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SciTech in the US - Arvind Narayanan's journal [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]

SciTech in the US [Mar. 29th, 2007|08:20 pm]
Arvind Narayanan
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[Current Mood |hopefulhopeful]

Commentary on some recent news.

Via nanodot: Congressional report on nanotechnology (pdf). Wonderfully written, very readable. There are some excellent excerpts on nanodot. Go read 'em. I'm particularly impressed by the bit on the singularity, especially since it's sort of a taboo topic in general circles.

The report talks about "believing in" the singularity, which is not the right way to think about it, in my opinion. It is silly to "believe" in the singularity, and equally silly to not believe in it. One must instead realize that it is a real possibility, albeit one of many, and therefore be prepared for it.

Some other quotes that I found delicious (bear in mind that the report was sponsored by a republican congressman, and would probably have looked very different if it had been otherwise):
Unfortunately, most of academia and the research community do not facilitate this type of multidisciplinary research. Work often tends to be compartmentalized into disciplines and subdisciplines with their own vocabularies. Research proposals are evaluated by experts within one area who neither understand nor appreciate developments in other fields. Young people coming into a field are usually rewarded for extending existing lines of research and take a risk if they try to look at the unexamined gaps between academic fields.

...

Yet, the fear of technology displacing humans runs deep in the human psyche and explains events as diverse as the persecution of Copernicus and Galileo, the Salem Witch Trials, and the continued popularity of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein over a century after it was first written. There is also a strong tradition of Luddite opposition to any technology that threatens the existing market of any special interest. Presently, universities, optometrists, realtors, car dealerships, and others are all scrambling to protect themselves from competition enabled by the Internet. The special interests that seek these protections almost always try to justify them as efforts to protect consumers or society.

...

As we go forward, an increasing proportion of investment in nanotechnology will come from the private sector. As a result, government will gradually lose much its ability to shape the direction of in which the technology advances. Decisions will increasingly be made by a decentralized collection of international businesses, universities, consumers and investors. Any attempt to subject these decisions to a collective decision process in order to manage broad “socio- economic effects” is almost certain to do far more harm than good.
This is the sort of thing that makes me upbeat about the state of Science/Tech in the US of A, in spite of little anomalies like Dubya and his fundie gang not liking stem cell research very much.

In other news, some trolls have released a report claiming that US technology adoption has suddenly fallen from 1st in the world to 7th in a single year (actually it talks about the "networked readiness index".. I don't even know what that is). This is readily lapped up as news by a variety of sources.

I used to think that "OMG science and technology in [Japan/China/Europe] is going to overtake us!!" was one of those "liberal myths". Then someone pointed out that it's just a self-serving myth that happens to jive with certain political dispositions and biases. Academia (in the US) deliberately propagates it because it helps them get more research dollars, and the media amplifies it because doomsday predictions always make good copy. Nevertheless, I have to wonder why some of my friends have trouble thinking clearly when they tell me with a perfectly straight face and complete conviction that science research in China and India is going to overtake the US very soon.

As for myself, I think the "science gap" is only going to widen (and some of you may accuse me of being unable to think clearly :-) My biases are aligned with this article, which claims:
If this statistic of Nobel prizes is a valid measure of revolutionary science, then the main conclusion is that the USA has emerged to become the only nation that supports revolutionary science on a large scale.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: hukuma
2007-03-30 02:53 am (UTC)
One must instead realize that it is a real possibility, albeit one of many, and therefore be prepared for it.

Isn't the point of the singularity that you can't be prepared for it since you have no way of reasonably predicting what it will be like?
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2007-03-30 03:09 am (UTC)
Not quite. Some aspects are unpredictable, but others are self-evident, and one must prepare for them. For instance, it is prudent to live under the assumption that anything you ever say on the Internet will one day be linked back to you. In general, one must be prepared for change. This has already been happening for quite a while: we see the music industry struggling to come to terms with the near-impossibility of enforcing copyright, whereas to techie types this was obvious decades ago.
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[User Picture]From: hukuma
2007-03-30 03:14 am (UTC)
But that's not singularity, that's just technological progress. I thought singularity was defined as technological progress moving at a pace we can't predict.
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2007-03-30 03:24 am (UTC)
Yes, you have a point. Perhaps I should say prepare for "accelerating change" rather than "prepare for the singularity." Does that make more sense?
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From: (Anonymous)
2007-03-30 12:27 pm (UTC)
Nevertheless, I have to wonder why some of my friends have trouble thinking clearly when they tell me with a perfectly straight face and complete conviction that science research in China and India is going to overtake the US very soon.

Regarding the above statement, I too have to wonder what they are thinking. As someone who has been in the academia both in the US and in India, I can tell that the above statement that we will overtake one day is a wishful thinking. The ground reality is vastly different with many colleges and universities not equipped to do any basic sciences. There are only handful of research institutes and universities that do some amount of basic science. To compound this problem is the policy of exclusiveness propagated by our school system which encourages memorization and regurgitation. Innovative thinking is curbed. I deal with students who come from rural backgrounds and in them all this is added along with a deep sense of inferiority complex. So all those who make the statements that India is going to overtake need a reality check.

On the other hand I do not think the Nobel Prizes are a valid measure of anything. But then no Prizes are.

regards
rohini
rohinimuthuswami@gmail.com
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[User Picture]From: arvindn
2007-03-30 02:46 pm (UTC)
"On the other hand I do not think the Nobel Prizes are a valid measure of anything."

Oh, I don't agree with the nobel prize claim either. After all there isn't one in my field :) I was just saying I agree with the broader conclusion that the US seems to have a dominating "science gap."
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