucination during radiation storm a secret, but deleting video evidence. No. The robot kid could have been interesting, but it went "bad seed" as soon as it could. Dull. Bad cast, bad acting, bad plot, bad premise. Ick.

Paul451 said...

Re: NASA "validates" impossible space drive

Lot of gushing reporting of this. But it seems that NASA tested two versions, one designed to produce a force according to the inventor's theory and another which was designed not to produce a force according to the theory but was identical in every other way to act as a null article.

NASA's test produced micro-Newton forces from both the test article and the null article.

So why wasn't it seen as an immediate invalidation by null hypothesis? A) the test article produced a greater force than the null article, B) no-one knows why the null article produced a force, the test team believed they had eliminated all possible extraneous forces, C) strictly speaking, the testers had no null hypothesis, precisely because they'd assumed they'd eliminated every mundane alternative input, they thought they'd either get two negatives because they'd eliminated the actual (false) cause, or they'd show the device works and the null doesn't.

So the inventors (and the always loyal fringe physics fanbase) immediately decided the test meant that the null article was accidentally exploiting the same magic effect as the real one, not that both articles were creating something mundane (like an ion-wind - although that specific thing was checked for.) As is the way of such things.

Alex Tolley said...

Isn't the variable grain metal exactly the form of the samurai sword manufacture?

@Paul451 - I agree with you regarding the "space drive".
Isn't one of the authors of the paper "Sonny" White - who recently announced that that he was going to do a Nasa sponsored experiment for a warp drive?
I think the Arsenic microbe debacle a few years back seriously soured me on Nasa's public approach to science. I'm sure they have great scientists and engineers, but they back some seriously unsubstantiated work. Who reviews this?

Alex Tolley said...

re: Stirling engines. My understanding is that they can reach about 30% efficiency. This makes them quite good for low cost space power using concentrators. However, newer PV ideas may raise efficiency to double that of today's panels, making these more suitable. Funny how we return to such retro ideas. Stirling engines powered with heat from concentrating mirrors was the approach suggested for all those early space station and spacecraft power systems.

Alex Tolley said...

re: 2012 "Carrington Event"

It still boggles my mind that we skated through this one by luck. Unlike earthquake preparedness, there does not seem to be any suggested precautions for this type of event, for homeowners or utilities. People worry about human induced EM pulses as part of a cyber war, yet a major flare happening every century of so seems to be ignored. This could be a real global civilization impactor, perhaps as bad or worse than a small asteroid impact.

Jonathan S. said...

Re: White - not quite the same thing. Alcubierre's theory seems to hold water, aside from the fact that it requires negative energy density and the mass/energy of Jupiter. I don't know if anyone's reviewed White's reworking of Alcubierre, but I was under the impression this had happened, and the energy requirements under the revision would be more reasonable; the current series of experiments are to determine if negative energy density (achievable via the Casimir effect) can indeed produce Alcubierre-style space warping.

Not really the same as declaring that you've built a revolutionary new drive that violates known physics, but you won't explain the physics until someone purchases the rights from you...

Paul451 said...

Dude is 3d-printing a full sized castle.

(Well, technically he's currently 3d-printing a smaller version of his intended full size castle. A small house, large cubby-house sized copy of a castle. But still...)

Thing I find interesting, in the images, that darker layer at the top is apparently a single 8hr print. Presumably the next lighter layer was the previous 8hr session. Which means, best guestimate, the whole thing, two thirds finished, took four print sessions. So at most, six sessions to complete it, once the bugs are ironed out, maybe five. (There may have been lost days jacking up the printer each time, but still...) Print a house in a week, and most of the week you don't actually need to do anything except keep the concrete hopper full.

Interesting #2, although he's keeping the layered look, it would only take a singe set of patterned rollers running behind the print head to smooth the finish or imprint a faux image like stones/brickwork/tiles/rosette/strapwork/etc.

Alex Tolley,
Re: Carrington.
For individual householders, prepping for a Carrington Event is just a matter of preparing for the grid to go down for a long time (and hence many of the other utilities to fail due to lack of power. Phones, cellphones, water, maybe gas.) It might also short grid-connected electronics, and maybe even electrics (like you fridge). So you'd want a generator, fuel, unplugged lights and a spare unplugged fridge. Plus food/water/medication for a few weeks to a few months, depending on how cautious you want to be. Through to long term deeply self-sustaining bug-out-site if you think losing power means the fall of civilisation and TEOTWAWKI.

I haven't done any of those things, of course.

But then neither has my country, so we're even. Oh, wait...

Tony Fisk said...

Castle printing in layers reminds me of the Lord in Holy Grail who kept building his castle in a swamp until it didn't sink.

re: Carrington event. Someone put the risk of being hit by one at 1 in 8 over the next decade. That's an even chance in the next fifty years. The danger was really being pushed a couple of years ago, when we didn't have good solar observational platforms that could give us an early warning. Whether utilities would 'shutter the grid' in response is debatable.

Someone recently put an interesting question to Dr. Karl: "Does dark matter form black holes?" Like me, he could do little more than admire the problem, but it got me wondering: are all the 'white holes' pumping out dark matter?

David Brin said...

3D printing in concrete was pioneered by a group at USC a few years ago, and they are making thinks larger than this castle. Still, the cool thing is such a home can be built fire-proof.

Carrington event. Homes with solar roofs (like mine) are deliberately designed to shut down in a blackout. There are simple things that could be done to let us be islands of refrigeration of recharging for our neighborhoods, while still keeping line-men safe. Criminal negligence.

David Brin said...

Geoff landis responded to my query!

"In fact, I was at the conference... but I didn't go to that session.

I'm glad to see NASA doing tests like this, but...

This experiment wasn't done in vacuum, and I'm not really going to pay much attention to it until a test center with some experience in rocket engine testing (JSC is not a rocket engine test facility) replicates the test in vacuum. (even a very small amount of air getting heated and expelled would overwhelm the effect.)

I am told that both NASA Glenn and JPL are planning tests to confirm the results, though, and these will be done in vacuum.

Another thing that didn't seem to get mentioned very much was that the prediction was that you need to make an asymmetrical field to produce thrust, but the test showed the same result whether or not the field was asymmetric. The control article produced as much thrust as the test article! So, formally, the test that they did actually falsified the theory they were testing.

-- Geoffrey A. Landis
NASA John Glenn Research Center

David Brin said...

Not only do this in vacuum. It would be important also to shield from magnetic and other fields. After all, an electrodynamic tether already can provide thrust without using reaction mass... though only in a realm like the Van Allen belts, where there is both a strong magnetic field and sufficient electron density to close the current loop.

I would have to guess that something like this would turn out to be involved.

Interesting that EM tethers work in exactly the realm you must get past, in order to unfurl a solar sail that would then be able to escape. It's like they are complementary partners.

Duncan Cairncross said...

Stirling engines,
small ones are about 10% (if you are lucky)

The last house I had built had solar water panels - to heat the water and the underfloor heating

I am getting another house built - so I looked at the same system,
It's not worth it!
I am going to go solar PV
Solar water is only 20% cheaper (energy/energy) and the energy produced is so much less useful

Si I'm going solar PV and a ground source heat pump for my underfloor heating

This is probably because it freezes here - it it doesn't freeze solar water is much cheaper

Paul451 said...

Re: Dark matter black holes.

You mean dark-matter-only black holes? From what I understand, dark matter clouds can't "radiate", so they can't collapse into dark-planets/stars/black-holes/etc. They remain defuse. So no.

But dark matter particles which pass an event horizon of a regular black-hole should get trapped the same as regular baryonic matter. And even if it was primarily made of dark matter, a "dark matter black hole" wouldn't look any different to a normal black hole, gravity is gravity.

Dark Matter: I so dark, yo!

Black Hole: You call that "dark"? C'mere, give us a hug. Heheheh.

Dark Matter: O_o

Jumper said...

The variable crystal sizes in metal left me unimpressed as smaller sizes generally form at higher quench speeds, so it's not new. Or maybe I'm missing something.

David Brin said...