Much of Australia’s response to the Millennium Drought has been good, but some of it has been disastrously wasteful. Victoria’s previous state government, for instance, spent megadollars on a pipeline, now mothballed, to take water from agricultural irrigation land north of the Great Dividing Range so as to ensure Melbourne had water to flush down its toilets. And the cost of desalination is arguably unnecessary when subsidizing the harvesting of roof runoff was apparently not even considered.
The U.S. could learn from some of our water-saving efforts—but not all of them!
Les G. Thompson
HEBERGER REPLIES: Both letters raise valid and interesting points. There was no room to delve into these issues in the short space available. For a more detailed review of these issues, please see Chapter 5 (“Australia’s Millennium Drought: Impacts and Responses”) in The World’s Water, Vol. 7, edited by Peter H. Gleick (Island Press, 2011).
Michael Shermer’s “In the Year 9595” [Skeptic] confuses different aspects of computer intelligence: emergence of computers that can be called intelligent or conscious (two different milestones); the “singularity” (in which a replicator starts creating generations of capability faster than humans can comprehend); and transference of a human into a different “container.”
Shermer assumes that computer intelligence will emerge because we design a computer to accomplish that. But other paths include creating learning machines that develop intelligence or consciousness from this activity, as in the human brain. Or some tipping point may occur within the complexity of computers, networks and other technology. We need not understand what will result from our creations.
I anticipate computers that can pass the Turing test of consciousness [in which answers to questions cannot be distinguished from answers a human gives] by midcentury and devices that assert their own consciousness by the end of the century. John Brunner’s supercomputer in the 1968 novel Stand on Zanzibar responded to the question “Are you or aren’t you a conscious entity?” with: “It appears impossible for you to determine if the answer I give to that question is true or false.” I suspect Brunner’s computer is correct.
There are again multiple paths to singularity. Once we have silicon devices that reproduce silicon devices somewhat autonomously, one route is established. Genetic engineering of people could also lead in this direction, as could cyborg approaches.
On transferring personality to another platform, I agree with Shermer’s skepticism. It is marginally conceivable that a “clone” might be able to receive a brain transplant. But it is very likely we will have intelligent machines before we have a platform that can adopt sufficient aspects of human personality, and once we have machines that intelligent, why would they support this activity?