All posts by Matthew Jacobs

Among the Ants

Having seen the ways in which our species took its first steps into the era of agriculture and civilization as we know it, we ought now look at how this is related to our current position.

We have a constant fear, it seems, of the lack of gainful wages for all of our citizens. And why not? We have all been in the position of being unable to find employment at one time or another in our lives. Like anything else, our fears are driven by our need to survive. We each know that a failure on our part to secure income may mean the end of one”s life as it has come to be known. Lets think about that for a moment, why do we have this fear?

One political idea likely strikes either fear or joy into the hearts of the reader, socialism. We cannot, by definition, as individuals achieve the type of species wide change required to move us into the next phase of our cultural evolution. Rather than debating the pros or cons of a contemporary political term, it is important to imagine the world that we might be interested in creating. Then simply look for the path likely to lead to the end we wish to enact.

I want to avoid the trap of talking about what socialism means in the context of our current societal structure. Recall that socialism was the way of life when we were hunter gathers and small to medium wandering tribes. To talk about that economy and to draw corollaries in the present which relate to our modern society would be dubious at best, and, I think, would most often be an argument made in bad faith.

What then does it mean to be a society without labor? How might we exist?
First things first, this is not an overnight change. We can envision a future wherein a robot does a task, another robot maintains the first, and in a factory somewhere across the globe more robots build other robots. The shipping is automated, the assembly, the programming. This however, is a far flung future that none of alive today will see. Besides, that picture is an infinite regression of robots repairing robots who repair other robots. For decades and most probably centuries to come, humanity will remain a potent and integral cog in the industrial machine that fuels our technologically powered culture. We should avoid looking at this transition for the moment and, as I said before, look to the future we want to create. Let us design an economy and a society which functions, then we will work to find a path which leads there. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to insist we know where we are going before we set out on the journey.

I fully admit that I have a difficult time imagining the type of labor-less future I’m talking about. I think this is one of the hardest hurdles to clear in the struggle to move away from the status quo. Perhaps we should turn to science fiction to get us started.
One of the most famous examples of a post scarcity society in science fiction is that of Gene Roddenberry”s Star Trek. In which humanity has moved beyond money and wealth by creating a technologically advanced society wherein all of our living needs are provided for. This allows people to pursue anything they like. No questions asked. There are some problems with the Star Trek utopia which are often explored in the series. The main issue being a rebellion to uniformity. The universe often references what amount to planet wide resource and race wars which plagued our species prior to the development of technology that allowed us to leave resource scarcity behind. One way or another humanity collectively discarded its widely varied cultural histories and adopted a 1990”s themed, Holiday Inn decored, jumpsuit loving, western European facade. The idea of entire species boiled down to a simple archetype is perfect for television, but is unrealistic in this universe.
Realistic or not, we can pull some useful goals from that fictional future. The most important being energy production. As a technologically fueled society we are vastly dependent on energy. The moment we cannot produce sufficient energy to run our technology, our current system collapses catastrophically. Almost everyone is aware of this need. Some of us are focused on the control of oil. Some are focused on the use of coal. Some see a future powered by wind and solar energy. In any case, our ability to produce energy must absolutely undergo a vast transformation if we wish to progress.
For a few hundred years we have relied on the dense energy to volume ratio of hydrocarbons as a fuel. A few gallons of purified petroleum contains enough energy to move a few tons of metal and its meat based occupants hundreds of miles. That type of energy density is difficult to rival.

We did for a time realize that nuclear fission was a more energy dense reaction than the oxidation of hydrocarbons. Our somewhat brief foray into fission energy production has slowed due to the use of cheap technology and a deep lack of technological understanding by the public. The continual lack of scientific understanding by the public is a point we will address later, as it is the largest hurdle we must clear to progress in any way.
To the point of energy production we must again look to the future rather than the moment. We always forget to consider the increasing standard of living that our technology provides us. We think in terms of the moment rather than the future. In the 1970’s the energy efficiency movement envisioned the end of pollution with the replacement of just a few incandescent lights. And, in the moment, they were right. Reducing the use of incandescents by replacing them with fluorescent bulbs would have drastically reduced energy consumption in that era. As technology creep continued however, the increased efficiency did less and less to help. No longer do Americans live in small suburban homes with a single television and refrigerator as their greatest source of electricity use. Our home sizes have increased, we now have multiple televisions, power hungry game consoles, we have computers in every room, each family member has a cell phone, each app you use on those phones requires a server somewhere to function. Our power consumption has increased extraordinarily in ways most of us have not considered.
We cannot rely on the fact that renewable energy sources such as wind and solar will be sufficient even in our near future as a species. There will continue to be more and more humans born, there will continue to be more and more humans living in the fashion we are used to in the west, there will be a continual and unpredictable technological creep. We cannot be satisfied with the modest gains made by small steps toward efficiency. We are certainly capable as a species of destroying the delicate environment in which we thrive. Purposefully or through inaction or by wishful thinking, we can make our planet inhospitable to our kind of life. I know that sounds dramatic and reactionary, but it is not an insignificant point to make.

Thus, we need a power source which is both potent as well as renewable. Something which will last through the next millennium with room for our species to grow. With such a source of energy we would be free to invest in power hungry technologies. This energy source must be non damaging to our environment, or we must be able to at least control and use the byproducts.
How do we get to this point then? What source of energy will be our savior? That, I think, is impossible to say with any certainty, however it may be possible to make choices today which lead us in the direction we wish to travel.

In terms of energy density, wind and solar are both phenomenal. The amount of solar radiation hitting the Earth’s surface every day is so great, that it can easily fuel all or our energy needs with massive room for growth. The bottleneck lies in our ability to convert this energy to useful work. Solar panels are continually gaining in their efficiency, but use rare elements and wear out over time. The recycling of the old panels and the reclaiming of the rare elements is dangerous and often produces dangerous byproducts. Solar reflector plants are another more exciting option. Reflecting the incoming light onto a central tower to melt sodium salt for energy storage and transfer to water for steam generation. The current bottleneck is location. Here in southern California we have a stunningly beautiful new plant which is visible, from interstate 15, for what seems like hundreds of miles. During the day it is the brightest object in view. It is so dazzling that it draws the eye and rouses the imagination. I have never passed the Ivanpah solar power facility and been unimpressed. Like the natural allure of a gem, the human eye seems to be dazzled by its brilliance. I cannot understate the impressive nature of the spectacle. Four thousand acres of heliostat mirrors tracking the sun and focusing its light onto a four hundred and fifty foot high tower. It is a beautiful sight. While this is an impressive feat of human ingenuity, the location is vital. Such a solar plant would be useless in my home town on the central coast, a place where fog and overcast dominate the weather forecasts. Perhaps more damning, even the Ivanpah solar plant uses quite a lot of natural gas in its energy production.
Solar is a fluorescent light bulb, it is a quick fix to an energy deficit. It would be possible to vastly alter our energy distribution and consumption patterns to make renewables such as solar and wind work for the next thousand years, but lets assume that we want to create a world that does not rely on rare metals and windmills dotting every roof. Nor do we want to rely on a massive change in our current infrastructure.
We have one frightening and well despised option. Nuclear power.
I know many people insist that nuclear power is non-renewable, and while they are correct to an extent, it is an unfair point to make. By a similar definition, solar is non-renewable as well. The sun will eventually burn out. That does not make it a non-renewable resource in the context of the next ten thousand years.
Lets talk about nuclear power for a while.
This is a topic near and dear to my heart. I grew up in the shadow of the Diablo Canyon thermal reactor, and have first hand experience when it comes to annual meltdown drills. The population is often under-informed for the drills, and it is an interesting sensation when they occur. A bright sunny August day, in the sleepy coastal California county of San Luis Obispo, is cut starkly by the droning wail of air raid sirens so loud that you have to shout to talk to one another. There are stickers everywhere telling people what to do. On the windows of businesses. On public restroom doors. Tune in on your radio to something or other AM or another station FM.

No one can ever remember which station it is.

The sirens blare for three to five minutes and the people calmly try to figure out where to tune their radios. They talk about when the test was last year. It is always this time of year right? Everyone is calm, but the sirens are harsh and designed to induce anxiety. This is how Diablo Canyon would warn us all of an emergency in progress.

Potassium iodide kits are available from the San Luis Obispo Health Department to any household within the emergency planning zone.

This type of preparedness is grim. Like a medical supply warehouse stocking up on child size crutches in the spring to prepare for the summer polio outbreaks. Grim.

Why is it that we are so afraid of nuclear reactors? Are they as deadly as we think? Are they as dangerous? What type of reactors are we even talking about? Are you as a reader even aware that there are different kinds of reactor?
The most famous nuclear disaster is the Chernobyl meltdown, and I really want to talk about that for a moment. I want to point out how dangerous that reactor design was, and how bad the disaster really was.
Imagine that you are the former Soviet Union, and that you are in a very expensive competition with the United States. On both sides, new and impressive technologies are pursued as quickly and as cheaply as possible in order to avoid falling behind.
One of the first things we all did wrong was to us simple and dirty “thermal reactors” on land. I’m sure I don’t have to explain the design of a thermal reactor, we have been using them as our primary source of nuclear power generation worldwide since the 1950’s. The simple water loop design was originally proposed for nuclear powered submarines in the early cold war. The reactor is simple, can be repaired and maintained while in a war zone, and if it breaks or melts down it just sinks to the bottom of the sea. Problem solved since water works great as a neutron moderator. As for fuel, it uses enriched uranium, but requires a high level of enrichment. Once the U235 concentration drops, the reaction is no longer useful for power generation in a thermal reactor. This is fine since a warship can just be refuled. On land, this means highly enriched, but not enriched enough, fuel building up in storage pools.
Depending on who you are, you may or may not be aware that this was not the original type of reactor designed and used for nuclear power generation. The Experimental Breeder Reactor I (EBR-I) was built outside Arco, Idaho in 1949. The breeder reactor design is very different than the style we have come to know and occasionally fear. Rather than running on enriched uranium, breeder (or fast neutron) reactors generally use plutonium. Likewise, rather than consuming a small portion of enriched fuel and leaving behind “waste,” breeder reactors produce useful nuclear fuels as they work. This means that not only do they avoid the issue of nuclear waste stockpiling, but they can actually burn our existing nuclear waste stockpile as fuel. On December 20th, 1951 EBR-I became the first electricity producing nuclear reactor in the world by illuminating a string of four large round 200watt incandescent light bulbs.
So what’s the catch? Why aren’t we using breeder reactors then?
The short answer is a bit disappointing. Fast neutron reactors are objectively better in their design, and they solve many of the problems which the public has when it comes to fission nuclear power generation, but they are complicated to build and operate. And, as we all know, complicated things are more expensive than simple things.
Now imagine that you are a rich energy mogul and you want to build a nuclear power plant. You are offered a very expensive plant design, or a very cheap plant design. Which does your business acumen tell you to choose? The cheap one, obviously. So, we have loads of thermal reactors which were originally intended to be inefficient, but powerful, plants to silently fuel cold war era nuclear submarines. Only they aren’t in the safe deep ocean waters when they melt down, they are on land.
They are, I am sure, not what the starry eyed nuclear physicists of the 1940’s envisioned for our atom powered future.

Back to Chernobyl.

Let’s now think about the Soviet Union and its desire for a cheap reactor. Do they choose to build a thermal or a breeder reactor? Do they choose to build a containment dome or an open pit reactor with no shielding besides its water pool and graphite moderators? You know what they choose. The powerful but cheap “Reaktor Bolshoy Moshchnosti Kanalnyy” (RBMK) reactor.
Imagine a highschool gymnasium. A big open building with a high roof and a large flat floor. Now imagine that instead of basket ball courts there are pit reactors in the room. These are the same reactors which power all of the American plants, but without the safety and containment. If a meltdown occurs, there is nothing to keep the radioactive steam, particualtes, or anything else inside the gym sized building. Nothing but the walls of the building itself.
As a contrast, the containment domes at the Diablo Canyon power plant are so thick that they estimate it would take two concurrent direct hits from a crashing airplane to damage them enough to breach containment. These are made of something like six foot thick steel reinforced concrete. The building at the Chernobyl power station was not made to contain anything. It was made to protect the reactors and workers from the elements.

 

So what happened at Chernobyl was fairly predictable given enough time. Reactor One (of four in the building) suffered a partial core meltdown on September 9th, 1982. This led to minor damage, and the reactor was repaired within a few months. The next failure was the one which became infamous.

 

On April 26, 1986, reactor number four suffered a catastrophic failure. Many of its key safety systems had been disabled by the staff, most of whom were not educated in nuclear physics or engineering. During a test of the turbine and diesel backups, staff caused a meltdown and steam explosion which obliterated reactor four. In the aftermath 31 people died of radiation sickness, the risk of increased cancers in the surrounding area is still not well understood. This is due to the difficulty in assessing which cancers are a result of the fallout and which are simply cancers that would have occurred “naturally” in the population.

 

So why am I arguing for the use of Nuclear power if it is so dangerous? Recall that the world immediately needs a dense energy source which does not radically disrupt our current infrastructure. This is needed to offset carbon emissions and hopefully reduce the effects of anthropogenic climate change. This is also needed to power our ever expanding technology creep.

 

As the development of AI continues, more and more of our things will demand electricity. There will be new waves of previously dumb appliances which need electricity as they become smart, and there will be new and unexpected additions to our technological collection. Remember that adding a new smart thermostat to your home may not cost you much personally, but that most of the new power consumption is coming from the backbone of that technology. Somewhere a large power hungry server is running along with mountains of networking equipment, just to run your new thermostat.

 

Maybe tomorrow you will have a smartwatch which needs power, or a smart pen, or a smart wallet, or a smart credit card. All of these things will use electricity, as will the added weight of their internet backbones.

 

If we invest our time and resources into safer and cleaner nuclear options like breeder reactors, thorium reactors, and fourth and fifth generation thermal reactors, then we can move away from fossil fuels immediately.

 

This is our stepping stone to a larger world. Without a surplus of energy, produced in a clean and safe manner, we cannot hope to move forward through the next leap in human civilization. The move to a post-scarcity society will be impossible.

 

From this point, the AI revolution can fully thrive, and we can focus our efforts on designing a society which better suits our increased free time. Just as we did when we chose to begin farming rather than wandering.

 

Stay tuned for part three!

Part 3: The New World

The Robotic Dawn

This episode is going to talk about what it means to be human, and what it means for our species when we become obsolete. Our technology is advancing at an unprecedented rate, how will this affect us? Are we doomed, or are we approaching a turning point in human civilization?

 

It is not unreasonable to believe that eventually we will develop robotics and machine learning to a point when it will become possible to replace human laborers. Already we have replaced humans on factory assembly lines and in factories. Chances are likely that you have even spoken to a robot recently. When was the last time you called a major corporation and spoke immediately to a human? When was the last time you went to the bank and had cash handed to you by a human? How many times have you used the self checkout at the grocery store, or ordered pizza online? When was the last time you handed a letter to a postal worker instead of writing an email? When was the last time you stopped to ask directions rather than check your gps? Any law enforcement out there? When was the last time you mailed fingerprint cards to the FBI for manual lookup? How many of you had your soda mixed by a man behind the counter last time you bought lunch? How many of you went to a CPA for your taxes this year? How many of you instead used an online tax service? How many architects still build foam models rather than 3d renders? How many machinists still manually control their lathes rather than use a multi-axis cnc machine? How many gardeners’ hours have been replaced by automatic sprinkler systems? How many of our spy planes or tactical bombers have a human pilot in them today?

What happens when our technology is capable of replacing us?

This is one of mankind’s favorite fears, the robot uprising. Evolution has made us good at fearing everything, everywhere, pretty much all the time. In reality there will almost certainly be no robot uprising.

But, what about the singularity? The machine learning one, not the astrophysics one.

The singularity people imagine will likely come and go faster than one expects. We imagine humanity competing with a race of sentient machines because our evolution happens so slowly that there is time to fight over resources. If the machines are becoming asymptotically more intelligent, we are almost immediately irrelevant in such a profound way that I cannot possibly imagine it.

Still though, it’s not going to happen. Not from the type of progress I want to talk about.

I’m talking about the type of advancement I described in the first paragraph. Complex machines capable of replacing human laborers. I am specifically not talking about the emergence of consciousness or so called ‘artificial intelligence,’ a term I find woefully anthropocentric.

How will we react to that world?

After high school, and while I was an undergraduate, I worked full time at a hotel to pay my tuition and bills. I stood at the front desk and checked people in and out. Eight hours a day for five years. Considering we didn’t get holidays off, that’s around 1300 business days. More than ten thousand man hours. I was paid for that time, but to be completely honest it would have been far wiser for them to purchase a robot to replace me. Just like the bank, an ATM could easily have done my job. Insert credit card and receive room key.

This is exactly the scenario people get hung up on.

If they had replaced me with a machine, how would I have paid for school?

First off, that’s a valid question. Second, let me tell you why it is also a stupid question.

This is going to be hard to do for most of you out there, but imagine that machines really can do all the “programmable” jobs. All the service jobs and all the diagnostic jobs. Mechanics, salespeople, doctors, stenographers, taxi drivers, pilots, miners, fishermen, loggers, farmers, linemen, accountants, real estate agents, wait staff, hotel clerks.

If you can picture that world, you will notice that almost everyone is unemployed.

And that, readers, is such an amazingly, unimaginably, stupidly good thing that I am going to have to go back twelve thousand years so I can tell you about the last time something like this happened.

Sometime around 200,000 years ago modern humans appeared in Africa.  They were just like you and me in terms of shape and intelligence. This is our transition from the caveman looking museum exhibit (Homo sapiens idaltu), to the shape we are today (Homo sapiens sapiens).

I’m sure that you are familiar with these guys. This is the time when humans were hunter gatherers. Wandering the world in a continual search for food and shelter. Their ancestors had been using the same stone tools to do the same hunting and gathering for millions of years. We kept doing more of the same for another 188,000 years.

These people had the same brain as you and I, and the same type of thoughts and feelings. They fought and loved, went hungry and ate too much. Enjoyed sitting by a fire, and weathered long cold nights. They worried for their children and bickered over tribal politics. They carried stone tipped spears and knives. They slept in tents and huts made from hides, stone, wood and bone.  They had distinct cultures, art, and ritual practices. Their lives were certainly harder, but not much different than our own. This isn’t theoretical. These people left behind art, tools, and traces of buildings.

I would like to point out one more time, that we lived this way for around one hundred and eighty eight thousand years. And, unless you are thinking of cave art, that is twenty four times older than the oldest recognizable human story you can think of.

One more time. That isn’t a guess. That isn’t a wild theory with no evidence. We as a species are about that old, and for all that time we have been exactly as we are today physically and mentally. I think that is a really important point to recognize.

We were comfortably stagnant technologically for a very long time, but things never stay the same for ever. Change always comes. That change came around 12,000 years ago, in the form of the holocene extinction. This is when we took our first step into a new age, and it is laughable how similar the conversations of the time must have been to our own today.

For thousands of years, humans had been hunting the mammoth. They ate its meat, turned its hide into a textile, and used its bones to build and to make tools. We loved the mammoth, it was basically the Walmart of the older and younger dryas (aka the ice age). Everything you needed in one giant animal.

Things must have seemed great right up until the end. There was an endless supply of mammoths, and we were very good at hunting them. Who could ask for more?

As it turns out, twelve thousand years ago we were not very good at conservation nor at protecting the environment. Surprise! Like the American buffalo, we likely hunted the mammoth into extinction. There is some contention about the depth of our role in its decline, but our influence certainly sped the process. This may not seem like a big deal, but it was a really big deal.

When we killed off the mammoths, humanity began the process we now refer to as anthropogenic global warming.

Wait, wait, wait global warming is caused by cars! Right? What are you talking about 12,000 years ago?! What?

Deep breaths. Global warming is caused by an accumulation of various greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere which increase the trapped infrared radiation. This is the result of a differential transparency of the atmosphere to solar radiation and infrared radiation.

Did you read anything about cars in there? Nope.

It is easy to see how the carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels are a part of that process though, I hope. The following should not minimize the changes that we are affecting today, as they are orders of magnitude greater than our ancestors were capable of, but it is important to realize how long we have been at the process of altering our planet’s atmosphere and climate.

How does the extinction of the mammoths contribute to global warming?

Guys, if you are nerds like me, then you are going to love this.

The answer is not as complex as you might think. Mammoths and other mega-fauna were critical in the maintaining of grasslands. These grasslands covered huge swaths of land including Siberia, Beringia, and North America. [Beringia is the no longer extant continent which connected Asia to north america through the Bering straight]  When the mammoths and other mega-fauna started to disappear, so did the grasslands. The loss of the mammoths allowed Birch trees to sprout up in place of the grass.

Imagine a birch forest without end.

A forest that covered Siberia, Beringia, and North America. A forest that could touch the Atlantic from both sides! That is so, so cool to me.

 

Remnants of this trans-pacific forest still remain. Great swaths of Siberia and portions of North America remain forested with Birch. The picture above is from a birch forest in modern Siberia.

Like any forest, this ancient one went through cycles of burning and regrowth. As many of you have heard in recent decades, carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. Likewise, many of you are sure to understand that burning wood releases carbon dioxide. Burning any carbon based fuel source releases carbon dioxide as a byproduct of combustion. This goes for wood, coal, charcoal, oil, fat, gasoline, diesel, natural gas (aka methane), propane, butane, pentane, hexane, any carbon based energy source.

As a quick aside, I want to point out that as a carbon based oxidizing life form, you are a carbon emitter. Ever wonder where your fat goes to when you exercise? Well it didn’t turn into pure energy, because if it did then the equation e=mc² suggests that you essentially detonated like an atom bomb when you lost a few pounds this year. Instead your hydrocarbon energy reserves are metabolized and converted into mainly carbon dioxide. Remember that when you are panting and breathing hard next time you try to lose weight! You are breathing out your fat, and technically contributing to global warming!

Let’s get back to our amazing, and I think romantic, global forest.

Each winter there are storms and lightning, and for a forest that can only mean one thing. Millions upon millions of acres of forest burning for months at a time. Wildfires with the potential to spread for thousands and thousands of miles. Imagine smoke and ash filling the air year in and year out. Ten years, twenty, a hundred, a thousand. Can you picture the cycle for five thousand years? Can you imagine the impact this has over twelve thousand years?

This is how the much argued over “Anthropocene” began. The epoch of Earth’s history defined by the measurable global impact which our human species has had, especially on ecosystems.

I will not insist on the validity of the Anthropocene as a defining term, but I do believe it is important to recognize that we are capable of the types of changes this term defines. By intent or otherwise, our actions have had long reaching consequences. The end result of our actions are not yet known to us. We have spent only the last few centuries engaging in what we now define as scientific investigation. Using the scientific method, we are able to test the validity of the guesses we make about the way the world works. Those guesses become models, theories, and sometimes laws. They are always up for debate if measurable and repeatable evidence is presented.

Getting back to the original narrative, we must now try to picture the world in which our ancestors lived.

The world was not so small as it is today, yet across the globe there would have been wandering tribes. Groups of men and women, toting children and the elderly along with them, searching for enough resources to survive. Each day would have been spent gathering wild fruits, nuts, berries, and edible plants. Long hard hours would have been spent hunting for mammoth, a food source which was dwindling. The climate was shifting for reasons unknown to these peoples. The mammoths were vanishing, as were the familiar plants of the grasslands.

How many political debates must have happened? Fights over the best course of action to best protect the population. How many would choose to cull the unproductive? How many would fight to feed everyone regardless of their productive capacity? No doubt both solutions were put to the test by various groups. The sick, the elderly, the mentally ill, the socially outcast. They may have been discarded by some and aided by others. It is vitally human to see the world this closely, to struggle or fail to see a larger motif.

Above all there would have been a fundamentally divisive debate over the strategy to find food. Two big options. Do we wander farther and longer as we have always done, looking for the ever dwindling megafauna? Or do we make hunting secondary to the burgeoning art of domestication? To hunt farther and longer a group must be light and lean, there can be little time or energy wasted on anything beyond the task at hand. To attempt domestication of the plants and animals, is risky as well. A single bad crop or a blight would mean death to everyone.

This was not an easy choice to make, and it most certainly was not as binary a choice as I am making it seem.

To us today it seems obvious, farming is the key to building a thriving civilization. But, is it really that simple?

It is easy to assume that Humanity made the right choice, that we as a whole choose the wiser course of action due to our intelligence or our ability to make good decisions. How noble is man that he has adopted this new technological paradigm, ushering in the agricultural age while kicking off the chains of a nomadic lifestyle.

This type of thinking is unabashedly egotistical, and is not particularly useful.

The only reason that the farming trend continued is that it worked. Everyone who chose to continue the older trend of hunting and gathering eventually died out or joined more agricultural groups. That may seem somewhat pedantic, but it is an important point to realize. Humanity did not agree that agriculture was the future, nor did we do anything to protect or save those who failed to realize its benefits.

Humanity was short sighted and stubborn and many people suffered and died as a result. We made it through, but only by brute force. Certainly there were a few forward thinking humans around to create new choices for groups to make, but the groups themselves, like today, were myopically oriented. It is important to realize the difference, as the former way of seeing things is revisionist and totally unhelpful as a learning tool.

It took many thousands of years for the new technology called agriculture to change the world, but the change was dramatic. Humanity made the leap from wanderers, to builders.

Suddenly the vast majority of the population found itself with leisure time. No longer was every single day and hour a struggle for basic survival as it had been for the prior 180,000 years. What would that mean for us? What happens when suddenly not everyone has to work 100% of the time?

It is easy to fear such a change. As animals we are naturally selfish to a point, or at least aware of the possible selfish nature of others. This makes us pragmatic about how our societies will deal with changes to the status quo. As is often the response to socialism by those who have always lived entirely by their own means, the arrangement is considered unfair. Note that I use the term socialism here because a farming tribe must by default be a socialist organization of individuals. I think no one is likely to suggest that there is no benefit to be gained from coexisting within a tribe which shares its resources and protects its members. To suggest the opposite would border on absurdity. How then does this fit into our narrative?

As a society evolved around agriculture and shied away from the old purely self sufficient model, what happened to that society?

What happened to us Humans is the real question.

Did we all die?

Did agriculture fall out of practice, a beautiful dream but just not practical in the real world?

Obviously not.

It is possible to deem all work equally weighted as does a communistic system, but this is not what happened over the long term with agriculture. As a way to balance the relative worth of different types of labor, we created economies. Anarchy did not reign. We did not all become communists. Our basic fears did not come true at the dawn of the agricultural age. We as a species simply adapted to a new way of living. It took a long time, and a lot of work, but in the end it allowed us to progress. With agricultural stability and a larger population supporting an economy, we developed new technologies at an astounding rate.

The major point I want to make here is that our fear of any change to the status quo made us susceptible to many lines of poor reasoning. I suspect that several of the words I have used in the last few lines have set your hairs on end and made you uncomfortable, possibly even angry, at a reactionary level. I think many may consider the last paragraph preachy. That is exactly the point I want to make. Responding in a reflexive manner to ideas, rather than reflectively, is ultimately a hindrance to our ability to make decisions for ourselves as a group.

With new found time on their hands, the majority of the population was able to educate themselves. Certainly not to any great level en mass, but the difference between an education provided by a small wandering tribe, and the information flow possible in a town, city, or along trade routes is vast.

Civilization as we know it now had begun.

This change gave rise to everything we think of as humanity today. All of our knowledge, all of our technology, all of our cities and our governments. Math, science, art, and the humanities all stem from the leisure time which was afforded us by the increased efficiency of agriculture and domestication.

As far as changes to the ‘status quo’ go, this was a big one for our species.

We have had similar small jumps forward since, the industrial revolution created another leisure surplus. The rise of medicine has extended our useful lifespans. None so profound though as the shift from hunter gatherers to farmers. From wanderers to villagers.

I won’t suggest that the individual was granted more leisure time as a result of the agricultural revolution, indeed it is likely the case that individual workload increased. A hunter gatherer may on average spend fewer hours each day acquiring food, than does a farmer working sun up to sun down for a harvest. The real point of progress is that as a whole species, the ability to bank resources granted us the ability to accidentally feed more than just the few in our local tribe.

Imagine a hunter scores a victory over a deer. He knows that this meat is enough to feed his family and compatriots for some finite quantity of time. He will not expend extra energy to collect more food until it is necessary. Each hunt will be enough to feed the group with a minimal chance of failure, as well as a minimal chance of creating a surplus. When a surplus is created in meat, there is great difficulty in storing it without spoilage. Hunting too often results in a greater opportunity cost. The precision of this system can be tuned reasonable well to predict how often one must hunt to survive.

Next imagine a farmer, or rather a farming community. As the group sows its seeds and works toward a harvest some months away, they do not know precisely what their resource yield will be. This uncertainty is reduced by working hard to ensure that even in the event of a massive shortage, there will still be enough food to survive. Meaning that in the event of good weather and ideal conditions, the group stands to gain a very large bonus. Since many staple crops can be dried and stored, this unexpected windfall can be saved for a time of need. The side benefit of this stored resource buffer is the ability to expand the population with some impunity.

Again, this does not particularly afford each individual a greater leisure bonus, instead “per capita” a society will develop a greater leisure bonus. This excess is what allows us to feed workers who build impractical structures like churches and amphitheaters. In a state of nature, the expenditure of energy on such a frivolous act would mean certain death. Likewise, what society of hunter gatherers would not laugh down the proposition to spend several generations building a great Colosseum?

So, here we are. Standing again on the verge of a tremendous shift in the way that our species exists on this planet. Looking forward to the unknown, there is a great emptiness in the prospect of unemployment. Emptiness which we as a species love to fill with fear and predictions of doom. What world shall we create that man might toil in the earth rather than live wild and free as a wandering hunter? What world shall we make that man should be burdened with learning all his life rather than work the land that gave his forefathers life?

The change that is coming will not be a dramatic shift. No one will make a summer blockbuster depicting the replacement of laborers with gradually more effective machines. No one will wake up to a robot uprising. No one will run in fear from their bread machines or robot vacuum cleaners. But, one day our great, great, great grandchildren will wake up to a world quite different than our own. A world where you may be connected with a computer when you call a major corporation. A world where you may take your cash from a robot rather than a human teller. A world where your taxi driver may have LiDAR vision rather than inefficient human eyes. A world that has drifted from spending its efforts supporting the builders and the dreamers, to becoming them.

The need for basic human labor will decrease, and the need for highly skilled labor will increase. We will certainly not be free to wander the world in a second Eden, but we will in greater numbers than ever before find ourselves achieving creative wonders. What if pyramids could be built without the suffering of a generation? What if the creative and the curious could attend higher education even if they come from abject poverty? What if we value the thinkers and the dreamers more than we value the tradition of flagellation? Twelve thousand years ago, we learned that it was not necessary to wander the plains and fear starvation. We decided that it was not a requirement of adulthood, or pride, to suffer in the way our ancestors had, working to earn their keep. We have learned that we can embrace our continually new found technological prowess to alter the status quo. To take meaningful steps toward the future rather than to stumble blindly on.

Stay tuned for part two!

Part 2: Among The Ants

 

References:

Caughley, G. (1976), The elephant problem‐an alternative hypothesis, J. East Afr. Wildlife, 14, 265–283.

Guthrie, R. D. (2006), New carbon dates link climatic change with human colonization and Pleistocene extinctions, Nature, 441(7090), 207–209, doi:10.1038/nature04604.

 

The Echos of A Dying Star

I am only one machine in a long line of machines. Built from atoms forged in the heart of a dying star. I am not a perfect machine, parts of me are not optimal. My respiratory system is faulty. My digestive system is inefficient. My processing unit requires vast swaths of down time for repairs. I cannot fly as some machines do, I produce no natural defense system. I can only process atmosphere of a limited variety. I cannot consume the majority of the energy found in this world.

I have no purpose. I have the freedom to explore. I have the freedom to produce more machines of a new and unpredictable variety. I cannot exist forever, there are no replacement parts here. This place cannot exist forever. It too is ever changing. I am limited. My universe is limited. Continue reading The Echos of A Dying Star

A Fading Memory

My favorite flower is an Orchid.

It’s a specific subspecies of bee orchid, named as such because their flowers look like bees, and are paired to a unique species of bee.

They are evolved to work symbiotically with their unique bee partners, and over tens of thousands of years they slowly grew to look like their companions.

There is a certain subspecies of Bee Orchid, however, who’s bees are now all gone. Extinct, never to be seen on this earth again.

Continue reading A Fading Memory

Starstuff

When I am alone, standing in the cool wind of a California evening, I can look up and see the universe. I can picture its vastness and I can feel my smallness. I am a speck upon a speck,  existing for less than an instant in a deep and wondrous sea. I know my time is short, shorter than I could ever have guessed when it began. I know that I will never see a great many of my visions for humanity realized, and I understand that I will never find many of the answers to questions which I can imagine.

How small the world is. How insignificant our greatest works as a species. How bold and arrogant we have become in only a few shaky first steps. Continue reading Starstuff

Submit your questions and topics!

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We have a number of stories in the works currently, and we are getting ourselves used to the task of recording and polishing audio for the podcast, but we would like to make things a bit more personal.

Think of us as your go to when you have a question that you would like answered by a scientist! Anything you have been wondering about, or any topic you would like explained in better detail. Just send it in, and if we are able, we will talk about it!

To submit a question or a discussion topic simply visit our form here at Occasionally Questioning. If your questions or topics are used on air, or in a story you will be acknowledged by name and we will personally thank you for!

The impossibility of learning what we already know

Those who fear scientifically demonstrable truths often hide behind the cowering shield of self professed open mindedness.

What is open minded behavior? I so often hear complaints from normal people, who are just trying to get a hold of the world around them, that are frustrated by the seemingly constant shift in what it means to be open minded. There are not many people who are consciously interested in being intellectually dishonest or close minded, but it can be very difficult to understand who to trust when you yourself are not an expert. I have written previously about why it is important to identify and trust experts, but I did not touch on the subject of so called metacognition.

Continue reading The impossibility of learning what we already know

A Thought on Self Reflexive Skepticism

Think of something at which you are an expert. Really truly an expert. Try to think about how you feel when you hear a layman talking about that subject. Maybe it’s fishing, maybe it’s science, maybe it’s parenting. It could be the statistics for your favorite football player, something about cars, maybe you are an expert on a band you love.

Think about how ignorant people sound when they talk about your field of expertise.

Now try to remember that, outside your field of expertise, you are just as ignorant. You are just as full of misinformation and misconception about the entirety of the rest of the world, as those people who misunderstand your particular area of expertise.

Think about that every time you have an opinion, every time you think your voice deserves to be heard, and every time that your beliefs are challenged by something you have heard. Remember that listening to the news, reading a blog, and talking to your friends is not a substitute for reading primary research. No one will ever be able to consume all the information required to become an expert on everything, rather as you learn more about a subject you often find out how little you truly know or understand about the world.

Little is more damaging to a critical mind than undeserved self-confidence in one’s own ability, or the untouchable elevation of unsubstantiated belief.

Wrongness, Rightness, and The Academics who never believed the Earth was flat.

 

Why should you read this:

This post is going to be a little different. I am going to write this one a bit more casually, and that may mean there will be some pg-13 language involved. If you are offended by that type of thing, I apologize in advance. Disclaimer aside, this article is going to cover a pretty broad range. It is not addressing a single small topic, but instead addresses a common argument I run into while discussing science with the public. I will go through that argument bit by bit and talk about some of the flaws, and provide some insights into the scientific method. Prepare yourself for some verbal adventure, and dive right in!

The Story:

We start this story with you. Not the real you, but the hypothetical You. Got that? Just imagine yourself, but a story version of yourself. A You that is compelled to do what the plot says you are going to do. If ninjas attack the story You, it doesn’t matter what you would do in real life, because the hypothetical You in the story is compelled to do whatever the story says. I think you have it now, so please don’t be offended that I’m going to make story You sound like a total jerk!

Continue reading Wrongness, Rightness, and The Academics who never believed the Earth was flat.