November 29, 2009

The art of Tomas Saraceno

tomas_saraceno

Link dump for 2009.11.29

From the four corners of the web:

  • 25 Everyday Technologies That Came from NASA
    Though associated mainly with aerospace innovations, NASA holds a significant influence over daily life as well. Many people do not realize that everything from toys to sunglasses and even horseshoes have benefitted from technologies originally intended for astronauts, shuttle flights, and other elements of space exploration. While some inventions stem directly from NASA and its collaborations, others simply involve vast improvements to existing designs. The following list contains a combination of technologies that went straight from NASA to consumers as well as ones that went on to streamline articles that were already available.
  • Bionic supermen of sport | CTV Olympics
    Athletes with disabilities can now be transformed with the addition of high-tech prostheses which can actually outdo the human equivalents
  • Man trapped in a 23-year 'coma' was conscious entire time
    Doctors in Belgium have freed a hospital patient from a 23-year nightmare after discovering the man had been misdiagnosed with a coma.
  • Meat without animals? Science says yes! | Current
    Winston Churchill once predicted that it would be possible to grow chicken breasts and wings more efficiently without having to keep an actual chicken. And in fact scientists have since figured out how to grow tiny nuggets of lab meat and say it will one day be possible to produce steaks in vats, sans any livestock.
  • November 26, 2009

    I am my own grandpa (or grandma)?

    Linda MacDonald Glenn is guest blogging this month.

    Can nanotechnology be sustainable? At the site, Forumforthefuture.org, under the section Green Futures, Peter Madden argues that nanotechnology can contribute to sustainability. But the article doesn't sit well with me -- why? Not because I'm a technophobe -- I love technology (except when it doesn't work, then I hate it).

    It bugs me because I can't tell what he means by sustainability.

    Who or what is being sustained? Humanity? Our Environment? The Earth? The Nanobots? Self-sustaining technology?

    And who controls or decides what be will be sustained?

    Don't get me wrong -- I do think there is such a thing as Green Nanotechnology; in fact Springer has just started a Journal of Green Nanotechnology.

    I just don't like to see sustainability used as a feel-good buzzword.
    Several key principles have emerged to guide sustainability efforts, including intergenerational equity, integrating environmental, social and economic sectors when developing sustainability policies, and preventing irreversible long-term damage to ecosystems and human health.

    The article does have one good point, though: In the end, it is how we decide to apply nanotechnology that will determine its true sustainability impact.

    You can check out Linda's original blog at the Women's Bioethics Blogspot.

    November 25, 2009

    How Americans spent themselves into ruin... but saved the world

    David Brin is a Sentient Developments guest blogger.

    In the 1/1/24 edition of the Silicon Valley newspaper and online journal Metroactive, I have an editorial describing how the American consumer came to propel the export-driven development of Japan, Korea, Malaysia, China and now India. That process, spanning more than six decades, is almost always portrayed -- especially in Asia -- as having come about as a result of eastern cleverness, in catering to the insatiable material appetites of decadent westerners. But there is a far more interesting, complex, and even inspiring explanation for how the greatest wealth transfer of all time -- which has lifted several billion people out of poverty -- actually came about. I reveal how George Marshall and the United States chose, in 1946, to behave differently from any other "pax" empire, and thereby changed the world.

    I'll now repost that essay here, in expanded form.

    If your politics operate on reflex - from either left or right - you are likely to find something here that will offend. But please, dear fellow believers in tomorrow, bear in mind that I'm an internationalist who opposed jingo-chauvinists, all his life.

    And yet, I feel it is long past time that someone spoke up in defense of Pax Americana.

    The Far-Right's Caricature Version of Pax Americana

    Sure, that phrase (PA) fell into disrepute during the era of the mad neocons, whose misrule left the United States far worse off by every clear metric of national health. During their time in near-total power, steering the American ship of state, fellows like Richard Cheney, Richard Perle, Kenneth Adelman and their ilk made a point of proclaiming imperial triumphalism - exoling an America invested with sacred, perfect and permanent rights of planet-wide dominance, based upon inherent qualities that were said to be unaffected by any objective-reality considerations, like budgets or geography; like world opinion or the end of the Cold War; like science or technology; like rationality or morality or the physical well-being of our troops.

    Indeed, the only factor that they felt might undermine America’s manifestly-destined and eternal preeminence could be a failure of will, should the wimpy liberals ever have their way. But if led with a firm-jawed determination to bull past all obstacles, the American pax could linger indefinitely, with all the privileges of governing world affairs and few of the responsibilities or cares.

    Sure, it has been proper to oppose the policies of such deeply delusional men -- policies which unambiguously and uniformly brought ruin to the very things they claimed to hold dear. Capitalism, freedom, fiscal and national health, as well as U.S. influence in the world all plummeted under their rule. (These metrics all skyrocketed under Bill Clinton, whose endeavor in the Balkans was inarguably one of Pax Americana's finest hours.)

    But The Left Goes Too Far The Other Way

    And yet, something is very wrong with the unselective manner in which some folks on the other side have allowed those neocon nincompoops to define the argument. It is an unfortunate habit of the left to assume that any appreciation of the American contribution to human civilization must be inherently fascistic. This reflexive self-loathing has given (unnecessarily) a huge weapon to the right, in their ongoing treason-campaign called "Culture War," allowing them to retain millions of supporters who might otherwise have abandoned them.

    By abrogating the natural human phenomenon of patriotic pride, these fools on the left have allowed guys like Sean Hannity to claim love-of-country as a sole monopoly of the right! If they get away with pushing simplistic “greatest nation ever” rants and portraying themselves as the implicit opposite of homeland-hating liberals, that gift comes gratis from the left.

    Moreover, there is another reason for liberals to re-examine this reflex and to find good -- and even great -- things to proclaim about America. Because, without any doubt, America deserves it. Yes, self-criticism is a useful tonic, and there definitely were crimes committed, during our time on top. Nevertheless, the net effects of Pax Americana have been generally positive, compared against every single previous era in human history.

    This can be proved, with just a single example -- one that was as decisive as it is ironic, and that has spanned an entire lifespan.

    The Miracle of 1946

    Mr. Wu Jianmin is a professor at China Foreign Affairs University and Chairman of the Shanghai Centre of International Studies. A smart fellow whose observations about the world well-merit close attention. Specifically, in a recent edition of the online journal The Globalist, Wu Jianmin's brief appraisal of "A Chinese Perspective on a Changing World" was insightful and much appreciated.

    However I feel a need to quibble with one of his statements, which reflected a widespread assumption held all over the world:

    "After the Second World War, things started to change. Japan was the first to rise in Asia. We Asians are grateful to Japan for inventing this export-oriented development model, which helped initiate the process of Asia’s rise."

    In fact, with due respect for their industriousness, ingenuity and determination, the Japanese invented no such thing. The initiators of export-driven world development were two military and diplomatic leaders of Pax American at its very peak: George Marshall, who was Secretary of State under President Harry Truman and Gen. Douglas MacArthur, during his time as military governor of Japan, in the ravaged aftermath of the Second World War.

    While Marshall crafted a historically unprecedented, receptively open trade policy called “counter-mercantilism” (I’ll explain in a minute), MacArthur vigorously pushed the creation of Japanese export-oriented industries, establishing the model of what was to come. Instead of doing what all other victorious conquerors had done – looting the defeated enemy -- the clearly stated intention was for the United States to lift up their prostrate foe, first with direct aid. And then, over the longer term, with trade.

    (One might well add a third American hero, W. Edwards Deming, whose teachings about industrial process -- especially the importance of high standards of quality control -- were profoundly influential in Japan, helping transform Japanese products from stereotypes of shoddiness into icons of manufacturing excellence.)

    Look, lest there be any misunderstanding, I am not downplaying the importance of Japanese, Korean, Malaysian, Chinese and Indian efforts to uplift themselves through the hard work of hundreds of millions who labored in sweatshops making toys and clothes for U.S. consumers. Without any doubt, those workers... (like the generations who built America, before 1950, in the sooty factories of Detroit and Pittsburgh)... and their innovative managers, were far more heroic and directly responsible for the last six decades of world development than American consumers, pushing overflowing carts through WalMart.

    Nevertheless, those consumers —plus the trade policies that made the WalMart Tsunami possible, plus a fantastically generous and nearly unrestricted flow of intellectual capital from west to east — all played crucial roles in this process that lifted billions of people out of grinding, hopeless poverty. Moreover, it now seems long past time to realize how unique all of this was, in the sad litany of human civilization.

    The Thing About Empires

    Let's step back a little. First off, if you scan across recorded history, you'll find that most people who lived in agricultural societies endured either of two kinds of global situations. There were periods of imperium and periods of chaos. A lot of the empires were brutal, stultifying and awful, but at least cities didn't burn that often, while the empire maintained order. Families got to raise their kids and work hard and engage in trade. Even if you belonged to an oppressed subject people, your odds of survival, and bettering yourself, were better under the rule of an imperial "pax."

    That doesn't mean the empires were wise! Often, they behaved in smug, childish, and tyrannical ways that, while conforming to ornery human nature, also laid seeds for their own destruction. Today, I want to focus on one of these bad habits, in particular.

    The annals of five continents show that, whenever a nation became overwhelmingly strong, it tended to forge mercantilist-style trade networks that favored home industries and capital inflows, at the expense of those living in in satrapies and dependent areas.

    The Romans did this, insisting that rivers of gold and silver stream into the imperial city. So did the Hellenists, Persians, Moghuls... and so did every Chinese imperial dynasty. This kind of behavior, by Pax Brittanica, was one of the chief complaints against Britain by both John Hancock and Mohandas Ganhdi.

    Adam Smith called mercantilism a foul habit, that was based in human nature. A natural outcome of empire, it over the long run almost inevitably contributed to self-destruction. But alas, everybody did it, when they could. Except just once.

    The Exception to the Rule of Imperial Mercantilism

    In fact, there has been only one top-nation that ever avoided the addiction to imperial mercantilism, and that was the United States of America. Upon finding itself the overwhelmingly dominant power, at the end of World War II, the U.S. had ample opportunity to impose its own vision upon the system of international trade. And it did. Only, at this crucial moment, something special happened.

    At the behest of Marshall and his advisors. America became the first pax-power in history to deliberately establish counter-mercantilist commerce flows. A trade regime that favored the manufactures of many foreign/poor countries over those in the homeland. Nations crippled by war, or by millennia of mismanagement, were allowed to maintain high tariffs, keeping out American manufactures, while sending shiploads from their own factories to the U.S., almost duty free.

    Moreover, despite the ongoing political tussle of two political parties and sometimes noisy aggravation over ever-mounting deficits, each administration since Marshall's time kept fealty with this compact -- to such a degree that the world's peoples by now simply take it for granted.
    Forgetting all of history and ignoring the self-destructive behavior of other empires, we all have tended to assume that counter-mercantilist trade flows are somehow a natural state of affairs! But they aren't. They are an invention, as unique and new and as American as the airplane, or the photocopier, or rock n' roll.

    Why Did This Happen?

    Now, of course, more than pure altruism may have been involved in the decision to create counter-mercantilism. The Democratic Party, under Truman, and Republican moderates, such as President Dwight Eisenhower, held fresh and painful memories of the Hawley-Smoot tariffs, instituted under Herbert Hoover and the Republican Congress of 1930, which triggered a trade war that deepened the Great Depression. Both Truman and Ike saw trade as wholesome for world prosperity -- and as a tonic to unite world peoples against Soviet expansionism.

    (Indeed, as another example of his farsighted ability to plan ahead for decades, Marshall also designed the ultimately victorious policy of patient containment of the USSR until, after many decades, that mad fever broke, for which he deserves at least as much credit as Ronald Reagan.)

    Nevertheless, if you still doubt that counter-mercantilism also had an altruistic component, remember this -- that the new, unprecedented trade regime was instituted by the author of the renowned Marshall Plan — both a name and an endeavor that still ring in human memory as synonymous with using power for generosity and good. Is it therefore plausible that Marshall -- along with Dean Acheson, Truman and Eisenhower -- might have known exactly what export-driven development would accomplish for the peoples of Europe, Asia, and so on?

    Cynics might doubt that anyone could ever look that far and that sagely ahead. But I am both an optimist and a science fiction author. I find it entirely plausible.

    Alas No One Seems to Notice

    Unfortunately, while recipients of the Marshall Plan's direct aid could clearly see beneficial results, right away, other parts of the program -- especially counter-mercantilist trade policy -- were slower in showing their effects, though they were far more vast and important, over the log run.

    What they amounted to was nothing less than the greatest unsung aid-and-uplift program in human history. A prodigious transfer of wealth and development from the United States to one zone after another, where cheap labor transformed, often within a single generation, into skilled and educated worker-citizens of a technologized nation. A program that consisted of Americans buying continental loads of things they did not really need. Things that they could easily done without and stopped buying, any time that they, or their leaders, chose to call a halt.

    (Oh, sure, the U.S would sometimes make a stink and nibble away at the edges of these unfair trade flows. But such efforts were never serious, intense, or undertaken with anything like full power or national will behind them. No plausible theory was ever raised, to explain that tepidness... until now.)

    Yes, yes. There are a few obvious cavils to this blithe picture. One might ask -- does anyone deserve "moral credit" for this huge and staggeringly successful "aid program"?

    Well, that is a good question. Perhaps not the American consumers, who made all this happen by embarking on a reckless holiday, acting like wastrels, saving nothing and spending themselves deep into debt. Certainly, even at best, this wealth transfer seems less ethically pure or pristinely generous than other, more direct forms of aid.

    Moreover, as the author of a book called Earth, I’d be remiss not to mention that all of this consumption-driven growth came about at considerable cost to our planet. For all our sakes, the process of ending human poverty and creating an all-encompassing global middle class needs to get a lot more efficient, as soon as possible. Call it another form a debt that had better be repaid, or else.

    Nevertheless, if credit is being given to the Japanese, "for inventing this export-oriented development model," then I think it is time for some historical perspective. Because the impression that one gets from many, especially in the East, is that the West must forever remain counter-mercantilist as if by some law of nature, and that the vigorously pro-mercantilist policies of the East are some kind of inherently perpetual birthright. Or else, these trade patterns are purely the result of asiatic cleverness, outwitting those decadent Americans in some kind of great game

    This view of the present situation may feel satisfying, but it is wholly inaccurate. Moreover, it could lead to serious error, in years to come... as it did across centuries past.

    What Might The Future Bring?

    Even if America is exhausted, worn out and a shadow of her former self, from having spent her way from world dominance into a chasm of debt, the U.S. does have something to show for it the last six decades.

    A world saved. A majority of human beings lifted out of poverty. That task, far more prodigious than defeating fascism and communism or going to the moon, ought to be viewed with a little respect. And I suspect it will be, by future generations.

    This should be contemplated, soberly, as other nations start to consider their time ahead as one of potential triumph. As they start to contemplate the possibility of becoming the next great pax or "central kingdom."

    If that happens -- (as I portray in a coming novel) -- will they emulate Marshall and Truman, by starting their bright era of world leadership with acts of thoughtful and truly farsighted wisdom? Perhaps even a little gratitude? Or at least by evading the mistakes that are written plain, across the pages of history, wherever countries briefly puffed and preened over their own importance, imagining that this must last forever?

    Is Anybody Still Reading

    Probably not. This unconventional assertion will meet vigorous resistance, no matter how clearly it is supported by the historical record. The reflex of America-bashing is too heavily ingrained, within the left and across much of the world, for anyone to actually read the ancient annals and realize that the United States is undoubtedly the least hated empire of all time. If its "pax" is drawing to a close, it will enter retirement with more earned goodwill than any other. Perhaps even enough to win forgiveness for the inevitable litany of imperial crimes.

    But no, even so, the habit is too strong. My attempt to bring perspective will be dismissed as arrogant, jingoist, hyper-patriotic American triumphalism. That is, if anybody is still reading, at all.

    Meanwhile, on the American right, we do have genuine triumphalists of the most shrill and stubborn type -- mostly moronic neocons -- who share my appreciation for Pax Americana... but for all the wrong reasons, and without even a scintilla of historical wisdom. Indeed, it is as if we are using the same phrase to stanf for entirely different things. If they are still reading, I can only point out that their era of misrule deeply harmed the very thing they claim to love.

    Alas, my aim does not fit into stereotypical agendas of either left or right. Instead, I am simply pointing out the necessary sequence of causation events that had to occur, in order for the International Miracle of export-driven development, of the last sixty years, to have taken place at all. Indeed, it is the fervent, tendentious and determined denial, that American policy played any role at all, that beggars the imagination.

    And so, at risk of belaboring the point, let me reiterate. If the U.S. had done the normal thing, the natural human thing, and imposed mercantilist trade patterns after WWII -- as every single previous "chung kuo" empire ever did before it -- then the U.S. would have no debt today. Our factories would be humming and the country would be swimming in gold...

    ...but the amount of hope and prosperity in the world would be far less, ruined by the same self-centered, short-sighted greed that eventually brought down empires in Babylon, Persia, Rome, China, Britain and so on.


    Also, by this point, every American youth would be serving in armies of occupation, and the entire world would by now be simmering and plotting for the downfall of the Evil Empire. That is the way the old pattern was written. But it is not how this "pax" was run. Instead, the greater part of the world was saved from poverty by the same force that rescued it from the fascistic imperialism and communism.

    Yes, America's era of uplifting the globe by propelling the world's export-driven growth must be over. Having performed this immense task, Americans cannot expect (if Wu Jianmin is any example) any credit or thanks.

    But that is okay. Nobody needs to be angry and we certainly do not have to be thanked. It simply is done. Other dire problems now stand waiting for this much richer world to address them. And meanwhile, the U.S. must rebuild.

    In other words, soon it will be time for someone else to start buying, for a change. The products, the services, and especially the ideas -- of which we will always have plenty.

    New ideas, for a new century, when efficient production and care for the planet will combine with far-sighted mindfulness of generations to come. Ideas that – just like George Marshall’s – the world will need and want.

    And just watch. America will be happy to sell.

    ==========

    David Brin is a scientist, technology speaker, and author. His 1989 ecological thriller, Earth, foreshadowed global warming, cyberwarfare and the world wide web. A 1998 movie, directed by Kevin Costner, was based on The Postman. His fifteen novels, including New York Times Bestsellers and winners of the Hugo and Nebula awards, have been translated into more than twenty languages. David appears frequently on History Channel shows such as The ARCHITECHS, The Universe and Life After People. Brin’s non-fiction book -- The Transparent Society: Will Technology Make Us Choose Between Freedom and Privacy? -- won the Freedom of Speech Award of the American Library Association. come visit http://www.davidbrin.com.

    November 19, 2009

    Deus Sex Machina

    [Linda MacDonald Glenn is guest blogging this month] (cross-posted on the Women's Bioethics Blog)

    (Roughly translated from Latin as Sex God in the machine) We all know that technology can improve our lives (sometimes....well, at least when it's working properly), but who'd have thunk that nanotechnology could improve your sex life?

    In yet one more 'tool' in the arsenal against dreaded erectile dysfunction, nanotechnology to the rescue! Scientists at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University have developed a foam with nanoparticles encapsulating nitric oxide for the topical treatment of erectile dysfunction (ED). Why is topical better? Because ED medications such as sildenafil , vardenafil, and tadalafil have limitations -- they can cause systemic side effects such as headache, facial flushing, nasal congestion, upset stomach, and abnormal vision. Might this have implications for Female Arousal Disorder for which there remains little, if any, treatment? One can only hope....perhaps the announcement of the new 'female viagra' for pre-menopausal women can benefit from this new delivery system.

    On balance, though, Blue Cross Biomedical has developed a new foam condom for use by women, that looks like a vaginal inhaler. The Blue Cross Foam Condom uses a “formulated condom concentrate” comprised of nano silver particles as well as 'surfactant octyl phenoxy -RH4,tween-20, sapn-60,polyethylene glycol 400, deionized water'. Perhaps a male contraceptive can be advanced utilizing a nano-delivery system?

    My humble request to scientists and researchers:
    Equal time for both sexes, please!

    You can check out Linda's original blog at the Women's Bioethics Blogspot.

    John Hodgman pulls off Fermi Paradox schtick


    I totally love geek humor -- and this TED Talk by John Hodgman has plenty of it, including a bit about the Fermi Paradox and the ultimate question, "Where is everybody?"

    IBM's claim to have simulated a cat's brain grossly overstated

    Blue Gene
    This is not a brain.

    I'm a big fan of IBM's Brain and Mind Institute (BMI) and the Blue Brain project. Initiated in May 2005, the Blue Brain project is an attempt to to model the mammalian cerebral cortex with computers. The intention is not to re-create the actual physical structure of the brain, but to simulate it using arrays of supercomputers. Ultimately, the developers are hoping to create biologically realistic models of neurons. In fact, the results of the simulation will be experimentally tested against biological columns.

    But I take exception to the recent claim that IBM has created a simulation that is supposedly on par, in terms of complexity and scale, with an actual cat's brain. The media tends to sensationalize these sorts of achievements, and in this case, grossly overstate (and even misstate) the actual accomplishment.

    Contrary to what some people may believe, IBM has not created a virtual cat. There's no simulated cat somewhere pouncing around simulated fields chasing simulated mice inside a supercomputer. All IBM has done is replicate the power of a cat's cebebral coretex using a bunch of powerful computers. Nothing more -- there's no psychological or AI element involved whatsoever. They're merely creating a physical power structure and computational infrastructure that may someday run a properly engineered mind.

    But credit where credit is due.

    IBM has made incredible progress in the sophistication and detail level of human brain mapping. By reverse engineering the human brain, IBM hopes to bring about the era of "cognitive computing," -- a development that would bring about new ways for building computers which mimic natural brain structures.

    Essentially, IBM is hoping to simulate a neocortical column, which is the smallest functional unit of the neocortex. This is the part of the brain that is responsible for higher functions such as conscious thought. In humans, the neocortical column is 2mm tall, has a diameter of 0.5mm and contains 60,000 neurons. Project developers initially worked to replicate the neocortical column of a rat, which has only 10,000 neurons, and now they've achieved the same thing with the cat brain. Developers hope to model the human brain in about seven to eight years.

    To model these components the developers use a Blue Gene supercomputer that runs the MPI-based 'Neocortical Simulator' combined with 'NEURON' software. Blue Gene is a computer architecture project that has will spawn several next-generation supercomputers -- computers that will reach operating speeds in the petaflops range, and are currently reaching speeds over 280 sustained teraflops. Its 8,000 processors will crunch away at 23 trillion operations per second.

    I don't want to take away from IBM's accomplishment, but it's important to note that we are extremely far off in terms of our ability to emulate the true complexity of a mammalian brain. Creating an array of supercomputers that mimics the brute force of a biological brain and then claiming that it matches the 'complexity' and 'scale' of the real thing is pure hyperbole. True whole brain emulation (PDF) is still a far ways off.

    November 16, 2009

    Call 1-800-New-Organ, by 2020?

    [Linda MacDonald Glenn is guest blogging this month]

    Growing a set of new teeth, or new kidneys, or new eyes, or whatever it is you need, is something we could do as soon as 2020, according to a report that was issued by the Department of Health and Human Services a few years ago. In a follow-up to George's previous post, I'll be following and reporting on issues in regenerative medicine, with a focus on nano-scale materials and technology. The NIH uses the term 'regenerative medicine' interchangeably with 'tissue engineering' and defines it as "a rapidly growing multidisciplinary field involving the life, physical and engineering sciences that seeks to develop functional cell, tissue, and organ substitutes to repair, replace or enhance biological function that has been lost due to congenital abnormalities, injury, disease, or aging.” And researchers are doing amazing things: Gizmodo has posted videos from Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, about how lab grown tissues are benefiting patients now.

    Regenerative nanomedicine will, understandably, likely be embraced for all the promise it holds -- but there have been concerns expressed about the ethical, legal, and social implications, particularity the nano part. Nanotechnology has the potential to have the greatest impact in three areas: energy, medicine, and environmental remediation. Of these three areas, nanotechnology in medicine is the most likely to be accepted by the public, starting with therapeutic treatments and then moving over to enhancements. But it does raise some interesting questions, such as can nanomedicine be considered separate and apart other nanotechnologies? And what does 'nanotechnology' encompass anyway? Pinning down a usable definition of nanotechnology has been harder than anticipated.

    For a quick peek into some of the issues, you can check out the series of YouTube videos my colleague and I did at the Human Enhancement Conference in Kalamazoo earlier this year, which I'm hoping to post on Vimeo shortly. I'm also following Gizmodo's feature This Cyborg Life and am intrigued by the question, what is the enhancement that you would like to have the most? (and keep it decent, folks, comments are moderated here!) For the readers of Sentient Developments, I'll tell you mine, if you tell me yours....

    You can check out Linda's original blog at the Women's Bioethics Blogspot.


    November 15, 2009

    Link dump for 2009.11.15

    From the four corners of the web:

    Linda MacDonald Glenn guest blogging in November and December

    I'm pleased to announce that bioethicist Linda MacDonald Glenn will be guest blogging at Sentient Developments over the next four weeks.

    Linda, who studied biomedical ethics at McGill University in Montreal, is a healthcare ethics educator, attorney-at-law and a consultant. She is an Assistant Professor at the Alden March Bioethics Institute, Albany Medical Center, a Women’s Bioethics Project Scholar, a Fellow at the Institute for Emerging Technologies and a Fellow of the American Bar Foundation. Linda also completed a fellowship at the American Medical Association Institute for Ethics.

    Her research encompasses the legal, ethical, and social impact of emerging technologies, evolving notions of personhood and informed consent in public health research.

    Linda has advised governmental leaders and agencies and she has published numerous articles in professional journals. Some of her better-known articles include "Biotechnology at the Margins of Personhood: An Evolving Legal Paradigm" in the Journal of Ethics and Technology, "Ethical Issues in Transgenics and Genetic Engineering" at Actionbioscience, "Keeping An Open Mind: What Legal Safeguards are needed?” in the American Journal of Bioethics, and "When Pigs Fly? Legal and Ethical Issues in Transgenics and the Creation of Chimeras".

    She also is the Editor-in-Chief of the outstanding and progressive Women's Bioethics Blog.

    With Linda onboard for the next four weeks we can be guaranteed some interesting and provocative content; I'm very much looking forward to Linda's posts.

    November 11, 2009

    Let’s get metaphysical: How our ongoing existence could appear increasingly absurd

    So the Large Hadron Collider has been shut down yet again – this time on account of a bird dropping a piece of a bagel onto some sensitive outdoor machinery. The incident is not expected to keep the LHC out of commission for too much longer, but it represents yet another strange event that has kept the world’s most infamous particle accelerator out of service. In fact, the LHC has yet to function at full operational capacity since its completion over a year ago.

    What makes this all the more interesting is that the Hadron Collider has been dubbed by some observers as a doomsday device on account of its unprecedented size and power. A minority of scientists and philosophers believe that the collider could produce a tiny black hole or a strangelet that would convert Earth to a shrunken mass of strange matter.

    It's worth re-stating, however, that this is a fringe opinion. Several years ago, Max Tegmark and Nick Bostrom wrote a piece for Nature in which they concluded that a civilization destroys itself by a particle accelerator experiment once every billion years.

    Okay, admittedly, one in a billion seems excruciatingly improbable. But not impossible. And it's this 'shadow of doubt' that has got so many people in a tizzy -- especially when considering that this so-called doomsday machine keeps breaking down. Seems awfully convenient, doesn't it? Are we to believe that this is mere co-incidence? Or is there something more to what's going on?

    Now, I'm not talking about conspiracies or sabotage, here. Rather, a number of philosophers are making the case that something more metaphysical is going on.

    Take, for example, the quantum immortality theory, which argues that you as an observer cannot observe your non-existence, so you will keep on observing your ongoing existence -- no matter how absurd. Aside from a large grain of salt, you also have to buy into the Everett Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics for this to work. As the universe splinters into probability trees, there are new trajectories that are forced into existence by your ongoing presence; in an infinite universe all observations must be made, no matter how improbable.

    Now, at any given time we have to assume that we are living in the most probable of all possible habitable worlds. But that doesn't mean it's true -- it's just an assumption given the absence of sampling data. As quantum probability trees diverge, those that tread into more improbable spaces will begin to splinter with less and less frequency and diversity; there will be a limited number of escape routes given absurd and highly complex (but survivable) existence spaces.

    All this can lead to some rather bizarre conclusions -- including the thought experiment in which you attempt to obliterate yourself with an atom bomb, only to have some kind of force majeure get in the way that prevents you from acting on your suicide.

    It's important to remember that this only works for your ongoing existence. The rest of the world can burn around you; what matters is that you continue to observe the universe.

    Okay, back to Hadron. Let's assume for a moment that quantum immortality is in effect and that the LHC is in fact the apocalypt-o-matic. It can therefore be argued that, because we are all collectively put into peril by this thing, we will never get to observe it working properly. There will always be something that prevents the device from doing what it's supposed to be doing -- everything from mechanical failures through to birds dropping bagels on it.

    What's even more disturbing, however, is that these interventions could get increasingly absurd and improbable. It may eventually get to the point where we have to sit back and question the rationality of our existence. The world may get progressively screwed up and surreal in order for our personal existence to continue into the future.

    One could already make the case that our collective existence is already absurd on account of our possession of apocalyptic weapons, namely the nuclear bomb. We've already come alarmingly close to apocalypse, including the Cuban Missile Crisis and the infamous Stanislav Petrov incident. Would it be unfair of me to suggest that we should probably have destroyed ourselves by now? I would argue that the most probable of Everett Many World Earths have destroyed themselves through nuclear armageddon, but we happen to observe a version of Earth that has not.

    This said, our ongoing existence does not seem ridiculously absurd. There are rational and believable reasons that account for our ongoing existence, namely self-preservation and a rigid safety-check system that has prevented a nuclear accident from happening.

    But will the same thing be said a few years from now if the Hadron Collider keeps shutting down? What will happen to our sense of reality if stranger and stranger things start to intervene?

    And what about the more distant future when we have even more apocalyptic devices, including molecular assembling nanotechnology and advanced biotechnologies (not to mention artificial superintelligence)? It's been said that we are unlikely to survive the 21st Century on account of these pending technologies. But given that there are some probability trees that require our ongoing existence, what kind of future modes will that entail? Will it make sense, or will the succession of improbably survivable events result in a completely surreal existence? Or will our ongoing presence seem rational in the face of a radically altered existence mode -- like totalitarian repression or the onset of an all-controlling artificial superintelligence?

    Hopefully I don't need to remind my readers that this is pure philosophical speculation. Metaphysics is often fun (or disturbing as in this case), but it is no substitute for science. I think we should think about these possibilities, but not to the point where it impacts on our daily life and sense of reality.

    But I'm sure we'll all want to keep a close eye on that rather interesting particle accelerator in Switzerland.

    November 5, 2009

    IEET's Biopolitics of Popular Culture Seminar

    The Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies is holding a seminar on the Biopolitics of Popular Culture at Eon Reality in Irvine California on December 4, 2009. This seminar will precede the Humanity+ Summit, December 5-6 at the same venue.

    The IEET has put together an impressive groups of speakers, a list that includes io9's Annalee Newitz, Jamais Cascio, film maker Matthew Patrick, Natasha Vita-More and science fiction writer Richard Kadrey.

    From the IEET website:

    Popular culture is full of tropes and cliches that shape our debates about emerging technologies. Our most transcendent expectations for technology come from pop culture, and the most common objections to emerging technologies come from science fiction and horror, from Frankenstein and Brave New World to Gattaca and the Terminator.

    Why is it that almost every person in fiction who wants to live a longer than normal life is evil or pays some terrible price? What does it say about attitudes towards posthuman possibilities when mutants in Heroes or the X-Men, or cyborgs in Battlestar Galactica or Iron Man, or vampires in True Blood or Twilight are depicted as capable of responsible citizenship?

    Is Hollywood reflecting a transhuman turn in popular culture, helping us imagine a day when magical and muggle can live together in a peaceful Star Trek federation? Will the merging of pop culture, social networking and virtual reality into a heightened augmented reality encourage us all to make our lives a form of participative fiction?

    During this day long seminar we will engage with culture critics, artists, writers, and filmmakers to explore the biopolitics that are implicit in depictions of emerging technology in literature, film and television.
    Other speakers include:
    • PJ Manney
    • Alex Lightman
    • Kristi Scott
    • J. Hughes
    • Mike Treder
    • Michael LaTorra
    • Jess Nevins
    • RJ Eskow
    • Brian Cross
    • Edward Miller
    • Michael Massuci
    • Jeannie Novak
    Learn more and register today.

    Link dump for 2009.11.05

    From the four corners of the web:
    • J.D. Trout - The Science of the Good Society | Point of Inquiry
      J.D. Trout is a professor of philosophy at Loyola University Chicago, and an adjunct professor at the Parmly Sensory Sciences Institute. He writes on the nature of scientific and intellectual progress, as well as on the contribution that social science can make to human well-being. He is the author of Measuring the Intentional World, and co-author of Epistemology and the Psychology of Human Judgment. His most recent book is The Empathy Gap: Building Bridges to the Good Life and the Good Society.
    • Promises, Promises | The Scientist
      Ill-judged predictions and projections can be embarrassing at best and, at worst, damaging to the authority of science and science policy.
    • Data Suggests Amputee Sprinters Not at a Biomechanical Advantage | MedGadget
      Interest has risen significantly in studying the biomechanics of amputee athletes since Oscar Pistorius's historic bid to be a part of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. Oscar Pistorius is a double below the knee amputee who runs with the aid of Cheetah Flex-Foot prosthetic feet.

    November 4, 2009

    Link dump for 2009.11.04

    From the four corners of the web:
    • Toward a meaningful definition of posthuman sentience | Machines Like Us
      As we get closer and closer to developing artificial general intelligence, I feel it is necessary to highlight an important limitation of our anthropocentric perspective. While we sometimes have the capacity to treat other species of life in humane ways, we often stumble when it comes to categorizing non-human intelligence. We cannot help but ascribe anthropomorphic qualities to that which we view to be intelligent, and we are virtually unable to imagine intelligence that lacks such qualities. In the relatively near future, however, we're going to live in a world with intelligent robots, uploaded minds, and other transhumans; it will be necessary to alter our perceptions of what those entities represent.
    • Resilience Fail | Open the Future
      The use of URL-shortening services is a classic example of short-term need trumping long-term resilience.
    • Singularity Summit 2009 Videos Now Available | Accelerating Future
      The videos for Singularity Summit 2009 are now available at Vimeo. The few that are missing are either still awaiting confirmation of permission or the speaker asked for video not to be posted of their talk.
    • How to Stop Being a Workaholic | Zen Habits
      Reader Carolyn recently asked, "How can an achievement-motivated workaholic learn to back off, relax, de-stress, and feel good about doing it? I am too driven!"
    • Keeping the Door interviews Greg Egan about his upcoming book, brain mapping and AI
      Greg Egan is one of Australia's top science fiction authors, with seven novels under his belt and a slew of collections and short stories under his belt. His 1998 novella Oceanic won the 1999 Hugo Award for Best Novella.
    • AI Spacesuits Turn Astronauts Into Cyborg Biologists | Wired Science
      Equipped with wearable AI systems and digital eyes that see what human eyes can't, space explorers of the future could be not just astronauts, but "cyborg astrobiologists."
    • Robot Armada Could Explore Alien Worlds | Astrobiology Magazine
      Some scientists believe that we are on the brink of big changes in planetary exploration. Future robotic explorers might be nothing like what we see today, and the new technologies could have benefits for astrobiologists.
    • $39B needed to cut child pneumonia deaths: UN | CBC News
      It would take $39 billion US to save the lives of 5.3 million children who will otherwise die of pneumonia by 2015, the United Nations said Monday.

    November 2, 2009

    Link dump for 2009.02.02

    From the four corners of the web:
    • The Next Hacking Frontier: Your Brain? | Wired Science
      Hackers who commandeer your computer are bad enough. Now scientists worry that someday, they'll try to take over your brain.
    • What's your place in the brave new future? - Times Online
      Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, it was easy enough to track down Paul Saffo, Silicon Valley's favourite futurologist. He suggested a restaurant in leafy Burlingame, a plush little town south of San Francisco.
    • Coming up next: The super-rich cyborg overclass - Salon.com
      Is the next stage in human evolution a great leap forward for the wealthy? Maybe so, if we don't fix healthcare
    • Possible Link Between Autism And Oxytocin Gene Via Non-DNA Sequence Mutation
      Researchers at Duke University Medical Center have uncovered a new genetic signature that correlates strongly with autism and which doesn't involve changes to the DNA sequence itself. Rather, the changes are in the way the genes are turned on and off. The finding may suggest new approaches to diagnosis and treatment of autism.
    • A Catalogue of Extinct Experience: Renewing Our Disappearing Connections to Nature | Worldchanging
      Our experiences shape our consciousness: who we are, who we become, the choices we make about how we spend our lives. But our range of experiences — from drinking from a clean, clear Sierra stream to beholding a star-filled night sky — is diminishing. With the disappearance of unmediated experiences in nature, the opportunity to know what it means to be human in the world is compromised and our awareness of the fundamental truth of the interdependent and interconnnected nature of our existence becomes more and more attenuated. This obscured perception has personal, social and global consequences.
    • Gwynne Dyer's Climate Wars: Now a Radio Series
      The security dimensions of climate change provide the backdrop for Dyer's Climate Wars, an unflinching look at potential geopolitical consequences of rising seas and falling water and food supplies. The core text is interspersed with scenarios from the future about tensions evolving into conflicts. Reads near-apocalyptically in places, but gets realpolitik-oriented readers to take the climate issue seriously.
    • Do fish feel pain? | Slate Magazine
      Here we go again. There is a new study out that contends fish feel pain.
    • 7 Secrets to Raising a Happy Child | Zen Habits
      Nature and nurture are in a never ending battle to claim the disposition of our children. While it's true that the apple rarely tumbles too far from the tree, it is also true that there are a multitude of things we as parents can do to safeguard the childhoods of our children, limit their exposure to the more damaging elements the world will see fit to introduce in time, and do our best to raise a healthy and happy child.
    • The search for ET just got easier
      Astronomers using the Science and Technology Facilities Council's (STFC) William Herschel Telescope (WHT) on La Palma have confirmed an effective way to search the atmospheres of planets for signs of life, vastly improving our chances of finding alien life outside our solar system.
    • The Technium: Infinite In Some Directions
      Where are we headed? Where does technology want to go? We frequently evaluate a questionable practice by extrapolating it into the future. If a phenomenon continues as it has been, then where does it lead? Where does the daily use of antibiotics on farms get you in 100 years? Where does hourly use of cell phones for everyone get a society in 500 years? If the technium continues another thousand years as is, is it a world we want or not? Indeed can it even continue another 1000 years as is?
    • Want to Avoid Traffic Jams? Study Ants.
      Solving the nation's transportation woes will take some big ideas, but it doesn't hurt to think "small" in this case. GOOD magazine picked the brain of Audrey Dussutour, whose countless hours of ant-studying (and even sabotaging) taught her that the tiny travelers are ├╝ber-skilled when it comes to avoiding traffic jams.
    • Andart: Is the biosphere unsustainable?
      Peter Ward's The Medea Hypotehsis is interesting, disturbing and a bit annoying. Most of all, it is an antidote to naive Gaianism. Ward argues that the Earth's biosphere is not a self-regulating, self-improving or self-preserving Gaia but something more sinister: a system prone to crashes, declines and a lifespan shortened by its own activity.
    • The unromantic truth about why we kiss - to spread germs | Mail Online
      It is an international symbol of love and romance. But the kiss may have evolved for reasons that are far more practical - and less alluring. British scientists believe it developed to spread germs. Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-1224249/The-unromantic-truth-kiss--spread-germs.
    • NASA to Start Irradiating Monkeys | Discovery News
      NASA is stepping up its space radiation studies with a round of experiments that for the first time in decades will use monkeys as subjects.

    November 1, 2009

    NASA Shuttle-derived Sidemount Heavy Launch Vehicle Concept


    This video depicting NASA's Shuttle-derived Sidemount Heavy Launch Vehicle concept was shown at the 17 June 2009 meeting of the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee in Washington DC by NASA Space Shuttle Program.

    Dog gets osseointegrated prosthetic


    Osseointegrated prosthetics, artificial limbs that fuse to the bone, have been touted as the future of prosthetics -- and rightly so. There are a number of possible benefits, both for humans and animals, including prosthetic limbs that attach without chafing or irritation and limbs with more natural ranges of motion.

    Pictured is a male German Shepherd mix named Cassidy -- the first canine to receive the pioneering surgery. Cassidy was born with a defect in his left hind leg. Much of this work is being performed by the Carolina State University's School of Veterinary Medicine.

    Mass produced artificial skin to replace animal testing

    Doctors have been using synthetic skin for grafts and repairs for years now, but the process to create synthetic skin is expensive and time-consuming.

    Now, a team from Germany's Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft science institute have created a way to mass-produce artificial skin (complete with blood vessels) that can be used for grafts, plastic surgery, or even cosmetics testing.

    Indeed, in addition to providing new skin to burn victims, these swatches of artificial skin can take the place of animals in medical and cosmetic testing. And since the swatches can be made to contain blood vessels as well as skin cells, scientists can run circulatory as well as skin-related experiments on them.

    The system is fully automated, with computers controlling the solution that the skin grows in, monitoring the vats for infection, guiding the blade that cuts the swatches, and even testing the quality of the final product.

    The basic skin production system, which may be available as early as next year, can produce 5,000 swatches of human skin a month, for a total of over 600 square inches of mass-produced tissue. Each 0.12-square-inch section of skin would cost around US$49 to produce -- considerably less than the current cost.

    Elephant prosthetic

    Elephant Prosthetic


    Several years ago, Motala, a 48-year old former working elephant from Thailand (she moved trees for a living), wandered into the forest to look for food and accidently stepped on a land mine left over from the Burmese-Thai War. The blast destroyed her left front leg and had to be amputated below the knee. In 2006, Motala got a temporary prothesis to help her learn to walk on what would be a more permanent artificial leg.

    This past summer she was finally fitted for that leg in Thailand. It's a state-of-the-art upgrade to the artificial leg she's had for the last three years.

    Accordingly to early reports Motala is taking to it quite well.

    Grieving chimps

    Grieving chimps

    This image was shot for National Geographic by Monica Szczupider and shows chimpanzees at the Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center in Cameroon. The chimps are observing the body of an elder troop member named Dorothy just prior to burial. She died at 40 years of age, which is quite old for chimpanzees. The photo appears in the November issue of National Geographic Magazine in the "Visions of Earth" section.

    [via BoingBoing]