News From Space: Big Bang Vs. Black Hole

big bang_blackholeFor decades, the Big Bang Theory has remained the accepted theory of how the universe came to be, beating out challengers like the Steady State Theory. However, many unresolved issues remain with this theory, the most notable of which is the question of what could have existed prior to the big bang. Because of this, scientists have been looking for way to refine the theory.

Luckily, a group of theoretical physicists from the Perimeter Institute (PI) for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario have announced a new interpretation on how the universe came to be. Essentially, they postulate that the birth of the universe could have happened after a four-dimensional star collapsed into a black hole and began ejecting debris.

big_bangThis represents a big revision of the current theory, which is that universe grew from an infinitely dense point or singularity. But as to what was there before that remain unknown, and is one of a few limitations of the Big Bang. In addition, it’s hard to predict why it would have produced a universe that has an almost uniform temperature, because the age of our universe (about 13.8 billion years) does not give enough time to reach a temperature equilibrium.

Most cosmologists say the universe must have been expanding faster than the speed of light for this to happen. But according to Niayesh Afshordi, an astrophysicist with PI who co-authored the study, even that theory has problems:

For all physicists know, dragons could have come flying out of the singularity. The Big Bang was so chaotic, it’s not clear there would have been even a small homogenous patch for inflation to start working on.

black_holeThe model Afshordi and her colleagues are proposing is basically a three-dimensional universe floating as a membrane (or brane) in a “bulk universe” that has four dimensions. If this “bulk universe” has four-dimensional stars, these stars could go through the same life cycles as the three-dimensional ones we are familiar with. The most massive ones would explode as supernovae, shed their skin and have the innermost parts collapse as a black hole.

The 4-D black hole would then have an “event horizon”, the boundary between the inside and the outside of a black hole. In a 3-D universe, an event horizon appears as a two-dimensional surface; but in a 4-D universe, the event horizon would be a 3-D object called a hypersphere. And when this 4-D star blows apart, the leftover material would create a 3-D brane surrounding a 3-D event horizon, and then expand.

planck-attnotated-580x372To simplify it a little, they are postulating that the expansion of the universe was triggered by the motion of the universe through a higher-dimensional reality. While it may sound complicated, the theory does explain how the universe continues to expand and is indeed accelerating. Whereas previous theories have credited a mysterious invisible force known as “dark energy” with this, this new theory claims it is the result of the 3-D brane’s growth.

However, there is one limitation to this theory which has to do with the nearly uniform temperature of the universe. While the model does explain how this could be, the ESA’s Planck telesceop recently mapped out the universe and discovered small temperature variations in the cosmic microwave background (CBM). These patches were believed to be leftovers of the universe’s beginnings, which were a further indication that the Big Bang model holds true.

big_bang1The PI team’s own CBM readings differ from this highly accurate survey by about four percent, so now they too are going back to the table and looking to refine their theory. How ironic! However, the IP team still feel the model has worth. While the Planck observations show that inflation is happening, they do not show why the inflation is happening.

Needless to say, we are nowhere near to resolving how the universe came to be, at least not in a way that resolves all the theoretical issues. But that’s the things about the Big Bang – it’s the scientific equivalent of a Hydra. No matter how many times people attempt to discredit it, it always comes back to reassert its dominance!


Transhumanism… The Shape of Things to Come?

“Your mind is software. Program it. Your body is a shell. Change it. Death is a disease. Cure it. Extinction is approaching. Fight it.”

-Eclipse Phrase

A lot of terms are thrown around these days that allude to the possible shape of our future. Words like Technological Singularity, extropianism, postmortal, posthuman, and Transhuman. What do these words mean? What kind of future do they point to? Though they remain part of a school of thought that is still very much theoretical and speculative, this future appears to be becoming more likely every day.

Ultimately, the concept is pretty simple, in a complex, mind-bending sort of way. The theory has it that at some point in this or the next century, humanity will overcome death, scarcity, and all other limitations imposed on us by nature. The means vary, but it is believed that progress in any one or more of the following areas will make such a leap inevitable:

Artificial Intelligence:
The gradual evolution of computers, from punch cards to integrated circuits to networking, shows an exponential trend upwards. With the concordant growth of memory capacity and processing speed, it is believed that it is only a matter of time before computers are capable of independent reasoning. Progress is already being made in this domain, with the Google X Labs Neural Net that has a connectome of a billion connections.

As such, it is seen as inevitable that a machine will one day exist that is capable of surpassing a human being. This sort of machinery could even be merged with a human’s own mind, enhancing their natural thought patterns, memory, and augmenting their intelligence to the point where their intelligence is immeasurable by modern standards.

Just think of the things we could think up once that’s possible. Well… you can’t exactly, but we can certainly postulate. For starters, such things as the Grand Unifying Theory, the nature of time and space, quantum mechanics, and other mind-bendingly complex fields could suddenly make sense to us. What’s more, this would make further technological leaps that much easier.

Here we have an area of development which can fall into one of three categories. On the one hand, advancements in medical science could very well lead to the elimination of disease and the creation of mind-altering pharmaceuticals. On the other, there’s the eventual development of things like biotechnology, machinery that is grown rather than built, composed of DNA strands or other “programmable” material.

Lastly, there is the potential for cybernetics, a man-machine interface where organic is merged with the artificial, either in the form of implants, prosthetic limbs, and artificial organs. All of these, alone or in combination, would enhance a human beings strength, mental capacity, and prolong their life.

This is the meaning behind the word postmortal. If human beings could live to the point where life could be considered indefinite (at least by current standards), the amount we could accomplish in a single lifetime could very well be immeasurable.

The concept of machines so small that anything will be accessible, even the smallest components of matter, has been around for over half a century. However, it was not until the development of microcircuits and miniaturization that the concept graduated from pure speculation and became a scientific possibility.

Here again, the concept is simple, assuming you can wrap your head around the staggering technical aspects and implications. For starters, we are talking about machines that are measurable only on the nanoscale, meaning one to one-hundred billionths of a meter (1 x 10-9 m). At this size, these machines would be capable of manipulating matter at the cellular or even atomic level. This is where the staggering implications come in, when you realize that this kinds of machinery could make just about anything possible.

For starters, all forms of disease would be conquerable, precious metals could be synthesized, seamless, self-regenerating structures could be made, and any and all consumer products could be created out of base matter. We’d be living in a world in which scarcity would be a thing of the past, our current system of values and exchange would become meaningless, buildings could build themselves, and out of raw matter (like dirt and pure scrap) no less, societies would become garbage free, pollution could be eliminated, and manufactured goods could be made of materials that are both extra-light and near-indestructible.

All of this progress, either alone or in combination, will add to a future that we can’t even begin to fathom. This is where the concept of the Technological Singularity comes in. If human beings were truly postmortal (evolved beyond death), society was postscarce (meaning food, water, fuel and other necessities would never be in short supply), and machines would be capable of handling all our basic needs.

For Futurists and self-professed Singularitarians, this trend is as desirable as it is inevitable. Citing such things as Moore’s Law (which measures the rate of computing progress) or Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns – which postulates that the rate of progress increases exponentially with each development – these voices claim that it is humanity’s destiny to conquer death and its inherent limitations. If one looks at the full range of human history – from the Neolithic Revolution to the Digital – the trend seems clear and obvious.

For others, this prospect is both frightening and something to be avoided. When it comes right down to it, transhumanity means leaving behind all the things that make us human. And whereas some people think the Singularity will solve all human problems, others see it as merely an extension of a trend whereby our lives become increasingly complicated and dependent on machinery. And supposing that we do cross some kind of existential barrier, will we ever be able to turn back?

And of course, the more dystopian predictions warn against the cataclysmic possibilities of entrusting so much of our lives to automata, or worse, intelligent machines. Virtually every apocalyptic and dystopian scenario devised in the last sixty years has predicted that doom will result from the development of AI, cybernetics and other advanced technology. The most technophobic claim that the machinery will turn on humanity, while the more moderate warn against increased dependency, since we will be all the more vulnerable if and when the technology fails.

Naturally, there are many who fall somewhere in between and question both outlooks. In recent decades, scientists and speculative fiction writers have emerged who challenge the idea that technological progress will automatically lead to the rise of dystopia. Citing the undeniable trend towards greater and greater levels of material prosperity caused by the industrial revolution and the post-war era – something which is often ignored by people who choose to emphasize the down sides – these voices believe that the future will be neither utopian or dystopian. It will simply be…

Where do you fall?

The Future…

A recent article from The Futurist concerning trends in the coming decade got me thinking… If we can expect major shifts in the technological and economic landscape, but at the same time be experiencing worries about climate change and resource shortages, what will the future look like? Two competing forces are warring for possession of our future; which one will win?

To hear Singularitarians and Futurists tell it, in the not-too-distant future we will be capable of downloading our consciousness and merging our brains with machine technology. At about the same time, we’re likely to perfect nanobots that will be capable of altering matter at the atomic level. We will be living in a post-mortal, post-scarcity future where just about anything is possible and we will be able to colonize the Solar System and beyond.

But to hear environmentalists and crisis planners tell it, we will be looking at a worldwide shortage of basic commodities and food due to climate change. The world’s breadbaskets, like the American Midwest, Canada’s Prairiers, and the Russian Steppe, will suffer from repeated droughts, putting a strain on food production and food prices. Places that are already hard pressed to feed their growing populations, like China and India, will be even harder pressed. Many countries in the mid-latitudes that are already suffering from instability due to lack of irrigation and hunger – Pakistan, North Africa, the Middle East, Saharan Africa – will become even more unstable.

Polar ice regions will continue to melt, wreaking havoc with the Gulf Stream and forcing Europe to experience freezing winters and their own crop failures. And to top if off, tropical regions will suffer from increased tropical storm activity and flooding. This will be create a massive refugee crisis, where up to 25% of the world’s population will try to shift north and south to occupy the cooler climes and more developed parts of the world. And this, of course, will lead to all kinds of political upheaval and incidents as armed forces are called out to keep them away.

Makes you wonder…

To hear the future characterized in such dystopian and utopian terms is nothing new. But at this juncture, it now seems like both of these visions are closer to coming true than ever before. With the unprecedented growth in computing, information technology, and biology, we could very well be making DNA based computers and AI’s in a few decades. But the climate crisis is already happening, with record heat, terrible wildfires, tropical storms and food shortages already gripping the world. Two tidal waves are rising and heading on a collision course, both threatening to sweep humanity up in their wake. Which will prove successful, or will one come first, rendering the other completely ineffective?

Hard to say, in the meantime, check out the article. It proves to be an interesting read!

The Futurist – Seven Themes For the Coming Decade

The Future is Here: The World’s First Cyborg!

TerminatorWell, that’s one way to look at this bio-engineered jellyfish. Sure, it’s a long way from Terminators, Replicants and Cylons, but it just might constitute a step in that direction. Known as a medusoid, this jellyfish was created by growing a thin layer of rat heart muscle cells on top of a layer of elastic silicone. The end result is a creature that is a merger of living and non-living components and swims like an actual jellyfish.

This feat of bioengineering is the result of a collaboration between Harvard biophysicist Kit Parker and Caltech biotechnology researcher Janna Nawroth, who used the bell-shaped configuration of a moon jelly as their blueprint. Like the moon jelly, the cyborg version moves by rapidly moving its appendages, then drifts by opening itself up again. This is accomplished by applying an electrical current to the heart muscle, which contracts to close the body, while the silicone part springs the body back into a flat shape.

medusoidThe point of this project, according to Nawroth, was to show that lifeforms, beginning with the most basic, could be reverse engineered and rebuild using biological and synthetic components. What’s more, they intended to demonstrate that mechanical components could be made to mimic biological functions. Though this may seem like a modest accomplishment to some, it effectively shows that biotech machines can exist and behave like normal creatures, at least basic ones.

Score one for the biotech team! Combined with AI research, nanotechnology and mind-machine interfacing, this is all grist to the Singularity mill. If we can create machines that can mimic complex biological functions, then there’s very little keeping us from creating artificial lifeforms… like synthetic humans! And if machinery can merge with biological tissue, then cybernetic enhancements capable of accelerating human thought might be possible too. Hence why this latest development should be seen as significant, and even a little bit scary!

Via IO9

The Future is Here: The Google Neural Net!

I came across a recent story at BBC News, one which makes me both hopeful and fearful. It seems that a team of researchers, working for Google, have completed work on an artificial neural net that is capable of recognizing pictures of cats. Designed and built to mimic the human brain, this may very well be the first instance where a computer was capable of exercising the faculty of autonomous reasoning – the very thing that we humans are so proud (and jealous) of!

The revolutionary new system was a collaborative effort between Google’s X Labs division and Professor Andrew Ng of the AI Lab at Standford University, California. As opposed to image recognition software, which tells computers to look for specific features in a target picture before being presented with it, the Google machine knew nothing about the images in advance. Instead, it relied on its 16,000 processing cores to run software that simulated the workings of a biological neural network with about one billion connections.

Now, according to various estimates, the human cerebral cortex contains at least 1010 neurons linked by 1014 synaptic connections – or in lay terms, 10 trillions neurons with roughly 1 quadrillion connections. That means this artificial brain has one one thousandth the complexity of the organic, human one. Not quite as complex, but it’s a start… A BIG start really!

For decades – hell, even centuries and millennia – human beings have contemplated what it would take to make an autonomous automaton. Even with all the growth in computer’s processing speed and storage, the question of how to make the leap between a smart machine and a truly “intelligent” one has remained a tricky one. Judging from all the speculation and representations in fiction, everyone seemed to surmise that some sort of artificial neural net would be involved, something that could mimic the process of forming connections, encoding experiences into a physical (i.e. digital) form, and expanding based on ongoing learning.

Naturally, Google has plans for an application using this new system. Apparently, the company is hoping that it will help them with its indexing systems and with language translation.  Giving the new guy the boring jobs, huh? I wonder what’s going to happen when the newer, smarter models start coming out? Yeah, I can foresee new generations emerging over time, much as new generations of iPods with larger and larger storage capacities have been coming out every year for the past decade. Or, like faster and faster CPU’s from the past three decades. Yes, this could very well represent the next great technological race, as foreseen by such men as Eliezer Yudkowsky, Nick Bostrom, and Ray Kurzweil.

In short, Futurists will rejoice, Alarmists will be afraid, and science fiction writers will exploit it for all its worth! Until next time, keep your eyes peeled for any red-eyed robots. That seems to be the first warning sign of impending robocalypse!