July 31, 2007

Anders Sandberg wants to emulate your brain

Transhumanists have long speculated about the possibility of uploading a brain into a computer. In fact, a big part of the supposed posthuman future depends on it.

Soooo, how the hell do we do it?

This is the issue that Swedish neuroscientist Anders Sandberg tackled for his talk at TransVision 2007. Uploading, or what Sandberg refers to as ‘whole brain emulation,’ has become a distinct possibility arising from the feasibility of the functionalist paradigm and steady advances in computer science. Sandberg says we need a strategic plan to get going.

Levels of understanding

To start, Sandberg made two points about the kind of understanding that is required. First, we do not need to understand the function of a device to build it from parts, and second, we do not need to understand the function of the brain to emulate it. That said, Sandberg admitted that we still need to understand the brain's lower level functions in order for us to be able to emulate them.

The known unknown

Sandberg also outlined the various levels of necessary detail; we can already start to parse through the “known unknown.” He asked, “what level of description is necessary to capture enough of a particular brain to mimic its function?”

He described several tiers that will require vastly more detail:
• Computational model
• Brain region connectivity
• Analog network population model
• Spiking neural network
• Electrophysiology
• Metabolome
• Proteome
• Etc. (and all the way down to the quantum level)

Sandberg believes that the ability to scan an existing brain will be necessary. What will also be required is the proper scanning resolution. Once we can peer down to the sufficient detail, we should be able to construct a brain model; we will then be required to infer structure and low-level function.

Once this is done we can think about running a brain emulation. Requirements here will include a computational neuroscience model and the requisite computer hardware. Sandberg noted that body and environment simulations may be added to the emulation; the brain emulator, body simulator and environment simulator would be daisy-chained to each other to create the sufficient interactive link. The developers will also have to devise a way to validate their observations and results.

Neural simulations

Neural simulations are nothing new. Hodgkin and Huxley began working on these sorts of problems way back in 1952. The trick is to perfectly simulate neurons, neuron parts, synapses and chemical pathways. According to Sandberg, we are approaching 1-1 for certain systems, including the lamprey spinal cord and lobster ganglia.

Compartment models are also being developed with miniscule time and space resolutions. The current record is 22 million 6-compartment neurons, 11 billion synapses, and a simulation length of one second real-time. Sandberg cited advances made by the development of IBM’s Blue Gene.

Complications and Exotica

Sandberg also provided a laundry list of possible ‘complications and exotica’:
• dynamical state
• spinal cord
• volume transmission
• glial cells
• synaptic adaptation
• body chemical environment
• neurogensis
• ephaptic effects
• quantum computation
• analog computation
• randomness
Reverse engineering is all fine and well, suggested Sandberg, but how much function can be deduced from morphology (for example)?


In regards to scanning, we'll need to determine the kind of resolution and data needed. Sandberg argued that nondestructive scanning will be unlikely; MRIs have been the closest thus far but are limited to less than 7.7 micrometers resolution. More realistically, destructive scanning will likely be used; Sandberg noted such procedures as fixation and ‘slice and scan.’

Once scanning is complete the postprocessing can begin. Developers at this stage will be left wondering about the nature of the neurons and how they are all connected.

Given advances in computation, Sandberg predicted that whole brain emulation may arrive sometime between 2020 and 2060. As for environment and body simulation, we’ll have to wait until we have 100 terraflops at our disposal. We’ll also need a resolution of 5x5x50nm to do meaningful work.


Sandberg made mention of funding and the difficultly of finding scan targets. He named some subfields that lack drivers, namely basic neuroscience, electrophysiology, and large scale scanning (so far). He did see synergies arising from the ongoing development and industrialization of neuroscience, robotics and all the various –omics studies.

As for the order of development, Sandberg suggested 1) scanning and/or simulation, then 2) computer power, and then 3) the gradual emergence of emulation. Alternately, 1) first computer power, then 2) simulation and finally 3) scanning followed by 4) the rapid emergence of simulation.

Any volunteers for slice and scan?

July 30, 2007

When Dvorsky met Minsky

Of all the celebrities and bigwigs I looked forward to meeting at TransVision 2007 there was only one person who I was truly nervous about running into – a person who gave me that 'I’m going to squeal like a little girl when I see him’ kind of feeling.

That individual was pioneering neuroscientist Marvin Minsky.

A friend cautioned me by claiming that he was a difficult man and not very approachable. I dismissed the warning and patiently waited for an opportunity to start a conversation with him.

I eventually got my chance. I was with two other friends when the three of us bumped into Minsky in the reception area of the conference hall. Without hesitation I approached and introduced myself. After we shook hands I told him how much I appreciated his work and how much of an honour it was for me to finally meet him. He nodded his head and didn’t say a word.

I was surprised by how old he looked. Minsky is now 80 years old and has been working in the field of neuroscience since the 1950s. Despite his age he recently published a book, The Emotion Machine: Commonsense Thinking, Artificial Intelligence, and the Future of the Human Mind. Minsky just keeps on going.

Working to move the conversation along, I told him that while I was conducting research for my presentation I discovered that he was a presenter at the seminal SETI conference in 1971 in Byurakan. Minsky made waves at that conference by having the audacity to suggest that advanced extraterrestrial civilizations would likely be comprised of machine minds. It was a controversial suggestion, one that has only come into acceptance in more recent times. I asked Minsky for a first-hand account of how his idea was received back in 1971.

He stood there, just blankly looking at me, and didn’t say a single word. We all waited in silence for what seemed an eternity. I got the distinct impression that he was thoroughly disinterested in our little group.

Being a sucker for punishment I decided to move the conversation along. I unabashedly gave him the 10 second executive summary of my TV07 presentation, where I make some claims about the limitations of extraterrestrial civilizations and how this might account for the Great Silence and the problem that is the Fermi Paradox.

This finally got Minsky going. He had attended a SETI conference two weeks prior and was impressed with what he heard there. Minsky suggested that the reason we don’t see any signs of obvious megascale engineering or cosmological re-tuning by advanced ETI’s is that they have no sense of urgency to embark upon such projects. He argued that advanced intelligences won’t engage in these sorts of Universe changing exercises until the very late stages of the cosmos.

Jeez, I thought to myself, I hadn't considered that.

Leave it to Marvin Minsky to give me some serious food for thought a mere two hours before I was to give my talk. I was suddenly worried that this consideration would pierce a glaring hole in my argument.

After another minute of idle chit-chat I excused myself from Minsky's company and found a little corner where I could have my little micro-panic and contemplate his little theory.

The more I thought about it, however, the more unsatisfied I became with his answer; virtually everyone has a rather smug solution to the Fermi Paradox, and Marvin Minsky is no exception. Specifically, I was concerned with how such a theory could be exclusive to all civilizations. It seemed implausible to believe that not even one renegade civilization would take it upon itself to change the rules of the cosmos if it had the capacity to do so.

Moreover, given the power to reshape the Universe, a strong case could be made that a meta-ethical imperative exists to turn the madness that is existence into something profoundly more meaningful and safer. As Slavoj Žižek once said, existence is a catastrophe of the highest order. Timothy Leary described the Universe as an "ocean of chaos."

Waiting until the last minute to create a cosmological paradise (assuming such a thing is even possible) would seem to be both exceptionally risky and irresponsible -- not just to the members of a civilization capable of such feats, but to the larger universal community itself.

Phew. That's right, that's the answer. Ha, take that, Minsky!

So, after rationalizing a counter-argument to Minsky's suggestion, I was able to calm down and prepare myself for my presentation and deal with any follow-up questions that could be thrown my way.

And that's how I met Marvin Minsky.

Sure, he's not the most personable man I've ever met, but I got the sense that he's at a time in his life where a) he knows he owes nothing to no one and b) he'd rather engage with people who can contribute to his life's work and his ongoing struggle to solve the problem that is human cognition. And he's still as sharp as they come.

It was truly an honour.

Ray Kurzweil's acceptance speech at TV07

Ray Kurzweil gives his acceptance speech after being awarded the World Transhumanist Association's H.G. Wells award for transhumanist of the year.

July 29, 2007

Photos from TransVision 2007

Click to see the entire slideshow. Pictures were taken at TransVision 2007 in Chicago from July 23 to 26, 2007.

Photos from the IEET's Longevity Symposium

Click to see the entire slideshow. The IEET's Longevity Dividend Symposium was held at the Fairmont Hotel in Chicago, July 23, 2007.

Chatting with Alcor's Tanya Jones at TV07

It’s funny how these things go. There I was at the TransVision 2007 celebrity reception last Thursday, drinking white wine, munching on hors d’oeuvres and eagerly awaiting the arrival of William Shatner. I was looking forward to a once in a lifetime opportunity.

And then I realized that I was in the company of Tanya Jones, chief operating officer for Alcor. I had never met Tanya before and I have yet to visit their facility in Arizona. I was very impressed with her TV07 presentation from earlier in the week and I was bursting with questions.

So, as we were waiting for Shatner to arrive, we began to chat.

To freeze and protect

During her talk two days prior, Tanya gave conference attendees the rundown on some of Alcor's more recent work and initiatives. It was a fascinating glimpse into the world of cryonics and what it takes to run a company on the technological and social fringe.

She noted how Alcor teams can be rushed to the bedside of dying patients as they ready for the suffusion of cryoprotectants in preparation for freezing. Without this highly engineered liquid, preservation would be completely disastrous with each cell suffering a host of problems, including ice crystallization and the eventual threat of it losing all its physical integrity upon reanimation. The cryoprotectant gel, which replaces the blood after death, essentially converts the body into a glass-like state upon contact with liquid nitrogen. The body’s informational state is thus retained at the highest level currently possible.

Consequently, getting the patient into cold storage quickly is paramount. As Tanya noted during her presentation, “time is trauma.” During the cocktail reception I asked her how long would be too long. She replied that any kind of delay is detrimental, but that after 24 hours the real serious and irrevocable damage starts to occur, namely cellular degradation and host of other neural problems as the brain begins to lose its cohesion and organization.

I asked her if Alcor has a policy for refusing the receipt of severely damaged corpses, say a body that had been terribly damaged by autopsy or by a motor vehicle accident. She answered that in such cases, where information theoretic death is all but assured, it is not up to Alcor but rather the predetermined wishes of the deceased. When an individual signs up with Alcor they specify the various extremes to which they will still agree to be cryonically preserved. Alcor unquestioningly adheres to the wishes of the patient.

Tanya also described the freezing process which is done under strictly controlled conditions. The body is slowly brought down to the optimally low temperature and is carefully monitored for fracturing. Quite frustratingly, every preservation that has ever been conducted at Alcor has suffered from fracturing of some sort. Tanya described the sound as ice-cubes popping in a drink.

I squirmed in my seat listening to this description, wondering how our high tech descendants will repair this sort of “information theoretic” brain damage.

Honesty, integrity, credibility

I was impressed with Tanya’s honesty and I told her so. By being open about current limitations, they come across as being less interested in the “sell” aspect and more concerned with creating a credible and legitimate industry. Along these lines I asked Tanya about regulation and whether or not she believes there will ever be such a thing as a monitored cryonics industry.

Not only did Tanya whole heartedly agree, she is convinced that it is inevitable and that a big battle is looming. “But Alcor,” claimed Tanya, “is ready.” She quickly outlined her plans and strategy for what she thinks will be a long and drawn out struggle to get the kind of regulation in place that would be to the benefit of Alcor and the burgeoning industry of cryonics – a battle that she believes will come sooner rather than later. As it currently stands, Alcor is 'regulated' under the Anatomical Gift Act, which makes Alcor a kind of glorified research lab and organ storage facility. Which I suppose is better than being acknowledged as a funeral parlor.

It’s this lack of recognition and backwards thinking that has arguably landed Alcor in trouble. The scandalous Ted Williams affair, which Tanya claims is finally all over and done with (including cash in hand), is an example of how a new and unrecognized industry can face undue challenges and public scrutiny. More formal and cogent regulation will not only give Alcor needed credibility as they work to create a viable business, it will also result in a safer and more effective industry.

From grave to cradle
Interestingly, while Alcor is primarily concerned with preservation, they are also looking ahead to a time when reanimation will finally become possible. They project themselves as being an all-in-one facility. Today they freeze bodies; tomorrow they hope to be the company that brings the dead back to life.

To this end they are creating a research lab in which rats will be cryonically preserved and experimented upon. This approach makes perfect sense. It will allow them to not just look ahead, but to gauge the effectiveness of current preservation procedures and technologies.

Jokingly, I complained to Tanya about their use of rats. “The thought of a little cryonics lab filled with frozen rats in tiny dewars is unsettling," I said, "Who wants to see a reanimated rat running around? Why couldn’t you guys have used cute little bunny rabbits instead – it would be much better PR to see a bunch of revived bunny rabbits hopping around.” Tanya laughed and noted how animal experimentation will in fact escalate and eventually come to involve more complex organisms such as pigs.

Cool company
I have yet to sign up for cryonics. My reasons are, admittedly, personal, complicated and even non-nonsensical. There may come a day, however, when I've reconciled my broader existential outlook with the prospect of cryonics.

Until then, however, I will laud the efforts of Alcor and continue to advocate for the right to a long life. They are certainly blazing a fascinating trail into the future.

Oh, and I totally missed the opportunity to meet William Shatner. I barely even noticed that he was in the room when I was chatting with Tanya.

Now why do you suppose I have absolutely no regrets about that?

July 27, 2007

TransVision 2007: the good, the bad and the ugly

This year’s TransVision conference, the World Transhumanist Association's annual confab, brought out the good, the bad and the ugly. Thankfully, it was mostly good.

Before I get into my summary review, however, I thought we should go back in time for a bit of context.

Three years ago when I chaired the TransVision 2004 conference in Toronto, my intention was to introduce a sense of transhumanist art and culture to the greater community. I had a feeling that transhumanism was ready for the big time; the community had been making great progress and I was cheerful of the opportunity.

Frustratingly, while the conference itself turned out quite well, my attempt at outreach met with very little success.

This week, as TransVision 2007 came to a close, I couldn’t help but notice the parallels between my own conference in 2004 and this one. The old adage, as it turns out, is a lie: just because you build it doesn’t mean they are going to come.

But build it they did.

Stellar cast
This year’s event was organized by Charlie Kam, a long-time enthusiast and supporter of the cause. He, in conjunction with the professional PR firm AlliKat Media, successfully managed to attract a dizzying array of expert thinkers and celebrities.

Some of the key presenters included Ray Kurzweil, William Shatner, Peter Diamandis, Ed Begley Jr., Marvin Minsky, Ronald Bailey, Philip Rosedale, Ralph Merkle, Aubrey de Grey and a number of transhumanist standbys such as James Hughes, Max More, Natasha Vita-More, Eliezer Yudkowsky, Ben Goertzel, Anders Sandberg and Martine Rothblatt.

Given this lineup the conference had the makings of a stunner.

But as I learned in 2004 you shouldn’t count your chickens before they get uploaded. Attendance, I am quite certain, was well below expectations. The number of empty seats was disturbing.

Struggling to catch on
Even more disturbing is how some of the most important ideas and thinkers of our time are largely being ignored by the general public. Watching Aubrey de Grey explain to a small audience how he’s going to conquer death created no small amount of cognitive dissonance in my brain; the room should have been packed. Hell, the room should have had people lined-up out front pounding at the door demanding to be let in.

But that's just me. And all the other attendees of TV07 and other supportive transhumanists who from some strange reason seem to be the only ones who "get it."

I’ve struggled to figure out why this is the case. Undoubtedly, a large part of it has to do with the fact that most people today are incredulous and suspicious to the seemingly radical claims made by the transhumanists.

They don’t buy the time-lines. They apologize for death. They detest the libertarian strain that runs rampant in the movement. They think it’s dangerous, reckless and hubristic.

Inconsistent diversity?
And as for those who were at the conference, the level of comprehension was uneven. Some of the questions directed at the speakers during the Q&A periods made me shake my head in frustration. Attendees would frequently ask irrelevant or over-simplified questions, they would allow the speakers to get off easily, or at other times be completely unintelligible – and in one case quite disruptive.

To be fair, I was sincerely impressed with how transhumanists for the most part are a well informed bunch. Virtually everyone I encountered at the conference had something interesting to say in their own right.

Still, I had to remind myself time and time again that this wasn’t intended to be an academic conference. We were once again going fishing, casting our lures into the waters to see if the public was ready to take a bite.

While it will be completely necessary (and ultimately unavoidable) to have the greater public involved in the transhumanist weltanschauung, the danger exists of having it misinterpreted, oversimplified and hyper-diversified – and diversified to the point where the ‘transhumanism’ part doesn’t even matter any more.

Indeed, as Anders Sandberg has aptly observed, “When it comes to political memes, transhumanism in its purest form doesn't have any fixed niche. Instead each host or group of hosts link it to their previous political views.”

TV07 was testament to this. Sure, we had the usual assortment of libertarians, socialists, Buddhists, Extropians and pure academics, but we also had Mormons, anarchists, anarcho-capitalists, new age corporatists, and a hefty dose of the supremely confused.

Now don’t get me wrong – I love the diversity and the representation. But at what point does it become less about transhumanism, progress and responsible foresight and more about spreading the word of Mormon or some other leeching meme? Or am I somehow wrong about all of this – that there’s a bigger picture to consider?

The mixed-bag that now seems to characterize transhumanism was also reflected in the various presentations which were inconsistent at best. I could have done without a couple of talks, including one speaker who I was convinced didn’t even know what transhumanism really was.

Mind alteringly fabulous
Okay, enough of my token negativity and on to the good stuff. Taken as a whole the quality of the discussions were excellent, diverse and provocative -- I had my fair share of world altering and brain-rewiring moments.

Some examples: Anders Sandberg detailed a plan to emulate a brain in digital substrate; James Hughes explained how cyborgs already walk among us; Tanya Jones from Alcor gave an insightful and honest look into the current state of cryonics; Minsky, Yudkowsky and Goertzel delved into minds and AI’s. James Gardner explained how the Universe replicates itself and what we can do about it. The Life Boat Foundation outlined a well thought out plan for surviving the future. Attendees took a look at Second Life, progressive environmentalism, the X-Prize, and the future of consciousness itself.

And on and on it went for three days straight. It was a total trip. Speakers took the audience from the depths of digital inner-space and right out into the cosmos.

To close the event, William Shatner affirmed and accentuated the positive vibe of the conference by unabashedly declaring that humanity must seize the initiative and take control of its own evolution. His enthusiasm for the transhumanist vision earned him a standing ovation.

Infectious optimism
Overall I felt that the conference was a great success. A friend of mine noted that the positive attitude and energy of transhumanists is inspiring. It was a very keen observation. Despite the low attendance and inconsistency, the transhumanists are a resolute group that keeps on going like a doped-up Energizer Bunny.

As for me, that is precisely what I am personally taking out of the conference. I am as motivated as ever to continue writing about the subject in a way that is accessible, accurate and fun. And after spending a week with some truly unbelievable intellects, I am once again motivated to keep pushing my own limits.

Kam’s efforts to create a high-profile, high-impact event is commendable. I congratulate him and the entire TV07 team on creating a stellar event. Like TV04, it is one of many efforts that will cumulatively result in the strengthening and legitimizing of the transhumanist vision.

I will continue to report on TV07 over the coming days and weeks and describe some of the talks in more detail. For all those who I spent time with in Chicago, thank you for a wonderful time.

Crafting the practical case for life extension in Chicago

This past Monday July 23 the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies conducted a short but intense one day symposium on securing the longevity dividend. The event was held at the picturesque Fairmont Hotel in Chicago and attended by about 40 passionate enthusiasts from a diverse set of backgrounds.

Rather than choosing to wax philosophical about the ethical imperatives in favour of life extension, the organizers of the IEET symposium specifically geared the event around the work of Jay Olshansky and his efforts to frame the discussion in more practical terms.

In other words, money.

Indeed, the case for a longevity dividend – the idea that prolonging life will save not just lives, but oodles of cash -- is beginning to take shape. As Reason science correspondent Ronald Bailey noted, “It's a way of rebranding the quest for extending human lives in a politically palatable way.”

Among the many alarming statistics presented by Olshansky, he noted that as a person ages their risk of dying doubles every 7 years. And as the expense required to keep people alive continues to escalate, society could be in for some serious economic trouble. Olshansky estimates that by 2030 the medical costs in the U.S. alone will reach a staggering $16,000,000,000,000.

To deal with this pending crisis, Olshansky suggests that we need to keep people healthy by working to develop more meaningful interventions in life extension, whether it be genetics, insights gained from the effects of caloric restriction, or the development of compounds with properties that appear to slow aging. Ultimately, the goal is to extend maximum healthy life span and drive medical costs down.

At the same time, Olshansky critiqued the tendency towards an explicit “anti-aging” sentiment. Quite interestingly, he sees aging as a positive and wisdom-endowing process. His goal is more modest than those of the transhumanists who which to eliminate death altogether. Instead, Olshansky urges that we should simply strive to extend maximize healthy lifespan as much as possible.

In terms of increasing life expectancy, both Olshansky and the transhumanists are on the same page; it is agreed that work needs to be done to reduce the ravages of aging as much as possible. It is also agreed that the word needs to get out. Money is the language of politics, and while they may not understand the intricacies of biogerontology or the ethics of prolonging life, politicians can most assuredly understand the impact on the bottom dollar.

But not everyone at the symposium agreed with Olshansky. Gerontologist Aubrey de Grey, while supportive of Olshansky’s work, was skeptical that a focus on the longevity dividend would result in a decrease in medical costs. As de Grey argued, there will still be costs -- if not considerable costs -- even in a world in which senescence has been greatly retarded. The goal, says de Grey, is to work towards the development of anti-aging interventions intended to eliminate death altogether.

Regarding public support, de Grey urged that more PR work needs to be done on his behalf; Aubrey wants better funding. He mentioned his supreme disinterest in politics and politicians, who he believes are merely looking towards the next election and pandering to the needs of their constituency. The trick, he says, is to sway these constituencies on the side of life extension.

As for de Grey’s talk itself, it was vintage caffeine-inspired Aubrey -- but this time he was also full of piss and vinegar. It was angry Aubrey, on the offense and lashing out at those critics who he accused of being dismissive of his work out of sheer incredulity and little else. He eventually returned to more substantive issues by addressing Olshansky’s longevity dividend and his own work, including his upcoming book, Ending Aging: The Rejuvenation Breakthroughs that Could Reverse Human Aging in Our Lifetime.

Also speaking at the event was economist David Meltzer who dazzled attendees with abstract renderings of economics equations and high economic concept. Anders Sandberg worked to frame more meaningful policy scenarios as they pertain to life extension; Ronald Bailey spoke of the political economy; I presented a summation and taxonomy of arguments both for and against life extension; and James Hughes demonstrated how coalitions should be built for anti-aging science and medicine by turning the symposium into a collaborative workshop.

The life extension community continues to take strides by expanding and attracting more effective allies. And by doing so it is acquiring a powerful arsenal of ethical, legal, political and economic rationales to support the claim for longer life.

The case for radical life extension continues to mature.

Read Ronald Bailey’s recap of the symposium.

July 23, 2007

Chicago Day 2

Today was an exhausting but wonderful day. There were no conference related activities so we spent the day wandering around various parts of Chicago.

We visited Chicago's China Town, U.S. Cellular Field, the Bridgeport neighborhood, a Zhou Brothers art studio, Millennium Park and a ton of places in between. We attended a Transhumanist Student Network meeting, visited umpteen coffee shops and hung out at the Fairmont Hotel listening to conference organizers. Today I drank freshly squeezed orange juice, avoided getting run over by insane taxi drivers, gazed up at the Sear's Tower, rode the CTA, talked far too much philosophy, and took about 150 photographs.

Ben Hyink, the local organizer, has gone way beyond the normal call of duty and has been an outstanding and enthusiastic tour guide. He's a big part of why we're having such a great start to the week.

At the end of the day, and too physically exhausted to do anything else, our group of touristy futurist enthusiasts just hung out in Millennium park debating the finer points of existence and the transhumanist project.

My feet are blistered and completely swollen. My eyelids are heavy. I must crash now and get some rest; I give my first presentation tomorrow at the Longevity Symposium tomorrow afternoon.

July 22, 2007

Chicago Day 1

I'm in Chicago now after a long day of driving. I arrived at my hotel around 5:30pm which left lots of time for evening activities.

Me and my friend Sagan met up with Ben Hyink at the Chicago Diner in Boys Town. It's an all-vegetarian restaurant which suited me just fine. Actually, the food was quite amazing. We were soon joined by several other conference attendees who arrived early (the conference doesn't get started until Monday).

After great food and conversation we walked around Wrigleyville to see the various sights and sounds. Chicago is a very cool city. We even took in an excellent improv show at Stage Left.

It's late now -- 1:15am -- and it'll be early rise tomorrow for another full day.

So, a great start to what is going to be a great week.

July 20, 2007

Off to Chicago for TransVision 2007

I'm off to Chicago for a week attending TransVision 2007.

My first talk will be on Monday July 23 at 1:00pm at the IEET's Longevity symposium. I'll be speaking about the most popular arguments for and against life extension.

My second talk will be on Wednesday July 25 around 6:30pm. I'll be addressing the implications of our failing search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

If you're going to be there please be sure to stop by and say hi.

I may or may not be blogging while I'm away. It will all depend on how much spare time and energy I have and the kind of internet connectivity that will be made available to me.

July 19, 2007

Checkers pwned

Well, it looks like 2007 will mark the year that checkers was finally solved.

A team at the University of Alberta has developed a computer that has solved checkers. The computer, called Chinook, can do no worse than draw an opponent. From the Nature article:

"The team directed Chinook so it didn't have to go through every one of the 500 billion billion (5 * 1020) possible moves. Not all losing plays needed to be analysed; instead, for each game position, Chinook needed to work out only a move that would allow it to win. In the end, only 1/5,000,000 of the moves were computed."

Jaap van den Herik, editor of the International Computer Games Journal, calls the achievement "a truly significant advance in artificial intelligence." He predicts that chess will be solved some time between 2060 and 2070 -- a game with a complexity tree of 10^46 (although some estimates place it as high as 10^123, which is insane -- that number of bits could define the entire universe in computational terms).

Given the success of Chinook and the ability to 'compress' its thinking, I believe chess is in danger of being solved well before van den Herik's prediction.

I expect this to happen sometime between 2035 and 2045 when computers really start to get scary -- on the scale of billions of times more powerful than all human minds combined.

July 18, 2007

Centauri Dreams: Odds on the human future

Centauri Dreams has posted a review of Princeton astrophysicist Richard Gott's take on the Fermi Paradox and the future of human civilization. Gott uses the Copernican Principle to suggest that humanity likely represents a typical civilization and that humans better get going on colonization efforts before it's too late.

This conclusion is very similar to the one I'll be presenting at TransVision 2007 a week from today in Chicago. Specifically, I will be speaking about the implications of our failing search for extraterrestrial civilizations. While my presentation does touch upon the threat of human extinction, I will also be offering some other non-catastrophic solutions to the Great Silence problem (namely localized digital existence).

As for Gott's argument, I whole heartedly agree that the Copernican Principle can be applied to the Fermi question. We should self-sample ourselves and subsequently not assume that a) we're somehow different than other civs, and b) there are more radically advanced civs in the Galaxy than pre-Singularity civs.

Yes, it's an upsetting conclusion, but that's where the data is pointing.

At TV07 I will also be arguing that the Copernican Principle trumps Occam's Razor in this matter. It's been said (by Kurzweil and others) that the most simplest explanation to the Fermi problem is that we're the first intelligence to emerge in the Galaxy.

To tackle this, I spend the first third of my presentation taking apart the Rare Earth Hypothesis (and other related notions) in an attempt to show that this suggestion is not only grossly improbable, but a bi-product of human arrogance and anthropocentrism.

It's Copernicus all over again.

July 17, 2007

July 14, 2007

A pair of mentions in the press this week

I was quoted in a pair of unrelated articles this past week.

MSN put out an article about how Facebook might be a fraudsters' paradise, and the Scotsman discussed the ethics and implications of Oscar Pistorius's upcoming race: Why 'Blade Runner' has sport on edge of a moral dilemma.

July 12, 2007

Anissimov: Top 10 Transhumanist Technologies

Michael Anissimov has listed the Top 10 Transhumanist Technologies. They are:

1. Artificial General Intelligence
2. Mind uploading
3. Megascale engineering
4. Molecular manufacturing
5. Autonomous self-replicating robotics
6. Cybernetics
7. Space colonization
8. Gene therapy/RNA interference
9. Virtual reality
10. Cryonics

Read the entire article.

Neural interfacing belongs on this list — particularly as it pertains to fully immersive VR and as a precursor to mind transfer (not to mention a myriad of other applications).

I took a quick look at the Lindeman haptics paper and their proposal for feedback suits and other wearable devices meant to simulate real-world tactile and sensory stimuli.

While I am sure that this will be a technologically necessary step on the path to fully immersive VR, it won’t actually be truly immersive and believable until the development of more powerful neural interfaces.

Specifically I’m thinking of the so-called brain-jack or similar device that will drill directly into the sensory cortex. Once this has been achieved there will be no need for wearable devices that merely simulate experience. Tapping into the sensory and motor cortices will enable us to over-write unwanted incoming sensory data and replace it with the simulated experience — including touch, smell, sound, and even neurotransmitters like adrenaline.

The trick is to figure out how to do this, but I don’t think it’s beyond theoretical possibility.

July 10, 2007

Cyborg runner set to compete against able-bodied athletes

Double amputee Oscar Pistorius may not get the opportunity to compete at the Olympics, but he's going to get the chance to compete against able-bodied runners after all.

Pistorius will run the 400 meters at the Norwich Union Grand Prix in Sheffield on Sunday in a field that includes Olympic champion Jeremy Wariner.

Read more here.

[Kudos to David]