January 31, 2012

Nature: UK sets sights on gene therapy in eggs

Britain is one step closer to conducting the first clinical tests of reproductive techniques that combine parents’ genes with DNA from a third party. The approach could spare children from inheriting some rare diseases, including forms of muscular dystrophy and neurodegenerative disorders that affect around 1 in 5,000 people. From Nature:
These conditions are caused by defects in the mitochondria, the ‘power packs’ of the cell, which are inherited from a child’s mother through the egg. Experiments on primates, and with defective human eggs, have already shown that genetic material can be removed from an egg that has faulty mitochondria and transferred to a healthy donor ovum, leaving the flawed mitochondrial DNA behind. In principle, the resulting egg could then develop into a healthy child carrying both the parents’ nuclear genes and mitochondrial DNA from the donor. But the work amounts to genetic modification of embryos — which is currently illegal in the United Kingdom — and also involves destroying fertilized eggs.

On 19 January, the UK government’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) announced a public consultation on the process, the first step towards making it legal. Simultaneously, the country’s biggest biomedical charity, the Wellcome Trust, said that it would fund preclinical experiments to gauge the safety of the techniques. An independent bioethical review is also in progress. “It’s a wonderful example of how regulation should work, because it’s saying let’s see the science, let’s see the bioethics, let’s find out what the public thinks,” says Peter Braude, a reproductive biologist at King’s College London.

The struggle to merge AI with healthcare

Fred Trotter, in his article, AI will eventually drive healthcare, but not anytime soon, says that the merging of artificial intelligence and healthcare is tougher than many realize. On the search space problem he writes:
Any person even reasonably informed about AI knows about Go, an ancient game with simple rules. Those simple rules hide the fact that Go is a very complex game indeed. For a computer, it is much harder to play than chess.

Almost since the dawn of computing, chess was regarded as something that required intelligence and was therefore a good test of AI. In 1997, the world chess champion was beaten by a computer. In the year after, a professional Go player beat the best Go software in the world with a 25 stone handicap. Artificial intelligence experts study Go carefully precisely because it is so hard for computers. The approach that computers take toward being smart — thinking of lots of options really fast — stops working when the number of options skyrockets, and the number of potentially right answers also becomes enormous. Most significantly, Go can always be made more computationally difficult by simply expanding the board.

Make no mistake, the diagnosis and treatment of human illness is like Go. It's not like chess. Khosla is making a classic AI mistake, presuming that because he can discern the rules easily, it means the game is simple. Chess has far more complex rules than Go, but it ends up being a simpler game for computers to play.

To be great at Go, software must learn to ignore possibilities, rather than searching through them. In short, it must develop "Go instincts." The same is true for any software that could claim to be a diagnostician.

How can you tell when software diagnosticians are having search problems? When they cannot tell the difference between all of the "right" answers to a particular problem. The average doctor does not need to be told "could it be Zebra Fever?" by a computer that cannot tell that it should have ignored any zebra-related possibilities because it is not physically located in Africa. (No zebras were harmed in the writing of this article, and I do not believe there is a real disease called Zebra Fever.)
Trotter also discusses what he calls the good data problem. Read more here.

January 30, 2012

Chinese boy has night vision, eyes that glow like a cat's

Assuming this is true....

Add this mutation to the list of transhumanist must-haves: Boy’s Eyes Glow In The Dark, See In Night Vision. I'm thinking it's a kind of saltation (or macromutation) that was the result of several fortuitous genetic mutations. That said, the set of mutations required for such a trait can't be too complex, otherwise it would have never arisen spontaneously. This is good news as we may eventually be able to use genetic technologies to deliberately create such a condition ourselves.

A boy has stunned medics with his ability to see in pitch black with eyes that glow in the dark.

Doctors have studied Nong Youhui's amazing eyesight since his dad took him to hospital in Dahua, southern China, concerned over his bright blue eyes.

Dad Ling said: "They told me he would grow out of it and that his eyes would stop glowing and turn black like most Chinese people but they never did."

Medical tests conducted in complete darkness show Youhui can read perfectly without any light and sees as clearly as most people do during the day.

Could Nong Youhui be a Hybrid or Starchild? A new and growing generation of extraordinary and gifted children are springing up across our planet, is the human species evolving, or possibly our Extraterrestrial visitors tinkering with our DNA? As always you decide.

Computers and end-of-life decisions

Not sure I agree with Manny Alvarez's opinion that doctors should not rely on computers for end-of-life decisions, but he brings up what is most definitely an important issue.

Specifically, researchers at UC San Francisco are touting a new software that may help determine the likelihood of death in older and terminally ill populations. The software may help prevent over-testing and over-treatment of some patients__+or under-treatment for more robust patients. The software uses 16 assessment scales to determine the chances of death within six months to five years. Essentially, the doctors can plug independent patient variables into an index, and then receive a percentage indicated the likelihood of death within a particular time frame.

Alvarez writes:
There’s some excitement regarding this new software, naturally, but I can’t say that I’m on board with the idea yet. One of my criticisms regarding how new physicians practice modern medicine is the way they rely on computerized testing before they have any idea of what’s going on.

There’s some excitement regarding this new software, naturally, but I can’t say that I’m on board with the idea yet. One of my criticisms regarding how new physicians practice modern medicine is the way they rely on computerized testing before they have any idea of what’s going on.

Nowadays, if you walk into any medical facility, you get an onslaught of tests like CT scans, MRIs, pet scans, radioisotope studies and blood tests, even before a doctor listens to your lungs or better yet, asks you pertinent questions about how you’re feeling.

This is why I have some reservations on the use of computerized software to determine how long you have to live.

I do understand many terminally ill patients receive tests and treatments that could make their conditions even worse than they already are.

However, I think that before doctors start using software to determine the long-term prognosis of patients, we have to start by improving the overall care that terminally ill patients receive today.

Many terminally ill patients are lost because there is not good communication between specialists, and families are not given enough information and reasonable explanations on the conditions of their loved ones.

I know that Medicare regulations require hospice patients have a prognosis of six months or less, however, using computerized software to determine how long a patient has to live is not the answer.

Medicare should place more of a focus on helping doctors create better geriatric services that could provide physicians and families with better care.
Bedside manner and quality of care are clearly important, but those aspects need to be preserved outside of the method of diagnosis. It doesn't matter who comes up with the prognosis, what matters is accuracy and the resultant treatments. We can't put our heads into the sand on this one. Expert systems are coming, and they're going to be extremely effective at helping doctors do their work.

Should we develop a ‘Morality Pill’?

The debate over moral enhancement is starting to gain some traction. Peter Singer and Agata Sagan are the latest to chime in:
Undoubtedly, situational factors can make a huge difference, and perhaps moral beliefs do as well, but if humans are just different in their predispositions to act morally, we also need to know more about these differences. Only then will we gain a proper understanding of our moral behavior, including why it varies so much from person to person and whether there is anything we can do about it.

If continuing brain research does in fact show biochemical differences between the brains of those who help others and the brains of those who do not, could this lead to a “morality pill” — a drug that makes us more likely to help? Given the many other studies linking biochemical conditions to mood and behavior, and the proliferation of drugs to modify them that have followed, the idea is not far-fetched. If so, would people choose to take it? Could criminals be given the option, as an alternative to prison, of a drug-releasing implant that would make them less likely to harm others? Might governments begin screening people to discover those most likely to commit crimes? Those who are at much greater risk of committing a crime might be offered the morality pill; if they refused, they might be required to wear a tracking device that would show where they had been at any given time, so that they would know that if they did commit a crime, they would be detected.

Fifty years ago, Anthony Burgess wrote “A Clockwork Orange,” a futuristic novel about a vicious gang leader who undergoes a procedure that makes him incapable of violence. Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 movie version sparked a discussion in which many argued that we could never be justified in depriving someone of his free will, no matter how gruesome the violence that would thereby be prevented. No doubt any proposal to develop a morality pill would encounter the same objection.

But if our brain’s chemistry does affect our moral behavior, the question of whether that balance is set in a natural way or by medical intervention will make no difference in how freely we act. If there are already biochemical differences between us that can be used to predict how ethically we will act, then either such differences are compatible with free will, or they are evidence that at least as far as some of our ethical actions are concerned, none of us have ever had free will anyway. In any case, whether or not we have free will, we may soon face new choices about the ways in which we are willing to influence behavior for the better.

Sentient Developments Podcast: Episode 2012.01.30

Sentient Developments Podcast for the week of January 30, 2012.

This week's episode is devoted entirely to my paper (co-authored with Robert Bradbury and Milan Cirkovic) that was recently published in JBIS, "Dysonian Approach to SETI: A Fruitful Middle Ground?"

Tracks used in this episode:
  • "Oxygene II": Jean Michel Jarre
  • "Main Titles: Theme to the Bounty": Vangelis
  • "B. Aldrian": Harald Grosskopf
  • "Wheel of the Year": Advisory Circle
Podcast Feed | Subscribe via iTunes

January 28, 2012

Matt Lalonde on the science behind the Paleo Diet

Wow, Matt Lalonde's story is much like mine: Vegetarian for a decade, discovered CrossFit, wary of Paleo so did Zone Diet instead, and eventually transitioned to Paleo and omnivorousness. What I like most about Lalonde is his claim that it's too simplistic to say "eat like a caveman." There has to be science to back up dietary claims. Also, his discussion of genetic vs. epigenetic factors.

January 24, 2012

Peter Singer: Let's not send dolphins to war

Bioethicist and animal rights activist Peter Singer says that the US-Navy is putting dolphins in harm's way in the Persian Gulf and that it is a form of speciesist enslavement that needs to stop.

Indeed, it's no secret that the US-Navy has trained dolphins to detect mines. And now, with tensions on the rise in the Middle East, they might be used in the conflict with Iran over its nuclear program. In response to the new sanctions, Iran is threatening to block the Strait of Hormuz--the only sear route out of the Persian Gulf, and what the US Energy Department calls "the world's most important oil choke." It's suspected that Iran may use mines to do it, and if so, prompt the Navy to deploy their mine sniffing dolphins in response.

Best estimates indicate that the US Navy has trained about 80 dolphins to detect mines. It is speculated that the dolphins only locate the mines and drop acoustic transponders nearby so that their human partners can destroy the mines.

But, as Peter Singer fears, it is also possible for the dolphins to set off the mines and die in the resulting explosion. Moreover, by using the dolphins in this way makes them – and any other dolphins in the area – targets for the Iranians to destroy if they can.

Singer writes:
Animals, or at least those who are conscious and capable of suffering or enjoying their lives, are not things for us to use in whatever way we find convenient. To believe that, because they are members of a different species, we can ignore or discount their interests is speciesism, a form of prejudice against beings who are not "us" that is akin to racism and sexism. We should give equal consideration to the interests of any sentient being, where their interests are similar to our own.

Dolphins are social mammals, capable of enjoying their lives. They form close bonds with other members of their group. They respond to images of themselves in a mirror, and use the mirror to examine marks on parts of their body that they cannot otherwise see – a test that is widely taken to be a sign of self-awareness, which human children cannot pass until they are somewhere between 18 months and two years of age.

The United States no longer conscripts its citizens to fight its wars. All its human troops are volunteers. But even conscripts have some basic rights. The dolphins have none.
Dolphins have nothing to do with the dispute over Iran's nuclear plans, argues Singer. "Whatever the rights and wrongs of taking military action against Iran," he writes, "let's leave the dolphins out of it."

Centauri Dreams: Rethinking SETI's Targets

Great write-up and summary of our recent Dysonian SETI paper by Paul Gilster over at Centauri Dreams. Excerpt:
In a recent paper, Robert Bradbury, Milan Ćirković (Astronomical Observatory, Belgrade) and George Dvorsky (Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies) consider whether intergalactic SETI may be an example of what they call a ‘Dysonian’ approach to SETI, one that is a ‘middle ground’ between the traditional radio-centric view (with contact implications) and the hostile reaction of SETI detractors who see no value in the enterprise whatsoever and think the money better spent elsewhere. The nod to Freeman Dyson is based on the latter’s conjecture that a truly developed society would surmount the limits of planetary living space and energy by building a Dyson shell, capturing most or all of the energy from the star near which it lived.

A Dyson sphere immediately changes the terms of SETI because it is in principle detectable, but unlike nearby radio signals (either from a beacon or as unintentional ‘leakage’ from a civilization’s activities), a Dyson shell might be spotted at great astronomical distances through its infrared signature. Carl Sagan was one of the first to pick up on the idea and ponder its implications. Dyson was much in favor of attacking the question in a disciplined way, using our astronomical tools, as he once wrote, “…to transpose the dreams of a frustrated engineer into a framework of respectable astronomy.” And here again, we have seen attempts, especially by the aforementioned Richard Carrigan, to study infrared data for signs of such Dyson constructs.

The new direction in SETI that the three authors of the new paper champion is one that employs a broader set of tools. Rather than limiting itself to radio dishes or dedicated optical facilities, it broadens our workspace for extraterrestrial civilizations to include astronomical data that can be gathered in tandem with other research projects, scanning a far wider and deeper field. In the authors’ view, Dysonian SETI also takes into account new developments in astrobiology and even extends into computer science and the possibility of post-biological intelligence. They advocate a Dysonian SETI drawing on four basic strategies to supplement older methods:

  • The search for technological products, artifacts, and signatures of advanced technological civilizations.
  • The study of postbiological and artificially super-intelligent evolutionary trajectories, as well as other relevant fields of future studies.
  • The expansion of admissible SETI target spectrum.
  • The achievement of tighter interdisciplinary contact with related astrobiological subfields (studies of Galactic habitability, biogenesis, etc.) as well as related magisteria (computer science, artificial life, evolutionary biology, philosophy of mind, etc.)
The expansion of SETI into these areas would not replace ongoing SETI methods but would significantly expand the overall process in line with the great goal of learning whether other intelligent beings share the galaxy and the nearby universe with us. The paper offers more fruitful speculation than I can fit into a single entry, so we’ll be looking at these ideas over the course of the next few days. If there really is a Great Silence, to use David Brin’s phrase, these authors argue it’s one that we can only ponder usefully if we broaden our search toward the potentially observable achievements of cultures far more advanced than our own. That study has only recently begun.

January 23, 2012

Sentient Developments Podcast: Episode 2012.01.23

Sentient Developments Podcast for the week of January 23, 2012.

In this week's episode I talk about the new mathematical study which reveals that our Galaxy should have been colonized by now, why Canadians are considering a ban on prenatal gender information, the growing gender imbalance, the latest on the lab-mutated avian flu, why whales are people, health tips to avoid cognitive decline, and why the sex-chip may not be such a good idea.

Tracks used in this episode:
  • Alcest: "Autre Temps"
  • SBTRKT: "Pharoahs"
  • Lower Dens: "Nootropics"
Podcast Feed | Subscribe via iTunes

January 21, 2012

New mathematical study reveals that our Galaxy should have been colonized by now

A recent article in the Economist alerted me to a recent paper by Thomas Hair and Andrew Hedman that profoundly reaffirms the conundrum that is the Fermi Paradox, an observational problem that is sometimes referred to as the Great Silence.

What's fascinating about the Hair and Hedman paper is that they are not cosmologists or astrobiologists, but rather mathematicians—and it is through the lens of number-cruching that they sought an answer to the question of how long it would take a civilization to colonize its local region given a specific set of parameters. And their findings are disturbing: No matter how they reworked the numbers, they came to the same conclusion: the Galaxy should be colonized by now:
To arrive at their conclusion Dr Hair and Mr Hedman assumed that outer space is dotted with solar systems, about five light years apart. They then asked how quickly a single civilisation armed with the requisite technology would spread its tentacles, depending on the degree of colonising zeal, expressed as the probability that intelligent beings decide to hop from one planet to the next in 1,000 years (500 years for the trip, at a modest one-tenth of the speed of light, and another 500 years to prepare for the next hop).

All these numbers are necessarily moot. If the vast majority of planets is not suitable, for instance, the average distance for a successful expedition might be much more than five light years. And advanced beings might not need five Earth centuries to get up to speed before they redeploy. However, Dr Hair and Mr Hedman can tweak their probabilities to reflect a range of possible conditions. Using what they believe to be conservative assumptions (as low as one chance in four of embarking on a colonising mission in 1,000 years), they calculated that any galactic empire would have spread outwards from its home planet at about 0.25% of the speed of light. The result is that after 50m years it would extend over 130,000 light years, with zealous colonisers moving in a relatively uniform cloud and more reticent ones protruding from a central blob. Since the Milky Way is estimated to be 100,000-120,000 light years across, outposts would be sprinkled throughout the galaxy, even if the home planet were, like Earth, located on the periphery.

Crucially, even in slow-expansion scenario, the protrusions eventually coalesce. After 250,000 years, which the model has so far had the time to simulate, the biggest gaps are no larger than 30 light years across. Dr Hair thinks they should grow no bigger as his virtual colonisation progresses. That is easily small enough for man's first sufficiently powerful radio transmissions (in the early 20th century) to have been detected and for a reply to have reached Earth (which has been actively listening out for such messages since the 1960s). And though 50m years may sound a lot, if intelligent life did evolve more than once, it could easily have done so billions of years before this happened on Earth. All this suggests, Dr Hair and Mr Hedman fear, that humans really do have the Milky Way to themselves. Either that or the neighbours are a particularly timid bunch.
So, the next time somebody smugly shrugs off the Fermi Pardox by suggesting that "it takes too long to colonize the Galaxy" or that "there hasn't been enough time," or that "the Galaxy is too big," tell them to shut-up and read this paper.

Note: It doesn't appear that the Hair and Hedman paper is online; I have contacted them and asked for a copy or a link; stay tuned.

January 20, 2012

Daniel Goure: "Drones don’t kill terrorists, governments do."

In his article, Drones and the changing nature of warfare: Stop the presses!, Daniel Goure makes the case that we should be careful in assessing the impacts of drones and robotics in modern warfare and the claim that they could impact the tendency to go to war.
The availability of unmanned aerial systems in no way makes conflict more likely or more brutal. Quite the opposite, in fact, seems to be the case. The presumption that were it not for the availability of drones, the U.S. would refrain from conducting military operations against terrorists based in Pakistan is highly dubious. We have an example of an alternative military option: Operation Enduring Freedom. As Joshua Goldstein pointed out in a recent article, the use of armed drones in Pakistan may have prevented the use of far bloodier means. “Armed drones now attack targets that in the past would have required an invasion with thousands of heavily armed troops, displacing huge numbers of civilians and destroying valuable property along the way.” According to Robert Woodward’s reporting on President Obama’s decision to deploy additional forces to Afghanistan in 2009, a number of senior advisors proposed a lower-cost, smaller deployment based on increased use of special operations forces and unmanned aerial vehicles.

I might go even farther than Goldstein and argue that Cortright should advocate the greater use of drones, armed and otherwise, precisely due to his interest in reducing the frequency, intensity, and costs of conflicts. Just as dash cameras in police cars and cell phone cameras have led to a decrease in police brutality and the ability to bring those who violate procedures to account, the electro-optical sensors on drones can be used to increase oversight over military forces in the field. In fact, cameras can reduce what Cortright calls “the psychological distance that separates the launching of a strike from its bloody impact.” It can also help reduce the alleged isolation of the American people from the use of force in their name.

Unfortunately in view of its title, the primary focus of Cortright’s article is not on drones and warfare. Rather, it centers on the subset of the role of drones in current counterterrorism operations. A number of the issues he raises are frankly much more relevant to the rather murky legal and operational circumstances surrounding the global campaign against al Qaeda. Cortright is closer to the mark when, as the title of his article suggests, he connects the nature of drones, notably the lack of a person in the cockpit, to the sense that both the George W. Bush and, most particularly, the Obama Administration saw such systems as supporting if not promoting a “license to kill.” Critics of the use of drones against unlawful combatants in Pakistan and elsewhere would be on firmer ground by connecting the disembodied features of “Nintendo warfare” to our seeming tolerance for the weakening of legal safeguards for criminal terrorists.

In conclusion, I would suggest that there is nothing in the current employment of drones or in plans for future unmanned aerial systems that poses the kinds of dangers suggested by Mr. Cortright. They will not make war easier or cheaper. There is no evidence that armed drones have reduced the political inhibitions against the use of deadly force. The use of drones in no way threatens to weaken the moral presumption against the inappropriate or excessive use of force that is at the heart of the just war doctrine—the emphasis is mine, but the qualifiers have always belonged to just war theory. Mr. Cortright’s problem is not with drones but the policies of those who employ them. I almost hate to say it, but we should remember that drones don’t kill terrorists, governments do.

Canadians consider banning prenatal gender information

Now here's a piece of bio-legislation that's a complete non-starter in my opinion: Rajendra Kale, interim editor of the Canadian Medical Association Journal, has called for a ban on disclosing the sex of a fetus until 30 weeks, at which point it is difficult to obtain an abortion. The idea is to prevent Canadian parents from engaging in gender selection. The fear is that boys will be favoured over girls, causing a gender imbalance.

Aside from this being a gross violation of reproductive rights, this also flies in the face of actual experience. While there's no question that some ethnicities practice sex selection in Canada (namely Canadians of Sikh, Hindu and Chinese descent), far more Canadians would use the procedure for family balancing purposes. Moreover, if anything, the latest word is that Canadian couples are favouring girls over boys.

And as a recent Globe & Mail article noted:
“You may disagree or feel uncomfortable with the practice but people who practise family balancing are not evil or nefarious,” said Tim Caulfield, the Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.

He stressed that he is not endorsing sex selection, just underscoring that it is a complex issue with many nuances.
Read more.

MoJo: Baby Moses, Human–Jellyfish Hybrids, and Transhumanism: The GOP Candidates Weigh In

Surprising article in Mother Jones about the GOP race and how transhumanism and trangenics recently crept into a public forum:
When it was Newt Gingrich's turn, the moderators grilled him on, among other things, transhumanism and genetic engineering. The topic was a bit out there, as far as presidential forums go, and hardly the kind of thing you'd ever expect to come out of the mouth of, say, Wolf Blitzer. But the question was a valuable one, forcing the former speaker to choose between two of his greatest loves—futuristic technology/cutting-edge research and civilizational crises.

Gingrich went with the latter. "These are at the heart of the next 40 years," he said. "And we've got to understand: Somewhere on this planet there will be a dictatorship that uses science in a way that is truly grotesque. And then you're gonna have, for example, a decision to make, if someone can participate in the Olympics who's been genetically engineered. I mean you're gonna have, there's an array of different countries out there, some of which have values so lacking to any of us that you're gonna have these kinds of things."

Then came the grandiose part: "This may be the first time in some ways since leaving the Garden of Eden where we have to address the question of what it means to be human. And I think it's also a time to be very aware of the fact the greatest of all sins is hubris, putting yourself before God. And that there is a really great danger posed by scientists and those technicians, who believe that they now have God-like powers. Because it defies the very essence of humans."

One of Rick Santorum's first questions was equally out of left-field: He was asked about a recent breakthrough at Cornell, in which researches used transplanted genes from a jellyfish to illuminate a test-tube embryo, the better to understand its development. "As president," it was put to Santorum, "how would you advance scientific knowledge while protecting human dignity and human life?" Well, for one thing, Santorum made clear he'd oppose human–jellyfish hybrids. "Scientists will go wherever they choose to go because they don't feel any moral constraints," he said. "Our obligation as a society is to protect children, and to not allow us to be experimented on for any reason." In a later answer, he passionately defended banning abortion even in cases of rape, noting that the Supreme Court considers the death penalty for rapists cruel and unusual punishment. If we don't kill the rapist, why should we kill the baby?
Reading this article actually caused me physical pain.

Thomas White: "Whales are people, too"

Thomas I. White, the author of In Defense of Dolphins: The New Moral Frontier, has penned a must-read article in ABC Environment. White argues that there is now ample scientific evidence that capacities once thought to be unique to humans are shared by dolphins and whales. "Like humans," he writes, "whales and dolphins are 'persons'." And by persons he means that they are self-aware beings with individual personalities and a rich inner life; they have the ability to think abstractly, feel deeply and choose their actions. In addition, their lives are characterized by close, long-term relationships with conspecifics in communities characterized by culture. "In short," he says, "whales and dolphins are a who, not a what."

Thankfully, White notes that research on marine mammals is on the wane:
More significantly, a small group of experts who met at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies in the spring of 2010 to evaluate the ethical implications of the scientific research on cetaceans concluded that the evidence merited issuing a Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans: Whales and Dolphins. This group included such prominent scientists as Lori Marino and Hal Whitehead. Particularly important in this declaration was the recognition that whales and dolphins are persons who are "beyond use". Treating them as 'property' is indefensible.
Despite this, notes White, whales and dolphins are still being used for entertainment purposes at marine parks:
It is, of course, no surprise that the managers, employees and researchers affiliated with enterprises that make money using captive whales and dolphins do a poor job of being sensitive to the ethical implications of the progress of marine mammal science. These people are caught in a classic conflict of interest. On the one hand, they have a duty to protect the welfare of the cetaceans in their care. On the other hand, their jobs and careers depend on keeping the current business model intact for as long as they can.

Predictably, when there's money on the line, people will not only rationalise all sorts of actions, they'll even believe their own rationalisations. As we saw with the 2008 economic meltdown, individuals running banks and financial institutions on Wall Street were so blinded by a desire to maximise profits that they not only ran their own companies into the ground, they put the economy of the entire planet at risk. When we humans are so ready to turn a blind eye to actions that risk hurting ourselves for the sake of profit, it comes as no surprise that we'll readily ignore the possibility of hurting other intelligent species.

All of the organisations that use captive cetaceans say they are strongly committed to the welfare of the whales and dolphins under their care. Given the ethical challenges that have come from the progress of scientific research over the last 30 years, the question is whether these organisations will respond appropriately on their own or whether they will increasingly become the targets of controversy and consumer boycotts.
So, despite the increasing evidence re-affirming our suspicion that whales and dolphins are persons, we are left with an interesting—but troubling—conundrum: "If moving away from using captive whales and dolphins is both the right thing to do and more profitable than current practices," asks White, "why isn't it happening?"

I encourage you to read the entire article. And while you're at it, support the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technology's Rights of Non-Human Persons Program.

DIYbio: Making scientific breakthroughs at home

A number of scientific improvisers, or bio-hackers, are part of a growing movement called DIYbio, short for do-it-yourself biology. The movement got its official start in 2008 with DIYBio.org, an online hub for sharing ideas—and the site has grown to more than 2,000 members since its inception. From the website:
DIYbio.org is an organization dedicated to making biology an accessible pursuit for citizen scientists, amateur biologists and biological engineers who value openness and safety. This will require mechanisms for amateurs to increase their knowledge and skills, access to a community of experts, the development of a code of ethics, responsible oversight, and leadership on issues that are unique to doing biology outside of traditional professional settings.
The NYT recently published an article about the movement.

Ongoing education key to staving off cognitive decline later in life

Neat article in the NYT by Patricia Cohen on how education can keep the mind sharp, particularly during the middle ages and beyond:
As it turns out, one essential element of mental fitness has already been identified. "Education seems to be an elixir that can bring us a healthy body and mind throughout adulthood and even a longer life," says Margie E. Lachman, a psychologist at Brandeis University who specializes in aging. For those in midlife and beyond, a college degree appears to slow the brain's aging process by up to a decade, adding a new twist to the cost-benefit analysis of higher education - for young students as well as those thinking about returning to school.

Dr. Lachman is one of the principal investigators for what could be considered the Manhattan Project of middle age, an enormous study titled Midlife in the United States, or Midus. This continuing examination of Americans' physical and emotional health and habits gained momentum in the 1990s as the first wave of baby boomers were settling into their fifth decade and running up against their own biases against aging. More than 7,000 people 25 to 74 years old were drafted to participate so that middle-agers could be compared with those younger and older. And with a new $21 million grant from the National Institute on Aging, the Midus team is beginning its third round of research this month.

What makes Midus particularly valuable is that researchers can track the same person over a long period, comparing the older self with the younger self to see which capabilities are declining and which are improving. This approach has opened a new peephole into the middle-age brain.

Despite continuing emphasis on SAT-type testing, in recent decades researchers have become much more aware of the range of abilities that constitute intellectual muscle. The Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner called his version of this theory "multiple intelligences" in his seminal 1983 book, "Frames of Mind." "The human mind," he later explained, "is better thought of as a series of relatively separate faculties, with only loose and non-predictable relations with one another, than as a single, all-purpose machine that performs steadily at a certain horsepower, independent of content and context."

Many researchers believe that human intelligence or brainpower consists of dozens of assorted cognitive skills, which they commonly divide into two categories. One bunch falls under the heading "fluid intelligence," the abilities that produce solutions not based on experience, like pattern recognition, working memory and abstract thinking, the kind of intelligence tested on I.Q. examinations. These abilities tend to peak in one's 20s.

"Crystallized intelligence," by contrast, generally refers to skills that are acquired through experience and education, like verbal ability, inductive reasoning and judgment. While fluid intelligence is often considered largely a product of genetics, crystallized intelligence is much more dependent on a bouquet of influences, including personality, motivation, opportunity and culture.

Research on mutant strain of bird flu comes to a stop

Scientists who created a more transmissible strain of the avian flu H1N1 have temporarily stopped their research amid fears it could be used by bioterrorists. From the BBC:
In a letter published in Science and Nature, the teams call for an "international forum" to debate the risks and value of the studies. US authorities last month asked the authors of the research to redact key details in forthcoming publications. A government advisory panel suggested the data could be used by terrorists. Biosecurity experts fear a mutant form of the virus could spark a pandemic deadlier than the 1918-19 Spanish flu outbreak that killed up to 40 million people.

The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) recommended key details be omitted from publication of the research, which an sparked international furore.

"I would have preferred if this hadn't caused so much controversy, but it has happened and we can't change that," Ron Fouchier, a researcher from Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, told Science Insider.

"So I think it's the right step to make."

While bird flu is deadly, its reach has been limited because it is not transmissible between humans.

However, the H5N1 flu virus was altered to be passed easily between ferrets, during the joint research by Erasmus University in the Netherlands and the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the US. A senior US health official says "not everyone needs to know how to make a lethal virus."

Two scientific journals want to publish the research - albeit in redacted form - and are trying to work out with the US government how to make the data accessible to "responsible scientists".

The World Health Organization said in a December statement that limiting access to the research would harm an agreement between its members. The NSABB is made up of scientists and public health experts, 23 from outside the government, and 18 from within.
My two cents:
  • This is probably a good idea. Eventually, once an accountable and effective regulatory regime is put into place, this important research can continue. It doesn't make sense to make this information public. The only people who should have access to it are those who work in sanctioned/licensed labs, and under the watchful eye of this pending regulatory regime. 
  • Now that we know how easy it is to mutate this virus into something far worse (all it took was two very particular genetic tweaks), we have to operate under the assumption that the virus will either mutate that way on its own or that someone will eventually and deliberately re-create this deadly strain for nefarious purposes. Consequently, it is imperative that research be done now to determine how to best combat such a virus. No "hindsight is 20/20" excuse will be allowed on this one; we know today that work needs to be done.

January 18, 2012

Dysonian SETI paper published in JBIS

After more than three years of work, and the tragic loss of one collaborator, our paper has finally hit the newsstands. The latest edition of the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society (JBIS Vol 64 No 05) features our article, "Dysonian Approach to SETI: A Fruitful Middle Ground?" My fellow collaborators include Milan Ćirković and the late Robert Bradbury who died suddenly last year.

The paper is behind a pay-wall, but if you ask me real nice I might send you a copy. Here's the abstract:
We critically assess the prevailing currents in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), embodied in the notion of radio-searches for intentional artificial signals as envisioned by pioneers such as Frank Drake, Philip Morrison, Michael Papagiannis and others. In particular, we emphasize (1) the necessity of integrating SETI into a wider astrobiological and future studies context, (2) the relevance of and lessons to be learnt from the anti-SETI arguments, in particular Fermi’s paradox, and (3) a need for complementary approach which we dub the Dysonian SETI. It is meaningfully derived from the inventive and visionary ideas of Freeman J. Dyson and his imaginative precursors, like Konstantin E. Tsiolkovsky, Olaf Stapledon, Nikola Tesla or John B. S. Haldane, who suggested macro-engineering projects as the focal points in the context of extrapolations about the future of humanity and, by analogy, other intelligent species. We consider practical ramifications of the Dysonian SETI and indicate some of the promising directions for future work.
Basically, we're suggesting that current SETI techniques are ineffective and dated, and that a new future-oriented approach needs to be taken. More specifically, the folks at SETI need to be looking for those artifacts and signals indicative of a post-Singularity or other highly advanced extraterrestrial civilization. For example, we should be looking for specific signatures that might be emitted from a Dyson sphere or other megascale artifacts. Some other macro-engineering feats belonging to this potentially detectable category include:
  • Supramundane planets, shell worlds, Jacob’s ladders, and similar circumplanetary constructions
  • Large-scale antimatter-burning vehicles or industrial plants
  • Large-scale processing of radio-nuclides
  • Artificial planetary rings
  • Large artificial objects (Tsiolkovsky-O’Neill habitats, for instance) in transiting orbits, detectable through extrasolar planet searches
  • Smaller objects being anomalously accelerated via systems such as mass-drivers or space elevators
SETI has largely been a failure to date, and not necessarily because they haven't had enough time to look. Perhaps SETI has simply been looking for the wrong things.

January 16, 2012

The rich will get richer in a world of emulated brains

Thought-provoking article by Robin Hanson on why he believes wealth inequality could expand dramatically in a future economy run by emulated brains. If you've never come across Hanson's ideas before, you should probably start with his paper, If Uploads Come First. From his recent post:
In the em era [i.e. emulated brain era], I expect firm distributions to stay similar, but expect city and individual wealth distributions to change. I’ve talked before about how I suspect strong gains to em concentration, as they suffer less from travel congestion, leading perhaps to most being in a few dense cities. In this post, let me talk about em wealth.

Since em lifespans should be limited mainly by em wealth, em lifetimes can vary a lot more than human lifetimes, and ems can have more long-term spending consistency. While some ems will spend their wealth on more copies, others will hoard their wealth. Some may even manage to consistently reinvest most of their wealth via something like a Kelly criteria. This seems likely to make future em wealth evolution more akin to today’s firm and city evolution. I thus expect a near Zipf distribution for the high tail of em wealth.

This change in tail power should make em wealth distributions more unequal. Under a tail power of ~1.4, today’s richest person has about $75B, which is about 0.04% of the world’s $200T wealth. Under a power of ~1, the richest person might be about a hundred times richer, holding ~4% of the world’s wealth, or $7.5T.

January 15, 2012

Sentient Developments Podcast: Episode 2012.01.16

Sentient Developments Podcast for the week of January 16, 2012.

In this week's episode I talk about the assassination of an Iranian nuclear physicist and how scientists are increasingly coming to be seen as military targets. In addition, I discuss the Stuxnet worm, and the devastating potential for solar storms, EMP, and botulinum attacks.

Tracks used in this episode:
  • Sepalcure: "Pencil Pimp"
  • Todd Terje: "Snnoze 4 Love"
  • Harald Grosskopf: "Synthesist" (Blondes remix)
  • The Reflecting Skin: "Traffikers"
Podcast Feed | Subscribe via iTunes

January 11, 2012

David Brin: Do We Really Want Immortality?

David Brin is an honorary Sentient Developments guest blogger; this article is republished with his permission. His new novel, EXISTENCE, deals with many of these issues, and will appear in June from Tor Books.

Suppose you had a chance to question an ancient Greek or Roman -- or any of our distant ancestors, for that matter. Let's say you asked them to list the qualities of a deity.

It's a pretty good bet that many of the "god-like" traits he or she described might seem trivial nowadays.

After all, we think little of flying through the air. We fill pitch-dark areas with sudden lavish light, by exerting a mere twitch of a finger. Average folks routinely send messages or observe events taking place far across the globe. Copious and detailed information about the universe is readily available through crystal tubes many of us keep on our desks and command like genies. Some modern citizens can even hurl lightning, if we choose to annoy our neighbors and the electric company.

Few of us deem these powers to be miraculous, because they've been acquired by nearly everyone in prosperous nations. After all, nobody respects a gift if everybody has it. And yet, these are some of the very traits that earlier generations associated with divine beings.

Even so, we remain mortal. Our obsession with that fate is as intense as it was in the time of Gilgamesh. Perhaps more, since we overcame so many other obstacles that thwarted our ancestors.

Will our descendants conquer the last barriers standing between humanity and Olympian glory? Or may we encounter hurdles too daunting even for our brilliant, arrogant, ingenious and ever-persevering species?

There can be no better topic for this contemplation -- the last in a series commissioned for iPlanet -- about our future in the coming millennium. Essay number one cast perspective on our accomplishments during the Twentieth Century and the second dealt with near-term dilemmas we may face in the twenty-first. Now let's take a long-view, exploring the possibility that our great grandchildren will be "great" in every sense of the word... and have problems to match.

Human Lifespan

Here's the safest prediction for the next 100 years -- that mortality will be a major theme. Assuming we don't blow up the world, or fall into some other catastrophic failure mode, human beings will inevitably focus on using advanced technology to cheat death.

Already the fruits of science and the Industrial Age give billions unprecedented hope of living out their full natural spans -- one of the chief reasons that our planetary population has expanded so. While it's true that these benefits still aren't fairly or evenly distributed, an unprecedentedly large fraction of Earth's inhabitants have grown up without any first-hand experience of plague or mass starvation. That rising percentage curve is more encouraging than the images you see on the 6 O'clock News, though it offers cold comfort to those still languishing in poverty.

Suppose, through a mix of compassion, creativity and good luck, we complete the difficult transition and manage to spread this happy situation to everyone across the globe, solving countless near-term crises along the way. Will future generations take a full life span as much for granted as modern Americans do?

Of course they will... and complain there's nothing natural about an eighty- or ninety-year time limit on the adventure and enjoyment of life.

Already, many proposed methods of life-extension have come up for discussion:

  • Lifestyle adjustment
  • Intervention and Repair
  • Genetic Solutions
  • Waiting for better times
  • Transcendence

The first of these, lifestyle adjustment, would seem to offer surefire immediate rewards. After all, most of the increase in average lifespan we've seen in recent centuries came from nothing more complicated than proper diet and hygiene.

But that statistical boost is deceptive! It was achieved by increasing the fraction of babies who make it all the way to the borderlands of vigorous old age. This had little to do with pushing back the boundary itself; the realm that we call "elderly" still hovers somewhere near the biblical three score and ten.

Do all animal species have built-in expiration timers? Some fish and reptiles may not, but most creatures -- and especially mammals -- do seem to have an inner clock that triggers every individual's decline to frailty after the middle years of fight-flight-and-reproduction run their course.

Mice and elephants lead very different lives -- one slow and ponderous, the other manic and fleeting -- yet rodents and pachyderms share the same pervasive pattern of aging. Individuals who survive the perils of daily life, from disease to predators, inevitably begin declining after they go through about half a billion heartbeats. (Elephants live much longer than mice, but their hearts also beat far slower, so the total allotment stays about the same.)

The same holds true across nearly all mammalian species. Few live to celebrate their billionth pulse. No one knows quite what this coincidence signifies. Moreover, the program isn't quite rigid. In laboratories around the world, researchers have lately discovered exciting ways to slow the senescence timer -- at least in mice and fruit flies -- largely by keeping the test creatures hungry. By giving them nutritious but restricted diets, or by delaying sexual reproduction, researchers report in some cases doubling the usual lifespan.

As you might expect, quite a few human enthusiasts are now eagerly applying these lessons from the lab, limiting the calories they eat or forbearing sex, hoping to extend their own lifespans through judicious abstinence. Alas, the results achieved so far -- such as a slight reduction in heart disease -- have been disappointingly slim.

After a little reflection, this should come as no surprise. Across history, many civilizations have fostered ascetic movements, sometimes in large colonies where dedicated individuals lived spartan, abstemious lives. After four millennia of these experiments, wouldn't we have noticed by now if swarms of spry, 200-year old monks were capering across the countryside?

There may be a good reason why simple life-style changes work in animals, but not us.

Remember that billion heartbeat limit that seems to confine all mammals, from shrews to giraffes? It's a pretty neat correlation, until you ponder the chief exception.


Most mammals our size and weight are already fading away by age twenty or so, when humans are just hitting their stride. By eighty, we've had about three billion heartbeats! That's quite a bonus.

How did we get so lucky?

Biologists figure that our evolving ancestors needed drastically extended lifespans, because humans came to rely on learning rather than instinct to create sophisticated, tool-using societies. That meant children needed a long time to develop. A mere two decades weren't long enough for a man or woman to amass the knowledge needed for complex culture, let alone pass that wisdom on to new generations. (In fact, chimps and other apes share some of this lifespan bonus, getting about half as many extra heartbeats.)

So evolution rewarded those who found ways to slow the aging process. Almost any trick would have been enlisted, including all the chemical effects that researchers have recently stimulated in mice, through caloric restriction. In other words, we've probably already incorporated all the easy stuff! We're the mammalian Methuselahs and little more will be achieved by asceticism or other drastic life-style adjustments. Good diet and exercise will help you get your eighty years. But to gain a whole lot more lifespan, we're going to have to get technical.

So what about intervention and repair?

Are your organs failing? Grow new ones, using a culture of your own cells!

Are your arteries clogged? Send tiny nano-robots coursing through your bloodstream, scouring away plaque! Use tuned masers to break the excess intercell linkages that make flesh less flexible over time.

Install little chemical factories to synthesize and secrete the chemicals that your own glands no longer adequately produce. Brace brittle bones with ceramic coatings, stronger than the real thing!

In fact, we are already doing many of these things, in early-primitive versions. So there is no argument over whether such techniques will appear in coming decades, only how far they will take us.

Might enough breakthroughs coalesce at the same time to let us routinely offer everybody triple-digit spans of vigorous health? Or will these complicated interventions only add more digits to the cost of medical care, while struggling vainly against the same age-barrier in a frustrating war of diminishing returns?

I'm sure it will seem that way for the first few decades of the next century... until, perhaps, everything comes together in a rush. If that happens -- if we suddenly find ourselves able to fix old age -- there will surely be countless unforeseen consequences... and one outcome that's absolutely predictable.

We'll start taking that miracle for granted, too.

On the other hand, it may not work as planned. Many scientists suggest that attempts at intervention and repair will ultimately prove futile, because senescence and death are integral parts of our genetic nature. After all, from a purely biological point of view, we individuals are merely the grist of evolution, here to strive, compete and reproduce, if we can.

If our australopithecine ancestors had been ageless immortals, wouldn't that have bollixed the cruelly creative process of natural selection that produced us? Biologists who believe in the intrinsic genetic clock say we should be grateful for those three billion heartbeats. After that, the best service we can do for our grandchildren is to get out of their way.

Other experts disagree. They think the "clock" is a mere coincidence, having to do with steadily accumulating errors in our cells. In particular, they point to telemeres -- little chemical caps protecting the ends of our chromosomes -- which wear away with time until the sheltering layer vanishes and grave erosion starts affecting the vulnerable DNA strands, instead. This gradual chemical deterioration simulates a destiny clock, though some researchers hope it might be halted, if we learn the right medical and biochemical tricks.

Whichever side is right about the nature and evolutionary origins of the aging clock, there are no obvious reasons why human beings can't or won't meddle with its programming, once we fully grasp how cell and genome work. Even if such tools come too late for today's generation, intervention may help our descendants to live longer, healthier lives.

Long life may be just one of the benefits to spill from our rising pot of knowledge. Suppose we learn to emulate achievements of other Earthly species... say, hibernation. Might that bring us closer to another age-old dream, travel to the stars?

Hibernation, or suspended life, would also be a great way to travel forward through time. To see the future. Which brings up yet another way that some people think they can cheat death: by setting off on a one-way journey from our primitive era, hoping to emerge when civilization has solved many of the problems discussed here.

So far, our sole hope for such a voyage to the far-off future -- and a slim one, at that -- is something called cryonics, the practice of freezing a terminal patient's body, after he or she has been declared legally dead. Some of those who sign up for this service take the cheap route of having only their heads prepared and stored in liquid nitrogen, under the assumption that folks in the Thirtieth Century will simply grow fresh bodies on demand. Their logic is expressed with chilling rationality. "The real essence of who I am is the software contained in my brain. My old body -- the hardware -- is just meat."

Polls show that a majority of citizens today perceive cryonics enthusiasts as kooky, perhaps even a bit grotesque with their Frankensteinian interest in dead bodies. In fact, I share some of this skepticism, though perhaps for different reasons.

Suppose future generations can grow new bodies on demand, and are able to transfer something like your original consciousness out of a frozen, damaged brain. It remains to be seen why they would want to.

Anyway, today's cryo-storage process is messy, complex, legally shaky, and terribly expensive. Wouldn't any reasonable person -- one worthy of revival -- dedicate a lifetime's accumulated resources to helping their children and posterity, instead of splurging it all on a chancy, self-important gamble for personal immortality?

And yet, cryonics devotees keep plugging away at their dream, refining their techniques, finding new ways to store brains with less damage and at lower cost -- in much the same way that past generations of putterers strove to develop machines that could fly. The funny thing is that we may never know when they cross a threshold and finally do manage to freeze somebody well enough to be revived at a future time. All that's certain is that the techno-zealots will go on trying. They see Death as a palpable enemy that can ultimately be defeated, like so many others we've overcome during our long ascent.

Is there some point at which cryonic storage would become so simple -- so convenient and cheap -- that you would shrug and say "sign me up"? Suppose it took a thousand-dollar annex to your insurance policy? A hundred dollars? Five bucks?

What would you do differently then, in your daily life, to help ensure that future generations will feel kindly toward you? Perhaps even kindly enough to want your primitive company. Would you additionally sponsor cryo-storage for half a dozen poor people? Or donate part of your fortune to endeavors that help make a better, richer (and therefore more generous) future world? Would you work hard to raise descendants worth bragging about? Or were you already planning to do most of those things, anyway?

Some people who sign up for storage believe their bank accounts alone -- set up to earn dividends until some future era -- will suffice to make them worthy of being thawed, repaired, and given full corporeal citizenship in a coming age of wonders.

Somehow, I wouldn't give that bet anything like sure odds, no matter how many technological barriers future people overcome.

There is a final category of ways that people think they can cheat death. It falls under a single word -- transcendence.

Throughout history, countless philosophers and devout believers have yearned to rise above the whole megillah of normal human existence -- all the hungers, pangs, neuroses, fears, and limitations of brain and body -- by transporting some internal essence -- consciousness or the soul -- to a plane of existence far greater and nobler than we perceive as mere ignorant Homo sapiens. This ever-present drive propelled a wide range of contradictory dogmas and creeds on all continents. But even amid such diversity there were certain common themes. All those hopes, yearnings and strivings focused on the spiritual -- the notion that humans may achieve a higher state through prayer, moral behavior, or mental discipline.

In the last couple of centuries, however, a fourth track to the next plane has gained supporters -- 'techno-transcendentalism.' Under this variation, disciples hope to achieve an agreeable new level of existence by means of knowledge and skill. They feel we can transform human beings -- and human nature -- through the tools of technology and science.

Whether this attitude represents the worst sort of irreligious hubris, or should be viewed as a natural stage in our adolescent development, is ripe for extensive and wide-ranging discussion... at another time perhaps. For now though, let's focus only on how it applies to human lifespan.

According to some techno-transcendentalists, "growing new bodies" will seem like child's play in the future. Many of them eagerly predict a time, sooner than you think, when we'll all plug into computer-mediated artificial worlds where the old animal-limitations will simply vanish. By "downloading" ourselves into vast simulated realms, we may become effectively immortal, breaking the tyrannical hold of mere fleshy cells and evolutionary "clocks." In this way, deathlessness of the spirit might be achieved by technologically savvy, rather than moral merit.

If the boosters of this kind of transcendence are right, every other kind of "immortality" will prove obsolete. In fact, nearly all of our modern concerns will seem about as relevant as a Neolithic hunter roaming downtown Manhattan, worrying about finding enough flint nodules to chip into spear points.

Wise Enough to be Immortal?

All right, I admit that concept of techno-transcendence -- sometimes called the Singularity -- may be a bit more than the editors of iPlanet bargained for, so let's keep focused on the topic of this article, our struggle against physical death. We covered a number of methods people are trying to use in seeking victory over the ancient foe.

All right, what if one of them finally works? All too often, we find that solving one problem only leads to others, sometimes even more vexing.

A number of eminent writers like Robert Heinlein, Greg Bear, Kim Stanley Robinson and Gregory Benford have speculated on possible consequences, should Mister G. Reaper ever be forced to hang up his scythe and seek other employment. For example, if the Death Barrier comes crashing down, will we be able to keep shoehorning new humans into a world already crowded with earlier generations? Or else, as envisioned by author John Varley, might such a breakthrough demand draconian population-control measures, limiting each person to one direct heir per lifespan?

What if overcoming death proves expensive? Shall we return to the ancient belief, common in some cultures, that immortality is reserved for the rich and mighty? Nancy Kress has written books that vividly foresee a time when the teeming poor resent rich immortals. In contrast, author Joe Haldeman suggested simple rules of social engineering that may help keep such a prize within reach by all.

More people could wind up dying by violence and accidents than old age. Might we then start to hunker down in our homes, preserving our long-but-frail lives by avoiding all risk? Or would ennui drive the long-lived to seek new thrills, like extreme sports, bringing death back out of retirement in order to add spice to an otherwise-dull eternity?

Such changes may already be underway as we enter an era some call the "Empire of the Old." Each year, retirement hobbies drive ever-larger portions of the economy, foretelling vigor by an active elderly population -- a wholesome trend portrayed in Bruce Sterling's Holy Fire and my own The Transparent Society. On the down side, the power of older voters can terrorize politicians and warp allocation of resources. Sensible proposals to raise the retirement age by some fraction of the lifespan increase, are quashed by waves of irate and uncompromising self-interest. It's a worrisome trend for any society to rank generous retirement supplements higher than good schools for its young. No such civilization can long endure.

What will happen when the elderly outnumber all others? This may soon appear less than far-fetched in countries like Japan, where restrictive immigration policies help ensure and accelerate the aging trend.

Even problems that seem far-off and speculative today may become critical when people live beyond a twelfth decade. For example, is there a limit to the number of memories that a human brain can store?

On a more fundamental level, are we about to insist, once again, that contemporary humanity is wise enough to overrule all of Nature's checks and balances?

(The answer to that one is simple... of course we'll insist! We always do.)

These are among the serious questions and quandaries we may face, perhaps sooner than you think. That is, I hope we face them, for they are the sort of predicaments generated by success.

But then, that's how it always has been. If we leave our descendants a better world, they will take the good parts for granted and fume over consequences we never foresaw.

It is a pattern typical of adolescence, and one more clue that our adventure has barely begun.

Comments welcome here.

David Brin is a scientist and best-selling author whose future-oriented novels include Earth, The Postman, and Hugo Award winners Startide Rising and The Uplift War. (The Postman inspired a major film in 1998.) Brin is also known as a leading commentator on modern technological trends. His nonfiction book -- The Transparent Society -- won the Freedom of Speech Award of the American Library Association. Brin's newest novel Kiln People explores a fictional near future when people use cheap copies of themselves to be in two places at once. The Life Eaters -- a graphic novel -- explores a chilling alternative outcome of World War II.

January 9, 2012

Sentient Developments Podcast: Episode 2012.01.09

Sentient Developments Podcast for the week of January 9, 2012.

In this week's episode I talk about my renewed focus on diet and exercise now that the Christmas season is over. In addition, I rank the most powerful forces in the universe, I discuss the recent work done by a Dutch lab to modify the bird flu, and I offer an alternative perspective on the potential for complete nuclear disarmament.

Tracks used in this episode:
  • Phantogram: "Don't Move"
  • Thee Oh Sees: "The Dream"
  • Soft Metals: "Psychic Driving"
Podcast Feed | Subscribe via iTunes

January 8, 2012

Toyota Fun-Vii Concept Car

Uh, yes, please...

Unveiled at the 2011 Tokyo Motor Show, the Toyota Fun-Vii concept car shows that the future of automobiles will be anything but boring or predictable. The 'Vii' stands for Vehicle, Interactive, Internet. It's a car, a gaming machine and a smartphone all in one. Virtually every part of the car can interact with the internet, and almost every surface of the car (both inside and out) is a touchscreen that can be adjusted by the driver, including color changes. And of course, the car can drive itself.

Howard S. Friedman on the "real secrets to a longer life"

The key to a long life, argues Howard S. Friedman, is not by eating vegetables and going to the gym. Rather, he says, we should focus on having a "a rich, productive life." Amy Novotney of The Monitor recently interviewed Friedman, the author of The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study to find out more.

Novotney asked, "Explain the effects of stress on longevity. Your research seems to show it may not be as bad for us as we think." To which Friedman responded:
There is a terrible misunderstanding about stress. Chronic physiological disturbance is not at all the same thing as hard work, social challenges or demanding careers. People are being given rotten advice to slow down, take it easy, stop worrying and retire to Florida. The Longevity Project discovered that those who worked the hardest lived the longest. The responsible and successful achievers thrived in every way, especially if they were dedicated to things and people beyond themselves.

One study participant, Norris Bradbury, is a great example. He was the director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory for decades and was tremendously hard-working. It is hard to imagine a higher-pressure job than overseeing the development of the nation's nuclear arsenal at a time of severe Cold War threats. Yet, he was tremendously successful in his long career, and, despite all the stresses and challenges, Bradbury lived a very long, healthy life — to age 88. This was the general pattern. Those who stayed very involved in meaningful careers and worked the hardest, lived the longest.
Friedman's work also revealed some surprising things about divorce and marriage; his research shows that the single strongest social predictor of early death in adulthood is parental divorce during childhood.
The beauty of The Longevity Project is that we don't have to speculate about explanations; we can go back into the lifelong data and see. This tracing of pathways also explains why we are not drawing causal conclusions from correlational data, as some people initially think. It turns out that parental divorce often pushes the child into a number of unhealthy directions, including heavier drinking and smoking, less education, lower career achievements and eventual higher likelihood of divorce themselves. The good news here is that we also discovered pathways to a resilient recovery, such as achieving a sense of personal accomplishment. Strength of character and maturity were important, consistent with other research.
And on the effect of marriage on health and long life:
The big surprise here involved differences between men and women. Magazines are full of advice to "Get married and you will live longer," but it is not true. Marriage was health-promoting primarily for men who were well-suited to marriage and had a good marriage. For the rest, there were all kinds of complications. Women who got divorced or stayed single often thrived. Even women who were widowed often did exceptionally well. It seemed as if women who got rid of their troublesome husbands stayed healthy. Men who got and stayed divorced were at really high risk for premature mortality.
More in this video:

My two cents:
  • I'm sure there's lots of truth to Friedman's claims, but I think it wise to heed his advice while continuing to work at reducing all other known risk factors that contribute to early death. In other words, keep eating well and hit the gym.
  • As for the divorce correlation, it's important to remember that Friedman is studying the effects of divorce on a generation in which divorce was highly stigmatized. I think kids today will fair much better than those looked at in the study.

Globe & Mail: Is evolving reproductive technology ushering in a new age of eugenics?

Thorough and provocative feature article in the Globe & Mail: Unnatural Selection: Is evolving reproductive technology ushering in a new age of eugenics?
Recent breakthroughs have made it possible to scan every chromosome in a single embryonic cell, to test for genes involved in hundreds of “conditions,” some of which are clearly life-threatening while others are less dramatic and less certain – unlikely to strike until adulthood if they strike at all.

And science is far from finished. On the horizon are DNA microchips able to analyze more than a thousand traits at once, those linked not just to a child's health but to enhancements – genes that influence height, intelligence, hair, skin and eye colour and athletic ability.

Such tests were devised to help those suffering from infertility. But people well able to have babies the old-fashioned way now opt for IVF and embryo screening, paying a steep premium in return for the chance to have greater genetic control over their offspring.

Critics ranging from religious conservatives to advocates for the disabled worry that a new age of eugenics is rising, propelled not by racists, despots or elitists but by parental aspiration. Says Bernard Dickens, an expert in reproductive law and bioethics with the University of Toronto, this technology is “all part of the quest for the perfect child.”
Oxford University bioethicist Julian Savulescu is mentioned in the article:
The New York University School of Medicine surveyed 999 people in 2009 and found that most supported prenatal screening to eliminate serious diseases, along with mental retardation (75 per cent) and blindness (56 per cent). At least 10 per cent also favoured improving height and 13 per cent considered superior intelligence acceptable.

But Julian Savulescu, the controversial Oxford University bioethicist, believes that society must do more than be tolerant. He claims parents have a moral obligation to select embryos that are “most likely to have the best life, based on the available genetic information.”

That information, he argues, should not be limited to avoiding disease genes, but should include those that might improve intelligence or physical characteristics – even if it maintains or adds to social inequalities. He calls it “procreative beneficence.”

Prof. Savulescu, whom Dr. Nisker has often debated, also believes that society should embrace the genetic manipulation of embryos to endow future offspring with superior traits that inheritance has not provided. Until recently, such engineering was only theoretical. But in 2007, researchers at Cornell University quietly created the world's first genetically modified human embryo by adding a fluorescent gene that allowed scientists to watch it develop. The breakthrough did not become public until the following year, when it was roundly condemned as a worrisome step toward designer babies.
My two cents:
  • I object to the usage of the term "eugenics" in this context. Eugenics is a top-down imposition. It describes a society in which the state is imposing and directing its vision of what the "ideal" human should look like. In this sense, it is a gross violation of reproductive freedoms and individual choice. Many of the technologies described in this article are giving couples increased insight into and control over their reproductive potential. In this sense, it's virtually everything that eugenics is not. 
  • I'm looking forward to the day when we can stop using the term "designer babies" and in its place use a less loaded term, namely human trait selection.

Paddy Ashdown: The global power shift

Paddy Ashdown, a former member of the British Parliament and a diplomat with a lifelong commitment to international cooperation, claims that we are living in a moment in history where power is changing in ways it never has before. In this talk at TEDxBrussels he outlines the three major global shifts that he sees coming.

January 2, 2012

Sentient Developments Podcast: Episode 2012.01.02

Sentient Developments Podcast for the week of January 2, 2012.

This week's episode is themed around animal enhancement. Topics discussed include the recent film Rise of the Planet of the Apes, human-and-animal video game interaction, the ethics of animal uplift, and the recent report in the U.S. declaring chimps largely unessential as research subjects.

Tracks used in this episode:
  • Panda Bear: "Scheherazade"
  • Antlers: "Rolled Together"
  • Snowman: "Snakes and Ladders"
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January 1, 2012

Montana to use drones against wolves

Wow, this is a bit unsettling: J. William Gibson reports in the LA Times that the state of Montana is going to use unmanned drones to hunt wolves. "What is happening to wolves now, and what is planned for them, doesn't really qualify as hunting," writes Gibson, "It is an outright war." From the article:
Congress removed wolves in Montana and Idaho from the protection of the Endangered Species Act in April. And this fall, the killing began.

As of Wednesday, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game reported that 154 of its estimated 750 wolves had been "harvested" this year. Legal hunting and trapping — with both snares to strangle and leg traps to capture — will continue through the spring. And if hunting fails to reduce the wolf population sufficiently — to less than 150 wolves — the state says it will use airborne shooters to eliminate more.

In Montana, hunters will be allowed to kill up to 220 wolves this season (or about 40% of the state's roughly 550 wolves). To date, hunters have taken only about 100 wolves, prompting the state to extend the hunting season until the end of January. David Allen, president of the powerful Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, has said he thinks hunters can't do the job, and he is urging the state to follow Idaho's lead and "prepare for more aggressive wolf control methods, perhaps as early as summer 2012."

Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead recently concluded an agreement with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to save 100 to 150 wolves in lands near Yellowstone National Park. But in the remaining 80% of the state, wolves can be killed year-round because they are considered vermin. Roughly 60% of Wyoming's 350 wolves will become targeted for elimination.