The Future This Week: August 14, 2017

“Life isn’t a tiptoe through the tulips.”–Shannon Hoon

“When tulip mania dies down, all that remains are pretty flowers.”–Adam Cohen

I understand the value of cryptocurrency–I think.  But the valuation? Forget it.  Investors’ lives certainly won’t be a tiptoe through the tulips when and if the Bitcoin bubble bursts.  But I’ll still love hearing Tiny Tim sing about it.  And yes, tulips are still pretty flowers.

Bitcoin/Cryptocurrency–The price of a single Bitcoin topped $4,000 for the first time.  Is cryptocurrency the future of our economy?  I have my doubts.   And if you are looking for a way to short it, that makes two of us.

Semi-conductors/material science--With transistor miniaturization in silicon-based microchips rapidly reaching its physical limit,  Moore’s law could also be coming to an end.  But researchers at Stanford University have identified two semi-conductors that could extend the limits of silicon-based miniaturization by augmenting its properties.

Does “too cute to eat” also mean, “too cute to accept an organ transplant from?’

Biotech/gene editing–A group led by Dr. George Church, of Harvard University, has succeeded in using gene-editing to make piglets more suitable for growing replacement human organs.   Dr. Church believes that the first pig-to-human organ transplants may be as close as two years away.

Robotics/Artificial Intelligence–The premiere issue of Age of Robots has hit the digital newsstands.  My article, Self Replicating MachinesScience Fiction vs. Science Fact, appears, along with stories on artificial intelligence, medical robots,  machine consciousness, and more.

   Quantum Reality–A future after death? The notion of life after death has always been the exclusive realm of the spiritual/religious world–until now, that is.  Physicist and author Roger Penrose,  along with some others with impressive scientific credentials, now believe that information stored in our brains in a quantum state may live on, along with our consciousness, after we die.  This report, on the Galaxy Today web page, hints at any number of ideas which I have expounded on in my other blog,  The Millennium Conjectures.

A reminder that the Seeking Delphi™ podcast is available on iTunesPlayerFM, blubrry and , and has a channel on YouTube.  You can also follow us on Facebook.

AGE OF ROBOTS: First Look

We’re fascinated with robots because they are reflections of ourselves.–Ken Goldberg

My first publication as a futurist has appeared in the inaugural issue of Age of Robots. It’s based on my interview with Will Mitchell in Seeking Delphi™ podcast #14 and is reproduced below.  The free full issue download codes offered on social media have been claimed.   Stay tuned to Seeking Delphi™ for more offers in the future.

 

 
Volume 1 Issue 1

 

Science Fiction VS Science Fact
Replicating Machines
by Mark Sackler

Science Fiction vs. Science Fact: Replicating Machines

By Mark Sackler

 

 

Self-replicating machines have been a staple in science fiction since the 1940’s.  A. E. Van Vogt, Philip K. Dick and Arthur C. Clarke, along with many others, have used self-building robots as plot devices.    But just how realistic an idea are they?

As far back as 1980. NASA conducted an engineering study of concepts for a self-replicating lunar factory.  For decades, the study sat and collected dust.  But the concept of robotic explorers, builders, and miners that can land and copy themselves, has come back to the fore.  Just how viable is this technology? How far away is it? Are there dangers?  Two men who have thought long and hard about this are science fiction author Will Mitchell and space roboticist Dr. Alex Ellery.

 

FICTION: William Mitchell, Author, Creations

 

Will Mitchell is an aerospace engineer who writes hard science fiction.  The key word is “hard.”  It signifies technical plausibility.  And in his 2013 novel Creations, he constructs a chillingly plausible scenario of technology gone wrong.  Step by step, he covers the building, deploying, evolution, and finally, destruction, of self-replicating robots on the moon.  Surprisingly, though, he is bullish on the use of self-replicating machines for space exploitation and colonization.

MS: What was the inspiration for Creations?

WM:  The idea came to me a long, long time ago.  I was reading the novel 2010 by Arthur C. Clarke.  I was in my early teens at the time.  At one point in the novel, the black monolith around Jupiter is compared to a self-replicating von Nuemann machine.  At that point, I’d never even heard of the idea, or considered it as a possibility.  This got me wondering: could you actually build a machine that could copy itself?  What would you get if you set it running, say, on the moon.  What if you had a vast automated city, populated only by robots, growing and spreading and possibly even evolving.

MS: Just how plausible is this concept?

WM: If you look at this issue, wrongly, you can conclude, wrongly, that it’s not possible at all. The first fallacy we should get past is the notion that a robotic machine can only make something simpler than itself.  It’s a very easy fallacy to fall into.  If you think of a production line making cars, no matter how many cars you pump out, there’s no way those cars could team together and build another production line. But working back in the 1940’s, John von Neumann, one of the greatest minds of the 20th century, came up with his theory of automata.    He looked at the whole thing from a mathematical perspective.  He did this, first of all, to confirm that the idea of replicating machines was even possible, but secondly to try to figure out what capabilities and functions it would need in order to duplicate itself.  He was able to prove, mathematically, that machine replication is possible.

 

MS:  In the book, your draw deep similarities between biological life and machine life.  What can you say about that?

WM:  One of the things that confirmed this possibility to von Nuemann is this deep similarity between machine life and biological life.   He realized that all life forms, everything from bacteria upwards, they really are a kind of machine, albeit working by chemistry rather than robotics.  So that parallel between machine life and biological life is central to the whole thing.  This is because another major fallacy that you need to get out of the way is the idea that only biological systems can duplicate themselves.  It’s easy to fall into the trap that biological matter has a kind of life force associated with it, as if replication or self-duplication is some kind of mystical process.  But really, it isn’t, it just follows the laws of physics.

MS: How does this comparison work?

Creations on Amazon

WM: If you imagine something simple, like a bacterium reproducing, it takes in raw materials from its local environment and performs various functions on those raw materials. It reorganizes them and recombines them according to plans coded in its DNA.  What you get is a copy of the original, including its own DNA blue print which allows it to make more copies. When von Nuemann tried to figure out the basic plan for a replicating machine, he realized the exact same kind of function would be needed.  You’d need a machine that could take in raw materials, process them and arrange them, using some kind of fabricator. The whole thing would be run by an instruction set recorded on whatever type of storage medium you chose. Von Neumann proved mathematically, that something built like that is not only capable of reproducing, but it’s directly analogous to how biological systems reproduce.  It doesn’t matter if it is made of organic matter or metal and plastic, or if it uses DNA or data files, as long as it has the functions and components he identified as being necessary.

MS:  Why would we even need these in the first place?

WM:  The potential use of this technology is in space exploration.  This is where it really will come into its own.  We live in a very deep gravity well, and pushing things up that well is very, very expensive.  That first hundred miles up are phenomenally difficult and expensive to cross.  Once you’re up there, it’s easier.  Landing on the moon and taking off again takes a fraction of the fuel it took to get there from earth.  The same is true of Mars and its especially true of the asteroids. But they are all very hazardous locations, so ideally you would want to automate any industrial capacity as much as possible.  If you want to establish a wider more permanent presence in space without having to ferry every bit of equipment and fuel from earth, you need to develop something self-sustaining.  Something that does not need hardware or material to be supplied from earth. A year or so ago, the White House office of science and technology policy started looking for ideas to perform what they called, massless space exploration.  The aim is to find the smallest amount of hardware that can be launched into space and then unpack itself to form a self-sustaining mining and manufacturing infrastructure.

MS: What is the biggest technical hurdle yet to be overcome?

WM: The biggest issue is called closure.  If you make a list of all the parts a machine is made of, and a second list of everything it can make, everything on that first list must be on the second list.  Closure is expressed as a percentage.  100% closure means it can replicate itself. Even 99.999% is not good enough. If there is even one component the thing depends on that it’s unable to make, that’s enough to stop the whole thing.  A good example is high grade integrated circuits—processor chips. You need complex clean room facilities to make those.  If that type of capacity is included in the replicator design, it must be able to make that chip factory as well.  You don’t want to have to supply parts from earth, you want to get to as close to 100% closure as possible.

MS: In the book, things spiral out of control because the machines are allowed to evolve on their own. How does that happen?

WM: In my day job, I’ve used simulated evolution and that’s the career path I’ve given my main character in Creations. He’s the one who appreciates how powerful evolution can be as a design tool, and he’s the one who warns everyone else that what they are not letting loose might not be easy to control. Eventually he’s proven right.  The problems arise when the machines that are best at reproducing and surviving take over, not necessarily the ones that are most useful to us.

MS: Yet you are very much in favor of this technology.  Do you believe it can be controlled?

WM: The original NASA study considered the possibility of allowing the replicators to evolve.  There are some very exciting possibilities from that, because you would get something which is like a form of artificial life which could modify itself and spread much quicker than you could design.  But there are also some scary implications to that as well, because if you think you are going to keep full control of these things, you’re probably going to be mistaken. But if NASA did something like this, they would design it to remain under the control of the people who set it running.   However, Creations is fiction, and in fiction you need jeopardy, or in this case outright carnage, so for plot purposes some things need to go wrong.   In the novel, therefore, the machines designers are grossly negligent in how they oversee them.  In reality, though, I’m looking forward to seeing these kinds of replicating machines built, as I feel they will fulfill all the promises people make about them.  If it’s done responsibly, I’m an optimist rather than a pessimist.

MS: Creations is set in the year 2040.  How do you feel about current progress in this direction vis-à-vis that timeline, including the possible deployment on the moon?

WM: Things have come a long way since the NASA study.  They thought in terms of traditional manufacturing methods and not 3D printing. 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, seems like a very viable way of obtaining closure.  I think there are still some big hurdles to cross.  I think it’s going to be a long time before someone unpacks some robotic seed on the moon and lets it reproduce.  What the researchers at Carleton University in Ottawa are doing is a step in the right direction.  They are going beyond just the fast prototyping to 3D print an entire electric motor using multiple materials.  If they can do that and show that it works, it’s a big step forward.  The fundamental research is definitely going in the right direction and going faster than I anticipated.  But for the end state it’s possible that I was being optimistic with the 2040 year, but who knows, it may come along and surprise me.

 

FACT:  Alex Ellery, Ph.D,  Associate Professor, Space Robotics and Space Technology, Carleton University, Ottowa,

Alex Ellery

Ontario, Canada

At first glance, the electric motor in the lab of Dr. Alex Ellery looks like something that might have been built as a middle school science project.  But in fact, it is the first step toward the ultimate creation of a 3D printer that can replicate itself from materials found on the surface of the moon.  Dr. Ellery believes his team may be just a few months away from being able to 3D-print an entire electric motor at a single pass—no other assembly required.  And a fully self-replicating machine may closer to reality than Will Mitchell thinks.

MS:  Alex, how did you get started in this?

AE:  I’ve been aware of self-replicating machines since I was a student. I came across the concept of von Neumann machines when I was studying for a master’s degree in astronomy at the University of Sussex.  I became fascinated with idea of self-replicating machines that could populate the galaxy.  As a result, I decided to do my Ph.D. in engineering.  Up until recently, there was never an opportunity to convert my imagination and fantasy of a self-replicating machine into anything practical.

MS: What was it that change recently?  What are you doing now?

AE: The most important event was the advent of the RepRap 3D printer, made by Adrian Bowyer at Bath University.  It can print some of its own plastic components, but that’s all it can do, so it is only partially self-replicating.  I started thinking that if you want to complete the process, the key components are the motors and electronics.  So, to completely be able to do this we need to focus on printing the motors and electronics as well.  We are currently building a printer where we can print metal and plastic and mill within the same platform.  Also at this time I was working on the Lunar Resource Prospector mission, which is an American mission to send a robot to the moon to drill for water and other resources and to cook it and extract oxygen from it.  From this I came up with a restricted material set—iron, nickel, cobalt, tungsten, volatiles, etc.—available on the moon, from which we could construct a machine that can   manufacture silicone, oils, and plastics.  With all those components, we have enough materials to build motors, electronics and structures.

MS:  What about closure—and specifically the fabrication of electronics?

AE:  One of the key elements in closure is restricting the elements that you need to access.  You have a restricted materials list that you use for everything.  It’s how I imagine the native Americans used to use Buffalo.  They use it for clothing and ropes and eat it as well, they lived within the restrictions of their environment and didn’t waste anything.  We use the same principle.  We have a restricted materials list. It may not give you optimal results, but it will certainly work.  With the electronics, as Will Mitchell pointed out, you can’t build solid state electronics on the moon.  But we do have the materials to build vacuum tubes.  We can use tungsten, cobalt, we have glass from silica. So instead of solid-state transistors we can use vacuum tubes.

MS: How would the electronics work with these vacuum tubes?

AE: Well the problem with using vacuum tubes to compute is that the device grows extremely large as you add capacity.  Early pre-transistor vacuum tube computers were the size of a small house.  To obviate against that I’ve come up with a different computational architecture which isn’t based around a CPU.  The CPU uses a Turing machine model.  You have the program going in, it churns through its calculations, and out comes the answer.  Instead, we implement each program we need as a neural network which we print on demand.  In this manner, you can have relatively complex programs in a comparatively small circuit.  The 3D printer becomes a Turing machine substitute.  So, a store of instructions comes in—you might store it perhaps in a magnetic core memory—that goes into the 3D printer which stamps out the neural circuit.

MS:  So how far along is this?

partially 3D-printed motor
Image Credit: Alex Ellery

AE:  I haven’t demonstrated that we can print the vacuum tubes yet, so we are concentrating on the motor first.  The biggest problem so far has been 3D printing the magnets.  If we can do that and get that done in the next few weeks, and demonstrate the coil design in multiple layers and don’t get any showstoppers I reckon we can get the first fully 3D printed motor working within a few months. I would like to say that if there are no showstoppers we could have it done by the end of the year.

MS:  What about full closure, thoroughly replicating and self-assembling?

AE:  Well once we have the motor we are not stopping there. We’ll use genetic algorithms to design new concepts to reduce the assembly requirements.  We’re building our own 3D printer. Eventually we’ll replace the off-the-shelf motors with our own motors.  Eventually we’ll replace our computer programs to control it with neural networks.  We’ll use the restricted materials list to make both the motors and the vacuum tubes.

MS: In Will Mitchell’s novel, Creations, the self-replicating machines are allowed to evolve on their own.  Is this something you have thought about?

AE: Yes, it is.  I wouldn’t allow them to evolve.  What I envisage for the lunar scenario is something called the salt contingency.  Salt (NaCl) will be required to produce each new generation of replication.  The sodium is needed because you need sodium carbonate for the processors and hydrogen chloride for the plastics.  If you deny these materials the replication process stops.  Both sodium and chlorine are very rare on the moon, so you need to supply that.  The second part of the process is to include EDAC—error detection and correction—in the program code which stops it from evolving. It will increase the size of the memory required by about 30 percent, but by building these codes in it provides an extra layer of protection.

MS: So, salt is the one feedstock that would have to be provided from Earth.  I suppose if you wanted to do this on an asteroid or on Mars, a different approach might be required?

AE:  Yes, on Mars, in particular, there’s plenty of salt so that safeguard wouldn’t work. You’d have to implement something else.

MS: Creations is set in the year 2040. It envisions a colony of fully self-replicating robots mining the moon in that year.  Is that over-optimistic? How far away is the complete self-replication of robots using materials, in situ, on the moon?

AE: Most of the work I’m doing is being done on a shoe-string budget.  If I was given proper money I could probably get something working much more quickly.  I did some estimates on how quickly you might be able to do this.  I think we could have a fully self-replicating machine within 12-years if we had the funding required to really make it happen.  It could be done a lot sooner than you think.

A reminder that the Seeking Delphi™ podcast is available on iTunesPlayerFM, blubrry and , and has a channel on YouTube.  You can also follow us on Facebook.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Future This Week: August 7, 2017

“Your genetics is not your destiny.”–Dr. George Church

I’d like to ask Dr. George Church a question about the above quote.  Does he mean that nurture can overcome nature?  Or does he mean your genetics can be changed?  Considering he’s one of the leading geneticists in the world, and is closely involved in one or more enterprises involved in gene editing, I’m guessing it would be the latter.  Either way, CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing was prominent in news this past week.

CRISPR/Cas9 genetic editing–A multinational team of American, Korean, and Chinese researcher succeeded in correcting a serious genetic disease in human embryos.  The paper appeared online in the journal Nature and was widely reported by various news sources.  While creating excitement for the technique’s potential, it also raised concerns for the potential advent of genetically modified “designer” babies.

UC, Berkeley researcher, and CRISPR co-developer, Dr. Jennifer Doudna, weighed in on the Nature paper, along with views on a variety of potential uses and abuses of the technology.  In a wide ranging interview with Newsweek, she mentioned cancer, diabetes and bio-terrorism as potential targets the technology could be used to fight.

Researchers at the University of Chicago reported success with CRISPR created skin grafts in treating diabetes in mice.  While not technically a cure, it could provide an effective long term treatment alternative to insulin shots.  The researchers also asserted that the technique could be useful in treating a variety of other diseases.

A brief explanation of CRISPR gene editing

 

3D Bio-printing–Doctors at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson medical school successfully inserted a 3D printed bone replacement implant in a patient who had suffered irreparable damage to a portion his skull.  Such a procedure was unthinkable just a few years ago and may be an indicator that bio-printing is on the verge of becoming a major health industry.

Robotics/Automation–Zume Pizza, of Mountain View, CA, has taken a Silicon Valley approach to making their pies.  They use robots.  While humans have not been completely automated out of the process, the robots do the repetitive parts of the process.

 Politics–According to WIRED, there is a good reason why people can’t stop talking about Mark Zuckerberg as a 2020 presidential candidate.  That reason is Mark Zuckerberg; his actions speak louder than his words.

Renewable Energy–Fresh on the heels of Atlanta’s goal to achieve 100% renewable energy by 2035, California is poised to set a statewide goal to do the same by 2045.  A bill mandating just that has passed a  committee in the state senate.  Governor Jerry Brown is expected to sign it if it becomes law.

A reminder that the Seeking Delphi™ podcast is available on iTunesPlayerFM, blubrry and , and has a channel on YouTube.  You can also follow us on Facebook.

APF 2017 Minicast #3: Space Commerce

“Space exploration is a force of nature unto itself that no other force in society can rival.”–Neil deGrasse Tyson

After exploring the health of the planet and it’s people on day 1, The Association of Professional Futurists turned toward the heavens on day 2.  Recorded live at the Boeing Museum of Flight, Seattle, WA, July 29,2017.  Here is a brief overview of what we heard, from the visionaries we heard it from: Brian Tillotson and Marna Kagele, both scientists at Boeing; Jeff Roberts, director of launch programs for Space Flight Industries; and Chris Lewicki, president and CEO of Planetary Resources.

 A reminder that Seeking Delphi is available on iTunes, PlayerFM, and has a channel on YouTube.  You can also follow us on Facebook.

 

APF Minicast #3: Space commerce

APF Minicast #3 (YouTube): Space commerce

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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APF Minicast #2: Global Health Futures, July 28, 2017

“Happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory.”–Albert Schweitzer

Today’s sessions at the Association of Professional Futurist’s annual meeting in Seattle, Washington, consisted of morning sessions on efforts to improve human health in the third world.  It included talks from Brian Arbogast of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, on transforming sanitation; Sarah Chesemore, also of the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, on the future of vaccine delivery; and Jan Flowers, research scientist and clinical faculty member at the University of Washington, on dissemination of health informatics programs in resource constrained settings.  They provide brief summaries of their work in today’s mini-cast.

 

APF 2017 mini-cast #2: Global Health Futures

 

2017 APF minicast#2 (YouTube): Global Health Futures

Seeking Delphi is available on iTunes, PlayerFM, and has a channel on YouTube.  You can also follow us on Facebook.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Subscribe to Seeking Delphi™ on iTunes 

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APF 2017 Minicast #1: What is a futurist?

The most common question that I get asked, when I tell somebody I’m a futurist, is “what is a futurist?”  From now on, I’ll tell them to listen to this podcast.  From the Association of Professional Futurists annual meeting, Seattle, Washington, July 27, 2017.

 A reminder that Seeking Delphi is available on iTunes, PlayerFM, and has a channel on YouTube.  You can also follow us on Facebook.

 

 

 

 

2017 APF Minicast #1–What is a Futurist?

2017 APF Mincast #1 (YouTube)–What is a futurist?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Future This Week: July 24, 2017

“When something is important enough, you do it even if the odds are not in your favor.”–Elon Musk

“I want to die on Mars; just not on impact.”

I see a major quandary going forward with this feature.  Elon Musk quotes may run out before Elon Musk stories run out.  And Elon Musk stories will run out, like, never.  Though this week, a couple of the stories could easily be categorized as anti-Musk.

HyperloopElon Musk says The Boring Company has received verbal government go ahead to tunnel from New York to Washington, DC.  The hyperloop that would run within it could make the run in 29 minutes, vs. the 3+ hours by Amtrak, and could begin construction in as little than 4-6 months, he asserts.

More than one observer thinks Musk is blowing smoke on the rapid startup envisioned for the NY-DC loop.  Government approval for large scale infrastructure projects don’t get done in months; they take years or even decades.

Artists conception of an underground Hyperloop station

Robotics–The L. A. Times reports that a critical shortage of migrant farm workers in California is being met by a move to robotic crop pickers.  It still has a way to go, but after years of crackdown on illegal immigration, there appears to be no other way to go.

Artificial Intelligence–China wants to be the world leader in A.I. by 2030, reports the N.Y. Times. They project a domestic industry worth $150 billion yearly.  That’s a lot of yuan.

It’s not just government project proposals that Elon Musk doesn’t understand.  According to Rodney Brooks, the founding director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, Elon doesn’t know much about artificial intelligence, either.  Speaking in an interview with Tech Crunch, Brooks said that the one thing that Elon, and all of the other naysayers who warn of existential risks in A.I.,  have in common, is that none of them work in A.I.

Autonomous Vehicles–The Verge reports that buyers of autonomous vehicles could effectively face planned obsolescence as technical capabilities advance rapidly.  The last time I heard that phrase in regards to cars, it referred to the size and shape of tail fins, circa 1960.

1959 Chevy Impala tail fins. They got smaller in 1960 and again in 1961, and disappeared altogether in 1962. Planned obsolescence.

 

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