Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. – Arthur C. Clark, scientist and writer.
With that in mind, let’s talk about magic for a minute. Not so long ago (and in some circles still today) people used to talk about alchemy; turning lead into gold was the usual desire. Without knowledge of elements, atoms, and other basic chemistry, the idea was that one substance could be transmuted into another using the philosopher’s stone which, despite its name, was not always a stone but sometimes an elixir or other substance.
Today, we don’t talk about philosopher’s stones, and rarely talk about turning lead into gold. We could plate lead with gold, of course, but that’s not the same. In theory, one could turn lead into gold by reconfiguring the atoms of lead (82 protons and 82 electrons in six fields, with 126 neutrons in the middle) into atoms of gold (79 protons and 79 electrons in six fields, with 118 neutrons in the middle.) It looks so simple, and indeed we have transmuted lead into gold, but, unfortunately, it take massive amounts of energy to swipe a few basic subatomic particles and turn one element into another.
That notwithstanding, transhumanists hope to convert not just lead into gold, but any element into any other. Like Star Trek’s replicator, scientists hope to use some basic bag of material (it really doesn’t matter what), destroy the material by tearing apart the subatomic particles, and then reassembling them into whatever configuration one wants. Bales of hay could be transmuted into a Ferrari, in theory. The widespread use of that sort of technology leads to what some transhumanists call abundance; the utter irrelevance of ‘(personal) property’ as such because anything can be turned into anything else. I recently ran across the Foresight Institute’s page on molecular assemblers and I’m fascinated. But, by all accounts, the technology is many years away (but would probably represent the most important invention … ever.)
In the meantime, how is abundance looking? The Huffington Post recently ran an article by Peter Diamandis, who argues that technology has already vastly improved the world as a whole. Global per-capita incomes (inflation adjusted) have tripled, lifespands have doubled, childhood mortality has decreased by 99%. His fascinating article goes on to explain why, despite living in vastly better times (as a world community, not just Americans) we’re still focused on the negative.
To power abundance, of either the molecular assembler or the more recognized variety, we’ll need a lot of computing power. Moore’s Law has predicted, accurately, that the number of transistors on a chip would double every couple of years and, as a corollary, that the processing power would double about every 18 months. Every few years, people predict the end of Moore’s Law, but it’s remained accurate since 1965 (and, more generally, for technology since essentially forever according to Kurzweil.) Researchers from the University of South Whales and Purdue have recently created new wires in silicon a stunning one atom tall by four atoms wide. Such small wires could enable quantum computing in silicon; a stunning feat that would continue Moore’s Law into the foreseeable future. Additionally, it makes nano-scale engineering more feasible.
What could we do with all that computing power? Patrick Tucker of the World Future Society recently offered some thoughts. Artificial Intelligence is already being used to replace workers in China, but even professionals like doctors and lawyers are being helped / replaced by automated robots. Managing all the information being created is vital, so AI is being used to search speeches on TV like one searches the web with Google, and also to sift through human genomes to look for similarities. Google is creating self-driving cars. Researchers in China are identifying the cause of traffic jams based on two years worth of GPS data collected from 33,000 cabs. There will be, in short, need for all the computing power we’re inventing.
I’m going to switch gears for a moment to some random new discoveries. Technology Review reports on new advances in carbon nanotubes that are leading to materials that are more conductive and weigh much less than traditional materials. Meanwhile, technology company Lumus has created a pair of see-through augmented reality glasses that are lightweight and project a HD (720p), 3-D, 87″ screen into the wearer’s field of vision. They’re not the most stylish thing in the world, but who wouldn’t love to throw an 87″ TV into their backpack and set it up in the library? Better yet, let’s put these in a bionic eye. Additionally, scientists are trying to use robots to figure out how language evolves in the natural world, including among animals.
In the realm of ethics, Vinton Cerf argues that internet access is neither a human right nor a civil right in the New York Times opinion pages. This is in response, of course, to the argument that internet access -is- a human right, including a UN Report to that effect. Unsurprisingly, the blogosphere (I’ve wanted to use that word for a while) has lit up with responses on both sides. Here’s one example, from JD Rucker.
Finally, if you’re still feeling down about the world, check out Jason Silva’s videos on techno-optimism. The pattern video at the beginning is particularly good.
Physorg.com writes that U of Washington researchers have created a computer program capable of making double entendre jokes based on words with “high sexiness value, including “hot” and “meat”…” Despite the serious language analysis involved in such a silly exercise, I can’t help but think that this just means that computers are a little closer to being able to ice their bros once they attain sentience.
In other news, researchers at the University of Electro-Communications in Japan have created a device that lets you simulate a kiss with your partner of choice over the internet: As long as you routinely kiss with a straw in your mouth it seems. However, with better technology and a less pencil-sharpener looking device, users in long distance relationships (of the serious, or more casual kind) could build some level of intimacy despite miles of separation. One of the inventors suggests that if a major pop star were to program their kiss into the device, it might be a new and powerful way of connecting with fans; subject to the technology getting better, that seems like a great point. And it’s not to difficult to imagine other remote-tactile applications. I think that remote-tactile interfaces are going to become immensely popular expansions of the general cyber-sex phenomenon that currently exists, but the devices are going to have to be more realistic than a straw on spin cycle. Certainly the adult entertainment industry is throwing money into the idea, and has even created a racy term for the technology: teledildonics.
Finally, German researchers have created an eye-computer interface where a sub-dermal power supply connects to a chip implanted under the retina to restore some vision to the blind. No longer the stuff of miracles, restoring sight to the blind is both important in its own right (for obvious reasons) and a great step toward understanding how the brain processes visual information. With a little more understanding, and a little better tech, it should be possible to enhance the visual range of people with perfectly normal vision, including such nifty (and useful) additions as zoom, night vision, and wirelessly updated heads-up-displays. After all, basic augmented reality exists currently in goggles, the military is working on more advanced technology, and it seems just a hop, skip, and a jump to the augmented reality not just being a heads-up display, but a display superimposed from our biotic or cybernetic eyes into our field of vision.
Exciting stuff, from the silly to the useful.