July 28, 2011

Project Nim trailer

Looks like a good example of cultural uplift.

I also recommend the RadioLab episode, "Lucy." Description:
The haunting epic of Lucy the chimpanzee. When Lucy was only two days old, she was adopted by psychologist Dr. Maurice K. Temerlin and his wife Jane. The Temerlins wondered, if given the right environment, how human could Lucy become? We hear from Lucy's language tutor, Dr. Roger Fouts, Lucy's caretaker and eventual friend, Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, and Mr. Temerlin himself... or his words anyway, read by radio host David Garland. And writer Charles Siebert helps us to make sense of Lucy's story.

July 26, 2011

The ethics of animal enhancement

Humanity’s relationship with animals has varied drastically over the millennia.

Animals were once (and some still are) our predators, contributing directly to the course of human evolution. They have inspired us to art—right from the time we were first able to translate our thoughts onto the walls of a cave. They have played an indelible part in our religions, at once the object of reverence, and later the object of our dominion. We have made them into our beasts of burden. They have entertained us. Animals have joined us in combat as our vehicles, weapons and messengers. We have kept animals as our companions, tried and punished them in human courts, moulded them into bizarre forms and driven entire species into extinction. Today, our relationship with animals is still changing, the most recent development being the rise of the animal rights movement.

The modern animal rights movement was given its kick-start in 1975 by Australian bioethicist Peter Singer by virtue of his seminal book, Animal Liberation. Since that time, Singer has worked to advance the notion that personhood, in both the cognitive and legal sense, is not exclusive to Homo sapiens. To this end, he founded the Great Ape Project, which in addition to advocating for ape personhood, sets aside more modest tasks like establishing minimum space requirements for animals in confinement.

Singer's revolution is arguably still in its infancy, but there have been some breakthroughs in the past twenty years that are taking the movement to the next phase. New Zealand took the first steps by passing an animal welfare act in 1999 declaring that research, testing or teaching involving the use of a great ape requires government approval—a move that essentially banned the practices. Britain soon thereafter invoked a similar ban. More recently, in April 2006 members of Spain's socialist party announced that it would introduce a bill calling for “the immediate inclusion of (simians) in the category of persons, and that they be given the moral and legal protection that currently are only enjoyed by human beings.” New Zealand is current working to introduce similar legislation, hoping to promote ape status from property to person. Such measures would represent a noteworthy step beyond mere moral consideration to that of enforceable protections. Should these bills be passed, states would be responsible for the welfare and protection of legally recognized nonhuman persons.

And of course, there's my Rights of Non-Human Persons program hosted by the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies where we're hoping to see a number of candidate species granted human-level rights and protections.

The rationale behind these various efforts is the realization that some non-human animals and humans share similar psychological attributes such as the capacity for strong self-awareness, emotion, empathy and language. Work in genetics has revealed that the great apes and humans share nearly 98-percent of their genome. Various intelligence tests, brain scans and observations indicate cognitive faculties similar to those of humans. Given the mounting scientific and empirical evidence, it is becoming increasingly unacceptable to withhold consent in regards to acknowledging the presence of animal consciousness and emotional experience.

As these initiatives move forward, and as the animal rights movement continues to evolve, it can be said that humanity’s relationship with animals has transitioned from subjugation to moral consideration. And tomorrow it will transition from moral consideration to social co-existence.

The ethical imperative to uplift

Enhancement biotechnologies will profoundly impact on the nature of this co-existence. Today, efforts are placed on simply protecting animals. Tomorrow, humanity will likely strive to take this further – to endow nonhuman animals with the requisite faculties that will enable individual and group self-determination, and more broadly, to give them the cognitive and social skills that will allow them to participate in the larger social politic that includes all sentient life.

As many transhumanists and technoprogressives are inclined to point out, human enhancement offers an unprecedented opportunity for the human species to transcend biological limitations. These include not just the benefits of what may be gained, but also the benefits of what may be discarded.

In terms of what humanity may hope to gain, there are potential enhancements such as greater health and wellness, increased intelligence and memory, improved psychological control, longer lives, and novel capacities. Some of the principal arguments in favour include the recognition of fundamental bio-rights that include reproductive, morphological, and cognitive liberties. Healthier people, it is argued, will also save individuals and their governments from spending inordinate sums of money that are currently required to battle all types of ailments, including the costs of aging itself. It is also argued that enhancement technologies will result in persons more capable and willing to engage in social and political causes. In this sense, transhumanism holds radical promise for the furtherance of democratic and participatory values.

As to what humanity may hope to lose with biological augmentation, humans are poised to discard their often fragile and susceptible biological forms. It is hoped that the ravages of aging will be brought to an end, as well as the arbitrariness of the genetic lottery. More conceptually, human evolution is poised to go undergo an evolution of its own where it goes from unconscious Darwinian selection to deliberate and guided quasi-Lamarckianism. Driving this transition is the ingrained human desire to move beyond a state of nature in which an existential mode is imposed upon Homo sapiens, to one in which humanity can grow increasingly immune to unconscious and arbitrary processes. An emergent property of intelligence is its collective aversion to chaos; it perpetually works to increase levels of order and organization.

These compulsions are held by many to represent strong ethical and legal imperatives. Given the animal rights movement's goal to increase the moral circle to include higher animals, and given that a strong scientific case can be made in favour of animal personhood, a time will come for humanity to conclude that what is good for the goose is also good for the gander.

Furthermore, it would be unethical, negligent and even hypocritical of humans to enhance only themselves and ignore the larger community of sapient nonhuman animals. The idea of humanity entering into an advanced state of biological and/or postbiological existence while the rest of nature is left behind to fend for itself is distasteful.

Why uplift nonhuman animals? What is it that we hope they will gain? Ultimately, the goal of uplift is to foster better lives. By increasing the rational faculties of animals, and by giving them the tools to better manage themselves and their environment, they stand to gain everything that we have come to value as a species.

Issues of fairness, primary goods and distributive justice

The suggestion that a moral imperative exists to uplift sapient nonhumans implies that humans have an obligation to do so. Political and moral philosophers have struggled with the issue of obligations since the beginning of human social organization, due mostly to apparent incompatibilities and inconsistencies between liberty and the sense of imposition or even coercion.

Various frameworks have been proposed to deal with these issues, including social contract frameworks devised by Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Kant. More recently, and in the context of human enhancement, there has been the work of Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen who have proposed a capabilities approach in which an individual’s “functioning” is tied directly to the quality of their ability to act in society.

Quite obviously these frameworks have interesting ramifications for arguments in support of uplift scenarios, but the most potent methodology that can be applied to the issue of bringing nonhumans into the human social fold is the theory of justice proposed by philosopher John Rawls. While concerned with human society, Rawls’s theories reveal a high degree of relevance to issues of animal welfare, particularly when one ascribes a certain degree of moral worth and personhood consideration to sapient nonhumans.

One of Rawls’s more important contributions to political theory was his concept of the original position in which individuals decide principles of justice from behind a veil of ignorance. The purpose of Rawls’s thought experiment was to weed out any preconceived notions of social position or privilege in order to devise the fairest of social arrangements – the general idea being that ignorance of one’s social position and capabilities will result in the creation of the fairest and most equitable of frameworks. As Rawls noted, in the original position “no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like. I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities. The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance.” Rawls’s special claim is that all those in the original position would adopt a risk-minimizing strategy that would maximize the position of the least well off.

Rawls understandably chose a reference class of Homo sapiens, but for reasons already discussed, there is no good reason to exclude nonhumans from this thought experiment. In fact, one could argue that Rawls provisioned, either intentionally or unintentionally, the inclusion of nonhumans by virtue of including psychological and physical propensities in the list. Consequently, Rawls’s veil of ignorance should also obscure knowledge of one’s species.

Decisions about justice and fairness, argued Rawls, would ultimately lead to consensus on issues of rights and duties and the distribution of social and economic advantages. In regards to how these principles were to be executed, Rawls suggested that they be crafted in such a way as to be of the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society. Considering that nonhumans are completely shut-out from the social contract and carry negligible social standing, they should be considered among the most least-advantaged (applying what is referred to as the difference principle).

Quite obviously, even the most sentient and social of nonhuman animals lack the requisite cognitive and linguistic faculties to engage in advanced society; the human monopoly on what is regarded as “society” has arisen as a consequence of gross discrepancies in abilities. At first blush, therefore, social considerations for animals would appear to be a non-issue (and even nonsensical). However, pending enhancement biotechnologies alter this picture dramatically.

For nonhuman animals these discrepancies in abilities qualifies as a deficient primary good required for the attainment of fair and equal opportunity. Like some humans who argue that they have fared poorly in the genetic lottery, it can be said that nonhumans have missed out in the species lottery. Thus, when considering agents who are provisioning for a just society in the original position, and considering that the reference class should include sapient non-humans, it is fair and reasonable to assert that they would make contingencies for the uplift of nonhumans given the availability of the technologies that would allow for such endowments. To do otherwise would be an unfair distribution of primary goods that are requisites for political participation, liberty and justice. As Rawls surmised, individuals in the original position would adopt those principles that would govern the assignment of rights and duties and regulate the distribution of social and economic advantages across society.

Given the very real potential for biological augmentation some time later this century, the means to better distribute primary goods will eventually come into being and will by consequence enter into the marketplace of distributable primary goods. To deny nonhumans access to enhancement technologies, therefore, would be a breach of distributive justice and an act of genetic or biological exceptionalism – the idea that one’s biological constitution falls into a special category of goods that lie outside other sanctioned or recognized primary goods. Such claims, as argued by Allen Buchanan and others, do not carry much moral currency.

Indeed, liberal theories of distributive justice necessarily provide for the elimination or mitigation of the undeserved effects of luck on welfare. Fair equality of opportunity, argued Rawls, requires not merely that offices and positions be distributed on the basis of merit, but that all persons have reasonable opportunity to acquire the skills on the basis of which merit is assessed. These skills, in the context of animal uplift, are the biological augmentations that would enable social interaction at the “human” level (at the very least).

Critics contend that Rawls’s idea was to examine how a just society could be created no matter the socioeconomic or morphological composition of its members. The argument from Rawls, they argue, is that humans need to create an environment that will allow humans to be happy as humans and animals happy as animals.

What this line of thinking fails to take into account, however, is the presence of those primary goods in society that, when not equally distributed, prevent persons from living a just life. As Rawls noted, each person has an equal right to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties which is compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for all. The introduction of uplift biotechnologies will greatly perturb the sense that Homo sapiens is the only species on the planet deserving of our most fundamental values.

The issue of consent

While it can be argued that humans are obligated to integrate sapient nonhumans into a larger inter-species society, the question of consent must also be addressed. Unfortunately, no matter how hard we try we would never be able to convey the complexities of the issue to nonhumans, and thus, cannot depend on getting informed consent from the agents themselves. In this sense, it is a situation similar to the ethical quandary of genetic modifications and the consent of the unborn and young children. Consent (or non-consent), therefore, has to be deduced and inferred by proxy.

Again, the Rawlsian framework offers a way to deal with the issue. As Rawls noted, the veil of ignorance hides knowledge of one’s actual psychological disposition. As already argued, psychological dispositions can be reasonably interpreted in such a way as to include the psychological and physical condition of nonhuman animals. Assuming that a nonhuman would participate in the original position experiment as a free and rational decision-making agent, it’s not unreasonable to conclude that they would, like humans, come to the same set of principles designed to protect the interests of the entire reference class.

Persons in the original position, it is reasonable to say, would be very concerned about incarnating as a nonhuman animal and would undoubtedly work to ensure that all the safeguards be put in place to protect their potential interests. Moreover, knowledge of how uplift biotechnologies could better disseminate primary goods among the species would most certainly be a weighty consideration. Actors in the original position would employ game theoretic logic in making their decisions, employing the maximin strategy in which choices produce the highest payoff for the worst outcome. The prospect of coming into the world as a great ape, elephant or dolphin in the midst of an advanced human civilization can be reasonably construed as a worst outcome.

Therefore, humanity can assume that it has the consent of sapient nonhumans to biologically uplift.

Less conceptually, there is an alternative way in which both consent and uplift efficacy can be determined: uplift sampling. Rather than uplift an entire species, several individuals could be uplifted in order to assess the effectiveness of the experiment. Uplifted animals could conceivably act as spokespersons for their species and provide a valuable insight into the process and whether or not the change was desirable.

All together now

A future world in which humans co-exist with uplifted whales, elephants and apes certainly sounds bizarre. The idea of a United Nations in which there is a table for the dolphin delegate seems more fantasy than reality. Such a future, however, even when considering the presence of uplifted animals, may not turn out just quite the way we think it will.

Intelligence on the planet Earth is set to undergo a sea change. Post-Singularity minds will either be manifest as cybernetic organisms, or more likely, as uploaded beings. Given the robust nature of computational substrate, intelligence is set to expand and diversify in ways that we cannot yet grasp, suffice to say that postbiological beings will scarcely resemble our current incarnation.

In this sense, “postbiological” is a more appropriate term than “posthuman”. The suggestion that posthumans will live amongst post-apes and post-elephants misses the point that a convergence of intelligences awaits us in our future. Our biological heritage may only likely play a very minor part in our larger postbiological constitution – much like the reptilian part of our brain does today in terms of our larger neurological functioning.

And like the other sapient animals who share the planet with us, and with whom we can claim a common genetic lineage, we will one day look back in awe as to what was once our shared biological heritage.

Responding to Futurismic's rejection of animal enhancement

Paul Raven of Futurismic has taken me to task on my views of animal uplift. In response to my question, "Ultimately, we have to ask ourselves, why wouldn’t we wish to endow our primate cousins with the same cognitive gifts that we have?" Raven responds:
Because they are not us. We are related, certainly, this much is inescapable, but a chimpanzee is not a human being, and to insist that uplift is a moral duty is to enshrine the inferiority-to-us of the great apes, not to sanctify their uniqueness. This is the voice of assimilation, the voice of homogenisation, the voice of empire. It is the voice of colonialist arrogance, and a form of species fascism. If we have any moral duty toward our genetic cousins, it is to protect them from the ravages we have committed on the world they have always lived in balance with. Why raise them up to our hallowed state of consciousness if all they stand to inherit is a legacy of a broken planet and a political framework that legitimises the exploitation of those considered to carry a debt to society’s most powerful?
Raven goes on to object my comparison of cultural uplift with biological uplift:
To assume that we know what is good for an ape better than an ape itself is an act of spectacular arrogance, and no amount of dressing it up in noble colonial bullshit about civilising the natives will conceal that arrogance.

Furthermore, that said dressing-up can be done by people who frequently wring their hands over the ethical implications of the marginal possibility of sentient artificial intelligences getting upset about how they came to be made doesn’t go a long way toward defending the accusations of myopic technofetish, body-loathing and silicon-cultism that transhumanism’s more vocal detractors are fond of using.
There are a couple of things I want to make clear here.

First, when I talk about the "same cognitive gifts that we have," I am not necessarily suggesting that we humanize non-human animals—though I concede that some human characteristics, such as the capacity for speech and complex recursive language, are important augmentations. More accurately, I am discussing animal uplift in the context of the broader thrust that sees not just humans move away from the Darwinian paradigm, but the entire ecosystem itself. I realize that's not a small or subtle thing, but eventually our entire planet's biosphere will come under the auspices of intelligent oversight—what in some circles has been referred to as technogaianism. We are poised to systematically replace a number of autonomous environmental and evolutionary systems with new and improved ones that will see a dramatic reduction in global suffering and a much more vibrant planet. And quite obviously it'll also be part of our efforts to fix the damage we've done thus far to Earth. So, when I talk about enhancing animals, I'm talking about bringing them into the postbiological fold along with us. To just leave the animal kingdom alone to fend for itself seems plain wrong and repugnant to me.

And the critics can call it technofetishism or body loathing or by any other reactionary superlative. I call it common sense and intuitive thinking. It's also very likely the destiny of life on Earth.

Second, and related to the first point, I think many of my detractors must have a very different definition of imperialism than I do. What they see as imperialism (though I'm not exactly sure what they're suggesting humans are exploiting here) I see as compassion. I find it interesting how many critics of uplift call upon Western norms and taboos to make their case, while my ethics is almost exclusively informed by Eastern philosophies, namely Buddhism. I look at animal uplift in the same way I do any other compassionate act in which a human or non-human animal is pulled-up from deplorable conditions, whether it be extreme poverty, or having to survive alone in the jungle.

I'm going to issue a challenge to the opponents of animal uplift: Go back and live in the forest. I mean it. Reject all the technological gadgetry in your possession and all the institutions and specialists you've come to depend on. Throw away your phones, your shoes, your glasses and your watches. Denounce your education. As I'm sure I don't have to remind anybody, it's these things that have uplifted humanity from it's more primitive "natural" state. Humans haven't been truly human for thousands of years; we've been transhuman for quite some time now. If you reject animal uplift, then you must reject your very own transhuman condition.

Yeah, like that's going to happen. Pretty easy to dismiss uplift from the position of privilege, isn't it? Who's the real imperialist, here?

July 25, 2011

Controlling your environment with thought alone

Hmm, should we call it techekinesis? The latest brain-computer interfaces are meeting smart home technology and virtual gaming. From New Scientist:
Two friends meet in a bar in the online environment Second Life to chat about their latest tweets and favourite TV shows. Nothing unusual in that - except that both of them have Lou Gehrig's disease, otherwise known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and it has left them so severely paralysed that they can only move their eyes.

These Second Lifers are just two of more than 50 severely disabled people who have been trying out a sophisticated new brain-computer interface (BCI). Second Life has been controlled using BCIs before, but only to a very rudimentary level. The new interface, developed by medical engineering company G.Tec of Schiedlberg, Austria, lets users freely explore Second Life's virtual world and control their avatar within it.

It can be used to give people control over their real-world environment too: opening and closing doors, controlling the TV, lights, thermostat and intercom, answering the phone, or even publishing Twitter posts.

The system was developed as part of a pan-European project called Smart Homes for All, and is the first time the latest BCI technology has been combined with smart-home technology and online gaming. It uses electroencephalograph (EEG) caps to pick up brain signals, which it translates into commands that are relayed to controllers in the building, or to navigate and communicate within Second Life and Twitter.

Trailer for "H+" web series

In the not-too-distant future, most of humanity has forsaken smartphones and the trappings of technology for "HPlus," a direct connection to the Internet via a neural transmitter.

And then someone uploads a virus. All of the world's HPlus users, a full third of the world's population, suddenly die.

If this sounds intriguing, you're not alone. Bryan Singer (The X-Men movies, The Usual Suspects, Superman Returns) is serving as producer for the second Warner Premiere Digital Web series, made in conjunction with Dolphin Entertainment. Warner Premiere is expected to show the final episode of its first Web series, the live-action "Mortal Kombat: Legacy," at the Comic-Con show this week in Los Angeles.
More here.

Using culture to enhance

Biological uplift is one of two major ways in which a human or animal can be endowed with superior or alternative ways of physical or psychological functioning. Memetic uplift, or cultural uplift, is distinguished from biological uplift in that it typically involves members of the same species and does not require any intrinsic biological alteration to the organism. While profound biological uplift is still set to happen at some point in the future, cultural transmission and memetic uplift have already been an indelible part of human history. And for some non-human animals living today it's proving to play an important part in their development as well.

Memetic uplift can be construed as a soft form of uplift. Memes are by their very nature rather ethereal cultural artifacts, whereas biological uplift entails actual physical and cognitive transformation. That’s not to suggest that inter-generational non-genetic transfer of information is subtle. Society and culture have a significant impact on the makeup of an individual. That said, human psychology is powered by genetic predispositions that function as proclivity engines, endowing persons with their unique personalities, tendencies and latent abilities.

Proclivities do not exist in a vacuum, of course, and that is why the environment continues to play an integral role in the development of the entire phenotype. How persons are socialized and which memes they are exposed to determines to a large part who and what individuals are as sentient, decision-making agents. Consequently, people are constrained and moulded in a non-trivial way by their culture-space. Humans have moved beyond their culturally and phenotypically primitive Paleolithic forms owing to the influence of an advanced culturally extended phenotype and the subsequent rise of exosomatic minds and bodies.

An example of memetic uplift

One of the most striking examples of memetic uplift was the colonization of the Americas by the Europeans. From a macrohistorical perspective, the clash of European and indigenous American civilizations was one between a post-feudal monarchist society and a Stone Age culture. The wide technological and cultural gap separating the two societies gave the Europeans a considerable edge in their ability to successfully wage an invasion that resulted in the embedding of their political, economic, and religious institutions on the continent. The Europeans were also proactive about “civilizing” aboriginal peoples – in some cases forcing them to attend English schools or converting them to Christianity. Today, very few aboriginals, if any, are able to maintain a lifestyle that even modestly resembles life in pre-colonial times.

There is a risk, however, of overstating this episode as an example of cultural invasion or uplift. It was a slow and protracted process of cultural transference – one in which memetic transmission was bi-directional (albeit somewhat lopsidedly). Cultural extinction of native life did not occur, but instead suffered significant erosion. Further, the colonization of the Americas resulted in mutation and the emergence of an entirely new set of cultures.

This period was traumatic in a real sense and it is often considered one of the more regrettable periods of human history. Yet the episode raises a number of issues and the opportunity for some thought experiments. Was it inevitable? If not, how is it possible that history could have been replayed any differently? Could it have been done with greater sensitivity and concern for the native way of life? Would our society today do a better job? Assuming a hands-off policy could have been exercised with regards to the intermingling of civilizations, would it have been ethical to allow the aboriginals to continue living a Stone Age life? Assuming this is truly an example of cultural uplift, in which ways was it a success and in which a failure?

These are difficult questions with complex answers. However, as history has shown, the intermingling and assimilation of disparate cultures was and is an indelible part of the human condition. Information swapping is a developmental reality that has been largely unavoidable. Such is the nature of data accumulation, organization and transmission at the hands of intelligence. The question at the dawn of the twenty-first century is how genetic information will be organized and transmitted—and to whom.

Conceptions of progress and the rise of cultural relativism

The European colonization of the Americas, along with other similar episodes, is an extremely sensitive area of debate, often leading to discussions that skirt the fringes of acceptability in terms of political correctness. Part of the problem is the rise of cultural relativism, particularly as it as it pertains to the assessment of ancient life and how it compares to modernity.

Objective assessment is often difficult, in part the result of the romantic perceptions that many people carry of pre-civilizational existence and the cynical take some have in regards to modern life. Factors contributing to this sentiment include the disruptive nature of technological advance on individuals and cultures, the failed totalitarian experiments of the twentieth century, the two catastrophic world wars, the rise of apocalyptic threats, and the calamitous effects of modern society on the environment.

Driving this negative view of modern society even further is the prevailing pseudohistorical romanticization of primitive life evident in popular culture and perpetuated by a number of intellectuals. What the biblical “Garden of Eden” and Rousseauian “noble savage” myths often fail to take into account, however, is how nasty, brutish and short life used to be. A strong case can be made that social and technological progress happens for a reason, namely the steady improvement of conditions and the pursuit of a more dignified and fulfilling life for individuals. Humanity is a self-domesticating species.

Given where humanity finds itself today—particularly in regards to the benefits of technologies and institutions that are all too often taken for granted—very few people would voluntarily choose to go back to a Stone Age way of life. The memetic endowments of human civilization not only allow people to actualize and express themselves better, but also protect individuals from the dangers of nature, arbitrariness, and undue suffering in general.

A common criticism levied at this line of reasoning is that it is coming from the perspective of “home-field advantage.” Given the often deplorable experience of aboriginal people who have been integrated into modern society, it is often assumed that natives would be happier living a tribal existence and if given the opportunity would voluntarily return to such a life. Further, some argue that there is no correlation between technological development and increasing levels of happiness.

Recent events involving Columbia’s isolated nomadic Nukak Maku tribe contradict these assumptions. In May of 2006, a group of nearly 80 Nukak left the jungle and asked to “join the White Family.” This event offered an unprecedented opportunity to determine the state of mind of those wishing to leave Stone Age life. It is one thing to ask an integrated aboriginal whether or not he wishes to return to tribal life when he has never lived such a life, and quite another thing to ask an aboriginal who has actually been there.

When asked if they were sad to leave the jungle a Nukak named Pia-pe laughed at the suggestion and proclaimed that they “could not be happier.” The Nukak, who were used to long marches in search of food, were amazed at the open availability of foodstuffs. When asked what they liked the most, they responded with a lengthy list of items that included pots, skillets, matches, soap, pants, shoes, caps, rice, sugar, oil, flour, eggs and onions. One young Nukak mother noted, “When you walk in the jungle your feet hurt a lot.” The group is learning to plant crops and intend on sending their children to local schools.

At first glance the story of the Nukaks appears to be a success, but only time will tell. It appears that the local population has been very accommodating to the newcomers. This is a far cry from the events that characterized the broader integration of Native Americans—a development that was marred by the dominating and bellicose nature of the invaders and their failure to bring aboriginals into the larger social circle. This is a struggle that persists to this very day, and in this sense it is still a work in progress.

That said, virtually all episodes in which primitive cultures are influenced by more advanced ones represent precursors to the biological uplift of highly sapient nonhuman species.

Cultural uplift of nonhuman animals

Culture, as many zoologists can attest, is hardly the exclusive domain of humans. Animals such as the great apes and dolphins have the ability not just for language skills, but for being able to pass memes down from generation to generation. This raises an interesting question: Given that some nonhuman animals are capable of engaging in cultural activities, and given that we value certain attributes about human culture, is it both possible and desirable to share our culture with other species?

The Great Ape Trust in Iowa is engaging in an activity that is exploring this very issue. In their experiment, bonobos, which are part of the great ape family that includes chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans, have been given their own house in which to live and dwell. In 2005, organizers placed eight bonobos in a multi-million dollar facility in what is hoped will be a successful long term and multi-generational experiment.

The house is equipped with 18 rooms that include a kitchen in which to prepare meals and vending machines that dispense snacks. There are flushing lavatories, an indoor waterfall and walls for climbing. When it comes time to eat, the apes help their human handlers prepare meals in a compound kitchen. The bonobos can monitor the front door with a camera and decide for themselves who can come in—although they are known for welcoming visitors and often taking newcomers by the hand to show them around the complex.

In addition to the rudiments of daily domestic life, the bonobos have access to art supplies, musical instruments and entertainment, including television. Researchers hope that with the right stimulation the bonobos, who already understand a limited human vocabulary, will develop skills that include language, art and music. If successful, the experiment would show that many activities previously thought of as uniquely human are not innate to Homo sapiens.

One of the bonobos, a 25-year-old, can accurately answer questions equivalent to that of a three-year-old human and is able to make up sentences using several lexigram words. In addition, because chimps' vocal tracts make it impossible for them to replicate human speech, the bonobos communicate by using touch-sensitive computer screens with over 250 symbols. Like their human handlers, the apes are using their newfound tools to overcome their biological limitations.

Indeed, over the course of the experiment the lines between cultural and biological uplift are already starting to blur. The bonobos have even been given a type of cybernetic augmentation in the form of a voice synthesizer to vocalize their desires.

Without more significant biological augmentation, however, the Great Ape Trust experiment has its limitations. Thomas Suddendorf, an experimental psychologist from Queensland, is skeptical about the researchers’ hopes that the apes will learn to communicate more complex notions. He contends that bonobo psychology is intractably limited, citing their inability to consider abstract concepts such as past or future, their inability to grasp syntax, and the fact that they have yet to display active teaching behaviours.

Nevertheless, the Great Ape Trust model is an excellent starting block for not just cultural uplift, but for biological uplift as well. This endeavor is not meant to assimilate or “humanize” nonhuman species, but instead efforts that work to advance apes and their proto-culture. In this way, bonobos and other potentially uplifted nonhumans will ideally become autonomous decision making agents within a larger inter-species society. As the organizers of the Trust themselves state, the apes’ intelligence, communication, social interactions and cultural expression must be advanced respectfully, honorably and openly.

In looking at the colonization of the Americas, and considering ongoing trends in economic, political and cultural globalization, it appears that more advanced civilizations influence, either actively or passively, other less developed societies to come along for the ride. As the human moral and legal purview expands to include nonhuman persons, it is not too extreme to suggest that humanity will increasingly come to be concerned with the welfare of highly sapient animals. Uplift need not be considered unjust or coercive; the impetus that drives human civilization is one of progress and refinement. Consequently, it may not only be a good thing to uplift nonhuman animals, it may also be within the realm of human obligations.

July 24, 2011

Robert Ettinger, 1918-2011

Robert Ettinger, the father of modern cryonics, passed away yesterday on July 23 at the age of 92. He will primarily be remembered for his 1962 book, The Prospect of Immortality, and his 1968 book, Man into Superman, both of which are considered pioneering works in the cryonics and transhumanist movements. From the Telegraph:
After the war he returned to teach physics at Wayne State University and at a college outside Michigan. He had begun brooding on the possibilities of cryonics in the 1930s, and was later inspired by The Jameson Satellite, a science-fiction short story by Neil Jones, about a man who has his corpse placed into orbit in the belief that the cold of outer space would preserve him.

Millions of years passed, and the human race died out. Then a race of advanced aliens came along with mechanical bodies; they took the man's frozen brain, and put it in a mechanical body.

"It was immediately obvious to me," recalled Ettinger, "that the author had missed the main point of his own story – namely that if there was any sense at all in expecting a frozen person to be revived someday, there was no point in waiting for aliens to do it in millions of years. We could do it ourselves in a very short time, and not just for a few eccentrics, but for everybody."

"We have to wait for the technology of revival. But we have to see to the arrangements of freezing ourselves, because most of us are going to die long before the technology of revival is there."
In 1947 Ettinger wrote a short story on the theme, fully expecting that other more influential people would pick up on his idea. When, by 1960, no mass freezing programme had been initiated, Ettinger wrote an essay on the subject, dealing mainly with "the insurance aspect", which he sent to some 200 people selected at random from Who's Who In America.

There was "virtually zero response", and he therefore wrote The Prospect of Immortality, which was first published privately. The sequel, Man Into Superman, appeared in 1968.

Ettinger retired from teaching in 1972, but to the end remained convinced that cryonics would catch on.

"Someday there will be some sort of psychological trigger that will move all these people to take the practical steps they have not yet taken. When people realise that their children and grandchildren will enjoy indefinite life," he said, "that they may well be the last generation to die."

July 22, 2011

Uplift fears: Scientists warn of 'Planet of the Apes' scenario

Wow, animal uplift just got a little bit more real: a recent report from the Academy of Medical Science suggests that action is needed now to prevent nightmarish "Planet Of The Apes" science ever turning from fiction to fact. The report calls for a new rules to supervise sensitive research that involves humanising animals:
One area of concern is "Category Three" experiments which may raise "very strong ethical concerns" and should be banned. An example given is the creation of primates with distinctly human characteristics, such as speech. Exactly the same scenario is portrayed in the new movie Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, in which scientists searching for an Alzheimer's cure create a new breed of ape with human-like intelligence. The report also acknowledges the "Frankenstein fear" that humanising animals might lead to the creation of "monsters".

Currently research involving great apes, such as chimpanzees, is outlawed in the UK. But it continues in many other countries including the US, and British scientists are permitted to experiment on monkeys. Professor Thomas Baldwin, a member of the Academy of Medical Sciences working group that produced the report, said the possibility of humanised apes should be taken seriously.

"The fear is that if you start putting very large numbers of human brain cells into the brains of primates suddenly you might transform the primate into something that has some of the capacities that we regard as distinctively human.. speech, or other ways of being able to manipulate or relate to us," he told a news briefing in London.

"These possibilities that are at the moment largely explored in fiction we need to start thinking about now."

Prof Baldwin, professor of philosophy at the University of York, recommended applying the "Great Ape Test". If modified monkeys began to acquire abilities similar to those of chimpanzees, it was time to "hold off".

"If it's heading in that direction, red lights start flashing," said Prof Baldwin. "You really do not want to go down that road."
Okay,  I'm just as concerned as anyone about the potential for abuse, particularly when animals are used in scientific experiments. But setting that aside, and assuming that cognitive enhancement could be done safely on non-human primates, there's no reason why we should fear this. In fact, I take virtually the opposite stance to this report. I feel that humanity is obligated to uplift non-human animals as we simultaneously work to uplift ourselves (i.e. transhumanism).

Reading this report, I can't help but feel that human egocentricity is driving the discussion. I sincerely believe that animal welfare is not the real issue here, but rather, ensuring human dominance on the planet.

Ultimately, we have to ask ourselves, why wouldn't we wish to endow our primate cousins with the same cognitive gifts that we have? Human intelligence and complex language skills are our most prized attributes. The time is coming when we'll be ale to share these capacities with other animals.

July 21, 2011

TED: The state of modern viruses and algorithms

Two very cool and sobering TED talks have recently been released that are worth checking out: Mikko Hypponen: Fighting viruses, defending the net and Kevin Slavin: How algorithms shape our world. Hypponen's presentation in particular is one of the best I've seen in a while.

It's been 25 years since the first PC virus (Brain A) hit the net, and what was once an annoyance has become a sophisticated tool for crime and espionage. Computer security expert Mikko Hyppönen tells us how we can stop these new viruses from threatening the internet as we know it.

Kevin Slavin argues that we're living in a world designed for -- and increasingly controlled by -- algorithms. In this riveting talk from TEDGlobal, he shows how these complex computer programs determine: espionage tactics, stock prices, movie scripts, and architecture. And he warns that we are writing code we can't understand, with implications we can't control.

July 5, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes: Trailer 3

I think I'm a little too excited about this upcoming movie, but the animal uplift themes have put me over the top.

July 2, 2011

Many Lapsed Vegetarians Become 'Ethical Omnivores'

From TIME: "Return of the Meat-Eaters: Many Lapsed Vegetarians Become 'Ethical Omnivores'":
In 2005, a CBS News study found that ex-vegetarians outnumber current vegetarians by a ratio of three to one, suggesting that 75% of vegetarians lapse. A survey by Hal Herzog and Morgan Childers found that these born-again omnivores were mostly women (as many vegetarians are) an average age of 28 years old and had been vegetarians for nine years when they reverted. The majority went vegetarian due to concerns about the treatment of animals and returned to meat because of declining health ("I will take a dead cow over anemia any time," one man told Psychology Today), logistical hassles, social stigmas, and meat cravings. Only two of the seventy-seven former vegetarians surveyed resumed meat-eating because their moral views changed.

For some, like Berlin Reed, 29, the return to meat has ironically been a humane one. Reed, who went vegetarian at age 12, was such a die-hard that his friends once staged a "bacon intervention." He has the world "vegan" tattooed on his neck. But these days, he both eats meat and works with it, calling himself "the ethical butcher." He insists that changes in the butchery profession are crucial to improving the meat system. "I don't eat beef from factory farms for many of the same reasons I won't buy clothes from The Gap," Reed told the Today show. "It's all about the industries and practices that are polluting our world, not whether or not it is okay to kill for food."

Indeed, it seems that the latest form of animal activism is not not eating meat, but rather only eating ethical, sustainable meat. What's that? It depends on the perspective, though it can include some combination or permutation of industry terms like "organic" "free-range," "cruelty-free," and "natural," and labels about animal welfare from certification companies. Sustainable meat-eating is particularly suitable for those who return to omnivorism because of health problems, like nutritionist Julie Daniluk, 38, who co-hosts a cooking show on the Oprah Winfrey Network, where she promotes conscientious meat-eating and weekly "vegetarian days."