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Mike Swetnam

What’s the big difference between humans and other species of living things?

Some contend that what makes us different is our ability to think in abstract, innovative, and creative ways; the fact that we can imagine a different reality and discover ways to create that reality. No other living thing yet discovered does this. Dolphins and elephants are as smart as us but don't create technology capable of changing their world. We do.

This higher order of thinking/intelligence (the wisdom thing) is what is important, critical, and distinguishes us from everything else. We dream and then have the ability to make our dreams come true. We are driven to change and control our world. Is this our soul? That intangible 'thing' that sets us apart?

At the Potomac Institute we have started calling this System III thinking as a takeoff or expansion of Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow paradigm. Kahneman describes System I thinking, thinking fast, as the reactionary response humans have to a set of conditions. The response requires little thought and helps us deal with situations that require rapid response. Most animals demonstrate System I thinking. System II thinking, thinking slowly, is the methodical, contemplative thought process where humans consider the arguments before responding. Many scientists believe that primates and a few other species demonstrate System II thinking.

Those of us in the Center for Revolutionary Science Thought (CReST) at the Institute have started describing something we call System III thinking. The process where we dream and imagine a world or situation broader than the analytical thinking of System II. This seems to be a uniquely human characteristic and something that makes our species have a special place in the world.

American Innovation

By Mike Swetnam

The four Noble Truths of Buddhism all have to do with suffering. Buddha said that all suffering comes from desire and ignorance. As a long suffering example of humanity, I can clearly see the logic and truth in this.

Yet desire for something different and better is one of the most motivating forces in our society. Innovation is often tied to ones desire to make the process, product, or art better. It is the need and/or desire to create, inspire, and garner respect, love, and recognition that moves individuals to great heights.

The great success of the United States is often linked with our innovative spirit. We are a country fueled by generations of immigrants attracted to our shores by the promise (and desire) for something better—the opportunity to build a life better than they had at home. When they got here most worked exceedingly hard to make sure that their children had it better than they did. This was desire-driven innovation and hard work.

Ignorance has its place as well. Not knowing something is thought to be impossible allows many to accomplish the impossible. We are often educated in ways that build a box around our thoughts. Being ignorant of the walls that others expound is often a good thing.

One of the great downfalls of our modern education system is that information is almost totally presented as fact to be accepted and not challenged. Knowing accepted wisdom (what people call facts) is greatly preferred over questioning everything in an effort to seek new truths. Young impressionable minds are quickly taught to accept common knowledge and seek to conform. Not knowing and accepting common knowledge is called ignorance.

Yet human history is full of examples of “common knowledge” being proven wrong by new research, crazy theories proven correct, or bold entrepreneurs who are willing to do what they think is right even though all others say it is ignorant or stupid. Bill Gates, Bill Joy, and Steve Jobs come to mind.

The point is that finding peace and serenity through an acceptance of what is known, comfortable, and at hand is a worthy goal. It will surely lead to the peace and tranquil life that Buddha spoke of. It will also lead to a totally stagnate society where little new knowledge is added and little progress is made.

To further our evolution and growth as a species, we need to desire something better and be ignorant of accepted wisdom.

Innovation, particularly American innovation, needs the driving force of desire and ignorance of what others think is impossible.

By Mike Swetnam

On this day of love, let’s talk about war.

The US has maintained some level of peace and stability (not withstanding little wars we can't seem to break our addiction to) for almost 60 years. We have done this by building the largest and most capable military in the far!

The US spends more money each year on defense than the next ten countries on the list! By every conceivable measure, our military is more powerful and capable than any and more so than all of the rest combined.

Yet, we continue to worry that we cannot defend our country. Thinking that terror attacks that kill a few thousand are the existential threat that we faced in WWII. Not true.

There is no question that our large defense investment helps keep us safe and in a position of world power. However, the question really is: How much is enough? Does the USA need to be 100x more powerful than everyone else or would 5x more powerful do?

Please understand each magnitude of superiority costs billions of dollars. Here is an example, the F35, our newest fighter jet costs $400 Billion.

What else could we do with $400B?

Bob Zubrin, former NASA executive, says a Mars direct mission to put a handful of people on Mars would cost $30-50B. We could start a Mars colony with a hundred people for $400B. Space X and Elon Musk think they can establish a Mars Colony for even less.

Space X also has a plan to build a supersonic Underground Railroad from LA to San Francisco for about $10B or from LA to NYC for about $80B. Travel time La to San Francisco, 30 mins. From LA to NYC or DC in an hour and a half.

Estimates of the cost of an artificial island city that uses ocean currents for power is in the $400-600B range.

But is $400B really that much? No, it really isn't. It works out to only $1200 for each man, woman, and child in the USA today.

So, why aren't we building a colony on Mars? Building a supersonic train system? Creating island cities?

We think we can afford another fighter airplane even though our old ones, the F15 and F18, are still the most advanced airplanes on earth.

How did we manage to spend $819 Billion on the American Reinvestment and Recovery act of 2009 and not do any of the things I mentioned above?

What's more important? Being 100x more powerful than the next guy? Or leading the human race into space and the next frontier?

Maybe we need to only be 5x more powerful than the next guy and also be 5x more advanced in evolving the human race into space and beyond.

by Mike Swetnam

As species evolve they get better. At the top of the evolution chain are humans: So evolved now that we can increasingly control, or at least effect, our environment.

I had and interesting discussion today about science and technology making us gods (little g). Able to change and determine our evolution—the evolution of other species, the fate of our environment, etc. Clearly this is happening to some degree already, and as time goes on and our science gets better we will get closer to this vision. A time is coming when humans have the science and technology to be “god-like” in our ability to change the course of evolution, to control our environment, amd determine the fate of species. We will have the ultimate ability to change our own future. It’s happening today, even if not directed or controlled. The day will soon come when individuals can control and direct these changes.

Yet surely only a few in society should have the authority to wield this power...who might they be? Our elected leaders? The scientists? Industry?

That could be the key question. Controlling god-like technology (nuclear, neuro, nano, bio-engineering) could be the key science and technology policy question of our time; or of all time. Certainly we don't want everyone, or even most people, to have access to such power. Just as we don't want Iran to have nuclear weapon, we don't want bad people or states to have access to bio-engineering, nanotech, or neurotechnology.

Consider that the most important policy question of our time may not be healthcare, the economy, or wars overseas but the need to control science and technology that is powerful enough to change everything, kill us all, destroy our world, or effect the course of history.

Controlling science and technology, mankind's increasing ability to be god-like, is the most critical issue of our time.

The wonderful information revolution makes everything available globally in seconds. From events captured in realtime by street cameras, to things that people say and write. All of this is having a profound effect on the publishing world. One of the big issues with this great avalanche of data, poorly termed the ‘big data problem,’ is the veracity or validity of any and all information on the Internet today. What is valid and what is not? When everything people say and write, fact or fiction, is available and there are very few filters, sorting useful information from bad information becomes a tremendous challenge.

As the amount of data grows exponentially, almost daily, the task of sorting good from bad data becomes harder and harder and it becomes a real commodity to be able to help someone identify what is valid and what is not. It turns out that there is real value in helping people sort the good from the bad. Journal publishers provide this service although they don’t realize it is becoming the most valuable thing they do. The traditional publishing model is selling the distribution of information. It has traditionally been all about selling a product that distributes words and pictures around the globe. That is the model that has been built on since the invention of printing. The problem is that the key component of that value proposition, the distribution of information, is becoming free. The key capability or product provided by publishers, in their old value model, is dying because of technology.

However, publishers have been doing something else the last 400 years that is more valuable today than ever before. It hardly costs money to distribute anymore; the Internet has dramatically reduced the cost of distribution. But because it used to cost a lot of money publishers went to great lengths to vet what they published. So, when something actually got sent to the very expensive process of printing, it had been reviewed and edited closely. When one went to the library and checked the card catalog, somebody had gone to great lengths to make sure that the books in that library had some validity behind them before they received an ISB number and went into the card catalog.

Peer reviewed journals go to great lengths to make sure the submitted article is valid through peer review. For example, out of the 14,000 submissions to Science, AAAS selects the best 800 for publication. Publishers put an awful lot of effort into that and it costs a lot of money. Publishers used to do that because it cost a lot of money to print and distribute and they could not afford mistakes. Guess what? It costs less today to put those 14,000 entries out there on the Internet, but it’s really valuable to know which are the 800 best. The distribution might be close to free, but the publishing staff put in much effort to sort out the best 800 articles. It is worth every penny that it costs them to do that.

Today one can use Google, or others, to find any information but these services do not tell what is valid and what is crap. The vast amounts of information make it very difficult to find the most relevant, accurate, and real information without a filter. The filter is now the most valuable asset. Science journal publishers rely on peer review and editors to filter the worthy or “publishable” science. Publishers, particularly of scientific journals, help us sort and apply a level of validity to information today.

I would propose to you that the value proposition in the publishing world is no longer publishing. The value proposition in the printing world is no longer printing. The value proposition in the journal world is that they are now the judge, they are providing the filter. That is a very different way of looking at journals, but maybe that is the way that will better justify the cost.

This blog post was written by the Institute's CEO, Michael Swetnam, after a seminar hosted by the Institute on the Economics of Open Access. Check back to the website for the full report from the seminar.