Thursday, July 07, 2011

Change, the Future and the ETH

When Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 BCE, sparking the civil war which led to the ultimate replacement of the Roman Republic with the Roman Empire, it was on horseback, leading his legions of soldiers armed with swords, spears, and other similar weapons.

When the Roman Empire in the West fell in 476 CE, after five centuries as the pre-eminent power in the ancient world, it was to Germanic armies that wielded more or less the same equipment as Caesar's legions had. When Belisarius re-captured large parts of the Western Empire in the middle of the 6th century for Emperor Justinian, he too led armies that would not have seemed unfamiliar to Caesar.

Thus, while there were certainly changes in tactics, and formations, and even to some degree materiel, the armies led by Belisarius looked much like the armies led by Caesar six centuries earlier. There was no fundamental difference.

The same cannot be said for developments in the 20th century. Admiral Jellicoe's Grand Fleet, the foundation of British Imperial might in 1914, and the victor at the Battle of Jutland in 1916, was irrelevant by the time the Second World War ended in 1945. Blockades and great naval battles between surface fleets were meaningless when compared with first with air power, as demonstrated by the sinking of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse in 1941, much less the development of atomic weapons by the end of the war - all of which came to the fore within less than a decade.

For centuries - indeed, in many respects, for millennia - human development remained relatively stagnant. Change, when it came, was generally slow and fitful.

Contrast that with my home computer. When I founded Redstar Films, just twelve years ago, I bought desktop computers for the office for my home that were near the top of the line, and which were specifically assembled by a local company. They each had 20 GB of hard drive space. The mass produced computer I'm using as I type this has 300 GB of hard drive space, and is hooked up to a separate drive that contains 500 GB of space. On the shelf nearby is another drive with a TB of space. I can edit an entire film on this computer, and post it immediately to various places on the Internet, or send it via FTP to someone in Asia, or Europe.

I could go on, but the point should be clear. Human progress has been accelerating exponentially since the beginning of the 20th century, and in particular since the end of the Second World War, at a rate that makes all of human history before then look like the slow crawl of an infant. And we haven't even really gotten started yet.

So, on the one hand, when I hear someone like Michio Kaku say that travel to the stars is far beyond our capabilities right now, and that any civilization which would have figured out how to do it must be much more advanced than us, I have to agree. It's common sense. The problem, however, comes with the timeline that he (and others) then impose for the development of that technology - not just decades, or even centuries, but millennia.

The problem is that Kaku et al assume a rate of progress for any civilization similar to human progress prior to the Twentieth Century - that is to say, slow and in fits and starts. They assume that, like Belisarius compared to Caesar, astronauts in six hundred years will more or less be using the same technology that astronauts today are using. But that doesn't seem to be the way that our development is trending. The predictive models of the past are no longer relevant.

It's possible that they're right, of course. It might even be likely. But given the way that things have gone, and are going, it cannot be said that they are certainly correct. The technological developments necessary to get us to the stars may not be thousands of years away - they may only be hundreds of years away, or perhaps even less. We just don't know anymore.

Predicting the future is a tricky thing, made trickier with each passing year.

Accordingly, it's not unreasonable to speculate that a civilization in our nearby "galactic neighborhood" could have developed these abilities before us, and made their way here at some point, without having to imagine them as god-like beings so far in advance of us that we would not be able to recognize them, or communicate with them.

That may well be the case, but it's worth remembering that it may not.

Paul Kimball


AJG said...

We must also consider that however we think about science, "progress" and technology is shaped to a degree by our biology and physical environment. Another species, which may be in a considerably different form to ours, may develop technologies and means of travel that are unrecognizable as such. Which, of course, is why I think the nuts-and-bolts ETHer's are a bit off. Reality is likely to be far stranger than the strangest thing we can imagine.

Paul Kimball said...

Reality is likely to be far stranger than the strangest thing we can imagine.

I agree at the same time as I disagree. I think there are many things out there, including life, that will probably be unimagineable to us... but I think there's a good likelihood that we'll eventually run into things which are very much similar to our own development.

Good to see you blogging again!


Kandinsky said...

Hiya Paul. I sometimes baulk at the naiveté of some of our figure-head scientists. They 'stand on the shoulders of giants' and yet ignore the warnings of their predecessors by talking in absolutes.

'There's no water on the moon.'
'The Sun revolves around the Earth.'
'Six main-frame computers is all the world will need.'

The list could go on and on...

Even our Futurists are usually wrong in their speculative predictions.

A game-changing idea is inevitable and paradoxically unpredictable in its content. Way back in the past, some hominid saw the potential in sharp, chipped rocks and still couldn't see beyond its own horizons.

The first chipped tool made most of what we know today possible and still sheds little light on our future.

Incidentally, have you listened to Lars Brownworth's Byzantine podcasts? A nice change from the usual. :)

purrlgurrl said...

The 20th Century is somewhat unique in that technological development was spurred on and financed directly by governments involved in three great global wars, WWI, WWII, and the Cold War.

The Cold War’s space race (which could become a footnote in history books with the end of NASA’s shuttle program) led to a burst of technological development in the mid-20th Century that eclipsed every other era in recorded history.

Whether this trend can continue as world governments launch austerity programs that will likely lead to pressures to cut back on military R&D leaves the future of technology development uncertain. At least in the US, military direct and indirect funding to contractors, national labs, and universities keeps technology moving forward. The spin offs from those projects end up in the private sector.

Now, there is a possibility that US debt reduction horse trading could put parts of NASA in mothballs. If the government spending spigot were turned down to a mere trickle, not only here but in developed nations worldwide, 100 years from now technology might look just the same as it does today.

All of which goes to say, yes, the future really is uncertain, and Kaku could be righter than rain after all. We’ll just have to wait and see.

xarx said...

The Cold War’s space race was comprised primarily ow propaganda bullshit contrived by both the West Block and the Est Block in order to get "easy money" from the taxpayer,... both the est and the west, along with the Unaligned Liege, had worked together in order to make space stations for the production ow secondary raw materials, in conditions ow microgravity.

And about alien spacecrafts... we arr now spinning around the Earths axis with enormous speed, yet we don’t get catapulted in to the universe by the centrifugal force, ... so apparently the gravity somehow superintends the inertia ow every object within the Earths gravity field. So if you create an artificial gravity field then you ken instantaneously reach enormous speed without an age-long acceleration process, that inertia would normally make you go throe, ...and without getting splattered allover the inner hull ow the spaceship (also in case you rapidly change the flight direction), and all ow that without great fuel consumption since the mass of the space ship is no longer determining the strength ow the ships inertia. However the inertia ow objects within the ship wold nonetheless work normally and you wold be normally waking around regardless ow the ships motion. … so if exactly the same thing is happening naturally on our planet, and since we can directly manipulate with EM-fields for the past 150 years (the force-lines ow gravity arr oval), then how long before we will ken create such an gravitation-craft.

Maybe interstellar spaceships don’t need to be created by particularly advanced creatures, ... maybe they arr ritualistic hunters, or maybe they arr on an quest ow uncovering new kinds ow reality-perceptions, by scanning the minds ow species alien to them. Maybe they arr just tourists (sure, they heave to take mayor safety precaution nonetheless).

stanton friedman said...

I tend to agree with Paul.
Technological progress comes from doing things differently in an unpredictable way. But we have already figured out the energy production process in the stars (nuclear fusion)and duplicated it even though the first hint was only in 1938. In 1943 a big bomb (10 ton Blockbuster) produced as much energy as exploding 10 tons of TNT. The first A bomb in 1945 provided the energy of almost 20,000 tons of TNT. The first H bomb in 1952 provided the energy of 10 millon tons of TNT. The Soviets upped the ante to 57 Million tons of TNT. Note that the first nuclear fission powered submarine, The Nautilus, was operational in 1956. We now have nuclear fission powered aircraft carriers that can operate for 18 years without refueling.

I worked on a study of fusion propulsion for deep space travel in 1962.It is feasible but would be very expensive.The two sun like stars Zeta 1 and Zeta 2 Reticuli are only 39.3 light years away from us, are only one eighth of a light year apart from each other and are a billion years older than the sun. One might reasonably expect that they would have plenty of incentive to develop interstellar travel and a great deal more time than we have had. I am not suggesting fusion is the ultimate, but it conveniently uses isotopes of hydrogen and helium the 2 most abundant substances in the universe and can eject particles having 10 million times as much energy per particle as in a chemical rocket.

I think judging by what has been seen on Earth that there are loads of aliens traipsing around the neighborhood. One major reason might be to assure that we don't take our brand of friendship (hostility) out there. Killing 50 million Earthlings during WW 2 is hardly likely to make any one trust us.

Stan Friedman

nyc.rico said...

What our small brains or rather the limited use of them doesn't extend to the possibility that we've nearly brought ourselves to extinction before. Whether through assisted or accidental means we have had to begin over several times before. Life is trial and error even if it means total distraction.