Friday, May 08, 2015

When Futurism Fails

If you're on Facebook or Twitter you've probably noticed an uptick in messianic science headlines, which seem to imply we're finally on the verge of Jetsons reality. 

AI, VR, DNA editing, moon bases, asteroid mining, flying cars and all the rest are finally waiting in the wings, getting ready to change all of our lives.

Well, it may be true that robots might soon be putting a lot of people on the unemployment lines (though that too remains to be seen) but these headlines usually don't stand up to much scrutiny. 

I touched on the endless promises we're bombarded with in a recent post and I've long joked that DARPA consists of a fax machine and a Green Lantern subscription. 

It's kind of amazing to me that all the skeptics out there never give Bigfoot a rest for a minute or two to train their sights on the endless bullshit that emanates from the PR departments of Big Science. And by 'kind of amazing' I mean 'not even remotely surprising'. There is an ideology at work here.

Big Science, controlled and surveilled at every conceivable level by the Military Industrial Complex, has become a kind of substitute god for scientific illiterates who still imagine Science is the freewheeling pursuit of maverick humanitarians. 

Every authoritarian religion needs to allay the doubts of the faithful and Scientism is no different. But there are many who believe that all the low-hanging fruit of the scientific and technical trees have been picked (it's amazing to ponder how many technologies we use are over half a century old, conceptually), that we are actually mired in what is called "The Great Stagnation." 

This isn't a fringe theory, but it is most certainly something that is not encouraged as a conversation topic, for rather obvious reasons.

So miracles need to manufactured, the pump must continually be primed. It helps when your intended audience is inattentive, ideologically-motivated and worshipful. The micronic attention spans encouraged by social media speed the process along so every headline can become a hammer to wield against those Wreckers, those shadowy agents who are perpetually working to undo our Glorious Deliverance.

Here's a headline that's been getting a lot of shares: Warp drives that let humans zip around other galaxies may no longer belong purely in the realm of science fiction.
Nasa is believed to have been quietly testing a revolutionary new method of space travel that could one day allow humans to travel at speeds faster than light. 
Researchers say the new drive could carry passengers and their equipment to the moon in as little as four hours. A trip to Alpha Centauri, which would take tens of thousands of years now, could be reached in just 100 years.
The system is based on electromagnetic drive, or EMDrive, which converts electrical energy into thrust without the need for rocket fuel. 
The way these press releases are written (and press releases make up a near majority of the crap you see in the news these days) is that the money shots are frontloaded and the cold dose of reality is buried at the bottom, since most of today's zero attention span readers don't make it that far. In this case, the wording for the inevitable disclaimer starts with a "hey, you never know, stranger things have happened" and ends with a slap upside the head: 
However, Nasa's official site says that: 'There are many 'absurd' theories that have become reality over the years of scientific research.
'But for the near future, warp drive remains a dream,' in a post updated last month.
Near future means "conceivable future," but it's still an interesting story in one sense. Why? Because it does put UFO skeptics in a jam, since although warp drive remains a "dream", the science has been done in a laboratory setting. Kind of hard to argue about those impossible distances-- if you believe the story, that is. But that's a topic for another day.

This story got a lot of play, and was stretched far beyond reality by some outlets. Why, I can't say.  The headlines have been reading something like this: Chinese Team Reports Gene-Editing Human Embryos
In an ethically charged first, Chinese researchers have used gene editing to modify human embryos obtained from an in vitro fertilization clinic.
That's all well and good, but I noticed a lot of variations on this report (NPRs, strangely) made it seem like the Chinese were fixing to start designing their babies from this day forward. I linked to Technology Review, since it's more likely to be read by more literate folks and include the inevitable cold water splash:
The team’s report showed the method is not yet very accurate, confirming scientific doubts around whether gene editing could be practical in human embryos and whether genetically engineered people are going to be born anytime soon.
Yeah, I thought so. I've seen this kind of thing for a very long time. Here's another pie in the sky headline: Gold nanotubes launch a three-pronged attack on cancer cells. Here's the lede:
Scientists have shown that gold nanotubes have many applications in fighting cancer: internal nanoprobes for high-resolution imaging; drug delivery vehicles; and agents for destroying cancer cells. 
But here's the inevitable disclaimer.  
The use of gold nanotubes in imaging and other biomedical applications is currently progressing through trial stages towards early clinical studies.
That's PR jargonish for "this technology is not even remotely close to application." How about this then? 'Fountain of Youth' Discovered? Scientists Might Finally be Able to Reverse Aging
Researchers from the Salk Institute in the U.S and the Chinese Academy of Science have discovered the deterioration of a specific set of DNA bundles called "heterochromatin" largely determines how fast or slow a person ages. 
"What this study means is that this protein does not only work in a particular genetic disease, it works in all humans. This mechanism is general for the aging process", said Belmonte.
Wow, really? Sign me up! Oh wait... Here's the "maybe possibly hopefully potentially" part:
"If we are artificially able to play around with these marks, we may be able to alter the process of aging."
Well, OK. I'm going to get old. But I can get old on the Moon! Hey, it's true- they're going to build a Moon colony! It's just around the corner!
Europe's Next Space Chief Wants a Moon Colony on the Lunar Far Side
 The incoming leader of the European Space Agency is keen on establishing an international base on the moon as a next-step outpost beyond the International Space Station (ISS).
Johann-Dietrich W├Ârner expressed his enthusiasm for a moon colony at the Space Foundation’s National Space Symposium, a gathering of global, commercial, civil, military and "new space" experts that was held here from April 13 to April 16.
Oh, wait: shouldn't they actually, I don't know, send a mission up there before they go and build a base? Maybe a few missions? The earliest we're hearing for that is around 2030 or so, so I guess I better take my vitamins. 

Well, in the meantime we'll be able to enjoy our telepathic Internet! Well, at least according to the article that was originally promising that soldiers would be reading each others' minds with their telepathic helmets:
Forget battlefield smartphones; the future of soldier-to-soldier communication may be electronic telepathy. A group of researchers in Europe have developed what they are calling the first “human brain-to-brain interface,” allowing people to communicate telepathically through the Internet without a surgical implant, bringing us closer to the day when soldiers behind enemy lines exchange information via sensors reading their thoughts.
But sure enough, it turns out maybe this isn't such a hot idea after all. But it probably has great potential for gaming and other peacetime applications. They're working on that, right?
Brain-to-brain communication over the Internet may never be the best solution for the battlefield, despite the millions of dollars of Pentagon research money that’s gone into exploring it (!) But the military may achieve interesting results with direct brain control over machinery, as several German researchers recently demonstrated via an experiment where subjects successfully steered simulated aircraft via an EEG interface. The commercial market for brain-based gaming systems, such as the NeuroSky console, while still small, has grown quickly enough to support multiple conferences and Kickstarter campaigns in just the last three years. 

Wait- this is in the experimental stage? It's funny, I remember hearing it was just around the corner 20 years ago. It was even mentioned in an X-Files episode ("Nisei").

Similarly, Artificial Intelligence is forever just around the corner. But maybe it won't ever materialize, not in the way we've imagined it. At least not according to this Economist article, "The dawn of artificial intelligence."
Powerful computers will reshape humanity’s future. How to ensure the promise outweighs the perils 
Such artificially intelligent beings are still a very long way off; indeed, it may never be possible to create them. Despite a century of poking and prodding at the brain, psychologists, neurologists, sociologists and philosophers are still a long way from an understanding of how a mind might be made—or what one is.
This is just a taste- now that you know what to look for you'll see this kind of thing everywhere. Big headline, small story.

The always-helpful Gordon sent me an article from Gizmodo, of all places, entitled "Why Scientific American's Predictions from 10 Years Ago Were So Wrong." It details some of the predictions made by scientists that never came to pass. 

It seems scientists are just as bad as psychics at predicting the future. 

Aside from a list of failed predictions, Gizmodo offers up a surprisingly sober assessment of the reality of Big Science, as opposed to the pie-in-the-sky fantasy you are subjected to in your Facebook feed:
Number one on the list was a stem cell breakthrough that turned out to be one of the biggest cases of scientific fraud ever. (To be fair, it fooled everyone.) But the list held other unfulfilled promises, too: companies now defunct, an FBI raid, and many, many technologies simply still on the verge of finally making it a decade later. By my count, only two of its 16 medical discoveries of 2005 have resulted in a drug or hospital procedures so far. The rosy future is not yet here. 
No, it's not. It seems that cancer is rampant, that autoimmune diseases are out of control and asthma and allergies and digestive disorders are at record levels as well. Science and medicine are great things in concept and much more problematic in practice. 

Worse, these kind of pseudo-stories might generate some fake excitement but the cumulative effect will eventually sour people on science and technology, associating not only with the many problems they leave in their wake (economic dislocation tops that list) but with silly, broken promises. The propagandists don't see that as a possibility or aren't thinking that far. 

Either way, unmaterialized miracles will eventually wear most but the most brainwashed  dripstain. I still follow science and technology news but I do so with an extremely jaundiced eye, having lived through decades of wonders that never seem to arrive.

As to the The Great Stagnation, it may be a reality. But I don't think it's a problem necessarily. There are other aspects of the human experience that have been shunted aside in our technocratic age, pursuits we'd do well to rediscover.

 If that means getting off the treadmill of false progress, then so be it.