September 29, 2004

The art of Kenn Brown

Is this a transhumanist picture or what?

I found this magnificent illustration by Kenn Brown while reading the Wired article, "The Crusade Against Evolution."

Brown has done some pretty amazing work, typically showcasing various themes in science and technology. His illustration of the DNA helix was featured in the March 15th edition of New Scientist Magazine--it runs over 8.5 feet from start to finish and spans 7 sections outlining our accrued knowledge of DNA to date.

September 28, 2004

Economist on Earth-like planets and cognitive enhancers

The Economist has recently published a couple of very good articles worth checking out:

In search of the Earth mark II: Earth-sized exoplanets should soon be discovered.

Supercharging the brain: New drugs promise to improve memory and sharpen mental response. Who should be allowed to take them?

G&M Poll: legalize merciful euthanasia

Latest Globe & Mail poll: Should Canada legalize merciful euthanasia if the patient wants to die and the process takes place under a doctor's supervision?

Yes: 83%
11361 votes

No: 17%
2280 votes

Total Votes: 13641

September 27, 2004

Getting down with MC Hawking

My evil brother recently introduced me to MC Hawking, a twisted merger of Stephen Hawking computer's voice set to rap music. MC Hawking's albums to date include A Brief History of Rhyme and Fear of a Black Hole.

This stuff has to be heard to be believed (there are some MP3s available). It's actually very well done, and all set to themes about science, cosmology, and, uh, gangsta rap. Here are the lyrics to the track, "Entropy" (done to Naughty By Nature's "O.P.P."):
Verse 1
Entropy, how can I explain it? I'll take it frame by frame it,
to have you all jumping, shouting saying it.
Let's just say that it's a measure of disorder,
in a system that is closed, like with a border.
It's sorta, like a, well a measurement of randomness,
proposed in 1850 by a German, but wait I digress.
"What the fuck is entropy?", I here the people still exclaiming,
it seems I gotta start the explaining.

You ever drop an egg and on the floor you see it break?
You go and get a mop so you can clean up your mistake.
But did you ever stop to ponder why we know it's true,
if you drop a broken egg you will not get an egg that's new.

That's entropy or E-N-T-R-O to the P to the Y,
the reason why the sun will one day all burn out and die.
Order from disorder is a scientific rarity,
allow me to explain it with a little bit more clarity.
Did I say rarity? I meant impossibility,
at least in a closed system there will always be more entropy.
That's entropy and I hope that you're all down with it,
if you are here's your membership.

You down with entropy?
Yeah, you know me! (x3)
Who's down with entropy?
Every last homey!

Verse 2
Defining entropy as disorder's not complete,
'cause disorder as a definition doesn't cover heat.
So my first definition I would now like to withdraw,
and offer one that fits thermodynamics second law.
First we need to understand that entropy is energy,
energy that can't be used to state it more specifically.
In a closed system entropy always goes up,
that's the second law, now you know what's up.

You can't win, you can't break even, you can't leave the game,
'cause entropy will take it all 'though it seems a shame.
The second law, as we now know, is quite clear to state,
that entropy must increase and not dissipate.

Creationists always try to use the second law,
to disprove evolution, but their theory has a flaw.
The second law is quite precise about where it applies,
only in a closed system must the entropy count rise.
The earth's not a closed system' it's powered by the sun,
so fuck the damn creationists, Doomsday get my gun!
That, in a nutshell, is what entropy's about,
you're now down with a discount.
Be sure to check out the lyrics to F*uck the Creationists :-)

Life expectancy gap narrowing between sexes

Good news, guys: we're living longer and catching up to women in terms of life expectancy.

Life expectancy in Canada increased for men in 2002 while holding steady for women, according to a new Statistics Canada report. Specifically, men born in 2002 can expect to live 77.2 years, up 0.2 years from 2001. Life expectancy for girls born that year remained the same at 82.1 years.

Statistics Canada said it is part of a trend that shows a continued narrowing of life expectancy between men and women over the past two decades. The gap had narrowed to just 4.9 years in Canada by 2002, from 7.4 years in 1979.

Researchers are not sure why the gap is narrowing, but I'd be willing to bet that some factors include safer and healthier jobs for men (ie less exposure to toxins at the workplace and less physical labour), and that men are starting to take better care of themselves, particularly in terms of better eating habits and through avoiding smoking.

September 26, 2004

G&M poll on ovarian tissue implants

Here's a recent poll posted in the Globe and Mail:

A Belgian woman regained her fertility through an ovarian tissue implant developed for sterility caused by disease such as cancer. Should women be able to use this advancement to delay motherhood past menopause and have a child at any age they choose?

Yes 4434 votes (56 %)
No 3493 votes (44 %)
Total Votes: 7927

September 25, 2004

Toronto's Da Vinci team delays launch

Canada's top contending Ansari X-Prize team, the Da Vinci project, has delayed their launch citing equipment deficiencies:
"It's very simple," [Brian] Feeney said in a telephone interview Friday morning. "We have some pieces of equipment that haven't arrived." Specifically, he said the da Vinci team needed a four-axis filament winder -- a device used in fabricating fiberglass and carbon-fiber parts -- to complete work on a key spaceship component.
Well, from what I understand, Feeney is not being entirely honest. A friend of mine close to X-Prize happenings recently told me that the Da Vinci project is all hype, and that any attempt to beat Rutan's SpaceShip One any time soon would be "suicide." They're simply not ready.

And besides, a rocket that brings back its passengers with a hard landing in the Canadian prairies is not viable space tourism venture to begin with.

Catholic Register on transhumanism, TV04

Bernard Daly has published his report of TransVision 2004 in The Catholic Register. Called "Opening religion up to the 'brave new world' of science and technology," he comments both critically and in support of the transhumanist mission. Ultimately, Daly doesn't dismiss human enhancement out of hand, and instead calls Catholics to open a dialogue with transhumanists. Daly writes:
Besides optimistic and even utopian reports, there was also some questioning and debate with, for example, both scornful criticism and tentative support of the US President's Council on Bioethics and its cautionary stance. One WTA member identified as a Catholic was Tihamer Toth-Fejel, a US research engineer. In his view, "enhancements that degrade our humanity are not good for us because they contradict who we are as persons and, therefore, should be prohibited and discouraged. Our difficulty is in recognizing which enhancements are degrading us, discovering how this degradation occurs, and finally, finding the strength to resist the alluring promises they make," - an opinion he wrote for the Summer 2004 issue of The National Catholic Bioethics
Daly continues,
Perhaps because the transhumanist message is largely disseminated by the Internet, and perhaps also because of their call for total freedom in scientific exploration and technical engineering, many of the non-member participants in the Toronto weekend were university students preparing for high-tech careers. This conference made the faith views of the transhumanists easily accessible to these students. As they move their 2005 conference to Caracas, Venezuela, the tiny band of transhumanists will continue to challenge all larger faith communities to review what they have to say to such groups, and how best to say it.

One post-Vatican II challenge for Catholics, especially lay specialists in science and technology, is to enter "interfaith dialogue" with transhumanists, perhaps especially via the Internet, searching for "those seeds of the Word which lie hidden among them," while rejecting "nothing that is true and holy" in what they have to say.

September 24, 2004

Arch-BioLuddite Richard Hayes defines CybDem Mission

[via James Hughes/Cyborg Democracy] In the transcript of the conference on Inequality, Democracy and the New Human Biotechnologies (July 15, 2004 - New York) Richard Hayes, the Co-Director of the Center for Genetics and Society with Marcy Darnovsky said:"...the most well organized constituencies active on human genetic issues are in fact the biotech interests on the one hand and the religious conservatives on the other. In that sense, the polarized framing adopted by the press is accurate. The terrible consequence of this is that if these two polarized constituencies or points of view remain the only choices available then liberal and progressive voices, when compelled to enter the policy arena, if forced to choose between the two, are going to go with the biotechnology industry.... it is imperative that third voice enter the fate. This is a voice that isn't necessarily opposed to all human genetic technologies, nor necessarily opposed to human embryo research in any absolutist sense, but is very concerned about the social, economic and political implications of these technologies and would certainly not want to trust genetic future of the human species to research scientists and biotechnology companies.

So what is to be done? We need new initiatives within existing liberal and progressive organizations and we need new organizations to take these issues and put them on the public agenda in a new and compelling way. We need visionaries in the philanthropic community to support such efforts. Domestically and internationally we need new levels awareness, commitment, and engagement - in short, a new social movement - to ensure that the new human biotechnologies support rather then subvert deeply held commitments to equality, democracy and social justice. The hour is late. There's no greater challenge. Golly - couldn't agree with you more. So if any of those visionaries in the philanthropic community, who aren't already underwriting CGS' $800,000 annual budget, wanna gimme a call. The WTA budget is precisely 1% the size of CGS'. Or maybe we should have lunch Richard?

Simulation recursion

How cool is this?

This is a screenshot taken from "The Sims 2" video game in which a Sim is playing the original "The Sims."

It's turtles all the way down, folks....

Eventually, given more processing power and enhanced parallelism, I can imagine that Sims will start to play actual games (ie. sub-programs within the larger program).

If you're interested in this concept, check out my Betterhumans column, "Welcome to the Unreal World" A must read on this topic is Barry Dainton's "Innocence Lost: Simulation Scenarios: Prospects and Consequences," in which he attempts to describe and categorize possible simulation types and varieties of virtual life. And of course there's Dr. Nick's seminal "Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?"

September 23, 2004

The longevity gene

Researchers have discovered a gene that releases stored fat--a possible key to longer life:
Scientists have known for nearly 70 years that calorie restriction extends the life spans of mammals by as much as 50 percent, but just how it works has remained a mystery. Guarente believes he has found the answer, and that it could potentially lead to extended life spans for people, too. For more than a decade, Guarente has been gradually solving the puzzle with the ambitious goal of discovering how to slow the aging process in humans without imposing a thousand-calorie-a-day diet. In 1999, he came to the surprising conclusion that manipulating just one gene, SIR2, could affect longevity. Guarente became so convinced that his findings could lead to antiaging pills that in 1999 he cofounded Cambridge-based Elixir Pharmaceuticals to commercialize them. In June, Guarente and his colleagues published a paper in the scientific journal Nature that detailed how a version of the SIR2 gene in mice releases fat from storage tissue, which seems to have a direct effect on how fast the animals age. Although Guarente’s lab has yet to determine exactly why a reduction in fat allows animals to live longer, he’s confident that medicines that cause the mechanism to spring into action aren’t too far around the corner. “I think there’s going to be an ever growing clamor to take advantage of this,” Guarente says. And he believes life-span-lengthening medicines will be available within a decade.

Stealth dinosaur

Dinocephalosaurus orientalis, a long-necked sea reptile that probably preyed on fish and squid in a shallow sea in present-day southeastern China more than 230 million years ago, may have been Earth's first stealth hunter:
The strike would have come out of nowhere: One second, the fish was swimming placidly, no danger in sight, a moment later it was lunch.

Scientists have discovered what may have been one of the first stealth hunters, a long-necked swimming dinosaur that could sneak up on prey and attack without warning.

“The long neck would allow it to approach prey without the whole body becoming visible,” said Olivier Rieppel of the Field Museum in Chicago, co-author of a new report in Thursday's issue of the journal, Science.

September 22, 2004

Pinkerton: Future Shock for America

James Pinkerton has written an excellent OpEd for Tech Central Stupid in which he contrasts the differences between futurist visions of the West and East by considering their recent film contributions. Specifically, he looks at Hollywood's Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and Mamoru Oshii's Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence:
If, as many suspect, the 21st century ends up being the Asian Century, two movies from 2004 will be remembered as early auguries. The first film bodes poorly for the US; the second film bodes well for Asia. In watching "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow," Americans thrill to the simple comic-book glories of 1939. At the same time, the Japanese, watching "Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence," think ahead to the cyber-future of 2032, pondering its potentialities and pitfalls.

A culture which prefers the languorous comfort of a quasi-mythic past to the rigors of confronting the hard-edged future is complacent, maybe even decadent -- and out of decadence comes defeat.
Pinkerton continues:
So is "Ghost" director Mamoru Oshii guilty, after all, of the same retro-mindedness as "Sky Captain" director Conran?

No, not at all. "Ghost" director Oshii is on a mission to instruct. In an interview with The Washington Post, he observed, "People are very different from animals. We don't accept our original bodies. Humans wear clothes, have earrings and tattoos, do cosmetic surgery, take vitamins. If they are sick, they get organ transplants. And now we have radios, telephones, microphones, watches, computers, microchips outside the body now, but soon we will utilize these machines inside our bodies and then we will be part cyborg. This is inevitable. The process has already begun."

Dig that: It's inevitable. The process has already begun. Welcome to the machine, as Pink Floyd would say.

Going further, Oshii predicted, in terms not entirely complimentary to his countrymen, that the pioneers of body mechanization "will probably be Japanese. That, and human cloning… because we do not have the same taboos." He added, "Japan is a really weird country without any religion. We take ideas from everywhere. We don't really care about what is lost and what is acquired."

It's worth pausing over Oshii's "no religion" point. Most Americans probably think that the dominant faith in the US, Protestantism, has been an asset -- the upwardly mobile "Protestant Ethic," and all that. Yet some citizens, in the name of faith and morality, are seeking to put stumbling blocks in the path of their progress. The Bush administration seems perfectly prepared, for instance, to say "sayonara" to rivals across the Pacific, as the Asian Tigers pull ahead in the Great Game of Human Techno-Destiny.
There are many other very good insights, and the entire article can be read here.

Young: When will secularism be allowed in the public square?

Cathy Young writes in Reason Online about how difficult it is for American politicians to play the religion card:
Given the liberal intelligentsia’s high tolerance for the use of traditional religion in progressive causes, it’s not surprising that hardly anyone questions the political influence of Earth-worshipping environmentalism, which novelist Michael Crichton has called "the religion of choice for urban atheists." This environmentalist "spirituality" pervades Gore’s 1992 book Earth in the Balance...

...Yet the faith-based presidency is genuinely troubling. This is not only because of the public policies justified by invoking God’s name. No less important is the symbolic message that one must be religious in order to be a part of the body politic -- in order, perhaps, to be a "real" American. It’s a message that goes hand in hand with a good deal of secularist bashing and particularly atheist bashing: In some of the Republican attacks on Democratic financier George Soros, atheist was used as a term of opprobrium.

The public’s views on this subject are more complex than the champions of religion in the public square often make them out to be. For instance, a recent Time poll found likely voters evenly divided on the question of whether the president should allow his personal faith to be his guide in making political decisions. The vast majority of Americans consider themselves religious, but about a third do not consider religion very important in their lives and attend religious services once a month or less. That’s a pretty large segment of the population to reduce to the status of political pariahs.

Ritchie: The sky is always falling

David Ritchie has published an interesting piece in the New York Press about doomsday traditions and our own end-times culture.
As impressive as the scope of world-enders' thinking these days is its overwhelming detail. Everything from events in the Middle East to the technology of cloning has been worked into one end-times commentary or another.

As one might expect, 9/11 has acquired apocalyptic dimensions of its own, explained at Boston University's Center for Millennial Studies website. In that specific context, the level of detail may extend even to the frequency of individual words in the book of Revelation. A pious acquaintance, apparently aware of Manhattan's equation with mystery Babylon, tried to relate the fall of the WTC's two towers to the repetition of the two words "is fallen" in Revelation 14:8:

"And there followed another angel, saying, Babylon is fallen, is fallen, that great city, because she made all nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication."

Being no biblical scholar, and certainly no eschatologist, I can only make a guess (albeit uninformed) that the words are repeated for emphasis and not to represent a specific number of buildings destroyed.

The detail of these scenarios reflects more than just zeal and fascination. It also serves two important purposes. One, to overwhelm the reader or listener with information. Presented with countless particulars and tiny specifics, one simply cannot investigate, much less evaluate, all of them one by one. Potential critics are swamped. That effect accounts, at least in part, for the success of many end-times models. Doomsday artists are well aware of this principle: The more detail, the better, for the same reason that a hurricane is more powerful than a single raindrop.

Now for the second, less evident but equally important purpose of abundant detail: It provides a doomsday scenario such as a conspiracy hypothesis about the "last days" with countless points of attachment to other scenarios. Together, they support and reinforce one another in the same manner as the interconnected girders of a building.

September 21, 2004

Future human forms

I received an interesting email today asking for my perspective on the future of human forms:
"The main argument in my dissertation though, is whether Human beings will use mechanical augmentation to move further away from the Human blueprint (as designers re-interpret the Human form), or try to achieve a new level of cosmetic beauty? - If you could offer your current opinions on this specific statement it would benefit my investigation immensely.

"I am a perfectly healthy Human being, but I would personally choose to move further away from the Human form - having never really felt 'complete' as a mere Human being. Maybe for me this would be a more spiritual transformation - something of self discovery - allowing me to challenge the form I was born into - and the subsequent understanding of the world created by that form."
My response:

I believe the answer to your question is largely yes. Our relationship with our bodies is about to change dramatically. The two major factors driving this change are 1) greater control over our morphology and its processes, and 2) the potential for the extended mind.

What this means is that our bodies are about to become our canvases. Given that human cognition may be supplemented by external devices, and given the potential for living in virtual environments, the body will become less and less important from a purely functional perspective. Supplementing this is increased control over its physical and functional characteristics. Consequently, we'll be able to modify the body based on both utilitarian and non-utilitarian imperatives.

From a functional perspective, the potential for genetic, cybernetic and nano augmentation is significant. Enhancements to existing traits are a given, but so will be the advent of new characteristics, like different senses and capabilities altogether (whether they be physical or cognitive). How this will change bodily morphology is anybody's guess, but I'm certain it won't be subtle.

When it comes to non-utilitarian modifications, there are a number of potential avenues. One idea is the "perfection" of the human body, which is an idea explored by Natasha Vita-More (and to a lesser degree by pop icons like Michael Jackson, Cher, David Bowie, etc). Others alter or utilize their bodies to make artistic statements, like Orlan or Stelarc. And still others are interested in non-conformism and self-actualization, which leads to radical body modification in the form of tattoos, piercings, gender change, etc. I also know of a person who suffers from a kind of bodily dysmorphia where she believes that she is a cybernetic creature born into a biological body; she feels "wrong" much like a transgendered person feels like they're in the wrong body, and she eagerly awaits the opportunity to become a mechanical/synthetic being. Some prospective body modifiers speculate about transgenic modifications (horns, tails, glow-in-the-dark skin and hair, etc). Others want to become another organism altogether (i.e. dolphins).

What's unknown at this point is how much of this will/can be done in the real world, and how much of this can be achieved virtually in the form of simulations and/or online avatars.

Taken further, body modification and transhumanism will ultimately result in human speciation. Different people will follow different paths, all converging from a common human ancestry. Writer Greg Egan speculates about this in his book Diaspora, which involves posthumans of different sorts: genetically modified surface dwellers, uploaded minds living in supercomputers, cyborgs, deliberately devolved primitive hominids, and so on. I believe Egan is largely correct.

As for modifications that are about achieving "cosmic beauty," you could be right, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Ultimately, like you suggest, the human form may be radically rejected altogether and the future person will barely resemble a biological species. Transhumanism is for many a means to become postbiological.

Hope that helps.


Cybercity radio interview

This coming Saturday Sep. 25 at 9:00PM EST I will be Jack Landman's guest on Cybercity Radio, to be broadcast on IBC Radio Network Worldwide. We will be discussing transhumanism and the future of human evolution.

September 18, 2004

Caplan: voting rights for the aging

Given the potential for radically extended lifespans, this issue is sure to become more and more important over the coming decades:

Bioethicist Arthur Caplan wonders, "at what point is someone too impaired to cast a ballot? Many Americans with dementia or other mental impairments, says Caplan, are not given the right to vote even if their impairment does not interfere with their ability to understand the positions of candidates and to make a choice.
"Many people believe that those who plan to vote for President Bush in the upcoming election are crazy, while a large number of other people think those who plan to vote for Sen. John Kerry are nuts. Whichever view best describes your position, it's all too easy to dismiss those who disagree with you as unfit to vote.

While Americans may joke that the voting preferences of those on the other side of the political spectrum are indicative of mental illness — humor aside — has our country actually come to grips with the question of cognitive impairment and the right to vote?

We all remember stories from Palm Beach County and other areas of Florida during the last presidential election in which older voters complained that the ballots were too confusing to use. Do the current methods used for voting block access for those with mental or cognitive impairments? And do those living in institutions, particularly the elderly in nursing homes, always get to exercise their right to vote even if they have a bit of memory loss or suffer from depression? And what are the standards for disqualifying someone from voting because of cognitive impairment?"

Yes, now you too can survive hyperterrorism. Here's how.

The RAND corporation has released the pocket edition survival guide to surviving terrorism: "What You Should Do to Prepare for and Respond to Chemical, Radiological, Nuclear, and Biological Terrorist Attacks."

I don't know whether to laugh or cry.

[looking at the cover of the pocket guide, what the hell do you suppose those people are supposed to be looking at?....]

Eco: science the cure to fundamentalism

Writer and philosopher Umberto Eco argues in his latest OpEd that the scientific method is a suitable counterbalance to fundamentalism:
"Many readers probably don't know exactly what black holes are and, frankly, the best I can do is to imagine them like the pike in Yellow Submarine that devours everything around it until it finally swallows itself. But in order to understand the news item from which I am taking my cue, all you need to know about black holes is that they are one of the most controversial and absorbing problems in contemporary astrophysics.

Recently I read in the papers that the celebrated scientist Stephen Hawking has made a statement that is sensational, to say the least. He maintains that he made an error in his theory of black holes (published back in the 70s) and proposed the necessary corrections before an audience of fellow scientists.

For those involved in the sciences there is nothing exceptional about this, apart from Hawking's exceptional standing, but I feel that the episode should be brought to the attention of young people in every nonfundamentalist or nonconfessional school so that they may reflect upon the principles of modern science."
Entire article

Beer may be as healthy as wine

Nothing against wine, but this is possibly the best news I've heard in weeks:

Researchers at the University of Western Ontario (how cool is it that this finding emerges from my old school?) believe that beer may have the same antioxidizing effects as red wine. According to the press release, "[O]ne drink of beer or wine provides equivalent increases in plasma antioxidant activity, which helps prevent the oxidization of blood plasma by toxic free radicals that trigger many aging diseases, such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease and cataracts."

The report continues:
Polyphenols are the compounds in plants that help prevent UV damage from the sun and make the plant cell wall strong. They are believed to have antioxidant benefits when consumed by the human body. Even though red wine contains more polyphenols than beer, this study showed the body absorbs about equally effective amounts of bioactive molecules such as polyphenols from beer and wine. Beer, wine, stout, and matured spirits (rum, whisky, sherry and port), which extract tannins from the oak casks they are matured or stored in, all contain significant amounts of polyphenols.
But before you all go rushing out to become alcoholics, realize that while studies have shown one daily drink of almost any alcoholic beverage can help reduce the risk of many aging diseases, larger daily intakes (three drinks per day) actually increases the risk of these diseases. This particular study suggests the risk is increased because three drinks result in the blood becoming pro-oxidant -- a phenomenon known as “hormesis”, the concept that small doses of a toxic substance can have beneficial effects while a large amount is harmful.

By the way, as I'm writing this I'm downing a glass of Konig Pilsner. And I feel good about this. Mmmmm, life *hic* extension...

September 17, 2004

Something's tugging at Pioneer probes

Man, I love news like this.

As bizarre as this may sound, it appears as though the Pioneer 10 and 11 space probes are having a hard time leaving the outer extremes of our solar system. Launched over 30 years ago, at looks as if some kind of mysterious force is holding them back as they try to sweep out of the solar system.

Some scientists believe that the unseen "dark matter" which may permeate the universe is what is influencing the Pioneers' passage. Others say flaws in our understanding of the laws of gravity best explain the crafts' wayward behavior.

Hold on to your Newtonian dynamics and Einsteinian relativity caps before they blow off....

Ben Goertzel's kinds of minds

Artificial intelligence researcher Ben Goertzel -- the guy who I'd give the vote for "most likely to develop artificial general intelligence" -- recently published an article in FrontierNumber4 titled "Kinds of Minds."

Goertzel is part of the Artificial General Intelligence Research Institute, a "small nonprofit organization, whose overall mission is to work toward the creation of powerful, ethically positive Artificial General Intelligence." Specifically, the group is working on the Novamente AI Engine, an in-development software system aimed at the lofty goal of true artificial general intelligence -- "at the human level and beyond."

In the FN4 article, Goertzel describes the various ways in which intelligence and consciousness can plausibly exist -- their embodied nature, the kinds of social interactions involved, telepathy, and so on. He even tackles some interesting quantum consciousness issues.

Describing humans versus conjectured future Novamentes, Goertzel writes,
Given all these ontological categories, we may now position the human mind as being: singly-embodied, singly-body-centered, tool and socially dependent and language-enabled, and conservatively-structured. Furthermore, while it may possibly utilize quantum effects in some way, it is clearly very limited in its ability to do quantum-based reasoning.

The Novamente AI system, is intended to be a somewhat different kind of mind: flexibly embodied, flexibly body-centered, tool and socially dependent, language and telepathy enabled, and radically self-modifying, and potentially fully quantum-enabled. Also, Novamentes are explicitly designed to be formed into a community structured according to the "telepathic BOA mindplex" arrangement.

It might seem wiser, to some, to begin one’s adventures in the AI domain by sticking more closely to the nature of human intelligence. But my view is that some of the limitations imposed by the nature of humans’ physical embodiment pose significant impediments to the development of intelligence, as well as to the development of positive ethics. Single embodiment and the lack of any form of telepathy are profound shortcomings, and there seems absolutely no need to build these shortcomings into our AI systems. Rather, the path to creating highly intelligent software will be shorter and simpler if we make use of the capability digital technology presents for overcoming these limitations of human-style embodiment. And the minds created in this way will lack some of the self-centeredness and parochialism displayed by humans -- much of which, I believe, is rooted precisely in our single-bodiedness and our lack of telepathic interaction.
The article is quite fascinating--one that reminds me of Barry Dainton's "Innocence Lost: Simulation Scenarios: Prospects and Consequences" in which he speculates about different kinds of simulations. I strongly recommend both articles for those with an interest in such futurist speculations.

Dawkins: The Ancestor's Tale

The prolific Richard Dawkins has released yet another book, this one on the heels of "A Devil's Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science and Love." His latest book, titled "The Ancestor's Tale : A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution," chronicles the remarkable diversity of Earth's organisms throughout time.

Dawkins recently allowed the Guardian to publish an excerpt from his book. Here's a taste:
But how about things that have evolved only once, or not at all? The wheel, with a true, freely rotating bearing, seems to have evolved only once, in bacteria, before being finally invented in human technology. Language, too, has apparently evolved only in us: that is to say at least 40 times less often than the eye. It is surprisingly hard to think of "good ideas" that have evolved only once.

I put the challenge to my Oxford colleague the entomologist and naturalist George McGavin, and he came up with a nice list, but still a short one compared with the list of things that have evolved many times. Bombardier beetles of the genus Brachinus are unique in Dr McGavin's experience in mixing chemicals to make an explosion. The ingredients are made and held in separate (obviously!) glands. When danger threatens, they are squirted into a chamber near the rear end of the beetle, where they explode, forcing noxious (caustic and boiling-hot) liquid out through a directed nozzle at the enemy. The case is well known to creationists, who love it. They think it is self-evidently impossible to evolve by gradual degrees because the intermediate stages would all explode. What they don't understand is that the explosive reaction requires a catalyst: gradually increase the dose of catalyst, and you gradually escalate the explosion, from nothing to lethal.

Next in the McGavin list is the archer fish, which may be unique in shooting a missile to knock prey down from a distance. It comes to the surface of the water and spits a mouthful at a perched insect, knocking it down into the water, where it eats it. The other possible candidate for a "knocking down" predator might be an ant lion. Ant lions are insect larvae of the order Neuroptera. Like many larvae, they look nothing like their adults. With their huge jaws, they would be good casting for a horror film. Each ant lion lurks in sand, just below the surface at the base of a conical pit trap which it digs itself. It digs by flicking sand vigorously outwards from the centre - this causes miniature landslides down the sides of the pit, and the laws of physics do the rest, neatly shaping the cone. Prey, usually ants, fall into the pit and slide down the steep sides into the ant lion's jaws. The possible point of resemblance to the archer fish is that prey don't fall only passively. They are sometimes knocked down into the pit by the particles of sand. These are not, however, aimed with the precision of an archer fish's spit, which is guided, with devastating accuracy, by binocularly focused eyes.

September 16, 2004

Somerville: children have a right to know their genetic heritage

Conservative bioethicist Margaret Somerville (she hates it when you call her that, but that's what she is), has published an OpEd in the Globe & Mail in which she argues that children have an access right to their genetic heritage. My eyes tend to roll to the back of my head when I read Somerville (this case no exception), but I believe that in this case she may be right--but her reasons for so are utterly wrong and offensive.

Somerville, who adamantly denies being homophobic, argues that gays and lesbians make for lousy parents. Says Somerville, "As we learn that men and women parent differently and children need both, whenever possible we must try to ensure that children have both a mother and a father involved in rearing them..."

In the case of lesbian parents, for example, she argues that children should have the right to know who their biological father is. "We have obligations not to create genetic orphans deliberately, obligations not to impose the suffering and loss of identity that result from loss of a sense of connection to those through whom life traveled to us," says Somerville. "It is paradoxical that in an era of sensitivity to individual human rights and intense individualism, we are prepared to wipe out for others one of the important bases on which we found a sense of individual identity, and experience a sense of connection through which we find meaning in life."

I believe Somerville is making a mistake when she says that one finds a sense of "individual identity" and "meaning in life" by knowing one's biological parent. I scarcely believe that adopted children who have never met their biological parents feel quite this lost. Somerville is doing her usual job of re-enforcing heterocentric views and pushing the conservative "traditional family values" agenda.

As for my support of genetic knowledge for offspring, I support it from the perspective of individual health. One of the first things a doctor asks you when working on a diagnosis is: "Does x run in the family?" Obviously, this is for good reason. When it comes to understanding our health and predispositions, one of the best indicators is our genetic makeup. It's through our biological parents that a significant amount of information about ourselves can be known.

Consequently, biological parents should be prepared to forgo anonymity when they have children. To do otherwise could be potentially harmful to the child, whether they raise them or not.

Wired reviews Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence

Jason Silverman of Wired reviews filmmaker Mamoru Oshii's Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, a cyberpunk movie that takes place in an elaborate, claustrophobic world circa 2032:
With its heady dialog and intricately detailed 3-D animation, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence is dense -- the kind of film you can spread with a putty knife.

That's no criticism -- great films come in a range of viscosities, from light-as-air comedies to experiments thick with symbolism. But the denser a film is, the more likely it is to alienate a substantial chunk of any audience.

Will the density of this film drive away viewers? Who knows? But the style of Ghost in the Shell 2, which is packed with textual and visual information, is certainly intended to reflect its content.

Filmmaker Mamoru Oshii has built an elaborate, claustrophobic world, circa 2032. A thick web of technology has engulfed the earth, and those who have installed the latest version of mechanical "brain" -- they retain just a "ghost" of organic material -- are left to cope with the remnants of humanity, which exist only as faint neurological impulses.

September 15, 2004

Hughes's "Citizen Cyborg" available for pre-sale

WTA executive director James Hughes's book, "Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Human of the Future," is weeks away from release and now available for pre-sale on Amazon.

Description from the publisher:
In the next fifty years, life spans will extend well beyond a century. Our senses and cognition will be enhanced. We will have greater control over our emotions and memory. Our bodies and brains will be surrounded by and merged with computer power. The limits of the human body will be transcended as technologies such as artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and genetic engineering converge and accelerate. With them, we will redesign ourselves and our children into varieties of posthumanity.

This prospect is understandably terrifying to many. A loose coalition of groups-including religious conservatives, disability rights and environmental activists-has emerged to oppose the use of genetics to enhance human beings. And with the appointment of conservative philosopher Leon Kass, an opponent of in-vitro fertilization, stem cell research and life extension, to head the President's Council on Bioethics, and with the recent high-profile writings by authors like Francis Fukuyama and Bill McKibben, this stance has become more visible-and more infamous-than ever before.

In the opposite corner a loose transhumanist coalition is mobilizing in defense of human enhancement, embracing the ideological diversity of their intellectual forebears in the democratic and humanist movements. Transhumanists argue that human beings should be guaranteed freedom to control their own bodies and brains, and to use technology to transcend human limitations.

Identifying the groups, thinkers and arguments in each corner of this debate, bioethicist and futurist James Hughes argues for a third way, which he calls democratic transhumanism. This approach argues that we will achieve the best possible posthuman future when we ensure technologies are safe, make them available to everyone, and respect the right of individuals to control their own bodies.

Hughes offers fresh and controversial answers for many other pressing biopolitical issues-including cloning, genetic patents, human genetic engineering, sex selection, drugs, and assisted suicide-and concludes with a concrete political agenda for pro-technology progressives, including expanding and deepening human rights, reforming genetic patent laws, and providing everyone with healthcare and a basic guaranteed income.

A groundbreaking work of social commentary, Citizen Cyborg illuminates the technologies that are pushing the boundaries of humanness-and the debate that may determine the future of the human race itself.
Here aresome interesting editorial reviews:
"A challenging and provocative look at the intersection of human self-modification and political governance. Everyone wondering how society will be able to handle the coming possibilities of AI and Genomics should read Citizen Cyborg." (Dr. Gregory Stock, author of Redesigning Humans)

"A powerful indictment of the anti-rationalist attitudes that are dominating our national policy today. Hughes brings together ideas from religion, history, science, bioethics, and politics in a unique way. The book sparkles with insights, challenges, and new ways of looking at the problems our society is facing today. He is a worthy guide to a more humane future." (John Lantos M.D., author of Do We Still Need Doctors)

"James Hughes is a sober, insightful, useful and optimistic thinker about the astonishing changes in store for human nature. Citizen Cyborg is an important contribution to the rapidly moving debate on human enhancement." (Joel Garreau, author of While God Wasn't Watching: The Future of Human Nature)

"A fascinating tour of the coming intersection of politics, nanotechnology, and biology, by the leading champion of Transhumanism. Anyone who wants to understand the tumultuous bio-politics of the next decade should read this book." (Gregory Pence, author of Who's Afraid of Human Cloning, Professor, Philosophy and School of Medicine, University of Alabama Medical School.)

Burger: how unique are we?

Another book to put on my "to read" list. This one falls into the "Rare Earth" camp in regards to the Fermi question.

"Perfect Planet, Clever Species: How Unique Are We?"
by William C. Burger

Description from publisher:
For many years the federal government funded the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), later popularized by Carl Sagan's novel Contact and the movie starring Jodie Foster. Though in actuality SETI never did make contact with signals from an alien civilization, the search continues to this day through privately funded endeavors. How likely is it that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe? This is the intriguing question that has prompted William Burger's illuminating and absorbing exploration of the unusual circumstances surrounding life on earth.

Examining the critical episodes in our planetÆs early history and the peculiar trajectory of life on our world, Burger shows that the long odyssey of planet Earth may be utterly unique in our galaxy. For example, he describes features of the sun that are far from average. By some estimates, 95 percent of the other stars in the Milky Way galaxy are smaller, and it is unlikely that any of them could supply the energy requirements for a life-sustaining planet such as our own. Earth, as the third planet from the sun, sits within the Goldilocks orbit: it is in the perfect position to receive not too much heat (like Mercury and Venus) and not too little (like more distant planets of the solar system) but just the right amount to foster the development of life.

Turning to the evolution of life itself, Burger points out a host of amazing accidents (for example, the extinction of dinosaurs and the proliferation of flowering plants) that make the steps along the way to Homo sapiens seem like very rare events indeed. He also calls attention to the curious fact that the early hominid brain tripled in size over the relatively short time period leading to the appearance of modern human beings. Finally, he notes aspects of humanity's cultural evolution that seem unlikely to have been duplicated anywhere else.

September 14, 2004

Health tip: eat your Omega-3 fatty acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are good for you.

Actually, they are very good for you. Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids found in certain fish tissues. Some people believe that many modern health problems are the result of too little Omega-3's in our diet.

Recent findings indicate that Omega-3's:
- delay Alzheimer's in mice and may lower the risk of dementia in old age
- may act as a mood stabilizer, opening the possibility of their use as a treatment for depression and bipolar disorder
- have possible beneficial cardiovascular effects
- are important precursors of anti-inflammatory prostaglandins

It's recommended that people eat fish at least twice a week. In particular, albacore tuna and salmon are high in two kinds of omega-3 fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). It's also a good idea to eat tofu and other forms of soybeans, canola, walnut and flaxseed, and their oils, which contain alpha-linolenic acid (LNA), which can become omega-3 fatty acid in the body.

FuturePundit has more to say about the benefits of Omega-3's.

Oh, Canada

[allow me to indulge in a fleeting moment of unabashed nationalism] Canada once again reaffirms its hockey supremacy as it wins the 2004 World Cup of Hockey, defeating Finland 3-2 in a hard fought game. Kudos to Wayne Gretzky for putting together an amazing team.

September 11, 2004

Six sci-fi writers consider our social future

[via Gravity Lens] John Shirley of Locus Magazine recently asked 6 science fiction writers to speculate about our social future. These writers were Cory Doctorow, Pat Murphy, Kim Stanley Robinson, Norman Spinrad, Bruce Sterling and Ken Wharton. Some of the issues addressed include the environment, copyright, social trends, terrorism, war, world government, and the upcoming Presidential election.
Some questions are hard to formulate — but you carry them around inside you, like Confucius overlong in the womb, waiting for a way to ask them. I wanted to know about the quality of life in the future. I wanted to know about our political life; the scope of our freedom. I wanted to know what it was going to be like on a daily basis for my son and my grandson — I wanted to know if perhaps my son would do better to have no children at all. Those are general yearnings, more than specific questions. The questions I came up with still seem too general, and approximate. “I think it helps to use Raymond Williams' concept of 'residual and emergent,'” Kim Stanley Robinson told me, “...and consider the present as a zone of conflict between residual and emergent social elements, not making residual and emergent code words for 'bad and good' either.” Residual and emergent: yes. But what will reside and what emerge? From here, the future is just that unfocused. So I simply I asked the only questions I had... and six science fiction writers answered.

Cornel West says democracy still matters

Afro-American intellectual and Princeton scholar Cornel West has published his latest book, "Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism." This is a follow-up to his acclaimed 1993 book, "Race Matters."

West, an unorthodox academic (he recorded a hip-hop album in 2001 and appeared as Councillor West in The Matrix II and III), describes himself as a "non-Marxist socialist" (due to Marx's opposition to religion), and serves as honorary chair of the Democratic Socialists of America, which he has described as "the first multiracial, socialist organization close enough to my politics that I could join." He has was involved with the Million Man March and Russell Simmons's Hip-Hop Summit, and has worked with such controversial figures as Louis Farrakhan (whom he has actively criticized), and Al Sharpton, whose 2004 presidential campaign West advised.

In "Democracy Matters," West worries that nihilism has now spread to Americans of all races. "Many have given up even being heard," he writes, and have succumbed to "sour cynicism, political apathy and cultural escapism." Writing a review in the New York Times, Caleb Crain writes:
American democracy, he feels, is threatened by "free-market fundamentalism," "aggressive militarism" and "escalating authoritarianism." It will be saved, if it can be, by recourse to "the Socratic commitment to questioning," "the prophetic commitment to justice" and "tragicomic hope." West believes that in the fight against imperialism, the black experience may be a crucial resource, because blacks relied on tragicomic hope in their struggle for freedom, and it remains legible in their history and audible in black music, from the blues to hip-hop.
He also believes that the political nihilism of the nation's elite also comes in three varieties, namely "evangelical nihilism," "paternalistic nihilism," and "sentimental nihilism."

West's solution is tied in closely with his religious inclinations. As Craine notes,
He offers to remind readers of democratic resources in America's cultural heritage, assess the obstacles and contributions to democracy of Judaism, Islam and Christianity and suggest ways of reaching young people. But he doesn't subject the concept of nihilism to further analysis. If you accept his descriptions, the argument is won. But he makes no effort to persuade anyone not yet a believer.
In closing the review, Craine writes,
West's intellectual catchment area is enormous -- he touches on topics as disparate as rap history, the Islamic novel in the 20th century and the latest thinking on postmodern Christian theology and the public sphere. But if he wants to address the people, he needs to give them more than just unfamiliar facts. He needs to give them reason to believe him, even if they don't really want to. At the perilous task of disillusionment, journalists, however sentimental, have been doing a better job.

September 10, 2004

Nick Bostrom's rebuttal to Francis Fukuyama

Nick Bostrom, the Chair of the World Transhumanist Association, has penned a rebuttal in response to Francis Fukuyama's assertion that transhumanism is among the greatest threats currently facing humanity.

Published in the September/October edition of Foreign Policy, Fukuyama describes transhumanism as "a strange liberation movement" that wants "nothing less than to liberate the human race from its biological constraints." He goes on to state his usual argument, which is that suffering and other negative aspects of humanity is necessary in order for us to retain our human "essence" and properly function as individuals in society. He believes that without aggression, for example, that people wouldn't be able to fend for themselves, or that without jealousy there could be no love.

It's exactly this kind of flowery mumbo-jumbo that is emanating from the bioconservative camp these days, and Fukuyama, in my opinion, has put together a very weak and unconvincing article for FP. At one point Fukuyama attempts to demean the transhumanists by noting that, "The plans of some transhumanists to freeze themselves cryogenically in hopes of being revived in a future age seem only to confirm the movement's place on the intellectual fringe." [btw, Fukuyama has his terminology wrong: there's no such word as "cryogenically," as cryogenics is the study of low temperatures, as opposed to cryonics which is the practice of preserving frozen organisms; leave it to Fukuyama to botch-up these kinds of technological details while pooh-poohing it altogether] And lastly, he resorts to some rather juvenile ad hominem by noting in an aside that, "transhumanists are just about the last group I'd like to see live forever."

To set the record straight, Nick Bostrom recently wrote a letter to the editor of Foreign Policy. Mike LaTorra, Dale Carrico, and myself contributed to the piece.

Here's the letter in its unedited entirety:

Transhumanism: The World’s Most Dangerous Idea?
Nick Bostrom (2004)

“What idea, if embraced, would pose the greatest threat to the welfare of humanity?” This was the question posed by the editors of Foreign Policy in the September/October issue to eight prominent policy intellectuals, among them Francis Fukuyama, professor of international political economy at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and member of the President’s Council on Bioethics.

And Fukuyama’s answer? Transhumanism, “a strange liberation movement” whose “crusaders aim much higher than civil rights campaigners, feminists, or gay-rights advocates.” This movement, he says, wants “nothing less than to liberate the human race from its biological constraints.”

More accurately, transhumanists advocate increased funding for research to radically extend healthy lifespan and favor the development of medical and technological means to improve memory, concentration, and other human capacities. Transhumanists propose that everybody should have the option to use such means to enhance various dimensions of their cognitive, emotional, and physical well-being. Not only is this a natural extension of the traditional aims of medicine and technology, but it is also a great humanitarian opportunity to genuinely improve the human condition.

According to transhumanists, however, the choice whether to avail oneself of such enhancement options should generally reside with the individual. Transhumanists are concerned that the prestige of the President’s Council on Bioethics is being used to push a limiting bioconservative agenda that is directly hostile to the goal of allowing people to improve their lives by enhancing their biological capacities.

So why does Fukuyama nominate this transhumanist ideal, of working towards making enhancement options universally available, as the most dangerous idea in the world? His animus against the transhumanist position is so strong that he even wishes for the death of his adversaries: “transhumanists,” he writes, “are just about the last group that I’d like to see live forever”. Why exactly is it so disturbing for Fukuyama to contemplate the suggestion that people might use technology to become smarter, or to live longer and healthier lives?

Fierce resistance has often accompanied technological or medical breakthroughs that force us to reconsider some aspects of our worldview. Just as anesthesia, antibiotics, and global communication networks transformed our sense of the human condition in fundamental ways, so too we can anticipate that our capacities, hopes, and problems will change if the more speculative technologies that transhumanists discuss come to fruition. But apart from vague feelings of disquiet, which we may all share to varying degrees, what specific argument does Fukuyama advance that would justify foregoing the many benefits of allowing people to improve their basic capacities?

Fukuyama’s objection is that the defense of equal legal and political rights is incompatible with embracing human enhancement: “Underlying this idea of the equality of rights is the belief that we all possess a human essence that dwarfs manifest differences in skin color, beauty, and even intelligence. This essence, and the view that individuals therefore have inherent value, is at the heart of political liberalism. But modifying that essence is the core of the transhumanist project.”

His argument thus depends on three assumptions: (1) there is a unique “human essence”; (2) only those individuals who have this mysterious essence can have intrinsic value and deserve equal rights; and (3) the enhancements that transhumanists advocate would eliminate this essence. From this, he infers that the transhumanist project would destroy the basis of equal rights.

The concept of such a “human essence” is, of course, deeply problematic. Evolutionary biologists note that the human gene pool is in constant flux and talk of our genes as giving rise to an “extended phenotype” that includes not only our bodies but also our artifacts and institutions. Ethologists have over the past couple of decades revealed just how similar we are to our great primate relatives. A thick concept of human essence has arguably become an anachronism. But we can set these difficulties aside and focus on the other two premises of Fukuyama’s argument.

The claim that only individuals who possess the human essence could have intrinsic value is mistaken. Only the most callous would deny that the welfare of some non-human animals matters at least to some degree. If a visitor from outer space arrived on our doorstep, and she had consciousness and moral agency just like we humans do, surely we would not deny her moral status or intrinsic value just because she lacked some undefined “human essence”. Similarly, if some persons were to modify their own biology in a way that alters whatever Fukuyama judges to be their “essence,” would we really want to deprive them of their moral standing and legal rights? Excluding people from the moral circle merely because they have a different “essence” from “the rest of us” is, of course, akin to excluding people on basis of their gender or the color of their skin.

Moral progress in the last two millennia has consisted largely in our gradually learning to overcome our tendency to make moral discriminations on such fundamentally irrelevant grounds. We should bear this hard-earned lesson in mind when we approach the prospect of technologically modified people. Liberal democracies speak to “human equality” not in the literal sense that all humans are equal in their various capacities, but that they are equal under the law. There is no reason why humans with altered or augmented capacities should not likewise be equal under the law, nor is there any ground for assuming that the existence of such people must undermine centuries of legal, political, and moral refinement.

The only defensible way of basing moral status on human essence is by giving “essence” a very broad definition; say as “possessing the capacity for moral agency”. But if we use such an interpretation, then Fukuyama’s third premise fails. The enhancements that transhumanists advocate – longer healthy lifespan, better memory, more control over emotions, etc. – would not deprive people of the capacity for moral agency. If anything, these enhancements would safeguard and expand the reach of moral agency.

Fukuyama’s argument against transhumanism is therefore flawed. Nevertheless, he is right to draw attention to the social and political implications of the increasing use of technology to transform human capacities. We will indeed need to worry about the possibility of stigmatization and discrimination, either against or on behalf of technologically enhanced individuals. Social justice is also at stake and we need to ensure that enhancement options are made available as widely and as affordably as possible. This is a primary reason why transhumanist movements have emerged. On a grassroots level, transhumanists are already working to promote the ideas of morphological, cognitive, and procreative freedoms with wide access to enhancement options. Despite the occasional rhetorical overreaches by some of its supporters, transhumanism has a positive and inclusive vision for how we can ethically embrace new technological possibilities to lead lives that are better than well.

The only real danger posed by transhumanism, it seems, is that people on both the left and the right may find it much more attractive than the reactionary bioconservatism proffered by Fukuyama, Leon Kass, and the other members of the President’s Council.

Blade Runner Brilliance

My latest column for Betterhumans has been posted:

Blade Runner Brilliance
As 60 leading scientists attest, the movie is more relevant and important today than ever
I'm a bit of a science fiction movie junky, so it was with great interest that I recently came across the results of a poll conducted by the Guardian about the best science fiction movies of all time. Sixty leading scientists were asked to rank their favorite science fiction films, a group that included such thinkers as evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, quantum physicist David Deutsch, psychologist Steven Pinker and Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer with SETI.

As a futurist and transhumanist, I looked at their results with great anticipation and seriousness. The science fiction genre, sometimes referred to as speculative fiction, is a particularly valuable medium for engaging in prediction and foresight. It's an effective and entertaining way in which to portray plausible futures.

In fact, I often assess the successfulness of a science fiction film based on its ability to do exactly this. Movies such as Star Wars are fine from an entertainment perspective, but offer little in their exploration of the human condition. In my mind, the most important science fiction films are the ones that speak to humanity's relationship with its science and technology, and the risks and benefits they hold for the future. Really, it's future-realism that I'm after rather than fantasy.

Thus, given the prominence of the scientists asked, it was with great delight that I discovered my own personal favorite ranked at number one: Ridley Scott's 1982 classic, Blade Runner. Today, given the potential for radically redesigned humans, cloning and artificial intelligence, Blade Runner has never been more relevant nor more important.
Entire Article

September 8, 2004

Tom Clark: Davies' Really Dangerous Idea

Naturalist philosopher Tom Clark analyzes Paul Davies' worry about free will in which two types of freedom are described, one supernatural and one natural. An analysis of only one, argues Clark, is necessary for all we hold near and dear, the other being widely discounted by scientists and philosophers who are working to develop a naturalistic view of ourselves.

In other words, let's get a grip on this thing we call the "self" and any exaggerated and outdated notions about how much free will we think we might have. As Clark notes:
In fact, we might come to understand that the really dangerous idea is Davies’ insistence that we must believe (or pretend we believe) in free will as he defines it, while ignoring or suppressing the science-based truth that we don’t have type 1 freedom. It’s dangerous because the idea that we are little gods, that at bottom we just choose ourselves in some respect independently of genetic and environmental circumstances, arguably helps to motivate such things as ethnic conflict and genocide, to use Davies’ examples. After all, that’s what allows us to deeply blame and resent the “other”: they could have risen above their circumstances and been good people like us if they’d only chosen to using their type 1 freedom. Retribution, retaliation, and revenge all find their footing in the idea that our enemies are not ultimately subject to causes, but are instead self-created in some crucial respect. That way all the blame attaches to them as individuals, and little or none to the conditions that created them, a perfect prescription for inciting conflict.

On the other hand, were we to appreciate that our ideological, ethnic, and religious antagonists are fully caused to believe and act the way they do, then we cannot demonize them in the way often justified by belief in type 1 freedom. They, like us, are functions of a host of conditions and causes, according to science. If we give up belief in Davies’s free will, we would see that had we been in their exact circumstances, we would have been them, holding their beliefs and acting as they do. This insight can help undo the rigid us-versus-them polarization that’s at the root of so much violence. So, far from being a dangerous idea, undermining free will as Davies defines it is exactly what the doctor ordered for bringing the world to its senses.

Not that this will happen any time soon, partially because apologists for type 1 freedom do so much to retard appreciation of the real, science-based alternative to imagining we are nature’s chosen exceptions to causality. That’s the unfortunate thing about Davies’ thesis: it says we can’t live with the scientific truth about ourselves, when in fact seeing that truth is key to countering the arrogance, the self-righteousness, and the unforgiving vengeance and brutality justified by the supernatural supposition that we and our opponents are self-caused selves. If we can drop the idea that we humans are metaphysically special, and see that morality, dignity, and the law needs only the type 2, natural freedom of being rational agents, then we’ll be in a position to appreciate the ethical significance of naturalism: I see my enemy as myself, since there but for circumstances go I.
By the way, Clark is referring to an article that Davies had published in the most recent edition of Foreign Policy. This is a particularly notorious edition in that it lists the most dangerous ideas currently facing humanity, of which Francis Fukuyama lists transhumanism. The WTA Board is currently working on a rebuttal to this piece. I'll post more details as I get them.

Entire article

September 7, 2004

Screened baby to save life of fatally ill brother

A couple were recently given the green light by Britain's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority to undergo embryo screening treatment. It is hoped that the selected baby's stem cells will stimulate the growth of healthy red blood cells in its fatally ill 2 year old brother, Joshua Fletcher. Neither Joshua's parents, Joe and Julie Fletcher, nor his brother, 5-year old Adam, are close enough matches to donate the stem cells that he needs.

This is a good call and hopefully an important precedent. The way I look at it, instead of one dead 2-year old there's going to be two healthy and loved kids. And the younger sibling will always know that its "special cells" saved the life of its big brother.

The HFEA noted that subsequent cases would be judged on individual merit and the decision was not opening the flood gates for 'designer babies'.

September 5, 2004

ET to use snail mail?

Is it me, or is this whole idea that we should be looking for message probes from ETIs a tad on the absurd side? Essentially, what last week's Nature article suggested, is that it would be much more efficient and reliable for ETIs to send us messages wrapped-up in hardware containers. Radio signals tend to degrade and disperse over long distances, and it would significantly more efficient to send probes.

Okay, sure. Makes a lot of sense, right?

Well, then where are all the probes? Hell, given the fact that the Galaxy is over 12Gyr old, and that complex life could have originated as long ago as 9Gyr (see Lineweaver), the Galaxy should be covered in these supposed message probes. Given the possibility of self-replicating data probes (a glaring oversight in this study), there should be more probes in the Galaxy than there are stars.

More to the point, given the extreme timescales in discussion and the strong possibility of molecular nanotechnology, why don't ETIs just send over themselves via Von Neumann probes?

In other words, this study, like so many others, misses the point about ETIs altogether. The work of SETI is important, but only insofar as a) it will continue to provide us with evidence which shows us that nobody's out there (yes, yes, I know, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but in this case it's an interesting data point that we have to go on), and b) we have little choice but to hope that we're not alone and that we're living in a linearly interesting point in universal history when ETIs first start to branch out into the Galaxy (i.e. we're alive during the opening salvo of a universal phase transition for intelligence).

But ultimately, until SETI and other researchers start talking in a sensible language about our situation, and start addressing the obvious hard problems about intelligent life in the Galaxy, I will be less than interested.

David Grinspoon's Lonely Planets

This will definitely be the next book I read: David Grinspoon's Lonely Planets: A Natural Philosophy of Alien Life. The book tackles some of my favorite subjects, including the Fermi Paradox, astrobiology, and speculations into the nature of extraterrestrial life.

It's exciting to see books come out that address these issues. Astrobiology and astrosociobiology remain proto-sciences deeply rooted in the philosophical and speculative realms. Thinkers like Grinspoon, Milan Cirkovic and Stephen Webb are bring these issues to light, and hopefully they can be expanded upon into testable and provable hypotheses. I particular like Grinspoon's idea of developing a "natural philosophy of extraterrestrial life" -- it's somewhat reminiscent of my idea of astrosociobiology, which is essentially an attempt to find the hard biological, physical, social and environmental factors that circumscribe the development of all intelligent life in the Universe.

Here's a description from his Website:
Lonely Planets is a funky natural philosophy of life in the universe written with authority and edge. Dr. Grinspoon uses the topic of ET life as a mirror in which we view human evolution, history, present, and future in cosmic perspective. With an accessible, breezy and often whimsical style, he presents an authoritative scientific narrative of cosmic evolution along with provocative ruminations on how we fit into the story of the universe. In illustrating how we - scientists and nonscientists alike - have projected upon alien life our own philosophies, biases and preconceptions, he exposes the assumptions we make about extraterrestrials, and how these illuminate science and its limitations.

Writing from the perspective of a working scientist who has helped to shape modern planetary exploration, he does not shy away from the spiritual dimensions of the question of ET life. Rather, he shows how both scientific research and "new age" searching on the topic of aliens serve the same deep spiritual urge. Lonely Planets concludes with an impassioned and hopeful description of how a synthesis of our scientific and spiritual capacities can insure our survival into an attainable and wondrous future.

Peering inside the mind of a supercomputer

Here's what a supercomputer "sees" as it's cruching the numbers trying to figure out it's next move. It's quite beautiful, actually.

Here are the links to other images:
Image 01
Image 02
Image 03

September 4, 2004

Goin' to California

I will be attending the Institute for the Study of Accelerating Change's annual Accelerating Change conference from Nov. 5-7, 2004 at Stanford University in Palo Alto CA.

I will be covering the conference for Betterhumans and I will be blogging the event right here at Sentient Developments in as close to real time as possible.

This year's conference is titled "Physical Space, Virtual Space, and Interface," and topics within each theme that are likely to be discussed at Stanford this year include:

Physical Space (Tangible Things and Networks)

Connectivity/Internet/Network Immunity/Security
GPS/Location-Based Services/RFID/Sensing/Telematics
Handhelds/Wearable and Portable Computing/Transparency
IT Outsourcing/Offshoring/Globalization
Robotics/AI/Automation/Instant Manufacturing
Wireless/Cellular/Software Defined Radio

Virtual Space (Simulations and Virtual Life)

Avatars/Artificial Life
CGI/Visual FX
Gaming/MMORPGs/Virtual Training/Edutainment
GIS/World Mapping/Augmented Reality
Persistent Worlds/Virtual Economies
Web Services/User-Created Content

Interface (Data, Management Systems, and Convergence)

Databases/Data Mining/Storage/Knowledge Management
Enterprise Software/CRM/Digital Nervous Systems
Micropayments/DRM/Video On Demand
Search/NLP/LUI/Semantic Web
Social Software/Groupware
Persuasive Computing/User Modeling/Prosody/Personality Capture
Investing for Accelerating Change/Social Challenges

September 2, 2004

Top Sci-Fi films as voted by scientists

Ridley Scott's Blade Runner is the favourite science fiction film of scientists, according to a poll for the Guardian. Second and third places went to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and the first two films of the original Star Wars trilogy.

Top sci-fi authors

1 Isaac Asimov
2 John Wyndham
3 Fred Hoyle
4 Philip K Dick
5 HG Wells

Top five sci-fi films

1 Blade Runner (1982)
2 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
3 Star Wars (1977 ) / The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
4 Alien (1979)
5 Solaris (1972)

September 1, 2004

James Hughes, Yo!

A couple of notes about my friend and fellow democratic transhumanist and WTA board member, James Hughes:
- James Hughes interview with RU Sirius: Transhumanism's Left Hand Man
- his latest column for Betterhumans: Engineering Better Citizens: Human enhancement doesn't guarantee better democracy, but better democracy may require human enhancement

Is our solar system unique?

It's looking more and more like our solar system is fairly unique in its composition. While the detection of extrasolar planets is still very much in its infancy, and the results thus subject to selectional effects, these early discoveries are indicating that other solar systems don't look like ours.

Take the latest discovery, for example. This new class of planets are about 10 to 20 times the size of Earth (about the size of Neptune) and far smaller than any of the 140+ extrasolar planets so far detected. They're probably too small to hold a gas giant type atmosphere. And they're also very close to their sun, whipping around them in a matter of days. Gliese 436 spins around its M dwarf sun every 2.5 days. 55 Cancri spins around its sun in just under 3 days. Three larger planets also revolve around the star every 15, 44 and 4,520 days, respectively.

One of the things that astronomers are discovering -- and again this might be a selectional effect due to our primitive equipment -- is that most solar systems have large objects, whether they be gas giants or giant rock planets, that are quite close to the sun. In fact, many of the solar systems thus far discovered have gas giants in the inner solar system.

This is not good as far as the advent of life is concerned. It's been argued that the Earth resides in a very sensitive habitable zone in our solar system, and that the gas giants in the outer solar system act as crucial vacuum cleaners which ensure that little debris makes its way to Earth (ie preventing too many catastrophic impact events that would stunt life or prevent it from happening altogether).

Much of this speculation adds fuel to the Rare Earth hypothesis, which is one particular explanation for the Fermi Paradox. Who knows, perhaps we reside in a very atypical solar system -- and not just because there's life in it.

Danmarks Radio Interview

I was interviewed today by Jan Skøt of radioprogramme Harddisken on Danmarks Radio. I spoke for a little over an hour about a number of things, including TransVision '03 & '04, transhumanist art and aesthetics (including Stelarc, Steve Mann, Orlan, Natasha Vita-More, etc.), how artists take science into unpredictable directions, the future of body modification, potential problems and ethical issues surrounding body modification and human enhancement, my "transhumanist" lifestyle, and my own feelings about the transhumanist phenomenon.

Jan will edit the interview and prepare a show. I'll post the air time and a link to the interview once it's posted. Also, Jan will be writing an article about transhumanism for a major newspaper in Denmark. Again, I'll keep you posted.