Friday, October 31, 2008


Evolution - or survival of the fittest (or luckiest) - is a readily provable fact, and one not limited to species: Evolution also applies to ideas (memes) with areas as diverse as religion, music, fairy tales, and urban legends.

The concept of evolution is simple: That which successfully reproduces, survives. If pressures (due to competition or predation) limit the growth of something which has a natural variation (a choice of religions, or music genres, or tales, or an ecosystem, or apes), those variants which most successfully reproduce will succeed versus those less suitable, or less lucky.

Note how few successful religions abound which forbid sex. There have been short term experiments in this direction. More subtly, religions that don't have a strong philosophy of proselytism tend to be dominated by those that do. Remember, survival of the fittest is really just survival of those that successfully reproduce. See The Purpose of Life.

Evolution of species continues today. Mankind is forcing change, which drives evolution. Some of this is merely speeding long term trends (such as reduced success of amphibians in general, or the loss of many marginal species like the spotted owl). Other changes are more worrisome (such as the evolution of anti-biotic resistant bacteria).

Especially with animals (including humans), there are two forces that dominate evolutionary pressures. In addition to reproductive success due to superior survival characteristics, there is reproductive success due to sexual selection (ie, how members of each sex choose mates). More colorful animals are easier to find, and the most showy male is likely to get the most females and successfully reproduce even though he is also the most visible to predators and ends up living a shorter life. Sexual selection may also explain extremely large sauropod dinosaurs; perhaps the males/females liked (or could see) tall females/males better - and sought them as mates - leading to runaway selection for this feature.

Even mankind continues to evolve in several ways, and indeed demonstrates evidence of very recent evolution.

For example, there is strong evidence that people have been evolving for external sexual characteristics. Human females have proportionally larger breasts, narrower waists, and broader hips than other primates. (As a human male, I do love that shape.) Human males have shapes that illustrate upper body strength, and have a penis that is larger in proportion to body size than any other ape. Apparently males have been selecting for large breasts and hips (especially in contrast to waist size). And women have been selecting men with broad shoulders, large muscles, and a big penis. And bad boys, at that.

Watching many reality shows (and especially MTV) suggests that human females are still actively selecting for strength, size, and sexual prowess; intelligence is clearly not a requirement. Likewise for human males, actively selecting voluptuous, athletic females with exotic eyes, long hair, and aggressive sexual attitudes.

Our technology is also having a significant effect on the human specie: we are becoming less diverse, as our ability to travel globally is reducing regional and racial disparities at measurable rates. In a few thousand years, there may be no remaining significant racial differences at all as we continue to interbreed and blend. Personally, I think this is a good thing.

We are also enabling the survival and allowing the reproduction of humans who would never live to adulthood without technology and/or large social organizations to care for them. I think this is a bad thing (when genetically caused), as I prefer that our children be smarter, stronger, and healthier. I know many people find my attitude offensive, but really, people, it is not in humanity's best long term interest to support or encourage the reproduction of serious genetic defects or low intelligence. Again, see my post The Purpose of Life.

A few other rambles:

Humanity is the ocean's most effective predator, and our fishing techniques are rapidly changing (evolving) fish to have less desirable characteristics. Fish are maturing younger and at smaller sizes as we select only the largest (previously most successful) fish. Fish that humans like to eat are being selected out - made extinct - versus undesirable, bony, badly tasting, or hard-to-capture fish. A tight school of fish may have worked to confuse dolphins or sharks, but it is an bright sonar target easily capture by our mile-wide nets today. And small and mid-size fish that avoid schooling behaviors make poor (unprofitable) targets.

Note that the world's most successful plants and animals are those whose evolution has made them desirable food for humans (cows, chickens, pigs, wheat, corn, rice, etc.). Then we help them thrive and reproduce, in numbers far exceeding natural populations.

Some people have argued against the use of windmills as a source of renewable electric power, based upon the fact that the turning windmills kill many birds. Tear down the windmills, drill for oil, save the birds. The reality is that more birds are killed by cars and trucks on the highway. (The activists would probably like to outlaw cars and trucks, too.)

I believe in the value of evolution: the birds that learn to avoid the rotating windmill blades will survive and reproduce. We can already see this effect along our highways: fifty years ago it was much more common to hit a bird on the highway, even though speeds were significantly lower then. Think of it as evolution in action (thank you, Larry Niven).

Last, the implications of evolution to a field near and dear to my heart: science fiction.

Contrary to nearly every movie alien, any intelligent life we meet in outer space will not be highly effective carnivorous killing machines. Au contraire, they will be (on their home planet) relatively weak and defenseless, needing superior intelligence to survive and reproduce. A dominant carnivore, or a herbivore that does not need to fear predation due to successful defenses (armor, size, quills, poisons) will cease to evolve. Every intelligent alien ever depicted with huge fangs, great strength, speed, armored skin, etc.,  is absurd, as they would never have evolved intelligence.

No, the most intelligent species will be those that are slow, weak, need protection from the elements, need to build and use tools to thrive, and need a civilization to defend against the superior strength, speed, and teeth of their planet's versions of lions, and tigers, and bears.

Of course, there is some evidence that intelligence is not a long term survival characteristic. We haven't yet met a single intelligent alien.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Earth's Fragile Ecology

Most of my readers know that I'm fundamentally an optimist (see I am an optimist), and that I believe that science and technology (along with human ingenuity) can and will solve most (hopefully all) of our problems caused by technology and the resulting global population growth.

But it won't be easy, or cheap.

Most people seem unaware of the major ecological problems we face, focusing instead on a few relatively minor (but well publicized) potential problems such as Global Warming or loss of biodiversity.

Here are a few more for your consideration.

Loss of topsoil: Globally, current farming techniques results in topsoil being lost to erosion at rates far greater than natural replenishment. Topsoil (the only part of the Earth's regolith that can readily support crops) is being lost at a huge rate, resulting in reduced crop yields and even desertification in some areas. Currently, the recommended solution is to globally convert to no-till farming, which has the problem of requiring greatly increased use of herbicides and insecticides with their attendant and largely unknown long term effects.

Ocean anoxia: The huge influx of topsoil and fertilizer into the oceans is producing larger and more frequent dead zones, where nearly everything larger than a bacteria dies due to lack of oxygen. All of the nutrients lead to bacterial blooms which consume all free oxygen, and while some mobile fish can swim to the surface to gulp oxygenated water or swim out of the region, bottom dwellers and the myriad small critters that comprise the bulk of the food chain have no such ability. They die, and so do other life forms that depend upon them. This process happens to thousands of square miles every year, and the area and event duration is increasing.

Overfishing: The oceans are being depleted of desirable foodstocks are rates far greater than can be maintained. Already, many once common seafoods are becoming rare, and many fisheries are now effectively ocean deserts, completely devoid of large fish. At present, there are two approaches to solve the problem. One is to create huge "no fishing" zones to serve as replenishment stocks for the regions around them. This works in the short run (assuming enforcement by fast, armed ships), but eventually the fish will evolve to avoid fishing zones. The second solution is one that our leaders have done completely backwards. They have established minimum take sizes, where the fisherman is allowed to keep only fish above a certain size. Sounds good at first, as the young fish are allowed to live, feed, and grow. Unfortunately, there is something called evolution. Fish which once grew quickly to a large size (to avoid predation) are now evolving to grow more slowly and to reproduce at a much smaller size (avoiding predation by the most effective ocean predator, us). As a consequence, reproductive success is reduced, and the remaining fish are becoming less and less desirable. The solution? Capture (and eat) medium sized fish, encouraging these species to grow quickly to a large (safe) size and to produce large numbers of offspring to ensure that enough of them escape us to maintain their species. But this will take technology, and leadership.

Falling water tables: Everyone has heard of (or experienced) the relative and growing shortage of fresh water. Many people don't realize how serious the problem has become. Many cities (especially in desert areas but including many water-rich areas such as Orlando, Florida, USA) are pumping fresh water out of the ground at rates much greater than natural replenishment. Eventually the wells will run dry. Going deeper is often not a solution because of salt water, no water, or pollutants such as oil, lead, or arsenic. Along the oceans, pumping fresh water out of the ground encourages salt water incursion, a serious problem. One side effect of excessive ground water pumping is that springs dry up, and rivers that once ran to the ocean now shrivel and disappear. Water wars will result when cities / states / nations consume the fresh water that other downstream cities / states / nations need to survive.

Chemical pollution: To me, the most serious pollution issue is from the long term unanticipated side effects of biochemicals we create and dump into the environment. These include insecticides, herbicides, drugs, hormones, and especially antibiotics. We don't understand the long term effects of insecticides and herbicides; we ignore the possible unintended effects of long exposure to low doses of hormones and many other drugs (traces of which can be detected in many or most municipal water supplies), and we are rapidly breeding (thanks to evolution and the overuse of antibiotics) new bacteria (and likely viruses) which are immune to all known antibiotics. This alone could result in a plague which could destroy most human life.

The growth of cities: We tend to put cities (especially large, growing ones) at the worst possible places: in river valleys, along flatland floodplains, along the mouths of rivers. The same places that are the best possible farmland. We should build them on mountains, in deserts, rocky, hilly terrain, even floating on the oceans. Leave the good farmland to farming. Leave the river deltas for farming and allow the annual floods that replenish their topsoils and ecologies. Our cities continue to grow at alarming rates, covering the surrounding land with buildings and asphalt. And polluting or burying the former topsoil in the process.

Are there long term solutions? My favorite is to move humanity off of Planet Earth and into space habitats. See Colonizing the Solar System and Population Unlimited. Unfortunately, I expect that humanity will tend to continue to exploit the Earth in ever greater degree until the point is reached where most of the population will abruptly die. And then the survivors just might be smarter and do it right the next time. That, my friend, is evolution in action.

Friday, October 24, 2008


Some fundamental tenants, followed by discussion and ramifications:

  1. There is no such thing as savings.
  2. Money is not real (although it is a valuable accounting tool).
  3. Prices are set by supply and demand.
  4. Any attempt by people or governments to change any of the above is doomed to failure.

There is no such thing as savings, other than to store food or other supplies in a larder. We all live off of the current productivity of workers. For you to retire, you must convince someone else to work on your behalf (to provide you with food, clean water, sanitation,  energy, health services, everything you need). At the beginning of life, your parents did that. At one time, we would depend upon our children to provide for our old age. Investing in children was investing for retirement. But that time has past.

In today's society, we save for our retirement and therefore depend upon society to care for us. The only way that works is if:

  1. We invest a portion of our current work productivity in infrastructure (capital) so that other, future, workers can be more productive. (In exchange, we expect those future workers to support us in the future via a fraction of their increased productivity.)
  2. A large enough fraction of the population is working in primary production to provide for the non-workers.
  3. The population dynamic is such that the future expected number of retirees is proportional to the future number of primary workers. This does not match reality!

Money is not real. Actually, money can be real, if it consists of coins or other valuable items (gold coins are real, as are gems and many other commonly recognized commodities). Paper money, or a coin whose value is based on a promise, is not real. Unfortunately, governments can print more money or stamp more coins. This dilutes the value of the existing currency, making it proportionally less valuable. Note that the total value of the good and services in the economy remains unchanged - only the number (accounting value) associated with the measurement of the economy increases.

The picture is not really so simple, but it will serve our purposes. The great thing about the concept of money is that it creates an accounting tool that allows us to share productivity, to allow a civilization to work together (some farmers, some miners, some builders, some engineers, etc.) where each of us can achieve greater productivity in a narrow field than any of us could if we each had to provide for all of our needs. Can a farmer build a house or a car? Can an engineer raise cattle and chickens for meat, milk, eggs? Yes, but not as well as a professional. And that, my friends, is the true source of wealth.

Prices are set by supply and demand. This is always true in the long run, although short term variation due to greed, fear, stupidity, and the delays needed to change production will happen. Capitalism works, for the most part, but it is slow to respond to changing markets. If oil prices jump, economic theory says that exploration, production, and distribution will increase supply to match (or exceed) demand. However, it takes years to find new sources of oil, drill the wells, build the distribution networks, the refineries, etc..

The government should have a role in pricing, to ensure fair competition, avoid fraud, and to make certain that the consumer fairly pays all costs associated with a commodity. For example, if a bottle of water is sold to the consumer, the price (manufacturing, distribution, and taxes) should reflect the total life cycle cost of that bottle of water, including the renewability of the water source (no dropping water tables stealing water from the future), and the disposition of the bottle (the cost of disposal or recycling - don't dump our current waste on our children).

Any attempt by people or governments to change any of the above is doomed to failure. History is full of failed attempts to control an economy. Price fixing invariably leads to shortages. Government attempts to define production invariably result in reduced choice and quality, with higher prices. Printing more money causes inflation. And since there is no such thing as savings, it is incredibly stupid to "invest" social security funds in government debt. All such debts must be repaid by taxes on future workers, whether you call them social security taxes or anything else. Who could come up with this concept? Unless the worker's funds are invested in things resulting in future productivity gains (which can include factories, research, infrastructure), this scheme is doomed to failure. Yes, I'm in favor of privatizing social security, just as I'm against the concept of government debt (except in the short term as a balancing mechanism). Unfortunately, it may be too late.

However, in our current economic environment I support government investment in real estate or other businesses (as well as research), because only then can we boost real worker productivity and escape the fragile house of cards we live in.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Threats to our Future

This post contains a list of what I consider to be the most serious threats to the future of humanity, as of today. It should be considered an incomplete and open-ended list; I'm certain that each of us can think of additional threats.

Note that I'm not considering threats to our civilization and/or way of life. There are many more of those. Rather, I want to limit this discussion to threats that can end all human life.

There are four main categories in two dimensions: the first dimension is simply natural disasters or man-made ones. The second dimension is things we can control versus things we can't. There may not be any entries in the list for "man made disasters we can't control", so perhaps we should qualify that as things we can't fix.

1) Natural Disasters we can't control/fix:

  • Nearby supernova or gamma ray burst or passing black hole: Nothing we can do about any of these, so don't worry about them.
  • Super Flare from the Sun: Our sun won't go nova or expand into a red giant for billions of years, but there is a possibility that it could have a major hiccup and blast the Earth with searing heat or sterilizing levels of radiation. Sea life would survive, as would any people lucky enough to be in submarines. It's too bad those tend to be men only; we also need women to save the species. Solution: co-ed submarine crews.
  • Large Igneous Event: These have caused mass extinctions in the past, and might in the future. Not much we can do here, either, as long as we all live on the surface of the Earth.

2) Natural Disasters we can control/fix:

  • Snowball Earth: At least twice in the Earth's history we have had global cooling so extreme that the oceans have completely frozen over, causing the loss of all surface life, and likely the loss of all oxygen. The solution is simple: Global Warming.
  • Comet or Asteroid Impact: There are millions of comets and asteroids large enough to destroy all human life, possibly all life period on the face of the Earth. Some of these will eventually strike the Earth; this is inevitable unless we take active steps to prevent such a catastrophe. We may have years or millennia before the big one hits, but we may not have enough advance notice to do something about it, unless we start building the infrastructure now. We need a very well-funded Space Watch program to find these objects years before they might obliterate us, and given enough advance notice, current technologies are likely to prove sufficient to avert disaster.

3) Man-made disasters we can't control/fix: (these are things that we create, but have no effective control over, and no natural defenses against)

  • Experiments gone wrong: While I'm a firm believer that nothing will go wrong when the LHC begins operation, I can't guarantee that all scientific experiments will have a similar result. If we knew the results in advance, we wouldn't need to perform the experiment now, would we? For example, if someone managed to create a nanometer-diameter black hole and drop it into the Earth, it would eat away at our planet and grow until it consumed the entire planet -- and there's not a damn thing we could do about it, even if we had hundreds or thousands of years before the disastrous end.

4) Man-made disasters we can control/fix.

  • Nanotech gone bad: While it may be remotely possible to create a self-replicating nanite that will reproduce until all possible resources are consumed, burying humanity in 3 feet of gray goo,this is so difficult that I'm not worried about it. We can't create a reasonably self-powered machine that could live off of the environment at present. We cannot build a complex small machine that can self-replicate. Or even a big machine. In any case, this problem is well described, and guidelines exist to insure that any replicating machine will have limits built into it (such as a critical and rare raw material).
  • Strong, malevolent AI (see The (likely coming) Technological Singularity) poses a very real threat, but one which may be difficult to realize, and one that we could choose to avoid by limiting computers to sub-human intelligence. Even if such an AI existed, there is a possibility of negotiation and co-existence so long as its intelligence and capabilities remain within the grasp of human understanding. But once we have made a machine significantly more intelligent than any human, we risk losing control. We will become the pets, to be neutered and/or put down at the convenience of the AI.
  • Biotech Terrorism: To me, this is the thing to worry about. It is completely within the realm of possibilities that a small group, even an individual, could tailor a virus or bacterium to create an airborne disease of unparalleled lethality, one that was immune to our natural defenses, one that could wipe us all out. My friend Jeff Carlson has written an excellent  techno-thriller (Plague Year) about an engineered viral organism that kills nearly all warm-blooded life on Earth, and the most unbelievable part is that it was designed with a weakness that could be exploited such that we might survive. What if those designers had made a mistake and the self-destruct mechanism failed? Or the bug evolved and the mechanism failed due to a minor mutation?

Did you note the traditional really big things that I don't think threaten humanity?

  • Nuclear War (and the threatened Nuclear Winter): Contrary to the hype we've all heard, we do not have enough nuclear weapons to destroy humanity, or even to create a nuclear winter. Many natural disasters release much more energy or release much more pollution. Yes, we do have the capability of destroying civilization as we know it, and even of killing more than 90% of humanity. But some of us will survive, live on, and rebuild civilization. An all-out nuclear war would merely set us back a few thousand years.
  • Global Warming: Warming up the Earth by 5 or 10 degrees would eventually melt the ice caps, raise the oceans by 200+ feet, drown coastal cities, states, even entire nations. It would radically disrupt the ecology, and hundreds or thousands of species would face extinction. The expense of dealing with such a catastrophe greatly exceeds trillions of dollars. But in the big picture, this is an inconvenience, a forced change. Human casualties would be in the noise range, likely fewer than the toll from malaria.
  • Overpopulation: Another serious problem, overpopulation has well-known natural controls: starvation and disease. Once half of everyone is dead, we no longer have a problem. Works for lemmings, too. The species survives. Note that the opposite problem, underpopulation, is much more serious (if it happens), because it is difficult to recover from the loss of genetic diversity. We'll lose some big cats (such as cheetahs) because they have insufficient genetic diversity to survive a nasty disease.

Please, propose your own threat to the future of humanity.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Capturing Apophis

Past blog posts of mine have described many aspects of the expansion of human civilization into space.

Today I'd like to focus on the orbital mechanics of capturing an asteroid, specifically 99942 Apophis (aka 2004 MN4).

Apophis is the near-earth asteroid that made the headlines in 2004 because of it's feared potential impact on Earth on Friday, April 13, 2029. Additional observations revealed that Apophis will miss by a hair (passing closer to earth than our geosynchronous satellites), but its orbit will be changed by that close approach such that there is a small chance of an Earth impact on April 15, 2036.

Apophis is a small asteroid, only about 300 meters in diameter (approximately 1,000 feet). This is too small to create an ELE (Extinction Level Event, to borrow a phrase from the movie Deep Impact), but it could devastate an area the size of Connecticut, or strike the ocean creating tsunamis that would kill millions of people and destroy trillions of dollars worth of property. Note that if we do nothing, Apophis will almost certainly strike the Earth some day, although perhaps not for thousands of years. We must take steps to prevent that catastrophe.

Luckily, one method of preventing a future Earth impact is to place the asteroid into Earth orbit, from which a future Earth impact is impossible. The near-Earth pass will result in a gravitational slingshot, changing its orbit.

As it passes near us in 2029, Apophis will be moving approximately 5 km/s slower than the Earth in its orbit around the sun, dropping in toward the orbit of Venus (and ignoring, for the moment, the additional speed it will gain dropping into our gravity well). If we do nothing, the near-miss will speed up Apophis by a few km/s, turning it from an Aten Asteroid (a near-Earth asteroid whose orbit is primarily inside of the Earth's) into an Apollo Asteroid (one whose orbit is close to the Earth's orbit, at least on average).

My own rough calculations indicate that if we speed up Apophis by a relatively small amount, such that it passes even closer to the Earth, then it will gain even more speed from its slingshot around our planet. A deflection into an orbit nearly co-circular with the Earth's will also speed it up to approximately Earth's orbital speed (a 5 km/s velocity increase is needed--well within the range of possibilities). Apophis only needs to reach closest approach about 500 seconds earlier than on the current orbit, still passing 10,000 kilometers above the Earth's surface.

It will have too much speed (due to the earth's gravity well) and will speed away (and outward), but will return to the vicinity of the Earth with a low enough speed that another slingshot around the moon will drop Apophis into Earth orbit. As a result of these two slingshot maneuvers, Apophis will have an orbit whose apogee is near the moon, and whose perigee (closest approach) can be tuned by small adjustments in its orbit before it performs the Lunar slingshot.

Over time, some additional velocity should be removed (by ion thrusters or other propulsion methods) so that its orbit is entirely within the moon's orbit, or some other permanently stable orbit. We don't want it crashing into the moon, either. Apophis is a far too valuable resource to waste.

I'm confident that the orbital changes needed to capture Apophis are within current technology capabilities, although more detailed analysis is certainly needed. And this is an opportunity that should not be missed: a billion dollar mission to capture Apophis will result in a trillion dollar resource in high-Earth orbit, and avoid a trillion dollar catastrophe at the same time.

Apophis masses perhaps 50,000,000 tons. While the largest percentage is oxygen, approximately 20% is metals (primarily iron). It contains large amounts of magnesium and aluminum, and significant quantities of hydrogen (think millions of tons of water). It contains more than enough silicon to build all of the power satellites we'll ever need.

Who could pass that up? If not NASA and the U.S. government, then perhaps the Chinese, or Dubai. Or even private enterprise; this project is well within the funding capabilities of large corporations or even a few individuals. Perhaps Bill Gates would like to have a private moon around the Earth. Or the Disney corporation (I'm thinking Disneymoon), or Hyatt Hotels (I'd love to stay at the Apophis Hyatt some day).

Any takers?

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The Future of Sex

Yes, there will be sex in the future. You weren't worried about that, were you?

But will technology affect our enjoyment of sex? Will it be like in Demolition Man, where the sex act avoids physical contact and the exchange of body fluids? Or will it be like in (name the movie) where virtual sex is rampant and some people orgasm to death?

Sex toys are one area Moore's Law hasn't affected, but some day that will change in a huge way.

A realistic virtual reality simulation allowing people to experience sex with others (real or imagined) would be worth billions.

While porn would be the early adapter of "feelies", they would change the way all movies are made and presented.

What about virtual sex between virtual people? If our brains are uploaded into computers, I'll bet that someone figures out how to implement virtual sex that is largely indistinguishable from the real thing (at least to the participants).

Or is it truly the same? How will virtual self-representations affect virtual sex? Many people in gaming choose avatars not related to their physical appearance. That might be even more true when it comes to sex play. I'm sure that ED won't be an issue, nor will premature ejaculation. Or size. (Never mind. I was just told that size doesn't matter).

How about sex in space? In space, no one can hear you scream. (No, wrong movie.) In orbit or other zero-gravity environments, sex would be more difficult, a challenge. As I point out in Apophis 2029, while possible, sex in free-fall is awkward and likely tiring. It's still worth the effort, I'm sure, but it is different. Straps, hand-holds, and surfaces to thrust against would be important. Vital, even.

So, yes, I believe there will be sex in the future. Hopefully it will be between between consenting adults, and at least occasionally result in children. After all, if we stop having children (see The Purpose of Life), soon there would be no more sex in our future.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Animals in Space

In the long run, the animals whose populations grow will be those that either prove themselves valuable to humans or that prove hard to eliminate. In a resource-starved highly over-populated Earth, the choice of who survives--human or animal--is likely to be won by the human (ignoring the impact of sub-species such as attorneys).

The animals we take with us as our civilization expands into the cosmos are likely to be numerous. Those limited to a meager existence in zoos and parks can't be viewed as successful, but at least their lives will be in a rather pleasant captivity. Modern zoos are more like a Hyatt Regency than Alcatraz for their occupants.

Humans will likely keep our pets, the dogs and cats that provide us with love and companionship. Cats seem especially suited to a life in zero gravity--I have no problem imaging cats thriving in such an environment. Dogs, to me, seem to need gravity for happiness (running, jumping) but they'll adapt, I'm sure.

The other animals we take with us are those domesticated ones that taste good. We are, after all, omnivorous, and no amount of processing is likely to give an algae cake the taste and texture of a steak. I could be wrong, and there is a huge efficiency drop if we choose to eat animals instead of plants, but it seems that in a wealthy society, we'll find a way to raise cattle for meat and milk, chickens for meat and eggs, pigs for bacon and ham.

Better (more efficient) choices exist for meat animals; goats produce much more milk per pound of food consumed, rabbits much more meat. Chickens are quite efficient as-is. But you can't prepare a prime rib from rabbit. Still, these choices are likely to be early winners, in some cases because they eat different parts of the plant than we humans.

Seafood will likely be available, also. We already raise salmon, catfish, and other seafood in farms. These are likely to do quite well in space, at least as long as we can find and utilize large volumes of water (I like comets). We'll miss many foods from the top of the food chain (such as tuna, swordfish and the like), but varieties of others are likely to be plentiful, possibly even critters such as shrimp and lobster.

My question for today is, how many animals will succeed against our will (such as mice, or pigeons, or ants, or roaches)? Or what others must we bring along because they are a necessary part of the ecology? For example, must we use bees for pollination? Earthworms to churn the soil?

Here's a scary thought: What if there is some pest whose presence is necessary for long-term health, such as the mosquito? Some of them can't reproduce unless they've consumed human blood, but has any human ever reproduced before being bitten by a mosquito?

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Near-future Space Industries

Many people have written about commercial opportunities in space. The big ones are power satellites (beaming zero-carbon-footprint energy to earth), zero-G industrial processes (things that can't be cheaply made in a gravity field, such as foamed steel), and tourism (I'm looking forward to Disneymoon, and that first Hyatt with an out-of-this-world view).

Another significant opportunity exists in communication satellites and research. It is much cheaper to maintain / repair / service satellites from an orbit near them. It's even cheaper to build them there. Send the expensive components to low Earth orbit, assemble them in space, and launch to a higher geo-synchronous orbit using in-space resources (fuel made from asteroids & comets). It is much cheaper. An asteroid-based satellite assembly factory in a thousand-mile-high orbit could easily perform those functions. Another asteroid near geo-synch orbit could perform maintenance functions.

Astronomers take note: such a space-based satellite assembly factory could also build a really huge space telescope by assembling a collage of launchable mirror segments. Imagine the resolving power and light-gathering capabilities of a fifty-meter version of the Hubble Space Telescope. Add the convenience of a nearby maintenance crew that could swap out new instruments for old, replace failing gyroscopes, perform routine repairs. If desired, the maintenance crew could be positioned permanently between the sun and the telescope to shade it from those pesky thermal cycles due to the contrast between the sun's heat and the cold of space.

In the long run, the biggest space industry is likely to be the same as on Earth: people, their entertainment, their housing, their food and water (and air), and information. As mankind expands into the cosmos, there is no need to make money by sending products home to Earth, just as the economy of the USA is not entirely dependent upon sending products back to mother Europe. An expanding population creates its own wealth as there are always opportunities for us to help one another (and make a buck in the process).

In the relatively near term, supporting Earth's needs will be paramount and will fund the expendables and technologies needed to thrive in space. Soon after, mining, housing, and food (recycling) will be the major industries. But after the space population exceeds some critical threshold (I don't know if it is ten thousand, or a million, or even tens of millions), it will become completely self-sustaining. Expanding humanity's presence in space will become the fundamental driving force of the space-based economy. And from then on, there's no looking back.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Future of Religion

Can any topic have more opinions?

Religion seems to be built into us, possibly as a result of the knowledge of our own mortality. It's hard to believe that my consciousness, my mind, is in any way a physical manifestation of my brain and that it could simply stop when I die. Surely, I will go on and survive my physical death.

However, logic tells me that my consciousness is a result of the processes in my brain, and when I die, I'll be dead.

As the average level of freedom increases around the globe, two effects related to religion are apparent:

  1. The percentage of people claiming to be religious is decreasing (likely due to an increased tolerance toward those who don't share our personal beliefs), and
  2. The number of religions seems to be increasing.

In the past, religions were founded by charismatic leaders, who convinced others to follow in their footsteps.

Today, many religions (some of which claim not to be religions) are based upon logic, either as rationalizations of combinations of other religions, or as the result of people with similar beliefs getting together and deciding that "this is the way that makes sense".

We can all hope that someday in the not-too-distant future humanity will be above the petty conceits that have led to past and present religious wars.

But then what?

Like all non-extinct organisms, successful religions have survival tenets. (See The Purpose of Life.) For a (generic) church, long-term survival means reproducing the church, growing the congregation. For some, that means having children and keeping those children in the fold. For others, it means spreading the word. Indeed, many of the most successful religions have the attitude that anyone not believing as I do is surely doomed, thus justifying wars and conquest to convert the non-believers. Sometimes the wars are overt (The Crusades, or a Jihad). Sometimes they are peaceful (Christian missionaries come to mind). However, they all strive to convert non-believers to the "one true religion" of the warrior.

My critique group (while working on my story currently titled Ghost Rights) posed a number of question related to religion. Such as, is it still needed? Ghost Rights deals with the uploading of human brains into computers, resulting in effective immortality. (See Immortal Dilemma.) If this is indeed possible, the big question becomes does effective immortality eliminate the need for religion in our lives?

I personally think not. There will always be those who believe that there must be something better out there, reachable automatically by ending what we have now. There will always be those who don't believe that a human soul can be duplicated into a machine, that God's creation cannot be copied by technology (yes, this ignores the fact that humans are copied biologically every second of every day). And there will always be those who don't believe that the copy in the machine is really me. I'm one of the latter, I'm afraid.

Personally, I believe that the human attraction toward religion is based upon our recognition of mortality, and I don't think that is going away in the next few million years.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Singularity Revisited

I've been lurking & posting on other blogs lately (such as, and the primary topic has been The Technological Singularity, whether or not it might happen, how many singularities have already happened in human history, and whether it will have a positive or negative impact on humanity.

For my basic position and additional references, see my post, The (likely coming) Technological Singularity.

Most of the discourse boils down to:

  1. Can Moore's Law continue and is a resulting technological singularity inevitable?
  2. Will this be a "rapture of the nerds" where humanity (or at least a significant fraction thereof) will participate?
  3. (Not so important) What is the impact of the singularity concept on the literature of science fiction?

The optimists, including Vernor Vinge who first used the term "singularity" in this context, and Ray Kurzweil, firmly believe in computers augmenting human intelligence, memory, and communication, leading to a time of superhuman intelligence with unforeseeable results. Thus, a "singularity".

Even some optimists have qualms: In 1993, Vinge himself said, "Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended."

Much modern science fiction either deals with the "post-human" era--after the singularity--or proposes reasons why the singularity never happened.

The pessimists, including notables such as Bill Joy, fear the singularity. Joy wrote an article for Wired Magazine called Why the future doesn't need us. It is thoughtful, and frightening.

I'm a pessimist; I fear the rise of the machines. I believe that these technological advances are coming. It will be up to us to make sure that our technologies are used to improve humanity, not destroy it.

I also see fundamental problems controlling advanced AI. We have no friggin' idea how to program morality, or ethics, or respect, or love, let alone Asimov's Laws into our computers. We have a hard enough time teaching it to people. Have you ever been robbed, or mugged, or threatened? At least you haven't been murdered, yet.

I see problems with the controlling extreme advances in computer technology. Assume, for the moment, that advanced AI is possible, given expected improvements in computers and possible improvements in software. The person/company/country with superhuman intelligence on his/their side will have an enormous advantage over his/their competitors. Human greed will overwhelm caution, at least part of the time. It will take a huge, powerful, global governmental agency to control the technologies and prevent catastrophe.

In the long run, the most powerful government agency becomes the government.

As humanity (hopefully) expands into the cosmos, I see this one, all-powerful agency being the sole unifying force of humanity. Because it only takes a single malevolent superhuman entity to wipe out us all. And in the long run, the only thing that matters is survival (see The Purpose of Life).

I look forward to humanity's advancement, but I fear our extinction. Once hard AI is possible, fighting it will be a perpetual struggle.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Immortal Dilemma

I've come up with many ideas for my "ghost story" world, in which people can choose to have their brains copied into a computer. In this world, the process of reading a brain involves taking it apart and recording all of the neuron structures, synaptic paths, whatever else impacts how the brain works, and is necessarily destructive. You can't survive the brain dump, so I simply assumed that people would wait until near death to get uploaded into a computer.

After all, the computer program may have my memories, my personality, my attitudes and behaviors, and certainly behaves as though it's me, but I'm still dead, in my opinion. Still, even as a copy, it thinks it's me, and therefore in some sense perhaps it is. Your biological body dies, and your consciousness  wakes up in a simulation.

The quandary is that the brain dump records all aspects of the brain at the time of the dump. Do it too late and it fails. Do it too soon and, well, did I mention that it's an irreversible choice? You're giving up on any additional real life that you may have experienced.

But delaying too long is a potential problem. If you don't get to the hospital in time, you're dead forever. If you have a stroke and some part of your brain dies, the upload will have the same flaws. You can't get back to a healthy brain and memory. Likewise with dementia. Once those memories are lost, they may be lost forever.

And forever is a long time if you're immortal.

So when is the right time to leave your mortal body?

  1. Never?
  2. In the hospital as they declare you dead?
  3. When you're ready to retire?
  4. When you seriously start thinking about your mortality?
  5. When your kids have left the nest and you're at the top of your career?
  6. As soon as you can afford the (presumably expensive) procedure?
  7. Or when you're at your peak of creativity, which might be at 25 or so?

Remember, your immortal self is captured at the moment of the brain dump. You can still learn, but you can't easily recapture lost capabilities or memories.

Also, should the time you choose to upload vary with your present (or post-death) career? If you can do your job in front of the computer, not having a body shouldn't slow you down. Lawyers, consultants, webmasters, writers, management, stock broker, and a thousand other jobs can be done by the dead. Possibly even better than by the living.

Time to think and vote.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Speed of Life

I've written a story about a future in which our minds (memories, personality, consciousness) are uploaded into computers when we approach death. (Not before: the readout process is destructive and you would not survive).

Personally, I think that understanding the brain is not going to happen, but that doesn't keep us from simulating it, from creating a large and powerful neural network sufficient to model every aspect of the human brain. We don't need to understand how the brain "thinks" any better than we do now; we simply need to provide the inputs, outputs, and a sufficiently large, fast, impressionable (teachable) model. This is largely how computer neural networks work today, but on a trivially small scale.

One common perception is that the resulting computer would be placed into a (potentially humanoid) robot, so that the person would continue to function much as in biological life, but now mechanical/electronic. Personally, I don't think this is likely. For the near future, robots are difficult to implement. Energy storage, strength, speed, dexterity are all issues that we have evolved to handle well and that are extremely difficult to implement using the motors and actuators that we can build.

There is another problem: why should the electronic implementation of the mind be limited to occupying a physically present (robotic) body? Virtual reality simulations of an environment would offer much greater freedom, including virtual travel, conventions, sex, whatever. Note that a physical body is necessarily limited to responding to its environment by the needs of physical response times. Virtual reality has no such restriction.

One of the interesting aspects of this approach is the speed of life: how rapidly does the person in the computer experience the reality of the world? I'm pretty certain that when Moore's Law makes the next generation of computers run twice as fast and that means the person in the computer experiences reality twice as fast, not that they become twice as smart.

I see potential problems of the difference in speed when it comes to communicating with (slow) humans, or older generations of uploaded personalities, problems which will get worse as technology improves. Do you like to spend time with really slow people? It becomes frustratingly difficult to engage in meaningful dialog, on both sides. Note that I do not anticipate "improving" consciousness; you would not be able to carry on a half-dozen simultaneous conversations any more than you can today. We would find ourselves using buffered communication channels, such as email or voice mail.

Back to the robot issue: a very fast implementation of a human mind in a human sized real-world responding robot would be awkward at best, maddeningly boring at worst. I'd rather experience the virtual world at a normal (to my greatly sped-up mind) speed--blindingly faster than you slow biological humans.

The reality of minds in many different speeds of computers might lead to a caste system. It might also lead to a world where the young and fast have huge performance advantages over the old and slow, with serious implications for jobs. I guess we'll have to pay for continuous upgrades, or fall behind. Great story ideas; I've already written one and outlined two others.

But wetware (or breeders, or humans--whatever you want to call us) will always run as slow as we do today. Our "speed of life" is built into us by our biology and environment.

Human perception speed is not the only possible speed. Other animals may perceive the world much differently than we do. Have you ever watched a hummingbird eat or fight? Their motions and reaction times are incredibly fast. They think we are slow. Likewise, a tortoise may perceive us as fast. A tree views a tortoise as imperceptibly fast.

What about alien biologies? Aliens could be around us now, but running at such a faster (or slower) speed that we don't perceive them as existing, let alone as intelligent. Larry Niven wrote The Slow Ones. Robert L. Forward wrote Dragons Egg about the inhabitants of the surface of a neutron star who experience life incredibly faster than humans.

Is it possible that our forests are intelligent creatures with trees the equivalent of neurons and fungi are neural transmitters? Such intelligences would experience thoughts many orders of magnitude slower than us; I doubt we'd ever recognize them.

I would argue that a human brain cell is alive but not intelligent. Would an intelligent species of bacteria recognize that a human was intelligent? I think not; the scale and speed of life is too different.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Fermi Paradox: Where are they?

Any discussions of the size of the universe will lead to the Fermi Paradox: given the enormous numbers of stars and the billions of years of existence of the universe, it seems obvious that life must have evolved zillions of times, and advanced space-faring civilizations can't be too uncommon. So where are they?

Consider our own Milky Way galaxy, with roughly a trillion stars. If only one out of a thousand stars has planets that develop life as we know it (as happened to the Earth quite early, some 4 billion years ago), and only one out of a thousand of those managed to develop complex life (as began on Earth about 500 million years ago), and only one out of a thousand of those developed intelligent life with a technological civilization, then there should still be a thousand such civilizations in the Milky Way. Where are they?

Also note that our sun is relatively young at 4.6 billion years. The oldest stars in the Milky Way are some 13 billion years old. Time for a little digression.

Man is an aggressive species. That may well be the case for all technological civilizations, as the humble are likely to huddle and die instead of expand and thrive. If we assume that mankind successfully moves into space (such as our own asteroid belt and cometary halo--see Our homes, the Comets), it is likely--nay, inevitable--that mankind will slowly advance into the cosmos in spite of the speed of light. It may take hundreds of years for a self-sufficient mobile comet to travel from our sun's environment to another star, but there they will find more comets. Room to grow, resources to thrive.

If we assume that only one interstellar colony is founded every hundred years by the inhabitants of Sol's Oort cloud, and then after a hiatus of a thousand years, each of the new star systems begins it own replication, slowly, one colony every hundred years, then humanity will still sweep over the entire galaxy, occupying the cometary halos of all of the stars in the Milky Way in only five or ten million years.

This is a tiny span of time in geologic terms, and a blink of the eye in the life of the universe. How could it not have happened, thousands of times already? That is the essence of the Fermi Paradox.

We see zero evidence of other life, let alone technological civilizations, present or past. The SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) project has searched the skies since 1960 with zero tangible results. We have found zero evidence that alien intelligences have visited the Earth in the past, and of course no evidence that they are here now.

Are there alternative explanations? Of course. Perhaps they wish to stay hidden (a non-interference doctrine). Perhaps their technology is so advanced that we can't recognize it, or simply works in a way we aren't looking for. Perhaps the scale of their lifespeed or technology is such that we can't recognize it (nanobots, or perhaps they only appear for a millisecond every millenia). Perhaps they are from an ocean world and we should be looking miles beneath the surface where they maintain a lab. Water worlds should be much more common than Earth-like worlds--see Earthlike Planets.

And perhaps they are computers, not terribly interested in mere, slow, organic life, and their presence will be obvious once we speed up our perceptions and intelligence by a few orders of magnitude.

In some ways, the alternatives are frightening. The odds of us being the first technological civilization in the galaxy seem remote. That leaves the likelihood that life is precious and rare, or that the universe is a very dangerous place and we will soon succumb to the odds. Supernova, gamma-ray bursters, enormous black holes in every galaxy spewing deadly torrents of radiation, supervolcanoes, solar flares, not to mention planet-busting asteriods, all pose threats to civilization and life itself.

Or still worse, there is a chance that intelligence is the opposite of a survival characteristic. Perhaps we are dooming ourselves by squandering our resources, changing the ecology of the planet, or will effect the same result by blowing ourselves up. Perhaps every time intelligence appears, some idiot invents a super-bug which destroys all life, or creates advanced computers which eliminate all competing intelligent life. Or perhaps there is some simple experiment that every intelligent species eventually tries that destroys their home planet.

It may only be a matter of time.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Humanity's Prison: The Speed of Light

Did you read my blog post Humanity versus the Universe? The universe is huge. Unbelievably huge. And we can't visit, humanity is stuck near hear for the foreseeable future.

The biggest problem appears to be God, who has decreed, "Thou shalt not exceed the speed of light." Maybe she has a good reason, like keeping us from messing up the rest of her universe, but I'm still frustrated.

Ignoring problems of energy and conservation of momentum for the moment (see Inventions: Likely, Possible, and Damn!), interstellar travel simply takes too much time. Even local travel is slow. Assuming a 1-gravity acceleration, our own Oort cloud takes a year or more to reach. With today's technology, the Oort cloud is decades or centuries away. Other stars? The closest is a five-year journey even with our near-magical 1-G space drive. There are two-dozen stars within a dozen light-years, and five-dozen within about 16 light-years. Real travel times will be roughly the distance in years plus one.

One convenient factoid: one gravity of acceleration is approximately one light-year per year per year, and thanks to time dilation the perceived travel times roughly follow non-relativistic rules (as long as we don't care to return to home). A year of 1-G acceleration gets you close to the speed of light, and a second year gets you a little closer to c, but time passes that much slower (equivalently, the distance to your destination appears to shrink). So we can, in principle, travel considerable distances in the span of a human lifetime. Hundreds of light-years.

But even our Milky Way galaxy is large, roughly 100,000 light-years across, 30,000 LY to the core.

If we want to visit another galaxy, it gets worse. Andromeda (our nearest large neighbor and the furthest naked-eye object in the sky) is fully 2 million LY away.

It is difficult to imagine a civilization spanning travel times of years or decades, let alone millennia. I can imagine humanity spreading across the galaxy, perhaps eventually heading for other galaxies in our Local Group, millions of years hence. And that will lead to another post, on the Fermi Paradox. But there's another problem.

Let me correct my comment about humanity spreading to the stars: I see no way for humanity to do that, because it will be our descendants, who are not likely to think of themselves as human. The time frames and distances are so vast that interbreeding is completely impossible: we will have evolved into many species, all alien to each other, likely with less in common than homo sapiens has with Neanderthal.

So our remote, non-homo-sapiens descendants will inherit the universe. I hope. I'm still afraid that our computers will own the future, leaving us behind (see The Technological Singularity).

So here's hoping that God is just hiding the keys to the universe until we learn to behave well, to not soil our home, and to get along with others. Then once we've proven ourselves, she'll let us learn about practical wormholes, or warp drives, or hyperspace travel. While she's at it, perhaps we'll learn the secrets to gravity control, cheap, unlimited energy, and ways around those pesky problems of conservation of energy and momentum.

At least as a science fiction writer I can make all those problems vanish with a wave of my literary wand. Poof!

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Humanity versus the Universe

Have I mentioned that one of my hobbies is cosmology? I enjoy pondering the ultimate big picture: how big is the universe, how did it start, how will it end, and why is it like it is?

For today's post, I thought I'd describe just how big the universe appears to be. It is likely very much larger than the Observable universe, that part close enough to us that the evidence of it is visible. Another way of saying that is, how far back in time can we see? The age of the universe is currently estimated at 13.7 billion years, so we can, in principle, see light emitted 13.7 billion years ago in all directions. However, that light came from matter moving away from us, so scientists estimate that the current size of the observable universe is about 46 billion light-years in all directions.

But that is just the physical size of the portion we can, in principle, see. And it is by far empty space. The galaxies and stars are the visible part.

A better question is how many stars are in the observable universe? After all, stars are what we see in the night sky, stars (or rather the solar systems around them) are where life must evolve, and stars are likely where humanity will always congregate.

I have two ways of describing the size of the visible universe (the number of stars) in terms that some of us might comprehend.

THE HAND METHOD: Go to the beach, and pick up a handful of sand. Choose an average size grain. Imagine that our entire solar system is represented by that single grain of sand.  How many grains of sand does it take to be equivalent to a Universe full of solar systems? A bucket full? A cubic yard? A dump truck full?

The actual answer is astounding. Take all of the sand in places like Daytona Beach and Waikiki, larger places like Florida and the deserts of California, Nevada and Arizona, and throw in the really big deserts like the Sahara. Australian, Arabian, and Gobi, all of them combined. Then add the rest of it, the off shore sand of buried beaches.  If our sun is a single grain of sand, then the universe is equivalent to all of the sand on the entire planet Earth

THE EYEBALL METHOD: My screen background is the Hubble Ultra Deep Field image, where nearly every visible spec is yet another galaxy. Look at the image, which reveals about 10,000 galaxies, each much like our own Milky Way.

How big of a piece of the sky is in that Hubble image? Take a dime out of your pocket or purse. Hold it at arms length. No, that's too big. You see where it says "IN GOD WE TRUST" under President Roosevelt's chin?  Take a tiny drill, and drill out the center of the "O" in "GOD". Now hold the dime at arm's length, and look through that hole.

The Hubble Space Telescope sees 10,000 galaxies through that hole. 

If your arms are much longer than average, you might have to drill out the entire "O" instead of just the center. And remember, most galaxies are a bit smaller than the Milky Way which contains about a trillion suns (a heaping cubic yard of sand in the earlier example). But a hundred billion stars in an average galaxy, times 10,000 galaxies in that tiny fraction of the sky works out to a hell of a lot of stars.

Are you feeling a bit insignificant yet?

Monday, July 7, 2008

More on Moore's Law

Thanks to an article called "Intel's Gelsinger Sees Clear Path To 10nm Chips", I revisited my post, Moore's Wall.

The article (and comments) said that Intel's current state-of-the-art 45nm process will be followed by a 32nm process starting next year, then 22nm in 2011, 16nm in 2013, and around 11nm in 2015. A couple of years after that, Intel will be sub-10nm.

(Serious technology geeks should read THE INTERNATIONAL TECHNOLOGY ROADMAP FOR SEMICONDUCTORS: 2007. The list of Grand Challenges needed to maintain the pace of Moore's Law is impressive. Of necessity, the report was obsolete by the time it was published.)

I'd like to add my own two cents worth.

There are some serious fundamental limits to the increased reduction in component size. For example, the capacitor that stores charge in a DRAM memory cell contains only about 70 electrons (this statistic may now be obsolete--it was accurate at one time). Fractional electrons are not available, and some significant number of electrons is required for reliability (you refresh a DRAM cell before it loses too many electrons (to leakage) to be certain of its state). Also, some implementations record multiple bits per capacitor (4 levels stores 2 bits, 8 levels stores 3 bits, etc.), placing stricter limits on accuracy.

Another serious limitation is that as the components shrink, a single hit by ionizing radiation (whether gamma, alpha, proton, or beta) can completely overwhelm the state. These occur naturally from trace radioactive components in the substrate, packaging, and environment. Today, we use Error Correcting Codes to allow for and correct these natural transitional errors, at the cost of requiring an ever-increasing share of our memory to be used as redundant ECC memory. You don't even notice that a hard drive contains a significant percentage of redundant information, allowing the reliable recovery of data from a medium guaranteed to have defects.

This last problem has an interesting solution. Error correcting codes provide some number of additional bits to identify the errors and produce an accurate result. Some day, I predict that the logic circuitry itself will also incorporate ECC. This means that a simple "adder", a logic array that adds two integers together, will no longer have just the logic needed to perform the addition, but a significant amount of additional logic to perform a simultaneous ECC for the entire operation. A complex ECC logic could perform more reliably than even triplicated logic, with less redundancy.

Your cell phone today uses an impressive degree of ECC (called something else) to extract a reliable signal from an extremely noisy environment which includes many other transmitters all vying for the same pieces of the electromagnetic spectrum. The ECC technology is sufficiently advanced that a signal can reliably extracted even when the noise level exceeds the signal level.

Some day, the logic circuits that operate your computers may have a similar design: while no one component is reliable from one microsecond to the next, the net effect of the system as a whole will still be an incredibly dependable result. Worded another way, the memory cell or logic gate that today is reliably on or off, may tomorrow be "well, it's sometimes right, at least 25% of the time" and a network of related and redundant ECC logic will save the day.

Puts a whole new meaning to the term "fuzzy logic".

Friday, July 4, 2008


Many people have written much on the topic of terraforming (changing a world to be more suitable for human life, more like Terra.) While early discussions focused on Venus or Mars, planets around other suns have been considered, as well as the large moons of Jupiter and Saturn.

Terraforming a planet is likely to require centuries or millennia at best, making it an unlikely venture. But in principle, the cost might be low (largely seeding with a mix of bacteria, algae, and eventually the rest of a viable ecosystem). It might happen, at least if the ethics of modifying another place to our liking is ignored.

What do you get if you successfully terraform a planet? You get a whole new world to explore and exploit, a new home for millions or billions of people. The downside is that it's at the bottom of a gravity well, which presently is a very expensive place to go to. Or rather, to get back from. It's easy to go to the bottom of a gravity well, of course.

Personally, I think it is easier, cheaper, and ultimately much more profitable to "terraform" asteroids and comets by hollowing them out and spinning them for gravity. You end up with much more room for people, plus a lot more resources for development. And these worlds are easy to visit.

Note that we are already busily terraforming our own planet Earth, or un-terraforming it, depending upon who you listen to.

Most would agree that we are in the middle of a process that can potentially change the surface and ecology of the entire planet. It is an experiment, and not a scientifically sound one (there is no control). It is driven by short term economics (of which population growth is an aspect), and fueled by the massive burning of coal, oil, natural gas, and (even more unfortunately) forests. Additional questionable experiments include the destruction of fisheries (and the unintentional but ongoing and significant evolution of fish stocks to make themselves less desirable to humans as a way to survive).

I will argue that this terraforming practice, while in most ways unfortunate and misguided, is still a valuable learning experience. Because someday, we will need to terraform our home planet in earnest. A new ice age is nothing to laugh about, it is serious business. Some day, we will have to warm up the planet to survive.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Global Warming

I just read a very interesting article by Orson Scott Card (Obama's Real Religion) which includes a series of quotes from an article by Freeman Dyson, a man I much admire and respect. That article, a book review on the The Question of Global Warming included warnings about the Religion of Environmentalism.

Read the first article, unless you are an impassioned Obama supporter, in which case read the second which is not so concise but doesn't mention Obama. You'll be more likely to believe it.

Let me assume for the moment that Global Warming is real, and that humanity is the immediate cause. What should we do, if anything, and why?

Some people fear that the ice caps will melt, raising sea level some 200 feet. That would be disastrous for those living in low areas, including the State of Florida where I reside. However, the warming would also allow farming of areas currently under glaciers such as Antarctica and Greenland, plus the vast (currently frozen) tundra of Canada and Siberia. You lose one, and gain the other. In the big picture, it's not much different.

Some people fear that the warming will reduce rainfall, causing the loss of productive farmland in America's heartland. Possibly true, but warming will (on average) increase rainfall by raising vaporization rates. I am confident that weather patterns will change, and that some areas will gain while others lose. Note that the great deserts of northern Africa were once thriving forests. Humanity probably had nothing to do with that, it's merely a symptom of ongoing climate variability.

Some people fear that global warming will cause the inevitable loss of existing ecosystems and biological diversity. Also true, but change is not only inevitable, it is often necessary. Note that a beach is a symptom of ongoing change, the constant shifting of sand. If you eliminate beach erosion world-wide, you eliminate beaches. The whole concept of evolution is based upon the fact of change, since without change ecosystems rapidly become static and no improvements occur. We owe our very existence to change. Sorry, dinosaurs, but I'm glad you went extinct and made room for me.

Some people thing the world will get too hot and people and ecosystems will suffer and die out. Huh? Read the scientific literature, people! Start with Ice Ages. The world is in the midst of a major ice age that has lasted 30 million years. We happen to be in an interglacial period, one of those relatively brief interludes between frozen eras. Our current climate is not nearly as warm as during most interglacials, and we weren't around for any of the other ones. Look at the big picture: over the past two hundred million years, the world has averaged much warmer than at present. There were no ice caps during the reign of the dinosaurs. They thrived, at least until that asteroid strike. I do agree that change will be expensive and inconvenient. But the world won't be unfit for humanity if it warms up by 5 or 10 degrees.

Speaking of ice caps: I will argue that Global Warming is very much preferable to the opposite, the return of the Ice Age. It is very difficult to do farming under a mile or two of glacial ice. Yes, the sea level will drop, exposing millions of square miles of potential farmland (with a serious salt problem, but that is solvable). But if the world cools off too much, a "Snowball Earth" might result, and that, my friend, would be truly disastrous.

Don't get me wrong: I am not a proponent of rampant coal and oil consumption. I firmly believe in low-impact energy sources, and while nuclear power is high on my list of good things, I'm also in favor of solar, wind, and geothermal energy. I don't think we should squander the world's petroleum resources by burning it. Oil is a valuable commodity for plastics, fertilizers, and chemicals in general.

I believe in electric cars. Not just hybrids, but all-electric. If I win the lottery, first thing I'll do is buy a Tesla Roadster. A great, green, vehicle. I believe in recycling; we should not simply consume and discard, it's fundamentally wasteful. And while I don't believe that people should lower their impact on the world (and I firmly place the needs of humanity well above the needs of the spotted salamander, or polar bears, or tsetse fly -> let DDT spray), I do believe that we should all strive to make the world a better place for our descendants. Don't take from the future.

But that gets me back to my primary Global Warming Point: the greatest danger to the future of humanity on Earth is not a 5 or 10 degree rise in temperature, rather it is a 5 or 10 degree drop in temperature. I fear the return of the ice age, which is likely inevitable unless humanity takes steps to keep our planet warm.


Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Purpose of Life

Since that first (likely RNA) molecule managed the astounding feat of self-replication, every bit of life on earth has had the same overriding long-term goal: survive long enough to reproduce.

In the long run, nothing else matters.

If you don't reproduce, your genes, your pattern, your contributions to the future are all dead, gone, irrelevant, extinct.

Remember Eve, that lone woman from 140,000 BC who's mitochondrial DNA is in every living human? She reproduced successfully, and no other human female from that time did.

Scientists have similarly traced the ancestry of the Y chromosome such that statistically all living human males are descendants of at most a dozen or so men from perhaps 50,000 years ago, or possibly a Y-chromosomal Adam from about 60,000 years ago.

Note that there were many human females--Eve was not alone. She simply is the only one with living descendants. And it was likely not her mitochondrial DNA that conferred some advantage over the others, but rather some gene she carried that protected her against some disease, or allowed her to coexist with some parasite, or perhaps simply made her want to have (or capable of having) more children.

Statistically, your genes must reproduce at least as well as average, and probably better than average, in order for them to stick around for the long term. Note that a continuing 1% reproductive advantage is enough to dominate the overall population in about 70 generations (assuming an unlikely  uniform distribution), and to overwhelm 90% of competitive genes in approximately 230 generations (a little over 5,000 years).

Have you noticed that all religions that have remained successful over the long term support the concept of "go forth and multiply?" And that those religions that frown on sex, especially those that promote abstention, rapidly go the way of the dinosaurs?

So, to be a part of humanity's future, you must reproduce.

If you think your genes would improve the human race, you must reproduce. If you are more intelligent than average, you must reproduce. If you are healthier than average, you must reproduce. If your family tends to live long and active lives, you must reproduce. If you are an optimist and believe in the future, please reproduce. If you have less susceptibility to cancer, or heart disease, or Alzheimer's, or any of a myriad other maladies that we succumb to, please reproduce. We need all the good genes we can carry.

Note that this is NOT a call for only "perfect" humans to reproduce. Rather, we need a highly diverse gene pool to improve our ability to survive future threats. And perhaps you have a below average IQ, a family history of heart disease, and you tend to be overweight. But you love children and your family, and are driven to work hard to make the world a better place for our descendants. Please reproduce!

If you think that your genes would make a below average contribution to the future of the human race, then at least seek out a spouse with superior characteristics. It's the combination that counts. We need more good genes, not just the few best genes.

The bottom line: consider your genetic contribution to the future of humanity, and if the balance is positive, you must reproduce. It's your duty to the future.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The End of Theory

Thanks to a post on the KurzweilAI blog, I read this Wired story:

The highly thought-provoking article describes some uses of high-volume data mining, and makes some extremely valuable points. It uses the obvious success of Google as a case in point: they exploit the links in the WWW as a value measure, and consequently provide a greatly improved search engine compared to the old ways. Note that Google does not seek or care to evaluate the links themselves, the pages they point to, or what they mean, only that the existence of links and their patterns at a large enough scale reflect the utility of pages.

This concept can be expanded in a myriad ways. For example, put cameras in stores (grocery, shoe, clothing, it doesn't matter). Note the correlations between shoppers pausing at a shelf or display, and putting items in a cart. Given enough data, you don't care about the identity of the shopper or whether they actually purchased the items or not. You can still infer information such as sizes, styles, and tastes from their shopping patterns, and then modify advertisements (and/or sale coupons) based upon what they are likely to buy or what competing products may be selected.

Voice recognition and language translation are already succumbing to similar attacks: you don't need to understand how speech works (or how a language is structured) to solve those problems: you simply need massive amounts of applicable data and a large (and fast) enough neural network.

Will similar techniques (given cameras in public places including stores and banks) allow a thief to be identified before he/she acts simply based upon their behavior? I think so. I also hope they don't mistakenly think I might be a thief.

I'll bet that someone is already making millions in the stock and commodities market by analyzing billions of trades, without bothering or needing to understand who bought what. It's only the pattern that counts.

What are the implications for behavioral influence? Can people be effectively controlled by feeding us the inputs that statistically result in targeted behaviors? And not just on average, but by relating to the individuals past response patterns?

And you were worried about the loss of privacy!

Monday, June 23, 2008

In God's Image

The real question is, image of what? The human body has far too many physical shortcomings to be in the image of anything remotely perfect.

It can't be our bodies. Our feet and backs are so flawed that most of us experience related pain much of our lives. Our hearts fail, we succumb to cancer, stroke, dementia. Our bodies are attacked by microbes and viruses, and sometimes lose the battle. We lose our hearing and eyesight as we age. We are full of parts with no use, from appendixes to little toes to nipples on men. As men age, we lose the hair on our heads but start growing it profusely from ears, nostrils, and God knows where else. Why? How can any part of this be viewed as heavenly perfection?

We can wave a mystical wand and claim that our souls are images of God's soul (assuming it is meaningful to claim that he/she has one). But no one can point to something and say "that is my soul", so this is a non-answer.

How about the brain? Or more specifically, the mind? I'm thinking that perhaps "God's mind" works in the same way as ours. Our brains have billions of connections that encode our memories, behaviors, and consciousness. The individual connections of neurons to one another (synapses) may use a "memristor" approach for programming and memory, while the network of neurons supplies structure and functional organization. We call this a "neural network" when creating Artificial Intelligence applications.

A neural network is a very useful way of programming complex behaviors. You take a large number of inputs, and typically a large number of potential outputs (goals). You may even start with a random network of interconnections including feedback paths. For a thousand inputs and a thousand outputs, you'll have on the order of a million interconnections. Then apply a pattern of inputs and adjust the weightings of the interconnections to strengthen the desired responses and weaken the undesired ones, and repeat. The process is called teaching. The result can seem uncannily accurate, given enough inputs and training sets. However, note that we do not understand the logic path used to generate the correct results--it just happens. Sort of like intuition.

I suspect that when Advanced Artificial Intelligence systems are created--when machines gain the equivalent of consciousness--they will have CPU's and memories that are functionally equivalent to huge neural networks, just like our own brains.

And those machines, too, will someday claim that they were built in God's Image.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Inventions: Likely, Possible, and Damn!

This is a discussion of things yet-to-be-invented.

Likely Inventions:

  1. Cheap Fusion energy: incredibly valuable, and currently just over the horizon (as it's been for decades, now).
  2. Room Temperature Superconductors: also incredibly valuable and may be just over-the-horizon. Would enable cheaper electric distribution, dense energy storage, smaller & more powerful motors, faster/cooler semiconductors.
  3. Artificial Diamond as a building material: This would be incredibly useful. Diamond is the hardest & most durable material, has the highest tensile and compressive strength, is the most transparent, and has the highest thermal conductivity of any solid. See Diamond (Carbon).

Possible Inventions:

  1. Stasis Fields: Nothing in physics prohibits a region from having a slowed (possibly stopped) passage of time. See Larry Niven's Known Space stories, or Vernor Vinge's The Peace War and Marooned In Realtime. I'd love it if a restaurant chef's freshly prepared dinner could be opened at any time in perfect condition, ready to eat. Or if an accident victim could be bobbled for transport to the hospital.
  2. Direct human-computer Interface: The ultimate I/O device would be high performance direct interface to the mind, useful for augmenting memory or senses, useful for controlling complex things, invaluable for virtual reality. Possible in principle, but I have my doubts due to the volume of needed I/O points and the complexity of the brain.
  3. Affordable Robotic Artificial Intelligence: A humanoid robot with sufficient intelligence to perform most simple human tasks such as housekeeping, organization, and building things. In principle, this could make the people of the world very rich. Problem: see Robots and Slavery.

Damn, I wish that was possible:

  1. Faster-than-light travel: God said, "Thou shalt not exceed the speed of light." The universe is far too big unless we can find a hole in this one. Of course, it has to be cheap enough to be useful, just like in a million or so SF stories.
  2. Cheap, Fast Space Travel: We really need this, because without it, planetary surfaces are simply too expensive to frequent, and interplanetary travel takes a very long time. Even at a constant 1G, travel times to and from our own Oort cloud are of the order of a year. Don't even think about interstellar travel. There's a corollary: Artificial Gravity. Whether we need high accelerations or simply a convenient place to stand (see a zillion SF movies), we'll need gravity control. Doesn't look reasonable to me, however. Another corollary: Reactionless Drives. Without a non-polluting way of generating very high thrusts, most planet based civilizations are not likely to welcome a spaceship in every garage. But God seems to be stuck on this conservation of momentum principle. Even in space, a lot of mass gets thrown away accelerating from here to there. Very wasteful. Lots of luck on this one.
  3. Time Travel: Sorry, folks, but traveling back in time just ain't gonna happen. Larry Niven said it best: "If the universe of discourse permits the possibility of time travel and of changing the past, then no time machine will be invented in that universe." It's simple cause and effect. If you can travel back and change the past, the present is unstable. The only stable reality is one where traveling back in time never happens. Sorry, Terminator.

So, what inventions to YOU want? Or know can't possibly happen?

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Earthlike Planets

One of my pet peeves about most science fiction movies, TV series, and books is the prevalence of very Earth-like planets. It seems that every Sol-type star has at least one. It is obviously easier and much cheaper to film movies and TV series on Earth without using special effects, which might also explain the overwhelming prevalence of bipedal humanoid aliens. But science fiction books have no such artificial constraints. So why do so many SF writers ignore reality?

We live on an incredibly unusual planet. Let's take a look at our nearest neighbors.

Mars is 53% as wide as the Earth, has 28% of the area, 15% of the volume, and barely 10% of the mass. The length of its day is very close to ours, at 24.6 hours. Gravity is 0.367 G. It is less dense than the Earth, likely due to a smaller iron core. Mars has less than 1% of our atmospheric pressure, and what air there is consists of 95% CO2. Mars is frozen and dry; CO2 freezes out at the poles.

Venus is very much a terrestrial planet in size. It's radius is 95% of the Earth's, area 90%, volume 86%, and mass 81.5%. Gravity is 90% of a G (still different enough to be noticeable while walking, running, jumping). However, its day is 243 of our days long. It has 93 times as much atmospheric pressure, composed of 96% CO2. While Venus's atmosphere is only 3.5% nitrogen, that is still 4 times as much nitrogen by weight as in Earth's atmosphere. All that CO2 has created a runaway greenhouse effect that heats the surface to a higher temperature than Mercury--metals like lead or zinc would melt. The high temperatures have boiled away any trace of water, leaving a dry world with sulfuric acid clouds.

Why is the Earth so different? It is larger, and likely had even more atmosphere to start than Venus. Current models suggest that a Mars-size planetoid struck a glancing blow which created our moon and simultaneously blasted away all of the early atmosphere and melted the crust and upper mantle. All "air" since then is from secondary outgassing and the occasional comet impact. All that melting had a second effect: we have an active plate tectonic system that continuously churns out new crust and buries old. Our CO2 was absorbed by the ocean, precipitated as carbonates such as limestone, and buried. The bulk of the Earth's CO2 is tied up as calcium carbonate. Note that the early nearby large moon also stripped excess air. Consequently, the Earth has a tiny fraction of the atmosphere that we deserve, based upon our size. Thank God.

What fraction of worlds will follow a similar path? Will have that large moon? Remember, no other known planet has a moon as large in comparison. I'm guessing much less than one in a thousand.

Most worlds will be smaller or larger, with similar differences in gravity. Even if some principle leads to roughly Earth-sized rocky planets, they are bound to vary in size by an order of magnitude.

Most worlds will be warmer or cooler. This involves a complex interplay of atmosphere, size, rotation, period, solar flux, etc. Note that the Earth itself has experienced extremes of much higher average temperatures. Even the poles had tropical climates during parts of the reign of the dinosaurs.  There has also been snowball Earth conditions where the entire surface was frozen.

Most worlds will have much more or much less air. The odds that the surface pressure of another world would be 15 psi seems incredibly remote. Shouldn't there always be a puff of air from pressure differences when a transfer booth pops you out on the surface of another planet?

Why 20% oxygen? Even the Earth has varied somewhat, from a low of zero to a high of around 35%.

Why so little CO2? Venus has 600 times what we have. Hell of a greenhouse effect. Or, why do those other worlds NOT have active plate tectonics?

The sun is 25% brighter than it was early in Earth's history. Shouldn't the typical planet be noticeably brighter or darker than Earth? Yet all SF creatures seem to share our visible spectrum and tolerances for brightness (excluding horror movies and CSI TV shows where darkness is a given).

The oceans hold most of our water, covering 70% of the surface. The other worlds we know of (including large moons of Jupiter and Saturn) either have no water, or water (and/or ice) scores to hundreds of kilometers deep. Plate tectonics continuously rebuilds mountains. Without it erosion would grind down all land on Earth, washing it into the seas. Note that erosion will make Earth into a 100% water world eventually, when the mantle solidifies. We have enough water for a global ocean over 2.5 kilometers deep as it is.

Water worlds may be common; life may be common. Civilized intelligent creatures may be common (mostly living on water worlds). Technological civilizations should be extremely rare. It takes enough water for life to thrive, and little enough for land to poke through. It may be nearly impossible to create a technological civilization on a world without dry land. Note that there is no reason, in principle, that a large high-gravity water world could not support life. I suspect that's where we'll find most of it.

The only think likely to be rare (possibly even unique in our Galaxy) is a world with 1.0 Earth gravity, 15psi of surface pressure with 3psi being oxygen, 12psi of nitrogen and just traces of CO2 and H2O, with a crust 70% covered with oceans under partly cloudy blue skies and an average temperature a bit above freezing, with 24 hour days and an Earth-normal brightness. And lets not forget, with 6 foot tall bipedal humanoids with most sensory and communication organs resting precariously (along with a brain) on a protrusion above the torso. How rare is that on earth?

Don't get me started on interspecies sex.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Next Steps in Colonizing the Solar System

1) Privatize Space.

  • Allow individuals, corporations, churches and other organizations to profit from their investments.
  • Allow ownership of captured or permanently occupied celestial bodies in some manner that explicitly includes ownership with rights to exploitation of smaller comets and asteroids. Larger bodies (such as Mars, our moon, Ceres, etc.) should have fractional ownership.

2) Capture asteroids into accessible Earth orbits.

  • There are nearly one thousand known asteroids that are easier to rendezvous with than our own moon (in terms of Delta-V).
  • Some of these can be captured into Earth orbit using existing technologies (thanks to fortuitous close approaches to the Earth or other planets).
  • Note that an asteroid in a nice, high, stable orbit is no longer able to impact the Earth. We solve a problem and gain a resource.

3) Solve the problems of Living in Space.

  • Radiation and meteor hazards are effectively solved by living beneath twenty feet of rock or thirty feet of ice. Not a problem on an asteroid or comet.
  • Recycling. We must learn how to efficiently and safely recycle carbon dioxide and waste products into oxygen, fresh water, and food. This is simple in principle, but challenging in practice. In a space habitat, nothing should be wasted.
  • Gravity. We evolved to thrive at 1G; the questions of long term life and child rearing in zero or low G environments should be answered. Personally, I think that adults could maintain health with adequate exercise, but children will need to spend most of their formative years near 1G.

4) Use asteroids to create wealth, and as stepping stones for the future.

  • Build Disneymoon. In the early years, tourism is likely to be a major industry.
  • Build solar panels. Beaming energy to Earth may solve the greenhouse problem, and could easily pay for our investments in the Space Program many times over.
  • Export materials from space to the Earth. Is it really possible to create large foamed-steel structures and drop them into the ocean with acceptably low losses and costs?
  • Recognize that a growing economy does not depend upon exports to its motherland to thrive. For example, the USA does not survive simply due to the value of our exports to Europe. At some point, a space-based civilization becomes self-sufficient.

Would someone please step forward and do something with the empty shuttle fuel tanks? It is expensive and wasteful to return them to Earth. It should be criminal to waste potential resources like that. At the least, we should tether them near the International Space Station (ISS).

Lastly, when else in human history has there been an opportunity to invest a few billion dollars and gain a trillion dollar resource? I'm thinking of the capture and exploitation of Apophis. But there are also other possible asteroids, some of which are much more valuable. See the book Mining the Sky.