January 31, 2011

Physicists to work on extraterrestrial communications protocol

A group of physicists from the University of Kansas are concerned that there's been virtually no work done to date on developing a messaging protocol to assist in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). Their approach, which is the non-passive METI approach (i.e. sending messages to outer space in hopes of interception), would include constraints and guidelines for signal encoding, message length, and information content. It would also specify a transmission strategy suggesting a simple physical or mathematical language with the signal repeated regularly to avoid being overlooked as noise.

Among their suggestions, the physicists noted that transmissions should use either 1.42 GHz or 4.46 GHz frequencies to coincide with radio frequencies commonly observed in nature, while assuming "modest technical capabilities" of an extraterrestrial receiver. Frequency, pulse and polarisation signal modulation techniques should also be considered to maximise the probability of detection.

They also suggested the establishment of a website through which members of the public could create sample messages that conformed to the protocol, and retrieve and attempt to decrypt messages by other users.

"A METI protocol is needed in order for a unified and international effort to be made in messaging extraterrestrials," they conclude, "By carefully constructing a framework by which to write and send messages, we will optimize the quality of messages as they are broadcast and increase the probability that we are understood."

Check out the abstract as seen in the journal, Space Policy:
Messaging to extraterrestrial intelligence (METI) is a branch of study concerned with constructing and broadcasting a message toward habitable planets. Since the Arecibo message of 1974, the handful of METI broadcasts have increased in content and complexity, but the lack of an established protocol has produced unorganized or cryptic messages that could be difficult to interpret. Here we outline the development of a self-consistent protocol for messaging to extraterrestrial intelligence that provides constraints and guidelines for the construction of a message in order to maximize the probability that the message effectively communicates. A METI protocol considers several factors including signal encoding, message length, information content, anthropocentrism, transmission method, and transmission periodicity. Once developed, the protocol will be released for testing on different human groups worldwide and across cultural boundaries. An effective message to extraterrestrials should at least be understandable by humans, and releasing the protocol for testing will allow us to improve the protocol and develop potential messages. Through an interactive website, users across the world will be able to create and exchange messages that follow the protocol in order to discover the types of messages better suited for cross-cultural communication. The development of a METI protocol will serve to improve the quality of messages to extraterrestrials, foster international collaboration, and extend astrobiology outreach to the public.
Link to PDF.

A case for happy pills

Mark Walker's latest piece is up in the Journal of Well-Being: "Happy-People-Pills For All." Abstract:
It is argued that we have a moral duty to create, and make available, advanced pharmacological agents to boost the happiness of those in the normal, i.e., the non-depressed, range of happiness. Happiness, conceived as a propensity to positive moods, is a quantitative trait with a sizeable genetic component. One means to boost the happiness of those in the normal range is to test the efficacy of antidepressants for enhancement. A second possibility is to model new pharmacologicals based on the genetics of the happiest amongst us, that is, the hyperthymic. The suggestion, in other words, is to “reverse engineer” the hyperthymic: to investigate what makes the hyperthymic genetically and physiologically different and then put what they have into pill form. To the ‘Brave New World’ objection, that there is more to wellbeing than happiness and that taking happy-people-pills will require the sacrifice of these other aspects of wellbeing, it is countered that contemporary social science research supports the view that happiness promotes achievement in the ‘higher’ endeavors of humanity, including work, love and virtue. In other words, happiness promotes acquisition of traits valued by perfectionists. Those born with genes for hyperthymia, on average, tend to be doubly blessed: they are happier and achieve more than the rest of the population. Happy-people-pills are a means to allow everyone else to share in this good fortune. The paper seeks to rebut two further criticisms: that happy-people-pills will lead to emotional inappropriateness and inauthentic happiness. Finally, it is argued that depending on the view about the role of government in individual welfare, either government has a positive duty to develop happy-people-pills, or government has a duty not to interfere with private companies that seek to develop such pharmacological agents.
Link to PDF.

January 25, 2011

Using synthetic life to explore outer space

Lou Friedman's yawn-inducing article about the 100-Year Starship Study workshop has at least one interesting snippet of information:
One really provocative idea using information technology was advanced by microbiologist Craig Venter: sending signals from Earth with information to create synthetic life out of constituents on a complex Earth-like planet in another star system. That would be interstellar flight at the speed of light, so long as that synthetic life could signal us about their success. It is pretty way out—but maybe less so than sending actual humans on the voyage.
Despite this very visionary idea, the article makes me laugh, especially when Friedman notes, "If we are creating the future for humans in the universe, we must occasionally look at where we are going." I don't really think we're creating the future for humans in the universe—and NASA and DARPA of all institutions should be aware of this. As I`ve noted on this blog to the point of nausea, space will be explored by our post-biological descendants—if at all.

January 24, 2011

China's proposed megabus

Check out the Chinese megabus: Also referred to as a mega-straddle bus, it will straddle the road allowing it to pass over the normal road traffic on China’s busy city streets. The buses will be 6 meters (18 feet) wide and 4.5 meters (13.5 feet) high which means they'll take up two road lanes, while still being low enough to get under most of the cities overpasses.

Each of these mega-buses will carry up to 1,200 passengers while blanketing other commuters. They will be electric powered, using a relay charging system that would recharge the bus as it is traveling by maintaining contact with at least one high-power electrical conductor that makes contact with the roof of the bus. The mega-bus either be on a railway style system (similar to trolly cars) or equipped with laser sensing cameras using regular tires following a painted line. The cost savings of this opposed to underground methods are over 90%.

The Chinese are serious about rolling this project out. The Mentougou district of Beijing laid out 186 km of tracks at the end of 2010 for a pilot program. If all goes according to plan, mega-buses will make an appearance in the many megacities right across China. And the good news is that it’s expected to save up to 860 tons of fuel per year, and reducing 2,640 tons of carbon emissions.


January 23, 2011

Using EEG for meditation training [quantified self]

Beer van Geer - Project Dagaz from Quantified Self Amsterdam on Vimeo.

From the Amsterdam QS Show&Tell Meetup group: Beer van Geer explains his award-winning Dagaz Project. His application uses the Neurosky EEG headset to quantify brainwaves during meditation on Mandala symbols. Meditation students and practitioners can observe their progress in real-time.

This is very cool considering the recent news indicating that meditation can change the structure of the brain.

Via Quantified Self.

Ben Goldacre on the placebo effect

Cyborg professor implants "third eye" to back of his head

Via Singularity Hub:
Never question the resolve of an artist. First off, they are crazy enough to do anything. More importantly, some of them are secretly cyborgs. NYU Professor Wafaa Bilal announced his intent to install a camera on the back of his head earlier this season, and, true to his word, he is now walking around with the device surgically implanted. Bilal, an Iraq-born artist, has a history of controversial projects aimed at getting audiences to explore the limits and boundaries of society. Now, his backwards facing camera will stream the part of the world he never sees to visitors at the Mathaf Arab Museum of Modern Art in Qatar. The art project, entitled “The 3rd I” will go live on December 15th and continue for a year. Take a look at the cybernetic camera and listen to Bilal explain his work in the video from the Associated Press below. Two hours of surgery with nothing but local anesthesia – well, no one said becoming a cyborg (or an artist) was easy.

Check out Bilal's website.

Exercise triggers heart-healing genetic program

It's widely known that regular exercise has metabolic and cardiovascular benefits, but until recently scientists weren't exactly sure why this is the case. A recent study, however, offers some of the first molecular-level insights.

Studies on mice indicate that exercise turns on a genetic program that leads the heart to grow as heart muscle cells divide. The shift in activity is driven in part by a single transcription factor--a gene that controls other genes. This gene, called C/EBPb, was known to play important roles in other parts of the body, but this is the first evidence for its influence in the heart.

"We've identified a pathway involved in beneficial cardiac hypertrophy – the good kind of heart growth," said Bruce Spiegelman of Harvard Medical School.

"This is yet another reason to keep on exercising," said Anthony Rosenzweig of Harvard Medical School. "In the longer term, by understanding the pathways that benefit the heart with exercise, we may be able to exploit those for patients who aren't able to exercise. If there were a way to modulate the same pathway in a beneficial way, it would open up new avenues for treatment."

Researchers also suspect that there may also be ways to optimize training regimens such that they tap into this natural mechanism more efficiently.

It was previously known that heart muscle adapts to increased pressure and volume by increasing in size. That's true in the case of exercise as it is in pathological conditions including high blood pressure. But in disease states, as opposed to exercise, those changes to the heart can ultimately lead to heart failure and arrhythmias.

The new evidence also gives important biological insights into the heart's potential for regeneration of muscle.

Rosenzweig said it will be important in future studies to explore all of the players in the pathway and to provide even more definitive evidence that exercise leads to an increased rate of cell proliferation in heart muscle.


DARPA to develop new unified mathematical language for military

DARPA is working to create a unified mathematical language for everything the military sees or hears:
The armed forces are overwhelmed by all the data its various sensors are sniffing out. They want a single data stream that combines drone video feeds, cell phone intercepts, and targeting radar. Darpa’s solution, found in the brand-new Mathematics of Sensing, Exploitation, and Execution program is to design an algorithm that teaches the sensors how to interpret the world — how to think, how to learn and what data, accordingly to collect.

Sensors “process their signals as if they were seeing the world anew at every instant,” Darpa laments in its call for algorithms. To put it in Philosophy 101 terms, existence is, to a sensor, what William James called a “blooming, buzzing confusion“: an unmediated series of events to be vacuumed up, leaving an analyst overloaded with unsorted data. Wouldn’t it be better if a sensor could be taught how to filter the world through a perceptual prism, anticipating what the analyst needs to know?

That’s the specific military application of MSEE. But to get there, Darpa takes a rather unconventional path. To get the “economy and efficiency that derives from an intrinsic, objective-driven unification of sensing and exploitation,” it wants to create an “intrinsically integrated” algorithm for the machines to interpret reality. “All proposed research must describe a unifying mathematical formalism that incorporates stochasticity fundamentally,” Darpa tells would-be designers.

January 22, 2011

Genetic architecture and the radical transformation of planet Earth

Seoul Commune 2026: Reconfiguring Towers in the Park, by the Korean office for architecture Mass Studies. Source.
Genetic architecture is an exciting, promising, and highly conceptual field that suggests we can bridge the gap between biology, artificial intelligence, and architecture. The end of result would see not just the integration of living and inert matter, but the transformation of the entire planet itself. Karl Chu, a leading figure in this area, calls it the "architecture of possible worlds." And he isn't thinking small.

Chu acknowledges that a future in which genetic architecture exists will be one in which humanity has gone through a number of paradigm shifts. He envisions a future in which humans have migrated to post-humanity and exist as "multiple beings" who take part in the emergent collective that is the "global brain." Because Chu considers architecture as an extension of the human and post-human being, he sees great potential for architecture to radically evolve along with its inhabitants and designers. The possibilities are staggering.

Genetic architecture can incorporate creative surroundings. Source.
As part of this vision, Chu and other genetic architects imagine buildings and other objects of our design as being transformed into living entities (if not beings) endowed with certain levels of intelligence and capacities. It will twist our notions of what we have traditionally considered to be lifeless objects, as much of our environment will become endowed with life and even intelligence.

Future "genetic buildings" could, for example, be self-assessing, self-healing and self-modifying, thus minimizing their need to be repaired or maintained by external sources. They will morph, process, and react. These buildings could even meet the needs of its inhabitants by sensing the moods or health of its occupants and act accordingly. Needless to say, the potential for sustainability is substantial.

Concept research: New skin living material. Source.
Chu also notes that genetic architects are not trying to imitate or copy biology. Rather, they are looking to significantly expand the space of possible intentional design through the integration of artificial intelligence and biological processes. He looks at our planet as eventually becoming a massive computing system—a very literal take on the concept of the global brain. The role of architecture is to facilitate and conceptualize this transformation.

The end result could potentially see the Earth as a massive computational and "self-aware" system in which all its components, inhabitants and systems are endowed with intelligence.

Check out this video of Karl Chu giving a talk at TEDxBrooklyn:

Don Tapscott: Designing your mind

Says Don Tapscott:
The existence of lifelong neuroplasticity is no longer in doubt. The brain runs on a "use it or lose it" motto. So could we "use it to build it right?" Surely if we are proactive, the demands of our information rich, multi-stimuli, fast paced, multitasking, digital existence can be shaped to our advantage. In fact, psychiatrist Dr. Stan Kutcher, an expert on adolescent mental health who has studied the effect of digital technology on brain development, says "There is emerging evidence suggesting that exposure to new technologies may push the Net Generation brain past conventional capacity limitations."

My own research suggests that when the straight A student is doing her homework at the same time as five other things online she is not actually multitasking. Rather she has developed a better active working memory and better switching abilities. Personally I can't read my email and listen to iTunes at the same time, but she can. She has a brain more appropriate to the demands of the digital age than I do.

How could we use design thinking to change the way we think? Good design typically begins with some principles and functional objectives.
Read more.

Lift weights, get smarter

According to the New York Times, voluntary wheel running with a load increases muscular adaptation and enhances gene expression in rat brains indicating that this kind of exercise may have the identical or even more useful neurological effects than endurance training.
Whether the same mechanisms occur in humans who undertake resistance training of one kind or another is not yet fully clear, but “the data look promising,” said Teresa Liu-Ambrose, a principal investigator at the Brain Research Center at the University of British Columbia. In results from her lab, older women who lifted weights performed significantly better on various tests of cognitive functioning than women who completed toning classes. Ms. Liu-Ambrose has also done brain scans of people who lifted weights to determine whether neurogenesis is occurring in their brains, and the results, still unpublished, are encouraging, she said.

Just how resistance training initiates changes in cognition remains somewhat mysterious. Ms. Liu-Ambrose said that “we now know that resistance training has significant benefits on cardiovascular health” and reduces “cardiovascular risk factors,” which otherwise would raise “one’s risk of cognitive impairment.” She speculates that resistance training, by strengthening the heart, improves blood flow to the brain generally, which is associated with better cognitive function. Perhaps almost as important, she added, resistance training at first requires an upsurge in brain usage. You have to think about “proper form and learning the technique,” she said, “while there generally is less learning involved in aerobic training,” like running.

The brain benefits from being used, so that, in a neat circle, resistance training may both demand and create additional brain circuitry. Imagine what someone like Einstein might have accomplished if he had occasionally gone to the gym.

Laws of physics are not fine-tuned for life, says cosmologist

The value of the cosmological constant suggests that the laws of nature could not have been fine-tuned for life by an omnipotent being, says a cosmologist:
Here's the thinking. The cosmological constant is a number that determines the energy density of the vacuum. It acts like a kind of pressure that, depending on its value, acts against gravity to push the universe apart or acts with gravity to pull the universe together towards a final Big Crunch.

Until recently, cosmologists had assumed that the constant was zero, a neat solution. But the recent evidence that the universe is not just expanding but accelerating away from us, suggests that the constant is positive.

But although positive, the cosmological constant is tiny, some 122 orders of magnitude smaller than Planck's constant, which itself is a small number.

So Page and others have examined the effects of changing this constant. It's straightforward to show that if the the constant were any larger, matter would not form into galaxies and stars meaning that life could not form, at least not in the form we know it.

So what value of the cosmological constant best encourages galaxy and star formation, and therefore the evolution of life? Page says that a slightly negative value of the constant would maximise this process. And since life is some small fraction of the amount of matter in galaxies, then this is the value that an omnipotent being would choose.

In fact, he says that any positive value of the constant would tend to decrease the fraction of matter that forms into galaxies, reducing the amount available for life.

Therefore the measured value of the cosmological constant, which is positive, is evidence against the idea that the constants have been fine-tuned for life.
My thoughts:

  • As observers, we don't necessarily have to reside within a universe that is perfectly optimized for life—it just needs to be good enough to foster the emergence and sustenance of life. In the space of all possible life sustaining universes, ours may be but one example of many other viable models.
  • Our universe may not be fine-tuned for life, but it may be optimized for something else. Our universe, for example, may actually be an exquisite black hole generator. Or something we don't yet know. 

January 16, 2011

Autonomous Quadrotor construction robots

Okay, this is full of whoa:

More amazing video here.

Via BotJunkie:
Back in July, we wrote about how UPenn’s GRASP Lab had taught their quadrotors to work together to grasp and move things. The next step, it seems, is teaching the quadrotors to work together to grasp and move things and actually build buildings. The video above shows a team of quadrotors cooperating to construct the framework of a (rather small) building. The building’s structure is held together with magnets, and the quadrotors are able to verify that the alignment is correct by attempting to wiggle the structural components around, which is pretty cool.

It’s fun to speculate about how this technology might grow out of the lab into the real world… To build actual buldings, you’d either need much bigger quadrotors (which is possible), lots of small quadrotors cooperating in big pieces (also possible), or buildings built out of much smaller components (which might be the way to go). The quadrotors probably wouldn’t be able to do all the work, but they have the potential to make construction projects significantly more efficient.

PopSci on "The Terminator Scenario"

Popular Science magazine asks, "Are we giving our military machines too much power?" Even as we imagine the day when robots finally turn against us, writes Ben Austen, scientists are at work on how best to control them. For this article, Austen interviewed a number of key players in this area, including Wendell Wallach, Patrick Lin, Noel Sharkey, Ronald Arkin, P. W. Singer and many others.
We are surprisingly far along in this radical reordering of the military’s ranks, yet neither the U.S. nor any other country has fashioned anything like a robot doctrine or even a clear policy on military machines. As quickly as countries build these systems, they want to deploy them, says Noel Sharkey, a professor of artificial intelligence and robotics at the University of Sheffield in England: “There’s been absolutely no international discussion. It’s all going forward without anyone talking to one another.” In his recent book Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century, Brookings Institution fellow P.W. Singer argues that robots and remotely operated weapons are transforming wars and the wider world in much the way gunpowder, mechanization and the atomic bomb did in previous generations. But Singer sees significant differences as well. “We’re experiencing Moore’s Law,” he told me, citing the axiom that computer processing power will double every two years, “but we haven’t got past Murphy’s Law.” Robots will come to possess far greater intelligence, with more ability to reason and self- adapt, and they will also of course acquire ever greater destructive power. So what does it mean when whatever can go wrong with these military machines, just might?

I asked that question of Werner Dahm, the chief scientist of the Air Force and the lead author on “Technology Horizons.” He dismissed as fanciful the kind of Hollywood-bred fears that informed news stories about the Navy Fire Scout incident. “The biggest danger is not the Terminator scenario everyone imagines, the machines taking over—that’s not how things fail,” Dahm said. His real fear was that we would build powerful military systems that would “take over the large key functions that are done exclusively by humans” and then discover too late that the machines simply aren’t up to the task. “We blink,” he said, “and 10 years later we find out the technology wasn’t far enough along.”

Dahm’s vision, however, suggests another “Terminator scenario,” one more plausible and not without menace. Over the course of dozens of interviews with military officials, robot designers and technology ethicists, I came to understand that we are at work on not one but two major projects, the first to give machines ever greater intelligence and autonomy, and the second to maintain control of those machines. Dahm was worried about the success of the former, but we should be at least as concerned about the failure of the latter. If we make smart machines without equally smart control systems, we face a scenario in which some day, by way of a thousand well-intentioned decisions, each one seemingly sound, the machines do in fact take over all the “key functions” that once were our domain. Then “we blink” and find that the world is one we no longer are able to comprehend or control.
In regards to rule based prescriptions:
David Woods, a professor at Ohio State University who specializes in human- robot coordination and who works closely with military researchers on automated systems, says that a simple rules-based approach will never be enough to anticipate the myriad physical and ethical challenges that robots will confront on the battlefield. There needs to be instead a system whereby, when a decision becomes too complex, control is quickly sent back either to a human or to another robot on a different loop. “Robots are resources for responsible people. They extend human reach,” he says. “When things break, disturbances cascade, humans need to be able to coordinate and interact with multiple loops.” According to Woods, the laws of robotics could be distilled into a single tenet: “the smooth transfer of control.” We may relinquish control in specific instances, but we must at all times maintain systems that allow us to reclaim it. The more we let go, the more difficult that becomes.
And on human enhancement:
The Air Force is also looking into how humans can become more machinelike, through the use of drugs and various devices, in order to more smoothly interact with machines. The job of a UAV manager often entails eight hours of utter tedium broken up at some unknown time by a couple of minutes of pandemonium. In flight tests, UAV operators tend to “tunnelize,” fixating on one UAV to the exclusion of others, and a NATO study showed that performance levels dropped by half when a person went from monitoring one UAV to just two. Military research into pharmaceuticals that act as calmatives or enhance alertness and acuity are well-known. But in the research lab’s Human Effectiveness Directorate, I saw a prototype of a kind of crown rigged with electrode fingers that rested on the scalp and picked up electric signals generated by the brain. Plans are for operators overseeing several UAVs to wear a future version of one of these contraptions and to undergo continuous heart-rate and eye-movement monitoring. In all, these devices would determine when a person is fatigued, angry, excited or overwhelmed. If a UAV operator’s attention waned, he could be cued visually, or a magnetic stimulant could be sent to his frontal lobe. And when a person displayed the telltale signs of panic or stress, a human (or machine) supervisor could simply shift responsibilities away from that person.

January 12, 2011

Zimmer: Can You Live Forever? Maybe Not—But You Can Have Fun Trying

Writing in Scientific American, Carl Zimmer recounts his experience at the 2009 Singularity Summit in New York City:
If the term "singularity" rings a bell, that may be because you've read the 2005 bestseller The Singularity Is Near. Its author, computer scientist and inventor Ray Kurzweil, confidently predicts intelligence will soon cross a profound threshold. The human brain will be dramatically enhanced with engineering. Artificial intelligence will take on a life of its own. If all goes well, Kurzweil predicts, we will ultimately fuse our minds with this machine superintelligence and find a cybernetic immortality. What's more, the Singularity is coming soon. Many of us alive today will be a part of it.

The Singularity is more than just hypothetic milestone in history. It's also a peculiar movement today. Along with spaceflight tycoon Peter Diamandis, Kurzweil has launched Singularity University, which brought in its first batch of students in the summer of 2009. Kurzweil is also director of the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, which held its first annual summit in 2006. The summits are a mix of talks by Kurzweil and other Singularity advocates, along with scientists working on everything from robot cars to gene therapy. For its first three years the Singularity Summit took place around the Bay Area, but in 2009 the institute decided to decamp from its utopian environs and head for the more cynical streets of New York.

I was one of the curious skeptics who heeded the call and came to the 92nd Street Y. Writing about the brain and other scientific subjects had given me a strong immune defense against hype. The Singularity, with all its promises of a technorapture, seems tailor-made to bring out the worst in people like me. The writer John Horgan wrote a devastating essay about the Singularity in 2009 called "Science Cult."

Horgan acknowledged part of him enjoys pondering the Singularity's visions, such as boosting your IQ to 1,000. "But another part of me—the grown-up, responsible part—worries that so many people, smart people, are taking Kurzweil's sci-fi fantasies seriously," he wrote. "The last thing humanity needs right now is an apocalyptic cult masquerading as science."

I decided to check out the Singularity for myself. Between the talks, as I mingled among people wearing S lapel pins and eagerly discussing their personal theories of consciousness, I found myself tempted to reject the whole smorgasbord as half-baked science fiction. But in the end I didn't.
Read more.

January 11, 2011

Amber Case at TED: We are all cyborgs now

Amber Case is a cyborg anthropologist who says that technology is evolving us as we become a screen-staring, button-clicking new version of homo sapiens. We now rely on "external brains" (cell phones and computers) to communicate, remember, even live out secondary lives.

Amber Case studies the symbiotic interactions between humans and machines -- and considers how our values and culture are being shaped by living lives increasingly mediated by high technology.

January 8, 2011

Study: Interstellar Travel Not Possible Before 2200

According to a recent paper put out by Marc G. Millis, humanity will not meet the energy requirements for an interstellar trip for at least another two centuries. Millis is the former head of NASA's Breakthrough Propulsion Physics Project and founder of the Tau Zero Foundation which supports the science of interstellar travel.

He bases these calculations on 27 years of historic energy trends, societal priorities, required mission energy, and the implications of the Incessant Obsolescence Postulate (where newer probes pass prior probes).

Millis considers two possible missions: launching a minimal colony ship where destination is irrelevant, and sending a minimal probe to Alpha Centauri with a 75 year mission duration. In the experiment, the colony ship is assumed to have a mass of 10^7 kg, and the probe 10^4 kg.

The first mission is a human generation ship of 500 people on a one-way journey into space. He assumes that such a mission would require 50 tones per human occupant and that each person would use about 1000W, equal to the average amount used by people in the US in 2007. From this, he estimates that the ship would need some 10^18 Joules for rocket propulsion. That compares to a shuttle launch energy of about 10^13 Joules.

The second mission would be a 71 year journey by an unmanned probe headed for Alpha Centauri which is just over 4 light years away. Such a ship would be some three orders of magnitude less massive than a colony ship so it would require considerably less energy.

"It is found that the earliest interstellar missions could not begin for roughly another two centuries, or one century at best," writes Millis, "Even when considering only the kinetic energy of the vehicles without any regard for propellant, the colony ship cannot launch until around the year 2200, and the probe cannot launch until around 2500."

Problems I have with this paper:

  • Millis's extrapolations assume a linear progression of available energy density; technological development is showing a strong tendency to progress non-linearly
  • He assumes that there won't be a "wild card" type breakthrough in propulsion technology and energy extraction; it's not unreasonable to assume that there will be a sudden breakthrough that could serve as a significant game changer 
  • His 500 passenger colony ship is ludicrous; biological humans won't be making such a journey, and most certainly not 200-500 years from now 

January 3, 2011

Guardian's 20 predictions for the next 25 years

The Guardian has put together a very good list of predictions for the next 25 years:
  1. Geopolitics: 'Rivals will take greater risks against the US'
  2. The UK economy: 'The popular revolt against bankers will become impossible to resist'
  3. Global development: 'A vaccine will rid the world of Aids'
  4. Energy: 'Returning to a world that relies on muscle power is not an option'
  5. Advertising: 'All sorts of things will just be sold in plain packages'
  6. Neuroscience: 'We'll be able to plug information streams directly into the cortex'
  7. Physics: 'Within a decade, we'll know what dark matter is'
  8. Food: 'Russia will become a global food superpower'
  9. Nanotechnology: 'Privacy will be a quaint obsession'
  10. Gaming: 'We'll play games to solve problems'
  11. Web/internet: 'Quantum computing is the future'
  12. Fashion: 'Technology creates smarter clothes'
  13. Nature: 'We'll redefine the wild'
  14. Architecture: What constitutes a 'city' will change
  15. Sport: 'Broadcasts will use holograms'
  16. Transport: 'There will be more automated cars'
  17. Health: 'We'll feel less healthy'
  18. Religion: 'Secularists will flatter to deceive'
  19. Theatre: 'Cuts could force a new political fringe'
  20. Storytelling: 'Eventually there'll be a Twitter classic'
I'm mostly in agreement, but I'm not sure we'll feel less healthier in a quarter century's time. More.