Category: Technology

Greens Engage in Class Warfare

During the past 200 years the world has been getting healthier and wealthier, and the population is stabilizing. The idea that the world is subject to runaway population growth is a myth. The trends worldwide are generally good, and all we need do is not to screw it up. Enter the Greens.

The Greens are trying to stop the development of genetically modified crops that will make it possible to feed the world’s population. Without them Europeans may still eat, but sub-Saharan Africans will starve to death. The Greens who oppose GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) crops are engaging in a kind of class warfare against the world’s poorest populations. Or should I say genocide?

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Designing Away Inequality

President Obama wants to make restoring (upward) economic mobility to Americans the number one priority for the remainder of his term in office. He offers a rationale for the government to step in and make it happen. No doubt there are things the government can do, and some of them may even be things the government should do.

The current worldwide winner-take-all vacuuming of the planet’s economic growth over the past 40 years has indeed enriched the wealthiest while wages for the rest of us have stagnated. The cause is simple: technology enabled economic globalization to surge so that wages are equalizing, and since there are many more people worldwide making low wages than there are Americans making higher wages, wages for Americans are equalizing down. But the technology was not the internet – it didn’t exist forty years ago. The technology was containerized shipping. It drove the cost of shipping down so low that it became cheaper to have manufacturing done overseas. The computers that came later just made the accounting easier and faster.

In effect, the jobs that used to pay a decent wage to people without a college education were engineered out of the US economy. Now product and process engineers need to get together to design those types of jobs back in. It’s not just what gets made, it’s how it’s made, who makes it, and what abilities they need to have. It’s one thing to train people for jobs, it’s another to design jobs for people to do, in the same way that we design products for people to use. I’m not talking about government make-work. I’m talking about designing the middle class back into the economy.

Entrepreneurs, designers, engineers and investors, I leave it as a challenge in social responsibility to you all.

The Geist in the Zeit

Henry Allen (2013) complains that there hasn’t been a distinctive Zeitgeist since the 1980s. To him, it’s as if “reality itself is dwindling, fading like sunstruck wallpaper.” On the contrary. Reality is being augmented. Mr. Allen is merely doing what we all do after a certain age – he is falling behind the times.

Back when the times could be characterized by serial trends in music, fashion, movies, and art, the media were controlled by gatekeepers who determined what they would bet their precious capital on presenting to the public. The result was a sort of monoculture, in which one trend followed another.

Today, digital media and the internet make production and distribution cheap. The gatekeepers have been bypassed. The market for culture, the social reality, has fragmented. Multiple genres of music, fashion, video, and art now exist side by side. The last bastions of monoculture are film and Broadway, where distribution to theaters is still limited and production is still expensive.

The phenomenon that has led to the fragmentation of social reality is also leading to its augumentation. We are about to go from carrying our social network in our mobile phone to wearing it in our accessories and clothing – Google Glass being the first of many attempts to get this right. Eventually we will wear our social network in our implants.

Even now, researchers are trying to develop brain-machine interfaces to help the blind see, the deaf hear, and amputees to control prosthetic limbs the way people control their natural limbs – with their minds. The implications for change are indeed Biblical, when wireless networking meets the mind-machine interface. People will communicate by exchanging their thoughts and mental imagery.

Social reality is going to get much richer and denser. Reality is not fading away. Mr. Allen is. And so are we and our history. When people stop using language to transmit their thoughts, only the most compelling parts of prior human knowledge, history, and literature will be transcribed into the new media.

Perhaps we shouldn’t get so worked up about so many of our contemporary problems. Most of them are destined to be forgotten.

Reference:

Allen, Henry. 2013. The Disquiet of Ziggy Zeitgeist. Wall Street Journal. August 2. A 11.

Global Warming and the Illusion of Knowledge

One of humanity’s favorite illusions is that of knowledge. Humans think they know more than they actually do. Chabris and Simons (2009, Ch. 4) describe an experiment in which people were asked to rate their knowledge of how a bicycle works on a scale of 1 to 7. They were then asked to draw a bicycle from memory and explain its workings. Most of them got it wrong.

The global climate is certainly more complicated than a bicycle, which means that even fewer people know how that works. We do have computer models — so many that there is an international Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison (PCMDI). These models cannot simulate the actual physics of the earth-ocean-atmosphere system, because the physics takes place on small, short-duration scales, that give rise to changes that become apparent only on large, long-duration scales. There just isn’t enough computer power in the world to span the time and length scales from atoms to the entire world.

So, climate scientists make approximate sub-models with adjustable parameters to represent the gaps in their knowledge. The sub-models become components of a super-model that represents the earth’s climate. These climate models are being tested for their sensitivity to the parameters in their sub-models. If a model turns out to be very sensitive to a given parameter, then research is commissioned to narrow down the uncertainty in that parameter so that the model will be better “tuned” to reality. This tuning is still in progress.

In other words, nobody actually knows how the climate is going to respond to humanity’s burning of fossil fuels. If the earth were as simple as a greenhouse, it would get warmer by an easily predictable amount. On the other hand, all the models predict some amount of warming.

It would be prudent to reduce humanity’s burning of fossil fuels. The control freaks in society want to make fossil fuel energy artificially more expensive by so-called “cap and trade” legislation. This may allow current renewable energy technology to be more price competitive with fossil fuels, but it comes at the cost of making everyone on earth incrementally poorer. The poorest will probably die.

A better idea is to try to invent “greener” technologies that make energy so cheap that nobody can profit by bringing fossil fuels out of the ground. That will make everyone on earth incrementally richer. It will also disempower the world’s oil autocrats.

Must we employ draconian public policy measures to compel reductions in fossil fuel burning? Is it already too late to wait for the development of alternative energy technologies to make fossil fuels obsolete? Nobody knows.

Reference

Chabris, Christopher and Daniel Simons (2009). The Invisible Gorilla. New York: Broadway Paperbacks.

Drone Wars

The New Yorker recently ran “Remote Control: Our Drone Delusion,” in which one phrase rings true to me: terrorism is ultimately a political problem. The current wave of terrorism will subside, but drones will stay with us. They will become Do-It-Yourself items. They will even leave the skies and take to the ground. The antecedents are already in place: Sony has built a humanoid running robot and researchers are working on mind-machine interfaces to control prostheses. Put them together and you have something like “soldierboys”, the remotely operated robot infantry of Joe Haldeman’s 1997 science fiction novel Forever Peace.  In the not too distant future our soldiers may put on their interface suits and kill people thousands of miles away. Until the technology becomes so widespread that our adversaries can do it to us.

Fortunately the world is getting more peaceful, according to Goldstein (2011). Let’s hope that trend wins.

Reference:

Goldstein, Joshua S. 2011. Think Again: War. Foreign Policy. Sept/Oct. http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/08/15/think_again_war, accessed 5/9/2013.