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Why didn't the Romans have hot air balloons? (chronopause.com)
280 points by aoeuid 1548 days ago | 130 comments



Fascinating article, with just one quip I'd have:

Plutonium-238, the material in nuclear batteries is very different from Plutonium-239, a material for nuclear weapons. There is great stigma against Plutonium, but mainly because of Pu-239. If you remember some of the news around the launch of the Cassini probe, there was opposition because of the Pu-238 pellet powering the RTG.

Compared to Pu-239, Pu-238 is non-fissile and also produces a lot of heat (which is the point, really). Pu-238 poses almost no proliferation risk. Even the radioactivity is in the form of alpha radiation, which needs very little shielding (hardly even penetrating the skin). The only problem with Pu-238 right now is that it's very expensive to produce and also very scarce. If Pu-238 were abundant, it could find many applications and pose very little security risk; building a dirty bomb out of it won't really work (as a matter a fact, neither making one out of Pu-239).

In general, our civilization has an irrational fear of nuclear energy. Even more egregious since there is a variant of nuclear technology that's almost completely proliferation-free, namely the thorium cycle.

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Chile is already moving toward building the first thorium nuclear reactors: http://diario.elmercurio.cl/detalle/index.asp?id={183364cc-d...

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> building a dirty bomb out of it won't really work (as a matter a fact, neither making one out of Pu-239).

Plutonium is chemically extremely toxic. Even throwing some powdered plutonium in air somewhere would cause serious harm.

Edit : In fact it's not :)

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Thats actually an urban legend (though one thats often repeated in the media). See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plutonium#Toxicity http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/fact-sheets/pl...

The radiological toxicity of plutonium is _way_ higher than the chemical toxicity.

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I stand corrected. In fact, I just checked and it seems like even Uranium isn't actually extremely toxic.

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I remember my 8th grade science teacher telling us all about Plutonium's toxicity and I believed it for many years, so I don't blame you. Apparently some researchers had a "Hot Particle" theory that said that because of the way plutonium was taken in by the body it was much more dangerous than just looking at its radioactivity would lead you to believe - concentrating in certain areas of the lungs. Its not surprising that media figures like Nader confused this with chemical toxicity, or didn't notice when experiments contradicted this theory.

EDIT: Edited for horrible grammar caused by rewriting something without proofreading after.

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This is Plutonium Oxide. IIRC, metallic plutonium is a lot more dangerous. Also almost impossible to come by in an oxygen atmosphere. Kind of like Aluminum.

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In hindsight, it seems clear that if humanity had decided in 1939 to colonize space, instead of expending ~$17 trillion and ~74 million human lives on war and destruction, we would have reached the moon in a robust and durable way by no later than the mid-1950s

He kinda gives away the answer to this earlier in the article, while explaining why the cool edge-case technologies the Romans had never took off:

the truth is that all technological advances are dependent upon a complex mix of social, political and environmental factors which we still do not understand, and thus cannot predict

The implication then is that, had WWII not happened, 1950 would have looked a lot like 1939. Instead, the world saw nearly 10 years of rapid technological advances, with nations inventing amazing new things as though their life depended on it.

Plot the rise and fall of the Space Program alongside the Cold War, and you can see the pattern again.

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You could argue that a great deal of the technological advancement of the later 20th century is a direct result of the CIA's paranoia and inability to correctly assess the real capabilities of the USSR (and the attendant fervor and fear of the public, which enabled the vast level of government expenditure on the Space Program). A content and secure populace would surely have preferred the money to have been spent elsewhere (on, eg, feeding the poor).

What does it mean for technological innovation if the 'complex mix' of factors it depends upon includes the enthusiasm of a propaganda-fueled public? After all, the (relatively) content societies of contemporary northern Europe have never produced anything like the level of innovation seen in Cold War America, despite their unusually high appreciation of scientific rationalism. Uncomfortable thinking...

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Actually if you study the history of LBJ's "Great Society" expansion of the U.S. welfare state, a major argument was that we had to spend more on food, housing, and health care for the aged and poor in order to win the PR war against communism.

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If I recall right during second world war many jewish scientist emigrated from Germany to America. It was these emigrated scientist, their students and American scientist who played the scientific part of cold war. With so many new scientist moving in and political motivation to beat those communists, it sounds only natural that there was an outburst of technology at that era.

Meanwhile in northern European countries (I'm seeing this mostly in Finland's perspective) had to play nice and humble with the Soviet union it being geologically right next to it. In addition to that Finland had huge amount of war reparations to pay due to losing winter and continuation wars against Soviet Union. Also since Soviet Union was the other big player of that time, with its own space programs and so on, it was only natural that the brightest minds in technological perspective went to Soviet universities and did their possible contributions there (I'm not expert of this matter but I remember reading there was at least some level of brain leakage during that era) Fall of Soviet union wasn't either that good of a change for Nordic countries since Soviet Union was one of our biggest sources of export.

Of course this is all just historical blabbering the real deal being imho the fact that in Nordic countries are good places in average, which means we do well in global rankings like PISA tests, but for technological innovation and economical rise it usually is the right side of gaussian curve that is needed. Also in eyes of Finn (I really don't know how these things are in states) due to more or less powerful labor movement and being "Nordic welfare state" (https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Nordic_welfar...) we have high labor expenses for employer. Add this to seemingly high bureaucracy to start a company, I don't see it that odd that we don't have any startup culture and every one just goes to work for Nokia (this is of course just extrapolation as there are interesting startups here and there but I feel the general culture isn't that motivating towards innovation).

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You can't compare the output of a country with over 300 million people with Northern Europe. The money spent on technology alone is probably larger than the combined national budgets of those countries. Of course this will produce more noticeable results, but that doesn't mean that they don't contribute to innovation.

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> You can't compare the output of a country with over 300 million people with Northern Europe.

Why not? The comparison is considered fair whenever it favors Northern Europe, so why is it unfair when NE doesn't do as well?

Northern Europe has roughly the same population as the US. The people look basically the same. They're considered first world. etc.

> The money spent on technology alone is probably larger than the combined national budgets of those countries.

Not even close. Total govt spending, per capita, is roughly the same. (Canada spends a bit less per person than the US.) So, there's no way that US govt tech spending, which is a small fraction of govt spending, can be greater than the total govt spending in those countries.

The US probably does have more private spending on tech than those countries, but that's because the US' greater gdp/person lets it spend more money privately on everything.

So, why is their GDP so much lower? We keep hearing how much better they are, so why doesn't it show up in output?

Yes, it's plausible to choose lower output, but is that really what's going on? Let's see the numbers showing that having less makes them better off.

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> Northern Europe has roughly the same population as the US.

Where do you get this number from? Looking at the definition of NE on Wikipedia, even if we include GB and Ireland we get roughly 100 million people. If we don't the number is closer to 30 million. The second number should be closer to your definition of NE considering your comment

> the (relatively) content societies of contemporary northern Europe

So NE has roughly 1/10th the population of USA, so if you are going to compare USA to NE you have to compare it per capita. I don't know about innovation per capita but with the exception of California I doubt there is a big difference, and the only reason California has a greater amount of innovation is cause of the anomaly called Silicon Valley.

Feel free to prove me wrong by getting the innovation numbers per capita during the Cold War. I wouldn't be surprised if Northern Europe would beat USA when population is considered, especially if you do not include former nations of the Soviet Union.

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Northern Europe= UK+France+Germany+others

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> Why not? The comparison is considered fair whenever it favors Northern Europe, so why is it unfair when NE doesn't do as well?

US is a single country with a common language and culture. It's much easier to share academical results and knowledge in that environment. I hate to use a buzzword, but "synergy" is probably a good description of that effect.

> So, why is their GDP so much lower? We keep hearing how much better they are, so why doesn't it show up in output?

In my opinion it's not a good comparison. If we look at the GDP per capita, you will find lots of states with lower rates than many European countries.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_U.S._states_by_GDP_per_...

When you hear "how much better the countries are", it is based on other factors than GDP. If there was something special about the US political system that generates wealth, you would expect the results to be more evenly distributed. Northern Europe consists of countries that are far more diverse than US states with larger differences in political systems, language, culture and history.

It seems that some US states are better at generating wealth than others. But it is my guess that they still have huge advantages of a single market with a common language and relatively similar culture. You also see more mobility in the workforce than in European countries.

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> > Why not? The comparison is considered fair whenever it favors Northern Europe, so why is it unfair when NE doesn't do as well?

> US is a single country with a common language and culture.

True, but that doesn't explain why the comparison is fair in some cases and not others.

>> So, why is their GDP so much lower? We keep hearing how much better they are, so why doesn't it show up in output?

> In my opinion it's not a good comparison.

How about some support for that opinion? (And, as I noted, no one complains about such comparisions when they're trying to make the US look bad.)

> If we look at the GDP per capita, you will find lots of states with lower rates than many European countries.

Actually, you find a few states that would be in the middle/low europe and a fair number of states that are over the top.

But, so what? There's variation between and within European countries. There's variation between and within US states.

That doesn't change the fact that US per-capita GDP is significantly higher.

> If there was something special about the US political system that generates wealth, you would expect the results to be more evenly distributed.

Why would you expect that?

The US poor fare rather well on an absolute scale.

You seem to think that what your neighbor has matters more than what you have. I disagree.

As to "relatively similar culture", the US TV culture is fairly uniform and the areas that techsters see are fairly similar, but go to south San Jose and tell me that it's just like Palo Alto. Heck, go to East Palo Alto and Redwood City. (They're not the same.)

If you're willing to travel a bit more (the US is big), there is lots of cultural diversity. Do you really think that Madison Wisconsin is much like Dry Creek Missouri?

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My point was really just that the level of public investment in technology (as a proportion of any measure like GDP) in those countries is nowhere near what the US spent on the Space Race. And the US isn't spending money on technology like that anymore either.

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The average person is only motivated by hate, fear, and superstition. That is the main constraining factor.

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The average person just wants to survive. The problem comes when they believe, whether it is true or not is irrelevant, that their survival requires someone else to die.

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Are you saying that war increases technological growth? That's crappy pop-history that's largely been discredited. Competition invites advancement, blowing up your competitors does nothing.

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> Are you saying that war increases technological growth? That's crappy pop-history that's largely been discredited.

That is not quite entirely true, war -- especially long-term -- results in huge funds being funnelled towards things that can blow up the other guy, which can then move into more peaceful realms. Not to mention the requirements for research safety and grants are often quite different.

Without WWII, would we have operational jets in the early 40s? What about rockets? All of rocket science from the late 40s and early 50s came from WWII germany. Likewise for fission and fusion research, how much longer would it have taken without Los Alamos?

> Competition invites advancement, blowing up your competitors does nothing.

That's crappy pop-history that's largely been discredited. Inventors generally don't need motivation, only funds (of time, of money, of equipment, of relations). And the reason for those funds and where they come from is the lowest of worry, as long as they are provided. Competition is irrelevant to invention and advancement.

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I think you've both hit on and missed the point of the article at the same time. We think war = technological progress because that's how it happened in our civilization. We're biased toward that line of thinking because the evidence -- our history -- keeps us biased. The article is saying, it didn't have to be that way. Likewise, that isn't how it has to be in the future. So, yes, you are correct that funds provide progress, war provides funds, so war provides progress, but that's only one of many possible scenarios. It isn't a law of nature.

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No... just no. :S

If you want to debate, please sign up for http://arguex.com/ I'm not going to do it here.

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Are you just trolling? Or are you trying to promote the service? In either case I guess you are doing it wrong - flagged.

Also - I signed up for the service - I love the idea, but if you expect me to sign up to Facebook just to start using your service - then forget it.

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So what you're saying that intense competition between national armies is not the kind of competition that humans are willing to stake almost anything and commit endless resources on?

War itself may not increase technological growth. But preparations for war certainly do. And please show me another competition that has yielded lets say 50% of technological advances that various arms races have?

Sadly when human develops new kind of tech and is looking for money to get it widespread - the first and deciding question is: "Can it be used as a weapon?"

Think of the nuclear bunker gap!

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Wasn't low-cost sequencing of human genomes created by the competition generated by an X prize? Maybe we simply aren't harnessing gamification principles properly. Maybe really big games like wars aren't the only way.

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If you re-read my comment you will notice that I haven't said that wars are only way to induce progress.

However I did say that I would like to see an example of a phenomena that produced at least 50% of technological advances that warfare has.

Low cost genome sequencing is all nice and dandy - but thus far worthless. I'm not saying it ain't got potential, but thus far it hasn't really impacted us in any meaningful way. And I'd be willing to bet that any future impacts on this field are going to be financed through military complex.

Even the renewable energy sources will probably come from military and not from enlightened corporations.

Don't get me wrong - I'm not trying to pass judgment here. It's just an observation.

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Are you saying that war increases technological growth? That's crappy pop-history that's largely been discredited

Citation needed.

I can certainly say that without WW II and then the Cold War, Silicon Valley would not have looked anything like it does today. Read everything in http://steveblank.com/category/secret-history-of-silicon-val... and watch the video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZTC_RxWN_xo for evidence for that assertion.

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So... isn't war a form of competition that was there and then, previous to the global competitive market of today?

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As far as I remember to have read somewhere.

The Nazi doctors did quite a lot for the advance of the medical field simply because of all the horrible experiments they could do.

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Not really. Unfortunately, while the Nazi doctors did a lot of stuff, it was almost all useless to the scientific community because they didn't really apply the scientific method. There are only a few citable results, in particular the Dachau hypothermia experiments (for example), and even those are rarely used for obvious political concerns. So actually, the Nazis have not advanced modern medicine very much at all.

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A lesser known WW2-era legacy is the Japanese Unit 731 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unit_731 which perpetrated horrific experiments upon great numbers of Chinese and some POWs.

Unlike the Nazi experiments these don't seem as well known in the west, though they've had a potentially greater effect. I say potentially because most of the doctors were pardoned (the ones that weren't captured by the Russians) and several rose to prominence in Japanese medical circles. The results of Unit 731 are mostly classified, and have been used to jumpstart biological weapons programs in both the USSR and the US (at least one Unit 731 doctor moved to the US to work on bioweapons).

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been discredited by who? I still take this as logical and true to many levels... would love to read a reasonable oposite opinion

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The Romans did not have the printing press. The press produced a sharp exponential increase in technological progress.

Without the press, the spread of new ideas and techniques is extremely slow, and there isn't much cross-pollination of technologies. Worse, an awful lot gets forgotten.

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The more you think about it, the more impressive it is that they maintained such a far-flung and orderly bureaucracy (relatively speaking) without the printing press.

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What's special about the printing press is that it makes copying cheap; the comparable Roman technology was slavery, which makes labor cheap. (In the short term.)

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That makes it even more remarkable, really, because the investment required to avoid automation is incredible. You need schools to prepare slaves as teachers (taught by slaves, of course) to teach child slaves to read and write and whatever specialist skills required by scribes. You need schools to teach the kids to read and you need slaves to produce sufficient excess food to support all the other slaves. And at the end of the day, you end up with a highly literate population of slaves in the middle of Rome, posing a significant risk to stability. Either that or they were massively efficient in their reliance on written material, which in itself would be remarkable in light of how successful they were in exporting their culture throughout the empire.

This is a great example of where the mindset of the ancient civilization is just so dramatically different than our own that it's difficult to understand their motivations.

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The vast majority of Roman slaves were miserable, illiterate war captives, and generations of their offspring, working large scale farms in Italy. The instability from Roman slavery actually came from the masses of displaced Roman yeoman farmers, who could not compete with the slave agribusinesses. This was a considerable concern in ancient Rome, for cultural reasons and also because these small farmers formed the backbone of the Roman legionary forces during the Republic.

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Right, and to be clear, I am addressing the scenario from the Roman perspective, not because I approve of it or whatever. Additionally, I am highlighting the notion that in order to mass produce written law and the other things necessary to successfully export a culture on massive scale over large distances, you actually do need a large population of literate slaves, which, if you're going to have slaves, is the last thing you want.

Edit: to clarify, slaves are necessary to export culture because someone has to transcribe all of the books and laws etc.

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Slavery didn't export or transmit Roman culture as much as Roman citizens and traders settling conquered lands, and mixing with local elites, who adopted Roman traditions, economics, and lifestyles.

My reading of the history is that the literate Roman slaves more-or-less bought in to the system-- indeed, for the literate slave, there were paths to freedom, and some of the most trusted imperial advisers were freedmen. While slave uprisings were always a huge concern in Rome, they played no part in the eventual downfall of Rome, and the most remembered one-- Spartacus-- was of the illiterate war captive type of slave.

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Why would literate slaves pose a risk to stability, necessarily?

Keep in mind that slavery for these people was nothing like the chattel slavery of the US south. Being an educated slave did mean that you had some restrictions on what you could do; it also freed you from having to worry about food and shelter, say. Similar tradeoffs have been made by salaried workers in Japan in the 70s and throughout the Western world during the industrial revolution

And even the restrictions part was ... varied. If you're a slave and your owner lives in Athens while you live in a Greek city on the Bosporus and supervise your owners business interests in the Black Sea (an actual example I recall from some of the primary sources from my Greek history classes in college), you really don't have much in the way of restrictions on you. Yes, legally you're a slave. So what? It has very little impact on your day-to-day life, at least as long as business is good.

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I don't think that it's a necessity, but we're talking about the Romans, who are pretty notoriously paranoid about security issues since Rome was sacked by the Gauls. This concern seems in line with what I know of the general attitude of the average Roman citizen, especially if you're talking about slaves that came from the outer provinces, as most did in later years.

I just don't think you can ever be totally secure psychologically while you own slaves, but as I said elsewhere in this thread, there are a lot of things about the Roman mindset that are very difficult for the modern mind to identify with, so at best, this is marginally informed speculation on my part.

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Slavery was present in every ancient society. The Roman empire was successful because of superior military tactics and world class fortification and infrastructure engineering-- especially roads and agriculture.

Additionally, the Romans had organizational advantages in an advanced legal and commercial code. The Romans were also extremely flexible and combined conquered local traditions with their own (Roman paganism was particularly tolerant) and by expanding Roman citizenship in ever broader circles.

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This is begging the question in a way, though. Why didn't the Romans have the printing press? Like the hot-air balloon, the concept of printing is clear and simple, and the technological prerequisites are minimal - you just need metallurgy, which the Romans had in abundance.

The printing press ended up being developed in a culture that was in many ways less technically sophisticated than the Romans'.

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I vaguely remember that this has to do with more with the paper than with printing technology, the paper being very expensive until recently.

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I cannot find the source but I remember the same also. As well, "printing press like" techniques were used early in clay pot design and marking, again can't find source, which is the essence of the idea. Only it could not expand to the scale required of modern printing press standards.

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> Like the hot-air balloon, the concept of printing is clear and simple, and the technological prerequisites are minimal - you just need metallurgy, which the Romans had in abundance.

More details: the Antithykera Mechanism would seem to imply that the Romans had the metallurgy.

Interestingly, they or their predecessors also may have had the basic idea of block printing or movable type printing. The Phaistos Disc (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phaistos_Disc) from ancient Crete is a disc of fired clay onto which various symbols have been 'stamped'.

Set the symbols into a frame or carve them into a flat wooden block, and keep using clay as your printing material... Not as good as Chinese paper or Egyptian papyrus, but still better than scribes.

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With wax tablets being used it's surprising too if none of the Romans thought to use an impression mechanism¹ to print with.

--

1 - Perhaps drawing initially on foil, backing with clay, heat and press and then wipe over an "ink" (which could also then be set on to paper). Or maybe simply forming letter shapes which are put together on a board and heating and impressing them in to the wax.

Indeed this brings me to think how easy duplication of clay tablets bearing cuneiform would be – impress a fired/set tablet on to a piece of wet clay, set that as the master and then "potato print" with that in to fresh clay pieces. It couldn’t really be simpler than that – why didn’t the Sumerians have printing presses in 4000BC?.

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Printing, as a technology for creating duplicate images (eg, with wood blocks), was in use at least a millenium prior to Gutenberg in many societies, including parts of late Rome. Moveable type came much later, and it was Gutenberg's incorporation of this with a whole slew of engineering improvements that led to the printing revolution in Europe.

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Perhaps I should have done some research before opening my fat mouth ... but duplicate images only or was it extended to duplicate "written" works?

Ex post facto lots of this sort of thing (block printing images -> movable type) seem pretty straight forward, doesn't it.

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I think one of the hallmarks of any truly revolutionary technology is the ease and speed with which it spreads, becomes assimilated, and soon seems 'obvious' to those who were born after its adoption. The wheel being the archetypal example.

I'm no expert on printing presses, but the Wikipedia page on Moveable Type has some good material, including the suggestion that Gutenberg's most important innovation was a greatly improved method for casting letters. I find the elegance of this quite inspiring -- that Gutenberg did not invent 'the printing press' out of thin air but rather made this seemingly minor, but in fact absolutely crucial improvement that almost immediately propelled it from a niche technology into a cornerstone of intellectual life. There are many contemporary parallels...

(Incidentally, printing's rapid adoption was surely in part due to its usefulness not just for intellectuals, but also for the ever-present propaganda efforts of government officials.)

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Printing supported not only governments, but revolutions. I have a hard time believing the American Revolution could remotely have happened without the printing press.

Consider the modern parallel of the Egyptian Revolution being enabled by Facebook.

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Incidentally, printing's rapid adoption was surely in part due to its usefulness not just for intellectuals, but also for the ever-present propaganda efforts of government officials.

Not to mention the ability to print bibles, which was pretty important at the time.

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In fact much revolutionary technologies come from small incremental improvements, and often were invented by several people at the same time : the telephone, the radio, the steam engine, television...

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Just a thought, but paper is a much more information dense medium. Perhaps transportation of the clay tablets was expensive enough to make doing them by hand each time easier than printing them.

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Indeed, but clay tablets could have been thinned, they could also have used organic material (with fired pieces it burns away, cf paper-clay) to lighten the resulting tablets without much loss in ruggedness (paperclay is stronger than clay alone, like concrete vs cement).

I think such a development would lead naturally to think "damn this epic of Gilgamesh needs a few camels to transport, perhaps instead of impressing back in to clay I can press it on something lighter" and then possibly with the realisation that pressing on a damp cloth with an unfired tablet impression produces a great serviceable print ...

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Romans had paper/papyrus by the late republic period (Caesar, Antony, Cicero, Cleopatra)

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The article mentioned:

"The Montgolfier brothers came up with the idea while lying beside a fire and watching hot ash and embers float upwards – and they thought about this in a military context – namely how to take Gibraltar from the British."

And later

"However, Hero of Alexandria (10–70 CE) was well known for constructing complex automata, had powered a pipe organ using his wind-wheel (windmill) and developed a variety of steam driven devices using his aeolipile; a primitive turbine type steam engine with surprising motive capacity."

From wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hot_air_balloon "Unmanned hot air balloons are popular in Chinese history. Zhuge Liang of the Shu Han kingdom, in the Three Kingdoms era (220–80 AD) used airborne lanterns for military signaling."

"In fact, von Braun was engaged in designing and building the V-2, and much more sophisticated rockets, solely because he wanted to achieve the exploration of space; both personally and for the human species."

In each example above where technologies were invented / discovered, you can see that these innovations were driven by individuals and their purpose. In the case of the automata and the hot air balloon, both were invented by a leader of their own respective society - "Hero of Alexandria" and "Zhuge Liang" - the chinese military genius. Von Braun wanted to invent rockets for the purpose of space exploration... but his effort was redirected into war and destruction.

Comparing to innovations we've made in the past, say, 30 years, you can see the same. Bill Gates commoditized hardware and brought computers onto many desks cheaply. And Steve Jobs... you know the rest.

Each story of humans' invention seems to just as much be a story of the individual who led its discovery, rather than the environment surrounding him/her, and when the environment is taking into account, it seems it does more to stifle innovation than to foster it.

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What you are ignoring is that while the individual is definitely the catalyst for the innovation, the environment is equally important.

Considered another way, there are countless people around the world with the intelligence and drive of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, but they live in impoverished villages in India and Africa and struggle just to stay alive. They may do better than their neighbors, but without the support of a technologically and financially advanced society, what they can accomplish is severely limited.

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Even people living in affluent societies may be steered from the path we imagine them to take. Bill Gates was very lucky to have access to a computer at an early age. If he'd lived in, say, San Antonio, would have have achieved what he did?

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> Each story of humans' invention seems to just as much be a story of the individual who led its discovery, rather than the environment surrounding him/her, and when the environment is taking into account, it seems it does more to stifle innovation than to foster it.

We can argue that the WWII may not have taken place without Hitler, however the personal computer revolution would have occurred with Commodore instead of Apple, and CP/M instead of MS-DOS, because most inventions essentially "are breathed with air" when their time's arrived.

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You'd also need to stop Mussolini, Stalin, and Hirohito to stop a world war from breaking out at the time. At minimum.

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The informative first half of the article was fascinating, but it slowly deteriorated from there as I read the argumentative second half. In my view, things took a drastic turn for the worse around this sentence:

Mature genetic engineering, nanotechnology, strong artificial intelligence, and quantum computing, to name but a few, each hold many times the potential for systemic harm to, or destruction of our civilization; and they do so absent the inherent check on their proliferation that was present in the case of nuclear energy...

The suggestion that strong artificial intelligence and quantum computing are more likely destroyers of civilization than nuclear energy seems laughable without further argument. As with nuclear weapons, problems only arise in the application of technology by humans, not in the concepts themselves, and I see far more potential for physical and societal devastation in the application of nuclear weapons than in AI or QC.

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With nuclear tech, humans have to be the ones pushing the buttons, making pure accidents quite unlikely. If moore's law holds and we make a strong AI, it might theoretically be possible for it to "go FOOM" -- use most of it's thinking power to make itself exponentially smarter, hitting the ultimate physical limits of computing in a relatively short time. If that happens, and the ultimate physical limits of computing are sufficiently far away, the entire human race no longer has any say on it's future -- whatever happens from then on is decided by a singleton entity.

A good overview of the arguments from both sides can be found from the Hanson - Yudkowsky debate on the subject: http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/The_Hanson-Yudkowsky_AI-Foom_...

Disclaimer: I have not studied the issue deeply enough to be on either side.

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The Ultimate Physical Limits of Computation:

http://arxiv.org/pdf/quant-ph/9908043

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Even with a rapidly-developing strong AI, though, humans have to give the initial machine the ability to limitlessly acquire resources and alter its own hardware. Despite the likelihood that a highly intelligent AI could easily convince some humans to do its bidding, the resource acquisition limitation gives me some measure of confidence that strong AI will not be the downfall of our civilization.

I would be more concerned about unexpected emergent behavior in our existing networks as more and more intelligence is added to various systems than a purpose-built self-modifying AI.

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Assuming it starts at human-level or slightly above, internet access would probably be enough.

Plenty of people make a lot of money over the Internet, and identity theft isn't exactly rare. Anything that's considerably smarter than humans would probably be running on AWS after the first week, without any overt co-operation from it's creators.

I do not hold this to be particularly likely, because I think that the software side of making a mind capable of recursive self-improvement is likely orders of magnitude harder than people seem to think it is. However, if we do succeed in making one, the argument "it needs help from it's creators" is a very weak one -- even a human level one with access to any networking would likely be able to take the ability to improve itself.

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I don't know what quantum computing is doing on that list, but a mere glance around you will confirm that small increases in intelligence and brainpower, such as that involved between humans and the LCA of humans and chimps, can have rather large effects. Marvin Minsky once said, "Nuclear weapons are not really dangerous because nuclear weapons are not self-replicating." To this I would add that nanotechnology is not really dangerous because nanotechnology is not smarter than you.

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Maybe, and maybe not. Worth at least reading http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Invincible if you haven't for a counter-argument.

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The inclusion of quantum computing in that list is stupid, but strong AI is a real and very serious danger. I can't really do the topic justice in a quick comment, so here's a link instead: http://singinst.org/upload/artificial-intelligence-risk.pdf

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Even nuclear energy is arguably a net win for humanity despite its destructive power (at least in an utilitarian way). In fact, it is debatable whether the use of the atomic bomb saved more lives than it took away. [1]

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Debate_over_the_atomic_bombings...

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"Such rapid and direct application of biomedical advances to humans is now inconceivable, not only in the US, but virtually anywhere in the world."

This is true, but for one very simple reason: at the time of these inventions, there was no other option. If someone needed a heart operation that required stopping the heart, they would die. If someone needed dialysis after kidney failure, they died. Rapid applications come in the face of dire consequences. In these cases, almost anything was better than death.

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The guy who wrote this post used to be president of Alcor (http://alcor.org), one of the two cryonics organizations in the US. Cryonics is in fact certainly a procedure where people will definitely die if they don't get it, particularly because it can only be done after 'legal death'.

Its efficacy can't be established conclusively right now, but it's certainly more likely you'll be revived if you undergo cryopreservation than if you are cremated or buried underground.

But because of various mostly psychosocial factors, practically nobody gets cryopreserved. I think this is the specific example he was trying to point out.

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There's a genuine plausibility difference between inventing new surgical techniques and freezing corpses in liquid nitrogen hoping that future generations will resurrect them. In terms of the high certain burden on the rest of society (in terms of expending resources, denying others the use of one's organs, denying the use of one's remains for medical research or education, etc.) and the very outside chance that one will be successfully and happily resurrected (which is itself the product of several probabilities, many small--the probability that even perfectly preserved corpses can even theoretically be resurrected, the probability that the tissue damage caused in the freezing process can be repaired, the probability that future generations will actually resurrect you rather than put your corpse in a museum or something, and the probability that upon resurrection you will, in fact, be the same person and not suffer extreme brain damage and lifelong mental retardation), cryonics doesn't sound like such a good idea anymore.

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only if you abuse the abstraction of language to impose restrictions on reality that don't exist. people who would have been declared dead 50 years ago are now resuscitated routinely.

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What does that have to do with his point? The resuscitations you're talking about are not part of a continuum of improving outcomes for people with massive total systemic cellular damage from freeze-thaw cycles.

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you're discussing damage that comes about from primitive forms of cryonic preservation that haven't been used in decades.

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18321197

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Freeze-thaw cycles in LN2 also damage cells.

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I don't think anyone who's ever been declared "dead" has ever been "resuscitated" more than a year after the fact, at least not since we've been able to distinguish a comatose state from death.

Fine, there's a slim chance it's theoretically possible. I openly conceded that. Multiply that by all the other slim chances involved, though, and it gets even slimmer. It doesn't balance against the extreme costs unless your decision-making process is extraordinarily selfish.

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I choose not to pretend my decisions aren't selfish.

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Even from a selfish perspective, cryonics is basically the science fiction version of Pascal's Wager.

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The main reason why practically nobody gets cryopreserved is that Cryonics is a form of scientific scam.

It sells people confidence that their mind can be preserved by freezing it.

http://aidevelopment.blogspot.com/2008/12/cryonics.html

That said, the author seems to be a true believer in Cryonics (however that does not make Cryonics legitimate).

The article has interesting points, but cannot really be trusted, because of multiple outrageous statements.

For example, the author states: "In hindsight, it seems clear that if humanity had decided in 1939 to colonize space, instead of ... war [WW2], we would have ... very likely self-sustaining outposts on the moon and Mars."

As of today, the humanity does not have self-sustaining outposts even in Antarctica. Self-sustaining outposts on Mars are totally unrealistic in the next 100 years. Not only because of technological impossibility, but mostly because of no need for that.

The bottom line: the author is unrealistic dreamer. His ideas might be unusual (which is good), but it's better to be very skeptical and not to trust these ideas by default.

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That WWII reference is especially ignorant. The vast majority of the West spent the entire 1930's trying to choose peace over war. They tried so hard to choose peace over war that when a handful of dictators chose otherwise, they stayed out of their way until the very last minute. It's very ignorant for someone today to accuse people of the pre-WWII era of not trying hard enough to avoid a war, when all of those people saw firsthand the horrors of WWI and for that very reason, tolerated military aggression against other countries as long as possible. In retrospect, the consensus seems to be that the Allies spent too much time avoiding the war, not too little[1].

And even if you include the people of Germany, Italy, Russia, and Japan into the mix, you're making a fallacy about how people actually behave. It would have taken prescience people didn't have, back in the 1920's, to prevent the rise of the dictators of the 1930's. That's how history works.

[1] The only dissenting viewpoint to this that I give any credence is the idea that appeasement was necessary as a delaying tactic so the allies could build up their militaries to match the Germans.

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I don't think (mostly) self sustaining outposts on the Moon and Mars are technologically infeasible. See for example the studies Robert Zubrin did for NASA.

Whether there are sufficient economic incentives to actually build them is unfortunately a different question.

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It's technologically feasible to send a mission to Mars.

It's unfeasible to have self-sustaining colony on Mars.

Mars Direct proposal does not even try to cover self-sustaining part.

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Actually it does, at least as outlined in his book.

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Hm... 100 years ago controlled heavier-than-air flight had barely been invented. Do you think it would have been accurate to think then that in 100 years, essentially permanent outposts crewed by several people in modules flying 350 kilometres above the Earth would be unrealistic? Not only because of technological impossibility, but mostly because of no need for that.

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There was (and still is) an obvious need for fast transportation.

There is no real need to live on Mars.

To understand that try to understand first why Antarctica is still not inhabited.

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Antarctica IS inhabited (for my definition of "inhabited").

Perhaps the first bases on the Moon and Mars will be small Antarctic-like ones, from every big country on Earth. Perhaps Mars will never be "terraformed", instead the enclosed bases will slowly expand to accommodate expanding populations. Some people on Earth already live totally indoors, and in the future, many Asian cities in polluted environments may have roofs outside, as well as inside, to keep the air clean.

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Fast transportation, as needed by most humans, has very little to do with current space programs, most of which use extremely expensive and mostly single-use systems.

Again - there is no real need, right now, to live on Mars, absolutely. Neither is there a real need to live on ISS. Still we are doing it.

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Except cryonics is pretty much completely backwards of that situation. Heart and kidney machines were invented because we could fix the problem, but we couldn't keep people alive long enough to do it.

Cryonics, assuming the current techniques work, is founded on the fact that we CAN'T currently fix the underlying problem(s).

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Eliezer Yudkowsky has written about cryonics extensively at LessWrong - if anyone you know is forward-minded about living forever and at risk of passing away soon, you should probably start reading those articles and arguments for cryonics and pass them along.

(Actually, everyone should read it, but I think the state of medicine makes it unlikely that you're preserved if you die from random trauma like a car accident - so it's of more use to someone who has been diagnosed with a fatal disease, or is getting on in years)

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Posts we've had to Less Wrong on this topic: http://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Cryonics

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A fatal disease will probably make the life insurance that pays for your cryopreservation much more costly. Signing up when you're still healthy and young may be more beneficial, even when the probability of eventually destroying your brain is higher.

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Eliezer wasn't talking about how you sign up or pay for it (he himself is signed up with term insurance & is young and reasonably healthy); he was talking about what kinds of dead people having signed up would be most useful to. Predictable deaths are best because the stabilization teams can be there waiting.

(There are of course wrinkles to this. If you die of alzheimers or senile dementia, is there any 'you' left, recorded in the neurons?)

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I wasn't replying to Eliezer… And I think I agree with you. And:

> so it's of more use to someone who has been diagnosed with a fatal disease, or is getting on in years

I read this as "Cryonics is more useful for you if you are ill or old". (1) I agree, and (2) at this point, insurance companies may make it less affordable, for you.

My point is, if you wait too long (typically until illness or senescence), then Cryonics could become so expensive that the utility/cost ratio decreases, despite the fact that utility itself greatly increased.

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The scarier question is, if you are resurrected from cryonics, whether they will preserve enough of your neurons to protect you from similar impairment.

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Actually, I think his point is that the U.S. legal system is a lot different now. You can't apply technology that quickly today-- there was no FDA in the 1950s, and no runaway trial bar.

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There's a somewhat negative cast towards the end of this article where the author discusses "the fundamental inability of most humans to handle such technology responsibly" and how "psychosocial factors" retard progress. And then you have some dire, terminal outlook for humanity. This reads like correspondence bias to me. At first, it seemed contradictory to the first paragraphs of the article, which seemed to be leading up to, "this is another engineering problem and we must analyze it for a solution before we can continue to progress technologically." So I reread the whole thing... and it seems that was just my own bias inserting itself between the lines.

And I still don't understand why the political components of the dynamics of social and technological progress cannot be approached as an engineering problem.

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Engineering requires some coherence of vision. Coherence of vision in society is hard to achieve and probably undesirable -- the best systems of government, in my opinion, are the ones that protect difference and function in spite of it. In other words, if you successfully solve the engineering problem of designing a system of government, the resulting society will not be amenable to social engineering. If society and politics are amenable to engineering, then the system of government is almost certainly poorly designed. In a democratic society you can only achieve coherence through perceived ethnic and cultural uniformity, but that perception is manufactured at great cost to everyone who doesn't fit the imposed national identity.

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All governments appear historically do have been designed by a small group of people with coherence of vision. All of these systems, based on idealism, fail to account for the complex requirements of administrating a functional society. As a result, our "democracy" is incessantly patching itself -- ask any law student. Despite being currently the most popular ideal, democracy is a terrible design. The result is that countries like the United States are definitionally socialist, despite what we prefer to beleive.

I have no criticisms of any form of government. Criticisms have the net effect of polarizing people, which is counterproductive at best. Unfortunately, any discussion of the political component of any dynamic is perceived as criticism, if not an outright attack. The intensity of the reaction to perceived criticism varies greatly from culture to culture. This is horribly unfortunate, because it discourages critical thinking and contributes to these 'psychosocial factors' that retard progress.

Of course, the author assumes that his concept of progress is what is desired. There are a thousand ways one could pick this article apart.

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only in those traditional forms of governance that are semi-compulsory to one degree or another. free immigration between competing systems of governance allow each unit to have coherence of vision while still allowing people to choose freely about what sort of ideological vision they agree with.

This was a genius political invention. The result was called something like the "unified states", but it was destroyed in a civil war and lost to history. I hear books from that civilization survive, but no one reads them.

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I don't think this question is as profound as it seems. Basically, it is asking: If a civilization had access to the resources to create a technology, why didn't they?

Take perspective, or drawing things so that they look real. Closer things are bigger, further things smaller. Until it was invented around the Renaisance (1400/1500), all art was flat and kinda clumpy. Why couldn't people draw nice things until then?

That's what new technology is. A profound change in how we use resources.

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I don't think this question is as profound as it seems. Basically, it is asking: If a civilization had access to the resources to create a technology, why didn't they?

But it is a profound question. The turnaround version of it is: what do we have the resources to create, but aren't doing? What aren't we looking for? What aren't we seeing?

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The governmental analysis around 1997-99 concluded that nuclear fusion power woulnd't be cheaper than 4c/kwt (i.e. than coal based electricity) and thus it wouldn't make an economical sense (thus that close to 0 investment in that research - only LLNL's NIF which is deep in petty managerial fights (and laser driven approach isn't really the one what will get it) and Sandia which finally got back to the experiments at the level they left in 99 (though now they use different target which allows for a lot of new articles on plasma behavior (deja vu of Tokamaks, one can spend whole life looking at and describing patterns of flowing water under the bridge), yet that type of target is much worse for the fusion than the type used 10 years ago) .

It is easy to imagine an outcome of the battlefield maneuverability analysis by a Rome DOD bureaucrat of horse driven chariot vs. hot air balloon and the resulting decision on the development of the balloon technology.

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Best example of a technology that we have not followed is Nuclear powered space flight project Orion. One such launch would lift more material into orbit then all the rockets we launched so far. Flight to Mars would be trivial, staying on it would not but thats another issue

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There are some good theories on this in social science; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technological_determinism and the book "The co-construction of users and technology" http://www.amazon.com/How-Users-Matter-Co-Construction-Techn...

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The problem is their numbering system which makes it difficult to do countdowns.

ex, eye-ex, eye-eye-ex, ve-eye-eye-eye, ve-eye-eye, ve-eye ve, eye-ve, eye-eye-eye, eye-eye, eye

now what's next ? What's less than eye?

don't know - we have to wait for somebody to invent zero...

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The Greeks and Romans were societies of slavery, with very little need to industrial innovation.

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Oh come now, there was certainly abundant industrial innovation in those soceties.

The sawmill (like at Hierapolis), grainmill, shipmill, cranks and connecting rods, roman cranes, the first book (codex) had many advantanges over scrolls...

The first recorded (buttress) dams, cements, camel harnesses, foot-powered looms, force pumps, glass blowing, hydraulic mining, hushing (flood mining), reaper, lateen sails.

Almost all of these were not toys; they filled a very real need.

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Some of those where invented there, but, not unlike Hero's turbine, never enjoyed a widespread adoption. A lot of other is non-machinery processes that can't really be easily replaced by manpower alone (sails? dams?)

Industrial innovation (as in replacing manpower with machines) was not really catching up in ancient times, mainly because there is little incentive to save on labor if you have a steady supply of slaves.

Perhaps the best illustration of social dynamics at play there we have is North vs. South states, pre civil war. Same people, same starting point, but such a dramatic difference.

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In America, the invention of the cotton gin increased, not decreased, the demand for slavery. This is an instance of the Jevons paradox: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jevons_paradox

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"Research into stem cell therapies, cloning, and gene therapy technology have also been greatly slowed by psychosocial concerns."

Dear humanity: you are simply too dumb to have nice things.

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Any idea how the air for first baloons was heated?

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Kudos to the Montgolfier for inventing the hot air balloon based on a need to invade a strongly held fortress.

But when did the idea of slowly floating towards your fortified, gun-toting enemy in a giant gas filled balloon seem a good idea?

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>But when did the idea of slowly floating towards your fortified, gun-toting enemy in a giant gas filled balloon seem a good idea?

You don't fly in the balloon your soldiers do. That is what makes it as good an idea as trying to climb to the battlements whilst having rocks, hot pitch, arrows and sword blows rain down on one from above.

Even if the balloon simply diverts attention from your siege ladders then it might give enough advantage, it could also probably be used at distance to gain information vital to a successful siege - can you starve them out quickly, how strong are the numbers, where are cannon or arsenals located, etc..

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"You don't fly in the balloon your soldiers do."

Strangely, I wasn't suggesting the Montgolfier brothers were going to take Gibraltar single-handedly.

There is a huge difference between climbing a wall with seige ladders where once you get a few men across everyone else can follow, and 2-3 men floating in a wooden basket and trying to land (!) in a fortress.

Granted reconnaissance may have been useful, but if after 4 years of seige you haven't worked out your enemy through espoinage and being shot at, a balloon is not going to help.

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>Strangely, I wasn't suggesting the Montgolfier brothers were going to take Gibraltar single-handedly.

Lol, nor I, I was assuming that creation of one balloon would allow creation of multiple balloons for use in any given battle.

I'd imagine the access a balloon gives, with the addition of surprise and maybe a steering fan, to be pretty good. You could send up some test balloons and then send up some huge ones with bombs on the bottom and shoot them down over the target for yourself. Or perhaps a pile of diseased food to a hunger-stricken garrison, or ...

You can't readily break down a whole castle with a single trebuchet either.

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The Montgolfier balloons could reach altitudes of 2000 meters, which would have been impossible to hit with 18th century muskets or cannon. Landing would have been dangerous, of course.

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I wonder what history would have been like if the Roman empire had gunpowder and bronze cannons? Just like with hot air balloons, they had all the necessary basic technology but never thought to put the pieces together.

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"Transhumanists must come to realize that in order to control history, and thus their own destinies, they must leverage their way into a position of control over the ideology, morality and direction of this civilization. To fail to do so at this juncture in time is to accede to the end of our history – not by the practical abolition of death, but rather by its universal application to humankind, and perhaps to all life on earth."

The followers of hate, fear, and superstition spend virtually every waking hour attempting to leverage such control. Why not visionaries?

But there is a counterpoint too. The ideology of some sectors of the transhumanist/visionary community is uncomfortably reminiscent of superstition itself. I am referring to Ray Kurzweil and his Singularity University cult, and others. It looks very much like a religious movement reminiscent of Scientology or flying saucer contactees in the 1950s. It doesn't strike me as being much more rational than many other superstitious religious movements.

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If we work on the assumption that the majority of people aren't rational scientists, then harnessing the superstition towards such things as progress and invention rather than conservatism seems a very brilliant move by those persons trying to leverage political discourse. Its likely much easier to convert the followers of hate, fear, and superstition on their terms than to convince them that rational science is better.

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You have a point, but what I'd really like to see is something more "meta."

First a little background.

I had a discussion with a business guru around MIT once about marketing. He related a story (possibly apocryphal) about Larry Ellison of Oracle and how he would run into meetings of Oracle's sales guys in the early days and berate them for not lying enough. "If you don't lie nobody will believe you!"

Anyway, this guy was saying that this is exactly true. If you don't lie people won't believe you.

I've kind of seen it myself in the business world. I also think that it explains much of what we see in the world with regard to religion, political ideologies, superstition, etc.

The problem is that the primate social part of our brain interprets uncertainty, skepticism, doubt, and even caution as signifiers of low primate social status. Huge, gargantuan claims, boldness (even if wrong), and certainty are seen as signifiers of alpha status.

Thus a certain-of-themselves idiot or nutjob is of higher social status than a cautious, skeptical, rational person.

Salesmen exploit this by intentionally telling audacious lies (of a sort) in order to elevate themselves socially in the perception of potential buyers. People buy from alphas, not betas.

What I want to see is a detailed neurological and psychological deconstruction of this. I want to see it hacked, targeted, dismantled. That would be progress.

To give an example, a spray-on pheromone that fucked with this subsystem of the brain in some way would be awesome. (Not sure if that's possible since humans might not react this way, but just an example of the sort of thing I'd like to see.)

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A 17th century attempt: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bartolomeu_de_Gusm%C3%A3o

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Yeah, well I'm still waiting for my flying car.

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I came to read about Roman hot air balloons, instead everyone is talking about plutonium and nuclear weapons. Thanks guys, I am probably on a watch list now.

Reported.

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Bleh. The moment you start thinking "one of the most powerful and off putting military advantages that could have been deployed, in either Ancient, or Renaissance times, would have been hot air balloons." is the moment you start thinking 'What if sharks had lasers?"

The breathless "and then I thought"s and stupid hypotheticals: "How would the technological arc of the ancient world have been changed if Archimedes, and not Edison, had invented the phonograph?" are just another series of what ifs.

The universe didn't fucking happen that way. Archimedes doesn't have access to those ideas. You can't just wonder what would have happened if people had discovered the internal combustion engine in the bronze age, because that question is meaningless.

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The entire genre of steampunk is devoted to asking the "What If?" of alternate technological history. Clearly the question is slightly less than meaningless. Understanding the history of technology and why certain things did or did not happen can help us to optimize our societal approach to technology and progress in the future.

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Clearly trains can't go at speeds approaching that of light, so Einstein's Gedankenexperiment is meaningless.

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