Mesh networks figure extensively in my Incarnate series. They’re used by the forty-eights – and others – as a way to run parallel ‘internets’ so as not to be tracked on the original internet. But mesh networks are not all science fiction – they’re actually being used in the real world.
Augmented Reality (AR) is a technology that features heavily in my Incarnate novel series. This technology isn’t just a science fiction creation, though. Just like in my story, it’s becoming more and more a part of our lives and only promises to become a bigger part in the near future.
Machine learning and deep learning has never been more advanced than it is today, with computing power evolving tremendously and becoming capable of processing information and learn from larger data sets than ever before. An emerging type of computing, known as neuromorphic computing, is making breakthroughs and becoming popular with AI and neuroscience researchers.
In part two, I will give a brief overview of the evidence for the theory of evolution. This is not an exhaustive compendium of all the evidence in support of the theory of evolution. It is already a long post, so I keep all my descriptions brief. If you are interested in learning more, I provide plenty of links to websites and peer reviewed papers all throughout.
It’s not absolutely necessary, but it may make more sense why this evidence is convincing if you understand how evolution works. For that, I suggest checking out part 1 of this primer first.
Some people have anywhere from a slight misunderstanding to a complete lack of knowledge on how evolution by natural selection operates. I’m going to do a series on the subject to educate anyone who is confused by or interested in the theory of evolution.
I enjoy writing (or, at least, the idea of writing) about a veritable plethora of topics: philosophy, religion, politics, economics, society. However, my education is actually in the sciences – I am a published biochemist. This has made me strive for scientific accuracy, or at least scientific plausibility, in my fiction writing. For science fiction, the CRISPR/Cas9 system of gene editing leads to all sorts of possibilities, some of which I explore in my Incarnate novel series (shameless plug – book 2 coming soon!). In my novel, people use CRISPR/Cas9 to modify their somatic cells in order to give themselves practical biochemical upgrades (ie having one’s fingerprint pattern shift slowly over time so that the person cannot be tracked) to more aesthetic ones (ie giving oneself a series of subdermal bioluminescent vessels that can be lit up at will).
But if one wants to know how to better understand the possibilities and limitations to CRISPR/Cas9 (at least in its current state in August of 2018 – my novel series takes place in the future where some of the practical limitations will hopefully be overcome), it is necessary to understand how it actually works. Here, I am going to lay out in hopefully simple terms (although this may be somewhat technical at times) what CRISPR/Cas9 is, how it works, and what people are currently using it for (or debating whether they ought to use it for these things, anyway). This will not be an exhaustive review of everything CRISPR/Cas9 related, but it will hopefully make it understandable enough for the interested laity to know what it is and for fellow sci-fi writers to use it more effectively in their writing.
Knowledge is Power
There is an old adage that knowledge is power. People being able to acquire facts and information gives them power over those who wish to control them. This is the cornerstone of first amendment rights in the United States. Preventing the government from having arbitrary power over the people by way of knowledge about the private lives and thoughts of people is the cornerstone of fourth and fifth amendment rights in the United States. Other governments – places like Nazi Germany and those in the Communist bloc – attempted to disempower their people by banning certain books and speech critical of their ideology or governing regime; by controlling people’s right to assembly (ie banning other political parties); by regulating or persecuting certain religions; by controlling and censoring the press; by spying on their people; and by forcing people to testify against themselves through torture and indefinite detention. The Khmer Rouge, for example, feared a knowledgeable populace so much that that would condemn and even kill people who wore glasses because ‘intellectuals’ were considered to be corrupted by modernity.
The point being, knowledge is generally viewed as a good thing in a liberal democracy. It allows us the opportunity to make informed decisions about who governs us and then hold them accountable. But is there knowledge which should not be known? Knowledge that could potentially be harmful if it gets out?
This is an argument as old as time, but a particular instance comes to mind – the Bible. For much of the Church’s history, the Bible was read only by the clergy (and other higher status individuals), who could read Latin. The teachings could then be interpreted by the clergy and taught to their parishioners. This allowed for a single orthodoxy to be run by the Church bureaucracy. In the first 1500 years of Christianity, there was only a single schism in the church (not counting the Western schism, which was more political than theological). However, vernacular translations of the Bible in Greek by Erasmus and in German by the likes of Martin Luther were printed, helping to ignite the protestant reformation, the result being that the Church split into numerous churches. During those early days of the printing press, it was hotly debated whether it would be a good idea to let the people have access to the Bible. There are still those who think it was a bad idea.
A more contemporary source of perhaps forbidden knowledge is the internet. Conspiracy theories, fake news, and other such nonsense aside, the internet is arguably the greatest means of spreading knowledge to come into existence since the printing press. The biggest obstacle one might find in their way online are paywalls and subscription fees, and even those are usually easily bypassed or avoided. But what about information like how to make bombs or 3D printed guns? Sure, most people are probably responsible enough to either not use this information, or even if they do, use it for benign purposes. But if that information is available on the internet, it is available to everyone – even those who would use it for malicious or self-serving purposes. I am not trying to make a political argument for banning these things, but generally a more philosophical argument – would humankind be better off if this information had never become available in the first place? Or is there something intrinsically good about such information being available – ie knowledge is power?
What about hacked or leaked information of a private or personal sort, like pictures of a politician doing something we might find disgusting, like cheating on their spouse or doing drugs? Does our knowledge of this lapse in character or poor judgment outweigh the privacy of the individual perpetrator? What about leaked classified information about government wrongdoing that could damage national security or put agents in the field in danger? This argument is made just about any time information about government wrongdoing is made available to the public, whether it damages national security or endangers field agents or not, which further demonstrates that the government is afraid of people becoming knowledgeable. But what about in cases where public knowledge is demonstrably dangerous, even if the government is in the wrong about something? Where is the crossover point, where the information becoming public knowledge becomes an unacceptable risk?
There is knowledge of a different kind on the internet – pornography. Social conservatives often argue that access to pornography has a deleterious affect on people’s minds and morals. There may be merit to this argument. Pornography can cause addiction, isolation and unrealistic expectations about romantic love. And what about the fact that after a terrifying experience, such as the false alarm about a missile strike in Hawaii, people seem to seek comfort in pornography? So, should pornography be included in the category of knowledge that humankind would be better off without? Or is it part of the knowledge as intrinsic good? Even if we argue that pornography is not harmful, psychologically or sexually, is there an argument for it being good? Or perhaps there is a cutoff point – pictures of naked people alone, or video of people having missionary position sex, is acceptable, but people doing other sex acts is not. Maybe if it’s only shown with people having safe sex – like the proposed condom law that failed in California – then it is acceptable. Once again, I’m not trying to make a political or civil liberties argument one way or the other, but I’m asking, philosophically speaking, would humankind be better off (psychologically, sexually, morally) if pornography didn’t exist, or if only certain types of pornography existed?
Opponents of Political Correctness contend that it is a form of censorship that stifles society from having important conversations. Political Correctness is defined as “…the avoidance, often considered as taken to extremes, of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against.” However, Political Correctness is often used as a way of shutting down conversation. For instance, bringing up crime and race, race and intelligence, or that men and women might have differences in preference when it comes to career path choices (as opposed to systemic barriers to entry in certain careers dependent on ones sex or gender identity) are often hot-button issues. I’m not making any claims about the truth of falsity of these topics, but Political Correctness dictates that even bringing them up is taboo. People who bring these issues up will often find themselves on the receiving end of criticism, and sometimes even threats of violence. Opponents of Political Correctness will say that if these subjects aren’t even up for discussion, then there is no way to find whether the claims are true or not, and if true, find the causes of these problems and be able to work out solutions. As a result, the problems will persist and get worse while people continue to pretend that they don’t exist. The truth value of these claims is not based on reason, facts, or evidence, but on how the topics make people feel. Things that are uncomfortable to discuss then become, essentially, forbidden knowledge. Do these subjects belong in that category, or should they be up for discussion?
The issue works the other way, too. There are plenty of people who would prefer not to have LGBT issues taught to children, while proponents of Political Correctness are often in favor of doing this. Whether one believes that sexual preference or gender nonconformity are choices, pathologies, or just part of the spectrum of human experience, they are still phenomena that occur in the real world; they are still impulses that dictate the lifestyle of real people. Refusing to teach people about these issues will not prevent them from being exposed to them, and will only leave people less knowledgeable about real world issues. It is a form of political correctness that attempts to pretend that something isn’t real, which stifles dialogue and does nothing to weigh truth claims about causes, effects, and society based on reason, facts, and evidence, but once again based only on how the topic makes people feel. Thus, not teaching people about the LGBT phenomena is relegating these issues to the realm of forbidden knowledge. Are people better off not knowing about these issues, or is knowledge still power in this case? Does knowledge necessitate acceptance – if a person is taught about LGBT people, will that person necessarily be accepting? Does acceptance necessitate knowledge – can you not accept someone’s lifestyle if you are ignorant of it? And, if this should not be forbidden knowledge, at what age should people be taught about LGBT issues? What is the best way to teach them? And what exactly should be taught, as there are competing theories?
I think probably the place where the most people will accept that some knowledge may be better left unknown is when it comes to the potential end of the world. Nuclear weapons are the first thing that come to mind. During World War II, there was a concerted effort by the United States and Britain to develop atomic weapons. Doing so opened up a Pandora’s box that still affects us to this day – the doomsday clock was just recently reset to 2 minutes to midnight (doomsday). When the Soviet Union tested their own nuclear weapons in 1949, the term Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) soon came into vogue. Would it have been better if humankind had never learned how to develop nuclear weapons in the first place? What about the argument that Mutually Assured Destruction has prevented cataclysmic wars between major powers, as was the case in WWI and WWII before humans split the atom? Does that make knowledge of atomic weapons a net positive for the human race, even if the potential destruction of civilization as we know it as the hair-trigger whims of a few powerful people?
Nowadays, we also have to worry about possibly an even more insidious weapon of mass destruction: biological weapons. What makes this even more dangerous is that they are so cheap and easy to develop (particularly compared to nuclear weapons), a single person could do it in a DIY lab in their garage. It’s so easy a person could develop or release it on accident. Instructions on how to do it could easily be made available online (and probably are in some dark corners of the web). And once the disease is out, it will not distinguish between friend and foe – at the very least, an atomic weapon could potentially be contained to a single geographical location. This, of course, brings up the question of whether it has been a good thing or not that humankind has acquired knowledge about how genetics work – with knowledge of genetic manipulation, it’s not that difficult to make a dangerous pathogen. Our understanding of genetics and genetic manipulation has yielded amazing things for humanity, but if it ultimately spells our downfall, was any of it worthwhile? Or would humans have been better off never knowing?
And now, possibly in the not to distant future, we might have to worry about Artificial Intelligence. As it is often popular to say in AI circles, Artificial Intelligence could be the last thing humankind ever invents. So, does that mean that AI technology should be forbidden knowledge? Is humanity better off not discovering Artificial Intelligence? What if developing AI is the only way we can actually ensure that we don’t wipe ourselves out via other means? Unlike most of what I’ve talked about here, AI is knowledge that we have not yet acquired – it is still theoretically within our power to keep this knowledge forbidden, whereas other things I’ve discussed are already available. It may be that development of AI is inevitable, but it could be that we would have been better off never even considering it.
I recently skimmed through a report released by the Institute for the Future (IFTF) in 2005 making predictions for the next 10 years. It’s been 10 years now, and the report was certainly accurate about some things – social networking, the ubiquity of mobile phones, large amounts of user generated content (blogs, podcasts etc) – but also off on some things – the severity of effects from climate change, smart roads, holographic displays, and embedded brain chips. But of course, to me, the interesting thing about future predictions isn’t about being right, it’s about looking back on it when that future time comes and observing what was important to ourselves back when those predictions were made. With that in mind, I’m going to make some of my own predictions for the next ten years – from 2015 to 2025 (and maybe beyond) and perhaps when 2025 comes around, I can re-post this blog post and reminisce about what seemed important at the time.
So, here are just a few predictions I want to make on a few areas of science and society. These aren’t things I’ve diligently researched, but an extrapolation from my own observations, filtered through the values and views I hold in 2015, composed of my knowledge but shaped by my ignorance. Feel free to leave your own predictions on these areas (or others) in the comments.
In 2015 we are in the era of biotechnology. We are currently making many discoveries in biochemistry, cell biology, physiology, and medicine. But many of these advances take some time to be turned into practical uses and then open up to a wide market. Gene therapy, organs grown in vitro from a persons own DNA, treatments for diseases once thought insurmountable (Alzheimers, Parkinsons, ALS, diabetes, cancer, AIDS etc), and a growing number of stem cell treatments will begin to become available in the next ten years. Treatments meant to augment or prevent disease may become available, such as gene doping, smart drugs, and tissue grafting.
Materials science will also hit the market. Some say we live in the digital age, but if we go by the theme of materials used, we actually live in the polymer age. Polymer muscles, self-healing polymers, and polymer sensors will become part of our everyday lives in ways that are difficult to foresee. Polymer dendrimers will be used for various biological activities, such as focused drug delivery, biological sensors, and medical imaging.
The current trend of Moore’s Law will continue until the point that transistors become so small that electrons can tunnel between gates. This will prompt more 3D processors, quantum computers, and nanotechnology breakthroughs. Computer integration is often predicted when it comes to the future of technology – having it hands free (headsets, things like Google Glass), integrated into our clothing or our workspace (the desk or chair), or even integrated into our body (computer tattoos or RFID chips) – and this will probably be the future at some point, but I think there almost needs to be a cultural shift for this to happen. As it stands right now, these types of integrations seem anywhere from mildly inconvenient (people would rather hold onto a phone than have it woven into their clothing) to socially taboo or even potentially illegal (having technology surgically implanted into your body). But, I think in the next ten years we’ll begin to see the technology itself adapt to being more conducive to this type of integration and culturally we’ll start to become more used to and accepting of this type of integration. I think by 2025 this type of integration will still be fairly new, but it won’t be seen as inconvenient or weird.
Social networking will still be around, but the internet will be very different. Government regulation of the internet will mean that the internet is reined in, become less of the wild west that it’s been since the nineties. Restrictions on content and access will prompt people to turn toward decentralization, possibly in the form of mesh networks. This will mean there is more than one internet, with access being based more on proximity and the number of people in the mesh network. I predict we’ll begin to see some of these arise in the next ten years, but that many people will cling to the current internet during that time, meaning the ubiquity of mesh networks won’t come around until after 2025 – cultural shifts can take time.
Nothing that exists in 2015 can potentially alter economics as much as 3D printing. I predict that in the next ten years, 3D printers will start to become more and more affordable, showing up in the houses of middle class people the way personal computers did in the 1980’s. These first 3D printers that become affordable won’t make the best quality products, being somewhat of a novelty at first, but I think by 2025 we’ll start to see more practical and useful things come from them. This will make the market for schematics and polymer materials used in 3D printing boom, while the market for many finished products will stagnate (think what the internet did for many retail stores like Circuit City and movie rental places like Blockbuster). It will create a market of user generated schematics (the same way people make phone apps in 2015) for making any number of things. It will be a revolution in terms of how to prohibit and enforce certain types of things like guns, but also in the realm of patents – you will no longer be able to just pirate software, but pirate schematics for otherwise expensive real world products.
The second biggest potential impact economically will be crytpocurrency (things like Bitcoin and Dogecoin). In 2015, Bitcoin tends to take the spotlight, but I think it’s still up in the air as far as which cryptocurrency will “win” or if there might just be more than one that people use – although I tend to think it will settle on one the same way social networking settled on Facebook. As global fiscal policies continue to devalue their currency and younger generations turn toward technology and peer-to-peer networking, cryptocurrency will become the unit of economic exchange. Governments will take time to incorporate this new paradigm, being slow to adapt, but they will be unable to curb the replacement of old currencies with new. What we’ll see in the purview of the next ten years, though, will be more and more businesses accepting cryptocurrencies and more and more people using them. This will create a shift in the cultural mindset concerning cryptocurrency – whereas right now people think of their Bitcoin in terms of how many dollars they are worth, more people (especially young people as they enter the market place) will think of the cryptocurrency itself as the unit of currency, rather than mentally translating it into the old money. This will be a key step in getting off the old monetary system and onto a digital one. Governments will try to shut things down until they learn how to tax it and make money off of it, but during the next ten years, expect a lot of resistance to cryptocurrency from governments.
As people born in the internet era (post 2000 mostly) grow up and enter the market place, culture will see another radical shift. We’re already seeing it emerge in what I called Granular Bubble Culture. I think looking from the top down, interconnectedness and globalization will cause somewhat of a homogenization of culture on its surface, but from the bottom up, we’ll see more and more of the Granular Bubble Culture, where pockets of subcultures keep themselves in a perpetual bubble, creating strange fads and phenomena within themselves that will seem alien to outsiders (think Bronies or people who watch Pewdiepie).
However, I think there will be a significant (although maybe not even the majority) of the population that once again becomes disenfranchised with the acceptance of consumerist culture we have now. The interesting thing about our modern times (2015) is that consumerism has become mainstream. Even the types of people who, back in the 1990’s, were often the biggest opponents of consumerist culture (primarily the left) are now fine with consumerism. They will gladly boast about their new smart phone or computer, show off their apps, and dress stylishly. I think, as is often the case in cultural evolution, we’ll see at least somewhat of a backlash against the acceptance of consumerist culture (the way the early 1990’s was a backlash to the consumerist culture of the 1980’s). It will once again become fashionable (in some areas of society, not all) to be minimalist, to spur certain types of technology, and to be thrifty and (at least somewhat) disconnected. There will mostly likely still be a silent majority that are happy to continue buying the next best thing, but this backlash will probably produce some forms of culture that will garner a lot of attention.
User generated content will continue to overtake mass media, at least in more affluent countries. We already see now that many movies make the most money overseas, so movies will continue to be produced for that audience. Podcasts, Youtube channels (or whatever video services take over), blogs, forums, and social media will continue to expand in production and consumption, many of them moving to the aforementioned mesh networks. TV will become more and more the platform for intelligent mass media, although the on-demand style of places like Netflix and Hulu will begin to overtake the old paradigm of scheduled television programs. However, I predict a change happening in the sorts of content seen on these programs. The new millenium has been big on shows about white, male antihero types (The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, House, The Walking Dead, Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, True Detective, The Knick, Dexter, and the list goes on) which will probably not go away completely, but I think there will be an expansion on the types of shows we’ll see (things like Orange is the New Black and Transparent).
I think the trend of becoming more liberal of social issues will continue. By 2025, I predict marijuana will be legal in at least the majority of states in the U.S. and that gay marriage will not only be legal in all 50 states, but will start to be seen as something somewhat more normal (especially by younger people who grow up in a world where it’s more accepted). However, I see the pendulum swinging too far into that direction in the form of what are often pejoratively called SJW’s or social justice warriors. In the well-intentioned pursuit of more social acceptance for those considered outside the norm, political correctness will become more and more prominent, with the court of public opinion passing swift judgment on people who don’t conform with a strict set of correct terminology to refer to people. However, I see the pendulum reaching its pinnacle in the next decade, swinging back the other way in a backlash against this type of forced tolerance. My only hope is that it doesn’t swing too far in the other direction, but can find a happy middle ground where everyone is accepted but people can talk freely.
I think culturally there will become mistrust in authority (it’s already happening now, particularly when it comes to police). This will go hand-in-hand with the decentralization of society – more user generated content, mesh networks, Granular Bubble Culture (taking the place of central authorities), cryptocurrencies and 3D printing – and cause a decrease in government legitimacy. Governments will never go away – in fact, they will probably only step up their surveillance and attempts to control things – but on many of these decentralization issues named above, people will continue to ignore and subvert them in the same way people do now with online piracy.
In the end, culture is probably one of the most difficult things to predict. Culture is the interaction of many actors with an assortment of different tastes and backgrounds. Most of what can be extrapolated about culture is how culture will interact with the other areas – science, technology, economics – and it would be just about impossible to predict particular things, such as what style of clothes people will wear, what genres of music people will listen to, or the brands they will be loyal to.
So, what do you think of my predictions? Do you think they will be accurate? Do they reflect current trends – in other words, are they good extrapolations of how things are now in 2015? Am I predicting things (science, technology) to move too slowly or too quickly? Is there anything I may have missed that would enhance or throw a wrench in my predictions? What are your predictions for the next ten years? Twenty years? Fifty years?
We live in an age of cultural decentralization but political and governmental consolidation. Decentralization has benefits and dangers associated with it. The largest benefit is that decentralization means parallel processing – multiple paths can be attempted while moving toward a single goal. This means that solutions to problems can come quicker, with one of the approaches being tried having the least resistance, and more efficiently, in that resources and time are not spent on trying to move forward on a single (or smaller number of) path(s) that may not be the best way to achieve the goal. The downside, obviously, is that more decentralization can lead to less oversight and a lack of a unified goal – it’s throwing everything against the wall and seeing what sticks.
One of the places where decentralization could have the largest impact on our lives and society is in science (and technology). As it stand right now, at least in America, science is a highly regulated, highly centralized institution. All funding must pass rigorous scrutiny in order to be awarded grants, there are many laws concerning ethics and the acquisition of scientific instruments and materials, and even having access to much of this requires a person to go through years of education.
But what if science was decentralized and deregulated?
Some possible benefits:
Lifting regulations such that burgeoning scientists can acquire scientific equipment on the free market easily and cheaply and learn how to do science from experts or knowledgeable amateurs without A) having to pay expensive university tuition (plus other fees) and B) pay for a bunch of liberal arts classes you don’t want or need and C) acquire a piece of paper that says they’re certified by the government to do science. This could also make testing new pharmaceuticals and GMO’s cheaper, easier, and faster if individuals are allowed to test their discoveries on voluntary individuals without government regulation. There would be a hand full of people working on issues – medicine, materials science, green energy – from different angles and backgrounds, coming up with novel solutions.
We know that decentralization has worked well for things like FoldIt. Imagine a world where having a working scientific knowledge about biology and biotechnology is just as common as having a working knowledge of computers and smartphones is right now. Imagine if new technologies, medicines, and scientific discoveries came out just as quickly and easily as smartphone apps and websites. How different might our world be?
But does this seem like a good idea, or does government regulation of scientific institutions and who is certified to do science make us safer? Certainly, as in anything, the potential for wrongdoing also exists. Does it help or hinder scientists and science in general?
Decentralization means that nobody has a monopoly anymore. This means more freedom, but freedom never promised to be comfortable. The loss of oversight means that there is no doctrine to be followed in helping humanity, but it also means there is no doctrine holding anyone back in potentially harming humanity, either.
One of the biggest technologies of decentralization is 3D printing. I think 3D printing has the potential to alter our economy and way of life as much as the internet, which was the biggest decentralizing technology of the 20th century. The American government is already reeling with the lack of oversight that 3D printing is beginning to bring about, with 3D printed guns. The potential here is that there is no way to track or regulate guns, but the same could hold for anything that can be 3D printed.
One technology that has only recently started to become decentralized is drone technology. Most people own small, remote-controlled drones, but the American government has held drone supremacy on the world stage when it comes to military technology. This means, of course, that the American government has set the precedence for how UAV’s can be used in battle. Once this technology gets spread around, becoming decentralized, then the precedence has been set – namely, that there is no recourse for collateral damage or killing the wrong target.
But when it comes to science, I think most people’s biggest fear comes from the potential for biological weapons. If science became more decentralized, it would make it much easier, and potentially more likely, that someone could produce a deadly bacteria or virus in their homemade laboratory. I’ve made mutant bacteria in the lab I work in numerous times, and it’s actually very easy to do. As decentralization may lead to more cures for diseases, it could also potentially create more.
And it wouldn’t have to stop at bacteria and virus. Transgenic organisms can already be made, and some people even do it as art. Imagine if gene doping was used to modify a persons own body in a way that could be artistic (think body modification a la tattoos, piercings, and implants) or beneficial in some way?
The question we would want to ask ourselves then: is it worth it to decentralize science? I think the internet, possibly 3D printing, and who knows what other discoveries may come along in the 21st century, may all answer that question for us. Technology and scientific discovery doesn’t usually stay a secret forever. The computer itself began as something very exclusive, and now almost everyone carries a computer in their pocket that would put those exclusive ones to shame. Governments are slow to react, and attempt to keep the world moving at their own pace, but the information age is showing that governments are slowly losing what control they had over this. Are you ready for the world of DIY science?