Category Archives: Science!

So This Is Happening In Just A Few Days…

…unless you’re here on the 7th of this month (June 2018 if you’re here from the future) in which case it’s happening / it happened this morning, or after the 7th it already happened.

It’s pretty routine surgery, so the chances of things going hinky are low.

This could be the end of about a quarter century of limping and inconvenience, about a decade and a half of significant chronic pain, and six or seven years of constant major chronic pain.

Fingers crossed, but not legs since they tell me that can dislocate a new metal hip if done before everything is healed sufficiently.

Peace, and I hope to be posting here as a cyborg a few days after the 7th.

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The Sun Will Set On The Open-Air Farm

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Not today. Probably not this century. In the next, I’d be shocked if it didn’t start happening. Outdoor farms in their sprawling plant-filled glory will one day be extinct in most “developed” countries and will be a marker of terrible, desperate poverty.

There are already experiments in urban and/or indoor farming. Experiments and practical endeavors, in fact. With tall racks of trays and hydroponic and similar setups, optimized artificial lighting and harvesting, and total climate control (oh, this is the next paragraph right here, just you wait and see) an indoor farm can produce a LOT more food in the same volume of old-fashioned dirt farm.

And there’s another benefit, one that will grow much more valuable as time advances. You see, the climate is changing, and we humans changed it mainly by burning billions of tons of the distilled hundreds-of-millions-of-years-old forests and dinosaurs we call oil, coal, and natural gas. You can’t burn that much carbon-bearing material and not impact the environment you release it into. Deny it if you want, but the facts say it’s changing and we had a lot to do with it.

Climate change changes farming. Extreme weather events become more common because the global flows of air and heat are disrupted and you can’t disrupt a gigantic complex system without introducing chaos. Rainfall patterns and which land is suited for what crop change as wet land becomes arid (and presumably vice-versa as it’s a big globe with more than the USA in it), and temperatures and season lengths change.

So how do you escape chaotic weather that threatens crops? How do you immunize yourself against the shifting of agricultural zones under the whip of a changing global climate?

You move indoors, of course.

One day, our farms will be many, many thousands of enormous warehouse spaces full of light and the smell of growing things while the hot breath of the climate we screwed up howls against the doors.

Surprise Asteroid + “Fake News” =

The article pictured above mentions an asteroid large enough to mimic a nuclear airburst, noticed only a day before a close flyby of Earth.

A day.

Right now, in the US and UK at least (likely elsewhere, but I’m not politically knowledgeable enough to point fingers in those directions) it’s fashionable to holler “fake news!” if a fact doesn’t agree with one’s assumptions and/or want-to-believes. Mostly on the political right, though I’ve sadly seen some on the left and even center catching the feelings-over-facts bug.

So. Imagine a rock from space smearing a city in a tense nation. The astronomy community says “hey, look, here’s video proof we saw it a day ago.”

And a few influential hawks shout back, sneering: “fake news! Fake video!”

Millions cheer for war. Saner heads are ignored — after all, didn’t Breitbart and Infowars and Trump (or the parallel orgs & people in another nation) say it wasn’t an asteroid? In fact it was a nuclear attack! And the [whoever is in the doghouse with the struck nation] did it! LET’S GET THEM!

This is one of the more out-there scenarios — more than likely, the “fake news” conspiracy theorist howl will kill us all in simpler ways, or even just lock us into an extra-paranoid authoritarian dystopia.

But the end could begin with a real asteroid mistaken (or misrepresented) for fake.

Automation Will Be Bigger Than It Ought To Be

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I really hope they don’t automate the babies.

Automation is coming — in fact, it is already here. It will be the biggest story of the 21st century, if underreported due to it being less flashy than a big natural disaster or loudmouth world leader.I say it’s already here because it’s been the biggest story for a while now. It was a big story in the early 20th century when the assembly line became a thing and factories quickly grew into massive employers because of the need for robots, but robots hadn’t been invented yet so they just paid humans to do the exact same small portion of a job over and over and over and over and over and over and over again hundreds of times daily, forever and ever, time without end, amen.

And then someone did invent the robot, and in the last threeish decades of the 20th century it was the biggest story (if underreported) again. People variously blame outsourcing and trade imbalances and minimum wage and unions and other things for the evaporation of middle-class-paying factory jobs, but the fact of the matter is that most of them have given way to automation.

Automation was a major driver in rising income inequality, in the shrinking of the middle class, in the erosion of inflation-adjusted wages, in the increase in part-time jobs and decrease in full-time employment, in the… you get the idea. The ramifications are much wider than we see. Or want to see. Political discourse is still hung up on trade imbalances (I have a HUGE trade imbalance with the grocery store but you don’t see ME crying about it) and tariffs and outsourcing. All those things matter, but not a tenth as much as jobs being replaced by robots that are more cost-effective, don’t call in sick, don’t make worker’s comp claims, don’t unionize, don’t complain about not making enough to pay the rent, eat, and pay for healthcare at the same time, don’t have bothersome events like weddings and funerals to attend, don’t have heart attacks at work which just shoots productivity for the day right down the damn toilet, and more.

Wow, human workers suck compared to workers.

But actually, there are a lot of jobs robots don’t do well. Robots aren’t very adaptable. Robots suck at human interaction. Robots aren’t creative. They just do a simple job or a few simple jobs quickly and well, over and over and over and over and over.

That’s changing. Much like computers that once took up a whole room to serve only as well as the calculator app on the phone in your pocket does today, robots are getting better at their jobs fast. They’re replacing ever more production jobs. They’re making inroads into white collar jobs. They’re heading toward being way more ubiquitous than anyone but a few technologists, futurists, and science fiction writers thought possible even twenty or thirty years ago.

They’re going to end up in places, ultimately, that they really shouldn’t be. And they’ll get there because they will have become way cheaper than now (think of how relatively cheap your smartphone is compared to the supercomputer of the 1990s, which it can outperform) and way more flexible. Adaptable.

People will be up in arms, of course, when robot nurses become common and drive out nearly all the human nurses. Or maybe not nearly, but actually all. Robots can’t show compassion, people will say. They can’t comfort the sick and dying like empathetic humans can. They can’t give the encouragement of conversation and a pat on the shoulder  and the presence of another human being.

Consider, for a moment, the ATM (or, for redundancy enthusiasts, which are apparently nearly everyone, the “ATM machine”). Reaching back to 1993, I found an article in Wired that mentions what people did not like about them when they were becoming common. People didn’t like that they were machinelike. The programmed, stilted greetings and prompts. The lack of human interaction. Sometimes, the lack of security — a human presence other than one potential victim may dissuade some criminals from striking, or at least offer up the comfort of perceived safety, where a machine does not.

But they liked the convenience. Bankers liked that they could reduce teller jobs (though my understanding is they shifted employees to other positions like sales instead of reducing headcount — but that reflects human flexibility. Remember what I said up there about automation becoming more flexible? It will.).

And now the ATM is just an accepted part of life, and hardly anyone complains about them seriously as a thing. People complain about the slowness of individual ATMs just as they complained about the slowness of individual human tellers (and still do). People complain about the fees. But people do not complain about the fact that ATMs are the way we make nearly all of our cash withdrawals and a large number of deposits as well.

Automated nurses will be like that. A couple of decades after they’re introduced, people will stop complaining about them and accept them. It will become social convention that human interaction with patients is the job of family, friends, and whatever volunteers care to look in on those without many of those.

I think that will basically suck, but if the money says robot nurses, we will have robot nurses.

The same story, over the coming decades and perhaps into the 21st (robotic flexibility has a long way to go), will play out among firefighters and police officers and short order cooks and fast food staff and store clerks and warehouse workers and postal carriers and parcel deliverypeople and florists and paralegals and lawyers and EMTs and professional drivers of all stripes and and and…

In a hundred years, I think we’ll be talking about whether or not employment numbers are over five percent, not whether unemployment is over five percent.

It will be a strange world to people like me born in the 1970s. Assuming medical science advances fast enough to keep me alive into the 22nd, which I think is unlikely (DAMMIT).

 

(This first appeared on my Patreon page ten days ago. Become a patron and regardless of the size of your pledge you will see all of my best and beefiest blog posts at least a week before they appear here!)

Food Printing Could Change So Much

Food printing right now is limited to stuff like pasta and candy. Simple stuff with few ingredients.

But imagine a day when it’s quick and simple to print a burger or pizza or steak.

I don’t know that day will come — it’s difficult to imagine the incredible advances it would take to do such a thing.

But if it gets done it seems likely to proceed like computer tech, from bulky and expensive to cheap and ubiquitous in a generation or two.

Maybe by 2218 we’ll see something like that. It would knock the guts out of the restaurant industry. Make famine response easier. Probably make us all even fatter. It might kill the cooking professions, or make them boutique commodities for rich showoffs.

I would totally buy a food printer. I’d print a box of meringues right now.

Telepathy Is Already A Thing (Kinda) — full Patreon version

I wrote a teaser for this on this blog a while back, then the full version for my Patreon a little over a week ago — though, if you care to become a patron and support my starving-writer self, you get to read things early, see exclusive posts, and sometimes even get free ebooks a month or more before release.

But — here’s the actual post now. Enjoy.

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There are a couple of ways telepathy is depicted in science fiction and fantasy. One way is literal reading, where the thoughts of the target come through in words and sentences just as we speak. Since an awful lot of our thinking is preverbal – in fact, words are a filter through which we pass our own thoughts in order to send them to another mind in audible form, which passes them through its own filter – this seems like an awfully limited form. Though still an interesting form you can build a story or skit around.

The other way is a trippier depiction. The telepath receives a mixture of what the telepathee is thinking in words, plus sensations, thoughts, memories, likes and dislikes, experiences, sensory impressions.

You are the telepathee. So am I. We do not have the power of telepathy. Nor do they, technically. But still, they do and they’re reading our minds.

Who are they?

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We already know, of course. There have been scads of essays and news stories and studies and marketing plans revolving around the gigantic load of information that Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon – pretty much anyone you buy from, anything you do, anything you say on the internet potentially yields useful information about you. What you’re thinking in words, plus sensations, thoughts, memories, likes and dislikes, experiences, even sensory impressions. All of those things provided you mention them online, actively by typing in the words of a post or passively by posting a picture, a meme, a mood, a like/favorite/whatever, reposting or retweeting, hashtagging, buying or wishlisting a thing, leaving a review, banking online – even speaking (or just being in a retail space) in range of your smartphone apps.

If your location is enabled on your smartphone – and lots of us love to use navigation and find out which restaurants are nearby around lunchtime, which depend on it – the speed, pattern, and destinations of your travel are valuable information about who you are and what you do.

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But that’s not telepathy, you protest.

Isn’t it? Isn’t it? It’s access to all the things about you that actual telepathy would sniff out. Now, it’s doubtful that a human is accessing your information individually to figure you out. There are programs and algorithms for that, and humans see the results. Humans may be reaching out to you, through junk mail and spam and the advertisements that pop up on your screen unless you’re adblocking, and from political campaigns – which are loving what analyzing the results of this kind of pseudotelepathy can do for them.

What can you do about it?

You can go offline. It’s highly inconvenient, but it can be done. No googling, no online buying, no social media, no blogging, no navigation, no asking your phone where to go for the best burger, no email.

No email.

Ew.

Wait.

No publishing online.

There goes my whole writing thing!

Which brings us to the other alternative.

Embrace the beast. It’s a scary thing fraught with the potential for abuse. Unlike previous major social shifts, this one strikes to the heart of privacy, which is a thing almost all of us like. However, you do have a certain defense. It’s the same defense as an antelope in a herd has.

It’s being in a herd. An immense herd of billions.

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The odds of you being targeted by any particular negative thing are pretty low – though it happens. One time years ago someone in Brazil tried to use my debit card to buy airline tickets (I was in Norfolk, Virginia at the time, and I haven’t gone sleepwalking since childhood so I know it wasn’t me). Luckily I was as poor then as I was now and the purchase was declined, I was alerted almost instantly, and I changed my card number which was a moderate pain in the butt as I was on a subscription service or two at the time.

It’s sort of a weird helpless feeling to be sure. But it’s probably the same as someone busting in your car window and ripping off your radio (I’m immune to that right now as the family car died and I had it towed away by a parts seller to squeeze the last $150 out of it). That happened to me once.

Once.

What is going to happen is that the mercantile powers that be will use what they pry out of you and me via this telepathy type thing to put temptation on every corner.

Temptation was on every corner before – though admittedly now it will be more efficiently targeted, which is a concept that shows up in a lot of science fiction like The Space Merchants by Pohl and Kornbluth, a pretty in-your-face version, or a lot of cyberpunk in a usually more implied fashion.

A bigger negative is one I hinted at above – political use. Right now we’re seeing it as a huge wave of fake news propaganda aimed at the people most likely to be radicalized, and seeking out as-yet-unidentified radicalization targets.

So, no nothing to do about it other than be one in a large herd, and hope to be passed by?

There is one more thing to add to this. It doesn’t stop someone from trying to buy a flight in Brazil on your dime, or from figuring out who you’re likely to vote for and filling your snailmailbox with eight thousand political flyers.

But pursuing an education in digital literacy, marketing awareness, and critical analysis of information and claims can help immensely. It will also help immensely if you teach your children, whether you’re a parent or a teacher or an authority figure of some sort, those skills.

Get to it, folks. There’s a future to navigate.

END

 

“World War Four Will Be Fought With Sticks And Stones”

It’s going to happen sooner or later. The only question is, will throwing rocks at populated areas like Earth or space habitats or settled moons and asteroids be viewed as an over the top measure and approached with extreme reluctance like nuclear weapons have been following Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or will our future Solar-system-wide civilization degenerate into an orgy of caveman rock throwing?

Only time will tell.

I Would Kill For A Tinkerbot

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I’m pretty sure there’s something a tinkerbot could fix using a chainsaw and a… um… sonic laser drill Christmas tree pinky-purply thing

(Previously: “I Would Kill For A Maidbot“)

There are a lot of little things that go wrong around a house or whatever it is that serves you as one – personally, at the moment I’m living in a trailer that’s only one year younger than my middle-aged ass and more things than average go wrong around an ailing junkpile (and, yes, as a starving writer with a starving family to support I’m totally going to pimp my Patreon and my books right here).

But, things always go awry. Entropy shows its bony claw to let you know it has not loosened its grip on the world. Sinks start dripping, toilets running, caulk and grout grow cracks, door handles loosen, lightbulbs die, vases fall and break, dresser drawers begin to squeak and catch…

…I’d kill for a tinkerbot.

An automated little helper to watch out for all those little problems and fix them before I even notice I need to. Something programmed with the right way to fix things so I’m not improvising, covering up tack holes with toothpaste and repairing cracks in the wall with strategically placed posters and fixing drafts under the doors with strategically trimmed expanding foam.

Something to fix that funny noise the fan in the bedroom is beginning to make before that funny noise grows loud and persistent enough to start annoying me – which kicks off a week or two of “I ought to fix that” followed by procrastinating and forgetting and later testily saying to myself “why the hell didn’t I fix that? Well, maybe I can take care of it after I finish cooking dinner.”

I’d kill for a tinkerbot.

I’m sure some folks with higher income would just give the tinkerbot an allowance and let it purchase deliveries of whatever it needed to do repairs. That would be awesome. But even S.A. “Under The Poverty Line” Barton could surely benefit from a bot that would advise me what is needed and then I could either bargain-shop or look for it in secondhand stores. And some things it could probably manage with just the basic set of tools I keep under one of the kitchen shelving units.

I’d kill for a tinkerbot.

Maybe the damned thing could even fix the water leak under the elderly washing machine that still works but which I must tip up and install a thick mat under every fourth load so the water won’t start running out into the hall.

Oh, yes. I would definitely kill for a tinkerbot.

And for those of you whose appliances aren’t ancient and ailing, I’d imagine a tinkerbot could still pay for itself by extending the lifetime of your newer appliances, not to mention all the hours of changing lightbulbs and touching up the housepaint and fixing gutters and whatever – and averting the larger damages and inconveniences that our not noticing and putting off that sort of thing often leads to.

Yep. Tinkerbot. Kill.

(When I write the next one in this mini-series, the link will go here)

Tweeting From Mars SUCKS

In my @Tao23 S.A. Barton Twitter identity, I sometimes trade words with good people and friends of science fiction well outside my time zone on the east coast of the USA — people in the UK, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere.

Even that little difference of night/day cycle and a few hours of displacement in waking hours sometimes leads to conversations that often have hours between one tweet and the next and can stretch over two or three days.

Imagine trying to tweet from Mars, where in addition to planetary time zones potentially creating that I’m-awake-you’re-asleep problem, you have to deal with time delays ranging up to 20 minutes for your tweet to travel through interplanetary space?

And let’s not even talk about tweeting with Titan City or, gawd forbid, Tombaugh Station located in the scenic Heart of Pluto.

If your curiosity is whetted, here’s a Medium post from science and tech journalist Duncan Geere that digs considerably deeper into what it would take to create an interplanetary internet.

I Would Kill For A Maidbot

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oh god please don’t sue me she’s just so ICONIC

I do the laundry for a household of five, including a four year old and a six year old who for some reason have to do at least two wardrobe changes daily. Shirts come off (“I got hot playing”) and go in the hamper; an hour later: “I’m cold. I need a shirt.” Or there’s a mud and dirt incident outdoors – which I live with; I’d be worried if they didn’t get dirty at this age. And there’s a fair bit of evidence playing in the dirt is a shot in the arm for growing immune systems, lowering rates of allergy and illness. But still: more laundry. It’s a rare day I don’t do two or three loads.

I’d kill for a maidbot.

Vacuuming. Sweeping. Cleaning surfaces, appliances, furniture, metal, television screens, books. Books attract a lot of dust. I have a few hundred books. Which sucks. Ten or twelve years ago before a series of moves and necessary weedings-out of possessions, I had a few thousand.

I don’t dust them enough. Or do any of the other things in the previous paragraph. I’m kind of a sucky housekeeper.

I’d kill for a maidbot.

I just thought: the maidbot wouldn’t just do the laundry, it would fold it and put it away. And rearrange the drawers when they got disorganized.

I’d kill for a maidbot.

I don’t do the dishes except a few here and there as I cook during the day. My eldest does that – we don’t have a dishwasher appliance. Imagine the time and effort he’d save. I wonder what maidbots would do to dishwasher sales?

I don’t care. I’d kill for a maidbot.

I bet the first ones will be expensive and buggy. But within five or ten years of release they’ll likely be far less buggy and no more expensive than a television – and used ones will be showing up on Craigslist and in thrift stores and pawnshops.

They’ll be one of the most popular Christmas gifts. Everyone will want one.

Wouldn’t you kill for a maidbot?

[Next: I Would Kill For A Tinkerbot]