Saturday, March 25, 2006

Technoprogressive Majority

[via Amor Mundi] Our own James Hughes just pointed me to this Wall Street Journal poll, from last September:
A survey of 2,242 U.S. adults in Sept. 6-12, 2005

"Please indicate whether you support or oppose the policy."

Percent supporting:

96% Medicare (health insurance for the elderly and disabled)
93% Use of birth control/contraception
92% Condom use to prevent HIV and other STDs
91% Medicaid (health insurance for people with low incomes)
87% Sex education in high school
87% Funding of international HIV prevention and treatment programs
75% Universal health insurance
70% Embryonic stem cell research
70% Funding of international birth control programs
68% Withdrawal of life support systems/food for those in vegetative
63% Abortion centers

I was instantly reminded of a study I had read about in the Alternative Energy Blog, a survey of American attitudes on environmental issues conducted for the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies by the Global Strategy Group just a couple of months before the one James cited.

According to the study
93 percent [of Americans] want the government to require the auto industry to improve gas mileage, an opinion that showed no gender or political gap.

This puts the electorate squarely at odds with Congress, which recently rejected a proposal to make SUVs and minivans more fuel efficient....

Across the board, people favored more solar power facilities, wind-turbine farms and increased funding for renewable energy research.

Taken together, these results suggest that there is an emerging technoprogressive majority in America commited to the technoscientific redress of shared social problems, especially problems of environmental damage and healthcare. Radical, social, and progressive democrats (and Democrats, too) need to embrace the secular, critical confidence of Americans in the capacity of intelligent and responsible human beings to collaborate in the solution of shared problems. It is a testament to the resourcefulness, hopefulness, and good sense of average Americans that they can retain their confidence in democratic technoscientific collaboration and social struggle in the midst of the fraud and hype of uncritical unscrupulous corporate-military technophilia with its megaphones as well as in the midst of the uncritical fear-mongering and false-nostalgia of religious fundamentalist technophobia with its megaphones.

The experiment of American democracy confronts a larger world that will no longer tolerate technodevelopmental adjection at the hands of American corporate-military globalization in a twentieth-century mode. And so, American democrats must affirm the secular pragmatism of the American people as always and only the simultaneous affirmation of consensus science and stakeholder politics (locally, nationally, globally). Only as both a scientific and democratic culture can the American experiment hope to be a force for good in a century that must grapple with the equally unprecedented threats/promises of the end of nonrenewable energy and the beginning of modification medicine. Without democracy technodevelopment will bring utter disaster, without a focus on technodevelopmental social struggle democracy will wither into irrelevance. The stakes are high, but majorities are with us. It is high time for technoprogressive politics to assume its place at the table.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The perils of miniaturization on the battlefield

DARPA, the advanced concepts research group voted most likely to destroy the Earth, has come up with a bizarre futuristic idea for the Pentagon.

They want to create an army of cyber-insects that can be remotely controlled to check out explosives and send transmissions. The organisms would truly be cybernetic; the idea is to insert microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) at the pupa stage, when the insects can integrate them into their body, so they can be remotely controlled later.

A number of experts are skeptical, but it sounds fairly plausible to me. Most criticisms of the plan have to do with the supposed implausibility of creating such small MEMS. Indeed, today it is quite impossible, but the miniaturization revolution is in full swing, and it's likely that MEMS will eventually be manufactured that are small enough to fit inside the insect at the pupa stage.

Moreover, scientists have already created cyborg roaches that have had their nervous systems tapped into. A research team at Tokyo University is making 'cyber-roaches' by lopping off the antennae of regular cockroaches and replacing them with pulse-emitting electrodes. The researchers then send signals with a remote control to a backpack worn by the roach that powers the electrodes. The roaches can be told to go left, right, forward and back.

This is starting to become something of a trend. It was rumored at one time that either China or the United States was developing nano-ants for the purpose of destroying the enemy's infrastructure. While somewhat outlandish, it does bring to mind the evil potential for robotic locusts and other man-made blights.

Indeed, these are dangerous precursors to nanoweaponry and other forms of advanced bioweapons.

Süddeutsche Zeitung Online recently featured an article about the potential for nanotech-equipped soldiers -- namely smart dust, self-healing body armor and self-reproducing nanobots.

Some analysts, including Jürgen Altmann, are starting to think that arms control needs to be extended to miniature weaponry. In his book, Military Nanotechnology: Potential Applications and Preventive Arms Control, Altmann takes a look at the prospect of future weapons and considers international security, the new dangers for arms control and the international law of warfare, the dangers for stability through potential new arms races and proliferation, and of course, the dangers to humans and human civilization altogether.

The specific technologies that Altmann considers include extremely small computers, robots, missiles, satellites, launchers and sensors, lighter and more agile vehicles and weapons, implants in soldiers’ bodies, metal-free firearms, autonomous fighting systems, and new types of chemical and biological weapons.

Thinking it through, Altmann concludes that international treaties need to be installed, existing non-proliferation agreements need to be extended, and that a general ban on autonomous robots smaller than 20 centimeters needs to be put into force.

But as the actions of the United States has recently shown, it is a country that is not very interested in these types of constraints. Back in 2000 George W. Bush pulled out of the Biological Weapons Convention, and in 2003 he withdrew the US from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty with Russia. And as the illegal (civil)war in Iraq continues, and as DARPA looks to litter the battlefield with cyber-insects, the chances of attaining global consensus on the regulation of miniaturized weapons looks slim indeed.

Cross-posted from Sentient Developments.

Monday, March 20, 2006

The race to blast tourists into space

"If floating weightless and peering down on a shimmering-blue Earth sounds appealing, you might consider being a space tourist.

As long as you've got a fat wallet.

Two years after the first privately financed space flight jump-started a sleepy industry, more than a dozen companies are developing rocket planes to ferry ordinary rich people out of the atmosphere.

Several private companies will begin building their prototype vehicles this summer with plans to test fly them as early as next year. If all goes well, the first tourist could hitch a galactic joy ride late next year or 2008 -- pending approval by federal regulators.

Unlike the Cold War space race between the United States and Soviet Union that sent satellites into orbit and astronauts to the moon, this competition is bankrolled by entrepreneurs whose competition could one day make a blast into space cheap enough for the average Joe.

"This time, it's personal. This space race is about getting 'us' into space," said space historian Andrew Chaikin.

For now, commercial space travel remains an exclusive club." (Read more at CNN Science & Space)

What I would love to see is a space race between the governments of the United States, the European Union and China to colonize the Moon and Mars...