January 31, 2005

This Magazine on transhumanism

Several months ago I was interviewed by Andre Mayer, a freelance journalist working the Toronto beat. Mayer interviewed me for a piece about transhumanism that was just published for This Magazine, a bi-monthly alternative Canadian journal.

Called The Great Byte Hope, the article takes a sensationalistic and cursory look into the transhumanist phenomenon. Mayer does his best to draw out the fantastical aspects of transhumanism--undoubtedly his way of drawing a knowing and condescending nod from his readers. This is, quite unfortunately, a common angle taken these days from the left-of-center media.

Indeed, it's convenient to point to the movement and ridicule its advocates as being nothing more than a bunch of geeks who dream of becoming robots; that's an easy article to write and sell. Moreover, as far as the technophobic left is concerned these days, it's actually quite fun to poke ridicule at those who are naïve enough to consider the more radical benefits that technology may bring.

That being said, the article wasn't a total write-off. At this stage in the game, any publicity is good publicity; I do think that dialogue is the important thing these days. And by bringing up the nature of the bioconservative argument, I hope readers gain some insight into the issues by looking at the dichotomy.

And to be fair, in his conclusion, Mayer does convey the growing sentiment amongst left-progressives about the need to deal with the inequality problem:
Transhumanists, like any social movement, would love to be proven right. Whether or not that happens, at this point in time, they’d simply like to engage their critics in debate. They are for the most part empathetic people who are as opposed to inequality as some of their most zealous opponents. “We need to make sure that the benefits of new technological opportunities are made available to everyone and not restricted to the privileged few,” says Bostrom. “Rather than just hope that this will happen automatically, we need to work to make it happen.”
At any rate, read the article and judge for yourself, and feel free to provide me with your feedback.

Rees: Think big, like Einstein

Today's scientists need to broaden their horizons to meet the scientific and intellectual challenges of the future, writes Martin Rees in his Telegraph article, Think big, like Einstein.
But what's not yet part of common culture is the concept that the vistas stretching ahead are even longer – the future allows time, potentially, for further evolution as dramatic as what's led from the very first life to humans. It will not be humans who witness the demise of the Sun six billion years hence: it will be entities as different from us as we are from bacteria.

January 30, 2005

Theory: Supernovas give birth to solar systems

A new theory proposes that our star and its planetary system were born in a nebula, filled with short-lived, massive stars that exploded with immense energy and an intense release of radiation.

The evidence? A primitive space rock which contains signs that a short-lived, radioactive form of the element chlorine may have been present in the early Solar System. A US-Chinese team, whose findings appear in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, claims the most likely source of this isotope was a supernova.

To this point in time, astronomers have believed that the Solar System formed inconspicuously, from a slowly condensing cloud of dust and gas--a view that is now being challenged.

Ten Key Trends for Women in 2005 and Beyond

Thomas Frey, Executive Director of the DaVinci Institute, has posted an interesting article that describes Ten Key Trends for Women in 2005 and Beyond:
As people move through life, they search for signposts along the way. They search for those rare pieces of intelligence that give them a gut-level feeling of confidence about what to do next. Today’s women are particularly adept at reading these signposts, which range from magazine articles, to movies, to conversations with a people they trust. They trust their instincts and aren’t afraid to make critical decisions.

Women today are bold and confident, unapologetic for who they are and the things they like, and vast in their ability to influence nearly every aspect of modern life.

In spite of the heavy load that most women shoulder, and the torrid pace of living, the bad years are now past, and a resurgence of hope seems to be building. With guarded smiles reacting to each new piece of positive news, they listen intently for the rhythm of hope that beats continuously in their lives.

Women create our culture. They give birth to each new generation and heavily influence nearly every major decision being made today. Its critically important that we pay close attention to the drivers that are influencing the emerging new thinking class of bright articulate women wanting to make a difference in today’s world.
The ten trends that Frey outlines are:
1. The Emerging New Value Set
2. Virtual Families
3. Our Gender-Confused Nation
4. Women Viewed through the Cyberporn Lens
5. Quiet Demand for the Gritty Truth
6. The Social Obligation to "Live the Life" and "Do Your Part"
7. Transition from a Product-Based Economy to an Experience Based Economy
8. The Age of Cross-Functional Foods
9. 24-7 is Back
10. Get the Geek Out
Each trend is interesting and provocative in its own right, especially the extended family notion and the problem of ubiquitous porn. Unfortunately, Frey missed a major point, and that is the rapid and radical expanse of female reproductive options, including and especially germinal choice. A battle is about to waged among feminists; those who will condemn the new biotechnologies, and those who welcome it as matter of reproductive and responsible choice.

A naturalist of the mind

Drake Bennett has a feature article about Alexander Shlugin in the New York Times (registration required), the creator of nearly 200 psychedelic compounds, including stimulants, depressants, aphrodisiacs, ''empathogens,'' convulsants, drugs that alter hearing, drugs that slow one's sense of time, drugs that speed it up, drugs that trigger violent outbursts, and drugs that deaden emotion. "In short, writes Bennett, "a veritable lexicon of tactile and emotional experience.

And of course, in 1976, Shulgin re-formulated an obscure chemical called MDMA out of the depths of the chemical literature: Ecstasy.

About the nature of psychedelics and its relation to consciousness, Shulgin says,
I understood that our entire universe is contained in the mind and the spirit. We may choose not to find access to it, we may even deny its existence, but it is indeed there inside us, and there are chemicals that can catalyze its availability.
In the article, Bennett chronicles Shulgin's rise to celebrity and how a sub-culture has emerged that follows and supports his work. He notes that the Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics has an online Ask Dr. Shulgin column that receives 200 questions a month. And then there's the independent drug-information Web sites, such as The Vaults of Erowid.

When asked if he could imagine a drug so addictive that it should be banned, Shulgin said no. "With his fervent libertarianism -- he says the only appropriate restriction on drugs is one to prevent children from buying them -- he has inoculated himself against any sense of personal guilt," writes Bennett.

Looking to the future of research into psychadelics, Bennett writes,
There's a story he likes to tell about the past 100 years: ''At the beginning of the 20th century, there were only two psychedelic compounds known to Western science: cannabis and mescaline. A little over 50 years later -- with LSD, psilocybin, psilocin, TMA, several compounds based on DMT and various other isomers -- the number was up to almost 20. By 2000, there were well over 200. So you see, the growth is exponential.'' When I asked him whether that meant that by 2050 we'll be up to 2,000, he smiled and said, ''The way it's building up now, we may have well over that number.''

January 29, 2005

Alex Grey: World Spirit DVD

Seen on Future Hi:

WORLDSPIRIT is a landmark audio-visual theater experience featuring poetry and storytelling by visionary artist Alex Grey, music by electronic composer and violinist Kenji Williams, and multi-screen projections of Alex Grey's world-famous paintings.

WORLDSPIRIT represents a radically new form of entertainment that brings together evolutionary spiritual teachings, visual art, music, live performance and advanced technology; speaking at once to body, mind and spirit.

Transhumanism in the media

A couple of articles hit the Web this week that deal explicitly with transhumanism:

The Next Digital Divide
(Utne Reader)
Alyssa Ford writes of how biopolitics and "democratic transhumanism" are set to reshape our understanding of left and right. James Hughes comments on Cyborg Democracy.

Transforming Humans (Tech News World)
Sonia Arrison writes of how transhumanism is entering into the mainstream and why we should welcome the discussion. Pablo Stafforini comments on Long Road to Paradise.

January 26, 2005

The problem with Intelligent Design

Ugh, I caught a new meme the other day reading Carl Zimmer's latest Corante blog entry: Young Earth Creationism.

What a blatant attempt by biblical literalists to capitalize on the success of the Intelligent Design meme to make their claim of the 6,000 year old Earth sound scientific.

Time to rant:

At its core, the debate is really about belief in scientific naturalism or creationism. The scientific method to this point in time has done a rather remarkable job of showing how the universe and all that's in it has likely come about through autonomous processes.

Opponents argue, of course, that these phenomena are not autonomous and that they are "guided." Because the creationists have no empirical evidence to support their claim, and because they have no genuine scientific methodology to test their hypothesis, their argument consists almost exclusively of exposing the holes in current scientific theories--as if the scientists themselves weren't aware of problems or gaps in the current knowledge base.

Ultimately, however, because creationists depend on the absence of evidence to prove the rather extraordinary claim of God, their mission is doomed to failure.

Benko: Ethics, Technology, and Posthuman Communities

Check out this neat article in Humboldt College's Essays in Philosophy journal: Ethics, Technology, and Posthuman Communities.

Humanist philosophy, argues Steven Benko, is now in the position of having to respond to technological developments that bolster the posthuman claim that technology is an integral part of identity. He also notes that all's not well in modern humanist thought:
The response by humanists has been to suggest a human nature that is entirely at odds with technology or a human nature primed for hybridity and interfaces. In both perspectives, the ethicality of technology is based on how it enhances or diminishes human nature and the social relationships and responsibilities that emerge from it. The singular focus on how technology affects human nature has resulted in little attention being paid to the (un)ethical uses of technology. Even less attention is paid to the notion that technology is a site of protest against interpretations that alienate and marginalize those who either do not have access to technology, use technology to surpass the limitations imposed by the body, reconstruct or augment an undeveloped or damaged part of their brain or body, or use technology to challenge humanist notions of the good of human nature. In humanist treatments of the ethicality of technology, human nature is treated as a given constant and remains unquestioned. The result has been uncritical investigations about the meaning of technology. Though they employ ethical language, humanist critiques of technology have less to do with technology and ethics than they do with restating their view of human nature in an ethical language so as determine who can and cannot be a member of the moral—and therefore human—community. When this happens, ethics becomes identity politics and fails to give an adequate accounting of technological (ab)use. Most confusing of all is that while humanists agree that there is a shared human nature, they do not agree as to its content, prompting widely divergent humanist reactions to technology.
At the same time, Benko is also unsatisfied with the sentiments coming out of both the academic and technological posthumanist camps:
That idea has been further developed by technological posthumanists such as Kurzweil (1999), Moravec (1988), and Paul and Cox (1996), who each argue that in the absence of a human nature, there are no restrictions or limitations on how humans can configure themselves. The only limitation humans have to overcome is the organic body. Technological posthumanists rush to embrace technology as that which saves us from humanism and frees understandings of what it means to be human from humanism’s essentializing and normativizing grip. They imagine a future where the human body has been left behind and humans are free to configure and augment themselves however they see fit. In doing so, posthumanism has not articulated a comprehensive ethics for how individuals should respond to technology or how these digital people should interact with one another and those who remain carbon-based. Contrasted with humanism, technology is always a moral good because it allows the individual to escape humanism’s transcendent sameness.
Ultimately, what Benko feels is needed--if there is to be a critical theory of technology--is a posthumanism that articulates the best of humanism—reason, individuality, and respect for others—without requiring belief in a shared human nature that marginalizes and alienates others.

Transhumanism in Iran

Looks like current Iranian intellectuals, despite living and working in a near theocracy, are finding some value in the writings of the late Iranian transhumanist philosopher FM-2030 (Fereidoun Esfandiary). Sam Ghandchi, in his article Transhumanism and a Tribute to Fereidoun FM Esfandiary, outlines the current issues and challenges facing transhumanist thinking in Iran, concluding that,
In fact, the most basic impacts of changing of human body, can already be seen with regards to issues such as artificial kidneys, where its artificial production can remove the technical basis of using natural parts of body as transplants, and the society can end the material basis of the savagery in the trade of human parts for money, which is so common place in many backward countries like Iran, and this way these kinds of issues, whether from the angle of freedom or justice, will be in the focus of the society, where the average age is getting higher and higher.

In my opinion, the discussions of World Transhuman Association WTA are very important for Iran's futurist movement and it is good if issues of Future Human Evolution be discussed in the Iranian intellectual circles.
Iranian transhumanists--and any of its social reformers for that matter--certainly have their work cut out for them. Our fingers are crossed.

January 22, 2005

Life on Titan?

The recent landing of the Huygens probe have some scientists comparing Titan to what the Earth might have once looked like--prompting some to speculate that Titan may have or is currently harbouring life.

For the record, should signs of life ever be detected on Titan, I will eat my shorts. It's my opinion that the odds of life ever having come into being on that frozen methane-drenched orb are close to nil -- it's simply too far from the solar system's habitable zone and too inhospitable for the emergence of life.

Military tech

A recent report states that the military is dominating science in the UK (Guardian). Meanwhile, the US military is reloading on nanotech (Technology Review). TNTLog comments on the potential implication for a dominant global military cabal.

Why do I suddenly have the urge to watch Dr. Strangelove?

Spongebob Queerpants?

I don't know whether to laugh or cry about the Christian Right these days. But in fairness to them, these are very trying times indeed for those dedicated to the preservation of intolerance and sexual oppression everywhere.

We are the priests of the temples of syrinx

The themes of the classic album, 2112, by Canadian prog-rockers Rush, have some definite parallels with the current struggle between tech-conservatives and tech-progressives. As an interesting aside, Peart's lyrics were significantly influenced by the writings of Ayn Rand.

I. And the meek shall inherit the earth.

II. the temples of syrinx

... the massive grey walls of the temples rise from the
Heart of every federation city. I have always been awed
By them, to think that every single facet of every life is
Regulated and directed from within! our books, our music,
Our work and play are all looked after by the benevolent
Wisdom of the priests...

We’ve taken care of everything
The words you hear the songs you sing
The pictures that give pleasure to your eyes
It’s one for all and all for one
We work together common sons
Never need to wonder how or why

We are the priests of the temples of syrinx
Our great computers fill the hallowed halls
We are the priests of the temples of syrinx
All the gifts of life are held within our walls

Look around this world we made
Equality our stock in trade
Come and join the brotherhood of man
Oh what a nice contented world
Let the banners be unfurled
Hold the red star proudly high in hand

We are the priests of the temples of syrinx
Our great computers fill the hallowed halls.
We are the priests of the temples of syrinx
All the gifts of life are held within our walls.

III. discovery

... behind my beloved waterfall, in the little room that was
Hidden beneath the cave, I found it. I brushed away the
Dust of the years, and picked it up, holding it reverently in
My hands. I had no idea what it might be, but it was
Beautiful ...
... I learned to lay my fingers across the wires, and to turn
The keys to make them sound differently. as I struck the
Wires with my other hand, I produced my first harmonious
Sounds, and soon my own music! how different it could
Be from the music of the temples! I can’t wait to tell the
Priests about it! ...

What can this strange device be?
When I touch it, it gives forth a sound
It’s got wires that vibrate and give music
What can this thing be that I found?

See how it sings like a sad heart
And joyously screams out it’s pain
Sounds that build high like a mountain
Or notes that fall gently like rain

I can’t wait to share this new wonder
The people will all see it’s light
Let them all make their own music
The priests praise my name on this night

IV. presentation

... in the sudden silence as I finished playing, I looked up
To a circle of grim, expressionless faces. father brown
Rose to his feet, and his somnolent voice echoed
Throughout the silent temple hall. ...
... instead of the grateful joy that I expected, they were
Words of quiet rejection! instead of praise, sullen
Dismissal. I watched in shock and horror as father brown
Ground my precious instrument to splinters beneath his

I know it’s most unusual
To come before you so
But I’ve found an ancient miracle
I thought that you should know

Listen to my music
And hear what it can do
There’s something here as strong as life
I know that it will reach you

Yes, we know it’s nothing new
It’s just a waste of time
We have no need for ancient ways
The world is doing fine

Another toy will help destroy
The elder race of man
Forget about your silly whim
It doesn’t fit the plan

I can’t believe you’re saying
These things just can’t be true
Our world could use this beauty
Just think what we might do

Listen to my music
And hear what it can do
There’s something here as strong as life
I know that it will reach you

Don’t annoy us further
We have our work to do
Just think about the average
What use have they for you?

Another toy will help destroy
The elder race of man
Forget about your silly whim
It doesn’t fit the plan

V. oracle: the dream

... I guess it was a dream, but even now it all seems so
Vivid to me. clearly yet I see the beckoning hand of the
Oracle as he stood at the summit of the staircase ...
... I see still the incredible beauty of the sculptured cities
And the pure spirit of man revealed in the lives and works
Of this world. I was overwhelmed by both wonder and
Understanding as I saw a completely different way to life,
A way that had been crushed by the federation long ago. i
Saw now how meaningless life had become with the loss
Of all these things ...

I wandered home though silent streets
And fell into a fitful sleep
Escape to realms beyond the night
Dream can’t you show me the light?

I stand atop a spiral stair
An oracle confronts me there
He leads me on light years away
Through astral nights, galactic days

I see the works of gifted hands
That grace this strange and wondrous land
I see the hand of man arise
With hungry mind and open eyes

They left the planets long ago
The elder race still learn and grow
Their power grows with purpose strong
To claim the home where they belong
Home, to tear the temples down...
Home, to change..

VI. soliloquy

... I have not left this cave for days now, it has become
My last refuge in my total despair. I have only the music of
The waterfall to comfort me now. I can no longer live
Under the control of the federation, but there is no other
Place to go. my last hope is that with my death I may pass
Into the world of my dream, and know peace at last.

The sleep is still in my eyes
The dream is still in my head
I heave a sigh and sadly smile
And lie a while in bed
I wish that it might come to pass
Not fade like all my dreams

Just think of what my life might be
In a world like I have seen
I don’t think I can carry on
Carry on this cold and empty life

My spirits are low in the depths of despair
My lifeblood spills over..

VII. grand finale

Attention all planets of the solar federation
Attention all planets of the solar federation
Attention all planets of the solar federation
We have assumed control.
We have assumed control.
We have assumed control.

Die, cancer, die!

This is how molecular nanotechnology will destroy cancer.

Nanoparticle drug delivery systems can be made more quickly and efficiently using DNA molecules as a sort of glue to bind off-the-shelf "Tinker Toy" parts.

Other link.

Links for Jan 22/05

Cretaceous duck ruffles feathers (BBC)
Some scientists believe many modern bird lineages existed as long as 100 million years ago.

An Interview with Robert Nozick
Nozick (1938-2002) was a professor of philosophy at Harvard University until his death. His first book, Anarchy, State and Utopia astonished the philosophical world and made the discussion of liberty and property rights respectable again in scholarly circles. A former radical leftist, Nozick was converted to the libertarian perspective as a graduate student, mostly through reading the works of F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman. Below is an interview with Nozick from 2001.

Intelligence in men and women is a gray and white matter (Today@ICU)
Men and women use different brain areas to achieve similar IQ results, UCI study finds. William Saletan of Slate comments on gender differences.

More from Michio Kaku on escaping the Universe (Prospect Magazine). See my earlier post.

Asteroid collisions may explain star's odd appearance (University of Florida)
The recent collision of two huge asteroids or tiny planets may be the cause of the mysterious lopsided appearance of the most famous of the universe's planet-forming stars, a team of astronomers says.

January 20, 2005

Links for 01/20/05

Today's links:

Aubrey de Grey Responds (Technology Review)
Biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey gets the chance to respond a Technology Review cover article that was highly critical of him and his efforts to cure aging.

Open-Source Biology Evolves (Wired)
Can a rebel band of scientists pool patented innovation techniques and give them away through the Internet?

Unwrapping the Biometric Present (Technology Review)
Congressional funding for a biometric system to track potential terrorists isn't likely to have much impact on the bad guys. But it will likely help the government keep track of you.

The Future of Lying (BBC)
Some scientists in the US are working on advanced technology that will significantly improve lie detection.

Harper warns of 'radical' marriages (Globe & Mail, registration required)
Conservative Leader Stephen Harper warned Thursday that if same-sex legislation becomes law, the Liberals won't be able to prevent fundamentalist groups from requesting extreme types of marriages such as polygamy. In other words, "let's just stick to our tried-and-true oldtime religion and avoid that heathen foreign crap."

The Supposed Sin of Defying Nature: Part One (Betterhumans)
Why are policy debates still plagued by an irrational idea that refuses to die?

Fatherhood by a New Formula (Washington Post)
Using an egg donor and a gestational surrogate, some gay men are becoming dads -- and charting new legal and ethical territory.

Black Holes, But Not As We Know Them (New Scientist)
They are the most fearsome objects in the Universe, and everyone knows that falling into a black hole spells doom. Or does it? New Scientist shows how cracks are starting to appear in the conventional picture of the dark destroyers.

Collapse: A Seed Exclusive by Jared Diamond (The Seed)
A threat more serious than emerging diseases or nuclear war is on our doorstep: Ecocide. Biosociologist Jared Diamond argues that environmental destruction has triggered a chain reaction that threatens life as we know it.

UN chief warns of 'megadisaster' (BBC)
The UN's disaster chief has outlined a 10-year plan of investment to avert a natural disaster that could be 100 times worse than the Asian tsunami.

A Proactive Response to the Tsunami Disaster (Betterhumans)
A proposed world institute for risk evaluation is a good idea, but let's be clear about what risks need evaluating, writes Nick Bostrom.

Space Cadets (Spiked-Online)
If environmentalists had their way, probes would never have touched down on Titan, writes Joe Kaplinsky in Spiked-Online.

Lords of the Rings (Slate)
William Saletan reveals in Slate how a human presence truly arrived on a moon of Saturn.

Beyond the Biodome (The Space Review)
Biosphere 2, recently put up for sale, was once hailed as a testbed for technologies that could enable space colonization. Dwayne Day examines how the project devolved into fodder for B-grade movies.

Ancient Science of Skin Care Goes High Tech With Nano (Small Times)
More evidence that nanotech is going to change everything.

January 16, 2005

Pontin responds

Jason Pontin, editor-in-chief of Technology Review, has responded to the accusations that he was unfair to Aubrey de Grey in his recent editorial. Here's the comment he posted earlier today in response to my earlier post on the matter:
Dear transhumanists,

Thank you for your posts to the technologyreview.com site. I've
read them all with great interest. You're a passionate group!

Let me begin by writing: as many of you suggested, we will
invite Aubrey de Grey to reply to Dr. Nuland's article, the leader
"Be Sane about Anti-Aging Science," and my editorial "Against
Transcendence." You can read Mr. de Grey on
www.technologyreview.com early next week.

That said, when an editor so completely fails to express his
meaning to his readers, he may be tempted to try again. A few
notes to that end.

1. I recognize the anger in many of your posts, and apologize if I
have offended any of you.

When I called Mr. de Grey a "troll" it was of course a literary
device: a reference to a line earlier in my editorial where I
quoted the writer Bruce Stirling about the paradox that those
who were most intersted in using technology to transcend
human nature often lived circumscribed lives that seemed
anything but transcendent when viewed from the outside.
Stirling says that people who take transcendence seriously "end
up turning into trolls." This is my personal view. However,
neither Dr. Nuland's article, which I commissioned, nor our
leader on anti-aging, which I edited, made this point.

2. My list of the ways that Mr. de Grey seemed circumscribed by
his humanity was not intended as an ad hominem attack on de
Grey. An hominem attack seeks to discredit an argument by
attacking the person who makes it. As many of you noted, I did
not seriously grapple with Mr. de Grey's views in my editorial.

This is because my editorial was written as an introduction, by
the editor-in-chief, to the print edition of Technology Review.
An exhaustive list of all the reasons why I think de Grey
mistaken in his confidence that human cellular aging can be
reversed would have been redundant. The two other articles on
biogerontology, in addition to a synopsis of a scholarly
publication on the role of mitochondria in the diseases of aging,
expressed all I believe about biogerontology.

Those views, in short, are as follows: while I am fascinated by
the study of how and why human tissues age, I think it
exceedingly unlikely that human aging can be "defeated" in any
meaningful sense. All organisms--indeed, all things in
creation--age. I think it possible that we might one day extend
human lifespan significantly, and I am reasonably sure that in
the next 50 years we will "compress the morbidity" of the elderly
to a brief period before death. I have to note that most serious,
working, responsible biogerontologists published regularly by
peer review journals would agree with me--with the possible
exception of Cynthia Kenyon at UCSF, who entertains dramatic
hopes for human life extension, and who has significantly
extended the life span of nemotodes.

My editorial was about what it said it was about: it was written
"against transcendence." It was not written about Aubrey de

3. Finally, and I write this with a little trepidation, many of your
posts reveal a degree of misinformation about Mr. de Grey's
accomplishments and publications.

I would not accuse Mr. de Grey, whom I have never met, of
being a charlatan. But there is a certain vaguness in the
transhumanist community about his role in the Department of
Genetics at Cambridge University. Mr. de Grey is not an
academic biogerontologist. He is the computer support
for a research team in Cambridge's Genetics Department. His
formal academic background is in computer science. If you
consult Mr. de Grey's publications in a resource like PubMed,
you will see they vary more than glowing profiles of de Grey
sometimes imply. For instance, his contributions to Science and
Biogerontology are commentary and letters. His publications in
Tends in Biotechnology and Annals of the New York Academy of
Sciences were not, strictly speaking, peer reviewed.

That said, Mr de Grey's paper, "A Proposed Refinement of the
Mitochondrial Free Radical Theory of Aging," (de Grey, ADNJ,
BioEssays 19(2) 161-166, 1997) is, I am told, genuinely original,
and he is, obviously, a fascinating, charismatic, and provocative

My assessment of Aubrey de Grey would be that of the
biogerontologist Jay Olshansky: "I am a big fan of Aubrey. We
need him. I disagree with some of his conclusions, but in science
that's OK. That's what advances the field."

In sorrow and contrition,

Jason Pontin
Technology Review

January 15, 2005

Okay, so where are they?

Leonard David's Space.com article, "ET Visitors: Scientists See High Likelihood," does the usual job of arguing that the galaxy must be teeming with life and intelligence, while utterly failing to address the Fermi question while giving the impression that it's actually addressing the Fermi question.

Another Technology Review attack on Aubrey de Grey

Jason Pontin of Technology Review has posted a despicable ad hominem attack on biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey:
But what struck me is that he is a troll. For all de Grey’s vaulting ambitions, what Sherwin Nuland saw from the outside was pathetically circumscribed. In his waking life, de Grey is the ­com­puter support to a research team; he dresses like a shabby graduate student and affects Rip Van Winkle’s beard; he has no children; he has few interests outside the science of biogeron­tology; he drinks too much beer. Although he is only 41, the signs of decay are strongly marked on his face. His ideas are trollish, too. For even if it were possible to “perturb” human biology in the way de Grey wishes, we shouldn’t do it. Immortality might be okay for de Grey, but an entire world of the same superagenarians thinking the same kinds of thoughts forever would be terrible.
A number of people have been deeply offended by Pontin's remarks, including myself, WTA board director Giulio Prisco, WTA secretary James Hughes, and WTA Chair Nick Bostrom. Both Nick and James have written directly to Pontin demanding that he apologize to de Grey, and Prisco posted his two cents on Cyborg Democracy.

January 14, 2005

Our make or break century

As I see it, there can be only one of two possible outcomes for our species this century: 1) our accelerated and guided evolution into a posthuman/postbiological species and a future of nearly limitless possibility, or 2) extinction (or at the very least civilizational collapse leading to the steady and inexorable regression of society and our species).

Factors in favour of 1) include the relentless onslaught of Moore's Law and the prospect of Drexlerian nanotechnology. The primary factor in favour of 2) is the steadily increasing number of existential risks that our species faces, including the threat of nuclear weapons, a disaster or war with nanotechnology and/or advanced robotics, or something involving the emergence of artificial superintelligence.

Sixty years after the advent of nuclear weapons, and at the dawn of the 21st century, we are euphoric that we have survived this long, leading us to forget that the means to our own extinction are still within our very hands. But the sad truth is that as more and more time passes, we are faced with the reality of having to live in perpetuity with a steadily increasing number of apocalyptic technologies.

Not a good prospect.

Free will

Rambling thoughts from my train ride home tonight....

It occurred to me that consciousness may be described as the illusory sense one has that they have free will and that they operate in the world as singular decision making agents.

Then in struck me that this is nonsense because if it were the case, and we truly don’t have free will, then consciousness would have never evolved in the first place. In other words, if we are automatons reacting exclusively to environmental stimuli, there would be no need for consciousness. We’d simply be complex reflex organisms.

Clearly we have consciousness, so we need to explain why we evolved consciousness and why we’re not just sentientless reflex organisms. A likely explanation is that consciousness evolved as the result of growing organismal and environmental complexity. At some point in the evolutionary story, ultra-quick decision making in unpredictable situations could not be satisfactorily made by mere automatons. Similarly, as animals grew in complexity, so did their behaviours and their various modes of survival (e.g. social interactions, nest and den construction, etc). Consequently, something more powerful was required than mere “reaction,” and selection for consciousness emerged.

'Astrosociobiology' on Wikipedia

A number of months ago I created the astrosociobiology entry in Wikipedia. It's been fascinating watching my original entry become progressively refined and elaborated upon. I made a number of changes to it recently myself, so check it out and feel free to contribute.

January 13, 2005

Sherwin Nuland slams Aubrey de Grey

The February 2005 edition of MIT's Technology Review has been published and it features a cover article about biogerontologist and transhumanist Aubrey de Grey. Interviewed by Sherwin Nuland, a clinical professor of surgery at Yale University’s School of Medicine, the article is yet another PR breakthrough for the man voted most likely to solve the aging problem. As Dale Carrico noted to me at TransVision 2004 last year, de Grey is truly the first transhumanist superstar.

But the victory of the cover article aside, and despite it being a well written and researched piece (Nuland spent 10 hours in person with de Grey), the article is peppered with Nuland's rants in condemnation of both the quest to cure aging and those who, like de Grey, are actively working to solve the problem. While at times overtaken by de Grey's charisma, articulateness and brilliance, Nuland is at other times filled with great unease in regards to the man and the nature of his work. Consequently, the piece comes off as being quite schizo and unbalanced. It feels as if Nuland, by soiling himself with a de Grey interview, needs to assure everyone that he's not among the True Believers:
I should declare here that I have no desire to live beyond the life span that nature has granted to our species. For reasons that are pragmatic, scientific, demographic, economic, political, social, emotional, and secularly spiritual, I am committed to the notion that both individual fulfillment and the ecological balance of life on this planet are best served by dying when our inherent biology decrees that we do. I am equally committed to making that age as close to our biologically probable maximum of approximately 120 years as modern biomedicine can achieve, and also to efforts at decreasing and compressing the years of morbidity and disabilities now attendant on extreme old age. But I cannot imagine that the consequences of doing a single thing beyond these efforts will be anything but baleful, not only for each of us as an individual, but for every other living creature in our world.
As for Nuland's critque of radical life extension, in addition to falling for the 'nature as ought' fallacy, he's really all bark and very little bite. There's virtually no discourse given to ethics issues, choosing instead to resort to abstract and broad-based fears. His rants are largely rhetorical and filled with fear mongering. And of course, what would a slam against life extension be without the proverbial stab about violating 'humanness,':
But the most likable of eccentrics are sometimes the most dangerous. Many decades ago in my naïveté and ignorance, I thought that the ultimate destruction of our planet would be by the neutral power of celestial catastrophe: collision with a gigantic meteor, the burning out of the sun—that sort of thing. In time, I came to believe that the end of days would be ushered in by the malevolence of a mad dictator who would unleash an arsenal of explosive or biological weaponry: nuclear bombs, engineered microörganisms—that sort of thing. But my notion of “that sort of thing” has been changing. If we are to be destroyed, I am now convinced that it will not be a neutral or malevolent force that will do us in, but one that is benevolent in the extreme, one whose only motivation is to improve us and better our civilization. If we are ever immolated, it will be by the efforts of well-meaning scientists who are convinced that they have our best interests at heart. We already know who they are. They are the DNA tweakers who would enhance us by allowing parents to choose the genetic makeup of their descendants unto every succeeding generation ad infinitum, heedless of the possibility that breeding out variety may alter factors necessary for the survival of our species and the health of its relationship to every form of life on earth; they are the biogerontologists who study caloric restriction in mice and promise us the extension by 20 percent of a peculiarly nourished existence; they are those other biogerontologists who emerge from their laboratories of molecular science every evening optimistic that they have come just a bit closer to their goal of having us live much longer, downplaying the unanticipated havoc at both the cellular and societal level that might be wrought by their proposed manipulations. And finally, it is the unique and strangely alluring figure of Aubrey de Grey, who, orating, writing, and striding tirelessly through our midst with his less than fully convinced sympathizers, proclaims like the disheveled herald of a new-begotten future that our most inalienable right is to have the choice of living as long as we wish. With the passion of a single-minded zealot crusading against time, he has issued the ultimate challenge, I believe, to our entire concept of the meaning of humanness.

Paradoxically, his clarion call to action is the message neither of a madman nor a bad man, but of a brilliant, beneficent man of goodwill, who wants only for civilization to fulfill the highest hopes he has for its future. It is a good thing that his grand design will almost certainly not succeed. Were it otherwise, he would surely destroy us in attempting to preserve us.
Like the Kassites, Nuland also buys into the false assumption that society will come to the rescue and prevent the scourge of radical life extension. This will hardly be the case, something I argue in my column, "Deathist Nation." Moreover, as fellow WTA Board member Giulio Prisco noted in a discussion today, the tone of the comments section at the end of Nuland's article is nearly exclusively in support of Aubrey de Grey.

Despite all this, however, I do strongly recommend that this article be read. It's probably the most detailed piece I've read about de Grey yet, touching upon his background and other personal aspects of his life. Nuland also does a decent job articulating de Grey's concepts and his SENS mission.

January 12, 2005

Stephen J. Dick's 'Intelligence Principle'

Cosmologist and friend Milan Cirkovic recently brought the work of Stephen J. Dick to my attention.

Distinguished historian of science Stephen J. Dick, in his 2003 paper "Cultural Evolution, the Postbiological Universe and SETI," argued that there is a disconnect between SETI and the prospects following exponential growth of technology as perceived in recent times on Earth.

As Dick noted:
But if there is a flaw in the logic of the Fermi Paradox, and extraterrestrials are a natural outcome of cosmic evolution, then cultural evolution may have resulted in a postbiological universe in which machines are the predominant intelligence. This is more than mere conjecture; it is a recognition of the fact that cultural evolution--the final frontier of the Drake Equation--needs to be taken into account no less than the astronomical and biological components of cosmic evolution.
He continues,
In sorting priorities, I adopt what I term the central principle of cultural evolution, which I refer to as the Intelligence Principle: the maintenance, improvement and perpetuation of knowledge and intelligence is the central driving force of cultural evolution, and that to the extent intelligence can be improved, it will be improved.
To what extent this principle can and will play itself out is a matter of great conjecture--issues that cause transhumanists to wrack their brains--but a trajectory will undoubtedly start to take shape this current century. Migration to deep space? Migration to inner space? Jupiter brains and uploaded societies? Megascale engineering? Black hole engineering?

Only time will tell, but as Dick correctly points out, even the sky appears to be no limit.

Hughes Vs. Smith on Betterhumans

We published dueling book reviews on Betterhumans today.

In this corner, we have democratic transhumanist James Hughes:
Drawing a Stem Cell Line in the Sand
Former lefty Wesley J. Smith is now a right-wing bioconservative, says James Hughes, and Consumer's Guide to a Brave New World will make you nostalgic for when progressives believed in progress.

And in the other corner, lawyer-activist Wesley Smith:

An Epistle for the New Religion of Transhumanism
James Hughes is a transhumanist evangelist, says Wesley J. Smith, and Citizen Cyborg urges followers to be true to their faith while revealing its nihilistic shortcomings.

Now boys, play nice...

Links for Jan 12/05

Ethics for the Robot Age (Wired)
Should bots carry weapons? Should they win patents? These are questions that Jordan Pollack feels we should answer as automation advances. Somewhat disapointing article in that Pollack doesn't go far enough in his prognostications to include sentient robots and issues of pending personhood.

The Body Electric (Slate)
What is electrical brain stimulation used for? And is it safe? Includes a discussion of cranial magnetic stimulation.

Quantum Quackery (Scientific American)
A surprise-hit film has renewed interest in applying quantum mechanics to consciousness, spirituality and human potential. Uber-skeptic Michael Shermer thinks this is bad. Excellent, looks like Shermer has the consciousness/quantum problem all figured out. Perhaps he'd like to share his special knowledge with the rest of humanity....

David Chalmers has compiled an amazing Guide to the Philosophy of Mind

Fire and Brim Stone (Space Review)
Project Orion and terraforming are two extraordinary space visions. Sam Dinkin gives two radical cases for technology transfer to achieve energy independence.

First Direct Sighting of an Extrasolar Planet (New Scientist)

Meteor Could Cause Big Tsunami (The Albuquerque Tribune)
Gee, do you think so?

Artificial muscles based on conducting polymer and carbon nanotubes (Daily Science News)
Likely good news for both humans and robots.

Red Meat is Strongly Linked to Cancer (Nature)
Another reason to go veg (or give up red meat at the very least): Diet experts urge move to poultry, fish and beans after results of long-term study.

Fierce Mammal Ate Dinos for Lunch (BBC)
An astonishing new fossil unearthed in China has overturned the accepted view about the relationship between dinosaurs and early mammals. We mammals have always kicked ass.

January 11, 2005

Links for Jan 11/05

CIO has a quick review of James Hughes's Citizen Cyborg.

Life, Reinvented (Wired)
A group of MIT engineers wants to model the biological world, but because of nature's complexity they have been forced to rebuild from the ground up, consequently giving birth to "synthetic biology."

The Acid Test (Village Voice)
At an Indiana Lab, thanks to the efforts of pioneering pharmacologists Albert Hofmann and David Nichols, there's better thinking through chemistry.

Matter Rides Black Hole's Space-Time Wave (Space)
Armed with cosmic speed guns and other high-tech devices, astronomers have witnessed amazing speeds around one black hole and an exotic wave in space-time careening around another.

Three largest stars identified (BBC)
These suckers aren't 10 or 100 times larger than our own--they're 1,500 times as large as our sun.

Robot Makers Say World Cup Will Be Theirs by 2050 (The Scotsman)
A Japanese consortium of robotics experts has thrown down the gauntlet to future soccer players by claiming their robots will defeat mankind within 45 years. Of course, these robots are going to have to contend with enhanced humans...

Remote Viewing Conference
...for those open-minded and/or inquisitive enough to consider the findings of parapsychologists.

Something Del.icio.us: social bookmarking system

January 10, 2005

Martin Rees on our potential transhuman future

I'm a big fan of astronomer Martin Rees, so I was quite pleased to see him interviewed in Astrobiolgy Magazine by Helen Matsos about some very transhumanist issues.

In the interview, called Our Cosmic Self-esteem, Rees describes how humans may start to change in radical ways within single generations under its own guidance. "If this future plays out," says Rees, "the future itself becomes more difficult to forecast."

Aware of the tremendous time span lying ahead of us, Rees notes that "most educated people are aware that we are the outcome of nearly four billion years of Darwinian selection, and I think many tend to think humans are the culmination of all that. But astronomers know that our sun is less than halfway through its life span. Our sun will flare up and die six billion years from now, a period of time longer than the sun's history so far." Some people imagine that there will be humans watching the sun's demise six billion years from now, he says, "but any creatures that exist then will be as different from us now as we are from bacteria or amoebae."

He notes that we are likely still in the early stage of the emergence of complexity and intelligence. Rees admits that it's hard to imagine what forms future intelligent life might take, but that we should consider ourselves as nowhere near the culmination of evolution.

Despite warning of possible existential catastrophies this century, he believes that on optimisitc scenario sees human communities spread beyond the Earth for the first time. "Self-sustaining groups established a hundred years from now would not be destroyed whatever happened to the Earth. That could be the first step towards evolution beyond the Earth," he says.

Rees, a believer in accelerating change, notes that not only are traditional technologies changing faster than ever, but the world is changing in different ways and that humans themselves are going to change. "For several thousand years," says Rees, "the one thing that hasn't changed has been human nature and the human physique. But in this century we have targeted drugs, genetic manipulation, and maybe even implants in the brain."

Consequently, he notes
[T]his makes it harder to predict a hundred years into the future than it would have been for someone in 1900 to predict our present-day world. That suggests there are greater uncertainties and greater risks facing us now. But it also suggests that if humans did establish groups beyond the Earth, then it wouldn't take more than a few centuries at most before they evolve into different species. They would be able to use genetic techniques to adjust themselves to survive in a very alien habitat.
As usual, Martin Rees has very interesting things to say, but I often feel that he's holding back in his writings and speculations. I sometimes get the feeling that he's academically straight-jacketed, afraid to speculate too far outside the box for fear of being ostricized by more conservative elements. I'm sure he has some pretty specific ideas about what posthuman and postbiological intelligences could look like and the kind of activities they could engage in. If I'm right, hopefully he'll find the courage to let us in on some of his insights in the future.

Otherwise, one gets the distinct impression that he's taking advantage of his public presence and merely riding on the philosophical and futurological coattails of the various transhuman thinkers who have been discusing these possibilities for years.

January 9, 2005

Changesurfer Radio interviews: Carrico and Cascio

James Hughes of Changesurfer interviews tech progressives Dale Carrico, the Human Rights fellow of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, "Progressive Futures" columnist for Betterhumans, and Cyborg Democracy and Amor Mundi blogger, and Jamais Cascio, blogmaster of WorldChanging, a blog devoted to promoting technologies that are changing the world for the better.

Interview #1 with Dale Carrico
Interview #1 with Dale Carrico

Interview with Jamais Cascio

Arthur C. Clarke on ETI

"There may be intelligent life in space or not. Either thought is frightening." -- Arthur C. Clarke

Kaku: How to avoid extinction when the Universe dies

Theoretical physicist and ultra cool scientist Michio Kaku speculates that future intelligences will likely have to figure out a way to avoid extinction when the Universe suffers its heat death. In a recent Telegraph article, "Could a Hole in Space Save Man From Extinction?" (registration required), Kaku describes how the Universe is likely to die and what advanced intelligences might be able to do to avoid going along with it.

Realistically, says Kaku, the only possible way to avoid the death of the universe is to leave. "Perhaps civilisations billions of years ahead of ours will harness enough energy to punch a hole in space and escape, in a hyper-dimensional space ark, to a new universe," he speculates.

This is not as far fetched as it may seem. As Kaku points out, Einstein's equations allow for the possibility of "Einstein-Rosen bridges" connecting two parallel universes. In order to deal with the intense energy requirements of such a project, says Kaku, "an advanced civilisation might create huge banks of laser beams and atom smashers to create the unbelievably intense temperatures, energy and densities necessary to open up holes in space and leave the universe."

Kaku continues:
Calculations show that these gigantic machines must be the size of star systems, but this might be possible for civilisations billions of years ahead of ours. Unfortunately, some preliminary calculations show that the wormhole might only be microscopic in size. If so, an advanced civilisation might resort to shooting molecular-sized robots, called "nanobots", through the wormhole.

Once on the other side, these nanobots would then create huge DNA factories to grow clones and replicas of their creators. Since they would contain the entire database of their civilisation, they would use this to resurrect it in another universe.

Although the physical bodies of these individuals will die when the universe freezes over, their genetic twins will live on, so that their civilisation, like a Phoenix, may flourish again.
"As incredible as these scenarios are, argues Kaku, "they are consistent with the known laws of physics and biology."

January 8, 2005

Links for Jan 9/05

China to Outlaw Selective Abortions (Globe & Mail, registration required)
The Chinese government is doing something about the increasing gender imbalance in its country.

Stem-cell Ambivalence (Washington Times)
Joyce Howard Price discusses the current state of stem cell research and the limited potential for adult stem cells.

Death Trumps Choice (SF Chronicle)
What if you knew that legalizing assisted suicide meant that sick and disabled people, who don't ask to die, nonetheless would be killed? That's the central question that Sacramento lawmakers will have to address as they consider a bill to legalize assisted suicide.

Autistic Liberation Front Fights the "Oppressors Searching for a Cure" (Telegraph)
It is the latest freedom movement for an "oppressed" minority: the Autistic Liberation Front. You can wear a badge, buy a mug or don a T-shirt proclaiming the movement's goals - to celebrate autism, stop the search for a cure and "defend the dignity of autistic citizens".

Humanists, Atheists Look to Higher Global Profile (Reuters)
Humanist and atheist groups around the world are looking to boost their profile in 2005 to counter religious fundamentalism and efforts by some Western leaders to relaunch faith as a keystone of national life.

What Was the Cold War About? Evidence from Its Ending (PDF, Political Science Quarterly)
John Mueller assesses the rhetoric and actions of important international actors and concludes that the Cold War essentially ended in the spring of 1989. This suggests that the Cold War was principally about an ideological conflict and not about the military, nuclear, or economic balance or about Communism as a form of government--issues that would be resolved later.

Tsunami of the Absurd (Reason)
Patrick J. Michaels reveals how global warming alarmists are riding the wave of world attention.

Quantum Teleportation Useless to Teleport Humans (Pravda.ru)
The quantum teleportation, however, will be used in new type of superpowerful computers.

Supernatural Powers Become Contagious in PC Game (New Scientist)
Eerie occurrences in The Sims 2 have been traced to rogue computer code accidentally spread between players like an infectious illness.

Companies That Have Fired People for Blogging (via BoingBoing)

Cool Flick: Strange Days

I finally got around to seeing Strange Days yesterday, a sleek, edgy, and fascinating sci-fi film from 1995. Not a classic science fiction movie by any means, it is most definitely worth watching as it has some interesting and provocative transhumanist themes in it.

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow and produced and written by James Cameron, it stars Ralph Fiennes, Angela Basset, Juliette Lewis, Tom Sizemore, Michael Wincott, and Vincent D'Onofrio. The film takes place on the eve of the millennium (December 31, 1999) in LA, and centers on the story of Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes), an ex-cop who peddles a kind of conscious-experience recorder and playback system. Called a "squid," it's a headpiece that allows one to transmit digital recordings of other people's thoughts, feelings, and memories into their brain. As Lenny describes it, "this is real life, pure and uncut, straight from the cerebral cortex."

Lenny deals "clips" (the recordings) as well as "squids" for this new and illegal entertainment system. Of course, sex and violence are the most popular themes, but Lenny refuses to deal in "blackjack" -- a slang term for snuff clips.

Reminiscent of 1983's Brainstorm, Strange Days is a film that deals with not just the potential addictive and drug-like quality of such technologies, but with the ethical aspects as well.

Lenny, for example, can't quite get over his break-up with his former girlfriend. He happens to have clips of his experiences with her when they were together, so to help ease the pain, he escapes into the past by putting on a squid.

While the creation of snuff clips certainly attract unwanted elements, there's also potential benefits to such technologies, including completely realistic out-of-body experiences. In one scene, a character without legs is able feel what it would be like to run on a beach.

If you're interested in these topics, be sure to check out my columns, Working the Conscious Canvas and Welcome to the Unreal World.

The film is also notable for its extended first person POV shots which required Bigelow's team to create entirely new, light-weight 35mm cameras. The opening scene, for example, is a dramatic no-cut sequence that is quite breathtaking, leaving you wondering how they hell they pulled some of the effects and stunts off.

Just one word of warning to the faint-of-heart, as there's some pretty graphic violence and sexuality in this movie.

ETI contact in 20 years?

SETI is predicting that it will detect ETIs within twenty years.

To achieve this, says SETI, the first 30 dishes of a huge telescope array will be operational within a year, creating a giant ear that will listen for ETIs while simultaneously gathering data for astronomy research.

This is part of what Seth Shostak is calling the "new" SETI -- an enhanced and high-tech approach to scanning to the heavens for signs of life. Some of the initiatives underway include:

- At Harvard University, a survey telescope designed to sweep massive swaths of the sky will hunt for extraterrestrial laser flashes
- In Puerto Rico, the famed Arecibo telescope is getting a new feed that will speed up searches 7-fold
- In California, the SETI Institute and Berkeley’s Radio Astronomy Lab will soon be scanning the star-clotted realms of the inner Milky Way with the first-stage implementation of the Allen Telescope Array (ATA). The ATA will eventually boast 350 antennas, each 20 feet in diameter, spread across a half square-mile of terrain; until now, SETI has used limited time from a number of radio telescopes around the world, limiting the number of stars that can be observed. However, the ATA will be dedicated to the project, speeding up the SETI search by a factor of 100.

I wish SETI all the best in their efforts, and I support all the work that they do, but I'm very skeptical that we'll hear anything in the coming decades. I don't believe that it's an issue of technical sophistication or efficiency. I simply don't believe that the signals are out there to begin with. I fall within the camp of contact pessimists who believe that the Fermi Paradox is telling us something--that life should be saturating the galaxy by now, but for some reason it isn't. That reason is hard to pin-point, and could be anything from Rare Earth to Great Filter.

If, however, we detect life in the next 20 years, then it means one of two things--one being very good and the other being very bad.

First, the bad news. If we detect a flurry of radio signals, it could mean that the Great Filter resides in our future and not our past--that it's common for intelligences to develop into post-industrial phases but no further (i.e. there's no such thing as post-Singularity intelligences). Mechanisms that are responsible include a number of possibilities, including gamma-ray bursts, advanced nanotech, resource depletion, or the further proliferation and usage of nuclear weapons.

As for the good news, it could mean that we truly live in a special time in the evolution of the Universe. This is what some cosmologists and astrobiologists refer to as the Phase Transition Model of the Universe, where the conditions for the development of advanced ETIs have only recently been established. To this point in time, it is argued, catastrophic extinction events have peppered the history of the galaxy, consequently stunting the potential advance of ETIs. The mechanism for these sterlization events would in all likelihood be gamma-ray bursts, including the high frequency of celestial impact events. Over cosmological time, it is thought, these events occur with decreasing frequency, leading to the disequilibrium of galactic sterilization and the consequent emergence of advanced ETIs (i.e. post-Singularity, post-Drexlerian nano civs, Type II and III civs, etc.).

We could very well be one of many intelligences currently developing past civilization phases never before attained in the history of the galaxy.

But like I said, we'd have to hear signals pretty soon for us to be able to add any credence to these sorts of speculations, which is why we need to support SETI in their work while remaining realistic about their chances of actually finding any signs of life out there.

More reader feedback re: "Revenge of the Nerds"

I received this e-mail yesterday:
Hello, I just finished reading "Revenge of the Nerds"...There's a few links I know about that I feel you should have mentioned, or at least would find interesting:

"Scientists Discover Biological Basis for Autism"

and another intersting take is from Simon Baron-Cohen...which includes empathy and systemizing tests.

E. R. Schneider comments on "Revenge of the Nerds"

I've received many letters in response to my latest BH column, Revenge of the Nerds. In particular, I've received an overwhelmingly supportive response from the autistic community. One such response was from autistic activist and author, Edgar R. Schneider:
I have AS and am married to an HFA woman. (I only found out about my autism 10 years ago by reading an article by Dr. Oliver Sacks.) Not to shill, but I have had two books published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers, Ltd. The second is titled "Living the Good Life with Autism," and among its theses is precisely the point you make in this article. I should like to add that our interests (writing for me and photography and web sites for Alix) have gotten both of us listed in /Who's Who in America/. I have to wonder how people who consider it a "disease" intend to "cure" us of that.

I have written and spoken about a hypothesis of mine concerning the nature and causes of autism.

The nature of autism is a deficit of the intuitive emotions caused by improper wiring of that part of the brain, which has been confirmed by several authorities with whom I have been in contact. (Indeed, the subtitle of Dr. Sack’s article read, "Can an artist make art without feeling it?")

As to the cause, I attribute my own autism to brain damage caused by infectious diseases in early childhood. A young woman friend of mine, who, because of an automobile accident, suffered damage to her left temporal lobe (the seat of the intuitive emotions), lost that faculty, i.e., became autistic. However, I have also read of the recent identification of genes that affect brain development. Thus, I have concluded that autism can have causes that are both environmental and genetic. As a result, given current medical knowledge and technology, a "cure" is nowhere in sight.

Given this, autistic people are limited (if I may use that word) to learning about, and dealing with, the world strictly through the intellect. I believe that you can imagine the sociability problems, arising from this, that these people have, although they may be quite intellectually gifted, especially considering that their values and priorities might be quite different from the non-autistic. The best that can be done, as you have pointed out, is enabling them, given their limitations, to function in society. An essential starting point is an understanding of who and what they are. It was certainly the case with me. I called my discovery "liberating". It enabled me, to paraphrase Kipling, to understand myself while others misunderstood me, yet also make allowance for their misunderstanding.

A few short notes in closing. Jasmine O'Neill, who has become a good friend of mine, has recovered her ability to speak. You mentioned a number of people who were very likely Aspies. I wonder about Mozart and Beethoven, but, among composers, I would certainly list Anton Bruckner and Richard Strauss. Lastly, in October 2000, I gave a talk in Mansfield, OH, to a group of parents and professionals. One of the attendees was a school psychologist, who sent me a beautiful letter afterward. Among other things, he wrote that, after hearing my talk, he would be willing to require that all major candidates for high public office have AS. That got me thinking as to whether or not, 25 centuries ago, Plato might not have known some AS people when, in his "Republic", he came up with the idea of philosopher-kings.

It was a pleasure reading your article.

January 7, 2005

Links for Jan 7/05

Most Powerful Eruption In The Universe Discovered
"Astronomers have discovered the largest explosion in the universe--one that has endured for more than 100 million years and generated as much energy as hundreds of millions of gamma-ray bursts. The source of this mayhem? An apparently insatiable supermassive black hole." Read this for a frame of reference on the power of one gamma-ray burst. This thing is truly a galaxy buster.

Revising the Torino Scale
Tom Hill argues that's it's time to rethink the Torino Scale, the system that warns of possible NEO impacts.

Destroy All Planets
The asteroid threat provided a perfect fantasy counterpoint to very real fears aroused by the tsunamis, writes Annalee Newitz.

The Dhamma of Natural Disasters
When Nature Misbehaves Humans Have to Weep
Buddhist perspectives on the tsunami disaster

By Jupiter, the Astrologers Missed a Trick
Catherine Bennett wonders why astrologers didn't predict the tsunami disaster.

You Must Remember This
Sue Halpern wonders if there are memory-enhancement products that actually work.

Do Drug Companies Kill Poor People?
Ronald Bailey shows how for-profit medicine helps even the poorest.

Is Anything Mightier Than This Sword?
Michael Fumento considers the potential for robot soldiers.

South Korea Now Allows Human Cloning, Embryonic Stem Cell Research
Starting tomorrow, South Korean scientists will be able to destroy human embryos to obtain their stem cells for research thanks to new guidelines finalized by the South Korean government. [caution: LifeNews is a pro-life site]

Ancient DNA Provides New Insights into the Evolutionary History of New Zealand's Extinct Giant Eagle.
A phylogenetic analysis reveals the rapid increase in size of a New Zealand eagle, demonstrating the speed at which evolution can act on islands. [very cool article]

Technology and Happiness
Does technological progress inevitably make us happier? James Surowiecki explores.

Fukuyama's Penguin
Ross Mayfield has a theory that open source will realize the end of history.

Mike Treder on Nanotech and Poverty
My bud Mike Treder's got a link on WorldChanging: Plausibly Surreal – Scenarios and Anticipations

And finally, here some unbelievably cool things you can do with Google.

January 4, 2005

Links for today

Human Performance Enhancement in 2032: A Scenario for Military Planners
Futurist John Smart looks at the way human performance enhancement is likely to be viewed by army planners 30 years hence, and explores some of the military implications of accelerating information technologies, specifically the linguistic user interface, personality capture and the valuecosm.

Life Interupted
Plugged into it all, we're stressed to distraction.

Higher States of Consciousness
Can we tweak our brains to achieve altered conscious and emotional states?

What Do You Believe Is True Even Though You Cannot Prove it?
This year's Edge.org question asks a number of prominent thinkers
to guess the truth before they have either the evidence or the arguments to prove it.

January 3, 2005

Was the tsunami an act of God?

Needless to say, the recent tsunami has shaken even those strong in faith. How could God have allowed such a thing?

The BBC asked a number of religious thinkers to explain how they have come to terms with the events in south Asia. Specifically, they spoke to a Hindu, Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist--and (thankfully) an atheist as well. Here are some excerpts:
Atheist - Hanne Stinson, executive director of the British Humanist Association.

Religion cannot provide an explanation for the tsunami, and while prayer for the victims may comfort those who pray, it will not provide practical help to the people whose lives have been devastated by this appalling disaster. Science can explain earthquakes and tsunamis, even if we are still unable to predict where and when they will happen. Our response to this and other disasters, as compassionate human beings and regardless of our religious or non-religious beliefs, must be to provide whatever help we can.

Faith in god does not protect people from disasters or give the victims what they need to survive and rebuild their lives. We need to accept responsibility for our fellow human beings. We need to put our efforts into practical ways of preventing disasters when we can, preparing for disasters that cannot be prevented, including investing in early warning systems for tsunamis, and helping those affected by disasters. We cannot rely on any god to solve the world's problems. We - the people of the world - are humanity's only hope.
I found the Buddhist response utterly unsatisfactory, most because I'm more of a secular Buddhist, and this answer smacks of some of that ol' time religion:
Buddhist - Lama Ole Nydahl

We all die, sooner or later. Some have conditions for living long lives and some for short lives. That is your karma - the total effect of one's actions and conduct. What might have precipitated the tsunami was a lot of people coming together who had the karma for a short life and, to an extent, this is perhaps a reflection that these areas were over-populated.

The shifting of tectonic plates is inevitable, but fewer people in the areas affected would have led to a much smaller loss of life. When watching the TV news, reading the papers or thinking about the tsunami, we are thinking about the Buddha we like the best - perhaps the Red Buddha, the Buddha of limitless light. We do this so that when those who died in the disaster wake up from the shock of dying - we believe it takes about three days to do so - they will be sent up to the Buddha we have in mind. Buddhists think the mind is indestructible so, after a while, if one wants to and is able, they will have the choice to take rebirth in society as beings who help others.
Be sure to read the entire article, especially the reader comments at the end. You won't want to miss out on such zingers as,
"I believe that God has everything in hands and that He permitted this disaster to happen in order to punish human beings for their sins and for not believing in His Son Jesus that will come back soon to judge us all according to our deeds. So I believe that we have to give these events the proper attention to avoid them happening again." -- George Tudor, Romania.
In other words, God punished the heathens out there in south east Asia--they had it coming.

Meditation charges the brain

Marc Kaufman has an article (registration required) in the Washington Post about the latest scientific insight into the benefits of meditation:
Brain research is beginning to produce concrete evidence for something that Buddhist practitioners of meditation have maintained for centuries: Mental discipline and meditative practice can change the workings of the brain and allow people to achieve different levels of awareness.

Those transformed states have traditionally been understood in transcendent terms, as something outside the world of physical measurement and objective evaluation. But over the past few years, researchers at the University of Wisconsin working with Tibetan monks have been able to translate those mental experiences into the scientific language of high-frequency gamma waves and brain synchrony, or coordination. And they have pinpointed the left prefrontal cortex, an area just behind the left forehead, as the place where brain activity associated with meditation is especially intense.

"What we found is that the longtime practitioners showed brain activation on a scale we have never seen before," said Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the university's new $10 million W.M. Keck Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior. "Their mental practice is having an effect on the brain in the same way golf or tennis practice will enhance performance." It demonstrates, he said, that the brain is capable of being trained and physically modified in ways few people can imagine.
Here's the entire article.

Latest column: Revenge of the Nerds

My latest column for Betterhumans has been posted:

Revenge of the Nerds
Once outcasts, some autistics now see their condition as a cognitive gift and even the next stage in human evolution—at the dawn of the transhuman age, who's to say they're wrong?
[B]ecause of their enhanced cognitive skills, many autistics consider themselves to be the way of the future. In a world where science, programming and math skills are increasingly desirable, where pending neurosciences promise diverse modes of consciousness and psychology, and where interpersonal shortcomings can be made up with communications technologies and social training, monotone neurotypicality may indeed be on the way out.

January 2, 2005

Randian Idiocy

Get this: David Holcberg, a research associate at the Ayn Rand Institute -- yes, the institute that promotes the philosophy of psuedo-philosopher Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead -- argues that the U.S. should not help tsunami victims:
As the death toll mounts in the areas hit by Sunday's tsunami in southern Asia, private organizations and individuals are scrambling to send out money and goods to help the victims. Such help may be entirely proper, especially considering that most of those affected by this tragedy are suffering through no fault of their own.

The United States government, however, should not give any money to help the tsunami victims. Why? Because the money is not the government's to give.

Every cent the government spends comes from taxation. Every dollar the government hands out as foreign aid has to be extorted from an American taxpayer first. Year after year, for decades, the government has forced American taxpayers to provide foreign aid to every type of natural or man-made disaster on the face of the earth: from the Marshall Plan to reconstruct a war-ravaged Europe to the $15 billion recently promised to fight AIDS in Africa to the countless amounts spent to help the victims of earthquakes, fires and floods--from South America to Asia. Even the enemies of the United States were given money extorted from American taxpayers: from the billions given away by Clinton to help the starving North Koreans to the billions given away by Bush to help the blood-thirsty Palestinians under Arafat's murderous regime.
On a related note, and one that more closely resembles sanity/reality, Canada today doubled its aid contribution, bringing the total aid package to $80-million. When comparing Canada to the U.S. I tend to invoke the 1/10th rule, as the U.S. is fiscally about ten times the size of Canada. This means that, in order to match Canada's effort per capita, the U.S. should be donating $800-million, which is well beyond the current $350-million that was donated.