Values, Ethics, Beliefs:
Biosphere & Global Consciousness

Sir Martin Rees: Our Final Hour

Sir Martin is Britain's Astronomer Royal. His TED lecture is the most important link on my entire website. And, here are the parameters that the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists uses to predict the end of humanity. (The clock was at 3 minutes to midnight for the past few years, but at the end of 2016 it advanced by 30 seconds toward Doomsday. The Bulletin explains why here.) Yes, it has to do with President Trump's seemingly casual attitude toward nuclear weapons and his blatant disregard of global environmental destruction including anthropogenic climate change.

Global thermonuclear war (followed by nuclear winter) has always topped the list of extinction threats to humanity. The recent TED talks by atmospheric scientist Brian Toon and by submarine commander Robert Green are stark reminders. (The recent scary chatter about imminent, overlord AIs is just an exotic distraction.) There are plenty of threats that trump terminator AIs: pandemics (natural or malicious,) chemical or biowarfare, and environmental destruction. Harvard's Steven Pinker offers some hope in his new book, Enlightenment Now, which shows there has been a long-term flourishing of the human condition. But, Pinker's dismissal of the threat of nuclear war or his minimization of other existential threats is unforgivable (and not in keeping with his usual erudition.)

James Webb Space Telescope

James Webb Telescope

25 December 2021: The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) launched — a hugh relief for the thousands involved in this multidecade project.

8 Jan 2022: all major subsystems of the JWST have been successfully deployed: the 5-layer tennis court sized sunshield, the 7 meter tripod and secondary mirror and the side wings of the primary.

At the grandest scale the big questions that the telescope will address concern our cosmic origins.

  • JWST will see further back in time than even the Hubble, back in time to the earliest galaxies (the very highest red-shift objects. The Big Bang occurred about 13.8 billion years ago.) The current radius of our light cone is 96 billion light years. However, the consensus is that the Universe is "more or less infinite."
  • JWST will also extend the search for exoplanets. From the Kepler scope and from TESS, we know there are likely trillions of planets in our galaxy alone. JWST with its infrared spectrograph may uncover other habitable worlds. However, if you're waiting for signals from ET, don't! The probability that we and they overlap in time is almost impossible. We humans will be gone or utterly transformed within a thousand years. The same is likely true of them. The fate of intelligence and consciousness in the Milky Way likely resides in our faltering, adolescent hands.
  • The first wow images from JWST will arrive in June 2022. Godspeed!

China Strives for Tech Dominance

Chinese maglev train

For two millennia until the wars of the 19th and 20th centuries, China was one of the tech leaders of the world. Now, since China took a markedly capitalist direction under Deng Xiaoping, the world has seen the Chinese miracle. With its gleaming new cities, high speed trains, hydroelectric dams, and advanced manufacturing, China has achieved a GDP of 14 trillion dollars.

In large part China owes its remarkable progress to heavy state subsidies that have allowed it to acquire (by whatever means) tech designs from the West. But, can China go beyond merely copying designs to world-class innovation? I discuss factors that may accelerate innovation and tech dominance.

There are also factors that may stall or derail China's acceleration, eg bad investments and centralized control (discussed under China's Downfall: End of the Miracle) and also heavy-handed systems of thought and behavioral control (discussed under China's Surveillance State.)

China's Surveillance State

China's decline

From the standpoint of the Party, China's new Social Credit System seems like the perfect way to maintain harmony in the Middle Kingdom. Every purchase, every phone call, every email is grist for the Big AI that computes your social credit score. Praise the Party and your score goes up; complain and your score goes down — every dictator's dream.

A crucial part of this new surveillance state is a network of 200 million (soon to be 600 million) video cameras. Those video feeds are continuously monitored by a massive AI system called — I'm not making this up — Skynet ! China spends twice as much on domestic surveillance as it does on its massive army. Billions of those funds flow into China's facial recognition companies like SenseTime and Megvii.

The Rise of Huawei: a 5G Security Threat

Huawei HQ

From its humble beginnings in 1978 Huawei has become the world's biggest seller of smartphones and networking equipment. That it copied designs from Apple and from Cisco follows a familiar pattern. However, Huawei has since become an innovation powerhouse with 13,474 5G patents. Meanwhile, the US is strangely absent as a 5G competitor.

Unfortunately for Huawei, it became the center of the Trump administration's war on Chinese tech in 2019 and 2020. Huawei's alliance with the PLA (the Army,) its alleged backdoors in its networking equipment, and its massive state subsidies have placed it at the center of the US's trade war culminating in an embargo of US chips (and some from TSMC and Samsung) and chip making equipment, a crippling blow.

China's Downfall: End of the Miracle

China's decline

China's meteoric rise as a global economic superpower may (or may not) continue. Here, I draw a comparison to the Japanese miracle of the 1980s which abruptly ended in the 1990s and never resumed.

There are several potential risks and challenges to China's continued expansion — out-of-control debt, non-productive infrastructure spending (most notably Belt & Road,) competitor nations that can undercut manufacturing, necessary spending on poverty alleviation, alienation of trading partners due to human rights violations and Xi Jinping's aggressive militarization, and environmental destruction.

AI and the Future of Humanity

  • Will AI take over in the next couple of decades? No!
  • Might it dominate all key decisions within a hundred years? Yes!
  • Is that desirable for the long-term survival of humans? Possibly yes, but only if the AI has transcendent wisdom as well as great intelligence.

Attaining such supernal wisdom may entail understanding the entirety of the internet — not to mention hundreds of billions of real-time sensors. It will also entail advances in AI not yet even envisioned.

A byproduct may be the AI's ability to autonomously create Nobel-level science and engineering in many fields. This will not happen in my lifetime and possibly not even in yours.

Would this be desirable for planet Earth and our biosphere? Possibly, yes! Humanity's unchecked proliferation, uninformed by long-term sustainability, has been an unmitigated disaster for our biosphere.

Some SETI/Fermi Paradox cognoscenti believe there's a Great Filter that rids the Universe of technological civilizations, eg by nuclear annihilation or by crafty, rampaging AI. With regard to that, it seems to me more likely that superintelligent AI may eventually provide humanity with wise counsel and enhance our survival, rather than terminating us maliciously. They might ultimately be as good at steering civilization as they are at steering driverless cars.

Judy Collins: Sons of

Composed by the incomparable Jacques Brel, this is one of the most beautiful songs ever written. Poignantly bittersweet, it captures the triumph and tragedy of the human race.

My Sphere of Interest

I wrote this about a decade ago when I first began this website. It still reflects my interests.

Fine-Tuned Universe, God, and the Anthropic Principle

Every year I backpack in the Sierras, inevitably focusing on the big questions. How did all that exists come to be? Are there other Universes? Is mankind alone? Many physical constants that allow life to develop in the Universe appear to be finely-tuned. Did God sit at a control panel twisting the dozens of knobs that determine the interactions of the particles and forces that comprise reality? I discuss the views of physicists, cosmologists, and theologians.

SETI: The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence

Is ET out there waiting to be discovered?

My guess is "yes!"— but the vast majority of extraterrestrial life is apt to be microbial. My viewpoint follows the SETI Institute and its founders and superstars. Included among those are Frank Drake — of Drake equation fame, Carl Sagan, Jill Tarter, Seth Shostak, and David Morrison.

Prof. Drake's car license plate reads N = L. The number of ET civilizations in the Milky Way is determined by their likelihood of survival. Our survival on Earth is not guaranteed but requires dedicated stewardship and devotion to long-term sustainability.

To paraphrase H. G. Wells, the future of humanity is a race between education and catastrophe.

Saturn and Earth

This is a real photo taken by NASA's Cassini spacecraft in 2006. Here the Sun is behind Saturn. With the Sun fully eclipsed, Earth appears as a pale blue dot. That blue color originates from the interaction of oxygen and water on Earth. ET would be able to tell from our spectrum that water and oxygen are here. Several proposed telescopes may be able to image Earth-like atmospheres on exo- planets.

Gemini Planet Imager started collecting exoplanet spectra in 2014. The Thirty Meter Telescope being built on Mauna Kea will greatly expand the search.

Imaging exoplanets depends on Adaptive Optics (AO)—
see video from Boston Micromachines .

Kepler Seeks Earth-like Worlds

The Kepler Space Telescope regularly generates headline news.

Based on its discoveries, it's now certain that planets orbiting other stars (exo-planets) are common.

Now orbiting the sun millions of miles from Earth, Kepler looks fixedly for planetary transits. Other future telescopes will examine the atmospheres of these exoplanets for oxygen.

2018 Addendum: TESS (the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) has just successfully launched and is the exciting new successor to Kepler. Over the next few years TESS is expected to discover thousands of new exoplanets, including hundreds of Earth-sized rocky planets.

In the next couple of months TESS will fire its thrusters periodically and is expected to achieve its final science orbit by June 17, 2018. It will end up with an orbit resonant with the moon's and orbiting the Earth every 13.7 days (with an apogee 233,000 miles (376,000 km) from Earth.)

September 17, 2018 update: today NASA shared these stunning first science images from TESS.

The Hubble Deep Field in 3D

Here's the ultimate big picture.

Our planetary civilization is a microscopic, transitory blip at this scale. And yet, the future of civilization may hinge on our collective efforts.

Here's another magnificent video by astronomer Tony Darnell. — on the JWST ( James Webb Space Telescope), Hubble's replacement (but in IR,) which will launch in 2021. (I've had a front-row seat, as one of my close friends was designing and testing the imaging instrument. Here's the inside scoop: the JWST being tested at Goddard.)

Above, a remarkable animation from Nature showing the newly calculated position of the Milky Way (our home galaxy) with respect to surrounding galactic superclusters,including the Virgo Supercluster and the Great Attractor.

The newly discovered massive supercluster, Laniakea (Hawaiian for immeasurable heaven), includes both of them.

So, on these grand scales is human civilization hopelessly insignificant or incredibly significant? The answer is ... both!

Population, Consumption, Sustainability

Planet Earth has too many human beings. And even worse, developed countries — the United States, in particular — consume far too much. We have too many houses, too many cars, and too much stuff.

The United States has 330 million and the world has 7.74 billion.

For years I wondered why the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (forty four billion dollars) wasn't tackling birth control. Couldn't they see that that's one of the main problems creating poverty? Well, they woke up. In this must-see TED Talk, Melinda Gates presents the case for birth control.

Yes, our population growth in the USA has slowed but we're still consuming 25% of the world's resources. That over-consumption is poisoning the planet and devasting other species.

In 2015 PBS aired a show on sustainable businesses featuring Ray Anderson (carpet manufacturer and eco-superhero (?!)). See Ray's TED Talk..

Worldwatch Institute's founder, Lester Brown, is excellent. See his video at Google HQ . Also see the wiki on sustainability.

Look at this list of the growth rates of the world's 233 countries. Lack of birth control dooms a country's future.

But, this video on longevity/ wealth in 200 countries (from Hans Rosling) is (perhaps overly) optimistic. He argues that reducing infant mortality is the key to reducing explosive population growth in the undeveloped world. (Although persuasive, he confuses association and causation.)

That confusion is pervasive in the medical literature. I wrestled with it for a decade in my Stanford medical database research. .

My view is that reduced infant mortality is simply a marker of success. The real cause of success is women's access to birth control. Let's stop the political correctness — the major problem on Earth is too many people!

But, for a ray of hope, see Paul Hawken at Bioneers.

Thomas Berry, Geologian, Dies at 94

I heard priest and historian Thomas Berry speak many years ago.

His book, the Universe Story, combined scientific cosmogenesis with a story that emphasized the obvious creativity latent in the Universe.

His later books, particularly The Great Work focused on the wanton environmental destruction that has resulted from mankind's insane view of its perogatives.

Thomas Berry — particulary as a man of the cloth — was a great voice for the environmental movement. It's up to us to continue his Great Work.

NCI's Ivan Gayler in Ecuador Trump as the puppet of Putin

Another winner by Theo Moudakis of TorontoStar

Purple Spirals