Technologies that might change everything

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

== Science & Tech Miscellany ==

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

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

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

Physics-of-the-Future-Kaku-Michio-9780307473332$30 million in Google Lunar X-Prizes. That’s the initial lure drawing companies and consortia to develop private moon landers/rovers that some hope to launch in 2015, in search of riches like platinum group elements, or Helium 3, or (only in a few polar craters) even water.

“We now estimate that if we were to look at 10 of the nearest small stars we would find about four potentially habitable planets, give or take,” said Ravi Kopparapu, a post-doctoral researcher in geosciences. “That is a conservative estimate,” he added. “There could be more.” According to his findings, “The average distance to the nearest potentially habitable planet is about seven light years. That is about half the distance of previous estimates,” Kopparapu said. “There are about eight cool stars within 10 light-years, so conservatively, we should expect to find about three Earth-size planets in the habitable zones.”

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

== And even MORE science Miscellay! ==

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

I’m not certain how accurate this report is. But it claims that Chinese scientists have collected DNA samples from 2,000 of the world’s smartest people and are sequencing their entire genomes in an attempt to identify the alleles which determine human intelligence. Apparently they’re not far from finding them, and when they do, embryo screening will allow parents to pick their brightest zygote and potentially bump up every generation’s intelligence by five to 15 IQ points.  It is essentially a variant on the eugenics approach described in Robert Heinlein’s BeyondHOrizonBeyond This Horizon in which couples would fertilize a hundred zygotes (embryos) then analyze them and choose one to bring to fruition and birth, a wholly natural child that they might have had anyway, but still with both good and worrisome implications.

A fascinating article  goes into why, after decades of emphasis on diversity and multiculturalism, the sciences of anthropology and psychology still tend to assume uniformity and that people around the world think largely like Americans… who may (according to some metrics) be the weirdest people of all.

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

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

Wow. New York City at night, photographed from the International Space Station.

== And finally … ==

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

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


1 Comment

Filed under science, technology

One response to “Technologies that might change everything

  1. Bill Jackson

    Water separation is not simply a filtration of small from larger particles. There is a thermodynamic cost, the separation energy, so I doubt they will reach a 99% reduction in cost. If they used a hydraulic ram, powered by waves on the sea shore they could create a ‘free’ head of water that could force the fresh water through the pores and reach that desired endpoint

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