My friend Ian’s reflections on 2014. Shared here with permission. – Lonnie.
Reflecting on 2014, I felt contrary emotions…
1. Nothing much has changed – (limited)
- Einstein’s speed of light limit wasn’t beaten by those odd neutrinos.
- The Higgs particle was depressingly exactly what was expected. Not a door to new physics.
- The Cern collider and others have seriously restricted the scope for supersymmetry
- Although that supernova was too powerful for existing theory, a new theory was found pretty fast which didn’t change anything of significance.
- Room temperature superconductivity temperatures still haven’t moved into useful ranges.
- After 50 years the replacement for the powerful Saturn launcher is only incrementally more powerful
- Silicon computer chips are still not getting much faster, just a bit smaller and using less power.
- Battery, windfarm, hydro, PV, and solar thermal are all approaching their current technology limits. Gains are mainly in supply chain, installation, and volume manufacturing.
- Despite the huge increase of knowledge in biomedical understanding, the systems being studied seem resistant to the traditional scientific decide and conquer methods. Yet another immune system seems to have been discovered; gut biota as a whole system seem to influence or control many aspects of human health and well being. The value of foods as chemicals or as a system interact with the individuals unique gut biota. Its all getting more complex faster than the tools to examine it! There seems to be a dearth of new antibiotics.
- Economics is struggling to explain what’s going on post crash yet alone provide any sort of predictive power.
… and so on. Many areas of science and technology are at or approaching asymptotic limits or may be hitting fundamental impasses.
2. Progress is amazingly rapid – (accelerating)
- Nanotechnogy is getting to be nano engineering with techniques for manufacturing single atomic layer materials, with regularly spaced holes, which may contain individual atoms as required
- Graphene has been joined by a mass of other single atomic layer analogues using both single and multiple elements. These are showing wonderful properties with great potential as well as some being easier to manufacture.
- Spintronics (using the spin of an electron rather than the charge to do transistors and other components of circuits), and Photonics (using the surface electronic wave caused by an incident photon on a metal surface) is being joined by Valleytronics, using the momentum of an electron in a crystal (Wikipedia has an impenetrable description unless you remember a lot more physics than me). As an example of nano engineering valleytronics leads to semiconductor types of behavior in 1,3,5, etc. numbers of atomic layers of MoS2, and insulator behaviour in even numbers of layers- pretty obviously this could lead to a single material film with different thicknesses doing everything that a silicon chip with lots of different doping and wires can do.
- AI-stuff is developing amazingly fast, mainly as a result of throwing huge amounts of data and processing at problems. Speech recognition (Google, Apple, Microsoft) is certainly, for my Google searches, remarkably good. Image classification and recognition (Google, Facebook) is becoming useful (on Google right click on an image and ask for images like this) provided you are happy to ignore false positives. The DARPA driver-less car challenge of just a few years ago has led to driver-less cars in San Francisco (Google) racking up hundreds of thousands of hours of accident free travel. Drones are getting quite smart at finding their way to and from places as well as actually flying (I don’t think a quadcopter would be stable if you tried to manually balance the four fans). Watson did the impossible in Double Jeopardy, but we haven’t heard much since then – actually IBM has put a lot of cash on the table to fund venture start ups using Watson technology and also is doing serious medical work with it.
- Although I am nervous about the universal hopes for processing huge data sets, it does seem to be producing rapid discoveries and turning into real usage. I suspect that there will be some real analysis disasters before we become comfortable with its applicability but that’s not to decry its potential. You may have noticed that in order to help you find things both Google and YouTube actually hide things you might like to find but don’t fit their algorithms. (For the SciFi story about this see “O” very old, probably out of print, and very hard to find using a search engine!1)
3. There are reasons for optimism – (ambiguous)
- While the battle to keep the internet safe and working looks like it is being lost, the new protocols being developed by the internet architects include various forms of encryption, non repudiation, identity verification, etc. in the basic protocols. Today they are layered on top. Since it is known that denial-of-service attacks and the more dangerous denial-of-service attacks on DNS servers are easy to set up presumably the architects are proposing ways of eliminating the vulnerability. There are a variety of fixes for spam from the simple (charge senders .001p per message sent), to the clumsy (throttle sources that send a lot of emails at once), the architectural (limit the OS from sending more than one email message per second), to the systemic (ensure all emails come from real identifiable sources). The issue is going to be that changing the basic protocols of the internet is a slow business, especially now it is huge, (the IPv7 change only happened when the internet ran out of addresses this year, and if you look at the number of IP connections on your windows machine you will see that the bodges being used are zapping the performance of non native IPv7 machines ie most of them. I hate to think what it’s doing to routers and servers that are constantly having to convert from one to the other). There is also great hope that all the tedious security stuff will become invisible to the typical user and just happen automatically. Preventing mutating viruses from exploiting the apparently infinite number of security holes in Windows, Adobe PDF, IE, Office, and many well used applications seems impossible, but a fairly straightforward approach of making every copy of Windows unique at the compiled code level looks very promising since it would kill the whole packaged hack market and at least make hacking a nation level investment.
- Bio-nano knowledge and tools are accelerating the rate of acquisition of data at an incredible rate. Ways of making stem cells perform and ways of building new organs seem effective in early trials leading to hope of extending the productive life of people – as the population ages this is economically important. Different approaches to handling cancer seem promising in a way that has been lacking for the last decade.
- Intelligent” robots, ie autonomous devices that can clamber over nuclear rubble and turn valves on and off, assist in carrying loads, engage with solitary old people, provide assistance in getting around, etc. are being seriously developed. Where they eliminate jobs (taxis, production line) they may be thought of as bad. Where they improve lives at low cost they will be seen as good. But as one becomes more dependent the options provided by the robot may not be the ones that one would choose for oneself (I’m taking you to the gym for your health – but I wanted to go to the pub to see my friends). Stephen Hawking has a unique insight into this from his new faster more intelligent speech generator. (Presumably it’s really easy to say things you have said before!)
These are just few of the limited, accelerating, or ambiguous things I have observed this year. I’m sure you can think of many more however I think overall I’m optimistic about 2015 – if the economists, politicians, and media will keep the mental noise down enough for the entrepreneurs, scientists, and technologists to think!
- I tried, but I couldn’t find the science fiction story “O”. If you do or at least if you know the author, please email me. ↩