Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

December 13, 2012

The spread of ‘white people problems’

Filed under: Culture,Future,Futurism — Razib Khan @ 10:21 am

Life Expectancy Rises Around the World, Study Finds:

A sharp decline in deaths from malnutrition and diseases like measles and tuberculosis has caused a shift in global mortality patterns over the past 20 years, according to a new report, with far more of the world’s population now living into old age and dying from diseases more associated with rich countries, like cancer and heart disease.

In the West declinism has set in, for legitimate reasons. But that doesn’t mean that things aren’t getting better in the rest of the world. They are. What irritates me is that some of my acquaintances who fancy themselves cosmopolitan internationalists nevertheless engage in declinism, despite their avowed concern for the well-being of humans as a whole. Yet their fixation on the decline in the relative status of their own societies, and their own status, reveals the transparent false signalling nature of their cosmopolitan internationalism.

Mind you, I think it is legitimate to worry about your own, and your society’s, position the relative order of things. But to constructively address this issue you need to not confuse your own station with that of the aggregate whole.

August 9, 2012

I, for one, welcome robot servitors!

Filed under: Futurism,Robots — Razib Khan @ 11:19 pm

This is an incredible story, Meet ROBOT-Rx, The Robot Pharmacist Doling Out 350 Million Doses Per Year:

If medical errors are one of the leading causes of death, and medication dispensing errors account for 21 percent of all medical errors, then higher accuracy through robots would be a welcomed change. It’s happening, and not just with ROBOT-Rx. Both the University of California, San Francisco’s Automated Pharmacy and the PillPick system at New Jersey’s Holy Name Hospital work ’round the clock filling thousands of doses each day.

The end result of greater back end automation will be to bring the pharmacists to the front, allowing them more time to interact with patients and answer doctors’ questions. As they introduce robotics into production lines, companies are quick to say the robots won’t take away jobs, that it frees up people for more skilled tasks. At least for the pharmacist, this seems to be true.

From what I have read the UCSF pharmacy has been an incredible success in terms of reducing errors.

March 24, 2012

Panem ~ Bharat

Filed under: Futurism — Razib Khan @ 12:06 pm

Could any real country have an economy like Panem’s? Actually, yes. Not exactly analogous, but: More mobile phones than lavatories for a booming India. I would currently bet that a future like India writ-large is somewhat more likely than China or USA writ-large. Though I don’t think there are any overwhelming odds here.

March 8, 2012

Not just genomics: the creeping future

Filed under: Futurism,Genetics,Genomics — Razib Khan @ 8:44 am

In 2007 Reihan Salam asked me when the $1,000 genome was going arrive. On paper, probably around this year, or early next. But as I’ve been suggesting it really isn’t that big of a deal (the sticker price isn’t real in any case, someone will want the publicity). Over at The Crux I try and do my own impersonation of Peter Diamandis. But I wanted to emphasize that genomics alone, ubiquitous as it will be, is not going to be the “real deal.” Rather, it has to be integrated into a much thicker and richer information environment plugged into more efficient analytic tools. Personal genomics is a visible manifestation of the likely revolution in the health information ecology which is possible just around the corner. As an example, Mike Snyder starts out with his genome in his presentations on the outlines of this nascent revolution, but probably the more important aspects have to do with fine-grained tracking of his biomarkers (which resulted in actionable information for him personally). Imagine a daily check-up instead of a six month check-up (or a minute by minute tracking system for the hypochondriacs out there).

With all that said, keep in mind the dynamic that Christina Agapakis highlights in The Crux. The hype around some technologies always results in them being 10-20 years into the future.* Artificial intelligence is probably a case of this, but less commented upon is the similar phenomenon in humanoid robotics. And yet it is easy to “problematize” the contention that robotics hasn’t yielded anything; I put the qualifier humanoid there precisely because my understanding is that robotics is more pervasive away from prying eyes than we might think. Genetic engineering probably hasn’t hit people as being a revolutionary technology, but it is, in the form of GMOs. There are many ways that we don’t live in the world of the Jetsons, but there are many ways that the Jetsons could not imagine our own world. We see the visions of the future through a dark mirror.

* Shiny unitards are always in the future it seems.

January 17, 2012

The future is here

Filed under: Futurism,Shenzhen,Technology — Razib Khan @ 12:26 pm

Believe it or not I am probably mildly skeptical about the possibilities for the 21st century as a canvas for human flourishing. That is one reason I like to emphasize the positive, because it is important for me to not get caught up in my own bias. Over the last two human generations (50 years) mean world life expectancy has gone from ~53 to ~69. This is easy for me forget concretely because I come from a relatively long lived family. Though all were born in British India and died in Bangladesh my grandparents lived to ages of 75, 100, 80, and 80. My grandparent who died at the age of 75 still lived 25 years longer than life expectancy in Bangladesh in the year he died.

Today I see a headline in The New York Times, Majority of Chinese Now Live in Cities. For some reason I was prompted to look up the Wikipedia entry for Shenzhen, a city of 350,000 in 1982, which is now at 10 million. The image below of Shenzhen captures for me the poignant banality of the future present. One the one hand it is nothing special, a typical “world city” skyline. But there is also an aspect redolent of the soft focus depictions of the cities of the future in the children’s books I would read in the 1980s. The photo is proof of nothing. Rather, it is an illustration of fact.

Image credit: Wikipedia

September 22, 2011

Singularity Summit 2011

Filed under: Futurism,Singularity Summit,Transhumanism — Razib Khan @ 8:20 pm

That time of the year for a certain type of nerd, the Singularity Summit. Here’s a a preview:

This Singularity Summit line-up this year features a mix of 25 speakers from numerous fields, with a central focus on robotics and artificial intelligence, in particular the victory of the IBM computer Watson in Jeopardy! this February. Inventor and award-winning author Ray Kurzweil will give the opening keynote on “From Eliza to Watson to Passing the Turing Test”. Registration for the Summit, which runs on October 15-16 at the 92Y in New York, is open to the public now.

The theme of the Summit this year is the Watson victory and future Watson applications, such as in medicine. Dan Cerutti, IBM’s VP of Commercialization for Watson, will give a talk on medical applications for Watson, and the closing keynote will be by Ken Jennings, who won 74 consecutiveJeopardy! matches only to lose to Watson in February. Watson won $1,000,000 in the contest and Jennings won $300,000, coming in second place. Jennings’ talk will be “The Human Brain in Jeopardy: Computers That “Think”.

I won’t be able to make it because I’m very busy right now, but that’s too bad. Ken Jennings is a great headliner, but do look at all the speakers. Tyler Cowen and Sonia Arrison will be there. I had lunch with some of the practitioners of Masonomics a few years back, but Tyler and Bryan Caplan were both out of town. No doubt the day will come. Just not this day. I haven’t had time to review 100 Plus (alas, the neglect of the Razib Khan on Books website), but it’s an excellent take on the possible implications of greater longevity (no, I don’t think longevity research is crazy as such, though I’m probably not as optimistic as many in the community).

August 24, 2011

Eugenics as a luxury of the affluent

Filed under: Eugenics,Futurism,Health — Razib Khan @ 12:12 pm

In the comments below Jason says in regards to the connection between eugenics and genocide and the “slippery slope”:

In your current comfortable first world circumstances, you are right the slope is perhaps not that slippery. I hope you are never tested in a less comfortable setting as then I think you might find it can be pretty slippery after all.

A reference to the interlocutor’s status as a citizen of the comfortable First World (which itself is a somewhat archaic term by now I think) seems de rigueur in many arguments. And I think many people will find it plausible that someone in an affluent consumer society would be blind to the “dark side” of eugenics, and how it could lead to genocide. But I think this plausibility is entirely superficial, and collapses upon closer inspection. Rather, it is I believe in “First World” and advanced nations where the likelihood of the ubiquity of eugenics and possible genocide predicated on systematic eugenics is going to be the most probable outcome.

There is a large general issue at the root of this confusion, the implicit progressive “Whiggishness” in our sensibilities, which derives in part from the power of science to advance in ...

June 9, 2011

Genetics existed before -omics

Filed under: Behavior Genetics,Futurism,Gattaca,Genetics,Genetics of Height,Genomics — Razib Khan @ 1:20 am

In the post below, Moderate marginal value to genomics, I left some things implicit. It turns out that this was an ill-considered decision. In reality my comments were simply more cryptic and opaque than implicit. This is pretty obvious because even those readers who are biologists didn’t seem to catch what I had assumed would be obvious in the thrust of my argument.

The point in the broadest sense is that DNA and genomics are not magical. Genetics existed before either of them. Understanding the physical basis of genetics has certainly been incredibly fruitful, and genomics has altered the playing field in many ways. But there was a broad understanding of genetics before DNA and genomics, both in a Mendelian sense and in the area of biometrics and quantitative genetics. In the earlier post I indicated that the tools for predictions of adult traits due to the effect of genes have been around for a long time: our family history. By this, I mean that a lot of traits of interest are substantially heritable. A great deal of the variation within the population can be explained by variation of genes in the population, as inferred by patterns of correlation ...

March 24, 2011

Nuclear power as the “shark attacks” of energy

Filed under: Energy,Environment,Environmentalism,Futurism,Nuclear Power — Razib Khan @ 10:03 am

Image Credit: Stefan Kuhn

I was at a coffee shop recently and a SWPL couple (woman had dreads to boot!) a number of tables away were reading a newspaper, and the husband expressed worry about the Fukushima disaster. The wife responded that “now other people will understand how dangerous nuclear power is,” with a sage nod. They then launched into twenty minutes of loud righteous gibberish about chemicals (I had a hard time making sense of it, despite the fact that I learned a lot about chemicals in the past due to my biochemistry background). Because they’d irritated me I was curious and I tailed them as they left. Naturally they had driven to get coffee in a S.U.V. of some sort (albeit, a modestly sized one which looked like it was more outfitted for the outdoors’ activities common in the Pacific Northwest; they’d probably done their cost vs. benefit about those chemicals!).

In terms of radiation fears, I suspect that if more people just automatically knew the inverse-square law in relation to the drop off of its effects we’d be in a whole lot less ...

December 2, 2010

Humanity+ conference in Pasadena

Filed under: Conferences,Futurism,H+,Humanity+ conference — Razib Khan @ 9:46 pm

humaplusI was going to try and make it to the Humanity+ conference this year, but life intruded and the scheduling didn’t work out. Here’s the program. If you live in the LA area and this is your cup of tea, registration still looks open. Also check out H+ magazine. I noticed that my friend Michael Vassar seems more optimistic about the teens of the 21st century than he was a few years ago, Top 10 Reasons to expect the next 10 years to be more exciting than the last. I’m most excited by #2 b the way, if it’s viable.

October 23, 2010

The future is now, but more so

Filed under: Futurism,science — Razib Khan @ 1:32 am

If you have some time to kill, the Paleo-Future weblog is really awesome. It shows what people thought the future was going to be like (often around the year 2000) from the 1870s through every decade of the 20th century. As usual with this sort of thing it tells you more about the salient aspects of a given time period, as people have a tendency of projecting contemporary fashions, technologies, and trends, rather than being able to anticipate innovation and changes of kind. Here’s a depiction of flying machines which dates to between 1900 and 1910:

circa 1900 harry grant dart crop paleo-future

May 19, 2010

We live in Utopia!

Filed under: Culture,Futurism,Matt Ridley,Optimism — Razib Khan @ 6:40 am

Rod Dreher mulls his bias toward declinism while evaluating Matt Ridley’s new book The Rational Optimist. Here’s a portion of Ridley’s argument:

But with new hubs of innovation emerging elsewhere, and with ideas spreading faster than ever on the Internet, Dr. Ridley expects bottom-up innovators to prevail. His prediction for the rest of the century: “Prosperity spreads, technology progresses, poverty declines, disease retreats, fecundity falls, happiness increases, violence atrophies, freedom grows, knowledge flourishes, the environment improves and wilderness expands.”

Dreher gloomily observes:

Well, I would certainly love to be wrong; neither I nor my descendants gain anything out of a world of decline. But it would be useful to go back and look at how 19th-century progressives expected the 20th century to be a wonderland of peace, prosperity and progress. Didn’t quite work out that way. I suspect the truth is that nobody knows anything about tomorrow, and that we can only make our best educated guesses based on history and the wisdom of experience.

Looking at the imaginings of past futurists is often pretty amusing. And Ridley’s projections of plentitude and prosperity seem to involve an extrapolation of the conditions of the past 200 years, whereby a greater and greater proportion of humanity has broken the shackles of the Malthusian trap. The reality is that for most of human history innovation was always immediately counter-balanced by population growth so that median wealth never increased. Only in the 19th century did a new social pattern and demographic dynamic emerge whereby prosperous individuals did not reproduce to a greater extent in keeping with their greater wealth. Rather, societies went through the “demographic transition”, and greater wealth for future generations became the new norm. There’s no reason that this doesn’t have to be a transient state between long epochs of Malthusianism, so I think assuming that the new normal is the normal forever more is a step too far.

That being said, it seems to me that we do truly live in a utopia in any objective terms when viewed from the 19th or early 20th centuries. The Dickensian lot of the poor no longer characterize the lower classes of the developed world, and obesity is actually a feature of the lives of the poor, as opposed to starvation. The period between 1800 and 1970 witnessed a massive shift in earning power to the working classes, and a closing of the wage gap between skilled and unskilled workers. Infection has not been abolished, but it is no longer so deadly. Violence has decreased, despite the periodic outbreaks of industrialized genocide. And so on.

Utopia is always over the hill, and the new normal was the aspiration of the past, not the bliss of the present. But the past and the present and the future are actually instantiated simultaneously. Consider three airports which I have sharp experiences of. Dhaka airport is the past. John F Kennedy airport is the present. And Munich airport is the future. If you took a flight from Dhaka to Munich you would have thought that you’d been transported to utopia.

I don’t take these utopian dreams as an injunction toward complacency. Rather, we should appreciate all that modern science, technology and government has achieved, and be vigilant. Before we despair at all which might be lost, remember this famous chart:


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