July 22, 2009

Fighting cancer with nanotechnology [video]

Award-winning video featuring an overview of leading-edge cancer nanotechnology research at University of California, San Diego's Moore Cancer Center. The NanoTumor Center is funded by NCI Alliance for Nanotechnology and the video is produced by NanoTecNexus in collaboration with Mindeliver Media.

Link dump: 2009.07.22

From the four corners of the web:

July 16, 2009

Singularity Summit 2009 has been announced

Via Anissimov's Accelerating Future:

For the last couple months, I’ve been working intensely on laying the groundwork for the Singularity Summit 2009, to be held in New York October 3-4. Now that it’s been announced on KurzweilAI.net, I can finally talk about it.

This is the first Singularity Summit to be held on the East Coast. For that, and other reasons, it’s a huge deal. The lineup of speakers is fantastic, including David Chalmers, Ray Kurzweil, Aubrey de Grey, and Peter Thiel, among many others. Like the epic Singularity Summit 2007 that landed on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle, this Summit will be a two-day event.

The speaker lineup is very diverse, definitely the most diverse out of any Summit thus far. To quote Michael Vassar, President of SIAI, on KurzweilAI.net, “Moving to New York opens up the Singularity Summit to the East Coast and also to Europe. This Summit will extend the set of Singularity-related issues covered to include deeper philosophical issues of consciousness such as mind uploading, as well as life extension, quantum computing, cutting-edge human-enhancement science such as brain-machine interfaces, forecasting methodologies, and the future of the scientific method.”

You can register here. A page with banners for promotion is here.

With discussion about the Singularity heating up like never before, this could be the most exciting Summit yet. SIAI is stepping outside of our comfort zone in Silicon Valley, and into an entirely new area. It will be thrilling to jumpstart discussion on the Singularity in New York City and the East Coast.

July 10, 2009

New theory suggests that we may not be alone after all

Astrophysicist Brandon Carter's long-standing argument against finding intelligent extraterrestrial life has been roundly challenged by a team of Serbian researchers led by Milan Ćirković.

Carter's theory assumed set timescales for two processes: the life cycle of a star and the emergence of complex life. By statistically combining the two Carter concluded that complex life takes longer to emerge than the life-friendly duration of most stars -- with the implication being that intelligence is excruciatingly rare in the Galaxy and we may be alone.

Not satisfied with this conclusion, Ćirković and colleagues Branislav Vukotić and Ivana Dragićević are now disputing these assumptions. In their Astrobiology paper, "Galactic Punctuated Equilibrium: How to Undermine Carter's Anthropic Argument in Astrobiology," they contend that there is no reason to assume life evolves only gradually. They argue life could evolve in fits and starts - mirroring an evolutionary theory called punctuated equilibrium.

The abstract of their paper reads,
Our approach is based on relaxing hidden uniformitarian assumptions and considering instead a dynamical succession of evolutionary regimes governed by both global (Galaxy-wide) and local (planet- or planetary system–limited) regulation mechanisms. Notably, our increased understanding of the nature of supernovae, gamma-ray bursts, and strong coupling between the Solar System and the Galaxy, and the theories of “punctuated equilibria” and “macroevolutionary regimes” are in full accordance with the regulation-mechanism picture. The application of this particular strategy highlights the limits of application of Carter's argument and indicates that, in the real universe, its applicability conditions are not satisfied. We conclude that drawing far-reaching conclusions about the scarcity of extraterrestrial intelligence and the prospects of our efforts to detect it on the basis of this argument is unwarranted.
In plain English, the conditions in the Universe required for the emergence of intelligent life have only recently been established (in cosmological scales). Prior to 'recent times', universal mechanisms were in place to continually thwart the evolutionary development of intelligence, namely through gamma-ray bursts, super novae and other forms of nastiness. Occasional catastrophic events have been resetting the "astrobiological clock" of regions of the Galaxy causing biospheres to start over. "Earth may be rare in time, not in space," they say. They also note that the rate of evolution is intimately connected with a planet's environment, such as the kind of radiation its star emits.

This is why the authors reject a strict uniformitarian approach; the Universe is not the same now as it was in the past.

And importantly, given the possibility that the conditions for intelligence to emerge are now in place, we shouldn't give up hope about our chances of discovering extraterrestrial life.

July 8, 2009

Nature: A pill for longer life?

Pretty amazing news in today's Nature: Rapamycin, a drug commonly used in humans to prevent transplanted organs from being rejected, has been found to extend the lives of mice by up to 14% — even when given to the mice late in life.

Randy Strong of the University of Texas and a member of the study team noted: "We believe this is the first convincing evidence that the ageing process can be slowed and lifespan can be extended by a drug therapy starting at an advanced age."

But the researchers caution that using this drug to extend the lifespan of humans might be problematic because it suppresses the immune system — potentially making people who take it more susceptible to infectious diseases.

Still, very encouraging.


Link dump: 2009.07.08

From the four corners of the web:

July 5, 2009

Bots that can upload their 'personalities' to other bots

Whoa, this one definitely falls under 'the future is now' files: These robots can upload their programs to other robots depending on what's required of them.

Via Marshal Brain.

The 'end of science' my ass

The reports of the death of science have been greatly exaggerated.

Another effort in the 'science has come to an end' series recently appeared in the Guardian with Ehsan Masood's article, "Are We Witnessing the End of Science?" Masood's concern has more do to with how science is conducted today than a fear that the well has run dry -- though he does suggest that 'radical' advances in physics and biology are likely at an end barring some kind of technological breakthrough (e.g. Hadron Collider data).

Specifically, Masood believes that we are seeing fewer revolutions in science because of the professional way in which modern science is organized. "It takes a lot of courage to challenge conventionally accepted views," he writes, "and it needs a certain amount of stamina to constantly battle those who want to protect the status quo. Mavericks do not do well in large organisations, which is what some scientific fields have become."

While there may be some truth to Masood's assertion that there are systemic problems, the suggestion that such challenges will forever stifle potential scientific breakthroughs is overstated. These are merely short term problems. Science isn't going to stop just because of the conservatism that's supposedly embedded in the institutions that Masood is talking about.

As for the issue that scientific progress is at an end because there's nothing left to uncover, that's an equally problematic claim. This is a perspective that's been promoted by such thinkers as John Horgan, author of the book, The End Of Science: Facing The Limits Of Knowledge In The Twilight Of The Scientific Age.

While I agree that the rate of paradigmatic scientific breakthroughs is slowing down, I firmly believe that there's still plenty of meaningful science to be done.

Accelerating technological change, decelerating scientific advance

A number of years ago Michael Vassar, who is now the President of the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and I tackled this question. We suspected that, despite the rapid pace of technological progress, that breakthroughs in science were actually slowing down. To test the theory we created a list of humanity's most important scientific breakthroughs and noted how much time had elapsed since each development:
  • Advent of religion as primitive metaphysics (100,000 to 45,000 years ago)
  • Meditation Pantojoli, Forest Vedas (1000 BC)
  • Advent of science in Ancient Greece (350 BC)
  • Arabic Mathematics (800 AD)
  • Revival of Ptolemaic Astronomy (early 1500s)
  • Copernican Astronomy/Heliocentrism (1543)
  • Advent of Mechanistic Dynamics (17th century)
  • Statistics & Probability Bayes, Pascal, Fermat, etc. (17th century)
  • Calculus Huygens, Newton & Leibniz (late 17th century)
  • Newtonian Dynamics (1680s)
  • Newtonian Optics (1680s)
  • Idea of Progress/Enlightenment (18th century)
  • Thermodynamics (early 19th century)
  • Biochemistry (early 19th century)
  • Non-Euclidean Geometry Lobachevsky, Bolyai, Gauss, Riemann, etc. (early 19th century)
  • Electro-Magnetic Induction Faraday (1821)
  • Natural Selection Darwin (1858)
  • Geological Uniformitarianism (mid to late 19th century)
  • Mendelian Inheritance (1866)
  • Maxwell's Equations (1884)
  • Periodic Table of the Chemical Elements (mid to late 19th century)
  • Microeconomics (mid to late 19th century)
  • Germ Theory of Disease Pasteur (late 19th century)
  • Advent of Speculative Science Fiction, Futurology (late 19th century)
  • Unification of Chemistry and Physics (late 19th, early 20th century)
  • Experimental Psychology (early 20th century)
  • Undecidability (early 20th century)
  • Einsteinian Relativity (1905)
  • Quantum Physics (1909) Planck, Einstein, Bohr, Schrödinger
  • Universal Computing Turing, Gödel, Hilbert (1928)
  • Advent of Cosmology (early to mid 20th century)
  • Idea of force carrier Einstein, Bose, Higgs (mid 20th century)
  • Standard Model of Particle Physics (mid to late 20th century)
  • Neo-Darwinian synthesis with Mendelian Genetics Williams, Dawkins, etc. (mid to late 20th century)
  • Chaos Theory or Complex Systems Theory (1960s)
  • Memetics/Semiotics Dawkins, Eco (1970s)
  • Sociobiology Wilson (1970s)
Based on this list we concluded that science had experienced a 'golden age' of sorts from the 17th through to the 19th century, and that major breakthroughs were becoming less and less frequent.

So what does that mean moving forward? As already mentioned, I suspect that the 'earth shattering' breakthroughs may be a thing of the past, though that cannot be guaranteed. Past successes may be no guarantee of future gain, but it can also be argued that the current slowdown is no guarantee that there won't be future scientific black swans.

The ongoing interplay of science and technology

The interplay between science and technological progress is a very intimate one: some of the greatest breakthroughs in science arrived alongside the introduction of new technological devices.

Take modern astronomy, for example, which was ignited by the invention of the telescope. Similarly, microbiology's emergence coincided with the introduction of the microscope. There are many other examples, including conceptual ones; it's no coincidence that the human body started to be perceived as machine-like during the industrial revolution, or that the brain started to be seen as a type of computer once information technologies took off.

It's quite possible that future advances will once again inspire the sciences. This will unlikely happen in the well-established or more traditional disciplines like astronomy, biology or chemistry. Instead, future breakthroughs will happen in the fuzzy and specialized areas that currently confound science.

The greatest beneficiary of such breakthroughs will undoubtedly be in neuroscience -- or what some observers still regard as the 'philosophy of mind' on account of its slow progress. There is still plenty of mysterious space to work in to keep scientists busy for the foreseeable future (consciousness, qualia and subjectivity in particular). And very closely related to this is the burgeoning field of artificial intelligence theory. I very much anticipate that these two fields will inform and inspire each other over the coming decades.

Another important field will be quantum computation. This is actually a potential game-changer; quantum computers would likely change the way we go about information processing and perhaps even daily life itself. If theory holds, quantum computers will eventually reach the point of instantaneous problem-solving for almost all computational problems. That's significant.

There's also the issue of converging sciences. Take molecular nanotechnology, for example, which is a collision between chemistry, physics, biology and engineering (to name a few). We will undoubtedly uncover many mysteries of both physics (at small scales) and biology as we work to create molecular scale materials and devices.

Many of the fields I just described already exist today, but they're arguably still proto-sciences that are in their first or second generation of development.

Technology is applied science

Science feeds technological development, which in turn inspires the sciences. But ultimately, all technologists are scientists. They just happen to apply their work to the real world. Without science, engineers are merely hopeful conjurers.

Which brings me to another reason that I am confident for future scientific breakthroughs: we still cannot create sufficiently accurate models of the world around us.

The human brain immediately comes to mind. If science is at an end, and we've discovered all there is to know, then why can't we create an accurate and fully functional model of the human brain? And where the heck is our modern theory of consciousness?

The list goes on. What about the science of aging? How come we haven't eradicated all diseases? Why do we still have cars that run on fossil fuels? How about addressing climate change? And what about a clean and sustainable energy source?

These are not technological problems -- they are scientific problems. And they're all tractable. Further, because there is a strong desire to solve such problems there's is a good chance that we eventually will.

And as for science coming to an end, not by a long shot. We still live in a world of mystery and doubt. Yes, science has done an admirable job answering questions to date, but there's still considerable work to be done.

Toyota developing thought-controlled wheelchairs

The BSI-Toyota Collaboration Center (BTCC) is working on a wheelchair that can be navigated in real-time with brain waves. Users simply think of the direction they want to go in and the wheelchair does the rest.

Toyota is taking full advantage of recent technological developments in the area of brain machine interfaces (BMI). Such systems allow elderly or handicapped people to interact with the world through signals from their brains -- and all without having to give voice commands.

The wheelchair is currently under development by RIKEN, an independent administrative institution that's a collaborative project with the Toyota Motor Corporation.

The new system allows brain-wave analysis in as little as 125 ms, as compared to several seconds required by conventional methods. Brain-wave analysis results are displayed on a panel so quickly that drivers do not sense any delay.

The system also has the capacity to adjust itself to the characteristics of each individual user, thereby improving the efficiency with which it senses the driver's commands. That way, the driver is able to get the system to learn his/her commands (forward/right/left) quickly and efficiently; the system boasts an accuracy rate of 95% -- one of the highest in the world.

Here's a video of the thought-controlled wheelchair in action:

Link dump: 2009.07.05

From the four corners of the web:

July 4, 2009

Link dump: 2009.07.04

From the four corners of the web:

July 3, 2009

Link dump: 2009.07.03

From the four corners of the web:

July 2, 2009

Magnetic liquid [video]

This is unbelievably beautiful at times.

How to Redesign our Communities for the Internet Age

Edward Miller is guest blogging this month.

There is a long list of crises that we need to face and I wont waste time boring you by listing them. As our brightest minds admit they were wrong, I hope that I can say, without qualification, that big changes in our thinking are required. Unfortunately, we haven't made that "Change" even though we now have some new faces in power, and a bunch of old faces out of business or in prison.

There is still an unquestioned belief in the need for major public transportation projects, global supply chains, large scale social programs, and economies of scale. These have become so integral to our way of life, that they are hardly ever questioned. Granted, Wal-Mart is often used as a public target for venting our frustrations at these things, but virtually all business nowadays is conducted using global supply chains, economies of scale, and so forth. Thus, our political discourse usually revolves around ways to prop up these very systems, since these are the only ones we know. We believe we require trillions in "infrastructure" funding. We believe that we must "create jobs." We believe we must become "competitive" in the international marketplace. All of these assumptions are echoed in academia, merely using fancy jargon as a substitute for insight.

Let me first say that I accept the logic of comparative advantage and economies of scale as it applies to the capitalist mode of production, and it can truly be the most "efficient" allocation of resources in a quantitative sense, though not always. Yet, as Peter Drucker once said, there is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all. I do not accept that the inevitable centralization of power from this sort of production is a good thing. Centralized powers are able to create artificial scarcities, in order to inflate profits at the expense of everyone else. This invariably requires things like corporatism, regulatory capture, secrecy, and rent seeking.

None of these things are very amenable to true progress, which requires openness, peer review, constructive criticism, and creativity. The types of innovations that occur under these centralized systems, even if they take on a bourgeois bohemian quality and aren't bland and soul-crushing, are incredibly stifling of progress. Open standards are shucked in favor of closed proprietary ones whenever a corporation can get away with it. Parts are never interchangeable. The production processes are so far removed from our daily lives that we have no idea about the processes involved in the creation of the product, and indeed breaking open the gizmo more likely than not voids the warranty.... though I'm not sure you'd even want to open it up considering the high density of toxic crap trapped inside.

All of this has had corrosive effects on our culture, as well as our environment. Our hyper-consumerist culture encourages us to get the latest and greatest stuff. We follow a sequence of fads specialized to our exact niche market (hipster, redneck, emo, rock, punk, goth, anime, whatever). We indulge in enormous quantities of unsustainable, non-renewable, and disposable products. Even more discouragingly, many companies use engineered obsolescence to artificially increase output at the expense of the environment.

We are now lamenting the fact that none of us have a clue about what it actually takes to produce tangible, concrete things which improve our lives. We are too busy answering phones, producing ad campaigns, and writing paperwork. Thus, instead of becoming active participants in the production of our culture and economy, or even informed consumers, we have become totally and completely dependent upon forces far beyond our control. As the market swings out of control, so do our jobs, our homes, and our very lives.

Yet, a revolution has occurred right under our noses whose effects have yet to be fully explored, and most of us are completely unaware. Digital communications technologies, especially the Internet, have enabled new modes of production and organization, such as Open Source and P2P, which have never before been possible. If we can learn to harness the power of these systems, we can escape the path our current world is on where each labor-saving device seems only to cause us to work longer hours. Where social programs seem only to foster dependence. Instead of innovating in accordance with the logic of centralized power and artificial scarcity, we can innovate in accordance with human needs and wants.

We can collaboratively build all the necessary life support systems needed, but have it be on a self-contained and local scale. It cannot be known whether the shape this takes will favor truly scale invariant systems, like the hyper-local RepRap project which is allowing production right in your living room, or whether it ends up fostering a new urbanism where production takes place in vertical farms, factories, and community hackerspaces. Talk about vertical integration! It also cannot be known how it will reshape our communities, since each community would be redesigned in a participatory fashion by the members of the community itself. Some may opt for small scale pedestrian-friendly towns in harmony with nature, while others may opt for sustainable urban metropolises, and others may ditch both for self-sufficient mobile homes and yachts.

In each of these cases, the means of production will likely have been placed in the hands of individuals, and drudgery will be automated away much like how open source software projects collaboratively eliminate bugs and expose flaws in wiki articles. Considering all of this, it may be useful to begin talking again about incentivizing local production. "Import substitution," has long been a naughty word among economists. It is the process of breaking free of foreign dependence by incentivizing local production. Usually via tariffs and other measures. However, this would be a misguided way of going about this.

We don't need to incentivize local production of just any type. We need to incentivize open and collaborative production. For example, creating prizes for contributing to the Commons. In 2007 there was a proposed bill called the Medical Innovation Prize Act which sought to incentivize patent-less medical inventions. If only it was this sort of mentality that guided us for the past few decades, then we wouldn't have ever had such a monstrosity of a healthcare system. The same mentality could guide any industry. A useful exercise would be to think how it could guide the industry you are currently involved in.

Finally, the creation of new local credit systems could also incentivize collaborative local production. There are lots of new concepts along these lines. I also suggest you check out some of my previous work on this topic. It is this sort of thinking which is required for a peaceful transition to a new era for our civilization. It will allow us to become resilient to the converging threats which face us from ecological destruction to market failure to terrorism. Global supply chains have shown themselves to be exceedingly vulnerable to these shocks. I hope we can overcome these by localizing production by utilizing global knowledge sharing so we can all enjoy the type of future some of the previous guest bloggers have been talking about.

July 1, 2009

Yesterday's tomorrow: Hospital of the future

It's got tubes!! And sliding baby drawers!

The art of Fernando Vincente Anatomias


More about Fernando Vincente Anatomias here.

Via Grinding via imgfave.com.

Edward Miller guest blogging in July

Ardent transhumanist and Humanity+ advocate Edward Miller will be guest blogging on Sentient Developments this month.

Among other things, Edward is the founder of the EmbraceUnity blog; in his mandate he states:

When attempting to combat intolerance, many have decided to “Embrace Diversity.” While fighting injustice is a noble effort, it must be based on solid ethical ground. Embracing diversity often implies that it is important to preserve separate identities based on ethnicity, nationality, religion, and so on.

Unfortunately, it is precisely those divisions that have caused much of the injustice in the first place. The human species must transcend these primitive notions and strive for unity. If we are to create a more peaceful global community, we must identify first and foremost with humanity as a whole, above any arbitrary social constructs.

The goal of this blog is to promote humanist values, and by extension, transhumanism and decentralization of power.

In addition to his work at the EmbraceUnity blog, Edward is a vocal advocate for the decentralization of power and civilizational resilience through the use of technology in innovative ways.

To this end, he is the Chief Information Officer of the Network for Open Scientific Innovation and an intern for the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Edward has also been collaborating with the Open Source Ecology movement; he enjoys looking at the world from a systems theoretic perspective and using any insights toward utilitarian ends.

Edward is also practicing vegan and a self-described health nut. He just finished an undergraduate degree in Economics and currently works as a freelance software developer.

To get a better sense of what Edward is all about, I strongly suggest you check out his excellent presentation, "The Future of Subjectivity."

The Future of Subjectivity - Edward Miller from Edward Miller on Vimeo.

Look for Edward's posts throughout the month of July.