The Speculist: Notes on the Age of Capability


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Notes on the Age of Capability

As discussed on the podcast a couple of weeks ago human capability is exploding. There are two major components of this rapid growth.

Our best-case capability, meaning the cutting-edge achievements that occur on the margins. Human capability includes every Olympic record ever set. It includes massive accomplishments such as traveling to the moon and building the Great Wall of China.

The distribution of capability, wherein capability that once belonged only to extreme outliers and powerful institutions becomes the domain of an increasingly generalized population. Film making is a good example of how capability is distributed. Imagine the resources that would have been required, 65 years ago, to make and widely distribute a 10-minute documentary film with nice titles and a background musical score. Only large corporations (or the government) could accomplish such a thing. Today grade-schoolers can do it, and they do. As we'll see, this second factor becomes more important over time, especially in our current era.

Let's compare human capability in two domains over the past 20,000 years. The domains are power, which we will measure in terms of the maximum mass that can be moved and the maximum speed for travel, and communication, which we will measure in terms of the number of options available for encoding and transmitting messages.

Human Capability: 20,000 Years Ago

The current record for bench press is somewhere north of 1000 pounds. More traditional lifts max out at in the 200 KG / 500 LB range. Of course, trying to lift a bulky rock or hoist a freshly killed animal lacks the precision and leverage of modern weight lifting, but we can give our ancestors the benefit of the doubt and say that some of them were as strong as or stronger than today's champion weight lifters. Plus, it's not out of the question that a few of them got the hang of basic leverage just using rocks and tree trunks. So let's go with a ton as a maximum weight that these early humans could move. As far as speed, we will spot humanity 20,000 years ago with Ussain Bolt's 100 meters in 9.58 seconds. Short bursts of get-away-from-that-predator speed punctuated what was otherwise an entire lifetime at walking speed.

Communication options were very much limited in that world. Your options for encoding information were pretty much talk, make scratches in the sand, or paint something on the cave wall. Your options for transmitting messages (excluding the occasional signal fire) would be to yell or physically take someone to the cave and show them your painting.

Human Capability: 5,000 Years Ago

We know that the stone blocks of the Great Pyramid in Egypt weigh in at about 2.5 tons, so the mass-moving aspect of power had increased significantly by then. Also, people were riding horses by then, so -- again, giving them the benefit of the doubt with the fastest horses we have today -- people could go up to 40 miles per hour, for very short periods of time or 10 miles per hour for long, long stretches. (We aren't considering distance traveled in this breakdown of capability, but obviously there was an impact both with the domestication of the horse and major steps forward in boat-building techniques.)

Encoding information took a huge leap over the previous era with the invention of writing. With writing, specific ideas -- sequences of ideas, streams of thought -- could be captured. Prior to the invention of writing, these could only be recorded by memory and passed on orally. Now long accounts, histories, inventories, taxonomies could all be committed to paper. Their survival was no longer dependent on human memory.

Transmission of messages also took a big step forward. A motivated and well-stocked scribe could make multiple copies of a manuscript for distribution. A king or other big-shot could order a whole army of scribes to make hundreds or thousands of copies of a document -- although finding that large an audience of literate recipients of would have been a challenge.

Human Capability 500 years Ago

500 years ago, ships weighing* in at 50-60 tons were sailing the world's oceans, weighing 20-30 times what the pyramid blocks weighed. If you don't want to count water-based transportation as a demonstration of human power (although I don't see why that wouldn't count) there was a big breakthrough in land-based hauling of weight that occurred quite a bit earlier.

Needing a shortcut across a four-mile-wide isthmus in the Peloponnesian Peninsula, the ancient Greeks built the Diolkos -- the world's first railway. It was human-powered. It is estimated that 150 men were needed to pull one of their ancient triremes (warships) from one end of the isthmus to the other. These ships probably weighed in at 30-40 tons. The Diolkos was built about 2600 years ago and continued to in operation until the first century AD. I'm guessing it was the high-water mark for land-based moving of heavy objects until the age of trains, but am ready to be corrected on this point. (Anyone?)

Our maximum speed did not increase significantly between 5000 and 500 years ago, although the range of transportation increased with improvements in shipbuilding technology.

Our options for encoding information broadened significantly. Musical notation showed up somewhere in the gap between 5000 and 500 years ago, as did realistic, perspective-based drawing and painting. The invention of printing is a watershed for both encoding and transmitting -- this is also the beginning of the convergence of these two aspects of communication, which will become more important over time. Printing marks the beginning of mass communication proper. Sending many copies of a message across great distance, as well as preserving a message for a long time to come, both became significantly easier.

Human Capability 100 years Ago

A century ago, RMS Titanic set sail. At 46000 tons, it weighed roughly thousand times one of those "heavy" ships from the 16th century or about 18000 times one of those stone blocks from the pyramids. On land, there were locomotives weighing well over 200 tons which could pull many times that weight in passenger or freight cars. Trains were also making it possible to travel at better than 100 KPH.

Our ability to encode information expanded to include photographs and sound recordings. Our transmission of messages included the telegraph, telephone, and radio. Printing technology benefited positively from the industrial revolution. Rapid mass distribution of books, magazines, and newspapers became widespread. The information deluge was beginning in earnest.

Human Capability 50 years Ago

By the middle of the 20th century, we had aircraft carriers larger even than Titanic,. But the real progress in that period had to do with speed. The invention of heavier-than-air flight in 1903 led to a huge increase in velocity. 50 years ago, the airspeed record was 1,525.9 MPH/ 2,455.7 KPH. (Manned spaceflight started just a little less than 50 years ago, so I won't count those speeds here.)

Means of encoding information came to include additional options for analog recording of images and sound as well as the beginning of computer data storage. Television joined radio as a means of transmitting messages.

That is pretty much the world I was born into, a world where it seemed that humanity had reached the peak of its power. But there was much more to come.

Human Capability Today

Today on the water we have the RMS Queen Mary II and Nimitz-class aircraft carriers displacing (see? I said it) about 150,000 tons. On land, we have this monster:


It's a 14,000 ton self-propelled strip-mining machine that can load a quarter million tons of coal per day.

As far as speed goes, for the time being that probably topped out at about 25,000 miles per hour with the Apollo program in the late 60's / early 70's.

Our options for encoding information have increased largely due to the digital revolution. The biggest change has not been primarily in the kinds of encoding we're doing -- we're still recording speech, text, still images, moving images, and so forth -- but rather the distribution of these capabilities as well as new (and highly distributed) means of transmitting these encoded messages. Today anyone with a computer and web access can be a book or journal publisher, a sound recorder / editor, or a film / TV producer. But those are just (newer digital versions of) the old forms. Half a century ago -- or, really, a decade ago -- there was no such thing as a blog, or a Twitter feed or a Youtube channel or having a following on Facebook. The old forms are being combined and recombined. People communicate with color, with pictures, with sounds and, yes, with words. "Messages" can be presented as interactive online polls or games. The limits on who can participate or what form an encoded message can take are rapidly vanishing.

Human Capability in the Future

When you look at how much mass we can move today, one reaction is to suppose that we're approaching a practical limit. How much bigger would a boat ever need to be than the Queen Mary II, or a digger / hauler than the Bagger 288 (pictured above)? The honest answer to that question is -- who knows? Mobile floating city-states called seasteds may dwarf any navigable craft that has come before -- if they're ever built. And the space elevator -- again, if we ever build one -- will make the Bagger 288 look like some kind of Lego accessory piece. Individual scenarios may not necessarily predict the future, but they do provide a framework for estimating our subsequent capabilities. The future may well see humanity equipped with the mass-moving force required to create a Ringworld or a Dyson Sphere.

At that point, we're talking about moving (and building things out of) masses many times greater than the mass of the earth.Such technologies may sound incredible, but perhaps no more incredible than a description of the Bagger 288 would have sounded to our remote ancestors 20,000 years ago. And even if such technologies require another 20,000 years worth of development, it's important to note thatsome of the smartest people in the world predict that humanity will pass though 10,000 - 30,000 years worth of change in the next century alone.

If anything like that level of change occurs, we can expect an increase in human capability that goes far beyond any of the transitions mentioned here so far. And keep in mind, we've only been talking about two dimensions of capability.

How fast will we go? This is one arena of accomplishment in which there is a well-defined upper limit. The speed of light -- 186,000 miles / 300,000 kilometers per second -- is the universe's speed limit, and it is enforced vigorously. Still, that's plenty fast -- and we're nowhere near it yet. Once again, it's hard to predict when we will come close to achieving such a speed, if ever, but if we are ever going to do any kind of serious interstellar space travel, we will need to achieve at least a good fraction of light speed. On the other hand, there aren't many people raising interstellar travel as a serious goal -- not in a day and age when we can't even get it together to find our way back to the moon.

Creating spacecraft that can approach the speed of light will be a massive engineering undertaking -- not as great as what would be required for some of the (literally) astronomical projects described above, perhaps, but huge nonetheless. Interestingly, we may very well achieve light speed even if we never build any starships.

Thanks to the tremendous distribution of capability that we are witnessing, most people on earth are able to send messages at the speed of light. Moreover, as web-based interaction has grown from chat rooms to Halo, we are drawing ever closer to true online virtual presence. Our ability to move freely from place to place is converging with our ability to encode and transmit messages, making us faster than we could have ever imagined.

Meanwhile, encoding and transmitting have continued to merge. The 20th century observation that "the medium is the message" is demonstrated millions of times each day. What is a blog post, or a tweet, or a Facebook update? Are these messages proper or are they examples of exercising a messaging channel? The easy answer is both; the more challenging answer comes from realizing that the distinction between message and channel is fading fast (if it's not gone already.)

Our a ability to create and encode messages, our ability to transmit these messages, and our own presence / location are all converging. These convergences are precursors to the convergence of major portions of our subjective experience into the digital realm, which itself is a precursor to the (potential) transfer of our identities into this realm. Moving into the digital world will provide the greatest forward leap in capability yet experienced, both from the standpoint of raw (best-case) capability as well as the distribution of that capability. In the digital world, moving mass and achieving high speeds are no longer an issue. Everybody gets to be Superman. (Superman-like capabilities are also a distinct possibility in the non-digital "real" world with some key supporting technologies.) And encoding and transferring information becomes a whole new ball game when we ourselves are the information that we are defining and sharing.

That world is harder for us to imagine than a world of Halo and Youtube videos would be for our cave-painting ancestors. But without a doubt,it will be a world of vastly expanded human capability.

* I know. Boats in water don't "weigh." They "displace." Sue me.


And the thing is you are not allowing for true technological breakthroughs like extended Heim Theory:

Even Nanotechnology which you do discuss is just an extention of what we do on the macro scale reduced to the microscale.

We're advancing so much that we need new measures: bits per cubic centimeter for storage, bits per second for transmission, millions of instructions per second for processing, etc.

Certain new microscopic machines will be hugely transformational. Accelerometers in the Wii will find all sorts of amazing applications. All sorts of new microscopic machines will start showing up.

New materials like carbon nanotubes will also change everything.

Extremely powerful tiny processors will allow for things that will make the iPod look primitive.

You must be counting only the maximum velocity of manned vehicles if you are harking back to 25,000 Apollo-era speeds. The New Horizons probe to Pluto is currently traveling at around 36,284 MPH heliocentric (somewhat faster if you look at linear velocity).

[ Yes, in fact we make that distinction on the podcast. -- Phil ]

new measures: People used to talk about Library of Congress (LOC) as a large collection of data. It would take X hours to send the entire LOC over newly available bandwidth, then it was minutes, now it's seconds. Seems LOC is too small to be a useful measure. Hard drives used to be measured in Meg, then Gig, now Terabytes. How do we talk about that staggering amount of content? Number of weeks of continuous playback of music or video (because LOC just aren't tangible enough) When we start uploading people's identity into tomorrow's storage mechanism(s) we may well be talking about "lifetimes" of digital content archives (upgrade to the newer model and you can record your primary as well as X alternate selves or backup your entire family on one fault-tolerant device)

Thanks for the link to I promise you, seasteads will be built.


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