August 1, 2002

August 2002

My Reading List These Days
I am currently reading John Brockman's The Next Fifty Years: Science in the First Half of the Twenty-First Century, and I'm sure that will inspire some postings, so stay tuned. I'm also reading Elaine Morgan's The Descent of Woman (1982), and I hope to write some follow-up comments on that as well.

The Song Meme
The better the song, the better its chances of being replicated. If a song is no good, then not a whole lot of people will be interested in acquiring or passing it on. This does not imply quality, however. Instead, the most potent survival strategy that a song can possess is mass appeal (which can also be influenced by marketing and the artist's popularity). The best place to see this in practice is in MP3 file sharing. Some songs are easy to find over the Internet, while others remain elusive. Those songs that are easy to find have good survival/replicative strategies.

But past reward is no guarantee of future gain. As time passes, the artistic merit of a song is what keeps it alive. With the artist out of the limelight, and without any marketing tricks, a song will only remain popular if it's a good one. Thus, in the short-term, mass appeal is what's important, but if you want a long-term survival strategy, your song has to be a good one.

Another survival strategy that an MP3 can adopt is leeching off the name of a valid MP3. Some record companies, frustrated by MP3 file sharing, toss bogus songs into the MP3 meme pool that have the names of popular songs. MP3 traders inadvertently download and propagate these songs.

Future Music
One cannot help but be emotionally affected by a song. How a melody, key, or rhythm does this to our emotional state is still the cause of some mystery to me. I do believe, however, that a good melody is drug-like. Once we are familiar with a melody we can anticipate what's coming next while listening to the song, and that feels good (this explains why songs seem to get better with each listen). The anticipation, once rewarded by the actual linear passage of the melody, causes a positive emotional state in the listener (i.e. the pleasing melody causes a kind of transitory 'high' in the listener).

A great piece of music is one that takes the listener on an emotional journey. Artists hope to convey these emotional states through careful crafting of their compositions. This is quite transcendent; the artist is trying to evoke an emotional response in the listener. This is limited, however, by the 'emotional capabilities' of the listener; some people just cannot feel the proper highs and lows, or they are unable to properly decipher the emotional message as intended by the artist.

Imagine a future technology that could synchronize music to the emotional state of the listener. I've read some suggestions that future music will be composed and generated by the emotional state of the artist. But I've got a better idea: how about music that can manipulate the emotional state of the listener. By using some hand-waving technology, we could conceivably have music that taps into the emotional centers of our brain and cause a specific emotional response. For example, we could have a piece of music with sad, happy, playful, and frightening parts. The emotion-management technology would 'force' the listener to feel the emotional state as intended by the artist. Listeners could have absolutely sublime experiences. They could be thrust into feelings of despair and be slowly brought up until the climatic moments of bliss and ecstasy -- all synchronized to music. Imagine the potential 'trips' that listeners could take. [Note: In a way, rave culture has already tapped into this. Ravers take psychopharmaceuticals (such as ecstasy) to enhance and alter the emotional and perceptual experience of electronic music; a good spinner or electronic artist will try to tap into the emotional state of his audience].

Posted new prediction in the Prescience section.

Quantum Physics & Telepathy
Is there such a thing as telepathy? As I'm discovering, there are many people who believe so. There are a host of parapsychology departments and institutions that have been actively conducting experiments in mind-to-mind communication, precognition, and out-of-body experiences (aka 'remote viewing'). Psychedelics, it would appear, have an effect on consciousness that allow for such communication and observation (see Jean Millay's Multidimensional Mind). Additionally, Buddhism and other meditative philosophies have helped conceptualize and better facilitate these innate capabilities. (Thong Len may be another extension of this phenomenon).

Let's assume for a moment that these speculations are valid and that "telepathy" truly exists. How can we account for such a thing? Is there some sort of chemical transference between individuals? Is our body language conveying certain clues? Or is our science too primitive to explain it? These may partially explain the conundrum, but it does not sufficiently solve the puzzle. I thought about this, and I came up with a theory:

Yes, telepathy is theoretically possible. My consciousness is tied to both the physical and quantum realms. As I observe and measure the universe, it falls perfectly into place just for me (i.e. the observer forces the collapse of the wave function). The same thing happens to you, independent of my observations. We are all living in our own 'worlds,' and these 'worlds' are being revealed only to the specific observer; our personal-worlds are only as large as our observational field, and anything not observed is in a state of indeterminancy. For example, if we have a face to face conversation, everything behind me in my 'world' is in a state of unobserved indeterminancy, so it's not really there. But in your personal-universe, because you're looking at me and the world behind me, it has collapsed into a perceptually coherent world. Yet, I can interact with you. When we communicate, we are truly interfacing, but it only appears that we are in the same physical environment (or world). Thus, even though we can interact in the same room together, we are actually in our own physical worlds. So, the physical world is an illusion of sorts, or at the very least, it is one of our two environments. The other place we reside is the quantum dimension. Thus, by virtue of the fact that we can communicate and interact in the physical world (our interaction is not an illusion), our consciousness must be linked in the quantum environment.

Our verbal communication transpires in the physical world, but telepathic communication is conducted through the quantum dimension. Somehow, a consciousness that is in a telepathic link has tuned into another consciousness. It is a physical or cognitive state of the brain in the physical world that allows for this, and it would appear that psychedelic drugs and meditation help trigger these modes of consciousness. One way of looking at it is that a consciousness has tunneled through the quantum maze to get to another consciousness. It has tuned into the proper frequency.

I recently contacted Stuart Hameroff on this topic and asked him his opinion. He informed me that at the Quantum Mind Conference in 2003 there will be "compelling" evidence in favour of "telepathy." So, it would appear that I'm not the only one thinking along these lines. Another prominent thinker involved in this topic is Sir Roger Penrose (see his Shadows of the Mind and his discussion of microtubules). There are a host of people working on this issue at this time. I also e-mailed the quantum physicist David Deutsch, who is a telepathy skeptic, and have not received a response. Nor have I received a response from The Skeptics Society.

If this is all true about telepathy, what does it all mean? What does this mean to Transhumanists? Well, now I'm pretty sure that posthumans will have telepathy in the strong sense of the term, and possibly precognition. It may be achieved by future breakthroughs in psychopharmacology, neurology, or through advanced meditative technologies (or a combination of all three). How our relationships will change with each other and our place in the physical world is anybody's guess. I hope to write more on this particular topic in the near future.

I just finished listening to CBC's Quirks & Quarks. They had a special on about how we should react to first contact with an extra terrestrial civilization. It was a hard listen for many reasons, namely outdated science and an utter lack of imagination. I'm not sure that we can accurately speculate as to the nature of extra terrestrial life any more. I do not believe that aliens will arrive in spaceships, nor will they have any kind of political or cultural structure that we can relate to. I seriously doubt that we'll communicate via primitive radiowaves. It is unlikely that they will be organic or even humanoid; they would probably arrive as some kind of superintelligent machine consciousness, or in nanotechnological form (see Kurzweil, 1999), or even as a copy of themselves encoded in electromagnetic waves.

My point is this: extra terrestrial life is nothing like we think it is. We have no idea what our own civilization will be like in 50 years, let alone an advanced alien race. The human species is most likely on the verge of a technological singularity. How superintelligence will change our lives is still anybody's guess. It would appear that the human race will emerge from the 21st century as an entirely new species, or as several different new species. It's very likely that we'll be cyborg. Will advances in quantum computing and physics introduce new frontiers for exploration? Is the physical world really worth our trouble? How will consciousness change after superintelligence? How will we apply nanotechnology? What about our morals and goals? Will we adopt the hedonistic imperative? Or will we go into the depths of space as an expanding bubble of intelligence (see Hans Moravec)? We simply do not know yet!

I will say this, however: if an advanced intelligence does arrive at our planet sometime in the next few years, the proper response should probably be: "Please show us mercy."

Dinosaurs and Intelligent Life
Some paleontologists have speculated that had the asteroid not smashed into the earth 65 million years ago that eventually one species of dinosaur would have evolved human-like intelligence and developed civilizations (e.g. the Troodon). I think this is highly unlikely. First of all, the dinosaurs had a 250 million year reign, and during all that time nothing even came close to being human-like. Moreover, the environment was not conducive for intelligence to evolve. Dinosaurs had to adapt physically rather than cognitively. What I mean by this is that dinosaurs were so fierce and brutal, that they had to adapt by evolving either fiercer predatory skills or improved defensive traits (e.g. speed, size, and armour). Intelligence, while surely beneficial to some dinosaurs, was always secondary in importance to physical prowess. And finally, the dinosaur morphology did not lend itself to tool making. They had short and awkward arms, which greatly inhibited their ability to manipulate the environment in ways that early humans could.

Drake Equation
According to SETI, the N in the Drake Equation stands for "the number of civilizations in the Milky Way Galaxy whose electromagnetic emissions are detectable." In other words, N stands for the number of civilizations in our galaxy that have comparable technology to our own. Carl Sagan believed the number was around 10. Many people believe that Sagan was being unreasonably pessimistic, and that surely there must be more advanced life in our galaxy. I, on the other hand, believe that Sagan was overly optimistic. I would put the figure to N=<0.1>0.01 (i.e. 1 in 10 to 1 in 100 galaxies contain advanced intelligent life). In my estimation, technologically advanced civilizations are extremely rare. We are a freak of nature. Too many different and improbable variables had to come into play for us to advance from tree dwelling mammals to the atom-splitting species we are today.

I believe the galaxy is teeming with life. However, as complexity of life increases, prevalency decreases. There are probably millions of earth-like planets in our galaxy with prokaryote and eukaryotic life forms. There are probably thousands upon thousands of earth-like planets with complex animals such as fish, reptiles, and mammals. It is likely that there are hundreds of planets with primate or hominid-type creatures. And it is likely that there are dozens of intelligent species stuck in hunter-gatherer lifestyles. It is quite likely that the steps from hunter-gatherer to agrarian to feudal to industrial are far more difficult than we assume. But perhaps the most difficult evolutionary step is the one that causes a primate-like creature endowed with long arms, dexterous hands, and a large brain, to suddenly become bi-pedal -- an evolutionary quirk that still defies proper explanation (see Elaine Morgan, 1982). Humans are a truly bizarre organism.

Humans and Technology
We have a symbiotic relationship with technology. We are dependant on technology for survival, while technology cannot replicate and evolve without our intervention (at least for the time being). Moreover, we are entrenched in a positive feedback loop. We make technology, which in turn enables us to make better technology, which in turn enables us to make even better technology, and so on.

Intelligence and Rationality (Part V)
As discussed in Part IV, sentience is a qualitative trait that varies from species to species. Its strength is dependant on the sophistication of an organism’s communicative capabilities; the more social the animal, the more sentient it is (the sense of self increases as the interfacing capabilities of a consciousness increases). If a mind cannot communicate with another mind, then self-awareness is unlikely, if not impossible. In a very significant way, sentience is dependant on the presence of other minds. Thus, I theorize that a sentient consciousness cannot exist unless it can interface (or network) with another consciousness.

What are the ways in which two consciousnesses can interface and transfer data? There are many: verbal and written language, facial expressions, body language, chemical transference (e.g. pheromones), and many more (some of which we may not even be aware of, such as telepathy or telepathic-like communication that is experienced at a subconscious (or conscious) level). Also, our verbal and written languages can be classified as technologies, and like our other technologies, they are subject to improvements. While our biological communicative skills remain largely unchanged, our verbal/written skills are steadily evolving and gaining in sophistication. As a result, our sense of self may continue to increase.

A mind can collect data not only from another consciousness, but from the environment as well (including predators and the non-living environment). Our surroundings are constantly conveying information to us, and our minds can perceive this data using sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. Thus, data reception from the environment is another player in the consciousness game. However, minds cannot transfer data to the environment. Minds can only transfer data to other minds -- a crucial step in the evolution of self-awareness. I don't believe that an organism can evolve a strong sense of self without significant bi-directional communication skills. Sensory environmental stimuli by itself will not result in the emergence of sentience. Many simple organisms (such as insects, amphibians, and fish) perceive the environment using their senses, but these perceptions control the organism's behaviour; there is no conscious analysis. Their instinctual scripts activate based on their interpretation of the environment at any given time. Also, bees are capable of transferring messages to other bees (namely, the location of good flowers), but again, there is no self-conscious intent on the part of the communicating bee; sentience is negligible as instinct dominates over self.
But as members of the same species begin to communicate with each other, and as this results in better survival strategies, both communication skills and sentience can improve over time. Strong sensory capabilities may be a direct correlate to the rise of consciousness and intelligence, but strong bi-directional communicative capabilities are a direct correlate to sentience.

Human Reproduction & Sexuality
I've been reading up on Carl Djerassi recently, and he brings up a good point about human reproduction and sexuality. Djerassi, the inventor of the birth control pill, argues that couples currently leave fertilization to pure chance. Parents, aside from deciding to have a child, have no control as they roll the genetic dice. This limitation, says Djerassi, will eventually be a thing of the past, as couples will be able to select many characteristics of their offspring. In such a world, the act of sexual intercourse would be strictly recreational, while human reproduction would be left to the lab. This would almost certainly facilitate another sexual revolution on par with the effects of the birth control pill which was introduced in the 1960s.

New Logo
Thanks, Paul -- it looks great.

Intelligence and Rationality (Part IV)
Are animals conscious in the same sense that humans are? Are they sentient? If so, what is to distinguish between human sentience and animal sentience? I believe that sentience, or the sense of self, is experienced by both humans and many animals. Most of the larger mammals (particularly social animals such as pack animals and the primates) probably experience a greater sense of self than we have traditionally assumed. When a dog begs for a piece of chocolate, in his own mind, using the canine analog to semantic language, he is saying to himself: "I really like chocolate, and I would like to have some." To me, that is not only a sign of intelligence, but of self-awareness as well. The dog is not acting on instinct (or set scripts) alone. The dog is exerting a certain degree of free-will and subjective preference (qualia).

Sentience and language capabilities are a direct correlate. Dogs, as descendants of wolves, are pack animals, and pack animals are social creatures. They communicate which each other using body language and physical interactions. It's this same communicative neural hard-wiring that has enabled dogs to follow verbal commands from their human companions (and probably also explains why humans have the capacity for verbal language). Since dogs have fairly strong communication skills, I believe they are quite self-aware. I'm also starting to think that animals such as elephants, whales, and primates are quite sentient (we may need to rethink animal rights issues as a result; for more on this particular topic, see Peter Singer).

Aside from language skills, consciousness and sentience do not appear to be traits that are directly coded into our brains. Rather, consciousness may be an emergent effect of the brain's activities (see Kurzweil, 1999). Every atom in our brain gets replaced during the course of our lives, yet we still feel that we are the same person.

However, I think it's fair to say that humans are more sentient than the other animals. Due to our greater intelligence, language skills, and culture, we are better able to conceptualize and verbalize the sense of self. A 'lesser' primate, I would argue, with a few neural tweaks and enhancements (particularly in the language centers), could conceivably have a similar sense of self that humans have. Thus, sentience is a qualitative characteristic; there are low, medium, and high levels of self-awareness. Humans currently have the highest sense of self. We are capable of verbalizing: "I think, therefore I am." Additionally, we have existential awareness, we are aware of our own mortality, we are empathetic, we worry, and we plan for the future. But by no means have we reached the pinnacle of sentience. I believe that as we further develop our physical selves, and as we learn more about the nature of our existence, our sense of self will also continue to evolve and expand. And who knows -- for all we know, in the large scheme of things, we may have, in relative terms, the self-awareness of a goldfish.

Commentary [updated from 2002.07.29, now removed]
Should the human race adopt a mission statement? Yes. We need to develop our sciences and ourselves so that we are no longer at nature's mercy. Richard Dawkins put it well: "I want to change the world in which I live so that natural selection no longer applies." This does not imply that nature has no value or that it is 'bad'. Just because we are getting better at controlling nature doesn't mean that we are somehow outside of it. We will always be a part of nature, and we should seek to establish and maintain an effective harmony with it.

There are two popular counter-arguments to this stance: we must 1) stop 'playing God' and 2) allow nature to follow its course. As a secular humanist, I reject the first argument. Humans are in control of their own destiny, and they are accountable to themselves, the entire species, and all life on this planet. We did not ask for these responsibilities, but as the most intelligent, self-aware, and technologically/culturally advanced species on this planet, we have a moral obligation to accept those responsibilities. There is no higher power at work that will solve our problems for us; to believe otherwise is irresponsible, if not delusional. As for the second argument, we have been 'tampering' with nature for the past 13,000 years, if not longer. It is impossible to live on this planet and not 'tamper' with it. We are as biological as any other creature on Earth. Some examples of this include our tool making skills, agriculture (which is artificial selection, aka genetic engineering), and our medical sciences (are we 'tampering' with nature when we cure a disease or immunize ourselves?). Another reason for rejecting the second argument is the 'conscious nature' fallacy. People often refer to nature as Mother Nature, or as some other quasi-sentient entity that knows what it's doing. This is simply not the case. Nature is a broad term used to describe the emergent effects of many different laws at play, namely physical and chemical reactions and natural selection. If I may quote Dawkins again: "The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. "

And yet, humans have assigned a high moral value to the end results of these processes, namely life and existence itself. Why? Because intelligent life is capable of morally transcending the laws of nature. Most of us do not believe that 'survival of the fittest' is acceptable social behaviour. Instead, as we become more aware of ourselves, and as our collective intelligence increases, we are becoming morally and ethically stronger. For example, our empathy skills are increasing with each generation; the more we know, the better we can understand and sympathize with all life. Gender, racial, cultural, sexual, ageist, disabled, and class prejudices are slowly dissipating from collective and personal consciousnesses. Violence is gradually becoming an unacceptable way of resolving disputes. These trends will be sure to continue in the future, but only if we continue to seek a deeper understanding of ourselves and our existence.

Some Transhumanists have used the software analogy to describe the pending improvements to the human species, claiming that we are working towards Humanity version 2.0. While this is somewhat apropos of what Transhumanism is working to bring about, taking the analogy further reveals some of the dangers and pitfalls we need to avoid en route.

For example, would we start applying such terms as 'beta units,' and 'bugs' (or is that 'known issues' according to the Microsoft lexicon?) to posthuman works in progress? Personally, I wouldn't want to have children that are de facto beta versions of a posthuman (i.e. protoposthumans), full of genetic and technological defects. Yuck. The transition to a posthuman condition must be managed better than that. Also, the term Humanity 2.0, as it now stands, is meaningless. I am not sure that we can or should define a Humanity 2.0, other than a commitment to the increased health and general improvement of the species. In the future we should only describe a human as being either human or posthuman. Thus, a posthuman is to be defined as anyone who has had their genetic information altered (either before or after birth), or anyone who has had an implanted and somewhat permanent technological augmentation or enhancement. [On this last point, that I use a calculator doesn't make me posthuman, even though it's giving me abilities far beyond what I am naturally capable of. But if that calculator were to be permanently imbedded in my body somehow, then that would make me posthuman.]

We need to travel this path slowly and steadily. There will be no declaration of Humanity 2.0. We will just get better and healthier, dealing with each biological and technological issue as they come. There will be problems and side effects, though (how could there not be?), and top priority should be placed on managing and minimizing those problems. Talking about 'versions' and 'revisions' is contrary to the Transhumanist vision which seeks instead to honour the dignity and well-being of all humankind in all their forms.

Quantum Physics
According to Hugh Everett’s Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum physics, the world is not as it appears. It’s interesting to see how the mind-body problem continues to persist in science and philosophy, and is arguably stronger than ever. Specifically, the issue is with the phenomenon known as quantum ‘splitting,’ or ‘mind-splitting.’ Essentially, every time you’re forced to make an observation or decision, you get copied (or split) into the other worlds of all probable outcomes. You, an observer, do not notice the persistent splitting. You’re just observing outcome after outcome after outcome. Life appears seamless and coherent. Little do you realize that all possible outcomes are being perceived by your consciousness’s copies in the other worlds; and just like you, they don't notice the splitting either. Their worlds are just as coherent as yours. This is why some quantum physicists are starting to refer instead to the Many Histories Interpretation. For example, take the Schrodinger’s Cat thought experiment. According to this exercise, the moment you check to see if the cat is dead or alive, you are split into one of two possible states: one that observes the dead cat and one that observers the living cat. [The mind-splitting phenomenon came to mind recently after an interesting occurrence here in Ontario last week. During the course of one single day, a man won $50,000 at the track betting on a long shot and he won $12.5 million in the lottery. My reaction? Well, ya -- in an infinite universe where all probable outcomes are observed, this is going to happen from time to time, and some seemingly miraculous events will be observed by us in our own historical time-line.]