« April 2008 | Main Page | June 2008 »

Monthly Archives

May 28, 2008


I've long been a fan of the use of games and sims as a way of working through future-facing issues. The big advantage of games as a foresight device is the capacity to fail in interesting ways: you can try out different, even bizarre, strategies for success, and do so without worry of harming yourself or others. It's a form of rehearsal, a way to understand the ways in which the present may be manipulated to create a desirable tomorrow.

Three interesting examples of simulations as rehearsal popped up on my radar recently.


Triplepundit brings word of "Oil ShockWave," an oil crisis simulation coming from the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Based on a project done to educate policymakers, versions of Oil Shockwave have been run at the 2006 World Economic Forum and at the 2007 Aspen Strategy Group conference -- that is, by big-time establishment players.

This version is aimed at college instructors:

In the classroom version of Oil ShockWave, students play the roles of U.S. Cabinet members developing a policy response to a potentially devastating crisis that affects global oil supplies. Situations are presented primarily through pre-produced newscasts, video briefings and insert cards handed to the students during discussion. The exercise vividly illustrates the links between oil, the economy, and national security.

The box set, called Oil ShockWave™ College Curriculum, contains maps, multimedia components, simulated newscasts, a range of background materials, and an instructor's manual.

And by "aimed at," I mean "only available to." Unfortunately, by all appearances, Oil Shockwave is only open to universities. I think Belfer Center is really missing out on a significant opportunity to educate larger communities about the dilemmas associated with resource collapse.


While "Oil Shockwave" is an interactive, immersive simulation, "Immune Attack," from the Federation of American Scientists, is a video game abstraction of how the immune system works. It's aimed at high school students, but is available to Windows users wishing to download the app. Players navigate a nanobot through a patient's bloodstream and connective tissues, trying to re-educate the immune system.

The FAS claims that playing the game increases student understanding of the immune system, but the big risk of this kind of abstraction is that it offers more of a regurgitative than an analytic understanding. Without allowing players to fiddle with the underlying systems, to make unexpected choices and see the results, it wouldn't offer any opportunities for significant insights.


The third game on the list is "Budget Hero," a simulation allowing you -- yes, you -- to adjust the parameters of the US federal spending, looking for ways to balance the budget while boosting your preferred priorities. Marketplace, the daily public radio economics and finance show, developed and sponsors the game.

Unlike some budget sims that give you nearly line-item control over what's in and what's out, Budget Hero limits your options to options that sound like policy proposals -- Cap & Limit Greenhouse Gases, Link Alternative Minimum Tax to Inflation, and so forth. You also start with three budget priority badges, reflecting the positions you take as a leader. As you can see in the screen capture, I chose Energy Independence, Health & Wellness, and "Green" (this will come as a surprise to precisely no readers). Other options include National Security, Economic Stimulus, and Safety Net.

Some policy items are conspicuous in their absence. There's nothing about NASA, for example, nor anything about funding research into specific types of non-fossil fuel energy. And I'm under no illusion that my preferred policies would have a chance of making it through any plausible Congress. Still, it's good to see that being a DFH, policy-wise, can actually be pretty economically responsible.

May 27, 2008

Who Decides?

Who gets to determine the "right" climate for the Earth?

We may broadly agree that the current climate -- warming, with chances of apocalypse -- is decidedly not the right one. After abundant political posturing and nationalist histrionics, we'll eventually get to the heavy lifting involved in dramatically reducing our carbon footprints, slowing and stopping the warming. Unless the mitigation efforts begin in earnest immediately, we face the unhappy prospect of needing to engage in some manner of geoengineering to forestall global disaster.

But as I've argued before, the politics of geoengineering will be at least as tricky as the science.

It's important to recognize that, because the climate is a complex system, even seemingly simple adjustments can have surprising (and even counter-intuitive) results, results that can and will vary significantly around the world. And if those results aren't as good for some regions as they are for others, you can be certain that -- in a world already riven by environmental and resource collapses -- we'll see arguments and potentially even conflict over the matter.

An article to be published in the Journal of Geophysical Research underscores this point. In "Regional Climate Responses to Geoengineering with Tropical and Arctic SO2 Injections" (PDF), authors Alan Robock, Luke Oman, and Georgiy L. Stenchikov examine the potential repercussions of the injection of megatons of sulfur dioxide particles into the lower stratosphere as a way of slowing global warming. (Important emphasis: not as a solution to global warming, but as a way of slowing its progress so that actual carbon-reduction solutions can be implemented.) In their study, Robock, et. al., simulate different scenarios of sulfur dioxide injection using NASA-Goddard Institute for Space Studies' ModelE atmosphere-ocean general circulation model, currently one of the most comprehensive climate simulations available.


In their work, they come up with a few particularly interesting results: geoengineering without simultaneous mitigation efforts would be disastrous when (for whatever reason) geoengineering efforts end -- temperatures would shoot up rapidly (see above); most sulfate injection proposals would end up reducing monsoonal rainfall patterns across southern Asia and central Africa, potentially triggering famines; and -- perhaps most surprisingly -- sulfate injection geoengineering would lead to summer temperatures in the Indian sub-continent (and in small parts of north-central Africa) at least as warm as if not warmer than "business as usual" global warming scenarios.

Let me repeat that last one: geoengineering by injecting sulfate particles into the lower stratosphere -- currently one of the leading proposals -- would effectively cool the Earth, except for summer in India, which would be as warm as or warmer than doing nothing at all.

(Important caveat: Robock and his team use a slow-change "business as usual" scenario -- A1B, for you IPCC fans out there (PDF) -- for the underlying greenhouse gas levels. If we manage to use a geoengineering period correctly to get GHG reductions in place, this level of warming may be less.)

Given that the most likely scenario calling for geoengineering would be one where disasters have already started to happen, and we realize that it's too late for new urban models, universal vegetarianism, and ubiquitous wind and solar to prevent global catastrophes. That is, it's a scenario where there would be significant pressure from much of the world to give this a try. As for India... well, that's where politics starts pounding on the door.

It's not just the science that needs to be advanced before we start fiddling with geophysical systems -- we really need to work out the politics first, too.

May 26, 2008

Update: Mars Gets the Robots it Needs


May 24, 2008

Mars Need Robots!

NASA's latest Mars lander, Phoenix, is scheduled to land at the north pole of Mars Sunday at around 4:30pm PDT. Unlike the Mars rovers, Phoenix is a static lander (and, as the above video simulation shows, even goes all old-school with a rocket landing system rather than the giant airbag cushions).

Plenty of links for the Areophiles out there: the Planetary Society's blog will carry updates; NASA TV will show live footage from mission control; and believe it or not, the Mars Phoenix mission has a Twitter stream.

May 21, 2008


As powerful as the images of people dealing with the immense disaster in Sichuan's 7.9 earthquake have been, none have struck me as much as this series. It was a wedding, and the photographer was starting to do his set of shots of the bride & groom.


More here. Apparently, 33 guests remain missing in the collapsed church. (Update: All 33 made it out okay.)

With every snapshot, every recording, every blog entry, we're documenting our world.

Fifteen Minutes into the Future

One of the hardest things to grapple with as a futurist is the sheer banality of tomorrow.

We live our lives, dealing with everyday issues and minor problems. Changes rarely shock; more often, they startle or titillate, and very quickly get folded into the existing cultural momentum. Even when big events happen, even in the worst of moments, we cope, and adapt. This is, in many ways, a quiet strength of the human mind, and a reason for hope when facing the dismal prospects ahead of us.

But futurism, at least as it's currently presented, is rarely about the everyday. More often, futurists tell stories about how some new technology (or political event, or environmental/resource crisis, etc.) will Change Your Life Forever. From the telescopic perspective of looking at the future in the distance, they're right. There's no doubt that if you were to jump from 2008 to 2028, your experience of the future would be jarring and disruptive.

But we don't jump into the future -- what we think of now as the Future is just an incipient present, very soon to become the past. We have the time to cope and adapt. If you go from 2008 to 2028 by living every minute, the changes around you would not be jarring; instead, they'd largely be incremental, and the occasional surprises would quickly blend into the flow of inevitability.

There is a tendency in futurism to treat the discipline as a form of science fiction (and I don't leave myself out of that criticism). We construct a scenario of tomorrow, with people wearing web-connected contact lenses, driving semi-autonomous electric cars to their jobs at the cultured meat factories, and imagine how cool and odd and dislocating it must be to live in such a world. But futurism isn't science fiction, it's history turned on its head. The folks in that scenario don't just wake up one day to find their lives transformed; they live their lives to that point. They hear about new developments long before they encounter them, and know somebody who bought an Apple iLens or package of NuBacon before doing so themselves. The future creeps up on them, and infiltrates their lives; it becomes, for the people living there, the banal present.

William Gibson's widely-quoted saying, "the future is here, it's just not well-distributed yet" is suggestive of this. The future spreads, almost like an infection. The distribution of the future is less an endeavor of conscious advancement than it is an epidemiological process -- a pandemic of tomorrows, if you will.

If futurism is more history inverted than science fiction, perhaps it can learn from the changes that the study of history has seen. One of the cornerstone revolutions in the academic discipline of history was the rejection of the "Great Men" model, where history was the study of the acts of larger-than-life people, the wars fought by more-powerful-than-most nations, and the ideas of the brilliant shapers of culture. Historians have come to recognize that history includes the lives of regular people; some of the most meaningful and powerful historical studies of the past few decades, from Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States to Ken Burns' popular "Civil War" documentary, focused as much or more on the everyday citizens as they did the "Great Men," and as much on everyday moments as on the "turning points" and revolutionary events.

What might a "people's history of the future" look like?

May 16, 2008

How Many Earths?

It's a standard trope in environmental commentary: we would need more than one Earth to support the planet's population, especially if everyone lived like Americans. The number of Earths needed can vary greatly, depending upon who's doing the counting. 1.2? Two? Three? Five? Ten? It's a very fuzzy form of ecological accounting, much harder to calculate in any consistent and plausible way than (for example) carbon footprints. But the "N Earths" concept is dubious for reasons beyond simple accounting imprecision. Simply put, it's adding together the wrong things.

Assertions that we'd need three (or five, or ten) Earths to support our now-unsustainable lifestyles may make for nice graphics, but miss a more important story. The key to sustainability isn't just reducing consumption. The key to sustainability is shifting consumption from limited sources to the functionally limitless.

Broadly put, there are three different kinds of resources:

These are resources that have a finite limit, and once used, would be difficult or impossible to reuse. The most visible example would be fossil fuels, but most extractive resources would also fit this category. For some resources, the limits may be extended through recycling, but this has limits as well. As a resource dwindles, the resulting high costs may make otherwise expensive extraction methods feasible, but eventually the resource will just be gone. In the language of economics, these are both rivalrous and excludable resources.

The implication for the "N Earths" model: given enough time, we'd never have enough Earths. Oil will run out, whether in a decade or a millennium, as long as someone continues to use it.

These are resources that renew over time, but face a limit to total concurrent availability. These are largely (but not exclusively) organic resources: food, fish, topsoil, people. Water arguably could be included here, as well. These resources can be over-used or abused, but absent catastrophe, will eventually recover. Economically, these are considered rivalrous but non-excludable -- that is, they're the "commons."

This is probably the closest fit for the "N Earths" concept, but misses two very important aspects: use management (encompassing conservation, efficiency, and recycling), which can alter the calculus of how much of a given resource may be considered "in use" in a sustainable environment; and substitution, which can cut or eliminate ongoing demand for a given resource (the classic example being guano as fertilizer).

These are resources that renew over time, but where the limits to availability are so far beyond what we could possibly capture as to make them effectively limitless. These run the gamut from energy (solar and wind) to materials (environmental carbon) to abstract phenomena (ideas). No current or foreseeable mechanisms could fully use the total output of these resources. Economically, they're both non-rivalrous and non-excludable.

Where the limited-subtractive resources make any use non-sustainable, given enough time, with unlimited-renewable resources, all uses are inherently sustainable.

The argument behind the "N Earths" model is that we -- the global we, but especially the West -- need to reduce our consumption to the point where we no longer use more resources than the planet can provide. The argument behind this alternative model -- call it the "Smarter Earth" model -- is that we need to shift our consumption away from limited resources, especially limited-subtractive resources, as much as possible. It's not a question of consuming less (or more, for that matter), but a question of consuming smarter.

The immediate rejoinder to this notion is that "we can't eat ideas or solar energy." That's superficially true; however, plants are embodiments of solar energy, and ideas can allow us to use limited resources more efficiently. It's not possible with current or foreseeable technologies to shift entirely to unlimited-renewable resources, but every step along the way improves our sustainability.

Another response to this model is that it's essentially an argument for a techno-fix. Despite appearances, it's not. What I'm arguing for is more of a design framework, a guide for decision-making. Yes, that may often mean technological design, but it also encompasses community design (as John Robb has engaged in with his "Resilient Communities" work), economic design (do tax and regulation patterns promote a shift from limited-subtractive to unlimited-renewable consumption?), and especially memetic design (how do we construct a coherent narrative of what's happening around us?).

The goal of shifting consumption boils down to this: moving from a "never enough Earths" model for society, to an "all the Earth we need" model.

May 13, 2008

Tuesday Topsight, May 13, 2008

Pulling together some stories I've had in the queue...

Mapping the Diseasome: The diseasome is a new way of looking at disease -- as a map of genetically-interrelated conditions. This model has already led to new insights into the nature of human disease.

Scientists are finding that two tumors that arise in the same part of the body and look the same on a pathologist’s slide might be quite different in terms of what is occurring at the gene and protein level. Certain breast cancers are already being treated differently from others because of genetic markers like estrogen receptor and Her2, and also more complicated patterns of genetic activity.

“In the not too distant future, we will think about these diseases based on the molecular pathways that are aberrant, rather than the anatomical origin of the tumor,” said Dr. Todd Golub, director of the cancer program at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Mass. [...]

The research will also improve understanding of the causes of disease and of the functions of particular genes. For instance, two genes have recently been found to influence the risk of both diabetes and prostate cancer.

Click the image below for the New York Times' interactive graphic.


I find this model compelling for a few reasons. The first is aesthetic -- I like maps. I'm seduced by the heady concept of cartographic epidemiology. The second is that I like to see new perspectives on traditional paradigms -- this often results in breakthrough insights. Lastly, it's a new word to play with.

(Via Book of Joe)

Promises in the Air: If this is true, and can be demonstrated, it's good news indeed:

Swift Enterprises Ltd. has unveiled a new patented synthetic hydrocarbon general aviation fuel—SwiftFuel—that is produced from biomass.

SwiftFuel meets or exceeds the standards for aviation fuel as verified by nationally recognized laboratories, said co-founder John Rusek, a professor in Purdue University’s School of Astronautics and Aeronautics Engineering and research director for Swift. Rusek said the fuel can provide an effective range (distance between refueling) greater than petroleum while its projected cost is half that of the current petroleum manufacturing cost.

General aviation means small prop planes, not jetliners, but SwiftFuel claims that they may be able to modify the results to meet commercial aviation needs.

As with all breakthrough fuel news, it needs to be taken with a pound of salt, and questions remain about the biomass sources and production needs. However, if it works, and if they can make it work for commercial jets, it will radically change the carbon footprint calculus.

Heavy Weather Redux: Bruce Sterling, green courtesy phone: the tropical storm called "Erin" from last August turned out to be something rather odd -- a storm that strengthened into something very much like a hurricane... but over Oklahoma.

Over land, the remnants of the storm system looped up towards Oklahoma and reorganized, so much so that August 19 satellite images show Erin, its center very close to Oklahoma City, resembling an overland hurricane with an "eye" that it had never managed to develop over water. Meanwhile, the winds picked up far more than they ever had over the Gulf – reaching 50 knots sustained, 70 knot gusts – even as pressure fell as far as 995 millibars (far lower than when Erin had been an easily categorizable tropical storm).

Now, months later, the National Hurricane Center has officially thrown up its hands and said "who knows?" The best that they can do is call it a "low"... but most low pressure zones don't kill seven people.

Was Erin an anomaly? We'll find out in the coming summers, I presume.


Welcome to the Ecoblogosphere: Recently, I had the startling opportunity to sit for an hour, along with a small handful of other green blogger types, chatting with the CEO/President/Chairman of Pacific Gas & Electric, the major energy company in California. The topic was, ostensibly, a new eco-energy blog to be rolled out by PG&E; in reality, we got to ask him about a wide variety of subjects, from smart meters (rolling out now, already updated to better tech than the first ones) to renewables to opposition to an energy-related proposition on the ballot. The answers didn't really go beyond what we might already have seen on the PG&E website, but I have to give them credit -- we didn't get any kind of management or pushback on the questions.

Now, the new blog, Next100, is apparently open to the public. So far, it seems like a decent if as yet unspectacular effort, mixing new energy tech with topical enviro issues. Posting intensity is light, about once/daily, and the tone is a bit less snarky than Grist, a bit less earnest than Worldchanging, and a bit less lifestyle than Treehugger. It's notable, however, simply in that it's an effort on the part of a major energy company to engage with the blogging world. Not with press-releases (none of the front-page posts have anything to do with PG&E), not with greenwashing, but with "playing along."

This isn't game-changing, yet, but it's a good sign. I'll be watching to see if this effort lasts.

May 9, 2008

The Suburban Question

How do you green the suburbs?

The bright green mantra, when it comes to the built environment, is that cities rule, suburbs drool. Cities are more (energy) sustainable, resilient, cultural, diverse, better for your waistline, surprise you with presents on your birthday, and so forth. Suburbs, conversely, are bastions of excessive consumption and insufficient sophistication, filled with McMansions and McDonalds, and are probably hitting on your spouse behind your back. My preferences actually align with that sentiment, but I've become troubled with the green urbanization push. The issue of the future of suburbia isn't as easy as simply telling people to move to cities.

Gentle question: when you convince the masses of people living in the ring suburbs to move back downtown, what happens?

(a) Everybody gets a place in the city, and a pony.
(b) Prices for places in the city shoot up, even in "down and out" areas, driving out low- and moderate-income current residents, and stopping all but the higher-income suburbanites from returning. Without any ponies at all.

Encouraging people to move from the suburbs closer to their place of work in the city because it's actually cheaper (when you include transportation) only works when nobody else does it. Once everybody -- or even a lot of people -- gets that bright (green) idea, the combination of increased demand and limited availability drives up prices. As big as cities may be, there are lots of people in the 'burbs. It may be possible to build more housing within the urban core, but you have one guess as to which neighborhoods are likely to be the ones knocked down to make way for new high-rise condos.

We're already seeing the reverse of the old "white flight" trope, where middle-class whites abandoned cities for the suburbs. Gentrification (with the artists as the "shock troops," we're told), re-urbanization, even "black flight" to the suburbs upset the conceptual models of the built environment that remained dominant in the US for the last few decades. Cities are back... and the suburbs may be abandoned to the low-income.

Everywhere? No. Overnight? No. An important trend? Very much so.

Why? Because figuring out how to make suburbs sustainable is increasingly an act of environmental justice. The displaced urban poor and middle-income will be even less able to afford the energy, transportation, and health costs of environmental decline.

We need to figure out how to upcycle the suburbs. It may involve traditional green ideas such as mass transit and bicycles; it may involve something a bit more complex, like a specialized version of LEED for neighborhoods.

But we need more innovation than that. Not just technology -- while cheap solar building materials wouldn't be bad at all, the real innovations in resilience and sustainability will come in the realm of policy and behavior. Society and culture. Not just the physical infrastructure, the connective sinews of communities. Metaphorical language is all we have now to describe it, because it hasn't yet been invented.

But here's the golden hope: the first one(s) to figure out how to do this, how to make suburbia sustainable and to do so at a breathtakingly low cost, will win the world. Because, as much as China and India and South Africa and Brazil are hot to get their hands on their local iterations of the 1950s American Dream -- a house, two giant cars, and a TV in every pot -- they'll be desperate to figure out how to afford it pretty damn soon. They'll be looking for this same elusive model, and will pay well for it.

May 5, 2008

Pondering Fermi

The Fermi Paradox -- if there's other intelligent life in the galaxy, given how long the galaxy's been here, how come we haven't seen any indication of it? -- is an important puzzle for those of us who like to think ahead. Setting aside the mystical (we're all that was created by a higher being) and fundamentally unprovable (we're all living in a simulation), we're left with two unpalatable options: we're the first intelligent species to arise; or no civilization ever makes it long enough. The first one is unpalatable because it suggests that our understanding of the biochemical and physical processes underlying the development of life have a massive gap, since all signs point to the emergence of organic life under appropriate conditions being readily replicable. The second one is unpalatable for a more personal reason: if no civilization ever survives long enough to head out into the stars, what makes us think we'd be special?

But I think there might be a third option.

(Warning: the rest hidden in the extended entry due to extreme geekitude.)


My colleague at the IEET Nick Bostrom offers a provocative version of the consequences of the Fermi Paradox in the latest Technology Review. In "Where Are They?" Nick (the director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University) suggests the existence of a metaphorical "Great Filter," some phenomenon (or set of phenomena) beyond which it's nearly impossible to pass. If the Great Filter is in the past, as some biochemical hurdle making the emergence of complex life wildly improbable, then we may have a grand future ahead of us. If the Great Filter is still to come, conversely, we're likely doomed. For this reason, Nick hopes that we don't find signs of life elsewhere in the solar system.

It's not hard to imagine what a future "Great Filter" might be -- the list of potential sources of extinction is diverse. It could easily be a natural event, such as a global plague or a massive asteroid strike; perhaps more likely, it could be a human-caused event, such as catastrophic environmental collapse or global war with ultra-high-tech weapons, wiping us out past recovery. Either way, it's a depressing end, but (in this scenario) a common one.

But I suspect that the "where are they?" query has a serious flaw: it makes assumptions about the behavior of an interstellar-capable culture based on what we, a pre-interstellar society, might do. Take this bit from Bostrom's article, about self-replicating "Von Neumann machine" probes:

If a probe were capable of traveling at one-tenth the speed of light, every planet in the galaxy could thus be colonized within a couple of million years (allowing some time for each probe that lands on a resource site to set up the necessary infrastructure and produce daughter probes).

A clear argument, and one would be forgiven for missing the key word in that sentence: colonized.

The Singularity is Near? The Singularity is Calling from INSIDE THE HOUSE!

It's a reasonable assumption that a civilization capable of building self-replicating probes that can travel at 10% of the speed of light (or even 1%) would be well past the point of developing machines able to behave as sentient beings. Throw molecular nanotechnology into the mix, along with a unthinkably more advanced science's understanding of how the local equivalent of a brain works, and it's clear that an interstellar-capable civilization must also be a post-Singularity civilization, no matter how narrowly, broadly, or dismissively one defines the concept.

So why would members of a culture so advanced want to deal with colonization? It's a very human/biological concept, not one that would readily apply to a post-biological civilization. Colonization would be important if you were spreading people, but not intelligent Von Neumann machines. Gravity wells take energy to get out of. Planets can have their own replicators to deal with (organic or otherwise). A static position makes you a sitting duck for natural disasters. All of those could be dealt with, but why bother, when there so much more out there?

An Oort cloud, the shell of comets that surrounds a solar system at the outer reaches of its star's influence, would be much more appealing -- lots of fun molecules to work with, in abundance. Even the Kuiper belt, the ring of rocks and asteroids and occasional dwarf planets at the extreme edge of a solar system would be more interesting in terms of readily-accessible masses of material. Getting solar power is a non-issue, as an interstellar-capable civilization able to spread at 1% or 10% of the speed of light clearly has access to much more significant (and more readily portable) sources of energy.

To be clear, this isn't an argument that these interstellar-capable civs just sit at home. They could and would likely spread, and certainly explore. But the notion that they'd hop from solar system to solar system planting their colonies, strikes me as terribly unimaginative, and definitely a pre-Singularity perspective.

The core of the Singularity argument is that those of us on the "left of the boom" side of one simply can't understand what life is like on the "right of the boom." The demands and concerns and requirements of a post-Singularity civilization wouldn't be based on a pre-Singularity pattern. That would apply to choices made for interstellar spread, too.

Interstellar Risk

This is, to me, an arguable possibility as to why we haven't encountered extraterrestrial intelligence. It's not dead certain, however -- there could still be an interstellar culture that managed to avoid a Singularity, or still opted for colonization (or to turn every bit of non-stellar mass into computronium). But those have their own complexities, mostly revolving around the speed of light, evolution, and politics(!).

As far as we can tell, the speed of light is an absolute limit. As a result, the further out a civilization spreads from its original home, the greater the time required for the edges to speak to/trade with/learn from the center, or each other. After a few thousand light years (if not well before), the edges would be so disconnected that they'd effectively be in isolation.

What we know about groups in isolation, from both biological and sociological evolutionary models, is that they diverge. Various local conditions and particular histories set these groups along novel pathways. There's no reason why these patterns wouldn't also apply to interstellar spread. What would these variations look like? Who knows? But one thing we know about this imagined interstellar species is that it has a strong drive to spread and colonize.

So there you have a diverse (and diversifying) set of (sub-) cultures/species, all interested in spreading and colonization. Looking out into the deep dark, they'd see more systems to move to and fiddle with for a few centuries/millennia getting them set up right; looking back, they'd see lots of systems already set up to be perfectly-suited to this particular original species, or at worst easily modified. They don't all have to attack internally to disrupt the entire endeavor: some become victims, some become defenders, and some -- possibly many -- try to keep a very low profile, not wanting to become the next victim. After digesting the "old worlds," the super-colonizing culture might start to move out again, setting off another cycle. Eventually, they'd figure out that there's a limit to how far a civilization can spread before it falls apart.

One might argue that this is simply taking human history (clearly pre-Singularity) and trying to apply it to a post-Singularity culture. One would be wrong -- I'm taking a pattern repeated in evolution, the flip side of a species spreading across an environment. That it happens in politics as well as biology simply points to its universality.


There's one last flaw to the "where are they?" argument: it assumes that we could see them if they were there. I don't mean anything magical, just that we may not be looking in the right place, signal-wise. Advanced extraterrestrial civilizations could be using an entirely new medium for communication, one that we don't know see as possible, only having made a brief stop at radio along the way. That's possible, although given that it's dependent upon something we don't now know about, it's really just special pleading.

The issue that SETI and its related efforts can really only detect high-powered beacons is a more tangible issue. "Radio fossils," the signal leaks from radio-capable civilizations, are far too weak to be detected right now. Even our largest radio receivers are nowhere close to being able to pick up alien TV signals -- one estimate claims that we'd need a current-technology receiver larger than the diameter of the Earth to pick up UHF television signals from the nearest star system, Alpha Centauri. And when you add spread-spectrum and encryption technology, even a strong signal would likely look like noise.

To sum up:

* Current SETI couldn't detect the kinds of signals we're putting out, so may be missing abundant radio fossil traffic.
* We have no way of knowing if a post-radio communication method is in use.
* An interstellar-capable civilization would certainly be post-Singularity, and therefore have very different needs and motives for expansion.
* Interstellar-capable civilizations that somehow remain wedded to colonization would inevitably fall into internal conflict because of speed-of-light communication/travel lag and divergent evolution (social or biological).

All of this is to argue that just because we don't see them doesn't mean (a) they're not out there, or (b) we're doomed. Whew.

May 1, 2008

Remaking the Athlete, Remaking the Culture

ESPNMag.jpgDiscussions of the implications of the augmentation of our biological bodies with prosthetic technologies can be found quite readily in the esoteric discourses of self-described transhumanists, social theorists, and bioethicists. One might be forgiven for imagining that it's less-common among sports fans, more concerned with the latest scores and statistics. But the cover story of the current ESPN Magazine, "Let 'Em Play," not only explores the bigger issues surrounding the integration of augmentation in our culture, but (as the article title suggests) adopts a clearly pro-prosthetic perspective. Given the sports panics around doping, this isn't just enlightened, it's brave.

This isn't just a story about Oscar Pistorius, although his aborted effort to reach the Olympics -- shut down not because he wasn't good enough, but because the International Association of Athletics Federations feared that he'd soon be too good -- is clearly a catalyst for the story. The story's author, Eric Adelson, looks at a cross-section of prosthetic enhancements, some allowable, some not, and notes that this wouldn't be the first time that international athletics shied away from an advance. In many cases, reality forced athletics culture to change:

Every organized sport begins the same way, with the creation of rules. We then establish technological limits, as with horsepower in auto racing, stick curvature in hockey, bike weight in cycling. As sports progress, those rules are sometimes altered. The USGA, for instance, responded to advances in club technology by legalizing metal heads in the early '80s. In Chariots of Fire, the hero comes under heavy scrutiny for using his era's version of steroids: a coach, at a time when the sport frowned upon outside assistance. So if we can adjust rules of sports to the time, why not for prosthetics?

This story has emerged at a crucial time for augmentative technologies. We have, simultaneously, passionate laments on television and in the halls of Congress about steroid scandals in baseball, and a rapid proliferation of cognitive enhancing drugs in schools and in the workplace. For a moment, it seemed like the Western reaction to enhancement technologies would mirror the US schizophrenia around recreational drugs: widespread use alongside widespread condemnation. With the Pistorius story, and the growing recognition of the diversity of prosthetic technologies, we may not be able to so easily categorize such enhancements as "good" and "bad," "acceptable" and "unacceptable."

That this is happening in the world of sport is even more important than its timing. As long as arguments about augmentation and prosthetics remained focused on emerging bioscience, abstract notions of "human dignity," and imagined scenarios of war between the enhanced and unenhanced, most people (to the extent they were even aware of the issues), would see them as pointless irrelevancies or, worse still, science fiction. But with the epicenter of the dilemma a cultural arena that cuts across social, geographic and political divisions, arguments about augmentation and prosthetics will be inescapable. ESPN isn't a niche sub-culture; it's a common language.

For those of us who have been talking about the emerging questions about the role of augmentation technologies, "Let 'Em Play" (along with its two companion pieces, "The Disadvantage Advantage" and "Anything You Can Do...," a photo gallery of augmented athletes), offers a useful, powerful, and above all meaningful framing of the issue for people who might not even be aware that there is an issue.

(Disclaimer: A producer for ESPN Magazine interviewed me several months ago on a related topic, and the conversation drifted into these particular issues. I'm not cited in the article, but I wouldn't be surprised if lots of people at the magazine are wrestling with this subject.)

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


Creative Commons License
This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
Powered By MovableType 4.37