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Margaret_Eddy_with_her_father's_kites

As drones are set to proliferate, being utilized to photograph and monitor and deliver, it’s worth remembering that kites were formerly dispatched to do some of the same duties, if in a much lower-tech way. 

The first use of kites for scientific purposes dates back to 1749 and the meteorological experiments of Alexander Wilson, which occurred three years before Benjamin Franklin’s electrifying discoveries. The use of kites in science received a major boost in the second half of the 19th century, when New York journalist William Abner Eddy designed a superior diamond-shaped kite, which enjoyed improved stability and reached great heights, enabling him to take the first aerial photography in the Western hemisphere. Five years after that feat, in a 1900 Brooklyn Daily Eagle article, Eddy speaks of his plans for his airborne innovations, though the piece was abruptly cut off near the end by typesetters.

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Automobiles remade the world, in more ways than we could have initially imagined. Nobody could have predicted the environmental fallout of the internal-combustion engine, for instance, but other effects could have been predicted by anyone not wholly myopic.

Now we’re parked at another precipice, with autonomous cars nearly ready to remake society in a similarly profound way. Along with the great advantages that will attend self-driving vehicles, there’ll come numerous challenges. One of them is a financial jolt to the middle class that will make the slow waning of the last four decades seem relatively rosy.

In a smart Backchannel article, Robin Chase explains that since driverless is ultimately going to happen–and sooner or later, it will–we need to be proactive in steering the economic and social ramifications even as we give up the actual wheel. Part of her prescription for a relatively smooth transition is a radical reworking of capitalism, since a largely automated society that’s also a free-market one cannot be managed by shopworn policy.

An excerpt:

A Capitalism Do-Over. Productivity gains once were the harbinger of improved standards of living, and improved quality of life, but automation brings jobless productivity gains. Self driving cars will be the ultimate example of this: AVs will probably be productively employed and generating revenue about 65 percent of the time, compared to our personal car’s 5 percent. No one can deny that enormous productivity gains are being enjoyed. But with so few associated workers, enjoyed by whom?

As an entrepreneur, I appreciate the hours and years of effort that has gone into building these AVs: the new IP, the many years and huge costs without any revenue to show for it. But I also understand that this is a massive market (trillions of dollars worldwide seems plausible), and the marginal cost of running the software for each of those trips will be close to zero. We need to make sure we distribute this new wealth, by closing corporate tax loopholes and taxing wealth and platforms more effectively.

As we lose more jobs, the necessity for change opens up the possibility of a fairer system, one that minimizes income inequality. A Bureau of Labor Statistics study projected an 83 percent probability of job loss by automation for workers earning less than $20 an hour, and a 34 percent probability for jobs between $20–40 an hour. In the new automated world, does it really make sense to be taxing labor at all? It makes much more sense to be taxing the new technical platforms that are generating the profits, and taxing the wealth of the small number of talented and lucky people who founded and financed these new jobless wonders.

In a world where machines do most of the work, it is time for a universal basic income. This will distribute the gains from productivity, and give more people the opportunity to focus on purposeful, passion-driven work, allowing for the next generation of ideas and technologies to emerge faster.

How we deal with the job loss caused by AVs will be a signature model for how we respond to automation throughout the economy. Even more, it may be the flood that sweeps clean a system that no longer serves the people.

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patty-hearst-american-heiress-the-wild-saga-of-the-kidnapping-crimes-and-trial-of-patty-hearts-jeffrey-toobin-book-seventies-criThe transformation of heiress Patty Hearst from debutante to terrorist after her 1974 abduction by the Symbionese Liberation Army is endlessly interesting as a study in extreme psychological metamorphosis, though its fascination four decades ago lie mostly mostly in its more lurid aspects, the violent collision of rich and poor, of high society and anti-social impulses, the sacred taking up with the profane. It was worlds colliding, an impact that made the masses feel unsafe, that so fixated the nation. The Lindbergh baby was alive and conspiring with the kidnappers. Anything, it seemed, was possible, and how could that be good?

Jeffrey Toobin, the wonderful New Yorker writer and legal analyst, just published American Heiress, a book about the scion-gone-wild, though he’s fully cognizant that titles about the crimes of the rich and famous, “Tania” or O.J., for whatever they may tell us about America, aren’t nearly the most important stories to tell. One exchange from a recent New York Times interview with Toobin:

What’s the last great book you read?

Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside. Meticulously reported and gracefully written, this book captures the horror of urban violence in Los Angeles. At roughly the same time as Leovy was shadowing L.A.P.D. detectives in East L.A., I was across town, covering O. J. Her book made me think twice about what counts as a “big” story.

That’s the truth, though Hearst’s case speaks to the seismic shift young people (and some older ones) can make, whether we’re talking about her, Manson Family members, Jonestown joiners or ISIS acolytes. 

Three pieces follow: 1) An excerpt from Dana Spitotta’s NYT review of Toobin’s title, 2) A segment of a 1974 People interview with psychiatrist Dr. Frederick J. Hacker, who consulted with the family while Patty was underground, and 3) A 1974 video of the devastated Randolph Hearst discussing his daughter’s life on the lam. 


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From Spiotta:

Perhaps the captivity story that has fascinated us the most is the 1974 kidnapping of Patty Hearst, the subject of Jeffrey Toobin’s terrifically engrossing new book, “American Heiress.” The brief outline of the events will be familiar to many: Hearst was taken from her Berkeley apartment by the Symbionese Liberation Army, or S.L.A. (a tiny, slogan-drunk band of revolutionaries so obsessed with guns and publicity that they seem almost pre-­satirized). After being held in a closet and haphazardly coached in guerrilla warfare and revolutionary theory, Hearst declared — in a notorious message delivered in a mesmerizing combination of “breathy rich-girl diction” and “pidgin Marxist” jargon — that she was now “Tania,” that she had not been brainwashed and that her captors had offered to let her go, but “I have chosen to stay and fight.” She then helped to rob banks (in which one bystander died) and plant bombs until she was apprehended in 1975. In custody, she claimed that all of her crimes were committed under duress. Her lawyer, F. Lee Bailey, built his defense on the argument that she had acted out of “coercive persuasion” (Stockholm syndrome was not yet a common concept). She was found guilty and served nearly two years of her sentence before President Carter commuted it to time served. 

Was Patricia Hearst responsible for her crimes, or was she a victim who did what she needed to do to survive? Or is the truth somewhere in between? The story has been the subject of many books — some dozen are listed by Toobin. Also inspired by the case: two novels (“Trance,” by Christopher Sorrentino, and “American Woman,” by Susan Choi), a feature film, several documentaries, at least two porn movies and an episode of “Drunk History.” Hearst herself wrote a book. Yet the questions remain unresolved, which is one reason for Toobin to investigate. Another is that he sees the episode as “a kind of trailer for the modern world” in terms of celebrity culture, the media and criminal justice.•


As surprising as it is that so many middle-class youths are drawn today via social media to ISIS, Patty Hearst, practically American royalty, being kidnapped in 1974 by the SLA and then converted somehow to its terrorist cause, completely stunned the world. She didn’t go willingly, but she became a willing accomplice, brainwashed probably, though a lot of Americans were unforgiving. It seems like some of the same factors that work for ISIS may have helped the SLA remake the debutante as “Tania.” Whatever the situation, USC psychiatrist Dr. Frederick J. Hacker, whom the family hired while she was still on the lam to help them understand their daughter’s descent into terrorism, probably should not have discussed the case with Barbara Wilkins of People magazine while she was still at large, but he did. An excerpt:

Question:

Why did the Hearsts consult you?

Dr. Frederick J. Hacker:

I had published a book on terrorism in Germany in 1973—dealing with the Olympic tragedy in Munich and the Arab-Israeli situation. In September ’73, I became a negotiator in Vienna between the government and two Arab terrorists. After that, I was invited to speak at Harvard and the State Department and to testify before the House Committee on Internal Security. That was how the Hearsts heard about me and my work.

Question:

When did you get involved in the case of Patricia Hearst?

Dr. Frederick J. Hacker:

When a Mr. Gould of the Hearst newspapers called me up, on behalf of the family, about four weeks after the kidnapping. I went up to Hillsborough to visit the Hearsts. I told them to take the SLA at face value, to take the political message seriously. And I urged them to get a concession for every concession they made.

Question:

What have you discovered about Patty Hearst?

Dr. Frederick J. Hacker:

I had not known her before, of course. By now everyone has read what her life had been. She was an average, intelligent girl. She lived an unspectacular life with her former tutor. She was more liberal than her family but was still relatively conservative. She was totally without political interests. She was sheltered. She’d gone to Europe with some other girls and, prior to Steve [her fiance Steven Weed], she’d had three or four other boyfriends. She was never very close to any of her sisters. The oldest sister, a polio victim, had deep religious convictions. Patty had a bad relationship with her mother, but a fairly good one with her father. They could talk. When she was kidnapped, Patty was picking out her silverware pattern, because she had talked Steve into marrying her.

Question:

What is the lure of the SLA for a girl like Patty Hearst?

Dr. Frederick J. Hacker:

In spite of everything, the sense of close proximity among these people gives a feeling of family, of community and caring. There is shared danger and a sense of strong commitment that is very impressive to the uncommitted.

Question:

Was Patty’s conversion voluntary?

Dr. Frederick J. Hacker:

Everybody asks how voluntary her conversion was. I raise the question, “How intentional was the SLA’s conversion of Patricia?” Maybe they didn’t want to convert her at first. Let’s look at it this way. She’s kidnapped, and she’s frightened and inclined to believe these people are really monsters. Then they treat her very nicely. She begins to talk to them, to the girls. She finds they are very much the kind of people she is—upper-middle-class, intelligent, white kids. She finds a poetess, a sociologist. They tell her how they have found a new ideal and how lousy it was at home. Perhaps she started to think, “Well, at my home it wasn’t so hot either.” This may be what happened. There is a strong possibility, of course, that she was brainwashed. Maybe they did use drugs, although none was found in the bodies after the L.A. shoot-out. …

Question:

Was Patricia in on the kidnapping from the beginning?

Dr. Frederick J. Hacker:

She was undoubtedly a genuine victim. All the talk that she was in cahoots is nonsense. All the evidence, in fact, is against it, including the testimony of her boyfriend, who has no conceivable reason to lie. Why did she have her identification with her? A kidnap victim doesn’t—unless someone else grabs it and takes it along.

Question:

What makes a terrorist?

Dr. Frederick J. Hacker:

A number of different things. Usually the terrorist is imbued with the righteousness of his cause, and fanatacized by the idea of remediable injustice. For example, as long as you could tell women that it was God’s will that they were mistreated by men and that it was irremediable, there was no movement to change things. As soon as it becomes clear that an injustice is not fated, is not obligatory, and that there are alternatives, then the dominant group is in trouble.

Question:

Are there different kinds of terrorists?

Dr. Frederick J. Hacker:

I distinguish three categories—the criminal, the mentally deranged and the political. With the SLA, it is not easy to confine them to one category. They are criminally involved because some of their tactics are criminal. Some actions are loony and the details are ludicrous. When Cinque’s body was found, he was wearing heavy pants, army boots up to his calf and three pairs of woolen socks—in Southern California where the temperature was 80°. He had a compass and a canteen. That’s inappropriate. They stole from that sporting goods store, but they certainly did not need the money. Hundreds and hundreds of dollars were found on all the bodies. Only the outside of the folded money burned. There were nutty elements. What kind of an army is 20 people, or 10 people? They were also political, and that is what made it so hard.

Question:

These radical movements seem to attract middle-and upper-middle-class children rather than the lower-middle-class and poor. Why?

Dr. Frederick J. Hacker:

You are asking who becomes a revolutionary. The leaders of a revolution don’t come from the class they are trying to liberate. The to-be-liberated group doesn’t have the means to lead itself out of oppression.

Question:

What can be done about terrorism?

Dr. Frederick J. Hacker:

First, you must change the “remediable” conditions that produce the terrorist solution—for instance, somehow you get rid of the Palestinian refugee camps. Second, the mass media must effect restraint so that terrorist crime does not become fashionable. Finally, I believe we must establish task forces led by law enforcement executives who are advised by responsible behavioral scientists.•


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This 1970s video contains comments Randolph Hearst made to NBC News about his daughter Patty, who was at the time doing a walkabout through the Radical Left. “I think she’s staying underground just like a lot of kids stay underground,” her clearly shaken father remarked, accurately assessing the situation. Before the end of the decade, she was captured, convicted, imprisoned and, controversially, had her sentence commuted. In January 2001, Bill Clinton felt it necessary to grant her a full pardon.

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Despite the constantly updated headlines, the world is likely getting much better by most measures, the major asterisk being climate change. Conditions have never seemed worse, though, with beheadings, xenophobia and terrorism in our faces and on our minds. A connected and wired world presents many shocks to the system, the Global Village both boon and bane. But we only seem to foresee dystopias now. 

H.G. Wells, who wrote science fiction before it was so named, envisioned tomorrow’s downsides but held out hope. The author believed we should toss out the history books, which he felt poisoned us with nationalism, and start anew. His more optimistic side has been adopted by many Silicon Valley technologists, his pessimism by those crafting fiction. A strange dichotomy.

Excerpts from: 1) John Higgs’ Guardian article about the contemporary obsession with things falling apart, and 2) Jaron Lanier’s 2011 Edge article on Wells’ concerns about wealth inequality in the age of machines.

 


From Higgs:

For Wells, imagining a viable version of the future was an intellectual game. It was a chance to show off, and a seemingly respectable way to be deeply subversive. Writing to his friend Elizabeth Healy, he described Anticipations, his 1901 book of predictions, as “designed to undermine and destroy the monarch, monogamy, faith in God and respectability – and the British empire, all under the guise of a speculation about motor cars and electric heating”. Futurology, for Wells, was exhilarating. The idea that writers would give up even trying was so implausible that Wells never imagined it.

The sudden disappearance of worthwhile futures from our culture coincided with the rise in our understanding of climate change. Global warming indeed appears inevitable and apocalyptic, but is this reason enough to remove all hope from our visions of the future? Rising sea levels, the need to decarbonise the economy, and chaotic shifts in ecosystems are all difficult problems to engage with, but we are a species that lived through the Black Death, the Somme and the threat of global thermonuclear war. It seems odd that we would give up now.

I suspect the real problem is as much a rejection of originality as it is a reaction to climate change. In a hypermediated age where we are constantly engaged in filtering out the irrelevant, the last thing we want is to tackle the genuinely new.

But originality was Wells’s calling card.•


From Lanier:

This brings us back, literally thousands of years to an ancient discussion that continues to this day about exactly how people can make a living, or make their way when technology gets better. There is an Aristotle quote about how when the looms can operates themselves, all men will be free. That seems like a reasonable thing to say, a precocious thing for somebody to have said in ancient times. If we zoom forward to the 19th century, we had a tremendous amount of concern about this question of how people would make their way when the machines got good. In fact, much of our modern intellectual world started off as people’s rhetorical postures on this very question.

Marxism, the whole idea of the left, which still dominates the Bay Area where this interview is taking place, was exactly, precisely about this question. This is what Marx was thinking about, and in fact, you can read Marx and it sometimes weirdly reads likes a Silicon Valley rhetoric. It’s the strangest thing; all about “boundaries falling internationally,” and “labor and markets opening up,” and all these things. It’s the weirdest thing.

In fact, I had the strange experience years ago, listening to some rhetoric on the radio … it was KPFA, in fact, the lefty station … and I thought, ‘Oh, God, it’s one of these Silicon startups with their rhetoric about how they’re going to bring down market barriers,’ and it turned out to be an anniversary reading of Das Kapital. The language was similar enough that one could make the mistake.

The origin of science fiction was exactly in this same area of concern. H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine foresees a future in which there are the privileged few who benefit from the machines, and then there are the rest who don’t, and both of them become undignified, lesser creatures. Separate species.•


H.G. Wells meets Orson Welles in San Antonio (audio only):

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If performance-enhancing drugs weren’t at all dangerous to the athletes using them, should they be banned?

I bet plenty of people would say they should, bowing before some notion of competitive purity which has never existed. It’s also a nod to “god-given ability,” a curious concept in an increasingly agnostic world. Why should those born with the best legs and lungs be the fastest? Why should the ones lucky enough to have the greatest gray matter at birth be our best thinkers? Why should those fortunate to initially get the healthiest organs live the longest? It doesn’t make much sense to hold back the rest of the world out of respect for a few winners of the genetics lottery.

Stephen Hsu, who had a Nautilus piece included on Afflictor’s 2015 “50 Great Articles Online for Free” list, has penned for that publication another excellent essay: “We Are Nowhere Close to the Limits of Athletic Performance.” It relates how genetic engineering will supercharge athletes and the rest of us, making widely available the gifts of Usain Bolt, who gained his from hard work, sure, but also a twist of fate. In fact, extrapolating much further, Hsu believes “speciation seems a definite possibility.”

An excerpt about CRISPR:

[George] Church has also been involved in one of the greatest scientific breakthroughs of recent decades: the development of a highly efficient gene editing tool called CRISPR, which has been approved for clinical trials for medical applications. If CRISPR-related technologies develop as anticipated, designer humans are at most a few decades away. Editing is most easily done soon after conception, when the embryo consists of only a small number of cells, but it is also possible in adults. Clinical trials of CRISPR, when they start this year, will edit existing cells in adults using an injection of a viral vector. It seems likely that CRISPR, or some improved version of it, will be established to be both safe and effective in the near future.

Because complex traits are controlled by so many variants, we know that there is a huge pool of untapped potential that no human—not Shaq, Bolt, or anyone else—has come close to exhausting. No living human has anywhere near all of the possible positive versions of the relevant genetic variants. The whole enterprise of competitive athletics has been, in effect, a search algorithm for genetic outliers, but it’s been running for less than a century, and it hasn’t been particularly efficient. Its approach has been to passively wait for random recombinations to produce those variants, and hope that athletic programs find the best individuals.

Now we are entering an era in which it will not be chance that configures DNA, but rather the human intellect via tools of its own creation. As our understanding of complex traits improves, genetic engineers will be able to modify strength, size, explosiveness, endurance, quickness, speed, and even the determination and drive required for extensive athletic training.•

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Certain questions about editorial content were answered emphatically during Web 1.0: NOBODY will read long articles on a screen. NOBODY will sacrifice privacy in this radically free new frontier. NOBODY will pay for content, which wants to be free. 

Over time, those seemingly obvious new rules had to be rewritten. As Internet connections and portable devices improved, people were willing to read long-form pieces online. The public shockingly, depressingly ceded their private information to corporations, going down with more of a whimper than a bang. The final answer, a riff off an oft-misunderstood Stewart Brand quote, is a murkier thing. 

Those who stuck to their belief that content shouldn’t be given away looked wise after all the received wisdom began to be questioned, and paywalls at the New York Times and other publications attracted credit-card numbers. The thing is, profits from these streams aren’t nearly enough to make ends meet. The truth may ultimately be that neither paywalls nor no paywalls will be the correct answer.

From Rob Lever at Yahoo! News:

Washington (AFP) – Paywalls were supposed to help rescue newspapers from the crisis of sinking print circulation as readers shifted to getting their news online. 

But with a few exceptions, they have failed to deliver much relief, prompting some news organizations to rethink their digital strategies.

Newspapers in the English-speaking world ended paywalls some 69 times through May 2015, including 41 temporary and 28 permanent drops, according to a study by University of Southern California researchers.

Paywalls “generate only a small fraction of industry revenue,” with estimates ranging from one percent in the United States to 10 percent internationally, the study in July’s International Journal of Communication said.

“People are far less willing to pay for online news than for print,” said USC journalism professor Mike Ananny, an author of the study.

Newspapers are in a difficult spot, he added, because online advertising generates a fraction of print’s revenue, and news organizations are already pressured by falling print circulation.•

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I don’t want to die, but have I any other options?

Anti-aging therapies are genuinely advancing, but I don’t suspect they’ll be ready for those of us who’ve already reached adulthood. But what of those being born now, those to come into the world in 2050 or 2100? How long a lifespan will they enjoy? When will life become radically extended and 120 a routine age? Most importantly: Will aging ultimately be cured?

Lifespans grew much longer over the last century or so because infant deaths were markedly decreased, medical procedures became far more sanitary and antibiotics were discovered. It was elongation born of improvements at the margins. The next wave will attempt to go to the heart of senescence, to treat it and defeat it, with gene therapies, an endless supply of replacement organs and other measures.

It will be great but complicated. In “Cheating Death,” an excellent Economist piece that asks us to “imagine a world in which ageing had been abolished,” the writer identifies some of the clouds in an endless summer, from income inequality making access to treatments wildly uneven to severe strains on pensions when people are routinely centenarians or perhaps far older. It’s a really interesting thought experiment, though I think it falls into the trap of extrapolating one key thing (life extension) while keeping all other factors (economics, etc.) static. Life rarely proceeds in such a manner.

An excerpt:

From an individual’s viewpoint, this all sounds very desirable. For society as a whole, though, it will have profound effects. Most of them will be good, but not all.

One concern is that long life will exacerbate existing social and economic problems. The most immediate challenge will be access to anti-senescence treatment. If longer life is expensive, who gets it first? Already, income is one of the best predictors of lifespan. Widening the gap with treatments inaccessible to the poor might deepen divisions that are already straining democracies.

Will older workers be discriminated against, as now, or will numbers give them the whip hand over the young? Will bosses cling on, stymying the careers of their underlings, or will they grow bored, quit and do something else entirely? And would all those old people cease to consider themselves elderly, retaining youthfully vigorous mental attitudes as well as physical ones—or instead make society more conservative (because old people tend to be)?

A reason for hoping that the elderly would turn out less hidebound is that life itself would be more a series of new beginnings than one single story. Mid-life crises might be not so much about recapturing lost youth as wondering how to make the most of the next half-century.

Retirement would become a more distant option for most, since pension pots would have to be enormous to support their extended lifespans. 

To this end, the portfolio career would become the rule and education would have to change accordingly. People might go back to school in their 50s to learn how to do something completely different. The physical labourer would surely need a rest. The accountant might become a doctor. The lawyer, a charity worker. Perhaps some will take long breaks between careers and party wildly, in the knowledge that medicine can offer them running repairs.

Boredom, and the need for variety, would alter family life, too.

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Apollo 15 astronaut Al Worden participated in a Reddit AMA, which mostly centered on his 1971 trip to the moon. In the course of the Q&A, he had kind remarks for both Wernher von Braun and Donald Trump, which is perfectly symmetrical, when you consider the former was an actual Nazi and the latter at least posturing as a Hitler-ish hotelier. Apart from politics, he comments on the current state of space exploration, which he seems to believe is lacking. A few exchanges follow.


Question:

Was going to the moon tough to top? Did you come back and have trouble figuring out ‘what next’?

Al Worden:

That’s a very good question. Going to the moon required a skillset, much like driving a car or flying an airplane. There are many other intellectual challenges that require thought process way beyond anything I needed to make a lunar flight. I think it’s very important for the future that we motivate young people in STEM courses, and that, to me, is intellectually challenging.


Question:

  1. As I have read, you never did an EVA on the moon, but orbited the moon. Can you describe the feeling of orbiting another planet, looking not just at the Moon, but also at the Earth. Do you remember any special thoughts you had?
  2. What do you think of the technological advancements of SpaceX and their construction of reusable rockets, and their plans to go to Mars?
  3. What would you say to all the young people around the world who loves space and aspire to make a future career in space exploration, through the means of engineering, piloting, physics, chemistry, biology and/or other ways to contribute to the research for future space travel and exploration?
    Sincerely, a Swedish Masters of Computer Science and Engineering student.

Al Worden:

  1. I remember vividly looking every 2 hours for Earth-rise over the Lunar horizon. The moon was a very cold, and deadly place, but the Earth was beautiful in the colors and the atmosphere.
  2. Space-X is not the only commercial company that is flying into space. There is Boeing and Orbital/ATK. In the next few years, we will see lots of commercial launches into space, however they will probably be limited to Earths orbit, because the requirements are too great to go into deep space. Space-X is talking about going to Mars, but that remains to be seen.
  3. I am a firm believer that any young person working their way through college should take whatever they want, but do very well with it. In the future there will be positions for all disciplines but those who study STEM programs will be in the fore-front.

Question:

Who are the unsung heroes of the Apollo program? Was there anyone who played a big role that history hasn’t recorded very well?

Al Worden:

I would say that maybe one of the unsung heroes was Wernher Von Braun. He did get considerable amount of publicity, but he was the chief architect for the Apollo Program. And in-fact there were many, many that were critical to the program that no one knows about.


Question:

Have you ever seen a candidate for President like Donald Trump?

Al Worden:

No, but political conditions of today require someone like Trump to set this country straight.


Question:

What do you think about all the technological advancements in space travel, and where do you think space travel will be in the future?

Al Worden:

My feelings are there are no technological advances in space travel in the past 40 years. In fact, the system that is being designed to go to Mars, is really just an oversized Apollo.


Question:

If you could go to the moon one more time, would you go?

Al Worden:

No, the moon has no interest. We need to go further out.•

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In “Fun With DNA,” Sam Kean’s Atlantic article, the author offers up some uses, potential and actual, for genetic code, from the theoretical resurrection of the woolly mammoth (which wouldn’t exactly be a woolly mammoth) to the storage of classic movies (which are exact duplicates). It makes for an economical storage system, for sure. As the article points out: The equivalent of 1 million CDs full of information can fit into a single gram of DNA. Of course, the data will eventually be mixed and matched, and that’s when the games will get messy and possibly dangerous.

An excerpt:

DNA is the oldest medium in existence for storing data, so it makes sense that the double helix could find use in computing. Scientists can encode data as DNA by assigning every number and letter to a unique string of A’s, C’s, G’s, and T’s (much like modern computers encode data as 1’s and 0’s) and then producing strands of synthetic DNA with that information. DNA-sequencing machines can later extract the data.

Why bother? Aside from being ultra-durable, DNA is also an incredibly efficient way to store information. Scientists have already been able to fit 700 terabytes of data—roughly the equivalent of 1 million CDs—in a single gram of DNA, and it can theoretically hold far more. By some estimates, all of the data currently stored on the world’s disk drives could fit in the palm of your hand if encoded in DNA. For this reason, Technicolor, the entertainment company, has begun storing old movies as DNA, starting with the 1902 film A Trip to the Moon. You can also copy DNA-based data nearly indefinitely with simple enzymes. The Harvard geneticist George Church recently converted a book he wrote into DNA, then made 70 billion copies in a test tube—making it the most reproduced text in history.

Beyond just storing data, some researchers have suggested using DNA to build biological computers. These biocomputers wouldn’t look like laptops, with screens and keyboards. Rather, they’d be chemicals inside test tubes or biological membranes. But like laptops, they would have the ability to take in information, process it, and act. DNA seems especially promising for parallel processing, which involves making millions or even billions of computations simultaneously. (An example is weather forecasting, which involves integrating temperature, barometric pressure, and humidity data for many, many points on the Earth’s surface all at once.) And unlike electronic devices, which can’t easily infiltrate living cells, DNA-based computers could penetrate these spaces, giving us ways to record information and possibly fight disease in real time.

Church notes that above all, DNA holds great promise for data encoding because the medium won’t ever grow obsolete. “We lose our affection for floppy drives” and other technologies, Church says. “But we’ll always have some interest in DNA.”•

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It’s always made more sense to me that we establish a lunar base–maybe develop a crater-based city or two– from which to explore other planets before hurrying over to Mars, but I don’t have a few billion dollars in between the couch cushions, so my advice hasn’t been heeded.

I’m not alone in thinking this way, however. While Elon Musk unilaterally decides the proper form of government for future Martians (direct democracy), teams of technologists are trying to put a permanent Earthling footprint on the Moon, using 3D printers and such to create sustainable communities. 

In a short Salon Q&A, Naveen Jain of Moon Express tells Angelo Young about his company’s plan to make the moon not only a trade post and vacation spot and launch platform but also a permanent home, sometime in the next 15 years. No one can predict the outfit that will win this aspect of Space Race 2.0 nor the time frame, but in the macro it makes good sense. One exchange:

Question:

Besides sending billionaires on lunar vacations, what are some business applications of regular round-trip earth-to-moon travel?

Naveen Jain:

The moon has quadrillions [of dollars] worth of natural resources, including platinum grade materials, rare-earth elements and Helium 3. Additionally, water on the moon is really the “oil” for the space economy, which can provide us with the rocket fuel for in-earth orbit and lunar orbit for deep-space exploration. We plan to use lunar resources “in situ” to allow humanity the ability learn to live off spaceship earth. The moon is the best place to create a habitat before going to the Mars. After all, it’s better to be a “Lunatic” three days away from earth instead of a “Martian” six months away from any emergency rescue.•

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It seems intuitive that good times will breed feelings that match, but often a comfortable, steady temperature makes people overheat. It’s like we crave imbalance for some evolutionary reason. Remember before 9/11 and the 2008 economic collapse and ISIS, when Bill Clinton’s intern shenanigans were a national outrage? George W. Bush, who led the single most failed administration in generations, was elected in good part to restore “honor” to the White House. That really seemed important to an awful lot of people. Today, an utter lack of honor–and competency and sanity–makes no difference to Trump supporters, despite the financial recovery (an uneven one, admittedly) we’ve experienced in the past eight years. They’re mad and want to break something.

National moods aren’t always rational, not always driven by the bottom line, but perhaps there’s something other than the spoiling effect of complacency driving the current ill feelings. Maybe our new tools have made it easier for a toxic airborne event to occur at any spot in the Global Village?

In a smart Bloomberg View column, Tyler Cowen theorizes that bad moods are traveling in a viral manner today, even settling over a relatively fortunate nation like Australia. An excerpt:

Australia does have problems and identity crises of its own, but still it seems the country has caught a dissatisfaction bug from abroad, most plausibly from the pro-Brexit forces in the U.K., the Trump and Sanders movements in the U.S. and the common global feeling that much of the world is slanting askew.

For some time now, equity returns in Australia have had one of the highest correlations with equity returns in the U.S., and some of this probably has to do with the transmission of moods and not just shared economic shocks. What’s changing is that the risk of negative mood transmission may be going up, even though the Australian economy still appears to be fine.

It is a common theme in political science that low levels of trust in government tend to translate to inferior political performance.Trusting citizenries give their governments the resources to produce valuable public goods, as is often the case in the Nordic economies, but falling trust leads to higher social conflict and corruption. And so, because of its recent pessimism, Australia may be on the verge of losing some of the good governance it has enjoyed for the last few decades.

The broader and more disturbing implication is that the entire global economy may be more vulnerable to mood swings.

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Producing an infinite bounty of healthy food and clean energy through “artificial photosynthesis” was the stated near-term goal of a group of University of California scientists featured in an article in the January 27, 1955 Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Even the dietary needs of space travelers was given consideration.

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The rest of us can’t currently afford to live like Vivek Wadhwa, with a Tesla in his garage and solar panels on his roof–not yet, anyway. Today’s tech luxuries often become tomorrow’s new normal, however, the original R&D supported by governments first and then deep-pocketed early adopters. The problem is, while these great inventions will bring with them epic good–maybe even species-saving good–there will be destabilizing effects attending them. Th question is this: How much can we shape the future? How much can we tame these unintended consequences of 3D printers and automation and robotics?

I think we can select to some extent, but in the welter of competing companies and countries, consensus and consent can be lost. If China goes all in on genetic engineering, can other countries afford to opt out? Can there possibly be any OFF switch when the Internet of Things becomes the thing, when we don’t only place a computer in our pocket but have ourselves been placed inside the machine? Some decisions we’ll make and others will be made in a faceless scrum.

From Wadhwa’s latest thoughtful column for the Washington Post:

In short, the distant future is no longer distant.  The pace of technological change is rapidly accelerating, and those changes are coming to you very soon, whether you like it or not.

Such rapid, ubiquitous change has, of course, a dark side. Many jobs as we know them will disappear. Our privacy will be further compromised. Future generations may never drive a car or ride in one driven by a human being. We have to worry about biological terrorism and killer drones. Someone you know — maybe you — will have his or her DNA sequence and fingerprints stolen. Man and machine will begin to merge into a single entity.  You will have as much food as you can possibly eat, for better and for worse.

The ugly state of politics in the United States and Britain illustrates the impact of income inequality and the widening technological divide. More and more people are being left behind by innovation and they are protesting in every way they can. Technologies such as social media are being used to fan the flames and to exploit ignorance and bias.  The situation will get only worse — unless we find ways to share the prosperity we are creating.

We have a choice: to build an amazing future, such as we saw on the TV series Star Trek, or to head into the dystopia of Mad Max.

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When it comes to electric cars–and solar power and colonizing space–Elon Musk can win and lose at the same time.

The technologist’s stated micro goal in founding Tesla was to create an EV not just as good but better than any traditional auto, so that consumers would prefer his offerings to Big Auto gas guzzlers. The macro goal, of course, was to make the world a far more eco-friendly place, to not only have cleaner cars but to tie their development to that of alternative energies that could be repurposed to private and commericial buildings via batteries. It may not please Tesla stockholders, but Musk could spur these world-altering goals without his company winning significant market share.

In order for EVs to become the choice, lots of players, including Detroit stalwarts, needed to enter the race–and that’s exactly what’s happened. Competition in solar and space exploration have likewise been spurred by Musk’s aspirations. So, Musk’s companies could ultimately be also-rans, even if his aims are achieved, whether we’re talking about reducing our carbon footprint or putting boots to the ground on Mars.

From Maya Kosoff at Vanity Fair “Hive”:

Tesla isn’t the only company producing electric cars anymore. Traditional automakers are starting to infiltrate the space, and the very thing that made Tesla a unique company might be less of a selling point for some customers moving forward.

The latest competitor to take on Tesla is Mercedes, which will offer a four-car all-electric lineup with two S.U.V.s and two sedans, Bloomberg reports. Previously, Mercedes C.E.O. Dieter Zetsche said his company had planned to premiere an electric car this fall at the Paris motor show. Besides the four electric consumer vehicles, Bloomberg reports, Mercedes’s parent company, Daimler AG, is also working on an “all-electric heavy-duty delivery truck,” though it won’t be ready until the beginning of the next decade. Mercedes’s cars, by contrast, are expected to hit the streets within the next few years.

Mercedes and Tesla will have plenty of rivals, besides one another.•

 

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I’ve blogged about this before, but the Charles Murray system of Universal Basic Income, which is similar to the schemes of a number of Libertarian wonks and Silicon Valley stalwarts, would devastate people already barely getting by. Many senior citizens would actually lose part of their Social Security payments, even a good portion of those receiving relatively paltry amounts. It’s just another scheme to eliminate safety nets while making those doing to dismantling seem beneficent. To Murray and his ilk, the disappearance of the so-called welfare state won’t harm anyone because Americans on solid ground, of whom there are fewer in the Digital Age, will magically rally around the poor. Do they actually believe this hokum or is there something darker within them?

From Dmytri Kleiner’s Further Field essay “Universal Basic Income Is a Neoliberal Plot To Make You Poorer,” a segment on Murray’s mindset:

Charles Murray, another prominent libertarian promoter of UBI, shares Friedman’s views. In an interview with PBS, he said: “America’s always been very good at providing help to people in need. It hasn’t been perfect, but they’ve been very good at it. Those relationships have been undercut in recent years by a welfare state that has, in my view, denuded the civic culture.” Like Friedman, Murray blames the welfare state for the loss of apparently effective private charity.

Murray adds: “The first rule is that the basic guaranteed income has to replace everything else — it’s not an add-on. So there’s no more food stamps; there’s no more Medicaid; you just go down the whole list. None of that’s left. The government gives money; other human needs are dealt with by other human beings in the neighborhood, in the community, in the organizations. I think that’s great.”

To the Cato Institute, the elimination of social programs is a part of the meaning of Universal Income. In an article about the Finish pilot project, the Institute defines UBI as “scrapping the existing welfare system and distributing the same cash benefit to every adult citizen without additional strings or eligibility criteria”. And in fact, the options being considered by Finland are constrained to limiting the amount of the basic income to the savings from the programs it would replace.•

 

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The Internet is a series of tubes that connected the world virtually, while the Hyperloop would like to do so physically. At its grandest, the new mode of transportation proposed by Martian hopeful Elon Musk would complete the Global Village, heaven help us

Like an incredibly fast elevator that goes forward rather than up, the transport system would deliver people and goods to their destinations in a much safer and cleaner and cheaper fashion, seemingly equally helpful for medium- or long-distance trips. For all the logistical and technological hurdles to be cleared, the future is wide open, though no one can yet say how much the Hypelroop will be a part of it.

The team at Hyperloop One, currently leading the pack in this burgeoning sector, just did an Ask Me Anything at Reddit. A few exchanges follow.


Question:

Where are the efficiency gains over traditional rail or HSR, considering that the Hyperloop needs to maintain pressure, and has more safety concerns? What problem is the Hyperloop trying to solve?

Josh Giegel (Co-founder and President of Engineering):

Efficiency gains come from the fact that this is an on demand system that doesn’t require you to wait and travels at high speeds – think elevator experience. Hyperloop is solving the on demand, high speed, packetized, weather-proof, autonomous system, ultra-safe transport system problem. Low magnetic and aerodynamic drag mean substantially reduced power usage.


Question:

What problems do you foresee, when it comes to convincing the public about the safety of the Hyperloop?

Andrea Vaccaro (Director of Safety Engineering):

We are designing Hyperloop to be the safest mode of transportation on Earth. We will run extensive tests on all the safety features, involving third party safety assessors. As for the public, it will be like the first passenger airplanes: excitement for a new futuristic mode of transportation, together with the extensive safety test that we will run before passenger operation will make people eager to jump on Hyperloop!

Question:

I believe it was philosopher Michel Foucault who suggested that with the introduction of the car, by necessity man had invented the car accident. Likewise, the plane crash wouldn’t have been a thing if there had never been a plane.

If Hyperloop succeeds in creating a new form of transportation, isn’t it inevitable that a new kind of tragedy, heretofore unimaginable to most people, will eventually come to pass?

Andrea Vaccaro:

OK, let’s get a little bit more technical here. First of all by having a fully autonomous mode of transportation, where we are able to fully control the environment, we design-out a lot of common hazards: no human error (by far the most common cause for an accident), at-grade crossing, weather related hazards, etc. Then, we are looking at various statistics (failures per trip, per mile traveled, per departures, etc.) and we are specifying our system to be better than what is currently available from any of these point of view. We are performing top-down hazard analysis and bottom-up failure mode simulations to make sure that we hit our safety targets. Soon we will be start testing our safety functions full-scale in Nevada, with real hardware.


Question:

How do you think your solution will compete with driverless cars since they’re probably gonna hit the market at the same time?

Casey Handmer (Levitation Engineer):

Driverless cars and Hyperloop are complementary mass transportation systems. Cars work on existing transportation infrastructure, while Hyperloop helps integrate larger cities and networks of cities, with new infrastructure development.


Question:

Riding on the Hyperloop – even if its just a test track – is on my bucket list.

What do you think where and when will it be possible to do that without any kind of “special connection” to someone of the team, just by buying a ticket?

Casey Handmer:

We don’t anticipate putting humans on the test track any time soon. Unfortunately, just knowing someone doesn’t mean that we’re any more willing to break our safety protocols ;). But if you come and work here you can probably move stuff in the tube, which is more interesting and has better selfie opportunities. And yes, there are whole varieties of supersonic vacuum tube Pokemon that were previously unknown to science.


Question:

Can you describe how Hyperloop will have an effect on the daily lives of people in 10, 20 and 30 years?

Diana Zhou (Business Analyst):

We’re hoping to transform the way people live, the way they work and play. The idea is that people could hop into a Hyperloop in LA and get to SF for work half an hour later, less than the amount of time it would take to travel from Santa Monica to downtown LA during rush hour right now. This has tremendous implications from a real estate and housing perspective, from a work-life perspective, reduced congestion, not to mention improvement on pollution, emissions, and quality of environment!•

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Always enjoy Steven Overly’s smart work at the Washington Post “Innovations” blog, which looks at where we may be heading and how we might get there. In the post “Farming on the moon and meat grown in a lab. Six thoughts on the future of food,” the journalist wonders about where tomorrow’s meals might come from, focusing on the ideas of the Musk brother Kimbal. Though the entrepreneur dreams of vertical farms on the moon, he acknowledges there’s a strong local component to food production that makes macro planning merely a piece of the puzzle.

Two items from the post:

1. Vertical farming is poised for prime time — and outer space. 

There is no question that Musk is a strong proponent of vertical farming, by which crops are grown in tall stacks under LED lights inside massive indoor facilities. The practice is being driven in large part by a desire to grow produce locally and thereby eliminate the need to ship items long distances. It would allow major urban centers, such as New York City or Chicago, to eat local fruits and vegetables during all four seasons. Musk said that 2015 marked the first year when vertical farming companies could sell produce at a profit, meaning the declining cost of the technology makes the practice feasible for the mass market. And when future generations eventually inhabit the moon, vertical farming may be how people eat fruits and veggies there. At least that’s what Musk told the audience of futurists late last month.

6. Our taste for meat will force us to look beyond animals.

Successful efforts have been made to engineer meat in a laboratory or replicate it using plant-based ingredients. These aren’t frozen veggie burgers; we’re talking about an innovation beyond that. “Meat” that doesn’t come from cows, pigs and chickens could one day be more widely eaten, a shift that both animal welfare advocates and environmentalists would likely celebrate. After all, the increasing number of livestock that is necessary to sate the world population’s meat consumption has had a well-documented, negative impact on the environment. For his part, Musk is much more enthusiastic about plant-based meat products, questioning whether the lab-grown variety is something consumers will ever trust. He also says simply eating less meat is one path forward. “I am a fan of less and better meat rather than replacing meat,” he said. “That’s just me personally.”•

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Donald Trump, Kim Kardashian without all the talent, has lowered the bar so far this election cycle that it’s difficult to discuss serious issues. Just avoiding a madman in the Oval Office seems enough, though it isn’t.

There’s been precious little discussion about climate change, which threatens to obviate our entire species. Scant attention has been paid to tax policy, beyond this or that superficial promise. There’s been almost no mention of how automation might deliver a crushing blow to the already embattled middle class. Instead, we’ve been distracted by the guy who mocks disabled people, bans Muslims and argues with Gold Star families. Let’s not elect him.

In a Geekwire article, Alan Boyle writes of the oversight on automation during this Presidential contest. The opening:

Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are both promising to bring good-paying jobs back to America, but analysts say neither of them has addressed one of the biggest challenges looming ahead: the impact of automation and the rise of artificial intelligence.

Some argue that the challenge will soon become impossible to ignore.

“Job losses due to automation and robotics are often overlooked in discussions about the unexpected rise of outside political candidates like Trump and Bernie Sanders,” Moshe Vardi, an expert on artificial intelligence at Rice University, saidbefore this month’s conventions.

Vardi pointed out that manufacturing employment has been falling for more than 30 years, and yet U.S. manufacturing output is near its all-time high.

“U.S. factories are not disappearing: They simply aren’t employing human workers,” Vardi said.

That trend is hitting America’s working class particularly hard.

“While manufacturing is the most striking example, there is considerable evidence that automation is transforming other sectors of the labor market, and there’s increasing evidence that this leads to economic stratification, the decline of the middle class and the subsequent undercurrent of misery that is driving support of Trump,” Vardi said.

The transportation sector is likely to be next, as autonomous vehicles start moving products and people.•

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The idea that manufacturing jobs will persist because humans and machines will work in a sort of freestyle-chess collaboration is a lie for two reasons. Firstly, even such a silicon-carbon tandem would necessitate a serious reduction in positions. Secondly, it’s only a matter of time until the part of labor still in our hands will disappear. Eventually almost any work that can be done equally well or better by machines will be ceded to them.

The big question is how quickly will that happen. Across decades, such a drain in jobs can be absorbed, but an accelerated transition will likely cause serious cultural and political upheaval, as we’ve seen perhaps most acutely in 2016 with Trump and Brexit and all manner of worrisome nativism. We’ve begun to point fingers at one another instead of discussing the real threat to economic security–that outsourcing no longer means work moving out of countries but rather out of species.

From Brian Fung at the Washington Post:

For decades, a big trend in manufacturing has been the gradual automation of the factory floor. Robots play a major role in making advanced products today — they’re fast, clean and efficient. But Tesla chief executive Elon Musk wants to take this to a whole new level with the factory producing the upcoming, low-cost Model 3, turning “the machine that makes the machine” into an “alien dreadnought.”

Not literally. The factory isn’t going to become self-aware and turn on its masters; after all, Musk is an avowed skeptic of the kind of general artificial intelligence that could enable killer machines. But the term “alien dreadnought,” Musk told analysts on a conference call Wednesday, refers to what the factory will look like once it’s fully developed in around five years. Its visage will likely inspire something between wonder and terror.

“It’s like, ‘What the hell is that?'” said Musk.

The machine will ultimately be so complex that no humans will be expected to operate it directly, or to participate in the actual building of each Model 3.

“You really can’t have people in the production line itself,” said Musk. “Otherwise you’ll automatically drop to people speed.”•

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Was already circumspect of the idea that a level playing field in athletics was possible if we could just eliminate PEDs when I read David Epstein’s great 2014 book, The Sports Gene, which made plain how nature favors some over others, and not only in limb length and other obvious things but also in vision and blood and lungs. These inborn advantages laugh at the idea that 10,000 hours of practice can transform a modest talent into a champion, at least in sports (though I doubt 416 days at a piano in my wonder years was going to turn a tone deaf person like myself into a virtuoso).

In “Magic Blood and Carbon-Fiber Legs at the Brave New Olympics,” a Scientific American piece published just ahead of the Summer Games, Epstein again meditates on the subject. He poses a vital question: “We are long overdue to ask, openly and as a society, just what it is we want from sports. Is it to see superhumans doing superhuman things? Perhaps it is.”

The opening, which recalls the rare genetic mutation that helped Finnish skier Eero Mäntyranta become a virtually peerless cross-country competitor:

I knew Eero Mäntyranta had magic blood, but I hadn’t expected to see it in his face. I had tracked him down above the Arctic Circle in Finland where he was—what else?—a reindeer farmer.

He was all red. Not just the crimson sweater with knitted reindeer crossing his belly, but his actual skin. It was cardinal dappled with violet, his nose a bulbous purple plum. In the pictures I’d seen of him in Sports Illustrated in the 1960s—when he’d won three Olympic gold medals in cross-country skiing—he was still white. But now, as an older man, his special blood had turned him red.

Mäntyranta, who passed away in late 2013, had a rare gene mutation that spurred his bone marrow to wildly overproduce red blood cells. Red cells convey oxygen to the muscles and the more you have, the better your endurance. That’s why some endurance athletes—most prominently Lance Armstrong—inject erythropoietin (EPO), the hormone that cues your bone marrow to produce red blood cells. Mäntyranta had about 50 percent more red blood cells than a normal man. If Armstrong had as many red blood cells as Mäntyranta, cycling rules would have barred him from even starting a race, unless he could prove it was a natural condition.

During his career, Mäntyranta was accused of doping after his high red blood cell count was discovered. Two decades after he retired Finnish scientists found his family’s mutation.•

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The recent Pew Research Center study of American attitudes toward human enhancement via biotechnology depicted the majority of us as wary of the application of these potential treatments. That may be true, but the numbers actually seemed surprisingly positive to me if you dream of a future of Transhumanism. As the possible benefits of CRISPR-enabled gene editing become more widely known, the numbers should swing toward enthusiasm.

Three Pew researchers, Dr. Cary Funk, David Masci and Lee Rainie conducted a Reddit AMA about the survey. A few exchanges follow.


Question:

What is the most surprising information you came across in your research?

Dr. Cary Funk:

For all the potential appeal of having sharper brains and stronger and healthier bodies, this study finds Americans’ are largely cautious about using emerging technologies in ways that push human capacities beyond what’s been possible before. About half or more Americans say they would turn each of these potential options down. More people say they are worried about each of these scenarios than say they are enthusiastic.

Lee Rainie:

One of the most striking things we have consistently seen in our work is that Americans generally are really positive about the long-term benefits they hope will come from science and technology. For instance, a majority of the public expects cancer to be cured in the next 50 years and they say that science and technology advances are good for society.

Here are some of our recent findings that speak to that.

At the same time, when you ask people about particular scientific applications like the three potential enhancements we studied here, there is not nearly universal optimism. People are wary and often less sure that the hoped-for results will be achieved.


Question:

How much do you think people’s attitudes and/or regulations towards enhancements have slowed down transhumanism on a practical level? Do you think that this attitude will change anytime soon. Also: What do you believe is the first real step people will take, on a widespread, level toward enhancement?

David Masci:

Most people are not really pondering these issues very much, something we found out in our recent poll. When you think about it, this makes sense: Most scientists say that we’re still years away from dramatic advances in human enhancement. And while the U.S. government does regulate some things – like human cloning — it has not written regulations for a lot of the things we talk about in our report, like cognitive enhancement or smart blood.

Regarding the second part of your question: It’s quite possible that CRISPR and other new gene editing methods could lead to the first meaningful human enhancements. The researchers I spoke with, including CRISPR co-inventor Jennifer Doudna, say that gene editing is now dramatically easier and more accurate than it was just a few years ago. Already, there are hundreds if not thousands of labs around the world working with CRISPR (including one in China that edited embryos), making it quite possible that some sorts of enhancements will come out of this work.


Question:

What do you think the impact of Biomedical Technology/Augmentation will have on the concepts of human rights and ownership?

This technology will no doubt be expensive – what happens when you can no longer afford your monthly payment for your brain chip (e.g.), or when the majority of your body has been replaced with augmentations that you can no longer afford? Your car, home, etc can all be repossessed, but what about something that is surgically implanted into you, and now a part of your body?

Do you think we’ll see something crazy and dystopian like Repo Men?

David Masci:

When I interviewed ethicists and religious thinkers, I found that many of them were very concerned that human enhancement could make inequality worse. But instead of being worried that people could not keep up with payments for existing enhancements, most of these thinkers were concerned that many people would not be able to afford them to begin with. Those who favor moving ahead with enhancement research argue that, as with most other technologies, enhancement options will, over time, become available to the non-wealthy as well as the wealthy. There was a time, they point out, when cars and smartphones were luxury items.•

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In a Reddit AMA, Freakonomics guy Steven Dubner reveals he isn’t sold on immortality, even an eternal life minus mental and physical deterioration. That certainly runs counter to the contemporary mindset, in which Silicon Valley billionaires want to “cure death.” Personally, I would choose to live forever if I had the option. Sure, I’d be in a crabby mood for 300 years every so often, but I’d get over it. 

The exchange:

Question:

More than few thousands great scientists all over the world are currently researching options to reverse aging and to cure the degenerative diseases caused by aging, Google is also involved with their project Calico, SENS Research Foundation and many other top awarded, acclaimed scientists.

The question: if you’d be given seriously the option to stay healthy and young as long as you choose to, and this option would be available also for your family and loved ones, would you take it?

I know I’d do.

Currently there is a lack of options existent at this moment still: the suffering, pain and misery caused by aging and aging related diseases is the norm, followed by death, followed by forever nothingness with no reddit, no sunsets, no thoughts, no dreams, no smiles, no friends and no family… for an eternity. We should have other options as well, those who love life to have the option of continuing to enjoy the wonder of being alive.

Thank you very much, I hope you are excited as well about the progress of medicine and science.

Steven Dubner:

It’s a great and complicated question. I think one of the reasons we value life so much is that it’s finite and therefore precious. But here’s what’s interesting to me: one conversation we don’t have a lot these days about the future is what we’ll do with all the spare time that our robot overlords will grant us. Considering how much progress and wealth and health we’ve achieved over the past couple centuries, people don’t seem to be thrilled about the simple fact that their supply of good and happy hours has increased so much. So I’m not sure having that supply increased to infinity would be such a boon.•

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In the adrenaline rush to create a mind-blowing new technology (and profit from it directly or indirectly), ethical questions can be lost in an institutional fog and in competition among companies and countries. Richard Feynman certainly felt he’d misplaced his moral compass in just such a way during the Manhattan Project. 

The attempt to create Artificial General Intelligence is something of a Manhattan Project for the mind, and while the point is the opposite of destruction, some believe that even if it doesn’t end humans with a bang, AGI may lead our species to a whimpering end. The main difference today is those working on such projects seem keenly aware of the dangers that may arise while we’re harnessing the power of these incredible tools. That doesn’t mean the future is assured–there’ll be twists and turns we can’t yet imagine–but it’s a hopeful sign.

Bloomberg Neural Net reporter Jack Clark conducted a smart Q&A with DeepMind CEO Demis Hassabis, discussing not only where his work fits into the scheme of Alphabet but also the larger implications of superintelligence. An excerpt:

Question:

You’ve said it could be decades before you’ve truly developed artificial general intelligence. Do you think it will happen within your lifetime?

Demis Hassabis:

Well, it depends on how much sleep deprivation I keep getting, I think, because I’m sure that’s not good for your health. So I am a little bit worried about that. I think it’s many decades away for full AI. I think it’s feasible. It could be done within our natural lifetimes, but it may be it’s the next generation. It depends. I’d be surprised if it took more than, let’s say, 100 years.

Question:

So once you’ve created a general intelligence, after having drunk the Champagne or whatever you do to celebrate, do you retire?

Demis Hassabis:

No. No, because …

Question:

You want to study science?

Demis Hassabis:

Yeah, that’s right. That’s what I really want to build the AI for. That’s what I’ve always dreamed about doing. That’s why I’ve been working on AI my whole life: I see it as the fastest way to make amazing progress in science.

Question:

Say you succeed and create a super intelligence. What happens next? Do you donate the technology to the United Nations?

Demis Hassabis:

I think it should be. We’ve talked about this a lot. Actually Eric Schmidt [executive chairman of Alphabet, Google’s parent] has mentioned this. We’ve talked to him. We think that AI has to be used for the benefit of everyone. It should be used in a transparent way, and we should build it in an open way, which we’ve been doing with publishing everything we write. There should be scrutiny and checks and balances on that.

I think ultimately the control of this technology should belong to the world, and we need to think about how that’s done. Certainly, I think the benefits of it should accrue to everyone. Again, there are some very tricky questions there and difficult things to go through, but certainly that’s our belief of where things should go.•

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Theoretical question: If intelligence augmentation became possible in a time of great wealth inequality, would the financial chasm permit some to have a huge IQ advantage, or would the early adopter billionaires merely subsidize the initially expensive technology for the rest of us, allowing most to put a chip in the brain as readily as a smartphone in a pocket?

Ray Kurzweil feels that benefactor scenario is the one that will play out, while John Koetsier of VentureBeat fears that by 2035 “rich people will be thousands of times smarter than poor people.” I don’t in any way think 20 years is a realistic time frame for that type of advance, though I believe in the far longer run, when such things are possible, Kurzweil will likely be right.

An except:

In Kurzweil’s view, the human brain is composed of 100-neuron patterns that are repeated 300 million times.  At some point — probably in the 2030s, Kurzweil says — mobile devices will connect to our brains. More specifically, our neocortex. They’ll be several billion times more powerful than early computers, and they will connect to synthetic neocortices in the cloud. Adding capacity to your brain will be as simple as adding cloud-based server capacity today.

“In some cases, my 300 million neocortex modules won’t cut it,” he said. “I may need a billion neocortex modules … and I can extend my brain in the cloud.”

As we do so, our intelligence will grow.

“It’s going to grow exponentially … our thinking will grow exponentially, and we’ll become millions of times smarter,” Kurzweil said.

That’s more than a little mind-blowing. And it has implications for everything in human life: sciences, arts, social behavior, you name it. But it also has an implication for socio-economic status.•

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Perhaps I’m too much a product of the West, but I think the downfall of autocratic societies, especially protectionist ones, is contained in their DNA, China included. The system seems antithetical to the human spirit and opposed to nurturing a creative class. That could be the reason why China has thus far not produced any great products.

That said, it’s impossible to overlook how far and fast China’s economy has grown, all while dominating its own massive market. In a smart Backchannel article, Steven Levy analyzes, in the wake of Uber’s capitulation, the impervious nature of the nation’s tech sector for American companies. An excerpt:

China is the world’s biggest internet market, and it’s destined to become the leading economy of this century. American technology companies are desperate to compete there, with dreams of reaching the same dominant market share in China that they have elsewhere in the world. But instead of commercial triumph, there has been a series of ignominious retreats, even for some of the most glorious pillars of American tech: Amazon, eBay, Google, and so on. Meanwhile, Facebook hasn’t even gotten far enough in the market to make a retreat. It keeps edging closer, even to the point where its CEO has learned to speak Mandarin— but can’t figure out how to enter the country while still following China’s strict rules of censorship and control of data.

Uber was the latest gladiator, and seemingly one that had a chance at victory. It was going head to head with its Chinese rival Didi with a war chest full of cash and a world domination mentality. As late as this past June, Uber was predicting it would pass its rival within a year. Now Uber is simply the most recent American internet giant who decided China was not worth the fight. And it probably won’t be the last.

China is hard. The reasons differ according to the sector and the company, but the combination of culture, nationalism, and especially a government that likes to tilt the playing field has prevented American giants who excel overseas from dominating in China. This is not to say that Chinese government regulation drove Uber’s deal with Didi, which was clobbering Uber in the ride-sharing market; in fact, Uber felt it was treated fairly by a government interested in transportation innovation. According to reports on the ground, Didi used its local knowledge to act more nimbly in satisfying Chinese customers. But my guess is that if the American ride-sharing company had been more successful, China would have put a Mao-sized thumb on the scales.•

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