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September 29, 2006

Busy Weeks

Pardon the lack of updates, it's been a busy week. This next month looks to be pretty busy, too:

Multiple meetings early in the week. Wednesday is the 20th anniversay of my first date with Janice Cripe, who is now my wife. A good friend who now lives in the UK is in town. More meetings late in the week. And the week after that, I go to Pop!Tech.

Then there's the IFTF project work that looms ever larger. And sometime very soon, I need to prep my talk for Montreal in November.

September 26, 2006

Fringehog Awakens

fringehog.jpgEarlier this year, I was asked to join a podcast group calling itself Fringehog (and no, I don't know why). Founded by accomplished professional futurists Sandra Burchsted and Michele Bowman, Fringehog assembles a variety of ideas about the future into a punchy 30 minute show. I sent off my segment, and waited... and real life intervened for all of us. But much to my pleasant surprise, the Fringehog show with my piece on the Metaverse Roadmap Project (gives you a sense of how long ago this was recorded...) is now up.

Fringehog show: "Real Opportunities in Virtual Worlds."

I'll be sending in my next FH piece this week.

The Transformation of War

George Mokray writes:

I posted my rather extensive notes from Martin van Creveld's The Transformation of War on dailykos at http://www.dailykos.com/story/2006/9/22/02622/8960

Heartbreaking that it was published in 1991 and seems so fresh and pertinent today. I wonder what he is thinking about the recent Lebanese adventure.

An example:

In the future, war will not be waged by armies but by groups whom we today call terrorists, guerrillas, bandits, and robbers, but who will undoubtedly hit on more formal titles to describe themselves. Their organization are likely to be constructed on charismatic lines rather than institutional ones, and to be motivated less by "professionalism" than by fanatical, ideologically-based, loyalties. While clearly subject to some kind of leadership with coercive powers at its disposal, that leadership will be hardly distinguishable from the organization as a whole; hence it will bear greater similarity to "The Old Man of the Mountains" than to institutionalized government as the modern world has come to understand that term.

A combination of factors: the nuclear weapons revolution; the global reach of modern media; the socialization of the armed forces in most of the developed world, where they are seen as part of the society, not apart from it; all of these, and more, have contributed to a situation where the modern Great Powers are unable to use force against each other successfully. Nuclear deterrence countenances no conventional assault; the worldwide audience for military acts -- and for the rarely-successful-for-long censorship of the acts -- magnifies brutality into atrocity; and the public will not long sit still for bloodshed. Conventional war, as we last saw prosecuted effectively in the first half of the 20th century, has little future.

But how the state, which has historically sought a monopoly on violence, can handle the spread of open source warfare, remains an unanswered question.

September 21, 2006

Interview: Julian Dibbell

I have started an online interview with Julian Dibbell, author of Play Money, over at the Inkwell conference at The Well. Inkwell is one of the visible-to-the-public sections of the Well, and web readers are encouraged to send in questions.

Julian and I will be talking about virtual economies, the evolution of the metaverse, Chinese gold farming, and just how much you can get for your top-level character on eBay.

Come on by!

Thursday Topsight, September 21, 2006

shuttle-iss-sun.jpgReturning to the multiple links in a post format in an (unsuccessful) effort to curb my verbosity.

• What Could Have Been: Al Gore's recent speech at the NYU School of Law has received ample coverage in both the activist and the environmentalist blogosphere, so I won't say much about the speech itself. Unsurprisingly, I found his ideas powerful and his presentation (at least in text) compelling.

The idea of calling for a "carbon freeze" is a delightful bit of memetic engineering. Technically speaking, a freeze on greenhouse gas emission growth is only useful if it's followed by reductions, but the phrasing has historical resonance and the concept is easily grasped. His argument for replacing all payroll taxes with carbon taxes is also enticing, although I must admit that my reaction is colored in part due to my circumstances of being a zero-commute knowledge worker (hence relatively little carbon output from work) who just had to pay a surprisingly large quarterly tax bill.

My main point of hesitation about this plan is one I have with most "sin tax" proposals: if the tax is successful at reducing the "sin," it reduces the resources our government has to work with; conversely, if the tax provides a steady source of income for government programs, it is an insufficient barrier to the undesired activity. In short, if the carbon tax is onerous enough to drive organizations to zero-carbon behaviors, it won't bring in enough income to replace payroll taxes. At that point, either the carbon taxes go up further or we have to go back to other taxation systems.

There's a related problem in that current income taxes are very mildly progressive (i.e., a higher percentage for the rich than for the poor), and it's likely that a carbon tax would be far less so (in fact, given that the poor are more likely to drive older vehicles and live in substandard buildings, they may end up using more carbon per capita than the rich).

In and of themselves, these are not sufficient for me to say "no way" to the Gore idea. But they do suggest that a foresight-based approach to planning how such a taxation strategy would work is absolutely necessary. The last thing we'd want is for a switch to carbon taxes to gut government programs while simultaneously hitting the poor harder than the rich.

• Fly Green: Richard Branson today announced that he would spend all profits from his five airlines and train company through the next ten years on greenhouse gas-avoiding energy sources. The total looks to be somewhere around US$3 billion.

Mr. Branson said his companies are already engaged in developing an aviation fuel not derived from oil, as well as enzymes that can improve the efficiency of processes that break down the cellulose in grasses and other crops to produce ethanol and other farmed fuels.

One item in the NYT story that I found both disgusting and unsurprising:

And while drug and semiconductor companies typically invest 10 percent or more of revenues into research, in the energy industry the typical research budget is about 0.3 percent of revenues, said Daniel Kammen, an energy expert at the University of California, Berkeley.

• Shuttle. Station. Sun: This is just a very cool picture: the space shuttle Atlantis and the International Space Station in transit across the face of the Sun. Photograph by amateur photographer Thierry Legault from Mamers, Normandy.

• Bruuuuuuuce!: Pope-Emperor Sterling has a terrific short story in New Scientist(!) entitled "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by Google," about what happens to youth culture in a world of ubiquitous sensors and observation.

We teenagers have to live in "controlled spaces". Radio-frequency ID tags, real-time locative systems, global positioning systems, smart doorways, security videocams. They "protect" us kids, from imaginary satanic drug dealer terrorist mafia predators. We're "secured". We're juvenile delinquents with always-on cellphone nannies in our pockets. There's no way to turn them off. The internet was designed without an off-switch.

• We Can Do It Now: One of the points I kept hammering on at WorldChanging was that the tools and technologies to allow us to beat catastrophic climate disruption were already available to us -- we don't have to wait to act. Now research in Science backs up that assertion. Technology Review summarizes. The upshot? Combined use of non-fossil fuel energy sources could replace all fossil fuel generation; plug-in hybrids could replace 80% of petroleum use in the US; all fossil fuels could be reduced by 70% in 30 years. The researchers estimate the cost as $200 billion per year in the US. A high number, to be sure, but one that ignores the net benefits to the economy of (a) improved efficiencies and (b) new technological industries.

• I Love This Term: I haven't read the article yet, just the lede, but I already love the phrase used as the article's title: "Artificial Intelligentsia."

September 20, 2006


aerosonde.jpgNew Scientist reports on the planned use of the Aerosonde drone to measure the conditions inside a hurricane, including the temperature, pressure, humidity and wind velocity. The Aerosonde will go where no human-crewed aircraft could -- just a few hundred meters above the ocean, where the winds of a hurricane are at their peak. The $50,000 unmanned air vehicle (UAV) is powered by a modified model aircraft engine, and carries meteorological sensors, GPS and (of course) a small computer.

This is very cool, and I look forward to hearing about the results (they haven't had any luck so far, because no hurricanes have come close enough to the mainland US). But while reading the story, I was struck by a connection to something I linked to a few months ago: the Polecat unmanned combat air vehicle, 90% of which is produced by a 3D printer.

At the time, I drew a connection between the Polecat story and the possible use of UAVs by Hezbollah in the recent Lebanon conflict. The Aerosonde story is a better connection, however, and it ties into my larger argument about the democratization of environmental study. As 3D printing technology becomes more readily available, I expect to see the proliferation of small, cheap robotic vehicles for environmental study -- unmanned environmental vehicles, or UEVs, if you will. Certainly research groups will want them, and university students will probably be close behind. As the price drops, and the number of designs grows, you might start to see them in the hands of interested citizens.

And while the UEV that inspired this post is an aircraft, there's no reason why mobile environmental sensors would be limited only to the air.

3D printing might turn out to be a transformative technology for environmental research.

September 18, 2006

Renewable Energy and Global Stability

oil_fire.jpgAn Agence France-Presse article, reprinted at Terradaily.com, got me thinking about some of the unanticipated results of a radical shift to renewable energy systems.

In "OPEC Casts A Dark Eye On The Greening Of Energy," writer Peter Capella quotes sources from within OPEC and Saudi Arabia on the increasing emphasis on green energy in the EU, US and globally. Their reactions aren't terribly surprising -- ranging from wholesale denial:

Yet, oil remains "the leading fuel in the global energy mix for the foreseeable future," said OPEC acting Secretary General Mohammed Barkindo.

...to defensiveness:

Oil producers are also concerned about new anti-pollution regulations that not only aim to drive down consumption, but also oblige oil companies to supply more costly, highly-refined "cleaner" fuels.

"Some government policies which artificially curtail demand, and create demand uncertainties irrespective of market signals, will have economic ramifications that could jeopardise (the) global energy future," [Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-]Nuami complained.

...with an overall sense of injury and insult than anyone would dare consider moving rapidly away from petroleum.

It's easy to respond to this with more than a little schadenfreude, an ever-increasing delight at their dismay. Few people in the West are happy with the behavior of oil exporting nations, so sticking a thumb in their eye has a certain base appeal. As folks like Tom Friedman have made a career of late out of calling for a shift to renewables primarily as a way of de-funding unpalatable regimes, such a response is entirely predictable.

For reasons that have more to do with environmental stability than global amity, I feel even more assertive than they about the need to get off of petroleum (just in case there was any question).

But the reaction from OPEC and Saudi Arabia to comparatively mild greenish policies (such as -- hold onto your hats -- replacing 20% of oil consumption with renewables, nuclear and "clean fossil fuels" by 2020) strikes me as a huge early indicator of the next phase of global instability coming from the Middle East, Venezuela and Nigeria.

It is possible that we see well over a 20% reduction in oil consumption by 2020 due to a combination of alternative energy production, carbon taxes, political considerations, oil peaking and (of course) greater use efficiency. 50% seems outrageously high, but I'm not willing to say that's impossible; the situation we're in now, with the overlap of climate crisis, energy security concerns, and markets looking for new sources of innovation seems ripe for a "tipping point" transition. With a big chunk of oil revenues gone, the nations with economies built entirely upon petroleum exports would find themselves in serious economic and political straits.

This is not hard to predict; in fact, it's almost a certainty (few of the major oil exporting countries have demonstrated a real aptitude for managing rapid change). The OPEC ministers would see this as readily as we do. This is a tremendous threat to their well-being. Some of the oil exporting nations will become more accommodationist in order to secure support from richer countries (although it strikes me as likely they'll turn to China before they turn to the US or Europe). But some will spiral apart, using the increasingly-common tools of global disruption to weaken neighbors and trip up the West.

What are the odds that we'll see a significant system disruption "terrorist" attack against a factory producing solar cells, a major wind farm, or some other visible and symbolic part of the emerging renewable energy infrastructure in the next ten years? These are not facilities that would currently be considered high-priority (or high-security). I haven't seen anyone talking about the possibility of global guerilla strikes against non-petroleum energy facilities as part of the spasm of collapse in the OPEC world -- if any of you have, please send me pointers.

I think this is going to be fairly big. How readily could these nations deal with the loss of a big chunk of their income in a comparatively short time? If I were in charge of the transition away from fossil fuels, I'd have some contingency plans in store just in case decline become collapse far faster than expected.

In no way does this make me think we need to slow the move to non-fossil fuels. We should, however, pay very close attention to the unexpected changes such a move could unleash.

September 15, 2006


devoband.jpgI'm posting this via a computer I haven't used for a few months. My current machine, a 2.0 GHz MacBook, began this morning to exhibit the "random shutdown syndrome" that apparently afflicts most of the units made prior to July or August. I've now sent it off to the mothership for a brain transplant.

I had a current backup, so this is at worst a serious annoyance, not a infocalypse. Still, it got me thinking about typical futurist discourse around technology. It's not impossible to find discussions of (for example) nanofactories or everyware sensor networks that assume that the systems will be buggy and prone to surprising and sometimes baffling failures, but they're not at all common. Admittedly, it's awfully hard to talk about failure states of vaporware. Paradigm shifts in technologies of material fabrication, communication and awareness will undoubtedly be accompanied by significant shifts in what broken or buggy systems look like. All too often, while in the middle of a technological revolution, we'll find ourselves forced to go backwards, forced into technological devolution, simply because the new stuff is broken.

It is entirely possible that the technologies underlying nanofabrication (again, for example) simply will not, cannot break in the ways we're accustomed to with our current high tech gear. This doesn't mean that they won't manifest their own quirks and failures. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that if the technologies offer such a radical leap that they cannot fail in familiar ways, unexpected and potentially significant new failure modes are inevitable, simply because of an imperfect understanding of the complex interaction of these new systems with each other, and (more importantly) with the remaining, and likely abundant, old-style systems.

Proponents of paradigm-shift technologies are so accustomed to having to demonstrate why the new invention will be utterly transformative that they often (in my experience, at least) neglect to consider how the system will behave in the midst of existing technical, legal and social systems. This leads to technologies that work perfectly well in the lab, but fail spectacularly when in the dirty, crowded environment of the real world.

The biggest danger with this sort of thinking is that it leads designers to neglect fail-safe and graceful degradation modes. When we have convinced ourselves that there's no possibility of failure, any failure that does (almost inevitably) occur presents a far, far greater problem than it would have had we considered that a problem might emerge. Instead, technologies should, in Adam Greenfield's words, "default to harmlessness:" Systems fail; when they do, they can fail gracefully or they can fail catastrophically. When a system fails, it should do so in a way which does not itself make problems worse.

The belief that successful outcomes are possible does not require us to ignore or wish away failure. Basing plans on perfection adds a great deal of risk with little added reward. Instead, success demands that we address failures directly: preventing them when possible, mitigating them when necessary, adapting to them if we must.

September 14, 2006

A Last Comment on New Awakenings

I've found it fascinating the kinds of emotions the story about the zolpidem treatment for persistent vegetative state elicits in people. This is clearly a story that hits us in the gut even more powerfully than in the mind. It's a story that leads to difficult questions for those of us who have long advocated for the right to choose one's own course of treatment, including the cessation of treatment.

By far the most common reaction among my friends and colleagues -- and even from me -- has been some variation on rethinking decisions to ask loved ones to "pull the plug" on them if they ever entered a PVS. It's as if all of the concerns around quality of life, expense and misery for caregivers, and loss of both cognition and identity fly out the window at the first sign that a PVS may not have to be so persistent. But people entering a vegetative state do so because of serious trauma -- you don't come out of that fit and ready for work. It's entirely possible that issues around quality of life, expense and misery, etc., could end up being at least as great if not greater once someone comes out of a vegetative state. I'm not saying don't use zolpidem or anything of the kind, only that making choices like this requires a realistic appraisal of the situation.

I've seen a couple of sites linking to my piece (or the BoingBoing entry) that specifically call out the Terry Schiavo case as a situation in which knowledge of this potential treatment would have made a difference. Sadly, it wouldn't have: Schiavo's brain tissue was so thoroughly atrophied that there would have been little for the zolpidem to stimulate. If anything, the Schiavo case is a powerful reminder that zolpidem and the inevitable follow-on treatments won't work on every patient. Initially, it might appear that in such cases there would be no reason not to try the drug anyway, just in case -- but that could well lead to a nightmare scenario where the patient is "conscious" in the sense of responsive to noise, touch and other external stimuli (so clearly no longer technically in a vegetative state) but utterly without cognitive function, memories or any other sign of the previous identity. If all that is left is the lower brain function, is this person still alive? Is he or she still the person we knew, just because he or she once lived in that body?

For those of us who believe that people should have a right to end their own suffering -- or to authorize a loved one to carry out those wishes, if necessary -- the accidental success of this treatment opens up big questions around what constitutes brain death. If a doctor administers zolpidem and reawakens a PVS patient into functional awareness, that's wonderful. If the zolpidem doesn't work, what then? It may be that (say) prozac or xanax has the right chemical trigger to stimulate brain activity in some of the remaining people; how many caregivers would be able to allow a loved one to die with some measure of dignity if such a treatment seemed tantalizingly possible? How many PVS patients will remain unconscious for years to come, well after family might have otherwise agreed to let them pass on, because of the chance that a new drug might help?

Some people have described the ability for a cheap sleeping pill to awaken people thought to be lost as miraculous. But too often, miracles can be accompanied by lasting pain and regret.

September 12, 2006

Abundance, Scarcity and Beta-Testing Tomorrow

I often cite molecular nanotechnology as a transformative technology because of its significant potential implications, especially societal implications. In principle, given inputs of relatively common raw materials (including materials recycled from objects no longer in use), a full-fledged nanofabrication device would be able to build an array of goods limited more by design availability than by system capacity, from clothing to calculators to combat rifles (and, of course, copies of itself). Even if this is just a subset of the products that people normally buy, such a device would still wreak havoc upon traditional economic models. Different cultures will respond in different ways, of course, but a larger question remains. Economics, after all, is traditionally conceived as the study of exchanges under conditions of scarcity. If scarcity no longer applies, how can we have functional markets?

This is not an idle question. Although molecular nanofabricators safely remain vaporware, few specialists in the field would be surprised to see a working prototype within a couple of decades (and, if Chris Phoenix and Mike Treder are right, an abundance of extremely fast, powerful and complete versions a very short time afterwards). That is to say, if you believe that you have a reasonable chance of making it to, say, 2025, you will likely see how the question of markets under conditions of abundance turns out.

If we're clever, though, we might not have to wait.

Fabrication Nation

nanofabber.jpgAs ideas about molecular nanotechnology evolved over the last couple of decades, proposals for how the technology could work have become less fanciful and much more practical. Eric Drexler's original Engines of Creation concept involved free-floating replicating nanoassemblers, pulling carbon out of the atmosphere to making objects quite literally out of thin air. More recently, the nanoassembly technology moved from hanging around in a so-called "utility cloud" to being boxed up in a desktop device: the nanofactory.

On the surface, the idea of a desktop object printer sounds interesting but not particularly revolutionary. Being able to print out a part or a toy wouldn't make traditional retail chains go away. Most of us have perfectly decent ink jet and laser printers, but we still buy books -- why would it be any different with nanofactories?

The difference is initially subtle, but important: if you print out a book at home, what you get is a big stack of letter-size or A4 paper, not a bound book; if you print out a blender (as a random example) from a nanofactory, what you get is a blender, identical in function and design to one you would have previously purchased in a store. A better analogy for a nanofabber is a CD burner. The CD you burn of a collection of music is identical in use and interaction to a store-bought CD. Anyone laying odds on the music industry surviving in more-or-less its present form through 2016? Now imagine that kind of economic impact hitting not just one industry, no matter how large, but dozens or hundreds, all at the same time.

The notion of nanofabrication is a bit mind-boggling, so to be clear, these aren't "replicators" from Star Trek -- they don't *poof* objects into existence. As this video shows nicely, they will assemble things using raw materials, starting initially at the molecular level and moving up in scale. Given the right combination of base matter, good design, and time, a molecular nanofactory could put together just about any kind of physical good (as long as it doesn't need water, which is really tricky to deal with -- so no hot tea, earl grey or otherwise).

You'd still need raw materials (although with good designs that minimize the use of exotic components and effective product recycling, most useful materials won't be hard to come by), you'd still need energy (although with sufficiently efficient solar and wind power units -- readily built with nanofactories, of course -- energy could be effectively free), and you'd still need designs (although this is exactly the kind of environment in which Free/Open Source would likely thrive). And, of course, you'd need a nanofactory.

Let's call it the StuffStation®.

What would a StuffStation® system look like? The home StuffStation® printer would likely be big enough to make a reasonable-sized object, like a laptop or a dress coat, but probably not much bigger; you wouldn't be likely to print out your (electric) car with it, but you'd be able to print any necessary replacement parts. Let's say it's as big as a typical home dishwasher. At one end you have your vat of RawStuff®, either delivered from a supplier (vendor? perhaps) or processed from trash and used gear tossed into your UnStuffStation® mass disassembler, which sits nearby. Since molecular assembly would be extremely material efficient, your vat of RawStuff® will last a good long while.

The unit would have some way for you to tell it what to print, either using a built-in computer interface or a hook-up to whatever home networking system is commonplace by 2025. This would also allow you to load in new designs, either purchased from a developer or acquired from a free design site ("StuffForge.org?"). Just like a typical home computer today, the StuffStation® would likely come with some commonly-used software, but you would need to look for (or write) new programs for additional functions.

Finally, there would be the output. Carrying through the dishwasher analogy, I'd imagine this to be a large door that unlocks when the object is complete and the scaffolding and leftover Stuff® have been recycled. When you hear the "ding," your new gadget/toy/utensil/appliance/outfit/robot pet/weapon is ready.

Of course, there's no reason why you wouldn't be able to have a desktop nanofactory for printing out smaller goods, too -- StuffStation Lite®!

nanofactory.jpgIsn't This Just Like...

If we're to imagine what a world in which physical good could be printed out this easily would be like, we might start by comparing the concept to present-day analogies.

Online information offers just such a comparison. There's little scarcity of information online; search engines like Google and Yahoo! contain well over 20 billion entries, and the blogosphere reportedly grows by 175,000 new blogs every day. This abundance has led to the near-collapse of some traditional economic models (e.g., traditional classified ads) and an explosion of new ones (e.g., Craigslist, eBay). Arguably the most abundant form of online traffic is spam, however, and the abundance of malicious hackers/bored pranksters/eager skr1ptk1dd13s necessitates constant vigilance on the part of site owners, service providers and software developers. The easy duplication of digital content has led to epic battles between intellectual property owners and, well, anyone who wants to be able to transfer a song from CD to iPod. Digital Rights Management code makes it hard for everyday users to make casual copies, even while software specialists break the DRM with relative ease.

The notion of comparing the upcoming nanoworld with the Wild West era of the Internet is not a new one. As far back as early 2001, people working in the field of 3D printing technologies talked about "Napster fabbing," where designs for printable objects would be shared & swapped as easily as MP3s. This is potentially a nightmare for anyone who would want to be paid for nano-design work.

This line of thinking leads to more questions. What does spam look like in a nanofactory world? How about network hacking? DRM? Free/Open Source? Is the "look and feel" of a physical object copyrightable -- can you be charged with theft of intellectual property by making your own version of (say) an Aeron chair, even if the design used in no way relies on Herman-Miller code?

Would nanofactories remain offline 99% of the time, with designs brought over by thumbdrive instead of ethernet, simply for security reasons?

When you are able to manipulate atoms as easily as you do bits, the rules of the bit world apply.

Playing with Models

Analogies only go so far. What if we had a space where people lived the abundance society?

We work to make money; we use money as a fungible exchange medium for scarce products and services. If products are no longer scarce, does this mean that the only jobs left will be service positions? Are there enough service positions for everyone? Or do people do the services that they find fulfilling, leaving others to lounge around and/or be non-productively creative?

burning_man.jpgI'm not a regular Burning Man attendee -- the schedule rarely works out -- but I have gone. My first time wandering the playa, visiting the various camps offering gifts of art, services and/or more physical forms of entertainment, I was struck with a realization: this is one model of what a post-nanotech world might look like. Assume your material needs for food, water, shelter and toys were met, and that you no longer needed to work; what might result is a world where creativity, mutuality, and the gift economy ruled... or a world where sex, drugs and sleeping until 2pm ruled. Or, as with Burning Man, both.

The classic question about services-only abundance economies is "who picks up the garbage?" Leaving aside for the moment the argument that UnStuffStations® could render the garbage question moot, or that nano-built robots could handle basic services, Burning Man is instructive on this point, as well. After the burn, individual camps pick up and haul off their own garbage, under the motto "leave no trace;" in the post-burn period, after the campers have left, volunteers scour the ground looking for traces that have been left. The National Park Service regularly commends Burning Man for keeping the Black Rock desert so clean.

Perhaps the answer to the garbage question (and, by extension, the question of the performance of otherwise unfulfilling services) is "volunteers with a sense of responsibility."

The problem with this model is that Burning Man is a self-limiting event, which probably helps to explain why everyone can be so generous of their time, goods and (occasionally) bodies. For most attendees, it lasts less than a week; I doubt few would even entertain the idea of trying to extend that week to a month, year, or lifetime. It's just too hard to be perpetually engaged, creative and responsible. We need to keep looking for models.

World of Nanocraft

If you built an alternate world, one in which you could control everything, from the weather to the availability of resources to the laws of physics, would you include scarcity?

julian_dibbell.jpgJulian Dibbell, in his new book Play Money, notes that the early virtual world creators made it possible for residents to do or make just about anything within the capacity of the system. Such environments could be enormously fun... for a time. Most residents rapidly lost interest.

Contrast the total-abundance environment with a virtual world like Second Life or World of Warcraft, where scarcity is a hard-coded feature -- either to provide a revenue stream for the developer (upgrading to a paid SL account to be able to do more) or to provide a competitive challenge for the players (striving to the be the first to acquire the epic Flaming Staff of Infection in order to defeat one's opponents on the battlefield and hear the lamentations of their women). Dibbell describes it thusly:

...in the end, the worlds [people] actually wanted to be in -- badly enough to pay the entrance fee -- were the ones that made the digital necessities almost maddeningly difficult to come by. All else being equal, in other words, the addictive, highly profitable appeal of MMOs [Massively Multiplayer Online games] suggests that people will choose the world that constrains them over the one that sets them free. (Play Money, p. 41)

These observations derive in part from the work of Edward Castranova, who has long been the leading figure in the study of virtual world economics. Castranova noted the need for scarcity in successful virtual worlds, describing it as the "essential variable" in online economies.

Abundance and Scarcity

So in the nanofab future, what would be abundant and what would be scarce?

Broadly speaking, information and non-organic physical objects would be two categories most dominated by abundant content. In time, the physical object category would expand to include organics like food and medicine, but at the outset at least, it's hardware.

Conversely, services could remain an economically "scarce" commodity, with the caveat that a sufficiently advanced robotics technology would make up for some of that. Until nanofabs can print a sandwich, food would remain scarce. Land would definitely remain scarce; even if super-duper nanofab technologies would allow us to "make the desert bloom," wise environmental regulations would still have a say. In any case, people would still want to live near each other, and still want clean and pleasant environments. A beautiful vista would still be more scarce than a suburban wasteland. Time and attention would remain limited, too -- nanofactories could be enormously powerful, but they won't change the laws of physics.

Given Castranova's observations about online societies of abundance, would that be enough? Would scarcity (in the economic sense) of services, food, land, time and attention be sufficient to serve as the 'essential variable' for nanofactory economics? Or would we need some artificial limitation on physical goods, too?

Ironically, the imposition of nano-era digital rights management technology might actually act as an economic stimulus, by serving as a mechanism for artificial scarcity.

What remains unknown is whether the form of scarcity serving as an "essential variable" is broadly consistent, or whether it differs from person to person. It's likely the latter, in my view; as a result, some of us will strive to find ways around the remaining scarcities. What we need is a virtual world (or set of virtual worlds) built specifically to explore this issue. What kinds of economics emerge in a world of material and information abundance, but service, space and time scarcity? How about when DRM (or some other artificial scarcity mechanism) is added? Or open source?

Second Life partisans will undoubtedly pipe up here that SL comes very close to this, but I'm not sure that the artificial scarcity imposed by the game would offer real-world useful answers.

Imagine: a massively-multiplayer environment with plausibly realistic laws of physics; the game initially assigns individual players skills, a bit of money and lodging, and a set of pre-existing economic relationships with other people in the game; at the outset, a small number of players get ahold of virtual StuffStations®, each able to print out more StuffStations® at little cost in energy and raw materials, as well as a cornucopia of other objects. How do the devices propagate? Who uses them to gain rapid power, and who uses them for socially-beneficial (in their view) purposes? How long does it take before a substantial minority has them? A majority? Everyone? What happens when manufacturing jobs are completely unnecessary, and shipping limited to food and people? How many people try to make things for themselves, and make new designs, and how many come to rely on the goodwill of others?

What's the ratio of creativity, mutuality, and the gift economy to sex, drugs and sleeping until 2pm?

Beta-Testing Tomorrow

An online game, even hundreds of them, iterated over and over, will only begin to hint at what a nanofabrication future would be like -- but a hint is better than what we have now: conjecture and (very) broad analogy. I'd like to see this kind of simulation happen at different levels of social organization, as well. Let's see Sim(Nano)City and (Nano)Civilization, or perhaps more pointedly, ultra-modern versions of Risk and Diplomacy played out in a nanofactory era.

The best way to predict the future may be to create it, but that's also the most dangerous way. Once the future has been created, there's no going back; we're stuck with dealing with the results. Simulating the future may not be the best form of prediction, but it's a hell of a lot safer. It would let us try strategies and ideas that would otherwise be far too uncertain or odd to become a real-world approach. It would let us fail safely, pick ourselves up, and try a new path.

The advent of molecular nanofactories may well end up being the biggest social change since urbanization hit the fertile crescent a few millennia back. It might be a good idea to run some tests now to see how that change might turn out. Just a thought.

Further Thoughts on New Awakenings

It's clear from the details in the Guardian article that application of zolpidem to treat PVS does not need to happen immediately, nor only to "mildly" damaged individuals. One of the recipients described in the piece was brain damaged at birth (not PVS), and successfully treated as a teenager. Moreover, the chemical stimulates parts of the brain considered to be "dead" (but not necrotic).

The implications here are profound, and unsettling. Not for the recipients of the treatment, of course -- they and their families will celebrate their return. But what about people who have "pulled the plug" on loved ones in persistent vegetative states in recent years? Do they read this news with the horrible realization that the now-dead partner or relative might have been saved with a $5 pill? What are the legal implications? The first use of zolpidem as an anti-PVS treatment was seven years ago, and has been replicated now dozens if not hundreds of times. Could a lawyer for family members opposed to the termination of care for a PVS patient sue the family members who chose to do so, and win?

What about the roughly 40% of PVS patients for whom the zolpidem treatment is ineffective? What is the underlying difference in condition? Aside from those cases where the trauma to the brain is so massive that stimulation into activity is physically impossible, would another drug with similar-but-not-identical chemistry be more effective?

It seems to me that termination of care for patients in persistent vegetative states should become even more infrequent, if it happens at all. Even if zolpidem is tried and fails, the chance that a similar drug -- or proper application of a zolpidem-derived treatment -- could awaken the PVS patient, even after years, is just too great to ignore. The legal and ethical landscape around brain damage has been irrevocably changed by this.

Zolpidem has been on the market now long enough to be found in generic form. The Guardian piece notes that the original discoverer of the drug, Sanofi-Adventis, has chosen not to participate in research trials on its use for brain damage; undoubtedly, they see little profit potential for expanded use of a drug they no longer control, no matter how miraculous. While I think they're making a terrible mistake (the PR benefits alone would be significant), the fact that the research is being carried out primarily in South Africa, a nation with a history of fighting big pharma control over major life-saving drugs, encourages me to think that this might end up as a functionally-free treatment for one of the most terrifying and demoralizing for the family medical conditions known.

New Awakenings

zolbrain.jpgThis is astounding. The sleeping pill zolpidem (sold in the US as Ambien) awakens people in persistent vegetative states as often as 60% of the time.

Across three continents, brain-damaged patients are reporting remarkable improvements after taking a pill that should make them fall asleep but that, instead, appears to be waking up cells in their brains that were thought to have been dead. In the next two months, trials on patients are expected to begin in South Africa aimed at finding out exactly what is going on inside their heads. Because, at the moment, the results are baffling doctors. [...]

I see Louis before his daily medication, yet he is conscious where once he would have been comatose. Almost blind because of a separate and deteriorating condition, there is a droop to one side of his mouth and brow because of brain damage. His right arm is twisted awkwardly into his side.

Louis is given a pill, and I watch. It is 8.30am. After nine minutes the grey pallor disappears and his face flushes. He starts smiling and laughing. After 10 minutes he begins asking questions. [...] A couple of minutes later, his right arm becomes less contorted and the facial drooping lessens. After 15 minutes he reaches out to hug Sienie.

These aren't people in regular comas (unconscious, but with measurable low-level brain activity), these are people in PVS, with brain scans showing zero activity in large parts of the brain. After taking zolpidem, these dead sections wake back up.

It appears that the recipients need to take the drug daily to maintain consciousness, but some patients are going on 7 years without any signs of decline (unlike with L-dopa, as in "Awakenings"). It doesn't restore necrotic brain cells, but it does seem to stimulate dormant ones, even in people with non-PVS brain damage. As in:

I meet 22-year-old Janli de Koch, whose eyesight was damaged in a car accident in Switzerland in December 2004. The injury resulted in a restriction of her visual field to two corners of her eyes; she cannot see below a certain point, so that she bumps into things and falls over. Last month, she was prescribed zolpidem and now says she can already see more than she used to.

Recipients are also showing improvement in motor function and balance.

A sleeping pill treatment for vegetative states and serious brain damage. That's just... wow.

September 8, 2006

Friday Topsight, September 8, 2006

Just a quick one today, with not as much text -- but good links to hang onto.

• Smeed's Law: What happens when you add cars to traffic? The number of accidents goes down. On average, annual increases of traffic volume leads to a decrease in accidents per vehicle. That was the observation of one RJ Smeed in 1949, and the rule has proven true (much to everyone's surprise) time and again.

The Wikipedia entry on Smeed's Law is terse, but an interesting article by Gwynne Dyer sent to me in email gives a bit more discussion:

Around the world, about 1.2 million people are killed in road accidents each year. An astounding 85 percent of those deaths happen in developing countries, although they own less than a fifth of the world's vehicle fleet. [...]

The amount of road traffic in the United States has grown fourteen-fold since 1925. If the number of American deaths per million miles (kilometres) driven had stayed steady at the 1925 rate, there would now be 300,000 deaths per years on American roads, not 40,000. [...]

Smeed offered no explanation for this phenomenon, but I think that there is a collective learning process as more and more people become experienced drivers, and particularly as the generations turn over and children grow up in families that already own cars.

As with all such observations, there is some dispute over its details, but as a general rule, it appears to hold broadly true. Dyer's explanation, the "collective learning process," makes sense, but it suggests to me that there might be an even bigger rule at work.

Is there a Smeed's Law for other technologies? Does the rate of accident or unintended misuse for other technologies go down as the technologies become more commonplace? Put that way, it seems likely, and would come from a combination of better skills, collective learning (e.g., observation while young of appropriate technology use so that it becomes an instinctive behavior), and systems in the technology to help users avoid problems, whether we mean anti-lock brakes or VCRs that automatically set the time (no more blinking 12:00).

• Social Footprints: Joel Makower writes about the concept of the Social Footprint of climate change, described by the Center for Sustainable Innovation as the "quantitative measures of the social sustainability of behaviors -- collective organizational behaviors, in particular."

The goal of measuring social footprints, says CSI, is "to assess the sustainability of organizational operations in terms of their impacts on strategies for achieving climate change mitigation."

Translation: the social footprint looks beyond whether a company's efforts to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions are merely worthy or exemplary, but whether they are sufficient to actually solve the problem. [...]

It goes beyond merely tracking aggregate greenhouse emissions, assessing whether a company's climate strategy and performance can actually help stem a climate crisis over the long term.

I like this. I must admit to having some deep hesitation around the "ecological footprint" concept, except as a very broad metaphor; most of the footprint measurement tools involve way too much hand-waving and assumption (around water use, around consumption of non-energy resources, around energy production) for my taste. This metric, conversely, is both more narrow and more justifiably quantitative than the "how many planets are we consuming?" footprint model. In addition, rather than looking at a snapshot of how your behaviors map today, it looks at ongoing dynamics. Green thumbs up here.

• Set Kirkyans on Stun: In Wednesday's post on (Virtual) Weapon Smuggling, I mention in a somewhat off-hand way about Sven Johnson's concept of Kirkyans. He returns the favor with a new write-up, linking to the Weapon post, going into more detail about the Kirkyan idea, and an unexpected challenge it may present. In short, the co-evolution of physical manufactured objects and their virtual counterparts could be particularly suited to weapons development.

It seems to me that the Kirkyan model does not need to apply solely to objects per se. A building design that "learns" through virtual iteration could be a Kirkyan. Moreover, if we want to think about the thuggish implications of the physical world/virtual world overlap, there's nothing to stop a group of criminals from testing and perfecting a crime using a virtual model of a real space; in fact, I'd be a bit surprised if it hasn't happened already.

Hmm. I think I may have a movie pitch here.

September 6, 2006

(Virtual) Weapon Smuggling

destiny.jpgThree men in Shanghai were convicted this week on charges of producing and selling weapons -- only the weapons existed solely as computer data for a virtual world.

Prosecutors allege the trio earned illegal profits of more than 2 million yuan (US$250,000) by using the computer code database of Legend of Mir 2, a popular online game operated by Shanda, to produce and sell large quantities of high-level game weapons. The weapons are normally only available to high-level winners, and hadn't been for sale.

Possession of the weapons would allow less skilled players to succeed more easily. The activities of the three also circulated far more virtual weapons than the company planned, which alerted the company that something was amiss.

Note that at no time did the weapon data ever leave the company-controlled servers. This wasn't a simple case of copyright violation by making copies for use elsewhere, it was much more akin to the production and distribution of controlled items. But because these were virtual goods, not physical goods, the defendants were charged with copyright violations, not theft or smuggling.

In a world where virtual goods have definable real money value, however, the question of the precise nature of the crime committed is not an easy one to answer. Existing players weren't harmed directly. They didn't steal the weapons, at least in terms of taking them from one group of players to sell to another group. They didn't reduce the use value of the weapons -- the +10 Swords of Überness presumably still worked as designed. They did decrease the perceived value of the weapons held by those players who had acquired them legitimately, but that in and of itself isn't a crime.

In a virtual world, there's no intrinsic reason for scarcity to be the core economic driver. The +10 Sword of Überness could be duplicated over and over again at effectively zero economic cost. Artificial scarcity is imposed by the game managers, however, as a means of both maintaining a semi-functional economy and providing a set of incremental goals for players to work towards.

This issue moves from being somewhat abstract and geeky to being a Potential Big Issue when we start thinking about objects that have an existence as both virtual and physical products, whether we're talking about Sven Johnson's Kirkyan concept, where changes to the virtual representation of an object influences changes to its physical manifestation, or simply being able to fabricate physical objects at home, with the only restrictions being the artificial scarcity of access to designs.

The rules we come up with to grapple with virtual objects of real value will haunt us for decades to come, if we're not careful.

September 5, 2006

Raising a Wind Turbine

turbinesunset.jpgSt. Olaf College, a small private university in Minnesota, recently decided to add a 1.65 megawatt wind turbine to the campus power grid. Minnesota is well-positioned to play a major role in the wind energy economy, and St. Olaf leapt at the chance to get a bit of energy independence. Moreover, the turbine will let St. Olaf College play an important role in local emergency response:

Because we can go off the grid during peak periods, Xcel Energy (our new electricity provider) avoids building additional power plants. Because we can generate our own electricity at any time, St. Olaf has also become the most significant civil defense site in Rice County . And we are the standby site for Northfield Hospital in the event of a catastrophic event that compromises its power supply or its capacity.

The turbine should start generating power in the next couple of weeks, as the final wiring is completed. A blog has followed the construction of the tower, and has now assembled a short time-lapse movie of the process. If you've ever wondered how a major wind turbine is built -- or just want a sneak preview of what the world of energy will look like in the very near future -- this video clip is worth a download.

(Thanks for the tip, Anya!)

New Futurismic Column: Awareness Windows

My new column at Futurismic is up. "Opening the Awareness Window" uses the overlap of the Katrina and 9/11 anniversaries as a jumping off point for considering how best to respond to surprising disasters.

In many ways, disasters pose the classic foresight problem: they're predictable in general form, but surprising in their specifics of time and location; they force us to balance costs of preparation against costs of recovery; and they tend to be big enough to change our ways of thinking, at least in the short term. Disaster management specialists refer to the period in which we are open to changed behavior and plans as the "awareness window." This window, typically lasting a few years, gives us a chance to implement improved systems and designs, but can have the drawback of an overly-narrow focus -- we rarely use the window to see how our new ideas might play out in other, seemingly unrelated, areas. But the big picture matters. The more wisely we take advantage of this awareness window, the better-off we'll be when the next disaster strikes.

This column has more links to outside material than did my first one. I'm always a bit uncertain about how to approach links to my stuff on WorldChanging, though. I co-founded the thing, and was the primary writer from late 2004 through early 2006, but the site has continued to evolve in the months since I left. I don't want to look like I'm trying to take credit for great new efforts and ideas there, but neither do I want to disassociate myself (or be disassociated) from the site. I'm proud of my work there, and for my role in helping shape the site. Should I make a point of including a "...where I used to write..." disclaimer before links there? Or assume that anybody who's reading me now probably came here because of the WC connection?

Home Again, Home Again (Redux)

Back from Los Angeles, where I spent the weekend with the family celebrating my Mom's birthday. (Happy Birthday, Mom!)

I'll be posting more this week than usual, and will be experimenting a bit with a design change -- individual Topsight posts rather than catch-alls, for simpler external linking.

September 1, 2006

Friday Topsight, September 1, 2006

ioke_supertyphoon.jpgLots of items backed up here.

• Hype Scorecard: Author Sharon Weinberger, subbing at the Defense Tech website, offers up a checklist helping the gentle reader to figure out whether a weapon proposal is actually a stupid idea. As I read through the list, however, it struck me that nearly every item on the checklist would work just as well if "weapon" were replaced with nearly any kind of technology -- and energy technology is a particularly well-suited to this scorecard. Does the technology promise a revolution? Does it lack a realistic scenario of how it would be used? Does it rely on Powerpoint instead of engineering details to prove reality? Does it violate known physical laws?

Hmm. I wonder what piece of recent hype might fare poorly under this checklist?

• SuperTyphoon: The nasty heat of this summer prompted a variety of global warming "skeptics" to rethink their position. Unfortunately, conversion by anecdote leaves one vulnerable to new anecdotes, and I'm now starting to see claims that this year's relatively calm Atlantic hurricane season disproves that there's an ongoing climate disaster. Except... hurricanes happen in more places than the Gulf of Mexico and the western Atlantic. This year's Pacific storm season is quite alarming. SuperTyphoon Ioke did what few Pacific hurricanes do, cross from the Eastern to the Western Pacific, and now threatens Tokyo. As the name suggests, SuperTyphoons are not terribly common, and Ioke, at its peak, was massive -- fortunately, the winds have died down a bit, and it may be "only" equivalent to a Category 3 hurricane when it slams into Japan.

• Bottom-Up Tsunami Warnings: People in Sri Lanka, upset because the official tsunami warning centers haven't yet come online, have put together a very unofficial -- but potentially very useful -- collaborative tsunami warning system.

...residents in the southern town of Peraliya, where around 1,000 people died when a passenger train was swamped by the tsunami and dozens of locals were swept to their deaths, have taken matters into their own hands.

Waduthantri and seven residents take turns to monitor the airwaves, cable television channels and earthquake warning Web sites around the clock at their own Community Tsunami Early Warning Centre.

The centre, set up with private donations from foreign nationals, is sandwiched between ramshackle temporary shelters and the ruins of homes. [...]

"We feel safe now, because the people in this centre are continuously monitoring, and the lights are on 24 hours," said 63-year-old grandmother L.H. Aryawathi, who lives in a small shack wrapped in plastic sheeting donated by the United Nations.

"These children are monitoring all day and informing us if there is any threat. Otherwise I wouldn't settle here by the sea," she added, as waves crashed onto the beach across the road.

Unsurprisingly, the government is unhappy with this ad hoc effort, and has declared the program illegal.

• The Carlson Curve: My friend Rob Carlson is a biologist working on synthetic biology at the University of Washington, and is hard at work on a new book. He was a bit surprised, however, to find himself cited in the latest Economist for a paper he wrote a few years ago. But it wasn't just the citation that was a bit startling -- it was how his name was used:

Dr Carlson is a researcher at the University of Washington, and some graphs of the growing efficiency of DNA synthesis that he drew a few years ago look suspiciously like the biological equivalent of Moore's law. By the end of the decade their practical upshot will, if they continue to hold true, be the power to synthesise a string of DNA the size of a human genome in a day.

At the moment, what passes for genetic engineering is mere pottering. It means moving genes one at a time from species to species so that bacteria can produce human proteins that are useful as drugs, and crops can produce bacterial proteins that are useful as insecticides. True engineering would involve more radical redesigns. But the Carlson curve (Dr Carlson disavows the name, but that may not stop it from sticking) is making that possible.

Woah. Like Moore's Law, the Carlson Curve is a simple projection based on an observation of past behavior, not a real physical law, but that's not as important culturally as it is scientifically. Culturally, we pay more attention to past behavior than to theory, which is why we can be taken in by investment scams and discount the threat of long-term problems. It's entirely possible that the Carlson Curve -- which shows that improvements to our ability to synthesize base pairs are increasing at a rate greater than Moore's Law -- will come to a grinding halt in a year or two... but equally possible that it will continue for a good long while, as both the underlying technology for gene sequencing and our ability to figure out the most efficient techniques improve.

The Carlson Curve: watch this meme.

Jamais Cascio

Contact Jamais  ÃƒÂƒÃ‚ƒÃ‚ƒÃ‚ƒÃ‚¢Ã‚€Â¢  Bio

Co-Founder, WorldChanging.com

Director of Impacts Analysis, Center for Responsible Nanotechnology

Fellow, Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

Affiliate, Institute for the Future


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