November 30, 2004

Recent European bioethics breakthroughs

A couple of reminders about our bioconservative proclivities here in North America:

Netherlands proposes euthanasia for newborns in agony: A hospital in the Netherlands — the first nation to permit euthanasia — recently proposed guidelines for mercy killings of terminally ill newborns, and then made a startling revelation: It has already begun carrying out such procedures, which include administering a lethal dose of sedatives.

Mother carrying "designer baby": A woman who was given permission to have embryo screening treatment in a bid to save her son is carrying the UK's first "designer baby;" Stem cells from the new baby could save its brother's life.

November 11, 2004

Engineering deliberate NEO impacts

Anders Sandberg and I have been having a conversation about the possibility for a deliberately engineered NEO (near Earth object) attack. The possibility of such a thing was brought to my attention in a recent Astrobiology article called "Tugboat as Lifeboat?" In this article, Russell Schweikart, a former Apollo 9 astronaut and the current Chairman of the B612 Foundation (an advocacy group endorsing 'a gentle push' approach to asteroid risk mitigation), had this to say about the prospect:
It takes little imagination to visualize the extreme political and social controversy if we wait for a specific impact to become known before developing the path deviation criteria.

The opportunity for abuse and the underlying human characteristics that concerned Carl Sagan (when he reflected in 1992 on potential "negligence, fanaticism or madness") still remain a challenge while the instantaneous impact point is slowly guided off the Earth. This deflection dilemma arises in the recognition that if one can deflect an incoming NEO such that it misses the Earth, one can as well deflect a NEO that would otherwise miss the Earth such that it now hits the Earth, presumably in a particular location.

This is clearly a challenging task since the few space faring nations of the world are powerful, and such intrusive oversight will not be easily negotiated. It is crucial to realize that the appropriate time-window to negotiate these international agreements is not the time available until an impact occurs, but rather the time available until an impact is predicted.
I wrote transhumanist polymath Anders Sandberg about the potential problem and a conversation ensued. Here's the thread:

Me: Here's another consideration for a nihilistic human extinction scenario:
The deliberate engineering of an asteroidal impact: "Tugboat as Lifeboat?"

Anders: As my gaming group remarked as they debated asteroid braking and mining strategies in one of our games: "Don't even think of it! Aerobraking asteroids easily becomes lithobraking!" :-)

Like weather control attempts, asteroid deflection attempts may be subject to huge risks of liability claims - if the defelction does not work 100% somebody is still going to be hurt, and survivors may claim that they suffered because of the attempt. This might actually reduce the incentive to deal with lesser impactors (preventing extinction level events will likely be accepted by everyone, even if a few small pieces are likely to drop on someone). It would be interesting to make a probabilistic analysis of the defense schemes published so far and see in which regimes (size-warning time - method) there are liability problems.

As a strategic weapon asteroids are rather bad - you put your mass driver on a NEO, and it will be in the vicinity of Earth every 10-20 years rather than all the time. Also, it is hard to discreetly send a spacecraft to an asteroid, so everybody will know you did it. Unless of course there are already plenty of space traffic, but then the deadliness of impacts may be blunted.

As for nihilistic kills, asteroids do have a certain charm. Smiting the world from the sky and all that. But I have not seen much evidence for nihilism as motivation on large scales. If you look at various atrocities and the effort that went into them, most seem to be fairly direct projects with fairly non-nihilistic (if nasty) goals. Hence I would worry more about somebody thinking the world would be a better place with a thoroughly smashed America/Europe/Asia/wherever than someone trying for extinction - specific rather than general malevolence.

Smaller asteroids could of course be used instead of nukes, but they appear somewhat unwieldy (as described above). Hence warfare with smaller asteroids is unlikely to kill off mankind, just to make us very sorry. One could imagine automated second-strike systems launching asteroids if one's home nation is destroyed causing some form of chain reaction bombing the Earth into a crater wasteland, but again that seems to be using slow and inefficient means to achieve what lots of nukes (or bioweapons) likely can do more cheaply.

Replicating asteroid mining stations building mass drivers and sending off new stations to other asteroids could set up a very dangerous system. This in addition to the *huge* arms race incentives - if you launch one of these a few weeks before me, I may end up with an immense disadvantage, so I better launch first. Even if all we do is peaceful resource extraction, we still are likely to compete for free asteroids. But such robotization of the solar system is a separate threat from asteroid impacts. The asteroids become mere tools and raw materials to the replicating infrastructure rather than the threat in themselves.

Me: One concern I have is, with all the mass movers working out there, and given the potential for someone to hack into its system, this kind of attack could be instigated remotely and even somewhat clandestinely.

Anders: Yes, if you have automated robofacs across the solar system the system can become a tremendous danger if it is insecure. It ought to be possible to make a fairly secure system: each robofac only accepts commands with the right crypto-authentification, copies are prevented from running if their multiply redundant checksums do not work out, tamperproofing of various kinds etc. But then the owner goes on a coffee break, leaving the master password written on a post-it next to his computer...

Of course, one could also use the fruits of such an infrastructure to set up asteroid defenses fairly easily. Make a few of the robofacs build interception missions, and you will have lots and lots of interceptors distributed across the solar system waiting for an emergency. But even that solution can become a problem if badly implemented (imagine a mistaken command making the interceptors attack anything leaving from Earth, and no easy way to get rid of them: a bit of a whimper).

In general, the greater the amount of mass/energy people can throw around, the greater the risks to isolated or concentrated targets.

November 9, 2004

Looming influenza pandemic

According to a number of infectious diseases experts, the human population is on the verge of another influenza pandemic--this one being the H5N1 avian strain from Asia:
“We're very limited in what we can do for this virus,” Dr. David Heymann of the World Health Organization told participants at the two-day conference, organized by the University of Toronto and St. Michael's Hospital's Centre for Global Health Research.

“This virus is rapidly spreading around the world, the fear of course being that H5N1 from chickens will enter a human and . . . reassort to form a human influenza virus which will then have genetic characteristics of a human virus, spread rapidly around the world and cause deaths,” said Dr. Heymann, executive director of the WHO's communicable diseases division.

The process Dr. Heymann was referring to would mark the start of a new influenza pandemic, an event most flu researchers believe is both inevitable and overdue.

In the 400 years of recorded influenza history, pandemics have occurred on a regular if sporadic basis. The longest period between pandemics has been 30 to 40 years, noted Dr. Allison McGeer, an infectious diseases specialist at Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital.
Assuming that it does indeed infiltrate the human population as expected, I would predict that 1) due to countermeasures and other health interventions, the effects will not be as devastating as previous outbreaks, and 2) if it does wreak considerable havoc, it's the kind of thing that will force people's head out of the sand in regards to the potential and need for further research and development into novel medical interventions and health technologies--including the potential for such things as the ability to decode a virus's genome and develop counter-phages and immunizations.

November 8, 2004

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies launched

The Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies was officially launched today. With the mandate of "promoting the ethical use of technology to expand human capacities," the IEET is an organization that is closely associated with the World Transhumanist Association and is the brainchild of Nick Bostrom and James Hughes (who is the Executive Director). I currently serve on the IEET Board of Directors along with Bostrom, Giulio Prisco, Mike LaTorra and Mark Walker.

Here's the press release that was released today:

James Hughes Ph.D.
Executive Director
Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies
56 Daleville School Rd.
Willington CT 06279 USA
(office) 860-297-2376

New Institute to Provide Balanced Views on Human Enhancement Technologies

Willington, CT, USA -- November 8, 2004 -- When should parents be permitted to genetically enhance their children? How can we regulate psychoactive drugs in ways that respect cognitive liberty? How can we avoid exacerbating inequality as human enhancement technologies spread?

The IEET's mission is to become a center for responsible, constructive approaches to emerging human enhancement technologies. We believe that technological progress can be a catalyst for positive human development so long as we ensure that technologies are safe and equitably distributed.

As yet there has been no institutional home for the consideration of the ethical challenges of emerging human enhancement technologies free from both anti-regulatory dogmas that deny the legitimacy of democratic public policy, and technophobic red herrings such as anxieties about transgressing the boundaries of humanness. The Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies intends to fill that gap.

The Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies will be directed by Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom, who will chair the Board of Directors, and bioethicist James J. Hughes, who teaches at Trinity College in Hartford Connecticut USA and who will serve as Executive Director. The IEET is incorporated as a nonprofit organization in the United States. The IEET's Board of Directors currently come from Spain, Canada, the UK and the United States. The IEET will also be served by a Board of Advisors, which is now being formed.

The IEET has appointed six 2004-2005 Fellows: nano-policy thinker Mike Treder; development policy futurists Jose Cordeiro and Jamais Cascio; biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey; human rights writer Dale Carrico; and philosopher, and science fiction author and critic, Russell Blackford. The work of the IEET will also be served by student interns. Applications for internships are now being accepted.

The Fellowships, internships and work of the IEET is structured around six programs of action: Global Health; Relationships, Community and Technology; Consequences and Ethics of Emerging Technologies; Self-Determination and Human Rights; Longer, Better Lives; and Visions of Utopia and Dystopia.

Specific activities of the IEET include placing essays in newspapers and journals, underwriting selected research and analysis, promoting leading thinkers through events and publicity campaigns, and producing publications, journals and audio-visual materials. In particular the IEET has assumed management of the Journal of Evolution and Technology which has published academic research on questions of human enhancement and technological futurism since 1998.

The Institute will organize several events per year in Europe and North America. In July 2005 the IEET will co-sponsor a conference in Caracas Venezuela, focusing on human enhancement technologies and the developing world, with the World Transhumanist Association. (The IEET will work closely with the World Transhumanist Association, which is also chaired by Dr. Bostrom and served by Dr. Hughes as its Executive Director.) In September 2005 the IEET will co-sponsor a conference on Human Rights and Human Enhancement with the Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics.

For more information: or Contact:
Phone: 860-297-2376

November 5, 2004

November 4, 2004

Signs of the coming apocalypse

More signs that the coming apocalypse is near:

- A lion attacked a man who jumped into its enclosure and shouted at it: "Jesus will save you!" at a zoo in Taiwan's capital.

- Blood sucking monkeys lurking at an ancient Hindu temple in India's northeast have attacked as many as 300 children in the past 3 weeks; "They hide in trees and swoop on unsuspecting children loitering about in the temple premises or walking by, clawing them and even sucking a bit of blood," Bani Kumar Sharma, a priest at the Kamakhya temple in Assam state, said Tuesday.

- George Bush wins the 2004 US presidential election

....the end is near my friends...

November 3, 2004

Fool's Paradise

Rather than hear me groan on about the US election results, here are some thoughtful entries from around the blogosphere:

Dale Carrico: It's all over 'cept for the cryin'
Chris Mooney: Another Possible Consequence of Bush's Victory
Paul Hughes: Wake Up Call!
Alan AtKisson: What if Kerry had Won?

Some article links

Some interesting articles I found today:

Marketing to the Mothership
Astrobiology Magazine

Summary: It is sometimes said that the best form of advertising is education. But what products would our global marketplace tolerate at the borders of an encounter with another, perhaps far different civilization? To get some perspective, an expert entertains the question of how to advertise our presence to a more universal demographic.

Three Newly Discovered Exoplanets Have Masses Comparable to Neptune's
Physics Today

Summary: Unlike Neptune and Uranus, the ice giants of our solar system, the new planets may be rocky "super−earths."

In the past 10 years, some 120 planets have been discovered outside the solar system. With the exception of three lightweight oddballs orbiting a millisecond pulsar—the dead remnant of a supernova—all of these exoplanets have been at least two orders of magnitude heavier than Earth. Though observational biases clearly favor the discovery of such giants, astronomers couldn't help wondering whether, for some unknown reason, lighter exoplanets might in fact be much rarer than gas giants like our own Jupiter and Saturn.

Now the catalog of known exoplanets has suddenly become more diverse. Three teams of planet searchers recently announced the discovery of three exoplanets with masses on the order of Neptune's. The masses of Neptune and Uranus, the so−called ice giants of the solar system, are 17.2 and 14.6 M♁ (where M♁ is Earth's mass). By contrast, the masses of Jupiter and Saturn are 318 and 95 M♁.

Ancient Supernova Sparked Humanity?
Rossella Lorenzi, Discovery News

Summary: A stellar blast might have helped initiate human evolution three million years ago, according to German scientists who have found clear traces of an ancient supernova explosion deep beneath the Pacific Ocean.

Sifting through dust on the ocean floor at a depth of 15,750 feet, Gunther Korschinek and colleagues at the Technical University of Munich in Germany found 28 layers of iron-60, a radioactive isotope of iron which experts believe is unlikely to have come from anything other than the heat, pressure and nuclear activity of a supernova.

U.S. Air Force Takes a Look at Teleportation
Bill Christensen,

Summary: It seems that mere stealth technology is not enough; the United States Air Force wants to get from here to there without even traversing the space in between.

November 1, 2004

Special Sun

[Note: this is not the original version of this post. I had to correct some math errors, so this version is more accurate]

Here are some interesting facts about our sun--facts that have a direct bearing on such things as the Drake Equation and the Rare Earth hypothesis:
- The Milky Way is 130,000 light years across, but only 5,000 light years thick (it's shaped like a pancake)

- There are 3 trillion (or 300,000 million) stars in the Milky Way

- Our sun is roughly half-way from the centre of the core of the galaxy and half-way through its lifespan at 4.5 billion years old

- it takes our sun 250 million years to orbit the centre of the galaxy

- Every second, our sun converts about 5 million tons of mass into energy; Earth intercepts only a billionth of this energy

- Stars that are larger than our sun burn out at a much quicker rate; a star with twice the mass as ours will burn out in only 1 billion years (it's likely that any orbiting planet could not ignite and sustain complex life given that short time-frame); further, these larger stars emit high levels of life-threatening ultraviolet radiation

- stars that are smaller than our sun can last well over 10 billion years and comprise as much as 95% of all stars in the Milky Way, leaving only 150 billion stars either the same or larger than our own (the so-called G class of yellow suns)

- M red dwarf stars are the most common of the small stars (they represent 80% of all stars in the galaxy); they burn their fuel more slowly and are quite dim--in fact, when you look into the sky at night, you cannot see any of these stars

- small stars have a significantly smaller habitable zone for any potential life-bearing planets; moreover, the habitable zone would have to be quite close to the sun, causing gravitational effects that would likely prevent the formation of life (including orbital "lock" so that only one side is facing the sun at any given time); finally, smaller stars are less stable and produce flares with great frequency

- our sun is situated in the galactic habitable zone, which boasts two major characteristics: i) a region fairly devoid of interstellar matter, and ii) a region rich in metallicity (the outer stars lack critical heavier elements which assist in the creation of life)

- 60% of yellow G class stars like ours exist in binary pairs or triplets; multiple star systems tend to sweep-up nearby material making it difficult for planets to form, and any planet that does form will be in a highly eccentric orbit--not good for life; thus, out of all the galaxy's stars, no more than 90 billion stars are of the solitary yellow G class

- it's appearing more and more that our solar system's composition is unique; most stars have so-called "Hot Jupiters" orbiting around them--gas giants that orbit very closely to the star; again, it's highly unlikely that a life-bearing planet could exist in such a system; and to make it even more difficult for life-bearing planets to exist, most outer solar system gas giants tend to be in eccentric orbits (unlike Jupiter which is in a near-circular orbit), which again would cause great instability to the solar system

- statistics that I'd like to know: of the 150 billion solitary G class stars, how many are in the galactic habitable zone (my guess is 10%, or 15 billion stars), and how many of them have Jupiters in a circular and outer orbit (my guess is 5%, bringing our total down to 750 million potentially habitable solar systems at our current time); how many of these 750 million solar systems have an Earth-like planet in its habitable zone (my guess, another 5%, bringing us down to 37.5 million)? How many of these 37.5 million planets developed life? Let's say 0.5%, which bring us to 18.75 million. How many of these developed complex life? Let's say 0.05%, bring us down to 937,500. How many of these developed industrial age intelligent societies (my guess, 0.05, bringing the total down to 46,880)?

So using this rather armchair approach to the Drake Equation we get a figure of N=46,880 or so. Of course, this doesn't speak to how long life has been able to get going in the Galaxy, so there may have been many other civilizations throughout its history--but again, I don't think this window has been open for very long, possibly only within the last 750 million to 1,000 million years. Also, my estimates may be quite liberal. My figure of 0.05 for industrial age societies may be significantly exaggerated.

BTW, many of these statistics were taken from William C. Burger's excellent book, "Perfect Planet, Clever Species."