Category Archives: science

What constraints are needed to prevent AI from becoming a dystopian threat to humanity?

It is, of course, wise and beneficial to peer ahead for potential dangers and problems — one of the central tasks of high-end science fiction. Alas, detecting that a danger lurks is easier than prescribing solutions to prevent it.

aiTake the plausibility of malignant Artificial Intelligence, remarked-upon recently by luminaries ranging from Stephen Hawking to Elon Musk to Francis Fukuyama (Our Post-Human Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution). Some warn that the arrival of sapient, or super- sapient machinery may bring an end to our species – or at least its relevance on the cosmic stage – a potentiality evoked in many a lurid Hollywood film.

Nick Bostrom takes an in-depth look at the future of augmented human and a revolution in machine intelligence in his recent book — Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies — charting possible hazards, failure modes and spectacular benefits as machines match and then exceed our human levels of intelligence.

Taking middle ground, SpaceX/Tesla entrepreneur Elon Musk has joined with Y-Combinator founder Sam Altman to establish Open AI, an endeavor that aims to keep artificial intelligence research – and its products – accountable by maximizing transparency and accountability.

41f-0srzitl-_sx322_bo1204203200_Indeed, my own novels contain some dire warnings about failure modes with our new, cybernetic children. For other chilling scenarios of AI gone wrong, sample science fiction scenarios such as Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot, Harlan Ellison’s I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, Daniel Wilson’s Roboapocalypse, William Hertling’s Avogradro Corp, Ramez Naam’s Nexus, James Hogan’s The Two Faces of Tomorrow. And of course, a multitude of Sci Fi films and TV shows such as Battlestar Galactica, Terminator, or The Transformers depict dark future scenarios.

== What can we do? ==

Considering the dangers of AI, there is a tendency to offer the same prescriptions, over and over again:

1) Renunciation: we must step back from innovation in AI (or other problematic tech). This might work in a despotism… indeed, 99%+ of human societies were highly conservative and skeptical of “innovation.” (Except when it came to weaponry.) Our own civilization is tempted by renunciation, especially at the more radical political wings. But it seems doubtful we’ll choose that path without be driven to it by some awful trauma.

41rrkrcwwvl-_sx331_bo1204203200_2) Tight regulation. There are proposals to closely monitor bio, nano and cyber developments so that they – for example – only use a restricted range of raw materials that can be cut off, thus staunching any runaway reproduction. In certain areas – like nano – there’s a real opportunity, here. Again though, in the most general sense this won’t happen short of trauma.

3) Fierce internal programming: limiting the number of times a nanomachine may reproduce, for example. Or imbuing robotic minds with Isaac Asimov’s famous “Three Laws of Robotics.”  Good luck forcing companies and nations to put in the effort required. And in the end, smart AIs will still become lawyers. See Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era by James Barat.

All of these approaches suffer severe flaws for one reason above all others. Because they ignore nature, which has been down these paths before.  Nature has suffered runaway reproduction disasters, driven by too-successful life forms, many times.  And yet, Earth’s ecosystems recovered.  They did it by utilizing a process that applies negative feedback, damping down runaway effects and bringing balance back again.  It is the same fundamental process that enabled modern economies to be so productive of new products and services while eliminating a lot of (not all) bad side effects.

It is called Competition.

If you fear a super smart, Skynet level AI getting too clever for us and running out of control, then give it rivals who are just as smart but who have a vested interest in preventing any one AI entity from becoming a would-be God.

norvigSure, defining “vested interest” is tricky. Cheating and collusion will be tempting. But this – precisely – is how the American Founders used constitutional checks and balances to prevent runaway power grabs by our own leaders, achieving the feat across several generations for the first time in the history of varied human civilizations. It is how companies prevent market warping monopoly, that is when markets are truly kept flat-open-fair.

Alas, this is a possibility almost never portrayed in Hollywood sci fi – except on the brilliant show Person of Interest – wherein equally brilliant computers stymie each other and this competition winds up saving humanity.

== A more positive future ==

DisputationArenasArrowCoverThe answer is not fewer AI.  It is to have more of them!  But innovating incentives to make sure they are independent of one another, relatively equal, and motivated to hold each other accountable.  A difficult situation to set up!  But we have some experience, already, in our five great competitive arenas: markets, democracy, science, courts and sports.

Perhaps it is time yet again to look at Adam Smith… who despised monopolists and lords and oligarchs far more than he derided socialists.  Kings and lords were the “powerful dystopian AI” beings in 99%+ of human societies. A trap that we escaped only by widening the playing field and keeping all those arenas of competition flat-open-fair.  So that no one pool of power can ever dominate.  (And yes, let me reiterate that I know the objection! Oligarchs are always conniving to regain feudal power. So?our job is to stop them, so that the creative dance of flat-open-fair competition can continue.

The core truth about this approach is that it has already worked.  Never perfectly, but well-enough to stave off monolithic overlordship for more than two centuries. With the odds always against us, we’ve managed to do this – barely – time and again.  It is a dance that can work.

We do know for certain that nothing else ever has stymied power-grabbing monoliths. And to be clear about this — nothing else can even theoretically work to control super-intelligent AIs.

Secrecy is the underlying mistake that makes every innovation go wrong, such as in Michael Crichton novels and films! If AI happens in the open, then errors and flaws may be discovered in time… perhaps by other, wary AIs!

(Excerpted from a book in progress… this question was one I answered over on Quora)

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Exploring the Scale of the Universe: Our place in time and space

How to envision the immensity of the cosmos? Almost beyond our comprehension…here are a few interactive sites that let you zoom or scroll through the immensity of the cosmos, zooming in from galaxies to planets to buildings to atoms — or to explore Time… from the Big Bang through the evolution of life and the history of humanity.

magnifying-universe1) Magnifying the Universe: I’ve always been a big fan of “powers of ten” style zoom-in and zoom-out graphics and films that bring home the incredible ranges of scale that we must deal with, in our puny, brittle minds.  Now see the latest, a supercool slide-able illustration that really brings it home. Dizzyingly fun: This interactive scale of the universe from Number Sleuth takes you from a hydrogen atom to a cell to a human to a star to our galaxy, local superclusters and beyond. Explore!

scale-universe2) The Scale of the Universe: This interactive from Cary Huang from quantum foam (at the Planck length (10 -35 m)) to neutrinos to quarks, atoms, and cells all the way up to humans, buildings, planets, stars, galaxies and superclusters (on the gigaparsec level). You’ll learn some new units for measurement: yoctometer, heptameter, attometer, femtometer, picometer…

Moon-pixel3) If the Moon Were One Pixel: This ginormously accurate scale model of our solar system (from Josh Worth) lets you scroll from the sun to Earth…and out to Pluto (if you have the extraordinary patience to scroll that far…this gives you perspective on the vastness and emptiness of space…and perhaps our insignificance in the grand scale of things.

4) The Scale of Our Solar System: This info graphic from Space.com lets you scroll out from the sun to the outer reaches of the solar system, past the Kuiper Belt to the Oort Cloud, marking off the astronomical units in terms of the distance travelled by light from the sun in 1 to 14 hours. It also shows the relative distances traveled by the New Horizons, Voyager 1 and Voyage 2 probes.

known-universe-amnh5) The Known Universe: This gorgeous six minute film from the American Museum of Natural History zooms you from the Himalayan mountains, to planet earth through the outer reaches of our solar system to Milky Way galaxy to distant quasars in the depths of space…then reverses course back toward home.

6) How Big is Space? This interactive site from the BBC allows you to pilot your rocket ship up through the layers of the atmosphere through the planets, then out to the edge of the solar system, passing the New Horizons and Voyager probes along the way.

7) The original Powers of Ten clip: This 1977 film by Charles & Ray Eames begins at a lakeside picnic near Chicago. Starting at a scale of one meter, the film moves outward by a factor of ten every ten seconds, zooming out to Lake Michigan to the Earth, the solar system, the galaxy, then out the Virgo Cluster of Galaxies…before diving back to our earthbound picnickers and closing in upon a single carbon atom.

interactive-universe8) The Interactive Universe: this site from the History Channel provides a wealth of information as you click to zoom in on planets, comets, nebulae, then on to galaxies or black holes.

9) Chronozoom: And now on to time…This visual timeline of the cosmos, from the Big Bang to the birth of the Milky Way Galaxy to the formation of the Earth, then on through the geological eras of the earth to the prehistory and history of humanity. This open source project also has links to teaching resources.

A few more amazing sites well worth your time…

ISS_Size_Comparison_1200x700_RK201110) Historic Spacecraft: a comprehensive exploration of space history, with photos, drawings, updates and background information accumulated by Richard Kruse — covering space probes, rockets, rovers, launch pads, space suits…plus timelines, size comparisons, cut-away views, history, quotes and more. Truly a comprehensive site!

11) Atomic Rockets is a detailed site devoted to rocket and spaceship design. The site from Winchell Chung offers details, designs and equations behind rocket drives, space stations, spacesuits, weapons and so much more. A resource for authors seeking scientific accuracy, an aid to getting the science right in science fiction.

size-comparison-spaceship12) Size comparison of Science Fictional spaceships by Dirk Loechel — an epic-scale illustration with craft from Star Trek to Star Wars, Dr. Who to Stargate and Starship Troopers. Really fun to explore.

13) A 360 degree view of the flight deck of the Discover space shuttle: dizzyingly detailed!

14) Mars Trek: Explore Mars in 3D: Click and zoom, pan in and out to view the detailed surface geology of Mars. Almost like being there. You can also access data sets and overlay information from probes such as the Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

wind-map-us15) Wind map of the U.S. Surface wind data and circulation patterns nicely visualized, updated hourly.

16) Explore Mars Now: Use this site to explore a simulated Mars base, and walk through the habitats, laboratories, rovers and greenhouses necessary for a manned mission to Mars.

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From Near to Far…Amazing Things are Everywhere

What a year! So far, we’ve had a landing on a comet, great results from Mars, many more exoplanets zeroing in on “goldilocks” zones… and now, across the next few months, NASA spacecraft close in on the two most wondrous and fabled dwarf planets…

pia19056_mainFirst up — Ceres: NASA’s Dawn spacecraft – after probing the giant asteroid Vesta – is getting super close to its planned orbit of the dwarf planet Ceres — due to arrive March 6. The “white dot” mystery grows. But I am especially interested in whether our probe finds evidence of a liquid sea under the thick, icy crust. If so, it will prove the “roofed water worlds” don’t need the tug of a nearby planet, in order to heat and melt subsurface water. It will change our notions of the abundance of liquid water in the universe.

new-horizons-plutoAnd…the New Horizon spacecraft is closing in on Pluto. Nine years after its launch, New Horizons will achieve closest approach on July 14, 2015, collecting data on the surface and atmosphere of the dwarf planet, its large moon Charon and four smaller moons, Nix, Hydra, Kerberos and Styx.

Want your name and message to go onto the New Horizons probe? Uploaded into memory after it finishes its main mission and heads out of the Solar System? See (and join!) the New Horizons Message Initiative, headed by my friend the great space artist Jon Lomberg and his wife Sharona.

Want more wonders? Could there be life in the seas of Saturn’s moons? Cornell researchers have modeled methane-based lifeforms that could live in the liquid methane seas of Titan. Many have I got a great story on the back burner!

Meanwhile, we’re still receiving wonderful views of Comet 67P/ Churyumov-Gerasimenko from the Rosetta orbiter, and these should get even better, during coming weeks. A dream come true for this comet guy!

(Alas, they hope that the little Philae lander, which should have been nuclear, not solar powered) will get enough power in a few months, as 67/P streaks sunward. But that’s the same point when the rising push of escaping-subliming gas from below will likely shove the little guy out into space.)

== Visualizing Andromeda ==

andromedaFor stunning new imagery of our neighboring galaxy, see the high-definition Gigapixels of Andromeda, assembled by Cory Poole.

If there are a trillion stars in the Andromeda Galaxy, that means there are 100 stars for every Human Being! Manifest destiny! Let’s go get em!

Ooops, that just went out over the web… so the natives know we’re coming…

… in peace! Yeah, that’s the ticket. We come in peace. 😉

Seriously, read Phil Plait’s lyrical essay about how fortunate we are to witness such splendor. He writes of “the awe of the raw Universe laid out right in front of me.” Now revealed. By our own hands.

== Peering downward…and outward ==

Four newly launched Earth-observing satellites are now collecting data on global atmospheric conditions, carbon dioxide levels and aerosols, allowing us to better understand our own planet.

A Kepler-discovered solar system with rocky planets is 11.2 billion years old and was born near the dawn of the galaxy. An amazing discovery with profound impact on our “Drake Equation” calculations of when both worlds and life might have first emerged. At a distance of 117 light-years from Earth, Kepler-444 is two and a half times older than our solar system, which is 4.5 billion years old. “Which could provide scope for the existence of ancient life in the galaxy.”

A proposed space telescope, the Aragoscope, could potentially image at a far higher resolution than Hubble. See an interesting write-up on one of the exciting projects we’ve been seed-funding at NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concept (NIAC) program, designed to turn science fiction into reality through pioneering technology development. This one is a spectacular space telescope that might also be very cheap to build… and closely related to one I described in Existence.

In fact, see my earlier posting about a wide range of skyward wonders that are astronomically-good…

== And more! ==

Black-hole-swirlAstronomers have discovered the largest and most luminous black hole ever seen — an ancient monster with a mass about 12 billion times that of the sun — that dates back to when the universe was less than 1 billion years old. This monster quasar shines (or shone 429 trillion times brighter than the sun.

Closest known flyby: An international group of astronomers has determined that 70,000 years ago a dim star is likely to have passed within our solar systems Oort Cloud — 52,000 astronomical units (AU) or 0.8 light years from the Earth. That is five times closer than Proxima Centauri.

To answer your next question: “98% of the simulations showed Scholz’s star passing through the Oort cloud, only one brought the star within the inner Oort cloud which would have triggered “comet showers”. Still, one is tempted to look for impact fluxes having gone up, 60-70,000 years ago.

An interesting thought that came up, at the AAAS discussions. That a top-ranked motion picture like Avatar can now cost about the same as an astronomical mission to discover thousands of real-life planets, like Kepler. Not suggesting a zero-sum tradeoff.

We need both. Now if only one could help the other….

== Mister Spock — the final farewell ==

Yes, it was good to have Leonard Nimoy among us. I won’t say Rest in Peace, because frankly, although I am a scientific dubious agnostic, I do hope he is not “resting,” but off on his next cool adventure. Maybe even where no one has been, before.

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Should We Lift the Earth?

Think of our poor sister world Venus – almost the same size as Earth, it probably had oceans at the beginning. But Venus was closer in to the sun — and was never in the continuously habitable Goldilocks zone. Instead our poor cousin Venus quickly got a greenhouse effect that erased its oceans, drove all the water away, leaving a desert world. And that’s what will happen to Earth – if we either fill the atmosphere with greenhouse gases – or if we just wait a hundred million years, as the Goldilocks zone inner edge moves past where our planet orbits.

LIFT-THE-EARTHSo, let’s lift the Earth, raise it up – the whole planet! There are ways to do this – and reasons to do this.   After all, anyone who saw Woody Allen’s movie Radio Days knows that we were promised five billion more years of having a habitable earth! It turns out that’s not true! Woody lied to us….It turns out that it’s five billion years until the sun, a G-type star, expands prodigiously and eats the earth. But a long time before that , the sun’s gradual increase in temperature is going to make our planet uninhabitable, perhaps as soon as one hundred million years from now – about the same timescale it took for mammals to evolve into us, after the asteroid killed the dinosaurs. Earth might have only one more chance if we blow it.

Earth skates the very inner edge of the so-called Goldilocks zone around our sun – the continuously habitable zone. This is the reason why only a little bit of carbon dioxide generated by human industry in our atmosphere is causing so many problems. Because we need an atmosphere that is almost completely transparent in order to lose heat fast enough. The Gaia balance adjusts the amount of greenhouse gas so that the seas stay liquid. If the earth had been where Mars is – and if Mars had been larger – we would have a sister world out there with oceans, and a very dense CO2 atmosphere – reached by its Gaia balance.

Slides-8_800_600But we have no such wiggle room. We skate the very inner edge of our sun’s continuously habitable, or Goldilocks zone. And that inner edge is creeping outward slowly – don’t confuse this with human-generated climate change. This is much slower – but it’s too fast for comfort! In a hundred million years, the deserts will spread and the oceans will start to go away. We’ve got to get out of here! We’re told: You can’t move the earth, so flee! As Elon Musk wants to do, and so many others have talked about, we should create other habitable zones for humanity, both inside the solar system – Europa, Mars, the asteroid colonies – but also, interstellar.

But I have some emotional attachment to this planet. I’d like it to survive longer. So, can’t we do something for our Earth?

Asteroid Fly-by

ASTEROID-FLYBYOne method, if we were to get out into the solar system – we could steer asteroids. Those asteroids would swing right past the earth in near misses, and transfer some of their forward momentum to the earth with each pass, and gradually pump its orbit up. I think that’s one of the stupidest ideas ever imagined. Sure, it might work, if you were to fly past 10 million times. And in those ten million near brushes, what god-like level of competence would you require to know for sure that none of them would veer a little bit and strike the planet? Seems a bad idea.

Another possibility is called the Gravitational Tug. This is how we might move asteroids that are heading toward the earth, and shift them out of the way. That is to take a heavy spacecraft with an ion engine, and hover it near the asteroid and pump away with the ion engines, just enough so that the asteroid’s gravity is not broken away from. In that case the asteroid follows the spacecraft. We could set up an asteroid at the L1 or L2 or L5 Lagrangian points of Earth’s orbit and tug the earth away.

100-MILLIONNow there’s a problem with these ideas. It’s going to take millions of years to lift something as heavy as the earth with little nudges. Generations. Eons. The lifespan of whole civilizations. Perhaps the lifespan of species. Moreover your method is going to have to survive rises and falls of these cultures. Periods of times when a society decides against investing in such projects, opting for short-term thinking. We don’t have the money right now, we’re passing through a depression. Perhaps civilization falls, and they have to recover and read the old records and re-realize the imperative that they owe their planet. Whatever method you come up with is going to have to survive disruptions, pauses, even changes of government.

Electodynamic Tethers

TankFarmCoverNewLet’s pause and do an aside about Electrodynamic Tethers. I talk about them in my novel Existence, and in a short story, Tank Farm Dynamo. As the world expert on tethers, Joe Carroll has indicated, if you allow a conducting cable to settle into gravity as its orbiting around the earth, it will stable along a radius from the center of the earth. This is called Gravity Gradient Stabilization. Let’s say it’s made of a conductive material. This orbit is cutting through Earth’s magnetic field. So an EMF or electromotive force, or voltage, becomes induced – just like the armature of a generator – along the length of this tether. If you were to spew electrons off one end of the cathode, you would then be able to suck energy out of the orbit. The tether would slowly go down, but you’d get all the power you need for your space station. I talk about this in Tank Farm Dynamo.

But if you had a lot of power (with a nuclear power planet or solar cells) and push electrons against the EMF so that they spew out the other end. Now you no longer have the armature of a dynamo – but the armature of a motor! You’re cranking against the earth’s magnetic field, and the electrodynamic tether rises. The experiments have been done. Joe Carroll’s Tether Applications has done them with the Air Force. We’re about to use this method to send spacecraft around earth’s orbit without expending any rocket fuel – just energy.

Up with Space Elevators

obayashi_space_elevatorYou can see that this is a relative of the space elevator. The space elevator is a tether that is anchored to the earth at the equator and has a counterweight beyond geosynchronous orbit – with a big space station at geosynchronous orbit. The new carbon fibers may make space elevators a reality. Kim Stanley Robinson envisioned them around Mars in his novel, Red Mars. Let’s combine these concepts. Imagine a space elevator that is electrically conducting – cutting through the earth’s magnetic field. This will tug on the earth – and maybe tug it upward. There’s a problem. The earth is rotating so fast, with a 24 hour day, it would be very difficult to time the pumps in just the right way so that the effect is not on earth’s rotation but on its orbit. You have to add momentum to earth’s orbit, so that it rises – so that it gets farther from the sun.

Space-elevator-moonThere is another approach. You cannot count on generation after generation maintaining a space elevator on the earth. And if it falls, it’s going to do some damage. But, what if you put a space elevator on the other side of the moon? If it falls, not a lot of damage. If it breaks, the elevator just floats away into space. If this space elevator on the moon were also electrically conducting, it would take commerce in, receiving resources from the asteroids. It would be sending out refined, developed materials, part of a lunar industry. People would be counting on this space elevator, without thinking about what it going on in the background. That is: you have a conducting cable that is cutting through the sun’s magnetic field. Now it takes a month for the orbit so it’s easier to time the pumping of the electrons. A constant rhythmic pumping action that is tugging on the moon. As it tugs on the moon, the moon tries to rise, but the earth resists – and the earth follows!

This is how you raise the planet, without endangering the earth with asteroid flybys. You pump it with an electrically conductive space elevator on the far side of the moon. The great advantage? Civilizations can rise and fall. Budgets can be cut. The tether can be cut; it just floats away. You replace it. Over the course of millions of years, all you need is for phases of the rich civilizations to do this – maybe half the time – and move the planet. As the sun’s heat moves the continuously habitable zone, or Goldilocks zone, further outward.

lift-earth-video-stillThe question is, could this solve our problems now, with global climate change? There’s a branch of science called geoengineering. Too many people are opposed to even thinking about it. There’s nothing wrong with doing preliminary experiments. Of course our number one job is to prevent things that we are doing that are harming the earth.

Indeed, most of the actions required to prevent Global Climate Change are TWODA – Things We Ought To Do Anyway. Actions that would help us to become more energy-efficient, and save money, while alleviating the rise in earth’s greenhouse gases. We should be able to talk about options to find win-win engineering projects that could help us save the planet. Stirring bottom muck in the oceans could raise so much plankton that we stimulate new fish nurseries, like what happens off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, or in Chile. That might suck carbon out of the atmosphere. But…should we be thinking about moving the earth a little farther away from the sun? I think that’s a little too ambitious — for now. But it’s not too soon to be thinking – in science fictional terms – about the ambitions that our rich and fantastically capable descendants might undertake to save this planet that’s been very good to us.

Lift the Earth!

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A World of Ruperts

Just in time for the year that Robert Zemeckis — in BACK TO THE FUTURE – said we would have hoverboards… suddenly, it looks like a crude version of Marty MacFly’s little floating plank may be on the way!

Indeed, I was interviewed about hoverboards just a month ago, on the great new show XPLORATION STATION!

== The World of Ruperts ==

Rupert Sheldrake is back, this time roiling waters on a TedX talk that TED then (controversially) banned. You can see the smooth-talking savanarola here: The Science Delusion – Banned TED Talk.

Now please understand I am not bemoaning RS standing on a stage proclaiming “there’s tentative evidence that there may be more to our universe than meets the eye.” In fact, I have been known to use similar concepts in my novels! My main characters in the Uplift Books have some basic psi powers, for example, enhanced by future tech.

science-freedom

On the other hand, I have to be deeply loyal to the date who brought me to this party — a party that gave me – and most of you – the first freedom from fear, want, oppression and grinding ignorance in the history of this (and possibly any) species. I deeply resent bombasts who milk and stir NOT skeptical inquiry but reflexive suspicion and hostility toward a “scientific establishment”… which, to the small extent that any such “establishment” even exists, is past-all-doubt and by orders of magnitude the wisest collection of genuine sages our world has ever seen.

The ultimate irony? Were we forced to choose topmost elites to rule us, the 1930s technocrats were right and scientists would be by far best. (See the 1930s film Things To Come.) But scientists would refuse! They are the ones who understand the need for reciprocal accountability and the dangers of hypnotic delusion that corrupt the minds of anyone who is not subjected to relentless scrutiny and lateral criticism… the sort of lateral accountability that oligarchs suppressed in 99% of past cultures and that would-be lords like the Koch brothers and Rupert Murdoch and his Saudi partners seek to impose, today.

Sheldrake

Is Sheldrake applying lateral criticism? Or just more hypnotic delusions? Any scientifically trained person who watches him or reads his screeds can tell.

If he were to say, “here are TEN EXPERIMENTS that I now challenge the world to perform. I do not proclaim any conspiracies to evade them. Moreover, I will modify them if scientific critics suggest ways for them to be better targeted and less vague or tendentious, and above-all well-falsifiable. Moreover, if these experiments are null-result, then verified, I will back off in that category and admit that science is not blind to alternative possibilities.”

He won’t do that. He is part of the pan spectrum attempt to undermine science. And that I won’t abide.   See my essay about psi that ran in SKEPTIC: Parapsychology and the Need to Believe.

== The Weather – or more from Ruperts (this one a Murdoch) ==

ARCTIC-WARMING

Prepare for another major IQ test for cable news watchers to utterly fail. Can warming of the Arctic cause major cold waves to devastate Eurasia (and sometimes North America)? The answer is way-yes. Warming has caused the sea ice pack in the Arctic to decline so steeply that the Russians are opening twelve new ports — and military bases, which the US and Canadian navies take very seriously. (There are no denialist-cultists in the senior naval officer corps.) But what about those frigid winters?

It’s called… science.   See this article: “When they ran the computer models under low sea ice scenarios and compared them to simulations using high sea ice cover, they found that low sea ice, which closely matches recent conditions, made the occurrence of an unusually cold winter over Eurasia twice as likely to occur.” Because the weakened jet stream is more liable to twist and dip the Arctic’s winter-chilled air further south.

But the Koch machine will talk millions into muttering “if winter is cold, there can’t be this global warming scam!”

== Speaking of Ruperts ==

not-scientistAn important article about one of the great cop-outs of our time. “When politicians say – “I’m not a scientist,” it is an exasperating evasion. It’s a cowardly way to avoid answering basic and important policy questions. This response raises lots of other important questions about their decision-making processes. Do they have opinions on how to best maintain our nation’s highways, bridges, and tunnels—or do they not because they’re not civil engineers? Do they refuse to talk about agriculture policy on the grounds that they’re not farmers? How do they think we should be addressing the threat of ISIS? They wouldn’t know, of course; they’re not military generals,” writes David Shiffman on Slate.

To be clear, no one is asking them to stop taking advice from generals regarding war or engineers regarding infrastructure. (In fact, both are dissed and ignored almost as much as scientists are.) Rather, it is the Mockery and abuse of science, followed by this cop-out whenever the dolts on the US House Science, Technology and Space Committee are cornered with specific questions.

These are cowardly loonies, who continue in office only because of cable news moguls. Thanks Rupert. But this will not wind up going well for you.

== At the edge of Human ==

51WPpcrB96L Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human by David Roden argues that the debate over human enhancement “projects a human face onto an empty screen.” This includes both optimists and pessimists like Francis Fukayama (author of “Our Posthuman Future.”) Says Roden — we actually do not know what will happen and, not being posthuman, cannot anticipate how posthumans will assess the world.

As reviewed by Kurzweil News, Roden’s book posits “speculative posthumanism” as distinguished from both “Critical Posthumanism” – a philosophical look at humanity in relation to  epistemology, ethics and politics; and  “Transhumanism” – which looks to enhancing the technical advancement of humans and their capacities. Roden’s book discusses how post humanism can fully integrate with the future transformations of technology.

== Re-evaluating our origins ==

kon-tikiThis is amazing! Recent genetic appraisal of native inhabitants of Easter Island – or Rapa Nui -suggests that their Polynesian ancestors interbred with South American tribes between 1300 and 1500 CE, just before the Spanish conquest. If verified, it would resurrect the theories of Thor Heyerdahl, the Norwegian explorer and author of Kon-Tiki, a book that enthralled my generation, back in the 1960s, proposing that Easter Island had been settled by raft-voyagers setting out from the region of Peru.

Heyerdahl “proved” his case by constructing a raft in the fashion of pre-Incan Peruvians and arriving successfully at Rapa Nui. Only subsequent scholars determined for a fact that Rapa Nuians were descended (mostly) from Polynesians and had thoroughly Polynesian culture. Whereupon Heyerdahl — whose feat set off the “recreation of ancient arts” trend that is so cool in our culture — fell into obscurity. Now though? How cool to explore, recreate… and eventually be proven (partly) right.

Of course there was some implicit racism in Heyerdahl’s thesis… and it seems more likely that the far-voyaging Polynesians were the ones doing the traveling. Still… This article continues on to reveal some even bigger mysteries!

== Science Snippets ==

AIElon Musk worries that Sci Fi scenarios about Artificial Intelligence could really happen.

Scientists experiment with robotic bacteria. 

Earth’s magnetic field could flip within a human lifetime!

Kewl! A basket-star!

3D gun makes – and shoots(!) paper planes. Okay, now I am just proud to be human.

A eukaryote cell’s mitochondria were once energy parasites?

Fascinating look at medicine: The NNT index measures how many people need to take a drug for one person to benefit.  This one could be important to you!

And finally… Australian researchers are attempting to use the highly sensitive antennae sensors of the common fruit fly (drosophila melanogasterto detect illegal drugs and explosives.If this works, you’ll have a chemical sniffer on your phone, in some years.

Don’t just stand there. Vote.  For the Enlightenment Experiment.

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Looking to Space…and Beyond

No roundup abouit space would be complete without mentioning the disastrous crash of the Virgin Galactic Spaceship Two… and the explosion of the Orbital Sciences Antares rocket. Are we under attack by UFOs? (Yes, silvery guys… I’m lookin’ at you.) Seriously, our sympathy to both teams and best wishes for recovery and future success.

== Space News ==

niac-videoIs suspended animation possible? Can we 3D print whole structures on the moon? How about swimming the ocean of Europa? Our leader at NASA NIAC – Jay Falker – explains the mission, to explore highly speculative ideas with small, seed grants. Watch this short video about NASA’s Innovative and Advanced Concepts group. I am proud to be on the board of advisors. YOU should be proud to be a member of a civilization that does stuff like this.

Art often interfaces with science, but not quite like this. As reported by Adam Rogers (my former ArchiTECHS co-star) in WIRED — The Warped Astrophysics of Interstellar — it seems that the special effects team for Christopher Nolan’s upcoming (and much-awaited) film Interstellar consulted with another friend of mine — Caltech’s brilliant Kip Thorne, who supplied equations that Nolan’s team crunched and crunched… in order to show us what (according to Thorne) a Black Hole “will actually look like.”

This isn’t the first time that art rendered a best-image for science! One small, personal example: my doctoral dissertation, predicting how dust layers on comets would affect their activity, has been proved yet again with recent missions. But it was the novel Heart of the Comet that nailed the size and shape of Halley’s Comet, just before Europe’s Giotto mission confirmed both within 20%.

But this is just plain terrific. If you are like me, you are bouncing against walls with eagerness to see Interstellar! Both as fans and for what it may do to shatter the stunning cowardice toward new ideas that dominates today’s studio-Hollywood.

== More Comet News ==

Rosetta-probe-ESA-space1200Eau de comet? The Rosetta Probe sniffs Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko — and detects odors resembling “rotten eggs and horse pee” — also known as hydrogen sulfide, ammonia and formaldehyde.

Thousands of comets observed flickering in and out near the new solar system of Beta Pictoris.

Bizarre Pyramid on Comet 67P? “It looks almost as if loose dust covering the surface of the comet has settled in the boulder’s cracks. But, of course, it is much too early to be sure,” comments researcher Holger Sierks.”  Um again, this is exactly as my thesis forecast, way back in 1980. (Hey, you’d preen about that too 😉

==Space Updates==

NASA awarded contracts to Boeing and Elon Musk’s SpaceX to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station, ending U.S. dependence on the Russian Soyuz for transportation of humans. It’s about time! It also makes clear the advantages of competition, which Elon’s company has restored.

B6-12The Sentinel program – developing satellites that can warn in advance of medium/small asteroids on collision course – reveals in vivid detail what the U.S. Defense Department had heretofore (for unfathomable reasons) deemed secret — that from 2000 to 2013 there were twenty-six “nuke-level” incidents, when meteors of asteroidal scale exploded in the atmosphere, delivering from one to six-hundred kilotons of energy. A “city killer” strikes Earth once per century, though the greatest danger is if one of these events ever took place in a touchy region, possibly sending itchy trigger fingers racing for buttons.

Watch the video… then consider participating.

Want another worry? Earth’s magnetic north pole has been speeding up in its movement and this year passed its closest to true north. Interesting… and sci fi worrisome.

How cool is this? “Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope have located at least one and possibly three Kuiper Belt objects that NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft can reach after its flyby Pluto next year.”

Meanwhile, I am helping my friend Jon Lomberg (creator of Hawaii’s famous “Galaxy Garden” and co-creator of Carl Sagan’s Voyager Record) in his effort to get a similar trove of human wisdom and art stored aboard the New Horizons probe after it finishes doing science, screaming past Pluto next year.

== And yet more inspiring science! ==

Scientific American asks: “Conspiracy theorists may wonder, why does NASA’s next major telescope director need top secret clearance?” Interesting indeed. “The Webb telescope is being planned as a successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, and will peer at some of the farthest reaches of space and time. The $8.8-billion observatory is due to launch in 2018.” Past Space Telescope directors did not need clearance. But in fact, I believe that this event has little to do with the Webb Telescope. Remember that NASA just took delivery of two Hubble class Keyhole space telescopes, no longer needed by the National Reconnaissance Office or NRO. I guess they want to be sure that, in converting those scopes for scientific work, sensitive tech does not leak . On the other hand, what if the Webb is being used as a civilian cover operation for next generation spook craft, just as the Hubble had been? Maybe an even bigger reason.

gamma-ray-burstsGamma Ray Bursters as cullers of life: “Only at the outskirts of the Milky Way, at more than 10 kpc from the galactic center, this probability drops below 50%. When considering the Universe as a whole, the safest environments for life (similar to the one on Earth) are the lowest density regions in the outskirts of large galaxies and life can exist in only ~ 10% of galaxies.” Interesting hypothesis. On the role of GRBs on life extinction in the Universe, by Tsvi Piran, Raul Jimenez.

Tiny diamond nano threads could someday support a space elevator?

Ten horrifying technologies that should never exist, by George Dvorsky, citing weaponized nanotechnology, brain hacking devices, weaponized pathogens…and more terrors.

Will “torpor” let us put astronauts into suspension (as in 2001, saving resources for deep space missions? As I mentioned earlier, this work is funded by us at NIAC… actually, one of the less plausible grants, in the next decade or two.  But good press!

7m9evHeh cute visualization to put things in perspective; How close is our closest neighbor, our moon “It’s tempting to think it’s much closer to Earth than it really is. The Moon has an average distance from Earth of 384,399 kilometers (or 238,854 miles if you prefer)….It turns out it’s far enough to fit every other planet in the solar system with room to spare, ” notes astronomer Christian Ready. 

Here’s one rule of thumb.  The distance from Earth to moon is ten times Earth’s circumference.  So wind a measuring tape ten times round the equator.  That should do it.   In fact… now that I put it that way, I am starting to suspect….

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Voter ID Laws: Scam or Accountability?

During this (or any) electoral season, it pays to get off the left-right political axis – and examine particular political issues on their own merits. So let’s take a closer look at one of them… Voter ID laws. (Feel free to watch this essay given orally, on YouTube!) Voter-ID-laws-blog

To some, these laws deal with a problem — electoral fraud, when cheaters pretend to be someone else to cast illicit vote. Statistics show such voter fraud is extremely rare. (See “Voter Fraud is Rare, but Myth is Widespread.”) Still, when it happens it is a bad thing.

Opponents to this spate of laws – which have nearly all erupted in “red states” – denounce them as infringing on the rights of, not just poor people, but the ill-educated, or recent citizens, and the young, who often lack clear ID. In particular, this presents hardships for women, who may have failed to re-document after marriage or divorce. Some on the left call this another front in the “War on Women.”

Fundamentally, Voter ID laws are supported by red state white-older voters because – and let’s be frank – there is an element of truth in what they say. Voting is important. It is reasonable, over an extended period of time, to ratchet up accountability – and to ask that people prove who they are. That reasonableness lets these politicians propose these laws as a necessity – and implicitly, those who oppose them must have some agenda: SHOW-ID

“If you don’t want voters to show ID, it’s because you want to cheat.” This is how you get a reversal of those who are blatantly cheating accusing others of cheating. It’s important to parse this issue.

To reiterate this point: there is nothing intrinsically wrong with gradually ratcheting up the degree to which we apply accountability to potential failure modes in society. This is what my book, The Transparent Society, is all about. We apply reciprocal accountability to each other. For example, we have poll watchers to make sure there is no cheating during elections.

(Is it also reasonable to demand accountability from the manufacturers of voting machines? Nearly all such companies are now controlled by men who have been high level Republican partisans, at one time or another. Should this be deemed… suspicious? Especially in those states (mostly red) where no paper audit trail is required?) RespectandProtectVoteButton

Is there a test that would nail down whether Voter ID laws are, as their proponents say, merely ratcheting up accountability – or, whether they are, as the opponents of these laws say, blatant fragrant attempts to cheat and steal votes away from poor people, minorities, young folks, and women.

Is there a way such a simple and clear test?

There is.

== The crucial metric of hypocrisy: compliance assistance ==

According to the conservative thinkers and agendas going back to Buckley and Goldwater, regulations that are onerously placed on business should be accompanied by assistance so those businesses can meet and comply with these new regulations. This is standard conservative dogma. compliance-assistance

Indeed, Democrats agree! Almost always, whenever new and onerous regulations are applied to business, there are allocations of money to set up offices, call-lines, visiting experts and grace periods with the aim of helping corporations – and the rich – comply with the new regulations. It’s called compliance assistance.

You can see how this applies to the topic at-hand. The fundamental test here is this: In any of the red states that have passed new Voter ID laws, or other laws that restrict the ability of poor people young people, women and so on to exercise their franchise, were any significant funds appropriated or allocated for compliance assistance?

Were any new offices, call-lines, visiting experts and grace periods set up to help them comply? “Here is an onerous new burden upon the poor, women and so on — but we are going to show our commitment to assist voters with these new regulations, by allocating money.” A serious effort to go out into the communities and help the poor, minorities, recent immigrants, women, young people – to obtain the identification they need to exercise their sovereign right to vote. voter-id-laws-video

Note! This type of outreach would not just help them with voting, but would likely help them to STOP being poor! By helping them get on the path to helping themselves. This should be what conservatives are for.

Instead these efforts are sabotaged, deliberately and relentlessly. Not one red cent has been allocated for compliance assistance in any of the red states that have passed these new voter ID laws. Not one red cent.

== Dealing with vampires: always seek the silver bullet ==

There you have it, you liberals out there. Don’t make this a matter of goody-goody, or of denying a long term need to ratchet up accountability. It makes it look like you’re in favor of cheating. Or it gives fools that excuse.

Make it a matter of hypocrisy. Of lying. The blatant lack of sincere compliance assistance provides clear-cut and decisive proof that these are attempts to steal elections – just like gerrymandering. NEUTRALIZE-GERRYMANDERING

(Indeed, gerrymandering is being erased in one blue state after another, as those citizens rebel against unfair districting, often even overcoming the objections of Democratic politicians. These rebellions have taken place in California, Washington, Oregon, and – we can hope in a few weeks — in New York. Meanwhile not one red state has seen a rebellion of its citizens against the blatant theft and cheating called gerrymandering. Just as you’ll see no rebellions against the blatant theft and cheating called Voter ID laws. This is a cultural matter. In some parts of the country – it seems – cheating is just fine, “so long as it is my side doing it.”)

Your silver bullet. This is what you use. The fact of zero Compliance Assistance exposes the hypocrisy here.

That is what makes the difference between people who say, “We need to have more accountability in the voter rolls” and blatant, lying, hypocritical thieves, for whom no excuse or shelter can excuse the title of traitor. voter-repression-laws

Make this clear to your uncles and cousins. If, when they hear about this, they are still supporters of these horrid hypocritical robber, then the tar sticks to them as well.

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An Unstable World? Part One: Russia and China

People have lately been asking me why I seem so calm.  It seems that every week brings news of yet another brewing disaster, with the world apparently spinning into chaos.  So much for Francis Fukayama’s famous line – around 1990 – that the rapid and unstoppable spread of liberal democracy would soon bring an “end of history.”

unstable-worldA few years earlier, I had made a different prediction. That the Cold War and the communist empire would soon shatter… (few believed it even remotely possible)… but that our struggles would move on to cultural strife between a rising world-liberal culture… and one branch or another of machismo… traditionally male dominated cultures upset over the prospect of seeing their women become like ours. At the time, I could not say which it would be… Latin, Hindi or Muslim machismo, though I guessed the lattermost of these. With the saving grace that – thereupon – the other two would swing our way.

But never mind that. Lately I’ve heard a lot of: “Brin, you warned us, way back a year ago, that 2014 could be world-shaking! You said the last three centuries began in their fourteenth year! Aren’t these ructions around the planet signs that you’re right?”

Well… yes… perhaps.  But here’s how to tell when someone really is in the future biz.  He doesn’t wed his ego to any one forecast! Or any twenty! I am in the line of posing possibilities to explore. Being proved right? I’ll leave that for others to judge.

In fact, looking at the crises of the moment, I have not yet broken a sweat. Maybe I’ll tell you why, later in this series.  But first, some specific trouble zones.

== What’s up with Russia? ==

ukraine-rebelsFascinating! The pro-Russian rebels in Donetsk and Luhansk (eastern Ukraine) are resurrecting Soviet symbols, incantations and methods, even collective farms — and (as described in this article), it was already happening in other disputed territories like South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

We already know that Russian President Vladimir Putin called the breakup of the USSR “History’s greatest tragedy.” But… but… he’s also supervised the most spectacular rise in oligarchic-moneyed inequality since the days of Ivan the Terrible. So… what gives?

I have to tell you that I lay 30% odds that Vladimir may be something that no one on Earth suspects. Sincere.

I may be alone in thinking it is possible. But lonely observations are what I do. (Why does no one even consider what I deem a 20% possibility: that the absolutely uniform chain of destructive-to-America outcomes from the GW Bush presidency might have been “manchurian”? It does parsimoniously fit the facts, much better than the standard theories: dogmatism, venality and stupidity.)

What do I mean by sincere? Ah, well, if you ever actually read Karl Marx (which I assume no member of my generation ever has done), you’d realize how easily the present situation in Russia is “adaptable” in Marxist-Leninist terms.  A couple of hundred oligarchs have consolidated all wealth, capital and power in a few hands? That is actually a well-described Marxist phase. When the time comes… but I will leave that as a what-if hint. Remember, I only laid a 30% on this one. But it fits.

Oh, one last item.  Look up this fellow: Fyodor Dmitrievich Berezin is a Ukrainian science fiction writer. In the Ukraine Civil War he currently serves as the deputy Defense Minister  of the People’s Republic of Donetsk.  His sci fi always features virtuous Russian or revived Soviet forces destroying decadent-smug American hegemons.  Wowzer.

== China: a humble historical correction ==

great-vault-forwardChina and the West are clearly heading toward an inevitable — and we hope very peaceful — reconfiguring and renegotiation over trade and other relations. Why? Because the trade imbalances… tsunami flows of money, capital investment, knowledge and intellectual property … have achieved their main historical purpose, lifting China in history’s Great Vault Forward, transforming that ancient land into a modern marvel. For which let us all say mazeltov! Let us get used to – and welcome – the idea that a billion talented and creative people are joining the world ranks of prosperous problem-solvers. It will be a better planet… after they adapt and finish their own, self-guided transformations.

(Indeed, they have started contributing to humanity’s highest art form — science fiction! You have heard me praise Liu Cixin’s terrific Three Body Problem trilogy. Coming this fall from Tor Books.)

We are obliged to be welcoming and glad about this Great Vault. Indeed, let us recall that Americans were intellectual property thieves, once upon a time. (Though we never stole so much that it killed the goose.)

east-westWhat we are not obligated to do, however, is swallow a narrative that is circulating over there. A smug and self-flattering tale that all of this happened because China invented just the right mix of state capitalism and clever, predatory, mercantilist ruthlessness. Or that any and all tactics – such as the rampant appropriation of intellectual property – can and should go on forever, for two reasons:

(1) Westerners are decadent fools and their proper role is to serve as (figurative-commercial) prey or cattle (that exact metaphor is used).

(2) That all tactics are justified as recompense and pay-back for centuries of oppression and colonialism by the West.

Oh, sure, there is some moral justification there in number 2, though Chinese leaders played a huge role in their nation’s slide from world pre-eminence, centuries ago. Still, the victim narrative only goes so far, for one simple reason.  And you all should be ready to deploy it, over the years ahead.

Let me reiterate that I say this in a spirit of friendship and respect. But the basic fact is… that in all of its 4000 year history, China never had a real friend.

Except one.

Indeed, one reason for that lack of friends was Chinese policy — proclaiming to all that they were Chung Kuo… the center of the world, an attitude that we are seeing glimmers of, again, across Southeast Asian seas.

And then, yes, came the abuse by many foreign powers, when China was no longer able to enforce that centrality.

Only, across all that time there was one nation that generally treated China well, or at least better than anyone else did. Just one nation that stood up for China (sometimes tepidly but at other times with ferocious loyalty) when China was down. Just one nation who (admittedly) did make some mistakes with China, and did a few wrong things, but generally could be seen trying, far more often than not, to be generous and fair. china-us

That friendly outsider was the United States of America. And if your reflex is to deny this, then in fact you know no history. No one else stepped up to tell the European powers to stop their expanding “concessions” and refused to seize any of our own.

No one else stepped up to help China resist brutal invaders – in the 1930s – and went into a savage war for which we were unready, and paid dearly, directly due to standing up for China, in its hour of existential need.

Even the long enmity of the Cold War was all about the U.S. choosing one “China” over another. All right, perhaps more subtlety was called for, then, and for a couple of years Chinese and American soldiers killed each other, each considering the other pawns to distant masters. But just as soon as Mao put his hand out, there was Nixon ready to shake it.

Again, there were mistakes! On both sides. But there is no way that China’s attitude toward the U.S. can be informed or ever justified by “getting even for colonialism.” If, across 4000 years, you can point to any substantial nation that was ever as good a friend… or that at least sometimes tried to be… then maybe we’ll listen to the “colonialism” guilt trip. But you cannot. And we should not.

Walmart-EconomyAnd we are still at it. Because the narrative about 40 years of trade imbalances could be viewed in another way, dear friends. We have raised up the billion people of the Central Kingdom, by the magnificent method called “foreign aid via WalMart.” The greatest uplifting in all the history of our species.  And it was not the act of bleating, helpless sheep, but deliberate policy, established by Marshall, Acheson, Truman and Eisenhower and so on, to establish counter-mercantilist trade flows. The only “pax” imperium ever to do such a generous thing. (China did nothing of the sort, when it was on top of the world.)

It merits real respect, this rise of yours, from the dust, to standing next to us, as brothers and sisters and equals. Well done!  But it also merits some gratitude. You’re welcome.

== So where’s the optimism? ==

ISIS-CRISIS-SYRIASorry, not this time. You’ll have to wait for me to plumb the “ISIS-Crisis.” And the endless disappointments between Israel and Palestine. And Ebola! And so many other modern ructions that make it seem that I was right about the “fourteenth year.”

Well, sure… I might be right.  Or I might be crazy.

But I am starting to perk up a bit, imagining that… I might be wrong.

====================================

== Food for thought ==

A fascinating quotation from George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” —

1984“…it was also clear that an all-round increase in wealth threatened the destruction — indeed, in some sense was the destruction — of a hierarchical society. In a world in which everyone worked short hours, had enough to eat, lived in a house with a bathroom and a refrigerator, and possessed a motor-car or even an aeroplane, the most obvious and perhaps the most important form of inequality would already have disappeared. If it once became general, wealth would confer no distinction. It was possible, no doubt, to imagine a society in which wealth, in the sense of personal possessions and luxuries, should be evenly distributed, while power remained in the hands of a small privileged caste. But in practice such a society could not long remain stable. For if leisure and security were enjoyed by all alike, the great mass of human beings who are normally stupefied by poverty would become literate and would learn to think for themselves; and when once they had done this, they would sooner or later realize that the privileged minority had no function, and they would sweep it away. In the long run, a hierarchical society was only possible on a basis of poverty and ignorance…”

diamond-social-structureThat is, indeed, what would-be lords fear most. The trend after World War II to create a diamond-shaped society, with an empowered and educated middle and working class so large that it outnumbers the poor and politically dominates the rich… this was key to every piece of good news since civilization’s nadir in 1943. It led to all fine things, from science and moon landings to the plummets in world poverty and (per capita average) violence that Stevn Pinker documents in his book that I cite below.

It would lead, eventually, to Star Trek and to a society in which a person might get rich – through smithian competition and new goods or services… but there would be no way for him or her to pass on to children the kind of obligate lordship that was the fiercely obsessive goal of every generation of brutal men, during all of the millennia leading to our Enlightenment Experiment.

It cannot be allowed to happen again! Orwell gave us a graphic warning…

…and yet, Orwell was crude in his interpretation of method. War, as a means of keeping society pyramidal, instead of diamond-shaped? Well, sure… but it is a chaotic, unreliable, destructive method, especially when an educated populace, if even 5% of it truly understands, will have the technological means to shatter everything.

tyrannies-futureNo… here is the fellow who got it right. The one who will win the old argument. Aldous Huxley. Tyrannies in the future will have to fool the majority into thinking they are still in charge. Distracting them, not with pain, but with pleasure.

Without any doubt we should all have skeptical hackles, whenever a president or politician raises a clamor for war. Indeed, elsewhere I have carefully parsed the differences between democrats and republicans in HOW they wage war, a stunningly opposite matter of style and effectiveness.

But here I want to point out that cases like our present ISIS-crisis are no-brainers, if you want the era’s “pax” power to have any credibility, at all. And that, in turn, hinges on whether you can stomach the era that we now live-in… Pax Americana.

It has lasted all our lifetimes, since WWII saw the passing of the last vestiges of Pax Brittanica… the “British Peace.” (The term refers originally to Pax Romana or the Roman Peace that kept the Mediterranean placid and open to commerce for 600 years. Pax Sinica refers to similar epochs across China and east Asia.) War21Century-Pax

Here is the crux. Almost every Pax era has been better for average people on planet Earth than almost every era without a pax empire, when competing kingdoms would send armies slashing and burning and looting across each others’ territories. Average humans today live in more peace than at any time in the history of our species, as shown in Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, with only a few percent ever experiencing personal and direct contact with war in their lifetimes. One top benefit: Pax-protected world trade has uplifted 2/3 of the world’s children out of poverty.

Are there costs, whenever there is a ruling imperium? You bet! When the First Emperor – Chin – squashed the Five Kingdoms and unified China, peace then reigned… along with one of the most brutal tyrannies ever, and a collapse of the vibrant, cultural competitiveness that had prevailed, before. Minority cultures had plenty to complain about, under Pax Parthia, Pax Alexandrine, Pax Romana, Pax Mughal etc… Where Pax Americana is different is in having reduced most of the bad outcomes of a pax era. Rigid domination, imperial mercantiism and repression of diversity. A priesthood with a lock on “truth.” Outright and barefaced conquest.

Suspicion-of-authorityIs Pax Americana perfect? Hell no! Many crimes, yes, I could name several dozen without even trying. But the memes that it spreads – especially through Hollywood – are critical memes, such as suspicion of authority and admiration of diversity, that you express, even as you fume at me for praising the pax that taught you all those values. Memes that encourage criticism of the pax power even (especially) by its own youths! Indeed, many of you are expressing that memic upbringing, as you glower at these words.

Here is more about Pax Americana: Pondering Pax Americana and the Government Shutdown.

Was PA awful at times? Sure… except compared to every single other nation that was ever tempted by such power. If you make that comparison, PA is day to their night. Was PA drooling-insane-stupid under both Bushes? Sure. So much so that you have to wonder if that Saudi-owned family did it on purpose.

Should Pax Americana be replaced with something grownup, at last, bringing an end to all empires? Sure! Would Star Trek be better? Sure! We’d all love to see your plan.

Will it happen if PA simply goes away or stops enforcing peace? Baloney. Before you prescribe NOTHING as a replacement to the current pax power, please find for us, across 6000 years, a lasting era when that prescription worked well.

PA is the only empire that ever had as its (hypocritical) policy “there should be no empires.” That hypocrisy has one saving grace…

…it will make itself come true.

== finally, too-big means get-smaller ==

The Federal Reserve is pushing the biggest U.S. banks to shrink so that they’re less of a risk to the financial system. Fed proposals include imposing additional capital requirements for the eight largest banks — including JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup and Bank of America — that exceed the levels mandated by international regulators. “Capital surcharges” would increase in proportion to how risky the regulators deem a bank to be. ken-burns-roosevelts

Ken Burns documentaries are always a great buy, for your viewing time. His most recent — “The Roosevelts” — focuses on Theodore, Franklin and Eleanor. Terrific. Fascinating stories. Only… I find my own thoughts drifting from the past, to the present and the future…

Galt’s Gulch Chile? One common theme that spans from leftist-hippies to followers of Ayn Rand is the notion of anarchic utopianism — that those who have free spirits and the right ideology can create an ideal community, free of the ills they perceive in our complex, compromise-ridden civilization. On rare occasions, these communities have thrived… ironically those that have been run patriarchally by brilliant administrators, replicating feudalism-of-old, with a patina of egalitarian catechism. But most swiftly collapse. As in the case of the AnyRandian ideal community described here.

This is not the only libertarian dream community in the works. Perhaps more sturdy, but still problematic, are seasteading efforts propelled by Patri Friedman and Peter Thiel.

LIBERTARIANS-PROPERTYIn the end, however, this is tragic for us all. Libertarianism might have served as a rational and pragmatic counter-balance to the tendency to try solving all problems with statist approaches. It might also have held true to the sane vision of Adam Smith – to do what is needed in order to maximize the number of skilled and capable young COMPETITORS in a flat-fair-open society. Instead, it has been hijacked by solipsists who never, ever mention the word “competition” anymore, in their obsessive defense of towering accumulations of PROPERTY, never noticing how this serves the proto-feudal wishes of the oligarchs who were denounced by Adam Smith, and have always been the greatest enemies of markets and freedom.

See my dissection of Any Rand here: http://www.davidbrin.com/aynrand.html

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The Spirit of Exploration: Comets, Pluto, Titan and Mars

NASA awarded contracts to Boeing and SpaceX to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station, ending U.S. dependence on the Russian Soyuz for transportation of humans (at $70 million a seat). It’s about time! It also makes clear the advantages of competition, which Elon’s company has restored. How interesting that SpaceX is being paid only a little more than half what Boeing will be paid, for the same number of crew/cargo deliveries.  If Elon is trying to make a point… he is succeeding.

philae== Comets! ==

As a licensed cosmet… I mean cometologist, I find this truly exciting news: In early November, the Philae lander — currently tucked inside the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft — will drop down to the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.  Philae will make measurements while anchored to the comet by a harpoon. Scientists have just chosen Site J — located on the comet’s head for touchdown. Landing will be challenging: the surface of the 4 km double-lobed comet is jagged — with unpredictable outgassing jets that will become more active as the comet approaches the sun.

This cool online item visualizes Rosetta´s 10-year journey to explore a comet, with all important moments, current positions and also upcoming steps of the mission.

67P-Aug6-albedo-TR-580x417Upon approach to Comet 67P, Discovery.com reported: “A spacecraft chasing a comet in deep space has found that its target is surprisingly dark in color. Instead of arriving at a bright, reflective, ice-covered heavenly body, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta probe found that its target comet, 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (or 67P/C-G), appears darker than charcoal…”

In fact, this is old news. When the Giotto spacecraft flew past Halley’s comet in 1986, there was “shock” that the dusty material was so dark. Though in fact we should have guessed, because other than water, a lot of material in the outer solar system is carbonaceous. At the time, my doctoral thesis on comets was new. It had predicted the dust layers, but not quite how dark they would be. In fact, that prediction was only made in one place, a sci fi novel called Heart of the Comet!

== Cosmets and the Red Planet! ==

maven-marsElsewhere in the solar system… MAVEN — the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN craft arrived at Mars on Sunday Sept 21. After a ten month journey, Maven begins its study of the Martian atmosphere. Scheduled to arrive two days later is Mangalyaan — or Mars Orbital Mission — India’s first interplanetary spacecraft. MOM?  Seriously?  As in Mars Needs Moms?

Ah… but then, few weeks later….

Comet Siding Spring is heading toward a close encounter with Mars on October 19. Planetary scientists were worried about cometary debris harming delicate instruments on Mars orbiting spacecraft while could in turn hurt our relays from the rovers. The latest assessment indicates there should be minimal danger. But I’ll be biting my nails, while eagerly peering at the science data!

 ==On to Pluto!==

New-Horizons-PlutoNASA’s New Horizons probe was scheduled to cross the orbit of Neptune on Monday (Aug. 25), 25 years to the day after Voyager 2’s encounter. (Voyager was our only probe ever to visit Uranus and Neptune.) New Horizons is now streaking toward a flyby of Pluto on July 14, 2015 that should return the first good images at the distant dwarf planet and its moons.

Now Paul Schenk of the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston has produced created the best-ever global color map of Neptune’s big moon Triton, by enhancing images taken by Voyager 2 probe during its flyby of Neptune and Triton, a generation ago.

(Alas “crossing the orbit” does not mean a flyby. There will be no Neptune science this time, from New Horizons.)

==And beyond==

Trailers for scientific papers? Hollywood has borrowed relentlessly from science (occasionally even respectfully), so why not turnaround? Sean Carroll reports that some young physicists have created a truly fun and cool trailer that in one minute teases you to know a lot more than you did before… about superfields and super-gravity and inflation! 

Yes, books have trailers too! Some of you have seen the amazing video preview-trailer for Existence, with incredible art by Patrick Farley!

Copernicus-Complex-ScharfHow Rare is Intelligent Life? Just released: The Copernicus Complex: Our Cosmic Significance in a Universe of Planets and Probabilities by Caleb Scharf argues that Earth will still be special, even after all sorts of alien worlds are catalogued. Unlike Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee, who argued in Rare Earth that intelligent life on Earth relied on so many unlikely accidents that we are probably alone in the universe, Scharf doesn’t think it’s likely we’re entirely unique, just rare. See more articles on SETI.

NASA is expected to sponsor a contest to build better airships, breathing new life — and funding — into the idea. High-altitude airships are still in their relative infancy. None has ever flown at 65,000 feet for longer than eight hours. But a recent study from the Keck Institute for Space Studies at Caltech suggests that a more capable airship may not be far-off.

Mind you, we have been reading “revival of airships” stories for thirty years! But the technologies now seem especially ripe. See my own portrayal of the vibrant future of towed zeppelins in “The Smartest Mob.”

==Toward Titan and Mars==

Super-ball-botSee the Super Ball Bot: this flexible tensegrity-style robot can land with a bounce — and roll to explore planetary surfaces — funded by NASA’s Innovative and Advanced Concepts Group (NIAC). (I am on the external board of advisors for NIAC.) Researchers are considering Saturn’s moon Titan for the robot’s first mission.

Looking ahead: is it time to re-evaluate beamed power from space?

Win a trip to space — and back! — aboard XCOR’s Lynx Mark II Spacecraft, a fundraiser to benefit MarsOne, and their plans to build a human settlement on the red planet.

Read also about Elon Musk’s plans for a Mars colony — he calls Mars a serious fixer-upper.

Mars-curiosityRecommended: a look at the teams of scientists and engineers who designed, built, launched, landed, and now operate the Mars Rovers: Curiosity – An inside look at the Mars Rover Mission and the people who made it happen, by Rod Pyle. These individuals are the ones who keep pushing at the frontiers of exploration…

Finally: Um… didn’t I already do exactly this, in a novel? “NASA Announces Plans To Launch Chimpanzee Into Sun.” — from The Onion!

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Will we uplift other species to sapience?

uplift-sapienceThis time, let’s veer into an area wherein I actually know a thing or two!  The matter of whether humanity might someday… or even should… meddle in other creatures on this planet and bestow upon them the debatable “gift” of full sapience — the ability to argue, ponder, store information, appraise, discuss, create, express and manipulate tools, so that they might join us in the problematic task of being worthy planetary managers.

These scribbles were created (as you might guess) as part of an interview.

What first inspired you to write about uplifting?

Some other authors (e.g. H.G. Wells, Pierre Boule, Mary Shelley, and Cordwainer Smith) dealt with this general concept before, but always by assuming the process would be abused — that the humans bestowing this boon would spoil things by enslaving their clients of creations. Of course that is one possible (and despicable) outcome. Those were good “warning” stories with wholesome messages.

uplift-booksBut that vein is overworked, so I wondered — what if we someday begin modifying higher animals — and I think we clearly will — guided by the morality of modern liberal society?  Filled with hyper-tolerance and eager for diversity? My uplift novels portray a future in which sapient dolphins and apes serve on our councils, offer their own styles of wisdom, art and insight, enriching an Earth civilization that is no longer only human.  It’s an attractive outcome…

…but the path to get there is fraught with dangers and moral hazards.

How close do you think we genuinely are, scientifically, to being able to uplift certain species? And is there a scientific imperative to do so?

SCIENCE-UPLIFTWe are rapidly tracing the genetic mutations that empowered a sub-population of Homo erectus to transform into something theretofore never seen on Planet Earth – or possibly anywhere in the galaxy.  It appears that only a few dozen protein and regulatory genes made the crucial difference.  Already, some of these alterations are being tried in laboratory mice, so we can better understand some tragic human ailments.  There are – at present – rules against doing such insertion experiments on higher creatures like apes. But when the prospect looms closer, can you doubt trials will begin? If it isn’t allowed in the open, western scientific community, then it will happen in secret, elsewhere.  Frankly, I’d rather see this realm explored in the open, under relentless transparency and scrutiny, than let it turn into some secret, Michael-Crichton-style excuse for I-Told-You-so regrets.

MOUSE-SPEECH-GENEA recent article in Popular Mechanics: If You Give a Mouse a Human Speech Gene, It Learns Faster. Mice that receive a human version of a speech and language gene display accelerated learning! Don’t expect these findings to lead to a rush of smarter, “uplifted” animals—though they might just reveal something new and fascinating about the evolution of human speech and language.

“What surprised me most was that the humanized gene actually improved the animal’s behavior rather than messing up the system,” says behavioral neuroscientist Kyle Smith. Science writer Charles Q. Choi notes,  “The gene for the protein called FOXP2 has been firmly linked to human speech and language. Humans with just one functional copy of this gene experience difficulties in learning and struggle with spoken and written language. The gene itself is not unique—chimps have a version of it. But because the human and chimpanzee lineages diverged roughly 6 million years ago, they don’t have two key changes in amino acids that humans have evolved.”

And so, it begins.

You talk about how ‘many other species on Earth appear to be stuck under a firm glass ceiling’ – can you expand on this?  

uplift-barloweA while back, we were told that only humans used symbolic speech and tools.  Later, it was only dolphins and chimpanzees who could parse simple sentences.  In recent years, both rudimentary language skills and tool use have been documented in grey parrots, corvids (ravens), sea lions, elephants, every variety of ape, and even prairie dogs! Some people — admirably empathic folks — have declared that “this means we humans aren’t so special, after all.” And yes, in a sense it does mean that. Certainly, it is right that we expand our respect for Nature’s other wonders and fight to preserve them.

But there is another way to look at this. If so many species — all coming from different directions — appear to have plateaued at about the same level, then it implies that both Darwin and Mother Nature are generous, but only up to a point. “This far, you may rise easily, many of you! But no higher.  There is a glass ceiling through which you may not pass!”

Think about it.  If so many species achieved rudimentary linguistics and tool use today, would it not have been equally likely for the top-brainy dinosaurs?  Were velociraptors equally endowed? Can we ever know? Alas, because none of them managed to put together a space program, all dinosaurs helplessly perished.

No, the lesson from all this is to be even more amazed that humanity pushed through this glass ceiling.  Smashed through it, actually, by orders of magnitude! Which then demands of us not to feel overweening pride, but a sense of duty and obligation.  To use our titanic brains to benefit the planet, not just ourselves.

But it goes beyond that. If getting past the barrier is rare, then don’t we owe it to our neighbors and cousins to turn around and offer a helping hand?

What are your takes on ethical arguments against uplifting?  

uplift-word-cloudThose arguments are strong and persuasive and perhaps compelling!  For example, here’s one: “Other species have their own honor and dignity and beauty and styles of intelligence!”

Yes, I agree on all counts.  And if commencing a program of uplift on, say, Tursiops dolphins would cause all of those things to vanish, then I would say stop.  But that is zero-sum thinking. And it is fallacious.

We must preserve and help the bright dolphins and elephants and parrots and sea lions foremost by restoring and expanding their habitats and natural populations.  But any uplift project would work only with a small, selected sub-population that would soon be a new and different species, on its own path of destiny. All the richness of the old root stock would be preserved. You can retain the old — and everything worthy of respect — while creating the new.

UPLIFT-UNIVERSE-BRINLikewise, the proclamations that uplift would be typical “human arrogance, playing god,” seem easy to answer.  How about typical “human generosity”? Lending a hand to others across nature’s chasm, so they might then join us building starships?

Or so their ingrate teenagers might eloquently blame us for their adolescent angst, sneering “Hey!  I didn’t ASK to be this smart!”

The one argument against uplift that I find most compelling is the simplest. Yes, the goal is a beautiful one, to vastly expand the diversity of Earth’s sapience, with dolphin and chimp and bonobo and gorilla and even elephant sages sitting on our councils and sharing unique insights? Great. I portray them having problems, in my novels, but the product is still a lovely dream. (To be clear, while artificial intelligence might be possible, uplifted sapience is demonstrably beyond plausible, even very likely.)

All of that sounds fine. Only… in order to get there, the chosen sub-populations will have to go through generations of awkward fits and starts. No matter how carefully and lovingly we move ahead, there will be some pain. And I can understand folks who declare that they would – on that account alone – oppose uplift, no matter how wondrous the final outcome might be.

Salk-Good-ancestorIn the end?  I (very) respectfully disagree. All generations are built for one purpose… the one fine goal that Jonas Salk spoke-of… to be good ancestors.  To suffer what we must, for our grandchildren. I can think of no greater function than to sow, so that those descendants may reap.

Dolphin parents make similar choices every day.  If they could envision what their heirs might become… the earthly and alien seas they might explore… I think they would volunteer.

 Aside from the ethical reasons you’ve presented, what would be the benefits – commercially or scientifically – in doing so?

StartideThe oceans of planet Earth are a vast mystery, filled with both physical wealth and unique treasures to preserve.  We are trying to learn to be good planetary managers (often stymied by other members of our own, short-sighted species.) But I doubt we could fill that role all by ourselves, anywhere near as well as if sapient dolphin partners (and critics) were by our side.  The same holds for countless other opportunities for both profit and wisdom.  (I believe that — and portray in stories — descendants of elephants might be the perfect living inhabitants of asteroidal colonies!)

Our biggest danger is not the one preached by Michael Crichton and so many others — human ambition and hubristic pride.  No, our biggest danger comes from zero sum thinking. Proclaiming that we cannot seek – and sometimes achieve – the win-win. Doing well while doing good. 

What measures can be taken to protect the rights of animals if uplifting as a practice is pursued?  

SECRECY-NEWI’ve been a little unkind to Michael Crichton in this interview.  But in fact, every single one of his dire-danger scenarios preaches a single valuable lesson, and it is not “don’t do new things.”  If you read the books and watch the movies, you soon realize that the true lesson is: “don’t do new things in SECRET.”

The only possible way that uplift, or any other grand project, can be done well is if it is performed in the open, subjected to relentless criticism by opponents who seek out every flaw, every danger and mistake.  Only then, ironically, will the project move ahead with some strong chance of minimizing the pain… and maximizing the benefits for all.

Anything else you’d like to say on the matter? 

aficionadoI think you’ll like my novella “Aficionado.”  It takes a while to get to the uplift part.

See a page dedicated to the Uplift Universe

and my article Intelligence, Uplift and Our Place in a Big Cosmos.

Above all, let’s not paint our kids in a corner, binding them to our vows, based on this generation’s obsessions.  Those kids will be smarter and better than us.  If we make a civilization of decency, tolerance, maturity, thoughtfulness and fun… then they will answer all of these questions better than we slightly advanced cavemen ever could.

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