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Our Molecular Future: How Nanotechnology, Robotics, Genetics and Artificial Intelligence Will Transform Our World Hardcover – August 1, 2002
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From Publishers Weekly
When Mulhall sees the future, he pictures every home having a virtually cost-free desktop fabricator, not unlike an ink jet printer, that is able to create any three-dimensional object desired; he envisions being able to change the color of a car, or clothes, simply by speaking. Mulhall, who heads an environmental software consultancy, believes that nanotechnology, the ability to rearrange individual atoms, will lead to technological advances that will change every aspect of our world, including our own species. Mulhall' s exuberance, however, does not fully compensate for his repetitiveness and lack of specificity when he postulates that nanotechnology will lead to such leaps forward in computing power that we will soon create robots capable of independent thought, emotional response and reproduction. We will, he argues, soon be faced with a new species, Robo sapiens, and be forced to deal with the issue of "robot rights." Mulhall urges readers to foster this technology because he believes that it is the only way humans will be able to combat what he claims are the most pressing threats facing our species: massive earthquakes, immense tsunamis capable of inundating the entire east coast of North America and asteroid collisions of the sort that wiped out the dinosaurs. In the end, Mulhall's musings seem more science fiction than science; they are entertaining, but not particularly thought provoking.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
Consultant Mulhall takes readers on a speculative tour of how nanotechnology will impact our world over the next decades. Along with describing what MIT types are currently cooking up (electronic paper), Mulhall injects pertinent questions about his topics, for example, whether business is adroit enough to adapt to the new technology; how nanotechnology might improve the environment; and if robotic "transhumans" should have rights. Mulhall contends that humanity is on the cusp of an unpredictably disruptive and decentralizing revolution and spins decidedly weird and disconcerting scenarios of a future of self-replicating nanobots, robo-slaves, and robo-pets. He also speculates on how nanotechnology might defend the planet against disasters such as cataclysmic earthquakes, tsunamis, or asteroids. Mulhall's eclectic tract bursts with amazement at developments in the field, but its very variety and digressiveness make technosavvy enthusiasts its likely audience. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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The author asks us to imagine a conversation between a farmer in the year 1899 and a person who rolls up in an early automobile. The driver tells the farmer what is ahead in the next decades, such as playing golf on the moon, his children being able to drive themselves faster than a locomotive, his cows milked using machines, etc. The author then replays the same conversation but with a farmer of the year 2001, he automobile is replaced by a flying car: golf will be played on Mars, and egg hatcheries will be designed by computers that do a better job then humans, agriculture will be replaced by food synthesizers, etc. With these hypothetical conversations, the author asks us to take stock in our skepticism that the future he outlines in the book it too far-fetched.
He is certainly correct in his reasoning. There are too many instances of "famous last words" when it comes to the future of a particular technological development. If one takes cognizance of the many developments that are now occuring simultaneously, it would be hard to tell exactly which ones are going to prevail. For example, when it comes to the enhancement of human capabilities, I see a competition between genetic engineering and artificial intelligence arising in the future. Both are strategies to improve human mental and physical capabilities, but are essentially different ways of course to meet these ends. The marketplace, and not government, will hopefully determine the outcome of this competition, but it, may disappear entirely if new methodologies, up to this time unknown, dilute the efficacy of these approaches.
In addition, human factors engineering, which is not really emphasized in the book, may determine the outcome of particular technologies. Voice recognition and command in computers for example, may be too annoying to actually employ in the workplace, if open cubicle environments are still in place. The resulting noise level of everyone talking to their computers might be too irritating. Federal and state health requirements also have a repressive influence on the employing of new technology. With the growing hostility towards genetic engineering, governments will be stepping up their regulations and this might dampen the ever-growing amplitude of 21st century development.
The author is aware of these attitudes towards technology, and so he attempts to offer a different sort of justification for employing them, particularly nanotechnology. Much space in the book is devoted to the use of this to combat natural disasters, such as asteroids, earthquakes, tornadoes, tsunamies, and radical climate changes. Many of his proposals for using nanotechnology to do this are interesting, such as "utility fog", which allows material objects to change shape at arbitrary time scales, food fabrication using molecular biosynthesis and robotic replenishment, and the intelligent product system (IPS), which allows maximal compatibility with the environment. In addition, the author envisions the deployment of millions of nanosatellites that will probe the solar system in order to find rogue asteroids that threaten our planet. Once found, the asteroid will be dissassembled layer by layer to a size that nullifies its threat. The residue will then be used as raw materials for space-based colonies.
The author is also realistic in his appraisal of just what it is going to take from a financial perspective to develop the technology which he envisions. Such developments can be accomplished, and the financial and time scales involved, coupled with the physical dimensions of the technology, are the justification for his optimism. He does not use "inevitability" arguments to justify future technology developments, but instead realizes, correctly, that such developments are subject to human volition. We can halt or move forward, the choice being completely our own.
Robo sapiens, Robo servers, and Homo provectus, may be on the way the author states. He asks us if we are ready, and he asks us to consider the answers to the employment of new technologies ourselves, and not leave it up to our government or religious leaders, who themselves are explaining it to us inadequately, he argues. Religious institutions are centuries behind, companies are selling products and services but are not structured to serve our interests, and scientists are too involved in their projects to consider how their discoveries will impact human life on Earth.
The author encourages the reader to get involved, or invent, institutions or strategies that will mesh with the technological advances that are confronting each one of us. I cannot speak for the author here, but he seems to be incredibly optimisitic. This is refreshing, for this indeed is the most exciting time to be alive. We should all constantly attempt to improve ourselves and others with the knowledge we have available. With genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, highly sophisticated mathematics, robotics, and nanotechnology, we have precisely the right instruments, at precisely the right time, to participate in and build the greatest century yet for the human species...
Some selected notes:
(p. 29) Figure 1 shows "faster than exponential growth" in computer power, with human brain equivalent reached sometime between 2020 and 2025. See Kurzweil (2012) for more recent data.
(p. 59-61, 84-85) Excellent and provocative list of possible developments, including sex with robots, a human marrying an intelligent sex robot, and a human "killing" a robotic partner.
(p. 83) Defines "Singularity: when a mass of technologies converge and the future becomes impossible to predict." I disagree with "impossible".
(p. 85) Predicts that unemployment will increase as robots displace human workers and "Other types of social jobs begin to fill the gap." Suggests government sponsorship of self-help groups to address this problem. Unfortunately, does not address how new technologies might help, and this could be very important because this unemployment is almost certain to occur. Such discussion might have been more fruitful than discussing ways new technologies might help with disasters that probably can be averted or mitigated, like asteroid strikes.
It is a truism but the wild blue yonder never seems wild or blue or so yonder. What we now casually accept as part of everyday life - the ability to communicate with anyone at anytime, the abundance of free knowledge, the vast capabilities of computers, machines without moving parts, the merging of radio, camera, computer and telephone into a single device - this would have seemed almost miraculous even 15 years ago. I have an idea that a future in which we can have whatever we want through nanotech is still a long way off. The problem is two fold: How will such power be controlled and who will do the controlling.
This is yet another opportunity for increasing the authority of the State when, on the face of it, these creations should lead to individual empowerment. The best parts were the technical discussions, what will or will not be possible, when and how all this will come about. The preachy parts were the worst and should have been in another book. When I see the word "should" as in "what we should do is" I feel a warning. Perhaps the most poignant warning was an event that is today occurring: The forgetting of culture and the past. It seems as if our new technology has made all things new without any reference to the past. Like the Hopi (his example), we may once remember this society by our leftovers. The discussion on democracy was good but not nearly extensive enough. If we are to maintain any notion of individual worth, privacy, "rights" and community, this problem must be dealt with even as we advance. My grade: B
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