“Space”, Captain Kirk famously said, is “the final frontier”. Such words evoke the romantic image of people as explorers. Just as our ancestors built ships to take them across the sea in search of new land, science fiction imagines our descendents building ships with which to cross space in search of new worlds.
In a very tentative sense, the exploration of space is no longer science fiction. Man has walked on the moon and robots are now exploring Mars. But, I think it is fair to say that we have not really begun to colonise our solar system. In this essay, I thought I would discuss the locations where the first colonisers would likely establish their bases.
For settlers looking for somewhere to live on the solar system’s smallest planet, their main concern will probably be: How to stay warm. It might seem strange that this would be a problem. After all, Mercury is the planet that is closest to the Sun, so you might think it would be hellishly hot. But while that is true in certain places (those in direct sunlight, where the temperature can reach 800 degrees fahrenheit or 425 degrees centigrade) there is no atmosphere on Mercury and hence no wind to move this heat to locations that are in permanent shadow, such as craters. And it is at the bottom of a crater that the first colonisers would likely want to set up base. Why? Because this is where large quantities of ice water exist, hiding in a layer a few inches underground.
As to how the settlers would obtain the energy to power and heat their colony, the answer is obviously to make use of the abundant solar energy. Therefore, the ideal location would be at the bottom of a crater with plenty of ice water, and a mountain peak high enough to be bathed in eternal sunlight.
The settlers would likely be tunnelers, as constructing underground dwellings seems like the easiest way to provide the early colonisers with protection from the harshness of Mercury’s temperature extremes. Tunnels would be built, and then mirrors that could track the sun and redirect its light to where it’s needed would be used to provide illumination.
For settlers on Venus, the overriding concern would be how to cope with the heat. Venus, not Mercury, is the hottest planet in the solar system, thanks to a thick atmosphere that causes a runaway greenhouse effect. Although it’s named after the Roman goddess of love (no doubt because it shines like a jewel in the morning and evening sky) Venus is actually as close to hell as any planet gets, with crushing atmospheric pressure, acid rain and soaring temperatures. To say the least, Venusians are going to require heavily-insulated dwellings and great air conditioning. The high atmospheric pressure would have to be taken into consideration as well, requiring either very strong walls or a special mixture- perhaps argon mixed with the right amount of oxygen- so people can breathe.
Again, building underground could be a way to begin to settle Venus, but as this planet is one of the most challenging places for people to try and live in and likely won’t be colonised until our technological development is much more advanced, we can speculate on more radical colonisation alternatives.
There is a place on Venus where there are Earth-like temperatures and pressures (though no breathable atmosphere) and that is about 30 miles above its surface. Remember Cloud City, that floating mining facility where Han Solo got frozen in carbonite in ‘The Empire Strikes Back’? Something like that would make for an ideal home on Venus, floating around where the conditions most closely match that of Earth. Douglas Mulhall suggested constructing a “one-mile diameter balloon containing an Earth-like atmosphere” and building a city inside that. It would require about three million tons of lift in order to get such a ‘city-balloon’ to rise in Venus’s atmosphere, and so the city would have to weigh substantially less if the project were to- forgive the pun- get off the ground.
Ah, Mars. The planet that comes top of the ‘planets we will most likely colonise’ list. I think there is another planet that will be colonised first, but we’ll get to that later.
Other than Earth, Mars is the most hospitable planet in our solar system. Considering how awful the others are, that’s not saying much, but there is hope that it is able to at least support extremophile microbes (there may also be life beneath the icy surface of Europa, but that is a satellite not a planet). 
If you wanted to follow in Matt Damon’s footsteps and settle on Mars, where should you live? The equator is warmest but lacks water. There is water in the form of ice at the poles, but at -100 degrees fahrenheit (-73.33 degrees celsius) the nights are way too cold unless you have means to provide heat.
The Martians may opt to construct a dome to to protect themselves from the Martian climate and provide living conditions closer to home. Since the Martian atmosphere has a pressure of less than 1% that of Earth, any dome containing an Earth-like atmosphere would have to be strong enough to hold that pressure. Whereas Mars’s most valuable resource is solar energy, on Mars it’s probably carbon dioxide. The atmosphere is 95% CO2 and colonists would no doubt find ways of pumping it into their dome to help grow their crops.
Moving out from Mars, we face what would be the most difficult planets in the solar system for humans to attempt to colonise. There are no worlds more alien to people than the gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn. The greatest challenge to colonising such worlds lies in the fact that they have no solid surface to build anything on, just as atmosphere that gets denser and denser as you descend into it. Jupiter also has the wildest weather in the solar system. Its famous ‘eye’ is a titanic cyclone large enough to swallow the Earth several times over. Could humans ever colonise such a world? I think it’s fair to say that it would be an incredible technical achievement to build a habitat that could protect humans from what Jupiter can throw at them. In fact, it might even be preferable to engineer life to be compatible. Freeman Dyson speculated that there might be exotic alien life in the form of creatures that somewhat resemble airships, drifting through Jupiter’s thick clouds. Perhaps our descendants might find ways to re-engineer themselves into such beings, should they want to attempt the colonisation of Jupiter.
The challenge with colonising Pluto lies in the fact that it is so far from us- 3 billion miles away. It’s even further from the Sun, and that would make it very difficult to obtain sufficient energy from Solar power with which to provide warmth and sunlight to grow crops. Douglas Mulhall suggested thousands of computer-controlled mirrors to reflect what little sunlight there is onto the same spot, but pointed out that “perhaps it would be more feasible to use the scarce solar power in a more efficient way by synthesising nutrients artificially in a chemical laboratory”.
Although Mars usually tops the list of planets we are likely to attempt to colonise, our earliest attempt at establishing an off-Earth colony will no doubt begin with a lunar base. The Moon is, after all, closer to us than any other world in the solar system and the one place where people have briefly visited. The challenge of living on the Moon would be pretty similar to that of living on Mercury. There are caves on the Moon in the form of lava tubes, carved out by ancient flowing lava, and these might be converted into the kind of tunnel-like dwellings suggested for Mercurians.
When it comes to the planets and their satellites, most are so large their sheer size means we have to think about where to construct our colonies. But with the asteroids it’s different. Many of them are small enough for us to consider converting them into homes, rather than try and build homes on them. Some visionaries have suggested that we might one day hollow out asteroids and convert them into spacecraft-cum-colonies. One of the great challenges to living on (or maybe in) an asteroid would be its tiny gravitational field. Ceres is the largest asteroid at 590 miles diameter and its gravity is a mere 1/36th that of Earth’s. Obviously the smaller asteroids would have even less gravity so care would have to be taken to ensure every step does not become a flying leap that bangs your head against the ceiling.
It’s possible that, aside from the lunar bases, asteroid cities would be the earliest kind of off-world habitat we would attempt to establish. Already, entrepreneurs like Elon Musk are thinking about setting up mining facilities to extract the mineral wealth locked up in the asteroid belt, and perhaps we might use such resources to provide the raw materials with which to construct the the habitats for places like Venus and Mars.
Earlier I said I did not agree that Mars would be the planet we will colonise first. So, what planet did I have in mind? The answer is: Earth. “Isn’t that already colonised?” I hear you ask. Yes, but only partly. Think of the poles, the arid deserts, and the vast oceans. These are places on Earth where few (and none, in some locations) live.
The reason why so few people live in locations such as these is that there are for more pleasant locations to live on Earth. However, compared to what awaits us offworld, even the harshest of Earth’s regions are much more benign, and it would be much easier to send help to should any emergency arise.
Earth therefore provides many a training ground where we might test colonies before attempting to establish them offworld. Would-be colonisers of Pluto or Mercury might try to prepare by setting up a base in the depths of the Antarctic winter. Trainee Martians might first set up a self-sufficient dome in one of the world’s driest deserts. Venusians might put their ability to cope with crushing atmospheric pressures to the test by building underwater habitats in the ocean depths.
Given that living off-Earth entails the development of technologies that can provide habitable conditions in much more extreme locations than anything to be found on Earth, it makes sense to use such technologies to fully colonise our home. A future in which there are domed cities on Mars, underground habitats on the Moon and so on would surely allow for floating cities on the world’s oceans, and comfortable conditions in our more extreme environments. If we can live well in a self-sufficient way anywhere on Earth, we would have more confidence of doing likewise as we take on the challenge of colonising what Captain Kirk called ‘the Final Frontier’.

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This blog post was originally my reply to a question posted on Kurzweilai forums.
I do not think a car would be an artificial general intelligence.
For something to qualify as being an AGI, it must have the capacity to learn to do something it it was not designed for. A spider is not demonstrating general intelligence when it weaves a web. Instead, it was designed by nature to execute a web-weaving program. But when a human being knits a sweater, that is an example of GI because humans did not evolve to knit sweaters. 
A car is designed to provide a means of transport, so if we are strtictly talking about cars there really is not that much scope to expand its capabilities to novel new areas, like figuring out through learning experiences how to knit a sweater or identify a spider from a fly or myraid other things a GI could conceivably do. An autonomous car is probably better thought of as a ‘Not So Narrow Artificial Intelligence’, rather than a full-blown AI. It would be an NSNAI because it would have to cope with a far greater variety of circumstances within its specialised field compared to, say, those robotic arms you see building cars. Where those robots are concerned, their environment is deliberately set up in such a way that the same sequence of events happens again and again. This would be like a robot car that has been programmed to drive around a particular circuit and only in dry conditions. Change the route even slightly and the car would career off course completely ignorant to the fact it was doing something wrong. A car equipped with NSNAI, however, would have the ability to learn how to drive around a variety of circuits and in a variety of conditions.
Now, if we were to be more flexible in our definition of ‘car’ so that it encompasses any kind of vehicle including such things as rovers like the kind sent to explore Mars and R2D2, then we may find some ‘cars’ which would be artificial general intelligences. Imagine something kind of like a fork-lift truck but with much more flexible appendages, making it capable of performing a variety of grips, kind of like the way your hands can. Now we have something whose body design provides an opportunity to learn skills pretty far from anything its creators had in mind. This is not just a car being a car in different places. It could go bake a cake or direct traffic or write a book….the list goes on and on. It does not [/i]have[i] to be just a vehicle, unlike a car which, by its very design, is rather useless at being anything else.
An interesting possibility is that the ‘car’ aspect of our autonomous vehicle need not necessarily be part of its conscious mind. A spider does not need to know how to make a web, just as you do not know how to make a poo. I mean, your body knows, obviously, but you can live in complete ignorance of how your body produces those those brown lumps, and a spider is completely ignorant of how its body constructs webs. Well, of course I do not know that a spider is not conscious of what it is doing, but I do know it need not necessarily have to be conscious of what it is doing.
Similarly, when it comes to driving from A to B with possible diversions by way of C,D,E etc, a robot need not be consciously aware of all the mental processes involved in enabling it to navigate its way to its destination. This could mean that, if you were to ask it how it managed to successfully get to where it was meant to be, it would shrug and say something like ‘I dunno…it just felt like I was going the right way”. 

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Ok, first of all I should admit that this analogy is not an invention of mine. It features in this documentary:

But it is a good one so I thought I would spread the word.
Imagine it is 1915. At this point in time, the horse population of America is at its peak, with some 21 million of these animals put into service of mankind. For tens of thousands of years, people have relied on the superior strength of animals like horses and oxen to help plough soil, pull barges along canals, work down coal mines, provide transportation, even as weapons of war. Imagine that two horses have heard of a new invention, something called the internal combustion engine, and they have different opinions concerning what impact this invention is going to have on horse labour.
One horse believes that the internal combustion engine is going to steal horses’ jobs. People will make mechanical horses that cost less money to upkeep, and will be capable of doing more work. It makes references to the The first Benz 954 cc single-cylinder four-stroke engine with trembler coil ignition, capable of producing 2⁄3 horsepower, and points out that the amount of horsepower that can be obtained from internal combustion engines has gone up and up. Horses have long been used to a vast advantage in strength in comparison to people, but now people have invented something which will quickly match the strength of horses and then, not long after, go way beyond them. It imagines a world full of mighty muscular machines, horsepower not counted in single figures but 1000 horsepower and maybe more. As far as employment is concerned, the future looks pretty bleak for horses. Their services are simply not going to be needed to anything like the extent to which mankind has relied on horses in the past.
The other horse has a more optimistic view of the situation. It acknowledges that there is this invention called the internal combustion engine, and that it has been incorporated into machines which have begun competing with horsework in some narrow situations. But it points out how superior horses still are in many cases. Yes, a car put in an environment designed to favour it can outperform a horse. A race between a sportscar on a nice long stretch of smooth tarmac would absolutely trounce a horse in a race. But what if the race were across farmland, with soil churned up by a plough, and obstacles like rivers and fences and hedges to be crossed? Who then would bet on the car taking first place?
This horse also points out that many of the jobs humans have horses do is dirty and dangerous work. Take those poor horses used down coal mines, or the warhorses rode into battle. The jobs horses have been given in cities, it argues, are more pleasant than the grim labour once imposed on the species. For this horse, it is simply infeasible that equine jobs will be consigned to the dustbin of history. Technology will change jobs for sure, always has always will. But technology is a creator of jobs for horses as well as a destroyer. Just as the horse collar, the stirrup, and the carriage opened up new ways for people and horses to cooperate in running the economy, so too will the internal combustion engine provide new forms of employment for horses that nobody can imagine today.
Well, we all know which horse was right. It was indeed the case that the internal combustion engine went onto become a massively successful invention, installed in a bewildering variety of machines. Cars, trucks, tractors, diggers, bulldozers…Our reliance on the brute strength of machines has gone up and up, and our reliance on horses has gone down and down. Sure, horse employment has not fallen to zero. But it IS a tiny fraction of what it once was. As far as horses are concerned, I think it’s fair to say technological unemployment is pretty much a reality.
I would hazard a guess that this outcome is of no particular surprise to anyone. It is a simple process of extrapolation, right? What kind of progress was horsepower making in horses? Hardly any at all. A horse could produce one, two, three horsepower just as its ancestors stretching back tens of thousands of years could. Machines, on the other hand, were producing more and more in a comparative blink of the eye. It was just inevitable that, sooner or later, machines built to do physical labour would so vastly outperform horses in all but a few very narrow circumstances, economic logic would have to reach the conclusion that employment for horses was a thing of the past.
How does this example of a law of economics strike you: “New technology means new and better jobs for horses”. I am guessing you are thinking that sounds pretty daft. There is simply no law of economics or nature or anything at all which says new technology [/i]must[i] create new and better jobs for horses. Capitalism does not give a damn about horses. It will of course commodify, and create markets for buying and selling horse labour so long as there is profit to be made from doing so, but there is nothing in capitalism’s prime objective of growth and the lowering of costs and raising of productivity that says it must always provide jobs for horses.
This is so obvious that it hardly needs saying. But I am using horses and horse employment as an analogy for human employment. While I suspect it would be very difficult to find anybody who agrees with a statement like ‘new technology means new and better jobs for horses’, it is quite easy to find people who think there is something like a law of economics which says “new technology means new and better jobs for people”. Why? Because this is what past experience has taught us to expect, I guess. We moved from backbreaking subsistence farming, to the arduous toil of factory work to the bullshit jobs of office work, where employees spend five hours of a 40 hour week doing actual work (itself ridiculously easy in comparison to the hard labour of yore) and the other 35 attending ‘motivational seminars’ or playing around on Facebook. Just as horses had the advantage of millions of years of natural selection fine-tuning them for the job of trotting and galloping around fields, meadows and marshes, humans had the advantage of millions of years of natural selection fine-tuning them for the job of doing tasks which require common sense, language ability, and creative thinking. While it now has to be conceded that machines can indeed totally trounce horses in a contest of brute strength, and that technological unemployment for horses did indeed happen as an inevitable consequence of this disparity, there are still people who believe that there is something special about humans which somehow means technological unemployment is never going to happen; that no matter how many of our current jobs are taken over by robots or rendered obsolete by some other technology (who needs banks and all the middleman services that go with them when you can do banking with blockchain cryptography and Apple Pay using your smartphone?) new work that no machine could possibly do for ages and ages is bound to come along.
In the case of horses, we have the benefit of 20/20 hindsight when it comes to talking about what the internal combustion engine ultimately meant for their job prospects. When it comes to AI and robotics and what it means for human employment, well, much of that lies in the future and our vision of things to come is nothing like as clear. When will autonomous vehicles mean the end of that line of work for people? When will Dr Watson be attending to your medical needs? When will robocop be protecting the innocent, serving the public trust, and upholding the law? When will you find yourself in a loser’s race fighting the impossible fight to retrain for jobs that are disappearing faster than people can adapt to new circumstances, outcompeted by artificial general intelligence or a cambrian explosion of narrow AI applications and innovations in manufacturing techniques producing specialised machines to do any particular task with greater efficiency and less cost than humans can offer? Years, decades? I for one would not presume to know the answer to this question.
But I do know this: Horses were nature’s proof of principle that it is possible to make a machine that can do pretty much all the work horses are good for. What possible reason could there be to suppose that humans are not nature’s proof of principle that machines can do pretty much any job humans are good for? I do not think there is any practical reason to suppose there is anything humans can do that a machine, in principle, cannot. We need to confront the coming reality of technological unemployment while we still have the luxury of time in which to decide our best course of action, not bury our heads in the sand like my fictional horse.
Oh, wait, that is camels isn’t it?

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According to Greek legend, the titan Prometheus so angered the gods, he was punished by being chained to a rock and having his liver pecked out by an eagle for all eternity. What crime was deserving of such a punishment? Prometheus stole fire from Mount Olympus and gave it to mankind.
The part fire has played in the development of the human species has a long history in our culture. Just as Ancient Greece had its Promethean legend, so too does the relationship between fire and human development play a role in modern stories. In Alien 3, for example, Ripley asks the inmates of a prison colony if they have the capacity to make fire, implying that, should they lack this capacity, they are living in a pre-civilised condition.
It’s not too difficult to see why fire so fascinates us. It’s beautiful but deadly. It protects us with light and warmth but it is also destructive. In this essay, I want to share some things I have learned about fire and the ways it has contributed to our development.
According to the website Moral Science, “the Prometheus story is a great metaphor of the struggle between science and religion”. We might suppose that ‘fire’ is really meant to represent technology. In thinking about how fire first influenced the development of the human race, one might think in terms of its role in the production of metals. A species that has the capacity to make fire has the capacity to make bronze, and iron; to make tools and weapons like scythes and swords. 
However, the capacity to make fire rewarded us with one very important feature of humans long before we discovered how to work with metals like bronze and iron. Without fire, the human species would never have developed such large brains. Just like anything doing work, brains need energy. In fact, the human brain needs more energy than any other organ, accounting for up to 20% of the body’s total haul. We have to get that energy from somewhere, and it comes from our food.
One reason why humans are such brainy animals is because they have meat in their diets. Carnivores’ prey has a habit of running away and adopting other strategies to avoid becoming a meal, and that encourages the evolution of cunning, strategy and second-guessing on the hunters’ part. Also, the best building material for meat is meat. It is a complete protein package, containing all 20 amino acids and energy-rich fat. Herbivores eat plants, which take far less skill to subdue, and is far less able to feed hungry brain tissue. So, for these reasons, carnivores have larger brains compared to herbivores.
But that does not quite explain how come humans have such large brains. Pre-tech primates would find it impossible to supply a brain as large as ours with sufficient calories. Somehow, there has to be a way to extract more energy out of the food available. Most primates have guts that weigh more than four times as much as their brains, but humans are an exception because the human brain weighs more than the human intestine. How were we able to pull this trick off?
Well, in a sense, our digestive system does not just reside within our bodies. We cook our food, and that makes it more digestible, meaning we can get away with having a smaller gut. Also, cooking food causes starch to gelatinize and proteins to denature, thereby releasing far more calories compared to uncooked food. It was cooking our food that enabled us to afford brains larger than our guts.
But that was not all fire and the invention of cooking did for us, it also freed up more time.
Most animals spend a great deal of their time eating their meals. Chimps spend six or more hours a day masticating their food. For chimps, food takes no time to prepare- as soon as you have caught it or gathered it, you are ready to eat- but actually eating it takes time. For humans, the situation is reversed. Cooked food takes time to prepare but only minutes to eat. Fire is kind of like cooked food in that both are much easier to share than to make. Thomas Jefferson once said, “he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me” (a nice analogy for non-zero sum exchanges). While it takes skill and effort to start a fire using stone-age technology, it takes negligible skill to share fire. Just hold some sticks in the flames until they catch alight, and use the lighted sticks to catch other combustible material alight. If sharing is easy to do and confers benefit (such as creating non-zero sum exchanges like credit and debt in the form of favours owed and paid back) it is likely to spread. Because cooked food can be eaten so quickly, this means that somebody else can eat as well as the person who prepares a meal.
But it wasn’t just simple sharing, because the sexes tend to favour different kinds of food. It is well known that there is division of labour in hunter-gatherer tribes. According to the stereotype, men hunt and women gather. Some might suppose this is because men are free to hunt whereas women are left holding the baby. But even in societies where women don’t face a hard choice between child care and hunting, they will still seek different kinds of food from their menfolk.
In nutritional terms, women tend to collect dependable carbohydrates, whereas men are on the hunt for precious protein. Combine cooked food that is easier to share than to prepare yourself, and sexes tending toward seeking different kinds of food, and you get the beginnings of bartering, of credit and debt. The first instances of economic exchange were probably between the sexes. As Matt Ridley wrote, “there is a neat economic explanation for the sexual division in hunter-gatherers..combine the two- predictable calories from women and occasional protein from men- and you get the best of both worlds…Everybody gains, gains from trade”.
As is well known, hunter-gatherer tribes eventually gave way to agriculture. Again, fire played a role in bringing this about. Today, environmental types bewail the practice of ‘slash and burn’ whereby forests are set alight in order to clear land to grow crops on. One reason why farming rapidly spreads once started is because crops become less easy to grow as time goes by, and this encourages people lacking technology to seek out more virgin land. When a forest is burned down, you are left with soft, friable soil covered with fertilizing ash. It does not take much beyond poking a digging stick into this soil, planting seeds, and waiting for the crop to grow. After a few years, however, sunlight made available by removing the forest canopy will have caused weeds to grow, and the soil will be compacted and in need of hoeing. Eventually, tough grassroots will need to be broken up and buried in order to provide a decent seedbed, and for that you need a plough pulled by an ox or horse. But these animals require food as well, which means some land must be set aside for pasture.
For these reasons, the first farmers were more willing to adopt a policy of ‘slash, burn, plant, move, repeat’. In other words, burn down forests in order to clear land for the planting of crops, and then move on as the land becomes too difficult to work with. It remains popular with many tribal people in forests to this day. Some have suggested that, as slash and burn farming expanded in Neolithic Europe, and more people turned to a form of farming that produces nine times more carbon per head compared to today’s farming, the carbon dioxide released by those fires might have helped warm the climate.
As the human race has grown, we have faced the constant challenge of providing sufficient energy for our needs. In 1798, Thomas Malthus wrote his Essay On Population, in which he claimed food supply could not keep pace with population growth because of the finite productivity of land, and much technological ingenuity has been devoted to averting his bleak prophecy of a population crash brought about by starvation.
One of the biggest contributors in averting this disaster was the invention of the internal combustion engine. Recall that working animals need feeding, and that requires land set aside for pasture. At its peak in 1915, America’s horse population was 21 million animals and they required about one-third of all agricultural land in order to be fed. Moreover, three million acres of agricultural land went unused because it lay over 80 miles away from any railway, and a five-day trip by horse wagon cost thirty percent more than the value of grain. The invention of the internal combustion engine meant far less reliance on animals to pull ploughs and stuff, thus opening up previously inaccessible tracts of land.
I would imagine that, when considering uses for fossil fuel, most people would think of the petrol or diesel that is used to run vehicles. But, in fact, as far as agricultural energy consumption is concerned, 31% is spent on the manufacture of inorganic fertilizer, compared to 19% for the operation of field machinery and 16% for transportation. During the 19th century it did seem at times that we would run out of fertilizer and bring about the Malthusian crash. We exhausted the best deposits of guano (rich in nitrogen) and so miners turned to saltpetre deposits (which was actually ancient guano). But, by the beginnings of the 20th century, stockpiles of fertilizer were growing dangerously low. Two years before the turn of the century, the British Chemist Sir William Crookes argued that we would face catastrophe unless a way was found to chemically fix nitrogen from the air.
15 years later, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch invented a way of making large quantities of inorganic fertilizer from steam, methane and air. According to the essay ‘Eating Fossil Fuels’, “between 1950 and 1984…world grain production increased by 250%…The energy for the Green Revolution was provided by fossil fuels in the form of fertilizer (natural gas) pesticides (oil) and hydrocarbon-fuelled irrigation.
In one way or another, we have relied on solar energy for our capacity to do work. At the base of every food chain we find organisms that use photosynthesis in order to obtain energy from sunlight and so, by consuming plant matter or consuming animals that feed on plant matter, we ultimately rely on the Sun to provide our energy. And fossil fuels are stored solar energy, so reliance on these is also, ultimately, dependence on the Sun.
Fossil fuels are in finite supply and are non-renewable, at least on timescales relevant to humans in their current mortal condition. They do have one great advantage, though, in that by the time a species has developed to the point where it can exploit coal, oil and gas as an energy source, vast reserves of fossil fuels have built up. Timber, cropland, pasture, peat and water all self-replenish, but too slowly to avoid being used up by a swelling population. Prior to the adoption of fossil fuels, every economic boom ended in a bust because renewable energy resources ran out. If you think of all the resources that have actually run out, all of them are renewable (I am talking about species extinction). 
But coal never ran out. On the contrary, it became cheaper and more abundant as time went by. By 1870, burning coal in Britain was generating as many calories as would have been expended by 850 million labourers or, to put it another way, was providing fuel equivalent to the output of 15 million extra acres of forest to burn. 
The reason why fossil fuels have become more, rather than less, abundant as time has gone by, is because the human race is a technological species. This means that resources for us are not a fixed quantity but rather dynamic variables that change as our knowledge and technical capability change. All forecasts of doom (and there have been many, and they continue to be issued to this day) take current practices and extrapolate them out into the future. But we do not carry on as we always have; we invent new practices, adopt new technologies, accumulate and edit knowledge and in so doing unlock resources that were hitherto inaccessible while also making other resources less relevant to our needs, or no longer relevant at all. Who needs whale oil to provide them with light these days? 
For much of human history, we could extract far more energy from fossil fuels compared to any renewables we could practically exploit, and that meant that, for all its bad reputation as a source of pollution, we actually did far less environmental harm using fossil fuels than would have been afflicted had we tried to support such population growth and rise in affluence with renewables. Non-renewables, in other words, were, for most of human history, the greenest source of energy available that could support a population that would ultimately number in the billions, with expectations of liberating their own from slavery and providing decent standards of living. 
But then, as I said before, resources change as scitech changes. If solar panels could be mass produced at $200 per square metre and with an efficiency of 12%, that would generate the equivalent of a barrel of oil for $30. It would then, of course, make greater economic sense to rely on solar power rather than spend $40+ dollars mining a barrel of oil. Also, we should not forget that, for all our ingenuity in finding more fossil fuel to extract, it is in finite supply and so peak energy must eventually result unless we can make fossil fuels irrelevant as an energy source by exploiting vast and renewable energy reserves that had to go untapped by our ancestors because of their lack of technological capability. 
From using fire to cook and providing ourselves with sufficient energy to build large brains, to adopting slash-and burn agriculture that maybe ended the ice age, to inventing the internal combustion engine aiding in the expansion of our food supply and the burning of fossil fuels as our primary energy source, to maybe being on the cusp of a renewable energy revolution that harnesses the fires of the Sun, this was my essay on what fire did for us.

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alternative plans for the end of jobs

Work to earn a living!
It’s been promoted as the best and most honourable way to gain capital, and has served us for millennia. Since time immemorial, people have wanted goods and services, and those goods and services have needed people to bring them into being. That meant employment opportunities and society’s organised around the employer/employee relationship. Sure most jobs are not in any way fun or interesting for the people who have to do them (which is why monday is widely held to be the worst day of the week and the weekends are almost universally adored- at least for those who don’t have to go to their jobs on saturday or sunday) but it has always been necessary for people to do jobs.
But the incentives of capitalism has never been about providing jobs for people. Rather, it has always been about increasing profit for the owners of capital by lowering marginal costs. People who complain about loss of employment and the harm being done to local communities following the closure of some business and its subsequent move overseas in order to be more competitive miss the point that the CEO is tasked with increasing shareholder value and nothing else. Of course, businesses will provide jobs for people and build communities if this helps increase profit or lower marginal costs, but if a better method of doing either that does not involve employing people should come along, you can bet the most successful businesses will adopt that method.
This is why some have been keeping a wary eye on automation. Could there be a cambrian explosion of specialised robots and narrow AI, resulting in countless ways to automate jobs and squeeze human workers to the point of making employment seeking impossibly difficult? Can robot minds become as, or more, capable than human brains, resulting in artificial labourers who work for nothing 24/7, never taking holidays, never getting sick, never organising into unions and making demands?
In short, could the way of life that has applied for thousands of years, one in which capital growth requires people to find employment in jobs, come to an end, giving way to a new era in which machines grow capital with only a few humans in the loop, or maybe none at all? More to the point, if technological unemployment does happen, what should we do about it?
Erik has an idea. Assume technological unemployment is never going to happen, or if it is going to happen, not for a long while yet. No need to plan for some far distant future possibility. Erik is not alone in questioning the belief that technological unemployment is going to occur. Many have pointed out that tech creates jobs as well as eliminating them. We can retrain and move from being office workers to 4 dimensional holobiomorphal co-formulators or whatever the hell people do in 2030 to earn a living. If it is always that case that tech creates jobs and that people’s labour will always be the most cost-effective commodity one can hire to fill the vacancies those jobs open up, then we can carry on as we always have. If.
UBI is another possibility, probably the one most often argued over on this forum. If technological unemployment is going to make it impossible for most people to get a job (‘darn it, I have applied for a thousand different jobs but that Roboworker 2000 has been installed in every single one. It’s replacing jobs faster than I can retrain!’) we have to sever the link between jobs and wages. It’s all very well lowering costs by eliminating jobs and replacing human workers with ultra-efficient and capable robots, but if those robots receive no wages and people can earn no wages, where are all the consumers with money to spend going to come from? Can an economy really work if wealth is concentrated into .1% of the population leaving everybody else with little to no disposable income? 
In this thread we are going to assume that technological unemployment IS a reality we will be facing in the future. I want to know: APART from UBI, what can we do to ensure the robot revolution benefits as many people as possible? How should we organise society so that it is best-placed to meet that future in which so few people are needed in jobs? 
Here is one idea. Money needs to be reinvented so that as technological capabilities increase and more and more jobs are automated, the value of each coin in your pocket goes up. At the moment, fiat money and fractional reserve banking is designed to redistribute money from the bottom of the pyramid to the top, without those at the top necessarily making any contributions to the real economy. This is achieved through inflation and other methods. Rather than inflation decreasing the purchasing power of the money in your pocket, the purchasing power of money in ordinary peoples pockets should be increasing, as indeed I believe it did during the 19th and early 20th century. Material wealth needs to become cheap, so cheap that anybody with half a brain to at least save something and prepare for the tech unemployment to come, can comfortably live in that fantastic future in which capitalism has reached its peak.
Any other ideas?

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forum musings (reply to Captn)

>Capitalism aggregates the wealth of billions of people into the hands of a relatively few entities which focus that wealth on achieving the next incremental advance in technology. This wealth tends to go to those entities which have demonstrated an ability to successfully achieve results, and it all happens VOLUNTARILY! <
This is a textbook example of how capitalism should work in theory, and one popularised by advocates of globalism. It is such a fine method of organising labour, it was also how Soviet communism was portrayed in State propaganda. After all, what did those old movies show? Happy workers out in the farms and in the factories, busily churning out useful products that would make a positive difference to the lives of the populace.
Of course, we now know the truth: That looming over this productivity was a top-heavy bureaucratic monster full of political cronyism and redundant paper-pushers, diverting wealth from the real economy and contributing nothing to it, indeed actually impeding it- the Politburo.
Unfortunately, we can now say much the same of modern global markets. Here too we see the real economy of goods and services being squeezed by a nonproductive entity. In this case, it is the banking and financial system (and the political system as well, of course), which has increasingly moved away from getting involved in anything that fits the romantic view of capitalism extolled by Captn and towards methods of simply moving money around, not producing anything of use to most people’s lives.
According to ‘Cancer Stage of Capitalism’, “The mutation in money investment and profit occurs when money capital is no longer a phase within the circuit of the production or distribution of goods or services, but is exclusively committed at every stage of its growth only to the multiplication of itself. Instead of any productive or distributive function in the metabolism of money through the medium of use-value to more money (M → C → M1), there is only the metabolism of money to more money without any conversion to use-value in the circuit (M→M1 →M2 →Mn).
For purposes of clarification and simplification, we will henceforth refer to this value sequence as: $→$1 →$n
“The defining principle of this investment mutation is that it is no longer bounded by any national base or interest or regulation, or by any other direct or indirect requirement to commit itself to any productive function beyond itself. It demands only to acquire maximally more money for money loaned or invested with no conversion into sustenance or service for any human, social or environmental life- organization in between…
New modes of mutating the metabolisms of exchange for use-value to the autonomous proliferation of money-demand are many and aberrant in form: turning bankrupt governments into social debt-collectors enforcing money lenders’ terms on progressively poorer public sectors; demanding ever more unconditional tax-breaks for foreign investment and debt over equity; massive diversion of bank credit to non-productive speculations instead of job-creating enterprises; globe-roaming attacks on national currencies by speculative buying and selling in multi-billion-dollar-profit accumulations which create no use-value and which cripple social and economic orders overnight; disaggregation of productive enterprises into broker-and- lawyer-dismantled assets-for-sale by leveraged buy-outs which pay for themselves by unproductive appropriation of the liquid capital of the bought firms; government deregulation of high-interest savings-and- loan banks so that their principals can expropriate up to $500 billion from taxpayers to pay for their speculative money-into-more-money diversions; reloading of the tax-obligations of banking and financial institutions and their investment customers onto the backs of productive members of society with less aggregate income to extract; rechannelling of citizens’ savings in major banks to continuous billion-dollar mergers and buy-outs with no productive gain; round-the-clock arbitrages and speculations on derivative market and currency values disconnected from any life or productive function; and steering of vast mutual and pension funds that now bear the privatized old-age security of the First World’s middle class into socially delinked money and stock speculation transactions”.
To say we volunteered for this nonproductive, parasitic monster is laughable. Of course we did not volunteer for it. Globalism may promote itself as being just what Adam Smith was thinking about when he wrote Wealth of Nations and imagined markets governed by an invisible hand turning rational self-interest into the common good. But in practice how the global market works is opposed to the free market in almost every way. The only ‘freedom’ it offers is the freedom of transnational corporations and banking cartels to act irresponsibly and have everybody else pay the price.
As I said before, the emergence of this nonproductive, wealth-taking monster was predictable from the basic logic of capitalism itself. Capitalism has two main motivations: To lower marginal costs as close to zero as possible, and to make as much profit for shareholders as possible. All else, (providing employment for people, building communities) is NOT the purpose of capitalism, though it will of course do these things if there is profit to be made or marginal costs to be lowered. It is inevitably the case that socialist economies will collapse, they are too-top heavy and centralised to be viable in the long-term. Once they collapse the populace is in a desperate situation. It is almost as if they are holding up a big banner saying ‘HELP US! GIVE US JOBS! WE WILL WORK 18 HOURS A DAY FOR TEN CENTS AN HOUR IF YOU COME!”. And, of course the capitalists here this cry. Workers in richer countries, requiring much higher wages to sustain their consumerist lifestyle, simply cannot compete against labour so cheap and arduous it is barely indistinguishable from slavery. And so the real economy of goods and services inevitably drains out of the country.
Of course, this is not all bad, for it is offering a step up for failed nations.
As for the developed nations, not only will their industries be moved abroad (or their workers replaced with cheaper, harder working immigrants) the endless pursuit of lower marginal costs and higher profits will seek out investments that use as little capital (in the form of materials and labour) as possible. This means they tend to move from C-£-C^n (in other words, making a commodity like a horse’s shoe or butchering a lamb, selling that commodity and making a profit, and investing the money earned to improve productivity, make more or better commodities and earn more profit and so on) to £-C-£^n (where the capitalist does hardly any of the actual work involved in the production of the commodity or the management of the staff, instead hiring employees to do all the work, possibly up to and including even the job of hiring itself), to the cancerous forms of money sequence £-£^2-£^n whereby money is moved around with no useful contribution invested at all, and all risk tranferred to the common people (socialism for the financial and political elite, capitalism for the rest).

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Thoughts on what happened to capitalism.

(The following was a response to a comment posted on Kurzweilai.net).

Hiya James.

I have been trying to figure out how and why capitalism degenerated into the corrupt system now in place and I think I have identified a couple of causal factors.
Firstly, capitalism is driven to turning everything into a commodity to be sold for profit. For example, when genomes were being sequenced and cloned sheep created there was much controversy over whether the very recipe of life itself should be considered property of private companies or whether it was something that should not be possible to patent.
More to the point, the free market needs some minimal government in place to enforce private property rights. But remember: Capitalism seeks to turn everything into a commodity to be sold for competitive advantage. This means the State becomes, in time, just another commodity to be sold to whoever or more accurately, whatever has the most money to purchase it.
Secondly, capitalism tends to look for commodities that are cheap. The less capital you spend in setting up a wealth-making scheme, and the more wealth that scheme has a chance of making, the better. Therefore, there was always a built-in tendency for capitalism to move away from physical products that need actual resources and physical labour for their production, and towards those kinds of ‘middle-man’ services that play advisory and other supporting roles. Crucial, yes, but arguably less so than physical work that produces actual commodities we need to survive and raise standards of living. Thus industry shrunk and was moved around to wherever the commodity of labour could be hired for the cheapest price and exploited as ruthlessly as possible, while the service sector grew and grew. Also, combine the tendency to turn State power into a commodity to be bought for competitive advantage, and the tendency to seek out commodities that use as little capital (in the form of physical resources) as possible, and you get a system that will favour political entrepreneurship over market entrepreneurship. In other words, a system that favours those who rig the game for unfair monopolistic advantage over those who favour genuine market competition. The financial sector are masters of this game, thus it is in this ‘industry’ that we find the most successful parasites, taking wealth others created and giving it to those who contributed nothing to the real economy.
Another thing that aided this wealth redistribution from genuine contributors to mere gamblers is that we tend to stick to outdated language. For example, nobody ever drives a car. Cars are machines, we operate them. Only animals can be driven. The phrase ‘to drive a car’ is a leftover from the time when a ‘car’ was a ‘carriage’ pulled by a horse.
What has this got to do with anything? Well, just think of the phrases commonly associated with banking. They are firms that ‘loan us money’, that offer safe havens to ‘deposit our money’ and later ‘withdraw’ it. None of these phrases properly describe what modern banks do. Usually, in order to loan somebody something you must first have it. I cannot loan you my Ferrari because I am not in possession of one. But banks can ‘loan’ money that they do not have, just by creating it out of thin air! And what about those phrases ‘deposit’ and ‘withdraw’? They make it sound like banks function as piggy banks do- somewhere to keep your money safe and to save your pennies so that they turn into pounds. But, actually, as soon as you hand over your money to the bank it becomes the legal property of that bank. It is no longer yours, strictly speaking. All you have is a guarantee from the bank and ultimately the government that you will be paid an equivalent sum on demand. As Edward G. Griffin pointed out, at the end of the day this promise comes in the form of ‘the State will repay you even if it has to take all your wealth in the form of taxes to do so’.
This obsolete language used in banking terminology comes from an earlier time when bank notes were just receipts issued for gold or some other valuable commodity deposited in vaults for safekeeping. It is not uncommon for us to stick to outdated phrases but in the case of the financial sector I feel this is used to disguise some pretty illegitimate market activity. Look at the terminology used by the financial sector. It is the financial ‘industry’, selling ‘products’ on the stock ‘market’. It all sounds like traditional market activity when what it really is, is a great big casino gambling with wealth others have created and protected from bad bets by that very political entrepreneurship scheming I mentioned earlier. It really pisses me off when politicians go on and on about the need to ‘grow the economy’ when the real economy of goods and services are increasingly being squeezed by parasites who expect massive rewards for their reckless speculation and to dump the consequences of their misbehaviour on everybody else. There was a time when growth in the economy would trickle down to those at the bottom and raise standards of living. That time is now largely over because we in our ignorance have let the free market be taken over by non-contributing forces driven not to make wealth but rather take it from those who do contribute to the real economy.
And., no this is not just the fault of the financial sector and not just the fault of government. It is a systemic issue that is more complex than that.

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