April 29, 2006

New audiocast: Simon Smith interview

I recently interviewed Simon Smith, the editor-in-chief of Betterhumans. Topics discussed include Betterhumans, transhumanist culture, cryonics, life extension, systems theory and emergence.


Tags: , , , , , , , , .

April 27, 2006

Spanish socialists want to give apes human rights

Holy, toldeo, now this is interesting and welcome news: Spanish socialists want to give apes human rights. The blurbage from the Spain Herald reads:
The Spanish Socialist Party will introduce a bill in the Congress of Deputies calling for "the immediate inclusion of (simians) in the category of persons, and that they be given the moral and legal protection that currently are only enjoyed by human beings." The PSOE's justification is that humans share 98.4% of our genes with chimpanzees, 97.7% with gorillas, and 96.4% with orangutans.

The party will announce its Great Ape Project at a press conference tomorrow. An organization with the same name is seeking a UN declaration on simian rights which would defend ape interests "the same as those of minors and the mentally handicapped of our species."

According to the Project, "Today only members of the species Homo sapiens are considered part of the community of equals. The chimpanzee, the gorilla, and the orangutan are our species's closest relatives. They possess sufficient mental faculties and emotional life to justify their inclusion in the community of equals."
I'm amazed and disappointed to see how many transhumanists and techprogressives have failed to grok the significance of such an import step forward. Much of the inhibition against such a development is is the misconception about what is meant by equality in this context.

No one is suggesting that humans and apes are equal in terms of cognitive, linguistic or physical proclivities. I don't think the Spanish politicians who are pushing for the bill believe that apes should qualify for the next vote, or that apes should be counted in Spain's next census.

Rather, where 'equality' comes into the picture is where legal protections are concerned.

Many people in our politically correct society cling to the myth that there is already cognitive and psychological equality among all humans. This is nonsense. Yes, there are disabled persons, but a broad spectrum of capabilities exist that diversifies all "normal functioning" humans and so-called neurotypicals from each other.

For example, there are things (like math) that I simply cannot do, there are people on this planet who do virtually everything that I can do but much better, and there are things that I do that many people simple cannot; most of these disparities are due to fixed and intrinsic biological traits. Environmental determinism was a passé idea that died in the socially naive post-Hippie 70s and replaced by a more tempered view of human physiology that takes genetic, social and environmental considerations into account.

Yet despite these differences, whether they be genetically, socially, or environmentally imposed, most liberal democracies have established a charter of rights and freedoms that protect people regardless of their abilities. At its core, that is the very essence of a democracy and an excellent foundation for a just society. Today, as the Great Ape Project attests, there's issue as to who we should include in our society -- much like there was an issue with allowing Blacks and women into society decades ago.

As far as apes are concerned, a strong argument can be made that they are cognitively and emotionally sophisticated enough as a species that we are morally bound to include them under the protective blanket of human rights. Obviously, the term “human rights” will not stand the test of time and will eventually have to be considered as “person rights.”

I find it profound to think that what we consider to be our sacred inalienable rights will soon be shared with other species. We will soon have a body of rights, freedoms and protections that will be applied and enforced across species boundaries. I hope to see other countries work to achieve similar bills and include other 'higher' mammals, including whales, dolphins, and elephants (among others).

This also bodes well as a precedent for transhumanism itself. The future of humanity may soon witness a kind of speciation, and it will be important for us to be in possession of an established set of laws that will protect different persons regardless of what might appear to be dramatic differences. It will also prove important when it comes time to acknowledge the personhood of machine minds.

For those in opposition to Spain's proposed bill, I offer this one last thought: when posthumans emerge, and should their advanced abilities cause them to be distanced from humanity to the degree that we are cognitively distanced from apes, that they will honour the laws we currently have in place that provide all persons with an inalienable set of rights.

Tags: , , , , .

April 25, 2006

The myth of our exalted human place

I'm still stewing about Spiked Online and their misguided mission to malign the animal rights movement. In particular, I'm upset at Chris Pile's assertion that animal rights activists are acting misanthropically by putting the welfare of animals on par with those of humans.

It's similar to Wesley Smith's argument that transhumanists, like animal rights advocates, are demeaning humans by ascribing personhood characteristics to non-humans (in the case of transhumanists, they're anticipating existence outside of the evolved human form and the rise of artificial intelligence and machine minds, whereas animal rights folks are acknowledging the personhood of gorillas, elephants, whales and dolphins. Ultimately, however, transhumanists and animal rights advocates are on the same wavelength in that they support the idea of non-anthropocentric personhood). In his article, “The Transhumanists: The Next Great Threat to Human Dignity,” Smith declares that humans “are not just another animal in the forest,” and that “human life has ultimate value simply and merely because it is human.”

Of course, the argument that humans have value because they're human is not really an argument at all. Rather, it's a rhetorical tautology devoid of any substance – except for what it reveals about the person making the argument.

Like Pile, Smith believes that humans occupy a special metaphysical or exalted space somewhere between the beasts and gods. Even when framed in secular language, the allusion to religious sensibilities is inescapable and one that informs an indelible part of this ideology. Along similar lines, the whole idea of 'dignity' arose during the time of aristocracy, a period when the nobility accredited their 'blue blood' as the essence which separated them from the lesser members of humanity.

Consequently, those arguments that bemoan the demise of human dignity are conspicuously promoted by those who steadfastly cling to these notions as they have been reconstituted and manifested by 21st century concerns. I'm speaking, of course, of inhibitions against ascribing personhood to non-humans. This speciesism, or what James Hughes refers to as human-racism, is one of the worst prejudices of our time.

Today, our gods and kings have been replaced by reason and liberal democracies. As a society, we have grown increasingly tolerant and accommodating to minority groups and those without power. We no longer enslave the 'other' and relegate our women to second class citizenry for fear of undermining human dignity. Similarly, as we are coming to recognize the psychological and emotional workings of non-human animals, we stand to take our morality and ethical commitments to the next level.

At the very core, though, what the speciests cannot bear is when an animal's life is 'put ahead' of a human's. More accurately, what they find repugnant is the thought of a human death when a cure could have been developed through animal experimentation -- the underlying assumption being that an animal's life does not have the same value as a human's. To the speciest, the animal's suffering is either not really happening (i.e. the misconception that animals don't really feel things the way people do), or that its suffering is a justifiable sacrifice in the name of science or in helping more 'worthy' human lives.

These rationalizations are the result of human arrogance and a mass hallucination among those who condone and perform the work; they operate in total denial, deliberately choosing to ignore the overwhelming evidence that animals get frightened and can experience pain the same way we do. There's also the 'blame the victim' mentality. In 2004, for example, PETA recorded the conversations of Covance technicians as they were restraining monkeys: "Goddamn...I'm gonna knock you out...you litte bitch...you little hateful ass, you."

There is no doubt that much scientific and medical advancement has occurred as a result of animal experimentation. But this is tainted knowledge, much like the tainted knowledge acquired by the Nazi doctors who tested on human subjects. Nazi doctors weren't so much sadistic as they felt their work was justified. Much like we have devalued the life and well-being of non-human animals, the Nazis de-valued an entire race of people.

Without a doubt many lives could be saved today if we allowed the inhumane testing of human subjects. But what a repulsive and abhorrent idea! It for this exact same sense of repulsion and abhorrence that we cannot continue to allow cruel experimentation on animals. Denying the individual psychological experience of each and every animal that is experimented upon is a gross breach of our reason and moral sensibilities.

And contrary to what Spiked Online, Chris Pile and Wesley Smith believe, animal rights activists are not misanthropic. In fact, they're quite the opposite. It's not just animals whose well-being they consider, it's a concern for all creatures capable of conscious experience and complex emotion.

Consequently, it is when we consider the well-being of both human and non-human animals that we become truly humane.

Tags: , , , .

Odds 'n Sods

It's ok to drink lots of coffee cuz it's probably not hurting you.
Gamma ray bursters are unlikely in the 'hood.
Our new Conservative government doesn't want Canadians to know that Canadian soldiers are getting killed in Afghanistan.
Susan Greenfield says that new technologies must be used to help each child, but not to mould pupils into a norm
I've seen 46 of these 101 culturally essential movies (via Ryan McReynolds)

Transcript of James Hughes interview, part 2

The transcript for part two of my recent interview of James Hughes is now available.

Check it.

April 22, 2006

The speciest Spike

Spiked Online clearly has an agenda in favour of promoting animal experimentation and they're masking it by using their "science section" as a guise for their pro animal torture propaganda.

The UK based Spiked claims to stand for "liberty, enlightenment, experimentation and excellence," but clearly they have no interest in ensuring animal liberty or promoting an enlightened sense of compassion. They are, however, excelling at promoting animal experimentation and de-legitimizing those who they refer to as animal rights "cranks."

Judge for yourself. Here is a sampling of recent articles they have listed in their "science" section:

- We need more drugs testing - on animals and humans: We mustn't let the disastrous trials at Northwick Park hospital blind us to the need for further medical innovation.
- Animal research protests: what next?: The demo to defend the half-built Oxford lab was a very good start, but there are bigger beasts to slay than a handful of animal rights cranks.
- The hard arguments about vivisection: Some scientists advocate experiments on animals while simultaneously apologising for them. Bad move.
- Animal testing: Qui vive? [which is really a link to the Times Online article, I'm on the side of medical science and that entails animal experiments]
- Pro-Test: supporting animal testing: A new campaign by Oxford students makes the case for scientific progress and medical research.
- Man is more than a beast: The primatologist Frans de Waal says we should get in touch with 'our inner ape'. Speak for yourself.
- Chimps and humans: what's in a name?: Whether we classify chimpanzees as pan or homo is a matter for evolutionary biology - not morality.

This last one by Chris Pile really got my back up. He asks, "Could a chimp ever be charged with murder?" referring to a Daily Mail article that pondered the issue of classifying some apes as human. Clearly, the terminology is skewed here and Pile's sensationalistic tone is deliberately meant to mislead; the issue is not whether an ape is human and subject to our social contract, but whether it is a person deserving of protection. Yet, Pile goes on to conclude that "we should be wary of attempting to draw moral conclusions from scientific findings."

What!? We should be wary of attempting to draw moral conclusions from scientific findings?

I'm incredulous. If scientific, rational, and empirical methodologies can't inform our morals or ethics, then what exactly should? The bible? Gut feelings? Come on, Chris! I'm sorry if science is ruining your speciest agenda by undermining all the falsehoods you carry around with you about what animals are capable of doing and feeling.

To my readers: please do me the favour of either deleting your Spiked Online bookmark (if you have one), and/or writing them to let them know your feelings about their lack of journalistic standards, how you resent journalism-as-lobbying, and their depraved indifference to animal welfare.

Tags: , , , .

Is Aubrey de Grey acting unscientifically and recklessly?

Looks like there's an interesting SENS related article in Science Magazine. The article, titled SENS and the Polarization of Aging-Related Research, is authored by Douglas A. Gray and Alexander Bürkle.

Only the abstract is available online:
The second Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence conference (SENS II) featured some very provocative ideas. The explicit objective of extending human life span indefinitely has opened a large rift between the meeting's organizer and those who believe he is acting unscientifically, perhaps recklessly. Two SENS conference participants present their views on the divisive nature of SENS.
Tags: , , , , , .

Audiocast: James Hughes interview, part 2 of 2

I recently interviewed Dr. James Hughes, executive director of the World Transhumanist Association and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.

In part 2 of the interview, we discuss the prospects and reasons for world federalism, managing potential risks wrought by burgeoning technologies, the weaponization of space, and human gene patenting.

Feed: http://feeds.feedburner.com/PodcastSentDev

Tags: , , , , , , , , , .

April 21, 2006

Mark Walker's superlongevity talk for the TTA

Last night at the University of Toronto's Bahen Centre for Information Technology, Dr. Mark Walker delivered a presentation about the ethics of radical life extension, or as Walker refers to it, 'superlongevity.' The talk was organized by the Toronto Transhumanist Association.

The talk was party adapted from his recent paper, "Universal Superlongevity: Is it Inevitable and is it Good?"

Mark Walker Ph.D. is a research associate in philosophy at Trinity College, University of Toronto. He is founder and president of Permanent End International, a nonprofit organization devoted to ending hunger, illiteracy and environmental degradation. He serves on the editorial board of the Journal of Evolution and Technology and served on the Board of Directors of the World Transhumanist Association from 2002 to 2006.

Attendance for the event was good with about 20 people present. Walker spoke for about an hour discussing ethical issues surrounding life extension. He focused on two major objections or concerns to superlongevity, namely the potential boredom problem of radically extended lives and the issue of overpopulation. Walker presented a fair and balanced case in favour of life extension, noting that while overpopulation may be an issue in the future, it's not an untenable one. He offered a number of solutions, including the idea of individuals voluntarily choosing not to procreate, or as Walker dubbed it, a 'non-proliferation pact' for human reproduction.

After his presentation, Walker entertained questions for about 30 minutes, which was in turn followed by more informal person-to-person discussions.

I recorded the entire presentation and will be publishing it as an audiocast in a couple of weeks.

Thanks go out to Dr. Mark walker and all those who helped me organize this event.

Tags: , , , , .

Me on Changesurfer Radio

James Hughes interviewed me last Saturday for his Changesurfer Radio show. We talked about a number of things, including the Toronto Transhumanist Association, virtual worlds, postgenderism, animal rights, expanding personhood, and Battlestar Galactica.

Check it.

Tags: , , , , , , .

Transcript of part 1 of Hughes interview

Dustin Metzger was kind enough to transcribe my recent interview of James Hughes. The entire text of Part 1 can be found here. My thanks go out to Dustin.

Be sure to check out Metzger's excellent blog, Trending Towards FutureShock.

April 20, 2006

Lovelock's environmentalist sabotage

James Lovelock, the environmentalist and deep ecologist who popularized the Gaia Hypothesis, is as infuriating as he is fascinating. I’m still not quite sure what to make of this man, but my gut instinct tells me he's a bit off his rocker.

A few months ago he grabbed attention by announcing the beginning of the end for Earth and human civilization. In his Independent Online article, Lovelock argued that we recently passed the point of no return in regards to global warming and that the only thing to do now is to maximize the time we have left before extinction. "We have to keep in mind the awesome pace of change and realise how little time is left to act," he says, "and then each community and nation must find the best use of the resources they have to sustain civilisation for as long as they can. Civilisation is energy-intensive and we cannot turn it off without crashing, so we need the security of a powered descent."

I offered a rebuttal to this perspective, but I recently discovered another article of his that also has me shaking my head.

Back in 2001, Lovelock told the Telegraph that we need nuclear power. He also asked the British government to revive atomic energy as an alternative to burning fossil fuels. He went on to downplay the Chernobyl disaster, claiming that it was not the industrial catastrophe that so many people made it out to be. He claimed that only 45 people died at Chernobyl, a figure that was recently blown out of the water by Greenpeace who now claim that the total figure will eventually exceed 93,000.

Further, Lovelock noted his delight in the fact that diverse wildlife had once again returned to the 30km area immediately surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear facility. This is the area, of course, that remains off-limits due to radiation. “The wildlife of Chernobyl know nothing about radiation and do not fear it,” he says, “That they might live a little less long is of no great consequence to them.”

Inspired by this shining and radioactive example of passive environmental remediation, Lovelock argues that we should actually recreate similar situations elsewhere: “I have wondered if the small volumes of nuclear waste from power production should be stored in tropical forests and other habitats in need of a reliable guardian against their destruction by greedy developers.”

Now that’s a hardcore solution to the global warming problem if I ever heard one.

Spread radioactive material around to keep the pesky humans out.

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Clearly, Lovelock has no faith that the Establishment will ever acquire the resolve to deal with ongoing environmental problems. Rather than work to see certain areas declared off limits, or see that moratoriums and treaties are established and enforced, Lovelock instead promotes a curious call for coercive environmentalist sabotage.

As for nuclear energy itself, “The worst that could happen, if Chernobyls became endemic, is that we lived a little less long in a mildly radioactive world,” he says, “To me this is preferable to the loss of our hard-won civilisation in a greenhouse catastrophe.”

Although I could be wrong, I find his concern for our "hard-won" civilization to be disingenuous. The problem with many gaianists is their disregard for the individual, whether they be human or non-human. Lovelock's lack of interest for animal welfare in radioactive zones and his dangerous call for the spread of radioactive materials shows that his concern is for the abstract super-organism and not for the individual creatures themselves.

One could counter-argue that by looking out for the health of the entire planet he is expressing concern for the individual. If there's no habitable planet, after all, how can there be individuals?

At the same time, however, I cannot help but think that the road to an entire array of personal hells is paved by Lovelock's good intentions. Upholding concern over conceptual entities rather than tangible living creatures is a moral failing and a grave mistake. Sustaining life at the expense of an acceptable quality to that life is an end that is not justified by the means.

Tags: , , , , , , , .

April 19, 2006

Planning for disaster

With all this talk about potential catastrophes this century, it occured to me that we should hope for the best and plan for the worst. Consequently, I submitted a proposal to the IEET to that effect:
Recently, James and I were discussing specific policy stances the IEET may want to consider adopting in regards to pressing global issues such as the proliferation of dangerous weapons and technologies, environmental degradation, human rights, and so on.

Obviously, these issues are of paramount importance and there's lots to discuss, but I wanted to propose a supplementary policy domain that the IEET might want to consider adopting in anticipation of intractable problems and events beyond anybody's foresight or control.

As Nick Bostrom and others have cogently argued, humanity is increasingly coming into possession of technologies that are likely to result in terrible catastrophes -- if not human extinction itself. Underlying this grim warning is the fundamental fact that we are hopelessly stuck on Earth at this present time.

Thinkers like Steven Hawking, Anders Sandberg, and many others have argued that we run the risk of leaving all our eggs in one basket by remaining on Earth.

Consequently, I am proposing that the IEET adopt a set of policy issues aimed at promoting those scientific disciplines and technological endeavors that are focused on ensuring the ongoing existence of humanity and other valued aspects of Earth and its ecosystem should some kind of catastrophe occur.

Off the top of my head I can think of several areas worthy of IEET support:
- space colonization (and all the sub-disciplines this would entail, including the know-how to sustain life in space, the development of space vehicles and dwellings, etc.)
- the colonization of Mars
- gene banks and off-planet wildlife preserves
- biosphere projects
- alternative ideas (eg. deep underground biospheres)

Now, as I write this, I fear that such a policy might be considered outside the IEET's scope or mandate, or even a bit on the dramatic side. There's even the possibility that it might be construed as being too science-fictiony or ungrounded (I have images running through my mind of Dr. Strangelove's plan for post-nuclear war survival involving living underground with a 10:1 female-to-male ratio: Turgidson: "Doctor, you mentioned the ratio of ten women to each man. Now, wouldn't that necessitate the abandonment of the so-called monogamous sexual relationship, I mean, as far as men were concerned?" Dr. Strangelove: "Regrettably, yes. But it is, you know, a sacrifice required for the future of the human race. I hasten to add that since each man will be required to do prodigious... service along these lines, the women will have to be selected for their sexual characteristics which will have to be of a highly stimulating nature.")

Now, dark comedy aside, the IEET was intended to be a think tank, and I hope that this is a forum where such ideas -- no matter how grim or extreme -- can be considered. At this point I wouldn't mind some feedback.


April 18, 2006

Audiocast: James Hughes interview, part 1 of 2

I recently interviewed Dr. James Hughes, executive director of the World Transhumanist Association and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.

In part 1 of the interview, we discuss Dr. J's ongoing projects, his future hopes and plans for the WTA and IEET, and current global issues facing techprogressives.

Look for part 2 of this interview to be made available in about a week's time.

Feed: http://feeds.feedburner.com/PodcastSentDev

Tags: , , , , , .

April 17, 2006

Radical life extension talk in Toronto this Thursday

For those in the Toronto area, the Toronto Transhumanist Association is hosting a talk on radical life extension this coming Thursday:

Title: Universal Superlongevity: Is It Inevitable And Is It Good?
Date: Thursday, April 20, 2006 @ 7:00PM

Description: The Toronto Transhumanist Association is hosting a talk by Mark Walker Ph.D. on the topic of radical life extension. Given the potential for dramatic medical interventions that could end the processes of aging within a few decades, Dr. Walker will explore the social and ethical implications of 'superlongevity' and a posthuman future.

Fee: no charge

Venue: Bahen Centre for Information Technology
40 St. George Street, Room 1200
Toronto, ON

Website: toronto.transhumanism.com

April 16, 2006

I’ve seen the future and the future is bald

Natalie Portman’s recent performance in V for Vendetta has me thinking about bald women on the silver screen, particularly in science fiction movies.

Traditional films are quite conservative in the way they portray women’s hairstyles. As an indelible part of their sexuality, filmmakers have been reluctant to mess around with such an integral female attribute. Moreover, until fairly recently, female roles in action movies have been secondary to those of males. Men are supposed to be masculinized on screen and women feminized.

Obviously, in today’s supposed equal opportunity action film industry we now have our super-sexualized action hero females like Charlie’s Angels and Uma Thurman in Kill Bill. But let’s face it -- they’re still sex symbols, big hair and all.

It would seem, then, that the only way to de-sexualize a female hero is to have her shave her head. And in this sense, science fiction has led the way.

Sci-fi is a particularly powerful genre in that it can afford to be more experimental in its treatment of virtually any aspect that appears on screen. In science fiction, the weirder the better. And it only makes sense. When you’re trying to portray the future or otherworldliness, it helps to cross traditional boundaries.

In sci-fi films, bald women have conveyed a number of things in addition to desexualization, including masculinity, sexual ambiguity, dehumanization, youthfulness, and innocence. And paradoxically, bald women have also been used to portray an enhanced sense of sexuality and control.

Sigourney Weaver, for example, went bald in Aliens in a blatant show of female masculinity. Like Demi Moore in G.I. Jane, Weaver was better able to portray Ripley as a physical and tormented action hero without having to carry the baggage of female sexuality. Consequently, a strong case can be made that Ripley is one of the most believable female action characters yet realized in science fiction film. Another recent example of this, of course, is Natalie Portman’s portrayal of Evey Hammond in V for Vendetta.

Along these lines, strong bald female characters tend to have an undeniable ‘butchy’ aspect to them. Put a bald actress on screen with a gun in her hand and suddenly you have a character whose sexual orientation is ambiguous at best.

Baldness can also represent something that has been taken away from us against our will, including our very humanity. In George Lucas’s THX 1138, for example, many of the main actors, including Maggie McOmie, were told to shave their heads in order to emphasize the dehumanizing nature of a future dystopian world.

Going back to 1927, the robot of Metropolis was sexually female, metallic, and bald. At least, that’s how we knew her to be on the inside; the robot is eventually given true human form and becomes an exotic dancer in the city's nightclubs, fomenting discord amongst the rich young men of Metropolis. But we, the viewer, know what bald malevolence lurks underneath.

As shown in Metropolis, baldness can represent sexual control in a non-intuitive way. David Lynch’s version of Dune portrayed the women of the Bene Gesserit order with shaved heads, perhaps to convey their eerie power and strength (including their sexual prowess), and even possibly their aloofness towards the male gender.

Similarly, in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Persis Khambatta portrayed the Deltan Ilia, a bald species that can exude pheromones to arouse human males.

With the Bene Gesserit and Ilia, these female characters are at once desexualized by their baldness, but by consequence have their very sexuality brought to the fore and accentuated – elements that are reinforced even further by their actions and overt sexuality. In a real sense, these women have become more sexually frightening and threatening by virtue of their shaved heads.

And finally, in Steven Spielberg’s version of Minority Report, Samantha Morton played a Precog that was able to predict certain future events. These characters had a certain purity and innocence about them – elements that were emphasized by portraying them without hair. As a result, Spielberg was able to give them a sort of youthfulness and naiveté.

Truth, of course, can be stranger than fiction. Or rather, the future will be stranger than fiction. Given Donna Haraway’s call for female liberation through cyborg form, the desexualization of women may not just be an artistic device, but a true real world phenomenon.

For the time being, however, we’ll have to settle for Natalie Portman; but that's okay, because bald never looked so cute.

Tags: , , , , .

April 14, 2006

Latest SentDev Podcast Posted [14-Apr-06]

The latest Sentient Developments podcast is now available.

Feed: http://feeds.feedburner.com/PodcastSentDev

For those who are interested, I was experiencing some serious difficulties with OurMedia, which is where I've been uploading my MP3s. I wasn't able to get a link to my MP3 for over 2 days, so I switched to the Internet Archive front end and uploaded via FTP. It seems to be working well, so I'm still able to get free hosting for my MP3s. I've also been using Feedburner, which has been an excellent service.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

April 13, 2006

Things that should make cryonicists go "Hmmmm"

At the TTA's recent cryonics talk by Allan Randall, a couple of interesting issues cropped up -- some I had considered before and some I hadn't.

For example, in order to be able to afford a cryonics contract, most people put out a second life insurance policy and name their cryonics company as beneficiary. You die, and Alcor or the Cryonics Institute get the money.

Er, except for one small detail: you're really hoping that you're not actually dead, so one could make the case that you're engaging in some kind of fraud scheme. Just who exactly might contest this? Well, the insurance company for one.

Thinking about it, though, this may not be cause for concern. Perhaps the insurance company won't be around in your future Drexlerian cyborg world. Or, they may not even care so long after the fact. Moreover, insurance companies are aware of what they're getting into and what their client's intentions really are -- so there's no overt fraud being committed.

Another issue brought up at the meeting was the 'right to death' issue. While on the outside it might seem antithetical for a hopeful cryonaut to endorse voluntary euthanasia, it is in fact an issue that is very pertinent.

Suppose you come down with Alzheimer's. As someone who hopes to preserve their brain in the most pristine manner possible, the thought of undergoing an illness that rots away at your most precious resource should be frightening to say the least. Consequently, it could be argued that it should be within your rights to commit suicide prior to the point where Alzheimer's irrevocably starts to damage your brain.

So, as I've argued before, fight for your right to die.

Finally, if the idea of being a cyborg or an uploaded consciousness living in a fully immersive virtual reality seems unappealing to you, you should probably reconsider cryonics. At the very least, you may wish to note your inhibition in your cryonics contract and request a 'do not reanimate' condition if either of these types of existences are your only options. But IMO, the idea that you're going to wake up back in your old biological human body is laughable at best, so you'd best brace yourself for a posthuman future.

Tags: , , .

April 12, 2006

Pop Art Gets Proletarianized, or How Technology Will Enable Anyone to Play Guitar Like Eddie Van Halen

Technology changes how art is done and by whom. And it’s only going to get better. Not only will more and more people be able to afford the gadgetry of making art, but the intrinsic ability to create and perform art will be impacted as well.

Ever notice how jazz has suddenly become “high art?” Walk into any Starbucks and you’re likely to hear Miles Davis piped through the sound system as you guzzle your venti latte alongside your fellow sophisticates.

It wasn’t always this way, of course. Like all new art forms, jazz was once was dismissed by a snobbish wave of the hand as being the cacophonous, subversive music of the working class.

It’s funny how art works. At first it’s rejected and regarded as a threat or antithetical version of the established and “credible” art forms. Then, after it gains popularity and becomes profitable, it becomes broadly accepted, refined, and institutionalized (like Miles Davis CDs for sale at your local Starbucks).

Music in the 20th century has experienced a revolution of sorts, particularly Western pop music. Prior to Bob Dylan, vocalists were all virtuosic in ability; you had to sound like Nat King Cole to get noticed. Dylan, on the other hand, was the everyman singer. He mumbled into the microphone and sounded no better than the guy next door.

But that was the revolution. By showing that good and profound music could be performed by just about anyone, Dylan cast popular music in a new light and gave it a new sense of relevancy for the masses. Music didn’t have to be uber-refined and stuffy – it could be out of tune, off tempo, and a little bit off the cuff and still have strong aesthetic worth. Moreover, performance stars no longer had to be inaccessible and unrelateable prodigies – they could be regular folk just like you and me.

Soon after the Dylan phenomenon, garage bands and caterwauling vocalists started to come out of the woodwork, and the rest of 60s rock music is history. Music had finally become proletarianized. Or, at least it appeared that way; not everyone could become rock stars – but the illusion that anyone could become rock stars had certainly taken root.

Like anything, there was reaction to this turn of musical events. Prog rock tried to buck the trend for a little while (hey, the common man does not play in 5/8 time, nor does he want to, okay?) but the punk and grunge scenes pierced through this unbecoming upper-class pretentiousness. Consequently, the Nirvana phenomenon resulted in an entire generation of young artists who could barely move beyond three chord patterns.

Hence, your “music for the masses.”

And this is part of the problem when popular music, or any kind of art form, can be performed by anybody. Not everyone is a super-talent, nor can everyone afford expensive lessons. So, as a result, the art form gets dumbed down a little. Okay, sometimes a lot. Like the anti-intellectualism that runs rampant today in Western culture (smart people are geeks, right?), the ability to actually play an instrument with precision and grace is considered pompous and showy.

But a funny thing happened on the way to achieving true music for the performing masses: technology.

In a former life I wanted desperately to get into the music industry. I went to college for 3 years learning how to be a record producer and engineer. I even worked in a studio for a year. I once recorded tracks in a million dollar facility, full of all the bells and whistles you could desire.

Yet, thanks to modern technology and the increasing strength of purchasing power, I actually have a fairly decent home recording studio. There’s very little I can’t do in the confines of my own home that I could do at a multi-million dollar facility. And I think lots of people are getting a hint of this. I have many friends who perform and record music as hobbies – something that would have been, for cost reasons, completely prohibitive as little as 20 years ago. (on a related note, blogs are impacting on how people like myself are able to write and self-publish)

Technology changes how art is done and by whom. And it’s only going to get better. Not only will more and more people be able to afford the gadgetry of making art, but the intrinsic ability to create and perform art will be impacted as well.

Thanks to the pending genomic revolution and the advent of enhancement technologies, the future will have more in store for the aspiring artist. Using genetic technologies, parents will endow their children with a whole gamut of skills and proclivities, including perfect pitch and the physical co-ordination required for virtuosic playing. Like the growing accessibility of musical instruments and recording technologies, musical talent will one day soon become equally attainable.

Once, the masses were merely a passive audience to art as it was dictated to them. Today, they have taken control of art and given it relevance. Tomorrow, they will claim their own art forms and master them with all the tools at their disposal.

And that will truly be music by the masses for the masses.

Tags: , , , , , .

You'll know the Singularity is near when....

In Ray Kurzweil's latest book, The Singularity is Near, he quips that we'll know the Singularity is about to happen when we start getting a million emails a day. Crunched, that's 695 emails each minute, or 12 each second -- which, now that I think about it, doesn't seem to far off from my current spam flow ;-)

If I may add to Kurzweil's comment: Q: how will we know when the Singularity has come and gone? A: We'll be able to meaninfully reply to each and every one of them in the same day.

April 11, 2006


Cyberculture is a burgeoning youth subculture that is an intermixture of several scenes, including cyberpunk, goth, rivethead, rave, and clubbing. Individuals in cyberculture identify themselves as "cyber" or "cybergoth," and are as interested in fashion and dancing as they are in new and future technology. Primarily a cultural phenomenon of the United Kingdom, cybers can also be found in New York and other large metropolitan areas. There's even a Canadian cybergoth forum.

Cybers tend to listen to electronic music (of course), with subgenres that include EBM (electronic body music), futurepop, industrial, power noise, trance, techno, drum and bass, gabber, synthpop, and IDM (intelligent dance music). They listen to electro-industrial and EBM projects such as Front Line Assembly, Velvet Acid Christ and VNV Nation. Many cybergoths also enjoy rhythmic noise, or power noise, with bands that include Converter and early Noisex.

Fashionwise, cyber clothing resembles a combination of industrial, rave and goth styles. Think of goth, but with bright colours. Common themes include contrasts of black or white combined with luminous neon or UV-reactive colours and materials. Some wear LED lights on their clothing or in their hair. Cybers also tend to have brightly coloured and often stylised hair, large shoes or boots, various forms of body modification, the presence of superfluous goggles (especially aviator-style), androgyny and the influence of cyberpunk or anime themes.

As for the subculture itself, cybers have a fascination with such topics as computers, the internet, technology, cybernetic augmentation and artificial intelligence. Clearly, these are elements derived from the cyberpunk side of things. As for the more gothic elements, they include a sense of apathy (supposedly towards issues cyberpunks would be enraged about), a questioning of mortality especially with regards to enhancements and AI (in a way, taking the whole goth obsession with death and turning it on its head to question the very definition of life itself), along with a number of gothic fashion elements and related music.

According to Devi of the Take A Byte v1.0 site, here are the top 10 ways to spot a cybergoth:

10. They have their own REN value
9. They look like a goth, but in colour
8. They bleed caffine
7. They carry a raygun or lightsabre
6. You need sunglasses just to look at them
5. They have neural plugs in their neck and a barcode on their arm
4. Their limbs are silver and shiny
3. They have so many LEDs on them that in the dark airplanes often land on them
2. They have no real hair
1. They wear goggles even out of the pool

Be sure to visit the Take a Byte site and take the test to see if you're a potential cyber in the making.

Tags: , , , , , , .

April 10, 2006

My review of "Building Gods"

There is a rough-cut available on Google Video of the Four Door Films documentary, "Building Gods."

The video tackles the issue of pending greater-than-human artificial intelligence and the possible ramifications. Four key philosophers are interviewed in the documentary, including the IEET's Nick Bostrom, with the other three being Kevin Warwick, Hugo De Garis, and Anne Foerst. The tone is mostly grim and eerie, but a wide spectrum of topics are discussed, including transhumanism, mind-machine mergers, uploading, and artificial superintelligence.

The documentary itself is scheduled to be released later this summer. Based on the quality of the film I'd have to say it will receive limited attention (I can't see the final cut improving upon it too greatly).

Initial responses on the WTA-talk list were negative, but after watching the 90 minute film I didn't think it was so bad. In fact, I thought it was downright interesting and provocative. I actually started to take down notes while watching it, and it has given me a number of ideas for future blog entries.

Of the four philosophers interviewed, Anne Foerst was clearly the weakest. She was the token theologian {exasperated sigh}; whenever documentaries like these are put together, it often seems that producers feel compelled to put a religious representative on screen to offer some sort of twisted "balance." I've noticed, for example, that discussions about the possibility of extraterrestrial life often include the insight of a priest or rabbi -- as if they actually have anything interesting to say about the intricacies of astrobiology or the Drake Equation.

That said about Foerst's 'role' in "Building Gods", however, her work at MIT and her willingness to extend personhood beyond Homo sapiens, made her presence not altogether irrelevant.

Nick Bostrom was his usual eloquent self. He was very well spoken and he represented himself and transhumanism quite well. Some of the themes that Bostrom touched upon included consciousness uploading, the unlikelihood of cyborgs, and the SAI goal problem. I didn't feel that Bostrom played into the sensationalist feel of the documentary and his comments were fairly level headed.

Kevin Warwick, on the other hand, was a different story. Regrettably, of the four thinkers interviewed, Warwick was given the most attention. I say regrettably because he fed right into the alarmist tone of the video. At one point he compared the potential differences between humans and posthumans as those that currently differentiate humans from cows. He even said -- and I still can't believe he said this -- that when humans will talk to posthumans it will sound akin to mooing. Consequently, argued Warwick, there will be no social dichotomy between humans and posthumans as they won't even be on the same existential wavelength.

This is exactly the kind of thing that will scare the hell out of someone who is completely new to these concepts. The implication that posthumans and humans won't communicate with other, or that posthumans will treat humans as cows, is as ridiculous as it is false. I simply don't foresee there being posthuman indifference towards unaugmented humanity.

Hugo De Garis, like Warwick, was also a mixed bag. If Warwick didn't scare you in this documentary, De Garis most certainly did. He used his own jargon to describe the pending battle between 'terrans' and 'cosmists' (ie luddites vs. futurists). In Hegelian fashion, he compared this future struggle to the 19th and 20th century struggle about the ownership of capital. De Garis sees the future as one split by a conflict between those who are terrified of the rise of SAI versus those who wish to see humanity reach its true potential.

Thankfully, there was some sentiment expressed in the documentary that this scenario may not play itself out. Even De Garis admitted that humans and machines may evolve and merge in concert, thus avoiding this kind of sociological split. He referred to the adherents of this middle way as the 'cyborgians,' but seemed embarrassed to have to say it. A middle way, after all, would ruin his alarmist non-normative sci-fi action drama vision of the future.

Rather, the issue will be, in my opinion, not so much about the pending struggle between 'terrans' and 'cosmists' as it will be about the difficulty in ensuring safe and universal access to critical enhancement technologies. Most people in the next several generations will be early adopters of enhancement technologies. Our children will consider enhancements to be as matter of fact as iPods and text messaging are today. Consequently, predictions about the AI/human dichotomy are false; transhumanism will be in effect and we will grow both AI and SAI from the human brain, not from raw machines.

In regards to Warwick and De Garis, however, I don't want to paint an overly negative picture of their contribution to this film. Both thinkers have a lot to offer in this conversation, and their thoughts and insights were captured quite well. There's lots of food for thought here, and I'm still digesting it all.

Interspersed between the interviews was stock footage of old interviews and cheesy sci-fi films. There were a number of shots with Honda's ASIMO in it, played back in slow motion and set to spooky music in the background. ASIMO never looked so evil.

While “Building Gods” certainly painted the future in a gray and ambiguous light, it was not explicitly anti-transhumanist. At one point, a blurb on the screen noted that, "Transhumanists advocate the ethical advancements of technology." For those familiar with these concepts, the video will be interesting and provocative; for those new to these concepts, the video may come across as quite frightening and alarmist.

Interestingly, the documentary skirted around the issue of the Singularity. But now that I think about it, one could make a case that the entire film was about the Singularity -- just not exactly stated as such.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , .

April 8, 2006

The anthropic principle does not imply future gain

A growing suspicion is coalescing among some transhumanists, futurists and cosmologists about how the finely tuned aspects of the universe seem to implying that something great awaits humanity in the future. The sense of there being a cosmologically prescribed mission for intelligences is derived from the eerie results coming out of virtually all the sciences which show how absurdly specific the laws of the universe actually are. Further, technosociological observations like Moore's Law make it appear as if even humanity's inventions are part of some cosmologically divined plan.

I blogged about this idea a few weeks ago, and noted how such thinkers as Ray Kurzweil, John Smart, John Wheeler, and James N. Gardner suspect that intelligence plays a pivotal role in the life cycle of the universe. Essentially, using Gardner's terminology, they argue that advanced intelligences act as Von Neumann controllers within the universe which is a Von Neumann duplicator. In other words, intelligences help the universe to replicate.

Of course, the only evidence for this is purely conjectural and based exclusively on the circumstantial cosmological parameters that we observe.

I say circumstantial because the anthropic principle is in effect only insofar as it tautologically "explains" how observers have come to exist only at this particular place and time. The anthropic principle and the fine tuning argument do not imply or guarantee future gain. It explains the here and now and makes no predictions about our ongoing presence into the future.

Because of the growing feeling that humanity has a built-in modus operandi for the future, a certain aloofness has arisen among some futurists and intellectuals about our existential chances in the coming decades. Should the idea that we are a 'chosen species' disseminate into public opinion, we may run the risk of becoming even more complacent and unconcerned in the face of catastrophic risks than we already are.

And worse, the trouble with this theory, it would seem, is that it is likely wrong.

I would argue that we are already in possession of a data point that offers counter-evidence to the claim that humanity is cosmologically ordained for a higher purpose: our acquisition of apocalyptic weapons. We have been living on borrowed time since 1945. With the Cold War quickly becoming an historical curiosity, the sense of there being a looming and viable apocalyptic threat has waned considerably. The truth of the matter is that our civilization could have very easily destroyed itself many times over by now.

The idea that all-out nuclear war is impossible in consideration of the presence of rational self-preserving actors is tenuous at best (the old mutually assured destruction (MAD) theory). It has been a sheer fluke of history that an erratic leader or error hasn't ended it all.

For example, Richard Nixon was dissuaded by Kissinger to use the nuclear bomb to end the war in Vietnam (oh, what a row that would have created with the Soviets), and he even used the threat of nuclear war as a ploy against the Soviets to end the war in Vietnam. Che Guevara, who was instrumental in instigating the Cuban Missile Crisis, admitted that if the missiles had been under Cuban control, they would have fired them against major U.S. cities (not quite the sweetheart he's portrayed to be in pop culture, right?). In recent times, Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has openly admitted that he wants to "wipe Israel off the map." And then there's Korea.

Moreover, there's no reason to believe that a global ideological rift couldn't once again emerge resulting in a geopolitically stratified planet and a renewed cold war (or even all-out war).

These situations are set to get worse as more and more state actors come into possession of nuclear weapons. The primary problem with nuclear weapons proliferation is that the bombs will most assuredly be used in the event that conventional war breaks out between two nuclear capable nations. Rather than capitulate, the side that starts to find itself irrevocably losing will resort to nuclear warfare. Consequently, the onset of conventional war between two diverse powers will almost assuredly end with globally catastrophic, if not apocalyptic, results.

So, this is our fine tuned universe, one in which the Doomsday Clock sits at 7 minutes to midnight?

To my mind, a finely tuned universe in which advanced intelligences play an integral cosmological role would preclude the intelligences from becoming self-destructive before their mission was safely under way. If some sort of cosmological eschatology were in effect in which we are responsible for spawning baby universes, we would be in a place right now where our ongoing existence would not be hanging by a thread and getting worse by the minute (mature nanotechnology, SAI and advanced bioweapons come to mind).

Consequently, those who argue that we are headed for cosmological greatness are welcome to keep making their case, but not at the expense of perpetuating the sense that humanity is invincible.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , .

April 7, 2006

TTA hosts introduction to cryonics

Last night at the University of Toronto's Bahen Centre for Information Technology, Allan Randall gave an introductory talk on cryonics. Mr Randall is the current Secretary and Director for the Cryonics Society of Canada.

The talk was hosted by the Toronto Transhumanist Association, and was the first of several such talks planned in the coming weeks and months. On Thursday April 20 Mark Walker Ph.D. will be talking about social and ethical issues pertaining to radical life extension.

An MP3 of Mr Randall's entire presentation can be downloaded here.

Tags: , , , , .

April 4, 2006

Odds & Sods

"Humpback [whale] songs are not like human language, but elements of language are seen in their songs. -- Ryuji Suzuki

"There are a few designers that are truly inventive and they look at the arts, music, and real people out there, trying to make something different. That is why there is a need in the art to invent new expressive materials, to make the body and the person wearing a garment more important than the Dolce&Gabbana outfit they wear." -- Francesca Rosella

"It's an interesting question as to whether we spent the Soviets into oblivion or ourselves into senselessness. What Reagan was really trying to do with all the military spending was to create a fence between conventional and nuclear war. Every year NATO exercises ended with the American commander calling for the use of tactical nuclear weapons, which appalled Reagan. So he said, "What do you need in order not to do that?" The military said, "Tens of billions more dollars every year." Reagan said, "Fine, whatever it takes." Consequently, the military got used to an enormous baseline for spending, enabling it to forego hard choices about what our technology strategy should be." -- John Arquilla

"[Ontario Premier] Dalton McGuinty is treating taxpayers' dollars like monopoly money. For $150,000 to be spent on this after Dalton McGuinty brought in the biggest tax increase in Ontario's history is inexcusable. The McGuinty government's spending is out of control - who knows what other boondoggles they have squirreled away in their upcoming budget?" -- an upset John Tory upon discovering that a researcher at Laurentian University received a $150,000 grant to study the sex life of flying squirrels. [I have two things to say to John Tory: 1) stop picking on this guy, and 2) who the hell are you to decide what scientists should study and what they should not?]

April 3, 2006

John Bruce describes transhumanism as a cult

I received an email from J Hughes today informing me about how blogger John Bruce has blasted Glenn Harlan Reynolds for promoting transhumanism. Here's the letter:
The blogger John Bruce recently read Glenn Harlan Reynolds' Army of Davids, which promotes transhumanism, and has decided to launch a campaign to have newspapers drop Reynolds on the grounds that he promotes the "transhumanist cult." I exchanged some email with Mr. Bruce trying to bring him up-to-speed, but it had no effect. It seems clear that he is motivated by some personal and partisan agenda I don't full understand. He writes for The Dartmouth Review and The New Partisan, and appears to want Reynolds to blog and link back to launch an "Instalanche" of traffic to Bruce's blog.

This is his letter to the WSJ trying to alert them to Reynolds "cultism."

Monday, April 03, 2006
E-Mail To The Wall Street Journal

I sent the following e-mail to the Letters editor of OpinionJournal, with a copy to the features editor:

I've become concerned that you intend regularly to publish pieces by Glenn Reynolds in your Opinion Journal Federation. I've begun to notice that in his blog posts, as well as in his freelance pieces and in his book, Reynolds is making thinly disguised pitches for a cult-like belief system called "transhumanism". In fact, Reynolds identifies himself as a "transhumanist", but he doesn't make it plain that this involves bizarre beliefs. I don't think the Wall Street Journal should be providing a respectable platform for such opinions without investigation. There are several blogs that have been looking into "transhumanism" and trying to sound alarms, including that of Andrew Keen at http://andrewkeen.typepad.com/the_great_seduction/2006/03/technology_and_.html (Keen wrote one of the very rare unfavorable reviews of Reynolds's book at The Weekly Standard) and mine at

In particular, Reynolds and Raymond Kurzweil share many aspects of this bizarre belief system. Reynolds gave a highly favorable review of Kurzweil's book The Singularity is Near in the WSJ on October 1, 2005. However, I don't believe Reynolds acknowledged the extent to which he
and Kurzweil share the bizarre, cult-like "transhumanist" belief system, and as a result, I believe Reynolds may have had a conflict of interest.

With many other transhumanists, Reynolds and Kurzweil believe in a "Singularity", which is an apocalyptic event predicted within the next 30-40 years in which computers become super-efficient and the human race merges with machines. This will allow the human-machine combine to do things like cure diseases and death via "nanotechnology". In this view, human beings, once they merge with computers, will become immortal robot-like beings (within 30-40 years). A web search should show you that transhumanists typically misuse the term "nanotechnology" to refer to the ability of hypothetical future atomic-size robots to repair disease and reverse any problem that may cause death. This is not the scientific use of the term.

That some may believe in a merged, immortal computer-human life form and nanobots is only part of the problem. Some cultists go so far as to have their brains or whole bodies frozen when they die in anticipation that after the Singularity, the nanobots will be able to fix whatever led to their deaths and bring them back to life. I don't believe Reynolds has expressed a public opinion on this, but Kurzweil is on record as saying he will have his brain frozen when he dies, and by his public example he advocates the practice. Mainstream medical practitioners make it clear there is no scientific support for this practice, and some refer to it as quackery.

However, some believers have gone far enough to request assisted suicide in the belief that if they kill themselves now and have their brains or bodies frozen, they can be brought back after the Singularity and cured without the need to suffer from degenerative diseases. There is at least one case on record of an individual "suicided" with an overdose of barbiturates before having her brain frozen. I'm concerned that the WSJ may, by publishing its favorable review of Kurzweil and by providing Reynolds with a respectable platform, be helping to further these views.

In his review of Kurzweil's The Singularity is Near, Reynolds said

"Naturally, Mr. Kurzweil has little time for techno-skeptics like the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Richard Smalley, who in September 2001 published a notorious piece in Scientific American debunking the claims of nanotechnologists, in particular the possibility of nano-robots (nanobots) capable of assembling molecules and substances to order. Mr. Kurzweil's arguments countering Dr. Smalley and his allies are a pleasure to read -- Mr. Kurzweil clearly thinks that nanobots are possible -- but in truth he is fighting a battle that is already won."

I've read the Smalley piece Reynolds refers to, and this is simply an attempt by a mainstream scientist to debunk the transhumanist cult-like view that atom-size robots can cure all disease, as well as aging and death. The tendency to dismiss mainstream scientific views is, of course, characteristic of cults and quackery. Kurzweil, who is an inventor and self-promoter with no background in chemistry, is portrayed as out-arguing a Nobelist.

If the Wall Street Journal's editors knew that one Scientologist was going to review (very favorably) another Scientologist's book, and the book was a highly slanted apology for Scientology, I don't believe the WSJ would print such a thing. But this is what Reynolds did with Kurzweil. I'm concerned that Reynolds often includes not fully ingenuous pitches for transhumanism, in his blog, in his book, and in his other freelance writing.

I urge the WSJ's editors to review this problem and make a decision as to whether Reynolds should continue to have a respectable platform to advocate cult-like thinking.
So, there you have it. After reading this, I decided to write a letter to John Bruce:
Mr Bruce,

It is extremely regrettable that you have chosen to characterize transhumanism as a cult and to compare it to a known cult like Scientology. With these comments you have not only perpetuated a falsehood about transhumanism, you have trivialized an actual cult that actively goes about its business of ruining lives.

Transhumanism is at most a philosophy of science and broad-based social movement with no fixed political or religious agenda. Futurists, scientists, and philosophers who make conjectures about a possible transhuman future most certainly do not go about creating mindless drones, nor are they engaging in any kind of pseudoscientific or quasi-religious endeavor. As an idea it has been around for centuries, spawned by the Enlightment and a cousin of secular humanism. It has only recently crystallized as an academic discipline and as a social movement that is both concerned and hopeful of various pending technologies.

Some of the world's most distinguished scientists are currently thinking very hard about humanity's future, many of whom agree that a potential Singularity or some kind of 'existential paradigm shift' awaits us in the not too distant future. The idea of a transhuman future is hardly the monopoly of Ray Kurzweil. A short list of highly respected scientists who agree that a posthuman future awaits us include Steven Hawking, Sir Martin Rees, Michio Kaku, Nick Bostrom, Hans Moravec, Marvin Minsky, and James Watson. And there are many, many others; I urge you take a look at the citations in Kurzweil's Singularity book to see how broadly these ideas have disseminated throughout academia and research labs around the world.

You may not agree with any of these thinkers' conclusions, but disagreement hardly justifies the claim that transhumanism is a cult.

Moreover, there are a number of thinkers who have been in opposition to transhumanism who agree that these are plausible projections, particularly the potential for radical life extension. Francis Fukuyama and Leon Kass immediately come to mind. At no time have these individuals described transhumanism as a cult or as pseudoscientific, and I challenge you to prove me otherwise.

Consequently, I am formally asking you to retract your irresponsible and false mischaracterization of transhumanism as a cult.

George Dvorsky
Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies
Board Director
[btw, if you'd like to give Mr Bruce your 2 cents: j.bruce@gte.net]

Tags: , , .

Thinking faster by altering your perception of time

People who undergo extreme short-term psychological stress often claim that time slowed down for them during the experience. Traumatic events like car accidents or lengthy falls often appear in slow motion to the person experiencing it.

Is this just a recall error? Or are people literally experiencing these events at an altered subjective time rate? If so, how could such a psychological phenomenon be accounted for? Obviously, time is not really slowing down -- but something is happening to the psychological interpretation of time.

One possible answer is to compare the human brain's "clockspeed" to that of a computer's. Some scientists now suspect that slowed time elapsement is an evolved defence mechanism similar to our fight-or-flight response. When time appears to have slowed down, we have more subjective time in which to deal with a crisis situation. Put another way, extreme stress helps us to think faster.

One scientist looking into this phenomenon is David Eagleman from the University of Texas at Houston. At his 'Laboratory for Perception and Action' Eagleman is attempting to understand the neural mechanisms of time perception. His team combines psychophysical, behavioural, and computational approaches to address the relationship between the timing of perception and the timing of neural signals.

At the experimental level, Eagleman is engaged in exploring temporal encoding, time warping, manipulations of the perception of causality, and time perception in high-adrenaline situations. Ultimately, he hopes to use this data to explore how neural signals processed by different brain regions come together for a temporally unified picture of the world.

In one of his experiments, Eagleman had volunteers perform a backwards bungee jump freefall while he transmitted a rapid succession of numbers to an LED on their wrists. He found that during the fall they were successfully able to read the numbers, which under normal conditions would have appeared too fast. [I have to say, that is one of the most interesting and original experiments I've heard of in quite time some]

Thinking about Eagleman's research at a practical level, it is thought that a better understanding of these mechanisms will result in interventions that will help people process information at higher rates. This kind of 'think faster' augmentation would slow time down in a subjective sense, which would enable an individual to operate at a higher level of cognitive efficiency.

This theme has been explored in a number of science fiction stories. In Frank Herbert's Chapterhouse: Dune, the ghola Miles Teg was able to engage in extremely fast physical combat due to his ability to rapidly process information. Teg was able to subjectively experience time in extreme slow motion. Similarly, Neo in The Matrix was able to dodge bullets by altering his perception of time elapsement. And in Greg Egan's Diaspora, uploaded posthumans had to drastically slow down their internal clockspeeds when conversing with biological humans; clockspeeds in the real world varied dramatically from the clockspeed utilized in supercomputer 'polises.' Also in Diaspora, a group of posthumans altered their perception of time to such a slow rate that they could perceive the rising and fallings of geological structures such as mountains.

Here in the real world, such neural enhancements are rare, but not entirely impossible. It is thought, for example, that hockey ultrastar Wayne Gretzky was able to perceive the flow of the game at a slower pace than his competitors, giving him more subjective time to plan his attack. This may in fact be the case. At the height of his career, Gretzky was not just a 'little better' than other players, he was dominating to a degree never before seen in sport, breaking records by extreme margins. And this from a player who was physically unremarkable--in fact, below average.

Just what kinds of interventions could enable humans to 'warp time' is a topic of some speculation. A recent Discover article titled "The Mind in Overdrive" offers some possible solutions. Psychotropic substances are one possible answer, as drugs like cocaine and amphetamines have been known to alter subjective time for users. Also, meditating Buddhist monks claim to be able to perceive time differently; through their mental discipline, they may be recreating the same effect that Eagleman is documenting.

I'm certainly hoping that something like this will eventually become accessible. It will be interesting to see how much more productive and "aware" one might be with the benefit of these sorts of interventions. It may even create an alternative sense of subjective reality.

And it would surely come in handy the next time you need to dodge bullets.

Tags: , , , , , .