Archives For future

calvin superhero

Apologies for the lengthy pauses between posts but with Project X in full swing and long days at the office, there’s only so much time to write, and the more gets written the more problems there are for the aforementioned project. But more on that in due time. For now, I decided to take the occasional detour into the realm of meta-debates and talk about news stories documenting the growing pains of the skeptical movement. Their common theme is that there are people under a banner called skepticism who want to confront pseudoscience while at the same time arguing a great deal about how to do it, and with certain influential skeptics trying impose their politics on the entire movement. Does a skeptic need only to worry about debunking Bigfoot, UFOs, quack remedies, and ghosts? Does a skeptic need to be atheist? Are skeptics allowed to shelter hope that a belief for which there’s little to no evidence might still somehow end up being true? And in the grand scheme of things, what do the skeptics really want to accomplish in the end and who gets to be invited to join them in their campaigns? In short, what exactly makes one a skeptic?

But hold on, you might object, why does arriving at a concrete definition matter? Aren’t skeptics just scientifically literate folks applying basic scientific methodology to bullshit claims made by all sorts of profit-minded shysters and by well-meaning but potentially dangerously ignorant people who pass them on or weave them into their personal brands of cargo cult science? Well, yes, in the broadest way that’s correct, and it’s what let me to start forging ties with organized skeptical organizations when their blog was in its prime skeptical phase. However just because you called yourself a skeptic for denouncing pseudoscience and were recognized for it by JREF or another skeptical group, doesn’t mean the topic you’re best equipped to address will ever get any major boost, even within the group. For example, I’m most often cited for Singularity skepticism, mostly because I’m a techie by profession and education, and have the experience and tools to put the wild claims of our impending immortality through technology under very tight scrutiny. Good for me, right? A new branch of skepticism can be added to the collective’s efforts, right?

Sorry but no dice. In fact, a certain very popular 2012 skeptic once told me that until he started reading my dissections of Kurzweil & Co., he thought that their ideas were a lot more plausible than they actually were, and the Skepchicks hosted a very sympathetic take on the claims and predictions being made by the attendees of a Singularity Summit. After talking to those involved on the subject, I was told that while my take was appreciated in the form of links, what I wrote on the subject was "sort of advanced skepticism" and they wanted to focus on something that was more common, the old school skeptics-as-common-sense-debunkers approach. Pretty much the only recognizable skeptics not only interested, but willing to give transhumanist and AI skeptics a real platform was the team at Skeptically Speaking, for which I ended up doing half an episode, and a two-hour debate with a prominent transhumanist. That’s right, we were so popular and the audience was so receptive, I had to come back twice. But to the old school skeptics, it’s really all about debunking common myths and popular quacks. It needs to be done but for those of us no longer interested in that, there doesn’t seem to be much room in organized skepticism.

And this is one of the biggest sources of friction that I’m seeing right now. Those of us who are technical experts in one subject or another interested in applying our specialized knowledge to a possibly arcane but still popular topic, are sick and tired of the umpteenth dissection of Dr. Oz and a UFO sighting now decades old, but we’re not really being included or asked to bring light to a new topic or two because that puts the old school skeptics out of their comfort zone. Now, I won’t be surprised if by now you’re tempted to dismiss this grievance by pointing out that it come from personal experience and makes for only one data point. But if you go back to the Atheism+ fight for just a bit, you’ll hear an undertone of the same exact issues from a completely different group of people with completely different goals. They wanted to turn organized skepticism into a left wing political movement rather than broaden its primary topics, but their reason for trying to create a new offshoot was due to a) feeling that the skeptical old school is not interested in new ideas for the future, and b) their avoidance of the skepticism vs. atheism question based mostly on marketing considerations, to make the religious feel more welcome at skeptic meetups.

Today’s big, organized skeptical groups don’t seem to be evolving or really expanding past the few topics that bound them together. More and more skeptical meetups seem to be preaching to the choir rather than exposing skeptics to new topics. The whole movement just seems stuck in place, retracing the same fake Bigfoot steps and analyzing the same flying saucer on a wire for the hundredth time. And as if that wasn’t enough, we get drama and gender wars on an endless loop for publicity and stats instead of guidance and fresh ideas. Wasn’t the point of well-funded, organized skepticism to spread education and combat the popularization of pseudoscience in all of its forms rather than spending a lot of time with people who agree with what you say? Where are the skeptical conferences that invite expert speakers to expose skeptics to big, cutting edge scientific ideas to peak their interest in broadening their horizons and taking on new topics? Is a skeptical equivalent of TED without the buzzwords out of the question? No wonder reporters on missions to write about organized skepticism all end up asking where would the movement go in the next few years and fail to prove an answer. They can’t. There’s no future game plan…

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quantified self

With the explosion in fitness trackers and mobile apps that want to help manage everything from weight loss to pregnancy, there’s already a small panic brewing as technology critics worry that insurance companies will require you to wear devices that track your health, playing around with your premiums based on how well or how badly you take care of yourself. As the current leader of the reverse Singularitarians, Evgeny Morozov, argues, the new idea of the quantified self is a minefield being created with little thought about the consequences. Certainly there is a potential for abuse of very personal health metrics and Morozov is at his best when he explains how naive techno-utopians don’t understand how they come off, and how the reality of how their tools have been used in the wild differs drastically from their vision, so his fear is not completely unfounded or downright reflexive, like some of his latest pieces have been. But in the case of the quantified self idea being applied to our healthcare, the benefits are more likely to outweigh the risks.

One of the reasons why healthcare in the United States is so incredibly expensive is the lack of focus on preventitive medicine. Health problems are allowed to fester until they become simply too bothersome to ignore, a battery of expensive tests is ordered, and usually expensive acute treatments are administered. Had they been caught in time, the treatments would not have to be so intensive, and if there was ample, trustworthy biometric information available to the attending doctors, there wouldn’t need to be as much testing to arrive at an accurate diagnosis. As many doctors grumble about oceans of paperwork, logistics of testing, and the inability to really talk to patients in the standard 15 minute visit, why not use devices that would help with the paperwork and do a great deal of preliminary research for them before they ever see the patient? And yes, the devices would have to be able to gather data by themselves because we often tell little white lies about how active we are and how well we eat, even when both we and our doctors know that we’re lying. And this only hurts us in the end by making the doctors’ work more difficult.

That brings us full circle to health insurance premiums and requirements to wear these devices to keep our coverage. Certainly it’s kind of creepy that there would be so much data about us so readily available to insurance companies, but here’s the thing. They already have this data from your doctors and can access it whenever they want in the course of processing your claim. With biometric trackers and loggers, they could do the smart and profitable thing and instead of using a statistical model generated from a hodgepodge of claim notes, take advantage of the real time data coming in to send you to the doctor when a health problem is detected. They pay less for a less acute treatment plan, you feel healthier and have some piece of mind that you’re now less likely to be caught by surprise by some nasty disease or condition, and your premiums won’t be hiked as much since the insurers now have higher margins and stave off rebellions from big and small companies who’ll now have more coverage choices built around smart health data. And all this isn’t even mentioning the bonanza for researchers and policy experts who can now get a big picture view from what would be the most massive health study ever conducted.

How many times have you read a study purporting the health benefits of eating berries and jogs one week only to read another one that promotes eating nuts and saying that jogs are pointless with the different conclusions coming as a result of different sample sizes and subjects involved in the studies? Well, here, scientists could collect tens of millions of anonymized records and do very thorough modeling based on uniform data sets from real people, and find out what actually works and for whom when it comes to achieving their fitness and weight loss goals. Couple more data and more intelligent policy with the potential for economic gain and the gamification offered by fitness trackers, and you end up with saner healthcare costs, a new focus on preventing and maintaining rather than diagnosing and treating, fewer sick days, and longer average lifespans as the side effect of being sick less often and encouraged to stay active and fit, and you have a very compelling argument for letting insurance companies put medical trackers on you and build a new business model around them and the data they collect. It will pay off in the long run.

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cyborg integration

Stop me if you’ve heard any of this before. As computers keep getting faster and more powerful and robots keep advancing at a breakneck pace, most human jobs will be obsolete. But instead of simply being pink-spilled, humans will get brand new jobs which pay better and give them a lot of free time to enjoy the products of our civilization’s robotic workforce, create, and invent. It’s a futuristic dream that’s been around for almost a century in one form or another, and it has been given an update in the latest issue of Wired. Robots will take our jobs and we should welcome it because we’ll eliminate grunt work in favor of more creative pursuits, say today’s tech prophets, and in a way they’re right. Automation is one of the biggest reasons why a lot of people can’t go out and get jobs that once used to be plentiful and why companies are bringing in more revenue with far fewer workers. Machines have effectively eliminated millions of jobs.

When we get to the second part of this techno-utopian prediction, however, things aren’t exactly as rosy. Yes, new and higher paying jobs have emerged, especially in IT, but they’re closed to a lot of people who simply don’t have the skills to do these new jobs or for whom no position exists in their geographical vicinity. Automation doesn’t just mean that humans get bumped up from an obsolete job, it means there are fewer jobs overall for humans. And when it comes to positions in which dealing with reams of paperwork and mundane office tasks is the order of the day, having computers and robots in them eliminates internships college students or young grads can use to build up a resume and get their feet in the door. They’re now stuck in a Catch-22 where they’re unable to get experience and more education puts them further behind thanks to a machine. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this is not what the techno-utopians had in mind.

Of course humans will have to move up into more abstract and creative jobs where robots have no hope of ever competing with them, otherwise the economy will collapse as automated factory after automated factory churns out trillions of dollars worth of goods that no one can buy since some 70% of the population no longer has a job. And at 70% unemployment, every last horrible possibility that sends societal collapse theory survivalists screaming themselves awake at night has a high enough chance of happening that yours truly would also start seriously considering taking up gun hoarding and food stockpiling as really good hobbies. Basically, the failure to get adjusted to the growing cybernetic sector of the workforce simply isn’t an option. Companies, no matter how multinational, would be able to eliminate so many positions that the robot takeover of human jobs with no replacements in sight that it wouldn’t start feeling the economic pain as they hit maximum market saturation and can go no further because no one can buy their wares.

But all these good news aside, just because we’ll have time to adjust to an ever more automated economy and feel the need to do so, doesn’t mean that the transition will be easy and people will not be left behind. Without a coordinated effort by wealthy nations to change the incentives they give their companies and educational institutions, we’ll be forced to ride out a series of massive recessions in which millions of jobs are shed, relatively few are replaced, and the job markets will be slowly rebuilt around new careers because a large chunk of the ones lost are now handed off to machines or made obsolete by an industry’s contraction after the crisis. And this means that when facing the machine takeover of the economy we have two realistic choices. The first is to adapt by taking action now and bringing education and economic incentives in line with what the postindustrial markets are likely to become. The second is to try and ride out the coming storm, adapting in a very economically painful ad hoc manner through cyclical recessions. Unlike we’re being told, the new, post-machine jobs won’t just naturally appear on their own…

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alpha centauri bb

After decades of trying to find out whether our closest stellar neighbors have planets we could one day explore, we finally have a confirmation that there appears to be an Earth-sized planet floating around Alpha Centauri B. If we wanted to get really nitpicky and technical, this is not the closest star to us because Proxima Centauri is slightly closer, but for practical purposes, this is a world which could well be within our reach in the next 50 to 75 years. Now for the bad news. We probably wouldn’t want to go there because its orbital period is about three and a half days, so its basically a planet like Venus but even more hellish, with a surface of molten rock and little to no atmosphere to speak of, likely stripped away by the stellar winds. Still, this is very good news because there is the potential for more planets in the Alpha Centauri system. We’ve seen plenty of planets orbiting binary star systems, and recently, even a world orbiting a quadruple one. We just need to keep looking for gravitational tugs on the stars in longer orbital periods.

Hold on a second, how come we can find planets orbiting hundreds of light years away but our nearest neighbors’ planet count was and still is an open question? Well, in this case being really close is a big problem because the starlight is so bright that it effectively obscures the planets in transit, making it extremely difficult to detect them with our current fleet of telescopes. Alpha Cen Bb was found by measuring the drag the planet has on its parent star, something easier to see at closer orbital periods since the drag is greater, and thus more noticeable, closer in. For more detail on how this method worked in this case, see the Bad Astronomer’s explanation. His major takeaway from this detection is that we’re getting closer and closer to finding a second Earth if we’re able to find planets close to our mass in more and more places as we keep on looking, so it’s only a matter of time before we spy Terra Nova. And I can certainly agree with that, but it’s a more exciting idea for me to consider more planets around the Alpha Centauri system, ones on which we could land a probe or even a habitat capable of supporting astronauts.

This would give us a good target for the first interstellar journey and help move really ambitious designs to make such a trip possible off the drawing board and into a lab. Of course I realize it’s very unlikely that as soon as a cooler world is found around our nearest stellar neighbors we will be seeing NASA and the ESA start planning missions to it. And I’m pretty sure that we won’t just take astronauts and launch them on a multi-generational trip there. We’re going to be trying the most radical propulsion methods we can conceive of and the humans who will land on exoworlds are going to be extensively modified, both genetically and mechanically. But despite all this, just having a closer target to explore would be a terrific incentive to get the projects started. If we’re only able to land on planets tens or hundreds of light years away, the mission time and its basic requirements go up by orders of magnitude over a trip to our nearest neighbors for a relatively quick look-see. Well, relatively quick on a time scale of a civilization that is..

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new world order

One of the biggest reasons why I don’t look forward to elections and rush to shut off all political news shows in earshot is that today’s politics simply infuriate me. From giving clueless dullards inordinate sway over our scientific development to debates by soundbyte and out of context quotes, it’s as if a nefarious committee went over the legal codices of civics and representative democracy with a fine tooth comb while wondering what they could do to make everything from voting to public political discourse as pointless or painfully vapid as humanly possible. My claims to expertise in civics aren’t exactly on par with those of Constitutional lawyers to put it mildly, just an AP class on law and government in my senior year in high school. But I don’t think that you need a doctorate in political science to howl with rage and frustration when conspiracy theories from Coast 2 Coast Radio become a major political party’s platform for science.

For the sake of FSM’s noodle-wrapped meatballs, what is wrong with these people? Yes, once again we’re dealing with their paranoia of Agenda 21, the toothless, vaguely worded collection of lofty ideas which amount to endorsements for free trade zones, observing basic human rights, a call for sustainable development if it tickles the signatories not to dump a few million barrels filled with toxic waste into the ocean on a regular basis, and using their powers wisely. Signatories on the agenda can’t be punished for not following through, there are no specific metrics for them to hit, and there’s no tax or legislative measure that the U.N. can levy to compel the countries to go through with what the agenda says. Yet in the minds of Glenn Beck and Alex Jones, pundits who are so afflicted with paranoia it’s almost tempting to ask if they’re suffering from a condition that should be diagnosed and treated rather than blasted across the airwaves, Agenda 21 is a New World Order wish list that nations must follow under threat of force.

Agenda 21 has been a favorite hobbyhorse of Glenn Beck, who argues that it is a covert means of achieving “centralized control over all of human life on planet Earth” as well as Alex Jones’ all-purpose conspiracy theory clearinghouse Infowars, which calls it a “globalist death plan for humanity.”

Globalist death plan for humanity? Do these dimwits listen to themselves? It’s like getting a little heavy handed advice from a stranger on where you should park your car in a busy city center, then lashing out that you’re being threatened with beatings and arrest if you park your car on a different street corner. And yet, this is what the regressive wing of the GOP is doing, questioning whether new bike paths, parking meters, or a change in the zoning laws was dictated by a death panel from the U.N. plotting to take their guns and put them in reeducation camps North Korea-style. Now, in a rational democracy, the parties would laugh, point out that Agenda 21 has about as much bark as a newborn kitten and about as much bite behind it as that passive aggressive text you might get from an old ex, and go on with the business of actually running the nation. Not today. No, today the Republican Party kowtows to every right wing follower of InfoWars, Prison Planet, and rabid Beck fanatic. It’s one thing to have a "big tent," it’s another thing to turn your party into a circus ran by proud ignoramuses who take their marching orders from lunatics.

Meanwhile, a seemingly unrelated article from the same source by David Rothkopf laments the loss of a time when the government inspired research and development projects on a massive scale, projects that took us to the Moon and turned so much science fiction into science fact. I’m obviously aware that the processes involved were not idyllic and we shouldn’t get all misty eyed about the peak of the Cold War. However, Rothkopf makes an important point that makes tech-obsessed, scientifically educated nerds like me want to say "yes, yes, a thousand times yes!" In the 21st century we need a government that turns to knowledge and cutting edge technology for permanent solutions to an economic malaise, and for which a knowledge-based economy isn’t just a trendy buzzword for having a majority of the GDP being generated in the services sector, but a commitment to research and development. We need hyper-efficient 3D printing factories that put Chinese cheap labor to shame by matching their cost and greatly exceeding the quality of the products they make. We need a thriving space program that creates tens of thousands of jobs and can lay the groundwork for making money from space travel.

Instead we have hysterical soundbyte fights, conspiracy theories, and voters who have no idea how their taxes are being spent asking where the jobs are while dismissing their best bet on an entirely new economy through scientific innovation as a pointless waste of money by a cabal of godless, communist heathens on the right, and either malicious, profit-driven exploitation of the public by global syndicates, or misguided materialism of the left-brained on the left. If you allow me to paraphrase a titan of science fiction, Isaac Asimov, they seem to believe that democracy means that their ignorance is just as important as others’ knowledge and instead of saying no to their more fevered fantasies and fragile ideologies, we bow down before them. Politicians whose understanding of science and technology is actually decent and who are completely reasonable in their approach to the subjects, like John Huntsman for example, are written off and doomed to failure as other politicos decide to rule in the style of Roman Caesars; by giving their followers bread and circuses instead of a future. And this, ladies and gentlemen, isn’t just realpolitik that we have to accept with a sad shrug. It’s a tragedy, one only better education and an overhaul of the current media pundit class can ever hope to fix.

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space elevator

Considering that SpaceX is now really close to establishing itself as the first private company to launch a craft capable of docking with the ISS, one would think that Elon Musk should be proud. After all, he invested a lot of money into space exploration expressly for the purpose of helping humans reach space faster and easier. As we venture into space more often, we’ll create more high tech jobs, more commercial spin-offs, and possibly even boost the economy through the partnership between competitive private startups and NASA. But this investment in space is apparently just a waste of money according to an editor at Foreign Policy, who would like to see Musk’s cash fund poverty and disease relief efforts across the world. Never mind that billions upon billions are committed to that goal. Never mind that politics often get in the way of development projects so no matter how much money was committed, it’s bound to go not to the poor who need it, but to a warlord who wants it. Musk is apparently supposed to donate to charities in the developing world, not build the future…

One of the unfortunate truths about the world is that there will always be problems. There will always be child deaths from preventable diseases, there will always be poverty, and there will always be war. Of course that’s not to say that we shouldn’t try to alleviate this sad state of affairs, but we also have to think about the future. I know there are starving people around me and I donate to food banks and soup kitchens. But does that mean this is all I should be doing until no one in my city ever goes hungry? Likewise, does this mean we have to be so concerned with turning the world into a utopia, we need to skip on moving forward? Believe it or not, we do have an abundance of food and medicine to help the poor and starving, and we do have enough money for an infrastructure upgrade in the world’s poorest nations. However, we can’t use all of this money and when we’re trying to throw billions at a problem, things get better until they plateau since all that influx of cash and help will not create a local economy to keep sustaining the population, gets stolen by corrupt officials, or misused by a committee of well meaning development planners at NGOs who think they know best but really don’t. There is such a thing as too much aid and we can leave people dependent on hand outs, not helping hands.

All of the efforts named by Keating already have the world’s attention and there are mountains of donations all around post-industrial nations committed to resolving them. So why can’t we have a few billionaires building the economy of the future in countries not sure where to go now? Why try to shame them into adding cash to a big pile and dismiss their lofty efforts as unnecessary and irrelevant until we help the entire world? Investing a lot of money in space exploration and the technology necessary for that to happen isn’t any less important, it’s just a longer term project which will provide jobs, help fund education, and stimulate new ideas we would need to consider to turn the developed world’s economic doldrums around. Of course investing in space isn’t a panacea for all the financial problems we have today, but they’re a part of the solution, and it comes at what can only be described as a bargain, regardless of what you hear otherwise. At some point we have to worry about what will happen to us rather than appoint ourselves the saviors of the world and realize that when tens of billions of dollars are streaming into poverty-alleviation projects, we’ve provided enough help to turn to what we will need to stay successful. Giving until it hurts is an appropriately passionate appeal to good casues, but actually doing it is a terrible idea. Who are we going to help if we went broke doing the helping?

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If you’ve spent enough time reading about space exploration, you’ve probably heard of The Outer Space Treaty which essentially bans any government on Earth from laying a territorial claim to another world. Just because the United States landed on the Moon, in other words, doesn’t mean that our natural satellite can be called an acquired territory and turned into another state (sorry Newt, laws are laws) and considering that it was signed just as the USSR and the U.S. were at the height of their competition in space, you can see why. Rumors had been flying that the USSR wanted to use the Moon as a staging base for some of its ICBMs and the U.S. saw its Air Force draft the proposal for Project Horizon, a permanent military presence on the lunar surface. This plan didn’t seem all that workable but it was daring and in the heady days of Cold War mad science, just may have been tried and lead to a very different world than we have today, had politics not intervened. Fast forward to today and there’s a new contingent of humans interested in claiming ownership of the Moon at a libertarian think tank which believes that the treaty only applies to governments, not private industry, and argues that we should be laying claims on extraterrestrial soil to boost interest in space exploration and aerospace.

They do have a point when talking about the need for someone to claim ownership of assets on other worlds for business reasons. We certainly have innovative startups eager to make money through exploration and they’re cooperating with NASA on numerous current projects to make it happen. With a lot of focus and long term vision, something their founders certainly do not lack, they can come up with plans to monetize not only the act of getting into space, but working there, and their partnerships with the public sector would yield very significant dividends for scientists, educators, and yes, the military. Having places to land in emergencies, or land on which to build resorts and bases which will host everyone from scientists to soldiers, would be major pluese for the space infrastructure they’ll help build. But for them to actually build those bases and resorts, the owners and investors will want some assurance that no one can simply take over their operation, or that their projects won’t be mired in bureaucratic Hell while some diplomat pounds the table at the UN. Only being able to claim real, recognized ownership of an extraterrestrial territory could do that. Letting satellites serenely float above the Earth is one thing. You can’t claim that a certain range of possible orbits is yours any more than you can claim that a particular route through the ocean belongs to you, but land is much, much easier to own. Yet, actually owning and using land on another world comes with its unique practical and legal challenges.

Imagine that you’re the owner of Lunar Outpost Alpha, a sprawling complex built into the Moon and housing a few hundred people at any given time, running with your own fusion reactors and solar panels, and defending yourself from solar flares with a specially generated artificial magnetic field. Congratulations, you’re by far one of the wealthiest and most powerful people in 2065 and physically out of the reach and jurisdiction of all but a tiny handful of nations below you. Certainly you started off with immense support from your government but as you got up to speed and quickly made your base self-sufficient, you don’t need it anymore. If you suddenly had the urge to declare your base Lunar Prime and crown yourself The First Emperor of the Moon, it would actually be rather tough to stop you. Certainly the military of your home nation could send a special forces team to the lunar surface and persuade you to reconsider (read: turn you into a bipedal pasta strainer if you put up a fight) in theory. But they would have to face some serious legal ramifications in invading what claims to be a nation state on another world. The same problems that kept the aircraft platform country of Sealand supposedly its own state are amplified a thousand fold. Overpowering an extraterrestrial principality would create precedents for invasions in space and could be interpreted as violating The Outer Space Treaty’s remaining bylines. This would put a chill on continued work in space and trigger new laws and regulations for space travel.

Of course this potential incident is small potatoes and might never happen, but as humans reach farther into space and claim more and more territory farther and farther away form Earth, money becomes a rather moot point when it comes to land ownership on alien stellar bodies, especially in other solar systems. After long lives in space and entire generations away from Earth, new cultures will form, cultures that may have very little in common with the planet from which they started. Claiming land would become more of a political exercise; planets and moons wouldn’t be so much private territory for conducting business as sovereign land of a new government based entirely off Earth, armed with its own army and air force (not much use for a navy on worlds without oceans to patrol), and extremely tough to re-annex without a very protracted and expensive war. Going further out still and the territories may no longer matter as humans could start diversifying into new species that may well become creatures we would fear returning. When we’re close to home, we have a lot more communication with those who live there. But the further out we go and the more difficult it becomes to stay in contact with Earth, the more independent our colonies will have to be. And the more independent they are, the less reason they’ll see for staying a part of the earthly government which sent them into the dark void of space and gave them the right to claim their territory. Sure, this forecast is very, very long term, but when we’re talking about space, we have to think long term since alien worlds can’t be settled with short-term thinking…

[ illustration from EVE Online ]

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When it comes to the realm of Singularity skepticism and transhumanism, you’ll often see skeptics telling you not to look at the human body as a machine, this skeptic included. Sure, our bodies have systems that work in concert with each other and with a lot of stretching and  simplification we can compare them to machinery. But unlike purpose built devices, our bodies are just sort of there, overburdened with complex processes on every level and possessing brains that are predisposed to believing the idea that we are immortal children of an invisible deity rather than bizarre accidents of evolution who are quite frankly, lucky to exist. However, here’s a thought we may want to consider. What if we do borrow some transhumanist terminology and talk about how our bodies work the same way we talk about machines? It’s the smallest transhumanist misconception, and while we as skeptics tend to have a drive to nitpick and force a distinction between machines and products of evolution because they are scientifically separate, why not let this point go? Maybe letting people think of their bodies as machinery would actually be a net positive because it will let them consider radical new ideas?

Obviously the purely functional approach to our bodies would be disturbing to religious adherents who believe that the human form is just a vessel which an immortal soul occupies for a set period of time before it moves on. It would mean that humans are not a special creation and we’re not immortal beings trapped in flesh and struggling to rediscover ourselves as such, but merely elaborate connections between specialized cells. You, this approach would posit, are whatever the collection of neurons in your brain made you and any notion of an immortal or special soul simply doesn’t fit in without proof that the neural activity that goes on through our lives can somehow be preserved. But that may not be a bad thing. If your body is a self-aware machine, why should we consider our life spans to be some sort of infinitely wise natural edict on when it’s best to die? Why not try to modify it? Why not remake it to whatever we see fit and treat aging and death like diseases? Why should we not rebuild our bodies as they grow older instead of having debates about whether we’d really want to live past our 80s or 90s or 120s, and pretending that drastically extending our lives through technology would end in a zero-sum game? Why not think beyond the our planet as well when considering life extension?

Just like we modify our robots to go to other planets, why not encase our bodies in synthetic materials, modify our genomes through specially designed viruses, and quite literally set out to colonize space? Without a body that can only withstand a narrow range of gravities, mixes of gases, and atmospheric pressures, the process would be far easier and we could accomplish far more than we would as purely organic entities. If you think of yourself as a product of a deity who would’ve been able to live on other planets if your creator wanted you to do so, or if you believe that humans are forever trapped here as products of natural selection and are destined to vanish into extinction, savoring their existence as a short-term gift from biochemistry that can’t be challenged, of course you would be trapped on one planet and play a zero-sum game with our finite resources. If however you think of yourself as a creature which has the rare opportunity to dream big and modify itself outside of the forces of biology, you don’t have to confine yourself to one planet and a fixed lifetime. If Earth starts to get a bit overcrowded over hundreds and hundreds of years as modified humans stay alive and well, there’s an option of going to Mars or Titan or even Triton, and exploring alien landscapes. Your updated body can do it.

And it’s that idea of looking at human limitations and asking why not simply overcome them that really drives a lot of transhumanists. True, the technology is many years away and unlike Ray Kurzweil predicts, it won’t just get there on its own. But we’re making strides towards tackling groundbreaking technologies that could really revolutionize medicine, and if taken to their ultimate limits, even challenge what it means to be human. And as we develop cybernetic organs and make more and more of our bodies machine to survive disease, accidents and war, and organ failure, we think of our bodies as being elaborate machinery that can bring us a whole lot of enjoyment and be used to radically broaden our horizons with good science and smart engineering, maybe that will finally provoke us to stop living in the mundane ruts we often find ourselves, and abandon the selfish mindset that as it doesn’t really matter what we do because we’ll all die anyway. Why reach for the stars with a conservative outlook and consign ourselves to be the generations that will never make it to space if we could fine-tune ourselves and make that leap? After all, if enough generations say that they won’t live long enough to travel to other worlds and place the burden on their grandchildren, we may never really go beyond where we’ve already been, deeming our bodies too precious to modify, and keeping our life spans too short to to it…

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Amid the political and financial turmoil of 2011, there do appear to be at least some good news as the villains of the modern world make their final exits. Osama bin Laden was finally found and killed, exposing his group as a shell of its former self on the downswing. Next, the tyrant of Libya, Muammar Gaddafi, was gunned down by rebel forces seeking revenge for decades of terror. And now, the petty warden of the world’s largest prison, Kim Jong Il, has died of a heart attack and left North Korea in the hands of his son and a number of powerful generals who will decide the nation’s fate. One would think that the end of the self-appointed demigod whose personality cult rules the Hermit Kingdom with an iron, spiky fist and frequent bouts of saber-rattling against a supposed foreign conspiracy to destroy his glorious gulag, would mean the upcoming liberation of the North Korean people. Unfortunately, things are far more complicated, and it may be that even if life under Kim Jong Un transitions from torturous to unbearable, the Kim clan will continue to rule the nation with little change and the streets of Pyongyang will remain gloomy and nearly devoid of people or cars for many years to come.

Here’s the key problem with the idea of a highly unstable, ready-to-topple-with-a-breeze North Korea. Even the most paranoid and narcissistic dictator who demands nothing less than to be worshipped by his people can’t hold an entire country together. The Kim clan created a cult of personality that even made Stalin balk, the man who thought nothing of erasing his colleagues and friends out of official history when they displeased him. In their quest for absolute power, they mandated that private homes were to be decorated with their portraits and pictures, and criticizing the regime meant death by starvation and torture in a concentration camp modeled on the most brutal Stalinist gulags. But to enforce their rules, they needed a massive spy apparatus, paramilitary police force, and a vast army. And even more importantly, they needed to elevate certain people to run them. It was actually how Kim Jong Un was groomed for his new post as the Great Successor, by being appointed to hold executive posts in all three arms of North Korean power. Behind him are his aunt and her husband, who is often rumored to have been the real power behind the Hermit Kingdom, Chang Sung Taek. Both were long said to be the designated groomers of Kim Jong Il’s successor but both now supposedly out of favor.

Whether Chang Sung Taek is still second in command of North Korea, and whether he would actually be put in charge of Kin Jong Un’s ascent to legitimacy is shrouded in rumor, just like everything about the country. As rumors is all we have to work with, expect more defections and crossings into China and South Korea as the people who’ve always wanted to escape decide that now, with the fate of the Hermit Kingdom up in the air, will be the perfect time to run for it, before things get even worse, or deteriorate into a family feud over who will get to run the country they’ve been treating like their toy for generations. It may be that Kim Jong Un will be slowly, steadily coached into his position by his aunt and uncle as originally thought. It could be that he already has a firm grip on power as his father struck a deal with the army and the intelligence apparatus to accept him as a legitimate successor to the throne. It could be that he will become nothing more than a puppet, a ruler only in name and public relations puff pieces, a big cardboard cutout of a dictator meant to shield whatever complex, paranoid machinations take place in North Korea’s political and military machinery. It may be that everything in the succession script goes off without a hitch, but the rampant poverty, starvation, and political isolation finally take their toll and break the nation as the bloated North Korean military begins to go hungry.

That’s the problem with North Korea. Its paranoia and secrecy makes trying to forecast its future a task much like reading tea leaves and also serves as an effective shield against foreign pundits. But there’s al least one thing we can say with certainty about North Korea and its rulers. Regardless of whether they fight for power or have a smooth succession plan in place, their dedication to absolute control one of the most improvised and hungry nations on the planet for their own gain and ego, and perusing their personal desires on the backs of millions of those forced to live under their totalitarian rules, or herded into slave labor camps where they often work themselves to death, speaks of the Kim clan’s and their cronies’ unspeakable disregard for human life, monstrous selfishness, and utter narcissism. One would think that ruling a nation of wealthy, healthy, and all- around prosperous people which cranks out hundreds of billions in goods and services every year would be far more preferable than pillaging scraps in the treasury and food aid in a nation-sized prison. The Kim family and those who benefit from their tyrannical rule, it seems, beg to differ.

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Back in September, news worldwide reported the results of a paper which claimed that a supercomputer had a knack for predicting revolutions and key global events, able to pick up on the events of Tahir square in Cairo and even get a fix on Osama bin Laden’s location. After reviewing the paper in question, I quickly got a strong vibe of many previous projects tried to use computing data to predict the future, projects a lot like Nexus 7, an attempt to mine reams of correlated data for predictive markers. Amazingly, after decades of failure to do that, there are still computer scientists who believe that all they really need is more data and then they’ll find what they want. Just like I wrote before of such attempts, more data simply cannot yield accurate predictions, and the supposed success of the supercomputer in question is actually a retroactive look at speculation followed by the claim that because negative sentiment about Mubarak in Egypt was widespread and because rumors of bin Laden hiding out in Pakistan persisted for years, the supercomputer effectively predicted both. And this is essentially what economist Tim Harford astutely called the God Complex in a relevant TED presentation.

Now, let’s say that the supercomputer in question was given a set of events like the sudden chain of extreme protests in the Middle East which saw over a dozen people self-immolate in front of government offices to which it spat out a chain of events for the Arab Spring, predicting the toppling of the autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt, the civil war in Lybia, and the assassination attempt on Yemen’s Saleh. That would be an impressive result and certainly the methodology used to arrive at these conclusions would merit further study. However, I am not aware of any computer coming up with such results. In fact, the paper’s model simply reflected all the buzz about the growing protest movements in Egypt and managed to pinpoint the FATA region of Pakistan as bin Laden’s hiding spot, not even close to where he was actually found, simply echoing the pundits who said that FATA was home to Taliban groups and al Qaeda elements which would be happy to harbor him and very loath to cooperate with any authorities looking for him, no matter what those authorities offered in return. This means that we’re not looking at a predictive model but a news aggregator which knows how to search a few preset keywords in the articles it’s fed and come to a general “mood” of the media.

As an attitude barometer, this machine is fairly effective. But as a predictive model? Not even close. You could even make the same kind of model at home and see its shortfalls for yourself. Simply make a list of negative words like “autocratic,” “tyrannical,” “aggressive,” and “outcry,” a list of positive words like “approval,” “cheers,” “welcomed,” and “helpful,” and a list of neutral words like “consensus,” “mediation,” “satisfied,” and “relaxed,” then include them into a script to parse a news article and identify said words. Then, have the script evaluate how many words fell in each category, giving each category a simple score. For example, 1 would be positive, a zero would be neutral, and -1 would of course be negative. Average your scores together to get a number in between the 1 and -1 bounds and assign that to the news article. Likewise, you should also identify the cities and countries from where the news comes (virtually always listed in the header of a wire service release) so you can map the location. Finally, assign a location flag and a color between green and red with which to flag your article on a map. Keep scanning article after article until you get a lot of data points, connections, and red and green flags. This step may take you a while unless you have a supercomputer. Then, after you’re all done take a look at your map and try to predict the next war, revolution, and scientific breakthrough.

Kind of a challenge, isn’t it? How accurate do you think you will be? And keep in mind that you have to have an extremely well balance news source base. Your map after a few thousand Fox News articles and roughly the same number of AlterNet articles is bound to look very different since the reporting biases will influence word choices, and remember that your entire model runs on those bias-affected words. A world pictured by writers who are on the far right is rather different than the world pictured by those on the far left. Which one would you choose as the most reliable model? Do you trust your own worldviews and those of your news sources to be as impartial as possible and balance out every bit of spin and bias no matter how slight by sheer quantity? It would also be interesting to note foreign language sources and what they say. Come to think of it, this might actually be a very interesting experiment to conduct and it might tell us even more about the state of the press at any given time period. Just don’t use the results to try and predict what will happen over the next year. Many sages have tried and failed and for good reason. A mutation of post hoc ergo prompter hoc is very limited in what it can offer an aspiring soothsayer so if you really want to try to be one, I suggest cold reading. It’s about as effective and requires a lot less coding and a lot less math.

See: Leetaru, K. (2011). Culturomics 2.0: Forecasting large-scale human behavior using global news media tone in time and space First Monday Online Journal, 16 (9)

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