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.

Technical Abundance … Already Happened? More to Come?

Writing up Douglas Mallette’s Cybernated Farm Systems talk from XFF yesterday got me thinking about this idea of technical abundance.  Mallette is one of many who envision a future of abundance brought about by engineering breakthroughs.  Some even go so far as to predict the end of scarcity.  Ray Podder is one of these folks and he also spoke at the XFF this year.  He is promoting the idea that we might be on the verge of huge increases in energy abundance.  He cites Nocera’s work at MIT that led to an artificial leaf that basically catalyzes water into hydrogen and oxygen when exposed to sunlight.  Podder is interested in a bunch of other energy harvesting technologies such as HighDro Power’s plumbing pressure generator and Penn State’s wastewater microbial electrolysis.  There is surely plenty of energy around, even footsteps generate energy. I can imagine devices seeping into the markets here and there.  The artificial leaf seems well suited for Africa and other undeveloped parts of the world.    But I am not holding my breath for a sudden paradigm shift.

Diamandis and Kotler were banging this abundance drum last year with their book: Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think.  One of their many theses is that four major forces will transform the world to bring about abundance: exponential technologies, DIY innovators, technophilanthropists, and the rising billion.  Exponential technologies, everyone reading this knows about, the cell phone in your pocket is as powerful as a 70’s era supercomputer yada-yada-yada.  DIY Innovators are those makers and entrepreneurs building novel solutions that once required huge organizations.  Technophilanthropists are those benevolent billionaires as evidenced by Bill Gates trying to eradicate malaria. The “rising billion” refers to the poorest billion people as they rise out of poverty and start to participate in the global rat race, err, economy by producing and consuming.  Progress, progress, everywhere.

So in many ways, it might be argued that technology has steadily increased abundance over the millennia.  Perhaps most dramatically noticeable with the advent of agriculture, but certainly the caveman with a spear acquired more food than the one without.   And eventually the rising tide might well raise all boats.  But from our perspective it’s often hard to view this age as an end to scarcity.  People still starve to death.  So we currently have a coexistence of abundance and scarcity.  Certain things remain scarce for certain people but more and more are enjoying previously inconceivable abundance.  We are like frogs being slowly boiled in abundance.  We just don’t notice how rich we are getting.

Certainly there is only one earth which we may be over enthusiastically uh, reorganizing.  And that is part of the abundance story that sort of turns sour.  Sure, we have made great leaps in energy efficiency, and in many ways technology has made resources appear out of thin air.  But yeah, only one earth.  And probably the coolest thing about it is the biosphere.  And we are sort of messing that up.  So some frowny faces might be in order now and then.

But when I put these unpleasantly realistic thoughts aside for a moment, I still find it hard to wrap my head around where this abundance train is taking us.  Is a StarTrek future so unbelievable?  How unbelievable would our lifestyle be to our paleolithic ancestors?  StarTrek was missing this money thing (as a human concern anyway.)  Given that there will (probably) always be real limits to the resources at our disposal as a species, I expect that the technical abundance will be bumping it’s head on scarcity in all sorts of strange ways.  Consider the Chinese farmers who supposedly forgo toilets for cell phones.  Or how about Sterling’s Favela Chic idea:

“You have lost everything material, no job or prospects, but you are wired to the gills and really big on Facebook.”

Now that’s getting closer to something believable.  Whatever future abundance I imagine, it’s got to be weird and slightly disturbing, or I just discard the vision immediately as nonsense.