Innovation is the Solution to Climate Change, or How you Can Save the World

A four minute logical breakdown of how innovation is the solution to climate change, and how you can save the world.

This is a philosophical foundation for why to believe that innovation can help us solve humanity’s grand challenges.

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Re: Open source democracy

This post, and a question at its end, was so thought-provoking I decided to reply as a full post rather than just as a comment. Here’s the question, and here’s a possible response.
What problems might arise from a digitalization of the voting system?

There are clear economic benefits to digitalization. There would be boosts in administrative efficiency at both ends of the process. Voters would expend fewer resources voting, and election evaluators would spend fewer resources evaluating. The process would become much more streamlined, so much so that it is tempting to use the word ‘optimized.’ But for social policy reasons, I don’t think pure digitalization is optimal.

As it stands, the deterrents to voting (transporting oneself to the voting spot, waiting in line, etc.) provide a substantial check against voter participation. This is under-inclusion, and it is a clear drawback of the system. Some people would vote but don’t because the barriers are sufficiently high. And a digitalized system with fewer deterrents might help these people vote. It would also likely increase participation in younger generations with statistically lower participation rates. This is the beauty of the digitized system.

But it has a dark side too. And I think it’s visible if we consider which groups are most likely to be advantaged or disadvantaged by the system. A wealth divide (here a proxy for internet access) is an obvious starting point. But I think it goes further. Large, diffuse groups tend to fare poorly in the political process. And small, highly cohesive groups dominate. (Think about the vast power of the agricultural lobby when compared to more common civil liberties unions.) It’s possible that a transition to a digitalized system could widen the gap between existing disparities in political power, skewing the balance further towards the smaller and centralized groups.

It’s also possible that certain deterrents to voting are desirable. Deterrents can be positive when a choice is particularly important one. Big purchases, for example, require elaborate contracts. Getting married includes (so I’m told) a significant amount of paperwork. There’s a fascinating branch of law and economics (behavioral law and economics) that analyzes related questions. The credit card market is a hotly contested example. People behave wildly irrationally when it comes to credit cards. Deterrents, or in this case, regulations, might be highly desirable. Should we require more of our citizens than a click of a button when it comes to voting? Maybe so.


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Open source Democracy: The Freedom Declaration

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The invention of the Internet has allowed for faster access to a world of communication and brought a lens of transparency to businesses and governments, just check out Wikileaks. How else can these connection technologies be used to actively promote and create freedom throughout the world?

Open source democracy. What if each democratic nation signed a Declaration to make all of their voting data public, transparent, and open for third party review? We call it “The Freedom Declaration” or “The Democracy Declaration” perhaps (democracy = freedom is a topic for another article). The charter would look something like this:

“This nation agrees to:

  1. Host fair democratic elections;
  2. Uphold transparency and make all voting records public for third party verification;
  3. Be accountable for corruption in the democratic process.”

At the present moment, self-proclaimed democratic states are not held to a higher standard of voting-ethics. Too many corrupt nations host farce elections that are rigged by the ruling party, thereby deteriorating their people’s belief in democracy. In this past year alone look at Iran’s and Burma’s elections, where it was common knowledge around the world that the election was rigged. These nations, democratic peers, would hold each other to this challenge; this Declaration would in short act as a “put your money where your mouth is” statement. If a self-proclaimed democratic nation chooses not to sign, then they are sending a clear message to the international community as well as their own public that, “they are not willing to be transparent with their democracy.” I would surmise that their public might quickly find fault with this.

How can a nation have faith in their democracy if they do not believe in the power of their vote? This author remembers a stunning personal moment watching Obama win the election in 2008 from a cafe in a democratically-challenged nation in South East Asia; my local friends watched the election results unfold in astonishment and turned to me to ask, “so Bush just gives up his power? He does not fight back? People allow this?”  Yes, people allow this; that is the power of faith in your vote.

There seems to be two key structural elements of this evolution; the first, an international agreement, whether it be under the UN or its own entity. I imagine that this treaty/group/entity would be overseen by an Executive Board, which would be comprised of an appointee from each member nation, all of who hold equal power. This board would oversee and review the process, and negotiate any issues or concerns that a nation might have. They would also deliberate if a member nation’s election were proven to be fraudulent. They would make a series of recommendation (perhaps advising for sanctions) to their leaders, creating a voluntary international accountability system.

There would also need to be oversight for the technology. There has been a constant debate in recent years around whether voting should go digital, and some amazing technologies have been invented to make this process easier (check out TurboVote). This would greatly ease the counting process, but it could open up the voting system to a world of Stuxnet-type hacking and viruses. The worry of hackers and computer malfunctions has stalled the digital voting system, however, if this system is overseen by an international panel of experts that could conceivably help alleviate false play.  Most likely there would remain a hard-copy ballot as well, which could be consulted during contentious elections. I imagine the technology installation and operation would be open to public tender in each nation and be agreed upon by the Executive Board to ease a nation’s worry about foreign private firms running their election.

I envision a public website that would look something akin to a large Google map of your nation with the voting numbers portrayed. As you zoom in the numbers become smaller and location based, until you can see the polling station at which you cast your vote. This open-source transparency would not stop corrupt leaders from paying off citizens for their vote, but it would be a strong first step towards creating a sense of personal ownership in the voting system. Perhaps you could even track your vote online. For instance, in a nation like the USA, you could enter your social security number and up would pop your vote, right there at your local county’s booth, creating a sense of security that says, “there is my vote, I was counted, I made a difference.” This data would be made available to all participating member states in The Freedom Declaration to analyze, showing the world that you when it comes to democracy, you’ll put your money where your mouth is.

To Ponder:

  • What problems/issues do you foresee with the digitization of the voting system?
  • How could voting records be best portrayed to create transparency and encourage ownership in the democratic system.
  • What issues would a nation have with signing such a charter? What might a nation require before signing?
  • What could be presented as a benefit of signing (trade agreements?) and what could be offered as a penalty for corruption (sanctions)?
Posted in New Inventions, The Internet | 1 Comment

Science, evolution, and society Part I

My first semester of law school is over! I can finally sit down with some peace and quiet and think about a topic that’s been in the back of my mind for a while. The first topic is the way science progresses. The second topic is how this process resembles the evolution of the law. What does this have to do with moral tech? A lot, I hope. But you’ll be the judge.

The masterwork here is The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Thomas Kuhn. And in it Kuhn presented a new way of looking at the way science advances. Before Kuhn, the idea was that science was a slow, mechanical grind; like the tortoise that plods at a moderate but consistent place. Under this view, scientific progress was the inevitable result of the way we thought about and practiced science: our philosophy of science.

But Kuhn showed that this model didn’t fit reality. When we look at history we don’t see a steady linear progression. We instead see technological and scientific progress happening in fits and starts, with long periods sitting stagnate, only to be followed by a period of explosive growth.

Why does science happen this way? Kuhn suggested the answer is in the way we think about the world through the scientific lens. Science, and the knowledge that comes with it, does not exist in a vacuum. It interacts with the existing landscape of knowledge, and the entire worldview that goes with it (the paradigm in Kuhn speak). Think of pre-Copernican religions, philosophies, and common tools, when it was scientific fact that the Earth was the center of the universe.

Against this backdrop it’s easy to see that resistance to change is built into the system. When Copernicus and other astronomers observed planets moving in ways that weren’t predicted by the geocentric model, did they immediately think the model was wrong? No. They thought their telescope was wrong, or that their eyes were tired. Or, when it happened enough times, that the model just needed slight adjustment.

This is exactly what happened throughout the 16th century. Telescopes became more advanced, and astronomers were able to see that the geocentric model was in need of repair. So they adjusted the model; they added epicycles to orbits. This is also what happened during the transition from Maxwellian electromagnetism to Einstein’s relativistic worldview; from classical to quantum mechanics; from Lamarckism to natural selection as a mechanism for evolution.

But this can’t continue forever. And when scientists meet enough anomalies that cannot be explained by the universally accepted paradigm, and new ideas and explanations begin to take shape. During the transition period there is a struggle for explanatory power.

Before long there is a new paradigm. And with it come new worldviews and tools.

To Ponder:

  1. Applying the Kuhn-paradigm model to society today, what are the dominant scientific memes?
  2. We can’t appropriately call today’s science ‘stagnant,’ but can we call it paradigm shifting? If not, does this suggest the Kuhn-paradigm model needs its own adjustment? (Epicycles?)
  3. Where (in what section or sector of science and technology) do you think the next revolution of thought will take place? And how are these paradigm shifting?
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Deepthroat 2.0

About time to weigh in on the Wikileaks debacle. I call it a debacle because I feel that all sides have played this chess match poorly. But more important than my opinion are the larger questions at hand. The wiki-phenomenon of open-source has come to head-butts with another form of an open-source idea: democratic government, in particular the wealthiest democratic state around, The USA. This is the culmination of a slowly building, inevitable feud. The Internet (in the western world) gives everyone a voice, we can say what we please and we say it loud to whoever will listen. We daily debate whether we ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ Sarah Palin’s latest tweet. Julian Assange’s mission claims to uphold transparency and unearth the truth. Interestingly, this is more or less the same mission as all journalism, just ask Woodward and Bernstein.

If you watch “All the Presidents Men” you will see Hollywood’s rendition of the Watergate scandal from inside the Washington Post. This story seems familiar, there is intrigue, secrets, and even a leaker, by the name of Deepthroat, with a shadowed face lit by the embers of a cigarette. But the similarities with the current Wikileaks phenomenon stop there. If you watch the film you will clearly notice that the first 2 hours of the film are Woodward and Bernstein running around and collecting facts, and their editor continually turning down their story for not having enough evidence. How is Wikileaks editorial staff governed? Who is reviewing their work and determining whether the truth is indeed the best course of action and discussing the context for these leaks? Why is it that for 31 years, the world did not know the identity of Deepthroat, while Bradley Manning is undergoing prosecution?

The US on the other hand is treading on dangerous ground as well, as the evangelist of free speech and personal freedoms on this earth, there should be some level of respect for Wikileaks and its truth-seeking mission. If it was China or North Korea’s diplomatic cables on display for the world, I imagine this would be a fairly different story. America is walking into a hypocritical quagmire, if they attempt to control more information being leaked, it will be at what cost? I think the US could learn a thing or two from China about efficient government, but strict Internet surveillance and cracking down on free speech is hopefully not one of them.

The question for moraltech remains, what are the ethical and philosophical questions created by the meeting of open source technology and classified documents? Personal individuals are not on par with an elected government. Perhaps reflect on whether  the government is the enemy, in a democracy they are the elected leaders, and it is akin to anarchy to have an individual making the decisions about whether a classified document should be made public. Perhaps there should be a transparent oversight board for Wikileaks? With business, individuals, and government represented.

To Ponder:

  • Should Wikileaks be regulated by some third-party? How?
  • Should individuals have the right to the truth about all classified documents?
  • Is honest always the best policy, or do sometimes ‘parents know best?’
Posted in The Internet | 1 Comment

The Threat of Online Currency?

Every child who daringly rips a dollar for the first time realizes that the dollar is in fact paper, and that the paper the dollar is printed on is not in fact worth $1, but represents a unit of trade. Currency is a created construction to ease trade and pay for services; but in the digital world a new, digital form of currency is emerging. In a world where kids spend more time on their computer than in school (10,000 hours by high school graduation), how are goods and services exchanged when no real-world interaction takes place? This is not paypal, amazon, or itunes where numbers represent bank accounts and you receive a book or music on your harddrive, this is a whole new form of currency, and it is striking fear in the hearts of the currency-managers, government.

In China, Tencent is one of the biggest centers of online activity, think facebook meets Second Life, this is the center of interaction. “No other Internet company in the world – not even Google – has achieved the kind of dominance in its home market that Tencent commands in China.” –nytimes. Tencent uses a form of currency on their site called Q-coins, which are used to shop for games, music, or virtual clothing for your Avatar. According to Morgan Stanely, in the USA 70% of Internet users are over the age of 30, while in China it is reversed, 70% of the Internet users are under the age of 30. This means that the attraction of World of Warcraft and facebook to teenagers and young adults dictates the way the Chinese web operates. This has led the China’s Central Bank, which oversees the $2.6 trillion economy, to issue a warning about Tencent’s virtual currency and announce that they are studying whether Q-coins pose a threat to China’s yuan or renminbi. An Internet gaming currency is posing a threat to the second largest economy in the world. Fascinating.

What threat is posed here? Certainly Q-coins could be used to launder money or allow for un-taxed or illegal gambling, similar to Pachinko parlors in Japan, where you gamble for metal balls instead of money and then go next store and exchange your ‘winnings’ for cash. But is there something bigger at stake here? Does China worry that a huge portion of its taxable transactions are going into a virtual space where it cannot follow? Or is it wary of the science-fictional idea that young Chinese will build an economy in a virtual space that does not require government printed bills?

To Ponder:

  • Do Q-coins or other virtual currencies pose national economic threats?
  • Can/should/could a government regulate this industry, thereby creating taxes and/or tying virtual currencies to government-printed-bills?
  • Can you envision an economy where all economic interactions took place virtually?
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Capitalism in Space Part II

Today SpaceX launched its first orbital space capusal, Dragon, in a seemingly flawless liftoff. This marks a new moment in private sector dominance, an interstellar moment. The Economist review of this momentous occasion covers the legal battles in American Congress this past year over whether the government should pay for rides to the interstellar space station aboard private sector vehicles. In an interesting turn, Democrats favored the private sector while Republicans fought for government control.

SpaceX has shown that it can build a spaceship at lower costs than large government behemoths such as NASA; however, what is their revenue stream? If their only form of income is charging governments to fly to international space stations, how expensive do those rides need to be to cover SpaceX’s huge capital budget? Apparently the number is 1.6 billion USD. NASA has signed a contract for 1.6 billion USD for SpaceX to conduct 12 resupplying missions to Americans onboard the space station. For Nasa to agree to such a contract, I am assuming that 1.6 billion must be cheaper than what NASA would spend to conduct these missions themselves, making this a better use of American tax payer funds. But what is sacraficed when privatizing space?

This business model places the government as the customer, leaving them at risk of private sector prices. If NASA slowly shuts down its liftoff capabilities, what is to stop SpaceX ramping up the price to cover their costs and growth? Would a better model be a public private partnership, where the government owns equity in SpaceX?

To Ponder:

  • Should governments control space travel even if it is a more costly vehicle?
  • What are other revenue sources for private space exploration firms other than being high-tech taxi services for governments and wealthy individuals?
  • Should government invest equity or offer capital grants to private sector space exploration firms? Or should they remain the customer, paying per mission?
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