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.
Only five days in to 2012, and mind-blowing articles are already dropping.
According to Pentagon scientists (reported by Physorg.com and others), Cornell students have created a device that splits beams of light, hiding an event from sight. They’re calling it a time cloak. For around 40 picoseconds (trillionths of a second) the scientists are able to create a gap in the light by using a time-lens to split the light into slower red and faster blue components. This makes anything occurring in the gap invisible. In theory scientists could make the device effective for a few millions of a second, or perhaps even a few thousandths of a second, but a device large enough to erase a whole second would need to be approximately 18,600mi long. Even for someone like me who envisions mechanical implants for humans and perhaps even brain uploading into a computer, this article is fantastic. I’d love to see some confirmations of this technology and a better explanation for how, exactly, it works. Still, it seems it won’t be a very effective Ring of Gyges anytime soon, if at all.
Researchers in Japan, meanwhile, have created super sensitive sensors out of carbon nanotubes. The sensor is flexible enough to be woven into clothing, and can be stretched to three times its normal size. In addition to rehabilitation uses, this sort of sensor seems great for the blossoming world of controllerless video game systems like the Xbox Kinect. Such sensors are also implantable into people receiving organs (biological or otherwise) or could just be used to record biometrics in your everyday clothing.
Finally, Klaus Stadlmann gives a TED Talk about inventing the world’s smallest 3-D printer. It seems to be about the size of a Playstation 2, and can print in incredible detail. I thought the talk was a little dry, but still interesting.
There have been several interesting brain articles in the last few days. Forbes ticks down their top-10 brain articles from 2011, including memory-assisting chips, using magnetism to affect moral judgments, potential treatments for people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, and thought-controlled apps for your cell phone. Although the brain is still largely mysterious, scientists are making massive amounts of progress on all fronts yearly.
Discover Magazine reports that anesthesia might be the key to better understanding how consciousness works. Apparently it’s not unusual for patients under anesthesia to wake up, then go back under and never remember that they woke up. I’ve talked a bit about the problem of recognizing consciousness before (one essentially has to rely on reports of consciousness, but consciousness itself cannot be directly tested for) and this article does a good job of reiterating the problem. The researchers hope that by putting people under and eliciting subjective reports of consciousness after the fact, they will be better able to pin down just what it is that makes a person conscious.
Medicalxpress.com posted an article in December asking Why Aren’t We Smarter Already? The authors suggest that there is an upper-limit to various brain functions, and that while drugs and other things could potentially bring low-scoring individuals up, those already at or near peak performance would see little or no gain from the same drugs. If this is right, then there is reason to doubt that mind-enhancing drugs (say, Adderall) could make the smartest people even smarter. Yet, the article only talks about improving the mind that we have, and not about whether it is possible to create an artificial brain (or introduce artificial implants into a biological brain) that -could- break past these natural barriers. It’s no secret that the body is well, but not optimally, designed, and that the same is true of the brain shouldn’t really be surprising.
TechCrunch offers a predictive list of technologies coming in 2012 in an article penned by tech luminary and SingularityU professor Daniel Kraft. According to Daniel, A.I. will become increasingly helpful in determining diseases, from cheap phone apps that detect cancer with their cameras to A.I. assisted diagnoses in remote villages. 3-D printing will continue to advance, massive increases in patient data will be shared on social network sites like patientslikeme.com, and videoconferencing technology like Skype will increasingly allow doctors to examine patients without an office visit. All good things.
Last, but not least, a team of scientists at USC have recently mapped an entire human genome in 3-D. They hope to be able to evaluate genomes not just based on their genetic make-up, but also their physical structure. Because genomes take up three dimensions in the body, a 3-D map should be a lot more accurate than the standard model.