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5 New Societies Silicon Valley Wants To Create

Should there be a ceiling to the ambitions of Silicon Valley? It seems like a decisive “no,” according to the people who want to build new societies online, atop the ocean, and on Mars. 

Artist rendering of SpaceX Mars colony

Richard Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller, an early 20th-century architect and visionary, believed it was possible to build floating cities called “Cloud Nines.” The cities would be contained within geodesic domes — huge, spherical objects — and they'd be able to float by carefully adjusting the temperature of the interior air. Was it just fantasy? Perhaps. Even though he patented some of the technology and claimed in earnest that building such cities was possible, construction never broke ground (or air).

But what if “Bucky” had access to the Silicon Valley of today — to its startup accelerators, angel investors, and relentless drive to optimize? Could he at least have gotten a decent Kickstarter off the ground?

Today, similarly ambitious plans to transform societies are being dreamt up in Silicon Valley. The main difference is that the gap between fantasy and reality is closing, faster than you may realize.

Mars Colony

SpaceX founder Elon Musk said in September that he wants to render all of his company’s vehicles — the Falcon 9, the Falcon Heavy, and the Dragon spacecraft — obsolete. Why? So he can build the BFR (Big Fucking Rocket), more politely known as Interplanetary Transport System.

“All our resources will turn toward building BFR,” Musk said at the International Astronautical Congress. “And we believe we can do this with the revenue we receive from launching satellites and servicing the space station.”

Artist's rendering of Mars colony for SpaceX

The BFR is intended to transport people to mars, where Musk hopes to build a permanent colony of more than 1 million inhabitants. He thinks the red planet could serve as a “backup drive” for Earth at the cost of $100,000 or $200,000 per person, all of whom would live in an (almost) self-sustaining city.

But exactly how people will survive there over the long term remains unclear. The main thing the SpaceX plan lacks, according to some spaceflight experts, is bioregenerative life support technology, which would take colonists’ breath, liquid waste, and solid waste, and use plants to convert these into food, water, and air.

20th Century Fox's "The Martian"

SpaceX hopes to put people on Mars by 2024. But while you have to respect Musk’s superhero-style goals, it’s worth noting that SpaceX has a history of missing its own deadlines.

Opt-In Socieites

Silicon Valley is both a place and an idea, said Netscape inventor Marc Andreessen.

Imagine if that idea — along with its institution-busting creations like Bitcoin and Uber — spread around the world and gave rise to new Silicon Valleys, creating online societies composed of and run by those with technological know-how.

Don't argue about regulation
Build Uber
Don't argue about monetary policy
Build Bitcoin
Don't argue about it
Build the alternative —@balajis

— Vala Afshar (@ValaAfshar) August 22, 2017

Smart Cities

By 2030, two thirds of the world will live in cities. Silicon Valley is anticipating that massive, creeping influx by looking into designing "smart cities" that would optimize everything from housing to transportation. 

Tech accelerator Y Combinator published a blog post detailing its smart city research project:

The first phase of this will be a YC Research project. We’ll publicly share our results, and at the end of the process, we’ll decide if it’s something we should pursue and at what exact locations. We’re seriously interested in building new cities and we think we know how to finance it if everything else makes sense.

The post went on to list the tactical questions that need to be answered:

  • How can we make and keep housing affordable? This is critical to us; the cost of housing affects everything else in a city.
  • How can we lay out the public and private spaces (and roads) to make a great place to live? Can we figure out better zoning laws?
  • What is the right role for vehicles in a city? Should we have human-driven cars at all?
  • How can we have affordable high-speed transit to and from other cities?
  • How can we make rules and regulations that are comprehensive while also being easily understandable? Can we fit all rules for the city in 100 pages of text?
  • What effects will the new city have on the surrounding community?
  • Some features of a smart city include fleets of driver-less cars (meaning no traffic jams or huge, expensive parking garages), seamless security through facial recognition, interconnected hospitals with shared patient records, and public broadband, to name just a few possibilities. 

    It'd be a massive undertaking. But given that many cities worldwide are threatened by environmental changes, some might benefit from having Silicon Valley put its city-planning ideas to the test, as Ariel Schwartz writes for Business Insider:

    So many of the world's greatest existing cities will have to consider moving inland in the coming years as they're overtaken by water. There will be so much room for new and better infrastructure to be built... Overly ambitious ideas are welcome.

    Silicon Valley's New Socialism

    Every robot added to the U.S. economy reduces employment by 5.6 workers, and each robot that is added to the workforce per 1,000 human workers causes wages to drop by as much as 0.25 to 0.5 percent, according to research published at the National Bureau of Economic Research.

    In short, the robots are coming for our jobs and we haven't yet ironed out a plan for how we're going to accommodate all the displaced workers. One of the most discussed solutions is universal basic income (UBI), an economic plan that would guarantee every citizen a minimum income no matter what.

    When I first began studying #basicincome I concluded we were going to need it tomorrow. With further study I realized we needed it yesterday

    — Scott Santens (@scottsantens) February 17, 2017


    Neom, Saudi Arabia's $500 billion megacity, reaches its next phase

    Construction of the $500 billion dollar tech city-state of the future is moving ahead.

    Credit: Neom
    Technology & Innovation
    • The futuristic megacity Neom is being built in Saudi Arabia.
    • The city will be fully automated, leading in health, education and quality of life.
    • It will feature an artificial moon, cloud seeding, robotic gladiators and flying taxis.
    Keep reading Show less

    Human brains remember certain words more easily than others

    A study of the manner in which memory works turns up a surprising thing.

    Image Point Fr / Shutterstock
    Mind & Brain
    • Researchers have found that some basic words appear to be more memorable than others.
    • Some faces are also easier to commit to memory.
    • Scientists suggest that these words serve as semantic bridges when the brain is searching for a memory.

    Cognitive psychologist Weizhen Xie (Zane) of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) works with people who have intractable epilepsy, a form of the disorder that can't be controlled with medications. During research into the brain activity of patients, he and his colleagues discovered something odd about human memory: It appears that certain basic words are consistently more memorable than other basic words.

    The research is published in Nature Human Behaviour.

    An odd find

    Image source: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock

    Xie's team was re-analyzing memory tests of 30 epilepsy patients undertaken by Kareem Zaghloul of NINDS.

    "Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures," Zaghloul said. "The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories."

    Specifically, the participants were shown word pairs, such as "hand" and "apple." To better understand how the brain might remember such pairings, after a brief interval, participants were supplied one of the two words and asked to recall the other. Of the 300 words used in the tests, five of them proved to be five times more likely to be recalled: pig, tank, doll, pond, and door.

    The scientists were perplexed that these words were so much more memorable than words like "cat," "street," "stair," "couch," and "cloud."

    Intrigued, the researchers looked at a second data source from a word test taken by 2,623 healthy individuals via Amazon's Mechanical Turk and found essentially the same thing.

    "We saw that some things — in this case, words — may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others," Zaghloul said. That the Mechanical Turk results were so similar may "provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study."

    Why understanding memory matters

    person holding missing piece from human head puzzle

    Image source: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock

    "Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work," Xie said. "However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people's performances on memory tests." He added that the search for some kind of unified theory of memory has been going on for over a century.

    If a comprehensive understanding of the way memory works can be developed, the researchers say that "we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone's overall brain health."

    Party chat

    Image source: joob_in/Shutterstock

    Xie's interest in this was piqued during a conversation with Wilma Bainbridge of University of Chicago at a Christmas party a couple of years ago. Bainbridge was, at the time, wrapping up a study of 1,000 volunteers that suggested certain faces are universally more memorable than others.

    Bainbridge recalls, "Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives. And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."

    spinning 3D model of a brain

    Temporal lobes

    Image source: Anatomography/Wikimedia

    At first, the scientists suspected that the memorable words and faces were simply recalled more frequently and were thus easier to recall. They envisioned them as being akin to "highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words." They developed a modeling program based on word frequencies found in books, new articles, and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the model was unable to predict or duplicate the results they saw in their clinical experiments.

    Eventually, the researchers came to suspect that the memorability of certain words was linked to the frequency with which the brain used them as semantic links between other memories, making them often-visited hubs in individuals's memory networks, and therefore places the brain jumped to early and often when retrieving memories. This idea was supported by observed activity in participants' anterior temporal lobe, a language center.

    In epilepsy patients, these words were so frequently recalled that subjects often shouted them out even when they were incorrect responses to word-pair inquiries.

    Seek, find

    Modern search engines no longer simply look for raw words when resolving an inquiry: They also look for semantic — contextual and meaning — connections so that the results they present may better anticipate what it is you're looking for. Xie suggests something similar may be happening in the brain: "You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences."

    He also notes that it may one day be possible to leverage individuals' apparently wired-in knowledge of their language as a fixed point against which to assess the health of their memory and brain.

    Does conscious AI deserve rights?

    If machines develop consciousness, or if we manage to give it to them, the human-robot dynamic will forever be different.

    • Does AI—and, more specifically, conscious AI—deserve moral rights? In this thought exploration, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, ethics and tech professor Joanna Bryson, philosopher and cognitive scientist Susan Schneider, physicist Max Tegmark, philosopher Peter Singer, and bioethicist Glenn Cohen all weigh in on the question of AI rights.
    • Given the grave tragedy of slavery throughout human history, philosophers and technologists must answer this question ahead of technological development to avoid humanity creating a slave class of conscious beings.
    • One potential safeguard against that? Regulation. Once we define the context in which AI requires rights, the simplest solution may be to not build that thing.

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