February 27, 2008

'Silicon womb' ready for trials

Trials of a "silicon womb" that holds test-tube embryos inside the womb to expose them to more natural conditions will shortly begin in the UK. Researchers say the new device may produce better quality embryos and reduce the need to harvest so many eggs from infertile women.

In standard IVF, eggs harvested from a woman are fertilised in the lab and allowed to develop in an incubator for 2 to 5 days. The healthiest embryos are chosen to be transferred into the uterus.

The new device allows embryos created in the lab to be incubated inside a perforated silicon container inserted into a woman's own womb. After a few days, the capsule is recovered and some embryos are selected for implantation in the womb.
[Via NewScientistTech]

Walter Anthony's Purple Nurple Optical Illusion

February 25, 2008

Sentient Developments wins 3 Blogisattva awards

The 2008 Blogisattva Award winners have been announced - the awards for best Buddhist blogging - and Sentient Developments won three awards:

Best Achievement Blogging on Matters Scientific.

Best Science Blog Post “Perils of a Digital Life.”

Best Engage-the-World Blog Post “Meat eaters are bad people.”

February 22, 2008

A prosthetic that alerts us to the real dangers in life

Humans tend to have an extremely distorted view of risks. We tend to be bothered by low probability but high profile threats, while often completely oblivious to those risks that could actually harm us. Check out this chart:

According to artist Susanna Hertrich, this is because humans have lost their natural instinct for sensing genuine dangers. Her solution? A prosthetic device for lost instincts that literally makes your hair stand on end.

She calls it the Alertness Enhancing Device. It's an art-piece, thesis, and human enhancement device that stimulates goosebumps and shivers that go down your spine and make your neck hair stand up, "waking up the alert animal inside." According to Hertrich, the AED helps you become more alert and ready for the real dangers in life. More here.

Dude creates wicked head tracking display for 3D gaming with Wii remote

Totally cool electronic tattoo display powered by blood

This wireless blood-fueled display was recently shown at the Greener Gadgets Design Competition. It's a subcutaneously implanted touch-screen that operates as a cell phone display, with the potential for 3G video calls that are visible just underneath the skin. It's powered by a fuel cell that converts the energy found in blood.

Inter-species video games

The concept behind this year's Game Design Challenge was to create a game playable by humans and at least one other species. The result? Games for dolphins, dogs and....uh....bacteria.

Heh, the joke's on them. Bonobos have been playing Pacman since forever ago.

February 21, 2008

Dean Kamen's "Luke Arm" prosthesis just about ready for clinical trials

IEEE Spectrum Online has a special report on the current state of prosthethic arm development, including the latest on Dean Kamen's "Luke Arm" which is being funded by DARPA. There's also an amazing video showing the arm in action.

February 19, 2008

Latest audiocast posted: 2008.02.19

The latest Sentient Developments Podcast is now available. You can subscribe to this feed. Go here for alternative audio formats.

In this episode I discuss a conversation I had with Alcor's Tanya Jones, why the Drake Equation is obsolete, and Anonymous's war on Scientology.

Are illegal tactics against Scientology justified?

I have been closely following the exploits of Anonymous with no small amount of fascination. For those living in a cave on Venus, Anonymous is a hacktivist group that made headlines late last month by declaring war on the Church of Scientology and by launching several initiatives to that end - some legal, some not so legal.

At first I was delighted by the news. Finally, I thought, somebody is actually doing something about this blight. As my readers know, I'm no fan of Scientology. I've spoken out against their unscrupulousness for some time now. I have friends who have been persecuted by the cult and know of others who have been caught in their brain-washing web. I’ve also had my own run-ins with the group and their drones.

But the more I consider the actions of Anonymous, the more I am convinced that they're going about their campaign in the wrong way. Yes, there are advantages to a devil-may-care approach and its attendant publicity, but ultimately I think their strategy will fail. By stooping down to the level of the Scientologists and engaging in illegal activities, Anonymous puts itself at considerable risk. At the same time they undermine more legitimate efforts to see Scientology finally branded as the anti-social money-grubbing racket that it is.

The story so far

Anonymous first emerged this past January in response to Scientology’s rather laughable effort to ban a scandalous video of Tom Cruise enthusiastically praising the virtues of Scientology. Anonymous launched their campaign, called Project Chanology, by publicly launching a creepy-as-hell YouTube video titled, “Message to Scientology” on January 21, 2008. In the video Anonymous accused Scientology of promoting internet censorship while declaring their own goal of working to see Scientology expelled from the internet. Anonymous, which appears to be made up of a disparate collection of hackers and activists, state that they are "everyone and everywhere" and have "no leaders."

Following the release of the video, Anonymous launched a number of denial-of-service attacks, black faxes, prank calls, and other measures meant to disrupt Scientology’s operations.

Earlier this month, Anonymous shifted to legal methods, including an attempt to get the U.S. Internal Revenue Service to investigate the Church of Scientology's tax exempt status.

Anonymous also organized a number of world-wide protests. Participants were invited to put on a mask (to retain anonymity) and protest outside Scientology centers. Much to my amazement, the Toronto rally attracted nearly 50 masked protesters. Similar scenes were played out in over 90 locations around the world and involved over 7,000 protesters.

Pros and Cons

Without a doubt, Anonymous has done more in the past two months than any other group to make it socially acceptable to protest against Scientology. By disingenuously hiding behind the shield of religious freedom, and by relentlessly harassing its critics, Scientology has thus far successfully quashed any attempt at protest and action.

Anonymous is changing this. Thanks to their high-profile campaign – illegal or otherwise – they have raised awareness and made it possible for people to feel that they can organize and protest against the cult. And this may in fact turn out to be Anonymous’s greatest victory. The publicity spawned by their efforts may eventually instigate political action.

And it has been the utter lack of political action in North America that has forced a clandestine vigilante group to emerge in the first place. While European countries like Germany and France are working to ban Scientology on the grounds that they violate human rights and take advantage of the vulnerable, it is a vastly different story here in North America. Our misguided mandate to unquestioningly honor all forms of religious expression has created a loophole for Scientology enabling it to spread its memetic cancer. And virtually nobody does anything about it—and those few who do are ignored or declared to be intolerant.

Which is why Anonymous has emerged and why they feel they have had to take matters into their own hands. Unfortunately, they have decided to launch some questionable practices of their own, namely illegal tactics like denial-of-service attacks.

While there's a certain satisfaction in seeing Scientology on the receiving end, this is not a viable long-term strategy. It's clearly a form of harassment; the authorities have already been involved. A worst case scenario may see Anonymous’s members being charged with instigating hate crimes (should its members be uncovered, of course -- which brings to mind another issue: given the distributed and collaborative nature of the group, can there such a thing as distributed guilt?).

These approaches may also perpetuate a persecution complex among Scientologists and prompt them to defend their religious freedoms even further. As Scientology critic Andreas Heldal-Lund has said, "Attacking Scientology like that will just make them play the religious persecution card ... They will use it to defend their own counter actions when they try to shatter criticism and crush critics without mercy."

What’s next?

Ultimately, Anonymous’s goal of wanting to have Scientology wiped off the internet will fail. As showcased by the Tom Cruise video, when an attempt is made to remove something from the internet, the opposite actually happens – what’s known as the Streisand Effect.

Moreover, illegal tactics will only take away from those genuine efforts that could actually work to see Scientology legislated into oblivion. If France and Germany can work to do it, so can the United States and Canada.

Finally, because Anonymous has proven effective at generating publicity and for its masterly methods at organizing dissent, they should concentrate their energy and skills in this area. By getting people out into the streets, and by broadcasting the sins of Scientology, political and legal action may soon follow.

This is a process that will require patience, persistence and action. As Trey Parker and Matt Stone have proclaimed, the "million-year war for Earth has only just begun.”

February 16, 2008

Why stop at intelligent design?

Preserve your pets, clone them later

From the ViaGen Website:
ViaGen will gladly gene bank your pet using our CryoSure™ service, for a cost of $1500. Once you place an order, we will ship a refrigerated biopsy kit to your veterinarian, and your veterinarian will return the kit to us with small biopsy samples taken from your pet.

We recommend that you gene bank your pet while it's living, but under certain circumstances you can also gene bank a deceased pet.

ViaGen has no plans to provide commercial cat or dog cloning services. However, we're equipped to provide the highest-quality gene banking services for pets. Once you have preserved your pet's genes, they will remain available for many years. If another company offers cat or dog cloning services in the future, we can transfer your pet's genes to that company for cloning.

If Your Pet Has Died

It's possible to gene bank a pet post-mortem. If you wish to do so, here are some important things you should know:

You have only five days post-mortem to gene bank your pet. ViaGen is not open on weekends or holidays, and you may encounter delays scheduling a biopsy procedure with your veterinarian. Therefore, diligence will be required on your part to meet the five-day deadline.

If your pet has been deceased for one or two days and you live in the USA, take the following actions: refrigerate but don't freeze your pet. Call your veterinarian and schedule an immediate biopsy procedure. Call us toll-free at 888-8VIAGEN to place an order.

If your pet has been deceased for three or four days and you live in the USA, there probably won't be time for us to ship a biopsy kit to your veterinarian, have a biopsy procedure performed, and deliver your pet's biopsy samples to us within five days of death. Please call us toll-free at 888-8VIAGEN so we may discuss your options with you.

We do not accept gene banking orders from outside the USA at this time.

Goertzel on psi

Much to the chagrin of his readers, AI theorist Ben Goertzel has dared to explore the topic of parapsychology on his blog (or just 'psi'). He argued that the scientific evidence for psi is stronger than we think.

When his readers complained in the comments section, Goertzel came back by saying,
These emails basically present arguments of two forms:

1. You're nuts, don't you know all the psi experiments are fraud and experimental error, everyone knows that...
2. Look, even if there's a tiny chance that some psi phenomena are real, you're a fool to damage your reputation by aligning yourself with the kooks who believe in it

What shocks me (though it shouldn't, as I've been around 41 years and seen a lot of human nature already) about arguments of the first form is the irrational degree of skepticism toward this subject, displayed by otherwise highly rational and reflective individuals...

What shocks me about arguments of the second form is how often they come from individuals who are publicly aligned with other extremely radical ideas. For instance a few Singularitarians have emailed me and warned me that me talking about psi is bad, because then people will think Singularitarians are kooks.
I'm with Ben on this one. We shouldn't rule anything out at this point or worry about damaging reputations. Science is about falsification. But before you can falsify something you have to throw the theory out there. And as Goertzel noted, there's a ton of research being done in this area with some rather bizarre observations being made.

I've written some articles along these lines in the past:
Does the brain tap into the future?
The Global Consciousness Project
Paul Smith: Reading the Enemy's Mind

February 13, 2008

Worst livestock route in North America exposed

The Handle with Care Coalition -- a World Federation for the Protection of Animals led global coalition representing leading national and international animal welfare organizations -- recently completed a two-year-long investigation to expose the brutality of long distance transport for slaughter.

What they discovered is that Canada is responsible for one of the harshest transportation ordeals for livestock in the entire world.

According to their release:
One of the longest, cruellest, most gruelling journeys ever faced by pigs, actually begins right here in Canada. Every year 10,000 - 15,000 pigs from Hutterite farms in Alberta are forced to endure a seven to nine day trip by land and by sea from Alberta to Hawaii. These unfortunate pigs are never once unloaded to the ground for rest during their entire ordeal. Confined to cramped, filthy containers, they are forced to lie in their own faeces, urine and vomit and may go long periods of time without food or water. Shortly after their arrival, the pigs are slaughtered and the meat is sold to unsuspecting locals and tourists as "Island Produced" pork.
Read more here. If you live in Canada you can do something about it by clicking here.

February 6, 2008

Martin Rees: We Should Take the 'Posthuman' Era Seriously

Edge.org's big question this year is, "What have you changed your mind about?" Sir Martin Rees answered, "We Should Take the 'Posthuman' Era Seriously." Excerpt:
Human-induced changes are occurring with runaway speed. It's hard to predict a mere century from now, because what will happen depends on us - this is the first century where humans can collectively transform, or even ravage, the entire biosphere. Humanity will soon itself be malleable, to an extent that's qualitatively new in the history of our species. New drugs (and perhaps even implants into our brains) could change human character; the cyberworld has potential that is both exhilarating and frightening. We can't confidently guess lifestyles, attitudes, social structures, or population sizes a century hence.

Indeed, it's not even clear for how long our descendants would remain distinctively 'human'. Darwin himself noted that "not one living species will transmit its unaltered likeness to a distant futurity". Our own species will surely change and diversify faster than any predecessor -- via human-induced modifications (whether intelligently-controlled or unintended), not by natural selection alone. Just how fast this could happen is disputed by experts, but the post-human era may be only centuries away.

These thoughts might seem irrelevant to practical discussions - and best left to speculative academics and cosmologists. I used to think this. But humans are now, individually and collectively, so greatly empowered by rapidly changing technology that we can, by design, or as unintended consequences - engender global changes that resonate for centuries. And, sometimes at least, policy-makers indeed think far ahead.

The global warming induced by fossil fuels burnt in the next fifty years could trigger gradual sea level rises that continue for a millennium or more. And in assessing sites for radioactive waste disposal, governments impose the requirements that they be secure for ten thousand years.

It's real political progress that these long-term challenges are higher on the international agenda, and that planners seriously worry about what might happen more than a century hence.

But in such planning, we need to be mindful that it may not be people like us who confront the consequences of our actions today. We are custodians of a 'posthuman' future - here on Earth and perhaps beyond - that can't just be left to writers of science fiction.
Rees is the President, The Royal Society; Professor of Cosmology & Astrophysics; Master, Trinity College, University of Cambridge; Author, Our Final Century: The 50/50 Threat to Humanity's Survival.

Latest podcast posted

Yes, I'm podcasting again. The latest episode can be found here. You can subscribe to this feed.

In this episode I discuss deep brain stimulation, Marquis de Condorcet and our poor attitudes about mental health.

Et La Terre...Fut

February 5, 2008

PUMA's portrayal of cyborg athletes

PUMA takes you to the world of football in the year 2178 AD where they launch the v1.178 Speed Legs and transform the game as we know it. Oscar Pistorius, eat your heart out.

You can see a much better version at the PUMA site.

February 2, 2008


New Terminator show brings Singularity to prime time

Like most science fiction on television these days, the new Terminator show is virtually unwatchable. That said, they correctly introduced futurist lingo into the story.

At one point in the episode "The Turk," John Connor tells his mom, Sarah Connor, about the Singularity and describes it as a point in time when machines are able to build superior versions of themselves without the aid of humans--after which point they can pretty much kiss their asses goodbye.

That's just about right, actually. And I've always found the Terminator future to be one of the more disturbing dystopic visions. Given the potential for robotic armies and greater-than-human artificial intelligences, one has to pause for thought...