The Chinese Exploration Flop: A Case for NASA

For anyone out there who hasn’t heard, the 2013 cuts to NASA are so deep that many believe the agency will never be able to recover. Exploration has always been something difficult for governments to support. The story of Christopher Columbus always starts with his long quest simply to get funding for the voyage across the Atlantic. In Chinese history, there is a similar story of exploration, and one that can help us see that it is imperative for NASA to be continued.

In the early 15th century, a Chinese explorer named Zheng He made over half a dozen year long journeys to coastal regions in Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Australia. The voyages were funded merely on the basis of exploration and the prospect of monetization was an afterthought at least for the emperor and Zheng He. China explored areas as large as any of the European powers, but before the exploration could become profitable, there was a change of power.

Twenty years after the first voyage of Zheng He, a new emperor took control of China and saw no need for Zheng He’s voyages. China, because of their mountainous borders, faced no pressure from rival states and therefore could afford to be very isolated. The Chinese let this opportunity slip by and stayed in isolation for the following centuries.

The rest of the story is what we all know from history books. The country’s that take advantage of foreign exploration came to rule the world, while China, the country that passed along this opportunity, was sadly forced to be taken advantage of with the Spheres of Influence and other Euro-American policies.

Now in the 21st century, the United States face the similar problem of labeling exploration to space as unprofitable. If we do not continue to fund NASA, the EU, Russia, China, and private companies will be more than happy to pass us in the same way that China was passed by Europe in the Age of Exploration.

Voyages into deep space are going to happen. Besides the space programs of other nations, several private companies have already created their own plans to go into space such as Planetary Resources Inc. and SpaceX. The rise of the private sector in this area is no reason for our government to back down. Funding of exploration is a crucial investment for every government to make. With historical examples like this in our past, how can we not turn to science fiction for our future?

Why The Machine Takeover Happened Already

Take your pick of machine takeover movies: The Matrix, iRobot, Terminator, etc. There are dozens of these kinds of movies where artificially intelligent robots rise up against their masters and take over the planet. These artificially intelligent robots aren’t necessary for technology to rule the earth though, it is already happening on our planet right now.

How could technology take over without artificial intelligence?

Because it never needed artificial intelligence to take over. It just needed intelligence and that was easy enough to find. We, the humans, have provided the intelligence that  machines harnessed to dominate the world we know. We have willingly allowed our planet to be taken over, and now we must accept the consequences of that. What choice do we have? How many people live in houses that are not sustainable without water pipelines, air conditioning, winter heating, electricity, or grocery stores?

Our society has become awe-inspiring because of the technology we created and used, but there was a cost. We are now dependent on it. Our planet is the Tower of Babel, and every single support beam is a piece of technology. Our tower will continue to get higher every year as everything gets “better” and “progress” continues, but let’s consider why we are convinced that we must build our technological tower higher?

Technology kills hundreds of thousands of people every year (cars, guns, industrial working conditions), it causes upwards of 50,000 species a year to go extinct, it poisons our drinking water and our bodies every day, it cuts down 13 million hectacres of forest every year, and all this without any kind of artificially intelligent robots. Everything that we could possibly fear that robots will do when they rule the planet is already happening.

Technology gives us great things, but when it comes to happiness, technology is much like income, in that it makes happier only until it brings us to a comfortable point. It has been proven that money and happiness correlate up to about $75,000. This is the amount of money it takes to allow a comfortable standard of living, but any income above that has no correlation with happiness. Similarly, technology can no doubt make us happier up to a certain point. There are certain inventions that make our lives drastically better, but many of the most modern inventions are not much more than a distraction. I have an especially hard time believing that more technology creates more happiness, when I see the statistics on depression in the United States, one of the most advanced cultures in the world. If 25% of the United States claims to be depressed in this era of modern technology then something must be wrong.

As technology becomes better and better, we relinquish more and more of our selves to the technological behemoth that we created. Our bodies simply become extensions of the machine. We no longer move with our legs and feet, we move with our cars. We no longer see with our eyes, we see with our cameras. We no longer think with our brains, we think with our computers. This is a transformation that pushes our technological advances to all of its limits, but it strips us of our humanity in a way that is not beneficial to us at all. The process creates an apathetic culture that I see developing quickly especially with the millennial generation. A culture that is incapable of doing anything without instant gratification and rewards. A culture that I fear will soon spread across the world as machines continue to gain control on the earth.

So how can we go up against technology?

If real life follows the plot line that other machine takeover movies always seem to have, then it is time to go to war. In the movies, that war is between humans and the artificially intelligent robots. In this real life scenario, that war is between humans and the intelligence that is driving technology, ourselves. That means this will be a war of introspection with the ultimate goal of increasing awareness to what we as a group are giving up to our technology. If we decide that this is in fact the path that we want, then there’s no problem and life will continue on the path of faster, smaller, longer, better until all of our resources are exhausted. If we decide that we want to change the path that we are on, then that too is possible at this stage. Changing the path will have to be slow and steady seeing as we are incredibly dependent on technology right now, but a large scale effort will force machines to bend to our will.

What must not happen is for us to continue on as a society without any mindfulness as to what is happening to our planet. We can make changes now while we are still the ones providing intelligence to the machines, but who knows how long until all the movies come true, artificial intelligence becomes the norm among machines, and we are no longer a necessary part in the body of technology.

Why I have lost my faith in Capitalism

I used to enjoy capitalism like every selfish teenager usually does, but now things have changed. One of the basic pillars of capitalism that 200 years of experiments in America have proven is that corporations cannot manage negative externalities. They are constantly harming consumers, i.e. meatpacking industry and textile industry at the turn of the century and nowadays companies that pollute and destroy our environment, fracking specifically comes to mind.

But none of that is a huge problem. That’s what they’re supposed to do. Corporations by their nature are here to make money, not anything else, so that’s why we have government. The government’s job is to ensure that corporations don’t push their profit margin to the point that we the consumers are harmed. They create departments like the FDA to check the quality of what we eat, the EPA to ensure that companies aren’t poisoning the air we breath, and so on and so forth. The point being that we the consumers are either not informed, not caring, or not able to stop harmful business practices on our own. We need government. And not necessarily big government, just a government.

Since the rise of corporations, there have been 3 major players in our country that are supposed to check and balance each other. The corporations, the government, and the people. With Congress’s approval ratings at 9%, there aren’t many people who say that government is being run well. A lot of people I talk to say that Obama was their last bet, and now that he has failed, people feel apathetic and disillusioned about the whole institution.

A dollar to a corporation is the same as a vote to a politician. So by that logic, if the citizens of our country cannot stop the harmful practices of business with our dollars, how can we stop the harmful practices of government with our votes? How can we alter the decisions of the Government corporation that has started?

We can start at the top or the bottom. There have been several recent successes when consumers have spoken out about ridiculous fees charged by corporations. Bank of America’s $5 debit card fee and Verizon’s $2 online shopping fee come to mind. In both of those cases, hundreds of thousands of people rose up, signed a petition, spoke out, and the respective corporations ended those business proposals in a matter of days. We could do the same thing with government. After all, taxes are the world’s most hated fees and they are being pushed on us by lifetime politicians. We might not even need Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party, or an election, if a million Americans signed an online petition saying that we were discontent about particular laws. Government leverages power, corporations leverage money, we the people need to leverage our numbers with the internet and technology. If a petition doesn’t work, then hey, maybe a revolution is in order.

If we started at the bottom, then we’d have to go through local politicians. Local politicians are corrupted by the same government corporations that we can see in Washington, but similar to how a store manager is going to listen to you more than a CEO, a local politician’s ear is easier to reach. With enough local politicians, change can happen quickly. During the 1920’s, Governor of Wisconsin Robert La Follette was one of the greatest progressive leaders of the era before he even went to Washington.

Either of those solutions would work, but they’re difficult. I foresee a massive national protest (greater than Occupy Wall Street) being attempted before either of those solutions is seriously considered.

Blog Outline for the month of January

Here are some ideas I think about a lot that I’m going to expand on in the next few weeks:

  • The advantages of acquiring wealth rather than just buying expensive stuff
  • The potential success of a communist evolution rather than a communist revolution
  • Education reform
  • The inherent flaws of capitalistic democracy (kind of related to the communist post I suppose)
  • The expectations of many people in the millennial generation to always have a standard of living that is equal to what we are experiencing now
  • Urban revival

Here are some questions that I think a lot about, but that I probably won’t expand upon in this blog:

  • Would a police officer ever pull over a bus full of elementary school kids if the bus driver was speeding?
  • Why aren’t there any Cinnabons left in upstate New York?
  • Does dropping out of college guarantee you a job as a computer scientist?
  • How can I get a job where all I do is come up with ideas without ever following through on any of them?