Final Entry of 2012

Well, the world didn’t end (which is good, otherwise my end of world prediction would have been totally wrong).

I haven’t posted much this year. In fact, i think personal blog entries are in decline across the board. While there are some people who still write entries almost daily or at least weekly, i’m definitely not one of them. Social networking sites (ala Facebook) have pretty much supplanted the day-to-day electronic “hey, check this out”, and “ooh, i’m feeling…”, or “guess what just happened” posts.

But even so, i’ll continue to keep my blog around and i will even post to it occasionally, but mostly it’ll be for longer items or summaries of lots of littler items. If you want the day to day minutia check out my Facebook, Google+, or Twitter pages.

Here’s a great article i wanted to share. It just goes to show that we’re living in the future. It lists 12 things that happened in 2012 that could have come out of some sci-fi movies from 15-20 years ago. And these are all things that really happened this year!

I grouped these all together because they have a common theme: the merging of technology and biology in some way.

  • A Cyborg Competes Against Able-Bodied Athletes at the Olympics
  • Researchers Create a Robot With Legs That Can Run Faster Than any Human
  • Scientists Enhance the Intelligence of Primates with a Chip
  • The World’s First Cybernetic Hate Crime Occurs at a McDonalds in France
  • A Paralyzed Woman Controls a Robotic Arm Using Only Her Mind
  • Scientists Create an Artificial Retina
  • Researchers Create the First Complete Computer Model of a Living Organism
  • A Child Attends School By Sending a Robot in His Place

Forget about who’s on drugs, now it’s all about what does it mean to be human – how many implants are too many before you can’t compete? Will everyone need implants to stay competitive in high-end sporting competitions? Will that bleed over into everyday life? Job discrimination ala Gattaca if you aren’t genetically enhanced?

If we can make outselves smarter, why not chimps. Or dogs, or cats, or mice? Will they eventually be at the point where they can compete for jobs, demand rights, own property, or even publish scientific papers? And if we can do it on a chip, why bother with bioligy anyway – let’s just do it all in silicone. It’s more durable and takes less resources. Maybe we start with a chip, combine with cybernetic implants, and eventually move on to full-on brain uploads in the cloud!

When will it get to the point where new laws need to be enacted? People always fear those who are different. But maybe eventually “unenhanced humans” will be the oddballs and they’ll be the ones discrimiated against.

Doctors Communicate With a Man in a Coma
Maybe some implants will help and eventually he can control a cyborg body with just his mind.

NASA Starts to Work on a Faster-Than-Light Warp Drive
This is a serious attempt with actual NASA engineers using real (and according to them, plausible) math to achieve faster-than-life travel.

The Earth Experiences its First True Superstorm
Well, maybe not the first, but certainly the first in modern history.

The First Successful Commercial Cargo Delivery to Space Goes Off Without a Hitch
Who needs big government anymore? Maybe we will finally get to take that 2 week vacation to the moon someday (soon-ish).

The First Large-Scale Geoengineering Project is Detected Off Canada’s West Coast
This sounds like a James Bond super-villian storyline.

Self-Driving Cars Become Legal in Several States
It’ll be a while before people are ready to let the car drive itself, but every year the cars get smarter and have more features. Back-up collision detection, anti-lock breaks, off-road steering correction, self-park mode, enhanced HUD’s with relevant traffic/weather information. Slowly but inexorably they’re all moving towards self-driving with humans as simply passengers along for the ride.

The Future of the Internet, circa 1993

Last week i was listening to a really fun podcast.  From 17 years ago.  No, i didn’t figure out how to open a wormhole.  I was listening to NPR’s science friday postcast titled “The Future of the Internet“, which was originally aired in 1993.

It was very cool to hear about “electronic mail messages”, and yes you can in fact exchange messages between Genie and CompuServe and the internet.  Oh, and one guy was able to find a list of jokes to share at a meeting and it only took him an hour of searching around to do it.  And let’s not forget one of the best things you can do: You can sign on to a “MUD” (multi user dungeon) and type to each other while you have a d&d style adventure.  You can pretend to be an elf or a wizard while you sit in the comfort of your own home.

The best part was the fact that this was the first live radio broadcast over the open internet where there was live audience participation. Well, another good part was where a university librarian said that the college professors were granted free access to “electronic mail accounts”, but they hadn’t yet decided if they were going to allow graduate and regular students to have access yet until they’d evaluated things for a bit.

If you’re at all interested in internet history, this is definitely worth a listen.

Science advances

I was listening to the science friday podcast the other day (you can read the transcript here) and there was a lively and interesting dicussion about shaping human values with science.  Can it, does it, should it.  One of the panelists brought up the fact that many things in the past that have been hot topic issues are no longer issues.  Society pretty much universally accepts things as truth.  The earth is round and rotates around the sun.  When science discovers new truth, maybe people don’t want to believe it.  They dig in their heels and refuse to listen to reason.  But facts are facts regardless of what people believe and in the end (even if it takes decades or centuries) society must/will acknowledge the truth.

We shouldn’t underestimate the extent to which people’s minds can be changed over the long term. It used to be a live, moral issue whether slavery could be justified or not. We’re done with that. It’s just not a live option. … people’s minds weren’t changed instantly, but in an open society, in an educated society, almost everyone does come around, and what used to be burning issues no longer become them.

As one panelist put it, “Funeral by funeral, science progresses.”

Heisenberg’s uncertainty, quantum entanglement, and the church nursery

This morning I was reading an article talking about how a group of researches have possibly found a way around the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle.  First, a refresher course for all you who’s science might be a bit rusty.  The Uncertainty Principle states that it’s impossible to know both the position and the velocity of a particle.  The more precisely you measure one, the less precisely you know the other one.  The more you know the position of a particle, the less you can know about its velocity, and the more you know about the velocity of a particle, the less you can know about its position.

So what is the workaround?  Simple.  Introduce quantum entanglement.  Take two particles.  Entangle them.  Measure one for position and the other for velocity.  Refresher: Quantum entanglement is the ability to take two particles and have them act exactly the same.  You can then move them apart as far as you like and anything that you do the one will instantaneously happen to the other, even if it’s miles away.   Or something.  Read the wikipedia article if you want to expand your mind (either by enlightenment or explosion).

Or, as this article states:

By maximally entangling a particle with a quantum memory and measuring one of the particle’s variables, like its position, should snap the quantum memory in a corresponding state, which could then be measured. This would allow them to do something long thought verboten by the laws of physics: figure out the state of certain pairs of variables at the exact same time with an unprecedented amount of certainty.

When two particles are entangled, reading even one variable of one of the particles collapses the wavefunction of both particles, giving finite values to all related variables.

As an aside, when i mentioned this to my wife, she just laughed and said “it’s like the nursery at church.  You put a bunch of kids in a room.  You don’t really know what’s happening inside.  If you peek through the peep hole, you can get an idea, but you don’t know until you enter the room.  But by entering the room, you’ve changed what everyone is doing.  Unless you’re a primary worker.  In which case you’re far too busy wiping snotty noses to measure anything.”

Can we, should we embrace artificial immortality?

I have often half-jokingly talked about “when the singularity arrives and i upload my mind into a new body…”.  Of course, this is nirvana for many of the Singularitarian‘s.  A way to cheat death and live forever.

Time for some thought experiments.  Do i really think this is possible?  If it is (or becomes so in the future), would it be a good thing?  Would i personally want to do it?  The biggest question: Would it really still be you?  It seems like even if your mind was perfectly replicated it would only be a copy.  I suppose as things go, if you did a weekly backup and died, at most, the “real” you who had died couldn’t complain.  Because you’re dead.  And the “copy” you would feel as if they were you (minus the memories of whatever had happened in the intervening week since the backup).

I can certainly see the allure of something like this.  But then if you take some religious and philosophical viewpoints, things get a little fuzzy.  “You can’t copy the soul” someone might say.  So all you have is a soulless robot that thinks, remembers, acts, and might (or might not) look like you.  But isn’t really you. What is the soul?  Is it the sum of all your memories and likes/dislikes?  What if all that is copied exactly?  Is it something more elusive that can’t be copied?  “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter“.

What about this.  I back up my brain.  I then go and kill someone, and then kill myself.  My previous backup kicks in and downloads to a new body.  Is that new “me” responsible for the murder?  “I” didn’t do it.  The “other” me did, right?  What if you run two backups at the same time?  Which one is “you”?  Who has to pay the taxes?  Which ones goes to work?  Which one gets to be with your wife and children?

Of course, a thought that occurs to me is the tower of babel.  This seems like a modern equivalent – man trying to reach out and touch heaven through artificial means.  “let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven … and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do” (Gen 11: 4, 6).  What do you think?

Kurzweil at Vegas

I meant to post this a while back, but got distracted and forgot about it.

Mid April I went to Vegas for a day to attend a conference for work.  While there, I had the good fortune to be there at the same time that Ray Kurzweil was giving a keynote address!  I gotta say – he’s a very interesting man.  He would just nonchalantly say stuff like “oh ya, i’m working with top pentagon officials on ways to prevent nanobot warfare”.

There were a couple of points he made that i found quite interesting.  While talking on “the educational system crisis”, he basically said that the current method of education by rote memorization of facts is outdated and should be replaced.  “We don’t need to teach facts.  We can carry the sum total of human knowledge on our belts.  We need to participate in exciting projects that make use of that knowledge“.  In other words, don’t just learn about something.  But go out and build something.  Do a class project that demonstrates the knowledge in action.  Seeing something actually physically happen as a result of an abstract idea – that’s where it’s at.  I can completely relate to this.  That’s why i was so fascinated by computers at a young age.  I could type in lines of code on a screen, and then run my program and cause the computer to do something.  I wasn’t just learning about for loops and discreet mathematics for the sake of academia.  I could actually apply it in the real world to make things happen.

After he got done talking about life extension and that how people younger than their mid to late 40’s will see the average human lifespan increase by more than one year per year (effectively letting everyone live forever, barring accidents), the inevitable questions of “what about overpopulation, resource constraints, and being old and decrepit” were asked.  His response was “the same technologies which will extend life will also extend resources.  And we won’t just have life extension, but life expansion“.  In other words, we’ll be able to solve the new problems that come with living longer and longer.

It was really cool to hear him talk.  If i hadn’t been with a group of co-workers, i’d have probably gone up and had him sign a book for me.  Ah well.  Another time, perhaps.  After all, we’ll both be alive for a very long while, right?

Our post human selves

“Yesterday’s posthumanism is today’s boring quotidian [everyday/commonplace].”

In reading an interesting blog post about posthumanism, the author makes several good points. First off, people seem to think of being post human as something where whoever survives the apocalypse will be turned into machine zombies or something. If you stop to think about it, “post human” is something that you can really apply to us today, if viewed from the eyes of people even a century or two ago. I mean, we’ve got these little devices that fit in our pockets that connect us to the sum total of the worlds information at the click of a button. We can travel from one end of the earth to the other in hours. And we can communicate with anyone anywhere instantly (unless you’re on AT&T, then you might drop the call, but hey…) If you’re hard of hearing or have bad eyesight? No problem. Just get a hearing aid or some glasses. If your heart is bad – we can replace that. Lose a leg? Get a new one. Can’t have a baby? Grow one “in vitro”.

Do these things mean we’re no longer human? Should you go without glasses and see the world in a ball of fuzz just so you’re more “pure” somehow? Of course not. And as time moves forward, more and more things will change, and we’ll change along with them, and we’ll still be human. Or, as Jamais Cascio puts it in his article:

We will never be posthuman, because we have always been posthuman.

“Posthuman” is a term with more weight than meaning; it’s used variously to describe people with altered genomes, people with implanted machinery, people with lifespans measured in millennia, and a whole host of descriptors that ultimately boil down to “not us, not now.”

But as augmentations move from the pages of a science fiction story to the pages of a catalog, something interesting happens: they lose their power to disturb. They’re no longer the advance forces of the techpocalypse, they’re the latest manifestation of the fashionable, the ubiquitous, and the banal. They’re normal. They’re human.

technologies that we now celebrate or decry as leading to our posthuman future … the technologies of human augmentation will lead to the collapse of society … [but] the spread of the Internet and easy communication will mean that most of us will have heard about these technologies as they develop. By the time they arrive, they’ll already be boring.

Posthumanity, from this perspective, will always be just over the horizon. Always in The Future. When the systems and augmentations we now consider to be posthuman hit the real world, they will have become simply human in scale.

That’s because augmentation – the development of systems and technologies to allow us to do and to be more than what our natural biology would allow – is intrinsic to what it means to be human. Thrown weapons expanded the range of our strength; control of fire allowed us to see in the dark; written words expanded the duration of our memories. If these all sound utterly primitive and unworthy of comment, try to imagine what it would have been like to be without them – and to find yourself competing against others equipped with them. The last hundred thousand years has been the slow history of the process of augmentation.

For the people living in a future surrounded by altered genomes, implanted machinery, and vastly extended lifespans, it will all be boringly normal. Unworthy of comment. And very, very human.

We all live in … a brane?

Forget everything you thought you knew about cosmology.  Big bang?  Dark matter?  Gravitational force being so weak compared to the other forces?  Fooey i say.  There’s a competing theory that brings all this into question and said you don’t need any of that to explain the universe.  All you need is brane theory.  This isn’t necessarily new.  I’ve been reading bits and pieces about it for years.  But this particular article doesn’t go deep so your eyes don’t glaze over.  Plus it has a cool graphic :)

Proponents of branes propose that we are trapped in a thin membrane of space-time embedded in a much larger cosmos from which neither light nor energy –except gravity– can escape or enter and that  that “dark matter” is just the rest of the universe that we can’t see because light can’t escape from or enter into our membrane from the great bulk of the universe. And our membrane may be only one of many, all of which may warp, connect, and collide with one another in as many as 10 dimensions -a new frontier physicists call the “brane world.” Stephen Hawking, among others, envisions brane worlds perculating up out of the void, giving rise to whole new universes.

Only gravity can’t exist soley in a specific brane, but wanders where it will, leaking off our brane into what physicists call “the bulk” — the rest of space-time. Brane theory offer an fascinating and plausable explanation for why gravity is such a weakling: Maybe it’s not any weaker than the other forces, but just concentrated somewhere else in the bulk, or on another brane, providing the key to understanding the dark matter that makes up 90 % of our universe.

If our brane is but a small slice of a much larger cosmos, however, the “dark matter” might be nothing but ordinary matter trapped on another brane. Dark matter is no longer some mysterious unknown, but the force at the heart of the brane-brane interaction. With the brane model the universe goes through an eternal cosmic cycle over a vast timescale of attraction, bounce with a spread out bang, springing apart, and expansion until attraction (gravity) takes over again.Such a shadow world, Hawking speculated, might contain “shadow human beings wondering about the mass that seems to be missing from their world.”

There was no big bang

Several of the world’s leading cosmologists believe that we are but one of many universes. As yet, as we know, there is no evidence of there being other universes out there. Some versions of this theory suggest that there is at least one other universe very close to our own, separated perhaps bu a membrane as little as a millimeter away, which, if true, could be detectable by some energy or forces such as gravity leaking through.In fact, as predicted by brane theorists, this “leakage” could be responsible for the production of dark energy from a parallel universe, its influence felt in our own through its gravitational pull.

CERN may detect the existance of another universe

Orvut’s theory could explain the effect of dark matter where areas of the universe are heavier than they should be given everything that’s present. With their theory, the nagging problems surrounding the Big Bang (beginning from what, and caused how?) are replaced by an eternal cosmic cycle where dark energy is no longer a mysterious unknown quantity, but rather the very extra gravitational force that drives the universe to universe (brane-brane) interaction.

What Came Before the Big Bang?

Future cosmologists won’t have a clue. But do we?

I was listening to a podcast today with a panel of cosmologists. It was actually more entertaining than you might think. Or maybe i’m just a geek. Anyway… :)

One subject that came up was the idea that given the fact that everything in the universe is moving away from everything else at an increasing rate, eventually in the “far future” (we’re talking trillions of years here), a future cosmologist would see nothing in the night sky but the local stars of the galaxy. Everything else will have receded into invisibility beyond all possibility of detection. They’ll know nothing of the true nature of the universe. As far as they’ll ever be able to determine, they are completely alone in a dark cosmos.

The interesting point made was “how do we know we’re not in a similar situation”? There could be any number of interesting things about the universe that we can’t observe. Things that if we did know about would give us a completely different view of things.

New forest discovered via Google Earth

It’s amazing how technology can have interesting and often really cool side-effects that it was never designed for. Take this article for example:
New forest discovered via Google Earth. According to the article:

The mountainous area of northern Mozambique in southern Africa had been overlooked by science due to inhospitable terrain and decades of civil war in the country.

However, while scrolling around on Google Earth, … scientists discovered an unexpected patch of green.

A British-led expedition was sent to see what was on the ground and found 7,000 hectares of forest, rich in biodiversity.

So far three new butterflies and one new species of snake have been discovered but it is believed there are at least two more new species of plants and perhaps more new insects to discover.

Jonathan Timberlake, expedition leader, said digital imagery has helped scientists to discover more about the world. He believes there may be other small pockets of biodiversity around the world that are yet to be discovered that could be stumbled upon by searching on Google Earth, especially in areas like Mozambique or Papua New Guinea which have not been fully explored yet.

Time to install Google Earth and start searching for the land that time forgot.