December 22, 2010

Robots and cyborgs

Those of you who like robots will love this site: Concept Robots. And for those of you with a female cyborg fetish, check out this gallery.

Fertility clinics to be regulated by Canadian provinces

Important changes made today to Canadian biolegislation: It will now be up to individual provinces to draw up a new legislative scheme to regulate fertility treatments and embryonic research after the supreme court declared it a provincial, not a federal, responsibility. It will now be up to provinces to control the licensing of doctors and clinics and to regulate how they deal with donors and would-be parents, or with eggs, sperms or embryos for research purposes, including developing new genetic therapies for disease.

This is good news and will prove to be beneficial for fertility clinics and research specialists. Individual provinces will be able to focus on and promote more focused and specific lines of research. It will also reduce the need for Canadians to go about the "medical tourist" route.

That said, certain federal criminal bans still stand: It is still illegal to pay for surrogacy, and the federal government may limit reimbursements to donors and surrogates for expenses only, although the federal government has never defined an allowable expense. Ottawa may still legislate mandatory written consent of donors; a ban on extracting eggs or sperm from persons under 18 except to preserve their fertility; and a prohibition on human-animal hybrids.

Still, it's progress.

Nike Footstickers

I think I'll stick to my Vibram Five Fingers, but these Nike Footstickers look really cool:

Bespoke Innovations custom prosthetic legs

Via Wired.

December 21, 2010

Ngram: Apocalypse Vs. Utopia

(click for larger)

And they're neck and neck down the stretch! But Utopia seems to be fading!!
Who's it gonna be?

Cut the carbs

Thanks to outdated science and a frustrating insistence by health groups and the food industry to not adapt, it's still a commonly held conviction that fat is evil. Increasingly, however, a growing number of top nutritional scientists blame excessive carbohydrates—not fat—for our dietary ills. They say cutting carbohydrates is the key to reversing obesity, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and hypertension.

"Fat is not the problem," says Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health. "If Americans could eliminate sugary beverages, potatoes, white bread, pasta, white rice and sugary snacks, we would wipe out almost all the problems we have with weight and diabetes and other metabolic diseases."

Read more from the LA Times article, A reversal on carbs.

December 19, 2010

NIC: Making policy in the shadow of the future

Back in 2008, the National Intelligence Council (NIC) put out a report titled "Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World" where it made projections about what the world will look like in 2025 based on recent trends. Now, the NIC has followed-up by describing what the United States needs to do about it:
How should U.S. policy adapt now to account for these trends and the future that will result from them? This paper takes on that task. It focuses on important issues for which a long-term perspective leads to different immediate choices for U.S. policy than would result from only a short-term perspective. These include energy and climate change; defense policy, including the diffusion of nuclear weapons and the movement to abolish them; the reshaping of international law and institutions; the structure of the federal government; and the U.S. relationship with Mexico. For some other issues, long- and short-term thinking produce similar conclusions; yet for still others, the two perspectives seem difficult to reconcile.

Chimp abstract painter

Stuxnet: A serious global problem

Writing for both RAND and The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Isaac Porche is raising the alarm on Stuxnet, claiming that it is now a global concern. He argues that the cyberworm may foreshadow the evolution of "bad seed cybercousins" that could threaten banking, commerce, and national defense and that it could breach boundaries between public and private sectors--a path US defenders cannot easily follow. The time is now, says Porche, for serious discussions on whether information laws should be reformed for the sake of national security:
The highly sophisticated Stuxnet computer worm suspected of sending Iran's nuclear centrifuges into self-destruction mode forces a difficult debate on whether longstanding firewalls in our country's democracy should be breached for the sake of national security.

Stuxnet is a malicious, complicated program, which has been detected on computers in Iran, India, Indonesia, and other countries. It allows an outside force to take control of a certain industrial computer system made by Siemens and "sabotages normal operations by speeding up industrial control processes," according to Eric Chien, a researcher at the Symantec computer security company. Stuxnet's embrace and destruction of computer codes can suddenly cause centrifuges to blow apart. That effect, as recently detected on computers in Iran's Natanz nuclear facility and Bushehr nuclear power plant, has terrifying implications for any country, including the US, whose gas pipelines, chemical plants, and nuclear centrifuges, among other important computerized platforms, depend on similar equipment.

Though Stuxnet may have been targeted to disrupt Iran's nuclear program, the fact that worms like Stuxnet now exist raises the specter of still other worms that could evolve and interfere with electrical grids, causing loss of power to millions; or interrupt transmissions from the Global Positioning System (GPS), affecting motorists, emergency responders, and the military's guidance of precision weapons; or foil electronic fund transfers, causing a banking meltdown.

Peter Singer on WikiLeaks

Princeton ethicist Peter Singer has chimed in on the WikiLeaks affair, noting that if citizens are kept in the dark about their government's activities, they cannot hold it to account. Ultimately, he hopes that the WikiLeaks cables move us closer to open diplomacy:
Some of the leaked cables are just opinion, and not much more than gossip about national leaders. But, because of the leak, we know, for example, that when the British government set up its supposedly open inquiry into the causes of the Iraq war, it also promised the US government that it would "put measures in place to protect your interests". The British government appears to have been deceiving the public and its own parliament.

Similarly, the cables reveal that President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen lied to his people and parliament about the source of US airstrikes against al-Qaida in Yemen, telling them that Yemen's military was the source of the bombs.

We have also learned more about the level of corruption in some of the regimes that the US supports, like those in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and in other countries with which the US has friendly relations, notably Russia. We now know that the Saudi royal family has been urging the US to undertake a military attack on Iran to prevent it from becoming capable of producing nuclear weapons. Here, perhaps, we learned something for which the US government deserves credit: it has resisted that suggestion.

Knowledge is generally considered a good thing; so, presumably, knowing more about how the US thinks and operates around the world is also good. In a democracy, citizens pass judgment on their government, and if they are kept in the dark about what their government is doing, they cannot be in a position to make well-grounded decisions. Even in non-democratic countries, people have a legitimate interest in knowing about actions taken by the government.

Attached at the head, conjoined twins share brain

A must-watch: Conjoined twins: A Medical Wonder.

Actually, it would be more accurate of me to say that it's not a "shared" brain, but two brains that are conncected via a bridge of tissue between their thalami. Proof of concept regarding the potential for brain-to-brain interfacing? Thinking yes...

Not so superficial: Rethinking cosmetic enhancements

Are you superficial for wanting to look
like this? (Alessandra Ambrosio)
A few weeks ago at the Center for Inquiry's Transforming Humanity Conference, bioethicist Patrick Hopkins warned about the potential for cosmetic enhancements to take precedence over more meaningful morphological and cognitive modifications. Referring to this kind of human form as the "barbie body," Hopkins dismissed cosmetic enhancements as being merely surface level and superficial. These sorts of enhancements, argued Hopkins, were more about attaining a sexual ideal than escaping limitations of the human body. For those individuals overly concerned with aesthetic enhancements, said Hopkins, they have interpreted their bodies as objects that can be whipped into shape to conform to the mind's ideal so that they can feel a certain way about themselves. Hopkins called this a "shallow" human approach.

I took Hopkins to task on this position during the Q&A portion of his session. Specifically, I argued that cosmetic and aesthetic enhancements are no more or less legitimate than another sorts of modifications, including cognitive enhancements.

First, superficiality is in the eye of the beholder. As an example, our society fetishizes intelligence, which in turn legitimizes the collective desire for smarter people. While I realize that this sentiment is not universally shared, particularly the part about actually going about cognitive enhancements, we tend to celebrate those among us who have higher than average intelligence—and not necessarily for all the right reasons. The one-upmanship of intelligence and academic success can be just as superficial or pernicious as any beauty contest; the vanity of "I'm smarter than you" is no different than "I'm prettier than you."

Or this? (Ryan Reynolds)
Moreover, our society has, particularly over the past century, de-legitimized the concept of human beauty. We are told that looks don't matter–that what counts is on the inside. While we still celebrate beauty in the form of celebrity-worship, we are constantly reminded that at our own level beauty is only skin deep and that the overt quest to be more beautiful is misguided and shallow—hence the stigma against everything from fitness competitors through to plastic surgery.

There was once a time when beauty was celebrated for beauty's sake. Dostoyevsky noted that "Beauty will save the world." While he was likely referring to works of art and other achievements of humanity, this sentiment can be applied to any effort in which a person seeks to create aesthetic or functional beauty—including the desire to improve, if not perfect, one's outward physical appearance. In the same way that we appreciate a pretty melody, we also appreciate a pretty face; these are, at the root, psychological experiences that we value—subjective experiences that we actively work to refine and bring about.

Today, only a very few of us openly advocate for more physical beauty in the world—and often at considerable risk. Back in 2003, James Watson, the co-discoverer of DNA, caused an academic stir when he suggested that genetic engineering should be used to make all women beautiful. "People say it would be terrible if we made all girls pretty," he said, "I think it would be great." Watson is not alone, of course, as other thinkers, including futurist Natasha Vita-More, have suggested that we use our biotechnologies to reshape our bodies, including for the purposes of cosmetic enhancement.

Secondly, in addition to the more philosophical or aesthetic arguments in favour of legitimizing cosmetic enhancement, a strong case can be made that it also serves as a functional enhancement as well. Drawing from posthuman theory—the idea that the line separating the body from its environment is becoming increasingly blurred—it is clear that our outward appearance has a profound impact on our daily lives, including our ability to succeed and thrive in certain contexts.

Beauty, like intelligence, confers certain advantages in competitive spaces. Quite obviously, attractive people will be more successful in attracting other beautiful people. That's just the way it is. And if this is the extent to why a person desires to be more attractive, than so be it.

But beauty extends much further than mate selection. Certain jobs, for example, require specific physical attributes. Some employers are looking for smart people, others attractive people. For those who desire jobs in which their physical appearance is of the utmost importance, they should be allowed access to those tools that will help them achieve their goals—whether they be seeking a job as a model or as a salesperson.

Further, beauty has a deeper impact than just helping a person feel better about themselves or in getting a job. Attractive people have a profound impact on the psychologies of those around them. Recent studies have shown, for example, that the presence of pretty women cause men to make riskier decisions. If this isn't an advantage, I don't know what is; this 'power over people' is in no way qualitatively different than any other kind of cognitive or morphological attribute, and should thus be considered en par with any other kind of human capacity in terms of its ability to be augmented.

Lastly, a world in which everyone is "beautiful" could be a potentially wonderful thing (I use scare quotes because there could never really be such a thing given the subjective and cultural nature of physical beauty). I still believe there would be considerable variation in human appearance, but it would give everyone the opportunity to operate on a more level playing field. Ubiquitous access to safe and effective cosmetic enhancements would essentially eliminate the beauty gap—a gap that is currently created by the arbitrariness of the genetic lottery.  People who are "naturally" beautiful are in no way entitled to a monopoly.

And no matter how hard we try at convincing unattractive people that their looks don't matter, the brutal truth is that most of these people feel inadequate or unfulfilled in certain ways. This is potentially yet another way for us to eliminate individual suffering—the elimination of the unactualized physical self.

Consequently, in a world where everyone is beautiful, we will simultaneously be able to enjoy it and move past it so that we can get on with some of the more important and meaningful aspects of life and existence.

December 18, 2010

Globe and Mail on 'The utopian dream of total openness'

Neat article by Doug Saunders in The Globe and Mail: "Just watch us: The utopian dream of total openness." In discussing the trend towards broader transparency, Saunders draws some interesting parallels between 19th century Benthanmites and 21st century WikiLeakians. The comparisons are quite startling and revealing.

It's interesting to note that parliamentary debates were held in complete privacy 200 years ago. It was believed that public access to debates would damage national security. The Benthamites wanted it open, however, and their agenda was pushed by free-information radicals such as London mayor Brass Crosby, who helped publishers use illegal mass document leaks (in the form of then-illegal transcripts) to force parliamentary debates into the public. Their language, notes Saunders, is almost identical to words recently uttered by defenders of WikiLeaks and the Cablegate affair.

I find this fascinating; on the other side of the debate, today's governments are essentially arguing along the same lines as their 19th century forebears, that it's in the public's best interest to not know all the wheelings and dealings that go on behind closed doors. While a part of me realizes that classified documents need to remain classified for a reason—namely to prevent overt security risks—another part of me welcomes the peeling back of yet another privacy layer that enables the citizenry to keep a watchful eye on the government they elected to ensure that it remains accountable to them. The 'national security' excuse for confidentiality is likely a cop-out in 99% of the cases; it's a convenient way for governments to hide their activities from a questioning public and press.

Saunders also provides interesting commentary on changing perceptions of privacy and how Facebook and WikiLeaks are part of a broader trend. Both WikiLeaks and Facebook, argues Saunders, recognize that the individual leaks or postings aren't important—it doesn't matter whether profound secrets or ordinary banalities are revealed. "Rather," he writes, "it's the change in human behaviour produced by the possibility of exposure."

Saunders elaborates:
Bentham didn't just want privacy to break down between government and its citizens (or prisoners). He believed that ending privacy would actually make guards, police and many government agencies unnecessary, because citizens would do the observing.

“The doors of all public establishments ought to be thrown wide open to the body of the curious at large – the great open committee of the tribunal of the world,” he wrote, noting that the breakdown of privacy would create not only moral behaviour among those observed, but entertainment for those doing the watching: “The scene [in a prison],” he wrote, “though a confined, would be a very various, and therefore, perhaps, not altogether an unamusing one.”

We are now living in the world Jeremy Bentham dreamed about. It's not just that our technologies, from GPS-equipped cellphones to social-media accounts to ubiquitous CCTV cameras to full-body scanners, give us the ability to see almost anything about anyone. A great many of us, maybe a majority, have come to believe that privacy is not so much a right or a luxury but a bad idea, a social evil.

But it is not as if open windows benefit only public employees – or, conversely, that government workers should be the only ones to endure the constant probability of surveillance.

If that weren't clear enough, another huge story of 2010 made it so. The mass rape of children by Roman Catholic priests, formerly thought to be a constellation of tragic instances in a handful of countries, crystallized this year into a terrible whole, encompassing hundreds of priests in scores of countries and overlooked by a tolerant Vatican.

What brought these crimes to widespread attention was a new-found belief in exposing private traumas to the wider world, in invading the privacy of a formerly holy occupation – in short, in thousands of people engaging in a new set of behaviours of which Facebook and WikiLeaks form only a small part.

Will this new transparency actually provoke us all to be better citizens? We know that Bentham's prisons didn't change behaviours. One of the largest-scale uses of Panopticon prisons was by Fidel Castro to imprison thousands of democrats after he seized power in 1959; there's no indication they changed their behaviour.

Have the Cablegate leaks changed government behaviour? It's too early to tell, though we do know that Parliament was unquestionably improved by Brass Crosby driving it into the public eye, and that the end of the Vietnam War was provoked by the very Cablegate-like Pentagon Papers. Constantly watched governments do seem to behave better.

What about the private sphere? Have the revelations of rape changed the behaviour of priests? We may not know for a generation. But we do know that the news of these abuses, spread across a million social-media outlets, has caused a great many people to abandon the church, which may be a larger good. They have found a new god, after all. And it is them.
Entire article.

December 16, 2010

New advice for nuclear strike

The Obama administration is now suggesting that in the event of a nuclear attack it is better to take shelter than to flee. Get inside any stable building and don't come out until officials say it's safe. From the NYT:
A nuclear blast produces a blinding flash, burning heat and crushing wind. The fireball and mushroom cloud carry radioactive particles upward, and the wind sends them near and far.

The government initially knew little about radioactive fallout. But in the 1950s, as the cold war intensified, scientists monitoring test explosions learned that the tiny particles throbbed with fission products — fragments of split atoms, many highly radioactive and potentially lethal.

But after a burst of interest in fallout shelters, the public and even the government grew increasingly skeptical about civil defense as nuclear arsenals grew to hold thousands of warheads

The Department of Homeland Security financed a multiagency modeling effort led by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. The scientists looked at Washington, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and other big cities, using computers to simulate details of the urban landscape and terrorist bombs.

The results were revealing. For instance, the scientists found that a bomb’s flash would blind many drivers, causing accidents and complicating evacuation.

The big surprise was how taking shelter for as little as several hours made a huge difference in survival rates.

“This has been a game changer,” Brooke Buddemeier, a Livermore health physicist, told a Los Angeles conference. He showed a slide labeled “How Many Lives Can Sheltering Save?”

If people in Los Angeles a mile or more from ground zero of an attack took no shelter, Mr. Buddemeier said, there would be 285,000 casualties from fallout in that region.

Taking shelter in a place with minimal protection, like a car, would cut that figure to 125,000 deaths or injuries, he said. A shallow basement would further reduce it to 45,000 casualties. And the core of a big office building or an underground garage would provide the best shelter of all.
Wow, I'm glad this bit of advice is considered a "game changer." I'm sure you feel much better now knowing this.

December 14, 2010

Cognitive enhancers increasingly being used by athletes

The Practical Ethics blog alerted me to this NY Daily News article: Baseball turns its attention to Adderall as analysis shows more players gaining exemptions for ADD:
Thirteen players tested positive for the amphetamine-based drug Adderall in the past season, and 105 were granted exemptions for attention deficit disorder, for which Adderall is frequently prescribed. The exemptions excuse players in advance for banned substances they take on doctor's orders.

The numbers, published in the third annual report of the league's drug program administrator, roughly mirrored those of the previous two seasons. There were 106 ADD exemptions in 2008, and 108 in 2009. That represents about 10% of MLB players, suggesting that the big leagues either have a disproportionately high number of distractible players, or that taking amphetamine-based drugs remains a popular method of staying alert during a long and grueling season.
It's very likely, of course, that baseball players are exploting a loophole so that they can use Adderall for its stimulant properties. This kind of off-label use is exploding in the general population, so it should come as no surprise that athletes are also tuning in.

So, is it cheating? What about caffeine, which is another stimulant? And what about students who are using Adderall in droves? Are they cheating, too? If it's being used in general everyday life, why can't it be used in sports? Are we creating an artificial dichotomy between real life and the theater of sports?

On this topic, I highly recommend this Nature piece from 2008: Towards responsible use of cognitive-enhancing drugs by the healthy.

Andy Clark asks: "Where is my mind?"

“Brain Cloud (2010)” on display at the Metropolitan Museum
of Art in New York as part of a show by John Baldessa
Andy Clark, professor of logic and metaphysics in the School of Philosophy, Psychology, and Language Sciences at Edinburgh University, Scotland, argues that we're entering an age in which cognitive prosthetics are displaying a kind of Cambrian explosion of new and potent forms. As the forms proliferate and become entrenched, he argues, we might do well to pause and reflect on their nature and status. At the very least, says Clark, minds like ours are the products not of neural processing alone but of the complex and iterated interplay between brains, bodies, and the many designer environments in which we increasingly live and work.

Check out Clark's recent NYT OpEd: Out of Our Brains:
This kind of idea is currently being explored by a wave of scientists and philosophers working in the areas known as “embodied cognition” and “the extended mind.” Uniting these fields is the thought that evolution and learning don’t give a jot what resources are used to solve a problem. There is no more reason, from the perspective of evolution or learning, to favor the use of a brain-only cognitive strategy than there is to favor the use of canny (but messy, complex, hard-to-understand) combinations of brain, body and world. Brains play a major role, of course. They are the locus of great plasticity and processing power, and will be the key to almost any form of cognitive success. But spare a thought for the many resources whose task-related bursts of activity take place elsewhere, not just in the physical motions of our hands and arms while reasoning, or in the muscles of the dancer or the sports star, but even outside the biological body — in the iPhones, BlackBerrys, laptops and organizers which transform and extend the reach of bare biological processing in so many ways. These blobs of less-celebrated activity may sometimes be best seen, myself and others have argued, as bio-external elements in an extended cognitive process: one that now criss-crosses the conventional boundaries of skin and skull.
 Many people I speak to are perfectly happy with the idea that an implanted piece of non-biological equipment, interfaced to the brain by some kind of directly wired connection, would count (assuming all went well) as providing material support for some of their own cognitive processing. Just as we embrace cochlear implants as genuine but non-biological elements in a sensory circuit, so we might embrace “silicon neurons” performing complex operations as elements in some future form of cognitive repair. But when the emphasis shifts from repair to extension, and from implants with wired interfacing to “explants” with wire-free communication, intuitions sometimes shift. That shift, I want to argue, is unjustified. If we can repair a cognitive function by the use of non-biological circuitry, then we can extend and alter cognitive functions that way too. And if a wired interface is acceptable, then, at least in principle, a wire-free interface (such as links your brain to your notepad, BlackBerry or iPhone) must be acceptable too. What counts is the flow and alteration of information, not the medium through which it moves.
Read more.

December 13, 2010

How to engineer a zombie virus

Much to my surprise I've become a bit of a zombie junkie. I'm a big fan of the Walking Dead television show and zombie films in general (I could watch Shaun of the Dead endlessly). I've been intrigued and spooked by the genre's post-apocalypic visions of a humanity overrun by a mysterious virus that brings the dead back to life—only to stalk the living.

While it doesn't necessarily speak to the kind of speculative fiction that I normally enjoy, it does offer some food for thought as far a the science is concerned. And it got me thinking: Could such a thing ever happen? Moreover, given the potential power of future technologies, could a 'zombie virus' be deliberately engineered? The more I thought about this, the more I became convinced that such a thing might actually be possible.

Solanum virus

According to zombie canon, it's a virus called Solanum that is responsible for converting the living to the undead. According to the Zombie Survival Guide, the virus works by traveling through the bloodstream from the original point of entry to the brain where it uses the cells of the frontal lobe for replication, destroying them in the process. During this period, all bodily functions cease and the infected subject is eventually pronounced "dead." The brain remains alive but dormant while the virus mutates its cells into a completely new organ.

Once the mutation is complete, this new organ reanimates the body—but typically to a form that bears little resemblance to the original corpse. Some bodily functions remain constant, others operate in a modified capacity, and the remainder shut down completely.

The result of the transformation is a zombie, a member of the living dead.

But it doesn't stop there. The reanimated corpse develops an insatiable appetite for human flesh, the brain in particular. It is through the relentless stalking and attacking of the living that zombies attempt to satiate their appetites, while spreading the virus to their surviving attack victims.

Solanum is 100% communicable and 100% fatal. While the virus is neither waterborne nor airborne, infection  can only occur through direct fluidic contact. A zombie bite is the most common vector for transferring the virus, but it's not the only one. Humans can be infected by brushing their open wounds against those of a zombie or being splattered by its remains after an explosion.

As for the zombies, there is no cure. Nor can their relentless thirst for the living be quenched. They are single-purpose automatons, stalking the living until their bodies have completely rotted away, or their brains destroyed.

The zombies among us

This might all sound rather fantastical, the stuff of cheesy horror flicks, but the concept is not as outlandish as it might appear. Natural selection has, quite disturbingly, produced a number of viruses that, for all intents and purposes, turn their hosts into virtual zombies.

Take mind controlling parasites, for example. These are viruses and simple organisms that have evolved such that they can alter the behavior of their hosts. Essentially, they cognitively re-engineer their victims, turning them into their transmission vectors. It is not uncommon for organisms to leech off several different species in this way as part of their reproductive cycle.

For example, there is Plasmodium gallinaceum, more commonly known as malaria. It's been known for some time that this protozoan uses mosquitoes as its vector. What has not been known until recently, however, is how malaria alters the blood sucking behavior of mosquitoes. Malaria has had a significant impact on the evolution of mosquitoes and their behavior, much like flowers, have contributed to the evolution of its pollinators, namely bees and other flying insects. Specifically, a mosquito will continue to search for victims until it reaches a threshold volume of blood. When it hits this threshold point, it stops host-seeking. It is thought that the stage-specific effect of the malaria parasite on host-seeking behavior is likely to be an active manipulation to increase its transmission success.

Toxoplasma gondii
Then there's Dicrocoelium dendriticum. It's a virus that primarily infects sheep—but it has a rather convoluted way of going about its reproductive business. First, adult worms lay eggs in the bile ducts of the sheep and are excreted. These eggs are in turn ingested by various species of land snails and the eggs hatch in their digestive tracts. This hatching releases a compound that continues to change until it is released by the snail in the form of a slimeball. This slimeball is then eaten by ants. This eventually develops into metacercariae within the abdominal cavity of the ants. And here's where it gets interesting (not that it hasn't been a riveting tale to this point): the ant's behavior is in turn altered such that it is compelled to climb to the very top of a blade of grass where it waits to get eaten by sheep. The sheep eats the grass with the ant on it and subsequently becomes infected. The cycle is complete.

Hairworms, which live inside grasshoppers, eventually need to leave their hosts to continue their life cycle. Rather than leave peacefully, however, they release a cocktail of chemicals that makes the grasshoppers commit suicide by leaping into water. The hairworms then swim away from their drowning hosts. Nice, eh?

Think humans are immune to mind controlling parasites? Think again. It is suspected that Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite that is often contracted by humans from their cats, affects human psychology. Normally the parasite works to manipulate rodents, but some scientists speculate that human cognition can also be altered. It is thought that that those who are infected show a small tendency to be more self-reproaching and insecure. Less controversial are studies that have shown links between Toxoplasma and schizophrenia.

And of course, there's rabies—a disease with frightening parallels to Solanum. Rabies is a viral disease that infects the central nervous system, causing acute encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) in warm-blooded animals. It is most commonly transmitted by a bite from an infected animal, but occasionally by other forms of contact. As the disease progresses, symptoms include insomnia, anxiety, confusion, slight or partial paralysis, excitation, hallucinations, agitation, hypersalivation (increase in saliva), difficulty swallowing, and hydrophobia (fear of water). Death usually occurs within days of the onset of these symptoms. But it is during the phase of agitation and excitation that those infected with rabies will attack anything and anyone, spreading the disease even further.

Given that rabies kills around 55,000 people a year, mostly in Asia and Africa, it can be said that we are already in the midst of a zombie outbreak.

Creating a zombie virus

So, nature has come pretty darned close to creating a Solanum virus of its own. Which leads to the question: Could we actually take the extra step of creating something that very closely approximates a zombie disease?

The answer is yes—and given recent advances in biotechnology and artificial life, such a disease could be right around the corner should someone want to create such a thing. Moreover, given future insights into the neurosciences and the inner workings of the brain, a potential zombie virus could be scripted in very specific and nefarious ways.

Thanks to natural selection we don't even have to start from scratch. We already possess the foundation for creating a mind-controlling parasite: rabies. In Venteresque fashion, we could make a genetic tweak here, a genetic tweak there, and create a virus that could be much more devastating than what nature created. It would for all intents-and-purposes be Rabies 2.0.

It could be made more contagious and induce a quicker onset of symptoms. The virus could also be engineered such that it would result in more specific host-behavior; the virus could re-work the areas responsible for volition (i.e. free will and action taking) and decision making, while simultaneously re-wiring the reward and moral centers of the brain. The sight of another human, for example, could create a sense of extreme hunger, and consequently trigger an atavistic predatorial instinct. The feelings might even be accentuated by co-opting sexual desire.

Frighteningly, it could also be transformed into an air-borne virus, significantly increasingly the likelihood of person-to-person transmission.

Should we want to get more literal than just a rage inducing virus—something that more closely resembles Solanum—our malicious bio-engineer would require some nanotechnology. Specifically, nanobots, working in tandem with the brain bugs already described, could reanimate a corpse and work to maintain essential bodily functions even though the brain is essentially dead. It's even possible that advances in regenerative medicine could allow for neurogenesis in which dead neurons are re-generated; stem cells never sounded so evil.

But would it be apocalyptic?

Okay, so it might be possible to create a zombie virus. But would such a thing have the same effect as it does in the movies? Would this be an apocalypse inducing pandemic?

I believe the answer is no.

As rabies has shown, animal-to-animal transmission is quite containable. The spread of rabies, while persistent and pernicious, is easily identifiable and slow. Consequently, it has been all but eliminated in North America. And even if it somehow became airborne, it's an open question as to how quickly it would spread. We might very well be able to contain it.

No virus is perfect. Even the Black Plague couldn't wipe out the mass of humanity (it killed 30-60% of Europe's population). And sometimes viruses are too vicious for their own good. Take Ebola, arguably the nastiest of the viruses, which tends to be too efficient at killing its host.

But I'm just speculating. I really don't know. Given the unique nature of zombies, such an outbreak could be a potential game changer. Let's hope we never have to find out.

Top 10 Sentient Developments articles of 2010

My most popular articles for 2010:
  1. It's not all about Ray: There's more to Singularity studies than Kurzweil
  2. Five reasons why Stephen Hawking—and everyone else—is wrong about alien threats
  3. Sam Vaknin: The Ten Errors of Science Fiction
  4. The 'Create the Future' myth
  5. Making brains: Reverse engineering the human brain to achieve AI
  6. Novae produce gamma-rays. Damn.
  7. It's a control thing: Religion and human reproduction
  8. IOC wants to 'treat' intersex athletes
  9. Turchin: SETI at risk of downloading a trojan horse
  10. The Brain Preservation Foundation: Better preservation through plastination

December 10, 2010

WikiLeaks futureshock as radical presentism

I've been thinking a lot lately about Cory Doctorow's radical presentism, the notion that science fiction is essentially an extrapolation and commentary on present conditions. It's consequently a way for us to reflect on contemporary life and how, in very profound and disruptive ways, we already dwell in a kind of 'future world.'

Certainly, the present moment is yesterday's future. And what Doctorow suggests is that it should often be interpreted, analyzed and celebrated through that lens. If we never stop and think about the present moment as a kind of 'future attained', then we will forever be looking forward to something out of our grasp, as something perpetually elusive. The future is, by definition, a time that we can never reach. Thus, it would be prudent of us to frequently take pause and reflect on the present. This will not only enhance our appreciation of our society and how we're adapting to technological and sociological change, but it will also inform our predicative abilities.

Indeed, radical presentism can also indicate the ways in which we are having difficulty adapting to changing conditions. As Charlie Stross recently observed, we are right smack dab in the middle of a Tofflerian futureshock. We need to be aware of this to understand why we feel so unsettled and why we don't seem to have a firm grasp or acceptance of new social norms. Doing so will also help us to avoid knee-jerk reactionary behavior and contrarianism.

Take the recent WikiLeaks controversy. Now that's futureshock. The whistle-blowing site is freaking people out on account of its ability to make sensitive information highly accessible (a progression for freedom of speech), the way in which it represents the next stage of (unfiltered) information gathering and reporting (a progression for freedom of the press), its function as a governmental watch-dog (a progression for democratic accounability), and how it's proving impossible to shut-down (unprecedented informational resilience due to novel technologies, in this case the highly distributed and redundant nature of the internet). Not to mention the fact that it's a bold step in the direction of the transparent society. Participatory panopticon, anyone? Sousveillance. Pick your term; it's happening.

Other examples of radical presentism applied include such things as the dramatic appearance of seemingly miraculous technological gadgetry (e.g. iPad, GPS) and convergent technologies (e.g. augmented reality). It was not too long ago that devices of this nature were considered quite futuristic. But they're here.

Radical presentism also helps us identify how social networking, communications technologies, and the web in general have altered intra- and interpersonal behaviour. We are becoming progressively networked, but at the same time suffering from decreased attention spans and internet addiction. The informational demands on our brains are through the roof; the amount of data a single person is processing in a single day is nothing short of astounding.

So, give it a try. Apply radical presentism to your daily life and discover the future in the moment. I guarantee you'll see things through a different lens, one that will help you appreciate how we're living in a kind of future world—and how we're coping with accelerating change.

December 9, 2010

Alternative prosthetic arm

Designer prosthetics is a fascinating area--one that challenges our preconceptions about "fixing" the disabled. Convention dictates that we do our best to help a person replace their missing limb with something that most closely approximates so-called "normal" human functioning. But that shouldn't have to be the case. Novel prosthetic design offers a remarkable opportunity for persons to do better, or be just plain different, than normal.

Hence this imaginative 'tentacle' design by Kaylene Kau, a recent graduate of the Industrial Design Department at the University of Washington. Like an octopus, users of this appendage can wrap their limb around an object to pick it up or manipulate it--a qualitatively different approach to interacting with the environment.


December 6, 2010

Best albums of 2010

Time once again for my year-end best albums list. Another great year for music. 

#1: Tame Impala: Innerspeaker

#2: Arcade Fire: Suburbs

#3: Local Natives: Gorilla Manor

#4: Beach House: Teen Dream

#5: Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti: Before Today

#6: Alcest: Ecailles De Lune

#7: Caribou: Swim

#8: Broken Social Scene: Forgiveness Rock Record

#9: Janelle Monae: The ArchAndroid

#10: Deerhunter: Halcyon Digest

Here's the entire list:
  1. Tame Impala: Inner Speaker
  2. Arcade Fire: Suburbs
  3. Local Natives: Gorilla Manor
  4. Beach House: Teen Dream
  5. Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti: Before Today
  6. Alcest: Ecailles De Lune
  7. Caribou: Swim
  8. Broken Social Scene: Forgiveness Rock Record
  9. Janelle Monae: The ArchAndroid
  10. Deerhunter: Halcyon Digest
  11. Four Tet: There Is Love In You
  12. Das Racist: Sit Down, Man
  13. The Books: The Way Out
  14. Deftones: Diamond Eyes
  15. Liars: Sisterworld
  16. MGMT: Congratulations
  17. The National: High Violet
  18. The Radio Dept: Clinging To A Scheme
  19. Yeasayer: Odd Blood
  20. Kylesa: Spiral Shadow
  21. Kanye West: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
  22. Enslaved: Axioma Ethica Odini
  23. The Walkmen: Lisbon
  24. Sufjan Stevens: The Age of Adz
  25. Sleigh Bells: Treats
  26. Swans: My Father Will Guide Me Up a Rope to the Sky
  27. Nachtmystium: Addicts Black Meddle Pt II
  28. Against Me: White Crosses
  29. LCD Soundsystem: This is Happening
  30. The Besnard Lakes: The Besnard Lakes
  31. Menomena: Mines
  32. Big Boi: Sir Lucious Left Foot
  33. Ceo: White Magic
  34. The Black Keys: Brothers
  35. Crystal Castles: Crystal Castles
  36. The Roots: How I Got Over
  37. The Budos Band: The Budos Band III
  38. Delorean: Subiza
  39. Erykah Badu: New Amerykah Part Two (Return of the Ankh)
  40. Spoon: Transference
  41. Holy Fuck: Latin
  42. Toro Y Moi: Causers of This
  43. The Morning Benders: Big Echo
  44. Clinic: Bubblegum
  45. Jonsi: Go
  46. Wild Nothing: Gemini
  47. Gorillaz: Plastic Beach
  48. Best Coast: Crazy for You
  49. Pantha Du Prince: Black Noise
  50. Red Sparowes: The Fear Is Excruciating, But Therin Lies the Answer
  51. Flying Lotus: Cosmogramma
  52. Surfer Blood: Astrocoast
  53. Tunng: ...And Then We Saw Land
  54. Hot Chip: One Life Stand
  55. Wavves: King of the Beach
  56. James Blake: CMYK
  57. The Ocean: Heliocentric
  58. Titus Andronicus: The Monitor
  59. Antony & The Johnsons: Swanlights
  60. Burzum: Belus
  61. Joanna Newsom: Have One On Me
  62. Grinderman: Grinderman 2
  63. No Age: Everything In Between
  64. Gil Scott-Heron: I'm New Here
  65. Girls: Broken Dreams Club [EP]
  66. Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross: The Social Network
  67. The New Pornographers: Together
  68. Gonjasufi: A Sufi And a Killer
  69. High on Fire: Snakes for the Divine
  70. Massive Attack: Helgioland
Honorable Mention:
  • Anais Mitchell: Hadestown
  • Avi Buffalo: Avi Buffalo
  • Belle & Sebastian: Write About Love
  • Born Ruffians: Say It
  • Broken Bells: Broken Bells
  • Cee Lo Green: The Lady Killer
  • Chromeo: Business Casual
  • Drive-By Truckers: The Big To-Do
  • Dungen: Skit I Allt
  • Fang Island: Fang Island
  • Foals: Total Life Forever
  • Frightened Rabbit: The Winter of Mixed Drinks
  • How to Destroy Angels: How to Destroy Angels
  • How to Dress Well: Love Remains
  • In Mourning: Monolith
  • Los Campesinos!: Romance is Boring
  • Male Bonding: Nothing Hurts
  • Manic Street Preachers: Postcards From a Young Man
  • RJD2: The Colossus
  • Robyn: Body Talk
  • Royksopp: Senior
  • She & Him: Volume Two
  • Shearwater: Golden Archipelago
  • Shining: Blackjazz
  • Shout Out Louds: Work
  • Stone Temple Pilots: Stone Temple Pilots
  • Sufjan Stevens: All Delighted People [EP]
  • The Chemical Brothers: Further
  • The Dead Weather: Sea of Cowards
  • The Dilinger Escape Plan: Option Paralysis
  • The Hold Steady: Heaven is Whenever
  • The Magnetic Fields: Realism
  • The Tallest Man on Earth: The Wild Hunt
  • Wolf Parade: expo 86
  • Woods: At Echo Lake
  • Wovenhand: The Threshing Floor

December 4, 2010

Maxwell Mehlman: "Extinction by Design: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Human Evolution" [transforming humanity conference]

Maxwell Mehlman presenting "Extinction by Design: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Human Evolution."

Can genetic engineering make things worse? Possibly. Think of unintended consequences visavis global warming. We have no idea if guided evolution would be any worse or better than unchecked evolution. Misguided evolutionary engineering could cause irrevocable harm. What would be worse would be the extinction of the human strain altogether.

The destruction of the human lineage would make it impossible for us to achieve our goals.

Some guidelines:

1. Do not harm children - Parents should not be allowed to genetically engineering their children so that they are exposed to serious risk, serious bodily or mental harm or impairment that is not outweighed by the potential benefit to the child
2. Do not permit state-sponsored, unethical genetic engineering (i.e. eugenics)
3. Do not terminate the human lineage (habitat loss, genetic drift, environmental catastrophe, inbreeding, extremely large body sizes, inability to reproduce, loss of genetic diversity, introduction of rival species)
4. Do not stifle progress toward understanding the universe

Katherine Drabiak-Syed: "Reining in the Psychopharmacological Enhancement Train" [transforming humanity conference]

Katherine Drabiak-Syed presenting "Reining in the Psychopharmacological Enhancement Train."

Off-label use of drugs like Modafinil is an increasing problem. The misappropriate of use for these drugs endangers the user. But the pressure for enhancement is ingrained. Our future population may be stuck in overdrive.

As the military  has shown, use of these sorts of stimulants is starting to become a job requirement. [What about truck drivers?] Modafinil has not been FDA approved for these sorts of stimulant off-label use purposes. It is not indicated for use for healthy individuals. The drug will produce side-effects, including some psychiatric problems. And then there's the whole issue of acquired dependancy.

Physicians are thus putting their patients at risk when prescribing these sorts of drugs for off-label use purposes. They should be working to alleviate recognized conditions, and not acquiescing to the lifestyle desires of their patient.

People have fallen prey to the rat-race mentality of society in their quest to be super productive.

Monika Piotrowska: "Causes that make a Moral Difference: Examining the moral status of the Human Neuron Mouse" [transforming humanity conference]

Monika Piotrowska presenting, "Causes that make a Moral Difference: Examining the moral status of the Human Neuron Mouse."

Should we be troubled by introduction of human traits into animals?

Mice should be judged based on their characteristics rather than on the types of cells, e.g. human or dolphin.

Another question is that, if we give a non-human animal a human trait (e.g. human DNA), do we change their moral standing?

The origins of the characteristic -- the causal history -- does matter to some people and their allocation of moral standing on an animal. The rejection of this premise is uncontroversial in ethics circles, but can influence the perspective of laypersons. E.g. a mouse has acquired an identical trait from a dolphin and from a human. Ethical discourse suggests the mouse's moral standing has not changed as the trait is identical and the source (ie causal history) doesn't matter.

That said, the law often does make distinctions between the status of things on the basis of their origins, even if they are identical.

Should we not ignore causal histories altogether? We may choose to do so based on an epistemological perspective.

Arguments by analogy: We can infer the existence of something. E.g. we can infer that rats can feel pain.

Consequently, if we endow/uplift a non-human animal with a particular human trait (one we can understand functionally), and we observe the animal exhibiting/utilizing that same trait, we have to infer (epistomologically) that it has acquired the human capacity.

These arguments are weaker than evidence-based arguments. It's a kind of intuitive best guess.

Morally relevant capacities: some are harder to test than others. Thus, we should be prepare to use both kind of deduction methods.

Wendell Wallach: "Navigating the Future: Managing the Combinatorial Impact of Emerging Technologies" [transforming humanity conference]

Wendell Wallach presenting, "Navigating the Future: Managing the Combinatorial Impact of Emerging Technologies." Wallach is the author of Moral Machines: Teaching Robots Right From Wrong. Check out his blog.

How will we navigate the promise and perils of emerging technologies that enhance human capacities?

Less than 200 years ago our ancestors were provincial, superstitious, unsanitary, unscientific, and filled with racial, sexual and class prejudices. So much has clearly changed since then.

Germ and sanitation revolutions: invisible agents transmit disease; washing hands; waste treatment and water purification; hygiene; life expectancy: 1850 - men 38.3, women 40.5; 2007 - 78 years. Basically a doubling in life expectancy.

Tech revolution: regenerative medicine, genetic engineering, synbio and AL, nano, neuroprosthetics, neuropharma, data mining, AI, convergent technologies.

Convergent technologies: involving the synergistic (and often unpredictable) implications.

Are we inventing the human species as we have known it out of existence?

Existing policy mechanisms: Laws and regulations, Professional codes of ethics, Research ethics, lab practices and procedures, etc.

Collectively, this has been a robust series of protections. Grounds for criticism: funding for oversight, hamper productivity, piecemeal.

Time: The pace of scientific discovery: Central issue for determining the adequacy of exiting oversight mechanisms: Exponential growth; scholarly community: more skeptical; unfulfilled predictions; complexity thwarts easy progress; tremendous confusion: mediating - incredibly difficult; generational differences.

Existential risks: Two kinds:
(1) Speculative threats: designer pathogens, grey goo, robot takeovers.
(2) Alterations in human nature, character or presentation.

How do existential risks play in public policy?

Short of a clearcut danger or crisis. We've got periodic mini-crises - public education, work through issues, etc.

In a democratic society the public should give at least tacit approval to the futures it is creating. But can the future be predicted?

The middle area: Combinatorial impact: Life extension; mixing cognitive enhancers; cyborg soldiers.

Re: cybog soliders: Biomarkers/Screening/Resilience - polymorphisms of FKBP5 gene (Binder et al) + childhood abuse, etc. seems to be indicative of low resilience. Screening techniques: Warrior class, profile required for high risk occupations, social engineering (new forms of discrimination, PSTD: long-term suffering, costs). It is ethical to send someone to the frontline who has a genetic propensity for PSTD?

Assessing risks: Need a mechanism for evaluating when thresholds that hold dangers have or are about to be crossed. We need a new credible vehicle for monitoring and tracking impacts of emerging technologies. Think tank? Agency?  Easier said than done, because who will take it seriously? First step: experts workshops, which are credible and apply the Danish model (use a small group of the public which represent the larger group).

Pieces: Foresight and planning (anticipatory ethics, forward engagement); potential massive combinatorial impact; TechCast; etc.

Related issues for experts workshops: adequacy of existing policy mechanisms, public education, reports, monitoring, etc.

With proper attention the time available for creative action expands.

Ronald Lindsay: "The Ethics of Enhancements: Spurious Concerns and Genuine Uncertainties" [CFI conference on biomedical enhancements]

Ronald Lindsay now presenting: "The Ethics of Enhancements: Spurious Concerns and Genuine Uncertainties."

Enhancements augments an existing capacity, or introduces a new capacity altogether. Improvement responds to the statistically normal range for humans with that existing capacity.

Arguments against

Michael Sandel has argued that enhancements manifest a misguided quest for mastery and threaten to destroy an appreciated of the "gifted" character of life. "Giftedness" is the sense that we are limited, that who we are exceeds our control. Sandel is mistaken that enhancements would deprive us of that sense. Whether or not giftedness is a fundamental human good, enhancements will not eliminate contingencies. We will not be able to control events that affect us. We will not be able to control our initial conditions - no control over the circumstances of our birth. We are and always will be thrown into this world. Our existence will remain gifted by our existence.

Leon Kass has argued that enhancements will cause a loss of authenticity, a sense of achievement. "Accomplishments" will be meaningless. Short-cuts provided by enhancement will trivialize our accomplishments. This claim ignores the long history of (external) enhancements. They have not destroyed our sense of accomplishment. No matter what one's capabilities, one still has to apply one's knowledge. Changing the means to accomplish the goal does not diminish the goal. There will always be goals that will motivate us and prove challenging.

Fukuyama, McKibben: Enhancements are "unnatural" and threaten to destroy human nature. It is the "nature" of individuals, not the human race as a whole, which is most subject to change. Most enhancements will not implicate any change to the nature of an individual because improved capacities still will be recognizably human. What is wrong with changing our nature? Is our current mix of capacities the optimal mix? It is not immediately clear that the increase of a human capacity will alter what it means to be human or a person's nature. Why is chance so much better than choice such that the latter can be considered immoral? We don't like spinning the roulette wheel.

Can we survive the uncertain changes to society that enhancements may cause? What little experience we have with enhancements suggests we can. Take birth control for example. Moreover, the beneficial social consequences may be enormous.

These arguments fail to eliminate enhancements as a viable option.

Should internal/intrinsic enhancements be developed and regulated in the same was external enhancements are (external enhancements being things like iPads and other technological tools).

Arguments against

Case-by-case evaluation of enhancements is required. One problem: we have no substnative experience in evaluating enhancements qua enhancements. We are not even at first base in determining how they might be regulated.

Enhancements now available were developed and tested as therapies, but the therapy model may not work. Risk-benefit analysis for therapies assumes the therapy will help restore "normal" functioning. Enhancements are not needed for normal functioning, so arguably any risk is too great.

Private sector will not invest substantial resources in the development of enhancements until it is assured an appropriate regulatory framework is in place. Presumably this implies a regulatory framework that is not disease-centered.

Besides the possible toxicity of an enhancements, many other factors need to be considered in evaluating and enhancement has on other capacities, the consequences of using the enhancement....

In addition, various long-term effects need to be considered, such as effects on productivity, allocation of resources, social and political relations, individual rights, aggregate welfare, and future generations.

Does enhancement improve well-being? Not always the case.

Fears and concerns about social divisions and nightmare scenarios

Emergence of a class of super-enhanced individuals who dominate the unenhanced.

Two presumptions about the distribution of enhancements: first, enhancements should be made widely available; second, the fact that enhancements may not be available for all by itself does not provide a reason for denying enhancements to some. Beyond this, we can't say much with confidence.

It's been said the enhanced class poses a risk to liberal democracy.

Would domination of the unenhanced by posthumans be unjust? The relationship may lie outside the bounds of justice. To begin, a world with a stark division between unenhanced and posthuman beings is highly unlikely. However such a scenario arguably lies outside the bounds of justice. Consider: We are not required to form bonds of cooperation with nonhuman animals and treat them as equals. There may be no reason for posthumans to form relations with humans; doing so may be seen as a hindrance. Humans and posthumans are unlikely to have a shared perspective on justice and compel them to be members of the same community.

At the end of the day, sci-fi scenarios are of little use in the assessment of enhancements.

Ethicists have a constructive role to play provided they stick to real situations and overheated discussions.

Peter Caws: "What is Humanity, that We should be Worried about Transforming It?" [CFI conference on biomedical enhancement]

Peter Caws is presenting, "What is Humanity, that We should be Worried about Transforming It?"

Humans is what humans think it is. No one is human by right of nature, it's defined by us alone, our club alone. Humanity becomes an intentional object in the ontological sense.

Freud noted that, in our quest for omnipotence and omniscience, and as we work to become more god-like, we still find that we are unhappy, troubled and unfilfled. That said, argues Caws, we need to keep the deliberative process going. Reject the transhumanist and bioconservative extravagance and seek the middle path.

Dennis Weiss: "Transforming the Symbolic Animal" [CFI conference on biomedical enhancement]

Dennis Weiss reading from his paper, "Transforming the Symbolic Animal."

Modern man has become a problem to himself. What is the meaning of human existence? A growing suspicion that over the past few centuries man has misjudged his own nature and purpose.

The debate about transforming humanity is nothing new, but has been ramped up in the past twenty years. Central concepts in this debate: technology and human nature.

Addressing the issue of whether transforming humanity suggests a fantasy, dream, or nightmare presupposes a clear philosophical grasp of two terms central to the debate: human nature and technology. And yet this is lacking in the debate over the posthuman. Transhumanists and bioconservatives lack a sufficiently thick and rich framework in which to address these issues. This essay seeks to address this lack, suggesting that Ernst Cassirer's account of the human being as a symbolic animal provides a philosophy of culture, philosophical anthropology, and philosophy of technology that might serve as the building blocks of such a framework.

Key elements of Cassirer's philosophical anthropology and philosophy of technology

(1) Cassirer very explicitly situates the human being and culture in the organic realm.
(2) The distinguishing feature of the human being is not some new feature or property, not some metaphysical essence. The human being's distinctiveness is his work.
(3) Cassirer insists on the diversity of the symbolic forms.
(4) This multiplicity of forms does not denote discord or disharmony and it is precisely the task of philosophy to understand the sytem of culture as an organic whole
(5) Cassirer situates his analysis of technology in the context of his philosophy of symbolic forms and in such a way that it would be inappropriate to conclude that technology represents the alienation of either culture or our nature as symbolic animals
(6) Cassirer was concerned with developments in modern technology that he found antithetical to his analysis of symbolic forms (a) Cassirer worries about the power of technology to usurp other symbolic forms, (b) Cassirer worries about the emergence in the 20th century of new technique of rationalized myth

Cassirer, the symbolic animal and transforming humanity

In turning to Cassirer we gain an understanding of the broader historical framework of the debate over transforming humanity.

The lack of historical awareness in debates over transforming humanity results in completely inadequate accounts of human nature presupposed by bioconservatives and transhumanists alike

In both the bioconservative and transhumanist frameworks the characteristics of human nature are completely unmoored from any other discussion of human capacities or characteristics, any structure of needs and wants

In treating technology as a symbolic form, Cassirer implicitly rejects instrumental and substantive view of technology and points the way toward a critical theory of technology more nuanced than the views often presupposed in transhumanist and bioconservative frameworks.

Cassirer recognizes that the human being is a tool using animal but he doesn't privilege technology nor would he accept a culture that took as its dominant symbolic form technology.

Cassirer's framework provides a perspective from which to understand more precisely the dangers of a culture predicated on the dominance of technosciences such as genetics, cybernetics, and biotechnology; the danger of rationalized myth.

Cassirer's framework helps us to understand and appreciate the complex relationship between human nature, our ethical task, and the normative questions surrounding transforming humanity.

Martha Farah: "Cyborgs, Superminds, and Silliness: What are Real Ethical Challenges for Neural Prosthetics?" [CFI conference on biomedical enhancements]

Martha Farah is now presenting her paper, "Cyborgs, Superminds, and Silliness: What are Real Ethical Challenges for Neural Prosthetics?"

It's time for industries to look at non-pharmacological solutions to neural enhancement. "Gadgetry" as opposed to molecules.

Neural prostheses

Neural prostheses for various purposes.

Brain stimulation via deep brain stimulation, transcranial magnetic stimulation, etc. -- gets certain desired results that can be used for enhancement. Many of these procedures are therapeutic, for things like weight loss and mood control, but they can also be used for enhancements. For example, desired levels of concentration and stimulation.

Brain chips via cochlear implants, retinal prosthesis, motor system interfaces for robotic control, and (eventually) cognitive prostheses ('chippocampus' - the artificial hippocampus).

Ethical challenges

Long term: Transhumanism -- World Transhumanist Association / h+ crowd vs. Fukuyama "most dangerous idea" crowd; hard to anticipate the benefits or problems of these technologies before they're here. It's hard to predict the ways in which people will use them. Some predicted applications may look silly by today's standards, but may not seem so in the future.

Medium term: i.e. when the technologies are routinely used - access to therapeutic BCI and DBS; yuck factor and acceptance of BCI and DBS for less-than-dire conditions; control of inputs and outputs (patient autonomy, involuntary treatment, hackers), choice of applications to develop (e.g. games vs. orphan diseases); enhancement; risk:benefit, fairness, freedom/coercion, etc.

Short term: highly interconnected issues of funding, conflict of interest, IP law, regulation (of clinical trials and practice)

How can we proceed?

We are going to by necessity deal with these short to long term ethical issues in chronological order. We will establish platforms of greater perspective as we move from challenge to challenge. We will see what works and doesn't work.

Adrienne Asch and James Edward Block: "The Mechanization of Politics: Rethinking Human Transformation" [CFI conference on biomedical enhancement]

Adrienne Asch and James Edward Block are presenting: "The Mechanization of Politics: Rethinking Human Transformation."

{Adrienne presents first}

Enhancements are not value neutral; they will not improve society and will likely lead us in a negative direction. We may end up at a place that no one could have predicted.

Hyperparenting can happen outside the context of human enhancement -- but it will make the situation considerably worse.

The parent-child relationship will be altered when enhancement enters the picture because they will expect to see their child fulfill 'genetic' and other expectations. They will do what they can to get the result they aimed at. Asch and Block worry that parents won't love their children as unconditionally when enhancement is part of the equation.

Children need to feel that their achievements were the result of their efforts and individuality. This is jeopardized when kids know they've been enhanced. Children may feel that they've let down their parents if they haven't lived up to the expectations they set up through particular enhancements.

Choice and authenticity are weakened in a world with enhanced children. Genetics will predispose children to seek certain goals, bred for a certain role.

Enhancements endanger reasonable parent-child relationships.

Other values lost in the shuffle: cooperation, sharing, working well in groups. Exclusion and conformity, on the other hand, are the results of an enhanced future.

When it comes to enhanced traits, one thing we value one moment we may dis-value the next (e.g. perfect memory). And do we want a society of extroverts and speed demons? Shyness and constrain can also be seen as worthy traits. Could we fully get the message of a novel or poem if our personalities are constrained to a certain type? Society needs people with a list of many traits.

What is the problem the enhancers are trying to solve? They seem to want more of what we already have (life, physicality, etc.). But this will only work to increase disparities. Enhancement proponents do not see their agenda as part of a broader global social imperative to improve conditions for all people. It's too individualistic. How do we get from 'humans who don't need to sleep' to solving world problems?

Humans and posthumans will never be able to control all the variables of their lives. We will continue to find meaning without enhancement, and continue to help those truly in need without it.

In regards to moral enhancement, we are having difficultly coming to a consensus about what is moral behavior and how we could ever engineer that into human psychology. Moreover, empathy alone without the will to act on it is useless and potentially detrimental to the person. Social reform extends beyond mere empathy.

Don't see how James Hughes's democratic leftist transhumanism can be part of a progressive agenda when there are so many libertarian transhumanists. He hasn't made the case that a coherent and consistent transhumanism (or enhancement politics) is even possible.

{James Edward Block takes over the talk}

Asch and Block are concerned about the over-emphasis on meritocracy. In our quest for inner and outer mastery, we are losing out on relational experience. For example, our baby Einstein grows up to be an adult Einstein; where was the development and growth.

One loves others and the world by first learning to love and respect oneself. When we avoid the early stages we avoid the growth process. We become more vulnerable to falling into the traps of social compliance.

Culture of more is getting out of control, and now extending into the enhancement camp.

We are told that contemporary experience is the enemy of change. And is enhancement seen as a substitute for politics? It's a kind of magical thinking. Enhancement is a fall-back for 19th and 20th century social utopianism.

Our pursuit to control nature has stunted our ability to manage and refine social/political relations.

We are becoming excellent information processors, in tune with our technological environment; As a result we are dead emotionally and morally inside.

How are we so talented in our world, yet feel so inadequate? We need to find new skills and capacities within our existing social and physical bodies. Purpose, not functionality.

December 3, 2010

Rosemarie Tong: "Feminist Reflections on Looking Better and Living Longer" [CFI conference on biomedical enhancement]

Rosemarie Tong, Professor of Philosophy at UNC-Charlotte, discussing Feminist Reflections on Looking Better and Living Longer.

Betty Friedan's perspective: rejects the idea that to be old is to be spent. She instead presents an integrating process, an opportunity to live properly and make peace with oneself. No longer feeling the need to outdo others, to prove onself, "what does it really matter?"

Cosmetic anti-aging is big business and demand is through the roof.

But there are also biogerontologists. (1) They're working to prolong healthy lifespan; to extend quality of life until shortly before the moment of death, (2) They're looking to increase human lifespan significantly.

One practice is caloric restriction, but it's not likely to catch on. Another approach is in genetic manipulation.

A third group of biogerontologists are looking to halt the aging process altogether.

What do feminists have to say about this? But the problem of feminists is that they're are so many varieties. But for the most part they support the notion that we should improve and extend quality of life into old age. We should also work to ensure that the marginalized have access to these interventions, namely poor people, black people and aboriginals.

Any life-extension breakthrough that is not accompanied by attempts to improve socio-economic disparities is deficient. Also risk that women's caregiving responsibilities will only increase. Far fewer jobs for far fewer people. Perennial beauty trap.

Cosmetic surgery for women now has been so normalized that it's expected. Women are asked, "Why don't you want to look better?"

Tong makes the case that radical life extension may compel people to live indefinitely long lives for fear of what lies in the hereafter. [never heard that argument before]

Repudiation of the body is a repudiation of women. This especially holds true of women and childbirth. Thus, feminists are suspicious of transhumanism. They may "get lost in the translation."

Daniel Dillard: "Thoreau, Embodiment, and the Nineteenth-Century Transformation of Humanity" [CFI conference on biomedical enhancement]

Florida State graduate student Daniel Dillard now discussing his paper, "Thoreau, Embodiment, and the Nineteenth-Century Transformation of Humanity."

Dillard discusses the intellectual history of the perception of the human as an embodied creature. The posthuman requires a re-thinking of the human.

Thoreau quote: "What is man but a mass of thawing clay? The ball of the human finger is but a drop congealed. The fingers and toes flow to their extent from the thawing mass of the body. Who knows what the human body would expand and flow out to under a more genial heaven? Is not the hand a spreading palm leaf with its lobes and veins? The ear may be regarded, fancifully, as a lichen, umbilicaria, on the side of the head, with its lobe or drop. The lip -- labium, from labor (?) -- laps or lapses from the sides of the cavernous mouth. The nose is a manifest congealed drop or stalactite. The chin is a still larger drop, the confluent dripping of the face. The cheeks are a slide from the brows into the valley of the face, opposed and diffused by the cheek bones. Each rounded lobe of the vegetable leaf, too, is a thick and now loitering drop, larger or smaller; the lobes are the fingers of the leaf; and as many lobes as it has, in so many directions it tends to flow, and more heat or other genial influences would have caused it to flow yet farther."

Thoreau pre-conceived the idea of the posthuman and is thus a transitional figure: information is embodied; and that there is a connection between the body and environment (animate with inanimate). Collapse of subject and object; artificial vs. natural. Who and where are we? We are material nature. Moving past the transcendence model toward a material one.

Patrick Hopkins: "On the Variety of Future Bodies" [CFI conference on biomedical enhancement]

Patrick Hopkins is now discussing the variety of future bodies.

There are as of yet no posthumans. But these ideas are not new, nor are they exclusive to the realm of fantasy and sci-fi. We have long imagined ourselves transformed. Our visions and variations of a transformed humanity are voluminous and often informed by the environmental, social and physical conditions we find ourselves in. Thus, there will be differing and conflicting visions of what the human future can and should look like.

Hopkins presents four different visions of humanity's future: Transformations of the body:

  • Barbie bodies: Cosmetic and aesthetic enhancements; attaining a sexual idea; often risky procedures; not to escape limitations of the body, but to create an ideal of the body; a superficial ideal of the transformed body; surface level, "about looks"; body seen as an object that one uses and whipped into shape to conform to the mind's ideal so that the person can feel a certain way about themselves; a shallow human approach; but they may also feel that they may succeed more given a certain type of physicality.
  • (Francis) Bacon bodies: These transformations are about functionality; to do more human things more often and for a longer time; extends functionality of the body; mimicking what time and nature already do; function cleanly, clearly and effectively -- but not about appearance; a healthy and long-lived body. 
  • Nietzsche bodies: A "super body" endowed with characteristics that "normal" humans do not have; man is something that needs to be surpassed; the body is transformed but not the mind; power to impose one's will on the world? Motivated by human emotions. The "super" human approach. 
  • Plato bodies: Separation of 'soul' from the body; body seen as the source of all the trouble, something that chains our minds to the body; we want the mind to be free; we would live in a more noble condition if freed from the constraints and influence of the body; transhuman application is uploading or virtual reality; total disembodiment may not be possible, but something very close may be obtained; maybe a "transhuman" approach. 
Idea of transformation is not a unitary thing.