The universe is not only strange but stranger than we can imagine

What next?

What next?



What’s coming our way?


What happens when smart machines do 90% of the work, or if science discovers the secret of extreme longevity?

And how will we react the day we receive the alien signal we have been longing for and dreading?

These questions and more explored in a halting way


Evolutionary inheritance, part 1

Millions of years of evolution have adapted us for a world very different from the one we are living in today.  (Oh snap!) The first humans evolved, so the experts tell us, in riverine, savannah or forest environments. They lived in small  groups of 20 to 50 individuals. They subsisted by hunting, fishing and gathering vegetables. They were in constant danger from wild animals, disease, natural disasters such as drought, and of course other humans. They had to react quickly to threats from without and from without: drought, famine, plagues, changes in climate. They had to be ready to fight or run at any moment — and to choose the best option within seconds. They also had to cooperate and forge bonds with other members of their group, at least well enough to secure food and avoid being killed. They had to adapt quickly to survive the unexpected. Those who survived long enough to have children passed on their genes to us.

An environment we didn’t evolve to handle
A blink later in evolutionary time, most of us we live in environments very different from those we are evolved to cope with: gray cities inhabited by crowds of faceless strangers, a world of metal, glass and concrete.  More and more, we interact with others via the glowing screens. Our family and tribal groups are fragmented, perhaps even non-existent. Many of the threats we face — from high-fat diets and addictive drugs to nuclear war — are not threats we are evolved to handle. Our hard-wired responses remain what millions of years of evolution have made them. But those responses are no longer appropriate for the world we find ourselves in.  No wonder so many of us — even the outwardly prosperous and successful – feel alienated, isolated, vaguely uncomfortable.

Our saving evolutionary inheritance could be our ability to react quickly to the unexpected.  So far, we have been able to adapt to our new environment — at least enough to survive. But as technology continues to race forward and the human population continues to expand towards its Malthusian limits, the environment will change faster and faster.  Can we continue to adapt? And at what cost?

Not a new problem
The tension between our hard wiring and our increasingly urbanized, densely populated environment, has been with us since the earliest cities. And so far, we have managed to survive, although not always well or happily. But as  our environment becomes ever more artificial, more complex, more densely populated, the tension increases. And there is no obvious way to remedy the situation.

We need our cities and our technology to survive. We are powerless to stop the advance of technology or return to a simpler way of life. We cannot expand or migrate to new lands. The only place to expand is into space, the only unoccupied real estate the airless, hostile planets and moons of our solar system. And since dawn of the Atomic Age, the total destruction of our planet is just a phone call or unfortunate incident away. We are poised on a knife edge.

Where to now, Saint Peter?
If we can find a way to reconcile what millions of years of evolution have made us with with the environment we are creating, our species has a future beyond imagining.  But how? How can we, who are designed by evolution to live in small groups, prosper in nations of a billion citizens? How can we, who long for grass and rivers, exist happily in caves of steep and canyons of glass? How can we ensure our hard-wired fight-or-flight responses or our primal tribal loyalties will not trigger a catastrophe? Some thoughts, if not answers, to be explored in the next few weeks.







Psst San Francisco — they’ll be back…

Cheaper, more efficient, works 24X7 without complaint… What’s not to like?

The San Francisco SPCA made headlines recently by deploying a security robot dubbed K9 to patrol the area around its campus. The intent was to discourage homeless people from setting up tent cities there and thus reduce the littering, car break-ins and crime associated with such encampments. The tactic appeared to be working until the City of San Francisco stepped in and threatened the SPCA with large fines if its robot was caught using the sidewalk while on patrol. Since, of course, the robot had to use the sidewalk to function, that was the end of the experiment.

For now.

The robot, a K5 model, moves at three miles per hour, weighs just under 400 lbs and carries four cameras, each capable of recording 300 license plates a minute, according to the web site of Knightscope, the unit’s manufacturer.  The K5 rents out at six dollars an hour, making it far cheaper than a human security guard, at least in San Francisco, where the minimum wage is $14 an hour. Cheaper, more efficient and more reliable — employers have rarely been able to say no to that combination, even when obvious moral issues (slavery, child labor) are part of the equation.  Who will bet against the rise of the robots when the benefits are massive cost savings and increased efficiency — and the downside is (maybe) depriving humans of dull, high-risk, low-wage work?

But of course, the K5 is only the very tip of the iceberg. In the next few years we are told we can expect delivery drones (goodby delivery guys), AI-guided trucks (adios truckers) and robot food servers (au revoir waiters and waitresses).  And not long after, we can expect anything from sex ‘bots (already in development) to robot real estate agents. And so on.

The implications are stunning. If robots take over the drudgery of the world, the countless jobs at the base of the employment pyramid, what happens to the billions of people who make their living, however meager, through drudgery of one sort or another? And what happens when robots start to move up the pyramid, to take over better and better jobs?

It’s hard to see how there is not a crisis in the making — a crisis that will, in the next several decades, have profound and unforeseeable consequences for pretty much everyone. Yet we hear relatively little about this looming crisis, at least in the mainstream media, or from political leaders. Is this is because Our Masters don’t see it coming, or do they just want to avoid upsetting the techno-peasants (aka the rest of us)?

Technological change has caught societies by surprise many times before, usually with tragic consequences.  If the robots continue to rise — and they almost certainly will — things will not end well for a lot of people.  It may not surprise anyone in 2050 to see robots clearing the legions of unemployables away from the gates of affluent areas, using methods a great deal more “efficient” than those employed by robots today.

K9 is gone for now, but it — and its more advanced relatives — will be back.


Ask not for whom the robot drums…

Another sign of the impending robotization of the workforce. From  Japan (a long-time leader in robotics) comes a robotic Shinto “priest” to conduct low-cost funerals. The robot, recently on display at the Tokyo International Exhibition Center, conducts a ritually correct service for the dead, beating drums and reciting Buddhist scriptures.

This is only the latest addition to the line of robot workers taking over from their human counterparts. Some estimates show as much as one third to one half the human workforce being displaced by robots in the next several decades. Yes, you read that correctly — one third to one half of the workforce.

And then what? What will the billions of unemployed live on? Government handouts? The proceeds of urban farming? Soylent red and green? What will happen to society when the gulf between the rich, the employable and the rest of us becomes unbridgeable? We really had better start asking (and answering) these questions, because the robot revolution is already reshaping our world.

This ain’t science fiction my friends — it’s the real thing.



No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

John Donne

Death: our last safeguard against tyranny?

Remember Caesar, you too are mortal

Most of us try not to think too much about the disasters that await us somewhere in the near or far future: pandemics, nuclear terrorism, snakes on the plane — whatever spikes our personal fear meter.  No point worrying about what might happen tomorrow, or the day after. Unless, of course, you are a science fiction wonk.

Science fiction speculates about where human societies might be headed, given the technologies that could conceivably be available tomorrow or twenty thousand years from now. And where we could be going in the next few decades worries me exceedingly, for many reasons. Here’s one   –in the near future, we may actually learn how to conquer death.

But isn’t that a great thing, you say? Defeating death has been humanity’s overriding goal, ever since we became self-aware. Death is horrible, terrifying – a one-way voyage into a dark country, quite possibly into eternal night.

The upside of Death
But even death has an upside from a societal point of view.  It is the one, true leveler. Rich or poor, King of Kings or lowliest peasant, you were going to die. Death is our species’ final safeguard against tyrants. After murdering millions, after ruling through cruelty and fear, Genghis Khan died, Stalin  died — and the world breathed a sigh of relief. Now imagine a time in which the next monster in human form does not die but extends his reign of terror over centuries, thanks to advances in science. That time may not be far off.

If science does manage to find a way to confer immortality, or greatly extended lifespans to people   – who will benefit? Obviously, the rich, the powerful, the well-connected. They will be the ones who can afford the treatments that grant immortality. And they will guard their privileges   – their wealth, their power, their access to extended life  – a thousand times more jealously than before, because they can enjoy those privileges for the indefinite future. Moreover, they will be nearly impossible to oppose, because they will have the accumulated wealth, education and experience of centuries at their disposal.

No-one here gets out alive.

Far too many “ordinary folks?”
The result could be an entrenched ruling class the like of which we have never seen before   – a small group of wealthy, cunning aristocrats who see the world in an entirely different way than the seething mass of ordinary folk   – those who must die. How long before these near-immortals decide there are far too many “ordinary folk” to serve their needs? How long before they decide they would rather have parks than crime-ridden squalid cities, clean, pure rivers rather than sewers of filth? How long before they decide to cull their less-fortunate, short-lived inferiors? Roll on the Die Back, the engineered death of billions for the convenience of the new Lords of the Earth.

Is this a possible scenario? Yes. Is it likely? Who knows? The future has many paths and many windings. But in our headlong pursuit of knowledge, the thought that Death might one day have no dominion should give us pause. Because if the next Hitler or Pol Pot could live forever, then we could be looking at the tightest, most nearly unbreakable tyranny in human history, or indeed the end of human history as we knew it. “No-one here gets out alive,” as the late, great Jim Morrison observed. Odd as it seems, maybe it’s better that way.

The Robopocalypse cometh, but it will be OK. (Maybe)

Robots are evolving at an ever-increasing rate. What does it mean for carbon-based technopeasants like yours truly?


From the Temple of Technology comes yet another doom-laden prophecy: robots, animated by artificial intelligence, are coming to take our jobs in a big, BIG way. According to  IT high priest and celebrity Kai-Fu Lee, robots are poised to take 50 per cent — yes, that is half — of all jobs in the next decade.

Most of us are so numbed by predictions like this that we merely shrug and pass on. But if Lee is even in the ballpark, the world economy is standing at the edge of a very high cliff. What happens when a quarter, or a half of the work force finds itself unemployed and pretty much unemployable? How do families survive? When demand plummets because half the population suddenly has no income, what then? Are we not looking at a domino effect, where even more jobs disappear as consumer spending power evaporates?

Where’s the robot repair guy?
Humble technopeasants like myself do not know the answers to these questions, but even so I venture to predict one thing — if these scenarios are anywhere close to correct, it will not be pretty. Apologists for the coming Robopocalypse point out that, while many jobs will disappear, new ones will be created, notably in the areas of robot manufacture and maintenance.  The snag, of course, is that not everyone will be able to make a smooth transition from, say, driving a forklift to doing robot repair or AI programming.

Not to worry, according to Lee — the coming robolution will “create a huge amount of wealth for mankind and wipe out poverty.” (Yeah, right.)  The other soothing news — apparently the human touch will still be required.  Says Lee, “Touching one’s heart with your heart is something that machines, I believe, will never be good at.”

Will plutocrats dream of electric kittens?
Seriously? If AI-directed robots can do everything else, it is hard to see why they can’t be designed to be ultra-warm and fuzzy as well as super-efficient. Would there not be, for example, a market for kindly robo-nurses? For electronic versions of Mary Poppins or even hypoallergenic robo-kittens designed to charm and entertain? (Ooops, there goes the litterbox industry.)  To say nothing of the possibilities inherent in the sex trades.

Truly, truly, we do live in interesting times. Stay tuned…



All I want for Christmas is a mind-controlled racing set

Just when you thought it couldn’t get much weirder — sure enough, it does.  Just before Christmas this past year, a team of researchers from the UK’s University of Warwick announced it had  refined the technology used to control electronic devices using thought alone. “Whilst brain-computer interfaces already exist – there are already a few gaming headsets on the market – their functionality has been quite limited,” said Professor Christopher James, Director of Warwick Engineering in Biomedicine at the School of Engineering.

His team’s research is helping these  headsets function more efficiently by obtaining cleaner and stronger signals than ever before. “This means stronger links to the toy, game or action thus making it a very immersive experience,” he adds. “The exciting bit is what comes next –how long before we start unlocking the front door or answering the phone through brain-computer interfaces?”

The Fourth Industrial Revolution: leisure for all or one-way ticket to poverty?

First they take over in the factories…

It’s not exactly news that technology is reshaping the employment market. Over the last several decades, robots have slowly been replacing factory workers,  banks have swapped tellers for ATMS and online stores have been shutting down bricks-and-mortar outlets, eradicating the jobs of countless sales clerks, managers and maintenance crews. But now, advances in artificial intelligence and new generations of robots have brought society to the edge of a really major revolution in the workplace — a revolution which will put at least five million people in the world’s most advanced economies out of work by 2020, according to a report (opens in new window) issued last year by The World Economic Forum (WEF).

You say you want a revolution?
Hardest hit will be people in administrative and office jobs, while those in IT, engineering and other “hard” disciplines actually stand to gain. These far reaching (and accelerating) changes in the labor market have been dubbed The Fourth Industrial Revolution. Like all revolutions, this one holds out the promise of a better, more leisurely life for many — and the potential for widespread misery, huge social disruption or even violent conflict.

Brave new labor market
The WEF report paints a relatively rosy picture of the brave new labor market, with the majority of workers simply upgrading and changing their skill sets to stay gainfully employed. However, things may not be quite that simple or pleasant. Whole categories of employment, and especially less skilled employment, may well be on the edge of extinction. Professional drivers, for instance, will be largely eliminated as self-driving vehicles become the norm. Are the legions of unemployed truck and cab drivers likely to retrain as software engineers or robot repair specialists? Or again, will laid-off office workers return to the job market as software developers? Don’t bet on it.

It’s OK, you didn’t mean to put us out of work. (Did you?)

Creeping job loss, lower wages
More insidious is the creeping loss of jobs and downward pressure on wages, as low cost labor becomes more accessible thanks to the Web.  Why hire a high-priced accountant in North America to do your tax return, when the same service is available at a fraction of the cost in places like India? Why pay a writer a handsome hourly wage, when the same outlay can purchase the services of a half-dozen writers in less prosperous countries, plus a recent graduate of a Western journalism school to edit their output? Ditto for legal research, software development and indeed any service job which does not require the service provider’s physical presence.

The word “Robot” is derived the Slavic for “serf.” Food for thought.

Who wins and who loses?
For those on the right side of this revolution, things look rosy. Unreliable human workers are replaced by machines that do the job more efficiently, at a lower cost and without complaint. Result, higher productivity, fewer HR headaches.  In an ideal world, this revolution would also eliminate many of the unpleasant and dangerous jobs humans must do — and free up more time for leisure pursuits.  But it is hard to enjoy leisure time when trying to put food on the table and keep a roof over one’s head. Official” unemployment levels are down significantly from The Great Recession. These statistics, however, do not count the millions of people in developed nations who have simply stopped looking for work — an estimated 95 workers in the U.S. alone. With population continuing to increase, and especially in areas where training in high-tech skills is not readily available, the potential for massive social unrest is very real. Welcome to the Fourth Industrial Revolution and to “interesting times!”

Artificial Intelligence — coming our way fast

(NOTE: links open in new windows)

“Open the pod bay door HAL.”

“I’m afraid I can’t do that Dave.”


It’s funny how new technology, even the most life-altering technology creeps almost imperceptibly into our lives –until suddenly it’s everywhere. Such seems to be the case with Artificial Intelligence (AI).  When 2001, A Space Odyssey, first appeared in theatres, “HAL,” the murderous AI, seemed about as farfetched as flying saucers or time travel — maybe even more so. No longer.

The advent of beings very similar to HAL (although hopefully not as malevolent), seems to be only a matter of time. Already we are seeing self-driving cars, AI-based robots that interact with Alzheimer’s patients and even lawyers (members of one of the most conservative professions) discussing how AI will affect the legal profession.  While estimates of when “true AI” as defined by the Turing Test will actually arrive,  it seems certain that the day is coming. En route, we need to prepare ourselves for the massive re-thinking of virtually all familiar aspects of life that AI is bringing, from its effects on employment opportunities  (already discernible) to more fundamental questions about the nature of consciousness and of “life” itself.




Working “transporter” beams photons miles away

transporterScotty, have you been drinking again?

No, it’s true. Scientists have succeeded in sending entangled photons to different locations miles apart and then reuniting them.  “So what?” you might say. Well, this apparently is a small step towards being able to communicate information very quickly, using the quantum states of subatomic particles as “messengers.” It seems to also be one of the first times that actual particles — photons in this case – have been “teleported” over a distance. Confused yet?  Wikipedia to the rescue:

Quantum teleportation is a process by which quantum information (e.g. the exact state of an atom or photon) can be transmitted (exactly, in principle) from one location to another, with the help of classical communication and previously shared quantum entanglement between the sending and receiving location. Because it depends on classical communication, which can proceed no faster than the speed of light, it cannot be used for faster-than-light transport or communication of classical bits. While it has proven possible to teleport one or more qubits of information between two (entangled) atoms,[1][2][3] this has not yet been achieved between molecules or anything larger.

Although the name is inspired by the teleportation commonly used in fiction, there is no relationship outside the name, because quantum teleportation concerns only the transfer of information. Quantum teleportation is not a form of transportation, but of communication; it provides a way of transporting a qubit from one location to another, without having to move a physical particle along with it. However, quantum teleportation of particles has been theorized to also be possible, and to perhaps be an explanation for the teleportation-like effects seen in superconductivity and superfluidity.[4]

Although this experiment may (or may not) have moved the possibility of quantum teleportation slightly closer, it will likely be a very long time before we are beaming ourselves to parties, concerts or other planets. For the foreseeable future, we are stuck with planes, trains and automobiles.  And of course, spaceships. (Go Elon!)

Photo source: Working Transporter Beams Photons Under Four Miles Away | Digital Trends

Heading off collision with asteroid


It’s a heck of a good idea! Taking out asteroid avoidance insurance is one thing we humans really ought to do if we don’t want to end up like the previous tenants of Planet Earth,  AKA our pals the dinosaurs. An asteroid known as Bennu is headed our way, and will cross very close to us in 2035. At 500 metres across, it is smaller than the asteroid which did for the dinosaurs, but if it hit Earth, we would surely get our hair mussed, in the immortal phrase of General Jack D. Ripper of Dr. Strangelove fame. Many millions would be killed outright, and the consequences for the environment are incalculable.

At the moment, Bennu is supposed to miss us by a narrow margin — but it sure would be nice to have Plan B ready, in case something changes in the meantime.

NASA launches mission to study massive asteroid in hopes of preventing catastrophic collision in 2035 | National Post

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