Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Low-Hanging Fruit

I want to apologize to myself and my readers for this essay, "State of the World: 2032". I originally figured it would be a great deal of fun, just wild-ass speculation with no holds barred. Somewhere along the line it got all conservative and boring. Why, I even promised three game-changing predictions and carried through with nary a one.

I don't know, are we going to count room temperature superconductors as one of them?

Oh sure, but let's develop it some. So, let's start with superconductors. This property was discovered by accident one hundred years ago, in 1911, when Dutch physicist Heike Kamerlingh Onnes cooled a bit of mercury to the temperature of liquid helium, 4 degrees Kelvin (-452F, -269C). All electrical resistance in the mercury droplet disappeared, and it became a perfect conductor of electricity.

Fast forward some seventy years, ignore a lot of incremental advances, and witness something of a breakthrough in the mid 1980s, when, of all things, ceramic insulators where found to lose all electrical resistance at around the balmy temperature of liquid nitrogen, some 77K (-321F, -196C). Well, specially formulated ceramic insulators, doped with cuprates (chemicals involving oxides of copper), but the idea of higher temperature superconductors has gripped researchers and triggered a quest in the physics community ever since. Problem is, they still don't know why it does what it does. Such is the way of technology. Theory, for the most part, almost always lags behind effects.

So, let's say the doped rare earth/cuprate ceramic idea pans out, but it ends up being a ferrate ceramic jelly - a cheap, easy to make and bake, flexible, sturdy material that loses all electrical resistance below, say, 97F. The important idea here being that its cheap.

What happens? Well, superconductors can be used for magnetic levitation for trains, very efficient magnetic resonance imaging, lossless power generation, transformers, power transmission, supercomputers, particle accelerators, 

The obvious consequences are all power lines are stripped out. Well, maybe not right away, but ongoing. Oh, hell, more than that, the whole electrical grid gets updated and metering of electricity for the consumer should drop to the absurd. Literally absurd, as in tenths of pennies per kilowatt (really think the savings will be passed on to you?).

The jump in efficiencies is mind-boggling, but that's the obvious stuff. Particle accelerators go from CERN or Fermilab to much smaller than tabletop stuff  - gigawatt emitters that fit in the palm of your hand. Not phasers exactly, or blasters, more like lightning guns. (But, uh, wear protective gear to avoid french-frying yourself). Oh great, practical ray guns for dipshits.

With extremely efficient magnetic discriminators, combined with tiny petaflop computers, something like a hairnet can be worn on your head that takes the place of those giant donut MRI machines. Aside from the obvious medical imaging uses, it also means telepathic beanies, or teeper skull caps. These ultra-tiny, ultra-sensitive, super-powerful magnetic sensors can read your brain. Or write to it, if that's your clever hack.

I predict some one will be mind controlled with one things, maybe a robot zombie act, like a robot drone, or better still, if the resolution and bandwidth is sufficient, someone can use a suitably skullcapped porn star to enjoy a vicarious sexual experience, - telefucking.

Okay, there's a lot more there, bit I promised three game changers.

I should note, as an aside, that I have a feeling that the Singularity predicted Ray Kurzweil and all of the extropian hopefuls, the whole Rapture of the Nerds, just ain't gonna happen. I have a feeling that we've gone through all the easy stuff, and now we have entered the realm of diminishing returns. Here's a graph to summarize my thoughts, where 1.0 is the the maximum material instrumentality allowed by the laws of physics. I could be wrong. After all, a hundred years ago, physicists figured all the hard stuff was figured out, and that all future work would just be adding decimal places to precision. So, the next prediction is strictly way out there.

Before 2032, a whole new branch of materials science will open up called "Transmaterials". Unfortunately for me, the term "transmaterial" has already been coined and defined. Too fucking bad. "Creepsicle" was also already taken, and that didn't stop me from using it.

You've heard of metamaterials? Regular materials behave based on the atoms that make them, like, wood, stone, metals, glass. Metamaterials behave based upon the sum of their parts, like a emergent behavrio not predictable from mere atoms alone. Metamaterials are just getting started, but so far they have been used to make invisibility cloaks, superlenses, optical computers, stuff like that. For my prediction, a transmaterial is a material that alters physical reality, that changes both itself and its environment. It may be that a transmaterial can only make a change within a closed environment, something that will not affect the larger universe (at least, I should hope so), but can still produce amazing effects. In short, a transmaterial can't alter the laws of physics, but it can bend them.

My chosen transmaterial is based upon a really cool experiment done last year which may or may not be a landmark experiment. In 2011, scientists coaxed light out of a vacuum. This is a result of one of the predictions that come out of quantum mechanics, which says that the vacuum is empty. It is filled with evanescent virtual particles that are constantly popping in and out of existence over extremely short time periods. (The Casimir effect is another result). 

The Chalmers experiment, done by Christopher Wilson and his co-workers, succeeded in getting photons to leave their virtual state and become real photons, i.e. measurable light. The cool thing is, well, here, let me quote the article:
"predicted way back in 1970 that this should happen if the virtual photons are allowed to bounce off a mirror that is moving at a speed that is almost as high as the speed of light. The phenomenon, known as the dynamical Casimir effect, has now been observed for the first time in a brilliant experiment conducted by the Chalmers scientists.
“Since it’s not possible to get a mirror to move fast enough, we’ve developed another method for achieving the same effect,” explains Per Delsing, Professor of Experimental Physics at Chalmers. “Instead of varying the physical distance to a mirror, we've varied the electrical distance to an electrical short circuit that acts as a mirror for microwaves.
The “mirror” consists of a quantum electronic component referred to as a SQUID (Superconducting quantum interference device), which is extremely sensitive to magnetic fields. By changing the direction of the magnetic field several billions of times a second the scientists were able to make the “mirror” vibrate at a speed of up to 25 percent of the speed of light.
“The result was that photons appeared in pairs from the vacuum, which we were able to measure in the form of microwave radiation,” says Per Delsing. “We were also able to establish that the radiation had precisely the same properties that quantum theory says it should have when photons appear in pairs in this way.”
What happens during the experiment is that the "mirror" transfers some of its kinetic energy to virtual photons, which helps them to materialise. According to quantum mechanics, there are many different types of virtual particles in vacuum, as mentioned earlier. Göran Johansson, Associate Professor of Theoretical Physics, explains that the reason why photons appear in the experiment is that they lack mass.
“Relatively little energy is therefore required in order to excite them out of their virtual state. In principle, one could also create other particles from vacuum, such as electrons or protons, but that would require a lot more energy.”"
 The point being that (and hopefully you got the jist of the dynamical Casimir effect) is that when you pump more energy into these vibrating "mirror"s, the vacuum fluctuations will produce particles. Now, a synchronized bank of these mirrors should produce coherent vacuum fluctuations, basically lasing spacetime. No, this isn't some type of Zero Point Energy bullshit scam that hucksters want to sell you.

The device I predict, a spacetime laser, will produce mini-Einstein-Rosen bridges, little teeny tiny wormholes. (And actually, it's probably a lot easier to make wormholes than we imagine - the same way its easy to create nuclear fusion, it's just that you always get less energy out of it than you put in. It's keeping those wormholes stable is where the problem is).

Adult Swim's "Squidbillies"
So, in the scenario I envision, and let's let Doctor Wilson and his colleagues at Chalmers have the honor, is that they set up my predicted apparatus (which must be done in a vacuum chamber), notice that the dial of the vacuum pressure is way, way past what the pumps are capable of, like intergalactic space kind of vacuum. They freak out big time, since they think have created a black hole. Some are afraid to turn the machine off for fear the black hole will sink to the center of the Earth and devour the planet. Others want to shut it off for fear that the black hole is growing. But then they all realize that such a black hole that could create such a vacuum would also create a gravity gradient that would have spaghettified them all to their doom, so Phew! And what the fuck is going on? Eventually, they figure it out. They've created a stable wormhole. They can grow it. Make it big enough for people to go through, and foof! the Universe is ours. Okay, maybe not all ours. I predict the first alien race we run into looks a lot like the Squidbillies from the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim. Do I really need to map out those consequences?

Okay, last game changer. Wow, after giving you all the larger Universe to play in, this one is kind of a let down. But here goes. Robot swarms. But not killer robot swarms. I know, the killer robot swarms are really easy to make, less than a hundred bucks to make a killer robot swarm that can swoop down and dismantle that neighbor's dog that has been keeping you up at night, but I'm not that kind of person. No really, I try not to do evil things like, or encourage them.

I predict friendly helper robot swarms, that can keep track of people, maybe the high risk behavior types, the accident prone, and the just plain unlucky. And since robot swarms use distributed intelligence, the way bees do, which is kind of alien to the way we think, these robot swarms may develop the ability to detect the accident prone behaviors in a predictive way. Maybe some people will just always have a cloud around them. Or maybe, out of the blue, kind of like guardian angels, they just happen to appear in the nick of time. You know, catching rock climbers. Holding opens the jaws of great white sharks to keep surfers from getting chompled. Stuff like that.

No, on second thought. No. That's just fucking stupid. 

1 comment:

  1. Hey, maybe kindly robots aren't so far-fetched after all. Take the Bear from Vecna Robotics for instance: http://www.vecna.com/robotics/solutions/bear/index.shtml

    Or the open-source surgical robots, the first brood of Ravens: http://www.economist.com/blogs/babbage/2012/01/surgical-robots

    I would very much like to see that the Bear is never used for evil purposes, and that no one makes a rent-seeking buck off of the Ravens.