April 27, 2007

How not to prepare for an alien invasion

This is the most ridiculous book I've seen in quite some time: An Introduction to Planetary Defense: A Study of Modern Warfare Applied to Extra-Terrestrial Invasion by Travis S. Taylor et al.

Book description
"This book describes a serious look at defending the planet in the event of an extra-terrestrial invasion. Travis Taylor, et al, have written the definitive book on the defense of earth against a potential alien incursion. Whatever your beliefs on the subject...the book also serves as an important primer on the potential future of warfare on every level. It is tightly grounded in current day realities of war and extrapolates thoughtfully but closely about future potentials. It should be on the reading list of anyone who is serious about national security and the future of war."
The authors believe that there is a "high probability" that one or two intelligent alien species visit Earth every century. They also reject Carl Sagan's famous assertion that advanced space-faring civs have by necessity (i.e. selectional processes) advanced beyond the need for war. "It's a wonderful idea that has no basis in reality," claims Taylor.

Consequently, they feel that the world, or more specifically "America," needs to be on the ready. They advocate asymmetric warfare to combat the extraterrestrials. The authors argue that the likely technological imbalance would force defending forces to adopt guerrilla-like tactics -- warfare along the lines of what is currently being experienced by troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. "[I]if we were attacked by aliens, this is our best defense," writes Taylor.

Post-Singularity warfare

There is so much wrong with all this that I don't know where to begin. Their line of argumentation seems to belong in the 20th century.

The idea of the United States defending the planet with guerrilla tactics reminds me of one of the most absurd films of all-time, Independence Day. In this movie, America experiences a supreme ass kicking until the alien invaders are thwarted by the Fresh Prince and his Apple Newton (remember those?).

Okay, time for a 21st century reality check. And let me put it this way: setting aside hand-waving dismissals of the Fermi Paradox (and that's a BIG caveat), if an advanced space-faring intelligence were to arrive at Earth with hostile intentions, their attack would be over before we could say, "E.T. phone home."

Specifically, I'm imagining a post-Singularity machine intelligence with access to artificial superintelligence, advanced robotics, genetically designed phages, and Drexlerian nanotechnology (if not femtotechnology). It would be like the Terminator and Matrix worlds on steroids. And that's if they want a planet to recover; the use of anti-matter weapons would make quick work of our planet should they want to destroy it. Alternately they could set the atmosphere aflame using grey-goo nano. Or how about robotic locust swarms, autonomous hunter-killers, and neurowarfare?

Moreover, malevolent ETIs wouldn't even need to visit the Earth -- they could send their forces by proxy in the form of Von Neumann probes, or what has also been dubbed berserker probes. These are self-replicating space-craft that could conceivably reproduce and travel across the Galaxy at an exponential rate. These devices could carry a number of nasty weapons with them for their attack.

As an aside, the theoretical prospect of berserkers poses a conundrum that's related to the Fermi Paradox. Any malevolent or misguided advanced intelligence could spawn a fleet of these probes to sterilize the Galaxy in fairly short order. That said, we clearly don't live in a sterile Galaxy as witnessed by our ongoing existence. We appear to live in a Galaxy that's devoid of berserkers for non-obvious reasons.

So, my advice on preparing for an alien invasion?

Simple: don't bother -- you won't even know what hit you.

April 26, 2007

Why the discovery of a nearby Earth-like planet is bad news

Wow, the blogosphere has been absolutely gushing these past few days over the news that an Earth-like planet may have been discovered in the 'hood. This planet may boast a moderate climate that could conceivably support life and is only 20 light years away.

Not surprisingly, this news has caused a number of pundits to fantasize about jumping into their rocketships and bidding adiĆ³s to our polluted, war-torn and diseased planet.

But not so fast, amigos. While many have misguidedly jumped on the bandwagon to the stars, a number of bloggers have gotten it right.

In his article, "'Don't Pack Your Bags Just Yet", Jamais Cascio notes that, "By the time we have the technology that would make a 20 light year trip even remotely plausible (the fastest space craft yet made would still take thousands of years to get there), we probably won't be all that interested in living in a watery gravity hole anyway. Nope -- give us some nice, massive gas giants to convert to computronium!"

Michael Anissimov points out that we have a human hospitable planet right here that we’ve barely even begun to use. He also argues that "even if we did need to leave the Earth, there is a tremendous amount of raw materials for space colonies right next door in the form of carbonaceous asteroids, which make up about 75% of known asteroids." Moreover, warns Anissimov, "we should think carefully before sending off colonists to far-away places without ensuring that they’re capable of protecting the fundamental freedoms of their citizens." Specifically, he worries that a blight may come back to haunt us (which also reminds me of the Honored Matres of the Dune series).

And as Tyler Cowen noted, "Are earth-like planets so common? That probably means lots more civilization-supporting planets than I had expected. But where are the alien visitors? As suggested by the Fermi paradox, we must revise our priors along several margins, one of which is the expected duration of an intelligent civilization."

Indeed, Cowen is on the right track. A primary argument used to reconcile the Fermi Paradox is the Rare Earth Hypothesis. This line of reasoning suggests that we haven't been visited by ETI's because life is far too rare in the cosmos.

But if we have discovered an Earth-like planet as little as 20 light years away, it's not unreasonable to suggest that our Galaxy must be absolutely teeming with life. This would seem to be a heavy blow to the REH.

So why is this bad news? It's bad news because our biophilic universe should be saturated with advanced intelligence by now...but it's not. The Fermi Paradox is very much in effect as a profound and disturbing unsolved mystery in astrosociobiology, philosophy and futurism.

Are all civilizations doomed before getting to the Singularity? Or is there something else at work here?

April 25, 2007

Is the world ready for cyborg athletes?

Look out professional athletes, here come the cyborgs -- and they're aiming for the Olympics.

Double amputee Oscar Pistorius, a sprinter who uses a pair of carbon fiber prosthetic limbs, is hoping to run the 400 meter dash at the next Olympics. And he has the numbers to prove that he can compete; Pistorius has run the 400 meter dash in 46.56 seconds and the 100 meters in an impressive 10.91 seconds.

But speed is not his problem. As it turns out, his prosthetic limbs have become a matter of great contention. Consequently, Pistorius, or 'Blade Runner' as he's called, has more to contend with than just his disability.

Technical Aid?

The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) recently concluded that Pistorius's artificial legs give him a decided advantage over athletes who run with naturally endowed legs. He is using what they have termed a "technical aid." Subsequently, Pistorius is not eligible to compete at the 2008 Olympics should he qualify.

Pistorius sees this as a form of discrimination. He argues that his sprinting talents are latent and the result of his hard work and dedication to the sport. "There's a fear of change," he says.

That said, the IAAF has a point. Pistorius's artificial legs have been dubbed 'cheetahs' -- and not by accident. They resemble blades more than feet, allowing Pistorius to take long strides as he springs from step to step. Some claim that his strides are as long as three to four meters. This is no attempt to mimic normal human running; it's a new form of locomotion altogether.

Pistorius and his team argue that this is nonsense, that the blades couldn't possibly offer such an advantage.

The end of normal human functioning in sports

This issue is a snap-shot into the future of sports. Governing bodies will have much more to contend with than just performance enhancing drugs. Technological endowments, particularly those that are cybernetic in nature, are poised to upset the apple cart that is professional sports.

The Pistorius issue is a case in point. The IAAF was compelled to created a new rule stating that "the use of any technical device that incorporates, springs, wheels, etc is forbidden." They argue that these endowments change the nature and spirit of sporting events to an unacceptable degree. This is undoubtedly a precursor to future rulings that may ban genetic modifications, cognitive enhancements, and cybernetic implants.

Looking at it from another perspective, established sports like the 100 meter dash assume a specific morphology, namely that of a normal functioning human. Athletes can use subtle methods to improve their performance, whether they be expertly designed running shoes or highly refined techniques.

But there is something inherently unsatisfactory about all of this. A certain arbitrariness exists when it comes to determining which technologies are acceptable and which are not. Moreover, given the strong likelihood that advanced prosthetics will greatly surpass what is natural, at what point do we concede defeat and allow 'cyborgs' to compete alongside 'naturals?' Are groups like the IAAF discriminatory by insisting that para-athletes conform to 'normal' human morphology?

And given the 'arms race' nature of competition, will these positional advantages cause athletes to do something as seemingly radical as having their healthy natural limbs replaced by artificial ones? Is it self-mutilation when you're getting a better limb?

New capacities, new sports

The advent and application of cybernetic technologies will redefine what has typically been regarded as normal human functioning. Future humans, as they adopt novel sensory and physical endowments, will establish new modes of living and being. This will in turn normalize within society and become the dynamic norm.

The long term impact of enhancement in sports, however, is still unclear. There may be schisms within specific sports causing the emergence of rival leagues. There may be leagues for enhanced athletes and those for 'naturals.' Over time, however, the naturals will increasingly appear anachronistic.

Imagine a hockey team that communicates techlepathically, or basketball players with improved peripheral vision. There could be ambidextrous switch pitchers and skeet shooters with enhanced visual fields.

And new capacities will mean new sports altogether.

As for Pistorius and his particular dilemma, I agree with the IAAF. He should not compete with normal humans. Instead, he should continue to race against other para-athletes and keep pushing the envelope of what is physically possible.

Eventually, performances by cyborgs will surpass those of unaugmented humans. It's the disabled, after all, who will inherit the earth.

Here's a video clip of Pistorius in action:

April 24, 2007

No observer, no reality

Found this on PhysicsWeb: Quantum physics says goodbye to reality.

Some physicists are uncomfortable with the idea that all individual quantum events are innately random. This is why many have proposed more complete theories, which suggest that events are at least partially governed by extra "hidden variables". Now physicists from Austria claim to have performed an experiment that rules out a broad class of hidden-variables theories that focus on realism -- giving the uneasy consequence that reality does not exist when we are not observing it (Nature 446 871).
Entire article.

April 12, 2007

British miltary thinktank cites "synthetic telepathy" as a future threat

A UK Ministry of Defence thinktank led by Rear Admiral Chris Parry, a controversial senior officer, has outlined a number of challenges British forces might face in the period up to 2035.

In its rolling Strategic Trends Programme document, the MoD's Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre (DCDC), they note that,
"By 2035, an implantable information chip could be developed and wired directly to the user's brain...Developments might include the invention of synthetic telepathy, including mind-to-mind or telepathic dialogue. This type of development would have obvious military and security, as well as control, legal and ethical, implications."
More can be read here and here. Be prepared to read about the threat of 'brain-chipped middle class goths in flashmob revolution by 2035' and middle class revolutionaries taking on the role of Marx's proletariat.

Mmmmmm, middle class cybergoth proletariat revolutionaries. Where do I sign up?

SIAI video series, 2007 updates

Our friends over at the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence (SIAI) have been busy. For those of you unfamiliar with the SIAI, they are,

a nonprofit research institute based in Palo Alto, California, with three major goals: furthering the nascent science of safe, beneficial advanced artificial intelligence (self-improving systems) through research and development, research fellowships, research grants, and science education; furthering the understanding of its implications to society through the AI Impact Initiative and annual Singularity Summit; and furthering education among students to foster scientific research.

They've recently released a video series from the Singularity Summit featuring presentations by such thinkers as Ray Kurzweil, Nick Bostrom, Douglas R. Hofstadter, Cory Doctorow and K. Eric Drexler.

Their Spring 2007 updates can be found here. You can find out more about the SIAI here.

April 7, 2007

Bisphenol A 'inherently toxic'

If you eat canned food or drink from a can or hard plastic bottles, chances are good that you've ingested Bisphenol A. A controversy is now raging over the safety of the chemical, which acts like a synthetic female sex hormone. Bisphenol A may be responsible for a number of health risks.

Here's an excerpt from the Globe and Mail article, 'Inherently toxic' chemical faces its future,
It seems obvious that a high dose of a poison would be more dangerous than a lower one, but bisphenol A is creating a stir because it doesn't follow this seemingly common-sense rule. Researchers say this oddity results from the fact that bisphenol A isn't a conventional harmful agent, such as cigarette smoke, but behaves in the unconventional way typical of hormones, where even vanishingly small exposures can be harmful.

This is why some environmentalists and scientists contend that bisphenol A, which leaches in trace amounts from food and beverage packaging, is among the scariest manufactured substances in use, an eerie modern version of the vaunted lead water pipes by which ancient Romans were unknowingly poisoned.

Extrapolating from the results of animal experiments, they suspect bisphenol A has its fingerprints all over the unexplained human health trends emerging in recent decades hinting at something going haywire with sex hormones, including the early onset of puberty, declining sperm counts, and the huge increase in breast and prostate cancer, among other ailments.
Look for this issue to gain increasing public attention over the coming months and years.

April 6, 2007

'Jesus Camp' and the art of brainwashing children

I recently picked up the DVD of Jesus Camp and I let it sit on the shelf for a couple of weeks. I was reluctant to watch it because I knew how upset it would make me. Well, I finally watched it, and let's just say that it didn't disappoint.

A lot of what I saw in Jesus Camp was expected, such as the ideologically far-right evangelical bent and the insane close-mindedness. But what I didn't expect was the sophistication of evangelical proselytizing techniques. Even more disturbing is how American evangelicals are using these strategies to brainwash their very own children.

These kids don't have a chance.

Far right theocratic ideology

American evangelicals are quite clearly situated at the extreme right of U.S. politics. They are polarized so right of center that their outlook is nothing less than ideological. They have framed the world in such a way that they only perceive things in black and white: there are the true believers and then there's everybody else. As one parent noted in the documentary, "We believe that there's two kinds of people in this world: people who love Jesus and people who don't."

The paranoia and sense of fanatical mission is palpable throughout Jesus Camp. The struggle to spread the Good Word has escalated beyond door-to-door evangelizing. The spread of liberalism and scientific naturalism in the U.S. has forced evangelicals to take it to the next level. They've declared war against their enemies and assumed ownership of the United States; they are working to reclaim what they see as God's country.

The language is not merely rhetorical. “This means war!" shouts an evangelical teacher to her young students, "Are you a part of it or not?” A cardboard cut-out of George W. Bush looks on. The allegiance to the Republican Party is assumed and undeniable, and for this the evangelicals make no apologies.

And it's not merely a battle for political power -- it's a culture war in which ideas themselves are under attack. Evangelical children are recruited into this struggle at a tender and suggestible age.

They are shown expertly produced and highly entertaining videos that mock evolutionary biology and laud creationism. "Do you really think we come from goo?" asks the man in the video, his hand covered in green slime. The children laugh at the absurdity of the suggestion. The word 'science' is bantered around like a pejorative.

In one scene a boy named Levi is shown at home being schooled by his mother. She asks, "Did you get to the part yet where they say that science hasn't proven anything?" She then turns his attention to global warming. If it's something that scientists have informed us about, like 'evolution,' then the evangelicals feel that something fishy must be going on. Climate change is dismissed out of hand. Silly scientists, what do they know?

Expert evangelical techniques

Ironically, evangelical parents and teachers are unknowingly applying memetic and neurolinguistic techniques in their practice. They teach their children to frame the world in a very specific way -- and they do it in such a way that they become 'locked-in' to that frame.

They teach and reinforce complete submission to God and are told that people are nothing more than vessels. As a result, children learn to see themselves as tools rather than free thinking agents. They are taught that independent and 'out of the box' thinking is deviant behavior and a sign of evil or weakness.

They are also taught how to identify those ideas that could subvert God's mission and how to deal with those contingencies. Children are instructed to recognize aspects of the world in one of two ways: it is either pure and righteous, or dirty and defiled. The idea that certain things are unclean and impure are anchored into their psyche. In one scene children are given an opportunity to cleanse themselves as the teacher pours bottled water over their hands. The look of desperation on the children's faces as they wait their turn is disturbing. Evangelicals have mastered the art of teaching shame.

It should come as no surprise that fundamentalist Muslims use similar lock-in techniques. This is an example of convergent memetics -- a similar phenomenon to what's often seen in evolution when different species acquire the same trait independently. Religions, particularly those with an evangelical focus, have independently acquired and refined those tactics which ensure practitioner lock-in and a desire to spread and defend the memeplex.

This is why fundamentalist religions are so hard to escape from psychologically. The mind has been programmed to respond to certain stimuli in a preconceived way and to perceive that response as a guide to action. Moreover, the desire to transcend the programming has been subverted by feelings of guilt, shame, or uncleanliness. At a deeper level, doubt or independent thinking is rationalized as the work of an outside force, namely the devil or non-believers.

As an interesting aside, when asked how they can justify the proselytizing of their children in this way, the evangelicals counter by claiming that the Muslims are doing it as well. The difference as they see it is that they have the true word of God, and it is better to get to their children before someone else does -- namely the enemy. As Camp organizer Becky Fischer noted:
"It's no wonder, with that kind of intense training and discipling, that those young people are ready to kill themselves for the cause of Islam. I wanna see young people who are as committed to the cause of Jesus Christ as the young people are to the cause of Islam. I wanna see them as radically laying down their lives for the Gospel as they are over in Pakistan and Israel and Palestine and all those different places, you know, because we have... excuse me, but we have the truth!"
Child abuse in the name of God

Children are also taught how to deal with non-evangelicals, particularly if they are teased or rejected by them. They talk about how non-believers build walls around themselves and how they refuse to be happy or fulfilled. Children are encouraged to 'help' these people by proselytizing. They learn how to do cold approaches and are given opening scripts. They apply field tested techniques to help in the interaction and offer the target some literature.

At the Jesus Camp itself, the organizers recruit a series of expert speakers. These are presenters and teachers who excel at interacting with children. They know how to reach out to kids, maintain their interest, impart information, and keep them entertained.

And they do this extraordinarily well. Too well.

Children are treated as puppets to be manipulated and are frequently brought to tears. There are more scenes of kids crying in Jesus Camp than I care to mention. Speaker after speaker reinforce different points, and you can practically hear the doors of cognition slamming shut in the minds of the children. In turn, when the children actually speak and articulate their thoughts they sound as if they're channeling adults.

In one scene Levi says, "At five I got saved...because I just wanted more of life."

Say what? Now, what five year old feels he needs "more of life." I'm sorry, but five year olds do not talk or think in this way. This is a sad case of children regurgitating scripts fed to them by their parents and instructors.

Indeed, the evangelicals know exactly what they're doing and they're consciously going about the business of not just conversion but of refining their techniques as well. "I can go into a playground of kids that don't know anything about Christianity," says Fisher, "lead them to the Lord in a matter of, just no time at all, and just moments later they can be seeing visions and hearing the voice of God, because they're so open. They are so usable in Christianity."

Outspoken religious critic Richard Dawkins has a term to describe these types of individuals: child abusers. He believes that teaching religion to children is a form of abuse because they have not yet developed the psychological faculties to defend themselves against proselytization.

The trouble is, moderates and liberals cannot and will not struggle against evangelicals with equal fervor. Moderates are, well, too moderate. Moreover, the damage inflicted by ideas is much more difficult to ascertain than something like physical abuse. At the same time, religious and free speech rights are held with high esteem.

The answer, it would seem, is elusive. A good place to start, however, would be to ensure that each and every child receives a liberal and diverse education. Children deserve at least this much.

What happens at home may be beyond the purview of the state, but at least they can be given a chance at school.

Enter the switch pitcher

I often wonder where human enhancement will take professional sports. Sure, we're in the denial-and-react phase of this transformation (as witnessed by the strict laws against chemical enhancement), but the time is coming when the genetically enhanced athlete will be the norm.

Pat Venditte is a good example of what the future might hold. He's not genetically or chemically enhanced; Venditte is a naturally born ambidextrous switch pitcher who plays for Creighton University in the NCAA. He can switch from being a right or left handed pitcher at a moment's notice. This is advantageous for the same reason that switch hitters alter their batting stances (a skill that does not require ambidexterity, also known as cross-dominance).

I can see cross-dominance being an accepted feature of the enhanced human. Maintaining physical asymmetry doesn't make a lot of sense -- handedness is a throwback to our evolutionary history and most likely has a genetic basis (although the exact reason for handedness is still an unsolved mystery in biology).

At the same time, the advantages of being ambidextrous are self-evident and numerous. Jimi Hendrix, for example, was ambidextrous and he had perfect pitch (talk about winning the genetic lottery!!). Some good examples of cross-dominance in sports can be found here.

Including the ability to throw a curve that lands low and inside against a tough left-handed hitter.

Austrian court to rule if chimp has human rights

It's a strange question: should a 26-year old chimp named Hiasl qualify for human rights? It's strange because it's the wrong question. The issue is not whether Hiasl is human-like enough to qualify for such privileges, but whether or not he's person enough to earn such rights and protections.

The mistake is in making human DNA the metric for personhood. This smacks of human arrogance and exceptionalism; we are not the only persons on the planet -- far from.

Instead, what's needed in a situation like this is a list of personhood criteria so that an agent's level of personhood can be assessed. This will eventually have to be done for a number of reasons, whether it be to broaden the sphere of rights to include nonhuman animals, or to recognize personhood characteristics in artificial entities and technologically enhanced humans.

I've written on this topic in the past:
  • Spanish socialists want to give apes human rights
  • The myth of our exalted human place
  • April 5, 2007

    Buddha Break 2007.04.05

  • The World Health Organization defines health as, "a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity."

  • "The suffering itself is not so bad, it's the resentment against suffering that is the real pain." -Alan Ginsberg

  • "Remembering a wrong is like carrying a burden on the mind." - Buddha; Guilt, shame and the Buddhist practice.

  • Gifted students who feel the pressure of their ability could be using Heavy Metal music to get rid of negative emotions.

  • "A Tibetan scholar once complained to me of Zen’s severe reductionism. The scholar was right. Zen is so reductive by nature that it actually self-destructs. The longer I practice Zen the less I have of anything, including Zen itself." -- Lin Jensen; More.

  • Neurolinguistic programming (NLP) can help you literally think yourself out of depression.

  • People who bought this book also bought: Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves by Sharon Begley; The Attention Revolution: Unlocking the Power of the Focused Mind by B. Alan Wallace; The Dalai Lama at MIT by Anne Harrington; Genuine Happiness: Meditation as the Path to Fulfillment by B. Alan Wallace; The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science by Norman Doidge.

  • Scientific studies of meditation and other forms of contemplative experience have only recently become a subject of scientific interest.

  • Saletan on brain damage, evolution, and the future of morality.

  • The concept of Nirvana from a psychological point of view.

  • Paul Broks reviews Nicholas Humphrey's take on consciousness: "One day I'll be dead. It's an oddly exhilarating thought. Something unimaginable—nothingness—awaits us all. I have a hunch that getting an imaginative purchase on mental nothingness would help us also grasp the "somethingness" of sentience. What else was conscious in that summer's evening scene? The tree? No. The bugs? I doubt it. The cat? Who knows? I had an intuition that it felt like something to be the cat, that the animal had some awareness of the cacophony of the cicadas' mating calls, an awareness to which I would ascribe the sensory quality sound. As it stretched and rolled, I imagined it experienced a bodily sensation, which might be labelled pleasure. And I am pretty sure that if I had walked over and stamped on its tail, then it would have experienced pain. But it was just an intuition. An intuition, yes, but one I could surely back up with neurology."

  • "The biggest obstacle [today for contemplative practitioners] is that Western 21st century culture provides very little support for spiritual practice and in fact its major thrust (consumerism) runs counter to spiritual growth." More.

  • Being human: Nussbaum and capabilities.

  • The latest NEWSWEEK poll shows that 91 percent of American adults surveyed believe in God—and nearly half reject the theory of evolution. Maybe it's because humans hard-wired for faith.

  • Computer-based therapy for such things as depression should be available to all patients in England from April, says the government.

  • "The reason we experience disgust today is that the response protected our ancestors," said Dan Fessler, associate professor of anthropology and director of UCLA's Center for Behavior, Evolution, and Culture. "The emotion allowed our ancestors to survive long enough to produce offspring, who in turn passed the same sensitivities on to us."

  • Would you kill one person to save five others? Your intuition is probably wrong, says Peter Singer.

  • Slate on The Hostile New Age Takeover of Yoga. Read with a grain of salt.

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