Today we continue our reading of Soonish, a look at some future technologies, written and illustrated by Kelly and Zack Weinersmith. In this post we’ll explore and discuss chapters 4-6, covering new forms of power, robots, and construction.
Reader activity has started to appear across the web. If you’re new to our online book club, people contribute various reactions and thoughts in various venues. For example, a bunch of folks responded to last week’s post in comments. Many applauded the book’s pedagogy, citing examples with approval. Others poked into the science, wondering how applications might play out. Delightfully, one of Soonish‘s authors, Kelly Weinersmith, wrote generously in response to other commentators.
On Twitter many comments popped up. My favorite was this one from Joe Murphy (Kenyon College):
Sorry for reading ahead, but I have just informed my wife that "3D printer which prints in cornbread" is the top of my Christmas list from now until whenever I get one.
— Joe Murphy (@joefromkenyon) February 10, 2018
Please add your thoughts, questions, answers, and more in comments, on Twitter, on your blog, Google+, or wherever else you like.
4: Fusion Power
With this chapter the book shifts from technologies for space travel to those for manipulating stuff mostly on Earth, starting with a dive into what could be the next major transformation of power generation. It takes time to explain how fusion works, using a hilarious metaphor of nerds dating, and then to show different ways that primordial power could be harnessed productively.
Projects include Fusor.net (“welcome to the wonderful world of ‘table top nuclear fusion'”) (!), ITER, the National Ignition Facility (NIF), and General Fusion, plus the historically fascinating Project Plowshare. The conclusion? Fusion is very, very hard to control, but could, if successfully wrangled, offer a wide range of benefits.
Here’s one of the videos they recommend about a successful Soviet use of an atomic weapon to create a lake:
5: Programmable Matter
Here the Weinersmiths take us into the world of being able to add software logic to physical objects. This is one way of talking about robots, of course, but also a way of rethinking other objects as robots: paper, furniture, houses. It’s also a different way of thinking about the Internet of Things.
Assessment: the authors seem to see a lot of work being done in this field, with some fascinating benefits, but also a large number of scary downsides.
6: Robotic Construction
This builds on (ahem) the previous chapter by emphasizing the use of software and robots to construct buildings. Some projects here are extensions of 3d printing, such as Contour Crafting. Others involve purpose built machines, such as robotic bricklayers, tiny robots, and drones plus tiny robots. The chapter closes with an exploration of food printing.
Concerns about robot building tie into other concerns about automation and inequality, in addition to worries about 3d printing and waste. The advantages connect with the refugee crisis, among other benefits.
Thoughts and questions
- Have you seen any academic work on these subjects, either by faculty, students, or both?
- Do these chapters seem more optimistic than those from last week?
- ” ” ” ” ” likely to be realized ” ” ” ” ” ?
- What questions do you have for the authors?
Next week we’ll move on to chapters 7 (Augmented Reality), 8 (Synthetic Biology), and 9 (Precision Medicine).
Remember that all blog posts on Soonish, including this one, are available under the single tag https://bryanalexander.org/tag/soonish/. That way you can check out previous posts and discussion for reference, and also if you come late to the schedule.