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The Nobel Laureates Guide to the Smartest Targets for the World Paperback – November 1, 2015
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Stephen J. DUBNER: Hey podcast listeners. The episode you re about to hear is called Fixing the World, Bang-for-the-Buck Edition. In it, you ll hear how a bunch of economists have teamed up to measure the ROI, or return on investment, for the development goals set by the United Nations. In other words: if you only have $100 or, in the case of the UN, $100 billion let s say to fight something like global poverty, what s the best way to spend that money? What s the ROI on early education vs. job training vs. small-business subsidies? /.../ --FREAKONOMICS podcast 10/02/2014
Champions of aid aren't used to having their homework marked in this stark fashion, and some didn't like it at first. As Ambassador Elizabeth M. Cousens, the U.S. representative to the U.N. Economic and Social Council, told Mr. Lomborg, I really don't like you putting one of my favorite targets in red. But she added, I'm glad you re saying it, because we all need to hear economic evidence that challenges us. Having gone through this useful document myself, I found myself in full sympathy with those forced to choose among them. But at least this sort of analysis provides some rigor and direction. --The Wall Street Journal, Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves and a member of the British House of Lords
We welcome this contribution form the Copenhagen Consensus Center and remain confident that it, along with all ideas and similar initiatives from civil society stakeholders, will enrich the deliberations. --Amina Mohammed, Special Advisor to the Secretary General of the United Nations on Post-2015 Development Planning
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First, new funding by the US, Russia, China and other nuclear-armed powers in order to prevent accidental launch of nuclear missiles are urgently needed. Significantly, Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg writes in “Lake Views: This World and the Universe” that his many efforts to alert the US of this risk have received only minimal attention. Yet this is not a new topic, the risk and need for government funding was also spotted very early by Theodore Brewster Taylor, a colleague of Freeman Dyson. Ted Taylor co-authored “Nuclear Theft: Risks and Safeguards”. He was, in Dyson’s views, one of the greatest citizens of the 20th century, yet nearly unknown to the general public. Today, NTI carries on this work, but frequently needs to raise funds so that US and Russia can cooperatively work together and minimize to nearly zero the risk of an accidental or non-state actor use of nuclear weapons. Dollar for dollar, funding NTI is potentially more important than many of the goals listed in this new book by the Copenhagen Consensus Center. On the other hand, it is arguable that there is ample money from governments and foundations for both NTI, like-minded government departments, and all of the higher-priority sustainable development goals in this book.
Beyond the near term of fifteen years, and supposing that the world becomes more stable and prosperous, there are certain long-term science endeavors worth pursuing. With new funding of between one billon and five billion dollars per year, there is potential for a joint US-EU-Russia-China-India-Japan project to preserve, unify, and then broadcast selected aspects human knowledge, but this time on an interstellar scale. A forerunner to this idea is the Arecibo Interstellar Message (AIM) sent on November 16, 1974, and described in image and words on page 290 of “Cosmos” by Carl Sagan and in the original television show also entitled “Cosmos”. The message is a mathematical representation of a binary counting convention, atomic numbers of certain elements, nucleotides, the Solar System, humans, radio towers, and several other features. This is an early attempt at transforming aspects of human knowledge into an abstract form, and in a format that can be sent to other solar systems by radio. However, for a robust SETI program, the refinement of the “Lincos” concept would be needed. “Lincos” or lingua cosmica was developed by Dr. Hans Freudenthal, and more recently by Alexander Ollongren (both of these Dutch citizens and their research is described in print and on Wikipedia). Today, a new kind of Arecbio Interstellar Message (AIM) could be sent, and for “short money” at the UN or government level. One approach is to use the “Great Universal Catalogue” (GUC) by Martin Rees and Bernard Carr, as featured on page 514 of “Cosmic Imagery” by John D. Barrow. Just as AIM is a signal that can be interpreted as a two-dimensional image, so too can GUC be sent by radio signal, as a pattern of “on” and “off” signals, readable as a set of lines where the combination of “on” and “off” signals produces a specific pattern, which is highly distinct and significant on GUC. I expect that given the nature of the past AIM, many other signals could be devised. One reason why GUC could be part of a new kind of AIM is also because its proportions are universally valid, and geometric. Again, a well-funded SETI / Lincos program would include a vast range of information and signals, well beyond GUC but almost certainly including the “Great Universal Catalogue” by Rees and Carr.
Moreover, GUC may be modified by changing the values of the axes. A first modification would be to change the y-axis to a time values, for past, present, and future, and to keep the x-axis as distance. A second modification would be to have three axes, with the x-axis as distance, the y-axis as time, and the z-axis as mass. If this is sensible, and can be mathematically developed into a hypothesis, my idea is that GUC can become the basis of more dynamic graphs representing change through space, time, and mass, describing in graph format the half-lives of elements, stellar evolution, the evolution of the Earth, and certain aspects of the evolution of life. In an optimistic scenario, the abstract representation of the best aspects of human knowledge could be summarized and then sent by radio into space, to exist for eons ahead of us, and may just possibly be received and comprehended by other intelligent life.
In the past, debates about funding SETI, even for a few tens or hundreds of millions of US funding per year would raise the question of its utility for contemporary human affairs. However, Carl Sagan has skillfully answered this criticism. He points to how astronomy provided evidence of the runaway greenhouse effect, the Venus Syndrome, which is being studied today with an elevated sense of urgency (though the consensus is that a hot state or hothouse climate is far, far more probable than a runaway greenhouse effect in the foreseeable human future). Similarly, study of comets points to evidence of geologic extinction, which in turn led Sagan to raise concerns and Congressional testimony about a nuclear winter scenario after nuclear war in the 1980s. Now, questions may arise about the use of funding SETI / Lincos with one to five billion dollars per year. The preliminary answer I provide is that transforming human knowledge into an abstract form, capable of being broadcast into interstellar space, would preserve the knowledge over vast eons as it travels at the speed of light into space. Since preservation of knowledge in material or silicon form requires the continuing chemical integrity of the material, not to mention the avoidance of wars, ecological collapses, and geologic change, it is subject to loss. On the other hand, by transforming knowledge into a form of light that can propagate into space, it is preserved for beings lucky enough to exist, evolve, and discover the knowledge. Here on Earth, the nature of the knowledge remains with us for our own contemplation.
Yet there is another potential benefit worth considering: Lincos, or a form of a universal language could be an important part of developing Artificial Intelligence (AI). That is, since one goal of AI researchers is to assemble and unify human knowledge and reach the “Singularity”, as described by Ray Kurzweil, the research into “Lincos” for SETI is potentially one facet of this goal. If Lincos succeeded, it would mean that computers have one example of a universal mathematical language capable of describing a wide range, but not all, of human knowledge. Centuries ago, Gottfried Leibniz also sought a “characteristica universalis” but unfortunately lacked today’s computing power. Now, Ray Kurzweil and researchers such as Nick Bostrom believe we may be nearing the “Singlularity”. Can Lincos and a robust SETI program be part of this endeavor, if only in an indirect way? I’ll have to wait for the answer.
For an objective assessment of the author of this book and his agenda it is interesting to read "What is wrong about "Copenhagen Consensus"? by Kare Fog.