February 28, 2005

Links for Feb 28/05

Sorry for the lack of reportage and commentary lately. I've been busy, so links are going to have to do. But look for my latest Betterhumans column to appear later this week.

Rewiring The Body (Business Week)
First came pacemakers. Now exotic implants are bringing new hope to victims of epilepsy, paralysis, depression, and other diseases.

The Next Einstein? Applicants Welcome (NY Times)
"Who or where is the next Einstein?" No question is more likely to infuriate or simply leave a scientist nonplussed.

As Autistic Children Grow, So Does Social Gap (NY Times)
Sixth grade was a trying time for Karen Singer's autistic son, who spent recess wandering the periphery of the playground by himself and sometimes hid in the school bathroom when he needed a safe place to cry.

He knew he was doing something wrong as he reached the social crucible of middle school, but he did not know how to fix it. At home he begged his mother to explain: "Why am I like this? What's wrong with me?"

Intensive behavioral treatment, popularized over the last 10 years, prepared him academically and helped him get by in regular classes for years. But social skills are more elusive for autistic children, and the gap widens with each passing year.
Britain to Defy UN Over Therapeutic Cloning Ban (New Scotsman)
The British government is to defy a United Nations call to ban therapeutic cloning, arguing that it will not be press-ganged into giving up its world-leading position on stem-cell research.

More Regulation for 'Science of Small' (New Scotsman)
Nanotechnology, which experts once warned could turn the Earth into "grey goo", needs strict regulation to protect human health, the government stressed yesterday. Lord Sainsbury, the science minister, said safety and ethical considerations will be a priority in development of the science of the very small. He was responding to a Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineers report last year which recommended tighter regulations over nanotechnology research.

Engineers Devise Invisibility Shield (Nature)
Electron effects could stop objects from scattering light; the idea of a cloak of invisibility that hides objects from view has long been confined to the more improbable reaches of science fiction. But electronic engineers have now come up with a way to make one.

February 26, 2005

Links for Feb 26/05

Read the good word of brother Dale: Healthcare and Private Perfections: "A case in point is the claim of Vatican officials last week to decry “what they called a ‘religion of health’ in affluent societies" and then "h[o]ld out… Pope John Paul's stoic suffering as an antidote to the mentality that modern medicine must cure all.” Brother Giulio also has things to say about the situation.

Jason discusses the Fermi Paradox over at FutureHi.


February 25, 2005

Links for Feb 25/05

Psychedelic Medicine: Mind Bending, Health Giving (New Scientist)
Clinical trials of psychedelic drugs are planned or under way at numerous centres around the world for conditions ranging from anxiety to alcoholism. It may not be long before doctors are legally prescribing hallucinogens for the first time in decades.

Happiness is Back (Prospect Magazine)
Growing incomes in western societies no longer make us happier, and more individualistic, competitive societies make some of us positively unhappy. Public policy should take its cue once more from Bentham's utilitarianism, unfashionable for many decades but now vindicated by modern neuroscience.

How Time Flies (Guardian)
For the Aymara people living in the Andes, the past lies ahead and the future lies behind. Laura Spinney looks at how different languages reflect, and shape, our conception of time

Director of PR (Popular Science)
Titanic honcho James Cameron has some advice for NASA on how to both seduce and educate a jaded public. [I predict that Mr. Cameron will do some pretty interesting things in regards to space exploration before all is said and done.]

Life Sciences in the 21st Century (The Scientist, registration)
Collaboration, complexity are on the rise, and standardization of tools will speed progress:
In many ways the laboratory tools we use today may remind us of computers in the late 1970s. In those days, systems were mostly incompatible and were dedicated to specific tasks. When the first personal computers emerged, these systems were integrated: "Cut and paste" became ubiquitous, and it became possible to share and compare data over multiple and geographically dispersed platforms. A main driver for development was the standardization of the interfaces and communication protocols were standardized. The more complex and interrelated the applications, the more important it becomes that as much analytical risk as possible is removed, allowing various data contents to be compared and exchanged.
Robotics In War: Technology v. morality (Seattle PI)
As in medicine, our skill at creating technology is outpacing our ability to grasp its ethical application. This time, the gap between ingenuity and morality is on the battlefield. We are all but ready to build robots to fight our wars but far from prepared to resolve the cadre of attendant ethical questions. Science fiction has a way of becoming more science than fiction. Decades ago, Isaac Asimov wrote "I, Robot." Today, the Pentagon's Future Combat Systems project is spending $127 billon to create artificial-intelligence warriors. According to a recent New York Times story, these silicon soldiers will at first be remote-controlled. But over time they will be endowed with increasing autonomy.

UN sees 40% rise in world population by 2050 (Globe & Mail)
The world's population will increase by 40 per cent to 9.1 billion in 2050, but virtually all the growth will be in the developing world, especially in the 50 poorest countries, the UN Population Division said. In a report Thursday, the division said the population in less developed countries is expected to swell from 5.3 billion today to 7.8 billion in 2050. By contrast, the population of richer developed countries will remain mostly unchanged, at 1.2 billion.

Our Godless Constitution
(The Nation)
The United States was built not on Christian principles but rather on Enlightenment ones. God was a minor player to the Founding Fathers, Jesus was conspicuously absent.

February 24, 2005

Links for Feb 24/05

The Revolt Against Human Nature (Christian Post)
R. Albert Mohler, Jr. writes in the Christian Post about the "frightening" potential for transhumanism and the potential reshaping of humanity.

Cyborgization, Revisited (Tech Central Station)
Glenn Harlan Reynolds writes in Tech Central Station of why he's grateful for cybernetic technologies. [People tend to get all warm and cuddly with biotech when they clue into the fact that it will save their lives or those of their loved ones.]

No Gene Is An Island (NeoFiles)
Howard Bloom In Conversation with R.U. Sirius

Creatures Frozen for 32,000 Years Still Alive (MSBNC)
Deep-freeze bacteria could point to new methods of cryogenics while providing insight into the sort of biology that might exist on Mars and other planets and moons.

The Genetic Insurance Racket (Reason)
Ronald Bailey wonders if genetic testing will destroy the insurance market.

A Universe of Sounds (Technology Review)
A new radio telescope array has been developed by the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute and the University of California at Berkeley that will shed some cosmic noise, and give scientists a better view of one million stars scattered throughout the universe.

Space Colonization: The Quiet Revolution (Space.com)
An initial step towards the creation of mass transit beyond our planet is the emerging public space travel market.

Unintelligent Design (NY Times)
Jim Holt just slams ID.

The Giant Tortoise's Tale (Guardian)
In the first of three essays written on a recent journey to the Galápagos Islands, Richard Dawkins considers one of the extraordinary creatures that helped inspire Darwin's theory of evolution

To Know Science is to Love it (Nature)
Bolstering support for the field remains a thorny problem

Moving Stem Cells Front and Center (NY Times)
Hans S. Keirstead might be the Pied Piper of stem cells - and not just because he makes rats walk.

The Unexpectant Father (Globe & Mail)
A U.S. appeals court has ruled that a man can press a claim for emotional distress after learning that a former lover had used his sperm to have a baby. He cannot claim theft, however, the ruling said Wednesday, because the sperm were the woman's to keep.

Gene therapy to target aging related diseases

Betterhumans reports that a significant breakthrough in life extension research has been made by researchers at the University of Virginia--research that could lead to unprecedented forms of therapy that could eliminate mitochondrial diseases and possibly many other aspects of aging.

The so-called "mitochondrial tune up," currently in the early stages of development, would repair mutations that occur in mitochondria that are believed to contribute to many afflictions, from diabetes to heart disease. Mitochondria are the "powerhouses of the cell" and are are also involved in apoptosis, when a "suicide" signal is sent to cells resulting in a number of aging related diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. Essentially, therapists would engineer "correct" mitochondrial DNA to fix defects and deliver it through the membrane of the mitochondria via protofection.

In principle, this treatment could move beyond the targeting of individual diseases to the complete replacement of all mitochondrial DNA in a functioning organism. Such a prospect would make it possible that all mitochondrial diseases could be treated with a one-size-fits-all treatment rather than different treatments for different conditions.

Tags: , .

February 22, 2005

Links for Feb 22/05

Panspermia: Getting There From Here (Space.com)
Is the job of bringing intelligent life to the rest of the galaxy ours? [So-so article that's a bit naive about what the Fermi Paradox is actually telling us.]

New Kurzweil website devoted to radical life extension: Fantastic-Voyage.net
Immortality is within our grasp . . .In Fantastic Voyage, high-tech visionary Ray Kurzweil teams up with life-extension expert Terry Grossman, M.D., to consider the awesome benefits to human health and longevity promised by the leading edge of medical science--and what you can do today to take full advantage of these startling advances. Citing extensive research findings that sound as radical as the most speculative science fiction, Kurzweil and Grossman offer a program designed to slow aging and disease processes to such a degree that you should be in good health and good spirits when the more extreme life-extending and life-enhancing technologies--now in development--become available. This bridge to the future will enable those who dare to make the journey from this century to the next . . . and beyond.
U.N. Calls for Clone Ban (Wired)
The United Nations has called on countries to ban all forms of human cloning "incompatable with human dignity." The religious right claims victory, but others say the declaration is the result of political maneuvering influenced by pressure from the United States.

World’s population reaches 6.5 billion this year, could reach 7 billion by 2012 (PhysOrg)

Raising children as vegans 'unethical', says professor (Guardian)
Oooh, that's got Paul McCartney mad.

February 21, 2005

Towards an extraterrestrial anthropology

While googling for 'extraterrestrial anthropology' recently (yes, I google for such things), I came across a previously unpublished article by Charles F. Urbanowicz from 1977. Called Evolution of Technological Civilizations: What is Evolution, Technology, and Civilization, the article looks at our conceptions of terrestrial intelligence, culture and communication to help us predict what ETIs themselves might be like and whether or not we are even capable of comprehending what they might be like. When it comes to culture and communication, argues Urbanowicz, we might not even be on the same playing field relative to advanced ETIs.

A key part of Urbanowicz's thesis is that, in a concept borrowed from Franz Boas, it is communication itself that constitutes the core of culture and indeed of life itself. Consequently, as we learn more about communication technologies, and as we ourselves progress through different communication paradigms, we learn more about ETI culture. This is a rather remarkable idea when you pause to think about it. Culture as communication. There's something about that statement that I find very compelling.

Urbanowicz was also big on science fiction and the important role it has played in giving us a sense of perspective and humility. "[G]ood speculative science fiction authors have done more to foster the idea of SETI than they have been credit for! Good science fiction stories can be a humbling experience, and Homo sapiens needs some humility," writes Urbanowicz.

And as for the Big Idea in his article, Urbanowicz was pushing for an extraterrestrial anthropology -- kind of what astrobiology is to biology. This is something that I've personally been thinking about quite a lot lately, and I've used the term astrosociobiolgy to describe this proto-science. I hope more people get onboard and start to put some really solid work into speculations of what ETIs might be like. Ultimately, any answer about ETIs is an answer about ourselves and our own destiny, which IMO makes it one of the most important disciplines we could ever embark upon.

Even though the article is from 1977, it is chalk-full of excellent references, quotes, and ideas for further research and reading. One quote I particularly liked was from James Christian: "If we ever establish contact with extra-terrestrial life, it will reveal to us our true place in the universe, and with that comes the beginning of wisdom."

Links for Feb 21/05

Is a Trans Bunny Art? (NeoFiles)
R.U. Sirius interviews Eduardo Kac, the artist who created a biologically altered green fluorescent rabbit as an element of an art project.

The Five-Billion-Star Hotel (Popular Science)
Need to get away from it all? Popular Science presents an exclusive tour of CSS Skywalker, an orbital resort that's a lot closer to reality than you might think.

Therapy, Enhancement and the Augmented Society (World Changing)
Global warming isn't the only topic being discussed at this week's AAAS meeting. University of Pittsburgh researchers at the conference announced a significant step forward in the development of functional-replacement artificial limbs. They created a simple artificial arm which can be controlled by neural impulses directly from the brain, via a series of extremely thin implanted probes. A test monkey (its healthy real arms restrained) was able to learn to move the prosthetic arm with sufficient precision to be able to feed itself. Or, rather, the monkey and the arm co-learned: the monkey learned how to control the arm, and the arm's software learned what the various brain signals meant. The next step will be to create more complex hands and fingers for the artificial arm, and ultimately to make neurally-controlled prosthetics available to humans with missing or paralyzed limbs

UN Committee Approves Cloning Ban (Nature)
After three years of deadlock, a United Nations legal committee has recommended that member nations should be urged to ban all forms of human cloning. The decision undermines efforts to develop medical treatments with stem cells, scientists say.

Blast Affected Earth From Halfway Across The Milky Way (Space Daily)
Forget "Independence Day" or "War of the Worlds." A monstrous cosmic explosion last December showed that the earth is in more danger from real-life space threats than from hypothetical alien invasions.

What makes a quantum computer so different (and so much faster) than a conventional computer? (SciAm)
Hans Robinson, assistant professor of physics at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, explains.

"Evolving to Eat Mush": How Meat Changed Our Bodies (National Geographic)
Meat-eating is why our teeth grow crooked, why our jaws are small, and why we're relatively good at processing cholesterol, research shows.

[via Robots.net]: Artificial Life - Real or Simulation?
If you run a computer program that models the weather, most people would agree that it is just a simulation. There is no real weather inside your computer. But what happens when you start your word processor? Is it really a word processor or just a simulation of a word processor? Most people would say it was real, not a simulation. So, how about AI or artificial life: real or a simulation? In the case of artificial life, how do we know whether or not something is simulated or real? Is there a point at which a model of life becomes so life-like that it ceases to be a model and becomes alive? A new paper (PDF format) by Jean-Philippe Rennard proposes some new ways to think about this and suggests that a paradigm shift may be needed before we can really answer the questions involved.

World On Vege of Deadly Pandemic, US Official Says (Globe & Mail)
Washington — The Earth may be on the brink of a worldwide epidemic from a bird flu virus that may mutate to become as deadly and infectious as viruses that killed millions during three influenza pandemics of the 20th century, a federal health official said Monday. Dr. Julie Gerberding, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said scientists expect that a flu virus that has swept through chickens and other poultry in Asia will genetically change into a flu that can be transmitted from person to person. The genes of the avian flu change rapidly, she said, and experts believe it is highly likely that the virus will evolve into a pathogen deadly for humans.

February 19, 2005

Art Caplan on 'Million Dollar Baby'

[spoiler warning for the film 'Million Dollar Baby']

Movie asks the 'Million Dollar' question
Film stirs controversy over life-and-death issues; another good OpEd by bioethicist Art Caplan.


February 18, 2005

Links for Feb 18/05

Falling on Deaf Ears (Science & Spirit)
To most people, cochlear implants sound like a medical miracle—a device the size of a candy corn that can correct the inability to hear. But many in the deaf community see the technology as a cultural threat and another example of the hearing world's inability to really listen.

Embracing the Artificial Limb (Wired)
Biohybrid prostheses merge manmade devices with human muscles, bone and nerves. It's not just sci-fi, but it's not yet reality, either.

Elevator Man: Bradley Edwards Reaches for the Heights (Space)
Bradley C. Edwards, president and founder of Carbon Designs Inc., is the driving force behind the space elevator, a purportedly safer and cheaper form of transporting explorers and payloads into space.

Vatican Decries 'Religion of Health' (Salon)
Vatican officials Thursday decried what they called a "religion of health" in affluent societies and held out Pope John Paul II's stoic suffering as an antidote to the mentality that modern medicine must cure all. "While millions of people in the world struggle to survive hunger and disease, lacking even minimal health care, in rich countries the concept of health as well-being figures in creating unrealistic expectations about the possibility of medicine to respond to all needs and desires," said the Rev. Maurizio Faggioni, a theologian and morality expert on the Vatican's Pontifical Academy for Life. [Er, right -- as if the Vatican doesn't hoard wealth. And I suppose we're supposed to believe that the Pope isn't receiving the best health care possible.]

A Dozen New Planets Discovered (Universe Today)
In the last month planet hunters have uncovered 12 new worlds orbiting other stars, bringing the total planet count to 145. Two European planet hunting teams have discovered 6 gas giants as part of the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Search (HARPS), and an American team uncovered 5 more using the W.M. Keck observatory in Hawaii. And a single, Pluto-sized planet was discovered orbiting a pulsar by Penn State's Alex Wolszczan and Caltech's Maciej Konacki. (Full Story)

Stem Cell Hope (The Scotsman)
Stem cells have the potential to revolutionise cosmetic surgery, researchers said yesterday.

February 16, 2005

Links for Feb 16/05

NASA Researchers Claim Evidence of Present Life on Mars

Now you can get your own brain in a jar [seen on Gravity Lens].

A three-year-old boy has become the youngest member of Mensa.

More proof that UFO culture and pseudoscience is running rampant in the United States: "Peter Jennings Reporting: UFOs — Seeing Is Believing" airs Thursday, Feb. 24 from 8-10 p.m. ET on ABC. Apparently, ABC will be making a push for more scientific research into the 'phenomenon.'

The Immortality Race (National Journal)
William Powers discusses radical life extension and the aging baby boomer population.

Augmented Reality: Another (Virtual) Brick in the Wall (Wired)
Unlike Virtual Reality, which immerses users in a new digital environment, Augmented Reality (AR) -- a broad class of user interface techniques intended to enhance a person’s perception of the world around them with computer generated information -- aims to enhance the analog world.

Mind Over Machines (The Scientist, registration)
Imagine controlling a computer with just your mind. It sounds like a frivolous and futuristic convenience, but such technology could provide disabled or "locked in" patients the ability to communicate and gain control over their environments.

A New Model Army Soldier Rolls Closer to the Battlefield (NY Times)
The Pentagon predicts that robots will be a major fighting force in the American military in less than a decade. Why does the Terminator scenario suddenly seem plausible? All I can say is that if there's ever a 'conventional' Third World War, humanity is truly doomed.

A Genius Explains (The Guardian)
Daniel Tammet is an autistic savant. He can perform mind-boggling mathematical calculations at breakneck speeds. But unlike other savants, who can perform similar feats, Tammet can describe how he does it. He speaks seven languages and is even devising his own language. Now scientists are asking whether his exceptional abilities are the key to unlock the secrets of autism.

Weight Limits Confirmed for the Biggest Black Holes (Red Nova)
The very largest black holes reach a certain point and then grow no more, according to the best survey to date of black holes made with NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory. Scientists have also discovered many previously hidden black holes that are well below their weight limit.

Oldest Remains of Modern Humans Are Identified (NY Times)
A new analysis of bones unearthed nearly 40 years ago in Ethiopia has pushed the fossil record of modern humans back to nearly 200,000 years ago -- perhaps close to the dawn of the species.

February 15, 2005

Is science fiction bad for bioethics?

I've often thought that bioconservatives who reflexively defer their argumentation to books such as Frankenstein, Brave New World and Gattaca are just being lazy and often unthinking. Even casual critics of pending biotechnologies find it natural and comforting to hold up the classics as shields, acting as if they provided irrevocable proof that a biotech future will lead us to dystopia and that nothing more need be said. In fact, the phrase 'brave new world' has become a cynical descriptor of what many believe to be our inevitably depraved future.

This being said, bioethicists Ruth Levy Guyer and Jonathan D. Moreno recently penned a piece for the American Journal of Bioethics in which they warn of such an approach to bioethics. In their article, Slouching Toward Policy: Lazy Bioethics and the Perils of Science Fiction, Guyer and Moreno call for a bioethics that is firmly rooted in reality, pragmatics, empiricism and science. "The charge for bioethicists is obvious, straightforward, and difficult," they write. "Many bioethicists have become skilled in the language of philosophy and law. Many also have achieved a level of sophistication in discussions and deliberations about medicine. Bioethicists must be willing to engage more fully and more thoughtfully with basic science, distinguishing what is real, feasible, and meaningful from what is only fanciful."

Nowhere has the confusion between prophetic and regulatory bioethics been so clear and done so much damage, argue Guyer and Moreno, than in the President’s Council on Bioethics:
The Council’s charge is to provide policy advice to the President of the United States on the ethical implications of science. Yet, much of its discourse has been driven by arguments that are often literally based on science fiction rather than science facts. The chair of the Council has used short stories as springboards for Council discussions about science policy. Another Council member, writing in The Atlantic about the concept of perfection, remarks that “there is something troubling about the GATACA scenario,” as though GATACA were a reality instead of a science-fiction film.
Fictitious scenarios are especially dangerous in politically charged contexts, they argue, “long-range prophecy, which by its nature is untestable, is much easier to bend toward some political agenda than is empirical science, which demands that claims be demonstrable and replicable.”

In regards to the camp at the other end of the biopolitical spectrum, Guyer and Moreno also come down hard on those who they accuse of buying into the techno-futurist hype. They place much of the blame on sensationalist media outlets and opportunistic bioethicists and commentators. They point to the failures of human cloning and gene therapy as examples of the limited potential for biotech:
A common and disturbing feature of the ubiquitous bioethical commentaries is the short shrift—often, complete inattention—given to the feasibility of the technologies under discussion. So many of the commentaries include the caveat “when the technology is good enough” and then carry on with the ethical analyses and risk-benefit assessments. Yet, many of the futurist therapies and fixes are never going to become standard or useful, because the technologies are not now and never will be precise, predictable, and reliably controllable. What is especially disturbing is that, on occasion, even when the failure of the procedure or technology is known and clearly documented, commentators have continued to talk on about ethical issues as though the science will still, somehow, inexorably succeed.
All this being said, I believe that Guyer and Moreno have significantly undervalued one of the most valuable tools we have to help us in our foresight activities, namely speculative fiction.

The authors incessantly complain that both conservative and liberal bioethicists have their heads far up into the future fantasizing about the impact that radical biotechnologies will have once they become “good enough.” But by dismissing and trivializing the possibility that these technologies will in fact become "good enough" in fairly short order, Guyer and Moreno have committed an equally egregious sin to that of ignoring the pragmatic bioethics that they promote.

It's okay for bioethicists to look more than 10 years into the future. In fact, given the near paradigmatic impact that these technologies are going to have on individuals and society, it's essential that it be done.

In their defense, they argue that long-range philosophical concerns are both appropriate and instructive for policy discussions, and the deep reflection stimulated by great literature can enrich public discourse. “But science fiction should not be allowed to drive and shape science policy,” they write. “In the case of the President’s Council, the confusion between prophetic and regulatory bioethics has led to political controversies that are being exacerbated because the Council’s defenders and their critics are talking past each other using different bioethical dialects.”

While I agree that the President's council has forged some pretty suspicious policies based around fictional scenarios, and while I agree that there's a certain danger in maintaining such a practice, I'm not as inclined to dismiss the power of speculative fiction as a foresight and policy informing tool. Historically, science has informed science fiction, and science fiction has informed science. Ultimately, the genre informs us as to our self-conception and provides us with snapshots into potential futures. There will come a time, whether it be for environmental or bioethical reasons, that fictional scenarios will be taken seriously and used to help formulate public policy.

Consequently, whether the science fiction be dystopic, utopic, or just plain provocative and entertaining, Guyer and Moreno have failed to acknowledge the importance of looking beyond the next few years and thinking about a potential future that's radically removed from what we know as reality today.


February 14, 2005

Links for Feb 14/05

Is Lovesickness a Psychiatric Disorder? (Zack Lynch|Corante)
"While I have no doubt that lovesickness is common, I am increasingly concerned about the continuing trend of defining mental health problems with terms that do not correlate to the underlying neurobiology of the illness. Broad, top down descriptions of psychiatric conditions like this that are defined primarily via evaluation of externally observed symptoms confuse rather that improve accurate diagnosis and treatment." -- ZL

Love is Like an Addiction (The Scientist, registration)
Looking for correlates in human and animal attraction; Neuroscientists today are peering into the brain to understand the drive of romantic love, and they are finding evidence backing the 19th-century philosopher's observation: Love has a striking neural kinship with drug addiction.

Inventor Sets His Sights on Immortality (MSNBC)
Futurist Ray Kurzweil believes that nanotechnology will spark a longevity breakthrough in as little as 20 years.

Please Don't Call the Customers Dead (NY Times)
The live-in customers at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation here reside in eight 10-foot-high steel tanks filled with liquid nitrogen. They are incapable of breathing, thinking, walking, riding a bike or scratching an itch. But don't refer to them as deceased.

Human Factors in Commercial Suborbital Flight (The Space Review)
A key question for many new space ventures is how to deal with the regulatory and medical issues associated with human spaceflight. Dr. John Jurist looks at how space tourism companies may look to the medical field when dealing with risk assumption.

Domo Arigato, Doctor Roboto (Technology Review)
Hospitals across the country are examining whether video-enabled robots can help doctors extend their rounds safely and with patients’ acceptance.

What sort of patterns do scientists working on the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project look for? (SciAm)

Life Might Have Started in Fresh Water (Universe Today)
By tracing back the family tree of cyanobacteria, a researcher from Washington University in St. Louis believes these tiny organisms began life in fresh water, not salt water as most biologists theorized. Cyanobacteria use light, water and carbon dioxide to produce oxygen and biomass, and they probably got their start 2 billion years ago in fresh water, and then evolved to survive in saltier environments.

Genetic 'Doping' an Imminent Problem (Red Nova)

How To Talk When You Can't Speak (Slate)
Communicating with unconscious minds.

February 12, 2005

Happy Darwin Day!

Dear God

XTC: Dear God
Dear god,
Hope you got the letter,
And I pray you can make it better down here.
I don’t mean a big reduction in the price of beer,
But all the people that you made in your image,
See them starving on their feet,
’cause they don’t get enough to eat

From god,
I can’t believe in you.

Dear god,
Sorry to disturb you,
But I feel that I should be heard loud and clear.
We all need a big reduction in amount of tears,
And all the people that you made in your image,
See them fighting in the street,
’cause they can’t make opinions meet,
About god,
I can’t believe in you.

Did you make disease, and the diamond blue?
Did you make mankind after we made you?
And the devil too!

Dear god,
Don’t know if you noticed,
But your name is on a lot of quotes in this book.
Us crazy humans wrote it, you should take a look,
And all the people that you made in your image,
Still believing that junk is true.
Well I know it ain’t and so do you,
Dear god,
I can’t believe in,
I don’t believe in,

I won’t believe in heaven and hell.
No saints, no sinners,
No devil as well.
No pearly gates, no thorny crown.
You’re always letting us humans down.
The wars you bring, the babes you drown.
Those lost at sea and never found,
And it’s the same the whole world ’round.
The hurt I see helps to compound,
That the father, son and holy ghost,
Is just somebody’s unholy hoax,
And if you’re up there you’ll perceive,
That my heart’s here upon my sleeve.
If there’s one thing I don’t believe in...

It’s you,
Dear god.

Blue Saturn

February 11, 2005

Links for Feb 11/05

The Cell of a New Machine (Economist)
Is the new Cell chip really as revolutionary as its proponents claim?

Biology's New Forbidden Fruit (NY Times)
The scientific, commercial and destructive possibilities of synthetic biology are easily as great as those once offered by the transformation of chemistry. But they will make themselves felt far more quickly, raising ethical and moral questions that many biologists have been poorly trained to handle.

We Are the Borg (Village Voice)
A rather pointless Luddite rant against Google and pending Internet technologies.

Octopus Arms May Point Way to New Robot Designs (National Geographic)
Octopuses, those boneless, brainy, denizens of the deep, use their arms for some tasks in much the same way humans do, according to a new study.

Boffins Aiming to Barcode Life (NZ Herald)
An ambitious project to take a genetic "barcode" of every animal and plant has begun in an attempt to identify and label the 10 million species living on Earth.

Kids' Radio Tags Spark Outrage (Scotsman)
Brittan Elementary School appears to be the first US school to require students to wear radio frequency identification badges (right) that can track their movements. It's to simplify attendance-taking, potentially reduce vandalism and improve student safety, the school said.
The system was imposed - without parental input - by the school on Jan 18. But some parents see a system that can monitor their children's movements on campus as something straight out of George Orwell's book 1984, which features Big Brother, an all-knowing police state.

February 10, 2005

Humanity: The final frontier

Is it me, or are a number of public intellectuals starting to actually get what the 21st century is going to be all about? A recent Guardian article has me thinking that transhumanistic memes are starting to enroach into the popular consciousness, though not necessarily by name.

The Guardian asked a number of prominent thinkers: "So what's next? What will be the [next] revolution? And will it, like those before, force us to question once more what it means to be human?" Their answers may surprise you--everything from parallel universes to genetic engineering and collective intelligences.

Here's a quick synopsis of the answers:

'We will invent our successors'
Seth Shostak, senior astronomer, Seti Institute, California

'We will understand the human mind'
John Sulston, founder of the Sanger Institute, Cambridge

'The existence of parallel universes'
Michio Kaku, theoretical physicist, the City University of New York

'We will change our genetic makeup'
Norbert Gleicher, director of the Centre for Human Reproduction, Chicago

We will find out if we are alone'

Colin Pillinger, head of planetary and space sciences, Open University

'Humans become a collective intelligence'
John Barrow, professor of mathematical sciences and author of The Infinite Book, Cambridge University

'We'll understand thoughts and feelings'
Steven Pinker, professor of psychology, Harvard University

'The end of the individual'
Susan Greenfield, neuroscientist, Oxford University

'What if God lives in a part of our brain?'
Nancy Rothwell, neuroscientist at Manchester University

'What it means to be a person'
V S Ramachandran, director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California at San Diego

'Conscious machines'
Igor Aleksander, professor of neural systems engineering at Imperial College London

'Higher dimensions'

Lisa Randall, theoretical physicist, Harvard University

'Humans are less miraculous than we thought'
Stephen Wolfram, creator of Mathematica and author of A New Kind of Science

Links for Feb 10/05

The Theological Robot (Boston Globe)
Robotics theologian Anne Foerst seeks to bridge the divide between religion and AI research--by arguing that robots have much to teach us about ourselves and our relationship with God.

Open-Source Practices for Biotechnology (NY Times)
The open-source movement, which has encouraged legions of programmers around the world to improve continually upon software like the Linux operating system, may be spreading to biotechnology.

Scientists Shy Away From Controversial Research (DrKoop.com)
Report found informal constraints more pervasive than formal ones; scientists engage in a sort of self-censorship in response to various social, political and cultural pressures they perceive around them, new research suggests.

Teach Evolution: Leave No Child Behind (Space)

Black Hole Growth Self-Limiting, Simulation Shows (Space)

What Did Galileo See? (Universe Today)
Born February 15, 1564, Galileo Galilee was a scientist, philosopher, mathematician, professor, optician, musician, painter, and father of three. Despite all these accomplishments, it is easy to conceive that - like many amateur astronomers of today - one of his greatest loves was to turn eye and telescope upon the wonders of the night sky. This article retraces a few of his steps and comes to a deeper insight into the kinds of questions driving his personal quest for understanding.

February 9, 2005

Links for Feb 9/05

Evolution in the Blackboard Jungle (Reason)
Ronald Bailey offers an intelligent design for a solution to the debate:
So what to do? It is not the role of public schools to confirm the religious beliefs of their students. Parents who want their children to benefit from the latest findings of science would reasonably be irked if evolutionary biology were expunged from the public school curriculum. There is another way around this conundrum. Get rid of public schools. Give parents vouchers and let them choose the schools to which to send their children. Fundamentalists can send their kids to schools that teach that the earth was created on Sunday, October 23, 4004 BC. Science geeks can send their kids to technoschools that teach them how to splice genes to make purple mice. This proposal lowers political and social conflict, and eventually those made fitter in the struggle for life by better education will win. At least that's my theory.
Can We Live to Be 1,000? (Wired)
Nobody lives forever—but we're about to get a whole lot closer, says biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey. In this Wired interview, de Grey explains how mainstream research has veered off course.

Robot Wars (Nature)
Technology guru Ray Kurzweil offers a vision of future fighting machines.

Neal Stephenson’s Past, Present, and Future (Reason)
The author of the widely praised Baroque Cycle on science, markets, and post-9/11 America

Cell Out (The American Prospect)
Bush’s stances on stem cells and cloning drift ever further from scientific reality.

Martian Methane Mystery (Astrobiology)
In this excerpt from the new Forward to the paperback edition of "Lonely Planets", planetary scientist David Grinspoon ponders what the recent discovery of methane on Mars could mean for the possibility for life on the Red Planet. I can't recommend Grinspoon enough--"Longely Planets" was probably the best book I read last year.

Director James Cameron Works with NASA on Future Mars Mission (Space)
The maker of legendary movies "Titanic," "Aliens" and "The Terminator" is no longer limiting his zest for extracurricular exploration to the depths of the ocean.

The High Risk Frontier (The Space Review)
Space colonies located in L5 were all the rage in the 1970s, but today a more incremental approach starting on the Moon may make more sense.

Impossible becomes conceivable... same-sex couples may one day have genetic offspring (Cape Times)

New blog:
Extropian Brandon Reinhart has launched a personal blog, Extropica, covering such topics as transhumanism and bioethics.

February 8, 2005

Links for Feb 8/05

Implanting Hope (Technology Review)
For the first time, a paralyzed patient has operated a prosthetic arm using just his mind.

CGI Joe (Village Voice)
Ed Halter shows how the military and private tech contractors are training a new generation of soldiers.

F.D.A. May Approve an Implant as a Treatment for Depression (New York Times)
The Food and Drug Administration said yesterday that it might permit an implantable electrical device for the treatment of epilepsy made by Cyberonics to also be marketed as a therapy for chronic depression that is resistant to other treatments.

Range Life (Village Voice)
How the autistic brain explains the interior life of animals; Temple Grandin: "What I've learned will help people start over again with animals.

Reinventing Physics: the Search for the Real Frontier (Chronicle)
The frontiers of physics are now closed. New knowledge is out there, but no longer in the places physicists tend to look for it.

The Science of Difference (The New Republic Online)
Steven Pinker on the politics and science of gender differences.

This Star is Leaving Our Galaxy (Universe Today)
Caught too close to a black hole, this star is being sling-shot out of the Milky Way.

Signs of Awareness Seen in Brain-Injured Patients (New York Times)
Thousands of brain-damaged people who are treated as if they are almost completely unaware may in fact hear and register what is going on around them but be unable to respond, a new brain-imaging study suggests.

February 7, 2005

Is Active SETI imperiling humanity?

Michael Michaud, a member of the SETI Permanent Study Group, has come out warning that Active SETI may be putting humanity in serious jeopardy. "Let’s be clear about this," writes Michaud, "Active SETI is not scientific research. It is a deliberate attempt to provoke a response by an alien civilization whose capabilities, intentions, and distance are not known to us. That makes it a policy issue."

Proponents of Active SETI advocate that humanity deliberately transmit messages to outer space in hopes that an ETI will intercept them and learn of our existence. These signals would be different than regular radio transmissions in that they would be stronger, more focused, and contain actual messages for potential listeners.

To bolster his case, Michaud lists an impressive retinue of scientists who agree with him, including sociobiologist Jared Diamond, Nobel Prize-winning biologist George Wald, and astronomers Robert Jastrow and Zdenek Kopal.

Even lesser-known scientists have entered into the fray:
Biologist Michael Archer said that any creature we contact will also have had to claw its way up the evolutionary ladder and will be every bit as nasty as we are. It will likely be an extremely adaptable, extremely aggressive super-predator. Physicist George Baldwin predicted that any effort to communicate with extraterrestrials is fraught with grave danger, as they will show innate contempt for human beings. Robert Rood warned that the civilization that blurts out its existence on interstellar beacons at the first opportunity might be like some early hominid descending from the trees and calling "here kitty" to a saber-toothed tiger.
Michaud even brings physicist Freeman Dyson into the discussion--a man who has thought and written extensively on this subject. "Our business as scientists is to search the universe and find out what is there. What is there may conform to our moral sense or it may not," writes Dyson, "It is just as unscientific to impute to remote intelligences wisdom and serenity as it is to impute to them irrational and murderous impulses. We must be prepared for either possibility and conduct our searches accordingly."

Dyson posed two alternatives: Intelligence may be a benign influence creating isolated groups of philosopher-kings far apart in the heavens, sharing at leisure their accumulated wisdom. Or intelligence may be a cancer of purposeless technological exploitation sweeping across the galaxy.

Michaud's recommendations re: Active SETI? Do not transmit a signal more powerful than the Earth’s radio leakage (including radars) without international consultation. And by international consultation, Michaud means the UN. He's obviously pretty serious.

So, is Michaud right?

Yes and no.

Yes, in that we could alert some kind of entity to our existence (like a dormant berserker probe). And yes, in that extraterrestrial agents (sentient or semi-sentient) may be quite malign or hold radically different moral values to our own.

No, in that it's highly, highly unlikely that bad guy ETIs are waiting in their spaceships for signs of less-advanced life so that they can scoot over and subjugate them. I consider this scenario to be rather outlandish--one that fails to take into account the likely existential changes that advanced ETIs will undergo as they evolve into postbiological civs.

Also, these fears fail to take into account the Fermi Paradox. It's more likely that nobody's out there listening. And even if there is, if evil ETIs wanted to overtake the Galaxy they could have easily done that by now. And as the Von Neumann/berserker probe scenario shows, the Galaxy could have been colonized (or sterilized) thousands, if not millions, of times over by now also. Yet clearly this hasn't happened, which is an interesting data point that would seem to argue against the idea of imperialistic entities residing in the Galaxy.

Consequently, I think Michael Michaud's fears are quite exaggerated. Active SETI is likely as useless an endeavor as it is harmless.

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Accelerating Change Watch 02/07/05

I've been noticing a lot of examples of accelerating change recently, so I decided to add an 'Accelerating Change Watch' feature to my blog. Look for this feature from time time as I try to chronicle examples of scientific, technological and cultural accelerating change as we head inexorably towards a Technological Singularity and/or existential paradigm shift.

Today's entry:
'Supercomputer-on-a-chip' microprocessor revealed (New Scientist)
"At first blush I think it's safe to say that it will be 10 to 20 times faster than the fastest graphics cards and processors," [Richard] Doherty told New Scientist. "We think it is going to revolutionise computer science for entertainment and business."

Ernst Mayr dies at 100

Ernst Mayr, one the leading evolutionary biologists of the 20th century and the architect of the evolutionary (or modern) synthesis of Mendelian genetics and Darwinian evolution, died on February 4 at the age of 100. His work led to the development of the biological species concept and his theory of peripatric speciation is the basis of the theory of punctuated equilibrium. A mover and shaker in the philosophy of biology, Mayr was a proponent of macroevolutionary theory--invesigations into how some species survive better than others and how likely or unlikely they are to give rise to other species.

Carol Kaesuk Yoon has written an obit for the New York Times. Here's Mayr's Wikipedia entry.

Also check out Edge.org on Mayr and Nature.

February 5, 2005

New direction for AI dev?

Towards a truly clever Artificial Intelligence (PhysOrg)
A pioneering new way of creating computer programs could be used in the future to design and build robots with minds that function like that of a human being, according to a leading researcher at The University of Reading. Dr James Anderson, of the University’s Department of Computer Science, has developed for the first time the ‘perspective simplex’, or Perspex, which is a way of writing a computer program as a geometrical structure, rather than as a series of instructions.

February 4, 2005

Links for Feb 4/05

Discovery Phase (The American Prospect)
Now, at long last, we're getting acquainted with the new anti-evolutionists -- and they seem very familiar, writes Chris Mooney. You know, there are so many battles worth waging, and one can't possibly engage in all of them. So for now, I'll just sit back and watch Chris formidably fight this one.

Scientists baffled as autism cases soar in state, with no relief in sight. Treatment centers, schools inundated by kids needing help (SF Gate)
California's mysterious explosion of autism cases worsened in 2004, disappointing researchers who had hoped the number of new diagnoses would level off as they searched for an explanation for the neurological disorder.

Melting Mars (Astrobiology)
Mars Life Injecting synthetic "super" greenhouse gases into the Martian atmosphere could raise the planet's temperature enough to melt its polar ice caps and create conditions suitable for sustaining biological life.

Ayn Rand at 100 (Reason)
Loved, hated, and always controversial, the best-selling author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged is more relevant than ever, writes Cathy Young.

Augmented-reality Machine Works in Real Time (New Scientist)
Computer-generated scenery can be realistically added to live video footage, using a machine vision system developed at Oxford University, UK.

February 3, 2005

Dyson and the Darwinian Interlude

Cosmologist and mathematician Freeman Dyson has published an article for Technology Review in which he describes how human intelligence has irrecovably changed the face of evolution--an intervention that, when it truly matures in the Biotech Age, will have as significant an impact on life as the autonomous biological procceses that initiated and moulded it in the first place.

In other words, evolution evolves--and the latest stage of its development is because of us.

Called The Darwinian Interlude, Dyson's article chronicles the "history" of evolution over the course of the Universe's development--from pre-evolutionary chemical and physical reactions, to the emergence of sex, multicellular organization, and intelligence.

But now, argues Dyson, after some three billion years, the Darwinian era is over:
The epoch of species competition came to an end about 10 thousand years ago when a single species, Homo sapiens, began to dominate and reorganize the biosphere. Since that time, cultural evolution has replaced biological evolution as the driving force of change. Cultural evolution is not Darwinian. Cultures spread by horizontal transfer of ideas more than by genetic inheritance. Cultural evolution is running a thousand times faster than Darwinian evolution, taking us into a new era of cultural interdependence that we call globalization. And now, in the last 30 years, Homo sapiens has revived the ancient pre-Darwinian practice of horizontal gene transfer, moving genes easily from microbes to plants and animals, blurring the boundaries between species. We are moving rapidly into the post-Darwinian era, when species will no longer exist, and the evolution of life will again be communal.
In the post-Darwinian era, he writes, biotechnology will be domesticated. People will seize on the plasticity of biology and take it into novel and even recreational arenas:
There will be do-it-yourself kits for gardeners, who will use gene transfer to breed new varieties of roses and orchids. Also, biotech games for children, played with real eggs and seeds rather than with images on a screen. Genetic engineering, once it gets into the hands of the general public, will give us an explosion of biodiversity. Designing genomes will be a new art form, as creative as painting or sculpture. Few of the new creations will be masterpieces, but all will bring joy to their creators and diversity to our fauna and flora.
As usual, Mr. Dyson offers lots of food for thought.