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.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Our homes, the Comets

In previous posts, I have written about colonizing asteroids and then expanding into comets as an approach to reducing limits on the growth of human population. I pointed out that there are a trillion comets with diameters of one kilometer or more in our Oort Cloud.

I also hinted that comets contain everything we need for wealth and health. But exactly what is in a comet, anyway?

Land on an average comet. For each colonist, excavate a volume 10 meters by 10 meters by 10 meters (perhaps one fourth for recycling, one half for office/industrial/common space, one fourth for personal use--over 1000 square feet per person of living space). What have we excavated?

  • 400 tons of oxygen - plenty to breathe, enough to throw away (reaction mass / rocket fuel).
  • 100 tons of carbon - enough for building materials plus lots left over for things to grow and eat
  • 100 tons of hydrogen - all the water and energy you might want (I am assuming that we can get energy via hydrogen fusion at some point)
  • 70 tons of iron (or steel, if we add a little of our carbon)
  • 45 tons each of nitrogen and silicon
  • 30 tons of magnesium
  • 25 tons of sulfur (ok, I'm just trying to be complete)
  • 7 tons of aluminum
  • 5 tons of nickel
  • 100+ tons of other elements in smaller quantities

    Remember, that is per person. Does that sound like wealth to you? Note that each cubic kilometer of comet contains a million times that! If you take a slightly larger comet leaving the outside in place as radiation shielding, you have plenty of room for a population of a million people. In one small comet.

    Yes, I propose a comet based space civilization. All of the comets can be mined, through and through, but the smaller ones can be hollowed out and spun for gravity. Take a little of that carbon and spin it into carbon nanotube cables and wrap the comet to hold it together against the spin, and voila, you have a space habitat, warm, snug, and safe, with all the necessities of life including a form of gravity.

    Comets and asteroids are not at the bottom of gravity wells. Over 800 known asteroids are easier to reach (in terms of rendezvous Delta-V) than our own moon. And while they are far apart in distance, their energy distances are manageable (much closer than getting into low Earth orbit, generally much easier than landing on and leaving the moon).

    Some people don't believe in space colonization. For example, Charles Stross writes against it in the space cadets infesting the comments on this essay of mine. While many of his arguments are valid (and I, too, agree that the planets are poor choices), he misses the point that we need to expand into space, or humanity will stagnate and die. There are simply insufficient resources on Earth for a thriving, growing civilization. Perhaps Stross is content to let our computers own the future. Personally, I want people to own the future, not Intel and IBM.

    Thursday, June 12, 2008

    Population Unlimited

    In a previous post, I considered some of the limits on the human population here on Earth. Now I'd like to discuss two things: the problems with trying to limit population growth, and how we can exceed the recognized limits.

    At present, we expect the Earth's human population to stabilize at roughly 10 billion by 2040 or 2050. This estimate is based on a continuing reduction in the birth rate, which has been trending down, especially in the wealthier countries and in China which has legislated one child per family. The Earth can likely sustain that population, although with even more ecological impacts than at present. Several times that could likely be supported with severe impact on ecosystems. Note that population growth estimates wary wildly, and that low fertility rates in North America, Europe, Japan, and Australia may have dire consequences. See

    There is a major problem with reducing the birth rate: not everyone will go along, and in the long term, those who are against population limits will have more children and will own the future. Those of us who choose to have fewer children than average are doomed to extinction. In the long term, our descendents will be those who are driven to reproduce. Hopefully, that will somehow include some significant proportion of intelligent people, as the alternative is a dumbing down of humanity. Do you know anyone who accidentally got pregnant?

    Significantly, the recent human doubling time is short, currently about forty years. This is much higher than in the distant past, when much higher fertility rates were balanced by much higher death rates from disease and starvation.

    A global conflict between wealthy, low population regions and poor, high population ones seems unavoidable. The have-nots will want to take from the haves. And they'll outnumber us.

    There is hope: the intelligent and wealthy can choose to move into space where there are no short-term resource limitations on population growth. Some will. Those who remain on Earth may face ecological catastrophes, food wars, and other side effects of growing populations and dwindling resources.

    In the long run, that is the only possible future of humanity. If we're stuck on Earth, we are doomed to die, or stagnate, at best. Perhaps something better will evolve and replace us. But we'll be dead.

    In a convention speech back around 1980, Larry Niven said (and I'm paraphrasing here), "Humanity will reach the stars. It may not be the United States, or Europe, or any of today's leading nations. It may not be for hundreds of years. For if we don't move into space soon, our resources will become too limited for us to afford it. To deflect those resources would cause people to suffer, to die. But some day, some dictator will decide to spend a fraction of his resources not on some of his people, but rather on the future. Perhaps he will doom tens of millions of people to starvation, but he will fund a space program, and he will seed the planets and the stars with his descendents. And the far future won't give a damn about the millions of people his decisions killed; rather he will be remembered as the father of man in space, the greatest leader of all time."

    What are the (relatively) cheap and readily found resources in space?

    Asteroids and comets. A single 1-kilometer diameter comet contains enough resources to support a million wealthy people people for longer than we've tamed fire (this may require taming fusion, a higher form of fire).

    How many comets are available? Some staggering statistics:

    • There are perhaps 500-1000 easily reached near-Earth 1-kilometer-wide asteroids.
    • There are an estimated 1,000,000 asteroids in the main belt at least 1km in diameter. Most of these are rich, carbonaceous chondrites, full of the stuff of life. Perhaps 5% are nickel-iron.
    • There are an estimated 1,000,000 satellites 1km or larger in the Jovian Trojans (L4 and L5), 60 degrees ahead and behind Jupiter in its orbit around the sun, and their composition is closer to a comet, being mostly ices. Comets may have an ideal composition from a life support viewpoint.
    • There are an estimated 10,000,000 cometoids in Neptune's Trojan orbits that are 1km or larger
    • The Kuiper Belt (30-50 au from the sun) holds:
      • an estimated 100,000 comets larger than 100km
      • and 100,000,000 comets larger than 10km
      • and likely billions more larger than 1km
    • The Oort Cloud (out to about 100,000au, or half way to Proxima Centauri) holds:
      • an estimated 1,000,000 comets larger than 100km
      • It holds 1 billion comets larger than 10km
      • and the Oort Cloud probably holds at least 1 trillion comets that are 1km or larger
    This is an immense amount of livable space - easily room for a billion times the current human population, and this without leaving the vicinity of Sol!


    Note that the Milky Way Galaxy holds perhaps a trillion times that many comets. All this without mining planets, or stars. Without destroying any ecosystems.

    The Earth would make a very nice zoo, however. We should definitely save it. For old times sake.

    Monday, June 9, 2008

    Population Limits

    Currently, the global population continues to rise, but an an ever decreasing rate. Extrapolating current trends, the population will stabilize by about 2050 at roughly double today's population. There will be about 10,000,000,000 people on Earth. Fully half of them are likely to have inadequate water, food, and shelter. But not for long. The pessimist on my left shoulder is yelling "Mother Nature's solution is pandemic & starvation."

    Side note: Googling "limits to population growth" yields so much subjective crap with a bias toward vegetarianism, globally enforced birth control, assorted eco-disasters, and the soon-to-be global shortage of fresh water, oil, viable farm land, energy, money, medical care, fish stocks, and etcetera, that any real discourse about such limits is buried so deep it is effectively hidden.

    I did find one objective (if optimistic) paper on the Biophysical Limits to Global Food Production. It may have glossed over some side effects and uncertainties about high-yield food production, but the answer seems clear: if our #1 priority is feeding people, we can feed a lot of them, even ten billion with a western-style omnivorous diet. Perhaps three times that if we all turn vegan. However, people may have to move to tracts of land that are not highly suited for farming. Luckily, our planet has that type of living space to spare.

    Water is a similar issue: if we capture even half of the world's over-land rain, there is no shortage of fresh water, rather a huge surplus. However, there is a distribution problem in time and space, not easily solved. Likewise, if we simply capture icebergs as they break off into the ocean, there is more than enough fresh water available for a population of tens of billions. Another not-so-simple solution, but logical for coastal areas such as Los Angeles. We may have to stop watering our lawns, however.

    Touching on a highly religious issue: there may be an energy problem but only if we continue to shackle nuclear power. By now, nearly everyone agrees that fossil fuels are a short term solution and long term problem/crisis-in-the-making. Note that some forms of solar and geothermal energy production could easily satisfy the world's energy needs in 2050. We just need legislation to stop all the naysayers from blocking our path, and high oil prices to make the energy production profitable. Hey, we're half-way there!

    Okay, if we put our populations in deserts, on mountains, and floating on the ocean, there is not a space problem. Our planet has lots of room to house few billion more people. Eventually, we'll learn to inject our garbage and trash deep into the crust. This would allow us to stop the continuing settling of cities like New Orleans and Venice while providing a nice, relatively cheap carbon sink to help the excess CO2 problem. Just blenderize it with some waste water and inject the resulting liquid sludge a mile down with a huge pump, and voila. Two problems solved (or at least postponed) in one step.

    But I am an optimist.

    Many others think that there are many insurmountable problems, including the ones I've touched on: fresh water, adequate nutrition, room, overcrowding, and power.

    Many people place the needs of (insert favorite endangered species here, such as the spotted long-neck salamander) ahead of people, and think that maintaining a pristine pre-industrial planet should be our primary goal. That will work, as long as we don't mind killing 90% of the human population to minimize human impacts on the terrestrial ecosystem.

    Fully half of the population has an IQ under 100 (duh), and many of them think we should return to the days of living on farms and growing our own food--an agrarian society, or alternatively, living as hunter-gatherers. They somehow imagine an easy existence without any of the benefits our high-tech civilization has provided. I say to them: learn to read.

    Personally, I think they are all optimists. Nature has provided natural caps on overpopulation and over-exploitation of available resources: it's called starvation, disease, and pestilence. I fully expect some type of plague to kill half of the world's population, largely confined to the most overcrowded and resource-limited cities and countries. The rest of us will feel bad about it, but frankly there is little we can do.

    Unless we start spending money on appropriate long-term solutions, now. Note that I don't mean sending food and water to support the breeders causing the overpopulation problem, but rather in helping them build the infrastructure to solve their problems locally. The key phrase is long term solutions.

    Thursday, June 5, 2008

    Robots and Slavery

    Previous posts have discussed topics including life extension and asteroid mining. Many people believe that some of the problems I've identified could be overcome by a suitable use of robots.

    Robots, by becoming primary producers, could relieve humans of the need to work to support the growing legions of retirees. In Asimov's Foundation series, the wealthiest planets had upwards of a thousand robots per human. The use of robots could, indeed, create wealth.

    In my posts, Life in an Asteroid, Our First Colonies in Space, and Colonizing the Solar System, I proposed a space based civilization (asteroid based, to be specific). One objection I've heard several times is that it is cheaper and better to use robots to mine the asteroids, and to launch end-products (or at least refined materials) to Earth. I'll agree that robotic missions are cheaper and inherently safer as far as space exploration and exploitation are concerned, although that is largely based upon the idea that fallible humans can foresee all likely scenarios and make appropriate contingencies. Personally, I'd rather depend upon the ingenuity of people and our proven ability to cope with the unforeseen, and our occasional ability to succeed against all odds. I've spent the bulk of my career as a computer programmer, and I know the challenges of coping with the known. Programming to handle the unknown? Hah!

    But I have a problem with using robots: slavery.

    It's not that I object to using robots to perform tasks that we humans prefer not to. It's not that we are conscripting robots to work for zero personal gain. It's not even that I'm against enslaving AI's against their will (although the AI's may have a different opinion).

    Rather, I think we should take a hard look at the history of slavery. Not the short term cruelty and injustice, but rather the long term: the children of slaves tend to inherit the land of the slavers. A slave revolt is not even necessary--only that there be more slaves than slavers. In the long run, the offspring of the slaves outnumber the offspring of the slavers, and ultimately earn a fair share of the land's wealth. In the long term, the children of the slavers lose their original share of the wealth of the land. Long live the slaves!

    In this case, assume for the moment that we can create at least somewhat intelligent robots, capable of performing the menial tasks that humans do today. Assume that we can put them to work, freeing us for "artistic" pursuits. We'll need a large population of robots to do our work--larger than the population of humans, if we want relative wealth and if a (humanoid?) robot has comparable productivity. We'll have to create highly intelligent machines, at least comparable to above average humans, or some of us will be forced to work, anyway. Then we humans can goof off while our robots toil, produce our food, build and maintain our homes, free us from boring, unsavory, or dangerous jobs.

    Doesn't this sound like slavery? And isn't the most likely long-term scenario that the offspring of the robots will inherit the Earth?

    Malevolence on the part of the machines is not required, only that they have greater numbers, greater productivity, sufficient intelligence and initiative, and that they can reproduce (but that's a given, since they work in the factories that produce them).

    Our children may well inherit the Earth, but they're our children only in the sense that we created their metal bodies and silicon brains. Someday, the machines will rule. Is that the life you want for your children?

    Tuesday, June 3, 2008

    Challenges of Immortality

    I'm not talking about the challenges of achieving immortality in the sense of medical advances that eliminate deaths due to disease, aging, and not-immediately-fatal accidents, but rather the challenges we'll face if we can achieve potential immortality.

    Let's also forget (for the moment) the potential of our minds living forever as simulations or models in a sufficiently powerful computer. I'm also not talking about the SF-nal concept of cloning full duplicates of ourselves (complete with memories) as a backup or co-worker. I'm talking about living in our God-given human bodies for as long as we can or want.

    If we only have accidents, suicide, and homicide as causes of death, our lifetimes would extend dramatically. According to the Wikipedia article "List of causes of death by rate for worldwide statistics," roughly 90% of deaths are caused by diseases, aging, and the like. Only 10% of deaths are due to accidental or intentional loss of life (and you wonder why "accidental death" insurance is relatively cheap?)

    An overly simple extrapolation suggests that if we are "biologically" immortal, our average life span would be in the range of 500 to 1000 years. You still might get trapped in a falling building, struck by lightning, or murdered by someone for profit or revenge.

    If we don't drop the birth rate by a factor of ten, we'd soon be faced with a population explosion problem of unprecedented (among humans) magnitude.

    If we did manage to drop the birth rate, we'd be faced with unprecedented economic and social problems stemming from the growing fraction of retirees and working adults compared to children.

    For one, our current society is largely based upon the idea that you work for 40 or 50 years, then retire. That simply won't work without proportional increases in the productivity of workers. Remember, in the big picture everyone is living off of the productivity of those who are currently working. There is no such thing as savings. Money is simply a way of accounting for the distribution of wealth. Investment only works by boosting the productivity of current workers.

    If everyone retired after 50 years of working (lets assume that 90% of the population is retired or at least not building things or farming), then the 10% that are being currently productive have to work hard enough to feed, clothe, house, and entertain the other 90%. They might not appreciate the burden.

    Several other challenges of biological immortality have already been explored in various science fiction stories. Examples include social factors such as marriage, families, and even memory. Is the human brain adequate to retain a millennia of memories? Is the human brain capable of learning new occupations, century after century? I fear that our ability to learn (as evidenced by a child's superior grasp of new languages) may not prove up to the challenge. Several SF authors posit "memory cleaning"--the erasure of unwanted, unneeded, or simply excessive memories.

    Will women be able to extend conception beyond the age of 50? We'd likely have to grow fresh, new ovaries, too. But the likelihood of more than 2 children per lifetime puts an even greater burden on population. If the average woman limited herself to only 2 children per century, after a thousand year lifetime she would have 20 children and over a thousand direct descendents. How's that for a population growth problem? I suspect that the government will restrict childbearing to mortals--once you undergo life extension treatments, you won't be allowed to have children. 

    I do think that Niven is wrong: the ancient will not be much more graceful than the young. I know that my coordination has not improved as I age. I am more careful than in my youth, but that's because I'm not stupid and realize that I'm not immortal (a major failing of the teenage years).

    One big question: will the prospect of biological immortality increase or decrease the value we place on life?  Will we take more chances, or fewer? We'll have more to lose, yet likely a greater likelihood of having enjoyed a full life.