The Walt Scale
Over the last 40 years intellectuals have warned against United States military plots to take over the world. First they inveighed against the Internet. Then there was the menace of GPS. Probably worst of all there was missile defense, conceived by that cowboy monkey, Ronald Reagan. Today billions of people live in chains forged of data packet links, rumble over back roads using Garmin GPS devices and hope that if a meteor is detected streaking toward earth that Ronald Reagan's maligned initiative may yet save humanity from the fate of the dinosaurs.
The last 40 years could have destroyed us, but it didn't. Now Patrick Tucker of Defense One describes four DARPA projects which may vie for the title of the next feared/loved thing out of the US defense research shop. He writes, "here are four of DARPA’s potential next big things:"
They are 1. Atomic GPS -- "If you can measure or understand how the Earth’s magnetic field acceleration and position is effecting individual atoms (reduced in temperature), you can navigate without a satellite. In fact, you can achieve geo-location awareness that could be 1,000 times more accurate than any system currently in existence, say researchers."
2.Terahertz Frequency Electronics and Meta-materials -- The properties of terahertz electromagnetic region are little understood. Nobody knew what it did precisely and there were few technologies available to manipulate it. The region is now suspected to be at the meeting point between the energy spectrum and materials. There is the potential to use terahertz to "talk" to certain kinds of matter and for those substances to respond in turn. More on this later.
3.A Virus Shield for the Internet of Things. Tucker does not describe this effort clearly, other than to say it represents the next step in network security which makes sure that devices retain their integrity. I think it will probably involve Quantum cryptography which has the potential to create communications that are secure in principle. By relying on a phenomenon called entanglement, any attempt at interposing a third part to the link will, if you like, throw off the checksum. Security by law of physics. Such a development would have monumental consequences to the relationship between individuals and states. The existence of unbreakable encryption will represent a massive power shift in society.
4. Rapid Threat Assessment. Of this Tucker writes:
The Rapid Threat Assessment, or RTA, program wants to speed up by orders of magnitude how quickly researchers can figure out how diseases or agents work to kill humans. Instead of months or years, DARPA wants to enable researchers to “within 30 days of exposure to a human cell, map the complete molecular mechanism through which a threat agent alters cellular processes,” Prabhakar said in her testimony. “This would give researchers the framework with which to develop medical countermeasures and mitigate threats.”
How is that useful right now? In the short term, this is another research area notable primarily for what doesn’t happen after it hits, namely pandemics. It took years and a lot of money to figure out that H5N1 bird flu became much more contagious with the presence of an amino acid in a specific position.. That’s what enabled it to live in mammalian lungs and, thus, potentially be spread by humans via coughing and sneezing. Knowing this secret earlier would have prevented a great deal of death.
In the decades ahead, the biggest contribution of the program may be fundamental changes in future drug discovery. “If successful, RTA could shift the cost-benefit trade space of using chemical or biological weapons against U.S. forces and could also apply to drug development to combat emerging diseases,” Prabhakar said.
The 21st century may bring about a basic shift in the way we deal with reality. Recently a well informed person remarked that advances in quantum computing (and presumably terahertz technologies) will increasingly allow us to ask questions of nature directly through means other than chemical analysis or atom-smasher. This ability to 'speak' to matter was an attribute the Psalmist attributed to the divine. Of the Creator he wrote, "He counts the stars and calls them all by name."
If once we learn to speak to things, what should we say? Perhaps Tucker should have added a 5th initiative to his catalog: nano-engineering and especially molecular self-assembly. This technology allows us to tell matter what to do. It is also a god-like power in that it mimics biology. Molecules have self-assembled since life began. We are only now learning to do it in baby steps. "Molecular self-assembly underlies the construction of biologic macromolecular assemblies in living organisms, and so is crucial to the function of cells."
If engineers learn how to do this not just in biology but in what we called "inanimate matter", then we have a real game changer. We can 'breathe' a spirit into the dust and a city will arise.
Molecular self-assembly is an important aspect of bottom-up approaches to nanotechnology. Using molecular self-assembly the final (desired) structure is programmed in the shape and functional groups of the molecules. Self-assembly is referred to as a 'bottom-up' manufacturing technique in contrast to a 'top-down' technique such as lithography where the desired final structure is carved from a larger block of matter. In the speculative vision of molecular nanotechnology, microchips of the future might be made by molecular self-assembly.
The advent of such technologies would essentially redefine scarcity. You can transform the world by literally casting a spell over it; you can order up a palace on Mars prior to going there. This would represent a step forward on the level of the agricultural, industrial or information revolution. In 1964 the Soviet Nikolai Kardashev proposed a scheme for classifying civilizations. It was, unsurprisingly, called the Kardashev scale.
The scale has three designated categories called Type I, II, and III. A Type I civilization uses all available resources impinging on its home planet, Type II harnesses all the energy of its star, and Type III of its galaxy. The scale is only hypothetical, but it puts energy consumption in a cosmic perspective.
What's interesting is that the Kardashev scale may have an informational equivalent. Let's call it the Walt Erickson Scale, after Walt the Belmont Club poet laureate. Suppose that each Type of Kardashev civilization can be expressed as in terms of a command of information, at deeper and deeper levels of reality. The Walt Scale represents the degree to which we can converse with (hear and speak) to the reality itself.
It's a thought that belongs at present more to the poets than to hard science.
But one thing is for sure. Each of the four DARPA projects -- and my fifth -- carries not only the immense potential for good but an equally large capacity for evil. For just as progress on the Kardashev scale imparts not only the potential to build, but also to destroy, so does our position on the Walt Scale. One day we may discover that the stories of the ancients were true and our dim memory of Brother Sun and Sister Moon and the animals who walked with us as friends in the Garden is more than just a metaphor, as is our recollection of a War in Heaven; of angels and of demons.
The world is no drab place but a dangerous and wonderful one. It is thronged with dragons and caverns of gold. Peter Pan once said, "to die would be a great adventure." So too is to live. Let us end with a poet's words.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree.
Recent items of interest by Belmont readers based on Amazon click-throughs.
Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with you friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.
The War of the Words for $3.99, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity for $3.99, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea $0.99, how China is restarting history in the Pacific