March 29, 2011

Stuxnet: A 'cybernetic weapon of mass destruction'

Check out Ralph Langner's rather harrowing TED Talk about the Stuxnet computer worm:

When first discovered in 2010, the Stuxnet computer worm posed a baffling puzzle. Beyond its unusually high level of sophistication loomed a more troubling mystery: its purpose. Ralph Langner and team helped crack the code that revealed this digital warhead's final target -- and its covert origins. In a fascinating look inside cyber-forensics, he explains how.
Ralph Langner is a German control system security consultant. He has received worldwide recognition for his analysis of the Stuxnet malware.

March 28, 2011

J Hughes interviews Thomas White: In Defense of Dolphins

Dr. J. chats with Thomas White about the defense of the rights of non-human persons in general, and dolphins in particular. Professor White teaches ethics at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California, is author of In Defense of Dolphins: The New Moral Frontier and co-author of the Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans: Whales and Dolphins. This is part one of what will be a two part interview.

March 24, 2011

First sperm grown outside the body

After nearly a century of trying, researchers have successfully grown sperm outside the body. From Huffington Post:
Researchers from Yokohama City University in Japan were able to create working sperm from the testicular tissue of mice. The findings were reported in the online journal, Nature, this week.

If the technique proves transferable to humans, the discovery could help scientists identify solutions to male infertility, and provide options to young cancer patients whose treatment causes future infertility, experts say.

By gaining a better understanding of the molecular steps behind sperm formation, scientists could tap into important clues to make in-vitro fertilization possible for men.

For young boys who undergo cancer therapies that cause infertility, the ability to create sperm from human cells would be crucial. There is growing concern that treatments like radiation and chemotherapy could rob young cancer patients of the ability to have children in the future. While young adults have options -- banking sperm or freezing embryos or eggs -- at the moment children diagnosed before puberty don't.
Read more and found out how they did it.

Paul Root Wolpe: It's time to question bio-engineering [TED]

At TEDxPeachtree, bioethicist Paul Root Wolpe describes an astonishing series of recent bio-engineering experiments, from hybrid pets to mice that grow human ears. He asks: isn't it time to set some ground rules?

I hate talks like this. Wolpe spends the first 17 minutes treading on painfully familiar (and tired) territory and the last two minutes asking the wrong questions. And worst of all, he offers absolutely no answers or directions in terms of next steps. Weak.

March 22, 2011

Have feminists forsaken the future? - A SentDev Classic

Wow, I thought I had lost this article forever. I wrote it back in 2002 and misplaced every copy I had of it. I recently found it and am now reproducing it here.

It’s hard to decide which is more frustrating, the proposal or the lack of uproar from women’s groups.

On November 1, 2002, the World Congress of Bioethics will conduct a special session in Brazil entitled "Towards an International Ethical, Social and Political Accord on Human Cloning and Human Species-Alteration."

A memorandum sent out to conference attendees in advance of the session explicitly targets women’s groups. "Supporters of women’s health and reproductive rights have particularly pressing reasons for concern over human cloning and inheritable genetic modification (IGM).1 Human cloning and IGM could not be developed without unethical experimentation on women and children," it notes.

"These technologies would diminish women’s control over their reproductive decisions, and subject them to pressures to produce the ‘perfect baby,’" it goes on. "Some advocates of cloning and IGM are attempting to appropriate the language of reproductive choice, blurring the critical difference between the right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy and the selection of a future child’s genetic makeup."

After reading the memorandum, I was flabbergasted. Are the authors—Richard Hayes, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society, and Rosario Isasi, of the University of Toronto—actually suggesting that strict limitations and moratoriums on inheritable genetic modification will help women retain the rights necessary for reproductive choice and autonomy?

Few Feminists Fight

As far as I’m concerned, this is another affront to women’s entitlements to control their body’s reproductive processes. So why have so few women spoken out?

After seeing little feminist reaction to the Hayes and Isasi memorandum, I’m forced to acknowledge a dangerous vacuum in Transhumanist [one who believes human beings can be improved by science and technology] and progressive bioethicist circles: there are very few vocal feminists fighting for women’s rights to control the genetic makeup of their offspring.

The most well-known Transhumanist feminist I can think of is Donna Haraway, who in 1984 famously wrote "A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s." In the manifesto, Haraway proposed that women use technology to further liberate themselves from limited and constraining biological processes. But only a few people jumped on board—such as Gill Kirkup, Linda Janes, Kathryn Woodward, Fiona Hovenden and Anne Balsamo.

Why such little interest in feminist bioethics? After thinking about the problem, I propose three possible reasons:

  1. Techno-culture: Transhumanism and other future-oriented movements tend to be dominated by educated white males that have been immersed in computer and related technology cultures. The dearth of women pursuing science and technology careers has contributed to this situation.
  2. Naturalistic focus: Contemporary feminism has been quite hostile and suspicious of futurists in general, preferring to celebrate naturalistic womanhood and female biological processes.
  3. Inadequate outreach: Perhaps most significantly, progressive bioethicists have done an inadequate job of reaching out to the feminist community. In many ways it is our fault—and not the fault of the feminists—that the use of future reproductive technologies has not become a feminist issue.

So, what should feminist bioethicists be concerned about? A quick run-through of the World Congress of Bioethics letter reveals several important issues and misconceptions that should be immediately addressed.

The Perfect-Baby Fallacy

The first is the perfect-baby fallacy. With human cloning and inheritable genetic modification, Hayes and Isasi are concerned that women will be compelled to have "perfect babies." In their mind, this would decrease women’s reproductive control and choice. In my mind, women should be more concerned about pressure from governments and misinformed special-interest groups that force them to reject progressive and beneficial health technologies. Through the extension and development of reproductive technologies, women will have more control over their bodies, not less.

Not only that, trying to achieve "perfect babies" is something women have always done, adapting new methods and technologies as they become available. Before and during pregnancies today, for example, women take folic acid to reduce the chance that their baby will be born with spina bifida. In addition, most women have prenatal screening, stop drinking and smoking, strive to eat a healthier and more balanced diet, take prenatal exercise classes, rest their bodies as much as possible and often take early maternity leave.

And even after babies are born, most women don’t stop wanting the best for them. They will read about the latest in parenting—in everything from psychology books to parenting magazines. They will also make efforts to socialize children as responsibly as possible, aiming to place their kids in the best available daycares and schools. And they will most likely have their kids vaccinated, see a doctor regularly for a checkup and see a specialist for any cognitive or physical problems.

Once more technologies are available to ensure healthy children, women using them will not be bowing down to social pressures to create "perfect babies." Rather, they will do what they have always done: they will endeavor to have the healthiest and fittest children as is medically possible.

Finding Little Difference Between Termination and Selection

The second thing feminist bioethicists should be concerned about is the distinction between termination and choice. Hayes and Isasi claim that there is a critical difference between the right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy and the selection of a future child’s genetic makeup. I am having great trouble trying to understand what this "critical" difference is.

Currently, couples have very little control over the makeup of their offspring. A child’s genetic characteristics are fixed at the point of conception, and prospective parents pray that he or she will be strong and healthy and won’t have genetic diseases.

If an embryo does show signs of disease, women can terminate a pregnancy. It seems only logical then that we should extend this right to the prevention of diseases in the first place—giving couples the control they have always sought but that to date has only been available in a crude form.

So despite what Hayes and Isasi claim, there is very little difference between termination and selection. They are on the same spectrum, and in some ways selection is merely a more proactive approach.

The Risks of an Outright Ban

Now, all this isn’t to say that I’m in favour of rampant cloning and genetic modification. As Hayes and Isasi rightfully point out, human cloning and inheritable genetic modification could lead to unethical experimentation on women and children. Also, both are grossly underdeveloped and even dangerous today.

But this is no reason to ban them outright. It is a reason for proper monitoring and development. An outright ban would only drive cloning and genetic modification underground, where it may hurt women in the same way as clandestine abortions.

Unless feminists get involved, however, a ban may very well be what we get, as conservative bioethicists use the veil of women’s rights to implement their agenda. The lack of vocal opposition gives the impression of agreement and support. Is this really in women’s best interest?


1. Human cloning involves the replacement of the DNA in a female egg with the DNA of another person. When this egg is implanted into the womb of the mother, as in in vitro fertilization, the embryo develops into a fetus and is born after nine months, just like any other baby. The cloned baby shares the same exact DNA as the person whose DNA was injected into the egg cell, not unlike identical twins. A couple that is unable to conceive and does not want to use the DNA of another person might choose to use the DNA of one parent; thus producing an identical twin of that parent. No case of human cloning has yet been officially documented. IGM alters the genes in early embryos. Parents who choose IGM may hope to prevent their child from inheriting a debilitating or deadly disease or perhaps even determine their child’s physical attributes such as hair or eye color.

Dolphin diplomacy

Last year, a Spanish researcher and a Paraguayan scientist presented the most complete and detailed study into the repertoire of sounds used by bottlenose dolphins to communicate. The study revealed the complexity and our lack of understanding about the communication of these marine mammals.

One of the key findings in the study is that dolphins have the ability to talk their way out of conflicts. From Science Daily:
Until now, the scientific community had thought that whistles were the main sounds made by these mammals, and were unaware of the importance and use of burst-pulsed sounds. Researchers from the Bottlenose Dolphin Research Institute (BDRI), based in Sardinia (Italy) have now shown that these sounds are vital to the animals' social life and mirror their behaviour.

"Burst-pulsed sounds are used in the life of bottlenose dolphins to socialise and maintain their position in the social hierarchy in order to prevent physical conflict, and this also represents a significant energy saving," Bruno Díaz, lead author of the study and a researcher at the BDRI, which he also manages, said...

...According to the experts, the tonal whistle sounds (the most melodious ones) allow dolphins to stay in contact with each other (above all mothers and offspring), and to coordinate hunting strategies. The burst-pulsed sounds (which are more complex and varied than the whistles) are used "to avoid physical aggression in situations of high excitement, such as when they are competing for the same piece of food, for example," explains Díaz...

...According to Díaz, bottlenose dolphins make longer burst-pulsed sounds when they are hunting and at times of high aggression: "These are what can be heard best and over the longest period of time," and make it possible for each individual to maintain its position in the hierarchy.

The dolphins emit these strident sounds when in the presence of other individuals moving towards the same prey. The "least dominant" one soon moves away in order to avoid confrontation. "The surprising thing about these sounds is that they have a high level of uni-directionality, unlike human sounds. One dolphin can send a sound to another that it sees as a competitor, and this one clearly knows it is being addressed," explains the Spanish scientist.
Read more.

Chimp mom mourns the death of her baby [video]

Part of the struggle in getting people on board with the idea that some animals deserve to be recognized as persons is convincing them that the emotional responses, inner psychological life and social bonds of these animals are similar to our own. Because we lack the neuroscience to prove definitively that nonhuman persons have the cognitive toolkit required for these responses, we're stuck with empiricism: if it looks like a duck and quacks likes a duck, we have to conclude that it's a duck. Behaviorism is currently our best tool for assessing the psychological sophistication of animals—and to a certain degree our own. It's worth noting that we cannot prove humans have these capacities either. We just take it for granted that others feel the way we do.

Some behavioral studies are more powerful than others. The video below is a good example—even if it is difficult to watch. It shows a chimpanzee mother dealing with and apparently mourning the death of her 16-month-old child. This haunting footage challenges those who might question the extent to which animals experience the loss of a life:

This footage was captured by researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. A team led by Dr. Katherine Cronin sought to study the reaction of non-human primates encountering the realities of mortality.

"The videos are extremely valuable because they force one to stop and think about what might be happening in the minds of other primates," Dr. Cronin told CORDIS News. "Whether a viewer ultimately decides that the chimpanzee is mourning, or simply curious about the corpse, is not nearly as important as people taking a moment to consider the possibilities."

Their report describes what researchers observed:
Dr. Cronin and doctoral student Edwin Van Leeuwen monitored the behaviour of a female chimpanzee that had recently lost her 16-month-old infant. The mother carried the infant's dead body for more than 24 hours, and then laid it on the ground in a glade. She approached the body many times, and held her fingers against the infant's face and neck for several seconds. The mother then stayed close to the body for almost an hour, later carrying it over to a group of chimpanzees that began to examine the body. The mother no longer carried the body of the infant the next day.
When watching the video I was particularly struck with the mother's tenderness and the way she stroked the infant's face. Looking at her reactions, she appeared distraught, frustrated, and forlorn. She seemed quite upset over the idea of having to abandon the body, returning to it periodically in the hopes that the infant would show some signs of life.

A human mom in the same situation would likely act and respond in a similar way. It's worth noting that, like chimpanzees, humans are also members of the great ape family.

Via TreeHugger.

The year 2000 as imagined in 1910

These are wonderful:

Via ufunk where there's more.

Isabel Behncke: Evolution's gift of play, from bonobo apes to humans [TED]

March 21, 2011

What do we mean by the "rights" of the nonhuman person?

A common objection I get to the suggestion that nonhuman persons should be granted human-level rights is the concern that these animals could never properly express their citizenship or take part in the social contract. I've actually had people ask me if it's my intention to give bonobos a credit card and the right to vote.

No, no, no — that's not what this is all about. The rights I'm talking about have to do with protections. A certain segment of nonhuman animals, namely those who qualify as persons, should be immune from undue confinement, abuse, experimentation, illicit trafficking, and the threat of unnatural death. And I'm inclined to leave it at that for now.

While these animals may not be as intelligent or knowledgeable as humans, their cognitive and emotional capacities are sophisticated enough to warrant special consideration. These are self-aware and self-reflexive animals. They are cognizant of other minds, exhibit deep emotional responses, and have profound social attachments. That's not to be taken lightly.

At the same time I acknowledge that there there has to be a realism applied to this issue. Nonhuman animals who qualify as persons cannot participate in society to the same degree that humans can. Thus, they should be considered and treated in the same manner that we do children and the developmentally disabled—which is that they still have rights! We would never experiment upon a 3-year old human child, nor would we force a mentally disabled person to perform in a circus. We believe this because we recognize that these individuals are endowed with (or have the potential for) the sufficient capacities required for personhood. Consequently, we protect them with laws.

Along similar lines, another objection is that animals who lack a moral understanding of their actions cannot be included in the broader social contract. Again, this argument is unpersuasive. Never minding children and the developmentally disabled, human sociopaths lack a moral understanding of their actions, yet we include them in our charter of rights and freedoms—unless they break the law, in which case they are imprisoned or treated for their disorder. But at no times are they stripped of their fundamental human rights. While imprisoned, sociopaths are no longer allowed to co-mingle with the rest of society, but they can still count on the state to protect them from such things as torture or undue process.

These distinctions are important, particularly if we are to get popular buy-in on this concept. Granting human-level rights is fundamentally about protections; for the time being we shouldn't interpret or extend it beyond that. At the same time however, we need to acknowledge the importance of personhood status. Anything can be protected with the right set of laws. What's crucially important here, however, is understanding the moral weight that personhood status carries. To kill a nonhuman person, for example, should be en par with murdering a human—and with it all the consequences of committing such an act.

So while we can talk of these rights as basic protections, they are also poised to serve as a set of negative rights for humans who have the capacity to morally comprehend their actions and who are capable of participating in the social contract. Simply put, there are just some things you cannot do to persons, human or otherwise.

March 19, 2011

The moral lives of animals...and humans

Stephen Budiansky has penned a snide review of Dale Peterson's new book, The Moral Lives of Animals in which he claims that animal rights advocates have gone too far in ascribing altruism and other forms of compassionate behavior onto non-human animals. Budiansky, like many other skeptics, is arguing from the perspective of human exceptionalism—the notion that there is something intrinsically valuable or special in the way our species operates, and that it is this specialness that irrevocably separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom.

The primary fear expressed by the human exceptionalists is that through our increased understanding of non-human animal cognition and behavior that we will better come to understand our own, and that by consequence we will conclude that we're all relatively similar in certain key aspects. They see this as an overt effort to prove that humans are nothing more than another "animal in the forest," a claim that somehow demeans or lessens the value of the human being.

Budiansky writes:
Mr. Peterson....makes clear at the outset that he very much shares the fundamental ambition of the animal-rights movement to puncture the claim of human exceptionalism—the "error," he states, of believing that humans have a unique status in nature or "are disconnected from the limits, systems, structures, and truths of the rest of the natural world." Recognizing the difficulty of boosting animals, his approach is instead to deflate humans: in particular, to suggest that there is much less to even so vaunted a human trait as morality than we like to believe. Rather than a sophisticated system of language-based laws, philosophical arguments and abstract values that sets mankind apart, morality is, in his view, a set of largely primitive psycho logical instincts. This is a definition undemanding and broad enough to encompass much of the animal world, which is precisely his point.

A sense of fairness and reciprocity, for example, does not depend on formal rules or any "complicated intellectual" processes, he writes, just a gut check: Our sense of justice is really nothing but a "quick emotional" assessment. Empathy does not require a mind capable of imagining the feelings and thoughts of another mind, but arises from "mirror neurons" that are automatically triggered when an animal witnesses the actions of others, generating the same sensations experienced when it performs those same actions itself. In Mr. Peterson's view, human philosophizing about morality is little more than a smokescreen that obscures an instinctual and primitive essence. While language "allows us to discuss morality and to debate, endlessly, this or that obscure issue about it," in fact all this rhetorical hot air merely expresses "unspoken and unwritten universes of urge and inclination and inhibition," shared by a large number of animals, that surely evolved "long before the separate evolution of our own species."

Despite having begged the question of human exceptionalism at the start—by dismissing the sense that we are different as mere "Darwinian narcissism"—Mr. Peterson does develop a provocative case for the existence of a broadly shared evolutionary imperative that under pins human moral instincts. Among his better-chosen anecdotes are vivid illustrations of the social mechanisms by which primates and other group-dwellers mediate access to mates, food and other resources. Vampire bats, strikingly, remember which members of the group have shared a regurgitated blood meal in the past and know who to return the favor to. It is hard to argue with his propo sition that the powerful emotional saliency moral issues have for us, and their connection to serious matters of social organization and conflict—sex, territory, possessions, reciprocity, kinship—point to a hard-wired evolutionary adaptation of group-dwelling animals.
As that last paragraph suggests, it is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the science. Yes, much of human culture contributes to the ways in which we can and choose to act as moral agents, but utlimately it's our hard-wiring that makes any of this possible in the first place. Whether the human exceptionalists like it or not, this comes down to an issue of latent capacities.

Yes, we are just "another animal in the forest." Those who are offended by this notion sound suspiciously like those in the 19th Century who were aghast at Darwin's suggestion that humanity is descended from apes.

None of this really bothers me. What matters is that we understand how our minds work and how our moral faculties develop in concert with our culture, institutions and the ways in which we are socialized. If anything, culture is a way for us to go against our programming; we are animals through-and-through. We have some nasty traits as a species, but we also have some very powerful empathetic and cooperative skills that we're learned to accentuate and emphasize through our culture.

Many of the animals studied in Peterson's book have similar moral capacities to our own. The problem is that they don't have the sophistication and robustness of human culture to extend it further.

I've been wondering recently if we can endow certain species with the culture required to suppress their own anti-social or destructive instincts. Could we ever teach males dolphin males, for example, that gang raping females is morally wrong? And I'm not just talking about a punishment/reward type lesson—I'm talking about actually convincing the dolphins that what they're doing is morally wrong. This would be a kind of cultural uplift and require some form of memetic engineering. To do so we'd have to radically expand not just our inter-species language and communication skills, but also find ways to plant complex and enlightened concepts in their minds according to their current cognitive architecture.

I'll have to expand on this idea later.

March 10, 2011

The case for space colonies

Writing in the Space Review, Stephen Ashworth complains that we're losing sight of the great potential for space colonies:
For example, the material published so far by the DARPA-NASA Ames 100-Year Starship Study ignores colonies in space, despite their obvious relevance, as does Lou Friedman’s report on their recent meeting (see “Fly me to the stars”, The Space Review, January 24, 2011). Joy Shaffer’s 2004 essay “Better Dreams” at, enthusiastically referenced by one Space Review commenter, explicitly excludes colonies in space: “there is no need to massively industrialize any place in the solar system beyond the elevator terminals and power stations at geosynchronous orbit”. Even the Tau Zero Foundation focuses on “the ultimate goal of reaching other habitable worlds”.
Ashworth makes the case that, while the Earth gave us a great start, it's time to move on:
The conclusion has to be drawn that, while a planet is a good place for life to get started using unconscious means that can evolve spontaneously from the chemical substrate, once life has reached the stage of industrial development, its further growth depends on the use of technology to construct artificial space colonies, which use the material resources of planetary systems at a much higher level of efficiency.
As is so often the case in these sorts of analyses, these speculations are predicated upon the assumption that we will colonize space as humans, and not as cyborgs or non-corporeal artificial intellects. Ashworth continues:
First, the project of sending humans to the stars is absolutely dependent upon prior large-scale space colonization. To begin with, the passengers on any interstellar mission will be devoting the rest of their lives to the voyage and the explorations at their destination: a return journey within a human lifetime is hardly conceivable (barring some magical new propulsion technology, and even that is hardly likely to come cheap).

This means that no crewed starship will be dispatched until the viability of a space habitat has been demonstrated for at least one complete human lifetime (including one or more reproductive cycles, unless the starship is conceived as a suicide mission). With space colonization in progress, spurred by general economic and population growth, such a demonstration will be a matter of course, and will be funded by the broader economy. Without it, the demonstration will be an expensive one-off project, and volunteers (together with their yet unborn offspring) will have to renounce all claim to a normal life.

Okay, here's what I say to this: This is a noble endaevor given (1) our current biological condition and (2) our critical need to get off planet before we're wiped out by an existential catastrophe. There's no harm done in figuring out how to create a biosphere in space for biological humans. In fact, a fully robust and operational space station might actually save our ass. I'm all for it.

But if the discussion is about longterm interstellar exploration and colonization, and that's what this is, let's get real and discuss our potential to venture out as a postbiological species. As NASA's Stephen J. Dick has stated, "Biologically based technological a fleeting phenomenon limited to a few thousand years, and exists in the universe in the proportion of one thousand to one billion, so that only one in a million civilizations are biological."

In a post-biological future, machines are the dominant form of intelligence in the Universe. Talk of humans venturing out is just plain silly and short-sighted.

March 6, 2011

Remembering Robert Bradbury

Robert Bradbury passed away suddenly and unexpectedly last weekend of a massive hemorrhagic stroke. His passing was the kind of thing that barely registered anywhere except among his immediate group of family and friends—and among a group of dedicated and niche scientists, futurists and technologists. For them, Bradbury's premature passing represented a monumental blow to inspired and imaginative scientific inquiry.

While Robert Bradbury, who died at the age of 54, may not have had the most recognizable name in the various scientific communities he was involved in, his impact to future studies, and in particular its relation to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, cannot be overstated. Bradbury was a giant in this area, a creative and unconventional personality who paved the way for other like-minded thinkers and enthusiasts.

To say that the scientific community lost its foremost thinker on SETI studies (the search for extraterrestrial intelligence) and the problem that is the Great Silence (also known as the Fermi Paradox) is hardly an exaggeration. Bradbury was a voracious collector of any and all articles, papers and studies conducted on the subject. From my conversations with him, I can tell you that his ability to recollect and reference these works was uncanny to the point of absurdity. He was an authority in the truest sense.

Nobody more than Robert insisted on the simple fact that the correct resolution of Fermi’s Paradox—the fact that we do not observe any presence of Galactic extraterrestrial intelligence—will provide us with crucial insights into humanity's future. It was this particular notion that has personally driven me to pursue SETI studies as a means to predict humanity's potential developmental trajectories. Simply put, if you can predict, or even observe, how advanced extraterrestrials operate, we stand a better chance of understanding our own future.

Despite the eeriness that is the Great Silence, Bradbury applied a natural optimism to his work. He sought to construct and develop hypotheses to the Fermi problem that did not jeopardize the potential for human possibilities. This included a grandiose "cosmic vision" of humanity's future, and in this sense he was an heir apparent to Olaf Stapledon, H. G. Wells, and Freeman Dyson.

To this end, Bradbury put forth a number of intriguing theories—theories that have since become foundational concepts amongst serious futurists, transhumanists and those concerned about the potential for a technological singularity. In particular, Bradbury was intrigued by megascale engineering concepts such as Dyson Spheres and Jupiter Brains. He even came up with one of his own, the the so-called Matrioshka Brain—a megascale computer that could exploit nearly the entire energy output of a star. Bradbury could never be accused of thinking small. Such concepts would go on to influence such thinkers as Anders Sandberg, Nick Bostrom, Robin Hanson and Ray Kurzweil.

One of his most important works came in 2006 in his collaboration with Milan Ćirković, “Galactic gradients, postbiological evolution and the apparent failure of SETI" (New Astronomy 11, 628-639). In this paper, he argued that the most likely trajectory of a postbiological (i.e. digital) community would involve the quest for computational efficiency and optimization. Such a society, he argued, would likely involve spatially compact civilizations that would be extremely hard to detect, especially if located in outer regions of the Milky Way. This conclusion has served as an elegant and rather optimistic answer that contrasts to the more doom-and-gloom suggestions that are typically put out.

The paper also criticized the orthodox approach to SETI projects, which Bradbury found irritatingly old-fashioned and conservative in the extreme. Instead of listening for intentional (or intercepted) radio messages, he thought it would be far more promising to search for artifacts and traces of astroengineering of advanced technological civilizations, like Dyson shells or Matrioshka brains. Such searches, he thought, would have to be conducted in the infrared part of the electromagnetic spectrum. A natural extension of this concept was the project of setting up new directions and expanded range of techniques for SETI observations, something which was consistently hinted at during the half-centennial jubilee of the OZMA Project in 2010. This study was, sadly, the last one Bradbury worked on and will be published posthumously. Clearly, his departure will be a great loss for the astrobiological and SETI communities.

At a personal level, Robert Bradbury was known as a generous, driven and often outspoken individual. His unorthodox beliefs, a hallmark of the transhumanist and Extropian communities of which he was a big part, often translated to personal opinions that made others uncomfortable. Bradbury never shied away from saying things that might offend others, but this largely came from his powerful sense of outrage towards certain issues, including the problem of death. A radical life extension crusader, Bradbury railed against the needless deaths of people the world over and and how society spent so relatively few resources to address the issue.

Along these lines, Bradbury also made a considerable impact on early efforts to re-conceptualize and pathologize the aging process. Back in 1991 he was already framing the problem of aging as something that could be solved. To that end he devised a theory of aging that involved insights into genetic defects, poor biological programming and insufficient repair mechanisms; the work has served as a precursor to Aubrey de Grey's Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS).

Not content to merely wax philosophical on heady issues, Bradbury made a number of attempts at various tech ventures, but often to poor results. He desperately wanted to succeed at being a technology entrepreneur, and at the time of his passing, may have felt deep frustration at not being more successful in this regard. He also wanted to marry and have children, but seemed to have doubts about having a successful and lasting relationship.

It may take a few years before Bradbury's contributions properly hit the radar. He leaves behind a rather remarkable body of work that I predict will eventually get the respect it deserves in the various scientific circles he was involved in.

Thanks to Milan Ćirković and John Grigg for helping me write this piece.

March 1, 2011

Matt Lamkin says a ban on cognitive enhancers is not cool

Lawyer and bioethicist Matt Lamkin makes the case that a ban on brain-boosters is not the answer:
While rates of drinking among college students have been relatively steady in recent years, nontherapeutic use of prescription drugs has soared—now second only to marijuana as a form of illicit drug use. Research by Alan D. DeSantis, a professor of communication at the University of Kentucky who has studied ADHD-stimulant use in fraternities, suggests that 34 percent of the university's undergraduates have used stimulants like Ritalin and Adderall as study aids. According to DeSantis, that number rises the longer students are in college, and nearly 60 percent of Kentucky's juniors and seniors have used "neuroenhancers."

Concerned observers of this trend, most notably at Britain's Academy of Medical Sciences, have characterized the use of "study drugs" as a form of cheating, akin to the use of steroids in sports. Having diagnosed the problem as an issue of unfair competition, the academy has called on universities to consider banning the use of cognition-enhancing drugs by healthy students. This past October, Wesleyan University did just that, amending its student code of conduct to recognize "misuse" of prescription drugs as a violation of the college's prohibition against receiving "improper assistance" in completing academic work.
He concludes:
[C]olleges need to encourage students to engage in the practice of education rather than to seek shortcuts. Instead of ferreting out and punishing students, universities should focus on restoring a culture of deep engagement in education, rather than just competition for credentials...

...If universities instead choose to enact blanket prohibitions on the use of study drugs by healthy students, it would be more sensible to enforce such a policy through honor codes than through measures such as urine testing, as the Academy of Medical Sciences has proposed. Unlike a policing approach, honor codes ask students to internalize values that are important to education and to character in general. Although students who violate honor codes face sanctions, the primary aim is not to deter improper conduct with threats, but to persuade students that to breach the code is to betray themselves. If colleges believe that enhancing cognition with drugs deprives students of the true value of education, they must encourage students to adopt that value as their own.

Peter Singer on the Libya situation

Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer writes the article I wanted to write: Global Justice and Military Intervention. As is so often the case, Singer and I are on the same wavelength:
World leaders were quick to condemn Qaddafi’s actions. On February 26, the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously to impose an arms embargo on Libya, urge member nations to freeze assets owned by Qaddafi and his family, and refer the regime’s violence to the International Criminal Court for possible prosecution of those responsible.

This is the first time that the Security Council has unanimously referred a situation involving human rights violations to the International Criminal Court, and it is remarkable that countries that are not members of the Court – including the United States, Russia, and China – nevertheless supported the referral. The resolution can thus be seen as another incremental step towards the establishment of a global system of justice able to punish those who commit gross violations of human rights, regardless of their political or legal status in their own country.

Yet, in another way, the Security Council resolution was a disappointment. The situation in Libya became a test of how seriously the international community takes the idea of a responsibility to protect people from their rulers. The idea is an old one, but its modern form is rooted in the tragic failure to intervene in the Rwandan genocide in 1994. A subsequent UN inquiry concluded that as few as 2,500 properly trained military personnel could have prevented the massacre of 800,000 Tutsis.
Exactly. Years from now we'll look back smugly on the situation and, with no small degree of self-righteous outrage, complain about how we stood around and did nothing. We are aware right now in this very moment that something needs to be done, but we lack the resolve. And worse, we lack the pity and compassion required to act.

Respecting a country's sovereignty is a cop-out, an excuse for inaction. We in the West are supposed to be in support of liberal democracies. It's not acceptable to allow a country to hide behind the sovereignty shield, particularly when it's run by a maniacal dictator.

Singer concludes,
At the time of writing, it is arguable that other sanctions or threats, short of military intervention, would be sufficient to deter more widespread bloodshed. Perhaps the rebels and the sanctions can overthrow Qaddafi unaided, without great loss of life. It is also unclear whether military intervention would cause more deaths than it prevented.
But these are questions that the international community needs to ask, and that the Security Council should have been discussing, so that the principle of the responsibility to protect – and its possible implications for military action – become part of our understanding of the requirements of international law and global ethics.

Raymond Tallis on the metaphysical limitations of neuroscience

Author Raymond Tallis reviews two new books about consciousness: Soul Dust: the Magic of Consciousness by Nicholas Humphrey and Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain by Antonio Damasio. Tallis opens,
The republic of letters is in thrall to an unprecedented scientism. The word is out that human consciousness - from the most elementary tingle of sensation to the most sophisticated sense of self - is identical with neural activity in the human brain and that this extraordinary metaphysical discovery is underpinned by the latest findings in neuroscience. Given that the brain is an evolved organ, and, as the evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky said, nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution, the neural explanation of human consciousness demands a Darwinian interpretation of our behaviour. The differences between human life in the library or the operating theatre and animal life in the jungle or the savannah are more apparent than real: at the most, matters of degree rather than kind.

These beliefs are based on elementary errors. Just because neural activity is a necessary condition of consciousness, it does not follow that it is a sufficient condition of consciousness, still less that it is identical with it. And Darwinising human life confuses the organism Homo sapiens with the human person, biological roots with cultural leaves. Nevertheless, the coupling of neuromania and Darwinitis has given birth to emerging disciplines based on neuro-evolutionary approaches to human psychology, economics, social science, literary criticism, aesthetics, theology and the law.

These pseudo-disciplines are flourishing in academe and are covered extensively in the popular press, in articles usually accompanied by a brain scan (described by the writer Matt Crawford as a "fast-acting solvent of critical faculties"). Only last month, David Brooks asserted in the New Yorker that "brain science helps fill the hole left by the atrophy of theology and philosophy".

There are more cautious writers, but even for them the attraction of biologism seems irre­sistible. V S Ramachandran asserts correctly, in his new book, The Tell-Tale Brain: Unlocking the Mystery of Human Nature, that humanity "transcends apehood to the same degree by which life transcends mundane chemistry and physics". Even so, he is prepared to claim that we enjoy Picasso's paintings for the same reason that gull chicks prefer fake maternal beaks with an excess of markings to the real thing: they are "superstimuli". Both books under review acknowledge the uniqueness of human beings but relapse repeatedly into accounts of the mind, self and consciousness that appeal to a mixture of neuroscience and evolutionary theory. Despite the ingenuity and erudition of the authors, they serve only to illustrate the shortcomings of neuroscientific attempts to capture human consciousness and human nature.
Read the rest.