The Age of Digital Entanglement
By Danny Hillis
On November 19, 2009, a single circuit board inside a computer router in Salt Lake City failed. The glitch cascaded, preventing air traffic control computers nationwide from communicating. Hundreds of flights were canceled. On May 6, 2010, the Dow Jones industrial average inexplicably plummeted almost 1,000 points in minutes, only to mysteriously rise before the day ended. Had the “flash crash” not reversed itself, a global financial meltdown would have ensued.
We humans have linked our destinies with our machines. Our technology has gotten so complex that we no longer can understand it or fully control it. We have entered the Age of Entanglement.
When humans lived in the jungle, they thought that nature’s displays arose from mystical qualities. In the Dark Ages humans blamed the gods for causing unforeseen events that altered people’s lives. But the Enlightenment brought reason to bear; scientific analysis made sense of more and more of the world. We began to feel in control, and our understanding gave us the power to construct our own complex environment of technology.
The Internet is a case in point. Most people may not realize that they depend on the Internet when they place a telephone call or fly on an airplane. In our intertwined world, it is increasingly difficult to understand the very systems we have built or how to repair them. Weeks after the financial crash, regulators installed new trading circuit breakers they hoped would prevent another collapse, but they can’t be certain the fixes will actually work.
Back in the 20th century, programmers could tell a computer exactly what to do. They exercised absolute control in a system they completely understood. Today programmers link complicated modules developed by others, without fully knowing how the pieces function. A program that, say, directs trucks to restock stores needs to find the locations of the trucks and warehouses, maps of the streets and the inventories of stores. The program follows this information by connecting to other programs via the Internet. It might also support systems that track packages, pay drivers and track truck maintenance.
Expand this picture to include factories and power plants, as well as salespeople, advertisers, insurers, regulators and stock traders, and you begin to see the entangled system behind so many daily decisions. Although we created it, we did not exactly design it. It evolved. We are dependent and not entirely in command. Each expert knows a piece of the puzzle, but the big picture is too big to comprehend.
It is time to start a countertrend. We should begin to build simple backup systems that one person can truly understand, to protect ourselves when critical systems fail. In decades gone by, ham radio operators could keep the world connected if commercial communications crumbled. We should develop a simple communications system independent of the Internet, so that civilization can continue to operate after a cyberattack, computer virus or unforeseen emergent behavior jams cyberspace.
As people realize that we are back in the jungle—a digital jungle of our own creation—some will revert to mysticism. Most people will just accept the complexity and learn how to cope with it. Others will try to live “off the grid,” although few of them will give up Web access or cell phones or electric lights or penicillin.
Like it or not, the dependencies are too strong to allow us to disconnect. Our destinies are entangled with one another’s and with our technologies.
Life Designed to Order
By Arthur Caplan
J. Craig Venter announced in May that he and his colleagues had made a new living bacterium from a genome they decoded, artificially rebuilt and then stuck into the cored-out remains of the bacterium Mycoplasma. When the hybrid bug began to reproduce, it became the first artificial organism, putting to rest the ancient and tenacious conceit that only a deity or some special power can create the spark of life.
It was the most dramatic demonstration yet of the power of synthetic biology, a nascent field that promises to solve many of our most pressing problems. Researchers want to make bacteria that digest oil and chemical pollution from leaks and spills, or produce hydrogen or liquid fuels from sunlight, or eat cholesterol and other dangerous substances that accumulate in our bodies.
Though still in its infancy, this technology needs oversight now. Bad guys intent on making nasty bugs or good guys who are sloppy about safety could pose serious risks to our health and environment. Venter and his group were careful to use tiny molecular changes to “watermark” their creation; such identification should be mandatory for any scientist or company using the techniques of synthetic biology. Addressing these problems will take broad national and international efforts.
Some people may feel that creating new organisms somehow imperils the dignity of life. I don’t think it does. At bottom this is a triumph of knowledge. We confirm the value we place on life when we understand better how it works.
The Era of Infinite Storage
By Edward Felten
Imagine carrying all the music ever recorded by the human race in your pocket. That will be possible by the end of this decade. If you want all the movies and TV programs, too, that will take only a few years more. Or imagine making an audio recording of your whole life, from beginning to end: that is affordable already. Video will be possible in a few years. Data storage devices such as hard drives and flash memory have gotten so dense and so cheap that for most purposes their storage capacity will soon be unlimited. The era of infinite storage is about to begin.
While the cost of memory is dropping exponentially, ubiquitous gadgets such as cell phones are also making data gathering easy. Add indexing software and a good search engine, and you will have an archive of everything you have seen and done. Add data analysis tools, and you will have a new lens on your life.
The way we think about information is changing, too. Rather than having to decide what to keep, we can keep everything. Rather than deciding what to record, we can record everything.
No longer will you have to struggle to remember the name of the restaurant where you ate three years ago in Cleveland. You’ll consult your video archive and find out in no time. Some technology buffs already record every mundane detail of their lives and use software analysis to spot trends—helping them improve their diets, monitor their exercise regimens or figure out what affects their moods.
Infinite storage will challenge our notions of privacy. Much of the time you will show up somewhere on someone else’s records. Each misstep and embarrassment will remain forever visible, unless you take steps to expunge it. We need a new consensus, and possibly new rules, to govern our storage and use of information. And we need them soon.
An Answer to the Riddle of Consciousness
By Christof Koch
The mind-body problem has taunted humanity’s greatest thinkers since the days of Plato and Aristotle. How can a chunk of matter inside the skull exude consciousness? Does consciousness require something nonphysical, an immaterial soul? Can we create a golem and endow it with feelings? For centuries scholars had to speculate in the absence of facts, but those days are over. Scientists are now revealing the material basis of the conscious mind. In coming years they will gradually fill in the details, making much of the armchair philosophizing moot.
Several avenues of research are providing compelling results. Neurologists are using functional brain imaging and EEGs to determine the extent to which a brain-injured patient who is awake but unresponsive to the world has any mental life or feelings. Scientists are isolating the neuronal correlates—specific firings among unique sets of neurons—that underpin any conscious recognition of stimuli from the senses, be it that of little yellow squares or that of a well-known movie star. The latest techno craze is optogenetics: researchers insert genes that code for light-sensitive proteins into neurons in an animal’s brain, then shine brief pulses of colored light to turn the nerve cells on or off, either to scrutinize the brain at work or to manipulate it. Neuroscientists can now move from merely observing the brain to intervening in its delicate webbing.
These investigations are already yielding new theories of consciousness, based on information science and mathematics, that can describe what characteristics a physical system (such as a network of neurons) would have to have to be considered conscious. Such theories will provide quantitative answers to questions that have long stumped us: Can a severely compromised patient be aware? When does a newborn baby become conscious? Is a fetus ever conscious? Is a dog aware of itself as a thinking being? What about the Internet with its billions of interconnected computers? Our society will have answers soon. And that will be a boon.
The Obsolescence of Oil
By Michael Webber and Daniel Kammen
Crude oil has been the mainstay of our transportation sector for more than a century. That dominance might soon end, as several forces converge. New oil deposits are in places that are increasingly hard to reach. Environmental regulations are tightening and may tighten further in the wake of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Cars powered by electricity or natural gas are coming on line. And the U.S. Congress has mandated that one fifth of all liquid transportation fuel come from nonpetroleum biofuels by 2022. These factors almost ensure that demand for gasoline will peak (or has already peaked); a decline in demand for light sweet crude oil shouldn’t be far behind.
A transition to other fuels is likely to begin. Whether the transition works out well or poorly for our economy and environment depends on decisions we make today. It is not preordained that we will use alternative fuels that are cleaner than gasoline, because many inexpensive options exist that are not. Heavy, solid fuels such as oil shale, tar sands and liquids from coal could fill the gap, potentially worsening environmental impacts. The temptation to use these solid fuels will be high, because deposits dwarf those of light sweet crude, and the technology to convert them to liquid form is getting less expensive with time.
The trouble, of course, is that each barrel of liquid fuel derived from these sources requires more energy to refine than light sweet crude does, which means carbon emissions per unit of energy produced will rise unless we implement carbon capture systems on a large scale. And because the mining and production techniques are fundamentally different from those for conventional petroleum, swaths of land and water could be affected.
It is possible to imagine a more hopeful scenario, in which electricity, natural gas,next-generation biofuels and other relatively clean energy sources, as well as improved fuel economy, gradually undermine the strategic value of light sweet crude. To achieve this brighter future, however, we need to manage the transition properly. A suite of energy policies could help us emerge with a cleaner, safer, more resilient and cheaper energy system.
If we can enact such policies, our grandchildren will look out from their quiet, clean, domestically fueled cars and laugh at the notion that nations actually fought over those useless reservoirs of oil.
Energy That Doesn't Harm Your Health
By R. James Woolsey
The age of oil’s dominance in transportation may be ending, but at the present rate the end will come slowly. Meanwhile our consumption will continue to destroy the environment and create huge strategic and economic problems. The U.S. could make the transition faster and less painful by: improving the efficiency of internal-combustion engines; encouraging electric vehicles and the use of natural gas for fleet vehicles and interstate trucking; opening up the fuel market to competition from current biofuels such as ethanol and methanol; and funding research on new biofuels made from waste and algae.
Such bold moves would require political will, which is in short supply in Washington. That might change, though, if national leaders were also to emphasize the health benefits of switching from oil: less cancer, disease and obesity.
The harm of oil to public health takes several forms. Regulatory inaction under the Clean Air Act is letting oil companies use known carcinogens—the so-called aromatics such as benzene, toluene and xylene—to increase the octane component of gasoline, according to C. Boyden Gray, a former U.S. Special Envoy for Eurasian Energy, and Andrew Varcoe, a Washington, D.C., attorney. The added costs related to health care and shortened lives in the U.S. come to more than $100 billion annually, they conclude.
Switching to biofuels would make us healthier, too. Critics often assert that crops for biofuels displace crops for food. But 95 percent of the corn that is grown for consumption is grown for animal feed, not for humans. Feeding cattle the starch component of corn makes their meat fatter and thus supposedly better tasting. Yet the fat substantially raises our cholesterol.
Moreover, cornstarch is an unnatural food for cattle and induces indigestion that can lead to illnesses, prompting the use of massive amounts of antibiotics. This practice can in some cases lead to drug-resistant bacteria that can degrade medicine’s effectiveness against infectious human diseases. We can produce biofuels from the corn’s starch while still using the corn’s protein for animal feed, without negative health effects.
Flooding the food market with cornstarch, rather than using it for biofuels, also makes fructose cheaper, lowering the cost of making the junk food that drives the obesity epidemic, particularly among children.
Oil doesn’t just cause strategic and environmental problems; it also increases our risk of cancer and helps to foster clogged arteries, infectious diseases and childhood diabetes. What else can oil do for us?
A New Window On Human Origins
By Leslie Aiello
Scholars of human evolution have long relied on the fossilized bones and cultural relics of ancient humans and on the biology and behavior of living humans and apes in their efforts to reconstruct the past. The sequencing this past May of the genome of our closest relative, the Neandertal, opens a remarkable new window on our collective prehistory.
With both human and Neandertal genomes, scientists can now study not only those outward physical manifestations of evolutionary change that have been written in bone and stone but also the actual hereditary information that encodes those traits. By doing this, we will learn on a genetic level exactly what separates us from all other creatures and how and when these defining characteristics arose. Such insights will provide a more detailed account of the evolution of our kind than most paleoanthropologists could have dreamed of a few years ago, before geneticists had developed the technology to assemble the genome of a human from deep time.
Comparing the Neandertal sequence to sequences from modern-day people, Svante Pääbo’s team at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, found 200 regions of the modern human genome that have undergone adaptive evolution since the two groups diverged. These DNA segments—which include genes involved in metabolism as well as cognitive and skeletal development—hold the key to what makes modern humans unique. Geneticists do not yet know how recent changes affected the functioning of these genome regions, but it is only a matter of time before they uncover those connections.
My own area of research—metabolism and thermoregulation—is one of many that stand to benefit from this new source of data. Neandertals lived in frigid conditions in Ice Age Europe. Many of us have wondered whether physiological adaptations might have enabled them to stay warm without elaborate clothing. Once scientists sort out the genetics of thermoregulation, we can look for evidence of such adaptations. Many anthropologists also theorize that modern humans were able to outcompete the Neandertals in part because their bodies made more efficient use of food energy—an advantage when resources were unpredictable or hard to come by. The Neandertal genome offers a novel means of testing such hypotheses. It will also help us understand why modern humans have more lightly built skeletons and different shaped heads than Neandertals did and whether we really are more cognitively advanced than our big-brained relatives were, as some researchers argue.
More clues may come from the genomes of other extinct human species. Pääbo’s team is currently sequencing DNA retrieved from a 30,000- to 50,000-year-old finger bone found in Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains of Siberia, which may represent a new species. It also hints at the occurrence of more migrations of early humans into Eurasia from Africa than previously thought. As more research groups join the effort to sequence and analyze ancient human DNA, revelations from paleogenetics will no doubt continue to shape our understanding of the human odyssey for decades to come.
Medicine I Can Call My Own
By George Church
Since 2003, when the $3-billion Human Genome Project was officially completed, the cost of sequencing a human genome has plummeted a millionfold. The technology to manipulate and engineer genes has also become widely accessible. As a result, biology is now undergoing an explosion of spontaneous activity, reminiscent of when, in the early 1980s, largely self-taught nerds toiled in their garages to bring us the age of personal computers.
As this democratization of biotechnology continues, the one-size-fits-all medicine we have seen for the past 100 years will yield to medicine tailored to each individual. Doctors will prescribe a custom prevention program and make comprehensive diagnoses according to each patient’s genes, bacteria, allergens, fungi, viruses and immune system. Just as remote villages now harness the power and complexity of the Internet, they will also be able to assemble health care solutions appropriate to their customs, geography and individuals. Studying the specific combinations of genes and environmental factors can lead to changes in diet, drugs and behavior, helping us extend our healthy years.
In the near future, a complex ecosystem of health care and software providers will empower doctors to treat each patient as a unique individual. Your stem cells will be fashioned into ad hoc treatments. Your genome will get sequenced every year or so to check for the emergence of cancer cells, autoimmune cells, inflammation, and so on and will help predict what treatment may work best if a disease appears. Not just knowing but shaping your biology will be part of your life.
The Next Revolution in Farming
By John Reganold
with the planet’s population projected to reach nine billion by midcentury, some experts claim that only conventional farming can produce enough food for everyone. But taking that path will cause irreparable damage to the environment. Fortunately, we have other options. By switching from resource-intensive to knowledge-intensive practices, we can put an end to unsustainable farming and have both healthy food for all and a healthy environment.
Conventional farming can erode and degrade the soil. Its artificial fertilizers are energy-intensive to produce and often pollute waterways, lakes and oceans, while its pesticides increase health risks to farm workers. Organic-farming techniques, on the other hand—whether used on certified-organic farms or integrated with conventional approaches—can eliminate or reduce the need for chemicals. For example, alternating grains with legumes helps to restore nitrogen in the soil, reducing the need for fertilizers, as do adding a third or fourth crop into the rotation, leaving more plant residue in the soil after harvest, or converting the land to grassland for grazing. In the U.S., we need to jigger federal farm subsidies—which now mostly reward farmers for growing corn, cotton, soybeans, wheat and rice—to encourage longer crop rotations.
Also, to keep the soil healthy and to reduce erosion, many farmers could employ no-till farming, in which a crop is planted without any previous tilling, or plowing. Finally, we need to cut waste. We squander 30 to 40 percent of all food, both in developing countries (where it spoils en route because of poor roads and storage systems) and in rich ones (where we discard it because it is slightly blemished, or leftover, or past its “use by” date, even if still perfectly good).
With these changes we could still provide 2,350 calories a day of healthy food for every person—as the United Nations’s Food and Agriculture Organization recommends. To be successful, we need to focus global attention on food and ecosystem issues and to do more research. And, of course, we need the political will to make this farming revolution happen.