Supersonic Man

November 18, 2016

future cars

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,the future!,thoughtful handwaving,Uncategorized — Supersonic Man @ 7:05 pm

A lot of people who talk about the coming future of post-petroleum vehicles like to pooh-pooh the battery electric car, even though it’s the most successful type so far.  They keep insisting that the real future will belong to hydrogen fuel cells or ethanol or something else exotic.

But consider the following vision for a future car:

It’s an affordable compact or midsize, nothing fancy.  The base model comes with an electric motor for each front wheel, and 25 or 30 kilowatt-hours of batteries layered under the floor.  This arrangement keeps the powertrain out of the way, so it can have a trunk at both ends, like a Tesla.  Its range is at most a hundred miles, so it’s fine for commuting and shopping and local excursions, but very inconvenient for a road trip.

Most people accustomed to gasoline cars would find this a bit disappointing.  But consider the upgrades you could buy for it.  If you want sure-footedness in snow, or more performance, add a pair of rear motors.  (They would be smaller than the front ones, unless you’re doing some aggressive hot-rodding.)  If you want longer range, you could have a second battery pack in place of your front trunk.  And… if you want to drive everywhere and refuel with gasoline, you could replace that front trunk or second battery with a small gasoline engine and a generator.  It could be no bigger than a motorcycle engine, because it would only need to produce fifteen or twenty horsepower to keep your batteries from draining while cruising down a highway.  Ideally it would be a turbine rather than a piston engine, as it would only run at one speed.

Or if gasoline goes out of fashion, you could use that space for a fuel cell and a hydrogen tank.  Again, it would produce only a steady fifteen or twenty horsepower.  Or there could eventually be other alternatives not well known today, such as liquid-fueled batteries which you refill with exotic ion solutions, or metal-air cells fueled with pellets of zinc or aluminum.

These would not have to be options you choose when buying the car, but could just as easily be aftermarket modifications.  They simply bolt in!  Anyone with a hoist could swap them in minutes.  Even the trunk would just be a bolted-in tub.  With a good design, these power options might be interchangeable easily enough that people could just rent such an add-on as needed, rather than buying it.  It might be cheaper than, say, renting another car for a vacation trip.

Another option might be to install stuff from below.  There have been plans to make a network of stations where a machine just unclips your empty battery and slots in a full one, from underneath.  With forethought, this car could be made compatible with such a system.

The point is, once you have the basic platform of a battery-electric car, it can be cheaply adapted to run on any power source.  You could run it with coal, or with thorium, if you’re crazy enough.  Whatever becomes the most economical and abundant power storage medium of the future, your existing car can take it onboard.  All you need is to make sure it has some unused room under the hood.

And the best part?  Even if you don’t add anything, you still have a plug-in car that’s perfectly okay for most everyday uses.  In fact, I suspect a lot of people might come to prefer the car with no add-on, because it’s lighter and quicker and more efficient that way, and it has two trunks.

November 6, 2016

the obsolescence of labor

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing,the future!,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 5:29 am

A few years ago I wrote about how artificial intelligence is going to make it impossible to plan any long-term career because there’s no safe way to pick a job skill that won’t become obsolete.  A few weeks ago I wrote about how Trump took over the Republican party, and may end up leaving it in ruins.  These two topics may not seem related, but they are.  They’re both about the value of labor.

Three days before the election, I was in an argument with a left wing Trump supporter — yes, they exist — and we disagreed about many things, such as whether Trump is a racist, but we totally agreed that the major split in this election — at least among swing voters — is about class.  Hillary represents white collar voters and Trump represents blue collar workers.  We agreed that the interests of the latter are largely unrepresented by either political party nowadays.  But I’m not here today to write about electoral politics.  Today I’m taking a much longer term view.

It may seem odd to refer to people as being in different classes just because they have different kinds of jobs.  This is not the proletariat vs the bourgeoisie anymore.  White collar workers are in many ways in the same position as blue collar ones: often stuck in jobs with little prospect for advancement, working for employers who view them as disposable, facing an uncertain and unstable financial future, and sometimes having to meekly submit to demeaning crap for fear of the consequences if they protest.  Both are often seeing their prospects of having as good a life as their parents had dwindle away.  The overall experience of working for a living is similar, and you’d think the two groups would have a lot more common ground than differences.  But despite that, the classes are quite distinct in practice, with some dramatic differences in culture and values.

The main influence on this differing outlook is probably college education.  But just as important is the attitude toward learning and intellectualism that one grew up with.  I personally never attended a real college, and spent a fairly large part of my working life doing the kind of semiskilled outdoor work that needs no such education.  Nevertheless, culturally I am 100℅ a member of the white collar class, because of how I grew up.  Similarly, there are those who can be educated yet remain members of the blue collar class.  (The guy I was arguing with has also lived both sides: he does have a degree, but due to personal issues is now stuck in the crappiest of jobs.)

Politically, the first obvious thing you notice about blue collar America nowadays is how angry it has become, and how under the anger it’s not hard to find despair.  And it’s very clear why that is: for the last fifty years, their economic condition has gotten steadily weaker, until nowadays many of them are being ground into outright poverty.  Though exacerbated by many factors, such as union-busting and trickle-down tax policies, and all the other regressive abuses that come from special interest corruption, the inexorable underlying force is one that I am not hearing people discuss: that increasing mechanization and automation are steadily reducing the economic value of their labor.

Though ruling classes and employers throughout history have usually been quite good at keeping workers in line so their work can be had cheaply, for most of history the real value of that labor was high — it was essential and there was no substitute for it.  This is why labor unions were able to succeed, once they finally got organized.  (One further distinction between the blue collar and white collar classes is how the latter never managed to organize this way.)  Early mechanization reduced the value of the crudest forms of muscular labor, but balanced that by increasing the economic output of other kinds.  Automation and basic computerization continued that trend, trading worthlessness in some skill areas for higher productivity in others.  This tradeoff mostly works fine, as long as human hands remain essential to the overall process.

But every time we make such a trade, the skills required by the human worker get a little more difficult and demanding, and move a little bit more into the realm of specialists and experts, away from the range of tasks that an ordinary person can learn to do in reasonable time.  And this means that at each step, there are a few more people who no longer have any good path to learning an economically valuable skill.  The more skill we require, the larger the percentage of people who fall short in some way, and who therefore have economic value only to the degree that they can work more cheaply than what it would cost to automate their jobs — a cost which keeps moving downward.

As automation advances and begins to approach artificial intelligence, it becomes less and less an essential necessity to include human work.  A little more every year, employing human beings becomes an optional choice for soneone developing a business.  Human labor, which used to be (despite how poorly it might be paid) an absolute requirement for production, is now useful but not always mandatory.  As Bill Maher said to Trump voters, the worker who’s going to take your job isn’t growing up in China or Mexico, it’s being built in Palo Alto.  Quite a few of those Chinese and Mexican workers are themselves in the situation I mentioned, of being employed only while their cost stays below that of automation to replace them.  Protectionist measures to block overseas competition will not stop the ongoing erosion — it will at best just delay it.

That is a big part of why rural and blue collar America feels desperate enough to elect a Trump, above and beyond shorter term abuses from the likes of Wall Street pirates and crooked lobbyists and anti-union ideologues: because their labor is losing its value.  They have to compete with workers poorer than themselves, who in turn have to compete with robots, which get more capable every year.

And to the extent that members of the blue collar and white collar classes think about this problem, they tacitly agree on one thing: they see it as a blue collar issue.  For semiskilled workers, the loss of labor value is an immediate personal threat, but in the white collar world it’s usually seen as at most a distant tragedy, like a famine on the far side of the world.

Most people who consider this issue do so with a strong unstated assumption: that there’s a separation between jobs vulnerable to automation — essentially, those that involve manual tasks — and those that are generally safe, which depend on verbal or intellectual skills.  In other words, they are assuming that some jobs are too difficult and subtle to mechanize  — that there is an upper limit on the level of complexity, skill, and human judgment which can be automated.

I am here today to tell my readers, particularly those in the white collar class, a single awful truth: there is no such upper limit.  We are limited in how much we can automate so far, but there is nothing to stop that limit from continuing to rise beyond anything we can imagine today.  The falling value of labor is not a blue collar issue — before the robots finish taking over the blue collar jobs, they’re going to start in on the white collar jobs, including mine.  Once AI starts to develop seriously, there is not a single white-collar job anywhere, from customer service to CEO, which will be immune from automation.  All human labor is losing its economic value.  Some types are losing it quickly and others much more slowly, but it’s disappearing for everyone in the end.  Each of us has abilities of which we can say “I can _____ better than any machine”, but the list gets shorter and shorter, until it’s down to skills no one pays money for.

We have built our whole way of life around trading labor for sustenance.  We are approaching a time when such trades will no longer function.  Society will need a new basis.  When the goods we depend on remain abundant, but job skills no longer suffice to buy a share of them, we’ll need to start allocating the necessities of life in some other way.

And that means we face a tremendous choice.  We are coming to a time when we’ll be redesigning our whole way of life, and as yet we have no way to know what the available options will even be.  We’ll have to get creative and think them up, once we see what we’ve got.  We can’t really preplan it now — we know too little in advance.

Of course, for a long time the most popular answer will be to try to cling to the old way.  Free-market believers will be especially insistent.  But as the erosion continues, taking away the economic value not just of particular job skills, but of human work in general, free-market thinking would demand that those with little or no economic value should receive little or no economic benefit.  And as that group becomes an increasing majority of the population, the only endpoint such a path can have would be for the whole species to be reduced to poverty and slavery, accepting scraps from an ever-shrinking class of privileged owners, until finally the owners themselves are replaced, because there is no need for human beings to fill their roles either.  Such a course would be suicide, and we will not follow it, no matter how many ideologues might insist (as long as they have not yet succumbed themselves) that we have to.  We can and will choose a better path — any path we like.

My pro-Trump acquaintance fully expects this dire capitalist outcome if labor in general is lost to automation, opining that “the idea of a leisure society is bullshit”.  But I say that it (or some similarly implausible new way of life) can happen, simply because it must.  This doomed type of capitalism will end.  What will replace it, no one can yet say.

What I can say, today, is that if letting insufficiently valuable workers starve is going to be wrong then, it’s also wrong now.  In addition to the clear need to support fairer wages and more financial security for those who are working today (instead of our current policy of seeing how much we can fatten up Wall Street speculators before they burst), we also need to start thinking of options for supporting some kind of decent and dignified path of life for those among us who have limited employability.  And we need those ideas now, not in another generation.  The severe economic shock of mass unemployability may be decades away, but the pain it will bring has already begun.

What you are willing to do for your impoverished fellow citizens today, you will quite literally be doing for yourself later.

October 13, 2016

a pre-post-mortem of the 2016 Republican debacle

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing,the future!,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 3:07 pm

It is now 24 days before the 2016 election, and the Democrats seem very likely to have a solid victory, retaining the Presidency and gaining a number of House and Senate seats.  Their popular vote advantage is expected to be around six percentage points, according to current polling aggregates… but there are now hints and rumors and suspicions which suggest a much broader and more lopsided victory than that could be coming.  Trump’s support is continuing to erode, and in early voting, Republican enthusiasm seems low.

[Post-election update: yeah, I look like an idiot now.  But I think most of what I wrote below remains valid.]

If that does happen, it’s traditional for the punditry, and the parties themselves, to do a post-mortem to try to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it.  I figure I’ll just do it ahead of time.

So, what is to blame for the crushing defeat that the Republican Party just experienced (hypothetically) in the 2016 election?

(more…)

August 17, 2016

will there ever be a material to replace steel?

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,the future!,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 12:14 pm

We constantly hear about new or exotic materials which are stronger than steel, but for many uses it turns out that steel is still the best stuff available to use. When is one of these new materials actually going to be able to replace steel?

Quite possibly never. Fancy materials like kevlar and carbon-fiber and even titanium alloy are only stronger than steel by weight.  Their sole advantage over steel is lightness.  If you compare strength by volume, they do much more poorly.  This means that if you were to, for instance, try to make a sword out of titanium, it would have a much fatter blade than a steel one, in order to have the same strength and heft.  And it would be inferior at holding an edge. You’d have to, like, insert a separate bit of tungsten carbide or something along the edges, and have a way to replace parts of that when they get chipped.

(Such a design might be a pretty good way to make a sword, actually.  A Japanese katana is a bit like this: whereas a western sword is hardened and then tempered, so the whole blade is springy and tough but not as hard as it could be, a katana is glass-hard at the edge but soft along the spine.  If it’s damaged, the edge will chip, but the back part won’t even spring back into shape if bent.  It has to be hammered straight again.  Then the edge has to be ground down where it chipped.  A titanium-plus-tungsten-carbide design would make the middle of the sword about as tough as tempered steel, but give it an edge able to cut notches into any metal.  While it lasted.)

If talking about swords sounds too exotic and arbitrary, let’s instead talk about crowbars.  The tip of a prying tool has to be strong, hard, tough, and thin.  It has to be rugged enough to exert thousands of pounds of force while fitting into very narrow gaps.  You can’t make a crowbar out of carbon fiber, and even titanium might not be any improvement over steel.

Any materials that really are stronger than steel are generally not hard or tough, and materials harder than steel, such as diamond, are generally brittle and easily shattered.  It’s entirely possible that there’s no such thing as an exotic material that can outdo steel, even for such a mundane application as making nuts and bolts — that no possible combination of atoms can get there.

Which, to a science fiction reader like me, begs the question of whether you could make something that is not based on atoms.  Is there some kind of exotic substance or field in the far reaches of physics that could replace ordinary chemical elements as building materials?  Old-timey SF is full of improbable superstrong materials invented by advanced technology.  Could any of them ever exist?

As far as we can currently tell, the answer is no.  We might have small incremental improvements, such as putting alloys into a glasslike state instead of a crystalline one, but that’s probably all.

I did once see a physics paper which described a theoretical solid state far stronger than ordinary matter.  All you need to do to create it is subject ordinary hydrogen to a magnetic field of a billion gauss (100,000 tesla) or more.  The paper speculated that this substance might exist on the surfaces of neutron stars.  In such a field, the electron clouds around the hydrogen nuclei elongate and finally merge with each other, so the atoms form a kind of polymer.  The resulting substance is very dense — far heavier than any metal, though far lighter than neutronium — and very strong.  As best I can recall without being able to access the text of the paper, sideways to the magnetic field the strength was calculated to be somewhat proportional to the density, but lengthwise along the field lines, it would be way stronger than that.

There are three problems with this idea.  First is that it’s impossible to make a magnetic field like that to order, or to shape it for the convenience of the objects you want to create.  Second is that the effects of such a field on all the other stuff around the superstrong material would make it impossible to fit in amongst anything else made of ordinary matter.  It would, for instance, be lethal to any living thing in the area.  And the third is that this paper has not received much followup as far as I have been able to find, and what I’ve been able to track down in later work often criticizes the assumptions of earlier authors, and says their calculated numbers may have substantial errors.  It appears that “linear molecules” in intense magnetic fields are an accepted concept, but whether it would be superstrong in proportion to its density, or only in proportion to normal matter, is not clear to me.  The key value is probably the binding energy per atom, and I’m seeing estimates of that all over the map, from a few times that of common materials to around a hundred thousand times.  In newer calculations the smaller numbers seem to be predominating.

I mentioned neutronium.  What about that?  Unfortunately for our dream, it’s not a solid, it’s a superfluid.  Not to mention that it can only exist under extreme pressure, and would otherwise first explode, then undergo rapid beta-decay.  Unlike “linear molecules”, it has no resistance to flying apart.

Perhaps someday we might meet an advanced alien civilization — possibly one so advanced that they don’t even regard us as intelligent life, and can’t even remember what it was like to ever not know the answer to a question about science.  We might expect that their stuff would be made of magically wondrous materials, but then end up finding that like us, they still have to make things out of steel.

March 28, 2016

some fatuous computer industry predictions

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,the future! — Supersonic Man @ 11:15 am

I think I’ll call some trends in where the computer industry is going to go in the coming years. And yes, these are pulled straight from my lower gastrointestinal tract.

  • Is Windows going to start dying off?  Yes, but it will be very slow.  Home use will disappear before office use.
  • What will replace it?  A windowed variant of Android, or something Android-compatible, which doesn’t even exist yet.
  • Will that be Google’s planned merger of Android with ChromeOS?  Maybe, but I think it may be more likely to come from an independent outfit.  And if it’s advertised as being half Android and half ChromeOS, it’ll really be 90% Android.
  • Will ARM architecture replace Intel ’86 architecture?  Yes, but only temporarily.
  • Then what will win out in the long term?  Something designed for massive parallelism, like a GPU.  I predict that in The Future, when comparing the size and power of different computers, the main stat that will be quoted is the number of kilocores.
  • Will these cores be similar to full-blown processors such as an ARM core, or will they be more basic and stripped-down like a GPU core?  I think the trend may be from the former toward the latter — quantity over quality.
  • Will we still be using Android variants when things get into kilocore country?  Nah, something fundamentally more advanced will replace the whole current idea of desktop-like interfaces.
  • Will neural networks be important?  Maybe.  They’ll remain a specialized minority of architectures, but I think as the massively parallel architecture evolves toward having more cores and less in each core, it will converge toward neural-net architecture and then replace it.
  • What about software?  I think it will be stored in portable binary format and adapted to individual architectures with JIT compilation and/or automatic local optimizers.  The actual coding of highly parallel algorithms will rarely be done by hand, and will usually depend heavily on automated assistance.
  • What about quantum computing?  It’s impossible to tell how big an impact it will have.  It’s essentially a form of analog computing, and as such may be confined to niche specialties… but you never know: it could end up beating conventional computing at its own game and become much more general-purpose.  If this happens, the need for automated assistance in coding goes double.
  • Will we eventually use computers through direct brain interfaces?  Yes, but progress toward that will be frustratingly slow and gradual.
  • Will these new architectures lead to Artificial Intelligence?  Yes, though in a quite limited sense for the shorter term.  See this article for how I think that will go.
  • Does this mean that a computer will take your job?  It sure does, and it’s going to be a very difficult social challenge to adapt to.  See this further article.

February 9, 2016

Batteries

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,the future!,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 11:45 am

Battery technology is going to be extremely important to our future.  If someone just came up with a rechargeable battery that improved the energy density of lithium-ion cells by a factor of, say, about six, the effects would be tremendous.  It wouldn’t just suddenly make the electric car really competitive with fossil-fuel powered cars, it could pretty near wipe out small internal combustion engines altogether.  Motor scooters, lawnmowers, maybe even chainsaws would go electric, as would heavy trucks and buses.  The reduction of air pollution would be dramatic.  Vacuum cleaners would start going cordless.  Laptop computers could start being as powerful as desktops.

We could build robots that could walk around for longer than fifteen minutes before needing to plug themselves in.  We could make strength-enhancing exoskeletons.  All kinds of high powered portable doodads.

Also, the economics of shifting from fossil fuels to renewables would become a lot more attractive than they already are.

March 1, 2015

winding down

Filed under: life,the future!,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 7:26 pm

Nobody reads this blog. Even the index page of my personal website gets a lot more interest than this blog does. Even my secondary website for superhero movies does.  The only time I get a noticeable number of readers here is when I link a post from social media.

And yet, some of my most serious recent writing is here, because today’s social media sites — the ones with people you know on them, anyway — generally suck for long-form writing.  So what I’m doing is extracting the major posts from this blog, and putting them onto my main website as permanent pages.  This makes sense because some of them were already being subjected to repeated revisions.

Since many of these posts were about topics having to do with the future, or at least with science, the new website section where they’re being put is called The Future!.  Check it out.  Back here, meanwhile, a number of posts are now just one line pointers to the website.

There are still some longer posts that haven’t been moved, mainly political ones.  Maybe I’ll grab some of those in a second wave, or maybe not.  Also, lots of bird pictures — I have never updated the ancient photography section of my website to include my current bird photography.  That needs doing someday.

In any case, the point is that I’m no longer going to be investing effort in this blog.  The number of new posts will be significantly reduced and at some point will probably cease.

January 3, 2015

Organics meet Robotics

Filed under: the future!,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 11:21 am

This post has been promoted to a permanent page on my website, located here.

August 28, 2013

automation is going to take our jobs

Filed under: the future!,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 10:28 am

This post has been promoted to a permanent page on my website, here.

June 4, 2013

global warming — what do we do?

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing,the future!,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 7:54 am

This long post has been promoted to a permanent page on my personal website, here.

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