Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Looking to the Future: An Interview

As I prepare to speak to the European Union's Horizon 2020 Congress in Vilnius, Lithuania, on November 6, here is an interview that I gave to one of the major European journals covering the event:

  • 1. Mr. David Brin, you are a science fiction writer and in the past you had a chance to consult some of the world’s most largest corporations. So my question is – what can be predicted considering the future by a writer, that can’t be predicted by executives of the largest corporations?

Organs in our brains - the prefrontal lobes - uniquely compel human beings to do "thought experiments" about what might come to pass. We do this obsessively, despite knowing full-well that our forecasts won't come true, because the process still enables us to confront a myriad bad decisions and outcomes, eliminating many of those and making up stories that might lead to success.

All human civilizations invested heavily in prediction. In the past, shamans read goat entrails or the stars. Our current society employs millions to engage in this kind of work, from stock market analysts to politicians and business leaders whose job -- after all -- is to appraise approaching needs and opportunities, allocating resources accordingly. Trained as a scientist, I tend to view those professions as ill-disciplined! But even science can be murky as it looks ahead.

1984It is in my role as a science fiction author that I get to stretch a bit, peering beyond the typical five-year horizon. It is the sort of long-gaze shown by the medieval cathedral builders.  In science fiction we seldom try to "predict" the future, so much as illustrate trends, extrapolate possibilities… and occasionally to issue stark warnings. George Orwell's classic novel NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR  was a "self-preventing prophecy" that stirred millions of terrified readers into action, working to prevent the author's vision from coming true.

  • 2. What are the most common questions asked by representatives of the largest corporations? What are they trying to learn from you? Do they want to know predictions about the evolution of the technology, or they want to learn how the new technology might influence people’s life in the future?

In the near term, they want hints about business opportunities and dangers.  For example, what trends might make the current motif for cell-phones (a rectangular slab in your pocket) obsolete?   Will rising world education levels, decentralization of skill, and the rise of desktop manufacturing mean the return of cottage industry, replacing large-scale manufacturing? Will biological synthesis follow its own Moore's Law pattern, the way computers have, leading to an Internet of organic chemistry?

The biggest forces are social. What will happen when the 20th Century's relentless drive to "professionalize everything" comes to an end -- as it must. Will we see a rising era of amateurs? Will ubiquitous cameras -- getting smaller, faster, cheaper and more mobile each year -- lead to a Big Brother state, or to hyper-empowered individualism?  And if all individuals get to see, like gods, will this lead to tyranny by mobs? Or increased autonomous respect?

I do not offer answers, only lots of questions.

  • 3. Is it possible to state, that the vitality of a corporation directly depends on ability to identify how the world will change in next decade?

Our prefrontal lobes compel us to anticipate, and new tools for anticipation are arriving in a flood, from Big Data to vision and behavior analytics, from social modeling systems to face recognition and even artificial intelligence. Setting aside (for now) the implications for freedom, the biggest concern is how uneven these tools will be, how fraught with error. No
matter how effective, they will fail, sooner or later! And when anticipation fails, there is just one trait that can save the day.  For ten thousand years it has been the partner of anticipation.

That trait is resilience.

  • 4. When we talking about future predictions, how much are those predictions  important to small players? For example to small companies, or individuals who want to start a business? Maybe for a student, who want’s to become a dentist, isn’t important how the teeth will be fixed in the next decade, because in any case he will get all the necessary knowledge at the university? 

The corporation is one method by which human beings organize themselves to pursue common goals.  It has been remarkably successful, though there is nothing sacred about it, nor about any one form of government. (Indeed, both types of system become brittle when they are top-heavy.)

A counter-trend has been building momentum. It is the agility of self-organizing groups of highly skilled individuals.  At first this manifested in "non-governmental organizations" like Amnesty International, or Medicins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) who copied corporate structures in order to allow millions to sort their pooled efforts according to interest and passion.

Lately, we have seen bolder experiments with ad-hoc structures, most famously in quasi-legal entities like WikiLeaks and Anonymous. Online ratings systems, for example on Amazon, Yelp, and eBay, only crudely coordinate what will soon become a crucial matter of our era -- reputation management. These primitive efforts are not yet the "smart mobs" portrayed in some science fiction.  Self-organizing systems may empower the new Age of Amateurs to spectacular achievements, like those accomplished by the 20th Century's Age of Professionals.

  • 5. What do you think about a prediction and a vision, that maybe in the year 2050 nobody will be able to lie, because devices like Google Glasses will be able work as a 100% correct lie detectors? No more populists who try to win a president election by lying? 
My 1980 novel SUNDIVER dealt glancingly with a future in which it became difficult to lie, because all citizens could track the gaze of politicians or salesmen and the eyes would involuntarily reveal deception.  Recent scientific work suggests that something like this may be coming.  In which case, we will have to decide what kind of society we want.  We have several options.  If we try to ban these technologies, that will only ensure that we -- you and I -- don't have them, but elites will get them anyway, in secret.

Or we may all grab these methods and then use them against each other, dissolving into a morass of accusations and recriminations. A war of all against all.

Or we could decide to moderate this world of vision with good sense, by cultivating a general social norm of forgiveness for small mistakes… because we will all need it. Catching dangerous or malicious lies, we may also forgive and shrug-off the inevitable foolish exaggerations and slips of the tongue that are deeply part of human life.

  • 6. In your opinion, how will the world  look in a year 2050? People with artificial body parts and cyborgs all around? Or maybe every disease can be healed in seconds, and lost body parts regrown in minutes? How about a vision, where everyone is living in a virtual world, where androids do all the work in "real“ world? Will people live longer, and our world will be much safer place? (If possible please justify your arguments in more details)

KurzweilSingularityCoverPeople should become familiar with the term "social singularity" which is today much discussed by the brightest young people. It is the notion that human knowledge has been accelerating for generations and that acceleration will rise even faster across the next few decades. Just one technology -- artificial intelligence -- could arrive from any of six different directions. If it does come… and assuming the new minds are friendly … then our rise in knowledge and capability may accelerate even faster.

Some believers in this "singularity" expect that we organic humans will get to join the rapid rise in intelligence, through improvements in brain function or through augmentations, or by linking our minds with external components, much as our ancestors did when they added another layer -- when mutation gave them the  spectacular prefrontal lobes. They, too, had to adjust to becoming much smarter, very rapidly.

We cannot know what life will be like for those descendants.  (Indeed, some believe it will happen so quickly that such godlike leaps will be provided to you, the person reading this, within a few years!)

Whether it happens fast or slow, we can hope that our best, most central human values (like honor and charity and a sense of humor) will be deeply embedded in that world to come. If that happens, then the mighty beings who follow us will still be… human.

  • 7. Which of the currently emerging technologies will lead to major changes in how we work, how we consume, and how we produce goods?

Desktop fabrication will probably not eliminate manufacturing, mass-production and delivery systems. But it will become a factor, when people can upload design patterns and create their own small parts or machines. Even factory-produced items will be personally tailored to the needs of particular customers. Impatience with old-fashioned delivery systems may provoke the return of pneumatic tube transport for small or medium-scale packages. If asteroidal resources become available, all metals will plummet in price, including gold and platinum.

The late 20th Century obsession with efficiency in production and delivery improved profit margins and quality in many industries, like automobiles. But we saw fads like Just-in-Time parts delivery hit a devastating wall in the calamity of Fukushima, Japan. There - and in other disasters - we have learned that Nature does not only want us to be efficient. Our bodies are also resilient.  Governments and societies need to encourage this trait in our production and supply chains.

For example: laws that tax the warehousing of parts must be changed to instead encourage factories to keep on-hand supplies -- stockpiles that can keep businesses going during disruptions. Beyond that, local production will reduce vulnerabilities and dependence on trans-oceanic shipping. A global economy is great, but local self-sufficiency will be a counter trend of real value.

  • 8. Let’s go back to the year 2050. What car we will drive then? Some people say that we'll have better batteries for electric cars, others say that future belongs to hydrogen powered electric cars. What is your opinion? Maybe we won't have cars at all and travel in glass tubes from one city to another?
I portray hydrogen powered cars being used by 2050 in my novels EARTH and EXISTENCE. There are real potential advantages… but not in the near term.  The required infrastructure, if we copy gasoline distribution, would be insane. Hydrogen will make sense only when solar power becomes so plentiful that you fill your tank at home.

The big news has been the spectacular improvement in electric cars. The motors and control systems were more than ready and battery improvements, including super-capacitors, are clearly on the horizon.

What few people -- including science fiction authors -- expected was for the the self-driving car to burgeon so rapidly. Science fiction tales envisioned that it would require "smart roadways" with embedded cables and centralized computer control. But onboard vision and analysis systems have progressed to the point where cars can see us, anticipate trouble and avoid accidents. The implications are astounding.

  • 9. Another tough question – oceans and the human future? Will we have cities underwater? There is a lot of most needed resources under ocean flour, when we will be able to get our hands on them? Our maybe asteroid mining is the future? 

Asteroid mining is a dream that only a few of us shared in the 1980s.  Ocean settlement goes even farther back.  Both frontiers offer the potential (still speculative but well-based) for spectacular benefits that might enrich human society far beyond any memory of poverty. Both must overcome serious obstacles. In accessing the vast resources from asteroids -- which include almost everything we currently tear out of the Earth through mines -- we must first decide to be ambitious. To become again a people who invest boldly in space. That dream has been almost crushed by cynicism, but the numbers suggest that cynics are wrong. The dreamers were right.

The sea is an immense problem and opportunity that we can only handle with care and plenty of science.  It will do us no good to exploit the riches below if we harm or kill Mother Ocean. At the same time, recall that 75% of the seas are "desert" areas, poor in nutrients and almost barren of life.  Ways may be found to "fertilize" some stretches, creating new fisheries and removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.  There is a careful middle ground, exploring these concepts with care, but refusing to be daunted into sitting on our hands.

  • 10. In the fifth decade of the last century science fiction writers predicted that by year 2000 we would have colonies on Moon, and a lot of people will be live in space stations orbiting Earth. That didn't happen. What is correct year for Moon base? And if we ever construct a Moon base, how this will affect humanity's thinking? Can a new philosophy or view to life emerge from space conquest? Will people still believe in God, when they will know that it takes only 15 minutes flight to an amusement park in Moon?

When the year 2001 came around, I had to answer many questions like: "where are the moon bases we were promised?" But watch again the film by Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick. It portrayed a civilization that by the year 2001 had made greater leaps in spaceflight than we've achieved. But society had progressed much less on a human plane. It conveyed a world commanded by patronizing, smug white-male-American bosses who operated in habitual secrecy. Now, you may claim that was accurate! But put aside the reflex. Today's world - for all its flaws - is far more open and diverse -- even at pinnacles of power -- than Kubrick and other science fiction writers expected or imagined. In other words, space proved to be hard! But we have made progress in areas that seemed even harder, including the human heart.

BetterAngelsDo facts support this claim? In his book "The Better Angels of Our Nature," Professor Steven Pinker shows how violence per-capita, worldwide, has declined steeply, every decade since 1945, propelled largely by the self-criticism habit that leaves us never satisfied, always eager to improve. Likewise, most of the world's children now live in homes with basic sanitation and electricity.  Pinker had better be right!  If he is, then our heirs may have the wisdom to manage not only society and a planet, but a solar system filled with opportunities and wonders.

  • 11. Last, but the most important question for us. What kind of future you predict for small countries like Lithuania? What can you advise for our politicians and scientists? We have limited resources, so where to focus? Do we need to follow niche technology road (like focus on lasers, biotechnology), or try to invest even a small amount of money to every emerging technology? What advice would you give to parents who will have children this year, and those children will start studies in a year 2033?

Globalization has been a mixed blessing. Great positive benefits followed the wave of export-driven development as successive nations had a chance to work hard and send their children to school.  The process was seldom perfectly just -- or easy on the planet -- but the growth of a world-majority middle class has been a miracle, and those educated children will demand more improvements, still.

Globalization also carries dangers: ecological, ethical, and a risk of cultural homogenization as regional and local differences are drenched in a Standard International Culture. Corporate consolidation makes competition difficult for small countries or small businesses or individuals. Oligarchy is a mistake that plagued every society across 6000 years.

But we have seen that there will be opportunities, too. Smaller nations -- like individuals -- must be agile. Opportunities may be sudden and short-lived, the way Finland strode across the world stage of telecommunications for a time. More often, there will be opportunities for alliances our parents could never have imagined. A Lithuanian artists' collective might collaborate with a consortium of independent neural-interface designers in San Diego, plus fabrication experts in Malaysia and a set of encryption crackers in Smolensk.  A new kind of passenger seat for automobiles might be prototyped in Chengdu but produced in Vilnius by a company that never learns the identity of the original designer… an artificial intelligence residing in one of Google's self-driving cars.

Small countries will probably also be the drivers for innovation in governance. You will not get fresh ideas about constitutional freedom from major powers like the United States, China or Russia. We all may have benefited from a generally benign Pax Americana, but that Pax will have to give way to something else, in time. And that next thing is more likely to emerge from small nations that are bold enough to experiment, developing new and quicker ways for individual citizens to exercise sovereignty, freedom, creativity and the rising, agile power to make alliances anywhere on the planet.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Optimists Rise Up!

Here is yet more news that shatters the cynical incantations and pat nostrums of  both the right and the left.  In April, the Development Committee of the World Bank set the goal of ending extreme poverty worldwide by the year 2030. Does that sound naive and delusionally utopian? Jeffrey Sachs in the New York Times shows a strong case that this goal can (roughly) be met and indeed is being met.

Optimists"According to the World Bank’s scorecard, the proportion of households in developing countries below the extreme-poverty line (now measured as $1.25 per person per day at international prices) has declined sharply, from 52 percent in 1980, to 43 percent in 1990, 34 percent in 1999, and 21 percent in 2010. Even sub-Saharan Africa, the region with the most recalcitrant poverty, is finally experiencing a notable decline, from 58 percent in 1999 to 49 percent in 2010."

Sachs shows that "…anti-market sentiment is no friend of poverty reduction. But neither is free-market fundamentalism. Economic growth and poverty reduction can’t be achieved by free markets alone. Disease control, public education, infrastructure creation and protection, anti-monopoly market protection, the promotion of new science and technology, and protection of the natural environment are all public functions that must align with private market forces."

Read this.  It supplements Steven Pinker's work on the incredible decline in worldwide per-capita violence since 1945.  It shows what we might still accomplish, if vigorous, pragmatic and non-dogmatic ambition and goodwill take hold…

... and especially if we thwart the grouches and cynics of both right and left whose dyspeptic and demoralizing grumbles make them by far the worst enemies of humanity and Planet Earth.

As President John F. Kennedy said: “The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics, whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men who can dream of things that never were and ask, why not?"

To whom might I -- and Kennedy -- be referring?  Read a fascinating rumination about how "southern white notables"… the local white aristocracy across the U.S. South… is not only still fighting the Civil War, but has had winning strategies for most of the last 150 years -- with a result that their region still lags bitterly in every metric of economic, social and personal health.

While combatting the current madness in that direction, remember. There were (and may again be) other enemies of the future like communists. Staring venomously in just one direction is blinkered and deliberate blindness. Sanity and adulthood -- both wary and hopeful in all directions -- are our hopes.

==The vanishing U.S. trade imbalance: what does it mean? ==

Want more optimism?

My friend the brilliant and popular economics-investment pundit John Mauldin publishes economics insights from what might be called an "Eisenhower Republican" perspective -- rock-ribbed and skeptical of debt, but also well-distanced from the Murdochian Madness that has hijacked today's GOP.  John's latest report appraises how a combination of resurgent oil and gas production in the U.S., Obama Administration policies and a rapid return of high-tech manufacturing to U.S. shores, is already having huge effects upon the American balance of trade, a lingering deficit that has spanned a human lifetime.

HowAmericansSpentThemselvesA deficit that - by the way - I call deliberate, and one of the most important contributions of Pax Americana to world history. A deficit that propelled export driven growth across the world, uplifting generations first in war-torn Europe and Japan, then Taiwan, Korea, Singapore… and so on until U.S. trade is now the chief force lifting China and India at the same time.

Mauldin shows how the trade imbalance appears to be going away more rapidly than anyone expected"With the US current account deficit continuing its fall, we need to be alert for the next crisis abroad. It is very difficult to predict exactly when, where, and how markets will panic, but taking US dollars out of the trading system is akin to losing a chair in a game of musical chairs. Someone is going to be left out. It could be Europe or Japan –  but more likely it will be emerging-market countries loaded with a lot of external debt denominated in US dollars who struggle to keep a seat at the table."

Another outcome. When the US is no longer shipping tsunamis of dollars overseas, the countries of Asia will need another currency to trade with each other.  China is already preparing to set up its renmimbi (yuan) as a new reserve currency to stand next to the dollar.  This will be accelerated, so long as China does not collapse because America is buying fewer Chinese goods.  It can get complicated. For example the impact any China slow-down is going to have on commodities like metals, on countries like Canada, on countries like Australia.

It probably is time for the development teat of U.S. trade deficits to start shutting down. It was fun, buying trillions of dollars worth of crap we never needed, so that manufacturing jobs would cycle through the planet leaving new middle classes rising in their wake. (Foreign aid via Walmart.)

But America needs to attend to finishing the latest outbreak of its ongoing (and psychotic) civil war -- a task of self-purging and healing that's going to take a while, before we can go back to helping move the world forward.

== Making optimism general and ongoing ==

SocialPyramidHow has our rare and unique Enlightenment - with its vibrant, win-win markets and democracy and science - managed to stay in business, given that human nature routinely seeks to destroy it? Across 99% of human history, the classic social pattern was a pyramid of power with a narrow owner-elite controlling teeming masses below them.  The classic Power Pyramid is clearly a stable system since it dominated everywhere that humans developed both farms and metals.  We are descended from the harems of guys who managed to pull off that trick. Human males are good at it and it should come as no surprise that they are always conspiring to bring it back.

Problem is: while the Power Pyramid may be "natural" to humans it also sucks at governance, at statecraft, at delivering peace, wealth, happiness, freedom, science or progress. We have six millennia of violent, horrifically stupid history that testifies to that pure and proved fact.

Our diamond-shaped society, with a dominant and confident Middle Class, is rare and (alas) not inherently stable, which is why earlier experiments failed.  It is, however, fabulously successful at creativity, wealth-generation, and fostering the spectacular positive sum games of democracy, science and competitive-open markets. No combination of human societies ever accomplished a fraction of what we have, with enlightenment methods, in just 200 years.  But in order to keep the experiment going, careful design and management and relentless fine-tuning have been required.

Number one among those methods - as prescribed by Adam Smith and the American Founders - was divided power.  You sic the mighty against each other!  Break up monopolies and insist that companies fight it out in the market place with new goods and services, for example. That's hard! So naturally, their CEOs try to collude and connive while strolling the golf course.  So we sic regulators on them, and lo!  They turn and use a myriad methods to "capture" the regulators… as happened when the railroads turned the old Interstate Commerce Commission into their own private brothel.

(Ironically, it was democrats who disbanded the ICC and the horrid old Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) and who did every other major DE-regulation of the last century except in one industry.  Finance.  Republicans led the charge deregulating that area, for the simple reason that regulation of finance is desperately necessary to prevent massive raids on our economy.  And sure enough, major raids on the economy happened right after each of those GOP-led "deregulations."

Which brings us to: "Meet the Flexians: A new professional class of movers and shakers—people who serve overlapping roles in government, business, and media with smiling finesse—is controlling the flow of power and money in America." See the article by Lisa Margonelli in Pacific Standard.

PredatorsParasitesScary huh?  To which I can only respond with "Um…. duh?"  Predators and parasites and oligarchs will use monumental cleverness to game any system - whether it is feudal or mercantilist or "communist" - and help pound the diamond into a pyramid of power and control.

We should not despair that clever people learn to game whatever system we create.  It is a good thing that our species creates clever individuals who are able to spot opportunities, form teams and compete well!  We must merely stop them from doing the toxic thing that such teams always did across six thousand years of wretched feudalism, conniving to CHEAT and prevent the competition from continuing!

"No, that is not how we will let you succeed," we must tell them. "Go and innovate new goods and services. Compete with each other to manage creative enterprises without unfair advantages. You may not win by conniving our systems."

Let's take our example from professional sports.  Praise this year's champions. Reward them with riches.  And break up concentrations of excess power so that the game continues to be interesting. Vibrant and fun.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Imagination, Skepticism and Memory

== Tis all in the mind ==

How and where does imagination occur in human brains? The answer, Dartmouth researchers conclude in a new study, lies in a widespread neural network -- the brain's "mental workspace" -- that consciously manipulates images, symbols, ideas and theories and gives humans the laser-like mental focus needed to solve complex problems and come up with new ideas. 

Especially provocative: "Understanding these differences will give us insight into where human creativity comes from and possibly allow us to recreate those same creative processes in machines."  

This type of research provides real grist for new explorations at two new centers devoted to the study of the science of imagination. The new Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination at the University of California San Diego has a goal " to help society become more effective at harnessing imagination." Similarly, the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University brings writers, artists and scientists together "to reignite humanity's grand ambitions for innovation and discovery."  

What of the undiscovered country of the future? Can we use our imagination and creativity to speculate about the problems we will face: See my interview: Five Burning Questions at ASU's Center for Science & Imagination.

And how is imagination connected to creativity? Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, explores the creative process, profiling a hundred talented individuals -- artists, poets, scientists and inventors -- to see how the process can be cultivated. 

==Bias and Skepticism==

An essay in Scientific American, by SKEPTIC editor Michael Shermer, discusses motivational bias -- our tendency to warp our perceptions and inputs to fit the beliefs and narratives we already hold dear.  Liberals do this, leftists and rightists do it. Mass media cater to it. Science tries to combat it - teaching students to recite "I might be wrong" - but scientists (being human) do it too. 

In Shermer's case, the belief structure that he had to wrestle with is a strong libertarian bent -- a leaning that I well-understand because I share many aspects, including a deep respect for competitive endeavors like science and markets, that brought us all our great success.  Shermer discusses how his strong libertarian leanings made it hard for him to begin taking in enough facts to re-evaluate simplistic positions on climate change and gun control.

But the core lesson is bigger than that.  It underlies how we can be marshaled into "belief armies" that follow idea-banners instead of rationally compared evidence.  It is why we like to hear what we believe reinforced, instead of eagerly seeking the argument, contrary evidence and criticism that is the only known antidote to error. Scientists are trained to (often grudgingly) overcome motivational bias.  That may be why strong interests in society are financing the War on Science.

==Memory and Technology==

SmarterThanYouThinkAh but is Google wrecking our memory?  In his book, Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better, Clive Thompson argues that our brains have always been bad at remembering details. But now we've begun to fit machines into a technique we evolved thousands of years ago —“transactive memory.” That’s the art of storing information in the people around us.

Or are digital cameras messing with our memory? The "Photo Taking Impairment Effect" finds that the act of taking a photograph decreases our ability to remember the moment.

== Browsing -- for just 20 years? Really? ==

Can you believe the web browser is 20 years old? Or that MOSAIC took the world by storm ONLY 20 years ago? Either way, it makes you blink, just to imagine the world of back-then. Have a look back via Frank Catalano's brilliant essay about the things we used to take for granted.

When did you first go online?  My first extensive use was while we lived in FRANCE, using their competitive Minitel system, which was better than Compuserve and in nearly every home in France. They were trying hard to get ahead of us with a unified, centrally planned approach and it worked well, if incrementally. Everyone could check the weather, get news and order tickets...

Internet-Deregulation...Then Al Gore (yes, he did not lie) pushed a bill that unleashed the Internet on the world, taking government hands almost completely off. The opposite approach than the French -- and the greatest act of deregulation in the history of history... for which he get no credit, only mockery. From ungrateful fools.

See my talk: The Role of the Internet in the Future. 

== Science marches on, despite attempts to shut it down ==

Congratulations Elon and the SpaceX team for a vital and successful Falcon 9 launch from Vandenburg of the Cassiope research satellite into polar orbit. A secondary experiment -- to re-fire the first stage after cargo separation and test a possible rocket-based recovery process -- was only partly successful. But much was learned toward what might be a breakthrough cost-saving measure. Again congratulations on this vital milestone.

SpaceNewsWill the year of the comets wreck Martian science?  'Three operational spacecraft currently circle Mars: NASA's Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), as well as Europe's Mars Express. NASA also has two functioning rovers, Curiosity and Opportunity, on the ground on Mars. All of these spacecraft will have ringside seats as Comet ISON cruises by Mars this year, followed by Comet 2013 A1 (Siding Spring) swooping within 76,000 km of Mars in November of 2014. The comet poses risks to orbiters circling Mars -- a prospect that may lead to re-orienting and maneuvering of the craft to protect them from comet particle strikes.'  Which will be - believe me - rather difficult.  I am worried about those orbiters.

NASA's Plutonium problem - could it end deep space exploration?  Plutonium 238 is special.  Can't be made into bombs, so there was little effort to create an industry producing it.  The isotope happens to be uniquely suited for long range missions beyond the realm where solar power works. I know some of the guys trying to come up with new methods.  Meanwhile, here's a fascinating article on the subject. 

Read a summary of a way-cool conference in Washington DC, hosted by David Grinspoon and the Library of Congress, that featured author Kim Stanley Robinson, NASA historian Steve Dick and other luminous minds, talking about the human future. Should humanity build "lifeboat" colonies in space? Or concentrate on Earth?  Or give up?

Can giant-galactic black holes grow by eating quantum foam? Marco Spaans at the University of Groningen says that black holes can grow by feeding on the quantum black holes that leap in and out of existence at the smallest scale. These quantum black holes are part of the so-called quantum foam that physicists believe makes up the fabric of the Universe.

Back in 1982, while I was a post-doctoral fellow at the California Space Institute, I created a report urging NASA to explore ways to do 3D parts fabrication in orbit, allowing space station personnel to create many of their spare parts, needing only to have the software patterns "beamed up" by radio from Earth. Several potential methods were described, including today's layer-by-layer build-up method… plus a few that to this day have gone under-explored.  Many unfortunate factors -- most of them non-technical - delayed this coming to pass.  Only, now see how NASA is preparing to launch a 3-D printer into space next year, a toaster-sized game changer that greatly reduces the need for astronauts to load up with every tool, spare part or supply they might ever need.

== Cool sci-miscellany ==

Mike Halleck - "The Engineer Guy" - disassembles and explains a wide variety of cool, everyday devices like a liquid crystal display.  Very well-done mini-documentaries.  Great diversion time that beats cat videos by a long way.

Okay, Boston Dynamics is damned scary.  Their latest  robotic"cheetah" can outrun any but the three fastest humans.

Two million years ago, a supermassive black hole at the heart of our galaxy erupted in an explosion so immensely powerful that it lit up a cloud 200,000 light years away, a team of researchers led by the University of Sydney has revealed.

Kinda gruesomely-cynically funny.  Scientists using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope have discovered yet another dead and lifeless planet drifting around a silent, pulsing sun-like star over 100 light-years away, feeding their growing sense of nihilistic despair. Okay... it's for laughs.  But still.

Transparency will abound. And possibly save us. UCLA engineers have created a 1/2-pound, portable smartphone attachment that can be used to perform sophisticated field testing to detect viruses and bacteria without the need for bulky and expensive microscopes and lab equipment.

I discussed starships and asteroid mining and what it might take to bring boldness back to our civilization, on David Livingston's syndicated radio SPACE SHOW, in September 2013.

ScienceSnippetsIn appraising the tradeoffs between competition and cooperation in an organism, these scientists are discussing in the real world what was also covered in my novel Earth.

Fly maggots, the wonder recyclers, will save the seas by replacing the wasteful way meal for fish farms is made by scooping everything living out of the oceans… and many other cool uses. This - plus algae farming and many other looming breakthroughs could just help us to squeak by.

A fascinating chart of the relative amounts of damage - to users and to society - done by abuse of various drugs, both legal and illegal.  Marijuana (canabis) is NOT harmless! While legalizing it, I would retain a presumptive right of families to meddle if a beloved zonker is on a death-to-ambition spiral. Still, recent trends toward sanity are signs that a new generation is ready, at last, to bring a sense of proportionality to an insanely destructive Prohibition.

Earth may have had free oxygen in its atmosphere in appreciable amounts much earlier than we had thought… about 3 billion years ago rather than the more recent "Great Oxygenization" event of 2.3 billion years ago.

What did our distant ancestors sound like? Listen to the linguists' latest reconstruction of 6000 year old Indo-European.  Kinda fascinating.

Why are our bees dying?  This matters a lot!  Become educated about this threat to our food supply.  These are the "canaries" in our environment… and their loss may cost us a lot of money.  The chief counter-measures… to get farmers to plant varicultures, hedges and flowers just along the borders of theit fields and for us to plant…(icky)… flowers!  Watch this TED Talk by Marla Spivak.

Weizmann Institute scientists show that removing one protein from adult cells enables them to efficiently turn back the clock to a stem-cell-like state.  They revealed the “brake” that holds back the production of stem cells, and found that releasing this brake can both synchronize the process and increase its efficiency from around 1% or less today to 100%.  The researchers showed that removing MBD3 protein from the adult cells can improve efficiency and speed the process by several orders of magnitude. Such on-off switches are amazing and rare.

== Finally, how to fight anti-science politics ==

The biggest victim of the recent US government shut down may have been science, as crucial experiments were cut off - including the entire research season in Antarctica. To many of those who instigated this disaster, the harm to science was not a Flaw of their plan but a Feature.

This will be a long struggle though there are possible innovations.  For example Salon Magazine has featured my proposal for a unique and potentially effective way for individual voters - one at a time - to rebel effectively against the political crime called gerrymandering. It requires no changes in law, no court decisions or ballot initiatives. We could all start this rebellion tomorrow, without any cooperation from a corrupt political caste. It would benefit BOTH Democrats and Republics as well as third parties. Above all, it would reduce the radicalization of American politics that is tearing the country apart.

==And an announcement==

First, a useful announcement: The Next National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day is scheduled for October 26, 2013.  One or more of your local pharmacies will likely accept your old pharmaceuticals free, no questions.  It disposes of them safely and keeps them out of landfills or sewers where they apparently are having ever-worsening effects on water supplies -- for example putting female hormones from birth control pills into what you drink from the tap.  Go through your cabinet!

Saturday, October 19, 2013

DIY Biology or Our Biohacker Future

Science journalist Lee Billings is releasing his long-awaited tome entitled Five Billion Years of Solitude: The Search for Life Among the Stars, (a nod to the Gabriel García Márquez masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude, while referring to the apparent absence of extraterrestrial life - at least, so far.)  Lee's book confronts the puzzle over whether or not we are alone in the cosmos, not from a systematic point of view as I have done (meticulously ticking off possibilities and plausibilities). Rather, Billings takes the reader on a journalist's personal voyage of perspective, with each chapter revolving around the story of a scientist or philanthropist or some other personality whose curiosity helped to push back the shrouding fog, opening up the skies a bit, allowing light to fall upon our biggest enigma.

It is an engrossing book that you'll enjoy anywhere, from that transcontinental flight to enjoying it at the beach… as our planet's ponderously reliable rotation makes a glowing ball of fusion-heated gas seem to "descend" in the west.

== Our Biohacker Future ==

Biohackers constructed their temple for amatuer bio-creativity in 2009, with the establishment of Brooklyn-based Genspace, the world's first government-compliant DIY biotech lab.

As Casey Research commentator Doug Hornig put it in Biohackers, Our Next Computer Revolution or Global Catastrophe in the Making?"Genspace is the democratization of science in a nutshell, a nonprofit funded by membership dues, tuition fees, and donations from supportive nonmembers. You can attach yourself to one of the scientists already embarked on a project, or you can set up one of your own. The only credential you need to bring is your enthusiasm for the subject, with Ph.D.s onsite to help you through the rough spots."

The idea is spreading across the globe. In the U.S. alone, there are now about a dozen community biolabs, or "hackerspaces," as they're known. Along with Genspace, they include Boston's Open Source Science Lab, BOSSLABBioCurious in the San Francisco Bay Area, and Los Angeles as well as Bio, Tech and Beyond, which just opened near me at Carlsbad California. More information on local groups and standards for laboratory safety can be found at DIYbio.org.

Hornig again: "Everyone admits that there are risks involved in fooling around with synthetic life forms. But the biggest one is the threat of bioterrorism, and that's probably not going to come from the public DIY Bio community. The horrible killer virus that unleashes World War Z is far more likely to emerge from a secret lab of some dedicated terrorist group. And you can be sure that the international intelligence agencies are on high alert for signs of any such development."

As for regulation, the U.S. government so far hasn't taken any steps to control at-home biology.

Or will we hack in code? Arduino's Raspberry Pi  "computer on a board" has dazzled members of the Do It Yourself movement. Now Intel has leaped in with an improved version. It will give away 50,000 of them to universities soon.

There are already hundreds of active Hackerspaces around the globe.

Then there are the replicators. Little mobile M-blocks created by researchers at MIT can seek each other out and self-assemble into larger robots.  This article cites Terminator but I recall Stargate.  Let's do it smart, eh?

Or will nature hack us first? Ask the hornets. Some giant varieties are spreading due to warmer weather and people are dying, especially now that Asian Hornets have spread to Europe and Korea. Reminiscent of a novel I just read (and blurbed) -- Invasive Species by Joseph Wallace.

Not if we get real smart, real fast! Do it by emulating Einstein's brain!  Here's an interesting article about how it differed.

== Clues for our next hacks ==

Naked mole rats have what any animal would want. They live long lives—about 30 years—and stay healthy until the very end. Now biologists at the University of Rochester have new insights into the animal's longevity — better-constructed proteins.

Bad news for Singularity Zealots! Our brains may be much more complex than simply the sum of a trillion synapses . Although the human brain contains roughly 100 billion neurons, it contains billions more non-electrical brain cells called glia.  I have long held that this network of cells does a lot more than just support and feed neurons.  Indeed, I've suggested -- way back in EARTH (1989) -- that the glia and astrocytes might be true computational centers and the neurons serve as flashy communications hubs between them. All major glial cell types in the brain — oligodendrocytes, microglia and astrocytes — communicate with each other and with neurons by using chemical neurotransmitters and gap junctions, channels that permit the direct transfer between cells of ions and small molecules.  Research is revealing that glia can sense neuronal activity and control it. Now this "second brain" is getting a fresh look.

our-final-inventionRay Kurzweil may not agree that glia and internal neuron structures do computing. But he does offer an interesting discussion of the tradeoffs in developing artificial intelligence (AI) taken from James Barrat's new book Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era. Dolorous musings abound.  For example, as George Dyson wrote, “In the game of life and evolution there are three players at the table: human beings, nature, and machines. I am firmly on the side of nature. But nature, I suspect, is on the side of the machines.” Indeed, Ray asks: "How can we get an AI to learn what our idealized values are?"  I see no sign - alas - that Barrat and Kurzweil and Dyson have thought this through ... as American women are dying younger than the previous generation.

I've just written a creepy story about this:  Tissue Engineering: How to Build a Heart. With thousands of people in need of heart transplants, researchers are trying to grow new organs.  The "scaffolding" approach is gaining steam.  Watch next year for my novelette that takes it to… extremes!

== Sci Miscellany ==

Only 80 light-years from Earth, a 12 million-year-old planet has properties similar to those of gas-giant planets orbiting young stars. Because it is floating alone through space, rather than around a host star, astronomers can study it much more easily. The planet, which has only six times the mass of Jupiter, was identified by its faint and unique heat signature.

Researchers found that some fruits — strawberries, oranges, peaches, plums and apricots — had no significant effect on the risk for Type 2 diabetes. But eating grapes, apples and grapefruit all significantly reduced the risk. The big winner: blueberries. Eating one to three servings a month decreased the risk by about 11 percent, and having five servings a week reduced it by 26 percent.

Substituting fruit juice for whole fruits significantly *increased* the risk for disease.

A PhD student at University College London, is trying to give schools cheap access to the expensive imaging capabilities that allowed her team to capture the first in-water image of the DNA helix structure.  And to do that, she and her colleagues are developing a £300 open-source atomic force microscope (AFM) that uses 3D-printed parts, Arduino computers and Lego bricks.

Rice University theorists calculate that atom-thick carbyne chains may be the strongest material ever, if and when anyone can make it in bulk. Carbyne is a chain of carbon atoms held together by either double or alternating single and triple atomic bonds. That makes it a true one-dimensional material, unlike atom-thin sheets of graphene.

A Penn State anthropologist can identify the sex of some of the people who placed their handprints on rocks and cave walls. Interestingly, he found that the first cave painters may have been mostly women.  

Like something out of a Robert Heinlein novel, students at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) have built a metal rocket engine using 3D printing techniques and conducted a hot fire test for a 3D-printed metal rocket engine in California’s Mojave Desert.

== And finally… ==

the-clock-of-long-nowMarek Kohn offers an excellent rumination on "horizons" and why some modern efforts are returning to the view held by medieval cathedral-makers… that it is worth planning on the scale of a millennium.  "At a Hindu monastery in Hawaii, the Iraivan Temple is being built to last 1,000 years, using special concrete construction techniques. Carmelite monks plan to build a gothic monastery in the Rocky Mountains of Wyoming that will stand equally long. Norway’s National Library is expected to preserve documents for a 1,000-year span.

The Long Now Foundation dwarfs these ambitions by an order of magnitude with its project to build a clock, inside a Nevada mountain, that will work for 10,000 years. And underground waste disposal plans for the Olkiluoto nuclear power plant in Finland have been reviewed for the next 250,000 years; the spent fuel will be held in copper canisters promised to last for millions of years."

Explore similar topics in a nonfiction book by Gregory Benford: DEEP TIME: How Humanity Communicates Across Millennia.  Here is Chapter one.