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IEET > Rights > Life > Vision > Fellows > David Brin

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Science—nostalgia and foresight


David Brin
David Brin
Ethical Technology

Posted: Dec 7, 2012

First some nostalgia for the future!  Need that gift for your nerdy sci fi friend? Underbrain offers T-shirts, mugs and caps with all sorts of logos from David Brin’s Uplift Universe - symbols of the Five Galaxies, dolphins & chimps posing for the Uplift Center, and the Terragens Marines patch! And the Eye-Q symbol for the Quantum Eye oracle computer in Existence. Got civilization? This will ensure that you do!

got_civilization_magnetAh, but the future used to be so cool! Some of us old timers recall the Sunday newspaper comic "Our New Age", a shining example of techno-utopian idealism written by Dr. Athelstan Spilhaus between 1958  and 1975. Spilhaus, a distinguished academic whom JFK appointed to help run Worlds' Fairs, responded to questions about his wide range of activities with the following quotation that I find especially apropos and inspiring:

“I don’t do ‘so many things.’ I do one. I think about the future.” -- Athelstan Spilhaus, creator of the Our New Age series of science comic strips in the 1950s. Some of the strip's predictions - e.g. consulting books electronically at vast distances - were on target.  Less so this one suggesting intelligent trained kangaroos as waiters and butlers by 2056!
 
== Distributed Science? ==
 A sky-monitoring project, called SpaceView, is a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) program that enrolls the talents of amateur astronomers to help protect American space assets from orbital trash. DARPA has been becoming way, way cool in the last 4 years, sponsoring the Maker Movement and dozens of citizen-empowerment or distributed inventiveness endeavors. This has long been a focus of mine. I quoted DARPA's  director discussing this, in my graphic novel about citizen-level manufacturing, TINKERERS.
 
A field that should be especially ripe for this? Distributed SETI! See how the SETI League's Project Argus would (with help from some millionaire) get 5000 amateur radio telescopes set up around the world, watching the whole sky, instead of a tiny patch at a time.  Nothing could ever sneak up on us!  Take that you nasty UFOs.
 
And if we ever find nasty science-villains?  Well then. Get yer Heroes of Science action figures! Max Planck! J. Robert Oppenheimer!  Marie Curie! Alas, they're Photoshopped, and not actual plastic ... but perhaps with a Kickstarter campaign they might attain reality? We need double as many, just for starters.  Galileo and Newton and Jonas Salk and Craig Venter and Kip Thorne and Louis Pasteur.... But... but what about sci fi authors? What about scientist sci fi authors?
 
Take this hero, for example! In Slate: Kim Stanley Robinson shows us the path of reasonableness on geoengineering, or  "terraforming" the Earth.  It should not substitue or reduce a scintilla our determination to do better at not polluting out nest.  But KSR also wisely suggests we should explore one or two ways to have a "Plan B."
 
== New Minds on the Horizon ==
 
The Navy is pondering retiring its program enlisting dolphins and sea lions to do sophisticated security work, finding mines, recovering objects and guarding against sneak attacks. The program is very successful and adaptable and I've met some of the animals who are kept healthy by a very extensive -- and expensive -- infrastructure of support staff. Only now the Navy is building an inventory of underwater robots that can do many of the same things at lower cost.  And yet...some very important studies  and insights have come out of the marine mammal programs. All the dolphins were born there and always come back of their own free will. There's no program like it. And there may be long range outcomes...
 
Speaking of which. Ray Kurzweil's new book, How to Create a Mind: The Science of Human Thought Revealed presents a discussion of artificial intelligence, exploring how the brain works...and how we can reverse engineer the human brain to produce a non-biological brain.
 
Along those lines...IBM recently announced a simulation of 530 billion neurons, 100 trillion synapses on supercomputer. Of course, all of this assumes that synapses are the only features that must be emulated in the "connectome" to simulate human consciousness. Therer are hints of intra-cellular computing within neurons and astrocytes... but let's not spoil the celebration.
 
And the world's new fastest computer, Titan, housed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, owes its rapid computing power to graphics processing units (GPUs) -- developed for video games.
 
== Your Potpourri of Cool Advances ==
 
Only now, extrapolating... a little Uplift anyone? A newly discovered gene appears to have played a crucial role in human brain development and may shed light on how we learned to use tools and language. Apparently, the gene emerged fully functional out of non-coding genetic material, previously termed “junk DNA”, in a startlingly brief interval of evolutionary time. Until now, it has been remarkably difficult to see this process in action. This new molecule sprang from nowhere (or was "donated?) at a time when our species was undergoing dramatic changes: living longer, walking upright, learning how to use tools and how to communicate.
 
The key thing about disasters is to learn from them and plan to do better next time.  And perhaps the next time a super-storm hits Manhattan -- and other urban areas -- super-sized balloons will be on-hand to inflate and prevent flooding of transportation tunnels.
 
New battery-capacitor technology based on graphene: SMCs gets their amazing performance by using a cathode and anode that contain very large graphene surfaces. When fabricating the cell, the researchers put lithium metal (in the form of particles or foil) at the anode. Now, we can expect a lot of news items like this one and the odds are that a majority will be false leads or busts or disappointments.  But the curves are already fantastic.  Next year's Tesla cars will have vastly improved range and the next year's will have reduced battery weight. And within five years no one will be wanting internal combustion cars for their commute or drive-around-town car.  Get used to the idea!
 
Electrochromic windows promise to cut energy costs and respond to inhabitants' needs with the speed of electric current. A thin layer of tungsten oxide sandwiched between two glass panes can make it shine as-u-like.
 
New artificial muscles made from nanotech yarns and infused with paraffin wax can lift more than 100,000 times their own weight and generate 85 times more mechanical power than the same size natural muscle.
 
Hydrogen is an attractive fuel source because it can easily be converted into electric energy and gives off no greenhouse emissions. New results now increase the output and lower cost of current light-driven hydrogen-production systems. The chemists say their work advances what is sometimes considered the "holy grail" of energy science—efficiently using sunlight to provide clean, carbon-free energy for vehicles and anything that requires electricity. Still a long way to go.
 
Companies that have built multimillion-dollar factories say they are very close to beginning large-scale, commercial production of these so-called cellulosic biofuels, and others are predicting success in the months to come.
 
Although the overall size and asymmetrical shape of Einstein's brain were normal, the prefrontal, somatosensory, primary motor, parietal, temporal and occipital cortices were extraordinary. These may have provided the neurological underpinnings for some of his visuospatial and mathematical abilities... and his penchant for "thought experiments" projecting himself into hypothetical realms.
 
Recall the "OttoDogs" in EXISTENCE? Now comes a detector that uses microfluidic nanotechnology to mimic the biological mechanism behind canine scent receptors. The device is both highly sensitive to trace amounts of certain vapor molecules, and able to tell a specific substance apart from similar molecules.
 
Three innovative new energy technologies are explored in the current issue of Technology and Innovation — Proceedings of the National Academy of Inventors:
  • Tidal currents and ocean waves that can be recovered using ocean thermal conversion technology.
  • Infrared thermal radiation (more than half of the power provided by the Sun).
  • A new nanophosphor-based electroluminesence lighting device that caters to the exact wavelengths of light required for photosynthesis in indoor, hydroponic agriculture.

== And finally: Science weeps =
 
Tea Party senatorial candidates (and troglodytes) Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock were not anomalies, alas. It seems that every anti-science cultist in the U.S. House of Representatives GOP Caucus is eager to join the House Science Committee, packing it not only with Climate Change denialists, but men (entirely) who proclaim the Earth to be six or nine thousand years old, who repeat bizarre theories about rape, who decry vaccination, who rail against genetic research and who denounce sciences as diverse as geology, ecology and meteorology. Do not blame the people. The total number of national votes for the two major parties' congressional  candidates was not won by the GOP.  Blame Gerrymandering.
 
As I've long emphasized, things weren't always this uniform on the right.  Sure, there were witch hunts against scientists in the 1950s... balanced by the fact that Jonas Salk was the most popular man in America and soon so would be the NASA techies.  And a bipartisan consensus in Congress supported Adm Hyman Rickover's upheaval of the US Navy to go nuclear. For every idiot decying the inherent inequality of minorities, there was a William F. Buckley inviting great minds on his show.  And not all Republicans helped Big Tobacco and Big Smog do their multli-decade obstruction campaigns. (So similar to climate denialism, today, using some of the same tactics and firms.)
 
This past diversity among Republicans is illustrated in a fascinating piece in The Chronicle: Why Conservatives turned against science: early environmental issues were bipartisan, by Erik M. Conway and Naomi Oreskes.
 
Summary: "Climate scientists came under attack not just because their research threatened the oil industry (although it certainly did that), but also because they had exposed significant market failures. Pollution is a market failure because, in general, polluters do not pay a price for environmental damage (and this includes not just polluting industries, like electrical utilities, but also anyone who uses a product—like gasoline—that takes up a portion of the planetary sink without paying for it). Nicholas Stern, a former chief economist at the World Bank, has declared climate change "the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen."
 
And this: "Accepting the need to correct market failures required one to concede the need to reform capitalism—in short, to concede the reality of market failure and limits. This became increasingly difficult for Republicans during the 1990s and 2000s. Party leadership began supporting primary challenges against party members deemed insufficiently conservative, driving many moderates into retirement, and some out of the party entirely. Some Republicans who had acknowledged the reality of global warming lost their seats; others—including Mitt Romney—began to deny the problem, knowing that if they didn't they would not be electable as Republicans...."
 
Ah, but there is movement elsewhere.  That core institution of international capitalism, the World Bank, has issued a major report examining the likely economic outcomes  (mostly disastrous) expected from Global Climate Change.
 
Remember, the recent election was not the core event, but a sideshow to the main battle. A "culture war" that was not chosen or started by those who side with science and reason and evidenc-based thinking But it has becomes clear, that kind of thinking -- and a civilization that supports it -- is fighting for its life. And as the great historian Arnold Toynbee said.  When a society turns its back on its "creative minority"... that is when most kingdoms, nations, empires and commonwealths fail.

David Brin Ph.D. is a scientist and best-selling author whose future-oriented novels include Earth, The Postman, and Hugo Award winners Startide Rising and The Uplift War. David's newest novel - Existence - is now available, published by Tor Books."
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