My guest article for the OGI's ReGenesis: Science and Society column

The Ontario Genomics Institute recently asked me to be a guest author for their ReGenesis: Science and Society column. The OGI provides 'Facts Behind the Fiction' for ReGenesis to help viewers keep the science and ethics of genomics and other cutting-edge biotechnologies in context.

ReGenesis is a Canadian television program produced by The Movie Network and Movie Central in conjunction with Shaftesbury Films. The series revolves around the scientists of NorBAC (The North American Biotechnology Advisory Commission), a fictional organisation with a lab based in Toronto. The organisation deals with problems throughout Canada, the United States, and Mexico.

I was asked to contribute a column for the final episode of the season which deals with the issue of human enhancement. Here's an excerpt from the article:
The scenario as presented in this episode brings to mind the futuristic vision of the transhumanists – a group of thinkers and activists who contend that humanity can and should use advanced biotechnologies to extend and enhance human capacities.

More specifically, transhumanists advocate increased funding and awareness for research into radically extending healthy human lifespans. They favour the development of medical and technological means to improve such things as memory, concentration, intelligence and physical capacities. They argue that all people should have the option to use such means to enhance various dimensions of their cognitive, emotional and physical well-being. Transhumanists consider these types of advancements as natural extensions of the traditional aims of medicine and technology to improve the human condition.

To this end, transhumanists are supportive of research into human genomics, biogerontology (the study of the causes of aging), cognitive pharmaceuticals, stem cells and other regenerative medicines. A number of these ‘transhumanistic’ biotechnological possibilities were showcased in this episode, including gene therapy employing viral transmission of genetic data, the regeneration of Bob’s optical nerve, and the acquisition – or creation – of an entirely new sense.

Looking ahead to the future, transhumanists consider the potential for technologies such as cybernetics, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence to significantly alter the human species. They envision radically advanced ‘transhumans’ and ‘posthumans’ who live indefinite life spans and who have cognitive capacities that vastly exceed our own.
The entire article can be found here.

Too bad I don't have $5,000 to spare

From the press release:

TransVision 2007 Attendees to Experience ZERO-G Weightless Flight With Visionaries Ray Kurzweil and Peter Diamandis
July 27 Flight Will Raise Funds for X PRIZE Foundation

CHICAGO, IL--(MARKET WIRE)--Jun 27, 2007 -- On Friday, July 27, TransVision 2007, a global conference on grand challenges, will host a weightless flight with Zero Gravity Corporation (ZERO-G®, Notable visionaries Ray Kurzweil and Dr. Peter H. Diamandis, along with conference attendees, will experience the amazing zero-gravity flight -- the only commercial opportunity on Earth for individuals to experience true "weightlessness" without going to space. They can fly like Superman, flip like an Olympic gymnast and enjoy 10 times more hang-time than the world's best basketball player. The flights also will benefit the X PRIZE Foundation, an educational nonprofit prize institute created to foster radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity. These special flights are priced at $5,000 per seat and can be booked when registering for TransVision 2007.

"Going beyond our limitations is what being human is all about. We've been bound by gravity for every moment of our lives, so I expect that transcending the bounds of gravity, even for a few minutes, will be a liberating experience," said Ray Kurzweil. "This is one example of the myriad ways in which technology will enable us to transcend all kinds of limitations in the years ahead."

X PRIZE Foundation Chairman and CEO, Peter Diamandis will present his vision of the future of space at TransVision 2007, along with a keynote by noted inventor-author-futurist Ray Kurzweil. They will be joined by William Shatner and other renowned visionaries and celebrities, including actor Ed Begley Jr., columnist Arianna Huffington, life-extension pioneer Aubrey de Grey, and AI guru Marvin Minsky. The "TransVision 2007: Transhumanity Saving Humanity: Inner Space to Outer Space" event is the ninth annual science and technology gathering of the World Transhumanist Association (WTA), to be held at the Chicago Fairmont Hotel, July 23-26, 2007. The event will explore how emerging technology can solve the greatest problems facing humanity. To register for TransVision 2007, visit

June 29, 2007

Blessed are the doomsayers

"More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly." -- Woody Allen
Back in 2000 Sun Microsystems chief scientist Bill Joy published his now famous (or is that infamous?) warning cry, "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us." Soon thereafter philosopher Nick Bostrom published his seminal paper on existential risks and Sir Martin Rees released his book, Our Final Hour. Even thinkers like Stephen Hawking and James Lovelock chimed in, warning that human civilization is headed in a bad way.

And it was only recently that the Doomsday Clock was once again moved foward.

Indeed, doom mongering has suddenly crept back into fashion. A new breed of Chicken Littles has emerged. But these aren't your run-of-the-mill street corner nut jobs warning that the end is nigh. Rather, these are serious thinkers with excellent credentials.

And in my own small way I have also contributed to this burgeoning neo-doom culture. A good portion of my thinking and writing is devoted to the topic. It's an important issue for the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (where I'm on the Board of Directors). I'm also advising for the Lifeboat Foundation, an organization dedicated to foresight and disaster prevention.

I settled into this vein quite unintentionally and unwillingly; the more I delved into the issue, however, the more I became convinced that looming catastrophic risks were indeed a problem.

Needless to say there has been considerable negative reaction to what is perceived as unjustified fear mongering and hyper negativity. Doomsayers are often scorned and put to task on their grim prognostications. Many critics contend that today's catastrophists are no different that those from the past. For them, it's deja vu all over again.

Popular targets

Doomsayers are often ridiculed or ignored altogether mainly on account of the fact that an existential catastrophe has yet to actually happen. Catastrophism evokes images of apocalyptic religions and doomsday cults -- Book of Revelations type stuff, end of the world, judgment day, and so on.

Observation tells us that the worst predictions rarely, if ever, come true. Humans, after all, are still alive and kicking 60 years after the development of the atomic bomb. Moreover, despite localized violence in many parts of the world today, conditions for human existence have never been better. And the problems that do exist, like climate change, do not appear overwhelming intractable.

The human psyche is repelled by despair; it flees from it like the plague. Few want to associate themselves with the fear mongering doomsayers. It is a position that is inherently unattractive, with all its pessimism, defeatism and paranoia.

Catastrophists have been accused of using their position to increase social status. Worse, doomsayers are seen as providing fodder for advantageous politicians who use scare tactics in their politicking. There's no better way to control and manipulate a populace by exploiting their fears.

Enter the new doomsayers

Doomsaying went out of style thanks to the euphoria caused by the end of the Cold War. An idealistic complacency settled in, and much of society lived in utter denial of humanity's ongoing apocalyptic potential.

These days, in our post 9/11 world, disaster scenarios have once again regained currency. The fall of the bi-polar geopolitical arrangement has led to a much more unstable multi-polar global regime, while the United States exhibits a hegemonic attitude despite not actually being one.

Further, an entirely new generation of apocalyptic threats have been uncovered by scientists and technologists. Theoretical possibilities include catastrophic devastation in the wake of deliberately engineered pathogens, self-replicating molecular nanotechnology run amok, run-away global warming, and poorly programmed artificial intelligence. There are undoubtedly many more. Humanity will in short order have access to a growing arsenal of apocalyptic technologies; we'll soon be spinning plates -- and eventually one of them is going to fall.

Adding insult to injury are philosophical and observational indicators suggesting that humanity does not have a very promising future. These include the Doomsday Argument and the Fermi Paradox.

Confronting the grim and bitter truth

Intelligence, which has in the short run been the most powerful evolutionary trait ever witnessed, may ultimately prove to be a fatal adaptation. It may very well be that civilizations eventually extinguish themselves under the weight of their untenable technological complexity.

Our past success as a civilization does not guarantee future gain. Yes, we survived the Cold War, but as an apocalypse wielding species, we are now perpetually living on borrowed time. In our militaristic, real politik world, the notion of abolishing and containing these weapons is a pipe-dream.

Off the mark?

Of course, I and many other doomsayers may be wrong; my view of the future may be considerably off the mark.

A number of scenarios come to mind. A quasi-totalitarian and planetary wide police state could be imposed; the nation state may die as a political entity resulting in the significant lessening of geopolitical tensions; ongoing memetic homogenization may alleviate the pressure exerted by radical non-state actors; democratic institutions may prove to be successful in how they manage the development, application and proliferation of apocalyptic technologies; effective prophylaxis may be developed to counter the effects of catastrophic technologies (e.g. space-based defenses and Active Shields).

Don't blame the messenger

More to the point, however, none of the doomsayers are saying, "abandon hope all ye who enter here." On the contrary, despite the seemingly impossible odds, the purpose of the doomsaying exercise is to raise awareness. Human civilization needs to work to prevent catastrophe -- and prevention cannot happen without foresight. These threats are a call to action. Failure to properly assess and elucidate these threats could quite literally result in human extinction.

Societies need doomsayers to eliminate passivity and indifference so that a safe future can be engineered.

Even if that may be an impossible task.

June 26, 2007

Uh, no.

Just caught a New York Times article exploring the possibility that human DNA is the ultimate spot for secret messages. I've heard this suggestion before -- that extraterrestrials may have planted some sort of message in our DNA that we are meant to discover.

I'm not going to waste any time on this goose chase aside from saying that this would be a rather round-about and obscure way to communicate with us. I'm sure there are much, much better ways for ETI's to contact us should they want to.

If aliens wanted to, they would have destroyed us by now

The Speculist today alerts us to an interesting article in The Independent called, "Meet the neighbours: Is the search for aliens such a good idea?"

The article, which was very well researched by astronomer David Whitehouse, examines the issue of whether or not human civilization should announce itself to the larger galactic community. Whitehouse cites the opinions of such notables as Freeman Dyson, David Brin, Ronald Bracewell, and many others. Understandably everyone has a strong opinion on the subject.

Here's my own take: If advanced extraterrestrial civilizations wanted to, they would have destroyed us by now. It's the Fermi Paradox all over again -- but this time, instead of wondering, "where is everybody," we find ourselves asking, "why haven't we be destroyed already?" There are several considerations which make the observation of our ongoing presence in the Universe a pertinent one.

First, it's largely believed that intelligence may have emerged in the Milky Way as long as 4.5Gyr ago. As has been argued on many occasions, this, in conjunction with the possibility of self-replicating probes, cuts the size of the Galaxy to manageable proportions; the Galaxy could have been colonized many times over -- but it's not.

This has also led to speculation about so-called berserker probes (a term attributed to Fred Saberhagen). These self-replicating probes could sterilize the Galaxy in relatively short order -- and the process would be fairly easy. A berserker could poison each planet such that life would never be capable of emerging. If the berserker should discover a planet with life already on it, all it would have to do is cause a global ecophagy through the use of molecular nanotechnology; an entire ecosystem could be destroyed in as little as 20 months.

If this seems like a rather excessive and 'uneconomical' way of sterilizing the Galaxy, keep in mind that we're talking about exponentially self-replicating probes. Berserkers could reproduce themselves using material found in asteroid belts or dead planets. There would be little cost involved, aside from the production and dissemination of the first probe.

If, on the other hand, an ETI was both malevolent and frugal there is another possibility: the use of hibernating berserker probes. Much like the monolith of 2001: A Space Odyssey, self-replicating probes could be lying dormant in every solar system in the Galaxy waiting patiently for intelligence to emerge. It could easily detect the presence of a civilization by listening for their radio signals. Swift destruction would ensue.

Which brings up an interesting consideration. Seeing as we have been transmitting radio signals for almost 100 years, any dormant berserker probe would be well aware of us by now. If it is going to destroy us, it should probably get going; we are only about 50 years away from a Singularity (a cosmologically insignificant amount of time).

I would think that the point of sterilizing the Galaxy would be to eliminate the possibility of any rival post-Singularity intelligences. And if you don't like the Singularity moniker, just substitute Kardashev I civilizations into your calculations.

Consequently, the berserker should have wiped us out by now. But it hasn't, which likely means there is no berserker hanging out in our neighborhood. Moreover, the fact that we're still inhabiting a life-rich Earth is an indicator that we don't reside in a sterile galaxy. We can thus conclude that advanced extraterrestrial civilizations do not embark on such nefarious campaigns. As Robert Freitas has stated, "The present observational record can only support the much more restricted conclusion that no rapacious galactic civilisations are currently loose in the Galaxy."

So, we don't need to worry about sending our radio signals out into space. We can transmit all we want -- it won't make a bit of difference.

Nobody is listening and nobody cares.
Related articles:
Is Active SETI imperiling Humanity?
Building a machine designed by ET: not a good idea

June 22, 2007

Canadian couples discover sex selection loophole

It's funny how we pick our battles. While I try to focus on some of the more important social issues facing Canadians, there are some minor annoyances that will get a rise out of me every time.

One of these 'annoyances' is the struggle for parents to earn the right to select the gender of their offspring. Sex selection is currently illegal in Canada. Both parents and complicit doctors face hefty fines and potential jail terms should they break the law. I've argued on many previous occasions why I think parents deserve this right, so I'll spare you the drill.

But now it appears that Canadian couples have discovered a loophole (aside from trips to the United States where it's sanctioned).

Mail-order kits

I read with some interest recently of how some Canadian couples are using a mail-order kit to determine the sex of a fetus early in pregnancy for the purpose of selective abortion. A relatively inexpensive blood test can analyze fetal DNA for the presence of the male Y chromosome, allowing the gender to be determined as early as five weeks into a pregnancy. The manufacturer, a British company called DNA Worldwide, claims an accuracy rate around 95% (which is amazingly high).

They ship on average 2 kits to Canada per week and have no way of determining how couples use the information revealed by the test.

Ethical issues

This prompted the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists to decry the use of early gender tests for 'selective abortion.'

"The SOGC remains firmly against the practice of sex selection through selective abortion," Dr. Don Davis, the group's president, said in a release. "These new technologies are finding their way to Canadian women and are opening the door to a number of ethical questions."

The group sees the procedure as being discriminatory.

Spurious claims

The SOGC's position raises the question: discriminatory against whom? In Canada, where abortions are legal, the issue of non-personhood during early gestation seems have been settled. Surely the SOGC is not suggesting that a 5 week old fetus can be discriminated against.

I realize that the argument against gender selection transcends the womb as a potential social issue. There is fear that Canadians will use selection technologies to favour one gender over the other, much like what is happening in China and India.

Of course, we don't live in China or India, nor have we retained outmoded perspectives on gender. Just as importantly, and while not yet perfect, the potential socioeconomic disadvantages of gender have been greatly reduced in the West. There is no good reason to significantly favour one gender over the other in Canada.

Without a doubt, Canadian couples would use sex selection as a means to ensure family balancing -- which in today's two-kids-per-couple Canada translates to -- *aghast* -- an equal distribution of one girl and one boy.

Going against demand

Arguments against sex selection don't hold up against deeper scrutiny. Charges of discrimination and fears of societal collapse as a result of a skewed gender ratio are hallucinatory. This is a law that most certainly needs to be reconsidered.

Moreover, Canadian couples are quite clearly showing a demand for sex selection. Even though no statistics or evidence were provided, the SOGC was clearly alerted by something -- otherwise, why the public statement?

I know from personal experience that Canadians want this. Every time I pen an article about sex selection my inbox fills up with sympathetic and supportive e-mails. Many of the letters bemoan the paternalistic nature of the law -- it's as if Canadians can't be trusted with their own reproductive choices.

In this case, where no harm is being done, and where Canadians have clearly indicated demand, it's high time that this law be repealed.

June 20, 2007

Dan Quayle quotes

Apropos of completely nothing (aside from my wanting to spark a discussion of the rampant anti-intellectualism that runs through the Republican Party), I discovered a page of Dan Quayle quotes that I had to share (you remember Dan Quayle, don't you, former V.P. of the United States?).

Each of these quotes are gems in their own right. Some are very (unintentionally) zen-like and read like mind-cleansing Buddhist koans.

Here are several examples (although I encourage you to follow the link and read them all):
"When I have been asked during these last weeks who caused the riots and the killing in L.A., my answer has been direct and simple: Who is to blame for the riots? The rioters are to blame. Who is to blame for the killings? The killers are to blame."

"Verbosity leads to unclear, inarticulate things."

"Mars is essentially in the same orbit... Mars is somewhat the same distance from the Sun, which is very important. We have seen pictures where there are canals, we believe, and water. If there is water, that means there is oxygen. If oxygen, that means we can breathe."

"What a waste it is to lose one's mind. Or not to have a mind is being very wasteful. How true that is."

"I believe we are on an irreversible trend toward more freedom and democracy - but that could change."

"The Holocaust was an obscene period in our nation's history. I mean in this century's history. But we all lived in this century. I didn't live in this century."

June 18, 2007

Stross: Space colonization is not in our future

I'm sure most readers of this blog have stumbled upon Charlie Stross's recent post, The High Frontier, Redux, in which he argues that space colonization is not in our future (Charlie's post was BoingBoing'd and Slashdotted and of this writing has over 452 comments!). He crunches the numbers and offers some interesting food for thought about the limitations and absurdities of space travel and colonization.

He says,
This is not to say that interstellar travel is impossible; quite the contrary. But to do so effectively you need either (a) outrageous amounts of cheap energy, or (b) highly efficient robot probes, or (c) a magic wand. And in the absence of (c) you're not going to get any news back from the other end in less than decades. Even if (a) is achievable, or by means of (b) we can send self-replicating factories and have them turn distant solar systems into hives of industry, and more speculatively find some way to transmit human beings there, they are going to have zero net economic impact on our circumstances (except insofar as sending them out costs us money).
I recommend that you read article; there's lots to consider.

That said, I agree with Stross that space colonization is not in our future -- or anybody's future for that matter. But I disagree with him as to why this is the case (this is largely what I'll be speaking about at TransVision 2007 next month).

First, Stross's analysis fails to take into account future civilization types; I get the sense that he takes a normative view of today's technological and economic realities and projects them into the future. This is surprising, not only because he's an outstanding science fiction visionary, but also because he's a transhumanist who has a very good grasp on what awaits humanity in the future (in fact, he was the WTA's transhumanist of the year for 2004). Specifically, he should be taking into account the possibility of post-Singularity, Drexlerian, Kardashev Type II civilizations. Essentially, we're talking about post-scarcity civilizations with access to molecular assembling nanotechnology, radically advanced materials, artificial superintelligence, and access to most of the energy available in the solar system.

Stross also too easily dismisses how machine intelligences, uploaded entities and AGI will impact on how space could be colonized. He speculates about biological humans being sent from solar system to solar system, and complains of the psychological and social hardships that could be inflicted on an individual or crew. He even speculates about the presence of extraterrestrial pathogens that undoubtedly awaits our daring explorers. This is a highly unlikely scenario. Biological humans will have no role to play in space. Instead, this work will be done by robots and quite possibly cyborgs (which is how the term 'cyborg' came to exist in the first place).

Stross does mention the possibility of probes being sent out, but again, fails to account for the economic benefits of self-replicating probes. He notes the extreme distances involved in space travel -- another way of saying that it takes too long. Given the alternative mind-space and clock-space that a machine mind could inhabit, time is not a very helpful variable when discussing the limitations of space travel.

Spacecraft propulsion was another topic that Stross addressed. My feeling is that he should have spent more time analyzing some of the more radical possibilities for star-to-star space travel. I'm fairly convinced this is not an inhibitor to space colonization.

Finally, Stross's analysis invokes far too much sociology and rationalization. Cost and time scales aside, he did not take into account the drive for scientific advancement and exploration. The search for life on other planets is a rather important one -- it's a mystery we seem rather hell-bent on solving. Moreover, it's difficult to predict what private individuals or groups may do on their own. I can totally imagine an eccentric and motivated crew that organizes a mission into space.

As for my own arguments against space colonization, like I said, that's the topic I'll be addressing at TV07. Stay tuned for more over the coming weeks.

June 14, 2007

Humans enhance chimps just by interacting with them

A new study examines human impact on chimpanzees' cognitive abilities:
Human interaction and stimulation enhance chimpanzees’ cognitive abilities, according to new research from the Chimpanzee Cognition Center at The Ohio State University. The study is the first to demonstrate that raising chimpanzees in a human cultural environment enhances their cognitive abilities, as measured by their ability to understand how tools work. The findings have just been published online in the Springer journal Animal Cognition.
(Thanks, PJ!)

June 10, 2007

Kaku on the future of civilizations

Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku talks about the future of intelligent life in this YouTube video. Some of what he has to say is quite interesting -- aside from his heavy reliance on the Kardashev Scale and some wild assed assumptions about the behaviour and motives of ETIs.

June 7, 2007

Change of plans for my TransVision presentation

I've decided to change my topic for TransVision 2007. Instead of speaking about postgenderism I'll be addressing the search for extraterrestrial intelligences. This topic seems more in tune for a conference with the description, "Transhumanity Saving Humanity: Inner space to Outer space."

Here's the title and abstract:

Whither, ET? What the failing search for extraterrestrial intelligence tells us about humanity's future


Rapid advances in various scientific and philosophical disciplines are forcing a re-evaluation of the SETI assumption, namely the suggestion that extraterrestrial civilizations are relatively common in the Galaxy and that their radio signatures should be readily detectable. New insights in the fields of cosmology, astrobiology, evolutionary biology, futurology and computer science are painting a far different picture of advanced intelligence than what has heretofore been anticipated. Consequently, the entire SETI endeavor and its methodology needs to be re-evaluated and re-stated. Further, the ongoing search for extraterrestrial intelligence should be studied in the context of human evolution and civilizational development so that we may better anticipate humanity's future.

Key concepts: Fermi Paradox, SETI, Active SETI, Drake Equation, panspermia, artificial objects, megascale engineering, radio signals, advanced communications, post-Singularity intelligences, catastrophism/existential risks (Occam's Razor), space colonization, von Neumann probes, migration theories (inward and outward expansion), existential phase shifting, cosmological phase transition, astrobiology, astrosociobiology, super artificial intelligence