XFF – Douglas Mallette – Aquaponic Cyber Farms and An End To Scarcity

Douglas Mallette was one of my favorite speakers at the Extreme Futurist Festival this year. Mallette is an ex-NASA engineer who has a vision for cybernetic farms of the future.  He has an Indiegogo project called Cybernated Farm Systems.  The basic idea is to design an aquaponic food production facility that can be powered by wind and solar.  Aquaponic systems take advantage of the synergy between fish and plants.  Fish in tanks soil water with their waste which is fed to plants who extract the waste as nutrients and then the cleaned water is returned to the fish to renew the cycle.

Mallette has a grand vision of engineers rising up to overturn economies of scarcity by providing technology based abundance for the world.  In Mallette’s view, the fact that we have starvation on earth right now is “retarded.”  I was inspired by the intensity of his presentation.  He strongly believes that humans should be freed from the drudgery of labor and that human labor is largely inefficient anyway.  Earth needs to upgrade it’s global operating system to move away from ownership to usership and from a growth model to a more sustainable, earth based economic model. Czech economist Tomas Sedlacek made the rounds last year trying to promote a similar idea of non-growth capitalism.   Also, Doctorow was pushing for a reevaluation of user vs owner rights this past year.

So Mallette is trying to start a company with an equally grand vision.  He aims to produce autonomous farm buildings that could be dropped anywhere on earth and start producing food with very little human oversight.  He mentioned cheap new foldable photovoltaic technology that he is interested in.  Another cool energy technology that Mallette wants to utilize in his cyber farms is a magnetic levitation assisted vertical axis wind turbine.  Now that is good stuff.  Here is a fun demonstration video using neodymium magnets.  I also have a scribbled reference in my notes to Bloom Energy fuel cells, but it’s not clear where they would fit in the design.

So yeah, this is a great idea.  Build a cyber farm, drop it anywhere off the grid in the undeveloped world and it starts producing food for the people with very little maintenance.      Mallette even suggested that his company would provide a lifetime maintenance guarantee, which provides an incentive for the company to focus on quality.  I admire that vision.  My concern is that his vision might be too grand to be realizable.  Take the Indiegogo funding goal for example. It’s $1 million dollars.  (Correction 1/3/2013: looks like the goal was reduced to $485k.)  That’s a big goal for a crowdfunded project where the average goal is closer to $85k.  Also, one wonders how this really gets paid for.  Several speakers were talking about abundance at XFF this year, and I love that vision.  But it’s hard to see how we cross that gap from the current scarcity systems to this kinder, gentler world.

Here in Oakland, an organization called Kijani Grows produces a much more modest arduino controlled aquaponic system.  It’s not a super cyber farm, but for $600 they provide a (presumably) working module.  I like that idea even better.  Start small and iterate like they do in Agile development.  But Mallette is a cool guy, and I respect his principals.  We could do well to have more engineers who dream in this world.

Extreme Futurist Festival – Grinders, the Practical Transhumanists

I attended Rachel Haywire‘s Extreme Futurist Festival this past weekend and as I mentioned before, I found it to be much more artistic and counter-cultural than the Singularity Summit or Humanity+.  I like the empathetic side of the LA futurist scene.  Take Megan May Daalder‘s mirrorbox for instance.  She built a device as an art installation that shows two people half of their own face overlaid with half of their partner’s face.  This device supposedly builds empathy and is actually being studied by cognitive scientists.  It sprung from an artist’s urge to explore empathy.  I sometimes feel that us NorCal futurists do a poor job of exploring empathy.  We tend to be cold rationalists.

Several speakers at XFF were grinders, into present day augmentation and biohacking. Rich Lee made the case that we are too risk averse in America these days.  We lack the guts we used to have when we undertook the risky Apollo missions.  It seems fairly obvious that the more you have to lose, the more cautious you become, but I am pretty risk averse myself, so this may just be my cowardice talking.  Maybe our testicles are literally shrinking from all the endocrine disruptors in the environment. Though my girlfriend helpfully points out that testicles are not a prerequisite for bravery or for Apollo missions for that matter.

Lee went on to complain that excessive regulations and the risk of lawsuits were preventing us from getting jet packs into the hands of consumers where they belong.  I’m not generally sympathetic to this point of view since the most innovation seems to happen in the most heavily regulated states.   Also, a DOE scientist recently told me about the advances in energy efficiency brought about by government regulation.  Of course, the efficiency standards are controversial, and I understand Thiel’s argument that bits are relatively less regulated than atoms.  But I will say that lawsuits seem essential for the protection of the public from big corporations.  Even when regulations are needed they are often not properly enforced, so the public requires some recourse.  Part of me feels that if Lee is really interested in living in a gutsy place when men can be men and regulation is minimal, he might want to check out Somalia.

But I don’t want to bust on the grinders too hard.  The next speaker was Tim Cannon from Grindhouse Wetware and he talked about embedding magnets into fingertips which I guess is a grinder rite of passage.  It’s really the side of the ring finger of your non-dominant hand.  This adds a sixth sense where one can detect electromagnetic fields via the vibration of the magnet in their finger.  I had heard about this before and it seemed pretty cool, but not really that useful.  It sort of reminded of those Brainport sensory substitution devices where a vibrating matrix of pixels is placed on the tongue and represents images from a camera worn on the head.  I guess you can start to “see” the “image” of vibrations on your tongue after a while.  But then, this is not quite like that.  This is a totally new sense.  A sense of EM fields.  Meh.  Who cares?  I can always pull out my trusty gaussmeter for that.

But my ears perked up when Cannon noted that these magnets could really serve as a sort of an input port.  Any sensor data could be converted to EM vibrations.  He went on to describe a range finder glove called Bottlenose that basically gives the wearer who has embedded magnets a sonar sense.  Now that’s starting to get interesting.  I am still too cowardly to do it myself.  But when I said that I would wait until version 3.0, I was assured by a biohacker from Phoenix that they are already at version 3.0 and have worked out excellent bio-proofing to prevent toxicity, along with the optimal size, shape, and placement of the magnets.  Hmmm.  Let me think about it.

I could go on a long phenomenological rant here, but I will try to keep it short.  It’s really exciting to think about adding all of these extra senses.  I subscribe to the embodiment idea that our cognition is deeply shaped by our body and our senses.   Thus our cognition may be expanded by adding these senses.  At what cost? That’s less clear.  Will neurons be recruited away from the other senses?  But it will definitely change our experience of reality.  Consider the North Paw, a device that gives you a sense of north.  You could become like one of the aboriginal Guugu Yimithirr speakers who always know which way is north.  Which thought triggers an urge to go on a “how-language-shapes-cognition” rant, but I will refrain from that as well.  For now, I will only say that I find Boroditsky’s arguments compelling.

Anyway, Cannon also presented some other cool projects such as the HELEDD which is a tool to capture biodata and relay it via bluetooth.  This is one all the QS’ers are going to want.  They also have a transcranial Direct Current Stimulation device where you run electrical current directly into your brain called the Thinking Cap.  Dave Asprey has presented this sort of thing before.  The Grindhouse version comes with a library to operate an arduino controller so that you can tweak your brain electrocution, err stimulation.  Supposedly you can increase your working memory and concentration if you do it correctly.  I would definitely need to read up on this one more before giving it a shot.  It’s one thing to test this on stroke survivors without much to lose.  I feel like I have a higher level of cognition than your average stroke survivor.  (Most of the time.)  What are the long term consequences of shocking your brain incorrectly?

At the end of the day though, I was won over by Lee and Cannon’s bold and practical transhumanism.  I admire the grinder way of iterative biohacking to achieve affordable, open, and flexible hacks that anyone can access.  That stuff is really cool, even if I don’t have the guts to try it myself.

Why Lydia Lunch Matters

I had an excellent time at the Extreme Futurist Festival ( XFF ) this year.  This is a more artistic and counter-cultural event than the Singularity Summit or Humanity+ Conference.  They had onsite body modification (finger magnets, anyone?) and performances by Negativland and Lydia Lunch.

I will write up more of my impressions in the coming weeks, but I wanted to start out with my commentary on Lydia Lunch’s performance.  Now let me start by saying that I hadn’t thought about Lydia Lunch since I was in my early 20’s and people around me were listening to Teenage Jesus and the Jerks or watching her in alternative films.  I actually found her sort of annoying at that time.  I was into new wave and she was too atonal for me.  I was already immersed in post-modern, post-punk without really realizing it, so she didn’t offer much that I couldn’t get from other artists.

But I must say that I was moved by the intensity of her show in the Vortex Immersion Dome.  She performed raw spoken word accompanied by a petulant guitarist and possibly some samples or prerecorded backing tracks.  The guitar was highly processed and basically just desultory noise.  Lunch touched on topics such as: government surveillance, drug addiction, sex, madness, war, psycho-killers, and more violence.  She understands the urge to kill, she said, but she doesn’t act on it.  At one point she turned to a smiling Rachel Haywire and described how she might end up dismembered at the side of a “shit-stained” road and asked why it was always the daughters that had to die at the hands of the fuckers.  I was shocked when one woman told me later that she heard Lunch was “pretty good but she uses the f word a lot.”  Yeah, uh, this is Lydia Lunch we are talking about here, ok?

I heard some kids afterwards describing her presentation as “confident.”  This is an understatement.  Lunch was spewing forth her own truly authentic insanity.  There could be no question in anyone’s mind that she was tortured by the visions of violence that she relayed.  She practically blasted the audience with her disturbing and outrageous vitriol.  I was squirming uncomfortably in my seat during much of the performance.

But in the end, I appreciated the experience.  I viewed her act as representing the tortured screams of the oppressed that are being crushed under the jackboots of the dominant culture.  I couldn’t help but grimace at the irony when Lunch expressed support for Islamic insurgents who would surely throw acid on her or even kill her for acting as she does.  But I don’t take Lunch too literally.  It’s important to listen to the visceral rage of the outsider which she channels.  Her work is important because the range of political discourse in the mainstream media is insanely narrow.  We Americans seem comfortable discussing the range of opinions from the right to the moderate right.  We need to listen to the outsiders because they offer a unique perspective we can’t get from within.

Before I get too puffed up with Pinker’s whiggish visions of progress, Lunch helps me recall that all is not perfect in the world and maybe to hear what it feels like to be suffering.   The people who are getting dismembered cannot be consoled by the reminder that they represent a smaller and smaller fraction of the population as a whole.  So if we listen to Lunch, it will expand the dynamic range of our political perceptions.  And that matters.