Big Think Interview With Doug Malewicki
Doug Malewicki: Years and years ago, the wife and I were driving to a movie down Culver, which is divided with a bunch of poles and the idea hit me. But the idea was stimulated by a flyer we got from the Mayor of Irvine talking about $120 million light rail project for Irvine which seemed like a ridiculous amount of money 20 years ago. And I kind of figured this out based on my previous experience with the streamlined California Commuter that wow, we can move a lot of people around very fast with aerodynamic little vehicles, low power, and I think I was up until 2:00 in the night after that movie doing a lot of math and calculations because that’s what this all boils down to.
Question: How does the Sky Tran system work?
Doug Malewicki: We kind of call it the physical Internet. And it will be silicon-based transportation. Silicone is something different. We will have little vehicles, two-passenger tandem vehicles, very streamlined; neighborhood speed is 35 mph, major arteries is 100 mph, intercity 150 mph, and they have to be MagLev. You can’t have little vehicles with little wheels and gears, there are other personal rapid transit systems, but they’re limited to about 35-45 mph and if you get a lot of utility out of those – say, you’re putting on 60,000 miles a month, you’re changing tires and gears out all the time, we will have a maintenance nightmare. MagLev, nothing is contacting. There is no wear. So, we have to be MagLev, we have to be very small frontal area and very streamlined. And we’re talking about the equivalent of 200 mpg efficiency in terms of energy costs and no fossil fuels to burn; totally non-polluting. These things are small and light enough that all of a sudden we’re discovering that we can afford to have them solar powered. Now, solar is very expensive, but if you had a train, you couldn’t even create enough power to move a million pounds, but when you’re talking about a 200-pound vehicle with say 500 pounds of payload, solar become pretty practical. So, we may be a total non-grid powered system of the future.
Solar-powered Sky Tran, the solar can be anywhere. Ideally somewhere out in the desert. You just have to look at the costs to install it. There’s new nano-solar, which apparently is going to cut down the costs of solar by a factor of 10, and then they’re saying when we figure out some new brilliant things to cut it down by a factor of five, it will be the choice for all kinds of power. But in the meantime, we’ve got to get rid of fossil fuels. This is one thing that Sky Tran enables is getting rid of fossil fuels and moving people around fast everywhere, non-stop.
Sky Tran runs up in the air on elevated, we call them micro-freeways, guide ways. They’re trapped, they can never derail, they’re up above all traffic, so you don’t have to worry about hitting pets, or potholes in the road; there’s no such critters. You can’t hit kids or other people. People are finally becoming aware of the automatic braking systems for cars that have been around for 10 years, and we’ve been talking about that for Sky Tran forever. You need that. So, if it senses something has happened to a vehicle ahead, it will just stop automatically.
Question: How would the Sky Tran eliminate rush-hour traffic?
Doug Malewicki: Sky Tran has the potential to eliminate commuter congestion totally in the city, and that’s mainly because of the cost. Compared to the light rail especially, you can afford to put parallel guides, in other words – what’s the best way to – say the 405 Freeway. Here, which is a jam, here you could afford the 406, the 407, the 408, the 403, 402, 401 parallel, and then another set of freeways, micro-freeways, perpendicular and then these are all interconnected, so now just think, if you normally get on the 405 and it’s congested, but you could go on the 404, or the 403, or 406, 407, all of a sudden you’re traffic is way down.
The other aspect I haven’t pointed out is, the Sky Tran going 100 mph with the automation factory-type separations that are very, very common these days, we can carry more on this one little rail with these two passenger people, than a three-lane freeway per hour. So, that’s why we use this freeway analogy. And these are very low cost compared to freeways and especially to light-rail.
Question: What kind of density are you imagining for the stations?
Doug Malewicki: We don’t need a high-density around our stations as does light rail to justify the cost because our costs are minimum compared to that. So, we can actually put Sky Tran anywhere; in any little neighborhood, out in the boondocks. The big advantage when we’re talking intercity, comparing to the big trains is, say you’re going Frisco to Los Angeles. So, how many stations are you going to have? You might stop in, depending on the route, Merced, Bakersfield, Fresno, I don’t know. But here, right in San Francisco, you could have 200 stations along that route. So people could conveniently get on and the same with LA. And once you build the grids out in LA and San Francisco, you can go anywhere and get to LA. You could afford to go up there for an evening dinner and go home in a reasonable time too.
Question: How would Sky Tran deal with “the last mile” problem?
Doug Malewicki: There is a problem called, “the last mile.” In other words, if we’re on a one-mile by one-mile 3D grid in the city and we’ve got the city covered, the average person has to walk about five minutes to get to any place within that grid. That’s because we cover a city. Now, light raid, you might have one linear line in a big city. So, you might have to travel four or five miles to get to that light rail to go 15-17 miles per hours somewhere, and then when you get off, are you going to be at your place you want to be, or are you going to have to travel another three or five miles. And this is the intermodel, where you hop on a bus, hop on a light rail, and then hop on another bus to get where you really wanted.
For light rail and things like that, it’s not a last mile, it could be the last 10 miles. With us, it’s a last 600 steps that you have to worry about. And we have cool inventions, which we can’t tell you about, but how about five pound fold-up scooters and things like that that have enough range to get you there? And there’s all kinds of solutions for this. And eventually, once the Sky Tran really takes off, it’ll probably end up going right to people’s houses and maybe you’ll have one car, you won’t need three cars to a family any more and this will change the whole thing. But that’s way off in the future.
Question: How can the Sky Tran’s key technologies be applied to wind energy?
Doug Malewicki: The same Sky Tran technologies for linear synchronist motors and the MagLev are being applied to wind technologies. What we’re doing, with our partner, One Cycle Control and Power Conversion, there’s a couple of aspects of this. We are, number one: building a unit here in Irvine to go up in Palm Springs to replace a 1980’s Norwegian 58 ft diameter windmill, 65 KW. This should be going up in a couple of weeks. We’ll have to test it for a coupe of months and then there will be several hundred, if they like the data they see. In other words, we do all this math and physics, but now you’ve got to build stuff and prove it. So that’s what we’re doing. So this technology, we will eliminate the gear boxes where you have a direct drive system, 40 percent of the lifetime cost of the windmills is the gear boxes. They wear out. The same reason on Sky Tran; you don’t want gear boxes and tires, things wear out.
The other aspect is, the power conversion. We can take low, low speeds and high, high speeds and supply to the utilities, Southern California Edison in this instance, proper frequency electric. In other words, if all your frequency is 60 cycle, maybe they can accept between 50 and 70. Well if they’re grid is being pulled down to say, 59.3 cycles a second, guess what we’re going to deliver; 59.3. And this is the one-cycle control power technology. What this enables is we can gather energy at very low speeds and higher speeds, up to the limitations where you have a good structural safety factor on the props. We, side-by-side, the geared type system compared to our system, in a year we should be able to sell about double the energy to Southern California Edison on the same wind profile, on the same hill. There’s going to be pretty high. We’re getting a lot of interest and financial interest in this technology and it really actually gets better when we start talking three or five megawatt windmills. The big one. There’s even 10 megawatt windmills being designed now too.
Question: What is MagLev and how does it work?
Doug Malewicki: When you pass a magnet over a wire, it induces a current in that wire. If you run alternately, if you run a current through a wire, it creates an electromagnetic field. So, if you have a whole bunch of coils and you start passing some magnets over them, which are on this vehicle. And you design this all correctly; it will actually start lifting the vehicle off. There’s a repulsion, and it’s stable. So, now what happens, if you lose the power to propel the vehicle, you do not lose the magnetic levitation, the passive magnetic levitation. So, it’s super safe.
With seven pounds of lithium polymer backup batteries in our vehicles, say we’re going 100 mph, and we lose all grid power, we can still go three miles and we should have stations every mile apart. So, there’s a big safety factor with passive MagLev. And again, there’s always had to be some kind of MagLev because we do not want all the maintenance costs associated with gears and little tires wearing out and we want the high-speed capability.
Question: How does the Sky Tran system compare with the MagLev train?
Doug Malewicki: Like the Trans Rapid MagLev train that I think goes, what I think 300 mph in Beijing for a short distance. The first one. If they lose power, they lose their levitation. You would come to a screeching halt. They have to have all kinds of computer, uninterrupted backup power supplies and things so that never happens. And you can design that. However, that is a huge train, a very expensive – just ridiculously expensive – pretty fast and very high maintenance that because their MagLev is so critical intolerance, they have to keep that track super aligned properly. Where ours is very tolerant and our vehicles are small, so everything is cheap in comparison. A lot less expensive. That thing probably weights a million pounds and our little vehicles at gross weight weights 750 pounds. It’s just that we have a continuous stream of vehicles and they have the one big vehicle. So, they are flying; if you want to call it flying, every what, half hour? In our case, if they’re going 300 mph, in our case you’d get there, boom, you’d be on board and going. So, you’d probably get there just as quick going 150 mph if we put it side-by-side with the Beijing’s Trans Rapid System.
Question: How does Sky Tran compare to a light rail system?
Doug Malewicki: Sky Tran is a much cheaper option compared to light rail because we’re lighter, smaller, and faster. We can move more people an hour, use a lot less energy, a lot less, or no land, basically. We can pop Sky Tran onto sidewalks where they have to – there 60-70 million a mile, a lot of that is just buying up land, valuable land. We don’t need to do that. We just need a two-foot post every so many feet to build our system and we can attach it to buildings. That’s the advantage of going small. And they can carry so many people, but even if they’re coming by once very five minutes, or once every three minutes, once you have a continuous system with convenient stations everywhere, you can carry a lot more people per hour.
It’s very close to the automobile. Why have we started loving the automobile? Because we can get places faster, cheaper, more conveniently. Unfortunately, the fossil fuels – everyone is starting hating the fossil fuels. It’s just like back in the original days of this country, the Jamestown Colony was ready to go back to England, and then all of a sudden they got a product that people would buy. Guess what that was? Tobacco. And now tobacco is an evil product and fossil fuels are going that same way. And that was the second product that really made this country; World War II and everything, and all the technology based on fossil fuels. But now we’re becoming more and more aware of all the total disadvantages of it and it’s getting to be like an evil thing. It isn’t, but we will, with our little brains, figure out how to get around it. And Sky Tran is one good way to do that.
Question: Which cities are most interested in Sky Tran?
Doug Malewicki: New Orleans is very interested, I’ve been to Sweden. Sweden seems to really understand what this type of technology can do for reducing energy requirements, moving people, totally eliminating traffic congestion. We also went to Abu Dhabi; my two business buddies – partners. And they have this future of the city Mazdar being built. Now, we didn’t win that, and I was almost happy because they’re talking like a 14-mile per hour system that’s also going to carry freight and garbage and everything else like that. That’s not my goal. My goal is solving the commuter congestion problem and moving people around the city and getting dad home early – a lot faster, a lot saner, and a lot safer. We haven’t talked about safety, but safety is a big issue when you’re talking this kind of computer controlled technology.
Cities in the U.S., we’re talking to Santa Cruz is interested, Marin County, New Orleans looks very interested, NASA Aims, where we have our short little powered prototype, full-size prototype is going to create an innovation university and we may be a little feeder from the Cal Train to all over the campus there which will be a good test thing going. We’ll be running 25 mph for a year, and then the next system will be the 35 mph system, and we’ll keep building that up. There’s inquiries from all over. It’s just how many are real.
Question: How would you go about integrating Sky Tran into a current transportation system?
Doug Malewicki: We are looking into becoming like feeders for light rail. So, here’s my system, or going 40-50 mph in the beginning to feed a system that will take people around at 15 or 17 mph. We also make a lot of sense for the future for airports, to take people right to their gates. You pop in luggage in another vehicle and it would take you right there.
One of the real good future things is, say you’re going to Florida, you get on in New York, you fly down to Florida, you checked your baggage in, in New York, you never have to see it again. It’s gong to appear in your hotel. The Sky Tran Micro Freeway is so inexpensive, we could run it – once you get off the airport in Florida to 50 different hotels. And you’d get out at your gate, within 200 feet, you’d be on the Sky Tran and boom, you’d be in your hotel you picked, and your luggage might already be there, or it might be there 10 minutes later. That’s the future that I’ve always seen for this type of a system.
Question: What should be the role of policymakers in this undertaking?
Doug Malewicki: We don’t need their money. This should be a private enterprise. We just don’t need the special interests protection 1900’s train technologies like it’s the ultimate forever. Everything can be improved forever. We’re trying to do that, baby. It is so logical. The computer technology, the aerodynamics, the composite structures, the control systems, the user interface, it’s all well understood. It could have been done 15 or 10 years ago, easily. So, it just takes a while for people to grasp it. They’ll probably be scared of it the first couple of years; the teenagers will love it right off the bat; the iPhone kids. And little by little it’ll open up a lot of things. Younger people will be able to go places with ease. Older, more frail people who don’t have a driver’s licenses anymore can go places. Emergency medical service. Bam. One hundred mph into the Emergency Room directly when you have a problem. All kinds of things you have to spend a lot of time understanding all the implications of what this kind of a transportation system can provide.
Question: How would the technology you are developing lead to low-cost access to space?
Doug Malewicki: Sky Tran technology applies to many, many other fields, and especially our partner who is now – we are all licensed and business official partners with exclusive licenses, one cycle control. We could even do lower cost access to space with electronics; with this power conversion system. Greg Smedley and his genius wife, Kay, have come up with – we could build a small guide way up a mountain, say like in Hawaii. I wouldn’t mind spending some time over there. More time over there. And if you look at a regular space vehicle, 50% of the fuel is used to get up to about 50,000 feet and 1,200 miles per hour. And we could be doing electric launches that would take payloads, up to about Mach1, a little less than 1,200 mph, at 10,000 ft elevation. And then they’re working super sonic combustion ram jets. And that’s getting more feasible. And you can get out of 99% of Earth’s atmosphere and then you finally have this little rocket that would boost you out. These are micro-satellites. These are not big space shuttle-type vehicles.
Then, while the cart – the dolly that carried this supersonic ram jet up the mountain building up to speed is coasting back, you actually are regenerating capturing some of your energy. So, it makes micro-satellite launches very cheap.
The aeronautical engineers like myself who have been looking at this as a method to launch stuff into space cheaply for years, but the electronic power conversion technology we have now is really making it look practical. It’ll happen.
Question: What are some other game changing mobility ideas out there right now?
Doug Malewicki: I don’t think the Segway is one, but I think Elon Musk creating that company to build the test electric cars is one. He’s also done SpaceX. And he is doing – actually they have launched the first commercial liquid fuel paying payload ever in history by a commercial company. And he’s getting ready to launch stuff – big stuff. Vulcan 9, which will carry supplies to the Space Station so we don’t have to shoot billions of dollars to Russia, we can spend it here. And they’re also going to do a man rated capsule.
Other mobility technology is out there. There are other, what they call, personal rapid transit systems out there. A whole bunch of people with ideas, but they’re all 35-45 mph limited systems. They may work in the interim. High speed rail, forget it. You can do so much more with this because you’re not scheduled, you’re on demand, and you can just go non-stop to where you want. It’s going to make a lot more sense.
Airplanes. Everyone wants to go Mach 3. When there will be personal rockets to go from her to Europe, who knows. But some days we’ll have the Star Trek goodies. Teleportation would be great. I don’t know if anyone’s really coming close to figuring that one out. \r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n
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Cross-disciplinary cooperation is needed to save civilization.
- There is a great disconnect between the sciences and the humanities.
- Solutions to most of our real-world problems need both ways of knowing.
- Moving beyond the two-culture divide is an essential step to ensure our project of civilization.
For the past five years, I ran the Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Engagement at Dartmouth, an initiative sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation. Our mission has been to find ways to bring scientists and humanists together, often in public venues or — after Covid-19 — online, to discuss questions that transcend the narrow confines of a single discipline.
It turns out that these questions are at the very center of the much needed and urgent conversation about our collective future. While the complexity of the problems we face asks for a multi-cultural integration of different ways of knowing, the tools at hand are scarce and mostly ineffective. We need to rethink and learn how to collaborate productively across disciplinary cultures.
The danger of hyper-specialization
The explosive expansion of knowledge that started in the mid 1800s led to hyper-specialization inside and outside academia. Even within a single discipline, say philosophy or physics, professionals often don't understand one another. As I wrote here before, "This fragmentation of knowledge inside and outside of academia is the hallmark of our times, an amplification of the clash of the Two Cultures that physicist and novelist C.P. Snow admonished his Cambridge colleagues in 1959." The loss is palpable, intellectually and socially. Knowledge is not adept to reductionism. Sure, a specialist will make progress in her chosen field, but the tunnel vision of hyper-specialization creates a loss of context: you do the work not knowing how it fits into the bigger picture or, more alarmingly, how it may impact society.
Many of the existential risks we face today — AI and its impact on the workforce, the dangerous loss of privacy due to data mining and sharing, the threat of cyberwarfare, the threat of biowarfare, the threat of global warming, the threat of nuclear terrorism, the threat to our humanity by the development of genetic engineering — are consequences of the growing ease of access to cutting-edge technologies and the irreversible dependence we all have on our gadgets. Technological innovation is seductive: we want to have the latest "smart" phone, 5k TV, and VR goggles because they are objects of desire and social placement.
Are we ready for the genetic revolution?
When the time comes, and experts believe it is coming sooner than we expect or are prepared for, genetic meddling with the human genome may drive social inequality to an unprecedented level with not just differences in wealth distribution but in what kind of being you become and who retains power. This is the kind of nightmare that Nobel Prize-winning geneticist Jennifer Doudna talked about in a recent Big Think video.
CRISPR 101: Curing Sickle Cell, Growing Organs, Mosquito Makeovers | Jennifer Doudna | Big Think www.youtube.com
At the heart of these advances is the dual-use nature of science, its light and shadow selves. Most technological developments are perceived and sold as spectacular advances that will either alleviate human suffering or bring increasing levels of comfort and accessibility to a growing number of people. Curing diseases is what motivated Doudna and other scientists involved with CRISPR research. But with that also came the potential for altering the genetic makeup of humanity in ways that, again, can be used for good or evil purposes.
This is not a sci-fi movie plot. The main difference between biohacking and nuclear hacking is one of scale. Nuclear technologies require industrial-level infrastructure, which is very costly and demanding. This is why nuclear research and its technological implementation have been mostly relegated to governments. Biohacking can be done in someone's backyard garage with equipment that is not very costly. The Netflix documentary series Unnatural Selection brings this point home in terrifying ways. The essential problem is this: once the genie is out of the bottle, it is virtually impossible to enforce any kind of control. The genie will not be pushed back in.
Cross-disciplinary cooperation is needed to save civilization
What, then, can be done? Such technological challenges go beyond the reach of a single discipline. CRISPR, for example, may be an invention within genetics, but its impact is vast, asking for oversight and ethical safeguards that are far from our current reality. The same with global warming, rampant environmental destruction, and growing levels of air pollution/greenhouse gas emissions that are fast emerging as we crawl into a post-pandemic era. Instead of learning the lessons from our 18 months of seclusion — that we are fragile to nature's powers, that we are co-dependent and globally linked in irreversible ways, that our individual choices affect many more than ourselves — we seem to be bent on decompressing our accumulated urges with impunity.
The experience from our experiment with the Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Engagement has taught us a few lessons that we hope can be extrapolated to the rest of society: (1) that there is huge public interest in this kind of cross-disciplinary conversation between the sciences and the humanities; (2) that there is growing consensus in academia that this conversation is needed and urgent, as similar institutes emerge in other schools; (3) that in order for an open cross-disciplinary exchange to be successful, a common language needs to be established with people talking to each other and not past each other; (4) that university and high school curricula should strive to create more courses where this sort of cross-disciplinary exchange is the norm and not the exception; (5) that this conversation needs to be taken to all sectors of society and not kept within isolated silos of intellectualism.
Moving beyond the two-culture divide is not simply an interesting intellectual exercise; it is, as humanity wrestles with its own indecisions and uncertainties, an essential step to ensure our project of civilization.
New study analyzes gravitational waves to confirm the late Stephen Hawking's black hole area theorem.
- A new paper confirms Stephen Hawking's black hole area theorem.
- The researchers used gravitational wave data to prove the theorem.
- The data came from Caltech and MIT's Advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory.
The late Stephen Hawking's black hole area theorem is correct, a new study shows. Scientists used gravitational waves to prove the famous British physicist's idea, which may lead to uncovering more underlying laws of the universe.
The theorem, elaborated by Hawking in 1971, uses Einstein's theory of general relativity as a springboard to conclude that it is not possible for the surface area of a black hole to become smaller over time. The theorem parallels the second law of thermodynamics that says the entropy (disorder) of a closed system can't decrease over time. Since the entropy of a black hole is proportional to its surface area, both must continue to increase.
As a black hole gobbles up more matter, its mass and surface area grow. But as it grows, it also spins faster, which decreases its surface area. Hawking's theorem maintains that the increase in surface area that comes from the added mass would always be larger than the decrease in surface area because of the added spin.
Will Farr, one of the co-authors of the study that was published in Physical Review Letters, said their finding demonstrates that "black hole areas are something fundamental and important." His colleague Maximiliano Isi agreed in an interview with Live Science: "Black holes have an entropy, and it's proportional to their area. It's not just a funny coincidence, it's a deep fact about the world that they reveal."
What are gravitational waves?
Gravitational waves are "ripples" in spacetime, predicted by Albert Einstein in 1916, that are created by very violent processes happening in space. Einstein showed that very massive, accelerating space objects like neutron stars or black holes that orbit each other could cause disturbances in spacetime. Like the ripples produced by tossing a rock into a lake, they would bring about "waves" of spacetime that would spread in all directions.
As LIGO shared, "These cosmic ripples would travel at the speed of light, carrying with them information about their origins, as well as clues to the nature of gravity itself."
The gravitational waves discovered by LIGO's 3,000-kilometer-long laser beam, which can detect the smallest distortions in spacetime, were generated 1.3 billion years ago by two giant black holes that were quickly spiraling toward each other.
What Stephen Hawking would have discovered if he lived longer | NASA's Michelle Thaller | Big Think www.youtube.com
Confirming Hawking's black hole area theorem
The researchers separated the signal into two parts, depending on whether it was from before or after the black holes merged. This allowed them to figure out the mass and spin of the original black holes as well as the mass and spin of the merged black hole. With this information, they calculated the surface areas of the black holes before and after the merger.
"As they spin around each other faster and faster, the gravitational waves increase in amplitude more and more until they eventually plunge into each other — making this big burst of waves," Isi elaborated. "What you're left with is a new black hole that's in this excited state, which you can then study by analyzing how it's vibrating. It's like if you ping a bell, the specific pitches and durations it rings with will tell you the structure of that bell, and also what it's made out of."
The surface area of the resulting black holes was larger than the combined area of the original black holes. This conformed to Hawking's area law.
Ever since we've had the technology, we've looked to the stars in search of alien life. It's assumed that we're looking because we want to find other life in the universe, but what if we're looking to make sure there isn't any?
Here's an equation, and a rather distressing one at that: N = R* × fP × ne × f1 × fi × fc × L. It's the Drake equation, and it describes the number of alien civilizations in our galaxy with whom we might be able to communicate. Its terms correspond to values such as the fraction of stars with planets, the fraction of planets on which life could emerge, the fraction of planets that can support intelligent life, and so on. Using conservative estimates, the minimum result of this equation is 20. There ought to be 20 intelligent alien civilizations in the Milky Way that we can contact and who can contact us. But there aren't any.
The Drake equation is an example of a broader issue in the scientific community—considering the sheer size of the universe and our knowledge that intelligence life has evolved at least once, there should be evidence for alien life. This is generally referred to as the Fermi paradox, after the physicist Enrico Fermi who first examined the contradiction between high probability of alien civilizations and their apparent absence. Fermi summed this up rather succinctly when he asked, “Where is everybody"?
But maybe this was the wrong question. A better question, albeit a more troubling one, might be “What happened to everybody?" Unlike asking where life exists in the universe, there's a clearer potential answer to this question: the Great Filter.
Why the universe is empty
Alien life is likely, but there is none that we can see. Therefore, it could be the case that somewhere along the trajectory of life's development, there is a massive and common challenge that ends alien life before it becomes intelligent enough and widespread enough for us to see—a great filter.
This filter could take many forms. It could be that having a planet in the Goldilocks' zone—the narrow band around a star where it is neither too hot nor too cold for life to exist—and having that planet contain organic molecules capable of accumulating into life is extremely unlikely. We've observed plenty of planets in the Goldilock's zone of different stars (there's estimated to be 40 billion in the Milky Way), but maybe the conditions still aren't right there for life to exist.
The Great Filter could occur at the very earliest stages of life. When you were in high school bio, you might have the refrain drilled into your head “mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell." I certainly did. However, mitochondria were at one point a separate bacteria living its own existence. At some point on Earth, a single-celled organism tried to eat one of these bacteria, except instead of being digested, the bacterium teamed up with the cell, producing extra energy that enabled the cell to develop in ways leading to higher forms of life. An event like this might be so unlikely that it's only happened once in the Milky Way.
Or, the filter could be the development of large brains, as we have. After all, we live on a planet full of many creatures, and the kind of intelligence humans have has only occurred once. It may be overwhelmingly likely that living creatures on other planets simply don't need to evolve the energy-demanding neural structures necessary for intelligence.
What if the filter is ahead of us?
These possibilities assume that the Great Filter is behind us—that humanity is a lucky species that overcame a hurdle almost all other life fails to pass. This might not be the case, however; life might evolve to our level all the time but get wiped out by some unknowable catastrophe. Discovering nuclear power is a likely event for any advanced society, but it also has the potential to destroy such a society. Utilizing a planet's resources to build an advanced civilization also destroys the planet: the current process of climate change serves as an example. Or, it could be something entirely unknown, a major threat that we can't see and won't see until it's too late.
The bleak, counterintuitive suggestion of the Great Filter is that it would be a bad sign for humanity to find alien life, especially alien life with a degree of technological advancement similar to our own. If our galaxy is truly empty and dead, it becomes more likely that we've already passed through the Great Filter. The galaxy could be empty because all other life failed some challenge that humanity passed.
If we find another alien civilization, but not a cosmos teeming with a variety of alien civilizations, the implication is that the Great Filter lies ahead of us. The galaxy should be full of life, but it is not; one other instance of life would suggest that the many other civilizations that should be there were wiped out by some catastrophe that we and our alien counterparts have yet to face.
Fortunately, we haven't found any life. Although it might be lonely, it means humanity's chances at long-term survival are a bit higher than otherwise.
As a form of civil disobedience, hacking can help make the world a better place.
- Hackers' motivations range from altruistic to nihilistic.
- Altruistic hackers expose injustices, while nihilistic ones make society more dangerous.
- The line between ethical and unethical hacking is not always clear.
The following is an excerpt from Coding Democracy by Maureen Webb, which is publishing in paperback on July 21. Reprinted with Permission from The MIT PRESS. Copyright 2020.
As people begin to hack more concertedly at the structures of the status quo, the reactions of those who benefit from things as they are will become more fierce and more punitive, at least until the "hackers" succeed in shifting the relevant power relationships. We know this from the history of social movements. At the dawning of the digital age, farmers who hack tractors will be ruthlessly punished.
Somewhere on the continuum of altruism and transgression is the kind of hacking that might lead the world toward more accountable government and informed citizenries.
Of course, it must be acknowledged that hackers are engaged in a whole range of acts, from the altruistic to the plainly nihilistic and dangerous. On the altruistic side of the continuum, they are creating free software (GNU/Linux and other software under GPL licenses), Creative Commons (Creative Commons licensing), and Open Access (designing digital interfaces to make public records and publicly funded research accessible). They are hacking surveillance and monopoly power (creating privacy tools, alternative services, cooperative platforms, and a new decentralized internet) and electoral politics and decision making (Cinque Stelle, En Comú, Ethelo, Liquid Democracy, and PartidoX). They have engaged in stunts to expose the technical flaws in voting, communications, and security systems widely used by, or imposed on, the public (by playing chess with Germany's election voting machines, hacking the German Bildschirmtext system, and stealing ministers' biometric identifiers). They have punished shady contractors like HackingTeam, HBGary, and Stratfor, spilling their corporate dealings and personal information across the internet. They have exposed the corruption of oligarchs, politicians, and hegemons (through the Panama Papers, WikiLeaks, and Xnet).
More notoriously, they have coordinated distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks to retaliate against corporate and government conduct (such as the Anonymous DDoS that protested PayPal's boycott of WikiLeaks; the ingenious use of the Internet of Things to DDoS Amazon; and the shutdown of US and Canadian government IT systems). They have hacked into databases (Manning and Snowden), leaked state secrets (Manning, Snowden, and WikiLeaks), and, in doing so, betrayed their own governments (Manning betrayed US war secrets, and Snowden betrayed US security secrets). They have interfered with elections (such as the hack and leak of the Democratic National Committee in the middle of the 2016 US election) and sown disinformation (the Russian hacking of US social media). They have interfered with property rights in order to assert user ownership, self-determination, and free software's four freedoms (farmers have hacked DRM code to repair their tractors, and Geohot unlocked the iPhone and hacked the Samsung phone to allow users administrator-level access to their devices) and to assert open access to publicly funded research. They have created black markets to evade state justice systems (such as Silk Road on the dark web) and cryptocurrencies that could undermine state-regulated monetary systems. They have meddled in geopolitics as free agents (Anonymous and the Arab Spring, and Julian Assange and his conduct with the Trump campaign). They have mucked around in and could potentially impair or shut down critical infrastructure. (The notorious "WANK worm" attack on NASA is an early, notorious, example, but hackers could potentially target banking systems, stock exchanges, electrical grids, telecommunications systems, air traffic control, chemical plants, nuclear plants, and even military "doomsday machines.")
It is impossible to calculate where these acts nudge us as a species. Some uses of hacking — such as the malicious, nihilistic hacking that harms critical infrastructure and threatens lives, and the hacking in cyberwarfare that injures the critical interests of other countries and undermines their democratic processes — are abhorrent and cannot be defended. The unfolding digital era looks very grim when one considers the threat this kind of hacking poses to peace and democracy combined with the dystopian direction states and corporations are going with digital tech.
But somewhere on the continuum of altruism and transgression is the kind of hacking that might lead the world toward more accountable government and informed citizenries, less corrupt and unfair economic systems, wiser public uses of digital tech, more self-determination for the ordinary user, fairer commercial contracts, better conditions for innovation and creativity, more decentralized and robust infrastructure systems, and an abolition of doomsday machines. In short, some hacking might move us toward a digital world in which there are more rather than fewer democratic, humanist outcomes.
It is not clear where the line between "good" and "bad" hacking should be drawn or how to regulate it wisely in every instance. Citizens should inform themselves and begin to consider this line-drawing seriously, however, since we will be grappling intensely with it for the next century or more. My personal view is that digital tech should not be used for everything. I think we should go back to simpler ways of running electrical grids and elections, for example. Systems are more resilient when they are not wholly digital and when they are smaller, more local, and modular. Consumers should have analogue options for things like fridges and cars, and design priorities for household goods should be durability and clean energy use, not interconnectedness.
In setting legal standards, prohibiting something and enforcing the prohibition are two different things. Sometimes a desired social norm can be struck by prohibiting a thing and not enforcing it strenuously. And the law can also recognize the constructive role that civil disobedience plays in the evolution of social norms, through prosecutorial discretion and judicial discretion in sentencing.
Wau Holland told the young hackers at the Paradiso that the Chaos Computer Club was "not just a bunch of techno freaks: we've been thinking about the social consequences of technology from the very beginning." Societies themselves, however, are generally just beginning to grapple with the social consequences of digital technology and with how to characterize the various acts performed by hackers, morally and legally. Each act raises a set of complex questions. Societies' responses will be part of the dialectic that determines where we end up. Should these various hacker acts be treated as incidents of public service, free speech, free association, legitimate protest, civil disobedience, and harmless pranksterism? Or should they be treated as trespass, tortious interference, intellectual property infringement, theft, fraud, conspiracy, extortion, espionage, terrorism, and treason? I invite you to think about this as you consider how hacking has been treated by societies to date.