May 31, 2004

"I'm not suicidal," he said. "I'm sane."

John Schwartz and James Estri have penned a New York Times article about Orgeon's assisted suicide law, "In Oregon, Choosing Death Over Suffering."

In Oregon,
The state's law allows adults with terminal diseases who are likely to die within six months to obtain lethal doses of drugs from their doctors. In the six years since it went into effect, surprises have been common, including the small number of people who have sought lethal drugs under the law and the even smaller number of people who have actually used them. In surveys and conversations with counselors, many patients say that what they want most is a choice about how their lives will end, a finger on the remote control, as it were.
Last week, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld Oregon's assisted suicide law, ruling that Attorney General John Ashcroft had overstepped his authority in trying to punish doctors who prescribed suicide drugs under the law.

There has been strong opposition to law's like Oregons, but support within the state has grown over the years -- even though only 1 in 100 people who begin the process of asking about assisted suicide will carry it out. Since 1997, only 171 patients with terminal illnesses have legally taken their own lives using lethal medication.

May 30, 2004

Moving from Catholicism to Zen Buddhism

In this Cross Currents article, Janet Abels writes about her discovery of Zen Buddhism and her subsequent rejection of Catholicism. Abels's story is particuarly pertinent for me as both of us are currently discovering Buddhism as ex-Catholics with Czechoslovakian backgrounds -- although, she takes her Zen practice farther than I would ever dare. In "How Zen Found Me," Abels writes:
How did I break through my stone wall? The first opening, and therefore the most crucial one, came about six weeks after I began daisan with Roshi. I was sitting in his zendo, waiting to go in for my interview, when suddenly, just suddenly, God dropped off. God as other, as concept, as object disappeared, and what "remained" was a vastness, a spaciousness, a fullness beyond any words. There was terror too but it did not dominate. On looking back on that moment (which Roshi helped me to hold at the time it happened), I realize it was the experiential awakening to everything I had always longed for but could never quite grasp because of a kind of scrim separating myself from "it." When the "other" dropped off, what remained was ONE. And ONE is always "just this." So in that moment, I was literally pushed off my safe map of certainty and knowledge and concepts and doctrines for the first time, pushed into a place of not knowing. My Zen journey has since been a continuing walk into that vastness of UNKNOWING that surely must be what mystery is all about.

Limit to computation determined

[via Charlie's Diary] Charlie Stross has a great post about there being a possible computational limit in the universe. According to a paper by Lawrence M. Krauss and Glenn D. Starkman, there's a hard limit to the amount of computation that can be done in the universe if -- as currently observed -- it is expanding at an accelerating rate:
The duo calculated that the total number of computer bits that could be processed in the future would be less than 1.35x10x120. This means that the effective information available to any observer within the event horizon of an expanding universe will be significantly less than the total so-called Hawking-Beckenstein entropy -- the entropy that is associated with a black hole -- in the universe.
As Stross correctly points out, there's no need to panic about the prospect of an upper bound:
Let's not rush around screaming just yet: the universe isn't about to halt on us. To put this in human terms, Hans Moravec expounds an estimate for the computational complexity of a human brain of around 10x14 ops/sec. I'm inclined to think he errs on the optimistic side by at least 3, and more likely 6-9, orders of magnitude, but it's hard to see a human brain requiring more than 10x17 MIPS to simulate accurately down to the synaptic level. Elsewhere, speculative posthumanists as Robert Bradbury discuss the amount of computation you can do with the entire mass of a solar system -- it's only about 10x20-25 times higher than my upper (conservative) limit for a human brain. And by the time we move on to discussions of the computational bandwidth of a Kardashev Type III civilization some really big numbers are flying around. But we're still about 10x60 step-units below the upper bound derived by Krauss and Starkman. That figure of 1.35x10x120 corresponds to about 10x40 times the number of elementary particles in the observable universe. So we aren't going to run out of bits any time soon, at least not in human terms.

Computer viruses continue to evolve

Symantec recently announced that it has detected the first 64-Bit virus. Called W64.Rugrat.3344, it's a virus that targets PCs running the 64-bit Windows operating system. Interestingly, while the virus is written to infect 64-bit Windows, a true 64 bit machine is not required for this virus, as it can be run on a 32 bit machine using 64 bit simulation software. It also uses the Thread Local Storage structures to execute the viral code which is an unusual method of executing code.

Discrimination against the non-religious

Margaret Downey takes exception to DJ Grothe and Austin Dacey who argue that atheism is not a civil rights issue. Grothe and Dacey write:
To our knowledge, there is no such thing as “atheist bashing.” If there were cases of such harm, one would expect to hear about them in the media and the courts, or at least in the common knowledge of unbelievers. So, where are the cases? On many occasions we have put this question to leaders in the nonreligious community and have never been presented with a single compelling example.
Not so fast, argues Downey, who provides evidence to the contrary and writes:
I greatly respect Grothe and Dacey, but in light of my own research I believe that they provided a misleading perception of the nonreligious community and its predicament. For almost a decade, I have been documenting acts of discrimination against the nonreligious through the Anti-Discrimination Support Network (ADSN), a committee of the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia.

Pethokoukis addresses >H

James Pethokoukis of USNews talks to James Hughes about how technology should be regulated: [right on, J -- two significant articles in one week, the other being Free Inquiry]:
Next News: What's your perspective on the precautionary principle as applied to genetic engineering and other medical technologies?

Hughes: The "precautionary principle" is generally used by Luddites to say "we shouldn't do X because we don't know what its long-term implications will be." We think technological regulation should respect individual rights to control our own bodies and only interfere with those rights when there are clear and immediate harms to public health. For instance, we think human reproductive cloning should be illegal until it has been proven safe in animal studies. Then it should be considered a reproductive right since all the blather about the deconstruction of family ties and so forth aren't legitimate reasons to interfere in intimate decisions about reproduction.

Next News: What is the role of government, as you see it, in advancing these technologies?

Hughes: Transhumanists are divided on the best ways to advance technology innovation and access. Some of us, like me, are strong advocates of expanding government funding of basic science and creating a universal healthcare system that makes enhancement technology available to everybody. Others think a minimalist government, both in funding research and ensuring universal access, is the best way to ensure the rapid development and broad accessibility of good tech. Similarly, we are divided about the legitimacy of government regulation for safety. Some think that safety regulations are killing innovations and generally oppose new regulation. I and others support all legitimate regulation that is strictly intended to ensure the safety of technologies. What we are united on is our opposition to Luddite and religious fundamentalist bans on promising technologies based on worries about "playing God" or open-ended anxieties about the long-term implications of technology.

May 28, 2004

Dr. J Comments on Free Inquiry's Treatment of >H

[via WTA]James Hughes had this to say in response to the Free Inquiry article, "The New Perfectionism":
Free Inquiry Gives Back-Handed Salute to Transhumanism
Sometimes siblings are a little jealous of one another. Perhaps that explains the recent back-handed compliments for the transhumanist movement from Free Inquiry magazine, published by the Council for Secular Humanism. Secular humanism is kind of like a bigger, older brother to the tranhumanist movement in the larger family of humanist movements. In the editorial "The New Perfectionism" in an issue with a cover title of “Upgrading Humanity: Are People Obsolete” the editor Austin Dacey (also a philosopher) opines that one of the weaknesses of transhumanism is that it is a movement and not just a philosophy:

"One obstacle to discussion is that transhumanism is not just a philosophy; it is also a grassroots movement. The movement, which has gathered force in the last ten years and coalesced around organizations like the Extropy Institute, the online magazine BetterHumans, and the World Transhumanist Association, is a motley crew of serious academics, journalists, and scientists, cyber self-help gurus, nanotech venture capitalists, polyamorists and gender-benders, cryonics freaks, and artificial intelligence geeks."

As opposed to brie-eating, NPR-listening, PhD-holding, Volvo-driving, suburban, 50-80 year-old secular humanists? This is fun.

But Austin makes a good point about the way movements sometimes portray an argument as an all-or-none matter, when there are actually a lot of flavors and places for gray:

"Additionally, the prominence of organized transhumanism in the debate reinforces the illusion of an all-or-nothing choice between the bio-Luddites and the Borg. Grand Zarathustran dreams of becoming posthuman may leave you cold, though you might nonetheless favor some of the specific developments being proposed. You might be for life extension and gene therapy while being indifferent to whether nanotechnology will ever materialize and opposed to colonizing Mars. Unfortunately, this moderate, piecemeal approach is seldom represented by the ideological camps now squaring off."

In the end, this piece is really a surprising positive piece for the “t” word because it prefaces an article by J. Hughes, WTA Executive Director, on the the philosophical continuity between humanism and tranhumanism in their emphasis on the person as opposed to humanness, which Austin heartily endorses:

"Presumably, the fundamental point of posthumanism is that the humanness of a trait is simply irrelevant to whether it ought to be valued or pursued."

"Understood as the body of intellectual and moral ideas that united Renaissance classicists, Enlightenment rationalists, and twentieth-century scientific naturalists, Western humanism was a great and necessary thing. But its moment may have passed, if only because its anthropocentrism accords too little concern to nonhuman animals and too much to human non-persons. The moment may be right for a posthumanist philosophy, if it can be articulated and ethically defended by enough clever and resourceful—you guessed it—human beings."

The fact that the rival American Humanist Association decided to run a much more positive cover article the very same month in their magazine The Humanist, and also include a piece on transhumanism by transhumanist George Dvorsky, shows that transhumanism has definitely been recognized as a new member of the humanist family this month.

McLuhan Program Sponsors TV04

The McLuhan Program In Culture and Technology agreed today to be an official organizational sponsor for TransVision 04.
The McLuhan Program's mandate is to encourage understanding of the impacts of technology on culture and society from theoretical and practical perspectives, and thus to continue the ground-breaking work initiated by Marshall McLuhan.

The Program offers courses, conducts and supports research, and draws together members of the worldwide community whose interests lie in the inter- and trans-disciplinary studies of culture, communications, technology and gaining new awareness of the actual effects of all of these.

Through its research, course offerings, publications, speaking engagements, and experimentation in new and old media, the Program also provides a nexus among the University of Toronto, other institutions throughout the world, all levels of government, industry, educators, artists and the general public.

May 27, 2004

Transhumanism in Free Inquiry Magazine

Austin Dacey has published an article in Free Inquiry Magazine titled "The New Perfectionism." The June/July 2004 issue has a cyborgesque figure on the cover and reads: "Updating Humanity: Is Man Obsolete?"

Dacey briefly characterizes transhumanism as a fairly homogenous philosophy and makes a number of sweeping generalizations about the movement -- claiming in fact that its weakness resides in the fact that it is a movement. Interestingly, Dacey lists Betterhumans among the major players in transhumanism today, the other groups being Extropy and the World Transhumanist Association:
One obstacle to discussion is that transhumanism is not just a philosophy; it is also a grassroots movement. The movement, which has gathered force in the last ten years and coalesced around organizations like the Extropy Institute, the online magazine BetterHumans, and the World Transhumanist Association, is a motley crew of serious academics, journalists, and scientists, cyber self-help gurus, nanotech venture capitalists, polyamorists and gender-benders, cryonics freaks, and artificial intelligence geeks.

Freaks? Geeks? Whatever, Austin.

While somewhat sympathetic to transhumanist goals and perspectives, Dacey is clearly uncomfortable with some of the more extreme or unconventional cultural aspects of the movement -- Extropy in particular and its libertarian and Randian flavorings:
Like other iconoclastic movements, organized transhumanism attracts its share of sheer goofiness. The co-founder of Extropy Institute, a Southern California body-builder and Ayn Randian named Max, had his last name changed from ’Conner to More, because “I was going to get better at everything, become smarter, fitter, and healthier.” The co-mingling of serious theory and policy consideration with a grab bag of techno-utopian projects makes for easy targets for the biocons, diverting the debate from core substantive issues.

Additionally, the prominence of organized transhumanism in the debate reinforces the illusion of an all-or-nothing choice between the bio-Luddites and the Borg. Grand Zarathustran dreams of becoming posthuman may leave you cold, though you might nonetheless favor some of the specific developments being proposed. You might be for life extension and gene therapy while being indifferent to whether nanotechnology will ever materialize and opposed to colonizing Mars. Unfortunately, this moderate, piecemeal approach is seldom represented by the ideological camps now squaring off.

And in tune with what I've been saying for some time now, most humanists should have no trouble with transhumanist ideals. In fact, a case can be made that traditional humanism runs the risk obsolescence (and even orthodoxy) should it ignore the changing landscape of technological capabilities and its relation to the human condition. Dacey and other humanists are catching on to humanism 2.0.

Dacey closes by offering a challenge to transhumanist thinkers:
Understood as the body of intellectual and moral ideas that united Renaissance classicists, Enlightenment rationalists, and twentieth-century scientific naturalists, Western humanism was a great and necessary thing. But its moment may have passed, if only because its anthropocentrism accords too little concern to nonhuman animals and too much to human non-persons. The moment may be right for a posthumanist philosophy, if it can be articulated and ethically defended by enough clever and resourceful—you guessed it—human beings.

Matrix: Revolutions: Revisited

I watched Matrix: Revolutions for the second time last night. My conclusion after a second viewing is still sucks.

May 26, 2004

Space: Bigelow Aerospace to Tackle Inflatable Space Habitats

Leonard David has an article in Space about the embryonic space tourism industry and Robert Bigelow's plans for Nautilus, an orbital hotel:
But now the North Las Vegas, Nevada-based Bigelow is putting his money down on inflatable Earth orbiting modules. He’s intent on attracting not only high-flying sightseers, but those hungering to crank out made-in-space products and evaluate microgravity processes. Bigelow’s plan is to establish a habitable commercial space station for research, manufacturing, entertainment and other uses.

Bigelow Aerospace is developing the Genesis Pathfinder -- one-third scale hardware meant to shakeout the bugs in a much larger space habitat tagged the Nautilus. The first Genesis test is now slated for launch in November 2005 onboard the maiden voyage of the Falcon V -- an offshoot of the yet-to-fly private booster being designed by Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) in El Segundo, California. That agreement has been confirmed by SpaceX chief rocketeer, Elon Musk. Plans are also afoot to loft a second Genesis Pathfinder module in April 2006. For this in-orbit evaluation, Bigelow Aerospace has executed a non-technical framework agreement that, pending a U.S. State Department go-ahead, would use a Dnepr booster under contract with ISC Kosmotras, a Russian and Ukrainian rocket-for-hire company.

Milan Cirkovic on Fermi Paradox and the Massive Universe

I sent the Paul Hughes article on the massive universe (see my previous blog entry) to cosmologist Milan Cirkovic who had this to say:
Thanks for forwarding this to me! Well, in my view the seriousness of FP is large in all cosmological models and only weakly dependent on the spatial size of the universe. The reason is, of course, that the Milky Way is, imho, sufficiently large for the paradox to be very serious, even if no other galaxy existed in the universe. Of course, the larger the universe is, the problem does become somewhat more serious, but this is just a pedantic reasoning: in my view the difference between 95% and 99% is really not very important... Thus, from my personal viewpoint ironically (since I was trained as cosmologist, and did my PhD in cosmology), the link of astrobiology and cosmology is very weak one, indeed.

(Of course, if you believe the sort of "rare Earth" arguments of Ward and Brownlee, than it becomes somewhat more important, but I personally don't buy that. Opportunities for life and increase in diversity and disparity are so big even in the history of the Solar System, that it is by far premature, not to mention epistemologically unsound, to speculate that we're unique in any reasonable sense.)


Here are some more of Milan Cirkovic's writings:
On the Importance of SETI for Transhumanism
Contact in Context
The Temporal Aspect of the Drake Equation and SETI

May 25, 2004

The Universe is Freakin' Massive, Dude

Paul Hughes over at Future Hi has given some thought to the recent news about the size of the universe. It turns out that the universe's radius is 78 billion light years, or 156 billion light years across, minimum.

Okay, that's big. Colossal. Actually, there isn't a word in the English language that describes this enormity, except for maybe infinity -1. And maybe that's not enough either.

Paul Hughes explains how big this is by analogy:
According to the standard inflationary model of cosmology, the visible portion of our universe; the one mapped by our telescopes is an infinitesimally small speck in a much larger universe of at least a 10X35 light-year across! I admit this number is really, really big, and almost impossible to imagine. So lets shrink everything down, WAY down, just so we can get a better grasp of it. Let's imagine that the entire universe that we have seen in all the world telescopes, all the galaxies, all trillion of them, extending out 13 billion light years in every direction is shrunk down to the size of a golf ball. Now you are holding the entire visible universe in the palm of your hand. So how big is the actualy 10X35 lightyear universe in comparison? If we do a volume calculation, the actual universe contains 10X60 of those golf balls! Wow, I guess we didn't shrink things down far enough, but this will have to do. So how big a volume would 10X60 golf balls fill up? Try a sphere 850 light years across! So imagine a mass of golf balls that big, and each one of those golf balls contains all the stars and galaxies that we can see through our telescopes.

That's a lot of golfballs. Not satisifed? How about this:
This is still almost beyond imagining, so lets take a slightly different approach. Imagine you are travelling so fast that you can go from on end of the galaxy to the other in just one second. That's a speed of 100,000 ly/sec. At this speed the entire galaxy would be in reach before you can say the word "go", and wam, you're there. At this speed, you could travel to the nearest galaxy Andromeda in 22 seconds. And you could cross from end of the visible universe to the other in 72 hours. Continuing on at this speed, it would take 115 days to travel a trillion light years, 315 years to travel a quadrillion, and 315,000 years to travel a quintillion or 10X18 light years. And yet you have barely moved at all in comparison to the universe which is 10X35 light years across. So, lets speed up our warp vehicals again, so that we can travel a quintllion light years every second. At such a speed we could cross the known universe 100 million times in one second. Ok, so now that we are travelling at a speed that might as well be infinite, how long would it take to cross from one side of the univese to the other?

3.7 billion years

What does this mean? Well, a number of things.

It means that the Rare Earth Hypothesis might be shot right out of the water. There are so many galaxies in the universe that even if you have a one in a trillion chance of having a space-faring civ, you're still going to have more civs than there are atoms in our solar system spread across the entire universe.

It also means the Fermi Paradox is that much more spookier :-|

May 24, 2004

Institute for Accelerating Change Advisory Board

I've been asked to join the Institute for Accelerating Change's Advisory Board -- an invitation to which I accepted. Specifically, I'll be advising on the Civic, Humanist, and Transhumanist Advisory Board which includes "political, legal, social, educational, philosophical, spiritual, and aesthetic thinkers and leaders who are thoughtfully considering accelerating change." Current members include:
Walter Truett Anderson, Author, Evolution Isn't What it Used to Be, All Connected Now, The Next Enlightenment
Ziana Astralos, Webmaster,
Greg Bear, Author, Blood Music, Darwin's Radio
Howard Bloom, Author, The Lucifer Principle, Global Brain
Joseph Coates, Professional Futurist,
David Forrest, President, Global Vision Consulting Ltd., Author of
Patrick Gunkel, Theoretical Neuroscientist, Developer of Ideonomy
James Hughes, Secretary, WTA, Host of Changesurfer Radio
Alan Kazlev, Webmaster,
Doug Mulhall, Author, Our Molecular Future
John L. Petersen, Founder and President, The Arlington Institute
Wolf Read, Author, "About the Technological Singularity," Contributing Writer, Analog Science Fiction and Fact
Peter Russell, Author, The Global Brain, Waking up in Time (homesite)
Sam Williams, Author, Arguing AI

The IAC's Civic, Humanist, and Transhumanist Advisory Board will eventually be divided into: Global (world governance, environment), National (political, legal, economic), Cultural (social, relationships, aesthetics, entertainment), Individual (health, self development, spirituality), and Student (high school, undergraduate, graduate, and independent learner) Advisory boards, allowing an even broader representation of multidisciplinary humanist issues. John Smart and the IAC hope to add as many as 100 members to each board panel.

Exo, Astro, Other?

John Smart wrote to me today in response to my Exosociobiology post:
In the future I'd suggest renaming Exosociobiology to Astrosociobiology, as the "Exo" term is being outcompeted by Astro, and it will help the growth of the field for us to hew to the new standard.

Exo- also has a boogeyman, other, alien connotation that is really unnecessary (a false start on naming the field, IMHO) if the world is constrained to some degree by a bunch of universal developmental archetypes, as we are now beginning to suspect.

Interestingly, the Library of Conference has this to say on the matter:
Extraterrestrial Anthropology: Here are entered works on the prospective use of the science of anthropology in dealing with intelligent beings in outer space, or establishing earth colonies on extraterrestrial bodies.

Works on life indigenous to outer space are entered under "Life on other planets."

Works on the study of processes occurring in outer space that are relevant to biology, especially the origin and evolution of life, are entered under "Exobiology."

Works on the biology of humans or other earth life while in outer space are entered under "Space biology."

I think I still prefer astrosociobiology or exosociobiology over extraterrestrial anthropology, which is a bit limited as a descriptor.

Baby born from sperm frozen 21 years ago

In what scientists are saying is a new record, a baby boy was born after being conceived with sperm frozen 21 years earlier:
The case will give hope to young men about to undergo treatment for cancer which may leave them infertile.

The boy's father had his sperm frozen when he was 17 before starting successful treatment for testicular cancer in the early 1980s.

"I'm 99 percent sure that it is the oldest frozen sperm sample used (for a live birth)," said Greg Horne, a senior embryologist at St Mary's Hospital in Manchester, England, which treated the baby's parents.

The man's sperm was stored in liquid nitrogen nearly two decades ago and was not thawed until he married and decided to start a family.

May 22, 2004


One of the items on my never ending list of things to do before the Singularity is my desire to expand on the idea of exosociobiology (yes, another idea that came to me in the shower. Praise be the facilitative powers of the almighty shower!). Exosociobiology is the convergence of exobiology and sociobiology.

Exobiology is the speculative field within biology that considers the possible varieties and characteristics of extra terrestrial life. Exobiologists, also known as astrobiologists or xenobiologists, speculate about the possible ways that organic life could come into being in the Universe and the potential for artificial life. The excellent journal Astrobiology regularly puts out fascinating articles that chronicle the latest developments in this field.

Sociobiology attempts to explain animal behavior, group behavior and social structure in terms of evolutionary advantage or strategy and using techniques from ethology, evolution and population genetics. Sociobiologists are especially interested in comparative analyses, especially in studying human social institutions and culture. Prominent sociobiologists include E. O. Wilson, Jared Diamond, and Richard Dawkins.

What got me interested in combining these two disciplines is the concept of convergent evolution, the evolutionary process in which organisms not closely related independently acquire some characteristic or characteristics in common, usually a reflection of similar responses to similar environmental conditions. Examples include physical traits that have evolved independently (e.g. the eye), ecological niches (e.g. pack predators), and even technological innovations (e.g. language, writing, the domestication of plants and animals, and basic tools and weapons).

In order for us to embark in the speculative field of exosociobiology we need to start with some basic assumptions which may or may not be true. These assumptions are that
1. extra terrestrial civilizations exist
2. extra terrestrial civilizations must in some part resemble our own, both in terms of
a) the physical and cognitive characteristics of the extra terrestrials themselves, and
b) the characteristics of alien society

In other words, we need to assume that intelligent life arises from similar environmental factors and selectional/developmental processes.

It's hard to tell if these are valid assumptions. For example, the Rare Earth hypothesis and the Fermi Paradox suggests that we might be alone in the galaxy. Or, aliens and their civilizations may scarcely resemble our own. There's also a lot of environmental determinism inherent in my assumptions -- but this may in fact be the case! Still, all of these points can be countered by the Copernican Principle and the self-sampling assumption. We shouldn't assume that we're unique. In fact, if anything we should probably assume that we are very typical.

That being the case, we can start to make some predictions about those characteristics that are common to all alien societies. For example, based on our own experience, we can conclude very broadly that all civilizations go through similar developmental stages, including agrarianism, industrialization, democratization, globalization, and an information age.

What about technological innovations? I have a strong suspicion that innovations and scientific advancements happen in roughly the same sequence that we've witnessed. For example, every advanced civilization will have its own Galileo, Newton, Darwin, and Einstein in basically that same order. Science is a cumulative discipline, so it's hard to imagine it arising out of order. As for technological innovations, I wonder if all extra terrestrials develop functionally equivalent technologies, what futurist John Smart refers to as universal archetypes. For example, are swords, telescopes, trains, nuclear weapons, and automobiles universal archetypes? Probably.

And what about the future of intelligent life? Unfortunately, engaging in that discussion would be a highly speculative endeavor, primarily because we haven't gone through the next developmental stage ourselves. Here's a scary thought: We currently have no data to support the idea that human civilization will continue on into the foreseeable future. Actually, if you consider the Fermi Paradox, we may actually have a data point suggesting a limitation to how far advanced civilizations can develop.

But as far as exosociobiology is concerned, with each advancing step that our species takes, we can assume that our extra terrestrial counterparts -- both past and present -- have gone through similar stages. For some reason I find a lot of comfort in that thought.

Addendum May 24, 2004:
I received an email from John Smart today who made an interesting suggestion:
Excellent stuff. In the future I'd suggest renaming Exosociobiology to Astrosociobiology, as the "Exo" term is being outcompeted by Astro, and it will help the growth of the field for us to hew to the new standard.

Exo- also has a boogeyman, other, alien connotation that is really unnecessary (a false start on naming the field, IMHO) if the world is constrained to some degree by a bunch of universal developmental archetypes, as we are now beginning to suspect.

On the Weakness of Gravity

Living in our so-called biophilic universe I like to think about its particular physical parameters. The anthropic principle suggests that we should think of our universe as one of an ensemble of universes -- ours having the special characteristic of producing intelligent observers. Thus, it's worthwhile to think about the factors that had to come into play in order for our specific universe to be able to produce life.

One major player in the makeup of our universe is the force of gravity. Gravity, of course, is responsible for particles coming together, giving form to such structures as galaxies, suns, and planets. It's also responsible for one of the most powerful objects in the universe: black holes.

That being said, the force of gravity itself is exceptionally weak. In fact, compared to other physical forces, it's a total wimp. Take electromagnetism, for example. The gravitational attraction of protons is approximately a factor 10X36 weaker than electromagnetic repulsion. That's a crazy difference! This weakness can be demonstrated with the simple experiment of using a magnet to pick up a small metal object. One small magnet has greater attractive force than the entire planet below it.

The exact characteristics of gravity, however, may not be arbitrary. Even a minor deviation from its current value would have resulted in a vastly different universe than we see now, one that may not have been able to foster life. As an interesting analogy, cosmologist Alan Guth notes how one second after the Big Bang the mass density of the universe must have been at the critical density to an accuracy of fifteen decimal places in order to counterbalance the expansion rate and produce the flat universe we observe today.

So remember just how weak gravity really is the next time you fall flat on your face and maybe you won't feel so bad. Or maybe not.

RFID Chips for VIPs

[via BoingBoing] David Pescovitz reports on how club kids who want VIP status at the popular Baja Beach Club in Barcelona can now get implanted with a radio frequency identification (RFID) tag. For 125 euro, customers can have the rice sized VeriChip injected into his or her upper arm. You can even use the chip to run a tab.

May 21, 2004

Telomeres and the Ethics of Human Cloning

Bioethicist Fritz Allhoff chimes in on the ethics of human cloning in The American Journal of Bioethics to discuss the potential problem of shortened telomeres and accelerated aging. Abstract:
In search of a potential problem with cloning, I investigate the phenomenon of telomere shortening which is caused by cell replication; clones created from somatic cells will have shortened telomeres and therefore reach a state of senescence more rapidly. While genetic intervention might fix this problem at some point in the future, I ask whether, absent technological advances, this biological phenomenon undermines the moral permissibility of cloning.

Interestingly, Betterhumans reported earlier this week that cloning resets the cellular clock.

Aliens are Green, Not

Margaret Turnbull makes The Case Against Litte Green Men. Excerpt:
[V]irtually all the solar-powered life on our planet is plant life. Animals don’t seem to be interested in direct food production from sunlight. Are they missing a bet? Is there any reason why an alien with a green epidermis couldn’t produce its food by just hanging around in the sun?

There is. And the reason can be traced to energy efficiency. At the Earth’s surface, sunlight provides about 100 watts of power per square meter. If you were conscious during high school biology class, you’ll recall that when this light strikes a leaf, it encourages the combination of water and carbon dioxide into sugars. These sugars then allow the plant to produce pollen (for reproduction), blossoms and nectar (for pollinators), leaves (for intercepting more light), and roots (for sucking up more water).

What most people don’t know is that out of the original 100 watts striking a square meter of leaf, only about 35% is actually absorbed. (If the absorption were fully efficient, plants would be black.) Worse, the photosynthetic reactions that subsequently occur with the remaining 35 watts are so inefficient that only about one-fourth of that energy results in usable sugars. Hence for every 100 watts of perfectly good sunlight, only about 8 watts ends up as plant food.

How Can We Be Persons if There is No Self?

I received an interesting question in response to my "Better Living Through Transhumanism" article that was recently re-published in The Humanist:
Your article "Better Living through Transhumanism" page 8 right column includes "..and its denial..or the self" Paragrapg 2 of the same column ends with "..subscribe to person-hood ethics." I do not follow how an individual can deny the self yet have person-hood ethics. Please explain.

A fair question. Broadly speaking, the issue of self is a problem for the cognitive sciences and the philosophy of mind, while personhood ethics is a social consideration for moral and legal theory.

To say that there is no self is to suggest that there is no definable, immutable or linearly persistent aspect to cognition that would give rise to the phenomenon of a fixed self that exists over time. Most people who believe in a fixed self have really just substituted vitalism in favour of a supposed functional cognitive equivalent. The idea of a self is also a rather potent illusion (see Paul Bloom's recent article, "Natural Born Dualists."

To further prove the point, if you had no capacity for memory, you would still experience the world but without any capacity for self-identity; the self is in many respects the accumulations of past experiences that can be recalled into a coherent narrative. Also, brain damage, drugs, and hormonal influences constantly alter brain-state and literally change who we are. Similarly, I am not the same person I was 10 years ago; I may share that person's body and experiences, but the way I look at the world now is profoundly different than it was back then.

That being said, because we function in this world as discreet conscious agents who persist and act over time, we need to be considered persons (or in other words, agents deserving of moral consideration). Moreover, because we have the capacity for a spectrum of emotions and sufferings of varying sorts, and because we deserve the right to work towards goals and pursue happiness, we should expect legal protections.

So, the fact that the self does not exist in any tangible form doesn't really change our status as persons so long as we exhibit the characteristics of a person, which primarily includes a minimum threshold of intelligence, sentience and the capactity for formulate plans and intentions over time.

The Sun Herald on Transhumanism

Southern Mississippi's Sun Herald has published an article on transhumanism, "Transhumanism Takes Technology to the Level of Faith", that mentions WTA executive director James Hughes and cyborg Steve Mann, both of whom will be speaking at TransVision later this summer. Other transhumanist thinkers mentioned in the article include Marvin Minsky and Ray Kurzweil. Excerpt:
Transhumanists come in a wide variety, said James J. Hughes, executive director of the World Transhumanist Association based in Willington, Conn.

Some are interested in life extension. Some want to be immortal. Some think nanotechnology - the emerging science of molecular machines - will someday repair our bodies from the inside out. Others are convinced they'll someday extend their memories with computer implants or upload their consciousness into a smarter-than-human artificial intelligence.

What all share is the desire "to ethically use technology to become more than human," said Hughes, whose organization has 3,000 members in 24 chapters across 98 countries.

May 20, 2004

Killer Optical Illusion

This is, without a doubt, the best optical illusion I have ever seen. I have no idea how this works, but apparently this book will help: Visual Intelligence, How We Create What We See, by Donald D. Hoffman. Here's an excerpt.

The Big Lab Experiment

Slate's Jim Holt consults with Stanford University Physicist Andrei Linde about whether our Universe could have been designed:
Among the many curious implications of Linde's theory, one stands out for our present purposes: It doesn't take all that much to create a universe. Resources on a cosmic scale are not required. It might even be possible for someone in a not terribly advanced civilization to cook up a new universe in a laboratory. Which leads to an arresting thought: Could that be how our universe came into being?

"When I invented chaotic inflation theory, I found that the only thing you needed to get a universe like ours started is a hundred-thousandth of a gram of matter," Linde told me in his Russian-accented English when I reached him by phone at Stanford. "That's enough to create a small chunk of vacuum that blows up into the billions and billions of galaxies we see around us. It looks like cheating, but that's how the inflation theory works—all the matter in the universe gets created from the negative energy of the gravitational field. So, what's to stop us from creating a universe in a lab? We would be like gods!"

Surviving a Trip to Mars

[via Gravity Lens] Marianne Frey considers the challenges of spaceflight to human physiology and psychology in Astrobiology Magazine and concludes, "A much greater level of commitment and of funding for biomedical research and countermeasure research and development must be made than has ever existed before."

Frey argues that there are four distinct sources of risk:
First, the reduced gravity environment. From almost zero to about 1/3 earth's gravity, which will cause fluid shifts in the body, loss of normal stress on the bones and muscles, and changes in stimuli to the nervous system.

Second, the environment inside the vehicle or habitat poses threats from floating particles, which might be inspired. Toxic wastes, poor illumination, loud noise and poor thermal control.

Third, the environment outside the vehicle or habitat poses threats, including radiation and meteorites or other debris.

And fourth, the psychological and psychosocial stresses will be extreme.

May 19, 2004

Ooooh, new look.

Yes, I can't leave well enough alone so I changed the look of my blog. I think it looks pretty cool now.

BH Editorial Advisory Board Page

We've created a page for the first 14 members of the Betterhumans Editorial Advisory Board. We're hoping to have bios and images posted soon.

May 18, 2004

Updated Transhumanist Art & Culture Site

TransVision's latest organization sponsor is Transhumanist Art & Culture. Natasha Vita-More recently updated the site to include the call for submissions.

Robert Bradbury on Berserker Probes & Out of Body Processing

I've been corresponding with Robert Bradbury, who had this to say in response to my March 22nd post on berserker probes:
I'm *not* sure that you have to vote for harmful intentional actions when harmful unintentional actions may fit the bill. For example, we have a neutron star (RX J185635-3754) zipping through space about 200 light years from Earth. The explosion that produced it was only about a million years ago. The production of neutron stars from supernovas or gamma-ray bursts from mega-supernovas produce enough radiation to fry most information preservation systems (e.g. DNA, computer memories, etc.) on nearby planets. So the development of advanced civilizations involves a *lot* of luck.

There is also the fact that Berserker's don't provide much unless you activate them on the basis of revenge. Otherwise it makes a lot more sense to send out harvester probes to bring material and energy resources back to an originating system (over the longer run the construction of end-point Matrioshka Brains or other ultimate computing resources are matter & energy constrained). It seems probable that such harvesting would be detectable and it makes much more sense to get the resources from the cheapest source possible rather than getting into a "debate" with another civilization. So if/when such harvesting is taking place we (in a more advanced form we will probably be able to observe it -- subject to light speed time delay constraints) and we will probably be able to plot developmental paths that would waste the minimal amount of resources (fighting over them rather than harvesting whatever can be obtained at the lowest cost). The Berserker idea *might* be valid at a later developmental stage of the Universe -- but I suspect we really don't know enough about physics yet to begin to make that case.

Robert, who may speak at TransVision, is also currently thinking about the potential for out of body processing power:
Think of something something like a pacemaker that connects to a external computer that is linked to a bunch of sensors that monitor skin moisture/resistance (driven by how much you are sweating), external temperature (that may be causing you to sweat), blood pressure, eyeglass cameras and listening devices that determine whether you are watching a scary movie, etc. The computer performs an integrative analysis of all of this data and sends out signals that allow the pacemaker to optimize blood flow.

Mental inputs & outputs will not be far behind. There is *way* too much money to be made by using a Wifi interface between the human brain and Google to improve memory and ultimately intelligence for it to be far behind. And the fact that the Google founders are going to be *really* rich soon makes it an obvious thing to work on.

May 12, 2004

No Bloom at TV04

I just found out that Howard Bloom will not be joining us in Toronto for TransVision 2004. As regrettable as this is, this development shouldn't have too much of an impact on the conference as we've already got a formidable lineup of speakers. It also means that Steve Mann will give the opening keynote address on the evening of Friday August 6.

Shedding Light on Genetic Justice

My review of From Chance to Choice: Genetics and Justice has been posted on Betterhumans.

May 10, 2004

More additions to the BH editorial advisory board

We've got some more additions to the Betterhumans Editorial Advisory Board. After only two days here's how it looks:
- Nick Bostrom, transhumanist philosopher, WTA chair
- Mike Treder, Center for Responsible Nanotechnology
- Chris Phoenix, Center for Responsible Nanotechnology
- Natasha Vita-More, Transhuman Arts and Culture
- John Smart, Accelerating Change
- Ramez Naam, Apex Nanotechnology
- Aubrey de Grey, biogerontologist
- Steve Mann, Cyborg
- Damien Broderick, author: The Spike

There will be many more as I sent off a bunch of invites this evening.

Addendum 05/11
A couple more:
- Max More
- Howard Bloom

Addendum 05/11 Part 2
One more:
- Mark Walker

Dale Carrico's New Blog

Betterhumans Progressive Futures columnist and friend Dale Carrico has launched his own blog, Amor Mundi.

May 9, 2004

84% of the Betterhumans audience can't be wrong

Interesting results to our nanotechnology poll on Betterhumans this week. We asked, "Which scientist is right about the prospect of nanobots, Eric Drexler or Richard Smalley?" While I expected the majority to side with Drexler, I was stunned at just how many sided with Drexler and with just how few sided with Smalley -- a miniscule 2%!

Here are the entire poll results with 148 votes in:
Drexler: It is possible to create engineered nanoscale machinery for molecular manufacturing: 84%
Smalley: Nanobots are impossible and the assembly of complex molecular structures is more subtle and complex than advocates think: 2%
I'm still weighing the evidence: 11%
What's a nanobot, and who are these people? 2%

Jay Dugger comments on techlepathy

My transhumanist friend Jay Dugger dropped me an email today to comment on my techlepathy piece for Betterhumans.

"I think your techlepathy over-emphasizes hearing. Humans have many other sense modalities. Humans will soon transcieve live video (wearcam phone) to one another as easily as we now transcieve live audio (cell phone)."

To which I responded:

Ah, very good point. Ultimately, we're talking about direct access to our language interpretation centers of the brain. Currently the best and easiest way to do so is through hearing, so that's why I stressed that particular aspect.

Jay also recommended a couple of sci-fi novels on the subject: Stapledon's "Star Maker" and David Gerrold's science fiction series, "War Against the Chtorr"

Betterhumans press release

Here's the Betterhumans press release announcing our updated site:
New Betterhumans Website an Info Seeker's Delight

Leading science and technology Webzine gets cleaner interface, faster response times and new features to facilitate information foraging

Finding information on issues and developments in advancing science and technology just got easier.

Today's rapid pace of scientific and technological advancement makes it difficult to keep track of developments as they happen. With a mandate of connecting people to the future, editorial production company Betterhumans provides news, features and resources that help people make sense of accelerating change.

Now Betterhumans is pleased to announce a new version of its Website that's designed to make it even easier to access its leading science, technology and health-related content.

"If there's one thing that Internet users have shown time and again it's a craving for functionality, usability and the ability to easily locate information of interest," says Simon Smith, Editor-in-chief of Betterhumans. "The new has been designed to help people find the information they seek, as well as get that information faster."

Previous visitors to Betterhumans will immediately notice that the site is cleaner and more user-friendly, featuring drop-down menus to ease navigation. Behind the scenes, the site makes better use of caching and has been optimized in other ways to improve response times.

Information foragers will be happy about new topic-finder functionality that allows users to browse an index of all topics Betterhumans covers and to use this to access all editorial—from news items to columns—on a given topic. Each content item now also displays its topics, enabling users to link through from them to an index of related content. And new search functionality allows users to search for specific content, such as events and directory items.

The new version of marks the beginning of several Betterhumans initiatives planned for the second and third quarter of 2004 as the company seeks to expand its offering and increase its reach.

"The launch of the revised Website is an important milestone for us," says George Dvorsky, Deputy Editor of Betterhumans. "It's an integral step forward as we continue to improve Betterhumans at all levels."

About Betterhumans

Aiming to connect people to the future so that they can create it, Betterhumans is an editorial production company that's dedicated to having the best information, analysis and opinion on the impact of advancing science and technology. Betterhumans runs leading Website, connects advertisers with its audience, licenses editorial for syndication and republication and offers clients custom research and custom editorial services.

Michael Anissimov reports in from AHA2004

Michael Anissimov, the director of the Immortality Institute, is currently at AHA2004, the annual American Humanist Association's conference in Las Vegas. Michael writes in from the conference with a report (btw, one of the articles he's referring to in the Humanist is my "Better Living Through Transhumanism" article. We've also got a 1/2 page Betterhumans ad in that edition):
Hey everyone, just letting you all know that I'm in Las Vegas for AHA2004 and doing well. I only have 5 minutes of internet time remaining so I will be brief. First of all, I was somewhat astonished to see that 90% or more of conference attendees were seniors. So I knew the argument "this could happen within your lifetime..." wouldn't necessarily have much of an effect. Attendees did seem to be interested in passing on transhumanist ideas to their children, however. On the plus side, a copy of "The Humanist" was in everyone's conference packet, along with two articles on transhumanism! That set the stage nicely for the talk I was going to give. There were only about 30 attendees at my talk; it was held at the same time as "A Humanist Sex Writer Tells All" and some talk that seemed to be focused on bashing Bush and the conservatives. (A whole lot of that seems to be going on at this conference, at the exclusion of all else.) Daniel Dennett is flying in today and hopefully I will have the good fortune to talk to him in person this evening. This conference is quite different than the transhumanist conferences I've been to in the past... there seem to be many atheist factions involved in political infighting. It serves as a warning for the constant risk that transhumanism will fall to the same fate. The moral of the story is... do whatever you can to hold the transhumanist community together, as a strong group, despite all of our different ideas. Anyhoo, one minute left, so I'm out. Feel free to pass this along to wta-talk, big thanks to George D. btw!!

Michael Anissimov

May 8, 2004

Betterhumans: Version 7.0

Man, what a day. It's just before midnight and Simon and I are putting the finishing touches on the updated Betterhumans site. This is the 7th incarnation of Betterhumans, and it's undeniably the best ever. We had a moment of panic after we uploaded the site and none of the dropdown menus were working. We were at a complete loss for about 20 minutes, but Simon eventually figured out the problem. We also composed a press release, which I'll post here tomorrow. I must go sleep now.

Chatting with Natasha Vita-More

Natasha Vita-More is helping us with some of the organizational challenges of TransVision 2004, particularly in the arts and culture area of the conference. We spoke on the phone today for over an hour and we came up with some very doable strategies. On the evening of August 6, after Steve Mann's keynote address, we will refit the foyer area of the JJR McLeod Auditorium for art presentations and exhibits. We're going to setup a couple of virtual galleries, play transhuman-themed music, and possibly have live performances. This will go on over the next two days, August 7 and 8. We're also thinking of having Stelarc give a talk on Saturday August 7, followed by film screenings into the night.

Betterhumans Editorial Advisory Board

We're putting together an Editorial Advisory Board at Betterhumans. Today I sent out a number of invitations to a select group of thinkers, activists, and futurists. Within hours I'm already getting a positive response. Already on the advisory team we have biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey, nanotechnologists Mike Treder and Chris Phoenix, and transhumanist arts and culture expert Natasha Vita-More. There will be many more to come and I'll post their names as they confirm.

My invitation letter in part read:
We are currently in the process of assembling an Editorial Advisory Board for Betterhumans. It is our intention to create a board who will provide us with guidance and counsel, and to ensure that we continue to report the most relevant, accurate and vital information about current and pending science and technologies and their potential impacts on individuals, society and the human condition. On behalf of Betterhumans, I would like to extend an invitation to you to become a member of the Betterhumans editorial advisory team.

As a member of the board, your typical roles and responsibilities would include providing input and guidance into editorial and administrative policy and overall direction, goals and priorities for the publication. Members can serve as a sounding board for the editors and advise them on science, technology and social trends, to help identify potential contributors and editorial possibilities, and to respond to our direct inquiries.

Individual choices determine humanity's future

Rich Brooks offers a nice Mother's Day critque of Leon Kass's thanatophilia. In his column, Your Mother Should Know: Individual choices determine humanity's future, Brooks writes:
Death, Kass has written, is a blessing. "The finitude of human life is a blessing for every individual, whether he knows it or not."

It is death, Kass might say, that gives urgency to life. It drives us to discovery, to cross oceans and reach into the emptiness of space; it is the reason we squeeze pleasure and meaning from every moment and see beauty in every sunset.

If death is a blessing then why don't we embrace it? Why is life such a desperate enterprise?

The answer is written in our souls. Each of us has only one life -- a gift given by our mothers.

In our birth lies an unwritten pact with our mothers to live with meaning and purpose.

The slope is always slippery. When disease or hardship strikes, we decide as individuals whether to seek life-extending treatment. Taken collectively, these decisions set the course for humanity.

Our collective will to live drives the quest for cures and life-saving technology.

Thus taking advantage of medical breakthroughs affirms our humanity rather than diminishing it.

And I think that is what our mothers expect from us.

Bioetică şi religie

Catalin Sandu has translated my Betterhumans column The Seperation of Church and Bioethics into Romanian and posted it to his site, Net SF. He's also posted James Hughes's excellent piece, Monsters in the Media.

May 7, 2004

Betterhumans wins an award

The Biomaterials Network has given Betterhumans an award for being a top biotechnology site for April 2004. Biomat periodically distinguishes selected internet sites based on their top general quality, their scientific value and suitability to internet browsing. Yay for us!

Canadian Cyborg

A ground-breaking procedure will fit a nine-year-old boy from Nova Scotia with an implant that can expand without surgery:
The prosthesis, called a Repiphysis, contains a plastic material that can be lengthened without intrusion. Doctors use a device that creates a magnetic field to expand a spring that sits inside the implant. This makes the Repiphysis the first kind of prosthesis that does not require surgery to lengthen as the patient grows.

May 4, 2004

Ronald Bailey Coming to TV04

Good news: Reason science correspondant Ronald Bailey will be joining us at TransVision 2004.

Published in the Humanist

The May/June edition of the journal of the American Humanist Association has published my article, "Better Living Through Transhumanism." The same edition also has a lead article on "The Future of Immortality" by Brian Trent. Excellent, looks like we'll subvert the humanists in no time ;-) In all seriousness, I think humanism and transhumanism are essentially the same thing -- most humanists just don't realize this yet.

May 3, 2004

Marlow: Nano

Author John Marlow recently released Nano, a sci-fi novel that deals directly with transhuman issues, artificial superintelligence, and, of course, molecular nanotechnology. Word has it that this is a much more realistic and scientifically accurate book on the perils of Drexlerian nanotechnology than Michael Crichton's Prey. The plot summary is as follows:
Nanotechnology promises all things: immortality, invincibility, wealth beyond imagination—and the utter destruction of Mankind. One man has it—and no one knows who...

Mitchell Swain is the richest man in the world—until he announces "the ultimate technological breakthrough." The world stops for the press conference—and sees him assassinated.

No one knows what he was going to say.

Almost no one.

Jennifer Rayne intends to find out. A leading high-tech journalist, she was scheduled to interview Swain after the press conference. Instead, she investigates his murder.

What she finds is a scientist to whom Swain has funneled billions... A desperate U.S. government following the same clues... And a bizarre technology which promises invincibility, immortality, and the ability to destroy any enemy—or the earth itself.

Mankind has entered the final arms race.

It will last two days...

Be sure to check out James Hughes's interesting Changesurfer interview with Marlow about his new book.

Marlow has also recently launched his new column, Nanoveau, covering "the science, the speculation, and (occasionally) the politics of nanotechnology and related topics."

And Marlow is a "maybe" for TransVision 2004.

May 2, 2004

Blogger and Mozilla

My apologies to those who are having problems accessing my blog with Mozilla (my personal browser of choice). If you're getting gibberish, just hit reload. If you're getting the "Cannot find / file" error you're just going to have to use IE :-(