May 26, 2012

Today marks ten years of blogging

It was 10 years ago today that I started blogging here at Sentient Developments. I initially set it up to be a sounding board for my thoughts on various matters, but it grew in sophistication over the years as my articles (and thoughts) became more detailed and robust. Now, 10 years and 2,204 posts later, I am set to embark on the next phase of my writing and personal development.

Thanks to all of you who have followed and supported my work over the years. Here's to many, many, more.

May 17, 2012

Harper's war on the environment

I don't normally post about Canadian politics on my blog, but we're starting to run into a serious problem, here. And his name is Stephen Harper.

I shuddered last year when Harper won a majority government, worried about what he might do with the added power. Now, his intentions are becoming increasingly clear: He's going to wage war on the environment. And he's going to do it in the most insidious way possible, using obfuscation and nasty tricks — and all driven by the myopic need to milk the Canadian landscape for all its got.

Specifically, the Conservative government is looking to pass Bill C-38, the Budget Implementation Act. The act itself is deliberately misnamed, as fully 30% of the 420 page bill has nothing to do with the budget at all. Instead, the bill serves as an attack on environmental legislation. Bill C-38, once passed, will repeal the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and introduce a watered-down approach to environmental assessment. It also re-writes the Fisheries Act, the Species at Risk Act, and the Navigable Waters Protection Act. In addition, it repeals the Kyoto Protocol Implementation Act, and cancels outright the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy. A complete itemized list of Bill C-38's proposed changes can be found here.

Just as disturbing is the way the Harper government hopes to muzzle interest groups concerned with the environment. The charities sections now preclude gifts which may result in political activity. In addition, Harper's new counter-terrorism strategy lists environmentalism next to white supremacy as an “issue-based” terrorist threat. In other words, legitimate environmental groups, such as Greenpeace and Sierra Club Canada, could face some serious troubles should their efforts work to thwart the Conservative agenda. The strategy even lists animal rights groups as potential terrorist threats.

Even worse has been Harper's attack on scientists. It's gotten so bad in Canada that the journal Nature had to come out and slam the Conservative government for tightening the media protocols applied to federal government scientists and employees. Harper is doing his damnest to ensure that the Canadian public remain ignorant of the devastating impacts of his unchecked strategy on resource extraction.

Essentially, Harper is crippling anything that could undermine his scorched earth policy as far as resource extraction is concerned. The corporatist Conservatives are hellbent on exploiting the tar sands and building pipelines. It's all about squeezing the Canadian environment for every ounce its got, with no reflection on consequences — and with no sustainable vision for the future.

This will end badly for Canada and all Canadians.

May 16, 2012

Doom how?

When invoking the Great Filter as an explanation for the Great Silence, we have yet to determine the exact nature of the filter. It's conceivable, though unlikely, that it resides in our past (fingers are crossed that this is the case). If so, the rise of prokaryotes and eukaryotes is probably what we're looking for.

But, if the filter resides in our future, the question needs to be asked, What is it exactly that prevents civilizations from embarking on interstellar colonization?

One of the stronger, though more disturbing suggestions, is that all civilizations destroy themselves before they can send out a wave of self-replicating colonization probes. For the sake of this particular argument, let's assume that doom is in fact the Great Filter. If this is the case, what could it be, and when would it happen?

It's probably not environmental devastation, as that's a weak force for something that's supposed to be  existentially catastrophic, nor does it seem universal as far as extraterrestrial civilizations are concerned. It's more reasonable to suggest, therefore, that something in our technological arsenal will destroy us. It's clearly not nuclear weapons, as we've figured out a way to live alongside their presence; there's even talk of disarmament. So, it has to be something we come up with in our future. And whatever that technology is, it has to be completely uncontainable and catastrophic.

Only two things come to mind: molecular nanotechnology and machine superintelligence.

Given that doom has to come before the launch of self-replicating probes, this indicates that we have to experience doom prior to the invention of diamondoid data storage and nanocomputing along with the requisite robotics and AI capacities; these are the ingredients to von Neumann probes. It also means doom before, or at the point of, the advent of strong artificial general intelligence (because an SAI could develop probe-enabling technologies). This would suggest that either (1) the onset of machine superintelligence is somehow causing the filter or (2) the precursors to probe-enabling nanotechnology are fatally catastrophic in all instances (e.g. weaponized molecular nanotechnology).

If this is the case, then I would expect doom no earlier than 25 years from now, but no later than 50-75 years from now.

There's also the possibility, of course, of a wildcard technology (either through convergence or something we haven't considered yet).

Again, I'm not suggesting that doom is certain — there are other non-doom explanation for the Fermi Paradox. I'm just venturing down this particular line of inquiry.

May 15, 2012

Is death bad for you?

Yale philosopher Shelly Kagan asks a question that should be of interest to both radical life extension advocates and utilitarians who argue that we should bring as much life into the universe as possible: Is death bad for you?

Much of Kagan's argument is derived from an interesting question posed by the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus who wrote, "So death, the most terrifying of ills, is nothing to us, since so long as we exist, death is not with us; but when death comes, then we do not exist. It does not then concern either the living or the dead, since for the former it is not, and the latter are no more." In other words, non-existence cannot be said to be a bad thing in-and-of-itself. But Kagan aptly notes that this issue is much more complicated than that:
Moreover, there are a lot of merely possible people. How many? Well, very roughly, given the current generation of seven billion people, there are approximately three million billion billion billion different possible offspring—almost all of whom will never exist! If you go to three generations, you end up with more possible people than there are particles in the known universe, and almost none of those people get to be born.

If we are not prepared to say that that's a moral tragedy of unspeakable proportions, we could avoid this conclusion by going back to the existence requirement. But of course, if we do, then we're back with Epicurus' argument. We've really gotten ourselves into a philosophical pickle now, haven't we? If I accept the existence requirement, death isn't bad for me, which is really rather hard to believe. Alternatively, I can keep the claim that death is bad for me by giving up the existence requirement. But then I've got to say that it is a tragedy that Larry and the other untold billion billion billions are never born. And that seems just as unacceptable.

May 14, 2012

Amputees increasingly choosing more extensive amputations to take advantage of hi-tech prosthetics

As prosthetic limbs become more sophisticated and realistic, amputees are increasingly wanting to take full advantage of what cutting-edge technology has to offer. But in order to do so, some are having to make a very difficult decision. From Alexis Okewo of the New York Times:
Approximately two million people in the United States are living with amputations, according to the Amputee Coalition, a national advocacy group. But as artificial limbs are infused with increasingly sophisticated technology, many amputees are making a once-unthinkable choice. Instead of doing everything possible to preserve and live with whatever is left of their limbs, some are opting to amputate more extensively to regain something more akin to normal function.

Occasionally this choice is made by someone with a missing hand or arm. But more common are amputations below the knee, which permit patients like Ms. Kornhauser to take advantage of robotic and fleshlike prosthetics.

Bionic, or lifelike, prosthetics with custom skins, motors and microchips that replicate natural human motions are edging older models out of the market. The South African runner Oscar Pistorius, a double amputee, has even been accused of having an unfair advantage over competitors because he runs on J-shaped carbon fiber blades.

Amputees “are realizing they can do everything that they did before,” said Amy Palmiero-Winters, 39, a celebrated ultramarathon runner who lost her left leg in a motorcycle accident when she was 24. She now works at A Step Ahead, a Long Island prosthetics clinic. “They look at people today and see the different things that they’re doing and how it’s more out in the open and accepted.”

Tali Sharot on the optimism bias and what we can do about it

Neuroscience is increasingly showing that we are predisposed for optimism instead of realism. In this TED Talk, Tali Sharot shares new research that suggests our brains are wired to look on the bright side — and how that can be both dangerous and beneficial. Toward the end of her talk, she goes on to show that there are things we can do about it from a neurological perspective. She argues that we can and should reduce the optimism bias while at the same time maintain a person's sense of hope.

May 13, 2012

NYT: Can You Call a 9-Year-Old a Psychopath?

There's a must-read article in the New York Times titled "Can You Call a 9-Year-Old a Psychopath?" It's a long read, but very worth it.

Among the many take-aways from the piece is the realization that virtually all psychopaths exhibit anti-social traits as children, but that half of them "grow out of it". This gives therapists hope that the condition could somehow be treated environmentally.

There's also a reluctance to brand children as psychopaths (which is fair given the stigma and the fact that many children act-out in age-appropriate ways). Consequently, therapists and researchers are instead using the term 'Unemotional-Callous" (C.U.) in describing what might actually be protopsychopathology.

Lastly, the piece reaffirms other observations which show that behavioral therapy can actually make psychopaths worse, in that it teaches them to be better manipulators. Unreal.

As an aside, I believe that putting these C.U. kids together in the same "camp" is an exceptionally bad idea. It's just throwing fuel in these kids' fire.

Some excerpts from the piece:
Then last spring, the psychologist treating Michael referred his parents to Dan Waschbusch, a researcher at Florida International University. Following a battery of evaluations, Anne and Miguel were presented with another possible diagnosis: their son Michael might be a psychopath.

For the past 10 years, Waschbusch has been studying “callous-unemotional” children — those who exhibit a distinctive lack of affect, remorse or empathy — and who are considered at risk of becoming psychopaths as adults. To evaluate Michael, Waschbusch used a combination of psychological exams and teacher- and family-rating scales, including the Inventory of Callous-Unemotional Traits, the Child Psychopathy Scale and a modified version of the Antisocial Process Screening Device — all tools designed to measure the cold, predatory conduct most closely associated with adult psychopathy. (The terms “sociopath” and “psychopath” are essentially identical.) A research assistant interviewed Michael’s parents and teachers about his behavior at home and in school. When all the exams and reports were tabulated, Michael was almost two standard deviations outside the normal range for callous-unemotional behavior, which placed him on the severe end of the spectrum.

Currently, there is no standard test for psychopathy in children, but a growing number of psychologists believe that psychopathy, like autism, is a distinct neurological condition — one that can be identified in children as young as 5. Crucial to this diagnosis are callous-unemotional traits, which most researchers now believe distinguish “fledgling psychopaths” from children with ordinary conduct disorder, who are also impulsive and hard to control and exhibit hostile or violent behavior. According to some studies, roughly one-third of children with severe behavioral problems — like the aggressive disobedience that Michael displays — also test above normal on callous-unemotional traits. (Narcissism and impulsivity, which are part of the adult diagnostic criteria, are difficult to apply to children, who are narcissistic and impulsive by nature.)
And on the benefits of early detection and treatment:
The benefits of successful treatment could be enormous. Psychopaths are estimated to make up 1 percent of the population but constitute roughly 15 to 25 percent of the offenders in prison and are responsible for a disproportionate number of brutal crimes and murders. A recent estimate by the neuroscientist Kent Kiehl placed the national cost of psychopathy at $460 billion a year — roughly 10 times the cost of depression — in part because psychopaths tend to be arrested repeatedly. (The societal costs of nonviolent psychopaths may be even higher. Robert Hare, the co-author of “Snakes in Suits,” describes evidence of psychopathy among some financiers and business people; he suspects Bernie Madoff of falling into that category.) The potential for improvement is also what separates diagnosis from determinism: a reason to treat psychopathic children rather than jail them. “As the nuns used to say, ‘Get them young enough, and they can change,’ ” Dadds observes. “You have to hope that’s true. Otherwise, what are we stuck with? These monsters.”

May 10, 2012

Why humanists need to make the shift to post-atheism

I'm getting increasingly annoyed by all the anti-religious propaganda that litters my Facebook newsfeed.

Look, as a fellow humanist and atheist, I get it. Organized religion is a problem on so many levels that I don't even know where to begin. I'd be the first person to say that something needs to be done about it and I'm delighted to see atheism become normalized in our society and culture.

But seriously, folks, what are you hoping to achieve by posting such facile and inflammatory material? Who are you speaking to? Are you doing it to make yourself feel better? Or do you really feel that through this kind of mindless slacktivism that you're making a difference and actually impacting on real lives?

It's time to put these toys away and consider the bigger picture. Humanists need to start helping people make the transition away from religion, while at the same time working to create a relevant and vital humanist movement for the 21st century.

The intellectual battle against religion has already been won — and a strong case can be made that the victory came at the time of the Enlightenment. The struggle now is to find out why religion continues to persist in our society and what we can do about it. I have a strong suspicion that posting pictures of silly church signs isn't helping.

For those of you who have been part of organized religion, you know how hard it is to break free. I'm one of them. Compounding the inner turmoil and cognitive dissonance is the problem of breaking free from the in-group. It is not easy for people to just pack up and leave their communities, nor is it easy for them to face the inevitable backlash from their families. The thought of leaving religion can be completely debilitating on so many levels. Posting a rabid comment or image on your Facebook wall isn't going to help anyone get through this. In fact, all you're doing is re-enforcing a tribalistic urge and alienating those most in need of help. These actions can only serve to stratify and polarize the lines even further.

Instead, what I'd rather see are more focused efforts on understanding how and why religion continues to spread, and what kinds of interventions and approaches are most effective at helping individuals move past it. There's been amazing work done in this area by such thinkers as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, both of whom subscribe to the meme theory of religious propagation. I myself have argued that religious fundamentalism is a kind of disease and that religion works best by dictating the reproductive processes of its hosts. I'd like to see more work done in this area as we work to improve our cultural health.

In addition, we need to figure out the best way to pull religious people out of their situation. This is probably the most difficult challenge, and there are no easy answers. I'm a staunch believer in education and the idea that we need to equip children at a young age with the powers of free thought, critical thinking, and skepticism. We can't make decisions for others, but we can give them the tools to help them make the right decisions for themselves. More radically, for those deeply entrenched in fundamentalist religions and cults, there's always the possibility of deprogramming. The trick is to start the intervention.

Lastly, I'm hoping to see atheists move past the religion bashing and start thinking about more substantive issues. This is what I mean when I say post-atheism. It's time to set aside the angst and work more productively to help those who need it, while working to develop a world view and set of guidelines for living without God. It's unfortunate and tragic that so many humanists have equated the movement with atheism, while completely forgetting their progressive roots.

Humanism is about the betterment of all humanity and the contemplation of what it is we wish to become. It's about taking control of our own lives in the absence of divine intervention. And it's about taking responsibility for ourselves and doing the right thing.

This is where our energies and attention needs to be focused. Not in ridiculous Facebook timeline posts that serve no one.

Are humans becoming more or less psychopathic?

Readers of this blog know that I've started to develop a bit of a fascination with psychopathy. It all got started after attending the Moral Brain conference at NYU last April. The more I look into this subject, the more I understand why so many neuroscientists are making such a big fuss about it.

The one statistic that has stuck with me is the observation that 1-2% of the general population is psychopathic. As previously noted, psychopathic traits don't always lead to crime or violence. In fact, studies have shown that 3-5% of business-minded persons are psychopathic; the realization that ruthlessness and indifference can lead to an interest and/or proclivity in business shouldn't come as too much of a surprise. What I would like to know, however, is whether or not there is a correlation between psychopathy and business success. Any bets that there isn't?

On a similar note, I'd like to know what degree of psychopathy exists amongst politicians and those who seek influence. I'm sure that, historically speaking, psychopathic traits have worked well for those hell bent on attaining and maintaining power.

The 1-2% figure also got me thinking about genetics. This ratio is exceedingly high, an indication that this trait is more than just the result of random mutation. Humans, it would seem, are predisposed for psychopathy. It's a personality condition that may have some adaptive qualities to it. The question we need to ask now, therefore, is: are we evolving out of it, or into it?

A strong case can be made for both. But whatever the answer, we will increasingly be able to do something about it through the use of neurological interventions and genetic engineering.

The psychopathic brain

Psychopathy is a personality disorder defined as severe emotional dysfunction, especially a lack of empathy. Psychopaths are completely unable to recognize such things as anger and fear in individuals, whether it be from facial expressions or verbal exclamations. It can also defined by the expression of anti-social behaviors. Psychopaths are generally regarded as callous, selfish, dishonest, arrogant, aggressive, impulsive, irresponsible, and hedonistic. Yet, psychopaths often exhibit higher than average intelligence and a superficial kind of charm.

Neuroscience is indicating that that psychopaths have a brain that is markedly different from neurotypicals. This difference can come about through genetic causes, or through injury.

In a recent study, neuroscientists showed that the psychopathic brain has significantly less grey matter in the anterior rostral prefrontal cortex and temporal poles than the brains of non-psychopathic offenders and non-offenders. These areas of the brain are important for reading other people’s emotions and intentions and are activated when people think about moral behaviour.

Neuroscientists have also implicated the amygdala in psychopathy. The amygdala is responsible for stimulus-reinforcement learning and responding to emotional expressions, particularly fearful expressions. It is also involved in the formation of both stimulus-punishment and stimulus-reward associations. Psychopaths show impairment in stimulus-reinforcement learning (whether punishment- or reward-based) and responding to fearful and sad expressions. Neuroscientists believe that this impairment drives much of the syndrome of psychopathy.

Are we becoming more psychopathic?

Scientists have determined that there is a genetic component to psychopathy. They argue that genetic factors may generally influence the development of psychopathy while environmental factors affect the specific traits that predominate. Geneticists have calculated that the heritability coefficient for psychopathy is around 50%.

Psychologist Robert Hare has argued that psychopathy does indeed have a genetic component. He has observed how many (male) psychopaths have a pattern of mating with, and quickly abandoning women, and as a result, have a high fertility rate. His contention is that these children may inherit a predisposition to psychopathy.

Evolutionary psychologists theorize that psychopathy represents a frequency-dependent, socially parasitic strategy. This may only work, however, as long as there are few other psychopaths in the community. More psychopaths means that there's an increased risk of encountering another psychopath as well as non-psychopaths likely adapting more countermeasures against cheaters.

That said, this "social parasite" theory doesn't take into account the ways in which psychopaths can be successful in modern society. It might be an increasingly adaptive trait. As already noted, there's a heightened tendency for psychopaths to enter into the business world. Similarly, there's the (potentially) increased likelihood for political success. Thus, a case can be made that psychopathy remains an adaptive trait in Homo sapiens, and that success in business and political domains increases reproductive success (i.e. wealth and status). Should this be the case, it's not unreasonable to suggest that the rates of psychopathy in the general population will remain stable — if not increase over time (given the same conditions).

A worthwhile study would be an analysis of the human genome to determine if the genetic factors required for psychopathy are more prevalent today than they were in the past. It's an open question as to how we could conduct such a study given the dearth of genetic material from our ancestors.

Are we becoming less psychopathic?

It's also quite possible that humans are evolving away from psychopathy. Perhaps the 1-2% is the smallest proportion yet in our species' history. It's generally thought, for example, that women are selecting for kinder, gentler males. This self-domestication has resulted in an increase in empathetic traits over time. It's quite possible that we're the "kindest" version ever to appear in our evolutionary trajectory.

On a similar note, we may have had a higher predominance of psychopathy in our past in consideration of our carnivorous legacy. We are a meat eating species, which implies predation. A carnivore would do well to not have too many feelings of empathy (particularly the ability to read fright, pain, and fear) for others, particularly prey. Humans don't tend to hunt anymore, a change in routine that works to un-enforce the presence of those psychological characteristics in our gene pool.

Despite these possibilities, there's little question that we may be able to weed-out psychopathy through biotechnological interventions. Genomics and the pending practice of human trait selection will alert prospective parents, not to mention their fertility doctors, to the possibility that their offspring could be psychopathic. Genetic technologies will let parents screen for what is essentially a genetic disorder.

On this note, a pair of interesting sidebars come to mind: (1) Given the high rate of heritability, it's very likely that one of the parents is a psychopath, and (2) Would parents be compelled to abort a child with a proclivity towards psychopathy?

Looking further ahead, and given further insights into how the brain works, it's very possible that psychopaths will be helped through pharmacological interventions, or even surgery, to fix the deficient areas in the brain (including the amygdala). This is speculative at this point, but it's not terribly unreasonable to consider such possibilites. Interventions like these would bode well for those who have developed psychopathic traits on account of brain trauma in which there is no genetic factor involved.

It's very possible that psychopathy as a personality disorder will eventually be eliminated. This will clearly bode well for individuals. But an unanswered question suddenly emerges: What are the broader social consequences, if any, to eliminating the psychopaths among us?

May 9, 2012

Paralyzed woman completes marathon with help of robotic suit

Okay, this is pretty cool: A paralysed woman has become the first person to complete a marathon in a bionic suit.
Claire Lomas finished the London Marathon, crossing the finishing line 16 days after the race began.

The 32-year-old said she was "over the moon" as she completed the 26.2-mile route, which she started on April 22 with 36,000 other participants.

The former chiropractor was in tears as she became the first person to complete any marathon using a bionic ReWalk suit.

Hundreds lined the streets as she made her final steps to complete the race.

Mounted members of the Household Cavalry gave her a guard of honour as she crossed the finishing line on The Mall.

Jewellery designer Ms Lomas, who was left paralysed from the chest down following a horse-riding accident in 2007, said: "I'm over the moon.
Lomas was able to accomplish this task by using the ReWalk "wearable bionic suit."

May 6, 2012

New Lower Dens album inspired by transhumanism

Lower Dens is one of my favourite bands going right now, so you can imagine both my surprise and delight when I discovered that their upcoming album, Nootropics, was inspired by transhumanist themes. Nootropics is the band's follow-up to their critically acclaimed Twin Hand Movement which came out in 2010. The new album is an attempt to expand upon some of the themes explored on their previous album to create a kind of consistent thematic arc.

And that newfound direction, says the band, was inspired by transhumanist ideas. Inspired by such thinkers as Ray Kurzweil, Lower Dens began an internal conversation about transhumanism and what it might eventually lead to. They all had different takes on the matter and in how they felt about humanity's relationship with technology. A fundamental question that they ask on Nootropics is about radical change — wondering what things we might want to alter, and what things to keep.

Check out the full interview of the band: