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Mar 14, 2008

Dreamers of a Better Future, Unite!

Posted by in categories: biological, futurism, geopolitics, space

[Crossposted from the blog of Starship Reckless]

Views of space travel have grown increasingly pessimistic in the last decade. This is not surprising: SETI still has received no unambiguous requests for more Chuck Berry from its listening posts, NASA is busy re-inventing flywheels and citizens even of first-world countries feel beleaguered in a world that seems increasingly hostile to any but the extraordinarily privileged. Always a weathervane of the present, speculative fiction has been gazing more and more inwardly – either to a hazy gold-tinted past (fantasy, both literally and metaphorically) or to a smoggy rust-colored earthbound future (cyberpunk).

The philosophically inclined are slightly more optimistic. Transhumanists, the new utopians, extol the pleasures of a future when our bodies, particularly our brains/minds, will be optimized (or at least not mind that they’re not optimized) by a combination of bioengineering, neurocognitive manipulation, nanotech and AI. Most transhumanists, especially those with a socially progressive agenda, are as decisively earthbound as cyberpunk authors. They consider space exploration a misguided waste of resources, a potentially dangerous distraction from here-and-now problems – ecological collapse, inequality and poverty, incurable diseases among which transhumanists routinely count aging, not to mention variants of gray goo.

And yet, despite the uncoolness of space exploration, despite NASA’s disastrous holding pattern, there are those of us who still stubbornly dream of going to the stars. We are not starry-eyed romantics. We recognize that the problems associated with spacefaring are formidable (as examined briefly in Making Aliens 1, 2 and 3). But I, at least, think that improving circumstances on earth and exploring space are not mutually exclusive, either philosophically or – perhaps just as importantly – financially. In fact, I consider this a false dilemma. I believe that both sides have a much greater likelihood to implement their plans if they coordinate their efforts, for a very simple reason: the attributes required for successful space exploration are also primary goals of transhumanism.

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Mar 8, 2008

Mankind’s secrets kept in lunar ark

Posted by in categories: biotech/medical, defense, space

IF civilisation is wiped out on Earth, salvation may come from space. Plans are being drawn up for a “Doomsday ark” on the moon containing the essentials of life and civilisation, to be activated in the event of earth being devastated by a giant asteroid or nuclear war.

Construction of a lunar information bank, discussed at a conference in Strasbourg last month, would provide survivors on Earth with a remote-access toolkit to rebuild the human race.

A basic version of the ark would contain hard discs holding information such as DNA sequences and instructions for metal smelting or planting crops. It would be buried in a vault just under the lunar surface and transmitters would send the data to heavily protected receivers on earth. If no receivers survived, the ark would continue transmitting the information until new ones could be built.

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Mar 6, 2008

The Global Viral Forecasting Initiative

Posted by in categories: biological, biotech/medical

The Economist has a piece on the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative (GVFI):

Dr [Nathan] Wolfe, [a virologist at the University of California, Los Angeles], is attempting to create what he calls the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative (GVFI). This is still a pilot project, with only half a dozen sites in Africa and Asia. But he hopes, if he can raise the $50m he needs, to build it into a planet-wide network that can forecast epidemics before they happen, and thus let people prepare their defences well in advance. […]

The next stage of the project is to try to gather as complete an inventory as possible of animal viruses, and Dr Wolfe has enlisted his hunters to take blood samples from whatever they catch. He is collaborating with Eric Delwart and Joe DeRisi of the University of California, San Francisco, to screen this blood for unknown viral genes that indicate new species. The GVFI will also look at people, monitoring symptoms of ill health of unknown cause and trying to match these with unusual viruses.

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Feb 23, 2008

New Process Would Turn Greenhouse Gasses into Renewable Fuel Source

Posted by in categories: biotech/medical, chemistry


The New York Times reports
that Jeffrey Martin and William L. Kubic Jr., two scientists from Los Alamos National Laboratories are proposing a process by which the carbon dioxide — the primary greenhouse gas considered responsible for contributing to global warming — emitted from cars and other polluters would be captured and converted to gasoline, methane and jet fuel.

The bold proposal, which the duo have named “Green Freedom” would create a closed cycle from the emission of greenhouse gasses resulting in the creation of a vast source of renewable energy where today we have an open ended cycle that is considered a global threat.

They say the science is relatively simple and straight forward. Polluted air would be blown over potassium carbonate which would sequester the CO2, a chemical process would then remove the trapped CO2 and via a number of established chemical processes it would then be converted to various types of fuel.

Although the process has not been demonstrated and no prototypes have been built the pair claims that the required steps or other chemical processes that they say are close cousins to those required are already in use. In addition, none of the processes violate any known laws of physics and a number of other top researchers have independently made similar suggestions for the sequestration and reuse of emitted CO2.

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Feb 18, 2008

Using Lasers to Detect Diseases via Breath

Posted by in categories: biological, chemistry

Today, the University of Colorado at Boulder made an announcement regarding a very promising technology:

Known as optical frequency comb spectroscopy, the technique is powerful enough to sort through all the molecules in human breath and sensitive enough to distinguish rare molecules that may be biomarkers for specific diseases

Combined with other rapid-response technologies, this could be part of the detection side of a BioShield, a technological immune system for humanity.

The optical frequency comb is a very precise laser for measuring different colors, or frequencies, of light, said Ye. Each comb line, or “tooth,” is tuned to a distinct frequency of a particular molecule’s vibration or rotation, and the entire comb covers a broad spectral range — much like a rainbow of colors — that can identify thousands of different molecules.

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Feb 16, 2008

Safeguarding Humanity

Posted by in categories: existential risks, futurism

I was born into a world in which no individual or group claimed to own the mission embodied in the Lifeboat Foundation’s two-word motto. Government agencies, charitable organizations, universities, hospitals, religious institutions — all might have laid claim to some peace of the puzzle. But safeguarding humanity? That was out of everyone’s scope. It would have been a plausible motto only for comic-book organizations such as the Justice League or the Guardians of the Universe.

Take the United Nations, conceived in the midst of the Second World War and brought into its own after the war’s conclusion. The UN Charter states that the United Nations exists:

  • to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and
  • to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and
  • to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and
  • to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom

All of these are noble, and incredibly important, aims. But even the United Nations manages to name only one existential risk, warfare, which it is pledged to help prevent. Anyone reading this can probably cite a half dozen more.

It is both exciting and daunting to live in an age in which a group like the Lifeboat Foundation can exist outside of the realm of fantasy. It’s exciting because our awareness of possibility is so much greater than it was even a generation or two ago. And it is daunting for exactly the same reason. We can envision plausible triumphs for humanity that really do transcend our wildest dreams, or at least our most glorious fantasies as articulated a few decades ago. Likewise, that worst of all possible outcomes — the sudden and utter disappearance of our civilization, or of our species, or of life itself — now presents itself as the end result of not just one possible calamity, but of many.

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Feb 8, 2008

How long did you want that space elevator cable?

Posted by in categories: chemistry, geopolitics, nanotechnology, space

Many of you have recently read that a research team at the University of Illinois led by Min-Feng Yu has developed a process to grow nanowires of unlimited length. The same process also allows for the construction of complex, three-dimensional nanoscale structures. If this is news to you, please refer to the links below.

It’s easy to let this news item slip past before its implications have a chance to sink in.

Professor Yu and his team have shown us a glimpse of how to make nanowire based materials that will, once the technology is developed more fully, allow for at least two very significant enhancements in materials science.

1. Nanowires that will be as long as we want them to be. The only limitations that seem to be indicated are the size of the “ink” reservoir and the size of spool that the nanowires are wound on. Scale up the ink supply and the scale up size of the spool and we’ll soon be making cables and fabric. Make the cables long enough and braid enough of them them together and the Space Elevator Games may become even more exciting to watch.

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Feb 3, 2008

Spending Effectively

Posted by in categories: finance, futurism, lifeboat

Last year, the Singularity Institute raised over $500,000. The World Transhumanist Association raised $50,000. The Lifeboat Foundation set a new record for the single largest donation. The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology’s finances are combined with those of World Care, a related organization, so the public can’t get precise figures. But overall, it’s safe to say, we’ve been doing fairly well. Most not-for-profit organizations aren’t funded adequately; it’s rare for charities, even internationally famous ones, to have a large full-time staff, a physical headquarters, etc.

The important question is, now that we’ve accumulated all of this money, what are we going to spend it on? It’s possible, theoretically, to put it all into Treasury bonds and forget about it for thirty years, but that would be an enormous waste of expected utility. In technology development, the earlier the money is spent (in general), the larger the effect will be. Spending $1M on a technology in the formative stages has a huge impact, probably doubling the overall budget or more. Spending $1M on a technology in the mature stages won’t even be noticed. We have plenty of case studies: Radios. TVs. Computers. Internet. Telephones. Cars. Startups.

The opposite danger is overfunding the project, commonly called “throwing money at the problem”. Hiring a lot of new people without thinking about how they will help is one common symptom. Having bloated layers of middle management is another. To an outside observer, it probably seems like we’re reaching this stage already. Hiring a Vice President In Charge Of Being In Charge doesn’t just waste money; it causes the entire organization to lose focus and distracts everyone from the ultimate goal.

I would suggest a top-down approach: start with the goal, figure out what you need, and get it. The opposite approach is to look for things that might be useful, get them, then see how you can complete a project with the stuff you’ve acquired. NASA is an interesting case study, as they followed the first strategy for a number of years, then switched to the second one.

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Jan 31, 2008

Promising Anti-Radiation Drug Based on Carbon Nanotubes

Posted by in categories: defense, military, nanotechnology, nuclear weapons

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) gave a $540,000 grant to researchers from Rice University to do a fast-tracked 9-month study on a new anti-radiation drug based on carbon nanotubes:

“More than half of those who suffer acute radiation injury die within 30 days, not from the initial radioactive particles themselves but from the devastation they cause in the immune system, the gastrointestinal tract and other parts of the body,” said James Tour, Rice’s Chao Professor of Chemistry, director of Rice’s Carbon Nanotechnology Laboratory (CNL) and principal investigator on the grant. “Ideally, we’d like to develop a drug that can be administered within 12 hours of exposure and prevent deaths from what are currently fatal exposure doses of ionizing radiation.” […]

The new study was commissioned after preliminary tests found the drug was greater than 5,000 times more effective at reducing the effects of acute radiation injury than the most effective drugs currently available. […]

The drug is based on single-walled carbon nanotubes, hollow cylinders of pure carbon that are about as wide as a strand of DNA. To form NTH, Rice scientists coat nanotubes with two common food preservatives — the antioxidant compounds butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) — and derivatives of those compounds.

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Jan 29, 2008

Cheap (tens of dollars) genetic lab on a chip systems could help with pandemic control

Posted by in categories: biological, defense, existential risks, futurism, lifeboat

Cross posted from Next big future

Since a journal article was submitted to the Royal Society of Chemistry, the U of Alberta researchers have already made the processor and unit smaller and have brought the cost of building a portable unit for genetic testing down to about $100 Cdn. In addition, these systems are also portable and even faster (they take only minutes). Backhouse, Elliott and McMullin are now demonstrating prototypes of a USB key-like system that may ultimately be as inexpensive as standard USB memory keys that are in common use – only tens of dollars. It can help with pandemic control and detecting and control tainted water supplies.

This development fits in with my belief that there should be widespread inexpensive blood, biomarker and genetic tests to help catch disease early and to develop an understanding of biomarker changes to track disease and aging development. We can also create adaptive clinical trials to shorten the development and approval process for new medical procedures


The device is now much smaller than size of a shoe-box (USB stick size) with the optics and supporting electronics filling the space around the microchip

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