March 28, 2004

Interviewed by Now Magazine

I was interviewed by Now Magazine's Stephen Humphrey today. It was a long and exhausting 2.5 hr interview in which we covered a lot of ground, including transhumanism. Stephen was thinking of doing an article on bill C-6 (which is biolegislation that was recently passed here in Canada) and cloning. But after our lengthy discussion, he wasn't exactly forthcoming about what he thought the article was going to be about. Reporters make me nervous and I'm loath to trust them -- you can never be too sure how they're going to portray you

March 22, 2004

Berserker Probes

Although unlikely, I came up with a possible variation on the berserker probe scenario to help explain the Fermi Paradox. A berserker probe is like a Von Neumann probe, except that it destroys life instead of spawning it. It's conceivable that, if a civilization can create a life-spawning probe, an advanced civilization could -- for whatever reason -- also create its antithesis: an exponentially duplicating fleet of malevolent probes designed to wipe out all intelligent life in the galaxy. Of course, we haven't seen any signs of berserker probes, so we are left wondering why our planet hasn't been wiped out by them. There are a number of plausible answers to this problem, including the popular Rare Earth hypothesis.

However, a possible explanation for why Earth still has life on it in the presence of berserker probes is that berserker probes, in order to remain energy efficient, remain dormant in space awaiting activation by a sign of intelligent life. One can assume that berserker probes are designed to eliminate advanced intelligences only. What sign of intelligence could they be waiting for? How about radio signals. Yikes.

This is very unlikely, however, for a number of reasons. Primarily, it would seem that we are about a half-century away from Drexlerian nanotechnology, artificial superintelligence, and an existential phase shift (i.e. technological singularity). By cosmological standards, if a berserker probe is going to wipe us out, it better get here already. And assuming that it was lying dormant in our solar system, it has had ample time to destroy us. Moreover, it would have been simpler to design a fleet of berserker probes that permanently sterilize all planets in the galaxy so that life can never arise.

At the very least, this might make an interesting premise for a science fiction story.

Correspondence with NASA's Chuck Jorgensen

I sent an e-mail today to Chuck Jorgensen of NASA's Ames Research Center about an idea I have that relates to his recent breakthrough using nerve signals from silent (subvocal) speech to communicate with machines and people:

Chuck Jorgensen et al,

Congratulations to you and your team for your work on computerizing subvocal speech. This breakthrough is sure to have wide reaching implications in a number of fields and in the way we interact with our computers. In particular, I'm very excited for what this will mean to the disabled. Moreover, we are slowly but surely inching closer to the NUI (neural user interface), and by implication, a kind of technologically endowed form of person-to-person telepathy.

As I thought about your breakthrough it occurred to me that the same type of system could work for the aural receptors in the ear. The Organ of Corti's stereocilia send incoming converted acoustic signals to the brain. One can assume that, by feeding this transmitter a compatible signal (not unlike the data you're intercepting en route to the vocal chords), that "virtual acoustic" information can be fed directly into the brain. To the person, it would feel like they were hearing sound (it would probably sound like an acoustic hallucination), but in reality, it's just a neural signal that's tapped into the auditory nerve. (I believe that cochlear implants work along this principle)

So, it seems reasonable to me that if you take your subvocal speech signal, convert and transmit it somehow to the auditory nerve, you can have a soft form of mind-to-mind communication.

I wouldn't mind hearing your thoughts on the matter (pun intended). I would be completely unsurprised if you have considered this already.

Dr. Jorgensen was kind enough to write me back:

Dear Mr. Dvorsky,

Thank you for your most interesting and insightful letter. I found your suggested approach a very penetrating insight. We have not considered your particular method but have been interested in finding whether we can directly correlate auditory speech signals and sub vocal signals recorded at the the same time by learning non linear mapping equations to relate one to the other. We have also explored some research for direct neural signal injection performed at other universities but it is outside our Labs current charter and expertise. We are most interested in a totally non invasive process, starting initially with understanding the highly convolved surface measured signals in contrast to the work which has focused on imbedded neural probes or surgical intrusions such as used for highly handicapped patients.

thanks for your interest in our work -

Dr. Chuck Jorgensen
NASA Ames Research Center

March 17, 2004

Panspermia Equation

A friend and I were recently discussing the panspermia hypothesis. I mentioned a recent theory to him suggesting that the Earth has most likely "infected" countless other planets with its biological substrate -- the result of massive celestial impacts that have sent Earth's bio-ejecta into the far reaches of space. We concluded that an Earth panspermia infection bubble must exist and that it is steadily growing outward. Assuming that the panspermia hypothesis is valid (and that is a BIG assumption), the next question is: How probable is it that this matter has landed on a planet and successfully transmitted life to it? My friend took this question and came up with a Drake Equation-style formula. I've since made some suggestions. Here's the most recent draft:

Some of the factors below are valued as "odds". That is, they have a value between 0 (impossible) and 1 (certain).

N(i) * f(l) * f(x) * f(e) * f(s) * f(p) * f(q) * f(v) * f(m)

N(i) Number of meteorite impacts or similar events occurring after life develops on earth. The frequency of these events are decreasing over time. This might also include volcanic eruptions, explosions, etc.

f(l) Fraction of those impacts that encounter living matter of the type suitable for panspermic transmission. It's conceivable that any kind of life, no matter how rudimentary, could set off this effect. This fraction might approach 1 as life matures on a planet (ie post "Cambrian Explosion phases"). It might exclude impacts in the polar regions, deserts, etc; early life probably only existed in oceans, and perhaps only in temperate belts.

f(x) Fraction of impacts that eject viable life matter. This is the chance of life surviving the impact and its transmission into space.

f(e) Fraction of that ejecta which escapes the solar system. [For the sake of this discussion we're excluding intra-solar system infection]

T(v) Average duration for the life-substrate on the ejecta to remain a viable panspermic agent. This is a statement of the chance of life (or the life code) surviving the trip.

V(e) Average velocity of ejecta once it has escaped the solar system. The product of T(v) and V(e) is the average distance that ejecta will reach and remain viable. Call this D(v).

N(s) The number of stars within (T(v) * V(e)) of earth.

f(s) The fraction of escaping ejecta that encounters one of these stars. That is, is captured by the gravity of another star and at least enters stellar orbit.

f(p) Fraction of captured ejecta that lands on a planet (or moon).

f(q) Fraction of planets that are susceptible to panspermic infection.

f(v) Fraction of landing ejecta where the life matter is still viable. This is the chance of life surviving the landing.

f(m) Fraction of landing viable life that multiplies into an ecosystem. This is the chance of life thriving in a brand new environment.

Odds 'n Ends

- I've confirmed Stelarc for TV04!
- My article, "Better Living Through Transhumanism" is going to be published in The Humanist magazine.
- My article, "Have Feminists Forsaken the Future" is going to be published in a University text book that highlights opposing viewpoints in genetics, ethics, and feminist issues.

March 11, 2004

Stelarc and TV04

I contacted Stelarc yesterday about his possible involvement with TV04. I got a very encouraging response from him and hopefully I'll be able to make an official announcement shortly. I also contacted Jaron Lanier, but I'm still waiting to hear back from him. He expressed interest several months ago, but has since dropped off my radar.

Interviewed by Eye Magazine

I was interviewed today by Toronto freelance journalist Andre Mayer who specifically wanted to know about how I apply transhumanism to my daily life. While he made no promises, he hoped that he'll be able to translate our conversation into an article. For those who are interested in this subject matter, check out my column, "Better Living Through Transhumanism."

March 10, 2004

TV04 News

I've got some big TransVision 2004 news: I have reached an agreement with Steve Mann and he will be joining us at TV04 as a keynote speaker. TV04 is certainly starting to take shape -- it's going to be an absolutely mind-blowing weekend. I'm still nowhere near where I want to be in regards to speakers, but we've already got a formidable crew, including Mann, Howard Bloom, Tsubasa, Nick Bostrom, Aubrey de Grey and James Hughes. Wow. I'm also looking to get S. Jay Olshansky and Stelarc involved in the conference. I'll keep you posted.

We're looking to add a Thursday event to TV04. Our current thinking is that it'll be about transhumanism and religion. Or, it could be a crash-course in transhumanism, an event reminiscent of what we did last year at TV03 last year.

Local UofT bioethics student Isaac Filate has joined us on the organizing committee for TV04. If anyone here in Toronto is interested in volunteering, please contact me.

March 3, 2004

Exchange with Damien Broderick on Vegetarianism, Personhood

Here's a recent exchange between myself and Damien Broderick about the politics of vegetarianism that eventually made its way to the wta-talk list (the article I'm referring to can be found here):

[George wrote in his original post:]

< Fascinating article, but I found parts of it disturbing, particularly the
suggestion that as long as non-[human] animals are treated and killed
humanely that it's okay to kill them. >
< It's a non-argument and one that smacks of speciesism. >

[Damien offlist to George:]

This recently invented word `speciesism' begs the core question itself,
doesn't it? As a sort of analogous back formation from `racism', it simply
doesn't work without lots of extra argument. Racism stinks because it's the
fallacious claim that groups of humans who differ superficially in skin
color (say) are different species, and hence can be treated differently,
even killed at will. But different species *are*, oddly enough, different
species; the argument has to be started again from another standpoint. What
your rhetoric seems to try for is the dubious claim that:

It's a speciesist argument and one that smacks of racism.

Of course it doesn't.

[George replied:]

Yes, of course, non-trivial differences exist between humans and the other
species. I am not suggesting that we should sweepingly ignore those
differences nor that we should offer blanket condemnations whenever any
non-human animal is harmed. That being said, I would say that trivial
differences do exist when it comes to the conscious experience of humans
and a number non-human animals, including some farm animals. For this
reason I have a hard time buying those arguments which unjustifiably and
arbitrarily diminish the value of the life that these creatures have.

And it pisses me off when no consideration or respect is given to the life
of a highly sentient, emotional, and experiential non-human animal -- so
yes, I'll use a word like speciesism because that's exactly what it is. The
article that I was referring to did exactly this; the author was fixated on
his observation that cows, for example, did not panic or show any stress on
the killing floor and that they died virtually instantaneously. In his mind
this made the whole thing okay. The fact that a conscious life had been
terminated didn't seem to bother the author at all because the death came
"humanely." Interesting that you make the racism analogy; as I was reading
the article I was imagining a commentator of 60 years ago rationalizing the
"humaneness" of gas chambers in the same way.

As for the word "speciesism," I must admit that when I throw a word like
that to the wta-talk list I make assumptions about this specific readership
and how they will interpret that word. Most of us here understand and honor
personhood ethics and I thought (hopefully not wrongly) that I didn't need
to qualify the term.


Yikes. You reckon a cow is a *person*?


I did *not* make `the racism analogy'; I specifically *denied* and
*repudiated* any analogy between killing black humans and killing cows,
which I felt was an analogy implicit in the term you used. I'm aghast
(really) to see you now explicitly paralleling murdering Jewish and other
humans in gas chambers with slaughtering animals raised for food.


A cow is no more or less a person than, say, a severely disabled human.
Personhood is not a binary designation or status, but is instead a sliding
scale of characteristics and capabilities. The quality of the cognitive,
emotional and sensory life that a cow leads is sufficient enough IMO to
fulfill a number of personhood criteria which should grant it civil
protections against such things as mistreatment and murder.


Because humans are capable of so much more than non-human animals (in so
many respects), we can assign a greater inherent "value" to human life
relative to other creatures. Thus, gas chambers are a greater travesty than
factory farms, but *both* are still wrong and the parallel between racism
and speciesism still stands. Moreover, the analogy -- in case you're
concerned -- doesn't lessen the value we ascribe to human life nor does it
artificially inflate the value of animal life; it merely highlights the
need to reject unfounded prejudices and the need to recognize, respect and
protect various types of sentient life.


I might end up persuaded that cows are persons, but it seems extremely
unlikely at this point. (I will readily accept that suitably conscious AIs
or extraterrestrial lifeforms or genetically `uplifted' animals must be so
regarded.) The argument for decent treatment and use of non-human animals
can surely be made without taking such a bizarre step.

Damien Broderick

March 2, 2004

TV04 Notes

Some more TransVision notes:

- Digital artist Tsubasa has announced that he will be participating at TV04. Tsubasa is also involved with Cyberotica 2004.
- I met with Jacqueline Urbano today, a local student, artist and transhumanist, who will be helping us manage and organize the artists component of the conference. Check out the recently launched TV04 Gallery to see some of her work.
- Eric Aronesty has joined the TV04 organizing committee to help us manage sponsorships.

Two Day Fast

I have all but completed my first 2-day fast (I'll have some fruit for breakfast tomorrow AM). I haven't eaten anything since Sunday evening except the Master Cleanser drink (water, lemon juice, honey, salt, and cayenne pepper). I've got the 1-day fast down-pat, but I have to admit, the 2-day was hard. I was surprised how distracted I was and how little energy I had (sad commentary, really, about the effect of coffee). I had all these plans to do yoga and writing tonight, but I ended up renting and watching a couple of cool movies (American Splendor and Okamura's Memories). But I know I'm going to feel great tomorrow and for the rest of the week. These little exercises do strengthen my mental fortitude and self-control, and it's helping me prepare for the Big One later this month: the 10-day juice fast.

March 1, 2004

Catching Up

Long time no blog. Sorry, been busy. Recent happenings in my life:

- I recently came to an agreement with Howard Bloom and his agent; Howard will be a keynote speaker at TransVision 2004.
- I am currently in discussions with Steve Mann and his agent about TV04. I think it's just a matter of crossing the T's and dotting the I's at this point, but it's still unofficial.
- I will be speaking at the Center for Inquiry International's conference on science and ethics, How Scientific Inquiry Helps Frame Value Judgments. The conference will be here in Toronto from May 13-16. I will be speaking on May 14 at 8:30 PM about transhumanism and the future of humanity.
- I've been corresponding with Kevin Warwick. More on this later.