July 15, 2016: Science With a Conscience

Over the last few weeks (see here and here) I’ve been ruminating on the pros and cons of drones, robots and artificial intelligence (AI). On the pro side of the debate, I found this Gizmag article about the “Dronestagram” Drone Photography Contest. If you click on the image gallery in the article you can view the nine award winning photos. They’re quite breathtaking. They give a view of our world that only eagles have enjoyed up to now. I particularly love this photo of camels on a beach in Western Australia. What a fantastic photograph!

(Source: Gizmag - Credit: Todd Kennedy)

(Source: Gizmag – Credit: Todd Kennedy)

On the con side of the debate is this article from KurzweilAI.net which describes a series of simulated combat missions between a highly experienced fighter pilot and a ‘$35 Raspberry Pi’ computer equipped with an AI software called ALPHA. In every scenario the $35 computer shot the human out of the virtual sky.

‘According to the AFRL team, ALPHA will first be tested on “Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAV),” where ALPHA will be organizing data and creating a complete mapping of a combat scenario, such as a flight of four fighter aircraft — which it can do in less than a millisecond.’

This darkly reinforces what I wrote a few weeks ago ‘think about when we first heard about drones, it wasn’t because they were doing helpful things for people like mapping sites for solar farms, no… it was during the Iraq War. The first use that drones were put to was for killing people.’

Add AI into that mix and we may well be building our own worst enemy, one that is faster, stronger, and smarter than us and has no conscience. For me, this touches on one of the BIG unspoken issues of our time.

Just because we CAN doesn’t mean we SHOULD

In this golden age of Science and Technology it seems that everything is possible. We can modify genes and create organisms that have never existed before. With advances in modern medicine we can keep people alive for decades longer than in the past. We can build bombs powerful enough to destroy all life on this planet. We can send spaceships to explore other planets and possibly even build a colony on Mars. We can do all of these things and much, much more… but just because we CAN do these things doesn’t make them a good idea.

Is it really a good idea to tinker with DNA that has taken millions of years of evolution for nature to perfect? We have no idea what the long-term and unforeseeable ramifications of this might be. Is it really a good idea to keep people alive as long as possible? What if they end up spending their last 20 years with nothing to do and little or no quality of life? It’s clearly not a good idea to build enough bombs to destroy the planet but we did that anyway and we can’t seem to get rid of them. And why on Earth would we want to colonise Mars? What can we possibly gain from it apart from testosterone-fuelled bragging rights? In all the hype and excitement about the possibility of sending humans to Mars I have yet to hear anyone ask the fundamental question… WHY? What benefit is their in sending humans to a planet that has no water, no plants, no animals, nothing to eat, a totally harsh environment and a toxic atmosphere.

160715 martian park

And what about the damage it might do to THIS planet. I have yet to find a reasoned analysis of the potential environmental effects on Earth of attempting to build (and maintain) a colony on Mars? It would be tragically ironic if we were to render this planet uninhabitable in a pointless attempt to occupy another planet that is inhospitable to life? Wouldn’t it make much more sense to apply all of that money, energy, brains, effort and resources to preserving and enhancing the beautiful, bountiful, wonderful planet we already have the privilege of calling home?

That’s my goal. One that we work on every day here at the Greeny Flat. Sometimes it’s hard to see what effect we’re having, but I keep imagining that every effort we make, every Newsletter we send, every choice to conserve resources, every positive thing we do is like the proverbial pebble in the pond. It sends out ripples to who-knows-where. Ripples that might inspire others to toss their own pebbles in the pond. Enough pebbles and the ripples might start to form waves and those waves might have the power to change the direction we’re heading.

Perhaps by writing this Newsletter today I might start ripples that might turn into waves that might cause our intellectual, commercial and political leaders to pause and think about the potential moral, ethical and environmental consequences of their actions. Perhaps this very Newsletter might be the start of a whole new movement towards Science with a Conscience. Perhaps scientists of the future will pause to think about whether they SHOULD do things just because they CAN.

Then again, perhaps not… but I know this much…there are no ponds on Mars, only pebbles.

ACT Gets RE for FREE

Meanwhile, here on earth good things are happening. One of which is that the ACT government has been so successful with its Renewable Energy (RE) Policy they have moved forward their goal of reaching 100% Renewable Electricity from 2030 to 2020. Please remember that 100% Renewable Electricity is VERY different from 100% Renewable Energy as I wrote about in this Newsletter a couple of weeks ago. Nevertheless, the ACT’s performance in transitioning to RE is among the best in the world.

AND, as outlined in this RenewEconomy article, the financial benefit to the ACT is proving to be much better than expected due to a big increase in the wholesale price of electricity. The ACT policy is to enter into a ‘Contract For Difference’ with each RE supplier. If the wholesale price is less than the contract price, the ACT pays the difference. On the other hand, if the wholesale price is more than the contract price, the ACT gets paid the difference. So the recent increase in the wholesale price means the ACT sometimes gets its Renewable Energy for free and sometimes even gets paid to use it. Here’s an example from the article:

‘Last week, the 100MW first stage of the Hornsdale wind farm near Jamestown was switched on. It will receive a contract of $92/MWh from the ACT, but … the average wholesale price that it has received in that state since its opening has been $247/MWh. In that instance, the ACT would receive the difference. It would not mean just free electricity, but the ACT would be paid $155/MWh for the output of that wind farm.’

I don’t think many people saw this coming but you can bet that every energy minister in every state in Australia is watching these results with a great deal of interest and envy. Hopefully it will spur a big uptake in RE across the country in spite of our lame federal government and their appalling but enduring Climate Inaction Policy.

Stay tuned because things are heating up!

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>