Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

The passing scene: Links & comments 11/19/14

November 19, 2014

The Myth of AI: a conversation with Jaron Lanier for Edge.

Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist, social critic and pioneer virtual reality researcher, said a computer algorithm is no more a form of life, and artificial intelligence is no more a form of intelligence, than a computer is a type of person.

The great danger is not that intelligent computers will take over, but that human beings will abdicate their decision-making to computer algorithms.  This is especially true, Lanier noted, as corporate managers increasingly make decisions based on computer algorithms.

Lanier warned against “premature mystery reduction”—the assumption that when we learn interesting and important new things, these are the key to understanding everything.

The Scheduled Crisis by Jeannette Cooperman for St. Louis magazine.

William Harmening, who was an Illinois state investigator for 34 years and now teaches forensic psychology, criminology and crisis intervention at Washington University in St. Louis, gave a wide-ranging interview on what to expect when a Grand Jury decides whether to indict Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown.

Harmening spoke of the process of “deindividuation” in which people in a crowd are so caught up by anger that they lose the capacity for thought and self-control and become caught up in something that seems like a group mind.

There is an opposite process, he said, in which people are so caught up by fear that they lose any sense of being a part of organized society and do whatever they think will make them safe, at whatever cost.

High Tide in Republicanland by John Pennington.

John Pennington collected photographs for his blog of water in the streets of American  coastal cities at high tide.   He said these photos weren’t taken in the aftermath of storms or anything like that, just after regular high tide.

This is something that will only get worse.  How much worse depends on what Americans and others do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which are making the climate change and the ocean rise.

Does humanity’s future rest on Mars?

November 10, 2014

The Earth has existed for billions of years, and life arose only once.  We know that because the DNA of all living creatures, from humans to yeast, is related. For all we know, Earth is the only abode of life in the universe.

Life has existed for hundreds of millions of years, and intelligence life appeared only once.  Vision came into existence by means of several different evolutionary paths, but intelligence exists only in creatures with brains.  Even if some kind of life exists elsewhere in the universe, Earth may be host to the only intelligent life.

The whole saga of human life may be a brief and unimportant episode in the history of the universe, and human civilization a minor and short-lived part of that.

marsPIA02653-fullBut that’s not the only possibility.  It is possible that the history of human life and civilization on Earth may be the prelude to the spread of life through the universe, a story that would continue for billions of years.

Recent discoveries show hundreds of planets around stars within observation distance.  We don’t know how to get to those planets, but we do know how to get to planets within our Solar System, which would be a first step.

The billionaire American entrepreneur Elon Musk, the lesser known Dutch promoter Bas Lansdorp and others have announced their intentions of establishing a human colony on Mars.  They want to be real-life versions of science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein’s David Delos Harriman character in The Man Who Sold the Moon.  Like Harriman, they seek profits only as a means of sending humanity to the planets and stars.

vikinglander1-1I am torn between the grandeur of this enterprise and the seemingly hard practical facts.  Establishing a permanent human colony on Mars would be infinitely more difficult than, for example, establishing a self-sustaining colony in Antarctica or the Gobi Desert or a domed city at the bottom of the ocean.

Would people go?  Many say they would.  Could they sustain themselves in an environment so much more unforgiving than anything on Earth?  Would there be an economic payback?  Would people on Earth commit to supporting them indefinitely?

I don’t know enough to answer these questions, but my gut feeling is “no”.  But then again, I agree with Arthur C. Clarke, another science fiction writer, who said that the only way to know the limits of the possible is to venture a little bit into the impossible.

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Geo-engineering the earth’s ecology and climate

October 8, 2014

What if the world continues to fail to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?  There is a different approach to fighting global warming, called geo-engineering.  It means intentionally tampering with the Earth’s ecology and climate systems to stop global warming.

David Keith, in the video above, advocates releasing ash into the air to absorb sunlight.  Joseph Cannon, in a blog post (link below), advocates using Pykrete—ice impregnated with wood pulp—to slow the melting of Arctic ice.  Another plan is to dump clouds of iron filings into the ocean, stimulating the growth of plankton and other marine plants that absorb carbon dioxide.

Other scientists are working on genetically-engineered plants that would absorb sunlight more efficiently and suck up carbon dioxide in greater amounts.

I’m leery of such plans, without having any specific objections beyond Murphy’s Law. the Law of Unintended Consequences and the Precautionary Principle.

But if global warming starts to accelerate, the world’s people will demand emergency action, whether such action is well thought out or not.  So I agree with Joseph Cannon.  It is time to research Plans B just in case.

Keep in mind, though, that the open-ended buildup of greenhouse gasses, if not stopped, will sooner or later overwhelm any Plan B.   And that would require a Plan C, a Plan D and a Plan E.  Which would be followed by more plans to counteract the unforeseen effects of the earlier plans.

Or maybe, by that time, the problem will have been rendered moot by the scarcity and high price of what’s left of the world’s coal, oil and natural gas.

LINKS

Climate change and the limits of debate by Joseph Cannon for Cannonfire.  (Hat tip to Cannonfire for the video)

Should we upgrade photosynthesis and grow supercrops? by Michael Le Page for New Scientist.

 

The passing scene: Links & comments 10/6/14

October 6, 2014

Populist Former Senator Jim Webb Could Give Hillary Clinton Major Headaches in 2016 by Lynn Stuart Parramore for Alternet.

I’ve long admired Senator James Webb, the former Senator from Virginia.  A Vietnam veteran and Secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration, he switched from the Republican to the Democratic party out of disgust for the Bush administration’s subservience to Wall Street.  He has criticized the Obama administration on the same grounds.

Webb is an opponent of reckless military intervention abroad, a critic of the “war on drugs” and mass incarceration and a friend of working people.

I admire Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts for the way she stands up to Wall Street, but I agree with Webb on a broader range of issues than I do with her (for example, she goes along with the administration’s war policies).

Tech gives the rich new toys while perpetuating the criminalization of poverty by Nathaniel Mott for Pando Daily (via Naked Capitalism)

A new device allows subprime auto lenders to track the location of a debtor’s car and to disable the car if the debtor falls behind on payments.  The New York Times reported this has happened when the car is in motion.

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A map of the on-line world

October 2, 2014
Internet-Pop

Click to enlarge.

Hat tip to The Big Picture

India to Mars, on time and on a shoestring

October 1, 2014

dYOLLCrChart by Global Post

India’s recent Mars mission was the first time a nation succeeded in sending a spacecraft to Mars on the first try.  And it was the lowest-cost Mars mission on record—even cheaper to do that some well-known science fiction movies. Spokesmen say it was all done without any imported components.

It is true that India had the benefit of experience of nations that previously sent missions to Mars.  But Russia and Japan had that benefit, and they spent more with less success.

It also is true that the scientific mission of India’s spacecraft was more limited than that of some other nations.

Even so, India’s Mars mission is a remarkable achievement, both in itself and for how it was done.

LINK

Mangalayan sends India’s critics into orbit by Raja Murthy for Asia Times.

David Graeber on postmodernism

September 24, 2014

Might the cultural sensibility that came to be referred to as postmodernism best be seen as a prolonged meditation on all the technological changes that never happened?

The question struck me as I watched one of the recent Star Wars movies.  The movie was terrible, but I couldn’t help but feel impressed by the quality of the special effects.

Recalling the clumsy special effects typical of fifties sci-fi films, I kept thinking how impressed a fifties audience would have been if they’d known what we could do by now—only to realize, “Actually, no. They wouldn’t be impressed at all, would they? They thought we’d be doing this kind of thing by now. Not just figuring out more sophisticated ways to simulate it.”

That last word—simulate—is key. The technologies that have advanced since the seventies are mainly either medical technologies or information technologies—largely, technologies of simulation.  [snip]

The postmodern sensibility, the feeling that we had somehow broken into an unprecedented new historical period in which we understood that there is nothing new; that grand historical narratives of progress and liberation were meaningless; that everything now was simulation, ironic repetition, fragmentation, and pastiche—all this makes sense in a technological environment in which the only breakthroughs were those that made it easier to create, transfer, and rearrange virtual projections of things that either already existed, or, we came to realize, never would.

Surely, if we were vacationing in geodesic domes on Mars or toting about pocket-size nuclear fusion plants or telekinetic mind-reading devices no one would ever have been talking like this.

The postmodern moment was a desperate way to take what could otherwise only be felt as a bitter disappointment and to dress it up as something epochal, exciting, and new.

via Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit – The Baffler.

David Graeber on the space race

September 23, 2014

It’s often said the Apollo moon landing was the greatest historical achievement of Soviet communism.  Surely, the United States would never have contemplated such a feat had it not been for the cosmic ambitions of the Soviet Politburo.  [snip]

The American victory in the space race meant that, after 1968, U.S. planners no longer took the competition seriously.  As a result, the mythology of the final frontier was maintained, even as the direction of research and development shifted away from anything that might lead to the creation of Mars bases and robot factories.

The standard line is that all this was a result of the triumph of the market.  The Apollo program was a Big Government project, Soviet-inspired in the sense that it required a national effort coordinated by government bureaucracies. 

As soon as the Soviet threat drew safely out of the picture, though, capitalism [supposedly] was free to revert to lines of technological development more in accord with its normal, decentralized, free-market imperatives—such as privately funded research into marketable products like personal computers.  [snip]

In fact, the United States never did abandon gigantic, government-controlled schemes of technological development.  Mainly, they just shifted to military research—and not just to Soviet-scale schemes like Star Wars, but to weapons projects, research in communications and surveillance technologies, and similar security-related concerns.

To some degree this had always been true: the billions poured into missile research had always dwarfed the sums allocated to the space program.  Yet by the seventies, even basic research came to be conducted following military priorities.

One reason we don’t have robot factories is because roughly 95 percent of robotics research funding has been channeled through the Pentagon, which is more interested in developing unmanned drones than in automating paper mills.

via Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit – The Baffler.

David Graeber on the lack of flying cars

September 21, 2014

David Graeber, the brilliant anarchist-anthropologist, wrote about possible reasons why technological progress seems to be slowing down, and why the science fictional dreams of his boyhood did not come true like the dreams of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne.

David Graeber

David Graeber

One is that American institutions are reshaping themselves on the model of the for-profit corporation, where everything has to be justified on its potential for short-term profit.  If you have to show in advance what you intend to invent, and its guaranteed cash value, you’re not going to invent anything very new.

Another is that the government and corporate elite is not interested in radical new technologies that will disrupt the power structure.  So research is focused on high-tech automated weapons, on surveillance technology, on psychiatric drugs to keep us calmed down, and on special effects, virtual reality and electronic gadgets to keep us distracted.

Yet another is that the payoff from technology, in terms of profits, is reaching a point of diminishing returns, which, by the way, is something Karl Marx predicted.

I strongly recommend reading the whole thing.  Click on Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit to read it.

The new normal: Links & comments 7/21/14

September 21, 2014

There Are Social and Political Benefits to Having Friends by David Brooks for the New York Times.  (Hat tip to Hal Bauer)

David Brooks argued for the benefits of friendship, especially how good friends bring out the best in each other.  He proposed, tongue in cheek (I think), a program for bringing people together in circumstances in which they would be likely to become friends.  I think it strange to live in a world where the value of friendship is an unfamiliar idea that you have to argue for.

Read Slowly to Benefit Your Brain and Cut Stress by Jeanne Whalen for The Wall Street Journal.  (Hat tip to David White)

I think this article, too, is strange.  The author cites scientific studies that show the benefits of reading, and specifically of reading from printed books, as if reading were an unfamiliar activity that needs justification.

Eight Things We Can Do Now to Build a Space Colony This Century by Annalee Newitz for io9.

Based on the comments, the most controversial of the eight proposals is to build a sustainable future here on Planet Earth so that the space colonists will have a world to come home to.   Some of the hard-core space enthusiasts think this is a false priority.

 


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