August 28, 2004

Critique of the Drake Equation

Milan Cirkovic exposes the weaknesses of the over-emphasized Drake Equation:

The Temporal Aspect of the Drake Equation and SETI
Authors: Milan M. Cirkovic
Journal-ref: Astrobiology 4 (2004) 225-231

We critically investigate some evolutionary aspects of the famous Drake equation, which is usually presented as the central guide for the research on extraterrestrial intelligence. It is shown that the Drake equation tacitly relies on unverifiable and possibly false assumptions on both the physico-chemical history of our Galaxy and the properties of advanced intelligent communities. The importance of recent results of Lineweaver on chemical build-up of inhabitable planets for SETI is emphasized. Two important evolutionary effects are briefly discussed and the resolution of the difficulties within the context of the phase-transition astrobiological models sketched.

August 27, 2004

Danish radio interview next week

Jan Sk√łt of radioprogramme Harddisken on Danmarks Radio (Danish Broadcasting Corporation) recently contact me. He wants to interview me next week about transhumanism, its artistic components, and the recently concluded TransVision 04 conference.

This is pretty serious stuff, as the program tends to get around 200-400,000 listeners. I'll write more after the interview (which is Wednesday) and advise as to when the show will air.

August 25, 2004

Bailey critiques Fukuyama, defends transhumanism

Reason Online's Ronald Bailey has published his latest column, "Transhumanism: The Most Dangerous Idea?" As usual, Bailey does a masterful job exposing the the shortcomings of Francis Fukuyama's arguments. In this case, Bailey is reacting to Fukuyama's recent characterization of transhumanism as "a strange liberation movement" that wants "nothing less than to liberate the human race from its biological constraints." Fukuyama believes that this one of the most serious threats currently facing humanity.

Bailey counters:
"In his famous book The End of History and the Last Man, Fukuyama declared that we are witnessing "the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government." Fair enough. But for Fukuyama, the end of history is a "sad time" because "daring, courage, imagination, and idealism will be replaced by economic calculation." Also, he claims, "in the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history." How ironic that Fukuyama now spends his time demonizing transhumanism, a nascent philosophical and political movement that epitomizes the most daring, courageous, imaginative, and idealistic aspirations of humanity."
And in closing says:
"The environmental movement has taught us humility and respect for the integrity of nonhuman nature. We need a similar humility concerning our human nature. If we do not develop it soon, we may unwittingly invite the transhumanists to deface humanity with their genetic bulldozers and psychotropic shopping malls," concludes Fukuyama. I say, bring on those genetic bulldozers and psychotropic shopping malls that help people to live healthier, smarter, and happier lives.

I have my own nomination for an "idea [that], if embraced, would pose the greatest threat to the welfare of humanity": Banning technological progress in the name of "humility."

August 24, 2004

Smolin Vs. Susskind on the anthropic principle

The Edge has posted a great debate between two giants in cosmology, Lee Smolin and Leonard Susskind. Smolin is the developer of the idea that the Universe's traits are the result of Darwinian pressures, while Susskind has done pioneering work in string theory. The two men greatly respect each other, but when it comes to the application of the anthropic principle in their methodologies, that's where the two diverge.

Smolin argues that the "Anthropic Principle (AP) cannot yield any falsifiable predictions, and therefore cannot be a part of science". Susskind, on the otherhand, likes the AP, and counterargues that Smolin's brand of cosmology actually leads to absurd conclusions about what the Universe should look like.

Their arguments are for an advanced audience, but the article is still quite readable. They often get into circular arguments, with Smolin often sounding like he's really only interested in defending his theory.

I give Susskind the edge in this fab Edge debate.

August 23, 2004

Aubrey, transhumanist extraordinnaire

Biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey was awarded the 2004 H.G. Wells Award for Outstanding Transhumanist of the Year. He accepted the award at the TransVision conference during the J.B.S. Haldane Awards Banquet.

Transhumanist Cooperative Colloquium

I'm currently participating in the Transhumanist Cooperative Colloquium, an online event organized by our friends at the Extropy Institute, Max More and Natasha Vita-More. With the agenda, "For better Communications amongst Transhumanist Organizations," participants are encouraged to contribute to press releases, event calendars, list transhumanist organizations, and highlight current projects.

BH: Transhumanism Evolves in Silence

My latest Transitory Human column has been published in Betterhumans:

Transhumanism Evolves in Silence
TransVision 2004 highlighted both the transhumanist movement's progress and the difficulty of getting people to notice

Sitting in the back row, I couldn't decide if I should focus my attention on the man on stage or the smiles of people in the audience. "We fear what we have always been and what we are becoming," proclaimed the speaker in a lush Australian accent. "We are both cyborgs and zombies."

Speaking while silhouetted ahead of a gigantic screen stood world-renowned performance artist Stelarc. The audience sat completely absorbed, offering their rapt attention. Projected onto the screen was a massive computer-generated prosthetic head—Stelarc's head, given smarts by the ALICE AI software. Audience members eagerly asked the head a number of questions to which it responded in a loud and booming voice—something like Stephen Hawking's speech generator on steroids.

It all seemed larger than life, and after a year of preparations, I could scarcely believe that it was finally happening. The dramatic image of Stelarc standing in front of his prosthetic head while it answered questions on his behalf is one indelibly etched into my mind.
Entire article

Back from vacation

Voice mails on my answering machine: 14
Emails in my inbox: 1,024 (of which 6% was legitimate email, the rest spam)
Number of emails requiring a response: 41
Number of hours to put in at work this week to make up for my absence: 50
Cost of spending a week camping with my family: priceless

August 14, 2004

Passive resistance

I've always been fascinated by the concept of passive resistance.

At a personal level, I'm still undecided on the issue of violence and coercion as a means to defend oneself and others. As a Buddhist, I've often wondered how one should "fight back" when forced into a situation that requires resistance, be it physical, psychological, or otherwise. Pacifism unto itself often seems unsatisfactory, particularly when an offending person or group causes great suffering.

Consequently, is there such a thing as "fighting the good fight?" When you are "in this world" but "not of it," how far should one go in harming others when acting in self-defense? Considering the transient nature of existence, does it matter? Should one sacrifice oneself to avoid harming others? Can one truly remain compassionate at all times? There are no easy answers.

Mohandas Ghandi once said, "I am prepared to die, but there is no cause for which I am prepared to kill." He believed that non-violent measures could be refined and expanded upon. "Things undreamt of are daily being seen, the impossible is ever becoming possible. We are constantly being astonished these days at the amazing discoveries in the field of violence. But I maintain that far more undreamt of and seemingly impossible discoveries will be made in the field of nonviolence," he said.

During the Vietnam war, Buddhists were being persecuted by the Deim regime. In a remarkable incident to protest religious persecution in 1963 Vietnam, a 67 year old Buddhist monk by the name of Thich Quang Duc burnt himself alive on a busy street in Saigon. I'm sure many of you have seen the famous pictures, including the cover of a Rage Against the Machine album.

Considered a fanatical religious suicide by some, others interpreted Thich Quang Duc's act quite differently. Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hnah had this to say about the self-immolation:
The press spoke then of suicide, but in the essence, it is not. It is not even a protest. What the monks said in the letters they left before burning themselves aimed only at alarming, at moving the hearts of the oppressors, and at calling the attention of the world to the suffering endured then by the Vietnamese. To burn oneself by fire is to prove that what one is saying is of the utmost importance…. The Vietnamese monk, by burning himself, says with all his strength and determination that he can endure the greatest of sufferings to protect his people…. To express will by burning oneself, therefore, is not to commit an act of destruction but to perform an act of construction, that is, to suffer and to die for the sake of one’s people. This is not suicide.
Thich Nhat Hanh goes on to explain why Thich Quang Duc’s self-immolation was not a suicide, which is contrary to Buddhist teachings:
Suicide is an act of self-destruction, having as causes the following: (1) lack of courage to live and to cope with difficulties; (2) defeat by life and loss of all hope; (3) desire for nonexistence….. The monk who burns himself has lost neither courage nor hope; nor does he desire nonexistence. On the contrary, he is very courageous and hopeful and aspires for something good in the future. He does not think that he is destroying himself; he believes in the good fruition of his act of self-sacrifice for the sake of others…. I believe with all my heart that the monks who burned themselves did not aim at the death of their oppressors but only at a change in their policy. Their enemies are not man. They are intolerance, fanaticism, dictatorship, cupidity, hatred, and discrimination which lie within the heart of man.
It'll be interesting to see if the need for passive resistance remanifests itself at some point in the future and the extent to which it might be used.

August 13, 2004

Singer & Daar: We should clone this UK policy

Peter Singer and Abdallah Daar from Toronto's Joint Centre for Bioethics had and important article published in the Globe and Mail today. Called We Should Clone this U.K. Policy, the two bioethicists defend therapeutic cloning and stand critical of Canadian policies:
Yesterday, scientists in the United Kingdom announced that they'd been granted permission by the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority to create stem cells by therapeutic cloning. Now the U.K. is positioned to lead the world in translating the potential benefits of stem-cell research into patients. Canada should follow its lead and permit therapeutic cloning under strict regulation.

In therapeutic cloning, scientists take a human egg from a healthy donor, and remove its nucleus. They then take a cell -- a skin cell, for example -- from a patient, and remove its nucleus. They put the nucleus of the patient's cell into the egg whose nucleus has been removed. The resulting cell then divides for about a week until it is a small clump of embryonic cells, from which stem cells are removed.

These stem cells are encouraged to become the type of cells needed (say, insulin cells) and then introduced into the patient (with, for example, diabetes). The key is that the DNA, the genetic material in those embryonic stem cells, comes from the patient, whose immune system won't reject the stem cells.

August 12, 2004

NOW Magazine on TV04, Transhumanism

Stephen Humphrey, who joined us at TV04, has published an article in Toronto's NOW magazine that discusses the transhumanism phenomenon and the recently concluded conference. Humphrey interviewed me, Simon Smith, Mark Walker and Nick Bostrom for the piece, which is called, "No Death Please, I'm Bionic." Despite some silly mistakes, the article is quite good. Humphrey interviewed me for a total of about 3 hours, and I'm pleased with how he interpreted my comments and the soundbites he chose for the article. Here are some excerpts:
Art And Life In The Posthuman Era is the theme of this year's conference. The human being as a work of art in progress is a good analogy for the transhumanist project of augmenting ourselves, whether outwardly with wearable tech or inwardly by rewriting the genome itself. Critics of the movement, who include environmentalists, bioethicists and people of faith – "bioconservatives" or "techno-Luddites" in the transhumanist vocabulary – would call such an approach interfering with nature, playing God and ignoring the warnings of cautionary fiction like Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and Margaret Atwood's Oryx And Crake.

"Leave evolution alone?" says Dvorsky. "That's unethical, that's barbaric, because, as we know from our friend Charles Darwin, nature works in a very cruel way. The transhumanist agenda, if we can talk about such a thing, is that ideally we'd like to be in a post-Darwinian phase where we're no longer subject to natural selection."
Dvorsky favours careful regulation of cloning science to prevent abuses. "Hopefully, future governments will honour the needs of citizens and not (those of) of corporations." He believes world democracy will be necessary for the human race to truly evolve. Still, he speaks about his right-leaning co-thinkers with a kind of collegial tolerance.

"Of course, being a transhumanist, one could say that I'm a bio-libertarian to some degree," says Dvorsky. "When I see something like Bill C-6 slip through, I'm very troubled at how much of a role the government is still playing in our lives."

Bill C-6, the Assisted Human Reproduction Act, passed by the federal government in March, bans all forms of human cloning, prenatal manipulations like gender selection, and creating human-animal hybrids. Countries all over the world have drafted similar cloning laws or have them in the works. C-6 goes too far, says Dvorsky.

Unlike cloning laws in England, Korea and elsewhere, C-6 forbids therapeutic cloning, in which a cloned embryo is created specifically to harvest stem cells that would be compatible with a given patient. Such cloning could be used to treat Alzheimer's or grow Christopher Reeve a new spine.

Larratt on TransVision

Shannon Larratt, editor and publisher of BMEZINE.COM, the largest and oldest full-spectrum body modification publication, has written a "rambling overview of TransVision 2004:"
Transhumanism, at its simplest, is a way of thinking and being that embraces the idea that our experience as homo sapiens is just one small step in an ongoing evolution, and that we should take an active rather than passive role in “making ourselves better”. Transhumanists are a mix of philosophers, futurists, sci-fi buffs, and bona fide scientists advocating ideas such as uploading (the transfer of consciousness into computers), genetic enhancement, immortality, machine-human integration, and nanotechnology. Body modification culture lies on a related path and represents a real-world application of breaking the biological mold and transforming ourselves into something we perceive as “better” than what nature gave us.

August 11, 2004

TV04: Mann's lightvector painting

For those who attended Steve Mann's keynote at TV04, check out the lightvector painting that was created during the event.

Bailey on TransVision

Reason Online's science correspondant, Ronald Bailey, has quickly put together a review of TransVision '04:
The World Transhumanist Association's annual conference—TransVision 2004—attracted some 125 philosophers, scientific researchers, and techno-visionaries to Toronto last weekend to think about, discuss, and promote the ways in which technology will transform human lives. WTA members come from around the world; they want to nurture an intellectual and policy environment in which advanced biotechnology, nanotechnology, and informatics help people live longer, healthier lives, become more intelligent, and gain control over their emotions. On display at TransVision 2004 were some notable advances in their efforts.
Bailey's article was BoingBoing'd today.

August 10, 2004


TransVision 2004 is over.

After that intense and wonderful 4-day conference, I am absolutely exhausted. I got maybe a total of 6-8 hours of sleep over the four days. Friday before bed I was convinced that I was going to end up in the hospital with exhaustion. Saturday was a packed 21 hour day. I honestly don't know how I kept it together.

This wouldn't be so bad, but I'm having to put in about 10 hour days at work this week because I took last week off and I have next week off also for a *real* vacation (I'll be camping at the Pinery with my family).

Okay, end violins. I'm actually quite happy about the whole thing. The conference was a great success, especially if I was to assess it based on the smiles of the attendees. It stands as one of the most significant accomplishments of my life and a true life experience.

I'll do my best to recap the event over the coming days.

August 5, 2004

TV04 Day 1

Holy cow, TransVision 04 has finally arrived. After nearly a year of preparations, it feels quite surreal to actually be engaging in the conference itself!

Today was the pre-conference seminar, the Faith Transhumanism and Hope Symposium. We had a very good turn out and the presentations were all excellent. I took notes like I was in university again.

It was good to see old friends again: James Hughes (including his family), Nick Bostrom, Jose Cordeiro, Ben Hyink, Stelarc (who was hurting bad from jetlag), and others. And I finally got to meet BJ Klein and Mike LaTorra in person.

There were lots of yawns today -- not because of the content, but due to a lot of tired and jet lagged people who just made the trek to Toronto. I can sympathize, as I remember how I felt last year when I arrived at Yale after driving all night.

Special thanks to Asher Maan and Ben Moogk for helping out today. My freakin' phone didn't stop buzzing, and I was in and out of the room like a yo-yo. One thing I will say, and without getting into too many of the details, I will never deal with the Lavin Agency ever again (the people who represent Steve Mann).

Speaking of Mann, he did a CBC radio interview to plug the conference today. If anyone heard it, drop me an email and let me know how it went.

Oh, BIG news: Yesterday I was contacted by the CBC's Marc de Guerre. He's going to do a documentary about the conference. And he wants to focus on me as the contextual "anchor" for the piece, which means I'll have a camera crew following me throughout the duration of the conference. That should be quite the experience. They'll follow up with a formal interview in a couple of weeks. For me personally, this is a huge victory unto itself after a year's worth of work.

I'm physically exhausted and the conference hasn't even really started yet. I've been basically going non-stop with preparations since last Friday -- one week solid. But I'm in good spirits, enthusiastic, and living off of the excitement of the event.

I may not be able to blog until the conference is over, but I'll have a lot to say next week.

August 1, 2004

Couples to remain celibate in heaven

As part of that Vatican document released last week [see previous blog entry], the Pope made a comment about the afterlife--a comment that sounded like something right out of an Onion article.

Apparently heaven is not what it's all cracked up to be. In the document, "On the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church in the World," the Pope proclaimed that the "temporal and earthly expression of sexuality is transient," and cited Scripture suggesting that a married couple's existence in heaven would be celibate.

[Funny, it appears that postbiological life is a dream of even the Catholics....]

I did not know this. I hadn't realized that Scripture was so specific in its proclamations of what heavenly life would be like.

If I was Catholic I'd be outraged! People in heaven should be outraged! Celibacy for eternity?!?

I wonder what the policy on sex is south of heaven....

Pope Vs. Feminists

The Vatican, in their efforts to prevent changes to human morphology, sexuality, and family, are exercising their own kind of "social engineering." The Pope has a very clear, albeit static, vision of what humanity should and must look like, including family arrangements and sexual orientation.

The latest attempt at social engineering came last week as the Vatican released a document assailing radical feminism for what it views as efforts to erase differences between men and women, warning that the movement threatens the traditional family based on a mother and a father.

This push for equality, says the Vatican, makes "homosexuality and heterosexuality virtually equivalent, in a new model of polymorphous sexuality."

The warning came in a 37-page document, the latest effort in a Vatican campaign to protect what it calls the Christian family. The pope has previously denounced same-sex marriages and called on politicians of all religions to block their legal recognition.

Interestingly, as a masculist, I found myself in agreement with the Vatican's observation that today's feminism (which is rooted in 1970s ideology and environmental determinism) denies that any intrinsic differences exist between the sexes--differences that are viewed as mere effects of historical and cultural conditioning. However, as a a masculist-feminist, I take great exception to the Vatican's insistence that people should not "avoid the domination of one sex over the other." In stressing that men and women are different, the document said, "From the first moment of their creation, man and woman are different, and will remain so for eternity."

I certainly hope not! Long live postgenderism and polygenderism!!

More excerpts from the Globe and Mail article:
"The obscuring of the difference or duality of the sexes has enormous consequences on a variety of levels," the document said, asserting it has inspired ideologies that "call into question the family, in its natural two-parent structure of mother and father."

It also warned of challenges to fundamentals of church teaching, saying the blurring of differences "would consider as lacking in importance and relevance the fact that the Son of God assumed human nature in its male form."

The document — "On the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church in the World" — addressed what it said were "certain currents of thought which are often at variance with the authentic advancement of women."