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Top 6 fears about future technology
Many of our greatest fears stem from uncertainty about the future, and technology has made the future very uncertain indeed.
- Americans are scared, but hardly alone; people are primed by evolution to worry over their inability to control their future environment.
- Oxford professor Nick Bostrom has painted a doomsday scenario. Are he and Elon Musk correct?
- Even if these six fears come to pass—and some of them surely will—they aren't guaranteed to be as catastrophic as we think. Fortunately or unfortunately, we are incredibly bad at predicting the future.
The future is a scary place. According to a 2017 survey, many Americans' greatest fears—economic collapse, another world war, not having enough money for the future, etc.—are concerns over the state of tomorrow. (Although it is worth noting that their number one fear, corrupt government officials, is a clear and ever-present danger.)
Americans are hardly alone. People are primed to worry over their inability to control their future environment. Tomorrow's unpredictability requires that our brains view it with suspicion, as a potential threat to our survival. Unfortunately for our survival-primed brains, technology's influence is making our future ever more protean.Today's technological advancements occur exponentially, and the average person will have to adjust to changes that would have previously taken several generations. Many of these advancements will, no doubt, be beneficial. Others, however, could prove less than advantageous.
Elon Musk speaks onstage at SXSW 2018 in Austin, Texas. During the conversation, Musk shared his fears over the future of AI.
(Photo by Diego Donamaria/Getty Images for SXSW)
Imagine a paperclip company creates an artificial superintelligence and tasks it with the single goal of making as many paperclips as possible. The company's stock soars, and humanity enters the golden age of the paperclip.
But something unexpected happens. The AI surveys the natural resources we need to survive and decides those could go a long way toward paperclip manufacturing. It consumes those resources in an effort to fulfill its prime directive, "make as many paperclips as possible," and wipes out humanity in the process.
This thought experiment, devised by Oxford professor Nick Bostrom, details just one potential danger in creating an artificial superintelligence—that being, we need to be very careful with our words.
"I'm very close to the cutting-edge of AI, and it scares the hell out of me," Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, said at SXSW 2018. "It is capable of vastly more than anyone knows, and the rate of improvement is exponential. […] We have to figure out some way to ensure that the advent of digital superintelligence is one which is symbiotic with humanity. I think that's the single biggest exponential crisis that we face."Bostrom and Musk paint worst-case scenarios, but there are plenty of worries over artificial superintelligence that don't end in human genocide. Experts have postulated that AI could automate terrorism, mass produce propaganda, and streamline hacking to devastating effects.
Americans have steadily been losing work to automation for decades, but the trend appears to be picking up speed. Self-driving cars, for example, could soon displace 5 million workers nationwide.
But taxi drivers aren't the only people who should be worried. A McKinsey Global Institute study suggests that nearly 70 million people could lose their jobs to automation by 2030. U.S. workers in retail, agriculture, manufacturing, and food services may find their jobs on the automated chopping block.No wonder Americans fear the incoming robo-revolution. A Pew Research report found that 72 percent of U.S. adults surveyed expressed worry over automation, compared with 33 percent who were enthusiastic. A majority were also hesitant to consider using automated services such as driverless cars or robotic caregivers.
We create robots to fight our wars for us, but they turn on their masters and bring ruin to our world. It's a classic science fiction conceit, and one we're much closer to than, say, first contact. Autonomous drones are already available, and it is only a matter of time before they make the leap from selfie-machine to combatant.
The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots worries about this future, but not about robotic warriors turning on their masters. Rather, the campaign believes that autonomous weapons will lead to an erosion of accountability in armed conflicts between states.
As stated on the campaign's website:
The use of fully autonomous weapons would create an accountability gap as there is no clarity on who would be legally responsible for a robot's actions: the commander, programmer, manufacture, or robot itself? Without accountability, these parties would have less incentive to ensure robots did not endanger civilians and victims would be left unsatisfied that someone was punished for the harm they experienced.
Considering the difficulties already associated with prosecuting war crimes, the concern is worth consideration.
Vicious virtual reality
A group of children wearing virtual reality headsets.
(Photo by Getty Images)
Virtual reality is here, and it looks way better than the '80s led us to believe it would. But as with any new technology, trepidation has welled up over to how it will affect people's wellbeing, especially children.
"The gap between 'things that happen to my character' and 'things that happen to me' is bridged," Scott Stephen, a VR designer, told The New Yorker. "The way I process these scares is not through the eyes of a person using their critical media-viewing faculty but through eyes of I, the self, with all of the very human, systems-level, subconscious voodoo that comes along with that."Because the technology's availability has been limited until recently, not many studies that have looked at VR's effects on children, and the studies we have aren't conclusive. One study showed that children were more likely to create a false memory under VR's influence, but another study has shown its ability to reduce anxiety in children undergoing medical procedures.
Baleful biomedical technologies
In the coming years, we could cultivate biomaterials in labs to replace failing organs and splice genes in utero so children won't suffer the debilitating inherited diseases of their forebearers. Biomedical technologies promise a future where we are all better, stronger, faster and at the fraction of the cost of one Steve Austin.
But a 2016 Pew Research report suggests that Americans don't see these medical advancements as incoming miracles. Of those surveyed, a majority said they were either somewhat or very worried about brain chips that make us smarter (69 percent), genetic editing to reduce babies' risk of disease (68 percent), and synthetic blood to improve physical abilities (63 percent).
Their reasoning? Such enhancements "could exacerbate the divide between haves and have-nots" and be used as a measure of superiority by their recipients. The more religious a participant, the more likely they were to believe such technologies were "meddling with nature" and "crosses a line we should not cross." Mostly though, we just loathe the idea of neighbors throwing a get-together to show off their fancy new brain chips.
Wholesale nuclear power
The ghost town of Pripyat, Ukraine, with the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in the background.
(Photo by MediaProduction/Getty Images)
On Aug. 6, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. Since then, nuclear weapons have been an existential threat to our species. As of Jan. 2018, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists set the Doomsday Clock at a mere two minutes to midnight.
But weapons of mass destruction aren't why nuclear made this list. It's here because of people dread nuclear energy.
In a 2016 Gallup poll, a majority of Americans surveyed (54 percent) were opposed to nuclear energy, the first time a majority opposed the prospect since 1994, when Gallup first started asking the question. Of course, it's not hard to where the fear originates. When nuclear power plants fail, they fail with devastating consequences. Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima, the list is longer than we'd like.
But some experts argue that we need nuclear energy to decarbonize quickly enough to avert major climate catastrophe. Not only does nuclear power produce immense amounts of energy, it also has a low-carbon footprint (lower than even solar)."In most of the world, especially the rich world, they're not talking about building new reactors. We're actually talking about taking reactors down before their lifetimes are over," Michael Shellenberger, president of Environmental Progress, said during his TED talk. "[The United States] could lose half of our reactors over the next 15 years, which would wipe out 40 percent of the emissions reductions we're supposed to get under the Clean Power Plan."
A cloudy crystal ball
So, is the future a technological murder mansion, a place where every dark corner hides a robotic horror waiting to kill all humans or, at the very least, take all our jobs? Maybe, but probably not.
People have a strong desire to predict the course of tomorrow, and whole social movements, from futurists to psychics to horoscopes, have sprung up to meet that demand. Such conjectures return to us a semblance of control with regards to our future environment.
To pick a few well-known examples: In the late 18th century Thomas Malthus argued that unless family size was regulated, humanity would overpopulate the planet and create a misery of famine. In 1989 Francis Fukuyama foresaw the end of history. And in 1998 the Y2K bug was predicted to wipe out computer networks across the world.
But Malthus couldn't predict the technological advancements in agriculture that could feed billions more people than existed in his day; Fukuyama could not foresee the political upheaval of events such as 9/11; and Y2K doomsayers, well, they were just wrong.
Even if these six fears come to pass — and some of them surely will — they aren't guaranteed to be as bad as predicted. Automation could wipe out 70 million jobs, but new innovations could generate new jobs needing to be filled. Biomedical technologies could widen the expanding gap between classes, but if treat them as reconstructive procedures, rather than aesthetic ones, then everyone should have a right to benefit.
That makes you feel better about the future… right?
- Feeling AI Anxiety? 41% of Americans Fear Getting Replaced by Tech ›
- Y2K: What did we learn from history’s biggest tech scare? - Big Think ›
Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.
- U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
- Pais came up with technology that can "engineer" reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor, and more.
- While mostly theoretical at this point, the inventions could transform energy, space, and military sectors.
The U.S. Navy controls patents for some futuristic and outlandish technologies, some of which, dubbed "the UFO patents," came to life recently. Of particular note are inventions by the somewhat mysterious Dr. Salvatore Cezar Pais, whose tech claims to be able to "engineer reality." His slate of highly-ambitious, borderline sci-fi designs meant for use by the U.S. government range from gravitational wave generators and compact fusion reactors to next-gen hybrid aerospace-underwater crafts with revolutionary propulsion systems, and beyond.
Of course, the existence of patents does not mean these technologies have actually been created, but there is evidence that some demonstrations of operability have been successfully carried out. As investigated and reported by The War Zone, a possible reason why some of the patents may have been taken on by the Navy is that the Chinese military may also be developing similar advanced gadgets.
Among Dr. Pais's patents are designs, approved in 2018, for an aerospace-underwater craft of incredible speed and maneuverability. This cone-shaped vehicle can potentially fly just as well anywhere it may be, whether air, water or space, without leaving any heat signatures. It can achieve this by creating a quantum vacuum around itself with a very dense polarized energy field. This vacuum would allow it to repel any molecule the craft comes in contact with, no matter the medium. Manipulating "quantum field fluctuations in the local vacuum energy state," would help reduce the craft's inertia. The polarized vacuum would dramatically decrease any elemental resistance and lead to "extreme speeds," claims the paper.
Not only that, if the vacuum-creating technology can be engineered, we'd also be able to "engineer the fabric of our reality at the most fundamental level," states the patent. This would lead to major advancements in aerospace propulsion and generating power. Not to mention other reality-changing outcomes that come to mind.
Among Pais's other patents are inventions that stem from similar thinking, outlining pieces of technology necessary to make his creations come to fruition. His paper presented in 2019, titled "Room Temperature Superconducting System for Use on a Hybrid Aerospace Undersea Craft," proposes a system that can achieve superconductivity at room temperatures. This would become "a highly disruptive technology, capable of a total paradigm change in Science and Technology," conveys Pais.
High frequency gravitational wave generator.
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
Another invention devised by Pais is an electromagnetic field generator that could generate "an impenetrable defensive shield to sea and land as well as space-based military and civilian assets." This shield could protect from threats like anti-ship ballistic missiles, cruise missiles that evade radar, coronal mass ejections, military satellites, and even asteroids.
Dr. Pais's ideas center around the phenomenon he dubbed "The Pais Effect". He referred to it in his writings as the "controlled motion of electrically charged matter (from solid to plasma) via accelerated spin and/or accelerated vibration under rapid (yet smooth) acceleration-deceleration-acceleration transients." In less jargon-heavy terms, Pais claims to have figured out how to spin electromagnetic fields in order to contain a fusion reaction – an accomplishment that would lead to a tremendous change in power consumption and an abundance of energy.
According to his bio in a recently published paper on a new Plasma Compression Fusion Device, which could transform energy production, Dr. Pais is a mechanical and aerospace engineer working at the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD), which is headquartered in Patuxent River, Maryland. Holding a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, Pais was a NASA Research Fellow and worked with Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. His current Department of Defense work involves his "advanced knowledge of theory, analysis, and modern experimental and computational methods in aerodynamics, along with an understanding of air-vehicle and missile design, especially in the domain of hypersonic power plant and vehicle design." He also has expert knowledge of electrooptics, emerging quantum technologies (laser power generation in particular), high-energy electromagnetic field generation, and the "breakthrough field of room temperature superconductivity, as related to advanced field propulsion."
Suffice it to say, with such a list of research credentials that would make Nikola Tesla proud, Dr. Pais seems well-positioned to carry out groundbreaking work.
A craft using an inertial mass reduction device.
Credit: Salvatore Pais
The patents won't necessarily lead to these technologies ever seeing the light of day. The research has its share of detractors and nonbelievers among other scientists, who think the amount of energy required for the fields described by Pais and his ideas on electromagnetic propulsions are well beyond the scope of current tech and are nearly impossible. Yet investigators at The War Zone found comments from Navy officials that indicate the inventions are being looked at seriously enough, and some tests are taking place.
If you'd like to read through Pais's patents yourself, check them out here.
Laser Augmented Turbojet Propulsion System
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
New data have set the particle physics community abuzz.
- The first question ever asked in Western philosophy, "What's the world made of?" continues to inspire high energy physicists.
- New experimental results probing the magnetic properties of the muon, a heavier cousin of the electron, seem to indicate that new particles of nature may exist, potentially shedding light on the mystery of dark matter.
- The results are a celebration of the human spirit and our insatiable curiosity to understand the world and our place in it.
If brute force doesn't work, then look into the peculiarities of nothingness. This may sound like a Zen koan, but it's actually the strategy that particle physicists are using to find physics beyond the Standard Model, the current registry of all known particles and their interactions. Instead of the usual colliding experiments that smash particles against one another, exciting new results indicate that new vistas into exotic kinds of matter may be glimpsed by carefully measuring the properties of the quantum vacuum. There's a lot to unpack here, so let's go piecemeal.
It is fitting that the first question asked in Western philosophy concerned the material composition of the world. Writing around 350 BCE, Aristotle credited Thales of Miletus (circa 600 BCE) with the honor of being the first Western philosopher when he asked the question, "What is the world made of?" What modern high energy physicists do, albeit with very different methodology and equipment, is to follow along the same philosophical tradition of trying to answer this question, assuming that there are indivisible bricks of matter called elementary particles.
Deficits in the Standard Model
Jumping thousands of years of spectacular discoveries, we now have a very neat understanding of the material composition of the world at the subatomic level: a total of 12 particles and the Higgs boson. The 12 particles of matter are divided into two groups, six leptons and six quarks. The six quarks comprise all particles that interact via the strong nuclear force, like protons and neutrons. The leptons include the familiar electron and its two heavier cousins, the muon and the tau. The muon is the star of the new experiments.
For all its glory, the Standard Model described above is incomplete. The goal of fundamental physics is to answer the most questions with the least number of assumptions. As it stands, the values of the masses of all particles are parameters that we measure in the laboratory, related to how strongly they interact with the Higgs. We don't know why some interact much stronger than others (and, as a consequence, have larger masses), why there is a prevalence of matter over antimatter, or why the universe seems to be dominated by dark matter — a kind of matter we know nothing about, apart from the fact that it's not part of the recipe included in the Standard Model. We know dark matter has mass since its gravitational effects are felt in familiar matter, the matter that makes up galaxies and stars. But we don't know what it is.
Whatever happens, new science will be learned.
Physicists had hoped that the powerful Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland would shed light on the nature of dark matter, but nothing has come up there or in many direct searches, where detectors were mounted to collect dark matter that presumably would rain down from the skies and hit particles of ordinary matter.
Could muons fill in the gaps?
Enter the muons. The hope that these particles can help solve the shortcomings of the Standard Model has two parts to it. The first is that every particle, like a muon, that has an electric charge can be pictured simplistically as a spinning sphere. Spinning spheres and disks of charge create a magnetic field perpendicular to the direction of the spin. Picture the muon as a tiny spinning top. If it's rotating counterclockwise, its magnetic field would point vertically up. (Grab a glass of water with your right hand and turn it counterclockwise. Your thumb will be pointing up, the direction of the magnetic field.) The spinning muons will be placed into a doughnut-shaped tunnel and forced to go around and around. The tunnel will have its own magnetic field that will interact with the tiny magnetic field of the muons. As the muons circle the doughnut, they will wobble about, just like spinning-tops wobble on the ground due to their interaction with Earth's gravity. The amount of wobbling depends on the magnetic properties of the muon which, in turn, depend on what's going on with the muon in space.
Credit: Fabrice Coffrini / Getty Images
This is where the second idea comes in, the quantum vacuum. In physics, there is no empty space. The so-called vacuum is actually a bubbling soup of particles that appear and disappear in fractions of a second. Everything fluctuates, as encapsulated in Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. Energy fluctuates too, what we call zero-point energy. Since energy and mass are interconvertible (E=mc2, remember?), these tiny fluctuations of energy can be momentarily converted into particles that pop out and back into the busy nothingness of the quantum vacuum. Every particle of matter is cloaked with these particles emerging from vacuum fluctuations. Thus, a muon is not only a muon, but a muon dressed with these extra fleeting bits of stuff. That being the case, these extra particles affect a muon's magnetic field, and thus, its wobbling properties.
About 20 years ago, physicists at the Brookhaven National Laboratory detected anomalies in the muon's magnetic properties, larger than what theory predicted. This would mean that the quantum vacuum produces particles not accounted for by the Standard Model: new physics! Fast forward to 2017, and the experiment, at four times higher sensitivity, was repeated at the Fermi National Laboratory, where yours truly was a postdoctoral fellow a while back. The first results of the Muon g-2 experiment were unveiled on 7-April-2021 and not only confirmed the existence of a magnetic moment anomaly but greatly amplified it.
To most people, the official results, published recently, don't seem so exciting: a "tension between theory and experiment of 4.2 standard deviations." The gold standard for a new discovery in particle physics is a 5-sigma variation, or one part in 3.5 million. (That is, running the experiment 3.5 million times and only observing the anomaly once.) However, that's enough for plenty of excitement in the particle physics community, given the remarkable precision of the experimental measurements.
A time for excitement?
Now, results must be reanalyzed very carefully to make sure that (1) there are no hidden experimental errors; and (2) the theoretical calculations are not off. There will be a frenzy of calculations and papers in the coming months, all trying to make sense of the results, both on the experimental and theoretical fronts. And this is exactly how it should be. Science is a community-based effort, and the work of many compete with and complete each other.
Whatever happens, new science will be learned, even if less exciting than new particles. Or maybe, new particles have been there all along, blipping in and out of existence from the quantum vacuum, waiting to be pulled out of this busy nothingness by our tenacious efforts to find out what the world is made of.
- Benjamin Franklin wrote essays on a whole range of subjects, but one of his finest was on how to be a nice, likable person.
- Franklin lists a whole series of common errors people make while in the company of others, like over-talking or storytelling.
- His simple recipe for being good company is to be genuinely interested in others and to accept them for who they are.
Think of the nicest person you know. The person who would fit into any group configuration, who no one can dislike, or who makes a room warmer and happier just by being there.
What makes them this way? Why are they so amiable, likeable, or good-natured? What is it, you think, that makes a person good company?
There are really only two things that make someone likable.
This is the kind of advice that comes from one of history's most famously good-natured thinkers: Benjamin Franklin. His essay "On Conversation" is full of practical, surprisingly modern tips about how to be a nice person.
Franklin begins by arguing that there are really only two things that make someone likable. First, they have to be genuinely interested in what others say. Second, they have to be willing "to overlook or excuse Foibles." In other words, being good company means listening to people and ignoring their faults. Being witty, well-read, intelligent, or incredibly handsome can all make a good impression, but they're nothing without these two simple rules.
The sort of person nobody likes
From here, Franklin goes on to give a list of the common errors people tend to make while in company. These are the things people do that makes us dislike them. We might even find, with a sinking feeling in our stomach, that we do some of these ourselves.
1) Talking too much and becoming a "chaos of noise and nonsense." These people invariably talk about themselves, but even if "they speak beautifully," it's still ultimately more a soliloquy than a real conversation. Franklin mentions how funny it can be to see these kinds of people come together. They "neither hear nor care what the other says; but both talk on at any rate, and never fail to part highly disgusted with each other."
2) Asking too many questions. Interrogators are those people who have an "impertinent Inquisitiveness… of ten thousand questions," and it can feel like you're caught between a psychoanalyst and a lawyer. In itself, this might not be a bad thing, but Franklin notes it's usually just from a sense of nosiness and gossip. The questions are only designed to "discover secrets…and expose the mistakes of others."
3) Storytelling. You know those people who always have a scripted story they tell at every single gathering? Utterly painful. They'll either be entirely oblivious to how little others care for their story, or they'll be aware and carry on regardless. Franklin notes, "Old Folks are most subject to this Error," which we might think is perhaps harsh, or comically honest, depending on our age.
4) Debating. Some people are always itching for a fight or debate. The "Wrangling and Disputing" types inevitably make everyone else feel like they need to watch what they say. If you give even the lightest or most modest opinion on something, "you throw them into Rage and Passion." For them, the conversation is a boxing fight, and words are punches to be thrown.
5) Misjudging. Ribbing or mocking someone should be a careful business. We must never mock "Misfortunes, Defects, or Deformities of any kind", and should always be 100% sure we won't upset anyone. If there's any doubt about how a "joke" will be taken, don't say it. Offense is easily taken and hard to forget.
On practical philosophy
Franklin's essay is a trove of great advice, and this article only touches on the major themes. It really is worth your time to read it in its entirety. As you do, it's hard not to smile along or to think, "Yes! I've been in that situation." Though the world has changed dramatically in the 300 years since Franklin's essay, much is exactly the same. Basic etiquette doesn't change.
If there's only one thing to take away from Franklin's essay, it comes at the end, where he revises his simple recipe for being nice:
"Be ever ready to hear what others say… and do not censure others, nor expose their Failings, but kindly excuse or hide them"
So, all it takes to be good company is to listen and accept someone for who they are.
Philosophy doesn't always have to be about huge questions of truth, beauty, morality, art, or meaning. Sometimes it can teach us simply how to not be a jerk.
A recent study analyzed the skulls of early Homo species to learn more about the evolution of primate brains.