Tuesday Nov 20, 2007

Foresight Vision Weekend 2007

 

About two weeks ago, two colleagues and I had the inspiring pleasure of attending the Foresight Vision Weekend 2007. This was the weekend before our annual TS Ambassador Conference at Sun, so we happened to be in the Bay Area where this unconference was held.

Ever since the year 2000, after I heard a talk from Eric Drexler on Nanotechnology during another Sun event, I've been fascinated by this topic and so I loosely followed the activities of the Foresight Institute. This event was a great way of catching up with recent developments - and an opportunity for me to have a reality check on how real all of this is, and can be.

Limited by our flight schedule, we only attended the second day of the conference. It started with a few motivational speakers as an introduction to the second half of the day which was held in the now popular unconference format.

A Systematic View on Anti-Aging 

The first talk about anti-aging was given by Chris Heward, President of the Kronos Science Laboratory. He explained their very systematic approach to analyze the effects of aging and what factory play what role in the process. The great thing about this talk was that there was no esoterics, no magic, no BS, just plain, number driven science full of hard facts about what aging actually is (a decrease of bio-functional abilities due to decaying body functions over time), a fresh view on the subject (we're already becoming "unnatually" old, so why not figure this out once and for all?) and some reality-checks on popular health myths (If fats are so bad, why is the US population becoming fatter and fatter despite all that non-fat food?).

So the systematic approach is quite simple, but effective: Figure out the primary causes of death (heart disease, skeletal dysfunction, cancer) and find ways to prevent them from happening as early as possible. The "as early as possible" part is the most important one: The earlier one starts to work on preventing these factors, the longer the life expectancy. 

My takeaways:

  • Drink lots of water,
  • a BMI of 22-26 is a good place to be (I'm at 23),
  • avoid eating empty calories (all the "white" stuff that is not meat),
  • eat colorful veggies,
  • some supplements are actually really good (he especially mentioned Vitamin E and Omega-3 fatty acids),
  • exercise regularly. Actually, this is the biggest factor, capable of even compensating for a fat or a smoking lifestyle! I really need to start jogging again...

One interesting but not well understood factor in aging is hormones. There's a strong correlation between dropping levels of male and female sex hormones and their negative symptoms in ageing (obvious, isn't it?), but it is not understood yet if and how taking hormon supplements really helps you overcome ageing symptoms. Plus, taking hormones as pills is likely to produce other problems (as in liver overload...).

Anyway, this was a fascinating talk and I now need to understand more on this subject, although separating the wheat from the chaff is difficult if you're not a doctor or a biochemist...

Productive Nanosystems Roadmap 

This conference covered a great variety of topics, so the next talk by Pearl Chin was on a completely different topic: The Productive Nanosystems Roadmap. What's a productive nanosystem you might ask? It's a machine that operates at the molecular level to create things in an atomically precise way. Watch this short movie to see one in action.

The Productive Nanosystems Roadmap is all about the "How do we get there?" aspects of Molecular Nanotechnology. Similar to, but more challenging than the semiconductor business, this involves a huge amount of interdisciplinary work by physicists, chemists, biotechnologists, computer scientists, mechanical engineers, process technologists and many more. By synchronizing and bringing together different fields of research and development, the Nanotechnology Roadmap facilitates the creation of Productive Nanosystems.

Can't wait to having one of these replicators in my home...

Open Source Security

Yet another interesting and completely different subject: Open Source Security, by Christine Peterson, a founder of the Foresight Institute. The current physical security mechanisms, as implemented by major governments are hugely centralized (as in DoD-centralized), not transparent (who knows really what happens inside the NSA, or behind the doors of your friendly airport security operations?) and they have a huge impact on privacy (Did you know that "they" know what you read on an airplane?).

The idea of this talk is: Centralized security has its flaws (what happens if someone takes out the central parts of a nation's security system?), obscure security measures are prone to becoming a security threat by themselves (In Germany there's a current debate about the police monitoring license plates on a big scale vs. privacy rights) and of course, there's no fun in living in a 100% controlled and watched Orwellian society. So why not try to create a security system that is transparent, distributed and still protects privacy?

This "Open Source Security" system could be everywhere (like a neighborhood watch), it would be open to anyone (so nobody can manipulate the system) and it would work without invading people's privacies (a neighborhood watch keeps the neighbors secure, but doesn't know a thing about, say, the next cities' neighborhoods).

Interesting concept and hopefully one that is going to be developed further. Sounds much, much better than what current governments would like to implement...

Mapping the Technology Landscape

I can't remember the exact title of this session, but this sounds like a good fit. The first of the afternoon sessions I visited (there were several in parallel and we couldn't visit all of them) was about finding the right way to categorize new technologies as they emerge and create headlines. It was run by Phil Bowermaster who has an excellent blog called "The Speculist" and an accompaining podcast called "Fast Forward Radio".

After blogging for a while, Phil came up with a 2-dimensional coordinate system for charting technologies, based on the axes "Impact on Society" and "Impact on Technology". While this seemed to work for charting "spot resistant nano-pants" (low impacts on both society and technology, placing it into the "fake" corner) vs., say, a desktop molecular nanofactory (now we're getting serious...), it didn't feel like the real thing for charting new technology.

So, Phil showed us his improved coordinate systems, this time based on the axes "transformation" and "disruption". It intuitively makes more sense, as it better models the impact of technology on the world as we know it. But every model is only good until the next one comes around, so Phil welcomes your suggestions, too. See his article on "Disruption and Transformation".

Self-Improving A.I.

No futuristic conference without at least one A.I. related topic. Artificial Intelligence may have had a difficult story in the past, but the truth is that people tend to dismiss any advance in A.I. as being "nice, but not the real thing", be it speech recognition, route planning or beating Kasparov at chess playing. What's going to be the next milestone that people will choose to treat as "not real A.I.?".

Ray Kurzweil observed that the development of technology happens at an accelerating pace. In fact, Moore's law only deals with advances in semiconductor technology, but it's pattern of modeling the increasing amount of available calculations per $1000 can be observed all the way back to early mechanical calculators. Looking into the future, semiconductor experts are confident that Moore's law will hold at least into the next 15-20 years - and there are some more exciting technologies waiting to be used for computations onces semiconductor chips become uninteresting. If the current rate of technological progress continues, then we will see a $1000 PC have the power of a human brain by 2025. Not a long time from now.

Steve Omohundro's session on self-improving A.I. dealt with the questions such as: What will drive self-improving A.I.s? What are the benefits and risks of self-improving A.I.s? What should we try to do right before they arrive? Read more about this topic at the Self-aware Systems website.

And for the lighter side of it, here's a hilarious comic on a very similar subject :).

Nanotech Literacy

Perhaps the most important aspect of nanotechnology right now is it's acceptance. As soon as you learn about the great powers of nanotechnology, you can't help but imagine the great peril it might bring. Bill Joy's famous article "Why the future doesn't need us" is only one example.

But is denying or opposing change a solution? Certainly not. If we refuse to learn about the next wave of technology, others will. So we better learn how to do it right from the start. One major focus of the Foresight Institute is to advance beneficial nanotechnology, partly by educating people about it's potential benefits to humanity.

Miguel Aznar's session on Nanotech Literacy focused on how to make Nanotechnology more accessible and understandable to children and students in schools. I think this is a great way of spreading the word, as it instantly will touch their parents as well. I used to teach my parents how to program our VCR, and I'm looking forward to my daughter teaching me how to operate our first family molecular nanotech factory :)

Read more in Miguel's blog.

Conclusion

This really was a most inspiring event. My goal was to understand more about the reality behind Nanotech and other future technologies, and I got much more out of this day than I expected. I'm very proud to see that Sun is a corporate member of the Foresight Institute and I'm going to sign up with them as a senior associate soon. I'm convinced that every dollar spent in advancing beneficial Nanotechnology is going to save us more trees and more species, reduce the levels of CO2 more aggressively, provide more clean energy, cure more cancers and advance humankind more thoroughly in the long term than any other investment.

If you want to learn more about the subject of Nanotechnology, I recommend looking at one of these articles.

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