Archives For futurism

plaything

A while ago, I wrote about some futurists’ ideas of robot brothels and conscious, self-aware sex bots capable of entering a relationship with a human, and why marriage to an android is unlikely to become legal. Short version? I wouldn’t be surprised if there are sex bots for rent in a wealthy first world country’s red light district, but robot-human marriages are a legal dead end. Basically, it comes down to two factors. First, a robot, no matter how self-aware or seemingly intelligent, is not a living things capable of giving consent. It could easily be programmed to do what its owner wants it to do, and in fact this seems to be the primary draw for those who consider themselves technosexuals. Unlike another human, robots are not looking for companionship, they were built to be companions. Second, and perhaps most important, is that anatomically correct robots are often used as surrogates for contact with humans and are being imparted human features by an owner who is either intimidated or easily hurt by the complexities of typical human interaction.

You don’t have to take my word on the latter. Just consider this interview with an iDollator — the term sometimes used by technosexuals to identify for themselves — in which he more or less just confirms everything I said word for word. He buys and has relationships with sex dolls because a relationship with a woman just doesn’t really work out for him. He’s too shy to make a move, gets hurt when he makes what many of us consider classic dating mistakes, and rather than trying to navigate the emotional landscape of a relationship, he simply avoids trying to build one. It’s little wonder he’s so attached to his dolls. He projected all his fantasies and desires to a pair of pliant objects that can provide him with some sexual satisfaction and will never say no, or demand any kind of compromise or emotional concern from him rather than for their upkeep. Using them, he went from a perpetual third wheel in relationships, to having a bisexual wife and girlfriend, a very common fantasy that has a very mixed track record with flesh and blood humans because those pesky emotions get in the way as boundaries and rules have to be firmly established.

Now, I understand this might come across as judgmental, although it’s really not meant to be an indictment against iDollators, and it’s entirely possible that my biases are in play here. After all, who am I to potentially pathologize the decisions of iDollator as a married man who never even considered the idea of synthetic companionship as an option, much less a viable one at that? At the same time, I think we could objectively argue that the benefits of marriage wouldn’t work for relationships between humans and robots. One of the main benefits of marriage is the transfers of property between spouses. Robots would be property, virtual extensions of the will of humans who bought and programmed them. They would be useful in making the wishes of the human on his or her deathbed known but that’s about it. Inheriting the humans’ other property would be an equivalent of a house getting to keep a car, a bank account, and the insurance payout as far as laws would be concerned. More than likely, the robot would be auctioned off or be transferred to the next of kin as a belonging of the deceased, and very likely re-programmed.

And here’s another caveat. All of this is based on the idea of advancements in AI we aren’t even sure will be made, applied to sex bots. We know that their makers want to give them some basic semblance of a personality, but how successful they’ll be is a very open question. Being able to change the robot’s mood and general personality on a whim would still be a requirement for any potential buyer as we see with iDollators, and without autonomy, we can’t even think of granting any legal person-hood to even a very sophisticated synthetic intelligence. That would leave sex bots as objects of pleasure and relationship surrogates, perhaps useful in therapy or to replace human sex workers and combat human trafficking. Personally, considering the cost of upkeep of a high end sex bot and the level of expertise and infrastructure required, I’m still not seeing sex bots as solving the ethical and criminal issues involved with semi-legal or illegalized prostitution, especially in the developing world. To human traffickers, their victims’ lives are cheap and those being exploited are just useful commodities for paying clients, especially wealthy ones.

So while we could safely predict they they will emerge and become quite complex and engaging over the coming decades, they’re unlikely to anything more than a niche product. They won’t be legally viable spouses and very seldom the first choice of companion. They won’t help stem the horrors of human trafficking until they become extremely cheap and convenient. They might be a useful therapy tool where human sexual surrogates can’t do their work or a way for some tech-savvy entrepreneurs sitting on a small pile of cash to make some quick money. But they will not change human relationships in profound ways as some futurists like to predict, and there might well be a limit to how well they can interact with us. Considering our history and biology, it a safe bet that our partners will almost always be other humans and robots will almost always be things we own. Oh they could be wonderful, helpful things to which we’ll have emotional attachments in the same way we’d be emotionally attached to a favorite pet, but ultimately, just our property.

[ illustration by Michael O ]

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dubai_600

Last time we took a look at what tech cynics and technophobes get wrong in their arguments, we focused on their lack of consideration for their fellow humans’ ability to exercise free will. Despite the fact that this is a huge hole in many of their arguments, there’s an even bigger problem with the dismissive stance they take towards science and technology. When they argue that we can’t feed all the hungry house all the homeless, or really prolong lifespans with technology, the facts they cite generally point not so much to technological limitations or scientific ignorance, but very convoluted social and political problems, then insist that because science and technology can’t solve them today, they likely never will, or won’t solve them adequately to consider the problem much smaller than it is today. While this argument is true, it’s also logically dishonest. You can’t fix the world’s problems with technology when the people who should be using it refuse to do so, or hijack it for their own less than noble means. No tool or piece of knowledge can help then.

As some of you might have noticed, the city in the graphic for this post in Dubai, a rich proving ground for how the cities of the near future are likely to be built. We know how to make cities of glass, steel, and concrete right out of science fiction. We know how to build the cheap, efficient housing complexes those making less than a dollar a day need to at least have secure shelter. We know how do diagnose complex diseases early enough to treat them before they’ll become dangerous, much less terminal, and our toolkits for understanding germs, viruses, and complex medical problems like cancers, are growing to become more sophisticated every day. We also have the tools and the money to apply all these solutions to the world at large. With something a little bit short of $100 billion just between Gates and Buffet pledged to fight poverty illiteracy, and disease, and when we can find $2 trillion laying around to help banks with a do-over, clearly, it’s not an issue of not having the technology, the scientific basis, or the cash. The issue is will.

Sure technological utopians have lofty ambitions and it’s valid to be skeptical of many of them, but when they vow that logistical problems can be solved with enough computing and research, they’re right more often than not. When the cynics deride these ambitions by pointing out that a lot of people don’t want to fund mass production of the necessary tools or the required science, and would much prefer to spend them on entertainment and public entitlements benefiting them directly, they’re not highlighting the problems with using technology to save the world, they’re a prime exhibit of why a technology hasn’t transformed the world of fixed a persistent problem. All too often it comes down to them saying it can’t be done, and politicians along with voters simply listening to them and deciding that no, it’s can’t be done since the critics said so, which is why it would be a waste of time to even bother. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure, a social variation of Newton’s First Law: a society that insists on the status quo, sticks to the status quo unless an external event or constant pressure forces it to change.

It’s the same attitude which strangled the promising and much anticipated future of space travel and exploration, and we’re still stuck with it. Yes, not every retro-futuristic dream about space or living on other worlds was practical or even feasible and yes, we did need experts to burst our bubble before an unworkable project got off the ground. But today’s science and tech critics are going well past a healthy skepticism about bold claims and venturing into a territory in which they dismiss scientific and technological solutions to global problems for the sake of dismissing them, pointing to other ideas they dismissed in the past and doomed to being chained to the drawing board, and saying that because their relentless cynicism killed the ideas rather than refined the scopes and missions to eliminate problems with them, new ideas building on past visions must be scrapped as well. It’s even more insidious than political vetting of basic science, because vetting at least allows some projects to survive and get refined into new tools and ideas. The withering cynicism of what science and technology can do for us is like an anti-innovation WMD…

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shadow seal

After years of on again, off again rewrites, edits, and revisions, Shadow Nation is now available as an ebook for Kindle devices on Amazon.com as promised yesterday. Not only does it have aliens, cyborgs, massive space battles, conspiracies, and a draft of the first part still not all that far from the new version available for your review (one, two, three), but it’s also just $3.99 per flexible, lend-able, copy you can read on any device that supports Kindle apps. And I’ll throw the references to the Cthluhu mythos, the dark Lovecraftian undertones, and the transhumanist riff on politics as a bonus. Ever since part one made it online, I’ve been getting requests to publish more of the book or finally release it so after a long and hard battle with InDesign and Kindle’s publishing preview tools, I’m happy to be putting the book out there for everyone interested in a good, old fashioned space opera with a couple of modern twists.

Our story officially begins in the year 3507 when Earth is visited by alien insectoids scouting the planet’s defenses for the massive fleet that brought them there. As the Earth’s military prepares for a fight it knows it can’t win, the planet is rescued in the nick of time by an immensely powerful and enigmatic civilization that calls itself the Shadow Nation. But oddly enough, the Nation isn’t just aware of humanity, it’s populated by humans who though experiments with alien technology became space faring cyborgs once in the service of the galaxy’s dominant species. Now, they’re on the verge of war with the former benefactors and Earth is caught in the crossfire. And as the Nation introduces itself to humans, questions begin to arise. How exactly did the cyborgs got to their lofty perch in the galaxy? Why were they chosen? Why are their creators so anxious to go to war with them? And finally, why is the Nation suddenly so interested in Earth?

In the meantime, Earth’s most influential politicians, Howard Grey and Andrew Newman, involve the Nation’s top commander and his team into a political battle that will determine the future of the planet. As humans begin trading with the Nation’s companies, Newman starts to worry that the mysterious empire might have some rather sinister plans for the Earth while Grey becomes hell bent on using the Nation to secure an epic legacy for himself as he gets ready to retire and cash in on all his political capital. The only thing they manage to agree on is to send two special agents to live with the Nation and find out what makes it tick. And what these agents discover is beyond anything either either Grey or Newman could ever imagine: a web of lies, secrets and bad blood which can only be untangled if either the Nation’s cyborgs or their creators fall. And since a defeat means near-certain extinction, the stakes are very, very high…

So take a look at the Kindle sample, feel free to persue the previews (although chapter three underwent some extensive resivion in the final version), check out the Shadow Nation wiki, give the book a try, and share your thoughts here and on Amazon. If you like this blog’s main topics and takes on alien contact, transhumanism, and futurism, I don’t think you’ll be dissapointed in what you’ll find. And for the price of a fancy coffee, doesn’t it seem worth the risk?

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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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sleepy telecommuter

Long time Weird Things readers have met tech skeptic Evgeny Morozov several times over the last year, and while usually I welcome his contrarian and pragmatic take on tech evangelism, his recent article at Future Tense seems to have gone somewhat astray. While trying to list all the ways in which telecommuting made work/life balance worse for many, he ended up showing how telecommuting can fail when the bosses don’t know how to manage it and the workers don’t get the reasoning behind it. Now, this isn’t to say that working from home is for everyone and every job can be done via a computer. Some people need the discipline of the office and professional customs of certain industries demand face time. But a lot of tasks can be done in a home office and not having a daily commute saves money for both the employers and employees. With less on-site workers, companies can save on office space. With less driving, workers save on gas.

But according to Morozov, telecommuters are putting in more hours, are more likely to be single, implying they don’t have families, and their bosses end up either micromanaging or unsure what to do with remote subordinates. Therefore, he continues, rather than being the wave of a future letting us better manage work and play time, telecommuting is being abused to make us work a lot more and its results are mixed at best for employers. I would be inclined to agree with this at least in part if every example he provided for his conclusion didn’t show that those involved just lunged into telecommuting with little thought or preparation. For example, his anecdote of a big government office failing at telecommuting highlighted an interesting bit of managerial double-speak that’s quite revealing. Supervisors didn’t know how to evaluate finished work and quality was slipping. How would they know quality was slipping if they didn’t know how to evaluate the work and why were there no guidelines on how to judge the work being done remotely? Sounds like a glaring management oversight of a key issue. And it only gets worse from there.

The now telecommuting employees, used to strict workdays, punching in and out, and filling out time sheet after time sheet based on hours defined by their position didn’t know if they put in a sufficient amount of hours. But putting in the hours isn’t what telecommuting is about. It’s about getting a task done up to spec on time. If you’re done early, good job. Take five and vacuum, or watch a little TV as a reward, or go on a quick jog to get yourself amped up for the next thing on your to do list. Remote work is supposed to help get things done efficiently and keep morale up by getting workers out of that most wretched invention of the 20th century: the cubicle. It’s not a way to cram in more hours into the workday. Humans can only do so much quality work in a day so trying to make them do more is simply not going to work out. For example, programmers can typically write decent code for about six hours. After that code quality goes down because we’ve spent most of our workday staring at code, screenshots, hexadecimals, and test results. Making us write code for another four is just going to give you crappy code that needs to be fixed.

I’m sure you see where this is going. If you see telecommuting as a way to wring more hours out of the day, you are doing it wrong. If you see working from home as sitting behind a desk for X hours, you are doing it wrong. Working remotely is not having a cubicle away from the office, it’s a completely different mindset which prizes completion of projects over face time in a cube. Yes, it’s really easy for managers who started their careers when PCs were still new in the business world to use the ass-in-the-chair metric, but it’s a lousy metric for anything other than employee attendance. These managers are the ones who install spyware and micromanage telecommuters because they can’t accept that they hired grown adults who should be able to be responsible in how they use their time and get work done. It’s a very 1950s and 1960s way to run an office but it’s pervasive because frankly, it’s easy and familiar. It’s not that telecommuting’s promise failed, it’s that a whole lot of companies out there never got the hang of how to do it and end up with a lot of remote workers they don’t know how to manage and do telecommuting wrong.

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lab mouse

While studying what effect cell division has on cancer risk, a team of scientists decided to make mice that that produced excess levels of a protein called BubR1 and got results that seem way too promising at first blush. Not only were the engineered mice a third less likely to develop lung and skin cancers after exposure to potent carcinogens than control animals, but they had twice the endurance, lived 15% longer, and were less than half as likely to develop a fatal cancer. So what’s the catch? Well, there is none. It’s as if an over-expression of BubR1 is a magical elixir of good health and longevity. This doesn’t mean that this protein couldn’t become our most potent weapon against cancer with enough study or that it must have some sort of side-effect, which is entirely possible since too little BubR1 in humans is associated with premature aging and some forms of cancer, but this is a signal to proceed with optimistic caution.

Mice may have a lot of similarities to humans from a genetic standpoint, but they are a different species so what works well in mice may not always work as well in humans. Likewise, if we really wanted to be sure of the results, we’d have to test them on thousands of humans over decades, which is a massive undertaking in logistics alone. And since testing the protein modifications in humans would be such a major effort, the researchers need to know exactly how BubR1 does all the wonderful things it does, breaking down its role by chemical reaction and testing each factor on its own. The work may take decades to complete but if it’s correct, we may have found a way to extend and improve our lives in a humble protein. Combined with other ongoing work, there’s some very real science behind extending human lifespans and modifying our genomes for the better. I just hope we don’t get a little too carried away and treat editorials treating BubR1, gene therapy on a massive scale, and cell reprogramming technology as just around the corner with the necessary healthy skepticism, since the research is by no means complete…

See: Baker, D., et. al. (2012). Increased expression of BubR1 protects against aneuploidy and cancer and extends healthy lifespan Nature Cell Biology DOI: 10.1038/ncb2643

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crysis cyborg

Ray Kurzweil, the tech prophet reporters love to quote when it comes to our coming immortality courtesy of incredible machines being invented as we speak, despite his rather sketchy track record of predicting long term tech trends, has a new book laying out the blueprint for reverse-engineering the human mind. You see, in Kurzwelian theories, being able to map out the human brain means that we’ll be able to create a digital version of it, doing away with the neurons and replacing them with their digital equivalents while preserving your unique sense of self. His new ideas are definitely a step in the right direction and are much improved from his original notions of mind uploading, the ones that triggered many a back and forth with the Singularity Institute’s fellows and fans on this blog. Unfortunately, as reviewers astutely note, his conception of how a brain works on a macro scale is still simplistic to a glaring fault, so instead of a theory of how an artificial mind based off our brains should work, he presents vague, hopeful overviews.

Here’s the problem. Using fMRI we can identify what parts of the brain seem to be involved in a particular process. If we see a certain cortex light up every time we’re testing a very specific skill in every test subject, it’s probably a safe bet that this cortex has something to do with the skill in question. However, we can’t really say with 100% certainty that this cortex is responsible for this skill because this cortex doesn’t work in a vacuum. There are hundreds of billions of neurons in the brain and at any given time, 99% of them are doing something. It would seem bizarre to get the sort of skin-deep look that fMRI can offer and draw sweeping conclusions without taking the constantly buzzing brain cells around an active area into account. How involved are they? How deep does a particular thought process go? What other nodes are involved? How much of that activity is noise and how much is signal? We’re just not sure. Neurons are so numerous and so active that tracing the entire connectome is a daunting task, especially when we consider that every connectome is unique, albeit with very general similarities across species.

We know enough to point to areas we think play key roles but we also know that areas can and do overlap, which means that we don’t necessarily have the full picture of how the brain carries out complex processes. But that doesn’t give Kurzweil pause as he boldly tries to explain how a computer would handle some sort of classification or behavioral task and arguing that since the brain can be separated into sections, it should also behave in much the same way. And since a brain and a computer could tackle the problem in a similar manner, he continues, we could swap out a certain part of the brain and replace it with a computer analog. This is how you would tend go about doing something so complex in a sci-fi movie based on speculative articles about the inner workings of the brain, but certainly not how you’d actually do that in the real world where brains are messy structures that evolved to be good at cognition, not to be compartmentalized machines with discrete problem-solving functions for each module. Just because they’ve been presented as such on a regular basis over the last few years, doesn’t mean they are.

Reverse-engineering the brain would be an amazing feat and there’s certainly a lot of excellent neuroscience being done. But if anything, this new research shows how complex the mind really is and how erroneous it is to simply assume that an fMRI blotch tells us the whole story. Those who actually do the research and study cognition certainly understand the caveats in the basic maps of brain function used today, but lot of popular, high profile neuroscience writers simply go for broke with bold, categorical statements about which part of the brain does what and how we could manipulate or even improve it citing just a few still speculative studies in support. Kurzweil is no different. Backed with papers which describe something he can use in support for his view of the human brain of being just an imperfect analog computer defined by the genome, he gives his readers the impression that we know a lot more than we really do and can take steps beyond those we can realistically take. But then again, keep in mind that Kurzweil’s goal is to make it to the year 2045, when he believes computers will make humans immortal, and at 64, he’s certainly very acutely aware of his own mortality, and needs to stay optimistic about his future…

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Professional futurist Ayesha Khanna is someone you’ve never seen called out by name on this blog, but she’s as devoted to the doctrine of techno-utopianism as any Kurzwelian and advocates the idea that not only would embracing new technology change our lives forever, but it would be almost inevitable for the better. She is very much from the other extreme I mentioned in my post about technophobes, prophesying a world in which all our experiences are both real and virtual, and we’ll find an almost spiritual connection with each other when we embrace a three-way merger between flesh, machine, and digital content. But while it may be fun to dream of harnessing the power of the web to live several simultaneous lives and retreat into a virtual world when we get overwhelmed with the physical one, the end users of the products designed to make this happen aren’t in a hurry to use them, considering the countless supposedly world-changing technologies that never managed to get traction. Why simulate the real world, they usually ask, when we can do something real instead?

Were you to browse some of the heady promises being made in the 1990s, you’d see promises of our world being completely digitized for our convenience. Groceries would be delivered right to our doors with a click of our mice, telecommuting would become the default way to work and we’d carry out our work days not in rows of gray cubicles ugly as sin, but the local coffee shop or on our couches, and brick and mortar malls would be a thing of the past, made obsolete by e-commerce. Even such basics as sex could be fulfilled with some very unique devices we could plug into a USB port, devices that Khanna describes in great detail as evidence that we’re on the verge of permanently plugging into the web for everything we need. In reality, we still go to a local market ourselves to buy food, telecommuting is not nearly as common as we’ve been told it would be since a company does need to have people in the office, shopping malls are still in business, and while online dating and hookup sites have become commonplace after having washed off their stigma of only being needed by a lonely bunch of nerds, we’re using these sites to make dating and sex easier, not as substitutes for them.

Despite the praise Khanna lavishes on all sorts of high tech sex toys, the fact of the matter is that they’re really just high tech sex toys and a surrogate for actual human interaction is a much more complicated question than what technologies are on the market today. Same thing with virtual lives. We’ve already discussed the problems of living in a virtual world, one of the main ones being our need to separate reality from fiction and dealing with the cognitive dissonances that result from these attempts. We haven’t really discussed how we’d ever be able to set up a totally immersive virtual world because the premise was purely hypothetical, but now, when we’re being told that this complete immersion is our goal, we should consider that living in a completely virtual world the way Khanna imagines will only happen with implantable computers and direct interfaces with the brain. How committed would you be to World Of Warcraft or any other immersive virtual environment if you have to undergo delicate and invasive surgery to interact with it? Until we have neurosurgery being done by an injection of self-assembling nanobots, I’m just not seeing a lot of volunteers for this degree of immersion.

Even more fundamentally, techno-utopians who breathlessly talk about how much time we spend online and how close we are to our smartphones are confusing our now habitual reliance on a communication tool with the urge to live in a completely virtual world, concepts that have little in common with each other. Instead of an all-consuming retreat into what’s happening on our computer screens, people are using social media to stay in touch with friends and organize outings, vacations, and meetups. They’re not, as many of those who simply don’t understand how this technology works or how it’s really used, substituting social media sites for all real world communication. They’re simply finding new ways to communicate and social media often presents the most convenient platform for communication. Why even bother sending e-mail when you have IM and much of what you get in your inbox nowadays are newsletters, messages from work, and whatever spam that wiggled past your filters? Why call and leave messages when you can text a short notification or ask a quick question, using your and your contacts’ time more efficiently? Granted, some people go overboard by texting and IM-ing what would better be communicated via phone or in person, but I think my point is still valid.

The bottom line is that we use the web when we find it convenient, when it helps us get things done faster, or when we want to entertain ourselves. It doesn’t follow that we’re somehow so enmeshed with our computers and social media sites or MMORPGs that we want to live in them and trade in our physical, biological lives in meat space for virtual or mechanical surrogates. Humans, by in large, don’t like to be hermits and even some of the most introverted people you’ll ever meet have real world friends with whom they like to spend time. Yes, they may not go out to a bar or a nightclub and spend quiet nights at home watching movies together, but this is still a far cry from outsourcing all contact with other humans, be it casual or sexual, to a computer. Socially, we found a way to organize our lives. Now, the goal is to digitally organize our professional lives. Beyond that, I’d posit that we’ll just be looking for more efficiency rather than wondering what it will take to permanently wire ourselves to our machines so we can live out our lives electronically, like proto-comic book supervillains who take to the virtual realm because their bodies are either unreliable or essentially obsolete…

[ illustration by Roger Dean ]

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If we had all the things science fiction movies promised us we’d have by now, we’d be zooming to a four hour work day in flying cars, taking routine vacations to the Moon and Mars, installing artificial organs on a whim to rebuild our bodies into superhuman forms, and have constant, on-demand access to a suite of tools that will let us do anything from booking those flights to downloading entire libraries worth of books. Ok, so one out of is not that bad and we’re certainly enjoying the digital cloud thanks to our new generation of phones which are always connected to the web and can tell us where we are, where we need to go, and if we have e-mails we’d really need to read when we get a moment. But there has to be a way to get rid of that bulky phone thing we’re carrying around to do that, something a little more futuristic and keeping us in touch with everything that goes on without us having to stop and heck a device. Google certainly thinks so, which is why it’s working on a little augmented reality project called Google Glass which will basically put your smartphone into a pair of glasses which will probably make you look like a hipster until all the required technology really shrinks down…

So, in the words of someone who asked me about the feasibility of such a project, can this be a thing? Yes, it definitely can and it looks awesome as a concept, straight out of a Kurzweilian cyber-utopian fantasy. We have all of the technology to make it happen so all we need to do is put it together and make it look good enough to buy and easy enough to use. Unfortunately, I have trouble believing it would work nearly as smoothly as you’re seeing in the video without an interface with your brain. Since you probably don’t want to be wearing a band of electrodes around your head on a daily basis or have a microchip implanted into your skull, you’d have to use your eyes or voice commands to control it which will have the frustrating tendency to make the device do a lot of things it shouldn’t be doing at the moment. For example, if the movement of your eyes or blinking will scroll through your options or select a prompt, what happens if you just blink because that’s what your body does or look in the direction of the prompt to check out something that catches your interest? And voice commands on busy streets may not be the best for usability. The algorithm which will parse your command to figure out what you’re saying will have to struggle against a lot of background noise and consumer voice recognition systems aren’t really all that great in the first place which makes them a challenge to use even when it’s quiet.

When Siri was added to iPhones, I could hear growls of frustration coming from iPhone users in my office as they tried to get their devices to recognize fairly simple commands with cries like "weather, weather you idiot!" and "no, not Denver? how the hell did you get Denver?" True, it would get better with time but its going to be a very long road to get it work work as well as the human brain at recognizing natural speech and while that will be happening, you probably don’t want to be walking down the street sounding like you’re in an argument with yourself, especially without the obnoxious little Bluetooth ear bud that makes people wonder if you’re just on a call with your boss or just talking to the voices in your head. The fellow in the video seems to be rather happily chatting with his glasses but consider how he would look to others when suddenly asking where his friend is to no one in particular. Wouldn’t it be rather socially awkward to be in a coffee shop in which people talk into a void while drinking their coffee? It’s already awkward when they’re chatting away on their phones and our still evolving brain is trying to make out the other end of the conversation before simply ignoring it. There’s also the creepy factor of seeing people ten years into the future interfacing with their glasses via some sort of nanobot structure embedded into their white matter, sitting in silence, staring seemingly into space, but really working on a report for work or browsing e-mails from their friends. And yes, that’s also very technically plausible…

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See, this is what I get for having my head buried in code for days on end; interesting stuff just slips by without notice even when it’s begging for a post. Though in this case, circling back to the story now will actually add a fun twist. Basically, my former Skeptically Speaking sparring partner, George Dvorsky, wrote about making an honest to goodness Dyson sphere out of Mercury and attracted the attention of PopSci and a blogger at Forbes who dialed up the Bad Astronomer himself, Phil Plait, to do the math on whether this was or wasn’t a viable idea. Not surprisingly, their answer was no, but the odd thing is that the reasons why Dvorsky proposed an unworkable plan weren’t included in their calculations. Instead, they worked out that it would take so much energy to disassemble Mercury, that a 100% efficient Dyson shell of satellites would take us some 174 years to balance the energy budget. Now this would’ve been fine if we were talking about warp drives and negative energy/mass constructs, but we’re not, and even after having it pointed out that Dvorsky was proposing a very energy amortized bootstrapping scenario, Alex Knapp was still sticking to his energy balancing guns. So if we don’t need to balance energy the same way we need to balance a checkbook, what’s really wrong here?

First and foremost, the problem is that assumed 100% efficiency. As pointed out in a previous post in which I crunched the numbers on Dyson spheres, the amount of collected energy lost in transmission would be so high that the whole project may not even be worth it. When you do the math on beaming solar energy from the comfort of Low Earth Orbit, you find that you’d need a receiver stretching from the Earth to Saturn to get real returns on your investment due to the limitations on how powerful your beam can be and the diffusion of the photons in your microwave laser. If you really want to amp up the power, you’ll create a death ray and the swift release of energy will take down the grid for which you’re aiming, overwhelming your ability to deal with excess electricity now surging through the wires. Collecting energy isn’t like drilling for oil. You can’t put a lot of energy in a barrel and store it for future use for years on end in capacitor banks. This is why trying to work with efforts required to build a Dyson sphere and treating Joules like we’d treat capital investment and measure the rates of return in terawatt hours doesn’t accomplish much more than throwing big numbers around. The big point is that we’ll lose the vast majority of the energy being beamed back and without another incredibly precise mega engineering project, we can’t even beam that much power back without essentially zapping ourselves with an immensely powerful ray which will be illegal under the same treaty discussed in this morning’s post.

The second big problem? Cost. When we discussed putting up a sunshade to curtail global warming with some real numbers, we found that the optimistic cost for blocking out 1% of the Sun’s energy with a reflective solar sail comes to some $800 trillion. The global GPP hovers around $65 trillion, so in other words, blocking out or absorbing 1% of solar energy in space will cost an order of magnitude more than literally all the money in the world. Now, we can’t just multiply a bootstrapped project by 100 and declare that has what we could call an astronomical price tag of $8 quadrillion and call it a day. Certainly if we start small and take the recursively building nature of this endeavor, we’d be looking at budgets… in the tens of trillions? How? Why? Because all those initial robots and mining colonies won’t build themselves for free and will need human assistance for a whole host of issues since in space, a lot of things can go really, really wrong. This is why we lose missions; they break far away from humans who can fix them. Would we really want to start the absolute biggest project in all of human history by at least six or seven orders of magnitude to then be willing to lose it all when things go wrong and we can’t come and fix them? But it will all be worth it if we amortize this over many years and all the energy we’ll get will more than make up for our economic sacrifices, right? If you said yes, allow me to go back to the paragraph above and reiterate that we will not be beaming all that much power back.

Who would want to commit to a project that would last many decades, require tens of trillions of dollars to just get off the ground, and then be unable to beam back the monstrous energy it would be designed to collect for global consumption? And this isn’t even going into the politics of building this monstrosity and who would pull for what percentage of the energy generated and agree to find what part of all this. If we want access to clean, plentiful, cheap energy, we need to heavily invest in very efficient solar panels here on Earth and keep working away on fusion and its exotic power-generating applications. That’s what will grant us more energy than we’d even need, and those are projects with extremely high payoffs and to which we’re even closer than the robotic miners and energy collectors Dvorsky and his sources say we’re on the verge of building. Dyson spheres are great in science fiction but in practice, they would fail to do anything but barely sustain a species with no other seemingly viable options to survive and the money we’d have to invest in building one would be far, far better spent on at least a few thousand different projects that would do far more to secure our energy needs for the foreseeable future and beyond, while also making us a highly durable, long-living, space faring species, and it’s those projects in which we should be putting our money, time, and no pun intended, our energy.

[ illustration by Khang Le ]

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