Soonish by Zach and Kelly Weinersmith - Notes

These are my notes and review for this book. For other reading notes see tag: books

“Soonish” is a book by Zach and Kelly Weinersmith. He is the author of SMBC comics, which I read daily and love deeply. Each chapter deals with a piece of technology that would be disruptive if it went massive, and may come to market/existence in the near future. For each technology, they analyse what’s holding it back, what its consequences could be and what makes it potentially problematic. I found the book to be very fun, a bit too shallow at times (maybe I was expecting something a little more technical) but generally a very easy and interesting read.

The technologies covered include:

What follow are mostly excerpts I found surprising. As usual my condition for storing these is I either shared them with a friend or thought of them later at least once.

Notes and excerpts

Space cannon

“When you go up in an elevator, you feel as if you’re getting squashed. That’s a slight acceleration. By comparison, on a roller coaster, you may feel as much as five times more acceleration. With training, humans can endure about ten or twenty times the elevator without passing out. Much beyond that and you might die. Why? Well, when you accelerate in a car, notice how the water in a cup rushes back and stays back until you stop accelerating. Imagine the cup is your body and the water is your blood. Oh, and instead of 0 to 60 in 10 seconds, you’re going from 0 to 17,000.

For an explosion-based space cannon, you’re talking around 5,000 to 10,000 times the elevator. Nothing squishy is going to space in a cannon, including squishy little you.

This may not be as bad as it seems. You could still send “hardened” payloads, like specially designed electronics. You could also send all sorts of raw material –metals, plastics, fuel, water, beef jerky. In fact, one idea is to have a sort of orbiting gas station that just receives fuel payloads from a gun.

By itself, a space gun is not a great route to space exploration. But if you coupled a space gun with an orbiting factory in space, we might be in business. The idea here would be to fire raw materials up to your orbiting factory, build gigantic spacecraft at the factory, and then take off from the factory to go explore space. For annoyingly delicate payloads, like humans, you’d still need a wussier form of launch, like rockets. But on a big space mission that’s already in space, most of what you’re toting is metal, plastic, and supplies for the delicate meatbags within. All these things can be “ruggedized” and shot to orbit.”

Where to place a space elevator

“ Thankfully, there’s a solution to this; unfortunately, it’s not a very satisfactory one, intellectually. There is an area of the Pacific Ocean that has never had a recorded lightning strike. So you’d place your space elevator there. That’s the solution.”

[This after discussing how a space elevator would make space travel and transport a lot cheaper, but it would be like a huge lightning rod.]

The rod from God: Cold War-era weapon

“ One idea that originated in the Cold War was the so-called rod from God. Basically, you get a heavy hunk of metal and throw it from space at an enemy. Given its weight, height, and whatever speed bump you can give it, a simple metal rod could do as much damage as a nuclear bomb. Right now, the only people who go to space are ultraqualified supernerds—the sort of people who pass psychological tests and are willing to spend decades training for a chance to get a few months in space. If space becomes more generally populated, we could be putting ourselves in a dangerous position.”

Fusion Energy

“None of the people we interviewed brought up concerns in terms of environmental or social problems. The real problem with fusion seems to be simply getting it to work. In fact, Mr. Hull is fond of saying that “Fusion is the energy of the future, and it always will be.”

[I’ve seen some timelines where there’s a 80% prediction of Fusion Energy being solved by 2050, which should be huge]

Dr. Duff and his Bucket of Stuff

Imagine you’ve got a bucket full of goo. You strap it to your belt as you go to fix your sink. When you need an Allen wrench that’s 7/32 of an inch, you just tell the Bucket of Stuff. A wrench rises up out of the material, and you use it to make adjustments. When you realize you need pliers, pliers appear. When you realize you need a plunger, the bucket goo shapes into a long, hard tube with a flexible cup-shaped top.

Actually, it might be even better. Instead of saying “Gimme a screwdriver,” you might say “Loosen this screw” and the goo will figure out the best way to do it. Or instead of plunging a toilet, you just turn to your weary Bucket of Stuff and say, “Do what you gotta do in there, buddy.”

And you wouldn’t just be summoning simple hard tools. Maybe you want a pillow to rest on. Or maybe you need a calculator. How about a robotic pet? Maybe you forgot it was Valentine’s Day, so you instruct the goo to turn into flowers.

3D Food Printer

“In their book Fabricated: The New World of 3D Printing, Dr. Hod Lipson and Melba Kurman suggest a perfected 3D food printer. Imagine a machine that can print you out a perfect muffin in less time than it’d take to make it from scratch. Better still, suppose you’re on a diet—the machine prints each of your meals, carefully tracking fat, carbs, salt, and overall calories. No more need for that pesky self-control thing. And suppose you have some special dietary needs—you’re diabetic, or anemic, or have particular allergies—the machine not only prints a tasty muffin, but it carefully tailors it to your health needs. For instance, suppose you’re just a little diabetic. The machine uses a blood-sugar-level detector to make food that is exactly as sugary as you can survive.

It’ll probably be awhile before this is a good way to make a muffin here on Earth. But what about in space, where every ounce counts? NASA just made a deal with a group called Systems & Materials Research Consultancy in Austin to build a 3D food printer for long-term space missions. ”

Augmented Reality as a Tool for Thought

“Over human history, we have slowly off-loaded work from our own brains. Writing allowed us to stop memorizing everything. Filing systems made it so we didn’t have to remember the location of information. Modern search systems mean that a lot of the work of researching a topic is simplified. Successful Augmented Reality might mean that a whole constellation of mental activities can be off-loaded to the machine.

For example, when you need to fix your own printer, you probably find an online guide and work your way through it until you understand what you’re doing. An AR system might simply show you step-by-step instructions as you go. By this means, you accomplish the task more quickly and successfully. A similar approach might be taken to cooking or building things.

This may seem small, but it could represent a huge efficiency gain in many areas. Workers could be trained faster and avoid more on-the-job danger. Conceivably, an AR machine could even make an expert better at her job.”

“In general, AR might allow us to quickly acquire skills that formerly required a huge amount of training. This could dramatically increase efficiency, and may save lives in situations where the job being done is dangerous if mistakes are made. At its grandest, AR offers us the opportunity to remake the world the way it is in our imagination”

Anti-malaria mosquitoes

“gene drives mean that you can impose synthetic biology on an entire wild population. Dr. George Church of Harvard and others were able to put multiple gene drives for malaria resistance into mosquitoes. That way, instead of having to release modified mosquitoes every season, you could potentially have a one-time release of mosquitoes with multiple malaria-resistance gene drives. Even if malaria resistance makes them less attractive mates, the gene should spread through the population, growing exponentially as it goes.”

The Chad J. Craig Venter

“Dr. J. Craig Venter famously raced Dr. Francis Collins’s National Institutes of Health to decipher the human genome. Now he’s on to bigger things. Just to give you a flavor of Dr. Venter, he once responded to the writing prompt “What Should We Be Worried About” with an article that began, “As a scientist, an optimist, an atheist and an alpha male I don’t worry.”

See, this is exactly the kind of person you want if you need someone to play God. ”

Risk level for organ donation

“Liver transplant surgery, for example, is a lot more dangerous than kidney transplant surgery. According to Dr. Roth, something goes pretty seriously wrong in about 1 out of 100 liver donations, whereas major complications happen in only 1 out of every 5,000 kidney donations. So while liver exchanges are possible and do happen, kidney exchanges are much more common.”

[The book then goes on to cover artificial organs, which would solve this but are far from working right now, with the current bottleneck being artificial capillaries -keeping the organ irrigated-.]

Brain-Computer Interface

“ If our brains were connected, you could experience something much more personal. For example, you could put someone in a moment you experienced, and they could see what you saw, smell what you smelled, feel how you felt.

“It would transform society much more so than the computer transformed society. It would completely change essentially what it means to be human… We would be able to interact with technology and with people around us, essentially, just without thinking… It would mean that all our thoughts could readily be aggregated in some cloud. This would completely remove all communication barriers, and society would kind of be some sort of superhuman or something that embodies all the different people… I mean, I can’t really think of anything that would have more profound effects on life, really.”

We’re not entirely sure we’re on board for the megabrain thing. We both have lots of thoughts we would prefer to keep to ourselves.”

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03 Jun 2022 - importance: 6