Future of Tech

tech future

This is probably my favourite chapter. Here be sub-chapter #19, of Chapter #5, Technology, of my ongoing rewrite and open editing process Random Rationality: A Rational Guide to an Irrational World. I would greatly appreciate any feedback, corrections, criticisms, and comments. If you want the full PDF of the book, then you can download it by clicking here—if you provide constructive criticisms in return, and live in the US, UK, or EU, then I’ll ship you a paperback copy of the book free of charge when it’s published. If you wish to read the previous chapters in one convenient place online, please follow this link, and lastly, thanks for reading!


FUTURE OF TECH

 

The future is going to be very bright, brighter than a lot of us can imagine, though that is predicated on getting out-of-the-way of the engineers, scientists, and companies that will make it happen. (Not that we shouldn’t keep a watchful eye.) And if we do, the stars are the limit.

This chapter will focus on two emerging technologies that have the potential to bring about a beautiful future, and try as hard as I might, it will more than likely be an under-estimation because well… I’m dumb. You think I wrote this book? I was compelled to write it by something claiming to call itself free will, but I digress…for the last time…maybe.

 

3D Printing

3D printing has the potential to render the factory obsolete, and for very simple reasons; technology is beginning to move past economies of scale. Economies of scale refers to making so much of one product that the individual cost per unit is brought down by the mass quantities, which can be sold for a cheaper price, thus selling more quantities and increasing the likelihood of turning a profit.

A physical book makes a fine example (so long as I ignore print-on-demand). When a book is published, a certain number of books have to be printed, bound, distributed and subsequently sold to entail pricing it at say, thirty-dollars. Otherwise, the manufacturers’ and publisher take a loss. If that manufacturer is only printing a quantity that is one-quarter as large, the price results in a book that costs four-times as much, which makes recouping the initial investment increasingly difficult. Making more books allows each individual book to be sold cheaper and therefore increases the chances of recouping the investment, turning a profit, keeping people in work, and, in at least this case, increasing overall knowledge.

With eBooks, there is no such restriction on the cost per unit of the product as it is digital, and there is no difference between having one copy or one million copies. It is a simple command between the two quantities. An eBook has become a digital information technology. This is happening to objects. Physical objects are becoming (slowly for now, but increasing in speed) a digital information technology.

Today, every Jane and her Joe has a printer in the home; this printer is capable of printing rudimentary, usually multicolored, characters onto a 2D sheet of paper.

The future of printing goes well beyond this seemingly simple technology; we will soon be printing physical 3D objects. The 3D printer, otherwise known as an additive printer, will be able to ‘print’ any object that can fit within the length, width, and height of its laser-equipped arms; the user will be able to make three-dimensional, solid objects from digital files.

The first consumer 3D printers were released in 2012, but big corporations have been using these magic machines for decades for the purpose of prototyping. If they needed to make a spanner, a spare car part, an intricate widget, or whatever else tickled their fancy, they simply printed it out to touch it in real life. No theory, no spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to have it custom-made in a special factory somewhere far away, but created, tested, and demonstrated to management and engineering without lag time or exorbitant costs right there in the office, allowing many more innovative and riskier projects as a result of the cost savings. Before 3D printing, the shoemaker Timberland had to spend $1,200 and one week to create a prototype sole.Today, it takes them ninety-minutes and costs them $35. The airliner, EADS that makes the iconic Airbus A380 (the largest plane in the world), are printing shoe-sized titanium landing-gear brackets for use in their airplanes. Normally, such a device would be made via a process called subtractive manufacturing, which results in ninety-percent of the titanium being wasted (since you have to start with a square block and titanium ain’t cheap, and whittle it down to the final design). Additive printing is the complete opposite, which also allows more efficient structural changes and integrity. They eventually hope to print out an entire aircraft wing! The savings in material and reduced time to production is enormous. 3D Systems (which invented additive manufacturing twenty-five years ago), is involved in a consortium printing hundreds of parts for the F-18 and F-35 fighter jets: clearly machines that demand the utmost precision in their capability. If it’s good enough for some of the most expensive machines in history (between $154 to $236.8 million a pop), then surely our home accessories and cars will be more than satisfied.

Slightly off-topic, something similar—decrease in cost and production time—will soon be happening with semiconductors (used in computer chips, batteries, and solar panels), where a new manufacturing process has been demonstrated, in which gallium arsenide semiconductors are assembled by growing them from freely suspended nano-particles of gold, instead of using the more traditional subtractive methods from silicon wafers, accelerating their creation by thousands of times. This tech, while not explicitly part of the 3D manufacturing framework operates on similar principles (by reversing the subtractive process) and is expected to be operational within two to four years, and will result in just as significant a cost-savings. By the end of this decade, computer chips will cost about a penny, and they’ll be used with throw-away mentality. We’ll be able to afford to put them in everything; clothes, tabletops, walls, you name it. A simple way to think of the increasing speed, efficiency, and clockwork reliability of the exponential increase of computers is like this: we are using computers to build faster computers, which we then use to build faster’er computers and so forth. (The same goes for 3D printing, which is why I went on this little detour. )

Back to 3D printing. The manner in which additive printing works is quite simple. An object (encoded as a digital file) is selected and sent for printing. The printer then goes to work building it one two-dimensional layer at a time from the ground up, using (in the first mainstream devices) a plastic resin that is laid down and heated with focused lasers, solidifying in the process. This process continues, layer by layer, creating multitudes of two-dimensional layers that gradually build up until printing is completed, and a three-dimensional object stands revealed. The size of the object is limited only by the 3-Dimensional space of the arms, though nothing will stop you from assembling objects piece-by-piece; such as a table, chair, or plane.

This technology, once it comes down in price for the mass-market will explode. The first ones that are rolling onto the consumer shelves are of the world of plastic, and therefore, only able to print, or create, products in plastic. With time, silicon, metals, et al. will be added to the mix, then eventually all of them will be combined in one to be able to print electronics, watches (Rolex anyone?), cars, food, drugs, and has recently been used to print human body parts; a human lower jaw, blood vessels, bones (five-to-ten years away),  teeth, and even DNA. The tech that goes into making the 3D printer, is subject to Moore’s Law. (Doubling of price-performance per 12-18 months, so ten years from now, they will be approximately one-thousand more powerful and intricate.)

These products are functional now; the one obstacle that remains is of making them mainstream. Something that technology is exceptionally good at doing. Forty-years ago, a normal (or back then, state of the art) computer was a building in size and cost $100 million. Today, a phone a million times smaller and a thousand times more powerful is probably in your pocket as you read this. This is known as Moore’s Law. Every twelve-to-eighteen months, the computational capacity doubles for the same price (adjusted for inflation), and 3D Printers are subject to this exponential increase in capability without a subsequent cost increase, and if you forego the increased capability, the cost of any current technology becomes half the cost in the same time frame. The same goes for solar panels, every year they become roughly thirty-percent cheaper (compounded), and fifty-percent more efficient (also compounded). Since 2009, solar costs have dropped seventy-five-percent, even while contending with the Global Financial Crisis.

Decades ago, Bill Gates stipulated his dream of having a computer in every home. The new dream is to put a 3D printer in every home and with the exponentially declining costs and increasing capability, we may be no more than a decade or two from this goal.

 

“The rate at which the technology is getting faster is itself getting faster.” ~ Peter Diamandis (CEO)

 

Maybe one day you’ll break a mug and gasp; it was your favorite mug. There are no more stores to sell such antiquated mugs because you’re living in the future! Who knew? So you jump on your computer, open AutoDesk (or some other consumer-friendly program), and design the same mug again, perhaps adding your signature this time or a picture of your girlfriend. Perhaps you made a digital backup of it, or took some photos that can now be converted into its digital equivalent to save the work of designing it again. With that finished, you send it to your printer, and off it goes layering, resining, and laser’ing your new mug, layer by incremental layer. Voila! A few minutes later, you’re making yourself a new cup of coffee. Imagine the possibilities: toys, tables, chairs (assembled piece-by-piece), plates, cutlery, bikes, cars, or anything else you have in your home, or that you can dream of. Recently, a pair of students printed off a plane part-by-part, assembled it themselves, and flew it at a hundred-mph (it was unmanned), at a cost of $2,000. Just five-years ago, a plane of similar size and capability would have cost $250,000 to build. Imagine what we will be able to create five-years from now when it is another order-of-magnitude cheaper to print and create. This technology is taking a hammer to the rich-poor divide, though it will not completely obliterate it. (Something else will, and I’ll get to it in a few paragraphs.)

Now, some might think that we will be utterly dependent on the companies who will make these nifty, life-giving contraptions, much as we are to the energy conglomerates now, but technology sometimes has a funny way of being made of pure awesomeness. When your printer nears the end of its life, you’ll be able to print yourself a new one. Todays 3D printers can print off seventy-percent of the parts to create a new model of itself. Five to ten-years from now, it will print one-hundred-percent of its own parts. It will be next to impossible to monopolize this technology, and even if safeguards were built into it, the hacker mentality will sprout up to circumvent such restrictions. You will more than likely be reliant on someone for the printer cartridge. Though, the feed should be easy enough to make so that a distributed market is created out of it, with no one entity having a monopoly.

Economics will be thrown out the door in so violent a manner; it will be the Italian Renaissance all over again, with far-reaching consequences: negative in the short-term for working people, positive in the long-term for everyone. Look at what the printing press did to the dark ages. Gunpowder to knights. Cars to horse carts. Planes to boat travel. The cellphone to the landline. The CD burner  (and Napster and Bit-torrent and consumers and artists) to the music industry. iPads to netbooks, and I leave you with the homework of imagining what will happen to every industry once the 3D printer is mainstream.

iPrint, therefore I am?

The most groundbreaking example of this technology is what the Italian Enrico Dini, has set his life’s purpose to. He can print a house! Albeit only a small one for now as the technology is still in its infancy, but again, this technology exponentially increases in capability, so we won’t have to wait long. Imagine having the home of your dreams built exactly the way you want, to exacting specifications, with high-quality materials, no human labor, and no supply chain (save the cartridge). What previously required the work of a dozen men working tirelessly for months could be done by one man in one day! No more living with your in-laws while you wait for your dream home to be completed. Not to mention that within the three-dimensional reach of the printer, you will not be restricted to the boxy walls and triangular roofs we’ve grown accustomed to. All number of shapes, contours, and home-types will be possible. Want an upside-down fish bowl home? No Problem. Wavy home? Easy. Roman Pillars? Call me when you’re ready to start using your imagination. Again, numerous prototypes of 3D-building homes (also called contour crafting) exist around the world in many companies and inventors. What remains is bringing it to the mass-market, and I imagine the developing world will be the first to embrace it. Just as they did with mobile phones, completely skipping the antiquated resource-intensive landline telephone. There are several other people and companies pursuing this technology. One among them, Professor of Systems Engineering at the University of Southern California, Behrokh Khoshnevis, though he calls it by the latter name, Contour Crafting. (I highly recommend you watch his TED Talk on the subject. Google ‘contour crafting TED’, but suffice it to say; plumbers, electricians, and constructions are going to have a tough-time of it.)

3D printing, Additive Manufacturing, Contour Crafting, or whatever we want to call it will snatch from the future and bring into the present an economy with very little waste, unimaginable possibilities, huge economic and energy savings, and most importantly very little lag time between creativity and creation (see quote below). This will allow the ingenuity of humankind to spring forth and create a beautiful world not bound to the rules and bylaws of monopolistic practices that have manifested themselves as a result of the consolidation of knowledge, influence, and power into the hands of a few, and subsequent protection of that monopoly through government conscription. Human creativity, in short, is becoming unbounded, and technology is the great equalizer that makes it so!

As the futurist Jason Silva ruminates in his short-form video, Imagination, “If you were able to look at human progress, as if through a timelapse of the last hundred years, you would see that literally thoughts spill over into the world in the form of technology. We engage in feedback loops with that technology, which then extends our ability to instantiate new realities.” 

 

Nanotechnology

Nanotechnology is considered to be the technological Holy Grail. If nanotechnology were to fulfill its ideal, then every single material problem we’ve ever had or ever will have will disappear, or simply not exist to begin with. Nanotechnology, in its simplest form, is building with computers on an atomic level, usually between 1 and 100 nanometers (nm). To put that in perspective, the DNA double helix is approximately 2nm wide. It is essentially creating, or building things a few atoms at a time from the bottom up, with zero waste.

Some examples: carbon nanotubes assembled in this fashion into solid metallic-like objects are one-hundred times stronger than steel, yet six times lighter. Someday in the future, cars and airplanes will be made with them, increasing fuel efficiency and passenger safety. Some scientists want to build a space elevator with this miraculous substance reaching 22,000 miles into space. The cost of putting objects into space would drop from thousands of dollars per pound down to a few tens of dollars, which would begin a third space renaissance (Apollo and SpaceX were the first two)—and I’ll stop using renaissance now.

In medicine, current research is pointing to nanobots programmed to attack only cancerous cells and viruses, carrying the required medicine directly to the point of contact, thereby affecting only the targeted unhealthy tissue, leaving healthy tissue nearby unaffected—no more balding chemotherapy patients! The bandana industry is going to suffer—rally the goldfi…uh politicians to protect their jobs! And as I alluded to in Fear of Fission, we can get down into the nitty-gritty radioactive waste, rendering inert—or isolating—the oxidative ions that are stripped away forming the radiation, leaving behind an inert, harmless substance.

Nano-tech surgery is on the horizon. Infinitely more precise and able to perform functions such as diagnosing and correcting internal disease or trauma, free of slips of the surgeons’ hands, potential infections, and without need of surgical cuts, all from the inside out. (And if you recall from Future of Food, antibiotic super-bacteria are evolving that will make surgery all but impossible potentially within the next decade.) That is, individual intelligent nanobots will be able to travel to the trauma; assess the damage, and repair only the affected tissue, while skipping over healthy cells. We will potentially enter an age where life expectancy takes another huge leap, much as it did in the twentieth century, from a worldwide average of forty-years to kissing eighty years, and in some parts of the world, moving beyond. It’s helpful to note that in twenty-five years, computers (nanobots as we may call them then) will be a hundred-thousand times smaller than the iPhones and Android smartphones we use today, as well as being a billion times faster, i.e., they will be the size of blood cells.

We may even reach a point where a person never dies of old age and is kept in optimal health by an array of nanobots floating throughout his or her body, attaching to cells and repairing them daily. We could stay twenty-five forever! Consider this quote by the Foresight Institute:

 

“Nanobots work like tiny surgeons as they reach into a cell, sense damaged parts; repair them by reformatting new atoms, and leave. By repairing and rearranging cells and surrounding structures, nanobots can restore every tissue and bone in the body to perfect health – including replacing aging skin with new, resilient skin, restoring youthful looks and good health.”

 

That’s a future they think is possible by 2020. Eight short years away, but a more realistic timeline by Ray Kurzweil, inventor and futurist, is the late 20s. I’m already counting down the days because as a non-theist heathen, there’s no heaven waiting for me, just a boring eternal darkness where I can’t even get bored—how boring! Now, to not accidentally die in the next eight to eighteen years is the task I have given myself…

Don’t make the mistake of thinking this technology is only for the rich. The concept of poor and rich exists only in environments of scarcity, as does the concepts of the trading and price. While the rich will most surely have first access to miracles such as nanotechnology, as they will be the investors—so thank you rich people!—the concept of nanotechnology is that each nano-computer, or nanobot, can turn anything else into another nano-computer. It defies the very laws of scarcity and economics that we live in today.

One nanobot becomes two, two nanobots becomes four, four become eight, eight become sixteen, sixteen transmute into thirty-two, and forty-four steps later, thirty-two is 5,600,000,000,000,000 nanobots. Try assigning a price to that!

Now, there are numerous dangers in having unrestrained nanobot replication in the world; known as The Gray Goo Scenario, in which the biomass of the Earth is turned into dead matter. The envisioned controls are a bit beyond the scope of this book (as well as my limited expertise), but such control systems would more than likely involve Artificial Intelligence and centralized replication servers that keep things in check by doling out permission or denial requests for nanobots in light of the predisposed environment and usage. Perhaps using quantum cryptography security systems: unbreakable codes generated by quantum entangled states, which take advantage of a quantum state known as quantum superposition, where a change in one particle (after it has been entangled with another), invokes an instantaneous (and equal) change in the other entangled particle; thus if an eavesdropper listens in, he or she irreparably change, by way of observation, the quantum state. The security system is just a guess on my part, and there will undoubtedly be many layers of increasingly difficult to crack security to protect us from the harmful effects of nanotechnology, and ensure only the positive effects are unleashed into the world, to the benefit of all. For a more in-depth primer on this, exploring in far greater detail, the pro’s and con’s of nanotechnology, Ray Kurzweil’s, The Singularity is Near, is an excellent read on the subject (as well as on biotechnology, additive manufacturing, increasing computational capacity, turning the Universe into God et al).

The potential of the human race is being realized, and it will usher in a future brighter than any one of us can imagine. There will be pains along the way, especially economic (though due to technology, per-capita income worldwide has tripled in the last century), and the usual social unrest that accompanies such pain, but technology, as it has done so in the past, is the only thing that will alleviate us from the woes of the twentieth century, and all those that came before it, and the only thing that can provide a beautiful life to all seven billion people on this little blue rock, so it must be embraced with open arms and from a platform of knowledge, as opposed to ignorance, as is usually the case when we enter turbulent, exciting times. It is, and perhaps always will be, easier to invent new technologies, than re-programming the irrational hearts and rationalizing minds of billions of people.

 

We didn’t stay in the caves, we didn’t stay on the planet, and we won’t stay with the limitations of our biology.” ~ Ray Kurzweil (Inventor)


Note: the book is fully sourced, but because of the writing program I use, the links don’t transfer over to WordPress, and I can’t be bothered inserting them in one at a time. The final book will have all the relevant sources in the proper locations.

Driving and Flying

flying and driving

This is sub-chapter #17, of Chapter #5, Technology, of my ongoing rewrite and open editing process Random Rationality: A Rational Guide to an Irrational World. I would greatly appreciate any feedback, corrections, criticisms, and comments. If you want the full PDF of the book, then you can download it by clicking here—if you provide constructive criticisms in return, and live in the US, UK, or EU, then I’ll ship you a paperback copy of the book free of charge when it’s published. If you wish to read the previous chapters in one convenient place online, please follow this link, and lastly, thanks for reading!


DRIVING AND FLYING

I promised you positivity, enough to outweigh the tedium of the preceding chapters, and here it be.

What do planes and automobiles have in common? Well, right now, not so much, aside from getting you from point A to point B. But soon, a whole lot more, and it will make life easier and better for everyone.

Let’s start with airplanes today and extrapolate out into the near future with cars. We don’t have everyone today clamoring to own an airplane, as we do with cars, because they are excessively expensive to buy, to maintain, and to fuel. Instead, large companies are built around them that own and lease them out on an as-needed basis for those who need to travel. In order for these companies to keep costs down (and thus, keep ticket prices as cheap as possible), they routinely fly their airplanes as often as is safely possible. Airplanes often have about a ninety-six percent usage rate (cars have approximately a ninety-six percent idle rate).

That’s why we don’t have a billion airplanes everywhere, but why we do have a billion cars. Cars are dumb machines, much as a phone used to be, only able to send and receive calls and SMS. (It’s almost difficult to remember such phones.) A car needs to be driven everywhere by a human driver. Also, we humans aren’t nearly as rational, safe, and proficient as we like to think we are, and we often make mistakes. Sometimes we hit other cars or other people. Sometimes we drive ourselves off the road, or neglect to take local weather conditions into account and various other factors that cause a significant amount of damage around the world, both personal and monetary. (Why I’m bringing up bad and dangerous driving will make sense soon.)

That’s all about to change. Google is developing and testing the self-driving car, and to conclude the phone analogy above; it is the iPhone of cars. It has had over 300,000 miles of road testing with nary a hiccup to its name, or the equivalent of driving twelve times around the world. (It was involved in two accidents, but was being manually operated both times.) The necessary legislation that will allow it to drive on the road has already been approved in three US states; Nevada, California, and Florida. (And I’m sure many more to come; the one thing you can count on politicians to do is try to play catch-up)

These self-driving G-cars are a miracle in disguise, and in more ways than one. Imagine never needing more than one car per household (or per street). Imagine accidents being a thing of the past, or driving to the bar to get your drink on and back home risk free. Imagine traffic jams and congestions being a distant memory. Imagine all the money you won’t spend on insurance and parking tickets. Imagine never losing a dear friend or loved one at the wheels of a drunk driver or wet road. Imagine not having to worry about your teenage child going out late at night and all the other positive consequences I’m too dumb to think of.

Ninety-three percent of all automobile crashes are wholly or indirectly attributed to human error; intoxication, texting or calling while driving, and various other human factors. Global traffic accidents are in the range of fifty-million per year, and deaths as a result of those accidents are in the neighborhood of 1.3 million per year according (to the World Health Organization, though there are other estimates that put the number at $230 billion). Not being able to count the human cost of such tragedy (nor should one try), the millions of injuries incur costs of roughly $100 billion per year. By 2019, human deaths are projected to hit 1.9 million. The potential for change with the driverless car is nothing short of huge.

Here is a fictional scenario of a family of three in a not-too-distant future.

Husband, on his drive in to work in the morning; checks his work email on his smart phone, listens to the news on the dashboard TV, and sips his coffee with nary a glance at the road. Upon arriving at work, he instructs Car, as one would a pet, to return home. Fifteen minutes later, Wife gets a message that Car has returned as it pulls into the driveway, so she walks Kid outside and helps him hop aboard, telling Car to drive him to school, as one would of a chauffeur. Car drives with Kid in tow, while Wife goes back inside to finish her now-peaceful morning coffee. Car drives smoothly through traffic and, at full speed, straight through a roundabout without stopping thanks to its array of sensors on-board that monitor the environment in every direction thousands of times per second, as well as keep in contact wirelessly with nearby cars; all of whom, in unison, plot a course so that, with minimal disruption to speed, they criss-cross with ease and nary a hiccup. Coming up to a red light, it smoothly glides to a stop. As the red light turns green, all the other networked cars simultaneously start driving forward; their radars and 3D cameras preventing them from ever hitting each other, eliminating congestion on the once-chaotic roads. What was once a thirty-minute drive is now a relaxing twelve. As Car arrives at the school and stops at the sidewalk, Kid hurriedly shouts at the car to go back home as he disembarks and runs to the playground to find his friends. Twelve minutes later, Wife receives another message, picking up her handbag as she reads it; she strolls out onto the driveway, jumps in, and says, “Take me to work.

Once cars become self-driving, it will be feasible, cost-effective, safer, and environmentally friendlier to have a handful of cars service multiple households, perhaps an entire street. In fact, there may well be  citywide car-sharing companies (using Big Data and statistical analysis), determining how many cars can service the entire population: the city of Paris is currently in such trials, though the cars they are using are not self-driving. Time, traffic, parking, accidents, and congestion cease to be problems anymore. You might not be able to stroke your ego with your big new car anymore, but your small personal loss will result in the long-term gain of the human race and our biosphere.

That is a future that can be made possible due to the driverless car, and it could not have come at a better time either.

According to the International Energy Agency, global peak oil was reached in 2006. So we’re officially past the halfway mark of the world’s cheap oil supply, with an increasingly energy-hungry and population-heavy developing world competing with the developed world going forward for what remains. China and India are spending tens of billions of dollars buying up oil-fields around the world. Using nothing more than logic, we can be sure that the second half won’t last nearly as long, nor be nearly as cheap, as the first half, though this does not preclude us from using dirtier oil sources such as Tar Sands and Heavy Crude etc, though they are far worse for the environment, human health, and far more expensive. The act of making a car in itself is a hugely oil-intensive task, let alone filling up the tank, and this will only become more so.

If a technology such as self-driving cars makes the transition from development to mass-market adoption; we’ll have fewer cars on the road, efficient roads, no accidents, no injuries or deaths, no congestion or traffic jams, and perhaps even no traffic lights. The cost savings that will result from a resource, medical, productivity, and environmental standpoint will be enormous and could potentially reinvigorate lagging economies (by repurposing money sunk into oil, cars, congestion, etc., into new businesses and investments), and we will all be better off—that is, if money still exists at this point (more on this in the Future of Work). Larry Page, the CEO of Google, recently went on the record that it would save Google itself hundreds of millions of dollars in parking costs. Imagine what it will save the rest of the world? And this, rather greedily and perhaps shortsightedly, speaks only of cash.

There may even come a time—nay, will if mass-adopted—that governments (perhaps even insurance companies) forbid manual driving due to the danger it poses others. Taxi, bus, and truck drivers, and traffic light repairmen et al, will be out of work, and it is unfortunate that such progress comes with such pain, but unfortunately, there is no way around that. As Gary Marcus from the New Yorker writes, “it would be immoral of you to drive, because the risk of you hurting yourself or another person will be far greater than if you allowed a machine to do the work.”

Everything has a cost, and that cost must be paid in full, for the sake of progress and the betterment of all human life.


Are We Responsible?

are we responsible?

This is sub-chapter #9, of Chapter #3, Politics, of my ongoing rewrite and open editing process Random Rationality: A Rational Guide to an Irrational World.

Would greatly appreciate any feedback, corrections, criticisms, and comments. If you want the MOBI, ePub, or PDF, then please let me know in the comments—if you provide constructive criticisms in return, and live in the US, UK, or EU, then I’ll ship you a paperback copy of the book free of charge when it’s published.


ARE WE RESPONSIBLE?

Now that the ‘facts nonsense’ is over with, I can start with the rhetoric, where any opinion can be made to sound right. But before we begin, I’d like to apologize in advance for the overabundance of negativity in the next 8 sub-chapters. I am only calling it as I see it, but it might be difficult to slog through. If you can make it through the seven hells, plus the free bonus hell, then you will be rewarded with an overabundance of positivity in the last 4 sub-chapters, as I’m saving the best for last. With that out-of-the-way, let’s talk about responsibility, personal as well as social responsibility in the context of the question, are we responsible enough to govern ourselves?

Let’s begin with social responsibility. The majority of us are part of the collective called society. We enter into a social contract with our fellow citizens and our government to give up some of our liberties in exchange for certain conveniences—usually by accident of birth.

For example, we allow the government to tax us in exchange for them to build infrastructure. We expect them to pass laws, regulations and statutes that protect us from those who would do us harm, to enforce the rule of law, and to look out for our best interests on the international stage. So while we lose some freedoms, we gain greater freedoms in the form of convenience; that’s the theory anyway, and generally how governments function at a democracies inception, when everybody is an idealist.

Onto responsibility: there was a study some time ago titled, The Bystander Effect. It aimed to clarify what, if any, difference occurred in the response time of normal people giving aid to complete strangers who were in the process of getting, or were hurt, depending on how many other bystanders were present. The final result was quite interesting: the more people watching, and as long as they could see each other watching, the less likely help would be rendered in any form.

What? Common sense should dictate that help be rendered faster, but as usual, the truth flies in the face of common sense. The theory was that because everybody could see everyone else also watching, subsequently assumed that somebody else would dial the police, ambulance, or render aid. Another study take a different approach to the same problem. They put a lone person in a room, and started pumping smoke into the room. Seventy-percent percent of people reported the smoke within seconds. When other subjects  (actors told to ignore the smoke) were present, the number of people reporting the smoke declined significantly, to ten-percent in one scenario.

So what does this have to do with society?

Think, by and large, of Western governments that a lot of us are in this contract with. By now, most of us know that something is wrong. Spending is too high, government meddling in the economy is distorting the marketplace causing the misallocation of capital, we are being endlessly manipulated, and corporations employ armies of lobbyists so democracy is swayed their way, at times, regardless of the social cost.

At times, greater liberties than are required to be removed are being removed, seemingly with no immediate benefit to us, along with an anthology of other seemingly small inconveniences that, when added up, paint a confusing, perhaps disturbing picture.

No one, however, does much of anything to protest it, if they even know at all. We all assume that someone else will do it, and yes, there are those who stick it to the man, but they are few and far between.

The world sits atop a precipice, most importantly, a financial one. (I will goto in more in the chapter Debt Crisis 101.) The Western world is in so much debt that any day now we could plunge into another depression. And if that was our only problem we might be so lucky:

  • Online privacy is a thing of the past. Governments and corporations are increasingly intruding into our private lives, both offline and online.
  • Inflation is accelerating around the world. That is, your purchasing power is being slowly eroded, and the Consumer Price Index (CPI) which tracks inflation often tracks novel and unimportant price increases to underestimate inflation
  • Too Big To Fail’ banks are getting trillions—not a typo, trillions—of free dollars because, apparently, socialism is now ‘in’ for friends of the government
  • The mainstream media seems to be getting more biased by the day, sometimes outright trying to misinform us. Accidentally or not, who knows. (Cough fox news cough.)
  • US politicians are domestically passing draconian laws that other countries might, and usually do, emulate such as the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA)

The Bystander Effect is also known by another phrase, the diffusion of responsibility. So it’s quite obvious that when it comes to social responsibility, we’ve dropped the ball there, and in most cases, we demand that governments continue on the path to fiscal disaster, which I’ll explore soon.

Onwards and forwards to personal responsibility. We like to think of ourselves as responsible, more so as we age, yet are we really? Using the populations of Greece, Italy and Spain as examples, are they really acting responsibly by protesting the governments’ austerity measures in 2012 that are removing unsustainable programs that can’t be paid for?

‎”It is not the function of our government to keep the citizen from falling into error; It is the function of the citizen to keep the government from falling into error.” ~ Robert H. Jackson (US Supreme Court Justice)

These programs will only make their own eventual situation worse by accelerating their countries’ economic downfall. Sounds silly protesting to keep entitlements that are damaging to your economy, and by extension, your future personal well-being, does it not? We are predisposed to future short-term thinking, and it seems our educational systems are not preparing us to see past this default mode.

Of course, those protesting don’t know this, but it is part of their responsibility, their social contract, to be informed on what does and does not work economically. It’s not good enough to demand something just because it benefits you. Ignorance will eventually hurt you, your fellow citizens, and in a globalized world, the entire region or planet.

It is often said, “Ignorance is bliss,” though it should be said, “Ignorance is temporary bliss.” Those who live this way are leaving their future well-being to chance, or to other less-than-savory characters—in many cases, the politician.

All three of the just-mentioned countries are in so much debt, they run the risk of outright default. In the case of Greece, they can’t even sell debt on the private bond market, relying solely on bailouts from the IMF and ECB. So why are they, and many others, drowning in debt?

One of the reasons is that the majority vote for politicians who bring the most benefits to them, without asking simple questions such as, “Where is the money going to come from to pay for this program?” Or anything remotely resembling a sensible question. And the recently elected politician can’t just raise taxes as soon as they’re elected to pay for their promises, so what is a politically expedient way of getting the necessary money to keep these promises without attracting the ire of voters? Thanks to Keynesianism, the answer is simple: borrow it. Problem solved! Of course, it’s only solved on a short-term basis, and we will be finding out just how shortsighted it really was in the coming years globally, though locally it is being felt in certain areas, as it is in Spain, where the youth have fifty-three percent unemployment, regardless of educational attainment.

There’s yet another reason government debts have spiraled upwards around the world. It’s not just limited to those three countries mentioned above, they are merely the top 3 examples! It is because previous government programs rarely, if ever, get cut as there are people who rely on those programs who won’t or can’t, give them up, and this affects a politician’s chance of re-election, no matter how small a minority it benefits. Just look at corn subsidies in the USA, corn farmers make up less than two-percent of the voting block, yet they receive billions in subsidies that simply isn’t economically necessary (and actually is economically destructive), while also contributing destructively to the entire planet, essentially raising the cost of corn, tying it to the price of fuel (converting it into biofuels with only a trivial 50% energy gain, compared to oil at 500%, i.e., one barrel of oil gets us 1.5 barrels of corn bio-fuel, while one barrel of oil gets us five barrels of oil out of the ground). This negatively affects food prices around the world, thereby increasing world hunger. But they still get their billions of dollars of subsidies without a care in the world, and no politician can touch that subsidy. Democracy was at first, the tyranny of the majority, though it has seemingly evolved into the tyranny of the minority, thanks to the art of lobbying. I need not even discuss the stranglehold of Wall St. Human intuition and shortsighted thinking is becoming so overwhelmed, that in a data-abundant world, it should no longer be used as the basis for democratic decision-making, an important part of it yes, but not the basis or foundation, as we are inherently bias and shortsighted (more on this in Fixing Politics and Chapter 5: Technology).

Thus, the upward thrust of government programs and the bureaucracies that goes with them, which history has shown happens time and time again, happens yet again in the modern-day where apparently we know better. This leads to ineffectual decision-making and government. Politicians are so concerned with keeping their jobs that they don’t do their jobs to the full potential and benefit of the nation. And people are so concerned with their own benefits or entitlements, or self-absorbed ideas that their socioeconomic system is the right one that they won’t allow politicians to do their jobs to their full potential either, even when a change of direction is required, or demanded to avert disaster! Responsibility? More like populist ignorance, with a serving of political cowardice, and a sprinkling of stupidity on both sides. (By stupidity, I mean the inability to recognize the long-term effects of actions.)

“How fortunate that men do not think.” ~Adolf Hitler (Sociopath)

This lack of personal responsibility lies solely at the feet of the populace. Yes, politicians have run up the debt making things unsustainable. They have spent and spend too much, borrow and borrowed too much, and printed and print too much new money—and we are right to blame them for their part in these problems.

But we blame them for the whole problem when we are part of the problem; we, or at least the majority, voted them in based on what they would provide to us. We are to blame for not asking basic questions on how they will fund these generous entitlement programs, and are at fault for not understanding basic economics. We are to blame for leaving to others the responsibility of keeping their actions in check because we were too busy watching American, British, or French Idol. Being social mammals evidently has its drawbacks. Consider the Asch Conformity experiments conducted in the 1950s, and repeated many times since. Seven-to-nine participants (all but one being actors designed to fool the one real participant), when accessing two pictures on a card; the picture on the left is of a straight line, compared to the picture on the right with three straight lines, one of which matches the length of the left line. Cycling through variations of the cards, the actors were on some occasions told to purposefully give the incorrect answer as to which line from the right-side matches the line on the left. The lonely real participants answer, who was made to judge last, was recorded. In one-third of cases, the real participant overrode his gut intuition (the answer was exceedingly simple) and conformed to the crowd. This experiment was repeated over many years, many universities, and hundreds of people. It also found that the more ambiguous a situation, that is, the more uncertain (as we find in public knowledge of politics, economics etc), the greater the conformity effect. Now all those political pundit TV shows begin to make sense on Fox News and others.

We are the instigating factor in the crux of this huge worldwide issue that will come to bear down on us in the ensuing years. There is currently fifty-trillion dollars in debt worldwide, with a global economy of seventy-trillion dollars. (By the way, this is just government debt, and doesn’t include institutional or household debt.) When you take account just the ten largest mature economies, debt-to-GDP is 350%. I’m not playing tricks on you…cumulatively speaking, for the ten most mature economies (Australia, US, UK, Japan, Germany et al), their debt burden is over three  and a half times larger than the size of their economies, and this spread is growing. (This figures does not take into account the derivatives and Wall St investments which notionally total $668 trillion, though they only carry a market value of $15 trillion.) Think about that for a heartbeat, for every dollar in a Westerner’s hand, there is three-dollars-fifty of debt. In a near future coming to you, many won’t get paid their $2. Will it be you? (The specifics of how there is more debt than money will be explained in the chapter, Infinite Growth.)

The USA, the cornerstone of the world economy, now has, at the time of writing, $16.5 trillion in debt compared to a GDP of $15.81 trillion, and that’s just government debt; it doesn’t include household debt, which raises that ratio many times higher. This doesn’t even begin to even image the entire problem. The unfunded liabilities of the US government: Social Security, Medicare, and federal employees future retirement benefits are on the order of $86.8 trillion, as calculated by Chris Cox and Bill Archer, who both served on President Clinton’s Bipartisan Commission on Entitlement and Tax Reform (drawn up in 1994), which of course was never acted on. (An unfunded liability is the amount by which the liabilities of the plan, in this case benefits, exceeds the plans assets at a given date. The reason why it has grown into such a huge problem, is the federal government does not do the same accounting as is legally required of public and non-profit firms.)

“If the economy isn’t growing, it’s not because the government isn’t spending enough to “stimulate” it. Government spending comes from: taxation, which is a burden on the economy; borrowing, which is a future burden on the economy; or printing money – inflation – which is an especially dishonest, hidden form of taxation makes people think they’re richer while they’re being impoverished. No. If the economy isn’t growing, it’s because the government has burdened it with heavy taxation, smothered it with excessive regulation, distorted it with false information (the Fed’s manipulation of interest rates), and replaced real money—gold—with paper.” ~ Doug Casey (Investor)

So, what is the solution to this debt problem? There are no solutions, that I know of, except for a reset, which will happen all on its own as it stands, and anyone saying bailout knows not of what they speak. Creating more monetary debt to solve a debt problem is akin to giving heroin to a heroin addict and expecting it to solve his addiction problem; despite what politicians (pushers) will tell you. It’s only meant to buy them more time, not you. To show to you that is indeed the case: consider the fiscal cliff fiasco, where in 2011, the US budget passed by congress, factored in automatic budget cuts and tax increases (or expiration of tax decreases rather) to take effect by the end of 2012. This was done to ensure they had time to work out which cuts really to be made, with across the board cuts taking effect if no political compromise was forthcoming. At the time of writing this paragraph (Jan 2, 2013), they’d just passed an extension again for two more months while compromising on the tax increases. By the way, that compromise is projected to increase the national debt by four-trillion dollars over the next decade. (Doing nothing would have kept—theoretically at least—the debt-to-GDP ratio constant, but they managed to screw that up too! As journalist John Cassidy on the New Yorker, in an article concluding the deal wrote, “Congress is only buying time—and precious little of it.

So what are some solutions for these political problems that are so endemic? I will get to them in a later chapter, after asking a simple yet elusive question in the next chapter.

“A democracy is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government. A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse due to loose fiscal policy, which is always followed by a dictatorship.” ~ Unknown (Unknown unknown)


Note: the book is fully sourced, but because of the writing program I use, the links don’t transfer over to WordPress. At the conclusion of the twenty chapters, I may throw up a post with all hundred-fifty+ sources, but the final book will have all the relevant sources in the proper locations.

Fear of Fission

nuclear power safe

So, here is sub-chapter #3, of Chapter 1, Science, of my ongoing rewrite and open editing process of my book, Random Rationality: A Rational Guide to an Irrational World. Sub-chapters #1 and #2, can be found here and here. I made the mistake of not throwing up the Introductory chapter online, so I’ll take a brief paragraph to describe the overall narrative of the book. The book takes twenty seemingly random subjects, attempting however poorly, to thread them together. In the process, attempting to make sense of the world we live in today. It is a very macroscopic worldview, as the whole book fits into two-hundred pages, but it aims to tickle the intellects of people just enough so they may go on to study more in-depth the subjects of their liking. The narrative really tries to inspire the abolition of thinking in isolation, i.e., we so often talk, discuss, and debate topics in isolation and assume that the same points prevail in the real world where nothing exists in isolation: such as the relationship between science and religion/society, fission with politics and economics, technology against government, and how they subtly, sometimes drastically, affect each other.

Would greatly appreciate any feedback, criticisms, and comments. If you want the MOBI, ePub, or PDF, then please let me know in the comments—if you provide constructive criticisms in return and live in the US, UK, or EU, then I’ll ship you a paperback copy of the book free of charge when it’s published.

Note: the book is fully sourced, but because of the writing program I use, the links don’t transfer over to WordPress. At the conclusion of the twenty chapters, I may throw up a post with all hundred-fifty+ sources, but the final book will have all the relevant sources in the proper locations.


FEAR OF FISSION

 There was a dream once, of atomic energy. It is as yet, unrealized. Our current energy portfolio, primarily consists of about eighty-eight percent coal, oil and natural gas, with nuclear power just shy of five-percent, and renewable energy making up the rest.

We will probably be using coal, oil, and natural gas for a while to come, especially natural gas as it is being found everywhere in huge quantities, but they should have started phasing out decades ago. Though because of our short-term irrational fear and hatred of things we do not understand, the safest, cost-competitive energy source, nuclear fission, was never given legs to stand upon.

We all know that coal, oil and gas are pollutants: the first two much more so than the third, so it is an environmentally favorable trend that so much gas is being found, as it will result in a downward trend of pollutants from the prior two. Though even natural gas pales in comparison to the safety and efficiency of nuclear power, which we shall see now.

“Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts.”  ~ Daniel Patrick Moynihan (Sociologist)

 

First off, let’s look at some overlooked statistics of our current energy sources at 2011 usage levels:

  • Coal, which comprises 30.3% of world energy: causes 161 deaths per TWh (Terra-watt hour)
  • Oil, which makes up 33.1% of world energy: thirty-six deaths per TWh
  • Natural gas, 24.8% of world energy: four deaths per TWh
  • Nuclear power, 4.9% of world energy: 0.04 deaths per TWh

 

For every twenty-five TWh of power generation, one human death will occur because of nuclear energy, compared to 3,220 for the equivalent amount of energy from coal, 720 from oil, and eighty from natural gas. Yet, every time there is a nuclear accident, there is a global outcry to shut them all down. Even though they are, by far, the safest means of generating power and the cleanest, in relation to immediate environmental degradation and climate change, which are somehow always overlooked.

Since the first nuclear reactor in 1952, there have been only six accidents that resulted in a loss of human life; seventy-one people died as a direct result of these accidents. Compare that to the triumvirate of coal, oil and gas, which are linked to the deaths of 4,020 people for every seventy-five TWh. Coal, all by itself, kills around 24,000 people in the USA per year. And yes, eventually four-thousand people may die as a result of Chernobyl in the next twenty-years, which is an increase of one-percent compared to other spontaneous forms of cancer. But the biggest nuclear catastrophe in sixty-years, killed fewer people than one single year of coal in one of the most developed nations in the world—keeping in mind the distinction between ‘four-thousand people may die’ and ‘twenty-four thousand people die every year’. The data, when expanded worldwide indicate that coal-related deaths are at least one-million people per year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). 

Of course, the nuclear accidents that do happen grab so much attention that we are irrationally coerced into a state of fear. But let’s critically examine the three biggest nuclear accidents of recent history without the scepter of hysteria influencing our collective amygdala: Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima. The reasons for the disasters were: human stupidity, human error, and human arrogance respectively. Notice that none of them are technological in nature.

In dressing down Chernobyl, I prefer instead to quote an article from Cracked Magazine, titled ‘The 7 Most Mind-Blowing Places Science Has Discovered Life.

 “The lesson of Chernobyl is that the most dangerous substance in the world is human stupidity. If everyone who whined about nuclear technology actually understood it, the world’s average IQ would increase by 50 points. When idiots drink and drive and kill thousands, we don’t ban cars. But when idiots run emergency shutdown tests with an untrained night crew without telling the designer of the reactor or nuclear authority scientists, then deliberately drive the reactor into the nuclear equivalent of balanced on tiptoes on a stool perched on a stepladder on a table…made of plutonium, suddenly all nuclear power is evil…

 

 The events of Three Mile Island were somewhat less extravagant in comparison. What transpired was an obscure mechanical gauge failure that became compounded by a lack of training. The operators’ manually overrode the automatic cooling system—Why this is even an option befuddles the non-nuclear engineer in me—because they mistakenly believed there was too much coolant—nor can I see what’s wrong with this—which turned an otherwise fixable event, into the ‘disaster’ that hurt no one and killed nobody. The problem was correctly diagnosed and subsequently fixed upon the arrival of the next shift, whom spotted the odd readings the dashboard was giving, and having the proper-training, began reversing the situation. Overall, people living within five-miles of the reactor, were exposed to no more radiation than one would receive on a commercial flight. 

 

 The Fukushima plant in Japan, which underwent a reactor meltdown in 2011 is over forty-years old, and was built with fifty-year old technology. The owners knew what the plant’s shortcomings were and were even told by the courts and the government to fix them. To make matters worse, TEPCO, had a record of changing the layouts of the cooling systems without bothering to document them. So when the tsunami hit, the previous plans had the utility of soggy toilet paper in finding out what was happening. Only through sheer incompetence did the Fukushima reactor fail, using decades-old technology that has since been surpassed, and only alongside the naive human thought, ‘it’ll never happen here,’ compounded by ignoring the law, and the docile Japanese culture.

 

 A report released by the mouthful of a commission, the aptly named Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission, confirms that thought.I will highlight the opening salvo, “The nuclear accident at Fukushima was a preventable disaster rooted in government-industry collusion and the worst conformist conventions of Japanese culture.” And then there’s this little nugget a little later on, “Although triggered by these cataclysmic events, the subsequent accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant cannot be regarded as a natural disaster. It was a profoundly manmade disaster – that could and should have been foreseen and prevented…” End of discussion you’d think, but alas. A few months later, Germany announced they were shutting down all of their nuclear reactors by 2022.

 The reasons for our three meltdowns are, as mentioned, primarily human error. Not an inherent danger in nuclear fission technology. Nuclear reactors are among the safest, most secure facilities in the world because engineers know to build them that way. It’s the managers, governments, and the presidents that end up breaking things, and the people are induced by a frenzied-media into blaming the reactor as a scapegoat to sleep better at night, which politico’s then go on to exploit for votes, and ever the cycle continues. And as a result of all this, nuclear power was never given the stage it deserved. So the market did what it does best. It routed around this obnoxious intervention, in the process increasing oil, coal, and gas power generation to feed our increasingly energy-hungry ways, because renewable energies were not yet cost-competitive. All of which come with the added bonus of pollution, disease, millions of deaths (per year!), resources wars, and the destruction of our environment which will results in tens of millions of more deaths…all because of seventy-one deaths and a few weeks of media coverage.

 Even the second point that a lot people, and environmentalists are especially guilty here, make against nuclear power—the storing of dangerous hazardous material that stays radioactive for thousands of years—is a moot point. Radioactive waste is stored in highly secure vaults underground, in mountains, or other equally secure areas with no immediate effect on the environment or to us. With the eventual mastery of nanotechnology sometime this century, it will cease to be a point at all. We will be able to sub-atomically rearrange the atoms that make the waste radioactive and render it inert and harmless, but more on that later. And even were that not the case, wouldn’t having the waste stored and put away for 10,000 years, out of sight and harms way, be better than pumping far more waste directly into the atmosphere—and into the lungs of every person, animal, and plant—as we do now with coal, oil, and gas? And causing irreversible climate change to top it off…Yeah though.

 

The folly of fearing fission, over coal, which powers thirty-percent of modern civilization:

  • A 1,000 MWh (mega-watt-hour) of nuclear fission generates twenty-seven tonnes of radioactive waste per year, stored out of sight and harms way—in some cases, ninety-seven percent can be reprocessed so only, leaving three-percent (1,500 lbs) needing storage. The same amount of power from a coal plant generates eighteen tonnes of radioactive waste spewed directly into the atmosphere, while also vomiting forth 3.7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, 400,000 tonnes of ash, 10,000 tonnes of sulfur dioxide (acid rain), 10,200 tonnes of nitrogen oxide (smog), 720 tonnes of carbon monoxide(toxic), 170 lbs. of mercury (extremely toxic), 220 lbs. of arsenic (poison), and 114 lbs. of lead (toxic)
  • Between 1970 and 2008, there were 1,686 accidents that killed more than five people at coal power stations. On the nuclear side, only one
  • One TWh of nuclear energy releases 30 grams of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. An equivalent amount of power from coal releases 1,290 grams (forty-three times more)
  • Uranium provides sixty-thousand-times as much energy per kilogram compared to coal. One kilogram of uranium will power a 60-watt light bulb for 685 years. An equivalent amount of coal will power that same light bulb for four days

 

 Nuclear power is, in the popular vernacular of the green movement today, exceedingly efficient, needing sixty-thousand times less units—or eleven-thousand less if measured against crude oil—for an equivalent amount of energy. It can, should be, and always should have been part of our energy portfolio. It is much safer and cleaner than the other forms of energy we use today, all the while, having no short-term ramifications to the environment, and manageable, trivial almost, long-term ramifications, along with a proven economic record. 

 Another disconcerting fact is continued government interference, initially stemming from the Manhattan Project, but really exacerbating the situation throughout the Cold War, has greatly and destructively cemented uranium as the fissile material of choice in nuclear fission reactors, as opposed to thorium, which shares many of uranium’s beneficial characteristics and none of its ugly ones:

Thorium’s Advantages:

  • It is four times more abundant in nature
  • Produces 10 to 10,000 times less long-lived radioactive waste
  • Cannot sustain a continuing nuclear chain reaction, so fission stops by default in any emergency that shuts down the power, I.e., Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima would not have happened
  • Generates more energy per ton and its enriched material cannot be used for a nuclear bomb
  • Does not require enrichment, therefore usability is 100% of the isotope as it is found in the ground, compared to 0.7% for uranium, which must be enriched to U-235 (which can then be enriched to P-239, i.e., main ingredient of an atomic bomb)
  • The supply will not be exhausted for a thousand years at today’s energy levels

 

 Thorium reactors are finally beginning to catch on, with India leading the way, but the technology is still in its infancy. Norway has recently started a four-year trial of a Thorium reactor to work out the economics and make the theoretical efficiencies into practical realities. Were it not for the destructive nature of our species, the Manhattan Project, and the subsequent Cold War, we would probably already have clean, abundant, cheap, and safe energy, with no climate change. Imagine that. 

 This chapter has barely begun to scratch the surface on nuclear energy, without even mentioning ongoing nuclear fusion research, which aims to replicate the energy source of a star, the ‘perfect’ energy source. There is also the traveling wave reactor that aims to use the ninety-nine percent of waste left over from a normal uranium fission reactor, which Toshiba is aiming to have in production by 2014, financed by Bill Gates. It is just a taste, a mind-opener, and a realization that a future is possible; it can be bright and it doesn’t need to revolve around hydrocarbons or the destruction of our environment.

 

We fear things in proportion to our ignorance of them.” ~Unknown

The Communist Ideal

I recently completed reading The Communist Manifesto, by Karl Max. At only thirty-two pages long, it was a long and grudgingly boring read. I thought I was reading a book ten times the length, but I do believe I have imparted the general idea of what he espoused. While communism in its many forms that were tried in the 20th century, have failed, often disastrously, with the exception of China (which by opening up ever more aspects of its economy to free-market principles, essentially forestalled the political ramifications a central-command government eventually faces). I don’t believe that communism, as attempted so far, is the communism that Karl Marx proposed. In this post, I am not defending those 20th century communist regimes. In fact, after reading the Communist Manifesto, I do not think they were very communist, and if they were, they may have started out with the best of intentions, but the results, at least in the short-term, were anything but.

The end-result, or logical progression, of Karl Marx’s communism, in essence, was the abolition of government, and by extension, money, and equal status to all people in terms of opportunity (not possessions). What he saw, and wrote, must be understood in context of his time, and realized that the future he envisioned, would not come within his lifetime (though maybe he didn’t know this, I can’t tell). He lived at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and saw the rapid industrialization that occurred, and was right to say that capital would flow upwards in the antagonistic struggle between capital and labour, as those lower on the totem pole would eventually be replaced and relegated to a smaller subsection of the populace in an anarchic free-market system, and correctly extrapolated that this trend cannot continue indefinitely. But, he was unable to extrapolate that new jobs would be created to replace old jobs, but the jobs engines that has been continually creating new jobs is finally showing signs of its mortality, and it probably won’t last forever.

In those nations that tried on communism, the age-old dilemma of mistranslation and misappropriation of ideas, coupled with the rarely changing mindsets of people, led to poverty, and sometimes tragedy, where ever communism was exported, as well as in the free-market also (working workers to death, slavery, and unequal pay between the sexes etc.).

But I think that Karl was ahead of his time (perhaps a little too far). Consider where we are now with our current trends racing relentlessly into the future. We are moving towards an increasingly automated future where jobs will become more and more scarce as the law of diminishing returns rears its ugly head (new technologies now are creating fewer jobs than they replace), which will grind away at social stability. Soon, machines and artificial intelligence (AI) will do human jobs better than humans; without lunch breaks, smoke breaks (or any breaks for that matter), insurance, distractions, sick leave, and so many other factors that retard human output as well as increase the cost of labour, and thus goods and services.

We are moving into a future where potentially everyone will have a 3D (additive) printer in their homes, replacing the need for factories and factory workers. You need a new mug, you’ll print it. If you need a new phone, you’ll print it, and if you’ll need a new printer, you’ll print it, and so on. Materials will be assembled into the feed for these printers most likely; inside the countries themselves by automated processes, reducing international shipping and all the jobs it provides. Indoor farms combining aeroponics, aquaponics, and hydroponics will be capable of growing any food from any climate anywhere and everywhere, further reducing trans-city-country-continental transportation. Portable medical devices are on the horizon that will replace your general practitioner (GP) in identifying what type of illness you have, as well as articulate in detail the remedies for the proper healing taken in consideration of your genetic makeup, all analysed in the blink of an eye with 99.99% accuracy (predicted), and the drugs will be printed on an additive printer no lessNanotechnology is on the up and up, and in the coming decades, may release the awesome potential of building everything, anywhere, anytime using any input, at the atomic level with zero-waste. You will literally be able to turn anything into anything else!

How could something as medieval as money survive in a future like this? Money is a physical manifestation of scarcity. Replacing the ancient tradition of trading goods directly and acting as a medium of exchange between all goods, and evolving along with society. In the beginning, predominantly taking the form of gold and silver, as well as dozens of other forms (cheese in some parts of ancient Italy, and tea in Siberia way back when). Then constantly oscillating back and forth between gold standards, silver standards, paper standards, and combinations thereof. Now we find ourselves in the midst of a global paper standard. But because money evolves lineally, and our technology has in the last hundred years, begun evolving exponentially, money will, by necessity, eventually shed the characteristics that necessitated its original conditions because everything else in its environment will evolve beyond a need of it. This is a core concept of evolution, and since technological evolution is an extension of biological evolution: we can think of money in a resource-scarce environment as random mutation in a naturally selecting environment (society). But technological evolution continues, and now, exponentially increases in capacity and capability. Thus the conditions that selected the monetary-mutation are beginning to move beyond scarcity, i.e. money is losing its value (and hopefully will die), and into abundance, soon afterwards, perhaps infinite abundance (nanotechnology, anything becomes everything and trade essentially ceases).

To side-track to biological evolution to try to further the point. We humans evolved with enzymes that could process and digest raw meat, yet we no longer have them because we invented fire and the frying pan; an external stomach that replaced raw-food enzymes (and which by the way, allowed the necessary conditions to grow our brains far in excess to other primates and become the dominant ape by out-eating them). Within just a few tens-of-thousands of years (an evolutionary second), we could no longer eat raw meat (if you ate only raw meat for 90 days, you’d die). Money evolved, i.e., was bought into being as an improvement to the previous paradigm of direct trading, facilitating a division of labour, which amplified co-operation, increased specialization, resulting in technological progression, and societal advancement. Yet in evolution, it is very rare for a trait to outlast for long the conditions that necessitated its creation and subsequent survival, and such will (hopefully) be the case for money soon. Money is subject to the same laws of diminishing returns as everything else. Much as the faltering, or sputtering of the jobs engine of our current economies as they are replaced by technologies that far out-do people in terms of cost, speed, and reliability, in the process, creating fewer jobs than they replace. Yet due to the stigma of 20th century communism, I fear the necessary discourse will never occur, or perhaps occur too late in updating capitalism to keep pace with the continually evolving and accelerating change of this technological century.

Only a simple understanding of ‘Supply and Demand‘ is required to understand this point. If the demand and supply of a product stay constant, then the price remains stable. If demand increases without a comparable increase in supply: that is, demand outstrips supply, then the price rises and vice-versa. If a product has a large unrefined supply, but requires expensive tools of production to bring it to market: then the price is high and vice-versa. So in this future we find ourselves barrelling towards, where both supply is bountiful, or its use so exceedingly efficient as to nullify it, or where any resource can be used to create any other resource as is done with additive manufacturing and nanotechnology, then what possible use will money have? This is not to say it will disappear overnight, more than likely, it will deflate and continue deflating as our technological progress accelerates until we come upon a day where we find it is no longer necessary. Whether that takes 20, 40, or 100 years remains to be seen. That process will create economic pain, even if exponential in nature, because if people still need money to buy food, water, and shelter, and if the majority of the population is out of work; how does taxation, government, redistribution, and public benefits work so as not to antagonize class differences? (The end result of this exponential technological progress is that there are no more class differences or haves / have-nots, but the ramp-up is where the concern lies as the system which will eventually benefit everyone might be dismantled by shortsighted doom-and-gloom thinking)

Providing we can circumnavigate such problems, and arrive to the other side in one piece. In such an economy, where supply and demand become irrelevant, and individual needs and wants take precedence, where government is no longer required as an ‘impartial‘ arbiter, and where people are simply given everything they need to survive and thrive since it costs nothing to produce in terms of human labour, does not the ideal of communism ring true? I don’t mean the central bank that it demands (we still use them anyway), or the agricultural army it stipulated, or any other requirements that served more as a transitory approach, but the overall meaning. That everyone is equal, and we all deserve opportunities, all men and women are given the ability to shine, if they so choose.

I do believe that the essence of the message rings true, despite what other subjects he waxed on about, or didn’t, which seem obvious to us now in hindsight, but which wouldn’t have in his time. A lot of meaning is lost in the translation between German to English, and I imagine even more so, between the 18th century and the 21st. He did live two-hundred-years ago, so the allure of projecting todays moral and ethical framework on to his thinking is tempting, but which, at the end of the day, is only a shortcut to ignorant thinking. To truly understand it, we must flip the polarity of time and study it in that sense, which is what I have attempted to do in this post and distil what he may have meant (of course, I may still wrong).

Looking to history and projecting into the future, we find that most of our descendants views on several issues as immoral. Slavery, segregation, extreme classism, rules of war, as well as acts of war among many others. I see no such difference in today’s morality looking forward and fully expect those in the future to look back upon our own morality as incrementally better than the generations before us. Perhaps they will be as quick to judge us, as we to those that came before us. From our Keynesian fantasies which prolong, expand, and exacerbate the misery of billions (via a central bank and extraction of wealth), along with its isolation, consolidation and subsequent corruption of a few elite bankers who hold monetary power over billions, to those down the lower end of the monetary totem-pole being unable to afford certain necessities; healthy food, healthcare, and shelter, which would otherwise increase quality of life by removing the negative influences that affect mental and physical wellbeing (often diet-related), and which, when removed result in increased cooperation, knowledge-creation, which in our modern society makes it healthier for all involved, rich and poor alike and those who fit snugly in-between.

To use a real example of the potential problems down the road. Studies have shown that it cost society far less money to house chronic homeless people; that is, give them a free home, income benefits, and health insurance, than it is to leave them on the street, or even put them in a shelter. A Boston Health Care study tracked one-hundred-nineteen chronic homeless folk, and found that over five-years, they were admitted to emergency care 18,834 times, and that’s with thirty-three of them dying, and seven placed in a nursing home. A study in San Diego found that putting homeless people in an actual home resulted in a 61% reduction in emergency room benefits, and a 62% reduction in inpatient days over two years, with each visit costing at least $1,000. Putting chronic homeless people in a shelter costs $24,000 per year per person. And during the day, they are roaming the streets and increasingly likely to end up in jail, so that $24,000 does not include the cost of jailing, guarding, and feeding them when they are put in jail, which often occurs as a result of depression, and substance abuse that often accompanies their wandering street-life. What will we do in the future when joblessness is increasingly common, and the tools to create high-quality automated homesautomated medical care, and food are a tiny fraction of todays cost? Will we turn our back on them, because of out-dated free-market-principles? Besides, you can’t have a society that neglects a majority of its citizens without decay and eventually revolution (or in the case of an advanced force against those with nothing, mass-jailing or genocide).

People are created equal, not genetically, nor in their physical or mental ability, but morally in the context of our societies. If we allow any (unfair) inequality to creep in (which for now is inevitable), it slowly but surely grinds away at the fabric of society, only for the potential of violence to rear its ugly head.  In this regard, one of the great moral achievements of humanity is the slowly increasing minimally acceptable status one can have by providing help to those unfortunate enough to be at the lowest of the low (both by free-market economics driving the prices down and public assistance in the form of welfare, which was inspired by communistic thinking). Of course, as many will rightly point out, the latter is easily abused, mostly by political pandering and selfish voting, and we’ve seen the indulgences and problems inherent in an overburdened welfare state, but that in no way undermines its validity in the correct doses.

Nothing is perfect, much as we live today in a bastardized version of the free market, the communism of the USSR in the 20th century turned into a bastardized version of communism (though I’m glad I live in the former). With that being said, what many people overlook, or completely neglect to take into account is both socioeconomic systems are context-specific. In environments of scarcity, the free-market reigns supreme (though without a moral framework, it goes horribly wrong, i.e. slavery). In environments of limitless abundance, money, government, and classes have no place. And in the transition period between the two, ideological and emotionally based, shortsighted thinking tends to outweigh reasoned and objective analysis, potentially turning otherwise fixable periods into disaster due to the nature of democracy and political pandering. In the future when we have the technological marvels that will arise out of today’s inventions, bought into being by the capitalist workings of scarcity, will not the ideal of communism ring true in an age of abundance? (Not its 20th century misappropriations).

The rigidity of our political and economic institutions is what is at issue here; it must evolve and adapt in response to the self-changing environment we created, instead of boxing us into the past. In human history, we have example after example of people and societies holding onto tradition and frameworks for far too long after their usefulness has evaporated, and being unable to let go of the past, they often paid the price, some the ultimate price. Capitalism will be in a similar position soon.

Saving the Planet, One Scientific Steak at a Time

In-vitro meat (IVM) is one of those subjects that could quickly get out of hand in the minds of an uninformed public, and this post is my small part in countering the entropy of reason. Hmm, is it still entropy if the reasoning was never there to begin with?

In my discussions with those unfamiliar with it, the first reaction seems to be one of disgust. Maybe due to the increasing familiarity with Genetically Modified Foods (GMO), especially with the increasing notoriety of Monsanto (as if they were the first and last step in GMO). But, as in any foray into the unknown, as Bertrand Russell puts it: first you must begin with the facts, and move on from there. So let’s get to the facts of meat today, and then with those of IVM. One thing we must get out-of-the-way before we begin: human-beings will not just stop eating meat, so any philosophical or personal objection to the practice of meat-eating is bunk. One person’s (or even a billion persons) objection to the practice of eating meat is irrelevant, it’s simply a part of life and must be dealt with.

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Immortality and Life’s Purpose

I’ve been recently reading and watching the works of futurists Ray Kurzweil and Jason Silva, and I am ecstatic about their optimistic predictions for the human race in the coming decades. I’ve also been coming across the claims of their detractors, and I want to highlight the most consistent statement made in response to the prediction that life will become indefinite as a result of advancements in biotechnology, nanotechnology, and information technology in the coming decades; that people’s finite lives give meaning to their existence, and thus, immortality would rob us of the urgency of purposeful living. An existential crisis, in reverse if you will…

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