May 31, 2008

What I've been reading: 2008-05-31

May 30, 2008

A year ago on SentDev: The Drake Equation is obsolete

Just say no to N = N* fp ne fl fi fc fL.

Copyright Lynette Cook

I'm surprised how often the Drake Equation is still mentioned when people discuss such things as the search for extra terrestrial intelligence (SETI), astrobiology and problems like the Fermi Paradox.

Fairly recent insights in such fields as cosmology, astrobiology and various future studies have changed our perception of the cosmos and the ways in which advanced life might develop.

Frank Drake's equation, which he developed back in 1961, leaves much to be desired in terms of what it's supposed to tell us about both the nature and predominance of extraterrestrial life in our Galaxy.

The Drake Equation

The Drake equation states that:


N is the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which we might hope to be able to communicate and:

R* is the average rate of star formation in our galaxy
fp is the fraction of those stars that have planets
ne is the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
fl is the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop life at some point
fi is the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop intelligent life
fc is the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space
L is the length of time such civilizations release detectable signals into space.
Arbitrary at best

The integers that are plugged into this equation are often subject to wide interpretation and can differ significantly from scientist to scientist. Even the slightest change can result in vastly different answers. Part of the problem is that our understanding of cosmology and astrobiology is rapidly changing and there is often very little consensus among specialists as to what the variables might be.

Consequently, the Drake formula relies on 'stabs in the dark.' This makes it highly imprecise and unscientific. The margin of error is far beyond what should be considered acceptable or meaningful.

No accounting for cosmological development or time

Another major problem of the Drake Equation is that it does not account for two rather important variables: cosmological developmental phases and time (see Cirkovic, "The Temporal Aspect of the Drake Equation and SETI").

More specifically, it does not take into consideration such factors as the age of the Galaxy, the time at which intelligence first emerged, or the presence of physiochemical variables necessary for the presence of life (such as metallicity required to form planets). The equation assumes a sort of cosmological uniformity rather than a dynamic and ever changing universe.

For example, the equation asks us to guess the number of Earth-like planets, but it does not ask us when there were Earth-like planets. And intelligence itself may have been present as long as 2 to 4.5 billion years ago.

The Galaxy's extreme age and the potential for intelligence to have emerged at disparate points in time leaves an absurdly narrow window for detecting radio signals. The distances and time-scales in question are mind-boggingly vast. SETI, under its current model, is conducting an incredibly futile search.

Detecting ETI's

Which leads to the next problem, that of quantifying the number of radio emitting civilizations. I'm sure that back in the 1960's it made a lot of sense to think of radio capability as a fairly advanced and ubiquitous means of communication, and by consequence, an excellent way to detect the presence and frequency of extraterrestrial civilizations.

But time has proven this assumption wrong. Our radio window is quickly closing and it will only be a matter of time before Earth stops transmitting these types of signals -- at least unintentionally (active SETI is a proactive attempt to contact ETI's with radio signals).

Due to this revelation, the entire equation as a means to both classify and quantify certain types of civilizations becomes quite meaningless and arbitrary. At best, it's a way of searching for a very narrow class of civilizations under very specific and constrained conditions.

Rather, SETI should continue to redefine the ways in which ETI's could be detected. They should try to predict future means of communication (like quantum communication schemes) and ways to identify these signals. They should also look for artificial objects such as megascale engineering and artificial calling cards (see Arnold, "Transit Lightcurve Signatures of Artificial Objects").

The future of advanced intelligence

Although possibly outside the auspices of this discussion, the Drake Equation does not account for the presence of post-radio capable civilizations, particularly post-Singularity machine intelligences. This is a problem because of what these types of civilizations might be capable of.

The equation is used to determine the number of radio capable civilizations as they conduct their business on their home planet. Again, this is a vary narrow view of ETI's and the space of all possible advanced civilizational types. Moreover, it does not account for any migratory tendency that advanced civs may have.

The Drake Equation does not tell us about exponential civilizational growth on account of Von Neumann probe disbursement. It does not tell us where advanced ETI's may be dwelling or what they're up to (e.g. Are they outside the Galaxy? Do they live inside Jupiter Brains? Do they phase shift outside of what we regard as habitable space? etc.). This is a serious shortcoming because the answers to these questions should help us determine not just where we should be looking, but they can also provide us with insight as to the makeup of advanced intelligence life and our own potential trajectory.

In other words, post-Singularity ETI's may represent the most common mode of existence for late-stage civilizations. And that's who we should be looking for rather than radio transmitting civs.

Are we alone?

Michael Crichton once put out a very weak argument against the Drake Equation. He claimed that SETI was a religious endeavor because it was a search for imaginary entities. He is wrong, of course; we should most certainly search for data where we think we might find it. I believe, despite the low odds, that it is reasonable to assume that our search for life on other planets is warranted. Even a negative result can be meaningful.

Consequently, SETI should keep listening, but expect to hear nothing. If we should suddenly hear something from the depths of space, then we will have to seriously re-evaluate our assumptions.

At the same time we should find better ways to detect advanced life and tweak the Drake Equation in such a way as to account for the missing variables and factors I mentioned earlier.

Again, and more generally, we should probably adopt the contact pessimist's frame. Back in the 60's and 70's, when the contact optimists like Sagan, Shklovskii and Drake ruled the Earth, it was not uncommon to think that N in the equation fell somewhere between 10x6 to 10x9.

These days, in the post Tipler and Hart era of astrosociobiology, cosmologists and astrobiologists have to take such factors into consideration as Von Neumann probes, the Fermi Paradox, the Rare Earth Hypothesis, stronger variants of the anthropic principle and catastrophism.

Put another way, as we continue to search for advanced ETI's, and as we come to discover the absurdity of our isolation here on Earth, we may have no choice but to accept the hypothesis that advanced life does not venture out into space for whatever reason (the most likely being self-destruction).

Our other option is to cross our fingers and hope that something radical and completely unpredictable lies on the other side of the technological Singularity.

Amazing images of lost South American tribe

Anthropologists recently conducted a fly-by over a tribal village in the Envira rain forest near the Brazilian-Peruvian border. It is strongly suspected that these Amerindians have never made contact with the modern world.

Assuming this is not a hoax or error of some sort, the captured images are nothing short of incredible -- as if the anthropologists had traveled back in time. During the course of the fly-by (done by plane) the team was able to observe living arrangements, work areas, gardens, and even behavior.

After its first pass, when the plane returned an hour later, the tribe was ready having painted their bodies red and brandishing their weapons. Some were painted in black. The aboriginals were undoubtedly confused by the plane, probably figuring it was some sort of large creature or spirit.

Direct contact with the tribe was never a consideration; a number of anthropologists hope that tribes like this one remain untouched.

According to Miriam Ross of Survival International, a group that works to protect the world's remaining indigenous peoples, "These tribes represent the incredible diversity of humankind. Unless we want to condemn yet more of the earth's peoples to extinction, we must respect their choice. Any contact they have with outsiders must happen in their own time and on their own terms."

Aside from the fear of tampering with a primitive society, the risk of transmitting diseases is significant; these people have virtually no immunities and would likely be hit hard.

"These pictures are further evidence that uncontacted tribes really do exist. The world needs to wake up to this, and ensure that their territory is protected in accordance with international law. Otherwise, they will soon be made extinct," says Ross.

This discovery brings to mind a number of ethical issues and considerations:
  • What if some of these people need medical help and medicine?
  • Is it ethical for us to not let them know about the greater world around them?
  • How could we ever have consent for contact and/or cultural uplift? Should it be assumed? Why? Why not?
  • Are we sufficiently justified in keeping this tribe in a zoo-like scenario?
  • If eventual contact is unavoidable, why wait until then? Would contact with the modern world ever be 'on their terms?'
  • How would we feel if we discovered that we were being observed and purposefully held-back by a more advanced civilization?
  • Is this the kind of cultural diversity that we want to preserve? If so, why? To what end? Does cultural diversity benefit the lost tribe?
  • What does it mean to say that we risk their "extinction?" Is it accurate to equate the extinction of a culture with that of a species? What are the consequences of a lost cultural mode for a) those who used to participate in it and b) for those who will never be a part of it? What are the consequences relative to the benefits of adopting a new culture?
  • While I don't have all the answers to these questions, I did (peripherally) address a number of them a couple of years ago in my paper, "All Together Now: Developmental and Ethical Considerations for Biologically Uplifting Nonhuman Animals."

    Here's the relevant excerpt:
    Nature versus nurture

    Biological uplift is one of two major ways in which an organism can be endowed with superior or alternative ways of physical or psychological functioning. Memetic uplift, or cultural uplift, is distinguished from biological uplift in that it typically involves members of the same species and does not require any intrinsic biological alteration to the organism. While biological uplift is still set to happen at some point in the future, cultural transmission and memetic uplift have been an indelible part of human history.

    Memetic uplift can be construed as a soft form of uplift. Memes are by their very nature rather ethereal cultural artifacts, whereas biological uplift entails actual physical and cognitive transformation. That’s not to suggest that inter-generational non genetic transfer of information is subtle. Society and culture have a significant impact on the makeup of an individual.

    That said, human psychology is powered by genetic predispositions that function as proclivity engines, endowing persons with their unique personalities, tendencies and latent abilities. This is why the environment continues to play an integral role in the development of the entire phenotype. How persons are socialized and which memes they are exposed to determines to a large part who and what individuals are as sentient, decision-making agents. Consequently, people are constrained and moulded in a nontrivial way by their culture-space. Humans have moved beyond their culturally and phenotypically primitive Paleolithic forms owing to the influence of an advanced culturally extended phenotype and the subsequent rise of exosomatic minds and bodies.

    An Example of Memetic Uplift

    One of the most striking examples of memetic uplift was the colonization of the Americas by the Europeans. From a macrohistorical perspective, the clash of European and indigenous American civilizations was one between a post-feudal monarchist society and a Stone Age culture. The wide technological and cultural gap separating the two societies gave the Europeans a considerable edge in their ability to successfully wage an invasion that resulted in the embedding of their political, economic, and religious institutions on the continent. The Europeans were also proactive about “civilizing” aboriginal peoples -- in some cases forcing them to attend English schools or converting them to Christianity. Today, very few aboriginals, if any, are able to maintain a lifestyle that even modestly resembles life in pre colonial times. The colonization of the Americas resulted in the emergence of an entirely new set of cultures.

    This period of history was traumatic in a real sense and it is often considered one of the more regrettable periods of human history. Yet the episode raises considerable food for thought and the opportunity for some thought experiments. Would it have been ethical to allow the aboriginals to continue living a Stone Age life? Assuming this is truly an example of cultural uplift, in which ways was it a success and in which a failure? These are difficult questions with complex answers. However, as history has shown, the intermingling and assimilation of disparate cultures was and is an indelible part of the human condition. Information swapping is a developmental reality that has been largely unavoidable.

    Conceptions of progress and the rise of cultural relativism

    The European colonization of the Americas, along with other similar episodes, is an extremely sensitive area of debate, often leading to discussions that skirt the fringes of acceptability in terms of political correctness.

    Part of the problem is the rise of cultural relativism, particularly as it as it pertains to the assessment of ancient life and how it compares to modernity. Objective assessment is often difficult, in part the result of the romantic perceptions many people carry of pre-civilizational existence and the cynical take some have in regards to modern life. Factors contributing to this sentiment include the disruptive nature of technological advance on individuals and cultures, the failed totalitarian experiments of the 20th century, the two catastrophic world wars, the rise of apocalyptic threats, and the calamitous effects of modern society on the environment.

    Driving this negative view of modern society even further is the prevailing pseudohistorical romanticization of primitive life evident in popular culture and perpetuated by a number of intellectuals. What the biblical "Garden of Eden" and Rousseauian "noble savage" myths often fail to take into account, however, is how nasty, brutish and short life used to be. A strong case can be made that social and technological progress happens for a reason, namely the steady improvement of conditions and the pursuit of a more dignified and fulfilling life for individuals. Humanity is a self-domesticating species. Virtually all episodes in which primitive cultures are influenced by more advanced ones represent precursors to the biological uplift of highly sapient nonhuman species.
    Read the entire paper.

    Growing Pains

    Via Andart (Anders called it The Tree and the Singularity) via Digital Urban.

    What I've been reading: 2008-05-30

    May 29, 2008

    What I've been reading: 2008-05-29

    May 27, 2008

    Reaction to the Phoenix parachute photo

    "Man, we've got Mars so heavily instrumented that a surveyor in Martian orbit caught the polar lander *on its way in*." -- Bruce Sterling

    "See that thing in this image that looks like a Martian vehicle descending by parachute to the surface of Mars? That's the Phoenix lander, captured in mid-drop, still glowing from entry into the atmosphere, by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. How badass awesome is it to be a human? Super badass awesome." -- Cory Doctorow

    "That is exactly what you think it is: Phoenix descending to the Martian surface underneath its parachute. This incredible shot was taken by the HiRISE camera on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. You can easily see the ‘chute, the lander (still in its shell) and even the tether lines!

    Think on this, and think on it carefully: you are seeing a manmade object falling gracefully and with intent to the surface of an alien world, as seen by another manmade object already circling that world, both of them acting robotically, and both of them hundreds of million of kilometers away.

    Never, ever forget: we did this. This is what we can do." -- Phil Plait

    "OMG!! Parachute!!! Photo!!!!!" -- Emily Lakdawalla

    "Whoa." -- me

    Freeman Dyson on the 'religion of environmentalism'

    Physicist Freeman Dyson reviews A Question of Balance: Weighing the Options on Global Warming Policies and Global Warming: Looking Beyond Kyoto in the New York Times Review of Books.

    Says Dyson,
    "All the books that I have seen about the science and economics of global warming, including the two books under review, miss the main point. The main point is religious rather than scientific. There is a worldwide secular religion which we may call environmentalism, holding that we are stewards of the earth, that despoiling the planet with waste products of our luxurious living is a sin, and that the path of righteousness is to live as frugally as possible. The ethics of environmentalism are being taught to children in kindergartens, schools, and colleges all over the world.

    Environmentalism has replaced socialism as the leading secular religion. And the ethics of environmentalism are fundamentally sound. Scientists and economists can agree with Buddhist monks and Christian activists that ruthless destruction of natural habitats is evil and careful preservation of birds and butterflies is good. The worldwide community of environmentalists—most of whom are not scientists—holds the moral high ground, and is guiding human societies toward a hopeful future. Environmentalism, as a religion of hope and respect for nature, is here to stay. This is a religion that we can all share, whether or not we believe that global warming is harmful.

    Unfortunately, some members of the environmental movement have also adopted as an article of faith the belief that global warming is the greatest threat to the ecology of our planet. That is one reason why the arguments about global warming have become bitter and passionate. Much of the public has come to believe that anyone who is skeptical about the dangers of global warming is an enemy of the environment. The skeptics now have the difficult task of convincing the public that the opposite is true. Many of the skeptics are passionate environmentalists. They are horrified to see the obsession with global warming distracting public attention from what they see as more serious and more immediate dangers to the planet, including problems of nuclear weaponry, environmental degradation, and social injustice. Whether they turn out to be right or wrong, their arguments on these issues deserve to be heard."

    May 25, 2008

    What I've been reading: 2008-05-25

    May 24, 2008

    Accelerating change in effect: Blackberry on display at museum

    Old Blackberry on display
    I saw this ancient artifact on display at the Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa last week.

    One year ago on SentDev: How will our Universe die?

    Last year at this time I tackled the question: How will our Universe die?

    An interesting theory has emerged which predicts that trillions of years into the future, the information that currently allows us to understand how the universe expands will have disappeared over the visible horizon. All that will remain will be "an island universe" made from the Milky Way and its nearby galactic Local Group neighbors. What's left will be a dark and lonely void.

    The theory was put out by physicists Lawrence Krauss from Case Western Reserve University and Robert J. Scherrer from Vanderbilt University. Their research article, titled, "The Return of the Static Universe and the End of Cosmology," will be published in the October issue of the Journal of Relativity and Gravitation.

    This brings to mind a number of different theories in the field of cosmological eschatology.

    The Big Crunch

    The work of Krauss and Scherrer stands in sharp contrast to another end-state theory, namely the Big Crunch. In this model, the momentum of the Big Ban will eventually wane causing the Universe to collapse in on itself. But due to the recent revelation that the Universe is not just expanding but that its expansion is speeding up, newer theories have suggested that the Universe will continue to expand forever.

    The Big Rip

    This has lead to some rather bizarre conclusions, including the emergence of a theory known as the Big Rip. According to this theory, the Universe will start to expand at such a rapid rate that all its elements, from galaxies to atoms, will be torn apart by the extreme expansion rate of the Universe. This is scheduled to happen about 20 billion years from now.

    The force that is causing the Universe's matter to push outwards is what's known as dark energy. This is why galaxies are moving away from each other -- and why they will continue to do so until gravity will be too weak to hold them together.

    Eventually, in the final months of the Universe, our solar system will be gravitationally unbound. In the last minutes, stars and planets will be torn apart. And in the Universe's final spastic salvo all atoms will be destroyed.

    Heat Death

    Another possibility is the Heat Death of the Universe, also known as The Big Freeze. In this model the Universe would continue to expand forever, but it would enter into a state of maximum entropy in which all matter and energy is evenly distributed; consequently, there would be no 'gradient' to the Universe -- a characteristic that is needed to sustain information processing, including life.

    Other theories

    Other possibilities include the False Vacuum, where the laws and constants of the Universe are subject to radical change, and various multiverse theories in which the cosmos is expressed in a infinite number of iterations for an infinity.

    Another more radical possibility is that the future of the Universe will be influenced by intelligent life. Theories already exist in regards to stellar engineering -- where a local sun could be tweaked in such a way as to extend its lifespan. Future civilizations may eventually figure out how to re-engineer the Universe itself (such as re-working the constants) or create an escape hatch to basement universes.

    Thinkers who have explored this possibility include Milan Cirkovic, John Smart, Ray Kurzweil, Alan Guth and James N. Gardner.

    Read more here.

    Welcome to your Guantanamo jail cell

    Via Neatorama.

    Oil price chart

    Via Bruce Sterling. Source: Bespoke Investment Group: Oil Price Chart Since 1990.

    What I've been reading: 2008-05-24

    May 23, 2008

    European court to hear chimp's plea for human rights

    His name is Matthew, he is 26 years old, and his supporters hope to take his case to the European Court of Human Rights.

    But he won't be able to give evidence on his own behalf - since he is a chimpanzee. Animal rights activists led by British teacher Paula Stibbe are fighting to have Matthew legally declared a 'person' so she can be appointed as his guardian if the bankrupt animal sanctuary where he lives in Vienna is forced to close.

    An anonymous businessman has offered a substantial amount to cover his care, but under Austrian law only humans are entitled to have guardians.

    Via James Hughes.

    Related articles:
  • The myth of our exalted human place
  • Spanish socialists want to give apes human rights
  • Sue Savage-Rumbaugh on the welfare of apes in captivity
  • Aging 2008 at UCLA

    Looks like the Methuselah Foundation is putting together a fantastic event: Aging 2008 at UCLA.

    The event will feature leading scientists and thinkers in stem cell research and regenerative medicine to explain how their work can combat human aging, along with the sociological implications of developing rejuvenation therapies.

    Speakers will include biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey and Gregory Stock, author of Redesigning Humans.


    Aging 2008 @ UCLA Royce Hall
    Friday June 27th | Doors open 4pm
    405 Hilgard Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90024
    Free registration @

    May 22, 2008

    Links for 2008-05-22

    May 21, 2008

    Links for 2008-05-21

    May 20, 2008

    Of dead race horses and the dead long-ball: Two very different consequences of enhancement in sports

    On May 3, 2008, shortly after finishing second at the Kentucky Derby, filly Eight Belles went crashing to the ground, the result of sustained compound fractures to both her front legs. The horse's injuries were so devastating that she had to be euthanized right there on the track, much to the horror of the 157,770 spectators.

    Last week, a number of baseball pundits noticed that home run production was significantly down across the Majors. And not by just a little bit. It's being predicted that this season could see a drop of 1,000 home runs compared to the 2006 season. Last year saw a drop of nearly 600 home runs compared to 2006. Home runs, it would appear, are on the decline.

    What do these two seemingly unrelated stories have in common?

    Performance-enhancing drugs.

    The first story showcases the tragic consequences of enhancement overuse in sports, with the second showing the dramatic way in which performance-enhancement can impact on a sport -- particularly if it's taken away.

    And love it or hate it, both stories show the extent to which enhancement is impacting on sports today.

    Over-medicated horses

    Catastrophic injuries like the one experienced by Eight Belles is becoming a disturbingly regular occurrence at racetracks across the United States.

    Of the major thoroughbred racing events (the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont and Breeders' Cup) half of them have seen lethal breakdowns since 2005.

    It's gotten so bad that PETA has entered the picture, calling horse racing "cruelty masquerading as sport." They insist that organizers make major changes to horse racing, or face an all-out ban.

    Which leads to the question: why are horses increasingly crossing the finish line completely wrecked?

    There are a number of factors, but two stand out in particular: breeding and drugs.

    Racehorses are bred for speed, not durability. These days, the average number of races run by a horse is 6.37. Back in the 60s a horse could be expected to run 11.31 races. Racing breeds are becoming more brittle with each passing generation.

    The only consideration at breeding time is selecting for speed and a horse psychology that says 'run like hell' (or what industry folk call 'precociousness'). As equine surgeon Wayne McIlwraith has said, "We've evolved a super-fast athlete."

    More significant, however, is the use of medication. Horses are given drugs to deaden pain, to prevent pulmonary bleeding, to ease joint inflammation, and, of course, to add muscle.

    This is all perfectly legal. American racing adopted a policy of "permissive medication" during the 1970s which allowed for drugs banned in other parts of the world (which may also explain why these sorts of injuries aren't happening elsewhere).

    There's also the problem of illegal drug use -- horses are given everything from cocaine to cobra venom (used as a numbing agent).

    No wonder horses are ending races completely shattered. Medical science has exceeded their biological tolerances, and horses are paying with their lives.

    Under-medicated sluggers

    Back in 2005, in a survey of 568 MLB players, 79% said they believed steroids played some role in record-breaking performances by high-profile players. And 27% said they believed performance-enhancing drugs were a "major contributor" to recent statistical achievements.

    The statistical achievements they were referring to included the astounding home run records set by Mark McGuire and Barry Bonds in 1998 and 2001 respectively. Steroids have changed the sport to such a degree that there have been calls to "asterisk" all records set during this era.

    But this era appears to be over. Owing to a Congressional Committee, the ensuing Mitchell Report and tougher drug-testing programs, it appears that players have been scared straight.

    And seemingly overnight.

    Home run production has dropped dramatically, putting to rest silly notions of juiced balls and corked bats. Steroids has been quite clearly a major force in baseball in recent times.

    What does all this mean?

    Enhancement changes everything.

    But not always for the worse, and not always for the better.

    Clearly, in the case of horse racing, there's a significant problem. Until they can engineer cyborg horses who can actually survive a race, there has to be some serious soul-searching done amongst the organizers and owners. What's currently happening is beyond the pale.

    As for baseball, one could make the case that the McGuire/Bonds years were some of the most exciting to ever grace the sport. As anyone who follows baseball knows, pitchers have traditionally held a decided advantage over hitters. It's been a very defensive game.

    Steroids, for better or worse, altered this balance. Personally, I'm having a hard time getting into the current baseball season, particularly here in Toronto where the Jays can't score runs to save their lives.

    I'm likely not alone when I say that I enjoy watching home runs and would like to see more.

    Moving forward

    I'm not a fan of medication bans. As a transhumanist, I look at the entire issue as a part of the broader trend in performance-enhancement across all spheres, whether it be physical or cognitive aspects.

    But I have my limits. Like anything, performance-enhancement has to be monitored and calibrated when things get out of whack. Adjustments and provisions need to be made when enhancement causes undue harm to an athlete (human or otherwise) or when it alters the nature of the sport in a regressive way (which can often be a very personal and philosophic opinion).

    Ultimately, enhancement cannot happen inside a vacuum. We have to understand and accept the fact that it's going to change things -- often in non-subtle and unpredictable ways.

    The goal shouldn't be to eliminate enhancement, but to help athletes perform at their highest level possible, and to see sports brought to their ultimate potential.

    Next TTA event: "Apocalyptic Threats and Happy Pills," with Dr. Mark Walker

    The Toronto Transhumanist Association is proud to announce its next event, a talk by Dr. Mark Walker entitled, "Apocalyptic Threats and Happy Pills."

    The talk is open to the general public and admission is free. It will be held on Saturday, June 14, 2008 from 5:00pm to 7:00pm at the Centre for Inquiry Ontario, 216 Beverley St. in Toronto.

    Mark A. Walker, Ph.D. is Research Associate in philosophy at Trinity College, University of Toronto, and lecturer in Philosophy at McMaster University. He is founder and president of Permanent End International, a nonprofit organization devoted to ending hunger, illiteracy and environmental degradation. He serves on the editorial board of the Journal of Evolution and Technology and served on the Board of Directors of the World Transhumanist Association from 2002 to 2006.

    Abstract for Dr. Walker's talk:
    Apocalyptic threats are possible or probable civilization-ending events, e.g., asteroid collisions, global nuclear war, biotechnology accidents or warfare, and various "goo" scenarios connected with self-replicating nanotechnology. Obviously, reducing such threats is morally imperative. I will delineate two broad strategies for attempting to mitigate such threats: the technical and the social. Technical mitigation seeks to use technology to defeat, defend or disarm the threatening events; examples include fallout shelters, antivirals and universal surveillance. Social mitigation of apocalyptic threats work indirectly to reduce the social causes that may contribute to an increased probability of such threats, or reduce the probability that we will effectively deal with such threats, for example, removing sources of conflict such as poverty and injustice. Transhumanists have focused considerable attention on technical mitigation but little to social mitigation. This talk discusses the possibility of using "happy pills" for the purpose of social mitigation of apocalyptic threats.
    Dr. Walker has also authored such papers as In Praise of Bio-Happiness, Universal Superlongevity: Is It Inevitable And Is It Good?, Apologism, Prolongevistism and Utilitarianism, Mary Poppins 3000s of the World Unite: A Moral Paradox in the Creation of Artificial Intelligence, Where did Marx go wrong?, Genetic Virtue, and Prolegomena to any Future Philosophy, and coauthored Astrophysical Fine Tuning, Naturalism, and the Contemporary Design.

    Contact me for more information.

    Links for 2008-05-20

    May 16, 2008

    Sentient Developments turns 6

    This weeks marks the 6th anniversary of Sentient Developments.

    Last year, for it's 5th birthday, I ran a 5-part retrospective:

    Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV and Part V.

    Preserving the dead in warm biostasis

    Aschwin de Wolf is speculating about warm biostasis through nanotechnology over at Depressed Metabolism. This is a fantastic idea that makes a lot of sense.

    In his article, de Wolf writes:

    Such a form of warm biostasis would not only produce a true molecular alternative to cryonics, it would also enable long-duration space travel and could be employed as a means to provide trauma care in emergency situations. These kind of applications of molecular nanotechnology are extremely advanced and, as a result, literature, either fiction or non-fiction, about them is virtually non-existent. It seems that the first rigorous treatment of cellular and whole-body warm biostasis will be published in Robert Freitas’ Nanomedicine Volume IIB and Nanomedicine Volume III (personal correspondence).

    Perhaps the future of biostasis will be an advanced form of chemical fixation after all.

    This possibility is also being discussed at Longevity Meme: "What if cryonics wasn't cold?"
    The purpose of cryonics is to preserve the body and brain with as little small-scale damage as possible for revival via plausible future technologies, most likely medical nanomachinery. To save lives, in other words. Depressed Metabolism has previously argued that it's something of an accident of history that the cryonics industry uses cold-based preservation rather than a form of warm chemical preservation, and here elaborates on future molecular nanotechnologies that may achieve warm biostasis: "To see how one approach would work, imagine that the blood stream carries simple molecular devices to tissues, where they enter the cells. There they block the molecular machinery of metabolism - in the brain and elsewhere - and tie structures together with stabilizing cross-links. Other molecular devices then move in, displacing water and packing themselves solidly around the molecules of the cell. These steps stop metabolism and preserve cell structures."
    This is definitely an area to watch.

    Stuart Kauffman: Reinventing the Sacred

    Check out Stuart Kaufmann's new book, Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion.

    Book Description:
    Consider the woven integrated complexity of a living cell after 3.8 billion years of evolution. Is it more awe-inspiring to suppose that a transcendent God fashioned the cell, or to consider that the living organism was created by the evolving biosphere? As the eminent complexity theorist Stuart Kauffman explains in this ambitious and groundbreaking new book, people who do not believe in God have largely lost their sense of the sacred and the deep human legitimacy of our inherited spirituality. For those who believe in a Creator God, no science will ever disprove that belief. In Reinventing the Sacred, Kauffman argues that the science of complexity provides a way to move beyond reductionist science to something new: a unified culture where we see God in the creativity of the universe, biosphere, and humanity. Kauffman explains that the ceaseless natural creativity of the world can be a profound source of meaning, wonder, and further grounding of our place in the universe. His theory carries with it a new ethic for an emerging civilization and a reinterpretation of the divine. He asserts that we are impelled by the imperative of life itself to live with faith and courage-and the fact that we do so is indeed sublime. Reinventing the Sacred will change the way we all think about the evolution of humanity, the universe, faith, and reason.
    Kaufmann is also the author of At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity.

    Fingernail Touch Sensors

    "My doctoral thesis research project was the development of "Fingernail Touch Sensors" for human-machine interaction. These sensors can detect touch forces at the human fingertip as well as changes in finger posture by measuring the color pattern of the fingernail. Thus they do not interfere with the human's natural sense of touch." -- Stephen Mascaro
    Mascaro is director of the BioRobotics Lab and is affiliated with the Robotics Program at the University of Utah.

    [via Grinding]

    Justine Cooper's TERMINAL

    The title of the current show refers to her new series of large format photographs depicting medical robots and mannequins. These sophisticated manikins, typically connected up to computers, simulate living situations from crisis to childbirth. At once alien and familiar, they represent the feats of modern medical technology. Far from the public dissections of the 17th century, these private theaters play out imagined traumas for the benefit of doctors and surgeons honing their skills. In this landscape, the abject body of the patient is dispensed with and supplanted by creations that are neither virtual, nor real. At a time when medical intervention can be so de-humanizing, when technology is criticized for removing us from reality, these images create a perverse inversion. The artist found that the personnel charged with the care of the mannequins had humanized these objects into subjects by naming them, dressing them in holiday attire and constructing a narrative through their care. These million dollar manikins embody memories of daily life, offering up their injuries and procedures as rather austere visual diaries in the era of Second Life and the blogosphere.
    [Via We Make Money Not Art]

    Why I think Pistorius should not be allowed to compete at the Olympics

    Shocking, you say.

    How could I, an unabashed proponent of human enhancement, be opposed to seeing disabled athlete Oscar Pistorius compete at the Olympic Games?

    The short answer is that it's not fair to the able-bodied athletes who don't want to get into the enhancement game.

    Moving forward, it sets up a situation where:
    (1) able-bodied athletes will increasingly be set at a disadvantage relative to the cyber-athletes, particularly as prostheses improve
    (2) able-bodied athletes will have no choice but to seek enhancement measures of their own, legal or otherwise, to remain competitive
    Despite what the Court of Arbitration for Sport says, Pistorius has an advantage. A 25% advantage to be exact.

    And even if we assume the Court is wrong, that the IAAF has not conclusively proven that the Cheetahs go beyond the call of normal human functioning duty, the day is all but upon us when advanced prostheses and other measures will.

    Consequently, Pistorius and other disabled athletes should continue to compete against each other. This is not intended as a way to segregate athletes according to their abilities per se, but a way to create leagues in which athletes don't feel coerced into entering arms races with each other. Mirrored leagues should be set up, those in which enhancement is sanctioned, and those in which it is not. Athletes can then choose where they want to compete.

    Ultimately, the end result will be to the advantage of Pistorius and those like him. They'll inherit the top echelons of sport and maintain the public's interest, while the unenhanced leagues will whither away as quaint curiosity, a throwback to how things used to be.

    But until then, let's not set up a situation where chaos and ambiguity ruins it for everyone.

    Pistorius allowed to qualify for Olympics

    Unexpected news today: Disabled sprinter Oscar Pistorius will be able to qualify for the 2008 Olympic Games after all.

    The Court of Arbitration for Sport overruled an earlier decision by the International Association of Athletics Federation that made Pistorius ineligible for competition against able-bodied athletes. According to the Court, the IAAF has not conclusively proven that Pistorius is given a decided advantage from his 'Cheetah' prostheses.

    According to the New York Times article:
    What the decision means for other disabled athletes hoping to compete in the Olympics is that they will be allowed to compete with able-bodied athletes unless the I.A.A.F. can provide indubitable scientific evidence to the contrary. In the past, I.A.A.F. spokesman Nick Davies has insisted that these matters can only be treated on a case-by-case basis with the burden of proof on the athletes to show that the prosthetics do not provide an unfair advantage.
    [image: Alessandro Bianchi/Reuter]

    Results of the perfect memory poll

    Would you like to have perfect memory? (results based on 109 responses)
    1. 32% Yes, but I'd like to be able to suppress certain memories
    2. 25% Yes, human memory is far too limited and flawed
    3. 18% Yes, it would add to the richness of experience
    4. 14% No, human memory is imperfect for good reason
    5. 8% No, it would make life too intense and/or confusing
    6. 4% No, all the bad memories would be overwhelming
    75% of you want perfect memory, with 32% wanting that power with control.

    Links for 2008-05-16

    May 15, 2008

    Links for 2008-05-15

    May 14, 2008

    Cascio chimes in on Fermi

    IEET colleague Jamais Cascio has responded to Nick Bostrom's suggestion that the detection of extraterrestrial life would be bad news.

    Cascio is unconvinced that the parameters of Bostrom's argument are entirely correct, including the assumption that super-advanced civs take up interstellar colonization as a hobby.

    Specifically, he argues that technologically advanced ETI's must be post-Singularity civs, and by definition, outside the bounds of current trajectorial models. As Cascio notes, "The demands and concerns and requirements of a post-Singularity civilization wouldn't be based on a pre-Singularity pattern."

    Consequently, Cascio makes the claim that galactic empires are likely not on the post-Singularity to-do list. "To be clear, this isn't an argument that these interstellar-capable civs just sit at home. They could and would likely spread, and certainly explore," he writes, "But the notion that they'd hop from solar system to solar system planting their colonies, strikes me as terribly unimaginative, and definitely a pre-Singularity perspective."

    I'm not entirely on board with Cascio here, but I will say that he is absolutely correct when he suggests that speculations about colonization-capable civs must presuppose their condition as being post-Singularity.

    And I'll further this by noting that we should adopt a digital perspective. As NASA's Steven J. Dick has noted, we should be looking for post-biological brains.

    Consequently, when we try to figure out what futuristic civilizations might look like, we should consider:

    1. the demands imposed on a civ that's completely reliant on megascale computing
    2. the potential mindspace of a post-Singularity superintelligence, its interpretation of utility, and the manner in which it achieves its goals

    For the first point, we're talking about a postbiological modality that would likely require a hideous amount of computational power.

    As for the second point, good luck with that one.

    But where Cascio and I diverge is in how he deals with the non-exclusivity problem -- i.e. finding a solution to the FP that applies to ALL advanced civs.

    Cascio argues that Galactic colonization is "unimaginative" and a "pre-Singularity" perspective.

    Sure, this may be true. And perhaps 99.9% of all advanced civs would agree with him.

    But it's the 0.01% that I'm concerned about.

    It's not impossible or ridiculous to imagine at least one non-conformist civilization taking it upon itself to expand its presence across the Galaxy.

    Moreover, the colonization process for a post-Singularity intelligence would be a rather pedestrian exercise -- one that doesn't really require much of a commitment. Interstellar colonization would be a largely automated process that exploits the happy consequence of exponential growth.

    To be fair, Cascio does suggest that there may be an a universal upper bound to growth. Cascio notes, "Interstellar-capable civilizations that somehow remain wedded to colonization would inevitably fall into internal conflict because of speed-of-light communication/travel lag and divergent evolution (social or biological)."

    I think the disconnect here is the notion that galactic colonization necessarily implies the expansion and interconnectedness of communication, economic and political networks. I'm not so convinced. Nodes spawned by Von Neumann probes could be stand-alone and completely segregated from its parent system. One could imagine a Von Neumann wave expanding outward, uplifting all life and matter in its path and leaving computronium in its wake; the probes would not be equipped with rear-view mirrors.

    Cascio also presents another possible reconciliation to the Fermi Paradox -- the notion that we are not yet capable of detecting the activities of advanced civs. Specifically, he suggests that ETIs may use alternative communication schemes. Again, as Cascio argues, because we're talking about post-Singularity life, we simply don't know what we're supposed to be looking for.

    Unfortunately, this doesn't really solve the Paradox. We are still still stuck with the colonization problem.

    That's the crux of the the Fermi Paradox why it remains a non-trivial conundrum. It's also why the FP was given new life in the 1970s by Michael Hart, John D. Barrow and Frank J. Tipler, and why in recent times it has become more perplexing than ever.

    The Fermi Paradox is alive and well.

    May 13, 2008

    The Singularity is not what you think

    People often ask me for my definition of the technological Singularity.

    More specifically, they want me to offer some predictions as to what it will actually look like and what it might mean to them and the human species.

    More often than not they don't like my answer, and it's probably because I re-frame the discussion and take the conversation elsewhere.

    What people are really asking me to do is predict the outcome of the Singularity. And because I don't, they get frustrated with me.

    But that's the problem. That's the whole point of this 'thing' we call the Singularity.

    As has been noted elsewhere, virtually everyone has their own definition of the Singularity and it's become a very polluted term, one that's been stripped of all meaning.

    So, before I tell you my own 'definition' of the Singularity, let me first tell you what it's not.

    It's not any particular outcome or prognostication.

    It's not any kind of definable event or transformational process.

    Nor is it a term that can be used to describe a futuristic state of existence or the nature of advanced artificial intelligence.

    But it's often used to describe these very things -- as if the term can be used as a synonym for what are essentially predictions. When people talk about the Singularity they can't help but inject their own anticipated outcome -- be it positive or negative.

    I can be guilty of this at times. But so I don't get myself into too much futurological trouble I tend to refer to things as being in a state of post-Singularity. That's my clever way of avoiding any in-depth discussion as to how we'll actually get there.

    Alright, so what's the technological Singularity?

    Simply put, it's an unanswered question.

    Vernor Vinge used the term Singularity for a very good reason. It's an event horizon in the truest sense.

    But instead of a cosmological event horizon caused by a black hole's gravitational pull, it's a social event horizon caused by our inability to extrapolate the trajectory of human civilization beyond a certain point of technological sophistication.

    The Singularity, therefore, describes a futurological problem -- a blind-spot in our predictive thinking.

    That's it. There's no more to it than that.

    Anything beyond this strict and limited definition is a discussion of something else -- an attempt to solve the conundrum and make predictions about 1) the actual characteristics and manifestation of the Singularity and 2) its aftermath.

    So, if I say that the Singularity will involve a hard takeoff of SAI, I'm actually presenting a hypothesis that attempts to retire the term 'Singularity' and see it replaced by the term, uh, SAI hard takeoff event (we'll clearly have to come up with something better).

    Or, if I say it will be a decades long process that sees humanity transition into a postbiological condition, I am likewise trying to put the term to rest.

    Why does our predictive modeling break down?

    Two reasons: 1) accelerating change and 2) the theoretic potential for the rise of recursively self-modifying artificial superintelligence.

    Essentially, because disruptive change will be coming so fast and furiously, humanity's future remains largely unpredicted; there are too many variables and wildcards. And the rise of SAI, given its potential to be thousands upon thousands of times more powerful than the human mind, is simply beyond our prognosticative sensibilities.

    Sure, we can make wild-ass guesses. And maybe one or two of them may actually turn out to be correct. But we won't know for sure until we get there.

    Or at least until we get really close.

    Consequently, the Singularity is a relativistic term.

    People of the future won't use the word. That's a term reserved for us in our ignorance.

    But as we get closer to the Singularity we will in all likelihood gain an increased appreciation of what will happen at the point when machine intelligence exceeds the capacity of humans.

    And keeps on going.

    At that point, once the fog that is the Singularity begins to lift, we will cease to call it the Singularity and replace it with a more descriptive term.

    So, as we journey forward, what was once concealed over the horizon will finally be revealed.

    In the meantime, just remember to frame the Singularity as a social event horizon, particularly as it pertains to accelerating change and the seemingly imminent rise of SAI.