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Member since: Wed Oct 13, 2004, 05:42 PM
Number of posts: 8,636

Journal Archives

Sepideh: Letters to Einstein

A young Iranian girl dares, yes dares, to pursue her dreams of becoming an astronaut, even with an uncle who says he will kill her "if she does anything wrong."

There are thousands of young people around the world with dreams like this, and most will see those dreams dashed by war, poverty, and lack of education.

44 Years ago today, a man called Armstrong walked upon the moon

What do you think of a DU 'Futures' forum?

There are already numerous posts on Democratic Underground on various views of the future; many, maybe most, are from an extreme pessimistic, even misanthropic, orientation ("We're doomed, and we deserve it!" "The planet will be better off without us!". There are a handful on the opposite end of the spectrum; people expecting a "technological singularity" within the next few decades.

What brought this on? I just received my copy of Eric Drexler's new book: Radical Abundance: How a Revolution in Nanotechnology Will Change Civilization. Drexler's book is definitely not of the pollyanish, technological-singulatarian variety. He recognizes the fact that we live on a very finite planet and that there may be downsides to nanotechnology; but, I'd still call it a hopeful vision of the future.

There are other authors on Amazon that will be on my 'must-read' list: Douglas Rushkoff and Jaron Lanier, among others. Rushkoff and Lanier are both addressing the downsides of the information revolution, and how we might avoid them.

Back to the question: Would a Futures forum be useful?

Neil deGrasse Tyson -- We Stopped Dreaming

Part 1:

Part 2:

How Science and Technology Slammed into a Wall and What We Should Do About It

It might be said that some contemporary futurists tend to use technological innovation and scientific discovery in the same way God was said to use the whirlwind against defiant Job, or Donald Rumsfeld treated the poor citizens of Iraq a decade ago. It’s all about the “shock and awe”. One glance at something like KurzweilAI.Net leaves a reader with the impression that brand new discoveries are flying off the shelf by the nanosecond and that of all our deepest sci-fi dreams are about to come true. No similar effort is made, at least that I know of, to show all the scientific and technological paths that have led into cul-de-sac, or chart all the projects packed up and put away like our childhood chemistry sets to gather dust in the attic of the human might-have- been. In exact converse to the world of political news, in technological news it’s the jetpacks that do fly we read about not the ones that never get off the ground.

Aside from the technologies themselves future oriented discussion of the potential of technologies or scientific discovery tends to come in two stripes when it comes to political and ethical concerns: we’re either on the verge of paradise or about to make Frankenstein seem like an amiable dinner guest.

There are a number of problems with this approach to science and technology, I can name more, but here are three: 1) it distorts the reality of innovation and discovery 2) it isn’t necessarily true, 3) the political and ethical questions, which are the most essential ones, are too often presented in a simplistic all- good or all-bad manner when any adult knows that most of life is like ice-cream. It tastes great and will make you fat.


Then we have the issue of reality: anyone familiar with the literature or websites of contemporary futurists is left with the impression that we live in the most innovative and scientifically productive era in history. Yet, things may not be as rosy as they might appear when we only read the headlines. At least since 2009, there has been a steady chorus of well respected technologists, scientists and academics telling us that innovation is not happening fast enough, that is that our rates of technological advancement are not merely not exceeding those found in the past, they are not even matching them. A common retort to this claim might be to club whoever said it over the head with Moore’s Law; surely,with computer speeds increasing exponentially it must be pulling everything else along. But, to pull a quote from ol’ Gershwin “ it ain’t necessarily so”.

Read the rest here: http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/searle20130331

The The Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies can be a fun website. The problem is, that a lot of the time they're 'off in the ozone' talking about transhumanism, the technological singularity or uploading your brain into a computer (No Thank You!). Recently, they've begun running more realistic articles taking a more nuanced look at technological change and its consequences.

Nanotechnology's lost history

Dr. K.Eric Drexler created the term nanotechnology to describe the concept of: "atomically precise machines building atomically precise products." This was before the concept was stolen by researchers who wanted to label their work as nanotechnology appropriated the term to describe "nanoscale particles, fibers, electronics, and the like." (Quotes are from Drexler's blog.)

Now, Eric Drexler's has a new book, to be released in May, and he has updated his blog, Metamodern, with a history of nanotech publications: Missing pieces: The lost history of how nanotechnology took hold in the world.

My new book, Radical Abundance, is now (at last!) nearing release. It reframes prospects for atomically precise manufacturing (APM), exploring timeless physical principles, surprising progress, and potential applications to global challenges that include economic development and climate change. Radical Abundance also looks back on the history of ideas that has shaped today’s perceptions of APM. Much of this history predates the rise of the web, however, and several key publications have been unavailable and hence effectively invisible.

To provide access to that 'lost history,' Drexler has posted PDF links for publications dating back to 1982 that introduced the concept of nanotechnology to audiences both popular and academic.

I've been following Eric Drexler's work on nanotechnology since hearing him discuss his work at a space development conference in 1986. Eric's interest in space predates his interest in nanotechnology; he worked with Dr. Gerard K.O'Neill in the 1970s, when Gerry O'Neill was first developing his space manufacturing concepts. He still holds patents on such space concepts as a high-performance light sail.

Obsolete Humans? Why Elites Want You to Fear the Robot.

When economic times are good, machines are celebrated as wonders of progress and prosperity that will improve our lives. But when times are tough, they become objects of fear. The unemployment crisis of the past four years was triggered by a Wall Street-driven financial crash, and exacerbated by policy makers who failed to do enough to stimulate the economy and to ensure that there’s enough demand for goods and services. But lately, a new argument for job insecurity has made a splash in the media: It’s the machines! Pundits predict the “end of labor,” and talk about armies of sleek robots taking over the workplace as a foregone conclusion. Dystopian fantasies worthy of a late-night sci-fi flick flood the airwaves.


Scary articles in the business section warn that any rise in wages will drive companies to save money by shedding workers and buying robots. Visions of increased efficiency and machines that can run 24/7 with no need for bathroom breaks have workers frantically trying to prove their value. Bosses warn that worker protests will only speed up automation. Don’t like the harsh conditions at Foxconn? Fine, a robot will do your job. The message: Keeping wages down and workers toiling until they drop is the only way to stave off a robot revolution.


The notion that technology is driving current unemployment doesn’t make much sense when you look at it closely. In 2007, there were reasonable, if not great, labor markets in the U.S. The giant leap in unemployment numbers dates from a very specific event, not from a long-run process that has been displacing workers over time. In 2007, the unemployment rate was 4.6. By 2009, it was 9.6, and remains very high. What happened wasn’t a sudden rush of robots onto the scene, but a financial catastrophe that nearly tanked the global economy.

Back in the 1990s, all kinds of technological changes were happening, as new users of the Internet will recall. Manufacturing productivity and some parts of service productivity went way up. People weren’t paranoid about machines because the economy was humming along. Technology was making humans more productive, the pundits said.

Read more here: http://www.alternet.org/economy/obsolete-humans-why-elites-want-you-fear-robot

Will China test an anti-satellite weapon this month?

There have been a number of recent posts on the net warning of an imminent test of an anti-satellite weapon by China. One of these is by the Union of Concerned Scientists: Is January Chinese ASAT Test Month?

n 2007 and 2010 China conducted anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons tests, both on January 11. Rumors circulating for the past few months suggest that some within the U.S. defense and intelligence community believe China is preparing to conduct another ASAT test.

The first media report on these rumors appeared in October. China’s Ministry of Defense challenged the information in that report, but in November contacts in China told us an announcement about an upcoming ASAT test was circulated within the Chinese government. We were unable to find a public statement confirming plans for a test in the Chinese media or on publicly accessible Chinese government websites. Then, just before Christmas, a high-ranking U.S. defense official told us that the Obama administration was very concerned about an imminent Chinese ASAT test.


The Obama administration has three choices: it can make a quiet diplomatic effort to persuade China to cancel or at least postpone the test, it can publicly call on China not to test, or it can remain silent until China conducts the test and then complain about it afterwards. The Bush administration took the latter approach and the space environment is much worse off for it. Despite having seen the ASAT system tested at least twice before the Jan. 11 2007 destruction of the Fengyun 1C, the Bush administration did not communicate its concerns to China, and we will never know if this might have influenced China’s decision.

The Obama administration should try to dissuade China from conducting the test. China may decide to test anyway, but it might see value in canceling or postponing the test to discuss these issues with the U.S. The Chinese Foreign Ministry routinely expresses support for diplomatic efforts to create an international space security framework. This approach is also in line with U.S. Defense Department policy. Its Oct. 2012 Directive on Space Policy, which lays out the range of approaches the DOD will take to mitigate the threat posed by the development of systems that can interfere with satellites, says it will “support the development of international norms of responsible behavior” in space. Acting to prevent irresponsible behavior before it happens is a clearly preferable approach to supporting international norms than waiting to act until after they have been violated.

High-level intervention in both countries is needed to stop the test and start discussions. Remarkably, there are no regular channels of communication on space issues between China and the United States. Congressional opposition to scientific and commercial cooperation with China in space shut down potential talks on human space flight that could have led to a bilateral dialog on space security.

The US does have an interest in preventing China from testing another ASAT weapon. Debris from the 2007 test threatened the International Space Station. The image below shows the orbit of the ISS as a blue line and the orbits of the debris from the 2007 test in red:

There's another level to this: China's space program is advancing rapidly (See the Dragon Space page at SpaceDaily.com for updates.). If the two countries continue to take a confrontational approach, that could mean a new arms race in space, which would of course, benefit the Military-Industrial-Complex. On the other hand, cooperation could make extended human missions beyond Earth orbit easier.

I have some problems with the idea of 'uploading' my 'consciousness' into a computer.....

Start with Douglas Hofstadter's deconstruction of the Star Trek Transporter: His analysis of the transporter is, that it essentially destroys the person who steps into one end and builds a duplicate at the other end. That person thinks he is the original, he has all the original's memories.

But, to carry the thought experiment a step further: Imagine a transporter that doesn't destroy the original; but still transmits the information to build a duplicate. Now you have two people, each of whom believes he is the original.

Hofstadter's premise is that, in the first example, the person being 'transported' dies. Assume you're the person in the transporter beam: the lights go out, your experience ends. Another person starts living who thinks he's you; but, that's literally cold comfort, since you, the experienced you, no longer exists.

I used this analogy to argue against the idea of uploading at a function for the Foresight Institute, which was originally formed for discussion Eric Drexler's ideas on nanotechnology. I argued with a group of 'singulatarians' who very much into the idea. I used Hofstadter's analogy of the transporter to explain that, as far as I can see: If I upload my memories into a computer, that just creates a virtual model of me. If the process destroys the original, then the lights go out for me, fade to black, I'm dead. If the process doesn't destroy the original, then the original 'me' is still 'me,' no matter what the 'other guy' thinks.

To quote Robert A. Heinlein: "I know who I am; but, who are all you zombies?"

As for the idea of a singularity, count me among the skeptics. There are a number of other people skeptical of the idea, including my favorite science fiction writer: Kim Stanley Robinson. In an interview with Wired magazine, Robinson took on the idea of the singularity, among other possibilities for the future:

Robinson: I think it’s a misunderstanding of the brain and of computers, in effect. We are underestimating how complex the brain is and how little we understand it, and we’re overestimating how much computers might have a will or intention. I think the intention will always stay with us, and the machines will be search engines and adding machines — enormously powerful and fast binary, digital things — but they’re not going to do the singularity as I understand it, this notion that machines will take off on their own and leave us behind.

I think it’s some of this what I call MIT-style public relations “futurology,” which is just lame science fiction, where people are asserting that it’s really going to come true. And as a science fiction writer, I find that a little bit offensive, because nobody knows what’s really going to come true, and people who declare it is are instantly putting themselves in the fraud category. They’re claiming more than they can.

Now, to come back to the singularity, I think what’s useful in it is the idea of it as a metaphor; it’s a science fiction metaphor, and even if it will never come true in a literal sense, it might be a good way of talking about the way things feel already. So that I’ve been saying, “Yeah, the singularity, if it ever is going to happen, it actually happened back in 2008, with the financial crash.” Because what happened there, nobody quite understands, and it was a really super-complex system that involves computers, algorithms, laws, habits and traditions, and all of them combined on a global financial system that no one person understood or controlled. So that’s almost like the singularity. Our financial system has actually blown up in our face, and none of us understand it, and yet it does control the world.

If you read much Kim Stanley Robinson, you'll soon see that social justice, as well as ecological themes are major themes in his work. This continues in his latest work 2312, set in a future where human beings are spread across the solar system. The economic system for the autonomous space colonies is called The Mondragon Accord:

Wired: You call this system “the Mondragon Accord.” Is that based on something real?

Robinson: Yes, in the Basque part of Spain there’s a town called Mondragon that runs as a system of nested co-ops — including the bank, which is simply a credit union owned by everybody. So it’s a town of only 50 to 100,000 and they’re all Basques — more or less — and they don’t intend to leave the city, so there are reasons why capitalist economists want to say that it can’t possibly work for all the rest of us, but I’m not so sure. And what I wanted to do is scale it up, and show a Mondragon-style system working amongst all the space colonies in one giant collective of cooperatives.

Read the rest of the interview here: http://www.wired.com/underwire/2012/06/geeks-guide-kim-stanley-robinson/all/

50 Years of NASA's budget vs. 1 year of Pentagon spending

From The Sagan Series Facebook page
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