June 29, 2011

Hear that? It's the Singularity coming.

The idea of a pending technological Singularity is under attack again with a number of prominent futurists arguing against the possibility—the most prominent being Charlie Stross and his astonishingly unconvincing article, "Three arguments against the singularity." While it’s not my intention to write a comprehensive rebuttal at this time, I would like to bring something to everyone’s attention: The early rumblings of the coming Singularity are becoming increasingly evident and obvious.

Make no mistake. It's coming.

As I’ve discussed on this blog before, there are nearly as many definitions of the Singularity as there are individuals who are willing to talk about it. The whole concept is very much a sounding board for our various hopes and fears about radical technologies and where they may bring our species and our civilization. It’s important to note, however, that at best the Singularity describes a social event horizon beyond which it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to predict the impact of the advent of recursively self-improving greater-than-human artificial intelligence.

So, it’s more of a question than an answer. And in my own attempt to answer this quandary, I have personally gravitated towards the I.J. Good camp in which the Singularity is characterized as an intelligence explosion. In 1965 Good wrote,
Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an 'intelligence explosion,' and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make.
This perspective and phrasing sits well with me, mostly because I already see signs of this pending intelligence explosion happening all around us. It’s becoming glaringly obvious that humanity is offloading all of it’s capacities, albeit in a distributed way, to its technological artifacts. Eventually, these artifacts will supersede our capacities in every way imaginable, including the acquisition of new ones altogether.

A common misnomer about the Singularity and the idea of greater-than-human AI is that it will involve a conscious, self-reflective, and even morally accountable agent. This has led some people to believe that it will have deep and profound thoughts, quote Satre, and resultantly act in a quasi-human manner. This will not be the case. We are not talking about artificial consciousness or even human-like cognition. Rather, we are talking about super-expert systems that are capable of executing tasks that exceed human capacities. It will stem from a multiplicity of systems that are individually singular in purpose, or at the very least, very limited in terms of functional scope. And in virtually all cases, these systems won't reflect on the consequences of their actions unless they are programmed to do so.

But just because they're highly specialized doesn’t mean they won’t be insanely powerful. These systems will have access to a myriad of resources around them, including the internet, factories, replicators, socially engineered humans, robots that they can control remotely, and much more; this technological outreach will serve as their arms and legs.

Consequently, the great fear of the Singularity stems from the realization that these machine intelligences, which will have processing capacities a significant order of magnitude beyond that of humans, will be able to achieve their pre-programmed goals without difficulty–even if we try to intervene and stop them. This is what has led to the fear of poorly programmed SAI or “malevolent” SAI. If our instructions to these super-expert systems are poorly articulated or under-developed, these machines could pull the old 'earth-into-paperclips' routine.

For those skeptics who don’t see this coming, I implore them to look around. We are beginning to see the opening salvo of the intelligence explosion. We are already creating systems that exceed our capacities and it's a trend that is quickly accelerating. This is a process that started a few decades ago with the advent of computers and other calculating machines, but it’s been in the last little while that we’ve been witness to more profound innovations. Humanity chuckled in collective nervousness back in 1997 when chess grandmaster Garry Kasparaov was defeated by Deep Blue. From that moment on we knew the writing was on the wall, but we’ve since chosen to deny the implications; call it proof-of-concept, if you will, that a Singularity is coming.

More recently, we have developed a machine that can defeat the finest Jeopardy players, and now there’s a AI/robotic system that can play billiards at a high level. You see where this is going, right? We are systematically creating individual systems that will eventually and collectively exceed all human capacities. This can only be described as an intelligence explosion. While we are a far ways off from creating a unified system that can defeat us well-rounded and highly multi-disciplinal humans across all fields, it’s not unrealistic to suggest that such a day is coming.

But that’s beside the point. What’s of concern here is the advent of the super-expert system that works beyond human comprehension and control—the one that takes things a bit too far and with catastrophic results.

Or with good results.

Or with something that we can't even begin to imagine.

We don’t know, but we can be pretty darned sure it’ll be disruptive—if not paradigmatic in scope. This is why it’s called the Singularity. The skeptics and the critics can clench their hands in a fist and stamp their feet all they want about it, but that’s where we find ourselves.

We humans are already lagging behind many of our systems in terms of comprehension, especially in mathematics. Our artifacts will increasingly do things for reasons that we can’t really understand. We’ll just have to stand back and watch, incredulous as to the how and why. And accompanying this will come the (likely) involuntary relinquishment of control.

So, we can nit-pick all we want about definitions, fantasize about creating a god from the machine, or poke fun at the rapture of the nerds.

Or we can start to take this potential more seriously and have a mature and fully engaged discussion on the matter.

So what’s it going to be?

June 18, 2011

"Grouping By Contrast" optical illusion

This optical illusion is yet another not-so-subtle reminder that everything we think we see is the result of our brain presenting the world to us in ways that are agent-comprehensible (i.e. the product of a filtering process that autonomously presents to us a version of the world that is (mostly) stripped of noise) and thereby evolutionarily adaptive. It's also likely the result of evolutionary limitations and quirks (there's only so much DNA can do with biological matter).


June 15, 2011

Brain Preservation Foundation featured in the latest Cryonics Magazine

The new issue of Cryonics Magazine features an article by Ken Hayworth, president of the Brain Preservation Foundation, in which he explains the thinking behind his organization's Technology Prize.

The prize, says Hayworth, draws inspiration from both the Ansari X-Prize, which incentivized the development of low-cost manned spacecrafts for use in the commercial space industry, and the as-yet-unclaimed James Randi Educational Foundation's Paranormal Challenge Prize, which challenges individuals claiming paranormal abilities to demonstrate them and win $1,000,000. In the spirit of those prizes, Hayworth believes the Technology Prize will both accelerate the development of low-cost, high-quality whole brain preservation technologies and legitimize these technologies for neuroscientists, who have so far been skeptical of cryopreservation and related techniques.

The issue also contains a response to Hayworth's article written by Alcor representative Mike Perry.

Download the complete issue of Cryonics Magazine here. For more information on the Brain Preservation Foundation and the Technology Prize, visit www.brainpreservation.org.

June 14, 2011

Adam Curtis's All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace

Adam Curtis' new documentary mini-series is now airing on the BBC: All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace. The series will investigate the role of technology in politics, economics, and self identity.

In the first episode, Love and Power, Curtis tracks the effects of Ayn Rand's ideas on American financial markets, particularly via the influence on Alan Greenspan.

Be sure to check out Curtis's other docs, especially The Trap, The Power of Nightmares, and The Century of the Self.

June 11, 2011

So I started eating meat again...

Yes, this from the guy who once said that meat eaters are bad people.

I guess that must make me a bad person.

Well, unlike many other carnivores, I'm at least cognizant of the fact that I'm exploiting animals for my own well-being. While I have made the move to a diet that contains meat, I am not completely at peace with it. I am fully aware and respectful of the fact that the meat on my plate comes at at price, that being the life of another animal.

But I have my reasons. My decision to eat meat again was driven by health concerns. I was a vegetarian for over ten years and I did so primarily for ethical reasons. It was in the last several years of being a vegetarian, however, that I grew increasingly concerned about my health. An increasing number of studies started to point at the importance of meat protein and animal fat—not to mention the perils of soy (which was a staple for me). Moreover, my performance at the gym was stalling. My energy levels were consistently low and I was making very little gains. This was an indication to me that something wasn't right.

So, after a decade of avoiding meat, I was curious to see if a reintroduction to animal protein could change the situation. I switched to the Paleo diet and within three months my BMI went down from 17% to 12% and I gained nearly ten pounds of muscle mass. I was astounded. And add to that an improved sense of well-being, mental clarity and energy— I was sold. My experiment with eating meat exceeded even my own expectations.

Now just because I'm eating meat again doesn't mean I have to be an asshole about it. Like I said earlier, I am still concerned about the well-being of animals. It's for this reason that I'm striving to be the conscious carnivore. I only eat meat from grass-fed animals that have been allowed to graze in pasture and the eggs I eat come from free-range chickens. Yes, my grocery bills are two to three times as much as they used to be, but it's a price I'm happy to pay. I feel better knowing that the meat on my plate came from an animal that actually lived a reasonably good life.

Okay, before I bury you in all this contriteness, there's something else that needs to be said. While I agree that many meat eaters can be obnoxious, inconsiderate and self-righteous in celebration of their carnivorousness, there is an equally pernicious sentiment among vegetarians that needs to be called out: the false notion that a vegetarian or vegan diet is actually good for you. Like the meat eater who needs to acknowledge the harm they're meting out as a consequence of their dietary choices, the vegetarian needs to acknowledge the fact that their diet is far from ideal.

A vegetarian's choice to avoid meat for ethical or environmental reasons is truly noble. They are willing to sacrifice their own health in order to mete out as little harm as possible. I bow down to these people in deep and profound respect.

But that said, vegetarians should not claim that their diet is optimal—because many of them do. The avoidance of meat protein and animal fats, plus the heavy reliance on soy and carbohydrates, is far from ideal. As a person concerned about his health, and as someone who feels that there are reasonable ethical options available for meat consumption, I have consciously (and perhaps selfishly) chosen to avoid a sub-optimal diet. I have come to recognize the fact that the human body evolved to eat meat, and that in order for me to live and be at my best, I need to be an omnivore.

Lastly, as a bioethicist who has strived to walk-the-walk, I am increasingly coming to grips with the fact that I cannot live an ethically or morally perfect life and that I should stop trying. I'll continue to do my best to put out as little harm into the world as possible, but existential perfection is no longer my goal.

As for my animal rights advocacy work, that still remains a top priority. I'll continue to push for better conditions at factory farms (if not the elimination of factory farming altogether), the development of cultured meat, and of course, extended rights for nonhuman animal persons.

For my vegetarian and vegan friends and colleagues, I hope you understand and continue to support me and my work.

June 7, 2011

Primal transhumanism

Primal Tanshumanism.

Oxymoron? Maybe.

Burgeoning lifestyle choice for a growing number of futurists? Most definitely.

Look, it’s 2011 and it’s glaringly obvious that we’re still quite a ways off from achieving the much heralded posthuman condition. The sad truth is that all interventions or augmentations currently available are fairly low impact by any measure. There aren’t a whole lot of high tech and sophisticated options available to radically alter human performance, experience, or life expectancy.

So what’s a transhumanist to do? Just sit around and wait for something better to come along?

Hardly. An increasing number of transhumanists are taking matters into their own hands by working with what they got. And by doing so, they're pushing the limits of their genetic potential.

While a significant segment of the transhumanist community is content to let their minds and bodies go to waste in anticipation of future interventions, there is a growing conviction amongst a number of adherents who feel that there is no better time than the present to optimize their bodies using the limited resources available. And strangely, some of these body-hacks involve an apparent technological step back.

Call it Paleo-Transhumanism

Indeed, there are a number of things we can do to extend our capacities and optimize our health in a way that’s consistent with transhumanist ideals—even if it doesn’t appear to be technologically sophisticated. While the effects of these interventions are admittedly low impact from a future-relativistic perspective, the quest for bodily and cognitive enhancement is part of the broader transhumanist aesthetic which places an emphasis on maximal performance, high quality of life, and longevity.

Consequently, anyone who professes to be a transhumanist, but does nothing to improve upon himself, is a poser. These are the people who are waiting for the magic to happen, and by consequence, are neglecting their full potential in the present moment. Transhumanism is something that's applied in the here-and-now; it’s a recognition of the radical present and all that it has to offer.

Sure, part of being a transhumanist involves the bringing about of a radical future, including scientific research and cheerleading. But it’s also a lifestyle choice; transhumanists actively strive to exceed their body’s nascent capacities, or, at the very least, work to bring about its full potential. In addition to building a radical future, a transhumanist is someone who will, at any time in history, use the tools and techniques around them to maximize their biological well-being. And while there are a number of technological interventions at our disposal–things like pharmaceuticals, implants, and hand-held devices—there is an alternative and seemingly old-fashioned approach to bodily enhancement that’s gaining considerable currency in transhumanist sub-cultures.

Much of the fuel that drives this sentiment is the notion that modernity has actually harmed human functioning more than it has helped. Take agriculture for example. While it has (arguably) propelled human civilization forward, it has paradoxically worked to undermine human health. Anthropologists are revealing that, when compared to our Paleolithic-era ancestors, modern humans have less bone density, are smaller, and more disease ridden. Modern foods, most of which are highly processed and infused with salt and sugar, is the primary culprit—as are apparent “natural” foods like whole grains and rice. Compounding this situation is the shift from active to passive existences; modern humans now bask in the glow of their computer monitors instead of the sun. Our bodies were not meant for this kind of sedentary life and we’re now having to cope with a batch of modern diseases.

A solution to all this, it would seem, is adopting a lifestyle that is more suited to our biological needs. While it might sound contradictory to those with a futuristic bent, adopting a lifestyle that more closely approximates that of our Paleolithic ancestors would do more to foster human health than a continuation of modern habits and norms.

Strong and fit is the new geek

Okay, at the risk of sounding like a complete Luddite, I’m not suggesting that you sell your belongings and move into a cave. It’s not like that. I’m still hoping that you cart around your iPad, philosophize about the coming Singularity, and implant magnets into your finger tips. But I also feel that we need to take an evolutionary approach to human health, namely lifestyle choices that place a greater emphasis on primal eating, exercising, sleeping, and other health factors. This is how the modern transhumanist can best unlock her biological potential.

In terms of specifics, these choices include the Paleolithic diet (also called the caveman diet), fully functional interval training executed at high intensity, and 7-8 hours of sleep each night in complete darkness.

Sounds simple, and even too good to be true, but for those of us who live according to these rules the results have been extraordinary.

And when I say us I mean a good number of prominent transhumanists, a list that includes Max More, Natasha Vita-More, James Hughes, Bruce Klein, and Patri Friedman. Max and Natasha in particular have treated their bodies as shrines since the very beginning, setting a positive example for transhumanists for quite some time.

Indeed, being strong and fit is the new geek. Though not a transhumanist by name, author Timothy Ferris’s latest book, The Four Hour Body, highlights a number of techniques and “body hacks” that work to produce what he calls “superhuman” results.

I’m not sure what’s more ironic: that a primitive approach to eating and fitness is the best way to optimize human health and performance, or that computer nerds are catching on and becoming complete bad-asses by engaging in these kinds of body hacks.

Back to basics: Diet and exercise

It's been said that in order to truly comprehend anything in biology it has to be viewed through the lens of natural selection. If we are to improve human health and performance we need to study our evolutionary underpinnings. Our bodies are adapted to a very specific kind of environment, namely the one our ancestors lived in over the course of hundreds of thousands of years. Consequently, because our species has remained largely unchanged since Paleolithic times, we are best suited to live under a very specific set of conditions.

The Paleo-diet is one approach that works to match the specific way our ancestors ate. It's a diet that has gained serious traction in the fitness communities, not because of any commitment to naturalism or Luddism, but because it works. The primal approach to eating is now the go-to diet for many professional and elite athletes. And it's safe to suggest they wouldn't be doing it if it didn't get them results.

Adherents of this diet basically reject any foods that arrived after the onset of the agricultural revolution. To that end, they consume copious amounts of meat (typically free-range, organic, and grass fed) and vegetables, along with some fruit, nuts, and seeds. Primal eaters take a very liberal approach to consuming fats, while remaining wary of gluten, high-density carbohydrates, and sugars of any sort. So, no whole grains, pasta, rice, potatoes, dairy, or processed foods. While it may sound incredibly restrictive, it’s actually not that severe; there’s considerable culinary potential even within those constraints.

But it’s not enough to base an entire diet on a philosophical or aesthetic appreciation of our primal ancestry. There has to be proven efficacy and hard science to back it up. And indeed a growing literature is emerging that both supports and propels this approach to eating. Paleo advocates like Robb Wolf, Loren Cordain, and Mat Lalonde pour through scientific studies revealing the dangers of Neolithic and processed foods while highlighting the benefits of eating whole foods.

Often accompanying the Paleo diet is a fully functional approach to fitness. The old model of going to the global gym, hitting the treadmill, and working on isolation movements in the weight room is increasingly coming to be seen as old fashioned and ineffectual. Instead, there’s a new emphasis on constantly varied compound movements performed at high intensity for short intervals. A functional movement is anything our bodies are meant to do: lift, push, pull, drag, climb, run, and jump. These exercise sessions, which depending on the workout can range anywhere from five to 25 minutes, tend to be both physically and psychologically demanding. But the gains are tremendous.

A fitness model that best exemplifies this approach is CrossFit. It's a strength and conditioning program that combines weightlifting, sprinting, gymnastics, powerlifting, kettlebell training, plyometrics, rowing, and medicine ball training. Founded by Greg Glassman over a decade ago, CrossFit gyms are starting to pop-up around the world. CrossFit's impact has been nothing short of revolutionary; it has turned fitness into an actual sport. Its major claim is that, through its system of tackling all ten fitness domains (cardiovascular/respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, agility, balance, coordination, and accuracy) it produces the best results and the worlds fittest athletes.

As a CrossFitter myself, I can certainly vouch for these claims. When I first started nearly three years ago I could barely do a push-up. Back then a 125 pound deadlift nearly made me pass out. These days, a workout involving a hundred push-ups isn't out of the question. I have a 265 pound backsquat and I’m only five pounds away from a 400 pound deadlift. And this from a guy who spent most of his adult life completely inactive. There's no question in my mind that the CrossFit approach is the best one. At least for me.

Being physically strong is no joke or a petty indulgence. And it is of utmost importance to those interested in extending longevity. I would make the case that physical strength does more to prolong healthy lifespan than any other lifestyle factor available today—including caloric restriction. Studies have shown that strength can add as much as a decade to your life.

In addition to proper eating and exercise, the primal lifestyle also advocates a natural approach to sleeping, which means 7-8 hours per night in the complete pitch dark. Indeed, studies have shown that this length of time is optimal and that any kind of light interrupts sleep in non-trivial ways.

Primal transhumanism...for now

I'm going to conclude with a quick reality check.

As stated earlier, the primal approach is a stop-gap measure for transhumanists until something better comes along. Those looking to optimize their health and performance in the here-and-now should seriously consider adopting this lifestyle.

This approach is certainly a "soft" form of transhumanism and it's definitely no match for what's still to come. Our transition away from Homo sapiens will be accompanied by more impactful technologies—interventions like genomics, cybernetics, neuropharma, and molecular nanotechnology. Once we have access to these technologies we will truly be able invoke the "trans" in "transhumanism" as our species migrates into a posthuman and potentially post-biological condition.

And in the meantime, love your body. It's all you got.

June 4, 2011

Uplift gone wrong: Rise of the Planet of the Apes [trailer]

Whoa. Guess where I'm going to be opening night...

Cyborg M4p1

Photo by azuaravaconmigo.

Advanced civs might live off black holes

Clement Vidal of the Evolution, Complexity and Cognition group at the Vrije Universiteit in Brussels recently published a neat paper called "Black Holes: Attractors for Intelligence?" Abstract:
The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) has so far been unsuccessful and needs additional methods. We introduce a two-dimensional metric for civilization development, using the Kardashev scale of energy increase and the Barrow scale of inward manipulation. To support Barrow's scale limit, we contend with energetic, societal, scientific, computational, and philosophical arguments that black holes are attractors for intelligence. An application of the two-dimensional metric leads to a simple, consistent and observable hypothesis to test the existence of very advanced civilizations. We suggest that some already observed X-Ray binaries may be unnoticed advanced civilizations, of type KII-B Ω. The appendix provides an argumentative map of the paper's main thesis.
Ray Villard of Discovery elaborates:
Civilizations may try to live forever by exploiting the time-dilation effects near a black hole to hibernate and survive into the very far-future universe. Something like this is wonderfully described in Isaac Asimov's short story "The Last Question." A hyper-computer called the Cosmic AC reboots the universe after our cosmos has fully entropied. After mulling over the darkness, the multidimensional machine says: "Let there be light!"

Ultimately, a super-civilization may attempt to artificially create a universe in the laboratory via black hole fabrication. This far-out notion of artificial cosmogenesis might explain why the many constants in our universe are so precisely tuned for our existence.

For example dark energy -- a repulsive form of gravity -- is a whopping 123 orders of magnitude weaker than what would have been predicted from quantum physics. This could not have happened by coincidence unless there is an infinity of parallel universes with their own different dark energy values, speculate some astrophysicists.

Or instead, dark energy is a signal of –- dare I say -- intelligent design. I’m not implying spiritual metaphysics here, but perhaps our universe might simply be a science fair project of an entity from an exo-universe.
Always happy to see alternative approaches to SETI.