Friday, December 30, 2011

Scattered Notes from the Future

As we approach New Years Eve, I figure a look forward is necessary - past 2012, because we'll still be here on January 1st, 2013. And that's all I'm going to say about this Y2K Rapture 2012 nonsense. I've lived through three Raptures, Y2K, 9/11, and predicted global nuclear war. I've learned that there's only one way to look and that's forward.

I'm firmly of the belief that we need a future. We need something to aim for. And right now, that thing we need to aim for is the Singularity. What's on the other side of? Who knows. That's why it's called the Singularity. We can't see what's on the other side. Once we get there, we'll know. Will it destroy use as a species? Maybe. But you know what? I'll take potential destruction at the hands of reaching for a future that we can all share than destruction while we claw at a past that never existed.

So, with that in mind, I read an interesting article today from H+, addressing the point about human normal people don't believe in the Singularity. It was an interesting article that made a few interesting points. On that note, I read a similar article that dealt with the concept of technology that fully embraces Clarke's 3rd Law. While the two are not necessarily related, I'm going to look at both articles and give my opinions on them both. I'm also going to end it with my New Years Resolution, because I only have one.

The first article deals with why ordinary folks don't believe in the Singularity. I believe it's likely there will be one; at one point, we're going to hit a fusion of science and technology where everything on the other side is blurred and unknown. The second article takes a look at what some post-Singularity tech might look like, but that comes later.

The concept of a Singularity has been around for a while now; since at least 1847. Individuals have set various dates for it, but it gets to a point when it begins to feel like the Rapture. We set this date and then it doesn't happen. Will it ever happen? Well, unlike the Rapture, there is a good chance of there actually being a tech singularity. There are often parallels drawn with the Rapture, to be totally honest, but I feel they're not deserved. In Human Black Box, Zira draws parallels between the Fall and the Rapture, but the Fall was not the Singularity. The Fall was part of the Singularity in that fictional universe, but not the whole thing. And there's no one single idea what the Singularity will even look like - it could be argued that there have been Singularities in the past: for instance, the invention of the printing press by the Chinese, before being exported to/reinvented in Europe. It totally revolutionized learning and the way that books were designed. Knowledge became something that the average person could get their hands on, and as such, the entire face of the world changed. I'd argue that it was hard to tell what technology or society would look like once they'd hit the point of that point; making the development of the printing press a singularity event in our past.

So, this article asks, why doesn't the ordinary person believe in the singularity?

Ordinary people, and even older and more educated ones, disbelieve in a technological Singularity for three major reasons. In looking at the following reasons, we should remember that, since youngsters, middle aged persons have been listening to different predictions about the future and nothing has happened around them.

In the 60s it was claimed that space travel and colonization would be a reality.
In the 70s it was claimed that robotics and automation would be a reality.
In the 80s it was claimed that genetics (gene therapy and stem cell therapy) would be a reality.
At the time, I became very tired of the naysayers, especially by 1991. There was a tiny reportage of extremely important events and an almost total lack of policy implications at any real level. There was especially a lack of notice at the governmental level, to which I can attest. I refer specifically to experiments on lifespan extension that were reported in the back pages of newspapers in three paragraphs. Or sometimes two.
Lack of coverage is a big thing. If you don't believe me, look at how widely the Apollo space program was covered. And look at how it galvanized the public, into kicking their government in the butt and letting them know that we wanted that Moon, and that Moon was going to be ours. I'm sure it helped we were racing against a foreign power at the time that was hostile to the United States, but it was there. It was in the news.

So where is it today? Well, I've already criticized the pro-coathanger brigade and the forced birthers/anti-life movement for holding up stem cell research, but they're a symptom in addition to being a problem. The biggest problem here is that people don't understand it. It used to be that there were actual science journalists, who would understand what they were reporting on. We're at the stage now where "news" is corporate owned and operated, and dominated by opinions rather than facts. In this environment, opinions become facts, despite the fact that they're so obviously not. A twisted relativism sets in about the truth; in much the same way that some on the Left will justify heinous, misogynistic cultures with "well, that's their culture", we're seeing it with almost everyone - "well, that's their truth. You're not open-minded for dismissing the potential for the earth being 6,000 years old."

Another problem is that there's rampant poverty and a shrinking middle class. When you had a  middle class, you had a group of people who had the resources to devote towards these things. On Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, achieving the Singularity isn't as important as say, feeding yourself and your children. Science education is also abysmally inferior; parents can sign waivers to take their kids out of school so they can miss lectures on evolution in some districts, and most districts bypass it all together by just not teaching evolution. The basic building block upon which all of modern biology is built upon is glossed over, in an effort to try and not confront stupid and dangerous beliefs and smash them with the scorn they so rightly deserve. This lack of science education is coupled with the irony of the United States to push for more solid education, and helps create an environment, when combine with "pop science" and the talking heads where science is viewed with skepticism and treated as something "less" or something "dangerous." I've been called arrogant before for my views on science and technology, and my views on the future. I mince no words - this is a badge of honor. Calling me arrogant means I'm willing to reach further than you are, that I'm willing to try and fly higher, and achieve more than you could even dream of doing. And that's not a good thing, because everyone should be striving. Everyone should be reaching, and attempting to fly high. Everyone should be dreaming. And if I'm willing to reach higher, fly faster, and dream larger than you are, then there's something wrong - the problem isn't with my arrogance, it's with your restraint.

There are authorities at work right now who view the world as being just fine the way it is, and don't want to see it changed. Those that do want to see it changed want to take it back to an earlier time, when things were better. That's perfectly understandable, if horrifically harmful to society as a whole.

This is a perfect storm. Make no mistake - all of these events, these things, are a prefect storm. If you want to know why the average person doesn't think there will be a Singularity, odds are, they don't even know what it is. Or if they do, they got their knowledge form their pastor at church, who's just as likely to condemn - with a sneer on his face and disdain in his heart - the arrogance of man attempting to play God. Look at how wary people are around biotechnology. This word, "ethics", gets thrown around like every biomedical technician is a potential Joe Mengele; just itching for the chance to "shed the morality of the common man." Make no mistake - ethics are important. But "ethics" as people use it today is a means to escape having to face the fact that we have this technology, and as a way of stamping out thoughts that they don't want to have to deal with. Human cloning violates no ethical boundaries so long as we treat the clone like a separate human being. If we don't do that, then it's not medicine or science that's violating the ethics - it's society. It's you.

I don't believe in a god of any stripe. However, If God didn't want us to have these tools, we wouldn't have them. What we see in that attitude is the culmination of radical, anti-rationalist Romanticism and the modern skepticism of science, scientific progress, and the future. Certain types of technology were more acceptable than others, although anymore it seems like any kind of technology that doesn't directly affect people doesn't get reported on.

Okay, I'm done with my rant. Hie makes an interesting point in the article that I never thought of before. Take a look at the order that he places those different happenings - in the 60s it was space travel, in the 70s it was robotics, and in the 80s it was genetic engineering and biomedical advances. When we hit the 90s, people were cynical, and this stuff became the tropes of Hollywood, who uses and abuses them with wanton disregard for how real life works. At all.

But look at the current advances we've had so far. Currently, we're developing medicines to counter act viruses using their genomes as a weapon. Soon, we'll have the ability to grow organs, or clone body parts. Soon, we'll have the technology on hand that allows you to stay youthful right into your middle ages - you look like you did when you were 20, even though you're almost 50. And you still feel like it, too. Death is nothing but a genetic disorder; the body begins to decay due to genetics. Crack the genetic code and you can defeat the death of the body. Flush the red blood cells that build up, heal the cancers, and eliminate the diseases, and soon, you've erased death by aging and diseases. All of this is biomedical advances. We're almost there for most of it. In face, by 2020 - in less than 6 years - we'll see human organs that can be cloned and used for surgery.

What comes after that? Well, computing is only getting stronger. Robotics is advancing, too - they've got humanoid robots right now, and they're exploring AIs. While I don't think AIs will appear until later, they will appear. Hell, they've got sexbots already - it's telling that one of the first applications of every new technology is for sex or sexual entertainment, but that's what drives humans, and there's nothing wrong with it. This will appear in tandem beside the genetic advances, but the genetic advances started first - just keep that in mind.

What happens then? Well, once you hit Strong AIs and Seed AIs, you get the singularity. The one thing that we're missing is space travel. And it's rather ironic, because, as the article points out, while space travel was the first thing that we started, it'll be the last thing that we actually achieve. We may not even achieve cost effective space travel before the Singularity. We may never achieve cost effective space travel. Not for the resources it'd pull to punch a ship into orbit.

Course, if you have mind-uploading and broadcasting, you don't need space travel.

I'm pretty sure we'll see space colonies. Maybe not like science fiction portrays, but we'll see them. and we'll see Lunar colonies, and Martial colonies. Maybe even exosolar colonies. Of course, by the time we hit this point, we'll be well past the singularity, so maybe we won't even need it.

I've said before that it's called a Singularity because we have a hard time looking beyond to see what's on the other side. What will society be like? What will technology being like? I'm actually rather dismayed that there's not a lot of science fiction that explores this concept. Even Star Trek, one of the most progressive "science" fiction programs, is very dated by it's lack of transhumanism, mention of a singularity, and AIs (AIs aren't allowed in the universe. Why someone would willingly stymie human progress because they were scarred by The Terminator as a child is mystery to me; I think it had more to do with special effect constraints than anything else, but that's just me). Hell, compared to the world of Transhuman Space or Eclipse Phase, the aliens in most modern science fiction films are down right tame. Okay, so your Klingons have forehead ridges. Big fucking deal. My humans have purple skin, pointed ears and forehead ridges, blue hair with long fingers and are both sexes at the same time, and that's ignoring the fact that they can also become large biomechanical crabs. Fiction is strangely silent on this front, in most cases. Now, that's not to say it doesn't exist - obviously it does - but in the popular imagination, it's not. There.

So, it's up to the dreamers once again to try and imagine what the post-singularity world will once again look like. And what a strange future it might be.

The next article I'm going to link to requires a functioning knowledge of particle physics to understand, but I'm only going to deal with the big idea here, because I find it interesting. The concept of X-tech paints a broad picture of what hypothetical post-singularity technology looks like; and it's very interesting.

Forget everything you knew about nanotechnology. Claytronics, smart fogs, nanotech hives, smart assemblers, cornucopia machines, and everything else. Nanotechnology is so pre-Singularity. The article deals with concepts well beyond that.

To fully understand, you need to have a passing familiarity with the metric system and metric designations. While I have a lot of readers form the world where metric is what they're taught, I have just as many from the United States, who aren't aware or might be dimly aware but don't really know for sure. So, in the spirit of taking nothing for granted, a quick overview: nano is 1000^-3 meters. That's 0.000 000 001 meters. Nanotechnology is any technology that operates at that level. The next step below nano is pico, which is 1000^-4 meters, or 0.000 000 000 001 meters. After Pico is Femto, which is 1000^-5 (Just keep adding an extra set of three zeroes for each increase in the exponent). Below Femto is Atto, which is 1000^-6, then Zepto, which is 1000^-7, and finally Yocto, which is 1000^-8.

When I take about future, post-Singularity technology, I'm can only assume that surefire future trends will continue, and one of those trends is that "smaller is better." Which means nanotechnology will give way to picotech, just as microtech gave way to nanotech. Post-singularity tech, however, will likely operate on the Femto level, or the Atto, or even the Zepto level.

Those words and zeros are meaningless without something to compare them too. Even then, they're meaningless because of the scale we're at here, but I'll try anyway. 1 nanometer is the distance of the sucrose molecule, or 1/2 the length of a DNA helix. 1 Pictometer is the approximate distance between atomic nuclei in a white dwarf, or, for another reference, roughly 1/50th the calculated radius of a hydrogen atom. 1 femtometer is roughly 1/2 the classical estimated radius of an electron. 1 attometer is roughly 3,000 times greater than the scattering of the de Broglie wavelength of a proton in the LHC, which is 354 zeptometers. 1 zeptometer smaller by roughly half than the cross section of a 20 GeV neutrino. 1 yoctometer is smaller than the smallest particle, and the next step below that is the Planck length - 1.6 x 10^-35 meters, which is the smallest possible scale according to modern physics.

So, nanotechnology, these, gives use the ability to manipulate DNA and the structure of materials at the molecular level. Any step below that and you're looking at technology that manipulates matter at the atomic level, with the capability of, among, other things, changing the oxidation states of various atoms; manipulating the various states of atoms to produce metastable states with "unusual properties", like Rydberg atoms. This would allow for self-replicating molecular machines, and the creation of molecules formed of things other than atoms. And this is just the potential for femtotech; I'm aiming higher (or, rather, lower). The article suggests technology one step below that; called attotech, and then to the next step, zeptotech, both of which would function at scales much smaller than atoms. We're talking technological advances that would manipulate the basic, most fundamental elements of matter. With attotech and zeptotech computing, the whole of the universe becomes your computer; and with yoctotech and Planck tech, the whole of reality becomes your play thing, because you're getting down into the theorized quantum foam that underlies the universe. If such technology is possible, as the article suggests, you could have entire civilizations that have achieved it uploading themselves into computers that function at scales smaller than the nucleus of an electron.

This is where hard science runs screaming into Clarke's 3rd law - any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. What kind of power would having the ability to achieve these types of technology have? What kind of entities have already achieved them, if they're at all possible? When you can manipulate the fabric of the universe by playing with the quantum foam that forms it's foundation, you can do amazing things.

To us, it would look like magic. To them, though, or even to a future us, it would be anything but.

So, is this possible? I don't have the first clue. I know nanotechnology has a lot of hurdles it has to over come first, and there's a lot of forces acting at those small distances that we can't quite comprehend yet. Does that mean we should just trust the talking heads, say we'll never get there, and throw in the towel and hope for a better yesterday over a better tomorrow? Nope.

Which leads me to my New Years Resolution. I have a few this year, ranging from the usual - loosing weight - to the far fetched - getting the fuck out of this state, maybe meeting someone else, getting out on my own, leaving the country if the Republicans manage to win. But I have one big one, one large resolution that overshadows them all.

See, this year, my resolution is to reach farther. There will be no yesterday, no better yesteryear. No broken dreams, no wishing for what never was. I will reach higher, dream larger, and meet the future headlong.

So hold on, because here I come.

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