Big Questions, Long Views, and the Intersection of Technology and Society (UPDATED Oct 30/05)

The Universe is 14 billion years old and will either either re-collapse into itself, expand into a completely diluted state, or rip apart in its 36th billion year in a runaway expansion so violent that galaxies and planets will be torn asunder in a fraction of a second. How do we manage the polarity inherent in knowing that our influence on the universe at that scale is essentially zero balanced against the fact that here in our own very small sphere of influence, we can have an effect on things around us that only exist in this little slice of time?

The Earth formed about 4.5 billion years ago. 2 billion years ago, our first ancestors were microbes. It took 1.5 billion years before those microbes turned into something resembing fish, another 400m years for those fish to turn into mice-like creatures, another 90m years for those mice to evolve to apes, 9 m years for the apes to turn into proto humans and then we evolved from there. No matter what religion you are, you have to look at that in awe and wonder.

Now for the bad news. The sun in our solar system is expanding and it is expected that it will eventually absorb Mercury, Venus, and Earth, causing life here to only last for another half billion years. I am pretty sure that the last life forms left will be single-celled bacterium, cockroaches, and spammers. So the window of opportunity for life to develop here and then migrate throughout the rest of the solar system and Universe is about a billion years. Given that we didn’t invent space travel until the first half billion were over, that window is now a half billion to get off the planet and out into the Universe. Given that we only have another half a billion years, shouldn’t we all just get along, enjoy the sunset while it’s that far away, and figure out how to get the hell off this planet? Of course, while we’re here, we should do as much mountain biking, trail-running, paddling, travelling and exploring as we can.

By the time the Earth has hit 8 billion years, long after we are gone, the oceans will have vaporised and at the 12 billion year mark,
Earth will have folded entirely into the sun. If the planet is going to be gone, does that mean I think that we should use up the precious natural resources pollute our biosphere while we are here? Of course not, that would be asinine and short-sighted. But then again, humans are not the best at extending their time-scales, nor at empathizing enough with future generations. Although that does seem to be changing in some small but important ways with the spread of the sustainable development movement. I may be a bit of an odd realist/pragmatist in the sustainability movement in that I’m not sure I believe in the implicit value of resources, plants, and animals on earth for their own sake. If they’re all going to be gone anyway, that seems moot. But since these things took tens and hundreds of millions of years to develop, I do believe that we should learn from them (biology), design things based on them (biomimicry and nanotechnology), be efficient in our use of them so that we do not mortgage our children’s future (sustainability), and learn how to build efficient systems so that we can spread out into the universe and live in harsher, resource constrained regions as we do so.

Of course, we’re not good at passing along our knowledge on long time lines, and we’re quite adaptable in the moment so maybe it is just the way of our species that we will consume all available resources where ever we go but that we will conserve it when we are pressed to do so. Sort of future-blind, but highly adaptable, with very little long-term memory. Which leads me to think that maybe Mr. Kurzweil’s great leap forward really will be the best way for our species to spread itself.

Ray Kurzweil has calculated that by 2040, we will hit the inflection point of the technology development curve of mankind, known as the Singularity , an event horizon beyond which we can not possibly see with our tiny little massively parallel chemical-processing brains. By around 2040, $1000USD of computing power will be the equivalent of all human brain processing capacity on the earth combined (about 12 billion brains worth). He posits that in order for the technology development curve to be maintained, our inefficient genetic mutations will not be able to keep up, meaning that humans will essentially pass the “smart creature” torch to the robots and computers which will have the same brain processing capacity as us, but with MUCH faster substrate (silicon or otherwise, raher than our slow massively parallel chemical brains). 

What is really great about this is that in a few more decades we may get to really explore questions around whether consciousness is something spiritual/other-worldly, or simply an emergent property of going beyond a particular threshold of neuronal capacity or simply a self-referential program that is convincing enough to appear conscious. I can’t wait. Really.

Given Kurzweil’s supposition about the double exponential rate of expansion of technology, that means there is a heck of a lot of stuff that will need to be brought to market in the next 35 years. Hence my interest in venture capital, angel investing, technology cycles and trends, and the tricky process of nurturing technology from idea to plan to funding to company to production, and eventually to some sort of exit. Hence I will be writing a lot on business and technology development.

Some of the most fascinating events are transpiring in the border wars between business, technology, society, and our natural environment. Bio-ethics – how will we use cloning? Nanotechnology – will it create autonomous gray-goo that will devour us and the earth? Bio-IT convergence – will we really build the Ceylons? What about the ability to project power and wage war – on a budget? According to Lord William Rees-Mogg and James Dale Davidson in “The Sovereign Individual“, that is one of the key factors that contributes to massive historical inflection points. As technology changes the power equation, power-structures and economies follow suit. Consider: Osama Bin Laden, a multi-millionaire (who was supported by the U.S.), is now the enemy of the American goverment. They have for the first time in history chosen to target an individual rather than a nation-state. Primarily because of the alleged threat of relatively massive power (bio-weaponry) for minimal cost. I will rant, question, and point to interesting discussions in this area as they develop.

Finally, I have some more mundane, smaller-view areas that I am very interested in as well. They include but are not limited to: Complex Systems, Emergence theory, Health & Wellness, Environmental issues, Renewable Energy, Ethics, Fitness and sport, Humour, Interesting People, Nanotechnology, Philanthropy,  Privacy/Security, Sustainable Development, and World Affairs.

I wish I could remember the author who said, “I do not write what I know, I write so that I may know myself.” That was very wise. That is also a goal of this blog. Thanks for reading.