December 22, 2012

The Great Filter theory suggests humans have already conquered the threat of extinction

It's difficult to not be pessimistic when considering humanity's future prospects. Many people would agree that it's more likely than not that we'll eventually do ourselves in. And in fact, some astrobiologists theorize that all advanced civilizations hit the same insurmountable developmental wall we have. They call it the Great Filter. It's a notion that's often invoked to explain why we've never been visited by extraterrestrials.

But there is another possible reason for the celestial silence. Yes, the Great Filter exists, but we've already passed it. Here's what this would mean.

Before we can get to the Great Filter hypothesis we have to appreciate what the Fermi Paradox is telling us.

The Fermi Paradox and the Great Silence

The so-called "Great Silence" is the contradictory and counter-intuitive observation that we have yet to see any evidence for the existence of aliens. The size and age of the Universe suggests that many technologically advanced extraterrestrial intelligences (ETIs) ought to exist -- but this hypothesis seems inconsistent with the lack of observational evidence to support it.

Despite much of what popular culture and sci-fi would lead us to believe, the fact that we haven't been visited by ETIs is disturbing. Our galaxy is so ancient that it could have been colonized hundreds, if not thousands, of times over by now. Even the most conservative estimates show that we should have already made contact either directly or indirectly (such as from dormant Bracewell communication probes).

Some skeptics dismiss the Fermi Paradox by suggesting that ETI's have come and gone, or that they wouldn't find us interesting.

Unfortunately, most solutions to the FP don't hold for a number of reasons, including the realization that a colonization wave of superintelligent aliens would likely rework the fabric of all life in the cosmos (e.g. uplifting), or that these solutions are sociological in nature (i.e. they lack scientific rigor and don't necessarily apply to the actions of all advanced civilizations; all it would take is just one to think and behave differently -- what astrobiologists refer to as the non-exclusivity problem).

There have been many attempts to resolve the Fermi Paradox, including the herculean attempt by Stephen Webb in his book, Fifty Solutions to Fermi's Paradox and the Problem of Extraterrestrial Life.

But one solution stands out from the others, mostly on account of its brute elegance: The Great Filter.

The Great Filter

Conceived in 1998 by Robin Hanson, the GF is the disturbing suggestion that there is some kind of absurdly difficult step in the evolution of life -- one that precludes it from becoming interstellar.

And like the immutable laws of the universe, the GF is a stumbling block that holds true across the board; if it applies here on Earth, it applies everywhere.

Many look upon the GF as evidence that we'll destroy ourselves in the future. The basic idea is that every civilization destroys itself before developing space-faring technologies. Hence the empty cosmos. Given our own trajectory and the ominous presence of apocalyptic weapons, this scenario certainly seems plausible. We're not even close to going interstellar, yet we're certainly capable of self-annihilation.

But that doesn't mean this interpretation of the GF is the correct one. Rather, it's quite possible that human civilization has already passed the Great Filter. Should this be the case, it would be exceptionally good news. Assuming there's no other filter awaiting us in the future, it means we might be the first and only intelligent civilization in the Milky Way.

It's a possibility, however, that demands explanation. If the filter is behind us, what was it? And how did we manage to get past it? Interestingly, there are some excellent candidates.

Rare Earth

First and foremost there's the Rare Earth Hypothesis (REH), the suggestion that the emergence of life was extremely improbable for a confluence of reasons. The theory essentially suggests that we hit the jackpot here on Earth.

This argument, which was first articulated by geologist Peter Ward and astrobiologist Donald E. Brownlee, turns the whole Copernican Principle on its head. Instead of saying that we're nothing special or unique, the REH implies the exact opposite -- that we are freakishly special and unique. What we see here on Earth in this solar system and in this part of the Galaxy may be a remarkable convergence of highly unlikely factors -- factors that have resulted in a perfect storm of conditions suitable for the emergence of complex life.

It's important to note that Ward and Brownlee are not implying that it's one or two conditions that can explain habitability, but rather an entire array of happy accidents. For example, stars might have to be of the right kind (including adequate metallicity and safe distance from dangerous celestial objects), and planets must be in a stable orbit with a large moon. Other factors include the presence of gas giants, plate tectonics, and many others.

But even with all the right conditions, life was by no means guaranteed. It's quite possible that the Great Filter involved the next set of steps: the emergence of life and its ongoing evolution.

The improbability of life

Indeed, in addition to all the cosmological and chemical prerequisites for life, there were at least three critical stages that could all be considered candidates for the Great Filter: (1) the emergence of reproductive molecules (abiogenesis and the emergence of RNA), (2) simple single-celled life (prokaryotes), and (3) complex single-celled life (eukaryotes).

Chemists and biologists are still not entirely sure how the first self-replicating molecules came into existence. Unlike its big brother, DNA, RNA is a single-stranded molecule that has a much shorter chain of nucleotides. Moreover, it usually needs DNA to reproduce itself -- which would have been a problem given the absence of DNA in those early days.

That said, scientists know that RNA is capable of reproducing through autocatalysis. It does this by storing information similar to DNA, which allows it to become its own catalyst (a ribosome). This so-called RNA World Model suggests that RNA can function as both a gene and an enzyme -- a pre-DNA configuration that eventually became the basis for all life.

Given that we've never detected life elsewhere, it's difficult to know how difficult this initial step was. But that said, this form of life emerged super-early in the Earth's history -- about a billion years after its formation, and immediately after the cooling of rocks and the emergence of oceans.

But what we do know is that the next few steps -- the leap from single-celled life to complex single-celled life -- was exceedingly difficult, if not highly improbable. The process of copying a genetic molecule is extremely complex, involving the perfect configuration of proteins and other cellular components.

Here's how it likely happened: Once a self-replicating molecule emerged, the presence of RNA allowed for the formation of protobionts, a theoretic precursor to prokaryotic cells. These tightly bound bundles of organic molecules contained RNA within their membranes -- which could have evolved into proper prokaryotic cells.

And here's where it gets interesting. After the formation of prokaryotes -- about 3.5 billion years ago -- nothing changed in the biological landscape for the next 1.8 billion years. Life in this primitive form was completely stuck. Imagine that -- no evolution for almost two billion years. It was only after the endosymbiosis of multiple prokaryotes that complex single-cell life finally emerged -- a change that was by no means guaranteed, and possibly unlikely.

And it's this highly improbable step, say some scientists, that's the Great Filter. Everything that happened afterward is a complete bonus.

Now that said, there may have been other filters as well. These could include the emergence of terrestrial organisms, hominids, and various civilizational stages, like the transition from stone age culture to agricultural to industrial. But unlike the first primordial stages already discussed, these are porous filters and not terribly unlikely.

More filters ahead?

So, if the GF is behind us, it would do much to explain the Fermi Paradox and the absence of extraterrestrial influence on the cosmos. Should that be the case, we may very well have a bright future ahead of us. The Milky Way Galaxy is literally ours for the taking, our future completely open-ended.

But before we jump to conclusions, it's only fair to point out that we're not out of the woods yet. There could very well be another GF in the future -- one just as stingy as the filters of our past. The universe, while giving the appearance of bio-friendliness, may in reality be extremely hostile to intelligent life.

This article originally appeared at io9.

Image: Top via; NASA, Igor Zh./shutterstock, Ron Miller, primordial soup.

When will we finally have a world government?

Political scientists and science fiction writers alike have long been taken with the idea that humans would one day form a global government. Yet few of us take this prospect very seriously, often dismissing it as an outright impossibility or very far off in the future. Given the rapid pace of globalization, however, it would seem that humanity is inexorably headed in this direction. So how long will it take us to build a world government? We talked to an expert to find out.

Top image of Star Trek's United Federation of Planets council chamber courtesy CBS.

To help us better understand this issue, we contacted sociologist James Hughes from Trinity College in Connecticut. Hughes, an ardent supporter of global government, feels that it's an idea whose time has come.

"We need world government for the same reason that we need government in general," he told us. "There are a number of things -- what we can agree are collective goods -- that individuals, markets, voluntary organizations, and local governments aren't able to produce -- and which can only be provided through the collective action of states."

Hughes, whose thinking was significantly influenced by the Star Trekian vision of a global-scale liberal democracy, argues that there a number of things that only a world government is capable of doing -- like ending nuclear proliferation, ensuring global security, intervening to end genocide, and defending human rights. He also believes that it will take a global regime to finally deal with climate change, and that it's the best chance we have to launch civilization-scale projects, including the peaceful and controlled colonization of the solar system.

The trick, he says, is to get there. But by all accounts, it appears that we're on our way.

The thrust of history

Indeed, it certainly looks as if humanity is naturally headed in this direction; the prospect of a global government has been on the political radar for centuries.

The ancient Greeks and Romans prophesied of a single common political authority for all of humanity, as did many philosophers of the European Enlightenment, especially Immanuel Kant.

More recently, the urge has manifest in the form of international organizations like the League of Nations, which later re-emerged as the United Nations -- efforts that were seen as a way to bind the international community together and prevent wars from occurring.

But today, cynicism rules. The great powers, countries like the United States, Russia, and China, feel they have the most to lose by deferring to a higher, more global-scale authority. It's for this and other reasons that the UN has been completely undermined.

But as Hughes points out, opposition or not, the thrust of history certainly points to the achievement of a world government. Citing the work of Robert Wright and Steven Pinker, Hughes argues that our units of government are increasingly expanding to cover larger numbers of people and larger territories -- a trend that has encouraged the flourishing of commerce and the suppression of violence.

A quick survey shows that the world is undergoing a kind of political consolidation. In addition to cultural and economic globalization, human societies are also bringing their political entities together. Various regions of the world have already undergone successful unions, the most prominent being China. The United States has already done it, but it took a hundred years and a civil war that killed 2% of its citizens.

And of course, there's Europe. It's currently undergoing a well-earned and peaceful political unification process. But like Americans, Europeans didn't take the easy path. The two World Wars of the twentieth century are often seen as a part of the same overarching conflict -- a European civil war in which various colonial, political, and ideological interests fought to force the direction of the consolidation process.

"The process is messy and fitful, but inexorable," says Hughes. "Every time Europe seems ready to unravel, the logic of a tighter union pushes them forward -- as it did just last week into the new European banking union agreements."

But as Hughes notes, the problems Europe faces in convincing states to give up sovereignty to transnational authorities are precisely the same problems that are faced at the global level -- but with a hundred times the difficulty.

"That is if this century doesn't create new economic, cultural and communication forces for political globalization, and then new catastrophic threats to make the need for global governance inescapable, which it is very likely to do," says Hughes. And by "catastrophic threats," he's referring to the ongoing perils of climate change, terrorism, and emerging technologies.

And indeed, there are other examples of political consolidation outside of Europe. Africa is slowly but surely moving towards an African Union, as is South America. North America is currently bound by NAFTA, and Canada has even considered forging an agreement with the EU.

The end of isolationism

As Hughes is quick to point out, the threat of being shunned and outcast by the larger international community is a powerful motivator for a country to adopt more beneficent policies.

"This has provided an ecological advantage to larger governments and federal structures so that holdouts like Burma eventually give up their isolation," he says. "The irony of the process is that the creation of federal transnational structures supports the political independence of local groups."

Without the political pressure and direct military intervention of NATO, the European Union, and the United Nations, says Hughes, we would have never realized an independent Kosovo, South Sudan, or East Timor. Moreover, he argues, if Turks weren't anxious to remain on good terms with Europe and other international actors, they would likely be far more repressive to the Kurds -- and the same is probably true vis-à-vis Israelis and Palestinians, and other conflicts.

"Transnational governance already puts pressure on the nation-states that limit how much repression they can enact against minorities, but it is obviously inadequate when we are still powerless to help Tutsis, Tibetans, Chinese Muslims, or Chechens," says Hughes. "The stronger our transnational judiciaries, legislatures, and military and economic enforcement of world law gets, the more effectively we can protect minority rights."

Moreover, the withering away of the sovereign nation-state could be seen as a good thing. As Kenneth Waltz noted in his seminal 1959 book, Man, the State, and War, the ongoing presence of the traditional nation-state will only continue to heighten the possibility of armed conflict.

Hughes agrees. He sees political globalization as a developmental path that will eventually limit government powers.

"As George Orwell graphically depicted in 1984, the endless pitting of nation-states against one another is the most powerful rationale for the power of oppressive government," he told us.

A danger of global repression?

There is, of course, a dark side to having a global government. There's the potential, for example, for a singular and all-powerful regime to take hold, one that could be brutally oppressive -- and with no other nation states to counter its actions.

It's well known, for example, that the Nazis envisioned a global government, what the democracies correctly assessed as a threat to liberal values, democracy, freedom of thought -- and the lives of millions (if not billions) of innocent people. As a result of the ensuing tragedy, some critics of global government warn that we shouldn't put all our eggs in one political basket. Having sovereign and politically disparate nation-states is a safeguard against the rise of a monolithic and all-encompassing regime.

But Hughes contends that political expansion has helped to suppress despotism and the defense of individual and minority rights -- from the establishing of voting rights for black Americans to the European Court of Justice's decisions on reproductive and sexual minority rights.

"That was not, of course, the case with the Soviet Union, so the anxiety that a powerful United Nations full of undemocratic states would be an anti-democratic force in the world was entirely justified during the Cold War," he told io9. "While the spread of democracy has made a liberal democratic global federalism increasingly likely, progressives will nonetheless sometimes face issues where global policy would be reactionary, and local autonomy needs to be defended until the balance of forces change."

Indeed, should a global governance arise, it would be prudent to enshrine fundamental constitutional rights and freedoms to prevent an authoritarian or totalitarian catastrophe. And at the same time, charters should be implemented to guarantee the rights of minority groups.

Global government when?

It's obviously difficult to predict when a global government can be achieved given that there's no guarantee that it will ever happen. As noted, the great powers will be very reluctant to give up what they consider to be sovereignty rights. And in the case of China and other countries, there are other potential deal-breakers, such as the ongoing isolationist urge, xenophobia, and incompatible political/ideological beliefs.

But given the pace of accelerating change across virtually all human domains, it may happen sooner than we think. It's not unreasonable to predict some manner of global governance taking shape in the latter half of the 21st century.

At the same time, however, a global government won't happen merely because it's deemed desirable.

"Without a vision the people perish," says Hughes. "If we want to see democratic globalization we have to openly point towards it as the goal."

He recommends that supporters join world federalist organizations like the Citizens for Global Solutions, the Union of European Federalists, or the World Federalist Movement.

"Advocates should put global federalist solutions forward as the most obvious way to address global problems -- even if such solutions appear currently chimerical. The world is changing quickly and what appears utopian today may appear obvious tomorrow," he says.

We asked Hughes if he thinks that global governance can actually be achieved.

"I do believe it is possible to eventually achieve a global directly-elected legislature, complemented by global referenda and a global judiciary, controlling a global law enforcement military, and supported by global taxes like the Tobin Tax," he responded.

But there are a lot of other ways that political globalization can provide peace and prosperity short of that.

For example, progress could be measured by the incremental strengthening of all the agencies of transnational governance, from regional bodies like the EU and African Union, to treaty enforcement mechanisms like the WTO, IAEA and ITU, to the United Nations.

"I believe all those bodies will grow in importance and clout over the coming century," he told us, "propelled by the growth of transnational political movements, such as the world federalist movement, NGOs, the Socialist International, and other social movements."

This article originally appeared at io9.

Other images: Makaristos, Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah / Reuters, PBS, CBS.

December 9, 2012

Best Songs of 2012

Here's my second annual best songs of the year list. This was a particularly strong year as far as songs go; the first 20 tracks listed below are all monsters. Here are the top 100 tracks of 2012:

                                                   1. Cloud Nothings: “Wasted Days”                  
                "I thought I would be more than this! I thought I would be more than this!!"

2. School of Seven Bells: “Lafaye”

3. Mykki Blanco: “Wavvy”
"I'm the muthafuckin' rookie of the year..."

4. El-P: “The Full Retard”
"Pump this shit like they do in the future!"

5. Beach House: “Lazuli”

6. Laurel Halo: ""Light + Space”
"Words are just words, words are just words, that you soon forget..."

7. Sharon Van Etten: “Give Out”

8. Death Grips: “Hacker”
"I know the first three numbers..."

9. DIIV: “How Long Have You Known”

10. Father John Misty: “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings”
"Jesus Christ, girl."
"Someone's gotta help me dig..."

11. iamamiwhoami: “Sever”

12. Tame Impala: “Apocalypse Dreams”

13. Bear in Heaven: “Sinful Nature”

14. Grimes: “Genesis”

15. Rose Cousins: “One Way”

16. Unicorn Kid: “Pure Space”

17. Cloud Nothings: “No Sentiment"
"We started a war!!"

18. Frank Ocean: “Pyramids”

19. Miike Snow: “The Wave”

20. Purity Ring: “Fineshrine”
"My little ribs around you"
The entire list:
  1. Cloud Nothings: “Wasted Days”
  2. School of Seven Bells: “Lafaye”
  3. Mykki Blanco: “Wavvy”
  4. El-P: “The Full Retard”
  5. Beach House: “Lazuli”
  6. Laurel Halo: ""Light + Space”
  7. Sharon Van Etten: “Give Out”
  8. Death Grips: “Hacker”
  9. DIIV: “How Long Have You Known”
  10. Father John Misty: “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings”
  11. iamamiwhoami: “Sever”
  12. Tame Impala: “Apocalypse Dreams”
  13. Bear in Heaven: “Sinful Nature”
  14. Grimes: “Genesis”
  15. Rose Cousins: “One Way”
  16. Unicorn Kid: “Pure Space”
  17. Cloud Nothings: “No Sentiment"
  18. Frank Ocean: “Pyramids”
  19. Miike Snow: “The Wave”
  20. Purity Ring: “Fineshrine”
  21. Pallbearer: "Devoid of Redemption"
  22. Blut Aus Nord: "Epitome XIV"
  23. Black Moth Super Rainbow: “Spraypaint”
  24. Chairlift: “Met Before”
  25. DIIV: “Doused”
  26. Dirty Projectors: “Gun Has No Trigger”
  27. Django Django: ""Default”
  28. Father John Misty: “Nancy From Now On”
  29. Frankie Rose: “Know Me”
  30. Jessie Ware: “Wildest Moments”
  31. Lambchop: “Gone Tomorrow”
  32. Mister Lies: “I Walk”
  33. Porcelain Raft: “Drifting In and Out”
  34. Purity Ring: “Lofticries”
  35. Ramona Falls: “Spore”
  36. Blut Aus Nord: "Epitome XVI"
  37. Swans: “A Piece of the Sky”
  38. Pallbearer: "An Offering of Grief"
  39. Thee Oh Sees: “Lupine Dominus”
  40. Ty Segall Band: “I Bought My Eyes”
  41. The Walkmen: “Heaven”
  42. Baroness: "Board Up the House"
  43. Perfume Genius: “Hood”
  44. The Shins: “Simple Song”
  45. Ty Segall & White Fence: “Time”
  46. Ty Segall Band: “Wave Goodbye”
  47. White Fence: “It Will Never Be”
  48. Burial: “Ashtray Wasp”
  49. David Byrne & St. Vincent: “Who"
  50. Frankie Rose: “Interstellar"
  51. Japandroids: “The House That Heaven Built”
  52. Nas: “Accident Murderers”
  53. Chromatics: “Kill For Love”
  54. The Shins: “Bait And Switch”
  55. Sky Ferreira: “Everything is Embarassing”
  56. Tame Impala: “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards”
  57. Ty Segall & White Fence: “I Am Not A Game”
  58. Beach House: “Myth”
  59. Frank Ocean: “Bad Religion”
  60. Baroness: "Stretchmarker"
  61. Lotus Plaza: “Strangers”
  62. Lower Dens: ""Brains”
  63. The Men: “Open Your Heart”
  64. Ty Segall & White Fence: “Scissor People”
  65. Four Tet: “Ocoras”
  66. Grimes: Oblivion”
  67. Twin Shadow: “Five Seconds”
  68. Django Django: ""Love’s Dart”
  69. Death Grips: “I’ve Seen Footage”
  70. Nicholas Jaar: “And I Say”
  71. Thee Oh Sees: “Floods New Light”
  72. Wild Nothing: “Through the Grass”
  73. Bobby Womack: “Please Forgive My Heart”
  74. Chairlift: “I Belong in Your Arms”
  75. Chromatics: “Back From the Grave”
  76. El-P: “Tougher Colder”
  77. Frank Ocean: “Sweet Life”
  78. Kendrick Lamar: “Backstreet Freestyle”
  79. Laurel Halo: ""MK Ultra”
  80. Spiritualized: “Hey Jane”
  81. The Walkmen: “Song for Leigh”
  82. Hot Chip: “Flutes”
  83. The Men: “Candy”
  84. Eternal Summers: “Millions”
  85. Baauer: “Harlem Shake”
  86. Cloud Nothings: “Stay Useless"
  87. Flying Lotus: “Between Friends”
  88. Frankie Rose: “Night Swim”
  89. Killer Mike: “Reagan”
  90. Tame Impala: “Elephant”
  91. Torche: “Kicking”
  92. Death Grips: “Get Got”
  93. Kendrick Lamar: “The Art of Peer Pressure”
  94. Lotus Plaza: “Monoliths”
  95. Alcest: ""Faiseurs De Mondes"
  96. Chairlift: “Amanaemonesia”
  97. Dirty Projectors: “Dance For You”
  98. Grimes: “Circumambient”
  99. Kendrick Lamar: “Swimming Pools”
  100. Beach House: “Wild”

Best Albums of 2012

As is the annual tradition here at Sentient Developments, I have put together a list of my favorite albums from the past year. Here are the best albums of 2012.

1. Cloud Nothings: Attack on Memory

2. Father John Misty: Fear Fun

3. Death Grips: The Money Store

4. Ty Segall & White Fence: Hair

5. Pallbearer: Sorrow And Extinction

6. Laurel Halo: Quarantine

7. El-P Cancer for Cure

8. Beach House: Bloom

9. Grimes: Visions

10. Blut Aus Nord: Cosmosophy

11. Tame Impala: Lonerism

12. Ty Segall Band: Slaughterhouse

13. Japandroids: Celebration Rock

14. Frankie Rose: Interstellar

15. DIIV: Oshin

16. iamamiwhoami: Kin

17. Django Django: Django Django

18. Grizzly Bear: Shields

19. The Men: Open Your Heart

20. Swans: The Seer

Here's the entire list:

  1. Cloud Nothings: Attack on Memory
  2. Father John Misty: Fear Fun
  3. Death Grips: The Money Store
  4. Ty Segall & White Fence: Hair
  5. Pallbearer: Sorrow And Extinction
  6. Laurel Halo: Quarantine
  7. El-P Cancer for Cure
  8. Beach House: Bloom
  9. Grimes: Visions
  10. Blut Aus Nord: Cosmosophy
  11. Tame Impala: Lonerism
  12. Ty Segall Band: Slaughterhouse
  13. Japandroids: Celebration Rock
  14. Frankie Rose: Interstellar
  15. DIIV: Oshin
  16. iamamiwhoami: Kin
  17. Django Django: Django Django
  18. Grizzly Bear: Shields
  19. The Men: Open Your Heart
  20. Swans: The Seer
  21. Purity Ring: Shrines
  22. Thee Oh Sees: Putrifiers II
  23. White Fence: Family Perfume
  24. Perfume Genius: Put Your Back N 2 It
  25. Chromatics: Kill for Love
  26. Baroness: Yellow & Green
  27. Shins: Port of Morrow
  28. Burial: Street Halo/Kindred
  29. Patrick Watson: Adventures In Your Own Backyard
  30. Ty Segall: Twins
  31. Bear in Heaven: I Love You, It’s Cool
  32. Chairlift: Something
  33. Wild Nothing: Nocturne
  34. Converge: All We Love We Leave Behind
  35. Andy Stott: Luxury Problems
  36. Modeselektor: Monkeytown
  37. Frank Ocean: channel ORANGE
  38. Four Tet: Pink
  39. Lower Dens: Nootropics
  40. Sharon Van Etten: Tramp
  41. Spiritualized: Sweet Heart Sweet Light
  42. Nas: Life is Good
  43. The Walkmen: Heaven
  44. Orbital: Wonky
  45. School of Seven Bells: Ghostory
  46. Dirty Projectors: Swing Lo Magellan
  47. Jessie Ware: Devotion
  48. ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead: Lost Songs
  49. High on Fire: De Vermis Mysteriis
  50. Hot Chip: In Our Heads
  51. Bat For Lashes: The Haunted Man
  52. Deftones: Koi No Yokan
  53. Lotus Plaza: Spooky Action at a Distance
  54. Killer Mike: R.A.P. Music
  55. Tim Hecker & Daniel Lopatin: Instrumental Tourist
  56. Twin Shadow: Confess
  57. Ramona Falls: Prophet
  58. Woods: Bend Beyond
  59. Dr. John: Locked Down
  60. Alcest: Les Voyages De L’Ame
  61. Kendrick Lamar: Good Kid, m.A.A.d city
  62. Porcelain Raft: Strange Weekend
  63. Actress: R.I.P.
  64. Torche: Harmonicraft
  65. Flying Lotus: Until the Quiet Comes
  66. Now, Now: Threads
  67. Godspeed You Black Emperor!: Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!
  68. Conan: Monnos
  69. Tallest Man on Earth: There’s No Leaving Now
  70. Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs: Trouble
  71. Squarepusher: Ufabulum
  72. Violens: True
  73. First Aid Kit: Lion’s Roar
  74. The Soft Moon: Zeros
  75. Lambchop: Mr. M

June 2, 2012

I am now a Contributing Editor at io9

Big news! I have joined Gawker Media as a full-time Contributing Editor for My first day of work is this coming Monday June 4. You can expect to see my articles posted there on daily basis as I report on a wide variety of topics.

This marks an amazing opportunity for me to change things up a bit and steer my career into a direction more amenable to my talents and passions. I'll be writing about science, culture, and futurism -- themes that are near and dear to the readers of Sentient Developments. I'm excited to have the opportunity to bring my interests and insights to the io9 community. I certainly hope you'll join me and continue to follow my work as I make the jump to io9.

I will certainly keep on blogging here at Sentient Developments, though I expect the volume of posts will decrease. At the very least I will keep you all abreast of my work and projects, while linking back to my posts at io9.

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.

Sentient Developments Podcast 2012.05.14

Sentient Developments Podcast for the week of May 14, 2012. Topics discussed in this week's episode:
Tracks used in this episode: Lower Dens: "Nova Anthem", "Propagation", "Alphabet Song", and "Lamb".

Podcast Feed | Subscribe via iTunes

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: