Category Archives: Society

3D printing a house

See Contour Crafting: Automated Construction (via Peak Energy)

Behrokh Khoshnevis, an engineering professor at the University of Southern California, is developing a scaled up version of 3D printing that he has dubbed ‘contour crafting’. He hopes that it may one day be able to alleviate housing shortages in the world due to its speed (he estimates that an entire house can be constructed in about 20 hours) and the reduced costs associated with its use.

This is a clear cut example of a solution that, as Khoshnevis says, “benefits from advanced technology”. It tackles the complicated problem of affordable and abundant housing head on, though it would appear to do nothing about addressing the larger problem of poverty. Opponents to the technological approach might argue that the real problem has to do with the structure of societal and financial systems. Though a cheap and sturdy home might be a step up from the slums, if the underlying problems of income inequality and resource allocation still remain, they will surface in other ways. One only needs to look towards housing projects in American cities and elsewhere to know that giving someone a roof over their head doesn’t necessarily free them from a life of poverty and crime.

Khoshnevis mentions another potential use, which is using contour crafting to construct buildings in situations where previous construction methods could not work (such as in building a moon base). This strikes me as a better use of the technology, since the problems it solves here are more straightforward and direct, rather than being simply one small subset of larger socio-economic issues.

See also: ContourCrafting.org, craft.usc.edu

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Nature and Technology – Wendell Berry’s Middle Ground

Wendell Berry, in his essay ‘Preserving Wildness’, defines his position on the issue of protecting ‘nature’ and ‘wilderness’. He views this problem as one which there is often a high degree of polarization between ‘nature extremists’ on the one hand, who see the natural operations of the environment as dominant over mankind’s imposed artificiality and who favor something like a primitivist, back-to-the-land ideology, and ‘technology extremists’ on the other hand, who believe that the creativity of the human species reigns supreme and all problems can be solved by our wits combined with new technologies. The outline of his middle ground is as follows:

1. We live in a wilderness, in which we and our works occupy a tiny space and play a tiny part. We exist under its dispensation and by its tolerance.
2. This wilderness, the universe, is somewhat hospitable to us, but it is also absolutely dangerous to us (it is going to kill us, sooner or later), and we are absolutely dependent upon it.
3. That we depend on what we are endangered by is a problem not solvable by “problem solving.” It does not have what the nature romantic or the technocrat would regard as a solution. We are not going back to the Garden of Eden, nor are we going to manufacture an Industrial Paradise.
4. There does exist a possibility that we can live more or less in harmony with our native wilderness; I am betting my life that such a harmony is possible. But I do not believe that it can be achieved simply or easily or that it can ever be perfect, and I am certain that it can never be made, once and for all, but is the forever unfinished lifework of our species.
5. It is not possible (at least, not for very long) for humans to intend their own good, in the long run, without intending the good of our place – which means, ultimately, the good of the world.
6. To use or not to use nature is not a choice that is available to us; we can live only at the expense of other lives. Our choice has rather to do with how and how much to use. This is not a choice that can be decided satisfactorily in principle or in theory; it is a choice intransigently impractical. That is, it must be worked out in local practice because, by necessity, the practice will vary somewhat from one locality to another. There is, thus, no practical way that we can intend the good of the world; practice can only be local.
7. If there is no escape from the human use of nature, then human good cannot be simply synonymous with natural good.
He acknowledges that we cannot live in the world without changing it to some degree:
We have no way to work at this question, it seems to me, except by perceiving that, in order to have the world, we must share it, both with each other and with other creatures, which is immediately complicated by the further perception that, in order to live in the world, we must use it somewhat at the expense of other creatures. We must acknowledge both the centrality and the limits of our self-interest. One can hardly imagine a tougher situation.
But he also asserts that we cannot take the inevitability of our having an impact on the world to declare a free-for-all, anything-goes attitude towards that impact:
The worst disease of the world now is probably the ideology of technological heroism, according to which more and more people willingly cause large-scale effects that they do not foresee and that they cannot control.

The Tragedy of Science

Well, still quite busy, but perhaps I can make some time for a brief discussion.

I mentioned a few weeks ago that I have been looking through a book called ‘Modern Science and Human Values’, by William Lowrance. There are many interesting ideas in it, and I haven’t yet even made it halfway through the book, but I want to bring up one of his comments. The book is all about the ongoing effect that scientific knowledge and technological inventions have on the developments of the human species. Early on in the book, Lowrance states that his approach to the subject is one in which he views technical progress as ‘deliberately directed tragedy’. Where ‘tragedy’, he clarifies, is taken to mean “the deliberate confrontation of deeply important but nearly irresolvable life issues.” He goes on to say that “tragedy begins in our knowing of causalities, in our intervening in particular causes, and in our technical enlargement of interventional possibilities.” Examples of this are quite prevalent from the large scale to the small. With the production of atomic bombs, the question arises, when and where do you use them? What are the costs (in terms of money or people) of using them or not using them? With the development of medical technology, and the rise in cost associated with more complex machinery, the question can be asked, when is it too costly to preserve a life? The tragedy of these situations is due to competition between two or more values on a stage where there is no clear winner.

I agree with Lowrance’s view that science gives us tragic confrontations, for the same reason as gaining any sort of knowledge can open up difficult choices. It’s the well-worn idea that ‘ignorance is bliss’. The humanities – art, literature, music, etc. – can help us in this regard, teaching us how to deal with tragedy, with the tragic confrontation of values.

This theme has more or less been an undercurrent to much of what I’ve written about so far in this blog, and I want to continue to explore to it, to hash out the relationships between science, technology, values, and progress and to begin to address in some small way the questions that arise at the boundaries of these topics. Science and technology present us with many difficult issues. Rather than embrace ignorance, or make a blanket decision to forgo all technological advancements, is there some way of deliberately determining the level of technology to accept in our daily lives? What are the tools I need to live my values and attain my goals? What are the tools that humanity needs? How do we, as a species, deal with the uncomfortable truths that science might uncover?

Presence and Productivity

Jamais Cascio had an essay in The Atlantic a few years ago that I only just found (see Get Smarter) on the use of new technologies to boost our intelligence. The essay is mostly a response to the ideas posed by an earlier essay by Nicholas Carr, Is Google Making Us Stupid, i.e., is the constant onslaught of information that we experience everyday making it impossible to concentrate on and think deeply about one particular task. Cascio challenges the idea that we become stupider when we assign more of our mental ability to technological assistance and makes the case that, to the contrary, we are increasing our ‘fluid intelligence’, “the ability to find meaning in confusion and to solve new problems, independent of acquired knowledge.”

Most people don’t realize that this process is already under way. In fact, it’s happening all around us, across the full spectrum of how we understand intelligence. It’s visible in the hive mind of the Internet, in the powerful tools for simulation and visualization that are jump-starting new scientific disciplines, and in the development of drugs that some people (myself included) have discovered let them study harder, focus better, and stay awake longer with full clarity. So far, these augmentations have largely been outside of our bodies, but they’re very much part of who we are today: they’re physically separate from us, but we and they are becoming cognitively inseparable. And advances over the next few decades, driven by breakthroughs in genetic engineering and artificial intelligence, will make today’s technologies seem primitive. The nascent jargon of the field describes this as “ intelligence augmentation.” I prefer to think of it as “You+.”

As off-putting as this may sound to some people, he points out that we take for granted many ways that technology (be it physical objects or simply just tactics and techniques) already permeate our lives and enable us to do things humans didn’t used to be able to do. What’s more, technology has already been enhancing our mental abilities for the last several centuries.

Of course, we’ve been augmenting our ability to think for millennia. When we developed written language, we significantly increased our functional memory and our ability to share insights and knowledge across time and space. The same thing happened with the invention of the printing press, the telegraph, and the radio. The rise of urbanization allowed a fraction of the populace to focus on more-cerebral tasks—a fraction that grew inexorably as more-complex economic and social practices demanded more knowledge work, and industrial technology reduced the demand for manual labor. And caffeine and nicotine, of course, are both classic cognitive-enhancement drugs, primitive though they may be.

The future, as he sees it, involves more ‘intelligence augmentation’ and a greater push towards tools for increased productivity (just consider the levels of caffeine consumed in the US).

Such a future would bear little resemblance to Brave New World or similar narcomantic nightmares; we may fear the idea of a population kept doped and placated, but we’re more likely to see a populace stuck in overdrive, searching out the last bits of competitive advantage, business insight, and radical innovation. No small amount of that innovation would be directed toward inventing the next, more powerful cognitive-enhancement technology.

This stands in contrast to the idea of ‘presence over productivity’, a theme that Maria Popova at BrainPickings touches on from time to time.

There’s an unshakable and discomfiting sense that, in our obsession with optimizing our creative routines and maximizing our productivity, we’ve forgotten how to be truly present in the gladdening mystery of life.

There is certainly a balance that must be struck between getting things done, which involves a lot of abstract thinking and planning for the future, and being aware of our surroundings and our lives in the present moment. Various people swing towards one side or the other (and as Popova points out, different people have different ways of being ‘present’). For my part, I’m still trying to find the right proportion of each. It’s a work in progress.

Science and Mystery

Steven Pinker’s essay defending scientism (which I made some brief comments on yesterday) has unsurprisingly drawn some criticisms from the humanities crowd. A. Jay Adler has commented:

What is one to make of an essay that evinces not the least visible recognition of a difference between a human being and a humanoid, between human experience and humanoid operation?

And there was a response from Leon Wieseltier, one of the editors of The New Republic:

We are becoming a massively datafied, quantified society which looks for wisdom in numbers, and thinks that numbers can provide certainties of certain kinds. Owing to the explosion of big data, there has developed this excessive confidence in the ability of the quantifying disciplines to explain human life.

I did not interpret Pinker’s essay as an out-and-out attempt to completely replace the methods of the humanities with the methods of the sciences, but rather to complement them. As he says,

It is not an imperialistic drive to occupy the humanities; the promise of science is to enrich and diversify the intellectual tools of humanistic scholarship, not to obliterate them.

This a much more benign stance than some scientists have taken. E. O. Wilson, for example, said in Sociobiology: The New Synthesis:

Scientists and humanists should consider together the possibility that the time has come for ethics to be removed temporarily from the hands of the philosophers and biologicized.

which is a pretty aggressive statement. But using the sciences to address some the most funamental questions, questions that seem like they perhaps shouldn’t be within the realm of science, isn’t the only issue. There is also a fear that an overemphasis on the sciences may lead to a forgetting of the important subjective aspects of human experience, the difficult to define qualia that lend life much of its meaning. Wieseltier expresses this fear when he says

My worst case scenario is that people stop regarding themselves as souls, which is a word I use not in a religious sense, or as selves, which is a word I use in a very rich, almost nonsecular sense, that they regard themselves as the sum total of the materialistic influences upon them, that they lose any sense of the mysteriousness of human experience and human feeling.

Here he is stating that this sense of the mysterious is a fundamental element of what it means to be human. This is interesting considering that Albert Einstein mentioned this same thing as a fundamental driving element of science,

The most beautiful and deepest experience a man can have is the sense of the mysterious. It is the underlying principle of religion as well as of all serious endeavour in art and science. He who never had this experience seems to me, if not dead, then at least blind. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious. To me it suffices to wonder at these secrets and to attempt humbly to grasp with my mind a mere image of the lofty structure of all there is.

Behind all the seeking that people do, whether in the meticulous observation and logical reasoning of the sciences or the intuitive, subjective exploration of the arts, there is the general desire to address some of these grand existential mysteries. There are all sorts of different complementary methods by which we may try to construct an understanding of ourselves and build a way forward.

I think that the point that Pinker was trying to make wasn’t that we don’t need the humanities or that they are unimportant, but instead that any worldview that emerges from that work must necessarily be based in objective scientific facts. That though “the scientific facts do not by themselves dictate values, they certainly hem in the possibilities.” Science cannot define for us how to live or where to find love and happiness, but it does place some limitations on what answers we can choose. It can tell us that a 6000 year old Earth is not a viable religious belief, that “there is no such thing as fate, providence, karma, spells, curses, augury, divine retribution, or answered prayers”, and that some of the most basic human emotions are inexorably linked with neural processes. The truth is, objective facts about ourselves can be quite empowering. Almost by definition this ‘sense of the mysterious’ must have elements that cannot be dealt with scientifically, but by applying scientific methods to such vague notions as morality, love, and happiness, we can more carefully pinpoint what it is we hope to capture. Barabara Fredrickson said this quite well

Learning how love works can make a clear difference in your life. It can help you prioritise moments of shared positive emotions and elevate your faith in humanity. Science need not inevitably leave you holding a flat corkboard with a dismembered butterfly pinned to it. Science can also glorify, painting a colourful and multidimensional road map for a more potent life journey, one that eliminates the detours of false hopes, false prophets, false claims, and charts a course toward the real thing.

A Country Worth Defending

 

Robert R. Wilson

 

In 1969 the physicist Robert Wilson testified before the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy in defense of the new particle accelerator being built at Fermilab. With the US steeped in cold war fervor and in the midst of the Vietnam War, a senator asked Wilson whether the new accelerator would have any connection to national security interests. Wilson’s response? “No.” He then goes on to give several eloquent responses to the senator’s prompts and explains why pure science is something to be pursued for its own sake.

 

SENATOR PASTORE. Is there anything connected in the hopes of this accelerator that in any way involves the security of the country?

DR. WILSON. No, sir; I do not believe so.

SENATOR PASTORE. Nothing at all?

DR. WILSON. Nothing at all.

SENATOR PASTORE. It has no value in that respect?

DR. WILSON. It only has to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture. It has to do with those things.

It has nothing to do with the military. I am sorry.

SENATOR PASTORE. Don’t be sorry for it.

DR. WILSON. I am not, but I cannot in honesty say it has any such application.

SENATOR PASTORE. Is there anything here that projects us in a position of being competitive with the Russians, with regard to this race?

DR. WILSON. Only from a long-range point of view, of a developing technology. Otherwise, it has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things that we really venerate and honor in our country and are patriotic about.

In that sense, this new knowledge has all to do with honor and country but it has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to help make it worth defending.

The rest of the transcript is available here.