August 15, 2007

Messages to ET and the precautionary principle

Science fiction author and futurist David Brin recently contacted me and brought me up to speed on his efforts to raise awareness about the active SETI approach, also known as METI (messages to extraterrestrial intelligences). Brin is vehemently opposed to this idea, as he believes it could put humanity in great peril. For all we know, he argues, some malevolent ETI is lurking in the neighborhood waiting for less advanced civilizations to draw attention to themselves.

Brin writes,
Let there be no mistake. METI is a very different thing than passively sifting for signals from the outer space. Carl Sagan, one of the greatest SETI supporters and a deep believer in the notion of altruistic alien civilizations, called such a move deeply unwise and immature....

Sagan — along with early SETI pioneer Philip Morrison — recommended that the newest children in a strange and uncertain cosmos should listen quietly for a long time, patiently learning about the universe and comparing notes, before shouting into an unknown jungle that we do not understand.
Brin invited me to join a closed discussion group where this issue is examined and debated. The purpose of the exercise is to not just think more deeply about this issue, but to also raise awareness and possibly prevent a catastrophe (i.e. alien invasion). Essentially, Brin argues that METI needs to be strongly considered before any group or individual takes it upon themselves to shout out to the heavens. He is particularly concerned how some groups, including SETI, are dismissive of his concerns. His fear is that someone will unilaterally decide to start transmitting messages into the depths of space.

I was unsure at first about whether or not I should join this group. As a contact pessimist I’m fairly certain that the fear about a METI approach is unwarranted -- not because ETI's are likely to be friendly, but because no one's listening. And even if they are listening, there's nothing we can do about it; any advanced ETI that's on a search-and-destroy mission would likely have the 'search' aspect figured out. I'm not sure how any civilization could hide in the Galaxy. Consequently, METI is somewhat of a non-issue in my opinion.

That being said, however, I did reach the conclusion that there is a non-zero chance that we could run into trouble should we change our approach from listening to messaging. For example, resident berserkers could be waiting, for what ever reason, for this sort of change in our radio signals. Perhaps they are waiting for a sign that we've passed a certain developmental threshold.

I think this argument is extremely weak and improbable, but it's not impossible; it should not be ruled out as a potential existential risk.

Which leads me to the precautionary principle. Since no one is listening, there is no harm in not sending messages out into the cosmos. Again, if a friendly ETI wanted to do a meet-and-greet, they should have no trouble finding us. But because there is the slim chance that we may alert a local berserker (or something unknown), we should probably refrain from the METI approach for the time being.

So, I took Brin up on his offer and I’ve joined the discussion group. We are currently considering the possibility of organizing a conference centered around the issue. I’ll continue to post about this topic as news develops. More information can be found here.

August 14, 2007

The dark side of the Simulation Argument

Kudos goes out to Nick Bostrom for having his Simulation Argument (SA) featured in the New York Times today. The SA essentially states that, given the potential for posthumans to create a vast number of ancestor simulations, we should probabilistically conclude that we are in a simulation rather than the deepest reality.

Most people give a little chuckle when they hear this argument for the first time. I've explained it to enough people now that I've come to expect it. The chuckle doesn't come about on account of the absurdity of the suggestion, it's more a chuckle of logical acknowledgment -- a reaction to the realization that it may actually be true.

But this is no laughing matter; there are disturbing implications to the SA. We appear to be damned if we're in a simulation, and damned if we're not.

Dammit, we're in a simulation!

If we were ever to prove that we exist inside a simulation, it would be proof that the transhumanist assumption is correct -- that the transition from a human to a posthuman condition is in fact possible. But that will be of little solace to us measly sims! The simulation -- er, our world -- could be shut down at any time. Or, the variables that make up our modal reality could be altered in undesirable ways (e.g. our world could be turned into a Hell realm).

Also, should we reside in a simulation, we have to pretty much assume that our digital benefactors are rather indifferent to our plight. Based on the amount of suffering going on around here we should probably assume a gnostic religious sensibility. These gods are not our allies; they may have created us, but they are not looking out for our best interests.

Dammit, we're not in a simulation!

Now, on the other side of the virtual coin, should we ever prove that we are not in a simulation, that would also be bad. It would be potential evidence that the transition to a posthuman condition may not be possible.

This problem is similar to the Fermi Paradox and the possible resolution that we are the first intelligent civilization to emerge in the Galaxy. This is a hard pill to swallow based on the extreme odds.

Similarly, we should be disturbed that we are not in a simulation because it may imply that we don't have a very bright future -- that civilizations destroy themselves before developing the capacity to create simulations. Otherwise, we have to take on a exceptionally optimistic frame and assume that we'll survive the Singularity and be that special first civilization that spawns simulations. Again, a probabilistically unsatisfactory proposition.

Of course, advanced civilizations may not create simulations on this scale. The Fermi Paradox offers yet another example as to why this is a problematic suggestion. Given the technological potential to colonize the Galaxy, why haven't advanced civilizations done so? Similarly, why wouldn't advanced civilizations create simulations given the technological capacity to do so?

The NYT article goes over a number of these issues and Bostrom provides some possible solutions. Ultimately, however, the answers are unsatisfactory.

The Simulation Argument solves the Fermi Paradox! Maybe...

Perhaps the answer to the Fermi Paradox is that we are in a simulation. It would certainly explain the Great Silence. Why bother simulating extraterrestrials? Maybe that's the point of the simulation -- to study how a civilization advances without any outside intervention.

Or maybe the Fermi Paradox exists because all civilizations are busy working on their simulations....

Or perhaps.....ah, forget it. My brain (which is probably sitting in a vat somewhere) hurts.

August 13, 2007

Sign up for the Singularity Summit

From the SIAI website:
The Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence is thrilled to announce the Singularity Summit 2007, a major two-day event bringing together 17 outstanding thinkers to examine a historical moment in humanity's history – a window of opportunity to shape how we develop advanced artificial intelligence. We invite you to join us.
Check out this list of speakers:

* Dr. Rodney Brooks, famous MIT roboticist and founder of iRobot
* Dr. Peter Norvig, director of research at Google
* Paul Saffo, Stanford, leading technology forecaster
* Sam Adams, distinguished engineer within IBM's Research Division
* Jamais Cascio, cofounder of World Changing and creator of Open the Future
* Dr. Ben Goertzel, director of research at SIAI and founder of Novamente
* Dr. J. Storrs Hall, author of Beyond AI: Creating the Conscience of the Machine
* Dr. Charles L. Harper, Jr., senior VP at John Templeton Foundation
* Dr. James Hughes, executive director of Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies
* Neil Jacobstein, prominent AI expert and CEO of Teknowledge
* Dr. Stephen Omohundro, founder of Self-Aware Systems
* Dr. Barney Pell, founder and CEO of Powerset
* Christine Peterson, cofounder of Foresight Nanotech Institute
* Peter Thiel, cofounder of PayPal and founder of Clarium Capital
* Wendell Wallach, author of Machine Morality: From Aristotle to Asimov and Beyond
* Eliezer Yudkowsky, Friendly AI pioneer and cofounder of SIAI
* Peter Voss, founder and CEO of Adaptive Artificial Intelligence


The struggle to make vegetarianism the new normal


In my wildest dreams I would have never imagined the kind of negative response I got to my vegetarian rant. My attempt to stir debate was set aflame on account of my tone, which as Martin Striz correctly noted, "psychologically primed [my] readers for a certain kind of response by framing the discourse in a disparaging tone to begin with."

Clearly, I misjudged the severity of this 'disparaging tone,' while my efforts to infuse humour and levity into the piece clearly failed; I obviously need to work on that.

But one thing I certainly learned from this exercise is that people are hypersensitive to rather forceful attacks on their dietary habits and their choice to eat meat. I clearly hit a soft-spot in a way that enraged a number of my readers. I even lost a number of regulars -- a consequence I find most fascinating. While I'm sure that many of these individuals were upset at my attitude and my over-the-top effort to proselytize, I have to think that the subject matter had a lot to do with it as well.

As I learned from writing this article, one cannot yet stand on a soapbox and make the declaration that eating meat is wrong without the fear of severe reprisal (particularly in the way that I did!). This exercise was a very clear reminder to me that vegetarianism is still very fringe, as is the broader effort to advocate for animal rights.

In other words, the debate hasn't yet been normalized in our society. Arguing for an end to livestock today would be tantamount to arguing for same-sex marriage in the 19th Century.

Now, I've pissed off my share of readers over the years. I'm a polemicist and I wear that label like a badge. I'm used to all the negative feedback and ad hominem attacks. In fact, I consider a polemical article a failure if I get very little response; it means I didn't say anything of import, I didn't push any buttons.

But this last article, jeez did I ever hit a nerve.

And over what?


It wasn't like I was saying we should abandon democracy or throw away the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. I wasn't suggesting that we bomb Iraq or that we should be forced to wear clown suits from now on.

Nope, it was about meat.

I told my readers in very blunt terms that the practice of eating meat is unethical and that they should consider converting to a vegetarian diet. That message earned me the most abuse of any post I have ever written about anything.


Yes, I used a big stick approach, but that was very deliberate. It was an effort to get attention.

One commenter suggested that I should have written a very polite article in which I carefully made my points. Sure, I could have done that -- but no one would have read it. Instead, with my sensationalistic approach I brought thousands of people to the article.

Did I change any minds? Well, maybe -- I know that at least one couple has converted to vegetarianism on account of my article. But my intention to change minds was indirect; what I really wanted to do was pass on the message that eating meat is very uncool -- and I think that accounts for a lot of the anger.

The in-your-face nature of the post was intended to upset and cajole. I wanted meat eaters to know what I think of their habits. I wanted them to know that there are people in our society who look at their eating choices with disgust and disdain. This is a very serious issue -- about as serious as it gets because we are talking about the welfare of living, breathing creatures (not to mention the environment).

Another reason for all the negative feedback is that a significant portion of my readership could care less about animal rights. They visit my site to read about transhumanism, science, futuristic technologies, the search for extraterrestrial life, and so on. The sudden shift to animal welfare and vegetarianism must have certainly seemed like a huge disconnect and a real turn-off.

But there is good reason for this; much of my transhumanist methodology is derived from non-anthropocentric personhood ethics. At its very core transhumanism is about the acknowledgment of worthwhile and morally valuable personhood space outside of Homo sapiens -- whether it be the personhood of advanced humans or more 'primitive' non-human animals.

Consequently, this ties directly into my futurist activism; I want to help create a future in which animals do not have to suffer to the degree that they do today. Sure, technology can and will help to make that happen, but today we have to use common sense food choices.

Now, in regards to the accusation that I'm a 'bigot' or intolerant of meat eaters, that's an interesting point. Bigotry, I suppose, is relative. Let's imagine for a moment that I had written an article titled 'Racists are bad people,' or 'Homophobes are bad people.' Do you think I would have received the same kind of negative response? Hardly. Aside from a few anachronistic and unenlightened perspectives I'd get a slew of comments saying, 'right on, brother.'

But the fact that I didn't get these sorts of supportive comments, aside from a small minority, indicates to me that our transition to a mostly meat-free society is a process still in its infancy.

And yes, this is not just my vision for the future, it's also an imperative and a prediction.

The ultimate goal is an end to livestock and to make vegetarianism the new normal (eventually we'll have lab grown meat at our disposal, but until then vegetarianism is a good short-term fix). How do we achieve this goal? Well, we can continue to pussy-foot around the issues and act like everything is okay, or we can raise a stink much like I did. I don't tolerate racism, homophobia, religious prejudice and sexual discrimination, nor do I tolerate speciesist meat-eating culture.

Yes, I realize that this perspective will turn off many of my readers, but for that I make no apologies.

And I don't believe I'm out of line with these sorts of comparisons. I assign high-moral worth to non-human animals. They are not our property to do with as we please. This is a crucial social issue as millions upon millions of animals suffer needlessly every year.

In closing, to those of you were offended by my rude and belligerent tone, please accept my apologies. For those readers who were angered by my message itself, please ask yourself what it is you're getting so upset about and contrast that with what I'm so upset about.

I would like to see less animal suffering, improvements to human health and a reduction in environmental degradation.

You want to eat meat.

Does this not seem disproportionate to you?

Yudkowsky: Absence of Evidence Is Evidence of Absence

Eliezer Yudkowsky has written a piece about Bayesian rationality and how it ties into the old creedo that absence of evidence is not proof of absence. This article ties in well with my previous series on the Fermi Paradox.

August 9, 2007

Meat eaters are bad people

That's right -- you heard me, bitch.

If you eat meat you're a bad person.

And you’re probably deluded too, desperately clinging to quasi-sensical rationalizations that are supposed to justify your cruel and filthy habit.

Yup, you guessed it -- I'm through being Mr. Nice Guy when it comes to dealing with meat eaters. I’ve passed a personal tipping point, so to speak, mostly on account of my having to suffer through far too many dinner conservations in which I'm exposed to ridiculous and unfounded arguments intended to support the practice of eating flesh.

Ultimately, when it comes right down to it there is no excuse for eating meat.

Let me repeat that.

There is no excuse for eating meat.

All justifications for doing so – including those rare arguments that actually manage to make sense – are weak to the core. There’s no possible excuse that outweighs the damage and suffering caused by consuming meat.

I would now like to take the time to debunk some of the more common fallacies I’m forced to listen to (and supposedly tolerate) on a regular basis:

Fallacy #1: “Humans evolved the capacity to eat meat, so it’s justified”

When a person tells me this I get the urge to smash tofu in their face.

This is the oft used appeal to nature. Advocates of this view – whether they realize it or not – are essentially suggesting that ‘might makes right’ – that because humans sit atop the food chain they can pretty much kill and eat whatever they want. I’ve even heard guys use this argument to uphold their sense of masculinity – as if eating defenseless animals who were killed by machines that dip them in electrified pools of water somehow affirms their manliness.

Funny, I have a different measure of what makes a man.

Looking at this argument another way, the appeal to nature asserts that evolved traits are inherently good. The line of thinking goes like this: Evolution is natural, and what is natural is good; and because humans evolved the capacity to eat and digest meat, the practice of eating meat must also be natural and subsequently good.

This is the naturalistic fallacy and it leads to all sorts of problems. Given this line of thinking we should also condone other human traits that came about through evolution, namely rape, murder, pedophilia and cannibalism. Obviously we’re not about to do this any time soon. We know very well that many people cannot be left to their own hard-wired devices; this is why we have self-corrective memes (i.e. ethics, laws, etc.) and why we need to have police and penal systems.

More to the point, however, is the acknowledgment that overriding our evolutionary baggage is part of the human mission. Having Darwinian processes guide our moral compass is sheer lunacy. Where is the morality in ‘survival of the fittest?’ Evolution may have helped us describe how we got here, but it most certainly won’t help us move forward as a compassionate species.

Fallacy #2: “Humans evolved the capacity to eat meat, so it’s a necessary part of a healthy diet”

Yeah, right.

That’s why heart disease is the leading cause of death; hundreds of thousands of people die prematurely each year because of too much saturated fat from meat and dairy products. It's no secret that meat consumption promotes heart disease, cancer, diabetes, osteoporosis, and every other major degenerative disease. The Western meat-obsessed diet is a major contributor to the host of health problems currently endemic in our society.

Meanwhile back at the tempeh ranch, not only do humans fare very well without meat, they actually thrive without it.

A number of dietitians are now claiming that human physical performance peaks when people go off meat and other animal bi-products. Carl Lewis said his best years as a sprinter came after he transitioned to a vegan diet. Word of this is slowly getting out and an entire sub-culture has emerged around this revelation.

Philosopher Peter Singer hit the nail on the head when he said that if alternative means of survival exist, one ought to choose the option that does not cause unnecessary harm to animals. And as Charles Eisenstein has said, “It is just plain wrong to take another animal's life unnecessarily; it is bloody, brutal, and barbaric.”

Makes sense to me. We don't need meat to survive or to remain healthy. Consequently, we have no business raising and killing animals for food. The ongoing practice of doing so is pure extravagance.

Fallacy #3: “Being a vegetarian is too difficult and I’d never find anything to eat”

In other words, you’re lazy, unimaginative and you have the taste buds of a 5-year old.

Get over it. A chunk of meat does not reside at the center of the Universe. There are plenty of other options.

Which brings to mind another infuriating but common misconception – the twisted notion that vegetarians only eat vegetables. What nonsense. How about a good old fashioned plate of pasta and thick tomato sauce? Or a pizza covered in mushrooms and hot peppers? A plate of nachos and refried beans, anyone? How about meatless lasagne, stir-fries, curries, chillies and casseroles? Pancakes covered in syrup, sweet potato soup, and a fresh blueberry pie...

In fact, I’ve never eaten better since becoming a vegetarian five years ago. I now eat a diverse array of foods and I’m much more competent and knowledgeable in the kitchen.

Moreover, even the most meat-centric of us (my old self included) can find worthy substitutes. I often enjoy fake ham sandwich for lunch. For dinner I like to throw a veggie patty on the barbecue and slather it with HP and Tabasco sauce. I also enjoy burritos stuffed with simulated ground meat. Add the right spicing, condiments and marinade to this stuff and you're practically there.

Fallacy #4: “Taking the life of an animal isn’t cruel because they’re worthless, stupid and probably not even self-aware”

Again, patent nonsense. These are the lies that people tell themselves as they bite into a sirloin steak – the kind of re-assurance they need to convince themselves that what they’re doing is not evil.

It’s also a sign of our speciest tendencies. As humans, we don’t kill each other because we know that other humans do not want to die. The same should hold true for our relationship with non-human animals. They don't want to die either, but they're given no choice and no protection.

Indeed, the de-valuing of animals is a lie. Farm animals are remarkably intelligent and emotional. As professor of animal husbandry John Webster has said,
"People have assumed that intelligence is linked to the ability to suffer and that because animals have smaller brains they suffer less than humans. That is a pathetic piece of logic, sentient animals have the capacity to experience pleasure and are motivated to seek it, you only have to watch how cows and lambs both seek and enjoy pleasure when they lie with their heads raised to the sun on a perfect English summer's day. Just like humans."
Yes, animals deserve an experiential life free from suffering and torment. We, as the dominant species on the planet, have to pay particular attention to their needs.

Biologist Marc Bekoff has noted, "When animals are seen as automatons with no emotions, it is easy to treat them as mere property with which humans can do as they please." Exactly -- and we need to move away from this sort of parochial thinking as quickly as possible.

Along these lines I highly recommend the book, The Pig Who Sang to the Moon: The Emotional World of Farm Animals by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson.

Fallacy #5: “Livestock aren’t treated poorly”

People who make this claim are either terribly misinformed or just plain ignorant. The reality is that modern farming practices are an absolute travesty.

Pigs are typically kept in stalls so small and narrow that they can never turn around or rest properly. Many develop respiratory problems and neurotic coping behaviors such as repetitive bar biting and sham chewing (chewing nothing). Chickens and turkeys are often packed twenty to a cage and pumped with antibiotics. Their beaks have to be clipped to prevent them from pecking at one another. And as for cows, well, read this excerpt from an April 2001 Washington Post article which describes typical slaughterplant conditions:

The cattle were supposed to be dead before they got to Moreno. But too often they weren't.

They blink. They make noises, he said softly. The head moves, the eyes are wide and looking around. Still Moreno would cut. On bad days, he says, dozens of animals reached his station clearly alive and conscious. Some would survive as far as the tail cutter, the belly ripper, the hide puller. They die, said Moreno, piece by piece...

"In plants all over the United States, this happens on a daily basis," said Lester Friedlander, a veterinarian and formerly chief government inspector at a Pennsylvania hamburger plant. "I've seen it happen. And I've talked to other veterinarians. They feel it's out of control."

I could go on and on, but I'm sure you're getting the point and you'd probably get more by reading other accounts of how pigs, cows, chickens and other farm animals are mistreated. I also recommend the book, Slaughterhouse: The Shocking Story of Greed, Neglect, And Inhumane Treatment Inside the U.S. Meat Industry by Gail A. Eisnitz.

Fallacy #6: “Eating meat isn’t that bad for the environment”

Guess again. Raising meat is environmentally nasty and an inconvenient truth.

Given the climate change hysteria currently gripping the planet, one would think that maintaining hordes of livestock would be a hot-button social and political issue. But it’s not. That would be too inconvenient. The ongoing practice of raising animals for food is being ignored as a subset to the larger environmental catastrophe currently in effect.

Animal protein, for example, requires tremendous expenditures of fossil-fuel energy—eight times as much as for the same amount of plant protein. The average meat consuming diet burns the equivalent of a gallon of gas per day. All the livestock in the U.S. consumes five times as much grain as its human population. Americans are outnumbered by their farm animals by a ratio of 25 to 1.

In terms of land use, one-sixth an acre of land can feed a vegetarian for a year, while three acres are required to provide the grain needed to raise a year's worth of meat for the average meat-eater.

The toll on water resources is just as bad. Grain-fed livestock consume 100,000 liters of water for every kilogram of food they produce; this compares to 2,000 liters required for soybeans. The meat industry accounts for nearly half of the water consumption in the U.S. – 2,500 gallons per pound of beef compared to 25 gallons per pound of wheat.

And what goes in must come out; 1.6 million tons of manure gets sent back into the environment every year in the U.S. In addition to this, residues of antibiotics and synthetic hormones are increasingly showing up in municipal water supplies.

And I have only scratched the surface.

So, as you’re heading off in your hybrid car to get solar panels for your home, just remember that as a meat eater you’re only being partly environmentally conscious.

Fallacy #7: “Eating meat is my personal choice, and since I respect your desire not to eat animals, I would appreciate your respecting my preference”

Sorry, I will do no such thing.

As Colleen Patrick-Goudreau has retorted, "The problem with this justification is that it assumes there is no victim, no other. It implies that the meat-eater’s desires, traditions, culture, or taste buds are superior to anything — or anyone — else and that because of this, he or she is absolved from the harm eating meat causes."

Remember, this is not about you.

The truth hurts

As for me personally, I do not profess to have achieved any semblance of moral perfection. You don’t need to remind me of my hypocrisies and inconsistencies; I am very much aware of them and I am my own worst critic. I am not vegan, for example, but I hope to transition to that diet eventually.

But at least I’m trying; I'm making an effort to live a life in which I mete out as little suffering as possible to other living creatures. I'm also trying to reduce my global footprint. And if that means giving up meat, which I used to eat with great delight, then so be it.

And yes, I’m on my high-horse now -- but I’m sincerely trying to make a difference. If my tone pissed you off then I succeeded in my goal. I’m deliberately trying to cajole you so you'll reconsider your eating habits.

And in my own naive way I’m hoping that some of you will now actually consider a vegetarian diet.

August 6, 2007

The Fermi Paradox: Possible solutions and next steps

This article is partly adapted from my TransVision 2007 presentation, “Whither ET? What the failing search for extraterrestrial intelligence tells us about humanity's future.”

In my previous two articles I attempted to re-affirm the Fermi Paradox (FP) and circumscribe some of the possible interstellar activities and developmental aspects of advanced extraterrestrial intelligences (ETI’s).

In this article I will offer two broad solutions to the FP: 1) unavoidable self-destruction and 2) localized non-migratory existence.

It is not my intention at this time to provide a complete list of possible reconciliations, nor am I claiming to have found any kind of special answer; I just wish to explore these two particular possibilities.

At the conclusion of this article I offer some suggestions to help us move forward as we work to solve the observational problem that is the Great Silence.

Self-Destruction and the Great Filter

This is the most likely and philosophically satisfying answer to the Fermi Paradox – although hardly the most desirable.

Looking at ourselves as a typical example of a pre-Singularity civilization, what do we find? We find a species already in possession of apocalyptic technologies and on the verge of developing an entirely new generation of lethal weapons. In short order we will be required to manage an assortment of apocalyptic technologies; it will be akin to spinning plates. There are only so many that can be managed before one of them falls – and one is all that is needed to end the story.

Examples of pending existential risks include the ongoing threat of nuclear holocaust, a nanotechnological disaster, poorly programmed artificial superintelligence (ie Singularity as extinction event), catastrophic pandemic, and so on.

A counter-argument is often made that self-inflicted catastrophism could never be exclusive to all civilizations. How is it, ask critics, that all civilizations cannot escape such a fate? Robin Hanson attempted to answer this question by proposing the Great Filter hypothesis – the suggestion that a developmental stage exists for all life which is insurmountable. The question then: is the Great Filter behind us, or does it await us in our future?

I would argue, based on much of the data I presented earlier, that the Rare Earth hypothesis has to be rejected. Moreover, a healthy application of the self-sampling assumption strongly indicates that the filter is ahead of us should it exist. The Galaxy is likely brimming with life, including complex life.

As for as the search for extraterrestrial life is concerned, Hanson argues that the detection of ETI's would be bad. This would indicate, given our observation of an unperturbed, uncolonized galaxy, that the Great Filter is indeed still ahead of us.

Another disturbing data point as a self-sampling species is that we here on earth have come to possess apocalyptic technologies long before we have developed the capacity to live off-planet or live in self-contained biospheres. All our eggs are in one basket and they will continue to remain that way into the foreseeable future.

And then there's the disturbing Doomsday Argument which suggests that we're closer to the end than the beginning of human civilization.

Perhaps the most common and smug solution to the Fermi Paradox is the suggestion that we are the first. It is frequently used because it is said to best satisfy Occam’s Razor. But while it may be the simplest solution, it defies our sense of probability and disregards the central lesson of the Copernican Principle – the idea that we are not unique, and very likely a typical example.

Earlier I presented a picture of a biophilic Universe. If this issue is to be settled by a battle between Occam’s Razor and the Copernican principle, on this matter I’ll take Copernicus any day.

Interestingly, the longer we survive as a species without extraterrestrial contact, the more we can assume that we have passed the Great Filter.

Localized non-migratory digital existence

Now, the prospect of human extinction is quite obviously mere speculation. As Morpheus proclaimed in the Matrix: “We are still here!” Consequently, there are some non-extinction scenarios that I would like to explore.

The past 40 years of scientific progress has forced a re-evaluation of humanity’s potential. We appear to be headed for a transformation that takes us away from biological existence and towards a postbiological, or digital existence. Our future visions must take this into account. As Milan Cirkovic and Robert Bradbury have noted, we need to adopt a digital perspective (pdf).

Why leave the local system when everything can be accomplished at home? Localized existence may hold promise for all the aspirations that an advanced intelligence could conceivably conjure.

Specifically, advanced intelligences may engage in computational megaprojects and live virtual reality existences. It would be an existential phase transitioning into virtual space such that interstellar colonization would never emerge as a feasible option or experiment.

For example, advanced ETI’s may construct Jupiter (pdf) and Matrioshka Brains. A Jupiter Brain would utilize all the matter of entire planet for the purpose of computation, while a Matrioshka Brain (a kind of Dyson sphere) would utilizes the energy output of its parent star.

Determining an upper bound for computational power is difficult, but a number of thinkers have given it a shot. Eric Drexler has outlined a design for a system the size of a sugar cube that would perform 10^21 instructions per second. Robert Bradbury gives a rough estimate of 10^42 operations per second for a computer with a mass on order of a large planet. Seth Lloyd calculates an upper bound for a 1 kg computer of 5*10^50 logical operations per second carried out on ~10^31 bits – this would likely be done on a quantum computer or computers built of out of nuclear matter or plasma [see this article and this article for more information].

More radically, John Barrow has demonstrated that, under a very strict set of cosmological conditions, indefinite information processing (pdf) can exist in an ever-expanding universe.

This type of computational power is astounding and defies human comprehension. It’s like imagining a universe within a universe -- and that may be precisely be how it's used.

What would a future civilization do with all this power?

A civilization’s transition into high-speed digital mode may come about as natural consequence of its development. The switch from an analog civilization to a digital one – one in which the clock-speed would be accelerated to billions if not trillions of times faster than before – would preclude the desire to interact with the outside world.

Megascale computers may be used to support uploaded civilizations. It may prove to be the existential substrate of choice – one in which the potential for self-destruction is greatly mitigated.

Advanced civilizations may also use this computer power to run simulations for reasons of scientific research, running ancestor simulations or for entertainment (pdf) purposes. Simulations may also be run as a part of some sort of ethical or sociological necessity.

Another possibility is the Hedonistic Imperative, a term attributed to David Pearce. Given that virtually every religion has fantasized about an afterlife of bliss and an end to suffering, paradise engineering may come to represent the optimal end-state for intelligent life. Ultimately, societies will always be comprised of conscious individuals. The optimization of subjective experience may take precedence over colonial ambitions.

This tendency may be part of a broader, more 'existential' focus on life. Civilizational achievement may not be measured by the rate of imperialistic expanse or by how much energy it can consume, but in how individuals relate to themselves and their place in the Universe. This quest for introspective enlightenment may be characterized by efforts to optimize the mode of conscious experience.

What about long term survival?

In regards to long-term survival, Vernor Vinge has predicted that post-Singularity intelligences will build local secondary systems to ensure the near-immortality of the infocomplex. These could exist in off-planet repositories. Shields composed of nanotechnology and femtotechnology could deal with the issue of gamma ray bursters and other cosmological threats.

As for the local star, it could be given added life through stellar-engineering projects in which the crucially low elements are re-introduced. Eventually, however, migration to a younger star would be necessary.

There may also be unknown reasons for this type of existence. But what is certain is that wide-scale colonization is not in the cards.

Moving Forward

Admittedly, these two broad solutions -- self-destruction and non-migration scenarios -- are unsatisfactory. The notion that not even one civilization can escape self-destruction is difficult to believe. Moreover, localized digital existence and the proliferation of colonization waves are not either/or scenarios; one can imagine a civilization embarking on both paths.

As we move forward in attempting to solve the FP we need to apply much stricter methodologies to the problem.

Solutions to the FP must avoid the trappings of sociological analyses, which often present non-exclusive scenarios. Answers like the ‘zoo hypothesis,’ ‘non-interference,’ or ‘they wouldn’t find us interesting,' tend to be projections of the human psyche and our own modern-day realities. Moreover, these sorts of solutions, while they may account for some of the actions of advanced civilizations, cannot account for all.

Instead, a more rigid and sweeping methodological frame needs to be applied– one which takes cosmological determinism and sociological uniformitarianism into account. In other words, we need to be concerned with cosmological limits and the pressure of physical and resource constraints.

This is what is Nick Bostrom refers to as the strong convergence hypothesis -- the idea that all sufficiently advanced civilizations converge towards the same optimal state. This is a hypothesized developmental tendency akin to a Dawkinsian fitness peak -- the suggestion that identical environmental stressors, limitations and attractors will compel intelligences to settle around optimal existential modes. This theory does not favour the diversification of intelligence – at least not outside of a very strict set of living parameters.

The trick will be to predict what these deterministic constraints are. One can imagine factors such as limited resources, access to energy, computational requirements (including heat dissipation, error correction, and latency problems) and self-preservational modes (i.e. political and social orientations that eliminate the possibility of self-destruction).

A side benefit of this exercise is that it doubles as a foresight activity. The better we become at predicting the make-up of advanced ETI's, the better we will be at predicting our own future.

Consequently, our very own survival may depend on it.

Part I: The Fermi Paradox: Back With a Vengeance

Part II: The Fermi Paradox: Advanced Civilizations Do Not...

August 5, 2007

The Fermi Paradox: Advanced civilizations do not…

This article is partly adapted from my TransVision 2007 presentation, “Whither ET? What the failing search for extraterrestrial intelligence tells us about humanity's future.”

As I stated in my previous article, “The Fermi Paradox: Back with a vengeance”:
The fact that our Galaxy appears unperturbed is hard to explain. We should be living in a Galaxy that is saturated with intelligence and highly organized. Thus, it may be assumed that intelligent life is rare, or, given our seemingly biophilic Universe, our assumptions about the general behaviour of intelligent civilizations are flawed.

A paradox is a paradox for a reason: it means there’s something wrong in our thinking.
So, let’s try to figure out what’s going on. Given the Great Silence, and knowing what we may be capable of in the future, we can start to make some fairly confident assumptions about the developmental characteristics of advanced civilizations.

But rather than describe the possible developmental trajectories of extraterrestrial intelligences (ETI's) (a topic I’ll cover in my next article), I’m going to dismiss some commonly held assumptions about the nature of advanced ETI’s – and by consequence some assumptions about our very own future.

Advanced civilizations do not…

…advertise their presence to the local community or engage in active efforts to contact

As SETI is discovering (but is in denial about), space is not brimming with easily detectable radio signals. SETI’s work during the past 40 years indicates that the quest to detect signals will not be easy.

This problem is not as simple as it sounds. A common apology is that we’ve only recently started our search and we have only scratched the surface. The trouble, however, is that it would be no problem for an ETI to communicate with us if they wanted to.

To do this all they would need to do is seed the Galaxy with Bracewell probes (a self-replicating communications beacon). This scenario was explored in Carl Sagan’s Contact in which a Bracewell probe was lying in wait about 26 light years from Earth in the Vega system. The probe was activated by our radio signals, causing it to direct powerful radio signals at Earth – signals that would not be overlooked.

We know that no such object exists in our solar system or within a radius of about 25 to 50 light years. Our radio activity should have most certainly activated any probe lying dormant in our local vicinity by know. It is also reasonable to assume that if ETI’s embarked on such a communications mission that every solar system would likely have its own Bracewell probe.

Which in turn raises a more troubling question: if ETI’s could construct and distribute probes in this way, why haven’t they gone the extra mile and spread other types of self-replicating devices such as uplift or colonization probes?

…engage in any kind of megascale engineering or stellar re-engineering that is immediately obvious to us within our light cone

All stellar phenomenon that we have observed to this point in time appears ‘natural’ and unmodified. We see no clusters of perfectly aligned stars, nor do we signs of Kardashev III civilizations utilizing the energy output of the entire Milky Way.

As for our light cone, the Milky Way is 100,000 light years in diameter; given the possibility that our Galaxy has been able to support intelligent life for about 4.5 billion years, a 100 million year time lag (at its worst) is not severe enough to cause observational problems (except for distant Galaxies).

…colonize the Galaxy

Our Galaxy remains uncolonized despite the theoretical potential for advanced ETI’s to do so – namely the time and the technology. All that would be required is a self-replicating Von Neumann probe that proliferates outward at an exponential rate. Technologies required to build such a spacecraft would include artificial intelligence, molecular assembling nanotechnology, and an advanced propulsion scheme like anti-matter rockets, beamed energy, or interstellar ram-jets.

The reason for non-colonization is not obvious (hence the Fermi Paradox). In addition to technological feasibility there is the issue of economic and sociological imperatives for colonization.

…sterilize the Galaxy

Finally, some good news. We know the Galaxy is not sterile because we exist here on Earth.

Like the colonization potential, the prospect for an advanced ETI to sterilize the Galaxy exists through the use of berserker probes (a term attributed to Fred Saberhagen). These probes could steer NEO’s at planets, unleash nanotechnological phages, or toast planets with directed beams of highly concentrated light.

And like the Bracewell scenario, if a beserker was lying dormant in our solar system it should have destroyed us by now. If sterilization is the goal, there is no good reason for it to wait – particularly as our own civilization hurtles towards a Singularity transition.

Reasons for unleashing fleets of berserkers can be conceived, including xenophobic sociological imperatives or a malign artificial superintelligence (pdf). And all it would take is one civilization to do it. But 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."

…uplift or interact with pre-Singularity intelligences and biospheres

As a civilization that has been left to fend for itself, we have to assume that we, like any other civilization out there, goes it alone. No one is coming to help us. The Great Silence will continue.

Moreover, our presence on Earth and our civilizational development can be explained by naturalistic phenomena. Our existence and ongoing progress has been devoid of extraterrestrial interventions. If we’re going to survive the Singularity, or any other existential risks for that matter, it will have to be of our own devices.

…re-engineer the cosmos

A number of prominent futurists, a list that includes Ray Kurzweil and Hans Moravec, have speculated that the destiny of advanced intelligence is to re-work the cosmos itself. This has been imagined as an ‘intelligence explosion’ as advanced life expands outward into the cosmos like a bubble. The entire Galaxy would be re-organized with much of its matter converted into computronium. Eventually, it is thought that the laws of the Universe will be re-tuned to meet the needs of advanced civilizations.

Unfortunately, we do not appear to inhabit a Universe that even remotely resembles this model. The cosmos appears natural and unperturbed.

This is reminiscent of the God problem and the presence of evil. We live in a Universe that is hostile, indifferent and pointless. If advanced ETI’s had the capacity to re-engineer the Universe such that it was safer, more meaningful and paradisical they would have done so by now. By virtue of the fact that we observe such a dangerous Universe we should probably conclude that such a project is not an option.

In the final part of this series I will make an effort to explain why advanced civilizations don’t do these things and what they might be doing instead.

Part I: Fermi Paradox: Back With a Vengeance

Part III: Fermi Paradox: Possible Solutions and Next Steps

August 4, 2007

The Fermi Paradox: Back with a vengeance

This article is partly adapted from my TransVision 2007 presentation, “Whither ET? What the failing search for extraterrestrial intelligence tells us about humanity's future.”

The Fermi Paradox is alive and well.

As our sciences mature, and as the search for extraterrestrial intelligence continues to fail, the Great Silence becomes louder than ever. The seemingly empty cosmos is screaming out to us that something is askew.

Our isolation in the Universe has in no small way shaped and defined the human condition. It is such an indelible part of our reality that it is often taken for granted or rationalized to extremes.

To deal with the cognitive dissonance created by the Great Silence, we have resorted to good old fashioned human arrogance, anthropocentrism, and worse, an inter-galactic inferiority complex. We make excuses and rationalizations like, ‘we are the first,’ ‘we are all alone,’ or, ‘why would any advanced civilization want to bother with us backward humans?’

Under closer scrutiny, however, these excuses don’t hold. Our sciences are steadily maturing and we are discovering more and more that our isolation in the cosmos and the dearth of observable artificial phenomenon is in direct violation of our expectations, and by consequence, our own anticipated future as a space-faring species.

Indeed, one of the greatest philosophical and scientific challenges that currently confronts humanity is the unsolved question of the existence of extraterrestrial intelligences (ETI's).

We have yet to see any evidence for their existence. It does not appear that ETI’s have come through our solar system; we see no signs of their activities in space; we have yet to receive any kind of communication from them.

Adding to the Great Silence is the realization that they should have been here by now -- the problem known as the Fermi Paradox.

The Fermi Paradox
The Fermi Paradox is the contradictory and counter-intuitive observation that we have yet to see any evidence for the existence of ETI’s. The size and age of the Universe suggests that many technologically advanced ETI’s ought to exist. However, this hypothesis seems inconsistent with the lack of observational evidence to support it.

Largely ignored in 1950 when physicist Enrico Fermi famously asked, “Where is everybody,” and virtually dismissed at the seminal SETI conference in 1971, the conundrum was given new momentum by Michael Hart in 1975[1] (which is why it is sometimes referred to as the Fermi-Hart Paradox).

Today, 35 years after it was reinvigorated by Hart, it is a hotly contested and relevant topic -- a trend that will undoubtedly continue as our sciences, technologies and future visions develop.

Back with a vengeance
A number of inter-disciplinal breakthroughs and insights have contributed to the Fermi Paradox gaining credence as an unsolved scientific problem. Here are some reasons why[2]:

Improved quantification and conceptualization of our cosmological environment
The scale of our cosmological environment is coming into focus. Our Universe contains about 10^11 to 10^12 galaxies, giving rise to a total of 10^22 to 10^24 stars[3]. And this is what exists right now; there have been a billion trillion stars in our past Universe. [4]

The Milky Way itself, which is considered a giant as far as galaxies go, contains as many as 400 billion stars and has a diameter of 100,000 light years.[5]

Improved understanding of planet formation, composition and the presence of habitable zones
The Universe formed 13.7 billion years ago. The Milky Way Galaxy formed a mere 200 million years later, making our Galaxy nearly as old as the Universe itself. Work by Charles Lineweaver has shown that planets also began forming a very long time ago; he places estimates of Earth-like planets forming 9 billion years ago (Gyr).

According to Lineweaver, the median age of planets in the Galaxy is 6.4+/0.7 Gyr which is significantly more than the Earth’s age. An average terrestrial planet in the Galaxy is 1.6 Gyr older than the Earth. It is estimated that three quarters of earth-like planets in the Galactic habitable zone are older than the Earth.

We have a growing conception of where habitation could be sustained in the Galaxy. The requirements are a host star that formed between 4 to 8 Gyr ago, enough heavy elements to form terrestrial planets, sufficient time for biological evolution, an environment free of sterilization events (namely super novae), and an annular region between 7 and 9 kiloparsecs from the galactic center that widens with time. [6]

The discovery of extrasolar planets
Over 240 extrasolar planets have been discovered as of May 1, 2007[7]. Most of these are so-called “hot Jupiters,” but the possibility that their satellites could be habitable cannot be ruled out. Many of these systems have stable circumstellar habitable zones.

Somewhat shockingly, the first Earth-like planet was discovered earlier this year orbiting the red star Gilese 581; it is 20 light years away, 1.5 times the diameter of Earth, is suspected to have water and an atmosphere, and its temperature fluctuates between 0 and 40 degrees Celsius.[8]

Confirmation of the rapid origination of life on Earth
The Earth formed 4.6 Gyr ago and rocks began to appear 3.9 Gyr ago. Life emerged quickly thereafter 3 Gyr ago. Some estimates show that life emerged in as little as 600 million years after the formation of rocks.[9]

Growing legitimacy of panspermia theories
There is a very good chance that we inhabit a highly compromised and fertile Galaxy in which ‘life seeds’ are strewn about. The Earth itself has been a potentially infectious agent for nearly 3 billion years.

Evidence has emerged that some grains of material in our solar system came from beyond our solar system. Recent experiments show that microorganisms can survive dormancy for long periods of time and under space conditions. We also now know that rocks can travel from Mars to Earth.[10]

Discovery of extremophiles
Simple life is much more resilient to environmental stress than previously imagined. Biological diversity is probably much larger than conventionally assumed.

Developing conception of a biophilic Universe in which the cosmological parameters for the existence of life appear finely tuned
As scientists delve deeper and deeper into the unsolved mysteries of the Universe, they are discovering that a number of cosmological parameters are excruciatingly specific. So specific, in fact, that any minor alteration to key parameters would throw the entire Universe off kilter and result in a system completely unfriendly to life. The parameters of the Universe that are in place are so specific as to almost suggest that spawning life is in fact what the Universe is supposed to do. [11]

Cosmological uniformitarianism implies that that anthropic observation need not be and cannot be specific to human observers, but rather to any observer in general; in other words, the Universe can support the presence of any kind of observer, whether they be here on Earth or on the other side of the cosmos.

Confirmation of the early potential for intelligent life
My own calculations have shown that intelligence could have first emerged in the Universe as long as 4.5 Gyr ago -- a finding that is consistent with other estimates, including those of Lineweaver and David Grinspoon.[12]

Refinement of evolutionary biology, computer science and systems theories
Evolution shows progressive trends towards increasing complexity and in the direction of increasing fitness. There has also been the growing acceptance of Neo-Darwinism.

Advances in computer science have reshaped our conception of what is possible from an informational and digital perspective. There is the growing acceptance of systems theories which take emergent properties and complexity into account. Game theory and the rise of rational intelligence add another level to this dynamic mix.

Development of sociobiological observations as they pertain to the rapid evolution of intelligent life and the apparent radical potential for advanced intelligence
Exponential change. Moore’s Law. Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns. Steady advances in information technologies. Artificial intelligence. Neuroscience. Cybernetics, and so on.

And then there is the theoretic potential for a technological Singularity, digital minds, artificial superintelligence, molecular nanotechnology, and other radical possibilities. There is also emerging speculation about the feasibility of interstellar travel, colonization and communication.

In other words….
There are more stars in the Universe than we can possibly fathom. Any conception of ‘rare,’ ‘not enough time’ or ‘far away’ has to be set against the inability of human psychology to grasp such vast cosmological scales and quantities. The Universe and the Milky Way are extremely old, our galaxy has been able to produce rocky planets for quite some time now, and our earth is a relative new-comer to the galaxy.

The composition of our solar system and the Earth itself may not be as rare as some astronomers and astrobiologists believe. These discoveries are a serious blow to the Rare Earth Hypothesis – the idea that the genesis, development and proliferation of life is an extremely special event[13]. It’s also a blow to Brandon Carter’s anthropic argument which takes a very human-centric approach to understanding cosmology, suggesting that our existence as observers imposes the sort of Universe that only we can observe.

Finally, the Universe appears capable of spawning radically advanced intelligence – the kind of advanced intelligence that transhumanists speculate about, namely post-Singularity, post-biological machine minds. Given intelligent life's ability to overcome scarcity, and its tendency to colonize new habitats, it seems likely that any advanced civilization would seek out new resources and colonize first their star system, and then surrounding star systems. Indeed, estimates place the time to colonize the Galaxy anywhere from one million to 100 million years.[14]

The fact that our Galaxy appears unperturbed is hard to explain. We should be living in a Galaxy that is saturated with intelligence and highly organized. Thus, it may be assumed that intelligent life is rare, or, given our seemingly biophilic Universe, our assumptions about the general behaviour of intelligent civilizations are flawed.

A paradox is a paradox for a reason: it means there’s something wrong in our thinking.

So, where is everybody?

Part II: The Fermi Paradox: Advanced Civilization Do Not...

Part III: The Fermi Paradox: Possible Solutions and Next Steps

[1] Hart, M. H. "An Explanation for the Absence of Extraterrestrial Life on Earth," Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society, 16, 128-135 (1975).

[2] This list, which is not intended to be a complete re-affirmation of the Fermi Paradox, was inspired and partly adapted from: Ćirković , Milan M. and Bradbury, Robert J. "Galactic Gradients, Postbiological Evolution and the Apparent Failure of SETI", New Astronomy, vol. 11, pp. 628-639 (2006).

[3] "How many stars are there in the Universe?" European Space Agency, Space Scientist, February 23, 2004:

[4] Hanson, R. 1999, “Great Filter,” (preprint at

[5] See Harvey Mudd and S. E. Levine: “Mass of the Milky Way and Dwarf Spheroidal Stream Membership.”

[6] Gonzalez, G., Brownlee, D., and Ward, P. 2001, The Galactic Habitable Zone: Galactic Chemical Evolution,Icarus 152, 185-200; Lineweaver, Charles H., Fenner , Yeshe, and Gibson, Brad K. 2004, “The Galactic Habitable Zone and the Age Distribution of Complex Life in the Milky Way.”; M. Noble , Z. E. Musielak , and M. Cuntz: 2002, "Orbital Stability of Terrestrial Planets inside the Habitable Zones of Extrasolar Planetary Systems"

[7] "A Rush of New Planets," Astrobiology Magazine: Jun 02, 2007:

[8] "All Wet? Astronomers Claim Discovery of Earth-like Planet," Scientific American, April 24, 2007:

[9] See Stephen J. Mojzsis:

[10] Raulin-Cerceau, F., Maurel, M.-C., and Schneider, J. 1998, “From panspermia to bioastronomy, the evolution of the hypothesis of universal life,” Orig. Life Evol. Biosph. 28, 597; "Encore: Great Debates Part VI," Astrobiology Magazine, Aug 19, 2002:

[11] The Wikipedia entry on the Fine Tuning argument has some good links and references:

[12] Dvorsky, George: 2006, “When Did Intelligent Life First Emerge in the Universe?”;

[13] Ward, P. D. and Brownlee, D. 2000, Rare Earth: Why Complex Life Is Uncommon in the Universe (Springer, New York). Lineweaver, Charles H., Fenner , Yeshe, and Gibson, Brad K. 2004; Grinspoon, David, Lonely Planets, Ecco; 1st edition (November 4, 2003).

[14] Ćirković , Milan M., 2003: "On the Importance of SETI for Transhumanism." As it pertains to reframing the Fermi Paradox, Ćirković recommends Lytkin, Finney, and Alepko (1995; for Tsiolkovsky), Jones (1985; for Fermi), Viewing (1975), and Hart (1975), (Tipler 1980), Boyce (1979).

August 2, 2007

Martine's mindfiles

Martine Rothblatt has an interesting idea. Unfortunately, I don't think her idea is going to work.

In our cybernetic and virtual world of the future, says Rothblatt, genes are not going to matter so much. Instead, we’ll be concerned about ‘bemes' -- a fundamental, transmissible, unit of beingness.

This will give rise to the transbeman person -- a being who claims to have the rights and obligations associated with being human, but is beyond accepted notions of legal personhood. Examples would include a computer claiming to be conscious; a person successfully reanimated from cryonic stasis; or the downloading of a ‘cyberconsciousness’ into a highly engineered ‘bionano’ body.

Operation: Mindfile
Rothblatt, an eccentric billionaire lawyer, author, and entrepreneur, made the case for "Cybernetic Biostasis" during TransVision 2007 and argued that bemes will eventually become the currency of the future – the stuff that will help prospective persons restore their memories and sense of identity. She believes that people should create digital ‘mindfiles’ that chronicle their lives; eventually, after death, persons could be revived by means of ‘mindware’ transfer when the requisite technology is powerful enough (namely the advent of artificial intelligence).

According to Rothblatt, bemes can be virtually anything that could later be used to restore a person’s history, identity and tendencies. Bemetic mindfiles could be comprised of old photos, blogs, transcripts, diaries, and so on; these artifacts could later be used to restore and re-define a person’s personality (including mannerisms, feelings, beliefs, attitudes and values). Most importantly, these files could restore a person's memory.

To this end, Rothblatt has created the websites (short for ybernetic beingness revival) and People are encouraged to use the sites to start chronicling their lives.

During her TV07 presentation Rothblatt admitted that piecing together odds and sods of data would not create a perfect copy of a person’s consciousness. She contended that most people only remember fragments of their past anyway. To Rothblatt, it’s the preservation of the person’s "essence" that’s important.

Memories are a strange thing
I find Rothblatt’s mindfile concept quite intriguing, but ultimately unsatisfactory. I’m not convinced that a person’s identity and sense of ongoing self can be re-instantiated in this way. At best we might get a twisted copy of ourselves with a haphazard sense of someone else’s past.

Memories are a tricky thing; they don’t exist in a vacuum. First, we have memories because we, as conscious observers, experience the events in real time. Based on the strength and uniqueness of the event our brain parses the experience and temporarily stores it into short term memory. From there it solidifies into our long-term memory where we build an association with the event. This association allows us to recall the event at will. We are able to access the memory because we a) experienced the event first hand, and we b) created a personal linkage to that event (what could also be referred to as a personal narrative).

In other words, you have to know that you have the memory in order to access it.

Sometimes we forget that we have a memory of an event only to be reminded that it still exists in the brain just waiting to be accessed. I love it when that happens. My first few thoughts are usually, “Why did I forget about that? Why did I not think about that for so long?” For what ever reason the association or linkage to that piece of data was lost. The memory was still there embedded in the mind, but it was simply not accessed enough causing it to lie dormant.

As for Rothblatt’s concept, just because a mind is infused with memories doesn’t mean that all the associations will be there. The memories would likely be construed as a random mess of images, words and events. It would be unlikely that the person would be able to make any sense of it at all and frame a personal narrative around it.

Consciousness, identity, and an ongoing sense of self
Far too many people at the WTA’s TransVision conference batted around the word “consciousness” with complete disregard for definitions and a concrete understanding of what it truly is. Consciousness all too often gets conflated with other aspects of the mind, including memory and other cognitive tasks that comprise the mechanistic or computational aspects of the brain.

Consciousness is not something you can piece together and instantiate with cultural artifacts. Nor can a continuity of consciousness be restored in this manner. That’s still a question that perplexes even the best philosophers and neuroscientists.

Here’s a thought experiment: let’s suppose that you traded memories with your best friend – nothing else, just the memories. You’ve still got your body and all the grey matter in your brain that rightfully belongs to you, except your memories. Does this mean that you and your friend have traded consciousnesses? Does it mean that you’ve uploaded yourself into your friend's brain and vice-versa?

The answer is no to both questions! You would still be you in the sense that you’re still observing reality, but you’d be convinced that you are now your friend. A sense of identity (sense being the key word -- a kind of illusion) may have been transferred, but not the conscious lens that each of us has with which we observe and experience the world.

No link to cryonic reanimation
Later, when Alcor’s Tanya Jones was answering questions after her cryonics presentation, a member of the audience asked her if Alcor would consider using the mindfile concept to help in the process of reanimating frozen patients.

Jones answered very clearly: no.

Elaborating, she said that Alcor has considered using mindfiles to help newly revived persons re-connect with their past life. In this sense, the mindfiles would be a glorified shoebox filled with an individual's personal effects.

This makes sense. Assuming that a person’s brain was properly preserved they should have no trouble accessing their memories. If all goes well the person should feel like they had a long and hard nap. A very, very hard nap. Their memories, along with the all important personal narrative, associations and ongoing identity, should be readily accessible.

The mindfile as restorative medicine
Rothblatt’s mindfile concept may have limitations in regards to uploading or restoring a consciousness, but it is far from useless. The short-term potential as a means for restorative medicine is certainly a possibility.

Alzheimer’s patients may have their memories re-invigorated and stimulated in the manner that Rothblatt describes. They could also be used to improve the human capacity for memory, which can be extraordinarily weak.

Looking ahead, there's also the possibility that mindfiles could be used as a supplement to naturally stored memories. They could be uploaded into the mind and used in tandem with other recollections to add width and breadth to memory much like photographs or home videos do today.

So, you may wish to visit Dr. Rothblatt's website after all. Start working on that mindfile!