H/t Foresight Institute.
Wow! Congratulations to Nick Bostrom, Ray Kurzweil, and Jamais Cascio for being selected for Foreign Policy's first annual list of Top 100 Global Thinkers. Their associated writeups can be found here.
Ray Kurzweil: "for advancing the technology of eternal life".
Jamais Cascio: "for being our moral guide to the future."
Nick Bostrom: "for accepting no limits on human potential."
Two transhumanists and one "non-transhumanist transhumanist" on the list!
Scanning the list, another notable names are Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Steven Chu, Henry Kissinger, Peter Singer, Linus Torvalds, and Larry Summers.
#19 is Gladwell. He has been keeping his igon values well calibrated, I see. Here's a quote from his associated write-up:
By making surprising arguments seem obvious, Gladwell has added a serious dose of empiricism to long-form journalism and changed how we think about thought itself.
This sentence causes pain in my mind. I am shocked at how Gladwell is perceived as a scientific writer by the broader public, even intellectuals. His arguments contradict science. This gives me a window into the scientific standards of the "intellectual elite" behind Foreign Policy.
Robin Hanson, economist and author of Overcoming Bias, recently appeared in USA Today talking about SETI. He appears as a counterpoint to Seth Shostak, a guy who I believe is totally out of it. Here's the relevant section:
But researchers such as Robin Hanson of George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., wonder whether the big picture really looks so promising when it comes to advanced life. Hanson supports SETI but finds it telling that humans havenâ€™t come across anything yet. â€œIt has been remarkable and somewhat discouraging,â€ Hanson says, â€œthat the universe is so damn big and so damn dead.â€
Great quote, love it. To quote Marshall T. Savage, author of that superlative masterpiece, The Millennial Project:
There is a program to actively search for signals from other civilizations in the galaxy: SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). This is a noble cause, but it seems slightly absurd. Scientists huddle around radio telescopes listening intently to one star at a time for the sound of dripping water, when what they are seeking would sound like Niagara Falls. The most cursory radio snapshot of the sky should reveal K2 civilizations as clearly as the lights of great cities seen from orbit at night. That we don't see any such radio beacons in the skies probably means there are no Kardasahev Level Two civilizations in this galaxy.
Perhaps advanced civilizations don't use radio, or radar, or microwaves. Advanced technology can be invoked as an explanation for the absence of extra terrestrial radio signals. But it seems unlikely that their technology would leave no imprint anywhere in the electromagnetic spectrum. We have been compared to the aborigine who remains blissfully unaware of the storm of radio and TV saturating the airwaves around him. Presumably, the aliens use advanced means of communications which we cannot detect. What these means might be is, by definition, unknown, but they must be extremely exotic. We don't detect K2 signals in the form of laser pulses, gamma rays, cosmic rays, or even neutrinos. Therefore, the aliens must use system that we haven't even imagined.
The argument, appealing thought it is, cannot survive contact with Occam's razor -- in this case Occam's machete. The evidence in hand is simply nothing -- no signals. To explain the absence of signals in the presence of aliens, demands recourse to what is essentially magic. Unfortunately, the iron laws of logic demand that we reject such wishful thinking in favor of the simplest explanation which fits the data: No signals, no aliens.
The skies are thunderous in their silence; the Moon eloquent in its blankness; the aliens are conclusive by their absence. The extraterrestrials aren't here. They've never been here. They're never coming here. They aren't coming because they don't exist. We are alone.
If Dr. Shostak wants to find some aliens, perhaps he should try ingesting some powerful hallucinogens. Then he will be able to see all the aliens he wants.
In futurist circles and think tanks, sometimes the question comes up, "in the long run, which will be more effective, offense or defense?" The answer to this question has serious implications for which direction we should move in as a civilization -- if defense is easier, then many autonomous, independent, largely unaccountable communities might be possible, but if offense is easier, then there may need to be a global police force to put down rogue states before they start invading their neighbors. A more acceptable version of a global police force would be an impartial singleton.
The first, and obvious point, is that this question is entirely technical, a matter of military and physical reality, unconnected to political or ideological beliefs. Political beliefs should flow from the technical assessment, not influence it. So, if it turns out that offense is easier, those that strongly support the existence of many autonomous unaccountable geopolitical units will be forced, whether they like it or not, to adjust their beliefs slightly to the other end of the spectrum, depending on how much better offense is than defense. Conversely, if defense is easier, police state globalists would be forced to acknowledge that their policing might not be as necessary as they want it to be.
In Atlantis, or some other imaginary ideal society, people look at the facts first, and formulate political beliefs later. All political beliefs are based on bedrocks of implicit facts, and if these facts turn out to be incorrect, the beliefs must be changed. One can imagine hypothetical sets of facts that arbitrarily force a reasonable person to adopt seemingly extreme beliefs.
Back to the attack vs. defense question. Looking at just the technology, it appears to me that attack is stronger than defense. Ballistic missiles have tremendous mass and momentum, and no proven technology would be capable of intercepting most of the thousands of missiles that could be launched by Russia or the United States. Submarines, which some have argued would deter nuclear war by offering second strikes, in fact exacerbate the risk by allowing first strikes due to their close proximity to a target country. The surprise benefit of submarine-launched ballistic missiles would lead them naturally to be launched first in a nuclear war, not last. This is already common knowledge among military planners.
What about the future? It seems as if attack technology will become better than it already is, if anything. Superior materials will allow ballistic missile submarines that can dive even deeper and become even more difficult to locate and destroy. (In the niche of submarines, it seems like defense might actually be better! Too bad it would be impractical to move all our cities and farms into stealthy underwater subs.) If effective interceptors can be developed to block conventional ballistic missile technologies, then missiles will simply evolve to overwhelm the interceptors, as they always have. Even today, it is cheaper to launch many dummy missiles than develop the technology to detect and dispatch all genuine missiles before they reach their targets.
The heat and pressure generated by nuclear bombs is tremendous, a consequence of the unfamiliar power locked in nuclear bonds relative to chemical bonds. In the very long run, avoiding the danger of nuclear bombs may become possible by using utility fog to throw up massive shields -- but far more material is required to build an effective blast shield for an entire city than the material necessary to construct a nuclear bomb. Such materials might also be quickly penetrated by forerunner missiles, only to be followed by a primary salvo seconds later. In an arms race between weapons and shields, weapons are frequently, if not always, likely to win.
Considering weapons aside from just nuclear bombs, within a couple decades it will be possible to construct tiny, possibly even microscopic machines that can deliver fatal doses of toxin to human targets or sabotage sensitive electronic equipment with the most innocuous of payloads. Such machines could be distributed across enemy territory days or even weeks in advance, spreading as slowly and at as low a density as necessary to avoid tripping detection equipment. With such technology, even a small ruthless country with a large military, such as North Korea, might be able to take out a so-called juggernaut such as the United States. Unless we have abundant nanomachines flowing through our veins and crawling over our skin, analyzing every particle for the presence of a few nanograms of lethal toxin, the microbot approach to total war will prove highly effective.
To challenge those who disagree with me, I ask how a defense measure that costs equal to or less than nuclear missiles might be developed, or how a defense program against lethal microbots might be established that allows the citizenry of a country to go about their daily business. Frequently, it seems that an effective defensive technology is 20-30 years more advanced than an effective offensive technology. Since there are many dozens of nations around the world within 20-30 years of parity with each other in terms of technology, the future of war seems to place a large incentive on making first strikes. Avoiding rapidly escalating lethal wars seems to be either dependent on a major technology differential (like Israel vs. Hamas), or the inherent universal benevolence of political leaders. Unfortunately, voters tend select leaders that think of their own country first, and the world community afterward.