Saturday, February 16, 2013

Perpetual motion museum - bent your mind watching people try to bend the laws of physics

"Hey, guys! I've invented a design for a 125% efficiency motor, and if you all fund my Kickstarter in return for a share of the profits in my new motor company, I can eventually build 500 of these things on a 3-ton scale and produce the world's first kinetic power generator! Who's in?"

"Hello? Anybody?"

Welcome to the world of The Museum of Unworkable Devices, a huge, engaging site documenting one of the most futile fields of study in engineering, the history-long quest for perpetual motion. Within, Donald E. Simanek serves as a James Randi of the engineering world, showing us endless attempts at overbalanced wheels, spinning magnets, wild stunts with hydraulic pressure, and machines which baffle the limits of the imagination as surely as they thumb their nose at Newton, Archimedes, and Einstein.

The site also works as an education in physics principles. For instance, did you know that the ball along the bottom ramp of this device reaches the goal first?

Be sure not to miss the FAQ, "Why won't my perpetual motion machine work?", where Simanek explains it all like you're 5. Ought to be required reading in high school science at least.

Perpetual motion ties into a related fallacy emerging in computing.

I've recently investigated thoroughly the latest cult, sure to usurp Scientology as the most tenacious, known to some of you already as the "Singularity". The "Singularity" is the point at which computers are supposed to surpass human brains in intellect, at which point they will continue on their own to build even smarter computers, and so on ad infinitum until we're all living in the Matrix.

I'll stop for a paragraph so you can fight the urge to puke. Deep breathing helps.

The idea of  the Singularity (which has been "just a few years from now" since about the 1700s) and the bogus search for a perpetual motion machine is evident when you consider that computers do nothing until a human writes a program for them. And it's quite daunting for a human to write a program that causes a computer to be smarter than a human, since by definition the human is not smart enough to write it. And computers really are not smarter than humans at anything, they just appear to be in certain fields by virtue of brute force and speed - for instance, they beat you at chess by calculating six moves ahead from every possible move, including the ones we would eliminate through common sense. Like the would-be perpetual motion inventors, Singularitarians seek to boost the IQ of machines by making them smarter than they are so they can write themselves, just like overbalanced wheels seek to gain infinite momentum by making objects be heavier than they are so they can push themselves.

Every time, I pin down some Singularity zealot and ask them "How could you write a computer program that was smarter than yourself?" The answer is always "We'll have a computer program write the program!" I bounce back "OK, how do you write THAT program?" "We have the computer write that program, too!" Oh, I see. We'll write a program to write a program to write a program to overwhelm common sense, just like we'll trick those nasty old laws of physics by spinning a wheel inside a wheel inside a wheel...