On the age of computation in the epoch of humankind | Max-Planck-Gesellschaft

Source: On the age of computation in the epoch of humankind, by Christoph Rosol, Benjamin Steininger, Jürgen Renn, & Robert Schlögl

tl;dr: To paraphrase Homer Simpson, “To Computation! The cause of… and solution to… humanity’s resource problems.”


Digital technologies do not only provide the basic infrastructure to control the industrial metabolism, they also are first-rate consumers of resources. Through the entwinement of the digital sphere with the physical world and actual energy and material cycles, digital communication has become tightly coupled to the current dynamics of wear and tear of earthly resources. No computational infrastructure can exist without the prior transformation of matter and no information without the transformation of energy.

The asymmetry of signals and effects should therefore not be misinterpreted. Information technology is the opposite of an immaterial technology. Even the smartest device needs dumb metals. At least 40 chemical elements are used in every smartphone, which means we carry around one-third of the periodic table in our pockets. What seems to be an almost immaterial business of zeros and ones makes use of more chemical elements than every previous technology in history.

Smart data technologies appear to many to offer ways out of the energy and resource dilemma. … However, in undertaking such endeavours, rebound effects should be a concern. As the well-known Jevons’ paradox states, increasing efficiency will likely lead to an increase in consumption in response to lower prices. One will have to see if smart, adjustable technologies create a difference to that rule.

Digital technologies have greatly contributed to a frenzy of unsustainable resource exploitation and consumption, the generation of waste and political ambivalence, yet they appear as viable solutions to ameliorate those problems. The rapid and radical change that has occurred to the Earth system as a result of the impacts of industrialized societies has been accompanied – if not leveraged – by rapid and radical changes in information technologies and digital media. Yet still, the hope is that their potential and collaborative scalability for a rational counter approach to untenable developments is enormous.

Science Is Getting Less Bang for Its Buck | The Atlantic

Source: Science Is Getting Less Bang for Its Buck | The Atlantic, by Patrick Collison and Michael Nielsen

[Scientific progress is] requiring larger teams, far more extensive scientific training, and the overall economic impact is getting smaller.

in the early days of the Nobel Prize, future Nobel scientists were 37 years old, on average, when they made their prizewinning discovery. But in recent times that has risen to an average of 47 years, an increase of about a quarter of a scientist’s working career.

When Ernest Rutherford discovered the nucleus of the atom in 1911, he published it in a paper with just a single author: himself. By contrast, the two 2012 papers announcing the discovery of the Higgs particle had roughly a thousand authors each. On average, research teams nearly quadrupled in size over the 20th century, and that increase continues today. For many research questions, it requires far more skills, expensive equipment, and a large team to make progress today.

U.S. productivity growth is way down. It’s been dropping since the 1950s, when it was roughly 6 times higher than today. That means we see about as much change over a decade today as we saw in 18 months in the 1950s.

The Universe Is Always Looking | The Atlantic

Source: The Universe Is Always Looking | The Atlantic, by Philip Ball

[Schrödinger’s] cat is still hauled out today as if to imply that we’re as puzzled as ever by the mere fact that the quantum world at small scales turns into the world of classical physics at human scales. The fact is, however, that this so-called quantum-classical transition is now largely understood. … quantum physics is not replaced by another sort of physics at large scales. It actually gives rise to classical physics.

At the root of the distinction, though, lies the fact that quantum objects have a wave nature—which is to say, the equation Schrödinger devised in 1924 to quantify their behavior tells us that they should be described as if they were waves, albeit waves of a peculiar, abstract sort that are indicative only of probabilities. It is this waviness that gives rise to distinctly quantum phenomena like interference, superposition, and entanglement. These behaviors become possible when there is a well-defined relationship between the quantum “waves”: in effect, when they are in step. This coordination is called “coherence.”

Macroscopic, classical objects don’t display quantum interference or exist in superpositions of states because their wave functions are not coherent. … Every real system in the universe sits somewhere, surrounded by other stuff and interacting with it. … Quantum superpositions of states … are highly contagious and apt to spread out rapidly. And that is what seems to destroy them. … As time passes, the initial quantum system becomes more and more entangled with its environment. In effect, we then no longer have a well-defined quantum system embedded in an environment. Rather, system and environment have merged into a single superposition. … This spreading is the very thing that destroys the manifestation of a superposition in the original quantum system. Because the superposition is now a shared property of the system and its environment, we can no longer “see” the superposition just by looking at the little part of it. What we understand to be decoherence is not actually a loss of superposition but a loss of our ability to detect it in the original system.

And this has nothing to do with observation in the normal sense: We don’t need a conscious mind to “look” in order to “collapse the wave function.” All we need is for the environment to disperse the quantum coherence. We obtain classical uniqueness from quantum multiplicity when decoherence has taken its toll. … All of the photons of sunlight that bounce off the moon are agents of decoherence, and are more than adequate to fix its position in space and give it a sharp outline. The universe is always looking.