Saturday, October 31, 2009

Sci-Fi I Want to See As Sci-Fact (Part 2)

More things often addressed in science fiction that I would like to see as science fact in my lifetime:

True Fully Immersive Virtual Reality

Whether it's a "holodeck" on the Enterprise, or the X-Men's "Danger Room", or even virtual reality piped directly into our brains a la The Matrix, truly immersive virtual reality has long been a sci-fi writers dream.  Who wouldn't love an environment where you could create an entire world from scratch, or modify the one you know into a place where you are only limited by your own imagination?  I certainly would. 

I imagine the technology that will bring this idea to us first will be some sort of direct brain interface.  It seems likely that decoding the way our brains receive information from our senses and learning to simulate those signals will be much easier to acheive than learning how to manipulate actual matter, as would be required to create a "holodeck" or the like, not to mention the enormous amount of power required for matter manipulation.  Of course, I don't think I'd be the first to volunteer for the clinical trails of early brain/computer interfacing.  First I'd have to see the technology refined and be sure I'm not likely to "download" a virus into my brain or short circuit myself or something perhaps even worse.  Given adequate safety assurances, though, I'd love to be able to enter a fantasy world at will, or meet up with internet friends in a virtual space of our own collaborative design. 

Of course, personal amusement is an obvious (and I think, non-trivial) use of such technology.  However, I think there could be many more serious uses.  Imagine being able to design a building (or vehicle, or what have you) simply by summoning the parts you imagine and commanding them into place.  Imagine being able to walk through your design and experience it as if it already existed in the real world before even beginning actual construction?  Of course, if the technology were easily available and sustainable, why build in the real world at all, at least for most things.  I can envision a world where large numbers of people exist primarily in virtual space, especially if it only differs from the "real" world in ways that are actually an improvement.  So many of us spend so much time online now it isn't hard at all to imagine us choosing to spend even more time in a space that could have all the advantages of the world wide web in addition to full sensory experience. 

Granted, we'll want to make sure there's someone or something in real-space keeping the whole system running. 

Human Longivity

Imagine living for 1000 years?  What about 10,000 years?  Scientists are making great strides toward unraveling the mysteries of why our bodies age and fall apart.  It seems reasonable to suspect that once we do understand the things that go wrong, we stand a good chance of fixing them.  I recently watched a TED Talk by a man named Aubrey De Gray, who believes that the first human to live 1000 years is probably alive already.  That may not be all that far-fetched an idea considering how technology seems to be advancing exponentially.  Interestingly, De Gray believes that the first human to live 10,000 years is likely only 10 years younger than the first to live 1000.  His reasoning is that once life expectancy is raised to 1000 years, barring accident, that is roughly 900 years more time for technical advancements to increase lifespan even further, and each increase is even more chance for further increase. 

Personally, I'm trying to live each day to its fullest.  After all, even if expected lifespan is increased to a million years, any one of us could be hit by a bus tomorrow.  Nevertheless, I'd love to know there's a chance I could be around long enough to see how mankind develops over the next millennium or two.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Sci-Fi I Want to See As Sci-Fact (Part 1)

When I was a kid, I used to love sci-fi. Movies, books, short stories, it didn't matter. I loved it all. I especially loved stories set in a human future. I loved to dream about what life would be like in 2010 (or even 1999). The kid I was might be a little disappointed how things have turned out. I mean, where's my flying car? Where are the moon bases? How come we still don't have a colony on Mars? Sure, we have cell phones, and the Internet is probably one of the most quickly pervasive and culture altering developments since the automobile, but they seem a little tame when compared to the futures of Space: 1999, or even 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Now that I'm an adult (for the most part), I'm still fascinated by visions of the future, even if I'm a little more critical of the various futuristic visions I come across. Also, my priorities have changed a bit. I'm not all that interested in a flying car, though I would like one that would drive itself, so I could read, nap, surf the net, what have you, during my commute. Nevertheless, there are speculated future developments I yearn for.

First Contact

Probably hundreds, if not thousands of stories have been written about mankind's first contact with an extra-terrestrial civilization. One of the most plausible (to me, at least) is Contact, by Carl Sagan. In it, he imagines a first contact coming in the form of a signal received from outer space. Indeed, there are a number of SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) projects going on right now. I even participate in one of them, SETI@home, a project which uses home computers' downtime to analyze radio waves from space, hoping to find a signal amid all that noise. Of course, I'd love to have the home computer that actually found such a signal, but just having it happen would be exciting enough, regardless of who actually found such a signal.

Why does the idea excite me? Haven't I seen Independence Day? Or V, or War of the Worlds? Aren't I afraid of becoming an item on some intergalactic buffet? Quite frankly, no. First of all, the chances that some alien species, evolved on a completely different world, with completely different evironmental factors, would even be able to use us as a food source are likely very small. Second, I think if they've mastered interstellar travel, they've likely solved any problems related to a sustainable food supply. Perhaps I'm overly optimistic, but I think benign curiosity, if not outright benevolence is a more likely motivation for interstellar exploration than conquest.

AI: Artificial Intelligence

Almost as exciting as first contact with an ETI, and perhaps more likely to happen first, is the development of a true artificial intelligence. My excitement for this is two-fold. First, it would be wonderful to be able to interact with computers as naturally as we do with people. I'd love to have a personal artificial secretary who would keep all my appointments straight, scan the web for information I need or simply might like to know, and screen my incoming information such as phone calls, emails, texts, tweets, and whatever other manner we devise to keep ourselves connected. But aside from simple convenience, I think the insights into our own intelligence we will surely gain from the development of an AI will be invaluable. Also, I'm a bit of a singularitarian. I think we should be working to create an AI that will be beneficial to the human race. I believe that we face problems that our own intelligence, unaided, is proving inadequate to solve. Already we have AIs that can devise their own scientific experiments, carry them out, and analyze the results. Can true human-equivalent artificial intelligence be that far behind?

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Why I Think What I Think (Part 2)

Continuing my list of people who have greatly influenced my worldview:

Robert T. Carroll

Robert T. Carroll was a teacher in the philosophy department at Sacramento City College until he retired in 2007. I first came across Bob's writings through his website, The Skeptic's Dictionary. This was in the mid 1990's, and his website was much smaller than it is today. The Internet, or at least the WWW part, was still a relatively new phenomenon, and I spent a lot of time surfing the web. It was during a late night surfing session that I stumbled upon The Skeptic's Dictionary, but I don't even remember what the specific topic was that led me there. At any rate, I knew I had stumbled upon a rare gem for that time: a website full of articles on a wide range of subject which were all well written and rational. While I knew what "skeptical" means, this was my first real introduction to skepticism as analytical tool. I enjoyed the first couple of articles I read so much that I started at the beginning and read all of his articles in order. There were probably fewer than a hundred articles when I started, and I've been pretty good at reading new articles as they've been added since.

Many of the articles were about what I expected, and poked holes in ideas that I already was skeptical of myself, like BigFoot and the Loch Ness Monster. Others were more challenging for me because they dealt with things I either hadn't considered from a skeptical perspective (multi-level marketing, false memory), or I had believed (or hoped) were true at some point in my past, (UFOs, god, etc.). It was through these articles, as well as Bob's writings on philosophy and critical thinking, that I learned to apply the same rigorous tools in evaluating things I perhaps even wanted to believe as I did to things I already thought were suspect.

All this came at a time in my life where I had come to reject a lot of things I had been taught growing up and was still searching for the tools to make sense of the world. I sometimes wonder if I would have been receptive to Bob's ideas when I was 15 or even 20. Would I have been able to save myself a lot of stumbling around in the dark had I had access to something like The Skeptic's Dictionary earlier on, or would I have avoided it as something designed to weaken faith. I don't know, but I'm eternally grateful that I came across it when I did.

Carl Sagan

I first really discovered the writings of Carl Sagan in my late twenties as I was rediscovering and reinterpreting the world in non-religious terms. I had known of Sagan from his television series Cosmos, but hadn't really read any of his books. It was largely the respect and admiration that Bob Carroll gave him and his writings that sparked my curiosity. The first Sagan book I read was The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. This book helped me to examine the things I believe and had believed, and taught me how to ask the right questions when it came to claims of the paranormal.

When I find an author I like, I have a tendency to stick with him until I've read as much of his work as I can get my hands on. Sagan was no exception. I read everything I could find, including works he had written with his wife Ann Druyan. They opened my mind to a naturalistic universe, one that did not require an intelligent designer, though it did not exclude one. Suddenly the universe became an enormous place, far larger, and far more fascinating than I had ever imagined. As much as the science and logic of his writings, though, I've been greatly influenced by his optimism. Far from being adrift in a universe where nothing matters, I found in his brand of skepticism and even atheism, a real hope that we, as humans, can work things out for ourselves, and that we still might not be alone in the universe. Through Sagan's writing, in part, I found the naive faith and hopes of my youth replaced with awe and new kinds of hope, and a new kind of comfort about the world around me.

I was greatly saddened when Sagan died in 1996. It was as if I had just met the man and he had been taken away. I wonder what new insights we might have, had he lived through the last decade.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Why I Think What I Think (Pt1)

I've been thinking lately about why I think the way I do. I thought it might be interesting, for myself if no one else, to list some of the people who have influenced my world view. This is probably going to be a multi-post topic and I'm not even going to attempt to list influences in order of importance or anything like that.

Joseph Smith

Regardless of my beliefs about whether he was inspired by God or not, or even my belief about God himself, I can't deny that a large part of who I am is directly a result of the life and works of Joseph Smith, the founder of the LDS Church.

One of the most fundamental ideas that has come to me through Joseph Smith is the idea that large numbers of people, however well educated and however sincere in their beliefs, might be dead wrong. As a child, this was introduced to me through the story of "The First Vision", referring of course to the first vision of Joseph Smith, wherein he claims to have seen God and Jesus Christ in the flesh, and upon asking which of all the churches he should join was told to "join none of them, for they were all wrong." From my current persective, this should have been an obvious possibility to me, given that each religion tends to think all the others have gotten at least some portion of "the truth" wrong. As a child, though, one tends to believe as one is taught.

It probably wasn't until I was in my twenties that I gave serious consideration to the idea that maybe Joseph Smith, himself, was wrong, and by extension maybe so were religious people everywhere, insofar as they claimed to know the truth about God, or anything metaphysical. It's a big step in one's philosophical development to accept the idea that maybe everyone is stumbling around in the dark just like everyone else. It's no small thing to consider that most of the people from whom you've received the very foundation of your world view just might be mistaken. It's even harder, once you entertain that possibility, to then reassess all that you think you know and rebuild your philosophy perhaps even from the ground up.

Joseph Smith also emphasized an idea that has become fundamental to Mormon philosophy and is simultaneously it's greatest strength and it's greatest weakness: the idea that if you have doubts, you should as questions. I've grown up always believing that "The Truth" is out there, and will become apparent if you look hard enough. As missionaries, we touted the promise in The Book of Mormon, which was really just a specific application of the teaching of James, to ask and we'd receive answers. That's hard to refute at face value, since any "answer" is open to a myriad of interpretations. I've even been told that the seeming lack of an answer might itself be an answer.

All too often, though, the answers to the hardest questions in religion seems to be "we don't know". Ironically that's often the answer outside of religion as well. The difference, as I see it, is that within religion we're expected to wait and see what the answer is, almost as if by pushing the issue too hard, the wall might break and the whole of our philosophy come crashing down around us. To be fair, that's not exclusive to religion, but is probably a self defense mechanism of most philosophies once they've been sufficiently defined, and the more they become widely subscribed to. At any rate, and perhaps most ironically, it was the idea of really asking questions of God, and the promise that He would answer, that ultimately led me to reject the fundamental underpinnings of the philosophy that gave me that tool in the first place.