Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Space, Global Warming, and Technology

Sorry I haven't written anything for a while. As I mentioned before I've spent most of the past few weeks doing exams, revising for exams, and dealing with the usual stresses that accompany these activities.

As always, an awful lot of stuff has happened over the last few days. Gordon Brown got to be Prime Minister. I'm looking forward to seeing what he'll do.

NASA is planning to launch a spacecraft called Dawn this July to study the asteroids Vesta and Ceres. When it comes to space development asteroids are the first logical source of real cash. They are large reserves of useful materials and aren't sitting at the bottom of massive gravitational wells, like most of the useful material in the solar system.

Charles Stross recently blogged a long and interesting article on space exploration and the economic difficulties of delivering cans of apes to distant star systems. I suppose we can only assume that when human civilization starts to really affect matter beyond our immediate solar system it will be through star-wisp style probes, rather than massive generation-ships, as Stephen Baxter imagines in this month's edition of Focus Magazine.

The star-wisps would carry a small payload that would be capable of "bootstrapping" itself to a more useful state using energy and material it would find when it arrives at its destination star system.

Stross makes a very good point that living in space (even in habitats like O'Neill cylinders) will probably be as difficult and uncomfortable as living on oil rigs or in the Arctic or in the Gobi Desert.

I think it's fair to say that when and if civilization begins to have a large material impact on the solar system it will not be through homo-sapiens living in bottles. It will be through artificial machines controlled by homo-sapiens living in comfort on Earth.

Global warming: From my point of view, I don't mind (in fact I would welcome) giving up personal automobile transport, but cheap international flights is one area where I feel resentful of the necessary sacrifice. A recent article at Physorg suggests the development of an electric plane. I can only assume from the article that it does not refer to an electrical jet engine, but rather to an old-fashioned propeller.

This is disappointing: currently I think the best possibility for have your cake and eat it air travel is alternative fuels, like Richard Branson has been plugging recently.

There is also the wonderful Smartfish project. The sketches of the plane look wonderful.

As for cars, driving on today's roads is an affront to the dignity of man. A sensible, low-cost/free, integrated, information-saturated and nationalised public-transport service is a necessary component of any developed nation seeking to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.

I'm still cynical of hydrogen-gas as an alternative fuel. It seems wasteful to produce electricity to electrolyse water to produce hydrogen (assuming you don't use fossil fuels), transport the hydrogen, and then use the hydrogen to power a car or bus. It would be simpler to generate electricity and use it to charge a more conventional battery or super capacitor. There's a fascinating story on Wired about the Tesla electric sports car.

With the current hype surrounding Web 2.0 (Twitter, for example, which I have failed to use and will probably remove if it doesn't become more interesting) there have been a number of articles on the future, and how you predict it. This fascinating article on Slate about the future of the computer is an example. For all the recent advances in computer technology and communications technology we haven't even started to scratch the surface of how these two areas will transform our lives.

As computational devices ooze into the background and interfaces become more intuitive and ubiquitous (for example, Microsoft Surface) the potential for Black Swan events will increase.

All this makes predicting exactly what life will be like in the future difficult. An interesting book Imaginary Futures - From Thinking Machines to the Global Village by academic Richard Barbrook suggests that our ideas of imminent utopia have more to do with Cold War spin than any realistic analysis of potential future technology.

My own feeling is that the world is likely to get better for everyone over the next century, even as we find new and ever more cunning ways of making ourselves miserable. I suspect that at some point over the next 50 years the countries of sub-Saharan Africa, like the Sudan, Namibia, and others will experience an enormous surge in quality of life, which will make things better for everyone. Global Warming is just crammed with potential Black Swans.

I read an inordinate quantity of science fiction. I've never been able to identify precisely what I like about it: it's probably to do with the mix of optimistic escapism and extraordinary ideas.

Another interesting component is looking at what people in the past thought the future was going to be like. It seems to me that we here in Britain started the 20th century with the spectre of a European War between colonial powers hovering over our heads.

Following several decades of predicted global catastrophe (WWI, WWII, the Great Depression, the rise of dictatorships of various flavours, the creation of atom bombs and the start of the Cold War) people turned to science and technology to create a bright new future.

After this there came various waves of science fiction, dealing mostly with how people felt at the time of writing. Now that the future seems bleak again, with global warming, climate change, peak oil, and all the usual problems of Getting Along, it will be interesting to see how our view of the future changes.

With regard to this, Henry Jenkins writes about how this change in our perception of the future has affected science fiction.

I can't wait for it to be the future!

No comments: