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 may be growing up in a world devastated by it.

Legalities


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 and Memes


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 increasingly advanced data analytics tools, our prediction capabilities become ever more reliable, and with them, the possibilities of social engineering reach new and increasingly influential heights.






Monday, 8 August 2011

Distributed or Centralised Infrastructure?


Distributed infrastructure, such as that provided by the internet, allows for more reliability - if one node is damaged, it barely affects the rest of the network. It affords more freedom - less reliance on a centralised 'grid' controlled and manipulated by the elite. It is more in-line with nature, creating a symbiotic entity where the sum is greater than its parts, and each participant compliments the rest with cooperation but doesn't burden the whole either.

However, the centralised systems we are used to, those which provide our public infrastructure, still have a place, because they can often be more efficient than a distributed system. For example, it would be difficult to run a train system with solar panels on the station roof, so the train taps into the main grid.

When assessing and managing the Earth's resources, a global inventory would be important. We would need to decide on the most efficient solution between distributed and centralised infrastructure, and having access to all resources would allow us to choose the most efficient solution. If one country has more resources than another and it does not share them, this will burden the world system as a whole. If, for example, a hot country like Egypt built solar panels across the desert but didn't share this energy, it could hold back the whole planet, because this energy could be used to run a factory supplying the whole of Africa, or even the world, with food.

On the other hand, building an infrastructure to share this energy and the productions it facilitates could be impractical and not the best use of resources. Although sharing resources could contribute to society, the cost of the infrastructure required to share these resources would be prohibitive. In these situations, a localised solution might be a more efficient use of resources.

Should we be building Smart Grids, or developing self sufficient houses? Or what about a middle ground of self sufficient communities?

It is likely that both ideas will have to develop in parallel. There is no escaping the growth of distributed systems, their dropping cost and increasing accessibility. Home manufacture, decentralised production, home automation, home agriculture, home energy and more are making it easier to separate ourselves from the mainstream infrastructure and increase our self sufficiency.


Similarly, sharing and pooling resources has its benefits. It gives us more possibilities, allows us to combine systems, and develop simplified and more efficient solutions. So we should be looking at the best way to combine the two techniques.

Monday, 13 June 2011

The Key to Automation

Every day seems to see new reports about incredible robots being developed. Robots that carry stuff for soldiers, robots that perform surgery, and robots that play football. It's all very exciting, but what we really need are robots to make our lives easier. To give us more time to do what we want. To do the mundane jobs and free us up to take on more creative work that robots can't do.

But how do we go about this? How do we bring robots and automation into our everyday lives, unless robot intelligence is significantly improved? Well, while this intelligence is improving at a rapidly accelerating pace, there is a huge potential for solving problems using simple, task repeating, programmable robotics.

The key is to standardize everything. We have to "put it on rails".

As an example, let's look at making an automated dish washing system.

We have dishwashers, but we still need to load and unload them. We need to develop 2 things. Firstly, we need a robot that can safely sort dishes no matter how randomly they're piled up, and insert them into their relevant areas of the dishwasher. Secondly, and this wouldn't be so difficult once the first stage was completed, is a mechanism for unloading the dishes and putting them away.

The important thing to note is that the kitchen would need to be designed with this in mind. In many solutions, we may need to consider our existing infrastructure. This needn't be as complex as it's made out to be, and would always pay off once a working automated system was integrated.

So you would need containers either side of the dishwasher, one for humans to pile up the dirty dishes, and one where the clean dishes would be stored permanently. This would make it easier than if the storage cupboard was, say, on the other side of the room to the dishwasher.

The next step, we could consider 2 options. The first is to standardize all our plates, cups, dishes, pots, pans, and cutlery, so that the loading robot would "recognize" them all. Alternatively, we may be able to develop robots that can recognize new items and program themselves "on the fly" to deal with them effectively. This would obviously be a little harder. To achieve the first step, all the dishes we use in a house could be embedded with RFID. The robot could also have powerful sensors similar to face recognition software many cameras currently have.

Within the dishwasher, every item would have a specified place. The robot would simply grab each item and move it to its "cleaning slot". Any odd items could occupy a separate platform within the dishwasher.

You get the idea. While it still has some creases to iron out, the point is that there is plenty that can be achieved with a minimal level of robot intelligence, if we standardize our practices and the environments that automation functions in. The same theory could be applied to transportation. It's baffling why trains are still driven by human beings, when a computer could control them perfectly.

If you think that giving computers so much responsibility is dangerous, it's because you've been conditioned to seeing machines that have been challenged by real life scenarios. The point is, these machines have been limited by the programming of humans. They have been put in situations where they have not been designed to cope with all possible scenarios. They were expected to work like humans, yet they were limited in the number of possible actions. Automation system designers need to limit the scenario to a set routine, as well as limiting the influence of external factors.

To put it another way, they need to simplify what a robot has to do, and design its environment to confine it, protecting it from the need to make decisions. We can do this by standardizing its interactions. This will allow us to bring automation into our lives in more ways than we ever thought possible, even at current technology levels.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

The Evolution of Complexity

Photo by Alazar Kassahun on Unsplash

Matter Evolution

Since the first particles were set in motion, every action has been part of a chain reaction.

At first, there were the simplest of elementary particles in an empty universe. Hydrogen atoms — single electron entities, were the pinnacle of complexity.

Eventually, a few of them collided, stuck together, and formed more complex atoms, and then molecules. Well, it was a little more complicated than that, but you get the idea. These molecules accumulated until there were so many that gravity and magnetism began to have a significant effect. As the gravity increased, the mass increased, and nuclear fusion commenced. Star systems were born.

The planets continued a sequence of their own. Eventually molecules increased in complexity by way of chemical reactions in order to form amino acids which then combined to create proteins.

These proteins and amino acids increased in complexity until living cells emerged from the chemical process.

Life started simple — with single cell organisms converting oxygen into energy.

Like everything before it, life increased in complexity as its requirement for survival drove it to trial different solutions to the problems it faced. Solving any problem always creates new, more complex problems. When the first animals came onto the land to find food, they had to develop solutions, such as legs, lungs, to deal with this new environment.


Photo by Fakurian Design on Unsplash

Consciousness Evolution

After an unfathomably long time, something incredible happened. Life increased complexity so much that a brain able to comprehend its own existence was formed. This brain not only solved problems, as brains before it did, but it built upon ideas. It developed the same skills as nature itself, evolving ideas that increased the complexity of the universe. *These self acknowledging brains loosely described this phenomenon as consciousness, and these complexity-increasing ideas as technology.

Consciousness is a feedback to nature. For the first time in history, nature is no longer the main driver of complexity, the complexity itself is driving further evolution.

Now I’m not talking about transhumanism or notions of driving our own evolution to become more than human. I’m talking about the ability to create ideas. Ideas drive evolution. Like nature before it, the function of ideas developed by consciousness is to increase complexity. This evolves the course of the universe itself.

Ideas are created by combining previously existing concepts to solve a problem. These ideas then create new problems that need to be solved and so new ideas always add to the ever increasing complexity.

Evolution = increasing complexity, using ideas as the mechanism.

Evolution began as hydrogen atoms evolving into complex molecules. It is not restricted to the evolution of plants and animals. Charles Darwin’s identification of the evolution of the species was just a very small part of a much bigger picture.

It’s important to remember that this is still part of that original chain reaction. Evolution is the function of the universe itself.

I’ll say that again.

Evolution is the function of the universe itself.

To appreciate this, you have to acknowledge that the true definition of evolution is to increase complexity. That is all that has ever happened. From the increasing complexity of atoms to the development of life, the improvement of life and then the development of consciousness, the universe is just a complexity factory. That’s what it does.

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

Our Purpose

What is profound about this is realising where we fit it into it all. We’ve often wondered what is the reason for living, and when you look at the big picture like this, it becomes obvious.

We are just here to continue the evolution of complexity.

Of course this is both empowering and humbling. It turns out that human beings could be pivotal to the evolution of the universe. Looking back at how the universe has evolved we can predict that we, (or another version of consciousness that will emerge in the event of our extinction), will contribute to the emergent complexity of the universe. Our ideas will progress the complexity and will take the universe to the next level. Yet at the same time, we realise that we are simply a result of what the universe was doing anyway. We are not the ‘pinnacle’ of evolution, we are just ‘where it’s at now’. There is much more to come, and perhaps we are just an insignificant speck in the development of something much grander.

What if the development of consciousness is just an embryo of a super-brain and concepts such as individuality are simply mechanisms in its development? Kinda makes the humbling from Darwin and Copernicus seem like a mild slap. The ego of humanity takes yet another beating…

But even if this is the case, there’s no need to feel down. Now we know our purpose, we know what to focus on. We have meaning and direction. We are here to drive complexity, by creating ideas which are solutions to problems.


Photo by NASA on Unsplash

Society Evolution

And there is more. Since we first started integrating concepts and evolving ideas, we have been part of something even more complex than our minds: Society. The hive-mind of ants or bees is one thing, but the hive mind of an entire planet of concscious, problem solving, dextrous human beings is quite another. Society adds yet another level of complexity to the evolution of the universe.

Society has only existed in any sort of complex form for at most a few hundred thousand years, but until the birth of the internet, it was fragmented and relatively simple. Now, people have the potential to connect to any of seven billion others. Cultures merge. Belief systems collapse and form in seconds. Values shift and perceptions alter. More possibilities present themselves. When the internet exploded, our day-to-day functioning as a society hit the knee of an exponential curve in terms of complexity.

This is not to be feared. This is the destiny of evolution, the destiny of the universe. Yes, we will create ideas to temporarily simplify many concepts. But this is just so that we can then use this simplification as a step up to further complexity. Like a fractal.


Photo by Martin Rancourt on Unsplash

For example, Google simplified searching the internet, but in doing so empowered people to solve more complex problems than ever before, due to the ease of access to new concept-combinations.

Technology is advancing at a accelerating rate, enabling all sorts of new opportunities, problems and the ideas required to solve them. The more technology, the more ideas. The more ideas, the more complex society becomes. Even the power of our brains could soon be artificially increased, adding to our ability to drive further complexity.

So immerse yourself. Ride the wave of nature and accept our destiny — the perpetuation of complexity.