Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Fundamental Question

"Is this all there is? Is there nothing more?"

It's the question which has driven mankind since the first hominids stood up for the first time. It drove us to chip stones into tools, to harness fire, tame animals, work in groups, and learn to speak. It shaped our thoughts, and evolution, made us curious about the world, and seek answers.

And the answer we found was "No. We can do better."

It drove us to find grains, cultivate them, build farms, form communities, governments, and trade. It produced writing, and record keeping and stories, and laws. The People asked "Is this all there is? Is there nothing more?"

And Hammurabi said "No. We can do better.

It drove us to build cities, and roads, pyramids and temples. To create The Hanging Gardens and the Colossus. The Great Lighthouse and the Great Library. It drove us to create Kings, and Pharaohs and Prophets. It drove Alexander to build Empires until he wept that there were no more worlds to conquer. He stood on a hill and asked "Is this all there is? Is there nothing more?"

And in Athens, Socrates said, "No. We can do better."

Seeking an answer we created science, and philosophy and art. Built civilization and ships, trade empires, and great centers of learning. We built Athens, and Alexandria, and Rome. Roads and Aqueducts, until the day the Caesars cried out "Is this all there is? Is there nothing more?"

And a wandering Rabbi in Judea answered "No. We can do better" as he was crucified.

Rome fell, divided and shattered, and a wall of darkness descended in the west. Alexandria burned, and the Huns slaughtered all. Man rose against man until it seemed that only darkness would survive. The Glory of Rome had ended, and only the barbaric rule of might makes right held sway. And from the weak and forgotten could be heard the call "Is this all there is? Is there nothing more?"

And in England, a king named Arthur drew his sword for the first time, and answered, "No. We can do better."

Camelot fell but was never forgotten, inspiring works of art and stories of heroism. Wars were fought, and castles built and churches sprouted across the land. The old knowledge survived, kept in books and scrolls, and manuscripts. Religion fought religion as the Catholics and Muslims warred with one another. Knight's fell, and cities burned and from the ashes came the question, "Is this all there is? Is there nothing more?"

And a man named Gutenberg turned the crank on his printing press and answered, "No. We can do better."

From fire and flame, and a Reformation, came a Renaissance. A flowering of art and culture, science and technology. A new dawn of civilization and knowledge. The Black Death was survived, and new books were written.  DaVinci created and Michelangelo sculpted, and Galileo observed while Copernicus shoved us out of the center of the universe. We realized how little we knew about the world, and in Spain, Columbus looked out across the ocean and asked "Is this all there is? Is there nothing more?"

And history shook its head and whispered "No. We can do better."

Though war and death and the end of civilizations stained the way, a New World was born. Born in shame and misery, exploitation and bloodshed, and filled with malcontents of every race and nation, it began as a tribute to the worst that mankind can be. But in a room in Philadelphia, a group of men came together and asked "Is this all there is? Is there nothing more?"

And with a Declaration that was heard around the world, they answered, "No. We Can Do Better!"

A war was fought, and a Nation forged. Elsewhere a blade dropped and heads rolled as others strove for their own freedom. Electricity was discovered, and a new Territory purchased, but sadly the natives were displaced, and the blacks still enslaved. America grew and prospered. One nation against the world until the injustices could no longer be tolerated, and Brother fought against Brother over simple human dignity. The cannons roared, and the bullets flew as the dead screamed "Is this all there is? Is there nothing more?"

And a man in a stovepipe hat stood on a field at Gettysburg and answered, "No. We can do better."

A Nation united in a world in turmoil. Russia fell and Germany invaded, and the Kaiser lost his throne. Communists tried to make a utopia only to be betrayed by tyrants. A Great Depression fell across the world. In America people ate their shoes, and in fallen Germany an egg cost a month's wages. A failed artist rose to power, and jackboots crashed across Europe, and the world cried out "Is this all there is? Is there nothing more?"

And Churchill and Roosevelt reached across an ocean to shake hands as they answered "No. We can do better."

A War was won, and a cold one begun. Stalin murdered millions as McCarthy chased shadows. We all lived in fear of the Bomb. A madness of MAD, and wars everywhere, until a small island sparked a Crisis which made the world hold its breath as it wondered "Is this all there is? Is there nothing more?"

And a President turned our eyes to the moon and away from the brink as he pointed the way. "No." he said. "We can do better."

Moon landings, Space shuttles, computers galore. Technological innovations by the score. Cellphones and iPhones and Artificial arms. A world changing so fast that it's hard to keep up. Stem Cells, and Cloning, and DNA computers. Every day with new wonders and new creations. A world awhirl with possibility.

And still that question remains. "Is this all there is? Is there nothing more?"

We seek it in philosophy, we seek it in religion, we seek it in mysticism, but in the end, only science can answer. We are a curious race. We strive for perfection knowing perfection is unattainable. We will never succeed in that quest.

But that's okay. It's the journey that matters.

We are called transhumans, and no two of us are alike. Some of us foresee AI Singularities, or Artilects, and an age of Computronium. Others see a world of infinite virtual universes. Still others see a world in which humans have become their machines. In the end, only the future can say what we will be, but we are all united with one common quest.

We have asked "Is this all there is? Is there nothing more?"

And we have answered, NO.

We can do better.

On the decline of religion

We live in a world of flux, and nothing truly shows that more than how the internet is affecting the way we live our lives.  Here in America we are seeing some pretty dramatic effects now that nearly 50% of all Americans have access to the internet. As that number proceeds to 100% within just a few years, those effects will be even more dramatic.
What effects might I be talking about? Primarily access to information. Until recently, we’ve relied on newspapers and news programs to keep us informed of our world, and we are now becoming aware of how sadly little those venues choose to tell us. On the internet, not only can we find far more of the story, we can find out how much or how little the other news sources are telling us.  Because of that, American politics are in the process of undergoing a turbulent time as they are having to adjust to a different reality than just a few years ago. It’s going to take a few more years, but the move from a secretive, hidden from the public, government to an open and transparent system is starting.
But Politics is always in flux. It’s always had to adjust with the times. What is truly interesting is going to be the effects the Internet has on those human institutions which actively refuse to adjust, particularly hierarchical religions.
Understand that not all religions are the same, which is why I make that division. Hierarchical religions are those which maintain an active priesthood who serve as “Gatekeepers of Knowledge” and maintain dogmatic laws and traditions which are designed to promote unquestioning obedience to religious authority. Of these religions, the Judaeo-Christian derivatives are both the most numerous, and the most rigid of examples due to their being “Religions of the Book”
2000 years ago, such religions of the book served a valuable function for society. By codifying their beliefs in written form, they preserved them against modification and mutation. In addition, by revering the printed word, they acted as repositories of knowledge during an era when knowledge was scarce and too easily lost due to accident or death of the knowledge holder.
However, they did so by creating a system to dispense knowledge on a limited basis, using it in drips and drabs to influence and control how people thought, behaved, and believed. Abandoning their role as guides to spiritual seekers, they became instead spiritual dictators, demanding rigid conformity of their congregations.
That dictatorship was shaken severely by the invention of the printing press, which removed the religions holds on knowledge itself, but it did nothing to prevent the dictators from creating new methods of control which relied on the unwillingness of their congregation to invest enormous effort into seeking out the knowledge which they did not wish known. Control of knowledge is the most crucial component of any dictatorship, and so long as congregations were willing to take the priest’s words over spending the effort to search out the truth on their own, this continued to work.
At which point we arrive at today. Unlike a book, the knowledge available on the internet is growing as quickly as the internet itself. We are rapidly approaching a point where the sum total of human knowledge is available to anyone who can use a search engine. And those tools which enable us to sort and find data out of this vast online library are growing both more powerful and easier to use. In other words, the amount of knowledge you need to have to find the knowledge you want is decreasing rapidly. Ten years ago, you had to be a geek to use the internet easily. Now anyone can access it and function competently in the datastream.
And that is why the internet is such a danger to hierarchical religions. The knowledge that they have been “gatekeepers” of is no longer behind a gate. The printing press blew a hole in the wall, but the internet removed that wall altogether. The Gatekeepers are standing before a gate to nowhere, a portal through a wall which no longer even exists.
But it is also more than just that.  Religions had power because people formed groups within them. They were the social hubs around which humans gathered, allowing them to exert the combined power of all those who were members of their religion. As the internet continues to grow, it is becoming the new social network, the common ground of the world at large.
This is not to say Religions have become powerless, as any look at our world will reveal, but they have lost control. Even in those extremely fundamentalist groups such as the American rightwing, and the various Islamic theocracies, the chokehold on knowledge has failed. The monolithic unity of the "church" is fragmenting into thousands of smaller groups, which lack the same power to dictate social norms, and thus world policy.
That chokehold is only going to become weaker as the internet continues to grow and reach more people. Knowledge is power, and no-one knows that better than a dictator. By removing the restrictions on knowledge, the Internet is going to become one of the true agents of change in our world. As it grows in power and reach, those forces which seek to prevent knowledge from reaching the masses will find themselves pressed harder and harder until they either change drastically, or perish.
More than any other force, the internet will become the ultimate equalizer. There will be fights against it, and probably even bloodshed, but in the end, we’re all going to be part of the wired world and finally understand that we all have to exist on the same planet.
And just maybe those who were once only guides before they chose to become dictators, will return to the role for which they are much better suited.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Ten Thousand Waves of Change. Welcome to the Tweens

I recently read an article on a DNA prototype nanofactory, and several responses to it by various futurists such as Michael AnissimovJamais Cascio, Chris Phoenix and others. It was quite interesting to watch the various discussions that arose from the posts.
But it also illustrated quite well a problem I have seen for years, the tendency of many futurists to have tunnel vision, to only focus on the final stages and ignore those which lead to them.
Image Credit: Javier Gomez Fernandez
A half sphere of polymer cubes built by researchers at the MIT-Harvard Division of Health Sciences and Technology. Image: Javier Gomez Fernandez
Most everyone is focused on Nanotechnology, and its final stages of development towards a true molecular manufacturing technology, but MM is only one part of the future. It's a very important one to be sure, but it doesn't exist in isolation. It is surrounded by hundreds, even thousands of other technologies just as profound, if more "commonplace" in comparison. My mother always used to say "The devil's in the details" and when it comes to understanding not only where we are but where we are going, one needs to look at a lot more factors than just the biggest players. Nanotech, Genetic Engineering, Robotics, even A.I. - -none of these bastions of future technological prediction exists in a vacuum. The steps which lead to them are just as important.
I happen to agree with Jamais Casico's assertion that by the time most people think a "Singularity" will occur, we're going to be underwhelmed. I just think it will happen for far different reasons than most people do. You see, it appears to me that by the time frames projected for the Singularity most of the cataclysmic changes it's supposed to create will have happened long since. In fact, they are already beginning.
I see it daily in articles all across the web, from this article about stem cell breast augmentation to this one on making a set of ovaries into testes to this one about making a replacement jawbone using a 3d printer and this one about 3d tissue printers. These are all interesting tidbits, but in isolation they are not worldshaking. Or are they?
Now toss in this laugh about building penises for rabbits and this about "tissue Legos", then add in who knows how many other recent stem cell breakthroughs have happened in the last year and a half.
Can you get the barest hint of where I am going with all this? Can you see even a fraction of the implications? Do I need to add in all the thousands of other medical stories I've read as well before you can see the big picture? Or can you see how rapidly we are approaching the day in which we can customize the human body as easily as we can customize our car?... or how quickly we are reaching an era where the genetic lottery of our inherited DNA will no longer dictate who we chose to be?
But before you really stop to consider that, let me toss in other factors that are equally important, like my recent article on Graphene and this on  DNA computers or this on Quantum Computers. And particularly this little tidbit on ATP powered transistors. The gist of all of this is that computers are about to undergo radical evolutionary changes as well, making orders of magnitude leaps in speed, processing power, even types of materials used. Not to mention becoming ever smaller, and more potentially integrated with biological systems. Then toss in the developments in VR that I discussed in my previous articles.
Starting to see a little more of the big picture yet? How advancing computer science mixed with advancing biotech combine to create a potential future in which trolls and elves could walk down the street side by side with humans? Where my succubus avatar is as commonplace as a cheerleader or a gothchick?

Vunjak-Novakovic used CT images (A and B) to build a TMJ-shaped scaffold (C). (Credit: Image courtesy of The Record, Columbia University)
But even that is not all, because there are many more factors to consider as well, such as how the massive increase in internet connections and the millions of cameras on cell phones are leading to such phenomena as"flesh search mobs" and "sousveillance". Add all of that to the mix as well.
Now stir in other developments like electronic printing and the fact that it recently yielded a 50" OLED screen printed in under two minutes. How about ultracapacitance batteries as well? And just for fun, let's toss in DARPA pushing most manufacturing companies to mimic the design/manufacturer separation so prevalent in electronics manufacturing. Then add in such possibilities as manufactured meat and cheap solar panels. Or how about even more outlandish tech like Plasma Fusion which could prove to have finally fulfilled all those long awaited promises of fusion power.
Are you starting to feel that low rumble yet?  That vibration in the soles of you feet that maybe is saying it's time to pull your head out of the sand?
A single wave of change is not what we face. There are ten thousand waves of change from every direction heading towards us, and nowhere to run to escape them.
I've barely scratched the surface, given no more than tiny hints as to the totality of the developments happening world-wide, all of which may seem unimportant when viewed as a single item. But when you step back, place them all together, and see how they can connect, and grow, and evolve, it is overwhelming. The big three of Genetics, Nanotech, and Robotics might be the big fish of the coming decades, but they swim in an ocean of technological innovation that is already threatening to sweep across our world in the very near future.
We're not going to be able to avoid the Tsunami of change heading our way, or even put it off. It's not comfortably decades down the road. It's right now, right here, in our faces, all we have to do is look around to see it. We've passed the event horizon, and we're accelerating down the gravity well at Warp Factor 9 while yelling at Scotty to give us more power.
The next few decades will define who we are, and who we want to be. It will be shaped by the choices we make in politics, in entertainment, and in religion as much as it is by technological innovation. The rumblings are already beginning, shaking the foundations of "the way things are done" in every aspect of the world. Soon, much of that which we took for granted will be crumbling, under relentless assault not just by changing technology, but by the failure of ideologies to adapt to change, and shortsighted refusal to accept that change is happening. The future anticipated and feared by so many is already here, it's just not evenly distributed, to paraphrase William Gibson. We've had a long childhood, but it's time to grow up. We don't have decades to decide on best courses or shape developments to our likings. It's long past the point of no return.
And like Jamais Cascio said, it's happing right under our noses. Unfortunately, the effects of all these changes will not be so easy to ignore. How well we will deal with these changes depends very much on how soon we begin to recognize these early warning signs. The problem is it seems like no one is watching, which is a pity, because it's an awesome show.
Welcome to the Tweens, and the opening decade of a new age. Here's to hoping I'll see you on the other side.

Graphene is Next

Image Courtesy of:

Image Courtesy of:

Graphene. If you’ve never heard about it, don’t worry, a lot of people haven’t, because it’s really only been “discovered” relatively recently, and most of the truly interesting news about it has been in the last year. The amazing thing is that we’ve actually been using it for centuries, in the form of the common pencil. Graphene is a form of carbon, much like carbon nanotubes and other fullerenes, with one major difference. While fullerenes are 3D structures of carbon atoms, graphene is a flat sheet. It’s a 2D lattice of carbon with bonds as strong as diamond. It’s this sheetlike nature that makes it so useful in a pencil. As you write, individual planes of graphite are sheared off the end and deposited on the paper. Those individual planes are pure graphene.

By now, most of you are familiar with carbon nanotubes, a.k.a. CNTs, and their potential for computers. Graphene has equally amazing properties, including some that might make it far more readily usable than CNTs. First, like CNTs, graphene is capable of conducting electricity with much less resistance than copper. That alone makes it useful, but graphene has even more interesting properties. As New Scientist reports bending graphene creates strains between atoms that can create isolated pathways which then act as nanoribbons — wires — within the still connected sheet. In other words, the morphology of graphene affects its electrical properties: change the flat sheet by bending parts of it, and you change how electricity flows through it.
But that isn’t all. The pattern of carbon bonds has effects as well. Graphene is a hexagonal grid of carbon, much like a roll of chicken wire. Remove one random atom from the pattern every so often, and graphene can exhibit magnetic behavior without needing the presence of magnetic metals. Adding hydrogen into the mix creates graphene’s non-conductive cousin, graphane. Taking precisely defined patterns of atoms out of the sheet can create well-defined circuits, creating wires that are almost superconducting.
Image Courtesy of:
Image Courtesy of:
All of these properties make graphene a very important material for the future of electronics. It has already been used to create field effect transistors, the primary component of a computer processor. When you combine this with the other features above, you have a single material that could be used for the majority of the components in every electronic device we currently have… with one major difference: speed. Current silicon based chips have a limited speed at which they can run at room temperature without overheating and malfunctioning. Go much over 3GHz without some major cooling and chips melt down. But replace those chips with graphene equivalents — without having made any other changes to the circuits -—and you can raise that limit much higher. Potentially 100 to 1000 times higher. 

Let’s think about that for a moment. That’s 300GHz to 3000GHz or 3Terahertz.
That’s a jump of two or three orders of magnitude up the exponential curve, my friends, especially when you combine it with the advances in multi-core technology and parallel computing. We’re talking about that smartphone in your pocket having a thousand times the computing power of your desktop PC, but using no more power than it does right now. The resistance of graphene at room temperature is so much lower than copper and silicon that even though it’s running at 1000 times the speed, it’s not using any more current, or wasting any more energy as heat than an identical silicon device, and that’s without considering any other possible advances in the field of electronics design.
That big a leap in processing speed will simplify a lot of extremely complex tasks that require extensive amounts of data. From SETI searches for extraterrestrial intelligence to the search for all the ways a protein can fold, scientists use millions of processors in parallel to speed up research. A thousand-fold increase in computer speed could cut months to years off the time needed for their projects. The same goes for DNA sequencing, data mining, and a host of other areas.
And science will not be the sole benefactor. Most smartphones these days have the ability to use their cameras to create virtual overlays on the images that they see, a technique called Augmented Reality. AR has advanced to the point that it’s possible to create virtual characters in photos on your phone using nothing more than a 2D patterned target on the ground, or to create interactive “virtual assistants” in projected video that are capable of interacting with real world objects. Ultrafast computers will be essential for ushering in the age of Virtual Reality.
Image Courtesy of:
Image Courtesy of:
A massive increase in computer speeds is likely to benefit other complex computing tasks as well, such as real-time speech language translation. Right now, it is difficult to make these programs run quickly enough to be useful. A thousand-fold increase in computer speed could make brute force approaches a practical solution, enabling computers to crunch through entire dictionaries in milliseconds. It could make possible the elusive conversational interface that so many people believe will be the next step in operating systems. That speed will also be useful in the next generation of robotics, quite possibly bringing us a step closer to the kind of robots seen in movies like I, Robot or Star Wars. Ultrafast computers would enable a major reduction in the size of the computers needed to run some of the most complex robots we currently have, bringing the day of Rosie the Robot maid that much closer.

Obviously, ultrafast computers are going to have a very far-reaching effect on the way we do things, as well as how we interact with each other and our world, so the real questions are how practical is it to make graphene chips, and how soon can they be made? The answer is probably going to surprise you. Graphene has already been proven to be usable in current chip manufacturing processes with only minimal retooling needed. In fact, IBM has already created working 30GHz test devices using graphene transistors. In other words, graphene could begin making its way into computers as early as 2012 to 2015, and almost certainly by 2020.
Graphene, that same single-atom-thick layer of carbon that is a part of every pencil mark, is going to make all of this possible. Not bad for the humble Number 2, huh?

And for an update:
At Berkeley Lab’s Advanced Light Source, scientists working with graphene have made the first observation of the energy bands of complex particles known as plasmarons. Their discovery may hasten the day when graphene can be used to build ultrafast computers and other electronic, photonic, and plasmonic devices on the nanoscale. Understanding the relationships among these three kinds of particles—charge carriers, plasmons, and plasmarons—may hasten the day when graphene can be used for “plasmonics” to build ultrafast computers—perhaps even room-temperature quantum computers—plus a wide range of other tools and applications.
“The interesting properties of graphene are all collective phenomena,” says Rotenberg, an ALS senior staff scientist responsible for the scientific program at ALS beamline 7, where the work was performed. “Graphene’s true electronic structure can’t be understood without understanding the many complex interactions of electrons with other particles.”
The electric charge carriers in graphene are negative electrons and positive holes, which in turn are affected by plasmons—density oscillations that move like sound waves through the “liquid” of all the electrons in the material. A plasmaron is a composite particle, a charge carrier coupled with a plasmon.
Plasmons have been considered as a means of transmitting information on computer chips, since plasmons can support much higher frequencies (into the 100 THz range, while conventional wires become very lossy in the tens of GHz). For plasmon-based electronics to be useful, an analog to the transistor, called a plasmonster, must be invented.
Graphene used conventionally could be 3 to 10 THz. Graphene plasmonic computers could be 300 to 1,000 THz. Graphene plasmonic "wires" could carry data at the same speeds across continents.

And further updates:
A high-performance top-gate graphene field-effect transistor (G-FET) is fabricated, and used for constructing a high efficient frequency doubler. Taking the advantages of the high gate efficiency and low parasitic capacitance of the top-gate device geometry, the gain of the graphene frequency doubler is increased about ten times compared to that of the back-gate G-FET based device. The frequency response of the frequency doubler is also pushed from 10 kHz for a back-gate device to 200 kHz, at which most of the output power is concentrated at the doubled fundamental frequency of 400 kHz.
IBM recently showed that graphene transistor can operate up to 100 GHz, and the group at Peking University believes that the material may even still operate well in the THz regime.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

And yet more Graphene news:
[quote] Quantum dots are crystalline molecules from a few to many atoms in size that interact with light and magnetic fields in unique ways. The size of a dot determines its band gap – the amount of energy needed to close the circuit – and makes it tunable to a precise degree. The frequencies of light and energy released by activated dots make them particularly useful for chemical sensors, solar cells, medical imaging and nanoscale circuitry.
Singh and Penev calculated that removing islands of hydrogen from both sides of a graphane matrix leaves a well with all the properties of quantum dots, which may also be useful in creating arrays of dots for many applications.
Their work revealed several interesting characteristics. They found that when chunks of the hydrogen sublattice are removed, the area left behind is always hexagonal, with a sharp interface between the graphene and graphane. This is important, they said, because it means each dot is highly contained; calculations show very little leakage of charge into the graphane host material[/quote]
Now, if you are a reader of science fiction, in particular that of Wil McCarthy, you will have read about a substance called WELLSTONE. Also called Claytronics as well as Programmable Matter.
Need I go on?
Now there are far more applications that will be exploited much sooner than the possibilities of wellstone, such as quantum dot transitors, LEDs etc. So imagine a carbon display with pixels smaller than the rods and cones in your eyes built into a contact lens.
Such an amazingly useful material carbon is. Graphane is Graphene with a layer of hydrogen bonded to each side. If you look closely at the top picture in the article, I do believe that it actually shows GRAPHANE (i.e. the little red balls are hydrogen atoms.) This process creates hexagonal "wells" of conductive graphene (C no H) isolated from other wells via nonconductive Graphane (C with H). Combine this with Graphene's other properties, and you can see where it could enable some amazing possibilities.