2014 September 27 Saturday
Will Human 2.0 Designs Prevent Return To Malthusian Trap?

Some people think we've left the Malthusian Trap permanently in our past. Now, some parts of the world have yet to do so. But the optimists think a permanent shift to low total fertility rates and industrialization in the entire world is in the cards as free markets spread everywhere.

I am not with the optimists because I expect natural selection, both on the genetic level and on the social-religious level, will cause a reversion to higher fertility rates and population explosion until natural resources cause very painful limits to population size. Natural selection is relentless and seems very hard for conscious human minds to defeat it.

But could genetic engineering of offspring enable us to escape selective pressures for higher fertility? We are certainly going to get enough genetic information to be able to identify all the alleles that influence fertility For example, president of Illumina says 288,000 human genomes will be sequenced in 2014 and every 12 months the number of genomes sequenced doubles. If this doubling rate holds then in 2024 about 290 million full human genomes will be sequenced. This wealth of data will let scientists discover the meaning of many genetic variations that contribute to differences in cognition and fertility.

If people choose to use the wealth of genetic knowledge in offspring genetic engineering to make offspring that are much smarter then one would expect, all else equal, for these offspring to have fewer children than would otherwise have been the case. Why? One reason is that people smart enough to easily go through college and grad school delay making babies and have fewer babies than those who only make it as far as high school. So we might expect lower fertility as people genetically engineer their offspring to be smarter.

But there's a problem: If even a very small fraction of the population choose genetic variations that make their kids want to have lots of kids then the human population will explode. Extreme love of having offspring will produce offspring with the same preference and this preference will be passed to a succession of increasingly larger cohorts. A return to the Malthusian Trap, at least in some parts of the world, then becomes inevitable.

Now, we could get wiped out by hostile artificial intelligences long before a return to the Malthusian Trap. Or a world government could enact strict laws controlling reproduction similar to what the Chinese government did. So I can't say that a return to the Malthusian Trap is fated. But if we avoid authoritarian world government and avoid our destruction by AI then it seems likely.

By Randall Parker 2014 September 27 07:58 PM 
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2014 September 25 Thursday
Singularity Nirvana: We Can Not Solve Our Own Problems?

Some people are optimistic about our future because (the thinking goes) some computer scientists and computer engineers will create artificial intelligences that are smarter than us that will build machines even smarter in a rapid loop which will result in intelligences orders of magnitude greater than ours. Then these machines will solve all our problems.

One assumption in this scenario is that these AI machines will stay friendly to us. I'm seriously skeptical about this assumption. How friendly are we to bacteria or molds or even a tree or rat? This is not an original observation on my part. Lots of people are afraid that AI machines will go hostile on us. Movies (can you say "Terminator"? sure) have explored this topic.

But there is another assumption to this scenario that is even more disturbing because it also might be true: We are unable to solve our own problems and we need entities orders of magnitude smarter than us to solve our problems for us.

That's really a scary thought. But look at our progress in recent decades. Have we cured cancer yet? Nope. Aging? Our elites aren't even interested in trying to reverse aging and their lack of interest is really puzzling. But there it is. The price of oil is sustaining a quite elevated level for many years (and you can see this is true after adjusting for inflation). Technological advances haven't suddenly made that high price irrelevant. Similar things can be said for the prices of grains and meats and some minerals to varying extents.

As I've previously argued in my essay Innovation Costs for Maintaining Civilization we need to innovate just to hang onto the standards of living we currently enjoy. As populations increase and resources deplete the amount of innovation we need to maintain our current levels of consumption rises. We need to develop substitutes for depleting resources and pollute less per unit of production to compensate for rising populations. Can we do this without AI?

If we need to create beings orders of magnitude smarter than us to solve our problems then not only are we not very impressive but also we are in deep trouble as a species and quite possibly threatened with extinction. If we are doomed to extinction without the problem-solving power of AI and also doomed to extinction from AIs destined to go rogue then we are between a rock and a hard place.

So I have to ask you? Is AI the only solution? Is the only solution beyond our power to control and likely to turn on us?

By Randall Parker 2014 September 25 09:40 PM 
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2014 September 20 Saturday
Japan To Cut Tuna Fishing In Half

Tuna are getting harvested before they've even spawned.

As a first step, "this is a good move", Wakao Hanaoka, a marine eco-expert for Greenpeace Japan, told Al Jazeera. "Some 98 percent of the catch is juvenile."

A 50% cut is not big enough. The size of tuna biomass is now down at least 96% from where it was before large scale human fishing.

What's needed: land crops genetically engineered to contain enough omega 3 fatty acids to serve as suitable feed for aquaculture fish farms.

By Randall Parker 2014 September 20 01:19 PM 
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2014 September 19 Friday
World Population To Hit 11 Billion In 2100 Due To Africa Growth

Our overpopulated future.

Using modern statistical tools, a new study led by the University of Washington and the United Nations finds that world population is likely to keep growing throughout the 21st century. The number of people on Earth is likely to reach 11 billion by 2100, the study concludes, about 2 billion higher than widely cited previous estimates.

Previous estimates of a 9 billion person max are looking less likely.

“The consensus over the past 20 years or so was that world population, which is currently around 7 billion, would go up to 9 billion and level off or probably decline,” said corresponding author Adrian Raftery, a UW professor of statistics and of sociology. “We found there’s a 70 percent probability the world population will not stabilize this century. Population, which had sort of fallen off the world’s agenda, remains a very important issue.”

Write off Africa's big animals. Lions, leopards, cheetahs, servals, and caracals are all going to get wiped out. Ditto the African elephant, cape buffalo, rhinoceros, giraffe, hippo, pygmy hippo, wildebeest and zebra. Wild areas are already shrinking as rapid human population growth means more farms, bigger cities, more logging, more poaching.

My fear: natural selection will boost alleles that raise fertility and human population will grow way beyond 11 billion. Then a far greater environmental catastrophe will ensue.

By Randall Parker 2014 September 19 07:47 PM 
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2014 September 18 Thursday
Biotech Still Lags Far Behind Computer Tech In Our Lives

We are still waiting for the biotech revolution to start. So far it exists mainly as press releases extolling research papers. Where the rubber meets the road (our daily lives) it is pretty much missing in action while computer tech continues to transform our lives Computers and fiber optic cables have made a variety of big impacts on our social lives and have increased the convenience and pleasure of living.

By contrast biotech has made somewhere between little and no impact. Okay, Bt corn has probably sliced some number of cents off the price of beef and pork. But otherwise I'm hard pressed to point at a significant biotech advance that has done something measurable to my quality of life. Have you noticed a personal impact from biotech?

Speaking as someone who does over 90% of his spending online (with perishable foods still driving me into grocery stores) the computer and communications revolution has saved time, money, and made the search for better products and services much easier. I read more books, better books, more articles, and better articles because of advances in computing. I've got probably 200+ books on Kindles, Nexus tablets and smart phones (and, yes, I have redundancy in each computer device type). I've got many gigabytes of classical, jazz, rock, and other music on smart phones and tablets. I'm about to buy a 64 GB phone just so I can put more music on it (hate to wait for downloads while music is playing). Need more space so I can start to get into baroque and old folk music. Plus, the internet provides easy access to on-demand movies, documentaries, and other video. Love it.

Emails, Twitter, and blog comments let me and billions of others communicate regularly with people all over the world from a large variety of backgrounds with some impressive skill sets. This is great. Search engines and online encyclopedias make searching for answers far easier than it used to be. Really, this is great.

Computers aren't just about entertainment, commerce, information search, and social networks. Because of computers my next car will be safer and the one after that safer still. To get the highest safety rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety cars must now come equipped with computerized systems to reduce collision risks. Why did IIHS raise the bar for their highest safety rating? Because computers made it possible to do. Now an increasing list of companies have a least one car model that can reach this higher bar. If we are to believe the car companies then in the 2020s robotic cars will be chauffeuring us around and cutting our risks of death from car accidents.

By contrast, what has genetic engineering, stem cells, gene therapy, and tissue engineering done for you lately? If you are like me: Nothing. Not a thing.

I've got a list of biotechnological wants. For example, A service to fully rejuvenate my eyes back to teen level would be handy. No more need for reading glasses. No shortage of demand for such a treatment. A few hundred million people in industrialized countries would pay for it. I know other people who have bad backs, bad elbows, bad knees, torn ligaments, failing hearts, tinnitus, chronic skin conditions, allergies, blood sugar problems, high blood pressure, and other stuff they'd like to get fixed. But the fixes remain many years into the future. In what decade will useful products from biotech start letting us fix and enhance our bodies?

The promising lab advances keep happening. For example, researchers at University of Edinburgh recently grew replacement thymus glands for mice. Doing this for humans would partially rejuvenate aged immune systems. But like with so many seemingly successful lab mouse experiments we will have to wait many years before this is available for this one gland for humans.

Is there some area of biotech which will start delivering useful services in the foreseeable future? I think so. In vitro fertilization combined with pre-implantation genetic diagnosis should be able to make a big impact on reproduction starting some time in the next 10 years because of the plunging cost of DNA sequencing. The identification of genetic variants for intelligence, personality, heath, and physical appearances will lead to wide use of embryo selection for offspring with the most desired traits. The upper classes especially will aim for super kids.

But how many years before organ replacement and stem cell treatments become widely available for enough conditions and diseases that most people will get multiple of these treatments? In other words, when will spending on real body upgrades (not just appearance alteration) become mainstream? Still waiting.

By Randall Parker 2014 September 18 05:53 PM 
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2014 September 14 Sunday
Genetically Modified Plants: Boon Or Bane?

Madeline Ostrander asks Can GMOs Help Feed a Hot and Hungry World? The correct answer: yes!

The Organic Consumers Association, a nonprofit agricultural watchdog group, says genetic engineering will never deliver on promises to feed a growing population and isn’t a trustworthy technology. “The dirty secret of the biotech industry is, after thirty years, they haven’t done anything for consumers,” said Andrew Kimbrell, the founder and executive director of the Center for Food Safety, in a speech at a national heirloom-seed fair in Santa Rosa, California. “No better taste, no more nutrition, zero benefits,” and a number of “potential risks.”

We could also say that a few decades of cancer research hasn't come up with cures for most forms of cancer and most of the treatments researchers have come up with have horrible and enormously damaging side effects. But is that a reason to give up on cancer research? No.

But genetic tinkering in crops has produced some successes. Notably, Bt corn has lowered the cost of corn production and therefore lowered the cost of livestock feed and therefore of meat, eggs, and milk - at least compared to what their prices would be without Bt corn. Unfortunately, a growing population and corn ethanol have driven up the price of corn. Still, without Bt corn and the price of corn and meat would have risen even more.

Genetic enhancement of crop plants seems like a boon for wild animals and natural habitats. Higher productivity per acre will reduce the number of acres plowed. The least developed countries have populations that are (alas) growing by billions. They are cutting more into the remaining shrinking natural areas. Their growing populations are going to wipe out many species. The planet would be better off if the billions of poor could have genetically enhanced higher productivity crops grown to feed them using smaller farm land footprints.

Debates in Western countries about the risks and benefits of genetic enhancement of crops will only affect the rate of development of genetically engineered plants. China will not slow down its own development of genetically enhanced crops. So the work will get done. Also, as microfluidics, DNA sequencing, and other technologies used in biotechnology drop in cost the number of countries and scientists who will be able to afford to do genetic enhancement will rise. Regulatory obstacles will become less effective as the technology becomes more easily usable by less developed countries.

What worries me: genetically modified plants created for mischief or outright terrorism. Ditto for genetically modified birds, insects, fish, and other creatures. In artificial intelligences do not wipe us out then I expect governments will be forced to fund emergency genetic engineering efforts to build counter-offensive plants and animals to attack organisms which have been sent into their countries to cause havoc.

By Randall Parker 2014 September 14 08:28 PM 
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2014 September 12 Friday
Thinking About Electric Car Range And Recharging Stations

Even with high current it still takes about 1 minute per 3 miles of driving range to recharge a Tesla S.

Home charging of a Tesla is still a commitment at 58 miles per hour of charge. The Tesla Supercharger stations, on the other hand, get 170 miles in 30 minutes.

Think about that 30 minutes per 170 miles. Drive 3 hours on a highway and stop for a half hour to recharge. The Tesla S has a range of 265 miles. So you can go longer than that. But you can't use the full range because air conditioning or high speed could cut into your range. Probably more limiting is the frequency of charging stations. If you've driven 200 miles, you see you are coming up on a charging station, and the next charging station is 70 miles away then you've got to stop. Really, if the next charging station is 50 miles away it is too risky of count on reaching it. So you still have to stop. You can't use the full range in most cases.

On a 600 mile drive you are going to stop at least twice for recharging. If the recharging stations are near restaurants and lavatories some of that recharging time isn't wasted. But electric travel is slower than gasoline-powered driving.

When battery costs go down and battery size and driving range go up what will happen to charging time? Even if it stays at 3 miles per minute of charging you'd still get a reduction in time waiting for charging. At the end of a trip you can plug in and let the car charge while you do activities you want to do at your destination. A 500 mile range EV would let you go 450 miles on most trips and plug in when you get there.

Over 90% of US Christmas holiday trips are made in cars. Over half are at least 100 miles away. A substantial fraction of those trips would require a recharge en route if you were driving a Tesla S.

The average Thanksgiving long-distance trip length is 214 miles, compared with 275 miles over the Christmas/New Year’s holiday. For the remainder of the year, average trip distance is 261 miles.

I think there is going to be a market for providing activities for people who are waiting for their EV to charge. How about co-locating restaurants, coffee shops, movie theaters, and wireless access points? Shaded picnic tables would be good too.

By Randall Parker 2014 September 12 09:21 PM 
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2014 September 11 Thursday
Dyson 360 Eye Versus Philosophical Robot Worries

A philosopher worries that robots will do too much for us.

But preeminent philosopher of technology Albert Borgmann asks us to consider what this advance will do to our capacity for reasoning. Will we be as inclined to ask ourselves questions like: What do I really want, and why should I want it? And what will happen to our inclination to develop virtues associated with willpower when technology increasingly does our thinking for us and preemptively satisfies our desires? Such an environment, Borgmann warns, initiates the “slide from housekeeping to being kept by our house.”

Perhaps this is a legitimate worry for some people who won't grow or learn unless they have to. But for those addicted to reading, learning, and exploration I do not see extremely helpful robots as posing a problem. We aren't going to become mentally inert just because robots cook our food, wash our clothes. clean our houses, and drive us wherever we want to go.

Perhaps robots will open up a greater split between people with strong innate curiosity and motivation versus those who only act out of necessity.

Since I do not have enough hours in the day to do everything I want to do I am quite excited that Dyson is going to introduce a big step forward in robotic vacuums. Though not until some time in 2015. This looks like it will save a lot of labor and let us easily live in cleaner houses.

The Dyson 360 Eye uses a sophisticated vision system.

The 360 Eye has much more powerful vacuum suction than its competitors.

Better, cooler, I want one.

I for one welcome our new robot overlords.

By Randall Parker 2014 September 11 10:02 PM 
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2014 September 08 Monday
3 Genes With Intelligence Impact Identified

Three genetic variants that each might account for about 0.3 points of IQ difference were found in a study of over 100,000 people. These might be false positives. Researchers estimate they need about 10 times more study subjects (over 1 million people) to tease out 15% of the genes that impact IQ and other cognitive traits.

Here is the paper on PNAS. Among the notable names on the authors list: long time IQ genes researcher Robert Plomin, Scottish IQ researcher Ian Deary, and even Harvard psychologist and prolific author Steven Pinker.

The problem: differences in cognitive performance are due to a very large number of genetic variants, each of which has very low impact. Note the 0.3 IQ point impact of the three genetic variants reported in this latest study. Those genetic variants probably have impacts that are larger than the average genetic variant that impacts IQ. It will be harder to identify genetic variants that cause 0.1 IQ point differences and much harder still to identify genetic variants that cause 0.01 IQ point differences. What about genetic variants that cause 0.001 IQ point differences? Check back in come the year 2040 maybe.

What we need: Much larger scale studies. Imagine a 5 million person study with lots of genetic sequencing data for each subject along with extensive psychometric testing. 50 times more data would let us identify genetic variants for most differences in intelligence and many other cognitive differences. What would it cost? I'd love to know the data collection cost of the latest paper linked above. Was most of the cost from genetic testing?

By Randall Parker 2014 September 08 08:23 PM 
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2014 September 07 Sunday
Super Cruise in Cadillac 2017 Models

A lead car in a convoy will be able to play "follow me" with computers behind it exchanging information. You find yourself riding behind some other car for hours on a long trip? This feature would automate the driving in that case.

It would also reduce the work of stop-and-go driving in heavy traffic.

What would make a great enhancement: links to DMV driving histories so you don't start following a maniac who gets into accidents. Ditto for black box histories. Does the other driver do lots of high lateral g force driving? Then get a dashboard notice of the risks of following that driver.

These Cads will have Vehicle To Vehicle (V2V) tech so that cars approaching each other can predict a collision and warn their drivers.. What would also be good: a way to tell the car in front of you they have brake light that is out or some other visible problem.

By Randall Parker 2014 September 07 06:47 PM 
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Moral Dilemmas For Autonomous Vehicles

An essay in Wired points out that a robotic car can be faced with either killings its occupants or killing pedestrians. If the car suddenly finds pedestrians in front of it on the road in some situations fatalities can be unavoidable. The choice could be between hitting the pedestrians or hitting a tree or wall.

Should autonomous vehicles have a moral dilemmas configuration page where you decide what choice to make in these situations?

Suppose the car is going to hit a tree but the computer has a choice: hit the tree with the left or right side and therefore do more damage to the driver or passenger. What choice to make?

What percentage of the public will decide to configure their robotic vehicle to assign the most value to protecting the owner of the vehicle? If a car company doesn't give me that choice I will opt to buy from another vendor.

There's another moral tuning issue with autonomous vehicles: very rare causes of an accident versus traveling speed. For example, suppose it is night time and you are on a curve of a mountain highway which prevents you from seeing very far ahead. Should your vehicle slow down to a speed that will enable a fool stop in event of suddenly seeing a stopped car or pedestrian in the road? That condition could be extremely rare. 99.99999% of people could drive their entire lifetimes and never encounter it. Slow everyone down for that rare case?

By Randall Parker 2014 September 07 12:12 PM 
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