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Updated: August 31, 2013 19:08 IST

Techno jazz

Krish Ashok
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Illustration: Satwik Gade
The Hindu
Illustration: Satwik Gade

Science is pushing society towards superintelligence in Elon Musk’s Hyperloop. But hold on to your Tatkal tickets, Krish Ashok advises.

The term “Technological Singularity” was coined by John von Neumann to describe the theoretical emergence of superintelligence through technological means. In the mid-1950s, he postulated this idea that the exponential progress of technology will eventually reach a point where human affairs, as we know it today, will cease to continue. The sophistication of artificial intelligence will eventually get us to where we, as humans, will not be able figure out what to do with it. Von Neumann specifically wrote a well-cited white paper on how Singularity will ultimately solve the problem of why I still continue to get SMSes advertising Thai massages and bean bags on a daily basis.

We seem to be approaching singularity from two different directions as a society though. Take, for instance, the announcement by this Dutch start-up that aims to send a lot of people on a one-way trip to mars to colonise the red planet. They already have 80,000 applicants, presumably those with Manglik problems in their horoscope that they hope to set right with a personal visit to the actual place. The start-up, however, has one small problem. Funding. Building a large-scale manned rocket that will travel from Earth to Mars is not a trivial engineering problem, exceeded in complexity only by the difficulty of scoring Tatkal tickets on the Shatabdi express from Chennai to Bangalore. So the start-up has come up with a brilliant idea — self-funding. Every one of the applicants is expected to contribute to the costs of the journey.

I have a better idea for them. I am told that there is a whole lot of money that deposed African dictators have stashed away, waiting to be liberated by those bold and visionary enough to share their bank account details over e-mail.

On the other hand, Tony Stark’s earthly avatar, Elon Musk, the South African-born entrepreneur, is working to actually make the future possible. His Tesla electric cars are a huge hit and he looks like he will genuinely deliver on the promise of an affordable electric car in the next few years, and, critically, one that will not perform like your average smartphone’s battery life when stuck in Bangalore traffic. Musk also has a venture called SpaceX that has successfully built the first generation of privately funded rockets that could power human spaceflight in the near future. But it was his most recent announcement that piqued everyone’s interest. The Hyperloop is a mass rapid transportation concept that involves long tubes connected to industrial scale vacuum cleaners at either end. The idea is to have these 28-seat capsules learn some Yoga, levitate inside these tubes and then accelerate to several times the speed of sound. In fact, if you board one at Chennai Central, you will reach Bangalore in about 3.5 minutes and still keep hearing the Chennai platform announcements reverberating in your capsule.

But before you start cancelling your hard earned Tatkal tickets, hold your vacuum- powered horses for a bit because the Hyperloop does have its detractors. While there are serious doubts about its feasibility, the single biggest deal-breaking criticism is that, at 6500 km/h, the Hyperloop will be a “Barf fest.” Evolution designed us with a Usain Boltesque speed limit in mind so at extremely high rates of acceleration and deceleration, critics believe that some internal rearrangement of organs might be in order.

So while Elon Musk is busy reimagining the future, several other parts of the world are actively engaged in delaying Singularity. Two seemingly unrelated events are ample proof of this. Radioactive water spills at the wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant have forced the Japanese government to take over disaster recovery from the company that used to run the plant, which has admitted that some 300 metric tons of contaminated water is being leaked into the Pacific Ocean on a daily basis. And since the Japanese tend to fish the oceans like an everyday California gold rush, all of this contamination will likely affect human beings in the near future, although if Japanese monster movies and TV game shows are anything to go by, the rest of the world believes that this is probably already happening.

The second event is the escape of a million Periplaneta Americana from a cockroach nursery in China. Now you might wonder why someone would run a nursery for cockroaches in the first place but, at $74 profit per pound of traditional Chinese medicine for cancer and inflammation, it’s not a bad investment, except when you imagine the consequence of a million of them escaping into the cornfields around the nursery and making their way into your houses. And crawling all over you. When you are asleep.

Perhaps the contaminated Fukushima water could help contain this problem? Alas, no. Cockroaches are among the few living things on earth that can survive radiation.


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