Light Reading: Space Elevators, Brain Uploading and more

I’ve been meaning to get this blog more active, “at least one post a week” I tell myself. But every time I want to write something it always end up being about Canadian Politics. I often start jotting down ideas and then get too picky about being sure and I end up never writing anything. So new rule, if I can’t think of a single new idea to write about I’ll post a short list of interesting articles I read this week and what’s interesting about them:

Reality is all Math : this is a really interesting side topic of philosophy of Math and Science that I think about in my spare time. What is the nature of the universe in relation the mathematics. Why is math so good at describing the universe? Is the universe a computer or is there some beyond computation in the way physics behaves? This article has some interesting news on the latest thoughts from quantum physics about the relation of information and computation to the nature of the universe.

It sounds like there is debate about how central information theory is to explaining the equations of quantum physics. The opinions seem to range from important to central to quantum physics is nothing but information theory. I like that last one, but we’ll have to see what they find. It looks like there is no risk of physicists completely explaining everything before we get workable large scale quantum computers. I am glad to see there is more discussion about why the universe we live in adheres to quantum weirdness rather than just accepting the highly accurate math without any explanation.

Upcoming Technology and Your Job : Andrew Leigh wrote this piece on his experience being that rare thing, a politician who pays attention to science (we could sure use more of those). He presents his list of five technologies that could revolutionize politics in the near future, but really they are disruptive technologies that would widely affect everyone in society. It’s a bit fast and loose but they are genuinely important technologies to keep an eye on, always being wary to look for wide agreement before believing any claims. I’m in favour of anyone who brings up space elevators as a viable technology. Apparently NASA has made some significant advances to powering remote devices with laser that could reduce the weight load for a space elevator cable dramatically.

His discussion of Machine Intelligence is also worth thinking about even if it is jumping the gun a bit. We aren’t exactly near to creating self aware machines or being able to upload our minds into computers. But it is becoming possible to think about computers with the complexity of a human mind so it’s worth thinking through the implications.

He makes the point that replicated minds would be a threat to many people’s job’s as a single person who’ve very good at what they do could farm themselves out to available in many places at once. I suppose this is true but I think there is a much more relevant short term concern of people being made redundant by technological advances before we get to the point of copied human consciousness.

This is one of the topics I’m hoping to blog about here in the future: understanding scientific and technological change from the point of view of the job loss metric. What is the long term viability of your current career? Could it be done by machines or through crowdsourcing the skills of many people? As Leigh points out, typists and human computers in the early 20th Century had a career which would not exist a few decades later. Many factory workers have already found that what they do is fully automatable. Many educators are now starting to wonder if everything they do really needs a live human being present. What is the value of repeating lectures when you could have videos of the best teachers in the world which can be reused over and over?

This is a simple way to make discussion of new advances concrete for the layman and also very relevant. Most people don’t really care about quantum computers, machine vision or robotics. But if you explain how what’s going on in these fields of research could affect people’s jobs down the road, or the jobs which may or may not be viable for their children in the future, then they’ll be more interested in gaining a high level understanding.

If you have other good examples of ongoing research that could make entire jobs obsolete that people should be more aware of let me know.

Women in Computer Science : this article is couple weeks old but it’s worth a repost. Maria Klawe used to be department head at my alma mater doctorum (yes, I made up that phrase, if you know latin then correct me) which has a strong focus on CS Education and making it accessible to womens. She’s done some amazing things changing the CS program at Harvey Mudd to make it more accessible and focussed on solving problems rather than programming for its own sake. They have got their graduation number of female students up to 40% which is stratospheric in Computer Science program terms.

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This isn’t your grandfather’s ol’ space elevator

Just wanted to link to this very interesting news out of York University in Toronto, engineers there are working on a functional space elevator! Read the full story here.

The idea of an elevator  to space has been close to nuclear fusion as one of those technologies that will always be twenty years away.  (more…)

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