November 30, 2008

Fukuyama: Is America Ready for a Post-American World?

For a guy who declared the 'end of history' nearly 20 years ago, political scientist Francis Fukuyama has a lot to say about the rapidly changing geopolitical landscape. In a recent NPQ article, Fukuyama describes the decline in U.S. hegemonic power and the rise of the 'weak-state world.' He writes,
This weak-state world has a lot of implications for American power. We need to consider this very perplexing fact: The US spends as much on its military as virtually the entire rest of the world combined. And yet it is now five years and counting since the US invaded and occupied Iraq, and to this day we have not succeeded in pacifying it fully. That is because of the changing nature of power itself. We are trying to use an instrument—hard military power—that we used in the 20th century world of Great Powers and centralized states in a weak-state world. You cannot use hard power to create legitimate institutions, to build nations, to consolidate politics and all of the other things that are necessary for political stability in this part of the world.
Fukuyama comes up with three prescriptions to deal with declining U.S. influence: 1) address the diminishing capacity of the U.S. public sector, 2) overcome the complacency on the part of Americans about understanding the world from a perspective other than that of the U.S., and 3) rejig the polarized political system that is "incapable of even discussing solutions to these problems."

Fukuyama writes,
After Sputnik in the late 1950s, the US responded to the Soviet challenge by making massive investments in basic science and technology. This proved to be a very successful set of investments that reaffirmed American technological leadership. After 9/11, we could have reacted in a similar way, by making large investments in our ability to understand complex parts of the world that we did not understand very well, like the Middle East. It is a scandal that in this monstrous new embassy we’ve created in Baghdad, we only have a handful of fluent Arabic speakers.
So interesting to watch Fukuyama remove himself further and further away from the hawkish neoconservative bulwark he helped to construct under the Reagan, Clinton and George W. Bush presidencies.

Now if he'd only retract his rather over-stated claim that transhumanism is the world's most dangerous idea...

November 29, 2008

Alex Grey's "Obama"

"After hearing Barack Obama's speech in Berlin, and noting the degree of excitement and hope that he generated throughout many countries besides the US, I started to see him as one of the first true "world leaders." This may be partly because of his extraordinary childhood and political life that has bridged many cultures. Obama's restraint and intelligence, exhibited as foes were bating him throughout the campaign, his heartful clarity coming through in his talks are all qualities of a highly evolved person.

We need to consider our planetary citizenship, because solving the world's ecological and economic problems, and creating a culture of peace and reconciliation will require the co-operation of all nations.

Perhaps you can use this symbol of Barack Obama to send him a prayer of support, to send all the loving hopeful healing and creative energy that we can focus on him so that he can perform the task of leadership in the most effective and powerful way for the greatest good, for the greatest number." -- Alex Grey

November 28, 2008

Open thread

First ever open thread on Sentient Developments. You know what to do; go ahead and comment on anything you like. What are your current thoughts? Any questions or disagreements? Suggestions?

James Hughes: Transhumanism and Religion

Earlier this year, James Hughes, executive director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET), spoke in Tempe Arizona at a seminar on “Transhumanism and the Concept of Human Nature,” which is part of a four year exploration of Transhumanism and Religion that is being funded by the Templeton Foundation.

Hughes has significantly expanded the paper and it's now available in booklet form: “The Compatibility of Religious and Transhumanist Views of Metaphysics, Suffering, Virtue and Transcendence in an Enhanced Future” (PDF). It is being published by the Global Spiral, the Metanexus Institute journal.

Here's the abstract:
Transhumanism – the proposition that human beings should use technology to transcend the limitations of the body and brain – is a product of the Enlightenment humanist tradition. As a consequence most avowed transhumanists are secular, and many religious are skeptical or hostile towards the transhumanist project. However there are also many religious transhumanists who find the project of human enhancement at least consistent with, and sometimes a fulfillment of, their metaphysics, soteriologies and eschatologies. Transhumanism appears to be especially compatible with religious traditions that emphasize human agency and evolution to a transcendent state, such as Buddhism, or that have incorporated Enlightenment values, such as liberal Christianity. But elements of the transhumanist worldview and enhancement technologies are compatible with one element or another of most world faiths, even the most fundamentalist. We can thus expect that human enhancement technologies will be adopted creatively into the theologies of groups within all the world’s faiths, producing many flavors of “trans-spirituality.”

Download the PDF Slides Talk

Saletan: How Pakistan learned to stop worrying and love the killing machines

William Saletan of Slate has been covering the progress of the drone war in Pakistan. He notes, "Pakistan has become the world's first mechanical proxy war, with unmanned aerial vehicles hunting and killing bad guys so U.S. troops don't have to." In his most recent article Saletan describes how the drones are winning:
And now for the best news: the payoff. I'm not talking about the kills: We've already proved we can kill lots of people the old-fashioned way. I'm talking about the people we don't kill: civilians. We've talked before about hover time: the drones' superior ability to stay in the air, without fatigue or risk of death, allowing them to watch the ground and identify and track targets. If that level of persistence and precision improves our ability to distinguish the bad guys from everybody else, then the bottom line isn't just kills. It is, in Clapper's words, fewer "collateral casualties." If you look back at reports from the ground, that's exactly what stands out about the recent drone attacks: We've been hitting an impressively high ratio of bad guys, especially senior bad guys, to innocents. Yes, some innocents have died. But no counterinsurgent air war has ever been this precise.
Saletan concludes by suggesting that these tactics may solve the problem of terrorist insurgency...or maybe it will create something worse.

Entire article.

Jesse Brown: Canada risks becoming a 'digital ghetto'

The CBC's Jesse Brown points out that there are three things that suck about being Canadian right now:
  1. Last week the CRTC sided with Bell against a group of small Internet Service Providers who want to offer their customers unthrottled connections where what they download is their own business and not subject to interference.
  2. In last week’s throne speech the Conservative government renewed their intention to “modernize” Canadian copyright law. Their effort to do so last session was Bill C-61, a woefully unbalanced and retrograde piece of legislation that led to the greatest citizen backlash to any proposed bill in recent memory. Yet there has been no indication from new Industry Minister Tony Clement that a much-needed public consultation will take place. The best he has offered is the possibility of a “slightly different” version of the bill.
  3. Twitter has just announced that they are killing outbound SMS messaging in Canada due to exorbitant and constant rate hikes from Canadian cell providers (former Industry Minister Jim Prentice vowed to get tough on SMS price gouging, then backpeddled). Cell phone rates in Canada are among the highest in the world, and the result is that mobile penetration is pathetically low and that emerging new cultural platforms like Twitter are being hobbled.
Brown makes the case that these backward policies are creating a sense of digital isolation in Canada. As he notes, "Canadians can’t stream the videos Americans stream, download the files Americans download, remix the media Americans remix, or tweet the way Americans tweet." His fear is that Canada is turning into a 'digital ghetto.'

Thank goodness the Conservative government is set to fall sometime next week.

Book: The Anti-Intellectual Presidency

This book by Elvin T. Lim looks interesting: The Anti-Intellectual Presidency: The Decline of Presidential Rhetoric from George Washington to George W. Bush.

From the review by John McWhorter:
In our times, we are not surprised that in policy statements slogans will be valued over explanations and parsimony of words valued over complete accounts. For a defense of the war in Iraq, for example, we expect applause lines such as “When the Iraqis stand up, we’ll stand down.” For more serious policy engagement, we look to wonky policy journals, not to the president.

Most of us have come to accept this state of affairs, but not Elvin Lim. His recent book The Anti-Intellectual Presidency is not one more rant about the limited cognitive abilities of George W. Bush but a brisk, methodical deconstruction of “the relentless simplification of presidential rhetoric in the last two centuries and the increasing substitution of arguments with applause-rendering platitudes, partisan punch lines and emotional and human interest appeals.”

The problem is real. Analyzing all the presidential inaugural addresses, for example, Lim shows that the average sentence length has become ever shorter and the level of vocabulary ever lower. The rallyesque State of the Union address that is now typical—a sequence of punchy lines designed to elicit applause—was unheard of until the Nixon administration. At that time, the average media sound bite was forty-two seconds, which sounds almost Faulkneresque compared to a mere eight seconds in 2000.
Read the entire review.

November 27, 2008

The waste that is terrorism

Over 100 dead in Mumbai and the death toll is expected to rise. Terrorists have struck yet again -- and for what? What is it exactly that they hope to achieve with these tactics?

Actually, the answer is quite simple: they're working to create chaos. Ultimately, paramilitary groups are hoping to destabilize regimes to the point where they'll cave to their demands.

And given the fact that these organizations often lack the resources to launch an all-out assault and attack military targets, they do the only thing they can do: attack those who cannot defend themselves.

In the case of the recent attacks in Mumbai, the terrorists chose high profile sites and targeted tourists (particularly Westerners). By doing so they hoped to attract an international audience and draw attention to their cause. They're also trying to rattle some political cages; if this organization is indeed a Muslim paramilitary group, it may be working to increase tensions between India and Pakistan.

But what organizations like these fail to realize is that terrorism simply does not work. Terrorist groups very rarely achieve their political objectives. Blowing up buildings and killing innocent civilians does not result in the kinds of changes they're hoping for. If anything, it causes target governments to retrench and dig their heels even further.

Which makes complete sense. Government are supposed to represent and protect its civilians. Consequently, countries will never make policy concessions to these groups -- even when their own people are being targeted.

Terrorism is a tool for the desperate. It's for those who feel that they have to resort to violence in order to exert any kind of political will. In a way it's a sign of defeat; the message is loud and clear: We don't have the means to get what we want so we'll resort to nihilism.

In the end, terrorist groups who attack innocent civilians fail, while leaving a bloody trail behind them. And it doesn't matter who or what is being targeted or the scale.

Sadly, terrorists don't understand this, so they'll continue to target innocent people.

What a waste.

[photo credit: BBC]

November 26, 2008

Asperger's gift

A great aspect of futurism these days is just how multi-disciplinary it is.

The recent Convergence08 UnConference was a case in point. This event brought together a diverse array of thinkers with interests spanning the fields of synthetic biology, cognitive science, AI, nanotechnology, political science, economics, cosmology and more. For futurists and transhumanists alike, there's virtually no topic that's off limit -- you just need to geek-up the conversation accordingly.

What's equally remarkable to me is that the attendees of these events are typically able to hold their own. I'm always amazed by this when I go these conferences, where each and everyone is a polymath in their own right. Oftentimes what begins as casual conversation routinely develops into brainstorming sessions and on-the-spot theorizing; I often get the feeling that I should be taking notes.

Indeed, you hang out long enough with this crew and you quickly realize that it's hardly a random sampling of the general population; not only do transhumanists tend to be well informed, they're also a very intelligent bunch.

And if you hang out even longer with this group, you will also come to notice the prevalence of Asperger's Syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism (you know, 'Aspies,' those socially awkward types we used to call "nerds" in the old days). So pronounced was this at Convergence08 that it could have doubled as an Asperger's convention.

Affliction or condition?

Which got me thinking about all the talk these days on how Asperger's is a "terrible" disease that's "ravaging" our youth. Given the richness of the conference and my experience with Aspies, I'm not so convinced. There's much more to this issue than meets the eye.

So many parents these days unnecessarily freak out when they find out that their child has Asperger's. In turn, they frantically search for treatments -- everything from anti-depressants and Applied Behavior Analysis (which can include aversion therapy) to homeopathy and detoxification.

These treatments seem to skirt the causal issue; what most people fail to realize is that the growing prevalence of autism is likely due to genetics -- a consequence of the Flynn Effect and smarter people getting together to produce even smarter babies. Smarter, but nerdy babies.

Moreover, Asperger's isn't necessarily something that needs be 'cured' outright. This is a conversation that's sorely lacking in nuance and sophistication. Rather than discuss the finer details of neurodiversity and neurotypicalism, parents are put into a state of panic by autism groups and the media. Consequently, Asperger's is commonly looked at as a disease rather than a valid cognitive style.

Asperger's gift

Now, I fully recognize that Asperger's brings with it some definite disadvantages. I'm well aware of and sympathetic to the hardships that many families face -- the temper tantrums, emotional detachment and frequent social ostracization that's part of the condition. It's not easy for the child or the parents.

At the same time however, many of these disadvantages arise from the expectation of neurotypicality and social conformity. I often feel that it's not the Asperger's child that needs to be re-conditioned, but society itself. Collectively speaking, we need to do a much better job catering to their needs. It's called acceptance and understanding -- and it's an indelible part of our ever growing and increasingly tolerant multi-cultural, multi-racial, multi-neurological, and multi-whatever-comes-next society.

That's not to say that Aspies should do without social skills training or other alternative therapies. It's good to give them the opportunity to learn those soft-skills that will help them get through life and forge positive relationships. It's good to help Aspies develop their motor skills, balance and articulation. But it's the imposed re-wiring of their brain that I worry about and the diminishment of the Asperger's experience.

Indeed, I wouldn't be making this case if I didn't feel there was some value to having Asperger's. Autism, as a social communication and empathy disorder, often manifests in strange ways. Very often the condition brings a cognitive gift along with it. Aspies are typically known to have exceptional math, logic and memorization skills. In addition, they often exhibit higher than average levels of intelligence and a proclivity to microfocus on specific areas of interest. Hence their predominance in the transhumanist community.

And as a result, Asperger's Syndrome has produced some of the finest minds humanity has ever known.

Best of both worlds?

Perhaps someday we'll have the wisdom and know-how to deal with autism and Asperger's in a more elegant way, where our children are given the opportunity to flourish and have the best of both worlds.

But until then we all need to relax and work to become more understanding and accommodating. We also need to acknowledge and celebrate the fact that Aspies live and work among us; they enrich our lives, our society and our culture.

Indeed, after attending Convergence08, I imagined what the conference would have looked like if Aspies weren't around.

The event I imagined was empty in more ways than one.

November 25, 2008

NYT: Can battlefield robots behave more ethically than human soliders?

According to computer scientist Ronald C. Arkin, the answer to this question is yes. Arkin is currently designing software for battlefield robots under contract with the U.S. Army.

“My research hypothesis is that intelligent robots can behave more ethically in the battlefield than humans currently can,” he says.

Excerpt from the New York Times article:

In a report to the Army last year, Dr. Arkin described some of the potential benefits of autonomous fighting robots. For one thing, they can be designed without an instinct for self-preservation and, as a result, no tendency to lash out in fear. They can be built without anger or recklessness, Dr. Arkin wrote, and they can be made invulnerable to what he called “the psychological problem of ‘scenario fulfillment,’ ” which causes people to absorb new information more easily if it agrees with their pre-existing ideas.

His report drew on a 2006 survey by the surgeon general of the Army, which found that fewer than half of soldiers and marines serving in Iraq said that noncombatants should be treated with dignity and respect, and 17 percent said all civilians should be treated as insurgents. More than one-third said torture was acceptable under some conditions, and fewer than half said they would report a colleague for unethical battlefield behavior.


“It is not my belief that an unmanned system will be able to be perfectly ethical in the battlefield,” Dr. Arkin wrote in his report (PDF), “but I am convinced that they can perform more ethically than human soldiers are capable of.”

Dr. Arkin said he could imagine a number of ways in which autonomous robot agents might be deployed as “battlefield assistants” — in countersniper operations, clearing buildings of suspected terrorists or other dangerous assignments where there may not be time for a robotic device to relay sights or sounds to a human operator and wait for instructions.
Read the entire article, "A Soldier, Taking Orders From Its Ethical Judgment Center."

You have 2 new friend requests

I dunno, I think it would be cool to have Satan in your friends list.

Via riot rite right clit clip click.

November 24, 2008

Big Three in big trouble? Too bad.

I was hoping to say something original and provocative about the Big Three’s recent attempt to get a government bailout, but I’m finding myself drawn to the ‘survival of the fittest’ camp. It sounds like they could use a shake-up; the North American auto sector has had this coming after years of mismanagement and ambivalence to customer needs.

This isn't as big a deal as they're making it out to be. These companies aren’t going anywhere in the long-term. North Americans will still need cars once this awful recession is over. And once the dust settles, auto manufacturers will emerge from this crisis leaner and meaner than the bloated incarnations they are now.

Moreover, people need bailouts, not corporations. The government should save the money they would otherwise waste on these companies and spend it to support those people who are about to lose their jobs. Giving the Big Three a wad of cash would only result in a retrenchment of the current paradigm. What’s needed is a complete collapse so that the auto sector can reinvent itself for the 21st century.

It sounds heartless and Darwinian, but it’s true. Recessions and shake-ups happen because corporations that work within uber free markets cannot self-regulate. The banking/credit crisis has proven this. Capitalism works to eat itself, which is why we get correction periods every now and then. The current recession is merely the elastic band swinging back from its over-extension.

November 23, 2008

Links: 2008.11.23

November 22, 2008

Deep brain stimulation induces vivid memories

Earlier this year doctors in Toronto reported a strange incident involving a morbidly obese man who was undergoing deep brain stimulation (DBS).

DBS involves implanting electrodes into the brain to treat conditions like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. In this particular case, the electrodes were implanted into a 50-year old's hypothalamus (an area in the limbic system) in hopes of granting him better control over his appetite.

But a strange thing happened during the procedure.

When the electrodes were stimulated by electrical impulses the man began to experience feelings of deja vu. As the procedure continued, and as surgeons increased the intensity of the electrodes, the patient experienced an influx of memories and feelings of temporal uncertainty.

At one point the patient thought he was in a park with friends. He felt younger and thought that he was 20-years old again. Even his girlfriend of the time was there. According to the patient, he viewed the scene as an observer and experienced the scene in colour. As the surgeons increased the intensity of the stimulation the details became more and more vivid.

Two months later the surgeons repeated the procedure, and the same thing happened again.

This incident, which came as a complete surprise to the surgeons, has given medical researchers cause for hope that DBS may be used to boost memories and better treat neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer's.

"We hopefully have found a circuit in the brain which can be modulated by stimulation, and which might provide benefit to patients with memory disorders," said Andres Lozano of Toronto Western Hospital.

In addition, this incident reaffirms a suspicion I've had about the brain and its ability to store memories. I've often thought that the brain does an excellent job recording and storing memories, but that our recall mechanisms are disturbingly weak and highly selective. Our long-term associations with memories are frequently diminished (e.g. some of our more painful memories are often exaggerated, distorted or suppressed).

What this incident with DBS suggests is that our memories are beautifully preserved in our brains. We just lack the recall linkages and cognitive mechanisms to bring those memories back in any kind of detail. Our memories are accessed as fleeting bits of information instead of linear experiences.

Maybe there is a way to tease out the finer details. Looking to the future, perhaps we can use DBS or some other techniques to re-experience our memories in exquisite detail.

I'll get the popcorn.

Citation and photo credit: BBC

November 20, 2008

Terry Grossman wants to help you to live forever

I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Terry Grossman this past weekend at Convergence08.

Grossman, along with Ray Kurzweil, co-authored the book Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever in 2005. He is currently working on a follow-up titled, Transcend: Nine Steps to Living Longer. In 2000 Grossman penned the book, The Baby Boomers' Guide to Living Forever.

Dr. Grossman is also the founder and medical director of The Grossman Wellness Center. When asked what he does for a living, Grossman replies, "I treat the condition of aging."

Indeed, like a number of other forward-thinkers, he has come to see aging as a disease, as something that can be cured. It has only one purpose, he declares, "to destroy our health and result in our death." He notes that aging is a unique disease in that it afflicts 100% of us and has thus far proved to be 100% fatal.

He enourages his patients, most of whom are looking to reduce their "biological age," to think about weight and diet, genomics testing, screening for inflammation, methylation, coronary heart disease and cancer, detoxification, and maintaining proper hormone levels. In addition, Grossman advises his clients to keep themselves intellectually stimulated, take supplements, work to reduce their stress levels, and exercise.

Simply put, he believes that it's possible to make a significant impact on human longevity by lifestyle choices alone. Grossman believes we need to rewrite our outdated stone age code. "Our ancestors were well suited to a world of scarcity," he says, "while we are in a world of abundance." Consequently, the first thing we can do about impacting on our longevity is to look at our food choices.

Along with Kurzweil, Grossman helped to launch the Ray and Terry's brand of longevity products. Their overriding philosophy is that the "leading causes of death – heart disease, cancer, stroke, respiratory disease, kidney disease, liver disease, and diabetes – do not appear out of the blue. They are the end result of processes that are decades in the making." The Ray & Terry products are a way to address longstanding imbalances in the metabolic processes that can lead to disease.

Ultimately, Terry Grossman's goal is to help people reprogram their biochemistry. Given the potential for more substantive life extending interventions in the future, Grossman wants his patients to work with the best tools and knowledge available today. The hope is that people, particularly those middle-aged and older, will be able to live long enough to reap the benefits of the next stage of life extension, which will involve more profound use of biotechnologies.

And once this stage is surpassed, and we enter into the era of the molecular machine, we will likely find ourselves endowed with indefinite lifespans.

Thanks to visionaries like Dr. Grossman, some of us may actually get there.

Further reading: Eight tips to dramatically improve your chances of living forever

November 19, 2008

Wallach and Allen: Six ways to build robots that do humans no harm

[*Note: See addendum at the end of this article]

New Scientist has published an article about building robots that won't harm humans.

They cite the work of Wendell Wallach and Colin Allen who are the co-authors of Moral Machines: Teaching Robots Right from Wrong. In a recent blog article, Wallach and Allen discuss six of the strategies that have been proposed to help prevent robots from turning on their human creators (in the book these and many other approaches for implementing moral decision making are discussed and not listed in this way):
  1. Keep them in low-risk situations
  2. Do not give them weapons
  3. Give them rules like Asimov's 'Three Laws of Robotics'
  4. Program robots with principles
  5. Educate robots like children
  6. Make machines master emotion
Wendell Wallach goes about critiquing the six strategies, including the observation that the U.S. military is already using robots to kill:
Semi-autonomous robotic weapons systems, including cruise missiles and Predator drones, already exist. A few machine-gun-toting robots were sent to Iraq and photographed on a battlefield, though apparently were not deployed.

However, military planners are very interested in the development of robotic soldiers, and see them as a means of reducing deaths of human soldiers during warfare.

While it is too late to stop the building of robot weapons, it may not be too late to restrict which weapons they carry, or the situations in which the weapons can be used.

Indeed, the primary problem is that if someone wants to create a band of marauding robots there's nothing really to stop them.

And if malign intentions are not the case, there's still the potential for disaster. In terms of giving them 'rules' and 'principles,' that's easier said than done. This is known as the friendliness problem, an issue that continues to vex a number of AI theorists, including Eliezer Yudkowsky.

Read the entire article.

*Addendum: It appears that the New Scientist article was rather sloppily written. I've since rewritten this article and made the appropriate corrections. According to Wendell Wallach, writing in his blog Moral Machines,
The New Scientist article has been misread by some commentators, who believe that we propose moral machines can be built with these simple strategies and that the critiques of the strategies were written by Simonite. The strategies and evaluation of the strategies were written by us. The original article from which this material was drawn can be found below on my October 13th posting.
Specifically, the New Scientist article's author, Tom Simonite, did not make it sufficiently clear as to who was responsible for the content and commentary. As Wallach noted to me in personal conversation, "90% of that article was written by me, including the strategies and the comments as to why the strategies were inadequate and simplistic. The piece was written as a tool to direct attention to the book, which is the first overview of the field of machine morality and a very serious and sophisticated look at the challenge."

The original version of the article that Simonite received can be viewed on the Moral Machines blog.

To Wendell Wallach, Colin Allen and my readers: I regret making any errors or mischaracterizations in the course of presenting this article.

November 18, 2008

Twittering at Convergence08

In addition to live blogging Convergence08, I used Twitter to send out microblog bursts to my followers during the course of the conference.

This wasn't particularly easy given all that was going on. Twitter can be a limited medium for communication transfer, which is why I chose to write detailed blog posts as well; there's only so much you can say in 140 characters, while at the same time not overwhelming your Twitterverse with a gazillion posts.

But that said, when you're forced to write concisely, you'd be amazed at what you can get across; sometimes key points can be wonderfully delivered as a 140 character soundbite. Twitter forces you to trim the fluff and to be judicious about your tweets.

Moreover, Twitter proved to be a great service for those who couldn't attend the conference. Like live blogging, it provided an almost real-time relay of information as it was presented. And because of the quick and personal nature of Twitter, the posts could sometimes be informal and off-the-cuff. It was also a good way to promote my live blog entries as I posted them.

But it also proved indispensable for those attending the conference -- something I didn't expect. This was an audience filled with early adopters (at least you'd hope so!), so a good portion of the 300+ attendees were busy Twittering away -- many of whom were following one another. And even if you weren't following all the in-conference tweeters, you could follow the aggregated posts over at hashtags (users needed to tag each post with the #converge hash-tag to make this happen).

Twitter also lent itself to the nature of the event. Convergence08 was an unconference, which means that it was self-organizing with no pre-determined speakers or panels. Consequently, there were as many as 16 concurrent panels. Obviously, this meant that you were missing out on a lot of content. It was a welcomed thing when tweets started to come in from the other rooms; I was able to get a good sense as to what was going on at the other presentations.

Not only was it informative in this sense, it was also possible to assess the quality of other presentations. Some attendees, dissatisfied with their chosen panel, would ask other Twitterers if other presentations were worth joining. This collective and distributed intellgience facilitated some healthy panel hopping which resulted in happier and more fulfilled attendees (panel hopping is not discouraged at unconferences and given the ad hoc nature it's quite expected).

And like the old IRC backroom chat days, Twitter also provided a communications sub-channel that added to the tone of the conference in a wonderful way. Because of the non-verbal nature of Twitter, attendees could provide instant commentary, punditry and even heckling without disturbing the presentation or risk being called out. And it also proved to be self-correcting as some Twitters would counter opposing viewpoints. Those not Twittering were completely oblivious to the fact that there were other conversations going on behind the scenes; it was like a silent buzz.

The #converge Twitter channel proved to be both informative and entertaining. Some Twitterers cracked jokes, while others provided information about where to get coffee once we ran out (actually, that was me). I also used it to get information about the names of certain speakers to assist in my live blogging and it helped me keep up with the presentation as I was busy listening and writing at the same time.

Twittering at Convergence08 proved to be an amazing experience. Attending conferences will never be the same again.

Hey, it's not every day you can hang out at the Google compound

Convergence08 - 40

Convergence08 - 41

Convergence08 - 42

Convergence08 - 35

Mondolithic's cyborg Darwin sketch

Kenn Brown of Mondolithic Studios recently alerted me to this pre-production sketch of his for what will undoubtedly become a stunning painting:

This 'proof of concept' digital rendering takes a well known portrait of Charles Darwin and presents him as a synthesis of man and machine. Brown notes that it will likely go through a number of iterations before he commits it to canvas.

I'm very much looking forward to seeing where he takes it from here. Brown writes:
I was quite surprised that this concept had never been realized, and I scoured the net for several hours to ensure I was not duplicating another artists concept - and thankfully came up with nothing even close. It seems like an obvious solution given the growing emergence of transhumanist technologies and artificial inteligence augmentation, as an inevitable evolutionary step in human kind.

We really enjoy working out our paintings using digital technology and then taking it back into the analogue world for somthing a bit more permenant as an Oil on Canvas painting. It allows us to quickly realize a piece, and work out all of the elements like colour, composition - which lays down a solid foundation for creating a painting quickly and efficiently.
By the way, the concept was partly inspired by a recent illustration they did for the latest cover of Scientific American:

November 17, 2008

Back from America; some observations

I just returned from a quick three-day trip to Sunnyvale, California where I attended the IEET's Global Catastrophic Risks symposium and Convergence08. Both events were a great success and very well attended. I hope the organizers do it again next year.

A couple of quick observational notes about the United States:

The U.S. recession is worse and far more pervasive than I thought.

Listening to the various conversations this past weekend I realized how widespread and severe the current recession is. People were talking openly about unemployed family members, lost savings and devastated stock portfolios. There's a lot of dread going around.

It's not nearly this bad in Canada, so I've been somewhat sheltered from the reality.

And driving through Silicon Valley I saw signs of the recession first-hand. The light industrial areas were sprinkled with office buildings that had 'for lease' signs posted out front.

But that said....

Americans have Obama fever and they have it bad.

And I think this is good. I can't remember the last time I heard so much optimism from my American friends and colleagues. Everybody is projecting and hanging their hopes on the incoming administration; they're all abuzz with anticipation.

People, whether they're doing scientific research, advocating for more progressive public policy, or simply looking to see something done about the economy, are planning for change and rejigging their agendas accordingly. It was very exciting to see and hard to not get caught up in all the excitement. It's as if a straight-jacket has been taken off the U.S. public.

And lastly, I love the attitude in Silicon Valley. Never mind the influence of the current state of the economy or Obama, I know from past experience that the people in Silicon Valley simply think differently.

It's more than just a tech-sector or a place to work. It's where people genuinely feel that unique and advanced technologies can and should be brought into the world -- and that they are the ones who can make it happen. Silicon valley imbues a sense of wonder and possibility.

And it's the only place in the world where the word 'Singularity' is practically in the vernacular; you say it and nobody even blinks.

Lisa Bennett: Humans are hard-wired to ignore the threat of climate change

"But now a growing number of social scientists are offering their expertise in behavioral decision making, risk analysis, and evolutionary influences on human behavior to explain our limited responses to global warming. Among the most significant factors they point to: The way we're psychologically wired and socially conditioned to respond to crises makes us ill-suited to react to the abstract and seemingly remote threat posed by global warming. Their insights are also leading to some intriguing recommendations about how to get people to take action-including the potentially dangerous prospect of playing on people's fears."-- Lisa Bennett
From Alternet.

November 16, 2008

Convergence08: Day 2 closing panel on longevity

Bruce Ames: Whenever you're short of any micronutrient you're aging faster. High calorie food with no nutritive value is a bane, things like chips and soda pop.

Terry Grossman: "I treat the condition of aging." It's possible to make a significant impact on your longevity by your lifestyle choice, eating in particular. Aging has one purpose: To destroy our health and result in our death. It's a unique disease in that it afflicts 100% of us and has thus far proved 100% fatal. New book coming up in April: Transcend: Nine Steps to Living Longer. We can reprogram our biochemistry to rewrite our outdated stone age code. Our ancestors were well suited to a world of scarcity, while we are in a world of abundance.

Gregory Benford: Benford talks about his research and its implications -- working to augment their genes in the defense of aging. Diabetes is a predictor of Alzheimer's; we share 75% of our genome with fruit flies. Fruit flies get diabetes and Alzheimer's.

Aubrey deGrey: Describes himself as being the most ambitious of the group. But he qualifies that by saying it's because he's the most pessimistic. We need a new approach that's more preventative than the geriatric approach. This has led Aubrey to the belief that we need to apply regenerative medicine to the problem of aging. He said that Terry Grossman and Ray Kurzweil recapitulated many of his views in their book."

Christine Peter, the moderator, asks the question that, given limited resources, what should people be doing? Testing? Supplements? Perfect diet? Give all money to Methuselah?

Bruce Ames answers that we can do a lot by improving our diets. "Micronutrients are dirt cheap." Our "awful" diets are impacting on our bodies and our brains -- a disaster to our health -- more cancer, diabetes, and so on.

Terry says we should begin with the things that are free, like exercise. Another thing we can do is reduce your calories -- even think about caloric reduction. Cut calories by 10-20%. We should take a multi-vitamin or mineral and supplement fish oil. We also need more vitamin D. Heart disease is the #1 cause of death, so get tested and get screened (coronary calcium squirt test). Also consider standard cancer screening.

Benford says that too many people in middle age go down hill quickly and say, "the game's not over, but at least I get to watch it." He says middle agers need to snap out of this and not give up at that critical stage.

Aubrey applauds all things mentioned. In addition, a lot can be done by simply raising awareness in time to make serious benefits to those who are alive today. People should work to help by raising the legitimacy of these discussions; ensure that people don't change the subject. This is about keeping people health and not sick. Advocacy can cost money, however.

Ames recommends a multivitamin mineral drink from Costco.

[Q&A from the audience begins]

Ames doesn't feel that organic foods give you any advantage, feels that environmental claims are over-stated.

Keith Henson wants the naked mole rat's genome sequenced. Aubrey agrees and makes the case that systems biology is improving and will be better applied to longevity science.

Aubrey agrees with the next questioner that it's important to be concerned about quality of life and not just sheer longevity.

[Five minute wrap-up]

Bruce goes over the importance of micronutrients again. We need to fix up our conceptions about nutrition big time.

Convergence08: Tanya Jones discusses Alcor, present and future

Tanya Jones of Alcor has opted for a Q&A format.

Whole body vitrification: largely depends on the fluid which is a cryopreservant that prevents the formation of ice crystals in the body. Works particularly well for organs, which was its intended application. Automated systems are being built that are dramatically improving the perfusing process. Large animal tests are planned before it's used on a patient, giving unprecedented control over the perfusion process. It's build on bypass operations used in hospitals.

Whole body vitrification isn't perfect yet, as some tissues accept the cryopreservant better than others. There's also still a struggle to get all patients vitrified at the facility. And like any medical procedure that's done today, "time is trauma." Alcor is working to minimize the damage.

Sources of funding: third by membership dues, third from cyro procedures themselves, third from private donations. Alcor can't sustain operations to the level they've built their operations at, mostly because of their optimistic and ambitious strategy. Currently re-focusing on revenue generating strategies.

Alcor currently maintains an ambulance vehicle that can be driven to a 1,000 mile radius. Jones says this makes a very large difference to the cases in which they're used. The ambulance has been used in two cases in particular thus far.

Pronouncement of death must happen before the vitrification process can begin. This is because the body is technically speaking an anatomical donation.

Air-transportable perfusion systems have been redesigned around new airline regulations. Kits have decreased in size and weight. This has positive implications for quick team mobilizations. It's also become easier to train people -- a team that's mostly made up of non-medical professional volunteers. It's an extremely efficient system to prime.

Most recent case was an individual who suffered cardiac arrest while snorkeling in Barbados. It took Alcor 5 days to get the body. He was packed in dry ice for shipment for 3 days before Alcor got him. After 5 days it's impossible to do a vitrification so it was a straight freeze in liquid nitrogen. It's a two stage process -- first plunge to -110, second to optimal freeze level.

Alcor is currently working on the fracturing problem (e.g. brains cracking like ice cubes thrown in water). They believe it's possible to develop a protocol to eliminate fracturing. The key is to get pure cryprotectant down to -196: the temperature of liquid nitrogen. If you do it right, you can keep objects preserved for 1,000 years when immersed in liquid nitrogen.

Alcor is also concerned that fracturing is not the only problem -- that there's something else from preventing the organs from being revived.

Alcor recently received a grant for readiness capability. They're going to use this money to improve their kits and all their technologies. They're distributing the new med kids, to build the new perfusion systems for the teams (once they've decided that they work as intended). Currently looking to other plans, taking it slow and carefully.

Funding aspect is still a place where Alcor is behind where they need to be. Before a marketing strategy can be put into place, Alcor wants to suss out where potential members are coming from. What makes people really choose to sign up? And success could be detrimental if suddenly a thousand people signed up overnight. Alcor's scaling model simply wouldn't allow for it.

Alcor's demographic chart resembles the bell shaped distribution of the United States.

Long term vision: Alcor knows that bureaucracy can impede smooth vitrification processes. Jones claims that legal impediments exist in every jurisdiction they work in. They want to smooth this process.

Alcor would like to do whole body vitrification on site, and then transport the bodies at the optimal preservation temperature for delivery to Alcor's facility in Arizona. They're even considering something on an airplane.

Jones says that it can take some people from 1o to 20 years to make a decision about signing up for cryonics -- which doesn't take sudden death into account.

Training is in hiatus until the new kits get sorted out. Teams will be flown to Arizona and be given hands-on training.

Is it safer to do neural or whole body? Neural is still slightly better because of the time it takes for the cryopreservation process to be completed.

Convergence08: PJ Manney on empathy and technology

Studies show that violent video games have a measurable impact on the user's empathetic awareness; they are making us less sensitive to the needs of our fellow humans.

Transhumanists and technophiles alike are having a hard time getting their message out -- it's a very niche audience. The question, then, is what do we need to focus on to increase that empathetic response, to get people to better listen to one other.

[PJ concludes her opening comments and facilitates a discussion]

Key comments from the discussion
  • We do in fact need to make a concerted effort to create meaningful games without the violence and to popularize them; increase access to "casual games"
  • How do we infiltrate the culture of the 'other' and teach them to think more about what they're perpetrating or what the circumstances are of their actions.
  • Serious Games are games where you can actually play about serious world changing issues in real world scenarios. PJ suggests that this realness could be a meaningful step in the right direction -- the intensity is maintained, as is the human connection.
  • Role playing, whether it be in the gaming world or elsewhere, can impact on our empathetic sensibilities; it would be interesting to generate a character for yourself that is a person you wouldn't want to be so that it can enhance your ability to project outside yourself
  • Interfaces can often act as a psychological obstacle
  • We should distinguish between technological and psychological techniques
  • One thing we can do is work to increase shared values which increases shared belief. This in turn leads to an enhanced sense of identity and community.
  • Enabling factors -- promote a shared value.
  • Realism versus fantasy -- the more unreal something is, the less we can relate to it.
  • PJ says we get a better empathetic sense from the written world than the visual.
  • Switching characters at random may force you to project outside yourself
  • Personal subjectivity will also have an impact on how exposure to violence will manifest
  • Escapism may also have an impact on a sense of empathy
  • Tweaking mirror neurons
  • Meditative technologies and projection practices
  • Outsider<->Insider; mimic the other
  • EQ
  • Book: The General Theory of Love
  • Empathy is a practice; it's a muscle that needs to be used
  • Narcissists don't read novels)

Convergence08: Day 2 opening panel on synthetic biology

Synthetic biology debate:

Anderson says that there are many different definitions of synthetic biology. He likes to characterize it as ground-up genetic engineering both to study biology and to create new products. Part of the focus is on how much protein gets made and studying the conditions under which these genes get made. Wants to work at putting the engineering back in genetic engineering. Also a design component to it -- something systematic about it to ensure greater success; important to create goals and break them down into manageable components.

Hessel looks at DNA as a programming language. We are learning how to read DNA and building comprehension around the code. "Cutting and splicing DNA," he says, "is like writing a ransom note." Bioinformations is now referred to systems biology. He hopes biotech companies build their reading and comprehension systems; the completed human genome is testamant to this. The current problem is that we can't write the DNA code -- we can edit it, we cut it like scissors, and we splice it like glue and that's how we "write" the code. He's looking for people who are making compilers -- making it cheaper, faster and more elegant.

Caruso describes herself as not being an opponent or an advocate, but someone who is interested in the risks posed by synthetic biology. She wants to work towards more inclusive conversation. She thinks that debates like this are actually quite useless and not nuanced enough; not inclusive enough and not representative of the expertise out there. Caruso draws the analogy to nuclear power, Three Mile Island, and the exclusion of human factors in risk analyses. We have very little understanding of how genes make proteins and how it really works out in the environment. We don't know the forces of natural selection and the implications of "releasing this stuff." Caruso asks that we need to pose the right questions to these issues. She has a deep concern that too often the first question we ask is about the benefit and not the risk of a new technology. We need to think about staging, monitoring, tracking, licensing, and so on.


Hessel claims that open source will lower the barriers for entry and get more people involved in developing synthetic biology.

Anderson sees benefits in agriculture and having synthetic biology ferment the resources and converting them into fuels (clean energy). Hessel wonders why all the focus on fuels. Anderson says it's because a lot of the problems about doing so are already understood. Discussion shifts to approval, and having these technologies both FDA and EPA approved; Anderson sees this is a both a reality and a barrier to entry.

Current generation of this technology involved a hybrid engineered plant and and an engineered organism from the lab. Anderson says this organism is not released into nature.

Benford sees benefits in the medical sciences and talks about advances in Alzheimer's and diabates -- in those fields that are somewhat stuck and not thinking about evolutionary biology in their research and development.

Benford says the European version of the precautionary principle is nothing more than, "never do anything for the first time." But if we're to make any progress about longevity, argues Benford, we need to exploit the entire suite of biology and what it has to offer.

Caruso thinks Benford is being disengenious and takes him to task on his claim that we shouldn't be worred about such things as modded insects getting out into the environment and that they're going to be "killer" insects. We are currently inable to effectively contain these sorts of living organisms that are designed to (or could be accidently) be released. Caruso thinks we need a new approach that transcends the "I'm a Luddite," or "you're a Luddite" position. And at the same time researchers need to pay better attention to what they're actually doing. She says that history is littered with examples about scientists who don't pay long term attention and pretend that the rest of the world doesn't exist.

Most schools, says Hessel, don't even have synthetic biology programs. He believes that leaders in these fields will start to emerge and better organize this discipline -- but it may only happen after businesses have really gotten involved.

Anderson says there could be could be good convergence with robotics and software development to help will assembly and other construction issues.

Questions from the audience

Question is directed to Caruso about her unreasonable risk aversion, that delays don't improve the situation, and that benefits can outweigh the risks. The issue raise is that risks aren't actually being properly assessed. On this last point, Caruso agrees. She feels we need to better develop risk analysis and how it is applied to the world. It's a very politicized process and from any number of angles. That said, she claims to have never come up against a scenario in which someone demanded zero risk. She essentially feels that many of her collegues are in fact being reasonable and realisitc.

Next question is once again about risks and the audience members brings Christine Peterson into the conversation (despite her objection, as she's a panelist). Question is about how the Foresight Institute has dealt with risk assessment. Peterson responds by discussing Foresight's methodology on the matter and the adoption of certain guidance and methodology principles. Peterson redirects the question to Anderson, wondering if his group has a method to their risk analyses. He responds by saying that he's not given a blank cheque to do what they want, and that their students and researchers understand the implications of what they're doing, and that there are administrative controls in place -- although it is a very subjective analysis.

Third question is a request for panelists to conduct a panel on risk assessment; Caruso reluctantly agrees (was an unexpected turn of events for her).

Fourth question is about the computational aspect of synthetic biology and how computers are used. Hessel responds by saying that they are simply going about reverse engineering. He also notes that supercomputers will be necessary for protein folding. Notes that this can help with risk assessment and the creation of artificial environments for testing.

Next questioner addresses the Chernobyl disaster and how it's an ongoing problem that we need to put that into perspective. Questioner starts to ramble and go on about biological weapons and such. Peterson notes that the incoming US adminstration may better address the political issues surrounding potential threats.

What are the factors that are holding down progress in synthetic biology is the next question. Caruso doesn't think that there are any obstacles at this point, that money is being thrown at this. The question was really about technological hurdles, and Anderson notes issues with experimental design, about tackling longterm growth cycles, etc. Benford also notes the long timeframes. Caruso chimes in and notes that the computerization of sequencing technologies introduce a lot of noise and false positives -- that it's hard to factor out.

Keith Henson asks a technical question that none of the panelists are able to answer. Awkward end to the discussion.

November 15, 2008

Convergence08 on Twitter

There is a flurry of Twitter activity going on as attendees cover Convergence08. I'm also microblogging the event, so feel free to add me, georgedvorsky. The hash tag being used for this event is #converge.

Convergence08: Paul Saffo keynote address

Saffo is often asked, 'Are you a futurist or a forecaster?' A forecaster cannot slide into that advocacy role. The forecaster needs to be a bystander to events, whereas the futurist says, "this is the direction I think we should all go." Paul Saffo is saying that futurism should be a science, not a religion.

"If we don't change directions soon, we are most certainly going to end up where we are headed," says Saffo.

Alfred Hitchcock's law of futurism: the future will have long stretches of dullness in it, the exciting parts will be exciting because they have exciting parts in it -- but then it'll become dull again. [Note: Hitchcock said that "movies are reality with the dull parts edited out."]

Saffo draws a comparison to all the 1980s excitement surrounding the advent of cyberpace via the cyberpunk novels. It was thought that it would usher in a new era of human advancement and sophistication.

We need to question our assumptions. Is it really convergence? Maybe things are diverging? Didn't we talk about convergent technologies in the 1990s? This resulted in a divergence of products and industries. It may not exactly turn out the way that we think.

He quips that we live in 'cyberbia.'

Saffo makes the case that change is never linear. The problem is that we are linear thinkers. We like to draw straight lines. Consequently, people are always surprised when the inflection points hits (e.g. advent of the Web).

We've been on the edge of an AI revolution for 50 years.

We should cherish failure, says Saffo, especially when it's somebody else's. Columbus isn't remembered because he made it to the New World, he's famous because he made it back. Another example is the Grand Challenge involving robotic cars; 18 months after a shocking failure in which the bots didn't get more than 7 miles, a number of robo-cars were successfully able to cross the finish line.

To be successful, look for something that has been failing for 20 years.

Saffo says, "Look back twice as far." There is a wrong way to use a rearview mirror -- the right way is to look for the relevant patterns. As Mark Twain said, history doesn't repeat itself, at best it rhymes. We need to look for the rhymes.

Every decade we have a new enabling technology that arrives and establishes a landscape. We had the processing decade in the 70s. The 80s brought the communications laser which introduced fiber optics and digital encoding of data. In the 90s we were given greater bandwitdth (enabling us to better network together). In the current decade it's cheap sensors. This had led to an explosion of products with cheap sensors.

Another rule of thumb is to look for indicators -- things that don't fit, things that are just weird. Good forecasters quickly come to a conclusion and then work to systematically demonstrate that they are wrong, while looking for indicators that may be important.

Take the Roomba -- the robotic vacuum cleaner. [Saffo asks, "When was the last time anybody gave their vacuum cleaner a name?" -- gets good reaction from audience)] This was an indicator to Saffo that there was something up with this new technology.

Saffo shows a picture of an awful auto wreck -- one that took place before a Grand Challenge race. Over 118 cars smashed into each other. "Proof," says Saffo, "that people shouldn't drive." [audience applauds] Saffo says we should be more afraid of human drivers than robots.

Saffo references a book by Leinad Zeraus/Daniel Suarez called Daemon.

Those who think the farthest wins, says Saffo. We are all proud of ourselves because we think in the longterm.

Though, he warns that not all people go about this correctly or responsibly, like this book: Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth's Last Days. Still, says Saffo, religious communities are typically the longest term thinkers. A reading recommendation to help explain religous long term thinking: "A General Theory of Bureaucracy"

"We also need to find those short term opportunities that will really change tomorrow," closed Saffo.

[Question and answer period begins]

Saffo is put to task by Eliezer Yudkowsky about his claim that religious communities are typically the longest term thinkers and his reference of the Last Days book. He responds by stating matter of factly that it's simply true and that many fundamentalists simply think this way.

Second question again addresses the fundamentalist issue, much to the frustration of Saffo who jokes that he should have left out the last slide.

Question from audience, "are we getting better at looking at the future and the past." Saffo feels that we're teetering on the edge of acquiring real quantitative forecast tools. The convergence of four factors will change the futures field:
  1. Moore's law
  2. forecasting algorithms
  3. data getting sucked up by sensors
  4. more and more people and spending more time in cyberspace and pouring their lives into digital form that can be examined
Our methods will change dramatically over the next half-decade.

Question from audience: wants elaboration on the claim that technologies get ossified (i.e. we initially resist the full potential of new techologies). Saffo claims that we collectively resist change. New technology comes in, is used for an old thing, and then eventually is brought to its full potential.

[End of talk and end of Day 1; more to come tomorrow!]

Convergence08: Hughes and LaTorra on Digital Serfs and Cyborg Buddha

Connections being drawn:

Speculations about work, leisure, income and automation (very topical given Marshal Brain's recent talk at Singularity Summit). Future issues include ongoing technological and cultural globalization, along with the impact of robotics and expert systems and the potential for structural unemployment.

We have to plan for radical economic dislocation and take this scenario seriously. We need to have a renegotiation about leisure and work.

Couple of ways to deal with this:
  1. We could go on permanent vacation -- but many of us have defined our lives according to our labor. Hughes says this is a recent phenomenon.
  2. Redistribution of unemployment -- e.g. change career paths, distribute work, etc.
Another proposal is a basic income guarantee, ensuring that every citizen has a certain kind of income. A proto version of this has been established in Brazil. Establishing a social safety net.

The cyborg Buddha part of this: to ensure that the life of leisure will lead people to a life of social and psychological flourishing, rather than the opposite. We will have a great wealth of time (an unprecedented opportunity), the question is what to do with it. Society should encourage people to use this time to work on individual growth.

Future technologies will allow people to descend into a dystopian horror. The challenge will be to convince people not to choose this path. The pending range of bliss states is not enlightenment. What we're living in now is a kind of virtual reality, it's not the truth -- and we need to see things the way they really are. Bliss states are a part of this virtual reality.

LaTorra argued that modern demands for material goods have prevented many from pursuing a more spiritual path. If economic pressure were off, people would be given the opportunity to spend more time and be less fearful of following the Buddhist path.

The Cyborg Buddha project is about laying the groundwork and helping people along the right path. Of importance is to help people deal with new technologies.

Blissing out: no growth, no stasis, no inner personal or spiritual life. It's a trap.

Today we have the opportunity to create a society in which people can pursue a more rigorous spiritual life, including more time to meditate.

Future society will allow more people to use this leisure time and not be dependent on others.

Neurotechnologies will also dissipate our sense of an autonomous, single self -- a notion that jives very well with Buddhist beliefs.

Is it unBuddhist to want to live forever, a form of attachment? Hughes says it's okay to have the opinion that you want to keep on living.

Convergence08: Keith Henson, "An Uncertain Future and Dollar a Gallon Gasoline"

How do you get to cheap energy? If you can get a penny per kilowatt hour you can get a dollar a gallon gasoline. The only way to get this is to draw solar power from space.

How do you get this energy back to Earth? The space elevator would make this easy. The key load is to get down to 100/kilogram to orbit.

There are a number of ways to make this happen:

The space elevator, which we can't make yet.

Extracting energy from space-based solar panels and mirrors: using pop-up and push (slow, low energy ascent) to bring objects into orbit, and drawing the energy from mirrors in geosynchronous orbit; technique would use ablation propulsion. This would provide enough energy to replace all fossil fuel. The energy is sent via microwaves to massive dishes on the planet (dishes that are miles across).

Henson claims the U.S. military has shown an interest in this, not just to deal with energy issues, but to provide energy to the entire planet so that motives for war are drastically reduced.

This solution would deliver power to the grid by adding 1 gigawatt of new power to the world's supply of power every day by 2015; at a cumulative cost of $800/kilowatt, or about $800 billion/year. Considering the amount of energy we're talking about here, this is more than worth it.

You could use this energy, for example, to create synthetic oil. Getting energy in this way would suddenly make it worth it. We're still going to need fuel for quite some time. You'll never be able to run planes on batteries, for example.

Unfortunately, this same technology could make for a nasty weapon (using the microwaves), but something that's relatively easy to counter.

Henson claims you can suck CO2 out of the atmosphere and make it into oil.

A key challenge is to get this project started and to fund it. The first watt will be the most expensive.

That said, some commentators believe this is a done deal, that a) it's a no brainer and b) other groups and countries are actively pursuing this.

Convergence08: Anders Sandberg on Whole Brain Emulation

The term 'whole brain emulation' sounds more scientific than it does science fiction like, which may bode well for its credibility as a genuine academic discipline and area for inquiry.

Sandberg presented his whole brain emulation roadmap which had a flowchart like quality to it -- which he quipped must be scientific because it was filled with arrows.

Simulating memory could be very complex, possibly involving chemical transference in cells or drilling right down to the molecular level. We may even have to go down to the quantum level, but no neuroscientist that Anders knows takes that possibility seriously.

Validation has been overlooked in discussions of uploading/downloading. In other words, we don't know if our simulations will convert to reality or not. We need to find ways of testing -- to take pieces of neuron tissue and know exactly how it's working. The retina is a good candidate for beginning this sort of research.

Scanning technologies are painfully slow; research to improve this aspects needs to happen. Electron microscopy will be required. It would be nice to to get down to 50 nanometers. Destructive scanning may be necessary in some cases.

Functional simulation of neurons is relatively easy and is currently being done in research labs.

In regards to computer power, memory storage will not be a bottleneck at all. In terms of raw power, we should plot and plan our emulations around the expected time-frames for processing power (i.e. Moore's Law graphs).

Interesting ethical problems emerge about testing with non-human animals and their potential suffering. It will also be difficult to suss subjective data from animals -- like getting their perspective on changes to perception, discomfort level, etc. Anders wants to write an entire paper on the matter.

There are also significant differences between large and small brains (like mouse brains).

This will be a massive iterative process that will take lots of time and effort; it will also be driven by technological advances. There are still a large number of purely philosophical challenges. For example, we may find that scanning is not a panacea that will always reveal function.

Read more about whole brain simulation.

Live Speculist podcast interview at 5:45 PST

I'm going to be interviewed for a live Speculist podcast at 5:45 PST.

Convergence08: Opening panel on AI

Opening AI panel:
Peter Novrig, when asked how he would advise Obama if he were the CTO, responded, "Believe in reality." This got a great reaction from the audience.

Ben Goertzel notes that, instead of bailing out "corrupt banks" and "incompetent auto makers," that the billions of dollars should be funneled to fund private enterprise in such fields as AI, nanotechnology, and so on. Feels that the U.S. is misallocating its national resources by funding dying industries instead of AI and health care.

Panel is asked what kind of AI applications we can expect by 2015. Pell said we can expect to be able to talk to our game agents, and Omohundro talked about robotic cars and robots in the home (care for the elderly). Goertzel predicts AI for semi-automated scientific discovery and experiment design.

Questioner from the audience says that transhumanism suffers from a "public relations defecit," and wonders how transhumanists can better go about outreach and advocating for a technnological future. Omohundro feels that the popular media is contributing to some of the scare mongering and negative characterizations. Goertzel thinks it's important that we roll-out these technologies via positive applications; they need to be practical and helpful -- eventually our lives will be interwoven with these technologies and accepted.

Goertzel argues that the problem with AGI is not so much technical as it is financial. He says we could be moving 5 times faster with the requisite funding. Novrig says there isn't going to be one single breakthrough -- there's going to be thousands of applications and each along it's own path; disagrees with the singular focus that's characteristic of Goertzel's and Yudkowsky's research and thinking.

What can we do to accelerate things along? Pell says we should focus on what we're really best at and pursue paths that yield the best fruit the quickest; we should apply our talents to the problems.

What are the misconceptions surrounding AI? Pell feels that the biggest myth surrounding AI is that it's impossible and that humans are somehow special Goertzel says that long predictive time scales are typically off the mark. Omohundro feels that most people can't grok rapid/radical change, while others think far too much of the future -- instead we need to walk a middle path. Novrig noted that there have been some very healthy changes to AI theory, including the shift from logical to probabalistic approaches in AI.

Live blogging Convergence08

Today and tomorrow I will be live blogging the Convergence08 conference.

November 11, 2008

Will Israel attack Iran?

During the election campaign, as Barack Obama and John McCain argued about what to do with Iran, much of the world wondered how the U.S. will deal with the situation. But what's been lost in the conversation is the strong possibility that Israel will soon take matters into their own hands.

Indeed, unless the UN Security Council figures out what to do to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons -- and it doesn't appear that they have a clue or the will -- Israel may feel that they have no other recourse but to act unilaterally. This would likely take the form of strategical bombing raids -- a troublesome turn of events that would make an already unstable region even more volatile.

And Israel is not alone in the Middle East. There are other concerned nations in the region who are wary of Iran's rise to nuclear status, including the potentially strange bedfellows of Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab countries. Iran, along with her allies like Syria, Hizbullah and Hamas, would surely make the Middle East a miserable place in the event that Israel makes a preemptive strike.

There are, quite unfortunately, a number of factors that may compel Israel to do so:
  • the popular sentiment in Israel today is "stop the appeasement!" and it has transcended political divides; defense Minister Ehud Barak has been quoted as saying that a life-and-death military confrontation is a real possibility
  • it's election time in Israel, which could see the introduction of a more hawkish administration
  • the Israeli air force is likely very capable of such a mission; the destruction of a Syrian nuclear facility in 2007 and the lack of any international reaction to it may be interpreted as an example for the coming action against Iran
  • diplomatic initiatives and UN sanctions are seen by the Israelis as hopelessly ineffective; this is particularly troubling because it appears that president-elect Obama may support such measures
  • Some commentators have even speculated that Israel may attack in the coming months before the Obama administration is sworn in. The advantage of doing so would be to get quick U.S. support, to acquire needed arms and gain other tactical advantages.

    My own opinion is that such an attack would be premature. Analysts have predicted that Iran will be nuclear capable sometime between 2010 and 2015 giving Israel some time to feel out the Obama administration.

    That said, we should not understate the gravity of Israel's situation. They have been threatened with annihilation time and time again by the current Iranian regime. And in high-stakes situations like this, perception is everything. The Jews are, for very understandable reasons, very sensitive to such threats. As John McCain said during one of the presidential debates, this is an "existential threat" as far as Israel is concerned.

    Desperate times may call for desperate measures.