Sunday, June 25, 2006

Posing the 100 Year Question: The Institute's Answer

A couple of years ago I stumbled on a really weird webpage. It was part of some kind of discussion forum , and they seemed to be talking about massive changes in the world. It truly had me mystified for a while, as if I had encountered the kind of shadowy powerful organisation so popular in fiction.

The organisation isn't exactly shadowy , but it isn't particularly well-known. It is the Singularity Institute . The best way to explain them is to quote from their homepage:
What is the Singularity? Sometime in the next few years or decades, humanity will become capable of surpassing the upper limit on intelligence that has held since the rise of the human species. We will become capable of technologically creating smarter-than-human intelligence, perhaps through enhancement of the human brain, direct links between computers and the brain, or Artificial Intelligence. This event is called the "Singularity" by analogy with the singularity at the center of a black hole - just as our current model of physics breaks down when it attempts to describe the center of a black hole, our model of the future breaks down once the future contains smarter-than-human minds. Since technology is the product of cognition, the Singularity is an effect that snowballs once it occurs - the first smart minds can create smarter minds, and smarter minds can produce still smarter minds.

To quote Eliezer S Yudkowsky:

The Singularity holds out the possibility of winning the Grand Prize, the true Utopia, the best-of-all-possible-worlds - not just freedom from pain and stress or a sterile round of endless physical pleasures, but the prospect of endless growth for every human being - growth in mind, in intelligence, in strength of personality; life without bound, without end; experiencing everything we've dreamed of experiencing, becoming everything we've ever dreamed of being; not for a billion years, or ten-to-the-billionth years, but forever... or perhaps embarking together on some still greater adventure of which we cannot even conceive. That's the Apotheosis.

If any utopia, any destiny, any happy ending is possible for the human species, it lies in the Singularity.

There is no evil I have to accept because "there's nothing I can do about it". There is no abused child, no oppressed peasant, no starving beggar, no crack-addicted infant, nocancer patient, literally no one that I cannot look squarely in the eye. I'm working to save everybody, heal the planet, solve all the problems of the world.

So if the singularity occurs in this way,this could be the last invention humanity has to make. What's more , many of the people involved in the Institute seem to be transhumanists, who can be defined as follows:
Transhumanism is a way of thinking about the future that is based on the premise that the human species in its current form does not represent the end of our development but rather a comparatively early phase.
For example, we might be able to upload our minds into some kind of computer , that allows us to have more neurons, and be more intelligent. (note this computer could be installed inside our own bodies)
Once we have improved ourselves, we might be so changed that we might be best considered to be 'posthumans'. To quote the World Transhumanist Association:

Posthumans could be completely synthetic artificial intelligences, or they could be enhanced uploads , or they could be the result of making many smaller but cumulatively profound augmentations to a biological human. The latter alternative would probably require either the redesign of the human organism using advanced nanotechnology or its radical enhancement using some combination of technologies such as genetic engineering, psychopharmacology, anti-aging therapies, neural interfaces, advanced information management tools, memory enhancing drugs, wearable computers, and cognitive techniques.

Well, that's a lot to think about. But if you want to look further try some of the Shock Level 4 pages here, and here.

To get a feel of what future society might be like , have a look at the Orion's Arm SF setting here.

So the answer from the singularitarians and transhumanists is - "There may not be many humans around in 100 years time - we will have moved on to being something better". Of course, they could be wrong.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Strangest Political Geography in the world

I thought that this was a spoof article at first, but apparently there's a tiny bit of Belgium inside an enclave of Holland that lies within a parcel of Belgium that's within the borders of Holland. (I think).

Hat tip to Red Rose Ramblings

Posing the 100 Year Question: The Mathematical Answer

Brandon Carter.This image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike License v. 1.0:
It's possible to argue, mathematically, that there is a 95% chance of mankind's extinction within 9120 years. This calculation is derived from the Carter Prediction.

I first came across the "Carter Prediction" in Stephen's Baxter's SF novel "Manifold: Time". It's a real proposition by a real eminent physicist, Brandon Carter.

Wikipedia calls it the Doomsday Argument, and I recommend you to read their article on this.

So what is this prediction? It's about how many humans will ever be born. Suppose you are shown a magic records office which contains a special birth certificate for every human that will ever be born, either in the past, the present or the future. The certificates are all numbered, starting at 1. There's been about 40 billion people born so far. If we die out in the next century, the total that will ever be born is about 46 billion. However, if we go on to exist as a species for a million years, the total number could be 50000 billion or more.

Suppose you ask for one of the birth certificates, completely at random. Suppose the certificate you are given is number 41 billion. - that is - it belongs to somebody alive now. So what's more likely - that there are 46 billion certificates in there- or 50000 billion or more? It's much more likely that there are only 46 billion or so.

Now, let's think about people instead of birth certificates . You are about the 41st billion person born. If mankind was going to last one million years, it's amazingly unlikely , isn't it, that you were one of the first 0.008 percent to be born.

This argument, to say the least, is disputed. I don't believe it myself - because if the "first" human had considered it, he or she would have deduced that the total number of humans to be born would be about 5, and that the species would die out in a generation.

However, despite attempts to shoot it down , the Carter Prediction still has it's supporters. Maybe the mathematical answer to the 100 year questiion is "Yes, humanity will survive, but statistically the odd are against us lasting much longer".

Ah well, I'll be getting to the politics side of this soon...

Monday, June 19, 2006

Essex has the most modern town in Britain

... according to the Guardian today.

And you've probably never even heard of the place.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Best Political Interview of The Year?

It's with Congressman Lynn A. Westmoreland

Colbert: You have not introduced a single piece of legislation since you entered Congress.
Westmoreland: That's correct.
Colbert: This has been called a do nothing Congress. Is it safe to say you're the do nothingest?
Westmoreland: I, I, ..Well there's one other do nothiner. I don't know who that is, but they're a Democrat.

Crooks and Liars has the video (WMP)

(Thanks to Political Wire )

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Posing the 100 Year Question: "The Ignore it" Answer

As my former group leader Trevor commented on my previous post "Muddling along is one thing, ignoring the problem is another altogether ". And he's right, perhaps it's the same sort of difference between Britain improvising survival from 1939 to 1945, and ignoring Hitler completely.

For somebody else's slant on those who ignore environmental problems, read Pharyngula here

It begins:

It's a peculiar pathology that thinks environmentalism is an evil plot, that planning is communism/socialism, and that Jesus was a good capitalist. It is particularly irksome to try and deal with people who are so far gone that they deny science warning them of environmental dangers and impending problems.

How irksome? Imagine that a scientist and one of these deranged libertarian right-wing anti-environmentalist science deniers go out for a drive one day...

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Posing the 100 Year Question: The "Muddle Through" Answer

When I was a lad Isaac Asimov was my favourite science fiction writer - he wrote great novels such as "The Gods Themselves" and "The Naked Sun". I used to read his non-fiction books as well, borrowing them from Rayleigh library. Asimov was so famous that he could sell his articles to the top-paying magazines, such as Penthouse!

Now, he had an article published in the January 1971 edition of Penthouse entitled "The End". It wasn't a very sexy piece, simply a warning that civilisation could not survive the coming overpopulation crisis. (I hasten to add I only read it when it was published in book form in 1973!) He wrote a follow-up article, entitled "Can Man Survive the Year 2000?" Well, we've got past the year 2000 and we are still doing pretty well. Did my boyhood hero get it all wrong?

Similarly, I remember reading the Population Bomb by John Ehrlich. In particular I remember the scenario of nuclear war in 1984 caused by a lack of resources where ultimately the most advanced species surviving is the cockroach. It didn't happen.

Now, it's easy to mock people when you have the benefit of hindsight, but there have been scientifically trained forecasters of doom for quite a while and they haven't been correct yet. There's no doubt that overpopulation and a lack of resources are going to continue to be a problem, but maybe technological ingenuity will find the answers. For example, a recent edition of New Scientist discussed the possibility of global warming increasing the number of earthquakes. But the same edition also reported on the possibility of greatly improved solar power. Maybe mankind can just muddle through, with new technological advances keeping pace with our environmental problems. I know where I would rather be - facing global warming in 2006 rather than Hitler in 1939 or the Cold War in 1962.

And just to show how easy it is to forecast climatic change, here's an extract from a 1973 speech by my hero (and he still is my hero):

Well, here we are. We have just come through a thirty year period of mankind's maximum prosperity, on the whole. We've done very well since World War Two. We have...the world as a whole has eaten better, has lived better, has had a higher standard of living than it has ever had before. Now, you might tell me that through this entire thirty years there have been millions...hundreds of millions of people always hungry, always starving, with very little, and I'll say yes; it's been rotten. My point is that before now, it's always been rotten-ER. And we haven't really appreciated how temporary this is.

For one thing, we've had ample supplies of food, and part of the reason for that was that we've had an extremely good spell of weather for the last thirty years. In fact, there are some people who say that this last thirty years was the best thirty year spell of weather that we have had in the last thousand years. Now you may remember cold spells, and floods, and droughts, and all the rest of this stuff. But there has been less of it the world over than usual. In addition, just as we've had this good weather, we've also been applying energy at a far greater rate than ever before to farm machinery, to irrigation machinery. In addition, we've been using insecticides and pesticides of various sorts, to sort of clobber those little beasties and those weeds who think they're going to get some of our food. And in addition to that we've also developed new strains of grain, so-called "green revolution", that grow a lot of protein very fast. And what with all these things put together, our food supply has been going up.

But now, look what happens.

The very thing that makes it possible for us to use more and more energy is our industrial technologized world. And another thing that our industry produces is dust. And the air is dustier now than its ever been before in human history. Except perhaps very temporarily after a large volcanic eruption.

This means that the Earth's albedo, the percentage of light from the sun that it reflects back into space before it hits the ground, has been going up slightly because dusty air reflects more light than clear air does. And...well, not very much more, but enough. It has been making the temperature of the Earth drop since 1940. It's been going down steadily. Again, not very much. You're probably not aware that the summers are cold, or that the winters are extraordinarily icy, they're not. The drop in temperature may be one degree. But it's enough to cut down on the growing season in the northern climates. It makes the weather a little bit worse. It sends the storm tracts further south, so that the Sahara Desert creeps southward, so that the monsoon rains in India fail a little bit. Just enough so that the harvests aren't as good as they used to be, and the Earth's reserve supply of food sinks to it's lowest in recent history.

And just as this is happening...and it's going to continue happening because the air isn't going to get un-dusty unless we stop our industrial activity. And if we stop our industrial activity, that's going to be because we've suffered some complete disaster.

So, the weather isn't going to turn better. The air is going to stay dusty, and it's going to continue getting a little colder. And at the same time, it's getting hard to get energy. Energy is much more expensive than it used to be; oil prices are up. And that means that fertilizer is more expensive than it used to be. And it turns out that the green revolution depends on strains of grain that require...yes, they do what they're supposed to do...but they require a lot of irrigation; a lot of water, and a lot of fertilizer. And the fertilizer isn't there. And the irrigation machinery is hard to run now with expensive oil. And, of course, the pesticides are produced in high-energy chemical factories; their price goes up. Everything is combining to cut down on the food supply. And to arrange it so that in years to come, we may have trouble keeping our present level of food, let alone increasing it.

There are always people who think that all we have to do, after all is abandoned, all this foolish technology that we've made ourselves slave to, and go back like our ancestors and live close to the soil with the good things of nature. That would be great if we could do it. If we could go back to the way it was before World War II, technologically, we could support all the people that lived on Earth before World War II. The catch is that in these last thirty years one billion and a half people have been added to the population of the Earth. And we have been feeding them largely because of all these things that we have done in these last thirty years, the good weather, the fertilizers, and the pesticides, and the irrigation, and the green revolution, and all the rest of it. If we abandon that, we also have to abandon a billion and a half people; and there are going to be very few volunteers for the job.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Best Investigative Post of the Year?

It's a dirty job, but somebody had to do it.
Chris expresses his own views on this weblog.

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