Category Archives: Speculation

“What if?” Real-world stuff that’s not entirely certain.

A green tree superimposed over stars in space.

Green Earth, Black Sky: Seeking the Future of Thought

Every once in a while, out of the murky chaos of human life and society, glimpses appear of what real human beings in the future may think, feel, and desire. Lately, I have been watching a particularly interesting pair of trends, which may foreshadow a revolution in human thought over the next few decades. I’ve noticed signs that the numerous technological, environmental, and ethical interests of our modern era are coalescing into two different waves of paradigms and values.

One wave is being called Black Sky Thinking; the other could well be named Green Earth Thinking.  Both focus on how human beings connect with our human nature, our place within the universe, and our technological capability, but they take opposite positions. Continue reading Green Earth, Black Sky: Seeking the Future of Thought

Advertisements
Spiral galaxy NGC 6384, photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope

The Doors of Perception

I love this.

A couple weeks ago, Financial Times Magazine published a feature by Clive Cookson on Lord Martin Rees: Britain’s Astronomer Royal and an absolutely fascinating man. One quote of Rees toward the end caught my attention:

“There is no reason to think that our [human] comprehension is matched to an understanding of all key features of reality … There may be phenomena, crucial to our long-term destiny, which we are not aware of,” Lord Rees says. This is not exactly a widely declared opinion among scientists, who tend to celebrate how successful they have been at understanding the universe, rather than ruminate on how limited the scope of their study is. But Rees holds this opinion unabashedly, as he describes in a 2012 op-ed in The Telegraph.

And why not? There is no question that science has been amazingly, ridiculously successful at developing an empirical account of our physical reality, but it is still only our physical reality that it describes. Even our most advanced scientific instruments, such as the Large Hadron Collider, are based on a series of theoretical and physical steps out from our basic biological identity. All of science is founded on our experience as primates possessing five(ish) physical senses, inhabiting organic bodies on a wet, rocky planet in three-dimensional space and one-dimensional time. That experience forms what I would call a “bubble” of human scientific capacity.

We’ve been able to do a lot within that bubble, but we would be utter fools to think that we’ll be able to comprehend everything from that basis. There could be principles in our universe—as basic as gravity or matter-energy equivalence—that we have no clue exist, because our brains and perception are incapable of registering them. There could be other dimensions of reality, perhaps infinite in number, existing within and around our own, each inhabited by its own life-forms and intelligences. Our own universe could be nested within other universes, and others within ours, infinitely deep and vast. Continue reading The Doors of Perception

Photo of three dolphins jumping through waves in the Gulf of Mexico

The Overwhelming Abundance of Consciousness

Last week, I wrote about how animals becoming persons may lead to artificial intelligences and other unusual entities gaining personhood, and what the ramifications of that could be. There is another side to the question of animal personhood that I did not address, which profoundly impacts the way we perceive our world and all other life. That side is consciousness beyond humanity, and I feel it is well worth contemplating as our experience becomes increasingly technological.

When India declared that dolphins should have the status of non-human persons in May, it was fantastic news for dolphins and all humans (like me) who care deeply about animals. Much of the news coverage, like my previous post, focused on what exactly personhood meant for dolphins, how close it came to human rights, and where it might lead for animal rights. Only in passing was mention made of the extraordinary fact that, in saying “Whereas cetaceans in general are highly intelligent and sensitive… [it] is morally unacceptable to keep them captive for entertainment purpose”, the Indian government essentially acknowledged that our planet is home to conscious beings other than humans.

This acknowledgement is coming more and more frequently. On July 7, 2012, a bevy of prominent scientists (including  physicist Stephen Hawking) proclaimed and signed the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, which lays out the scientific case for consciousness in a variety of animals. It is a document that may figure prominently in the history of intelligent life on this planet (you can read it in full here [PDF]). In its conclusion, it declares:

The weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.

–Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness

Whether or not you agree that consciousness is wholly generated by physical, neurological processes, this is an eye-opening development in science and intellectual thought. For over two thousand years, it has been argued by philosophers, theologians, and scientists that humans are superior to the “dumb beasts” of field and forest, because we possess some combination of reason, self-awareness, and an immortal soul, and animals do not. This flies in the face of most human history and basic human experience. The traditional beliefs of Native Americans and most other indigenous tribes recognized animals as beings equal to mankind—in some cases, descended from the same ancestors. Respect and honor was always due to animals, especially when hunting them for food and clothing. (Interestingly, it appears that many modern hunters preserve some measure of this ancient tradition.) And who has not looked into the eyes of an animal and sensed there a will, intelligence, and presence at once familiar and incomprehensible? Continue reading The Overwhelming Abundance of Consciousness

If animals are people, can A.I.s vote?

In late May, as you might have heard, India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests made headlines by banning captive dolphin shows with a statement that dolphins “should be seen as non-human persons”. Although to some people the news was blown out of proportion, it was and is a big deal for dolphins and their human advocates.

However, looking at it merely as a victory for animal welfare misses the deeper significance of the event. Ultimately, this is about personhood: an entity’s status, legally and socially, as an independent and responsible person. Personhood is not something most of us think about much, if at all, but it forms a massive part of the way we subconsciously view the world. If you consider an entity to be a person rather than a thing, you will act very differently toward it. When I started thinking carefully about India’s dolphin decision, I realized that it is a small part of a titanic shift in our definition of personhood, a shift that could lead to some incredibly strange futures.

In Europe, a few hundred years ago, the full benefits of personhood were restricted to adult, white, Christian, property-owning, male humans. Two hundred years ago, slaves were treated as “things” that could be bought and sold with legal and moral impunity in many civilized countries. Whether women were legal “persons” was questionable even to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1894. But during the last couple centuries, humanity has rapidly started to expand its societal and legal notions of personhood. Now, all human beings have personhood, as well as corporations in many nations, and animals are starting to gain that status. India’s dolphin declaration was only a matter of time. New Zealand and the Balearic Islands of Spain have both granted legal rights to great apes, while Germany and Switzerland have each amended their constitutions to recognize animal rights.

With animal personhood, the end result is simply better treatment of other living creatures, and recognition of their own intrinsic abilities and worth. It doesn’t mean turning them into humans; animals have their own cultures and societies and, as far as we can tell, don’t particularly care about the human versions.

The closer one gets to a human being, however, the more the lines blur.

Imagine that, many years from now, geneticists are able to successfully clone a Neanderthal from reassembled DNA. There are quite a few technical hurdles to this, but if it happens, and the Neanderthal baby is born and grows successfully to adulthood in the midst of human beings, he or she will certainly be considered a person, not merely an unusual animal. How far would their personhood go before becoming humanity? We don’t really know what a reconstituted Neanderthal would be like, so we are only able to speculate the extent to which one would participate in human society. Continue reading If animals are people, can A.I.s vote?

LAPCAT A2 - a supersonic plane - in flight.

Speed systems: the next century of transport—part 3

This is the final post in a series of three exploring the evolution of passenger transport locally, regionally, and globally over the next century. The first post, discussing regional transportation, is here; the second post examined ideas for local transit.

In this series of posts, I have described possibilities for how people will travel over short-to-medium distances perhaps twenty or thirty years from now. Locally (meaning within a metropolitan area), my bets are on personal rapid transit in the form of podcars (perhaps suspended from guideways like SkyTran) and self-driving taxis. To travel greater distances, between cities in heavily-populated regions, I’ve predicted that we will use something betweeen tube capsules, like in Elon Musk’s Hyperloop idea, and high-speed rail.

But what about traveling long distances, such as between New York and Los Angeles, or London and Hong Kong? Global transportation is the final tier of future transit technologies. More importantly, when we behold the full picture of local, regional, and global transportation, broad trends emerge that whisper of how we will live and travel in the middle of the 21st century.

Imagine, for a moment, that it’s 2035, and you’re preparing to travel to Shanghai, Dubai, Buenos Aires, or some other city on the opposite side of the globe, across continents and oceans. Today, you would almost certainly be boarding an airplane for a not-very-comfortable sixteen-hour sojourn in a cramped seat. For most destinations in the world, I doubt this will change by 2035, and perhaps never will, unless teleportation becomes a reality. (Sorry.) But, to connect certain important regions, pairs of the so-called “global cities“, new methods may appear. Continue reading Speed systems: the next century of transport—part 3

When we’re all iPeople

Two days ago, I came across this video of Marshall Davis Jones performing his poem “Touchscreen”. It struck me powerfully, both by the vigor of his expression onstage and by the incisiveness of his message about technology. Watch it yourself before you read on:

That was in 2011—merely two years ago. Today, technology has grown even more intimate with our personal experience and interactions. Google Glass is a real thing now, smartwatches are arriving at an online store near you, and there’s worry that the family television, one of the last remaining centers of regular familial activity, will be replaced by the screens of single-user devices. We are experiencing a greater and greater chunk of our lives not directly, nor in the physical company of others, but through our ever-present gadgets. Continue reading When we’re all iPeople

Are we as smart as we think?

When Carl Linnaeus was completing his taxonomy of plants and animals and needed a Latin name for his own ilk, he settled on Homo sapiens, meaning “wise man”. More recent scientists, who were precise but not necessarily humble, have seen fit to single out modern humans among their extinct cousins by adding on another “sapiens”. Narcissism? Maybe. It is at least evidence that we humans think pretty highly of our species’ mental abilities.

My previous post offered a fanciful view of human evolution, in which our social and technological development started because an absent-minded bumbler didn’t pay attention to where he was going. That’s probably not accurate. But I do wonder how our species went from cavemen to CEOs. Were we choosing to advance, or just falling into pits the whole time? And what does either option say about our intelligence, and our right to the name “sapiens”?

It is fun to imagine that there was a single occurrence that determined human destiny—for example, the birth of some freakishly big-brained Australopithecus who survived to crush things with rocks and have lots of kids, and now here you are reading this on your iPad two-and-a-half million years later. Continue reading Are we as smart as we think?