April 1, 2003

April 2003

Check out this must read article/review by Peter Singer: Animal Rights at 30.

Who's Afraid of Sex Selection?
Canada is poised to ban proven technologies for choosing children's sex. If this is how we treat sex selection on the eve of human genetic redesign, we have a really long way to go

Technophiles and Greens of the World, Unite!
Nobody wants to live in a polluted wasteland, but Luddism is no solution. It's time for environmentalists to embrace science and technology

Accelerating change is not new. It's not something that's only happening now. It has been technology's story from the very beginning. It's just that we have failed to identify the exponential process of technological advancement until now; it's starting to move so fast that we can feel it -- even within our puny lifespans.

Technological innovations cause a positive feedback loop. As we develop better tools, those tools in turn help us to build even better tools, and so on. For example, today there are some manufacturing processes (both at the design and construction phases) that are conducted by automated and robotic systems that lie outside of human capacity and awareness. This generation of tools will in turn produce the next generation of tools, and so on.

There is very little doubt that technological innovations have been advancing exponentially since humans first engineered stone tools. And because our technological artifacts have a profound and all-encompassing effect on the sociocultural sphere (including the medical, militaristic, economic, religious, and political realms), one can also monitor the history of cultural change as it desperately tries to keep up with new scientific awareness (i.e. Heliocentrism, Darwinism, etc.) and technological change (i.e. industrialism, communications, health, etc.). Because our technologies enhance our intrinsic capabilities, one could argue that Homo sapiens is currently in a phase of Gouldian punctuated equilibrium. We have been made cyborg by our external technologies for quite some time now. We are rapidly evolving into a stage where those technologies will become internal, where we become fully realized cyborgs.

It's hard to argue against the idea that science and technology -- and the dissemination thereof -- are the engines that fuel human history. Pre-history is the story of static societies that experienced no change to their metaphysical belief structures and no changes to their artifacts (thus pre-history = pre-change; history chronicles change). Anthropologists and evolutionary biologists can only measure change during pre-history by noting the physical and cognitive changes arising arising in an organism as a result of evolution.

Modern history, on the other hand, is the story of change, or more accurately, accelerating change. One need only look at the 20th century as a striking example of how quickly things are developing -- we went from horse and carriage to the atomic age, the moon, and mapping the human genome.

Today, we stand at the eve of several technological revolutions: nanotechnology, biotechnology, cognitive science, information technology, materials technology, and robotics. What's so striking is not how many revolutions are about to happen, but that they are potentially synergistic and convergent, offering incredible potentials for rethinking the human condition itself.

Here's what I'm listening to these days:
- Voivod (new self-titled album)
- Meshuggah: Nothing & Chaosphere
- The Shins
- Super Furry Animals
- Nick Drake
- Kid Koala
- Flaming Lips
- The Coral
- Supergrass
- And a whole lotta Groove Salad from WinAmp's Here's what I've watched recently:
- Children of Dune
- The 13th Floor
- I Am Sam
- Lord of the Rings: Two Towers
- Toronto Maple Leaf playoff hockey (Go Leafs!)

Here's what I'm reading these days:
- Thomas Georges, Digital Soul (I'll be reviewing this for Betterhumans shortly)
- K. Eric Drexler, Engines of Creation (Yeah, I know, what took me so long)
- Tanahashi & Schneider, Essential Zen
- Kip Nygren's "Emerging Technologies and Exponential Change: Implications for Army Transformation"

The Joint Centre for Bioethics at the University of Toronto put together a report highlighting the most vital biotechnologies for improving global health within the next 5 to 10 years:

1. Molecular technologies for affordable, simple diagnosis of infectious diseases
2. Recombinant technologies to develop vaccines against infectious diseases
3. Technologies for more efficient drug and vaccine delivery systems
4. Technologies for environmental improvement (sanitation, clean water, bioremediation)
5. Sequencing pathogen genomes to understand their biology and to identify new antimicrobials
6. Female-controlled protection against sexually transmitted diseases, both with and without contraceptive effect
7. Bioinformatics to identify drug targets and to examine pathogen-host interactions
8. Genetically modified crops with increased nutrients to counter specific deficiencies
9. Recombinant technology to make therapeutic products (e.g. insulin, interferons) more affordable
10. Combinatorial chemistry for drug discovery

Technological innovation increases exponentially, while cultural norms lag behind, or in some cases, come to a grinding halt altogether in reaction. The divide between those communities (and their cultural memeplexes) that can keep up with technological change versus those who cannot (or refuse to) is steadily growing. This cultural latency causes stress, and in part explains many of the global problems we are experiencing today. The keys to success in this rapidly changing world include the dissemination of knowledge and resources, anticipating change, and adaptivity.

Simon Smith & myself put this press release together:

Parental Choice, Research Impinged by Bill C-13
Members of parliament must amend Bill C-13 so that it doesn't unjustifiably remove valid reproductive options for Canadians or inhibit important medical research

Proposed Bill C-13 is slated for debate in the House of Commons this week, and many Canadians are concerned that it will be voted into law.

The bill, titled “An Act respecting assisted human reproductive technologies and related research,” calls for bans on therapeutic and reproductive cloning, germ-line modifications, gender selection of offspring, the creation of chimeras and animal-human hybrids for reproduction, commercial surrogate mothers and the sale of human reproductive materials or embryos.

Already the target of much criticism, the bill’s potential prohibitions have infuriated many individuals and groups, including infertile couples and those people, such as Parkinson’s victims, who stand a good chance of reaping the benefits of research into therapeutic cloning.

Under the act, Canadians would be forbidden to pay for sperm, eggs or surrogacy. Health Minister Anne McLellan maintains that these types of reproductive contributions should be limited to acts of altruism.

"How many friends do most of us have who would, out of the goodness of their heart, go through two weeks of injections, nine months of pregnancy and childbirth so that we could have a child?" asks Simon Smith, president of the Toronto Transhumanist Association. "In their reactionary attempt to prevent the commodification of human reproduction, the Liberals are ignoring the realities that Canadian couples face. People without extraordinarily altruistic friends will be doomed to a childless future."

Bill C-13 isn't just unfair to the one in six Canadians who suffer from infertility, says Smith, but also to people suffering from such health conditions as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and paralysis. "Therapeutic cloning has the potential to produce stem cells that could treat or even cure many currently incurable conditions," says Smith. "If Bill C-13 passes, research on therapeutic cloning won't stop, it will just move to more amenable countries. In essence, Canada will be waving goodbye to a significant part of its biotech future."

George Dvorsky, Vice President of the Toronto Transhumanist Association, is concerned that under Bill C-13 Canadians will be denied what he considers to be ethical and viable reproductive options. He is an advocate of commercial surrogacy and gender selection, and believes that consenting adults in a free society should be entitled to use these types of life-giving services. "People should be wary of any attempt by the Canadian government to control the reproductive processes of their bodies," he says. "Canadians couples should be allowed to select something as basic as the gender of their own offspring. People already try to select the gender of their children using all sorts of primitive and ineffective means. Why should new means be made illegal simply because they're more effective?"

Dvorsky also worries that by making commercial surrogacy illegal, couples will seek such services in the United States, or enter into shady and unmonitored underground activities.

“The proposed act claims to ‘respect’ assisted reproductive technologies and research, and instead fails to ‘respect’ those Canadians who could really use those technologies and services,” says Dvorsky. “This is another example of the government prying their way into the bedrooms of the nation and telling us which procreative options are appropriate for us and which are not.“

Modern advanced warfare and the rise of the hegemonic United States has forced those opposing nations, groups, and individuals to resort to asymmetric warfare because they cannot fight by conventional means. By using tactics such as guerilla warfare, terrorism, and other unconventional means of combat, an entirely new era of human warfare has begun.

But there has been no real acceptance of asymmetric warfare as such, not in the media or the public consciousness, and certainly not through any overt acknowledgement by threatened governments. Instead, such acts get labeled as 'terrorism,' which sounds sweepingly propagandist in intent, making it a memetically engineered term.

Any responsible scientist avoids dogmatism. At best, they should accept axioms as working hypotheses to get to the next level of inquiry, while continuing to process and test incoming data from the field. What seems unintuitive or irrational today may eventually prove otherwise given new language and comprehension. As Hegel once said, "What is real is rational, and what is rational is real."

The goal of a scientist is not to be proven correct, but to be proven incorrect, thus eliminating potentially spurious lines of reasoning. This is what differentiates science from other methodologies. Unfortunately, a lot of scientists have forgotten this notion.

I also believe that a good scientist pursues multiple paths of inquiry that are necessarily incompatible. This will help them avoid dogmatism and insular reasoning.

The universe does not exist without the presence of observers. As John A. Wheeler has observed with the delayed-choice thought experiment, our observations in the present affect the universe's composition in the past.

"Wheeler conjectures we are part of a universe that is a work in progress; we are tiny patches of the universe looking at itself— and building itself. It's not only the future that is still undetermined but the past as well. And by peering back into time, even all the way back to the Big Bang, our present observations select one out of many possible quantum histories for the universe." [http://www.discover.com/june_02/featuniverse.html]

Taking this hypothesis in conjunction with the infinite universe assumption, not only is your existence necessary in a universe where all observations are made, but your necessary existence has forced the universe to take on its current character, all the way back to the big bang. Not only is the universe (unconsciously) finely tuned for the existence of conscious observers, but the universe is finely tuned for the existence of you at this exact moment slice!

I've never been satisfied with the Turing Test, the test that's supposed to help us decide when an artificial intellect matches the intellectual equivalency of a human. In Turing's test, a human judge engages in a natural language conversation with two other parties, one a human and the other a machine. If the judge cannot reliably tell which is which, then the machine is said to pass the test. It is assumed that both the humans and the machine try to appear human. In order not to disqualify a machine that does not look or cannot speak like a human, the conversation takes place over a text-only channel.

The trouble I have with this test, aside from its anthropocentric bias, is that a sophisticated software program could be designed to emulate a human mind. It is conceivable that a supercomputer using complex heuristics could satisfy a judge into thinking that he's dealing with a human mind. The problem, it seems, is that while the Turing Test can assess intelligence, it cannot test for consciousness.

It occurred to me recently that there may be a way around this shortcoming. Quantum physics tells us that particles remain in a state of superposition until forced into decoherence by an conscious observation or measurement. Quantum physicists dating all the way back to Max Planck have observed and documented the effects of superposition in the lab.

It seems to me that a consciousless machine would not be able to force quantum decoherence. Thus, I am wondering if a test can be established to measure whether or not a machine or mind has caused the decoherence of particles in superposition by means of conscious observation. If such a test could be established, then we have a much better way of assessing whether or not a machine is truly exhibiting human-equivalent consciousness.

It is said that the universe is 'finely tuned' for observers to exist, meaning that if the universe differed in any way from how we see it, the composition of the universe would not allow for life to exist (i.e. galaxies could not maintain their consistency, matter would fly apart too quickly, etc.). This type of anthropic observation is not just valuable in helping us understand the universe and why it appears so 'perfect,' it also helps us understand our own composition. Specifically, it tells us how we exist as lifeforms, and more importantly, how we exist as observers, or more accurately, conscious observers. As Gao Shan noted, "we must decide whether and how consciousness emerges from mere matter or whether consciousness is a fundamental property of matter."

Although I lean in the direction of mental state functionalism and notions of human-equivalent artificial intelligence, I am fascinated by the work of Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff. Hameroff in particular talks of quantum consciousness, and believes that consciousness is an emergent effect of quantum effects. His views are somewhat Platonic, and he is an advocate of natural panpsychism. Essentially, Hameroff believes that the mind is a highly sophisticated quantum computer.

I find panpsychism to be most fascinating, and there's a part of me that believes this is truly the nature of consciousness and existence. A university professor once told me, "It is not life that creates consciousness, but consciousness that creates life." There is an intractable link between existence and conscious observation; quantum physics screams at us that this is so. And importantly, if it turns out to be the case, we can therefore conclude that the universe appears finely tuned for consciousness to exist.
Somewhat related, critics of AI utilise Penrose's and Hameroff's arguments, including the Chinese Room argument, Godel's argument, the epistemological argument, and the computational argument. They argue that we'll never create a computer that will ever genuinely understand and have mental states purely in virtue of executing a suitable program.

Perhaps they're right, and perhaps consciousness isn't merely a fancy line of code. Maybe consciousness is an emergent effect of quantum phenomena after all. Does this mean that we should give up trying to create artificially intelligent machines?

I don't believe so. The human mind evolved from Darwinian processes of natural selection and it clearly exists as a functional object based on highly organized matter in this universe. Thus, we may eventually realize that software is not the route to consciousness, at least not all the way. I am certain that some of our capacities, like memory and emotive states, are purely the result of computational modules in our brain.

But I believe that we'll be on our way to engineering human-equivalent consciousness once we get a handle on quantum computing. We already have the first working 7-qubit NMR computer as demonstrated at IBM's Almaden Research Center. So, our quest for artificial superintelligence and consciousness will continue uninterrupted should panpsychism and quantum consciousness prove to be correct.

While I'm starting to achieve some breakthroughs with my Vipassana Meditation practice, I feel that I'm regressing with the yoga. I have a theory on why this is happening.

It's been less than a year since I started doing both. The meditation has been a slow and steady process of learning as I go and disciplining my mind; I'm truly getting better as I go. With the yoga, however, I'm starting to understand just how much of a quad I am, and I'm starting to get a sense of just how much work I still have ahead of me. My mind-body awareness is very weak, and until I develop better body awareness, I'm all over the place with my poses -- I don't think I've ever down Downward Dog the same way twice :-(

When I first started yoga, I was simply happy to get into the various poses. But now it's a matter of getting into the poses and holding them correctly. I'm starting to know what I must do, and it feels like I'm stepping back in terms of progress. I also have very little flexibility, and weak upper-body and stomach muscles. Yoga is in many ways about strength, so I have my work cut out for me.

Thus, I'm trying to set reasonable goals for myself. Right now I'll be happy if I ever make it to the intermediate level class. And I am seeing some progress. I've never had better psychological control over my body in my life, and I've only been doing yoga for 7 months.

Thankfully, I have an amazing yoga instructor who's patient with me and excellent with beginners. Now if I could only be patient with myself. But I have to say, it's amazing how the meditation and the yoga beautifully compliment each other; I rely significantly on both for each practice.

I can't speak enough about the Vipassana Meditation and how it has helped me with my daily living (as has the Buddhism). I can calm myself with a couple of breaths, I have ten times the patience I had before, and I can manage psychological and physical pain much better. And of course, I'm having a much easier time slowing the pace of my thoughts, the so-called monkey-mind.

I prepared this April Fool's Day article for Betterhumans:

Computer Virus Spreads to Human
Justin Jest
Betterhumans Staff

[Tuesday, April 01, 2003] A software developer from Houston, Texas has become the first human to contract a computer virus, microbiologists have confirmed.

John Newman, an employee of vTouch Systems, came into contact with the virus through the use of a neural interface that his company is developing.

Avril DuChamps, a spokesperson for vTouch Systems, confirmed yesterday at a press conference that Newman had come down with the virus. All activities at vTouch have been suspended until further notice.

The virus, which has subsequently been identified as a variant of the W32.0401.Worm computer virus, appears to copy itself by exploiting a protocol vulnerability in the electroencephalogram neural link that vTouch Systems is developing to connect a human brain with external devices.

The virus is also unique in that it has the flexibility to toggle its reproductive code based on the medium in which it resides. Originally programmed in C++, it can shift to RNA-based replication once in an organic substrate.

While relatively harmless in the digital realm, W32.0401.Worm has caused some health problems for Newman, who is suffering from a mild fever and severe diarrhea.

Expected to happen
"We knew that something like this was eventually going to happen," says Charles Kane, a researcher with antivirus company SterileData. "We just didn't think it was going to happen so soon."

Kane, who tracks new computer viruses for SterileData, found himself in the unlikely situation of having to consult with microbiologists at the US Centres for Disease Control.

"They were just as shocked we were," he says. "But they quickly came to the same conclusions that we did, and they were of great assistance to us in quickly isolating and identifying the new pathogen."

It is unlikely that the virus can be transmitted from human to human, but researchers are not taking chances.

Newman is currently being held in quarantine at St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital in Houston. Doctors monitoring his condition expect a full recovery.

"The biggest concern," says Kane, "is that people will take this Betterhumans April Fools' Day joke seriously and spam their friends with unnecessary virus warnings."