Category Archives: Futurism

Neuroscience and the Criminal Justice System

My wife passed to me an interesting article about the state of neuroscience and its impact upon our criminal justice system. Fair warning: I read the blog post and not the original essay. I agree with some of what the author of the essay has to say. Our criminal justice system is a hodgepodge of competing goals, some of which act as exclusive to one another, unfortunately. What’s jail for, after all? To protect society? To punish the guilty? To deter future crimes? As it currently sits, all of the above, and that can create all sorts of issues.

Into this environment, add the concept of “guilt” with regards to mental health. Neuroscience and genetic psychology are getting better all the time, and over and over again, it’s pointing to the dominating role genes play in not only our life course, but our everyday actions. I’m currently reading Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think, which cites tons of research with twins to pretty much settle the “nurture vs. nature” argument. It’s nature, hands down, within some common sense boundaries.

Where I part ways with the author of the essay first mentioned is his dismissal of the idea of free will. For the most part, I think that idea is a non-starter, and neuroscience and genetic research doesn’t disprove any of it, at least from my perspective as an interested layman. Outside of extreme cases (like his mention of Tourette’s syndrome), free will certainly does exist on a micro and macro scale. Arguing that it doesn’t strikes me as more of a college level coffee house debate than anything else. I think a better way of viewing the role of genetics and neuroscience in a person’s actions is that those genes, and their expressions, create a likely range of actions and decisions. It doesn’t pre-suppose them. This discussion makes for great science fiction, interesting theological discussions, and fun arguments, but it ends where reality begins, in my opinion.

His arguments about how we should reform our criminal justice system is on much firmer ground. How much the convicted is blameworthy shouldn’t have any bearing on if they should be locked up or not. But of course, this assumes that the system is setup primarily for the protection of society, which it’s only partially so. Other use is to extract justice upon the evil doers, in lieu of the victim. In this case, the blameworthiness of the convicted does have a bearing, right? Lawmakers and judges should be operating from a clear set of principles on the why, and not only the how.

Are You a Creator or Server?

There’s an excellent opinion piece over at the WSJ today called, “Is Your Job an Endangered Species?” that everyone should read. It does a pretty useful thing, tossing out the whole blue collar and white collar definitions of work and replacing them with creators and servers. From that reclassification, it’s easier to start to take the next step: figuring out what jobs (and whole job titles) are going to go bye-bye in the future. This is a Big Deal, and something kids thinking about what they want to do with their life should be digesting.

The big question that everyone should ask themselves is this: can my job (or what I want to do) be replaced by a computer program or a robot during my earning years? If so, then it’s probably pretty wise either change career paths ASAP or develop a backup career that doesn’t answer in the affirmative. If I was helping someone with career path planning, I’d advise them to stay out of retail (including management), most government-related work, higher education, law, or finance. Of course, you can succeed in almost any of those fields (they aren’t going to go away completely), but you’re putting yourself in a situation where there’s a shrinking demand with growing supply. You’ll have to really shine and work hard to carve out a career. Better areas to pursue? Science, engineering, computers, and — where I part ways with the author of the article — medical. Above all, create useful things that save people’s time, money, health, and energy.

Jerry Pournelle also has some insight into this, linking to the same article, but puts it into a larger context of human history and the grind of poverty.


James Lileks says something incredibly insightful on his blog, the Bleat, today:

Every established medium is ruled by people tied to the existing models, and the bitterclingers imagine the short-term models will prevail long enough so they can amass sufficient capital to buy a nice place in Florida.

He’s talking about media, but it really goes for anything. Insurance, software, auto workers — you name it. Self-delusion: even if you can see it, you really don’t.

Things Are Getting Better Every Day

To those that think I’m too damn depressing on this blog about the troubles I’ve seen (or see down the road), here’s a link to a happier post by Instapundit. I’ll just copy and paste what he did and comment:

“Life is getting better—and at an accelerating rate. Food availability, income, and life span are up; disease, child mortality, and violence are down — all across the globe. Though the world is far from perfect, necessities and luxuries alike are getting cheaper; population growth is slowing; Africa is following Asia out of poverty; the Internet, the mobile phone, and container shipping are enriching people’s lives as never before. The pessimists who dominate public discourse insist that we will soon reach a turning point and things will start to get worse. But they have been saying this for two hundred years. Prosperity comes from everybody working for everybody else. The habit of exchange and specialization—which started more than 100,000 years ago—has created a collective brain that sets human living standards on a rising trend. The mutual dependence, trust, and sharing that result are causes for hope, not despair.”

Well, yes. Absolutely. I’m a complete optimist with regards to human progress and more importantly, science and technology, at least in the long term. The problem is our maturity as a race politically and morally, and that’s definitely a two steps forward, one step back sort of thing. That step back is going to be painful, and it won’t be directly due to specialization or science gone mad, but simply a nasty combination of greed, lack of foresight, and the disturbing propensity of humankind to whistle past the graveyard.

In the long run, though, even through any tough times that may lie ahead, the march of scientific and technological progress will continue, making things better for humankind as a whole. Progress of this sort tends towards a exponential progress, meaning the more we learn, the faster we learn, and I believe, the more unstoppable that learning is. Therefore, any major step back will be pretty temporary, and completely different than anything we’ve experienced before. We’re not going to suffer through a Great Depression like anything our grandparents did. This is a good thing. All this optimism doesn’t mean, though, that we’re not going to see hard times, and perhaps some severe ones.

One Geeky Correction

Over at the Belmont Club, Richard Fernandez writes:

Congressman Paul Ryan has had considerable success lately explaining the main problem with health care — and with “social democracy” — in general: it’s unsustainable. It’s an old message which has until recently taken a back seat to the idea that the welfare state was the wave of the future. OpenLeft argued that the hidden message of Star Trek was that in the future humanity would establish a socialist paradise. “The most familiar utopian socialist society would be that of the United Federation of Planets in the popular television series Star Trek – particularly that depicted in The Next Generation. There is no money, no want, no poverty, no crime, no disease or ignorance in human society; everyone works for the advancement of all humanity — as well as the rest of the Federation.”

One correction: Star Trek isn’t a socialist paradise. Do you ever about taxes? I believe the idea is that through amazing (TECH THE TECH) advances, goods such as food, clothes, housing, transportation, and even advanced tech like those cool iPads they all carry have prices approaching zero. So, the only reason one would work are 1) for personal satisfaction of some sort, or 2) to acquire whatever scarce goods are still available, such as collector’s items of something or services that require human contact. I can think of all sorts of ways a person may get those still-scarce items without “money”. But it’s not socialist per se, but just a hyper abundant society. Government doesn’t tax (no money!) and doesn’t own the means to production, as I’ve seen episodes where people have their own replicators. That’s about as individual of means of production as you’re going to get.

Handsets Are the Future?

Eric S. Raymond had a post a bit ago about where he thinks the future of client computing is going in the near term (4 or 5 years). It’s not necessarily that original, but still, I believe it to be mostly spot on. Read the whole thing (How smartphones will disrupt PCs), but the thrust is that handsets — mobiles, cell phones, smart phones, whatever you want to call them — will continue to cannibalize every area they touch, including the mighty PC and laptop market. The only quibble I have with him is the idea that all these coffee shops will have full size monitors and keyboards ready to go for their customers to connect their handsets to. Err, no, excepting the really high end ones in expensive neighborhoods, perhaps.

I’ve given this a lot of thought, actually, just because I’m so excited about the future. I am, after all, a tech geek. I don’t think people will give up their full power laptops and desktops — with the accompanying CPU power, storage, and easy input/output mechanisms — until decent analogues are created in the mobile space.

Sure, you can plug your iPhone v5 into a full size keyboard and monitor setup at home, but will it be powerful enough to work on iMovie and rip Blu-Ray discs by then? Nope. How about where you put those ripped movies or that raw footage off that HD camcorder you’ve been playing with? With the current curves, your iPhone will NOT have the space or the processing power for that.

And input/output? If you’re working on a complicated spreadsheet, watching a high quality movie, or working on that aforementioned home movie, you’re not going to want a small display, and you’re not going to want a tiny keyboard. Touch can only go so far with this. It’s great for manipulating objects, but for long form writing and number manipulation? Not so much. I think in 4-5 years, we’ll just start to see real alternatives hit the market for these dilemmas. Glasses that project an HD display that doesn’t makes you look like a dork and give you a headache to boot, some sort of a gesture based input or projected keyboards, that sort of thing. There are a lot of very smart people working on these problems right now, but it’s just hard stuff to solve.

But yeah, I think it’ll displace the netbook in 4-5 years, definitely. And in 10 years? Maybe — just maybe — the desktop/full sized laptop will become as obsolete as the land line phone.

How To Live To 113

I think I’ll copy and paste gratuitously for once, this time from Instapundit. It’s short, and full of great advice:

SECRETS OF LONGEVITY: “Allingham, who was the world’s oldest man when he died Saturday at 113, attributed his remarkable longevity to ‘cigarettes, whisky and wild, wild women.’”

Heh. Guess I shouldn’t have quit. (Which one, comes the inevitable question?)

Coffee: The Wonder Drug, Now Treating Alzheimer’s

Now researchers find that drinking 5 cups of coffee a day can actually reverse the effects of Alzheimer’s Disease. Wow. This is fantastic news, and now it’s up to people to use the new knowledge.

First, unless you have some minority, pre-existing issue, everyone should drink some coffee and drink a glass or two of red (or the occasional beer, whiskey, etc. when you get bored with wine) every day. No exceptions. Given the state of the research, this is really a no brainer.

Second, if you have a family member suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, are they drinking coffee regularly? If not, try to get them to start. Buy them some good ground coffee and go over and make it for them. Maybe they only remember some nasty 1950’s version, they gave it up, and never looked back. It’s never too late to press them to start new things, especially if it saves their brain.

One Less Excuse Not to Have Babies in Your 40’s

If you or your wife are over 40, there’s one more reason to have a baby later in life: to have an idea if you’re going to be longer lived than average. Well, perhaps that isn’t a great reason, but it’s still interesting. Basically, a study was just published showing that women who had babies into their 40’s, on average, lived longer than those who didn’t. The implication here isn’t that having babies later in your life makes you live longer, but those that can have babies later in live also tend to live longer than those who cannot. One more step along the way to locating, and then manipulating, genes that will allow us to start seriously extending healthy life.

I read today from another blogger an offhanded comment: dying at 75 now seems almost too young. Hopefully by the time I’m 75, they’ll be saying the same about 110. Bring on actuarial escape velocity!

Life expectancy increases slightly every year as treatment strategies and technologies improve. At present, more than one year of research is required for each additional year of expected life. Actuarial escape velocity occurs when this ratio reverses, so that expected years of remaining life actually increases each year.

Century of Big Ideas or Not?

I don’t follow that many blogs. I mean, probably 40-50, but many of those don’t blog every day, so it really isn’t that many compared to some. So, when one blog says something and another comments on it, it’s kind of cool.

Late last week, Charlie Stross, the science fiction author, posted some fairly depressing speculation about what this century will hold for humanity. Singularity? No. Colonizing Mars? Nu-uh. He’s not all down on the near future, but he’s certainly not hugely optimistic. He’s a pretty smart guy, and I do pay attention to him (and I love his books to boot). The blog Next Big Future came right back the next day to answer him with some fun ideas about how Orion nuclear space ship technology can let us dream big and execute on those dreams this century.

I have no idea if it’ll happen. People that try to predict what’ll happen 100 years in the future with any real degree of detail (read, increasing global temperature) are always wrong. Always. But I do wish people would dream big about what humanity can achieve. If we don’t dream it, we’ll never do it.