Public opinion and governments wrestle with a difficult problem: whether or not to intervene in Syria. The standard arguments are well known – just war theory, humanitarian protection of civilian populations, the westphalian right of states to non-intervention, the risk of quagmires, deterrence against chemical weapons use… But the news that an American group has successfully 3D printed a working handgun may put a new perspective on things.
Why? It’s not as if there’s a lack of guns in the world – either in the US or in Syria – so a barely working weapon, built from still-uncommon technology, is hardly going to upset any balance of power. But that may just be the beginning. As 3D printing technology gets better, as private micro-manufacturing improves (possibly all the way to Drexlerian nanotechnology), the range of weapons that can be privately produced increases. This type of manufacturing could be small scale, using little but raw material, and be very fast paced. We may reach a situation where any medium-sized organisation (a small country, a corporation, a town) could build an entire weapons arsenal in the blink of an eye: 20,000 combat drones, say, and 10,000 cruise missiles, all within a single day. All that you’d need are the plans, cheap raw materials, and a small factory floor. Continue reading
Your password will probably be hacked soon, and how to (actually) solve the problem
The ancient art of password cracking has advanced further in the past five years than it did in the previous several decades combined. At the same time, the dangerous practice of password reuse has surged. The result: security provided by the average password in 2012 has never been weaker.
After the Twitter accounts for Burger King as well as Chrysler’s Jeep were recently broken into, Twitter apparently issued some advice to the effect that people should be smarter about their password security practices. So: use lots of letters and numbers, passwords should be 10-digits or longer, use a different password for every one of your online accounts and so on.
But this is nuts. Does Twitter know anything about how human beings actually work? Why do you think people reuse their passwords for multiple sites? Why do you think people select easy-to-remember (and easy-to-discover) factoids from their childhoods as answers to security questions?
Andrew Hessel, Marc Goodman and Steven Kotler sketches in an article in The Atlantic a not-too-far future when the combination of cheap bioengineering, synthetic biology and crowdsourcing of problem solving allows not just personalised medicine, but also personalised biowarfare. They dramatize it by showing how this could be used to attack the US president, but that is mostly for effect: this kind of technology could in principle be targeted at anyone or any group as long as there existed someone who had a reason to use it and the resources to pay for it. The Secret Service looks like it is aware of the problem and does its best to swipe away traces of the President, but it is hard to imagine this to be perfect, doable for old DNA left behind years ago, or applied by all potential targets. In fact, it looks like the US government is keen on collecting not just biometric data, but DNA from foreign potentates. They might be friends right now, but who knows in ten years…
It’s a common trope that our technology is outrunning our wisdom: we have great technological power, so the argument goes, but not the wisdom to use it.
Forget wisdom: technology is outrunning science! We have great technological power, but not the science to know what it does. In a recent bizarre trial in Italy, scientists were found guilty of manslaughter for failing to predict an earthquake in L’Aquila – prompting seismologists all over the world to sign an open letter stating, basically, that science can’t predict earthquakes.
But though we can’t predict earthquakes, we can certainly cause them. Pumping out water from an aquifer, oil and gas wells, rock quarries, even dams, have all been showed to cause earthquakes – though their magnitude and their timing remain unpredictable.
Geoengineering is another example of the phenomena: we have the technological know-how to radically change the planet’s climate at relatively low cost – but lack the science to predict the extent and true impact of this radical change. Soon we may be able to build artificial minds, though whole-brain emulations or other methods, but we can’t predict when this might happen or even the likely consequences of such a dramatically transformative technology.
The path from pure science to grubby technological implementation is traditionally seen as running in one clear direction: pure science develops ground-breaking ivory tower ideas, that eventually get taken up and transformed into useful technology, year down the line. To do this, science has to stay continually ahead of technology: we have to know more than we do. But now it’s pure science and research that have to play catch-up: we have find a way to know what we’re doing.
It is hardly a keen insight to note that there are a lot of problems in the world today, and that there are also lots of suggested solutions. Often these can be classified under three different labels:
- “Good guy” solutions which rely on changing individual people’s attitudes and behaviours.
- Institutional solutions which rely on designing good institutions to address the problem.
- Technological solutions which count on technology to resolve the problem.
In this view, it is tremendously good news that scientists are getting closer to producing artificial organs. If this goal is achieved, it will be a technological solution to the problem of transplant organ shortages – and technological solutions tend to be better than institutional solutions, which are generally much better than “good guy” solutions. The “good guy” solution to organ donation was to count on people to volunteer to donate when they died. Better institutions (such as an opt-out system where you have to make a special effort not to be a donor, rather than a special effort to be a donor) have resulted in much improved donation rates. But cheap artificial organs would really be the ultimate solution.
Of course I don’t denigrate the use of getting people on your side, nor the motivations of those who sincerely want to change things. But changes to people’s attitudes only tend to stick around as long term solutions if this is translated into actual institutional or technological changes.
Take slavery, for instance. Continue reading
The world is full of problems. Pollution is a problem. The destruction of the coral reefs, the eradication of the rain forests, the mass extinction of animal species are problems, and tragedies. Loss of biodiversity is a problem. Global warming is a problem. Poverty and the unequal distribution of resources are major problems.
But lack of basic resources isn’t a problem. We’ll have enough food, water and energy for the whole human race for the forseable future, at reasonable costs. Take a worse-case scenario for all three areas, and let’s look at the figures.