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Tuesday Topsight, May 22, 2007

Plowing through interesting links accumulated during my travel.

• Lucky to be Alive: All of us are. Lucky to be alive, I mean. It turns out that, about 13,000 years ago, humankind came very close to extinction, courtesy of a 2km-3km comet smacking into the Earth.

A group of US scientists [...] report that they have found a layer of microscopic diamonds at 26 different sites in Europe, Canada and America. These are the remains of a giant carbon-rich comet that crashed in pieces on our planet 12,900 years ago, they say. The huge pressures and heat triggered by the fragments crashing to Earth turned the comet's carbon into diamond dust. 'The shock waves and the heat would have been tremendous,' said West. 'It would have set fire to animals' fur and to the clothing worn by men and women. The searing heat would have also set fire to the grasslands of the northern hemisphere. Great grazing animals like the mammoth that had survived the original blast would later have died in their thousands from starvation. Only animals, including humans, that had a wide range of food would have survived the aftermath.'

This discovery manages to explain several roughly simultaneous but previously hard-to-connect events, including the "Younger Dryas" mini ice age, megafaunal mass extinctions, and the utter elimination of the first wave of Homo sapiens migrants into North America. Details of the discovery will be presented this week at the American Geophysical Union meeting in Acapulco. (Session One, Session Two, and Session Three abstracts.) More details at New Scientist.

• Artifice 1: Remaking Nature: Nature presents the arguments around geoengineering in the May 9 edition, offering what looks to me to be a reasonably even-handed examination of a variety of potential re-terraforming projects. The "we don't know enough to do anything" position is well-represented, as is the "we may be forced to do it, so we should do it right" view. I was particularly pleased to see the explicit argument that, should geoengineering be required, it should be done "as carefully and as reversibly as you can." A good argument is made for my personal view, that more research into geoengineering is especially important in order to know what not to do:

[In reference to Roger Angel's massively multi-mirror sunblock idea:] Ralph Cicerone, a climate scientist and president of the US National Academy of Sciences, singles the paper out for praise for the painstakingly careful way it was done. "He went back to it again and again," Cicerone says. "In its standard of elegance and completeness it was exemplary." For him and many others, such academic excellence is the main point of publishing research on geoengineering. For these researchers, the aim is not to find feasible solutions but to do good science that provides a standard against which to judge the less good, or flatly foolish, schemes that might otherwise accrete around the idea. Cicerone points to quack schemes for ozone replacement in the 1980s as the sort of thing that needs to be forestalled: back then, he says, "poor ideas got as far as they did because of [the community's] silence."

Say it with me: if climate disaster hits faster and harder than anticipated, desperate people will try desperate measures, including geoengineering. We need to be able to identify the choices that won't just make things worse.

• Artifice 2: Robo-Brothers in Arms: Joel Garreau has a terrific piece in the Washington Post called "Bots on The Ground," discussing the growing use of robots (remote-controlled and semi-autonomous) in the U.S. military. The piece is worth reading for the opening anecdote alone, which underscores just how powerful emotional relationships with machines can be.

Without using the term, Garreau makes it clear that these technologies are as much a form of emotional augmentation as they are ability augmentation. The animate devices become extensions of the self, even as they take on at least the superficial appearance of independence. This is new territory for technologists, but in many respects it's a long-standing element of our culture. In the past, though, we just called them "pets." Will we be able to think of robots in the same way?

My cat is sleeping on the desk next to my keyboard as I write this. As I look at her, I find myself unsure of whether I'd be able to have the same emotional bond with something artificial. Will this be the real 21st century generational dividing line?

• Join an Institute for the Future Project: The following was sent to me by my colleagues at the Institute for the Future, and they agreed to let me repost.

The Institute for the Future (IFTF) is an independent nonprofit research group. We work with organizations of all kinds to help them make better, more informed decisions about the future. We provide the foresight to create insights that lead to action. We bring a combination of tools, methodologies, and a deep understanding of emerging trends and discontinuities to our work with companies, foundations, and government agencies.

We are currently recruiting for a new research study called "Boomers in the Next 20 Years". For the purposes of this study, people who were born between 1946 and 1964 qualify as Boomers, and you do not need to identify as a Baby Boomer to participate. The study is about how you will respond to the changes and challenges in the next 20 years. We want to know about your experiences and the decisions you are making and foresee making in the areas of health, finance, work, family and community.

Participation would include a response to this survey, followed by a brief telephone interview and a 2 hour interview in your home to be scheduled between June and August, 2007. Not all people who complete this survey will be selected for further interviews. Participants who complete of all phases of the project will be given a stipend of $100, paid by American Express gift card.

We are particularly interested in interviewing people who live within 100 miles of city center of these cities:

Denver, Colorado
San Francisco, California
Austin, Texas
Seattle, Washington
Miami, Florida
Louisville, Kentucky
Minneapolis St. Paul, Minnesota
New York, New York

Take our brief Recruitment Survey to get involved, or forward this message on to people you know who may be interested in participating. Thank you for your time!

If you have any questions about participating in the project, please direct them to mlueck@iftf.org.


A pet isn't an extension of a person - it's an independent being. That's the difference I anticipate with robotics. If the development of mechanics of robotics outpace developments in AI, I'd expect to see a lot of "telepresence" applications, where people remotely "inhabit" robotic "shells", connecting over wireless networks.


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