Welcome to Talk Universe. I'm your host Sir Charles Shults and this is the show for Wednesday, July 20th, 2016. We're addressing a very serious issue in this program: are we destroying our world? Last week's show of course we talked about whether we have the potential to be living in a virtual world, whether actually live in a simulation, and that's an unresolved question, but there's some interesting things to consider.
This show is a little more serious, and in this show we're going to look at some of the things that lead us to believe that we're probably destroying the planet we live on - and there are a lot of signs of that - and I also have a guest. I'm going to be interviewing Charles Ostman, who is well known for a lot of his research and science and he's a wonderful presenter of the facts and the viewpoints. He's referred to as the "historian of the future" and he does work in nanotechnology, among other fields and he's going to bring us some really interesting viewpoints and perhaps a little clarity to the question.
So let's get started with the show. I want to start out with the thought that a lot of the things that we see in our world today are clear indications that the activities of the human race are posing a serious threat to the biosphere and the habitability of our world, and people are aware that species of plants and animals are vanishing at an alarming rate. There are many species that have died out that we will never know even existed.
We also are doing things by injecting poisons underground - the fracking movement - to obtain the last little bit of gas and oil that can be wrenched out of the rock, and in that process we are destroying the water table. We are injecting toxic materials and solvents underground into the rock and it leeches into the water table and that's an irreversible bit of damage.
When you destroy the barriers between the chemicals that are locked up in the rocks and the water that we depend on to drink and support our agriculture and our daily activities, you realize that you punctured the barrier and there's no going back. You can't go half a mile or a mile underground and fix the rock that you have exploded and it's leaking.
There are other things going on as well. We have the intrusion of chemicals from the drugs that we use that end up in the biosphere, so we have drugs that are hormones and modifiers of mood and treatments for various illnesses and these chemicals are typically not metabolized. Many of them end up in their original state in the environment in our water, and tests of our water supply have shown incredible levels of psychoactive and body messaging type drugs that cause the tissues in your body to do things, and these drugs are present in our water. They're in just about everything you drink, along with chemicals of other sorts of ends up in the water.
We all know about the Flint water crisis and the discovery that many communities have pretty badly lead-contaminated water and it seems that nothing is being done about that. I know that when I was a child, we would drink the water straight out of the tap, and it tasted good. It was fine, and today we don't dare drink that water without having some sort of filtration system, and a lot of times if you taste the city water it tastes like dirt or plastic. So there is serious contamination in our water and it's an issue that, if not addressed, is just going to get worse and it's going to result in a lot of fatalities at some point in my estimation.
We are putting things in the atmosphere that we cannot remove easily and on the upside we've seen that since we banned the use of freon propellants in aerosol cans that the ozone hole is actually recovering, and that's a positive note, that the ozone hole is becoming smaller every year because the chemicals we produce that were destroying it are dissipating. They're being broken down and they do naturally decay over time. It just isn't a a rapid process. So the ozone hole issue is about to become a non-issue, which is a good thing. I think that there are many different ways that we're wrecking the world and we're going to examine some of those tonight and see exactly what's going on, get some opinions from Charles Ostman, and see what he thinks and see if we can't find some sort of solutions. Let's try to identify the root cause of all the ills we have, and see what we know that we can do about it.
Now one of the first things I want to do before we get into all the gloom and doom and the possible solutions is I want to do the Singularity Watch. One of the features we do here every week is we have a look at how the growth of computing and information is going to change our world, and there's a point that people theorize we're going to reach called the singularity.
The singularity is a point where we can no longer predict what happens next, and it's thought to be the point when things basically shift in such a radical way that the materials, the computing the information all converge in some manner to create some unpredictable event. We don't know what it will be but it's going to be either cataclysmically bad or cataclysmically good or possibly no discernible effect. We don't really know but it's something to be concerned about.
One of the things I like to do is look at technologies that are developing and how the world is changing and expose some of that to people so they know what to expect. So one of the interesting stories I see here is related to quantum computing and it's been notoriously difficult to make low-cost quantum computers and one of the reasons is they require cryogenic temperatures. You have to supercool a lot of the components in order to make it work. Now this means the cost of liquid nitrogen or refrigeration is a major concern when you're doing quantum computing.
So recently they discovered that using the material in mothballs, naphthalene, it's possible to make quantum computing at room temperature and this was an article published in Nature communications and they said that when they burn naphthalene it produces tiny carbon nanospheres. I think they're referred to originally as bucky balls and these nanospheres of carbon, which they demonstrated on some scale are extremely uniform and easy to produce; these nanospheres store qubits, the quantum bits, the basic units of quantum computing and they can store them at room temperature for a period of 175 nanoseconds. Now that doesn't sound like long- that's a billionth- a billionth of a second however it's more than long enough for quantum computing and longer than the storage times for graphene which they thought was a very promising material for this technology.
Now this can bring the cost down by removing the need for ah cryogenic cooling and now all they really need to do is build a functioning device using the material and they seem really optimistic about it. So they've got a new material it works at room temperature doesn't require any refrigeration and it could bring quantum computing, who knows, to the palm top very quickly.
Another interesting story and it's also the small scale I think you're going to discover that a lot of the advancements we're looking at happen at the very, very small scale. There is a company that has worked out a means of producing smart dust components. Now if you don't know what smart dust is: one of the projections of nanotechnology is the ability to make dust-sized computing devices or robotic devices and smart dust would be literally dust that has computing and actuating properties and can be made to do jobs or gather information. They've discovered how to make cameras small as salt grains; at least the lens components. University of Stuttgart published a paper in Nature Photonics and they describe a 3D printing technique that makes lenses that are only a hundred twenty microns in diameter.
That's about size of salt grain and they're made with a commercially available nano scribe 3D printer. Now what this means is it can lead to making tiny sensors, cameras, and things as small as sand or dust. This is just the beginning and they... they have the idea that theoretically this could bring about the creation of smart dust, so think about the dust in your corner could actually be thousands or millions of little robots.
A third news piece I see here- they've discovered in our world and this should not be a surprise- our world depends on processes and systems that are so complex that it's now impossible for any single human mind to comprehend them. We've created a system that has now produced unexpected groundings of airline flights and short-period micro crashes in the stock market and systems that unexpectedly shut down for reasons that nobody can explain. In some ways our world, our technical world, has become entangled so that effects in one system can have effects on other systems to the point where unexpected results such as crashes, unexpected behavior, or shutdowns occur. Now, it's being compared to trying to predict the weather and it may only get worse.
You see, some of the software's a little buggy and the certain types of bugs that exist only show up in extreme conditions or unexpected conditions and in some cases, three or four systems that are working properly when put together show emergent behavior; unexpected operation that nobody would have predicted because they didn't foresee the conditions that those systems would be operating in. So we've reached the stage of complexity that is outside of human comprehension and it's not going to get any simpler.
So I'm going to start out by looking at some of the issues we're facing. I mentioned the depletion of the gene pool; species becoming extinct. That's ah, that's definitely one of the problems were facing. We've fished out 90% of the oceans and they're being polluted and everybody is aware the Fukushima disaster and the Gulf of Mexico and the oil spills there, so we have radiation and petroleum and plastics in our ocean and all of the oceans are contaminated at this point and we have to do something to get that plastic out and it isn't a difficult problem but it's just getting people to do it. There are so many of these things that we have solutions to and nothing seems to be done.
In fact in some cases they're actually laws in place that prevent us from taking action and this is absolutely short-sighted and literally criminal! When we have a problem and we have laws that prevent us from fixing that problem then the law is immediately suspect we have to do something that fixes the problem. If you're standing there bleeding to death and somebody says well it's against the law for me to help you, how do you resolve that from a moral standpoint?
You see, it isn't about legality, it's about getting things done and doing them in a way that doesn't harm people but actually helps people. But I'm digressing. I want to finish by kind of quantifying our issues of species depletion and overfishing the oceans and polluting the oceans; polluting our atmosphere and putting chemicals in our water supply whether advertently or inadvertently; making our water toxic. We have so many things we're doing wrong right now and one of the biggest debates is over climate change and it was originally referred to as global warming but we see that it isn't necessarily warming, and to be absolutely fair, I have to point out that when you inject more energy into the weather system it doesn't necessarily mean the entire planet gets hotter. Instead it means that the weather can become more energetic or chaotic. Now
I've recently become aware that a lot of scientists are depending on what's known as gas bubbles to determine whether the carbon dioxide level of our atmosphere has been rising, and yes, there's some pretty good evidence that it is. One of the things however that I have a contention with is this. Many of the gas bubbles that they're using for this as evidence are bubbles trapped in Antarctic ice. Bubbles that are thousands of years old and they're analyzing the contents, the gas contents of these tiny bubbles trapped in the ice and trying to determine what the percentages of the different gases are inside these bubbles.
This is... this is something that actually is highly suspect to me because of the simple fact that carbon dioxide and some other gases can dissolve in ice and migrate through ice and it can leave the bubble it can enter the bubble. So the bubble is not like a glass jar; it is not a sample of the atmosphere that can necessarily be reliable, and so when we start seeing these charts of the CO2 levels from thousands of years ago, we have to have some red flags go up right away, because the first and primary indicator of carbon dioxide should probably be tree rings, and the evidence of plant growth, because in periods where there's a lot of CO2, the trees, the plants, will grow to match the amount of CO2 that's available.
Remember, carbon dioxide is plant food and the lower the levels of the atmosphere are, the harder it is for plant life to grow. The higher the levels of CO2, the much easier- it's much, much easier for plants to grow in periods of high carbon dioxide. So we can't even tell where all the carbon dioxide, where all the CO2 is going now, and it turns out that huge amounts of it are being sequestered in the roots of plants; in particularly trees, and so for some reason, a lot of it's disappearing and nobody knows where it's going.
Now the major absorber of CO2, and of course balancer of our climate, is our oceans and the smartest thing for us to do, it would seem to be, is to get kelp growing in the oceans; surface kelp, and that stuff will absorb amazing quantities of CO2 and actually there have been pilot programs to put materials in the oceans that act to fertilize the growth of phytoplankton, the tiny organisms that absorb primary sunlight and CO2 out of the ocean and to see if we can begin to reverse this depletion trend. Now actually it works very well.
The two things that limit the growth of the microorganisms of the ocean tend to be iron and silica. You see, they don't make their shells out of calcium carbonate like in limestone, like regular clams and other things that you're familiar with. They make their shells out of silica which is like glass and silica is difficult to get into solution to, to degree. So an experiment was done where they actually put sodium silicate which is a solution of silica into the oceans and they also put iron sulfate or ferrous sulfate in the ocean and when these two materials were added, suddenly the microscopic organisms that are the basis of the food chain exploded into life and they produce an extremely curious form of pollution known as fish.
And so this is a process that is easily done, can easily rectify a lot of the depletion and in fact there was a fellow who did this and they legally tried to stop him. There are actually laws in place to prevent this sort of thing from being done. He did manage to get away with it and it did work and he had a much larger yield of fish than he had previously.
So we do have a tool that allows us to take CO2 out of the atmosphere and clean up parts of the ocean and this tool is actually not being used; it's actually being stopped. Now, American businessman Russell George actually carried this experiment out by putting a hundred twenty tons of ferrous sulphate in the oceans two hundred nautical miles west of Haida Gwaii in the Pacific Ocean and he had a result of the growth of phytoplankton over about ten thousand square miles and they actually showed an increase, a huge increase in the fish population in the area.
This was done in 2012. He was part of a salmon restoration project and in May 2013 they fired him because of all the controversy over whether what he did was illegal or not and they claimed he was dumping wastes into the ocean when he was actually fertilizing it. The interesting thing is the next year in 2014 Alaska reported a record salmon harvest for the previous year. So whether what he did had the effect or not there certainly was something that gave a huge increase in the salmon population and on that note, we're going to take a break.
So anyway it's time to introduce our guest and Charles Ostman has over thirty five years of experience in the fields of electronics, physics, materials science, computing, and various forms of applied AI and artificial life including eight years at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory at the University of California in Berkeley and Los Alamos National Laboratories so he's worked on a lot of different, amazing projects and he's a nanotechnologist by trade and so he's going to have some great ideas and some great opinions about the problem.
Charles Shults: So Charles Ostman, welcome to the show.
Charles Ostman: Thank you, Charles.
Charles Shults: So how would you describe our world situation right now? I mean what do you see it as- what's the root cause of the way things are?
Charles Ostman: Okay, I would look at this sort of like the way a heroin addict is addicted to ever larger doses of heroin. The planet is addicted to the sort of petro dollar economic platform energy model, as it were, and we're going to ever more desperate means to get at this, you know, drug is a word, that keeps our energy platform going. So a couple of different ways of looking at this... Now, I happen to be a big proponent of synthetic biology as a solution for a variety of problems of which one could be a different approach to how we look at energy and a way of it- in other words, a way of abating the really harmful aspects of drilling for oil.
Charles Shults: In other words, possibly using synthetic organisms to create our fuel supply I'd say.
Charles Ostman: And let me just expand slightly... in geological timescales, our place in this planet's like a blink of an eye and even if we wipe ourselves out through our own stupidity, at some point- which is quite possible of course, at some point you know many milennia from now, yes, the planet will go on. It'll recover, the biodiversity will come back, you know for many millennia, and who knows, maybe some other life form will evolve. Maybe not us humanoids maybe it would be something else, who knows but you know this whole thing will repeat over again. But one of the things we've left behind, the residue of our existence here is that we've gone after all the low-hanging fruit; in other words we've dug giant holes in the Earth, we've gouged out enormous amounts of minerals to supply our sort of high-tech industry as it were and in parallel with that probably the largest, most damaging aspect of that was our drilling for oil and going to extreme measures like fracking. In other words, go back a century you know, oil bubbled out the ground. You could just drill a few feet in the ground if you're in the right place and suddenly oil would come gushing out. Well, we kind of drained all that. Now we're going for ever more extreme measures; going into ultra deep sea well digging which has had its own share off horrible dilemmas as we have all seen and...
Charles Shults: You mean like the gigantic spills in the Gulf of Mexico.
Charles Ostman: Exactly, exactly, and now of course we're going to this even more extreme measure of fracking and I've actually spent some time in the fracking universe some time ago. The whole idea of creating vertical chemical retorts where you- if deep underground you, you grind up shale, you use different means to sort of extract the oil from the shale et cetera, and now we're digging up tar sands and just all kinds of things where the residue of our presence will, will leave long-term scars, will take many, many millennia to recover from what that is. In other words, even if a different civilization evolves many millennia from now, they're going to have to kind of go back to where we were and a lot of low-hanging fruit available will no longer be there though, they'll be forced to- go to extreme measures to get at the same resources we sort of squandered rather stupidly now.
Charles Shults: We've taken all the easy targets, it would be much tougher for them, wouldn't it?
Charles Ostman: Yep, so is there a different way of looking at this? And one way might be aside from the usual suspect alternative energy platforms you know solar and wind, etc. The idea is can we come up with different means to come up with our chemistries, the things that petro chemistries are used for, not just for gasoline or for fuel but for plastics and for many of the other sort of components that make up most the technology that we're familiar with.
Charles Shults: Well, in other words, artificial systems that make new fuels for us.
Charles Ostman: ...and actually there's a lot to be said for this. It's kind of why I'm so bent on synthetic biology because even though there is a dark side to synthetic biology, one of the positive sides is we can use biology as a kind of a manufacturing platform. Can you genetically modify different kinds of microbes for instance to produce the equivalent of these petrochemically derived materials, but without having to resort to such extreme measures as fracking is, and I think so. Should this be a larger more prolifically developed agenda, absolutely! However because of the fact that the world's economic systems are so tightly wound around the geopolitical strategic enterprise of sort of protecting the oil-based economy as it, is it's not really a technology question. It's more of an economic assistance question; that's how I see it.
Charles Shults: Well, we, you know, for instance we have potential solutions and this is really an issue. We've got to define destroying our resources as evil because we have resources, you know, we have everything we need in so many ways. The the problem isn't the lack of resources or how hard it is to get to them because we know how to do those things; the problem it really comes down to evil and by that I mean you know corporations and governments running things instead of using the common sense that a lot of everyday people have - its evil.
Charles Ostman: I, yeah, no, I do agree with you and so the first question pops up and I don't need to be coy, I'm just saying you know as a sort of expertorial exercise, no, define moral or define evil. In other words what might look like a very reasonable moral imperative to say you or I or maybe people listening to this program may be very different in the eyes or mentality of others and this is what makes the human condition so interesting but also so challenging and you know not to wander off topic a little bit but in the world of AI which we'lll probably talk about that later in this interview, the huge question is well, can you translate the equivalent of moral or ethical boundaries into non-human intelligences, and so in an odd kind of way, the very question you bring up this moment, even just within the matrix of the sort of human condition as it were, can we define what those ethical or moral boundaries should be in the scheme of a sort of a larger, planetary scale way of looking at things.
Well, that very question mark becomes even more questionable as we steps into this kind of AI centric universe that we're sort of heading towards. But back to your original question, it really depends on the level of cooperation that people can find value in.
Charles Shults: Well, I think I mean if you look at cooperation as being defined as something we need to survive absolutely.
Charles Ostman: And getting back to the sort of economic systems model I was just referring to a few minutes ago. In order to get to where you want to go as you're describing it, it will require a major upheaval, almost like an evolutionary scale correction of sorts, to get people to change from the traditional status quo kind of top-down, big scale economic systems model- which, in today's world is very much based on consumerism. In other words, Henry Ford kind of applying your- this idea really to an extreme but but going from the you know Henry Ford model onward, the vision there was, the way the economy is going to stay afloat and the way the economy is going to grow, we're, we're addicted just like back to the heroin model; we're addicted to a perpetual growth-dependent economic systems model. That is, it's not just a matter of "do people have enough to have a good life?" No, no, no, no, the way to evaluate a economic sort of evaluation system of sorts is the rate of growth. The growth has to be more this quarter than it was the previous quarter et cetera, etc., which means you have to sell more stuff!
Charles Shults: Well, that's the whole problem, I mean, we're faced with this illusion that we can just perpetually grow and grow and that's not normal.
Charles Ostman: Which means they have to manufacture more stuff even, if it means the stuff that you're producing is by far and for the most part unnecessary and waste and you know the short term throw aways. If you go back to an earlier time, you know, previous to the Henry Ford era, people used to build things that were designed to last a long time. People handed them down...
Charles Shults: Well actually about a hundred years ago everybody was off the grid and everybody grew their vegetables and they made the things that they needed and they had neighbors that made things and so everybody worked together and they, they were off the grid and somehow we all end up on the grid and dependent on the world and...
Charles Ostman: Well not only that, but in terms of mass psychology there's a great book that came out quite some time ago called the madness of crowds and I'm kind of a phenomenologically oriented person I look at large trends and phenomena as they affect masses of humanity and this are these sort of macro trends so I kind of operating a totally different scale but the madness of crowds was a good example of sort of a statistical analysis of how a certain level of momentum is achieved when a, when a bunch of folks are all of a sudden motivated to go towards something like, like look at the shiny bauble over there. Then there it takes on a life of its own and that drives markets, it drives economies, and of course the science of being able to engineer these sort of buying frenzies so... almost like a school of piranhas going after a fresh chunk of meat. There's the entire economic systems platform at the Western world for the most part is really based on extremely short term life cycles for different kinds of commoditized products. The science of engineering the sort of emotional button-pushing, the psychology of getting mass momentum to go to make a brand suddenly become the more valuable brand that whole thing and believe me when I tell you that most the people I know who were sort of at the high end of the tech universe- this is what they're trained to do! They're, they're in this real-time 24/7 365 all the time everywhere omnipresent marketing universe, where their whole existence and their ability to thrive as an entity as a economically viable unit, is measured not by the value of the thing they produced but rather the commoditization of short-term buying cycles. I mean it's, it's like another one of these addictions sort of scenarios.
Charles Shults: Well it's pretty clear that the value has to be in the product. I mean, you know, it's growth isn't a measure of success for a planet if we- we buy a lot of cheap junk for a few dollars and it ends up in the landfill and we've not got...
Charles Ostman: Correct.
Charles Shults: ...what we need in the long term to solve the initial job, to do the job, so the problem is we're consuming things at an incredible rate to produce five or six things- machines, let's say that they'll do a job and then break, instead of spending a little more time and a little resource and making one device that'll last you 30 years that will do the same job or it's easy to repair that device. So the value has to be in the product and growth is not a measure of success. The ability to stay alive in the Old West didn't mean you had to be growing like mad, you simply had to produce your food and keep your devices working and your animals safe. So what is the real value of something when you're dependent on these things. Life itself is supposed to be what's valuable not not the things that you own.
Charles Ostman: Well, experience actually that's what's called the experience come- blah, can't talk any more... The experience economy where as the epicenter of values shifting away from something you hold in your hand and shifting much more towards something that you experience and actually there's a quite a bit of trend going in this direction; people are even writing research papers in the psychology of this idea et cetera etc., but but in the sort of social media universe that is where things are heading memories...
Charles Shults: So you know, we need to find real value and where is that?
Charles Ostman: Let- less reliance on how many gadgets do I have my hand this moment and much more as what is the quality of experience, but but if I can go backwards just a little bit. There was a really famous film that came out back in the early 1960s called Forbidden Planet and for those who may not be familiar, I'll try to summarize. It was a fantastically on-point, very relevant to today's, you know, momentary synopsis of what's going on but as a perfect encapsulate the brilliance of its story actually is something to behold. Aside from the kind of Hollywoodish aspects of Robbie the robot and the scantily-clad you know, young teenage girl that was the center point of the movie's attraction etc. The the real message was here he had this planet with this organize- er, civilization called The Krell, which by the way is a type of plankton but I digress, heh heh, so the Krell had developed this platform where they had direct neural interface with a fusion engine you know buried deep underground and this fusion engine is like a star, essentially a contained star, so they had an infinite energy supply and the whole point was they thought that by inventing this system where everything everybody could go online and then whatever they could think of, whatever they could dream of, they would have instantly. In other words it was a way to escape from freedom of want, that no longer relying on the stuff you have or the stuff even touch or see there'd be no longer any greed or avarice or coveting the physical things. This was seen as the ultimate solution, kind of like what you were suggesting just a minute ago. However, however dot dot dot what was their undoing? What caused them their...
Charles Shults: Well, it was their own minds; it was uh what's deep in our, our subconscious you know, there are things down there that we're not aware of.
Charles Ostman: The punch line was monsters of the id. And if you may recall there was a famous scene where the ship's doctor, you know, he's actually in the heart of the Krell's laboratory and he puts on the brain booster device and he zaps it up to a higher level so he can sort of understand what happened and he dies in the process but just before he dies he grabs the captain, the commander of the ship and says I know what killed them. I saw it myself it was monsters of the id and then the rest of the film kind of proceeds where this giant invisible horrible monster thing, you know, kills a bunch of the crew and just go through all this lunacy trying to deal with this thing and that's kind of what helped with the Krell. When all the millions of Krell went online simultaneously and said, "okay, I'm going to dream if anything I want and just have it", what they did not realize was that their inner subconscious would also become physically manifest and so it created all these horrible creatures which killed them all. So, maybe that's kind of a simplistic way of looking at it, but I would suggest to you that he had to draw a chart - you know graph of sorts - and you plotted out the rate of technology development, which in just in the last couple of decades is almost a vertical line compared to all the previous millenia that have come up to this point, but then you had to also map out what I might call the spiritual maturity indexes - like another line in the same chart - I would suggest that those two lines are still pretty far apart. And the test or measure of any civilization of any given planet's ability to sort of progress past this point right now into the next evolutionary step - whatever it might be - those two lines have to be pretty close together. That's where the real question mark is. It's not doing - like you were so correctly pointing out just a minute ago - it's not so much "do we have technological answers to solve some problems"? I think we do, but "do we have the spiritual maturity to actually..
Charles Shults: Well we have solutions almost every problem but we don't seem to be applying them properly you know the right way.
Charles Ostman: Use those technologies in a more appropriate way.
Charles Shults: So could you pick, in your opinion, the top three issues or problems we are facing because - I know we agree on things like fracking and poisoning the water table, that's a very bad idea and it's a big problem, and the loss of species a loss of different biodiversity is a big problem and we also agree that change in climate, well, you know, some of those issues are questionable and I think we can get over a lot of that. You know it is an issue, it's a dangerous thing, but if you could summarize, what would you say were the top three issues about planetary destruction that we're facing?
Charles Ostman: Oh my, wow take three out of the you know 14 dozen I've included? Again, well, okay so I think harm to the biodiversity of our planet is a really big one, that's that's my opinion. And let me explain why I say that. Because now I work with plants a lot, well you know I'm not a botanist, I'm not by any means a plant physiology specialist by any stretch of the imagination, but I do work with a lot of people who are, and we have eradicated just unbelievably - horrific actually - extinction of many different species before we even knew what they had to offer what they might possibly be relevant for in some future application. And you can't capture them. Once those genetic strands are gone they're gone. So whatever we can do to protect what biodiversity still exists, it's not just a thing of preserving the beauty of nature - no, it's a much more practical thing. In other words, many of the solutions that may solve some of these future difficulties we're facing actually come from the world of biology and in particular the world of botany, so I would say the damage to biodiversity is one. Climate change is a really tricky one, because as I'm sure you all know as well, we've actually - this planet has gone through many climatic cycles in the past.
I mean extreme examples actually. Geological records prove this quite readily. Now, can one argue that recent activity here by humankind has accelerated a current trend as it were? I would say yes, however the degree to which Carbon has been seen as the - you know - evil progenitor of demise of our planet I think it's very very misleading, and it has a lot more to do with a global carbon tax initiative and the marketing of carbon trading credit futures and the same people in Wall Street that engineered the mortgage-backed security and derivatives debacle of 2008 are exactly doing the same thing with Carbon credits. I mean, it's it's a very iffy nebulous terrain to get into it to determine exactly where is the boundary between a naturally occurring cycle and these sort of invented cycles that are seen more as an economic model?
Charles Shults: Well there are turning this into economics and profit rather than actually solving the problem, trying to buy and sell "you get to pollute and I won't" certificates.
Charles Ostman: It is difficult.
Charles Shults: Well, it's done for profit instead of solutions.
Charles Ostman: Now the one thing I will offer is that the number one driver for climatic change on this planet, aside from a cosmic event like an asteroid or a comet crashing into the planet - and there's been several of these by the way - is the sun.
Charles Shults: Well absolutely it's the sun, virtually all the energy for weather it comes from the sun.
Charles Ostman: And the Sun stars are not static, as I'm sure you all know, they're dynamic entities. They go through cycles, they go through macro cycles, they go through cycles of macro cycles, etc. In fact, one of the people I spent a lot of time with in Berkeley before I moved out here, he was a specialist in doing exactly this, analyzing solar activity patterns. And what's kind of interesting is - I live just down the street from the SSL or Space Sciences lab, and for a number of years it was pretty low-key. You know, a few dozen scientists were there and it's just kind of a little adjunct side building off to the rest of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory campus.
And then, and than as you may recall, going back to the early 2000s, there was a dramatic change in the solar sunspot cycles. There was a lot of interest in why all of a sudden the Sun was acting differently than it had been for previous 11-year cycles. And so...
Charles Shults: Actually I had a running conversation about this at the time with Dr. Janet Asimov who was the widow of Dr. Isaac Asimov, and the concern was about solar flares and solar max and the potential for the flares knocking out the power grid.
Charles Ostman: There's a lot of concern over if we suddenly got a huge solar flare would wipe out our power grids and cause all sorts of damage to our satellites. There's a big - all of a sudden the upsurge of interest in this sort of thing - so overnight almost, the SSL went from kind of a sleepy background to like jam-packed 24/7. They quadrupled the number of people working there, and one of the people I've spent a lot of time with, who lived at the same house I was in, he was a specialist in looking at exactly “what was the Sun doing and why was it doing it?” So, I think to not look at the Sun as being a primary driver of these sort of climatic variance is kind of missing the point really. Now, does carbon have a influence in this? Yes it does. However, remember now, plants consume carbon! Duh. It kinda depends on how you look at this.
Charles Shults: You know obviously if they were really concerned about this being a carbon dioxide issue they'd be planting something, and I don't see any governments planting trees.
Charles Ostman: One would think! Gee, what a concept!... Okay, so let me just continue though, if I may. So the things that I do look at as being actually much more realistic and more much more fun - and you sort of tapped into this slightly by talking about planting things - so, if you look at the rate of deforestation, if you look at terraforming, what I am calling bio- terraforming on a huge scale (and I spent - I've been to Brazil three times in fact a lot of times I spent but at the time actually about a hundred miles west of Manaus which is like in the dead center of the Amazon rainforest) and so I saw firsthand how much the deforestation was already taking place. This goes back to the 1980s.
You know from space you can see, you see desert desert - cannot talk - desert type regions that had once been forested or now either desertized or they've been converted into huge mono crop sort of corporate farm facilities, as it were. So, when you radically change the vegetation that was native to those areas - like in the blink of an eye - you suddenly change the respiration and also the thermal convection currents and the amount of water vapor of course that's being recycled in that area. Then you combine that with huge population centers we have tens of millions of people jam-packed in these enormous cities - and we've all seen the growth curve on these various huge cities - which are not just a bunch of people there but it's a bunch of infrastructure and traffic and you know buildings and all sorts of things which generate hotspots. And then you combine that with industrial sites which are of the same scale and suddenly you've created all these enormous thermal convection currents which never existed before combined with a massive planetary scale sort of bio terraforming which radically changed the precipitation patterns and thermal convection patterns in those areas. So that, at least as I see it, would have a far more serious effect on climatic variables than the supposed amount of carbon that's going the air at any given point in time. However...
Charles Shults: Oh well, you know you make me think of Mexico City. I mean that's an area where they changed the whole weather pattern in the area.
Charles Ostman: Well Mexico city it certainly one of them.
Charles Shults: Yeah, what happened was when they built Mexico City they didn't realize that the dust and particulates in the air we're going to nucleate all the rain clouds and all the moisture making rain near Mexico City and the result was the surrounding air right it became even more desert than it had been before because of the all this lack of rain that was ending up near the city. So we changed the whole area.
Charles Ostman: Exactly right. Now you've precisely identified that very process and that process is, by the way, taking place in China, it's taking place all over Asia, various parts of South America etc. I mean it's it's a very specific mechanism and we've seen it time and again. So here's where it gets to be a bit more complicated: it's very easy to point the finger at the evil offending carbon and develop an economic systems model where you can then trade carbon credits as a way of leveraging debt - and I don't want to go into a bunch of complicated trade sort of schemes that are going on - but it's quite a process actually. That's very much easier and much more simple for the general public to look at and say, "okay, there's a shiny bauble, let's all look at that." Whereas if you try to present them more complex and much more difficult to sort of unravel mechanism just described with giant population centers etc this is this is not going to be an easy sell. You kind of have to convince people to
radically change a socio-economic systems model which has been sort of on its momentum accelerating along in its own pace.
How do you - sort of politically if you will - make the depopulation of areas and sort of reversing these gigantic sort of concentrated MetroCenter-like ways of planning and developing economics around these sort of emergent economic systems models - how do you reverse that? That's a much more difficult sell and politically nobody wants to touch that, so you go after the low-hanging fruit, the obvious easy target. You know invent this thing called carbon and make that the big thing. So this is just a kind of a small snapshot really of the complexity of trying to get at the human condition and the reasoning processes that people utilize, and the alternative motives which are often wound up in self-serving political and sort of geopolitical / economic interest as opposed to what actually makes a common sensor is closer to the truth.
Charles Shults: Well you know I think that this is a real issue because if you have somebody who's an expert in the field and they can be very smart it's often very difficult for other people who don't have the same level of intelligence or education to believe what that person has to say - and smart people run into this all the time: other people resist ideas from someone because they don't want to admit that there's somebody smarter. And what happens when you introduce a smart AI? You know, what happens if you have wiser beings and we don't listen to them and then we have wiser systems and people don't want to listen to them? It can be extremely difficult to face the fact but intelligent people are often not listened to.
Charles Ostman: Not only did I agree with you but I think it's already a sort of a de facto known phenomena, but again, it's one of those hard sells. It's not something that the average person is going to readily adapt to or even one to adapt to. But I already agree with you a thousand percent.
Charles Shults: What happens when we make AIs that are smart enough to solve these problems and people don't want to listen to them what if we do make a law and force them like a tyranny?
Charles Ostman: And as I've written myself and many of my previous talks and lectures on when I write I often cite this idea: that the complexity scale and velocity of information that's now available that are the drivers of all these different mechanisms that are taking place far exceeds human capacity to render mission critical decisions compressed into ever-shorter time scales. So we by...
Charles Shults: Because the complexity of these problems is so great that no one mind or no group of human minds can actually understand them. The machine we work on - this planet - it's just far too complicated in terms of the systems arrangement.
Charles Ostman: Just by factual requirement we're going to have to rely on forms of intelligence which are non human in origin, which then leads to another somewhat iffy question. At what point are the boundaries of authority getting surrendered either voluntarily or otherwise to these non-human intelligences, which begin to manage planetary affairs? And by what process does that authority translate into everyday life for the vast majority of the world's populations? And that's a very very tricky question to come up with because, as you can probably imagine, you know are we are we heading into a like a Skynet sort of universe where decisions are made not based on what might suit the socio-economic or perhaps the perceived ethical or moral boundaries of the human population at a particular vantage point, but rather from a planetary perspective? What suits the ethics of the planet, that sort of thing. Now I can tell you, just from my own personal observation, a lot of people are not going to like this very much this is not this is not going to be a you know easily acceptable concept!
Charles Shults: Well smart people get it all the time I mean there are a lot of intelligent people who have solutions to things or better ways of doing things and people simply will refuse to listen.
Charles Ostman: Right.
Charles Shults: And it's this built-in authority and control thing that a lot of human beings have. I mean let's face it, that was necessary for our survival in the wild, but when we put a lot of people together, we start to get to a point where it destroys us, that somebody with an authoritarian bent can override somebody who actually has a solution or understands things a little better and it really turns into an issue. And when we start putting together, let's say, a machine that can solve these problems then I don't know if people are going to go along with it.
Charles Ostman: Well it's not just "a" machine, it's more like a network of systems, and the network of systems themselves is something like a like a living thing of sorts, and in fact I just to deviate slightly from the topic, I remember quite distinctly when I was at Lockheed Martin in 2006 and I gave a presentation on biological metaphors computing - from a defense perspective actually - but it was a three day long event and there were all sorts of people there presenting their particular flavor of evolutionary computing or quantum computing or self-healing networks, that whole sort of thing, where neural networks had became the de facto mechanism for having self protecting systems and you know cetera - so the guy that came on stage just before me was the gentleman from Motorola who invented the term "digital DNA". And it was kind of a good metaphor for the concept because - and again this is a decade ago - but clearly it was very obvious that the inner circle of the real sort of mover and shaker, the think-tank types that were sorting this out were already at a point where they recognized that the psychological noise of human activity was becoming ever more of a - I don't want to say hindrance that's probably not the right word exactly - but looking for a way to have a system level management mechanism that was not distracted by the psychological noise of human perception nor lack thereof perhaps.
Charles Shults: Now at this point I need to say that the interview continued for quite a while after this and I needed to cut it short and actually break this into two shows because we're running really very long. But, the information for the interview was so relevant and so on topic and on key that I feel that we need to make a second part of this show and present the other half of the interview, and have an opportunity to spend some time with some people getting some questions and answers. So this is what we're going to do.
Wow, what a great interview and it was running very long so I'm going to have to continue it on another show, but we've got plenty of material and Charles Ostman has agreed to join us again for other interview in the near future. He has so much to share. We're going to get back to taking the questions and ideas from people that they posted online. We want to cover some of the public opinion and see what you think about the show and what's going on in the world. I also am going to recommend a book at the end of this and you know, I've not read this myself, I've just looked at the blurbs online, the madness of crowds is the book that Charles Ostman recommended, and you know I have to say it's something that I've thought for a while is: we always think of a mob as people in the street doing something, a bunch of people running around smashing windows or something but, I've long held the opinion that a mob can be any group of people who get together with a common idea in mind and enforce it on others force others to follow it. And I think that the worst and most dangerous mobs in the world are not the ones with machine guns or explosives or any of those things it's the guys in business suits sitting around a board table with a glass of sherry or cognac laughing at their their newest profitable venture and how they're going to stick it to you. And in my mind, that's the most dangerous mob there is and very little is ever said about that.
Now don't get me wrong - there are many companies that have done amazing things. Most companies from what I've seen - and I know a lot of business owners - most companies are not evil. They're not bent on doing evil, but at a certain point a company seems to reach a stage where the only thing they see is the bottom line. And there has to be a moral balance struck somewhere.
So let's see I'm looking at my messages here and I have one from Twilight 1993 and it says, and this is a very good question: "is it too late for Jacques Fresco's world?" Now, some of you may know Jacques Fresco is the fellow who just turned 100 this year is the creator of The Venus Project and it's a - it's not a resource-based economy as we see in science fiction or anything like that it really is a world where everything is provided pretty much and you're free to do as you wish. And yes, it requires some sort of effort to be done.
I think that in an ideal situation each of us would work at what we want to do as much or as little as we want to do because we have machine intelligence enough, a machine capacity enough, actually to automate this whole production delivery and clean up cycle, so that we don't have to be you know getting our hands dirty constantly. And I do agree in a principle that if a man doesn't work he doesn't eat, that stands very clearly in my mind and I know that I derive great, great enjoyment and satisfaction from doing a job and getting something made or completed, so you never want to remove that from somebody's life because you lose your sense of worth.
But is it too late for Jacques Fresco's world? I don't think that it is, and understand, I met Jacques Fresco; my wife and I had an opportunity to sit with him for a day when he was giving one of his discussions - and this is about six years ago - and I was overjoyed to have the opportunity to listen to somebody who had a vision of how things could be and how good the world could be. And understand, I'm not a hundred percent onboard with his picture of how economics or lack of would work. I think that it's a very close solution to what we should strive for though. This world could be a paradise. We really have everything we need, we just have to be smart about how we apply it.
Okay and I have I have one here from Houston Girl and it says: "a company is making edible plastic rings for cans. Shouldn't we make most plastic so it would break down?" This is a very good one. I saw these, they have the six-pack plastic ring holders that have been getting in the environment and we have always seen them wrapped around a sea turtle or a bird or a fish, and it's a horrible thing to think that this permanent piece of plastic is gonna be out there interfering with the wildlife and causing their deaths. And yes, there's a company that, very responsibly, has come up with a system of making them so that they are edible; they can be consumed by the sea life.
The unfortunate problem is if we make all our plastics out of stuff that breaks down it defeats the purpose of it being plastic in the first place. We need a material that is impermeable, that the liquids won't go through, it's airtight, and it isn't likely to break down on the shelf for a period of time. Because the things will be produced and packaged, we want them to last for a while, that's the whole point of packaging the way we do. Much of the short-term stuff obviously can be made with the degradable plastic, so that might be a solution in in many cases, but it couldn't be in all the cases. that that much is just practicality. But it's a very good start.
And now here's one that strikes home for me: Armin25 says, "I see a lot of space research and no work to find answers or fix these problems. We should stop making spaceships to escape and work on cleaning up the planet." Well, that sounds lovely, but here's the issue with that: the fact is we already know how to end most of these problems, and it just isn't being done. It's really an issue of politics and money and business, not a matter of technology or science. We know exactly how to clean the plastic out of the ocean and we know exactly how to stop polluting the air. We know how to do these things. We know how to stop fracking and all it would take is a stroke of a pen, to be honest. But too much money has changed hands and we're fixated, as Charles Ostman said, with the addiction to petroleum and this has to change. We have to find better ways to do this, and I know that there are a lot of smart people out there who know exactly how to do that.
We need to start a movement of some sort in which we refuse to participate in this. We have to find better ways to do it, and every one of us knows we can we can do things to stop consuming more oil. - solar panels or windmills or whatever it takes. And I know that renewable resources are something we absolutely have to focus on - renewable energy alternative energy. It shouldn't be the alternative it should be the de facto, but petroleum isn't the only thing that we use for our energy source, and a lot of people are aware that most of our electricity actually comes from burning coal ,and not petroleum.
But petroleum's greatest value is not as a fuel it is as a feedstock to manufacture plastic and lubricants and industrial chemicals. If we eliminated the burning of petroleum we could cut the petroleum market down to about a third of what it is right away, and we can focus on industrial products, things that we need, and you know step by step we can wean ourselves off of this. But we don't have a lot of years left, we have to start taking some action right away.
Now, as far as his statement, Armin25's statement, stop making spaceships and focus on cleaning up the planet, I do have an objection to that and it's this: if we stop our research in things like space science we don't know what we're going to miss. Most of what we have today in industry was fallout from the Apollo moon project. All the electronics, the micro electronics, the advanced composites and plastics, all of this material, all of this technology came from trying to get off the planet to the moon and back again safely. When we're building spacecraft were not just running away.
We're actually seeking solutions to problems that will come back to earth synergistically; they're going to help us in other ways that we did not anticipate, and that's an extremely important part of research and development.
Now, just to give you an idea of how small things can make a huge difference: ballpoint pens. Let's say that out of the entire country one out of ten people uses ballpoint pens and every year they go through let's say three of them, we'll say they last four months a pop. Now a ballpoint pen weighs about five point eight grams; that's all the plastic and everything in it.
So if out of the three hundred twenty three million people in the United States thirty two point three million of them go through three pens a year at five point eight grams of plastic, at the end of the year that's 562 metric tons of pens that end up in the landfill. And that sounds like an awful lot of plastic, and it is. The problem is it's very difficult to recycle because it's spread throughout all the other trash.
Now this illustrates an interesting point: if you didn't use ballpoint pens, if nobody did, that be 562 tons of waste that wasn't generated. But 562 tons of waste isn't a whole lot, and yet, when you start thinking about things like throw away plastic razors and paper towels and all the other things we use, you come to the conclusion very rapidly that we're generating an immense amount of waste that would be very difficult to sort out and recycle, even if we had the capacity in place to do it. So to me this is a challenge.
Recycling plastic is one of those things where you have to sort the material out, you have to classify it by the type of plastic it is, and so I once thought wouldn't it be interesting to make a device that can look at the plastic and identify it. And we have devices right now they can scan materials and tell you what they're made of, so some hobbyist or hacker here's a challenge: come up with a simple handheld device that can look at a type of plastic, identify it positively, and can be used to classify it and all we have to do is incorporate that in the box you dump your trash in, and robotically it sorts out all the bits of plastic, classifies them and bins them.
Now a machine that did something like this could be used to automatically carry our waste stream, sort out all the materials we can recycle, and we train it to recognize the plastic to sort the different classes of glass, to sort out the metals, and to determine what can be composted, what can be recycled, and what has to be incinerated.
And don't be fooled; incineration is not necessarily a bad thing. Plastic is almost a hundred percent petroleum, which means it's a source of fuel, of energy. There are devices called pyrolytic or gasification furnaces that can burn plastic quite successfully, and if you want to see a model of that that works very very well, look at Sweden. Sweden had a huge trash problem and they have now become the world's leader in destroying or recycling garbage, to the point where they actually generated a significant fraction of their power from it and they're begging other countries to bring the garbage to Sweden, because they will use it.
So, hope isn't lost. We have a means of destroying or recycling just about everything we generate and if we add just a little finesse to it, devices that can do the sorting for us we'd be way ahead of the game. We do have the capability to do this and it doesn't take much - a dedicated tinkerer in a garage somewhere to come up with a sensor that could sort out two three four types of plastic - and that's a beginnin,g that's a good start. Because we could make systems that could automatically identify and sort this material and it becomes a resource once that's done.
Now I'm going to go back to that book that I mentioned a little earlier that Charles Ostman also mentioned in his in his talk, and that the full title of the book is “extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds” and the book sounds rather interesting right away, because we know that people in groups tend to do strange things. What's interesting to me in the most part is not the title of the book or what it's about but the fact that it was written by a fellow named Charles Mackay, a Scottish fellow, in the year 1841. And it is just as relevant today because of the message it carries as it was back then. So it might be worth your while to check that book out. I see that it's available online through Amazon and other outlets. So read it and see how it effects your thinking.
Now my closing thoughts are: each and every one of us is tied into the world, and our actions affect the people around us and what happens in the world. If we see something in the world we don't like many times we don't know what to do about it. We object, we might grouse about it to our friends, but how do we stop it from happening? That can be a difficult one to answer but the answer really comes from each and every one of us figuring out what little we can do and doing it. My wife Elizabeth has a favorite saying and it's one I love and it really relates to how many people we hear demonstrating, complaining, you know yelling about something not being done. Her answer to that is pick up a shovel.
You get in there and you do it. You can't wait for somebody else. You can't depend on someone else to have exactly the same view or the same influence or the same desire to do something that you have. Pick up a shovel let's get it done. And finally, I've often been told that politics doesn't solve problems very often, and I know that that's true. My favorite way of looking at it is a statement that politics is based on the flawed assumption that reasoning with evil will produce a benefit. So, just something to think about.
On our next show we will look at 3d printing and how it's going to affect the world around us. Some of you already have 3d printers and some astounding things are being done with them already, and there's a lot of controversy about it too. Just imagine the type of machine they have on Star Trek, the replicator, that produces any food or material or device they want. We're well on our way to creating devices of that sort and when nanotechnology is added to the mix, it's going to happen very very rapidly. So what would you do if you had a machine in your home a little bigger than a breadbox, smaller than a refrigerator, that could produce anything that you could want. What would it be?
So think about that and I have a saying that I really love and I think it's inspirational: scarcity is a myth. We have everything we need to make everything we'll ever need. I'm your host Charles Shults. Join us next week on Talk Universe.