July 1, 2002

July 2002

New Section
Sentient Developments now has a newsgroup. Feel free to start any discussions, or add your comments, questions, retorts, or anything that relates to this Website.

Section Removal
I removed the Buddhism section because I felt that it deviated too far from the scope of this Website. Perhaps some other time, some other Website, some other incarnation...

Intelligence and Rationality (Part III)
I am filled with astonishment that a computer could evolve through natural selection, but that's exactly what has happened here on earth. Any organism that has a brain actually has a little computer that helps it navigate through life. Until now, we have failed to conceptualize this about our minds, mostly because we lacked the proper language to describe it. How could biologists in the 19th century regard the brain as a computer without any frame of reference? And whenever science fails to describe how something works, the inevitable reaction seems to be the application of divine or mystic intervention. The path to understanding our consciousness has experienced this rule, and vitalogy remains a common conviction.

Science is the ability to accurately describe natural phenomenon using language. Language evolves over time and new words are added regularly. Technological innovations contribute to this trend, as new words have to be applied to describe new concepts and devices. For example, every computer has a gadget in it that that controls its functions and computations. The word 'processor' was chosen to describe this device. Now that we understand the brain as a computer, we can use the language of computation to describe our minds. Thus, we need to start referring to our consciousnesses as processors. More specifically, our consciousness needs to be regarded as a massively parallel sentient processor.

Our processor performs a very important role: it is the moment by moment cognition that we do. Breaking it down further, it's how we compute (i.e. think), learn, make decisions, retrieve data, and perceive sensory data from the environment. As time elapses, the processor's experiences are recorded into memory -- and it does this fairly poorly, I might add; the things we remember vs. the things we forget virtually betray any semblance of rationality. Moreover, our memories contain such cursory and vague recollections -- it's very hard to remember an event exactly as it happened. I heard one theory recently that suggested that we remember things based on their importance to us. That sounds like it could be right, but that means our processor has to decide what's important, and therefore, how to prioritize it in our memory banks for future reference. I believe this is a largely autonomous function dictated by evolutionary vestigial tendencies (i.e. our bodies intrinsically know what's important to remember, like the consequence of putting a hand in fire). But we can also consciously decide to remember something, like the lyrics of a song or the lineup of the 1968 Toronto Maple Leafs. Yet, even when we consciously decide to remember something, we just can't quite recall it exactly.

How our processor functions and how our memories are stored are two discreet tasks. People who cannot store and access their memories are still conscious. (e.g. Alzheimer's victims, people with no short-term memory, amnesiatics, etc.). But quite obviously, this is a terrible and unfortunate way to live. Future health professionals will better understand this and be capable of treating people with these conditions.

But by no means do we understand the big picture of consciousness or existence. We still need to figure out what the link is between conscious observation and the coherence of the physical world. Clearly, conscious thought is tied to the quantum. What does this mean in the large scheme of things? Does mind-splitting answer this question? See the Many Worlds Interpretation FAQ and Stuart Hameroff for more. Also, how does a processor become self-aware? What kind of a software tweak is that? What does it mean to be self-aware? Is a dog sentient? How about a goldfish? Does "I think therefore I am" still apply? I don't know. Perhaps we need to look at such things as our free-will, rationality, and decision making skills.

What are the ramifications to transhumanists of this insight into the human brain? Again, I remain largely optimistic, but it introduces some interesting (if not unsettling) realities for the future. Not only will future posthumans insist on ownership of their personal genetic information, but their mind's source code as well. What a strange new world we're heading into. But the positive aspects are profound. We we be able to rev up our brain's software. We'll get rid of the bad parts (e.g. psychological disorders), improve upon the good parts (e.g. memory, intelligence, math skills, etc.), and maybe even add some new unforeseen parts. I look forward to meeting Homo sapiens sapiens v2.0.

As a final note, I still believe that humans will merge with their machines. The suggestion that we will live alongside our artificially intelligent robot progeny is not true. We are robots, too. Why would we not improve ourselves, and instead unleash superior replacements? Obviously, we shouldn't and we won't. Unless, of course, collective stupidity and shortsightedness reigns. This is one of the reasons why transhumanism interests me.

Updated Section
Added a new prediction to the Prescience section.

Updated Section
Added a new quote to the Buddhism section.

Updated Section
Added some new quotes (Moravec, Einstein, Pinker, Welesa, FM-2030, Rush lyrics, etc.)

Updated Article
Version 3.0 of The Drive to be Posthuman: An Inexorable and Necessary Human Imperative has been posted.

New Section
Buddhism - exploring Buddhism, existence, values, and the future through the lens of quantum physics.

Intelligence and Rationality (Part II)
How did the goldfish evolve such that it has hardwired rules to govern its actions? If its reaction to a situation resulted in a poor finish, namely death or severe injury, then that script would not be passed down genetically. On the other hand, if its action resulted in continued survival, then that script would be passed down. For example, if the fish was being attacked by a predator, and it survived the experience by swimming away as fast as it could -- the action a result of an existing hardwired script, one that was a mutation of a previous one -- then that was a valid strategy (or gene) as far as the fish is concerned. Thus, the 'good decision' script gets passed on.

The pain and pleasure principle works as well, and it's needed in a discussion of human decision making. Animals that avoid pain tend to do better than those that don't. Thus, actions that result in pain are a warning to the organism: "what you're doing is bad!" Consequently, actions that result in pleasure are affirmations of decisions that are good for the organism (e.g. eating, sex, playing).

But humans aren't puppets to hardwired scripts. We exhibit common sense and rational decision making skills. How did we evolve this? Why would this be a good adaptation? For an intelligent species like humans, making decisions involves rational thought. We know we're being irrational when we experience cognitive dissonance, which is perceived as mental pain. Thus, humans tend to avoid making decisions that would result in this sort of psychological anguish. To compliment this, humans developed the cognitive skills to declare something as 'correct' or 'incorrect' (not necessarily in the moral sense, but more in the rational or computational sense, i.e. 2+2=4 is correct). We simply refuse to acknowledge the verity of a statement that is quite obviously incorrect. As humans evolved over millions of years, whenever they made rational decisions, they fared better than when they did not. In other words, rational understandings of the environment and rational decision making are good adaptations, as it endowed humans with the ability to select safer and more predictable courses of action.

I believe that there is a strong possibility that further scientific and philosophical advancements in quantum physics will result in an eschatological paradigm shift. Three things are becoming increasingly clear IMO: 1) quantum physics is actually quantum computation that expresses the physical world (see David Deutsch), 2) the cosmos is infinite (good places to start on this topic include the anthropic principle and the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum physics), and 3) consciousness is directly tied to the quantum (see Stuart Hameroff). This tells me that Buddhist beliefs of rebirth and the denial of the permanent self is more in tune with what actually happens than traditional Western religious eschatologies. I am starting to believe that our consciousness is expressed an infinite number of times in an infinite number of ways, and that we always find ourselves observing a universe (see Hans Moravec's paper, "Simulation, Consciousness, Existence").

If this is correct (and somehow scientifically demonstrable and obvious), can we expect this revelation to trickle down from the sciences and into the general public's awareness? Can this result in a new appraisal and approach to life? Or, am I making too much of this? Would this essentially change nothing? Would it really matter to people that they are eternal and that a kind of 'reincarnation' is possible? Can Buddhism and science help us craft a moral and ethical code for the social realities of the 21st century? Will superintelligence clear up some of this confusion?

Intelligence and Rationality (Part I)
Intelligence is a good adaptation, and I'm not just talking about intelligence on the scale of the human brain. Goldfish are also intelligent, but in a much more primitive way. What does it mean to be 'intelligent'? I believe it's directly tied to the notion of rationality. What do I mean by rationality? The ability to make a 'good' or 'right' or 'satisficing' decision after processing data. When we're being rational, we're actually following rules. Thus, 'intelligence' is another way of saying 'rational' which is another way of saying 'the ability to follow rules.' Goldfish follow rules that are hardwired into their brains. I doubt if a goldfish actually learns anything during its lifetime; predetermined scripts tell it what to do when it's facing specific situations (so it also has to be able to properly interpret situations and feelings, which is why the senses are so important -- the goldfish needs to input the data before it can process and act on it). Humans, on the other hand, do learn, but they must make decisions and exercise common sense that fall outside of hardwired scripts. In a sense, humans have to make up rules for situations as they go along. And the more rational humans are about those rules, the better off they are getting through the day (e.g. walking in front of a bus is irrational because we know the consequences).

Biological Realities
I'm not entirely sure what a distant-future posthuman will look like, especially if artificial components are involved. At what age should a person be allowed to augment themselves? Obviously, genetic changes will be biologically intrinsic, but not the mechanical. I've also heard about the prospect of developing artificial wombs that would 'free' women from the dangers and inconveniences of having to carry and give birth to a child. Before we enter into this Huxlian world, we should bear a few things in mind.

First, all fetus's require nutrients from the mother's blood stream. This means that an artificial womb would somehow have to duplicate the mother's blood exactly. Moreover, the mother's blood changes hour to hour depending on her intake; pregnant women have unpredictable food cravings and aversions during pregnancy -- all of which are evolutionary adaptations that help in the gestational process. Moreover, infants require motion, tactile stimulation (e.g. expectant mothers rub their bellies), and auditory and even visual stimulation. After child birth, babies need to breastfeed. Pregnancy prepares the mother's body physically and hormonally to nuture infants outside of the womb. Newborns require skin-to-skin contact that helps in bonding and perceptual development. And no artificial baby milk has come even close to matching mother's milk. There is more than just the ideal proportion of proteins, fats (including long-chain polyunsaturated lipids that are essential for optimal neurodevelopment), and carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals present in breastmilk that change even during one feed; breastmilk also contains human-specific immune factors, growth factors, anti-bacterial agents, anti-viral properties, anti-fungal properties, and anti-inflammatory properties. Also, the health risks associated with not bearing children or lactating must be weighed against the potential health benefits to a woman for not bearing children. Specifically, breast, ovarian, and uterine cancers are significantly lower for women who have born and breastfed children.

Thus, what may appear as 'dangerous' or 'inconvenient' from a woman's perspective may be necessary to guarantee the physical and cognitive health of the baby. [thanks A for the input]

Eliezer S. Yudkowsky's, Research Fellow, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence

This reality check is brought to you by Robin Hanson: "Dreams of Autarky." In this paper, Hanson argues that the majority of futurists have overestimated the degree of change that's been slated to occur in the 21st century.

Transhumanist Art

A Democratic Transhumanist Agenda (from James Hughes's article, Democratic Transhumanism)
1. Build the transhumanist movement
2. Guarantee morphological freedom and bodily autonomy; people should have a right to change and control their minds and bodies, including the right to take drugs, have themselves frozen, opt for physician-assisted suicide, and use germinal choice technologies on themselves and their children
3. Defend scientific research and technological innovation from Luddite bans, while embracing the need for public regulation for safety and efficacy
4. Protect scientific access to knowledge from overly aggressive intellectual property law
5. Expand federal funding for research into transhuman technologies, including genetic therapy, nanotechnology, robotics and artificial intelligence
6. Create national health plans which guarantee equitable access to life extension and enhancement technologies
7. Expand federal support to education, especially math, science, engineering and medical education
8. Provide job retraining and a guaranteed minimum income to the structurally unemployed
9. Solidarize with sexual, cultural, and racial minorities, especially with morphological minorities such as the disabled and transgendered
10. Support rights for great apes, dolphins and whales
11. Expand, strengthen and democratize transnational governance to regulate the apocalyptic threats from transhuman technologies.

The Age of Transition
I've never been a big fan of Newt Gingrich, but he recently described the coming decades as 'The Age of Transition.' This was a remarkably apt observation, and I hope that he will start to inspire other political leaders to get their heads out of the sand and start working towards more progressive bioethical policies.

In the article "Vision for the Converging Technologies" Newt Gingrich proposes to reinvent government for the "Age of Transition" that we have just entered, where the combined effect of converging NBIC (Nano, Bio, Info, Cogno) technologies accelerates. Gingrich believes in explaining new options to the voters in the clearest possible language: "They may not understand plasma physics or the highest levels of the human genome project. But they can surely understand the alternative between having Alzheimer and not having it". Explaining his vision for the Age of Transition, he proposes riding the NBIC wave instead of trying to delay it, and acknowledges that current public policies and initiatives are moving much slower than technological change.

Nature Vs. Nurture
The human brain is a computer. It's a wonderfully complex parallel processor that runs at about 1016 calculations per second (Kurzweil, 1999). We don't have a computer that comes even close to this kind of power -- but the gap is narrowing. Yet, the hardware appears to be the easy part of the problem -- it's the software that will prove to be the most difficult challenge for the developers of AI. They have to create a dynamic software program that can learn and make decisions. Thankfully, we have our own brains as a model, and AI engineers are looking at exactly that -- the reverse engineering of the human brain.

The learning aspect may be easier than the decision making. We're born with a certain amount of 'ROM' hardwired into our brains. For the most part, our ROM is our autonomous nervous system and other behaviours that are beyond our control (e.g. newborn rooting behaviour, hormonal influences, the fight-or-flight response, etc.). Most importantly, the ROM provides us with the kick-start program to life so that we can eventually become autonomous decision making machines.

We also have a 'RAM' component to our minds; we're able to learn and adapt to our environment regardless of what our ROM says. So long as we're properly nurtured, educated (especially language), and introduced to our environment, our dynamic 'software' develops properly (for example, if a child is deprived of language during the first 2-4 years of life, the proper cognitive tools for learning language completely fail to develop, and the person forever loses the the capacity for language). [note: if AI engineers aren't looking at early childhood development for clues, they really should.]
Both the ROM and RAM can be damaged -- we are machines after all, and even the software needs a physical place to reside. The mind-software can be damaged by physical injury, or improper/insufficient development such as physical and mental abuse, improper socialization, and a myriad of genetic disorders.
But how do we make decisions? Is it a kind of fuzzy logic? Do we access scripts and somehow choose the proper course of action? Or is there a free-will 'algorithm' in there somewhere? This question goes beyond my expertise, but I believe the capacity to be rational is something we need to understand.

Posted new predictions in the Prescience section.

Quantum Physics
We now know of two worldly domains: the physical and the quantum realms. And it appears that the quantum expresses what we observe as the physical. What does this mean in the large scheme of things? Here's a good Edge article by Lee Smolin.

Posted a new prediction in the Prescience section.

Rise of the machines...not!
I do not believe that we will be superceded by our artificial progeny; instead, we will merge and evolve with them.

Contact Info
You can now e-mail me at sentdev@hotmail.com. If you tried to e-mail me at my old address at some point over the past two weeks, I probably didn't get it. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Observation: After the Turn of the Century Syndrome
During the 90s, as the turn of the century drew nearer, it was hard to ignore the near hysterical millenarism that pervaded the popular psyche (we are already mocking ourselves over the Y2K fiasco). As it was happening though, many people were quite self-aware of their irrationality and the ludicrousness of what they were doing; they were reminded of historical precedents and the millenarism associated with previous turn-of-the-centuries. Similarly, once the century had safely rolled by, the exact opposite sentiment emerged: hyper-optimism. During the early part of the 20th century, a number of idealists espoused their 'glorious' and utopian visions for the 20th century, namely communists, fascists, and anarchists. I see the same pattern repeated today as the extropians and transhumanists dream of 21st century technotopia. However, there's a major difference: both groups are quite aware of history and self. The transhumanists in particular are very sensitive to the totalitarian comparisons. But unlike the fascists and communists of the early 20th century, transhumanists do not seek power, merely to influence it. Moreover, both ideologies celebrate the rights of the individual, which is the opposite stance of totalitarianism which seeks to destroy man. And finally, transhumanism is a broad-based and grass-roots movement that contains an entire spectrum of sub-ideologies (leftists, libertarians, greens, spiritualists, feminists, etc. For an excellent overview read James Hughes's paper, The Politics of Transhumanism).

Theory on Human Evolution
Steven Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins focused on different aspects of evolutionary biology that at times put the two at lauger heads. Gould was a proponent of the punctuated equilibria theory, while Dawkins prefers the gradualist approach and talks of morphological fitness peaks. I believe that the two perspectives are complementary and can be used together. For example, I believe that the human race is currently in a state of punctuated equilibria and that we may eventually settle into a fitness peak for a very long time (this would only happen if there is a physical and conceptual limit to technological advancement -- which may not be the case!). We have been in such a state for the past 13,000 years because of our capacity for technological innovation. Our physical evolution is still quite slow, but our technological enhancements have enabled us to evolve at a frightening pace -- and it's getting faster (see James Gleick's Faster and Ray Kurzweil's The Age of Spiritual Machines). It appears that the 21st century will see humans physically merge with technology; we are turning into cyborgs. Thus, the punctuated equilibria phase may last for some time yet. Eventually, however, there may come a time when we cannot advance technically any further. This would result in a morphological fitness peak, where we would remain relatively unchanged for a long time. [Of course, what would a discussion of human evolution be without one of my patented doomsday warnings: Gould noted that evolution has no direction or focus, and that it eventually leads to awkward over-specialisation; past reward is no indication of future gain. However, the human race has two major advantages over blind evolution: we are evolution that has become conscious of itself (see Julian Huxley), and we will soon have the capacity to completely control our evolutionary destiny.]

Posted a new prediction in the Prescience section.

Hopeful & Wishful Thinking
Virtual reality is limiting in its own right. What I'm really hoping for is mind-to-mind communication. Imagine if you and I could have a two-way conversation with each other with our consciousnesses instead of our mouths or fingers typing on a keyboard. Imagine if you could access my memory for some information that you require, or for an experience that I've had. With a bit of hand-waving technology, I can foresee the day when we post our streams of consciousness online on our personal Web pages: "Hey, I wonder what George is thinking about right now? Well, what's his URL?" In addition, you might even be able to feel my emotions. Concerned about privacy? Well, don't worry -- there may come a day when there will be no such thing, and privacy will be regarded as a relic of the past.

Metaphysics Theory (revised From 2002.05.29)
The Universe is Finely Tuned for a Great Filter to Exist: Intelligent Life as Infection
Let's assume that the following propositions are true: a) the Great Filter exists and it exists in our future, and b) the universe is a dynamic system that replicates itself, not unlike an organism, and is therefore subject to the laws of natural selection. Let's also assume that our universe is a 'successful adaptation,' and it will have no difficulty reproducing itself. As a side-effect of its adaptation, once in a while intelligent life evolves on a planet. This side-effect has nothing to do with the universe's reproductive cycle, and can therefore be regarded as an infection. However, if intelligent life were allowed to evolve to its full potential, it would eventually figure out how the universe works, and end up controlling its inner workings. This could prove fatal to the universe's reproductive strategy. Therefore, the universe has evolved such that intelligent life will go extinct just prior to its ability to control the universe. [Personally, I don't believe my theory to be true, mostly because if one chooses to apply the fine tuning argument, they must apply it to the notion of the presence of conscious observers (i.e. the universe does not exist without observers)]

NSF Report
Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance: Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information Technology and Cognitive Science

I am now a member of the World Transhumanist Association (WTA) and a contributing editor for Transhumanity e-zine.

Defending Transhumanism
I recently posted my comments on the KurzweilAI page to an article posted by James John Bell entitled 'Technotopia and the Death of Nature.' Here's what I had to say: "James John Bell's assertion that transhumanists "can hardly wait for the Singularity to arrive," and that they "are actively organizing not just to bring the Singularity about, but to counter what they call ‘techno-phobes’ and ‘neo-luddites’” is as sweeping as it is unfair and inaccurate. Not all transhumanists believe in the Singularity, while many of those who do are very worried about its potential negative ramifications. In fact, transhumanists are actively seeking ways in which to ease the transitions of the coming years by encouraging research, foresight, and open discussions. They are not so much ‘countering’ anti-technologists as they are on the defensive; it seems to me that individuals such as Bill Joy and Jeremy Rifkin are the ones on the attack (not to mention Ted Kaczynski). Moreover, transhumanism and environmentalism are not mutually exclusive terms; there are a number of greens that are active members of the transhumanist community. I strongly encourage Bell and others to read up on transhumanism (www.transhumanism.org) and stop proliferating misinformation about this broad-based grass-roots movement." -- July 4, 2002

Good Article
What's So New In A Newfangled Science? by George Johnson, New York Times.

Cool Scientist, Writer
Cool Theologian, Scientist
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955)

Urban legend memes are interesting to consider (as are superstitions and old wives tales). These memes get passed on almost exclusively through word of mouth and are virtually unverifiable. Yet, they strike a chord in the human psyche, enough that one is compelled to pass on the meme to someone else -- even though they know the story is most likely untrue. But therein lies the rub: they often make for such good yarns that it's hard to resist. Thus, wee see the potency of the urban legend meme and its effective 'survival strategy.'