April 29, 2008

Latest podcast posted: 2008.04.29

The latest episode of the Sentient Developments Podcast is now available. Alternative audio formats are also available.

This episode:
  • An overview of my recent talk at the Center for Inquiry
  • Discussing Twitter and Google Apps
  • Part 3 of my Fermi Paradox talk: Possible solutions and next steps
  • Why the male birth-control pill is so important for men; sorry, ladies—this pill isn't about you
  • Sorry ladies, the male birth control pill is not about you

    There's been considerable media attention surrounding a recent breakthrough in the development of a male birth-control pill (MBCP).

    Fact of the matter is that it's still about 5 to 10 years away. It's taking forever for a men's pill to come to market.

    What's taking so long?

    Well, the issue is not as simple as it might first appear. Sure, there are still some technical hurdles to overcome, but the delay in developing a MBCP has definite political, economic and even discriminatory aspects to it.

    Barriers to entry do in fact exist for the male pill—disempowering barriers that men should most certainly be aware of—including those set up by sexist women who belittle male reproductive accountability, unfair gender biases, self-serving feminists who refuse to relinquish reproductive power, and a risk averse Big Pharma.

    And men themselves are also to blame. Far too many guys have gotten comfortable over the idea that birth-control pills are exclusive to women. Most men have not yet realized the implications of having access to a pill of their own.

    Consequently (and quite disturbingly), conversations about the male pill have migrated outside the sphere of male interests. Women tend to frame the issue as it pertains to their concerns and their needs, while politicians and pharmaceutical companies neglect the issue, unsure as to what it means to them.

    Ultimately, however, this is about men. It's about men gaining fair and equal access to a powerful contraceptive that will finally allow them to have the same control over their reproductive processes as women—an outcome that will greatly benefit male interests.

    How the male pill works

    An international consortium of physicians recently revealed a formula for "safe, effective and reversible" hormonal contraception for males.

    The breakthrough involves progestin, which is found in women's birth-control pills and the male sex hormone testosterone. Progestin helps suppress ovulation when used in an oral contraceptive and it appears to function in the same way for men, suppressing the rate and extent of sperm production. The developers claim that this contraceptive will be as effective as a vasectomy.

    Men will have to take the pill for about 2 to 3 months to deplete their sperm. It will take a similar amount of time to restore normal levels of fertility once off the pill.

    Bring it

    For the most part, both men and women appear to be in favor of the MBCP.

    Trouble is, most men and women don't truly understand why it's so important. Particularly women.

    Now, I don't mean to begrudge women their reasons for welcoming the male pill. It's all good.

    I think it's great that couples will finally be able to share the burden of birth control.

    And it will undoubtedly be a welcome alternative for those women who cannot take the pill or other contraceptives (of which there are many).

    There's also the issue of accessibility. A 2004 report from the Reproductive Health Technologies Project calls contraceptive availability an "unfinished revolution." Indeed, we need more contraception and more options.

    But this is fundamentally an issue of male reproductive control

    This is a male issue about male reproduction.

    And all that it entails.

    The pill will resolve a number problems that men typically face.

    It will be dramatically less invasive and severe than a vasectomy—a procedure that can be reversed, but one that's quite involved and not always possible.

    The male pill will also prove to be much more reliable than condoms or withdrawal which can have worst-case failure rates of 15 and 27 percent respectively (!!!).

    Also, the male pill will have a profound sociological impact similar to what happened after the advent of the female birth-control pill. This will prove to be a seminal event as far as the men's movement is concerned.

    In fact, a strong case can be made that the delay in the male pill has been caused by an underdeveloped male social movement. The sense of urgency to develop a MBCP has been quelled by the dissenters and the disconnected. Men need to be aware of those forces that work to prevent the advent of not just the male pill, but a cohesive and powerful men's rights movement itself.

    Negative male stereotyping

    The possibility of a male pill has caused a number of women to pause and reflect on the implications.

    Should a woman believe a guy who says, "Trust me, baby, I'm on the pill."?

    Most women would likely say no. It's doubtful that women would put faith in men to stick to a strict schedule of birth-control pill popping. Men are supposed to be untrustworthy and irresponsible, right? After all, they're not the ones who would have to deal with a pregnancy.

    Aside from what this says about negative male stereotyping, this complaint neglects three fundamental issues.

    First, people must take control over their own reproductive processes and not rely on the other person. This goes for both men and women. The MBCP will finally help men know for certain that they have virtually no chance of impregnating a partner.

    Which immediately brings to mind the problem of trust that many men are confronted with today. Should men trust women when they make the same claim? How many times has a man been duped into fatherhood by an opportunistic woman?

    Well, according to a Cornell University study, over a million American births each year result from pregnancies which men did not intend. What does this say about female reproductive accountability?

    The male pill, will at the very least, help men avoid this risk.

    Second, the MBCP strictly deals with contraception. It will do nothing to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. The advent of a male pill will not eliminate the need to wear a condom as far as STDs are concerned.

    And third, most men do in fact deal with a pregnancy and the introduction of an unexpected child -- be it parental or fiscal responsibilities. There are more accountable single dads who have joint custody of their children than ever before in history.

    An unwelcome power shift

    As Glenn Sacks has said, "Power is the reward which comes with responsibility."

    Indeed, because women have had to bear the burden of contraception, they have gained control over an integral component of human life, namely reproduction. The MBCP threatens to wrest that control from women to men.

    Quite understandably, some feminists are concerned about this possibility.

    And, I'm sorry to say, that's too bad.

    Men are currently at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to the choice of reproduction -- but this is now set to change.

    As an example, according to the 2004 National Scruples and Lies Survey (which polled 5,000 women in the United Kingdom), 42% of women claimed they would lie about contraception in order to get pregnant, regardless of the wishes of their partners.


    Other evidence suggests that over 10% of children turn out not to be the offspring of the expected father when DNA tests are done, suggesting that many men obliviously help in the raising of children who are not actually theirs.

    This is no laughing matter. Child support rates are increasing, with some fathers giving their ex's as much as 15 to 25% of their take home pay per child. And it's widely known that fathers are second class citizens in the courts. For example, in some U.S. states a father cannot present DNA evidence to disprove paternity.

    For those men who truly don't want to have children—something that is completely within their rights—the MBCP will help them achieve that level of control.

    And again, female claims that this will allow men to forever shirk their paternal responsibilities and live in perpetual adolescence are not just gross generalizations, but sexist statements of the highest order.

    The Man is holding men down

    Quite surprisingly, Big Pharma has dragged their feet in developing the MBCP. Despite over 20 years of research, they claim that there's little money to be made.

    In fact, that's one of the main reasons that the pharmaceutical firms Bayer and Organon abandoned their male pill programs last year.

    This is because men are not demanding it

    Men are clearly not showing Big Pharma that they want a male pill.

    Research shows that most males are not ready for personal birth control. A recent MSN-Zogby poll revealed that only 14% of Americans would definitely take it or insist that their partner take it. And tellingly, the study indicated that women are slightly more excited about the prospect than men.

    While at the same time other studies show that men do in fact want alternative contraception options.

    What's going on here, guys?

    Perhaps confusion has something to do with it. There's a very underdeveloped sense of a male collective consciousness. It appears that men, for the most part, don't yet realize the importance of reproductive control—something women have, for obvious reasons, been very aware of for quite some time now.

    Some men, for example, dismiss the male pill on account of their fear that it would transgress their masculinity.

    This is exactly the mentality that has to be abandoned and replaced by some more forward thinking ideas that will work help equalize not just reproductive options, but other gender issues that set men at a disadvantage or limit biological potential.

    Times they are a changin'

    Perhaps I'm understating the fact that 14% of men are ready to use the pill. That's a significant number unto itself. Maybe it's a positive sign that attitudes are changing and that broader acceptance is on its way.

    In all likelihood, demand will probably increase once the pill is finally made available. It will become real for men once it becomes a real option.

    And hopefully it will wake men up to the possibilities. Issues of gender, sexuality and reproduction are not just women's issues. They're a vital element of the collective human condition.

    April 27, 2008

    Nick Bostrom: "Why I hope the search for extraterrestrial life finds nothing."

    Transhumanist philosopher Nick Bostrom desperately hopes that we never find signs of extraterrestrial life -- advanced or otherwise.


    Because he understands the Fermi Paradox.

    Or more accurately, he understands the implications of the Fermi Paradox and The Great Silence.

    Because the Galaxy appears uncolonized and unperturbed by intelligent life, and because there has been ample time and motive for this to happen, we have to conclude that some kind of filter is in place that prevents life from arriving at this advanced phase.

    In his recent article for Technology Review, Bostrom writes:
    ...the evolutionary path to life-forms capable of space colonization leads through a "Great Filter," which can be thought of as a probability barrier...The filter consists of one or more evolutionary transitions or steps that must be traversed at great odds in order for an Earth-like planet to produce a civilization capable of exploring distant solar systems. You start with billions and billions of potential germination points for life, and you end up with a sum total of zero extraterrestrial civilizations that we can observe. The Great Filter must therefore be sufficiently powerful--which is to say, passing the critical points must be sufficiently improbable--that even with many billions of rolls of the dice, one ends up with nothing: no aliens, no spacecraft, no signals. At least, none that we can detect in our neck of the woods.

    Now, just where might this Great Filter be located? There are two possibilities: It might be behind us, somewhere in our distant past. Or it might be ahead of us, somewhere in the decades, centuries, or millennia to come.
    We are hoping that the filter resides in our past, that we have already overcome highly improbable odds.

    More disturbingly, however, it's likely that the Great Filter still awaits us in the future. There's some kind technologically instigated event that exists out there -- and no species can avoid it.

    Again, Bostrom writes:
    Throughout history, great civilizations on Earth have imploded--the Roman Empire, the Mayan civilization that once flourished in Central America, and many others. However, the kind of societal collapse that merely delays the eventual emergence of a space-colonizing civilization by a few hundred or a few thousand years would not explain why no such civilization has visited us from another planet. A thousand years may seem a long time to an individual, but in this context it's a sneeze. There are probably planets that are billions of years older than Earth. Any intelligent species on those planets would have had ample time to recover from repeated social or ecological collapses. Even if they failed a thousand times before they succeeded, they still could have arrived here hundreds of millions of years ago.

    The Great Filter, then, would have to be something more dramatic than run-of-the mill societal collapse: it would have to be a terminal global cataclysm, an existential catastrophe. An existential risk is one that threatens to annihilate intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential for future development. In our own case, we can identify a number of potential existential risks: a nuclear war fought with arms stockpiles much larger than today's (perhaps resulting from future arms races); a genetically engineered superbug; environmental disaster; an asteroid impact; wars or terrorist acts committed with powerful future weapons; super­intelligent general artificial intelligence with destructive goals; or high-energy physics experiments. These are just some of the existential risks that have been discussed in the literature, and considering that many of these have been proposed only in recent decades, it is plausible to assume that there are further existential risks we have not yet thought of.
    Bostrom, who is the director of the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford, concludes his article by making a case for increased foresight and vigorous inquiry into potential risks.

    But even so, Bostrom asks, what makes us think we'd be immune to such a powerful filter?

    Which is why, when he looks up at the stars, he is thankful that we have yet to see any signs of extraterrestrial life.

    Read the entire article, "Where are They?"

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    April 26, 2008

    One year ago on SentDev: Is the world ready for cyborg athletes?

    It was a year ago around this time that disabled sprinter Oscar Pistorius was fighting for his chance to compete at the 2008 Olympics. It was a battle that he officially lost on January 14, 2008 when the IAAF ruled him ineligible for competitions conducted under the IAAF rules.

    Back in November 2007, German professor Gert-Peter Brueggemann determined that Pistorius's limbs used 25% less energy than able-bodied runners to run at the same speed, and that they led to less vertical motion combined with 30% less mechanical work for lifting the body.

    Do the prosthetic legs give Pistorius an advantage over able-bodied runners?

    According to this research, quite obviously yes.

    Is the IAAF right to prevent him from competing against able-bodied runners?

    That's a more difficult question to answer -- one I tackled in my article from a year ago, "Is the world ready for cyborg athletes?":


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

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

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

    Technical Aid?

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

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

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

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

    The end of normal human functioning in sports

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

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

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

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

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

    New capacities, new sports

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

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

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

    And new capacities will mean new sports altogether.

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

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

    Here's a video clip of Pistorius in action:

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    April 25, 2008

    Bill Nye shows how stem cells can treat spinal cord injury

    Bill Nye is a personal hero of mine. We need more role models like this guy. And given the rates of scientific illiteracy these days, adults should probably be watching Bill Nye the Science Guy as much as their kids.

    Pixelated reality

    Sentient Developments gets an upgrade

    I'm updating this blog's front-end. Please bear with me over the coming days as I work to fine tune it.

    April 24, 2008

    Betterhumans sold to James Clement

    Yes, it's true -- we've sold Betterhumans to James Clement, Executive Director of the World Transhumanist Association and COO of the Maximum Life Foundation. Given a change in our interests and business focus, Simon Smith and I decided the time was right to move on and give someone else an opportunity to manage and reinvigorate the site. We feel that James is the perfect person for the job.

    I've been involved with Betterhumans since the the very beginning and have seen it through all its various phases and permutations. It's with some sadness, then, that I see the site change hands. That said, I feel that we made the right decision and I'm very much looking forward to seeing where James takes it.

    Be sure to read Simon Smith's announcement about the sale, "Passing the Baton."

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    April 23, 2008

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    April 22, 2008

    Two years ago on SentDev: The End of Livestock

    Wow, check out all this sudden excitement over lab-grown meat. Well, as many of my readers know, I've been an advocate for this possibility for some time now. This article appeared two years ago in Sentient Developments:

    The End of Livestock

    The science of tissue engineering and the development of in vitro meat may one day, hopefully, result in the end of livestock.

    And with it, the end of unnecessary cruelty to non-human animals, a decrease in the frequency of animal-to-human borne diseases (which, as far as contactable disease go, is like, all of them), the alleviation of environmental degradation caused by animal farming, and an end to unhealthy, unclean, hormone-ridden and antibiotic laden meat.

    Humans eat 240 billion kilograms of meat every year. Imagine how many animals that represents. Now imagine each of those lifetimes as they are individually experienced: caged, crammed, frightened, diseased, poked, prodded, neurotic, psychotic, and all followed by slaughter. Don’t think so? Read this, this, this, this, and this. And then watch this.

    Then there’s all the cropland, water, fertilizer, pesticides and energy required to produce animals for the killing floor. And what about the millions of tonnes of manure and other waste produced every year in North America?

    As Jared Diamond noted in Guns, Germs, and Steel, humans have been consistently traumatized by the continual spread of diseases, which in virtually every case has been spawned by human-to-animal contact (predominantly the result of maintaining livestock). Current health and pandemic risks such as mad cow and avian flu are all heightened as a consequence of animal farming.

    Moreover, with the introduction of in vitro foods, in vitro meat products would be far healthier than the real thing. Cultivated meats would be engineered to be healthier and cleaner.

    In vitro meat is still meat in every sense of the term. According to Wikipedia, the process is as follows:
    Meat essentially consists of animal muscle. There are loosely two approaches for production of in vitro meat; loose muscle cells and structured muscle, the latter one being vastly more challenging than the former. Muscles consist of muscle fibers, long cells with multiple nuclei. They don't proliferate by themselves, but arise when precursor cells fuse. Precursor cells can be embryonic stem cells or satellite cells, specialized stem cells in muscle tissue. Theoretically, they can relatively simple be cultured in a bioreactor and then later made to fuse. For the growth of real muscle however, the cells should grow "on the spot", which requires a perfusion system akin to a blood supply to deliver nutrients and oxygen close to the growing cells, as well as remove the waste products. In addition other cell types need to be grown like adipocytes, and chemical messengers should provide clues to the growing tissue about the structure. Lastly, muscle tissue needs to be trained to properly develop.
    In vitro meat, referred to by some as laboratory-grown meat, is animal flesh that has never been part of a complete, living animal.

    According to a recent Globe and Mail article, scientists can grow frog and mouse meat in the lab, and are now working on pork, beef and chicken. Their goal is to develop an industrial version of the process in five years. It will be at that point that we can say a viable threat exists to the ongoing presence of animal farming. And at the very least it will certainly make the presence of livestock that much less justifiable.

    That being said, it will be a struggle to convince people to eat synthetic meat over the real thing. Most people who have ethical issues with eating meat are already vegetarians--so devout meat eaters aren’t really listening. And it’s doubtful that die-hards will give up their tried-and-true meat over an artificial and likely inferior-tasting product.

    Perhaps it’ll take the death of millions and millions of people from avian flu for people to start questioning meat eating culture.

    One last thought: if there are any arguments from anybody that in vitro meat is still somehow unethical or demeaning to an animal, they seriously need to rethink things. A chunk of tissue grown in a petri dish is as far removed from an existential, emotional, and conscious creature as is a rock.

    That being said, I can already hear the howls of outrage...

    Tags: , , , , , , .

    Bionic eye developed

    YouTube link.
    Read more.

    Honda's walking assist device

    Via Autoblog.

    M.G. Richard's 7 questions

    Blogger Michael Graham Richard recently asked me and several other pundits to answer 7 questions. Here are my responses:

    1. What would you nominate as the best idea that anybody has ever had? Why?

    The greatest idea ever is the suggestion that human consciousness is far from perfect and complete -- and that it can be refined to a much greater extent.

    This profound idea -- that consciousness can and should be optimized -- is nothing new and was first conceived by Siddhartha Gautama over 2,500 years ago. Buddhist practitioners have traditionally sought to re-work conscious experience through meditation and mindfulness.

    Today we are learning that our evolutionarily endowed psychology represents a very narrow band of all possible mind-spaces.

    Eventually, given greater control over our minds, we will see neurotypicality replaced by neurodiversity (i.e. alternative psychologies and changes to consciousness wrought by increased intelligence, memory and sensory capacities).

    2. What non-fiction book do you think everybody should read? Why?

    The most important non-fiction book I’ve read in the last ten years is From Chance to Choice: Genetics and Justice by Allen Buchanan et al. This book sent shock waves through my system and made a profound impact on my bioethical sensibilities.

    By tying Rawlsian notions of social justice to the world of biotechnology (most specifically genetics), the authors showed that access to transhuman-enabling technologies must be considered an integral component of justice and fairness.

    It's bioethical discourse at its best.

    3. What fiction book do you think everybody should read? Why?

    Greg Egan's Diaspora. This book presents a posthuman future that is as close to my own projections as I've ever encountered – and then some. It features uploaded civilizations, clock speed weirdness, robotic mind transfers, trans-dimensional travel, postgendered societies, human speciation, and more. Each page is as mind-blowing as the next.

    4. What technology has most changed your life in the past 10 years and why? What technology do you think will have the biggest impact on your life in the next 10 years and why?

    Indeed the obvious answer has to be the Internet. And what's crazy is that we've only scratched the surface of its potential; it's still in embryonic form.

    As for the next 10 years, I would have to think that it will be the ubiquitization of computers and communications technologies into all facets of life. Computers will be everywhere, invisible, and in the most banal of places, while communications technologies will continue to bring more and more people together and in more meaningful and intimate ways.

    5. What piece of music would you want with you on a desert island (that has a functioning stereo, of course)?

    Very difficult to answer, as it would be hard to pick just one. I’d like to take Red Sparowes’ Every Red Heart Shines Toward the Red Sun, or Evpatoria Report’s Golevka – but they’re both post-rock instrumental albums and I’d want some positive lyrical content to keep my spirits up while alone on my desert island.

    So, I’ll take Tool's Lateralus for its power, beauty, virtuosity, and spiritually uplifting lyrics.
    With my feet upon the ground I lose myself
    between the sounds and open wide to suck it in.
    I feel it move across my skin.
    I'm reaching up and reaching out.
    I'm reaching for the random or what ever will bewilder me.
    And following our will and wind we may just go where no one's been.
    We'll ride the spiral to the end and may just go where no one's been.
    Spiral out. Keep going...
    6. What is the most interesting thing you are working on/reading about/writing about these days?

    I'm conceptualizing a strategy that I'm calling 'distributed humanity' that could work to help mitigate the possibility of human extinction. I’m trying to tackle the ‘eggs in one basket problem’ that we’re currently facing.

    Specifically, it would be a social re-arrangement policy in which human societies work to physically segregate and quarantine themselves from other societies (both on and off planet). Multiple societal nodes would be individually protected by encryption schemes, active shields and other defenses (including strategies to uphold political/constitutional continuity in case of a political coup).

    Ultimately, the complete destruction of one node, while terrible, would not result in the destruction of all.

    The threat of malign nanotechnology, however, may prove to be intractable. Even domed cities with sophisticated defense systems may not be immune from its effects. So, my idea may die on the vine....

    7. Looking ahead, are you an optimist or a pessimist? Why?


    I'm one of the few people who use Occam's Razor to show that catastrophism is the most likely and simplest explanation for the Fermi Paradox. Ultimately, humanity's future task of juggling multiple apocalyptic technologies in perpetuity -- while never dropping one -- will likely prove to be an untenable proposition.

    Links for 2008-04-21 [del.icio.us]

    • How to Improve Your Memory (Lifehack.org)
      Our memory is one of the integral parts of day-to-day human life. We're using it every moment, consciously or not, as we perceive the world and interpret it based on our memories and experiences, or as we look for the car keys, trying to recall where, e
    • Superhumans Possible Via Designer Cloning (LiveScience.com)
      A recently developed technique that might eventually produce facsimiles of human embryonic stem cells from skin cells was lauded by President Bush and the Catholic Church as an ethical alternative to using human embryos for research. But it "opens a who
    • PETA's Latest Tactic: $1 Million for Fake Meat (New York Times)
      People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals wants to pay a million dollars for fake meat — even if it has caused a "near civil war" within the organization.

    April 20, 2008

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    April 19, 2008

    Fake PS9 ad actually presupposes nano neural nets

    A nano neural net is a hypothesized technique for creating a fully immersive virtual reality experience in which nanobots suffuse the brain and circumvent incoming sensory data by halting it and replacing it with new streams of synthetic sensory stimuli.

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    April 18, 2008

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    April 17, 2008

    Life-saving uBOT-5 robot

    This picture is more disturbing than it is reassuring.

    Via Engadget

    The Origin of Species, 6th Ed., 1872

    One of my prized possessions: A 6th edition copy of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species from 1872.

    If this isn't pure enough for you, Darwin's first draft is now available online.

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    April 16, 2008

    Links for 2008-04-15

    April 15, 2008

    John A. Wheeler quotes

    How come quantum? How come existence?

    Behind it all is surely an idea so simple, so beautiful, that when we grasp it - in a decade, a century, or a millennium - we will all say to each other, how could it have been otherwise? How could we have been so stupid?

    If you haven't found something strange during the day, it hasn't been much of a day.

    In order to more fully understand this reality, we must take into account other dimensions of a broader reality.

    No phenomenon is a real phenomenon until it is an observed phenomenon.

    Time is what keeps things from happening all at once.

    To hate is to study, to study is to understand, to understand is to appreciate, to appreciate is to love. So maybe I'll end up loving your theory.

    We live on an island surrounded by a sea of ignorance. As our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance.

    One year ago on SentDev: Bisphenol A 'inherently toxic'

    A year ago I wrote about the perils of Bisphenol A. News hit the wire today that Health Canada is on the verge of classifying it as a dangerous substance.
    If you eat canned food or drink from a can or hard plastic bottles, chances are good that you've ingested Bisphenol A. A controversy is now raging over the safety of the chemical, which acts like a synthetic female sex hormone. Bisphenol A may be responsible for a number of health risks.

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

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

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

    Links for 2008-04-14 [del.icio.us]

    Free will pwnd

    Unconscious decisions in the brain: A team of scientists has unravelled how the brain unconsciously prepares our decisions.
    Already several seconds before we consciously make a decision its outcome can be predicted from unconscious activity in the brain. This is shown in a study by scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, in collaboration with the Charité University Hospital and the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience in Berlin. The researchers from the group of Professor John-Dylan Haynes used a brain scanner to investigate what happens in the human brain just before a decision is made. "Many processes in the brain occur automatically and without involvement of our consciousness. This prevents our mind from being overloaded by simple routine tasks. But when it comes to decisions we tend to assume they are made by our conscious mind. This is questioned by our current findings." (Nature Neuroscience, April 13th 2008)

    April 12, 2008

    Heineken fembot

    Heineken also has an area on their website where you can upload your image and watch a robotic version of yourself taking part in a 'dance party.'

    April 11, 2008

    Come hear my "Transhumanism and Life Extension" talk at the CFI on April 18

    I will be giving a talk about transhumanism and life extension at the Centre for Inquiry this coming Friday April 18. I will be speaking from 7:30 to 9:30 pm at the CFI facility, 216 Beverley St, downtown Toronto.

    In addition to radical life extension, I'll be speaking about transhumanism and its relationship to the Enlightenment and secular humanism.

    Hope to see you there.

    georgedvorsky is twittering



    April 3, 2008

    Four things that spook the shit out of me

    Every once in a while I get hit by waves of existential angst. When this happens, it’s likely that I’m dwelling on one (or more) typical personal anxiety points. They are:
    1. Existence
    2. The presence of suffering
    3. Human isolation in the cosmos
    4. The high probability of human extinction relatively soon
    Let me explain.

    1. Existence

    I can’t help but perceive at my ongoing presence in the universe as something too bizarre for words. Sure, life is cool and enjoyable for the most part, but it’s also quite eerie and disconcerting.

    In fact, there are times when I'm actually afraid to be alive.

    Why is there something instead of nothing? Why should I (or anything) exist at all? Should we infer any meaning to our presence as observers? Does our existence imply that other modal realties can also exist? If so, what might those be like?

    And what a truly strange reality we find ourselves in.

    We inhabit a universe with such things as spiral galaxies, black holes, the aurora borealis and SpongeBob. It’s governed by exquisitely precise laws, but looks to be headed for a miserable end.

    It has also produced observers who comprehend the strangeness of their predicament; the cosmos has weirded itself out.

    2. The presence of suffering

    We also observe a reality in which suffering exists. The universe is indifferent and cruel.

    Some look at this as the problem of evil – the inability to reconcile the presence of evil and suffering with the existence of God. Indeed, if God truly existed, this is not the kind of universe we would expect to find ourselves in by default.

    Rather, we appear to occupy reality in spite of it, surviving as best we can. Humanity is mere cosmological ephemera, a species that has evolved self-awareness and the capacity to experience psychological and physical anguish.

    Yes, we're also capable of experiencing happiness, pleasure and joy; this gives our lives meaning and worth. But the amount of suffering that goes on, whether caused by ourselves or external sources, is disproportionate and severe.

    The presence of evil has larger metaphysical and even spiritual implications. What is the maximal amount of suffering that can exist per person per modal reality? Do Hell realms exist as predicted by various faiths? Does the Many Worlds Hypothesis reinforce this suspicion? Do we risk converting our own universe into a Hell realm? Is it already a Hell realm and we just don’t know it? Do we live in a twisted and broken reality? Are "normal" universes paradisaical and devoid of suffering?

    3. Human isolation in the cosmos

    Our pale blue dot floats in a universe more vast and empty than our brains can possibly comprehend. We’re like the Titanic sinking helplessly in the middle of the Atlantic.

    This dilemma adds insult to injury: We exist in a universe filled with suffering -- and we find ourselves utterly alone forced to fend for ourselves.

    But why are we so alone? There is no obvious answer.

    God must be dead.

    ET has forsaken us.

    And the hacker gods running The Simulation have an agenda all their own.

    It appears that no one is coming to our rescue. We’re going to have to figure it all out for ourselves.

    But we probably won’t.

    4. The high probability of human extinction relatively soon

    The Doomsday Argument suggests that we ought to conclude that we’re closer to the end than the beginning. And given where we’re headed as an advanced technological species, this sounds disturbingly prescient.

    Human civilization is a runaway freight train that’s charging straight into the Singularity. Radically advanced AI is poised to transform the species and our planet. It could be an existential paradigm shift, or a complete disaster.

    But as disturbing as that is unto itself, we may not even get there. The decades leading up to the Singularity are set to be the most disruptive and dangerous that humanity has ever faced. It will be a time of great instability, hysteria and fear.

    And this fear could be turned into reactive, destructive nihilism. A handful of disgruntled zealots could end the show in a real hurry.

    I must not fear

    I’m not always this dark.

    Well, I'm not so dark and neurotic that I don't enjoy my life. If anything, my fears make me appreciate what I do have and I try not to take things for granted. I see life as a profound opportunity to simply experience and share in it with others.

    As I look forward to the future and consider all the hardships we may face, I still wouldn't want to miss it for the world.

    I just have to hold on to my hat and remember that fear is the mind killer.

    Le me know what spooks you by adding a comment.

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    April 1, 2008


  • Edward Miller on open source meat.

  • Ronald Bailey wonders if it's wrong to make animals into happy slaves.

  • Jeremy Hsu on merging man and machine to reach the stars.

  • SETI eat your heart out: Europe-wide radio net to be used in search for ET
  • Eight tips to dramatically improve your chances of living forever

    There is no such thing as a natural death. Nothing that happens to Man is ever natural, since his presence calls the whole world into question. All men must die, but for every man his death is an accident. And even if he knows it and consents to it, an unjustifiable violation. -- J.R.R. Tolkien
    Death, as a proposition, doesn't have much going for it. Given the opportunity, many of us would rather opt out of the whole aging and dying thing and live a life of perpetual health and vitality.

    Trouble is, the scientific know-how to stop the processes of aging won’t exist for some time to come.

    But don’t despair--the life extension revolution is coming. It's not a matter of if, but when.

    Owing to the pioneering work of such gerontologists as Aubrey de Grey, Cynthia Kenyon and Michael Rose, the goal of achieving negligible senescence has never been closer; the theory is starting to take shape and the road map is being drawn as we speak. Aging is finally being regarded as a disease that can be overcome.

    So, if you're patient and follow some common sense guidelines, you may be able to stick around and see Halley’s Comet return in 2061.

    And again in 2137.

    Indeed, all bets are now off for predicting life expectancy rates in the 21st Century. Pending breakthroughs in biotechnology, nanotechnology and information technologies will soon make it possible for us to treat an aging body in the same way we would repair an old and worn out machine.

    Future treatments are going to make Viagra and Botox look downright medieval:

    Your kidneys are failing? No problem, you’ll grow new ones from your own stem cells.

    Got cancer? Don’t fret – it’s nothing a bit of cellular reprogramming can’t fix.

    Suffering from Alzheimer’s? Sounds like you could use a neural-prosthesis.

    Too futuristic? Maybe, but a number of key thinkers are making a strong case for radical life extension arriving as early as two to three decades from a now – a list of thinkers that includes de Grey, futurist Ray Kurzweil, and philosopher Nick Bostrom. Entire communities have arisen to support the prospect, including transhumanists and the immortalists.

    More to the point, though -- are you going to risk potential immortality by not taking these predictions seriously? Is that mega-gulp of soda and greasy bag of chips really worth squandering ever lasting life?

    Because we don’t know for certain when true life extension will come, it’s imperative that you extend your healthy lifespan to the maximum degree possible and not miss out out on the greatest prospect to ever face humanity.

    For those of you who are serious about living forever, here are eight things you can do to help you achieve longevity escape velocity:

    1. Eat the right foods

    In the midst of today’s obesity epidemic and health crisis, it’s hard to believe that food can actually function as medicine. Not only is this proving to be true, but some of the world’s tastiest foods are also the most healthiest.

    Take wine, for example, and what’s known as the French Paradox. The French are notorious for having a diet rich in saturated fats, but have relatively low incidences of coronary heart disease. It is widely suspected that regular red wine consumption – another favorite French pastime – has something to do with it.

    In fact, research is increasingly revealing that antioxidants – which can be found in red wine – can play a crucial role in extending healthy lifespan. An antioxidant is a molecule that slows or prevents the oxidation of other molecules. Oxidation is a chemical reaction that produces free radicals in the body which start chain reactions that damage cells. This damage often goes by another name: aging.

    Wine contains a powerful antioxidant called resveratrol which is a sirtuin stimulant that’s been shown to extend life in mammals. Sirtuin is a remarkable class of enzyme that has actually been shown to retard the aging process.

    Specifically, it can help control age-related disorders such as obesity, metabolic syndrome, type II diabetes and Parkinson's. It’s also suspected of being able to fight cancer, heart disease, and degenerative nerve diseases. Remember, though: it has to be red wine; these compounds are typically found in the skins of red grapes.

    If you don’t care for red wine there are other food options. The top ten common high antioxidant foods include:
  • Walnuts
  • Pomegranates
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Blackberries
  • Cranberries
  • Blueberries
  • Dried apricots
  • Ginger
  • Raspberries
  • Prunes
  • In addition to antioxidants, you need to ensure that you’re getting enough phytonutrients which can be found in fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts and teas. Not only do they serve as a source of antioxidants, they can enhance immune response and cell-to-cell communication, alter estrogen metabolism, convert to vitamin A, cause cancer cells to die, and repair DNA damage cause by toxins.

    You’ll also want to ensure that you’re eating enough fiber to ensure proper digestion – an often undervalued component to proper health. Fiber can be found in prunes, whole wheat, corn bran, flax seed ligands and vegetables such as celery, green beans and potato skins.

    And don’t forget to eat your essential fatty acids (EFA’s). You may know these as Omega 3, 6, and 9. Your body can’t produce these on its own, so you need to enrich your diet by eating oily fish like salmon or getting it via supplementation. EFA’s will help your immune response, muscle maintenance, nerves, hormone system, cell division, oxygen transport and kidney function. And as an added benefit, Omega 3’s are also regarded as 'brain food.'

    Finally, ensure that you’re getting enough water. But it can’t be just any water. According to Kurzweil, "consuming the right type of water is vital to detoxifying the body's acidic waste products and is one of the most powerful health treatments available." He and Dr. Terry Grossman recommend 8 to 10 glasses of alkaline water per day.

    2. Avoid the wrong foods

    It’s not enough to eat all the stuff that's supposed to be good for you – you also have to avoid the crappy foods that sabotage your body and accelerate the aging process.

    As with most things in life, moderation is the key. You need to avoid consuming too much saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, animal protein, chemical additives, and overly processed foods. As Dr. Andrew Weil preaches time and time again, learn to read labels. If you feel lost and out of control when it comes to eating, read Weil's book, Eating Well for Optimum Health.

    While good food can act as medicine, bad foods are virtually poisonous over time.

    Eating too much sugar and starches will cause you to crave carbohydrates, leading to weight gain and an increased chance of diabetes. Too much sugar can also cause metabolic syndrome and high levels of inflammation which can lead to such conditions as Alzheimer’s, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. A diet rich in fat and protein will increase your risk of heart disease, arteriosclerosis, glucose intolerance and other degenerative processes.

    You will also want to avoid foods that are prone to too much pesticide saturation. The following foods contain the most pesticide residue:
  • Apples
  • Bell peppers
  • Peaches
  • Spinach
  • Strawberries
  • If you're going to eat these foods, just make sure that you wash them extremely carefully.

    Ultimately, you will want to reach and maintain your optimal weight. This will go a long way in reducing your chance of developing a number of degenerative diseases like cancer and hypertension.

    3. Adopt a calorically restricted diet

    Perhaps the most proven method available for increasing healthy lifespan today is caloric restriction (CR). Yes, it’s a radical thing to do, but short-term pain will yield long-term gain.

    Very long-term gain.

    Numerous studies have shown that mammals live longer when kept near starvation levels. The exact mechanism behind this process is still largely unknown, but there is a likely explanation: when the body is starving it is not in a position to reproduce successfully; our genes know this, so they invest their body’s energy on surviving into the future. A starving body is put into survival mode until the famine is over.

    For a calorically restricted diet to work properly it is recommended that men consume about 1,800 calories per day and women about 1,500. It is an involved process that requires much discipline and patience. Virtually every piece of food that is prepared and enters your mouth has to be measured for caloric content and recorded.

    But research shows that it does work. Some animal studies reveal as much as a 40% increase in maximum life span. Moreover, CR also provides a number of secondary benefits, including a significantly lowered risk for most degenerative conditions of aging.

    4. Supplement your diet with vitamins and minerals

    As Ray Kurzweil says, “Be aggressive with your supplementation.” He should know. He consumes hundreds of pills a day. Indeed, according to the American Medical Association, "Most people do not consume an optimal amount of all vitamins by diet alone."

    Kurzweil and Grossman, in their seminal book Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever, recommend that people get their required daily dosages:
  • 13 essential vitamins: Vitamins A, C, D, E, K, and the B vitamins (thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, biotin, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, and folate)
  • 17 essential minerals: including calcium, magnesium, potassium, selenium, chromium and zinc
  • 2 essential fatty acids: Omega 3 and 6
  • Among other things, a proper vitamin and mineral regimen will help you reduce your chances of cancer, irregular neurotransmission and cardiovascular disease.

    5. Exercise and be active

    We’re becoming an increasingly sedentary society and our health is suffering for it. Being physically active is as important as maintaining a healthy diet. Regular exercise will do wonders for your body and contribute to your overall well-being and health – including lifespan.

    There are basically three types of exercise:
  • Flexibility exercises (such as stretching) will help you improve the range of motion of muscles and joints.
  • Aerobic exercises such as cycling, walking, running, hiking, and playing tennis will increase your cardiovascular endurance.
  • Anaerobic exercises such as weight training, functional training or sprinting will increase your short-term muscle strength.
  • Frequent and regular physical exercise boosts the immune system, increases bone density, and helps prevent diseases like heart disease, cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes and obesity. It also improves mental health and helps prevent depression.

    In addition to regular exercise you need to engage in life and keep active. Keep challenging yourself, remain social and work to maintain strong self-esteem and reduce boredom. Keep your brain active and healthy by participating in mind games like puzzles, brain teasers and chess. Studies have shown that a vibrant mind will stand a far better chance of fighting off neurological degeneration like Alzheimer’s.

    6. Avoid dangerous activities and unhealthy habits

    Avoid activities that yield a high probability of risk. Quitting smoking is the most obvious thing you can do to prevent disease onset.

    But as we all know, life can be dangerous, and no matter what we do there's always the chance of an untimely or accidental death. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accidents are the fifth leading cause of death -- a rate of nearly 40 people per 100,000. This is not too far off compared to the other Big Killers, namely heart disease (219.1), cancer (188.7) and diabetes (48.4).

    According to the National Vital Statistics of 2002, the leading causes of accidental death are:
    1. Motor vehicle (MVA): 44.3%
    2. Falls: 17.8%
    3. Poison (liquid and solid): 13.0%
    4. Drowning: 3.9%
    5. Fires, burns, and smoke: 3.4%
    6. Medical/surgical complication: 3.1%
    7. Other land transport: 1.5%
    8. Firearms: 0.8%
    9. Other (nontransport): 17.8%
    I'm not advocating that you live a life of extreme risk aversion. Just exercise common sense and care. Eastern philosophies, for example, advocate a mindful existence in which you are encouraged to be fully aware of yourself and your environment at any given moment. A mindful approach to living is not only mentally healthy, it may also prevent careless accidents.

    In addition to being more careful, work to ensure that your life is low stress and minimize your exposure to environmental toxins and pollutants. Visit your doctor regularly for checkups and consider hormone replacement therapy and rejuvenation treatments.

    7. Support life extension causes and be socially active

    It’s not enough to engage in life extension practices and cross your fingers that somebody out there is working on the problem. For some twisted reason life extension is not a public priority; there are very few people working on the problem and with very little resources.

    There are a number of things you can to do help expedite the life extension revolution.

    First, support those organizations and institutions who are actively working on life extension and the development of anti-aging interventions. Aubrey de Grey’s Methuselah Foundation is one such group. Find out if your local university has a department working on the problem and what you can do to help, whether it be a donation or your technical expertise.

    Second, support the development of ancillary biotechnologies that will be part of the entire anti-aging spectrum of interventions. Specifically, advocate on behalf of regenerative medicine (stem cells, cloning), genomics and molecular nanotechnology.

    Third, be active in your community. Create a life extension group in your city and hold regular meetings. Raise awareness. Be an activist. Write letters and start a blog. Educate your local politicians about life extension and let them know what they can do to help facilitate its development.

    8. Sign up for cryonics just to be safe

    If medical science can’t fix you today, then perhaps the doctors of the future can. The idea behind cryonics is that you should preserve your body after death at an extremely low temperature in the hopes that a future civilization will have the technological know-how to bring you back to life. This is what cryonicists refer to as reanimation.

    In all likelihood the technology required would be molecular assembling nanotechnology. The trick is to ensure that the preservation maintains all the "information" in your brain that comprises your mind.

    If you're looking to be preserved, the two main players in this industry are Alcor and the Cryonics Institute.

    Cryonicists like to joke that being frozen in vat of liquid nitrogen is the second worst thing that can happen to you. Their point is well taken. Cryonics is a low probability solution, but it has a nonzero chance of working. Death without preservation, of course, is a zero probability proposition.

    Crossing bridges two and three

    Admittedly, these eight strategies are very limited in their approach to bona fide life extension. They are simply meant to help you get to 'bridge two.' According to Kurzweil, this second phase of life extension will give us the tools to reprogram our biology and its biochemical information processes.

    As he notes, "We're in the early stages of that revolution already, but in fifteen years we will have, to a large extent, mastery over our biology. That will take us to the third bridge, the nanotechnology revolution, where we can rebuild our bodies and brains at the molecular level. This will enable us to fix the remaining problems that are difficult to address within the confines of biology and ultimately allow us to go beyond the limitations of biology altogether."

    Once we hit this third phase we will have uncovered humanity’s true holy grail: indefinite life.

    I hope to see you there.