Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Technology, the Answer to all our Problems

[Approximate Reading Time: 5 minutes]
[Mood: Questioning]

I don't want to mislead my readers...the title of this post is supposed to be sarcastic. This post is all about how Technology is being sold to us as the remedy for all the misery in the world. Whether you agree with the advertised benefits of new technologies coming out of government, academic and corporate laboratories or cast a skeptical eye toward the savior role that it is going to play in our lives in the next 5, 10 or 20 years, the truth is that there's been a marked change over the past several decades in the reasons we are being given for the need for new research and more science and technology in our lives. Until recently, new technology was used to address old problems, like food, shelter, clothing, education, etc. Thus we experience, in our daily lives, the effect technology has had on the most basic of human activities, schools of thought and ways of life. More recently, though, it seems that new technologies are being proposed to address problems created and left behind by older (mostly industrial era) technologies.

Space Debris

Earth's oceans are large but we have managed to fill it with so much trash that there's now a large area called the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" somewhere between California and Hawaii that's larger than the state of Texas. Outer space is so much more larger than the oceans but it turns out we have effectively managed to fill the far reaches of our atmosphere and beyond with space debris. The debris is generated by satellites (mostly old or dead) colliding with each other and splitting into smaller fragments. Debris is also created from parts of rockets that detach from the payloads as they make their way into orbit. A small piece of debris as small as a metal bolt has enough energy to disable a satellite if it strikes it in orbit. This is a major problem today with NASA tracking over 22,000 different objects circling over our heads so they can change the course of satellites that might be harmed by one of these wayward space bullets. As one would expect, new technologies are being proposed that would "take care" of this problem. One of the ideas being proposed is to deploy a massive net, not unlike a fishing net, that would catch and collect these wayward pieces of junk in space. What a fantastic idea! If this is not the stuff of science fiction, then what is?

Image of the entry hole created on Space Shuttle Endeavour's radiator panel by the impact of unknown space debris
[Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:STS-118_debris_entry.jpg]

Nano-Technology

[Source: http://www.gizmag.com/nano-velcro-heavy-metal-detection-epfl/24100/]

A new technology that, we're told, promises to revolutionize every aspect of life in the next decade or two is nano-technology. Numerous nano particles, particles that are smaller than 1/1,000,000,000th of a meter across, will help us fight disease, perform robotic micro-surgery, clean up oil spills, enhance food security, etc. It is yet another technology that we are adopting, or rather diving into headlong, without due caution and long term studies. Today, we are telling ourselves that nano-technology will solve the problems left behind by older technologies, like heavy metal contamination. Tomorrow, will we be proposing something even newer and "smarter" that will help clean up the mess left behind by nano technologies? Were we thinking of the potential for older defunct satellites to disintegrate and clutter the orbits before we adopted and deployed aerospace technologies indiscriminately? I tend to believe there were voices who brought forward such concerns but the forward march of technological progress typically runs roughshod over puny little consciences. One would think God has been trying to send the long-awaited Messiah to save us all but he keeps getting hit by space debris every time :)

The Native Americans used to have a rule of thumb whenever someone in their tribes came up with something new that deviates from or changes their traditional practices - think of the next seven generations and imagine how it might impact them!

It's a sign of our times that to keep this precarious edifice built on technology running, not thriving and growing, but simply "running", we propose, experiment with and deploy ingenious sounding ideas that while bordering on science fiction, are nevertheless within reach, just around the corner, and would fix the all these problems easily. Or so we are told. We seem to forget that most of these problems are, to begin with, a result of indiscriminate deployment of untested technologies in decades past. We seem to be living a delusion with one of the central themes being clever technologies will be invented in the near future that will take care of every problem we're facing on the planet today, from end of cheap oil to climate change, from poverty to disease and even death!

Monday, September 10, 2012

Multi-sensory Humans

[Approximate Reading Time: 7 minutes]
[Mood: Contemplative]

Is it possible for humans to be multi-sensory? Can we surpass the limitations of our five senses and reach into something beyond and tap into something richer? Is there such a thing as "multi-sensory"? I guess one would need to be multi-sensory to answer that! Or one could take a leap of faith and assume there could indeed be such a thing and hope that assumption would pave the way to actually experiencing it! In other words, a belief that I'm multi-sensory might help me become so (or to realize that I'm multi-sensory if I already am, unbeknownst to me.

Back in grade school, I remember learning the numeric system in Math class. It was introduced to us unsuspecting students gradually, year after year. It expanded in scope and complexity as we graduated each grade and advanced to the next. It started with Natural Numbers, the numbers we use for counting everyday objects, sometimes with our fingers. They are simply 1, 2, 3 and so on. Then, we added zero to the list and called the new list Whole Numbers. We needed to add a zero because without it, we weren't able to explain certain things that we observed in the real world. Next, we realized that there are things called negative numbers. I can easily imagine someone a few hundred years ago scratching his head when he first hears of negative numbers. Surely, they don't make sense! But now we understand their importance and grant them equal footing in the world of numbers. If my liabilities exceed my assets, I have a negative net worth and I'm in debt. We need negative numbers to talk about things like debt which exist in the real world today. In the absence of debt and deficiency, is there a need for negative numbers at all?

Then the question must have come up..."I have 5 apples and 3 kids. How many apples would each kid get?" The list of numbers which was now, ...-3, -2, -1, 0, 1, 2, 3... wasn't sufficient to answer that question. Enter fractions. Each kid gets one and two-thirds of an apple. It looks like every time we run into something new that we can't explain with what we already know, we expand the list of things we know just enough to reach an explanation of the facts newly discovered. Then we sit back and wait until we need to expand the list again.

And expand we did! We realized that all our numbers, when fit onto a line, fill out the line quite well but they leave out points here and there. Actually, an infinite number of such points are not represented by numbers on our list. What's more, we already have an infinite number of numbers in our list. But they're not enough! Turns out there are two kinds of fractions - one that can be written out in decimal form using a finite number of digits and one that can't! The number Pi can only be approximately written down as 3.1415 and would take an infinite number of digits to write it down fully. What gives? We're in the world of: irrational numbers. I don't know about these numbers but I would feel pretty offended if someone called me irrational. Again, we had to expand our world of numbers to include irrational numbers because we found spots on a line that the rational numbers alone couldn't fill. We then called our new world of numbers Real Numbers. (I just learned there are numbers called vulgar fractions! We should probably stop with such baseless attacks on these poor numbers now!)

But wait, there's more...Turns out there are things beyond real numbers. Surely, they can't be real! But they apparently exist. And what exists is real. So they must be real? That's a head scratcher for me. I don't get it but I'm sure some others do. Living in Silicon Valley, I'm pretty sure I could even find someone who would explain it to me. The moral for me here is this: just because I don't understand imaginary numbers, I shouldn't say they don't exist.

It turns out we have expanded our context every time we found something new that we can't explain within our old context. We created imaginary numbers when someone asked the question "what does the square root of a negative number look like?" I think that's a reasonable enough question! Anyone could have come up with such a question. I bet fourth graders are told to wait until seventh grade to learn about these fancy imaginary numbers, but one of these same fourth graders could have come up with that question. It's a question as easy to ask as "what's the meaning of life" or "what's my purpose in this lifetime" or "why are there so many different answers to these questions" or "why do some of those answers feel more right than others" or "why doesn't Science answer these existential questions to my satisfaction" or "why can't we prove any of these answers logically and mathematically".

There are people who say it's about time for us humans to expand our contextual framework to be able to answer the above questions. We have done such expansions many times with the number system. Should we now also admit that our current framework with which we view our world and ourselves - one that's limited to the five senses feeding data to the brain and creating our experiences in a physical world that's dominated by technology - is unable to answer these basic questions? Like imaginary numbers, could there be a world beyond the five senses that answer questions that can't be answered by the means of and inside of the context of our physical world? Just because I don't understand this "other world" beyond the one I live in, can I reasonably say it doesn't exist?

I don't understand imaginary numbers mostly because I haven't really tried to understand them. But I know there are very capable people who have put in the effort to understand them, and I'm quite positively convinced that they do understand them thoroughly. Some of them might have even written doctoral theses on them. Just like there are people who understand imaginary numbers to varying degrees, above my own level of understanding, are there perhaps multi-sensory humans amongst us who understand this other world that, when tapped into, offers answers to existential questions? And perhaps, some of them have done the equivalent of a PhD on the existence and richness of this other world?

This line of reasoning has me convinced that I can't rule out the existence of an "other world" that is beyond the physical world I experience through my five senses. I can't rule out the existence of people who experience this other world through highly developed senses that are not the five physical senses, but are beyond them, like "other-worldly senses".

I may not be inclined to read the Wikipedia article on imaginary numbers and try to understand them, but I feel inclined to work on this "other world" thing. Do you think that's weird? Do you think I'm going kuku?