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Last-minute breakthroughs and remembrances, before the “end of the world”
David Brin   Dec 15, 2012   Ethical Technology  

As for the recent launch of a satellite by North Korea, upon a rocket with clear intercontinental potential, I can only repeat my earlier recommendation to the U.S. Administration.  One important part of the solution to the “North Korea problem” would arise by announcing that the Hermit Kingdom’s actions will all be attributed and accounted to the legal responsibility of its biggest supporter, enabler and protector.

My neighbor Ravi Shankar passed away.  I can't say I knew him, but attended some concerts over the years. The neighborhood already seems less vivid, somehow. Though that may just be the blustery chill of winter... Ah well. He was brilliant.

0409-North-Korea-Rocket-Launch_full_380As for the recent launch of a satellite by North Korea, upon a rocket with clear intercontinental potential, I can only repeat my earlier recommendation to the U.S. Administration.  One important part of the solution to the "North Korea problem" would arise by announcing that the Hermit Kingdom's actions will all be attributed and accounted to the legal responsibility of its biggest supporter, enabler and protector.  That includes nuclear missile launches, of course, but especially civil tort damages. Moreover, starting now we advise that supporter-neighbor to begin setting aside funds to deal with future lawsuits for personal civil damages borne by the North Korean people themselves.

I do not say this in a spirit of hostility but rather as friendly caution from a futurist! You want to prepare in case historical momentum continues. Those northern Koreans - when inevitably they become free - will look for the deepest pockets among those who, through action or inaction, fostered the harm done to them, or enabled the harm-doers. And in tomorrow's primly law-woven world, they and their lawyers will not have far to look. That's not ideology or hostility; it is simple cause-and-effect. And stone-walling to prevent that day will only make it much worse. Make that point and the pragmatic men-next-door may decide to limit the exposure of their bad investment, by cutting a deal.

And now... science...

== Can we predict the future? ==

AlternateWorldsFirst, the National Intelligence Council has issued its quadrennial 160 page Global Trends report, this time peering ahead toward the year 2030.  My favorite territory. This set of world forecasts and scenarios appears, at last, ready to break from the transfixing obsessions of the past -- vast blocs of supranational ideology or else ideology-driven terrorists.

Instead, the NIC examines deeper drivers that might affect whether Earth Civilization prospers or not, and what role the United States and the West will continue to play, as Pax Americana gradually eases out of its historic mission. Indeed, it looks as if some folks who have attended my Washington talks about the future may have heeded or cribbed-from my report from almost a decade ago, to the Defense Threat Reduction Agency DTRA, about non-state and non-terror threats.

Compare the NIC Global Trends document to those earlier slides DangerousHorizonsattempting to get folks to think more broadly about the future.

Meanwhile, the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk is being co-launched by astronomer royal Lord Rees, one of the world’s leading cosmologists. It will probe the “four greatest threats” to the human species, given as: artificial intelligence, climate change, nuclear war and rogue biotechnology. Lord Rees, who has warned that humanity could wipe itself out by 2100, is launching the centre alongside Cambridge philosophy professor Huw Price, and Skype co-founder Jaan Tallinn.

Interesting that the four threats they chose happen to be chief topics featured in Existence.

102548961Also of interest: a rebuttal on the Da Vinci Institute site takes on Nassim Taleb, author of the bestseller The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, who ridicules the idea of predicting the future. Instead, he argues that the world is dominated by the impact of rare, unforeseen, random, highly improbable and yet influential events. "These Black Swans, he says, happen abruptly, coming from outside the range of our vision."

I found the rebuttal interesting- at times on target - yet in the end just as quasi mystical as Taleb's book.  Because neither of them offer challenging ways to assess and appraise and improve (pragmatically) the process of prediction.

At risk of (typical) self-promotion, I do believe there's an approach that -- if even marginally PredictionsRegistryfunded -- could help move the whole field forward via means of predictions registries and fora. How I am tempted, after all these years, to try to fund it myself... if college bills weren't such a big deal .

More efforts at prediction can be found in the annual forecast list of the World Future Society.  The plausible ones seem rather likely... new dust bowls, a rapid rise in commercial space tourism, eyesight-restoration, teaching based in games, deep-geothermal power,   Others, like garbage purifying robot earthworms and lunar colonies, fall more into the sci fi zone and are not as near future as they seem to think. Have a look and join the WFS.  Though... alas... I'd still expect just a few "futurists" to survive long under scrutiny of a registry. Whereupn, the best would learn and adapt!

== Genetic "variability" and our future evolution ==

Recent studies indicate that humanity is now very, very rich in genetic variability, the grist of future evolution. (Exactly opposite to the problem faced by inbred cheetahs, for example.) “Humans today carry a much larger load of deleterious variants than our species carried just prior to its massive expansion just a couple hundred generations ago,” said population geneticist Alon Keinan of Cornell University, whose own work helped link rare variation patterns to the population boom.

mastersFrom the article: The inverse is also true. Present-day humanity also carries a much larger load of potentially positive variation, not to mention variation with no appreciable consequences at all. These variations, known to scientists as “cryptic,” that might actually be evolution’s hidden fuel. Indeed, the genetic seeds of exceptional traits, such as endurance or strength or innate intelligence, may now be circulating in humanity. “The genetic potential of our population is vastly different than what it was 10,000 years ago,” Akey said. How will humanity evolve in the next few thousand years? It’s impossible to predict but fun to speculate, said Akey.

 A potentially interesting wrinkle to the human story is that, while bottlenecks reduce selection pressure, evolutionary models show that large populations actually increase selection’s effects. 

My own comment: In nature, evolution is based not only upon genetic variability (in which this research suggests we are rich) but also on death, culling some and allowing others to breed.  A crude, brutal method that is inherently un-interested in "fairness" ... but time tested by nature. This will change though. We will choose instead to steer the process via culture and technology while continuing to develop our capacity to collaboratively evade death - the old engine of evolution. What replaces death? The article's authors suggest that widespread use of reproductive technologies like fetal genome sequencing might ease selection pressures, or even make them more intense.  But in his novel Beyond This Horizon, Robert Heinlein showed us how to grab ahold of our variability and use it in a campaign of self-improvement that has none of the creepy aspects of direct genomic meddling.

Ponder that finding... that humans have max'd-out genetic diversity... and nowhere more so than in my California... almost as if we were a flower, getting ready to cast forth seeds...

Meanwhile, there's an interesting article with huge implications for the future of anthropology. In an essay by George Dvorsky: Over at the Edge there's a fascinating article by Thomas W. Malone about the work he and others are doing to understand the rise of collective human intelligence — an emergent phenomenon that's being primarily driven by our information technologies.  Malone, who is the Director at MIT's Center for Collective Intelligence, studies the way people and computers can be connected so that — collectively — they can act more intelligently than any single person, group, or computer. Good stuff, but I'd have liked more attention to the older methods that have leveraged individual intelligence into group intelligence. The positive-sum enlightenment methods of markets, science, democracy etc.

== Wondrous and Puzzling Science ==

713354main_pia16197-226x630NASA's Cassini orbiter spots river system on Titan ... but filled with liquid ethane and methane instead of water. The Titanic Nile shows up on a black-and-white picture from Cassini's radar imager, which can look through Titan's thick, smoggy atmosphere to map the surface features beneath.

A U.S. start-up has turned to nature to help bring water to arid areas by drawing moisture from the air.

71clHxRC73L._SL500_AA300_Ah, progress. Soon anyone with a good home-maker unit will be able to print the parts to make their own firearms. Reminds me of Van Vogt's The Weapon Shops.  I guess we'll find out if John W. Campbell was right that "an armed society is a polite society."  I imagine we'll all get more polite... after twenty generations of culling.

Speaking of which, a use of such devices that will be both more useful and creepier, illustrated cartoon style! 

Frankentissue: How to print an organ on your inkjet.

Weird...time reversal research: When a signal travels through the air, its waveforms scatter before an antenna picks it up. Recording the received signal and transmitting it backwards reverses the scatter and sends it back as a focused beam in space and time.

Exactly fifty years ago... Mariner 2 was the first human-made object to transmit back from another planet. And at 12 I mourned the Venus of vast oceans and jungles and beauteous princesses. Sigh. Science can be rough. I went into it, anyway.

Bothered by negative thoughts? Throw them away.

Large scale melting of Permafrost may be underway.

Some recent studies indicate glucosamine (used by millions for slight joint pain reduction)  was associated with a significant decreased risk of death from cancer and with a large risk reduction for death from respiratory disease.

Late last year, a Russian team drilled through to Lake Vostok, an even larger lake covered by some 4km of ice. But preliminary analyses of lake water that froze on to the drill bit showed scant evidence for the presence of living organisms. Now researchers at the shallower McMurdo lakes have found a diverse community of bugs living in the lake's dark environment, at temperatures of -13C. Some think this a possible analog for ice-roofed water moons like Europa.

Ten things that will disappear in thirty years.

== Space!!! ==

Know the difference between radioisotope nuclear power for spacecraft and nuclear reactors for spaceflight? The distinction is fascinating. Have a look at DUFF, a new reactor for space travel.

CoolthingsSome parodies are better than the originals! A takeoff of "Dumb Ways to Die" ... starring NASA's Curiosity rover..."Cool Things to Find." --

Water ice discovered on Mercury. NASA's Messenger spacecraft has spotted vast deposits of water ice around the shade-protected poles on the planet closest to the sun. Not unexpected, since radar beams from Arecibo in the 1990s had suggested this, confirming a hypothesis made by my doctoral advisor, Dr. James Arnold, that comets would have delivered volatiles to safe dark areas at the poles of both Mercury and our Moon.  Still, Messenger's neutron spectrometer spotted hydrogen, which is a large component of water ice. But the temperature profile unexpectedly showed that dark, volatile materials – consistent with climes in which organics survive – are mixing in with the ice. And waiting for us?

NASA seeks concepts for two Hubble-sized telescopes. Last year, two big space telescopes, equivalent to NASA's Hubble Space Telescope in aperture, but designed to have a much wider field of view, were transferred from one of America's super secret spy agencies to NASA. "Because there are two telescopes, there is room for projects that span the gamut of the imagination," and indeed, NASA is now seeking suggestions what to do with these gifts. (Viewed from another angle, one has to realize and ask: was the Hubble itself primarily a way to provide cover for a program to develop spy devices?  I'm not complaining... or even asking! I wouldn't be told, despite my clearance.  Still, one wonders. If these are now cast-offs... what do they have now?)

How NASA might build its first warp drive.

== And finally ... ==

Late puzzler!  The earliest large life forms (ediacaran) may have appeared on land long before the oceans filled with creatures that swam and crawled and burrowed in the mud.

ProxyActivismFinally... followup in the spirit of giving: My friend Lenore Ealey --  a sage in the field of philanthropy theory - kindly wrote about my "proxy power" proposal -- that middle class folks can maximize their future impact on the world by joining perhaps a dozen groups/organizations that pool dues and numbers to pursue specific positive goals.  Lenore's appraisal compares my approach to those of Boulding and Cornuelle with some Baconian philosophical perspective thrown in! Also, she adds a list of favorite NGOs of her own for consideration.  Go Proxy Power. 


Late addendum: The Friday 13th tragedy in Connecticut has us all horrified.  If only we could mature enough to have a society that foremost looks to help the troubled to get the help they need. Alas, this will become another frenzy over "gun control" that sheds no light, only heat. I once attempted to offer a non-partisan, off-angle compromise that would satisfy both those wanting sanity and those seeking to preserve a fundamental American right. It is as cogent as ever. See "The Jefferson Rifle." 

NamesInfamyBut at this point, there is something even simpler.  A matter of cause and effect.  Not one mass shooter was ever brought down by an armed bystander, but most were tackled by heroic citizens who were UNARMED, who waited till the SOB had to change clips or magazines, then bravely tackled the guy. That is the window of heroism! Hence, there is no excuse for legally allowing the sale of giant ammo clips. You do not need em for hunting or self-defense. There is no slippery slope, so please check your reflex. See the reason in this.  Join us and don't make that a fight.  Just give it to us, this one small but crucially pragmatic reform. Now, show us this much flexibility.  For the victims.  Please, just be reasonable this once.
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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