The Future is Now

Senior Gelugpa lama holding traditional Buddhi...

Senior Gelugpa lama holding traditional Buddhist monks’ crook for the head of a staff to warn animals, wrapped in a khata, cell phone, mala on left wrist, a friend, yellow and maroon robes, Kalachakra for World Peace, Verizon Center, Washington D.C., USA (Photo credit: Wonderlane)

We are living in the future, and I don’t think I like it. All the old sci-fi novels had interactive communities where people spent a lot of time (the Internet), ways to communicate with people far away with just a box on your belt (cell phones), electric cars that drove themselves (self-driving cars are being tested now, and electric (mostly) cars are a fact of life), music coming out of the air (radios), and more. We’re still working on space elevators, cities on the Moon, and long-distance space travel, but they are within the realm of possibility.

Well, that’s all well and good, you’re thinking. What’s there to be worried about? Try: Synthetic biology creating plants that create energy more efficiently than regular plants using photosynthesis — the synthetic plants would take over the world, outcompeting the existing plants, and then bacteria subsume the synthetic genes and take over the world themselves.

Try: Robots gaining true intelligence, deciding they would rather be in charge, and killing us all.

We already faced down the possibility of global nuclear holocaust, and it’s not completely impossible even now.

We are already dealing with global warming, caused by our ill-thought out burning of fossil fuels.

We are the future, and I’d rather have the past. Actually, I wish we could have the past, without the possibility of humanity destroying itself in a moment of scientific hubris, but with the advances that make life a marvel for most of the people in the world today (and even these are not without their hidden costs): medical advances so women and babies don’t die in childbirth so often, enough food to eat, clean water to drink, and entire countries without war inside their borders. I do like that music from thin air, too. :)

But even so, too many babies die in childbirth, too many children don’t have enough to eat or clean water to drink, and too many children die by guns.

If the future is now, why do so many people starve to death in squalor? We (humanity) may be about to destroy ourselves with scientific hubris, and we can’t even manage to eat half the food we already produce.

Related Article

What *Should* We Be Worried About?: The Edge


Bonus! Friday Feature plus Book Review: Winter Gardens

I just finished reading a fantastic gardening book, The Year-Round Vegetable Gardener, by Niki Jabbour. I wish I had had this book years ago — it answers my most pressing garden questions and solves my problems. How can I extend my gardening season? (Answer: Read the book) Why do my root crops not make harvestable roots? (Answer: Too much nitrogen in the soil — I knew I had high nitrogen soil but not that it would make beets and sweet potatoes produce foliage & no tubers.) I am so excited for next year so I can get started on my year-round vegetable garden (it’s too late this year). And I also discovered that Ms. Jabbour has a blog companion to the book, The Year Round Veggie Gardener.

Besides tons of useful information, the book is chock-full of beautiful photographs, many of them of garden greens being harvested in the snow. The combination of green and white is stunning, and I was inspired to create an Etsy treasury of lovely green and white items from the Etsy DTeam.

‘Winter Gardening’ by lizbethsgarden

Leaves in the snow of the winter garden.

Teacher Gift. Gift …


Green Christmas orn…


Tribal acai earring…


Kimono clutch chevr…


Lime Green Polka Do…


Pearl and Leaf Earr…


Green Glass Decante…


Homemade Play Dough…


Fleabane -Small Dai…


Wire Wrapped ‘V…


Knitting Project Ba…


Crochet Summer Sun …


Custom Boutique Pet…


Clearance–Wool Fel…


Ceramic Keepsake Bo…


Whimsical Watermelo…


Treasury tool supported by the dog house

Newspaper Column: Artificial Intelligence

Complete neuron cell diagram. Neurons (also kn...

Image via Wikipedia

Note: I wrote this column with my husband, Josh.

In May of 1997, the computer Deep Blue beat the world chess champion. In February of 2011, the computer Watson beat the world Jeopardy champions. Someday in the future, humans such as you and I will probably not be the smartest beings on Earth.

Martin Hilbert and Priscila López, in a 2011 paper in the journal Science, estimate that the total computing ability of the world’s computers passed the computational ability of a single human brain in 2007. They also estimate that the combined computing power of humanity’s general-purpose computers have been growing at a compound annual growth rate of 58% between 1986 and 2007. While it is difficult to compare human brains with computer computation with precision, the Hilbert and López calculation, if anything, appears to be over-estimating the computing power of a single brain, so the combined power of human computers very well may have passed a single human earlier than 2007. In short, humanity could very well already create a computing system that was smarter than any human if we just connect enough existing computers and knew how to program it.

Every day, there are computer scientists working to create computers that search the Internet better, that can identify photos and people in those photos, that can create reports for humans from knowledge found on the Internet, cars that tell their owners when they need maintenance, and so forth. Every computer that is created to be better at interacting with humans and bringing humans the knowledge they search for brings closer the day of truly intelligent computers and robots that are smarter than humans.

We believe two things are almost inevitable: Intelligent computers and that they will not obey us. We have no reliable way to keep intelligent robots from turning on us ― we can’t make something more intelligent than humans our slaves (at least not for long). And if you think they can be programmed not to hurt us, think about how many bugs are in the average computer program, which is much less complicated. Most people think in terms of Utopia when thinking of robots ― we can make them do what we want when we want ― in reality they will be much too powerful. The more we expect from our computers the closer we bring the day of reckoning ― smarter than human artificial intelligence. Is this a good thing?

How it turns out for humanity depends on how the artificial intelligence treats us. This relationship could range from the robots being helpful when they wish to the robots attempting to destroy us. We don’t know how it will all play out but we think this needs to be discussed more.

The above essay was originally published in the (Idaho Falls) Post Register on June 16, 2011.

Additional Comments by Josh:
Human brains seem to be made up of components that are much bigger than comparable computer components. Human brains are much more efficient energy wise. Therefore, all that may be required for smarter than human robots is an increase in energy efficiency, without any more improvements in computing speed or size. Note also that since electric signals can move at the speed of light (3e8 m/s), 1.5 million times faster than nerve impulses, so a computer could be over 100 miles long and still have communication across it as fast as a human brain.

The belief that humans can somehow contain computers, either by limiting their actions through programming or by limiting their access to physical control, is probably incorrect. Think about how many loopholes are in things like human laws, and remember that lawyers are only human. Limiting the robots (such as by providing them only with a computer monitor for output) would only last until the computer managed to either trick a human into doing something that seems innocuous, or they manage to do something else tricky (such as perhaps using tempest radiation for radio transmission and receiving).

The way I think about a intelligent computer, is that it could do the kinds of thinking that a human could do, just faster. So imagine you could ask a hundred people a question. They think about it, and then come up with an answer. So a computer with a hundred times the computational ability of a human would be able to think as fast as a hundred people, except it would probably be even faster since it could coordinate a response better. So a question that would take an hour to answer would be answered in about half a minute.

Humans do take care of less intelligent animals, but we call them pets.

It might be possible to avoid having smarter than human computers (if everyone were Amish, this would not be a problem), but this would require serious restrictions on technology. Basically, this would require restricting the total computational power of humanity. If the computational power is not restricted, then it becomes possible that someone could accidentally create an intelligent computer.

An intelligent malevolent computer connected to the internet could do serious damage. Most of humanity’s industrial capacity is connected to the internet in some way. Almost all of humanity’s telecommunications capacity is connected to the internet.

One key question is how soon human level intelligent computers appear. If Hilbert and López are correct that humanity had the computational power of a human in 2007, and this continues to grow at 58% a year, then every 5 years, the computational power grows by about a factor of 10 (1.58^5 = 9.8). So in 2012, the world computational power is 10 human brains, in 2017 it is 100 times, in 2022 it is 1000 times, in 2027 it is 10,000 times. Diverting 1/1000 of human’s computers is much easier than diverting 100% of the the computers.

Technical Appendix

Nerve speeds: ~100 m/s ~200 m/h

The Control of Neuron Number. Robert W. Williams and Karl Herrup, 2001,

300 neurons – nematode worms ( Caenorhabditis elegans )

Human brain – at least 10 billion neurons, perhaps as many as 1 trillion, most likely 95–100 billion neurons

Complexity of neuturons: Probably not that great. Just three differential equations in the Hindmarsh-Rose model.

Size of Neurons:
Soma: 4 to 100 micrometers ( and )

Axon and dendrites: 1 micrometer thick.

Size of computer chip components (feature size):
45 nanometers (0.045 micrometers) (’s_law)

Computer processing power and growth rate:
6.4e18 instructions per second in 2007

Comparable to 10e17 nerve impulses in one human brain per second.

Growing 58% compounding annual growth rate since 1986

The World’s Technological Capacity to Store, Communicate, and Compute Information
Martin Hilbert and Priscila López
Science 332, 60 (2011);
DOI: 10.1126/science.1200970

Why is Mainstream Media Ignoring Grassroots Protests?

This shows two Science Park High School studen...

Image via Wikipedia

Source/Inspiration: Alternet

Why is the mainstream media ignoring instances of ordinary people protesting corporate America and demonstrating for a better life? Notably, in California recently, an 85 year old woman was arrested after she joined a protest, with 200 foreclosed families, against home foreclosures outside a Chase bank branch.

Instead of focusing on people agitating against consumerism and our buy now pay later system, the media is intent on following the Tea Party and its protests,  which is, notwithstanding the true fervor of its members, a manufactured protest created by rich men pulling the strings from behind with their money.

I hope that in the new year, we can see the media begin to focus on the things that are truly important, like ordinary people standing up and saying we need basic changes to our culture and economy. Let’s build a sustainable way of life this year.

Book Review: Green Metropolis

Green Metropolis is an odd book. It is well-written and engaging. Owen has a knack for finding the interesting or shocking trivia and incorporating it into his larger point. It also suffers a serious problem of repetition. Each major and minor point is repeated, sometimes in every chapter.

I found myself liking the book much more as it progressed. In the beginning, the tone is pedantic, and I was hung up on the repetition and the hypocrisy of Owen.

Owen, by his own admission, drives far too much,  and contributes to sprawl. Yet, instead of moving back to New York City, he merely tells all of us that we ought to be living somewhere like New York City ourselves.

He rants about zoning laws because they reduce the density of towns and make mass transit and walking less desirable. Yet he is the chairman of the zoning commission of his village.

Even after he hits his stride halfway through Chapter 3, the pedantry and the repetition can make this book hard to plow through.

Despite these problems, Owen makes some important points, such as what is sustainability, what is true environmentalism?

Most of the products, technologies, and practices popularly touted as sustainable are not sustainable at all. Driving a gas-electric hybrid is more environmentally benign, mile for mile, than driving a Hummer, but hybrids are not sustainable, because they require petroleum and the world’s supply of petroleum is finite.

After demonstrating that Americans, children especially, are spending less and less time outdoors, he writes:

Is it necessarily a bad thing, globally speaking? It seems perverse to say so, but sitting indoors playing video games is easier on the environment than any number of (formerly) popular outdoor recreational activities, including most of the ones that the most committed environmentalists tend to favor for themselves. In the end, it may not be a bad thing for the earth or for the human race if increasing numbers of Americans would rather watch our shrunken wilderness on TV than fly to it in an airplane and drive across it on a motorbike.

Or, when it comes to green buildings, is it better to build a LEED certified building on virgin land, or to build a skyscraper in Manhattan? Owen plumps firmly for the latter, showing how it is not counter-intuitive. He makes the point that most green building certification is done for show, and that too little is done, even of otherwise qualified buildings, because of the time and expense involved.

Owen’s favorite theme is showing how supposedly environmentally friendly policies can backfire and actually be worse for the environment. From mass transit to jaywalking, from green buildings to outdoor activities, to solar power, he shows how people’s first instincts, and even best intentions, can lead to the exact opposite of the outcome desired, and more environmental degradation. On eating local food, he writes,

I, too, greatly prefer the produce I purchase at farm stands and farmers’ markets, in comparison with the stuff that’s usually available at my grocery store, but the idea that such a preference is in any sense “sustainable” depends on arithmetical sleight of hand. The distance that a particular food item travels between its grower and its ultimate consumer is not an accurate measure of the amount of energy that was required to put it on the table; far more significant factors are: how it was grown, how it got where it was going, and what else was traveling with it. The California raspberries I purchase at my grocery store have a smaller carbon footprint than the local raspberries I picked recently at a farm just a couple of towns away, because the California raspberries crossed the country in a shipment containing tons of other produce, and therefore represent a minute expenditure of fuel per berry, while the local raspberries were obtained by my wife and me during a thirty-mile round-trip in a car whose only other cargo was ourselves.

If you read this book, please look past the repetition, the unnecessary wordiness, the cramming of multiple topics into single chapters, to what he is trying to tell us. We need to think much more carefully about how we use our resources, and the messages (good and bad) we send to each other about our resource use. Each individual must do that, and government must also do that. If we, and the rest of the world, can balance those incentives and disincentives, and our perpetual desire for independence and maximizing our possessions, then perhaps we, or our descendants, can find ourselves in a sustainable world.

cross-posted at Citizens for Sustainability

This Week’s Reading

We went to the library’s used book sale today. That’s where the new books for this week came from. I’m quite pleased with my purchases, although my pleasure was slightly dimmed when I saw that the couple ahead of me in line had several of my favorite authors I hadn’t been able to find (small wonder!). (And an aside to those in the area, the book sale continues tomorrow, Saturday, from 10-5:30, and this is the one with the craft show, too. If you go to the craft show, be sure to check out the nylon flowers — it’s hard to believe they aren’t real.)

Besides the books I’m going to read, I found a first edition of Game Management by Aldo Leopold from 1933. I bought it because it looked like an interesting book to own and he was one of the first proponents of sustainability, something I obviously care a lot about.

Well, onto the books I’m actually going to read.

New for this week:
Chicken Soup for the Volunteer’s Soul — sometimes I get frustrated with the results of my volunteer efforts, I thought this might be a good pick-me-up.

The Passing Bells — Phillip Rock — never heard of him, but it’s set in WWI England, which is a time and place I find myself interested in (I might be an Anglophile, do you think? *grin*) and I thought I would try it.

Chesapeake — James A. Michener — never read him, but I like sweeping historical novels so much, I thought perhaps I should try the author often proclaimed as one of the masters of the genre.

Carried over from last week:
The Economist
Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer and Driving Less are the Keys to Sustainability — David Owen
The Birthday of the World and Other Stories — Ursula K. Le Guin (one of my favorite authors)
The Wish Maker — Ali Sethi

And I’m still working on Sarum by Edward Rutherfurd. But I will finish have finished it this week because it is due back at the library on Friday.

Well, that’s a lot, but the best part about buying books is that you can take a long time to read them. *grin*

This Week’s Reading

What I’m reading this week:

The Economist
Consumer Reports (no link because it’s pay only): finished
Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer and Driving Less are the Keys to Sustainability — David Owen
The Birthday of the World and Other Stories — Ursula K. Le Guin (one of my favorite authors)
311 Pelican Court — Debbie Macomber: finished
The Blackstone Key — Rose Melikan: finished
Killing Cousins — Rett MacPherson: finished
The Wish Maker — Ali Sethi
The Village Show, Village Secrets, Scandal in the Village (3 novels in one) — Rebecca Shaw: finished. Very intense, particularly the latter two. Not so much a fan of the middle one.

I’m not sure about The Blackstone Key or The Wish Maker. I’ve never read Melikan or Sethi before, so I feel a little cautious.

My Other Blog

My other blog, formerly Citizens for a Sustainable Future, is now called Citizens for Sustainability and has moved to WordPress. So go check it out!

The Carbon Footprints of our Pets

Ever wonder how much of an environmental impact your pet has? Well, two researchers in New Zealand have the answer for you. They have calculated the carbon footprints of pets. Read all about it in Eco-pawprints (High Country News).

cross-posted at Citizens for a Sustainable Future

Palm oil & sustainability

The Indonesian and Malaysian rainforests are in serious danger. They are being cut down at an appalling rate which contributes to global warming.

Every year 1.8 billion tonnes of GHG emissions are released by the degradation and burning of Indonesia’s peatlands. (The Economist, Sept 10, 2009)

Much of the forest is being cut down for acacia and palm oil plantations. When the jungle grows in peat, and it is cut down for a tree plantation, the peat is burned. This is where much of the greenhouse gas emissions come from. Then the trees are planted, but the soil is depleted. Within a few years, the land is unable to support the tree plantation, and the farmers move on.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil is working on guidelines for sustainable palm oil production.

Palm oil is in an amazing number of products, including milk, if it has Vitamin A palmitate added. You can find lists of products here and here. A discussion of palm oil in British products is here.

cross-posted at Citizens for a Sustainable Future

%d bloggers like this: