Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Guns Might Be the Least of Our Worries

Whatever side of the gun debate you sit, it's important to remember why this is such a potent issue.

It's not so much that guns kill, it's that they empower. Weapons have always elevated humans above other species and their peers, but none quite so much as the gun. And the ability to instantly kill without fail has been a game changer in our social order.

This empowerment goes a long way in shaping our entire civilisation. In some countries, it is used to completely control the population in fear, in others, the same idea but a more subtle effect, we are forced to pay taxes and obey the law for threat of arrest at gunpoint.

Guns tip the balance of power because of the ability they afford us. That it's the ability to kill is in no way insignificant, but the ability could be anything.

They are an enabling technology.

Enabling technology elevates individuals and shifts society's order. In the past, this has been fairly limited to weapons; guns, nuclear missiles, military hardware. But access to life sustaining knowledge and technology such as drugs and agriculture have also driven global politics and had significant impact on the lives of many.

Now, as we hit the knee of technology's exponential curve, we are likely to encounter an increasing number of new enabling technologies. What will this mean for society?

Given their empowering nature, we would do well to be vigilant about who has access to certain technologies. Elites will likely work to prevent or restrict general population access (after dropping the ball with the internet) as much as possible. They will also attempt to commandeer certain technologies for their own purposes, surveillance, resource acquisition, health (immortality?) benefits or other, not-thought-of powers. This already happens, but its effects will become much more significant.

Imagine soldiers upgraded to be bullet proof, or have the ability to heal themselves. Arial drones are already causing havoc for the United States. It won't be long before we have robots everywhere, monitoring us, or even preventing us from performing certain actions - which might be unjustly deemed crimes. What if a bird was not a bird but a bomb? What if a tiny fly flew into your ear and injected you with an RFID chip? These technologies are extremely close - and most are already here.

There is of course the threat of these technologies falling into the hands of terrorists, murderers and psychopaths. We can go a certain way to preventing this with controls (like gun control), but what's stopping a criminal getting hold of a black market 3D printed gun? When the empowering nature of the technology can itself enable the undermining of such controls - what good are they?

Albert Einstein said: It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.”

As the creation of enabling technology escalates, it seems our humanity is simultaneously declining.

Thursday, 31 May 2012

The Ethical Implications of Dismantling the Planet Mercury

George Dvorsky's article about How to Build a Dyson Sphere was absolutely fascinating and I feel the concept deserves much further exploration.

"By enveloping the sun with a massive array of solar panels, humanity would graduate to a Type 2 Kardashev civilization capable of utilising nearly 100% of the sun's energy output. A Dyson sphere would provide us with more energy than we would ever know what to do with"

Now, this is the kind of ridiculous, overambitious idea that that really captures my imagination. It would be a hyper structure, like the Hoover dam but on steroids, where we would create unfathomable devastation, calling on the skills and labour of thousands, enduring the harshest that nature can throw at us in order to tame it - all in the name of energy. Where the Hoover dam transformed a country, this would transform our entire solar system. But it's not without cost. And that's what I want to discuss.

In order to get the materials to build this monolith of human achievement, we're going to have to make some sacrifices. Namely, the planet Mercury.

But what are the ethical implications of dismantling an entire planet for our own purposes?

One might argue that it's an otherwise useless planet, a burning chunk of iron and rock with no desirable real estate or even aesthetic value. But does that make it Ok to take it apart for spares?

What will future generations think about dismantling the planet Mercury? They will probably be a lot more conscious about the implications of such vast resource exploitation, given that they will be growing up in a world full of pollution and big empty holes where coal and precious metals used to be.

In today's world, these kinds of concerns are rarely considered, or if they are, they are still ignored if there is money to be made or amenities are required. But the people of the future will have their say, either way. This will bring the debate into the the public arena, allowing countless others to raise topics and concerns that may never have been thought about - issues that could have untold implications on the project.


Mercury of course raises another issue that may throw a spanner in the works, that of legal rights. Who owns Mercury? Does anyone? Even if someone did own it - this might not stop someone who has the facilities to get there from taking it from someone who can't. 

We could put it to a democratic vote, involving the whole world, but could you imagine the political nightmare a worldwide vote would be? Coordinating the political process across different cultures, legal systems, technology levels, ideologies, and population sizes would be a logistical task comparable to dismantling a planet.

How Decisions are Made in the Real World

At the end of the day whether or not something is ethical has very little bearing on whether it goes ahead. What matters is the decision making mechanism of the time.

Right now, our decisions are based on finances. What is wrong or right is always superseded by the potential to make money, save money, or the liability to cost money. If it would be profitable to dismantle the planet Mercury, all it takes is someone with enough power to get the idea into their head and it will happen. I'm not sure that currently, there is any business or government in the world with enough money or resources to put this idea into practise yet, but that may change in the future.

Perhaps by the time a Dyson sphere becomes feasible, society will be running on a different modus operandi. Perhaps there will be a different currency other than money, something else that holds value but is traded in a similar way. If this currency was directly related to the Dyson sphere, for example, if it was energy, then this might also drive the Dyson sphere's production and supersede any moral concerns about dismantling planets. If the currency was something else, such as art or community help, then production might not be pursued as the need for the Dyson sphere wouldn't be reconciled by the needs of the people. But the project will always remain a possibility as long as energy holds value, and it probably always will, the question would be how much.

Practical Implications

As well as the ethical and legal implications, we would also have to consider the practical ones, as these may also have ethical implications of their own. For example, what about the effect on the gravity of the whole solar system? If something went wrong, the Earth could end up falling into the sun or flying off into space - these are pretty serious ethical concerns! Of course there would need to be some extremely accurate calculations before we attempted to commence resource extraction of this scale.

A Responsibility

After all the negative ethical dilemmas brought about when deciding whether or not to dismantle Mercury, It could very well be argued that it is actually our responsibility to uplift humanity, to alleviate suffering. That it's humanity's purpose to advance our technology, our civilisation, our place in the universe. To do this, we need to use all the resources we have available to us. It would be unethical not to.

The question would then be, what will be the return on this mother of all investments?

Monday, 21 May 2012

Corrolation, Causation, and Prediction in a World of Data

 As image memes gain popularity on social networks and forums, they are fast securing their place as a defining cultural aspect of the early tweenies...(unlike the word "tweenies", thankfully).

Most of these images are humourous, as this is great for virality, many are profound, some just witty nuggets of wisdom.

And then there is the propaganda. Intended to illicit an emotional response to a political idea, propaganda memes are used to affirm or reaffirm a political bias or dogma. They are often aimed at a very particular niche. If you have any particular political or activist persuasion, you will no doubt have seens endless streams of these one-sided affirmations.

At best, they are intellectual masturbation. At worst, it's pseudo-scientific social engineering.

The worst form of this that I have seen is data correlation inferences. Just because something happened on a certain date does not mean it caused something else that happened around the same time. It is completely irrational to infer causation from a correlation, and most people are subconciously aware of this, they will just choose to ignore it if the correlation fits in with their beliefs. So this form of non-sequitur is becoming an increasingly utilised mechanism for these pieces.

It is a shame that this kind of irrationality is being entertained, not least because data correlations can be valuable analysis tools. Correlations can be useful indicators for understanding social dynamics, as long as it is acknowledged that this evidence is purely circumstantial.

Alone, correlations are not proof , but they can reveal vital clues about possible causation.

They can also be powerful in assisting predictions. The more we know, the more correlations we will uncover, and the more we can use the circumstantial correlations of the past to make reasonable conjectures about the future.

As Twitter and Google and other web-enabled data collectors increase both the range and volume of their publically available data, the more correlations become available to anyone with the inclination to look for them. Using tools like PowerPivot, our prediction capabilities become ever more reliable, and with them, the possibilities of social engineering reach new and increasingly influential heights.