​What the cornerstone of any futuristic transportation mix should be.

The future has always promised exciting new forms of transport for the bustling hither and thither of our undoubtedly jumpsuit-wearing, cyborg selves. From the outlandish (flying cars) to the decidedly practical (electric cars), a better way of getting about is always just around the corner. Workers in the United States spend about 26 minutes twice a day on their commutes, and for most people this means driving. What’s worse, the negative effect of a long commute on life satisfaction is consistently under-estimated. Premature deaths in the United States due to automobile accidents and air pollution from vehicles are about 33,000 and an estimated 58,000 yearly, respectively. Add in all the costs associated with car ownership and road maintenance (not to mention the incalculable cost of automobiles’ contribution to the potentially existential threat of climate change) and the picture becomes clear: cars aren’t so much a convenient means of conveyance serving the humans they carry, but rather a demanding taskmaster that may be the doom of us all. There must be something better awaiting us in the transportation wonders of tomorrow.

What if we came up with a transportation mode that is faster than taking the bus, costs less than driving, and improves lifespan? What if it also happened to be the most efficient means of transport known? Anything offering up that long list of pros should be a centerpiece of any transportation blend, what wonder of future technology could I possibly be talking about?

I’m writing, of course, about the humble bicycle.

Prioritizing exotic transportation projects like Elon Musk’s hyperloop is like inventing a new type of ladder to reach the highest branches, all the while surrounded on all sides by drooping boughs laden with low-hanging fruit. In a great example of working harder, not smarter, city planners in the U.S. strive tirelessly to please our automobile overlords. Everyone needs a car to get to work and the supermarket, because everything is far apart, and everything is so far apart because everyone drives everywhere anyway. All the parking spaces and wide lanes push everything even further apart in a commuting nightmare feedback loop.

It doesn’t have to be that way, and it’s not too late to change. Consider the famously bikeable infrastructure of the Netherlands, where the bicycle is king. Many people take the purpose-built bike lanes for granted and assume they’ve always been there, but in fact they are a result of deliberate activism leading to a broad change in transportation policy beginning in the seventies. Likewise, the servile relationship many U.S. cities maintain with cars is not set in stone, and, contrary to popular belief, fuel taxes and registration fees don’t cover the costs

Even if every conventional automobile was replaced tomorrow with a self-driving electric car, a bicycle would still be a more efficient choice. The reason comes down to simple physics: a typical bike’s ~10 kgs is a fraction of the mass of the average rider, so most of the energy delivered to the pedals goes toward moving the human cargo. A car (even a Tesla) has to waste most of its energy moving the car itself. The only vehicle that has a chance of besting the bicycle in terms of efficiency is an electric-assist bicycle, once you factor in the total energy costs of producing and shipping the human fuel (food), but even that depends on where you buy your groceries [pdf].

Bicycles have been around in more or less modern form for over a hundred years, but the right tool isn’t necessarily the newest. The law of parsimony posits that the simplest solution that suffices is generally the best, and for many of our basic transport needs that means a bicycle. It’s about time we started affording cycling the respect it deserves as a central piece of our future cities and towns. Your future transportation experience may mean you’ll go to the office in virtual reality, meet important clients by hybrid dirigible, and ship supplies to Mars by electric rocket, but you’ll pick up the groceries by bicycle on the way home from the station.

Image sources used for illustrations:

Fat bike CC SA BY Sylenius

Public Domain:

Tire tracks

Lunar lander module>

Apollo footprint


If you want to find out if a digital nematode is alive, try asking it.

Fancy living in a computer? Contributors to the OpenWorm project aim to make life inside a computer a (virtual) reality. In recent years, various brain projects have focused funding on moonshot science initiatives to map, model and ultimately understand the human brain: the computer that helps humans to cognito that they sum. These are similar in feel to the human genome project of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Despite the inherent contradictions of the oft-trotted trope that the human brain is the “most complex thing in the universe,” it is indeed quite a complicated machine, decidedly more complex than the human genome. Understanding how it works will take more than mapping every connection, which is akin to knowing every node in a circuit but having no idea what each component is. A multivalent approach at the levels of cells, circuits, connections, and mind offers the most complete picture. OpenWorm coordinator Stephen Larson et al. aim to start by understanding something a little bit simpler: the determinate 304 neuron brain and accompanying body of Caenorhabditis elegans, a soil-dwelling nematode worm that has served as a workhorse in biology for decades.

Genome, Brain

The connectome, a neural wiring diagram of the worm’s brain, has been mapped. The simulation of the worm at the cellular level is an ongoing open-source software program. The first human genome was sequenced only 3 years after the first C. elegans genome, a similar pace for full biological simulation in silico would mean that digital humans, or a reasonable facsimile, are possible within our lifetimes. At the point when these simulations of people are able to fool observers will these entities be alive and conscious? Have rights? Pay taxes? If a digital person claims the validity of their own consciousness should we take their word for it, or determine some metric for ascertaining the consciousness of a simulated person based on our own inspection? For answers to questions of existence and sapience we can turn to our own experience (believing as we do that we are conscious entities), and the venerable history of the questions as discussed in science fiction.

Conversation with the chatbot (a conversational precursor to intelligent software)CleverBot from 2014 December 24.

In the so-called golden age of science fiction characters tended to be smart, talented, and capable. Aside from an unnerving lack of faults and weakness, overall the protagonists were fundamentally human. The main difference between the audience and the actors in these stories was access to better technology. But it may be that this vision of a human future is comically (tragically?) myopic. Even our biology has been changing more quickly as civilisation and technologies develop. If we add a rate of technological advance that challenges the best-educated humans to keep pace, a speed-up of the rate of change in average meteorological variables, and human-driven selective pressure, the next century should be interesting to say the least. When those unobtainyl transferase pills for longevity finally kick in, generational turnover can no longer be counted on to ease adaptation to a step-change in civilisation.

Greg Egan (who may or may not be a computer program) has been writing about software-based people for over two decades. When the mind of a human is not limited to run on a single instance of its native hardware, new concepts such as “local death” and traveling by transmission emerge intrinsically. Most of the characters in novels from writers such as Egan waste little time questioning whether they will still exist if they have to resort to a backup copy of themselves. As in flesh-and-blood humans, persistence of memory plays a key role in the sense of self, but is not nearly so limited. If a software person splits themselves to pursue two avenues of interest, they may combine their experiences upon their reunion, rejoining as a single instance with a transiently bifurcated path. If the two instances of a single person disagree as to their sameness, they may decide to go on as two different people. These simulated people would be unlikely to care (beyond their inevitable battle for civil rights) whether you consider them to be alive and sapient or not, any more so than the reader is likely to disbelieve their own sapience.

Many of the thought experiments associated with software-based person-hood are prompted by a human perception of dubiousness in duplicity: two instances of a person existing at the same time, but not sharing a single experience, don’t feel like the same person. Perhaps as the OpenWorm project develops we can watch carefully for signs of animosity and existential crises among a population of digital C. elegans twinned from the same starting material. We (or our impostorous digital doppelgängers, depending on your perspective) may find out for ourselves what this feels like sooner than we think.

2014-12-29 – Leading comic edited for improved comedic effect