April 29, 2004

Farrelly: The Genetic Difference Principle

Ah, some real bioethics courtesy of the The American Journal of Bioethics. University of Waterloo's Colin Farrelly has published his paper, The Genetic Difference Principle. He essentially argues that we need to rethink genetic enhancement in light of the fact that society is resource strapped. We need to prioritize, and enhancement biotechnologies, he argues , aren't at the top of the list. Consequently, working to achieve perfect social justice and the ideal society is untenable. Here's the abstract:
In the newly emerging debates about genetics and justice three distinct principles have begun to emerge concerning what the distributive aim of genetic interventions should be. These principles are: genetic equality, a genetic decent minimum, and the genetic difference principle. In this paper, I examine the rationale of each of these principles and argue that genetic equality and a genetic decent minimum are ill-equipped to tackle what I call the currency problem and the problem of weight. The genetic difference principle is the most promising of the three principles and I develop this principle so that it takes seriously the concerns of just health care and distributive justice in general. Given the strains on public funds for other important social programmes, the costs of pursuing genetic interventions and the nature of genetic interventions, I conclude that a more lax interpretation of the genetic difference principle is appropriate. This interpretation stipulates that genetic inequalities should be arranged so that they are to the greatest reasonable benefit of the least advantaged. Such a proposal is consistent with prioritarianism and provides some practical guidance for non-ideal societies–that is, societies that do not have the endless amount of resources needed to satisfy every requirement of justice.


April 28, 2004

Responses to my "techlepathy" column

I've received a number of emails addressing my latest column for Betterhumans, Evolving Towards Telepathy. I've gotten an interesting cross-section of responses:
- a guy who claims that he can convert brainwave emissions into meaningful binary code for thought transmission
- people who claim to have latent telepathic abilities
- a woman who would like to use subvocal speech to help her disabled son speak
- a guy who hears the so-called Taos Hum and believes there's a connection to VLF frequencies.

Usually when I get a slew of emails like this it means my column is doing well. Sure enough, as of this writing it's got well over 3,000 hits. The article was linked from SciTech Daily and George Noory's Coast to Coast (regarding the latter, I'm not sure if that's good or bad).

April 27, 2004

TV04 Notes

Some very quick notes about TransVision:
- Reason science correspondent Ronald Bailey is a definite maybe for TV04
- I just found out from Jose Cordeiro that TransVision 2005 will be held in Caracas, Venezuela (I pitched this idea to WTA executive director James Hughes several months ago, so it's exciting to see this actually come to fruition. A likely theme for the conference will be "Transhumantech and the Developing World.")
[addendum: this isn't official yet; we'll decide during our TV04 WTA Board Meeting]

April 26, 2004

Evolving Towards Telepathy

My latest column for Betterhumans has been posted: Evolving Towards Telepathy -- Demand for increasingly powerful communications technology points to our future as a "techlepathic" species.


Obituary for John Maynard Smith

My obituary for John Maynard Smith has been published on Betterhumans:
Visionary Biologist Foresaw Transhuman Future
Dead at 84, John Maynard Smith married game theory to evolutionary biology while advocating human redesign


Kaku: How Advanced Could They Be?

Astrobiology Magazine has an interview with cosmologist Michio Kaku, who considers the physics of extraterrestrial civilizations and whether we can predict their evolution from our own. Strange, in an article that screams for a discussion of the Fermi Paradox, Kaku manages to avoid it completely. He also avoids any discussion of artificial superintelligence and Drexlerian nanotechnology -- although he does discuss Von Neumann probes and Kardashev civ types.


April 24, 2004

John Maynard Smith and Olaf Stapledon

I'm in the process of writing an obituary for evolutionary biologist John Maynard Smith who died at the age of 84 last week. Look for this on Betterhumans later this week.

While doing research for the piece I discovered that Maynard Smith was a fan of proto-transhumanist science-fiction author Olaf Stapledon, particulary his 1930 novel Last and First Men. Stapledon was also influential for Arthur C. Clarke (apparently Maynard Smith and Clarke read the exact same book from the same library!), but where Clarke took inspiration for his fictional writing, Maynard Smith applied it to his science and politics. Here's a quote from Maynard Smith from a 2000 interview by Natural History:
Possibly most influential in making me interested in genetics and in evolution was a strange book by a man called Olaf Stapledon, Last and First Men. It's a history of the next--oh, I don't know--100 million years of human history. It's not terribly well written, but the book's thesis is that there will be a succession of human civilizations that collapse. And it isn't until human beings deliberately change their own constitution to make themselves less aggressive and more friendly that a stable civilization can be made. Although I no longer believe that the only path to human betterment is to change our genes, I was really persuaded by the argument at the time.

April 20, 2004

Nick Bostrom's Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant

Transhumanist philosopher Nick Bostrom has penned a fairy tale, The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant, that exposes the wastefulness of death and the absurdity of those who rail against radical life extension. Here's a taste:
Once upon a time, the planet was tyrannized by a giant dragon. The dragon stood taller than the largest cathedral, and it was covered with thick black scales. Its red eyes glowed with hate, and from its terrible jaws flowed an incessant stream of evil-smelling yellowish-green slime. It demanded from humankind a blood-curdling tribute: to satisfy its enormous appetite, ten thousand men and women had to be delivered every evening at the onset of dark to the foot of the mountain where the dragon-tyrant lived. Sometimes the dragon would devour these unfortunate souls upon arrival; sometimes again it would lock them up in the mountain where they would wither away for months or years before eventually being consumed.

The misery inflicted by the dragon-tyrant was incalculable. In addition to the ten thousand who were gruesomely slaughtered each day, there were the mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, children, and friends that were left behind to grieve the loss of their departed loved ones.


April 18, 2004

H. G. Wells Quotes

I stumbled across some great quotes by H. G. Wells today:
"Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe."

"Our true nationality is mankind."

"Bah! The thing is not a nose at all, but a bit of primordial chaos clapped on to my face."

"I see knowledge increasing and human power increasing. I see ever-increasing possibilities before life, And I see no limits set to it at all, Existence impresses me as a perpetual dawn. Our lives, as I apprehend, are great in expectations."

"If we suppose a sufficient righteousness and intelligence in men to produce presently, from the tremendous lessons of history, an effective will for a world peace--that is to say, an effective will for a world law under a world government--for in no other fashion is a secure world peace conceivable--in what manner may we expect things to move towards this end? . . . It is an educational task, and its very essence is to bring to the minds of all men everywhere, as a necessary basis for world cooperation, a new telling and interpretation, a common interpretation, of history."

"The great trouble with you Americans is that you are still under the influence of that second-rate -- shall I say third-rate? -- mind, Karl Marx."

"In politics, strangely enough, the best way to play your cards is to lay them face upwards on the table."

"If we don’t end war, war will end us."

April 16, 2004

TV04: More confirmed speakers

Earlier this week I mentioned the latest speakers to come aboard TV04, including Mike LaTorra, Sonia Miller, Tihamer Toth-Fejel, Michael Anissimov, Daniel Wallace, Sean Kearney, Mark Walker, and Ramez Naam. Now add to that list: Anders Sandberg, Robin Hanson, Patrick Hopkins, Dale Carrico, and Rafal Smigrodzki. This is in addition to the speakers posted on the TV04 Presenters page, including Steve Mann, Howard Bloom and Stelarc.

Comparing the slaughter of non-human animals to the Holocaust

Back in March I had an exchange with Damien Broderick in which I complained about the aloof attitude given to the killing of non-human animals. Some people argue, much to my frustration, that so long as non-human animals are treated and killed humanely that it's okay to kill them. Because this line of argumentation ascribes so little moral worth to animals, in a sense denying non-human animals personhood characteristics and the right to life, I compared the attitude to the Nazi Holocaust.

I know I'm not the only one who thinks this way. Charles Patterson, author of Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust, recently spoke at Goldwin Smith Kaufman Auditorium about his book and popular attitudes towards the treatment of animals. During the event, which was sponsored by the Cornell Coalition for Animal Defense, Patterson compared the treatment of Jewish prisoners during the Holocaust with the domestication and treatment of animals. He essentially argued that the degrading means by which people treat animals is carried over in the practices implemented in human persecution, as seen in the Holocaust.

Patterson went on to compare the breeding of animals with Nazi eugenics, which in that context is an observation pretty much right on the mark.

Interestingly, there were a number of protesters at the event. Their main objection was Patterson's Nazi analogy and condemnation of the slaughter and consumption of meat and other animal products. "We're just a bunch of kids who don't want to be called Nazis for eating meat," said Paul Ibrahim, one of the protesters.


J.R. Mooneyham on the rise and fall of civilizations

Futurologist J.R. Mooneyham, writing in "The Rise and Fall of Star Faring Civilizations in Our Own Galaxy," has some interesting insight into the future of intelligent life with some interesting implications for the Fermi Paradox. Here's a taste:
"The Fermi Paradox which contrasts the 100% probability of life and intelligence developing on Earth against the thunderous silence from the heavens so far (no alien signals) may be resolved by four things: One, gamma ray bursters which may have effectively prohibited the development of sentient races until only the last 200 million years; Two, the lengthy gestation period required for the emergence of intelligence (which almost requires the entire useful lifespan of a given planet, based on our own biography); Three, the need for an unusually high measure of stability in terms of climate over hundreds of millions of years (the 'Goldilocks' scenario, enabled by a huge natural satellite like our Moon moderating the tilt of a planet's axis, as well as gas giants parked in proper orbits to mop up excess comets and asteroids to reduce impact frequencies for a living world); and Four, an extremely dangerous 600 year or so 'gauntlet' of challenges and risks most any technological society must survive to become a viable long term resident of the galaxy (i.e. getting a critical mass of population and technology off their home world, among other things). That 600 year period may be equivalent to our own span between 1900 AD and 2500 AD, wherein we'll have to somehow dodge the bullets of cosmic impacts, nuclear, biological, and nanotechnological war, terrorism, mistakes, and accidents, as well as food or energy starvation, economic collapse, and many other threats, both natural and unnatural. So far it appears (according to SETI results and other scientific discoveries) extremely few races likely survive all these. So why haven't we heard from those which have? What are they like? And how far away might they be? Details of all the above and more (along with references) may be found on this and its succeeding pages."


Matrioshka Brains

Here's an important paper from 1999: Robert J. Bradbury speculates about how advances in computer science and programming technologies will give rise to the development of megascale superintelligent thought machines. Called Matrioshka Brains, these machines would consume the entire power output of stars and be limited only by the laws of physics. Moreover, it's through these sorts of speculations, argues Bradbury, that "we may be better able to construct an image of what alien intelligence may be like and how we ourselves may evolve."

Here's the entire abstract:
Predictable improvements in lithographic methods foretell continued increases in computer processing power. Economic growth and engineering evolution continue to increase the size of objects which can be manufactured and power that can be controlled by humans. Neuroscience is gradually dissecting the components and functions of the structures in the brain. Advances in computer science and programming methodologies are increasingly able to emulate aspects of human intelligence. Continued progress in these areas leads to a convergence which results in megascale superintelligent thought machines. These machines, referred to as Matrioshka Brains1, consume the entire power output of stars (~1026 W), consume all of the useful construction material of a solar system (~1026 kg), have thought capacities limited by the physics of the universe and are essentially immortal.

A common practice encountered in literature discussing the search for extraterrestrial life is the perspective of assuming and applying human characteristics and interests to alien species. Authors limit themselves by assuming the technologies available to aliens are substantially similar or only somewhat greater than those we currently possess. These mistakes bias their conclusions, preventing us from recognizing signs of alien intelligence when we see it. They also misdirect our efforts in searching for such intelligence. We should start with the laws on which our particular universe operates and the limits they impose on us. Projections should be made to determine the rate at which intelligent civilizations, such as ours, approach the limits imposed by these laws. Using these time horizons, laws and limits, we may be better able to construct an image of what alien intelligence may be like and how we ourselves may evolve.


Stars may shine for "thousands of billion" more years

A new study suggests that the peak in star formation occurred about 5 billion years ago, just prior to the formation of our own Sun 4.6 billion years ago. The overall stellar birth rate has declined ever since, meaning that the Universe is slowly getting dimmer. Previous estimates had the peak at about 8 billion years ago.

That being said, University of Edinburgh astronomer Alan Heavens (what a perfect name for an astronomer) believes that star formation will continue to happen for quite some time. "The night sky will gradually dim over billions of years," Heavens said. "But new generations of stars will still be formed, from material thrown out by stars when they die, for much longer. The time scale is very uncertain, but it could be thousands of billions of years" before star formation ceases.

Thousands of billions of years is a fairly significant length of time, even by cosmological standards. This is certainly interesting and potentially important as far as the ongoing existence of intelligent life is concerned. However, even if heat death can be put off in the form of Dyson's Eternal Intelligence scenario, the Big Rip will certainly put an end to the Universe as we currently know it. It's speculated that the Universe's rate of acceleration will continue to increase due to a positive cosmological constant -- so much so that eventually galaxies and stars will recede from each other at the speed of light. Even more extreme is the notion that all matter will start to explode out at this rate, resulting in the complete annihilation of all atoms in the Universe.

Now that will be a bad day.

April 14, 2004

Ben Hyink's Brain

I've been chatting with Ben Hyink about TV04. Ben is as much at home with secular humanism as he is with transhumanism; his work often reminds me of the humanist heritage embedded within transhumanism. He is also an amazing organizer, being the founder and director of the Transhumanist Student Network.

And true to his futurist leanings Ben likes to theorize about the evolution of the human brain, including speculations about the so-called "Meta Brain Growth Process." Ben's not sure if he can make TV04, but if he does he may speak on this topic.

Here's an email I received from Ben today where he goes into some detail about cognitive and consciousness theory, functionalism, cryonics and uploading:

"Until just recently, I thought I had my presentation topic ready. I had planned to point out ontological implications of various popular uploading proposals and suggest a rough sketch of the MetaBrain Growth Process for further exploration. Some correspondence with Robert Bradbury helped me realize that the popular (and MURG) definitions are not the only ones, and at the fuzzy boundary of sub-optimal processes, we still encounter "the 'ol proverbial can-o-worms" as he put it. In any case, I will have to make some adjustments to salvage the speech.

I'm also looking closely at functionalism to see what its limits might be and whether we will need to perform experiments before we can say replicated structures create the necessary identical self-reflexive entities, or whether the cog sci "token theory" peeks at the case of neural structures being merely unconscious "place-holders" for a continually active program (which would not bode well for cryonics). I lean toward functionalism, but the alternative nags me. (It might also imply that we are always different people after losing consciousness, "rebooted" as simliar conscious programs on the same system, which is unsettling.)

* I might add a brief reference to Hanson's early-adopter theory about the use of non-destructive uploads to help craft cybernetic extension methods and the "Ring of Gyges" dilemma such that the instantiated separate-but-"identical" upload *person* would acquire great power very fast. Do you trust your character enough to see that happen, without any vague hopes of mending your ways by the power of your own will? Do you trust your life/perspective and those of family, friends, and fellow people to that life/perspective? How might we protect non-uploaded people from uploaded people without curtailing upload rights? How effective could we make 'firewalls?'"

April 13, 2004

TV04 Notes

Some more confirmed speakers for TransVision 2004: Mike LaTorra, Sonia Miller (look for her Betterhumans column later this week), Tihamer Toth-Fejel, Michael Anissimov, Daniel Wallace, Sean Kearney, Mark Walker, and Ramez Naam. We'll update the TV04 Presenters page shortly. This list is quickly growing; I sent over a hundred invites to prospective speakers this evening alone.

I've been chatting with Howard Bloom, who will be keynoting at TV04. The working title for his presentation is: "The Soul In the Machine: Reinventing Capitalism --A Quick Re-Vision of Western History" Bloom says, "there's a factor in Reinventing Capitalism that I call transubstantiation -- the way that daydreams turn into realities." This should make for an interesting and provocative start to the conference.

April 12, 2004

Latest Interests

Current Music Rotation:
- Air: Talkie Walkie
- Boards of Canada: Music Has a Right to Children & Geogaddi [these guys are my latest obsession -- Brian Eno meets Aphex Twin]
- DJ Shadow: all his stuff
- Nick Drake: Pink Moon
- Bob Dylan: assorted tracks (mostly early 60s stuff)
- Goldfrapp: Felt Moutain & Black Cherry
- PJ Harvey: all her stuff
- Jazzanova: assorted tracks
- Aimee Mann - I'm With Stupid
- Joni Mitchell: Court and Spark
- Royksopp: Melody A.M.
- Neil Young: assorted tracks (mostly 70s era)
- Roger Watters: Amused to Death
- Zero 7: assorted tracks

*I'm going to see A Perfect Circle on April 22 and David Bowie on May 14.

Recent additions to my bookshelf:
- North of Infinity: Futurity Visions, Micheal Magnini (Ed.) (a book of sci-fi short stories written by Canadian authors)
- Biology as Ideology: The Doctrine of DNA, R. C. Lewontin

Recent additions to my DVD shelf:
- Leaving Las Vegas ***
- Charlie Chaplin's The Gold Rush ****
- Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble Live in Austin ***

Films I've seen recently:
- Hellboy **1/2
- Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind ***
- X2: X-Men United **1/2

Preparing Teens for the Transhuman Future

John Smart recently sent me this email:

Hi George,

Below are two six page essays for a four volume series on the future (Tackling Tomorrow Today, Art Shostak (Ed.), Chelsea House) aimed at teens, accepted for publication this year. Both are set in 2035, in an era of talking (but mostly unintelligent) computers. The first has lots of pretty pictures and is more accessible. The second has more future shock, at least as I would define it.

With luck these may get a movie treatment down the road. Note that "Fremont High" is a nod to Vernor Vinge's "Fast Times at Fairmont High". Thought you might like them.

John Smart

EU Law Attacks Reproductive Choice, Science

In his Telegraph article "EU Law on Eugenics Attacks Our Freedom," English geneticist Steve Jones argues that a recent clause in the draft of the European Constitution, while appearing noble in intent, is actually a "Trojan horse that will undermine doctors and academics."

Specifically, the constitution's Charter of Fundamental Rights insists on "the prohibition of eugenic practices." Yes, that sounds self-evident, says Jones, "but what do they have in mind? Why is eugenics so high on the agenda?" Essentially, declares Jones, in addition to its anti-science stance, "it is an electorally handy attack on the abortion movement, because giving legal rights to the unborn undermines a woman's right to control her body."

Also commenting on the legislation is fertility expert Robert Winston (who will be debating the future of the human species at the Cheltenham Festival). Winston regards the legislation as a lingering prejudice instigated in part by the Catholic Church (especially in Germany) and mixed with simple ignorance about what science can do.

Jones also reveals an inherent contradiction embedded in the constitution, namely the proclamation that "Scientific research shall be free of constraint." Because of the ambiguousness of the term "eugenics," says Jones, the legislation could easily be used to thwart any kind of medical advance that hints at genetic improvement, and by virtue of this, inhibit scientific progress in general.

April 11, 2004


I've discovered an excellent science-only search engine: Scirus.

TTA Social: Roundup

Thanks to everyone who came to the Red Room last night. As usual, a good time was had by all. I still can't get over how good that avocado-brie sandwich was. It's true what they say about the Red Room: poor service, but great food and at reasonable prices.

Last night I finally had the opportunity to meet Toronto transhumanist, Allan Randall. Allan, in addition to being a very cool guy, is a philosopher at York University who teaches math, physics, and chemistry. During our conversation he took me to school about some elements in quantum many worlds theory, concepts of infinity and probability, quantum computing, and some cosmology (he actually convinced me that in some alternate many world I have sprouted wings and can fly -- simply because it's computationally probable).

Allan has some incredible insight into metaphysics, particularly as far as computationalism is concerned (it helps that he has a background in computer science). He's particularly critical of the Tipleresque notion of cosmic immortality, but believes that some forms of immortality are theoretically possible. Allan has spoken to the Immorality Institute people about his ideas, and they recently invited him to an online chat.

Allan also attends a Unitarian church, which, I'm fairly convinced, has contributed to his open attitude towards transhumanist ideas (James Hughes is another transhumanist with a Unitarian background). Allan invited Simon Smith and myself to deliver a talk to Toronto Unitarians about transhumanism, an offer which we graciously accepted. That should be interesting.

April 10, 2004

TTA Social Tonight

I'm off to the Red Room (444 Spadina) for a Toronto Transhumanist Association meet-and-greet. Hope to see some of you there.

April 9, 2004

New Digs for SentDev

I've moved over to Blogger; should make my blogging life a lot easier.

New TV04 Symposium: Faith, Transhumanism and Hope

We've recently added a new event to the TransVision 2004 conference: The Faith, Transhumanism and Hope seminar. Here are the details:

Faith, Transhumanism and Hope
At first glance, religion and transhumanism may seem to have little to do with one another, or even be in direct conflict. Yet in the past few years transhumanists have emerged in a variety of religious traditions. A recent survey of the members of the World Transhumanist Association found that a quarter of the members were religious or spiritual, based in more than a dozen different religious traditions. Meanwhile debate has emerged within religious communities about the potential outcomes of human enhancement technologies and a transhumanist worldview. Some images and ideals of the posthuman sit well within discussions of spiritual transformation and relate to religious longings. Others, such as pursuing transcendence through technology, stir up heated debate and antagonism. Discussion has emerged about whether a syncretic religious transhumanism is possible or desirable.

For this symposium and a special issue of The Journal of Evolution and Technology we are looking for contributions that address questions such as:

* Are transhumanism and religious faith compatible, complementary or antagonistic?
* How much is transhumanism a product of secular humanism?
* Are only specific theologies or faiths, such as religious humanism, technopaganism or Buddhism, compatible with transhumanism?
* What does a Christian transhumanist believe? A Buddhist transhumanist?
* Is transhumanism utopian or merely progressive?
* Do transhumanists deify technology?
* Is the transhumanist desire for immortality just a sublimation of a desire for heaven or nirvana?
* Is the transhumanist expectation of a Singularity just a sublimated religious millennialism?
* What does Jerusalem have to do with Silicon Valley?
* How long, oh Lord?! How many years are enough?
* Can robots ever have souls?
* Is humanity granted dominion over our own evolution along with dominion over nature?
* Have concepts of hubris and divine limits changed over the years? What ramifications do those changes have for theological interpretations of human enhancement?
* What are the spiritual implications of neurotheology and entheogenic technologies that create subjective experiences of meditative absorption, or religious awe and reverie?
* Do we have a moral obligation to use enhancement technology to make ourselves more compassionate, moral and wise beings?
* What are the spiritual implications of procreative liberty and procreative beneficence (using germinal choice technology to improve the lives of our children)?
* How can transhumanists improve dialogue with, and understanding among, suspicious people of faith?

Submit proposal
If submitting a proposal please include all of the following information in a proposal for your presentation:

* Title of presentation.
* Description of the content and format (300 words or less).
* Abstract (25-50 words) for inclusion in the conference program.
* Media to be used and audiovisual equipment needed (if any).
* Designated contact person (only one per proposal).
* Complete name, title, organization, address, phone and fax numbers, and email address for each session presenter.
* Brief biographical sketch (50 words or less) for each presenter.

Please submit your proposals electronically to conference chair James Hughes, Ph.D at james.hughes@trincoll.edu. The deadline is June 1, 2004. Proposals will be accepted on a rolling basis.

Please attach the paper the presentation is based on if it is already written.

We strongly encourage joint submission to The Journal of Evolution and Technology or Transhumanity e-zine.

The Journal of Evolution and Technology is a peer-reviewed electronic journal associated with the World Transhumanist Association, publishing contemporary research into future science and philosophy.

This special issue seeks to highlight issues related to technological innovation, the human condition and secular and religious worldviews, while mapping out a platform for conversation between transhumanism and faith communities. We seek articles that consider areas of commonality and overlap, as well as their points of divergence between transhumanist and varying religious perspectives. We also encourage discussion of new ways of thinking about and integrating discussion of religious faith and

This issue on religion and transhumanism intends to present a variety of perspectives and hence is open in terms of topics covered.

Contributions in the form of full-length articles (5000-10,000 words) or forum pieces or position papers (2000-3000 words). Authors are encouraged to discuss their ideas with the editor or guest editor, Heidi Campbell - University of Edinburgh.

Manuscripts should be prepared according to the guidelines and be submitted by October 1, 2004. Please email completed manuscripts to Mark Walker, JET editor, at mark@permanentend.org or Heidi Campbell, guest editor, at hcampbe1@yahoo.co.uk.

April 4, 2004

Peter Passaro on AI, the Brain, and Techlepathy

Neuroscientist Peter Passaro will be presenting at TV04. Passaro will most likely be speaking about the logistics of consciousness uploading and how difficult it will be to achieve such a feat. Peter and I got talking about his work and he mentioned that he had some interesting new things to say about the brain, how it works and it's capacities. Here's our correspondence:

[W]ow -- I'd really like to hear [more of] your thoughts. Out of curiosity, do you take issue with Moravec's 10X16 IPS, or is that the wrong angle to take in both comprehending and analogizing human cognition? Also, are you also describing the computation required for consciousness-proper or just the overall raw computing power of the brain?

I'm compiling data to write an academic article on the complexity and intelligence issue. Here is my quick and dirty argument. I don't have a problem with Moravec's estimates of raw computing power, but I do have a problem with his estimate of memory, and a very big problem with the lack of discussion of specified complexity.

The standard measure of memory capacity used by AI/GI researchers is that one synapse equals one bit. I don't buy this at all (and neither does anyone in the neuro community) and I don't think we have a good enough handle on computation in small mammalian brain circuits to really understand memory storage completely, but there are good reasons to think that the estimates should be much much larger because you just can't equate a synapse with a bit.

At the heart of this argument is that specified complexity is what is determining the very special type of computation we see in brains. The current estimates of the number of synapses in a human brain is ~100 Trillion. The big deal here is in the way you can organize those 10^14 synapses. There is a recent paper that used a simple N choose R mathematical argument showing that the possible ways you could connect the neurons in the brain using 100 billion neurons and 1000 synapses/neuron is over 10^8000(bits)!!!!! Realize this is an upper bound and a ridiculously hyperastronomical number, but I still think this is a wake up call that we are dealing with an order of complexity unseen any where else in nature (the human brain is hyperastronomical in its *dynamics* and *degree of connectivity*!)

I think it likely we already have devices which have the requisite computational power in terms of speed, but I think we are far away from having the required level of connectivity and speed of altering that connectivity between information processing units (transistors or whatever fundamental substrate you are using) to produce the type of dynamics we see in neural systems. I think the hot areas for AI/GI on the software end should be network and distributed systems research and on the hardware end would be devices such as FPGAs which can quickly alter their structure (current thinking in AI/GI usually ignores the speed at which biological networks rearrange themselves as well).

Lastly we need to figure out how to arrange all this stuff in patterns that are organized to take advantage of information flows. This is what I meant by *specified* complexity. We have to figure out how things are arranged to produce the type of dynamics we see in brains and why I think you still need to do neuroscience to get to AI/GI. Evolutionary computing may be helpful in this regard as well (allowing the system to evolve through the possible space of structures), but neuroscience reverse engineering methods are going to help greatly reduce the search space of good computational structures for intelligence and consciousness. (part of the reason I do the research I do). So much for the quick and dirty :)

Peter, a few things:

- Yes, I love [Ben] Goertzel's work. I'm fairly convinced that his group will continually be on the cutting edge of AI/GI work for years to come.

- Wow, your figures on the upper-bound capacity of the brain's processing power is staggering to say the least. If you're right, this could significantly push back projections for the development of human-equivalent AI/GI, and even the hypothesized Singularity. You also rightly point out how this further reveals the complexity problem with the human brain. I will continue to mull over this potential discovery.

- Since your encounter with Stuart Hameroff last year [at TransVision 2003], have you considered quantum computation and/or quantum effects in your consciousness studies? Do you still believe that consciousness is an emergent property?

- In your work with neural interfaces, have you given any consideration to technologically endowed telepathy? If so, how do you see it being done? On this subject, check out [the] recent correspondence I had with Chuck Jorgensen of NASA's Ames Research Center.

I think that this whole competition over who will get there first, AI or IA, is just ridiculous. If we can create interactive systems in which machine intelligence learns to create better computational structures by observing biological neuronal networks, and uses that info create denser linkages to biological networks to learn more, we could be seeing progress on both fronts much faster. A self-teaching system for intelligence integration. In my mind the search for general intelligence should be one field. I think Ben may be one of the few AI researchers I'm aware of who would be sympathetic to this view.

The complexity figures are making me think that we seriously need to think about moving towards evolved systems (I know many of the GI gang are thinking in this direction) if we want AI/GI anytime soon and for my own research that I am really going to need the assistance of adaptable machine intelligence to deal with type of large scale processing I am attempting to study in biological neural systems.

I have given a lot more thought to my conversation with Hameroff. To be frank, I was not at all impressed by his argument and especially shocked to find he knew very little about how people in neuroscience mathematically model neurons or networks of them. It confirmed the impression from the publications that this group really just did not know what they are talking about. They are on to something about fast microtubule switching being involved in neuronal transmission of information, but this doesn't have anything to do with the quantum or consciousness (except at the fundamental level of single neuron information processing).

What has really convinced me the quantum processing is not involved in consciousness is the complexity scaling issue. You see certain transitions in the formation of more complex structures in the universe quarks->particles->atomic matter->solar systems->life->consciousness. The reach of the quantum world just does not go very high up that scale as far as information transmission due to the fact that there is just not enough capacity for organization at the level of the quantum, everything gets probabilistically filtered before you get to atomic matter. You have to go up several levels of organizational complexity before reaching structures which can be dynamically organized to produce something on the order of human intelligence (and these structures are probabilistically filtering lots of information from lots of neurons, which are probabilistic filtering lots of information from ion and molecule flows... etc.)

On "telepathic" interfaces - YES! I have given this some thought on a number of occasions. I have often thought that the killer app for public acceptance of nonmedical neural implantation is the implantable cell phone. Technologically, I think it is doable NOW! This combination of subvocalized output along with input through something like a cochlear implant is exactly the device I was imagining. I have seriously played around with business plans for how to get this done, and if no one does it before I graduate this is one of the directions I may try to head. The only thing that bothers me is I know who the initial target market would be and major funding source would be - DARPA - which kind of turns my stomach a bit. They would love to have SEAL teams, and fighter pilots, and intelligence operatives running around with these things. I would hate to see this technology classified and restricted for their use only. Imagine how effective a small team of people who could communicate like this would be. The only major technological problem is transmission at a distance, which requires significant power that you want to get away from biological tissue, but these issues are already being dealt with by the cell phone industry and should have workable solutions soon.

BTW, the next step up in these devices would be to go after the part of the motor cortex responsible for output for the region of the throat and mouth or slightly higher up, the language output centers, in a similar fashion to what Nicolelis has done for arm movements, i.e. you wouldn't need any muscular movement at all, just thought, to produce language output. This could also be done with current microelectrode technology.

The mappings Chuck is talking about are exactly the same type of thing we are trying to correlate within our system, but because we are working in an in vitro system with no native structure we are trying to determine general rules for how systems set up in response to sensory input and what the state space of their output will be. Once these rules are determined it will become much easier to produce cortical implants. I am becoming more and more convinced that we dont need to be directly interfaced to lots of single neurons to get information out we just need an array of listening electrodes. Putting information in is going to be more difficult because no one is sure how to use extracellular field stimulation to get information into cortical neural networks except in the simplest of cases, luckily cochlear information is the simplest of cases :)

April 3, 2004

My Panel Cancelled

I've got some good news and some bad news. The bad news is that my panel at the Center for Inquiry International's conference on science and ethics, How Scientific Inquiry Helps Frame Value Judgments, has been cancelled. The good news is that now I can go see David Bowie in concert. Sorry mom, but I want my ticket back :-)

Space Predictions

I recently met a fascinating individual here in Toronto by the name of Talmon Firestone. Talmon, who will be both helping and presenting at TV04, is a student of the International Space University. Jeez, how cool is that? I didn't even know such a thing existed. Anyway, he is totally in the know about anything to do with current efforts to go into space and he has some interesting predictions:

- Spaceship One will win the X-Prize. This thing is gorgeous, elegant, and it actually looks like a spaceship.
- The first space elevator will be up sometime around 2015-20, but it will be a significant military objective (whoever controls the space elevator, argues Firestone, controls space).
- The first orbital hotel will go up relatively shortly. Shrouded in secrecy, work is being done on the first space hotel, Nautilus. Interestingly, the Hilton Hotel people are also supposedly working on an orbital hotel.