RogerBW's Blog

Soonish, Kelly and Zach Wienersmith 14 January 2018

2017 non-fiction, popular science. A biologist and a cartoonist look at ten fields of technology that seem likely to produce large changes in human life.

I admit it, I got this because of the cartoonist: Zach writes and draws the excellent Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal. I'm not generally a fan of pop science books, because they rarely go into interesting levels of detail, but what the Wienersmiths have done here is to try to get away from the usual thousand-word-article approach and go more in depth into specific topics. (After all, if you want a short overview of something, there's Wikipedia.)

One issue with all this, if you're a wimp, is that a 50,000-megawatt laser is an incredible weapon. Like, you could instantly incinerate just about anything from a long distance. This might make for some geopolitical headaches. But hey, maybe if we show other countries how cool our DOUBLE-LASER ROCKET is, they'll care less about the existential risk it poses to all nations on Earth. Or at least they'll say less about it.

This does mean it falls somewhat between stools, being neither a quick introduction not a truly detailed exposition. It assumes essentially no scientific knowledge and explains the basics (often very well), and I think someone with an enquiring mind who feels ignorant would find it a good starting point but would want to go further. (There's an extensive bibliography.)

A major concern at the moment is figuring out the particulars of law and order in space. At some point, these asteroids will need to be policed. You'll essentially have giant resource pools floating around in space, and once the technology comes along to make capturing these asteroids and extracting their resources easier, no doubt we'll end up with space-crime by space-criminals. As cool as this sounds, you might not feel great about it if you're the one with a space-knife in your space-back.

There are definite omissions; for example, in the chapter on brain-computer interfaces, fMRI gets described in terms of what it can and can't do, but the "dead salmon" experiment (and consequent huge warnings about checking your statistical methodology) aren't mentioned.

We have an abiding belief that enormous swarms of autonomous robots will be just fine. After all, we know many people in this field and several of them seem nonevil.

Each chapter is subdivided after the introduction: Where Are We Now? (including current research), Concerns (foreseeable problems, if it works), and How It Would Change the World (if it works). Several chapters end with a Nota Bene section with particularly egregious bits that didn't fit into the main chapter.

As far as your authors know, this is the only known gopher-related nuclear accident,

The main drawback of the book is that it's focused entirely on America: US sources get full attribution, outsiders are barely mentioned and never in detail. This is a standard problem in the American memeplex and for the majority of the audience probably won't matter.

So if you happen to notice a factual error please let us know. The best way is to tell your friends and family you're taking a long vacation and will be out of contact, then come to our house and descend the staircase into the dark basement below. There are snacks down there, we promise.

Nanotechnology is mentioned only once and in passing, which seems fair. There is a general assumption, rather than any examination, of continued increases in growth, energy consumption, and generally use of stuff. The cartoons are good, and very much in context.

I wouldn't want to pay a lot for this, but even to someone who considers himself reasonably well-versed in current science it has some new things to say.

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  1. Posted by John Dallman at 12:55pm on 14 January 2018

    Thanks, I had not heard of the dead salmon experiment. Now in the explanatory toolbox.

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