Thursday, June 30, 2016

Expanding our view: Science and technology and unimagined possibilities!

Okay, this is going to be one of those spills of one cool (or amazing or scary) thing after another!

Hubble finds universe is expanding 9% faster than expected! Astronomers keep refining their measurements of Cepheid variable stars and type 1a supernovae, resulting in the best-yet determinations of the age of the universe and the Hubble Constant showing how fast the whole shebang is expanding. And now, in addition to Dark Energy and Dark Matter there is talk of Dark Radiation.  Wowzer.  The more you know….

Updating the Periodic Table: Nihonium (Nh), moscovium (Mc), tennessine (Ts) and oganesson (Og) are the newest elements - atomic numbers 113, 115, 117 and 118 - on the Periodic Table to receive names.  The first three are named for where they were discovered. The last for Russian nuclear physicist Yuri Oganessian, a pioneer with achievements including the discovery of superheavy elements.  

Looking ahead.... In his latest book, The Inevitable: Understanding the Twelve Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future, tech guru Kevin Kelly provides an optimistic road map for our near future, showing how the coming changes in our daily lives — from virtual reality in the home and on the street to robots in the workplace, from an on-demand economy to ever-present tracking, as well as artificial intelligence embedded in nearly everything we manufacture — Kelly proposes these trends can be understood as the result of a few long-term, accelerating forces; by embracing these coming changes, Kelly says we can better steer toward a positive future. You can watch Kevin Kelly discuss these major trends at the SXSW conference.

Thinking beyond Asimov's laws: This article discusses how to plan for a future with ethical robots.

Continuously rising: One simple, 40 second gif shows you the simplest path of global temperature rise since 1850, in a way that automatically adjusts for season. You can see the effects of industrialization accelerating, especially in recent years. Seriously, there's plenty to argue about, like how to adapt and fix and (in some cases like Florida) let go. So why are we still pretending there's room for argument about "whether"? There is no whether, only worsening weather. And denialists are direct harm-doers to our kids and our future.

== What we are... Where we've been ==

If the Guinea worm is pushed into extinction this coming year, then it will be just the second human disease to be eradicated after smallpox.  And former President Jimmy Carter will deserve a lot of credit for the accomplishment, having eliminated a painfully debilitating illness that afflicted 3 million people each year, when he left office. Said the 91 year old Carter: "I'd like the last Guinea worm to die before I do."

Sci fi sometimes creeps up, then pounces!  Top scientists recently held a closed meeting to discuss building a human genome from scratch....

...a topic explored in more detail in the recent book, The Gene: An Intimate History, by Pullitzer Prize winning author Siddhartha Mukherjee, who offers insight into our modern quest to understand our genetic heritage, how we are shaped by our DNA... and how modern science is now picking up the tools to reshape our genes and those of other creatures.

Indeed, journalist Jennifer Kahn ponders whether new CRISPR genetic tech opens up the possibility of altering entire species forever. “How will this new power affect humanity? What are we going to use it to change? Are we gods now?” A fascinating TED talk.

Researcher Yang Hu thinks food affects tolerance. He found that people from rice-growing provinces such as Guizhou, Fujian and Sichuan, where a large proportion of farmland is devoted to rice paddies, are significantly more accepting of premarital sex, extramarital sex and homosexuality, when compared with those from wheat-growing provinces such as Jilin and Shaanxi. This may not be about nutritional value, though. “For centuries before the prevalence of modern machines, rice plantations relied heavily on close cooperation between farmers for the provision of irrigation, while wheat tended to be managed by people working alone. The need of cooperation for the production of food—a necessity for survival —in rice-growing regions may have helped to cultivate a higher level of interpersonal dependence, mutual understanding and tolerance.

Chinese scientists suggest that complex single-celled organisms may have appeared on Earth up to a billion years earlier than previously thought.

A new book by Peter Ward and Caltech professor Joe Kirschvink, A New History of Life: The Radical New Discoveries about the Origins and Evolution of Life on Earth, challenges many of our ideas about the origins and evolution of life. New research indicates the monumental importance of catastrophic events in shaping our planet (the "Great Oxygenation Event", Snowball Earth) as well as the development of life... for our ancestors had to deal with "fire, ice, hammer blows from space, poison gas, the fangs of predators, pitiless competition, lethal radiation, starvation," as well as war, plague and ever-changing ecosystems, each event leaving "its mark in the total sum of DNA now extant."

A French cave contains a ring of broken stalactites arrayed in a way that could only be intentional… and has been dated to 175,000 years ago. Long before any other known form of art or construction. Wow.  

Eating the right amount of dietary fiber from breads, cereals, and fruits (appears to) be the single largest factor in helping us avoid disease and disability into old age.  

== Tech updates ==

The RoboBee micro sensor-drone weighs 4-thousandths of an ounce and can fly and now – perch against almost any surface using controlled electrostatics. 

Smart dust: increasing miniaturization will bring cameras the size of a grain of salt.

Stretching from the U.S. to Japan, Google's faster (60 terabytes per second) undersea cable goes live.

The World Economic Forum's Top Ten Emerging Technologies of 2016, including nanosensors, organs on chips, next-generation batteries, blockchain and optogenetics.

The proposed “hedgehog” asteroid rover uses a unique flywheel system to propel itself with great simplicity… an endeavor that we funded at NASA’s Innovative and Advanced Concepts group (NIAC.)  

Here's the original video for the first CTO Challenge at FiRe Conferences.  The first of them, dealing with the "cell phone of the future." Now, a decade later, British researchers and Google each claim to have independently developed revolutionary concepts for Lego-like modular interactive mobile devices. But see our slides from 2007!

Soldiers need better hearing. To pick out sounds of danger… and to reduce the impact of harsh noises. These earbuds promise to do both

Onward! With confidence (and some caution and compassion.)  Ever-onward.


matthew said...

Wow. The French cave article is amazing. Time-travelers, anyone? Thanks for the kewl stuff, Doc.

Anonymous said...

The race is on: can we innovate fast enough to counter the environmental damage we have already done? With the current speed of technological breakthroughs, I have claimed that my generation will not die of old age. Either we will have conquered aging or the Zombie Apocalypse will have killed us off. Worst come to worst, I'll just Upload my mind and freeze my body. As a wise man once sang "...for the times they are a changin'".


Alfred Differ said...

Heh. We've won these kinds of races in the last couple of centuries. Before that, not so much. Never forget Malthus, how his ideas applied for a while, and then didn't. 8)

David Brin said...

Alfred, the human quirk that's saving us... the fact that human females, when fully empowered, educated and with confidence of two thriving kids, will tend to JUST have two... that miracle may win us the stars. It did not have to be. And if we go four or five generations of mere tepid progress, not Star Trek, then it will STOP being true, because those who fee a need for 6 kids will pass on that trait.

Alfred Differ said...

@David: Progress in terms of real income (labor cost for things we tend to need) has gone from hard to find without optical aide to tepid to torrid over the last 20 decades. There have been plateaus, but they have been temporary and made up for on the other side. Maybe we will find a long one, but with billions of people entering the markets for the first time, I rather doubt it.

The first time I saw Hans Rosling’s bubble graphs showing what has happened to fertility, I was cheered, but it is the correlation between fertility and child mortality that got me to tear up. Wow. In hindsight it seems rather obvious. Save babies and their mothers will do what is best for them. We can do that whether growth slows or not, though. If growth slows too much for one group, rip off their parent’s leeches before the children can be harmed. If growth is doing fine, let them deal with the leeches themselves.

To get four or five generations of tepid growth (<1%), I suspect someone is going to have to destroy one or both of the memes we’ve helped spread. Dignity for income earning individuals and the Liberty to act on the knowledge they have. Spread the sense of dignity formerly reserved for aristocrats and priests by redefining it a bit to connect it to good market behaviors and we got the first. Spread the freedom to act and benefit from our actions and we got the second. These two have been spreading since the industrial revolution, but they finally reached the East within this last generation. They might get squashed in some regions, but the contagion will rage on elsewhere and then spread again later.

Your Coss would have to stamp this out completely for it to work. Not even small things like the Dutch Rebellion could be allowed for long. I’m kind of hoping you don’t develop them too much. Too spooky. 8)

ZarPaulus said...

Yeah, rice has so little nutritional value that eye disease is endemic to countries where it makes up most of the local diet.

If its' cultivation promotes those sorts of values we should probably give Golden Rice(TM) a shot.

Jumper said...

Who says Malthus does not apply? You see the effects of overpopulation everywhere.

Jumper said...

"population growth generally expanded in times and in regions of plenty until the size of the population relative to the primary resources caused distress"
This portion, of course. I'm not saying the corn laws were a good idea, and he changed his mind on that anyway.

duncan cairncross said...

Re- the cave structure

I'm a bit ambivalent about that - it is so far from what we already know that I'm taking a Bayesian view that the evidence needs to be rock solid

We need somebody else to do a proper scientific paper on that - it is inherently a huge claim

I suspect that it will be found to be some sort of natural formation - modified later

Tony Fisk said...

French cave structure formed by far-seeing but embittered Neanderthal shaman cursing the circle of Elders who exiled him over his suppositories. "Sit on *these*, yer bastards!" he mutters into the chill, dank darkness.

A more serious on-topic comment: a $35million piloted combat aircraft vs. a $35 raspberry powered AI? The choice is yours.

Paul SB said...

The Adidas article reminded me of a presentation I saw by a Buddhist organization called Tzu Chi that operates free medical clinics. They were making rather nice-looking polo shirts from recycled bottle plastic, which they gave away to the poor. They were exactly the color of a Mountain Dew bottle. It's good to see clever people making something potentially useful out of our garbage, though they will have to make a hell of a lot of Adidas to make a dent in the Pacific Garbage Vortex.

As a resident archaeologist wannabe, I would like to suggest that we not get too excited by that French cave article. It makes no reference to taphonomic processes, and archaeologists have often been fooled by apparent alignments of natural objects that "just had to be" manmade - until a better archaeologist came along and showed the evidence for the natural process that caused those alignments. It's really cool if it's true, but it is also really common for journalists to make statements that sound really exciting, while the actual scientists are shaking their heads and muttering about misleading the public and they didn't really say that.

You are absolutely right about rice causing blindness (due to Vitamin A deficiency), which is exactly what Golden Rice was made to counter. This is an example I always bring up when teaching genetic engineering. I don't remember how many children the UN estimates have been saved from blindness, but there is a limitation. Golden Rice requires more specific fertilizers than is often available naturally. That means farmers have to purchase fertilizers, but this problem mainly happens in places were farmers are too poor to afford them. Great genetic engineering, but problems with the economics & policy of implementation.

Paul SB said...

I found an article about the Tzu Chi Foundation's plastic to textile recycling program, if anyone is interested.

Anonymous said...

Ho, the optimists blinkered in their bubble chamber still cry inevitable? One may recall a book that covered the ever-accelerating progress plastering once inexpensive parlor walls with very expensive wall-screens, though how the shrinking middle class will afford such to their god Mammon might bear a moments consideration. Those who are so suckled to Mammon that the teat virtually gophers out the other end and who would make such offerings for VR run the various risks of sleep-walking (or car-sitting) though a fantasy world (on autopilot). Hey, tractor trailer.

1. "always upgrading services and subscriptions" -- while the free cash flow for corporations would obviously appeal to suckled Mammonites, the thought of continuous upgrades is something suitable for Dante: a special level of hell. Show of hands, folks, how swimmingly do updates go?

2. "cognifying" -- cheap AI? Well, RAID was once billed as inexpensive, and "cloud" is merely "someone else's computer" (that will have to be paid for. in full.)

3. "flowing" -- critical dependence on biosphere damage to try to keep always-on services running. The only thing unstoppable here is overweeing progress.

4. "screeing" -- monitors everywhere? Sweet mother of mercy, why?

5. "accessing" -- nah, corporations own your assests. That's where they get the free cash flow from the always upgrading services, data analytics, blablablah.

6. "sharing" -- is 10/10 on his sharing scale Kurzweil butt camera number 538,963? Hey! Was that a polyp? Ever-accelerating progress in cameras, doncha know. Wink.

7. "filtering" -- hadoop data mined maximal profit extraction from worshipers of Mammon. Mmmm, free cash flow. What's that sucking sound? Pay it no heed!

8. "remixing" -- And when is steamboat willie falling into the public domain? And remixing never needed your monster of tech. Shakespeare, for example, did an adequate job remixing Ovid with many orders of magnitude less biosphere damage. At least his hubris was reserved for his Hamlets, and not an idol of progress...

9. "interacting" -- "The woman held in one hand a small cigarette-package-sized radio, its antenna quivering. From this sprang tiny copper wires which ended in a dainty cone plugged into her right ear. There she was, oblivious to man and dog, listening to far winds and whispers and soap-opera cries, sleep-walking, helped up and down curbs by a husband who might just as well not have been there." -- Ray Bradbury. At least they were walking, and not car-sitting, for some positive spin?

10. "tracking" -- total surveillance is touted a benefit? Giggle.

11. "questioning" -- yes, I'd agree that this list is questionable in the extreme.

12. "beginning" -- skip to "The Machine Stops". Inevitable, haw.

Berial said...

You'd think that if someone was going to type that much they'd at least make it interesting.

Jumper said...

Yeah. People tut-tutting computers while they are themselves on the internet is barely worth a gassy smile.

Jumper said...

Although I'm okay with burning the Mammonites as witches.

David Brin said...

See now, this is both the deep drawback and blessing of the kind of fluffy college majors that this Anonymous fellow clearly took. They help guys like this to be very articulate (and verbose) while feeding a seething resentment toward the nerds who actually understand some of what’s happening in the world and have the nerve to think things can be made better, by correcting mistakes and enhancing the products of our better natures. Cynicism is a playground sneer that accomplishes nothing in the real world, but that delivers one of the finest self-doped drug highs.

What’s the blessing? That such people render themselves gelded, sinking into the torpor of their drug, snarking and railing against a civilization that has heaped upon them more riches and toys and pleasures and freedom and knowledge and vast opportunities than all of their ancestors had… combined… by a fact or many hundreds.

Ingrates, they look at the history of HOW this better civilization came about and cannot see that it refutes their cynicism thus! That moderate combinations of market competition and intelligent planning… and always plenty of open argument… have worked before and would work much better now… but for useless playground cynics.

As for anon’s list of failure modes… here’s the joke on him. ALL of them have some degree of validity! And ALL of them are being criticized, spotlighted, analyzed and probed by worried modern minds. Some of them are eager to find corrections, roused in part by a vigorous drive to prove the cynics wrong. But if the cynics are proved wrong - as they have been again and again — that ironically happens BECAUSE errors are pointed at, well in advance.

If these twits truly wanted to be right, they’d shut their yaps, in hope that - unseen - some of these traps would be sprung! But they cannot NOT whine and groan and carp. And thus they fulfill a role in preventing their dark, masturbatory-relished fantasies from ever coming true.

Alfred Differ said...

@jumper: There is good evidence that Malthusian limits were hit in Britain before the black plague and during Elizabethan times. Population rose a little above what they could reasonably sustain and real income dropped as a result. Five or six million people are what they could manage on piss-poor grain yields of the time. During the 18th century, though, they blew past this limit and real incomes weren’t hurt. During the 19th century they blew way past the limit and real incomes actually went up. Something is wrong with the assumptions Malthus made. I argue a Black Swan arrived in the form of the bourgeois revaluation. Malthus is still relevant in the absence of the swan, but from where I sit the swan and been joined by others and they are breeding.

Alfred Differ said...

Hmm… Yet another Mammon contemplation as if the analogy applies. BS.

The folks plastering their walls with screens, deploying a plethora of cameras and microphones, and upgrading services they purchase are doing what they freely choose to do. Along the way they motivate innovators by rewarding them with riches that have such a powerful aroma that competitors are drawn to the feast to get their share of what the innovators try to claim. Lots of the value spills off the tables to be taken by every scavenger within reach. Most of us are those scavengers. We take most of the feast to plaster our walls with screens, deploy richly featured cell phones, and upgrade services that make our lives tolerable.

A free life contains choices. It does not always contain options we like. Reward those who come closest to getting you the ones you do and they will seek to serve your whims. Mammon isn’t involved, though. This service is virtuous.

DP said...

"They help guys like this to be very articulate (and verbose) while feeding a seething resentment toward the nerds who actually understand some of what’s happening in the world and have the nerve to think things can be made better, by correcting mistakes and enhancing the products of our better natures. " - DB

For nerds to accomplish this they would need power.

Which begs the question: Why are nerds never in charge?

Why isn't Spock in the captain's chair instead of Kirk?

You see that's the trouble with power.

The people who really want it are usually the last ones you want to give it to.

Alfred Differ said...

Heh. Nerds already have LOTS of power.
We write the software that runs the world.

donzelion said...

@Dr. Brin - re anonymous troll-prophet of doom -
"What’s the blessing? That such people render themselves gelded, sinking into the torpor of their drug, snarking and railing against a civilization that has heaped upon them more riches and toys and pleasures and freedom and knowledge and vast opportunities than all of their ancestors had… combined… by a fact or many hundreds."

A cynic who despises the achievements of others is expressing some personal fears and pain OTHER than what they're verbosely pointing out. I hear the intellectual equivalent of a child screaming "I hate you all!" but really just wants a hug.

That's the gentle interpretation of Anonymous-Mammon's rant(s).

@Alfred/Jumper - Malthus wasn't proven "wrong" - in 1798, a "Malthusian Trap" was an accurate description of cycles of world history. Rather, he failed to predict the Industrial Revolution (which was only just beginning), and failed to take into account weather as a reliable factor in subsistence (e.g., crop yields 'fell' in 1645-1715 during the "Little Ice Age").

You see a "black swan"; I prefer a "golden goose" - of thought and action that started in the late 18th century, persists now, and should be cultivated and defended. Compatible views, perhaps, but mine offers a different prescription: black swans 'happen' - but golden geese must be defended from cynics who will try to kill it for their own benefit.

That's the angry interpretation of rants like Anonymous-Mammon's. He's trying to kill and distract from interesting work.

donzelion said...

@Daniel Duffy - "Which begs the question: Why are nerds never in charge?"

Nerds are OFTEN in charge, just the ones who take charge have remarkable skill in presenting themselves as non-nerds to win public approval.

Obama, Al Gore, Bernie Sanders, Bush Sr., and Hillary Clinton are all "nerds" - Obama is mocked for his nerdy, professorial air (among many other things). Nerds do tend to lose popularity contests to "alpha males" (like Bush v. Gore, Reagan v. Bush during the 1980 primaries, Clinton v. Bush Sr. in '92). In 2008, Obama better channeled a "non-nerd extrovert" to beat Hillary in the primaries (and circumstances in 2008 meant that John McCain, a strong "alpha male," did not beat him in the election).

Here are some interesting nerd presidents:

Abraham Lincoln - an amicable nerd, read through the Lincoln-Douglas debates - Douglas depended on "Trump-like" homilies, racist appeals, and non sequitur that failed after a little analysis, Lincoln researched and utilized facts (Douglas wound up winning that election though)
Theodore Roosevelt - the man wrote numerous history books...he played a cavalier swashbuckler for public consumption
Woodrow Wilson - a nerd among nerds

Behind every successful president, there are a number of nerds working to make them succeed. But in many cases, the most successful presidents were themselves nerds, and thus, accrued significant trust from other nerds.

Alfred Differ said...

@donzelion: You are splitting a hair many others choose not to split. I get your point about us not having proven Malthus wrong, but I can make a decent case that we did and we should be glad for it. He and others from the period missed the industrial revolution and can be partially excused for it. What he also missed was a cultural change that was underway. The bourgeoisie were in the midst of redefining their virtue ethics system. Courage was a virtue normally reserved for the aristocrats. Faith was a virtue normally reserved for the priests. The bourgeois town dwellers were expected to care more about prudence and temperance. Starting in the 17th century with the Dutch rebellion against the Spanish and then in the 18th century when the British practically copied the Dutch system, though, courage and faith got redefined a bit putting them in range of the town dwellers. It took courage to do what the Dutch did and a kind of Faith to stick to it over the many decades it took to win. In the process, the goose laid a whole lot of golden eggs for them. The British obviously envied it all and began to imitate the Dutch BEFORE the industrial revolution began. It is both a swan and a goose in a sense and Malthus along with many others didn’t account for this possibility even though he was immersed within it.

I’m not knocking our intellectual forefathers. It’s all right to be wrong in such a spectacular way. Malthus helps us see that something fundamental happened to us. Since this change vastly enriched us, I’m all for defending it, but that requires we know what it is we are defending. Malthus was right absent the swan. Malthus was wrong once it appeared.

I’m with you regarding the anonymous Mammon poster that needs a hug. The pain I hear is one they’ve been trained to feel, though, by many among the clerisy who believe our markets are inherently non-virtuous. They see Mammon motivating all commerce and would undermine the virtue redefinition adopted by the Dutch. It wasn’t all that long ago that our habits of the lip (sneers) ensured all those who earned a living were seen as only slightly above slaves and housewives who could not possibly exhibit courage or transcendent faith. Such people were seen as inherently motivated by an over-abundance of prudence which we see as greed when it is about trade. Pfft! Thank goodness for the Dutch and the British who copied them.

Jumper said...

I must not understand the topic of Malthusian limits. I thought it was about population and finite resources. Technology and energy expand resource extraction. If either become static, the other must either take up the slack, or a population increase will lead to misery. Misery in the material sense: hunger, disease, cold, war.

Alfred Differ said...

@jumper: You have the nutshell version of it correct. What I like to ask of people is.. What causes technology and available energy to expand? Before Malthus, we essentially didn't or did so at such a slow rate that women could have a few more babies and consume the surplus. Nowadays, things are changing so fast women can't produce babies fast enough to absorb the surplus. Some have tried, but we are growing far faster.

A 2% growth rate for real income (common enough in the West) implies a doubling about every 36 years. Can the human population grow that way if all our resources were magically provided?

An 8% growth rate for real income (more common in developing countries) implies a doubling (from an admittedly low start) every 9 years. Can women match that?

For Malthus' dire predictions to hold, we can work backward from what is a humanly possible female fertility rate to calculate the maximum economic growth rate. At that rate, human suffering wouldn't get better or worse. Anything less and doom looms on the horizon.

What we've learned from looking at these ideas, though, is the Earth shouldn't be thought of as having finite resources. That is only the case absent the swan. If innovators are strongly rewarded, we accomplish more tomorrow using fewer resources while doing it. One Earth turns into ten even before we reach for the stars IF innovators do what they do. It scares many to rely upon them this way, but population growth is leveling off. Our dependence may be short-lived which might make us even richer.

David Brin said...

Alfred you are being too theoretical. If women in the devloped world had reproduced at the same rate as the Duggars or Hutterites, we would be swamped now and living in dystopian grinding poverty.

Paul SB said...

Malthus was wrong in the same sense that Alfred Wegener was wrong, which is to say, that he was largely right, given what was known in his time, but you can hardly expect his ideas to be 100% on the mark given how much more we know today. Wegener was right that continents do move imperceptibly slowly across the face of the Earth, but he knew Jacques Merde about how it happened or what forces were driving it. He could not have figured it out without data in the seafloor that was only available decades after his death. Malthus lived at the beginning of what we call the "elbow" of the human exponential growth curve. From his historical vantage point, things looked pretty dire. And just like Tuzo Wilson put things together to create our modern Plate Tectonics theory, based on Wegener's ideas and data gathered in intervening decades, E.O. Wilson and Robert MacArthur (and more recently Holling & Gunderson's "Adaptive Capacity" work), building on a Malthusian foundation and the work of many others, have given us a much richer understanding of population dynamics than Malthus had or could possibly have had (short of divine inspiration). Unfortunately, most people know the name of Malthus and what he was famous for, but know little about where the science has gone in the intervening centuries, just as most people know Wegener and Continental Drift, but have never heard of Tuzo Wilson and know very little of where the science has gone in the near century since Wegener's time.

Jumper said...

I don't abstract massive coal, oil and phosphate rock deposits into the "magic of markets." They are coal, oil and phosphate rock deposits.
Incidentally my father was part of the "green revolution" which while continuing (e.g. Golden Rice) is tapering off. He was a fertilizer chemist for IMC and Occidental. (Occidental, under Armand Hammer, began massive phosphate sales to the USSR in the dawn of Detente). I don't see phosphate being replenished unless energy is used to reach other sources, and at present any new technology that requires massive energy sources is a problem.
I can't quite make out if Alfred is advocating for population increase to fuel economic growth.

Paul SB said...

I'm a little more awake than I was last night (after a day of dealing with summer school bums, bankers and car salesmen), and reread some of the Malthus discussion. Alfred, I may be reading you wrong, but a couple things you wrote seem to suggest a bit of a disturbing idea.

"Nowadays, things are changing so fast women can't produce babies fast enough to absorb the surplus"

It sounds to me like you are suggesting it would be good for population growth to match economic growth. Given the extremely low standard of living for most of the human species, wouldn't it be more humane if the economy grew but the population did not, presuming that the growth were distributed broadly instead of being hoarded by the 0.01%? Living conditions in most of North America and Europe are the best they have been through all of history, but huge swaths of the world are pretty miserable places, and it is in those miserable places where population continues to rise, while growth is taking on that K-strategy S Curve in those more comfortable locales.

"What I like to ask of people is.. What causes technology and available energy to expand? Before Malthus, we essentially didn't or did so at such a slow rate that women could have a few more babies and consume the surplus."

It sounds like you are going with a necessity-is-the-mother-of-invention argument, which makes good sense of the data. It isn't resolved to everyone's satisfaction, though, whether population growth is the horse and technology is the cart or whether it is the other way around. Old World archaeological data show that population growth was climbing very slowly after the last glacial retreat, but that growth accelerated as our ancestors began to rely more on crops that could produce a storable surplus. This suggests that those surpluses immediately became an object of socio-political manipulation. One suggestion is that the increasing reliance on storable surplus crops facilitated the power struggles of early chiefs and shamans, whose power was based in kinship obligations (not markets). Chiefs and shamans who had bigger families (not just nuclear families but extended kin groups) could wield more power than those with smaller families, so they would naturally encourage their kin to have more babies (inventing gods who command us to be fruitful and multiply). This would create a positive feedback loop for population growth, but such feedback loops always reach limits (and leading to our shrinking middle class and increasingly power of the 0.01%). Malthus, living at a time when the growth curve was expanding rapidly, was warning the world of what looked like impending disaster at the time (and ignoring those godly injunctions to be fruitful and multiply).

Paul SB said...

The idea that the needs of a growing population (which assumes growth is "natural" and not something that is manipulated) lead to technological innovation may not be much more than an assumption. Being the natural-born fence sitter I am, I can see a dynamic in which both are happening. The cultures that have the lowest growth rates are in the most egalitarian societies, where there is very little in the way greedy manipulation. Regardless of which is the cart and which is the horse, population growth still happens, but very, very slowly. Multiply by thousands of years, and eventually you start bumping up against K. You get a sort of deadly brinksmanship, where we either invent the technologies that would feed all our babies or suffer a demographic catastrophe. History has shown time and time again that in many places our ancestors invented their way out of that catastrophe, but in many places did not. You can look at any civilization that grew and thrived, then later collapsed and burned, to see the dynamic in action. You don't have to invoke Easter Island, which is an extreme case, largely because they lost one of the principle mechanisms by which populations deal with population/resource imbalance - migration. No one could escape the island once they killed off all the trees. But why were they cutting down the trees? Socio-political competition. However, until we get effective space travel, we may be in the same boat, but on a much larger scale.

This is why when Annabelle complaint that the US did not have at least 3% growth under the Obama Administration, I rolled my eyes. The richest, most powerful chiefs and shaman want to see constant growth, because it enriches themselves. This is just as true of population growth, in that it provides both cheap labor and markets for products. But it's an open question how much the majority of the population benefits from this brinksmanship, just as it is an open question whether we will be lucky enough to innovate our way out of collapse forever, or if we will once again go over that brink. Don't assume that growth = good automatically.

Jumper said...

A good example of economic growth without population increase is obviously the computer revolution. Efficiency skyrocketed in the USA. I do not see that this somehow necessitated the immigration increase of the same period, which seems more involved with the real estate bubble.

Paul SB said...

Your comment appeared while I was typing mine (and being stereoed by my daughter, slowing me down), so I didn't get to see it until mine got posted. As you have probably seen, that's pretty much what I thought, too - that Alfred is arguing that population growth drives economic/technological growth. If so, he needs to go to Anth 101, because there is a huge literature that questions that assumption.

This reminded me of a series of discussions in "Earth" in which a character (Nelson Grayson) discusses cooperation and competition as being two sides of the same coin. Competition and cooperation happen right inside our bodies, Dr. Brin giving the example of cells in a growing brain completing with each other to become the 10% neurons, while other cells are relegated to various glial functions, but all are working together to create the functional brain. This dynamic goes on up to higher levels of organization, all the way to global ecosystem. Now I haven't finished the book yet, so I may be getting ahead of myself, but so far it hasn't been said what coin is being discussed. Anyone can see a quarter or a nickel and know, whether they are looking at heads or tails, that the coin is used in financial transactions, the coin is money. I am assuming that the coin Dr. Brin refers to (where competition is one side and cooperation is the other) is survival, though maybe he was thinking of prosperity.

Using this coin analogy, if you flip a coin many times, whether it lands on heads or tails is irrelevant, unless you are betting on it, in which case the result of the coin toss relates to your survival and prosperity. What happens when a culture flips "competition" way more often than "cooperation?" What happens if it goes the other way? Presumably that would depend a lot on context. If you population is expanding into new territory, competition fills up that landscape faster than cooperation. But if you have filled dup that landscape completely, like Easter Island had within a few hundred years of colonizing, flipping "competition" becomes deadly disastrous. The growth mindset that makes up much of American superstructure (the "psyche" if you prefer) filled up the frontier a long time ago. Now we probably need to flip that coin over more often in order to survive, which is why our population growth is leveling off. Waving the flag of unregulated capitalism, cut-throat competition, free-market everything really could bring about that Malthusian catastrophe.

Deuxglass said...

Paul SB,

Population collapses have occurred in many regions throughout time. Easter Island is the classic example but most Pacific islands have gone through the same cycle several times. Mesopotamia is a better example for large civilization collapses since being dependent on irrigation anything that disrupts central authority such as an invasion, resulted in a big drop in population. Accumulation of salts in the soil over thousands of years turned a once rich and populous region into a shadow of its former glory. China also periodically outran the carrying capacity of the land resulting in population drops of 90% in some provinces. The Malthusian limit seems to the rule rather than the exception. It is too early to tell if industrialization and technology have broken the cycle or merely have just put it off.

David Brin said...

Sci fi note. Most today don't realize how many weird ideas smart people believed from the 1920s thru 50s. For example, that consumption wasn't just a driver of employment and economic activity, but essential in some deeper way. In THE MAN WHO ATE THE WORLD Fred Pohl suggests that poor folks are required to consume more stuff and only get to relax and keep things when they get richer! The notion can also be found in BRAVE NEW WORLD. And yes, we'll be viewed as similarly weird.

Deuxglass said...

Dr. Brin,

I must excuse myself for not thanking you for your kind words and answering my questions. I do have an excuse though. My wife decided that the garden needed a beginning of summer makeover and I have been busy cutting grass, weeding, trimming, digging holes and filling them, uprooting plants and planting new ones, hauling dirt, fertilizing and more. Doing the work of a medieval peasant has reinforced my appreciation of the our civilization and I not wish to go back.

I remember reading "The Man Who Ate the World" long ago. It is a good story and I especially liked how the couple solved the problem of having to use up their stuff allowing them to move up in status and into a much more humble house. It took a genius to think of that.

David Brin said...

Deuxglass I garden too. I am grateful for the chance to do so... and tenfold grateful that I don't have to rely on it in any way.

Fred Pohl was the greatest exemplar of the sci fi author, who gobbled idea after idea.

Deuxglass said...

Dr. Brin,

One of my neighbors is a psychiatrist and when he saw me working he called me over and said I shouldn't wear gloves when handling dirt. I asked why and he told me some new research just came out. Soil is chock full of fungi and many of them are mildly euphoric and hallucinogenic and the research found that their chemicals can pass through the skin into the bloodstream. I immediately removed my gloves. I now know why many people like to garden.

Jumper said...

Someone asked for an example of something science could not explain. I jumped in with "the placebo effect." ;>]

David Brin said...

Okay,folks are going too far in leaping to conclude that this image cast out by the Trump Campaign was DELIBERATELY anti-semetic. I give odds it was just another example of stupidity. But to be able to toss a sop to the worst supremicists now and then, in ways you can retract and deny? Priceless.

Oh, the same day that Elie Weisel died. Friend of my father.

Paul SB said...

science hasn't yet fully explained the placebo effect, but there have been some tantalizing clues recently, both in terms of genetics and hormones/neurotransmitters. The explanation isn't there yet, but it's coming. And there are hordes of things that can't be explained by science, but those are most often in the realm of personal preferences that have relevance only to specific individuals (why does my daughter like turquoise so much, but my son goes for conventional blue?).

I used to be an archaeologist, so I'm somewhat familiar with social/demographic collapses. The Mayan Civ is one of my favorites, because we don't have much in the way of pesky written records to muddle the facts (since written records generally only reflect the prejudices of the day). It wasn't until the 1980's that we had a clear picture of what happened, and the picture is actually similar enough to Rapa Nui it points to broader patterns in human life. Small island boom-and-bust cycles happen at all levels of social organization in all geographies, but every location in space and time will have its own unique features, muddying the picture. Still, there is a pretty consistent pattern of factional competition leading to growth and complexity at first, then Malthusian misery and depopulation later. Our technology has often increased the carrying capacity, but so far we have yet to create an infinite K, which is what Alfred assumes. Maybe we will, some day, but right now it's anybody's guess, and very dangerous brinksmanship.

David Brin said...

Folks I just posted one of my big ones. Please help spread the word about this one!



duncan cairncross said...

Re - population growth and Malthus and innovation

NZ was another perfect example

A very small number of people accidentally colonized NZ
It was paradise in some ways - vast amounts of easily available protein!

The initial 70 odd people had become about 300,000 and had changed from an explosively expansive phase to an agricultural phase in about 500 years

From the history on other islands the next stage of massive warfare was just about to start when the Europeans put their oar in

I see no evidence at all that such expansion eras operate in driving improvements or innovation - quite the reverse

David Brin said...

I just posted one of my big ones. Please help spread the word about this one!