Predicting future technologies with Eric Drexler

Tom James @ 07-07-2009

chipEric Drexler describes how you can apply scientific methods to assess the lower bounds of the capabilities of future technologies:

A subset of the potential capabilities of future levels of technology can be understood by means of a design process that can be described as exploratory engineering. This process resembles the first phase of standard design engineering (termed conceptual engineering, or conceptual design), but it serves a different purpose

In the early 20th century, a missing fabrication technology was the combination of engineering expertise and metalworking techniques (among others) that were required to build large aerospace vehicles. The physics of rocket propulsion, however, were well understood, and the strength and weight of large, well-made aluminum structures could be estimated with reasonable accuracy.

On the basis of exploratory engineering applied to this kind of knowledge, engineers who studied the matter were confident that orbital flight could be achieved by means of multistage chemically fueled rockets.

This was an element of Drexler’s Engines of Creation I found especially compelling: that we should base our ideas of future technologies not on what we already have, but what lies within the bounds of what is possible by physical laws as we understand them.

[image from quapan on flickr]


Science vs. engineering: Drexler waxes philosophical

Tom James @ 17-06-2009

engineering_scienceEric Drexler discusses the hinterland between two of the great pillars of human endeavour – science and engineering – and what they are:

Inquiry and design are seldom separate, so how can it be meaningful to call some activities “science”, and others “engineering”? I think it’s best to look beyond the mixture of inquiry and design in a project, and to consider instead its purpose. If the intended result is knowledge — a better model of what exists in the world and how it works — I think of it as science. If the intended result is a new product, process, or design methodology, I think of it as engineering.

This epistemiological discussion is with a serious goal in mind, to consider how emergent nanotechnological developments might be engineered to create products and processes we can all use:

Unlike high-energy particle physics or space science, nanotechnology springs from fields (surface science, materials science, chemistry, biology) that have no tradition of developing conceptual designs for complex systems, debating the knowns, unknowns, costs, benefits, alternative objectives, alternative solutions, and so forth, to eventually converge on objectives that coordinate the work of hundreds or thousands for a decade or more.

Without a tradition of this sort, large opportunities can go unrecognized — and in part because they are large. This will change, but I doubt that the change will be led from within.

It’s an interesting point. At what point does scientific research transfer into engineering development, and thence into entrepreneurial opportunity?

[image from jenny downing on flickr]


Map of science

Tom James @ 26-05-2009

science_topic_mapSomething wonderful, not especially relevant to science fiction, but pretty and cool:

As to what the image depicts, it was constructed by sorting roughly 800,000 scientific papers into 776 different scientific paradigms (shown as red and blue circular nodes) based on how often the papers were cited together by authors of other papers.

Links (curved lines) were made between the paradigms that shared common members, then treated as rubber bands, holding similar paradigms closer to one another when a physical simulation forced them all apart: thus the layout derives directly from the data. Larger paradigms have more papers. Labels list common words unique to each paradigm.

It tickles my sensawunda node that we can now visualise our understanding of the physical universe in this way. Look at the map in close-up here.

You can see the great flowering coagulations of health, medicine, cell biology, and biochemistry. And brain research in the midst of a three-way tug-of-war between computer science, social science, and the study of the central nervous system (which is winning).

I wonder what this map will look like in a hundred years?

[image from Information Esthetics][via Eric Drexler]


God of the gaps and the limits of science

Tom James @ 06-05-2009

thoughtAcademic Jon Taplin highlights this WSJ piece on quantum entanglement and the theories of French physicist Bernard d’Espagnat:

In March, the 87-year-old Frenchman won the prestigious $1.5 million Templeton Prize for years of work affirming “life’s spiritual dimension.”

Based on quantum behavior, Dr. d’Espagnat’s big idea is that science can only probe so far into what is real, and there’s a “veiled reality” that will always elude us.

Many scientists disagree. While Dr. d’Espagnat concedes that he can’t prove his theory, he argues that it’s about the notion of mystery. “The emotions you get from listening to Mozart,” he says, “are like the faint glimpses of ultimate reality we get” from quantum experiments. “I claim nothing more.”

I am not familiar with Prof. d’Espagnat’s work. Is he talking about the God of the gaps or the Popperian problem of induction?

[image from P/\UL on flickr]


The perils of “thinkism”

Tom James @ 07-10-2008

Kevin Kelly has an interesting comment on the technological singularity, vis a vis the assumption that given a sufficiently powerful digital computer you can accurately model the entire universe without needing correction from empirical “real world” evidence:

The notion of an instant Singularity rests upon the misguided idea that intelligence alone can solve problems.

As an essay called Why Work Toward the Singularity lets slip: “Even humans could probably solve those difficulties given hundreds of years to think about it.”

In this approach one only has to think about problems smartly enough to solve them.  I call that “thinkism.”

No amount of thinkism will discover how the cell ages, or how telomeres fall off. No intelligence, no matter how super duper, can figure out how human body works simply by reading all the known scientific literature in the world and then contemplating it.

Kelly points out that AIs should be “embodied in the world.” Other topics to consider are the impact of non-human-intelligences, based on genetic algorithms, improved data-mining methods, and evolution-based design (video link, via BoingBoing). These kinds of non-human intelligences will have/have already had profound effects.

[image from tanakawho on flickr]