Sunday, September 21, 2014

Peering into the Future: AI and Robot brains

In Singularity or Transhumanism: What Word Should We Use to Discuss the Future? on Slate, Zoltan Istvan writes:

Singularity-word-cloud"The singularity people (many at Singularity University) don't like the term transhumanism. Transhumanists don't like posthumanism. Posthumanists don’t like cyborgism. And cyborgism advocates don't like the life extension tag. If you arrange the groups in any order, the same enmity occurs." 

See what the proponents of these words mean by them...
...and why the old talmudic rabbis and jesuits are probably laughing their socks off.
==Progress toward AI?== 
Baby X, a 3D-simulated human child is getting smarter day by day. Researchers at the Auckland Bioengineering Institute Laboratory for Animate Technologies in New Zealand interact with the simulated toddler, reading, teaching, smiling, playing games, even singing into the computer's microphone and webcam. The blonde youngster mimics facial expressions, laughs, reads words, even cries when he is left alone.
1400832509352"An experiment in machine learning, Baby X is a program that imitates the biological processes of learning, including association, conditioning and reinforcement learning. By algorithmically simulating the chemical reactions of the human brain— think dopamine release or increased oxytocin levels— and connecting them with sensory digital input, when Baby X learns to imitate a facial expression, for instance, software developers write protocols for the variable time intervals between action and response. Effectively "teaching" the child through code, while engineering such a program is no cakewalk, the result is an adorably giggling digital baby with an uncanny ability to learn through interaction," writes Becket Mufson, in the Creators Project.
This is precisely the sixth approach to developing AI that is least discussed by “experts” in the field… and that I have long believed to be essential, in several ways. Above all, by raising them as our children – even fostering them to homes in small robot bodies – we will gain many crucial advantages – that I lay out (somewhat) in Existence.
Meanwhile, Cornell's Robo Brain is currently learning from the internet -- downloading and processing about 1 billion images, 120,000 YouTube videos, and 100 million how-to documents and appliance manuals, all being translated and stored in a robot-friendly format, accessible to 'helper' robots who will function in our factories, homes, and offices. “If a robot encounters a situation it hasn’t seen before it can query Robo Brain in the cloud,” said one researcher. Follow its progress on the Robobrain website.

It's coming. "You can call it a Virtual Personal Assistant, an Intelligent Agent, an Intelligent Interface or whatever you wish. We call it inevitable," writes Dag Kitlaus in A Cambrian Explosion in AI is Coming in TechCrunch. An interesting assessment of the era of the digital assistant and the likely tsunami of new variations, building upon variations.
Meet Jibo, advertised as "the world's first family robot." Kinda creepy but attractive too…
Asimov-three-laws-roboticsEver hear of “neuromorphic architecture?” Silicon chip design that uses transistors — (5 billion of them in the latest IBM chip) - to create analogues of the nonlinear response patterns of biological neurons. The latest version, from IBM, is called “True North” and it is simply spectacular. Its prodigious pattern recognition capabilities are only matched by its stunning (by four orders of magnitude(!)) power efficiency. This is where Moore’s Law, augmented by new neuronal and parallelism software, may truly start delivering.
Now… How to keep what we produce sane? And where on the chip - pray tell - do the Three Laws reside?
Ah, well… I have explored the implications (yin and yang) of the Asimovian laws in my sequel which tied up all the loose ends in Isaac’s universe – Foundation's Triumph. Meanwhile, serious minds are grappling with the problem of “how to keep them loyal." For example…
==Creating Superintelligence==
"Risks that are especially difficult to control have three characteristics: autonomy, self-replication and self-modification. Infectious diseases have these characteristics, and have killed more people than any other class of events, including war. Some computer malware has these characteristics, and can do a lot of damage...
"But microbes and malware cannot intelligently self-modify, so countermeasures can catch up. A superintelligent system [as outlined by Bostrom would be much harder to control if it were able to intelligently self-modify." writes Bostrom.
Nick Bostrom makes a persuasive case that the future impact of AI is perhaps the most important issue the human race has ever faced. Instead of passively drifting, we need to steer a course. Still, his litany of “be careful what you wish for” parables is taken straight from the pages of a century of science fictional “what-if” scenarios. Geeky sci fi archivists need to be present, during the programming, to point out: “you may want to rephrase that… cause way back in 1947 Leigh Brackett showed that it could be misconstrued as...”
== and more on "intelligence..." ==

When did homo sapiens become a more sophisticated species? Not until our skulls underwent “feminization." Interesting article! In fact the mystery of the First Great Renaissance... the burst of human creativity around 45,000 years ago... is discussed in EXISTENCE!
But -- if I may mention it -- the real correlation with this notion… that sexual selection resulted in gentler, more “feminized” males, was presaged by this paper of mine… Neoteny and Two-Way Sexual Selection in Human Evolution.
==Developing Brains==
EMPATHYResearcher Talma Hendler has found evidence for two types of empathy, each tied to a different network of brain regions. One type she calls mental empathy, which requires you to mentally step outside yourself and think about what another person is thinking or experiencing. Parts of the frontal, temporal, and parietal cortex that make up this network. The other type she calls embodied empathy; this is the more visceral in-the-moment empathy you might feel when you see someone get punched in the guts. Very cogent and thought provoking.
This interesting article in Wired explores how movies exploit both of these networks to make you identify with the characters. Only the manipulation is now going scientific!
And veering a bit... When did modern humans arrive in Europe, and by how much did they overlap with our fading cousins, the Neandertals? New studies suggest it all happened earlier than most had assumed, perhaps around ...45,000 years ago.
Now throw in.... Children and adolescents with autism have a surplus of synapses in the brain, and this excess is due to a slowdown in a normal brain “pruning” process during development.
==and organs==
Scientists have for the first time grown a complex, fully functional organ from scratch in a living animal by transplanting cells that were originally created in a laboratory to form a replacement thymus, a vital organ of the immune system.
By deciphering the detailed gene expressions by which a lizard regrows its tail, scientists hope to re-ignite regrowth processes in mammals like us, that have been dormant for 200 million years.

 Both of these stories are straight from my story “Chrysalis” in this month’s ANALOG! Have a look and see where all this may lead!
Scientists report using laser light in ultrafast pulses to control the quantum state of electrons contained inside nanoscale defects located in a diamond, and also observe changes in that electron over a period of time. The findings could be an important milestone on the road to quantum computing.
SCIENCE-TECHNOLOGYAnother team has devised a way to make microscopes magnify 20 times more than usual. This magnification allows scientists to see and identify substances and matter as minuscule as or even smaller than a virus.
Direct synthesis of ammonia from air and water? At low temperatures and pressures? If this membrane method can bypass the usual harsh processes, the news can be significant for liberating poor farmers everywhere to make their own fertilizer.
Looks plausible… if amazing! A transparent luminescent solar concentrator developed in Michigan can be used to cover anything that has a flat, clear surface. Visible light passes through. But organic molecules absorb invisible wavelengths of sunlight such as ultraviolet and near infrared, guiding those packets to the edge of the solar panel, where thin strips of photovoltaic solar cells pick it up and convert it into energy. Fascinating… another potential game changer.
what-if-munroeRecommended: what if? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe (of the brilliant xkcd).
Researchers from UC San Diego's structural engineering department are using drones to capture unique views of the earthquake damage to Napa's historic landmarks. Our own Falko Kuester explains how this new tech is helping.

How to tell if a Chelyabinsk style meteorite came from an asteroid? Here's the basic rule of thumb. “The speed of whatever collides with Earth’s atmosphere depends on its orbit, which in turn depends on its source. The impactor’s entry at 19 km/s means that it came from the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, not from a ballistically launched missile, whose speed is less than 11.2 km/s; a short-period comet, with an average speed of 35 km/s; or a long-period comet with an average speed of 55 km/s. As investigators began retracing the path of the meteor that blazed across the sky, their reconstructed orbit bore out that provenance.”  
Oh, anything much faster than 60 kps either fall naturally from outside the solar system... or was accelerated by someone with boojum powers and maybe ill intent!
And finally:
Don’t bogart that puffer, my friend. Dolphins pass around a puffer fish — apparently to get high off its toxins. After a few chomps, you no longer give a fugu.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Phases of the American Civil War

I frequently refer to our current era of American politics as the latest phase of the U.S. Civil War… in part because the political maps so blatantly copy a pattern that goes back almost 200 years. 

dogma-pragmatismCyclically, we find ourselves mired in dogma, instead of pragmatism, intransigent hatred instead of negotiation, nostalgia and romanticism, instead of belief that we can craft a better tomorrow.
Illustrating that others see this same breakdown, New York Magazine carried this article, A Southern GOP Can't Be the Party of Lincoln, decrypting how - politically - there seem always to have been two Americas. The Nixonian “Southern Strategy” flip changed the banners of the two sides, and Blue-vs-Gray has become Blue-vs-Red. Still, Jonathan Chait does a fair job of showing how consistent the political map has been.
This article, while mostly true and overall correct, misses a couple of key points.  First, the social movement called the "confederacy" has been at this for a long time.
civil-war-burnsPhase one of the American Civil War took place in the South, during the Revolution, when the British found their strongest support among Loyalist/Tory militias in Georgia and the Carolinas.  It was Scots-Irish hill settlers, fighting for Daniel Morgan, who tipped the balance in that struggle, toward what would become the American Experiment.
Phase two featured a period when southern politicians grew ever stronger in control of the U.S. federal government.  True, Andrew Jackson clamped down on John C. Calhoun's secessionism, in the 1830s, and kept the nation together. But Mr. Chait is correct that Jackson's overall sentiments were what we might call "confederate." Indeed, southern control over levers of power only grew until, by 1860, five of nine Supreme Court justices were slave-owners.
PAST-civil-warThis extended through the next phase, starting in 1852, when the Fugitive Slave Act turned the division violent.  Swarms of small units of southern irregular cavalry commenced rampaging across northern states, seizing anyone they wanted as an "escaped slave." These raider squadrons had the support of U.S. Marshals who were appointed by mostly-southern presidents. When outraged northerners started forming posses to defend their neighbors, those marshals called in federal troops. (See my earlier article: Past Keeping Faith with Future...and Day with Night.
In other words, the "confederate" social movement is not always anti-central-government!  It is only opposed to federal government when it does not control those levers of power.  Witness the tepidness of anti-government proclamations during the tenure of GW Bush.  Indeed, it is a wrathful unwillingness to let the electoral winners have their legitimate turn that was behind the hysterical reaction to Lincoln's election... and (one might argue) Obama's.
By the way, those rampaging bands of southern cavalry were self-defeating.  They radicalized northerners, causing them to arm themselves, revive their dormant militias and (eventually) vote for the abolitionist Lincoln. An effect that - were eyes open - one can clearly see happening across Blue America, today. (This is why Gun Control is such a pathetic hot button on the right.  No one is seeking more than tweaks.  Indeed, under Bush, many liberals started arming themselves.)
Up to this point, the Confederacy Society (CS) had lost phase one (allowing the establishment of a true federal republic), played for a draw in the Calhoun-Jackson era, and won phase three — in that its agendas controlled the national government and processes.
civil-war-word-cloudBut finally, Blue America got fed up. And what ensued was phase four — the one we normally think of as “The Civil War.” Unable to stomach their opponents ever even having a brief tenancy in just one branch of the government, CS did not bother trying to send even one delegation to negotiate with president-elect Lincoln, thus eliminating all right to refer to the Justifications for separation found in Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence… that secession can be justified, but only when all other negotiations and redress have been exhausted. Anything short of that is oathbreaking and damnable treason.
BurnsCivilWarWe all know Phase Four very well. (If not, watch Ken Burns portray it magnificently, in his PBS series.) Hence, tra la I will bypass it and speed through the others:
Phase 5- The 1870s early end of Reconstruction... when the South bargained to let Rutherford Hayes and the Republicans into the White House, in exchange for what they really wanted. The “confederacy” won this phase, big time, when they dickered their way into an end of Civil Rights protections and a surge of Jim Crow laws that ripped from freed slaves the right to vote. The real losers, though? Not just minorities, but in every pragmatic sense the entire South, which thereupon slumped into a backwater of economic retardation and romantic, old-timey hatred of progress.
(You'd deny this?  Then explain how China in just 30 years went from poverty to economic superpower... when the US South has had 150 years and still blames its backwardness on Sherman.)
fall-dixiePhase 6 . The 1880s… this phase is not entirely associated with “confederate society” though it was part and parcel of the Democratic Party of those days. It featured William Jennings Bryan's white-christian populism, Free Silver and a rebuke to the steamroller effects of consolidated northern corporations. And for the first time, the states of the Great Plains began edging toward alliance with the Olde South. Northern oligarchs won phase six… unfortunately, in this case! (The one time the confederacy wing of our ongoing civil war had some real, moral justification on their side.)
What spun off from this phase was the Progressive Movement, which manifested all over America and was taken up by Theodore Roosevelt, whose family specialized in saving the wealthy in America from the inevitable price of limitless greed. If only today’s oligarchs understood that their greatest need, right now, is another Roosevelt! Without gentle, moderate reforms, our current momentum can only lead to tumbrels and guillotines. Watch Ken Burns's wonderful PBS series "The Roosevelts" which is being broadcast as we speak.
PHASES-CIVIL-WARPhase 7 - The 1940s through 1970s … the civil rights movement, started with Harry Truman’s bold desegregation of the military, then Dwight Eisenhower’s firm support of school desegregation. The essential and too-long delayed resumption of Reconstruction… which also included Lyndon Johnson’s effort to re-industrialize and re-invigorate the South. This phase was clearly won by Blue America (though the South benefited prodigiously, economically), but at a cost — which was….
Phase 8 - …the Nixonian, southern-strategy “flip" leads ultimately to today's full scale New Confederacy effort to finally destroy the United States of America. 

Not by force of arms, but by ending the effectiveness of politics as a pragmatic, open-minded process by which undogmatic citizens negotiate a mix of experiments and find out what works -- the methodology behind all of our successes. Replacing all of that with dogma more intense than communism ever was.
pragmatismPragmatism and science and re-evaluation are now portrayed to half our neighbors as enemies. A conviction of moral superiority that cannot be shaken by facts. 

Run through a long list of social ills: teen sex ages and rates, teen pregnancies, STDs, domestic violencedivorce rates, bankruptcy and debt default rates, education, economic productivity, net tax parasitism…even obesity rates… tell us clearly that outcome metrics do not support any claims that salt-of-the-earth types are better at life or raising kids than 'decadent' university-city-folk. Indeed, by all of those measures... and countless more... they get spectacularly worse outcomes.

So? The response is to utterly ignore statistics. Truthiness is all that matters.
rebellion-americaI could go on, but the point is clear: this rebellion against the American Experiment is both ancient and culturally deeply rooted.  We are in its eighth phase (at least).
Does it even have anything to do with the metaphor pushed by both Fox and MSNBC?  The hoary-stupid-lobotomizing so-called "left right political axis?"  Looking at all eight phases, that would seem to map poorly onto our civil war, which seems to be far more emotional and cultural -- a clash of two immiscible strains of American utopianism.
 In Ted Turner's wonderful film GETTYSBURG, one character opines that blue and gray America sang the same songs... but dreamed different dreams. Mark Twain commented that the confederacy side's relentlessly recurring rage is far more psychological than anything else, a deep romanticism and obsession with nostalgia that he blamed on Sir Walter Scott!  Certainly you can gain insight by tracing which regions sell more science fiction.
Where is it all heading?

Today's neo-confederacy is smart enough not to secede.  This time, it is working from within to slash the things that it always hated. Especially science, which is the enemy of nostalgia. But also any chance of American pragmatism prevailing in the kind of experiment-by-politics that has always been our national genius.
And yes, that campaign now includes seeking to ensure that "government of/by/for the people" SHALL perish from the Earth.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

China: Looking to the Future

Amid world tensions, are there good news stories?
== China’s Syndrome? ==
transformation-bustInvestment maven John Mauldin's Thoughts from the Frontline: Ttransformation or Bust looks at China's economy: “…there are no cases in modern history where an economy has managed to avoid an outright bust after experiencing rapid lending growth anywhere in the neighborhood of China’s ongoing credit boom.”
Mauldin continues: “The more I dig into the data, the more convinced I become that Xi Jinping and his colleagues in Beijing are facing an impossible challenge. After fueling one of the single greatest credit booms in modern history, the People’s Republic is left with a mountain of bad debt backing a number of overleveraged industries that are simply not viable without the state’s continued favor.” And: “While China does boast substantial buffers that can – at least in theory – allow it to paper over bad loans for another few years or resist the pressure of foreign capital outflows for a time, those buffers cannot protect China indefinitely. The longer the People’s Republic continues down the path of low-quality credit growth and widespread misallocation, the bigger the bubble will become. China may suffer one of the defining economic crises of our lifetimes.”
China-economyDoes this mean to be bearish on China? Of course not. In the 32 years since Deng Xiao Peng initiated the reforms that led to a spectacular development boom, more human beings have been lifted out of poverty than ever before. China's new infrastructure is spectacular, especially in comparison to the decaying and underfunded, penny-wise neglect of America's once-proud capital base. China's education levels are skyrocketing and - the most encouraging development of all - science fiction is starting to take some real hold over there.
Two factors that receive far too little notice... that it was willing U.S. policy to allow three decades of trade deficits to enrich China -- foreign aid through WalMart. See: How the U.S. saved the world by buying vast amounts of stuff. Probably the most generously helpful policy ever enacted by a great power, in the history of our species...
Intellectual-Property...that, plus turning a mostly blind eye to the hand-over-fist grab-theft of nearly all the crown jewels of American industrial Intellectual Property. (We need to recall that we were IP thieves, during our own early development; but still, this flagrant raid must stop. It kills the goose that lays the golden eggs that China relies upon.)
==Fighting Corruption==
So what are the prospects? Under President Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist Party appears to be engaged in a major anti-corruption drive, using the “Central Commission for Discipline Inspection” to perform stings on bribed or shady party officials and then hand them over to state authorities. If this effort is sincere and vigorous, that is all very well and laudable…
fighting-corruption…and it has no bearing on the real way to eliminate corruption, which is liberating people to competitively apply transparency — reciprocal accountability — both laterally and from below.
Yes, yes, it is obvious why Xi and his cohorts — who are human, after all — will do what human rulers almost always do, and that is “solve” problems by top-down command. Indeed, sometimes it works. But then what? Something has always happened, after every Lorenzo di Medici, or Marcus Aurelius, or the first Tang or first Ming Emperors. After that initial burst of reform, top down systems always become spectacularly corrupt again.
east-westSome time ago, it looked as if the Chinese leadership was determined to leverage the ‘best possible’ combination of western and eastern methods, retaining hierarchical command control in the top tiers of governance, while allowing western methods of transparency and citizen-based accountability to root out inefficiencies and corruption down at the local and city and provincial level, where it does its worst harm to both average citizens and the economy.
I saw hints of this approach and squinted into the future, hoping I would hear Chinese leaders say something that is far from ideal (from a moral or righteous perspective) but that is at least smart and practical:
“We must retain single party control for at least another generation, in order to preserve stability during an era of rapid change. (Subtext: and also to preserve our grip on top-power in a traditional Chinese pyramid; we are, after all, human.)
citizenship-accountability“BUT, in order to maximize progress, efficiency and happiness, we will unleash citizen accountability upon all officials at the city and corporate level. People may record their interactions with officials. Moreover, the press is encouraged to publish exposés...
"… so long as the light STOPS at the district level. We will take it from there.
 “Only… district officials are warned. In ten years citizen accountability will rise to that level, so get ready! And ten years after that, this rule of openness will rise to the provincial level. So start preparing now, and stay clean enough to survive, when that happens.”
China-globalWould this create a dicey situation... the people may get that confrontational habit and try to pick up the pace! But the benefits -- eliminating 90% of all corruption and waste -- would be worth taking the risk.
That is what a Marcus Aurelius or Tang Emperor would have done, if they were truly wise. But wisdom, among human leaders, is as scarce as walking, talking dinosaurs.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Climate: Have we reached the tipping point?

With climate change still a political minefield across the nation despite the strong scientific consensus that it's happening, some community leaders — even in Red States — have hit upon a way of preparing for the potentially severe local consequences without triggering explosions of partisan warfare: Just change the subject. See: Red State Cities Find Euphemisms to Prepare for Global Warming.

==Denialism continues== 
OCEAN-ACIDIFICATIONWhen you encounter anti-science climate denialists, say two words -- "Ocean... acidification." It is clearly and unambiguously happening. It is clearly dangerous and harmful. And it cannot possibly have any other cause than increased absorbed CO2 from human activity.
Every Distraction-Gambit concocted by AEI and Heritage Foundation and Fox - at the behest of coal barons and middle eastern petro princes - falls apart. Not sunspots nor "faked hockey sticks" nor any of the other incantations will work, this time.
Watch! As your crazy uncle suddenly points to the left and yells: "squirrel!"
But you can come back with another word. "TWODA"... or Things We Ought to be Doing Anyway.... All sorts of moderate, reasonable work on efficiency that would help address climate change and that would help us all anyway, even if climate change were a myth. Only one class of people would be hurt by us all becoming more efficient and saving money on energy, via TWODA.
Coal barons and middle eastern petro princes... who own today's GOP. Huh, funny about that. So ask your uncle... "Is there ANY degree of investment in Rand D and moderate science and other TWODA, that you will admit would NOT "destroy the economy" and you would be willing to negotiate, just in case 99% of the people who actually know a thing or two about weather and climate happen to be right?  AnyTWODA at all? Anything?"
Those of you out there who are fuming right now, consider.  If you do NOT want to be viewed as a member of a fanatical denialist cult, there is one thing you can say: 

ClimateSkeptics"I am willing to negotiate moderate precautionary measures and funding for initiatives that would increase energy efficiency and alternatives, just in case I am wrong and most scientists prove to be right.  I will negotiate hard and insist that the measures not be "economy wrecking" and that they have benefits to the consumer other than just reducing carbon emissions.  I will also insist, as part of the deal, that some basic questions and doubts about the "warmist" consensus be addressed, asap, and I will help back urgent increases in funding for a broadly competitive range of scientific research to settle this important matter."

"I will also establish a set of achievable and reasonable milestones for the "warmist" case and if those milestones are met, I will accept that the 99% of atmospheric and climate scientists who believe that more urgent action is needed are probably right. In that case, I will 'up' my support for efforts to save my children's planet and I will "down" my respect for those who talked me into calling 99% of atmospheric scientists fools.  What I will NOT abide is moving the goal posts... when my skeptical questions are satisfied, I will actually change my mind."

THAT is reasonably stated and exactly what a reasonable, rational "Skeptic" would say, in the face of the fact that 99% of scientists who actually know the Navier Stokes equations and cellular gas balance models disagree with the fox-sources that provide your science. It would also end the hypocrisy of the American right, shouting "we need more research!" ...while savagely cutting it every chance they get.

 If you can bring yourself to say -- and act upon -- those two paragraphs above, then maybe you are the rational "skeptic" you proclaim yourself to be!

Otherwise, look in a mirror.  Cultist.

== The fizzing sound of a tipping point ==
methane-plumesThis is what we had all feared -- those of us who aren't ostrich-people. The possible tipping point. Methane plumes are emanating from at least 570 seafloor cold seeps on the outer continental shelf and the continental slope, Mississippi State University reported. A potential disaster that I warned about in EARTH (1989).
"Warming of ocean temperatures on seasonal, decadal or much longer time scales can cause gas hydrate to release its methane, which may then be emitted at seep sites," said Carolyn Ruppel, study co-author and chief of the USGS Gas Hydrates Project.  "Such continental slope seeps have previously been recognized in the Arctic, but not at mid-latitudes.  So this is a first."
To be clear, methane is a far worse greenhouse gas than CO2… and rising ocean temps will cause icy methane hydrates to fizz, all over the globe, causing a runaway effect.
Okay, I began this missive all-reasonable and trying logic and argument. That is why -- above -- I offered a simple exit strategy for those "skeptics" who truly want to earn that term.  If you can recite the paragraphs I offered, and intend to live by then, then please leave now and thanks.  The following does NOT apply to you!

 But truly? Do I any longer expect that approach to work?  During phase eight of the American Civil War? Of course not.  Which leaves me with this to say to you others -- the science-hating fools, drooling before “hypnotize-me!” Fox-Nuremberg rallies and neo-confederate rant-fests against all big-city-university “smartypants” types.
TWODA-2No evidence will change your opposition to negotiating even moderate, sensible, precautionary interim measures to increase energy efficiency or do basic RandD. You sabotage TWODA (Things We Ought to be Doing Anyway.) When the US Navy shouts concern about a warming arctic, you simply move the goal posts.
Worse. You help to denigrate and geld the smartest, most knowledgeable, competitive and wisest human beings whom our species has ever produced, and thereby you declare yourselves to be brave authority questioners and skeptics! 
Millions of science loving moderates (like me) have been willing to negotiate ways to (win-win) simultaneously boost economic activity while taking basic precautions against the (perhaps slim) possibility that smart people aren't stupid. But fanatics show no willingness to make a deal. Their New Civil War has reduced the world’s most scientific and future-oriented nation in history to dysfunction, unable to perform politics at even a basic level.
You refuse to look at actual outcomes, by which measure your “side” has proved insanely incompetent.  Everything to you is “right versus left” — a loony metaphor that allows you to ignore the fact that Adam Smith … today… would be a Democrat.

See also: A Brief History of Climate Change -- from the BBC.
== Ahem... ==
AguingCrazyUncleRant mode off.  Only dig this.  The earlier phases of the Civil War featured this same syndrome.  A re-ignited confederacy, riled up on hate toward urban-educated-industrial-blue Americans who create all the wealth and progress. Each time it failed.  Blues were (as Sam Houston predicted, during the 1860s phase) slow to anger and seemingly soft as mush... till each and every time we proved tougher than we had seemed, and ponderously unstoppable when pushed too far.
Right now, you are threatening the very lives of our grandchildren and our planet and the republic that we love.  And we will stop you from ruining any of them.

== Final Item ==

Before moving on, let's do a chilling side segue... that's very interesting. Eric H. Cline, in his recent book 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed, portrays a time when bronze age empires of the eastern Mediterranean were riding high… then went into a simultaneous tailspin due to drought and their own inability to adapt.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Twelve Questions about "the Future" from my Reddit AMA

I recently participated in an AMA - Ask Me Anything on the Reddit Futurology subgroup. Here's a selection of questions and answers from this session.
twelve-questionsWhat do you find that has changed in the past ten years that is leaning towards your own fictional work?
The trend toward transparency being crucial to our survival and freedom has been in my fiction and nonfiction for decades and it is coming true. Last year, largely unheralded by media, saw the most important civil liberties decision in thirty years, when the courts and the Obama Administration separately declared it to be “settled law” that citizens have a right to record their interactions with police, in public places. Of course there will be tussles over the details for years. I'll talk later about how we must also watch the watchers of the watchers.
What, if anything, have you changed your mind about in the last 12 months?
In politics -- I reluctantly concluded that reason will not prevail and the U.S. is doomed to a new phase of its 200 year Civil War, with dogma and hate replacing reason, almost across the board... alas. 

wrongIn science -- I learned that we can look beyond the "curtain" of light that raised 325,000 years after the Big Bang! In literature, I learned that a new novelist in China - Liu Cixin - has leaped ahead by a couple of generations and will stun western readers, in the fall.  These are just a few examples.

Hey, I am surprised a whole lot of the time!  Indeed, part of being a modern world citizen is being willing to say the one phrase that all scientists are trained to say:

"I might be wrong; let's check it out."
What do you believe (if anything) is necessary for our society and culture to change, in order to prevent a collapse/new dark age/extinction of our race? Or - if nothing - why?
UnlikelinessPositiveSumSocietyI've pushed for 30 years what I think is the secret of the Western Enlightenment Experiment -- The Positive Sum Game. Jared Diamond in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed shows what will happen if Earth is run by the Zero Sum thinking that dominated in 99% of human societies.
We get positive sum outcomes from science, democracy, markets etc because they are competitive! But it is REGULATED competition that minimizes blood and cheating and maximizes folks leveraging against each others creativity.
The mistake of the left is to badmouth competition, when Adam Smith was the first liberal!
The mistake of the right is to imagine we can get these benefits without very meticulous regulation to prevent cheating, which ruined 99% of human societies and made them zero (or negative) sum. Alas, it is winners and the strong who inevitably try to cheat - a flaw in human nature that may also have crushed positive sum systems on other planets, helping to explain why no one (yet) found the knack of maintaining perpetual creativity and reaching the stars.

competitionLook at how regulated sports is! It would collapse otherwise.  The trick is to find the right and minimal kinds of regulation that keep the game flat-open-accountable-fair and competitive.  Those who would over-regulate are almost as bad as those who ignore 6000 years of human/feudal history and think that markets and politics can regulate themselves.
Right now oligarchs are trying to turn our society zero sum and feudal again. The attempt happens every generation. If we can prevent it and restore a pragmatic, can-do society, maximizing the flat-open-transparent arena of joyful-fair competition, then we may reach Star Trek.
Which self-preventing prophecy do you think would have the largest positive impact the on future if published today?
self-preventing-prophecyIn my essay, The Self-Preventing Prophecy: How a Dose of Nightmare Can Tame Tomorrow's Perils, I talk about how the highest form of Science Fiction is a predictive novel that scares millions into fighting against the portrayed future. e.g. Soylent Green or Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. The greatest Self-Preventing Prophecy was Orwell's 1984, which I discuss here.
A related topic is why so many recent films and novels wallow in dystopias that are NOT "self-preventing" because their scenarios are lazy and stupid, as I discuss in The Idiot Plot.
Today? I'd warn about collapse of confidence in our creative-pragmatic can-do civilization. The worst problem we have is so many of our neighbors turning stylishly cynical.  Too many of YOU think you invented "brave cynicism" when it is a drug-addict cop-out. What truly takes courage and adult patience is the long slog of negotiating with your neighbors, who are NOT all sheep!  Many of them - even those who oppose you - may be 10% right about something.  Or 50%!  There are some who are much smarter than you.
Do you ever see that ethos manifest in a film or novel?  Of course not!  (Well, maybe in EARTH or the novels of Nancy Kress and Octavia Butler and Kim Stanley Robinson.)  The positive sum game is very hard to portray in dramatic ways.  But it can be done and that kind of story might save us.

==On the Singularity==
What's your opinion on the possibility of humanity forming a collective consciousness through the internet?
I portray this happening in Earth and in Foundation's Triumph. The latter was in Isaac Asimov's universe so it portrayed a Gaia/Galaxia uber mind that essentially takes over. Nicer than the Borg because folks don't clank and whirr but instead float and go 'om' and commune...
I do think that to be a simplistic type of Overmind (see Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End, too.) That is not how complexity actually layers, in complex systems lilt nature. In Earth I portray individual humans retaining all of their individuality, with the higher shared consciousness riding lightly above, benefiting from human individuality and eccentricity, absorbing and digesting their input the way you ponder the countless fleeting thoughts in your own head.  It is a more complex and subtle kind of "over mind."  It might be a positive-sum win-win.
dowereallywantimmortalityDo you believe biological immortality could happen in 10 - 25 years from now? Also what do you want to see in the future with new technologies coming out?
I deem it pretty unlikely. I am a bit of a grouch-curmugeon in the transhumanist-life-extension community. Humans are already the Methuselahs of mammals, getting three times as many heartbeats as mice and elephants. We have probably plucked the low-hanging longevity fruit and the next steps will be very hard.
What I do expect to see is methods of brain/skull preservation that are far cheaper and more convenient than cryonics. Plasticization etc. Not for actual revival, of course. And most intra-cellular info would be lost. But the location of a trillion synapses might be preserved and serve as boundary conditions for a fairly good emulation program that could upload a version of you, someday. Is that good enough? Depends.
See my larger essay: Do We Really Want Immortality?
Where do you differ with Ray Kurtzweil on the singularity?
KurzweilSingularityCoverRay and I get along, but I am a contrarian. When I find myself among those who do not believe in change - alas many of our fellow citizens - I speak about how rapidly human destiny is being challenged with new powers. 

Around Ray and his acolytes? I am cautionary.
For example, Kurzweil believes Moore's Law, all by itself, will make him immortal by creating Soulful machines who will gladly incorporate us and human values in the adventure of super-life. I portray this happening! In Earth and in Existence! But at Ray's conferences, I splash cold water.
For example, he calculates Moore's Law crossing the rate of transistor growth in machines with number of synapses in a human brain... about a trillion... and thus derives when (benevolent) AI will take off. But synapses may just be the tip of the iceberg, especially if there's intracellular computing! If so, Moore's Law will need five or six or maybe even ten more doublings!
Which do you think we'll reach first? Relatively cheap spaceflight, or full body 'virtual reality' simulations? The latter can, of course, include MMI equivalents instead of external bodysuits.
Sure VR will be the main thing for most of us. If we could make cheap "deputies" we could send them to Mars and bring back the heads and "live" the experience!  Say, I offer that in Kiln People!
 ==On Books...and Aliens==
temptationI just want to say that I really enjoyed your Uplift books. Do you have any plans for new books?
Indeed I am currently working to get Creideiki and Orley off that planet, at last! The Brightness Reef trilogy settles the fate/destiny of the ship Streaker, and a lot else. Till then, see the story "Temptation" downloadable from my website. Some will argue that Existence is uplift!
What do you make of Cliford D. Simak's dog and animal society in City? I allways found his ideas on animal and foreign intelligence interesting, if somewhat anchored to his time.
Yes, Simak influenced me. Also the fact that I have never had a novel that did not feature an ape or other primate! ;-)
Have you looked into the topic of UFOs and if so, do you have a stance on the UFO phenomenon?
Sorry but this "phenomenon" is taking care of itself. Brin's Corollary to Moore's Law (yes it's called that) is that CAMERAS get faster, cheaper, more numerous and mobile at a rate much faster than Moore's Law.
This means that the excuses for blurry UFO images get slimmer and slimmer. Have you done the math? All of the places where a UFO was dimly blurry in the distance 20 years ago... would have dozens of folks with cell cams right below it today! Please do the math. If images remain blurry, it is because they are teasing us and staying just out of range, even taking Brin's Corollary and the lens quality of iPhones into account!
thoseeyesIn that case, they are bastards. Snub em.
Please... you know I am interested in aliens! I spend my life on the topic, in SETI and in fiction. I'll even admit a very slim chance there might be UFO saucer aliens! But I find the creatures described in these stories to be illogical, immoral, unimaginative, ridiculous and ... compared to the thought experiments in good science fiction... unutterably boring!  They are way down on my list of priorities.

(See my short story "Those Eyes".)
==On Privacy==
What is your idea on a transparent society, and how does that affect personal privacy? Or should we start getting used to having no privacy?
privacy-doomedThe most common assumption of people who have not read my articles or The Transparent Society is that - as "Mr. Transparency" I oppose privacy or think it is doomed.
No way! A free people will want and demand some privacy! In Chapter 4 of The Transparent Society I discuss how essential some core privacy will be... though it will be closer and narrower.
But the irony is that we will only have that core if we live in a world that is mostly open! In which most people know most of what's going on, most of the time. Only then will voyeurs and spies and sneaks be deterred, because they'll get caught!
There is so much to this. See more articles about transparency, freedom and technology.