Foresight 2013 – Day 3, Part 2

This article is a continuation of my commentary on the Foresight 2013 conference.  As I mentioned in my Day 1Day 2, and Day 3 posts, the Foresight folks have a strict media policy in place.  So while I can’t really blog about the content of the presentations, I will discuss the work these speakers have previously made public.

I would love to say that anyone who thinks they understand quantum mechanics doesn’t understand quantum mechanics, but I really just don’t understand it.  When Harvard’s Alan Aspuru-Guzik gave his Foresight 2013 talk “Simulating Quantum Mechanics with Quantum Devices,I listened with more enthusiasm than comprehension.  So bear with me.  Aspuru-Guzik likes to use quantum simulation to go after electronic structure calculations which are some of the most computationally intensive problems in science.  “The calculation time for the energy of atoms and molecules scales exponentially with system size on a classical computer but polynomially using quantum algorithms.”  Aspuru-Guzik points out that theory is ahead of experimentation in this field, but he has found and built some toys to play with.

So the idea here is to leverage quantum devices to simulate quantum mechanics.  I guess the NIST has some device with hundreds of qubits.  But the systems Aspuru-Guzik gets to play with are more modest.  He ran a simplified protein folding problem on an 81 qubit D-Wave system and got 13 correct results out of 10000 runs.  “The fact that it worked at all was significant.”  The investors must be thrilled.  I have heard that aside from factoring numbers, there aren’t many uses for this quantum computing.  But if you can factor numbers, you basically break all encryption.  Of course when I say “you” I mean the NSA.  But Aspuru-Guzik’s stuff is more benign.  He will be folding proteins and figuring out photosynthesis and stuff.  So he’s cool.

Next, Gerhard Klimek gave a talk about   Here’s what they say about themselves:

What is is the place for computational nanotechnology research, education, and collaboration. nanoHUB hosts a rapidly growing collection of Simulation Programs for nanoscale phenomena that run in the cloud and are accessed through your web browser. In addition there are Online PresentationsCoursesLearning ModulesPodcastsAnimationsTeaching Materials, and more to help you learn about the simulation programs and about nanotechnology. nanoHUB supports collaboration via Workspaces and User groups.

So there are clearly educational resources for students, but I understand that researchers and industry folks get into the simulation stuff.   Boasting 900 papers with an h-index of 41, Nanohub is a serious scientific resource.  So why head head on over and simulate a carbon nanotube or something?

Carrying on in the simulation vein, Ron Dror of D.E. Shaw Research talked about their custom supercomputer, Anton.  Anton is a massively parallel ASIC based pocket calculator that can figure out how drugs bind to receptors.  Dror has published work on G-protein-coupled receptor modulators in particular, which represent one third of all drugs.  Who knew? Pretty cool stuff.  And this David E. Shaw fellow is an “intriguing and mysterious” character.  He saunters from his Stanford PhD over to Columbia, toys with parallel supercomputing, yawns, strolls down to Wall Street, dabbles with high frequency trading, stretches, casually sets aside the resulting $27 billion hedge fund and sets up a computational biochemistry research group to model molecular dynamics simulations of proteins.  What a slacker.

Topping off the conference was the venerable CalTech theorist, William A. Goddard, III.  Your guess is as good as mine as to what he said… and I was in the audience.  There was something about a ReaxFF force field which lets you model chemical reactions.   He also said he was happy to see theory starting to be able to predict something useful, which I am sure is a huge understatement.  But there was just too much math for me to really get a grasp on his talk.

I was incredibly awed by these sober scientists toiling away at the edge of human knowledge, delving into the the very underpinnings of chemistry and biology.What new wonders will be within our grasp as we come to  understand and manipulate complex molecular interactions at the atomic level?   Dare I hope for my beloved utility fog someday?  If so, we will have them to thank.  And uh, possibly pay royalties to, depending on how the IP plays out.

Foresight 2013 – Day 1

I attended the first day of the Foresight 2013 nanotechnology conference today.  They have a very strict media policy in place this year since some speakers will be discussing pre-publication findings and they don’t want their publication hopes destroyed because some foolish blogger spilled the beans.  So I am not supposed to blog about anything I heard today unless it was already public.  My friend Jeremy told me that most of the presentations were already public as far as he could tell, but I had the rare pleasure of chatting with some scientists who did share juicy tidbits.

For those that don’t know, the Foresight Institute is an organization devoted to promoting the upside and avoiding the dangers of transformative future technologies.  Their primary focus is on nanotechnology and it’s ultimate expression: molecular manufacturing as expressed in Feynman’s “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom” talk.  And of course Drexler’s Engines of Creation developed these ideas further.  So this is pretty technical stuff and the Foresight 2013 conference was the most academically focused futurist conference I have attended.  Several attendees even remarked that it was more academic than previous years.  I attended in 2010 for the great Moldbug/Hanson debate and again in 2011 at Google when they had a more entrepreneurial focus.  I guess those were less academic.  But my brain melted slightly in the blast furnace of atomic scale physics each time.

I like to challenge myself with these things, trying to absorb some fractional understanding of the work presented by these top scientists in highly specialized fields.  People looked at me askance previous years when I told them I was just a layman interested in the field.  This year I lamely suggested that I was a blogger of some sort and found that this was not more ingratiating given the media ban.   Fortunately for me, I am shameless and slightly pushy in conversation so I manage to get my ears filled up with some amazing ideas even if I do barely comprehend them.  Being a generalist, I am biased toward the idea that everyone is a laymen in fields other than their own.  I hope that I can help pollinate ideas across fields with my writing some day.

Given my interest in computers, one of my favorite Foresight presentations so far this year was a talk by Purdue professor, Gerhard Klimeck about single atom transistors.  Luckily, I found a similar presentation already posted on, so I will talk about that.  One key point worth noting is that cpu performance is really constrained by power consumption.  We get more transistors but clock speed and performance per clock cycle has been pretty much flat since 2005.  Which is why parallel computing is so important.  But in spite of the nifty .NET tools mentioned in the link above, parallel code is still harder to write and largely under-utilized.  This is something that Paul Graham has carped about with his ambitious startup idea: Bring Back Moore’s Law.  And of course it smacks of Theil’s stagnation of innovation schtick.  But I’m sure Ray isn’t worried.   He knows a paradigm shift will save the day.

So wait, oh yeah, power consumption occurs when circuits are switched and via leakage.  In fact, as much power is supposedly lost via leakage as from switching. So your CPU is constantly leaking juice.  Disgusting.  So these single atom transistors come riding to the rescue since they have less leakage.  But Klimeck’s main contribution to this effort is the Nemo5 software which enables researchers to model “atomic-resolution calculation of nanostructure properties.”  Modeling is a key enabler of all design I guess, and this Nemo software seems to have a broad range of uses from academia to industry.  Good on him and his group.  Where would our Singularity be without them?

I really wish I could talk more about my amazing conversations tonight, but I will just link to this one paper which is already public but whose significance has not yet been widely appreciated: Neutral Atoms Behave Much Like Classical Spherical Capacitors.  If you are a super-genius,  I assume it will be obvious to you why this is important.  Listening to this idea connected to a bunch of other ideas gave me some glimmer of insight into the matter, but it will all be made more clear by forthcoming publications.  Stay tuned to your physics news feeds, friends.

Some Will Be Living Forever

Here’s a dark little dystopian piece of fiction I wrote for the Immmortality Fiction Contest.  Hank has kindly published my QS article there, and I hope to contribute more in the future.

Joe sat on top of an ancient, rusted artifact labeled “John Deere,” in a brown, junk filled field as the sun dipped behind the skyscrapers in the distance.  He was staring into infinity with a pose that indicated he was accessing Content.

“Seen this news about Gates on the feeds?” he asked his companions in meatspace.

A fellow traveller named Ling-Ling grunted a coarse laugh as she chewed her Social Stability Ration, a tough, brown, nutritionally complete, algae-based biscuit provided by the NGOs here in the Western States Autonomous Economic Zone [Demilitarized].  “Yeah, he’s going to live forever you know.  Spend some of your bandwidth allotment and grab the pix. He looks 25 but he must be 80 by now.”

A kid called Spaz perked up at this and put down the security drone he was dismantling.  “How’s that work?” he asked.

“The study is behind a paywall.  Here’s a link if you think you can hack it,” said Joe, and messaged the link to Spaz via the LAN he was running off an improvised refrigerator controller juiced by solar paint.

Spaz assumed the infinite stare while the others sat in silence.  The sun had set and a cold wind was kicking up dust all around them.

“You should finish up with that security drone before farting around with those longevity papers,” chastised an old man called Jerome.  “We won’t be able to take shelter until you do that.  Then you can read about the bullshit that billionaires can afford all night long.  You can even dream of going to the Orbitals if you like.”

Ling-Ling and a few others chuckled at that, but Spaz just said, “Got it, the link’s on my private status page for those who care.”  There was a pause.  “You’re right Jerome, I wouldn’t mess around with those telomerase hacks unless I had a real budget, ya know.  Got to focus on the here and now.”  He resumed working on the security drone.

“No point in living forever if you don’t have money,” said Joe absently.  “Can you really see living like this for eternity?” he asked, indicating his own filthy clothes.  Then he grabbed a rock and flung it at a pack of feral dogs that was shadowing the group at a distance.

“I’m not ready to die yet,” said Jerome.  “This life’s hard, for sure, but I’ll go kicking and screaming.”

“Yeah, you can still move around pretty good,” responded Ling-Ling.  “My grandmother is in worse shape.  She can’t even think straight.”

“What’s that, Alzheimer’s?” asked Joe sympathetically.

Ling-Ling just nodded and said nothing.

Jerome came over and sat next to her.  “Why hell, that’s been cured for years.  I thought the treatment was pretty cheap now too.”

“Too much for us,” said Ling-Ling simply.

“Is she here or in China?” asked Joe.

“China still.”

“I thought they had subsidies.  The feeds are always going on about the great health care over there,” said Joe thoughtfully.

“Ha! Maybe if you are in Shenzhen or the big city.  If you are out in the boonies, forget it,” said Ling-Ling scornfully.

“Yeah, well old Gates can just kick back in his compound and enjoy the good life,” mused Joe.  “He just got approval for upgraded autonomous armed drones at his northwest estate.  Hardcore killbots to keep the logger anarchists off his back.

“I thought a lot of those longevity techniques were still in animal testing,” said Spaz.

“Sure, but the darknet feeds have rumors of big human trials down south where the rules are looser,” Joe replied.

“Looser than here?” asked Jerome incredulously.

“Yeah, like CartelLand loose.  You throw some bank around down there and they round up as many peasants as you need.  Hell, most of them would probably volunteer for a few bucks a day.  Grow a snout out my elbow?  No problem, fifty bucks upfront,” said Joe, smiling.

Several of the group laughed at that.

“But I might take that deal myself some days,” he continued, wistfully looking off into the distance but not to infinity.

“Ah, quit your whining and eat an SSR,” said Jerome, getting up to slap him on the knee and hand him a biscuit.

The security drone suddenly lifted off and hovered above the little group.  “Damn!” shouted Spaz, surprised, still holding it’s cover in his hands.  “I might have done the steps in the wrong order there.”

“Are we in danger?” asked Jerome shakily.

Joe quickly pulled up an interface.  “No.  It’s in a preboot mode waiting for a password.  I assume you did a factory default settings reset, Spaz?”

“Well I hope so …” he said hesitantly.

“Ok, let’s see … Yep, that’s in the doc …  We’re in!  Did you mod the config files already?” Joe asked, staring into infinity.

“Right here,”  responded Spaz with relief.  He messaged them via the LAN.

A few minutes later the drone buzzed off and resumed it’s patrol of the abandoned  condominium complex adjacent to the field where the little band was camped. Everyone held their breathe, watching to see if their hacked drone would be detected as compromised and shot down by the others.  But they heaved a collective sigh of relief as it seamlessly merged back into formation with the other drones already on patrol.

“Oh nice,” said Spaz excitedly.  “Our little messenger delivered a package right into the facility control systems.  I’m in as root right now.  We can just walk in the front gate.”

“That’s a lot of work for one night of lodging in a building no one has been able to afford for years,” grumbled Jerome as the group packed up their meager belongings and got under way.

“That’s capitalism baby, where would we be without it?” laughed Ling-Ling.