In his new book Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life, Craig Venter writes of the brave new world synthetic biology may some day deliver: from consumer devices that print out the latest flu vaccine to instruments on Mars landers that analyze Martian DNA and teleport it back to Earth to be studied or recreated.
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Vinge began by declaring that he still believes that a Singularity event in the next few decades is the most likely outcome— meaning that self-accelerating technologies will speed up to the point of so profound a transformation that the other side of it is unknowable.
And this transformation will be driven by Artificial Intelligences (AIs) that, once they become self-educating and self-empowering, soar beyond human capacity with shocking suddenness.
He added that he is not convinced by the fears of some that the AIs would exterminate humanity.
He thinks they would be wise enough to keep us around as a fallback and backup— intelligences that can actually function without massive connectivity!
(Later in the Q&A I asked him about the dangerous period when AI’s are smart enough to exterminate us but not yet wise enough to keep us around.
How long would that period be?
“About four hours,” said Vinge .)
Since a Singularity makes long-term thinking impractical, Vinge was faced with the problem of how to say anything useful in a Seminar About Long-term Thinking, so he came up with a plausible set of scenarios that would be Singularity-free.
He noted that they all require that we achieve no faster-than-light space travel.
The overall non-Singularity condition he called “The Age of Failed Dreams.”
The main driver is that software simply continues failing to keep pace with hardware improvements.
One after another, enormous billion-dollar software projects simply do not run, as has already happened at the FBI, air traffic control, IRS, and many others.
Some large automation projects fail catastrophically, with planes running into each.
So hardware development eventually lags, and materials research lags, and no strong AI develops.
To differentiate visually his three sub-scenarios, Vinge showed a graph ranging over the last 50,000 and next 50,000 years, with power (in maximum discrete sources) plotted against human populaton, on a log-log scale.
Thus the curve begins at the lower left with human power of 0.3 kilowatts and under a hundred thousand population, curves up through steam engines with one megawatt of power and a billion population, up further to present plants generating 13 gigawatts.
His first scenario was a bleak one called “A Return to MADness.”
Driven by increasing environmental stress (that a Singularity might have cured), nations return to nuclear confrontation and policies of “Mutually Assured Destruction.”
One “bad afternoon,” it all plays out, humanity blasts itself back to the Stone Age and then gradually dwindles to extinction.
His next scenario was a best-case alternative named “The Golden Age,” where population stabilizes around 3 billion, and there is a peaceful ascent into “the long, good time.”
Humanity catches on that the magic ingredient is education, and engages the full plasticity of the human psyche, empowered by hope, information, and communication.
A widespread enlightened populism predominates, with the kind of tolerance and wise self-interest we see embodied already in Wikipedia.
One policy imperative of this scenario would be a demand for research on “prolongevity”— “Young old people are good for the future of humanity.”
Far from deadening progress, long-lived youthful old people would have a personal stake in the future reaching out for centuries, and would have personal perspective reaching back for centuries.
The final scenario, which Vinge thought the most probable, he called “The Wheel of Time.”
Catastrophes and recoveries of various amplitudes follow one another.
Enduring heroes would be archaeologists and “software dumpster divers” who could recover lost tools and techniques.
What should we do about the vulnerabilities in these non-Singularity scenarios?
Vinge ’s main concern is that we are running only one, perilously narrow experiment on Earth.
“The best hope for long-term survival is self-sufficient off-Earth settlements.”
We need a real space program focussed on bringing down the cost of getting mass into space, instead of “the gold-plated sham” of present-day NASA.
There is a common critique that there is no suitable place for humans elsewhere in the Solar System, and the stars are too far.
“In the long now,” Vinge observed, “the stars are not too far.”
(Note: Vinge’s detailed notes for this talk, and the graphs, may be found online at: http://rohan.sdsu.edu/faculty/vinge /longnow/index.htm ) —Stewart Brand
We now know, Schwartz began, that nearly all of the billions of stars in our galaxy have planets. If we can master interstellar travel, "there’s someplace to go." Our own solar system is pretty boring—-one planet is habitable, the rest are "like Antarctica without ice" or worse.
So this last year a number of researchers and visionaries have begun formal investigation into the practicalities of getting beyond our own solar system. It is an extremely hard problem, for two primary reasons—-the enormous energy required to drive far and fast, and the vast amount of time it takes to get anywhere even at high speed.
The energy required can be thought of in three ways. 1) Impossible—-what most scientists think. 2) Slow. 3) Faster than light (FTL). Chemical rockets won’t do at all. Nuclear fission rockets may suffice for visiting local planets, but it would take at least fusion to get to the planets of other stars. Schwartz showed Adam Crowl’s scheme for a Bussard Ramjet using interstellar ions for a fusion drive. James Benford (co-author of the book on all this, Starship Century) makes the case for sail ships powered by lasers based in our Solar System.
As for faster-than-light, that requires "reinventing physics." Physics does keep doing that (as with the recent discovery of "dark energy"). NASA has one researcher, Harold White, investigating the potential of microscopic wormholes for superluminal travel.
Standard-physics travel will require extremely long voyages, much longer than a human lifetime. Schwartz suggested four options. 1) Generational ships—-whole mini-societies commit to voyages that only their descendents will complete. 2) Sleep ships—-like in the movie "Avatar," travelers go into hibernation. 3) Relativistic ships—-at near the speed of light, time compresses, so that travelers may experience only 10 years while 100 years pass back on Earth. 4) Download ships—-"Suppose we learn how to copy human consciousness into some machine-like device. Such ‘iPersons’ would be able to control an avatar that could function in environments inhospitable to biological humans. They would not be limited to Earthlike planets."
Freeman Dyson has added an important idea, that interstellar space may be full of objects—-comets and planets and other things unattached to stars. They could be used for fuel, water, even food. "Some of the objects may be alive." Dyson notes that, thanks to island-hopping, Polynesians explored the Pacific long before Europeans crossed the Atlantic. We might get to the stars by steps.
Futurist Schwartz laid out four scenarios of the potential for star travel in the next 300 years, building on three population scenarios. By 2300 there could be 36 billion people, if religious faith drives large families. Or, vast wealth might make small families and long life so much the norm that there are only 2.3 billion people on Earth. One harsh scenario has 9 billion people using up the Earth.
Thus his four starship scenarios… 1) "Stuck in the Mud"—-we can’t or won’t muster the ability to travel far. 2) "God’s Galaxy"—-the faithful deploy their discipline to mount interstellar missions to carry the Word to the stars; they could handle generational ships. 3) "Escape from a Dying Planet"—-to get lots of people to new worlds and new hope would probably require sleep ships. 4) "Trillionaires in Space"—-the future likes of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson will have the means and desire to push the envelope all the way, employing relativistic and download ships or even faster-than-light travel.
Schwartz concluded that there are apparently many paths that can get us to the stars. In other words, "Galactic civilization is almost inevitable."
K. Eric Drexler, the founding father of nanotechnology talks about the rapid scientific progress that is about to change our world. In Radical Abundance: How a Revolution in Nanotechnology Will Change Civilization he explains that the result will shake the very foundations of our economy and environment.
Noted author and futurist Vernor Vinge is surprisingly optimistic when it comes to the prospect of civilization collapsing.
“I think that [civilization] coming back would actually be a very big surprise,” he says in this week’s episode of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “The difference between us and us 10,000 years ago is … we know it can be done.”
Vinge has a proven track record of looking ahead. His 1981 novella True Names was one of the first science fiction stories to deal with virtual reality, and he also coined the phrase, “The Technological Singularity” to describe a future point at which technology creates intelligences beyond our comprehension. The term is now in wide use among futurists.
But could humanity really claw its way back after a complete collapse? Haven’t we plundered the planet’s resources in ways that would be impossible to repeat?
“I disagree with that,” says Vinge. “With one exception — fossil fuels. But the stuff that we mine otherwise? We have concentrated that. I imagine that ruins of cities are richer ore fields than most of the natural ore fields we have used historically.”
That’s not to say the collapse of civilization is no big deal. The human cost would be horrendous, and there would be no comeback at all if the crash leaves no survivors. A ravaged ecosphere could stymie any hope of rebuilding, as could a disaster that destroys even the ruins of cities.
“I am just as concerned about disasters as anyone,” says Vinge. “I have this region of the problem that I’m more optimistic about than some people, but overall, avoiding existential threats is at the top of my to-do list.”
Scientist, broadcaster and writer Adam Rutherford discusses his new book Creation which explores the chemical origins of life on Earth, and reveals why he believes our future is in the hands of genetic engineers.
Alok Jha is joined by Adam Rutherford to discuss how life began some 4bn years ago – and the manipulation of its blueprint, DNA, through genetic engineering. Adam’s latest book, Creation: The Origin of Life/The Future of Life, is two books in one. The first details the latest research into how the first cellular life form emerged, and the second looks at the rapidly developing science of synthetic biology.
Guest host Sean Cole talks to military defense specialist John Arquilla, who says the U.S. government should hire hackers - instead of prosecuting them.
Characters on Star Trek suffer frequent misadventures on the holodeck, a room that creates advanced holograms indistinguishable from reality. But now theoretical physicists such as Brian Greene, host of the recent PBS special The Fabric of the Cosmos, are starting to wonder if every object in the universe isn’t some sort of hologram. Greene talks physics and science fiction in this week’s episode of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast.
A History of the World in Maps - Late Night Live - ABC Radio National (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)
Throughout history, maps have always been as much about their creators and their worldviews as about reproducing an accurate replica of the world. Early maps were also about the unknown and how to display the borders of the known world. Monsters in illustration were often used to represent what lay beyond the edge of the world, and cartographers competed to create the best and scariest monsters on their creations.
Professor and BBC documentary presenter Jeremy Brotton has produced a study of the cultural values embodied in maps and collected them in a book called A History of the World in Twelve Maps.
In The Joy of X: A Guided Tour of Math, from One to Infinity, mathematician Steven Strogatz provides an entertaining refresher course in math, starting with the most elementary ideas, such as counting, and finishing with mind-bending theories of infinity—including the idea that some infinities can be bigger than others.
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