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  1.  (8501.1)
    Neat, Sci Am lists 12 events that could "change everything" - ranging from a flu pandemic to self-aware machinrs and fusion reactors
    • CommentAuthor256
    • CommentTimeJul 2nd 2010
    For those of you who'd like to skip the "media rich" flash presentation, the 12 events are:

    • Polar meltdown
    • Extra dimensions (think this is in the context of particle physics)
    • Discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence
    • Nuclear exchange
    • Creation of life (i.e. synthetic biology)
    • Room temperature superconductors
    • Machine self-awareness
    • Human cloning
    • Pacific earthquake
    • Fusion energy
    • Asteroid collision
    • Deadly pandemic

    A little bit too tired to dig into a discussion of this right now, but I'll call back tomorrow night...
    • CommentAuthor256
    • CommentTimeJul 6th 2010
    A Curmudgeonly Look At The Future:

    Ok, so thinking about this... "Polar meltdown"/sea level rise/global warming is a given. Ditto nuclear war (isn't this a bit of an antique, these days?) and asteroid collision.

    But some of the others are a bit dubious. I guess the "extra dimensions" thing is really about confirming one of the multi-dimensional string theory models - not exactly obvious how this would change anything in terms of daily life on Earth. Maybe advancing materials research, quantum computing? It'd be fascinating, obviously, but would the man on the street care? No.

    Creation of life - didn't this actually just happen? And nobody gave a damn.

    Room temperature superconductors - ok, this would be cool. Although there are things we can do now without RTSCs that once-upon-a-time seemingly demanded them.

    Machine self-awareness - I'll bundle AI with this and call it good.

    Human cloning - really? Headlines and moral uproar, certainly. It'd interesting for genetic and psychological sciences in the same way that identical twin research is, I imagine. To me, the ability to clone and cultivate individual organs in vivo/vitro is more interesting (bum ticker? clone a new one, get a perfect transplant from yourself).

    Pacific earthquake - This just looks like First-World bullshit to me. Obviously The Big One in California would be a gigantic humanitarian disaster... But gigantic humanitarian disasters happen all the time - usually to poor people - and they do not generally "change everything". I suppose it would have substantial economic ripples.

    Fusion energy - probably the best tip for avoiding global warming, so I'll take it.

    Deadly pandemic - Deadly? Pandemic? AIDS.

    I'd be interested to hear what Whitechapel thinks are the events that could change everything.
  2.  (8501.4)

    Creation of Life: Eh, J. Craig Venter makes too big a deal of his synthetic organisms. He made a synthetic genome from other life parts and then packaged it into an existing bacterium. It's not so mindblowing as it could've been. I think what they mean by creation of life is the from-scratch production of the whole thing; enzymes, lipids, genome, organelles, all of it. And yes, that would change the world in a big way.

    RT superconductors: I share your feeling that we'll find workarounds.

    Machine self-awareness: That's just a fancy way to say "AI" anyway.

    Human Cloning: Yeah we can pretty much already do this, but we don't. The only thing that would be interesting about it actually being done would be that it would eliminate the need for men.

    Pacific earthquake: I think you're not considering two things about this...first is that California is a tremendous segment of the world economy. It's bigger than a great many countries, both economically and in territory size. Secondly, it could create tsunamis that would ruin a lot of folks' days.

    Fusion: In 2000, the Princeton University Plasma Physics Lab was pretty sure they could have a sustainable and profitable fusion reaction with a $1 bn investment and five years, as told from a firsthand source. Bush said no more funding for you, so the project got shelved and people moved on. We have the tech but it's being suppressed.

    Deadly Pandemic: Eehhhhh AIDS is managed and the transmission/mortality rates are too low to be truly concerning. Yes, almost everybody dies of HIV infection if they're untreated, but transmission is too rare if you take the right precautions for this to infect more than the current load of 40 million globally. Since that's less than 1% of the world population I'm not terribly concerned. Now, take a virus like H5N1 flu or Ebola or Nipah (which I work on), and you've got a much less manageable infection with a much faster progression of infection. Let's say that tomorrow, Nipah virus developed a sustainable means of human to human transmission. Based on the rate of transmission observed in the swine-origin H1N1 pandemic, by October, between 3.5 and 6+ billion people would be dead. That would change the world to a large degree, I think.

    There's one thing that I think the article totally overlooked that absolutely would change life on Earth: The establishment of a human colony on another planet.
  3.  (8501.5)
    John Skylar:

    Human Cloning: ... would eliminate the need for men.

    Assuming you don't think genetic diversity matters much.
  4.  (8501.6)
    @Patrick Brown The same technology that would be used for human cloning could also be used to insert merged genomes from two separate females' oocytes into a single oocyte's nucleus. It's not strictly a clone, but it preserves genetic diversity at the same time as eliminating men. It's kind of a fringe possibility, but cloning would represent a proof of concept for that process also.
  5.  (8501.7)
    "J. Craig Venter makes too big a deal of his synthetic organisms. "

    No, the media makes too big a deal over it.

    Did you read Venter's editorial in New Scientist where he specifically says they haven't "created life" and talk about how Synthia is just another step in genetic engineering?
    • CommentTimeJul 7th 2010
    I did a stint with a guy called John Petersen at the Arlington Institute who has been cataloging what he terms "wild cards", or events that could change everything. He wrote a book called "Out of the Blue", which had a bunch of them, and has since been tracking and collecting more. My favorite one was where the magnetic poles of the earth suddenly tilt or even reverse. Apparently this happens every few (million) years, and is one of those "overdue" things. Results: massive EM disruption, disruption of the Van Allen belt, end of the world as we know it, etc etc etc

    The thing I liked about the Arlington Institute was they collated everything, regardless of how fringy it might sound, and just put it in the list with all the information they could find. They didn't censor, just kept track. So you find anything from hard science to weird Mayan psychic alien voodoo stuff.
  6.  (8501.9)
    @Kosmopolit I can't get to his editorial because it's paywalled, and I agree that the media also overhyped it, but I also still think he made too much of his new toy. A lot of people in academia--myself included--do not like Venter's robber baron mentality on these kinds of things.

    @aike In the early chapters of the Cold War, the government tried to disrupt the Van Allen belts with a hydrogen bomb.
  7.  (8501.10)
    @John Skylar
    Fusion: In 2000, the Princeton University Plasma Physics Lab was pretty sure they could have a sustainable and profitable fusion reaction with a $1 bn investment and five years, as told from a firsthand source. Bush said no more funding for you, so the project got shelved and people moved on. We have the tech but it's being suppressed.

    If this is the project I'm thinking of, no tech is being suppressed, they just didn't have the results to back up the science, and I think there may have been flaws in the science too. We're just a lot further from fusion that yields a practically useful energy in to energy out ratio than all the hype (and those particular scientists) suggested.
  8.  (8501.11)
    A pacific earthquake would also have a good chance of upsetting the yellowstone caldera, which some theorize would be a near extinction level event.

    Human cloning I think has been going on to varying degrees for 50 years. What would happen if information came out that several people you know, or you yourself were clone descendants? What would be the implications of civil rights with clones? What if some degree of proof is found to support the starseed theory, and we find we're all clones?

    Another dimension, no matter how large or small will have enormous ramifications, just perhaps not instantly. I liken it to people (like Van Gough) who have cataract surgery and can see fragments of the ultraviolet light spectrum. These people's world view changes significantly.
  9.  (8501.12)
    @Mr. Duffield I'm not sure what you read to suggest there wasn't data. When I spoke to the scientists who worked there, and later looked at their data, they'd made a pretty strong self-sustaining fusion reactor. Once you get to the break-even point, it's really not all that much harder to push it to where you get energy out. Break-even is the tricky bit. The people at Princeton's Plasma Physics Lab are among the best in the world, and if they personally tell me they could have done it, I'm inclined to believe them. I found it pretty uncanny that Clinton fully funded them, and then the minute there's an oilman in the White House, their funding is slashed. It's not as if Bush was afraid of spending, after all.

    @0neiromancer I have no idea what you're talking about when it comes to cloning, but you've sure made me curious.
    • CommentTimeJul 8th 2010
    My guess is the next thing to change everything is not on that list. It is, after all, what you don't know that kills you.
  10.  (8501.14)
    The two big thing that aren't on the list to my mind:

    1. A solar superstorm like the Carrington Event could pretty much wipe out technological civilization as we know it.

    2. Nanotech - not Drexler's itty-bitty robots but stuff like this.

    Nano-Particles Improve Water Cooling Efficiency by 60%!
  11.  (8501.15)
    @John Skylar
    We might be talking cross purpose then.
    Even if their funding was cut for no good reason, what you just told me is a far cry from technology being actively suppressed. It's possible for funding to be cut (justly or unjustly) without malignant forces at work, and it happens all the time to science projects when administrations change. There will have been a process of independent review to decide whether the project was worth continued funding, and the scientists who got their funding cut (no matter how talented they are) aren't the best people to ask whether the review was fair! They're hardly going to say "yeah, we were going nowhere", regardless of what the truth of the matter is!
  12.  (8501.16)
    Technology being suppressed is more like what happened to the Electric Car than just having your funding pulled.
  13.  (8501.17)
    Scientists working on fusion tend to be incredibly optimistic about timelines and advances. If my memory's working right today (I'm on hour 10 of a 16 hour shift) one of the main public faces of fusion in the US right now is Ed Moses, and he claims we're within a year or three of getting there (if you want the bullet points, pretty sure he did a Long Now/SALT talk that you can find as a podcast). Like Paul, though, I haven't seen science to back up that or similar claims.

    I can't wholly fault the scientists, though. What gets funding these days are the big, splashy projects with overambitious goals and claims. Grant applications now necessitate bling.

    I agree with both Kosmopolit's additions. Nanotech applications to pharmacology are particularly fascinating.

    Extra dimensions: as far as I can tell they're topological necessities that sit inert and inaccessible to us. Would be big if otherwise, though.

    Pacific earthquake: take a look at California's budget right now. They're pretty screwed. Think Greece-style screwed. NPR's got a fantastic program called "Intelligence Squared" that features Oxford-style debating; one of their recent programs considered the tongue-in-cheek proposition "California is the first failed state." It's worth a listen. My digression aside, their ability to respond to a crisis is massively hampered, and my guess is that inspection regimes for building worthiness will suffer as well.

    Deadly pandemic: AIDS fits the definition, but I assume they're aiming for something more timely like an increased-lethality flu (or, god forbid, a hemhorragic fever pandemic). I'm always dubious of the "OMG we are SO overdue for one!" arguments that seem to conveniently ignore a number of factors. What worries me more than a single pandemic is the increasing antibiotic resistance we see across the board thanks to uneducated and demanding patients, managed care and the prescribing practices of physicians or drug policies of certain countries. This tends to be a bit of a loaded issue, though. When people talk about pandemics being a big problem they tend to mean "the ones that reach and rankle first world countries." It's problematic to say the least.

    We've already got some workarounds for room temp superconductors. Lots of research on the superconducting front coming to fruition lately and in the next few years, especially as regards conductive efficiency and directionality. It'll be interesting to watch RTSC and cloud-diffusive processing battle it out, though. Something to watch: there are a few specific ultra-rare minerals involved in this business that China currently holds a monopoly on. I can't remember if Congress has already or is going to set up a committee investigating strategic minerals, but it's something to keep an eye on.

    Anyone else notice how many aspects of the list focus on or heavily involve petroleum-based products without a mention of petropolitics or the future of oil?
  14.  (8501.18)
    Another world changer not mentioned: life extension.

    I'm not talking immortality here, I am suggesting that we know it's possible to live past 100 while retaining all your faculties and leading a productive life.

    Imagine if that were the norm.

    Scientists have now identified the genetic characteristics of people who live past 100.

    See here, for example or here.
  15.  (8501.19)
    we may need those death panels after all
  16.  (8501.20)
    @Kosmopolit Just in time for Social Security in the States to completely collapse, eh?

    Living past 100 would change everything, considering how we collectively treat people over 70.