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Great Stagnation vs. Me Am Play God

One recurrent debate I see is whether technological progress is progressing ever further and faster toward Singularity or something, or whether transformative invention has slowed down or mostly stopped outside of IT. (And then, in the latter case, whether Internet and smartphones are as transformative as telegraph, electricity, home appliances, and farm automation.)

A guest blog post I just read made me wonder if there's potentially transformative stuff we're refraining from out of fear of the consequences. The post/essay is on "a new technology that has made the precise editing of genes in many different organisms much easier than ever before" -- editing via an intracellular mechanism, and the precise editing can include copying that mechanism, and operation in gamete-producing cells. So you can make an organism all of whose offspring will have some high-precision genetic change you specific, including editing out genes acquired from other parents! Not just your GMO lacks some gene, but all of its descendants can lack that gene. Potentially very powerful for altering wild populations of sexually reproducing pest species, like malaria mosquitoes, or Australian rabbits, or malaria itself. Altering them by reducing fitness traits or their numbers outright, like a higher-tech version of flooding a population with sterilized males. And low risk to domesticated species whose mate choice is constrained. Not useful for asexual species so won't help the Age of Antibiotic Resistance.

Sounds pretty neat, and superficially I think we should use it, but I expect lots of hesitation, doubt, and fear. Which led to wonder what potentially world-transforming things we might be doing but aren't. Most of these aren't nearly as high tech, just cases of "the world could look a lot different if we wanted."

Ocean fertilization: just as many deserts bloom by adding water to them, so the open oceans are nutrient deserts, and may potentially bloom by adding iron and other nutrients; one study adding iron and silicon (for diatoms) thought biomass increased 1000 tons for every ton of nutrient. Good outcome: massive more amounts of fish. Bad outcome: waves of anoxic layers falling through the oceans.

Similarly, bandaid geo-engineering for global warming via adding sulfate or other particles to the atmosphere to reflect sunlight seems cheap and doable, by all accounts, though here even the best outcome is simply slowing down warming while the oceans still acidify (from CO2) and building up a need to keep on engineering unless we use the time to reverse CO2 emissions. Also acid rain if you use sulfates and not some alternative.

Eugenics research: so, we're at the point why our ability to sequence and edit genomes far exceeds our understanding of more than the simplest edits, especially for human traits. At $5000/person (a recently reached price) you could sequence a million people for $5 billion; with detailed medical and life studies, you might build up a better idea of what genes do and how they interact. Long term, you could sequence every American born for $20 billion/year. [To be fair, this isn't something we've even been able to do for long, so not really case of refraining from it yet.] If successful, the research would then drive actual human engineering.

Free and mandatory paternity testing: this could be folded into a medical genetic assay for newborns. I'm not sure what the effects would be, but seems like there should be some, to knowing that any reproductive cheating would be caught without having to imply lack of trust by asking. If combined with a national database, perhaps from the prior idea, that'd identify most straying fathers as well as mothers.

The Beta Colony implant: there's no one-size fits all solution, but between copper and hormonal IUDs and hormonal implants, arguably we could put all women on some form of long term contraception from puberty, reducing accidental pregnancy and unwanted children to near zero.

Keynesian 'technology': I think it likely that we could sustain full employment most of the time, with economic power shifting from capital to labor, and inequality falling, just by listening to Krugman et al., and unlike more radical ideas like full basic income or Communism the social risk seems pretty low. Arguably, so's the transformation potential, but still: US GDP being 10% higher, median income being even higher than that due to income distribution changes, workers not being terrified of their bosses or of unemployment.

Similarly, carbon taxes to internalize pollution costs, and market price parking, would make a big change, though here we can say "would look a lot more like urban Europe or Japan."

Space?: No, I don't include this. We aren't choosing not to exploit space resources, it's just hideously expensive to do so. We *could* have more telescopes and orbiters and rovers, which would bring in a lot more data, but this isn't a high-certainty way of changing our lives a lot.

See the comment count unavailable DW comments at http://mindstalk.dreamwidth.org/400479.html#comments


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Jul. 18th, 2014 11:19 pm (UTC)
This made me think of the alternative mouth bacteria which doesn't cause cavities, which has been around for a decade or more, but isn't available. OTOH, given that it can spread and outcompetes normal mouth bacteria, I can see wishing to avoid dire side-effects 15 years down the line.
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )


Damien Sullivan

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